McDONALD'S IS MY LIFE!!!!

A classic tale from the long tradition of Gorski folklore ends with the title of this blog. It’s a tale of a teen full of the lethal cocktail of angst and processed French fries. Let’s head back to the 80s, as I do often behind the tears of a broken man…. My parents made their car available to me in high school. It provided an opportunity to learn the value of responsibility and to avoid the cost of a daily bus fare. It was an 82 Chevy Malibu, two-toned, with a sweet, sweet 80’s-style boxy shape. And the radio? Well, I could only get the soul station on AM. But, I was more than happy to cruise with the likes of Cool and the Gang, Chaka Khan, Prince, Anita Baker, and of course George Clinton. Although, I eventually did expand my musical options by installing a portable tape recorder on the floor hump, connected to 2 plastic speakers from an old record player.

The deal in that first year of driving was clear. You go to school and you come straight home. You don’t go off the path, which consisted of a 15-minute drive down Dempster Avenue between our house in Morton Grove and Notre Dame High School for Boys in Niles. In my mind, I still stand by my choices on that fateful day.

It was on that day, that I made the decision to stop somewhere on the way home. Now, I ask you, if you are driving down Dempster, and you stop at McDonald’s – ON DEMPSTER – are you leaving the path? I think not! You have not made a detour, you have simply stopped momentarily on that path. And for good reason. You stopped for sustenance; to gather much needed energy for a continued safe journey – energy that helps you stay alert for the remaining 7 minutes of your trip. Admittedly, other stimuli clouded my motivations that day, because the stop served a dual purpose. It served a social purpose. McDonald’s was not just a place to gather, but a symbolic representation of freedom itself. The location was a hub of excitement – a place for some quality time with your friends, for sharing stories, and for catching the eye of girls you hope to get the nerve to meet some day.

And so, this perfect storm of new-found freedom, teen hormones and the power of a V4 engine resulted in a surprising conflict at home. My parents were FURIOUS that I didn’t follow their rules of straight to school and back. But, as I already established, the stop is technically included as a part of that straight path. In fact, we had just learned in math that a line is made up of an infinite series of points. So, using science, I could justify stopping at the gas station, Par King minature golf park, or the forest preserve for that matter, and I would have fulfilled the requirement of staying on that path.

Regardless, my parents clarified what they meant by “straight home” through a calm series of angry screams. As a teen, though, it was my duty to protest, to negotiate, and to justify. And so, after our informative and lively exchange of ideas, they outlawed McDonald’s specifically. Naturally, I had to express my outrage, resulting in the now historic phrase “But, McDonald’s is my life!!!”

We laugh about it now. It does come off as a bit ridiculous to be so passionate about fast food. Luckily, we’ve all grown past those days. Or have we?

If you think about, we’ve all seen similar insane outbursts from adults. Put a middle-aged suited man in at an airport gate with an abundance of justifications for getting what he wants, while some ticket agent must kindly inform him that he can’t have it, and you soon find yourself in the Orchestra Seating section of a full-out adult melt-down. Or, make a simple joke to your friend at 9:30pm when they haven’t eaten dinner yet, and prepare for a snippy onslaught of chirps and yelps that serve as the human equivalent of barking.

Even as an adult, I find myself slipping into that same helpless, freak-out once in a while. It feels just like the good old days of childhood. That’s the magic of a regression. All it takes is some minor trigger, often unrelated to the reality of the moment, but powerful enough to evoke some memory, and we regress.

In Episode 4 (available Thursday 9/12), we meet Cabbie Joe, who could be described as a bit immature, as well as delusional in terms of his own talents. So, when he clashes with Drunk Tom, it makes for some fun regression for them both. And it acts as another challenge for our future father to deal with feuding adult-children.

Grab a burger and fries, and check out all the latest web series episodes here.

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By the way, I’m interested in the phenomenon of regression because of how it’s rendered me helpless to my past, and created many challenges in romantic and work relationships. My wife and I learned more about the issue in a book called “Grow Yourself Back Up” by John Lee. I highly recommend it, especially if you are a parent. Aside from helping heal the past, the book can help prevent passing your old issues onto your children, and thus breaking the cycle of confusion.

