Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ride of the day…

I’ll preface this by saying that Vicky and I aren’t great athletes. We’re kind of round, actually. But every activity Vicky does with me is fun for me because I can be with her.

Last night, we went jogging together. I got her started with me, letting her set the pace, and I think she enjoys it. Unfortunately, she apologizes for being slow but I try to explain to her that it’s okay that she’s not as fast as me (which isn’t that fast, anyway). Speed takes time to develop. What’s important is that we’re out there together and trying our best.

This morning, we packed the bikes into her car… well, I packed the bikes into her car… and snapped off one of her reflectors – doh!... and we drove down to Aliso Creek Trail to meet our friend, Robert, for a ride. Aliso Creek Trail is one of my favorites. I took it last year when I did my first metric and was foolish enough to try and ride Santiago Canyon. This morning, the three of us started out up towards Foothill Ranch.

We parked our cars and started unloading our bikes and as Robert and I gabbed, Vicky tried to sit side-saddle on her bike. My clutzy wife must have forgotten that she didn’t have a kick-stand on her bike because it soon began sliding down, taking her with it. She laughed the whole way down, as she so often does. (I told her she’s going to be the youngest hip transplant patient in history.) Once she was up, we realized it wasn’t all laughs and broke out the first aid kit for some bandages for the scrape on her leg.

Then, we were off! A strong wind out of the foothills had us coasting for a long, long time. You don’t think of it at the time but what that means is you’ll be pedaling against that on the way back! Still, Aliso Creek is a pretty little trail and we enjoyed it quite a bit… then we started to hit the hills… but all in all, it was a lot of fun. Then, we had to turn around and we realized that it would be uphill for most of the ride back… ugh! Still, it was very nice and a lot more interesting than the boring, old Santa Ana River Trail that we take all the time.

One of these days, I’m going to have to hit it again by way of Santiago Canyon but until the day comes when I’m crazy enough to do that, this will suffice!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Late after a turkey…

I should probably be sleeping but, as usual, I’m in front of my keyboard and pecking away.

We had a very nice Thanksgiving dinner this year. As usual, Vicky’s cooking was superb. And we had her friend, Julie, over because we didn’t want her to be alone on the holiday. We invited over some other friends but they missed out. Vicky does a wonderful job as a hostess and I wish I made some money so we could afford to do it more… but, oh well.

I finished the new play this week, which I believe is my fourth new, full-length play of the year. That’s about one every three months! So, as much as I’m hurting for work, I’m still producing some good stuff. This play is a post-apocalyptic musical farce – and my friend, Stephanie, says that now I’m creating my own genres. I consider it more of a mash-up but that’s just me.

Now, I’m doing what I normally do after I finish a project… which is thinking about the next project. One of the nice things about being me – one of the benefits of living in my skin – is that I’m never short on ideas. I have two novels that I had started recently but never finished. One is a children’s book, which I think of as Harry Potter without the magic. I like the idea of a kid in a magical world who can’t do the magic, who really has to deal with being a little kid. The other book is one I really liked; it was what I called a neorealist novel. Inspired by Bicycle Thieves, one of my favorite films, I began writing a book about two people in an abandoned train station in Arizona. It was very gritty and dark and I was loving it… then, I got laid off and that screwed that up. In addition, I have a couple ideas for plays. One is inspired by an idea I have called The Eternal Jew, and the idea is of this Nazi guard in a concentration camp who keeps seeing the same Jew dying in a gas chamber. He sees it over and over, a reflection of his mounting guilt. Of course, the play wouldn’t be about these people; it would take place here and now and use that idea as a starting point. So, you have a regular guy like me who sees the same homeless person out on the street. The play would deal with what that does to a person – to both people, actually. Then, there’s your more typical “Ken” play, which I’m calling The Sandwich and deals with people looking for meaning in every act – even making a sandwich.

I list all of these ideas because I am not compelled to work on any one. This is refreshing and I’m hoping to use whatever break I might have to recharge my batteries a bit. I keep thinking, though, that I may be done with comedies for a while. Of course, last time I said that I went on to write The Death of Ethics – so take that for what it’s worth.

As the year winds down, I try to reflect on some greater narrative than “I was unemployed all year long.” As true as that might be, it feels like shit. So, it’s important to realize there was more there. For instance, I finished seven plays (four full-length) and that was pretty outstanding. I had a staged reading that went very well. I got to do some gardening and took up jogging again after many years. So there is a larger narrative to keep in mind and I’m going to try and remain upbeat.

Anyway, I know several people who are going on their second or third year without steady work so I figure I’m actually pretty lucky. That said, think I’ll go to bed now. G’night.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Death brings new life… but at a cost…

I could have called this “We Killed it” or perhaps “Vicky’s early Christmas present” but I felt like being obtuse… again…

As I thought about what I plan to write, I considered writing, “Vicky and I went to look at computers yesterday” but was sure some anonymous bitch would call me names and say I was sponging off my wife or some such nonsense.

Let me start from the beginning.

