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Still Life With Green Meat: The author, captured here in one of two separate photos, each taken on two separate occasions, when she had enigmatically smeared perfectly good roasts with green stuff.

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Fighting willful nipples, Shrinky Dinks and computerized sewing machines, Sara Bir descends to semi-celebrity status on 'Smart Solutions'

By Sara Bir

I don't watch television. This isn't so much because I'm a culture snob as it is circumstantial; for budgetary reasons, I haven't had cable since I graduated from high school. I get my TV fixes through worn-out VHS episodes of Northern Exposure that I taped over 10 years ago, complete with vintage local commercials ("Hi, this is Becky from Meinekie Mufflers--serving the mid-Ohio Valley since 1974!"); hence, I'm stuck in a pop-culture time warp eternally affixed in the early '90s. Reality shows, Six Feet Under, the Janet nipple thing--all of these are meaningless to me.

Considering that I have utterly no interest in television, I nonetheless accepted an offer to appear on it. About a year ago, I got an e-mail from the producers of Smart Solutions, a do-it-yourself show on HGTV, one of those home-improvement cable channels. They'd spotted an article of mine in a craft magazine demonstrating how to sew pieces of paper together to make stationery. The producers said they'd love to tape a six-minute segment of me demonstrating my paper-sewing technique for the show. I wouldn't be paid, but they could help me find lodgings when I came down for the taping. And what a great way to advance my blossoming career in . . . paper sewing!

"Sure, I'll do it," I said without hesitation. Even those who don't watch TV know it's foolish to deny its awesome power. Of course, I had not actually seen Smart Solutions, but how bad could it be? The main point was that I'd be on TV, right there in the belly of the beast. I'd suffer the company of a few dozen Hollywood types for a day and have some good stories to tell at the bar when I got back. Anyway, I had nothing to lose; if the show was bad, why should I care? I'd never see it.

 

I called my mom. Of all the good news I've ever broken to her over the phone ("I got the job"; "My writing is going to be published in a book"; "I'm engaged"), she was the most audibly ecstatic over this. "I can't wait to tell my garden club!" she gushed.

I told Mr. Bir Toujour. He sounded skeptical. "They won't pay you?" he asked.

"Well, no. But it'll be worth it for the experience--you know, just to see what it's like. Plus, I think it's funny."

"Funny? How?"

"Well, I don't watch TV. And now I'm going to be on TV!"

He shook his head. "How many days are you taking off work for this?"

Three. I planned to take off three days for the show, one for the actual taping and two for driving.

The producers of the show asked me to send some sewn paper samples and project instructions. So on my day off, instead of completing the article I had on deadline, I spent the afternoon unearthing wallpaper samples and heavy card stock from a junk store. I then hunkered down at the home office cum workshop clipping, sewing, taking notes. By the time Mr. Toujour got home, the room was a mess, full of twisted thread snippets and paper shavings.

"Did you finish your article?"

"Nooo. But look at this! I found a bunch of old maps and made them into envelopes. Cool, huh?"

"When's that article due, anyway?"

"Oh, I'll get it done. But I need to send out something to the show's producers first thing tomorrow."

 

The producers--Doug and Lauren, whom I mainly corresponded with via e-mail--also requested that I send a photo of myself. "I don't have any head shots," I told them. "You know, no fancy professional pictures."

"That's OK," Lauren responded. "Just as long as we can tell what you look like." In every photo taken of me from the past five years, I'm either drunk or wearing something floppy on my head--sometimes both. While tearing apart photo albums in search of a suitable snapshot, I stumbled across three pictures of myself with a red do-rag on, smiling brightly, clutching a huge chunk of raw meat smeared with brilliant green herb paste--each taken on three separate occasions. Finally, I found a photo of me holding up a groom's cake decorated to look like the label from a Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle. I'm still wearing a do-rag, but at least I'm not sharing the spotlight with a piece of dead animal. The picture went into the envelope.

I figured that Doug and Lauren would see it and decide that, no, this unkempt girl with her ghetto hair coverings has no rightful place on a cable channel whose viewership is made primarily of middle-aged housewives of middle income in middle America. I--young, single, living in the bohemia of Northern California--have absolutely nothing of interest to offer such people.

Weeks passed before I heard from Doug or Lauren again. My mother continued to inquire about my TV spot.

"Have you seen the show yet?" I asked her. "What's it like?"

"You mean you haven't seen the show?"

"No. But I've seen Martha's show before," I assured her. "This show is probably like Martha's, right? Only without Martha."

Oh, and a smaller budget. "Can't you get them to pay you?" Mom said. "No. It's just some dinky little show. Plus, they say they'll pay for my lodgings."

