Cream, sugar, and a whole lot of fun: Tea time in C-Town

I am sunburned. I am tired. I am sweaty. I am a survivor of the annual Chestertown Tea Party.

The Tea Party parade was sometimes a little loud….

The start of my Memorial Day weekend consisted of 12 hours of battling crowds under a scorching summer sun, an oversized camera looped around my neck, a flip video camera in one hand and a notebook and pen in the other.

As exhausted and achy as I am though, even feeling like an invasive, nosy reporter didn’t prevent me from having a spectacular time downtown.

For those of you who don’t know (and most of you probably don’t), the Chestertown Tea Party is an annual celebration of the town’s rebellion against the British in 1774. According to legend, a group of furious freedom-fighting C-town residents rallied together in fury over the new British tea taxes, marched down to the river, and, following the example of their brave Boston brothers, dumped all the English tea overboard (along with a few redcoats, naturally).

EVERYONE, young and old, came out to celebrate.

But here’s the kicker: There’s no historical evidence that the tea party actually happened. The earliest direct mention of the legendary rebellion is from 1899, and it’s not even that reliable of a source. Even if the tea party was as monumental as its reenactors present it to be, there’s a good chance the story has been emebellished over the years as it was passed down from generation to generation, mostly recorded by storytellers in taverns and beside family fireplaces.

There were undeniably residents who disagreed with taxation without representation. A group of them drafted the famous Chestertown Resolves, in fact, which listed the town’s grievances against its motherland:

1st- RESOLVED, that we acknowledge his majesty George III, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, to be our rightful and lawful sovereign to whom we owe and promise all dutiful allegiance and submission.

2nd – RESOLVED, that no duty or taxes can constitutionally be opposed on us, but by our own consent given personally, or by our own representatives.

3rd – RESOLVED, that the act of the British parliament of the 7th of George III, chapter 46, subjecting the colonies to a duty on tea, for the purpose of raising revenue in America, is unconstitutional, oppressive and calculated to enslave the Americas.

4th – RESOLVED, therefore, that whoever shall import, or in any way aid or assist in importing, or introducing from any part of Great Britain, or any other place whatsoever, into this town or country, any tea subject to the payment of a duty imposed by the aforesaid act of Parliament: or whoever shall willingly and knowingly sell, buy or consume, in any way assist with the sale, purchase or consumption of any tea imported as aforesaid subject to a duty, he or they, shall be stigmatized as enemies to the liberties of America.

5th – RESOLVED, that we will not only steadily adhere to the foregoing resolves, but will endeavor to excite our worthy neighbors to a like patriotic conduct, and to whoever, amongst, shall refuse his concurrence, or after complying, shall desert the cause, and knowingly deviate from the true spirit and meaning of these our resolutions, w will mark him out and inimical to the liberties of America, and unworthy member of the community, ad a person not deserving our notice our regard.

6th – RESOLVED, that the foregoing resolves be printed, that our brothers in the and other colonies may now our sentiments as therein contained.

Pretty awesome, right? This looks like it was copied right out of a history textbook. Not many towns can say they have documented history of their courageous, revolutionary fight for independence.

Naturally, the annual celebrationis Chestertown’s biggest weekend. Thousands of locals and tourists gather in the center of town each Memorial weekend to sing, dance, dress up, eat, drink (and drink and drink and drink) and reenact their forefathers’ rally for freedom.

One Chestertown revolutionary, bracing himself for what will one day become a legendary tale of heroics and freedom-fighting.

The tea party celebration is almost as legendary as the supposed event it is based on. In my years living in Chestertown during the school year, I’ve heard locals tell of the unimaginably enormous crowds and street vendors that occupy the otherwise sleepy main streets of town. I tried to picture a group of colonially-garbed residents marching down to the river with guns slung across their shoulders and the parade of men, women, and children following them, but to no avail. I had to actually participate to really understand why the Chestetown Tea Party is the legend it’s become.

