Thursday, March 27, 2014
On underwater photographer Norbert Wu - Photos to (Almost) Die For
On boutique hotelier Chip Conley - The Karmic Capitalism of Chip Conley
On improv professor Patricia Ryan - Making It Up as They Go Along
On international water and sewage expert Jenna Davis - 646 Very Personal Questions
On psychiatrist David D. Burns - Mind Over Misery
and also on Burns - Try, Try Again
On archaeologist Ian Hodder - What Happened Here?
and also on Hodder - Why Dig?
and - Archaeology's Bottom Line
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
I never intended to write a bestseller. During my wife's pregnancy, I kept a journal in which I recorded our fears, hopes and concerns -- all written to our unborn child. Several years later, I realized the thousands of words I had scribbled might make a fine gift. I would edit them down, bind them and present a book to Nina in time for our fifth anniversary. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that other readers, particularly first-time expectant parents, might find the account as compelling as I did. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions and the What to Expect series sold millions. Maybe my book could, too.
Nina was considerably less enthusiastic. She didn't want strangers reading about how she had been rolled off to the operating room for an abortion after we had been told our embryo was "nonviable" -- only to learn, moments before the procedure, that a critical lab test had been misinterpreted. But when I hinted that, if the book sold well, I might feel comfortable springing for the marquis-cut diamond engagement ring she's always wanted, she relented. I wrapped up copies of the manuscript and committed their fate to the postal service. Thus began my journey from cellulose and traditional publishing to the silicon frontier.
Within a few weeks, the rejection letters started to trickle in. One agent wrote, "You take the story beyond the merely personal," while another commented, "Its contents felt a bit too personal." And yet another said it was difficult to sell books by fathers. (No doubt what Bill Cosby was told.) About this time Salon, the online magazine, published an excerpt from the book. A few days later, I called my editor at Salon to find out how many people had "clicked through."
Forty thousand, I was told to my complete astonishment. My mental calculator began churning -- if 1 percent of those people were to buy my book, then tell 50 of their friends, and 1 percent of those friends bought it -- and pretty soon I was spending my afternoons chatting it up with Oprah.
It was while these sugarplums danced in my head that I first heard of eMatter.com and experienced a literary harmonic convergence. With eMatter, I could list my book on the web and buyers could download it electronically. I could set my own price, $6.95, and eMatter would pay me a handsome 50 percent royalty. I formatted my manuscript as instructed and uploaded it to eMatter.
Two weeks later, my book had sold exactly one copy.
Undeterred, I sent out an e-mail announcement to several hundred friends and former colleagues, plus several dozen people I hardly knew, and waited for word to reach Oprah.
She didn't get in touch, but lots of other people did. They had tried to buy my book but couldn't find it. Or found it but couldn't download it. Or downloaded it but couldn't open it. Some hadn't read the fine print that said eMatter's software did not yet work with Apple or UNIX systems. Soon I was in much closer touch with the technical staff at eMatter than with my nascent readership.
With new glitches turning up almost daily, I was completely surprised when I found How to Have a Baby at No. 8 on eMatter's bestseller list. I called a friend to tell him the good news.
"How do they calculate bestsellers?" he asked. "Hourly, daily, weekly?" I e-mailed eMatter. "Daily," the answer came back. In other words, my No. 8 bestseller was No. 8 for a day. That day.
Two months later, eMatter selected How to Have a Baby as its "editor's pick." My book then captured the top spot on eMatter's recommended list. Still, sales stagnated. A mention of eMatter in the New York Times didn't blip my book at all. Two five-star reviews did nothing. It dropped to No. 11.
Still, I had great hopes for the following month. EMatter, now called MightyWords, was running large ads in national newspapers and publications like the New Yorker. My book was featured on MightyWords' parenting page along with "an exclusive interview with author Robert L. Strauss." Also three feature stories of mine were to run in quick succession in the San Francisco Examiner Magazine, each with a blurb for the book. I expected to sell several hundred copies. Then Stephen King stole my thunder.
When King released Riding the Bullet over the web, he cause parts of the Internet to freeze as hundreds of thousands attempted to download his book. The same month, my book had been mentioned three times in one of the country's most widely read newspapers.
I sold one copy.
More than ever, I was determined to get How to Have a Baby to No. 1. I not only wanted to unseat Solo Explorations in Male Masturbation by Will Stark; I wanted to surpass Nine Things to Know About Permission Marketing on the Net by Seth Godin, the marketing guru and a graduate school classmate. Seth was a born go-getter who'd already sold his company to Yahoo! for $60 million. His wife, no doubt, already had her ring.
Frenzied by this rediscovered sense of competition, I sent a new e-mail to everyone whose address had ever slipped into my computer. All those endlessly forwarded Internet jokes? I'd been hoarding the recipients' e-mail addresses for weeks, including those of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm.
The responses came fast and furious. More than a few went something like, "I don't know who you are, but you're a jerk for invading my privacy and wasting my time." This is how I discovered an Internet rule of thumb. For every profane, irate message I received, I sold a book. The ratio was exactly one to one.
Still, seven days later, Seth's book was No. 3 and mine was No. 23. Soon, it sank beneath the horizon, never to reappear.
A year to the day after I gave Nina the original copy of How to Have a Baby, I received my first royalty check.
"How much is it for?" she asked.
"One hundred four dollars and 25 cents," I told her.
"Oh, that'll get me a ring," she said. "From a vending machine."
According to the anniversary list we use, our 75th will be "diamond." I have asked her to be patient.
The very next day I received an e-mail from my brother-in-law. Did I know about Xlibris.com? he asked. They publish real books, on paper, one at a time, on demand. They list their titles with Amazon. All I had to do was upload my manuscript. Within days I received galleys for proofing. Xlibris had prepared the layout and a very attractive four-color cover, and gotten me an ISBN number. For free. Incredible.
The timing couldn't have been better. I had another feature coming out in the Examiner Magazine. My editor again agreed to blurb my book. Certainly if people could buy How to Have a Baby in paperback, that would make all the difference. Sure. Maybe. Someday.
Until then, I'll have to live with what I've learned from my plunge into the world of digital self-publishing. That readers are not yet confusing me with Stephen King. That while people might love to read things on the net for free, they rarely "click through" when asked to pay. I've come to understand that maybe writing should be left to writers and publishing to publishers. And why publicists go to self-humiliating lengths to get a client on Oprah or Charlie Rose.
I originally called the book To My Child Unborn. When readers told me that was too serious, I changed titles. Now, having sold all of 43 copies, I think maybe that first title was right. As I said, I never intended to write a bestseller.
A version of this story first appeared in the September/October 2000 edition of Stanford magazine.
Friday, August 26, 2011
It was another one of those endless meetings. That it was in French only made it more insufferable. As my francophone colleagues blathered on, I made sure to make empathetic eye contact and nod my head appreciatively—even though at least half the conversation was as indecipherable to me as if it had been in a language spoken only by an undiscovered Amazonian tribe. Nevertheless, I was sure that my practiced bobble-heading would convince everyone that I was not only fully absorbed in the discussion but worth whatever outlandish consulting fee I was charging. That was until someone mentioned mis à jour.
Mis à jour, mis à jour what the hell does mis à jour mean? Soup du jour throws me for no loops, but about mis à jour—suddenly the main item on the menu of discussion—I had no idea.
"Don't you agree, RO-bear, that the mis à jour should be our top priority?" the boss asked.
"Oui, oui. Bien sûr," I said, while casually trying to look up mis à jour on my mobile phone French-English dictionary, which appeared to have been last updated shortly before Robespierre was led to the guillotine.
When I think of the attributes that have led to whatever success I may have had, pretending to know what I'm talking about figures very high on the list. The times I have only just escaped must number in the hundreds. I'm still astounded that no one has ever looked me dead in the eye and said, "You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"
Faking it was also a key ingredient in my premarital social life. Arriving at Stanford nearly 30 years ago, I quickly scoped out my grad school classmates and invited one of the cutest over for a home-cooked dinner. Not only was she just adorable, but she was witty and smart, having studied math before going to work on Wall Street where—she told me—she used to make models.
