Archive for May 2011
I walked out of my hotel room in Washington DC this morning and was hit in the face with 200% humidity that was hanging onto the 89 degree air. The air was thick with the smell of far away thunder and close-up urine mixed with a random meat being cooked from an unlicensed food truck. In other words, it was perfect. It reminded me of my days living in New York, swimming to work through the oppressive heat, feet sticking to the melting tar with every step and then the worst part: a random drop of water hits your bottom lip and you look up and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Where did it come from? WHERE DID IT COME FROM?!
As much as I love Los Angeles, New York will always be my first love. Maybe because I went there to get drunk as a kid in college, or maybe because I was poor and in my twenties there and it’s always great to be poor and in your twenties, but I love all of the sights and smells and sounds and tastes, especially in the summer. It’s something that my wife, who grew up in the oppressive verdancy of Oregon, can’t understand. I remember telling my wife the story of how I once bought a knish from a street cart and asked the vendor if it was hot. He picked it up with his hands, saw that it WAS in fact, hot, blew on it, then offered it to me. I gave him $1.25 and took it. My wife asked why I would possibly eat that knish after the borderline-homeless vendor blew on it, and I said, “There have been horrible things that have happened to every single knish in that truck. I saw what was probably the worst thing that happened to that knish, and I’d rather go with the devil I know.” My wife is still making a face, and I’m betting thinks of that story every time she kisses me.
As I continued walking this morning, I passed a mirrored window and saw myself walking on a city street in a business suit for the first time in over 20 years. I often wonder what it would be like to see a picture of me from the future. Had I seen this picture, assuming I could get over the 20 years of wear and tear on my body, I probably would have assumed I was still an investment banker. It probably would have made me sad to know that I never accomplished my dream of becoming a writer. That was my dream: to become a professional comedy writer. I am living my dream.
Yet it doesn’t feel that way, not always. If it did I would be perfectly satisfied, and clearly, I’m not. There are moments, to be sure, when being a writer seems like the best thing in the world: the pay is great, I don’t risk physical injury except for eating related disorders, and the rest of the world thinks it’s really cool. Well, everywhere except Washington. Washington is an industry town, just like Detroit where the industry is poverty and depression and Hollywood where the industry is entertainment and depression. Here in Washington the industry is politics. In fact, I have never been in an environment where my resume garnered less of a reaction. “What do you do?” “I’m a writer.” “Oh, what kind?” “Sitcoms.” “Oh.” “Friends”. “What?” “I’m sorry, I thought you were going to ask if I wrote anything you would have heard of.” “Oh. No.” “I wrote for Friends. The tv show. Friends.” Blank stares as if I had just eaten a knish that was sucked on by a Pakistani vagrant. As a funny side note, I ran into Senator Al Franken today from the great State of Minnesota and I introduced myself. “Hi, Al, I’m Jeff Astrof. I’m also a comedy writer.” He walked away. I was immediately put off, but then realized, he’s probably thinking of himself as a Senator now, not a comedy writer. The truth is, I’m not familiar with any of his Senating but he’s a good comedy writer.
I also get that you don’t necessarily want to be defined as a comedy writer. I mean, I don’t. I had a friend announce in front of a group of people that I was the funniest person he’d ever met, while I was signing a credit card receipt. Now, unless I had the perfectly-timed fart, there was nothing I could do at that moment to procure a laugh. I wasn’t even the funniest person in that group at that moment. So if I’m not a comedy writer, what am I? I ran into a couple of friends from college in DC who were surprised to see me in a suit, having gotten religious, not covered in my own vomit. You see, when they knew me in college, my persona was closer to John Belushi’s in Animal House (thanks again, Dad, for spending $80,000 on getting me an Ivy League education). So I’m definitely not that guy now– mostly because I’m too tired and I don’t drink beer by the pitcher anymore; one apple martini has me singing “Drift Away” before my wife tells me I’ve had enough. So… am I a religious guy? A light weight drinker? A husband? A dad? A guy who’s not funny when signing for the check? Am I a guy who’s even interested in defining himself? The answer, of course, is that I’m all of those things, yet none of them define who I really am. I think who I am is defined by my actions.
When I first started writing this journal 100 days ago, I set out very practical goals: lose weight, clean my garage and write something that will help further my career. The practical gave way to the philosophical as I dealt with issues of fatherhood, being a good husband and dealing with being out of work. While these philosophical issues are much more important than the practical ones, since I set out the practical goals for all to see, I think it’s only fair that I address them and give a candid evaluation of my progress.
Lose weight. Twenty five pounds to be exact. Total and complete failure. I have done several thousand Burpees, the exercise that prisoners do that makes you think, “huh, maybe I could be a prisoner if it got me into prisoner shape”, and for a while I ate like a cave man. But I’m not going to embarrass myself or the scale by weighing myself. I definitely got more muscular, and in the right light, there’s the essence of an “ab” on me, but I can’t say that I’m in tip-top shape. In fact, I am just in average, pre-production shape, my skin remaining elastic for late night rewrites where someone orders pie for dinner. Grade: D.
