Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Some of you may have heard of National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. It's a wacky but well-loved tradition, in which thousands of people from all over the world (so it's really International Novel Writing Month, if you want to get technical) attempt to write a 50,000-page novel in 30 days. I've attempted it four times and won it twice (I wrote about my 2008 triumph in What is Steno Good For: Writing and Coding, if you're interested). It's always a blast, and every time the end of October rolls around I get that nagging little hankering to write another novel, but this year it's just not in the cards. I'm CARTing for four students at three different colleges, five days a week plus prep and editing time, transcribing an average of one ophthalmology interview per workday, and frequently working weekends doing theater captioning and other per diem CART work that comes along. If I tried to carve out the time for NaNoWriMo, I'd have to cut corners somewhere else, and I don't want to do that. But I thought of something I could do, to get in the November marathon spirit: NatCapVidMo. You guessed it: National Captioning Video Month. I've decided to caption one online video per day throughout the month of November, using the amazing free utility provided by Universal Subtitles. The great thing about Universal Subtitles is that it not only works with YouTube videos, but with virtually any embeddable video hosted anywhere on the web. I made a test video this afternoon and it was absolutely amazing how quick and easy it was:

So from now until November 1st I'm going to try to put together a list of videos in need of captioning. Requests will definitely be considered, of course, though I reserve the right to ignore them and put up something that tickles my own strange fancy instead. I know this blog is usually pretty low-traffic, and I understand if one post per day exceeds readability for some people. If so, just remove me from your RSS feeds from November 1st through 30th and add me back on come December. But I think it'll be fun. Anyone else who'd like to join in would also be very welcome. If it goes well next month, I might even make it a yearly tradition. What do you think?

Interview on That Keith Wann Show Tomorrow!

Since September I've been captioning That Keith Wann Show live every Wednesday night at 8:00 EST, but this week I'm passing the captioning job to my excellent colleague Cory for the night, because I'm actually going to be on the show as a guest, and there's no way I'm going to be able to talk and write steno at the same time. For those of you who don't know Keith Wann, he's a legend in the ASL community. Both his parents are Deaf, so he grew up speaking ASL as a first language, and subsequently became not only a master interpreter, but a masterful ASL comedian. When he started his radio show, he asked me to caption it for him, and even though I had to drop my ASL class * (since the show was scheduled smack dab in the middle of it), I gleefully leapt at the chance. It's been a blast, and I've gotten the chance not only to give live access to the Deaf people in the audience -- many of whom then revisit it in another medium when the ASL version is uploaded -- but I also get to give access to people with hearing loss whose primary language isn't ASL, who often want to connect with members of the Deaf community both for personal reasons and to help bolster self-advocacy efforts, but who are prevented from building those alliances by the language barrier. I'm really interested in those conversations, both between Deaf people and HoH/deafened people and between CART providers and ASL interpreters. We work towards many of the same goals, but it's relatively rare that we actually get a chance to sit down and talk together, so I can't wait to see how the conversation goes between Keith and me tomorrow, and I'm hoping that some Deaf/HoH/deafened audience members will call in or write questions and comments in the chat room as well. Tune in tomorrow and see how it goes!

* There's a happy ending, though: I'm starting up ASL lessons again in two weeks on Tuesday mornings, so Keith can stop feeling guilty about depriving me of my education.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How I Got Here

Often I'm asked, "What made you become a CART provider?" The short answer is that I was a freelance transcriptionist who became frustrated with the slow pace of qwerty and went looking for a better way, which turned out to be steno. The slightly more detailed answer can be read on my website's bio page. And last May I made a 35-second clip connecting the dots from there to here using YouTube's nifty Search Stories Video Creator.

But the longer answer, of course, is that this career was a long time in coming. In case you're interested in the details, here's the story of my work history over the past 12 years.

* 1998: I graduated high school and went to work in the pit orchestra of the Bigfork Summer Playhouse in Bigfork, Montana, playing violin, trumpet, and bassoon. I would eventually work there for four summers in all, and during my second summer I did some volunteer play therapy and babysitting for a six-year-old boy who had autism. I also made the acquaintance of a woman who worked as a TTY operator, a job I'd heard of but had never seriously considered. Looking back, I think that those two experiences together made me want to learn more about disability advocacy, though I didn't put the thought into action until some time later.

* 1998 - 2002: I went to St. John's College, spending two years at the Annapolis campus and two years at the Santa Fe campus. While I was there, I had various work-study jobs, including as a dishwasher in the cafeteria and as an assistant for Sophomore music classes, which gave me the opportunity to help students with listening skills, sight singing, paper writing, and counterpoint.

* 2002: I graduated from St. John's, and after taking a few post-baccalaureate premedical classes at Towson University, I decided that I didn't actually want to be a doctor, so I headed back home to Montana to weigh my options. Shortly after settling in, I got a job at the Missoula Developmental Service Corporation, working in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. I worked there for a year and a half and learned a great deal from my clients -- not least that I really enjoyed providing support services to people.

