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Learning How to Have Joy

The irony is not lost on me that I am an improv teacher, which is about teaching people how to play and have fun, which is what I have the hardest time doing in my own life. (This is a classic case where the teacher teaches what he most needs to learn himself).

Since I was a little kid I have never experienced much joy. My mom would keep reminding me, “You were such a happy baby. What happened to you?”

Even the things that are supposed to bring most people joy, like going on vacation, don’t make me happy. I don’t really start enjoying myself on vacation until the last day when I know I am going home.

I had pretty much given up the idea of every feeling any sort of happiness in my life when someone in my group therapy was like, “You know, if you and Lauren have a baby, it will bring a lot more joy into your life.”

The idea of being a dad didn’t interest me that much, but I was interested in finding more joy.

So on July 2, 2016, we had Betsy, and I thought it was going to be an immediate joy-fest, but it wasn’t. In fact, the first three months were hell, and the months after that were sort of like purgatory.

When people would say, “How is Betsy?” or “How do you like being a dad?,” I had a stock answer: “It’s hard and I am tired.”

Then one day recently, I was taking care of Betsy, and we were in the living room rolling the green rubber ball on the brown coffee table. She was laughing and having a good time hiding the ball under the table and shrugging her shoulders like, “I don’t know where it went?”

My wife, Lauren, comes downstairs and she looks at both of us playing on the floor. And she says: “She brings you joy.”

“What are you talking about?” I say.

“Betsy. She brings you joy. I can see it on your face,” Lauren says, like she caught me in lie. “This whole ‘It’s hard-d-d, I am tired-d-d.’ (Lauren’s imitation of me). It’s your schtick. You tell people you are miserable, but you aren’t. You really enjoy her.”

I hated hearing that because it was true. My wife left out another part, and that is that sometimes when I am enjoying myself I don’t even know it until someone like her points it out to me.

It’s like when I’m at party and someone throws out the idea of playing a board game, and I say, “No, I hate board games.” Then I force myself to play Scrabble and when it’s over, I am like, “That was fun. Really fun, like, I am surprised.” Like a child might say.

Before having a child of my own, I wouldn’t say I hated kids, but it was close. I would say I tolerated them, which is pretty much how I feel about myself. Now, when I hear a screaming kid in a restaurant it reminds me of Betsy. I love watching her get excited on Thursday mornings when the garbage truck pulls into the alley and she starts to point and scream with excitement. She sits on my lap riveted until it picks up everyone’s garbage and then she waves goodbye to the truck like she’s the Pope with one stiff hand as it leaves. We repeat the whole cycle again the next morning with the recycling truck.

And I love at night when I’m holding her in my arms and rocking her thinking, “How safe and secure you must feel right now,” as she closes her tiny little eyes and goes to sleep.

In these moments I feel pure joy, and I feel happy and sad that this will not last, that she will outgrow these simple things, that there will be a time when she will not fit in my arms or like playing with the empty La Criox can for half an hour.

Since having a kid the world seems a lot more scary to me, but it also seems a lot more fun and I have a lot more gratitude.

When Lauren was pregnant with Betsy, some people loved to give me unsolicited advice. The one thing that they would say was, “You are going to learn more from them than they will from you.” And even though I did not like to hear it at the time, they were right.

And yes, it is hard, and yes, I am still tired, but Betsy has given me permission to have more joy in my life, which can only make me a better person, father and improv teacher.

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My greatest birthday gift

Friday is my birthday. I will be 53 years old. In improv, that makes me ancient. Each year I have the same birthday ritual: I go into a major depression. It usually stems from thinking about how I wish I was more successful, more famous, and have more money — like my friends that I started out with back in the ’90s do. It then ends up with me getting pissed off at God, yelling at him with a fist clenched to the sky saying, “Why haven’t I made it yet?” This is annual ritual is designed to make me feel crappy about myself, and so far it has never let me down.

But this year is different.

Yes, I still want all those things my friends have, but the desire isn’t as burning. I don’t feel as desperate. I think the one thing the podcast has taught me is that no amount of success will take away my low self-esteem, self-loathing and self-hatred. That is separate work from my art.

There’s no question that improv comedy has given me a way to express myself, but somewhere along the line I misused it as a way to validate myself. That is always dangerous, because you cannot fix your insides with something outside of yourself. Success, fame and money can’t fill that gaping whole inside me; it’s not possible.

Lately I feel more gratitude for the things I do have. Especially my family — my wife, Lauren; my daughter, Betsy; and my cat, Coco — and all the people around us who have given us so much love and support.

If you’ve been reading this blog on a somewhat regular basis, you have noticed that my own personal forecast has gone from cloudy with a chance of thunder to partly sunny. I owe that to my little joy machine, my daughter Betsy Jane. People say kids will change you, and after ten months, I am realizing they are right, and I am looking forward to even more changes in myself. Being a parent is the hardest, most demanding, most rewarding thing I have ever done. I still question our choice of having a kid, now more than ever since she has started to crawl and it’s hard to keep up with her at 53.

When I look back at my tiny little career, the things that I am the proudest of are the things I either created or were a part of that were built from scratch. I don’t why, but they have always been the most fulfilling and rewarding. I think about my first one man show, “I’m 27, I Still Live at Home and Sell Office Supplies,” or being part of Jazz Freddy, or starting the podcast Improv Nerd. All things created out of thin air, and now Betsy is on the list. She is my best creation yet.

So, happy birthday to Betsy’s father. She is the greatest gift he could have ever gotten.

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