Saturday, January 26, 2008

worms, worms, worms

Tracy took a short class offered by a colleague about vermiculture last week, and we decided to give it a try. (The No Impact Man has had a big impact on us around here.) We're going to try to use worms to compost our vegetable matter garbage (and since we eat mostly vegan, we have plenty). It'll create some powerful compost for use in our community garden plot this spring. The cool thing about this is that we can do it in our house (since we don't have a yard).

Here's the steps we've taken.

  1. We started saving vegetable matter for feeding the worms (the recommended worms are called "red wigglers" or just "red worms"). That didn't take very long. We're only doing one bin for now, but our household probably generates enough to supply four bins.

  2. We bought a 14-gallon plastic bin for less than $10. It needs to be opaque, since the worms don't like light. And it shouldn't be too deep.

  3. Then we drilled a bunch of holes in the bin, from the top halfway down and in the lid, so they get plenty of ventilation. This is also supposed to help the moisture content stay about right and keep it from getting smelly.

  4. We ripped up a bunch of newspapers for the bedding into 1/2 inch strips. We needed enough to fill the bin 3/4 full with damp newspaper, so it needed to be full to the brim with dry strips. You're not supposed to use newspaper that print in color, unless you know the ink is soy-based. Tracy e-mailed the Boston Globe, and they responded that yes, the ink should be safe for the worms.

  5. Then we went to the Arlington Bait Shop (after calling first, to make sure they had what we needed, since this is winter time) and bought 8 cans of worms (24 each) for $21 (192 worms). We're told that in six months, each worm can have 96 offspring, which would give us 18,432 worms. Our bin can probably only support about 1,000 or so, but the population is self-limiting--they won't produce more than their food will allow. We can use our worms to seed new colonies, or we can put them directly into our garden (or go fishing). The guy at the bait shop was really nice--we weren't the first ones looking for worms for compost. He says he also sells them in the winter to people who use them to feed their turtles, shrews (I've never heard of a pet shrew), and birds. A pack of 1,000 worms is $65. (Maybe I'll talk the kids into going into business...)

  6. Once home with our worms, we prepared the bedding by getting it wet in the bathtub and wringing it out, so that it was thoroughly damp but not dripping, like a damp sponge. Messy work.

  7. Once the bin was loaded with damp bedding, we buried a cup or so of food in five spots. Tracy's instructor recommended laying out a grid on the lid, and alternating where you bury the food, so it's easier to keep track of what they like (worms don't like all kinds of vegetables, and you can't feed them citrus). So today, we buried in the odd grid spots. The trick is to feed them just the right amount, so there isn't a bunch of rotting food in there. We also need to watch the moisture levels a bit, and use a turkey baster to drain off the "compost tea" once a week or so (which we can dilute to feed our house plants).
  1. Next we dumped in the worms and set them free in their new home. For now, we'll keep the bin in a corner of our kitchen (they need to be between 40-80 degrees F), so we don't forget about them.
For the first few months, we probably can't feed them a lot, but once they're active and breeding, we can feed them more.

I'll report back on how it's going. With any luck we'll have some rich compost by spring, and send a lot less pounds of green matter to the landfill.

If you're interested in more info, the instructor recommended this book: Worms Eat My Garbage

Here are some sites that offer more about composting with worms:

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

more on the #$%$^& pinkie

I know this blog is supposed to be about writing, but the pinkie thing is slowing me down (though I did give a try at a new beginning to the novel rewrite today, moving something from close to the end right up to the front). Turns out that I need surgery after all and it's happening tomorrow morning--they're going to insert a metal pin through the tip of my pinkie, linking together the two end bones for four weeks, so the tendon can heal itself (and then take the pin back out when it's done). Sounds unpleasant.

The worst part is that there isn't a really cool story to go with it. When I require some sort of surgical repair, it seems only fair that it should come with a good yarn--"I was diving across the goal, collided with the post, and still managed to block the shot." or "I was buried under a pile of players, watching helplessly as the ball trickled over the line." Something like that. I'm a writer and I understand that often the thing that makes life bearable is being able to weave good stories out of whatever's thrown your way. In this case, I guess I'll just have to make something up.

Monday, January 21, 2008

typing without pinkie, bck to longhnd?

My continuing dventures plying golie for my indoor soccer te m unfortuntly cost my the use of my left pinkie for the next six weeks. Seems I tore tendon, which will luckily re ttch itself, but it must sty in splint continuously, or else it'll snp once more. Turns out one uses this left finger when typing. The loss of "q" nd "z" ren't so criticl, but pprently, the "a" is used pretty often. Not uite sure how to hndle blogging nd e-mils. Perhps my writing cn be done longhnd from here on out. (Hoping for no surgery.)

Typing this wy mkes me think of one of my fvorite books, by good friend Mrk Dunn. Ella Minnow Pea. It's incredibly clever nd fun.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Thoughts from the Dentist's Chair

This morning I had some gum graft surgery done. In order to stop recession of the gum around a tooth, the dentist removed a chunk of flesh from the roof of my mouth and implanted it onto the gum around the tooth in question (after removing the top surface of that gum, so that the graft can grow in the new spot).

