THE MUSIC OF THE CUBBIES

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I now wait for the last piece of the puzzle – the musical soundtrack to season 1 of my web series. Music will set the proper mood for each episode, and honestly, it will hopefully smooth over some of the more glaring mistakes I made throughout the process. Music will save the day – no pressure to my composer John Kobayashi.

While we wait, I can share a few stories about music in my life. Today’s story takes us back to the very start of it all. After some mind-bending, I counted back to discover I have been actively making music for the past 36 years, starting with trumpet lessons in grade school. And although I took a lot of lessons with many different music teachers, I believe I’m still in the process of learning a more valuable life lesson that lurked in the shadows of those early music days. My little kid behavior held clues of a flaw/opportunity that still challenges me in my current frustrations as a filmmaker. But, first, let’s go back to 1977 and 1978…

It all started in 4th grade with the Borg School band program. Parents and students visited the band room one night to check out instruments and pick one to play. I wanted to play trombone. It looked cool, and it had a slide that made funny sounds. It seemed different from the other instruments. Unfortunately, the music teacher cautioned my parents that I didn’t have what it takes to be a trombone player - my arms were too short. So what! I could do exercises. I could get arm extensions. I could work hard to build a trombone player belly with burping power. Instead, she recommended a trumpet. I don’t remember feeling disappointed, though. I suddenly found myself holding my own brass trumpet, and as it turns out, trumpet players have bellies too! Besides, if I felt any subconscious anxieties that people didn’t want to listen to me, then a trumpet would cure that issue right up – no ignoring me now.

Everything about the trumpet fit me perfectly. Feeling different from the other kids and out of place before, now I found myself in a band, an instant group working together. I made new friends, such as fellow trumpet player David Rubin. It wasn’t long before we realized that we shared the same goofy sense of humor (thus wasting 2/3 of our lesson in fits of uncontrollable laughter that I’m sure drove our teacher into madness). I also felt a visceral connection to music. I could express emotions on another level, and I received plenty of positive reinforcement from my family who attended all my concerts like I was the new pope.

My neighbor Brian was a couple of years ahead of me, and he already played a mean bass. I looked up to him, and we spent our summers together – so it made sense that we would start our own band. We created a fake drum set out of cardboard, and we managed to grab one of my uncle’s old hi-hats. Brian played bass, and I played trumpet. I guess I played drums too? I’m not sure how that worked, but someone had to play the drums. Why else did I spend all that time with the scissors and paint? Maybe Brian played drums? Anyway, our music was written using dashes on a blank page. For example, Jingle Bells would be written like this:

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I know. Insane. Especially considering the obvious – we both knew how to read music in band. So, why didn’t we go out and get some sheet music paper to figure out the notes? I have no idea. But, somehow it all worked.

We called ourselves The Cubbies (being huge Beatles’ fans, and also Chicago baseball fans). We wrote songs about the neighborhood, recorded songs on a tape recorder, and even went on tour around the block (called the Wonderful Wildi Tour). As you might suspect, we modeled much of our escapades on The Beatles. However, like Lennon and McCartney, Brian and I eventually disagreed on the direction of the songs. In our case, he wanted to do straight versions of Beatles’ songs with new words, but I wanted to create completely new songs. I became obsessed with writing truly original music. I’m not sure why I developed that notion, but I adamantly attempted to come up with new melodies for each song. It didn’t always work.

My first song was “Blue Skies are Pretty”:

Blue skies are pretty, Blue skies are pretty, With white clouds, With white clouds, There are clouds shaped like bunnies, and other funny things, I like clouds, They are nice, That’s why I say, Blue skies are very pretty!

I thought I was so original as a child, but it turned out that part of the melody was a blatant rip-off (“With white clouds” sounds like “Three Blind Mice”). I also wrote a wonderfully lyrical song called “Keep on Smiling” which I thought was so romantic and cool, until years later when I realized it was the melody from “Rocky.” Other hits included “Helicopter,” “Dice Yeah” and “Crain Street.” At least these songs seemed completely original, but mostly because I haven’t gone back to analyze them. And you can’t make me!

I thought the band lasted quite a long time – at least 2 summers, but I can’t be certain. Brian eventually acted out The Beatles experience to the point that we dressed up old pill bottles with homemade labels like “Heroin” and “Cocaine” and pretended to experience a police bust. In the end, the band couldn’t last. We burnt out too fast, like shooting stars, or maybe more like incense.

The whole experience gave me a taste of the thrill of performance and provided instant gratification – mostly because I had no idea how bad we sounded. I could write a song, and then the next day we would record it. No one in the neighborhood had anything to do with their time (pre-Internet/cell phones), so they would sit and listen to our “concerts.”

My drive for instant gratification never ended. It’s still true today. I want to see the product of my work as fast as possible. That’s the reason that the web series has proved to be quite a challenge. It took much longer than I expected, and bringing all the little pieces together to make a final product required time and patience. In the old days, I could sit down with a piece of paper, some colored markers, and throw together what I considered to be a hilarious cartoon birthday card for someone in my family. They would read it within the hour. The results were immediate, and the audience reaction always positive because of the gesture.

Soon I will be sending all my friends what I consider to be a fun card in the form of a 6-episode web series season. So, I look forward to the instant gratification that can only come with a 3-year homemade project. And then I will get back to my inner child, and make a few projects that may feel like they were made with construction paper and crayons. That way, I won’t have to wait another 3 years for my fix.

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By the way, I still get opportunities to play my horn to this day. I will be playing with The Outcast Jazz Band at Grant Park as part of the summer dance series on Friday, July 26, 2013:

http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/chicago_summerdance1.html

It’s free, so if you’re free, come get some instant gratification!

MUSIC TEACHERS ROCK

DPMHS Voice BTSI’ve bragged many times – my wife is a music teacher! I’ve felt a strong connection to music my whole life, and as a result, I believe whole-heartedly in the value of an arts education. So, I love knowing that so many kids have the chance to develop the same love of music because of my wife. She can affect these kids in a lasting way. And thanks to the shrinking financial support available for public education and growing class sizes, she can now influence up to 54 kids every hour! I’ve enjoyed seeing her students perform since she started the music program from scratch at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School 3 years ago. Back then, her class was like the Bad News Bears. Most of them had no formal musical education. The brutal sound told me so. And they tended to misbehave. They stuck garbage in the piano. They fell off their chairs for no reason. Some of them showed an unhealthy interest in the Illuminati.

Regardless, I chaperoned the group with their first awkward caroling visit to the old folks home, where most couldn’t sing on pitch, and the male singers mostly mouthed the words with only the sound of bad breath. But, since then they have made great strides with some amazing performances, including their latest promo performance for THE VOICE (more info on this later…) I feel so moved just thinking about how proud I am of my wife’s value in these kids’ lives, but I’m not crying. I have dust in my eye. Look away!

The students sense the value as well. Sure, some of them absolutely do NOT want to be in choir, but they are forced by the school schedule. However, many more of them recognize what a fabulous and special lady my wife is. In fact, they like her so much, she needs to watch what she says. If she happens to make an offhand comment about a challenging situation, she might find that her students later have taken the matter in their own hands to "fix" the situation. They want things to go well for Mrs. Gorski! They REALLY like her.

I always joke about staying in the good graces of my wife’s therapist. After all, if the therapist doesn’t approve of something I do, she has the power to make things extremely difficult for me. But, all this time the real threat lurked in a group of rag-tag teens. I now know that I need to suck up to her students if I value my well-being. Luckily, I’ve met the kids, and they seem to like me for the most part. So, I’m probably safe – for now. I guess I better stay on good behavior at home.

Onto THE VOICE – in April I managed to watch NBC shoot a promo for THE VOICE at Jackie’s school! The high school choir she conducts sang a song with the runner up from last season – Terry McDermott. I’m so thrilled that her talents are getting recognized while helping these kids. Here’s the story from the school newspaper (it’s a journalism magnet), which includes the promo:

http://www.thepearlpost.com/2013/05/21/the-voice-commercial-promoting-lausd-music-students/

And, here’s a behind the scenes video of the session from Terry McDermott’s website:

http://j.mp/10VTpKL

And finally, if you feel so moved to support her growing program, you can donate to help her build a keyboard lab at Donor’s Choose:

‪http://Tinyurl.com/caafsd7 

So, watch THE VOICE tonight! They will run the promo during tonight’s show (May 21, 2013). It will also run on 5/28, 6/4 and 6/11. It’s really short, but look for the choir that isn’t in the classroom. The other two schools are shot in classrooms, but Jackie’s was shot in the assembly room.

