Friday, October 29, 2010

Trouble Puppet Show: Insanely Fabulous!

[photo (c) Kimberley Mead 2010]

I just got back from A Most Unsettling and Possibly Haunted Evening in the Parlour of the Brothers Grimm, a co-production of Trouble Puppet Theater Company and the Hidden Room. I know, I know, that's a mouthful. I'm going to give you a bare bones translation here but in short here's the skinny: If you miss it, you're... well I don't want to call you an idiot. But I really really really think you should go.

Trouble Puppet is the brainchild of Connor Hopkins, who fashions the most amazing puppets from all sorts of things. I refuse to tell you what he used for this show because I want the whole thing to be a total surprise. The Hidden Room is Beth Burns' company-- you might recall my review of her The Taming of the Shrew (Original Practices) awhile back, one of my top three performances this year.

For this production, Robert Matney-- if you've seen much Shakespeare in Austin, you already know what a talent he is-- plays Wilheim Grimm, your host for the evening. Robert is one of Austin's finest actors-- a master thespian. And the whole thing is staged in a hidden room downtown, part of a space that used to be some sort of brotherhood lodge. You need a secret password to get in. Then you get led into a waiting room. And then the house opens and... again, I refuse to tell you except to say you will be blown away. All the players are waiting for you, and they remain in character from the moment the doors open. Even the musicians (yep, live music) are gussied up.

[photo (c) Kimberley Mead 2010]

Before the main event Matney-as-Wilheim leads the audience in some pant-wettingly hilarious parlor games. I was an observer for the first two, but got so excited I begged to play in the third game. There's fortune telling, a belly dance by Djahari Clark. And then...

And then...

Then the storytelling begins. Wilheim unsettles in and tells a number of the Grimm Brothers' fairie tales which, in case you don't know, are actually quite grim indeed. No happy endings here, folks. But they are -- pardon the pun-- executed so brilliantly by Hopkins and his puppeteers that you'll be laughing while you're gasping.

Logistically, let me tell you why seeing this show on Saturday night-- the LAST night of the show-- is an excellent choice. I know, I know, you have Halloween parties to attend, parking downtown is going to be tight, blah blah blah. Well guess what? You can bike, bus, carpool, ride on the back of a zombie-- I don't give a shit how you get there. You CAN get there. The show only lasts about an hour so if you hit the 8 pm show, you'll be out in plenty of time to get to those parties. And if you hit the 10 pm show you'll ALSO be out in plenty of time to get to the parties. So no excuses, people. This is not one of those "oh, we'll catch it some other time" events. This is one-night-only-left-to-go. So go. GO GO GO!

Warning from the Director and Ticket Info:

This evening promises to be highly disquieting, and is certainly not recommended for patrons under the age of 13, or those with delicate sensibilities. Ladies should consider a mild loosening of the corset to avoid hyperventilation.
Reservations & Password:
Tickets & Information: AusTIX at 512-474-TIXS (8497) or at

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Hamlet @ Boggy Creek Cemetery

Shakespeare fans, listen up-- Get Thee to a Cemetery! And don't wait. You have only this weekend and next weekend to see Justin Scalise deliver a stunning performance as the mad (or is he?) Prince of Denmark. I've had the pleasure of seeing Scalise in numerous Shakespeare productions over the years-- in fact, knowing he plays the lead was what convinced me to see the show. You see, while I try to catch as much Shakespeare as possible, sometimes my schedule is crazier than the bereaved prince, and I regrettably can't see every play that is staged. Last weekend was quite possibly my busiest of the year (three weddings, some writing deadlines, another show to review). But I didn't care. I knew, going in, I was in for something wonderful and so I made the time. What an excellent choice on my part: Scalise exceeded my expectations and then some.

Where to start? Okay, how about this-- Hamlet, presented by Black Star Events, is being staged by torchlight in Boggy Creek Cemetery, under a huge old tree. (The night I went the moon was just about full, an added touch.) "Staged" isn't precisely the right word, as the stage is comprised of several rugs on ground level. We were encouraged to sit as close as we like and my group sat so close we could have touched the performers (I restrained myself). Let me fast forward for a second and say that afterwards, I emailed Scalise to thank him for his stunning work and to offer an apology. Since my "seat" was a blanket, I reclined and then I reclined some more until I was lying down, propped up on my elbow, like a kid watching TV. In my note, I worried that maybe this seemed to suggest a lack of reverence or a hint of boredom (neither true). Scalise wrote back and made a great point that set my mind at ease: "I think it creates a better, more open energy between actors and audience when everyone can feel free to just relax and enjoy themselves."

How true. You should've seen the crowd sprawled in the cemetery, watching with rapt attention. I had one of those moments I have pretty regularly in this town: We are SO lucky to live in Austin where innovative theater happens all the time.

Getting back to the show. One thing I love about Shakespeare is that in writing about a show I can break my anti-spoiler rule. The material has been playing long enough-- 400+ years-- that most everyone knows the story by now. Hamlet's wicked uncle Claudius knocks off Hamlet's dad (also Hamlet) and seizes both the throne and widow of the dead dude. Hamlet's son goes bonkers, or at least everyone thinks he goes bonkers, and plots revenge. This play has got it all-- a ghost, a sword fight, a doomed love between Hamlet and Ophelia, endless family dysfunction. In fact there's so much drama it makes The Jersey Shore seem like Mary Poppins by comparison.

Another thing I love about Shakespeare is that I have this sort of Bard Amnesia. Doesn't matter how many times I see a show, upon leaving a lot of the details slip away. Like the goldfish swimming past the plastic castle every time I see it again, I'm surprised anew. (Though I have to say that this performance is so great it seems to be burned in my memory now.) And also, this other thing happens for me at Shakespeare. Let's call it the Ye Olde Elvis Costello Effect. Even though I have listened to countless EC records hundreds of times, once in awhile a line will jump out at me that I never heard before, like some secret treasure I overlooked for, say 30 years. Same with Shakespeare, in particular Hamlet, which has so many famous lines in it that even if you never saw it performed you'd recognize much of the writing. (Infinite Jest? Check. Cruel to be Kind? Check. To Be or Not to Be? Check.) This time around, a line surfaced for me that I didn't recall from past performances, and I love it: "Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating."