This is Vicky’s fault. All of it. Well, most of it. No, all of it. Vicky is very hard on a computer. She downloads everything she sees – every addon, every gadget, every app, everything. She fills her computer with crap and then gets some more. I’m guessing because it’s free. Then, her computer slows down… slows down… slows down…

And then, she calls me. “My computer sucks,” she said one day a few weeks ago. “Sucks” wasn’t the word. It was more like “is dying.” Nothing was working right. It would start and stop on its own. Web pages and apps would open by themselves. Most noticeably, however, McAfee (our virus scanner of choice… a very bad choice) would not open. It couldn’t access the Internet. In fact, nobody could access the Internet on Vicky’s computer except when it decided to at random.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you downloaded a virus or a worm,” I said. To which she replied, “Well, then, fix it.” I guess that since I’m out of work, Vicky assumed that meant I was a PC technician… either that or I just had a lot of free time. The later acknowledged, I began researching Vicky’s problem.

McAfee was no good, so I downloaded PC Tools Spyware Doctor, because I was certain she didn’t have a simple virus… and the initial scan was free. The scan completed, over 100 worms and Trojan Horses were found. Vicky agreed to buy the complete version of PC Tools to kill them off. And kill them off, it did. It also killed off every file they were attached to. So, when we were done with that, Vicky’s computer was left seizing like an ebola victim.

“I’m going to have to reinstall Windows,” I said. Fortunately, PC Club had given us our Windows disk when we bought her computer from them. It was a simple matter of using that to install Windows and fix the problems with her computer. “Before I do, though, you should back up your data.”

“Do what now?”

“Back up your data.”

“Come again?”

“Back up your data.”


I was getting the distinct impression Vicky was not in the habit of backing up her data. And this struck me as funny (strange, not ha ha) because Vicky had my external hard-drive, which I used to back up my PC. She had it for over a year… she never let me use it… because she always said, “I’m using it.”

“Do you know how to back up your data?” I asked her.

She batted her eyes.

“Have you been regularly backing it up?”

She smiled and cuddled close.

“Have you ever backed up your data?”

And that’s when the jig was up. And I began to get a bit angry. But lecturing her on why you’re always supposed to back up your data was a moot point… so I did it anyway. And I went on and on... and it was pretty clear I was wasting my breath. Vicky’s a smart girl… just dense at times…

PC Tools had stripped so much out of Windows, Vicky’s problems were just getting worse. Now, the computer wouldn’t so much as recognize any network connection. Her USB ports were dead. When I tried to move her docs to a separate “backup” folder in case her My Docs folder got wiped out, we discovered that Windows wouldn’t even recognize simple copy and paste commands.

I knew that reinstalling Windows might screw up her My Docs folder so I asked her to do the only thing she could do… a manual backup. Yep. That means writing stuff down by hand – she took down all her passwords and typed her Quicken entries in our laptop… which she had not yet destroyed.

But maybe I’m being too hard on Vicky… because this is where I really fucked things up.

Her most essential data backed up, I went to reinstall Windows. First, I chose the repair option, figuring I’d do as little damage as possible. Inserting PC Club’s Windows disk, I selected repair… and it went straight into a full reinstall. As strange as this was, I shrugged and figured, “Oh well.” And I let it continue.

Then, I was prompted, “Insert Disk Two.”

Insert Disk Two?

“Insert Disk Two.”

There is no Disk Two! PC Club only gave us one disk! For anyone out there wondering why PC Club went out of business… here’s your answer.

There was no going back. Reboots just brought us back to that dreaded, “Insert Disk Two” prompt.

Time to go to our options. We could go out and get Windows 7…

The thing is, Vicky’s computer was pretty cheap when we bought it and was getting pretty old. Why throw good money after bad? Anyway, what Vicky needed was as idiot-proof of a machine as we could get her… and besides, she’s been talking about how much she’s wanted a Mac since we met. The time had come… has come… will come today, I think.

And so, Vicky’s getting a new computer and a very early Christmas gift. We can get a Mac Mini for about $800, which should meet all of her needs. I’ll take her old hard drive and strip out the data files for her so she doesn’t lose anything, such as pictures, music, word docs, etc. And I’ll sign her up for a free backup account at Mozy (yes, I have one and it’s pretty nice)… and hope for the best. (Anyway, you can get a complete, three-year warranty on a Mac for $99… which is a cheap price for three years of peace if you ask me…)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One last note about the reading…

(For those wondering if this just means I have little going on in my life, well, I can’t fault your reasoning…)

Something’s been going on since the reading of Murielle’s Big Date a couple weekends ago and it has only caught up to me recently.

Just after the reading, our friend Paula asked me, “What happens now?” She wanted to know what happened to the play and my jaded reply was a bit harsh in the face of her enthusiasm, I’m afraid. But, honestly, nothing happens short of my continuing to shop it around. It’s all a process. You keep running the wheel.

Little did I know there was a far more existential quality to her question than that. After the reading, I noticed something different with Vicky. As I say, it took a while for me to catch on. At first, it just felt… weird. It was a good kind of weird but weird just the same. Then, I recognized it.

I believe it’s thanks to the reading. Vicky is looking at me once again – not as a guy who has been out of work for nearly a year, not as a guy who has to struggle just for a job interview, not as Mr. Unemployment Check but – as someone competent and capable. She’s been speaking to me as though my potential has been made clear. And I don’t blame her. One of the great things about these staged readings is they remind me that I’m competent, that when I tell myself “I can write” I’m not completely full of shit. I hadn’t considered the reading would have the same effect on Vicky.

