Friday, April 25, 2003

On Wednesday, I was sitting in a bar with two male friends and saw Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, and Robert Patrick get into a fist fight. Travolta and Phoenix were sitting at the bar when Patrick came in and joined them. He said something that provoked Phoenix, who jumped up from his bar stool and came at Patrick like the Tasmanian Devil. The three careened toward me and my companions and we jumped from our table in shock. Fists flew, bottles and glasses were knocked over and beer spilled onto the floor. Patrick took a pounding as Phoenix pummeled him into next Tuesday and yelled curse words in his face. Travolta struggled to pry him off, finally succeeding when two other patrons jumped in and pushed Phoenix, still cursing and trying to writhe free to get back to Patrick, out of the bar.

We stood there stunned, and then the director yelled, "Cut!"

And we prepared to do it again.

The day before that, I'd received a call to be an extra from the casting office for the film Ladder 49 that is filming here in Baltimore. I had applied at a casting call a couple months earlier on a day that I was missing Los Angeles. I was working the day that they wanted me, and pondered back and forth about asking off from work. As usual, I had a long stint of days at work, and that morning I had barely been able to function because of my not wanting to be there and all five senses being assaulted with the elements of the store and the customers. I knew that extra work was not glamorous, having done it before, and I had just asked to go home early on Monday so that I could work on my self portraits. I knew it would be a long day that would take one night away from working on my paintings, which are due this coming Monday.

However, I also knew that I was in dire need of a break from my life.

After getting encouragement from my friend Felix who agreed on the break theory, I called work and asked for the day off. I was not doing the deposit in the morning, so my absence was not going to make or break my coworkers' day. To my relief, I was given the blessing by the store manager. I had decided to be honest and just ask for the day off instead of be a coward and call in sick the day of. Because of that, I was able to go to the set in the morning with a free conscious and not have to lie to my coworkers about feeling better, if asked.

The movie has been filming downtown right in my area, but of course on the day that I was called, the shoot was in Essex. I had no idea where Essex was, but the woman on the phone gave me directions. It was in the dreaded county, a few miles past where I work at Barnes and Noble. Meaning, as my coworkers later told me, ground zero of rural suburban wasteland. The scene we were shooting was going to take place in a bar, and we were to bring appropriate clothing.

Our call time was at 9:30am, and I had packed a good amount of "bar" clothing in an enormous canvas bag. I drove to the location, still wondering why I had decided to do this, and pulled into a parking lot outside a church and private school. I checked in with the PA who was sitting at a table inside a small events room, and was directed to go upstairs to a holding area. I joined about ten other extras who had already sat down.

I wasn't in the mood to talk, as I was out of my element. Cathy was not there to buffer me from the coldness that can be a Hollywood set. I wondered again why I was doing this, why I felt a need to be here. I then told myself not to think too much, and that why I was here would become clear.

The wardrobe people checked our clothes, and both women loved my clothes, but said most of them were too nice for the scene. We found a black mini-skirt and a top that I had with silver thread woven into the knit, which they liked for the Christmas scene. It had been awhile since I'd worn a mini, and when I changed into it, I was surprised at how good it looked on me. All through the day, as I paraded around in my mini and caught more than one glance from the men, I realized that most of the time I severely undersell myself. My stepbrother told me that once, and I saw it in full color that day. My usual wardrobe of pants, sweaters, long sleeves and chest covering shirts constantly hide my full potential. I dress that way because I'm cold a lot, and those clothes are comfortable, but I made a mental note to see how I could incorporate more femininity and playfulness into my wardrobe.

After we dressed and went through hair and make-up, we piled into a passenger van and drove to the set. As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a crowd of people standing across the street behind a police barricade made of yellow tape. Black letters printed on it warned them, "Do not cross." Some had brought lawn chairs, others stood as their kids played on the sidewalk. All of them were fat, blank faced women and men with mullet hairstyles. Sexless blobs indiscernible from one another, all dressed in warmup pants and sweat shirts. Essex had come out to watch the movie production. As we drove past them, they strained to see us inside the van, just in case any of us were movie stars. They were standing there taped off from what was going on beyond their reach, not for any other reason than they themselves had made it beyond their reach, and I reflected on the customers that come to the store.

It was my first message of the day that I did not miss.

