Archive for March 2011
When I’m home during the week and around for the kids’ bedtime (scheduled for: 7:30, actual:9:00), my wife and I will each sit with one kid until they go to sleep. While this may seem excessive to some (ie: me), it is better than the system used to be which involved each of us having to be in bed with a different child until they fell asleep which evolved into each child listening to a different Fairy CD until they fell asleep which made our house sound like a mental ward (which it often does anyway around bedtime but at least doesn’t have the creep factor of listening to adults doing fairy voices). Typically, my wife and I will alternate who stays with which child, with the children offering their preference. For example, Caleb would say, “I want mommy”, whereas Sasha would say, “I want mommy”. Of course they both want mommy. I want mommy, too. Which is why it no longer hurts my feelings. Tonight, when my daughter realized that I would be her attending parent she said, “I want mommy. You’re mean.” I responded, “I know. Go to bed.”
The moniker of “mean” doesn’t hurt my feelings from my kids because oftentimes kids mistake discipline for meanness. That some of my peers refer to me as “mean” is a different story. In fact, it’s today’s story. To be fair, I don’t think I’m mean. In fact, I know I’m not. I can be thoughtless and absentminded, but I promise you, my intention is never to be mean for mean’s sake. I was reminded the other day of the time a couple of years ago when I ran into an acquaintance of mine whom I hadn’t seen in awhile. On my way out of a party, I passed him and asked how he was doing and he proceeded to tell me that he had been diagnosed with a terrible disease and was fighting it with an aggressive regimen of treatments that were beating the hell out of him. Now, in my defense, I was asking a polite question on my way out the door, and was expecting a cursory answer so I wasn’t really listening to him. Without that context, my response of, “And how’s everything else?” could be construed as mean or uncaring. But it wasn’t: it was absentminded. And just so you know– STOP BOOING ME!– when I realized my gaffe I corrected it and told him I was pulling for him and asked him the appropriate questions. (And thank God, he’s doing fine).
Okay, so I think we can agree that that one wasn’t my fault. I will admit, however, that my sense of humor can sometimes be construed as mean because I think that being brutally honest or self-deprecating can be very funny and, in fact, refreshing. Especially in a medium such as television where everyone is so uptight, self-conscious, insecure and usually lying either to themselves or others. It actually hurts my feelings when people accuse me of being mean. Today, when I walked into the room of the pilot I had been helping on, the writers who stayed late last night told me they were channeling me after I had left. “How so?” I asked, innocently. They explained that whenever someone pitched a joke that didn’t work they would be brutal about it and let the other person know how bad it was without the usual filter associated with human interaction. So, okay, yes, I will make fun of a bad pitch, but just to break the tension. And true, as a joke I once emptied an entire can of air freshener directly onto a script that the person I’m now helping out had turned in on “Friends” to imply that it “stunk” (if it had stunk I wouldn’t have done it, it was funny because the script didn’t stink. It was not funny because we had to evacuate the room for an hour until the chemical smell dispersed). And so you don’t think I’m a comedic bully, I will criticize my own bad jokes much more harshly: in fact, after pitching a joke that gets no reaction I will often repeat it as if no one had heard it. And then repeat it again and again and ask the show-runner how come they’re not putting it in the script and if there’s something wrong with the acoustics in the room. See? That breaks the awkwardness. Imagine if everyone was that free.
When I defended myself against the accusation of being mean today, one of my friends, the Prosecution, brought up several examples of “classic mean Jeff” stories, which, when I explain them to you, you will take my side in understanding that they are not mean, but funny. Example One was at the “Friends” wrap party when I went up to Matt Leblanc who had just agreed to do “Joey” and told him I thought it was nice that they were holding both the “Friends” and “Joey” wrap parties at the same time. (BOOOOO). Now hold on! Matt and I were friends and it was funny because it was so outrageous to think that “Joey” would only go zero episodes. As I remember it, Matt thought it was really funny and had a big laugh. Or maybe it was me, but one of us did (and he’s doing fine, so don’t feel bad).
Example Two was similarly actor-related. I was at a table read for a friend’s pilot where he had cast Heather Locklear as the lead in a comedy at the last second to play the head of an investment bank. After the table read, everyone left except for the studio, my friend and me, and one of the studio executives said (trying to convince himself), “I think we all buy Heather as the head of an investment bank.” My immediate response was, “Moreso than as the lead of a comedy.” Did it get laughs? No. Was it what everyone was thinking? Absolutely. Did I ever get asked to help out that friend again. No. But the studio still kept in touch. Through my lawyer, but still. In thinking of Examples Six through Fifty, I’m not sure they translate well into written form and I don’t think I’ll come off great so I’m not going to put them down. I will say, however, in my defense– since I see that no one is rooting for me here– that I will never pick on someone who is down to get a laugh or go with a joke just to be mean. I promise you, I am kind at heart. People accuse me of not having a filter, but the truth is that I edit roughly 60-70% of the things that come to my mind. And yes, when I clean out that filter at the end of the day, some of the things are awful, but the point is, I don’t say them!
Anyway, despite coming under fire from these baseless accusations, I had a good day helping out my friend. It was good to have an office to go to on a lot and have my food bought for me and I got to see Finn and Quinn from Glee! While yesterday I was blocked, today for some reason I was more focused and the day went quickly and smoothly with some good laughs had by all. In fact, you’ll like this: I told a joke to the guy who created the pilot about how he shouldn’t get so hung up about a line we had been struggling with for an hour since the network was probably going to make him throw out the whole scene anyway. Funny, right? Oh, shut up.
