Thursday, 29 September 2011

School's Out Forever...

Hello Friends.

This past weekend my high school had it's ten year reunion. I didn't go home for it. Prohibitive costs of the flight aside, I feel like I still see my friends from those years, and for those I don't see, Facebook is sufficient. I'm friends (both for real and Facebook-stylez) with a bunch of folks from my graduating class, and I love how if you're not Facebook friends with someone, you can still access their photos. This seems like a glaring oversight on Facebook's part but is, in fact, its best feature. There's a small number of people from those days I don't wish to communicate with, but I do like to see if they've gotten fat or married a wildebeest. Best is when they're two for two.

Anyway, it doesn't seem like ten years since high school, particularly since I still wear the same clothes and listen to the same music from that time and they remain as hip and relevant as ever. But what I do experience a strange nostalgia for is elementary school.

Dream: Return to elementary school as a student.

Goal: Not achievable. Barring time travel or an Adam Sandler-esque film premise, I will not return to elementary school for further education. Nor would I really want to, of course, but my Dream exists because I miss the feelings and experiences that seem unique to that time in my life.

Plan: Seek environments and situations evocative of that time in an attempt to recreate those feelings. I'm not explaining myself well. This is what I miss from those days, over twenty years ago:

Structure. My friend Bradley and I recently lamented the loss of First Days. Save for new jobs or new homes, grown-ups don't get many First Days of anything anymore. But that First Day of School was something. As I remember it, the First Day began in the gym where each student's name was called to stand in a particular line, after which your teacher for the year would stand at the head of the line and lead you and thirty other nervous, sweaty bweens to their home for the next ten months. The good teachers made you feel relaxed and happy about the months ahead; the bad ones made you anxious and crampy, but either way, you could more or less picture the next year of your life on September 1st (or whatever day it was, I don't fucking remember). In what environment as an adult are you given that kind of rigid, unchangeable structure? I suppose a workplace is like that, to a degree, but a very small percentage of us can be confident we'll be at the same job in a year in this economy. Also, you are essentially left to your own devices at work, the assumption being that you were hired to do a job so go ahead and do it, be sure to punch out when you go home. At school, you are taught, directed, and coached to constantly absorb new information and improve. You are rarely left to your own devices unless it's like June 17th and you're just cutting shapes out of paper to coast until 3:30. But that brings me to the next thing I lack now, that I should probably seek.

Authority. As a student, you are frequently given information from teachers that you just accept without question. Critical thinking is neither understood nor expected from a ten year old, they just need information because you have to know shit sometimes. And I was good at that part of learning. Read me a story about a girl who loses her mittens while out walking her dog and I could tell you the name of the girl, the colour of the mittens and the breed of the dog. I'd absorb information, take the quiz, and be right when I was right and wrong when I was wrong. Now, though, I can't be taught anything by another human being. If someone is trying to explain something to me that I don't immediately grasp, I'm done. For instance, “To get there, you just turn left at College Street.” Got it. Don't need to hear it again. If someone reminds me, I go “Yeah, left on College, I know!” But if someone tries to educate me, they're immediately pretentious assholes. So if I'm at an audition doing a Chekhov piece and the director says, “You know what's interesting about Chekhov is...” I immediately think, “Who the hell do you think you are? What am I, a child? Start paying me and maybe I'll listen to you.” I don't know where we lose are pliable, open-mindedness but we lose it. Another thing we lose...

Friendship. Can you imagine sitting with thirty peers in the same room eight hours a day for ten months? I can't either! But we all did it for years, and consequently became friends with one another. My best friend Ryan sat behind me in grade six because of some teacher's arbitrary seating chart. We didn't start talking because of common interests, shared backgrounds, or similar goals, we started talking because we sat near each other. I wonder why now we place such a high premium on common ground when it comes to making friends. You can be stuck beside someone on the subway for an hour every morning and never look at them, much less talk to them, because it would be weird. You can't just start talking to the person next to you at the bar without thinking, “Does this person think I want to have sex with them?” I wish, incidentally, that we could have Friend Bars, where nobody dresses up or flirts, and everyone goes with the sole intention of making friends. Wouldn't that be great? And when somebody says, “I'm a mechanic from Winnipeg”, you wouldn't sniff and say, “Well then we have very little to talk about!” You'd go, “Cool! I like your pencil case! Wanna trade lunches?”