But it has. For instance, when I mentioned a writing idea before the reading Vicky kind of just shrugged it off. “Sure, whatever. I’m dealing with the real world.” After the reading, Vicky appears to see the potential my writing might have in the real world. It’s kind of nice.

When Vicky and I first got together, she said, “I’m not going to be one of your fans.” She was pretty adamant about it. And I’ve been working hard ever since then to make her one of my fans. As an artist, I need her to be one of my fans, my number one fan. After the reading, I think she may not be a fan but she’s certainly warming to the idea.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Where Ethics Go To Die…

Since summer, I’ve been fighting a losing battle against my next book on philosophy. Dynamic Pluralism it was going to be called and the breakthrough idea was going to take ethical theory beyond the Pragmatists of the 20th century.

… but instead, I wrote another play…

And then, I readied myself to begin the book. I assembled all of my research. I wrote an outline.

… and then, I wrote another play…

And then, I gathered my wits and strengthened my resolve, preparing myself to write what I was sure would be a breakthrough book on philosophy.

… and about this time, I was invited to direct the staged reading for Murielle’s Big Date. This was back in October, and as I assembled my cast and began rehearsing I wondered, “Why do I keep stopping myself from writing this book on philosophy?” It wasn’t the subject matter. It was clear in my mind and from the philosophy professors I had run my theories by that this would be a breakthrough in ethics. But then, things became clear.

Many of the rejections I've received for Climbing Maya, my book on success, had nothing to do with the book itself. In fact, most of the time I’m told what a great idea the publisher or agent thinks it is. No, the reason that book gets rejected is because I’m not famous enough to get it published. That’s the thing. People don’t want to publish that sort of stuff unless they know you already have an audience who will buy it. I have accepted that Climbing Maya is a niche book and will require a niche publisher. If it ever gets published, it probably won’t sell well at all… so why would I put myself through that again?

And this is when I realized why I kept stopping myself from writing a book on ethics, because deep down I knew nobody was going to publish a book on ethics. Not from me, at least. Not until I had an audience. And maybe no one would ever publish such a book at all. Frankly, people don’t seem to care much about ethics at all.

The sad truth is that, at 44, my experience getting books published has been dismal. My record writing plays has actually been better... if only a little...

And that’s when it struck me. A book on ethics would never get anywhere… but a play on ethics… a farce about ethics… well… So, I decided to write a play called The Death of Ethics about the last people on earth after we’ve used up everything being questioned by one person why we would ever do that… in other words, questioning the ethics. I realized that poking fun at humanity’s record on ethics was a lot more fun that writing something instructive about ethics. And if people got the joke, they might just get the theory.

For instance, I could say that ethics differ from morals in that morality is based on religious practices and therefore open to interpretation. Or I could do this:

It is not the same thing. Morality is different. It’s dependent on your religious beliefs and how they’re interpreted.

No, they’re not!

What he means is that morality is only for stupid people.

I do not!

And that’s just more fun! More than that, it allows me to write comedy that’s more unique that your simple relationship play, which I’ve done so much.

So, this week, I finished the first act of the play. In that time, it has gelled into more that what I had originally conceived. It’s not just a philosophical farce… it’s also a musical! Yes, it’s my first musical – more or less – with two songs, the first of which a tune called “It Should Be Ethical To Be a Prick”.

Simply taking the idea on ethics and turning it on its head has opened an opportunity for something that transcends my usual comedy writing. And, if there’s one thing I know after the reading for Murielle’s Big Date, it’s that I can write comedy. My play had the audience roaring!

So, maybe things will work better this way. Maybe they won’t. But at my age I have come to realize I better damn well enjoy whatever I’m writing because that may be all I get out of it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Eating good by eating well...

The title's a play on that old saying.

I don’t normally plagiarize but in this case I like to think of it as “spreading the word”. Nicolette Hahn Niman has written a terrific article about avoiding factory farmed food that I’d love to share with you. It’s been my experience that most people want to do right and eat the right things but just don’t have the information on how. I think this is a great source:

General advice:

1. Be prepared to pay more. As the old saying goes, "you get what you pay for." Americans are used to the idea that a Cadillac is a better car than a Malibu and that you pay more for it. Yet somehow when it comes to food many of us look only at price. But getting good food could be one of the most important things we do to keep ourselves in good health. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, you pay your grocer now or pay your doctor later. And the methods for producing foods - especially animal based foods - vary radically, from farms that are excellent stewards of animals and the environment to the most industrialized, stinking, polluting facilities. Instead of just looking at price tags, think in terms of value. Remember that our government heavily subsidizes industrial agriculture, making its products artificially cheap. We should all be asking our elected officials why our government isn't supporting farming that produces food that's healthful for humans, environmentally benign and respectful to animals. Over the long term, that's the change we need to advocate for. If government policy made such a shift, wholesome traditionally produced foods could be as inexpensive as the junk coming out of factory farms. In the meantime, expect to pay more for good food. Think of it as an investment in good health, an unspoiled environment, fair treatment for animals, and of course, tasty eating.

