Arctic beginnings: going under the ice

You have one minute to control your breathing. Ten minutes of movement until your muscles seize and become tired and heavy. One hour before hypothermia sets in.

Today I was submerged in cold water.

While “cold water” is defined as any water 20 degrees Celsius and below, my water was 2 degrees. Yes, 2 degrees above freezing.

I am heading North of 60 in the middle of February with the Canadian Forces 38 Brigade on Exercise Arctic Ram. I’m not a soldier myself, but an embedded journalist who will be documenting the exercise.  Today we began training with a five-minute dip in the dunk tank. That’s right, a tank of ice water in the snowy parking lot of Minto Armoury.

To be fair – I volunteered. Every soldier on exercise was required to do the test, and I decided what better way to get to know the people I’ll be heading to the Arctic with, than to share a painful experience together. I also decided to do a broadcast story for Army News, even doing my sign off right before bobbing under water.

The importance of the submerge is building mental resilience – while we’re up North past Yellowknife, Yukon, we’ll be travelling with what the military calls “Light Over Snow Vehicles” – or snow mobiles. Even though it will be the middle of winter in February, large open channels of water are still running, and drivers must be cautious at all times.

While the ideal situation would be a lake drop-in, we did it this way. And it was still damn cold.

I wasn’t “dropped” in (to conserve water) but slipping in on the side still allowed me the same sensations: shock and loss of normal breathing, terrific pins and needles in the extremities, and lastly – overall numbness and fatigue.

But knowing what cold feels like, and what to do, can save your life.

The worst part of going under in cold water: the cruel burning sensation your entire body feels.

Remember when you forgot your toque that one time at recess on a cold day? Your ears flared up red and stung like a female dog? Feel that all over your body – I wanted to rip all the blankets off so I could cool down from the burn.

The best part of going under in cold water: the after-shower. Seriously, I’d do it again for the shower.

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More Arctic stories to follow in the coming months, with lead up to Exercise Arctic Ram. More of this story will be published shortly – video to follow.

‘These are human beings’: A look at Hiroshima

He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glovelike pieces…he had to keep consciously repeating to himself “these are human beings.”

I read the majority of Hiroshima by John Hersey in a single sitting on a cold afternoon. Wrapped in a blanket, I devoted all my time to dipping into the story. Nearby my boyfriend worked on a paper and from time to time he’d give me a concerned look. My eyebrows were furrowed, I’d “tsk” or inhale in disbelief. After I finished reading I was silent for a long while.

I had just been dropped into the scene at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The atomic bomb having just exploded at Hiroshima, forever changing the lives of those who survived. What I had known about the event before included an ingrained image of the iconic mushroom cloud, and that many people were affected; with over  150,000 people killed on impact. I also knew motives and politics – those told by the victors. But on that Sunday, I knew Miss Toshinki Sasaki, Dr. Masakazu Fujii, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, Father William Kleinsorge, Dr. Terufumi Saski and The Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto.

I knew real people.

Hersey’s vivid details are the blood in this body of work. He writes in a calm manner, stating the horrific facts in a neutral tone, and parlaying imagery that only those who were there could ever relate:

“On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns…on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb, and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it into the skin), the shapes of flowers they had on their kimonos.”

He talked about keltoids, rubbery scars, and the girls who were disfigured by it – the A Bomb Maidens. All they wanted was a chance to look they way they did before. Another image that stays with me is the one of young Miss Toshinki Sasaki, who had a broken leg from a heavy bookcase falling on it, stranded with two other wounded people under a metal sheet.  The three were left for days without food, water or the ability to move:

“The rain cleared and the cloudy afternoon was hot; before nightfall the three grotesques under the slanted piece of twisted iron began to smell quite bad.

I shuddered picturing – and imagining the smell of – these three huddled figures, stuck together, sharing their surroundings with the dead.

When the story was first released, it had four chapters: the noiseless flash, the fire, details are being investigated, and panic grass and feverfew.  Hersey later returned to Hiroshima to see how those who are his story had lived their lives. I enjoyed this chapter, albeit being very different from the tone of the original four, because it detailed how each of them came through this devastating event; most with humility and gratefulness at being alive.

The only nuance I found difficult to read through, was the use of  Mr. And Mrs. – especially when two people had the same last name. It’s such a journalist thing to do (writing with the last names and not the first) so I understand the choice; although, nowadays we wouldn’t use those titles in articles. 

Compared to other works of non-fiction, Hiroshima does the right things – bringing out the drama in reality. This past summer I watched the documentary Dear Zachary, a letter to a son about his father: a gut wrenching story about the failure of a justice system, and the death of two beautiful people. In many ways these two different stories include the same elements: details, real people and understated writing. The big difference in Dear Zachary is that the filmmaker inserted himself (very much so) in the story. While it worked for the documentary, Hersey’s seeming invisibility allows the story to solely focus on the people.

One thing that could be added, for those journo geeks like me, is a follow-up or introduction where Hersey describes his motivations, what it was like to interview these people, or where he was in all of this chaos. It could even be a separate book; I would just love to hear about the making of Hiroshima.

