Improv Lessons for Activism

Good morning, America. How's the fresh hell treating you today? Yesterday on facebook, a friend of mine named Hana asked (generally, but partially directed at me):

I see lots of excellent efforts around donations, contacting elected officials, signing petitions, sending postcards, mass actions. But if we assume, for a second, that we're going to have to figure out how to collectively take over some important formerly-governmental functions (e.g. water quality testing? labor rights enforcement?) and work on the ground against some horrific government actions (e.g. mass deportations? registries?), then we are going to need to shore up and build reliable relationships with individuals and with and among civil society organizations. All of this atomistic collective action is important, but let's get relational too. So, tell me what you do in your daily life, what you see others doing, what you aspire to do, to build the kinds of relationships we can draw on to make sure we can be a buffer against the onslaught.

Great question.



I moved from the South Bronx, New York, to Hartford, Connecticut in September 2008. I drove away from my anarchist book club, my radical dogwalking collective, my handmade bike, my CSAs and warehouse art galleries to move to the land of insurance salespeople and steady habits. My New York friends went on to be deeply involved in Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and I went on to be the director of a museum department, occasionally host things on public radio, and open a successful comedy theater with many others.

I had (and still have) massive guilt about moving away from the more radical world I used to live in, but I am very proud of what I have done here in Connecticut. Did you notice the dates? I moved to Hartford within a couple of days of the stock market collapse in 2008. I had only been here a few weeks when Obama was elected. I spent his presidency working as a waitress, teacher, comedian, marketer, and events planner; I spent his presidency making friends and building thousands of relationships. I am now the Managing Director of the Sea Tea Comedy Theater.

I am happy and proud to say that my comedy company, Sea Tea Improv, seems to be considered a leader in collaboration and community relationships. So much so, that as President Trump's first week in office rounds the bend, my inboxes and my texts have all exploded with people asking how we can work together, or what we can do. Sea Tea Improv finds itself a leader, in our own very small way in our own underdog city. I'm happy to pull out some of the lessons that we've spent the last 8 years learning. 

The audience for this post is anyone who is either just starting out as an activist, or who, like me, finds themselves wondering "how can I level up?" It is aimed at the many people right now who are screaming into the void, "I NEED TO DO MORE BUT I DON'T KNOW HOW!" Some people have already given their entire lives to these causes and you, friends, can go get a coffee instead of reading this. You earned it. 

(Side note: I am an intersectional feminist with lots to learn-- please call me out if I misstep! I am very privileged in many ways-- white, stable income, relatively healthy, etc-- and there are of course things here that will not apply to everyone. This is coming from my experiences in comedy and leadership, and while it is very bossy (which I am), it is still very personal.)


I'm about to rain down on you with advice I've gathered from performing improv, teaching improv, and running a comedy company. Not all advice applies to everyone. Everyone has their own life and experiences, so if something doesn't apply to you, please dismiss and move on. Also, if you need mental help, please seek the treatment you need. But... I think there's something in here for everyone!

Improv Lessons for Activism

1. You can do so much more than you think you can.

I've been told that my teaching style is giving difficult feedback with a huge smile on my face, so let's do it. This part is a little woo-woo but we'll get through it.

Most people walk into our improv classes telling us all the things they can't do. Can't speak in front of groups, can't do crowds, can't be funny, can't make friends as an adult, can't this, can't that. I listen to this patiently, say something like "I understand" and then immediately put those people in a situation where they prove themselves completely wrong. Most people constantly tell themselves a story of all of their own limitations. Of course, many of them are real. Anxiety is real. Depression is real. Privilege (and lack thereof) is real. But with just a little pushing you can do MORE than you think you can. Just a little bit more. If you can't push yourself, put yourself in a situation where someone else pushes you. Peer pressure can be positive. I have seen people in my classes be absolutely transformed by showing up to improv classes week after week for months or years. Some of those transformations came from people with severe mental health conditions like schizophrenia or paralyzing anxiety. If they can push out of their comfort zones, so can you. 

This applies offstage, also: Sea Tea Improv opened a theater by committing to doing it. If we had known certain details like, for example, how much it would cost (ha, ha... cry), it would have been very easy to tell ourselves not to do it. But that was the next step for us, so we committed to it and did everything in our power to make it work. In the past, that "just a little more" was a monthly show, or teaching classes, or expanding our ensemble. We were always pushing ourselves to do more than it felt like we can. 

And this principle applies to how you spend your time and your life. Yes, you have the time. Yes, you have the energy. Yes, you have the money. It is hidden somewhere else. Your mission is to cut out the time, energy, or money from something else and transfer it over to your activism. It's not simple and it's not easy but it is POSSIBLE. And remember, it's just a little more than you were doing before.

But here's the bad news: SINCE I KNOW YOU CAN DO MORE THAN WHAT YOU ARE CURRENTLY DOING, I EXPECT YOU TO TRY.  Yes, friends, you have to step up. You have to be brave. And being brave means ignoring all the stories you are telling yourself about why you can't step up. We don't have time for your self-loathing right now! We love you and we need you in the fight. (See? Tough with a smile.)

2. But how do you do stuff? By just doing it. Don't wait until things are perfect.

Waiting until circumstances are ideal is a losing game. That time will not come. Try anything, expect to fail, and then try the next thing. All that time you spent waiting for the right thing is time you wasted not learning lessons. Meanwhile, other people were out there making all the moves. Either, they were your enemies and now you're in deeper shit than before, or they were potential friends you missed out on. Get out there and do one thing-- go to one meeting, sign up for one class, join one secret facebook group, and see what it's all about. If you don't like it, stop doing it. If you do like it, repeat it. This sounds very dumb as I write it but it is much harder than it seems. Inertia-- in either form; staying at rest or staying in motion with something you hate-- is bad. Making choices is good. Make a choice and see what happens. My favorite way of making a choice is to sign up for something in the future-- a march, a marathon, a class, a meeting-- and then I have to go. Following people who already know what they are doing is a really good choice to make.

3. The most important thing in any scene is a relationship. (Or: Make Your Partner Look Good.) Reach out!

This is what Hana's question was about. How do we build strong relationships? My best advice is: don't overthink it. If someone does something you like or admire, email them, or tell them to their face. This happens to me once in a while and people always think they are being super weird. They are not. They are being great. "Hey, I really like that think you said/did/asked," etc is an excellent first step. It's a lot better than "I like your shirt" or "did you see this movie," as far as networking goes.  Be the one to build the connection.

In improv we have a concept called "Make Your Partner Look Good." It's the idea that in any space you are in, it's your job to honor the other person's experiences and listen to what they are saying. If there is any way to make them look good, do it! Online, link and share things they write that are awesome (signal boost!). In person, compliment them sincerely. Introduce people to people very nicely. I go on and on about this at length in an old post. If you don't have a relationship, you have nothing to build on and your onstage scene, or offstage business, will quickly crumble.

4. It's not about you. It's never, ever about you. 

Strong scenes and strong communities are built when people are willing to put their egos aside. Talk openly and honestly about the larger picture. Try not to take things personally, because what we're doing now is not a personal thing. We are putting aside our individual comfort for the collective good. We all think we're the hero of our own story, but we're really just a little tiny piece of history. This is a good thing because it diminishes the pressure to be perfect. Embrace the fact that you are not the star of the world. It's better for everyone including you.

Not everyone needs to be a leader. It's impactful to join a movement or an organization that is gaining momentum. Put your own "I need to be a leader" ego aside and find out who's already doing good stuff, and support those efforts. If, for example, you want people of color to have a bigger voice, the best thing you can do is shut up for a minute and give them space (literal, or virtual) to lead.

5. Accept the reality you are living in (otherwise known as "Yes, And").

Nothing can move forward if we can't agree on where we presently are. Surprise! This is the most classic improv lesson of all: say Yes, And. That doesn't mean be positive: it means, if someone says "I hate all immigrants," instead of saying NO YOU DON'T, HOW COULD YOU, you need to be saying things like, "yes, I see you hate immigrants, AND here's some information for you." Acknowledging other people's positions, and the reality of the world we live in, is the only way we can build something new together. We have to start from where we are. We can't start back at the New Deal, or 2008, or November 7th. Yes, we are witnessing a horror show. And, the next steps are (fill in the blank).

6. Go to (good) people's stuff. 

But how do you meet people? Go to the LEISURE events and gatherings you wish you were cool enough to go to. (Because-- once you go to them, ta-da! You are a person who goes to that.) Go to gallery openings, improv shows, music, gay bars, community meetings, libraries, coffee places, bookstores. People who are rich and materialistic are very, very good at this. They show up to fancy bars and restaurants like they belong there. You can do the same thing, with more meaningful places and events. This is where you will meet your people.

7. Your rest & your self-care should start to build the life you want.

"Self-care" is a popular phrase these days and I'm all for it. I love sleeping, and nights off. But I don't think that we all mean the same thing when we say it. Some nights, I will go out and have a bunch of beers and wake up feeling terrible the next day. That is NOT self-care. Binge-eating a bag of Hot Fries as I did last night was not self-care, it was Doing Whatever I Want. 

Your self-care can double as a way to build the community that you are looking for. The best self-care I have done is spending time with friends who want to talk about meaningful things. Or going to book clubs. Or reading alone-- but when I read, I'm reading Octavia Butler. Or seeing a movie that is intellectually stimulating or at least made by a woman or person of color. Most of my good self-care is consumption of art, or building relationships, or taking care of my body with the side effect that I'm even more ready to work the next day. Obviously I'm imperfect (see: hot fries), but see if you can expand your definition of self-care to supporting your community. When Sea Tea Improv takes nights off, I inevitably end up chatting up some random person in another industry who eventually ends up hiring us. My favorite solo self-care is (this is dorky) cleaning my house. It's physical, it's brainless, and at the end of it I have a clean house.

7. Go outside. Wander. Linger. 

THIS IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE I CAN OFFER! Go outside and walk around. I know it sounds incredibly stupid, but this is The Way. This is the thing someone will write a book about and make a million dollars on. 

When my friends come to visit me in Hartford they are inevitably amused by all the people I wave at. Greg (my husband and business partner) and I spend an immense amount of time wandering around Hartford, and after eight years, it means we know a lot of people. A lot. And all different kinds of people. We know the names of the building supers and the CEOs on our block. In the course of ten minutes at my "office" (a coffee place at the center of town), I have chatted with the mayor, local journalists, and teens that I know from my summer program. None of this would happen if I didn't wander around. Wander around, be outside, be curious, don't rush. Just be... around. Take your meetings out of your office and into somewhere local. Make other people walk around with you. Park your car a few blocks further away (or don't take your car). You WILL meet people. You will get to know your community better. You can't help it. This is the best thing you can do. After meetings, walk around the office or department saying hi to everyone you know. I always do this. (And this should go without saying, but don't be gross. You're not too good for anyone. You're not social climbing. Don't only interact with people who you perceive as peers or "above" you. Just be curious about the people you meet.)

8. Failure will happen.

I have nothing to say about this except that you should chant this to yourself as often as you need to to feel comfortable with it. 

9. Everything is ephemeral.

The worst improv shows are the best improv shows. This sentence has a double meaning, and both are powerful and true. The two most extreme outcomes contain the same lesson. After a terrible show, you think: well, thank god, that's over and it will never happen again. After a great show, you think: that was so fantastic and I'll never get to do it again. It's such a sad, nostalgic feeling-- but then you're on to the next. It's ok. It's good. No matter what happens, good or bad, you have to keep moving forward.

9. Work in teams.

I understand why people feel such an immense amount of pressure and fear around activism and art: it feels lonely. It feels like you are taking on a huge responsibility all by yourself. So don't. In improv, we never do anything alone. Never. Onstage or off. When we teach a class, we send two teachers. If we can manage it, we bring along two people to meetings. 

The benefits to doing things in a team are myriad. You can take a minute to think, or rest, while your teammate covers for you. Your teammates should be out to make you look good (see #3), which is a relaxing way to enter any situation. And, if you get sick or have an emergency come up, your teammate can still show up and represent you. This applies way beyond improv shows. It applies to activism and all the stuff you are showing up for. Your teammate can be your friend, your partner, your coworker, whoever. It can be anyone. Teammates also make talking to new people much much less awkward. 

"Teams" also gets me to my favorite subject, which is: collaborate on any and everything you can. Sea Tea has a goal of collaborating with at least 217 different organizations this year. Look for cross-org collaborations wherever you can.

10. Educate yourself.

The more diverse our improv community gets, the more I hear things like, "I'm old, I don't know who Ariana Grande is," or "I'm not as into superheroes and comics as other people are," or "I don't know anything about Gloria Steinem." While I understand that everyone has endless things they will never learn, I also believe you should not brag about all the things you don't know. Ask questions and then go home and read a book, or at least binge Wikipedia entries. If you want to understand other people and change the world you are responsible for being in a CONSTANT learning mode. Constant. No piece of culture or history is something you are above at least learning about. Even MMA. (Come at me, Meryl!) Culture and history is how you will be connecting with others in the future.

11. Build habits and then trust yourself. And be patient.

So you're going to learn all this stuff, build a billion habits, be so intentional... and then you are going to have to improvise. You'll just have to. It's a fact. Nothing will go as you plan. That's what we're all learning after the election.

The point of building habits and relationships and skills is so that you can use them without thinking when you need to. For these things to become automatic. 

It took me eight years to build the kind of relationships that I'm now trading on every day-- emails are flying, calendars are filling, actions are happening. But none of it feels too hard, oddly. It feels much easier because these are people and organizations I trust and know a lot about already. I am also starting to engage with new friends and people who I can tell don't totally trust me yet, and that is completely fair. It will take a lot of time. Know that whatever you start today may not pay off for years. 

12. Everyone is different and that is good.

No strong improv team is full of people that are all the same. Teams have introverts, extroverts, support players, editors, stars. They have robots and emotional exploders. They have people who are really naturally funny and people who (surprise!) aren't that funny but are amazing at support. We need all of those people on an improv team and we need all of them in a team of activists.

Great leaders recognize that everyone can do better, but that "better" isn't the same for everyone. See that in the community around you and try to support and encourage people to find their own path. But still-- work together. Collaboration is what is going to bring activism to victory. 


If you want America to fundamentally change, you may have to fundamentally change. We all expect other people to make these big changes, but why shouldn't it be you? I'm sure most of these will be met with, "....but I can't!" All I'm asking of you is to listen and think about it.

1. Live in a city where you can have an impact.

It is so very strange to say this, but the best thing I ever did was move to Hartford. I love New York, I miss New York, but my peers were doing so much better having impact there. My life in Hartford is in many ways much more annoying, but it is also much more meaningful. If everyone who wanted to be a leader moved to a city that needed that energy, we might have a stronger nation. You might not get to have the country you want if everybody lives in, or is aiming for, New York, LA, or San Francisco. Make your own community stronger. (Might that mean less money or fame? Yes. Yes it might. Are those the most important things to you?)

2. Learn about things you thought were boring when you were a kid, like money and the law.

Lawyers and money are making most of these decisions that we hate. Law and money are not evil. They are tools. Understand the law and support the work of great lawyers and judges. Money: get your own finances under control. There's nothing harder than pursuing a passion when you're exhausted from overwork or debt. (I know this is a whole journey in itself-- Mr. Money Mustache is a great place to start thinking about living below your means.) Sea Tea Improv had to force itself to learn about these things from necessity and now we're better off.

3. Date/marry/be friends with people who care.

I could not do what I do without a partner as ambitious and community-oriented as me. My friends from across my life are also very passionate people. We might not be passionate about the same things all the time, but they are willing to dig in and do the work. Surrounding yourself with people who will say, "hey, let's go _____" is going to inherently make you more active and a better activist. Do not waste your life with people whose primary mission is to acquire more stuff. The improv community in Connecticut is so passionate and caring that it drives everyone to be better. Surround yourself with people who are compassionate, empathetic, and ambitious.

4. Change careers to something more impactful.

There are so many places that need you. This is, of course, changing your whole entire life and is very difficult to do, but if you are considering it, let me be the first to encourage you. You are not stuck in the corporate job you thought you had to have until your 65th birthday. Make a plan, save your dollars and go do something else. 

5. Being a parent is a very important job but it's not the only job.

I love kids so much, and all the moms and dads in my life. I see how hard you work and how tired you are and I have the utmost respect for that. But: we can't wait 18 years for your kids to grow up. We need you in the fight now. Please make room, even a little tiny sliver of room, for connecting with the people and causes who need help right now. We need every compassionate and hardworking person down in the dirt, and a ton of those people are parents. You are great. Come fight.

6. Introverts, we need you.

If you don't love being around people, I'm sure this all feels very overwhelming. Secret: it feels overwhelming to extroverts, too. I have heard a lot of "I would do _____, but I'm an introvert" lately.

Making a better world is going to be hard. So hard. Some of the best leaders I know are introverts who have taken themselves way outside their comfort zones. Introverts, you are smart and thoughtful and we need you out in the world talking and listening to people. Find your own way, but please join the fight. I'm not saying change your personality. But I am saying, there is a place for you in activism.

6. Show up.

This is, after all, the only lesson, the lesson for everyone. Be there for the people and communities that need you. Amazing things happen when you just show up. There are a thousand reasons not to show up for anything, and one good reason: because someone else needs you to show up. Ignore the thousand and choose the one.

Step out onto the stage. It's ok. Your team is out here, in the light. You can do more than you think you can. Now do it.

-- Julia








On Not Flickering


Here is how Hillary has been personally affecting my day and my year. This just occurred to me. (Let it be known that I voted for Bernie in the primaries and that I much more closely align with him and other candidates on vital issues like climate change, etc-- but that's not where we are anymore.) (Warning, this is long!)

I am a woman. More than that, I am a very short woman with a giggly laugh who is probably too obsessed with being nice and likeable. And now I am a woman who is in charge of a theater facility, which means I'm dealing with subcontractors, which means (because of the way our society is at the moment, though it does not have to be this way) I am dealing with an endless parade of macho macho men.

A handful of these men are great, SO great. But 90% of them are unable to own up to a single mistake, weakness, or doubt. Some of them will not stick to their word and say things like "I'm sure it's fine" without even coming and taking a look or "just don't use the (insert feature we paid for here)". They get frustrated and sad and it is so painfully obvious that they don't actually know exactly what the issues are or how to ask for help within their own companies, which they express by telling me (and others in my company) that we have no idea what we are talking about.

Yesterday I sat in a room with four friends under flickering lights, looking directly at them, while a contractor said defensively "I don't see any flickering." It was... insane. At one point one of our electricians floated the theory that our building was haunted and that was the problem.

To me, all of this is so obviously a result of toxic masculinity that I just feel kind of bad for all of these guys and their struggle to problem-solve while simultaneously never being wrong. Must be hard to live like that.

But the question is, what do I do as a result? What is my job here?

When I'm not working on the theater I'm obsessively reading about the election. I have been more and more horrified by Trump's behavior and more and more impressed by Hillary's. The ability to stay calm and confident in the face of nonsense is a serious skill, a skill that I would like to work on for the rest of my life. It's already hard to stay confident when you're a new leader. It's even harder when you're female and there are all of these social barriers in place in every last damn interaction. My job is to sail past those barriers and fix the problems.