Clean my garage: Cleaning my garage saved my life and maybe my marriage. If I had to rate the most important days of my life it would be: wedding, birth of child one, cleaning garage, birth of child two. There were some casualties in that I threw out or gave away everything that wasn’t nailed down– perhaps even my daughter’s frozen umbilical cord– but it was worth it. Grade: A+
Writing: I wrote an amazing pilot about a workplace comedy where the work place just happens to be Assassins. Unfortunately, I wrote it in my head. I started writing the first scene one day, and then think I threw it out when I cleaned the garage. I don’t count my time as a total failure work-wise because I managed to write every single day in this journal. I told a lot of the stories I wanted to tell about my life, and got to bare my soul a little each day. I also got an offer from an e-publisher to publish my blog as a book and I will get paid in “internet dollars”. “What are internet dollars?” “Dollars that can be used for the internet?” “So I can buy stuff with them?” “You can buy the internet.” “Isn’t the internet intangible? “Exactly.” Grade: B
So, where does that leave me at the end of 100 days? My biggest success– the garage– was accomplished in one afternoon. What about the other 99 days? If I look at these 99 days just as a list of my actions– or accomplishments– it was a complete waste of a third of a year of my life. I didn’t cure anything or invent anything, or even create anything that can be used outside of the internet, which, quite frankly, I still can’t understand. So maybe I can’t be defined by my actions, or else I’d be a failure with a clean garage.
I’m guessing that when I eventually go through this journal, when I strip away my actions and minor achievements, what will be left will be my true essence, which are my feelings. I am anxious. I am emotional. I am impulsive. I am searching. I am trying to be a good person, or at least a better person. I am crazy and above all, I am crazy about my family. Someone told a friend of mine that this journal read like a love letter to my wife, and if that’s what comes out of this, then that’s just fine. My regret about these 100 days is that they didn’t quite make it to my anniversary which is the day that changed the universe forever for me. I married so far out of my league that I became religious just so I could pray harder to God that my wife doesn’t figure out that she can do better than me.
But it’s also a love letter to my children. Sasha, my little angel, if there is one thing that has come out of these 100 days that is almost as important as having a clean garage, it is that I am learning to accept you on your terms, not mine. You are a blossoming flower and it hurts my heart so much when I think about how much I love you, and how much I have already damaged you. And it’s going to take more than 100 days but I’m going to work on being, well, less me around you.
And Caleb, you are all the best parts of me distilled into an incredible little boy who will make an incredible little father some day– we don’t have a lot of height in our family, so stay funny. You are a special child and have a magic to you that keeps me from strangling you. I guess I should probably work on that, too.
And as for me? Well, I have ten more Burpees to go before my 100 days are over, then it’s time to prepare for my 13th job in 20 years. It’s funny what happens when you live your dream– you get another dream. I really thought I’d have my own show on the air by now, but I’ve been a co-pilot on other peoples’ shows for the last ten years at least. But I can’t complain. At least not to you. Because my 100 days are now officially over.
Despite the misadventures with an ill-named carry-on bag, after my 17 hour flight two weeks ago, this five hour cross-country hop seemed like a trip to the market. I think may have even stood the entire flight, who knows. I have come to Washington, DC for a very important purpose: to hear a speech from the President of the United States and to Lobby my Congresswoman on Tuesday. My schedule is booked pretty solid with different lectures and catching up with some old college friends who still live on the East Coast so, really, when you think about it, or at least when I tell my wife about it, it’s really a lot of work. The fact that I have three days away from paternal responsibilities is merely an afterthought, as far as my wife knows. Okay, fine, I’ve had a tough 98 days of being a family man– I needed a break!
Every time I come to the East Coast I forget how much the weather here sucks. I am used to temperature fluctuations of 16 degrees from the cold winter days of 65 to the broiling heat of 81. The humidity in LA is 4% even when it rains. Los Angeles has nothing else to speak of, but that is enough. Meanwhile, I stepped out of the airport in Washington this morning and it was so hot and humid that a thunderstorm started in my shirt. I always seem to run into people on my travels and today was no different. I ran into a woman, Marsha, whom I had met in the most awkward of circumstances 7 years ago at a resort with my family. It was karaoke night and Marsha– whom I didn’t know at all– was looking for a partner to sing with her. Probably just to annoy my wife who makes fun of my singing–she’s completely wrong: I have an AMAZING voice and if they ever do Senior Idol I’m auditioning and guess what? I’m going to Hollywood– I volunteered to partner up with Marsha. We got up there and the music to “The Pina Colada Song” started playing and Marsha and I were quickly playing the parts of a couple that was trying to cheat on their respective spouses, while Marsha and my spouse watched on. The only thing that made it more awkward was when Marsha’s husband Steve got up and joined the duet, so I wasn’t sure whom I was supposed to be cheating on in the song.
Anyway, Marsha was going downtown as well so we took a taxi together– I was tempted to ask her if she still liked making love at midnight by the dunes by the Cape, but she was with her 19 year old son, which didn’t really make it a worse idea, but I could get beat up. My flight landed at 7:30 and I had to be at the Convention Center by 9:00 to see the President speak. As long as there were no problems, I should make it there on time. So, the first problem was that every other street was blocked off because the President was in town– since he LIVES in this town, they should be better prepared for this type of thing, but that’s not my job. The second problem was that the streets that weren’t blocked off for the President were blocked off for a bike marathon. After driving around for 20 minutes in the only square block that wasn’t closed I asked the driver if he knew how to get to my hotel. He looked at me and said, “no” then kept driving. I then asked him to pull over and I got out, lugging my 70 pound carry-on with me towards the general direction of the convention center.
After six blocks, I had sweat through everything including my shoes and my anchor of a bag was slowing me down, so I stopped into a random hotel and checked my bag there. Fortunately, I was close enough to the Convention Center to make it in time to wait on-line for two hours of security, smelling like a homeless person urinated on me. By the time I saw the President speak, I was exhausted, but invigorated by being so close to the (image on a giant flat screen) of the Leader of the Free World. I remember reading that President Obama was reluctant to run for office because he would have to spend so much time away from his family. I wondered if at any time during his campaign he received a note from one of his daughters signed, “The Obamas” as I had received the night before from my son. As I watched the President, I was struck by his poise and confidence and thought, “He and I have a lot in common– we’re both good at public speaking, we’re both judged on our first 100 days and we both get to spend some time away from our families.”