I was skeptical (yes, very reporter-ish of me, I know) as I interviewed vendors and residents about their experience. “What’s the point in commemorating an event that might not have even happened?” I thought, as I scribbled down shorthand quotes of “It’s awesome!” and “Down with the British!”

Then then reenactment began. At 2:00, the colonial Chestertownians leapt onto a circle of wooden barrels, and above an eager crowd, declared their enmity against their British taxers. The proverbial march to the sea followed, with the rebels regularly halting to fire their guns at the opposing redcoats.

Something magical happened to the crowd. Suddenly, swept down High Street with the people among whom I usually buy groceries and wait at stoplights, I was in colonial Chestertown. Everyone, myself included, hollered and cheered for freedom under the fierce May sun (which was about as oppressive as any redcoat, I imagine). We applauded when our modest rowboat crept up beside the British cargo ship and the Chestertownians hopped on board. We craned our necks and stood on tiptoe to get as good a view as possible of the  sword and fist fights between the British and soon-to-be-Americans. We watched in awe as bundles of tea crashed into the Chester River, and we clapped until our hands were pink and raw as the American flag was finally hurled into the air.

Today, I understand what it means to be a Chestertownian. Who cares if the Tea Party actually happened or not? Even if there was no literal tossing of the tea 200 years ago, there certainly was today. We made real something that may or may not have actually occurred, but the historical accuracy doesn’t really matter after all.

Even if our Chestertown forefathers didn’t have a tea party on the Chester River, one thing’s for sure: They’re watching us somewhere, peeking down at our antics under their three-cornered hats, and I’m sure they couldn’t be prouder.

The rebels, guns smoking as they head toward the Chester River.

Advertisements

Chicken Scratch

My chicken scratch.

Today was painfully, tragically, dishearteningly, deathly slow. I spent the majority of my time in the office reading and rereading photocopied police reports of a drug smuggling case that I’m going to cover next week.

I tried to work, honestly, I did. I wanted to do my interviews with the warden and sheriff today, but it’s apparently a day off, so most county jobs were out. That also meant I couldn’t give my source for a story I’m writing about an upcoming, free GED program a phone call. And, of course, the paper has Monday off for memorial day, so Tuesday is going to be a mad rush of quote-wrangling and note-scribbling.

Which brings me to my point of discussion for the day. Given the abnormal amount of free time I had this afternoon, I started thinking about a comment my editor made to me yesterday. She plopped down on the stool beside my desk to help me find the Maryland Judiciary website, but as she peeked over my shoulder at the computer screen, she happened to glance down at my half-filled reporter’s note book.

“Are those notes?” she asked me, her eyes widening. “Is that even English? That looks like something someone wrote a hundred years ago!”

People have commented on my handwriting before. Based on my interview notes, you’d think my writing is as sloppy as a sixth-grade boy’s answers on a homework assignment he filled out during homeroom.

On the contrary, I pride myself on my neat, cursive-ish handwriting. But that isn’t my reporter handwriting. I have two distinct handwriting styles: the calligraphic penmanship I use for class notes and letter-writing, and then the mile-a-minute chicken scratch that fills up my reporter notebooks.

I know doctors are notorious for their illegible penmanship, but I think we journalists should be given some credit, too. No one can expect readability when the note-taker was scrambling to jot down the words of an interview-high subject. I can’t speak for every reporter, but I’ve developed my own, completely personal and otherwise unreadable form of shorthand over the years. When I first started writing articles in high school, I actually thought it ironic that reporters were supposed to keep all of their notes in case someone ever disputed a quote or fact. After all, who can decipher the loops and curly-q’s of a deadline-crunched reporter?

Some journalists rely on audio recording for interviews, but that’s just not a method I’ve been able to ease into yet. Sometimes, when I remember that my iPhone has Dragon Dictation, I’ll ask to record interviews, but usually I prefer the old-school route. I’m not sure why, actually. It might be the comfort of having something to do with my hands while I’m listening to someone, or maybe it gives me the excuse to avoid the otherwise constant eye contact I have to make. Maybe I just like looking like a reporter, giving the impression that I’m an expert note-taker who carries her own, professional, pocket-sized reporter’s notebook.

