Reading Words: “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.

Reading Words: “The Hate U Give”

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Starr Carter, p. 252

The Hate U Give

If your skin is white like mine, for most of the hours of most of the days of your life, you probably won’t think about your whiteness. Why? Because the culture white America created over centuries makes it really easy not to on the daily. And, in fact, it makes it that way precisely so you don’t think about it … ideally at all. If you did, things might be very, very different.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, good. It should. It means you’re thinking. It means you’re on the journey to awareness. And from that point, you have the potential to make a serious difference — not just make things different. Yes, that subtlety matters. A lot.

I came to this uncomfortable realization for the first time in middle school, when I was given a chance to study the life and works of two incredible Americans — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Maya Angelou. The realization I had from these studies bothered me. Not so much because the reality itself was hard to acknowledge (though it was), but because I knew, without having the vocabulary to properly vocalize this yet, that I’d have few — if any — other white people to talk about it with. So I kept my feelings and opinions close to my heart. That’s about as far as they went back then, and since then I’ve learned lesson after lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power.

I could cite countless other examples of uncomfortable realizations like this. Between school and work, across three states and six cities, and yes, also in my personal life, confronting race in a post-racial America has been challenging. This means it’s worthwhile — and ultimately, of importance. But I’m not here to give you a run-down of these moments. The point is that I have them, and yes, white America, you have them too, whether or not you’re aware of it yet.

What I am here to do — in this post, but more globally on the blog — is to remind us that life is about understanding and compassion, rather than hatred or fear. Life is about striving for justice and equity, rather than perpetuating systemic oppression (in all forms!). Put more simply, life is about learning to love, choosing to love, and then, critically, actually doing it.  And sometimes love means we must do difficult things, uncomfortable things, things we aren’t sure we’re brave enough, ready enough, smart enough, strong enough, anything enough to do. That is usually when we need to try the most.

In the spirit of that message, I’d encourage you to read Angie Thomas’s masterful work, The Hate U Give. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award. It’s a best-seller. And, if you’ve been following the news, you may have heard that it’s becoming a major motion picture. It stands on its own.

But much more importantly, and I don’t say this lightly, it’s the essence of life itself. It’s a call-to-action we all must learn to answer. Not just for one person, or one movement, or one pivotal moment in history, but all the time, everywhere, for everyone. It’s that important. Please read this book. And when you’re ready, go in peace to speak, write, act, and generally L-O-V-E. Just remember that peace doesn’t have to mean silence.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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P.S. Interested in other voices who’ve joined this conversation?

Here’s a few. I encourage you to find more — or even better, contribute alongside them:

(1) The Atlantic’s review of T.H.U.G., available here.

(2) An interview with Angie Thomas and Balzar+ Bray/Harper Collins, her publisher. Heads-up, their chat is about 20 minutes long, but you’ll want to listen all the way through over here.

(3) A Huffington Post review, available here.

Taking Trips: Coe Hall

I love a good history & literature connection. I love gardens and old houses. I love guided tours. And I love a good excuse to get out of the house. So, when I saw that the Planting Fields Foundation was hosting a Great Gatsby-themed event, I called to reserve my spot without skipping a beat.

Friends, in what will probably be a rarity in this space, I’d like to brag on the event organizer for a minute. Then I promise we can talk about the tour. But I would be remiss not to mention how stellar this experience was from the very beginning.

It started with a phone call. Yes, I had to call a person to reserve my spot on this tour. Do you know how refreshing it was to use the phone feature of my phone? And, in the digital age, to hear a human’s voice on the other end? It changed the whole tenor of my day. Here’s the simple but critical reason why: the staffer actually talked (and listened) to me.

She did more than reserve my spot and take my payment. She did more than talk at me about what the organization has to offer. This staffer invested her time in learning about my interest, provided prime parking information (which was, by the way, spot on!), and offered me her direct line so I could call her again. Not her email. Not an automated answering machine maze of death. Her actual telephone number.

She did all of this without making me feel like I was on a sales or fundraising call. It was like I, you know, actually mattered. If you’re scoffing at this, thinking “yeah ok, that’s not a revolutionary thought,” then please, pick up the phone and make a cold call. Pay attention to how you’re treated. Even when you’re a pleasant and potentially-paying customer, the person on the other end of the line may not be helpful — or even pleasant.

I know this because I have worked in many customer service roles. I know excellent service. Planting Fields Foundation provides it. If I wanted to make this blog ratings-centric (hard pass), I’d give them five gold stars. They’re incredible. So much so that when I showed up for my tour, I was a little worried their “shiny finish” would wear off, simply because the bar had been set so high from the outset. I was proven wrong — and gladly so.

