Reading Words: TIME’s Special Issue on the American South

“[…] I grew up, as we all did, on tragedy and promise, past and present, myth and music.”

Edward Felsenthal

Editor-In-Chief, TIME

From the Editor,  August 8 / August 13, 2018 Special Issue on the American South

This weekend I sat outside on our not-quite-level, not-quite-presentable, not-quite-sittable porch. Plastic patio furniture and a small outdoor rug made this possible, covering its loose paving stones and the holes between them in a setup that functions less as a disguise and more as a bandage until we can fully address the brokenness.

That the porch is falling apart isn’t a reason for us not to be there. We love it and we know it will take time to shore up its foundation. Even as we’re cursing the coffee that doesn’t sit, the chairs that can’t help but rock, the ankles that won’t do anything but roll, we find joy in this part of our home. It’s broken, but it’s ours. And that means something.

We’re aware of this all the time. But this weekend, as I sat there with my magazine, TIME’s Special Issue on the American South, I was even more tuned in to the irony of my porch enjoyment. The physical experience of sitting on our busted porch is about the closest analogy I can draw to what existing as a native Southerner up North feels like. It’s really hard. And also full of holes that subject people to destabilization, consternation, and occasionally, grief.

Go ahead, chuckle, that was intended. However, the after-effects of my busted porch and Southernness (that I’m a Southerner with a love for porches is not lost on me) can be unsettling, and it would be gauche to laugh at that reality. What reality am I speaking of? It’s complicated, but here’s the short answer.

Best case? People offer unsolicited advice about ways I can improve it (the porch, me), hide it (the porch, me), and maybe — if I’m really, really lucky — manage to convince the powers that be that it (the porch, me) never actually existed in its current state. Worst case? When I am silent, I am complicit. When I speak up, I must be complaining, ungrateful, or — my personal favorite — just not adjusted yet.

Sure, some of my views are unpopular. This is, I believe, largely because they’re uncomfortable. But Heavens to Betsy, if they are uncomfortable, that’s because they are intended to be. As uncomfortable as my opinions may seem to others who seek to silence them, I promise, it is much more uncomfortable to live the experiences that spur their development.

I wish more people would open their eyes to this reality, not so that I am pitied (please, spare us all from that), or that I’m cast aside (one person’s discomfort does not make another’s experiences less valid), but so that we can continue to dialogue and grow in our capacity for solidarity and love. Together. This is important work on the larger scale, but it cannot begin until eyes, hearts, and minds are open to doing it, even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpopular, even when “likes” and “followers” and “retweets” are on the line.

I acknowledge that this is difficult in our post-modern, teched-up, brand-obsessed, lightening-speed world, a world where you’re only as good as your last win or your competitor’s last loss. I fully see that. I too live in that world. Which is why I know it’s so hard. But I implore us, dear readers, to push past the pressures we put on ourselves, in order to do the work we’re capable of doing once we opt to actually do it. That’s part of why this blog exists, to lean in to those challenges, and to address them from a place of love. Because in the long run, love wins. Every time. Every. Damn. Time. Sometimes, it just takes awhile longer.

What keeps me going? Knowing I am not alone, however alone I sometimes feel. Friends. Family. Neighbors. Occasionally, strangers. Many of whom will go unnamed or unrecognized by the larger world, because these people are here to do the work, rather than get recognized for something that cheapens or exists by proxy of it.

You know proxy work when you see it. It’s what’s done when the right light is shining, at the right time of day, in the correct month of the opportune year, when it’s sexy and exciting and, like, so on-trend. You also know when actual work is being done, which is basically any time the former isn’t. You probably won’t read about it or hear about it. But if you look around, you’ll see it in your everyday lives. Small acts of resistance. Small acts of courage. Small acts of love.

Where can you find them? Get off the internet, first of all. Get out into the world. Form and keep loving, supportive relationships with people and places that you are willing to love and support in return. That, my friends, is one of the greatest privileges any of us will have in our short lives.

Never underestimate the power this brings you. Not just the power of social capital, but the kind of power that exists when you have real humans in your real life who really love you, through whatever ups, downs, successes, failures, opportunities, or challenges come your way. In this may you be blessed — and, of equal importance, may you also realize your blessings.

And then honestly? Sometimes you don’t find blessings, they find you. In this case, TIME’s Special Issue found me, by way of a loving and supportive husband, who knew what I needed in this season of my life. The magazine — by all accounts a national (read: Northeastern) authority, provided a surprise blessing this weekend. I was surprised to get it, sure, but the contents were just as arresting. Boasting inclusions by Jesmyn Ward, and about Stacey Abrams and 31 other incredible humans, all of whom are Southern, it rocked me to my core.

