recommended listening: The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”

As I make the transition into adulthood, I’m taking the first baby steps in forging a career for myself. The career path I’ve chosen, while interesting and amazing and I’m so incredibly lucky to have found something like it, also seems bound and determined to drive me into an early grave. I’m what’s known as a scenic artist/set painter/paint monkey. It’s got a lot of different names, but the gist is the same. I put paint on a set to make it look pretty. I can be anything from a glorified house painter to creating 12-foot stenciled walls to painting elaborate representations of renaissance portraiture. I have, without a doubt, the coolest fucking job in the world.

And like most jobs in the arts, it’s littered with crazy people and assholes.

Being an artist comes with having a certain skill set, you have to be able to talk the talk and walk the walk. Your connections get you in the door, and once you’re in there, you have to deliver the goods. This is not a job where a lobotomized hamster could do the same thing, you have to be fast and you have to be good. And because you get jobs through luck and knowing the right people, it’s insanely competitive. The environment changes a lot, because once a job ends it’s scrambling to find something else to pay the bills, and often you have to constantly think three months ahead for everything. It’s intense, and it makes people fucking nuts.

Case in point, my third film job. It filmed about two years ago, and almost burned me out on being a scenic artist. Scenic art in theater is generally now a woman’s domain, but in the film industry it’s still very much a man’s world. But my lead on this project was a woman who’d fought her way up through the ranks for 20 years and was an established and experienced scenic painter. Which also meant she had her favorites and her enemies. She did not get along with the lead carpenter on this movie, who did not quite know what to make of women on a construction crew, so work was always entertaining. My lead hired me based on word of mouth from someone in the art department, and gave me a higher pay grade and a job as a scenic artist instead of a set painter. What’s the difference you may ask? Well, to me it was two dollars more an hour, but to someone else it was the entire world.

My lead generally had another scenic artist, who while talented, was also something of a flake and drama queen. This girl would become my nemesis, and for the three months that I was on this production seemed to go out of her way to make my life hell. I encountered her in the first day in the parking lot at 6 am adjusting her lip gloss in the rear view mirror. Now, even though we work in film, what we do is not glamorous. We are on a construction crew. We work with construction workers. Being with them long enough I had to start checking my language when speaking with my mother on the phone as I was using fuck as a noun, adjective and adverb. And here is this girl making sure her makeup is perfect before she starts a 12-hour day on a set working with primer and joint compound. She thrived on attention, and even though she trashed the grips and complained constantly about how they checked her out, she also invited it by wearing cleavage-bearing tops. I mean, it’s one thing to say how it’s an example of how a woman should be free to wear what she wants without fear of harassment, but it was fucking January, and we were in an unheated abandoned warehouse. Girlfriend knew exactly what she was doing. Or maybe she didn’t, as she freaked one day when I had gotten a Grip to give me a donut, because I was “flirting with them for food” and that was just “gross and demeaning.” Personally I think she was pissed because I got the last donut.

I could see why she was threatened by me, she was used to being the attractive twenty-something girl in an all male crew with a specialized skill. Then along comes me, who also was a young woman with a specialized skill, but I also had the distinction of being blonde. Apparently, from day 1, it was On. Working with her was difficult, to say the least. She was only on this job for the money, for she was a fine artist and being a set painter was beneath her. In fact, she hated it and many, many times she said she would quit so she could concentrate fully on her art. But from she told me about her life, all she seemed to do was find herself a rich boyfriend and mooch off of them until they dumped her and she needed to make a quick buck. But when she found out that I had usurped her role in the team, she threw an epic fit until I was bumped down the pay grade and she reclaimed her title. This should have been evidence to me that I should have walked and spared myself the next three months, but it was only my third film project and I didn’t want to develop a bad reputation. So I took it and took what they gave me.