Despite having an undergraduate degree in economics, I had no idea why models were needed on Wall Street. As a child, I had been a complete flop at them, forever gumming up my fingers and the little plastic pieces of whatever tank or aircraft carrier I was trying to assemble. As for applying the cellophane-like decals—there I was completely hopeless.
She, however, had been building models to Wall Street's satisfaction and, though we had only just met, already I could see her assembling complicated plastic replicas of multi-engine World War II bombers with our enthralled son. Or, rather, our twin sons. It was love.
Months later, in an introductory finance class, I realized to my great disappointment that the models she knew how to build had as their ingredients dry facts and figures gleaned from SEC filings and not from the boxes of the Revell company.
Still, it was while at Stanford that I set my personal record—21 months—for pretending I knew what people were talking about when I had absolutely no idea. Much like mis à jour, the term that I didn't understand seemed to be fundamental to modern business practices and well established in everyone else's vocabulary.
It's been said there's nothing stupid about a question except not asking it. Experience has taught me otherwise. Indeed, asking about this particular mot inconnu seemed to me akin to asking where the sun rose—and would certainly have had the admissions office reassessing my status.
Whenever a professor or classmate mentioned it, my hand did not bolt up to ask what they were talking about. In those days before the Internet, my research led nowhere. Maps were as clueless as I was. Asking a librarian for help would have presented me with the same acute embarrassment I had felt as a teenager asking a pharmacist for condoms.
Of course, just as I eventually learned what mis à jour means, I now know where to find Silicon Valley. After all, it's right there on Google Earth.
A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2011 edition of Stanford magazine.
Monday, August 8, 2011
Life in the city wasn't working for us. The dream apartment we had searched months to find turned out to be next door to a group of heavy metal grunge rockers we soon got to know as the Subterraneans. All night the walls of our bedroom throbbed, not with the rhythms of our young marriage, but with the penetrating drone of electric bass.
Outside, the city was no more welcoming. The despair and impotence we felt over graffiti marred buildings and busses was compounded by gray winter rains and streets filled with the homeless.
When our car was broken into and ransacked for the third time, no one seemed to sympathize with our distress. It was the price of city living, we were told, one we could expect to pay regularly.
“I don't want to live like this,” Nina said as we waited for the smashed car window to be replaced. It was a sentiment I had heard from many friends who felt trapped in white collar jobs they didn't enjoy and upwardly mobile life styles they found unfulfilling.
“Well, what do you want?” I asked her.
She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes. “I don't know,” she said. Frustrated and angry, she swirled her arms around to indicate everything that surrounded us. The noise, the crime, the congestion and the grime. “I just know I don't want to live like this.”
That night the Subterraneans were particularly loud. Neither of us could fall asleep. We had pounded on the wall, rang their bell, left notes on their doorstep but all to no effect. “I can't stand this,” Nina said throwing back the covers. She stalked out of the room.
I heard the plink of the television going on followed by the rapid fire surfing of channels.
“C'mere,” she called.
“What is it?” I asked. She didn't answer but as I walked down the hallway I recognized the unmistakable Hungarian-Hollywood accent of one of the Gabor sisters. On television, Eva was modeling some new fashion for Eddie Arnold. “Oliver dahlink. Vhat do you zink?” she asked.
Nina pointed her finger at the television. “Green Acres!” she said. “That's where I want to be.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, half asleep. We were newlyweds, still able to perplex each other several times a day.
Nina shook her palms at me, frustrated that I didn't catch on right away. “Are you satisfied with how we're living?” she asked, her hands trembling. “Are you happy?”
It was too late to try to begin such an unsettling discussion. We had talked many times about leaving California, at least urban California, but we didn't know where to go. Or what work we would do. Both of us are city kids. Nina is a native San Franciscan. Trips to the country were strictly matters of passing through rural areas to get to a city on the other side. Yet the longer we were “home,” the more despondent we were about being here.
We knew others had abandoned the city for quiet towns in the Sierra foothills or in Oregon or Washington State. Our problem was that every place we considered seemed less appealing than the Bay Area. If we were unhappy here, we felt we'd only be miserable someplace else.
City life wasn't all bad. There were beautiful days when we visited museums and parks, went to concerts, or watched obscure movies and plays found only in the great cities. But more of our time was spent locking doors, stuck in traffic, walking defensively, battling neighbors for parking, avoiding eye contact with passers-by, and feeling angry over the lack of civility and common respect that seemed to define everyday encounters. Drop by drop, our excitement for city living was draining away.
Before our marriage, Nina had worked at a homeless social services agency for seven years. I'd worked as a consultant with dozens of non-profit organizations. We knew that we didn't have to give up on society, but we also knew the personal cost of actively working for its improvement. All we wanted was to spend our first year together building the bonds of our marriage, planning our future, and extending the honeymoon.
But in the city, the magic between us was dwindling. Each time we discussed starting a family one of us would ask, “Why would we want to bring up a kid here?” We could never find a satisfying answer.
Back on the tube Eddie Arnold was screwing up his face with his trademark “Oh come on” look over something Eva had just said. I gave Nina the same pained look, not knowing how to escape the urban trap that seemed to be shrinking around us.
“So what do you want to do?” I asked her. She bounced up and gave me a hug, all smiles. “Farm living is the life for me,” she sang out.
“But we don't know a thing about farming,” I said, trying to humor her.
“Didn't you tell me you were interested in agriculture as a kid?” Nina answered. Before I could say anything, she was leafing through my childhood scrapbooks.
“See, right here,” she said, jabbing her finger at a yellowing scrap of paper. “Occupational plan, first choice – Agriculture!” She was pointing to the Ohio Vocational Interest Survey I had taken as a ninth grader in 1971. “Ninety-fifth percentile,” Nina noted. “Don't you see? You were born to be a farmer.”
What my wife didn't know was when I took the test I was more interested in roto-tilling my parents' environmentally incorrect lawn than I was in planting anything.
Nina took my OVIS results as some type of genetic proof that I am a direct descendant of Mr. Green Jeans. “The reason you're unhappy is you've been denying your destiny,” she told me. Satisfied that she had found the answers to our urban woes, Nina began leafing through back issues of Martha Stewart Living, apparently to better prepare us for a life on the land.
I didn't think either one of us could survive in the country, that after a few days in a small town we'd be pining for the craziness of city living that we claimed had been driving us crazy. But Nina was insistent. She wanted to give farm living a try.
I called my friend Cynthia at the California Farm Bureau in Sacramento. The Farm Bureau represented 70,000 farmers and ranchers across the state. I figured one of them might be willing to help us out.
I explained to Cynthia that we felt increasingly alienated in the city and wanted to take care of someone's farm for a few days, maybe a week. “You want to take care of a farm?” she said.
“That's right,” I told her, nodding confidently to Nina. I felt like hooking my thumbs in my overalls except that I was still in my bathrobe at 11 AM.
“Well, I know someone who has an ant farm you could take care of,” she said before bursting out with a guffaw worthy of Mister Ed.
“No, I'm serious,” I told her. “We want to, you know, live on a farm for a few days and then be left in charge. So we can get an idea of what it would be like.”
Cynthia explained that no sane farmer would ever let two concrete pounders like us take over. Maybe she could help us find someone who might let us work on a farm for a few days.
“What kind of farm are you looking for?” she asked.
We hadn't thought that far yet. I put the phone down. “What kind of farm are we looking for?” I asked Nina.
We talked for a few minutes. We decided livestock was out. Although we're both meat eaters, we felt squeamish about raising crops we might have to kill. Fruits, vegetables and flowers seemed passive and boring. “I don't know,” I told Cynthia. “What do you recommend?”
“What about llamas?” she asked. “I know some llama farmers.” I relayed her suggestion to Nina.
“They spit, don't they?” Nina said.
“No llamas,” I told Cynthia.