Getting back to Scalise. Look, I knew going in the man has a passion for Shakespeare that's palpable. He isn't playing the role of Hamlet here-- Scalise IS Hamlet. I mean, he fully embodies the Prince. It's like he's channeling or something. I wish I could describe it better but honestly you have got to see this performance to believe it.

Let me not neglect the rest of the cast here. Many, many wonderful performances are turned in. And if I didn't have to leave for my day job in about five minutes, I'd give you a detailed list. I do want to give a specific shout out to Chuck Ney, who is magnificent in the role of Polonius, father of Ophelia. And the players-- the group that shows up to perform a play within the play-- are so deft and hilarious, particularly in the scene where they are marketing their skills to Hamlet, that I was beside myself.

Y'all? I know this coming weekend is Halloween and doubtless you have bazillions of plans and invites. I suggest you take your party with you to the cemetery. I mean this show is super freaking fantastic. Get there early, as we did, and Dale Flatt, who is in charge of the cemetery, will take you on a really cool tour. Kudos to him for understanding the vision of Scalise-- whose idea it was to stage Hamlet in the cemetery. And kudos all around-- to Director Andrew Matthews, all the folks behind the scenes, and, again, to the wonderful players who have lovingly brought this Hamlet to life.

Oct. 21 – Nov. 6
Thursdays - Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Boggy Creek Cemetery
Circle S Rd. & Dittmar Rd.
Austin, TX 78745

$15 - $35 sliding scale admission
$12 for seniors, students, teachers, APD, AFD and military.
$10 each for groups of 15 or more.

*Ticket purchased at the event are cash only.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Announcing: Writing Workshops & Individual Writing Coaching 2011

Hey Y'all,
So I'm currently in the midst of teaching two six-week writing workshops. Each class meets once per week. I have to say, these workshops are going so well that I'm ready to schedule the next round. Bearing in mind that the (stupid) holiday season is about to takeover, I'm going to go ahead and start these in the New Year. The first workshop will meet six consecutive Tuesdays beginning January 18, 2011. The second workshop will meet six consecutive Thursdays beginning January 20, 2011. For those interested in individual coaching, I am currently taking reservations for a very small number of students for one-on-one weekly sessions beginning in January. You can email me at if you have questions about either the workshops or private coaching.

Here are details about the workshops. I want to thank my current students for providing lots of good feedback so that I could hone my offerings. Thank you!

Six Weeks of Tuesdays: I Just Have to Know
Dates: Jan 18 & 25, Feb 1, 8, 15, & 22, 2011
Time: 7 - 9 pm
Cost: $300
Location: TBA

Who is this for?
This is for those of you who are either currently working on first person/memoir/creative non-fiction/blogs or who keep meaning to commit yourself to getting your ass in the chair because you just have to know-- can you do it? Can you write in a sustained fashion? And really, do you even want to? You won't know until you try.

What will we do?
We are going to work on cutting through the shit and really writing what matters, finding your realest of real voices, and learning how not to give in to all those thoughts that keep stalling you out. I'll lead you with assignments which you will work on in class and at home. Yes, there will be some sharing out loud. No, this will not be mandatory. Roughly speaking, sessions are divided into Q&A, theory, in-class writing, and reading out loud (no, reading out loud is not mandatory).

What else do I get?
What, that's not enough? Actually, you do get more. Over the course of the six weeks you have (almost) unlimited email access to me. That means that yes, I will be available, online, to offer you one-on-one coaching, read your work, and offer feedback. Please note this does not include reading manuscripts. Yes, I can read shorter pieces and critique them. If you want a manuscript read, please contact me about private sessions.

Anything else I should know?
Yes, thanks for asking. As this workshop is aimed toward those of you who might just be starting out, we will not be spending tons of time strategizing about getting published, finding agents, etc. That subject is bound to come up, and will be addressed briefly. However the main goal is to get you writing regularly. If you are already writing regularly, please consider the Thursday workshop. (Details below.)

Six Weeks of Thursdays: I'm Not Bragging or Anything But...
Dates: Jan 20 & 27, Feb 3, 10, 17, 24, 2011
Time: 7 - 9 pm
Cost: $300
Location: TBA

Who is this for?
This is for those of you who already write all the time. Maybe you have a draft of a book finished. Maybe you've been published. Maybe you have a blog that is well-established. You're ready to go to the next level. You're okay with very direct feedback (though I promise I will never be mean). In short, you feel pretty good about your writing style and/but you also hope to improve it.

What will we do?
As with the Tuesday workshops, we are going to work on cutting through the shit and really writing what matters, finding your realest voice. I'll lead you with assignments which you will work on in class and at home. Yes, there will be some sharing out loud. No, this will not be mandatory. Roughly speaking, sessions are divided into Q&A, theory, in-class writing, and reading out loud (no, reading out loud is not mandatory). Our Q&A sessions will include, but not be limited to, discussions on the state of the publishing industry, strategies on finding an agent, the pluses and perils of self-publishing, and how not to lose your shit if you're having a hard time getting published. I will challenge you, over the course of the workshop, to complete and submit at least one piece to a major publication. I will beat your ass if you disobey me. Oh, wait, no I won't. Look-- I'm here to encourage, to validate, to employ a positive approach to help you a) figure out your real writing goals b) assess the reality of them c) help you hone your writing and d) help you meet the realistic goals we come up with together.