After the speech which invigorated me and made me think “Yes I can” find my luggage, which I ultimately did, I headed over to my hotel. They asked how many keys I needed and I instinctively said, “two”. As I put my key in the door, I started getting a little sad that I was here alone and started humming the slow or “sad” theme from ‘Rocky’ (it’s a weird family trait, when my sister has a bad day she hums the sad Brady Bunch theme). My sadness evaporated as I collapsed on the bed and took a two hour nap, uninterrupted by kids screaming or dogs jumping on the bed. When I awoke, I looked around the room and saw that although I had only been in the room for two and a half hours– two of those hours in a coma– the room was a mess– my clothes were strewn everywhere, my wedding ring nowhere to be found (I’ll find it) one key already lost and my suitcase emptied out on a chair and I realized: holy crap, I’M the slob in my relationship!
After showering– I’M the one who gets the floor wet!– I headed out to hear some political lectures and catch up with friends, all the while thinking, “My wife would love this”. When it was time to go out, I had a choice of hooking up with my college friends who were still single, “living the dream” or some friends I knew from LA who were living the dream of being single for one night. How could I give up a night of hearing stories of men who were unencumbered, still living like I did out of college? It wasn’t that hard actually: I told them I’d catch up with them later, knowing I’d probably be asleep. Instead, I went back to the room of a friend of mine who coincidentally was there with one of my daughter’s teachers. My friend suggested we grab some drinks and watch the game, so we did. He charged three diet Cokes to his room and we headed upstairs to watch the Bulls play the Heat in the NBA semifinals. His room, unoccupied for all but 45 minutes of the day, was just as disgusting as mine was, and the three of us, talked about mistakes we’ve made being a parent. Finally, with my Diet Coke buzz raging I got the courage to ask my daughter’s teacher, “Is my daughter… normal?” He looked at me blankly and said, “No. She’s really exceptional. Really smart and really sweet. I wish I had 20 just like her.”
I remember during my bachelor party, when my friends were getting drunk and rambunctious in the main room of the suite I had booked at Caeser’s Palace, I snuck into the bedroom and called my wife and told her I missed her. It broke every code of bachelor party etiquette but it was who I was. And it’s still who I am. I took a moment away from watching the game to call my wife and kids to check in and tell them that I love them. Later in the evening I called my wife and asked about her day, listening to all the details about the kids that usually, well, sometimes, have me tivoing through them in my head. At the end of our conversation my wife asked how my day was and I told her, “Good. I got to see the President.” But that wasn’t as important as what I missed.
Tommorrow is another jam-packed day, learning from scholars and analysts and meeting dignitaries who makes decisions that effect everyone on the planet. Yet the most important people in my life will be 3,000 miles away from me at home, waiting for me to tell them everything. But all I’ll say is, “I missed you” because that’s all that will matter.
I have to make this post brief, as I’m supposed to be heading to the airport in 15 minutes and I still haven’t showered and I’m not sure I’ve packed everything in my brand new bag as featured in “Up In The Air”. Like the underwear that I buy– the boxer briefs with the picture of the guy with the 12 pack abs on the front– I have a feeling that this bag is not going to look and pack as pretty as it did in the George Clooney movie. By the way, if I haven’t mentioned this before, they should put a picture of a chubby guy in underwear so you know what you’re getting. I’m just saying.
I’m trying to think of the glory of fatherhood right now as experienced today but I can’t because my son is in the other room SCREAMING and reenacting in slow motion the fight he just had with his sister that somehow looks like a battle scene from “Gallipoli”. My glory, if I can recall it, came from having my first full on “catch” with my son where I didn’t have to throw the ball underhanded or place it in his mitt or, quite frankly yell in my head (and out my mouth) “why can’t you catch the damn ball!” It was a real catch with a real little boy (who just had a slow-motion fight with his sister over a game called Mancala). While I was having my catch– and more importantly, while my son was actually catching(!) my daughter was in the background doing ballet and singing. I experienced true paternal glory– matched only by the instantaneous sadness knowing that my son quit baseball and doesn’t want to go back even for the trophy, and the thought of having to see my daughter standing on stage during a ballet recital shrinks my soul into a dark gray ball.
Anyway, but the good stuff– in my home my kids were my fantasy kids today: happy, outgoing, full of life and catching the damned ball! They are truly like the frog from the Bugs Bunny commercial that only sings when he’s in private, but today was one of those days where I got to hear the full recital, and it was wonderful. I’m going to try to check in from the airport for more thoughts. If not, I will hopefully catch you tomorrow in Washington, DC– even after my haircutter yesterday told me exactly why she was afraid of flying and all the horror stories she heard from her friend and airplane mechanic and as my daughter is reading a book about Amelia Earhart. But what’s the worst that can happen?
More later. (I hope)
UPDATE: It’s always a little sad saying goodbye to my wife and kids and getting on a plane. I only do it once, maybe twice a year, but still it’s a scene that’s been played out in so many movies in a sad way that it’s automatically melancholy to me. My son gave me a note to read on the plane, which he finally insisted I open in front of him (like me, once he has a gift, he absolutely has to give it). The note said simply, “We will miss you” which of course made me feel all soft inside, and it was signed, “The Astrofs”, which hardened my heart right back up.