I mentioned the other day that several months ago my seven year old said, re: all his homework, “All I do is work. I feel like I’m 45 years old.” Of course, when he said it I was only 44, but now that I’m 45 I totally get it. Around the same time he said that, I read an article (ie: Ryan Seacrest read an article and talked about it on the radio) that said that men peak physically when they’re 20 and creatively when they’re 45. The physical thing definitely rings true: if I was eating and working out like I am now when I was 20 I would look like I’m made of wrought iron. Now I look like I’m made of wrought tapioca. The notion of peaking at 45 was inspiring to me, though. I feel like all of my experience has readied me to have my own show on the air and run it effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, today I feel physically like a 45 year old and creatively like a 20 year old.
The last two days have been a trip down memory lane for me. Yesterday I went back to the lot where I met my wife who was an editor on the same show I was writing on. Turns out, my wife was very impressed by writer types, and I was very impressed by any women who looked like my wife who were impressed by me in any way. Through the perfect confluence of events the likes of which haven’t been seen before or since (seriously, if I wrote down in a book the things that had to happen for me to get my wife to marry me and buried that book, the civilization that found that book in the future would celebrate my anniversary like it was Easter). So, that was the good memory from yesterday, overshadowing the fact that I was at a table read for a show that essentially the network is auditioning to replace the show I’m already on. However, anyone watching me help out today would think that I was secretly sent to scuttle the new show.
Now, of course, I’m being hard on myself. My default is to be hard on myself. (What a stupid sentence, “My default is to be hard on myself”.) When I was on “Friends”, if I did not get a huge joke into the script every day I would consider the day a failure. I don’t hold myself to that standard for anything else. “If I don’t get in a huge teaching moment for my kids…” Or, “If I don’t get in a huge listening moment with my wife…” I still, however, feel terrible if I don’t live up to my potential at work, especially now that I’m peaking creatively (the fact that I took a golf cart the eighth of a mile from the office to my car is understandable– I’m 25 years past my peak walking-back-to-my-car years). But today I lacked a certain clarity. Sometimes I can look at a scene and see where the moving parts need to go, how to set up a giant joke and how to call it back in an unexpected way. Today my biggest contribution was trying to eat the biggest apple I’ve ever seen in my life. You should have heard me riff on this, “Boy, this is a giant apple. If this apple was any bigger, it would be, um… a red pumpkin. Heh.” That was the kind of day I was having, which made me feel bad about myself and bad about not coming through for my friend, who honestly probably just went away thinking, “Wow. Jeff had a big apple today.” I’m telling you, folks, it was huge, it was like a, er… Geez.
I don’t think I have a single friend who’s a tv writer who hasn’t griped that “this is a terrible business”. I make more money than the President of the United States and don’t have people accusing me of being a Muslim. I also can’t imagine the Chilean minors coming out of their hole saying, “I think what got us through the ordeal was knowing that as bad as it got, we weren’t sitcom writers.” This all should be taken with the caveat, of course, that I’m incredibly grateful that people pay me to do what I do, especially since it’s the thing I’m best at. What makes it a bad business is when I’m not the best at it. That’s when the self-doubt comes in and the voice that keeps saying, “No, that’s wrong. You’re missing the point. Why are you here?” Today, that voice came from my friend whom I was helping out. But the good news is, like the fusion of the sun, the self-doubt will consume itself and cause me enough anxiety to shine brighter tomorrow. Or explode in a supernova, I’m not sure.
But the silver lining to it all, was that being at work today, especially dealing with a down day, got me really looking forward to seeing my family. I think ultimately, that’s what work is for– to get you to appreciate your family. And even though I came home at the witching hour– right before the kids go to sleep when I assume demons possess my little angels causing them to say and do things they wouldn’t possibly say otherwise– tonight they were just sweet. I hadn’t seen them in 24 hours– I came home last night after they went to bed and left before they got up, and they seemed to have grown. I then sat with my daughter who went to school today (with a hacking cough that no doubt had people muttering about her irresponsible parents) and she asked me, out of the blue, “how was your day?” I answered her honestly, “I was a little foggy today. You ever have those days where you’re just a little off?” And even though she had every right to respond, “Yeah, jackass, you sent me to school today with a basketball-sized wad of mucus in my lungs, I think I have an idea!”, she just said, “yeah”. My son then called for me and asked me what I was talking about with his sister. I told him I was talking about my day. Instead of his usual ADD response of, “how are cumulous clouds made?” he asked me how my day was, too. Every night I ask my kids how their days are and they usually respond in the same tone either, “good” or “bad”. Tonight, there was something really rewarding about telling them about my day. Of course, I finished off by telling them that “everything will be okay, though. It was fine.” instead of my fear that yesterday was the last day I ever told a joke and we may have to move to a place under the freeway.
But deep down, I know it is fine. Because after a day where I was off, my kids were kind and loving, and I’m about to go watch American Idol with my wife who still finds me impressive. A day doesn’t get more huge than that. Now if only I could figure out something to say about that giant apple. Moron.
I can’t take it any more. I’m so exhausted. Ever since my “vacation” started I have been averaging six hours of sleep per night; I’ve done more writing than I do when I’m working and I’m emotionally and physically drained. Today I finally got to take a two minute power nap right after lunch but was awoken by some jerk in the car behind me who honked to let me know that the light had turned green. In an effort to get to bed tonight before 11:30, I am only giving myself 20 minutes to write this post. If I can hold myself to the discipline of writing every night, I should be able to hold myself to the discipline of stopping. At 11:30, no matter where I am, I’m stopping.