I've been quite lucky in regard to dental health--in 40 years, I've only ever had one cavity, and I still have my wisdom teeth (though the dentists always ask if I want them out). So I'm not really an old pro at all this dentist work (though I do have a very funny radio play, Spitting Image, about dental work)--I never really know what to expect.

The procedure took a while--probably about an hour of open mouth time, which gave me a lots of time for my mind to wander. Here's what went through my head:

--Should I stay tense, anticipating the anaesthetic not working properly (thank you Alfred Einhorn, inventor of Novocain), or should I relax? Relaxing might make the whole experience more pleasant, but tension feels safer. I once had an operation on an ingrown toenail, when I was in college, and they didn't use enough Novocain. Trust me, when they've cut off a section of your toenail to the root and are scraping the bone down there, you don't want to feel it. The doctor suggested that perhaps I have a low pain threshold. I hope he's cleaning latrines in a third-world country today. Anyway, this makes me nervous when it comes to local anesthetics. It worked out pretty well this time, though they did have to give me an extra shot in the roof of my mouth (not good to start feeling them poking around up there).

--Why don't they have something to look at on the ceilings of dentists offices? (They actually do in some pediatric dentist's offices.) A digital project pointed at the ceiling could allow me to browse the internet, or at least read an e-book or magazine and give me a good focal point. Surely this is an idea whose time has come. I know there's money to be made here. Talk about a captive audience for advertisers...

--I tried to do a little writing work, puzzling over the start of my novel. I'm having a hard time deciding between two choices for the opening scene. Apparently, it's not always a great idea to work this hard in the chair, because my dentist saw my face and was worried that I was in pain. I was in no position to explain that I was busy trying to puzzle out a major restructuring to my new book.

--Try not to be a wimp, I told myself. Think about some guy in Iraq with his arm hanging in shreds, or my friend who just had a kidney transplant. What about torture victims (the ones whose tapes were lost by the CIA)? Think about all the wounded vets coming back from Iraq, who have to try survive with constant pain from amputations or traumatic brain injuries. Unfortunately, this line of thought turns out to be completely useless for distracting yourself from needles injecting anesthetic into the roof of your mouth or from a pair of hands stitching sutures around your teeth.

--Trying to figure out whether I'll be able to play soccer on Sunday (I'm our goalie), or take my son to our first parent-child rock climbing class tomorrow. Do I go for the ibuprofen and tylenol (as the doctor suggested) or do I go right for the vicodin (as several friends have suggested... they've not exactly been cheerily encouraging about the recovery from this thing)?

--How long does this take? Maybe they could put a timer or clock on the ceiling, too, because, man, it took a lot longer than I expected.

The good news is it's all over now. The ten stitches don't hurt much yet (I did take some pain meds) and I've got a quart of super premium ice cream in the freezer (JP Licks). But I still haven't quite decided on the new start for the novel. Maybe I'll need to get them to do the other side.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What I'm Reading: The Trap

I've been having a great time following the discussion at Scott's Theatre Ideas blog, and I happened to see his listing of books of note and The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook caught my eye. They happened to have it at my local library, so I was in luck.

It's a fun read, especially if you're an American artist trying to figure out how the hell to stay afloat, when life seems to cost more all the time. The basic point he makes is that the growing income disparity in America is wreaking all sort of havoc on the middle class. Part of it comes from the growing class of rich folks bidding up the price on housing and college education and childcare. Middle class neighborhoods are quickly disappearing from our major cities, leaving only the rich and poor.

This growing income disparity affects our entire society, because professions in which one once used to able to support a family in a modest middle-class lifestyle (like being a teacher or social worker or even a public interest lawyer) have not seen their wages rise with the cost of living.
"In 1980, it was inconceivable that a University of Chicago student's first job--even as a social worker or editorial assistant--would pay less than her annual tuition. Today, it is entirely conceivable, indeed probable that students who take jobs as social workers or editorial assistants will earn less than their tuition fill. An idealistic University of Chicago graduate from the class of 1980 who opted to stay on the South Side and teach in an inner-city public school would have earned $13,770, more than two and a half times her $5,100 senior year tuition. Today, such a student would earn $38,851, only 23 percent more than her senior year tuition of $31,500."
The truth is, it doesn't just feel like it's harder (financially) than ever to be an artist or intellectual, it actually is harder than it was in our parent's generation.

He points out that there's a deep cost to our society when the financial burden of undertaking society-benefiting jobs is so high. The best and brightest are drawn away from public service, not just because there's riches to be had working for consulting and corporate law firms, but also because it takes more and more money to support a family these days.

On the other hand, there is a bit of elitist whining underway, and sometimes it's annoying. Still, if you can get past that, you will hear a passionate voice calling for strong reform to make ours a more supportive society for people who want to create and serve. He even talks about how our screwed up healthcare system suppresses our entrepreneurial undertakings. Having a stronger social safety net (healthcare, education, childcare) would provide more freedom for all Americans to pursue their dreams.

