Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Parkville Luminary

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

A study on ballet

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.