Xcellent Xmas Xdition

Traditions define most of my childhood. Outside of the daily routines like nickel lunch milk cartons and beatings from the local bully, each holiday carried a unique set of expectations — from the annual blowing up plastic models on the Fourth of July, as well as the Easter hunt for a good hospital after Grandma collapses from exhaustion. Through all the holidays, pranks with my cousins kept us particularly cheery. My fondest Christmas memory involved tricking our parents into thinking we were breaking Grandma’s fine china. Good times.

Eventually, the traditions evolved as the family structure changed. I resisted the changes at first. I clung to these rules that seemed to define the very culture of our family (when in reality, they merely defined our tendency to form habits). My resistance even led to my first major fight with my wife. After only five hours of Christmas at my Grandparent’s house, she wanted to leave — outrageous, right? I mean, we hadn’t even started the scotch-fueled poker game, much less put out the leftovers for the third meal of the day. So, I avoided her, ducking from room to room for at least another two hours until I could get my paws on a beef sandwich. Later that night, she spent more time letting me know what I did wrong than we the time we spent at the party.

It only took a few years of therapy to realize that her complaints were reasonable. I finally opened up the door to new traditions. In fact, for a while, I embraced the creation of new traditions so much, I didn’t want any of them to remain traditions. Why not do something different each time to avoid feeling stagnant?

That ill-conceived tradition didn’t last too long, though. Creating original experiences each holiday quickly exhausted me, and I went back to accepting some traditions as a comfort. After a busy year, I now understand the benefit of some habits that give the holiday a little structure.

So, here are some photos to document a few of my current holiday traditions:

Santa-palooza at the Willowbrook Ballroom with the Outcast Jazz Band (nothing like playing jazz in a Santa hat!)


My lovely office view for the self-imposed daily writing retreat at Caribou Coffee


Senior citizen-style dinner on New Year’s Eve (i.e. 4:00pm or earlier)


My niece Sydney and Goldie keeping secrets from me (you can totally tell they’re spreading vicious rumors!)

 

Our annual intervention with Sensation after another “snow” bender


Goldie’s driving shift during the annual road trip from Los Angeles to Chicago

 

Happy New Year to all!

The Path of Two Chows

I love my dogs, especially their individuality. I feared dogs and vowed never to own a dog – that is, until I came home one day in 2001 to discover Goldie, a chow chow my wife brought into the house against my wishes. I promptly threw a fit, and then proceeded to fall in love with Goldie. The next thing I knew, I was in a dog club, going to dog shows in the desert, and even stepping into the ring to show Goldie as a Veteran – she came in Second Place! Out of 2!

So, when Sensation became available through a window of opportunity (the window unfortunately was created by a shotgun to the previous owner’s head – really too sad to face without some dark humor), we jumped to care for this most adorable boy chow chow. Boy was he different. Where Goldie was stern and sometimes anxious, he simply chose to be sleeping. For walks, their differences amplified to a confounding level. Goldie goes straight down the block, following the sidewalk like it’s a tight rope with a squirrel waiting at the end. She gets to her favorite strip of grass, and takes care of business. And she’s ready to go home. But Sensation prefers to explore, wander, and generally follow a pattern that can only be defined by mathematical formulas still being perfected in the studies of chaos theory.

For the longest time, I tried to force Sensation to learn Goldie’s path, or any path for that matter that can be repeated without boarding a time machine. Unfortunately, if I attempt to encourage a particular route, he pulls, stand firm with his paws digging into the ground, and refuses to move. Then, he turns to go the opposite way, no matter which way I decided to go. And forget creating a specific spot for his business. I usually have to follow his crazy pattern for at least ten minutes while he looks for a new spot every time (with poor Goldie following the both of us). However, when I take him off the leash, he wanders a bit and does within 30 seconds.

I finally realized, this boy just wants his freedom. So, I’ve started to dream about buying a big house with a back yard for his wandering. I think Jackie might enjoy a big house as well. In fact, it would be dreamy for me, as I would have a home office, with a brand new MAC to write, and a Plasma TV for checking out the latest cut of my film, and a swanky couch for writing and producing partners to eat pizza, and of course, a fancy espresso machine fueled by Coffee Bean or Caribou Coffee. It’s possible. I’ve seen many similar layouts in the houses of my former bosses.