As with many books that take the time to point out our system's various failings, the time spent on laying out actual solutions is small. I'd like to see a book that starts out assuming that the readers agree on our problems (10% of the book for this) and then helps provide a plan of action solution (revolution, anyone?). This book is 95% about the problems, which is fine--he certainly got me all worked up (it's a quick read). But I'm more interesting in how we take action to make things better (campaign finance reform, universal healthcare, state financed education from Kindergarten through college).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What I'm Writing: Boring Bits

I'm finally back on a more regular writing schedule, which has included work on two new short plays--one is funny and the other is absolute dreck (hard to know if it's salvageable).

I'm also finally back to writing my new novel. I'm sure that at every new step, I say, "the hardest part of writing a novel is _______" with the blank being filled in by whatever step I'm on at the moment. The current step is trying to undertake a second major rewrite, much bigger than the others. I've been at work on this project for two years, and I figure it'll take another year to complete. At the very beginning of an overhaul like this, I'm just peering down into the gaping abyss, thinking, "how am I going to get down this thing?"

The oft quoted line from Hitchcock is helping me: "Drama is just like life, with the boring bits cut out." I just did a quick skim of my manuscript and also put together a new chart showing the structure and timeline (yes, I do such things). It's pretty easy to see that I haven't done a very good job of getting rid of all the boring bits. I've got a draft with a good foundation for the characters, some interesting scenes and some good writing, and a lot of detail about what happens to these people. But as my readers (thank you) told me (pretty gently), it's just not gripping (possibly/probably not even engaging, which is a few steps down from gripping).

The good news is that I have an idea of how to fix this, because it's a project worth finishing. What makes this the hardest stage is that a good bit of it involves sitting around thinking, reading, rereading, and sitting or pacing, while trying to reframe things in my head, listening to new variations of old voices, trying to rewire my brain before I actually let my fingers loose to start typing. It's easy to feel modestly content when there are new pages being written every day, but sitting and daydreaming about the novel is harder than it looks. But, based on my limited experience, part of the trick to getting the novel finished (and finished well), is getting the train moving and then knowing the right moment to hop on for the ride.

Tthings are in motion. And I'm pretty close to being ready to jump.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

No Impact Man

There's plenty of moaning and hand-wringing from many of us liberals about global warming and ecological impact and all that, and sometimes we actually do something about it, but most of us just talk about it. This guy and his family (wife, kid, dog) living in NYC actually decided to take action and launched into a year-long experiment to try to have a net zero impact on the environment. (Thanks to Adam for pointing out this blog.) I've just started reading it, and it's really something. I don't think we're ever going to give up toilet paper around here, but maybe we'll work a little harder to reduce our impact, and that's something.

No Impact Man

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What I'm Reading: The China Study (this book might save your life) (really)

I just finished reading The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, after putting it off for months, as Tracy patiently waited for me to finally get around to it. We made some big life changes around diet a little more than a year ago, moving to a mostly whole foods, plant-based diet. We're not strictly vegan, but we're pretty close, and we do eat some processed foods. (I haven't completely given up ice cream or chocolate yet. ) A lot of this shift was in response to various health issues with us and our family and was affected by reading Joel Fuhrman's book Eat to Live.

However, The China Study came to us right after Eat to Live, and as soon as Tracy read it, she bought copies for everyone in our family. (She's never done that before.) After finishing the book, I can see that she did the right thing.

The basic gist of the book is that eating animal protein has serious consequences for your long-term health. The data cited in the book show dramatically that cancer, heart disease, and some auto-immune diseases (like diabetes and MS) are great influenced by your intake of animal protein. These diseases have a huge impact in the state of American health and pocketbooks. In Western society, we've managed to root out many diseases of poverty, but our health is affected by diseases of affluence. These are optional, as long as we have the information to make the proper choices. (FYI, Campbell isn't trying to sell a diet. He's an actual scientist who has learned something important and wants to share it.)

While the data in this book is exciting, the information about the role of industry in trying to squash its dissemination is disturbing. And by industry, I mean not just the food industry, but also big pharma, the medical industry, and the academy. This idea that people can have control over their own health by eating a plant-based whole foods diet threatens a great many interests of people who make a lot of money. There's definitely a play/screenplay/novel in there--Campbell reports on finding out that the National Dairy Council and the American Meat Council retained a group of scientists (spies) to keep tabs on any research projects in the U.S> likely to cause harm to their industry. Various smear campaigns were conducted against Campbell and his research. And he recounts how other well-respected researchers were cut off from hospital resources when they shifted their approach to disease control from medical to dietary means.

Big industry has been using their deep pockets to influence our culture in the deepest ways. The dairy and processed food industry provides health curricula to our elementary schools and our medical schools. Children learn from an early age that drinking milk is an important way to build strong bones (not true, you're better off getting your calcium from leafy green veggies, that don't raise your cholesterol and increase your cancer risk) and stay healthy (the opposite is true, unless you're a baby cow). Those "Got Milk" celebrity ads have really worked--I saw versions in our elementary school just last year, with students writing essays about how drinking milk was building strong bones and muscles for them.

