Friday, June 21, 2002

Martin Sheen called our house yesterday.

It's so funny to hear a message on your answering machine from Martin Sheen. He was calling for Cathy, who is the key second AD on the show, "The West Wing." He calls her Red, because of her red hair, and began the message with, "Hey Red, this is Martin Sheen." That just cracks me up.

I've met Martin a few times when I was an extra on the show, and one time before, just after September 11th. I was living an isolated existence in my apartment in West Hollywood during the throws of my depression, unemployed, and needed human contact. Not only that, a purpose. So, I called Cathy and asked her if I could extra on the show. Cathy being Cathy, she said "of course," and signed me on to be a "White House staffer." And, not only would I get human contact, I'd get paid.

I'd been to the set a couple of times before, so I was vaguely familiar with it, but I'd never been in front of the camera. I'd imagined that I'd be sitting at a desk or something, but when the AD led me into the White House lobby and started giving me stage direction and the prop person handed me a laptop computer that I was supposed to close on cue, then get up and walk down the hall on cue after Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford walked by, I became scared shitless. I felt naked and exposed, and wanted something to grab onto but there was only me. I imagined all the things that could go wrong. Tripping, dropping the laptop, crashing into Rob Lowe, or just plain freezing. I had no idea that so much was expected of an extra, and my heart rate and body temperature started to rise as I watched them set up the shot. There was another extra, a man in his fifties who was paired with me, and I told him that I'd never done this before and was scared shitless. He reassured me and said that everything would be fine as I wondered why I'd put myself in this position. Most of all, I didn't want to do anything that would embarrass Cathy.

Then, I remembered this thing that Baryshnikov used to always say when he was in rehearsal with his dancers, "Don't think, just do." So I stopped thinking about it, and realized that of course I could stand up and close a laptop and walk on cue. I'd "just do," and trust myself to do it right. And, that's exactly what happened. We went through a couple of rehearsals, and when the real thing came, I was completely at ease.

Sure, the first time the first AD yelled, "Picture's up!" then "Rolling!" then "Action!" my heart fluttered a bit, but I made it though just fine. I hit all my cues, I didn't fall, and both Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe emerged unscathed. Between takes they talked politics and I realized that I was starting to have fun.

We did about four takes of that shot and then moved to another one. It was fascinating to watch the Hollywood machine at work, and even more so, that everyone knew what they were doing. Not just the actors, but the people who set up the shots, and the steady cam operator who wears a contraption that makes him look like Robocop. There's a guy who puts tape on the floor to "mark" where the actors walk, and a wardrobe person, all the grips and lighting people, the script supervisors and dialogue coaches, the AD's and DGA trainee who rounds up the extras and helps give direction. There are stand ins for each actor for setting up shots and so much more. So much goes on before the director yells "action," yet it looks so effortless and unintentional on the screen.

The West Wing crew and actors are a particularly nice group of people, save for Rob Lowe who is a weirdo. I'll explain Rob Lowe in a minute. Cathy had already paved the way for me by telling everyone to be really nice and helpful to me, since I wasn't a regular at this, and everyone was extremely considerate and helpful. I'll admit, that it was nice to be treated as a favored guest on a Hollywood set, and made the few days that I did the extra work that much more enjoyable. Cathy is one of the top bananas on the set, not to mention, really well-liked. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy being on the right side of the Hollywood pecking order. I was a guest, but a guest that got to participate in everything and see what it was like to be in the middle of a big Hollywood production. At the time, I was contemplating leaving Los Angeles for Baltimore, and was getting my last few doses of Hollywood in before I left. The episode that I was in was the Christmas episode, so there was a break coming up for the cast and crew.


Me on set in the Oval Office behind the President's desk. It was dark in there, so the picture quality isn't great. The tag hanging around my neck is a "White House Staffer" ID. I wore a red turtleneck since we were supposed to look "in season" for the Christmas episode.

When I got there, everyone had warned me about Rob Lowe. That he didn't like to be touched, talked to, and could single someone out whom he felt got in his way during a scene. Of course, on my first day of being an extra, almost all the scenes they put me in were with Rob Lowe. However, I wasn't worried about him. After going through the hell of depression, I understood that everyone has their quirks and deals with them in their own way. I may not agree with them, but I understood that while on set that I was on his turf, and because of that I was respectful. Anything I thought about him as a human being, positive or negative, should not even register in the slightest on my face.

