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  • Writer's pictureZachary Desmond


Updated: Sep 8, 2023


October 14, 2022

Vol 1, Issue 2

The 80-year-old woman whacked my hips with a wooden cane and told me her name was Baryshnikov. She asked me if I wanted to know about death so I followed her down a long yellow corridor. She posted up in a great big pelvis, my pelvis, and shouted obscenities at the lithe young women walking outside. She was very rude; threw her fury with precision. Nobody looked her way. I wanted to leave but I stayed. ‘Good,’ she said, ‘don’t retreat.’

‘This is for your death,’ she said, and then went back to yelling at passersby, knocking her cane about the windowsill.

Hey Good Human,

It’s spooky season! Above is a dream I had this weekend while fevered up on flu shot and bivalent COVID booster. Carlos Casteneda has a passage in his book Journey to Ixtlan wherein Don Juan, the quintessential sorcerer-trickster-mentor takes everyman-squire-schoolboy Carlos on a nightwalk through unfamiliar desert to inform him that Death is a presence walking just behind and to the left of us, right over our left shoulders, just out of sight. The needle left a dark bruise and through the hole in my left shoulder this surly old crone with a staff of solid elm walked. She brought me to my hips. Baryshnikov


If you’re new here or need reminding, Hello! It’s me, Zack! Here’s the gist:

In August, I got a NY state grant (kinda) that gives me $18,000 in monthly installments over a year and a half, no strings attached. Many artists applied, 2,400 were selected by lottery and I was one of them. In celebration (or in penance, depending on the month), I am writing 18 monthly reports about what happens when this kind of thing happens to an artist when that artist is me.

You’re my confessor because you’re cool and I like you and you want me to do well in the world and that’s nice. And it keeps my mindfulness and curiosity quotients high to know that you’re gonna read what I’m up to every four weeks. Seriously. Thanks for reading. This is only the second one (first installment here) and if you don’t want to receive them you can just let me know. Some people respond with thoughts of their own. I welcome that, it’s lovely, but it’s by no means expected.

“How can anyone feel so important when we know that death is stalking us? The thing to do when you're impatient is to turn to your left and ask advice from your death. An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you, or if you catch a glimpse of it, or if you just have the feeling that your companion is there watching you.”

- Pg. 34, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda*

The Mercury Store

I probably should have led with this last month, my dudes, but I was curbing my enthusiasm to avoid abject disappointment. But now we’re three weeks in and I can tell you that The Mercury Store is an extremely well-funded, well-helmed, and immaculately designed multi-studio laboratory devoted to directors of the theater, my dudes, and I am a member of its resident acting company this fall. This is a dream job. Do I want fame, my dudes? I think yes, and if it helps me do really cool work at the highest level, absolutely. Do I want riches? I do, I grew up lower middle class in America and I really, really do. But mostly right now I want to be very, very good at what I love to do which is writing/acting/making plays and I cannot imagine a better place to be than The Mercury Store in the Fall of 2022.

Directors apply for a week or two of residency to investigate any project they want and one of the perks for them is that they have a company of actors at their disposal, you know, to enact stuff. One of the perks for us is that every week is a new adventure, led by a different creative constellation of theater artists kicking butt and asking unique theatrical questions. Examples follow in reverse chronological order.

Weeks 3 and 4: A famously adventurous and congenial director is collaborating with one of the most-produced living American playwrights and an expert illusionist to build a magical set that teleports its characters back and forth through time. They need actors to walk through doors. I am one of those actors.

Week 2: Two members from a devotedly experimental, Obie-winning NYC theater company are birthing a stage adaptation of a beloved Joy Williams short story from the perspective of two dead cats who are only ancillary to the plot. Wait, is there a plot? Is this a play? I am one of those cats.

Week 1: An epically bold director-and-playwright power couple are compressing and adapting the thorny, horny Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, cracking it wide open on behalf of Beatrice Joanna, the young woman central to the play’s moral message insisting that women, if given an inch, will become licentious murderers who crave--and deserve--their own venereally degenerate destructions.

The creative team tossed us a few different versions of the same pivotal scene between Beatrice and her stalker / lover / murderer-for-hire (the aptly named ‘Deflores’) and tasked us with excavating the text, the room, and ourselves for the essence of this relationship, focusing on Beatrice’s humanity. For five days we got to discover, in real time with our scene partners, over many iterations and through dozens of experiments, Beatrice’s inevitable journey from repressed-political-chattel-girl-child to awakened, embodied, dignified woman exercising sovereignty over her life, her future, and her body, including the thrill of violence and power exorcised at the meetingplace of sex, brutality, devotion and death. It was hot. It was weird. Because our director introduced and sustained an ethos of audacity, safety, rigor and grace in the face of really intense, complicated material, it was also incredibly fun.

