Category Archives: local

HELLO, IT’S ME.

Before you say anything at all: yes, I know, that joke is going to feel so old and tired in about one more week. And yet! I cannot resist. Even the non-dads among us can, shamelessly and tirelessly, make dad jokes.

Anyway: I’m here now.

I’m in this place where I’m not writing as often, here, on my beloved blog.

Instead, my creative energies are dispersed in other places, but it’s not a 1-for-1 substitution – not really. Rather, like my friend Omar asked this week, the collective question seems to be: are we still doing this? Blogging?

I’m scared of self-branding, always have been, so I admit that it’s been freeing to walk away. Like, take that, BLOG! I am rebelling! Next thing you know, I might skip Tweeting for a week. Or delete Instagram from my phone. Who knows! I’m living on the fucking edge.

But I confess, Reader: I miss this.

Not “blogging,” per se. Writing. Writing for moi.

Is there a difference? Maybe. At some point, blogs became precursors to businesses, and you know what? That was great. Blogs helped a lot of us find jobs, and I am no exception. So thank you, blogging, and even a sheepish thanks to you, branding, you wiley mistress.

Sometimes, when I’m in the mood for long form, I dip back into the well of my favorite online writers: Sarah Hepola, Ruth Pennebaker, Omar, Mary Miller. Weirdly, I know all of these people, so reading them gives me inspiration, not to mention a little voyeuristic thrill. It’s like, you thought those things, friend? You shooed everyone away, closed the door, and thought up those beautiful things?

Writing is such an intensely private act, that reading someone else’s work always feels conspiratorial. Most of the time, anyway. I remember hearing a Real Housewife of New York shriek about a fashion book she wrote “all on my Blackberry!” and it must have pained me enough to sear its own memory. Not that I or any of you should be taking writing advice from the Real Housewives, I’m just saying that it made the whole writing enterprise feel so cheap in the moment that it generated feelings, real feelings that I should probably let go of now. (Though I’d watch my back if I were you, Kelly Bensimon!)

Dance is utterly different, because it has to happen in front of others, unless you are Billy Idol, or perhaps Robyn. Let’s just make it easy and say the rule is, if you have a bleach blonde bouffant, you don’t have to dance in front of other people if you don’t want to. As for the rest of us: we get an audience, whether we like it or not.

That vulnerability – will they mess up? Will their bodies fail them? Will freak injury occur here in front of me? – gives the whole experience a specific frisson that you don’t quite get from writing, and that’s why I’m attracted to it. Dance, I mean.

We’re still in the lazy afterglow of the holidays right now, so while all of my dance stuff is gradually coming back online, it won’t truly feel full-force until about a week and a half from now. Next week, here, I start teaching a splits class, and the week after that, silks is a lot more game-on. Modern, ballet, and jazz (!!) are all in the mix as well, and sometimes I wonder, should I write about those things? Here? I’m inclined to say ‘no,’ that would be boring, because what’s the old saw? ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture?’

Maybe I could switch those around and successfully write about dance, while someone else – everyone else, now that I think about it – could dance to music. Did I just blow your mind?

Anyway. Mostly, I wanted to steal this hour (or has it been two?) and check in here, feel what it’s like to write again. Writing, or as Billy would say, writin’, with myself.

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UP IN THE AIR

I often feel as though I have a secret life, a life I don’t share that much online.

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Maybe because it’s hard to put this practice into words, or maybe it’s hard to verbalize in an authentic way how much important things mean to you.

What I’m talking about is aerial dance, an adventure that started for me as part of a 2011 New Year’s resolution to try new things. And, lacking the capacity for moderation – this is the same person who pursued a whole Master’s degree in Victorian Literature, after all – I went all in.

After about a year or so of training, my friend Susan and I started performing on silks around town, doing bar gigs with short ceilings and tipsy revelers. More recently, we started booking corporate shows (higher ceilings, equally tipsy people), and the last one happened September, 2013 at a yacht club out in Lakeway. Unbeknownst to me, while I was swinging around in the air for a bunch of oil and gas types, Nico was a little gestating bundle of cells.

Cut to me, several months later, full belly, stretching holes in the leotards I stubbornly refused to take off. I didn’t really know what to expect from pregnancy, and you know what? It might be better to go in blind. Armed with enough information, reasonable women can go totally insane while pregnant, and I know this because I went occasionally insane. My thing was constantly needing reassurance, from Ross, friends – even complete strangers – that I wasn’t killing my baby (me to Juiceland employee: is your juice pasteurized? Can I drink unpasteurized? DO YOU KNOW, EXTREMELY TAN 20 YEAR-OLD? DO YOU KNOW?!?).