We're brainwashed into thinking that the only way to get enough protein is to eat animal products (completely false). Heart surgeons are content to perform expensive and often ineffective bypass operations, but feel that giving patients information on the drastic positive impact of dietary changes would be too difficult. Our government and pharmaceutical industries fund billions of dollars of research looking for drugs to fight cancer, instead of trying to look at the benefits of a truly healthy diet. We rail against childhood obesity while the government puts out dietary recommendations that say it's all right for children to get as much as 40% of their calories from fat.

We want easy solutions that aren't really easy. We want to be tough about taking our chemo and showing a stiff upper lip when it comes to surgery, yet we're not tough enough to put down the chicken and pick up some brown rice and broccoli. The sheer stubborn stupidity of all is stunning to me.

Anyway, I'm ranting (isn't that what blogs are for?). Get the book, read it, and then consider making a choice.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

just for fun

We got a Wii for Christmas from my in-laws, and it's been one of the best gifts ever. Seems like everyone has a favorite game. I'm sad to report that I'm not the champ at Guitar Hero--that would go to Tracy and our daughter, Kira. And Noah is almost impossible to beat at baseball and a tough competitor at bowling. It's a really brilliant design--one that really encourages people to interact with each other (in three dimensions) while playing. We just got Dance Dance Revolution--I'm curious to see how that works out.

However, it turns out there's lots of other things you can do with wii-motes (remotes for wiis). Check out this cool video:

P.S. I did get some actual writing done today. A bit of rewriting on my newest ten-minute play, and some good thinking about the next rewrite of the novel. My goal is to start putting in two hours a day, five days of week, of actual writing time. This might be tough when the freelance work is coming in well, but I really need to get back in the habit. Writing comes from discipline, and discipline comes from practice. I got my two hours in this morning.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

My Fantasy World (Part 2): My Ideal Theatre

I've been thinking a lot lately about theatre and theatre artists and money. It's awfully frustrating to see people leaving the theatre--people do it for lots of reasons, but a lot of it has to do with money. It's so hard to make a decent living in theatre and eventually the needs and pressures of daily life just wear folks out. Living in crappy apartments, working various different day jobs, skimping on food and medical care, shortchanging plans for family, all wear thin.

So what would my ideal theatre look like, one that would provide the people who worked there enough money to live, and at the same time could do interesting work (and not have to be off Broadway in NYC)? I'd want it to create a lot of new work and have a presence in the lives of the audience.

Here how I'd set it up:

First the space:

150 seats. For the most part, theatre in larger venues doesn't interest me because the audience-actor connection is muted. Without that intense relationship, you might as well go see a movie or watch TV. In "The Tipping Point", Malcolm Gladwell mentions that most people can only have at maximum about 200 friends and connections. Good theatre is about binding human connections in an artistic moment--too many folks in the seats, and we'll never have to risk knowing each other.

The space should be flexible, so that the seating and set can move about. It shouldn't be too fancy, since ours is a fairly low-budget space. Nice vertical height is nice. Lots of entrances and exits. I don't need much more in terms of bells and whistles.

Oh, it needs to have a full-size rehearsal space, in the same building. This is critical. There will always be a tendency to want to convert this into a second performing space. Resist this impulse. Dedicated rehearsal space focuses the actors and makes tech week a lot easier. It can also be used for community/neighborhood meetings, and a few public non-performance events.

It needs to have an office and nice restrooms, and a lobby big enough to mill about in before a show when it's raining outside. (And I think we should sell popcorn and beer.)

Oh (and here's the fantasy part)--the building has to be owned by the company. Fully. No mortgage. Debt is poison to theatres. Any impulses to borrow money to build an extra performing space or add a rotating stage or cooler lighting, should be immediately squashed. No debt.


New plays. Almost exclusively new plays. The other theatres in town already help cover the classics. (Apparently that's what LORT theatres are for...) Preferably the work should be written by resident playwrights and other local or regional writers.

Productions should run in repertory for staggered seven-week runs. In Denver shows used to always run for 3 weeks, which was a source of constant frustration. You'd get a surge of friends, then a blank second week, and then if the show was good, or got good reviews, audiences would start to build on the third weekend. In Boston, the small theatres often run shows for 3-4 weeks and have the same problem. In Chicago (I was told, last time I had a piece out there) a lot of the theatres sun six weeks and that helps a lot. Seven weeks is enough time for audiences to build and stay strong.

Staggering the shows allows for there to be a new show every three or four weeks. That means that a gung-ho audience member can see a new show at our space every month. We're talking about 14 plays a year (21 performances each), which is a whole lot of material. Insane, really. That's why I like it--there is a whirlwind of creative energy in this theatre. Some of the shows will not be great successes. Others will. But the entire season will not rest on just one or two shows trying to be hits.

However, if we do have a hit, because we run in repertory, we can keep running the hit show, while still working our way through our pile of new scripts. We'll just burn through them a little slower.