2. Plan on reducing consumption. A typical American eats more than 200 pounds of meat per year and our consumption continues to rise. On top of that, over the twentieth century, average cheese consumption went from about three pounds annually to around 30 pounds, much of which is processed cheese in Big Macs and on pizzas. (And we wonder why we have an obesity epidemic). Meat and dairy products from traditional farms currently cost more than factory farm products. A good way to make this work in your budget is to cut back the quantities you buy (and the frequency and portion sizes when you eat animal based foods). Chances are, you're eating far more of it than you need anyway, so cutting back will probably be a good thing for your health as well. Consider adopting this as your new slogan: Eat less meat. Eat better meat. (The same goes for dairy products and eggs).

3. Seek food from a known source. The best way to ensure you're getting food from non-industrial farms is to buy from sources with full transparency, those where you can see how the animals are raised, and what they were fed, as well as learn from what farm or farms the food actually came. If I can't get the basic information about how the farm animals were raised, I just don't buy it.

4. Ask questions (even if it sometimes seems futile). Few people these days ask where the food comes from when at grocery stores or restaurants. Americans have become accustomed to the idea that there's some giant commodity trade of fungible meats, eggs, and dairy products. But there is real power in simply asking the questions: "Where is this from? How was it raised?" Get into the habit at meat counters and restaurants of asking where the meat is from. If they don't know the answer, suggest (in a friendly way, of course) they find out. When we eat out, Bill and I always ask servers where the meat comes from. If they don't know, we ask them to ask the chef. If the chef doesn't know, Bill doesn't order it. I believe the simple act of asking this question - if enough people begin to do it - has the potential to spark a massive change in our food system.

5. Know your labels (and their shortcomings). Food labels are helpful but imperfect. Knowing what they mean (and do not mean) is important. For example, the term "free range" has one connotation with eggs and another with poultry meat. Weird, huh? This is something you'd never know just by looking at the labels in the store. Most labeling is regulated by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), so they are fairly reliable sources of some information. (More on labels shortly).

6. Baby-steps are OK (as long as they're in the right direction). Factory farms are ubiquitous and so are their products. So avoiding them, admittedly, takes some effort. If you try to change everything in one fell swoop you're likely to feel so overwhelmed that you'll get paralyzed and give up. If, on the other hand, you allow yourself to move forward deliberately, one step at a time, chances are you will enjoy the transition and will stick with it.

7. Consider it an adventure. Going to the supermarket to pick up all your food is convenient, true, but it's also dreadfully boring. Good foods from real farms do not look and taste the same 365 days a year. They are less predictable, varying depending on the particular breeds of animal, the seasons, and the farmer who raised them. The diversity of the foods you'll get from real farms is just part of what makes eating more fun. It's also a pleasure to meet and talk with farmers, butchers and other purveyors of real foods. They can be tremendously helpful in providing cooking advice for the particular foods you are buying (such as a cut of meat you've never tried). Following the pathways that lead you to good foods - farmstands, CSAs, farmers markets, co-ops - will take you to interesting places you've never been and to people you'll enjoy meeting.

Where to look:

1. Stop being a supermarket zombie. Supermarkets' primary appeal is convenience, and there's no doubt that they are convenient. They are also offering more organic foods these days, which is a good thing. But because their business model is based on large volumes of uniform products, supermarkets rarely carry foods from real, traditional family farms. In my experience, places like Safeway, Albertsons, and Kroger are wastelands for those of us seeking animal products that don't come from factory farms. That's why (other than Trader Joes and Whole Foods, which are better than the rest) I have almost totally stopped frequenting them. The exception to this general rule is for those farms who've joined together to co-operatively process and distribute their products, thus they have sufficient volume to work with major supermarket chains (examples of such companies are Niman Ranch and Organic Valley).

2. Explore alternative stores (independent grocery stores and co-ops). Independently owned grocery stores tend to be more willing to work with traditional farmers, and their staffs are generally much more knowledgeable about the meats, eggs and dairy products they offer. It's worth the effort to seek them out and explore their offerings. Good examples of such stores are: Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco; Marczyk Fine Foods in Denver; Gateway Market in Des Moines; and Poppies Gourmet Farmers Market in Brevard, North Carolina. Co-ops also tend to source from local farmers and have member-employees who are interested and concerned about good food. Examples of some of the excellent co-ops I'm familiar with are: the co-ops in Boise, Idaho and Bozeman, Montana, and "The Wedge" in Minneapolis.

3. Frequent your local farmers markets. The popularity of farmers markets has exploded in recent past decades, going from about 350 in the late 1970s to more than 4,400 today. This is excellent news for those of us seeking non-factory farm foods. With a little effort, you can find a farmers market near you and begin learning what's offered there at what times of year. Many excellent farms and ranches sell their wares at farmers markets but remember not to assume anything about how the foods were produced. Ask the farmers you're buying from how the animals were raised and what they were fed. Locating a farmers market is easy: many states and localities have lists available, as does USDA.