I hope this isn't too rose-coloured glasses of me. After all, I disliked a fair bit of my elementary school experience. I hated gym, and recess, and teachers who would yell all the time. I didn't care for walking single-file, or asking to go to the bathroom, or Head's Up 7 Up (what a stupid fucking time-waster!). But I do miss reading the next paragraph aloud, buying a new thing of markers, and pushing my desk next to my neighbour. Maybe there was nothing about the elementary school experience that was particularly affecting at the time, but enough years have passed that I've become sentimental about it. I'm sure I'll think the same thing about high school in a few years time, and I'll eventually look back on my life today as simpler, easier, I'll remember it as better than it is. But if you think about it, that's the awesome gift that experience teaches us. Nothing then was as good as you remember it, nothing now is as bad as it seems. We're all just a group of sweaty, nervous kids, waiting for our names to be called and to take our place in line before the bell rings.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Late Shift...

Hello Friends.

I've had a few episodes of heartburn recently, which I always get in the middle of the night. Heartburn, while unpleasant, is not uncommon to those of us who eat late in the evening. Late night eating is a terrible habit I'm making a concerted effort to stop. Because I often work an evening shift, it's so easy to skip eating on a fifteen minute break and instead gorge myself when I get back home, on nonsense food like Oreos and hummus or five slices of wheat bread and a Skor bar. Because these “meals” are not only ridiculous, but will surely contribute to the spectacular weight gain I have in development with my bathroom scale and 20th Century Fox, I've made far more sensible food choices lately and not had any heartburn.

This is all well and good and hardly worthy of mention unless you consider the possibility of mindburn. Mindburn is like heartburn in that it attacks in the middle of the night, but is unlike heartburn since it is not a real syndrome. I consider mindburn to be one of the side effects of living alone, since one is less likely to be afflicted with it if they have a partner they can bother in the middle of the night. I'm talking about that phenomenon where ideas, concepts and fears strike in the middle of the night that make perfect sense when they occur to you, but if were you review them again in the light of day, you'd take a step back and go, “What the fuck?”

Dream: Do nothing under the influence of mindburn.

Goal: Achievable. Like eating peanut butter out of the jar or doing shots of Drambuie, I know I shouldn't email, Facebook message, or blog after one am. It's just unwise.

Plan: Re-read this blog when mindburn strikes and conclude that I'm probably an idiot.

I worry that I'm not explaining myself very well, or that perhaps you all are so intelligent and rational that mindburn never strikes you. In that spirit, let me share some of what's popped into my head while I've been under an attack of mindburn and see if it resonates with you. I keep a notebook beside my bed because I keep thinking some wondrous inspiration will strike me just as I'm about to fall asleep and I owe it to myself to at least try to write it down. Instead, I crank out nuggets like these:

  • I think I hear a raccoon whimpering outside. I want to help, as maybe a garbage can fell on top of him, or he fell off the roof or something, but if he's crying due to emotional pain, I have nothing to offer and will have gotten out of bed for no reason.
  • I should write a musical comedy about how much I hate Glee.
  • I want to slide down one of those poles at a firehouse, but I don't want anyone to watch me because then I'd get nervous and chicken out. How to arrange this?
  • Do the mice in the walls hear me outside their walls? Maybe what I'm hearing is their tiny brooms banging away. Adorable!
  • At those resorts where you can swim up to the bar, I'd get a raft of nachos.
  • I want a pedometer that tells me how many steps I take on my walks, and also alerts me to nearby pedophiles.
  • I don't want to die alone, but I bet it would be worse to die in a group.
  • I'll bet guys who have abs keep their abs strong because they're always bending at the waist to check out their abs.
  • I know I remember to turn the stove off. I know I did. But maybe somebody broke in and turned it on. Maybe that raccoon turned it on. That's why he's crying!

So there you have it. These are silly examples, to be sure, but sometimes a real fear seeps in there. “What if I can never find a real job?” I wonder. Or, “What if I've seen my best days already and I'm too stupid to realize it?”And, “Is there something I'm not doing that I should be doing? What am I doing?” Just that awful, scary, late-night sense of dread, the same thing Leno's bandleader must feel when Jay goes up to do the monologue and he knows he's expected to laugh, but it's not going to be funny, so what if he can't and yadda yadda yadda. These are all important, big life questions that perhaps we ought to ask ourselves more often during the day so we're not stuck, awake and fearful at two am, with worries like these racing through our minds, and burning in our hearts.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Lights Up...

Hello Friends.

A few weeks ago, I had my annual review at work. These are not like reviews in The Globe and Mail or Vanity Fair, with phrases like, “James is transcendent!” or “You'll recognize this face next awards season!” Rather, my review contained such praise as, “You're good at counting your till every night!” and “Thanks for stocking the milk on a semi-regular basis.” The congenial tone changed, however, when my boss addressed a customer complaint levied against me months ago. Some lady wanted toothpaste for a dollar when it was clearly not a dollar. I explained to her that she was mistaken; that a competing brand of toothpaste was on sale for a dollar, however that was not the brand she was attempting to buy.

