Spat at in the Face

I find spitting repugnant. I don’t like watching other people do it, and I don’t care to do it myself. When I absolutely must spit out some distasteful wad of phlegm, I do so with an offended face that serves not only as an expression of how I feel about the experience, but as a silent apology to whoever may stand in witness of the event. It’s me saying, in effect, “I know this is gross. I’m disgusted too. I’m so very sorry for the both of us that this had to happen.”

“Where does this come from?” is a question you may well ask. “Geez, you’re weird. Are you in therapy?” is another one that might come up.

The second answer is a quick and easy, “No.” I don’t need the help of some professional headshrinker to search through my repressed memories and figure out what exact traumas turned me into the asshole you see before you today. I’ve long since traced all my quirks and ticks back to specific moments in my developing years. I know where they come from. And it doesn’t do me a bit of good.

I’ve found that knowing the precise origin of all my phobias, buttons and mental disorders has been no help whatsoever in curing them. It’s like having total recall of the time, place and serial number of the thresher that mulched your hand off. You know where you lost it and how, but it doesn’t help you grow your hand back.

For example, I can name the girl who crushed all future romantic confidence with women out of me before puberty was even a looming threat. I can quote the cruel words said to me in childhood by another young boy that would convince me to never sing another note again in my life (up to and including all those birthday parties when the cake comes out). And I can also name the three key instances that forever turned spitting from a basic biological function into a vile and despicable act I can hardly stomach. I know where it all comes from. But the damage is done, and I can’t fix my brain now. All I can do is accept my irrational reactions to certain things, acknowledge that they’re irrational, understand their origins, and then go on feeling the same damn way.

My aversion to spitting began during an unfortunate shortcut on my way to elementary school one morning. I was running late and the area was vacant. All the kids were indoors already. The only people in sight were three teenagers from a nearby high school. In this era, when school boards were still divided along religious lines, we were all told to steer clear of that particular high school because it was full of angry young Catholic boys. They were angry not so much because they were Catholic, but because all the slutty young Catholic girls had been sent off to be schooled at the inconveniently distant Queen of Angels. As a result, they had a lot of pent up hostility they needed to work out. Kicking the asses of the Protestant grade-schoolers a few blocks away was one possible outlet.

In order to avoid a direct confrontation with these suspicious teens who were headed my way, I decided to scale the school fence and take the well-travelled shortcut over a flattened-out section of barbed wire that allowed easy access to dozens of kids daily who were too lazy to walk the extra thirty yards to the gate. I was halfway over the fence when my paranoia was validated. The three towering teenagers ran over and grabbed me by the jacket, leaving me dangling on the opposite side of the fence, unable to escape. An ass-kicking might have ensued had I still been on their side, but it proved impossible for them to haul me back over the top. Instead, they satisfied themselves with shouting abuse. And then one of them spat in my face before they finally released me and I fell to the ground on the other side. Wiping the vile hood’s copious saliva off my face, I walked the rest of the way to school crying, while they busied themselves throwing discarded cans and bottles at me for as long as I was in range. The refuse all missed, but the spit had been dead on target.

First lesson learned: People are shit and will assault you randomly for no other reason than to be mean. The seeds of misanthropy were planted. I was seven.

One day, while still attending that school, my class was subjected to the ritual of being introduced to a new student who had just moved to town. He was a little waif of a kid named Patrick, alone among strangers, isolated as an outsider. Just a few short minutes after the introduction, the students of my class were gathered in the hall in preparation to march us to the audio/visual room to watch an educational film. I found myself standing behind Patrick as the line was formed.

Understanding how difficult it must have been for him on his first day in a new school with so many new people, I decided to introduce myself. I tapped him on the shoulder and Patrick turned to see what I wanted.

“Hi!” I declared in my friendliest, most welcoming tone.

And instantly, like some expectorating dromedary who’d neglected to swallow for the last couple of hours, he spat skillfully and precisely in my face. Never saying a word, he turned back around, eyes forward, and concentrated on queuing once again.

Second lesson learned: Never talk to strangers or try to make new friends. I was eight.

On another occasion, I was driving with my parents in the family car. It was summer, the windows were down, and a cool breeze was blowing. We had just taken a curve near the airport, surrounded by light traffic, when the driver of a car somewhere up ahead decided to spit out his own open window.

Through some incalculable magic of physics and complexity theory, this flying glob of snotty mucus navigated the wind currents with the skill of a seaborne starling, crossed a lane of high-speed highway traffic, and was sucked into the open passenger-side window of our car, only to hit me squarely in the face, all the way in the back seat where I had incorrectly assumed I was safely ensconced against an assault by some random stranger’s bodily fluids. It took me a few moments to realize what had happened, but once the confusion had passed, the horror set in and I knew, at last, that I was cursed.

Third lesson learned: Random, horrible things will happen to you for no reason whatsoever other than the fact that the universe just sucks. I was nine.

Most people get through their entire lives without being spat at in the face. I managed to get nailed three times before I was out of my first decade. Is this bad luck, bad karma, or me simply being the repeat victim of a bad habit? I don’t know. But aside from offering me some valuable life lessons, my whole spitting aversion has taught me one very important thing which I shall share with you.

And it’s this: I’m totally going to fucking kill the next motherfucker who spits in my face.

You’ve been warned, universe.