As for my actual trip, I realized there are two scenes that were apparently cut from “Up In The Air”. The first scene is where George Clooney drags his carry-on bag, which when fully packed weighs 70 pounds– down the aisle to the rear of the plane hitting every seat or foot on the way because the most expensive per-inch bag in the world is EXACTLY– and not a millimeter bigger than– the width of the aisle. Then when George finally finds his seat, he heaves his tremendously heavy bag up, caroming it off the lip of the overhead compartment, then jumps out of the way as it falls to the floor so he doesn’t get crushed. The slapstick scene continues as George picks the bag up over his head with two hands, in much the same way Captain Kirk picked up a boulder to crush a Gorn, and with a grunt manages to jam the bag which is exactly one inch too large for an overhead compartment on United, halfway in and halfway out of its intended storage bay. Then George is forced to stand on the armrest of the seat underneath the creaking overhead bin, shoving his groin in the face of the unsuspecting person who was unfortunate enough to win the lottery that gave her the seat next to him, and with three visceral grunts is able to force the bag into its equally unfortunate compartment, and with a final grunt is able to slam the door shut, praying that there is no turbulence, lest George dies on the flight. I know this is a scene, because the people on the plane applauded.
The call-back scene occurs at the end of the flight where George Clooney opens the overhead bin to find that objects do indeed shift during a flight and the bag has now moved into a position that has locked it into place for a grueling, sweat-inducing 15 minutes, while the few people sitting behind George wind up having to crawl around him to get off the plane.
Needless to say, George is not looking forward to the flight home where he will inevitably have bought souvenirs for his kids that will expand the bag the one millimeter it will take to do significant damage not only to George’s back, but to the plane.
And thus, as is the case with all good days, Day 98 ends with our hero sweaty, achy and smelling like a bus seat. Day 99 can only be better, right? Right?
I was stressed today. Yeah, I know, and the sun was warm today. It wasn’t the normal stress that comes with not having a clean garage– got that– or a job– ditto– but it was one of those days when I was on the defensive. (Oh, great, now you think I’m defensive.) It started this morning when I ran into a couple of guys I know from my religious community criticized me for something President Obama said last night. I responded, “Um… I know we look similar, but you know I’m not the President of the United States, right?” “No. But you support him. You’re a Hollywood Liberal Elite.” Okay, well, I live in Hollywood and I guess I’m liberal since I always say, “for here” when they ask me at Starbucks if my coffee is for here or to go and if I say “for here” I have to pay the sales tax, but it’s hard to make the case that I’m elite when I drive a 7 year old Prius that still has six year old food in the back seat and up until recently my wife used a ten year old diaper bag as her purse. But in any case, I am different from many of the people in my religious community who tend to be more Conservative. I lashed out, telling the people I was proud of my Hollywood liberalness.
Still stinging from that encounter, I went to an elite, liberal taco stand for lunch– where I paid sales tax– and on the way out I ran into a friend of mine from Hollywood– a fellow elite. We got to talking and he mentioned an event on a Friday night which I told him I couldn’t attend because I don’t go out on Friday night. The conversation quickly changed and we talked about religion and what I can and can’t do and by the end of our talk it was clear that he considered me a Right Wing Religious Fanatic. So there’s me in a nutshell: a Hollywood Liberal Elite Right Wing Religious Fanatic– more commonly knows as a HLERWRF. People in both of my worlds don’t understand how I can exist in the opposite world: people who are pious don’t understand how I can write for television where the stories are often about premarital sex and other things that the Bible would put in the “Bad” column, whereas my Hollywood friends wonder how a smart, funny guy like me would voluntarily submit myself to anachronistic restrictions. The answer, of course is… I just do.
It’s always hard trying to struggle in different “worlds”, but I have found that instead of feeling uncomfortable in either world, I feel very comfortable in both. I once heard a lecture from someone who said if you want to know what God wants you to do for a living, it’s what you’re good at. Now, I don’t know what this lecturer would have said if I told him I was really good at murdering hookers, but I happen to be good at writing sitcoms. And as for the anachronistic lifestyle, I don’t know what I’d do if I had to run full-speed for seven days a week without being able to unplug every Friday night for 25 hours. Having faith also not allows me to deal with the timeless questions like “why do big development deals happen to bad writers?” but allows me to be more grounded, which actually helps me to be a better writer. Most importantly– at least for my father– my religiosity has not negatively affected my career. In fact, if anything, I’ve had my most successful years since becoming more religious (God loves a good multi-camera comedy with a laugh track. Especially a “Flip Joke”, ie: NOAH: “I am not getting into that ark!” FLIP TO: INT. ARK DAY– NOAH LOOKS OUT A TINY WINDOW, SURROUNDED BY TWO OF EACH ANIMAL).
As I waited to pick up my son from school– a religious school in Hollywood that has as part of its parent body a sitcom actor, a well-known comedian, two famous screen-writers and me– I started going through the emails on my phone and noticed that my uncle had sent out a notice to our family saying that this was the 38th anniversary of his father’s– my paternal grandfather’s– death. Being the oldest of my cousins, I was the only one who really knew my Grandpa Harry who died when I was 7. Stories from his sons started pouring back and forth about my Grandfather who came over from Russia on a steamship in steerage in 1918 at the age of 13 with his three sisters and mother, not speaking a word of English, to find his father who had set up shop in America a decade earlier. Considering how many bags my family and I packed for our last two week trip, along with how many cell-phone sim cards and iPad data plans I had to purchase, and how many times I asked Shawni, panicked, “Have you seen our passports?! Wait, I found them.” it seems impossible that I came from this stock. But I did.
