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  • Writer's pictureZachary Desmond

#1 of 18: A REPORT ABOUT THE REPORT

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

// MISCHIEF RITES //

September 16, 2022

Vol 1, Issue 1




Hey Good Human,


I got this grant, essentially (though not technically a grant), that gives me $1,000 a month for being an artist in the State of New York from now through January 2024. I don’t know exactly where the money comes from but I know that I applied for this “grant” because my friend Rebi told me to and then I was selected randomly along with 2,400 other NY artists who also submitted a two-page application and some financial info. I was eligible for the award because I don’t make very much money and I persist in making art here in New York. It’s expensive to live and make art in New York and I’ve never been cash rich, so I am happily accepting a no-strings-attached gift of one grand a month for the next 18 months and as part of that, an observance perhaps, or in penance, I am going to send you 18 “reports” of how that’s going, what I’m spending the money on, and how that’s affecting me as an artist.


The program is called “Creatives Rebuild New York” and it’s possible that some of this money is coming from the public by way of taxes (?) and even if it’s not, I am in support of policies that channel public monies unrestrictedly into the battered coffers of working artists in the form of guaranteed income. I am heretofore officially about that. So this report, if you will, in lieu of a receipt, is a kind of IOU, wherein the I is me and the you is you and I’ve determined that I owe you an account of where this money for Creatively Rebuilding New York is going and in return I get the satisfaction of offering a peek into what it looks like for me, an artist, to have a year and a half’s worth of increased financial solvency brought about by an unlikely sangam of philanthropy, bureaucracy, and grace.


Why you? Because you’re cool and I like you and you’re among the inner circle of people who know something about what I’m going-for-in-the-world and I think it will help me pay the gift forward to keep you in the loop. If you’re not interested in receiving these suckers, just let me know and I will remove you from the list without fanfare.


What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Email

I have been mulling over what to call this. The word report is awfully banal, but so is “Creatives Rebuild New York.” I was considering something hardcore like “A Stab at Eternity” or “The Death Spiral with Zack Desmond” but I don’t want this to be cheeky. If it’s called The Death Spiral, it’s gotta take an earnest crack at detailing the churning gravity of death and how it keeps gouging into my art these 18 months. And that feels a little heavy today so we’ll just call it whatever I titled it above for now. Maybe you could name it. Yeah, you name it!


How to Proceed When You’re Proceeding with an Email

Okay, let’s do this: I will make sections, kind of like I’ve done above, only they’ll be content suggestions, not requirements, monthly beats with headings like: ‘Art Stuff This Month,’ ‘Where The Money Went,’ ‘This Is An Excerpt of What I’m Writing,’ ‘Q&A with an Artist I Know featuring [your name here],’ shit like that. I’ll swear sometimes. It’ll feel sort of silly and fun but also compelling and vulnerable. I will admit things about how life is going, like how I’m stalling out in my development as a romantic partner while things chug right along in the creative department. I will also tell you about things I’m up to, like being a member of the acting ensemble at the Mercury Store in Gowanus this Fall, or about cool projects that excite me but lack focus or funding, like writing and producing a day-long play that is also a guided hike in the Catskills.


So here’s an example of a section:


Gestation Station

I spent some time in Alaska this July/August with 5 artist friends who are, concurrently and collectively, theater makers, novelists, essayists, circus performers, radio hosts, dancer-clowns, actors, and improvisers (along with a couple incredible doodlers). Sitka, as you may know, is a kind of temperate rainforest shangri-la in the late summertime, where salmon gush home to the riverbeds of their making, blueberries burst from hip-high herbaries, and the green of all things short and tall taps you insistently between the brows until you start seeing in six directions. There’s a ravishing abundance to the land and water, obscene with rot and spawn and fruit and giant sentry spruces. The best explanation I can think of is Heaven--not a Christian Heaven of honey, clouds, and pearly forever--the Tlingit version: Tlingit people are the longstanding stewards of Tlingit Aaní, the land that Sitka sleeps on, the rivers that flow through it, the tides that lap away at its sides (etc.) and from what I understand about pre-Christian notions of the Tlingit afterlife, Heaven is not a separate peace in eternity; it’s right there. Babies born are named after their deceased grandparents and ancestors, not to honor their memories, but to acknowledge very directly that the children are their grandparents. Little grandmas and grandpas, running around the cedar-plank clan house, galloping indicators of the cyclicality of life, knowledge, energy, and relationship!


