The Sunday of Summer
The waning days of my freedom to think big
My last day of school was June 29, so July was definitely the Saturday of Summer. And I don’t think about school on Saturday. Or maybe I’ll get conceptual, and that’s what July is good for. When I’m asked to take the 30k foot view during the school year, I’m often too focused on my daily life in the trenches of class, weekly plans, unit overviews. Summer is when I do my biggest picture thinking.
Time fully away frees me up to think beyond the context of what I’m teaching. When I do my own summer reading (same as the kids: At least 5 books! Keep a list!) I cam contemplate things like, What does reading mean to me? What is the role of reading in my life — in school and beyond? What big ideas about reading do I want to be sure sixth graders hear, if not internalize?
Late August is Sunday afternoon, and plenty of teachers I know keep their weekends free of schoolwork. But I need to be sure Friday’s decisions have held up into Sunday, and sometimes it’s way more than that. I summered pretty hard for 8 weeks, my lounging itch is well scratched. So it’s time to think of specifics, to muse on the first days, to rough out ideas for the early days and weeks. I will be asked, I should have good answers.
Summers are sacrosanct to teachers, so we get up to full speed real quick; three at-school days, a four-day Labor Day, and showtime. The demands come fast and furious, and that early time at school time will be for meetings and My Classroom and its Physical Contents. So a lot of prep happens behind the scenes, and the time is nigh. Good thing I’m used to working Sundays.
The Week in Dog Poo
Last week we were down a beagle and up a hound mix with a strong dose of Basset. And at 85 lbs, Quinn dropped significantly bigger deuces than I’m used to with the beagle-shih tzu pairing (combining for nearly half Quinn’s weight). We refer to them as dinosaur dumps because they’re gigantic, although a triceratops’ showing would undoubtedly astound. Ginger was a huge hit with the nieces, and both dogs made excellent living companions with only one Ginger mini-poo overnight in the dining room.
Alas, when we returned home, a combination of stress and the dog-walker’s treats sent Winnie on a wild pooing spree throughout the house. I cleaned 9 discrete piles across 3 rooms soiling as many rugs. She attacked the trash earlier today, so I think she’s back to normal.
The Urban Blah
Back in 2009-11 I collaborated with the brilliant Lovisa to make a webcomic that failed to become syndicated across the globe. I am pro-recycling.
My Back Pages
From my 14-page attempt at a roman a clef about working in sitcom writers rooms, 2008.
“That show sucks,” Jackie said. “You really like it?”
“I don’t think you get it,” said Gregory, not baking down an inch. “It’s not for everyone.”
“Yeah, not for people with taste. Greggy Greggy, loves his Family Guy. You relate to the baby, right?”
“Okay,” said Don, “let’s jump back into the script.”
“Perfect,” said Jackie, “I’ve got a bunch of hacky pitches for the talking dog.” The room laughed. These were nothing like the writers like I’d seen in journalism. This was a room of alpha dogs, aggressive, big personalities. The way the room functioned made this almost a necessity. They were called writers, but the only one doing any actual “writing” in these sessions was me. I was at the computer typing the words in. I didn’t choose them, but I committed them to paper. The only times these guys ever actually wrote was in the beginning stages of a script. The room would think of a story and assemble an outline (with lots of jokes in it along the way), then one writer would take a week or two to write a first draft. They would switch off every week so everyone wrote two or three scripts in a 22-episode season. For the other eight months of the sitcom season, the writing was verbal and in a big group.
It was definitely the biggest surprise my first week in the room. Writing to me was a solitary endeavor, something you did alone with your pencil or keyboard. But this was a different animal that required a different skill set. I was used to staring at my monitor in silence until I came up with the right words. Not only did you have other people waiting for the right words here, you had other people to compete with. And whereas I was used to having my story ideas accepted, rejected, or mutated, here you were constantly doing that with individual lines of dialogue. They even used the same term: I would pitch an article at home, these guys would pitch a joke for the room. Sometimes they would even pitch cutting the word “that” out of a sentence.
You had to think fast or someone else would come up with another solution. And you had to think best or your joke wouldn’t make it in. Because while there were a million right answers to every question, this was not a writing process where you try to come up with the best right answer; instead they would take the first right answer. So speed counted. And volume and tenacity, too. And of course not everyone’s ideas counted equally; the better you were, the more you could kind of think out loud. It struck me as having less in common with actual writing than with trying to crack up a bunch of your friends who were also trying to crack each other up.
The purported chapter ends with this conversation:
FRIDAY NIGHT I was at Barney’s Beanery with a couple of high school friends who’d made their way to Los Angeles like me.
“Some of the writers are pretty damn funny.” I took a glug of my Imperial Stout. “I laugh an awful lot so far.”
“Really? I always assumed sitcom writers wouldn’t be funny.”
“Why, because all sitcoms suck?”
“Well, pretty much, yeah.”
“Hey, I’m as surprised as you.”
“Does your show suck?”
“I have no idea.”
“If you had to guess?”
“If I had to guess? Yes. It sucks.”