Whatever the reason, my system works. Granted, I have to transcribe my interviews within an hour or two of an interview, because the longer I wait, the harder it is to make out my scribbles and scratches. But otherwise, my way works.

There’s no single right way to be a good journalist. This is my fourth internship with a publication, and I’ve worked for two school newspapers, and every system works differently. Different publications print on different schedules; each has its own style, its own guidelines and rules to keep things running smoothly. It only makes sense that reporters have their own styles as well.

My style might not be the easiest to read, but it sure works for me.

The Not-So-Fun Side of Newspaper Work

Today, I picked up the first issue of the Kent County News which featured an article by yours truly. It’s my third day on the job, and there’s nothing like seeing your own byline in print to inspire you to work even harder. And there’s nothing like a sudden, tragic event to get a real sense of what it’s like to work for a weekly, community newspaper.

For my first published story, I drove out to Rock Hall Maryland and interviewed a man on the happiest day of his life. Today, the Kent News is covering the darker side of community news: last night, we got a call about a three farmers who drowned in a manure lagoon a few miles away.

Trish, my editor and supervisor, is only an open door away from me. From my desk, I can listen to her call up all of her farming and agricultural contacts, from family friends to former interviewees. The trouble with writing such a sensitive story for a small-town newspaper is, of course, the intimacy and closeness of the community. Kent County is small enough that there’s a pretty high probability of running into someone you’ve interviewed before at the grocery store, so making friendly connections is particularly important.

It isn’t unlike writing and editing for my college newspaper, actually. At most schools, reporters are discouraged from interviewing friends or covering stories they’re directly involved in; at a college of under 2,000, everyone knows everyone, and it’s virtually impossible to cover a news event that you’re not in some way connected to.

Trish is an expert at handling these kinds of sticky situations. She balances professionalism with friendliness during her interviews, knowing full well that making personal connections might be key for later stories. With this particular story, she prefaces her phone interviews: “I know this is a tough time for you, and I understand if you don’t feel comfortable talking to me.” She even reads back the quotes, making sure the subject feels satisfied with what he or she has contributed on the tragic event.

There’s a misconception that journalists make enemies wherever they go, that they’re out to ruin reputations and get some sort of sick delight from writing about others’ misfortunes and embarrassments. I’ve certainly run into a few journalists who are in the field for the wrong reasons, but most of us, I like to think, treat our subjects with respect. Trish has been working at this newspaper for more than 20 years, but she’s in no way hardened toward tragedy and death. If anything, writing article after article about such topics has provided her with a sensitivity and understanding about mortality and the hard facts of life that most people prefer to avoid.

Journalism sometimes means reporting on things that no one wants to read about. It isn’t always pleasant, but it’s a part of the job. Not every story is going to be about a lottery-winning groundskeeper; some are about tragic farming accidents, and although I’m sure Trish didn’t enjoy making those awkward phone calls this morning, she followed through. I couldn’t ask for a better mentor.

Reporting for the Birds

It’s my first day as a Chestertown reporter, and I’m already dealing with pest problems. I can only hope that when I move in to my more permanent work room tomorrow morning, it won’t be splattered with bird droppings.

I really can’t complain. Sure, the office that will serve as my writing nook for the summer was invaded by birds yesterday, but here’s the more important part: It’s going to be MY OFFICE. Starting tomorrow, I’ll feel less like an intern and more like a true reporter, with my very own space to make phone call after phone call after phone call.

The Kent County News building is snuggled in a row of small businesses on High Street. As you can see, Chestertown downtown is more of a quaint attraction area than it is the cultural nucleus for a bustling metropolis.

If there’s one thing I learned from my internship with the Herald-Mail last summer, it’s that real-world journalism (that is, working for a publication that isn’t affiliated somehow with a school, and one that ideally pays you under the impression that your paycheck is meant to sustain you and not just serve as spare coffee change) means a lot of sitting around waiting for people to return your calls. I’d estimate that more than half of my 40 hours a week were spent spinning around in my chair and leaving messages with government officials who seemed to be in a constant slew of meetings. As one County Commissioner told me when she finally answered week’s worth of messages I’d left at on her home, office, and cell numbers, “I’ll give you one thing: You’re persistent.”