Those Who Can’t

If you’ve ever tried your hand at screenwriting, some well-meaning idiot has probably recommended or bought you a copy of Syd Field’s book, Screenplay. Maybe you were the well-meaning idiot and got it for yourself.

Inside, you’ll find all sorts of discussion about the mechanics of screenwriting that make it look, quite literally on some pages, like a physics formula. The great innovation most frequently pointed out, is how the book postulates that everything can be broken down into a three-act structure. Gee, you mean stories have a beginning, a middle and an end? That’s fucking gold. Good thing Syd figured that one out for us or we’d still be telling knock-knock jokes with no set-up in the middle.

Obviously, I’m not a fan. Syd Field just died, which probably means now is an ill-timed moment to get all critical and mean. But the tributes and eulogies I see out there on the web have put me in a foul mood. And this particular foul mood is as good an excuse as any for me to vent about the phenomenon of screenwriting gurus.

Pass.

Pass.

Syd Field’s book, for all the damage it’s done with its dry, lifeless deconstruction of what should be an art form, can at least be had in second-hand bookstores for a few bucks or, more appropriately, at garage sales for a quarter. That’s really the best thing I can say about it. It’s a cheap read, and there are so many copies in circulation, you can probably snag one for free (or thereabouts) will little effort if you feel you MUST have a look. Attending a Robert McKee seminar, however, will run you more in the neighbourhood of a thousand bucks a pop.

McKee has made a cottage industry (and fortune) with his lengthy and often packed seminars that break down a screen story into more physics formulas and geometic objects with seemingly random but supposedly insightful things written on each point. And people eat this shit up, swearing by it as they go home to work on their feature-length screenplay that will never make it past a single studio reader, assuming it ever actually gets finished and sent somewhere. As part of its marketing, these seminars like to drop the names of famous past attendees who could afford it, but should have known better than to go.

If you’re one of the Field or McKee disciples, fine. I don’t want to get in an argument with you. I’ll just call it a load of crap and you can hurl insults at me as I walk back to my computer to do some more paid screenwriting (or, let’s be honest, play video games – which I can at least afford to do most of the time because people actually pay me money to write for the screen, so there).

Whether it’s dinosaurs like Field or McKee, or any of the next generation of self-styled teachers trying to turn a buck telling you how to break into the biz with a perfect act structure and twists that happen on precisely the right page, they’re all kindred spirits. These aren’t screenwriting sages or gurus. They’re Amway salesmen. They’re exactly the same breed of people who write books and run seminars on how to flip houses for quick cash, or how to day-trade your way to millions. The crap they’re talking about isn’t where they made their fortune. They make their money from suckers who pay them to impart this vast, dubious insight they claim to have. Then they skip town with your dough in their pocket, while you try to earn a living based on the line of bullshit they just strung you.

Take a closer look at these screenwriters who have written how-to books or climbed a stage for a fee in order to educate the hopefuls and you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: You don’t want their career.

If you truly want to write movies or television and you feel you need guidance, the first thing you need to do before buying somebody’s damn book is to look up their credits. It’s just an imdb search away. Then ask yourself, “Is this the sort of success I hope to replicate?” Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

Syd Field wrote three episodes of a TV show and a documentary back in the ‘60s. He’s also credited with a “story concept” for a 2002 short. Robert McKee wrote one episode each for four different television series between 1979 and 1991. Then he wrote a TV movie bible-pic in 1993. Nothing since.

These are their produced credits, which are the only kind of credits that count in the business.

“Yeah, but they probably sold a lot of options.”

A monkey scribbling on the wall with its own poop can sell an option. I’m not impressed.

If you’re considering screenwriting as a vocation, chances are you have certain movies and careers in mind. You want to be a Shane Black or a Frank Darabont or a Coen Brother (pick one at random, it doesn’t matter, they share a brain as well as a filmography). Well guess what, they’re too fucking busy making movies to write you a self-help book telling you how to be them. There aren’t many real screenwriters, be they of the famous millionaire ilk or just stiffs like me working in the trenches, who are going to take the time out to play sensei and guide you to hone your craft and have a fruitful career. We don’t need the competition.

Look, you don’t want my screenwriting career either, but I’m not trying to sell you a book or a speaking engagement. I just want to stick it to all the so-called gurus out there by stealing their thunder and giving it away for free. No bullshit, I’m going to tell you how to be a screenwriter in one minute flat. It’s what I call my two-step program. I’m focusing on movies here because nobody ever starts out wanting to be a TV writer. Nobody. But the lessons learned will apply should you be lucky enough to end up milling product for the boob tube.

Step One: Watch every movie you’ve ever heard about. Read about film and watch anything that gets discussed or deemed noteworthy, be it good, bad or indifferent. Find lists about notable movies, watch them all. Read Danny Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic (or just get the list) and watch everything mentioned. Have you seen all the top 250 films on the imdb? If not, fix that. How about the bottom 100? Fix that too. Watch whatever has been scrutinized, analyzed or talked about in every genre. Don’t like westerns? Tough shit, watch ‘em. Offended by porn? Get over it because there are important titles in sleaze, too. Hate chick flicks? Man up and stare them down. You say you don’t like to read subtitles? Well get out your reading glasses because there are heaping piles of foreign cinema you need to watch. Didn’t understand one of the famed ambiguous movies? Watch it again. Did you really like something? Watch it again. Did you really hate something so much you never want to watch one second of it ever again in your life? It’s probably worth another look.