Then, if you see any of her kids walking down the street, put in a good word for me, will you?

HBD TO ME!

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Today is my birthday. Thank you to all my facebook friends for sending me messages. It’s such a simple little thing most of us do when we first get online each day – check the birthday list and send a little message. It takes 2 seconds. But, then you get 100 messages, and it feels a whole lot more meaningful than those simple 2 seconds.

Every year, for me – and probably for many – a birthday serves as an important milestone. It’s an opportunity to question my value in the world, to guilt myself like Schindler looking at his list – I could’ve done more! Meanwhile, on the bottom half of my glass, the full half, I have much to appreciate – a solid loving marriage, an extended family that I can tolerate, a history of unique jobs (from dressing as a nun to interviewing Will Ferrell), the glorious Outcast Jazz Band, a library of life stories which I re-tell over and over, and a library of life stories which I re-tell over and over.

Every year, the number of the age grows and becomes more daunting, but why? It’s simply a number. I still prefer to laugh so loud that people think I need medical attention. I still enjoy pulling pranks on the teacher (even though my teacher wife doesn’t always see the humor). I still love singing and drumming the steering wheel in my car. The number only holds power if you give it power. How I feel is my choice.

So today I choose to do something embarrassing at work. I won’t know what it is until it’s in the past – like all my favorite memories. But, it will serve as a reminder that we all have a choice to ignore the authoritative voice that was imprinted into our brains as children – whether it was intended to keep us safe under the care of our parents, or if it was intended to train us as good obedient workers who never question their bosses – we all have a choice to live life as our true self, as opposed to the self that we let others dictate to us.

Are you ready? Now is the time. Rise up. Summon your inner child. Live every day like it’s your birthday. Eat cake. And get into some trouble. Dismissed!

MANIFESTO DESTINY

(***Since this blog is about the editing process, I’ve included comments after each paragraph to give some extra insight into the editing process I used on this blog entry.) IMG_1467

The Chris Dorner manhunt / mutli-city tour / extravaganza came to me this weekend. I didn’t need to turn on the news as I ran my errands around the police road blocks and circling helicopters – I knew he was close. I haven’t read the manifesto, mostly because I’m afraid it will sound too much like my own journal ramblings, er, I mean writing exploration. I read through my own gibberish from time to time, and it makes me wonder if I have a mental illness. Luckily, I can retain some sanity, provided I temper my creative freedom with the gift of thoughtful editing.

(***This was the most salacious part of my weekend, making me want to tell someone about it. Plus, it gave the original blog more of a shape, which started out as just a straight-ahead project status.)

Editing provides the safety to stretch my creative muscles before figuring out what I really want to say, or if I should say anything at all. Aside from reassuring my loved ones that I am not crazy, and keeping the cops from shooting at every Mini Cooper in town, editing helps me evaluate myself, and forces me to make decisions about tone, message and take full advantage of surprising discoveries in my writing. The more time and perspective I can allow myself, the better the results. I recommend it for everyone, especially to the average blog commenter. Please!

(*** This paragraph verges on too much boring self-reflection, but the mini-cooper comment and blog commenter dig helped me convince myself to keep it.)

In reality, it requires a high volume of crazy ramblings and creative exploration to filter for a high quality piece of writing. I’m realizing that the same may apply to the filmmaking process. Pixar uses a highly tuned process of rinse and repeat with their stories. They start low-tech, and they do lots of focus testing. They make their movies powerful for an audience by trying things out on small audiences at every step. Their track record proves their model works more consistently than all the marketing-executives-green-lighting-blockbusters-based-on-movie-poster-pitches combined.

(***This paragraph was second to last until the very last editing pass. I know. Who cares?)

I’m not saying that by simply whittling down ramblings to a manageable length guarantees a genius story. All excellent filmmakers have a specific personal taste that guides their muse. I’m still learning my internal taste by what films inspire me – what makes me laugh, what puts me on edge, and what makes me cry like a little baby. Ten minutes into BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, and I was inconsolable for the rest of the film. The film really hit deep inside me, even though the film hit others with more of a deep “meh.” On the side of the spectrum, I’m not afraid to admit that I enjoyed THE THREE STOOGES movie – mostly because my wife loved it. Watching a slap-stick movie with her is pure bliss! Both movies inspire me in different ways. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can see myself making either of these movies. The honest truth? I want to make a movie that combines both elements: silly and powerfully moving at the same time. I know it’s a challenge. Some would say it can’t be done, but I remain hopeful.

(****This paragraph lacked a valid connection to this topic, but I liked the clash of these films too much to delete them. I considered just keeping them in as an example of feeding the writer’s ego, but then I discovered the first sentence, which helped it serve the topic.)

Looking back on the year 2012, I realize that producing a high quality web series with limited resources has turned out to be a long-term process, chipped away one day at a time. When I shot the pilot in 2010, I was quite naïve about what it would take to elevate Baby Time beyond just a showcase of sketch writing. As a result of my learning curve, as well as distractions like developing other projects like a TV pilot, feature script and sitcom spec script, I finally released the web pilot last year, along with 9 blog postings. I also shot and edited 4 more episodes, which will make up the rest of the first season. With only color correction and music remaining, I plan to release the full Season 1 soon.

(***This really just serves to help convince myself it’s okay that it’s taking so long.)

I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. I love the scope of this project, but I don’t think the quality of the material deserves the scope. In other words, I think I may have spent too much money and time for something that I wrote years ago. What I learned from the project should have been reached through a shorter project span. And I need to see my current abilities as a writer in action, not 2005 Dan. If I knew then what I know now, blah, blah, blah… But, a lesson is a lesson. So, I’m looking at this lesson as an opportunity to turbo-charge my creativity machine to become a better comedy writer and a better filmmaker.

(***I’m not saying it wasn’t worth doing. I’m very happy with seeing this series to fruition. Some of it still makes me laugh after all this time.)

My Manifesto: I challenge myself to produce more content, faster, cheaper, and in more creative formats – to take more risks and see my visions for stories take shape with more regularity. I will present more low-tech stories, and some may not work. But, I want to see more patterns, make adjustments and accelerate the process beyond script into a visual reality for public consumption. I want to make a lot of stuff so I can better know what I want to make, and then see if anyone might enjoy it.

Only then will I be able to harness my potential to make my masterpiece, BEASTS OF THE STOOGES THREE.

(***Thank you. You’ve been a great audience. Tip your servers. Yes, I do mean your IP servers.)

THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

1344713366975_2498279 Can’t get enough family “together” time over the holidays? Try taking a vacation with your family. Maybe go to Disney World. Although, I can only assume you went to Disney World the week after Christmas like us, since it seemed like every family that ever existed was there.

My family of origin has never taken a Christmas Vacation. We thought it would be perfect to go right after Christmas, because we would have the dogs with us in Chicago, and there would be plenty of people in the area to care for the dogs. However, Sensation’s newest issues with Leukemia, plus the fact that he was due for a seizure made choosing a pet sitter complicated. In the end, we didn’t feel right putting that sort of pressure and responsibility on certain friends and family members, and the others, well, the others we just plain didn’t trust. We’ll let you decide in what category you think you belong.

So, we placed our dogs under the care of the Morton Grove Animal Hospital. We were very hesitant to board them because of a nightmare experience when we went with my family to Hawaii in 2008. The boarding facility we always used had new owners, and from what I can tell, they had no instincts for working with special needs dogs. I won’t go into all the details, but at one point, they were convinced that my sleeping dog was dead. Clearly, they didn’t realize that Sensation is immortal. Ultimately, we made the right choice this time, as they came back chipper and smelling clean, free of any signs of trauma. So, either the staff did a great job, or they brainwashed the dogs to think they had a great experience.

If you’ve never gone on a vacation with your family, then I can tell you right now the instant benefits of such an adventure: - You all know each other really well. So, you can really get under each others’ skin when necessary. Also, when it’s not necessary. - At the same time, you really don’t know each other at all any more. So, it’s a friendly surprise when you discover everyone wants to do something different. It’s the perfect opportunity to enjoy some soothing regression. - Every moment is an opportunity to see the humanity of your family members - especially, how everyone must eventually go to the bathroom. Just not at the same time. If you can wait until five minutes after the last person went before announcing your need to stop, then you can memorize all the bathroom locations of all Disney parks. I’ll be writing a travel book. - You are your own crowd, so you have the bonus challenge of moving your crowd through the larger crowd. A real character-builder.

