Tuesday, May 31, 2011

There's Gnome Place Like the Garden

Recent garden additions: a couple of gnomes plus some more basil, eggplants and peppers. 

Dare, from YardFarm Austin-- you know, the folks who installed my amazing raised beds-- came by to put in these monster tomato cages. This pic was taken a few weeks ago and now, I kid you not, the tomato plants are taller than I am.

Here we have my first couple of tomatoes from the garden. OMG.

The other night Warren and I made dinner for some friends, using tons of food from the garden. Above there's a salad (lettuce and mixed greens homegrown) with yellow tomatoes (from the garden), a red tomato (grown local but not at my house-- got it at Wheatsville), and some feta from Phoenicia-- not the one in Austin (though that's good) but from this 55,000 square foot monster store in Houston that has an olive bar the size of a football field. The place is packed with Middle Easterners and the selection of food is so vast and stunning that it's worth making a trip to Houston just to shop there.

This here is chard (from the garden) sauteed ever so briefly in some EVOO (also from Phoenicia). I topped it with some shredded parm (Wheatsville) and, secret ingredient, "Slap Ya Mama"-- a super spicy seasoning mix my friends K & A gifted me.

Get some of this stuff. Really. It'll put hair on your chest, or curl whatever hair you have on your chest already or, if you already have curly chest hair, then it will straighten it AND make it fall out. GOOD STUFF.

Here we have the salad and greens along with some edamame (store bought, organic and DELICIOUS) and some orzo pasta (Farm to Market Grocery, 1718 South Congress) which I slathered in some homemade pesto made from homegrown basil. I'm a real throw-shit-together kind of cook so providing recipes is not something I do well. For my fellow fearless culinary shit-together-throwers, the gist of it is this:

Grab 20 or 30 basil leaves, rinse 'em and rough chop 'em. Throw them in the blender with a good long pour of EVOO-- you know, like a five count. Toss in four or five (or six or ten) cloves of garlic, some salt and pepper to taste, a handful of grated parm and-- my big secret-- some lightly toasted cashews. (I buy cashew pieces in bulk at Wheatsville since pieces are cheaper than whole cashews and you're going to be grinding them up so who gives a crap what they look like, right?) Now put the lid on and turn on the blender. If your blender is anything like mine (a $15 jobbie acquired at Target circa 1918 with blades that came pre-dulled and, thanks to years of use, are now about as sharp as Sarah Palin) and flip to high. Enjoy the smell of the burning motor as it tries to process the fact you just put in way more solid food than it's comfy with. Go ahead and toss in a little water-- really. I know this is probably a felony in Italy and I'm sure such tips will prevent me from ever getting a cooking show of my own. But when you work with the sort of equipment I have, you do what you have to. Anyway, eventually you should get the mix right (you can also add in more oil) and it will hopefully blend into a paste before the blender catches on fire. Now use that one spatula you own- you know the one that is a little bit burnt from the time you got it too close to the burner-- and scrape the pesto out of the Tired Little Blender and onto the al denta orzo and, voila, you're a damn champion Italian chef.

In conclusion: Grow your own food. Think about asking YardFarm Austin to help you. And stay tuned for more half-assed recipes soon. Next up: Spike teaches you the Wonders of Bread.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Six Thousand Thirteen and Counting

Sorry to harsh any mellow you're working on this holiday, but I continue to be so fucking outraged by these wars Bush started, the whole bullshit WMD pile of lies, and the fact that the government continues to keep the majority of us so insulated from the mounting death toll that I thought I'd post a little reminder.

For years I used to keep a big sign on my front lawn with an updated death toll of US Troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also to note the estimated number of civilian casualties in those countries. I'm ashamed that, after that sign wore out, I didn't replace it. I think I need to replace it. For now, I just did a quick search to track the most recent numbers. According to the Washington Post-- which last updated its numbers on May 23, 2011, so far there have been SIX THOUSAND THIRTEEN TROOP FATALITIES. My hunch is that in the past week those numbers have already gone up and I'm pretty sure they don't include all the soldiers who come home and kill themselves-- a number that is also alarming and continues to grow.

And the numbers don't reveal all the soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries-- folks whose lives are forever haunted and ruined even if they never do get a proper diagnosis. The army's response to TBI is especially despicable-- they don't even want to acknowledge this as an actual diagnosis. According to an NPR report, if you combine concussions suffered by US Troops as well as more severe brain injuries, we're talking more than 200,000 head injuries, and more than 40% of the concussions go undiagnosed.

IraqBodyCount.com reports somewhere between 101,097 and 110, 421 Iraqi civilians killed since Bush launched the war in 2003 (Yes, that's right, the US has been engaged in this conflict for MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS.) If you want to see some pretty pie charts breaking down thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, check out this report issued by the United Nations.

And please, too, on this Memorial Day, consider all of the other injuries-- amputations, dismemberments, little kids and women obliterated, children of killed and permanently scarred US Troops. Please, REMEMBER THEM ALL.