4. Look for CSAs. An excellent way to know exactly where your food comes from is to join a CSA (community supported agriculture). You buy shares of what a farm produces. Generally, each "shareholder" (member) gets a box of farm products each week, which members pick up at a certain spot. Many CSAs encourage their shareholders to visit the farms for themselves, so they can really know where their food is coming from and how it was raised. When they first started, most CSAs were just doing produce. But in recent years, I've spoken with people from all over the country that are doing CSAs that include meat, dairy and eggs. Some farms and ranches are even doing CSAs that are exclusively animal-based foods. CSAs can be found by searching and

5. Look for farms online. Many smaller farms and ranches sell directly to consumers with a website. The other day, for example, I was speaking at a Sierra Club conference in Kentucky and met a local farmer who's raising Bourbon Red heritage turkeys. She told me she says most of her birds through her on-line store. Be sure that the website provides plenty of photos and information about how they raise their animals. If it's just showing photos of the food products, that's a bad sign.

6. Seek chefs committed to sustainable sourcing. It can be especially hard to trace the origins of your food when dining out. However, if you seek restaurants whose chefs are dedicated to sourcing from sustainable farms and ranches, they can do the work for you. Fortunately, the number of such restaurants is growing. Here are just a few of my favorites: Lumiere, near Boston; Savoy and Green Table in New York City; White Dog Café in Philadelphia; North Pond in Chicago; Zingermann's in Ann Arbor, MI; Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, AL; Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA; and Oliveto in Oakland, CA. An organization that promotes sustainable sourcing to chefs (and on whose board I sit), Chefs Collaborative, has a website listing of participating restaurants throughout the country which buy all or some of their ingredients from sustainable farms. Another good way to find such restaurants is Even fast food is possible: Chipotle Mexican Grills buy all their pork from traditional farms.

What to look for with all animal based foods:

1. Domestic, please. Whether you're worried about your food's carbon footprint or how much you can verify about its source, there are lots of good reasons to support farms close to home. I am generally skeptical about claims (like "organic") on food imported from foreign countries. US government authorities barely police imported food's safety nor the validity of its label claims. We always try to buy domestically because we want to feel confident about how it was produced. We also want to help build the demand for traditionally farmed foods so that more and more American farmland is occupied by real farms and ranches instead of factory farms. Of course, when you're shopping at a farmers market, this is generally not a concern. But lots of stores offer imported meats and fish. In particular, 90 percent of lamb comes from Australia and New Zealand and most seafood comes from Asia.

2. Pasture is the gold standard. All animals, not just grazing animals, benefit tremendously from being outdoors daily on natural vegetation (such as grass and clover). They exercise, lie in the sun, breath fresh air, and generally live much happier, healthier, more natural lives. For cattle, sheep, and goats, their ruminant digestive systems miraculously turn vegetation that is inedible to humans into digestible nourishment for themselves. The omnivorous animals -- pigs, chickens, and turkeys -- gain minerals and as fiber from their foraging. Winter weather makes year-round access to pasture difficult in some parts of the United States, but animals can and should have access to grass for most days of the year. They live healthier, better lives and the food humans take from them is safer, tastier and healthier. If you're buying directly from a farmer or rancher, ask if the animals were on pasture. If you're buying from a store, read the labels or ask. If it doesn't say the animals had pasture access, assume that they did not.

3. Grass fed is very good (but the label is weak). Certain animals, including cattle, goats and sheep, have evolved as grazing or browsing animals. Their bodies are designed to spend their waking hours slowly foraging and walking to gather their food over many hours. Bovines in the wild, for instance, spend most of their waking hours in a state of slow, ambulant grazing, walking an average of 2.5 miles a day, all the while taking 50 to 80 bites of forage per minute. In other words, cattle - both those raised for beef and those raised for milk - should live on grass. In 2007, USDA finally proposed a standard for "grass fed" meat. However, the standard has lots of problems, not the least of which is that it doesn't require animals to be on pasture and allows them to be fed lots of stuff that definitely ain't grass. That's why it's preferable to buy grass fed meat directly from the farmer or rancher rather than relying on a label.

4. Organic is very good, (but the label isn't perfect). USDA regulates the use of the term "organic" on food labels. If you see the official "Certified Organic" label on a food, that means that USDA is maintaining a certain degree of oversight and that the food item was (or at least should have been) produced in accordance with USDA's standards. In many ways, especially with respect to animal feeding, the standards are stringent. Animal based foods labeled organic must be fed only organic feeds (which has at least 80 percent organic ingredients and does not contain slaughterhouse wastes, antibiotics, or genetically modified grains). These are important distinctions from typical factory farm foods. The organic standards also provide some assurance about how the animals are housed and handled. They require that organic livestock and poultry be provided: "living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals," and specifically mandate that animals have some access to the outdoors, to exercise, and to bedding. These too are crucial differences from factory farms. The problem, however, is that the standards have not clearly mandated access to pasture. Thus, much organic milk (and other dairy products) comes from cows that are housed in enormous metal sheds and spend most of their days on cement floors, having no access to pastures. For this reason, I prefer to know precisely where and how the animals lived that produced my food and do not like to rely on the organic label.

5. Free range is okay (but the label is seriously flawed). The term "free range" is most commonly used for poultry. Strangely, it can mean different things depending on whether it's applied to poultry raised for meat versus egg-laying poultry. When "free range" is used on poultry meat, USDA requires that the birds have some access to the outdoors. However, there are no standards for what type of outdoor area it must be, and therefore might be a small cement patio. Even more problematic is "free range" when it's used for eggs. USDA has failed to create any definition of "free range" for egg laying hens. Arguably, then, companies could label their eggs "free range" even without providing any outdoor access (and I suspect that's what some companies are doing).

