Week Three: “What Happens in Poland…”

January 19, 2010 at 7:16 (Uncategorized)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I ended up at the Polish Museum of America on Martin Luther King Day, in the middle of Haiti’s quake catastrophe. In fact, I don’t know of a more perfect place I could have been to commemorate the day, the sacrifice and the message of valuing all the world’s people. This is mostly because the Polish Museum of America manages to tell a version of Poland’s history without once mentioning the Jews.

My friend H and I went yesterday on what happened to be a lucky sunny day. In the 800-square-foot shadows of the auditorium were small glass-encased and towering, free-standing museum-type relics, a sterile shrine to Pope John Paul II, colorful costumes spanning a dozen non-crucial periods in Polish history and various World War II artifacts, propaganda and uniforms.

Two female volunteers, one, older with a neck brace, and another younger woman (only by comparison) who was disturbingly childlike, removed ornaments from the room’s central Christmas tree, the younger one whimpering for 15 minutes after dropping and crushing a hand-blown glass globe. We toured the museum in silence for 45 more minutes until we were distracted by the sounds of crinkled dismantling as the women began to pick away with more and more speed at the remnants of a large Christmas stage and display.

Within minutes of entering the main hall, an anxious Polish Museum staff leader popped over eager to alert us to the Easter exhibit, and returned every three minutes with new and unappealing reasons to “visit again.” Uninterested in a lifelong tradition of this I tossed a closed smile at him, keening in on the curious and seemingly ethnically displaced rows of stone and ceramic cups; ceiling-high tomb doors with faces and door knockers inscribed with Polish hieroglyphics; and carved dark-wood creatures that reminded me of an African market.

I stared at the line of contents in two of the cases for 20 minutes.   It was remarkable to see that every culture has touched every other… Africa and Egypt and Asia really mixed here, and painted Poland (or this version of Poland) more than I knew from my  elementary and Hebrew school educations. But among the Easter eggs and ceramic mugs and the 50% of space devoted to World War II, there was not one sentence, not one tiny pin or photograph, acknowledging the Jews. They had wiped us out.

(Jews date back over a millennium in Poland, and the country was the center of Jewish culture before the Holocaust.)

I recognized myself in absolutely nothing, here. I don’t know much about who I am or about the Jewish people and our social position beyond Hollywood stereotypes, but I know Poland is a part of me, inextricably intertwined with my history, my grandparents’ history and the more than SIX MILLION of us who didn’t live long enough to have a history. That’s not something to be forgotten in this museum or anywhere else. It upset me — as it has so many times when I have to tell Chicagoans that Jews don’t have Christmas trees and Hanukkah isn’t a major holiday — to be lost in the Midwest’s edited interpretation. I guess I feel Jews shouldn’t have to wait until we’re like dinosaurs, teetering on the edge of extinction, to be recognized.

So it got me thinking, in light of recent events, about how quickly we forget.

As we watch the Haitian part of the world crumble, we should take the time to think about what’s being lost. To talk to people about it. And to remember that there are some things we should never ever forget.

I know we’re all struggling financially, but it’s important to text HAITI to 90999 to have $10 added to our phone bills, and to preserve valuable people and their culture on our planet. As the Polish Museum of America just demonstrated, it is all-too-easy to be eradicated from it.

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Week Two: It’s the Pictures that Got Small

January 14, 2010 at 7:16 (Uncategorized)

All right. I’m sitting here in all the glory that is slight illness and underemployment,  suffering ’til dinnertime the daytime lineup of  “All My Children,” “Blind Date” and “Bachelor Party 2: The Last Temptation,” and I’m reminded that I need to write this week’s blog.

The rumors are true: Tuesday, I was in a national TV spot. I wasn’t some shmo in the background, by the way — I actually open the spot. Not to ruin the punchline, but you should know in advance that this is the mark of a very bad commercial.

So how did I get here? A few weeks back, a producer friend put a call out for non-union extras with headshots. I told him that with the sparseness of freelance, I was definitely interested in the money, but I didn’t act and I didn’t have a headshot. He asked me to send a Facebook photo and I did. That should have been the end of it.

Then, on Monday, while I was waiting among some very sorry looking people hoping to be drafted as workers for the 2010 Census, I got a call from the production house: They wanted me onsite the next day for the shoot. Yes! I was without-a-doubt available. As someone who has historically been on the other side of the camera as the writer, I thought this too good an opportunity to pass up. And maybe, my brain started wishing, I would put in my two cents about the script and they would hire me to do some writing in the future. But wait — the woman from the production house interrupted my freelance fantasy — there was more. They were sorry for the late notice, but they wanted me to be the waitress in their lactose intolerance commercial. Damn my friend and his string-pulling! I would have been happy just smiling away in a booth in the background, slowly polishing off a burger with the rest of the extras for 52 takes. The spot, whose lack of ingenuity you can taste in every bite, takes place in a diner where I, as the waitress, serve up sundaes to a woman who, thanks to this very obviously named product — Digestive Advantage — can now eat the things she loves. Even if you’re looking through your cable listings specifically for me in the near future, I’m going to bet you won’t notice this spot. If anything stands out about the rather bland ad, it will be my almost dropping the sundae in the poor woman’s lap. And if they know what’s good for them, they probably cut that part.