Not intentionally (unless it was subconsciously) I spent the last week listening to the audiobook version of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, about his experience in Vietnam. Billed as a novel but probably not exactly that, the book (in which O'Brien's character is named Tim O'Brien) talks a lot about telling the story of, and what constitutes the truth, and how you better watch out for any accounts that are draped in big heroics. I've avoided reading this book for years-- not to keep my head in the sand but because I suffer another kind of PTSD. Not the kind brought on by senseless war, the kind brought on by childhood trauma. I'm not here to get into that, except to say that having PTSD gives me insight I wish I didn't have, a glimpse at the tip of the iceberg of the sort of PTSD soldiers must suffer. People with PTSD don't necessarily have visible scars. Some people think we're full of shit when we talk about this thing. I tell you, it is real and it is a killer. I spend every minute of every day living in hyper-vigilance. My partner and my son both know that you do not walk through my house silently. You better be whistling or text me in advance to let me know you're heading from one room into another, because if you don't, and if you come up behind me quietly, we are all going to suffer for it. If you are lucky, you find a way to manage it, but PTSD never goes away, and there is no telling how many soldiers are going to have to deal with it-- along with their families and communities (so, like, all of us)-- for the rest of their lives.

So I was afraid of O'Brien's book. But I wanted to at least try it. Not to torture myself. But because I try to think of these goddammned motherfucking wars EVERY SINGLE DAY. I try to remember how many young soldiers are over there every day, and to hope with all my heart that they somehow (how?) manage to come home not too damaged. I hate that the government banned showing photos of soldiers coffins. And I ask every one of you go right this second and take a look at the photos by Todd Heisler that initially accompanied a series in the Denver Post by Jim Sheeler that detailed the lives of soldiers whose job it is to inform stateside relatives of their son's and daughter's war deaths. (The first photo you'll see if you click the link, a larger version of the one on the book's cover, is one I will never, ever forget.) That series later was published in a longer version book called Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. And if you ask me, I think every single one of us should spend today reading The Things They Carried and Final Salute and maybe watching The Hurt Locker, too.

It's been a long time since a book made me cry, but O'Brien's did the trick handily. I didn't need too much of a nudge in this direction. The Vietnam War was one of those weird things in my life-- I was far too young to comprehend it while it was happening. But I remember helping my mother make care packages for our friend, Mickey. I especially remember packing up Jiffy Pop Popcorn and though I was probably only four or five when we sent that, I have spent the rest of my life associating that popcorn with the war. I remember POW and MIA bracelets. And, many years later-- when I was about the age of so many young soldiers shipped off by politicians whose own fortunate sons would never see combat-- I remember visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC for the first time. If you have not ever stood before that stark monument, with its listing of more than 58,000 names, let me tell you something. What you see, besides all those names is this: yourself, reflected back at you. How I cried when I stood there.

Last summer or the summer before, I was over at Wheatsville and, knowing my son was out at a park with some friends, I picked up some food to drop off for them-- a little impromptu picnic. I drove over to Rosedale Park and spotted them-- four or five young men, 18 and 19 years old. Call me a morbid one, but when I saw them-- so tall and thin, playing Wiffle Ball like little children still adjusting to their young man bodies-- I instantly thought of Vietnam. And then I thought of Iraq and Afghanistan. Here were these kids, precisely the same age as so many kids who were drafted in the '60s or who, in these current conflicts, signed up perhaps not out of patriotism, but out of lack of better choices. And I thought how I would sooner break my own son's legs than have him be drafted or sign up for a war started as some vanity project by the most delusional POTUS that ever lived.

And, to be completely honest, I also couldn't help thinking about that stupid song that came out-- wasn't it part of a soundtrack to a Stallone movie? Nu-nu-nu-nu-nineteen.... A song that incorporated a loop of a news announcer explaining the average age of Vietnam soldiers was 19.

These wars have gone on far too long, Bush's legacy, so many dead, and I'm not even going to bother trotting out the financial costs today. Because today is about remembering all of those soldiers who have died, far far too many of them courtesy of bullshit wars waged by the power mongers who look at the front liners as nothing but disposable pawns.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

And Now a Word from Our Sponsor: We Heart Trannies!

When I put out the tip jar last week, I mentioned that I'd be glad to knit a scarf or write a profile for anyone who donates $75 or more. A couple of folks took me up on the scarf offer. Today I'd like to tell you about a business that chose the Profile Option.

Davids4Speeds LLC in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (yep, I got a sponsor from Milwaukee!!) exists to please all you tranny lovers out there. No, no-- not cross-dressing trannies. Transmission trannies. (Isn't there some meta joke in there about "tranny" being a "crossover" term?) 

Bad puns aside, let me tell you what David does. He rebuilds transmissions and shifters for '60s and '70s muscle cars. This used to be his hobby but then, as so many callings do, it took over and became his life. Yes, he works seven days a week often enough, but the good news is he loves his work. 

Interior of '64 Valiant. Note the push buttons to the left of steering wheel.

While my Scion XB hardly counts as a muscle car, one day I will again own a classic vintage chrome covered 8-cylinder monster, at which point David will become My Man. Just thinking about it excites me. Over the years I've owned a 4-door '63 Galaxy 500 with more chrome than a factory full of toasters, a '67 Dodge Dart Swinger (okay, maybe not technically a muscle car, but truly an oldie and don't you love the idea of saying, "Hi, I'd like you to work on my Swinger Tranny!"?), a '67 Chevy pickup with three-on-the-tree shifter and a little throttle thingie and a mere 26,000 miles on it when I purchased it in '88. And then there was perhaps my all-time favorite (and my first car), a '64 Plymouth Valiant with a runs-forever slant-6 under the hood. I got that puppy when I was eighteen-- the car and I were the same age. It had holes in the floorboard so I could truly keep an eye on the road. And various sections of it were held together with chicken wire. But the best part? A PUSH BUTTON TRANSMISSION -- yes, it had little buttons on the far left hand side of the dash which my high school classmate Steve Schmucker likened to a vending machine. Boy I loved that car.

