“YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THIS!”
It was an early July morning, and Jessica and I were in her kitchen (aka Science of Parenthood’s Denver office). We’d returned the evening before from the women’s blogging conference BlogHer, where we’d spent three days with 5,000 women who had no kids to care for and nowhere to drive to and an exceptionally well-stocked hotel bar. We were still punchy from lack of sleep.
I’d just taken a big swig of the coffee I hoped would jolt my neurons back to life when Jessica hit play on the video she’d been watching.
“… the one piece of advice my mom gave me —“ a petite brunette with Tina Fey glasses was saying “ … Don’t be flattered if a boy gets an erection.”
And then I sprayed dark roast all over my keyboard, computer screen and Jessica’s lovely kitchen table.
That video, from the Yahoo! Life of Mom series created by the brunette with glasses — aka performer, TV comedy writer and sometime mime Johanna Stein — was wicked funny. And Jessica had been hanging with her at BlogHer! Pretty cool, huh?
Fast forward nine months, and Jessica gets word that TOMORROW is the official publication date for Johanna Stein’s brilliantly off-kilter “momoir” about growing up in Winnipeg, a child of hippie pot-smokers, and what happened after she had “unprotected sex” with the guy she lovingly calls You Sappy Bastard. THAT alone made me want to devour chunks of her book as fast as I could while hiding in the bathroom, pretending I had food poisoning.
But lucky us! We got a chance to talk with her about her pivotal encounter with an airsick bag, one that led to a Motherlode blog post, her Yahoo! video series and, ultimately, the quirky page-turner, How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane: And Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source that was holding me captive in the loo.
You should probably put your coffee down for this. Just sayin’.
Jessica Ziegler: We loved your book! It’s good. It’s fresh. And you know … you so rarely see a floating dead guy in a “Mom Book.”
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel: So true! Most of us have delivery stories. Breastfeeding stories. Poopy diaper stories. But when you saw what you thought was a human head bobbing in the waves … and your dad called the marine patrol … and it turned out to be the body of some old guy who’d gone missing … yeah, well, not every mom is gonna have a story like that.
Johanna Stein: Thank you. That means a lot. This is the first time I’ve written anything so personal. When I read things aimed at moms, part of me gets kind of offended at the pigeon-hole-iness of it. There’s this sheen of Now You’re A Mom And These Are The Types Of Stories You Respond To. Just because I had unprotected sex once and now have a human being as a result, I’m not a generalized version of myself. And that’s how a lot of material directed at moms has been. I hope this is a legitimate piece of writing about motherhood. The only thing I knew how to do was make it specific to myself and my upbringing, which is a huge part of being a parent. So it’s my life. It’s my lens of motherhood.
Jessica: That’s what makes it interesting. There are so many layers. By the time you get to the point where you’re a mother, it’s just one more block on your stack. All these other bits and pieces from your life that you include, they make the book richer. It’s not just about what happened that one day when your daughter was 2 and that other day when she was 4.
So, tell us how’d the book come about?
Johanna: I’d read this story on the New York Times Motherlode blog about a woman who was asked to leave a flight because her baby was crying. So I wrote Lisa Belkin, then the Motherlode editor, saying that I also had a weird plane story. I told her about how I was trying to entertain my daughter on a plane and went to use my husband’s airsick bag as a puppet, stuck my hand in and … it was full of barf.
[Jessica & Norine collectively groan]
Within the hour, Lisa Belkin wrote back saying, That’s great! Can I post it on my blog? I crapped my pants and said YES! Then that got seen by Doug Abrams, a book agent. He wrote me out of the blue and said, Do you think you have a book of these essays in you? And I said, I don’t know. Yeeeessss?
That evolved into a yearlong conversation of How does this happen? How do we do this? I don’t know if I can do this. Yes, you can do this. I’ve done a lot of comedy writing and standup. But nothing so personal, nothing about being a mom or anything going on in my life. But he walked me through the whole process.
Jessica: So how do you like exposing yourself, getting so personal in your writing?