* 2004: Just a few months before I was supposed to ship out to Morocco with the Peace Corps, I met my current partner over the internet and visited NYC to see what would happen next. Long story short, I gave the Peace Corps my regrets and decided to move to NYC instead. When I got here, I found a very pleasant but low-paying job at Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The employee book discount was fabulous, but I was having trouble making ends meet, so I found a job assisting a retired lawyer who had developed ALS and needed basic supportive care. She was an excellent employer, and she taught me how to do my job efficiently and discreetly, without unnecessarily disrupting the daily course of her life. While working for her, I decided to apply to Hunter College's MA program in British and American Literature, mostly because I wasn't sure what to do next, and because it sounded like a fun way to spend a few more years reading books. Unfortunately, when I got my acceptance letter, I realized that tuition would be hard to come by considering what I was making at the time, and that my prospects for supporting myself after getting the MA weren't much better.

* 2005: Switching between the graveyard shift during the week and a daytime schedule on the weekends was getting difficult to keep up, so I reluctantly said goodbye to my employer as she left to spend a summer in Maine, and found a job transcribing audio tapes of television shows (mostly reality shows) for pre-production editing scripts. That was when I realized that, as fast as I could write on a qwerty keyboard, it was nowhere near fast enough to keep up with even a moderate rate of speech. I knew there had to be a better way, so I looked up "stenography" on Wikipedia. I read the article, getting more and more excited, and started thinking about ways I could use that sort of skill, once I developed it. Sure, it would help me at the pre-production job, but I didn't want to be transcribing reality shows forever. I could use it to caption live TV broadcasts, but again, that wasn't exactly my cup of tea. Court reporting? It sounded like a challenge, but I wasn't sure I wanted to sit between two sets of shouting lawyers every day. Finally, as my eye moved down the article, I saw my first mention of CART. How had I never heard of this before? Working in colleges and universities, transcribing classes for Deaf and hard of hearing students? It would be like going to graduate school and getting a free education, while making an actual living! Plus I wouldn't just have to choose any one subject to study -- I could learn a little bit of everything. That settled it. I wrote Hunter and told them I wouldn't be accepting their offer. I enrolled at the local Court Reporting school and sent my resume out to every offline captioning company in the five boroughs so that I could get more experience in actual captioning standards, as opposed to just pre-production transcription. One company hired me, and I was on my way.

* 2005 - 2007: I worked hard transcribing television for captioning (mostly cooking shows, DIY home repair shows, and home decorating shows, with the occasional comedy special or, sigh, reality show) during the day on the qwerty keyboard and went to night school learning steno. On the weekends I made a little extra cash transcribing shows for freelance per-minute rates, on top of the weekly quota I had to manage between Monday and Friday. In the beginning, I'd sit at my steno machine all day just to bang out a 20-minute show. I was still learning my theory and my software, but the more I did it, the easier it came, and soon I was earning enough on the weekend to take my partner out for fancy dinners and even to sock away some savings. Eventually I was even able to switch over from qwerty to steno during the week and still keep up my quota. A year and a half to the day after starting steno school, I passed my last 225 WPM test, and then I spent six months working closely with a professional CART provider, improving my realtime writing and learning the tricks of the trade in all sorts of contexts, from museum lectures to college classes to support group meetings. At the end of those six months, she determined that my writing was quick enough and clean enough to start working for her. I subcontracted with her for two semesters, CARTing the classes that she thought I could handle and further improving my speed and my dictionary.

* 2007 - now: My mentor mostly worked in New Jersey and I wanted to stay in the City, so after a year of very valuable training I decided to start StenoKnight CART Services and head off on my own. After quitting my full-time captioning job, I also began working on a freelance basis with The Caption Coalition, captioning prescripted plays and musicals on and off Broadway. I got my CCP, RPR, and CBC and continued working to get faster and cleaner, providing CART in many different subjects at a number of NYC colleges and other venues. I also got the idea for The Plover Project and started gradually working on making it happen. Along the way, I realized that I was completely supporting myself and my partner with my CART business, which was a wonderful feeling. I paid off the loan I'd gotten from a family friend to buy my commercial steno software within the first year and every year since then I've worked to develop my skills and improve my equipment, first buying my wireless tablet, then my LCD projector, and then getting into remote CART, including my current weekly gig captioning That Keith Wann Show. I've also been taking ASL for about two years now, and I can hold my own in a casual conversation, though I've still got a lot of work to do before I'm fluent. I'll be going for my RMR certification soon, and after that, who knows? My long-term goal is to CART a student through medical school, and my short-term goal is to finish writing Steno 101.