So if you've got an old car sitting around waiting to be resurrected and you're in the Milwaukee area, please give David a holler. And check out his gallery here. Want to see videos? Here's a link to David's blog.

Meanwhile, thanks again from Dolly Parton and me to all of you who put something in the tip jar. I think I listed all of you on the front page under sponsors but if for some reason I missed, please let me know and I'll add your name asap And for those of you who didn't put something in but want to, here's the donate button. Email me if you want to be featured in one of these Sponsor Profiles: spikegillespie@gmail.com


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Well Shit, I Don't Know How Angelina Jolie Does It-- My Movie Debut!

photo copyright Caroline O'Connor 2011
A couple of Sundays ago, Warren and I were getting a nice slow start, pleasantly dividing up the NYT and settling in to read it at a leisurely pace. He, as ever, grabbed the Magazine first and, turning to the TOC, held it out and said, "Look!" There was an image of some knitter-- you know knit bombing is all the rage these days and some knitters are getting tons of international press. I faux-whined, "Waa! I never get attention like that for my knitting!"

Well maybe I should've said, "Waaa! I never win the lottery!" Because just hours after lamenting my lack of knitting fame, I got a call from my old friend Gerrie, whom I hadn't heard from in years. She explained that the Austin Film Society is doing a remake of Slacker-- 20 different directors are recreating updated versions of all the scenes from the original flick-- and would I be interested in taking on the role of an undercover security guard who drops her knitting in order to rough up a shoplifter?

Well, damn, Gerrie! I thought you'd never ask!

Before I tell you about the shoot, let's take a moment to reminisce about Slacker, shall we? That movie came out the very same month I moved to Austin, September 1991. I saw it at the Dobie Theater (RIP) and to tell you the truth, being so extremely new to Austin, I didn't totally get it. It didn't take me long though to discover Les Amis (RIP) and other cool places that appeared in the movie. And over the twenty years since it was first released (TWENTY YEARS!) I have come to know lots of folks who appeared in the original. I also more than get the whole thing now-- shit, my life over the past two decades has been like a living, breathing, ongoing sequel to the movie. Not to say that I'm a slacker (but then, not to say there's anything wrong with being a slacker). But Linklater surely captured the essence of this town, its meandering conversations and PhD-enhanced baristas (even before we called them baristas, come to think of it).

photo copyright Caroline O'Connor 2011

I remember once, years ago, my friend Thomas was visiting from St. Louis. (Hi, Thomas!) We were driving along Red River when I spotted my friend, Atietie, a philosophy professor originally from Nigeria. I asked Atietie-- who once eloquently explained to me that his greatest hope in life is to inspire a feeling in people like they get when the spot an exotic flower growing wild by the road-- if he wanted a lift. He hopped in and dropped right into our conversation. After we dropped him off, Thomas aptly noted, "Wow, that was right out of Slacker."

Since then I've had endless Slacker-hued moments in this town. Two particular days that come to mind are the one last summer when some dude brought his pet boa constrictor for a swim in Barton Creek, and another one around Christmas when I picked up a hitchhiking Leslie who wanted a ride for, like, three blocks.

Getting back to the remake. Director Elisabeth Sikes was tapped to recreate a scene that had been shot at FoodLand, which is now the Alamo South. It's a two-minute blip, but it's MY blip, dang it, and you better believe I'm going to wear something naughty-sexy to the premiere at the Paramount. In the original, a male undercover security guard drags himself away from playing a video game to accost a female shoplifter. In the new version, I'm the undercover guard, knitting in front of a video game which is -- nice touch-- covered in one of the tree cozies that was part of the big Blanton Museum Tree Cozy Extravaganza, organized by Knita Please (one of those internationally famous knitters I mentioned earlier). I was actually part of a team of three who knitted this cozy.

Blanton Tree Cozy photo copyright Ori Sofer 2011
Fortunately, I only have a few lines and I was allowed to play around with them since-- really how does Angelina Jolie memorize so many lines AND while wearing a catsuit?-- to say I am a wooden actress is more than a kind assessment. Back in high school, my cousins Brian and Joe would cajole me into playing the female leads (Karen Kamikaze, Mrs. Attila the Hun) in Super 8 flicks they made. I still remember stumbling over a line with Cesar Romero's name in it and Brian and Joe being forced to make do since there just weren't that many teenage girls clamoring to take my place. We did have a rehearsal the other night, which was good. To my surprise, the first time I went to grab the shoplifter my head was convinced I really was a guard and he really was a criminal. I got into it. (David, who plays the shoplifter, was very nice about this-- me grabbing him and yelling at him.)

Also in our scene is Sam, an actor/director who heads up the aptly named Big Beard Films. Sam cuts a daunting figure-- he's about seventeen feet tall and has one of those beards that, on a lot of guys (but not Sam) I refer to as Unearned Ruggedness.

