05 November 2010

the joys of parenting

After sixteen years and four kids worth of at-home parenting, I have some thoughts.

And right now one of those thoughts concerns the maudlin saccharine nonsense commonly served up as the over-sentimentalized vision of what parenting is like. Sure, there will be those moments where you are sitting around a clean table in a sparkling white designer kitchen as perfect golden light bathes you and your well-groomed child as you both simultaneously and without any rational cause burst into heartfelt laughter as he completes a finger-painting project suitable for entry is a National Idiot's Day competition.

And somewhere along the way you'll likely have a moment where you are in your J Crew finest on an Rockwellian autumn day as your perfect daughter smiles a perfect smile perfectly missing one perfect front tooth as she takes off down your tree-shaded lane on her first ever try on a bike and your perfect wife runs up -- her perfect sweater tied sensibly and perfectly around her shoulders -- and gives you a hug from the side as you both stand there in your perfectness and enjoy a perfect day and she hands you a perfect mug of joe.

Those are the easy days. Those are the 3-inch putts -- the gimme's. To offer such images as examples of Parenthood is an insult, as any parent who can't handle those sorts of infrequent and unexpected moments of blissful ease probably also has trouble with the safe operation of a toothpick, and is likely challenged mightily by such complexities as sandals, doorknobs, or crayons.

The days which matter are the ones you don't see shown on those damned commercials. The moments which somehow never make it into an Allstate ad, and never get commemorated in a school PTA photo collage.

Moments like, "when your kid is vomiting all over the damned place."

You seriously want to take your love out for a test drive and see what it's really like? Then try to act nonchalant and unaffected as you are tasked with cheering up your kid in the middle of the night after already having changed their vomit-soaked bedding twice in the last ten hours. When you enter their room and are greeted with that retchy smell which normally -- rightly -- sends any typical human being diving for an exit or an open window or source of breathable air.

I know this, 'cuz I've been there, man. I've seen things. More times than I care to recall, and certainly more than I care to describe in specific individual case by case detail. And every time I've had such rare and golden opportunities, I grouse and grumble to myself "where are the damned warm and fuzzy ads depicting this perfect moment...".

Because it's these moments which really tell the tale.

As the saying goes, "any jackass can be a father -- are you man enough to be a Dad?" To willfully and unabashedly wade into situations so vile and disgusting that someone from the Geneva Convention really ought to look into things to see if perhaps serious significant violations are being committed. To force a sincere-looking smile on the outside even when on the inside the core reptilian base programming of your brain is screaming "AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGH! FLEE!! RUN AND HIDE!!!" To say -- and not just say, but actually mean and actually believe -- It's OK. Everything's going to be alright..." even when deep down you hear your own vestigial child voice whining "I'm scared and I want this to go away now..."

Those are the moments when your steel will be tested, my pretty -- when there's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and nobody else to take the bullet but you, that's when your character will be revealed in all its weakness and strength, all its clumsiness and grace, all its enduring shame and glory.

"Oh! I don't know if I want to do that! I'm not sure I'm really cut out for that!" some might lisp. But I tell you what: I bet you'll find more to yourself than you knew was there when such a day finally breaks in your household. When the pompous BS is hosed away and your options are reduced to a clear and simple set of options -- come strong or go home -- clarity abounds.

When you put your hands... into a puddle of goo... that an hour before was your young child's dinner... you'll know what to do.

Now, you sons of bitches... you know how I feel.

I'd say more, but I'm headed back upstairs with a new roll of paper towels and the carpet cleaner.

And a noseclip.

02 November 2010

austin film festival 2010 -- Day 0 (Wednesday)

I wasn't even supposed to be here....

That thought kept coming back to me over and over throughout this year's Screenwriter's Conference at the Austin Film Festival ("the festival"). For reasons which don't rate discussion on a public forum, I'd decided that for the first time in six years I'd simply not be able to justify the effort and expense and time required to make this yearly pilgrimage. No, I was not entirely happy about the decision, but sometimes the right decision is not the happy decision, and this seemed one of those damnable cases.

But a funny thing happened. As has been the case more than a few times throughout this ongoing pursuit of screenwriting glory, something totally unexpected and wonderful falls from the sky to change the specifics of some critical moment. This time, it was a bit of unexpected generosity and encouragement arriving at precisely the critical moment. "Oh, you're going. That's not open for discussion." Again, the specifics are not the stuff for a blog like this, but I'll say this much: if you're very very lucky, you'll have good friends around you who refuse to let you make certain mistakes.

