Driving past comfort

Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward or scared or uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy

Working as a film extra since last fall, I’ve rarely had to drive beyond metro Detroit for a booking. Which is a good thing, since my sense of direction is pitiful — especially if I’m trying to navigate unfamiliar expressways.

Luckily, my husband Doug has worked in many of the same film gigs. He drives while I squint to read the directions on a Google map.

But two weeks ago, one of our casting agents phoned on short notice to ask if we’d be willing to take a five-day job in Grand Rapids, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from suburban Detroit. And there was another catch: The job required both of our cars for various scenes, so we would have to drive separately.  We’d also have to book a hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, since we’d be working at least 12 hours daily on location.

Doug was all set to pack up and hit the road. “We could think of it as a working vacation,” he said hopefully, adding that we hadn’t taken a real break this summer.

Regardless, I could feel my anxiety slamming on the brakes. Working out of town for five days would present some unique challenges — the least of which would be finding convenient laundry facilities for our film wardrobes. My elderly mother’s “early stage” dementia had moved to the middle stage this summer, leaving me vaguely uneasy about leaving town. (I’m not as free as I’d hoped to be at this stage of midlife.)

And what would I do if Doug and I got separated by a caravan of trucks barreling down the expressway? What if, en route to Grand Rapids, my tire blew and my cell phone died? As Doug likes to point out, I can spend hours imagining all kinds of ridiculous “what-if” scenarios.

Stretching lessons

There’s a wonderful quote by Les Brown, one of my favorite motivational speakers: “If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness.”

Clearly, I’ve never been much good at stretching — or tiptoeing — beyond my comfort zone. But wasn’t that one of the reasons why I’d signed on to work as a film extra last year?  Feeling cooped up in my newly emptied nest, I had hoped to get out there and meet some new people. I wanted to experience a new creative medium; to learn more about filmmaking. And hadn’t I hoped to be challenged just a little?

So I called the casting agent back and said yes to the booking.

Before I go on, I need to explain that I’m not at liberty to discuss many details about the films I’ve worked in before they’re  released. Since the magic of movies involves an element of surprise, everyone who works on a production is warned against sharing plot details. Taking photos on set is strictly prohibited, too, and I’ve heard several accounts of crew and background extras who’ve been fired for ignoring that rule.

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Though our roles in these films have been very, very small, we’ve learned some valuable life lessons in the process of answering call-outs, working with directors, and following protocol on set.”

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But I can tell you that the film is an action-comedy. I learned how car crash scenes are filmed — and even got to drive my car in one. The Grand Rapids police, who’d been enlisted to close several intersections for the filming, were super-friendly and fun to work with. And what a thrill it was when a production assistant handed me a walkie talkie so I could hear the assistant director’s cues in my car. It wasn’t exactly stunt driving, but it was a totally different experience from any other films I’ve worked in. My comfort zone was reasonably stretched, and by the end of the week, I was starting to feel at home in the middle of Grand Rapids’ busiest intersections.

Spending a few hours in “holding” — the place where background extras wait when we’re not on set — is another opportunity to push past boundaries and comfort zones. At times, it can feel like you’re hanging out in a circus tent. At the very least, it’s an intensive exercise in public relations — and a fascinating glimpse into human nature.

In holding, you meet characters you wouldn’t ordinarily find around one lunch table. This type of work attracts everyone from tattooed college students to laid-off auto execs and stay-at-home moms in need of a break. A few have full-time careers in more lucrative fields — and simply took time off work to discover what it’s like to be in a movie. (It’s always a fun story to share with friends.) Others are very serious about becoming film actors.

After working with these folks for nearly a week, it’s hard to return home without fresh insight — and several new friendships.

Shaking up the old routine

Still, it wasn’t easy to wake up at 5:15 every morning. Our call times were rarely later than 6:30 or 7:00, so we’d arrive bleary eyed at base camp to sign in and wolf down enough breakfast to hold us until our late-afternoon meal. Wrapping up around 9:00 each night, Doug and I would grab a sandwich and dash down to the basement of the hotel to launder our clothes. (We had to wear the same outfit every day but one.)  Then we’d crawl into bed, exhausted.

Working as a film extra probably isn’t your idea of pushing past your own comfort zone. But now is the perfect time to take a closer look at your bucket list and ask yourself what’s keeping you from following a dream or trying something quirky, fun, and new. Even if it merely shakes up your ordinary routine for a day or two, I promise you’ll score a few points for self confidence.