What else do I get?
What, that's not enough? Actually, you do get more. Over the course of the six weeks you have (almost) unlimited email access to me. That means that yes, I will be available, online, to offer you one-on-one coaching, read your work, and offer feedback. Please note this does not include reading manuscripts. Yes, I can read shorter pieces and critique them. If you want a manuscript read, please contact me about private sessions.

Anything else I should know?
Yes, thanks for asking. I tend to cuss an awful lot.

I repeat: For questions or to sign up, please email And I sure would appreciate you helping me to spread the word.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Review: RENT at ZACH-- How Dave Steakley Taught Me to Love a Musical I Used to Not Even Like

When the ZACH Scott folks invited me to see Dave Steakley’s take on RENT, which is currently playing on the Kleberg Stage, I had mixed feelings. I love Dave’s vision and am always thrilled with his directorial choices. But RENT? I’d seen the traveling production of the show earlier this year at Bass and while I didn’t flat out hate it, it hardly grabbed me. There were times – more than a few—that the Bass show felt really dated, too over-the-top (I know, I know, it’s a Broadway musical, Spike—by definition over-the-top.) I let my love of Dave’s work overrule any trepidation I had about seeing the show again, and so soon, and accepted the invite. I’m sure glad I made the choice.

Before I drill down here and drone on with my thoughts about RENT’s writing, lyrics, and the test of time it presents, let me talk specifically about what works in the ZACH production. Yet again, we have further proof that this city is crawling with magnificent talent. RENT is cast marvelously, with strong performances delivered across the board. I think ensemble pieces are such tricky business and performers have to walk that fine line between what surely must be a desire to standout and something more crucial to the show’s success: keeping balance among the group.

They did it, they really did it— John Pointer as Roger, Andrew Cannata as Mark, Roderick Sanford as Tom Collins, Steve Williams as Benjamin, Kristen Bennett as Joanne, Joshua Denning as Angel, Verity Branco as Mimi, Ginger Leigh as Maureen, and Lara Wright (in several roles.) (Note: The night I saw the show Verity Branco stood in for Karma Stewart as Mimi and gave no clue that she was an understudy—she totally delivered.) They sang and danced their hearts out, and the casting choices are excellent.

While the show’s success at ZACH owes so much to these excellent performers, something else really made it work. Steakely tapped Michael Raiford for set design and Raiford is to be commended for transforming the entire theatre into the performance space. RENT takes place mostly in a loft in NYC, but sometimes the action moves outdoors. Because the theatre is small, and because Raiford utilizes areas beyond the actual stage, we the audience feel like we are in the loft ourselves and also on the streets of NYC. This, I think, is the major differentiator between the Bass version and the ZACH version. The former, by virtue of being presented in a massive space, did not convey intimacy. ZACH’s production offers attendees a chance to feel like they’re roommates of the characters.

Particularly of note is a pyramid of old TVs that dominate the loft and are used during certain scenes to beautifully underscore and enhance points in time, convey deep emotions, and even create a sense of season. Steakely’s timing is so impeccable that he does not overuse this device, though the temptation must have been there. Thus when images do flash across the screen, it’s powerful—we don’t get desensitized as we might if he over-employed the screens.

Which brings me to content. Part of what makes RENT feel dated – which has nothing to do with the ZACH show and everything to do with how fast things have changed since it was written— is that it occurs back in the early days of HIV/AIDS. Though it’s not like AIDS is some conquered, yesteryear plague that we can safely ignore— hardly— it is true that the disease has been around long enough, and been in the news often enough, that knowledge of it is common. Does the specter of AIDS still invoke rampant homophobia in some quarters? Absolutely. But, for example, I consider myself at 19, when AIDS was first emerging and was new and terrifying and entirely blamed on the gay community. And I vividly remember all the attendant turmoil of that—the finger pointing, the protests against the finger pointing. Then I think of my son— now 19— and his peers and I realize that AIDS has been around longer than he has been alive, and that these kids have grown up knowing about it and that many of them have had information delivered by parents and educators that my generation never could have dreamed of hearing about from conventional sources.

This got me thinking hard during and after the show, which follows the lives of several friends and lovers, young people struggling with art and AIDS and the landscape of youth trying to “make it” in the Big City. Two of the three couples happen to be gay. Oh, and there’s the payphone. Now, a payphone might seem like a minor thing, given the major themes of RENT. But bear with me as I try to explain how very important this phone is to the show, not only as a device of catalyst that sets the story in motion, but as a brilliant sign o’ the times.

Because the show was written and debuted before a lot of our current technology was widely available (cell phones, home computers, Internet, wifi)— but with society on the cusp of these things, the buzz of them in the air— the phone also serves as a symbol of how the old school is soon going to give way to something new. Further underscoring this—Tom Collins is a “computer genius,” which, in ’94, was saying something.

Okay, here’s where I attempt to tie together gay relationships and pay phones. Listening to some of the dialogue and the lyrics (which at times are pretty fucking sappy), it’s really easy to slip into that feeling I had when I saw RENT at Bass—this thing is dated, it’s not really working for me. But seeing it at ZACH, feeling a much deeper intimacy conveyed by being so close to the actors, and by having the actors do such a great job, it dawned on me. RENT, done right as it is here, is more like a time capsule than a dated work. It’s a glimpse into the none-too-distant past (a time that happens to coincide with my own bohemian youth, which means that scenes such as Maureen’s performance art piece, plus all the sleeping around, not to mention the endless parade of groovy tights the characters wear really take me back to the good-old-punk days in which I came of age).

What struck me most is this: I’m sitting in a well-appointed, well-endowed theatre that attracts an audience that likely includes a lot of folks who shower on a regular basis, have day jobs, mortgages, and sundry other trappings of conventionality plus the ability to pay for not cheap play tickets. These people are old and young, black and white, gay and straight. And that’s when it clicked for me.

