Exploiting My Baby* *Because It's Exploiting Me

self-doubt

Insert Freakishly Small Hand Gesture Here

General StuffTeresa Strasser16 Comments

It had never come to my attention before a certain freckle-faced, scrawny, corduroy-pants-wearing bully named Robin brought it to my attention: I have freakishly small hands. I have hands like a carnie. I blame the bullies I knew before Robin for being off their game and letting the small hands slide. A bully’s whole raison d’etre is to notice any slightly unusual feature that could be exploited for mockery. Before Robin made it the subject of an impromptu song parody one afternoon in elementary school, I really hadn’t noticed the small hands. Neither had anyone else.

Every day, for maybe a month or two, Robin tormented me with her song.

And I’ll be honest. It was pretty catchy. The other girls would join in. Teresa has small hands, small hands, small hands. You get the idea.

There was no escaping. I could hide my hands in my pockets or behind my back, but that song was No. 1 with a bullet. And with a bully. The other girls, most of them generally pretty harmless, would fall under the cruel spell of the ditty and feel compelled to join in until the song swelled, overtaking the street outside of school, a chorus of curious and silly childhood angst.

This small hands thing is small potatoes compared to some of the bullying explored in the new documentary “Bully.” But for reasons I don’t fully understand, it was only the beginning for me, and the film reminded me of some of those times.

I was bullied that year, most likely because I had skipped ahead a couple of grades and was too emotionally immature to blend well with my peers. I was bullied even after rejoining my own grade level, but mostly on the public busses I took to school. Kids ripped the ribbons from my ponytails, made fun of my off-brand sneakers, pulled my hair, grabbed at my backpack.

In high school, one of only a handful of scholarship kids at a private prep school, I was frequently the subject of toxic rumors, mostly sexual in nature: I was pregnant (I was a virgin). I was a slut (see the former). I made out with some older boy in his car. You name it.

Just as Robin zeroed in on the small hands, sometimes I wonder whether the more sophisticated bullies zeroed in on something harder to see but just as enticing: the unstable home life, the chaotic family, the lack of any sturdy adult figures in my orbit. I was weak and insecure and wanted to fit in so desperately that I always got it just a little bit wrong, like an off-brand shoe, all ugly angles and loud Velcro.

What’s more, it’s not much fun for a bully if they poke you and you don’t bleed. I bled.

In a moment of exemplary parenting that stood out amongst her other mostly tuned-out, mediocre moments, my mom said the thing that would carry me through. These popular kids, she pointed out, they would all grow up to be bores, enjoying their finest hour now, in school. The nerds and geeks and losers, she said, would be interesting and creative. Inventive. They would rule the rest of life.

“Do you think Steven Spielberg was one of the popular kids?” she would ask, staring out the window, tucking her silk kimono around her waist.

It was a decent point. Still, I would have traded the prospect of my future creativity for a pair of real Adidas and some normal-sized hands, but I didn’t have that option.

If it turns out Spielberg was really popular in high school, I never want to find out about it.

Through the magic of social networking, I can track my mom’s predictions. Almost all of the popular kids I knew throughout my school life, including Robin, seem to be leading lives of quiet desperation. Of course, I am, too; mine is just louder, and doesn’t involve middle management or Friday nights at Ruby’s. As for some of the other kids that got picked on with me, it’s almost uncanny. An outcast boy from my fifth-grade class is one of the best-known children’s authors in the world. A pasty-faced girl with giant, red lips and thick glasses left high-school nerdom for a career as an international fashion model. Extreme facial features are terrible if you want a date to the junior prom, but awesome if you want to make a shitload selling cosmetics.

Me? I still have small hands. But they can work a keyboard just fine.

 

When an Audition Makes you Feel Like Coco From "Fame"

General StuffTeresa Strasser11 Comments

 

Coco is approached in a diner by a filmmaker who tells her he is casting a film he plans to shoot in the south of France.

