The Greek roots of the word photography translate as "writing with light." Welcome to my studio--a place to practice and illuminate good work using writing and photography.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Big Chance

The Craig’s List ad forwarded to me by a friend said, Attention getting sneezes for TV. We are looking for a woman 18-50 for a dual position as a spokesperson and commercial work. Must be outgoing, well-spoken, physically fit and the ability to sneeze on camera. Allergies are a plus. The commercial pays a minimum of $5200. Looking for funny/dramatic/loud or attention-getting sneezes. Contact us for guidelines.

I flashed to the front steps of my aunt’s house. I was seven, watching my cousins somersault on the grass while I sneezed, still writhing from the grass-induced itch up and down my back and rubbing my eyes to a state we called “jelly eye.” I remembered the spring I visited a friend just outside Eugene, OR in the hills, surrounded by farms. I arrived Friday afternoon for a weekend gathering of friends and food. They were mowing the four-foot tall grass when I arrived. I sneezed like I would never stop; I sneezed until my chest caved in, my stomach nauseous from the convulsion and my nose red and raw from wiping and blowing. My puffy eyes and wheezing lungs spent the weekend sleeping off the allergy hangover. Boy can I sneeze.

I composed my response to the ad with care and flair.

Finally! Someone looking for my God-given talent! Sure Mozart wrote symphonies in his head and Monet painted lily pads long after he was blind. But I can sneeze.

I have been called a serial sneezer, been accused of sneezing like a cat and sneezing to get attention. There are even those who have tried to torture me to “sneeze like a real person,” as if sneezing is choreographed and rehearsed. It’s a bonus when my sneezes are preceded by a slight squeak.

You'll be glad to know that all you have to do is:

wax or tweeze my eyebrows

rub my face in a cat

make me dust

drag me into a smoky bar

walk me down the detergent aisle at the local grocery

or in a spring like we had in the NW last year, merely take me outdoors, and I'll produce a series of 5, 7 or 9 unique and recognizable sneezes. Possibly more. I never sneeze just once.

I’m easy to work with and love to make work fun. Let me know if you're interested in talking about your sneeze assignment.

Best regards,


Thus began my email-only relationship with Paige who wrote, “Wow you sound totally ideal for this post. Can you send me a headshot?”

Head shot? People who sneeze don’t have head shots! Luckily a photographer friend offered to help me out and I sent two head shots, one serious and one playful. I waited. I imagined myself as sneeze talent, hamming it up in a commercial. I envisioned schmoozing with the public as a product spokesperson. “Why yes, sneeze talent is a new thing for me. I’m trying to let myself be outrageous. This is outrageous, don’t you think?”

Enter simultaneous, irreconcilable feelings. You know, opposite emotions join like fraternal twins and torture you with their duality? Picture joy and fear.

I shrugged off the quiet voice of knowing that whispered, “But you hate seeing yourself on camera!” It had been so long, I had forgotten the time I was called on the set at the last minute, so the boss’ wife’s pet project could continue. The talent had failed to show in the B-house video production studio where I worked.

I played a doggie owner in the story. My role was to explain my misbehaving Basset Hound, who when left in the car, would honk the horn until I returned. We shot me talking to the doggie shrink across the desk, then changed clothes and locations and shot a couple of outdoor scenes, walking back and forth to and from my vehicle, leaving my dog in the car and returning to scold him when he honked the horn. Perhaps you saw my debut in “Puppy’s First Year.” Seeing myself on the screen left me feeling euphoric, and loathsome.

I could see every line on my face and find fault with every smarmy word I spoke. “No one says incorrigible!” I remembered from the impromptu script. I was embarrassed.

Next thing I knew Paige asked me to do an audition. I wrote, “Tell me where and when.” This is when I found out that she was in St. Louis and the client in Chicago. An in-person audition was ruled out for an Oregonian. They requested an audition tape instead. Audition tape? People who sneeze don’t have audition tapes. Making one requires a script and equipment and editing, and in my experience, someone who knows what they’re doing. Fortunately, some of my former co-workers were still in the video business. I called and left an SOS voicemail.

“Next Tuesday, end of the day, say 5:00,” said my friend Bob when he returned my call. I agreed and thanked him profusely.

I taught all day prior to the 5:00pm taping session, way across town, twenty-five miles in nineteen minutes in rush-hour traffic. Of course I was late and agitated by the time I got there, but settled in to have layers of pencil and powder applied to my face, chatting with my make-up technician, a teenager I knew accompanied by her Mom and best friend. My frustration from the commute was soon covered with make-up. I was stoked, the crew was stoked, and so was the make-up entourage. The make-over was done a little past five.