“All right. How about ostriches? I know a pretty neat ostrich farmer who might let you help out.”
“How about ostriches?” I asked Nina. “No,” she said. “I had a bad experience once with a rooster.” I thought about this for a moment, then decided the rooster incident was something I didn't need to know more about.
“Poultry is out,” I told Cynthia.
“Well, there's sheep and goats,” she said.
“How about sheep or goats?” I asked Nina.
“You and sheep?” Nina said. “I don't think so. But goats, goats sound good.”
Cynthia gave me the numbers of a few members of the California Dairy Goat Association, a group I had not encountered in Safeway. I started calling around, explaining that we were a newlywed couple trying to get out of the city and that we wanted to help run a farm.
“You wanna do what?” they all said. “Let me get back to you.” Eventually I was referred to a place on the Santa Cruz coast.
“You want to work for me?” Nancy Gaffney of the Sea Stars Goat Cheese Farm asked. “For free?”
“Yes,” I told her. “We want to come and learn about farm living.”
“Well, come on down. I'll put you to work,” she said in a way that made me wonder what we might be getting into.
I gave Nina the thumbs up. “We're in,” I told her.
Over dinner that night, Nina produced a small tub of goat cheese. As she slowly spread it around her cracker, I noted a lessening in her enthusiasm for farming.
“I was just thinking, you know, that maybe we should visit the farm before we really go to work there,” she said.
We arranged to meet Nancy on a Monday morning. Just driving out of the city and along the Santa Cruz coast relieved some of my pent-up anxiety. The road was empty. The fields on the bluffs above the ocean had recently been tilled. Even in the car, we could smell the richness of the earth in the fields' nut-brown furrows, something we never sensed in the city. Once we got close, it wasn't difficult to pick out Sea Stars. It was the place with 70 goats all pressed up against the fence trying to catch a whiff of the strangers.
A slender woman with wind-whipped hair and steel blue eyes came out. “So you're the honeymooners,” Nancy said.
I explained to her that we had actually been married for nearly a year and, if things worked out, we'd be spending our first anniversary on the farm. “Well,” Nancy said, “We're still calling you the honeymooners.”
Still the frenetic urbanites, we'd only scheduled enough time to make sure we liked Nancy and that she was okay with us. We followed her around as she supervised work already underway.
Nancy explained to two farm hands what she wanted done with a certain pile of compost.
“See,” she said, “this stuff (the compost) is still too hot for the garden.” The workers were Spanish speakers from the neighboring Brussels sprout farm. To clarify her point, Nancy plunged her hands into the fresh compost and held up some of the decomposing manure. “You see, it's too hot for the garden. Demasiado caliente,” she said.
Apparently Martha Stewart handles her compost differently than Nancy because Nina found this hands-on demonstration absolutely riveting. “You see,” I whispered to her, “This is what organic farming is all about.”
“It's organic all right,” Nina said as she headed for the car.
By the time we left Sea Stars I was thinking that maybe our time on the farm wouldn't be too bad. Nancy seemed amused and excited by the prospect of having us around. The farm itself was beautiful, an odd shaped acre squeezed between the coast highway and the bluffs above the ocean. The goats were as friendly as puppies and cuter than stuffed animals. Nina was surprisingly quiet on the way home.
“What are you thinking?” I asked.
“We're going to need some of those tall rubber boots,” she said. “And gloves. I want lots of gloves.”
Nancy told us to bring clothes that we didn't care about. We pulled out every piece of clothing we owned.
Nina packed a pair of Playtex gloves, then went to the kitchen for two more. I packed long underwear. “Where do you think we're going?” she asked.
“What if I have to go outside and round up the flock in the cold?” I asked her.
“Herd,” she said disdainfully. “Goats come in herds. Poultry come in flocks. Believe me. I know.”
Undaunted, I packed the long underwear.
“Since when do you know what it's like on a farm?” I asked.
“I don't,” she answered. “And I'm sure if I did, I wouldn't be going.”
I didn't remind her whose idea this had been in the first place.
On our way to the farm, we stopped at a hardware store for gloves and rubber boots. Nina took a pair of supple leather gloves from the shelf. “These are the kind Martha recommends for garden work,” she said. I looked at the label.
“I don't know. Do you think it's a good idea to show up wearing goatskin?” I asked. She changed them for a less fashionable pair of cloth work gloves.
That evening we stopped for dinner at a Mexican restaurant on the north side of Santa Cruz. “Look!” Nina said, “They have birria on the menu. That's barbecued goat meat.” I stared at her until she recognized her faux pas. Horrified, she threw her hands over her mouth as though she had let out the family's dirtiest secret. We ordered chicken.
We arrived at the farm at 6:58 the next morning. A bright faced woman we had not met before asked, “Are you the honeymooners?” I threw Nina a glance and stifled her before she could say something like, “Yeah, that's right. I'm Alice and this is Ralph. Where's Norton?” That kind of quip might have worked in the city, but now we were in the country. Nancy was doing us a favor. I wanted to ruffle as few feathers as possible.
“Yup,” I said. "That's us.” We told her about our interest in leaving the city.
“I think what you're doing is great,” Lisa said, welcoming us as though we were old friends. “But are you sure you want to wear that?” she said. She was talking about our carefully selected clothes.
Evidently white, no matter how old and worn, is not the best color for goat work. We explained that our recent color analysis revealed that white wasn't a good color for either of us. We figured farming was a good way to thin our wardrobe.
While Lisa was absorbing the logic of our fashion statement Nancy appeared, coffee in hand. “Morning,” she said. She looked us over. “Are you sure you want to wear that?” she asked. We explained our reasoning again. “Okay,” Nancy said. She put us in Lisa's charge for the morning.
Pippi Longstocking would have felt right at home at Sea Stars. The farm is a collection of ramshackle structures made of weathered wood painted in purples and violet. Geraniums, fuchsias, calla lilies, and nasturtium grew everywhere. Tall, conical, purple “towers of jewels” lined the road, their pointy tops bent under the weight of new buds. Like Nancy, Sea Stars seemed to have a 1960s, “small is beautiful” wonderment about it.
The farm was brimming with new life. Nancy's samoyed had had puppies. The cat had had kittens. Forty baby goats had been born in the past two months. Altogether there was a lot of yelping, mewing, scampering, barking and frolicking going on.
In a small pasture the lone billy goat grazed with his harem of yearlings. The baby goats were kept in a different area. Pregnant does were in still another part of the farm. The milk goats had their own plot. A meandering series of fences and gates kept everyone happily segregated. Only the cat wandered wherever she wanted. Her litter stayed in the office.
Our first task was to round up the goats for milking. Most were already waiting. Lisa ran behind the few stragglers, clapping her hands. She lost her footing and did a Pete Rose style head first slide in the slick grass.
As she got up and wiped off her hands without a second thought, Nina and I both realized that a farm is a farm whether it's goats or cows or chickens. There's a lot of by-product involved with the production of goat cheese. It's not all curds and whey. “Glad I brought those gloves,” Nina said to me.
Once we had the goats corralled, it was time to feed the babies. We poured warm goat milk into four “milkbars,” plastic buckets rimmed with nipples, and headed back outside.
The instant we entered their pen, the babies vied for every nipple. They chased after us on hind legs. They jumped on our backs. They jumped on each other. They jumped on top of the milkbars. Finally, most found their way to a nipple. Soon they settled down to feeding. The farm filled with slurping, suckling noises.
“Omigod, they're so cute,” Nina said. She looked at me. “I'm so glad you made me do this.” Any doubts we had about being on the farm were melting away.
A few babies hadn't quite gotten the sucking habit down. Lisa told us to direct mouths to nipples.
I reached down to pick up a kid. What I thought was animal turned out to be fluff and air. She couldn't have weighed ten pounds. She sucked air until I put her before an empty nipple.
By then the pen was in pandemonium, a slurping, jostling mayhem. The babies nursed so vigorously the milkbars nearly toppled over. And then it was done. In a minute they had drained every drop.
