How Do You Sleep At Night, Part Three

Please give a warm welcome to special guest-poster, the fabulous dramaturg, style icon, and my Lovah: Ramona Ostrowski!

IMG_3022I was recently chatting (well, gossiping) with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who was moving in with their romantic partner after dating for what we both considered to be a shockingly short amount of time. “Buy a piece of furniture together!” my friend said, distilling the complexities of combining two lives into one space into a succinct and perfect test of compatibility.

John and I completed this daunting and emotionally-fraught task when we first moved in together, because we needed to buy a piece of furniture that could serve as seating in our small living room and as a place for a guest to sleep. We passed with flying colors, no tears, still in love, and currently have a lovely little loveseat whose arms fold down into a twin bed.

Six months later, it was time for us to buy a new mattress. The double bed we were sleeping on wasn’t terribly old, but it was made of metal springs which meant that whenever one of us got in or out of bed, rolled over, coughed, etc, the whole thing would move and make noise.

Now, I consider myself to be a relatively easy-going person—there’s not that much I can’t get used to eventually, and I generally think I’m a pretty chill and flexible girlfriend. But I need my sleep. I crave sleep. I love it so much. If my lifestyle allowed it, I would happily sleep for eleven hours every night. I’m barely functional when I get eight. I’m also a pretty light sleeper, so the thing I love is elusive to me. It doesn’t seem quite fair.

All of which is to say, I was not happy whenever I was disturbed by John getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or waking up at 6am to write, or tossing and turning because he couldn’t sleep well. I was starting to feel resentful. I’d lay awake, staring at the inside of my eye mask. After particularly bad nights, I’d get up still annoyed at him. The answer seemed clear: a new bed was necessary.

Things were complicated, though, by his new passion for eco-friendly products. You can read more about our process in his post, but I will just say that it was certainly tricky to find something in our budget range that met both of our specifications.

Making the bed decision was also a lot more emotional than the futon choice. Many mattresses have very long warranties. So the decision wasn’t just, “What do we want now?” but also, “What will we want in ten years? Fifteen years? Twenty years, in some cases?” That was part of what drove us to a queen size—though we were pretty fine in our double, there’s gotta be room for the eventual puppy!

The extra weight of The Future hanging over the decision (not to mention the substantial cost involved) made conversations tricky, so we often had to take breaks from talking about it when we (well, I) would get overwhelmed.

After much independent research, spreadsheet-sharing, and conversation, though, we were really excited to land on EcoTerra. It was hard—we got to a point where we were reading so many customer reviews that the good ones became meaningless, and the bad ones became terrifying. One of the reasons we actually landed on EcoTerra is because, as a new company, there were less reviews—less people to talk us out of it, basically. It’s not the most logical way to make a decision, but having less information kind of allowed us to trust our gut. Eventually, the natural latex foam on top of individually wrapped springs (to minimize motion transfer and noise) just felt like the right choice.

When the mattress arrived, we immediately loved it. It is so much softer than the old one, but still supportive, and without that almost stuck feeling I sometimes get from mattresses that are pure foam—this still has a bounce to it. I’m still usually aware when John gets in or out of the bed before me, but it’s a much less disruptive experience—I’m able to note it and then quickly go back to sleep (and quickly forgive him…most of the time).

Overall, I think we learned a lot about each other and how to work together through this experience. We learned to clearly express our priorities, and to respect each other’s. In the realm of making eco-conscious purchasing decisions, we learned to do research and not take companies at their words. Many companies claim to be “eco-friendly,” “green,” etc, but the actual definitions and methods vary greatly.

Stay tuned for a wrap-up of our next big decision: adopting a dog! (Once it’s published on the internet, we can’t go back.)




It Takes a Village

I’ve been reading a lot in researching this project. Maybe too much.

But there is a lot to absorb: the science, the predictions and projections, but also what’s happening elsewhere, and how all of these factors interact to produce results. I’ve studied the history of how Boston reacts to disasters, and sought for light amidst all the tragic estimations.

Something I’ve been drawn to repeatedly is the idea of the village – even if mobile – and how people are drawn together amidst cataclysm. Despite narratives otherwise, disaster tends to bring people together: strangers help one another. Regular life routines are disrupted and everyone re-sets, their priorities re-focus: imminent needs are tended to often with a priority placed on helping others meet their needs: food, shelter, health.

