My Journey to the Corporate World: Don’t Hate

Knoxville Ballet School Level 2B

A ballet friend and colleague recently asked whether I’ve been “itching” to teach again. I had to think about that. These days I’m not sure I would describe my desire to teach as an itch, but maybe—it felt like something more profound when I took the colossal and risky leap of faith to open a small ballet school in 2006. Any kind of business startup demands your full commitment, and I mean full, to say nothing of a healthy bank account—double what you think it will take and then some, buckets of your time, unrelenting nail biting, more time, all your waking hours, and a few sleepless nights thrown in for good measure—did I mention time?

When you start a school there are exactly no guarantees the thing will fly; mine ultimately did not, although had I been willing to leave behind some of my stubbornly held ideas about maintaining a certain artistic “pureness” in my business practices, I believe it would have: when my marriage failed and everything came unglued I was already teetering on the threshold of fiscal success. But teetering falls short of paying the light bill and the rent.

Other benchmarks at the school—teaching standards, community engagement, relationship building—undeniably painted a picture of success. I submit that during its brief life the ballet school purveyed a product of a quality unmatched anywhere in my home town and beyond. What I could bring to the table was complete immersion in classical ballet by way of the pedigree handed me by my own ballerina mom and each of her friends and colleagues, who nurtured along my intense love for the form for most of two decades. We often speak of teaching ballet as commuting the art form to a new generation, our tacit obligation to keep it alive but also to leave our own thumbprint on it, part and parcel of its natural evolution; I saw the school as my chance to do that.

But in 2009 I also made an important business and artistic decision to develop a professional relationship with American Ballet Theatre, which served my community back home in more ways than can be quantified on a spreadsheet; the school’s population—its young enrollees and their families—were the beneficiaries of the collective wisdom of scores of professionals thanks to ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Friendships and professional ties forged at ABT persist; whether they will be called again into “active service” at some point is anybody’s guess, which is the thing I find so enticing about the future to begin with, a kind of counter weight to the uncertainty that can be so disquieting.

The question is, does a ballet school, or any other business, really, deserve to be there in the first place if it can’t self-sustain? Does every struggling business (or ill-conceived business plan or idea) deserve a Kickstarter campaign? I never even thought of going down that road with my own small ballet school.

Instead I sized up my desperate situation and ultimately took a job in the corporate world after a brief teaching stint elsewhere, a “selling out” frowned on in some circles. Even the word itself—corporate—has negative connotations (greed comes to mind), some deserved to be sure. It derives from the Latin word for body, but its implicit meaning now is “all” versus “one.” The corps de ballet, for example, is the main body of the company, apart from its soloists, but without whom there is no ballet. We often think of the corporate entity, though, as antithetical to the individual, and therefore antithetical to creativity.

Working in the corporate world is not a universally wretched condition: I’m privileged to make a living doing the one other thing I love, which is writing, even if it is not always in my own voice. (Is there creativity in my work? In spades.) But when you dance in the corps de ballet, you are part of something bigger, as I am now.

Were I still at the helm of a ballet school, my approach now would almost certainly be broader, making use of the classroom space to generate revenue for as many moments as the day allowed, to reach a wider audience, to tap into the bigger desires of the community—to be more corporate minded, if you will; this is not about greed, but survival. In those days I eschewed these opportunities in the name of artistic purity, of being only the one thing, the best ballet school. Even the school’s slogan spelled it out: excellent instruction in correct classical ballet technique. But it would have been entirely possible to reach beyond the confines of classical ballet instruction and still maintain that slogan, and the highest standards for ballet training. (And in hindsight, the school’s one exceptional product really demanded a higher price tag than I put on it.) I embraced the paradigm of the diva soloist instead of being a team player in the corps de ballet, and it finally cost me my school. Without the corps, there is no ballet.

So I answered my friend’s question yes, with an asterisk: some day in the future, I would enjoy standing at the front of the classroom again, at a time when I don’t absolutely need the income from an unwieldy teaching load to (barely) make ends meet. Teaching ballet really is a luxury; working as I do now is a necessity, but is honorable, I believe, and satisfying, a pleasure for which being vilified by some folks out there in the ether feels misguided. These days I pay the light bill and the rent as a member of the corps, no Kickstarter campaign required.