Here we all are, enjoying this story, some rabid fans having seen it enough times that they are lip-synching the lyrics. But no one is batting an eye at the fact that two out of three romances are man/man and woman/woman. They aren’t affronted in the least by Angel, a drag queen. If anything, they might be wondering—where the hell did ZACH get their hands on a payphone?

Which is to say that if RENT was cutting edge when it first played Broadway—if people went to see it because it portrayed characters, themes, and a disease that were at the time utterly foreign and marginal— it’s anything but that today. And that is not a bad thing. It’s an incredibly good thing. It’s an amazing thing.

Look, I’ve been a fag hag for more than half my life. My son was raised, in great part, by a group I like to call the Wild Pack of Gay Men. I used to joke that if the kid had to come to me when he was sixteen and break it to me that he’s straight, I’d still love him, no matter what. But I was ahead of the curve on that one—not alone, not by a long shot, and I had plenty of good company in this liberal city of ours. But overwhelmingly, a mere twenty years ago, the fear and ignorance around being gay was horrifying to most people.

Sadly, the gay thing remains politically charged in too many places around the country and around the globe. Look at the headlines—the gay kid that just jumped off a bridge a few weeks ago after being taunted by his roommate. All the gay kids who still feel ostracized, who stay in the closet, who live in fear, who hate themselves. Gays who are imprisoned for trying to live out of the closet in countries where being gay is illegal—as if.

Oh we have such a long way to go and it makes me so sad that we are this ass-backward, even now, in 2010. And yet, though progress is painfully slow, still there is some progress. Forget about cell phones and emails for a minute and think about this: lots of people who maybe couldn’t wrap their heads around the whole gay thing in 1994 are now paying money to see a musical with AIDS at its center. (There were a couple of really old women in the front row and I spent a good part of the evening watching their faces for signs of distress or disapproval thinking surely they must have been raised to think all this stuff was “wrong.” I found no sign of distress, just joyful immersion in the show.)

There are all sorts of reasons to see RENT at ZACH. As I suspected he would, DS once again takes a well-loved show and makes it his own, makes it fresh, reinvigorates it. There are more than a few moments that are utterly poignant, in particular those exploring the dynamics between the lesbian couple and the gay couple, though these dynamics aren’t hinged at all on their sexuality—the straightest audience in the world could relate easily to the struggles of these couples because such struggles are universal to all of us

For me, one of the most gripping moments of all came in the instant that that old SILENCE = DEATH logo flashed across all those TV screens. I was transported back to when that slogan first arrived on the scene (Wikipedia suggests 1987). How radical that was back then. How true it remains today. And that is the political importance of RENT—it continues to speak, doesn’t fade away, won’t be silent. In the end, any parts of the original dialogue and lyrics that tempted me toward an eye roll were supplanted by this overriding message, summed up so succinctly and starkly—at once silent and screaming— in that message on all those screens, all a part of Steakley’s grand vision.

So thanks, Dave. You made me see the beauty in RENT. Another stunning feat.

You can get tickets to RENT, which plays through November 28, here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


[photo (c) Kimberley Mead 2010]

Okay, look, October is, hands down, the busiest month in Austin. I've got about 40 weddings, there was ACL, BookFest is coming up and, of course, there's Halloween. I know, I know, your calendar is too packed to add even one more event. But trust me on this, there are two happenings you'd be a fool to miss. Miss them and I promise you you will be kicking yourself in your own behind. Both happen Halloween Weekend but I've worked it out so that I can attend each and still have the Dentists' Favorite Night of the Year open to go to parties.

The events I'm talking about are: A Most Unsettling and Possibly Haunted Evening in the Parlour of the Brothers Grimm and Drag-O-Ween.

[photo (c) Kimberley Mead 2010]

First, a few words about A Most Unsettling... This 3-night-only show (Oct 28, 29, 30) is a collaboration between Trouble Puppet Theatre and the Hidden Room. Beth Burns of Hidden Room is one of my favorite directors-- you might recall from my review of the show that her presentation of The Taming of the Shrew awhile back left me jaw-on-the-floor. Not only are her productions first rate, but they are offered in an actual hidden room downtown. It's an amazing set-up. Then there is Connor Hopkins' of Trouble Puppet-- Hopkins' creations are fabulous. That these two geniuses are teaming up to offer an evening of stories that put the GRIM back in Grimm's Faerie Tales is, I promise you, the best treat you could hope for at Halloween. But wait, there's icing on the cake-- Desert Sin will be there, dancing. And, OMG, I am peeing my pants knowing that Robert Matney, one of Austin's greatest gifts to the stage, will be narrating the evening as he takes on the role of Wilheim Grimm. Robert could read me the back of a cereal box and I'd be enthralled.

Do note that the show comes with a warning which is this:

The evening promises to be highly disquieting, and is certainly not recommended for patrons under the age of 13, or those with delicate sensibilities. Ladies should consider a mild loosening of the corset to avoid hyperventilation.

Okay, don't say I didn't warn you. You can get tickets by clicking this link
or calling 512-474-TIXS (8497).

In other news-- when is a drag not a drag? When there's a queen involved. The 11th Annual Drag-O-Ween is one night only at Ballet Austin. This year's theme is My Bloody Broadway. As if we could even begin to compete with the "ladies," please note there is a costume contest. You can get tickets by clicking this link.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Day Tripping

The first couple of weeks after I got back from Monhegan Island, ME were a little rough. I know, I know, poor me, I can't afford to be on vacation on an island every day of my life. Honestly though, what I missed at least as much as the gorgeous setting was an excuse to be offline for hours and hours at a time. I spend a tremendous amount of time on the computer. Much of this has to do with the nature of my work-- even pre-Internet I was working a keyboard many hours of most days. But some of it has to do with the hypnotic pull of click-a-link-click-a-link-click-a-link, send/receive-send/receive-send/receive.