It was symbolic of the great divide that exists between people who strive for nothing and those of us who strive for something, anything. And, that I needed to put a barricade of my own between myself and these people who assault me on a daily basis at the store with their cynical and "complacently ignorant" mentality. If only, to put getting out of the store on the front burner, so I can get away from those who are content with being told to "do not cross" into the world that exists outside.

There is a song by Seal, called Crazy, and in it he sings, "In a world full of people only some want to fly, isn't it that crazy?"

To me, that's completely insane.

A few hours later, we finished the fight scene and were directed back into the climate controlled tent. I sat and read a great book, then the PA told us that we were to get into the van to go back to base and eat lunch. Many people sat in groups at tables, but I ate a very good lunch of veal, rice, and vegetables by myself. As I said, I wasn't in the mood to talk. I was in the mood to spectate. I sat confidently by myself, and no one tried to share my table. For that, I was glad. Though the scene was fun and it was good to be around Hollywood again, I was still wondering why I was here.

That would become evident during the next scene.

After lunch, they had us change into another outfit, which consisted of a snug fitting shirt from the wardrobe department, a change of shoes and my same short black mini. The shirt had a scoop neck, and nicely showed off what little of a rack that I had. As I looked at my newfound cleavage, I made a note to include these kind of shirts in my wardrobe. I liked looking back at the person they had made up.

They drove us back to the tent, and though it was almost seven hours later, the mullet people had not budged. A woman in a flight attendant uniform held a sign that said, "unemployed flight attendant." I wasn't sure what she wanted anyone to do, but then later learned that John Travolta was a friend to the airline industry. Funny, as there weren't any people holding "unemployed scientologist" signs among the crowd. When I got to the tent, I bundled up and put my nose back into the book. Though there was a large heater in the tent, it was windy, and the cool air seeped in enough to make a thin blooded person like myself a tad chilly. I had a nice conversation with a man who was also an extra, and a couple of the women who sat at my table. Proper nutrition had fueled my social behavior. As darkness fell, we were called back into the bar for a scene that was supposed to be taking place in the spring of 1993. We filed one by one into the bar, and when I was walking through the door, Joaquin Phoenix came out.

"You guys have been out there all this time?" He said, stopping.
A few of the women looked at him nervously and nodded, but I spoke. "Yes, for a few hours," I said, and met his eyes, shivering under my coat.
"Aren't you cold?" he said and put his hand on my upper arm. He was incredibly handsome and had a strong, but gentle hand that engulfed my shoulder.
"Yes," I said, "It's supposed to be a spring scene and I can't stop shivering."
"Aw," he said, and put his arm around me, then patted me on the back and gave me a playful, but surprisingly firm shove, "Well get in there!"
"I will," I said, and continued on my course to warmness.

It was a casual, natural conversation. One that I would have with anyone the exact same way. When we got inside, the women said, "you go girl," and some other comments. I played it down, because their reaction embarrassed me. However, later that night as I drove home, I took something from that moment.

I found out why I had come.

This may sound farfetched, but I believe that at times we are given help and encouragement in all kinds of forms. That day, it was through Joaquin Phoenix. I have been drifting for awhile, teetering on the edge of making my next step. I've flirted with it, danced around it, and even taken a few steps backward. I've stood outside and shivered, wondering if I'd ever be able to participate and fully recognize my talents. I've wondered if I missed the boat, or if there even was a boat for me to get on.

So, that day I was reminded in the form of a handsome Hollywood star who has been through his share of hurt. The hand that playfully shoved me was the same one that had held his brother River Phoenix as he died of a drug overdose. Yet he persevered through his tragedy and is thriving in his craft.

I am still standing on the edge of the pond, testing the water with my toe. Shivering. Trying to decide whether I should go in. If I'm welcome. If I can swim in a sea of uncertainty. Or, if I'm content with not ever knowing what I'm capable of because that is the path of least resistance. I'm at a sticking point, so instead of being told to "do not cross," I got a shove, a hard one actually that took me by surprise at its force but jolted me out of my numbness. And I was told, "Get in there!" from someone who has walked down a similar road.

So okay, Joaquin Phoenix, I will.

Friday, April 18, 2003

I met a tortured soul today.

It was in the bathroom at the Barnes and Noble where I work. I had just clocked out for lunch, gone into the bathroom and barely noticed the young woman standing at the sink looking at herself in the mirror. After I finished my business, I came out to wash my hands.