I imagined living it up in the Hilton's business suite, lounging in the hot tub, enjoying a hearty continental breakfast in the morning. Mints on the pillow and thick terry-cloth bathrobes.

"Good news!" read the next e-mail from Lauren. "The production company liked your sewn paper so much that they'd be interested in you doing another segment. Do you have any other ideas to pitch to us?"

Hmm. Either they were very hard up for guests, or they pegged me for a sucker and wanted to wring me for all I was worth.

But what the heck. I sent them a few cooking ideas for demonstrating the wonderfulness of miso and textured vegetable protein, imagining how I'd work this TV appearance into a sweet-ass cookbook deal.

"These are great ideas," Lauren e-mailed back, "but once we have a guest on for one thing, we like to continue presenting them as an expert in that arena, so as not to confuse our viewers. Do you have any other craft ideas?"

I'm no craft expert. I thought about the last thing I'd made: "Here's how to take an old bridesmaid's dress and a Jane's Addiction T-shirt and turn them into a pillow in only 14 hours!" or "Today I'll be showing you how to insert tiny plastic skeletons into a clear liquid soap dispenser to create satanic soap!"

For lack of a better concept, I blurted the first one that came to mind. "I make stuff out of Shrinky Dinks." There's no way they'd go for that. How could anyone talk about Shrinky Dinks for six minutes?

"We loved the Shrinky Dink idea!" Lauren wrote. "Could you send us an envelope of samples, along with some instructions?" I drove out to the craft store and bought Shrinky Dink sheets.

"We got your photo, thanks," Lauren said a few weeks later, "but we're desperate for the Shrinky Dink samples."

They were not ready. It was not like I hadn't been working on them, but all of the best ones I traced from old Andy Warhol illustrations or Dan Clowes comics of girls with guns. Gags, guns--I figured they wouldn't go over so well with the network.

I wound up making some basic heart shapes. "You can, uh, tie ribbons to these and make a Valentine tree out of an old tree branch." I finally sent out the samples, and Doug and Lauren gave me a date to show up for taping in Burbank.


Please Don't Try This At Home: Sara Bir craftily stitches paper, as seen on HGTV.

The hotel room was available at a reduced rate, not free, which ran $115 a night. Au revoir, pillow mints. I arranged to crash at a friend's house in Silver Lake.

Doug called me at home one day, sounding impatient. "Spend a few mornings watching the show, and you can see how we set up the shots, as well as how the host interacts with the guests," he insisted. "You have seen the show, haven't you?"

"Oh sure, yeah," I lied. "Just not in a while. I'm not an early riser." "Why don't you set your VCR and record some shows? It'll make it a lot easier for you."

I didn't tell them that I couldn't.

I asked a co-worker to tape Smart Solutions for me. Suddenly, everyone at work knew about my imminent television stardom. "You're going to be on TV to show people how to sew paper?" they asked incredulously. "That's it? Lots of people have sewn paper before--you're not the first person with that idea."

Who were they to talk like that? It's not like they'd been on TV before. Jerks.

I finally watched a taped episode of Smart Solutions. The show consists of a host named Maty hovering enthusiastically over her guests. On this particular episode, Maty nodded vehemently as a woman wove dollar bills together to make a "fun presentation of a money gift." "This is so neat!" Maty exclaimed.

"I never thought of doing that!" Well, Maty, me neither. I was about to be on a television show that featured people braiding money together. As Maty would say, "Great!"

 

The drive south went without a glitch, and I arrived in L.A. with plenty of time to spare. That's good, because I was in no way ready to be on the show. I had to buy more Shrinky Dinks (by then catchily dubbed "shrinking craft material" to avoid directly endorsing a specific brand)--plus, I still needed to, uh, make stuff out of them. Always prepared, I packed our toaster oven. Even more distressing, I had nothing to wear. The producers informed me that black, stripes and bold patterns don't look good on TV. They also cautioned against wearing holiday-themed clothing like Christmas-tree sweatshirts. I made a desperate pit-stop at Old Navy to purchase a ribbed turtleneck sweater in a flattering shade of pink and a long-sleeved fitted red crewneck shirt. Around 7 that night, I pulled into my friend's driveway. He was out of town, leaving me his whole bedroom and the TV in it. With the purest of intentions, I retired to my temporary boudoir early to rest for the big day. What I wound up doing was watching the exotic television until 2am, transfixed.