Ten yards away, in another enclosure, six very young baby goats watched our every move. They knew they were next.
I opened the gate and Nina entered with their milkbar. They followed at her heels waiting for breakfast. A small chocolate brown goat, that looked just like a stuffed animal come to life, took a few swallows and then walked away.
“This one's not eating,” Nina said.
Lisa picked it up. “What the matter Spontaneity?” she asked.
Nancy had named this year's babies after positive virtues. The goats that were clamoring over us had names like Serenity, Nobility, Peace, Harmony, Joy and Love. We tried to feed Spontaneity with a bottle, but she wouldn't take it. “We'll try again later,” Lisa said.
Not far away 30 alpine goats with full udders waited for us. We walked through them to get to the milking pen, which was a confusion of oddly shaped kettles, metal levers and weights on pulleys. The whole thing looked as though it had been designed by the combined madness of Rube Goldberg and Dr. Seuss. The gaggle of air lines and hoses that made up the automatic milking system sputtered and wheezed as an old vacuum pump chugged in the background. We let in the first four goats.
Before we could hook them up to the machinery, we had to get them started by hand. Lisa explained that the key to milking is a good pinch in which the top of the teat is clamped between the thumb and the base of the index finger, much the way one holds chopsticks. With the clamp in place, the other fingers press down and force the milk out.
I made a thorough study of the udder before me. The two teats hung down like the distended thumb and pinkie of a rubber glove filled with water. I stretched out my hands and cracked my knuckles, a concert pianist about to give a great performance.
I put my hands on the teats. I pinched. I clamped. I squeezed. Nothing. Then I felt the milk squirt the wrong way, upstream, back into the udder. The goat began to fidget and kick at my hands. Neither Nina nor I could express a drop. After three minutes, I wanted to run my hands over my face in frustration like Curly might have in a “Three Stooges on the Farm” episode. “Pinch harder,” Lisa advised. I did.
“That's a great pinch,” Lisa said as though I had just learned the secret of throwing a curve ball. A fine stream of warm milk shot down my shirt.
Once all four goats were primed, we hooked them up and let the machine take over. The milk surged through clear plastic hoses into two over-sized stainless steel kettles.
Once the machines got what they could, we had to finish the milking by hand. Lisa's practiced pinch and squeeze brought forth thick streams of milk. Her pail rang out with the “zing-zang” of liquid against metal. Helpless, Nina and I looked at each other in frustration. We were only getting dribs and drabs.
“Pinch, pull, press. Pinch, pull, press,” I said to myself trying to find a beat. Goat by goat I began to get the hang of it. Done properly, I could feel the entire teat drain, then fill the instant I released my pinch. Every now and then I got it just right and the milk would shoot into the pail with the satisfying beat of a metronome.
When both kettles were full we took a break. Nina was massaging her forearms. “What time is it?” she asked. “I'm ready for lunch.” I looked at my watch.
“Nine-thirty,” I told her.
“I'm sure you're kidding,” she said. But I wasn't. And we'd milked only half the herd.
In a large dairy the milk flows directly from the animal to a cooling system, but in a small operation like Nancy's much was left to hand. Lisa opened the drain plugs on the kettles. Two-inch thick streams of warm, pure milk flowed into waiting buckets.
Careful not to slip on any by-product, I carried the two buckets and their seventy pounds of milk inside. Lisa prepped the cooling unit with a large paper filter. All I had to do was pour.
I raised a bucket high, slowly moving it toward the huge funnel. Only I didn't raise it high enough. The bottom bumped against the side of the cooler. Milk, the milk that had taken us ninety minutes to collect and the goats all night to produce, sloshed over the top of the bucket and down the cooling tank onto the concrete floor. Nina looked at me stricken. I lost at least a gallon. And each milking only produced 14 to 16 gallons. Lisa took the bucket and showed me how to pour without losing a drop. “No sense crying over spilled milk,” I heard her say. But that's just what I felt like doing.
It took us an hour to finish the rest of the herd. We found ourselves talking to them as though they were humans. “Come on honey. Quit fooling around. All right sweetie,” we said, trying to coax them quickly in and out of the milking stations. Each goat seemed to have a personality. Lisa spoke to them by name. We just stroked them and tried to seem at ease.
When the last goat was milked it was time to clean up. While Nina and Lisa washed the equipment, I took a broom and shovel and began cleaning the concrete corral where the goats had waited.
It was the first time I had been alone since work began. With the compressor off, with the goats fed and milked, the farm was quiet. In the distance, I could see the surf building on the ocean. Farm living might not be so bad I found myself thinking. Then I turned to the task before me.
Animal feed often comes in a pelletized form and the goats deliver pellets in return. Their abundant droppings, smooth and spherical, range in size from individual pearls to grape-like clusters. After a morning of waiting, the once neat scat had been trampled to a gooey green slime dusted with goat hair. I heard Nina mutter, “Don't you think they could be taught to go in the corner?” I put the thick blade of the shovel to the concrete and began scraping.
Although an ocean breeze was blowing, the air filled with the fermenting scent of half digested alfalfa blended with urea. I carried away shovelful after shovelful.
Weeks earlier I had attended the 10th reunion of my Stanford University Business School class. Around the swimming pool of a classmate's Atherton summer estate, I listened as my former classmates discussed promotions, start-ups, initial public offerings, and other forms of high finance wheeling and dealing.
Hearing them discuss the difficulty of juggling careers, family, and personal interests, my mind began racing with questions about the type of life I wanted for Nina and me. The sixty-hour work weeks my classmates were lamenting just didn't seem to leave much time for anything other than work. After ten years, I wanted a change from independent management consulting for non-profit organizations and small businesses. I wondered what kind of career would give us the time we wanted for us and the income we needed to get by.
I went to see a career counselor. She listened to my experience, gave me a vocational interest questionnaire, and told me to come back in a week.
Perhaps I should have told her about my OVIS results because now I was at the other end of a shovel full of heavy, oozing, animal waste. Maybe it was therapeutic for Eddie Arnold. I was no longer sure if farming was for me.
“Hey Nina!” I called out to Nina, “Don't you think you should give this a try?” Not wanting to back down from a dare, she sneered at me, took the shovel, and scooped a load. Just then Nancy came out.
“So, what do you think of farming?” she asked. Nina emptied her shovel into the compost barrel.
“It's a lot like marriage,” Nina said.
After lunch we began “tubbing” cheese. Suzanne, a neighbor who works part-time, showed us how to fill five-ounce plastic containers with a serving spoon. She explained the importance of neither over or under filling them. Any air pockets or spillage would lead to premature molding and shortened shelf life.
After forty minutes neither one of us had filled a tub properly. Each time we tried to put on a lid, cheese would sneak up into the rim and down the outside. All we had to show for our work were a dozen tubs that needed to be emptied and sanitized.
As a consultant, my expertise had been in helping small businesses operate more efficiently. Unable to “tub” five ounces of cheese, I began thinking about ways to re-engineer Sea Stars.
The MBA side of my brain began redesigning and mechanizing the whole farm. I had visions of hundreds of containers whizzing by each second as Sea Stars threatened the market share of Kraft's Philadelphia brand cream cheese. For a moment, I felt like the Tim Robbin's character in the movie The Player who cynically suggests at a brain-storming meeting that if Hollywood executives could only get rid of directors, actors, and writers making movies would be a snap. I began to think likewise, that if I could just eliminate the manual labor, the tubs, the goats and their by-product, there'd be nothing to farming or making cheese.
Eventually I got the hang of tubbing, but not before my wrists burned with what I was sure was carpal tunnel syndrome. I began filling tubs faster and faster to see how far ahead of Nina I could get. Suzanne, the youngest looking mother of five I had ever seen, watched me with bemusement. “Hey Robert,” she said. “Take it easy. Remember, it's just about cheese.” Obviously Suzanne didn't have an MBA.
