One birthday, my friend offered to take me out in a 420 class dinghy on the San Francisco Bay.
In anticipation of the Big Day, I practiced knots on twine. I perused eBay for affordable sport glasses — black-rimmed and polarized. I gargled salt water and Googled “kelp.”
Initially eager to initiate me into her world of neoprene booties and spray-slick wetsuits — the world of competitive youth sailing — my friend carefully reneged when my birthday rolled around a month later.
While she was willing to navigate her own body through piers and rocks and gray water, she wasn’t willing to hurl mine. We could die, she said.
I imagined my sports glasses sinking into the sepia seaweed of the depths I would not explore.
I often imagine how the harsh wind she described would have felt against my face. After experiencing blowback over an article I penned senior year, I decided it would have been like that: fast, vicious, grating.
My high school, a prisonlike structure nestled in the oft-burnt and nostalgically rural hills of Moraga, wrongly considered itself a beacon of educational light. Yes, my graduating class had 50-plus honor roll students. And yes, we regularly sent students to top schools. Most of them, however, were athletes recruited for physical, rather than intellectual, prowess.
Even by California’s wake-and-bake standards, Exeter we were not.
I liked my high school. I befriended brilliant teachers and made good grades. I was on the newspaper. I started a club. I learned to write a decent essay. I maintained a pleasant if somewhat anti-social existence.
Last January, however, I became the target of the elements that most poorly represented our school. The element whose ignorance of the effects of chlorine caused the recent manslaughter — err, shark-slaughter — of a baby hammerhead for a senior prank. The element that wanted to STOMP our rival high school.
I wrote an article voicing what I saw as the unfairness of athletes receiving preferential treatment in the university admissions process, alluding specifically to our class’s Harvard-bound crew star.
My classmates didn’t like it. In fact, they really didn’t like it.
I was asked about the article at my interview for Yale, a school from which I was later — albeit deservingly — rejected. I lost the chance to deliver a graduation speech, which was decided by popular vote. My boyfriend’s car was keyed.
I might have been sued for libel had my subject — bless her Nike-shorts-wearing, Dutch-braided heart — cared enough to levy charges.
That blowback, however, is nothing compared to what professional journalists face every day.
The Capital Gazette shooting didn’t introduce me to the dangers of journalism. I had earlier read about a Russian journalist who, beaten by unknown thugs, was robbed first of his freedom of speech and then of his life. I followed the Kim Wall trial.
But when a friend from writing camp — 5-foot-2, honey-blonde — told me she wanted to become a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, I was still floored. Conjuring up unwelcoming deserts and the orange jumpsuits of ISIS execution videos, I saw her aspirations as dangerous and reckless. Even suicidal.
I saw what she wanted to do as distinctly different from what I was doing.
Because at the time, my journalism was confined to a 5-by-8-yard room lined with iMacs. My journalism might upset a few stoners — might cost me a friend with whom to share pad thai — but never did it lead me to see myself, to steal from Ernest Hemingway, dead in the rain.
And then a gunman charged the office belonging to a small, local, American newspaper publisher — the Capital Gazette.
I saw then that I had lost a friend over my article, a sailing champion with purple kimchi and great stories, but that my loss was small compared to what it might have been under other circumstances: an arm, a leg, my life. I saw that I could easily have been the battered Russian journalist, or one at the Capital Gazette kneeling from a gunshot.
I saw that I could have been at a loss not for a pair of super cool polarized sports glasses, but for a head.
The big question, of course, is why. Why subject oneself to undue danger? Why participate in a field that, even in America, can become a minefield?
The real answer is too long. The short one? That I like who I am when I’m reporting. That I don’t much mind the wind.