She was still there.

Not grooming, not washing her hands, just staring in the mirror. I finished washing, then walked over to the towel dispenser and pulled out a paper towel. As I dried my hands, she turned toward me and walked toward me rapidly, stopping a half foot from me and said, "Excuse me, can I ask your opinion on something?"

"Sure," I said, feeling my hair prickle on the back of my neck from the sudden rise of adrenaline. We were the only two in there, and though she looked completely normal, her sudden action startled me.

She then pulled the neck of her shirt down to expose her neckline and chest area and said breathing rapidly between sentences, "I had acne, and I'm wondering if you can see scars all over my chest."

I studied her skin, and said, "No, not at all." And it was true. I couldn't.

She walked back to the mirror and pulled her shirt aside and said, "All I see are scars here, see all these white dots?"
"Only if you point to them," I said, which caused her more worry.
She turned back toward me and said, "I used all this exfoliating stuff and I think that I did more damage. Are they really noticeable? Does it look really bad?"
"No," I said, "not at all. In fact you have a very even skin tone."
She began to shake and get teary, and said, "All I see are scars when I look at myself. I gave myself a rash with the exfoliating lotion. Can you see the rash?" she said, and pointed at the nape of her neck.

There was no rash to be seen.

"No, I said, "there is no rash."
"You really can't see anything?" she said.
"So you think that I could wear something that showed my neck and chest?"
"Absolutely," I reassured her.

Let me pause here, by saying this was a very attractive woman, who had beautiful skin, beautiful long blonde hair, and a beautiful face. She couldn't be more than in her early twenties. She went back to study herself in the mirror, and became more teary. She continued to point at her skin and ask me if I saw her scars, to which I assured her I did not.

This went on for a good five minutes, to which I asked her why she was concentrating so hard on imperfections that were not there. She broke into tears, and said that she couldn't stop, that she didn't know why she was like this because she wasn't like this before, that she was intelligent, but had lost her last job as a nurse due to this obsessiveness. I told her that I was no expert, but it sounded to me like she was suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, and that she needed to get help.

She knew what the condition was, and asked me if she should just ignore these feelings. I said that was the last thing that she should do, because they had obviously gotten the better of her and would come back. I said that a psychiatrist could help her, and that they can prescribe medication. She went back to focusing on her complexion, holding her arms out, almost as if she was trying to separate herself from her skin. Then, she chastised herself for doing that, and I said, "This thing is bigger than you are right now, and you need help to get through it. You are not crazy, it's just that your brain is misfiring information and being mean to you. It's no way to live, because really, it isn't you. It's your brain making you think it is. So much that it's debilitating."

On that part, I was an expert.

I stayed and talked with this woman for twenty minutes. I could see that she was terrified and felt very alone, and that there was a rational woman inside who was frustrated at her erratic behavior. She was so afraid, that she turned to a stranger to ask if what she was seeing was real. She broke into tears again, saying she hated herself so much and wanted to stop. I told her that she was not crazy, that it probably felt that way right now, but that she wasn't. I said that she would talk to many people who wouldn't know what to do or say to her, which is why she needed a professional. But I reiterated, that just because these people may not know what to say, that it did not mean that she was crazy. When she asked me what I saw when I looked at her, I said that I saw a beautiful young woman, and that was true. I told her that getting over this was going to be a process of therapy and possibly medication, and shared with her my own experiences with depression and anxiety attacks. That seemed to calm her, that this "normal" person that she had turned to was not so "normal" after all. And, that those who may seem to be living a carefree existence while you are in a personal hell, may just have walked down the road you are traveling and be able to lead you to a short cut.

I tried to give her that shortcut, but only she can decide to take it. I left her by telling her that I'd come from the fashion and film industry, and that so many of these people who are so called perfect are far from that. I said that Cameron Diaz had bad skin, but one would never know from her pictures or movies, and that Brad Pitt had acne scars. She was surprised at both of those facts, and that seemed to bring her back to some sort of calm and functioning level. Lastly I said, as soon as you leave the store, to make it priority one to call a doctor for a referral.

For her sake, I hope she does. However, at least that day she learned that not everyone, even a total stranger, would recoil away from her startling behavior, but instead offer a connection between her and reality. And that some of us will stop to hoist someone who is frightened and in need, one step higher out of the hole.