She goes to his apartment for a screen test, but there is no crew. And if you saw the movie “Fame,” this scene is as seared in your memory as it is in mine. Poor Coco Hernandez, thinking she was one cold reading away from stardom and instead walking into the poorly decorated maw of a small time pornographer.

This is the scene I picture when I’m having a terrible audition.

So it was Coco I thought about recently when I auditioned for a pilot based on the popular website, Jezebel.com.

Sleazy Director

Could you take off your blouse for me?

Coco

Are you kidding?

No, he’s not kidding. That becomes obvious. But at this point, Coco has already attached so many expectations to this moment that she can’t walk away.

Sleazy Director

What's the matter? You're acting like some dumb kid. I thought you were a professional.

Maybe this guy is some fancy French auteur like he says, and maybe a pro would just unbutton her top, so Coco does, her fragile fingers stumbling on the buttons as tears fall on her collar.

Sleazy Director

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Could you arch your back?

Arch your back a little, Coco. Smile for me, Coco. Come on, Coco. Smile, smile.

I must admit, now that I’ve deconstructed the death of Coco’s dream, the end of her innocence before she pulls her shit together to Sing the Body Electric at graduation, it seems a bit overdramatic to compare my silly audition to her tragic fall. Still, auditions can be a bit degrading, just by their very nature, and some, in particular, have top notes of Coco with a strong porn finish.

Location is really one of the things that determine the Coco-ness of any hosting audition.

Having hosted on basic cable, deep cable and occasionally on network television, I have auditioned everywhere from a massive soundstage to the dusty corner of a warehouse in Sun Valley.

This Jezebel.com thing scored high Coco points for being at a very isolated production company, in a tiny fluorescent-lit back office. It enhances the porn feel when no one at the front desk has heard of you, or the project, and the entire thing ends up being shot on what looks like a phone, but what is, in fact, a Flip-Cam.

There were no executives from Jezebel, from the production company, from the network. “Ah, maybe wait over there,” said the desk dude, pointing to an empty cubicle. And wait I did, for a long, long time.

And it’s not that I’m above cattle calls, it’s just that years of experience tell me I’m the type you might fast-forward right by on a blurry tape of dozens of girls with better noses and smaller pores.

Another feature that determines how much one feels like Coco is the amount of prep required. Fortunately for Irene Cara’s character, she was not asked to prepare anything for the audition, so maybe all she sacrificed was a couple hours picking out her clothes, doing her makeup and heading across town — plus subway fare. The opportunity cost was low. However, when you are asked to prep copious material, like we were for this Jezebel thing, you feel like a real asshole sometimes.

Look, I get it. If someone is hiring me for their project, they want to know if I can hack it. I don’t begrudge anyone asking us hosts to do some homework, or to jump through hoops in the room, but there is a point at which one begins to feel she is unbuttoning her blouse.

At first, because I got the assignments for this audition on a Friday late afternoon and the audition was Monday at noon, I was inclined to say screw it. If you needed to see that much shit, I can’t get it to you because instead of tap dancing for you to love me all weekend long, I need to spend time with my child.

But here’s where I go Coco.

“I thought you were a professional,” the porn guy says to her.

And that’s what I say to myself. That’s this business. If you want a job you have to shake it. For free. You have to hustle. You have to work on the weekend, and if you intend to get the job you can’t phone it in because other people will be Whitney Cummings, and if you aren’t at least a quarter of a Whitney (a new unit of measurement for blind ambition) you will lose.

This Jezebel thing, it was hours of work, for a first call.

Like they asked, I wrote three 1-2 minute essays on the topics they chose. I drove across town, ready to meet the big wigs, only to wait 25 minutes before being herded into a tiny room to see the dreaded Flip. The office was so small, that during my audition I gestured too dramatically and knocked the old-school giant office phone off the desk. I tried to work it in, but it just wasn’t related tonally to the death of Andrew Breitbart.