Deb and Celia at ABT 1

With one of my young Knoxville Ballet School students at ABT in 2012

Making Sense out of the Senseless: Love is the Answer

Pontoosuc Lake 1 A

Annie Lennox urged me to pick up my feet and pick up the pace through sweaty ear buds, her lyrics suffused with emotions: love, loss, loneliness, joy, she knows each of them intimately, she sings. A perfect Vermont Saturday morning was the only other motivation I needed to run: success is measured in hot cheeks, eyes burning with salt, a soaked-through shirt, and happy delirium. It’s possible there is no better feeling.

But the day did indeed get better, as if that were possible: an afternoon in Massachusetts under a cerulean sky, lunch of prosciutto and mozzarella on ciabatta (barbecue and collard greens for Handsome Chef Boyfriend), a suspended moment on Pontoosuc Lake’s shore where water sparkled an early summer greeting and windmills waved hello from a distant hilltop, frozen concoctions at a roadside dive the afternoon’s finale on the way home, where we collapsed content on the sofa with a nail-biter on the telly. Plucking chunks of ripe cantaloupe from a plastic tub, licking juice from our fingers and playing footsie with our toes: life does not get better than this. It was a day beyond reproach end to end, the kind of day that explodes with so much guilty pleasure it almost feels wrong.

Krispy Cones 1 A

When I lived in Denver for a few years in my very early twenties a passel of ballet friends and I routinely found weekend fun at gay nightclubs: they had the best dance music hands down (the perfect antidote for classical ballet), the best deejays, and truly superb entertainment. There were bouncers who sized you up at the door, and if you did not set off the hostility meter you were welcomed.

I remember one club in particular for its phenomenal drag queens, where for a small cover charge you could catch an amazing show staged by people who had spent hundreds on costuming and hair and makeup, lip syncing the songs on the charts at the time: the music of British invasion techno bands, and healthy doses of Chaka Khan, Madonna, and Tina Turner—the likenesses were spot on.

I had a good friend who deejayed at that club, a young violinist in the Denver Symphony who enjoyed this work purely as an avocation—he was passionate about getting the technical aspects just right, measuring beats per minute, knowing how to line up dance tracks in a way that made perfect sense. I went to that club as much to see him as I did the shows because he let me climb the ladder up into the sound booth and sit there with him while he showed me the tools of the trade. I was duly impressed, and also had a spectacular view of the stage below.

I never once imagined I was in any kind of danger in that club, or any of the others, and the fact is my young friends and I, and the other club patrons and performers, were probably pretty safe. At least from the kind of violence Orlando saw last weekend and which seems so much a part of the landscape now it’s exhausting to feel the pain when the news stories break.

But fear and loathing and intolerance were certainly there in Denver in the early 1980s. A short time after I moved from Colorado back to my home state of Tennessee I learned my violinist friend had been lured from the club by a man feigning interest in him, but who then beat him to a pulp and left him for dead. He spent some time fighting for his life in the ICU before eventually making a full recovery, lucky to be alive.

I have no cure for intolerance, fear, hate, oppression, or marginalization, but I know this: they leave their calling card at every single scene of carnage. And they absolutely detest love, can’t bear the sight of it.

I ache for the 49 people in Orlando, and so many more, who never again will see a sparkling lake or indulge in an ice cream on a sunny day. We owe it to them, and the people who went before them, and those who will go after them, to love, over a prosciutto sandwich, or a tub of cantaloupe, or however love insinuates itself in your life.

The adult luna moth lives for only one week. She has no mouth—her sole purpose is to reproduce. For this reason she has come to symbolize love. A beautiful specimen visited us early last week, a reminder: Be good. Don’t judge. Bury your fears. Say something nice to someone who needs to hear it, starting now, because your time here is short. Just, love.

Luna Moth 1 A

Learning to Write in Bits and Bytes

Digital Marketing Blog Post 2

How many of your speech and language neurons are you willing to prune away?

I write and edit wide-ranging content for a successful digital marketing content company, where we keep abreast of the latest in best practices. Maintaining high standards is important because we hand our clientele deliverables that ultimately affect their bottom lines, and of course the quality of our work speaks volumes about us as an agency. We want everybody to be profitable and happy. And we want to continue to give our clients the best advice to achieve those ends.