But today, after sending a scathing email or two and making some phone calls that resulted in our contractors picking up the pace and at respecting what I had to say, I realized something. I wrote a stronger email because I watched that debate last night. I stood up for myself and my company better. I feel more confident because I had a model right in front of me. And because I was clearer and more confident, the contractors also seemed more at ease with the idea that we were here to solve this problem together. Nothing is totally solved yet but we're working on it together and that's all I need today. And I was not even conscious of the link between the two until just a minute ago, and now I'm realizing it has affected my whole year. The pace of my leadership skills is shadowing the pace of this campaign.

Hillary's campaign has quite literally made me a better leader. It has affected the way I speak, write, and act. It has made me more confident and less obsessed with being likeable. Her unlikeability is pointed out a hundred million times a day and she's still standing.

I am not Hillary, and these contractors are not Trump. But we are tiny branches off of those gender trees. We are, in a much smaller room, a woman fighting with herself over likeability and a set of men terrified of showing weakness.

Never before has a candidate actually affected my day to day behavior. The effects of her potential presidency, day after day, are actually starting to sink in. She is a model for any woman or girl who might want to lead someday. Not just the country, but anything.

Makes you think. Makes you think a lot.

In and out of small boats: 2015

Some days ago I was talking to myself, as I now often do working alone in my house. "Why is this so hard?" I don't actually remember what I was doing, but I have some guesses: maybe it was when I never recorded an interview that I had driven an hour to get, and I didn't know where the malfunction had happened. Maybe it was when I was reading the description of an HVAC question that may as well have been written in Latin. Maybe I was getting into a boat I was sure would tip, or reading a will. I don't remember. But I know that my next thought was: this was a learning year. 

Looking back, I see that this year, I took on many new things without a thought to the change they would wreak in my life. Every year I feel more sure of myself, more of a leader, and this was the year I longed to feel like a student again. 

Here are some things I did not resolve to learn, but did: to cook, to dress better, to row a racing shell, to identify some birds, to edit audio pieces, to get a good interview, to pitch myself to writing outlets, to manage a construction project, to get in and out of small boats. 

So many times I suspected it would all tip over. So far, it has not. 

Here are my year's highlights. 


In a story I've now told a million times, I fell off a stage while conducting a panel at CrimeConn. I fell terribly dramatically, but as I was going down, I felt nothing but joy about how great of a story it was going to be. I'm proud of that. In an clumsy year, this moment was a standout.


So boring, I know. As usual, I went through some spurts of healthy living-- but this time with a much greater focus on sleep and water. I developed a whole new relationship with these two terribly dull things, often prioritizing them as the highest point of my day, and I have to say, it felt really good.


I interviewed BJ Novak back in February for the Twain House. While Novak wasn't the warmest of our guests, he gave a solid interview and I felt good about this being my probable last interview for the Twain House (I was, at this point, starting to think about leaving). I also shook Ta Nehesi Coates' hand at Book Expo America, which was even better.


I'm ashamed of how much my running as fallen off (I was sure I'd be an ultramarathoner by now), but I still got three half-marathons in: the Tinkerbell Half in Disneyland (memorably followed up with walking around the park all day, which was memorably followed up with not being able to walk at all), the Mystic Half (beautiful), and the Hartford Half, which I can now run with my eyes closed. I took 45 minutes off my time between the first and the third race. 


I never think to include this in my yearly review, but I inject a lot of art into my life. I spent good dollars on plays: The Sounds & The Fury by the Elevator Repair Service, Kiss Me Kate at Hartford Stage, an adorable community theater performance of Gutenberg the Musical up in New Hampshire, the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time on Broadway (probably best play I've ever seen), Fun Home on Broadway, Jimmy and Lorraine at Hartbeat Ensemble. And those were just the great ones. BEST PLAY: Curious Incident. BEST ART: Wadsworth Atheneum, which I went to many times this year. BEST PANEL: a nonfiction panel at the New Haven Public Library with John Jeremiah Sullivan (literary crush). BEST BOOK: A Little Life. Or maybe Lumberjanes. 


This year in my marriage involved a lot of late nights talking about our business, Sea Tea Improv. It also involved what it always has: good talks in the car, covering for each other, forcing each other to relax, and pushing each other to not waste our passions. I'm really lucky to be married to the most ethical person ever born, who watches a lot of depressing movies with me against his will. In return I listen to a lot of Star Wars analysis. Truthfully, Greg probably was the most important part of my year, as he always is, but the steady presence is hard to compare to these other bursts of joy. He allows them all to happen by being so supportive.


We taped a live podcast this summer that was just a delight. We've been disco-ing for years now, and even though I see them only once a year or so, Rider and Tod have become lifelong friends. Meeting the fans always stuns me and hanging out in the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles was wonderful. 


It was a hard year for my family in some ways, with a death in the family right off the bat in February, and then a death that affected my sister very much right at the end of the year. And yet, there were so many beautiful little moments with everyone: singing bawdy tavern songs at funerals, swimming quietly up to loons, riding on carousels, cooking turkeys, camping in Maine, bringing my grandparents to the Martian, celebrating my niece's first birthday, cat sweaters for Christmas. The sadder these years get, the happier they get also. It's very strange but I'll take it.


Sea Tea Improv developed an Improv for Dementia Caretakers program this year-- I couldn't be prouder of that. I also taught improv to a gazillion fifth and seventh graders in the Hartford Public Schools. I've seen a lot of kids pretending to be octopuses. It's great every time. Also fantastic is getting kids who have trouble sitting still to stand up and channel their energy into theater games. 

9. DEBT:

I paid of an obscene amount of debt this year. Since September 2014, I have paid and kept off $22,000 of credit card (terrible, I know) and student loan debt. The way I did this was very simple: every single dollar after bills I made went to this. Huge chunks paid at a time, every time I got paid anywhere. No budget. Just paying it off over and over again. This, by the way, was my New Year's resolution. I didn't quite kill my student loans like I wanted to, since I quit my job, but I will be doing that soon. 


At one point this year I was standing in the woods of Keney Park, shivering because I'd forgotten my squirrel tights for the Night Fall dress rehearsal, and I watched a puppet come out of the trees and felt sincerely terrified. That was fantastic. I was also given the opportunity to perform as Princess Leia in a Star Wars sketch show, play the Ghost of Christmas Future in an improvised Christmas Carol, play an empathetic judge in an improvised Spoken performance, got yelled at onstage by Terry Withers, wrote Jurassic Park parodies... all amazing. And I loved performing with my all women's team with my best friends, Romantic Baby; performing the show I'm most proud of in my lifetime with Greg (an improvised musical about veterans), and building the world's smallest theater for Hartford Parking Day. 


This year, as usual, weddings and improv festivals took me all over the country. I bought cowboy boots in Austin; stood on a cliff in California as a friend got married; ran that Disney race; took a Segway tour of Chicago; hiked through a holly forest in Cape Cod; submurged in Diana's baths in New Hampshire; camped in Maine; ate a deli sandwich on the beach in Ipswitch; danced in a barn in Vermont; walked through a garden in Tarrytown; heard radical wedding vows in Brooklyn. I feel so lucky to always prioritize these little journeys, and even luckier to live in New England where these experiences are so close to each other.


A friend said to me in July, "when's the last time you went Hot Turkey on something?" Meaning: jumped all-in on something you have no idea how to do. That afternoon I signed up for sculling lessons. I thought, "maybe I'll be Olympic-level good at this!" until the moment when I first slid into the boat and realized how much balance, patience, calm, and strength it takes just to move the thing through the water. It was extremely challenging, beautiful, and calming, and gave me a completely new perspective on the city where I live. 


Technically, I went freelance beginning in February, when I cut down my hours at the Twain House and started to try and get more outside work. But it wasn't until the early fall that I decided to leave completely, striking out on my own and spending my days as a one-woman writing, sales, marketing, and accounting team. I was hired as a contributor for Book Riot, Connecticut Food & Farm, United Way, and LEGO Systems; I submitted a piece to Creative Nonfiction that I'd been dragging my heels on forever; I wrote a ton for WNPR; I was asked to join a secret freelance writing group full of people I respect. The most fun thing that happened in a very fun year of writing was the Hartford Courant publishing a received Op-Ed of mine on my birthday (coincidence). 


Damn, this was the best. We decided to open a theater, and I spent about a month writing what I hoped would be a convincing pitch; in the writing of it, I fell back in love with my own company and the dream of the theater. That kickstarter ended up being the most successful improv-related kickstarter of all time, raising over $60,000 and winning us a tremendous amount of excitment over the project. Since then, I and my improv colleagues have been working on lease agreements, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, and architectural plans, signage design, a new business plan, restructuring our workforce, forging connections with the city, increased sales, and new classes. It has felt slow day to day, but realizing that we had very little at this point last year makes me so proud of all we've done, despite still being such a ragtag bunch of individual artists. Sea Tea more than anything else I have ever done has given me confidence, negotiation, and leadership skills that I am extremely proud of. I think I'm a boss bitch now and I love it.

3. Neighborhood Studios

The teen program I taught at the Twain House this year was extremely challenging. The kids came in with terrible stories and challenges, high emotions and an unwillingness to bond. But on the final day, every one of them cried, including me. The high point of the experience was reading an essay on behalf of one of the young writers, a letter to her father forgiving him for his suicide attempt, during our final performance, in front of her parents. It was emotional beyond description and I was so proud of her for writing it, and honored to read it.

2. WNPR Internship & The Radius Project

Last February I began as an intern at WNPR, Connecticut's public radio station. I absolutely loved it: answering phones, producing shows, writing news items on Barnum and Bailey, Harper Lee, and an octopus who had learned to use a camera. I blogged for the Beaker and I collected as much vox as I could. By summertime, the newsroom staff had hired me to work on a new podcast about Hartford. It drops this month and I couldn't be prouder of it. I spent most of the fall ice skating with refugees, eating cannoli for research, interviewing barbers, and lots of other things you'll hear about very soon. Why does this rank so high in such a great year? Because it felt so difficult. This was the thing that challenged me most, the thing I wanted to instantly be great at but had so much to learn. I'm still a complete radio baby. I get tangled in the headphone cord and my edits are way too long, but I'm learning. And the learning is the joy of it. That, and realizing that every single day is abundant with news. 

1. Galapagos

Nothing will ever beat nature. Nothing. Last January, Greg and I climbed volcanic hills, identified finches, counted dolphins, plodded among giant tortises, approached sharks, felt nothing but wonder. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed and frustrated, like I'm terrible at everything, like I don't know why I'm doing all this, I think, "somewhere on the other side of the world there are thousands of sea lions lying on that beach." It was so beautiful. Stunning beyond my imagination. Inspiring. And the best part of the trip was swimming with penguins-- once we learned to jump in and out of small boats with confidence, trusting that whatever was in the water would be more exciting than never getting the courage to leap.  



Freelancing Evening, a Glimpse

It's Monday. It's snowing again. I'm finally fully recovered from a weeklong cold. Motivation is low, and I have a to-do list that will surely haunt my dreams tonight. I'm sitting in front of the fire with my husband who is typing with fury on one of the hundred projects that haunts his dreams. His problem is falling asleep. Mine is waking up. I haven't set an alarm for years because I know I'll shoot awake before seven with an idea, a worry, or worst of all, remembering something I nearly forgot to do.

Naturally this procrastinating mood led me down a road of reading blogs about other freelancers-- mostly about how they make their money and manage their workloads. So I thought it might be fun to jump on here and give a glimpse of what I consider freelance work, what projects I have right now, and where I stand with them. 

Here is my work for the week, which I am about to schedule out hour by hour for the week.

BIGGEST PROJECT: I'm interviewing BJ Novak live onstage this week! I have to read his book and watch the Newsroom and Inglorious Bastards, and of course write my questions. This is actually for Twain, but it's so huge I'm separating it out as its own category. I'm listening to BJ Novak on Marc Maron's WTF Podcast as I type.

MARK TWAIN HOUSE: I'm still clocking in about 25 hours a week at the Twain House, and the project I am working on hardest right now is finalizing the schedule for a writing conference. This entails emailing with about 50 writers at once, which takes forever and requires meticulous records to keep straight. Looking forward to finishing this once and for all tomorrow in a marathon stretch.

SEA TEA IMPROV: I'm currently teaching a class on Sunday afternoons (great steady income source) and did a few gigs this weekend. This week is going to be all about marketing our Valentine's Day shows. With two shows, one rehearsal and one class this week, this is actually a light Sea Tea week, so I'll catch up on my admin work (setting up future gigs) tonight so that I don't have to think about it for a few days.

WNPR: I just started as an intern there and I am going to make myself write 3 blog posts (2 science & one more newsy) during my shift there on Thursday. Very excited about this.

FISCHMAN ORTHODONTICS: Doing some marketing freelancing for a fantastic orthodontist in West Hartford-- and this week I'm working on creating a blog for his website.

UNITED WAY: I'm writing a short play for their Annual Meeting, due tomorrow night. This is the one that will wake me up in the morning. Big project. All the research is done and now I have to smooth out the creative work.

SYLLABLE: Have to market the next installment of the reading series, which is Feb 25th. The last one didn't get enough submissions so I have to really be on top of this one.

LITERARY DISCO: Just recorded an episode which I'll upload in a couple of days. Have to read an essay and record another episode at some point this week.

LEGO: Nothing right now, so I just wrote to the director that hired me originally and said hi for the New Year, reminding him that I exist. 

PERSONAL WRITING: I'm working on my literary reviews, so I finished a graphic novel today that I'll write a review of tonight (on Goodreads, where my reviews have no consequence, rightly so). I have the next book I want to start right next to me. I am hoping this project results in my writing and critical mind improving so much so that I can work towards writing reviews for "real" outlets within the next year.

And so, that is a night in for a Freelance writer: working on, planning out, and obsessing over those items. I feel inspired and ready to fly through this week. This is a very, very typical load for me.

Hope you all, dear readers, are working on equally fun and inspiring work. Happy writing!

-- Julia


Birds, Fox, Birds

This spring, I was sitting at my desk at work looking out of the window. That was a big deal; I'd fought for the window after fighting for a promotion to Director of my own department at the Mark Twain House. The window underlooked the eaves of the carriage house lofts where our cubicles were and there was a bird just going crazy outside. Her nest had become dislodged from the carriage house beams and fallen to the ground. My coworkers called me down to check it out since I am a known animal sympathizer and would be properly sad and motherly-- willing to touch the animals and willing to cry over them.

One of the birds we thought we could save was already dead. Another one was alive, and my coworker Jacques and I picked it up and put it back in the nest, placing the next in what seemed like a stable spot in a nearby tree. We took a picture and put it on facebook. It was a huge hit.

What we didn't put online was that the mother bird still couldn't find her baby. The fledgling was in shock and not properly noisy; the mother bird flew wild around the carriage house, in front of my idyllic window, frantic and heartbreaking. I was told the next morning that our new nesting position had been weak and the nest had blown over in the night, and the bird we had tried to save was also gone. 

This is why I would never allow a Facebook algorithm sum up my year. I hit "no thanks" on that suggestion over and over again.

That isn't to say I had a bad year. Others who have complained about the algorithmic summation of the year cite tragedy as the ultimate faux pas-- posting a picture of a loved one who has since died, or a house on fire-- those are awful, of course. My summary was different. It was great. And it still upset me, because it was so unrepresentative of my own life.

I had a big, big year-- I was promoted at work; a month later, bought a house; a few months later, got married; became an aunt for the first time; adjusted my job again to take on more freelance work. It was a year just made for a top ten list. I don't resist going back and summarizing; in fact, I do it every year right here on this blog; but this year (and every year) I feel that ordinary  life outshone the big things. I was in places I couldn't take pictures-- in a rush, with no battery, in private, in theaters, underwater, in the dark, on the stage.

In May I forgot to go and pick up my wedding dress. I just plain forgot to do it; some of my friends were horrified on my behalf, but I raced down to New York and got it along with a cup of coffee and drove home feeling more like myself than I ever have. It was a beautiful day and I balanced the dress and the coffee on a mailbox while I threw some thank-you cards through the hatch. I felt so happy I could not speak, a happiness I never would have felt had I picked up my dress at the appointed moment.

I touched the pages of a first edition Leaves of Grass  in the Trinity College Watkinson Special Collections library. I waited for Steve Martin in a room with peeling paint and never met him. I sat in one seat at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater for eight or nine hours holding a bag of ice, blowing it so that the cool air would fly back at my face to mitigate the stuffiness of the air in an improv marathon.

I was on water; in water; under water. The Charles W. Morgan sailed with me aboard and I climbed the rigging to see how far the ocean went. Twice I submerged myself in the hottest pools I could stand at Korean spas in New York, with old friends. I put my feet in a stream in Oregon and waved goodbye to some friends on inner tubes. On the morning of my wedding I made myself swim at 5:30 AM in a frigid pool because my dad had done it on his wedding day; on the evening of my wedding, three or four feet down in that same pool, I thrashed my arms to pull the drenched cotton away from my face and laughed as a friend retrieved my husband's wedding ring from the deep end. In a lake I paddled out towards loons. In the ocean I swam the same swim I do every year. In the rain we marched for Ferguson. In the rain I pointed at humpback whales.

Some pictures I didn't take because I was busy performing onstage. I ready my work and won a Literary Death Match, for which I received a silly medal. I continued with my team Sea Tea Improv, but I was on six other temporary teams, too-- Julia & Jeffrey, Electronic Initiation (the world's first online improv team), Performance Review, Spoken, Campfire, and Romantic Baby. I hosted podcasts and reading series. I was in about a hundred improv shows. I produced a musical and assistant directed another. I stepped out into countless darknesses and silences. 

So many things happen in darkness. The historic whaleship rocked me in my bunk.  The fireworks burst out over the river while my friends sat out on the roof. I talked in my sleep, I whispered to my husband, I lay awake worrying. I'm still convinced I sleepwalked around my new house but I have no evidence.

One night in the dark, on the night my boyfriend and I had turned off the last light in our apartment, locked the door behind us, and were walking that lamp to our new house, where he would be my husband. We saw a fox running through the city. It was late and cold and the traffic lights were doing their duty for no one. The fox loped down Market Street and ran all the lights and I think it may be the most beautiful thing I've seen all year.

Or maybe the most beautiful thing was a dark night shortly after my uncle died. My family went up to a cabin we'd built in the woods-- a project he'd dreamed about for years and did not see through to the end. His sister (my aunt, who had really done it all) poured out whiskey into glasses. My father lit a hurricane lamp. It was the darkest dark night I can remember. The wood of the cabin walls smelled new and in the back of my mind I worried that the book I'd brought was too scary to read in this level of darkness. It seemed the hurricane lamps could easily tip over and burn everything down, but they didn't. Everyone was already burned down in their own way. We toasted around the hurricane lamp and were quiet.

A wedding in the woods in Oregon. A wedding in the woods in New York. A baseball game in Baltimore. Apple picking with little kids. A pool party. Christmas cookies. My best friend shushing her baby on a lawn while we watched sailboats go by. My sister and I walking in New York in the winter with coffees in our hands. My friends and I sitting in the same pub so many nights a week. A very American year, more than I ever meant to have, but these things were beautiful too, and did not feel ordinary. They felt like I stumbled into them from a strange and eclectic world, lived an ordinary moment, and stumbled back out again.

After spending two years planning and more money than I will admit here, I asked my grandmother what the best part of my wedding was for her. She said the dappled light on the benches before the ceremony. She had a point. 

I have so many ideas for next year. There are changes I want to make; things fallen out of tune that I want to tune. Whatever is already in tune I want to learn to play. Whatever melodies I know I want to add harmonies. And yet I know that no matter what I say now, no matter how many goals I meet, 2015 will be something I can't imagine. I could probably guess the ten pictures that facebook will select. But I can't know if a fox will run down the street or for whom we will have to light a lamp. 