However, this was not enough for her. For the rest of the show she would constantly overshadow me, often to the point of following behind me and re-touching all of my work. Often she would reach in front of my face to mop up a paint drip, or screech at me because I had aged some doorknobs, when that was HER JOB because she was a SCENIC ARTIST and why couldn’t I paint door-frames like the set painter I was? One of her favorite lunchtime games was to take the box of my microwave dinner and read the caloric contents to me and the ingredients and how unhealthy and bad for the environment everything was while she primly ate her mason jar of lentil soup. I soon developed a habit of eating a cheeseburger in front of her as often as I possibly could.

She was my first encounter with professional jealousy, and I was at a complete and total loss with what do with her. I’m the type of person who if I encounter someone who I find is better than a certain skill with me, I do get slightly jealous, but that just makes me step up and bring my A game. A little bit of competition is healthy, and if it means you do better work to keep up, then it’s worth it. In my mind, working with someone who is more competent than you at something just means you’ll get things done faster and better, right? Apparently not, as in the real world apparently meeting someone who is better than you or who may be able to compete with you just means you have to sabotage the shit out of them.

She eventually got me laid off, after she screeched at me one too many times, and I finally lost it while we were on location during a major crunch. Life lesson #235, never call the lead’s favorite a “cuntbag” where they can hear you.

I’ve run into many others like this girl since then, many of them even worse than her, and every time it still mystifies me. What is the purpose of acting this way? It just creates a bad working environment, and everyone around you becomes cranky and pissed off just because of all the crap floating around in the air. Common sense would state that these people who create these toxic atmospheres through raging insecurity should be the first to go, but in my experience they tend to be the ones who claw their way to the top. Which is why you don’t meet anyone normal in the “industry” over the age of 35, because all the ones with common sense have been driven away or have become completely batshit themselves.

I’ll probably burn out at some point, and it’s sad to think that it won’t be because of the work that I do or the fact that I don’t like what I’m doing, I just can’t deal with the Survivor bullshit. But for now I hang on and try to get the most out of things. The latest case of professional jealousy I’m experiencing this summer is small potatoes compared to some of the other ones I’ve dealt with. I’m learning to tune it out and pleasantly smile and nod while they work themselves into a tizzy, which as compared to actively baiting them into a screaming match, I feel that I’ve grown as a person. (And not because I don’t have the energy to just deal with them anymore).

The more I work at scenic painting, the more I’m sure it’s what I want to do with my life, and I’m very lucky as not too many people are able to find that. I can take someone’s bad attitude if it means I still get to go home happy at the end of the day. People will always try to knock you down, because you threaten them or they’re not happy with themselves. They may come around with time, and they may not, the important thing is to live your life as best as you can and not worry to much what others think of you. Kindness is more important than being the BEST, in my opinion.

I don’t know what happened to my nemesis on that show, I know she threw another fit and walked off set and didn’t come back. Maybe she’s still working in the industry, maybe she’s not. I’ll never work with her again, not if I can help it, and there’s something liberating in that. Another high point in working in theatre and film, is the jobs are usually temporary, and you’re not stuck with assholes for very long. Having the power to walk away is one of the best feelings in the world. Trust me on this one.

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There is a particular kind of horror that is losing total control of a situation, and knowing there is absolutely no way you can get it back. As I stared down the abyss that was 30 out-of-control eighth graders, that was all I could think. As the kids yelled, screamed, and generally refused to follow my instructions, I knew, without a doubt, that this was hell. It was twenty minutes before the bell would ring and relieve me of my duties, and it was the slowest twenty minutes of my life.

I was a week into substitute teaching, and almost finished with my first middle school assignment. After a comparatively easy five days handling sullen high-schoolers, where the most I did was give an assignment and sign them out to the bathroom, I figured that middle school wouldn’t be so bad. It was my friend’s bread and butter after all. He subbed middle school like it was nobody’s business. Regaling us with horror stories about how he had to throw this student out, and give these girls detention. How he dealt with missed homework, truants, and the ever popular little jokester who thought he could pretend he was another student, even though the seating chart begged to differ. It was like a navy sea captain regaling us of his adventures at some wharfside watering hole, full of piss and vinegar. But since I hadn’t had any problems even remotely like what he had talked about in my first week of subbing, I figured, looking at my possible substitute job listings the night before, what could be so bad about middle-schoolers?