Lately the trade chatter’s been all about writing shorter content. And still shorter content. Why? Mainly because we are tethered to our smart phones all the livelong day, and for a message to effectively reach us, it has to fit nicely on that little glass screen without beseeching us to scroll and scroll and scroll, because we might grow impatient and move on. (To be sure, I’m not slamming the device itself, which is pretty dang amazing when you stop for a nanosecond to think about it—an entire computer, widely available, globally connected, with the same power as your laptop. And it fits in the palm of your hand.)

When I say shorter content, I don’t mean the web descriptions limited to a certain number of characters or fewer to avoid the dreaded Google nip and tuck in the search results. This is about writing less. And less. For example, cramming your marketing message into a blog post a consumer can read at a glance before going on, but hopefully not before the desired “conversion” that ends in an e-commerce transaction—maybe not right then, but the seed will have been planted. (And if you’re really lucky, they’ll share it via social media—that’s a digital marketing high five, right there.)

The thing is, we’re not talking about an ad slogan made to fit on a T-shirt (USAir Begins With You). We’re talking about writing, preferably using the King’s English with art and skill to thoughtfully engage a reader, ulterior motives notwithstanding. I find this trend to trim more than a little disquieting.

Remember when your prep school English teachers or college professors urged you to be concise in your writing? To express an idea in fewer words, with “tighter” language and presumably more clarity? They were absolutely right about that—wordiness is wearisome. If you can express the same thought more succinctly, without changing its meaning, your message usually packs so much more punch.

But this is a different economy of words, a writing style dictated by our collectively shorter and shorter attention spans, where paragraphs are replaced more and more by bulleted or numbered lists, for example. Waxing poetic has no place here (although Haiku as a form handily fits on the little screen: Click on this here link/Go buy cheap stuff from China/Happy consumer). But so much must be clipped in the interest of space (and time, because nobody seems to have enough of it to parse through a longish article these days), critical ideas—and beautiful language—often fall through the cracks, or get poked through them.

When short digital content is good, it can be very, very good (and by the way, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “clever.”) But that is so rarely the case. The funny thing is, I have seen some minimalist content out there that is so badly written it still somehow manages to be wordy. Unbelievably, sometimes it’s even celebrated as excellent writing. Go figure. At the risk of sounding like a cynic (okay, I’m a cynic), I submit much of it is tripe.

Back to those neurons: does that sound like rubbish to you? It might be. In fact, I hope it is for the sake of us as a species. But consider the toll this here digital era has taken on our language to date, where words are reduced to snippets that don’t really make much sense at all out of context. I know, because I’m the proud parent of a young millennial whose daily messages to me are often so reductionist I have to ask two or three times for clarification. (I have been known to correct his spelling and grammar on Facebook. I know, but he’ll thank me someday.)

Lest you think I weep for the future, fear not: I see this emerging code for writing the best digital content possible, using the fewest words, as the most magnificent professional challenge: how to effectively engage your audience with the most spartan language imaginable. Evelyn Waugh once said of his own writing, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” It is a nice metaphor for what we do in this biz, only the data size keeps shrinking (see ‘bits and bytes’ above).

We use “shares” and “likes” to measure success, and sometimes the most horrid content still emerges victorious by these standards. Still, I like to think quality prose prevails over silly numbered lists, like good over evil in classic literature. In the world of digital marketing copy, my opinion does not matter: strategies and yardsticks for success can be discussed in focus groups and around conference room tables ‘til the cows come home, but the only thing that finally matters is the bottom line.

Home is where Your Heart Is: I Heart Vermont, Kinda

Vermont Guide Book II 1

It just doesn’t always heart me back.

The man rapping his knuckles against my car window had no teeth. He wore unbuttoned flannel over a filthy shirt and baggy trousers, which were held aloft over his pot belly by a pair of suspenders; his scruffy beard betrayed a recent snack. It was broad daylight in a busy grocery store parking lot, a populous outpost in Vermont’s rural Upper Valley, but sweet Jebus, who was this unfortunate little man? I cracked the window a hair.

“I can see by your license plate you’re not from around here,” he said through speech almost incomprehensible to me (it might have been the absence of teeth, to be fair).

He was right. I still had temporary tags from the North Carolina dealer where I had only just bought the car. I nodded and said nothing.

