Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Yes, Yes, I'm Still Here...

I’ve been in hibernation since early July, stricken with a case of seasonal depression.  The weather in Austin is unrelenting: 108 degrees and sunny.  Every. Single. Day.  A person can only take so much sunshine.

The so-called “sun shades” in my apartment just aren’t cutting it anymore.  I’ll crank the thermostat down to 60 degrees in a childish fit and an hour later it’s still 85 degrees in my living room.  In an attempt to block out all traces of sunlight, my husband and I took a bunch of old flattened moving boxes and boarded up our floor-to-ceiling windows.  I’m pretty sure that violates some sort of Feng Shui principle, but it’s better than slowly melting to death on our leather couch.

Last week, while the East Coast was grappling with an unprecedented earthquake and a massive 100-year storm, something even more rare and unexpected occurred here in Austin ...  It rained.  For, like, five whole minutes.  It was crazy.  This one dark cloud appeared on the horizon, and everyone was like, “Whoa, what is that?”  People dropped what they were doing and ran outside to watch the raindrops fall, capturing the event on their cell phones and alerting the public via social media: “OMG, is that? ... Could it be? ... It’s raining!”

Interestingly, that was the first day in a long time that I actually felt like writing.  But what to write?  Now that the novelty of blogging has worn off, it feels like a chore.  An incredibly time-consuming chore.  I’ve been waiting for a sign as to whether I should continue sending my thoughts into the great internet void, and finally one appeared in the form of an email reminding me that I have unused stock photo credits.  I realized that if I were to end my blog now, I would be wasting nine dollars.  I am way too cheap to let that happen. And so, my blog will live on!

First things first, I should probably update you on everything that’s happened over the last couple of months:
  • The food trailer that serves my favorite vegan mac ‘n cheese closed down.  That means I will have to spend countless hours attempting to recreate it.  All I know about their mysterious “cheeze” sauce is that it contains potatoes and mustard.  I am not expecting it to go well.
  • On a whim, I purchased a highly impractical, decorative fruit bowl crafted out of a single piece of chrome wire.  It now sits empty on our kitchen counter.  My husband recently started wearing it around on his head.  He calls it his “time-travel hat.”

  • Silverfish have inexplicably invaded our bathroom.  We took immediate action and sprayed an allegedly non-toxic pesticide along the baseboards.  (We made sure to wear swim goggles and a dust mask while spraying, just in case.)  If that doesn’t get rid of them, we’ll have to move.

Well, you are now officially up to speed.  Can you tell I haven’t been doing much lately?  My husband thinks I am in need of a clearly defined goal.  He insists that happiness comes from having a goal and making progress towards it.  Of course, he has plenty of goals and he's just as miserable as I am.  But it’s true that I’ve lost momentum.  Having a clearly defined goal couldn’t hurt.

Okay, so what should my new goal be?  There are so many options to choose from!

a) Jump-start the writing of my memoir by signing up for National Novel Writing Month.  If you write 50,000 words during the month of November, you get a web badge that says “Winner” and a PDF Winner’s Certificate.  Sweet!

b) Apply to a Creative Writing MFA program.  This would require me to retake the GRE exam (what do you mean those scores were only good for five years?!) and obtain three letters of recommendation from people who are "familiar with my writing" (that means you, blog followers!).  I suspect that all of this would earn me a personalized rejection letter from the school of my choice.

c) Go to vegetarian culinary school and open up my own vegan food trailer.  (It has come to my attention that there is a gaping hole in the market for vegan mac ‘n cheese.)

d) Work for my husband again, this time as his “office manager.”  I do love efficiency.

e) Go out and get a real job.  (Gasp!)

f) Go out and get a puppy (preferably a poodle named Noodles) and teach him to do tricks.


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Happy Birthday, Bitter & Backtracking!

I’m currently in New York, tagging along on my husband’s business trip.  While he's attending important meetings, I'm wandering around the city doing whatever I please.  I love business trips!  Come to think of it, I did enjoy going on the occasional business trip back when I worked in finance.  I got to go to some really exotic places: Rotterdam, Calgary, Tulsa, and a power plant in Queens!

Anyway, before I begin eating and drinking my way around New York City, I wanted to publish this blog post.  Why?  Because today is the one-year anniversary of the launch of my blog!

I did some Googling to see how other bloggers have celebrated this tremendous milestone, and invariably, the answer is "a fabulous giveaway!"  Fine, I can be generous too.  So here it is... The first person who comments on this blog post will get a signed photo of yours truly!  (Unless you write something creepy, in which case I reserve the right to withhold the prize.)  

Even though my blogging pace has slowed somewhat, I’m proud of myself for keeping it going this long.  I thought for sure I would’ve quit by now and moved on to some other pointless hobby.  I can’t say it’s been overwhelmingly successful.  I see blogs with hundreds of followers and think, “How the hell did they do that?!”  (Giveaways, apparently.)  Blog directories don’t seem to generate any traffic.  I've looked into blog networks and was invited to join BlogHer, but I refuse to clutter up my website with ads.  (You’re welcome, readers, you’re welcome.)  Even though I can't brag about my site traffic, at least I can say that I’m proud of every entry I’ve posted in terms of the quality of writing, and I guess that’s all that matters.  Who needs fame and fortune?

People sometimes ask me why I bother blogging at all, and honestly, I can only think of two reasons.  First, it forces me to practice writing.  Writers are supposed to write, right?  If I didn’t have handfuls of people waiting for my next blog post, I might procrastinate indefinitely.  Second, my blog is a way for far-away family and friends (and random readers) to find out what’s going on in my life.  It's less awkward than talking on the phone.  And I never get interrupted.  I can also gauge who misses me the most by how often people read my blog.  I miss you too, Mom!

Hey, I just thought of a third reason.  Someday, my future children can go online and see how cool and funny their mother was back in the day, before they drove her insane.

So, family, friends, random readers, and future children, here are my top ten favorite posts from the last year:

1.) “He Who Aims at Nothing Hits It Every Time”

2.) The Easiest (and Worst) Decision You’ll Ever Make

3.) There’s a Career Advice Book For You!

4.) When I Grow Up...

5.) I Think You Should See Someone

6.) Crappy Job #2: Payless

7.) Crappy Job #4: Last-Picked Intern

8.) Busted!

9.) Executive Household Manager

10.) Me, Encapsulated in a Word

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Home, Stressful Home

Currently, my husband and I are renting an apartment in downtown Austin – part of a gradual transition from our New York City lifestyle.  Every six months, we revisit the idea of buying a house and becoming real adults.  Although the process is intimidating and the permanence terrifying, there are definitely some perks to owning a home.  We could paint the walls without having to ask for permission (I’d paint my kitchen “Crimson” and “Citron” and immediately regret it).  We could have grass (dead brown grass that we wouldn’t be allowed to water due to drought restrictions).  We could keep our neighbors at a distance and wouldn’t have to listen to their kids playing tag in the hallway (someone get them some grass already!). And we could finally build that underground survival shelter that we’ve always dreamed of.

In an ongoing effort to convince my husband that owning a house can be fun and rewarding and isn’t just a big hassle, I tricked him into accompanying me on the Austin Cool House Tour.  Held twice a year, the tour is open to the public and showcases “green” homes that are renewably powered and energy efficient, with solar panels and rainwater collection systems and roof overhangs and low-E windows.  More importantly, I knew that the owners of the featured homes would be trying hard to show them off.  They’ve spent years building their green dream homes – they want you to be impressed.   Sure enough, every house we visited was spotless and beautifully decorated, with minimal clutter and fresh flowers in every room.  It was a welcome change from the open houses I’ve attended, where the homes usually aren’t staged and often appear neglected, and the sale sign out front might as well read: “Someone please take this dilapidated property off my hands.  I regret ever buying this stupid house.  Sincerely, The Owner.”  Personally, I’m more inclined to buy a house if I know that the owner would never dream of selling it to me.

It’s no surprise, then, that I fell in love with every house on the Cool House tour.  My husband, not so much, but I did my best to sway him.  At every house we visited, I would turn to him and say, “Isn’t this house breathtaking?  I bet the people who live here are so happy and don’t regret buying this house at all.”  My husband’s biggest fear about buying a house in Texas is the insects (for most of his life, he lived a bug-free existence in frigid Canada), so I made sure to draw his attention to the screened-in patios.  “Look honey, you can be outside without really being outside!  Look at these impenetrable screens!  No bugs are getting in here, that’s for sure.”