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The most important aspect of the trip was giving my parents the experience of spending time with their family again, just like when we were kids. Togetherness. It never gets old. And by never, I mean day 5. But, it’s an acceptable side effect of enmeshment. If you can take your family for who they are, and not expect them to change to fit your needs – well then frankly, I don’t think you’re a family. Seriously, it’s the dynamic of regression that I look forward to enjoying every trip home.

But, if I take a healthy view on the vacation, then success is available with the right perspective. For example, if I expected this trip to be a romantic getaway with my wife, then it would’ve been a total failure. If I expected this trip to be a non-stop adventure of spills and thrills that you might expect from a world-class theme park, then it similarly would’ve been a total failure. And finally, if I expected this trip to be a quiet, relaxing escape into luxurious decompression from the hustle and bustle of a crazy work schedule, then yes, you guessed it – it would’ve been an epic failure. Except for that 2 hours at the spa. That was sublime. However, the 2-hour (5 mile) shuttle ride back from the spa successfully decompressed the decompression. I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that if I had taken the trip with any of these expectations, then I would be complaining. But, I’m not.

It never was supposed to be any of those kinds of vacations. This trip was always intended to be a mix of family together time. And in those respects, it was a total success. I’m thankful that I get along with my family, and that we can make each other laugh – even if it’s at the expense of one another. This is the kind of life my parents had always dreamed about when they grew up diving under the bed to avoid the physical punishment acceptable at the time, or slaving over a stove instead of having fun with friends. They improved on the family dynamics they faced growing up. For example, they never got to go on a vacation as an adult with their parents, unless you count that wedding in Wisconsin (which by the way included some mad crazy polka dancing, so I guess it wasn’t that bad).

Of course, we all had our low moments on the trip – like the fight over whether my brother should go back to ride the Pirates of the Caribbean after hours on his own, or when I chose to make a joke to my sister-in-law instead of helping her off the ground, which led to a fall and infected finger. Believe me, I am sorry for this lack of judgment, but sometimes comedy wins over good judgment. Actually, comedy always wins over good judgment.

On the other hand, everyone had at least one moment of getting what they wanted. My moment was the rock n roll roller coaster. That ride does not screw around. It starts fast and never slows down until the very end. Add some music in the headrest, and it’s a no-brainer win-win. I’m not a huge Aerosmith fan, but it works in darkness at 50 mph. I also enjoyed the ice cream. Bonus.

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And my mom got what she wanted – one final trip with the family to Disney World. A trip that won’t ever happen again. In fact, that was her mantra for the last few days: “this is the last time – this is it – we’ll never do this again, you know – enjoy it, because this is the last time.” What’s that about?

MRS. GORSKI! MRS. GORSKI!

IMG_0060I like patterns. I prefer patterns. Patterns make me comfortable. Patterns are safe. But, when you live life in a pattern, you wake up one day, and you’re celebrating the 4th of July, and your Christmas tree is still up. So, then you set aside 30 minutes to put the tree away, and then suddenly it’s Christmas again. Time shouldn’t be used as a reliable measure of life. Time owes me nothing, and delivers accordingly. So, I’m learning to measure life in other ways… This week I broke my usual daily pattern. I joined my wife on a journey with the most alive and unpredictable members of our society – high school students. Our destination was the Valley Performing Arts Center, a relatively new facility with amazing acoustics and surprisingly comfortable seats. We went to see a concert of The Romeros with Massimo Paris & Concerto Málaga as part of a student matinee series. Being the budget of schools these days, we had to take public transportation – 2 busses each way – making sure all 30 kids made it on and off the bus. Luckily, the only trouble-makers during the trip were the bus drivers. Boy, are those dudes cranky. The lady bus drivers were all super nice, though. I urge the LA Metro to stop hiring men.

Here’s what I took away from the field trip. First, the kids all seem to really like my wife as a teacher, which is not a surprise, but wonderful to see in action. They demonstrate their appreciation by constantly vying for her attention. - “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! I see the bus.” - “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! It’s not the bus. It’s a street sweeper.” - “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! I made my water bottle into an instrument!”

Second, I also must’ve forgotten how much teens consume - all day long. At every bus stop, a group just had to go into the Subway, Burger King, Papa Johns, 76 Gas station or Boba shop on the corner for sustenance – or for the restroom. “Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski! I’ll only be 2 minutes. I swear!” But, the most significant insight didn’t cross my mind until later that night.

The chamber orchestra backed up the guitar quartet for a few classics, including the Hallelujah Chorus and Ave Maria. Can I reiterate my awe for the acoustics? I was sitting towards the back of the concert hall, probably at least 50 rows back, and I heard every note on those un-amplified acoustic guitars perfectly! Then the quartet played a few songs without the orchestra – mostly Christmas carols. They concluded with a folk song arranged by the leader’s father called “Malagueña.” I recognized the song, but I couldn’t place it. But, I was singing it the whole way back in my head. Where did I hear this song? Was it on The Simpsons? I asked my wife. When you’re married, it turns out you can ask your wife any random question about your own history, and she will know the answer. She’s the expert in the Dan edition of Trivial Pursuit. In this case, it turned out to be the Jackie edition of Trivial Pursuit because she taught the song to her guitar class, and then they played it at their concert. That’s where I heard it.

Suddenly, the potential impact of the concert hit me. These kids got to see the original group playing a song live that they played live. That would be like when I saw Count Basie play “Basie Straight Ahead” in concert, or to a lesser extent, when I saw The Monkees perform “Daydream Believer.” The students know the music on paper. It’s accessible. They have witnessed the black dots and lines of the musical notes printed on the staff. They have felt their fingers on the acrylic of the strings, and tingled from the vibrations of each note. They have pieced together the flow of a musical line, and have blended it with other like-minded musicians. They even may have memorized it. The process creates a deep connection with those songs. Then, they see the professionals having the same experience, and enjoying themselves. They feel the experience shared by the audience (whether they recognize that feeling or not). It’s a potential moment of true inspiration – professional to student. It’s possible that this concert contributed to a spark in at least one student that will live with them and drive their actions for years to come.

So, where was my spark? Did I forget my inspiration? Because of the long-term nature of web series development, at least with my apparent learning curve, it’s easy to become swallowed into the pattern of the day-to-day pursuit and lose sight of the bigger picture. Why exactly did I choose a career that would take 4 years of studying, followed by 4 years of honing and developing my craft, followed by 10 more years of further studying, development and honing, with no guarantee of every making any money? Why did I feel driven to focus on comedy and specifically in the medium the moving image?

To my relief, I only needed to ponder the spark for a moment to rush back into awareness – my daily patterns only slipped the spark into my subconscious. My inner motivation remains fully in tact. This infinite spark still holds my memories of watching my current composer develop the soundtrack on the spot in a college dorm room for a dorky marching band movie. It holds moments of filming my own dorky little projects - like my first horror movie, in which my roommate is terrorized by Dave the heating and cooling guy, or my series of promo commercials for cicadas in breakfast cereal. It burns from the fuel of images I conceived in my young teen mind, preserved on celluloid and projected larger than life. The spark lives off of recordings of what I saw – not just with my eyeball, but whatever insanity was swirling in my head. I know I still have it because I can feel it as a tinge of a thrill in my stomach even right now.

The field trip journey has helped me keep my stomach’s eye on the spark-ball. Otherwise, what’s the point? More specifically, the journey reinforced my desire to measure life not by time, but by thoughts, feelings and experiences that contribute to my inner spark. They appear timeless because of their consistency – their pattern of permanence.

So, for that lesson, I have to thank… Mrs. Gorski! Mrs. Gorski!

SENSATIONAL

My dog Sensation came with a warning label. “Caution: Not Your Typical Companion Dog” All our chow friends cautioned us from adopting him. He has some special needs, and they knew it would be a lot more work than we could imagine. Specifically, Sensation is epileptic. We didn’t care. Maybe we could get special license plates. Now, I know what you’re thinking – what are “chow friends?” For several years, we were loyal members of the Golden State Chow Chow Club. We attended dog shows, organized our own dog shows, and even showed our dog Goldie in the Veteran category, which I don’t recommend. Goldie is not a fan of being shown. She just wants to enjoy her quiet life ever since she retired from the ring.

So, all our chow club friends knew Sensation well. In fact, Jackie and I had our eye on him ever since we met him as a puppy. My wife boasts that he could walk on two legs like a human. This description is a bet deceptive. He didn’t walk around on two legs in an open yard, carrying a beverage in one paw, and greeting guests with the other. Instead, he would jump up and use the fence to keep him up at our height for extended periods of time, excited to suck our scent through his nostrils with a vengeance. So, when we heard his owner had passed away (sadly by her own choosing), we jumped on our collective two legs to pick him up and bring him home.