I’m reminded of a Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of the century. I was living in Santa Fe with no TV, no access to news. I worked late nights and slept until 11 or noon. I checked my email and received a note from a friend who lived in NYC (it would have been 2 or 3pm his time). He wrote to say he was ok, happy in fact. He had spent the day at Central Park, where many people seemed to converge. Strangers were holding hands, buying each other ice cream and hot dogs. Someone brought a radio and someone brought a guitar. Friends who didn’t know each others’ names held hands and sang songs and danced. Someone fell in love. Someone offered a place to stay for the night.

It was hours later that night – when I went to work and saw the images on TV – before I understood what happened on that morning of September 11.

I am also reminded of a Monday afternoon in Boston a few years ago, and how, when it felt as though the very soul of the city was attacked, the citizens closed tightly together around that hole, like new skin growing over a wound to keep out the bad.

Stories I have often been drawn to in fiction or film show people – families, extended families, adopted families, and strangers – coming together in the midst of horror. I’ve returned to many of those stories as I dream up this play.

Here are a few that have impacted me hugely:

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – the story of refugees from America’s last great climate disaster, a family that embraces others despite distrust and worry. I have the added memory of this being one of the first plays I worked on. A production is very much like a family coming together amidst disaster: it is a group of often strangers, working towards a single goal, setting aside selfishness to achieve something remarkable together.

Harry Potter series: is there a better contemporary story showing the power of adopted families? Name one, I dare you.

Voltaire’s Candide: a young man and his friends travel the world in search of heaven or truth, and find neither. What they do find is that the simple togetherness of people you care for, and the simple means of working to meet each other’s needs, might be the closest thing to heaven we have access to. With this work, I have also the memories of Mary Zimmerman’s production of the Bernstein musical, which the Huntington put on in 2011. It is still the highlight of my theatre-going career. Hearing a note from the final song fills me so immediately with joy and hope that I tear up, I think of sprouting roses, and I prepare to try again to be a better part of a community.

Dancing at the End of the World

As a writer, I return to music over and over for inspiration. For every play I make a playlist. Sometimes I’m drawn to the story of a song, sometimes just a mood or tone in the sounds.

For Martha’s (b)Rainstorm, I’m drawn to a wide range of things. I’m thinking of what music might sound like in the future, which in my gut means songs that aren’t in English, songs that have a melange of sounds from different places: globalization and migration expressed through an array of instruments.

Some keystone bands are Gogol Bordello, which takes the Gypsy folk music of Russia/Eastern Europe and cranks it with an American Punk rock attitude; also Debo band, a Boston-based Ethiopian funk band.

Also: an exciting range of Apocalypse Pop exists (A-Pop-Calypse?): music expressly about destruction or the end of the world. Often these songs are full of joy and energy: they are about love, celebration, the exuberance to be found when there are no more questions or doubts. Here are a few of my faves:
Modern English: I Melt With You

R.E.M.: It’s the End of the World as we Know It (And I Feel Fine):

Nena: 99 Red Balloons:

World Design and Costume

Imagining what the world looks like in 35 – 50 years is one of the most fun parts of a process like this. I’ve been inspired by art and visuals and photography from many sources – ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, gigantic murals of myths, photographs of disaster areas.

But sometimes it’s something simple that catches your eye.

Still from JOURNEY UNDER THE SEA by RA Montgomery

I haven’t written a word, but the costume design is done. Everyone gets a Shark Head. 

Choose Your Own Future

I have always been drawn to art that allows some agency for the audience. It has recently become much more prevalent in the theatre with immersive shows like Sleep No More or Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music


Taylor Mac in Judy’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music


I had an early formative theatrical experience working with a college troupe inspired by the NeoFuturists’ Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. The show includes 30 two-minute plays; the numbers 1 – 30 hang on a clothesline across the stage; the audience calls out the number of the play they want to see and the cast pulls that number off the clothesline and performs that play. When that play is over, the audience yells out the next number, and so on. The plays are performed in a different order every night. For bonus fun, there’s a time clock: if the actors finish all 30 plays in 60 minutes, they win “the bet.” If they don’t, the audience wins and gets to whip-cream-pie the actors.

The NF plays are each separate entities, there’s no shared story or characters. But I have long been interested in what happens when those short pieces are connected: they exist in the same world, track pieces of the same story.

I’ve toyed with that for some time, but never quite figured out the right story. When the idea for Martha’s (b)Rainstorm came along, I had just read a Choose Your Own Adventure novel called Space Vampire! (I highly recommend that everyone read Space Vampires). And suddenly these ideas came together: we are currently making choices for people in the future, by impacting the climate in such a powerful way; doing a Choose your Own Future format story would give the audience agency in choosing, but maintains a narrative aspect.

