The walk to the top of the reservoir was longer than I remembered. The eight of us fell into a natural two-by-two, led by Max’s overcoated frame and Leona’s sharp figure. Kids bolted across the empty streets like delinquent ghosts while fireworks blasted along dark lanes, behind rowhouses and overhead. For a while, the cold kept us from noticing the hills we climbed. The blood that flowed warmed and itched my ankles. Our steady march curved up, up towards Nunhead Cemetery, whose wrought-iron gates loomed like a lit-up fortress below the cracks and explosions above us. Our destination was not far now. Just a little more. We turned. A trail. Soft, leafy foot-thuds replaced the pavementy clicks of our boots. And the hole in the fence was right where we’d left it. Under and through. Under and through. Under and through, three more times. November drizzle slicked the soil for the steepest part of our journey. The ground was so close to our faces. The faint laughter of others crept through the early evening mist, and soon we found ourselves within it. We saw everything from the top: Nunhead’s village-like splendor faded into a fuzzy London skyline framed on top by weeping clouds and below by the Thames, black as onyx. Every sparkling rocket, every puny flame played a part in the show we watched from our perch in the Southeast. Up close, silhouettes of embering cigarettes that hung from the lips of bulky-shouldered boymen were as grand a display as the Battersea big lights, where synced fireworks blew up so high they lost their top-halves to the grip of fog. We stood with neighbors we did not know to watch the city flicker. A dozen mittened hands glowed like phantom limbs by the lights of the sparklers they twirled. Recognizable faces lit up only to disappear into shadows. Rosa’s dark cloak rippled in the wind that nipped at us from every direction. Drunk voices got lost in the whizz, bangs and pops. We’d worn coats with pockets big enough for our hands and the cold Carlsbergs that sweated against them. The night reeked of whisky, damp wool, coal and salted chips. Nearby, a family lit a paper lantern and waited for the fire to inflate the fragile cylinder. It grew from nothing and glowed before us. A small boy held onto the light, unsure of whether he should set the lantern free. It looked like a burning planet in his arms. Finally, quietly, and of his own accord, he relinquished it to the elements. We watched the yellow globe fly into its vanishing point, a final ornament within a city blanketed by fog, flame, ash and the haze of our own silent anthems.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
A piece I wrote for the audience of the Parkville Luminary, the local community paper in my hometown:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Ida Lake. If you don’t know who she is, you’ve probably seen her anyway. She’s been working the Parkville farmer’s market for decades. Six years ago, when I graduated high school, Ida was the first subject I interviewed as a “practicing” journalist. Ida was amiable and patient. In our hour-long interview at her market stall, she bequeathed years of her stories — each one like the perfectly ripe, juicy fruit around us. As I scribbled her every word into my pocket-sized reporter’s notebook, I remember thinking, “Hey, this is kind of fun.”
The interview ended. We exchanged goodbyes. Happily, I drove up Crooked Road, giving myself a pat-on-the-back for reporting well done. I could practically see my name in print. My first story in the Parkville Luminary. And I was being paid to write. My daydream was a little premature. When I sat down at my laptop to draft my first feature, my newbie glee disappeared. A blank screen and blinking cursor stood between me and my printed byline. Panic. There was no way I could write this. How do you even begin to tell the story of woman who’s worked the farmers market for more decades than you’ve been alive? For a moment, I considered quitting.
But my grandfather, the Prince of Parkville, had, more-or-less, gotten me the job. And if there was one thing the good-hearted tale-teller didn’t like, it was a quitter. Plus, the Luminary editor scared the daylights out of me.
So I struggled through every word, and filed it with my editor, Mark Vasto — a big, loud New Yorker, who somehow ended up in Parkville. I recoiled as he took his pen to my words. Thankfully he did. The story ran with my byline on top. I earned 10 honest bucks, and I was hooked. I continued to write through the summer. With each article, the words came more easily and Vasto scared me less. At the end of the summer, I went to journalism school, learned some, wrote some, worked some. And last year I moved to London to do, essentially, the same thing.
Throughout college I didn’t think much about Ida or The Luminary. When my grandpa asked if I’d read his latest column, I’d blush and lie — yes! Of course! I was interested in something else: bigger cities, bigger opportunities, bigger journalism. It wasn’t until I followed my instincts to London that I realized everything big starts small. And small ain’t so bad anyway. My summer at the Luminary taught me everything I know about being a journalist, or any kind of writer. It served as the foundation for what I think journalism should be. For me, it involved a lot of listening, paying attention and relinquishing my pride for a story — sometimes I had to look (or feel) stupid to figure out what was really there. Mostly, though, I was lucky to work for a guy with little tolerance for excuses.