Despite his gorgeous muzzle, and his disarmingly gentle personality, he has challenged me over the years. Seizures come every several weeks without fail, and they require a lot of attention. After a 14-hour workday, a 2 am seizure can tip me over the edge of insanity. I realize it’s horrible, but I have fantasized in those moments about letting him run into traffic. Then I sit myself down and give myself a sobering pep talk, until my smoker neighbor taps me on the shoulder to point out that I’m self-conversing out loud.

Honestly, the insanity doesn’t come very often any more, as I’ve eased into the unpredictability of his brain schedule. He is my master on those nights. Who am I kidding – he’s always been my master. But, the more I can surrender, the quicker cluster-week seems to end. It’s a good lesson in letting go (but not the leash!) His seizures don’t really bother me any more. I admire his determination. The odds were against him, but he has managed to live long beyond what might be expected for a dog with his condition. He just refuses to die.

Now that we seem to have his seizure schedule down to a controlled pattern, he enjoys a blissful existence 6 weeks in between every cluster of seizures. It’s difficult to imagine that anything else could befall him with his to live a long life. And yet, our vet discovered some lumps a few weeks ago, and immediately concluded it was lymphoma.

They conducted many tests, but the tests mostly resulted in guessing because the lumps turned out to be filled with fluid, not a cancerous tumor. Just to be safe, we met with an oncologist, who confirmed it was indeed cancer. Then, he ran his own tests, again surprised to find the lumps filled with fluid. The biopsy came back INCONCLUSIVE. At this point, I was starting to wonder why everyone is so convinced he must have cancer, especially when nobody could explain the liquid. So, the oncologist sent off a sample to a special lab. The lab finally confirmed last Friday that he does have cancer. But, it’s the GOOD kind of cancer.

The cells are indolent, which means the cancer grows very slow. And the chemotherapy has a proven track record with dogs for a high survival rate. Once the cancer is treated, it doesn’t grow back for years. So, Sensation (now 12) will most likely live the rest of his life before cancer becomes an issue again.

So, the treatment has begun. I give him the medicine that will save his life every 48 hours. As with all chemotherapy, it’s poison. Yay! I really enjoy giving my dog poison. I must wear gloves so that I don’t get any poison on myself. But, I guess having my dog ingest it should be no problem, though. I quickly get over the contradiction because the science is solid. So far - so good. He hasn’t had any negative reactions to the drug, and he still has an appetite.

Once again, the dog that was guaranteed to live a short difficult life has defied his odds. I personally think it’s his positive outlook on life.

DAY TRIPPER

Friday, I enjoyed a special day out with my wife Jackie. We’ve both been so busy that we haven’t really had time to think about spending a full day together. But, fate intervened and provided the opportunity, even if it meant 8 hours in the emergency room.

Her symptoms came on strong at 4am, and by 6am, we self-diagnosed the problem as appendicitis. Plus, an unrelated facebook posting from our sister-in-law Heather talked about appendicitis, so it seemed like maybe we should go to the ER to be safe. However, the ‘doctor’ at the ‘hospital’ suspected ‘kidney stones.’ Actually, it really was kidney stones.

With a little help from morphine and some other drugs I can’t pronounce, Jackie’s pain went from a 9 to 3, and she was able to sleep while they considered the best next steps. Although we were the only people in the emergency room at 7am on a Friday morning, by 10am, it was full, with patients sitting in chairs in the hallway waiting for beds. We shared a room with other beds. The curtains were drawn, so we couldn’t see, but we could hear a man and an old woman – both competing to see who could be the loudest moaner. All we could hear at first from both of them was “Oooh!” every three seconds – not quite in synch, but once in a while, they would manage to say it at the same exact time. Then, once every ten minutes, the old lady would add some cursing to change it up.

Naturally, I was raised right by my parents. They taught me if was curious about strangers, I should eavesdrop very carefully to determine their situations. When the nurse prepared to hook up an IV to the old lady, she warned them that they would have a problem with the IV. She admitted that she was on heroin, with her last use being the previous day. Then, they accused her of being in withdrawal, but she adamantly denied she was in withdrawal.

I saw it once before. I knew a woman back in Chicago who had a heroin problem, so I could predict her story instantly. I’m sure we all have heard a similar story. So, it will be no surprise to anyone of her path to where she sits right now:

She was most likely a woman who grew up very wealthy. She was probably an only child who never saw the neighbors because they lived too far away to reach by foot. She relied on the family housekeeper to invent games because she grew bored of the 47 board games in the closet. She was sent to a strict military / home construction contracting school. All the boys most likely mocked her because she was the first girl ever to attend in the history of the school. Then came the hammer accident to the eye, leading to her nickname of one-eyed Alice. In fact, the teasing was so cruel that she quit school early. Her parents felt sorry for her, so the put her in charge of the family-owned 7-11. It was the least profitable of all their business, so they didn’t mind if she put it out of business. But, she surprised them all and built an entire empire of 7-11s. Even to this day, you probably can’t walk into a 7-11 between 110th Street on the South Side and Dundee Road without contributing to her empire.

And yet, one fateful day, she fell for one of the Pepsi Delivery boys. They enjoyed fourteen summers of bliss cruising in his Pepsi truck up and down the beaches, getting everyone excited by the promise of cool refreshment, only to realize the truck would never stop. One-eyed Alice and her bad news boyfriend Justin would then sneak into the back door of Old St. Pat’s Church during mass, find the kitchen, and make sweet apple pies for the congregation. Unfortunately, their love was not to last. After 14 wonderful years, he got fired, and she refused to see someone without a job. And that’s when her fortune turned. She put all her 7-11 profits into a failing vitamin business scheme, and turned it around to become successful. It seemed she couldn’t touch any business without improving it. Everyone wanted her advice. She wrote a business book and started speaking around the country. That’s when an evil gang of hotel maids kidnapped her, and injected heroin in her for twenty straight days. They stole her books and got $73 on Amazon for them at good used prices. Then, they dumped her off at the hospital where she went through withdrawal.

Yes, we all know a story like this. And, it’s a good thing every human being is exactly the same, so I can draw reliable conclusions about a stranger’s circumstances. It’s a relief to know that once I get a few details about someone, I can put them into the group that best characterizes them, and then know exactly how to judge them. So, I’m sure you understand why I always empathize with the wealthy, hammer-wounded, Pepsi driver-loving, kidnapped, 7-11 owners who get heroin forced on them for Amazon used book sales.

Imagine if I didn’t know someone in this situation. Then, I might have to rely on other people’s characterizations of groups of people. I suppose that would be an acceptable alternative. I know whenever someone makes a judgment about a group of people, it’s usually for the benefit of that group, and should be trusted at face value.

Anyway, Jackie is doing well. So, I can only assume that everyone who visits the ER survives. Everyone.

RED CORRUPTS

I once enjoyed the corruption of power. I felt the rules were different for me. In fact, I must have been so drunk with power at the time, because I don’t remember any of it. But, I’ve heard stories of my excesses, and I can tell you that I had no inhibitions about taking what I felt I deserved – even if it meant my colleagues got the shaft in the process. Of course, in my defense, our world was more naïve back then. Plus, I was only 6. I think I was able to take advantage of this system primarily because of my secret weapon: red hair. My first grade teacher had red hair, so she would tell me I was the son she never had. Now, that’s power. So, it was apparently very easy for me to get what I felt like I deserved – an early dismissal. She would allow me to leave class early so I could walk home with my neighbor Craig, who was in kindergarten. For some reason, the other kids didn’t think it was fair. Why should I get special treatment? Why couldn’t everyone leave early? I didn’t care. It was positive attention. And school was boring.

Eventually, this little power inequality came back to haunt me. The other kids started to dislike me. They would make fun of me. But, I didn’t understand. Why didn’t they like me? Isn’t power attractive? The teacher liked me. They should like me too. Maybe if they spent some time with me, they could learn my secret. But, it wasn’t a secret. It was my red hair. At least, that’s what I deduced from the name-calling, which cleverly always revolved around the color of my hair. So, I owned it. Yes. I’m different. Yes. I’m special. Yes. I’m untouchable. (Well, that’s not completely true, if you count punches.)

It wasn’t long before the kids started forming cliques. But, I hated the idea of cliques. Everyone in the clique seemed to think and act the same. There’s nothing unique or special about that. I became anti-clique. I wasn’t afraid to share my opinions about how much I despised cliques. I thought I might enlighten the other kids, and they could break from the chains of follower-ship. But, they remained true to the comfort that group think provides. And, I quickly embraced my individuality.

