My Time

(Note: I wrote this for the Medium Writer’s Contest last year, but this is where it belongs!)

You don’t know me. I’m nobody.

But I’ve shaken hands with Gwyneth Paltrow, Joe Montana and Venus Williams, met Brad Pitt, Henry Kissinger, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and all of Run DMC. I’ve been flirted with by Johnny Depp and Queen Latifah, Tony Soprano kissed my hand once, and I’ve had my fingers under the tight clothes of too many supermodels to count. I’ve been paid to watch murders being committed, battles of superheroes and ninja turtles, and people having sex — men and women, men and men, women and women, in all sorts of places and positions. I’ve walked through a herd of cows in Central Park, followed a leprechaun around Wall Street, and joined a parade carrying a naked teenaged boy through the streets of Brooklyn.

I work in the film business. I’ve been doing location sound work on movies, television shows and commercials for over 25 years, spending my days in a world of strange and unique experiences you couldn’t have anywhere else. But it’s also one where you’re not allowed to be even five minutes late and you’re told exactly how long you get to eat, but nobody has to inform you about when your day’s going to end — 15, 18, 20 hours, whatever it takes to get the scene, the shot, the proper pronunciation of the word “orangutan,” or for the French fry to arrive at the right position with a perfectly-sized and -shaped dollop of ketchup on the end. Because believe it or not, that’s show business. It’s a lifestyle that encourages promiscuity and breaks up families, fosters drug and alcohol abuse, and promotes a high incidence of unhealthy conditions from massive beer guts to knee and back injuries to colon cancer — some say caused by sitting on ballasts generating electricity for 20,000-watt lights, some say from not being allowed enough time during the day for a toilet break. Yep, it’s a business where crew people like myself live as close as anyone can to absurd heights of fame and success without actually getting any for ourselves. And I think that’s what really kills us. Most of us who work on film crews are aspiring filmmakers just waiting to get The Big Break — even though every year we spend working those hours, not writing or making anything because we’re too exhausted to do anything at the end of the day other than drink, sleep and fuck (most of the time not even that) just keeps us in oblivion.

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Keep Your Hands Off My Progress

How did we think this was fun?

My mother sold her house and had to move in April of 2020. Yes, April of 2020, otherwise known as April From Hell, April of Terror, April Of Peak Pandemic. The fun part was that in addition to it being scary, in that my then-79-year-old mother was going to have to deal with a ton of people in the process of moving, it also was frustrating, because we were all under lockdown, so nobody in my family could help her move out of the house she’d been in for 32 years, less than a year after my father had died. My husband and I had been down to help start getting rid of things and pre-packing (like pre-partying, but terrible) a few times in the months prior, but now, I couldn’t help her with the real packing, or do a final look-through of all the stuff from my old room to figure out if there was anything left that I wanted before she got rid of it. (Of course, her being my mother and me being me, she’d been saying for months already that I needed to clear things out and I’d been saying “We’ve got plenty of time!” Guess who turned out to be right.) In the end, my mom was lucky in that the buyers of the house were very sweet people who were fine with getting rid of anything she left behind, and the movers took care of the rest of the packing. Badly, as it turned out; so many items disappeared or were broken during the move that to this day, she’s still calling to tell me about stuff that she’s just discovered is missing. But they did get her to her new apartment in Central Jersey without giving her Covid, so that counts for something, even if they do 100% deserve the salty review she gave them online.

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The Abby Singer

Every line of work has its own language. If you’ve ever been trapped at a party by a group of physicists, software developers, or political strategists, you know what I’m talking about: there is a whole world of proprietary lingo that people in a profession develop by and for themselves. This frequently happens out of necessity. Those physicists could have continued to say, “I found a new one of those thingies in space that sucks in every other thingy around it,” or developers could still be writing, “This e-mail contains something underlined that you can click on but you probably don’t want to because then I will have sucked every more time from your day,” but one can see where there was a need to be filled here. 

On the other hand, did anyone really need to come up with the word “memo”? Wasn’t “group note” good enough? Was it only with the advent of the modern hospital that people needed things not just fast but “stat”? I think not. I think that there is another reason that people develop lingo and that is to show that they have their own little thing going on. It’s their way of saying, if you can follow our conversation then you are one of us, and if not, then there’s something we know and you don’t, ha.