So (switch to present tense for some reason): Tuesday I arrive at the site a little early and it’s a bustling diner. I’m familiar with the place, so I know I’m at the right spot, but I’m used to desolate wastelands when I arrive for shoots. Both the table side and the counter side of this tiny restaurant on Chicago’s west side are packed with people during the lunchtime rush. I look around for cameras, lights, monitors, scrims, artsy looking middle-aged guys in dirty t-shirts… I know it takes hours of setup and quite a large crew to craft and produce even the most basic :30 TV spot, so I’m kinda shocked at the unusually usual scene, and I’m feeling like less of a star than when I walked in.

I approach the counter and ask one of the waitresses if she knows where the shoot is. “You mean the Comcast shoot?” she says, furrowing her brow. I shake my head, laughing on the inside that the employees don’t even know that in 40 minutes, a TV commercial is about to be filmed where they are standing. As an agency copywriter, I’m also a bit concerned: What kind of thing are they trying to pull off here? Have they even paid for use of the site? I decide it’s not the time to push the stick further up my ass, and I smile to myself as I figure out my next move.

“Well, who are you looking for, honey? Maybe I can help you there.” I give her the name of the coordinator, and she jerks a thumb over her shoulder at the tables around the kitchen where a few innocuous-looking people sit around a table, presumably discussing blocking. “I’ll just sit tight, then,” I say, and place my Spanxed-in ass on a hard bar stool. Suddenly, I’m getting all the celebrity treatment a diner can offer: “You want a coffee while you wait? Maybe some water? Here you go. And if you want to read the paper, I’ve got that here for you, too.”

OK, now we are talking. I relax and take full advantage (“Two creams for my watery coffee, thank you”) of my one-star treatment, closing my eyes and imagining myself to be regaled and pampered at the Four Seasons. Hey, I’m a writer without a gig. I’ll take my coffee-and-paper spa day and I’ll embellish it as I please.

At 1:20, ten minutes before shoot time, I go around the corner where old people, blue collar people and suits alike are wiping crumbs from their mouths, but no one is getting into wardrobe. I introduce myself to an in-charge looking guy who happens to be the Art Director, and he waves me back over to the counter where I had already been sitting for 30 minutes. They’re running late, he tells me. About 20 more minutes. OK, no problem. I’ll just go ahead and slurp on some more free Sanka. Send someone over when you’re ready for my close-up.

Ten minutes later, I get a call from some intern that they are taking stock of where all the actors are. I get off my bar stool and look across the line of segregation — the bathrooms — at the table side of the restaurant. I wave at a young guy on his cell phone and tell him I’ve been here for 45 minutes. He laughs nervously and I go back to reading about Rod Blagojevich, another minor Chicago celeb.

Soon, a woman with curly dyed red hair rushes over excitedly to me, and I can tell by the way she is studying my pimpled face that she is the coordinator who called me the day before. She tells me she just wanted to meet “our waitress,” but I know she is sizing me up, trying to see if I can squeeze into the vintage ’50s waitress frock that they’ve pulled out of some trunk for me, and she tells me as much. “Well, just a few more minutes until they figure things out over there and then we’ll see how you fit into that costume.” I get the sense the thing is not going to fit, and I make a conscious decision not to drink anymore as she rushes back to the privileged side of the restaurant.

People are finishing up their lunches and leaving the table side of the diner to return to work, and the owner puts up a sign that reads “This side is now closed” or something to that effect to let patrons know that if they want to eat, they’re going to have to do it at the lunch counter. I’m glad to see this, but there are still dishes and used napkins and cockeyed chairs everywhere, and the sounds of the kitchen and the HVAC system and the front door (in front of the bathrooms and also nestled between the two sides of the diner) as disruptors cannot possibly be ruled out. I push these anal thoughts out of my head and figure I’ll let someone else worry about interruptions and possible client complaints for the day. This time, I am not here to babysit a client. This time, I am THE TALENT. Yeah.

Young intern guy comes back over and asks me to sign a very short, two-paragraph release, which I willingly do when he tells me I’m going to get paid at the end of the day. I talk to a couple guys who are extras, and find out they’re both more qualified than I to be the part of the waitress: one is an actor, a former waiter and a co-founder of a theatre company; the other is his roommate and also co-founder of the theatre. I am astounded and a bit embarrassed that they’re about to waste hours of their time watching me fumble with a tray.