The woman conducting the audition seemed nice enough.

“So, I’m just going to test out this equipment on you because you are the first one,” she said right as I walked in, kind of apologetically. She set up her camera and did a few tests. I was nervous. And I felt so Coco. And I wanted to get out. But I just let her test out her equipment, taping me as she asked me questions to test her audio.

After the audition, which seemed to stop time, as one would expect when reading five minutes of material to a phone-sized camera in a sunless office space, I mentioned to the woman that it’s always hard, this kind of audition, no one to react and all.

“Yeah, that’s why I try to pay attention. I looked you in the eye. You noticed that right? I always do that.”

You sure did.

A show business opportunity gets the biggest Coco boost from one thing: promise. The bigger the promise, the more hope, the bigger the prize, the more buttons you will gladly undo through your tears. Jezebel.com is a really good site. The writing is so cool and the point of view so unexpected and righteous and clever, you feel like an idiot buffoon for not having come up with it yourself. If Cosmo makes you feel less than for not being pretty enough, Jezebel makes you feel small for not being wickedly feminist enough.

This job, I told myself, could be perfect. I would move to NYC where my child would attend a neighborhood Montessori school but still understand public transit. I future-projected myself into a pair of ice skates at Rockefeller Center this holiday season with my family, a snapshot that would scream LIVING THE DREAM NO MATTER HOW OLD I AM AND EVEN HAVING THIS KID DIDN’T KEEP ME DOWN. I AM SO FUCKING RELEVANT. I would not be the pathetic Coco losing herself to a pipe dream and a porn guy; I would be the Coco full of promise dancing and singing outside the New York School for Performing Arts.

The essence of a Coco moment, feeling used, feeling exploited, feeling dirty and spent and crushed, the most poignantly painful part of being Coco is the part you do to yourself. Sure, poor Coco was naïve and young and easy to manipulate, but once she knew the shot, once it was clear this wasn’t her big break but just a horny guy wanting to see her disrobe, she stayed. She let the pull of the dream lure her into a dark alley, despite knowing, on some level, that it was going to pick her pocket.

Back to me, and my silly little audition.

After putting my toddler to sleep and staying awake all hours to write what they requested, I couldn’t walk away when I realized that this Jezebel thing wasn’t some exclusive opportunity to interface with executives. Something in me, especially after waiting and driving so long, wanted to leave with a parking validation and my dignity, but the Coco in me could not. The Coco in me had to hold out hope, impossible hope, that somehow, these pieces I wrote would be so transcendent that they would overcome me sitting in a desk chair with a $4 microphone clipped to my shirt reading off my little piece of paper to a rapt audience of one bored underling and one outdated Flip.

Just maybe. Just maybe this guy really is an auteur looking for a fresh face for an art house movie shooting in the south of France. Please.

Sleazy Director

Smile for me. Now take your thumb and put it in your mouth like a little schoolgirl.

In the theme song for the movie “Fame,” Irene Cara sings about lighting up the sky like a flame, making it to heaven, living forever. People will see her and cry. FAME. Well, I’m not trying to catch the moon in my hand, just hoping to keep my AFTRA insurance and continue appearing on basic cable from time to time.

“Don’t you know who I am? (Fame)”

Probably not. But my insecurities and petty resentments will live forever.

Some Half-Baked Class I Took With My Kid

General StuffTeresa Strasser9 Comments

As a mom looking for shit to do with a toddler, I’ve kissed some frogs, and not just the kind at the zoo’s house of amphibians.

I try stuff. You never know what your kid might go for. And that’s how I came to visit the private home of a woman offering a bread baking class for kids. I made a reservation for the class online, paid via PayPal, and received an email with the super secret location of this teacher’s home up in the hills somewhere above Hollywood. I would be enlarging my son’s brain by exposing him to measuring cups, sensory experiences, dough, flour and the majesty of baking. After class, we would pack up our delicious handmade bread and I would drop him off at daycare — his frontal cortex enriched — just in time for his lunch and nap.