By the end of this process (and really, it’s an ongoing process that will never end until you do), you will have watched many thousands of movies. And you’ll still need to see many thousands more. If this sounds like a difficult or unpleasant task to you, then quit now. Screenwriting isn’t for you. If you just want to make money making shit up, there are quicker and easier ways to do that. Go be a con artist. But if this assignment sounds like a fun, mind-expanding odyssey, then go for it. Go on, go do it now before you read any further, I’ll wait.

You back? You done? Okay, good.

Step Two: Write movies.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

“But what about the specifics, like formatting and tense and dialogue and parentheticals and…”

Shut up. Format you can find anywhere and the language of how a screenplay is written can be learned with a cursory look at a few published film scripts. But if you don’t possess an inherent, instinctive understanding of structure and how screen stories are told after watching all those movies, then a thousand-dollar seminar isn’t going to do the trick either. If that’s the case, go find something else to do with your life and use this experience to impress and annoy people at parties by talking authoritatively about cinema when all they really want to know is if the new Adam Sandler comedy is any good (it isn’t).

“But, but, but…”

I’m not taking any questions. This was free. How much more do you want out of me?

“Just one question, please!”

Pause for effect.

“How do I get an agent?”

The screenwriter simply rolls his eyes and walks away, saying no more.

The Hallowed Halls Of Academia

Further to the last blog entry, Kristiaan sent me a couple of photos he took during the Pictoplasma festival in Berlin. As you can see, this was a little more of an involved conversation about the graphic arts than the typical comic shop “Sucks!/Rocks!” debates we tend to have over here.

Germans discuss just how damn brilliant I am.

Only by projecting individual panels twenty feet high and wide can you truly appreciate the magnificence of my pointillist artistry.

Which doesn’t really remind me of a story, but I’ll share one just the same.

The first time my work was ever discussed in a more learned environment was when a high school teacher and fan of mine invited me to speak to his class after final bell about working in comics. He picked me up one afternoon and we shared the long ride over the river to the desolate south shore of Montreal.

It occurred to me, as teenagers flipped through some of my less G-rated material — like The Squalids — that perhaps this extra curricular activity should have been accompanied by a parental waiver. I thought I detected that silent buzz of classroom excitement when the kids realize that they’ve just been handed something off the provincially-approved agenda. Eyes flitter about the room, making contact with the eyes of their peers, and a look is exchanged that says without words, “Hey, this isn’t algebra…this is DIRTY!”

What I most remember from that afternoon, however, is one individual kid. The troublemaker. An Attention Deficit Disorder case if ever there was one. He’d been bouncing off the walls about my impending visit for days. Now that the day had finally arrived, he was so thrilled, he promptly got himself saddled with a detention. And since my appearance was scheduled for after class — right at detention time — he was going to miss it. Some woman, probably the vice principal, obviously the school disciplinarian, clearly a bitch, was determined to make sure he served every moment of his punishment. After a brief conversation with him at the beginning of my Q&A, he was swept away to do hard time. I was disappointed because he seemed so intensely interested.

Ten minutes later, he appeared at the first floor window of the classroom again, having busted out of detention. He listened closely to my every word from just outside, and although his reappearance caused some minor commotion in the room, he wasn’t interested in disrupting anything, he just wanted to sit in.

This only lasted a few minutes before The Bitch found him again and dragged him back to high school prison so serve the remainder of his sentence in closely observed isolation. I never saw him again, but I’ll always remember him. This was years after my own high school experience, but it reminded me what was so damn wrong about our educational system. Here was a kid, obviously a handful, who was probably failing everything. Not because he was stupid, but because he wasn’t engaged. And then the one day something happens in class that he’s actually interested in, dying to learn about, they deny it to him just to administer an arbitrary punishment he’ll learn nothing from and never remember in years to come.

I can count the days I genuinely learned something in high school on one hand. And I might even have some fingers left over. I’m not saying I could have educated that kid one iota talking about comic books for forty minutes, but I could have given him one of those four or five days he might have remembered years down the road. A day he learned a little something that was off the lesson books, and formed a permanent memory that wasn’t about the pranks he pulled or the antics he got himself into.

I still feel it was a terrible missed opportunity to reach out to a kid who so desperately needed to be reached. I suppose I can add it to the meagre list of days I learned something in high school, even if it wasn’t my high school and I wasn’t a student. I just wish we’d both been able to come away having learned something new that day.

Political Bent

I like to think of myself as politically neutral. I try to empathize with all sides of an issue, my vote is up for grabs by the party with the best platform, and I never endorse any one candidate because I figure they’ll inevitably make an ass of themselves at some point.

Poopy-head!Yesterday I got a call from a pollster charged with the task of calculating the statistics of where Canadians stand on their government. This was the sort of poll that ends up being quoted in the media as grave-sounding news anchors tell us what percentage of the public approves of the war in Afghanistan, who the leading candidate in the Liberal leadership race is, and whether the majority of the country thinks Stephen Harper is a boring poopy-head or a pasty-faced gargoyle.

I always like to answer telephone polls regardless of how much time they eat up. Since most people actually have something better to do, are gainfully employed, or realize life is too short to spend this much time on the phone with someone who’s sunk almost to the level of a telemarketer, poll results tend to be hopelessly tainted and nowhere close to reflecting an actual, reasonable majority. Instead, they skew in favour of the opinions and attitudes of the insane, the unemployable, the desperately lonely, and the flatly sociopathic. As one of those elite few, I felt it was my duty to mislead the poor idiots in charge of the country with the sort of answers that would help them alter the world to better suit my personal, greedy needs.