Staggered repertory explains why we need a dedicated rehearsal space. When the shows are up and running, the next one up has 3 1/2 weeks to rehearse. The spaces are busy all the time.

Who Does All This:

Let's start with what our theatres artists need. One of the goals of this theatre is to pay them a living wage, and to have them fully engaged creatively. The schedule might kill them, but they're professionals, and they like to do this. If we pay them well enough, they aren't going to have to worry about day jobs and trying to work at ten different small theatres around town.

So, just for fun, we're going to pay everyone $50,000. This theatre will not sustain itself on ticket sales alone. That's not a viable option for a space of this size. So I'm tossing that out the window--we're going to need donors and grants.

To keep costs from getting out of hand, I'd like to limit the company to 12 people. It makes the salary a nice even $600,000. I like round numbers. And I want a small core group of people who know each other intimately.

No one in this company can only perform one job. And everyone will be very busy. We're paying them $50,000, and they'll earn every penny and more.

Six are mainly actors. Three men, three women. A mix of ages and races. They should be well trained and educated. At least two of the other company members must be interested and willing to be on stage pretty often. That gives us a pool of 8 actors. We'll job in a few people a year, but as rarely as possible. The actors are going to work awfully hard (performing in two shows at once, while rehearsing a third), but that's okay. We'll obviously have to have a few small cast pieces mixed in--a four-person play gives some people a chance to catch their breath, or prepare for a more complex piece. Remember, we're doing a lot of plays written specifically for these actors.

3-4 should be interested and willing to direct. For one company member, that's his or her primary role.

Two will be resident playwrights. They're not going to be able to write 14 shows a year, but they'll write at least a couple, and handle a lot of the literary functions of finding material (though everyone helps). This pace of writing sounds impossible, which is why I like the idea of it. I'd expect 2-3 other folks to write, too. The resident playwrights are also going to be helping the technical director and administrative folks a lot. We might commission a few plays from outside writers.

The tenth company member is the technical director, handling design and supervising construction, etc. Everyone else has to help hang lights, paint sets, etc.

The final two people mostly handle administration--grant writing, PR, web design, box office, etc. But everyone in the company puts in hours every day to help with this (especially the resident playwrights). The administrators also need to be involved in the creative life of the theatre, either as writers, sometime actors, designers, or occasional directors

We'll have to have a few interns and volunteers, too, for ushering and community events, light board operators, etc.

We'll have to have a board, but it will exist primarily to raise money and help interact with the community. They don't get to pick the plays or hire or fire within the company.


So if we had that many plays, and averaged 100 seats sold every night, we'd sell 29,400 seats every year. In my fantasy world, half of the seats go to people who see half of our shows every year--in other words, we'd need about 2,100 subscribers, and then sell 14,700 single seats. That means we'll have to serve a pretty good-sized geographical area, because we have almost 17,000 different people come through our doors in a year (any small city will do). Which is a lot--enough to feel like we're having an impact.

Tickets should only cost $15. This is crazy, I know, because we have a payroll of more than $600,000 and tickets only bring in $441,000. But we already knew tickets weren't going to cover everything. (It's a fantasy, after all.) $15 is about 1.5 times what it costs to see a movie, which seems in reach of most people. If I charge someone $15, and the play fails, I won't feel too bad, and neither will they. If I charge $35, neither of us wants to take that risk. There's only 150 seats in our space--if it sells out, we don't charge more, we just keep running the show longer.

And we want to encourage people to return to see lots of shows in our season. We want them to develop a relationship with the acting company--to enjoy watching them stretch in different roles. And in roles written specifically for them, by our resident playwrights.

Artistic vision:
I don't really need the company to have a specific artistic vision. That would depend on the people involved. It does need to respect the audience, though, and not present plays that come with the attitude that the theatre is doing the audience a favor. A play performance is a gift to the audience. With so many plays, there would end up being a big variety of material, coming from all sorts of sources. (Finding and creating scripts would be the hardest part of this endeavor, I think. As well as sheer exhaustion.)

What I'd really want is for this theatre space to be a hive of activity, the kind of place that becomes a central focus of the neighborhood, because there's always so much going on, that the energy oozes through the walls out into the streets. Maybe there would be classes for the kids after school, festivals, an art gallery in the lobby, and more.

We're talking about a million dollars a year to make this thing work, with donors needed to cover about half of that. Which really isn't bad--if one billionaire comes along and plunks down a million bucks, that'll keep the theatre running for two years.

It's late and I need some sleep. But I know I'll have pleasant dreams.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A special hell

I'm sure there's a special layer in hell reserved for people who create computer viruses and spyware. I'm on my second day of trying to fix and recover from some malware, and then from the software that I used to try to fix it. (I'm sure there's material for a play in here somewhere.) Luckily, my new external hard-drive saved all my data, so I never got into full panic mode. Still, who has that kind of time to waste.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Writing and Money: Trade Offs

When I spent most of my time either working on creative projects, active with various nonprofit and neighborhood groups, or taking care of the kids and house (and building equity), I knew I wasn't making money, but I didn't always have a great grasp of what trade offs I'd been making. Sometimes it was probably better not to think about it. We lived as frugally as possible and that was fine.