When I went to bed last night (ie: 12:35 this morning) I anticipated that today would be an extremely productive day. Why? Because I would be working. A very good friend of mine (ie: someone I see twice a year) is running a pilot and asked me to come to the table read at 4:00. For those of you not in “the biz”, a table read is where the actors sit around a table and read the script. (Good to have a friend on the inside, huh?) Anyway, I hoped that the axiom, “If you want something done, give it to someone busy” would hold true today. Unfortunately, what I didn’t count on was that my daughter, who has single-handedly driven up the price of tissues in the last two days, would be home sick. As I mentioned, it causes me endless stress when my daughter especially is home from school. Since my wife does not allow me to fight with my daughter when she’s sick because she thinks it will just add stress to her and there’s nothing she can do about it, I redirect my inappropriate anger and pick fights with my wife. My wife doesn’t really indulge me, so I have to up the ante by making threats that are impossible to keep. A typical conversation: 7 AM: “Shawni, is Sasha up yet?” “No, I’m letting her sleep in.” “Okay.” 7:15 “Is she up yet?” “No, she’s going to sleep in this morning.” “I don’t want her missing school.” “I don’t either, but she’s sick.” “If she doesn’t go to school today I’m going to take her out of school and home school her.” “Okay, if that’s what you think is best.” “SO NOW YOU WANT TO HOME SCHOOL HER?? ARE YOU NUTS?! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO HOME SCHOOL HER, YOU CAN’T EVEN GET HER UP IN THE MORNING!” And, an hour ago: “How’s Sasha?” “Still seems sick.” “I want her to go to school tomorrow.” “I do, too.” “Do you think she’ll go?” “I don’t know.” “I’m taking her to school even if she’s sick and I’m going to sit next to her in class so she doesn’t fall over.” “I don’t think you can do that.” “Fine. But if she misses school, I’m canceling our big vacation we have planned in two weeks. There’s no way I’m going to have her miss school for that vacation and this cold.” “I’d be fine with that.” “SO NOW YOU WANT TO CANCEL OUR VACATION??? WHY THE HELL AM I SPENDING SO MUCH MONEY ON A VACATION YOU DON’T WANT TO GO ON?!?!?” And so on. It’s the fatigue talking. (although in writing this, I still think I’m right).
Today my fatigue got a boost at the gym. Fueled by the rage of my daughter and my wife conspiring to have my daughter be home schooled, I arrived at the gym to find my wife purple and sweating (a look I really like, and I’m not kidding. There’s no telling what I would do if I saw Barney after running a marathon.) My wife told me that our trainer issued an insane challenge that I would have to do as well. I told him I was running on pure anger, frustration and a cereal bar. He didn’t care. This was the workout that Shawni and I did today and which I’m still sweating from: 20 Handstand push-ups followed by 40 pull-ups followed by 60 Burpees (exclusive of the 45 that I STILL HAVE TO DO TONIGHT WHEN WILL I GET TO BED???) followed by 80 sit-ups, followed by a trip to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai hospital. I just threw up a little thinking about it.
Since my time is running out, I’ll skip to the feature of my day. Helping out on a pilot. It was for the network I have been working at for the past six years and in the audience was the Who’s Who of Who Passed on My Pilots. It’s a weird feeling going in to help on somebody else’s show, and it actually made me a little grateful that I was not going through production of my own pilot right now (although I would be a lot less exhausted). The pressure on me now is absolutely zero, and I thought I did great, save for two minor faux pas: The first was when I called my friend away from a chat with the head of the Studio to ask him jokingly if I could introduce the cast. My friend pretended not to hear me so I repeated it (still counts as same gaffe). Second gaffe was after the table read, one of the actors, who’s character name is Rick, say, came up to my friend and suggested that maybe it might be fun to get a little more back story on Rick in the script. I, either thinking that A: I was talking to a friend, or B: I was invisible, said, “Wow, that’s interesting that you would ask for more lines for Rick. You don’t see that often, an actor asking for more lines for his character. I think we should look into that.” My friend and the actor looked uncomfortably at me, and I realized that A: I was not invisible and B: I had just lost a friend.
Anyway, this experience of working on a friend’s pilot reunited me with two old friends (one now a former-friend) and gave me the chance to work in a no-stakes environment which really liberated me and allowed me to appreciate the process. And out of this I had an epiphany which I will write down so I carry it with me for the rest of my life: the true meaning of
So, here’s the good news: first, it’s Day 44 not Day 45, so I only have to do 44 burpees–the exercise that apparently keeps convicts in great shape (that and prison rape, I suppose)– and not 45. Also, my dogs’ reaction whenever I walk in the room is now exclusively one of fear that they did something wrong. That same reaction, for better and for worse, is not shared in any way by my children. In fact, earlier today I was lying face down on my couch– a couch which has endured nearly ten years of every type of dog and child excrement imaginable– when I thought, “I should turn over.” Then, after turning over, for some reason I thought about how my son came about. My wife, who was 40 at the time, and I decided to have another baby based on the tremendous success of our first, Sasha. Even after an inspiring lunch with one of my lawyers who told me that it was virtually impossible for a woman to have a baby after 35, and the odds of having a healthy baby after 40 were somewhat akin to getting a show into syndication (ie: about 1 in 45,000,000), my wife and I decided to give it a try. After three unsuccessful months my wife saw her doctor who told her that she had a clogged ovarian follicle. He would give her a shot of something that would free up that follicle and we could try again the following month. She asked if there was any chance of getting pregnant now, given the clogged follicle, and her doctor replied, “About the same odds of getting an idea bought by a network off of a studio script deal– about 10%” (this is LA, afterall, so everything is in terms of probabilities of getting a pilot through various stages of development). Anyway, that little clogged follicle is currently upstairs screaming at my wife that his brain is telling him it’s not time to go to sleep. He’s been exhausted for the last 48 hours and can’t sleep: it doesn’t make any sense.