After four hours Nina and I had packed 35 pounds of cheese, one hundred little tubs that would sell for $3.50 each. Before we got to the farm, Nina had complained about how expensive goat cheese was. Now with our forearms, wrists, backs and necks aching, she said, “You know, $3.50 is starting to look like a bargain.” The next day Nancy came in to help with tubbing. We watched in awe as she packed the same amount of cheese in under 30 minutes.
By 5 PM, we had put in a ten-hour day. I felt that if we really wanted to be farmers we should stay for the evening milking. Nancy told us we'd done enough for our first day. Besides it was our first anniversary. “Have you been down to the beach?” she asked.
The beach was a tiny one, squeezed in between a small break in the ocean bluffs and the Brussels sprout fields. We watched the late afternoon surf. In the distance we could see a few sailboats on Monterey Bay. “What do you think?” I asked Nina. “Do you think you could do this?”
“I don't know,” she answered. I didn't know either but what I had expected to be a slapstick fiasco was beginning to look like a real life style option. As the day had gone on, I found myself occasionally walking in my rubber boots with a cowboy swagger. During quiet moments I stood with my arms akimbo and proudly looked out over the herd and the farm as though they were my own.
That evening we unwrapped the last piece of our wedding cake. Nina told me not to expect much, that after a year in the freezer, it might have picked up a few odd smells. “So have we,” I told her. The cake was delicious. We poured two glasses of champagne, drank half and collapsed.
Tuesday morning the first alarm went off at 4:55 AM. Reaching for it I realized every muscle and tendon in my body had shrunk by half. I was one dull ache. I could barely move. The back-up alarm went off at 5. We were still in bed when the alarm on my watch went off at 5:05.
“I hate her,” Nina groaned as we finally got out of bed.
“Who?” I wondered out loud.
“Martha Stewart,” Nina said. “She never said anything about getting up at this ungodly hour.”
Our second day of milking, supervised by Ana, an eighteen-year old community college student, went more smoothly. With the exception of one skittish and stubborn old goat named Paulette, we were able to get the herd done in under two hours.
In the babies' pen, things weren't as good. Spontaneity was still not eating. She suckled Nina's finger up to the third knuckle but wouldn't take the bottle. “She's a little hot,” Nancy said, feeling her nose. While Nancy went for some aspirin, Val, another friend and part-time employee, put Spontaneity across her lap and look a rectal temperature just as one would do with a human baby. Nina stroked the little kid's coat trying to comfort her.
“Come on girl,” Nina said. “You're going to be okay. You've got to get better.”
Later that day I joined Nina in the dairy where she was busy making “Van Goats” and “Monets.” These are round cheese torts decorated with edible flowers such as bachelor buttons, calendula petals, and Johnny jump-ups for which Sea Stars has become well-known. Meanwhile, Skeeter, Nancy's one full-time employee, showed me how to “flip” cheese.
“What type of cheese is this?” I asked as I looked at the soft white curds in the pasteurizer. Skeeter gave me a gaze a drill sergeant would have admired.
“Goat cheese!” she said. “What did you think it was?”
For the next two hours, I gently placed the wet cheese into a bucket lined with cloth sacks. Each sack weighed 40 pounds. After hanging twenty of them over a bathtub where the whey drained, my back and arms felt I as though I had spent the afternoon at 48 Hour Nautilus. Nancy had told me earlier that people, admiring her trim, strong figure, often ask if she “works out.”
“No,” she told me she tells them, “I work.” A few more days on the farm and I figured I could drop my gym membership.
We took a break and went to see Spontaneity. She didn't look sick to us, but she wouldn't take the bottle. Nancy called the vet. “I'm so worried about Spontaneity,” Nina said as though she were the goat's mother.
By the end of our second day, we were so exhausted that when Nancy asked if we wanted to go sailing after work, I thought she must have been joking. She wasn't. Sailing was the one luxury she allowed herself.
The wind on Monterey Bay was lighter than the blustery gusts at the farm. As we lolled over small waves on a boat that belonged to another of Nancy's friends, the concerns of the city seemed very far away. I felt as though I had run a long, long race. The sun warmed all my soreness away. Milking goats in the morning, sailing in the afternoon. Certainly there were many less satisfying ways to live. The anxiety I often felt about whether I was keeping up with business school classmates was as far away as my worries about parking or crime or what the Subterraneans were doing.
One of the best things about working on the farm was eating huge quantities of whatever I wanted. Wednesday morning I sat down to an enormous farm breakfast of eggs, bacon, two pork chops, hash brown potatoes, toast and coffee. I figured it was what a real farmer would eat. Nina, too, was eating with two-fisted gusto. She reached across the table and speared one of my chops with her fork.
“I can't wait till we get to work,” she said.
“Why's that?” I asked her, wondering if this new zest for manual labor was for real. She picked up my coffee cup and swigged a mouthful.
“Cause I'm beginning to smell myself,” she said. We'd been wearing the same clothes for the last two days.
That morning I set up the milking pen by myself. I was no longer fighting my sore body or the routine. As I hooked up each piece of the system, I wondered if this was the life for me. My normal aches and pains had been satisfyingly replaced by ones that I felt I had earned. I did much of the milking myself. As I quickly shunted the goats in and out of the milking pens, I sensed the rhythm of farm life becoming my own. Although the work was unrelenting, there was an easy pace that was much more soothing than the jumbled up staccato distractions of the city.
By noon, things were in high gear as we got ready for the Santa Cruz Farmers Market and a UPS shipment. Four of us worked in the tiny Sea Stars office surrounded by phones, fax, freezers, a cooler full of cheese that advertised “Chilled Wines and Champagne,” a computer, two printers, supplies and, under the dining table that serves as a desk, the latest litter of kittens. The walls were covered with blue and red ribbons awarded to Sea Stars at the annual judging of the American Cheese Society.
While Nina worked on invoicing, Nancy and Val took phone orders and I packed shipments. Nina was so exhausted that she nodded off in her chair. We'd already put in a full day and were headed for at least five hours more.
Before we left for the market in Santa Cruz, Val brought Spontaneity into the office. Nancy prepared a syringe. This was a last ditch effort. At $30 a vial, Nancy couldn't afford to keep pumping medicine into her no matter how cute Spontaneity was. As the needle slid into Spontaneity's neck, she cried out, a long, scared wail that sounded just like a human baby's.
Driving down the coast to Santa Cruz, I told Nina, “I want to sell everything.” We had five coolers full of cheese that we had made and there was no way we were going to bring any back to the farm. Selling out would be my way of showing Nancy she had made a good decision when she let us come work for her.
My determination to sell out was redoubled by the eclectic crowd that shops at the farmers market in Santa Cruz. Barefoot kids reeking with patchouli oil and draped in Gypsy gear mingle with straight-laced academic and high-tech types and graying hippies. Some shoppers came up and smacked down their money. “I love your cheese,” they said, needing no sales persuasion. Others looked at Nina and me suspiciously when we suggested, “Try some goat cheese today?”
Those were the customers I wanted to get. “Don't like it,” some said. “Ever try it?” I asked. Many never had.
I put samples in their hands. They took small nibbles and then larger bites. “Hey, that's not bad,” they said. “Honey, try this.”
Unlike other things I'd sold in the past, I felt no hesitation promoting the cheese. It was nutritious, tasty, and artistic. The goats were treated well and the work environment at Sea Stars was pleasant and easy-going. During one afternoon, Nina and I were able to convert a dozen skeptics. With each sale I felt real pride. Maybe we could make it a way of life.
Nina, Lisa, and I were busy all afternoon, making change, offering samples, and thanking everyone who came by as though it were our own business. “We're going to sell out,” I told Nina.
One young woman returned to the stand repeatedly. She picked up the cheese, looked at it, and put it back. She looked at the Monets with a desire that seemed to border on lust. But she never bought. Finally she said, “I can't. I was hooked on this stuff all last year. I've got to stop myself.” She threw up her hands with the drama of a diva and marched off.
It was hard to be positive when people just sampled with no intention of buying. We had worked so hard. The cheese was so good. The goats were so loving. How could people not buy our cheese? Every person who walked past felt like a personal rejection.