Just a few weeks ago my extended family came over for lunch. I made a fire in the fireplace and we all sat down to eat. After a while my husband began to fixate on a grate near our ceiling.

"Something is in there," he said. 

We saw a struggle in the dark. A claw. We all wondered what it would be. A squirrel. A rat. 

"A bird," I said, over and over. "I'm sure it's a bird." Whatever it was, it rattled and thudded in there while we all stood up. We got brooms. We turned out every light. We opened the door to the dusk. 

My husband stood up on a stool and unscrewed the grate. He took it off and climbed down. We stood giggling in the dark, waiting for whatever it was. We waited just long enough for me to start thinking I was wrong and that there was no bird in there. 

"THERE IT GOES!" my dad shouted, and I couldn't tell if he was joking or not, until I saw it, flying panicked towards the wrong window. It turned and flew out the open door into the December evening. My family, so devastated by the loss of my uncle, laughed so hard and then we closed the door against the cold air.

I'd been certain it was a bird because earlier in the year I had heard a rattling up in an all-glass room we have in our house. A widow's walk. I went up there and a bird was desperately crashing against each sunlit window while my cats looked on. It was the brightest day. I opened every single window until it flew unceremoniously out. It didn't know which window was the open one until it was thirty feet into the open air away from us. I didn't know how it had gotten into the house until we saw a loosened grate in the floor.

It would be easy to hope or imply that these birds were the reincarnated survivors of those that fell out of the nest. But they were not. They were just more birds. Their own birds, trapped in my house. Every year there are going to be more trapped and injured birds; and more that are just fine that I will never see. Every year there are more birds, independent of whichever I saved or ruined or ignored the year before.

Whatever is going to happen in 2015 is waiting in the walls. The best I can do is open every door, unscrew the grates, and wait. Whether the room from which it emerges is all glass and light, or being overcome by the deepening dark, I will wait to usher it out into the open as best I can.

Sixteen Things I've Learned from Running an Arts Business

* real title: Sixteen Things I've Learned from Running One Successful Arts Business and One Failed One *Dedicated to my good friend Dan Russell, who told me most of this years ago and has been patiently waiting for me to figure it out.

Last night, I sat on a panel about arts in my city, Hartford, Connecticut. It was an interesting conversation, though much too big a topic for the hour-long program, and I was, as always, fascinated by the experiences of the other artists. I was by far the youngest and least experienced person on the panel, and it was an honor to be in the company of great people. I also spent major parts of the night in hot debate over how to succeed as a small arts business in Hartford, and whether that's even possible.

I truly believe that it is indeed possible to operate an arts business in any city while creating great art and remaining happy. Over the five years that Sea Tea Improv has existence, we've learned a lot of things the hard way, and we aren't shy about sharing our experiences, successes, and failures with people who ask. We are insanely proud of the fact that we are in any way successful (more on our definitions of success later). On the flip side, I'm also a writer who, by my own definitions, is pretty much a failure at the moment. So I feel like I understand the success and failure point of view at once.

I want to offer my experiences as an artist, an arts administrator, and an arts consumer up in the form of a list of things I've learned. I've also decided to take the Tina-Fey-Bossypants approach, take ownership of my experience, and phrase it as advice (since I get asked for it fairly frequently anyway). Maybe this applies beyond the arts, and maybe it applies to bigger places, but that's really up to you. Take or leave anything you like. Also, these are the opinions solely of myself, not of Sea Tea Improv or Greg or our home inspector. You'll learn about him.

Before we get started, here are some of Sea Tea Improv's successes, so you know I'm legit:

1. We have performed almost 500 shows

2. We pay our performers most of the time

3. We have collaborated with hundreds of other organizations

4. We have won tons of awards both for the quality of our art and our business. Go check on

5. We own and operate a teaching & rehearsal studio.

Some of our imperfections:

1. We can't pay people for rehearsals and all shows, yet

2. We don't have our own theater space, yet

3. Occasionally we have a show that does not go well

4. No one works full-time for the company, yet.

Now about you, you artist, you:

I am assuming that you really care about your medium and that you are putting out the best work you can do. That's already #1. Everything from here on out stems from my assumption that you believe in the quality of your own work and are constantly striving to make it better.

Here we go, the Sixteen Things!

1. Never assume anyone knows what your art form is.
     The other night, I was in New York at the Upright Citizens Brigade, arguably the most famous improv theater in the world, seeing their most popular show, Death By Roo Roo. This show has sold out every Saturday night for years. What's the first thing they do? The improvisers come out on stage and say, "who has never been here before?" and then they explain what's going to happen, and what improv is, even though it's the most popular show at the most famous improv theater in the world.
     At every single Sea Tea Improv show, we similarly always assume that 1) there are people in the audience who have never seen us before, 2) there are people in the audience who are not even sure what improv is at all, and 3) there are people who are automatically ill at ease with the idea that they don't know what they're in for at this show/class/corporate luncheon. It might be weird! Someone might embarrass themselves onstage! I love these people and I love the fear in their eyes, because I know that they're the ones most likely have their minds blown and have a great time. I try to go into every show thinking: obviously we're going to do great improv, but first I'm going to set your expectations in a place that's comfortable for us both. So the first thing I do when hosting a show is figure out if there are new people in the audience (after almost 500 shows, there have been new people every time), and then explain to them what improv is. (There's an added benefit that people who are there for the 2nd or the 200th time get to feel like they're in the club.)
     For improv, which is still a relatively underground art form, this is not an interesting story. But in my life as a writer, I experience the same thing. Just last night someone asked "what kind of writing do you do?" I said nonfiction and I could see the wheels turning really fast: "is that the true one or the not-true one?" I deal with this all the time so I was ready with a more detailed explanation. There are people out there-- a lot of people-- who haven't read a book in years. So you have to be prepared to explain yourself calmly, non-condescendingly, and enthusiastically at every turn. This goes for painters, dancers, musicians, everybody. And even if they know what jazz is, you must be ready to explain the kind of jazz that you do, the instrument you play, or the lyrics you write. And maybe a literary critic from the New Yorker knows what creative nonfiction is, but he doesn't know why yours is different-- so tell him.
     The hardest part of this for many people is not feeling indignant that you have to do this. I would like to venture that talking about our art forms-- not just our own projects, but the forms themselves-- should be the easiest and most joyful thing that we do as artists. When I'm reading a book of creative nonfiction and can't shut up about it to strangers (everybody go read "Random Family"), that's when I know I'm writing in the right genre. The fact that I get to tell other people about it for the first time means I'm introducing them to something that they might eventually love as much as I do. It means in five years they might buy MY book.
     Repeat after me, artists: people are not idiots just because they don't yet share my passions. YOU get to tell them what improv is and why it's awesome. You get to give them their first taste of an artistic medium, and you are naturally going to do a great job, so they're getting caviar right out of the gate. That is a privilege and, incidentally, you are creating someone's taste who is possibly going to rabidly consume as many improv shows/novels/skaa concerts as they can find. Take that seriously and don't resent them.
2. Your audience and clients are hidden all around you. 
     My fiance Greg is also one of the co-founders of Sea Tea, and is an absolute ninja at always being ready to talk about improv or Hartford arts. We're in the middle of buying a small house in Hartford, and during the home inspection, literally while the inspector was checking an electrical panel for proper grounding, we all got to talking about an improv show we just did. By the time the inspector left he had Greg's business card in hand and was very excited about coming to a show. I see Greg do this almost every single day. This is common sense, of course, but over time I have seen our shows fill up with: our dental hygienist, the people Greg talks to in the elevator while I pet their dogs, coworkers, Greg's random people he knows from walking the streets on his lunch hour, everybody. Even more striking is the number of people who have an opportunity to hire us, or have a suggestion of a place we should perform. "Do you guys do shows down at Bridge Street Live in Collinsville?" Nope, but you can bet your ass I'm googling that the second you walk away.
     Greg also makes a point to write people's names down and remember them later. This makes them feel amazing and then they come back. Whatever you can do to remember the people around you, do it.
     Flipside: do not, I repeat do not, harp forever on your failures/bad shows/frustrations in front of strangers. I often see people do this in front of me when they don't know that I have the power to hire and pay them through my day job or through Sea Tea collaborations. Obviously we don't have to pretend we live in a perfect world, but be aware that someone willing to help you may come from an unexpected place.
     Finally: the fact that everyone is a potential client does not mean you should constantly be selling yourself. It means you should be actually interacting with those people, listening to their stories, and asking questions. 90% of the content of our conversation with the home inspector was him telling us a funny story about an improv show he and his wife saw. We learned a lot about him without speaking, including: that he knows what improv is, what he thinks is funny, and where he lives. Based on that information, we didn't try to sell him on everything we ever do. We said, "you would probably like this specific show we're doing, come and check it out if you'd like." We do not live by "Always Be Closing." We live more like "Always Be Opening," meaning, open a door for yourself or for someone else.
3. Be a human and remember that other people are humans too.
     Now that you're ready to talk yourself up, don't do it all the time. For the love of god, please don't. We all know this person and he or she is exhausting. This is what we talk about when we talk about "networking."
     People will want to talk to you about your arts business if they think it is cool and interesting; and they will also hopefully think that you are cool and interesting, even if it's in a geeky or mysterious way. Part of being an interesting person (as little as I know about it) is having a variety of interests. Last night around the artists' table we spent ten minutes talking about weight lifting. I told the home inspectors about a cupcake mishap at work that has nothing to do with any arts that I do whatsoever. Remember to lay off sometimes. I have been told  lately that I'm a good networker, which I think is hilarious, because when I go to a party I am usually focused on prying into other people's business and telling dumb stories about accidentally sending Japanese spam to all of my wedding guests.
     As a general rule, once I know that people are aware of and really supportive of Sea Tea or my writing, I don't bring it up too often unless they ask. And then they do ask, all the time. At least 75% of my conversations about Sea Tea begin by someone asking me either "hey, when's your next show? I haven't been in a while" or "what's new with improv?" And then I tell them the thing I'm most excited about at the moment, or about a show that I really need to fill. In this way, I get to both advocate for my business and also not be an asshole constantly pushing my agenda on people. Similarly, I get a lot of apologies like: "I can't come to your show next week." This is a crucial moment. Instead of making people feel like they're missing out, I always try to say "That's ok, come next time!" I actually love when nice people can't make shows because then they're just storing up guilt that will eventually result in them coming to a different show. I feel like I sold a ticket 6 months in advance. I trust that our supporters will come back when they have time and money. If you want your arts business to have longevity you have to accept that your audience is mostly going to be comprised of people who come sometimes, when they feel like it. Let them be human, too.
    My final note is that your art hopefully is a reflection and interpretation of the world and experiences around you-- your weekend hikes, your weird cousins, your afternoon at the DMV. Make sure you are putting enough non-shop-talk and time to make art that is interesting to you and to others.
4. Introduce Everyone to Everyone, and Work in Teams
     I have developed a really, really weird habit that stems from my number one social anxiety: the people around me not feeling included. In my obsessive quest to make others feel comfortable, others have pointed out to me that I'm  chronically introducing people to one another. Sound normal? It's not. At least half the time they already know each other, and about a quarter of the time not only do they know each other, but we've all hung out before. I just can't stop myself from saying, "Ashley, do you know Steve? Steve is hilarious." This is actually a specific, humiliating example, because in this particular case, Steve and Ashley had been on an improv team together, which I knew. We all got to have a great time making fun of me after that.
     Despite the embarrassment that comes with redundant introductions, it's worth it. Introducing cool people to cool people benefits everyone. It results in so many more collaborations and so much cross-promotion. It also makes the people you're standing with feel awesome.  I pre-introduce, too. I'm always interrupting myself to say, "Do you know Tim from the Arts Council? Do you know Amanda from CT Humanities? Do you know Cynthia from Open Studios?" And if they don't, no shame, I tell them all about that person. In this way the artistic community spreads a ton of knowledge and support.
     This also gets to the heart of something that a lot of artists have trouble with: being socially adept. It can be really hard to talk about yourself without feeling like a braggart. So don't. Talk about someone else. Work in a team. Be deliberate about it. I talk about how awesome Greg's video game design job is and he does the same for my writing. Or, if I get the sense that he's talking way too much about Sea Tea, I'll change the subject to save him from himself, and tell my Japanese spam story. In improv we call this "make your partner look good." Extending that idea through the arts community in your city will make things easier for everyone. I promise.
5. Your clients think they know what they want, but sometimes they don't.
     One of the frequent and early mistakes that Sea Tea Improv made was giving people exactly what they asked for, even when what they were asking for made no sense. We do a ton of private gigs. Here are some things we have gotten asked, and said yes to.
"We would like you to do improv at a party while everyone is drinking and talking and hanging out."
"We would like you to do improv for three straight hours. As people wander past your show. On the street."
"We would like you to do improv in an auditorium with 800 kids in it with no sound equipment."
"All six of you can share two handheld microphones."
"We would like you to embarrass this person on stage because it's their birthday."
"We would like the theme of this 45-minute show to be tandem bicycling."
     And, my absolute favorite, and the request that made us start standing up for ourselves: "We would like you to casually work in our company's five core principles into the dialogue of your show."
     As you're starting out as a small business, you want to (and really should) say yes to almost everything. But over time, you start to learn that certain requests will compromise the quality of your art so much that it's worse to please the client than to politely tell them what will work better. This is a very tricky balancing act and we still deal with it every week, but we have found that clearly and confidently giving clients the guidelines for what will work is better than trying to meet all of their crazy demands. It can be very hard, because sometimes they are REALLY excited about their ideas, but if you treat them with respect and say, "in our experience, we know that having the undivided attention of the audience after the speeches is better than doing improv in a corner during cocktail hour," the clients will listen and will later tell you that you were right all along. Especially if you're very experienced. Most event organizers don't know that 99% of people absolutely hate being dragged up on stage and embarrassed on their birthday. We tell them that and they get it, and work out a different way to involve the audience: get volunteers instead. Every party has at least one person who wants to embarrass themselves, birthday or not.
     The trick is doing it respectfully and actually giving true consideration to their ideas. If you're the kind of person (and there are many) who thinks that their client's ideas are usually stupid, then I would give you the opposite advice. See if you can both make them happy and do what you know is right for your art form at the same time. The 45-minute Tandem-Bike-Themed show was in the top 10 best-quality shows we ever did. It was challenging, fun, and I learned a lot about bikers. I'm really glad we said yes to that.
6. Tell people exactly what you are charging them for
     Artists and arts organizations are chronically and critically underpaid. This is a problem that is going to take a long time and a lot of work to change. What is the change that we can all work on, every day? Clearly defining the financial value of your art.
     If I say, "this improv workshop is going to cost $1500, yes or no?" that never goes as well as saying "The $1500 includes paying our actors, our transportation, and the special curriculum we are developing for you. Does that sound reasonable to you guys?" The everyday civilian has a hard time conceptualizing what the costs of art are. It's part of our job as artists to tell them. We know that the cost of a restaurant meal includes paying the cooks, managers, food suppliers, wait staff, and rent for the building. Artists have to spend not-resentful and non-complaining time speaking matter-of-factly about our costs. Also remember that part of your value is your reputation and you can't charge a premium in your first couple of years.
     I made a HUGE mistake the other day with a gig. I quoted a price without knowing everything about the event, and then when I heard everything they wanted us to do, I realized I had undercharged by an astronomical amount. Meaning, I wouldn't be able to pay our actors their usual rates. I went back to the client and told them that I'd accidentally undercharged them, but that I would stick to my original quote because that was the right thing to do, and they were getting an awesome deal. They, being a really cool company, said that they wanted to pay the actors what they were worth and paid us the full amount. I believe this is because I explained specifically what we used the money for, so they didn't feel like I was randomly upcharging them out of greed.
     Trick here: DO NOT EVER make people feel like they can lop things off your list to save money. Once in a while we get someone who has never seen an improv show before say, "can you do this with just three people so we can save money?" Nope. We know what makes a show good. Stick to your guns regarding the quality of your art, and compromise from there. If they want to save money, we give them other options, like shortening the show.
7. Big programs fund small programs
     Some venues have money to burn and some venues have tight budgets. It can be so hard to say no to the church or community center whose entire entertainment budget is $300 for eight hours of programming, when you know your show is worth $500.
     Ideally, you want your art to reach everybody. Right? Make room in your budget structure for the freebies, or the cheap gigs, by charging more for the big ones. The reason that Sea Tea Improv can keep its City Steam shows free is that we make some extra money off our workshops that pay our studio rent, where we rehearse for those City Steam shows. In an ideal world, each kind of program you do would fund itself, but it's even smarter to build up a cushion from the bigger stuff to fund the smaller stuff. Sea Tea Improv has taken on well-paid projects that are a little off-mission (like mile-barking the Hartford Marathon) to fund our really on-mission stuff (bringing in guest groups for experimental forms). There's no shame in that game. In fact, I think you really have to do it in order to keep doing the projects you are most excited about, which for me include shows for the homeless and really weird experimental shows that I wouldn't want to charge anyone hundreds of dollars for. My good friend Tod Goldberg is a brilliant, LA Times Book Prize-winning fiction writer. He also writes the spinoff books for "Burn Notice." It doesn't make him any less of a prizewinning fiction writer. It makes him someone who is able to eat dinner and call me on his overpriced cell phone plan.
     This seems obvious, but then, mentally extend it out to an artist's whole life. I have a full-time job at a museum. At times it's really hard to balance that with other projects, but the truth is, with part of my salary, I bought all the sound equipment for my literary podcast with Tod. The big project of my Twain House job funds the small projects. (It helps that my full-time job is great. I am very lucky.) We all have to spend time doing this math, but make sure you do it in a way that you leave room for being a good person who makes art for those that can't afford it.
8. Growth can be so slow it hurts-- so don't put yourself in financial, emotional or energy debt
     The payoffs for certain things Sea Tea has put in motion have taken fucking forever. Every time we start a new monthly show series, it takes about a year for it to really get running and have a good audience. I always forget this. It's always three months in and I'm freaking out that we only have thirty people in the audience, and we comped half of them, and they're all Greg's elevator friends. Yet, in our other monthly show over at City Steam, a solid 80-100 people roll in the door every month based on ongoing advertising, our reputation, word-of-mouth, and (I told you they're be back!) the friends who promised they'd come to a show when they were less busy. Most of all, those City Steam shows are full because people know that they always happen once a month. They know it will be there when they're ready.
     I am so thankful that Sea Tea started tiny: one show with an audience of maybe 25 people in a small room. It cost us nothing, and then we quickly outgrew that room. And then our energy and audience outgrew that one show series so we added a second in a different location. Once that one was going well we added a third. Someday in my dreams, there will be improv every night in Hartford, in a little theater that we own.
     But what if we'd opened a theater right away? With no guaranteed audience, we had no guaranteed income. We would have put ourselves into serious debt and would be suffering every day to get out of it. I'll say right up front, this would be a very Julia move. Take a big risk. Luckily for my emotional well-being, we decided to prove first that we could do our thing on a  small scale. I would say now we're on a medium scale and things are going well. But we have to outgrow medium-scale before we get big. When we do get big, we will have a whole community of audience members, clients, students, and other teams that have been growing with us and helped us along this whole time.
     And I'll say it again: start affordable. Whatever you are making or selling, charge as little for it as you can get away with without going into debt. You can't come out of the gate with the same prices for your band as someone would pay for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Determine a price for your wares and your time that acknowledges your lack of experience and reputation, but is still fair. As you grow you can raise your prices. It's ok. You will be bringing a whole fan base with you by that time.
     I feel terrible for the artists I know who are in financial debt, because they're also in emotional debt. They can't feel happy until they've filled their own big shoes. Don't do this to yourself. Do one thing at a time until you are ready to grow. It can work the other way, but you lose out on so many of the rewards of exceeding your own expectations. One of the most rewarding things about Sea Tea Improv is that we get to feel excited all the time about our growth, since we keep each others' expectations in check at all times. When you start too big, then you start feeling like the world owes you something just for you to keep going, and that is never a good place to be.
9. You're tired, it's hard, and no one cares
     This one is my hardest personal challenges. I am tired almost all the time. Doing the work for my small arts business and my personal writing, plus my job, plus my personal life, plus sleeping, takes up a full 24 hours of my day. Can you believe that? The indignity! I mean, who else is using up a full 24 hours a day with a combination of both work and personal life?
     Oh, that's right. Everyone in the entire world. And from anecdotal evidence, very few of those people are saying "my life is really easy and I'm doing everything I want."
     People are not very sympathetic to artists who are making their art, getting paid for it, and complaining that it's hard. Of course it's hard-- you are an intelligent person who challenges yourself and has high standards. It's also a job, and a job you chose. That's what your actuarial friend who wanted to be a tap-dancer is thinking when she is squinting and nodding as you complain.
     Being an artist is hard. You are underpaid and maybe undervalued, you have to be both an artist and a business at the same time (which forces you to use social or business skills you don't think come naturally to most artists), and not everyone thinks what you do is legitimate. But is being an artist the hardest job in the world? Absolutely not. If being a heart surgeon was easier, that's what I would do, because I would be rich and saving lives at the same time, but along the course of my life I realized it was just way too hard for me to cut back on coffee so that my hands don't shake when I cut a man's chest open, and also I can't stay awake for all-night surgeries. Too hard. I think being a sniper, a miner, a day care center teacher, or a tiger poacher might be harder than being an improviser. I am grateful every day that I have a day job at a museum, a night job running a theater company with my friends, and a personal commitment to being a great writer. Can't complain.
     But we also can't let other people say "you get to be a painter, which you love, so you don't need to be paid that much." No. I can both appreciate my own life and assign financial value to it, thank you. It is work, and work that I love. Pay me please, then you can be jealous if that floats your boat.
     We as Americans use hard work as both our reason for our success, and our reason for our failures. Either you worked really hard to achieve what you have, or the work is too hard and we're burnt out. Hard work is a fact of our cultural life. By all means try to make your life less difficult and exhausting, but recognize that most people in America are complaining about the same things.
10. Make opportunities for other people/ let other people stand on your shoulders
     There are currently three or four improv groups in Connecticut that either met in Sea Tea classes, met at Sea Tea's auditions, or met at Sea Tea mixers. Sometimes we compete against them in competitions and perform with them. This a) makes me feel old,  b) is incredibly cool, and c) is probably the number one sign of our success. Now there's this whole community of people who want to improvise.
     We as artists have to slow down and remember that this is a good thing. We're all on the same team. We all value the best version of our art and we all want to swim together towards that quality. Let the swimmer next to you glide in your wake. Isn't that what we're all doing this for? And I know that Sea Tea is standing on the shoulders of a lot of different people in our arts community, Hartford's history, and improv's history. We should be paying Drew Carey 10 cents every time someone says, "oh, like Whose Line Is It Anyway?"
     Some of my biggest personal happiness comes out of creating opportunities for other people. I love the fact that in my job at the museum I can hire writers to teach workshops. I love the fact that almost everything Sea Tea does is collaborative. I love that as we do more shows, we need to hire other groups to perform before us at our showcases. I love that we are about to launch a national festival to showcase improvisers from all over the country. Sharing feels good. It's part of the point.
11. Let your business surprise you
     There is absolutely no way I could have envisioned some of the things Sea Tea is doing now: putting together a team of homeless improvisers, taking a group of teens to Chicago, interpreting historical documents and turning them into comedic sketches. We planned but we didn't overplan. We just had a vague idea of our mission and definition of success. We were never too rigid with what our improv company might look like-- and that has led us to say yes to just about everything. Surprise resonates within both the humor within our shows and the delight of running our business.
12. You might have two jobs forever and that doesn't make you a hobbyist
     My definition, for myself, of being a working artist is that you get paid for it. Maybe that pay is  not enough to have a kid and pay your mortgage. So get a second job. You're still an artist. Art is not an all-or-nothing enterprise.
13. Creating an audience that loves your art form is more important than being the best person in your community at your art. 
     Audience, audience, audience, audience, audience, audience. Never forget them. They are your everything! You owe them absolutely everything. Never treat them or talk about them like they are dummies who just don't get you. If you need practice at this, I suggest doing shows for elementary school kids. Nobody can resent a cute five year old, even though you have to explain to them why your art is fun and cool.
     At the end of the day, if people don't remember me, that's more than fine. I'd like them to remember Sea Tea, but even if they don't, if they remember they like improv, our goal has been reached. I want for our audience members to be drifting by a theater in 30 years and see on the marquee "Baba Fett Improv Show Tonight!" and think, "I saw an improv show once... it was good, maybe I'll check this out." They'll be supporting future improvisers.
     To transfer the love I have for the arts I can execute is the highest honor I can think of. The hardest I've ever laughed in my entire life was at an improv show called "Ten Hours on the Megabus: The Musical." If someday, someone laughs that hard because of something I recommended to them, my time answering emails for Sea Tea has been worth something. Or, if someone someday buys the book of a writing student of mine, then something I did created a paid opportunity for an artist. Nothing is more important.
     What Sea Tea has been really good at is building the whole community: the audience, the improvisers, the clients, the city, the press. When we ask who knows what improv is, most people know now. Man, is it cool.
14. You're on a team. 
     Even if you are a failing personal essayist who has published barely anything, you're on a team. Find a team. Make a team of people who share your vision. Improv teams, like bands, are really lucky in that they have multiple people at their disposal most of the time.
     People on your team: your friends who consume your art, your audience, your sponsors, granting organizations, other artists that don't work in your medium but support you, your rivals, your clients, your venues, your collaborators.
     Another common mistake: "your team" does not mean "a list of people that you can ask for favors at any time." Your team is the group of people you thank, all the time, for supporting your art.
15. It's ok to leave. 
     This is the heartbreaker. You do not have to do your art, in the same town, every day until you die. I mean two things by this.
     One is: grow to other places if you want to. One of our Sea Tea founders is living in Los Angeles and doing TV work now. He'll always be one of the founders of Sea Tea, and we're so proud of him. Also, his expanded success will come back and help the company. His reputation is a contribution as much as sweeping the floors of the studio. Also, when he left we had auditions and took on some really fantastic people that we now have room for.
     I also mean that if you hate it, it's ok to stop. Or let a project be a success without feeling the obligation to repeat it into infinity until it fails. It's so tempting to say, "that show was a success, let's do it monthly!" but that can suck the joy out of the art eventually, especially if you're a solo act. Improv, with its inability to be repeated, has taught be that letting things end makes so much more room for innovation. If we had a sketch show that went well, we'd repeat it all the time. But at this point we're approaching 500 shows and all of them have been different, by necessity.
     And if you want to stop practicing your art, that doesn't mean you never did it. You used to play the trombone? So cool. You can still be proud of that until the day you die.
16. Have a mission
     You know what the point of a mission statement is? It's not for grants. It's not for planning your programs. When it's 2 AM and you're answering emails from a client for a gig you don't really want to do, when you're eating a can of beans for breakfast because you have lost the will to do anything else, when you've done a really bad show-- that's when you wistfully look at your mission statement. It's your Mufasa in the sky. Your mission statement should be the answer to your bleating call of "why the fuck am I doing this?," and it should be a really good answer. Sea Tea Improv's mission is to build, train, and lead a community of improvisers. Nothing else really matters. So when I wander into our townie bar at 1:55 AM and I see thirty people having their last beer and arguing over an improv scene, I feel like a million bucks. As a writer, I don't have a clear mission statement, which contributes to an ongoing misery that I'm not quite good enough, no matter what I do. Make your mission an attainable thing that you truly believe in with the cheesiest part of your heart. It's going to be your pot of coffee and your bottle of wine. Because when you scream out what you meant to be rhetorical-- why am I doing this? will it ever get easier? am I doing what I set out to do-- the person that you want to answer to is the idealist who set you on this path. Yourself, in better times. Only you know why you're doing this. Write it down and memorize it for those times that you, in the exhaustion of creation and effort of your art, momentarily forget.
-- Julia
Above: most of Sea Tea Improv (missing Dan), 2009. Below, most of Sea Tea Improv, 2013.