Gargoyle!As I answered a seemingly endless series of multiple choice questions with answers like “somewhat agree,” “almost never,” “Green Party,” and “because I think he’s a dick,” I came to realize something. I’m one of those evil leftists Canadian pinkos the brave American Republicans are trying to save the world from. I’m part of the problem. Bill O’Reilly would want my nuts cut off as part of his eugenics project. Donald Rumsfeld would have me sent to Guantanamo to be interrogated by a pair of pliers and a water board. Ann Coulter would pass on having dinner with me, even if I were paying.

I’m embarrassed, I really am. I knew my politics were kinda sorta liberal – “liberal” being just about the worst thing you can call someone south of the 49th these days, ranking somewhere between “Clinton” and “pedophile” – but I had aspired to be more centrist. I’d even ordered my very own copies of The Way Things Ought to Be and Let Freedom Ring to help compensate and nudge me back towards the middle. I guess it didn’t work.

I blame my education. When shopping around for a university, I ultimately ended up going to Concordia in Montreal. Not because I thought it was the best school for me. But because it was only a city bus ride away and I couldn’t afford to go anywhere better with the paltry money I was making at summer jobs. I remember, in a guide to Canadian universities published around that time, there was a chart of the political leanings for every higher-education institution in the country. Some where left wing, some were right wing, some were pretty middle of the road. Concordia was listed as “off-the-map left.” And they weren’t kidding. Every day there I felt a tad discriminated against because I wasn’t a mixed-race pagan lesbian communist.

I went into the journalism program. But in an effort to remain politically neutral, I made a concerted effort to stay as ignorant of politics and current events as humanly possible. I never read a newspaper, never watched a television news show. Occasionally we’d have a pop quiz on what was going on in the world and I’d be utterly unable to answer any of the questions. So I’d make up outrageous fictional answers for comedic effect. The head of the department never found my answers particularly amusing for some reason. I think he maybe took his job seriously or some crazy shit like that.

Only after I’d safely faked my way through the program and received my not-worth-the-paper-it’s-printed-on B.A. did I become interested in current events. Now I spend much of the day with various news media outlets acting as background noise in my office, keeping me up to date about the latest insult tossed across the floor of the House of Commons and the body count total in Iraq (Just a little more than 22,000 K.I.A. to go before you top Viet Nam, guys! You can do it!).

But I can’t deny it any longer. Maybe I absorbed it through osmosis in university, or maybe it’s just the by-product of being a media savvy, informed Canadian who’s never watched Fox News. I’m a liberal. Not necessarily a supporter of the Liberal Party, but a liberal nevertheless. There’s only one last resort for me. I must follow the lead of my leftist brothers and sisters down south. Rather than be branded by the terrible “L” word (no, not that one), I must fall back on that greatest of all crutches. Semantics.

No, I’m not one of those filthy, traitorous, troop-hating, tree-hugging, gun-control-supporting, pro-choice-choosing, gay-marriage-attending, marihuana-legalizing godless liberal scum suckers. Not me!

Whatever floats your boat.

I’m a libertarian.

Life Lesson 4: A Poisonous Work Environment

My fourth job paid ten dollars an hour and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Tired of watching me being exploited for a pittance, my aunt stepped in with a healthy dose of nepotism and landed me a three-month summer job at the same company she worked for. This arrangement, she assured me, would be perfect because she could pick me up on her way to the office and we could drive to work together. The fact that I would be working for a company that was listed as one of the top environmental polluters in Canada held no ethical quandary for me. I mean, come on, it was ten dollars an hour.

On one of our first commutes, my aunt asked me what I wanted to do for a living. Maybe she was wondering if I was interested in a permanent position at the company once I was out of school.

I said I wanted to be a writer.

“When do you get to retire doing that?” she wanted to know.

“Hopefully never,” is what I told her.

My aunt had a first-floor office at the front of the building where she was in sales. I, however, was tucked away in a room upstairs with five other employees who worked as a team to keep the paperwork moving. I was answerable to all of them, and was assigned the little irritating jobs they didn’t want to do themselves. As such, I was required to fill in reports and make calculations. About what, I had absolutely no idea, but my figures seemed to be correct and none of them ever came back to me, so I assumed I was doing a good job.

There were no windows in the office, just fluorescent tubes and a skylight at the very top of a funnel. You had to stand directly under the funnel and look up, way up, to catch a glimpse of the sky. But since this was right in the middle of the room, well away from everyone’s work station, there was never any reasonable excuse to do this.

Everything in the room was grey. The walls, the furniture, the people. If something that wasn’t grey was brought into the room, the lighting would suck the colour out of it. When it left again, it left grey.

All day, every day, the radio in the office was tuned to the local EZ-listening station. All day, every day, I’d wait for them to play one of the two songs in their schedule I could stomach. One was Enya, another was Sinead O’Conner. And when they were on, for two minutes at a time, I could be in that room and not want to tear my eyes out and jam meat skewers through my eardrums.

There was also a door in the office. It was at the back of the room, thick, heavy and very very grey. At random intervals during the day, I would be handed a single piece of paper and told to go through that door.

Behind the door was the factory floor. Iron stairs ran down into its black heart. There was a railing to hold onto, but you couldn’t touch it because it was coated in oily soot. Everything that wasn’t constantly on the move in there was coated in this soot that was sticky in a way unlike any other sticky thing I’d ever touched in my life.

