Dopamine, Anticipation, Capitalism, Hollywood, and What Happens if Charlie Brown Never Kicks the Football?

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.

It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106

I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.

For our system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.

The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it’s inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and also threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first theorize that to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.

Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post, of course, is me.

Who am I? I’m a subset of person: a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting dopamine-triggering treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain).

The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:

If you don’t want to kick the ball anymore, CB, there’s thousands of writers out there who would kill for the chance.

Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:

Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?

Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?

What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)

But who are we kidding? Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball. Like the proverbial scorpion, it’s in her nature to pull it away. Like Jessica Rabbit, she’s just drawn that way.

So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?

Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.

Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!

Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:

  • Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
  • Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
  • Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking / i.e. screenwriting seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
  • However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
  • And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
  • All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…

The Whole Screencraft Screenwriting Interview

The folks at Screencraft (they run the contest that I won earlier this year) recently sent me some prompts / questions about my screenwriting journey in order to cull testimonials from my answers. They managed to find a few uplifting snippets to use in their Instagram / Twitter posts — and kudos to them for that, because even though I made real efforts to be positive, some of these answers feel a little… dark. However, I seem to have arrived at a point in my life/career where young hopefuls ask me for insights and advice, so for what it’s worth, here are the prompts and my answers in their entirety.

  • What did you find were some of the biggest obstacles to your screenwriting career goals?

Before I went back to school for writing, I was a freelancer who worked on various shows and events, one gig would always lead to other gigs. You work with people, they get to know your personality and work and then either request or refer you for another job. I got used to that. But after I graduated from my writing program, I took a full time day job that was separate from the industry I wanted to be in, and I think I really gave up an advantage by removing myself from the daily view of people who were in the industry. I see the question come up a lot among early career writers — “Is it better to stay close to the industry, even at the expense of writing time, or to get a day job that lets you practice skills and generate material?” It’s a tough call! At the time, I had reasons for making the choice I did, but purely in terms of career-building, I can see how stepping away from the path had some costs.

  • Was there ever a point when you felt most rejected? 

If anyone out there is unaware, it’s probably good to know that the entertainment business is the business of rejection. After your dreams get dashed the first few times, I’ve found that all the rejections kind of become a blur.  But I’m happy to tell you about my most recent example:  I gave a new script to someone who I really needed to like it — a gatekeeper — and they didn’t like it. At all. A big door that I’d hoped would be opened instead slammed in my face. It’s clear in my memory because it was literally a couple days ago and I’m still recovering as I write this.  But at the same time, I’m aware that even having a relationship with a gatekeeper who’s willing to read my work and give their honest opinion is a privilege —one that took me years to achieve, and that many people don’t have — so I never forget to appreciate it.  A rejection of one’s work is still an affirmation of one’s existence!  

  • Are there moments when you think about giving up. What motivates you to keep going? 

In terms of ever making my living by screenwriting, I’d say I think about giving up six days out of seven. My escape strategies are a running joke with friends—I literally have tabs open in my browser right now for “how to be a UX writer.”  But thus far, I’ve kept going, and I think there are a couple reasons why:  The first is that I somehow always have one more iron in the fire. Like right now, I have a pitch being considered at a company for a project I would really-really-really like to do, so I’m waiting to see what happens. And while I’m waiting, I’m working on other things, so by the time this project doesn’t work out (or maybe does—this could be the one —manifestations welcome), I’ll have something else to hope for. The second reason is a little more “woo-woo” which is that I deep-down believe that this is where my gifts lie, and that someday I’m going to be part of making something awesome and meaningful, if I can just find my way to it.

  • Where are you currently in your career? Anything that you are excited about?

I’m at a place in my career now where it’s easy to feel frustrated, because time passes and I’m still side-hustling to support my writing when I want my writing to support itself. But, I’m also in a place where I once aspired to be: I’ve had representation for a while, and recently added a TV agent to the team! And I’m celebrating my first produced TV credit (with writing partner Paul Seetachitt) — an episode of Creepshow that came out last month called “Time Out.” It’s gotten a lot of complimentary reviews, which is validating. These things give me hope that I’m getting closer to where I want to be.

  • What drew you to ScreenCraft and how did the competition help you?