I only remember a few things about my Grandpa Harry: he wore a black Stetson, he smoked a pipe and he screamed a lot into the phone. I found out later in life that he wore a black Stetson because he was religious– a practice he mostly kept to himself, probably because where he grew up in Russia it wasn’t cool to be all publicly Jewish. I learned from this email chain that he worked 20 hours a day, 6 days a week since he was a young boy. And while he wasn’t as demonstrative with his kids, he was apparently extremely generous to members of his extended family, many of whom he paid to get out of Europe before the Holocaust. I spent the rest of the day reading stories about him pieced together from 50 year old memories, all of the stories painting a picture of the typical immigrant story, which even when lived through, must have transpired in black and white. From the emails it was also apparent that he loved me more than anything– his first-born American grandson– a fact that must have sat oddly with his own sons. I sometimes wonder what he would think of me now, wearing a “Life is Good” baseball cap instead of a Stetson and needing to use my GPS navigator to get home from my job Every. Single. Time. I’m not sure he would watch the shows I write: apparently he was a big fan of wrestling, and other than an ill-fated scene I wrote between Lee Majors and William Shatner on my last sitcom, I’m guessing my sensibilities and his wouldn’t align. Although I’m guessing he would say he watched them because he’d be proud of his son who’s living the American dream: a Hollywood writer/producer. And I’m almost possible that he would love that I took time off from that dream once a week, on Saturday, just like he did, and just like his father did. In other words, I think he’d be proud to have a grandson who’s a HLERWRF. And I’m proud he has one, too.
The single disadvantage to living is Los Angeles over the East Coast- with the possible exception of culture and Autumn– is that the internet will always ruin for you who was voted off the show you had been following for three months. I say this moments after a Facebook friend announced her incredulity at which of the final three contestants got voted off American Idol and posted it as her status which somehow found its way onto my Wall. I have tried in vain to keep my wall clean of peoples’ visits to Farmville or fake Mafia or quizzes about me, but to no avail. I now know which off-key karaoke singer is now going back to work at Dairy Queen. Which means I am robbed of the joy of watching American Idol with my wife, saying “fast forward” after the first three overwrought notes of a given pop song until my wife just says “take the remote” at which point I mysteriously stop to listen to the entire warbled rendering of “I Hope You Dance”, while I get teary-eyed and my wife looks on in a combination of confusion and horror. But that’s not what I’m hear to talk about.
As I enter the final few days of my 100 days off I am faced with a sudden feeling of nostalgia. I’m sure if I eventually go back and read this journal– I almost never ever read or watch my work on tv, I’m way too critical of it– it will read like the diary of a prisoner, trapped in a world of domestic minutiae, finally liberated from the shackles of fatherhood and released to work after a 100 day sentence. But as I put the 96th hash mark on my cell wall, I am starting to miss certain things already. This is not a new thought, but there are two movies that a man will watch until their completion no matter at what point in the movie they tune into them or what time it is. The second one is “The Shawshank Redemption” precisely for the scene I’m about to reference. When both Red and Brooks got out of jail after long sentences, neither one could cope with the “real world” and missed the comfort and predictability of prison. Now, of course, this analogy breaks down rather quickly; after all, neither Red or Brooks had to deal with kids who WOULD NOT GO THE F TO SLEEP, but still, with the prospect of work looming, I’ve come to appreciate my time off.
With that in mind, I started my Farewell Tour today. Now, I should mention right here that I am flying across country the night of Day 99 so God forbid anything happens, I don’t want people to look back at this entry and say, “He knew” because I didn’t know and I hope I don’t have to know because I’ve got way too much to accomplish and I’m too young to know. Man do I hate flying (this doesn’t mean I know!) Anyway, I started my day by taking the kids to school; something I’ve done around three times a week since I’ve been off. If my job’s hours are as grueling as some first-year shows can be, I may not have the time or energy to take the kids as much. Today’s trip was fairly typical– finally ready to leave on time, maybe get to school a little early followed 20 minutes later by me screaming upstairs for the kids to get their backpacks so we’re only 10 minutes late followed by the idle threat that I’m going to leave without them. The drive to school was also typical with the kids asking for their kiddie music and me convincing them to listen to a new song I downloaded on my ipod, then them falling in love with the new song and forcing me to play it over and over until I hate it. Okay, maybe that won’t be the thing I miss the most.
My morning continued with me going to my trainer– something I really hope to be able to continue doing seeing as I will be locked into a room with fluorescent lighting and snack food for 14 hours a day which should probably have a two way mirror in it so scientists can observe us. The workout was brutal, as usual, with me complaining that the exercise is virtually impossible and him responding in his Irish brogue, “Yes. That’s why I’m not doing it.” Maybe it won’t be too bad to miss that, either.
Following my workout was lunch with my wife which I definitely will miss. We went to the same sushi restaurant we eat at four times a week– I probably have enough mercury in me to serve as a thermometer– where the waitress not only doesn’t give us menus anymore because we order the same thing every day, she practically just gives us our food when we get there. In hindsight, might be good to take a break from sushi.
It was then off to get a mocha Iced Blended No Sugar Added from the same Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf I go to everyday to the point where I no longer get a coffee buzz but somehow get the crash 20 minutes later, followed by my weekly trip to the place where everyone knows my name– if my name was “Jack”– my nail salon. Unfortunately, the woman who does my nails couldn’t do a very good job on me today because my cuticles were too sore. “You come in too much. How come your wife doesn’t come here anymore, Jack?” (Sorry about the racist accent.) I should probably give my nails some rest, as well.