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

What a difference a warm and sunny day can make. Especially when it comes on your day off.

Not to mention, a great evening spent with your painting class outdoors at Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor. It was the first time that I think I've felt like a part of this city, and not a stranger in a strange land. Sitting on top of grassy Federal Hill overlooking the harbor where the Americans fought off the British, not armed with a canon, but a paint brush and canvas. I was not surrounded by my war torn registry, but my fellow artists. A warm wind blew, dogs romped and rolled around in the grass, rollerbladers skated by, and kids raced each other up and down the hill. Pedestrians stopped to look at our paintings, asking us if we were part of a class or just an art group, how long we'd been doing it and then musing on how they always wanted to paint.

"Then pick up a brush and start," I'd say, "that's what all of us did." They'd nod, then look off in the distance as if pondering their life choices. Hopefully, some of them took my advice.

The same kids who were racing up the hill, a group of African-American boys and girls ranging from 7-10 years old, came over to us and looked at each of our paintings. Sooner than I knew it, I had an audience of four as they watched me make brush strokes. I love how kids are enthusiastic and unafraid to come over and stand close around you to see what you are doing. Luckily, they felt safe doing that because we were "adults" in a friendly and welcoming environment. They moved from one person to the next, exclaiming, "Wow! Look at this one!" with each painting that they viewed. They were absolutely charming and darling, and nice kids. They were an unexpected pleasure of that day, and I was glad that they came across my path. I needed to see "good." And they were "good" in its purest form.

Once darkness settled in, a few of us became cold and walked down to the harbor to get some warm coffee. My teacher, two female students, and a male student who is very cute were in our group as we trotted down the stairs down the hill. It was the first time that I'd been out in Baltimore without family, and I was enjoying it immensely. Plenty of people walked about, and the city lights reflected off the black harbor water in thick wavy ribbons of red, yellow, and white. Yachts lined the docks and the stores and restaurants bubbled with activity. We talked about our paintings and the paintings that the full-time MICA students had on show at the school, and the difference between the two. I walked alongside the cute male student, and enjoyed our "getting to know you" conversation. It was good to be talking with a guy again like that, as it has been a long time. As we walked, I thought about how lucky I was to have found these people in my class, and cherished the company that it brought to me.

front stoop
The next day, it was gorgeous and reached over 80 degrees.

So, I went out.

I was greeted with the smells of spring, blooming trees, and warm air wrapping around my skin. This is the view of my street from the front stoop of my apartment building. My building is a row house, a former single family mansion much like the ones across the street that have remained single family. My building is one of the few that were made into apartments, so there are a lot of families on my block. My apartment has 14 foot ceilings, huge rooms and is a floor through unit. I can stand on the window sills and stretch my arms as high as they can go and still not fill the height of the window. Three of them flood light into my living room and kitchen, and two into my bedroom. Both rooms have fireplaces with original Victorian marble mantles. I frequently wonder who used to walk the floors of my apartment.

I stopped into the local coffee joint to have a mocha and some lunch. Again, the day did not let me down. Soft acoustic blues music filled the room as if it had floated in with the warm air to ease our winter embittered spirits. I found a table by the front door and watched Baltimore walk in and out. anne at cafe
I pet dogs, smiled at kids who walked by, watched a guitar instructor paste up a notice to the wall advertising his lessons. Listened to art students talk about their classes and saw them outside carrying huge canvases painted with the days lesson. Still lifes of fruit, nude figures, self-portraits, and landscapes floated by outside like a moving mosaic. I snapped this picture of myself as I was sitting there. And yes, the ceiling in the place really is green.

I'd brought my journal along to write, but passed on it because I was enjoying just being a passive observer. The people who work at the coffee shop were glad to see me, so I chatted with them a bit, then just sat quietly and observed what the day brought to me and slowly sipped my first blended mocha of the year.

view from table

Looks good, doesn't it?

And that goodness brings me to what I'm going to say next to the people who have been reading this blog and have written to me. I have received your emails and appreciate them more than you will know. I am touched by the heartfelt honesty in them and have read all of them with care, many of them, more than once. If I haven't responded, it is because I simply haven't gotten to you yet. But rest assured that your emails have been read and greatly appreciated. They have not disappeared into an electronic wasteland.