All said and done, this turned out to be one of the most unusual “vacations” Doug and I have ever taken. It also capped the one-year anniversary of our foray into film work — and was the 12th production we’ve worked on to date. Though our roles have been very, very small, we’ve learned some valuable life lessons in the process of answering call-outs for bookings, working with directors, and following protocol on set. (More about those lessons in upcoming columns.)

On the way back to Detroit, I felt as if we’d been away much longer than a week. In a few whirlwind days I’d seen movie stars and stunt-car crashes and the heart of Michigan’s second largest city. And I’d made some wonderful new friends.

Pulling into our driveway at home, I felt relieved to be back in my comfort zone, and I thanked my car sincerely for getting me there safely. It had worked hard for me, and I can’t wait to see how it cute it looks in the movie. — Cindy La Ferle


Summer Home

Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Riding my bike on a beautiful day last week, I noticed very few kids playing outside. Made me a little sad. The following piece from my memoir, Writing Home, chronicles a late-summer memory of my son’s childhood. First published in the Christian Science Monitor, it still gives me that “end of the summer” feeling every time I reread it . . .

Summer Home

It began in June with a large cardboard box, just roomy enough to house my wiry eight-year-old son, Nate, and a scrap of old tweed carpeting.

“The fort,” as Nate dubbed it, was expanded throughout the summer to include several new rooms, each designed from salvaged appliance boxes of various shapes and sizes. By the time it was finished, the fort curled like a corrugated snake across the entire lawn. Other kids in our neighborhood added their own flourishes — round windows, paper awnings and banners, plastic pipes and tubes.  (Whether these served functional or aesthetic purposes, only the children knew.)

By the end of July, Nate’s cardboard Xanadu had become something of a local landmark. It was such hot property, in fact, that you had to write your name on the official SIGN-UP SHEET to be admitted inside, a bit like the exclusive restaurants lining Main Street downtown. Since we live on a corner lot in a carefully maintained suburb, I worried that our neighbors would object to the ever-growing mountain of boxes in our yard. If you had no imagination and didn’t know you were looking at a playhouse, you might have guessed we were careless about storing our trash.

But no one complained. Other parents who had watched the fort’s progress were amazed to see that something as simple and economical as a stack of empty appliance boxes could keep so many children amused for so long.  One afternoon, a local building contractor even stopped his truck to admire the fort’s design.

“Hey there, that’s quite a place!” he called out to Nate and his pals. “Are you renting space in your cardboard condo?” But the kids insisted they werent looking for more tenants.

“Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world a heaven,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Were born with the desire to create a home, to build our own retreat. And while home can mean something different to everyone, the need for a sense of place is universally human. To a small boy, a discarded carton contains unlimited potential for a playhouse or a fortress of his own.

But to the homeless man who camps near the railroad tracks at the edge of our town, a cardboard box might be his only refuge.

Nate and I first spotted the shelter a few weeks after his fort was built. We were heading toward our favorite fast-food restaurant downtown, taking our time as we walked along a gravel service road flanking the railroad tracks. We noticed a crude assemblage of large boxes almost hidden behind a tangle of wild thistle and Queen Anne’s lace. Torn blankets and soiled clothing were strung on branches nearby; long sheets of blue plastic encircled the base of the boxes like small rivers. We agreed that the makeshift shelter looked remarkably like his cardboard fort back home.

“What’s all the plastic for, and why does the man live there instead of a real house?” he asked as we walked past the encampment. I explained that the homeless man probably used the plastic to keep the boxes dry when it rained. But I didnt know how to explain the complexities of being homeless to a suburban second-grader who is tucked securely into bed on a full stomach every night.

Following a heat wave later that week, a powerful evening storm rolled in. It brewed so quickly that my husband and I didn’t have time to pull Nate’s fort into the garage. By morning it was scattered across the lawn.  Even “the turret,” a sturdy refrigerator carton in its previous life, had toppled like an uprooted tree among the soggy ruins.

At first I was secretly relieved that we could finally dismantle all the boxes that had taken over our yard. But Nate was fighting tears as he tried to salvage parts of his handiwork, and I couldnt help but feel his loss. Together we folded the sheets of rain-soaked cardboard and piled them near the trash in our garage.

Since then, school has started again. But we haven’t discarded a cardboard box without seriously considering its possibilities.  And we often wonder about the homeless man who had set up camp near the railroad tracks. The last time we walked there, we noticed that his shelter, like Nate’s fort, had collapsed in the hard summer rain. — Cindy La Ferle