It made me want to be an actor every day for the rest of my life. It made me want to dive into every classical play I can get my hands on. It made me realize I have so much still to learn about what acting is. It made me grateful that I am neither rich nor famous, two things I would not exchange for the work I got to do this week. And it made me proud to be one among 12 artists willing and thrilling to dive into this kind of brackish, feral, fugitive content, with no promise of arrival, no production schedule, no pressure of performance.

Yes! There are no productions at the Mercury Store. Nor are there readings. As a director’s laboratory, it exists to encourage the director’s process, to activate and facilitate their investigation into whatever theatrical project they dare to bear out over a week or two. There are “process showings” where we watch little snippets of what other directors / company members are working on in neighboring enormous, well-lit studios. We prod along their work with our questions and responses. We sit around a big table during breaks and talk about theater as we eat our lunches. My company mates are vigorous and bright and humble. The pay is sweeeeet.

The issue of our death is never pressed far enough. Death is the only wise adviser that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you're about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you're wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, "I haven't touched you yet."

- Pg. 34, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda*

The Thing About This Money

First, a few bullets on Zack’s relationship to money:

  1. He’s not accustomed to having an excess of it.

  2. He likes it! He wants it! Buuuuut, he doesn’t want it badly enough to do things he doesn’t like doing to earn it.

  3. His dad used to say, “Money may not buy you happiness, but it does buy you options.” Theirs was an option-lite household.

  4. He has a LOT of student loan debt (which used to be crushing but now curiously isn’t).

  5. In the 16 months since graduating from Juilliard, he has made all of his money from acting, writing, and directing in New York City. He is extremely proud of this but has chosen not to doubt that of course this is the case.

  6. He is optimistic about his financial future and genuinely believes that his needs and goals are going to be met, even if the path forward is obscure and overly reliant on what he himself might describe as magical thinking.

  7. He is extremely lucky. His grandpa used to say, in nodding disapproval, “You got a lot of angles, Zack, a lot of angles.” Fortune tends to smile upon him.

So in the midst of all that, I get this grant and it’s a real curveball. For the next year and change, I’m getting a thousand dollars a month just for waking up and going to work--oh wait--not even going to work! Just for waking up--oh wait, not even that! I could literally sleep the whole year and a half. The weird thing about being an actor at this point in my career is that hustling is the only thing. It’s assumed and withstood and glorified in that way that exhaustion or dogged ambition is worn as a badge of honor by high-achieving student types, just a little chip of status, jockeyed for, bandied about, I’ll take anything, please god. I’m hustling. So when a sudden infusion of resources enters the system and there’s no clear labor-for-capital tradeoff happening, I gotta admit I’m a little tripped up!

By the time Baryshnikov’s yellow pelvis room dissolved around me, I realized that I had several options to choose from in my hot little hands. But I’m tripping! So allow me to put you in my shoes. Imagine you’re in a video game and the character you’re playing is me. You’re an artist, you’re very earnest, and you have a significant but not exorbitant windfall coming your way in manageable monthly chunks because you’re an artist. Do you…

  1. Proceed as you would have, relishing in that little extra padding? Get some nicer clothes, enjoy a fancy night out once in awhile, pay down some debt, put what you can (but less than what you planned) in savings, contribute a bit to your Roth IRA? [So noble, so boring.]

  2. Lock it all away in savings, survive strictly on incoming projects, then use the amassed nest egg to put a down payment on one of the dozen-acre upstate lots you’ve been tracking obsessively on Redfin for months and hope to goodness that you get enough work to pay the mortgage for the next twenty years? [This feels plausible. But the property taxes. But I would love a garden.]

  3. Keep getting consistent work as an actor to pay your bills but, in addition, opt to produce one Art Thing per month with a budget between $500 to $1500? You do this every month for a year, and each Art Thing could be anything you want: a fancy catered event to celebrate all your artist friends where they perform a piece or present a creation; a mini-documentary about the street cleaners in South Brooklyn; a series of super tiny earthwork installations in Sunset Park; a multi-venue theater piece that requires audience members to find the performers throughout a given neighborhood using riddles and a treasure map; a little compensation for your actor friends to rehearse and perform your one-act play; a group sculpture session at the local ceramic studio; 2000 poems printed out and placed on every seat of the D train; a one-page play written for every species of tree in Prospect Park, accessible by QR codes found on rocks at the foot of each tree; a stipend for a person living on the street given in exchange for a brief interview? [Lotta work but we’re getting somewhere.]