Our other former zygote has been asleep for several hours. Despite pumping her full of bubble-gum flavored Children’s Dimetap, she was unable to make it through a full day of school. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, if there’s a change in temperature, air pressure or the stock market, my daughter gets sick. She told me she was sick the night of the play where she played the statue of Rapunzel, but it’s hard to know with her. I’ve found that one of the hardest calls to make in parenting is when a kid is too sick to go to school. My son has had a runny nose for four years now and I don’t think he’s missed a full day of school, whereas my daughter takes off any day that has an “S” in it. Looking back, I think the rule in my family was that if your temperature was below 102 you were going to school, and since I grew up in a time and place where the oral thermometer was not in vogue, I don’t recall missing a single day.
My wife, who’s judgment I trust implicitly, decided to let the kids sleep in late today so that they would not wind up missing a full week (Sasha was clearly going to be sick and Caleb was up late the night before). I took the news as I always do, aggressive-aggressively (nothing passive about me). Me: “How are the kids doing?” Shawni: “I’m letting them sleep in.” Me: “Okay. I trust you. Why?” Shawni: “Because I don’t want them to get sick and miss school.” Me: “Makes sense. So you’re having them miss school so that they don’t miss school?” Shawni: “No, I’m having them sleep an extra hour so they don’t miss the rest of the week.” Me: “Gotcha. So only an hour then?” Shawni: “Whenever they get up.” Me: “I trust you. I just don’t understand why education isn’t important to you. It doesn’t make sense.” This is when Shawni walks away. It is for this very reason that she and I never fight.
Anyway, the kids finally did get to school and my day was off and limping from the start. It was one of those days where the only way I could justify doing as little as I did was if I had gotten really great news. So, I decided to talk myself into really great news. On the way to taking my dogs for a hike, still groggy from staying up past midnight the night before, I was reflecting on all the compliments I received from people who had been reading my journal. People who had no incentive to lie to me. It wasn’t like when I’m working on a bad show and I tell people the name of the show I work on and they say, “Oh, I’ve seen that show.” And I say, “yeah”. And they say, “yeah.” These were my peers who thought my journal was funny and interesting and very relatable and a great showcase of my writing. I had been thinking of publishing the journal when I’m done and I asked my agent to contact the same book agent who had made a good friend of mine millions of dollars by publishing his book off the internet. And then, literally as I had that thought, my agent called. He spoke to the book agent who said that typically books that are published off of the internet are based on sites that have over a million followers. I thought about my site and its 350 followers, 200 of whom are my wife and another 50 of whom are her mother and I realized that we were still roughly a million followers short of a million followers, give or take 100. I then made a very naive comment, “That doesn’t make sense. What if it’s good?” It’s a rookie question, I’ve learned years ago that television is not a meritocracy: the same people get pilots year after year no matter how good or bad they are and they’re almost always bad. There’s a guy who’s name isn’t Peter Jensen but I’ll call him that because I’ll have to work for him someday, but every year, no matter what, he gets a pilot made, so next year I’m going to go in and pitch the “Untitled Peter Jensen Project” just to get something green lit.
So, that pretty much set the tone for my day. I was bummed out. Not that I ever planned this journal to be anything more than it is– something that will get my wife’s friends from High School jealous that her husband can be funny– but as someone who gets paid to create, I let my imagination run away with me. The truth is, this journal was and isn’t an end unto itself, but it lets me get away with saying that I’m writing every day. A friend asked me if I’m happy that I committed myself to writing a post every day and I answered honestly, “Of course I’m not!” But that’s my personality, I like challenges. I’m surrounded by temptation: this stupid Paleo diet forbids me from having my delicious coconut creamer or grains or dairy or soy– and I don’t even like soy but I’d trade my pinky toes for a slice of tofurkey right now. I’ve got these burpees hanging over my head like a guillotine, and if I miss a day I have to double up on the next day, so they’re accruing interest like a mafia loan. And all the while I can’t stop using similes! And this stupid journal is taxing me to make sense out of a day that just doesn’t make sense.
I got home from my hike and released the dogs who ran to their respective corners knowing that they had done something wrong. I grabbed a quick lunch with my wife and then decided that I was going to make sense of what was left of this day: I was going to go to the coffee bean and tea leaf like a real out of work writer and write something real: my hourlong pilot idea that I’ve had for years. And then literally at that moment, my kids’ school called: it was my daughter; she was sick and she wanted to come home. The only thing harder than knowing when to send a kid to school is knowing when we should pick them up to come home. We decided to pick Sasha up from school because my wife hates education. And you know, because Sasha had a cold.