I just love that about being older. In my early twenties, I may have tried to make it obvious to Rob that I didn't approve of his reputation or that I wasn't intimidated with his celebrity, but being older and much wiser, I understand that life isn't "all about me." I can be generous toward people and allow them room. And some people require more room than others and that doesn't take anything away from me. On that set during that scene, it was all about Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford. They were of more value than I was to the show, and I was just fine with that.

However, if in the "real world," Rob stole my parking place or cut in front of me in line at the grocery store, at that time I would have no problem speaking up as it would be appropriate. Turned out that Rob was fine, all day. I was more worried about closing laptops and hitting my cues.

As the day went on, I learned that it was important to know where the camera was. Knowing where it was made it easy for me to understand what was going on and how my actions came into play with the actors' scenes. It was all just so interesting, and the fact that it all worked just constantly amazed me. Sometimes it would hit me that I was on set of the #1 rated drama and what a privilege it was to be a part of it. I'd have one of those moments like in the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, "And you may ask yourself, well...how did I get here?"

My stepbrother Dan laughs at me when I tell him this story. He said, "Anne, most people when they want to jolt themselves out of depression force themselves to go to a party, the movies, or out with friends. You, you make one phone call and go to be on the nation's highest rated TV drama to get out of your depression."

Hey man, whatever works.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

My day started of with a boom. Two to be exact.

I was in the shower and around 10:30 AM, the house shook from two loud booms. I thought at first that Cathy and Reese had come home, then wondered if we'd had an earthquake. It frightened me and I turned off the water without conditioning my hair. Easy to manage locks would have to wait until next time. I wanted to make sure that someone wasn't trying to break into the house. I dried off, wrapped my towel around me and walked into my room. My radio was on, and the newscaster said excitedly, "Did you just hear two loud booms?"

I relaxed, as I knew what that meant, and the newscaster confirmed my thoughts. They were sonic booms from the Space Shuttle entering the atmosphere overhead. It's happened three or four times since I've been in Los Angeles, since the Space Shuttle lands at Edwards Air Force Base here in California a few miles to the North. The first time was six years ago and I was in this very room. The windows shook and the house rocked a little, and I clenched my covers close to my chin, ready to hold on for the earthquake. We'd been having several aftershocks since the Northridge quake that were pretty sizable, and I figured that I was in for some rocking from good old Mother Nature. However, the shaking was caused by a disturbance above our earth, not below it. It was the Space Shuttle causing all the ruckus.

Another time, about a year and a half ago, I was living in West Hollywood and thought someone was working on the rooftop. It sounded as if someone had dropped an anvil on the roof above me and was so loud that I flinched, expecting something to fall through. I went outside to see what was going on, and there was nothing. Once again, our Shuttle was landing.

One of the freakiest things to happen from the base, I witnessed in the parking lot of my grocery store in the Hollywood Hills. I'd just exited my car and happened to look north at the sky, just at the right time. The sight stopped me in my tracks as well as several other shoppers who were in the parking lot. We all stood there like the crew witnessing the mother ship land in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was a large thick streak of light, almost as if a comet had launched from the earth, and it was speeding upward. Several expletives emitted from the people standing behind me, and unbeknownst to me I was blocking a man from parking in a space. Once he saw what we were all looking at, he put it in park and stepped out of his car.

"What is it?" I asked, wondering if Armageddon was in progress.
"Fuck if I know," the man who had just stepped out of a $70,000 BMW said back to me, his eyes not moving from the sky.

And then, a much smaller light made its way toward the comet, and a second later it exploded in an enormous, beautiful and perfectly round orb of light. All of us in the parking lot took a couple of steps backward and watched it expand. It's trajectory had stopped and since the sun was setting, the ball reflected blues, oranges and pinks. It was frighteningly breathtaking.

"Son of a bitch," BMW man said and looked at his car. I was thinking what he was, whether we were going to have to get the hell out of Dodge, fast.

Then I remembered.

"Aren't they doing an anti-missile test or something?" I asked.
Another man who had stepped out of a '69 VW Bug said, "Yeah, I think they are testing something. I heard it on the news."
"So we aren't being nuked?" BMW man said.
"No, but if we ever are it will be one hell of a sight," I said.
"You got that right," BMW man said.

We then proceeded into the grocery store, our minds back to picking up Feta cheese, lunch meats, and toilet paper.

I later learned that the test had been unsuccessful, that the speck of light I'd seen had missed the target and that they had to detonate the missile over the water. However, a second test a few weeks later went off without a hitch. It still remains one of the most amazing things I've ever seen.

Monday, June 17, 2002

I had the coolest Web experience the other night.