I have a hunch that all of us land on the planet with latent OCD tendencies and that more than a few of us have had these tendencies bust out at the virtual seams thanks to so many opportunities for instant "gratification." Even if every new onslaught in the inbox causes us to sigh and curse the Sysiphean nature of the email beast, there still is some subconscious satisfaction in knowing that we haven't been forgotten, that we're connected to the world outside, even if the representation of connection comes in the form of piles of spam beseeching help from dethroned princes asking for your kind attention and small donation and/or another facebook notification that you're invited to an event you have no interest in attending.

My own OCD stuff, far from being latent, is quite pronounced and, for what it's worth, seems to have gotten much "louder" ever since I quit drinking. It's great to be sober, mind you, but a pain in the ass to feel an unstoppable "need" to check the locks fifty times each night before bed. (One of my biggest OCD triggers is shoes-that-tie. I couldn't leave the house unless both shoes were tied to the precise same tension, an impossibility at best and a challenge made worse courtesy of the fact my feet are different sizes. Ultimately I got rid of all shoes-that-tie).

A couple of years ago, I heard about the notion of Secular Sabbath-- basically forcing oneself offline and off-phone for a day or two each week. From time to time I give it a shot. Rarely do I manage to fully and completely unplug, but some days I get fairly close to the goal. Sometimes this involves talking myself in off the ledge of anxiety, which sadly seems to be my resting state. But once I convince myself that the world won't end if I don't send an email that I meant to send three days ago, the feeling I'm left with is nothing short of exhilarating. Being on the island helped a lot toward this goal simply because connectivity there was limited at best so I had a handy excuse-- no use crying over spilt milk or a spotty wifi connection, might as well go for another hike.

When I got back from that trip, Warren and I made a pact to at least try to leave town one day each week. This is week three and already we missed the mark this past week, but I'm ready to get back on the horse (or at least off the Internet) next week. Meanwhile, the two weeks we were successful yielded excellent results. In late September, on Warren's birthday in fact, we set out into the Hill Country. We stopped at Thyme & Dough Bakery in Drippin', my current favorite bakery. The food, the feel of the place, the porch, the gardens-- if you haven't been make a note to self to get there soon. From T&D we cruised out toward Wimberley, stopping at Old Oaks Ranch (a yarn store/llama ranch/sculpture garden), then on to Canyon Lake. I usually let Warren decide these things since, I am not exaggerating one iota, I can't read a map and just looking at one to consider possible destinations gives me a headache. Besides, as long as I wind up near water, rocks and trees I'm happy.

Sitting by the water for a few hours offers an instant calm I can't get any other way. I know because I've been trying various combinations for years. For decades I had a fear of water, tackled when I learned to swim in my late thirties. But I always loved being near water and one of these days I'm just going to pack up the dogs and move to the beach.

In the meanwhile, I'm glad we've got some lovely bodies of water within easy driving distance. Week Two of our Get-the-Hell-Out-of-Dodge plan found us heading toward Pedernales State Park, a choice made in part so that we could again go to Thyme & Dough. We were just going to grab sandwiches to go but, spellbound by the ambience, we again settled into a table on the porch. The only drawback to this choice was that by the time we made it to the park, we only had a couple of hours before we needed to get back to town for a show.

But we made great use of our time, hiking down the path a ways, the only other humans encountered being a gaggle of seniors that were huffing and puffing their way to an exit. We spotted a huge rock (not hard to do at Pedernales) out in the river and worked our way out to it, then up it. Me being me, I'd brought a hefty book and some knitting. But the trees and water and rocks won. I read about three pages before surrendering, taking time for some meditation in the sun followed immediately by lying on my back gazing up into some lacy branches, delighted to note that one seemed to be giving me the okay sign. I then fell into a really deep sleep. I'm not a napper so it surprised me-- waking up to realize I'd been so soundly asleep, on a rock that was as hard as, well, a rock.

Perhaps the sabbath would've been more fully realized if we'd left the cameras behind but that's one form of technology that follows us wherever we go. So here are some pictures of our adventures. Might I encourage you all to save looking at them for later-- go out and play now. Right this minute.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Round Up-- Good Things to See, Do, Hear, Learn

Hey Y'all,
I get a lot of requests to announce events, projects, etc, seeing as I have such a big virtual mouth. Used to be I could post these at my JetBlue Blog (R.I.P.). Now I'm going to, from time-to-time, put some of those announcements here. I can't run them all, but I'll do what I can to help get the word out about readings, projects, classes, etc. Today I have three decidedly non-related things to tell you about.

Central Texas Dachshund Rescue Calendar

The first is about a calendar that is coming out very soon to help support Central Texas Dachshund Rescue. There's a link with a video made by my friend Sue Rostvold, who is a great photographer specializing in dog portraits. Here's a note Sue sent me with info on the calendar:

For the past month or so I have been photographing dogs and designing the 2011 Central Texas Dachshund Rescue calendar. I know that you can't give to every cause. Between saving the polar bears and finding a cure for cancer, it's impossible to support all the great organizations in the world.

I just wanted to share these images and stories in a short video to help spread the word about this small nonprofit run entirely by volunteers. is having financial troubles due to the increasing number of dogs they’ve rescued in recent weeks. I’m trying to raise a few dollars so CTDR can continue helping dachshunds in need.

Watch. Share. Give if you can ... Even a $5 donation would help tremendously.
Because CTDR has no labor costs, your contribution will go directly to provide food, shelter, and medical care for rescued animals.