It was then off to pick my kids up from school– something I definitely won’t have time to do– and then take them to tennis. Pickup was a little hairy today as I got a call from my agent at the exact moment I was picking my son up. As my agent was trying to go over the details of my deal so I could approve them, my son was asking me his usual line of a million questions. Agent: “So are you comfortable with this development clause?” Caleb: What did mommy pack for snack? Me: I don’t know. A: Well, we need to decide. Me: Decide what? (TO CALEB WHO IS PULLING ON ME) Don’t do that! A: We could go back and counter but I doubt they’ll budge.
We finally got to tennis after my kids had a full on wrestling match in the back of my wife’s SUV while trying to change into their outfits. I was especially excited to see the kids play tennis, because I hadn’t done that in a few weeks, and apparently my daughter has really opened up. In fact, she’s been fluorishing in so many ways these past few weeks which has coincidentally corresponded with our accepting of her shy personality not as a liability but as an asset. Today, for some reason as I shouted, “Daddy’s watching, come on honey, hit it harder don’t be shy” she seemed to have had a minor setback.
After dinner either Shawni or I had to go to a meeting to help plan a tribute dinner for our friend who is moving out of town. I was supposed to go, but I decided to stay home and help the kids with their homework then put them to bed (any idea where this is going?) Finally, after bribing my son to finish his math homework which was “impossible!” by letting him watch “Glee” I just wrote the answers down myself and told him to go upstairs and brush his teeth. In the meantime, I realized I hadn’t even began to crack the 96 burpees I had to do, so I thumped my way through 20 or so of them before panting upstairs. Putting my kids to bed is also likely to be a casualty of late nights, and it’s also something so intimate that I really wanted to appreciate. I had also read that having a daddy read to a kid helps them to be better at math and science (especially if daddy does the homework). I wanted to surprise Shawni by having the kids asleep by the time she got home at 8:30.
CUT TO: 9:03, Shawni enters the house to find Caleb crying. “What’s wrong?” “Daddy told me to shut up!” Shawni looked at me the way you would have and I responded in my defense, “He wouldn’t shut up!” Shawni then told me I could go downstairs as she put them to sleep, leaving me to write in my journal about how much I’m going to miss my time off, which in the retelling, doesn’t seem like I’ll miss it that much at all. But if I’ve learned anything, I’m guessing that in the same way that I somehow got cute in my high school and college pictures, even though I was tortured at the time, a few months from now I’m going to sneak in at 2:00 in the morning, unable to believe that my kids are so big, forgetting about how hard my time off was, wishing to fast forward to my next 100 days off.
I don’t like learning lessons. Mostly because the lessons are seldom, “You see, it doesn’t matter what you eat,” or “Turns out, girls love guys with fat asses.” I met a fellow writer friend for coffee this morning and we were talking about hiring season. It’s always a weird conversation where you talk around things like where you interviewed, and how it went and what shows you liked and what shows you hated for fear that the other person just got a job on one of the shows you liked or hated. My friend, who is a much more spiritual guy than I, said he was once taking a walk through his neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon with his wife and he asked himself, “Mark, what do you want?” Then he said to himself, “I want to create a hit show that is a critical darling.” I didn’t ask what his wife was doing while he was having this conversation, but that’s really his business, not mine. He then told me he asked himself, “And what would you be doing right now if you had a hit show that was a critical darling?” And he answered, “I’d be walking with my wife through our neighborhood.” Of course, my first reaction was, “Sure, but you’d be wearing a much nicer jacket.” But not so deep down I got his point: he already has what he needs. I had similar thoughts through my 100 days off during the Writer’s Guild Strike where I started to teeter on depression because of my lack of income. I then thought to myself, “What would you give to have yourself be healthy?” And then I thought– thought, not said, I mean, who the hell says it to themselves– “and what would you give to be married to a beautiful woman and have two beautiful kids.” And then I thought, “Well, I gave up several million dollars by leaving the show “Friends” early–” and then I interrupted my thought to think, “that’s not what I meant: what would you give to have a happy marriage and two healthy if sometimes annoying kids?” “I would give everything.” And then I realized, I still had a great wife and two healthy kids, and I didn’t have to give up everything, so I’m way ahead of the game. I still cried myself to sleep that night, but still, I had learned my lesson.
I knew I would be getting a follow-up phone call today from my agents, but I decided I wasn’t going to wait around all day worrying. My wife and I decided to do something that a married couple only fantasizes about doing during the day when the kids are at school– see a movie at 10:30 in the morning. For some writers, seeing a movie is work because they find themselves critiquing dialogue and trying to figure out what scene is coming next, and where the act break is and how the writer of the movie has established characters and on what page the inciting incident happens and… blow my head off please. I’m at the movies to escape, pure and simple. And occasionally to guess what’s going to happen, but that’s it. My wife and I had been talking all hiatus about seeing movies during the day while I was off and this was the first one– 95 days in. It was going to be good to relax and enjoy a good comedy. Of course, the first two previews were for movies written by people I’ve worked with. Many people ask me why I don’t write movies. The simple answer is, it’s hard to write 120 pages of something–as I look at my 300 page journal– something with mass appeal— okay, better. The other answer can best be answered by a conversation I had with my Senior Agent a few years ago at lunch during a particularly difficult time for sitcom writers. Agent: “So what are you going to do?” Me: “What do you mean what am I going to do?” A: “For a job. I mean, the sitcom market is awful.” M: “What? You’re my agent. What are you going to do?!” A:”Well, I’m actually not doing much agenting anymore.” M: “Then why are we at lunch?” A: “I thought it would be nice.” M:”It’s really depressing me.” A: “Don’t be depressed. It’ll be fine. You can diversify.” M:”I was thinking maybe I could write a movie.” A: (Snort laugh) “The movie business is the only thing worse than the tv business right now.” M: “Are you paying for lunch?” A: “Of course. I had a great year.” Anyway, as I mentioned, I love my agent, but sometimes his hard truth hits a little too hard. The people who wrote the movies that are coming to a theater near you shortly did not get discouraged when their agent told them the feature business was dead, so good for them.