A good friend who knows that I also write short stories sent me the link to the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story competition. At this point I’ve largely forsworn writing competitions, but for some reason I decided to enter… and it worked out! I got to meet with one of the judges which was my first one-on-one meeting with a showrunner and was exciting for me. And while I already had representation, the buzz surrounding winning the Grand Prize inspired my reps to send the story out, and I think was key in their decision to add a TV agent to my team, which is something I’d really been wanting for a long time — so that felt like a victory.  I’ve really appreciated that Screencraft has a team of real people who have checked in on my progress since the contest. They’ve pushed me to evaluate those things that any writer can and should control — like online visibility and professional outreach —  and encouraged me to be accountable and level those up. 

  • What advice would you give to your younger self as a writer?

Now that I sometimes teach writing, I’ve realized how much I appreciate students who make the effort to show me who they are — I don’t mind if it takes a few minutes after class. It’s enjoyable, and it makes it easier for me to write a recommendation or refer them for an internship or whatever. Being on this side of things makes me look back and think about how often in my life I’ve made the choice to  “not bother” someone higher up the ladder than me instead of taking that little risk. If I could advise my younger self (without disturbing the time-space continuum), I would say, “Be braver sooner. You’re a joy, not a burden.” It’s probably good advice for my older self as well.

Inauguration Day 2021

Today was a day both solemn and joyful. In California, the ceremony was already in progress when I swithced on the live feed at 8:20am. The new president was sworn in before 9am. I cried three times as I watched, stirred by the President Biden’s speech, Lady Gaga’s emotional rendition of America the Beautiful and Amanda Gorman’s transcendent spoken word poem performed with the power of incantation.

President Biden declared:
“I will defend America. I will give my all in your service thinking not of power, but of possibilities. Not of personal interest, but of the public good. And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division.Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity.Of love and of healing.Of greatness and of goodness. May this be the story that guides us. The story that inspires us. The story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history.”

Poet Amanda Gorman spoke:
“And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”

Most of my friends, via text and social media, expressed relief, spoke of hope being restored.

But not “Stan,” my third-party-voting, ultra-left friend. He posted a placard that said:
“Joe Biden is president and the children are still in cages.”
Really?
One can always depend on Stan to kill the joy.

And speak the truth, especially when it’s unpleasant.

And so I must thank Stan for the reminder: Even if our new president seems decent and kind, even if the poem was amazing, even if that yellow coat was to die for, it is not permission for me to allow my sigh of relief to become a sinking back onto a soft cushion of complacency and watching others do their jobs.

The First 100 Days is not a series to watch. I also have a hundred days, and hundreds of days after that, each one an opportunity to stay informed, to protest injustice and needless suffering, to advocate righteous agendas, to communicate out loud to those who represent us that we expect pretty rhetoric to bookend action.

Honestly, I would love it if today was just Day 1 for a new president… but Stan is right.
It’s Day 1 for me, too.
It is Day 1 for us all.

Last Day in Gainesville (Life in a Time of Pandemic, April 24, 2020)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Woke anxious this morning, and it makes sense. Today is the day we need to clean our whole apartment and pack all our things. Packing always makes me edgy, and today we have a few added elements.

One is that, although my back is feeling largely better, the way we packed the car to come east didn’t allow for any adjustment of the seats, so we’re trying to change that situation by transferring the contents of two large bins to trash bags (my least preferred way to pack!), and then Tetris-ing those bags into the trunk to leave some room behind the passenger’s seat to recline if needed.

And of course, the need to recline the seat is related to the fact that our 40-hour drive will have few breaks due to the pandemic. With some trepidation, we’ve made arrangements to sleep in beds for two nights; but the days will be long: with dining areas of restaurants closed and the friends in isolation, there’s not anywhere to be but the car. We’re unsure whether there will be waits or issues at the reported checkpoints on the borders between states. Overall, it feels safest just to make good time and get home.

In a way, being in Florida has allowed us to compartmentalize the pandemic — to imagine that all the strangeness was just part of our trip, and that when we get home, things would be normal again, but of course that is not the case.

Life in a Time of Pandemic (March 21-March 29)

In Florida, the temperatures have soared into the 80s. With my former fitness routines out the window, I take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning and evenings to walk around the neighborhood. I aim for 5000 steps per walk, tracking it on my phone, to reach the recommended allotment of ten-thousand steps daily. Who recommended that and when? I have no idea and lack the curiosity to look it up. It’s a round number, a goal, and is as good as any.

Others in my neighborhood clearly have established similar routines. I pass mothers with strollers, fathers and sons, couples. There are not many of us, so it is not crowded. We give each other a wide berth, wait at cross walks for others to pass, cross to the opposite side of the street if we find ourselves heading toward each other on the same sidewalk, smiling and waving to show that it’s not personal. There is a sense of solidarity in this.