But aerial silks and pregnancy? Ok, I knew (aka: my OB-GYN lectured me until I knew) that had to be a tiny bit dangerous. I tried for as long as I could, but at six months in, my belly made it very clear that it was time to slide off. I still wore the leotards.

Now, if you met me in real life, you’d think to yourself: “that’s a reasonable person, right there!” But the truth is, I am actually given to obsessive tendencies that are kept extremely well-hidden. I say this to help paint an accurate picture of my journey back on the silk, which did indeed involve lots of obsession. As well as lots of cursing.

All told, I took about a half-year break from the cloth. And when I first got back on, I could climb, kind of!, but that was about it. Most importantly, I couldn’t go upside-down, at ALL, which is somewhat crucial.

However! I had a support system: my new aerial dance company.

It’s name is Rapt Aerial Dance, and it was started by my girl Susan, along with a couple other silks friends. We get together and practice at Vamps Dance on the east side, and along with some truly wonderful private classes at Four Elements, it was by being around these people – these incredibly strong, intimidatingly talented, frequent-upside-down-going people – that pushed me to recover.

(I hesitate to even use that word: “recover.” It makes it sound like baby-having is a form of trauma, doesn’t it? How about we say…”heal.” That’s better, isn’t it? Less images-of-blood-and-afterbirth-inducing?)

Anyway. On Nico’s three month birthday exactly, I could go upside-down again, and on her five month birthday, I could pretty much do all the stuff pre-pregnant Tolly could do. In fact, motivation for any aerialists out there who get knocked up: my body forgot a lot of its preprogrammed bad habits! My wonky toes? Pointed. This spin-around-horizontally-on-top-of-a-silk-knot thing that I could never, EVER do in the past? It is happening! I try to play it cool on Sunday nights when the company gets together and practices, but inside, there’s a huge party going on every time I accomplish a simple breakthrough. And these people – my achingly beautiful, fellow company members who can do anything, ANYTHING! – held the space while I clumsily stumbled my way back to silks competence.

I’m willing to bet that if you aren’t into this weird hobby yourself, you know someone who is, or, you know someone who’s generally into physical movement. Like I said earlier, it’s tough to verbalize how thoroughly silks changed my life. You know that “tech loop” Portlandia skit? That was me! Me before silks! I could DIVE INTO the Internet and never come out. But silks got me back into my body, and it was waiting for me after Nico exited my body. My silks family was waiting for me, too.

On Thursday, we launched a big fundraiser campaign for Rapt. Eeek! Scary! Scary as in exciting. Here’s a little video we made for the fundraiser, which explains the things we need money for, and also gives you an inside peek into the company and where we rehearse:

We are small, we are very dedicated, and we are extremely passionate. We’re having a huge fundraising party in January at Brazos Hall!

But for now, we are pouring our hearts and souls into this fundraiser campaign. Click here to contribute, and to support the arts in Austin. I am hugging you as you do so.

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HOW WRITING GIGS HAPPEN

Austin

Austin Kleon and I, promoting literature.

On Wednesday, I was inspired by author/speaker/creativity dude Austin Kleon, our guest this week on Statesman Shots. In the mode of his new book, Show Your Work, and also because I’m trying to get back into the swing of blogging more regularly, I thought I’d share a quick post about a particular writing gig I scored recently.

As any freelance writer can tell you, writing for high-profile sites are like the pot of gold at the end of the blogging rainbow. We put our work out there for months, often years, shouting into the yawning void for anyone who will listen. We hope that one day, our words will fall on the right pair of ears, and we’ll be invited to contribute to The Hairpin, or This American Life, or Modern Love. Everyone I know wants to write for Modern Love.

The problem is, it’s often unclear how one makes the leap from blogging to uptown classy, website property writing. In my case, it almost always come down to relationships.

My latest gig is with The Atlantic, reporting for the health section of their website. My first piece was on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust too much, and I’m reporting a piece now on the effects of capital punishment on prison wardens. I do most of my reporting with a baby on my lap, who nurses happily while Mommy discusses hardened criminals.

Now between you and me, the pay is just OK. But! The writing is still worth it, because I’m trying to expand my “beat” from Austin-y stuff to broader cultural issues: health stuff, sociological stuff, and sometimes TV stuff. Also, if you told my 25 year-old self – who would have been crazy thrilled  to get a byline just about anywhere, including your refrigerator door – that I’d get to write for The Atlantic someday, I would have died, revived myself, and died again. What I’m saying is, I’m not complaining.

