Feb 20

My Phil Dunphy problem

Here’s one of those posts I shouldn’t publish but can’t help myself publishing.

These days, I keep thinking about Phil Dunphy. Phil is the character played by Ty Burrell in the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” a congenital optimist who combines a clever mind, an inventive spirit, an infallible faith in his sense of humor and a gleeful zest for life. He is not blind to mistakes or trouble, hardly incapable of misgivings or hurt feelings, but every crisis is but a hurdle to be overcome.

He is, I understand, fictional, but he is very real for me. The me I wish I were.

On Wednesday, my wife and I were watching the beginning of the latest episode of “Modern Family” (seen above) when we got to the bit where Clare mildly scolds Phil about not moving an old chair onto the sidewalk for disposal, and my wife remarked to me that if she had said that to me, I probably would have gotten defensive. I said that was probably true. I’m not Phil Dunphy.

Sure enough, that was borne out Friday morning. As I was making toast for the kids, there was a box from Noah’s Bagels on the counter in front of the toaster. We never get bagels from Noah’s – there isn’t one particularly close to us – and in the 7 a.m. fog of my daily business, I had assumed that my wife had bought these for some sort of school event later that day. But when she came into the kitchen, it occurred to me to ask her what was in the box, and she laughed a little and said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Bagels, for breakfast.”

Believe it or not, I took offense. It wasn’t the most obvious thing in the world to me, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked. And we had a small, silly spat in which I told her I don’t like being laughed at, and she said she wasn’t really laughing at me but at the situation. Which I believed … sort of … eventually.

I get it.  It should have just been a laugh. But I am not Phil Dunphy. And I know why I’m not.

If you looked back at my life to this point, you would see an ongoing series of events where I have lost faith, faith in myself and faith that life will reward me for who I am. For 20 years, from about age 11 to age 31, that mostly centered on dating. And then, almost as if it were on a pendulum, after I got married and my personal and professional existence were both in nearly perfect alignment, my life tilted the other way, and I have spent the past decade-plus in a near constant state of anxiety about my career, in which so many optimistic signs have turned out to be mirages – unlike Phil Dunphy, a successful real-estate broker who is happily married and has raised three children who are crazy wonderful in their own ways.

The latest came when ESPNLosAngeles.com cut me loose at the end of last month. After I wrote my farewell post, a few readers sent some “good riddance” comments my way. That, actually, didn’t bother me. One of them listed four reasons why he had become dissatisfied with Dodger Thoughts; the first three were based upon false information, but the fourth is worth quoting here:

… Jon has no idea how many people would love to be in the position he is in — writing a blog about a hometown iconic sports team and working at Variety as Features Editor. Rather than seeing the glass more than half full he sees it as more than half empty and continues to question himself rather than bathe in the happiness life has presented him.

This is pretty accurate. Distress and I are well-acquainted, though not because I’m not aware of what’s good in my life. I do like what I do, and I do love my family. However, I am the sole wage-earner in a family of five (at least until my youngest enters Kindergarten 18 months from now and my wife potentially resumes her career), working primarily in a dying industry, and with that, as you either know first-hand or can imagine, comes considerable pressure.

I spent most of last year, for example, worried about the fact that despite my day job at Variety, my freelance salary from ESPNLosAngeles, a third chunk of freelance money from writing two episodes of Cartoon Network’s Young Justice and, on top of all that, what you might call a stimulus package from my parents, I barely made ends meet last year. Heading into 2012, I knew that Young Justice would be finished for me and that the financial help would diminish. Dodger Thoughts and Variety weren’t enough. I knew I somehow needed to take my career to another level.

Not only did I fail in that quest, I found out in mid-December that ESPNLosAngeles would evaporate, meaning that my shortfall in 2012 looked overwhelming. And no, after years of living like this, I have basically run out of savings outside of retirement plans and my kids’ college funds. After all these years, after working my way through salary cuts and the recession, I expected finally to be on the upswing, not reeling from yet another financial punch.

For two months – and I’m not saying this is a long time – I have explored solutions, mainly solutions that involve continuing to get paid for what is my passion, while also being open to the possibility of dropping Dodger Thoughts if something more lucrative materialized. For two months I have done this, and I’m not done. But this past weekend, I fell into a deep, dark discouragement in the face of the nearly complete lack of interest shown by the world in being paid to write about the Dodgers or baseball.

It’s true that there are a few small freelance opportunities still extant, and there’s actually one currently viable option for hosting Dodger Thoughts, so I probably shouldn’t be writing about my lack of current marketability at all right now. But though the interest is sincere, I haven’t been led to believe that the money on the table would solve anything for me. So while I might be shooting myself in the foot by waxing anxious about the dearth of options, I sort of can’t help myself.

I’m aware that I’m better off than many. That doesn’t change my observation that things aren’t good enough.

I look around, and see almost all my friends seemingly exactly where they’re supposed to be with their careers. I have a few, my age or only a bit older, who could retire now if they wanted to.