I got my answer that next afternoon, when one of the little bastards found a bullhorn.

Like most life-altering decisions, such as, “Oh, this extra shot won’t hurt,” “That guy is way cute, I should go talk to him,” and “gimme my keys, I’m fine,” mine was made at a bar. I was 22, staring down the barrel of college graduation, and with grad school applications in circulation, I had my next step all planned. The only problem was that I was graduating in December and looking at six months where I would have to find a way to make some money and be a productive member of society before I forgot all that and was shipped off for another three years of learning and avoiding responsibility. I had done the waitressing thing, and after two and a half years of foul treatment by management, rude customers, and being laid off for mysterious reasons that wound up being to cover up a manager’s embezzlement, I needed a new, quick gig that didn’t involve being nice to people while their kids kicked my shins and gave me lousy tips. Substitute teaching seemed to be the cure.

It was ludicrously easy to obtain a substitute teaching license in my home city. All I had to do was attend a workshop and be fingerprinted, and then I was chucked whole hog into the fray. Substitute teaching is a slacker’s dream job. In my home city you made 70 dollars a day, and had the ability to pick and choose what jobs you wanted the night before, sometimes even weeks in advance. Plus, while they were supposed to be checking you to make sure that you were, you know, actually working, they never did. You could make yourself “temporarily unavailable” for a day to sleep off a hangover and not be worse for it. You just wouldn’t get paid. I figured that, for all the abuse I’d suffered in retail and food service, substitute teaching would be my little way of giving back. One where I could send someone to detention for being an asshole, and where meanness was actually appreciated and encouraged. So, well into my night of drinking, I decided that substitute teaching would be an easy job that would help bridge undergrad and grad school, and would be over in about four months, give or take.

Like most of my plans in life, that one went horribly awry. Instead of four months, I spent two years in the trenches, playing teacher, mother, babysitter and jailer to a city full of kids that came in all shapes, sizes, socioeconomic levels and intelligence quotas. It is with pride I can safely say that in all the name-calling, swearing, harassment, threats, insubordination, stupidity and one outright case of sexual harassment, I only completely lost my temper once.

However, this was in the future. Right then, after most of the class took off five minutes before the bell rang and I’d finished copying a list of kids who actually stayed for the bell so they would be spared their normal teacher’s severe punishment when she returned, I was seriously questioning my sanity. After all the paperwork had been squared away I called up my friend to commiserate, and he said, in the same way a war veteran probably talks to a greenhorn who had just seen their first serious firefight: “Now you know why middle school teachers drink.”

After seven hours in which I felt like I had just run a marathon, been put in a dryer full of parakeets, and then hit by a mack truck, I knew why. Oh so very, very well.

If you had told me six years ago that I would have ended up being a substitute teacher, sometimes in some of the worst schools in the city’s public school system, I would have laughed in your face. Growing up, I was a terminally shy, quiet kid who got anxious in crowds and hated speaking in public. I once purposefully botched a speech competition in front of the whole school, simply so I would not have to go on to regional and speak in front of EVEN more people. Consequently I was a favorite target of bullies, I cried easily and took any insult, real or imagined, straight to heart. To add fuel to the fire, I was also smart. Very smart. Teachers would often speak delightedly about my potential to my parents, and hold up my work as an example to the other students. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt by my teachers to boost my extremely low self-image, but it often had the opposite effect. Instead, it was like slathering barbecue sauce on me before tossing me into the lion’s den while screeching “lunchtime!”

So I knew from generous personal experience how much little kids could be dicks. The last place I belonged was in front of a bunch of kids who would have thought of nothing better than to see me in tears.