When I failed to show up to cover a local children’s science workshop, I didn’t have to look at my phone to know who’d be calling. Mark Vasto, The Loud New Yorker, didn’t hesitate to weigh-in on my conscience about missing the scoop at the H.M.S Beagle. But in an elegant balance of personal anecdote and unabashed reproach, Vasto’s words stuck with me: When you say you’re gonna do something, do it. The 18-year-old, overachieving version of myself cried a little at this display of tough love. But it was only because I knew Vasto was right. The next day, I swallowed my pride, walked into the science shop and apologized. It didn’t matter that the “scoop” was kind of boring. I should have been there. Writing for a community paper like the Luminary helped me understand why the big and small stories matter. There’s an audience who wants to know. And nothing’s boring. That’s just a lazy excuse (and I’ve made them) for doing a crummy job. I’ve always wanted to be a good journalist, but the Luminary (and my scary editor) showed me how to try to live good journalism. I still battle the exhilarating whir of reporting against the ever-looming writerly doom, but now I know it always passes. Six years and 4,000 miles later, my experience at the Luminary rings clear and true. But it sounds less like bells, and more like the thick New York accent of my friend.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
She lives in many forms, but her makeup is the same. If you’ve not watched her on the stage, you’ve seen her everywhere else. On Tuesdays in March a company full of versions of her danced across your screen. BBC’s Agony and the Ecstasy was meant to curb your Black Swan fears. Surely they aren’t all obsessive. You wanted to watch the show of a ballet dancer’s real life. Offstage, the dance was even more of an edited performance. The mirrors were there, but the filmmaker’s smoke clouded our sets.
She loves that mirror. From the far corner of the studio she catches a glimpse of her fine, long neck. Once breathy wisps of hair now stick in wet, perspired tendrils against her pale nape. She quickly turns. Rotating from the waist up, she looks back at herself, a lithe corkscrew. She moves her right arm through the positions to an arabesque. Her fingers carry her gaze. She no longer sees her reflection, but she knows exactly how she looks: Shoulders down. Tummy in. Lift up off the hip. Chest out. Look up, look up, look up. Don’t sag. Mind the left foot turnout.
She tries to ignore the rumours. Ballet isn’t dying, some critics write. It’s already dead. What about me? She wants to know. She’s alive.
In the studio, she struggles to keep sweat from dripping into her eyes. Look up, look up, look up. She would like a sip of water, but she has jumps to do. Perspiration has soaked through her black leotard. She cannot hide the sweat marks all ballerinas have in the witching hour of rehearsal — under her breasts, on her pubis, down her crack.
Tonight, though, her brow won’t shine with damp. The only signs of work will be the flecked beads of sweat caught-out by stage lights, her heaving chest, and a perfection she cannot see. For those who watch her on stage, she is effortless, beautiful. What a talent, they say.
How do they know? They raved about Black Swan and Natalie Portman’s performance of Nina Sayers, who dances herself to death. They’ve even preordered the DVD. There’s Miss Page too, of The Red Shoes. “Why do you want to dance?” she is asked. “Why do you want to live?” she replies. The heroines are part of a long line of crazy ballerinas on a fanatical and fruitless quest towards perfection. Each one is the same — possessed, fragile and tortured. This must be the ballerina’s life if the films say so.
And what of Sarah Lane? Natalie Portman’s Black Swan ballet double says she deserves more credit, yet the filmmakers and choreographer disregard her claims. No one can be a professional ballerina in two years, Lane argues. Few, though, in the dance world stand up for her. Our Black Swan fears are confirmed. In the media, Lane looks obsessed. Like Nina, she is starving for attention — for the role. We can’t help but make comparisons. She begins to look like the oversized, fading Black Swan posters that hang on the walls of the Underground and watch us from below dark, winged eyelashes. A hairline fracture interrupts the porcelain, powdered finish of her face. We don’t know who is cracking.
For a wordless art, it seems we have lots to say about those eating disorders and battered toes. Between the psycho ballet thrillers, such as Black Swan, and dance-inspired fashion, (ballet pumps and ready-to-wear tutus), we continue to objectify and exploit the stereotypes — the starving dancer, the perverted director, the egotistical choreographer — rather than celebrate ballet’s rigour and the dancers who are talented enough to actually make it their job.
Everyone wants to wear her tights and layers and leotards. Everyone wants her pointe shoes and none of the pain. On her way home tonight, when all she wants is to put on pajamas, she’ll look at the pink, ballet-inspired flats on the feet of a middle-aged woman.
She cannot shake the hours and years in front of mirrors that have reflected the image of herself dancing: Pointe shoes at 11. Principal dancer by 24. Retired by 29. Maybe, though, she’ll stay healthy enough to perform through her thirties. It is difficult to imagine another life.