I see the major bloggers I came up with, so to speak, finding their station. Aaron Gleeman is full-time at NBC Sports’ Hardball Talk. Erstwhile Yankees blogger Cliff Corcoran has become a major cog at SI.com. Jay Jaffe, once upon a time the Futility Infielder, is everywhere. Eric Stephen, who didn’t even start blogging until 2009, is covering the Dodgers’ full-time beginning in Spring Training for True Blue L.A.

I’ve written about baseball for SI.com, the Los Angeles Times and ESPN. And now …

No, I haven’t lost sight of the fact that I already have my own full-time job, and a good one for the industry I’m in. But I am unable to look away from the reality of my overall situation, nor the fear that I have spectacularly mismanaged my career.

As I said, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. The arc I’m experiencing right now is disturbingly similar to one from a decade ago. After a few years of writing film and TV scripts on spec, I started to get paid, then got an agent, then became a regular freelancer for the Disney Channel. But I was unable to make the leap to primetime, and then unable to stay consistently employed at the level I was at, and then unable to keep my agent or land a new one. As fast as my screenwriting career seemed to be building, it all dried up.

I was faced at the time with the choice of persevering in the face of rejection or taking a guaranteed salary back in journalism. In a move that I would describe as panic, and without the kid-induced financial pressure I face today, I chose the guaranteed salary, a decision that I have extraordinary regret over.

I’m not sure what I’m facing today even qualifies as a choice, except to the extent that everything is somehow a choice. The marketplace no longer seems to want to pay for Dodger Thoughts, yet I’m truly not sure I can stop, or that even if I could, whether I should. In my view, quitting screenwriting full-time was a mistake. Quitting Dodger Thoughts would seem to be the same mistake. But what if what I do is never meant to be appreciated by more than a small group? How can I look my family in the eye and with the confidence that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing for them?

That’s why I’m not Phil Dunphy. Phil Dunphy operates from a fundamental position of faith and confidence in the goodness of things. The things I’m confident in are not good. I know that bills will pile up, that life will be filled with challenges, that people will die. Those are inevitable. What I don’t know is whether, or how, I’m going to give my family what they need. Based on the trajectory of what has become a massive sample size of my career, I’m not sure exactly why I should have faith.

There’s another TV show that’s been a touchstone for me this week, though it doesn’t officially premiere until March 1. The show is NBC’s Awake, from Lone Star creator Kyle Killen – who can also speak to highs and lows, given that his last show was canceled after two airings – and it tells the story of a man who, following a traumatic event, lives in two parallel universes, unsure what is real and what is a dream. I’ve seen the first three episodes (no one said my day job doesn’t have its perks), and while “Awake” has its flaws, it is in my opinion the best new broadcast network show of the 2012-13 season, and has the dual effect of being something I wish I had created and resonating with how I’m feeling today.

I’m not sure what world I’m supposed to be living in. I’m not sure what’s real. Is it the world where things will be okay if I just keep at it, or the world where believing I’m special will just take me and my family over the waterfall? I know I’m not supposed to know the answer, but I feel I should at least know what to believe. But I don’t.

Phil Dunphy would tell me not to give up. For that matter, I think Ty Burrell, whose career had its own ups and downs and financial uncertainties before Modern Family, would tell me the same thing. But I am not them.

What do I gain from not believing in myself? I gain the possibility of avoiding that waterfall. (Just the possibility, since I feel like not giving up on myself as a screenwriter still helped send me over the edge.) I feel like I’m already halfway down as it is, my family in the barrel with me. The thought of us dropping any further, sinking any lower, pains me in a way I can’t describe.

The alienated Dodger Thoughts commenter I mentioned earlier also made other points, which, as I said, were wrong. Here is one of them:

Jon used this blog to get “love” from his acolytes talking about his anxieties around parenting issues, spouse issues and issues at being a good son. Rather than invest money in psychotherapy or family therapy this site became a place for Jon to get external validation. He then chose who to thank by name.

This is not true. I’m not looking for “love” for this post. I’m not looking for comfort. I’m not even sure I want comfort if it were offered, because of the two realities I’m caught in between, comfort would feed the one that I fear is false.

(To be clear, I’m also not writing this to solicit a Dodger Thoughts relief fund.)

I’m writing it because I’m in pain, and when I’m in pain, I write. And then, if I finish something, I take the calculated risk that by publishing, the satisfaction I feel in having articulated how I feel – and the immature ego-boost I receive from the idea that some people, however few of them, would care – outweighs the humiliation in showing what a mess I am.

There is a part of me, and not even a small part, that believes that all my problems could be solved tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, the next day, and if not the next day, then the next week, or the next month, or if I can hold out long enough, someday. Someday.

It’s the holding out part that confounds me.

And so, while I haven’t forgotten how to laugh, or even how to laugh at myself, when it comes to my self-worth and self-confidence, my sense of humor goes out the window, and I can’t find the Phil Dunphy in me.