By five o'clock the crowd was thinning. We still had a few tubs left in our coolers. A young man wearing paisley pants and a crocheted vest walked up. I told myself I would close the sale no matter what. He asked all kinds of questions about the edible flowers used in the “Monets.” I told him what I knew. Then he walked away without buying. I called after him. “What about some cheese today?”
“No man,” he said. “I just wanted to know what the flowers were, you know man, so I could eat 'em out on the highway.” Nina rolled her eyes.
“Santa Cruz,” she said.
As we packed up another fellow came by and asked if we wanted to buy a “Speak Happiness” bumper sticker for a dollar. I wanted to tell him what I had done the last few days to make a dollar's worth of cheese but instead I just said, “No thanks.”
As Lisa and Nina broke down the stand, I counted the money. We netted just under $300. It didn't seem like enough but Val told us it was the best day so far this year. “Maybe I should hire you guys,” Nancy said. It was a tempting offer, but what Nancy could pay us would barely cover the rent on our apartment. I wondered if we could make ends meet as farm owners. Being a farm employee would probably mean a change in our standard of living that we hadn't begun to contemplate.
At the end of our 13-hour day, we were starving. We decided on a Thai restaurant for dinner. At the front door I looked at Nina's filthy pants. We hadn't changed clothes since six that morning.
“Do you know what you look like?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but you've got hoof prints all over your back.” We asked the hostess if she would seat us as we were.
“Why not?” she said reflecting Santa Cruz's easy ways. In the city, neither of us would ever go out dressed the way we were. Wednesday night we wore our filthy clothes like merit badges.
Over dinner, we discussed how realistic it would be to take up farming. For certain, we wouldn't be able to fall backwards into it as Nancy had. Back in 1976 she was living in the Sierra while finishing college. A roommate asked her to watch his goat for a few weeks. The goat had kids, the roommate never came back, and suddenly Nancy was a goat farmer. All the goats at Sea Stars are descended from “Fanny the Goat,” as Nancy calls the inherited matriarch of her herd.
But that was nearly twenty years ago. Today it would cost tens of thousands of dollars and more hard physical work than either of us had ever done to build up a small operation like Nancy's. And it wouldn't be like buying a franchise fast food joint. There was no guarantee of success.
Thursday was our last day. By now both of us were enjoying the work. We were no longer concerned about by-product or even noticed the smell of the goats. In any case the nearby fields had been fertilized with chicken manure. That smell was so acrid I could feel it burn my sinuses. “Just imagine what ostrich manure smells like,” Nina said.
Although we had both approached the farm with reservations, neither of us was ready to leave. The “goaties,” as Nancy called them, were more like puppies to us than mere farm animals. We had gotten to know many of them by name.
In the babies' pen, things were improving. Spontaneity was on the mend. The injection seemed to have worked. She attacked the milkbar with the other kids and then joined them in butting heads. On our last day, I had only one ambition. I was going to get some milk out of Paulette.
Paulette had different ideas. The machine got nothing from her. She kicked the pail and wouldn't let me milk her by hand. Nancy had told me there was little profit in the farm. I concluded goats like Paulette were the problem. She was eating $2 of feed a day and not doing her part. I figured she was an old goat that probably should be put down.
“How old is Paulette?” I asked Nancy after the milking was done.
“Four,” she answered to my surprise. Alpine goats often live to be 15 years old.
Nancy explained that Paulette hadn't been bottle-fed and, as a result, was skittish around people. She kept Paulette because she had belonged to a friend, Paul, who had died. At business school, despite classes in “Ethics and Business” and “Business and the Community,” the justification for every decision eventually boiled down to the bottom line. Thinking about Paulette, I realized that if I ran a farm, the rational decision, as I had been taught in graduate school, wouldn't always be the easy one.
As we got ready to leave, Nancy's friend Rick showed up. “How about a reike treatment?” Nancy asked. She and Rick had been swapping cheese for massage for some time. We didn't want to leave. Much less than a free massage would have kept us. “Sure,” we both answered.
Rick's hands were warm, very warm. As he let them rest on my forehead I felt the final residue of urban life drain away. An hour later, when I got up from the table, my mind was completely at ease even as I sensed the soreness in every muscle.
As we got into our car, fog was just beginning to creep back onto the coast. Nancy and Suzanne stood in the road, waving us good-bye. The goaties crowded up against the fence. They watched us pull away.
For the first several miles we were very quiet. Farming for a few days had been wonderful. Could we do if for a living? Three hundred sixty-five days a year? I wasn't sure. Nina is 38 years old. I'm 39. Farm work was not a 90-minute work-out at the gym. Much better than before we understood it was a physically and mentally demanding life that was as constant and unrelenting as anything the city or the white collar world had to offer. And we didn't have Nancy's worries about raising two teenage sons, making a payroll, or keeping 70 goats healthy and productive.
Yet the farm offered an immediate sense of achievement that I rarely sensed in my life as a consultant. Often I'd worked on projects for weeks and months that in the end were shelved or fell through bureaucratic cracks or yielded no tangible results. In contrast, on the farm, we had completed an entire cycle in just four days, producing, packaging and selling a product we had made, were proud of and enjoyed ourselves. It was this immediacy that I found so deeply satisfying.
I loved the closed circle of the farm. We milked the goats, they gave us the cheese. We took the whey and fed it back to them. I watched this recycling program and realized it was much more a miracle of nature than my putting out the newspaper or empty cans and bottles for curbside collection.
More importantly, we sensed we had become part of a community, a community of people and animals. We had connected in a way we almost never felt in the city. We worked outside in a place where the litter was strictly biodegradable. We spoke and worked with neighbors. The air did feel cleaner, the sun did feel warmer, we did feel safer and healthier, and we felt as close to one another as we ever had.
When the alarm went off the next morning neither one of us leapt out of bed. We were home, but we were homesick for the farm. “I miss the goaties,” Nina said to me. I did as well. The city just didn't have the texture or the natural rhythm of the farm. Plus, I didn't know what I could do that would give me the same sense of accomplishment I had felt working with the animals.
I went to the gym. Early in the morning people were waiting in line to get on the Stairmaster. I thought to myself that if ever there were a metaphor for all that's wrong with modern living, the Stairmaster must be it. Climbing and getting nowhere. Sweating and producing nothing. I got my thirty minutes of cardio and went home wishing the gym offered wood chopping instead of “step” classes. At least I'd have something to show for my effort.
At the apartment, there was a message from Nancy on the answering machine. “Hey you guys,” Nancy said, “Got up this morning and everyone realized we really miss you down here. Spontaneity's better. She says, 'Baaaaaaah.'”
Nina came in the room as I listened to message. Nancy's voice made us realize we were home, but in the wrong place. “Come see us anytime,” Nancy said.
At last I looked at Nina. “Well, what do you think?” I asked. “Could you do it?”
“I don't know,” she answered. “It was great, but I still don't know.” She looked out the window at the ships on the Bay. “How about you?”
I didn't know then and I still don't know now. On the farm I felt as though all my senses were rekindled, that my head and body worked together. In the city, they often felt like separate beings competing with each other. But still the fact was that we were city kids who liked having a coffee shop on the corner. There seemed to be no easy way to compare the two life styles we were contemplating.
“I don't know either,” I told Nina as I headed toward the door. I couldn't think about it right then. I'd left the car in a tow-away zone. I had to go look for parking.
A version of this story first appeared as the cover story of the July 9, 1995 edition of West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
If you're like me, you watched some terrible films and wondered, “How did a movie like that get made?” You left the theater angry with the filmmakers, feeling they not only stole your money but wasted two hours of your life. Though the only thing you know about movie-making is what you learned on the Universal Studios tour, you can't resist thinking, “I could do something better than that junk.” It was this type of thinking that got me into the movie-making business.
Initially, I hoped to succeed as a screenwriter. But after five years of trying, all I had to show was a growing stack of “Thank you, but no thank you” rejection letters.
