Jason Specland: Consultant, Comedian

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Tag: family

Benji and Daddy in their Jammies 2

This week, Benji and Daddy discuss something very near and dear to a six-year-old’s heart: Birthday parties and food.

To the New Parents: You’ll Be Okay

In the past four days, three good friends of mine have had their first children. One from work, one from the PIT, and one who I was in a show with so long ago that she has long since made the transition from “theater friend” to “friend.”

So, to put the unsolicited advice I feel compelled as an experienced parent to give all in one place, I’m posting it here:

“Relax. You will be fine.”

Right now, you’re listening to a thousand different voices telling you exactly what you should and shouldn’t do. You’re getting glossy pamphlets from the hospital. Visits from friends. Advice from your parents and in-laws who were expertly trained on you. Books that have titles like, “What to Expect…” which could be substantively replaced by a single page reading, “The Unexpected.”

On top of that, there’s a whole cottage industry out there of parent panic. Am I feeding him right? Is she eating enough? Too much? If I have trouble breast feeding, am I failure? Should I soothe him when he cries, or let him cry it out? Am I swaddling her properly? Are her toys enriching enough? When should he start talking? Walking? If she doesn’t reach these milestones at these times, does this mean she won’t get into an Ivy League school?

“Relax. You will be fine.”

Kids are amazingly resilient. They can thrive in any environment, as long as there’s love and affection. Although none of you know each other, I know all of you and I already know that these kids have love and affection in spades. Kids need to be talked to. Kids need to be played with. Kids need to be loved. All of you guys have hearts so overflowing with love that the very idea of you not meeting these most important needs is ludicrous.

While everyone wants to tell you that everything is dangerous, kids today are incredibly safe. Statistically, they’re safer now than they have ever been. Just the same, they will bump their heads on coffee tables. They will fall down and scrape their knees. There will be boo-boos and Band-Aids. (Pro tip: The ones with Dora on them have greater healing powers.) There will be coughs, sniffles (dear GOD so many coughs and sniffles) and the occasional fever. But, in the end, they will be fine.

So the next time you’re crying over which model of stroller to get (trust me, you will), or panicking about the precise moment to introduce solid food, or waking up in the middle of the night just to make sure your baby is still breathing (no really, you will totally do this), please remember:

“Relax. You will be fine.”

I can’t speak to the parenting experience beyond the age of 5. I can, however, tell you all for certain that when you come home, and your kid jumps up and runs into your arms shouting, “Daddy! I’m so happy to see you!” that it’s pretty much a thousand times more amazing than any feeling you’ve yet experienced.

Good luck, try to get some sleep, and relax. I promise, you will be fine.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sit in a corner for a while and repeat to myself, “He’ll probably stop wetting the bed before he goes to college.”

Benjamin Meets Alton Brown

Benjamin meets Alton Brown of FoodTV’s “Good Eats” and “Iron Chef America.”

Benjamin and Alton Brown

It’s About the Relationship Part II: Family

This past weekend, Paula, Benjamin, and I took a conglomeration of trains to visit my uncle in Hartford, Connecticut. We spent the weekend chatting about the family, fractured as it is by divorces, remarriages, spite, and acrimony. I got caught up on who’s not talking to whom, and why. It’s a game I’ve never played, but for some reason both sides of my family has always relished. Thankfully, most of my generation of offspring from these bitter unions seem immune to it.

My uncle asked me when the last time I spoke to my sister and brother was. Honestly, it had been some time. I love and care deeply for my siblings, but between work, parenthood, and performing, it just doesn’t seem like there’s time enough in the day to keep in touch with them. Not to mention other people I love who may not be on this earth for much longer, like my paternal grandparents*.

