Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why I hate Christmas

Why I love Christmas

by Peter Olsen

I wrote this five years ago to the day, just for myself, and no one has ever laid eyes on it until now.  I guess it was just waiting for the blog to be invented:

December 26, 2008

How could someone who loved Christmas so much as a kid grow up to resent it so completely as a grownup? Actually, being a late bloomer in all things, I didn’t learn to despise it until recently. Before that I didn’t hate it, I just felt let down by it. It was depressing to me just for what it wasn’t, anymore: full of wonder, anticipation, joy, innocence – all the clich├ęs – not to mention snow (even in Minnesota – thank you Climate Change!). But now it seems to be the opposite of all it’s purported to be and nothing better than a dark cloud of doom, anxiety, and unmet expectations that I still cling to, feebly, in the face of evidence to the contrary, and knowing better from experience, after all these years. I just survived my 47th Christmas. And I feel like hell. Mostly because I know how good it could be. Used to be.

This year I managed to miss out on nearly every single one of the few things that make the season what it’s supposed to be: holiday parties. Office parties, open houses, the gatherings where once a year you get together with the people whose paths you cross throughout the year as a matter of course and for once you stop and step out of your everyday hunkered-down identity and seem to say to each other “Here we are again at the end of another year of this game we try to get through successfully (whatever that means) called Life but we won’t worry about that or gift shopping or taxes tonight it’s good to see you let’s have a drink and forget about all the rest and Cheers, I actually like you!

Why did I miss out on every party? Because I was trying to get the other stuff done. I was worrying about the GIFTS. I was pulling veritable all-nighters trying to get it all together. I happen to like giving gifts that have some meaning for both myself and the person to whom I am giving. It literally depresses me to think about giving something ‘gifty’ – the bar of scented soap or candle or ornament or whatever. Even though I know these things can be very much appreciated, it just feels empty to me. It says nothing about our friendship or relationship or the year that just passed or our hopes for the future. Not that it has to do all that but I feel it MUST have something to do with the two of US, giver and receiver, whoever we are.

So admittedly, I put a lot of pressure on myself which I can’t possibly live up to and never do. So why? And why give something to someone who you don’t really know? You can love someone, a second cousin you’ve known all your life, say, but still not really know their taste in music or food or literature. So what’s the point in trying to improve their life somehow with something material? Yes it’s the thought that counts but why waste time and money and resources (wrapping paper, Scotch tape, trees and landfill space, air quality) for a thought? Make a toast to them instead!

The only thing worse than giving a meaningless gift is receiving one. Not because I am disappointed to not get a great new ‘thing’ but because I just feel bad. I feel bad that someone has spent a lot of effort trying to figure out who I am and what I would like and I must be some kind of bastard for not liking what they thought I would like and going to a lot of trouble to find and buy and wrap it for me.

What do I love about Christmas? I love the dead quiet of a heavy snowfall, when everything outside is the same blue-grey color, except the Christmas lights. Everything is diffused in the snow and the sounds are muffled, the scrapes of a neighbor shoveling the sidewalk, the whine of someone’s tires spinning on the ice, the thunder of the plow scraping by. I love when such weather is barely navigable but people come out anyway because they’re Minnesotans and they know how to get around in this stuff and there’s so few other people on the roads anyway. And they want to be warm with their friends. They just have to make it over to our house and not slip on the ice on the front steps (the glacier that salt cannot erode…) and throw their coats on the bed and we’ll slip that mug of glogg into their hands their cheeks will be rosy and the smiles bouncing off one another (“whew your nose is cold on my cheek!”).

White Christmas at the Olsen house 2013
And I love that my cousin Renee told me how much she loves that seemingly useless, generic, could-have-been-for-anyone trinket I gave her last year, and how useful it’s been.

The End

Not quite a Scrooge-caliber transformation, but … Watch this and if it doesn't overwhelm you with Christmas spirit and make you whimper like a little girl as I did, then your name must be Ebenezer. Ebenezer before this happened:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


First you watch, then we talk...

So last Spring, Gary Mahmoud from the "Urban Dictionary" and newly re-titled, "Max Danger" shoots, is hanging out in my office as he's wont to do (the guy's got some idle time - he's an ACTOR) and he says "I've had this idea for a while about a comedy short on a Subway where there's a normal panhandler, then a stranger one, then it gets progressively more insane - eventually like circus midget and Mariachi band insane."

How could I say no?

What followed was one of the most logistically bizarre and technically difficult shoots I've ever been a part of.  Producer Aida Artieda should as usual, be sainted.