So how did it happen? Here’s how:

A few months ago, I was part of a storytelling night for Austin Bat Cave. It’s called Story Department, and takes place once a month at Home Slice Pizza. I was very pregnant/hormonal/bloated at the time, but thought, what the hell?  This was probably the last time I’d get to do something like this for a while, with a baby coming and all. So I went, and told the story of attending a naked yoga class. (More on that in a moment.)

There in the audience was a fellow writer for The Atlantic, a guy named Jon Fortenbury. He wrote me after the event to say he liked my story, and we set up a coffee date / networking meeting of sorts to talk about freelancing. So we traded editor names over cappuccinos, then nervously pumped each other up over email for the next few days:

“Hey, have you pitched Salon?”

“Yeah. Haven’t heard anything. You? The Atlantic?”

“Same. Here’s what my pitch said. It’s stupid, right? It’s stupid.”

Writers are very insecure.

Anyway, fortunately – we both got accepted! So the moral of the story is: go on those coffee dates. With other writers, I mean. Mine each other for contacts, then exploit those contacts. It’s an economy of connections.

But the second, and what I consider to be more important, moral of the story?

Go to a naked yoga class.

By which I mean, your metaphorical naked yoga class. Keep your ears open for that irrational, scary experience that you would normally never do but would make an amazing story, then go do it. Exploit it for material. In absence of great connections / an impressive degree from a journalism school / an internship at The New York Times, I find that weird, unique, off-the-wall material can also open doors.

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Wholly unrelated, but can we conclude with a baby picture? Can I exploit my child for your love and Facebook likes? OK, let’s do that:

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In the words of my wise friend Jason Silverberg, “this is what I’m like now.”

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MY TRAVEL GUIDE TO AUSTIN

Since mainlining episodes of The Millionaire Matchmaker over last month’s maternity leave, I often forget that I still have a brain. But I do! [Taps finger to temple]

Before binging on trashy TV, I produced a couple of pieces of work that I’m pretty proud of. Here’s the first one:

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I wrote a travel guide to Austin! It was released by a cute little publishing company called The HUNT Guides and required me to sample roughly 50 restaurants in two weeks, including places like Qui and Swift’s Attic. Life is just so hard sometimes.

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I was familiar with a lot of these businesses already, but did uncover some surprises along the way. Case in point: north Austin’s Tomodachi Sushi, which is not only beautiful, but peddles delicious specialty rolls with names such as Say My Name!!! and Who’s Ur Daddy?!? (basically, each roll gets three punctuation marks). The chef explained the sushi names to me this way: “we wanted to make them memorable.” Sir, you were successful.

We – and here I mean my buddy Amy and I – also got to sample Noble Sandwich Co., i.e., the Uchi of sandwiches. Everything, right down to the thin-sliced pickles, is made in-house and is so fresh and tasty you just can’t even believe you’re eating a sandwich. The humble sandwich! That most utilitarian of meals! It is made special here. Transformed into something beyond its quotidian status. So good, it inspires me to use words like “quotidian.”

Alas, there were several new restaurants in the works that weren’t quite open by the time I finished “research:” chavez, LaV, Odd Duck. What a shame, The HUNT Guides will just have to hire me again to write the next edition!

You can order the book here, and I believe it’s also being carried at local bookstores. I’ll update this post once I find out.

UPDATED 7/3/14: BookPeople‘s got it!

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I also wrote my first article for TheAtlantic.com, where I am now a health correspondent! It was a story on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust – even when they shouldn’t – and is something I’ve wanted to write about for years, ever since I heard about a little girl with Williams Syndrome on NPR. My piece explores what it’s like to hold down a job when you have Williams Syndrome (tough), and the steps individuals with the condition have to take to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of at work (many).

I’m now working on my second piece, which is about prison executioners, and in a scene suggestive of my new life I started research for it the other day with a baby on my lap. “Hello, may I please speak to Mr. Jail Warden?” [Baby cries in background] “Oh, he’s not there? Can you – oh hang on, just have to position my nipple…get the whole areola in her mouth…THERE!  Yes, I’ll leave a number. Hey, you still there? Hello?”