Over the course of a 1.5-hour tour, our friendly docent took us:

(1) Across four wings — Spanning cloisters, entertaining spaces, working quarters, and reception areas, meticulously curated rooms transported us back in time to the early 1900s. My favorite find? Somewhere along the tour (take it to find out where!), an owl and a rooster are carved into banisters as directional markers. Think about it for a minute and you’ll know why.

(2) Up and down four floors — From the basement’s coal burners (rare tour inclusion!) to the fourth floor servant’s quarters (surprisingly nice!), we climbed more stairs than I normally climb in … well, a long time. Tour AND workout session? Yes please. I didn’t even miss the gym a little bit by the time we were done.

(3) On a fascinating journeyComparing the wealth and lifestyle of the Coes to that of Fitzgerald’s fictional Gatsby, the docent let the house’s grandeur shine, while also clearing up common misconceptions about life on the Gold Coast. One of the starkest contrasts? While Gatsby lived in his mansion, families like the Coes would have vacationed to Long Island mostly on weekends in the fall and spring. How much did it cost to furnish this “quaint country house?” A cool $200 million. In 1918 dollars. Who wants to adjust that for inflation?

There were so many impressive things about this tour. Besides the cool facts you can learn — did you know the Coes had a three-room walk-in refrigerator? and that it took 7,800 pounds of ice to keep it cool? — the space itself is breathtaking. Its balance of utility and beauty, masterful.

My pictures hardly do it justice, but here are a few favorites, mostly of things people tend to forget about when they’re staring at period artwork the size of Everest. I’ve had lifelong love affairs with texture, pattern, and light, so this house was like my own personal heaven. Was I fan-girling? Absolutely and unapologetically. Don’t laugh too hard. You might be joining me in that camp sooner than you think.

The Windows:

The Ceilings & Floors:

The Woodwork: 

Tempted by what you see? Go check it out for yourself!

My ticket for this heavenly experience was only $7. Parking was $8 for the day. Yeah, I shelled out $15, but I’d rather spend my time walking here than sitting down at the movies or sitting at home staring at my own windows and ceilings (yes, I do this. yes, it’s embarrassing. no, I’m not here to be fake and hide embarrassing things from you).

With everything there is to do on-site, you can totally make a full day of this trip. Bring a small picnic and sit on the lawn — or don’t, and eat at the new restaurant at the Hay Barn. Walk around the beautiful gardens. Visit one of the museum’s other exhibits (they have Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s sculptures right now!). Get your “Music in the Garden” on or find another event that’s more your style.

Whatever you do, just go. And prepare to be impressed by the grounds, the people, the whole experience. At 100 years young, Coe Hall  and the Planting Fields Foundation will make you feel like time stands still. And if you’re anything like me, that’s a good thing, because you won’t want the experience to end.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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P.S. Want to know where you can find this Long Island gem? Here’s their address:

Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park
1395 Planting Fields Road
Oyster Bay, NY 11771

Want more information before you go? Check out their website!

Or read/watch CBS Sunday Morning’s feature, A Gilded Age Treasurehere.

Taking Trips: Palisades Interstate Park

We — Husband, Salem, and I — love to hike. When the weather and my knees are both cooperative, it’s out the door we go, and into the great outdoors. We’ve had some great adventures through the years. Lucky for us, we haven’t had to go far to find them.

This weekend we had to go a little further. You might even say a line was crossed. Before I continue, New Yorkers, you might want to sit down. And actually, if that seat has a belt, fasten it. Then take steady, full breaths. What I’m about to tell you may be shocking.

We ok? Alright, feel free to keep reading. But for goodness sakes, keep breathing too.

On Saturday, our family went all the way to — brace yourselves — New Jersey. Miraculously, we lived to tell the tale. A tale of bravery, a tale of adventure, a tale of…yeah, none of those things, but we definitely had a good time and we might even go back.

The Palisades Interstate Park is an hour and change from where we live. Before anyone balks or uses that as a reason not to go, remember that it usually takes this long to get anywhere in the greater NYC metro area. I promise, the drive is worth it. Especially if you know which way to go.

When you travel, please ignore your GPS device, which will probably tell you to take the GW.  If you do this, you’ll just sit in standstill traffic for upwards of an hour, while simultaneously doubling your commute time and your blood pressure reading. Not something to strive for. Instead, try the Tappan Zee. Then snake your way through charming cliffside towns, which offer spectacular views of the Hudson River between people’s homes and the lush greenery that probably looks even better in the fall.

If the drive is pretty, the park itself is spectacular. Straddling New York and New Jersey with over 100,000 acres of protected land, historic landmarks, and of course hiking trails, Palisades Interstate Park offers unobstructed views of the Hudson. I knew the river was impressive, but mercy, it’s just one of those things you have to see in person to fully appreciate. At the State Line Lookout, the highest point, Husband and I took a few photos.