Luckily, I have a bit more privacy with my Chestertown residency than I did in Hagerstown, so I can leave my awkward “Please call me back” pleas without the nagging worry that some veteran reporter is snickering at my unprofessionalism in the cubicle directly to my left.

The Herald-Mail newsroom was laid out in a stereotypical, daily mail way, with row after row of bland cubicles hosting row after row of frantic reporters and editors. In the constant buzz of police scanners, reporter jargon, and phone call transfers, making phone calls felt like trying to find an inch of space to talk in the middle of a sweaty rave concert; I tried to make my interviews as private as possible, but there was no way to shelter conversations completely from the other newsroom noises.

Here, I have my own little area to breathe. At the Herald, I was shoved into whatever corner cubicle was empty at the time, so I migrated around the newsroom on a weekly basis depending on who was on vacation at the time.

The Kent County News is a far more intimate and inviting, albeit creaky and old, space to work. It’s a narrow, tall two-story building crammed between a drug store and bank in the quaint, usually quiet, downtown of Chestertown. Not only are there actual doors separating reporters and editors from each other, but I’ve been assigned my own little office for these next eight-ish weeks.

As my luck would have it, I’ve been temporarily displaced. While my permanent office space is being debirded, I’m borrowing an absent reporter’s computer.

Even with the impermanence of my current situation, I feel much more comfortable here than I did in Hagerstown. It’s probably partly because I’m more confident in my ability to hold my own at a real-life reporter’s desk, but I think it’s also the warmth and hominess that comes with working for a newspaper that’s been the center of a small town since before the Civil War.

My current assignment about a 75-year-old man who plans to use his million-dollar lottery win on a new police scanner might not sound like an award-winning, controversial news story, but it’s the next record of Eastern Shore living to follow thousands of weekly articles. I’m the most recent in the line of innumerable writers whose bylines have been printed in the name of the Kent County News. The soft wooden desk on which I’m taking notes hasn’t been a part of the newspaper since the 1800s, but I’m sure there have been some incredible and moving small-town pieces that were recorded on its surface before me.

I’m anxious to hear back from “Mr. Lucky” the lottery winner, not because the story is going to immortalize me as a nationally recognized journalist, but because it will immortalize a worthy subject within the pages of a worthy newspaper.

Being a small-town journalist isn’t always the most adrenaline-pumping lines of work, particularly on muggy days like today that involve more thumb-twiddling than investigative reporting. But even though I’ve only been a member of the Kent County News team for a morning, I know one thing: I’m going to like it here.

*Note: As soon as my iPhone realizes that yes, there it DOES have a SIM card and decides to reconnect with the real world again, I’ll be uploading photos of my new summer place of work. So stay tuned!

Why I Write: An Ode to My Favorite Art Form

Image

I know it sounds a little paradoxical, but I’m both an aspiring journalist AND a creative writing minor. Journalism and creative writing sound mutually exclusive, right? I know I used to think so. For the first two years of my college career, I was a doubter. I worried that the two sides of my writing brain might start to dangerously intertwine as I strengthened my skills in poetry, fiction, drama, and reporting. With experience, though, I’ve come to learn that writing, any type, is writing, and practice is practice. Actually, to my great and satisfied surprise, honing my writing abilities in both genres has become an enormous asset for me.

Writing an article is an act of creativity. It’s an art form, no matter how formulaic AP Style Books and journalism schooling makes it sound. There are innumerable ways to craft a story, even a seemingly straightforward one about the economics of dairy farming or a book group for senior citizens (yes, I’ve had the honor of penning both of these articles). A reporter has the power to twist the information and quotes he or she has gathered into either a list of facts or, if the reporter has the writing skills, a story.