But, how to get there?

After 9 years in Los Angeles, I continue to get closer to success, and yet I find myself with an internal debate that could be subconsciously influencing my hesitation as opportunities present themselves. This debate matches many of the filmmaking blogs and symposium discussions. Which path is the best path for a filmmaker?

Most of my life, I saw Hollywood as the dream path. They love your script so much, a bidding war ensues, and before you know it, Target is selling your complete DVD set as part of its Great American Filmmakers series. However, I’ve had enough time, and heard enough war stories from all levels of the system from the pimply intern to the Vegas posse of a TV star that gave me a more realistic view of Hollywood.

They call it the film business for a reason. That’s how Warner Bros can lay off 500 workers in a down economy at the same time that they are making record billion dollar profits. I’m not blaming Warner Bros, as the company is only acting in its’ best interest. That’s how companies succeed – not by being Mr. Nice Guy. Once I realized that the dreamy studio system consisted of a few corporate conglomerates, my instincts began to whisper insanity-making ideas into my head, such as “Hey, buddy. Don’t you realize that corporate power places serious limitations on true creative potential of American filmmaking.”

After all, it’s the corporate system that I blamed for letting my dad go when his company went bankrupt (how could they do that to me when I was about to go to college?). And, even though I made the choice to work at Andersen Consulting after college, I blamed them for keeping me chained up in their corporate structure for five years, that is, until I realized that I could just quit and do I what I wanted.

Working for a corporation seems so counter-intuitive to the open flow of creating the material as an independent filmmaker. The studios know the economy is tough, so they want to create films that they can pack in an audience for 3 days, and make all their money back. Films generally don’t do well via word of mouth any more, so they rely on the excitement of marketing to load the box office before anyone can realize it’s a piece of crap. Luckily, I work for a theatre (The Landmark), and we do have good films from time to time. They may not receive a budget for advertising, but they do get to stay a little bit longer to allow for that word of mouth – an approach that would never work for SPIDERMAN VII or RETURN OF THE FINAL DESTINATION FOR THE LAST TIME PREQUEL.

On the other hand, it is possible for someone like Todd Phillips to make HANGOVER at the studio, and even though he didn’t have big stars, the film succeeded big time because the story was so strong. Apparently, Warner Bros was so against Todd hiring those “no-name” actors, that they seriously lowered his budget from the initial offering. He agreed, provided that they increase his percentage of the profit. The executives thought “Whatever, it’s your funeral.” So, he got his percentage. And the rest is history. The studio has forgotten how important a good story should be, that they gave away a huge reward on that film, so they could make something like CATS AND DOGS. Ironically, Todd’s next film DUE DATE opens in November – it is the cross-country version of BABY TIME. (I swear that I wrote the initial short for the web series in 1998, so no law suits, please!)

Given all the realities of Hollywood, should I choose the other more “noble” path of the independent filmmaker?

The indie filmmaker is a lot like a small-business owner. He builds a startup business plan for each special little film project, raises money from investors, and struggles, struggle, struggles, until the film has been bled through all the pores of his skin. At that point, he finds an audience online, builds a specialty following, and event with the multitude of distribution options (theatrical / VOD / DVD / internet streaming) pulls in a sum of money that comes out to less than Chinese slave wages if you divide it by the hours worked. However, the filmmaker owns and controls his film.

I guess it all comes down to self-empowerment. The corporate studio system is not built around self-empowerment. It’s built around the old factory system – with the built-in cost of business of paying workers and managers just enough of a salary to keep them fed, clothed, sheltered, and mostly quiet – and maximizing the profits to grow the company and keep those at the top disgustingly wealthy, with the only indie alternative feeling like climbing Everest with a needle and a spool of thread.