Mercury in 80's Retro

Freddie Mercury can sing a mean tune. I listened to “Don’t Stop Me Now” in my car last week as I transitioned from the 101 to the 405. Boy, he sure sounds energized in that song. Before too long, my imagination transported me to an early 80’s video – not any actual Queen video – but a mini-musical of my own making, with me as the star, naturally, followed by thousands of people running out of their houses to join me - everyone with crazy-eye smiles and dressed in obnoxious 80’s workout clothes - as I skyrocket through the town headed who-knows-where. Then, as I laughed at myself, I suddenly found myself on the other side of Sepulveda pass, seconds away from my exit.

I don’t want to be stopped. Yet, people do stop me. Sometimes, people tell me I should be stopped, but I don’t listen. And other times, I realize I probably should have been stopped, but it’s too late. And finally, there are those times when I stop on my own, usually because of a lack of confidence. I avoid a risk, but where’s the fun in that?

Back in the 80’s, I was still developing my confidence and personality in a soup of my budding teen hormones. One night, driving down Lake Avenue in Morton Grove, I sat in the back seat rambling to my parents about my ridiculous teachers, and how I refuse to bow down to their unauthorized authority. My mother, being very wise to the ways of the world, set me straight – it was clear I developed an overblown ego. Naturally, she wanted to protect me from mouthing off to my teachers, or making some embarrassing scene. Besides it’s always better to cause a “scene” when you’re alone with your family than out in public. So, I cried like a little baby, while I protested and refused to admit I had become… obnoxious. By the end of the evening, I somehow heard my own tantrum, and I was convinced. I had become too big for my britches.

So, I called all my friends individually, and apologized to them for my attitude. Surprisingly, many of them agreed that I had an ego problem, so – way to have your finger on the pulse, mom - good catch! Unfortunately, I went the complete opposite direction for the next couple of years. I worried constantly about what everyone else thought was important before considering my own thoughts. While the adjustment helped me keep my friends, I lost my ability to grasp the subtle differences between challenging your teacher to a fistfight, and speaking up to let your grilling friend know you prefer cheese on your burger.

Looking back, the same series of events repeated often throughout my life. A moment of skyrocketing confidence and pride would lead to a shocking lesson in how unhelpful the ego can be. It happened when I insisted on playing the lead during our jazz band trip to Arizona, only to flub the ending to our closer “In the Mood.” It happened when Andersen Consulting sent me to Europe, and then reprimanded me on my return for my out of control expense report. And it happened when I complained about helping Kevin James’ fiancé move on a Saturday, which encouraged his manager to encourage me to quit.

Looking back, I see that I probably would’ve benefited from a little humility in those cases. On the other hand, a little ego can drive healthy risks that lead to a happier future. By letting go of my need to be lead trumpet all the time, I settled into the more creative and fun position of 2nd trumpet, the part that gets all the improvised solos. And leaving The King of Queens lead to a whole bunch of more rewarding jobs, including my current fabulous job at Landmark Theatres. Although, I’m not sure anything positive resulted from taking a couple of unapproved cabs in Madrid and Milan.

So, I know I can turn setbacks into comebacks, but is the ego necessary to the process, or does it make more trouble than it’s worth? And, do I need to fall into a tailspin at every disaster? Well, luckily for me, I had plenty of opportunities to explore this question in the past few weeks, when I faced several major challenges in a row, throwing my confidence into zero-gravity drops.

Our story begins on March 12, when I run into multiple issues at work for several days in a row that require groveling with my bosses and clients – including an indie comedy screening I booked that turns out to be a XXX premiere, and last minute technical issues that almost turn Warner Bros’ digital restoration of THE COLOR PURPLE into to a special screening of Steven Spielberg’s THE COLOR GREEN*.

In each case, I solve the issue, and restore my ego to its full glory, until the next embarrassment shoves that ego back in its hole. After four days of several ego beatings, I scream “Lego my ego!” and I head home for the weekend, frazzled and shell-shocked. I reflect on the week and give my confidence some air. After all, I’ll need some of it to interview Will Ferrell for CASA DE MI PADRE.

Then on March 18, I meet Will Ferrell, and he thinks he recognizes me. Hello, ego. Welcome back. Then I moderate a discussion with him to a sold-out house. The interview shows all the signs of success. I prompt him to talk about his role as producer, and speaking Spanish for the whole movie. He’s charming and entertaining. I’m feeling so confident, that I even make fun of myself for a slip of the tongue. Apparently, my joke is too risky, because the audience gasps. Then, Will makes an even bigger joke at my expense, and the crowd loves it. Later, the studio rep tells me I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about my mistake, because it was a great moment. I go home and brag to my wife how I helped Will Ferrell get one of the biggest laughs of the night, and how I knocked it out of the park.**

I strut into work on Monday for a victory lap, and I discover my company has received a nasty complaint letter about the horrible, racist moderator.