I woke up at 5. My studio call time was 7am. As they shot three episodes a day--and as my segments, somehow, managed to be the very first and very last segments scheduled for taping--I got to hang out at the studio all day long! The studio was small. The production company rented it out for the duration of the season's taping, which, in this case, was two weeks. Mine was the 12th day of taping, and it showed. Everyone on the set who was not a special guest exhibited extreme levels of disinterest.

I wandered around a bit before stumbling through the correct door, which led to an area abuzz with a small group of guests sticking Teddy Grahams onto birthday cakes decorated with blue butter cream. The concept, I think, was that by purchasing a blue cake, you could personalize it with Teddy Grahams to replicate a clan of little bears lounging poolside. The women labored frantically over a dozen bikini-bear cakes all gummed up with pretzel-rod cabanas and Fruit Roll-Up palm trees. As I regarded my own pathetic props, the cakes started to look really brilliant. "We were up until 2 this morning working on these," one of the women told me. "I was up until 2 as well," I replied, though I failed to mention that I was watching South Park at the time.

Doug found me and introduced himself. I was struck by how young and normal he was. I had imagined someone tall and authoritative, but the actual and diminutive Doug seemed unassuming. He showed me where to find coffee, and then he took me to a table where I could set up. I brought out my pathetic envelope of projects, and we discussed how to set them up. Next, I met Lauren, who I was surprised to discover is much younger then I'd imagined--younger than me, in fact, as her Converse All-Stars and gently ripped jeans hinted. She looked like she'd never, ever watch this show on her own accord.

We were told to arrive "camera ready," which means having your hair and makeup all set to go. I don't wear makeup, so I arrived wearing none; this, to me, is camera ready, but apparently to the rest of the world it is not.

A makeup artist briskly applied herself to my face in what felt like a truncated Glamour Shots session. Right as she started encrusting my forehead with foundation, Maty came to have her face fixed, too. Maty is eerily like her on-camera persona. "Hello," she said, looking over my way. "Are you going to be on the show today? Oh, I love your hairstyle! It's very French."

If Maty's quite generous statement referred to the rarity with which I brush my hair, then, yes, I had to admit that my coiffeur was very French. But for the camera's sake, a hairstylist whisked into the room and ran an emergency curling iron through my Gallic-chic hair, shellacking the whole mess with industrial-strength Aqua Net.

I was still not costumed. Anxious, I scouted out Doug and showed him the selection of shirts I'd brought. "Will any of these be OK?" I asked.

"That pink turtleneck--it's ribbed. I don't think it will work. The rest are OK." I put on the red top--bold, simple, figure-flattering--and slipped onto the set.

Mimicking a middle-American house that's taken a trip through the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, the set consisted of a kitchen area, a garage area and a living-room area. My domain was to be the garage (clearly the only appropriate place to both sew and make shrinking crafts). There was a waist-high table where I was to spread out my bounty of stitched paper creations, and to the side, the sewing machine I'd use.

At home I use a Singer, circa 1964, and I had offered to bring it down with me. "No," Doug said, "we'll have a machine for you." When standing face to face with said machine, I was baffled by its digital readout. Imagine riding horses all your life, asking someone to borrow theirs and getting loaned a car. Now imagine having to demonstrate to a television audience how to sew little pieces of paper together with that car.

While Maty chatted with the stage manager, I grappled with the machine, trying to keep my cool. All I had to do was make it look like I could use the machine--maybe the camera would linger over the envelopes and cards I'd brought with me, which were spread fan-style across the table. Each segment was done in one take, so if I screwed up we'd have to start all over again. And despite the Teddy Graham cakes and the illegible sewing machine and my general feelings about how silly television is, I wanted to be poised and professional, to exude authority and charisma.

"That Sara Bir," they'd say when taping wrapped up, "is a delight to work with." This would open up major avenues for me. Maybe Sofia Coppola would catch my Smart Solutions segment and cast me in a minor yet meaty role in her next film. That would go nicely with my book deal, too, because as I demonstrated how to sew paper together to make stationery, some powerful literary agent would sense that I had a revolutionary novel inside of me, and all that was needed to coax it out was ample financial backing.

A quick rehearsal snapped me out of my reverie. At every show's opening, Maty walks though the set and greets all three of her guests as they cheerfully yet industriously work away, creating the air of Maty's Happy Workshop. "Turn old paper into something new. Sara Bir's stitching her way to cool stationery and more," Maty announced perkily as she breezed through the garage. "Hi, Sara!"

"Hi, Maty!" I said in my best office-telephone voice as I glanced up from the intense concentration required to run the foreign sewing machine without piercing my fingers with the needle. We taped this intro four or five times, affording me valuable moments of practice with the machine before we moved on to my segment.