“What's the difference?” she complained. “Toothpaste is toothpaste! Just give it to me for a dollar!” We get arguments like this all the time, but for some reason, this one really set me off. “Toothpaste is not toothpaste!” I said. “If they were all the same price, why would we have competing brands at all?” Then, because I couldn't stop myself, I walked over to the shelf and said, “This item is priced at $2.99, this one is a dollar. Do you see how they are different?” And she said, “You're being very rude sir!” at which point I threw my hands up and walked away. Somebody else rang her through after which she demanded to speak to a manager and proceeded to complain about me for several minutes.

“This woman was speaking nonsensically” my Italian boss admitted (she has that great English-as-a-Second-Language habit of speaking simply, but throwing in strange adverbs to “dress it up”). “But you must always be smiling beatifically, James, even if inside you are thinking, 'This customer is unkind.'” I nodded, half-listening, but she got my attention with her next point: “You must mask your true feelings sometimes, James. You are like... an actor, substantially! Yes, an actor! Imagine you are an actor!” Ahhh, salting the wound, boss at a drugstore, you're just salting the wound.

I have training to be an actor, you see. I've taken a lot of classes, workshops, seminars, etc. with such a goal in mind. I have a degree from a university in the field, but that hasn't translated to great deal of work. That's all I'm going to do by way of complaining that finding acting work is difficult. In this economy, finding any work is difficult, even more so when your qualifications include: Standard British, some mask work, no dance experience.

Lately, it seems like I've had more success professionally with stuff that I'm writing, which for me has been immensely satisfying, even more satisfying than landing a spear-carrier part in a play. But I often wonder what would change if I landed some big, meaty role in a terrific play. The “brass balls” guy in Glengarry Glenn Ross, let's say, or Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Gums in that Dental Hygiene Revue they do in elementary schools.

Professional actors, ones who don't make their living selling milk, would surely tell me the key to landing one of these sought after parts is nailing the audition, and the key to nailing the audition is a great monologue. Monologue comes from the Latin “mono”, meaning one, and “logue”, meaning pretentious piece of acting. I know this because often after I perform a monologue, the director will say, “That's one pretentious piece of acting.” When I first starting auditioning for things out of school, I had about five monologues at the ready. One contemporary funny piece, one contemporary sad piece, two Shakespeare, and a Shaw. I still use those pieces now, though I've forgotten the Shaw and the spare room in my brain that it used to occupy now holds the lyrics and tune for “Moves Like Jagger.” I've grown weary of the pieces, though, and I suspect that weariness must shine through on the rare occasion I do audition for something, because I haven't been given a part for some time. Time to begin anew and in earnest!

Dream: Find the perfect monologue to nail the next audition.

Goal: Achievable. My friend Jonelle observed recently that on every audition she goes to, the men use monologues where they weep, and the women use monologues where they rage. Though she auditions a lot more than I do, I know Jonelle's statement to be empirically true. If I am waiting to be seen at an audition, and I listen through the door at the guy going in before me, I hear muffled, “ahhmm hmm hmm AUGH! AUGH AUGHHUHUHU! NOOOO!!! AUGH!!! Hmmm mmm.” And through the women's doors I hear, “Oh you're so fucking SNUH! SNUHHH! RAAAHH!!” I always feel terrible for the casting people. I'm sure the actors think they must show off a wide range of extreme emotions, but directors must not like being screamed at all day. But the idea that the right monologue can show off ones emotional range is a solid one, and something I must consider when finding a new piece.

Plan: Just write it myself. You know when you're about to lie to someone, how you rehearse what you're going to say? Like, “I'm so sorry I couldn't make it to your party but this guy at work, he called in sick and I was like, 'Not today, of all days when I was going to go to Linda's awesome theme party!' But they just couldn't find anyone to replace him, so I said...” You practice that whole bit several times in your mind before you open your mouth! And acting is nothing if not telling big lies with conviction, so it stands to reason that I could do my best acting if I wrote my own parts. I'll just tell any directors that I chose a really obscure piece from a really obscure play. If I give the fake playwright one of those names that aren't really names, and the fake play a really pretentious title, they'll pretend to have heard of it because directors have to make you think they know everything. Also, should any actor friends of mine want to use these (and you will), I have kept the character names gender-neutral, so the following pieces could be performed by a man, woman, or precocious child:

From Autumn's Passing by Leers Kettering.
PAT sits beside a hospital bed, head in his/her hands.
The heart monitor beeps steadily, but unobtrusively, as PAT rises and crosses to centre stage.