Shawni dropped Sasha off at the house to stay with the housekeeper while she ran some errands, and I grabbed my keys so that I could finally do something productive. And as I went to go, I heard from the couch, “Daddy, I don’t feel well.” “I know, sweetie. Daddy will be right back.” I sat down for a second and Sasha crawled onto me and curled up onto my chest. There was something so warm and sweet about holding my little girl this way. I flashed back to two moments in our lives together: one was when she was two years old and we were in a cabana at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas. I was lying down and she was sleeping on my chest. I asked Shawni to take a picture, it was the perfect moment “just please don’t get my stomach, boobs, shoulders or forehead in the picture”). I then felt what seemed to be warm tea dripping down my body. Shawni told me that Sasha had peed on me and offered to take her from me so I could clean up (ie: jump in the pool.) I said no, I didn’t want to wake her. The other time was when she was three and she told me she didn’t want to take ballet. We were on the roof of an outdoor garage and I told her I signed her up from the class and we committed to it and she had to do it. She told me she was didn’t feel well. I told her I would carry her downstairs to the class, and as I picked her up she vomited all over me. And I held her tight. It’s a strange instinct that forces you to hug your own vomiting kid, but I was glad I had it.
And now, seven years later, here we were, lying on a couch that stood as a monument to child urine and vomit, and my daughter was lying on her daddy’s chest once again. Coughing and wheezing into my mouth. But I just pulled her closer. Not everything has to make sense.
Tonight, a good friend of mine told me about the “Peak End Rule” which says that when giving a speech, it’s important that you peak at the end, because that’s what people will remember. He told me that after I gave a speech at the dessert party my wife and I threw for another good friend of mine who got married a few months ago. In the beginning of the speech I trod carelessly, talking about former girlfriends and how much his current wife was out of his league and how he had dated everyone in the room including me, and just as the bride and groom were turning purple, I wrapped it up with a blessing that all their dreams should go straight to heaven and may they be answered with joy. And everyone clapped and said what a sweet speech. The ending is everything. And so it was with my day.
For those of you who read Day 42, you saw that it contained a rewrite after getting notes from my wife. It was the first rewrite I’ve had to do on my journal, but not the first, or most awkward, I’ve had to do on my hiatus. That distinction goes to the notes I got from my estate lawyer. In trying to put together my will, I wanted to explain why certain things were going to certain people and how my wife and I wanted our kids to be raised. And I kept getting notes back after each draft like, “Hmm. Getting closer, but I don’t think you want to say it that way.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be better to build to your tragic untimely death?” Finally my lawyer agreed to take his own pass on it which I should get tomorrow.
After my “step backwards” to rewrite yesterday, I begged off to go to yoga where I knew going in my performance would be subpar. Unfortunately I immediately got off on the wrong foot, literally, when my croc hit a wet tile while walking into the building, causing my legs to separate at a 15º angle which is more than my tight-as-steel groin muscles can handle, and I heard a small “pop” that will no doubt have me going back for more chiropractic torture next week. Undaunted– and not wanting to go home and set up the dessert party even though they’re my friends and I was the one who offered to throw them a party in front of my wife, making everyone in the room except for me extraordinarily uncomfortable– I proceeded to place my mat next to what could only be described as a tattooed wire wearing only bike shorts and a bandana. Within two minutes of an impossible class I dropped into child’s pose. Within thirty seconds of being in child’s pose, my muscles started shaking so I had to get out of child’s pose and do something even more restful. But how do you get exhausted doing child’s pose? That’s like getting a club soda stain.
After the slowest and sweatiest 90 minutes of my life, I hobbled back home, excited for what would no doubt be the highlight of my weekend: the day of Cub Scout’s Pinewood Derby had arrived! This is supposed to be the funnest event of the year for the Cub Scouts, and my son and I had already had a great bonding experience building and sanding and painting our car over the last two weeks. As I mentioned, I hate that my son hates baseball, but having him miss it for the Pinewood Derby is as good an excuse as any. So imagine my surprise as I entered my house to hear my son screaming at the top of his lungs, immediately undoing any possible second-hand benefit that yoga had on me. “What’s wrong?” I naively asked my wife. “Caleb doesn’t want to go to the Pinewood Derby.” “Caleb, why don’t you want to go to the Pinewood Derby?” I asked calmly, “it’s the most fun event of the year.” “Because it’s boooooring!” I immediately snapped, “Listen to me, dammit, we made the car and we’re missing baseball which you hate and which you are definitely going to next week by the way, so we are going to the Pinewood Derby!”
Now, one would think (that one being me) that out of all my children (both of them) I would find it easier to relate to my son. My son is a chip off my block: he lives to get a laugh– often inappropriately, he’s extremely emotional, fiercely loyal, loves my wife more than anything and is the perfect blend of cute and jackass. Today the meter was full-on jackass. As my son literally howled, I used all my recent parenting training and responded by making my own set of indecipherable noises. He threw his body around saying he wasn’t going and I danced around the room telling him was. My wife, meanwhile, had to take time away from putting together the party for my friends that I had committed us to throwing, to deal with two mental patients. Finally, after sending me out to do some errands and getting my son to calm down, some peace ensued and I was able to take him. Not a scene that was going to be on the highlight reel of my parenting.
I tried to make it up at the actual Derby. I bought my son an ice cream cone and told him all the secret reasons we were going to win and how he did a great job on his car and how I really had a good feeling about this and that even if we didn’t win it would be fun, but I really think we’re going to win. My son, to his credit, indulged me. As soon as we got into the rec room where we had to check in I knew we were goners. If regular Cub Scouts are geeks, then the people who do the Pinewood Derby are the people the Cub Scouts beat the crap out of. It took us a half hour to get our car inspected to make sure it was the proper specs: height, weight, axle length, all wheels touching the track at the exact same point of rotation– my last physical took me 20 minutes and the stakes were slightly higher. When we proudly passed inspection, they registered our car and put it next to the other cars– each one smoother, shinier and sleeker than ours. But none pissed me off more than my new nemesis: Goldstein.