Relatedly, my father is in town this week. Yesterday evening, we went to Wo Hop, the Mecca of American-style Chinese Food for nostalgia of both food and family. We had a great evening catching up. His healthy suspicion of social networking means he’s not on Facebook**, which means that I don’t even have the vanishingly shallow connection with him that I maintain with most of the rest of the family. I was shocked to learn that he didn’t even know that we’d moved. Of course he didn’t… I talked about that exclusively online. I never took two seconds out of my busy life to call him and tell him about it.

Relationships that are not nurtured wither and die. Facebook is the barest of nourishment. Relationships can survive there, but it’s difficult for them to thrive. I have been allowing many of my most treasured relationships to survive in their deathbeads, with a tiny amount of contact slowly drip-dripping from an IV bag above. How long until everyone I “know” is really a stranger but for their status updates?

So it’s high time I started really making an effort to keep in touch with the people I really care about.

* My maternal grandparents are a lost cause at this point. My grandfather, who I adored as a kid, now detests me because of the melanin content of my wife’s skin. My grandmother is busy fighting off age and travelling around the world and was never particularly interested in being a grandmother. However, the door is never closed if either of them decide to pass through it.

** My genetic father is a Facebook contact, but the only thing I hear from him is his occasional wall-posted Facebook game accomplishment.

The Last Ten Years

Ten years ago today, I was in a Hudson Shakespeare production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Their Verges had dropped out. Duncan, who was playing Dogberry, recommended me as a replacement.

The woman playing Beatrice was someone I’d met a few times before. The first time I met her, she’d auditioned for an improv troupe I was in. She did not get cast. The second time, I auditioned for a role in a production of “The Fantasticks” that she was assistant directing. I did not get cast.

But now we were cast together, and we were getting to know each other quite well. There were a few knowing glances. A few casual hand touches. Some definite sparks.

One sunny afternoon after rehearsal, this woman… let’s call her Paula… stated that she was going to the Newport Center Mall after rehearsal to buy a new jean jacket. So desperate was I to spend more time with her that I volunteered to go with her. As we departed the mall and were about to go our separate ways, she suggested we stop at Starbucks for a frappuccino. We drank our frappuccinos by the Hudson River piers at Newport. We made small talk. Small talk became deep talk. Suddenly, we began to kiss.

“Are you asking me out?” she asked.
“Yes, I am.” I replied.
“Well you’d better do it right.”

I officially asked her out on a date.

On that date, ten years ago tonight, we had dinner at Da Rosina on Restaurant Row and then went to see Brian Stokes Mitchell in “Kiss Me Kate.” It was torrentially raining when we met, so we had to hide for a while under the awning of the church in which they were doing “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.” But that evening after “Kiss Me Kate” the weather was clear enough for us to walk over to Bryant Park and make out.

Yes, technically our wedding anniversary is the more important one. But I will never forget the night ten years ago, when I had a spectacularly successful first date with the love of my life.

Hey You Guys!!!

When I was a kid, my day was practically defined by the PBS children’s programming schedule. Sesame Street, followed by The Electric Company. I think it even re-ran several times during the day, which was great for those long, lonely summers when every kid in the neighborhood but me was off to summer camp.

Some time ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I purchased the DVD box set of the best of The Electric Company. Like most nostalgia purchases of products that don’t necessarily age well, I watched a few episodes and put it away to gather dust in the cabinet.

A little while later, we had a child. And a few years after that, he became obsessed with PBS’s new version of the Electric Company, which is the Electric Company in name only, aside from taking the silhouette word-mashing bit. I was wondering if he might enjoy the older version. I put it on for him…

Those of you who have children know that three-year-olds don’t merely enjoy things passively. When they find something they love, they grab hold of it like a pit bull on a rawhide chew. They just have to keep watching it over and over and over… And when they’re not watching it, they’re repeating it again and again and again, at the only volume level they know: 11.

And so, for the past few weeks, our house has been filled non-stop with the sound of Benjamin shouting, “Hey You Guys!” and “We’re gonna turn it on! We’re gonna give you the power!” and little bits from every single skit and cartoon that PBS saw fit to put on the DVDs. My son is doing what two episodes a day every day for the bulk of the late 70’s and early 80’s couldn’t: He’s making me sick of the damn Electric Company.