Now that I'm getting some freelance work where I'm actually paid for my time, the trade-offs that I've been making are more apparent. Part of the need for paid work is to help make ends meet, but there will also be money left over after the core expenses are paid, and we can actually think a bit about saving. We're not especially into stuff--we don't have a burning desire for nicer furniture (though it wouldn't hurt) or a bigger TV or a nicer car. We don't need a bigger house (we live in a modest condo with just one bathroom and no yard, but in a cool neighborhood with great schools). But if I keep working for money, we will be able to visit my parents a little more often (my mom is in Florida and my dad is in Colorado--so for the four of us to visit either of them costs about $2,000 by the time you figure in airfare, car rental, dog boarding, gas, etc.)--maybe one parent each year.

I'd also really like for us to travel abroad sometime in the next few years (and use that passport I just renewed). It's important for us and the kids to see other countries and cultures (the last time I was overseas was a trip to Paris ten years ago)--as the world becomes more intertwined, it's more important to try to get other perspectives.

With some of the money I earn, we could save up for a few fun activities--it'll be fun to go to a few more movies (especially now that Kira can babysit), or maybe go for a day of skiing (about $500 for the four of us). I used to ski a lot when we lived in Colorado, but then it became too expensive. When I was younger, I was a bit of a ski nut (I even was a part-time ski instructor at Winter Park one winter).

And there's the whole notion of saving for college--Kira is in 7th grade, which means college is 4.5 years away. In-state tuition, fees, room and board at UMass-Amherst, our state school, is about $17,000 a year. We'll need/want to help her out as much as we can.

Then there's saving for emergencies. And I fantasize about paying off the mortgage someday (if I earned enough to play it off an extra $500 a month, it'd be paid in 13 years instead of 30, and we'd save $90,000).

Up until now, I've been willing (and Tracy has supported this decision) to trade all of that for time to write plays and novels and work on various projects. At first, especially when I was writing more screenplays, there was some thought that the early work was paying dues, laying groundwork for a career that might not make tons of money, but that would bring in a modest income. I've been writing for a long time now (20 years), and I've had lots of work published and produced, but I also don't see that paying one's dues has an actual financial impact. In the theatre, unless you're really lucky or well-connected, the money just isn't there. To be honest, it's not that different for writing novels, from the little I've seen of the business.

I'll keep writing and trying to make money from my productions and publications, but I'm less willing to make the full set of trade offs that I was in the past. In the end, some of this choice, through a richer life from better family relationships and more travel and cultural exposure, might end up helping the material that I do write become a lot fuller and more interesting. I'm nervous that paid gigs will drastically crowd out the time and mental energy I have for my own creative work, and that our financial needs/wants will continue to grow. I'll have to be more disciplined than ever, I guess.

I'm curious to see how it all turns out.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Scott on Trust in theatre

Theatre Ideas' Scott Walters has written a great piece about theatre, the audience, and trust, and how new plays might best be fostered in theatres with resident companies and resident playwrights (and more), rather than in the mode in which many LORT theatres currently operate.

Check it out.

One of my favorite theaters is the one from my home town in Saranac Lake, New York, the Pendragon Theatre. This notion of an extended relationship with the audience, who are interested in seeing actors stretch into roles, was very much a part of what helped them succeed. (And they're a talented bunch.)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Time to register those copyrights (online)

You know who you are. You've written a bunch of plays, or even a novel or two, but it just always seems like such a hassle to actually get the US Copyright forms and mail them in, and plus the fee is so darn high. The basic fee is up to $45. (Ouch!) Sure, if you have a bunch of short plays, you can register them collectively, but that's sort of a pain, too, isn't it?

Okay, so the protection is important, and without registration you can't get as much damages in a lawsuit. You need to do it, but it's a little like finding a lawyer to put together your will--backburner.

Getting Pumpkin Patch picked up by Playscripts forced me to get off my butt and register the darn thing (they require it, or else they'll do it for you, deducting the amount from your royalties). I had the packets all ready to go, but then on the Copyright Office web site, I noticed that they now are offering the chance to register on-line, in a beta testing version, and you only have to pay $35.

To do it, you have to request to be added, then activate your account, etc. But it's not too tough. This morning, I registered two of my plays which should have been registered ages ago. The site is slow and definitely not slick. It's very important to have the pop-up blockers off on your browser (I found this out the hard way). And don't try clicking the "add me" button, because it makes the damn thing crash. You have to type your name and address a zillion times (I think I figured out how to use the template option, but only after I'd hung the site up a few times and finally finished registering both scripts). I paid by credit card and even uploaded my files to the site, rather than having to mail in hardcopies.