What I'm Thankful For

Many Thanksgivings ago-- or it was perhaps Christmas, or just a summer morning on Cape Cod, all I know is that we were sitting around as a family at my grandparents' table; it's hard to remember what's what since so many days of my life feel like Thanksgiving-- my father told a story. He'd gone to a private school in New Jersey (this fact itself was always remarkable to me, since he raised three public school kids and it was impossible to imagine his life there), and when he got engaged to my mother, moved to Hoboken to renovate a house. One day in New York he ran into a man who was disheveled and schizophrenic. Because of his schizophrenia, he was homeless. My father immediately recognized him as one of his rich friends from his private elementary school and, right there on the spot, invited him to live in the house with my parents.

The friend, being mentally ill, struggled on a daily basis there. He would yell at them and give my mom a hard time, and while they were on their honeymoon he stole all of their wedding presents.

My dad told this story dramatically, with my mom chiming it at intervals with details about specific breakdowns, until we got to the moment of the clear moral of the story. I was certain it would be "don't invite strangers to live with you," but instead my dad leaned across the table, looking in turn at his three kids and his two nieces, and said: "you never know when you might be homeless." He paused for a long time. "You could be homeless, kids. You think you can't, but you could."

This was just one of the many ways my parents practiced compassion and gratitude. They were nice to everyone and everything. They would take us to animal shelters to rescue dogs. They made us say "thank you" to a palpably awkward degree-- my dad would not drive through a tollbooth without making us thank the attendant. His best friend, it seemed to me when I was nine, was a middle-aged exhausted waitress at Friendly's. My dad's compassion and gratitude is loud and deliberate but just as genuine as my mom's, which was a much simpler equation of the fact that she just loves everyone on the face of the earth equally.

I'm more like my dad. I am annoyingly expressive. I struggle against my own ambition, which is a form of greed. I'm greedy for my own experiences and I strive to prove to myself that every day is better than the next in every way. Of course, that almost never works out, but I shoot for it every day. Being ambitious like that can be very distracting-- it can be hard to remember that even my worst day would be a day someone would hope for. So my gratitude is something I practice like a prayer, and compassion is something I try to actively identify in others when I see it, so that I can emulate it. What I didn't realize is that empathy is not something you can win and frame; it has to be constantly renewed, planned for; it must be planted in the fall, when everything begins to die, like a flower bulb and left to bloom in its own time. You've got to let your gratitude stay alive underground during the hard winters and let it break out in the good summers.

But I digress badly. I'm writing tonight because a few months ago my improv company, Sea Tea, was approached to teach an improv class to the homeless of Hartford. These great people write a newspaper called "Beat of the Street," and that newspaper has blossomed into an entire Center for Creative Learning. The students (homeless, formerly homeless, and the unlabeled) had requested improv as an arts activity and as skills training, and so they came to Sea Tea.

We've taught eight classes and all of them were fantastic. We rotated through our team, letting everyone teach (everyone wanted to, even though it was a volunteer gig), adjusting our curriculum to the needs of our students, who had to come and go from case workers, their kids, and potential housing meetings. When they had to come late or leave early for things like that it was impossible to be mad. In the first five minutes of my first class, one of our students, Anne, picked up her phone during warm-ups and found out she had been accepted for a place to live. I was just happy to see it. These students are hilarious and cool and I try to be as funny as they are. The cool thing is that the classes were so small that the teacher/student boundaries were pointless, and it was more like they joined a professional improv team for an afternoon, playing with us instead of for us. Playing like that actually made the classes much easier to teach because in improv everyone must start on an equal playing field anyway.

The students were awesome people and I never would have been able to guess that any of them was homeless-- some were young single moms living in shelters, some were older guys who had great clothes and hilarious laughs. They knew a strange amount of Stevie Wonder songs. I don't want to launch into some heartwarming tale about a scene they did that made me cry, or revealed something about homelessness I didn't know. Mostly we did improv-- we played silly games, made each other laugh. They did scenes about smoking pot, clingy girlfriends, and annoying Jehovah's witnesses. Just like every other improv class I've ever taught. But that's disingenuous too-- it wasn't like every class I've ever taught, not in the "we are the world" way. We're not all just the same. Some of us have gotten really lucky, and some very unlucky. Some of us make bad choices that have no consequences and some make bad choices that have terrible consequences. That's a kind of luck itself. We all run some red lights by accident.

Tomorrow night (Tuesday the 26th) we're doing a show with Sea Tea Improv and our students-- since there were so few consistent students (the homeless are busier than any group I've ever worked with) and we're not sure who will show up, we're just going to mix all together. We barely have a plan but I know it's going to work. It's a fundraiser for Beat of the Street, specifically for hot drinks and staffing costs. Coffee for all: that's a cause I can get behind. My dad would agree.

I'm excited because improv is all about empathy. It requires it. You must listen to whatever your partner is putting out there, no matter what happens. You must make your partner look good, whoever they are, or your scene will fall apart. The whole team will be there and we want to see at least fifty people in the audience. If you live in Connecticut, please come. It's important. Make our partners look good. The best reason to come: make people feel like a million bucks by laughing at their jokes. It's the best feeling in the world and I want to make sure these guys have that experience.

Is this a shameless plug for a show? Yup. Is this the corniest thing I've ever written? Likely. But I'm not really worried about that tonight. What you, my readers, think of me is not a real problem in the grand scheme of things. I mean, I'd like you to like me, but that's ambition distracting me from what is more important. What's important is that it's fucking cold outside (you said it yourself, today, if you live in the northeast), and that you likely got to go home to your fireplace, your blankets, your space heater, or your family. Of course it's a shameless plug. What I would be more ashamed of is not plugging it.

Come to Charter Oak Cultural Center at 7:30 tomorrow night. I promise it won't be too heartwarming-- mostly, it'll be hilarious. Plant a bulb of gratitude for your own life that might bloom at some other unexpected time. Help somebody else who might not be doing so great right now. Support a program where they get to screw around and be silly and be listened to.

Because the moral of the story, no matter what happens at the show, is that anyone could be homeless. And what am I thankful for this year? That I have people in my life who remind me of that all the time. That I have people in my life who give me opportunities to be good and do good. That I get to meet so many cool people through doing improv with them. That I have to work at gratitude, because that means I always get to discover it anew. That I have a place to sleep tonight. Sometimes it is that simple.

Happy holidays and see you at the show.

-- Julia

PS I apologize to my many non-local readers. I'm dedicated to my community and sometimes that manifests in a hyper-local way. Feel free to transfer any feelings of goodwill to the (undoubtedly) similar circumstances wherever you live.

Amplified: Section 800, Row PP of the Dave Chappelle Stand-Up Show in Hartford Last Night

Recently I went to the Comcast Theater in Hartford, just a mile from my apartment, to watch a stoned funny person address the audience for most of his set. People were for the most part pretty chill about the whole thing, especially for a crowd of about 15,000 people. That person was Lil' Wayne, and that concert was great. He spent most of it saying "I love you guys, I love you guys" to his very blissed-out fans. T.I. went on first, though, and goddamn it if he didn't burst both of my eardrums. I did something I've never done before: I stuffed tiny pieces of napkins into my ears to preserve the very little that is left of my hearing. I've been to my fair American share of concerts-- semi-riots at Dave Matthews Band; lying on the grass listen to Norah Jones; singing along to recently-memorized lyrics of Bob Dylan & Paul Simon & Tom Petty (I was a teen, catching up on the culture); trying not to touch the walls in dank basements in New York; screaming "DO YOU WANT TO GO OUTSIDE FOR A SECOND" in local bars on Saturday nights. Now that I'm getting to the point where I'm stuffing napkins in my ears and wondering when it's socially acceptable to sit back down, I should probably stop going to concerts, but I still enjoy blowing out my voice with a series of great whoops, especially at Bruce Springsteen. But I need to preserve my hearing.

Hearing loss isn't something you start really thinking about until you're hosting an improv comedy show at a mall in Manchester and so many people are screaming "DILDO! DILDO!" at you that you can't make out each individual sex instrument. There were about 350 people there, more than Sea Tea Improv had ever played to at the time, all drunk, all confused as to why we weren't doing stand-up. And I couldn't even really hear what they were saying. So, as the host of the show, I did the only thing I could do: I turned on them. I got really angry and accused them of having boring lives since they could only give us sexual suggestions. But, I'd asked for it-- literally I had asked them to shout out "an everyday object," so it was my job to whip them into shape so that the dumb half would shut up so that I could hear the smart half's ideas. Such is live comedy. At the end of the show one of my teammates said that I should do standup. "I don't have any jokes to tell," I said. "Stand-up is almost all crowd control," he said. Such is the stand-up community culture we have created. A huge part of a stand-up's life is measuring the audience and responding accordingly to the blips and burbles of their verbal responses. Audiences too have come to expect this, and weirdly, to love it. For a brief time I waitressed in a 200-seat comedy club in Hartford and I can assure you that nothing calmed a mean audience down like being criticized.

When performing live your senses heighten. A heavy plate being put down onto a table while you're trying to weave an expert scene sounds like a train going by. Someone whispering to another person "they are really good!" comes through like a megaphone. Everything is amplified.

So when I heard that Dave Chappelle would be doing stand-up at the Comcast Theaters in the same place where I had seen Lil' Wayne install an entire half-pipe, I was surprised. And when I further heard that he was performing alongside Flight of the Conchords, I was baffled. Understated musical parody act and a legendary stand-up comedian in a huge, shitty concert venue? I thought that it would most likely be an evening of semi-crappy, vaguely disappointing, big-box comedy that wouldn't land too well. But it might be something legendary (I imagined Chappelle maybe pouring his heart out and the entire audience nodding empathetically). I bought a ticket.

Here's what happened.

The show didn't sell well at first. There were Groupons. The kind of people who might not normally go to this kind of show bought hundreds of Groupons. There were buckets of ticket giveaways. Even more people who might not normally go got free tickets. None of the tickets had a schedule on them; all of the tickets said to show up at 5:30. By 6:00, when I was there, there were already thousands and thousands of people there, perfectly willing to either drink heavily in the parking lot or pay $11 for 24-ounce cans of beer. The wait for a beer was 0 seconds. The wait for food was half an hour. By 7:00, when the comedy started, the audience began to shuffle in, blearly and loud and already absolutely drunk. A bunch of pretty good comedians did a bunch of pretty good sets. All of them seemed on edge. The stand-ups (notably Kristen Schaal) all referred to the weird energy of the audience and fled the stage quickly after their sets. Schaal's performance ended with "I don't usually like observational comedy. And apparently neither do you."

