I had made a resolution this year to post an inspiring space picture on Facebook every day. I’m trying to spend less time on Facebook, so I am moving some of the best to my blog, dated to match my original posts. I may combine a couple here and there and I may leave one or two off to start, but here is post number one!
My goal for 2106: to deliver an inspiring/awesome (original meaning intended) cosmic image every day and share my love of the universe with the social mediaverse. Up first: Saturn!
Saturn was the first really cool thing I saw in a telescope. In the 6th grade, Colorado public school students spend a week at “outdoor lab.” We hike and make dream catchers (because you always make dream catchers) and learn a thing or two about nature.
One night, we had an astronomy session. The lecturer had a decent-sized telescope and offered to show us Saturn. I was expecting to see a fuzzy dot. What I saw literally brought me to my knees.
I was looking at a whole planet. With my own eyes. And I could tell it wasn’t a tiny little thing. I saw the shadows that the planet’s sphere cast across its rings. My whole perspective shifted in that one moment. I felt tiny. I became aware of that planet going around the sun, of our planet doing the same. I felt the earth spin beneath me. It made me dizzy and I stumbled to the ground.
I can’t offer that same experience here, but I can show you something cool. This is Saturn’s hexagonal storm. Its a hexagon! It’s real and it’s cool and it’s over 20,000 miles across! It’s been around for as long as we have been taking high resolution pictures of Saturn- probably a lot longer. Rings and a hexagon hat? Saturn rocks some awesome geometry bling!
I said one image a day, but wait! A bonus “barely still New Year’s Day” bonus image! Bonus! A false color image of the storm adds to the coolness. Happy new year!
“Not much, Craig Robinson, good friend! How are you today?”*
*imaginary response, actual response was a stupid grin and probably my face turning a million shades of red.
The coolest thing about working on this set was getting a nickname from Craig Robinson. He’s a really good pool player. I think hearing that there were “pool experts” around intrigued him. He kept challenging us to play. The ADs scolded him (gently- extras get yelled at for breaking the cast/extras boundary, cast members get a gentle reminder that such intermingling is less than ideal).
I ignored the requests from Craig anyway, being the pool playing fraud that I was. So why did he call me Avatar? Well, as I have said before, being an extra is 10% fun and 90% boring as hell. It’s important to bring things to do. At the time, I was kind of into Avatar (which is also the link to click if you have no idea what I am talking about right now and would like to read part 1 of this story). I was working on a sketch while he was playing pool:
He stopped his game to compliment the drawing, talk sci-fi, and suddenly I had a nickname. Gush.
The pool expert thing intrigued the whole cast, actually. John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer finally broke down on the third day and just flat out asked, “are you guys really pool experts? It says on our call sheets that you are. It seems crazy that you aren’t actually playing pool and they just have you standing around all day.” It was nice to joke and chat with them. Then we had to shoot again and we went back to being invisible, despite standing next to one another. Hollywood is weird. This whole experience really underscored that.
Take, for example, lunch. Lunch on this set was even more amazing than breakfast. Food was custom-made. Want steak? No problem. Vegan? There are actual options for you. Dessert? How about bananas foster, flambéd before your very eyes. Anything you want, it’s yours. Just don’t sit at the wrong table. Which I did.
Being a bit of an introvert, I picked the table that had the fewest people. There were even a couple of kids there. I said hi to one of them. She was sweet. Her mother gave me a look of derision coupled with an awkward and confused smile. A lot of people were giving me a similar look. I felt like a jerk for being nice, so I just focused on my meal and went back to my Avatar sketch.
Later, I found out that “mom” was Angela Kinsey and I was sitting at the table reserved for the cast. Oops. That’s what I get for not being a regular watcher of the show. I was also told that some of the confusion might have been due to the fact that with blondish hair (which I had at the time), I look a bit like Jenna Fischer. Maybe someone thought I was a distant relative visiting the set? Of course, if someone had just told me that the table was reserved for the cast, much awkwardness could have been avoided…
For this reason, Craig’s no-bullshit acknowledgements that we were actually people in the actual world made him super cool in my eyes.
Despite the awkward moments, I had so much fun on this set. My fellow pool expert extras were all really interesting people. There was a perfect balance of quiet time to read, draw, reflect, explore, etc. and active time to talk and play. Between takes, I chatted with the tech crew (always a little more accessible and willing to talk than the cast). They shot on three cameras simultaneously and did about a million different takes to give the cast (particularly Steve Carell) the chance to improvise a little. I learned a lot.
And also pitied the poor editors who had to go through all of that footage. Yikes.
When it was time to wrap everything up, I actually got a little emotional. Couldn’t I just make a livable wage doing this for like a year or something? Later, I wrote a short story about a girl who lived on a studio lot. She dressed from the costume department, grabbed food from the crafty tables, slept on the stunt mats and because she was “no one,” she went completely unnoticed and got to be involved in a cool mystery. Sometimes it’s good being no one…
Maybe I will post the story here some day.