I found this Webcam by visiting a blog that links to my site, that allows you to watch live streaming video from a shop in Ware, England. They also have another Web cam outside the shop for a street view. I'm not sure what connection that this man, who calls himself Methusalah, has to the store, but it was on his site that I found the link.

I've always been fascinated by the fact that I can be sitting here in Los Angeles and watch life going on in England, Moscow, Tokyo, or wherever, and that the people walking by on the street or driving by in their cars have no idea that a girl from Los Angeles is watching them. And, can even see them for that matter. Forget about the personal Web cams, as these are the best ones as they represent real life in it's most candid form. You are literally a fly on the wall. Guess I won't be picking my nose when I think I'm alone on a city street. Some guy in Bangkok might be watching.

Usually, when I've checked in on the shop it's been closed, but I was up in the wee hours of the morning (imagine that) and decided to visit. I clicked on the shop link, and was delighted to see that it was open, the camera on the two or three women who worked at the counter, busy with the customers that were coming in and out of the store. I have a high speed connection, so it was pretty much real time from Ware, England. Since I was spying on them from far away, I thought I'd let them know of my presence and that I enjoyed their Web cam. I searched around the site and found an e-mail submission form, and titled it, "Hello from Los Angeles." I sent them a short note telling them that I liked their Web cam and was watching the store right now, and wanted to let them know how far they'd reached their audience. As a last minute thought asked them to give me a wave if they got my e-mail. I watched for another five minutes, thinking how ridiculous a request it was, as if they were going to stop what they were doing and wave to me. It was then that I saw a man in business attire walking toward the counter and smiling, and couldn't believe it when he walked up to the camera and waved, with two hands over his head. He was smiling and I was smiling, and the women at the counter looked toward me and smiled, as did a customer. The man checked his watch as if answering a question from one of the women, and I know they were asking what time it was in Los Angeles. They laughed some more and then got back to business. What a thrill that was.

I'm still blown away that someone in Ware, England waved to me real time in Los Angeles. And, that the people in the store were good natured enough to stop what they were doing in the back offices and give an insomniac in Los Angeles a wave! I was grinning ear to ear. Talk about interactive.

I was off today and am again tomorrow. The store has been completely slammed which is the way I like it. The time flies, I'm at my best and I never get bored. I wasn't in the mood to work on Saturday, but told myself that I was just going to exist and not care one way or the other. So I wasn't in the mood, that was okay. It was just a little time of my life that I had to be there. Luckily, we had free pizza that night so I didn't have to buy dinner for myself.

Cathy and Reese are out of town and it's been both nice to feel I can spread out a little more as well as lonely. I try to be pretty invisible as far as taking up space when they are here and that includes cooking, doing laundry and other things. I've been doing all of the above and it's made me feel a lot more human. I know that Cathy and Reese aren't that way, but because I'm staying here for free, I try to make it as easy as possible on them.

One thing that I notice when I'm at the store is that my mind is ripe with ideas and things I want to accomplish. Not only that, I'm motivated to do it. However, when I get home, that motivation subsides and I find myself frustrated because I didn't get anything that I'd planned finished. I end up surfing the Internet, watching some television, or whatever. Yes, I do get home at midnight, but this has been a pervasive problem. I'm trying to figure out how to carry that motivation home with me, and keep it for the days off, but when I get here it just dies. I think because I do thrive in a busy environment, and also have more energy in one. There's an old saying that says, "If you want something done, ask a busy person," and I think that I fall into that category. I have so much to give, and every day that I fail to edge closer to doing so, I get very frustrated. I think that's why graduate school is looking good. Not because I think some degree is going to make life easier, but so I can have a purpose again.

Right now, my only purpose is to keep my head above water as I move toward an unknown future, and that leaves me feeling empty and unfulfilled.

Friday, June 14, 2002

Right now there is a coyote howling outside my window. I heard it walking through the back yard, disturbing brush as it noisily traipsed through a path between my house and the next door neighbor's. It was unconcerned with the noise it was making, as it is a predator with only the mountain lions to fear. We are too far down for many mountain lion sightings, but the coyotes are regular nightly visitors. And, many times like tonight they howl into the darkness.

A couple of minutes later, another one walked through the path and the leader fell silent. I sprung up from my chair with my flashlight and tried unsuccessfully to catch sight of them. As usual, they are heard and not seen, and I think that is what is so unnerving. They are like forlorn and restless spirits, wailing a sad song in the night as they walk the earth, their curse to be heard and not seen except by others of their kind. As I type, a chorus of coyotes, near and far are howling. It's eerie and beautiful at the same time.