“You made an illegal left turn back there,” he went on.

I turned and looked over my shoulder back towards Route 5, whence I had come.

“You’re supposed to use the special turnaround lane on the right when you turn into this parking lot,” he lectured. “I almost hit you.”

I thanked him and closed the window and waited ‘til he was gone to get out of the car.

I’d had boots on the ground in Vermont for just a few days. I knew exactly nobody in my tiny new community, saved from abject solitude by my Clarence-the-Canine, still getting the lay of the land. And only days before that a humorless cashier at the local convenient mart had rapped my proverbial knuckles when I placed my plastic shopping basket on the counter so she could reach it. Because I had the nerve to assume she would remove the sundries to punch them in the cash register and bag them, like every other convenience mart cashier on the planet does. I was wrong, wrong, wrong, and she felt inclined to teach me: “You wanna empty your basket?” she snapped.

I could wave off her unfriendliness easily enough. (Note to self: watch out—this one bites.)

But the bearded man’s behavior suggested a collective bad mood in those parts; he really rattled my cage. Maybe the failed economy here had worn everybody down, just as it had in other parts of the country, and I was arriving at the worst possible moment. Pushing the bockety cart up and down the aisles of the little grocery store trapped in a time warp, I felt nerves well up and spill over into anger, trying hard to push back tears: cheeky jerk, following me into the parking lot to make a point.

Then I softened some. Maybe he was trying to be genuinely helpful.

Still, had he plowed into me from behind on a stretch of highway where posted speed limits were pretty dang low, it would have been his fault and he knew it, even if I were cited for an illegal left turn. Nah, he was annoyed by an out-of-towner impeding his way and had to take me down. The diatribe could have been worse. I blew away what was left of the wispy cloud of charity as it evaporated in front of me.

In retelling this story a couple of times over the intervening four years I’ve lived here, I’ve discovered some folks refuse to consider you a true Vermonter unless you can name local family going back three generations. There is also an undercurrent of hostility towards the population that lies across the state’s borders, although it’s harder to pin down: some really do eschew change, or outside influence—call it progress, if you wish—fewer embrace it. Some shout it from the rooftops Vermont style, with spirited leave-us-alone slogans celebrating the “old” ways splattered on barn siding.

For all its delectable offerings, I’ve often felt Vermont is an underserved state in many ways, but when it shutters itself to outside influences must also own that and suffer the consequences; our notoriously failed healthcare exchange is a perfect example. It is one thing to love the beauty of the land, or to be a farmer, or to enjoy whatever imagined lifestyle attracted you to these parts, quite another to be provincial, to stubbornly resist change even if it has the potential to make life better—a resistance that worms its way right to the top of our government here in the Green Mountain State.

But you could also call it snobbery: it reminds me of a thing called the Twelve Year Club, a society at a prep school I attended in Memphis where membership was granted during your senior year, but only if you’d been there from crib nursery. I have about as much chance of being a “true” Vermonter as measured by these impossible standards as I did earning a spot in that ridiculous society.

Still, here I am with my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, paying my taxes and trying like heck to fit in. Last I checked, as a bonafide American I can live in any of these fifty states, even without a gene pool that precedes me. (Take that, angry little man.) But I don’t mean to just live here, to take up real estate: I want to make positive contributions, as much as I want my own life to mean something.

Meanwhile I’m left with the disquieting notion that newcomers to my erstwhile city of Knoxville, Tennessee could ever have felt unwelcome on my watch—did they? Was my demeanor ever untoward? Did I ever make a person or family feel left out? There were certainly opportunities for bad behavior—in my neighborhood, at church, at any of the schools my son attended, even at the small ballet school I founded in 2006. Shame on me if I did: exclusivity can be divisive and disenfranchising.

Four years past the Parking Lot Incident, and I’m still not really what you’d call “settled” in my new potting soil—disturbed, transplanted, and placed in freshly aerated dirt to be sure, I just have not taken root. It’s possible I’m in the wrong pot, which makes me a little gun-shy of making close connections, HCB being one notable exception. Meanwhile, I hope to remember to show some heart and welcome new folks who may in fact be scared down to their socks and hoping for a fresh start.

Kinda like the first people who arrived here looking for a new home many generations ago must have felt.