The last part of the first act was Dmitri Martin's guitar-laden Mitch-Hedburg-style jokes. Then intermission (more drinking) and then an hour of Flight of the Conchords-- which is all music. The audience was lulled into the concert-- yes, it felt, this is what this venue is for. Music. We know how to behave. And if a few people request "Business Time," well yes, that's normal concert behavior. That's all hunky-dory. And then, they indeed played the oft-shouted-for "Business Time," and it was time for Chappelle.

There are so many conflicting interpretations of what went down during this legendary comedy moment (and yes, it's clear it will already become mythic, probably already is since people can tweet judgements a lot faster than I can write thorough blog posts) that I am just going to go as clearly as I can.

Chappelle walked out onstage, his shadow amplified through a scrim. The audience gave him a standing ovation. He stood there, in front of 15,000 people. Fifteen thousand people. He smoked a cigarette. He waited. He looked out at the audience and waited for them to quiet down. It was about at this moment, really right away, that I realized I'd been horribly wrong: no way would this show be a big-box shitty mundane thing. There was no way that Chappelle was going to be going through a shtick. Because you cannot wait for a crowd of 15,000 people who have been sitting there drinking for four hours, in a concert venue, literally following a concert, to suddenly be quiet. That is an objective fact in the confluence of our comedic, alcoholic, musical, celebrity-obsessed, frat culture.

He began his set. The jokes were funny but he couldn't seem to get a hold of the audience laughter. He wasn't lighting the dynamite to explode in the places where he wanted to; he left huge spaces in time where he was looking out into the audience or off to the side. He was listening to things I couldn't hear, either in the audience or in his own head. I believe it to be both. He was hearing things amplified that my section could not hear.

The audience began to shout "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and "We love you, Dave!" intermittently. He told a couple more jokes and still asked for everyone to be quiet. I believe the moment that the show turned (and there are so many possibilities) was when someone shouted "OPRAH!"

"Thanks for bringing up the worst experience of my life," Dave Chappelle said. He seemed sincerely upset about it.

The weird thing was, right at the beginning of the set, he talked about the infamous Kramer meltdown. He said, "as a black man, I was really sad. I'm a Seinfeld fan. .... but as a comedian, I understood. That's a bad set." And what happened after that created that same sense in me: as an audience member, it made me sad. As a comedian, I saw the bad set unfold. He had primed me for that dual reaction.

Somewhere in this Oprah period he decided to stop. He seemed weary, honestly. He asked the audience to police itself: to punch people in the kidneys if they were making noise. And that was when I realized the show was really over-- or just beginning.

Because that was a theater of 15,000 people, and so suddenly, the noise doubled. The screaming that Chappelle heard from there on out was half the audience yelling at him, and the other half of the audience yelling at the yellers, as instructed. Real boo-ing began. Around this time he pulled out a stool and sat down on it and began smoking a cigarette. The front row of seats began literally begging him to perform. A woman threw her self-published book onstage and he read a paragraph aloud from it. Real walk-outs began. He said things like "you paid for this? I'm going to take my thousands of dollars and buy sticks of bubble gum and chew each one for two seconds and spit it on the ground. That's what I'm going to do with your money."

Do not believe a soul that says Dave Chappelle walked off during his set. He did the opposite: he sat out more than his time-- time he essentially counted down, telling us all about his contract in the meantime-- on a stool, talking to the audience.  He was never quiet for more than a minute or two. He just didn't do any more comedy. The microphone never dropped.

And that's all I could look at, this microphone. It was still there. He was still doing it, doing something. And all those people who paid money (or didn't) to see Dave Chappelle, he of the legendary breakdown, got exactly what they paid for. Another one. And Dave Chappelle, he of the legendary moral struggling against his audience, got exactly what he feared.

There are two narratives flying around about this show: one is that Dave Chappelle had a meltdown and failed; that he didn't try; that dealing with heckling is what standup is all about; that there were so many good fans there that he should have powered through. The other is that the Hartford audience was drunk and loud and horrible and drove him off. May I be the first one to say that both are absolutely true.

The real narrative here is that we, all together, including the comedians, have created a culture where audiences think that heckling is part of the game. We have taken an art form that is all about putting one vulnerable and intelligent person in front of a microphone, and we think that format can be expanded to an audience of thousands and still be the same. It can't.

Some will say that this audience was pretty average-- sure, for 2013, maybe. But I'm pretty sure my grandmother didn't think it was normal to scream quotes from a sketch so loudly that thousands of people could hear you.

Some will also say that Dave Chappelle looked out into his audience and saw a crowd of white bros screaming at him to perform. I suspect this is part of it and a much more detailed piece has already been written about that perspective. But I also know that I was in a pin-drop-silent, hundred-person block of white people who looked like they were about to cry with disappointment; and I could also see a front-row group of black fans literally begging Dave to perform. We cannot and should not simplify an audience to its worst members; but when it's a mass of people too far away to be individually distinguished, what else can you do? And what could Dave Chappelle do in that very moment to address that issue? And is that his responsibility? I don't think I could answer those questions. Not because I'm white. Because I'm not Dave Chappelle and I can't read his mind, even though a Jumbotron and a microphone can so easily create that illusion. The racial angle is more complicated than fifty drunk white bros in that silent, hopeful audience-- or maybe it isn't and that's exactly the point. I don't know for sure.

What do I think Chappelle should have done? Powered through his set. That's what I'd do and what I have done. Do I think it was absolutely compelling and possibly a cultural turning point that he left the door open to just fucking not doing that? Yes. Should he have known that he could not just tell a crowd that big to be quiet? Yes. Did he waste people's money? Yes. Is it is his right to do that when we worship celebrities to an insane degree? Maybe. Should we be questioning the fact that we are paying $100 to a horrible concert venue to see stand-up comedians where everyone involved is making money hand over fist and there is no way the art can be practiced to its highest form? Yes. Was the Hartford audience exceptionally bad? Yes. Are all audiences now exceptionally bad? Yes. What does an audience owe a performer? Respect. What does a performer owe an audience? Respect.

An audience is a big thing, a moving beast, an ocean of sound and emotion. I heard little bleats and mews from down in front and I saw on a Jumbotron Dave Chappelle hearing them, amplified in a way only a performer can hear, and getting sad. What was he hearing that we in Section 800, Row PP weren't? It's foolish to think that I could even guess. In my section, you could have heard a french fry hit the floor. In others, there were near-riots. Later in the night, I ran into so many different friends and coworkers who had been at the show-- all in different sections. Some said the audience was perfect; some it was the worst they'd ever seen. It was clear that just because we can sit under one massive concrete roof doesn't mean we were all in the same room. That's what comedy requires: a single room. I heard nearly nothing Dave Chappelle heard. He heard none of my hopeful silence.

All I was trying to do was desperately listen, to hear what he was hearing, to unstuff my ears, to share in that intimate moment that comedy and live theater need. But I have been to too many concerts, seen too many shows, have become a little bit too damaged to hear the impossible: the sound of the audience and performer's emotional contract breaking, so violently, that each is completely sure that the other is to blame.

Julia Pistell is the co-founder of Sea Tea Improv, a writer, the host of the podcast Literary Disco, and an employee of the Mark Twain House. She does not do stand-up for this very reason.

Plenty of Time

The night before summer began, I didn't pack up my dorm room. I went out. I had plenty of time to pack.


Of course I didn't really. I returned to the room from wherever I was, someplace I don't remember, somewhere I went with Greg. We returned to my room in the middle of the night and I stared at my books and clothes and felt a growing sensation of panic. I was headed to Accra in September; I was never going to live in a dorm again. I would be turning twenty in a month and I already had a heap of stuff I didn't know what to do with. We started packing. At three or four in the morning I fell asleep on the bed, on top of my clothes, overwhelmed and crying.

That was how my parents found me the next morning-- throwing things in boxes like there was no tomorrow. I wasn't sure I'd wanted them to meet Greg yet, but I hadn't had time to put him away, either. I needed his help more than I needed my dignity. So I said, "this is Greg," (I believe I hadn't referred to his existence yet, though we'd been dating for months) and he went back to balling up my socks while I freaked out about fitting everything in the car.

A year later I entered his dorm room the night before he was to move out of senior housing. His bed was still made, cables were everywhere. He and his mother had bought him buckets of shampoo and scotch tape that he hadn't used up in four entire years at Skidmore. I opened up his drawers and packed them up, painstakingly jigsawing together highlighters and staplers. Eventually we passed out on the bed, and woke up and said a dramatic goodbye I don't remember at all. I only remember packing the boxes and forcing him to go to sleep. The next day he drove off in the robin's egg-blue Buick Regal in which he'd driven me all over Saratoga Springs.

He gave the Regal to my sister when he got his first job just a couple of months later. That's about when I knew we were going to spend more than a couple of years together-- giving my seventeen-year-old sister a junker worth $400 with a year left in it was as big a gift any Pistell has gotten from an outsider. But then, he didn't need it; he had a new car with his new job. He'd been accepted into a Leadership Development Program at Travelers Insurance. We sat on the porch of the little house I lived in in Saratoga and I said, "How long is the program?" and he said, "four years." I couldn't believe anyone would commit himself to something so insane. "You'll be twenty-five when you get out," I said. I was scared. He was scared. We were scared of different things, and we disapproved of what each other was afraid of.

We were planted on different sides of the twenties scale of fear. He was afraid of instability; I was afraid of stability. So while I worked in the Skidmore library, he worked at Travelers. I worked in at the University of Petroleum in Dongying, China; he worked at Travelers. I worked at a florist; he worked at Travelers. I worked at Lindblad Expeditions; he worked at Travelers. I worked at Mobile Libris, I worked at Anthropologie, I worked at Dogwalking for Rainforests; he worked at Travelers. I moved to Hartford. I worked at City Steam Brewery, HartBeat Ensemble, Capital Community College, The Hartford Children's Theater, the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative, Hartford Stage, Park Arts, LivingSocial, and the Mark Twain House; Greg worked at Travelers.

He didn't do just one thing. For a while he maintained servers overnight. He took me down there once and kissed me among the humming. Then he worked for Quality Assurance, where his assigned task was "cheer up the depressed nerds." Then Wintel, Web Engineering, Operations, Risk Control; all words that I found meaningless. The only meaning I needed to see was him lying on the floor of our apartment, sighing, as he put a twenty-person conference call on speakerphone on Christmas eve. All twenty people were silent. They had to stay on the call until the problem was fixed. The last job he had at Travelers was in Search. "Searching should be easier than it is," he said.

He turned twenty-five a long time ago. He became the person to which failing projects were assigned, and he'd turn them around. It was depressing work and every time he accepted those conference calls at three-thirty in the morning or on Christmas day, which was nearly every year, I would wonder if he'd ever be able to leave. He applied for other jobs and once last year, he got so close that when he didn't get it I put my arms around him like he'd done for me a hundred times. I was afraid. He was afraid. This time we were afraid of the same thing.

I found the job for him just a couple of months ago, on Twitter. The second I saw it I knew it was his to win: thinking up cartoon and app storylines for superheroes and hobbits and Ninja Turtles and Duplo giraffes. He starts on Monday. At Lego, he's going to be doing digital marketing for superhero toys. He's overjoyed, I'm overjoyed. I went to Travelers to pick him up, to walk with him out the door that last time, to take him to his goodbye party.

When I got there he was standing with two boxes. Nothing was in them. He stood there staring at them. He wasn't twenty-five, he was thirty-one. A picture that he'd had hung in his dorm room was on the wall. There was nowhere to lie down and go to sleep. I packed up his boxes for him, as I always have. I got the four boxes down to two and we carried them down to the lobby, handing over his security clearance.


As he waited for a friend to bring a car around, I looked over at him. He was afraid. I wasn't.

We thought we'd have plenty of time, and we did. When we were twenty I couldn't imagine our life today, even though it is very much as I had hoped. We are both still alive. We have a crappy old piano in our living room. There are sunflowers on our counter and thousands of books in our house. The only thing that is about to change is that we'll both have jobs we love, or at least jobs that are fucking cool. When Greg used to talk about his job he'd apologize halfway through. Now, when he tells friends about the new job, people  burst into rhapsodic memories of their childhood, or confess to Lego trains in their closets. Everything day I want to kiss the ground in gratitude. Not because Travelers wasn't great-- in a way it was. I can't condemn any choice we made that got us to this point. We just couldn't have known then that taking a job in 2005 meant that by 2009, companies high and low would say "you're lucky just to have a job" at the same meetings where they'd report record profits, like Travelers did. But Greg has expressed no regret, only hope that someday he might know some other reality. Eventually we both realized that it would have to be built out of unexpected materials, like improvised invisible walls, or yellow plastic bricks. It took ten years to find the right materials. And now that we were there, he didn't look ready. One of the only things we have in common is that when the time comes to walk out the door, we're not packed.

We thought we'd have plenty of time, and we didn't. Standing at Greg's desk, holding his red umbrella, I suddenly felt the time we held between us. I'd opened up a box I'd packed for him a long time ago. That happened to me once-- moving Greg from Simsbury to Manchester-- and I saw that he'd never unpacked what I'd jigsawed together years earlier; it was the scotch tape and shampoo from the dorms.


I looked across the cubicle and I remembered sitting on a porch with him at dusk at 85 Lincoln Avenue, Saratoga Springs, New York, looking over a graveyard. "You'll be twenty-five," I said through the time portal. I wish I could tell myself then how much these ten years didn't matter. Younger Greg looked out at me through older Greg's face and told me how much they did.

He was wonderful, that very, very young man. It stuns me now to think of how much I loved him when he told me how he might take that corporate job I hated. All the ways I knew him then have taken me a decade just to see. I hope we have time to find a whole new layer of things we stored in that graveyard-glancing evening. Then, on the porch, and now, in the cubicle, I put my arm around him and said, "ok. Just tell me when you're ready to leave."

Oh, This is the Stage

The stage at La Paloma Sabanera is about four inches high. You could barely call it a stage at all. It's a step, really, a raised platform butting up against the windows right next to the door. Before closing time, there are two round tables and four chairs stationed there, and if you want to put on a show you've got to wait for the locals to finish their coffee and gossip before you can move the tables. Sometimes this takes a while, because lots of people use La Paloma for the kind of meeting where you really just want to hang out with a colleague in a pleasant place and say at the end, "Great meeting," with a jokey expression on your face that means that it didn't really feel like work. You got an excuse to hang out at La Paloma, that's all. I've seen this expression on the faces of the unemployed and on the face of the mayor at La Paloma on the same day. Everyone knows it's a relief just to be there. Once those tables are empty, you have to lift the tables down onto the floor and rearrange the room a little bit. You throw your bag of books, or your guitar, or your clipboard, or your cables on the couch, and then you get down to the pleasant work of turning every chair in the room to face what was a second ago a restaurant and is now a STAGE. You're going to do something weird up there, something a little too big for its narrow depth. I've always loved watching people see La Paloma's stage for the first time. "Oh," they say sometimes, if they're musicians or actors, imagining a grand theater. People are always surprised or disappointed for a second, and that's the moment that they have to get down to the real work of being the artist they want to be. That very moment, they have to realize that they're going to make the best of this cafe/stage and that they're going to be absolutely fine. For some people, that moment is a millisecond, so short they don't even feel it; for some, it lasts too long and they start to panic. But everyone has that initial thought: oh, this is the stage.

The first time I performed at La Paloma Sabanera was as an improviser, and I stood in front of the door, one foot hovering on the stage, one foot off, deciding when to enter. I was blocking the door and a couple of times I had to get out of the way so that people could come in and see our show. My improv company Sea Tea was just starting to do long-form, experimental stuff, and we booked a few days with La Paloma to force ourselves to put it in front of people. Up until that point, we'd mostly done it in the living room of two of our players, and every time someone died during a scene and ended up on the floor, a corgi named Penny would run over and like his or her forehead. We were all really young and were rehearsing around dogs and roommates, or we lived in studio apartments with no space, or we were driving over from our parents' houses an hour away just to do some weird improv in a living room. It was a great time, but it was also a hard time, because just about all the improv we did was terrible. Just awful stuff, confusing or pretentious or something we vaguely remembered from old SNL episodes. But two or three nights a week we hung out in living rooms or restaurant basements, trying to get better at something we were pretty sure we would eventually be good at. In retrospect, it was insane; in retrospect, it was impressive that we beat on against the current of our own imperfections.

At some point, somebody said a phrase that I now realize is Hartford's "open sesame," Hartford's "Speak Friend and Enter." Somebody said, "I'll talk to Virginia."

We talked to Virginia. She said, sure, do a show here. She always does. We did a couple of shows that went like this: we'd do a few short, easy improv games; a band would play; we'd do a long-form set with a few scenes that were just ok and a few scenes that were a little more than ok, and then the band would play again. We took the scenes the audience of fifteen or twenty-five people liked, the little places that they laughed, and we built our style and our company off of that.

At every show we had to explain what improv comedy was. That's how it goes in a little city where you're trying to do something new. But at every show at La Paloma, the audience would nod and look open-faced at us, gazing at us, heightened four inches off the ground, and treat us with respect and buy into the grand illusion that we were towering over them, professionals, artistes. "Sure," the audience seemed to say every time, "it sounds perfectly reasonable that you're going to mime eating turkey-flavored ice-cream while wearing matched t-shirts. Show us more!"

I went to so many events like that at La Paloma. Events that had to be explained, events that were rough around the edges. Sure, play this song you just wrote last weekend. Sure, read this thing that's half a poem and half a blog post and half a video game script (and sure, it's three halves, who cares?). Sure, this is a wind-machine made out of a trash can, let's see if it works. Sure, yes, I will close my eyes and listen to the radio with you.

At one point a few years ago, when I was hemming and hawing around about being a writer with a capital W, no doubt complaining and whining to myself that there was just no space for me, that there was no community of writers here, that I couldn't get published so what was the point, wah wah wah, and I used to go to all these awesome reading series in New York and why didn't those exist in Hartford, someone said to me, "talk to Virginia." And I walked over to La Paloma after work and I said, "Hi Virginia, I'd like to start a reading series," and she said "Great!" and then for two hours, one night a month, for twenty-two straight months, ten writers would read their work. That is two hundred and twenty readings. That is two hundred and twenty instances of a writer stepping up on a four-inch stage and putting their work out there, because someone said "sure." And the readings got better and better and better. The writers kept coming back, even when there were only six or seven people in the audience, and even when there were fifty new ears they had to put their work in front of.

Virginia says "sure." She's said that to so many bands and musicians I have trouble keeping count of them all. She's maintained a space where doodling as an art form and all-night novel-writing sessions are perfectly normal.

The times I have felt most moved in La Paloma, though, are during the improv mixers organized by Sea Tea's Vlad the Improv-er. If you haven't been to a mixer-- and why would you have, if you aren't someone with a secret dream to try to do one little improv scene over a warm beer-- then it's hard to describe why it's so great. It has something to do with people coming into Hartford from far, far away, sometimes out of state, because they are desperately hoping to meet someone else who's kind of funny and fun to do scenes with. Vlad calls people up on stage, matching them up-- a veteran who performed in New York for ten years and was on an award-winning team, paired with a mom who's never done it and finally got a babysitter-- and then they shake hands and they do a scene. They just do a scene. They step up on the stage, they think oh shit, this is the stage, and then they think oh, everything's fine. And then the music comes on and they step down. It ends up being so simple that they love it, and then they come back. Some of those people are on excellent professional teams now.