My power trip, followed by fall from grace, followed by my rebirth as an anti-clique activist helped shape who I am today. So, if you have an opportunity to operate outside the system, and use your power to get what you want at the detriment of your fellow human beings, I say go for it! It’s those glorious flaws that make us human. Eventually, it will catch up to you, and you will experience the wonderful cycle of death and re-birth.

And, if you’re ultra-wealthy, more power to you. If you can buy the people who we trust to tell us the truth, and buy those who write the text books, and even the people who write the laws, then you deserve the world you create. Take it. Enjoy it. But, remember, it’s only the first step in the cycle.

CURIOSITY BEATS OLYMPICS

This blog expands on my tweet from the evening of August 5, 2012:

I hated sports as a kid - for three main reasons:

1) I was terrified of the ball. It could hit me. I was so afraid that I would lose all confidence as it hurled towards me, and eventually, I lost my ability to control the movement of my body, convulsing, shaking and flailing until the ball made its inevitable contact. I’ll never forget that pitch, Joey Lochner.

2) I didn’t like comparing myself to others. I showed potential intelligence, and the kids who struggled made fun of me for it. Instead of being proud of my brain power, I felt embarrassed to be different. Actually, I embraced being different because of my red hair, while at the same time vehemently criticizing kids who made fun of differences. I was complex at the age of 8.

3) It seemed counterintuitive to put all that effort into winning a game that I knew my physical limitations would never let me win.

Ultimately, it comes to no surprise that I was less jock, and much more geek-leaning than most kids. What can I say? I enjoyed solving problems.

I believe that I’m driven at my core to solve problems because I’m slightly dyslexic. I see letters transposed sometimes if I glance at a page before my brain has time to recalculate and translate it back to the correct order. I realize I’m not qualified to diagnose myself, but I feel dyslexic, and that’s enough proof for me. Since I’ve spent my life solving the problem of rearranging letters, my brain has become uniquely tempered to solve bigger problems by looking at them differently than most others.

These problem-solving skills were further honed by spending time with my slightly dysfunctional family. My parents tend to enjoy a level of frustration in their simple exchanges, like who left the milk out, for example. It’s a logistical question that can usually be answered by a simple process of elimination. Ask each person in the room. The person who left it out will identify his/herself. End of process. But, they have a special skill to add unnecessary frustration and anxiety to the question. It becomes a very serious debate. To this day, they are still having similar exchanges like this one I documented in this tweet from June 22, 2012:

This exchange raises many questions. Why is my dad upset that there’s jello in there? Why does my mom escalate his frustration by giving him a sarcastic answer? And curiously, why does my dad interpret from her sarcasm that he was referring to the wrong jello? But, most importantly, why are they arguing about it?

As a child, I wanted to solve these little mysteries to relive the tension before escalation. It never escalated, by the way. As a kid, it felt like it was on the verge of escalation, but if you ask them in the heat of the moment why they are arguing, they actually don’t believe that they are arguing. I guess it’s just how THEY TALK, OKAY?!

So, I became a problem solver. Instead of fighting the bully, I would ask him why he was so intent on beating me up. I would try to understand the core issue and propose solutions, even as the blows rained down. Logic! Instead of listening to whatever crap they put on the radio, I built my own tape deck for the car, by taking my tape recorder and jimmy-rigging some record player speakers on the back dash. It was bulky, but effective. Innovation! And, instead of cutting one neighbor’s lawn, and then moving to the next neighbor’s lawn, I would just cut across both yards at once, reducing my turns by at least 40%. Efficiency!

Naturally, I enjoyed the challenge of solving math problems. When I started solving algebra equations, I was thrilled to see math problems with letters, not numbers. It was like reading a new language. From an initial perspective, it seemed impossible to solve such a problem. But, I found a connection with the process, and I found a flow in solving those problems. Before too long, it clicked. I noticed patterns and made connections. And then I couldn’t wait for the next level of complexity. Each level of math gave the same experience. It started as a puzzle swimming in my head and eventually became very clear. I made it all the way to complex variables (equations and theories based on the square root of negative 1).

By the way, I never made it beyond that level, but I imagine quantum physics to work the same way. That’s how they found the god-particle. Some scientists studied the smallest particles ever seen, and said, “I bet I can find something smaller inside there. And it could be a building block for every particle in the universe…” – and after he was done laughing maniacally, that scientist joined together with a bunch of other scientists to crack it by smashing an atom in tunnels. I didn’t really research this topic, because I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole. So, forgive my simplistic explanation of the most complex discovery of the modern age. I’m sure it’s probably not anywhere close to accurate. But, it’s fun to oversimplify complexities of complexities. In fact, I suspect that some day, some corporation will own the god particle and find a way to make money off of it. And some ad agency will need to come up with a tag line for selling the product. Like “The god particle: it’s everything!”

If solving a problem is your main goal, then you want to use all the tools possible to solve that problem. You say, “There must be a way.” You ask yourself, “Why not?” You find other people who want to solve the same problem, and you join forces. You find out what they know, share discoveries, and efficiently reach your common goal together. You collaborate.

The accomplishment of NASA to get Curiosity successfully to Mars demonstrates the power of collaboration. I know we’ve been to Mars in the past. But, this was a completely new level of capability we sent to our neighboring planet. And, it was only possible because a bunch of scientists had a common goal and worked together.

Compare that with the Olympics. We had many successful young American athletes that worked tirelessly over years to perfect their specific physical skills to be the best in the world. They should be proud of their accomplishment. I don’t want to diminish their success. But, so what? It’s not a practical skill that will advance the human race. It’s an opportunity to celebrate our national pride while coming together with the rest of the world, which is certainly a valid pursuit. But, in the arena of contributing to humanity and our place in the universe, NASA wins – hands down.

Obviously, problem solving and competition are not mutually exclusive. Competition inspires companies to hire problem-solvers all the time. When I graduated from college, I joined Andersen Consulting to use my skills. They built their entire business on solving problems for other companies. I quickly discovered that they wanted me to solve problems, not for good, but for evil!!!! Actually, that might be a bit of an exaggeration. There was nothing evil about improving the database access time for Victoria’s Secrets payroll (although the underwear hanging in the conference room was a bit naughty). Nor was there anything evil about routing emails faster within their internal email network. Hmm. I guess I should revise my characterization of my time as a computer consultant. It’s more accurate to say that I left consulting because I wanted to use my problem solving skills for fun instead of boredom.

I will always question what we gain as Americans from competition in the market place. Look at the battles between Coke and Pepsi. Some people prefer one brand over the other, but they are very close to the same product. Competition doesn’t make either product better. The Coke / Pepsi competition is more about convincing people to drink more of one or the other using sex, excitement, even sex. Meanwhile, many people are drinking way more sugar each day than they should. And the country is more obese on average than ever. So, what does that model of capitalistic competition show us? The resulting benefit to society is about as empty as the nutritional value inside each sweet, refreshing, heavenly bottle.

I propose our world would improve tremendously if we could build our system on collaboration instead of competition. A system of collaboration would be driven by goals of improving our world, instead of the current system of competition driven by the one-track-minded goal of making money. How would it work? I don’t know, but I’m sure if we applied moon-race ingenuity to developing and testing such a system, we would succeed. We could tackle all sorts of social problems. Then, we would have all kinds of by-products, like the social equivalent of Velcro and Tang.

For example, what if we could provide every child with the minimum level of support required for proper development of empathy, confidence and an inner sense of self? What if everyone could get a quality education? What if everyone could receive a free 3-week stay at your choice of a dessert spa or Disney World? (Yes, I spelled that correctly. Massages and cake go well together.)

Is it possible? Social scientists, and everyone else for that matter, must ask “Why not?” if we really want to make this world a better place. Collaboration is such a powerful engine. It’s a no-brainer that a problem solver would choose collaboration over competition for the sake of efficiency. The real quandary: how do we convince the anti-problem-solvers that competition is holding us back?

Pardon the Interruption

Everybody just relax! Take a breath. And think. Is this how we want to experience life? Is this the future?

I’m talking about this revolution of continuous virtual connectivity. I love the fact that I can stay connected with people from high school, my family, and comedians all in the same place. It only gets uncomfortable when my Aunt Audrey and Chris Rock gang up on Bill Carrigan. So what if he’s a little over-enthusiastic about his new phone.