(Oh crap. I just noticed, while typing this, that I was humming the theme song to myself again.)

On the bright side, he is reading along with the episodes, and learning more about language. There are worse things for a boy to be addicted to than one of the greatest educational shows in history. In fact, upon involuntarily studying the episodes, it’s kind of shocking how much educational content the new version of the show sacrifices in the name of having a through plotline. It’s also gratifying to see that he especially enjoys the songs of Tom Lehrer. Boy knows quality when he hears it.

On the dim side, I had the following conversation with Paula.

Me: It’s educational and all, but should Benjamin really be so obsessed with a program that aired 20 years ago?
Paula: Jason, it aired 40 years ago.

Now I just have to convince him that plaid couches and pants are not okay…

Why Is This Night Different? My Wife is Twice as Awesome!

Last Chanukah, my sister tried to arrange a video conference between herself (in Miami), Mom (in Charlottesville, VA) and me (in NYC, of course). She was throwing a big Chanukah party and wanted her family to be a part of it. A noble cause, but in the end it made me feel kind of sad and isolated rather than a part of anything. It was then that I realized that, while I’m not particularly religious, I am traditional.

It is only after I dismissed these gatherings as unnecessary that I realized how achingly necessary they are. I miss my family and our holiday traditions. I miss getting together for big celebrations.

So this year I promised myself that I’d do some kind of celebration and establish traditions for my new family. It was a promise that Paula agreed to enthusiastically. I just didn’t anticipate quite how enthusiastic she’d be…

So today we come to Passover, the first major Jewish holiday (that this barely religious reformed Jew celebrates) after Chanukah. Paula, who has long since surpassed all qualifications to be called an honorary tribe-member, went all out. She made home made chicken soup with matzoh balls. She made fresh charoset. We had gefilte fish and horseradish. She made a brisket to die for. She even roasted a shank bone. I mean, it was a real shank bone! I’d never actually seen one in my life!

Seriously, my shiksa wife puts on a better seder than some people who go by the name of “Bubbe.”

Mom, who was still in Charlottesville (and told an amusing story about trying to find maztoh there), joined us by video conference. Her fiancĂ©e isn’t Jewish and was out of town for work, leaving her all alone. Since as I just mentioned, I am acutely aware of how hollow a video conference of a traditional celebration is, I wish she was there with us. But just having her present added a link to my family’s seders past. Next year, in Astoria!

The phrase, “The nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me” kind of gets thrown around a bit. But after dinner and after I finished doing the dishes, I looked at Paula lovingly and choked back a tear. This really was the nicest, most thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me.

Thanksgiving — Favorite Photos

Here are some of my favorite photos from our trip:

Mom and Michelle in the Orchard

Sara, Ashley, and Benjamin, with Paula Looking On

Benjamin Having a Grand Time on the Carousel

Ashley, Sara, Aunt Michelle, and Benjamin

Benjamin Runs to Daddy at Monticello

Monticello at Moonrise

Thanksgiving in Virginia — A Brief Summary…

I realize that I have committed the ultimate blogger sin, and not commented about the family’s Thanksgiving trip to Virginia to visit my mom. Heck, I haven’t even taken notes on it to build into a blog post.

First, I’ve discovered that travelling actually makes me insane. I made the mistake of having the three of us take the bus and the subway to Penn Station with all of our luggage. The N train was not running for some reason, so the bus was incredibly crowded and slow and not at all amenable to our luggage. When we finally made it to Penn Station, we attempted to check our bags, only to be told that we were two minutes too late to do so. So enraged was I that I shouted and screamed and kicked my bags across the floor of the Amtrak terminal. This caused Paula some consternation as you can imagine. In the future, I should probably consider taking a Valium, or at least taking a cab.