6. Antibiotic free doesn't mean much. Some poultry and red meats are labeled "antibiotic free." This is slightly better than your average factory farm product because the animals were not continually fed antibiotics. But there are several serious problems with this label. Most importantly, "antibiotic free" meat can be (and usually is) from a factory farm. Secondly, many companies are calling meat antibiotic free even though they used other anti-microbial drugs to raise the animals. In other words, it's largely a matter of semantics.

By category:

1. Beef: Beef has taken the most hits from journalistic exposes but when it comes to animal treatment issues, no one can deny that beef cattle have by far the best lives of all farm animals (much better than dairy cows, in particular). The problem with beef cattle raising is that most cattle are implanted with hormones and are fed a variety of drugs, including antibiotics. Moreover, large beef feedlots are a major environmental hazard because of the enormous amounts of air pollution they cause and the potential to cause serious water pollution. It's important to remember that cattle are grazing animals. The best beef is beef that allowed the cattle to graze for their entire lives. Unfortunately, USDA has created a "grass fed" label that has been criticized by the American Grassfed Association as not being nearly stringent enough. Look for beef that was raised entirely on grass (didn't go through a feedlot), was not implanted with hormones, and was feed only vegetarian feeds. If you can't find totally grass fed beef, opt for beef that was neither fed antibiotics nor implanted with hormones (which is the standard for "natural" beef). Remember that "organic" is not the best label here. The largest producer of "organic" beef in the United States finishes its cattle at a large feedlot.

2. Pork: More than 90 percent of US pork is produced in large, total confinement operations with liquefied manure systems. Most pigs are continually fed antibiotics and other suspect substances, including arsenic and slaughterhouse wastes. Look for pork that was raised on pasture or in deep straw bedding. (Both systems afford the pigs a high quality of life and are environmentally friendly). Make sure the feed was free of drugs, slaughterhouse byproducts, and arsenic. Ask whether the sows were confined to gestation crates or farrowing crates, which are cruel and unnecessary. Make sure the pigs were not raised in confinement buildings with liquefied manure. The liquefied manure system is the lynchpin to the public health, animal welfare, and environmental problems associated with industrial pork. This is one of the few places I will recommend a specific brand: Niman Ranch. (Note: my husband is the founder of the Niman Ranch company but we no longer have any association with it). All of the Niman farmers follow a stringent set of standards that forbid liquefied manure systems; forbid sow crates; forbid feeding drugs or meat byproducts and require humane animal handling.

3. Lamb: Most sheep, like most beef cattle, are raised outdoors. They are grazing animals and belong on grass. There is little factory farming of sheep at this time although many Colorado lambs are finished at feedlots. Recently, however, I learned of a large confinement operation for breeding ewes in Iowa. The facility was so disease ridden that it had to be shuttered. Look for lamb that is born and raised in the United States and make sure that all of the animals, including the breeding ewes, are living on pasture.

4. Goat: Goat is the most frequently consumed meat in the world but most Americans have never tried it. However, as the US population changes and as palates broaden, goat meat is gaining popularity here for the first time. One advantage to eating goat meat is that this is a non-industrialized part of the meat sector. There is no such thing as a goat factory farm. In fact, goat is probably the most environmentally friendly of all meats, because, when properly managed, goats do little damage to the landscape and consume naturally occurring undesirable vegetation, (like poison oak and coyote brush). Look for it at your local farmers market. The best goat meat is from animals raised specifically as meat goats, (rather than dairy goats), especially the Boer and Spanish breeds.

5. Chicken: Like pork, almost all chicken produced in the United States today is from enormous confinement buildings. Instead, look for chicken that was raised on pasture. If it does not specifically say that it was raised on pasture, assume that it was not. Factory farms all raise the same white chicken from a narrow genetic pool. Their bodies are unsound and would be unfit for life outdoors. Thus, even better than just pasture raised are heritage breed chickens raised on pasture, such as the Plymouth Barred Rock, Cornish, and Silver Laced Wyandotte . To the greatest extent possible - buy whole birds, which mean there's been less processing of the meat and it makes it more affordable. Remember that most "antibiotic free" comes from factory farms. Remember, too, that "free range" does not mean the birds were on pasture but it does mean the birds had outdoor access, (so it's somewhat better than non-free range).

6. Turkey: Almost all turkeys raised in the United States are of a single, over bred, white variety called the broad breasted white. They are raised in continual confinement in extremely crowded conditions and normally fed antibiotics for much or all of their lives. Their bodies are horribly unsound. They have trouble standing upright when they reach maturity and they are literally incapable of mating. The only way to get a physically sound turkey is to seek out heritage breed turkeys. Look for heritage turkeys that were raised on pasture. If you cannot find pasture raised birds, get ones that at least had access to the outdoors. Here again, buy whole birds for better safety and quality.