Because I was required to step inside the factory ever so briefly from time to time, I was issued a pair of safety shoes with steel toes that would assure, no matter how badly I was maimed by the heavy machinery, my toes at least would be safe and secure.

There were robots in the factory — automated platforms with roller surfaces that transported stacks of product up and down the line so different procedures could done to them, often involving chemical sprays. These robots all had signs on them warning, “Danger, may move at any time.” To get to the command centre to deliver my piece of paper, I would have to climb over the robots as they went about their duties. Sometimes they would move while I was on them, sometimes they wouldn’t. Each time I ran this gauntlet, there was a calculated risk that something would move at exactly the wrong moment and take my entire foot off at the ankle.

I counted the days like an inmate counts a prison sentence. To pass the time, I drew an elaborate schedule that broke my three months of employment down to hundreds of fifteen-minute intervals. As each of these intervals passed, I would colour them in with a pencil, looking forward to the day when the entire schedule would be filled. Often I would spend an entire fifteen-minute interval doing nothing but waiting to black it out.

We all had our own ways of getting through the day, I suppose. One of the women in the office, for example, got by on the delusion that she was an object of desire. She looked like an aging barroom skank who went and got a real job the day she realized she was now too old and ugly to get free drinks and quick cash for bathroom blowjobs.

“I know you guys all fantasize about me,” she let slip one day, offering me an unexpected and unwanted glimpse of her psyche. The saddest part of her declaration was that she was probably right when it came to the other two guys we worked with.

Weekends flew by like they were nothing. I’d blink and miss them. On my downtime, I wanted to do nothing but sleep or watch television. Creatively, I dried up.

Eventually, I penciled out nearly all of my schedule. For the first time ever, I looked forward to work. My final week was approaching and I anticipated blotting out the last handful of fifteen minute blocks like a kid anticipates Christmas. I simply couldn’t wait.

That weekend I fell ill. Terribly, weirdly ill. I wasn’t coughing or sneezing, I wasn’t sore or vomiting. But all at once, every last ounce of energy I had left me. I could barely make the trip from the couch to the bed, and the concept of food was alien to me. Even if I could muster the strength to chew, there was no appeal in swallowing.

At work on Monday, my aunt went upstairs to my office, collected my things, and told everyone I would not be returning.

They ran the usual bunch of tests at the hospital and came up empty. The doctors resorted to that great cover-your-ass fallback diagnosis and told me I probably had a viral infection. Go home, they said, get plenty of rest and fluids.

I spent the next three weeks on a couch staring at game shows and soap operas. I didn’t move, I didn’t eat, and my weight plummeted. I figured I might die, but I was so exhausted I didn’t much care. Obviously I wasn’t cut out for a nine-to-five life. Three months of it had nearly killed me. But was it the hours or where I spent them?

You might wonder what this factory could have been making that was so singularly toxic that it poisoned the world and destroyed the health of those who worked there. Anthrax, perhaps? Agent Orange? Thermonuclear weapons? No.

They made cardboard boxes.

I recovered in time for the start of the school year. Periodically, I’d hear news about my former co-workers from my aunt. Things like who’d had a miscarriage this time, or who was the latest to develop a malignant tumor. The updates stopped when my aunt retired. She left the job with a tumor of her own. After surgery and chemo, the cancer went into remission for ten years. Then it came back and ate her body in ways so horrific, even someone with my sense of humour can’t make light of it. I remember my mother coming home after seeing what parts of her body the doctors had cut away.

“I didn’t know you could do that to a person,” she said. And she was very pale when she said it.

That was the last of three summer jobs I took to put myself through university. Once I earned my degree, I had to make a choice about how I was going to make a living now. I weighed my past experiences and considered my options. In the end, there was really no choice at all.

I never worked another day in my life. I became a writer instead.

And I learned my final lesson. All jobs suck. Don’t have one.

Life Lesson 3: File It Under “P” for Pimped

The next year I decided to skip the index-card and classified-ad route. Instead, I went to a job-placement agency. They knew where all the good jobs were hiding, and for a small cut of my salary they would hook me up with something that fit my skills.

That’s how I ended up as a file clerk in a gothic cathedral of a bank in Old Montreal. Built when the city was still young, the bank was a classic monument to the riches of the British Empire back when it was still a real empire. Architecturally it was beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, I never got to look at it on the job because I was stuffed inside the world’s smallest, densest file room.

Once again, a kid with no references or experience was thrust into a situation that offered unlimited access to sensitive financial information. But this time it was on a scale so vast, I couldn’t even consider all the fraud possibilities. Here was an unsupervised room, with just a few underpaid workers, that contained the financial records for every major Canadian corporation you could think of. I could have rooted through the most intimate details of all their dealings with the bank if I so wished. I didn’t, however, because it all looked so damn boring.

The thing about this bank was that their filing system was a complete mess. Most of it hadn’t been computerized yet, because the idea of trying to put all that old data on disc must have made the building of the pyramids seem like a diverting engineering whim. Instead, what they were going to do was overhaul the filing system. New folders were brought in by the truckload, and with them, colourful alphabetizing labels. The suit-and-tie peons would be required to sign files out instead of coming in randomly, taking what they wanted, and screwing up the system.