Here’s the link to the video:

And here’s a direct link to my fundraising page where you can make a donation to CTDR:


Next up is On Our Own Terms (OOOT) a new training program to teach advocates how to lead others in discussing end-of-life issues. This is put on by Hospice Austin and hosted by my good friend (and Kick Ass Award winner) David Zuniga, a Buddhist monk. You can read more about the program here. “People really need to know what their options are before they’re faced with a crisis so they can make the best decisions for themselves,” said David Zuniga, the program’s outreach coordinator. “We want to give people the confidence and tools to face the end of life on their own terms.” Training begins October 18th and you can email David directly for more information:


And, on a TOTALLY different note from dogs and death... it's about time for another Bedpost Confessions show. Here's info on that:

What could be more fun than a night out in Austin where the evening's motif is one that is often forbidden? BedPost Confessions is an exciting new reading and performance series that aims to unlock the secrets of everyone's favorite taboo... Sex. Erotic writers, hilarious improvisers, sexy dancers and more will assemble monthly at the United States Art Authority to shamelessly tickle Austin's erotic underbelly.
BedPost Confessions is a free event held the second Thursday of each month at 8 PM. Next performance is Thursday, October 14th.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Okay, last night's boo-hoo session (scroll down to see that post) is officially over. It was nice to get all that off my chest. Equally-- nay, more nice-- was today's adventure in Radical Homemaking. I strived to not make a To Do list for the weekend, since To Do lists, while very helpful, also typically enslave me. I did wind up writing down just a few things, but these I scrawled on the back of a business card, sort of like "this is a small list on a small piece of paper so it is of small consequence if you ignore it."

That seemed to work. I got up, made some super duper espresso in the super duper espresso pot Warren got for me in Israel as an anniversary gift. (Three Year Anniversary = Ass Kicking Coffee Pots.) I walked the pups all around Mueller, over past the old air traffic control tower, which I like to refer to as Austin's own Eiffel Tower. Along the way, I listened to the audiobook of Born to Run, my friend Chris's most excellent-- MOST EXCELLENT-- book. I'd started reading it months ago then set it down "for a few minutes" to work on my own novel. Only now getting back to it and I might never be a foot racer but I am racing through this book.

Then home again home again jiggity jig where I had the vaguest of plans to get back into bed and continue reading the print version of another MOST EXCELLENT book: Watching the English by Kate Fox. Oh this book is SLAYING me-- she's a real anthropologist and she really studied her fellow Englishmen and women and I'm just giving one quote here: "Mummy says pardon is a worse word than fuck!" Get this book right away. Additionally I was going to read the entire NYT and knit twelve sweaters but then...

My inner Radical Homemaker emerged and she proved unstoppable. Despite everything I wrote about my new quilt book in the post below, and despite the fact I am a shitty seamstress, I actually transformed the living room into a quilt room and got an ironing station set up and a cutting table. I watered the winter garden which I planted a few days ago. I hung the clothes out on the line having recently convinced Warren to take the dryer away. (He thinks, as does my son, that I will be begging to have it back in a week. They of little faith...)

Being outside with the laundry made me realize that the idea of being in bed with the paper reading about the economy and the wars was a PFS idea. So I walked over to the old chicken yard "just to have a look" and see about finally, after years of postponing the task, maybe re-doing the yard, building a new coop, and making a roof over the entire chicken yard from the old corrugated tin Warren gave me. Then, before I knew it, I was out there actually doing these things. Yep-- I got the coop going (still needs a door), installed a roof (not tornado proof), and discovered that it would be most helpful if Vibram started making steel toed Five Fingers (don't worry, I'm fine).

I did miraculously avoided slicing into my neck with the unwieldy sheets of tin, or smashing my thumb with a hammer, or plummeting a huge staple into my finger. This beats the hell out of last week's adventures when a plank-sized splinter had Warren nearly wrestling me to the ground so he could slice it out with a knife in order that I might stop screaming my head off.

On the way in from my successful coop building, I grabbed some super fresh basil from the garden (see picture above) which I shall now use to make a splendid pesto for some pasta that I will take on a picnic.

In short: I LOVE THIS WEATHER. I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT. And I love Radical Homemaking. To hell with writing. I am staying outside until December.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Yes, That's Right-- It's Time for Another Way Too Long Rant About Writing!

Many moons ago, I used to be part of Austin’s slam poetry community. While there were and still are many incredible slam poets, one thing I got really sick of was slam poetry about slam poetry. I mention this simply to call out my own hypocrisy, as sometimes I simply can’t resist writing about writing. There’s nothing original about this. I think some of us who visit the territory at least try to rationalize the self-indulgence by suggesting we are hoping to offer great insight to those wondering about the writing life and/or to commiserate with so many other writers who have also experienced the less pleasant side of trying to “make it” as a writer.

I think I’ll skip the rationalization here and just say that what follows is a cathartic rant, but not one without some bright points. This week was especially “writerly” for me, beginning with a rejection letter on Monday from an agent who said no thanks to my new novel using some pretty classic rejection letter techniques. In short, at least to my eyes, her message read, “I love your writing, I hate your book.” (Do agents have a secret handbook to which they refer called Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You: Discouraging Writers With Rejection Letters that Include the Occasional Confusing Compliment Couched in an Otherwise Heartbreaking Send Off?)

The week ended – work-wise anyway— a couple of hours ago with me pronouncing a young couple married. I count this as part of my writing life since it does involve words on the page, some written by me, some cribbed from outside sources. I also count it because this side wedding business of mine largely supports my other writing— i.e. the stuff I’m passionate about but more often than not doesn’t pay shit.

Before I tell you about the middle of the week, a quick aside about money and writing: some— perhaps many— of us writers will lie and say we don’t do it for the money. That’s not necessarily a total lie. If I never made another cent off of my words, I’m positive I’d still keep hammering away at the keyboard. Writing is a compulsion for me, like breathing, to use a tired but apt simile. I’ve been doing it since I first learned how to put words together and, though my plan is to be cremated, I can’t help but sometimes imagine a tombstone bearing my name, one that is inscribed with a few last thoughts I’ve composed, my final written offering to the world. (Currently I’m leaning toward: Skinny At Last.) Still, at some point pretty early on (19 to be precise) I began receiving payment for my writing, prompting a sort of ongoing Pavlovian scenario in which I have come to hope/expect that my sentences will result in a check somewhere down the line.