I just keep thinking about that night. Graduation. “Party time!” we said, and, “Let's go to Makeout Point      with our sweethearts!” We thought the fun would never end... never end. I knew I probably shouldn't have driven. After all, those college boys kept pouring us alcohol cocktails, and I don't have to tell you, Autumn, my head was spinning.

PAT runs his/her fingers through their hair and paces. PAT stops and speaks louder than before, as if conveying emotion.

We drove so fast, and so far! We felt like we were invincible, like we owned the world! (Smirking) But didn't we?

That's when it happened. In my impaired judgement, and yes, I admit that now, I drove over a pebble which punctured our tire, slowing us down significantly. I pulled over and got the spare out of the trunk, and that's when a deer came out of the woods and bit you on the face.

Dammit, Autumn, don't you see? We were just being stupid kids. If I could take it back, I would! (Louder) IF I COULD TAKE IT BACK I WOULD! AUGH! AUGH! I tell people I was there when it happened and they say, “But no deer bit you on the face. You got off easy.” Easy! Easy? You think this is easy for me? Nothing's ever easy for me now. Nothing ever again.


From Knee-High to a Grasshopper by Fisher Cuntles
JESSE, an adorable six year old, is skipping rope.
S/he stops skipping upon noticing the audience.


Oh hi! I'm Jesse! What's your name? (Pause for response) Wow, that's a lotta names! Golly! I'm six years old! How old are you? (Shorter pause) Nevermind! I don't wanna know! (Hold for laughs)

I have a best friend, you know! A bestest friend in the whole wide world! His name is Tumbles and he's my cat. I love Tumbles. His favourite things are sleeping, eating, and scratching! We got him a scratching-post but he never uses it! Cats! Ha ha! He always scratches my Dad instead, and that makes my Dad awful sore! He yells, “Tum-bles!” in a loud voice whenever it happens.

One time we were all watching tv and Tumbles scratched my Dad on his leg and he yelled “Tum-bles!” and then, “You quit it!” and Tumbles stopped. But then, later that night, he did it again, and Dad yelled, “Tum-bles!”and then, “If you don't quit it, no more cat treats for you!” and Tumbles stopped. But then, even later than night, Tumbles scratched my Dad again and Dad yelled, “Tum-bles!” and then, “If you don't quit it, I'm sending you to Afghanistan!” and Tumbles stopped. But then, really late that night, he did it again!

On April 14, 2009, Tumbles was deployed to the Afghan province of Kunar. He didn't wanna go on a plane, and he kept trying to get his helmet off with his paws, but it was no use. Dad says fighting in a warzone might teach Tumbles not to scratch his goddamned leg so much. I think Tumbles is writing me letters but I don't understand what they say because I can't read yet. I miss my best friend... I miss him so much. I wish he was here to chase butterflies with me, or give me cuddles at nighttime, but Dad says it's much more important that he is over there, fighting for my freedom. Fighting for my life.


From Late Harvest by Hinch Cavoss.
A FARMER is stacking bales of hay in a barn.
After surveying the work, the FARMER sits on a milking stool and lights a corncob pipe.


Oh hey there stranger! Didn't see you settin' there! These days, my eyes ain't what they used to be! Then again, I suppose nothin's like it used to be. The name's Nancy Margeret Magee, but most folks call me Old Gus.

I've seen a lot of things out here on the farm. Things that'd curl your hair and hitch up your overalls. I don't s'pose you'd be willing to set here a spell and hear the story of an old farmer, now would you?

Aw, I reckon you wouldn't. I'll be along now.

FARMER exits. Blackout.

Funnily enough, in the time between starting this blog entry on Thursday afternoon, and finishing it late Thursday evening, I lost my cashiering job. I didn't lose it, exactly, but was told on my shift today that starting in November, another employee would be returning from maternity leave, putting our supervising staff at three singles mothers, and me. Hours would be cut, I was told, and unfortunately, my shifts were no longer a priority. “I completely understand.” I said, and here I was speaking the truth.

I've been lucky to have been behind a till for a lot of years. It's easy work that will be hard to miss. I'm daunted by the idea of dropping off resumes again, but buoyed by the fact that this might be my chance for a real job. Maybe someone will pay me to write, or act, or just carry a spear. One thing is for sure, though. If I can get that call in, if someone invites into their office or onto their stage, and asks me to tell them a little bit about myself, I'll have a hell of a lot to say.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me The News, I've Got a... weird rash on my neck...

Hello Friends.