But you never realize just how contrary you can be when facing a situation like this. I could have quit very easily, found something else to do with my time and other work, but for some reason I decided to stick it out. I never went back to that middle school, but I did time in other schools that were just as bad, if not worse. In a way, subbing became the ultimate revenge fantasy for me. I was picked on mercilessly as a kid, now it was my turn to dish it back out. Some kids would try and play the “but this is how Miss ___ does it!” or “You’re a sub, you can’t tell me shit!” card, which would just give me the excuse to fall upon them like the mighty hammer of justice. I developed a pretty thick skin during the course of my time teaching, as getting called “stupid bitch” on a semi-regular basis will do that to you. Pretty soon I was handing out detentions like a pro, and perfecting my juggling skills with the number of cellphones I would collect. (As getting a 15-year-old to part with their cellphone for 50 minutes is like asking them to sever their own thumbs). I also perfected the art of bribery, and found that letting a kid listen to his headphones during a class period would often accomplish the impossible. I once had a neighboring teacher come in to check on me and he ended up staring, slack-jawed, at 30 8th graders doing their homework in complete silence.  He had never seen them like that, before, ever, and wanted to know my secret.

Me: “Bribe the ever-loving shit out of them, and don’t be afraid to take it away if they screw up.”

What’s even more, once I got the hang of the classroom management aspect, I found that I enjoyed teaching. There’s something about seeing that little lightbulb go off over someone’s head, and knowing that you did that. I wound up teaching a class a painting technique and they ended up going to their teacher to ask if I would come back and teach them some more. I walked around like I was Queen of The Shit for a week after that. I very nearly went back to school to get my actual teaching license, which if you’re a sub is like getting shot at all day and deciding you want to become a cop. But I couldn’t make myself sign up for the classes, as there were other things I wanted to do, and I wasn’t quite ready to give up on those dreams just yet.

I made it two years before I started to get burned out. I was weathering some pretty horrific personal crises and I found myself taking it out on the kids, one thing I swore I would never do. I was also starting to get sick of the town I was living in, the life I was leading, and my friends (or lack thereof). So it came to pass that one summer I threw my clothes and three boxes of books in my car and drove to Los Angeles to start over again. I called the substitute managing system that August to let them know I wouldn’t be back for the next school year.

Their response? “Congratulations on getting a real job! Good luck!”

That pretty much sums a lot of it up right there.

For all the crazy shit that ended up happening, it was an experience that ultimately changed the path of my life, changed me, and for better or worse, made me stronger, tougher and allowed me to weather the tough transition from child to adult myself. It has also given me a mild case of psychosis, made me more daring, more unafraid to take risks, and taught me that you can get anyone to back the hell off if you act crazy enough. It lead me to leave the city of my birth and travel 800 miles to the last place on earth I thought I’d end up, and ironically brought me full circle into the life I’d originally planned for myself, albeit way more prepared this time around

I’ve been ruminating over this little experiment of mine for a while. Last year I got a copy of Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons! as a gift and I was enthralled by the project. Barry writes an “autobiographifictional” account of her life as part of a zen experiment in exorcising her demons. It’s an idea that’s been stuck in my craw for the last year, but with the fact that free time and I are at best, the sort of friends that meet very occasionally for a few minutes of awkward small talk concluded by a hastily remembered prior engagement, I’ve found that it’s easier said than done. This is what graduate school is like, where it is possible to have one’s entire day planned TO THE HOUR.

(Seriously, the last two weeks of the semester I had to pencil: “2:30: eat, motherfucker” into my schedule)

However, now that it’s summer I’m finding myself with the actual time to sit down and write. And while Barry used art and comics to create One! Hundred! Demons! I’m going to just use words. Because, really, I’m in art school. This is to GET AWAY from having to use the right side of my brain for a while. This was actually supposed to be my new year’s resolution but time sorta got away from me for a while. But it’s still 2010! I AM ON TRACK.

The gist of this whole blog is: one week, one demon. I pick a category (anger, anxiety, adolescence) and tell a story about it from my life. Supposedly this will help exorcise said demon, and if it doesn’t, well, at least I’ll try to be entertaining. Eventually there will be 101 stories, and 101 demons exorcised.

I hope.