My creative writing classes have taught me similar lessons. I just finished a semester of Creative Nonfiction, for example. It was, without a doubt, my favorite creative writing workshop so far, and not just because I’m a journalist. I loved it because the nonfiction side of the class forced me to write about the truth, but the creative side encouraged me to bring that truth into my own, individual light. One of my first independent pieces, for example, was plainly titled, “Mood Swings,” and it was about, quite predictably, feelings. Everyone has feelings; literally anyone can write a three-page essay on the movement from happiness to sadness. But I made my story my own. Like any news article, I wove a piece of myself into what could have been a generically “emo” rant.

I was inspired to blog about the connection between art and journalism this morning as I was unpacking my notebooks from this last, exhausted semester. My first entry in my creative nonfiction composition book is, “Why I Write.” My professor told the class to use the topic as a vendetta, a medium to explain to our future readers why we do what we do. So here it is:

“I write because grown-ups thought my young love for reading was some kind of accomplishment, the mark of a prodigy, something worthy of a gold star; I write because before I knew it, I was reading more than I was playing with dolls or blocks; I write because I eventually forgot how to articulate pain or emotion unless I could recite it out of the pages of a book; I write because my scribbles are proof of accomplishment, and evidence of spoken word is invisible, mortal; I write because I can erase, cross-out, delete; I write because it gives me a blueprint of things I’m afraid to say aloud; I write because it reminds me to be sad, joyful, terrified; I write because I can get a grade for it, get paid for it, and I write because it feels so damn good; I write because I like the smooth surface of a pen against the side of my thumb and I love the slick sound my fingers make as they dance across a keyboard; I write because it’s quieter than talking; I write because I like talking to myself but I don’t like people thinking I’m crazy; I write because I’m crazy and I write because I like to pretend I’m sane.”

The End of an Era

Chiyo, in all her broken-down glory. Note the undeniable cuteness, as well as the blacked out part of the right-hand screen.

Thanks to Target.com, tech-savvy family and friends, and a lot of blind faith, my new computer is on its way.

The downside of my new purchase is, of course, having to let go of my beloved netbook. Chiyo, my 10-inch, cute-as-a-button Eee Asus laptop, has been with me since my freshman year. (In case you’re wondering, Chiyo means “eternal life” in Japanese. After the painful, tragic death of her Toshiba predecessor, I selected Chiyo’s name after carefully scanning dozens of baby name websites. Sure, eternal life might be a bit of wishful thinking, but a positive christening certainly couldn’t hurt.)  She’s been a faithful little laptop.I decided on a netbook because I’m cheap and because I’m a journalist. I was a computer-browsing rookie when I first typed “best netbooks for college students” into google three years ago, but when I saw the angelically-white, sleek Asus visage pop onscreen, it was love at first sight. I remember Chiyo’s arrival, how I scurried to the mailroom, decided I couldn’t wait to walk all the way back to my dorm room to open the box, and plopped down on a sofa in the bookstore to bring her out of her packing kernels and into the light. We were meant to be.

Technology and I aren’t ordinarily compatible. It took me at least three years of having my own cell phone to appreciate the power of texting and portable web surfing; even now, I have at least one “Crap, where’s my phone?” moment a day, despite my friends’ constant reminders. I don’t own an e-reader, and although I’m trying to be a good little journalist and adapt to the world of tweeting, posting, and tumbling, print newspapers are still the first love of my life.

But Chiyo was different. Chiyo was a computer, and simply that. She suffered the daily abuses of a student reporter’s life, from being hastily shoved into purses en-route to interviews to exhausting her battery life after hours of essay-writing. I regret that I could only pay her back with scratches, cracks, and smudge marks. Even at her shambliest, though, Chiyo was cute enough to entice an, “awww, that’s the most adorable little laptop I’ve ever seen!” from an onlooker. Yes, Chiyo was a looker, even near the end of her three-year existence.

The perfect size for toting around in purses and attracting adorable cats.

The perfect size for toting around in purses and attracting adorable cats.

Chiyo’s successor should arrive in a few days. My new computer (whose name is yet to be determined) should be a bit sturdier than Chiyo, more ready to tackle its intense word processing and internet browsing duties than Chiyo was. My new computer will certainly have its work cut out for it this year, starting with a summer of full-time reporting and then pummeling headfirst into a senior year of thesis research and editing.

Chiyo’s sturdier, equally-adorable replacement, according to google images.

I imagine saying goodbye to tech tools like Chiyo is difficult for any journalist. AP Style books need to be replaced after a few short years; notebooks with precious doodles in the margins are constantly cycled through; recorders, cameras, cell phones, and yes, even computers, eventually succumb the the whirlwind life of reporting. We become attached to these gadgets. They’re full of the memories and fleeting moments that we aren’t able to squeeze into our 500-word articles, so replacing them is bittersweet.

But my new computer marks a turning point in my growth as a journalist, student, and writer. She (yes, it’s going to be a she) will be my Chestertown companion, right there with me in the newsroom, in my dorm room, on the Chester River shore, and wherever my job may take me. Actually, I do have a name for her, now that I think about it: River.

The River Awaits

I love writing. I love people. I love writing about people, ergo, I love cities. I love the constant buzz of activity, the brilliant lights, the steady stream of people on sidewalks and street corners. I love knowing that even when I’m dead asleep, the world around me is whirring with life.

Chestertown is no city, and it most certainly sleeps. When Chestertown turns off its lights at 7 p.m., it collapses into a thick, dreamy sleep. While insomniac cities elsewhere dance and drink into the early morning, Chestertown snores. It’s a town on a river, so it’s always awake before dawn to greet the geese on the waterfront.

Chestertown isn’t the quintessential skyscraper-lined metropolis where most young writers dream of crafting their first great novel. It’s a tiny college town of about 5,000 residents, nestled on the Maryland Eastern Shore. It doesn’t have a shopping mall or a Wal-Mart, and its movie theater screens five films at a time.

My summer here won’t be spent in an artsy one-bedroom apartment. I don’t intend to spend my evenings at poetry readings in coffee shops or bar-hopping my way from campus to the waterfront. I’ll certainly patron the town’s single coffee shop regularly, but fully aware that it isn’t the cultural hotspot for budding young artists (although Allen Ginsberg did come to Chestertown before, so I have that going for me). And even if the town’s bars were throbbing with base music and strobe lights every weekend, I’ll keep my underage self in my free, on-campus dorm room.

This summer, I’ll be writing for Chestertown’s weekly newspaper. The Kent County News has never been nominated for a Pulitzer, and to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t cracked open any Watergate-sized scandals recently (I say this with trepidation, however. One of my tasks for the summer may consist of finding stories from the archives, which date back to the pre-Civil War era. Chestertown may very well have its own little Watergates hidden in its back issues). My summer internship isn’t necessarily every rookie journalist’s dream gig. This isn’t the most exciting of towns even during the school year with inebriated students stumbling off campus on weekends, so I can’t imagine my summer nights will consist of much more than reading in bed. I don’t know what’s in store for me these next few months, other than lots of Royal Farm food runs and blogging about who-knows-what.

But journalism isn’t about the glory and adrenaline, is it? It isn’t swishing to work in an expensive skirt and heels on the streets of New York. It isn’t about typing out a column in a ritzy cafe, a grande mocha frappe on one side and laptop on the other. It isn’t about seeing your byline above the fold for hundreds upon thousands to pick up and scan on their way to work.

Even humble little river towns like this one have news that needs to be reported. The Chestertownians I’ll be interviewing, profiling, and living among this summer deserve just excellent a quality news source as do readers of the New York Times or the Washington Post. That’s what I love most about journalism: The little stories, the intimate and inspirational specks of life that I have the chance to record.

Sure, shadowing the crime beat reporter may not be as thrilling as it is for an intern at The Baltimore Sun. I won’t enter my senior year with stories about getting lost downtown after a wild night of barhopping. But I will finish this summer, I think, feeling pretty damn proud of being a journalist.

Tomorrow, I begin my preparations for life on the Chester River by shopping for something even the most rural of reporters needs: A working computer.