We outlined the idea based on his script - seven panhandler vignettes, eleven cast members, ten people shooting video on iPhones using (in theory) the same professional video app - Filmic Pro, and one location sound guy with wireless mics on seven different people and a giant shopping bag with his gear shoved inside looking way too much like an "if you see something, say something" moment.  It was a stealth shoot of the highest order - nary a permit to be had.  Sorry MTA, you just wouldn't understand, and as one wise man once said "it's always better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission."  

We did neither.

Gary and I rode the train to time out the beats.  We recorded sample audio with wired and wireless mics to test for interference.  But we knew that on this budget, we would NOT be able to rehearse until the day of the shoot.  Meaning we'd get what we got and make the best of it in the edit room.

To his credit, Gary assembled an amazing group of actors and crew.  In this situation, one person with a negative attitude could have completely derailed - pun INTENDED -  the process.  But everyone came to have fun and work hard.  Both vital ingredients on a shoe-string like this.

So about a month later at my office over pizza and beer, we found ourselves stuffed in a room doing a bunch of walkthroughs, placing videographers (iPhoneographers if you want to be a total nerd like me) in rough positions and timing out the beats of the different vignettes.  It was clumsy, and sloppy and quite obvious that it would bear almost no resemblance to the real experience.  One thing that did work was the timing.  Aida and her brother called out action to a stopwatch seven times from opposite sides of the room, as each panhandler began.  I think that might have saved the whole thing.

Did I mention this was late August and hot as balls on the subway?  I almost blocked it out, but DAMN~ that didn't make anything any easier.

We trudged to the Union Square 4 train and kept loose formation.  But while we didn't want to draw too much attention, we needed to all remain in visual contact as well, lest we get on different trains or miss the action call - or any of the millions of things that could have gone wrong.

Miraculously, none of them did.

Train pulls up.  We all hit record on all ten cameras - we're rolling now.  All the crew climb onto the same Subway car and take positions.  One car to the left, half the cast in script order - one car to the right the rest.  Train pulls away with all of us and….Action!

I'm going to pause a moment to mention one thing.  I always believed and still do that Gary as the officer who breaks up the party and then finales the whole thing would have been better as a uniform cop.  Gary's concern was with a last name like Mahmoud and a background in politics (you don't even want to know…) he'd be arrested for impersonating a police officer, legally/figuratively sodomized in court and then incarcerated and literally/brutally/repeatedly sodomized in a prison shower.  I never saw this as a legitimate risk as long as he wore a costume and no actual firearm or badge.  Of course it wasn't me taking the risk.  I will say that during one of the four takes we shot, some real uniform cops took note of us and though we all rushed off the train in a mass "abort mission" call, we thought we were goners for the rest of the night.  His Fred Dryer as Hunter impersonation gets the point across just fine.

Back to the shoot.  We filmed ten angles of four different "takes" of Panhandler Party over the course of two insane hours.  The timing worked better on some than others. The subway riders were almost always raucously into it.  I could hear myself saying, "As long as the cameras didn't all simultaneously fail, we got something here."  Only one camera failed on one of the takes and it was me holding my iPhone upside down by accident.

Back at the office over more beer, and a serenade by our Mariachi band we pulled all the footage off all the phones, copied it and copied it again for safe-keeping.  Something about having forty takes, separate audio that needed to be sunk together and 200 minutes of footage for a three-minute short should have raised instant concern.  That's a lotta stuff and a lotta work.  More than we'd even know.

But that was still way ahead of us.  With bottles raised, the dulcet nylon twang and four-part harmony of the band took us all in its sway - and for the moment the world was ours.

Bag Lady - Jane Aquilina
Jabari - Rob King
Tracy - Jen Kwok
Tracy - Nick Cobb
Businessman - Andrew Ginsburg
Ringmaster - Sean Allison
Mariachi Band - Mariachi Aguila y Plata
(Aguileo Ramos, Rigoberto Ramos, Leopoldo Juarez)
Cop - Gary Lee Mahmoud

Produced by Gary Lee Mahmoud, Josh Apter, and Aida Artieda
Written by Gary Lee Mahmoud
Edited by Josh Apter
Assistant Editor: Rishi Gandhi
Sound Recordist: Alan Kudan
Audio Post Mixer: P. Dennis Mitchell
Color Correction: Alex Grybauskas
Camera Work:
Elyse Brandau
Rishi Gandhi
Justin Hoch
Josh Hyman
Dan Jamieson Rodgers-Cromartie
Dan Katz
Jaime Ordonez
Lauren Potter
Jessica Solce