It's not a perfect experience, but it'll save you a couple bucks and a trip to the post office and copy costs. To give it a try, go here:

Friday, January 4, 2008

paypal experiment--and why you should buy your copy of Tornado Siren from me

I've been very slow in getting around to fixing up my own web sites. I still haven't done it yet, but after some encouragement (haranguing) from an old friend, I finally signed up with PayPal and have a button on my site (and on my blog--just look over to the right...) so that people can buy a copy of Tornado Siren (signed, no less) directly from me. ($14 and shipping is included!) As my friend said: I, of all people (who is always going on about marketing) should know enough to make it easy for people to give me money.

For now, this is an experiment, but I might try adding this feature for other scripts or books. We'll see how it goes. The economics of it aren't too bad--PayPal gets 2.9% of the purchase price plus $0.30. So on a $14, even with free shipping, I can make a couple bucks (probably about $4-5). If someone buys my book at Amazon, I get about 67 cents.

(Wait, you say--how is that possible? Let's say I have a contract with a small press that gives me 10% of the net price of a book sold (don't ask). Amazon buys books at a deep discount, in this case through a wholesaler, like Ingram or Baker & Taylor. The wholesaler pays the publisher only 45% of the cover price, about $6.73. I get 67 cents. It gets to me eventually, after accounts are settled, etc., say in about six months. Though the wholesaler can return unsold books for a full refund, as can bookstores.)

In the grand scheme of publishing, it's actually helpful for authors if you buy their books from bookstores, because those numbers are tracked and used to make future publishing decisions, and bookstores also use those numbers for deciding which books to order. The publishers want to publish books that sold well, and bookstores want books that have shown they can move off the shelves.

At this point, however, my book has been out for a while, so I don't know if those numbers matter that much anymore. So if you've been holding off, waiting for just the right moment to buy Tornado Siren, now is the time.

If you do--let me know how it works out. It's really hard to test these things properly. I'll even throw in a free copy of my play, Blinders, to the first three people who buy Tornado Siren through PayPal. (Sorry, no ginsu knives.)

Anemic LORT Tally

Adam pointed this out. If you're a playwright, it can't help but make you a bit (or a lot) depressed.

I'm a numbers guy, so this is right up my alley, and I'm grateful to Scott for running the numbers. Check it out. (Basically, he figures out that in 2006-07, the 73 LORT theatres produced all of 27 world premieres.)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Recipe for Really Getting Pissed Off

Listen to Terri Gross' interview with David Cay Johnston on today's episode of Fresh Aire about his book, Free Lunch, or just go buy a copy and read it. It's chock full of examples of how despite current administration's claims to be in favor of free markets and equal opportunities, they're really more interested in using government to make the rich richer and not at all interested in free markets. If your outrage level is feeling a little low these days, given all the holiday cheer and all that, this might be a good way to start 2008. (There's a great bit about how President Bush made most of his fortune by lobbying for a sales tax increase to pay for a new stadium for the Texas Rangers. No new taxes, unless they help fatten one's wallet, apparently.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Goals for 2008

I spent a couple hours yesterday morning updating my goal sheets for the year. Yes, I know, not everyone has multiple pages of their goals for each year and plans sketched out for how they might want to achieve them, but I'm strange that way. (It makes me happy, what can I say.) A lot of the big goals, or even the small ones, haven't changed that much from last year.

Here's a sort of summary of what I'm thinking:

Writing-wise, here are my ultimate goals:

  • To spend time writing and reading on projects that interest me.
  • To share the results of those projects with as broad an audience as possible.
  • To improve my skills/insight as a writer.
  • To have my work fit well with my role as a Dad/Husband, and to have it generate income to help my family.

Creation/Work Goals:

  • Rewrite new novel (one more time. Submit it by end of year.).
  • Edit plays for Collected Obsessions collection of one-acts. Write one new play to complete it.
  • Write 4 (or so) new short plays. Bring new work to my Rhombus playwrights' group.
  • Do freelance work to earn money.
  • Write a complete draft of the half-finished full-length play that's been hanging around for much too long.
  • Consider a start on the new YA novel I want to write (and for which I already have an outline). (this is a long shot goal, but it might make for a nice break from my other novel from time-to-time.)
  • Work on one or two film projects. Participate in the 48 Hour Film Project late in the spring (on a crew or as a writer). Get involved with the Roxbury Film Festival. Maybe write a short film script on my own.
  • Keep blogging, often.

Marketing goals:
audience (including books and published scripts sold): goal 4,800
performances: goal 52 (this is a nice round number--averaging a performance a week feels nice.)


  • Submit 75 manuscripts.
  • Submit 50 queries.
  • (I need to keep in mind that I want to be a triple threat (film, theatre, fiction)—so I need to keep marketing in all three avenues.)
  • Be active in the two Playwright Binges this year.

Income goals (from writing stuff and freelance work):

  • Minimum: $6,000 (This keeps us out of trouble. It's a number that seems small and pathetic in the big world, but to people eking out a living in theatre or writing novels, this isn't as small as it looks. Some good freelance work will get me there)
  • Medium goal: $12,000. (This allows us some travel and leeway and summer camps for the kids)
  • Dreaming big goal: $20,000 (I have to work really hard or get lucky for this one, though the right freelance gigs could make it happen)

I have a whole table of project-by-project goals, plus other non-writing kind of stuff, that I won't include here. Still, that's basically what I'm after this year. I'm curious to see how it all works out.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Writing by the Numbers: 2007 inputs

I'll admit to being something of an obsessive list-maker. I like to track and count things, it's just part of who I am. Yesterday, I posted about about output for 2007. Now I want to look at input.