His other big fear is home maintenance – right now, we don’t even change our own light bulbs – so I threw in a lot of reassuring remarks like “These walls sure look sturdy” and “This metal roofing practically takes care of itself.”  A lot of men take pride in fixing things around the house, but not my husband.  He would literally throw out the television before he would assume the task of mounting it on the wall.  It’s not like he can’t do it.  He once spent an entire summer scouring the aisles at Home Depot for wooden dowels, which he then used to build a functioning computer made entirely out of wood!  (Sorry ladies, he’s taken.)  He’s just not interested in home repair.  He’s more than happy to fix my computer, but if the faucet springs a leak, forget it.  We barely own any tools.  Just a hammer and a drill that we used once to hang a decorative candleholder.  And that didn’t exactly work out.  We were left with a gaping hole in our wall that we eventually covered up with a picture frame.

Anyway, I understand his hesitation.  I have my own fears about buying a house.  What if we get bored and want to move somewhere else?  Having lived in Austin for only a year and a half, it seems like an awfully big commitment to make.  Can I really see myself living here for the long-term?  I guess it’s a good sign that when I’m procrastinating, I often find myself browsing the Austin real estate listings and fantasizing about living in a big, lovely house in West Austin, throwing dinner parties for non-existent friends, welcoming guests into my foyer and saying, “Please have a seat in my formal sitting room.”  As opposed to now, when I say, “Well, you’re in my apartment.  This is pretty much it.”

Just to be clear, I have absolutely no desire to build a house from the ground up, spending a year or more agonizing over every little decision, picking tiles and sorting through carpet samples.  No thank you!  I want a house that comes already built and already perfect, with a note on the door that says, “Welcome, Jami, to your ready-to-go dream house!  We’ve taken the liberty of decorating and furnishing it for you.”

Recently, I thought I had found just such a home.  It had been built by an architect for his own family using green building techniques and the finest materials.  It was a house with character, and by that, I don’t mean old and run-down; I mean warm and rustic.  I convinced my husband to go see it with me.  Apparently, a few days too late.  When we arrived at the showing, the real estate agent informed us that the owner had just accepted another offer.  She showed us the house anyway, and knowing that it was off the market, I wanted it even more.  I couldn’t believe someone had stolen my dream house right out from under me!   I trudged around that big, beautiful house, mumbling under my breath the entire time.  “I’m sure that bastard will really enjoy all of this countertop space.”

A week later, I received a phone call from the real estate agent.  The bastard had defaulted on his payment and the contract had been severed.  My dream home was officially back on the market!  Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about the house.  Maybe we were getting ahead of ourselves.  We couldn’t possibly make use of all that space.  It’s kind of awkward when a thirty-something couple buys an enormous house; you might as well label the empty bedrooms: “Reserved for possible future child.”  (Better get on that!)

Around the same time, I spoke to my friend and her husband who had just purchased their first home.  On their third (yes, third!) day as homeowners, they showed up to move some of their stuff in and found the basement flooded with two feet of raw sewage.  My friend’s husband, whose first instinct was to shut off the water, made the mistake of wading through it and ended up in the hospital.  Meanwhile, men in hazmat suits ripped apart their basement, tearing out walls and carpeting and making an awful mess.  They found out later that it was the city’s fault and are now in a legal battle over the damages.

After having several nightmares in the vein of The Money Pit starring Tom Hanks, I told the real estate agent that we were passing on the house.  “Maybe in six months,” I said.  After that, my husband and I started toying around with the idea of buying a condo downtown.  No sooner had we decided to go check out the condos for sale in the newly opened W hotel across the street, when the glass panels on the exterior of the building started falling off at random.  Several people were injured by the falling glass, and the entire hotel had to be shut down “until further notice.”

... Um, yeah, that about settles it.  I think we’ll just stay in our rental apartment and pray that the walls don’t come crumbling down around us.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hope We're All Still Friends

The completed short films from the Baltimore 48-Hour Film Project will be screened tomorrow night at the Charles Theater.  Thankfully, I’ve already flown back to Austin and will not be in attendance.  Although I haven’t actually seen the final edited version of our film, my general impression is that it’s embarrassingly bad. 

After the competition ended and the films were handed over to the judges, I received a flurry of text messages from people asking how it went, as if I could possibly explain what transpired that weekend via text message.  It would take a hell of a lot more than 160 characters to convey the sheer chaos of making a movie in 48 hours, especially when those involved are amateurs at best.  To tell the story right, I’d need several hours and a whole slew of hand gestures (some of them offensive).  But for those of you with a short attention span, here is my best attempt at a concise version:

Underprepared. Technical difficulties. Creative differences. Yelling. Endless filming. Relentless heat. Cast and crew resort to alcohol. Only camera goes missing. More yelling. Found the camera. Are we quitting? Please say yes. I know, let’s change the ending for the tenth time! No continuity between shots. Editing nightmare. Tornado warning! Last scene accidentally deleted. Made no sense anyway. Disqualified for being late. Exhausted. Starving. Hope we’re all still friends.

And now here is the long version, minus the hand gestures (It's pretty much impossible to make offensive hand gestures while typing):

On Friday evening, our core team of six gathered at the kick-off event in downtown Baltimore.  At precisely 6:45pm, our team leader got up on stage and picked our genre out of a hat, handing the little slip of paper to the festival organizer, who announced our fate into the microphone: “Film de Femme.”  (Meaning a film that features one or more strong female characters.)  I let out a triumphant cry.   Not only had we avoided the dreaded “Musical or Western,” but my strength as a screenwriter was strong female protagonists!  In my excitement, I failed to notice that the guys on my team were having a completely different reaction.  They stood in disappointed silence until one of them finally said, “I hate it.”  They wanted to trade in “Film de Femme” for the mysterious Wild Card genre (which turned out to be “Time Travel”), but with a little persuasion from the girls on our team, they eventually warmed up to the idea.  “I guess we can always throw in a female character,” they said with a shrug.

After the genres had been assigned, the festival organizer announced the required elements that would have to appear in every team's film:

Character: Wayne Hooper, Collector
Prop: Hula-hoop
Line of Dialogue: “That’s not how I would’ve handled it.”

With genre and required elements in hand, we headed to our filming location (i.e. our friend’s townhouse) to begin the writing process, which immediately turned into a battle of the sexes.  We found ourselves stuck in a weekend-long argument that went something like this:

BOYS: You’re stifling our creativity!
GIRLS: We just want it to make sense!

After two hours of fiery debate, we settled on a basic plot: A dysfunctional couple gets involved in the dangerous world of underground gambling and must repay their losses to the kingpin ... or else.  (We could never agree on what “or else” meant, so interpret however you like.)  Bear in mind that when you’re brainstorming in a large group, it’s hard enough to keep up with the conversation, let alone separate the good ideas from the bad.  At one point, we were racing ahead with the idea of an underground hula-hooping ring.  Later, we replaced “hula-hooping” with “electric car racing” and ultimately with “the board game Operation.”  (That game where you try to remove the patient’s ailments with a pair of Tweezers without setting off the buzzer.)  Now, if you’re anything like me, you might not think an underground Operation ring qualifies as a decent film premise, but when you’re working under such an insane deadline, there isn't time to worry about pesky little details like “story” and “plot.”  One minute, you’re pulling “Film de Femme” out of an Irish top hat, and the next minute, you’re sprinting down the aisles of Wal-Mart looking for a hula-hoop and a board game that you haven’t played since elementary school.

I spent the remainder of Friday night typing up our script and adding dialogue, most of which consisted of insults and threats – not really my forte after all.  The rest of my team was busy dealing with equipment malfunctions.  Although we were allowed to secure and test out equipment in advance, things seemed to fall apart at the last minute.  I blame limited funding, our lack of experience, and the fact that our “prep meetings” were held at bars.  The guy who was supposed to be our second cameraman – until we realized that there was no second camera – spent the first eight hours in the basement by himself, fighting with our fancy microphones and trying to rid the audio of cracks and static and hums.  (We eventually discarded all of that audio and used the crappy built-in audio from the camera instead, but don’t tell him that.)

After only a few hours of sleep, we began filming bright and early on Saturday morning, without ever bothering to agree on the final script.  Over the course of the day, scripts were misplaced, dialogue was ad-libbed, scenes were cut and sometimes added back in, and the plot remained in flux until we wrapped filming fifteen hours later.  Every ten minutes, an argument would break out over basic story elements: “Wait, is there a baby?  I thought we ditched the baby!  Whose baby is it? ... Does he know it’s his baby?”  I would come back from a coffee run only to find out that our “strong female character” was now going to murder everyone in the last scene with a shotgun.

If I had thought to Google “Tips for a Successful 48-Hour Film Project” before the competition began, I would’ve come across this very useful piece of advice: “Make sure when you are writing your script or outline, everyone agrees on the basic plot, story, and theme of your film.  No matter what, this core concept will not change on the fly.  That’s when things turn to crap.”  Oh well, live and learn.