This all makes it sound so easy, like La Paloma is a magical place and Virginia is some wizard who makes it all happen. But that isn't true at all. La Paloma is the place where you put your money where your mouth is. Since it exists, and since Virginia always says yes, you have no excuse. Make your art. Get your ass in there and pull out your calendar and pick a night. If you don't, it's your own fault. Nothing is more liberating than that. Do it. Go. Make it happen. Bring your audience. Explain what you're about to do. Make some bad art. This is the place for it. You're going to have to make bad art before you make good art, and that's what this place is for. It's an excuse-evaporator, a community-maker, a screen, a chapbook, your first LP. Really though, what it has is your first audience.

It works on the other end, too, the spectator end. If you think there's nothing to do in Hartford, no one trying new things, no one putting themselves out there, no individual artists, no risk-takers, no political action, no real conversation, no debate-- go to La Paloma. And if you still don't see what you want, maybe it's time to stop being a spectator. Get off the table, get out of the chair, move them aside-- oh, you're on the stage. Oh, this is the stage. You were on it the whole time.

La Paloma is many more things-- food and coffee and conversation and the best place in its neighborhood and everything else you've heard, if you live in Hartford, and everything you're imagining, if you live somewhere far away. I have made so many friends here that I can't remember specific meetings any more; those friendships have all blurred into one mellow memory. I had a friend who had moved away to Ecuador four years ago, seemingly forever, and just last week I ran into her at a La Paloma event. She's moved back and that's one of the places she went to first. Of course. Of course it was. I was overjoyed to see her but it felt so inevitable.

La Paloma is closing down. You must have heard by now. If you're from here, you heard it directly; if you're not from here, you heard it echoed in some other messy little space where people gather. A place where you know someone must be pretty cool just for showing up there. A place that answers that little call in your sternum that we so rarely acknowledge out loud: I need a place where I can try something new, where I can show up alone. I need to have a night that is truly surprising. I need the possibility that I am something more than what I was yesterday, even if I'm broke, or an alcoholic, or an introvert, or depressed, or just here in Hartford all of a sudden for god knows what stupid job transfer or family obligation or accident. I need a place.

When someone asked me where I'd move Syllable, my reading series, I went unusually silent. "I need a place," I said, "where if five people show up it's not embarrassing, but if sixty people show up, they can fit."

So it is with gratitude that I say goodbye tonight to La Paloma, and thank you for being my secret garden. I admit that when I came to Hartford the city seemed dead and full of weeds, depressed and angry and fraught. And I was, and still am sometimes, those things too. There were many fertile grounds in Hartford where I was able and allowed to repair and grow my garden, but only La Paloma has felt like a skeleton key. I wish I had made better use of it. I wish I'd been less selfish with my time, and spent more money here so that it would not be closing down. It's so hard not to feel personally responsible for its closing, since this place and this person gave me so many chances every day to make something of myself, and it. It is a reminder to me that there was always a first stage and a person who said "sure."

I have played on many bigger stages since those first improv shows at La Paloma. We had to move the mixers because we opened our own studio and we were overjoyed to fill it. We don't have to explain what the hell it is we're doing any more. We did that work at La Paloma. And so many of the bands that played their first shows here have moved on to New York or were playing earlier today at internationally acclaimed festivals. Or the radio producers who frequent this counter continue to broadcast to a hell of a lot more than thirty people. Or the films that were screened here were played for rooms of hundreds. We outgrew you, La Paloma, because that's what you allowed us to do. And we are so grateful. And we're so sorry that we didn't make it easier for you to stay here forever. And we promise that we will make that space somewhere else. And we recognize that it's our job now to do so.

There is something here, in this last 24 hours before those doors close, that I want to make sure I remember. In this little space, even if we went on to bigger stages, we were not discovered. This was never a place to show up and be recognized and made famous or talented. We had to move the tables ourselves. And then we pointed out to others: this is the stage. But, despite all I've said, it really never was a stage. There are no wings to wait in, there are no stairs to sneak up. At that first show, I was standing with one foot on, one foot off, ready to rise when the scene needed it. That's not a stage. That's a step. And when you're ready, you take it on your own.


La Paloma is closing tomorrow, June 27th. Tonight, in celebration of five years of incredible programming, there will be an awesome marathon performance of 40 bands, writers, comedians, radio producers, storytellers, artists, filmmakers and doodlers. Free, of course.

Why You Should Go

Many years ago-- twelve years, actually-- I auditioned for a college a cappella group. I walked into the rehearsal room-- the room in which I'd later spend hundreds and hundreds of hours, pretending I could read music better than I could, hearing harmonies lock in, struggling to be a better musician and a better friend to these women who would change my life-- feeling very confident, like I was destined to win this thing, to be in this group, to slaughter this audition before me. I could call my attitude aggressive, or arrogant, or just confident, but however you want to put it-- I wasn't good enough. I failed. I didn't make it. And I knew it, too; had high enough standards and enough musical taste to know I didn't deserve to make it. So a couple of days later I auditioned for something else: a tiny AIDS Benefit club that nobody really cared about, which did musical reviews that each raised about $300 for a local AIDS coalition. The club had just been dumped, both artistically and administratively, on one poor, nice little sophomore guy. The auditions for this one were in a run down little chapel on the outskirts of campus. This club had no flash and really, nothing but the nobility of its "benefit" status to recommend it.

You know what happens now. I did the benefit show; I'm marrying the nice sophomore guy. I also went back to the a cappella group six months later and did a better job and made it in. I did both. My life was all and, and, and. The initial rejection made me go out and get some other yes's, so that I could bounce up to and's.

It was too much. I took too many classes, I joined too many clubs. I had too many friends and spent too much money going out to too many restaurants ordering too many appetizers to split. I read too many books for too many hours and had to get up early to write too many papers with too many citations. Then I graduated and agreed to go to China too quickly, where there were too many people, and I traveled to too many cities, which I could only get to by transferring on too many buses. I went to New York, too loud, too hot, too expensive, too expansive, too absurd. I quit my first job there because it was too corporate and I worked as a dogwalker because that was too ridiculous of an opportunity to say no to; I specialized in dogs that were too aggressive or too big. I had to walk them even when it was too cold, too hot, too rainy, or too snowy, and if I was too tired from  staying up way, way too late the night before.

It became something of a joke. Julia was the person you could get to do anything. She'd say yes to it all. I was open to suggestions. I was a braggart about doing new things, stupid things, real things, things I hadn't even imagined before. I've only actually applied for a job once in my life, and it was for being a restaurant hostess. Everything else was just me agreeing to do something for someone.

And then I found improv (because Greg asked me to go with him one day, and of course I agreed), and the whole philosophy just exploded. Yes, yes, yes. And, and, and. By the rules of improv, everyone had to do what I'd been trying to do all along: be bold, be impermanent. Find joy in piling on.

My class became my team became my company, and now we're winning competitions. Tonight we have a show in New York at the Upright Citizens Brigade. It could be our last, our only. It's a competition; we could get knocked out tonight, or, should we keep winning, we could perform every Thursday in New York for months.

I'm writing this post because I think you should come. You have a hundred reasons not to. It's late at night, it's far away, and the show is sold out. But you know what? Since it's late you have no conflicts, and there's a standby line that guarantees you entry. And this show will never happen again. There is no other chance.

All this preachy stuff just for a little show? Yes. Because it's the little shows, and the long nights, that make a life. I'm tired and I'm busy and I'm stupid sometimes, but the only real "too" in my life is that the hours are too short. I don't make lists of pros and cons. I make lists of pros, and then I pick the best pros.

You should go to this show because you can drink a cheap beer while you watch. You should go because the seats are delightfully crappy and you might end up sitting on the floor, crotch-level with the actors. It'll make you feel young. You should go because we have no idea what the show will be about; you should go because it'll cost you five dollars. You should go because the drive down from Connecticut will be only a couple of hours, and the traffic will be great because it's so late, and tomorrow's Friday and it's a three-day weekend. You should go because it's too far away, too late, and you'll be too tired tomorrow-- which is the basis for any adventure.

And, if you're from Hartford or Connecticut at large, you should go because there once was a band of seven stupid idiots who did something badly and then got better. And better. And lost other Cage Matches with horrible scenes about porcupines, and came back. And those people have multiplied, and they're pretty good now, and they beat a bunch of New York teams in the Indie Cage Match, proving that Sea Tea Improv is just as good as a bunch of people who moved to NYC to make careers as actors. Maybe on another day one of those teams would have beaten us; but there was no other day. There is only the thousand little yes-and's that got us to that moment. And Connecticut is killing it right now with our yes's. If you're from Hartford, you should be proud of that, and you should brag about it as if it were a personal achievement, because Hartford made Sea Tea possible.

But Julia, you're saying, I live in Seattle and the show is tonight and I don't even know you personally. Ok, that's a good reason. But then, instead, go out and do something else. Find a better pro. The next thing that someone asks you to do-- hear in your head all the little no's you're saying to yourself. Recognize them so that you can realize how dumb they are and then ignore them. Go support someone who is doing something good for your community, even if it makes you tired. Find a way to make every no a yes. You can't plan your life. You're improvising. That's what improvising is: going into something cocky and not good enough, getting rejected, and then turning around and making it good.  You thought you were a singer, and maybe you're not right now. Go be in an AIDS Benefit. Are you meant to be a singer? No. You're not "meant to be" anything. You're meant to go on with whatever you've got. Go find something else and marry it. Go all the way.

In every no, a yes. Is that corny? Is that arrogant? Is that completely unoriginal? Yes. And it's true.

And now I need to go, because someone has just asked me to do something a little bit nuts. So I must leave you. Go.

-- Julia

Show info here.


A few days ago, my friends and I went to see Jurassic Park in 3D Imax. The theater was mostly empty, so it was just a few families watching the spectacle of a dinosaur theme park, devoid of visitors other than the small test group of archaeologists  adorable children, and bloodsucking lawyers. The movie conveniently sends most potential victims off the island in order to hone in on the idea that those velociraptors really have it out for those kids. While we were watching in our slim little crowd, a fight broke out in the hallways of the theater. At first we didn't hear it because of the soundproofed doors. Then, after a moment, someone took refuge in our theater-- she burst into our movie, screaming, and someone full of rage followed her in, also screaming.

I was ready to hit the deck. I had one hand out to grab my friend Laura, who was sitting on the aisle, and push us both down between the seats into our popcorn. I was ready to play dead. All of this occurred in my head in about three seconds, because that's how long the fight lasted. They fizzled and left. No one was shot, or hit, or even running around. Just two people screaming at each other with true rage for a second, taking refuge in the dark.

When people were killed watching Batman in Aurora, Colorado last year, something changed in me. I was terrified that people would stop going to the movies. When you think about it, the very idea that our favorite American pastime is sitting with a crowd of strangers in a very dark, very loud room-- in seats that are difficult to get out of-- is scary. Horror movies work because the environment is so immersive and claustrophobic. I thought, when that shooting happened, that there might be an instantaneous destruction of the trust we have in crowds. The particular dark of the movies had been violated. I was full of rage that people had been killed in a space so thick with trust.

It devastated me, that idea. I love crowds. Living in Connecticut after New York, I miss them-- I miss the rush of people coming off the subway, I miss sold-out shows on Broadway and at the IFC Center. I miss eavesdropping on field trips to the Met. I miss waiting with hundreds of people to buy Harry Potter from a tiny independent bookstore. I used to go do things just to be in huge, gentle mobs of people in New York, who understand that sure, five more people can fit on this subway car. There's always room for more. In Connecticut, where people move to have more space, I've intentionally sought out Bruce Springsteen concerts, UConn games, parades, and opening nights of terrible teen movies, just to be in happy crowds. I also took up running.

Running is a strange and vulnerable sport. At first it felt weird to go out with no coat, no phone, and no wallet, and then it felt good. Sometimes I even left my keys at home. I immediately started racing, too, and felt that joy of the crush of people around me. The best part of every race is standing in the crowd of runners. The second-best part of every race is the spectators.

Spectators are the heart of the race. They usually come to catch a loved one in a fleeting moment, but for hours before and after that moment, they stay to cheer on everyone else. They watch, they revere the simplicity of individual human struggle and achievement, over and over and over again, and their words give more energy than fifty Dixie cups of Gatorade.

My friends, the spectators, at Mile 26 of the Hartford Marathon

Before I watched a race myself, I thought spectating a marathon would be boring. Running is all about personal limits, mentalities, and goals. It is, to me, a totally symbolic act masquerading as a totally physical act. Why would we want to watch thousands of people streaming by, doing something they'll never technically "win"?

Because running is not a game, and it's not a test. It's just an action, a peaceful, futile act that some of us do to demonstrate our humanity to ourselves. I am human, this is what my body can do.  To watch people by the hundreds and thousands surprise themselves is not just inspiring, it's addicting. Show me a person who's gone to cheer at a race and only cheered for the person they know. Show me a person who's gone away unmoved from the finish line-- it's all beautiful, the superhuman winners, the massive crowds of ordinary folks, and the slow ones-- the gorgeous, the hunched, the overweight; the elderly, the injured, the friends running together; the ones who move to the side as they open the roads back up even though they're not quite done.

When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon,  everyone thought of the runners first. We tracked the bibs. We thought the people who had lost their legs were the ones who had come to prove what those legs could do: run.

But we know, of course, from seeing video, is that the victims were all spectators. They had come not to run but to stand. They were likely all shouting, at that moment, for strangers. Strangers who were either slightly faster or slightly slower than their friends. Strangers who were doing something they'd never done, would never do, or would like to do someday. Strangers who were fueled by the power of someone witnessing their achievements.

On that same morning, a New York Times Op-Ed about Guantanamo Bay began to circulate. I read it with horror. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I began to berate myself for not thinking about the world more often and more deeply. I promised myself I'd be a better spectator: that'd I'd keep an eye on what was happening around me, that I'd actively seek to cheer on those that are doing good, and do more good myself. I'd join the crowd again and again, as many times as possible. When the bombs went off in Boston, I thought about how many times that has happened so far away from me, their reverberations barely reaching my ears. This time, it reached my ears. My cousin was there, on the block. The fear reached my ears, then my throat, then my stomach, then my heart. She was fine, thank god, and I cried with the relief and luck that I've never been that afraid before and that it came to nothing for my family.

Again I find myself  consumed by fear that the crowds will never form again; I'm afraid that we'll all decide to spread out, stay home, stay quiet. I'm afraid that we'll collectively decide that the home theater of the internet will keep us safe while getting to watch. My irrational fear is that we will mistake the meaning of spectating. It is more than just watching your twitter feed reload. There is no theater without an audience to gasp and laugh and listen, and those reactions feed the show and fill the air.

I know my fear is somewhat irrational. I know the crowds will never stop forming. After the Hartford Circus Fire, we didn't stop going to the circus; we fixed the fire codes. We still go to the movies, we still work on Wall Street, children still go to school. Crowds make us a target but they also create a thicket of humanity: medical staff, police, strangers, families. All running towards disaster's aftermath, faster than athletes finishing a marathon.

We must be there to watch, because when we are called, we must be there to help. We can't always stay home. To protect ourselves and ourselves only, to close the gate, is to leave the rest of the world standing outside, alone. Remember that the T-Rex isn't really coming just for you. Know that, at some moment, you can decide to get out of your car and save someone in another car. Know that at any moment, your amusement park ride could turn you from a spectator to a hero. Don't be afraid. Be ready. Tip from a runner: visualize it, again and again, and when the time comes, you too will run in the right direction.

I know without asking that my cousin Jessica helped someone that day; she's helped me up and down mountains and through races before. She has cultivated an automatic generosity and automatic bravery. She has practiced running; she has practiced spectating. I'm glad she was safe, and I'm even gladder she was there to potentially help others.

I am a runner now. I am slow and there are many better runners out there. But I will continue to run. And when I can't-- when my legs or my heart have someday given out-- I will take my place and stand and cheer. And if I can't-- if my limbs or my heart have been blown away-- if I am trapped in a dark, loud room-- if monsters tear down the electrified fences we thought would work, to trap us, mere children, in the cars we thought were safe-- if our circus tent goes up in flames-- I will hold out my hand, because I know, I know some stranger will know it's time to turn from shouting and take that hand. In less than one instant. And that's what I promise you, stranger, that I'll do, too.


Have I told you about the piano yet? I say that all the time now. The piano is the story I want to tell people. Every few years I end up with a story like this. Have I told you about the boy with two broken arms? Have I told you about the lobster? Have I told you about the man who stole my shoes, and how I chased him down?  Have I told you about the bus that was on fire, the train to Mongolia, the boat that almost capsized?

I should just tell you about the piano directly without all the preface; yet I ask you first because I tend to repeat these stories. I repeat them because I think, I hope, that these stories say something about me. That they depict me as brave and true and wild and weird. These are the stories that make me think, while they are still happening, ohgood, another story. I'm still alive.

The piano surprised me, showing up as it did on my facebook feed a day or two after Greg asked me to marry him. Free piano to anyone who can come and get it today! By the time I finished that sentence, I knew the piano was mine. It was my destiny, just like the little desk I bought from a French man in a parking lot in New York that I had to stuff into a cab, which now sits in my apartment covered in parking tickets and pens. Just like the siamese cat that is, at this moment, running in circles around a hand-carved table that I also became instantly attached to. I try not to be materialistic-- my clothes are downright tattered and my shoes all stink-- but when I think about certain materials, like wood and paper and paint, I realize that as computers overtake my brain, I still covet objects. Real objects you can hold in your hand and make a noise with. Like pianos.

I immediately claimed it. It was mine! It was mine, even though I had no way to go get it. Don't even have a car. It was mine, even though I was currently at work. It was mine, even though I didn't know how to play it. None of that mattered, because what I knew the second I saw it was that it was Greg's engagement gift. He got me a ring, and I would get him a piano. I asked around for a truck to put it in with limited success. Then I realized-- since this piano was going to float to my apartment one way or another-- I should find someone currently at the piano location and have them bring it to me. So I did.

Two teachers brought it from a school and tipped it onto a dolly. The elevated it up eight stories, wheeled it into my place, and set its 500 pounds next to the kitchen counter in my studio apartment. I was all gratitude.

Greg came home and I said, "you'll never guess what's in here!" and he couldn't. I think he was in shock. It was in beautiful shape and terrible tune. He immediately started to play it.

Bad sounds wafted in the air. Neither of us can play, but from a lifetime of performing, both of us have good ears. We know what music should sound like. It was salvageable but sour.

"I'll tune it," Greg said, and I immediately said, "I don't know if you can!" Piano tuning is notoriously hard. Piano tuners are notoriously weird. For weeks, I told people I'd taken this the piano, and Greg told people he was going to tune it. Every time the person would tell him that he probably couldn't tune the piano all on its own.

Greg ordered the tuning tools in the mail. He took the top off the back, revealing the harp inside. A piano's just a harp surrounded by wood, a hundred and eighty-eight drums smacking down on hundreds of little strings of steel. And he began to tune it.

It took forever. It took days and nights of waking up and falling asleep to a one-note dong-dong-dong-dongdongdongongononononggggg as he tuned it. There were over two hundred strings in all, and each one had to be tuned. It sounds just about perfect now, although he occasionally goes in there and adjusts a string.

But all that was a while ago. Now he plays whole songs, although they take him far too long. He refuses to play anything but difficult songs. They each take him six or seven minutes to play instead of three. Chords are suspended in slow-motion in the apartment as I fall asleep, or when he gets home from work. This morning he was at the piano even before his eyes were fully open.