What I took from Hersey as a writer is that as a journalist involved with a highly emotional story, you don’t have to insert yourself into it. You need to give it room to speak for itself and let the real people be the story. Even if you have the space to write as much as Hersey did, still use relevant details that add to the story. There was not one point while reading when I thought “hmm, Hersey didn’t have to include this.” Every word, thought and sentence was there with purpose.

Excuse me, for having no burden like yours – Mr. Tanimoto

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‘Just go for it’: Okay, Dawna Friesen

Sometimes we forget just how far we’ve come.

It was a snowy day in early December 2007 when I got on the bus to head to Red River College for my entrance exam.  At the time I remember thinking:  girl, you got nothing to lose – if it doesn’t work out, you’re still on your square.

Well I took the exam, did the interview and made it out alive. During the time between, I completed a number of university courses, met incredible people, went diving with sharks, and took a free helicopter ride with an amateur pilot just to see the view from above Table Mountain. I performed aerial dance and competed across the province and internationally – doing things I never imagined for myself.

And yet, we still have times of doubt. Saying that things aren’t good, or that some of our dreams will for sure have to wait.

This past Friday I met Dawna Friesen, Global National anchor and CreComm graduate. Her story is a remarkable one, and she has built herself an accomplished career doing what she wanted – and loved. One of my journalism friends started tearing up when Dawna told us “just go for it – go for your dreams.”

The tears? Because my friend realized that’s where we are right now. There’s never been a better time for us to reach for our most ambitious goals than right now – in our prime, with a blank canvas in front of us.  Dawna wasn’t handed a dream job, nor had she planned to live in 13 places over the course of five months.

And yet we worry about completing our broadcast journalism assignment.

What I’ve come to know about getting where you want to be (in a really brief period), is talking will only get you so far. It’s about doing. Last week, each one of us journalism majors talked about this to the first years. That a portfolio only takes shape when you’re active, willing – and in many ways, yearning. The dream job of a national anchor won’t just fall into the lap of someone who thinks it would be “a cool job.”

Another thing I’ve learned from seeing people who inspire me in the industry is their sense of humility. Dawna, who is accomplished and experienced in the way only time provides, was more than happy to speak with us, take pictures with us – be honest with us.“Take whatever comes your way, if it doesn’t work out – try again,” she said.

I strongly believe that those who think the world of themselves – and less of others – are really missing out. Being a remarkable journalist is not about being better, it’s about being skilled at sharing. Sharing stories and experiences with their community. I just don’t think you can be full of yourself and do a good job expressing sincerity and honesty.

Dawna told me about a story she did in London, about a boy who released a balloon that ended up in the Queen’s courtyard. While at first she didn’t see the real pull in it, she told me it was the story she received the most responses from viewers for, saying: “Just find the heart in your story.”

I think that’s why I love being a journalist. So much of what we do is working with what’s there – and taking risks. Turning an ordinary story into something valuable to those who hear and see it.

And we do have to be confident. We’re doing things that constantly puts us out there in public, and while you don’t want go overboard – a healthy dose of confidence is necessary. Remember: you can do it – just go for it.

So as I take time to send out my resumes and make decisions about where I’m going, I have to stop doubting myself. Dawna didn’t come out of CreComm knowing everything, and she wasn’t guaranteed anything. So to all my fellow journalism students, we can do this. After all, we survived CreComm…

(so far).

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Writing to remember

It was a rainy April morning, when I arrived at Vimy Ridge, France. Our small group marched on the wet, marshy fields toward the hill. Some complained about the rain. When we reached the top, we didn’t have to fight or run or scream – we just had to remember.

I left the group and walked around the memorial site alone, trying to make sense of  the symbols embedded in the sculptures. The fallen were there as names carved inches deep into the stone, their bodies now lying in honourable graves. But no image haunted me more than the statue of Mother Canada.

She stood alone atop the front wall, holding a branch in her hand. There was a heaviness to the cloth draped around her body and she looked down. She was sad, mourning, remembering: forever immortalized in stone.

I don’t think I really got Remembrance Day until my trip to visit the battle sites of the first and second world war.  Being from South Africa, I didn’t grow up with the tradition of remembrance and pinning on a poppy. In fact I was horribly confused by the whole event when I first attended a school event in grade four.

But that trip, aside from being advertised as a history excursion, was an exercise in remembering.

Canadians gather annually to hold community ceremonies of remembrance, a standard of which is the playing of the last post. On a chilly April evening, a large group of people gathered at the Menin Gate in Ypres, France for a remembrance ceremony. While I was only there for one night to witness people crying wile the last post played, it is a ritual they do everyday. They never let themselves forget.

And there are many people who go through remembrance everyday, without ritual. Parents and children of the fallen, comrades, soldiers currently on deployment. The people whose lives are continually dependent on the service of soldiers and their sacrifice, or who owe their freedom to those in uniform.

I’d would be bold enough to say that’d all of us.  So what are my acts of remembrance?

Last year I wrote a story about my father and how he made a dear friend out of an enemy he fought during the Angolan war. It was hard to listen to his story, having been confused for so long by his depression and tirades, which it was diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder. It was also hard for him to remember, recounting events of being a young man forced into combat.