The first scene we filmed was the underground Operation ring.  Okay, picture this!  We have our heroine, wearing an outfit carefully selected by the guys on our team: short denim skirt, outrageously low-cut tank top, and knee-high leather boots.  In a previous scene, she’s been ordered by the kingpin to win tonight’s match (or else!) and is now battling another girl in a very intense game of Operation.  They're straddling an old coffee table covered with a black velvet cloth, hunched over the board game, and gathered around them is a crowd of big-time gamblers.  And I use the term “crowd” in the loosest possible sense.  Having invited everyone we know to come over and help us film, four girls and one guy showed up!  Somehow I got roped into being one of the extras.  We had to stand really close together to create the illusion of a packed crowd. We were wearing sunglasses and hoodies and holding bottles of Jim Beam, and I’m guessing that we looked more like The Real Housewives of Baltimore than an underground gambling crowd, but hey, you have to work with what you have.

The scene begins when the ruthless kingpin, who wears a sport coat and carries around a Mickey Mouse Pez dispenser, announces the final round of betting.  He would say something like, “You may now place your bets!  The minimum is $350,000.”  And then the five of us would throw a handful of one-dollar bills into a cereal bowl and begin “cheering loudly.”  We must have filmed at least thirty rounds of Operation, so it got harder and harder to keep the energy up.  We would yell the same stuff over and over again.  “Steady hands!  You got this!  Yeah!  You got mad skillz, girl!”  It was truly pathetic.  There were silences that seemed to last forever, until one of us would finally spit out, “Yeah!  You go, girl!  You get that rubber band!”

The best part of the scene (and the film for that matter) was our required character Wayne Hooper, collector of debts and the muscle for our kingpin.  Lucky for us, we had an extremely tall, extremely tattooed friend who was born to play the role of Wayne Hooper.  We convinced him to call in sick to work, and he just showed up in his normal everyday attire: cut-off cargo shorts, a cowboy hat, and a denim jacket with cut-off sleeves and a red-eyed squirrel spray-painted on the back.  He didn’t even have to do anything.  He just stood in the foreground of our underground gambling scene looking tough, and it was an incredible standout performance.

The brilliant actor who played Wayne Hooper was also assigned the task of disfiguring the trademarked Operation board and covering the brand logos with orange duct tape.  Technically, vandalizing something doesn’t give you the right to use it, but by the time we called the 48-Hour Film Project hotline to ask this question, it was already too late.

Filming that one underground gambling scene took hours.  Since we only had one camera, the master shot and the close-up shots had to be filmed separately.  By the time we got around to filming the close-ups, we couldn’t remember where everyone was standing, so we had to shoot scary, extreme close-ups of people’s faces with nothing else in the background.  The one person who we forgot to film a close-up shot of was our heroine and the supposed star of our film.  In our defense, we'd been forced to turn off the air conditioner because it was interfering with the audio, so I think we were all suffering from heat stroke by then.

It was after we finished filming the first scene that things really began to deteriorate.  Up until that point, we’d been writing the scene and the take number on a dry-erase board and then clapping once on camera. That way, when it came time to edit, we'd be able to both identify the take and sync the audio.  But as the day wore on, the laziness set in.  We stopped labeling the takes and started leaving the camera on for twenty minutes at a time, filming someone’s left shoulder as we argued back and forth.  The only thing we kept up was the clapping, except now we were clapping way too much, both on and off camera, which only made it more confusing later on.  Apparently, we all really love to clap.  It was around that time when our second cameraman/sound guy went home to “walk the dog” and never came back.

At three in the afternoon, someone made the first liquor store run.  With beers in hand, we began filming our second scene.  Seeing as it was a thousand degrees outside, we thought it might be fun to film this particular scene inside a parked car in full sunlight.  Nothing adds drama to a scene like huge sweat rings. I’m surprised our camera didn’t ignite from the heat.  Looking back, I kind of wish it had.  Next, we set up in the yard and spent no less than two hours shooting our couple walking from the car to the basement steps. We kept changing the path they took and the angle that we shot it from.  It was riveting stuff, let me tell you! Between every single take, Wayne Hooper would turn to the crew and say, “Did I mention that this denim jacket is lined with flannel?”  This went on for hours.

One of our most heated arguments was how to incorporate the hula-hoop.  Should Wayne Hooper wear it as some sort of fashion statement?  Should he physically beat someone with it?  Should a random person be hula-hooping in the background?  Should our male protagonist trip over the hula-hoop and hurl it at a neighbor’s car in a fit of frustration?  With so many excellent suggestions, it was impossible to choose.  In the end, we left the hula-hoop hanging on a wall in the background, and I’m not even sure it was visible.

By the time we moved back to the basement to film what was supposed to be the opening scene, I had mentally checked out.  I was sitting in the fetal position in the living room, listening to them shuffle around in the basement, setting up lights and moving things around, when I heard someone yell, “Hey, where’s the camera?”  Suddenly, everyone was stomping around the house, frantically searching for our only camera that had all of the recorded footage on it.  Finally, our heroine looked out the window and saw the camera lying in the grass, unattended, with big storm clouds rolling in and random strangers passing by.  It had been out there for over an hour.  Oops.

Now that we had located the camera, we were ready to film the scene where Wayne Hooper threatens our couple over their outstanding gambling debts.  According to the script, Wayne is supposed to “intimidate” and “taunt” our male lead by flicking his ear and saying things like, “Did you think you two could rack up fifty-thousand dollars of gambling debts and walk away unscathed?”  But under the direction of our male team members, the scene quickly turned into a violent physical fight – kicks and punches interspersed with strings of profanity.  I will say that our actors were very committed.  One of them came away with a bloody toe, but luckily he was drunk and didn’t feel a thing.  And where, you ask, was our strong female protagonist during this bloody fight scene?  Well, she did make a brief appearance – just long enough to yell, “Back off, you bearded goon!” – before being physically catapulted out of frame with a look of genuine terror on her face.

By nine o’clock, all we were missing was the ending.  Unfortunately, we had yet to agree on what the ending should be.  We had been arguing about it all day.  Needing a break, I snuck upstairs to the guest room and tried to squeeze in a power nap, but I could hear everything through the vents.  They were supposed to be filming the ending, but all I could hear was that damn Operation buzzer going off again and again and again, for what felt like hours.  I just lay there with my eyes wide open, thinking “What the hell are they doing down there?!”

Team morale was definitely at a low.  One of our actors started filming “Behind the Scenes” footage on his cell phone, asking questions like, “So do you think we’ll actually hand something in? ... Yeah, me neither.” The girls had a powwow in the kitchen and contemplated waiting until the boys fell asleep, deleting all of the recorded footage, and replacing it with new footage of us “finger-racing” through an obstacle course of peanut butter and dog toys.  What can I say?  We were sleep-deprived.  When we finally wrapped filming at around midnight, the girls decided to go home and sleep for a few hours, even though the boys insisted that they were going to stay up all night and edit.  We wished them good luck and ran out the door as fast as we could.

We returned on Sunday morning at 7am only to find them all passed out.  The entire house smelled like day-old sweat, so I went around lighting every scented candle I could get my hands on.  We sat down at the laptop to check out their amazing progress and saw that they’d uploaded one scene, extracted 16 seconds of usable footage, and renamed the project “the end of our friendship with the girls.”  Our first reaction was to pack up the car and leave, but instead, we woke up the boys and resolved to finish what we had started.

Together, our determined team leaders began the excruciating task of editing.  Every take was drastically different – people standing in different places and saying different lines.  It was a mess.  I really thought our poor editors were going to quit, but they just kept going.  All.  Day.  Long.  I myself can’t take any credit for editing.  The one and only thing I contributed on Sunday was going to buy blank DVDs from Best Buy during a torrential downpour, with a tornado warning in effect and a driver who was still drunk from yesterday and a broken passenger seat belt.  (I risked my life for that film!)  During the afternoon, I borrowed someone’s car and went to see my friend and her one-year-old twins.  You know you've had a rough weekend when you have to visit screaming toddlers in order to escape the stress at home.

When I returned to the house, my team was back to filming again.  They had borrowed a 7-year-old child who was recording different voiceovers: “This is the story of how my mom saved my dad ... This is the story of how I become a surgeon ... This is the story of how I got a Daffy Duck tattoo.”  I was dying to know how we were going to integrate those lines into our story, but sadly, we didn't end up using them.