Does it drive you crazy? people ask me when I tell them about the piano. Not at all, I say. It's like living in a lullabye. It makes things slow and quiet. There's music in my home now. I've gone over and touched the keys a few times, trying to remember how to play, trying to start over. Sometimes when Greg's not here I sit down and do scales. But I know my part of the story. I'm the magician who makes a piano appear, to sidestep all of the reasons it was impossible to get one. I'm the one the piano happened to.

But Greg's the one who will see the mechanics and fix it up. He's the one who will tune it. He's the one who will make the music sound right.

Why I Can't Write About Improv

Shortly after I'd been beheaded in the knife fight, I heard a whisper in my ear. "Just your head," John said, after doing something indiscernable with his arms. We were standing against the back wall-- in improv-jargon, The Back Line-- of the studio we co-own with a bunch of other people. We do not usually speak on The Back Line, so I knew he had some major idea he was attempting to give me for my character. Obviously, when we'd cut away from the knife fight just at the moment of my beheading, I hadn't died. My head was up for another round at fight-to-the-death-summer-camp-- that's what we'd been doing, that had been the fun idea, that had been the game. Improv-speak again: The Game. Or the GAME, as it is the all-important thing to many, many people trying to do something simultaneously spontaneous, fun, intelligent, and sensical all at the same time. Trust me, that is very difficult to do. I have spent four years in a permanent quest for two-minute spans of time that meet those requirements. My head, cackling and ready for a fight, danced out into the scene atop a stool. I blow-darted (blew-dart?) my opponent, somehow we ended the scene, then the Harold, then the night, and half an hour later I was sitting with John having a beer and he said, "what I was thinking," moving his arms like Vana White, extending and wiggling his fingers, "is that you'd be your head, and I'd be your arms, holding the head." He passed my invisible head to one hand while gesturing with the other. "But I couldn't figure out how to do it."

"Goddamn it!" I said. "That would have been great." I took a drink and gazed into the distance like the great Artist I am. "Goddamn it."

We continued on with our night, laughing our heads off about some more successful ideas (improv term: Moves) of the evening, including a CIA agent's surveillance of a neighborhood dog and the line "toenails aren't like snowflakes. They're not all unique." We swept over the night like we always do, spewing out positive judgements and negative ones only for ourselves. That's how we fight off the bad blood: never say someone else's idea is bad. Because it isn't. It is up to you to communicate with your team, live onstage.

That night I lay awake-- I really did-- thinking: how would you communicate "put your head in my hands"? How do you say: in this scene, the audience can see my head, and your arms, but nothing else? I am certain John, on his drive home across town, was working through the same question. It was like "Somewhere Out There," but of infinitely more consequential.

This is why I can't write about improv comedy, the thing that consumes more hours of my life than any other single thing. A couple of times a week, I unlock a door and close it behind me, and in that one small room, in about fifty square feet, there are so many things. There are swimming pools full of shedded skin, there are airports in which a mystery is afoot, there are ladies at brunch. In the room adjacent to the studio, we have an office which is cluttered with posters, a sewing machine, Diet Cokes, cleaning supplies, grant applications, and books, but which to my mind is empty compared to the technically empty room. In that empty room so many people have fallen in love, so many neighbors have gotten competitive, so many animals have been able to speak. But in that room a floating head had never been rolled from evil hand to evil hand, and that was pissing me off. I have trouble writing about improv because I see all of those invisible things and to describe them would be strange and seem of no importance.

Let me back up in case you don't know, because this isn't explained enough: theatrical improv consists of at least two people inventing scenes, characters, and yes, Games without any prior planning. The most popular incarnation of improv was "Whose Line Is It Anyway" with Drew Carey, but that show performed only short-form improv (Short-Form forthwith), which is performing short games with some kind of pre-arranged structure or gimmick. For example, everyone's at a party and someone has to guess who everyone is. Then there's long-form improv (Long-Form), in which the actors figure out their own games and generally do something more organic, with no interruptions from the audience. There are lots of long-form structures-- The Harold is one, but it is only one, it is not THE one, as some worship it as.

But none of that is really important. People will say it's important but it isn't. What's important is the precise moment that you step forward, away from the group, normally alongside only one other person. There are two reasons to step forward: you have an idea, or you have no fucking idea but you'll go with whatever the other person might be thinking. If you're both in the first category, if you're both in the second category, or if you've got one of each-- it shouldn't matter, because everything after the first sentence should be near-pure listening and reacting.

Here I am lecturing, as if I were teaching right now. I do teach. I love the theory because it gives language to things that should be true in real life but often aren't. "Listen before you respond," "make sure you are all in the same reality," "find the unusual path and follow it." I say those things in my classes. Sometimes I say them in my head when I am out in the world with regular people.

But really, all of that bossy stuff, all that theory, all of these fine points that improvisers make in classes and in their interior realities-- all of those things are exercises and zen mediations that we are working on to get to another level. And that other level is: how do I trust this person to hold my head in their hands? And how do I tell them that that's what we should do?

It would be cheating to step out and say "remember that time you held that head in your hands." That's not what the audience wants to see, and that's not what we want to do. All of humanity wants to see the spontaneous holding of heads in hands, and, what's more, all of humanity wants that to be surprising and delightful. If you are saying to yourself right now, "no I don't," well then, you weren't there the time Dan figured out onstage how to perfectly puppeteer/possess Summar's body, and you didn't see the time Greg and I got possessed by each other's spirits. You didn't see the ghosts riding the seesaw on the playground (and you didn't see that no one else could see them). When that sort of thing takes you out of your sense of reality-- when you really, really see that happening before you-- it's really wonderful. And it's not just mystical things. When you really believe in this mother and daughter, or this office tension, it's the same sense of magic.

The trick is to improvise with a team you know, trust, and love, in that order. The question is: who can you communicate with? On the outermost circle, all people on the earth, who at least recognize that you're another person and can read basic emotions. Then go one circle in and I'd say that's all the people in the world who speak the same language as you do. Then your region  your actual acquaintances  your friends and family. The challenge for an improv team is to be even closer than that.

The other people in Sea Tea know a lot about me. They don't know exactly what I was like in high school, but they do know when Julia has an idea, or when Julia doesn't know exactly what you meant so you should clarify that, or when Julia is bringing back that thing you said earlier. And I know when Joe is about to deliver a monologue, or when Laura's going to dance. That is, for me, the real joy of improv: knowing other people. No, no. The real joy is: learning other people so that someday, somehow you will know what they're going to do.

I have talked about improv for hundreds of hours, and could write the same. But I won't. I will just say this: improvising with my team is like improvising with my glasses on. With everyone else, I'm squinting. Sometimes I get to the same place, but with my glasses on, there's a sense that everything is perfectly made and detailed.

But sometimes something comes into the peripherals, soon to make its way into a better field of vision. A hand is flickering, trying to figure out how to hold your head. But if those hands already hold your history, if those hands know for sure that this idea would really, really delight you, if those hands have lifted a beer in toast to you a hundred times, if you know when those hands are talons, old woman's hands, and holding an invisible basketball-- those hands have a much greater chance of holding your head while it laughs.

What I Thought Would Happen, and What Happened

There's a blizzard on today, and so I finally have time to think. Happy 2013, Snow Day. ***

I began 2012 in a terrible scramble to write. On the 11th of January, I'd be giving a reading at Real Art Ways. Years ago, in early 2008, I'd read a flyer with RAW's movie listings and decided it would be ok to move to Hartford. My last tether to New York-- the movie theaters where I'd sit and watch second-run indies, alone-- was no longer valid. I moved to Hartford, and four years later, I was on the flyer. I was a Real Art, or at least, on my way.


I read about airplanes and karaoke, I read about dogs and a lot of other things. The woman who introduced me reminded the room that I had a New Years' resolution to do one symbolic pull-up, something I'd never done.

I was all resolutions in January: the pull-up, mostly; but I also resolved to run twelve races, and write, and cook, and all of those things we all resolve every year, if not on January 1st then on other little days in our heads. Mostly I resolved to get to Zero. I had a to-do list three hundred items long, and dammit, I would blast them each away like a wizard poofing out knickknacks with the end of his wand.

By the end of January, after two weeks of vacation which I took alone in my apartment, I was down to four to-do's. I knew I would never get to zero because of a red coat. It badly needed to be relined; it was badly, badly tattered. Every time I put my arm in one sleeve it would end up somewhere I didn't intend. Along the back, or in the collar, or, most distressingly, once again in the open air. Pockets were worse. I'd put my keys or a wallet in and it would swim all around the coat, jangling along until it fell out hard on the floor of the bus or in Mark Twain's parlor. Luckily, all my stuff is loud. It smacks hard where it lands.

I knew that fixing up the coat required more steps than I could quickly execute; by the time I found a lining and a tailor I'd have more things to do. I gave up on zero. January ebbed, and the tidal wave of 2012 crashed in.

It was hedonistic from the start. I saw giant horse puppets shudder and die in Lincoln Center; I learned how to evaluate whiskey; I almost went to a Dr. Zhivago party in an old curtain factory, but then I didn't go, which is even more self-indulgent.

In February I remounted the Love-Chase, a play written by Twain's daughter Susy, and a bunch of little girls put on Susy's exact words in the exact spot where they were originally performed. At Syllable, the reading series, people read from their diaries and poems and I sang a song and thought this is how this series will always be. I ran my first race of the year: Cupid's Chase, around the park by my house, and I thought I will meet these resolutions. I am Cupid, and betterment is what I take aim at.


In March there were birthday parties and engagements. In March I was supposed to go to a Black Keys concert, but just before the train doors closed, we saw the dates on the tickets were wrong and we ran off, laughing, and got sangria instead. I had interns, I ran races up stairs, I had an improv coach. I wrote sketches. I fought forward. I ran the O'Hartford 5k, I ran the Fight for Air Climb. Three down.

In April, I found fantasy. My boss and I took a photoshop class and I faded together pictures of Beluga Whales; Eve Ensler shook my hand and the memory of who I was and what I'd believed when I was nineteen came thrilling back; I told stories at a fundraiser for a friend I'd known, even then, wouldn't live. I began practicing how to improvise a disaster-- ridiculous plane crashes and animal attacks, so that, come showtime, I'd be able to find myself a survivor. I wrote down "DISASTER #1" for the first rehearsal. I flew to Seattle and jumped in Puget Sound to prove I could handle the ice water. I was building myself, doing push-ups against the world, readying myself for the races.

By the time May came everything was real. I called Judy Blume on the phone, and I wrote a grant, and Sea Tea won a years' worth of Cage Matches. That night, I braided my hair for the Mudder-- that was my battle armor. Greg and I drove to Vermont and I was terrified.


The morning of the Mudder, I found myself standing in a pit of mud, my sister whispering, "go." She and my cousins and my brother hauled me over a wall. We swam through ice water, we climbed rocky hillsides. There was quite a lot of jumping and falling and crawling and swimming. There was mostly fear, resolve, and trying. I tried. I tried. I tried. I was never so happy to fail over and over; I was never so much a part of my family. Towards the end of our five-and-a-half-hour race, during which we agreed to not talk of the past or the future-- even so much as which obstacles were coming next-- I walked across a balance beam over a pool of ice water. I made myself not fall in. It took me forever. I made it. It was hard not to fall-- but it had also been hard to will myself to fall off a 30-foot platform earlier that day. Of course, falling on purpose has a different name: jumping.


I crawled back to Connecticut and it was still, miraculously, May. I ate lunch, I raced a week later to raise money for breast cancer. At a bachelorette party I destroyed a dirty pinata with what was left of my Mudder strength, while blindfolded. We went to a picnic wedding, we ran races that got us doused in paint. I read the collected works of Judy Blume. May was candy-colored and joyful.


By June, I was jumping over and over. On the first Sunday in June I ran a half marathon I'd forgotten I'd signed up for. I put on my pants and broke my best time by half an hour. I set up a dunk tank at work and dunked my coworkers. In one Disaster Show, I played a robot, a band leader, and a floutist, and I killed of all three of my selves with glee. I got to interview both Judy Blume and Joan Didion onstage, truly two of the best nights of my lives.


But also in June, I was falling. A friend from graduate school jumped from a bridge. A friend in Hartford died of cancer. Joan Didion's hand, thin and delicate and strong like a bicycle wheel covered in tissue paper, waved in the air as she described her grief for her child. I got the feeling that her glasses weren't enabling her to see but that her eyes saw, on the backs of the lenses, all that she'd lost and all that was over.


So thank god for July, because July is surreal, always. I rode a horse through a forest; I stood on a paddleboard on the Farmington River and paddled my way down; I looked into the jellyfish exhibit at the aquarium; I want to a wedding in a forest hundreds of miles away; I stood around the Twain House in a little girl's dress threatening people with a lead pipe; I threw an ice cream social. I ran another race, the Fugitive Mud run, in which you begin trapped and must climb you way free. You must begin by untying your hands before you can climb out of the trap. You are relieved by the time you're crawling in the mud.


August was all about one single mountain: Katahdin. But on our way to it, my family paddled in a canoe in a pond on Cape Cod. We swam out to a swampy island. We walked in many woods. My sister and brother scaled the Otter Cliffs in Acadia, and the following day we climbed the Beehive, swam in the Bowl, Hiked Mount Acadia, and swam in Echo Lake. Hike, swim, hike, swim: the real Mudder. We biked the old carriage roads in Acadia and drove out to Baxter Park and camped at the base. We completely failed at lighting a fire.AugBeehive2

We climbed Katahdin; and the next day ate popovers and read tarot cards in the rain. We went to Wells Beach on the way home and got one quick, glorious sunburn. When we returned to Connecticut, Greg and I found an archery range and I made him take aim in front of me. He hit target after target. On the last day of August, Greg and I took out the scooter and laid on a blanket and watched ET in a park, and I cried at the end, as always, whispering "Stay... come...!"


September: Boston for improv workshops. Gasping at Hedda Gabbler, sitting alone in the theater. Bacheloretting down under the eaves of pink Victorians on Cape May. Teaching workshops on Civility. The one-year anniversary of standing in front of a music stand at a tiny reading series and introducing hopeful young writers to each other. Tasting whiskey. Improv show after improv show. Beerfest tasting, with more beer than ever. Writing a Civil War play, performing it, and that same day, improvising a full-length musical. I spent every weekend outside attempting to run twenty miles along the river.

In October, the year had already become a marathon, and the marathon was coming. But there were all sorts of little sprints before that: lectures on charcoaled graphic novels, and a big work event with RL Stine and Sandra Brown. Literary Disco had taken off and I was reading books early in the morning. Anytime I wasn't running, I was reading. We put the keys into the door of our improv studio for the first time, making something previously invisible visible.


On the morning of the marathon I stood next to the Hartford Carousel crying into my gloves. What was I doing? I wasn't ready for this. There had been too many whiskey tastings, too few Katahdins. Too many late nights after locking up the studio, laughing about what my friends had said. What I thought would happen, when I started the year, was that I'd become some kind of lithe, fit Amazonian woman. I'd hoped that by the time I got to the marathon I'd be just another zippy athlete jogging along 26 miles. But I wasn't. I was still completely, horribly myself, every step effort. I began to run, because I had to. And after three miles I ditched my hat and felt fine. And after ten I ditched my gloves and felt amazing. And after seventeen ditched the possibility that I wouldn't finish. And after 25.9, heard my friends playing the trombone and cheering for me, and sprinted through the end, where Greg was waiting with a sandwich.


But I'm still me, still not the perfect athlete, so two hours later I was wearing a squirrel costume and darting through Elizabeth Park at sunset. And a week later was picking pumpkins and tasting wine and definitely not running at all. And a week after that getting cheap, behind-the-stage tickets to Bruce Springsteen and feeling embarrassingly moved by 'Everybody Has a Hungry Heart.' Because I do. Because I am not a calm collected Amazon.


And yet, the marathon was over, but the year wasn't. November came on the edge of a hurricane. Greg did avante-garde theater as a bearded Toulouse-Lautrec. We scooted out to a wedding in a barn in our fanciest clothes, and then we drove up to the Cape to have cake for my Grandfather's 92nd birthday. On election night we fell asleep in our lobby. I went up to Vermont and returned in time for our Sea Tea Improv Studio Grand Opening, and the next night worked the Medieval Gala in a paper cone princess hat. And-- shit-- despite the Mudder and the Marathon, I had three races left to go, so I ran through the woods on Veteran's Day. We went down to see Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross, and came up to meet Hal Holbrook. And on Thanksgiving I ran a 5-mile race with Greg by my side, and the entire way we listed things we were thankful for. We got into the hundreds.


December was quiet at first. I was tired. We saw Neil Gaimon and Neal Degrasse Tyson discuss Vision and Brilliance, and let ourselves be inspired. I worked the door at the Holiday House Tour and got to hear hundreds of people be similarily inspired by the stenciling in Mark Twain's front hall. I read a lot of Henry James, and let the kids I was teaching ride in a horse-drawn carriage three times in one afternoon. It was really a very quiet month, even when I woke up one morning and agreed, under the blankets, to marry Greg. It was quiet when we walked around with that secret for days, telling people one at a time, on the street, on the phone, in our apartment, in Twain's basement. It was quiet when I told our dental hygienist and he was sincerely overjoyed, since he's taken care of both of our teeth and cares very much about who we might be kissing. It was calm when our friends came over to swap cookies, and it was calm when we watched "It's a Wonderful Life" from the balcony at Cinestudio, and it was calm when it began to snow on our way out to Cape Cod. We were there, and we were in Simsbury on Christmas Eve, and woke up to snow, which quiets everything. And it had been quiet on the morning of my last race, the Blueback Mitten Run, which was just a little 5k and seemed over before it began, and full of hills, just like the whole year.


On December 29th we took a bus into New York, spent the day in another snowstorm, and ate apples before going through security. We all slept on the plane-- me and my friends, that is-- it had been a long year for everyone. On New Year's Eve we walked through the desert on the edge of an erosion crater in Israel. That means it wasn't hit by some outside force, some meteor of luck or fate or destiny, but eroded on its own, making its own form from the tiny forces of what was already there.


There was so much already there in my year: a job, a home, a huge snowfall of interesting and loving and weird friends and acquaintances. There were a hundred improv shows, a hundred events at the Twain House, a hundred hours spent reading and recording for Literary Disco. More than a hundred miles slogged out in the year. More than 200, in fact. And my to-do list was as long as ever. I'd put the keys to my life in the coat I'd made, and they'd flown all around the lining and landed with a loud smack at the end of the year.


What I thought would happen is that I would become someone else: a person with more energy and more achievements. A person for whom moving forward is easy. But of course, that's not what happened. What happened was the details eroded into a strange and beautiful shape, and the year was a crater. Everything was hard, and everything was easy, too. Now, more than a month later, I'm standing on the edge of that year, looking down into it, remembering that I didn't fall into that crater. I jumped into what I had made. And as my memory reconsiders those days in which I climbed, paddled, canoed, swam, crawled, grieved, flew, improvised, read, wrote, recorded, fell, jumped, and landed, the crater will take on a slightly different shape. It is already happening now.

But that is too huge and terrifying to think about. So on the last night of 2012, my old friends and I took a bunch of sparklers into a restaurant and lit them. Nobody around us cared about the turning of the year, but those sparklers burned bright for a minute, and I was grateful for everything they lit.



Photos by Greg Ludovici, me, John Groo, Kevin Panko, Summar Elguindy, Jessica Hurley, Catie Talarski, Chion Wolf, Steph Drahan, Katherine Martinelli, a generous guest at the studio opening, and an overjoyed European man in New York.