Johanna: I like it a lot. When that first piece was published in the New York Times, I bawled my eyes out. I’m so not a crier. But it made me so emotional to see people’s responses to it. It’s not even that it’s a deep piece. But people related to it saying, This is something crazy that happened to me! I’d never experienced that kind of comedic connection with people. When you write a script and it’s being performed, there are so many added elements, things you can do during performance to adjust the writing. But when it’s just my brain and the writing, that’s a pretty powerful kind of connection. I also find this writing harder because I want to represent my feelings on a subject accurately, even if it’s not the funniest angle. If I’m writing comedy, my go-to will always be the funniest choice. With this kind of writing, I have to work a lot harder to make something funny.
Jessica: When I write something, I hear it in my head a certain way, and I wonder are people reading it this way? Are they punching it where I would punch it?
Johanna: I hope it doesn’t comes off as derogatory. I let my parents read it and gave them veto power because I talk about them. They’re such hippies; they’re like, This is your experience. Who am I to tell you? But my mom did have this one comment. [Laughs] It was in the piece about breastfeeding difficulties — “Spoilt Milk” — I think I said I got cock-blocked by a binky. So my mom comments, In the paragraph where you’re talking about a binky, since it’s silicone, maybe it would make more sense if you were talking about a dildo. Maybe there’s room for a joke about a dildo.
Jessica: Yeah … just spitballing here …
Johanna: My mom. As much as she’s a hippie, to look at her, she’s a grandma now. She’s a sweet grandma … who references dildos.
But I did want to make sure I was being … respectful is the wrong word. But it’s that line. You want it to be funny. But everybody can’t be perfect because that’s not funny. So I just tried hard not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Hopefully, I come off as the biggest jerk. I don’t care who thinks I’m an idiot.
Jessica: Your career is so varied. How’d you go from performer to writer of Disney and PBS Kids shows to author? What’s the trajectory?
Johanna: I started in theater in Winnipeg and moved to Los Angeles when I got accepted to the American Film Institute. After dropping out my second year, I went to work as a script reader for Dreamworks. That was a real education. But after a few years, I hit the wall with script reading. I couldn’t do it anymore. There are a bajillion scripts out there, and every day there are a bajillion more. And the job of the script reader is really to say No. The norm is to go, This is a pass. This is a pass. These are the reasons. After a few years, I just felt like Who am I to critique someone’s writing? And some of the scripts were by huge writers I admired. I was reading these scripts with an intensely critical eye, and I hit the wall of I can’t do it anymore.
So I took a job in a friend’s candle store. It was the best thing I could have done. It was a lovely job. People who go into candle stores want to be there. It smells great. People are buying gifts. I got to wrap pretty presents. And it was the kind of job that didn’t tax my writing brain.
Jessica: And you didn’t have to stomp on anybody’s dreams in a candle store.
Johanna: It was probably less about the bad juju than about saving the creative part of my brain. When I went to write and perform in the evenings, I wasn’t depleted. When I’m working on an animated show, it takes a lot out of your brain to be creative during the day. The best thing I ever did was take a noncreative job during the day so I had energy in the evenings and weekends to write.
Jessica: And where does Life of Mom fit in?
Johanna: We’d moved to Chicago because my husband got a job there. I was getting my performance ya-yas out, reading the piece that had been published on Motherlode at storytelling shows and developing some scripts for Disney. On one of my trips back to LA, I told my friend Suzanne, who’s a director on the Ellen show, that I had this idea to marry this new style of writing with performance. I borrowed a camera from a friend and we got together in Suzanne’s husband’s martial arts studio. Initially we were just going to do a test to see if the concept worked, and then we were going to do a “nice” version. We had a friend do music and another friend do the cool animations. After we put it together, we liked it so much we were like Fuck it! We’re not going to shoot it again. Let’s just put it online and see what people think. And people really liked it. Suzanne and I been talking about doing something together for years, and this was a fun experience from beginning to end. We wanted to do more videos — but, you know, get someone to pay for it. I had some meetings, and people were pretty positive about it: This is great! We’re give you $50 and we’ll own it and will probably recast you. But it’s awesome!