Despite the best efforts of our team leaders, we weren't able to finish editing by 7:30pm, so our team was disqualified from winning.  (Trust me, it was never going to happen.)  Thankfully, films that are turned in late on Sunday are still screened at the premiere.  According to the website, we were one of two teams that missed the deadline.  48 teams, 48 hours, 2 disqualifications.  Rumor has it that we dropped off our film in the organizer’s mailbox in the middle of the night, but only after accidentally deleting the last scene (whatever that was).  Hopefully the credits weren't deleted.  My name was never listed in the credits because I refused to have the "writing" attributed to me, but the credits did include an apology to everyone involved, which I found amusing.  I guess that's the one good thing that came out of all of this ... I'm pretty sure we're still friends.  I figure if we can survive a weekend like that and still be on speaking terms, we’re destined to be friends forever.  (As long as we don’t do it again next year.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lights, Camera, Action

A few years ago, a guy showed up to my Screenwriting 101 class looking like hell with two-day stubble and bloodshot eyes and empty cans of Red Bull falling out of his bag.  I thought nothing of it – I just assumed he worked in finance – until he mentioned that he had just finished competing in the 48-Hour Film Festival. I had never heard of it before, but he looked so fulfilled and so accomplished, his eyelids heavy, his mouth hanging open, drool running down his chin, that all I could think was, “Okay, where do I sign up?”  It's been on my bucket list ever since.

This year, the 48-Hour Film Festival is happening in 100 cities worldwide.  In each city, teams compete to make the best short film in only 48 hours.  All of the writing, filming, and editing has to be completed between Friday at 7pm and Sunday at 7pm.  To ensure that the writing isn’t done ahead of time, teams are randomly assigned a genre fifteen minutes before the start of the competition.  (Possible genres include Anniversary/Birthday, Comedy, Dark Comedy, Detective, Fantasy, Film de Femme, Horror, Mockumentary, Musical or Western, Period Piece, Romance, Sci-Fi, Superhero, and Thriller/Suspense.)  Each team is also assigned a character, a prop, and a line of dialogue that must appear in the film.  So you could end up having to make a Superhero movie that features a prostitute named Bertha, a pogo stick, and the line, “I curse the day you were born.”  You pretty much have to be ready to improvise.  After the films have been turned in and scored by the judges, they’re screened at a local movie theater.

When I first heard about the festival, I tried to persuade my friends in New York to form a team with me: “Come on, deadlines are fun!  All that pressure...  Staying awake for days, propelled by a fear of public humiliation!  You know you want to...”  When that didn’t work out, I put my name on the "seeking a team" list, hoping that one of the existing teams would contact me – but no one ever did.  I suspect it had something to do with my information form and the big blank space under “Relevant Skills.”  I’m sure the teams were hoping to enlist a sound editor or a musical score composer or, at the very least, someone who could operate a camera.  Still, it’s a sad day when you’re rejected from a volunteer position.

A couple of months ago, I found out that some of my friends from high school were forming a team for the 48-Hour Film Festival in Baltimore.  Finally, my time had come!  Here was a team that was obligated by friendship to take me on!  They accepted me with open arms, although we never actually discussed what exactly I would be contributing.  When our team leader sent out the official list of team members and their corresponding roles and responsibilities, my name had a big question mark next to it.  Given my near-success with screenwriting, the obvious answer would be for me to help with the writing of the script.  But with only 48 hours to shoot and edit the entire film, the writing process will likely be reduced to twenty minutes of frantic brainstorming.

Another option would be for me to act in the film.  For weeks now, our team has been sending out desperate, pleading messages on Facebook, trying in vain to find actors and actresses willing to take on an unpaid role that requires waking up before ten on a Saturday morning.  I suppose I could step up and volunteer.  After all, I do have prior acting experience.

When I was in fifth grade, my elementary school put on a musical production of A Chipmunk Christmas.  I auditioned and landed the highly coveted role of Jeanette the Chipette, the female counterpart to Simon the Chipmunk.  I like to think that I got the part as a result of my charisma and my natural singing ability and not because I was tall and already had the dorky glasses.  The musical itself was five minutes long and featured the six of us – Alvin, Simon, Theodore, Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor – singing “Christmas, Don’t Be Late” in our highest-pitched chipmunk voices.  I totally nailed the part.  Afterwards, my mother told me that I had brought "something special" to the role, and my father noted (with some concern) that I had “natural chemistry” with the boy who played Simon.

After a two-year acting hiatus, I made my triumphant return to the stage as an extra in the high school production of Oklahoma!.  I was only twelve at the time, but my piano teacher happened to be the musical director over at the high school, and she thought I would be wonderful in the role of “extra.”  I got to choose one lucky friend to act in the play with me (I made sure to pick someone with zero stage presence so that I wouldn’t be overshadowed), and the two of us got to lean out the window of the farmhouse set and sing “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” while we made large, dramatic gestures with our arms.  We were the envy of our entire class.

But the height of my acting career was still to come!  The following year, it was announced that a select group of eighth graders would be tasked with writing, directing, and performing a play for the entire middle school.  I desperately wanted to be one of the playwrights.  I thought we should’ve been allowed to submit story proposals, but the teacher in charge thought it would be "more fair" if she just picked her favorite students.  Normally, I would’ve been okay with that – teachers have always loved me – but this particular teacher didn’t seem to recognize how special I was.  Instead of picking me to be one of the writers, she picked my best friend and several other untalented non-writers, and together they proceeded to write the worst play in the history of playwriting.  (If you don’t believe me, I’ll send you a copy.  I’ve held onto it all these years to make myself feel better about my own writing.)

Since I couldn’t be one of the writers, I auditioned to be one of the actors and landed one of the starring roles.  I like to think that I got the part as a result of my charisma and my extensive acting experience and not because my best friend was involved in the casting.  Either way, it would prove to be my most challenging role to date – the kind of role that makes or breaks an acting career.  I was cast as: “Amy, an everyday, average girl who seldom worries about anything except for school, popularity, and boys.”  The role demanded both heavy emotion (with tear-jerking lines like, “Friends are there for the good times and the bad times”) and physical comedy (in act one, my character gets electrocuted; in act two, she “accidentally” falls out of a chair; and in act three, she headbangs to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody").

The moment I laid eyes on the script, I knew that the writing was spectacularly awful.  It seemed unfair that I had to be the one to stand up in front of the entire school and say those terrible lines.  At one point, I was supposed to exclaim “What a co-winky-dink!” while skipping.  It was beyond cheesy.  During rehearsals, I would stomp around the stage with my arms crossed, rolling my eyes and mumbling, “This is crap!  I can’t work with these lines!”  Our English teacher had to repeatedly pull me aside to lecture me.  She felt that “my bad attitude” was ruining the play; I told her that wasn’t possible.  In the end, I got through it, although it was incredibly painful and embarrassing.  My best friend and I stopped being best friends, and I haven’t acted in anything since.

At least with the 48-Hour Film Festival, I would be involved in the writing (i.e. frantic brainstorming), so I could edit any truly bad dialogue.  Still, perhaps I’d be better suited to holding a boom microphone or fetching coffee or painstakingly editing the raw footage at three in the morning.  I tend to excel at the things that no one else wants to do.  With that in mind, I’m currently learning how to edit film.  I’m 35 minutes into a 7-hour online tutorial.  Oh, and did I mention that the film festival is this weekend?  That’s right, starting at 7pm on Friday, my team and I will be going up against 46 other teams for the Baltimore trophy and the chance to compete against the winning films from other cities.  And whether I hold the microphone or add the credits, at least I’ll be able to say, “Yeah, I did that.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

And a Pinch of Reckless Abandon

When I announced that I would be writing a memoir, I tried to encourage my friends and family to use my upcoming birthday as an opportunity to suck up, and some of them totally took the hint.  One friend (who, from this point on, shall be referred to as my “exceedingly beautiful, never-embarrassingly-drunk friend") came up with the perfect gift idea: a one-time cooking class at the Whole Foods Culinary Center.

For the past year or so, I’ve been teaching myself to cook and have been forced to rely on vague recipe instructions, gut instinct, and a whole lot of trial and error.  I make it a point to approach every new culinary challenge with enthusiasm, confidence, and a pinch of reckless abandon.  “Hmm, I’ve never cut into a mango before ... What the hell, I’ll just slice through the center and see what happens.”  “Wait, how many chilies am I supposed to use?  They don’t look that hot.  Maybe if I touch one and then rub my eye....”  Prior to the age of twenty-eight, I had only ever used a microwave and a can opener, so if you think about it, my progress has been staggering.  Still, a little formal training couldn’t hurt.

When my exceedingly beautiful, never-embarrassingly-drunk friend told me that she was signing me up for a cooking class, I was expecting something along the lines of “Cooking for Dummies” or “Name That Kitchen Utensil!”  So you can imagine my surprise when she sent me the link to “Advanced Vegetarian Cooking: How to Prepare a Seven-Course Meal Made Entirely of Tofu.”  (In addition to being exceedingly beautiful, she also has a habit of grossly overestimating my talents.)  I read the course description and tried to imagine myself whipping up a tofu mousse in a semi-competitive setting with strangers eyeballing my technique.  Yeah, um, ... no.  Better to start with the basics: Knife Skills 101.