The movie started and I snuggled into my seat, needing a good laugh. Just then, my cellphone lit up: it was my agent. For the first time since I’ve owned my iPhone it told me when someone was actually calling, not four minutes afterwards. I clicked, “Ignore” and showed my wife how dedicated to her and our shared experience I was. The phone then rang again, I looked at my wife who said, “go ahead” and I ran out into the lobby to answer it. It was both my Senior Agent and Junior Agent on the phone, which is the equivalent of having two doctors call you at the same time: they ain’t calling to say, “One, two, three: PERFECT HEALTH!” What they were calling to say was that the show that I got an offer on was not able to meet my asking price. I got indignant, forgetting my rule about behaving in a way I’d want my kids to emulate– or the popcorn vendor in this scenario– and told my agents that that was unacceptable and they would have to counter. The studio’s response, in an irony only recognized by me, was the same response I gave my friend when he asked me to come in and pitch stories: “You can shove it.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing, they had some legalese in there but the gist was the same. My agents told me to relax– did they not realize who they were on the phone with?– and they would wait and see how things unfolded. I asked if it would be a good idea for me to call my friend, who was the show-runner to advocate for me and they said, “Yes, at a certain time, but this is not that time.” I said okay and hung up the phone then immediately called my friend thinking that one second later was the certain time my agents were talking about. I left a long rambling message to my friend, the kind that you would erase if the phone said, “If you are unsatisfied with your message, please press 9”, but after four and a half minutes, the computer operator just said, “You have exceeded the time limit. goodbye.” and sealed my neurotic rambling forever.
My agent called back a short while later with some news: another show was now showing interest in me. While I really liked that show, too, I didn’t really know the show runner. “Great. What do I do?” “Just be patient.” “Patient. Got it.” I then hung up the phone and sent my friend an email. After a few hours where I was steaming over the indignation of being “overpaid” instead of “way overpaid” I finally got in touch with my friend and told him how upset I was. He then told me how hard he had been working to get the studio to offer even what they offered. He told me he went out on a limb to advocate for me and that if I really really really pushed him I might be able to get more, but it would come at his expense and the expense of the show. It was something only a friend would do. So I did something that a friend would do and backed off. I told him I had to talk to my “people” which was really my wife. I told her about my conversation and how I would be earning less this year than last–still more than the guy who killed bin Laden, but still, it’s not a good trend in a town that loves trends. I also told her how it didn’t make sense to me on a spiritual level because I know that things happen for a reason and I know that I spend my money wisely, giving a lot of it away to charity and my kids’ school and replacing things that the dogs chew up. And she said that maybe this meaning of this job isn’t to make the most money, maybe this job is about working with a friend and being on a team– she said “meaning” instead of “lesson” because she knows I hate lessons. Last year I made more money because I was the boss- but that’s not my job this year. This year my job is to be a team player, which is sometimes harder for me because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like to be the boss, and also because I always throw myself completely into everything I do. “So I should take the job?” “I’m not going to tell you what to do.” “Should I wait and see–” “Take the damn job!”
So I did. And I will be working with a good friend who truly wants to see me do well, and I will have the opportunity to make a friend look good– which is not an instinct cultivated in Hollywood, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned it’s not to let Hollywood dictate what’s right and wrong. The deal should close tomorrow. Above all, I am grateful to have a job. Working with friends. On a funny show that I will do my damnedest to make funnier. And the hours will be long and I will be surrounded by food, so I hope what they say is true: “It doesn’t matter what you eat,” and “Girls like guys with big asses.”
I woke up this morning so grateful that it was Saturday and I wouldn’t have to talk to my agents or check my email or go on-line to see which shows got picked up and which got cancelled. As I lay in bed, finally relaxed after a long stressful week, my clock radio clicked on, reminding me that it was only Tuesday. I quickly grabbed my iPhone that was next to my bed and went on-line to see which shows got picked up and which got cancelled and whether or not either of my agents responded to the last furious email I sent before I went to bed. All my late night emails to my agent follow the same format: “[Sincere thanks for your hard work]. [Self-righteous rant venting frustrations]. [Lofty goals]. [Passionate case to aim higher which is subtly deprecating]. [Apology for subtle deprecation]. [Sincere thanks for hard work]. [Closing that implies I want them to do more].” Thankfully, my agents are not as emotional as I am, especially my Senior Agent, so the emails do no harm and are hopefully not forwarded around the office. I usually receive a phone call later in the day responding to the gist of the email, but since I thought today was Saturday, I was relieved to not get that call. When I found out it was Tuesday, I left a message for my agents to call me. That is my morning cup of anxiety that fuels me for the day.