For the actual shoot, I showed up early this morning, indulged in a taco-laden feast provided by Craft Services (Craft Services! Talk about classy!) and then we began. I got super familiar with the sound guy, Andy, as he threaded the mic wire over my ample bosoms and around my back where he got to see that tattoo that not everybody gets to see. I got to flash my security badge over and over at David, the shoplifter, as we did take after take. Here's a picture of the security badge we did not wind up using, but which Gerrie made for me and let me keep-- I plan on wearing it everywhere for the rest of my life-- a new tool to embarrass my son!


My scene cuts to one that includes Kathy McCarty, former front-woman for Glass Eye (RIP) and this provided even more excitement. In case you haven't heard Kathy's interpretation of Daniel Johnston's songs on her record Dead Dog's Eyeball, you should get a copy immediately. Not only is it one of the most gorgeous albums of all time, it also really defines a certain era in Austin. When I put it on, I flash back instantly to when Henry was little and things were simpler and nobody had cellphones and Austin's "skyline" was more defined by a couple dozen grackles sittin' in a tree than towering downtown condos.

It was all just so dang exciting. And getting asked to be in Slacker made me feel like I have arrived as an Austinite, that my invisible application to be considered a true citizen of this fine town has officially been accepted, that I really belong. Stay tuned for updates-- I hear the premiere will be in August.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New CD by Matt the Electrician-- YAY!

I was super-psyched at the PO today to find the new Matt the Electrician CD, Accidental Thief, waiting in my mailbox. It's an advance copy and it sounds GREAT. The official release date is June 14th, and Matt's playing an in-store at Waterloo Records that day. I'm trying to track Matt down now to see if he has time for an interview. Stay tuned for that and the record. Meanwhile, here's a little video to help you bide your time. Congratulations Matt!

All I Know from Matt the Electrician on Vimeo.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chevron Station May 20, 2011 (a little poem)

Heading home from yoga
I go to the Chevron Station
To drop another $40 in my
Ten-gallon tank,
Hope unreasonably they will have
Frozen yogurt by the pint,
And am more than a little certain
I’ll do the Pavlovian Marlboro Light
Addict slobber at the counter.
(Technically they are Marlboro Golds now
as if instead of lightening your breathing
they enrich your lungs.)

I don’t really like any gas stations
But the Chevron is right there
And, too, chevron is a knitting pattern
Fossil fuel for fiber fiends,
A thought that pleases me.

I step inside while the pump runs
And the gorgeous clerk
Fresh scrubbed and possibly having
Recently defended her dissertation
Flashes me a blinding smile
As I head to the freezer and wave.
Baby come back
Please hurry
Why don’t you come back
Drifts out of the speakers
And this pleases me, too
But it is pleasure tinged with aggravation.

Now my mental jukebox will go
On the prowl searching,
Time traveling back to the Jersey Shore
Too many pony bottles of Rolling Rock
And all those nights dancing until 5 am
Before my first shift waiting on old folks
Starts at 7

Howard Jones?
Howard Jones.
Who is it?

There is, of course, no frozen yogurt.
I cannot justify a full fat pint
And settle at last on an orange
Flinstone push-up pop
At the counter I ask,
“Do you have one of those things
that tells you what song is playing?”
(I think I’m trying to say, “Is this satellite radio,
because surely it’s not a local station.”)
“No,” she says. “If I did I’d be able
to change the station.”

“I can’t tell you who this is,” I say
(Like she cares)
“But I can tell you it’s…”
I pause. Think. Pause.
“1983. I’ll look up who later.”

“I want to know when the Challenger crashed,” she says.
“Give me a second I tell her,”
and think again.
“January 1986,” I say,
“I saw it.”
And I did see it, looking up
Above the U-Slave
That’s what I called the grocery store
Where I worked in Vero Beach
The sunny warm winter that shuttle
Asked Y in the sky.

I verify this on my iPhone.
January 28, 1986.
“I remember it not because
how horrible it was,” I tell her
“But because I was living with
the horrible parents of my horrible boyfriend then.”
And I ask—is it rude of me—
“Where you even born yet?”

She was four and a half months old.
“Ah,” I say and tell her
I was not quite that old when Kennedy was shot,
As if being born near tragedy
Unites us.
I appreciate how she tolerates me
With a look of genuine interest
And tells me about the kids who come in
Wanting to buy beer with suspicious i.d.’s
“I get a lot of 9/11s,” she says.
“And other holidays.”
She quizzes these holiday babies,
Searching for some truth.

We wish each other good night.
Driving home I lick the push-up pop
And think of how it tastes like
A frozen St. Joseph’s baby aspirin
And remember the time I let my son
Eat a whole box of these treats
Orange, green, blue
It’s what he wanted so I let him try
And he enjoyed himself until
He threw up blue goo on
The couch, also blue—nice touch.

At a red light, I type “baby come back”
Into the search box.
Paul Young
Howard Jones, no.
1983, yes. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Love's Labour's Lost-- Shakespeare in Zilker Park!

For reasons which, in hindsight I cannot grasp, I somehow missed out on seeing a Shakespeare in the Park production until I was nearly forty. That first experience-- I believe it was  A Midsummer Night's Dream-- was in Omaha, Nebraska of all places. That was years ago and I can still see the performers, still see the crowd, still remember the picnic we brought and how the cashier at the grocery store in Lincoln-- where I bought the picnic stuff-- insisted on reciting the receipt as if he were playing Hamlet.