The filing room was hot as a furnace, and the only air circulation came from a giant fan that roared like the engine of a Cessna and cooled exactly one square foot of floor space. If you weren’t standing in that exact sweet spot, you were screwed. To remedy this situation, I took to the filing overhaul project with gusto. Whenever there was a free moment, I would grab an armful of files and disappear into one of the available boardrooms to make new folders and labels. And I got to do this with a charming co-worker from the Maritimes who already had a boyfriend I was hoping she’d split up with in a timely fashion.

In the board room, we would chit-chat about music and pop culture and the incredibly high auto-fatality statistics in the Maritime provinces. We would also gossip about the third file-room clerk who we both disliked. This clerk was a weird chick, considerably older than us, who held multiple jobs. By day she was a bank file clerk, but by night she was one of those creepy people who wander into restaurants and bug customers to buy flowers from them. With her various jobs keeping her busy at all hours, the only time she had to sleep was at her bank job. She would sneak off to the basement where all the old files in deep storage were kept, and sleep for hours in a nest she had made for herself among the boxes in the back, away from prying eyes. All of her duties would fall on our shoulders for the duration, and we resented her for it.

But there was one duty our sleepy co-worker wouldn’t trust us with. The photocopy machine was her domain alone. As far as she was concerned, no one else was qualified to operate it. In a brilliant twist of irony, it was the photocopy machine that precipitated her downfall. She was so determined to man it alone, she was discovered sleeping face-down on it one day. Within the hour we were informed that she was no longer an employee of the bank. A number of euphemisms were bandied about, but we finally made the middle-management executioner admit she’d be fired. It was music to our ears. We liked her replacement much better, even though there were serious communication issues.

The replacement clerk only spoke French and we only spoke English. Charming girl was unilingual because she grew up in the Maritimes. I was unilingual because I’m a bit of a fucking imbecile and never really learned to speak the language despite five years of French immersion and a bilingual certificate that claims, quite falsely, that I can. Nevertheless we managed to train her in the intricacies of the file room through a series of ape-like gestures and primitive sign language. We told her nothing of the filing system overhaul. We kept that perk for ourselves.

Progress with the overhaul was slow but steady, and I could see it really making a difference in the file room. It gave me a sense of accomplishment that had been lacking in my previous job. Slowly, the newer files were becoming a visible presence in the system. Things were easier to find. I firmly believed that by the end of the summer, I could have the entire Mount Everest of paperwork whipped into shape and arranged in an orderly fashion.

I was so pleased with my accomplishment, it didn’t even bother me that much when I found out my co-workers were getting eight dollars an hour compared to my five-fifty. My placement agency had been quietly siphoning off two dollars and fifty cents an hour from my paycheck without me realizing it. I’d known they were collecting a certain percentage, but not a pimp-daddy amount.

With great chagrin, I learned a few days later that my favourite co-worker was leaving the bank. Charming Girl and her accursed interfering boyfriend were moving out of their apartment and would be seeking new jobs in a new town. I would be left with no one to talk to (conversation with the other girl was still at a flea-picking primate level) and no one to date after her protracted high-school romance came to its inevitable end. Once her notice was handed in, I counted the days until her departure with growing sadness. What I didn’t know is that I’d be following her out the door.

With Charming Girl leaving, and our overseer boss increasingly fobbing off her file-system responsibilities, the middle-management executioner was given dominion over the file room. The day he took over, I was called into the boardroom for a private meeting.

The filing-system overhaul project was dead, I was told. From now on, I would be working in the file room and nowhere else. Other parts of the riot act that were read to me involved being stripped of any and all freedoms and responsibilities I had managed to collect for myself. Even my lunch hour, taken whenever I judged things were slow enough to go eat, was to be set at a fixed and inconvenient time that assured the afternoon shift would be long and tedious. Things were going to be very different now that a new master was in charge. This much he made very clear.

He had my letter of resignation, effective immediately, the next morning.

The replacement clerk expressed her great sadness that she was losing both her co-workers on the same day — just not in words, since we wouldn’t have understood. We all knew she was screwed. She was too new and untrained to know how to find much of anything in the file room, and the bank’s ability to function must have been severely compromised the moment we walked out the door for the last time.

We took the train home, Charming Girl and I, said our goodbyes, and never saw each other again. Although she came to mind from time to time for years after, my thoughts about this period of my life tended to dwell on a different aspect of the job entirely…

Boy did that placement agency screw me.

Lesson learned. If someone is going to claim a piece of your salary, make them earn it.

Life Lesson 2: Office Overflow

Tuition for CEGEP was a joke. It amounted to a token sum of money. The books were the only thing that cost real cash, and my parents covered me on that front. University was another deal entirely. That was going to be expensive, and although my parents were insistent I get a degree, I was stuck paying the shot. That could only mean one thing: summer jobs. The years of relaxing, fun-filled summer vacations were at an end. Now I had to spend those months of freedom working to stay in school.

Getting a job proved to be a whirlwind of index cards on help-wanted boards and lots of tiny classified ads. If you’ve ever gone that route looking for a job, you’ll know that the world’s economy seems to be based entirely on dishwashers.

I eventually found something promising on a board at school. It was for an office overflow job at a medical-book publisher downtown. “Office overflow” amounted to anything and everything the regular staff couldn’t fit into their day. That included filling book orders, changing light bulbs, and churning out a million billion photocopies. For five dollars an hour, three days a week.