This is the stuff working mom fantasies are made of: the scent of bread baking, being with your kid on a weekday, maybe a gingham apron, maybe make it all up to him, a child rolling out dough, beaming up at you.

Like I said, I try stuff.

Because like most moms, I want my child to have delightful experiences, and of course to end up brilliant and well adjusted because of all my efforts. And that’s how we ended up at some lady’s dark, cramped house one Tuesday morning. There were no other students, just me and my two year-old and this lady’s fluffy black cat with big, topaz, saucer eyes looking at us like, “What the fuck are you losers doing here?”

The detailed email I got after signing up said to be early, so there we were, awkwardly standing around as she set up her kitchen for class.

“Play with blocks?” asked my son.

“Well,” said the baker lady in the sing-song voice of someone who has, perhaps, a little too much information about hippy dippy early childhood development methods, “We don’t normally take out the blocks, but since you came so early, here you go.”

She trudged to the back of the small house and emerged with some wooden blocks stored in an old FedEx box. We unpacked the blocks and played, but only after a stern (but pleasantly sing-songy) warning that the blocks MUST be put away.

Amusing a toddler in a dingy living room with a dozen wooden blocks and a suspicious cat works only for so long.

“When do you think you might start class?” I asked. No one else had arrived, and she wanted to wait.

“It’s just that you guys were soooo early. The moms get here pretty late.”

Okay. I can go with the flow for a while, but I had to get this kid to daycare before lunch or the whole day would crumble like a dry scone. And I wasn’t early because I was rude; I was early because that was the deal. Her informational email said so.

“Okay, I guess out of respect for how early you were, we can start,” she said. It was already 20 minutes after the official start time.

Again, a small thing that wouldn’t matter were I not plotting the day of one working mom and one antsy toddler who likes change in his routine about as much as Rain Man.

We commenced to a very lonely Welcome Song, during which there was only my son to welcome. We struck a metal triangle a few times with a mallet. Finally, it was time to bake.

There was no measuring, just some pre-made dough that we decorated with chocolate chips and jam. And it was kind of fun. Another mom eventually showed up with her toddler, and the kids were encouraged to play with a few dress-up items in a straw basket as the dough went into the oven. Trying to make conversation, I looked at my son in a pirate scarf and Snow White dress and mentioned he hadn’t played much dress up.

“You don’t have a box of dress-up clothes at your house?” the baker, also a mother of two, asked me.

“No,” I answered, thinking that would be the end of a not very rich conversation.

“Why not?” she countered, incredulous.

She wasn’t being judgmental as much as she was genuinely puzzled by my lack of parenting skills. It was almost as if I had admitted not owning a car seat. I thought about it, and tried to answer honestly, but wasn’t sure if I had walked into some weird attachment parenting thing about gender or imaginative play or something. Why didn’t I have a box of dress up clothes? Why didn’t I?

“I don’t know. Because I’m not a Montesorri teacher?” I answered, innocently, as the other mom turned to stare at me, dazed by my idiocy. Time stood still. The cat licked itself. Both women regarded me, and after sizing me up, decided in an instant I was probably more lazy and clueless than venal and closed-minded. We tacitly agreed to drop the subject.

We baked our dough, took it out of the oven and had a little tea party on the weedy lawn while the teacher gamely tried reflecting back every emotion the kids expressed. You want juice. You want to see the cat. You’re saying you want his cookie. You’re ready to go. And you might think the moral of the story is that I ended up at the home of some woman whose quasi-home-business of teaching kids to bake isn’t quite taking off and isn’t quite organized and lesson learned. But I might go back. For all I know, I should have my own dress up clothes. And a tea party on a lady’s lawn never hurt a lonely mom trying to find her identity in a box of make believe costumes and flour dust.