Tlingit society has never, as far as I know (and I know very little), existed without inequities, but I am struck by the contrast between that afterlife and the state-sponsored story of the afterlife with which I was saddled as a settler-colonial Catholic kid in the 1990s. I remember lying in bed as a kid and doubting and pondering, ‘Do I really not believe that Jesus rose from the dead?’ And it wasn’t the rising from the dead I took issue with actually (I mean, I don’t know! ‘Truth is stranger than fishin,’ as my friend Peter, rock of the church, says! The miracles are the most bangin’ scenes of the Christian story and I have a luxuriantly unfettered relationship with physics [see: Friends Call Me Albert]). The actual issue was with Ascension Thursday baby! He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father? That’s hard to relate to, perhaps by design. In our tradition, Heaven is predicated upon ascension, a separate eternal seating situation that is the aesthetic opposite of being buried, prostrated, interred. He ascended into Heaven, not up to, it’s not even celestial, it’s elsewhere. And seated. (Although in my visualization of the scene, Jesus is always seated on the left hand actually. Stage left of the Father! Unconscious little protest from childhood that I’ve just now noticed, I love that, makes me want to hug my little self.) Heaven is not Here, says the story. The Tlingit story suggests the opposite. And if you’ve visited Tlingit Aaní, you might understand why. That’s all I’m tryin’ to say.


And also I’m saying: If The Afterlife is where the glory’s at in our culture, even the secular culture by way of wealth accumulation-slash-bequeathal and institutional-slash-state self-perpetuation, I think it’s because we have a death problem. Judging by the way things are going, I think we have THE death problem and I guess I’m just eschatologically oriented by nature so I like the idea of spending a career trying to figure that out. That’s why I wanted to call the thing “The Death Spiral with Zack Desmond,” so there you go! Maybe it will be a column instead.


What Color is Your Backpack?

After coming back from Alaska, I almost immediately took off on a four-day backpacking trip in the Catskills, a range of Devonian-age bedrock uplifted with the rest of Appalachia that was heavily glaciated over the last ice age into a network of peaks, ridges, valleys and foothills composed of nearly horizontally layered siliciclastic rock, all only about 125 miles (or a five hour train and bus trip) north of New York City. If I were predisposed to waxing effusive about nature, I would do so here. Wink.


The trip was an exercise in asceticism per my smartphone. I spent many hours per day carrying a too-heavy backpack among trees and plants and spiderwebs (so many, so many many spiderwebs, I tried to have empathy for them as I tore through their homes qua butt-borne hunting grounds but I ended up identifying with the flies instead) because when I came back from Alaska, I immediately started doing a thing I had done before but not during my trip: using my fucking phone all the fucking time. I don’t really drink, I rarely do drugs, I don’t have risky sex with strangers or gamble or eat compulsively or lust after wealth and power, but boy do I obsessively brood over relationships past and future! And boy do I like to numb out those obsessive thoughts with some combination of The NYT’s Morning Newsletter, the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia podcast, Reddit pornography, and YouTube video essays about quirky suburban geography, the source of New York City’s drinking water and all the episodes of BoJack Horseman ranked in order from worst to best, all of which are ON MY PHONE FOR SOME REASON.