So there I am rolling hard down Highway 71 towards Austin, with some tunes cranking on the stereo, and in another of those improbably perfect moments which reminds me that God might make a decent director if he ever feels an itch to try that game, at precisely the moment when I crest the last major hill south of Austin and see the Capitol Dome haze into view, I find I am singing along to a certain lyric:

"Hey, amigo -- don't just play the part.
Wherever you go -- go with all your heart."
-- "Tucson", L.L. Cooper

One of the things about Austin which has become second nature to me is the way that I refuse to allow myself to feel tired or exhausted, no matter how badly run-down I might be due to the long days and short nights and copious flow of beverages. If the scene demands my presence and involvement until 5am, then that's where I'll be, and I'll be back in the Driskill Lounge by 8:30am the next day no matter what -- showered and awake and ready to charge once more into the breach. I no longer even notice this behavior: it's just The Way Things Are. But others seem to remark on it and marvel.

"Dude, how can you do that? I'd be a wreck."

I explained again this year how I just can't allow myself the lazy luxury of feeling tired and acting exhausted. It's cost too much to get here. Too much effort and sacrifice was required to get me onto this field for me to not give every last bit of effort come game time. Ten or twenty years from now I do not want to look into a mirror and know in my heart of hearts that there was something more I might have done to maybe have made that screenwriting dream happen.

Because regardless of what the t-shirt slogans might say, failure is always an option. If you doubt that, just look around and see how many failed dreamers stand eternally willing to give you their sad personal story full of explanations and excuses and justifications and rationalizations.

Simple choice: go hard or go home.


So I sang along with Coop, swung off to Austin-Bergstrom Airport and picked up Zoe, who'd flown in from Australia just to see if this circus I've sung about for years was really as wildly wonderful as I've been making it out to be. Actually, she'd driven ten hours from the bush to get to Sydney in order to catch a 14 hour flight to LA to then layover for a few hours to then fly another 3 hours to Austin to then spend a whole bunch of money hanging out with strangers, so again I am reminded of just how much I feel riding on me to make this event and this career chase work out.

We cruise into Austin and down Sixth to the Driskill and I stow the car and wander in to find my badges and registration info, and I'm struck as always by the weird sense of ownership: this is my space -- this is where I do the work.

I hook up with Tom, my hotel roommate for the week, and we find Zoe stumbling along with an Olympian case of jet lag, and we head off to grab some dinner at Threadgill's (chicken fried steak, gravy on the side, with mashed potatoes and San Antonio squash casserole).

Halfway through the meal, I see a woman standing at the hostess station, scanning the room, and I run to see Lori, an old high school friend of mine I've not seen in something like 26 years. We'd reconnected via FaceBook this past year, and when she moved to Austin over the summer, we'd agreed to grab a beer when next I came to town.

She joins us for the rest of the evening, and I'm suddenly left feeling an even stronger sense of urgency and commitment for this stupid writing pursuit: if it was that easy to lose touch with a really good friend for a quarter-century, how easy would it be to lose sight of this often-frustrating career chase?

We wind up back at the Driskill, and Lori and I natter and chatter as if 26 years never actually happened... well, except for a whole bunch of kids and some marriages and several relocations and blah blah blah. More festival folks wander through, waving and high-fiving as they pass. At some point we get joined briefly by Franklin Leonard, the dude who started the now mighty Black List. He turns out to be a totally likable self-effacing guy with great attitude about the unexpected prominence and power of the Black List, and again I am reminded of how weird and wonderful these random meetings in Austin can be.

Zoe collapses early (apparently 26 hours of air travel plays havoc on some folks...), Tom wanders off in exhaustion as well, and eventually everyone is being ushed from the room after last call, so I see Lori to her car and we laugh "let's do this again sometime without such a long break in between."

I stroll back to the Stephen F Austin hotel, taking a few extra scenic turns to let things percolate a little longer in my brain, and by 3am I'm back in the room. Tom's sleeping, so I take the laptop into the bathroom and spend a half hour typing up my daily notes and thoughts as I do every day when on the road. It's a weird tradition, I guess -- the nightly recap into .TXT form -- but it helps remind me that this is not a vacation. This is work, dammit -- I have big things I need to accomplish, and dreaming don't get them done.

(to be continued)