I thought I had it under control with facebook and twitter. But, twitter never stops. Facebook updates are quick reads until you realize you’ve spent an hour paging down. And now that I’m exploring tumblr, wordpress and pinterest, I find myself tabbing between sites, depending on whether I want a quick joke, a picture, a thought-provoking essay or a lesson in self-righteous judgment (repost if you agree!)

Then, there’s the fact that I have another career that pays the bills. My work requires diligence with emails all day long - from 7am for East Coast requests, throughout the day, and then many times ending with an event that could go as late as 10pm.

With all the distractions and multi-tasking, I find myself living on the edge. That, and the caffeine. I don’t feel like I can really control my time or my brain any more. If I’m not careful, I lose track of time and find myself at the end of the day trying to account for where I was. I hope there are no dead bodies out there waiting to be discovered.

I believe the core of this problem comes from our changing chemistry. The social networking sites create little chemical bursts every time you connect with someone or get a positive response to your posting, and then your brain follows it back over and over for another hit. I think some scientists have even proven it’s officially addictive. And the self-induced interruptions multiply exponentially. So, now when my wife and I retire to the bedroom for some television, we could be sitting in bed for an hour before we realize that the Japanese language channel has been playing – we’re both so busy surfing on our iProducts. Point of fact, I checked my email, facebook, and twitter twice while writing that sentence!

My attention span gets split into half a dozen different directions at once like an octopus on the high beam.  I can’t pay attention to anything more than 3 minutes now. And the span grows ever shorter. I know this is a common problem. I’ve heard similar stories so often that it’s become our generation’s version of talking about the weather.

Yesterday I saw a puppy having a blast, despite the owner’s intent on ignoring her so he could read his newspaper. Maybe he spent the previous 10 hours with the dog and just tuned it out. Or, maybe he’s just a cranky old man who doesn’t want to spend time or money on proper training. But, that didn’t stop the puppy. Yap, yap, yap, yap, yap, yap, yap, yap! So cute. So much energy. So many barks. Okay. That’s enough now. The dog wasn’t slowing down. Someone shut that dog up already! Facebook is that little puppy. If I don’t get a grip soon, I might leave facebook in the hot car with the windows up.

The future promises nothing but more of the same. Kids text during live conversations with other people, while watching YouTube on the computer and updating their facebook status, with the television on as background. Is this multitasking reality the next step in human evolution? We simply need to add a permanent cell phone mic to our tooth, contacts for our eyes with a Google Goggle feed, and brainwave-activated head sensors to send text messages to our dogs. Will our brains step up to function at a higher level of consciousness? Or, will we lose our ability for longer moments of connection with each other?

Phase II Web Series Production Update

I’m referring to this latest production of the BABY TIME! web series as Phase II. I shot the pilot in 2010, and it took a year and a half to get through the post process. I decided to create a few more episodes with the very limited amount of money that I’ve been able to save. I don’t have enough for the whole series, so I’m shooting Episodes 3 - 6, and that has become lovingly dubbed Phase II.

The script was re-written a few times, due to the inability to bring back one of the previous cast members (sorry brother-in-law Max, but you’re out of the series). I re-developed one of the other characters, Cabbie Joe, to take the place of Max as the annoying buddy that tags along with our control freak father-to-be.

Another successful round of casting for the Baby Time! web series barreled through my schedule on June 4, 2012. Many fantastic Chicago actors took the time to meet me at The Den (a wonderful theater space in Bucktown that is available for rent). Although the competition dragged the decision-making process into a 6-day affair, the dust settled onto the following super-duper cast:

Cabbie Joe - Vince Clark

Drunk Tom - Sean Bolger

Drunk Steve - Mark Czoske

Officer Spence - Rob Glidden

Sebastian - Tiffany Yvonne Cox

Patrick - Harter Clingman

Reggie - Carly Robinson

Prego - Brooke Breit

Then, I finally made it to production this week, shooting 2 episodes on 6/21, 1 episode on 6/22 and 1 episode on 6/24. The cast produced stunning performances - filled with real human drama, and therefore quite hilarious. Once I get the footage from my amazing DP Camrin Petramale, I can pass it along to my editor (which could be me). The difference this time compared to the pilot: I’m ready to move forward fast, so hopefully the finished episodes will come soon enough.

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.

——

* 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.

Eclipse of a Milestone

I experienced an eclipse of milestones the other day. That’s when all your projects reach a major goal at the same time. Usually, when I hit a milestone such as a completed draft, it means it’s time to turn to the next project, so that draft gets some breathing room and some perspective. But, in this case, all current projects (including my TV pilot, feature screenplay and web series) reached a logical simultaneous breather. Unfortunately, I looked directly at the eclipse, and now my inner critic is blind and even more surly than when I crafted that trumpet sculpture collage in 8th grade.

Then I remembered that I’ve avoided blogging for almost a year. How silly! Without blogging, I’m missing an opportunity to feed my ego by talking about myself. I may have spent many pages of this blog exploring parenting to tie into the new parent aspect of the web series. But, I still have yet to explore another big element of this series, which is the actual adventure – the race across town, and the characters that get in the way.

Whether it’s self-exploration or self-sabotage, I have to admit that I still identify in many ways with the control-freak nature of the father-to-be in Baby Time. Like Richard, I look at every obstacle in my daily life with confounded frustration. The only difference: his goal of getting to his wife in time for the birth is much more noble compared to my goal of getting to Trader Joe’s before they run out of cheddar cheese slices, or home in time to see 30 ROCK, which – let’s be honest – will be on my DVR and on demand anyway, so what’s the big hurry?

In fact, I originally wrote a sketch called BABY TIME back in 1998 to explore my issues of control. If you want to geek out on script writing, you can read the rough (very unfinished) first draft of the short film here. You may even recognize some of the original seedlings of ideas flushed out in future episodes. The writer was a much younger and immature version of me. But, in many ways, I’ve never completely shaken that annoying childish perspective that everyone in my way is an idiot.

Take for example, the simple task of driving anywhere in this wonderful City of Angels. I can only assume the founders of the city were referencing those adorable innocent-looking children that sprout horns and a pitchfork when their parents become engrossed in self-serving conversations. So many angels – so little patience. As far as I can tell, most drivers seem like they don’t have the skills or self-awareness required to operate heavy machinery – but I have high standards. Is it too much to ask for drivers to start driving the moment the light turns green? And don’t get me started on left-turn lights. They have a limited time period, you know. Believe me, I consider writing a common sense rule book for drivers all the time. But, I fear that the research would send me to a dark place from which I might never return – at least not without renovating my concrete patio with a more firm mix of stone and human bones.

It only continues once I get off the road. I get frustrated whenever I see people without even a trace of problem-solving skills or self-awareness. Like the tech ‘experts’ at Best Buy who never make it past “I don’t know” to the ridiculously simple next step - “Oh, wait, I have a computer right here. Let me find out.” It’s only one brain synapse away! Or, people who use a public restroom without paying attention to their own mess-making – when only they have the intimacy with themselves that makes them uniquely qualified to clean it up. I can only assume that busy, selfish parents and an underfunded education system are to blame.

So, I’m using this milestone eclipse to issue a challenge to myself. Re-energize the blog. Continue to explore my inner child and my control issue on a more regular basis. And, channel my dark side into a constructive exercise. Then, I can avoid the weight of responsibility that would force me to clean up my own mess that always tends to follow a crime of passion.

Awards Seasoned

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Independent Spirit Awards (the Oscars of low-budget films). Although I didn’t win anything, nor could I be honored just to be nominated, I was happy to sit at table 514 with my coworkers and an odd mix of contest winners and architect boyfriends.

And, of course, today is the Oscars - a good time to review the films of the past year. I had to look up all the releases from 2011 on the Internet, because I could barely remember any movies prior to what’s currently playing. It was clear why: so many of the movies from last year were indeed forgettable and unremarkable. And then there were the movies I can’t believe that I still need to see like HUGO, THE ARTIST, THE HELP and MONEYBALL. Ultimately, I’m not prepared to make a top 10.

So, I thought I would share just a few that I enjoyed:

THE TREE OF LIFE

Some find this movie really annoying, and at times enraging. I mean, the gall of this filmmaker to spend so much pointless time filming kids running through a sprinkler?! But, those scenes worked for me in a big way, because it was the best visual representation of what memories feel like. Especially what I remember of dinosaurs.

BEGINNERS

Romance. A dying gay father. A talking dog. I highly recommend it.

EXTREMELY LOUD, INCREDIBLY CLOSE

A kid travels throughout New York City looking for clues to keep him connected with his father who died in 9-11. Yikes! If you think this is a 9-11 story, you won’t like the film. I considered it more of a kid adventure movie, which is why I happily went along for the ride.