Nowhere is this more true than in the film business, which has its own litany of terms that don’t even make sense to those of us who use them. Part of this is explained by the fact that, in the early years of this century, the process of filmmaking evolved sort of ad-hoc, absorbing equipment or people from other jobs. With certain terms, like “dolly,” which is the large, wheeled piece of equipment on which the camera is pushed around in the grip of the “dolly grip,” the derivation is obvious. 

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Every Day Is An Adventure When You’re In Menopause (Or Are You?)

In a world where all human beings come from stock footage, menopause is awesome.

I first wrote about menopause four years ago, when I was 49. Just like whenever I hit a new milestone, I thought I knew what I was talking about. 

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised that I was wrong. In the history of girlhood, has anyone ever been honest with us about how much certain things in life were going to suck? They never said to us,

“Lots of women have miscarriages, and it makes them sad.”

“Having a baby is painful as fuck, and also frequently fatal.”

“And yet, everyone will think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t get married and have children. But if you do have children, everyone will judge you on how they turn out.”

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200 Steps Back

My mother was always going to marches and meetings when I was a kid. As one of the founders of the Essex County, NJ chapter of the National Organization for Women, she fought for a lot of aspects of women’s lives that it would seem unthinkable for us to be without today: credit cards in our own names instead of our husbands’ (made law in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974); protections from getting fired for getting pregnant (the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978); being able to choose whether to have sex with our husbands (spousal rape was not criminalized in all 50 states until 1993); the ability to serve on juries (all states: 1975), to fight on the front lines in the military (rule restricting women from combat units rescinded by the Pentagon in 2013); access to birth control (the Supreme Court legalized birth control for unmarried people in 1972, and held that states could not place any restrictions on the advertisement, sale, and distribution of contraceptives to individuals of any age in 1978). And in 1973, the right established by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, for all women to have access to abortion during the first trimester, and with only limited restrictions during the second.

As a teen in the 1980s, when my mom would complain about how women were portrayed in TV shows like Charlie’s Angels (objectification) and The Brady Bunch (subservient homemaker), I remember thinking how annoying it was for her to go on about this stuff. For one thing, The Brady Bunch was all reruns, so Carol Brady was completely a relic of the past, duh! And in general, women had come so far since my mother’s adolescence; she and my father were teaching me that I could do anything I wanted. Did such minor points as the Brady boys being encouraged to be doctors and astronauts while the Brady girls were encouraged to be nurses and models, or the fact that Angel Jaclyn Smith’s boobs had a starring role in every episode, really matter, when all of the important stuff was already settled?

Guess what? It wasn’t.

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Losing the Light: What Happened On the Set Of “Rust”

There’s a term we use on film sets when it’s getting dark, fast, and we have a shot we have to get before it does. ADs, to drive us to hurry, will often at some point yell out, “We’re losing the light!” 

A film set is like a machine, and it works best when everything is done by the numbers. That’s another term we like to use, which means that we all take the steps we’re supposed to take to make sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to go. But when we’re losing the light, everything kind of goes nuts. People get stressed and they start yelling, which makes everybody more stressed and less able to focus (a note for those of you in a position to yell: it never, ever, helps). Sometimes people run, which you’re not supposed to do on a set, because there’s a ton of cables and stands and people to trip over if you’re not careful. People rush tasks that should not be rushed, and stop double- and triple-checking the details they’re supposed to be so, so careful about — everything from whether the right filter is on the camera, to whether the actor is wearing his glasses that he’s supposed to wear to match what we’ve already shot, to whether sound has turned on the radio mic pack so that the actor’s microphone is transmitting, to even remembering to roll. There are so many moving parts, and so many people who have to make sure that they stay moving, that at any given moment, a million things can go wrong. And if you’re not careful — in particular, if you are rushing — they do.