From the research I did on how to win at the Pinewood Derby (ie: I watched a two minute YouTube video), it seems that since all the cars are the same weight– five ounces– the thing that makes one car faster than the next is how much of the weight is put over the rear axle. With this knowledge, Caleb and I put our pre-measured Cub Scout weights towards the back of the car, hoping that none of the two million views of this YouTube video were accounted for in this room. Now, most of the cars look the same– like a kid who had a bandsaw and some sandpaper went to town on a block of wood. But here comes Goldstein who’s car was a polished arrow with a long, skinny body and all of the weight put INSIDE the car (HOW THE HELL DO YOU GET THE WEIGHT INSIDE OF THE CAR?) over the rear wheels. It immediately became clear that Goldstein had used a Boy Scout’s sanctioned custom kit! I hated Goldstein even more than I hated tattooed wire yoga guy.
Goldstein’s car was in the first heat (each car races six times) and finished before any of the other cars even got started. That cocky bastard Goldstein smugly walked around the track, barely looking up as he texted someone on his Blackberry, probably sarcastically writing “How do you think we did?” Heat two: Goldstein by a mile, again. Same thing with heats three and four. Finally, in heat five– with thanks I believe to a very powerful prayer I issued and I’m not kidding– Goldstein’s car jumped the track and came in sixth. I stood up, knocking Caleb off my lap and cheered. Apparently that’s not proper etiquette, especially since Mrs. Goldstein was sitting right behind me with Goldstein, Jr. who was 18 months old! Goldstein wasn’t even pretending he didn’t make this car! I then turned to Goldstein who was now with his wife and said, “I’m sorry, I thought this was an event for the kids.” Goldstein, a better car manufacturer, but not funnier than me, responded, “Oh, he made it.” Me: “I don’t think he did. I think he’s 18 months old. I think you made it for him.” Goldstein walked away to get his ribbon and I turned to Caleb, “That’s not the way we want to win.”
Then it was our car’s turn. The truth is, I did most of the work on our car as well, I just wasn’t as good as Goldstein. As they put our car on the track I knew this was my best chance to salvage the day. “Okay, Caleb, here we go! I think we’re going to win! Let’s root for our car number fifteen— lightning!” (Let’s see Goldstein come up with something like that!) Our car ran its six heats: we finished third, sixth, sixth, second and fifth and then had to wait two hours for the rest of the cars to go. If you think it’s hard getting a kid to be psyched about watching his own car, try getting him psyched about watching a bunch of strange other kids’ cars.
When we got home, we were fully defeated. I said innocently, “So, that was fun, huh?” and he responded, “No. I want to play.” But unfortunately it was time to get ready for bed. He went nuts and I didn’t blame him. Here’s a kid who lives for his Sunday and I ruined it for him. He told me his day was “like a piece of scrap metal”, which was the second funniest thing he’s ever said (the first was when he told my wife that he didn’t want to do homework: “all I do is work, it’s like I’m 45 years old!). I asked my wife if she could put him to bed, I was exhausted and didn’t want to ruin his day any more than I already had. A bad day for my kid meant a bad day for me. Like scrap metal.
And then, just as my day was ready to be written off, my newlywed friends came in and saw all the desserts and their eyes lit up like Goldstein’s upon seeing his car blow past the others. And as friend after friend came over and drank champagne with us, and as I looked at my wife, beautiful as ever, in our house that somehow looked perfect, I started to relax. And my speech that started out terrifying wound up perfect. And I laughed and held my wife’s hand and realized that not every day has to be about the kids– it certainly wasn’t for Goldstein. And today, my day just happen to peak after they went to bed.
As I’ve mentioned before, Saturdays are fairly uneventful for me, which is by design. With no access to my car, iPhone or my revolutionary Facebook friends in Cairo– he sent me a goat in Farmville!– I am left with a day of overeating, walking a little, and hanging with family and friends. If I had to write a book about my Saturdays it would be “Eat. Pray. Eat some more.” While I would love to use Saturday to “live in the moment”, my mind is almost always racing (even now I’m looking for a joke to illustrate this, I hope to come back to this spot when I’m done writing, but if you’re reading this, it means I’ve moved onto the next thing). Anyway, I did have a moment or two of true appreciation today.
About a year ago, when I thought there was a decent chance that the show I was working on wasn’t coming back, my agent set me up with a bunch of “meet and greet’ and “get reacquainted” meetings with studios around town. Now, I never turn down a meeting– as you can probably tell by now, I like having something scheduled in my calendar– but my first thought was, “I’ve been doing this for 19 years, don’t these people know who I am by now?” My agent replied, “Listen, Mike–” “It’s Jeff.” “Sorry. Listen, Jeff, you’ve been on a show for five years with the same network and studio, I think it would be good for you to get reacquainted with the other studios. Besides, there have been a lot of executive changes over the last five years.” He was right, many of the people he set me up with I was meeting for the first time. Some of them hadn’t been born yet when I started my first job, and some were some old faces who I just hadn’t seen in a while. (One of the realities of being a tv writer is that if you survive long enough you will be taking notes from the same people who used to get you water while you were waiting to meet with their bosses. In fact, I was recently told by a TV Executive who used to answer the phones for the TV Executive who used to give us notes on “Friends” that she liked my work on staff but didn’t want to hire me to do a pilot. I then asked her for a glass of room temperature water. That didn’t change her mind.)
