Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Apart but not apart

In recent days a lot of friends are experiencing the rupture of sending their kids off to camp. Four or eight weeks apart! I  of course miss my kids, but I learned to cope with long-dtstance parenting and supervisory gaps a long time ago, and while it's never perfect, I have learned that you can still be a good parent without having daily contact.

After getting divorced, I moved from New York to Los Angeles in the spring of 2002 to join the staff of The West Wing for season 4. Until then I had been the stay-at-home, primary caregiver in my family, working as a freelancer, helped out by a terrific nanny, but also shopping, cooking, pushing the stroller to doctor and dentist appointments, the heinously named Mommy-and-Me classes, playgrounds, and the like.

My full-throttle parenthood was a partly a conscious (and generational) pendulum swing away from my Dad, who, though very affectionate, had worked six days a week for his father as a lawyer (until his father died of a heart attack, then scaled back to five), came home from his downtown office long enough to read the mail, and eat, and then disappeared into his home office until bedtime, and weekends did volunteer work.

I didn't want to be that guy, and yet suddenly here I was, going 3000 miles from them -- ironically, in part, to help fund their educations. I pledged to see them once every three weeks and called five times a week (this is before video chatting). I made a video of my apartment and sent it to them so they could picture my new life.

And, a few months into the job,  I brought them to LA to see for themselves. Because of their ages (8 and 5) I had to fly to New York, pick them up, fly them back to LA, and then fly them back to New York and then get on a plane back. (Luckily Jet Blue had just started.)

The kids loved Los Angeles, and I like to think they could sense that I felt happy and productive. They liked the excitement of the Warner Brothers backlot; on one trip I snuck them into the costume department, where every WB production's wardrobe is filed, chronologically, from caveman to spaceman.
But at their ages, they couldn't really fathom what The West Wing was about, except "The President," and only knew one of the actors -- Stockard Channing, because she'd been in Grease (when she was 34!). At my first table read, when I tried to approach Channing to convey my daughters' fandom, she cut me off -- "Don't even say it." Apparently she can't stand her identification with the movie.  I still arranged to bring them to the set a day Stockard was filming, so they could recognize someone on set.

The episode "College Kids" was shooting a Bartlet speech about education in a ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. But by the time we arrived, Stockard had wrapped for the day. The episode's director, Alex Graves, after meeting my kids, kindly asked if I wanted my older daughter to be an extra in the scene, because there were kids sitting on the stage next to Bartlet for his speech.

She had already shown a propensity for theater, doing shows at the local Y -- so how could a father say no? She was fitted for a costume, carted off into a room of smarmy wanna-be child actors (I think one of them had just been in a Mike Myers movie), and then put up on stage and taught to mime-clap (so as not to drown out Martin Sheen's words). After the speech, Bartlet turns to shake people's hands, and he made a point of shaking my daughter's.

In the final cut of the episode, you need a pause button to even see her, and I don't think the handshake is visible, but the production staff shot the above still off of an outtake. (You'll notice that my daughter -- who has since performed admirably in many stage productions -- is, instead of looking at the President of the United States, looking directly into the camera.) She got paid $100 for her efforts, and when it arrived I got Sheen and Allison Janney to sign a xerox of her paycheck as a souvenir.

She learned that you can work an eight hour day and not get much camera time, but also learned what it was that we were all doing. I moved back and forth to LA several other times for work, and the last time they were old enough to sit in the writer's room and actually watch us break stories. Now one of them is shooting and editing her own videos on YouTube and the other just wrote her first play, and Daddy is playing catch-up.

The generational pendulum is about to whack me in the back, I think.


Marci said...

Lovely story! I think you're right - you're daughter is quite a filmmaker in her own right! Kinda love her videos!!

Maria Grasso said...

excellent post. Studio wardrobe departments/sound stages rock!

Mark said...

Great story. I've recently seen Nancy's video and the proficiency she has with that little button lying unused on my mac - the one I've been meaning to get around to - makes my jaw drop. I like the theme of this post; the exposure of your children to what you have chosen to do. I still have no idea what my father did on a day to day basis as a Canadian diplomat. I kinda wish I did. So when the occasion arises I talk freely about my work and career in front of my kids. It is almost a running joke how dismissively they turn down the idea of following my path but they are still young and when it really becomes time for them to consider it I hope they know enough to choose or dismiss it from an informed place.

Leila said...

Ha, I still have the VHS we recorded of that episode of West Wing. I'm glad my cousins are turning out so well - God knows they're doing better than we are over here. Nancy's videos are great!