The Pavlovian comparison loses steam however, when I stop to actually consider how much of my work has netted income and how much has not. When I do this, I’m left switching to what I learned in therapy about Random Rewards. Something about how certain lab rats learn to press a button, which sometimes leads to a pellet being released. Other times? Nada. Unfortunately, the rat never seems to figure it out and just keeps punching that button over and over and over until it dies or goes insane waiting for a reward that may never come. (In therapy I actually examined Random Rewards to scrutinize many of my dismal relationships with men but it works just as well to examine my relationships with editors and publishers.)

So yeah, I want money for my writing. Try as I might, I have yet to figure out how to use rocks and shells for currency and to operate inside of our society— that is, to keep roof, food, utilities, and travel in my life— I need cold hard cash. Sure, I write for the passion of it. But don’t think for a minute that the notion of a potential paycheck isn’t lurking around the nearest corner. Toward that end, I’ve done okay for myself – not phenomenally well but enough to stay afloat— in large part because early on I readily adopted a whoring attitude. In the name of professional writing I’ve taken work describing thousands of calendars, creating white papers about document management for Google, ghost writing, and cranking out more mindless women’s magazine articles—including one of those classic I Lost Fifty Pounds pieces replete with before and after pictures—than I can count.

I’ve also been a columnist, an essayist, a professional blogger, and—ring the bell, people— author of six published books, eight if you count two textbooks I wrote (which I don’t). Considering the original goal was to get one book published before dying, that’s not too shoddy. The cumulative income of these books, written over the course of eleven years, doesn’t add up to much, even if you do count the textbooks. I can therefore state with authority what so many others have stated before me. Writing is, for the vast majority of us, not a quick (or even slow) way to the high life. Still, I’ve gotten by, raised a kid, met a lot of interesting profile subjects, and gone on some pretty amazing all-expenses-paid assignments (including snowboarding camp for a week). So if you asked me if– knowing what I know now— I would go back and pick a more stable and financially rewarding career, I can also state with authority: No. I would not.

Okay: middle of the week. I taught two adult writing workshops and four kids’ writing classes. I used to have some trepidation about this teaching stuff, feeling at times fraudulent presenting myself as a writing teacher. I’m not actually sure you can teach writing, at least not in a rote fashion. Once I said to an acquaintance that I thought my ability to write was a gift. He took great offense, thinking I was suggesting I have some special powers that others cannot access through hard work, that either you have it or you don’t, and therefore I must believe myself somehow “better” than these “lesser” beings. In fact, my statement was an attempt at humility. As in, “I can’t take total credit for the success I’ve had and actually, though I can see how some of it might be connected to hard work, honestly I have no idea where this ability to write came from.”

These days when I am in front of a class I feel a little less fraudulent. I’m still not sure I can teach others to write. But what I’m sure I can do is give people permission to write, to help them get the inner critic to shut up for a little while, and to offer a little cheerleading. Some might dismiss the latter as blowing smoke up ass in exchange for cash. I beg to differ. Overwhelmingly our society sets us up to think we need permission— little children are told “no” repeatedly from an early age. And they are also told what they may do and when they may do it. This continues into the school years and then, for many, into the workplace. The ubiquity of “no” coupled with an insistence that there are rules that must be followed stymies and stifles. We wind up wallowing in thinking we can’t do this or that, or that we aren’t allowed, or that we aren’t good enough, and that trying is going to lead to failure and failure will yield ridicule.

So I cheerlead. I don’t do this to mislead students into thinking I believe they are fated to pen some novel on par with the Russian greats. I do it in hopes of getting them to relax into it, to stop worrying what others think, and to stop thinking they can’t. I tell them that maybe they will decide, in the end, they really can’t write, or shouldn’t write, or don’t want to write. All of which are fine. I applaud them for at least trying. And I know that some of them will keep trying, will be unable to stop trying, will also suffer/enjoy the compulsion to write. My courses are like appetizers: taste this prompt, try this approach, nibble on the memoir style, see what—if anything—leaves you wanting more.

Now let’s take a look at Friday, shall we? Friday, after teaching all day, I stopped by the house for a moment to let the dogs out for a pee before dashing off to a wedding rehearsal. There on the doorstep was a FedEx box. I knew it was coming but had forgotten. I carried it in, ripped it open. An advance copy of my new book, number six. The cover is very, very pretty. The book weighs about fifty pounds. It’s a massive history of quilts that begins thousands of years ago and continues on through the past year or so. I looked inside to make sure the dedication was there. Then I closed it and put it on the table. I can see it sitting over there. I can’t bring myself to read or even skim it.

Rewind. Summer 1999. An advance copy of my very first book, a memoir, had just arrived. I wept when I saw it. A book. I wrote a book. My dream had come true.

But this latest book— remember what I said about the agent’s rejection letter on Monday? How she seemed to suggest both love and hate in the same space? I should love this new book. I busted my ass writing it. I used over 100 sources, included chapters solicited from experts, and personally amassed something like 400 photos from museums, artists and collectors around the world, a task for which I was not prepared, a task made more daunting by a pathetic budget and an inability to speak more than one language. Along the way, at least three experts— academically trained quilt historians—spewed insults at me when I approached them for help. I think they hated me because they thought I was utterly sans credentials, stepping into territory they had clearly marked as their own. How dare I?

Do you know what it’s like to be called a hack writer by an historian in a microscopic field? To be insulted after laboring over ancient, often barely comprehensible primary sources until your eyes practically bleed? To be mocked for seeking help despite uber-cautiously written query letters, acknowledging one’s own blank slate status and the recipient’s expertise?