And we aren’t forced to work too fast only when the sun is going down. Sometimes, an actor has to leave early, because they’ve only agreed to be on set a certain amount of time — which can happen if they’re minors who can only work an eight-hour day, or just famous and powerful enough to make demands. (Mind you, I think that demanding an 8-hour day or 12 hours of turnaround is perfectly reasonable, it’s just not something the rest of us are allowed to do). Other times, there’s some special complication that makes it hard to get the shot just right —  a stunt-person having to do the perfect leap to land in the right spot, a dog having to walk and bark at the right time, a dollop of whipped cream having to arrive in just the right shape and size and creaminess, a steadicam move that must take a labyrinthine path. Proper time budgeting should make it possible to deal with all of these eventualities, by planning the day out and creating a schedule, and knowing which shots are cuttable, and where you’re most likely to use which dialogue so you only film a line as many times as you absolutely have to — but that often just does not happen. Way too much of the time, we’ve way over-scheduled our day with too many shots, or the director added additional ones that drag us down, or maybe there was never a shot list to begin with because the director just thought they could wing it, or someone — writer, director, client, agency — came up with alternate lines that also need to be covered, and that usually means adding the time to get those lines in more angles, possibly all of them. And when every second costs so much money, adding a day or two to the schedule is a big deal that has to be approved from the top, and those people at the top can’t be seen as making expensive mistakes. Add on to all of that the big egos and the power plays and pissing matches that go with them, and the pressure to speed past precautions is generally going to be there, pressing down on the people at the bottom: the crew. For them, the ethic becomes, Work as fast as you can nearly all the time. 

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Learning to say “No” and vote “Yes”

The movie The Big Chill is not really a touchstone for anyone any more, given that the topic of all-white boomer naval gazing is kind of past its sell-by date, by a lot. However, there is a great piece of dialogue in it delivered by Jeff Goldblum, playing the one friend in the group about whom everyone is constantly wondering, “Why are we still friends with this guy?” (we all have one), when he says “I don’t know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations, they’re more important than sex.” 

Crew people are the absolute masters of rationalization. How else would we be able to do our jobs under the ridiculous conditions in which we generally work — a standard week of 60-70-hours; one half hour break daily, for lunch, if we even get that; nine or ten hours of turnaround to get home, eat, interact with our partners or families, feed the dog or water the plants, sleep, and then travel back to set; and overall, never having any control over what we do all day or how or for how long —  and continue doing them for years and years, and tell ourselves that we aren’t batshit insane?

You can divide our rationalization styles, as crew people, into types.

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Are We There Yet?

Goodbye old friend. (Yes, I will need to wash my new car more often).

It can be hard to find markers of adulthood in my world. Basically, because I don’t have kids, I often feel like I’m living the life of a child, or at least a youngish millennial. That not only is because my husband and I live without childcare concerns curtailing our ability to do things like go out with friends, take vacations, have sex, and get drunk whenever we want — though, of course, Covid, acid reflux and general exhaustion have done that to us instead. It’s also because so many of the milestones my friends are experiencing these days have to do with things their kids are doing, like graduating from high school or college, or getting their first jobs — providing me with that mind-blowing experience of having full-on conversations about the state of our country with a person whose hand it seems like I was just holding to keep him from running into the street. Not that having kids necessarily makes you any more of an adult. One colleague who’s now showing me pictures of his one-year-old daughter tunelessly banging away on a tiny xylophone was just a couple of years ago giving me detailed advice about how to take hallucinogenic mushrooms (granted, it was excellent advice), and I often see men on set who have multiple offspring or even grandchildren getting into idiotic pissing matches that wouldn’t seem out of place in a sandbox (“I’m not moving my cart unless he comes and asks me personally!” comes to mind from one recent, extremely mature exchange).

There are also career milestones, and many of my college friends are getting promoted to vastly superior jobs — one even mentioned the “C Suite” recently, which is term that I am so distanced from that I had to Google what the “C” means. But the only way I could get promoted in my current career would involve me investing tens of thousands of dollars in equipment that scares me so that I could move up to mixer, a position that, like most jobs for which you only get noticed at when you fuck up, empirically kinda sucks. Instead, I just keep writing more blog posts and scripts and fiction and directing more tiny projects in the hopes that I will be paid to write or direct full time, which realistically for most humans is more of a Hail Mary than a career choice, because, sure, I’m choosing it, but nobody is choosing me, which is kind the important part. I also have friends talking about retirement, but while I do have a 401K and an IRA, they are growing at a pace that reminds me of the slow, frustrating and icky experience of trying to walk through the blue ball room at the Color Factory (hahahaha remember ball rooms?), which makes me feel like for me to even fantasize about retiring is going to require a lot more mushrooms.

So what I’m settling for as a sign of how I’m progressing as a grown up right now is trying to buy a car for the first time. Now, you might think it weird that at 52 I’ve never bought a car before, but bear in mind that I live in New York City, where plenty of people never even learn to drive. I only finally got a car when I got sick of having to get up at 4 am to take a train to Manhattan to get in a courtesy van in order to be in New Jersey at 6 for a shoot, something I had to do so often in my 20s that the phrase one of my friends told me he most associated with me was, “I can’t, I have to get up really early tomorrow to take a van.”