WARRIOR

I’m not a sports fan. But, I am a fan of family dysfunction and redemption.

I don’t think that any of these films could be considered a perfect movie. In fact, I prefer someone make a new movie with the best parts of these movies. Like an adventure about a guy fighting his brother over his talking dog while they travel the five boroughs looking for their gay dead father in strangers’ sprinklers. THE LOUD TREE OF WARRIORS BEGINS. Not a great title, but I argue it sure beats Extremely Loud…

None of these films will win best picture, and yet, they accomplished something that seems rare these days. They gave me an emotional experience. They were stories about family connection – dealing with the complications of knowing people so well, and yet not knowing them at all. And it deals with how we choose to remember our parents and our childhood. And that’s why they worked so well for me. They didn’t cover any of the specifics from my life. It would be quite comical if you put my brother and I in a Mixed Martial Arts ring. Although I’m pretty sure he would win based on his “playful” punch on Christmas. But ultimately – each one of these films reminded me on a visceral level of the deepest parts of my relationship with my family.

One aspect of my relationship with my parents centers around their consistent support. They came to every concert and awards ceremony, and even awards ceremonies during concerts. I remember receiving an Honors award for History from some Marine dude. I don’t really remember why I received the award. I wasn’t a particular prodigy in History. Math was more of my subject, but where was some Navy guy with that award? Anyway, I received that award during a concert at our sister school Resurrection (again, what exactly was that Marine dude doing there? It wasn’t even my high school. Very suspicious.) And then, we left mid-concert to drive across town to our other sister high school Marillac, so I could perform a monologue as a dog. I can see why they were so proud of me. History. Music. Acting. I was a renaissance dog.

That’s why one of my inspirations for the Baby Time web series and the films I’m writing is the idea that my parents will see something I made, and get some satisfaction – some sense that quitting my lucrative engineering career wasn’t the waste it seemed to be.

Maybe I’ll eventually receive a major award. You can bet I’ll be sure to thank those who helped me get there – my agent and Harvey Weinstein.

By the way, here’s some other decent to very good movies I saw: BRIDESMAIDS, THE MUPPETS, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, WIN WIN, RANGO, SOURCE CODE, SUPER 8, LIMITLESS, DRIVE, THE MUPPETS, CARNAGE, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 4, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2.

The Cheesing of Superman

In my teens, my cousins and I travelled to Wisconsin out of sheer boredom. We drove randomly towards strange-named small towns – our favorite was Muckwonago - and then video taped our misguided attempts to be funny in each town. We interviewed store clerks and pretended we worked for A&E. We thought we were so clever and mischievous! In reality, the result was more of a travelling Lawrence Welk show compared to the shocking stunts on YouTube coming from today’s youth. But, how could we dare treat these very welcoming Wisconsinites with anything less than respect? It would be unconscionable in the face of their unabashed kindness! Plus, we have relatives in Fondulac, and we couldn’t risk the embarrassment to the family name.

I lived a very sheltered childhood. We pictured ourselves as true rebels in this journey to all the “M” towns of Wisconsin, at least when we compared the trip to our day-to-day life of growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. For the most part, life was stable. Our parents stayed married. Our schools were safe. The only gang at our high school, was a group of geeky writers who wrote about a pretend gang – I know because I was a proud member of The Marauders. The only excesses at our high school parties consisted of shooting up too many chocolate chip cookies and dropping our inhibitions with streams of sugar-fueled sexual innuendos. But, my parents stayed involved in our lives, even when we did not want them there. They found a good balance of work and family time that was required for raising a family. I will not apologize for my luck at being adopted into a loving family with enough tenacity to stay in the game for twenty years consistently - to build our character and self-confidence enough to get through college and out into the world.

Unfortunately, a majority of today’s kids arrive in pre-school and kindergarten already behind in development. According to my favorite research book about children, “The Irreducible Needs of Children:” from the very start of life, children require sensitive, nurturing care to build capacities for trust, empathy and compassion. These interactions with care-givers teach communication and thinking, concepts of time and space, compassion and caring. Then, as they continue to develop, experiences must be tailored to the individual differences of each child. Each stage of development requires certain experiences – like interactive play and negotiations for social cues, and pretend play, opinion-oriented discussions and debates for creative and logical thinking.

 

But, these days, who has the time for all that?

The average 21st century family with the same social status as my family faces a much tougher battle for survival and success. Statistically, salaries for middle class have remained stagnant while the cost of living has continued to rise. And if you’re poor, every day poses an uphill battle. How can we expect a parent to work multiple jobs and still have enough time to provide much needed direct emotional contact with their kids? My parents didn’t really understand all our homework, but they were around to help us maneuver through the social struggles and emotional battles required to learn how to be a person, as well as the valuable skills of polka dancing.

Today’s society has all but made that sort of support a luxury item. Then, they get to school, and wonder why they cannot grasp the basics. Teachers must steer classrooms as big as 40 kids around icebergs of emotional issues dragged from home and language barriers. And the school system sets up standards for learning without the appropriate resources to accomplish the learning goals effectively. By the time kids reach high school, many believe that society has given up on them. It’s no surprise that children are failing in record numbers, and we all know the most effective way to solve problems in America: find a scapegoat!

I was fortunate enough to see WAITING FOR SUPERMAN as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival last year. I became enraged by one premise of the film: if only we could fire the bad teachers, everyone would start graduating! At the same time, my wife had just been let go by her public school due to cuts in arts spending in the district. At one point, they offered to keep her at the school, with her same paycheck, but not as a music teacher. That plan would put her in various tasks from shuffling papers to sweeping, but NO MUSIC FOR THE KIDS. God forbid she be caught whistling. Clearly our school system is broken. And the dysfunctional aspects of the unions have not helped.

I wanted to tie together my feelings about the premise of bad teachers in WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, and the attack on unions in Wisconsin. But, I failed several attempts. Ironically, I don’t have the education or mental capacity to complete that thesis effectively, mostly because it would require research, which would mean reading.

I’m conivnced I hvae dyslxeia (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). I’ve never been properly tested, but I do see letters switched all the time, and I often type letters and even thoughts out of order. When I’m editing my writing, it’s almost comical how I can cut and paste paragraphs in a different order, and suddenly the thoughts flow much more effectively. I can read, but only with time and concentration. I’m not one of those people who can sit in a talky café and relax with a good book, unless I’m using that book to shut up the opinionated trust fund baby next to me with a good swipe to the head.

I’m not complaining. I’m astonished to realize how my struggles with reading have impacted my choices in life. I believe it was my need to switch letters around that helped my brain adjust quickly to math, which led to my degree in Electrical Engineering. It was my instinctive switching of letters that made me piece together ideas and thoughts that don’t normally go together in a funny way, which led to my study of comedy at Second City. And finally, it was the pain with reading that drove me to make up my own stories, build my creative thinking muscles, and pursue the visual medium of film.

So, I proposed some ideas to my wife, a wonderfully brilliant teacher of music, to show how ridiculous the discussion of firing more teachers.

My theory: arguments to blame bad teachers changes the subject and prevents us from tackling the big issues. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve all experienced our own Mrs. Crabapple who happily let Ralph teach the class from time to time. But, labeling teachers as cartoon characters dismisses the reality that most people become teachers because they want to teach. They want to help kids learn. I doubt that anyone spends the time and energy to get a teacher certificate thinking “I can’t wait to be a teacher! Think of the luxury of an exuberant average salary of $45,000 while I coast through the system and eventually blow-off all classroom preparation. Suck it tax payer bitches!”

To my surprise, she actually thought that more teachers should be fired. If the administration followed the process of evaluation correctly, I wouldn’t have to worry about her job, since she’s already outshined her coworkers in so many ways – and I’m not just saying that because I need her to walk my special needs dog once in a while. But, she quickly spotted the real issue that I had been dancing around – namely, this argument is a waste of time. It’s like the computer in WAR GAMES, except this war involves Fox News fans with talking points. The only way to win is not to play.

Unfortunately, this line of reasoning highlights a real concern: the possibility that years of emphasis on national testing has prevented a large majority of Americans from developing critical thinking skills — so much so, that people believe corporate-funded propaganda as absolute fact without asking questions or thinking for themselves.