I am really floored at the response I've gotten from this blog and simply wasn't prepared, as it was as much of a surprise to me as anyone else that I was put on Blogger's home page. Not to mention, has recently found itself into another article. To say that I'm touched and moved by your responses, is a light way of putting it. Thank you for sharing with me. Thank you for your encouragement and willingness to share your wisdom. Thank you for your courage to share your own stories with a complete stranger. It is not lost on me.

And to the Danish journalist who has now served me two tough love kicks in the pants from abroad, I did respond to you. Read your mail.

Friday, April 11, 2003

My self-portrait went over well in class last Monday.

Since I missed one class, the night that the portraits were assigned, mine was a week late and not shown within the critique. This was fine with the teacher, who told me not to start until I saw the other students' self portraits. I was shocked at how good everyone's were. Not because I doubted their talent, but because self portraits are hard to do for beginning painters, and their portraits really looked like them. I enjoyed hearing how everyone accomplished what they did and the struggles that they went through to complete it.

One student, an Asian guy named Erwin who attends Johns Hopkins University, had us all in stitches with his self-portrait. He'd neglected to paint anything below the neck, as had one other student, so the two next to each other looked like two floating heads. Erwin's however, had a silly grin on it that captured his funny personality and we all just lost it. Luckily, that was his intent. Erwin has an infectious laugh that makes me smile every time that I hear it, something that I noticed on the first day of class. His painting managed to do the same. I hadn't remembered laughing that hard and that honestly in a very long time. I'm still smiling about it as I write this.

Every time, I'm astounded at the difference between the people in my art class and the human wasteland that I encounter at the store. I know however, that many of these bright people, just like me, are simply passing through Baltimore. It's too bad, but it is a fact.

As I neglected to work on my portrait during the week, I realized it was because I was uncomfortable with the assignment. There are times when you don't want to look at yourself in the mirror, much less draw yourself and therefore immortalize it. Currently, I'm growing my hair out from a previously very short cut, and it's in that "in between" stage, very much like myself.

My hair reflects that "in between" stage that I'm in. Some days looking good, other days stubborn and restless, refusing to mind the blow dryer and hair products. Every morning I wake up and it's sticking four inches straight up on my head, as if I've stuck my finger in an electrical socket. What it decides to do from there is anyone's guess, which is why I usually end up sticking my head under the shower. At any rate, it's one huge pain in the ass, and I'm waiting for it to take shape and drape more freely. To paint that, is to capture the clusterfuck of a work in progress. And it's that in between stage, that my hair reflects so well, that has become an image I want to avoid. But perhaps, that is exactly what a self-portrait should be. It is so intensely personal. And as not just an artist, but as a person, I have to be willing to explore who I am at that exact moment, and what it feels like to stare back at myself.

And it was that portrait of that person, which was well received in class. It is a reminder that while you are in a struggle that may feel hopeless and uncomfortable, to not focus on the struggle. You must work through that like a jungle explorer cutting through thick brush with a machete. Every swipe is hard, but gets you one step farther. Your goal is that next step, and the one after that. Eventually you get through to an oasis, where the brush ceases and the mist of a giant waterfall tingles against your face. The air is less thick, so you fill your lungs with a deep unencumbered breath.

Only then, should you look back and realize the struggle it took for you to get there.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

I was so sad upon hearing this news that I cried myself to sleep last night. I did not know this cat. Nor did I meet him, but I grew to love him through his pictures. So much, that I asked John to send me more of them when I saw the cat on his site, which he did. When I needed a smile, I'd look at them. This cat's unique character just came right through his pictures and brought a cheer to my day. And his name, Humbug, just took the cake.

Apparently, he was much loved in the neighborhood which John said is in utter mourning at his passing. It may seem strange, but I liked knowing that Humbug was in the world. He was one of those manifestations of goodness that brought joy to his little part of the world and to the many people around him. Manifestations of goodness can come in many forms. Whether it's a perfect tree to sit under, the smell of spring rain, an owl that follows you on a walk, good neighbors, or in this case an affectionate cat that liked to invite himself in and roll around on your carpet. You realize how blessed you are to be in the right place to benefit from this goodness. Now, he's gone due to a careless driver. How fragile we are.

It is a void that was felt across the Atlantic. I will miss knowing that his one of a kind goodness exists.