One of my first of the studio meetings that my agent set up was with an old face, who turned out to be a really old face. I remembered “Dave” as a young, trim, bushy-haired executive whom I had last met, I think, when I was writing for an animated show called “Duckman” in 1992. As I waited in the lobby of this very hip office near the beach I realized I had been here before. But when? The last time I saw Dave he was working for Fox, not this small independent-production-company-that-couldn’t-pay-me-even-if-they-wanted- to-so-I-would-use-this-meeting-as-a-warmup-to-feel-good-about-myself. Then I realized that this was one of the buildings that was on my route when I was a “food dude”. A food dude, for those of you not in the know, is a guy who goes office to office with a cooler full of sandwiches and snacks that are chilled to about ten degrees north of what the Health Department deems as the minimum safe temperature to transport food. Food Dude was my first job when I came out to Los Angeles– I went from being an investment banker working in 30 Rockefeller Center with a Finance degree from Wharton to a guy who was alternately referred to as, “You!” and “Sandwich Girl!” It was in this particular building that I was referred to as Sandwich Girl, and I was now about to make my triumphant return as a young, hot writer who could afford to buy food that didn’t give you hepatitis. I took a look back at the previous 19 years that led me from this waiting room to… this waiting room. It went by quickly and I still felt like the same kid, except I didn’t smell quite as much as egg salad.
As I waited for Dave to come out, an old, overweight bald guy turned the corner and approached me. “There’s no way this is Dave”, I thought, and may have even said. And then, Dave thought, and definitely said, “Jesus, look at you. You got old!” Needless to say, that meeting sucked. The lesson I learned was that it was very important to not go too long without seeing people. When I, and then a few years later my sister, moved to LA, we knew we wouldn’t see our father as much. Each time we saw him, we asked each other if we thought he looked older. And, of course he did. I mean, ask Dave about what it’s like to get old. And even though my dad looks great and keeps in good shape, it’s hard when the image of someone in your head that is frozen in time collides with the actual person. Which is why, my dad and stepmom moving to Las Vegas, has been one of the most uplifting things for me.
My dad and stepmom stayed over with us this weekend and they looked the same as they did the last time I saw them– around a month ago. And my sister and her husband who came over with their kids also looked the same as they did the last time we saw them, a week ago. And while there is no doubt that family can drive you, and by “you” I mean “me”, absolutely nuts, and every personality defect inflicted by nature and nurture and dutifully passed onto our children was on full display, there’s something nice– and comfortable– about everybody looking the same. So take that, Dave.
UPDATE: Okay, I’ve never done this before– added to a post the next day, but since I get to make the rules, which are “none”, I’m going to make an exception. The reason I’m adding to yesterday’s– ie: Day 42’s post– is because of my wife’s subtle criticism: “I didn’t like it.” I hate giving my wife a script to read, almost as much as she hates me giving her something to read. Not because she’s not a fan of my work, I truly believe she is, but because she’s honest and while I say I want honesty, what I really want is someone to say, “I love this!” And sometimes she does: when she loves it. But when she doesn’t… well, I get pouty and snarky and mean and then will make it better. By the way, I think every writer will identify with this: watching a spouse read your script is the definition of hell. Seeing him or her blank-faced as he or she passes the joke that took you 20 minutes to craft is torture. I, of course, respond with restraint: “When you’re done reading our will can you read my script?” She says, in the same tone one might say when you ask them to put their hand outside and see if it’s too cold to wear shorts: “No, it’s funny.” I follow with: “Well, sometimes when something’s funny, you breath extra hard in a short burst. Some call it a ‘laugh’.” She says she doesn’t laugh out-loud. I will then leave the room, angry, then hear from the other room laughter. I run back in: “What did you like?” She: “Oh, you used the name of my mom here. That’s funny.” I want to kill everyone and burn down my house.
Anyway, the reason she correctly didn’t care for my last post– THIS post– is because I was tired and did not put in a through-line or an emotional underpinning. The truth is, she’s right. The thing I really wanted to talk about was having my family over and walking to synagogue with my dad– father and son–both dressed up like gangsters, and having a lady roll down her window on the way and say, “I just want to tell you, you both look so handsome!” That made me feel cool: not only that I looked handsome (which I did) but that my dad also looked handsome, and we were doing a father and son thing where I was the son. As a dad, I’m always the father. Then, when we got to synagogue, I was once again like the father, showing my dad where we were in the service (he does not go to the same type of synagogue I go to, but he comes with me because he’s my dad.) the same way I show my son when he comes with me.
That’s what I should have talked about– the blurring lines between father and son. That’s what my wife would have responded to, and that’s what I’ll truly remember about Day 42. So, despite my wife’s brutal criticism of me, as usual she was right. And now, to get her to laugh: her mom’s name is Dwanee.
I think I can safely say that I’ve never sent an email that I haven’t regretted. One reason is that it’s impossible to get across your exact meaning without seeing a person face to face, or at least hearing the intonation of their voice. Even the simplest message to your wife: “Hey, I miss you, OX” (hugs and kisses), can be interpreted as “Hey, I miss you, ox” (bovine). I have other ways to illustrate this, but I’d have to tell you face to face or over the phone. The biggest reason is that when you write something, you send it out for everyone to see which makes you vulnerable. And nobody likes feeling vulnerable. I realized after my posting yesterday that while it apparently touched a lot of people because of its raw honesty, it was also another heart-breaking one for my wife and it may have made it look like our lives are sad, which they are not.