Actually, in retrospect it’s pretty fucking hilarious. But in the throes of writing that damn book, it wasn’t funny at all. Nor, for that matter, was my contract. I have to say that I probably would have taken that contract even if I hadn’t been in dire straits because I didn’t know, going in, just how bad the deal was. Sure, I knew the contract was small, but using the creative math system I have invented, and knowing just how fast I can sometimes write, I rationalized that it wasn’t the worst offer in the world. Too, I had just been “let go” of another job I had, let go without notice, and told that $5,000 worth of back pay would not be forthcoming, this while I was in bed recovering from major surgery and in no position to go looking for work for at least a month. Thus, in fact, I was in dire straits.

So I signed on for the project, practically begged for it. Most book contracts come with a royalty clause, which, even if royalties never materialize, at least you can hope, for a while, that they will. Not this time. A work-for-hire project with the distant promise of a small bonus if an ungodly number of units moves, and a second small bonus if a super ungodly number moves. The end. After that, all profit is realized by the publisher and none by the author.

I look at that book, sitting on the table, uncracked, and it says to me: This is what it’s come to. And it also stands as a reminder of other less than savory thoughts. Two weeks ago, I got an email from a source that had, above and beyond all others, provided me with more photos and research materials than any of my other sources. All of this assistance was provided for free, due in great part to a nearly decade-long relationship I had fostered and nurtured with the source. My source required just one thing in return: a chance to preview the book before it went to press, to check for any errors.

It was such a small thing to ask for. A small thing and a smart thing. Because despite my anal tendency to fact check every last detail fourteen times, the sheer quantity of information provided by this source invited at least a few errors. Months ago I sent word to my publisher of the requirement and was assured it would be met.

And then the book went to press. The source never got a copy. And worse, the source found out about the book going to press by my inept book publicist who wrote to the source requesting a publicity favor which, though I will spare you the details, would sort of be like asking the pope to man your bake sale table for a few hours. This reflected very poorly on me, as if I had condoned the publicist’s actions. All this led to a flurry of emails in which I let the publisher know how my relationship with the source was now totally fucked. Not a small thing, as this means I won’t have access to the source for future works. Then I got another note from another source pointing out that the publicist had made a major gaffe in her press release.

What is wrong with these people?

Two of my favorite jokes are favorites not because they are wildly funny, but because they perfectly capture the less savory aspects of my career, and come in mighty handy during times like these. The first involves a plane crashing in the desert, the only survivors a writer and an editor. They crawl through the blazing desert for days and, just as they are about to perish, come upon an oasis. The writer drags himself over and starts slurping down water. The editor staggers to his feet, pulls down his zipper, and pees in the water. “What the FUCK are you doing?” asks the writer. “I’m making it better!” answers the editor.

The other joke is about the guy that cleans up elephant shit at the circus. Night after night he comes home and bitches to his wife about his job. Finally, tired of hearing it, she says, “Then quit your job!” To which he responds, “What? And get out of show business?”

I said there would be bright spots in this rant. For all the bellyaching I do, I take my own whining with a huge grain of salt. I can grumble with the best of them about how the publishing business has gone to hell. I can lament that I never got some “big break I deserve.” I can and I do, but only half-seriously. Because if I trade out the half-empty glass for the half-full one, the bottom line is that I might not be “making it” in the fantasy, bestseller sense of making it, but I am still managing to have an awful lot of fun quite a bit of the time. If it means sometimes having to haul around the shit shovel, then quick, somebody hand me my shovel.

Which brings me back to the recently rejected novel. It’s actually my fourth rejected novel. Curiously, the sting of rejection never lasts too long with my fiction. Some days I think I just have to keep trying. And other days I think the fiction thing is just not my calling. I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way. I mean it in the same way I never got my black belt in Taekwondo. I dropped out two or three tests before achieving that goal but I didn’t care. I learned what I set out to learn: how to kill people with my bare hands and feet. I also learned some other cool stuff like how to walk (or run) away from a threat. I was never going to master the spinning, jumping, double-back kick needed to get that black belt, and in the big picture, that didn’t bother me. I improved myself and I had fun doing it. That was enough.

So maybe I’ll never master the art of fiction, and I’m absolutely certain that will be fine. I had a shit-ton of fun writing all four novels and I improved my writing, too. The only problem I have for now with the rejection is that I have, just a little, allowed it to plant that seed of doubt, the one I work to help my students eradicate. The agent who read my book thought it was too snarky. Funny thing is, my big goal was to make it snarky. The book is a parody. The protagonist I created is an exploration of super cynicism. In a way, the agent’s distaste for my snarkiness is a perverse compliment—apparently I captured the very thing I set out to capture. Too bad I did a good enough job of it to make the finished product a total turn-off.

Too, I worry—Does she think I’m that snarky?

I wanted to defend myself. I am defensive by nature. Warren loves watching me debate whether or not to respond to the trolls who sometimes visit my Austinist column and lay down bait to piss me off. I fight the urge, I fight the urge, I fight the urge… then I give in, gift the boneheads with freshly ripped new sphincters, and then, in an instant, feel bad and stupid I ever engaged in the first place. Warren sums up the whole cycle as me wanting to proclaim to these idiots, “I am too nice, you asshole!”

The agent that rejected me is hardly an asshole. She’s been very kind over the years, hearing out sundry proposals I’ve made. She’s been patient and encouraging. Her reputation is excellent. But her words this time, even with a few compliments sprinkled in, still stung. “I am too nice!” I wanted to fire back, even though she never said I wasn’t.

Then there was the fear—maybe she’s right. Maybe it is too snarky. Maybe it’s horrific. Maybe she’s done me a huge favor. Maybe I need to burn the fucking thing now before anyone else reads it.

And so, life’s ubiquitous no rears its head once again. Do I defy the no just for the sake of defying it? Do I sent the manuscript out to a hundred others and thus potentially invite a hundred more rejections? Do I self-publish and tell myself I’ll show them all! and then find myself sitting with a roomful of hardcopies nobody wants?

I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned.