Tag Archives: journalism

a return of sorts

Last year, I wrote a story about a strip club off a highway in rural Missouri. It was dark and grimy, the only building for miles.

As a five-foot-tall woman in her twenties, it probably wasn’t the wisest idea to go alone at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. But I wanted the story. So I went anyway.

There were two men who did business at the place, and two women who danced. They were suspicious of me. The second time I visited, the bartender asked me if I wanted to strip down and dance for the customers sitting just below the stage, all of them men, gawking at the dancer as if they were a single unit, a single man in his dirty jeans with a collective pair of eyes. But of course, they weren’t one man, but three different individuals, each who had driven to this club on his own, each watching the dancer on his own, and I both resented them and felt sorry for their loneliness.

The bartender’s question — when he asked whether I wanted to go onstage and have my turn at the pole — was a joke. I think. But I was already uncomfortable, and my hands began to sweat after he asked. I tried to hide how scared I was, so I smiled and declined and laughed it off.

When I left, the bartender walked me out to my car.

“It’s not safe for a girl like you to be out in the middle of nowhere,” he told me.

I wanted to tell him that I only felt unsafe around him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I did some research on you,” he said just before I opened my car door, and I think every muscle in my body froze when he did.

“Oh yeah? What did you find?” I said.

“You’ve written about some… pretty controversial stuff,” he said.

“I like writing the tough stories,” I said.

“Your family is from all over the world,” he said, and after a pause: “Your grandmother died last year.”

And that’s when I discovered that he’d found my personal blog. It terrified me to know that this potentially dangerous stranger knew so much about my private life. And I knew the bartender’s words were a subtle threat.

Since then, except for little essays on Instagram, I haven’t shared much of my personal writing online.

The stakes are higher now that I’m working as a professional journalist. I don’t want to give too much of myself away. But I want to write, and I want to share what I write. So I’m going to try to blog this summer, but it’s a struggle to mark a line between my public and private persona — a line that I suspect doesn’t actually exist — and try not to cross it.

The goal is to publish at least seven blog posts this summer. Hold me accountable, internet.

(I drove off after that conversation, by the way, and I wrote the story, which you an read here.)

Until next time, xoxo from South Carolina.

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“objects have lives. they are witness to things.”

There’s an episode of This American Life that I’ve listened to three times now. It originally aired in 2001, but the first time I heard it was as I was driving to meet friends for dinner, probably in 2012. I was so engrossed by the story that I sat in my car in the restaurant’s parking lot to finish listening. I was 20 minutes late to dinner.

The episode is called “The House on Loon Lake,” narrated and reported by Adam Beckman. When Adam was a kid, he broke into an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The house was filled with things, objects, treasures. Somebody had left all of this behind. In the story, Adam returns to Freedom as an adult to find out what happened to the family.

nason

Photo from This American Life

The story kept me glued for several reasons. I love a good mystery story, for one. I could also relate to Adam’s mischief. When I was a kid, maybe ten years old, I also broke into an abandoned house with a friend at the end of our street. We called it a mansion — it really wasn’t a mansion, but for the town of Mountain Grove, it sure seemed like one. (The median income for a household is $21,131, and 28.2 percent of Mountain Grovians live under the poverty line, which is twice the national average.)

Given its stature — why would the richest family in the town abandon their house like that? — the house was ripe for mystery and rumor, especially for a fourth-grade girl with a wild imagination. There wasn’t much inside the house, except a grand piano. The pool had been emptied of chlorinated water, but standing water from rain had reached maybe a foot. Leaves floated in the water. It was, for lack of a better word, gross.

nason2

Photo from This American Life

But I digress. There’s one passage that causes me to pause the episode so that I can sit in silence and mull over its meaning. I’ll leave you with it, an exchange between Adam and his mother.

Adam Beckman: When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they’d left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn’t bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.

Adam’s Mother: And here’s a spoon. It’s all very melancholy, all these little remnants.

Adam Beckman: Why is it melancholy?

Adam’s Mother: The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.

I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.

 

Objects have lives. They are witness to things.

 

one year later

A year ago, a graduate student at the University of Missouri began a hunger strike. He told me about it. I broke the story. Soon it was national news.

Anniversaries are a time when people reflect. I could write that post, reflecting on what it was like to report on a man who stopped eating. What it was like to watch this man physically grow weaker and weaker while I had to maintain a professional distance. What it was like to try and wrap my head around his faith in God, which was so strong, a faith that I still cannot comprehend.

But I’m not ready to write that post. My chest still pinches when I think about it.

So I’ll just say this: My life has changed immensely since then. The city where I live, the office where I work, the people in whom I confide, next to whom I wake. That week, one year ago, was still the most challenging of my professional life. It was the week when I learned that the best reporting can come from a place of empathy. In some cases, it must.

I’m grateful I got to write the first draft of that story. I’m thankful for the people who were in my life. Most importantly — I’m glad that student is still alive.

juxtaposition

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

“In her 1977 collection of essays, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

In Ilnitsky’s photograph, taken last August in Donetsk, a major city in the eastern part of Ukraine, a length of white lace is swept to the left side. Like a theatrical curtain, it reveals a table with a teapot, a bowl full of tomatoes, a can, two mugs, and two paring knives on a little cutting board. It is a still life, but it is in utter disarray. Broken glass and dust are everywhere, and one of the mugs is shattered; to the right, across the lace curtain, the shards of glass and the table, is a splatter of red color that could only be one thing. Domestic objects imply use, and Ilnitsky’s photograph pulls our minds toward the now lost tranquillity of the people who owned these items. How many cups of coffee were made in that kitchen? Who bought those tomatoes? Were there children in this household who did their homework on this table? Whose blood is that? The absence of people in the photograph makes room for these questions.”

– from Teju Cole’s essay “Object Lesson” in the New York Times Magazine

A lot to learn here, in writing and reporting too, I think.

storytime: chats with uber drivers

The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.

I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.

The door was locked. I knocked on the window.

“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.

I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.

“You’re parked around the corner?”

I got back to my hotel in one piece.


Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.

I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.

“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.

“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.


By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other  grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.

“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.

We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.

I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.

“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”

“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.

The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”


“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.

I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver  could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”

He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.

“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.

“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”

“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”

Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.

He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”

“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”

Thanks, buddy.

Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta


One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.

I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”

“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”


On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.

“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.

“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”

Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

scribbles//shame

Just returned from the NICAR Conference in Atlanta (or the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, for those of you who have normal lives and aren’t data nerds).

It was wonderful. I learned more in a weekend than I could in a month. I got to meet (and drink with!) some incredible journalists. New friendships abounded, old friends grew stronger.

Despite all of that,
and despite the fact that the conference was filled with brilliant, intelligent, curious women galore,

There were still
(a few)
moments where I felt dirty
For speaking out loud.

Once
A group of us
(Five women in our early twenties)
Was followed down the street
By a man
Who would just not give up.
We spent two hours in a restaurant
…And he stayed outside the front door
The whole time
Waiting.
For us to finish our pizza
And come back out.

Another man told me that I
“Only give a shit” about myself
When I pointed out double standards
Between men and women.

Well.

You can be twenty-four years old.
And you know better.
Because you’ve read the theory:
Betty Friedan, bell hooks.

But you’re still ashamed.

good riddance 2014

We’ve been in 2015 for six days now. I don’t think I’ve truly registered that. Here’s a post to say goodbye to 2014. 

The night before I left for my parents’ home this Christmas, the few of us who were left over met up for some tacos.

We were all journalism students–most of them photographers, and a couple of us writers showed up too. The end of 2014 was a mere two weeks away, and this seemed like an appropriate time to reminisce.

“What happened this year?” someone asked.

“Well, a whole lot of police violence…” I said.

“Right. There was Michael Brown in Ferguson, obviously, but also Eric Garner and Tamir Rice,” said another.

“And there was Ebola,” another person offered.

“Russia annexed Crimea…”

“ISIS beheaded those journalists…”

“Eh, ISIS in general was pretty bad,” I said.

“There was that Rolling Stone article about campus rape…”

“Boko Haram has been reeking havoc in Nigeria…”

“Guys, this is bad,” said a friend. “Can’t we think of anything good happen this year? Did anything good happen this year?”

I paused. “Well, Germany won the World Cup…”

“Oh, come on!” protested everyone else in the room. I guess none of them had German family members. They probably weren’t Bayern Munich fans.

More silence. I could on my friends’ faces that they were legitimately digging through their recent memories. Finally, somebody spoke up.

“We’re all safe and happy. And I guess that’s what’s really important.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, but I still felt frustrated. The answer was true, of course, but it seemed like a cop out. Things might be going well for me, but for millions upon millions of people in the world, the world was becoming an increasingly dangerous place. How are you supposed to avoid being weighed down by the news when your job is to study and write about it?

I’m going to leave that question dangling, because I plan to find how to answer it in 2015. Here’s to the new year, a year of digging and learning and staying on top of the news.

On a lighter note, how about this for a Transformation Tuesday? A year ago, I had dark hair and bangs. Now they’re long gone. R.I.P. high maintenance hair.