Now things are in full swing. Artsy, dirty, t-shirted guys come in with screens and monitors and poles and other equipment. The coordinator holds up a plastic dry-cleaning bag with three dresses too moth-eaten to be considered vintage. The director picks the greyish-blue one so I don’t stand out (good call, sir), and after they steam it for 15 minutes I go into the bathroom to put it on, waiting patiently for five more minutes as restaurant patrons, unaware they are in the middle of call time, finish up in the diner’s one stall. The whole thing is exciting and ridiculous.

The dress fits as you’d expect a ’50s dress to fit: It’s got room in the boobs for a cone bra with which I am mercifully not supplied; it’s tiny-tiny in the waist (which luckily for them I am or we’d have some interesting last-minute arts and crafts going on to make it work) and it hangs down too low and too baggy for me despite the fact I told them I am only 5’2″. I come out of the bathroom and everyone frowns. It’s too “old school” for them. Well, yeah, they picked out a “Flo” dress. I look like I could be serving pie, Sweetie, and doing the Twist on the bar at Johnny Rockets. “Did you bring anything else?” they ask me. Uhhh, nope. We didn’t talk wardrobe options. “I’ve got a Calvin Klein sweater and an ill-fitting pair of jeans that I can pull off without unbuttoning.” I say this with a hint of irony and an eyebrow raise, hoping they’ll heed my warning, but the director mocks me by repeating, “ill fitting?” and suggests I put them on anyway. The art director then grabs me a promotional t-shirt from the glass case behind the lunch counter and pulls it tight so it fits/holds up my pants. Dizzy from the realization that none of this ever would have flown at any place I’ve ever worked, I stare down at my new t-shirt with the crazy, eye-catching fonts that advertise the diner I’m standing in while I am about to stand before the camera and open the spot for a client whose name doesn’t appear on camera for at least 15 seconds. The confusion for TV viewers is obvious in my mind, but I keep my mouth shut and try not to imagine that I know better.

They do my hair in a ponytail and finish my makeup with a bright pink smudge for a mouth, put a dirty apron complete with pen and pad around my waist and the director begins his orders to the cast and crew. They’re still cleaning off tables and  checking the light at the same time they’re getting ready to roll. The lead actress (the only one with a speaking part) is sitting at the table running through her lines as they try to standardize the number of condiments at each table. The extras take their seats, their burgers and Cokes are brought out and the actual waitresses finally cut the HVAC and retire for the day — but not before making a few amazing-looking ice cream sundaes for the focus of the spot. At least some things are left to the professionals.

The director is talking out loud and I’m paying attention, but mostly to everything going on around me. I just can’t shake the Type-A part of me that wants to fix everything. Suddenly, I hear my name and key in on the fact that he’s talking to me. “Now, Ellen: you’re going to pick up your tray, come over here, put down the sundae, walk back over, put down the tray and then pick up your pad and take Talya’s order,” he commands, walking me through it rather hastily. I say OK, and nod my head, hoping I’ve got it all. Then he goes back behind the camera and stares at me like I’m stupid. I think he was expecting action the moment he stepped back there, as if his presence behind the camera made whatever was in his head come to life, but I’m too dense for that. I found this part of things to be exactly like babysitting a client: They fully expect that you can read their minds. I’ve gotten no better at that than when I began in this business, so we waste a few minutes while the director shakes his head and hurls a few soft insults my way: “Ellen, geez, I know you’re shy, but… come on.. the spot BEGINS when you Put. Down. The. Sundae.”

Look, I’m game for whatever they want, but I’ve got no tray and I’ve got no sundae. They rush to get me a tray and then I begin to walk over to the main table from where I have been standing for 45 minutes when the director expresses his disgust. It takes about four people to communicate to me something a simple script would have done alone: I am supposed to take my mark right there at the table with sundae balanced precariously on saucer-atop-a-tray. Thanks goodness. If they had asked any more of me in the way of walking or waitressing, the out-takes would have been priceless, as would have been the replacement cost of the dishes.

They finally realize I have no sundae. When it arrives on my tray and they place it just so, I remind myself to tip my waitresses better in the future. That shit is HEAVY. I mean, you would not believe the weight on one hand of three scoops of ice cream in a fountain glass. I thud that thing down in front of the actress like an amateur probably 15 times before I notice my practiced and frozen smile is for naught. At some point, they have gotten wise to my discomfort in front of the camera and have pulled in much closer on the shot. If we see my shaking hand, we’ll be lucky, so if you’re really a fan, keep an eye out for its pastiness.