It has been a treat diving into the Choose Your Own Adventure books from my childhood. What strikes me is how stylistically different they can be. There were two primary authors – RA Montgomery and Edward Packard – and their approach to the form is notably different. Montgomery gives new choices every 2 – 3 pages, and there are ultimately more narrative threads, more endings. Packard gives the reader choices every 5 – 8 pages; some threads continue one direction and then meet back with another thread. You have the sense of a single world being explored – reading all the way through one story thread gives you a view of the world that informs the next thread you read.

Looking at one of the many maps of the CYOA books shows just how complicated they can get.

Journey under the sea

Story Map of Journey Under the Sea by RA Montgomery


Doing this format as a play, one consideration is the resources: can actors memorize 32 threads? How do you produce a play that requires so many worlds (props, locations, etc)? What happens if the audience choices lead to death 5 minutes into a performance?

To simplify things I’m ultimately following the Edward Packard style: trying to create a single contained world in which the audience can choose from a few stories: characters and locations will be present in the play regardless of which thread you see, and there won’t be so many dead ends.

“Triumph of Religion” – Sargent’s Murals @ BPL

In my 11 years in Boston I’ve spent a lot of time at the BPL and it’s been a treat to spend even more there recently.

One of my favorite discoveries a few years ago are the John Singer Sargent murals, The Triumph of Religion, on the 3rd floor of the original building (up the stairs past the giant lions, then up one more).

Something about these paintings really speaks to me for this project. I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about early culture’s cosmologies: folk tales and myths. Just about every culture has a flood myth or apocalypse myth. There are creatures in Sargent’s paintings that are part human, part animal – a god with a bull head; a snake whispering; a sphinx with eagle ears and a feline body.

Something about Cataclysm brings out these hybrid creatures in us and I’ve been thinking of that as well. How will Boston – a huge leader in the medical and tech industries – adapt to rising waters. Will we have gills? Will we design something that allows us to live underwater in ways we can’t do now? In envisioning the future I’m looking at the past: the mythic creatures who have appeared in stories told centuries ago.

I am also very interested in religion in the world of our play. How do cultures react in cataclysmic events? How do current beliefs embrace new developments; how do new religions spring up to explain the unexplained. Children of Men and The Leftovers are two stories recently that explore how religion comes alive in new ways after an end-of-the-world type event.

Boston is a deeply religious place, in a variety of ways. I cannot help but believe that – if and when the waters rise – belief and faith (whether ancient or newly sprung) will play a big part in the culture.

Chris Lynum: Salt Marshes & Nitrogen

Chris Lynum is a PhD student at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center who studies Salt Marshes and their ability to transform nitrogen in the water into inert nitrogen gas (quite a superpower!). Chris is a Wisconsin native who’s studies and fascinations have brought him to Beantown. 

Many of New England’s salt marshes have been wiped out or damaged over the last centuries (consider how much of Boston used to be water and you’ll start to see why). In some cases, humans have restored – or attempted to restore – salt marshes to something close to their original state.

There are two kinds of Salt Marsh restoration:

  • Active Restoration: in which humans shape a salt marsh, sculpting the landscape, planting specific flora over a short period of time, then setting the marsh free
  • Passive Restoration: in which humans restore the main ingredients of the salt marsh (balance of salt and fresh water) and allow the flora and fauna to slowly and naturally repopulate on their own (“All Organic”) over extended periods of time.

It’s basically the difference between microwaving a DiGiorno pizza, vs. mixing and rolling your own dough, whipping up homemade sauce (except Nature is making the handmade pizza?)… you get the idea.

Chris studies how different approaches to Salt Marsh restoration impact the local microbe community’s ability to convert excess nitrates into inert nitrogen gas.

The big question: How do these approaches impact a marsh’s ability to convert nitrogen? Chris is trying to find that out and has several Salt Marshes in the Boston and Cape Cod area that he visits regularly for testing.

Why is this nitrogen processing so essential, you ask? Here’s the story-cycle:

  • Humans add nitrates to a water system upstream
  • These nitrates flow downstream towards the mouth of a waterway, and into the ocean
  • A healthy salt marsh converts these nitrates into nitrogen gas, releasing it into the air where it has no impacts

If the Salt Marsh can’t make this conversion, all this excess nitrogen enters the coastal ocean, and causes *EUTROPHICATION* and *HARMFUL ALGAL BLOOMS*! (imagine hearing that in a horror movie-style voiceover).