So my trip to the Catskills was about making a different choice. Changing the dynamic, dear god, deterring the plague/habit to grab this little magic box every time I wake up and right before I go to sleep, the reflex baby, the alpha and the omega, the punishment and the reward, the light upon which my wandering eye falls, and I know that it does not make me feel better. But what the magic box helps numb out is the bad feelings from this other habit: to loop endlessly around the same few incidents, memories, intentions, regrets and resentments in a romantic hamster maze of my own making. So the Catskills trip also provided a long path on which those tapes could begin to run down. At the end of those tapes I found some space to have different thoughts, new ideas, intuitive impulses, grace for myself, and a little light conversation with my past and future selves.


The day I came back from the Catskills (Sunday last), I reconnoitered with the 5 previously mentioned Alaska artist friends over Zoom for our monthly discussion about making art and living well and during this meeting, we came up with some goals. I was tasked with brainstorming three goals for the next two years but my goals were bursting forth like berries on a Harbor Mountain hillside in August so I started with twelve. Here are a few that I’d like to share with you:


  1. To humbly celebrate and exalt this beautiful body every day.

  2. To correspond with ten of my favorite actors/writers/creators over the next two years.

  3. To make enough money as an actor and writer that my money makes money, like enough to buy a house and pay off my student loans and then some.

  4. To play as often as I work: draw, do poetry, sing and strum the guitar, drum, spikeball, climb rocks, eat good food, drink and be merry with my friends.

  5. To step into a decade-long international collaboration with a cohort of theater makers and build a way of working based on the intersecting traditions of acting, physical theater, and sorcery.

  6. To do whatever an actor / playwright / philosopher / explorer / migrant rights activist / theater maker who also teaches does.


I was listening to these Andrew Bird songs and thinking about music and what Mastery of Form might feel like. Listening to Andrew Bird’s “Rare Birds" is like listening to total freedom, but there’s a structure, a very clear and stable foundation in the music, a refrain, around which all this lovely forest playfulness and peculiarity can rut about. I’d like to have a comparable command within my favorite medium, an unconscious mastery of the elements of a play. A while back I wrote “What is an American play?” on a poster and I put up on my wall and then I didn’t write anything else on it for several years. Another thing I’ll be doing during these 18 months is tackling that question anew by:


  1. Reading two American plays every week and analyzing (i) what makes them work and (ii) what makes them American.

    1. I started with Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog and I cannot think of a better, more American play written in the last 25 years. Effusively I say: read it. Read everything Suzan-Lori Parks has ever written.

    2. Next will be My Dinner with André by André Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Could not be more different than Topdog/Underdog--not to mention that it’s actually a screenplay--but it felt appropriate because it’s a story about two artist friends with distinctly different relationships to art and the American theater in 1981. Watch it! It’s on HBOmax.

  2. Working as an actor with the Mercury Store, a studio in Brooklyn where I will spend the next twelve weeks as a company member among some of the most radical, artistically rigorous contemporary theater makers here and abroad. Perhaps I will get a chance to interview some of the directors and fellow actors and include their words here. This is the biggest news in the whole report. I’ve buried the lede. My bad.

  3. Writing an American play! At least one, maybe one a month, maybe one a day! I don’t know yet. A reading of my play Troglobites is scheduled to happen over Zoom in November as part of an ongoing series produced by Undiscovered Works in NYC.


Art Digested

Here are some stand out bits of art, indie and commercial, I gobbled up this month:


Listening

  • Andrew Bird’s “Manifest” from My Finest Work Yet and “Rare Bird” from For the Birds: The Birdsong Project, Vol. IV

  • Modest Mouse’s 2000 album The Moon and Antarctica

  • The Always Sunny Podcast, especially this episode

  • A couple great tunes from Brian Naked’s Canyon sampler (hopefully public soon)

  • Conan O’Brien’s interview with John Wilson on Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend


Reading


Watching

  • Fire of Love, a documentary by Sara Dosa about volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft

  • Young Plato, a Northern Irish documentary by Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin

  • Season 1 of Nathan For You, created by and starring Nathan Fielder on Hulu

  • How To With John Wilson on HBO, exceptional mini-docs about New York City

  • The Last Man on Earth, created by Will Forte on Hulu

  • The Last Movie Stars, a documentary about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward directed by Ethan Hawke


Immersing

  • 40 miles of backpacking among trees and plants and spider webs and ethereal forest creatures in the Slide Mountain Wilderness Area of the Catskills range in upstate New York

  • A wood frog, a garter snake, a vole, a black bear, a dog named Cindy, three humans, an eastern screech owl, a white-tail deer, and a mink frog


Art Assembled

Worked on it

  • Finding Four Fathers, a 20-minute solo piece presented at Panther Creek Arts in West Fulton, NY during a Moth-style storytelling event. It’s about my dad, the hole in his heart, the various kinds of fathers he has been to his children, and what kind of man I am destined to become as I encounter my sonly inheritance.

Working on it

  • Stand up comedy: I cracked open a solid five minute bit on trees while I was in the Catskills man. Did you know that a plant is only considered a tree if it’s at least 14 feet tall? Who decided that? The bigger trees?! What the hell? Friggin trees man. Etc.

  • At least three good Death play/teleplay ideas:

    • Ego Death Baby. A Punk’d era Ashton Kutcher type has a YouTube channel that documents his pursuit of Ego Death. It goes viral after things get a little too real and when opportunity knocks, he’s not sure he’s ready to see who’s at the door.

    • Ego Death Daddy. A grandson and grandfather share a room at a hospital ward for terminal illnesses. The grandfather, experiencing dementia, doesn’t know the kid is his grandson, but he also doesn’t know that he’s been a total dick all of his adult life, as his daughters and son have no trouble reminding him every time they visit.

    • The Deadliest Catchiest Job in America. An eight-episode series starring John C. Reilly and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the Alaskan king crab fishery. Very hush hush. I mean, it’s not like they’ve signed on yet, but it’s a gooooood idea. Trust me.

  • I owe one of my classmates a compendium of quotes and lessons from the first year or two at drama school. That’s about six journals-worth of material I’m preparing to wade into. I can imagine including some of those pieces here, make a book maybe.


How I Spent the Money-ish

  • Catskills hiking trip - $200

  • Waterproof rain jacket and rain pants at REI - $229

  • Lunch for the friend who picked me up at the trailhead - $35

  • Thank you gifts for friends who hosted me while I was in Alaska and Washington - $165

  • Costco grocery run - $171

  • Private student loans, baby - $221


In Closing

This is the epigraph that precedes Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog:


“I am God in nature;

I am a weed by the wall.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson


One of the best parts about the Catskills hike was getting very irritated at the inefficiency of the trail and giving it a piece of my mind:


“Up and down and up and down! Jesus, you gotta go up and down every single peak?! Why not just go around the mountain, you’ll get there faster!”


I really had that thought! And then I had enough wherewithal to notice the thought and then it was very funny. So I stopped for a moment, somewhere in the saddle between Wittenberg and Slide Mountain and I contemplated the bizarreness of carrying a heavy backpack into a densely wooded mountain range just to walk around for four days and wrote the following, as if explaining to a little kid, tired and footsore and only halfway through a walk through the woods, that there’s something important out here:


“Why do we hike? Well, we don’t hike to get anywhere. We hike to follow the trail, to discover, in real time, where the path is taking us.”


I like that as a counterpoint to all the reflections above, all the art “accomplished” or not (woof), so I’ll end it here. Send me some name ideas! Thank you for reading.


Yours in Mischief,


Zack




P.S.


I put some affirmations up on my wall. Wanna say them with me?

My day begins and ends with gratitude and joy.

Good things are coming my way, I’m ready.

My creative potential is limitless.

I trust that my life is unfolding along the path of greatest good.

I choose to feel optimistic, confident, and capable.

Life supports me in every possible way.


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