I knuckled down one last time and wrote a romantic thriller set in Africa. In letters to agents and producers I told them my script was like “The Killing Fields... but with a better love story.”
Through the friend of a friend, the script was put in the hands of Danny Glover. After months of waiting, his secretary called on a Friday afternoon. “Robert,” she said, “are you going to be home this weekend? Danny likes your script. He wants to talk.”
In an instant, I was on the phone with my mother telling her about the celebrity who wanted to discuss my script. I spent all weekend waiting by the phone. I'm still waiting.
A junior executive at a small studio said he would read my script. A month later I heard from his assistant. In a pseudo-English accent (no doubt cultivated at a third rate junior college) she told me, “We're passing.”
“Why?” I asked.
“To be honest,” she said, “I thought it was...” and here there came a long pause and, I imagine, some nail filing, “...mundane and banal.”
Two weeks later, her boss was fired. He went on to executive produce Dumb and Dumber.
Perhaps I should have accepted his assistant's reading as the final blow to my cinematic aspirations. Yet a year later I found myself flogging the same script at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. As I waited to register, a woman joined me in line. It took a few seconds to place her. Justine Bateman. Mallory. Michael J. Fox's dim-witted sister from the television sit-com Family Ties.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said as I rummaged through my briefcase, “but I have a script that's perfect for you.”
“Uh-huhn,” she said, avoiding eye contact.
“I have it right here. It's an adventure romance, takes place in Africa,” I continued as she began edging away. “It's got everything. Political intrigue. Violence. Inter-racial sex.”
She scrawled a phone number on a scrap of paper. “Call my manager,” she said. She couldn't get away fast enough.
I stood there, frozen, script in hand, as Justine Bateman, Mallory for heaven's sake, raced away from me. A small crowd had watched this scene. “Pathetic,” I thought I heard people say.
I had reached bottom.
“I've got to do my own movie,” I told my screenwriters circle. “I just can't keep making a fool of myself.”
“Good idea,” they said.
So I bought “how-to” books. I took courses. I volunteered on low-budget films as a PA, or production assistant, ground floor on the filmmaking totem pole.
As a PA, my responsibilities included driving to the camera supply house, holding back curious pedestrians and traffic during shooting, and getting coffee, cigarettes and pizza for people fifteen years my junior.
Doing these truly banal and mundane tasks made me realize that filmmaking was vastly more complicated than I ever imagined. The Universal Studios tour had given me no idea the attention to detail that was necessary simply to get an image on film. On top of that, it was all supposed to make sense, look good, and be entertaining.
Many television shows cost million dollars per episode. The average Hollywood film runs into tens of millions. At the time a year in film school cost $30,000. As a struggling writer, I had $5,000 to spend on my project. I hoped the resulting film would open the doors that my scripts had not.
I was told that the key to minimizing expense was to limit the number of locations and actors. With that advice in mind, I wrote a script. A man and a woman on a first date. Dark suspicions surface when they read the unusual fortunes in their cookies at the end of a Chinese meal. I called the script Fortune Tell.
It had three speaking parts; the man, the woman, and the restaurant owner. It required only one location; a Chinese restaurant. It was just five pages long. Written in standard Hollywood format, those five pages would roughly translate to five minutes of screen time. Five pages, five minutes, five thousand dollars.
In my living room, I videotaped a reading of the script. I showed it to my “Introductory Filmmaking” class at San Francisco State Extension. My classmates laughed aloud. I thought I had written a chilling, dark, film noir thriller.
“What are you talking about?” they said. “This is a comedy.”
“Okay, fine,” I said, determined to go ahead. “It's a comedy.”
Quickly I became overwhelmed with the details of pre-production. There was crew selection, casting, locations, permits, releases, insurance, equipment rental, film purchases, set decoration, catering, contracts, and script revisions. It was more than I could handle. I needed help.
I hired one of my instructors, Debbie, as production manager and assistant director.
Before I knew it, she had hired a DP (cinematographer), gaffer (lighting), key grip (heavy lifting), and sound man. They, in turn, hired their assistants, a wild bunch of punk rockers who would make the crowd at a Dead concert look like a convention of IBM salesmen by comparison.
They were all part of the Bay Area independent filmmaking scene in which hundreds of young, wannabe moviemakers are willing to work for next to nothing to get into “the business.”
Paying the absolute minimum possible, I was now on the line for a crew of twenty people and over $2,000 in salaries.
Meanwhile Dave, my hyperactive, chain smoking DP, was arranging for equipment.
Motion picture cameras are astonishingly expensive. A good 16mm camera, such as the one we planned to use, can cost $200,000. For a 35mm camera, the more sophisticated workhorses of Hollywood, double that.
Because cameras are so expensive, low budget productions often join together to rent equipment. Dave, my DP, arranged to shoot four short films back-to-back for 11 straight, 18-hour days. My share would be $800. I was now in for $3000 and not a frame of film had been exposed.
Meanwhile, Debbie, the assistant director, and I figured out the order in which the scenes would be filmed. Even though our “shot list” had no excess, even though I had confidence in my crew, I was still nervous. If Fortune Tell didn't get done in one day I would have to pay everyone for another day. My budget would double. I called Alex, a storyboard artist.
Storyboards are cartoon-like illustrations that give an idea of what the film will look like – before the camera starts rolling. Some directors have one done for each scene. Others don't bother with them.
For my five-minute movie, I had Alex do 153 drawings.
At last, nearly everything was ready. The shoot was set for one month away. Two problems remained. One, I didn't have a location. Two, I didn’t have any actors.
I called casting agents and asked if they represented any actors who would be interested in my low-budget short. Head shots, the 8 x 10 glossy photographs that are the calling cards of acting talent, flooded in. Actors, I realized, are even more desperate for work than writers. I asked 30 people to audition.
In a frigid room in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, I watched young, talented, ambitious actors read my words. One woman was so good looking, I hardly noticed her performance. I found myself transfixed by this smashing starlet. Then I felt the stare of my fiancée who had made a special point of attending the auditions. I escorted the redhead to the door.
“Thank you very much,” I told her coldly. “I'll get back to you. Next!”
In fact, she had been perfect, just what I was looking for. Her agent told me not to hire her. “Why?” I asked, “You sent her to me.”
“She's too good-looking,” the agent said. “You've got a short film. You want people watching your movie, not the actors.”
Eventually I hired two talented actors, both attractive but not so unusually good-looking as to stun an audience into mindless gawking.
Meanwhile, I discovered I had a very big problem; finding a location. Most Chinese restaurants stay open seven days a week, many 14 or more hours a day. I drove to every Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Nepalese and Bhutanese restaurant in the Bay Area. “Not interested,” they all said. The allure of having the name of their restaurant in the credits of my film changed no minds.
With just days to go, I was frantic, unable to sleep. My $3000 was gone and I was about to be ruined. If my shoot fell through, so would the other three in the equipment rental. One of those was a music video for Rancid. At the time, Rancid had not yet made it big. What I knew was that I didn't want anyone or anything called Rancid angry with me. I put out an APB for a Chinese restaurant.
A friend introduced me to Chun and Mei, the owners of Yan's Kitchen, a small Hunan restaurant near the Transamerica Pyramid. Hungry for publicity, they agreed to let me use their place.
They had no idea what they were getting into.
On the day of the shoot, I arrived at Yan's Kitchen at 7 AM. At 8 the phone rang. It was Debbie. The crew had worked until 3 AM the night before. They couldn't get to the restaurant until 10:30. “Don't worry,” she said, anticipating my imminent mental collapse, “We'll get it done.”
Three hours later the crew began ripping Chun and Mei's restaurant apart.
The grips carried the furnishings outside to make room for equipment. They turned daytime into night by hanging black tarps over the windows.
Two grips held ropes wrapped around the gaffer's waist as he tapped the building's main power lines, by-passing any circuits we might overload. In case he did something wrong, the grips would yank him away before untransformed current turned him to toast.
Watching this I stopped regretting the $470 I had spent on workers compensation insurance for my one-day shoot.