And yet, despite all that, the dream stays alive. Aside from all rejection stories, all of the script-sold but then script-ruined stories, and all of the movie-made-millions-but-studio-still-in-the-red stories… Even in spite of all that, I would still love a shot to sit in the back of a theatre and listen to the audience laugh, gasp, and cry as my words are translated into action. Here’s a short I wrote recently that makes that desire even more acute. It was screened in the Pan American LA Film Festival in May, and I had that exact pleasure of sharing the viewing with an audience of 100 people – a true joyful memory. 

http://www.vimeo.com/10938359

I find myself feeling a bit like a special chow chow, clawing my way out of my self-made leash, dying to chomp my way to freedom – to explore, create films and sleep with my paws in the air. I want to take ownership of my films, and watch through the window of my swanky home office with delight as Sensation pounces around in the back yard in the most wonderfully chaotic pattern.

My Two Sessions

Living in California, I am required by law to meet with a professional of some sort at least twice a year. It’s part of a set of laws created to keep the state liberal. So, I managed to do 2 sessions this week. Here are my thoughts.

Session #1: Therapy

Jackie and I met with a therapist to discuss the topic of children. We talked about what children mean to us, and the pros and cons - many of the concerns and issues discussed previously in the blog. At this point, I’m still on the fence, and Jackie still leans towards remaining cool aunt and uncle only.

Nothing really earth-shattering came out of the session. So, I guess one visit to the therapist is not going to solve the problem. That’s a $10 co-pay gone to waste. I’ll have to wait until next week. In the mean time, I managed to get my second session another way…

Session#2: Pet Psychic

Yes, it’s true. I went to a pet psychic. I am now a true Californian. And, even more amazingly, the session was conducted over the phone!

As I’ve mentioned before, Sensation has a problem with seizures, and he takes epilepsy medicine. But, the medicine makes him so sleepy, and it doesn’t stop him from having a week of seizures every month. So, we were desperate - we gave the psychic a try.

First of all, the psychic figured out that Sensation was epileptic without any hints from us. I later confirmed that my friend who recommended the psychic didn’t tell her anything about my dogs either. So, she passed that test. Then, she told us that Sensation was happy, but just sleepy from the medicine all the time. That was a relief, because when your dog mopes all the time, well, you begin to wonder.

Finally, she recommended that we do some visualization to help him. She wanted us to first visualize his brain, then look for black circles on that brain, and then erase the black spots with a blue light.

I always remain skeptical when I see psychics and spiritualists on TV. That John Edwards guy seems like a liar and a fake, and the way he speaks makes him more suited to sell condoms out of a 75 hatchback. Then there’s Sylvia Brown. She seems like she’s just making stuff up because she’s bored. And don’t get me started on the writing of “Ghost Whisperer.” Despite it’s high ratings lately, the show is too melodramatic for my tastes.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to accept the story of someone being paid to tell you stuff you can never see or hear. I believe in the practical. I believe in proven solutions. Real stuff.

I also learned from my parents that you do anything for your kid. You look for retainers in the garbage. You drive 3 hours on a Wednesday to see a jazz concert, only to drive 3 more hours back home in time for work the next day. And, you figure out how to take care of your kid when he’s sick, no matter what.

So, when the psychic on the speaker phone gave her suggestions, and they didn’t involve the vet, I had only one question. Should the light be dark blue or light blue?

THE DAILY SCHEDULE

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Do I really want to share my time with a baby? Do I want to sacrifice my own important life for the creation of a new one? Important things I do each day during the week:

Sleep - 7 hours

Procrastinate - 1 hour

Write - 2 hours

Work - 8 hours

Commute - 2 hours

TV - 1 hour

Chows - 1 hour

This schedule leaves only 2 hours to devote to the baby. So now, I must face the inevitable sacrifices. Obviously TV will be the first to go (but you and I both know that I will still attempt to watch my shows while burping and changing). But, that only counts for an extra hour. Then, I’ll have to sacrifice some of my writing time, which will make me bitter and resentful. On the other hand, I find I’m least funny when I’m happy, so that one’s a toss-up. If I’m lucky, I can remove the hour of procrastination. Or, better yet, the baby will be the new procrastination! And sleep, from what I understand, will also go away. I guess that’s when your dreams literally disappear.

So, I’ve managed to add 5 hours of time. I’m sure Jackie will be more than happy to spend the other 19 hours handling the baby by herself, right?