One night, around this time a terrified shriek from a child interrupted the silence. It pierced through my skin and goosebumps rose immediately on my arms. I froze, unable to act. My quiet night had become suddenly unsafe and terrifying. I did not jump to the window this time, but sat still, breathing hard and tensed. It screamed again, then fell silent. As I sat in the dark in my bed with the covers pulled to my chin, I realized that it wasn't a child, but a rabbit that had become prey. The thought of that terrified me, and still unnerves me when I think about it. A life suddenly cut short, a rabbit, screaming in terror as it is attacked. I think what unnerved me so much was that the line between primal and human instinct seemed very blurred at that moment. Whatever attacked it, probably a coyote or owl, needed to eat. The rabbit didn't want to die, so it screamed...twice. Jesus Christ, it still gives me the creeps.

I have one nocturnal neighbor that I haven't been able to identify yet. It's obviously a bird, but what kind, I have no idea. It makes the sound of a hawk, but hawks are day hunters and the screech is a bit more shrill than that. To describe it the best, it sounds like a bat's screech that has been turned up in volume a few notches. I have no idea what it is, as screech owls aren't really prevalent in this area. Sometimes I imagine it's a lost gargoyle, flying solo in the night.

One of my favorite night visitors is the owl that hoots every so often as it rests atop trees or rooftops. I can just see it's big round eyes as they survey the landscape. I feel a kinship to it because I too am a night owl. I haven't seen him yet, but can't wait until the night we cross paths. Owls are just fascinating creatures, and many times they are brazen and curious.

A couple of years ago, my friend Emma and I were walking the neighbor's dog through the Hollywood Hills by the Hollywood sign. This was when I lived in the Hollywood Hills, and frequented the many paths and horse trails in the hills. We were walking at dusk on a wide dirt path, when I felt a rush of air above my head. I looked up to see a large owl flying low to land. It's huge wing span cloaked the pink sky as it passed over my head, and it kept company with us, landing on branches that were eye level and watching us as we passed. It was unafraid, and seemed to want the company and know we were of no danger to it. At times it would land just feet from us on a fallen tree branch and stare at us. That night was one of those experiences that I know I'll treasure forever. I felt honored and humbled, being accompanied by such a regal and mysterious bird who was making such an effort to make its presence known to us. It was as if the owl had chosen us to follow and was welcoming us into it's environment, and to be that close to it on a warm night under the setting sun was simply magical and made me pause to thank God for being alive.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

I've been working for nine days straight, and am enjoying the first of my three days off.

We have some new people at the store, and because of that closing has seemed to go on a little later. That, or things have just been unusually hectic because of the approaching senior finals. High school will be over this Friday, and hopefully that will lessen the amount of teenagers that congregate in the cafe and spill out over the tables and chairs. None of us mind that they use the area to study, it's just that most of them are inconsiderate and leave latte cups, piles of books that they used and didn't put back, and can act loud and obnoxious. They also take up a lot of space with their huge backpacks and chairs they stole from other tables and placed in the aisles. I mean, God forbid they study in groups less than five. Not only that, they take their shoes off and leave them in the way, lie on the floor, and I caught a few of them having a book war, throwing our books at one another. I put a stop to it immediately. When they get that way, we curb their behavior pretty quickly and if they persist, call the guard to kick them out. At one point I got frustrated and took two abandoned back packs from a table and threw them behind the cashier counter. In doing so, because the backpacks were both half the size of myself, I tweaked my back.

It's nice that the under eighteen crowd has somewhere to go, and we're happy that they find our store a good atmosphere in which to study, but when they become a nuisance, it spoils it for everyone. First, they get a warning. After a couple of warnings, they are asked to leave. This isn't their living rooms, and most of them do not buy from the store. So, we've been cracking down harder on them.

Last night, I was helping Brian in the kid's department with some displays, and there were a bunch of teenage girls at a table just outside the area. Just hearing them talk reminded me how glad I was that I wasn't a teenager anymore and that I didn't have to be subjected to goofy girls on a daily basis. I was never a goofy girl, but when you are fifteen, that is who you are forced to socialize with on a daily basis simply because you go to school with them. Just hearing them talk made me glad that I was an adult. And that is, even an adult who is neck deep in debt, living with her friends, has clinical depression, and who has an uncertain future. Anything is better than having to spend a lot of time around "clique" driven goofy teenagers. I can tell that these kids are probably the "popular" crowd, as all the girls dress in midriffs and low cut jeans, and are striving with every detail from cellular phone covers to toenail polish to represent what is "in" as much as they can. They flirt with the packs of boys who come in, and I hear them sometimes exclaim something like, "Oh my God Brittany, guess who like totally just walked through the door!" That's followed by giggles and squealing as they watch a spiky haired kid with braces, droopy shorts, bad posture, and a few freshly squeezed zits saunter through the door with his buddies. And it just makes me so totally, like glad that I'm not like, a teenager anymore. And that like, my peers aren't like, either.