What astonished me about the job was that I was some kid off the street with no references or experience to offer, yet I was put in a position of trust that supplied me with countless credit-card numbers from people all over North America who were trying to order healthcare books through the mail. Had I been a little more dishonest, there was a fortune in fraud to be made.

Instead I contented myself with liberating office supplies that could assist me in my early small-press ventures. File folders, labels and staple removers were mine for the taking. And with a postage machine at my disposal, I never bought a single stamp while I worked there. I applied my burgeoning creativity to coming up with all sorts of names for fictional recipients of promotional material to cover my own postage expenses whenever I cooked the books. In all, I must have scammed them out of six, maybe seven dollars. I was a criminal mastermind.

My masterstroke came when I was instructed to throw away several boxes of unwanted literature the bosses had accumulated in their offices. Instead, I flagrantly disobeyed and stashed the pile in an obscure corner of the office. On my lunch hours, I would hit various used book stores in the neighbourhood and sell them for spare change. Even the used book stores didn’t want anything to do with most of them, but I managed to unload a few. Maybe as much as four dollars’ worth.

I wasn’t fired so much as cut back until my job no longer existed. I went from three days, to two, to one, to nothing over the course of my final month there. Once the school year started, I realized I’d never been paid my 4% vacation fee that all employers are required to cough up for services rendered. I wrote a letter asking when this would be forthcoming. The letter was passed on to the accountant, who was cooking the books on a much higher heat setting than I ever could. Her letter back informed me that I had been listed as a supplier, not an employee, and therefore no additional monies were owed. She hoped, she concluded, that this cleared up the matter for me.

I let it drop after that and never saw my 4%. I may have screwed them, but they screwed me so much harder. The lesson?

Know what’s coming to you, and make sure you get it.

Life Lesson 1: The Great Wall Of China

The first paying job I ever had was when my orthodontist asked if I might like to paint his fence for a hundred and fifty bucks. His office was located in an apartment building along a busy suburban avenue. The entire ground floor was occupied by commercial businesses, mostly medical in nature. As a co-owner of the property, he was responsible for the upkeep of the building and the land it sat on.

Behind the building, separating it from the next piece of land, was a long wooden fence towering seven feet tall and stretching to what seemed like infinity, but was probably more like two hundred feet. It was green. Mostly green. The old paint job was peeling badly, and much of the wood, weathered grey by years of rain and snow, was exposed. Excited by the princely sum offered, I agreed to slap on a new coat of paint that would freshen up the fence with a much more vibrant shade of green.

I arrived for work the next day and, within ten minutes, realized I had been screwed. The job, I learned, wasn’t just about brushes and paint. Before I could even begin, I had to strip the old flaking paint off with a belt sander. The process was slow and tedious, and it wasn’t made any easier by the fact that I was left to operate the belt sander with no instruction or on-the-job training. Worse was the painting itself. The planks of the fence were spread apart evenly, leaving a couple of inches between each of them. All those edges — hundreds of them — had to be painted individually with the brush before I could even think of applying paint to the face of the fence itself.

Three days passed. I would take the bus to work in old clothes in the morning, and return at night, exhausted and covered in flecks of green paint. I was a manual labourer and I looked it.

On day four, my orthodontist came down to have a look. He wasn’t happy with the progress I was making. He didn’t care about my diligent removal of the old green flakes, or my precise, smooth application of fresh paint.

“Like this,” he said, dipping a pole-arm roller into the bucket of paint and coating the next ten feet of fence in a matter of seconds. He didn’t care that there were still loose paint chips on those boards. He didn’t care that the sides of the boards were still the old shade of green. This was the back of the building, and no one was going to see the fence anyway.

“You’re doing a good job if you’re painting a room in a house,” he told me. “This isn’t a house.”

Then he went back inside. Taking the roller, I set out to do it his way. I broke the roller three minutes later and was stuck having to paint the rest of the fence, spaces between the boards included, with a brush. But I did it fast. And maybe I missed a spot or two, and maybe I didn’t get all the old paint off, but it got done by the end of the day.

After I got paid, I had another two sessions with my orthodontist before my teeth were declared sufficiently straight. I made an appointment for a follow-up visit to be paid a year later, but I skipped it and never saw him again.

Once I started going to CEGEP (college in Quebecese) I would pass my old orthodontist’s building every day on the bus. Peaking out from behind it, I could see a section of the fence and I would think, “I made it that colour.” No one else would take any notice because it was just a green fence. But it was MY green fence.

I remember, years later, being disappointed when I saw the old wooden fence had been torn down and replaced with a chain-link. My work was destroyed, the landmark I had added some colour to was sitting in pieces in a trash heap somewhere. But it had left one thing behind. It had left me with a very important life lesson.

Never do a good job when what people really want is a half-assed job.

Hourly Wages

I’ve been writing for television long enough to recognize certain patterns, even though the days of the fixed Fall-premiere schedule are over. New shows, and new seasons of old shows, can start airing at any time now, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. That means their development periods can also be scattered anywhere across the calendar.

Nevertheless, in Canada, where so much development depends on government funding agencies and their schedules, the first quarter of most years tends to be vacation time for me. Everyone waits with great anticipation to see what will be given the green light in late-March, early-April. Then it’s go-time and writers like me start pitching their brains out for all sorts of shows, new or renewed, in an effort to lay claim to as many episodes as we can get our greedy keyboard-callused fingers on.