My husband can’t stand to watch me wielding a knife.  Even though it takes me a full forty-five minutes to dice an onion, I still manage to appear hasty and reckless – just one slip away from losing a finger.  It would be a real shame if I did cut my finger off, because my hands are one of my best features.  Thick, sturdy frames run in my family.  You’ll never hear the words “graceful” or “delicate” being used to describe me.  Suited for manual labor?  Yes.  Graceful and delicate?  No.  Yet, somehow, I ended up with these remarkably long, thin, dainty fingers – ideal for playing the piano and picking olives out of glass jars. They’re the hands of an elegant lady, and they serve as a lovely distraction from my slouched shoulders and big, clumsy feet.  It’s imperative that I keep them intact.

You’ll be happy to know that after taking Knife Skills 101, I am now an expert knife handler.  I can break down an entire pineapple before you can say “pineapple.”  I can dice an onion into pieces that are so small, they’re practically invisible to the naked eye.  I can julienne a carrot into matchstick strips, with no two strips the same size (I told the instructor that I preferred my carrots that way because “same is boring”). But the most important thing I learned was to always have super sharp knives.  I had to ask how exactly one might go about sharpening their knives, and when the chef gave me the address of a place that would do it for me, I made it my top priority.

When I arrived at the knife-sharpening place, I noticed that it was guarded by a stone bulldog wearing chainmail armour.  That was my first clue that this was no Williams-Sonoma.  Inside, the walls were covered with machetes and swords and bowie knives and ninja-training targets.  I handed my knife set over to a burly, tattooed man, and while he was busy sharpening my knives, I was left to peruse the display cases filled with daggers and brass knuckles (and rubber knuckles “for practice”).  On one wall, there was a poster of a terrified woman leaning against a target with knives surrounding her, and next to the poster was a sign that read, “We Offer Knife and Tomahawk-Throwing Classes.”

And so goes the life of a dilettante: I go to get my kitchen knives sharpened so that I can become an acclaimed vegan chef, and five minutes later, I am ready to dedicate myself fully to tomahawk-throwing.  I don’t like violence per se, but in movies and on TV, being able to throw a deadly weapon with stunning accuracy usually ends the fight before it even begins.  Since there weren’t any other customers, I thought about asking the guy if he would teach me to throw a tomahawk right then and there ... but I chickened out. Last summer, I learned how to shoot a gun and almost hit a target six feet away, but this place was way more intimidating than the gun range.  I guess I’ll have to stick to dicing onions until I can muster the courage to go back.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Screw the Vegetables! Save the Meat!"

You may have noticed that my blog posts have been rather sporadic as of late.  I do apologize.  I’ve been very busy with important things, like pretending to work on my memoir, taking fun weekend trips, and watching the new TLC series Extreme Couponing!

I get all nostalgic when I see those crazed women clipping coupons for things they don’t need.  It reminds me of my mother with her blue plastic file box full of coupons, organized by category and then sorted by expiration date.  She once left it behind in a store and immediately started to panic.  To her, it was like leaving $1,000 cash lying around in plain sight.  She was convinced that someone would take it.  As we raced back to the store, I reassured her as only a teenage daughter can: “Oh my God, Mom, no one wants your stupid coupons!  Normal people look at that box and see a stack of meaningless paper.”  And I was right – her coupon box was right where she left it.

The thing I’ve always hated about coupons is that they require you to buy in bulk.  That’s fine for large families, but I'm an only child, so purchasing a product by the truckload meant that I would be stuck consuming that product until the end of time.  My father and I knew better than to tell my mother that we liked anything.  I once made the mistake of saying that I “thoroughly enjoyed” my Healthy Choice Pepperoni Pizza, and I came home a few days later and found forty boxes all lined up in the basement freezer  (Of course we had two freezers!  What family of three doesn’t need a second freezer?).

I guess having a massive stockpile of frozen goods made my mother feel more secure ... until the power went out.  I remember once, when the power was out for an unusually long time, our precious stockpile began to rot.  Luckily, my mother worked at a nearby elementary school that was unaffected by the blackout, and she had access to the cafeteria's massive industrial freezers.  All we had to do was move 500 pounds of food.  And so, my parents and I headed to the basement to form a bucket brigade.  I stood at the basement freezer and handed armfuls of Lean Cuisines to my mother, who then passed them up the stairs to my father.  When I started passing bags of frozen peas, I heard my father yell, "Screw the vegetables!  Save the meat!"  I can still picture my mother running to the steps with a whole chicken under each arm and one balanced on the top of her head.  That's one memory that I'll cherish forever.  It was a true family bonding experience.  And, of course, the power came back on just as we were loading the last of our stockpile into the school freezer.  

Now, as an adult, I’m the most fickle consumer you’ll ever meet.  Not having a stockpile makes me feel liberated.  I’m free to be swayed by marketing gimmicks and “new and improved” labels.  I have absolutely no brand loyalty.  I buy one item at a time, and I get excited whenever I've almost used it up because it means I get to try something new.  I crave variety.  And freshness.  After years of drinking decade-old Capri Sun pouches, I prefer to consume my products when the expiration dates are still far into the future.

Still, when I see those women on TV getting $2,000 worth of groceries for only $3.46 while onlookers applaud and the cashier hands them a mile-long receipt, I can’t help but be fascinated.  I do like to save money.  Just ask my friends and family, several of whom have called me “cheap” to my face.  I always treat it like a compliment: “That’s right!  I’ve worked the night shift at a gas station!  I’ve sold shoes at Payless!  I know the value of a dollar!”  I sound like a ninety-year-old man.

Yesterday, inspired by extreme savings, I printed out a few coupons before going to the grocery store.  I managed to save a whole dollar on 3 boxes of Special K for my husband, and I must admit, it was pretty satisfying.  In the end, I got $118 worth of groceries for only $115.90!  I got so excited looking at my receipt that I spilled an entire bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper into one of my shopping bags, ruining $5.50 worth of Kleenex.  Factoring in the cost of the soda, that means I got $111 worth of groceries for only $115.90!

I have since decided that I am done with coupons.  Clearly, God wants me to pay retail.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Oh God, Why Me?

A few weeks ago, I saw Kevin Nealon’s stand-up comedy show, during which he shared his reaction to last year’s devastating wildfires in Southern California that destroyed dozens of homes.  He recalled how, when walking out of his multi-million dollar beach home, he discovered a thin layer of ash coating his brand new BMW and sank to his knees in despair, tears streaming down his face, clenched fists raised to the sky, screaming “Why me?”

Never has a joke so perfectly epitomized the way I live my life.  If I’m not taking things for granted or blowing problems out of proportion, I just don’t feel like myself.  I thrive on negativity.  Mine is a life defined by imaginary hardship.  But every once in a while, something legitimately bad will happen, and with it comes a moment of clarity: hey, my life is actually pretty great – or at least it was until about five minutes ago.

I had one of these trauma-induced epiphanies last month.  I haven't mentioned it until now because I was waiting until my husband and I had both sufficiently recovered from the ordeal.  It all started with a bottle of pink champagne.  That might not sound like the makings of a terrible tragedy, but champagne bottles are in fact extremely hazardous.  Exploding champagne corks can fly at a speed of 50 miles per hour and are one of the leading causes of traumatic eye injuries.  If the cork is defective, it might explode before you’ve even removed the wire cage, as my husband learned the hard way.

When it comes to remaining calm in a crisis, it turns out that my husband is much better than I am, but I think that’s because he didn’t have to look at his own eye.  Every time I glanced over at him and saw a giant pool of blood where his pupil and iris should’ve been, I had to stop what I was doing and breathe into a brown paper bag, while he just rolled his eye at me.

As I was driving him to the Emergency Room, I couldn’t help but think, “Why wasn’t I happier ten minutes ago?  Life was freakin' awesome ten minutes ago!  I should’ve been overjoyed!  I should’ve been celebrating!” ... Oh, wait, that’s exactly what we were doing.

Upon arriving at the hospital, a normal person would probably feel relieved, but I am not a normal person as far as hospitals are concerned, having once been a victim of medical malpractice.  When I was fifteen, I broke my leg playing softball, and a simpleminded ER doctor slapped a cast on me without ever bothering to examine my ankle, which had been shattered and was subsequently left untreated for months.  Now, when I hear the words “Emergency Room,” I don’t think of a safe haven where miracles are performed and lives are saved; I think of a chaotic, nightmarish place where exhausted, overworked, poorly trained non-specialists “practice” medicine on unsuspecting patients.