When I was a teen, I spent most of my days in my room drawing or painting, or watching TV to escape from Kansas. I'd also go on long walks at night under a star splattered sky, feeling the wind against my face and street underneath my shoes. You could do that in Topeka, Kansas. I'd usually wander into construction sites in our condominium complex and explore the places under construction. I loved the smell of the drying cement, exposed wood, and freshly dug up dirt. It was the smell of progress and possibility. Sometimes I could look through the unfinished roof at the sky and listen to the wind as it made its way through the trees. And I'd think about the future and what it held for me. During those moments, I was as far away from my teenage peers as I could get.

And, early in my college years the reality far surpassed those dreams. I made it out of Kansas to New York City to attend Parsons School of Design. And, I got into Parsons on my own. It was my portfolio with my drawings that I'd done on my own time that had gotten me accepted at that highly competitive school. Within one year of arriving in New York I was working for my then idol, Mikhail Baryshnikov. The posters on my wall and the numerous viewings of his ballet performances, White Nights, and The Turning Point, had become a reality for me. That is another story that I will elaborate on at a different time. The important thing was that the strength gained by marching on my own path is the very thing that enabled me to get there. And that is why I'm able to keep it together during these rough times and feel much better off than the teens who congregate at Barnes and Noble. It's hard to know if they will ever experience the thrill of achieving a goal when everyone around you said that you weren't going to do it. That my way was wrong and that I was setting myself up for disappointment. I have many successes and experiences under my belt that were of my own doing. And, I know that there will be more in the future. It may be a frustrating journey right now and at times feel hopeless, but I have those experiences to draw on to keep me going. And, no debt, depression, or loss of a job can take them away.

Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Night train.

There's a train that I hear at night when the quiet darkness allows far away sounds to drift through my bedroom window. Around two in the morning, I hear the faint throaty howl of the whistle and the muffled sound of machinery pumping steel wheels along the iron rail. I have no idea where the train tracks are. There are none that I have passed by that I can remember. For now, they are in an imagined place. When I hear the whistle wail, I imagine shiny black steel reflecting blue light under the moonlight, the churning pistons in the engine pulling car after car behind it, a train on the run underneath the stars, racing through the desert plains as dew collects on its metal casing.

I remember hearing night trains when I'd visit my grandparents' house as a kid in Little Rock, Arkansas. They had no air conditioning, so the nights were filled with the lonely sounds of singing crickets and an occasional passing car. Usually, I'd lie in bed lonely for the comforts of my room and familiarity. A single street light shined into the room, surrounded by a swirling circle of June bugs, mosquitoes and gnats. As I avoided its glare, I tossed and turned underneath hot covers and stirred every time the house settled. I was restless, the only one awake in a motionless house.

And then, I'd hear it. The faint sound of the whistle in the distance, the swelling volume of the engine, rhythmic like a marching cavalry off in the distance. My feelings of isolation turned into comfort and my restlessness subdued. As still as the night was, the night train still sped through town, fast on a mission and very much awake. The whistle would blow again, this time closer and much louder. It was like a sage letting me know that I wasn't the only one stirring in the night. I'd sit up and listen to it pass, wondering where it was going and what it was carrying. I pictured the conductor at the helm as the darkness raced past him, in control of the monstrous machine and captain of his destiny. He wasn't confined in an uncomfortable and sticky bed that creaked when he moved. He was free, and racing through the night on a steel behemoth. And, he was also restless.

Night trains stirred the thoughts in me that there was a very grown up world out there that I had yet to explore. A world of people who stayed up past nine and had places to go. And that some day if I wanted to, I could go on my own trek. The night train represented freedom, possibility, and the unknown that was so much bigger than anything I'd experienced. It prodded the dreamer in me and enticed me to look past that singular light or the cramped old room that I slept in at my grandparents' house. And I think that's why it brought me comfort.

When I hear night trains, like the one I just heard when I got up to write this, I still react in the same way. The first time I heard it in this room it brought back those feelings of wonderment and reminded me that once I find the right track, the chance to be the conductor of my own boundless train, still awaits me.