Just a preview of life about 500 feet in the air.

Really, go see it for yourselves! If I showed you all the best stuff, you might never go. Along with these views, you’ll find a small cafe, clean indoor public bathrooms, a free parking lot, and ample green space with picnic tables you can enjoy with friends and family before or after your hikes.

On this particular trip, we headed down the Long Path (aqua trail), so that we could reach the state line and be those cheeseballs who’re in two places at once. And we did that, but all kidding aside, this hike is called “long” and “moderate” for a reason. The first part is deceivingly easy. Then you hit the stairs. There’s a lot of them. They’re uneven. And along a super-steep grade. They should be taken seriously.

If stairs are a deal-breaker, you might enjoy taking the fork (decently marked) to loop back toward the old state highway / trailhead and cafe where you started. I was surprised and grateful to see that option available, as I have bad knees that aren’t always compatible with downhill anything. Alternatives are also nice no matter your ability or experience levels.

For those interested, Salem had no trouble along our hike, but we kept her on a tight leash so her exuberance for life didn’t send her off a cliff. Yes, this was a very real fear of ours mine. Pictured below: walking/hiking with our curious, triumphant pup.

Another insider tip? If you go early in the day, you will avoid the crowds (this place is pop-u-lar) and stay cool, however brisk your walk. Admittedly, for us “brisk” is relative, because Salem stops to “boingle” every five seconds. This means she puts her nose to the ground and refuses to budge until maximum sniff has been achieved. We have yet to figure out what her measurement or evaluation systems entail. It’s a work in progress. Meanwhile, we’re just glad for the time with her, and with each other, in places we might not ordinarily be. Yes, that includes New Jersey. Yes, we highly recommend it. And yes, we challenge you to call it anything other than beautiful when you’re there.

xoxo, 

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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Eating Noms: Banana Bars

Hey friends.

So remember when I said the nice weather wouldn’t last on Long Island? Well, I was right … for the wrong reasons. Gone are the days of 80 and sunny, replaced by 60s and rainy, rather than the insufferably hot and humid days I expected. Outdoor activities are still not a great idea. Know what is? An Eating Noms post! Get ready to expand your belt loops, folks. This one’s worth it!

The Eats Deets:

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Banana Bars (slightly edited), from Butter with a Side of Bread.

Yield: 24 bars, but we’ll see how long that lasts….

Time: 30 minutes

Materials: Mixing device, baking sheet, oven, and the ingredients!

Pros: Simple ingredient list and directions, easily customizable, makes the house smell a-ma-zing.

Cons: You gotta love bananas (I do!) because they’re super flavor-forward.

Would you make it again? Would? Will. This recipe is delicious and is a great way to give some love to those bananas no one buys at the store because they’re not bright green. We all have the power to make small, impactful choices, peeps. Don’t let good food go to waste.

The Eats Story:

We had a bunch (ha! see what I did there?) of really ripe bananas in the house. We also had some Hershey’s nuggets in the freezer (frozen chocolate = the best chocolate). And as you may have guessed from the last Eating Noms post, we usually have flour and brown sugar. I just needed to find a recipe that would pull this goodness together. Enter: Butter with a Side of Bread.

I mentioned above that I slightly edited their recipe. Here’s what differed: I swapped chopped nugget bars for chocolate chips. I also left the cinnamon out and used one less banana because I only had four on-hand. They were still so, so good. I’m not sure the recipe needs either ingredient, but hey, go wild! And while you’re at it, you might consider adding other ingredients like walnuts or almonds, because again, this recipe has loads of potential for personalization.

The Eats Results:

So, when I hear the term “bar” in reference to food, I tend to think of something crunchier than what we ended up with. They’re not really like a cookie or cake, either, so I guess we can still call them bars with a straight face. Just wanted to give the heads-up for anyone who has a “texture thing” or is a “bar purist.”

Meanwhile, just look at how delicious these babies are! I wish I could show you how good they smell — alas, the internet isn’t that sophisticated yet. You’ll just have to make them to find out for yourself.

Let me know what you think!

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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Taking Trips: Walt Whitman’s Birthplace

Yesterday, we hit a beautiful 80 degrees on Long Island.

Unfortunately, days like this won’t last long. As we round the corner from spring to summer, time outside will be limited to beach-faring and BBQing, when it’s too hot to even think about doing much else. With that in mind, I decided to get out and do something fun.

I’ve known about The Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center for about a decade. A college professor shared news of this under-the-radar gem in a literature course, but until now I haven’t lived close enough to easily go visit.