Thanks to my traumatic past, I am now the worst kind of patient.  When dealing with doctors, I have to perform rigorous background checks, I repeatedly question their intelligence, I demand second opinions, and I always have a list of 50-100 questions that need answering.  The doctor who was attempting to treat my husband’s eye looked to be about ten years old, and I questioned everything from his faulty instruments to his choice of painkillers.  (I was right about the painkillers.)

I’ll spare you the grotesque details of his treatment, but I can assure you that eye injuries are the absolute worst.  Imagine having to sleep sitting up for weeks, waking up every hour to take eye-drops, and having to keep your head completely still – which means no walking around, no bending over, no sneezing, and some nice person has to wait on you hand and foot and act as your chauffeur.  It also means that you’ll have to wear an eyepatch so that you don’t frighten young children.

Luckily, we already owned an eyepatch.  A genuine pirate’s eyepatch!  Embellished with the traditional skull and crossbones.  I thought it made him look very handsome.  And, he was suddenly able to command the attention of any room.  No one forgets the guy with the weird eyepatch!  When we would go to our local coffee shop, the barista would take one look at us and say, “Iced soy latte and an orange juice, right?”

There were a few other good things that came out of the experience.  On April Fool’s Day, we got to tell our friends and family that my husband had been severely injured by a bottle of girly champagne the night before.  That was fun!  And, of course, I now have a new phobia to obsess over.  I was at a bridal shower a few weeks after the incident, and when the host started popping champagne bottles, I reacted the way one might if a deranged lunatic had started waving a gun around.  I’m strongly considering wearing protective eye goggles 24/7 for the rest of my life.  With the right hair and make-up, I think I can pull it off.

Anyway, now that my husband is mostly recovered, I’m back to taking things for granted and getting upset over frivolous things.  And, God, does it ever feel good.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Yay, I’m Finally Thirty-One!

What’s so special about thirty-one, you ask?  Well, it just so happens that women peak at age thirty-one!   Yup, it’s true.  Studies have shown that I will never be more beautiful than I am right now.  Good to know.

Seeing as today is my birthday, it feels like the perfect time to announce that I am officially commencing work on my memoir – against the advice of several prominent literary agents, who all agreed that I will never be able to sell a memoir without first achieving notoriety.  But if birthdays are good for anything, it’s highlighting the diminishing probability that I'll ever get around to these things.  I mean, if I have to wait until I have 10,000 blog followers to write my memoir, I’ll be too senile to remember my own name, let alone the precise details of my first practical joke (It was a good one: I was seven days old and had just experienced my first nosebleed, so I decided to lie very still in my crib, covered in blood, until my mother came into the room.  It’s been almost 31 years, and she still hasn’t fully recovered.)  Anyway, there’s no time like the present to start digging up the past.  And so, I’ve chosen to embrace delusion.  So what if I’m not a B-list celebrity?  Surely it’s enough to have strong writing, a wonderfully sarcastic title, and my fabulous face on the book jacket.

You may be thinking that thirty-one is still too young to write a memoir, but again, I’m going to have to disagree.  Sure, I might not have that much life experience, but you’d be amazed at how much I have to say about it.  Based on my rough outline, I’m predicting several thousand pages – split into four volumes – in chronological order starting with my birth...  No, not really.  I’m too lazy to ever write more than 200 pages, and that’s with wide margins and a comically large font.

The book will be a series of comedic essays in the vein of David Sedaris, who, coincidentally, I have tickets to see tonight.  I plan on waiting in line afterwards so that I can get his autograph and present him with the opportunity to be my very first book endorsement!  I’m sure he’ll jump at the chance.  I’m also planning to get an endorsement from Tina Fey.  I just finished reading her memoir in which she both mocks herself for being a nerd and advocates supporting fellow women.  There's no way she'll be able to refuse an endorsement for a fellow female nerd.  I had a bowl cut!  I thought turtlenecks were swell!  I wore glasses that were way too big for my face!  I’m still hoping to one day grow into my teeth.  (Oh no, wait – my physical beauty has reached its peak.  Dammit.)

A quick note for my friends and family: If you’re concerned about how you might be portrayed in my bestselling memoir, don’t worry!  There’s still plenty of time for sucking up.  After all, today is my birthday. Those of you who go beyond the traditional Facebook birthday wall post will be described as being much more attractive and intelligent, and your worst qualities and most embarrassing moments will be ascribed to someone else... someone who didn’t bother remembering at all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yes, This [Insert Random Object] Is Art

So I’ve started a new exercise regimen: I run around Lady Bird Lake and I’m not allowed to stop until I've seen five pianos.  Yesterday, it took me 2.5 miles.  You have no idea how happy I was to hear that fifth piano as I came huffing and puffing around the bend.  The girl playing the piano was lousy and the melody was completely unrecognizable, but it was still the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.

Google has since informed me that these random “street pianos” are part of a touring art exhibit.  Previous cities include London, Sydney, Barcelona, São Paulo, and New York.  The artist, Luke Jerram, wanted to encourage city-dwellers to interact with each other.  He views each piano “as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.”  As someone who lives in an urban environment and still manages to feel isolated most of the time, the idea really strikes a chord with me (ha, get it?).

The pianos reminded me of a similar undertaking called "The Red Swing Project."  In 2007, a guy named Andrew staged an “urban intervention” in Austin and started hanging red swings in public places under the cover of night.  He went on to hang swings all over the world.  I saw one of his red swings near my apartment building a few months ago, but someone cut it down.  Apparently that happens a lot.  Americans tend to consider it vandalism.

Anyway, I’m feeling so inspired that I’ve decided to start my own [insert random object] project.  My reasons for doing so are as follows:

1.) I’ll finally be able to refer to myself as an “artist.”  A creative individual on a heroic quest to bring beauty to the world.  My life will take on a whole new meaning!  I already embody all of the artist stereotypes: I’m tortured, depressed, lonely, and I look fabulous in black.  All I’m missing is the art  (unless you count my highly original paintings of trademarked beer logos.)

2.) The “social experiment” aspect of the project fascinates me.  In college, I minored in Social Psychology for an entire semester after reading about the Milgram experiment.  I think I would derive much pleasure from hiding behind the bushes and watching people’s reactions to my cleverly placed [insert random object].

3.) I like the idea of executing my “art” in secret in the middle of the night.  Really, I’m drawn to any occupation that involves a flashlight and a ski mask.  I’ve always been a night person, and I’m surprisingly stealthy.

Now I just need to select the perfect random object.  Something that will inspire action.  Something that you don’t see every day.  Something that will bring joy and happiness to the people who are lucky enough to pass by.  Something that people won’t be too inclined to steal.

My first thought was hula hoops, a favorite childhood pastime of mine.  (I once took second place in a prestigious hula hooping contest at the local mall.  A few of us – the remarkably talented ones – lasted so long that the judges were forced to bring in extra small hula hoops in order to make it more challenging.)  I haven’t seen anyone hula hoop in years, so I was surprised to learn that there is already a very active hula hooping scene in Austin.  In fact, there is an actual hula hooping event being held tonight only a few blocks away from me.  That, of course, means that I can't use hula hoops.  My art must be avant-garde!  It can't appear as though I'm jumping on the bandwagon.

Then I had a thought... My goal as an artist is to bring joy to the public.  Installing pianos on a running path may be avant-garde, but as an avid runner (well, recently avid), I can tell you that the last thing I want to do when I'm sweaty and exhausted is play the piano.  That's why I'm starting the Urban Slip 'n Slide Project. Imagine coming around the corner, red-faced and panting in the brutal Texas heat, and right there in front of you is an impromptu water-slide!  Now that's great art.

Warning: Slip ‘n Slides have been linked to serious injuries.  The artist is not liable for any injuries that may occur as a result of her artwork.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Me, Encapsulated in a Word

I’ve always thought of myself as a Renaissance woman, or a polymath – someone who excels in a wide variety of subjects.  Notable polymaths include Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, and Benjamin Franklin.  The similarities between them and me are undeniable.  In high school, I was a member of both Art Club and Chemathon team.  I quit several sports and gave up two musical instruments all before the age of eighteen. I became fluent in many languages: English, Spanish (un poco), and C++.  I earned a degree in advanced mathematics and still found the time to become an unknown humor writer.  My talents couldn’t be more varied.

Wikipedia provides a list of recognized polymaths – none of them women.  The latest person to make it onto the list is Nathan Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft.  This got me thinking, what exactly does it take to be considered a polymath?  What’s so special about Nathan Myhrvold?  What does he have that I don’t?

