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In Conversation with Johanna Stein

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Before giving birth to her daughter, Sadie, seven years ago, former Winnipegger Johanna Stein was a mime, an actress (she's the sullen Woman in #12 who shows Naomi Watts to the mystery cottage in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive), a director, and a comedy writer. She still is.

But as a mom, those job descriptions -- well maybe not the mime -- have synthesized into one Borg-like entity with the publication of How Not to Comfort a Child on a Plane (De Capo Lifelong Books, $23) a collection of humorous essays on parenting "from a highly questionable source," according to the book jacket.

Now a longtime Los Angeleno (save for a four-year interlude in Chicago) Stein, 46, took a break from making and posting a promotional video on Huffington Post to talk books, babies and the legacy of her Winnipeg upbringing.


FP: Did your upbringing here in Winnipeg define your identity as an L.A. mom in any significant way?

JS: I don't really know any L.A. moms -- not the stereotype, anyway. My mom friends here are pretty much like my mom friends in Winnipeg. Smart, creative, ballsy, kind -- and really, really funny.

If there's pressure to conform to some sort of L.A. Mom ideal, I don't really feel it. I think it's because we live in the Valley, which is gloriously un-hip and un-cool. It's flat, there's not much traffic, people smile at each other, and it's not a crime if your hair looks like it was last styled in the '80s.

Over the hill, in a hipster neighbourhood like West Hollywood or Los Feliz, I'm maybe a 5 on my absolute best day. Here in the valley, un-showered and in sweatpants, I'm an easy 8.5. In a lot of ways, for me the Valley is like the Winnipeg of L.A. -- mysterious and out-of-the-way, with one season where the weather makes it virtually unlivable. Here, it's the 500 degree summers... but I love it.

FP: The book's Winnipeg references include finding a corpse in the Red River, getting in a fight at the Palomino Club and some of the more outré child-rearing techniques practised by a pot-smoking dad. So... just a regular upbringing then?

JS: Yeah, I guess my childhood was in some ways unusual. But when I look back on it, what I see are the lessons that I took away from those experiences. Like the chapter where I talk about how I was raised more like a boy than anything else -- I'm honestly really grateful for how my parents raised us. My brothers are incredibly smart, funny, interesting people. My nephews are frickin' geniuses who have both been accepted into fancy-pants colleges. So despite my parents' untraditional parenting choices, they managed to produce a pretty stable and productive brood.

FP: How does your child-rearing philosophy differ from your parents?

JS: We're probably less relaxed than they were, but I don't know if that's because we're not living in the free-and-easy '70s, or whether my husband and I are just inherently more neurotic about parenting than they were. For one thing, I don't even think the word "parenting" existed back then.

For example, I had a notoriously filthy mouth when I was a kid. And yet somehow I have managed to raise a seven-year-old who still doesn't know any words more offensive than "stupid." I can't explain how that happened, because family legend has it that when I was three years old I would stand in our front yard screaming "F*** you, Nancy and Linda!' to the kids who lived across the street.

There's so much more comparison parenting that happens nowadays -- like now you're a negligent parent if your kids aren't taking Mandarin language classes by the time they're six months old. My parents didn't concern themselves with what everyone else was doing -- I really admire that. Well... I do now.

FP: You appeared in one of my favourite David Lynch movies, Mulholland Drive. Have you ever had any Lynchian moments as a mom?

JS: The entire birth experience was pretty much the most Lynchian scene of my life. Sure, on one level it was amazing, magical, life-changing, all that woo-woo stuff -- but it was also the most bizarre, surreal thing I've ever gone through. Having another human literally spring forth from your loins -- that's pretty bonkers. Add to that the fact that my doctor had one hand inside me checking for contractions, while in the other hand he was holding a cellphone to his ear, telling his wife that he wasn't certain he was going to make dinner, but that he was pretty sure he'd make the 8 o'clock show.

The craziest part is that there actually is a birth video. I'd give the footage to David Lynch, but having watched it myself, I think it may be too Lynchian even for him.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 D3

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