Friend Joe set up the lighting as I stood feeling conspicuous on the concrete floor of his studio, surrounded by video equipment and lights stacked toward warehouse-high ceilings. I wasn’t sure if my shiver was due to the temperature or my nerves. I wandered to the editing suite to watch Bob do some pre-work to put what's called a "green screen" to simulate me standing in a field of blowing dandelions—a perfect sneeze set, and Joe’s idea. My attention was drawn to my face on the monitor, the deep lines and ghastly profile, and oh those puffy eyes! I took a deep breath and settled on the black sweater and white shirt from among the outfits I hung in the car early that morning.

I decided to get a head start so I was ready to sneeze once on camera, so I ate a dollop of the prepared wasabi I brought for the shoot (you know the hot green stuff you mix with soy sauce and dip your sushi in). The joke at my house is that you know there’s enough wasabi when it makes Mom sneeze.

Bob sprayed cologne over my head to tickle my nose. I walked under the fine mist on my way to run a feather duster around one of the equipment rooms, to dowse it in dust bunnies. I put it aside for extra sneeze power, just in case. I ate a second and then third dollop of wasabi.

After all the technical checks were made and the set was ready, we all piled back onto the studio floor. Beside me, just out of the shot, we put a chair for my wasabi and feather duster. I spoke a short introduction several times trying to talk through my nerves. I wondered how I looked—anxious--on the screen. I increased the size of wasabi balls, because it didn’t seem to have an affect. Not a sign of a sneeze. I swallowed more of the green paste and then inhaled to fill my nose and head with hot spicy fumes.

It’s important to understand that in the series of worries I had preparing for this event, it never occurred to me that I might not be able to sneeze.

The wasabi finally made me nauseous so we changed to the dust- covered feather duster. I shook the thing. I sniffed it. I sniffed it again. I could feel the pressure mounting high up behind my nose.

Joe had an idea and turned off the camera to run down to the market to buy some ground pepper. I stuck my nostril over the protruding hole on the top of the shaker so that it fit snugly, and breathed deeply through my nose, hoping its harshness would grab hold of that reliable sneeze. While I could smell the distinct peppery fragrance, it failed to lodge the usual burr up my nose that causes the explosion. Bob suggested I pour some of the pepper onto a plate, as if a wider surface would help. Was I snorting pepper like others sniff glue? By now my nose had been assaulted with perfume, wasabi fumes, dust and pepper and it began to feel numb and warm, conspicuous beneath my eyes. This nose was ready to erupt. We forged on.

I looked up at the bright lights above the set, a trick we used when I was a kid to encourage a sneeze. I was determined.

I asked for the dustiest room in the place. They showed me to the mailroom where I moved everything from one place to another and back again. I accidentally dumped shipping materials from the shelf in the closet onto my head, sure to stir some dust. I ran my rag on all surfaces, including around the pictures and on top of the doors. I shoved the rag under my nose. Dust never fails to make me sneeze. Except on audition night.

From a distance I could hear Joe and Bob rifling around in a store room, their muffled voices noting their enthusiastic support for the cause. They called me back to the studio where they stood, looking slightly evil, holding an overfull vacuum cleaner bag between them, one of them tugging at the opening to show the dancing dust particles lit from behind by studio lights. I gave them the hairy eyeball and a nod simultaneously. I knew what I had to do.

Bob held and then shook the awful bag out of sight of the camera, under my nose while I cautiously breathed in. I know about dust mites. He shook. I sniffed. He shook. I sniffed. It was disgusting. It was futile. Our morale plummeted. Our discomfort hung in the air like a smelly side of beef.

Bob rallied us with the thought of nose spray, which he retrieved and rinsed before handing to me. “Yetch,” I thought, “dust mites and germs.” I held a nostril with one hand while both squeezing the jar, and breathing at just the right time so that the spray erupted at my peak inhalation. I repeated in each nostril. By now my hot nose felt double its size.

I finally promised Joe that if he would loan me his tweezers and I plucked my eyebrows and it didn’t work that we'd quit. I retrieved a small mirror from my emergency kit and tweezed and plucked for several minutes before I surrendered. It was 6:30.

We all stood staring at the chair just off camera now filled with the almost-empty wasabi container, a gross feather duster, a camping-type pepper shaker, a small, teetering dish of ground pepper, my dusting rag from the mailroom, the nose spray now with no lid, the tweezers and my mirror; the vacuum bag propped in a filthy heap below. Hello disappointment and relief.

Joe promised that the camera would be sitting in the studio through the end of the month because they were working out of the office, and that if I could conjure up a sneeze to call them and they would continue the shoot. He reminded me to wear the same sweater. I apologized, again. He said another thing that never occurred to me in my pre-audition jitters, "Could have been worse,” he shook his head, eyes low. “It would have been way worse in Chicago with a big union crew.”

I offered to buy dinner. They were polite and didn’t laugh at my impotence. “Talk about performance anxiety,” I pouted.

“Or maybe it’s the cold, dry weather,” justified Joe.

We ate Mexican and drank beer and talked about old times. And then, I sneezed all the way home.

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