Long stretches of atrophy punctuated by sudden bursts of demanding, draining (and highly profitable) activity is what fuels this business and keeps people like me coming back for more. I value my downtime as much as my contracts, and I was never able to embrace the idea of working an honest nine-to-fiver and then trying to cram all my fun and recreation into two days out of every seven.

Many people outside of the film and television industry have a hard time wrapping their heads around my career and how it functions. Although they can certainly appreciate (and envy) my ability to spend much of my day in a bathrobe, taking regular video-game breaks, and dropping everything to go watch a movie whenever the mood strikes me, they don’t necessarily understand it.

My family history is composed almost exclusively of sweaty blue collars. The few white collars mixed in with the bunch tend to be more of a light-blue shade. My grandfather set the pace by moving to Canada in 1922 and working himself to death at Dominion Bridge in twenty years flat. He didn’t actually die on the job. He was conscientious enough to wait until his lunch break to snuff it. But I’m sure he would have finished his day and punched out had his body been able to hold on a few more hours.

When I told my family I wanted to be a writer, I might as well have been announcing I wanted to be an astronaut. And, honestly, I think they’d have been better able to grasp the concept of one of the Simmonses blasting into orbit to repair satellites and dig up moon rocks. I find it fascinating to sit them down in front of an episode of some TV show I wrote and watch them watch it. They pay attention throughout the opening credits, right up until my name appears on the screen. Then they lose all interest. It’s like the rest of the show has no connection to me. As long as my name is spelled correctly in the credits and on the cheque, they’re happy. The fact that I invented everything that happens or is said for the next half hour of television is lost on them.

I could try harder to explain it, but honestly, I gave up years ago. If they know I’m working, they’re satisfied. But then there are those first quarters…

“Are you sure you don’t want to get a little something?” is a regular question I have to endure in these periods. The “little something” in question being a regular job. One my family can identify with. Oh, nothing like digging ditches or laying bricks. But a nice, safe, ordinary office job. A job that pays a nice, safe, ordinary salary.

I could explain how it’s hard to go back to that sort of work when now, screenwriting, I can make what I used to make in a week or two in one hour flat — writing zingers for the smart-aleck sitcom character, action scenes for the sugar-fuelled cartoon hero, or gardening-tool sadism for sociopathic gangsters. I could explain, but I expect the same sort of emotional disconnect that happens to them the moment my credit fades from the screen.

I’ve been thinking about my old jobs lately, waiting for my forced vacation to end. There were four of them in total. Four real job-jobs. I can’t say I truly enjoyed a moment of any of them. But each of them had a lesson to teach that still applies, in some fashion, to my career of choice today.

In the coming days, as I begin pitching in earnest for a new year of television programming, you can read a bit about my formative years. Or, at least, the years that formed my current work ethic that keeps me in bed past noon and bathrobe-clad through till suppertime.

Who The Hell Are You People And What Have You Done With My Graduating Class?

It seems like only yesterday I was failing to attend my grad dance. To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of that non-event in my life, I failed to attend my high school reunion as well.

Anxious as I was to relive the memory of the five-year prison term that supplied me with so many of the neuroses I hold near and dear today, I managed to come down with a cold the day-of and decided it might be best to skip.

The school system here is a little different from elsewhere. Because we have CEGEP and no junior high, five years is the standard length of time for high school in Quebec. So taking five years to complete it makes me neither brilliant or retarded, merely invisibly average, which was my academic goal for all eighteen years of my formal education.

Fan as I am of communicable diseases, I thought the nice thing to do would be to stay home and not infect everyone with my germs. I also figured it wouldn’t make the best impression, after twenty years, to meet and greet people with my nose melting off my face.

But I can guess what I missed. Having attended a smaller, less formal reunion a couple of years ago, I know how these things go down. People who used to see each other every single day throughout their teens meet for the first time in many years and share insightful exchanges such as:

“I have no memory of you whatsoever.”

“I don’t remember you either.”

“Well okay then.”

And then they go order drinks with someone they do remember and ask them, “Who the fuck was that?”

And when a more general group discussion breaks out, the first topic is always:

“Who’s dead?

“Someone must be dead, right? A car accident, maybe?”

“Cancer! How about cancer? Somebody has to be dead from cancer.”

I never saw a group of people so disappointed to learn they had failed to outlive anyone from their graduating class. Divorces, yes. Hard times, I’m sure. Prison and rehab, almost certainly. But nobody died. Not yet.

But I’m sure we can come up with a few viable DOAs by the time our twenty-fifth rolls around if we only apply ourselves.

I'm the one twenty-three miles to the leftIn a desperate bid to have the reunion happen in 2005 before it was too late to call it a twenty-year reunion, the meeting was called for December 27th, a date scientifically determined to be the one day of the year when the fewest people would be able to attend. As a result, scanning the faces in the group photo, I see few people I was close to. The rest will have to touch base at some future date.

Only then will I be afforded the opportunity to catch up and swap stories and recollections of that bygone era. Like how we used to pop down to the local diner after class with our buddies Richie and Ralph and Potsie and play the jukebox and cruise chicks. Or all those times when Spicoli and Mr. Hand clashed in history class because Spicoli was totally stoned every day. Or that one time when everyone stuffed the ballot box to make sure I was voted prom queen and I got up on stage and they dumped pig’s blood on me and then I killed everyone with telekinesis.

Ah, sweet memories. Remember them? I’m sure we all do, even as we completely fail to remember each other.