  4. Cut loose? Shove off? Sublet your apartment and spend the year somewhere else? You go to France and Bali and Japan to study Clown and Mask and Suzuki with master teachers? Or you just follow your intuition around the world for a whole year knowing that you’re living on a shoestring but a shoestring made longer by not paying New York rent? You trust that if you need to sleep in the olive grove, you’ll sleep soundly? You head to the border with your physical theater skills and you volunteer to share clown and mask and music and puppetry with Syrian refugees? Climate crisis migrants? Stateless teens? Poet-shepherds? Fire-breathers? Fishermen? Addicts? Itinerants? Musicians? Polyglots? Peacekeepers? Peddlers? Aunties? Apple farmers? Fruit flies? You begin to see the whole year as an incredibly potent adventure that will absolutely ruin you, that is, change you, irrevocably, pulverize and reconstitute your heart, raze your every edge and leave you misshapen, bigger by orders of magnitude, unable and unwilling to reduce your size to lie back inside the paper hole you left behind?

[Your answer: ]

One of us here has to change, and fast. One of us here has to learn again that death is the hunter, and that it is always to one's left. One of us here has to ask death's advice and drop the cursed pettiness that belongs to men that live their lives as if death will never tap them.

- Pg. 35, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda*


Dudes, I don’t even have space or time to tell you about a bunch of other things that happened this month, it was jam-packed. I will tease a few here and put them on the backburner until the time is ripe:

Sea Shanties in Connecticut

Place: Progressive Insurance Boat Show in Norwalk, CT

Time: Last weekend of September


First Mate. A blue-booted beta in galoshes. Has a small cajon drum on his hip.

Skipper. A bearded idiot in a wool sweater with no detectable boating skills. Drumless.


First Mate and Skipper enter. The Skipper points to a group of unseen Boat Show patrons.

Skipper. (to First Mate) What about these guys? (approaching patrons, barking in a brogue) Hey! Question for ya! What happened when the red sailboat ran into the blue sailboat at the regatta?

Unseen patrons do not answer.

Skipper. They were marooned!

First Mate does a rim shot on the drum: Buh-dum-TSUH. Unseen patrons walk away.

Skipper. She’s wearing maroon. I thought she’d get it.

First Mate. Looks mauve to me.

Skipper looks at First Mate. First Mate looks at Skipper.

Skipper. You’re an idiot.

First Mate looks back at the unseen patrons. He moves to do a rim shot but doesn’t.

Skipper. Wanna see if they’re doing shots at the Montauk booth?

First Mate does a jig, drumming affirmatively. They exit.

End of play.

Excerpts from the Trauma Collective

Place: Online

Time: Ontime


Bayo Akomalafe, Ph.D. Author, teacher, public intellectual.

The Traumatized Void. An earnest listener.

Bayo Akomalafe, Ph.D. speaks into an outdated webcam. He is tucked into an unassuming office space next to what appears to be a shower. The Traumatized Void listens.

Bayo. Western psychotherapists lean into the client, the US is you know, heavily devoted to developmental psychologies, it’s about you and your linearity of growth and what happened to you when you were of a kid and blah blah blah but there isn’t a centralizing of the client in these indigenous traditions. There is a decentering of the client and the narrative of the client…

The Traumatized Void’s brow furrows.

Slowing down is about situating ourselves on the moving planet in a fluid, processional, relational world that is not amenable to our theorizations, that is bigger, grander, more promiscuous than our theories and is constantly inviting us to break the mold of responsivity so that we can, perchance, think differently and see the others that have always been implicated when we try to run from problem to solution. So that’s what I mean by awareness, I just mean past perception, I do not just mean the cognitive event. I mean it’s about meeting the others and being met by the others, whatever those others might mean. How do we solve climate chaos? It’s not just simply by developing climate canceling technologies. We might have to listen to the Atlantic Ocean, we might have to listen to the bones, to the bones that were able to jump far ahead of “safety” into the waters, we might have to do that kind of work.

The Traumatized Void is quiet. Takes a note. Restarts the video.

End of play.

Crossing the Unknown Sea

Place: Online

Time: Ontime

Characters: David Whyte. Poet, teacher, pilgrim. Many of him.


A chorus of David Whytes, also speaking into a webcam, but a more recent model. A library is behind, by no means quaint, but subdued. Tastefully dark-wooded. The Davids repeat each phrase and stanza several times before moving on, rarely in unison.