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Privilege Unmasked

I’ve been working at a fairly steady clip over the past several months, aside from a long break for the holidays, and as I’ve talked about before, we are adapting to this new normal of how to work on set during The Covid Times in various ways. On one TV show I worked on, everyone is tested every few days, every crew member must be masked at work at all times unless they are at least 10 feet from everyone else, and anyone anywhere on the stage when talent is there must also wear a face shield. If you’ve worn a face shield lately (and there’s a clause I would never have considered I’d have need of a year ago), you know that this is annoying — it’s hot, it’s hard to see (though — pro tip — easier if you are wearing a dark-colored mask), hard not to fog up, hard for other people to hear you, and if you’re wearing other stuff on your head, like headphones and glasses, there’s a good chance something is going to fall off at some point.

I’ve commented in earlier posts on “safety theater” imposed by production doing more harm than good, but given the way I’ve seen sets operate, I don’t think the mandatory face shield is that. The reason being that talent are almost certainly going to be taking their masks off to act on camera, and not always putting them back on in the space of time in which things generally happen that might involve crew members getting close to them — such as a makeup/hair/wardrobe touch-up, or body mic adjustment, or a lens change, or a prop reset. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a crew person within a foot of an unmasked actor who, in my mind, the moment they took their mask off, became a biohazard. I hate that I think like that now, especially because they are required to take their masks off for their job (Let’s face it: Nobody wants to look at an actor behind a mask, not only because we are all so so sick of looking at people in masks, but because, as we all now know, it is extremely hard to see what someone is thinking or feeling when they are wearing a mask, and that is kind of the whole point of acting, which is why “Botoxed actor” is an oxymoron), and it does also put them at greater risk, since, unless they are alone in the scene, they are performing unmasked with other unmasked people. I’ve even had one actor tell me he felt like he had to convince me that he a was responsible and careful human being, but it didn’t have anything to do with me trusting him. It’s that I can’t possibly trust every single person in his life that he might ever encounter, and even if I did, I couldn’t trust all the people that they might encounter, and the people that they might encounter, increasing exponentially to just an absurd amount of humans, at least one of whom has got to be doing something wrong, or else we wouldn’t have community spread. If you’re not wearing a mask because it’s your job, I totally understand that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to hang out with you while you’re not wearing your mask any longer than I have to, because by the transitive property, I’m hanging out with all of those other people too. This isn’t personal, it’s just basic understanding of the virus that we’re dealing with here.

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We Voted, but…

My husband and I decided a while back that we were going to vote by absentee ballot. I know that a lot of folks are voting in person because they want to be sure their votes are counted this election cycle, and I get that. But there’s a pandemic going on, and while we don’t entirely trust the voting system here in New York City, due to a legacy of nepotism that harkens back the era of Tammany Hall and that has led to embarrassing recent events like the way things went wrong two years ago, and then also two years before that, we also knew that, well, our votes didn’t really matter. New York State is definitely going for Biden, and by a significant enough margin that it will be called that way on election night. The Governor and U.S. Senator seats are not on the ballot this time, and in our district, all of our reps are guaranteed to be Democrats, so realistically, the primary was more important than the general. The only significant thing on the ballot this cycle is the option to vote for Democratic candidates on the Working Families Party line, WHICH YOU ALL SHOULD BE DOING if you live in New York. Governor Cuomo has made it harder for third parties to exist in New York by increasing the number of votes they need to stay on the ballot to 130K or 2% of the total vote in the presidential election, whichever is higher, and he did this specifically as an attack on the WFP, which uses its power to push him to the left on the issues, and has endorsed more progressive candidates in primaries that he doesn’t support, including Cynthia Nixon when she ran against him in 2018. Cuomo pushed through changes to the laws governing third parties during the pandemic as his way of getting payback for that, so remember to vote for Joe Biden on the WFP line (yes, you are still voting for the Joe Biden. Because of fusion voting, we can vote for a candidate on different lines and thereby support third parties’ agendas without having to undermine Democrats). Plus, we’re lucky that NY State made it possible for everyone to vote by absentee this cycle — even if they did it in a stupid way, by an executive order that made it so the health exception applies to everyone, not by changing the law to make mail-in-voting possible for everyone the way that many states have, and basically all states should, since we know that “voter fraud” is a right-wing political tactic a not real thing that has ever affected any election in this country in any significant way. So supporting mail-in-voting is important too.

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