Perhaps it was this initiation to the beloved ritual of outdoor Shakespeare shows that got me so hooked on the experience and triggered an insatiable hunger that revisits me each year. Is there a better way to spend one's time than eating splendid food with one's friends on a warm night under a rising moon while the Bard's genius unfolds a stone's throw away? Methinks not.

And so it was with tremendous glee that, once again, I organized an outing to catch a production by Austin Shakespeare at the Zilker Hillside Theater. This season-- which runs 8 pm Thursdays - Sundays through May 29th -- the offering is Love's Labour's Lost, directed by my old friend and former editor, Robert Faires, an absolute Shakespeare fanatic.

Faires has done something wonderful with this show-- he's made it a mashup of the original 16th century writing and '60s (as in the 1960's) surf scene. I admit I was pretty curious heading in to see how he'd pull this off and/but I can now assure you he pulls it off excellently. Bringing particular joy are moments when Bill S's words are retrofitted with popular '60s melodies.

So, about the play itself. LLL is not as well-known or frequently performed as Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Midsummer Night's Dream, and all those other super-popular Shakespeare plays. What that means is that-- unlike Hamlet, say, which is packed with so many greatest-hit lines that even an uninitiated Shakespeare audience newbie would recognize them from common usage in our language-- unless you studied Shakespeare or read the play before seeing the show, you might risk getting a bit lost in the dialogue. Really though, it's pretty simple. Four young men (including a king) swear off women for three years so that they can focus on their studies. Naturally, this vow comes just as four young women (including a princess) are heading into town for a little vacation. Mayhem and hilarity ensue and there's the old play-within-the-play routine as well as the old bumbling-messenger-delivers-wrong-epistle-to-wrong-recipient routine which, naturally, sets everything on its head.

As I took in the updated '60s theme, that got me thinking about other manners in which the play easily relates to the here and now. The comedic mixup of mis-delivered notes, the women toying with the men by changing their appearances-- this all spoke to me of misleading pictures posted on Match.com and accidentally sent emails, and all the kookiness these things sometimes prompt.

So then-- Love's Labour's Lost: a most excellent chance for y'all to spend a long evening out under the stars. My recommendation? Get there super early like I did (6 pm) and you'll get to stake out a primo spot and also get some great people-watching in beforehand. And I am offering free tickets to the first four people who can answer the question: What color is John Aielli's shirt today? JK! JK! Actually, the show is totally free-- although if you can, bring a few bucks to throw into the tip jars (oh god, not the Tip Jar thing again...) to help support this wonderful Austin tradition.

Thank You So Much from Dolly Parton and Me!

Hey Y'all,
In a minute I'm going to resume posting about excellent things to do in Austin. But first, I want to thank all of you who sent kind words and cash donations yesterday. And I suppose I owe some gratitude to the woman who sent me that chastising email, too, as she unintentionally prompted much of this most positive response.

Without going too far into it, I want to just touch on something that reached a place of real clarity for me yesterday, thanks in no small part to y'all's support. I have spent the past month or so working a lot less than usual-- a result of fewer opportunities and just about no energy left to seek out marketing writing jobs. All along I have continued performing weddings, and I started playing at writing a young adult novel, and I tended the garden and walked the dogs and worked on my knitting. So I didn't curl up in a fetal position and indulge in a massive pity party, I kept pretty busy.

Funny thing though-- despite my diminished tolerance for crap-writing gigs, it was actually challenging to not rush to the computer every day and start sending out piles of pitches. Old habits are hard to break and being a tenacious pitcher is what helped keep me in business so many years. But the instinct that led me to step away from seeking paid writing gigs for several weeks proved to be a good one. It was a chance to truly reflect on how much the Internet-- with all of its aggregation content and content written for free by amateurs-- has completely changed The Writing Life.

I needed the past few weeks to really, truly come to grips with the fact that it is time to let go-- not of the writing, but of trying to make a financial go of it with the writing. The tip jar was final proof of this. Though you all generously filled it, I don't think that it's a sustainable ongoing model. I can't imagine passing the jar around weekly. And so, as noted, I am looking at this as seed money to really push to get the wedding business going in high gear. Haha, Spike Gillespie, Full Time Minister-- who'd ever have thunk it?

One more word about the letting go-- interestingly, I've felt more unmoored than depressed about the situation. I think there must be some low-level grief going on as my thirty-year marriage to commercial writing comes to an end. I do find myself floating a bit. And yet any sadness is more than amply tempered when I think of the Dolly Parton quote of which I am so fond: "I had to get rich before I could sing like I was poor again." I think this quote specifically refers to her most gorgeous, stripped down Sugar Hill records, which came after her big glitzy hit records, and if you haven't heard them you should check them out. My situation does not precisely fit that quote, unless we consider the richness to be symbolic, in which case my life is nothing short of an embarrassment of riches.