I ended up being on screen a lot from that shoot. Good food, good people, funny stories, fun work, fun show, fun episode, my face on TV, memories… really, I didn’t see how I could top this, given my previous “background actor” experiences. I decided to hang up my background acting hat and do things that made money (part of my fantasy story above was influenced by the insane cost of living in Los Angeles) and was on a more appropriate path to my career goals.
Yes, I was done with extra work. An interesting time in my life, to be sure. I would be happy not being part of that world ever again.
Then a year later, Central Casting called me and asked if I would be willing to work on Mad Men…
Wow. I never noticed how nice his eyes are. Funny how the camera can miss so much. He has really pretty eyes. Really pretty eyes that are… waiting. Maybe I should say something.
“Hello.” I replied. He smiled in return.
Steve Carell and I spent what felt like an hour locked in an awkward, courteous gaze. Both of us smiled and nodded.
“So…” He said, trailing off and looking around.
Oh! He’s as embarrassed as I am. Heh. He’s blushing. I probably am too. This is cool! We’re both blushing and confused! Wait. Actually it’s just incredibly awkward. I should say something nice to end this.
“I’m… waiting for the bathroom.” Brilliant. That will leave a lasting impression.
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry! I thought… They said…” Just then, the 2nd AD rounded the corner.
Second ADs hate extras. We are constantly over-complicating things. Many of us are either vying for that extra little bit of screen time, trying to get a celebrity autograph (or worse), desperate to “prove” how much we “know” about their job, or begging for a SAG voucher. I’ve had that job. I can seriously relate. I’m sure this didn’t look good.
“Sorry, Mr. Carell,” he said. “Hair and makeup is through here.” He gently guided Steve into the next room. Steve gave me a shrug and a smile, the 2nd AD gave me the “I’ll deal with you later” look. He never did. I didn’t get a SAG voucher, either. Steve didn’t even say goodbye. After all we shared.
A woman left the bathroom right as the commotion was winding down. She looked into the room and then back at me with the “was a celebrity just here?” look. It’s a great look. For a moment, you are elevated to celebrity status by proximity. I call it proxi-lebrity status. Or maybe celemity status? Vote in the comments below.
A bit of Hollywood advice: if you achieve proxi-lebrity status, try to keep a level head about it. “I saw Johnny Depp in line at Starbucks” is interesting blog fodder (and awesome), but it’s not an appropriate answer to “how’s that entertainment career coming along?” Geek out about it, for sure. I’ll geek out with you. Just remember you still have work to do. Occupying the same space as another person is not actually an accomplishment. Unless you are literally occupying the same space as another person. That might get you a Nobel Prize. Though even that could just be an accidental slip into another dimension or a transporter malfunction. I digress. A lot.
After that excitement, they finally called the pool experts to the set. As I walked down the winding staircase, I couldn’t help but notice a noise that sounded like a large fan. I am presenting it like was a minor thing, but it was actually deafening. It sounded like a wind tunnel. It only came on between takes. Obviously, I had to ask what it was.
“It’s an indoor skydiving thing.” Some PA at the base of the stairs was responsible for communicating between the set and the noise. That answer raised more questions than it answered, so I asked if I could take a look.
What sounded like a wind tunnel was actually a wind tunnel. A giant fan blew people up, suspending them in midair while giving the illusion that they were falling. So yeah. Guess what I did for my birthday later that year?
The PAs paraded us through the crowd of very tired half annoyed/half intrigued extras. We took our spots and were given the rundown. The first thing we were told was that the balls were fake. Since actual pool balls make noise, only the stars were allowed to hit them. We had to play with racquet balls lacquered with pool-ball-colored paint.
The actual pool experts were at a total loss and understandably disappointed. Rubber balls flew everywhere for the first several efforts. I just laughed. I went back to the message on the casting hotline. No one doing this job would need to sink shots, do tricks or even make contact with the balls. In fact, the fakers had a much easier time than the experts.
Once we were in place, they brought in the stars.
I have to confess something here: at this point in time, I didn’t actually watch The Office. I had seen an episode or two and knew the general storyline and the major characters, but I just couldn’t get into the show. I wasn’t in love with my job when the show first came out and the last thing I wanted to do was to go home from my real-life awkward office world and watch a fake awkward office world.
I fixed that after this job. I had so much fun on this set! Actually, I probably had a little more fun than I should have…
One day, I hit the extras jackpot. It wasn’t all luck, mind you. Like all big breaks in Hollywood, it took skill, determination, persistence, and a fair amount of lying.