But also, I realize, we are telling each other, with our smiles and waves, that it’s okay, we’re not a threat. Underlying the bucolic ambiance, the lush green, the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees, there is also a vigilance. I sense, through subtle, that the world’s hold on would-be predators is less than it was. The cats in the neighborhood have grown bolder. With car and foot traffic diminished, they sit in the middle of streets and watch the humans with brazen, even insolent expressions. One day a cat follows me for a block. The cars too, especially in the evenings, can also have a sense of prowling. They drive slowly down the block and the the drivers, often single men, don’t make it a point to smile and wave.

On Saturday evening, a car honks as it turns the corner near me. The man behind the wheel looks at me as he passes, at a moment when there are no other pedestrians around.

Later that same Saturday night a friend in LA posts on Facebook her story of walking alone, of a car with a group of men honking and whistling, of the car making a U-turn and heading back in her direction until a couple on foot turn a corner into view, scaring them away. The online conversation that follows explore the fears, not unique, but closer to the surface for women, of living in a world where men have no sports to watch, no bars to prowl, no gyms to work out their aggressions.

On my walk on Sunday morning, I pass a well-muscled man on a street spacious enough to go wide. Unsmiling, he maintains his course in the way of a man on a crowded sidewalk for whom asserting territory is unnecessary — he is merely occupying what is his. Probably he is immersed in whatever content is coming through his ear pods. Probably he is not even conscious of our passing, of my veering, as an interaction between us. But I am aware for both of us.

In addition to my Kindle edition of War and Peace, I’ve downloaded an audio version to listen to on my morning walks. On this morning, words fly by without me hearing them.

I’m distracted by fellow pedestrians, but also by my own ruminations. Though Paul and I know better than to read the news on our phones upon waking, we do, and in bed this morning Paul has shown me an article with graphs depicting, by state, at what point the health care system might or might not be overwhelmed depending on the amount of social distancing implemented.

In one scenario he shows me, the curve in Texas is hitting its peak the week we’re scheduled to leave. 
“Huh,” I say, “Do you think that means we should go earlier after all?”
Our conversation is mostly a rerun of a conversation we had just three days ago, with one new addition: “I just don’t want us to get stuck in Texas,” he says.
I’m confused. “Why would we get stuck in Texas? We’re in our car, we’ll just drive through it.” 
“What if they do terrible at containment and the other states decide they don’t want people coming in from Texas?” 
As soon as he says it, I can see the dystopian timeline where things get bad and states in disagreement about measures start closing their borders. 

So as I walk down our tree-lined street, my brain is continuing the conversation on its own: But we have California IDs, certainly they would let us in, right? 

Half a chapter of War and Peace has gone by without my noticing.

On Monday, March 22, more than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in the U.S., with over 10,000 of those in New York state. Also on this day, Senator Rand Paul tests positive for the virus, and makes the news for using the gym and swimming pool while waiting for his test results. And Senate Democrats block a proposed 1.8 Trillion dollar relief bill, claiming that it is aimed more at helping corporations than people

On this same Monday, one student and one faculty member in our college are reported to have the virus, and Alachua County, where we live, mandates emergency “stay at home” orders effective at midnight. In accordance, UF reduces on-campus personnel to those identified as essential.

On Tuesday, March 24, in reaction to Wall Street executives warning of another Great Depression if America doesn’t get back to work soon, President Trump talks about “opening up the economy” by Easter, which is April 12. Elsewhere in the world, Prime Minister of India bans 1.3 billion people from leaving their homes, and, after some initial resistance from the organizers, the Summer Olympics in Japan are postponed for a year.

On Wednesday, March 25, the senate passes a 2 trillion dollar relief package. It’s announced that Prince Charles has Coronavirus.

On Thursday March 26, the U.S. takes the dubious honor of the lead in Coronavirus cases: 81,321 and over 10000 deaths. Three million people apply for unemployment benefits. Florida requires visitors from New York to quarantine for two weeks after arriving.

On Friday, March 27, Trump signs the $2 trillion economic relief plan. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain tests positive for Coronavirus.

On Sunday March 29, Trump extends the federal governments social-distancing guidelines until the end of April. A plane from Shanghai touched down at Kennedy Airport carrying 130,000 N95 masks, 1.8 surgical masks and gowns, 10 million gloves and 70,000 thermometers touches down at Kennedy Airport. It is, we’re told, the first of 22 such shipments.

As of Sunday evening 141,096 people in the U.S have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2469 patients with the virus have died.