What? Yes, it’s true. This customer didn’t catch my sarcasm, and interpreted my joke as a straight-forward statement of hatred.

This happens all the time with my wife. If she misses the connotation, the situation can get ugly fast. I’ve even developed an automatic reaction to say I was kidding, even when I wasn’t. It’s become such a knee-jerk instinct, that sometimes I don’t even realize myself that I was serious. I need a few minutes to reflect and figure out what I was really thinking.

In this case, though, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, and I know I was joking. Here’s more of a breakdown of the offending incident. I mistakenly referred to the Mexican actors as “Spanish.” I knew they were Mexican. It was even written in my notes. I know that not knowing the difference is ignorant. But, we were just talking for five minutes about Will speaking Spanish, so I slipped with the word “Spanish.” And, I was hyper aware that some Mexican people do get offended when they are referred to as Spanish, so I felt particularly bad about my slip of the tongue. But, regrettably, I didn’t stop there.

Instead, like a “rocket ship about to whoa-oh-oh-explode,” I made a joke to make fun of myself. I wanted everyone to know that I was wrong to make the mistake. My intention was to show the abhorrent nature of ignorant people. And by using sarcasm (which was supposed to show the audience that I really didn’t believe what I was saying), I was emphasizing how ridiculous and horrible those ignorant people are. But, it didn’t work. After Will Ferrell made fun of my gaffe, I promised not to try to be funny any more. So, upon further review, I didn’t help Will that night – he helped me.

Luckily, my bosses and colleagues reassured me all week not to worry – they don’t think I’m racist. Well, that’s a relief (please read in a sarcastic tone). But, I’m too mortified to let it all go. I could reason that some people are just too sensitive, and particularly with the climate in this country right now, everyone is closer to the edge. I suppose for that reason alone, I simply need to be more careful when speaking as a representative of my company. Besides, any good intentions are irrelevant if the joke doesn’t work. If it’s not funny, it’s not funny.

Most of my friends who saw the incident agree that by knowing me, they understood my intentions. But, many also agreed that if they didn’t know me, they might draw a different conclusion. In fact, by looking at my white skin, they might make the same assumption that I could be racist instead of a satirist – judging me for the way I looked instead of getting to know me and judging me as an individual.

Most importantly, I don’t like my words hurting other people. I do feel regret. But, there’s nothing I can really do to personally address that person. If the customer comes to the theatre to find me, I would be more than happy to apologize and grovel about my insensitivity. Short of that, all I can do is plan to be more careful and thoughtful next time.

Multiple people have told me that my full week of troubles should be blamed on Mercury in retrograde. I don’t believe in astrology. But, I did a little Google search, and I discovered that Mercury Retrograde started March 12. Wait, my troubles started on March 12! The first website I found gave this advice about Mercury Retrograde: “Do not venture into unknown areas taking risks. Be sure to back up your resources, double check all details, and prepare for delays or misunderstandings in life.” Yep. So, that happened.

I’m not ready to buy crystals, but I do have to wonder the coincidence of this stress cluster. Is my ego to blame? Or did my ego just hide the approaching storm? I go from huge success with one of my comedy heroes to wearing the label of racist. Maybe it’s Mercury in retrograde. But, for me, it just feels like Mercury has gone retro – back to the early 80s – sending me into a regressive teen tantrum - kicking and screaming – I’m not a racist! I’m not a racist!

After some time, I’ve been able to forgive myself, and move on. But, what about the bigger question that I addressed back in the 80’s? Would I benefit from stuffing my ego down again for years to come? My ego can be deceiving and unhelpful. However, I recognize that I need my confidence. I need a strong enough sense of self to take some risks and pursue the important goals in life.

So, looking a little further on the trusty internet, I found, “The first Mercury retrograde, which takes place in April/March, 2012 will bring major events of challenge, transition and transformation.” Sounds good. I’m ready to take responsibility for my actions. I surrender my ego – but not my confidence. And I await my transformation in April.

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* Thanks to my coworker Shelly Bridges for that wonderful joke!

** For obvious reason, I can’t post the footage of the offending moment, but if you’re curious about the interview, here’s the official online version, as shot and edited by our theatre staff.