But eventually Yahoo! said yes. Procter & Gamble wanted to sponsor the series — 24 episodes — starting immediately. We got really lucky that the people we wanted to work with were available. Our musician is in the band They Might Be Giants; and our animators are the ones behind Futurama. We’d shoot six epidosdes at a time to accommodate Suzanne’s busy schedule with Ellen. We’d be editing right up until midnight, going We have to upload this in eight minutes! It was pretty crazy. But I like to make shit that’s funny.
Norine: With kids, there’s never a shortage of funny shit. They have a way of leading you down garden paths that you’re not quite expecting to take. You had that conversation with your daughter Sadie after a little boy matter-of-factly told her that one day, you were going to die. I remember having a similar conversation with my son, who was worried that when he died, he’d be bored because he wouldn’t be able to play video games. That was his big concern. Our family doesn’t believe in heaven, so I couldn’t even promise him a Playstation in the Sky.
Johanna: I am never more focused than when my daughter asks me one of these questions. I feel like I have one chance to get it right, and I’m going to be so impeccable with my words. I only have one kid. if I had more than one kid, I could fuck it up once or twice.
Norine: You’re really open about the fact that you were stunned you were having a girl and that as a “Manly Lady,” as you call yourself, you didn’t know how you were going to be able to relate to her. As a girly-girl, I had pretty much the same reaction when I learned I was having a boy. Apart from the endless pink and the American Girl doll obsession you write about, what’s been your biggest challenge in growing up a “Manly Lady-Girl?”
Johanna: We talk a lot about boys and love. Even being the tomboy kid I was, I had crushes on boys and all that crap. I worry about that with her. She is very cute. Blonde hair and blue eyes. I catch her smiling and posing in the mirror. I have this deep-seated fear that she will be more into boys than I want her to be, and she won’t wait till 30 to get married, which is what I desperately want her to do. So we have conversations like So when did you realize you and daddy were in love? and I’ll say It didn’t happen right away. We were together for a long time before we even knew. I probably err on the side of caution. But I talk a lot about how there’s no such thing as love at first sight, and Frozen is absolutely correct — it’s ridiculous to think you’re in love with somebody the first night you meet them. But I am trying to dial it back a bit. I don’t want to poison her, and I certainly don’t want her to rebel. But I don’t want her to be a girl who loses herself in a relationship, male or female. I want her to be who she’s supposed to be. Then she can go off and —
Jessica: Add to it …?
Johanna: I was gonna say Go whore it up around Europe. But that’s just me. But the things I worry about have so much more to do with me. My challenge is to get over my shit.
Norine: Speaking of … that airplane bag story … disgusting. Beyond disgusting.
Johanna: Thank you.
Norine: You’re welcome. Could that be the most disgusting thing that’s ever happened to you as a mom?
Johanna: Sadie did shit up my back once.
Norine & Jessica, together: Ewwwww!
Johanna: She came into our bed one night. I just remember waking up, and going, WHAT JUST HAPPENED? I THINK MY CHILD JUST CRAPPED UP MY BACK. She’d pooped in her diaper, and it had gotten up her back, and we were back-to-back so it was on my back. I don’t know if that was worse. The barf was gross. But more than gross, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the ridiculous confluence of events.
Jessica: How many stars had to align to get THAT hand into THAT bag?
Johanna: It was really …
Johanna: … Unthinkable. And I still remember, it was Thanksgiving, and when we got to my in-laws house, I was still in this state of That really fucking happened?!?
Jessica: It was a gift. From the skies.
Norine: Seriously. You got a whole book out of this barf bag. That’s amazing!
Johanna: I guess I should thank that disgusting human who put a full barf bag back in a plane. It got me a book deal.
Johanna Stein is the author of How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane: And Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source, on sale today at Amazon and other booksellers.