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I’ve developed an odd habit lately—though, who knows, maybe you do it too. I watch the extras in shows and movies. As in, the actor whose entire role is to be background (usually saying nothing), or the person who is in the main shot but who rarely has any lines or notable actions. Basically, human filler.

Just to give an example, I was watching Star Trek Next Generation the other night and found myself focusing on this middle-aged, non-memorable Star Fleet officer standing between Diana Troy and her mother on an elevator. Because the female main characters in this scene are telepaths, they’re engaged in a a silent argument but are not holding back on body gestures and glares. The poor guy in the middle is also silent and clearly uncomfortable with the odd situation in which he’s found himself in the middle. What I like most about him is that his role is to simply look back and forth between the two ladies with a look of bewilderment and then, as the door opens and the ladies step off the lift, he just lifts his eyebrows in a “who knows what the hell that was” gesture. I’d never seen him before or since. The eyebrow lifter.

I’m fascinated by people like this because . . .well, I’m not supposed to be. They’re not meant to be noticed. They’re props for the real stars and action. Paintings on the wall. Yet, I remind myself, that they are living, breathing, beings whose entire universe is made up of their own life and consciousness and desires. This leads me to wonder about their careers. Was their ambition to act and this was a micro step in that direction? Did they go on to do something bigger . . . perhaps a film with an actual line. Or, maybe they ended up writing screen plays or being a lead gaffer (whatever that person does). More likely, they work for an insurance firm or teach 2nd grade or, heaven forbid, try to make money writing blogs. I do bet that whenever that Star Trek episode comes on, the eyebrow lifter’s friends all cheer and hoot and make mocking comments. For them, he’s not an extra. He’s the guy having a beer with them on the couch.

I try to pay attention to the extras in my life too: The guy who brought me food to our palapa in Mexico, a guy whose dad turned out to have been in a 1940s big band and played with Bing Crosby once. The kid bagging groceries at Safeway who recommended an Xbox game for my son. The woman in the post office who was on her way to see the Eagles with her daughter that weekend. A special needs child in the park who watched me play guitar for a solid twenty minutes and moved her head in a way that made me feel like I was good. The woman from the credit card company who waved my late fee and said there was a thunder storm outside in Kansas. The neighbor one block over who makes nitrous ice-cream out of a little blue truck. And the list could go on. I’m more friendly at times than others, but generally speaking, I try to look at these “extras.” To really see them. To be curious about their lives. To not just demand their silent services or bide time until it’s my turn to talk. I try to remind myself that I’m also an extra for most people I meet. Maybe I need a signature move like the eyebrow guy.

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