She looks and smiles like she’s in love because she is. She sees and knows the perfection audiences would rather not see or know, because who would pay to watch the joy and worry and focus and fury and love and ache and time and pain and falling arches and tiny sips of water in her short life as a ballerina? Lately, all anyone wants is crazy.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Friday, July 22, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
We wake earlier than usual, share a grapefruit on the roof and let the surprisingly cool morning propel us down the steps to the port that breathes with laughing, noisy locals. It is just after 7, and half the town — delivery men dollying 'fragile'-stamped crates; Michael the tan-bellied Los Angelesan painter; swim-suited mothers with big families to feed; a small legion of the island's stray cats — is waiting for the fish.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Monday, July 18, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
The trip to Hydra from Athens is two hours by fastboat. Stephanos, the housekeeper, is waiting for us when we arrive at the port. His skin — tanned the color of sunned wood — suggests he's lived here all his life. Immediately, we begin our walk towards Kiaffa Cottage — rolling our suitcases on hundreds-year-old cobblestones and past rows of cute, saddled donkeys (four-legged taxis that are the only mode of transportation on the island besides foot, bicycle or garbage truck) that doze standing-up in the 100-degree heat.
The island of Hydra emerges like a battered rock in the sea. And the terrain rises fast. For 20 minutes we climb up, up, up hundreds of winding, steep and narrow stony stairs with curves that reveal more and more white-plastered houses, shaded by vines that look like gnarled green lace, topped with identical red-tile-roofs. Brightly colored doors and windows pop from the white surfaces like Tempera paint on blank canvas.
The walk to Kiaffa Cottage shouldn't be long, but the shortcut is too steep with our suitcases in tow. Ten minutes in, Stephanos stops to buy bottled water (the water here is undrinkable and, according to Tom, it tastes like licking a rock). Already, we drip with mid-day sweat.
Stephanos, it turns out, was born in Bulgaria. He's lived here for 10 years. He doesn't speak English. Greek, Bulgarian, Russian and German are enough. He is a painter and sells pictures in a small shop by the port from 9 in the morning till 2 p.m. His sweat-stained safari hat and ruggedness remind us of our equally sweaty and safari hatted friend from Columbia. And we continue to follow him, past the grocer and past more white buildings. One is punctuated by an elegant pair of evergreen doors (leading to who knows where). We wonder how we will ever find our way back to town. "You cannot get lost here," Stephanos tells us. "Just walk down. Or walk up."
The outside of the cottage is unassuming. Just another white-plaster wall with a door. Stephanos unlocks the entrance, whose plain front is adorned only with a heavy, metal knocker that looks both menacing and cherubic. We walk into what I can only describe as a hybrid open-air foyer and front porch. Like the outside of the house, it is also painted white. There is an outdoor sofa built into one side, and the bare walls climb high. We can hear the donkeys that clatter up and down the cobbled stairs outside, but we don't see them (Nor they us).
In the ceiling-less entrance, a set of white stairs leads up to the roof, where there is room for another built-in bench and a canvas hammock-chair. Since arriving, I have tried to avoid phrases such as "breathtaking" or "speechless," but from the rooftop, with the Greek sun burning our backs, we are stunned by the view: a sea any painter would love to capture that meets boats and rock beaches. And the port that rises fast, from the umbrella'd restaurants below, to white houses built into the rocky island like haphazardly stacked porcelain teacups.
The inside of the cottage is exactly what you'd expect the wedding guests of Mama Mia to retire to after a long afternoon of hanging with Meryl. The 300-year old cottage is completely renovated, but vignettes of tactfully exposed stones and weathered rafters afford it an unavoidable charm and beauty. A wardrobe in the study (like all of the rooms, it is painted white, white white) opens up to an enviable record collection and player. A guitar and a mandolin lie dormant in the corners. The frenetic, caffeinated chirp of cicadas plays on repeat all morning and night. Their thousands of voices scatter about before sunset, but by 9 p.m. they sing that long, all-familiar locust-song in unison.
And there is a trapdoor. Open it up to reveal stairs that lead to an expansive lower level. The tile floor and dim light grants cool relief from days that reach 95 degrees by 8 a.m. The fireplace fills a large corner and elicits daydreams of returning in winter. Beneath the cicada song, we can almost hear the crackling, burning wood.
There is no air conditioning, but throughout the cottage, fans circulate the ancient, sea-breezed air. We sweat freely, happily.
Stephanos told us to close the doors and unscreened windows at night: "The cats might scare you." We follow his advice, and when we wake the next morning to the distant cock-a-doodle of roosters, we discover five felines who've nested into the outdoor couch. Tom mews to them, and they scramble to a secret cat-hole in the corner — away from us and into the shade.
Sam Cooke on the record player
Saw, among other things:
Ate, among other things:
Friday, May 20, 2011
Monday, May 16, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Saturday, April 30, 2011
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Monday, April 25, 2011
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
Last week, I blabbed about Belvoir Fruit Farms Presse's. Until this afternoon, I had forgotten what happened post-gushfest. Today the evidence presented itself in the form of a very heavy, well-taped box in our front garden. At least our gin and tonics will be a little more lively.