I officially return back to work today, which means I’ll be picking back up with my copywriting clients and continuing to report that piece. Ross and I are extremely lucky in that we both work from home, so we take shifts looking after Nico while the other one does their job. It’s been ok during our practice runs, but poor Ross, who lacks breasts, is faced with a screaming newborn from time to time. She likes to head bang his shirt, and is clearly thinking: “HEY!!!!! I’m TWEAKING!!!! Milk please!!!”

We’ve improved the situation with a breast pump however, which took me a few weeks to face down, but now enables me to hand milk to Ross and have him feed her. She likes to look up at him while nursing, and (encouragingly?) grab his chest hair, as if to say, “I knew you could do it.”

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PHOTOS: WHO’S SEX POSITIVE? PREGNANT WOMEN ARE SEX POSITIVE.

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Moi.

So I’ve gone back and forth on posting these pictures. On the pro side, it’s:

“YAY! Pretty photos! To share on the Internet and prompt people to say nice things about me!!!”

And on the con side, it’s:

“Umm, ok. My pregnant body on the Internet! That’s a little weird! Vulnerable! Potentially embarrassing!”  

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that the concept of self-branding eludes me entirely and I’m just not very good at it. As an aerialist/yoga person, I am a-ok with pictures of all bodies, including mine, because human physiology is fascinating (to me) and its capabilities beautiful (to me).

But as a writer, I have a knee-jerk hesitation to showing any skin, because, because…well, I’m not entirely sure. Life of the mind vs. life of the body, I guess.

However, as previously discussed, a topic that captures both my interest in bodies and my interest in thinkerly, writer things is that of sex positivity for women. And specifically, pregnant women.

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Hence, this maternity photo shoot. I did it a few weeks ago with a very talented local photographer, Whitney Martin, and my dear friend Fannie, a stylist-slash-video game programmer. (Slash-badass.)

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(Slash-model.)

We shot it at Bull Creek, a craggy park in Austin overhung with ancient oak trees and wrapped in mossy caves. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

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Over these past 37 (whoa) weeks, I’ve found that it’s very, very easy to feel infantalized as a pregnant women. The maternity wear complex creates clothes that make you feel like a giant baby yourself, with frilly, pastel outfits and message T’s that say things like, “I’m baking a GIRL!” with appliqued cupcakes or “Mama’s little RASCAL!” with an arrow pointing down to your belly. Why?

Maybe it’s because pregnancy is a clear, visible sign of sex being had, and cutesy outfits like that take the edge off, making a woman’s sex-having body less threatening.

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Anyway, that definitely wasn’t the route I wanted to go for a maternity shoot, but conversely, I knew I didn’t want a pregnancy boudoir shoot either. I’ve seen beautiful, sensual examples of that, but I’m just too immature to pull it off. I’d be snickering the whole time and acting a fool for the poor photographer.

So what did this picky photo subject want? Well, something that felt like me.

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I wanted something that captured the all-encompassing womanliness I’ve felt during this pregnancy, something that felt nature-y/natural, and something that felt interesting. And, maybe, something like Stevie Nicks.

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So Whitney, Fannie and I collaborated on putting together a session that didn’t divorce sexuality from the whole maternity experience, which is a very formal way of saying we shared a Pinterest board.

And how do I feel about the result?

I am THRILLED. I love them! These photos will probably humiliate my daughter to no end one day, but until that time, I’m happy to have a visual memory of this little sliver of my life, thanks to Fannie and Whitney.

Pregnancy is a time where I haven’t always felt 100% awesome about my body, but you know what? I think that’s good for me. I like to think I’m a feminist, but my perception of what is beautiful is just as influenced by media / American culture / the “male gaze” as anyone else’s. On top of that, pregnancy always seemed like this freaky, science fictional thing to me (probably because most science fiction is written by men), akin to Alien or Gremlins.

But now, corny as it sounds, I’ve been converted. I’m shocked at what the female body can do, and I like the idea that baby and I are working together as a team to make her strong. Nutrition / good sleep / prenatal care / blah blah are all parts of that, but sex was (obviously) a pretty essential part of it, too. “Sex positive” and “belly proud” don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts. You can celebrate the cute little baby growing inside your belly, and simultaneously celebrate the sex that brought him or her here. I don’t think anyone openly disputes this; I’m just ready for a culture that finds a portrayal balance between hyper-sexualized moms (i.e. MILF’s) and one that pretends moms are these harried, sexless creatures who are only focused on motherhood and THAT’S IT!

There’s a middle ground, I like to think.

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Thanks again to Whitney and Fannie – I love you both.

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