Okay, after successfully avoiding 3 good swings from Jackie’s fist, but catching the last upper cut squarely in the jaw, I needed to take a break from being conscious. However, it gave me some time to ponder the additional elements from last week’s schedule that could make having a baby plainly irresponsible:

1) Stress about mediating between my client and my coworkers to make sure everyone is happy about microphones (8 hours for the week)

This situation presents an opportunity for the baby to experience some real life trauma when it needs loving from an emotionally drained father. I can pretend everything is fine, but the baby will know. It’s sensors will record the fear and confusion to store it away for future use. Then, some day, my adult child will freak out when someone sings karaoke, or someone offers a microphone. And my child won’t even know why.

2) Reading a guide for personal finance (6  hours for the week)

Forget the fact that I won’t even be able to consider the idea of conducting self-improving activities post-birth. The new knowledge I gained this week about my financial mistakes and ignorance should be proof enough that a baby will be sorely deprived of many needs. The lack of finances for a baby will have to be covered next week…

3)  Sensation Seizures (5 hours for the week)

Sensation had 10 seizures this week. I imagine my baby delighting at the first sight of a Sensation seizure, as it looks forward to many hours of playing with the dog that likes to dance. But, once it runs like a demonized hound across the room, blind and confused, knocking over my baby and creating it’s first scar on the corner of the coffee table, it will realize the terrifying truth that the dog is not into music, but more into Satan. And, my baby will enjoy a lifetime of nightmares!

4) Movies at Work (2 hours for the week)

Okay, I have an unusual benefit of working at a theatre. I can watch a movie during my work day, without any negative repercussions. In fact, I would’ve spent an additionally 6 - 8 hours watching movies at work last week if I didn’t have the seizure problems. But, how could I justify seeing a movie at work, while my wife is at home with a screaming child? Now that I think about it, if the child screamed all day, I would probably desperately need a movie to prevent myself from going postal. Jackie would probably want to join me, too. Goldie and Sensation may be able to baby sit once in a while - they are very loyal and protective - although the screaming may trigger another seizure cluster.

All in all, my reluctance when it comes to giving up my time appears to prove my mother correct - I am selfish. But, I like being selfish. It’s fun. However, I admit I would feel guilty for spending so much time on myself if a baby comes. I might be forced to change. I might even learn from the change. Or, I may just harbor my resentment for years, fight with my children, and die unhappy and alone.

I understand that approach works just as effectively as not having children in the first place.

PARENTING LESSONS FROM CHICAGO

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Last week, I traveled to Chicago to do some research for the Baby Time project by visiting with friends and family. I enjoyed the trip immensely, but my only regret was not stopping at Oberweiss for the best ice cream in the country, but unfortunately my dad thinks Oberweiss should be called Oberpreissed.

Here’s a summary of my findings:

- Raising children is difficult / a struggle / a challenge - Life as you know it is changed - You will make many sacrifices - The joy far outweighs any frustration - Life is way better seen through the eyes of your children

Not exactly a mind-blowing revelation. But, within these talking points that all the parents must get on their faxes every morning, I hear the difference in the details from one parent to the next. And, those differences in experience appear to be a direct result of their approach and philosophy.

Overprotective – Results in a constant stressful and helpless existence, following your child around every turn with the loving family mantra of “Watch out!” (No one claims to be this parent, but everyone knows one.)

Free and Easy – Results in a flexible lifestyle, with the freedom to eat out and socialize at will, with the children following you around. Children are rewarded for good behavior, instead of to shut them up. The plus with this approach is a well-socialized infant, but the negative is that if they act up, the outing is over immediately.

Well-Balanced – Results in a sometimes-stressful experience of watching your children screw up, followed by an opportunity to learn from the mistake. You experience the joy of living life almost entirely through their eyes, and then your reward is the anguish of letting them go off to college without you.

Overscheduled – Results in a well-balanced child with lots of extra life experience in sports, music, and other activities. You have the excitement of carting your children around like they are the rich teen celebrity that employs you.

Obviously there are many other approaches, but I had to go to the Cubs game on Saturday.

Through all my discussions, everyone agreed that Jackie and Dan would make great parents. I thank you all for your vote of confidence. On paper, I whole-heartedly agree! Jackie and I are educated and compassionate people. With my abstract sense of humor, and Jackie’s music teacher knowledge, we’d have a very stable and unique spawn. My fear is that if I don’t fully understand the weight of the stress and sacrifice that parenting requires, I might be sorely disappointed when the experience reigns down on me.