7. Eggs: Eggs from factory farms are particularly unappetizing. Hens are crammed into small cages (called "battery cages") which are stacked on top of one another. The hens are literally defecating on the hens below them. But avoiding them may seem tricky because egg labels are so vexing. There's cage free, free range, organic, vegetarian fed. Remember that "free range" has no meaning when put on an egg carton. Cage free is better than the factory farm norm (in which hens are crammed into crowded cages in which each one has less room than a sheet of paper) but the birds are still continually confined and terribly cramped. The only way to totally avoid the factory farm scenario is to look for eggs from hens that are on pasture. Other than a farmers market or CSA, the best place to find eggs from hens on pasture may be in your own backyard of your neighbor's. A growing number of Americans are keeping backyard flocks and many sell their excess eggs. These eggs are beautiful and taste so much better than supermarket eggs that once you've tried them, you'll never want to go back. Keep in mind that non-factory farming of eggs varies considerably by season because hens' naturally lay in harmony with nature's seasons. The number of eggs they lay corresponds with the amount of daylight. So be prepared for periods of shortage. You may have to go without eggs from time to time, but it will be well worth it.

8. Milk: Fluid milk is generally not transported very far because it cannot be done so economically. This means you need to find a good local source of milk. (If you live in New York, you may be lucky enough to have access to Ronnybrook Farms milk, which is excellent). Remember, you're looking for a dairy where the cows are on pasture as much of the time as possible. Some sell directly to the public. Organic milk, unless is says that the cows are on pasture, may come from confined cows. The local co-op is often a good place to find pasture based milk from a local farm. Remember with milk, if it doesn't indicate that the cows were on pasture, they almost certainly were not. It's always good to keep in mind, if you are unable to find pasture based or organic milk, at a minimum try to avoid milk with growth hormone (called rBST or rBGH). Generally, if the milk is free of growth hormone it will be labeled as such, so if it's unlabeled, it probably came from dairies using hormones.

9. Cheese: Cheeses made from cows on grass are incredibly tasty and are becoming easier to find. There is even a growing movement among traditional American dairies to make their own cheeses right on the farm (called farmstead cheeses). Check your farmers market, co-op and local cheese shop. An excellent source for good cheeses from traditional farms is Murray's Cheese in New York City, which has an exceptionally knowledgeable staff and an online store. Another outstanding source is Cowgirl Creamery, in Point Reyes Station, CA, which has an online store. There are also now many pasture based dairy farms that make and sell their own cheeses directly to consumers. (Always look carefully at the websites to make sure they actually show how their cows live). One particularly impressive pasture dairy I have visited several times is owned an operated by the Klessig family in Cleveland, Wisconsin. They now make and sell their own cheeses under the name Saxon Homestead Creamery.

10. Butter: The key is finding butter made from cows on grass. We like Straus Family Creamery, which is supplied by organic farms that graze their cows. It makes an excellent butter, available in California.

11. Yogurt: Yogurt from pasture based dairies can also be found. The Straus Family Creamery also makes an excellent organic yogurt from cows who live on grass. If you cannot find a good yogurt in your community, you can easily make your own from organic milk. (I have my own yogurt maker but haven't used in years because the Straus yogurt is so good).

Monday, November 09, 2009

Passing notes…

After the reading of Murielle’s Big Date, the audience was handed comment cards on which to make notes about how they felt about the play. After the show, Eric handed them over to me so I could see them but, me being me, I didn’t dare look.

Okay, I took a peek. I looked briefly at each and saw what I was hoping for:

… which is what you want from a comedy.

Then, this morning, I decided to read them all.

And I was shocked.

Some people said the play made people hopeful about the future. Some said that it showed how good people are. Others said it made them feel warm and fuzzy.

Were we at the same play?

But the thing was… that was exactly what I was hoping for when I wrote it. I was just too jaded – am too jaded – to say it out loud. (Actually, this is as close to “out loud” as I’ll probably get.) I touched people. I got through.

Mark me down as pleased… for the next 20 minutes or so, I can allow myself that much.

Shades of Way…

It’s one of those “good news/bad news” things.

Actually, it’s a lot of those “good new/bad news” things.

Here are a few…

So, we had the staged reading on Saturday for my play, Murielle’s Big Date. It was very well. The audience was roaring with laughter, which is kind of what you want in a comedy. All the folks from the theater kept telling me what a terrific play it was. That said, there were only about 15-20 people in the audience, in a theater that sat about 200. That was pretty disappointing. Of the “friends and family” I invited, only about ten showed.

I know of several people who read this blog who are bound to take a great deal of pleasure in the misfortune tied to this event. I will chose to observe the fortunate aspects.

Friday, I found out my old job was open again, the one I got laid off from. Today, I learned it wasn’t my old job after all. My position had already been filled. It was filled shortly after I was laid off. It was filled by a floozy who could barely spell but whom my ex-boss really wanted to fuck, which is how everyone assumed she got the job. This is how I was replaced. This is how replaceable I am. This is what I’m worth, it would appear.

I know of several people who read this blog who will find this pretty damned funny and who will probably send me messages telling me how this proves their theories about my worth. And I agonized over whether I should mention this or not on this public forum but I decided to because I know I’m not above life’s absurdities. I’m not infallible. I’m just as prone to the cruelties of life as anyone else and if knowing how shitty this is for me makes it any easier for someone else to deal with the crap life throws their way then it’s worth it for me to mention it.