My father thanked me for writing it and sent an email copy to Jorge, his “Cuban brother.” This was the letter I received back (he used a translator):

“Daniella my Sister I am very happy for you and see that you are very intelligent and have ease of words when writing. Everything is well written in your article and you honor me, with the sheer reality of our pure dispair, you seem to understand the sincerity of our souls during this damaging time in our lives. God offered us and I met your father, thank you for your sentimental words about his life […] all my gratitude and my hugs to you, merry Christmas..”

I was overwhelmed by his thanks. Even though I thought I had just written another story – it was an act of remembrance.

It was from writing his story that I realized I wanted to work with the Canadian Forces for my Independent Professional Project. I am happy to be in charge of the 38 Brigade newsletter, and play a number of communications roles. I have had the opportunity to meet many reserves soldiers, who do great work in the community and help out on the home front; most recently during the spring flood.

The theme for our November newsletter is how do you remember. I attended the Valour Road ceremony today, and as I’m waiting for the crowd to disperse, I see a man standing with his dog; watching people as they lay wreaths. I go up to him with a smile and ask him how he is, if he’d like to share with me how he remembers.

“I remember everyday, my father was killed right before I was born.”

Without saying me saying a word, the man continued to tell me about all the members in his family affected by the war. His father was a Canadian soldier in South East Asia. His mother lost both of  her brothers. His stepdad had tried to get overseas to no avail while his stepdad’s twin brother was a thousand miles away,  working on a map when a sniper bullet shot off part of his ear. An inch difference would have meant his life.

Or another gentleman I asked, who was donning a beret. It was his fathers, the man in the picture wearing the same hat. The photo was taken a few days after he married the woman beside him, while on a few weeks leave. The two lovebirds lived together until they were 95, passing away within months of each other. Today their son thanked them on Remembrance Day by putting their picture on the memorial.

I think I finally get Remembrance Day. It doesn’t matter who you are, or whether you attend a ceremony (be nice if you did). What matters are the stories. Memorials, like the one at Vimy Ridge that moved me to tears, bear the names – but we bear the people, their histories and legacies.

My way of remembering is telling stories. All the while Mother Canada mourns and soldiers lie in wait. When it one days ends, and until then, we will never forget.

Journo on screen

This weekend I spent most of Friday and all day Saturday working on three separate film/ broadcast projects. All three had challenges and of course, some fun thrown into the mix. What I enjoyed the most about the past two days is seeing how my journalism and media production skills came in handy – and how the little things make a big difference. 

For the first project, a short film, I acted as one of the two main characters. Now I am no screen actress by any regard, unless you consider last year’s Montage assignment to be Oscar-worthy. We mainly shot inside, house shots really, but we also had the prestige of being the first to shoot in the new Winnipeg airport.

Just being Meryl Streep

At one point the boom guy, a jovial bearded man, said “every set needs someone like you.” I unknowingly had become the continuity person, taking note of details and questioning if things seemed different (very journo if I say so myself). Continuity is making sure that if one is wearing a hat in one take of the film, one continues to wear said hat in the next take. The best way to avoid a tough edit is to take care of continuity while filming. 

The second project I worked on was a corporate promotional video for the launch of Loft 73. I wasn’t in any shots but I acted as the reporter, asking questions, holding the mic and making sure interview subjects were looking at me (and not the camera.)  

Here I played a more broadcast journalist role, but what I found most useful being a journalism student (and not just another girl with a microphone) was how I asked my questions. My shooter, who was the real push behind this project, had given me some questions that she really wanted me to cover. I did those, but I also made sure to ask questions that suited the person and his/her environment.

For example, when one customer was trying on shoes, I didn’t start with “what comes to mind when you think of the brand?” (what we needed to hear).  Instead, I started much the same way I would if I was interviewing someone for print; asking a question they could feel confident answering: “tell me how the shoe feels on your foot?”  It a small change, but it made a profouund difference in how people answered i.e. with more expression and for longer.

Lastly, I worked on my actual broadcast journalism assignment with my partner Jennifer David. We had to film our last scenes at Fame Nightclub for our story on the drag queen Jynx. We’re both broadcast journalism students and have a good understanding of the basics.

But for me, it wasn’t about white balancing, audio checking and standups – it was about teamwork. Having someone’s back – whether it’s an editor, a fellow reporter, or your shooter.

Jen and I had waited a long time to get the shot of Jynx’s performance – it boiled down to scheduling our time, Jynx’s time, and booking-out-a-camera time. So we had a lot riding on this night. As Jynx is announced to hit the stage for her one-song performance, I see Jen run to the side of the stage I’m nearest to and say “I NEED A BATTERY!” I’ve never run that fast in heels before, swerving between bodies to grab a battery in the nightclub office and run it out. But we got the shots, screaming fans and all – wow.

This weekend taught me that being a journalist means paying attention to details, asking the questions that will get the most real answers, and always always working as a team. Thank you to everyone I worked with this weekend for the great opportunity to learn (and have fun while doing it).

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