And so, in letting go of the commercial side of things-- (without ever totally putting down the notion that one day perhaps I will write a bestselling book-- an enjoyable fantasy on par with the one-day-I-will-start-and-stick-with-a-daily-yoga-practice-eat-right-lose-weight-get-enlightened-and-regularly-rescue-kittens-from-trees fantasy)-- I am fully freeing myself up to write only what I want, when I want. So there you go-- does this post make me look like Dolly Parton?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Apparently I Have Debased Myself in Asking for Your Support

Dear All Six of You,
I woke up this morning to an unsolicited email which I will copy below, along with my response. I know there's really no use in responding to people with such opinions, but y'all know me-- I just can't resist the bait. Funny thing is, I probably thought about it for a year or more before posting a virtual tip jar here to see about shifting to a model in which I directly ask readers if they might like to kick in a few bucks. I felt a little reluctant to do so-- nobody is asking me to be a writer. But what the Internet has done to deplete opportunities for paying writing gigs has taken a toll on how I used to make a living. So it was an experiment. For those of you who kicked in, I thank you and I want you to know that I immediately put your donations toward my wedding business advertising so that I can turn that into a full time gig and stop fooling myself into thinking that I will ever again be able to fully support myself with my writing, something I have been able to do (if barely) for 20 years or so until recently. 

Now, onto the unsolicited commentary and my response. By all means, if you have an opinion on the topic please feel free to comment below. Let's talk about this-- writers: do they deserve to get paid or are they delusional idiots who need to get a grip and find another line of work? 


Dear Spike,

First of all, this isn't about weddings--it was simply the only email address I could find for you (I apologize for this.) 
And I LOVE your writing (I, too, am a freelance writer.)

That said, your recent blog asking for sponsors compels me to respond.  I'm the first person to support the arts and
writers and I know markets are drying up out there. However, at some point we all have to take some responsibility for
our financial situations.  (Here I'm sharing the wisdom (!) of my 65-plus years, which have been both bad and good from
a money standpoint.)

Some years ago, you wrote a piece for the Chronicle called "Broke.com" in which you stated that your salary during a recent good year was about 60K.  So why didn't you save some of it?  Even 10K?  Duh!!!!!  I know, I know, nobody's perfect, but we can be creative types AND canny financial managers at the same time.  The two are not counterintuitive.

It may be romantic to be a starving artist, but survival instincts have to kick in some time and, yes, sometimes we have to compromise, take jobs we don't like, start saving, etc. etc.  I think you debase yourself, your craft and others in the arts by
asking for handouts.



Honestly D________
I have to say that I find it really offensive that you would venture to lecture me. Why didn't I save any money? I don't have time for the extended list, but here are a few bullet points:

1. I raised a child on my own in a city where my rent started out at about $400 per month and eventually hit $1200 before I got a mortgage on a house in East Austin. I put my entire savings into buying this house so that I could leave my son something after I die. My mortgage is outrageous and the house I got sold for about $100,000 more than it would have just eight years prior to my buying it. In case you didn't notice, little hippie Austin is no longer an affordable place to live.

2. I am an uninsurable American. No, wait-- the recent government program that is part of the Obama overhaul means that at long last I can get insurance but until that happened (very recently) my many pre-existing conditions meant that any time I needed surgery I had to pay cash. For example, take my cataract surgery last December. $3000. I did have insurance in 2008 when I needed a hysterectomy- this coverage came from my partner's then-job (which he no longer has). However, at the time I was working for a company that suddenly folded-- at the time I was owed $5000 and I never saw a cent of it. I was laid up for six weeks, unable to work although I didn't let that stop me as I, to the best of my ability, pursued work from bed (no, not THAT kind of work) using the internet. 

3. Come to think of it, there was that one other time I had insurance-- which was good because I had to have a malignant ovarian tumor (and the ovary) removed. Back then I was mid-divorce (a short-lived foolish marriage). I was on my partner's insurance at the time as I hadn't yet found a new plan. Because of my surgery, I couldn't get a new plan. I had to pay for a COBRA plan. Do you know about COBRA? Paying for the outrageously expensive program cost me a lot-- a whole lot. In fact, I had to file a bankruptcy, which took me many, many years to recover from. Perhaps you saw my essay in the New York Times magazine on this topic?

4. So, okay, there was some foolishness that hurt me financially. Silly me-- when my ex-husband decided to stalk me, and when I lost my job because of this, I had the audacity to take him to court. Because-- I know, I know what was I thinking-- I was of the mind that when a man violates a restraining order and jeopardizes the life of his ex-wife and her son (who, let me be clear, was not his son) that that woman should try to take his sorry ass off the streets. I spent every last dime I had trying to put that asshole in jail.

5. Now, let's talk about The Economy and The Internet and The Lack of Paying Work for Writers. In case you missed the memo, we are in a deep recession on par with the Great Depression. Bazillions of people are unemployed. In my particular field, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to find paying work because everybody and their mother has rushed forth to write free "content" in exchange for "exposure" so that big websites can make lots of money, which they do not share. Once upon a time I could eke by as a freelancer but no more. For many years now I have augmented my income as a wedding officiant. Please don't suggest that I'm not out there working-- what a bizarre accusation. Since I have been 14 years old rare have been the instances where I was not working at least two jobs, often three and sometimes four. 

6. Much of my money has gone to paying taxes, which support government programs like, say, Social Security, which you and your fellow baby boomers will have access to but which my generation likely will not. 