Nervous, I had to go to the bathroom. Women from another craft show being taped in the same building stood there preening, and after I squeezed between them to get a look at myself in the mirror, a shocking sight spit itself back at me. My nipples!

In their agitated state, they were clearly visible through my shirt. I'd thought of this while packing and made certain to bring one of my more nipple-shielding bras, but apparently it was not up to the task.

I had to be back on the set as soon as possible, so I did the only thing I could think of: I stuck protective wads of toilet paper down my bra. My boobs might look lumpy, but I would not, by God, expose my nipples!

Emergency averted, I sneaked back onto the set to tape the stitched-paper segment. There was a loose script to follow, though only Maty's lines appeared on the TelePrompTer. She would mainly ask the silliest questions possible, which I was to answer as succinctly as possible. "Can you use any kind of paper?"

"Yes, but heavier stock is best." "How many sheets can you stitch though?" "Up to 24, if you're making a journal." And then, of course: "I never thought of doing that!"

Aside from a few false starts and the blotted appearance of my bosom, the shoot went smoothly and my sewing segment was done in under a half-hour. How I managed to use the machine I had no idea, but it wasn't on my mind at all: I needed to prepare for the shrinking crafts.

The next five hours passed by in a tense blur. In the dim privacy of the dressing room--which resembled a Best Western suite without the bed--I set up my toaster oven and churned out little hearts, deathly afraid that someone, Doug or Lauren, would come into the room, witness my fierce flurry and bust me ("You're not ready to shoot the shrinking crafts segment at all, are you?").

At one point, I took a walk around the neighborhood to procure a small branch to decorate with shrunken-craft hearts for the Valentine tree. Back in the dressing room, as I fumbled trying to tie tiny satin ribbons around the stick, the segments taped that morning were displayed over the TV monitor. Suddenly there I was, in my red shirt with my mask of makeup, a renegade shock of hair flopping over my eyes as I explained to Maty the finer points of sewing paper. The footage fast-forwarded and rewound in a death loop showing Maty scrutinizing a stitched CD case while I slouched with my arms violently pointed akimbo.

"Oh, bloody hell!" I thought, "I'm a total dork!" I'd forgotten how angular and birdlike my face was, how my tousled hairstyle only accentuated it, how long and Roman my nose was, how my habit of folding my hands together came across so goofy and prissy. I had no star quality whatsoever.

Maty did. I wondered if Maty ever got recognized at the grocery store, if there were hardcore Smart Solutions fans. There had to be. The other guests--a woman who ran a low-fat-foods company and made "a delicious sauce from peanut butter, cocoa powder and applesauce"; a muscular personal trainer to the stars; and a woman who had written a book about framing pictures--all had some kind of credentials, or at least a career reflecting their field of expertise. I worked retail, and that's exactly where I needed to stay.

After emerging from my dressing room/workshop with enough emergency shrinking crafts to squeak by, I noticed a postlunch slump on the set; the pace was slower, the crew chattier. All told, I had much more in common with the crew than any of my fellow guest experts, with whom I hardly spoke. All of the production team and crew were freelancers, many of them scrappy indie-rocker types in their 20s and 30s, and after this taping of Smart Solutions wrapped up, they'd be out looking for another crummy cable TV show. Lack of direction was our common ground.

Somehow, we limped through the shrinking-crafts segment. Even with the heart-decorated Valentine stick, my table in the garage area was painfully barren. My nipples, at least, were safely obscured by the looser shirt I'd changed into.

I said goodbye to Lauren, who was sweet and hugged me. An intern gave me a card to fill out with my address. "We'll send this to you telling you when the segments air. It could be a month, it could be half a year from now." It's been over half a year. I never heard back. That's OK, but people, especially Mom, keep on asking me when the show will be on. "It's not on," I say. "As far as I know." I have a theory that, in our post-Janet cultural climate, my renegade nipples were the guilty party. Maybe no one noticed until postproduction, when they saw the videotaped twin peaks poking out horrifically, and were forced to scrap my segments to preserve the network's standards of decency.

It's a relief, actually, because I don't think the camera loves my face, or my nipples. I made it home alive back to the real Sara--unstyled hair, striped shirts, poorly padded bras and all--and don't have to touch shrinking-craft material again for as long as I live, which is plenty satisfying enough.


Not so fast, Sara. Celebrity awaits, as HGTV screens our "craft enthusiast" stitching personalized stationery on Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 7:30am. And on Thursday, March 3, at 7:30am, Sara demonstrates "how to shrink photos into custom-made trinkets." Must-see TV, indeed!


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From the January 26-February 1, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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