At first glance, Nathan and I appeared to have a lot in common.  We both have a Master’s degree in Mathematical Economics, and we both enjoy cooking and scuba diving.  We’re like two peas in a pod, Nathan and me! ... Or maybe not.  Upon further examination, I learned that Nathan graduated from high school at age fourteen and earned two Master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in Physics by age twenty-three. Before he made his millions at Microsoft, he worked with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, studying quantum field theory.  Sure, he has hobbies just like everyone else – skydiving, car racing, scuba diving, mountain climbing, fossil hunting – but he also has several other careers (like, actual careers, not pretend ones).  He’s an award-winning photographer, an inventor, a scientist, and a chef.  And I don't mean that he tinkers around in the kitchen; I mean that he’s the author of a 2,400-page cookbook and a world barbecue champion.

This prompted me to revisit the definition of “polymath.”  I guess I missed the part where it says that a polymath “does not just have broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that his knowledge is profound and [...] even at a level comparable to the proficiency or the accomplishments of an expert.”

Since it takes a normal person 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, I interpret this to mean that all polymaths are prodigies.  Either that, or they’re very, very old.  Sadly, I am neither of those.  And according to my calculations, I’m only an “expert” at sleeping, eating, and talking about myself.

There is a term for someone like me, but it’s not “polymath.”  Nope, the word that best describes me is “dilettante.”  A dabbler.  An amateur.  Someone who engages in an activity “sporadically, superficially, or for amusement only.”  I tried to find a list of notable dilettantes, but apparently it’s not a desirable trait.  It’s actually considered to be more of an insult.  Super.  I finally discover the one word that encapsulates exactly who I am, and it’s an insult.  Maybe if I start using it in a positive way, it’ll eventually catch on.  “Oh my God, she’s such an incredible person.  What a diverse set of semi-talents!  She’s a real dilettante!”

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Screenwriting Dream Reported Stolen

Horrible, devastating news: Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids premiered at the SXSW Film Festival a few weeks ago, and from what I can tell, the reviews are mostly positive.  The film is being touted as “the female version of The Hangover” and “the first genuine female comedy.”

Um, no, actually, I wrote a genuine female comedy three years ago.  And adding salt to the wound, it was full of irreverent wedding humor.  Blerg!  This should've been my moment!  It just goes to show that if you never give up, someone will eventually achieve your goals.  I just wish it had been me.

I was warned that this might happen.  To quote my screenwriting teacher, “If you write a script that is even remotely mainstream, you can count on someone else coming up with the same premise, and that someone might have better connections.”  As an unproduced screenwriter, it’s safer to go with a truly bizarre premise that no one else would ever think of.  For example, "a depressed man believes that his beaver puppet is real" – now starring Mel Gibson!  But wait, that plot sounds remarkably similar to the plot of Lars and the Real Girl.  Okay, so there are no new ideas, only slightly less common ones.

In related news, I learned that the big-shot studio executive who I met with in October is now working for a different company.  Apparently, he switched jobs shortly after meeting me, which means that he probably never received my follow-up email.  Now that I have his new work address, I’m toying with the idea of sending him this letter...

Dear Mr. Studio Executive,

I am writing to bring your attention to a tragic oversight.  Last October, I pitched you my very funny anti-wedding comedy, and you loved it!  Boy, did you love it!  You could hardly contain your excitement.  You said that I could very well be the next Diablo Cody and that you desperately wanted to follow-up with me.  Your intentions could not have been clearer.  You used the word “definitely” not once, but twice!

Unfortunately, you then switched jobs (congrats, by the way) and in all the chaos, I suspect that you misplaced my contact information.  No doubt, you’ve been cursing yourself ever since and have been trying in vain to track me down.  I can just imagine you seething with frustration and berating your assistant, “That tall blonde girl – the funny one with the great ideas – you have to find her! ... I don’t care how!  Knock on random doors if you have to!”

Well, call off the search.  Here I am, ready and willing to send over my script.  I’m not going to lie, it’s been a difficult six months.  My optimism was starting to wane.  Before I heard about your ill-timed job switch, I was almost convinced that you were blowing me off.  Lucky for you, I’ve decided not to hold a grudge.  Everyone makes mistakes.  So let’s put this little mishap behind us and get on with my six-figure development deal.


If the letter thing doesn't work out, I'm afraid it might be time to move on.  So many impractical dreams, so little time...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Once Upon a Time, There Was a Purple Unicorn ...

My fiction writing class is officially half over.  In the past when I’ve taken workshop-style writing classes, I’ve always managed to establish myself as the star pupil by this point, mostly because I have a lot of free time to devote to polishing and perfecting the assignments.  Unfortunately, this is not your typical workshop-style class.  Most of the writing is done during class, through various creative exercises.  We're expected to write hastily and carelessly for five minutes and then share whatever we've scribbled down.

Personally, I would rather parade around the classroom stark naked than read my unfinished, unrevised writing aloud.  First drafts aren’t meant to be shared; they’re meant to be burned and destroyed.  Even my blog entries are rewritten and painstakingly edited, hence the long gap between posts – and you thought I was just lazy!

The other students seem perfectly comfortable sharing their unedited writing.  There are a surprising number of improv performers in the class – including the teacher, who performs fully improvised musicals (there isn't enough alcohol in the world to get me up on that stage).  I never would’ve guessed that I’d be the only introvert in a writing class.  I’m basically a spectator.  When it comes time to share, I keep my head down and avoid eye contact with the instructor at all costs.

During the exercises, I rarely produce more than a few scattered notes.  Unlike my classmates – who type at a furious, almost maniacal pace without ever stopping – I feel compelled to plan everything out before I write a single sentence.  I’m usually still in the brainstorming phase when the instructor announces, “Pencils down."  Then I sit in disbelief and listen to my classmates share entire stories, with beginnings and middles and ends – and they're not always terrible.

I even struggle with stream of consciousness, the simplest of exercises.  The teacher will ask us to write down a chain of word associations starting with the word "purple."  The idea is to keep going no matter what, but I can’t seem to make it past three words.  Here's a sample of my best work:

Purple.  Eggplant.  Marinara ...  No wait, I don’t like that.  I’m just hungry.

Purple.  Unicorn.  Rainbow Brite ...  Um, yeah, that’s a dead end.  I haven’t seen that show in years.

Purple ....  You know what?  Purple sucks.  It’s by far the least inspiring color.

Yellow.  Banana.  Monkey ...  Oh my God, how predictable.  I hate it.  I hate yellow.

It has occurred to me that my problem might be a lack of creativity.  It does run in my family.  My mother took an aptitude test in the tenth grade, and her creativity score fell into the 4th percentile.  The guidance counselor said it was the lowest score she’d ever seen.  My mother’s achievement score, on the other hand, fell into the 99th percentile.  Come to think of it, that explains a lot.  I might not be able to write spontaneous stories about purple unicorns, but when it comes to achieving good writing, I’ll always pull through ... eventually.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Festivals Galore!

It’s that time of year again in Austin, when the weather is perfect and every weekend brings a festival of some sort.  Today, the celebration is threefold as Saint Patrick’s Day coincides with both South by Southwest and the Austin Rodeo.  I’m not sure whether to wear green, dress like a hipster, or don my cowboy hat.

The music portion of South by Southwest is already in full swing with 2,000 bands performing around downtown Austin in the span of four days – and those are only the official shows.  Every venue in the city is throwing some kind of party.  The dentist office around the corner from me is hosting a three-day event called "Mouth by Mouthwest" with twenty bands and a full bar (but don’t worry, the on-call dentists are limiting themselves to two drinks apiece).

Because I live in downtown Austin, I can hear the music and the screaming crowds from inside my apartment.  All.  Day.  Long.  How am I supposed to concentrate on writing when there’s a party raging outside my window?  Ever since I broke my leg in the ninth grade and had to be homeschooled for a few months, I have a fear of missing out on fun things.  If it were up to me, I’d be out in the street, drinking green beer and listening to that indie chick who plays the ukulele and sings African chants, but my husband likes to remind me that it’s Thursday and “at least one of us has to work.”

If it was a one-time thing he’d probably humor me, but Austin loves to celebrate and hardly ever takes a day off.  I don’t even set my alarm anymore; I just rely on the daily parades to wake me up.  Nothing infuriates my husband more than a parade.  He’ll go out on the balcony and start waving his fists around while yelling, “Another parade?!  Don’t you people ever stop?!  What’s wrong with you?!  For the love of God, put down your trombones and go home!”