Lastly, there’s the issue of how this blog has become a magnet for people who hate me. Because I’ve never been the kind of person to think anyone would hate me. In truth, I just thought I was worth ignoring – so whenever I said anything I thought could be considered controversial I just thought, “Well, they’ll walk away and ignore me.” But the opposite has occurred and struck by the many blows life keeps throwing me way, finding myself able at most to just keep trying and hoping that things get a little better, I wonder to myself more and more what the point is of writing on this blog if the most I can hope for is to make more people hate me. I think of these people - they aren't many but they are loud - and I think I should stop writing in this blog. And when I think of why they might hate me, things get more absurd. Because I don’t do hateful things, things worthy of hatred.

But that doesn’t matter. Life isn’t fair. It’s hard and it’s cold and sometimes people are, too. They don’t care who you are. If you get in the way of someone looking to hate, it’s like standing in a urine stream; you’ll get wet.

So, what’s the good news to the bad news? Why is this called “shades of way”? Because they good news is there’s always another way. I’m going to sidestep the hate as I always do – because I’m very sure I’ll receive comments or emails in response expressing extreme dislike though I won’t really deserve it. I suppose, if I had to guess, one might say that my lack of friends shows I’m not worthy of friendship or that the ease with which I’m replaced shows my lack of professional worth or perhaps that I’m misogynistic in claiming that the woman who replaced me was a floozy – and I’m going to remind myself about how I don’t have to respond to hate or to my job situation or to the small turnout as any indictment against me. Sometimes, shit just happens. And that’s the good news.

Shit just happens. I’ll keep on working on plays, on books, on whatever fulfills me as an artist. You don’t create art just for the audience, after all. And my worth as an employee isn’t determined by what my ex-boss chooses to do in replacing me, and though it might make me feel pretty shitty, it doesn’t mean I don’t have value. And people are going hate you sometimes. You can try to be the nicest person you can be, the best person you can be. It doesn’t matter. Someone once said I was just like one of the people who hates me – but that doesn’t mean it’s true. All it means is they don’t know.

Shit just happens.

And that’s the good news.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Despite appearances to the contrary…

Woke up this morning just feeling wretched. Not sick, really. Just unable to really move.

We had the final rehearsal for the staged reading last night and I have to say I walked in just thinking, “This is shit. This is crap. Just kill it while you can.” Since the last rehearsal there had been theater problems, friend problems, family problems – all relating to the reading, and I felt like why even bother if it’s gonna be such a pain in the ass, you know? Had the rehearsal sucked just as badly as the previous days, I would have told everyone to piss off for sure.

But the thing is… it didn’t. In fact, it exceeded all my expectations. Please understand that when you’re doing when of these readings, you pretty much have to slap everything together in a matter of days. So there’s really no time for subtleties or nuances – or even fucking getting your steps right. You’re basically throwing shit against a wall and hoping it comes out chocolate pudding. But this was chocolate mousse! It was phenomenal. I found myself laughing so hard, I actually hurt myself.

And I realized, of course, we had to do this. No matter what the problems were. For myself, personally, I’ve finally shown that I can write straight comedy, joke a minute comedy, without all the insecurities I used to have about “Will they like me? Will they think I’m stupid?” No, because you have to be pretty damned smart to write comedy like this. Watching my cast last night, I was pretty damned proud of myself – and that’s a good thing considering how few of my friends or family actually are. As I mentioned before, you really get a feel for who is in your corner during times like this. The guy who says he’s too busy or can’t go because his spouse won’t let him ain’t nothing compared to the guy who offers you his home to rehearse in and comes by to get a look. Anyway, I walked out of there last night like I had a new lease on life, like I was actually a worthwhile person (for a change), and it was wonderful.

Then, as I said, I woke this morning feeling completely horrid. I lay in my warm bed and thought, “Why? Why? Why?” And from out of somewhere came a reply. It said, “Your work is done, isn’t it? No more writing. No more directing. You’ve got everything taken care of. You’ve done your part. Is it any wonder you’re exhausted? Here’s a thought: Rest up. Relax. When Saturday comes, you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the show and enjoy everyone else enjoying the show.”

Good idea. But I still feel like crap.

Oh well. That’s okay.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Checking in…

Hello. I know. It’s been a while. But, hey, I’ve been busy.

For an unemployed bloke, I’m really busy.

… how the hell am I so busy?...

Got me. But it seems I never have a minute these days.

We’re getting ready for the big day, the big reading. It’s this weekend and, as usual, I have mixed emotions. Oh, the actors are doing a great job, of course, but the folks at the theater can’t be less cooperative. And while I’ve heard great news about people being there from several theaters, I am learning who really is my friend and who isn’t. The folks who are suddenly very busy when you need them. This kind of thing separates the friends from the phoneys, let me tell ya.

Of course, I expend a lot of energy looking for work. Finding nothing. Very frustrating. So, I’ve also been focusing on sending as much out to agents and publishers as I can – and find myself met by rotten news about the economy there as well. Turns out plenty of them will be very up front about only wanting to work with people who can guaranty big sales numbers… and here I thought writing a good book would be enough...

It’s easy to lose faith when things are down like this but I’m trying not to. Even if I have to go through the motions, I’ll do that so long as the motions move me forward. Even as a terrible panic, the one that set in the day I lost my job, looms larger and larger and I make myself busier and busier in the hopes that something will help, I try to remember how fortunate I am. Because I honestly am.

And then, I forget to drop a blog on a regular basis… so to speak…

Anyway… hello.