7. I debase myself, seriously? I am out there writing about things to do, places to go, plays to see, etc. Does it legitimize my work if I am published in the Statesman? Then is my work worthy of a cash exchange? But when I cut out the middleman and ask regular readers to make a modest contribution I am asking for handouts? No. Wrong. I merely asked if anyone wanted to contribute to defray my costs. I allow my readers to make the decision if they think my words are worth supporting. I suggested that if anyone did want to kick in that a $12 donation-- $1 per month-- would be awesome. And, not that I really owe you an accounting of what I do with this money, but so you know I immediately reinvested the contributions into my wedding business. And why did I do that? Because, Diane, people like you make it very clear that you are fine with accessing writing-- my craft-- without giving back. I no longer have an interest in pursuing bullshit assignments to write what amounts to marketing copy to help fat cats get fatter. I am hopping off the writing-for-a-living boat because that boat is more than halfway sunk, and it is sunk in part because people like you don't get it. 

8. In your note, you presuppose that I think that I think that taking work I don't like is beneath me. Before I tell you some of the jobs I've taken, let me presuppose something about you-- you say you're a writer, too. I did a google search which yielded very little information about your writing "career." Could it be that you have a husband that supports you? Or a trust fund? Or that you made the choice-- entirely yours to make-- to play it safe and work for corporate America to support your scribblings? That's fine-- your choice. But I get choices, too. Writing is what I do. Even if I don't pursue paid writing gigs anymore, I won't ever stop writing. It's a skill I have-- some say a gift (but that sounds rather lofty)-- and I have been able to use it not only to raise my son, but also to help others. I believe that taking the "unsafe" path of pursuing a poor-paying calling has been utterly worth it. I don't give a rat's ass about not having amassed a pile of gold in my bank account. I am just grateful to be alive, sans tumor and cataract. I am grateful that people read my blog, even if they can't or don't want to throw something into the tip jar. 

9. And now, finally, to let you know that I haven't been sitting on my lily white ass waiting for The New Yorker to call, here are but a few jobs I've had since I started working 33 years ago:
a. chicken fat remover (part of my job as cafeteria cook, which I took to pay for my college education)
b. phone solicitor
c. waitress
d. waitress
e. waitress
f. bartender 
g. pet sitter
h. calendar describer 
i. marketing copywriter
j. personal attendant for a disabled child 
k. tutor
l. camp director
m. personal attendant for a senior citizen
n. the list goes on. and on and on and on

Since you took it upon yourself to give me unsolicited advice, let me return the favor. In the future might I advise that you not presuppose that just because someone lives a different lifestyle than yours, or has had different turns of fortune (or lack of fortune) does not automatically mean that that person is sitting around living some romanticized version of the starving artist life. Congratulations on your frugal ways and amassed savings. I suppose it's ageist of me to say it, but you came up in a time when living in this city did not cost four arms and six legs. Their are 80 billion baby boomers now hitting retirement age and I assure you that my generation (and my son's generation) are working our asses off to help support you.

Now, if after reading my response you think that accessing my blog is worth $12 per year, I invite you to click on the donate button over on the right hand side of this page. Don't worry, I'm not holding my breath. 

p.s. you referred to an article I wrote in which I mentioned making $60k one year-- for the record, that was during the short-lived Internet boom. As a freelance writer, my average annual income most years was closer to $30K which, once you deduct for rent, utilities, food, and childcare left me with about $5 in savings.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Spike Seeks Sponsors-- Are You In?

Dear All Six of You,
After mulling the idea for this post for a very long time, here it is. Today I'm asking if you'll help sponsor my blog. As I pass the virtual tip jar up and down the aisles here, let me tell you why I'm asking. I've been a journalist for going on thirty years (I know, I know, I look damn good for my age). This Internet thing has been a major game changer and with papers and magazines folding all over the place paying gigs have been harder to come by. Those that do surface usually involve me reading ten other existing blog posts and coming up with something that's similar but different enough to not count as plagiarism. The idea behind the majority of this content is to help big websites sell ads. I admit I've grown weary of this not just because I'm hustling and writing crap to fill someone else's bank account, but also because it means less time to write about the stuff that matters to me.

For awhile, I had a gig with JetBlue that was really super awesome-- every month I wrote 50+ posts about how much I love Austin. I wrote restaurant reviews, theater reviews, listed upcoming shows, profiled cool people, and revealed secret treasures all around the city. Of all the writing I've been asked to do commercially, this has been the most fun. (I mean, okay, there were those years and years when I plumbed the depths-- and I do mean depths-- of my personal life, but these days everyone and their mother is doing that and I find I'd rather focus on all the cool things around me, rather than do daily updates about my bowel movements, stray nipple hairs, and thoughts about my ex-husbands.) I was bummed when it ended but have continued to write about our fine city here.

Of course, whether I get sponsorships or not, I won't stop writing. But in the interest of seeking out less crap work and focusing more on what I love-- namely covering All Things Austin-- I thought I'd throw it out there: anybody want to kick in so I can live this dream? I like what Amanda Palmer has to say about asking readers for contributions -- maybe that will inspire you.

Here's what I was thinking-- maybe individual sponsors could kick in $12 per year (a buck a month). If there are any business folks out there who want to contribute more, I'd be glad to highlight your business in a post (which, of course, would clearly indicate you're an official sponsor). If any of you happen to have mountains of cash burning holes in your pockets and want to do a sponsorship in exchange for a premium, here are some possibilities I can offer to donors who kick in $75 or more:

1. I can knit you something that I promise will be VERY unique.
2. I can write a post about you or the topic of your choice.
3. I can entertain some other possible premium that you want to suggest.