A random call to the casting hotline surprised me when I heard they needed people for The Office. I didn’t hold my breath. Popular shows fill up fast. This was a four day shoot, to boot. That’s about as long-term as one can get as a TV extra. I actually skipped past the general call, fairly certain all the spots would be filled. I paused, however, when I got to a message asking for extras with a specialized skill set.
Having an unusual skill can get you a featured extra role or a coveted SAG voucher. Alas, I have no facial tattoos, cannot ride a unicycle and my car at the time was the useless color of black (they don’t use black cars for background because they distract the eye). I can, however, play pool.
“We need males and females who are pool experts. Please don’t submit for this role unless you can sink shots and do tricks.” I immediately submitted.
Before you send me a message challenging me to a game, you should know that technically I can do neither of those things. I CAN sink shots. Sometimes. And I can do really neat tricks where balls jump over other balls. Accidentally. This was my best chance at getting on the show, though, so I submitted anyway. I knew that they were not going to get a lot of female applicants. I also knew that they did not actually require pool experts. All I would really need to do was make my blurry shape look like it knew roughly what to do at a pool table.
Of course, this didn’t stop me from worrying about it. What if they DID need me to do trick shots? Do I actually hold a cue the right way? Do I lean over the table with the proper form? And then there was the guilt. What if I just took a job away from someone whose ONLY skill set was “pool expert” and here I am, a talentless hack, raking in the fame and money? Oh, right. This is Hollywood.
I was accepted on the spot.
The set was “on location” at Universal Citywalk. My Winter-in-Scranton sweater and the 90 degree “location” weren’t the best match. Luckily, all of our scenes were indoors and they had the air conditioning cranked up to “Arctic Front.”
Climate control wasn’t the only luxury. I meandered over to crafty. Unlike my previous experiences, crafty was not a folding table with a box of assorted chips and a Costco-sized tub of pretzels. The set of The Office was fully catered. I had my choice of drip coffee, tea, espresso or freshly-squeezed orange juice. For food, I could choose from fresh Belgian waffles, made-to-order omelets, granola, yogurt, (gluten free, of course) toasts with jams or peanut butter, bagels with real cream cheese or a variety of fruits. The good ones. This wasn’t just soggy melon balls and grapes! This was mango, papaya, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and ALSO melon balls and grapes!
It didn’t take me long to realize that the “pool experts” were the royalty of extras. (Yes, that’s tough to envision when everyone is making minimum wage, but… work with me.) We got to laze around between pool shots because they couldn’t risk reusing us in the background. It might destroy the continuity. It also didn’t take me long to realize that almost all of us lied about being “pool experts.”
All of this made my job a little boring. After several hours of reading and not a single moment on the set, I got a little restless. I wandered over to the restroom. Thwarted by a locked door, I leaned against the wall, stretched my back and started wondering what I would read once I finished my book.
I’ve been a little low key on social media lately. I lost my brother rather suddenly and tragically at the beginning of March and things just haven’t felt “right” since then. I wanted to put off Writing Wednesdays until I could write a beautiful and poetic blog post about my brother- how great he was, the circumstances of his death, and the lasting imprint he will have on the lives of the people he touched. I’m not there yet. I might not be there for a long time. I do want to write, though.
Tragedy throws our lives out of balance. I’ve done a lot of mind work in my life and have dealt with a fair amount of tragedy. It doesn’t make sudden loss or struggle easy, but it does help. When a tragedy like this strikes, it’s the difference between being thrown off balance while allowing yourself to break down, mourn, cry, etc. and being totally unable to function, submerging and sinking into a sea of depression and anger. Neither reaction will result in my brother coming back to me, but the second reaction is not where I want to be.
I allow myself to be sad, to lean into the emotion and let myself feel what I need to. Doing so actually keeps me from sinking. I try not to indulge in “what if” and “if only” thoughts or do too much superhero fantasizing about going back in time and changing it. I feel and then gently push myself to keep moving.
Whatever emotion we need to feel, we should allow ourselves to feel it. It is what it needs to be. There is no right way to be.
I had this insight when I was about 16: I was driving a friend in my car and she commented that the sky was “perfect.” She meant that there were no clouds in it. It was blue from horizon to horizon. I thought on that for a while. Is a cloudless sky perfect? What about a sky with puffy little white clouds? Or one streaked with a rainbow? Or one blazing from the colors of a sunset? What about a sky full of thunderclouds or fog?
The truth is, all of those are “perfect” skies. The sky is exactly as it needs to be. We are the ones who impose our definitions of “perfect” or even “acceptable” upon something we cannot control. The same can be said about us. If we wait until all of the things we believe make us “perfect” are in alignment, we will wait our entire lives. This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to improve upon ourselves or our situations, just that we should soften our definition of “perfection” and give ourselves a break when we need to feel sad or we don’t get the job that we want. This is life. Sometimes it rains.