Maybe caring for dogs will help. I’ve learned compassion from Sensation, my chow. He’s got a medical problem. Any time his body is stressed, he can have seizures. And the seizures cluster, meaning he’ll have 2 seizures a day for 7 days. For the last year and a half, this happens every 3 – 4 weeks. Unpredictable, varying in intensity, the seizures cause his body to convulse, followed by chaotic confusion, and the need to run outside like a mo-fo to relieve himself (the dogs don’t like to go inside the house, luckily). The drugs calm him (like valium and chlorazopate), and he can sleep for 8 – 20 hours. That is, until the next seizure, which seems to gravitate towards 2am when I return home after an exhausting party at the theatre, or at 5am, or 7am, or 3am, or the middle of dinner. I can’t help but look at him with compassion and ask “Can I kill him now? How about now?”

I know it’s horrible. It shows that I am truly a monster. After all, if he didn’t have a high quality of life, killing him would be the compassionate thing to do. But, when he’s seizing, he’s unconscious, and if this happens 6 times, and then he has 3 weeks of normal living, that seems like he still has an ultimately quality life, right?

I think the key is to be aware of those thoughts. And hopefully, I would never have those thoughts with my own children. Besides, I think it’s better to be conscious of those dark thoughts, than to hide it deep in the subconscious and wake up one day with your car and kids in the lake.

And, a reminder of the biggest lesson from Chicago: how you look at the experience changes the nature of the experience. Parents who decide to enjoy the ups and downs show less stress. Sure, they feel pain, but when they appreciate the mistakes for their lessons as much as the successes, then they appreciate every moment of their lives, and that’s living!

GOALS OF THE BABY TIME! PROJECT

WEDDIN~1

Welcome to the Baby Time blog! The goal of the blog is to:

1) Develop a comic web series.

2) Explore the topic of rearing children to inspire episodes.

3) Decide once and for all if Jackie and Dan should have children.

We love our 2 dogs. They are chow chows. They are very independent. We can leave them for 12 hours without worrying about accidents. They only like a certain amount of attention, so we don’t feel guilty about not playing with them when we are tired.

They are gorgeous animals that get praise on every walk. They don’t bark - unless there is real danger (like a stranger in the house - the only time you really want a bark). They are loyal. They have unique personalities.

They basically have all the benefits of children without the hassle of worrying about a kid choking on a toy or growing up to murder a town.

And yet, I can’t help but take all my friends and family seriously when they say “having children will change your life — for the better.” Usually this comes right before they initiate some life-scarring trauma upon their innocent child.

When I was growing up, my main focus in life was to have a family. It’s what my parents did. My good friends were family members. And our lives revolved around the family. So, naturally having children was a foregone conclusion. Even into my twenties, my goal in life was to have a family.

Then I got out of the house and met some other people. Some happy people. What kind of happiness is this? It’s not forced. It’s not pretend. It’s not fleeting.

And something else changed. I started to explore my love of creativity. My desire to tell stories. My inner dream to make films. It’s a dream that has never gone away. So, as I started listening to my inner desires, my need to create a family faded.

I also met the love of my life: Jackie. She was not interested in having children. She got all the contact with little ones that she needed as a music teacher. She could enjoy the magic and wonder of children creating music. And then at the end of the day, she could go home and not worry about the other responsibilities of raising children. Plus, we discovered that we were having a lot of fun as a couple. We actually have a great marriage. So, it would seem that since she is the female, she has the last word on the question of bearing children.

However, as we approach an age where we either have children now, I still find myself needing to explore the topic in a more intentional way. A decision must be made. And the biological sands of time are running out of grains. And she agrees that a detailed study needs to be made before we can confidently be happy to spend the rest of our life as just the cool aunt and uncle, or if we join the rest of our family and friends in the glorious struggle of child rearing.

So, I will be exploring topics of raising children with pros and cons. I will be rambling on about the potential joys and devastations of generating humans of my own. And, I will be using that discussion to generate comic material for a web series.

I welcome all input, and hopefully by the end, I will know for sure whether or not I want children. And even more importantly, hopefully Jackie will agree.