As the crew readied the set there was little for me to do. The sound man set up his tape machine behind a drape like the Wizard of Oz. The camera was mounted on a rolling stand known as a dolly. The DP and the gaffer adjusted the lights, and then adjusted them some more, and then adjusted them again.
When all was finally ready, a friend of the DP showed up with a second camera. Now, instead of shooting only one actor at a time, we could film both the man and the woman simultaneously. This, Dave said, would save lots of time. Except that the lights had to be re-adjusted. Another hour crawled by.
At one o'clock, six hours after I had arrived, we were ready.
“Places everyone,” Debbie said to the 30 people I had hired for the day. As the director, I assumed that I would call most of the shots. But on the set Debbie was the field marshall. My role was to decide whether or not I liked the performances.
“Quiet on the set,” Debbie yelled, beginning the motion picture countdown I had heard a thousand times before. “QUIET!!!”
“Sound!” she hollered.
From behind his curtain, the sound man yelled back, “Sound speed.” His equipment was recording.
“Camera,” Debbie yelled.
“Rolling,” Dave hollered from behind the camera.
Allen, the bandanna-headed, multiple ear-ringed second assistant cameraman stepped in front of the camera. “And marker,” he said as he snapped the black and white slate.
“Annnnnnnnnd ACTION!” Debbie yelled.
Before I could absorb that my movie was finally underway, Dave, the DP, was yelling “Cut, cut, cut.” Something had gone wrong. And so it went for the next 13 hours as we captured as many goofs as good shots.
Sometimes the camera would “dolly” too far and reveal a production assistant smoking in the background. Buses went by and drowned out the actors’ lines. We forgot to turn the telephone off. Someone called for Chinese take-out, ruining another shot.
Throughout the day it was a race against time. Around midnight, we were running out of film and energy. We did a few scenes outside the restaurant and then aimed our puny lights on the Transamerica Pyramid. I hoped it would make a beautiful opening or “establishing” shot for the film. It was the last thing we filmed.
“That's a wrap,” I said. Within an hour the crew had put the restaurant back together and left to start on Rancid's music video.
I have climbed some very high mountains and bicycled across the continent. I’ve completed open water ocean swims and run a marathon. Nothing compares to the exhaustion I felt after 20 hours on the set. That night I hallucinated for several hours wondering how and if my film would come out.
The camera could have malfunctioned. The film might have been no good. There was no telling until it came back from the lab.
Two days later, I gathered with the crew to watch the “dailies,” the low cost, first print of Fortune Tell. The image looked good, great in fact. The tension I'd been feeling for weeks began to drain away.
“Hey look!” someone said. “There's a boom shadow.” The shadow of the microphone was visible in every shot. My heart fell. A boom shadow is one of the most basic filmmaking errors.
“Don't worry,” Debbie told me. “No one will see it.”
Maybe. But it wasn't her money and reputation on the line.
To get Fortune Tell in the can, I had spent months writing, planning, fretting, rehearsing, fretting, reviewing, casting, fretting, and finally filming. I had spent $5600, more than my original budget for the entire project. I had taken on the tasks of writing, editing, producing and directing for three reasons; one, I wanted to learn as much as I could, two; I wanted to show all the jerks in Hollywood what a huge talent they had overlooked, and, three; I was cheap.
As I began to edit the film into a “rough cut,” I discovered to my astonishment that we had failed altogether to film a scene on the day of the shoot. Without it, I didn't know if the film would make any sense. Going back to “pick up” the shot would have cost thousands. I became so despondent I would have dropped the whole thing except for the money already spent.
To better understand the film-making process my instructors suggested I edit Fortune Tell myself. A professional could have finished the job in a week. It took me months. And months.
Often, to get the pacing right, I would take out small pieces of film, sometimes just two or three frames. Keeping track of all these “outs” took as much or more time than editing the film itself.
Later, when I wanted to change a scene again, I had to go back into the reels of “outs,” find the sections of film and sound I wanted, cut them out and tape them in place. I spent hours and hours and hours working over tiny fractions of a second of film. I pleaded with Nina, my fiancée who had since become my wife, to help out. She did. Once. She had no patience for the pre-digitized world of film editing.
As I continued to edit and mutilate the working copy of my film, there were countless other details still to be taken care of. Peter Whitehead, an avant-garde musician, agreed to write and perform the score for Fortune Tell. When I heard his music, performed on a toy piano, cello, spinning bicycle spokes, and a few hand-made instruments, I thought it was all wrong. Distraught, I looked at Nina for commiseration.
“It's great!” she said. “So much better than that corny saxophone you wanted.”
Even as the film neared completion, the list of things to be done seemed to grow ever longer. I needed titles. To have the words Fortune and Tell appear over the Transamerica Pyramid cost me $600.
To get the sound right, so that all the voices, background sounds, and music blended together ran another $1000. All for a movie that would eventually be just six minutes and eighteen seconds long.
All along, it was difficult for me to know what was good enough. When the budget broke the $10,000 barrier and with my VISA bills mounting, I knew Fortune Tell was as close to good enough as it ever would get.
I took everything to the lab. There, technicians balanced the film's color so that the actors' skin always had the same hue. They wed the sound to the film. They told me to come back in a week to view the “first answer print,” the print that would answer whether or not my film worked.
A week later, I pushed a button in the lab's small screening room and told the projectionist to roll it. The lights went down. Peter's music filled the room. The Transamerica Pyramid faded in on the screen. I watched Fortune Tell, in its completed form, for the first time. I had been working on it, in spurts and starts, for more than 22 months.
It wasn't perfect, but it was good. How good I wasn't sure. Whether it would catch Hollywood's attention I couldn't know. I sent videotape copies to festivals. My wife and I left for an extensive overseas trip.
Nina told me to prepare for total rejection. The top film festivals get thousands of submissions for a few dozen slots. And getting into a festival, any festival, was no assurance that Hollywood would stand up and notice.
After two months on the road, I called to see if there was any news.
“Oh, there is,” my mother-in-law said from halfway around the world. “Aspen, Denver and San Francisco all want your film. It's so exciting.”
Two weeks later, on opening night at the Aspen Film Festival in Colorado, I took my seat in the sold-out orchestra of a beautiful, gold rush era theater. Fortune Tell had been paired with another dark comedy, To Die For, the hit by director Gus Van Sant.
Before the lights went down, I must have gotten out of my seat a dozen times. I went to the bathroom. I went to the drinking fountain. I went back to the bathroom. Before returning to my seat I paused at the back of the packed hall. I turned to the person next to me, perhaps planning to make a little nerve-soothing chit-chat, only to see that, like quite a few others, Martina Navratilova would be standing when my film began.
“Feel my heart,” I said to my wife as I finally took my seat. No audience had ever seen my film. All I could hear was the pounding in my chest.
Before I knew it, the audience was applauding, applauding wildly. My six-minute eighteen-second baby was over and they had loved it. Nicole Kidman was on-screen. To Die For had begun.
It was only later that night that I realized Fortune Tell had succeeded. My film noir thriller had people laughing so loudly that half the jokes had been drowned out. The expense, the agonizing, the self-doubt all faded away.
Making Fortune Tell was the hardest thing I have ever done. I spent two physically and mentally exhausting years working on something that lasts just six minutes. The short has since played all over the United States, in Europe, in airplanes, on television, in theaters and now on the Internet. And in Hollywood they still don’t return my calls.
So, would I do it again? Sure. You bet. Though it’s now been years since I last sat in a theater and waited for my film to begin, I can still hear the audience.
A version of this story first appeared in the January 28, 1996, edition of West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.
In addition to debuting at the Aspen Film Festival, Fortune Tell played at festivals around the world including New Directors/New Films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (paired with Stanley Tucci's debut feature, Big Night), Manheim/Heidelberg, The British Short Film Festival, Palm Springs, Taos, and many others. It has also been shown on multiple PBS stations, the BBC, Canal+, and as part of in-flight programming.
Click here to view Fortune Tell on YouTube.