We took Amtrak directly from New York City to Charlottesville. As much as I hate Amtrak for very long distance travel (like to Florida), the medium distance to Virginia was actually quite nice. I’ll trade Monster Chiller Airport Security Theater for a bit longer travel time any day.

We spent most of our time with my sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces. Our days in Virginia were pretty much spent either entertaining the kids or desperately trying to take in natural beauty as quickly as humanly possible.

Entertaining the kids was actually quite fun. We went apple picking. We went to a story-time at a bookstore downtown. We took the kids to a “discovery museum” type place. Benjamin rode on his first carousel. Frankly, these things where kids can just run around and be kids make me happy, not just because I like to see my kid happy, but because I can relax and not worry about what trouble he’s getting into or who he’s bothering.

(By the way, having picked apples in both New York and Virginia, I must say that the apples in Virginia were the most unbelievably sweet, juicy, wonderful apples I’ve ever bitten into. Highly recommended.)

Taking in natural beauty is more problematic, because kids just don’t care about that stuff. I wonder why, since it seems to be kind of an innate feeling that all (adult) humans experience upon experiencing the vastness and beauty of unbridled nature. But kids who have otherwise infinite energy develop droopy legs of rubber when asked to walk in nature and appreciate it for its own sake.

That being said, I can absolutely agree with everyone who says that Virginia is God’s country. It is just about the most beautiful place I could ever imagine.

Thanksgiving Day itself was something of a nightmare. We had reservations (all 11 of us!) at the historic Boar’s Head Inn at 7:30. After waiting in a lovely but not particularly kid-friendly waiting room for over an hour, they agreed to seat us in a private dining room. Nothing kids like better than sitting down to dinner at 9:00 PM… So we finally sit down and look at the menus. When Mom made the reservations, lo these many months ago, she asked if they had a children’s menu. They said yes. Well, they technically did, but it was nothing but an abbreviated version of the adult menu. There was nothing and I mean nothing any three-year-old in the history of the world would eat. Every time the waiter set something down at the table, one of my nieces would exclaim, “I don’t like this!” And I could hardly blame her. To add insult to injury, the food wasn’t even all that good for the adults, especially considering the price.

(I snarked to Paula later, “For that price, I could have leaned out my window and shouted, ‘You there! Boy! What day is it?’ and he would reply, ‘Why it’s Christmas Day, Sir!’, and I could say, ‘Oh, wonderful! I haven’t missed it! Do you know that turkey in the window?’ ‘The one as big as me, sir?’, etc.)

What do I really want for Thanksgiving? A big family at home sitting around a messy table with a whole turkey (none of this “turkey roulade” crap like they served at the Boar’s Head) and my Grandma’s kishka stuffing. I talked to my sister the other day, and she said she was making a turkey dinner for her family to make up for the one they didn’t have on Thanksgiving. That sounds like a wonderful idea.

After Thanksgiving Day itself, things calmed down a lot as people started to head home. Highlights of the post-turkey period include our trip to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home and the most beautiful historic mansion (on the most beautiful grounds) I’d ever seen. Its functionality and good-sense are a stark contrast to the garishness of Vizcaya in Miami, the only other historic mansion and grounds I’ve been to.

Truth be told, although it’s always wonderful to see family, the trip was actually incredibly stressful. There were just too many people in the same place at the same time. Still, the sheer beauty of the place makes me eager to visit again in a hopefully more relaxed atmosphere. Unfortunately, the next time I’ll be there will be in April for a wedding, and weddings are not known for being laid-back or kid-friendly…

Someday Somebody Else Besides Him Will Call Him By His Stage Name…

You’d think that, being a They Might Be Giants fan myself, that I’d pushed Benjamin into loving TMBG more than anything else in the world. Unless there’s a genetic component to musical taste, (which has been confirmed to be not true by generations of teenagers) Benjamin has picked up this love all on his own.

Case in point…