  • Eutrophication = Super Growth of Algae
  • Dying Algal Blooms = loss of oxygen in the water
  • Loss of oxygen = dying off of flora and fauna all along the coast.

Excess nitrogen gives Algae what they need to thrive, greening the water and can lead to death and removal of anything else out of the area. Dozens of marine species would die off or migrate because they could not survive.

Basically, Chris is doing this work so that you can have Lobster Rolls.

Salt Marshes also act as a buffer between land and ocean. When the sea level rises or a storm surges towards the coast, salt marshes have to potential absorb some of this additional water in a way that protects residential areas, but also maintains a flourishing biosphere that contributes to an area’s ecology. Marshes also act as key Carbon Sinks – they gulp up CO2 in the air that otherwise would contribute to continued global warming patterns.

In addition to the above, Salt Marshes are just beautiful. They are filled with gorgeous plant life, birds and butterflies. They are perfect for restorative or meditative strolls. ChrisInstagram is largely a record of the stunning life he finds on his visits.

JJK’s fun fact from this conversation: Chris’ favorite plant is glasswort, a fascinating and beautiful plant that thrives in Salt Marshes. It is edible – you can pick it and bite, no prep needed – has a crisp and salty taste. Be warned: it acts as a laxative.

Look Into My Crystal Ball

Two themes have arisen in all my conversations with City Planners and scientists when talking about climate change:

  1. The impacts feel very far in the future to most citizens (which means there is a lack of urgency for action).
  2. It’s hard to show people the GOOD side of adapting to climate change. How do you show people how life can be improved through changes we can make? 

In 2012, San Francisco blogger Burrito Justice took both of these issues head on by generating a map of San Francisco in 2072, after 200 feet of sea level rise. The water increase is beyond any current projections (to the point of being farcical), but allows viewers to consider a drastically different landscape.


The map shows how utterly different the city will be. But also demonstrates how humans adapt: hills familiar to SF natives are now islands; favorite neighborhoods now covered by water provide the names of bays and capes. (A fan favorite of the map is Steam Anchorage, located where the current Steam Anchor brewery lives).

In addition to the map, he provides a fictional news report from the day. Life has gone on, as it always does. Taco trucks have become Taco Boats and still provide yummy snacks to urban workers; the city government has ceded prime land to an important local business.

In this fictional 2072, life has continued. The water kept rising but so did the people.

One of my goals with Martha’s (b)Rainstorm is to do the same: to show people a view of Boston in the future where life goes on in ways that are both different and the same; both awful to consider in terms of what we’ve lost, and beautiful to imagine in terms of what we might gain.

(Check out the Timesarticle on this map and more!)

To see Boston with only 6′ of sea level rise, turn to page 2020.
To see Boston with 200′ sea level rise, turn to the next page. 

What’s Your Eco IQ?

I always considered myself fairly “green.” Growing up we always recycled; I ran Boston’s first green friendly theatre company. As I have researched this project, it has struck home how little I know.

Check out the NYTimes Quiz How Much Do You Know About Solving Global Warming?

It’s fun and hugely informative. The list is inspired by Drawdown, a new book ranking the options for cutting down greenhouse gases. I plan to check that out soon, and so should you!

Looking for more eco-cation? Check out the Tip of the Iceberg page for more reading.

Now you know, and as GI Joe taught us, Knowing is Half the Battle.

To increase your EcoIQ Powers, turn to page 31.
To stay Eco-ILLogical, turn to page 49.

Globe-al Warming

Boston Globe writer Terry Byrne profiled the BPL’s Playwright In Residence program on Sunday, June 18.

It gives a great context to this year-long project and includes conversations with me and Michael Colford, BPL’s Director of Library services. Also featured: awkward photos! (Personally, I was hoping for an action shot of us submerged in the fountain of the BPL’s gorgeous courtyard.)

I cannot put into words what an honor it is to be given such an opportunity. To have two great organizations put so much faith in a writer is huge, and I’m so excited to have this opportunity. I’ve wanted to work with Fresh Ink and Jessie Baxter for a long time, so this is just a real treat all around. Thanks, Universe!

To see pics of Sargent’s “Triumph of Religion” mural (mentioned in the profile) click here!

To check out the Library’s “Regions and Seasons” map exhibition, click here!