But I digress. Man, do I have newfound respect for waitresses. Every time I’d leave the table, I’d kind of topple sideways from the relief of the weight and bang into the chair behind me. And every time I’d put down the sundae, it would teeter on the saucer. Rather than drop it in her lap (I was certain they hadn’t brought a costume change for her in the case of sundae disaster), I took about three seconds longer than I should have to place the thing down without incident. In a :30 spot about a product that is not ice cream, three seconds is too valuable to waste on ice cream. I can’t believe they picked the clumsiest, most awkward person in the universe to do a job that involves just a little bit of grace. This is exactly why I have never become a waitress: this is one thing that a girl with a Masters degree is no more qualified than anyone else to do. I am pretty lucky that their standards are so low because no one says a thing to me about my lack of skill all day. I am pretty sure they are going to fire me any moment, but three hours and about 20 melted sundaes later, we wrap. And without dropping a thing.

When the spot comes out on national cable TV, look for my fat ass in the background, taking a woman’s order. I am preparing myself for the ten pounds the camera adds. I am preparing myself to not cringe at my awkwardness on camera. But I’m not sure anything can prepare me for the humiliation of being part of a spot that does such a disservice to its client.

It really was a fun and interesting day, and my left arm is now a lot stronger than my right, but think I’ll stick to my side of the camera from now on. And my side of the restaurant as well.

Tip your servers, ladies and gentlemen. It’s harder than it looks.

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Removing the Stick from My Arse

January 7, 2010 at 7:16 (Uncategorized)

To those of you bored and turned off by the first post, don’t leave me yet! I promise to let my New Year’s resolution slide in its seriousness in the coming weeks, just like I do every year. My boyfriend often talks about his quest to remove the stick from my arse: Looks like we have some work to do…

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Weak One

January 6, 2010 at 7:16 (Uncategorized)

This is my very first post and therefore my very first self-challenge of the year, so it has to be good. That being said, I’m betting the announcement will underwhelm you: This week, I chose to advocate for myself.

Let me tell you: This was not easy. The decision to go ahead and stick my neck out there — knowing I can barely dish it out and I most certainly cannot take it — was carefully thought out, unslept over and strategically planned.

I’m a writer for a living, and one common thread among writers is that we are thoughtful, observant over-thinkers. But I have thought myself into permanent inaction. And when I have coaxed myself into mustering the courage to stand up for myself in the past… I cannot describe the burn of the backdraft.

This particular incident was not about blindly standing up for myself. It wasn’t about taking all my past anger from being pushed around and vomiting it at one target. This was a situation in which I would have risked something by keeping information to myself, but I also risked something by offering it up. While I’d love to offer details, certain things are not meant to be risked.

Here is what I do want to say: People often tell me rather flippantly to love myself and believe in myself, and they leave me with that advice assuming that even though I have operated my entire life without the necessary self-confidence, simply latching onto their lame reminder will be enough to change things. The truth is that those of us who get taken advantage of time and again probably have a deep seated history of such behavior. It doesn’t come from us. It was inflicted upon us. So for all your casual counseling, we still have no idea how to just forge ahead and flip off the world with renewed sense of self. Sticking up for oneself is not a makeover show. It is not a one-time deal and then you’re all fixed. It is, like a weight-management plan, a commitment. And since commitment is at the heart of every New Year’s resolution, there is no bigger and badder way to jump start 2010.

The boring details for those who are looking for more than cliches: I decided to advocate for myself by planning out my conversation, various routes the discussion might go and my various responses to those routes; by presenting information tactfully; and by furnishing the necessary proof. I didn’t make it about anyone else but me and the person I was speaking to, and I tried to keep the conversation relevant to my exact point of dissension without permitting myself to be strong-armed into being led off-topic or kowtowing. Often, I back down trying to avoid conflict or scenarios which might make me cry. I’ll nod my head and say, “Oh, of course, of course. I see what you’re saying. Well, thank you so much for listening to me even though I was so completely out of line, here. I truly appreciate your time and I am so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking” — when I was the one seeking and deserving an apology in the first place.

In this case, I did not receive an apology, nor did I receive a thank you for offering information that was correct and which may have saved this person from minor trouble in the future. I did apologize and maybe even backed down a bit toward the end, but the difference here is that I foresaw the argument the other person would make, and caught between risking nothing or risking it all, I elected to split the difference in deference and loyalty to my New Year’s resolution — and I effectively gained something for myself by risking something of myself.

I knew I likely wouldn’t win. I knew by not winning, I might actually lose quite a bit. But that’s what risks are. That is the lottery, the stock market, love and anything in life that is truly worth it. That’s my lesson. That was Week One of 52 Weeks of New.

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ABOUT 52

January 5, 2010 at 7:16 (ABOUT THIS BLOG.)

Most years begin the same way: with a New Year’s resolution centered around self-improvement. I’m taking the rather vague theme and pushing it to action, detailing in 52 Weeks of New my resolve to do or learn one new thing a week, each week of 2010. Variety, I’m coming to realize, is the defibrillator of life. Watch me channel it with all I’ve got.

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