On the other hand, there are fun parts about publishing something on-line: namely, as I’ve discussed, I like seeing what Google thinks of me via their ads, and I also LOVE the feedback, even though most responses have been hints at some sort of necessary interventions (I’ve been invited to a lot of peoples’ houses alone for a special “party” recently, which is nice). The other thing I like about posting this blog is that not only do you get to see how many people are reading it (we just went over 5,000 yesterday, thank you Very Small Piece of America), but you get to see how people have been directed to it. I don’t advertise it really, I pretty much only publish it on Facebook, and my wife does the same. But today someone found my site by Googling, “Jeff Astrof urinating on my face, Chicago”. I’m not sure if I was sadder that that’s what someone thought was a good way to see what I’ve been up to these days, or that he or she was right.
I had another close call with the internet today. After receiving an ominous email about a Facebook website calling for a Third Intifada (armed jihad against Israel), I decided to check out the site myself. Sure enough, right there in green and red was a picture of a fist and a mosque and a whole lot of Arabic along with some numbers that I assumed to be a Koranic code (and realized was the date). So, this was very scary to me, of course, so I decided to try to post my own reasoned response– one of those Xtranormal videos which features two cute rodents speaking in robotic voices advocating for Israel as a democracy, the kind of democracy that many Arab nations are fighting for now. It certainly wasn’t incendiary and was actually a little funny and I thought might be a nice ice breaker. I couldn’t find the place to post it on the Third Intifada website so I started poking around (feeling like an undercover intruder, I could hear the audience yelling “Don’t go in there!” as I clicked Arab site after Arab site, each one with more dates and more scrawl. Finally, feeling that I was deep enough where no one could fine me, I found a place to anonymously post my cute little video. Click. All done, moving on.
Literally one minute later and “I’ve got mail.” In my in-box was a message from Abdul Nasr Muhammad asking me how I knew him and what was the meaning of this! HOLY CRAP! I started the Third Intifada from my tiny cluttered office (man, I have to clean my office too. To do: Stop Third Intifada, Clean Basement, Clean Office). It seemed impossible that Mr. Nasr Muhammad could find me, yet here was his picture– A lone dark eye partially obscured by a Kaffiya– staring at me. Of course, I immediately checked my Facebook profile to see what information Mr. Nasr Muhammad could glean from it and noticed that really the only thing he could possibly know about me was: My Name, My Wife’s Name, My Children’s Names, My Birthday, My Home City, and that I’m Jewish… which wouldn’t be that hard to find out if he looked at the picture of me in my GIANT PURIM OUTFIT! Well, this was it, I thought. How do I tell my wife that we are about to be in the newspaper? Then I thought, you know what? People are dying around the world standing up for what they believe in. And I further thought, if it’s not worth living for, it’s not worth dying for. And then I thought, I can’t believe I never noticed how messy this office is? Why do we have two people clean on Friday if it’s going to look like this anyway?
So, emboldened by my pride, I realized that in this information age where I tell the world everything I’m thinking and feeling, there is no such thing as anonymity anymore. With that in mind, I decided to take the bold step of confronting Mr. Nasr Muhammad head-on: “Hi. I sent this to the wrong person. Salaam. And Peace. And Shalom. We are all Abraham’s children.” Click. I then deleted all the personal information on my Facebook page. Thirty seconds later (clearly Mr. Nasr Muhammad also has some time on his hands) I got a response. “Okay. I guess we can be friends, too. ;))))))) Salaam.” I did it, folks! Maybe Mark Zuckerberg started this thing, but this Jew finished it. Crisis avoided.
One more funny thing before I go (and change my name to Abdullah and move to Michigan). Today I officially realized that I don’t think I would survive as a young single. Obviously it’s too late for both and I don’t think I have to tell you that I’d ever want to be single again… I made this discovery at our local Rite Aid. I was there shopping for a few odds and ends with Shawni, and I decided to do that thing where I pretend I’m not married and then see if I could” pick up” my wife. As a side note, sometimes I see a cute girl and think, “Man, that’s a cute girl” and then realize it’s my wife. It’s nice seeing my wife objectively. What’s not nice is when I see a cute girl kissing another guy and realize it’s my wife. But I digress.
One of the hardest things to write in a sitcom, or any romantic comedy is the “cute meet”– where the guy and girl meet in such an adorable and realistic way that you know they’re meant to be with each other. They’re impossible to write because they don’t exist in real life. But today, at Rite Aid, I decided to “cute meet” my wife. So, as she waited on line at the register I noticed this “cute girl” and I approached her and pretended to bump into her with my armful of groceries–as usual, I went in for one thing so I wouldn’t need a cart, then found six other things that I was forced to balance while waiting in line at the register. This balancing of too many items made for the perfect cute meet as I pretended to stumble into her. I said, “Excuse me, I didn’t see–” and then my eyes met her gorgeous, giant blue eyes and I was at a loss for words (I wasn’t at a loss for song, however, as I started singing Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Ang Syne”: “Saw my old lover at the grocery store…” My wife started to roll her beautiful blue eyes, but I told her I was doing a cute meet with her and trying to pick her up on line at the market. Her blue eyes then looked down to see the groceries I was holding: Whitening Mouthwash, prescription strength shampoo, a gum massager and perfume-free baby wipes for sensitive skin. We laughed until we cried.
Anyway, that was my day. You’re welcome for bringing about world peace– thank you The Internet. This guy has to go get ready for the Sabbath feeling pretty good about himself. As for my wife, “I love you, ox.”