My Favorite Books of 2012

Dear all, Around this time of year, when people are starting to make resolutions, I am often asked for book recommendations. I find this a very difficult request without a knowledge of what you already like: is your beach reading 50 Shades Darker, Bleak House, or In the Woods? Reading is so personal that I am always afraid I'm going to screw up the recommendation and then be hated forever, especially since I read so widely myself that I sometimes wonder if I've lost all sense of what normal boundaries people have.

This year I have decided it would be useful to compile the best books I read. Not the ones that came out-- I probably only read about 10 books that actually came out this year, so I am no authority-- but a personal report on the great stuff I got to peruse for leisure and work. I had a fantastic reading year, although few books truly reduced me to a puddle of gratitude and mind-blowing revelations. Mostly, I read a lot.

Why I Read What I Read:

- The complete works of Judy Blume, for the Twain House

- The complete works of Joan Didion, for the Twain House

- About 10 other books to prepare for other Twain House programs and book clubs

- 20 books for Literary Disco

- The entire Walking Dead series, on a zombie binge

- About 10 books on various vacations

- About 6 audiobooks

- About 15-20 additional books for pleasure

TOTAL: About 125 books (guesstimate: 15 of those are graphic novels and 35 are YA, leaving 75 "regular" books)

So without further ado:

15. The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau (or, Best First Novel)


A harrowing, almost Shakespearian story about an American at war and a middle eastern teenage boy sent to the United States as a refugee, this novel is a little bit mystery, a little bit buildings-roman, and a little bit lyrical novel. Full disclosure: I know the author, Stephen Dau, very well, but when I read this book sitting in a coffee shop in New York (one sitting, rooted to my seat) I completely forgot that I knew who'd written it. I can't believe this is Stephen's first book and I also can't believe more people haven't read it. Most of you will like this book, many of you will love it.

14. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (or, Best Biography, or, Best Book You Got For Christmas Last Year but Haven't Read Yet)


Last Christmas I swiped this from my brother and read most of it before the New Year-- then bought my own copy because I was desperate to know what happened to Woz and the gang. I'm in no way a technophile, but it's hard to resist the intersection of technology, culture, and the cult of personality. Jobs is, famously, unlikeable, and so is the cult of Apple products, but there is absolutely no denying the impact of both on our current culture. Really worth a read, and very quick for a biography. And I dare you not to fall in love with Woz. This book is full of little myths and origin stories that I absolutely promise you will retell over dinner.

13. Treasure Island!!! by Sarah Levine (or, Funniest) Layout 1If you like Girls, you'll like Treasure Island!!! It's the same mix of horrifying awkwardness and a total lack of self-awareness. Imagine if Hannah never even made it to New York because of so many levels of self-denial and bad behavior. Imagine if you stole a parrot. Imagine if you tried to live your life by the principals of a children's adventure story. It's great. Read it. But, if you have no sense of humor about people who are self-absorbed and vaguely shitty, don't read it. First, get a sense of humor, then come back.

12. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil by John Berendt (or, Best Nonfiction)

midnightI'm so late to this party it's not even worth putting this on my list, because you've all probably read it already, but this book is just a spectacular example of lyric nonfiction. Originating as profiles of the weirdos that populate Savannah, this book became a nonfiction mystery when the author found himself friends with a potential murderer. Social and cultural issues are dealt with on the sly, but the real reason to read it is simply the hilarious portraiture of men who walk flies instead of dogs, open up piano bars, and hang Nazi flags for bizarre reasons. Highly recommended for all. I can't think of a person who wouldn't like this book.

11. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (or, Best Young Adult)

tigereyesTiger Eyes rocks. It's the most literary of Blume's works, and came somewhat late in her career. Most of her books take place in my beloved New Jersey, but this one takes its characters out west to a town where bombs are manufactured. Its themes are personal and cultural obliteration. I won't say much more, but this story of grief and a stark landscape should be more popular than it is.

10. Democracy, Joan Didion (or, Best Joan Didion Novel, maybe)joandidiondemocracy

I had a very hard time choosing a single Joan Didion novel. My read-a-thon was quite intense-- I read 2-3 full Didion books a day, in chronological order, so I'm having trouble nailing down one that really stood out on its own. Didion writes obsessively on the same few things in her fiction: politics, depressed women, grief, and colonialism. Democracy is great because the writing is self-conscious and Didion herself is the narrator-- the kind of conceit I adore. Truth be told, I still prefer Didion's nonfiction, but for fiction this encompasses all of her strengths. Side note: all of Didion's books are readable in about 4 hours.

9. The Walking Dead (or, Scariest)

walking-dead Our Literary Disco readers were absolutely clamoring for us to read this, and since I'd seen a bit of the show, I went whole-hog and read 14 Walking Dead graphic novels in three days over Thanksgiving. (About an hour per volume, if you're wondering how big the investment is-- less than the TV show, that's for sure.) There are some truly scary and horrifying drawings, and I'm in love with a few of the settings (namely, a prison). It's worth both reading and watching because the TV show has completely changed the plot-- it's an alternate universe of the same story.

8. Sailor Twain by Mark Segel (or, Best Graphic Novel)

SailorTwain-251x300Drawn with charcoal, this book is dark, Victorian, creepy, and sexual. And it's about mermaids. It's so far from a comic that it feels weird to even put it in the same category. It truly got under my skin and I am now vaguely obsessed with asking myself what my own personal mermaids are.

7. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (or, Best Epic)


A six-part Russian-doll of a book. Mitchell writes in six wildly different styles with such mastery that I'd easily believe they were written by six different people. For someone who adores so many styles of writing, like me, this was such an enjoyable read. When I was most into it, I was getting up at 6 AM so I could read more of it before work. Absolutely loved this one.

6. The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (or, Best Book You Haven't Heard Of)


Read last January when I was at home writing for two weeks. Reduced me to a sobbing mess if you like that sort of thing. This novel looks at one man's long life on the island of Guernsey, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960's. I don't know about you, but the idea of one person living through that span of time absolutely blows my mind, especially in a small community where each change is felt to the core of each resident. A very personal book told in a weird voice, this one is for serious fiction aficionados.

... and for my Top 5, you'll have to wait until our next Literary Disco episode (coming out in about a week!) Then I'll post them in list form. In the meantime, get reading!

-- Julia

26, 28, 30

I watched the story of the Newtown massacre on Twitter. I watched it like it was a movie. No, I watched it like I was in a writers' room for a movie-- narratives being pitched, and heightened, and edited, and then finally fact-checked. It was one story with a million writers. The worst kind of way to write a movie that you are sure everyone is going to see and believe. Over the days, the contradicting stories became evident-- how did the heroic Miss Soto both save her whole class and have half her class killed?-- who was the dead parent in the bedroom?-- was he buzzed in or did he force his way in?-- and bad journalism gave way to good. That was a relief. We ache for one clear story, preferably with a moral. And we all got a story, a dramatic one, and we're in the process of drawing our own morals out of it. None of that is surprising.

I read the obituaries of the kids, their short stories, and I wept at their simplicity and their sweetness. Those obits were so clearly written by parents and siblings in pain. What do you say about a six year old? They loved tacos and hair gel. I think I learned more about the phrase "childhood innocence" reading those obituaries than I have at any other time of my life, including when I was around 5 year olds every day.

People are committing 26 random acts of kindness. I agree this is a nice thing to do. I agree that being kinder and gentler and making people's days is a good impulse and can have a genuine impact. I want to do it. I am at heart an optimist and a pragmatist, which means I want to feel I can do something to have an impact and then things will be incrementally better.

However, I'm not happy with this number 26. There's still a story that hasn't been clarified, and it probably won't, and that story is the most important.

Adam Lanza killed his mother and we don't know why. Not only that, but he'd been estranged (or just out of touch with?) his brother and his father. The family had broken apart for some reason, or reasons, which will likely remain in the realm of speculation forever. I'm not going to guess why. But those four people are important. Somehow, somewhere, that family fell apart and now two of those people are alive and alone and very likely miserable. They must have their family's story running over and over in their heads. I feel tremendously sorry for them.

If we are trying to prevent future massacres due to mental illness, or cruelty, or evil, or rage-- we need to be kind to the future Lanzas. That is the call. That is the harder thing to do, personally and as a nation. The almost-Lanzas deserve our love, so that they will become never-Lanzas.

So do your 26 nice things for those kids.

Then do two for whatever happened in that house that morning, which we will never know. 28.

And then do two more for the remaining family that has to live with knowing that a person they loved turned on the world. 30.

Just my thoughts for the day.

-- Julia

P.S. Let's (Get Married)


Hello everyone,

Last week, I posted a short, bossy little essay about my relationship (actually not something I have written much about at all), and you all seemed to like it. That day, Greg asked me to marry him via post-it and a well-phrased question. (If you read the original Let's post you will appreciate some of the layers of this gesture). Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with happiness and said, "Yes, let's!" So I'm very happy to finally tell you all that we are getting married.

I plan to write about this more at a later date, but as we have been calling and telling people the happy news, I feel fresh waves of gratitude breaking over me every day for all of the people in my life. A relationship does not exist in a vacuum, especially for people that have been together ten years. I attribute my happiness entirely to these wonderful communities of people (you). You all are amazing and inspiring. Thank you so much for getting me to, and through, the best year of my life. Which, I believe, I've said every single year. The happiness just stacks and stacks.

Love and thank you,



For those of you considering falling in love, I recommend the winter. The colder the better. In the winter, when you step outside your dormitory's door for that first date, all you can really see of the person is a pair of eyes under a hat and over a scarf bound at least twice around your neck and mouth and, if it's really, really cold, your nose. As it gets colder out, as the night falls or you go out into the cold again, and again, and again, it takes more boldness to take off a glove and grab onto that oasis of warmth that is another person's hand. And, in my opinion, there is no experience more like love than sitting in the passenger seat of a car while it slowly, imperceptibly heats; the snow on the windshield both falling away naturally and being brushed away, a face coming into view, still bundled. The music is playing but only you can hear it for now-- but you know that, any minute now, that other person is going to get into the car and hear the music you're hearing and turn to you and say, "ready to go?" I recommend being nineteen. I recommend having recently read all of Ovid's Metamorphases, and having words like Daphne and Atalanta at your tongue. If you're enrolled in a survey course on the history of the Western canon, all the better; these are the stories you will relate, told a million times already, and these are the feelings and the adventures you will be deciding your life should have. You will say, in a blurt, "you know, I'm moving to Ghana in a few months to study abroad," because that sort of "you-can't-pin-me-down" attitude has been honed and held closely by you for your entire life. The person that you're walking down the Saratoga streets with will surprise you by saying, "ok," and seeming rather unfazed. Almost as if a mere six months across the world will seem like nothing, later on. He will be wrong. That particular six months will be very important.

But before that will be the first year, all the dates, all the firsts. You'll suffer all the various levels of embarrassment that come with not really knowing a person. He'll help you practice the French you can't remember, and he'll tell you all about what you say in your sleep. It's day after day of learning languages, his, digital, yours, romance. College is all new words. And after all of that you go to Ghana.

I recommend that neither of you have a cell phone, and that facebook doesn't exist. I recommend that you call him three times in six months, from a pay phone, and that each call be five minutes long. This way, you save everything for the letters that have already begun to fly across the world. When you come back, it'll be your first anniversary.

Having laid this groundwork, the second year will be harder: more Shakespeare-- the tragedies now-- and finals for him. Having been apart while still growing, two Daphnes, there is space between your roots. You've traveled now, so you'll think you know everything. You have responsibilities: you're the student supervisor in the library, and he's the IT manger across the room. He leaves you tiny post-it love-notes on your digital punch-in cards. The librarian, complicit in this romance, will always assign you to shelve the reference books over by his desk. This librarian is important: when the twenty-year-olds around you are getting suspicious-- when they tell you-- "I just think he's way too nice"-- this librarian, and other adults, will start telling you what it will take you years to figure out on your own: that he will turn into exactly the kind of nice adult that everyone wishes there are more of. During this winter you'll hit your head lightly and wish that he, and not your mom or your best friend, was there to comfort you, and this is the exact moment that you will realize that you love this person. During this summer you'll go camping and the rain will soak all through the tent and you will both find this hilarious.

In year three, you'll graduate, and you'll leave again, to China. He'll come out to visit for a week and his both his Chinese and his bartering will be better than yours. He'll show you how technology can shorten time and space. Your grandfather, your uncle, and your cat will all die in the first month that you are gone, and he will reassure you.

Year four is when things will start to blur. I recommend moving to New York, and I recommend that he come visit your tiny apartment and share the twin bed you inherited from your grandfather. And then something else will happen that really surprises you: he'll move to London. I recommend viewing this as his turn for an adventure. You, still grandiose, now terribly twenty-three, will write him a letter every single day for 365 days in a row. You'll go and visit Paris, and Barcelona, you'll see statues of Daphne and paintings of Picasso, and you will be very, very happy. You are a ridiculous cliche of a letter-writing, art-appreciating, nice-girl-from-New-York, flying off to see a ridiculous cliche of an innocent abroad. He is learning to be adventurous. You are learning to be serious. It is all ridiculous, and it is all wonderful.

He'll come back to Connecticut, and then-- five years in-- will begin the first real decision you've made together. You will beg him to move to New York. He will beg you to move to Connecticut. I recommend being in a writing program and craving change. You'll go, of course, and it will seem inevitable.

Do not hold on to your pride. Be a twenty-four-year-old waitress with a master's degree who doesn't know what to do with herself. He'll come and sit at your table every night. He will watch you make your own life here and not force you to just be an addendum to his. You will begin to improvise: both the normal, every day, I-have-no-fucking-clue-where-this-life-is-heading way, and in the theatrical-comedy way.

Don't be afraid that you've settled down, because, since that first date "I'm free!" blurt, you will both always understand that there is no settling down. There are solo road trips through sequoias, there are feral kittens that he'll stay up all night trying to comfort. There will be 6:00 AM mornings in Mykonos where you make him get up and walk out to see the windmills, even though it's windy and the sea is choppy. There will be nights when you'll hole up from real hurricanes. There will be terrible sunburns. You will see him, crushed by pity, pay to sponsor a sea turtle that has lost three flippers. There will be years seven, eight, and nine. You will, completely by accident, own a business together, and running that business, he'll surprise you once again with his capacity for work. You'll run a marathon and he'll be at the end with a sandwich.

He will teach you how to be brave when climbing mountains. He will teach you how to get things done. You will teach him how to swim in the ocean. You will teach him to relax. It isn't always good. Sometimes it's raining on the mountains; sometimes there are jellyfish in the water. You will know the back of his head from the vespa, the squeeze of his hand under a table, his laugh, his real laugh. But the main achievement between the two of you will be one small word: Let's.

I recommend saying it often. Let's take the canoe out. Let's keep the kittens. Let's visit our friends. Let's walk home. Let's stay in. Let's go out. Let's put our coats on and go for a walk in the snow. This word is your secret code for everything you want to remind each other: let's always have adventures, let's always be together. It is the word that matters, not distance, not being on an airplane. Not whether it's written in digital or on paper (although you will always have an opinion on that one).

There are many weathers in which to fall in love. There is, of course, no one right way, no one telling of any Roman myth. But even after ten years of summers and springs, even after carving pumpkins, even after submitting to a good rain, and saying "you've got sunblock all over your face," for myself, I will always choose winter. I will always take off my glove and reach it, so briefly, through the cold air until I feel that other ungloved hand.

(For Greg, on our 10th. Love, Julia.)

Swaparoo: The Finish!

Hello everyone, Special treat for those of you who are getting tired of me. My good friend Steph, who is in Sea Tea Improv with me and with whom I share a sense of the ridiculous, has engaged in a good old-fashioned blog swap with me today. We were both attempting to post every day for the month of November (I failed... but the day's not over yet!). I wrote about hobbies over at her blog, Hooked on Hobbies, and she wrote about what's on her mind, like I tend to do. (Do I have a tendency? I have no idea. I'm really just making this up.)

Please enjoy her thoughts, and go check out her blog for my post about not having hobbies, and more useful topics like knitting fingerless gloves!

-- Julia


I like finishing things. I know that everyone does, but in my head where I am the star of my own life story, I like to think I get even more pleasure from it then most people. I enjoy the entire experience of getting from nothing to finished. From the first incremental steps, to the often infuriating middle area (which always feels like it takes twice as long as every other part), to the final rush to "complete". That tipping point where the end is just in sight can often create in me an obsessive single-mindedness. There have been many days where I stayed late at work because I didn't want to leave in the middle of an assignment, many nights where I didn't sleep because I was "so close" to finishing the book I was reading, and many weekends where I have started some hobby project on a Friday only to get tunnel vision until suddenly its Sunday night and I haven't done anything else for two whole days.

The joy of being done has a dark side, though...being haunted by the "unfinished".

I started doing Taekwon-do when I was in middle school and progressed well through the ranks over the years. In the beginning of 2004, I had a high red belt on my waist and was faced with the reality of moving to New Jersey for college in a few months. I delighted in the idea that I had just enough time to earn and test for my black belt. I would be "finished" just in time for college. Unexpectedly, though, the school closed in the middle of the planning for my test. This is the first time I can remember being so close to a goal and not getting there....the anger and frustration are still fresh and raw in my mind these 8 years later.

Many aspects of my life now often suffer the same fate. When I first started crafting I worked on one thing at a time, until it was done. Now I have more projects then I want to confess to in various stages of completion, and though it is unbelievably difficult to admit...I know that some of these projects will never get finished. I've got a large cross stitching project stashed away I haven't looked at in months. Practicing guitar, which really has no "done" point, is something I keep meaning to do more of. I've got stacks of books I want to read, and don't want to consider that I never will. All these unfinished things are like burrs under my skin. I try not to think about them, hoping the disappointment and irritation of the undone will go away.

More recently I've tried giving myself personal challenges with a clear start and end. "Run a total of forty miles this month" I think to myself. Ok. Bit by bit the miles add up in my google document keeping track until I have only 3 left. It makes me get out of bed when I am tired, makes me run even when I don't want to, and I pat myself on the back when I am done. "Post in your blog everyday for a month" I think. Ok. Entry after entry I write, not with the most care or effort, but because each little bit adds up to something. Anything. And after 30 days and 30 posts I've completed something.

Each finished thing is like a shot of joy, accomplishment and adrenaline. I get addicted to the finish. When one project is completely successful, I seek out another. The other side to that coin is that it sometimes feels like the only thing that is getting me through each subsequent thing I need to do, is the energy I got from finishing the last....much like swinging from vine to vine, the momentum is the main thing that keeps me moving forward. So what, then, is to keep me pushing forward when there is no end in sight?

I've noticed more and more that so much of my life can't be placed within a start and a finish. I am starting my career now, no longer working for a summer or on a yearly contract or a two week temp job...but from "a while ago" to "who knows when". My assignments at work are no longer as tactily clear in showing completion as "grade this finite stack of tests" or "finish filing this paperwork" was. If /when I get married or have children, I will never stop being a mother or a wife (that's the plan, at least). A large part of my life these past two years has been trying to eat healthier and get into better shape. Although setting calorie limits or a goal weight to hit has helped me on my way, I had a startling realization the other day: I will never be finished. If I want to stay healthy and fit then this whole "watching what I eat and exercising", just like this whole "having a career", just like this "worrying about money", just like so many facets of living...they are now just a part of my life. Forever unfinished.