If that’s the reality of our current discourse, then reasonable people should not waste any energy discussing politics at all. Whether we wait for Superman, or we try to be Superman as a collective societal force, we face some serious kryptonite in the form of hypocrisy driven by greed. And those average, working Americans who feel cheated by the Wisconsin unions don’t even recognize how badly they are being cheesed. A very smart and strategic group of people have effectively hijacked the emotions of these patriots and fed them with little Dairy-based cubes of misinformation, thus tainting the dialog. Believe me, I’ve tried a few conversations via Facebook with my conservative acquaintances, but they always end painfully. I can only hope that some day reason and perspective enlightens them before their minds melt into a complete fondue. 

Although, I’m not sure I want to be in the vicinity on that day. You think they’re angry now?

Oh, Oh, Oh, It's Magic

Kids happily accept magic as truth. They play games, change rules, imagine all kinds of fantastic adventures, and don’t bother to ask themselves, “Is this realistic? Do we really believe in this world/adventure?” By the way, if reading aloud, that should be stated as world-slash-adventure.

I remember playing cops and robbers as a kid. My mom pulled out an old favorite for parents: “Act your age!” Okay, I was thirteen, but still! I was having fun. Who cares if it was appropriate! In my head, it didn’t matter what other people thought of me. I wanted the adventure. I fought my whole life to cling to some sort of child-like sense of play. In college, I spent more time planning “festive shirt” parties and calculating the best drink specials (per ounce), then I did calculating the power output of a circuit. Even when I worked at Andersen Consulting, I often found myself goofing around too much in the weekly status meetings, leaving my managers with shaking heads. And then when my wife supported my dream to go back to school, I chose to work for a restaurant, dressing up in nun outfits and fairy costumes to pass out coupons on Michigan Avenue. Give me an inch, and I take a picnic.

As a forever child, I believe magic happens all the time. Sure, some call it luck. Some call it divine intervention. Some prefer to call it a fabricated story. Was it magic when the rain stopped in time for my production last May, and then started again the moment we wrapped? Was it magic when I met my wife at the most hopeless low point in my life? Was it magic when the barista offered me a free drink that they made by accident? I could call it coincidence, that is, if I wanted to be a grownup. I know you are, but what am I?!

Today, The Landmark hosted the PGA breakfast, which brings the PGA-nominated best picture producers together for a discussion. I love the added bonuses of my job, like hearing from the heavy-hitters in the filmmaking world. Always entertaining, (the infamous Scott Rudin managed to be charming and vindictive at the same time), the producers tell stories of their journey to get their films made. It’s interesting how the most acclaimed films always seem to include stories of doors shut in their faces, hurdles of financing, and years of pushing the boulder-like film project up the hill. No one seems to want to take a risk on these unique stories at first. But, the producer, through pure hard work and determination, as well as a little bit of magic, always gets the picture made. These producers fuel themselves with optimism, hope and passion, not the cynicism that you would expect from a Hollywood producer. I’m sure cynical producers exist, but they most likely are not making meaningful award-worthy films.

Of course, that passion and optimism cannot be tallied on a spreadsheet, or quantified for the business plan. But, when you hear these producers speak about their projects, evidence of those feelings resonates in their subtext – still a critical component in the “magic” of filmmaking.

Yesterday, I finished the first rough draft of a feature screenplay. It’s not anywhere near good. I’m not saying that to be self-critical. It’s just the first step in a long writing/ re-writing process. It’s not really a story at this point, but a collection of events and conversations attempting to feel out the relationships and character journey of the story. I’m learning that I have to just let my brain regurgitate thoughts and ideas – and some of the same thoughts seem to be repeated over and over – until they transform into something meaningful and coherent. Just yesterday, I was convinced that I can’t possibly know what I’m doing. I’m an imposter. Then today, I hear a story from the producer of my top movie of 2010: TOY STORY 3. Apparently, at one point, even that story sucked. So, through the “luck” of my job, I hear just what I need to hear, when I need to hear it. The inspiration restores my faith in the creative process, and my passion takes back over the responsibility of fueling my engine. In order to make magic, you have to believe in magic. And, if anyone knows magic, it would be Pixar and the TOY STORY 3 team.

So, yes, I choose to believe in magic. It makes coincidences much more entertaining, and a hell of a lot more useful. Magic is the source and result of the creative process. Magic paves the way for dreams, and vice versa – a perpetual motion machine, with a byproduct of sunshine and lollypops.

Never believe it’s not so. 

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!

Teen Problems - What a Disappointment

Our niece has been living with Jackie and I for a month now. She goes to school where Jackie teaches, and has taken true ownership of our second bedroom. I must admit that all my expectations of living with a teen have turned into one big disappointment!

Where to begin?

I’ll start with my biggest problem. She’s a good kid. Where are all the fights? Where’s the drama? Where are the slamming doors? Shouts of “I hate you!” followed by more slamming doors? Where are the tears? The threats? The emotional wailings of immaturity? I’ve been cheated out of the high entertainment potential of teen guardianship. She’s polite. She adjusts quickly when plans change. It’s quite frustrating.

And another thing! She’s smart. When I learned an impressionable young mind would be stumbling through time and space at my house, hungry for any morsel of learning she could find, I delighted with plans to teach and coach her using my vast life experience and breadth of knowledge. No need. In fact, she’s so wise for her age, when I do try to spout out some life-changing brilliance, she doesn’t protest. Instead, she knows it’s much easier to listen politely, and thank me. But, that’s when I notice the look in her eyes that says, “Poor Uncle Dan. He tries so hard. At least he means well.” She doesn’t even have the decency to call me out and school me on my lame attempts to make a difference in a young person’s life! Talk about ungrateful.

Finally, what makes all this even more excruciating: even if I could instigate some sort of dramatic behavior, I couldn’t blog about it. After all, how could I put any of her ups and downs out in the public? It would be a violation of her privacy.

My wife and I are left with only one technique that seems to work in affecting our niece. This surprisingly easy method consists of doing what we were already doing before she showed up at the airport. In other words, we can model for her. I’m proud of how my wife and I relate and negotiate through our daily life. In that respect, being a teen guardian has been eerily simple.

Of course, as we get to know her better, and spend more day-to-day time in the same house, we’re bound to run into some challenges. But, I’m confident that we have a uniquely strong position as the aunt and uncle – close enough to help, but not so close that we use each others’ issues as weapons to dig each other into a ditch of endless emotional distress.

In other words, the promise of the melodramatic teen-in-residence rollercoaster remains a wonderfully huge disappointment.

Blog in Crisis

Recently, I found myself worrying about what would become of my blog. I had finally finished production on my web series pilot. I started working with a professional editor to make the first 2 episodes really pop. I finished a draft of the rest of the series – 21 episodes total with a length of around 5 minutes each. I even met some people who might consider buying the series. The BABY TIME website seemed like perfect synergy – fun comedy sketches about a guy who can’t seem to reach his wife before she gives birth, and a blog about my wife and I as we consider whether we should become parents ourselves – an exploration of real parenting issues with satire and a personal touch.

And, then this summer, my wife and I discovered that we aren’t really that interested in rushing into parenthood, and that we may be okay with not having children at all. We decided to join the cool Aunt and Uncle Affiliate Program instead for a while.

But, how could I possibly continue to generate content on a blog if we were no longer exploring the topic that fed the blog’s premise? I would only be able to see my nieces and nephew twice a year – not really the kind of in depth relationship that would generate good material. I began to consider the possibility that this blog no longer served any purpose.

One friend suggested that I make it up – not in a James Frey kind of way – but by telling a playful, pretend version of my experiences, and how my fake kid might magnify that already hilarious situation. And, while I haven’t ruled this option out, I’m not completely sold on the idea of committing to a pseudo-reality. Such story telling would require additional research and character development on top of the already exhaustive soul-searching that I pursue to produce the in-depth content that you have enjoyed in previous blog entries.

So, where does this leave the blog? Is it over? Do I put the first episode online when it’s done, and use it solely as a writer/director calling card? Do I just move on the next project, lessons learned? Do I go back to Chicago and get a job with my dad and brother-in-law at the utopia-like car leasing company Wheels, Inc? After all, they have decent benefits, and quite a family picnic every summer from what I hear.

Well…

Sometimes when you talk about a topic like parenting for months and months, research, brainstorm, and focus so much energy that your mind starts to see yourself as a parent, life has a way of delivering that energy right back to you. And in my case, it came via United Flight 129 at 10:35pm on Saturday, September 25, 2010.

LAX does not quite work as a hospital delivery room, although the stark bare walls may fool you. We paced in the arrival room for a few minutes, until we finally welcomed a brand new girl into our world – our teenaged niece. And, if we are lucky enough, she will stay with us until she graduates in 2013. Instant family, just like that.

Blog problem = solved.