I expect parades and live music on Saint Patrick’s Day, Fat Tuesday, and Cinco de Mayo.  Texas Independence Day?  Why not!  A day to celebrate ice cream?  Sure!  But what about hot sauce?  Reggae music?  Urban music?  Celtic music?  Bluegrass music?  Let’s not forget about Jugglefest.  Or Fantastic Fest.  Or Fun Fun Fun Fest.  There’s the Gypsy Picnic Festival, the Louisiana Swamp Thing Festival, the Old Pecan Street Festival, the Sherwood Forest Faire, the Zilker Kite Festival, Batstravaganza, Batfest (yes, it’s different), The Dragon Boat Festival, The Rattlesnake Sacking Festival…

And then there are the weird ones, like No Pants Day.  Or the 13th Annual Mighty Texas Dog Walk, where Austinites and their dogs attempt to break the Guinness World Record for “Largest Dog Walk.”   Austin has been celebrating Eeyore’s birthday (yes, that Eeyore) since the 1960s with drum circles and a maypole. The Keep Austin Weird Festival includes a costumed 5K run with a pit stop at an ice cream shop; its tagline is “the slowest 5K you’ll ever run.”  My personal favorite is the Hairy Man Festival, which features a petting zoo, karaoke, and, of course, the Hairiest Man Contest.  I still have yet to check out the No Idea Festival, which is entirely unplanned and improvised.  (Yes, these are all real events.)

With so many festivals, it’s amazing that partygoers manage to keep them all straight.  The Republic of Texas Biker Rally and the Austin Gay Pride Parade are held in the same location on back-to-back weekends.  Imagine mixing up those Saturdays.  It probably wouldn’t take you very long to figure out your mistake.

Well, time to give up for the day and join the party.  Happy Festivaling!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sarcastic 30-Year-Old Female Seeks Bestest Writing Buddy

Are you a woman between the ages of 22 and 40 with a passion for writing, a dry sense of humor, and plenty of free time?  Do you live within 10 minutes of downtown Austin?  Do you enjoy mocking others over a cup of coffee or many beers?  If so, I would like to invite you to audition for the role of my best friend / writing companion.

For several weeks now, I’ve been scouring the Austin writing scene for such a person, attending various creative writing Meetups and critique groups.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much bad writing I’ve subjected myself to on this quest for friendship.  And I mean really bad.  The general rule when critiquing someone else’s work is that you’re supposed to offer at least one positive comment; this is an area in which I struggle.  I’ll end up saying something like, “Well, I thought your avoidance of plot was really innovative. The main character didn’t actually do anything.  It was like we were trapped inside her head, listening to whatever random, pointless thoughts she was having.  So, um, great job!”  In my experience, comments such as this one rarely spark lasting friendships.

I've also noticed that the other writers who attend these groups are either much younger or much older than I am.  It's as if all of the thirty-year-olds have retreated from the social scene to play house and make babies.  On Facebook, my friends’ smiling faces have all been replaced by pictures of big-eyed, drooling infants.  Meanwhile, I’m left socializing with older retired ladies and college girls with fake IDs.

Last week, I went to my first fiction writing class, where the teacher kicked things off with a guided visualization.  She had us close our eyes and said weird stuff like “Listen to yourself breathe” and “Your hands are getting heavy” and “Let everything go white.”  I took the opportunity to blatantly stare at my fellow classmates, sizing them up and trying to decide who might be good friend material.  There was only one girl who I thought had potential.  She had bright pink hair and the only thing she said all night was “Go @#$% yourself,” but she didn’t say it to anyone in particular – it was part of a creative exercise.  Anyway, she didn’t show up to this week’s class, so it looks like I’m back to square one.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Publication #2: Underwired Magazine

I’m happy to report that one of my personal essays was published in this month’s issue of Underwired magazine.  You won’t be able to get your hands on a physical copy unless you happen to live in Louisville or southern Indiana, but don’t despair.  Here is the complete essay as published in Underwired

I refuse to wear a dress unless the situation demands it. It’s not that I’m a tomboy or a feminist; it’s just that dresses don’t suit me – much like red lipstick, bangs, and 9-to-5 office jobs. At any given time, there are two, maybe three dresses hanging in my closet. I will typically wear the same dress over and over again to countless consecutive weddings until it literally falls apart at the seams and I’m forced to buy a new one. When shopping for a new dress, I’m not looking for the latest fashion trends; I’m looking for a dress that will stand the test of time – one that I can wear year after year after year, hopefully without anyone noticing.
When I got engaged, I realized that I was going to have to break tradition and attempt to be fashionable. When you’re the bride, there’s no hiding a frumpy dress under a pashmina shawl. Knowing that I would be the center of attention on my wedding day, I obviously wanted to look good. That being said, I didn’t have any fairy-tale expectations about my wedding dress. When I went to the bridal salon, I knew going in that I wouldn’t be one of those women who fall instantly and irrevocably in love with a dress, gasping and smiling and sobbing into a Kleenex while someone places a veil on their head. I was willing to settle for a dress that wasn’t a total disaster.
When the bridal consultant asked me to describe my perfect wedding dress, the first thing that came to mind was “sparkly.” My day-to-day wardrobe has always been rather drab and boring, so I tend to equate dressing up with being covered in glitter. The next thing I knew, I was slipping into a dress that could only be described as “sparkly.” The entire gown, from the strapless neckline down to the end of the cathedral-length train, was heavily adorned with silver embroidery and crystal beading. When I first saw myself in the dress – twinkling like a giant disco ball under the dressing room spotlights – I couldn’t help but think I looked pretty.
My accompanying friend, who prefers classic, simple designs, grimaced when she saw me in the bedazzled dress. “It’s very, um, you?” she offered. That was all the validation I needed. I put down a hefty deposit, went home, and warned my husband-to- be that he should be prepared to shield his eyes at the sight of me coming down the aisle. Self-deprecating humor is really the best way to deal with buyer’s remorse; it helps lower expectations.
After months of joking about my “garish gown” with its “25,000 imported Italian twinkle-beads,” my husband was pleasantly surprised upon seeing me in the dress. I have no idea what anyone else thought – telling the bride she looks beautiful is mandatory – but as I stood at the altar, shimmering and glistening in the candlelight, I decided that I had made the right choice.
When my husband and I got back from our honeymoon, I had my dress cleaned and preserved. I felt like I should keep it, although I had no idea what for. For three years, it’s been buried in the back of my closet, along with my violin and my scuba diving equipment. Every once in awhile, I’ll dig it out and sit cross-legged in front of the presentation box, peering through the thick plastic window. The once-sparkly bodice appears dull and muted, trapped inside its coffin-like box. I feel an overwhelming urge to rip open the cardboard and let the cathedral-length train spill out everywhere. Oh, to see those sparkles sparkle again! But then, what would I do with it?
The obvious choice would be to wear it again. Unfortunately, it required dozens of excruciating workouts and tasteless salads to fit into it the first time. I was at my goal weight for all of twenty minutes during the wedding ceremony before I gorged myself on shrimp cocktail and spring rolls and truffled prosciutto popovers.
Even if I did manage to zip up my wedding gown again, where exactly would I go dressed like a disco ball? Perhaps if I had chosen a simpler style, I could have re-worn my dress to a black and white charity gala, but as it is, I would surely be recognized as a recycled bride. I suppose I wouldn’t have to go anywhere. I have a friend who often wears her wedding dress when she’s at home alone. She’s one of the happiest newlyweds I know, having finally achieved her lifelong goal of marrying a Jewish doctor. I can easily imagine her skipping around the living room in her wedding dress and veil, introducing herself to various pieces of furniture. “Hello, I’m Mrs. Herskowitz. And this,” she says while indicating the coat rack, “is my husband, Doctor Herskowitz.” It’s an entertaining idea, but being accident prone, I probably shouldn’t attempt to maneuver around my apartment with such a long train. Knowing me, I’d get tangled up on a chair and go face first into the coffee table.
If I’m not going to wear my dress, another possibility is to use the fabric to construct something more useful, like a beaded quilt or a decorative pillow. I made a pillow once, fifteen years ago, in my Home Economics class. It was supposed to resemble a hamburger. I sewed the pickles on crooked, but otherwise it turned out okay. Of course, when you’re working with fabric of great sentimental value, there’s a lot of added pressure; I’m just not sure I could handle it.
Part of me feels obligated to leave my wedding dress in the box for another twenty or thirty years in case my future daughter wants to wear it. But, really, the odds of it working out are astronomically small. Assuming that I even have a daughter and that she even wants to get married, I’m guessing that my dress will be too conservative for her. “But, Mom, that old thing doesn’t even show any leg!” I was only in elementary school when I rejected the idea of wearing my mother’s old wedding dress, with its long sleeves and high lace collar. She eventually donated the dress to Goodwill.
That is, of course, another option, and probably the best one. There are several reputable organizations that re-sell wedding dresses at a lower cost and then donate the proceeds to a worthy cause. While I like the idea of the money going to charity, the thing that I find most appealing about donating my wedding dress is imagining the woman who would buy it. She’s probably someone who couldn’t afford it otherwise; someone with a soft spot for sequins and rhinestones; someone who would see my glittery dress out of the corner of her eye and wouldn’t be able to resist picking it up and taking it home with her; someone who would love it as much as I do.