Looking back on my short trip, I’m so glad I finally went! The grounds boast a museum, charming outdoor space, oodles of period details (like a desk from Whitman’s time as a teacher), and a first edition of Leaves of Grass (poetry fans out there, you’ve gotta see this!).

The only catch? It’s definitely well-nestled in its surroundings. So well-nestled, in fact, that I almost missed the turn into the small parking lot, which accommodates about a dozen cars at once.

Historic site signs help guide your journey from major highways, but local street signs are small and hard to read. Add that to the fact that the address says Huntington Station, but locals call it West Hills, and woof. But never fret, if you get lost, the site is minutes away from the Walt Whitman Mall. (Un)fortunately, you can’t miss that landmark. And remember, finding a new place is half the fun of going!

Once you’ve arrived, I’d recommend investing in the guided tour, as that is what allows you to go in the house. Tickets are only $6, and the docents are highly knowledgeable and great with kids. That alone is worth the ticket price. Of course there were also fun things to see, try and learn along the way.

For instance, did you know that the Whitmans had a private water well a couple dozen yards from their front door? This would have been a luxury in their time. It was actually operational until the mid-20th century, when rapid development in the area shifted the water table so dramatically that it completely dried up. I won’t go on the environmental rant I’m super tempted to start right now, but suffice it to say that there are opportunities to reexamine our footprints on this earth all the time. And they’re closer to home (wherever you live) than you might expect.

Another added bonus? Because my tour group was small, we had more time to ask fun (annoying?) questions of our docent. Ask about the Prussian Blue paint or why the closets on either side of the fireplace are such a big deal, if and when you go. They both get interesting answers!

Guided tours not your thing? Check out their additional programming, which ranges from the artistic to the academic. Did you know they have poetry readings and research-quality libraries? Yeah, you might have guessed that. Ok, what about art shows? Or writers-in-residence? Or meeting spaces? Pretty cool, huh? More than a few reasons to make the drive! Here’s the address in case you’re ready to ask Google, Siri, Cortana or Alexa for directions:

The Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center

246 Old Walt Whitman Road

Huntington Station, NY 11746

Still on the fence? Check out their website!

Want some additional reading? Try this article from the Long Island Press (2013), or this one from the New York Times (1992), about Whitman’s Long Island roots. Needless to say, there’s room for more voices in this conversation. Who’s up for the challenge?

Ready …. go.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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P.S. Extra credit for anyone who knows what Paumanok means!

 

Reading Words: “the light we lost”

“There was so much beauty in our life together.

Maybe that’s where I should start.”

Lucy  Carter, Prologue

the light we lost

I didn’t go to Columbia. For undergrad, I went elsewhere in New York, and although I got in to Columbia for my master’s, I headed north to Boston instead.

In this sense, I’m dissimilar to Jill Santopolo, author of the light we lost.

I also wasn’t in NYC on 9/11. I remember exactly what I was doing that morning. I was taking a middle-school American history test in North Carolina.

In that sense, I’m also not like Santopolo’s main character, Lucy, who was in college at Columbia on that fateful day.

But I found myself, in ways that weren’t always comfortable, while reading the light we lost.

I have experienced love. I have experienced loss. I have struggled to understand how the universe moves, and whether or not we have any real say in what happens in our lives. I have moved, I have changed direction, and at times I’ve dug my heels in when I should have changed or moved but didn’t. I’ve also dealt with the blessings and consequences of these decisions. These are the ways I found myself in Santopolo’s work.

I should mention that I don’t read romance novels. Not normally. My life has — for better and for worse — enough real drama to last a lifetime. But I knew I had to read this one. So I went to the store, purchased it, and prepared to cry. And then I did.

I cried for Lucy and Darren and Gabe. I cried for their families and friends. I cried for New York. And yeah, I cried for me, too. I cried tears that I’d probably been needing to cry for years. And that was the best gift I could have given myself. The permission to feel big, scary feelings, about big, scary things.

A book that elicits that level of feeling, and builds a world where that feels both safe and real, transcends genre categorization. It is, quite simply, a great book. And because it is a great book, I’m here saying: go ahead, meet love and grief between the covers of the light we lost. Realize that the beauty of Santopolo’s work is in how she’s captured raw and complex things in a way that makes us less afraid to look them dead-on. Maybe even agree that her work defies the reductive label “romance novel.” And then try not to act surprised when you hear that she transcends literary categorization in other, surprising ways.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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If you’re interested in Santopolo’s thoughts on the light we lost, I’d start with:

This blog post, by Santopolo, for Penguin Random House Audio.

This interview for Entertainment Weekly.

This interview for Washington Independent Review of Books.