I don't know if I've mentioned this enough times, but my boyfriend, Dr. Jon, is a doctor. Alright, so he's a PhD, Doctor of History, which isn't going to help anyone going into labour on an airplane, but still, a doctor! He is not nearly as proud of this as I am. I take credit for his title even though I had nothing to do with it. I'll tell you, if I had gone to school (not just bullshit school but university school) for ten years, I'd be a dick about letting people know it. All the time. Constantly. For instance, if I were in line at McDonald's and the guy behind the counter said, “What can I get for you, man?” I'd say, “Well I am a Doctor so I guess I'll have a cheeseburger.” And get this: Jon is so humble, so utterly disinterested in his own status that, when filling out forms for things like insurance or change of address, he checks the Mister box, not the Doctor box! Are you fucking kidding me? By comparison, if I'm walking downtown and sneak into a U of T building to use the bathroom, I tell people later that I did some post-graduate work.

Dr. Jon has checked the Mister box a lot lately, both changing his insurance and address thanks to a new job three provinces over that necessitated a move last month. Our time apart has been hard, but we've barely had time to miss each other because I went to visit him over the Labour Day long weekend. He's doing so great. His apartment is fancy, his proximity to the university and cool shopping and restaurants enviable, AND he's allowed pets in his building so we might have to get a fucking cat (more on that another day). As the common-law spouse of this Doctor Professor, I am entitled to reap the benefits of his benefits, as was the case with his last job, too. Only his last job had us both in the same province, but this year we are apart. This means, until we live together again (sometime next fall), I am not covered. Because my odd jobs keep me on part time hours, I have no bennies there either (sometimes I call benefits “bennies” because it's a cute way to take the sting out of the fact that I have no compensation should I become injured or sick). Thus leading to my new Dream.

Dream: Survive without medical care for a year.

Goal: Achievable, with neuroses. I'm embarrassed to say that I never go to a doctor or dentist and take the fact that I wake up every morning as evidence that I am in tip-top physical condition. So what's another year of blissful ignorance?

Plan: Rely on Gravol, Nyquil, and occasional vegetables to maintain health and avoid interaction with doctors (medical ones, the for real kind).

It's not that I'm afraid of doctors, I just don't need to sit in a room with sick people for two hours so some guy can cup my balls. I can do that at home! I don't have a GP here in Ontario and I didn't have one in the years after I moved out of my parents' house and across Saskatchewan. I always had one as a child and a teen, but he was such an odd duck. A Duckter, if you will. His last name was something Eastern European and apparently too hard to pronounce, so he made all of his patients, children and adults alike, call him Dr. then his first name. Dr. Steve, we'll say. That always seemed a touch “first thought” to me; something a sexual deviant might come up with to lure you into his dungeon. “It's alright, you can disrobe in front of me, I'm Dr.... Steve.” Plus, Dr. Steve always breathed audibly, which shouldn't have mattered, but it was like being diagnosed by a bored teenage girl. “So, anyway, (siiiigh), it looks like strep throat (siiiiigh).”

Plus, I was lucky as a young person not to have any significant maladies. So when I started living on my own, I'd do what I think a lot of people my age do, which is to wait until something is impossible to ignore, medically, then go to the free clinic. And I know free clinics aren't wholly free, they require some kind of subsidy to stay afloat, but doesn't it seem like free clinics staff unpaid doctors? These people just don't give a shit, do they? I once went in with a swollen eye that I assumed (correctly, as it turns out) was a stye, but I wasn't sure, so when I asked the doctor what she thought I might have she said, “Well it's your eye!” I wish I was kidding, but that's what she actually said. She prescribed stye medication with the same pissed-off apathy, like she always wanted to be a doctor on Broadway, but here she was, unappreciated and devalued, swabbing eyeballs in Saskatoon.

When my grandfather died, a review of his medical history suggested he may have suffered from some syndrome, some hereditary condition which may have contributed to his deteriorating health. My father was advised to get tested for it, as was my brother, as was I. Testing for this syndrome required a return visit to Dr. Steve, who was horrified when I told him about my half-assed approach to healthfulness: rare visits to free clinics. “A terrible substitute for medical care (siiiigh)!! You need to find a proper doctor immediately!”

Well, tests showed my father, brother and me did not and would not get this obscure ailment, and not to worry about it. And worry I haven't. Aside from a weird neck rash that required a fifteen minute pop in to another free clinic, I haven't been to a doctor here in the Big City. And I doubt I will go now, when the outcome might require a prescription for which I am not covered. Besides, I'm a generally healthy guy who eats his greens (sometimes), drinks lots of water, and sleeps nearly twenty hours a day. Plus, it's only a year, I continually rationalize, until I am surrounded by Doctors, both PhD and real, to shower me with so much love it'll make me sick.