I'm looking forward to the days when I say the words "I'm a CART provider" and no one says, "You mean, like, to the guys who sell the hot dogs on the corner?" This career has been around for almost 20 years now, but its profile is still far too small, and I want to do my part in expanding it. On the personal front, I don't know what my business will look like in five years -- whether it'll be bigger or smaller or about the same; still based in NYC, largely remote, or somewhere else entirely -- but as long as I'm in front of my machine, writing the words of professors and college students and learning a bit for myself along the way, I'll be happy.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Money Book for Freelancers from a CART Provider's Perspective

This blog has been quiet for about a month, as I've been settling into my new CART schedule and pulling everything together for the first big release of Plover, the world's first free steno software (more details on the Plover Blog). I wanted to check in here, though, because there's a lot to write about.

First of all, I've officially survived the summer. The first month of the semester is always a little rough, because I'm working nonstop, scrabbling to get the vocabulary of each new class entered into my steno dictionary. The Latin class I'm CARTing is the most fun I've had in ages, but it's a lot of work to make Latin translate properly in realtime, even though I took three years of it in high school. This year I've also had to figure out the most efficient way to commute between the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Lower Manhattan, while adjusting to a more regimented schedule, after the freefloating months of summer. There's also the money factor, of course. It usually takes a little over a month for the first checks of the semester to start coming in, and quarterly taxes are due September 15th, well before the month is up. I managed to scrape up just about enough for the estimated payment and then sat tight, waiting to see which would come first: Autumn's first paycheck or the October rent bill. Things were looking grim for a while, and I actually wound up transferring some money from my long-term savings account into checking so that I could cover the rent, but fortunately the check came just in the nick of time and I was able to transfer the money back to savings immediately, which felt good.

So now the checks are coming in with a reassuring regularity, and I've decided to take the advice of Joseph D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan, authors of The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed, and start being much more mindful of what I'm doing with my income. I read the book this summer, but since summer is when CART providers go into "spend your savings and put whatever you're earning toward daily expenses and tax payments" mode, it wasn't really possible to start implementing their principles then, since it's focused on people with flexible payment intervals but nonseasonal, semiregular incomes. I must say I enjoyed the book, though. The authors are two self-described "dorkchops", both freelance writers who are unafraid to talk about the ways they fell short in looking after their bank accounts before figuring out their current system. It's a quick, light-hearted read, full of good information for anyone who's paying for their own business expenses (equipment, health insurance, retirement) and who doesn't collect a regular biweekly paycheck. The only real criticism I have is that one of the chapter headings quotes Ayn Rand -- not an appropriate financial role model, in my opinion -- but the overall philosophy of the book (slow and consistent savings patterns, balancing long-term and short-term goals, responsible management of debt) seemed inconsistent enough with Ms. Rand's style that I wouldn't be surprised if they just pulled the quote from a random assortment of money blurbs without considering the source.

Their taste in didactic mid-century fiction aside, the book is quite useful and surprisingly readable. I've already done the following, as of the past week or so:

* I've opened two additional savings accounts, alongside my current catchall account. I'd been putting money into that account fairly infrequently and trying to keep enough in my business account to save up for quarterly taxes, transferring money from business to checking whenever my personal account ran dry. The authors of The Money Book advise keeping several accounts open at a time, each with a distinct purpose. My catchall account is now my emergency account, and I've set a goal of keeping three months' income in it at all times. The two new accounts are for taxes and long-term savings, and the business account is now going to be used as an overhead account, with a certain amount of money per month calculated according to my fixed expenses plus my average spending patterns, which I track using Mint.com. The Money Book advises putting a certain percentage of each check into each account with every deposit. I'm going to try to keep to that, and I'll report back in a few months with a report on how it's going.

* I'm also now tracking my cash spending, using TrackIt: Expense Edition on my phone. Every time I spend some of the cash in my pocket, I write down what I spent it on, and when I run out of cash, I take that record to Mint and enter the information manually. Mint automatically deducts it from the most recent recorded ATM withdrawal, and the accounts stay in balance while reminding me what I spent my cash on.

* I filled out a number of The Money Book's worksheets, helping me to establish a reasonable monthly budget while making sure I was putting aside enough for the future. I found that being prompted to put down my top five goals in various categories such as Financial Security, Family, Career, and Skill Development was very helpful. When I was finally forced to be specific about what I wanted and how much money I needed, I was able to set out a much more concrete plan than the nebulous aspirations I'd been counting on until now.

* Fortunately my only debt is from student loans; I don't run a balance on any credit cards. That means that the debt-reduction section of The Money Book was largely theoretical to me, though it never hurts to get another reminder on the dangers of relying on credit. For people with significant amounts of "bad debt", I think the book would be a very helpful resource on how to prioritize payments and avoid sinking into credit traps again.

I'll probably read The Money Book again near the end of the year to see how well I've been keeping up with its advice. Then I'll report back here with the results of the experiment. Meanwhile, things are going quite well, and it's great to be working steadily again. Summer is nice, but Fall has always been my favorite season. The air is getting cooler, the nights are getting longer, and I'm back in the classroom, CARTing all kinds of fascinating stuff. I'm also feeling more in control of my spending habits and plans for the future. Life is looking good.