Tuesday, as we know by now, is the day that my wife and I take a class on spirituality together. It is a much better way to start the day then by, say, checking my email then leaving a message for my agent. In fact, this class is supposed to provide a counter-balance to that. A chance to put in perspective what I do for a living, in favor of finding what’s truly important. I once had a friend tell me that the only thing we can control in a given situation is how we react in that situation. And we want to react in a way we can be proud to tell our kids about. Now, since my kids have seen my entire spectrum of paternal emotions from mild-frustration to severe frustration, I usually don’t have a lot of success in exercising those object lessons in the context of parenting. However, I have had a couple of instances in work where I was really proud of how I reacted. The one that most comes to mind is the last pilot I (almost) shot, which was an autobiographical show about a man who is deep (deep) down a good person, but often comes off as a jerk. It was called Mr. Nice Guy and it was completely miscast with an actor who had no internal sense of anxiety. Ironically, I thought that by firing him I would get him to react in a frustrated way, but he even took that news in stride. In hindsight, it was an opportunity for me to have a big break as a show creator, but the day before we were set to shoot the head of the network called me in to a secret room above the stage. I asked the person who was sent down to summon me, a low-level exec named Richard if I could bring a friend with me to hear what I thought the notes on the runthrough would be, but Richard said, “No, this meeting is just you”, in much the same way that Tom Hagen told Tessio that Michael Corleone would not be driving with him to the meeting with Barzini. It was at that moment that I knew I was being set up for a plug-pulling. “Can you get me off the hook, Richard? For old times’ sake?” “Can’t do it Jeffy.” I remember walking into that room, the sound of my footsteps echoing on the painting cement, and seeing the entire network sitting on one side of the table, with a space for me on the other side. The head of the network told me he was pulling the plug on the show– the main actor didn’t work and it was killing the material. I told him he was right, I had sensed it myself and tried writing around it, but ultimately this was the write call. It wasn’t personal, it was business. I thanked everyone in the room for their support and they thanked me for being a mensch. I said I had one request, please try to bury this story, I really don’t want to see the headline in tomorrow’s trade publications reading, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. The head of publicity told me she was way ahead of me. As I remember the story, on my way out I was handed a copy of the next day’s Variety which read, “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, but in the real version I had to wait until the next day to see that headline.
Today’s lesson was in the same vein. It was that the only thing we can control is our ability to make ourselves better people. This desire for self-improvement was what separates us from other animals. Now, I have friends and family that believe that animals and humans should be treated the same, but guess what? That’s stupid. Animals are not the same as people. People are more important. Don’t think so? Then I’d like to see how one of my hardcore vegan friends would react if they got on a flight and the pilot was a cat or an owl. Here’s further proof that animals are not the same as people: I have been walking my dogs now for over three months and they have taken a total of zero pees and zero poops on the hike. I have taken at least a dozen leaks on the hike. Today was the most glaring lack of bathroom going: my Boxer sniffed around, her anatomy clearly ready to poop, and actually started to squat before being distracted, then straightened up and carried on and walked another mile and a half, hopped back into the car and went home (I drove because dogs can’t drive). Contrast that to me who yesterday had to go so badly that I ran into Whole Foods, straight to the bathroom, and did my best impression of Mr. Bean trying to lay down a toilet seat cover– every time I turned around the automatic flusher would go off, sucking paper seat cover after seat cover into the toilet. Without going into detail, I finally achieved my goal (which involved me having to stay out of the electric eye of the toilet like Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible” which wasn’t pretty but was an ingenuity not seen in the animal kingdom). Anyway, where was I? Yes, what separates from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to improve ourselves. And as part of that, our ability to distill what is in our control, and what is not.
I had lunch today with an old friend, Tom, a business acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in way too long. I had jumped at the chance to meet him for lunch just to put a business lunch on my iCalendar, which I knew would be repeated by this faulty technology at least 2700 times making it seem like I was booked up for the year. And while the lunch was supposed to be business, the conversation quickly turned to life: being married, fear of not being able to provide for our family, getting older, staying relevant. He then confessed to me that he was suffering from anxiety and followed it with a question that proves that Tom doesn’t know me as much as I would think, “Do you ever get anxious?” Over the course of the lunch he asked me several times to try to make the face I made when he asked me that question. Of course I get anxious: Anxium ergo Sum: I fret therefore I am. During our lunch my phone rang and I saw on the caller ID it was my agent. I didn’t even think– I just clicked Ignore– wanting to connect with a friend, making a choice to stay in a moment that was really important. I left lunch and went back to my car to make the dreaded call, hearing in my head my agent giving me bad news about my potential deal. But as usual, my agent surprised me. He didn’t have any news and didn’t expect to have any news for at least another day. Instead we talked briefly about the job market, what I was looking for, what he as an agent was going to try to do and what I should do, which for the time being, was nothing. For me, nothing is the hardest thing for me to do, but it’s often the most important. We both hung up the phone knowing that we could only control so much of what was going to happen, but with me trying to focus on how to react to whatever the outcome is.
At the end of the day, after hiking my constipated dogs, I got home, exhausted and headed into my house– where I am under no illusion that I control anything. My kids greeted me at the door with the “Daddy!” that I have been training them to do since they were in utero, and I watched them do their homework, proud of the little human beings they were becoming. When it was time for bed, I took my son upstairs and lay with him despite his protestations that he wanted Mommy and instead of arguing with him or trying to control him, I let him wear himself out, trying to teach him the subtle lesson that you don’t always get what you want and me the subtle lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. I am due to find out more about my job offer tomorrow– if it’s in line with what I was hoping for– or if it’s not. Either way, it’s out of my hands. What I do know is that I’m going to try to react in a way that I can brag to my kids about– hopefully not in our new one bedroom apartment under the freeway. And I’m going to use my last six days– and hopefully the thousands after that– to strive to be a better person. Because as a human being, that’s all I got.