NEW COLUMNIST! Jason Heil – Learning to Listen During a Pandemic

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This month we’re excited to introduce a new column by Jason Heil, who shares his journey learning during quarantine that sometimes the best thing to say is nothing…and just listen.

By Jason Heil

After 30 minutes of searching for the right family movie, tensions were rising.  The 14-year-old wanted to watch a movie that was too mature for the 11-year-old.  The 11-year-old wanted to watch a movie that was too immature for the family.  Dad wanted to watch a movie that he knew the kids would love but that they had no interest in.  Mom just wanted it all to be over.

If only this was the first time.  The pandemic had been going for several months and the fun of being home was turning in to something else.  But we kept turning to the same go-tos.

We needed a new tactic.

           Listen.

As a kid, I probably first absorbed that concept from my mom.  She was a firm believer that we must pay attention to ourselves.  “Listen to what your body is telling you,” she would say, in many different scenarios.  It might be that I could capture the beginnings of a cold, or the severity of a twisted ankle, or very wisely, when I just needed a nap.

            Listen.

 As a young student actor, this concept was drilled into us over and over.  “Talk and listen.  That’s the key to acting.”  It’s not really, but it really is.  Like most young actors, I loved the sound of my own voice and delighted in skillfully articulating complex thoughts and challenging rhythms.  But more and more, I recognized that none of the words matter if they aren’t rooted in the circumstances of the surrounding world.  To truly connect those words to reality, I had to listen with all of my senses to everything happening around me.

            Listen.

Jason heil monique gaffney san diego rep theater
SWEAT by Lynn Nottage at San Diego Repertory Theater, with Jason Heil and Monique Gaffney. Photo Credit: Jim Carmody.

As a boyfriend and later, husband, I prided myself on being one of the good guys.  I was smart.  I was sensitive.  I planned and coordinated to make sure I was doing all of the right things.  When my girlfriend (who later became my wife) didn’t appreciate how wonderful I was, I would try to carefully explain it to her, using logic and (metaphorical) charts.  “But these are the things that matter to me, if you would just listen,” she would say.  Ultimately, I realized that I was channeling all of my actions into what I would want from my partner, instead of listening to what she actually wanted. 

            Listen.

JASON heil kim san marcos san diego
Jason & Kim, somewhere in Ohio.

Newsflash: this pandemic has been hard.  And long.

My family is fortunate.  My wife’s job as a producer and casting director has been able to continue online from home.  Though my theatre acting is on hold, I am still able to teach for two colleges, again online from home.  Our kids attend school online from home.  So, we are safe and financially sound, and grateful for all that allows for us.

That doesn’t mean that parenting in the pandemic hasn’t been hard.  And long.

When the pandemic started, like most people, we were scared, but there was also something exciting about it.  While there is no “right” time for a pandemic, at ages 11 & 14, our kids were old enough to be self-sufficient, yet young enough that this wasn’t messing with prom or college.  And, come on, let’s be honest.  In retrospect, if you could have skipped a year of having to navigate middle school in person, would that have been so bad?  Yes, the outside world was threatening and scary, but we liked our house and looked for ways to make it a big slumber party.  Sure, we had work and school, but the rest of the time was play time, right?We attacked that free time with a vengeance.  We were going to win the pandemic.

The Heil family, dressed up at home in 2020

We did theme weeks, complete with clothing guides prepared by the children (the picture above is from Hollywood night). 

We watched nearly every film in the canons of Harry Potter, Marvel Universe, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Mission Impossible, Pirates of the Caribbean

We played Harry Potter Clue, Brain Quest, Monopoly, Apples to Apples, Settlers of Cataan, BS (yes, the kids know what that stands for), and even Poker. 

Settlers of Cataan

Kim baked bread.  I might have even made our super special favorite comfort food dish, Tequila Chicken Spinach Fettuccine, and then made it again.  And again.  And again.  And again.  Katrina developed a curiosity for the kitchen and started experimenting with some recipes.  We took daily family walks and even a few small hikes. 

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Jason and the kids

Outside work even picked up as Kim started an online interview series and I did an online show that ran weekly over Zoom.

Dammit, we were going to be thrivers in quarantine! …But we were tired.

As most of the world knows right now, there is no blocking out the throes of a country in chaos.  With the pandemic, civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd and a Presidential election race, it was harder and harder to keep up the fun and games.

Not to mention, we were all finding our own paths in this now ubiquitous online world of Zoom.  The kids had to chart the “when-do-you-ask-a-question-that-you-normally-would-have-asked-but-now-it’s-much-harder-and-maybe-I’ll-just-wait-and-see-if-I-figure-it-out-by-myself” territory.  Kim realized that the loss of face-to-face interactions truly made the workplace more challenging.  I adapted my teaching and it seemed like most of the students were able to figure it out with me.  But, as was happening all over the country, I also had higher rates of students who just gave up.

Like everyone else, we were tired and uncertain, but we were fighting it.  We kept planning game nights and movie nights and hikes.  If there were tears and raised voices, well, that was just a price we would pay to keep having fun!

As tempers started to flare over the movie selection, something popped up in my conscious.  I asked the 14-year old what she had said.

“Can’t we just have a night off?”

I looked to her brother.  “Would you want that?”

“Yes, please!  I just want to veg!”

I looked to my wife.  She nodded quietly. So, we turned the TV off and just chilled. And that’s been the plan ever since.

We still play games.  We still watch movies.  We still read together.  We still hike.  But we don’t do those things all the time.  And any one of us can tap out if we are feeling weary, or tired, or really, just need to. 

We have to listen to each other.  Yes, baking bread is a good use of time.  But so is sitting alone in the gazebo or playing Fortnite or laying down with the dog for a while.  It’s all good.

The longer this pandemic extends, the more each of us need to find our own balance.  My balance doesn’t need to be my daughter’s and hers doesn’t need to be her mom’s or brother’s.  But, collectively, the way we will balance each other is simple. 

            Listen.

It may seem odd to begin a new column by talking about listening.  Over the coming months, I’m going to be speaking to you, and the very nature of a column is a bit one-way.  I’ll be speaking to you about parenting and husbanding and teaching and storytelling.  But I’m very much going to be speaking about listening.  As a cis-gendered, straight white man, I have experienced my share of privilege.  As the world has slowed down around this pandemic, I am trying to take the opportunity to listen to and prioritize voices that I have missed before.  I’m recognizing that my place in this new post-pandemic world will have different boundaries and statuses and responsibilities.  I’m trying to listen to those around me who have been marginalized for too long.  So, I’ll be speaking about that as well.  But mostly, I just want to share some thoughts from another walker along the common path. 

Until next time…

________________________________

Jason Heil is a Professor at California State University San Marcos where he teaches theater, and has worked in the entertainment industry as a director, producer, actor, and writer at some of the most prestigious theaters in the U.S. He received his bachelors and masters degrees from the University of California at Irvine, and lives in San Diego with his wife Kim, their two children, and their dog, Sadie.

 

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