Even in the midst of thinking You’ll

never be ready even when you feel you have never deserved that freedom to go

even under the comforting illusion that you never had a single speck of faith in what you want

you have already packed your silent reluctance away,

lifted your ear to the morning birdsong and before anyone can wake you are

out the door, down the road round the corner and on your way.

End of Play.

Would have been quicker just to tell you about them. The theater!

Art Digested

Yum Yum!



  • Anna In The Tropics, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz

  • I Am The Most Beautiful Bird, an expertly wrought mytho-horror play by Else Went

  • The Girls, a short story by Joy Williams published by The Idaho Review in 2017

  • Let Us Now Follow The Cats, a stage adaptation of the above by Jess Barbagallo

  • Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, just the chapter on ‘Shells’

  • HISTORY published a magazine solely consisting of stories about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I bought it at CVS between receiving my shots and proving I wasn’t going to pass out.


  • The first couple hours of poet David Whyte’s Three Sundays series on Crossing the Unknown Sea, Life and Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

  • John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on ‘Law & Order’, ‘Museums’ and ‘Crime Reporting

  • The first playoff appearance (and WIN) by the Seattle Mariners since I was eleven

  • Rob McElheney and Ryan Reynolds’ Welcome to Wrexham on Hulu

  • An embarrassing number of very stupid YouTube prank videos posted by a couple of English morons named Woody and Kleiny (sorry in advance for linking)


  • Still Life, recent Theater Hall of Fame inductee Emily Mann’s 1981 documentary play about three people profoundly affected by one man’s return from the Vietnam War and the uncertain American future ahead of them, at Ancram Opera House; Z’s review pending (positive!)

  • Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s multigenerational epic exploring the fates of one Jewish Vienese family through the catastrophic first half of the 20th century, at Broadway’s Longacre Theater; Z’s review pending (negative!)

  • I'm Revolting, Gracie Gardner's new play about face cancer at the Atlantic; Z's review pending (neutral!)

  • A sprinkling of process showings at the Mercury Store, intimate half-hour glimpses into explorations of:

    • the tension between medical students and the actors who pretend to be their patients so they can develop better bedside manner

    • primordial black joy in operatic-poetic-choreographic genesis

    • expressionist movement and fugue-like contemplation of the water of the middle passage

    • an improvised character study of the artist’s father, assisted by an artificially intelligent chatbox uploaded with a cache of emails sent to the artist by her father

Art Assembled

Worked on it

  • A song! I wrote a tune on guitar called How Continents Are Made as part of a gift to Piper Rae Patterson on her 27th** birthday. Will record! Might share!

Working on it

  • More stand up: My friend Rebi and I are exchanging notes for each other’s comedy sets, riffing off some bit ideas, fiddling with structure and whatnot, as they say in the biz. By the time 2023 rolls around, our goal is for each of us to have a couple tight fives and a longer set with which to work the local clubs (or whatever comics call rehearsing).

  • Singing: I’ve been taking this musical theater scene study class with Nathan Brewer while continuing to study with my voice coach, Michele Rosen, and I am experiencing joy and freedom while singing for the first time in 15 years! My piano playing and music reading are both improving too.

  • An update on one of the Death play/teleplay ideas:

    • Before: 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.

    • Now: Ego Death Baby. Well shit, Baryshnikov insisted with a few thwacks of her fucking stick that if I’m gonna do a Punk’d parody about ego death, I’m missing a much more vulnerable and probably much more funny opportunity which is to actually do it for real, as myself, and to subject my dear dear family and friends to interviews that, you know, are about my doing that and their takes on the whole ego death progression. Classic Baryshnikov.

  • On December 12th, Undiscovered Works is hosting an online reading of my play Troglobites, which will be followed by an in-person reading in the spring. I will include the deets in next month’s Rites!

How I Spent the Money-ish

  • Imperfect Food boxes - $250

  • Weekly food and drinks with the company members at Mercury Store - $90

  • Internet - $55

  • Therapy Sessions - $170

  • Lessons with Voice Coach - $220

  • Private student loans, baby - $221

In Closing

I am going to be heading to Boston this weekend to celebrate my dear friend Tom’s 70th birthday and 50 years with Ellen. Wherever you are when you read this, if you could just give a yawp of joy on their behalves, I would greatly appreciate it. A fist pump will do if you’re keeping up appearances.

Gratitudes will return, but I turn my head back to Carlos and Don Juan for today’s final offering.

Think of your death now. It is at arm's length. It may tap you any moment, so really you have no time for crappy thoughts and moods. None of us have time for that. The only thing that counts is action, acting instead of talking.

- Pg. 39, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda

Yours in writing,

Miss Chiff

*1972 edition, Washington Square Press


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