In 2007:

I watched 17 productions and readings of plays. I was actually planning to cut down on watching theatre in 2007, and I did--I needed a break and didn't have much money for tickets. (In the past, I watched as many as 75 plays in a year.) Out of those 17, 12 were one-act play festivals or collections. I've just about had my fill of short play festivals for a while. My two favorite productions were Leslie Dillen's Action Jesus and The Lion King (on Broadway). The most disappointing was The Cherry Orchard at the Huntington Theatre--I went with high hopes because I love Chekov and it had a stellar cast and director. But the whole production felt oddly flat, and I longed for a more intimate environment for the play.

I watched at least 59 movies (some of these are TV series, too): (gotta love Netflix)
  1. Touch of Evil – Orson Welles
  2. Touch of Evil – Orson Welles (revised edition)
  3. Foyle's War episode 1 (a really terrific series of movies made for BBC TV)
  4. Foyle’s War episode 3
  5. Foyle’s War episode 4
  6. 40 Year Old Virgin
  7. Foyle’s War episode 5
  8. Little Miss Sunshine
  9. This Film is Not Yet Rated
  10. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  11. Foyle’s War, episode 6
  12. Foyle’s War, episode 7
  13. Foyle’s War, episode 8
  14. Anger Management
  15. Edward Scissorhands
  16. Babel
  17. Foyle’s War, episode 9 (Enemy Fire)
  18. When The Levee’s Broke – Part 1
  19. Sankofa
  20. The Departed (x2)
  21. Foyle’s War, War of Nerves
  22. The Lives of Others
  23. Thank You For Smoking
  24. Courage Under Fire
  25. Munich
  26. Volver
  27. Stranger than Fiction
  28. The Good Girl
  29. Pan’s Labyrinth
  30. The Conversation (one of my favorite movies of all time. )
  31. Paris, je t’aime
  32. Children of Men
  33. The Good Shepherd
  34. Sicko (he's still got me fired up about health care)
  35. Curse of the Golden Flower
  36. The Devil Wears Prada
  37. Pursuit of Happyness
  38. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  39. Ocean’s 13
  40. Ratatouille
  41. Harry Potter 4
  42. Napoleon Dynamite
  43. I’m Through With White Girls (Roxbury Film Festival)
  44. Bridge to Tarabithia
  45. Emperor’s Club
  46. The Queen
  47. Letters from Iwo Jima
  48. The Last King of Scotland
  49. Heroes (TV show, season 1 on DVD)
  50. The Price of Sugar
  51. The Mist
  52. Michael Clayton
  53. Miss Congeniality
  54. The Squid and the Whale
  55. Firefly (entire series) (possibly my pick of the year)
  56. Serenity
  57. Proof
  58. I Am Legend (whoah. Very intense. Much more of a horror-zombie pic than I expected, but Will Smith was great, as always)
  59. Delicatessen (watched this last night, and it's so weird yet so intricate. Jean-Pierre Jeunet may be one of my favorite directors.)

I read 28 books (3 of which are still unpublished):
  1. The Light of Day – Graham Swift
  2. Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott
  3. The Polysyllabic SpreeNick Hornby
  4. Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond
  5. Housekeeping vs. The Dirt – Nick Hornby
  6. The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
  7. The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (I read so many great books this year, but this might be my favorite by a slight bit.)
  8. Mission to America – Walter Kirn
  9. The Hidden Wound – Wendell Berry
  10. The Well of Lost Plots – Jasper Fforde
  11. Digging to America – Anne Tyler
  12. Big Money – P.G. Wodehouse
  13. Cezanne is Missing – Frank McMillan
  14. manuscript by Ingrid Blanco
  15. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver
  16. manuscript by Mark Dunn
  17. Sundown Towns – James W. Loewen (not a fast read, but important stuff)
  18. The Honey Thief – Elizabeth Graver
  19. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister – Gregory Maguire
  20. Exit Strategy – Mike Wiecek
  21. A Prayer for the Dying – Stuart O’Nan
  22. Mindset – Carol Dweck
  23. Slam – Nick Hornby
  24. manuscript by Deb Vlock
  25. The Long Tail – Chris Anderson
  26. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors – Paddy Doyle
  27. The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
  28. Crazy in Alabama – Mark Childress (just finished this one--funny and serious and dark. Has a horrible cover--one that wouldn't make you think there might be race riots, Martin Luther King, dismemberment, The Beverly Hillbillies, and murder)

In terms of other input and performances, I got to see the fabulous Snappy Dance Theater in Boston and also went to a bunch of book readings by some of my favorite authors.

For 2008, I hope to keep up the same pace, and maybe read a few more books, if I can make the time.