There's a donate button over there in the right hand margin if you want to help out with this experiment of mine. And if you're cash short but want to help anyway, I can always use assistance getting the word about about my camps, workshops and wedding officiating-- gigs I take that I enjoy and that help support my writing. Coming up I have a bunch of Summer Camps for Kids and also I'm going to host a silly Summer Camp for Grown Ups in July. I also perform weddings -- there's info right here. And I do private writing coaching, too. So if you'll tell folks who might be interested in any of these projects that I'm out here, that would be super awesome. And let me know if you'd like to be listed as a sponsor on this page.



Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: AUGUST: Osage County at Zach -- GO GO GO!!

Lauren Lane (left)  and Lana Dieterich. photo (c) Kirk R. Tuck

At long last I got to see the ZACH production of AUGUST: Osage County last night and I have a bit of bad news for y’all— sadly there are only a few more performances before the show closes on May 22nd. Which means that all the people who should see it (by which I mean EVERYBODY) won’t be able to. So let me begin by saying that, before you read the rest of this review, you really ought to buy your tickets this very second, lest so many bastards beat you to the punch and snap up all the seats for the handful of remaining shows, leaving you to spend the rest of your life regretting having missed it.

Now, about the show. It’s directed by Dave Steakley, who loves to put on big ensemble shows with lots going on (Porgy and Bess, Our Town, RENT, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Keeping it Weird to name but a few). So it’s no surprise that Osage County is deep and rich and supremely textured. Written by Tracy Letts, who won a Pulitzer for the play, the show runs over three hours, though it feels like some time warp thing is going on. Because, though the first act intentionally comes out of the gates slowly, once it picks up steam it just whips along. By the time you walk out you’re thinking, “Wow, that went fast.” 

The basic ingredients of Osage County are the common stuff of countless plays, movies, and TV shows. In this sense, Letts takes a risk. Do we really want to see another portrait of deep family dysfunction that includes long held secrets, sibling rivalry, failed marriages, destructive addictions, and incredibly uncomfortable dinners riddled with accusations, hollering and lies? In this case, the answer is a resounding YES. Letts breathes exciting new life into ideas that, handled by a less savvy writer, might fall under the umbrella of timeworn. He deftly shifts gears—one moment you feel like you’re watching a riotous comedy and the next you feel like you’re at a deep, dark drama.


Beyond Letts’ excellent writing, Steakley’s superb directing and a fabulous set by Michael Raiford, the success of ZACH’s Osage County comes most directly from a baker’s dozen cast. Good lord this town is crawling with talent and I was delighted going in, knowing that I’d get to see Lauren Lane and Lana Dieterich perform together. As I’ve said before, Lane (who is a friend and who I was lucky enough to share the stage with in The Dick Monologues) could read the fucking phone book and I’d pay to see it. She is a stunning, stunning, STUNNING actress. As for Dieterich—though I’d only seen her perform twice before (in ZACH’s Our Town and HPT’s VIGIL) that was enough to sell me on her endless talent. I am in love with that woman.

Everyone shines in Osage County, but it is Dieterich as the family matriarch Violet, and Lane as Barbara the eldest of three disconnected sisters, who hold the meatiest roles, characters that are complex, hilarious, angry, and all-around brilliant. And those descriptions barely scratch the surface of how well these women carry off their performances. The standing ovation they received was not your typical Austin Standing O (practically a given at so many shows). Oh no—I wanted to stand up and clap throughout all three acts.

As usual, I refuse to give away any of the plot, beyond mentioning the broad elements that Letts draws on. Let’s just say that this family is supremely fucked up and while I didn’t exactly delight in their suffering, the portrayal of their suffering is absolutely delicious. And Letts throw out a couple of subtle zingers—pay attention for the references to Maria Full of Grace and Carson McCullers, both of which prompted me to let loose snort-enhanced guffaws (really, I guffawed) and double over with laughter.

Oh, there is so much going on here. Barbara’s marriage to Bill (played so well the night I saw the show by understudy Robert Gomes—you’d never have known he was the US except for the note in the program) is portrayed spectacularly. Their arguments—the barbs swapped, the essence of a falling apart after 23 years together—are a beautiful, bitter poetry. Ellie Archer and Irene White play Karen and Ivy respectively, Barbara’s sisters who struggle with the family dynamic as well as personal battles in their own lives. Coming from a family of eight sisters, I particularly loved the subplot of sisterly relations—so much resonance in seeing siblings cut from the same cloth who nonetheless wear that cloth in wildly different fashions.

Rounding out the cast are Janelle Buchanan as Mattie Fae, Greg Baglia as Steve, Michael Holmes as Beverly, Thomas Faustin Huisking as the sheriff, Kendra Perez as Johnna, Corley Pillsbury as Jean, Michael Stuart as Charlie and Jonathan Shultz as Little Charles. All pull their weight—the casting here is wonderful.

Before I saw the show, a number of people told me, “It’s so great, you’re going to love it.” Such predictions make me a little nervous and I worry going in that I’ll either set my expectations too high or, out of subconscious contrarianism, look for reasons to disagree. Even is you share this quality with me, I still feel confident telling you to go, go, GO see see AUGUST: Osage County. Really, it’s so great. You’re going to love it.