Why? This South wasn’t a South of people who traveled to it or through it, looking only for reasons to react to it for one brief moment in time, on a short assignment or for periodic gain. No, it was a South of Southerners, in all their complexities, however beautiful, turbulent, or painful. Even more importantly, it was a South of Southerners in their own words. Edited, I’m sure. But in their voices just the same.

Please, stop and contemplate the magnitude of that reality. Someone in New York City, the cultural capital of the Northeast (or, as many New Yorkers will tell you, of the world), decided that this was something worth pursuing. Which means that someone in New York City thought that New York City wasn’t the only place with opinions worth hearing, stories worth telling, histories worth teaching.

I assure you, this is radical. It’s also just. Which is exactly why, through most of my Saturday afternoon spent reading on that old, busted porch, I cried. I cried tears of relief and exhaustion. Tears of acceptance and renewal. Tears of knowing that, for one brief shining moment, someone in New York City suggested that, perhaps, the South deserves another read, and for reasons that may surprise its readers.

This is an important moment in our cultural history, America. And, contrary to what we’re taught in school, our history is not over. In fact, it is constantly unfolding, and we are the actors. We are the ones who will decide what our children and their children and their children learn. What do we want them to remember? Why? With whom? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. Many already do, and it shows in their work, whether or not the rest of us are aware of it yet.

Meanwhile, we can do more to help this work come into focus, and garner the attention and support it deserves, in all its forms and places. That’s the other part of why this blog exists. I sincerely wish that more people knew about the forward motion already in progress — and, to clarify, this work is far from new. No single person has “the answer” to any of our most intractable problems, just as no single person can take credit for our most glorious successes. It is our responsibility to recognize good work around us, and to give credit where it’s appropriately due, especially when that work is not our own.

I’m talking about the work incredible humans have done over decades, over centuries, to elevate our understanding, further our conversations, and improve our treatment of each other. Oftentimes, this work comes from places that “mainstream” America might not have guessed. Politicians and academics, sure, but also chefs, nonprofit founders, novelists, struggling neighbors working multiple jobs to make ends meet, you name it. And again, to be perfectly clear, it’s not always White, Middle-Class Men in these roles. The people changing history are not always those in positions of power.

If you’re wondering whattttt?, then I encourage you to dig a bit deeper in whatever learning or research you may have already started. Once you do, you’ll find that the examples are too numerous to count. To reduce them to a list here would be to miss the point almost entirely.

First, I’m not in the business of ranking people. Second, I’m not in the business of prescribing explicit instructions for anyone’s journey through life. I am in the business of asking questions that could inspire journeying in the first place. Especially knowing how transformative journeying together can be.

To that end, I hope this space is not your destination, but your beginning, or perhaps your renewal. We are all here to learn, to listen, and to love greater than we did the day before. If this space takes us even one small step forward, then I will have succeeded. This is  — and I am — a work in progress.

And I know I cannot do this alone. So, I would like to issue a commendation, share a thank you, and offer a prayer that this good work continues. Not just with TIME, but with other people who find the courage to present stories that are complex (be wary of the term “real”). It must continue, but the work must also grow, it must welcome new voices, it must act in fact how it purports to believe and do elsewhere.

Make no mistake. This is difficult work. It comes with as many scuffs and bruises as it does medals and successes. But that is where the magic happens. In that uncomfortable, unruly, unpresentable growth. Not just when it’s timely, not just when it’s relevant, not just when it looks good. But now, because it’s critical, and because it always has been.

Before we go, I wish for you: a profound, abiding love for your roots, wherever and however deep they grow. May you also know love for the roots of others. May you recognize that love takes work, but may you also possess the courage it takes to practice it daily. Because that alone is a blessing worth examining, worth protecting. No matter where you call home. God Speed.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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To find this Special Issue, visit TIME’s website here.

To discover why TIME created this issue, read Edward Felsenthal’s From the Editor here. You might recognize the opening quote from this piece if you read his.

And, if you don’t know much about Mr. Felsenthal, here’s some more information from TIME’s Media Kit. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s a Southerner.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Reading Words: “Last Ride to Graceland”

“I’m proud to be a southerner, which isn’t always a fashionable thing to say.”

Cory Beth Ainsworth, p. 91

Last Ride to Graceland

I’ve been living in New York for awhile. Long enough to build a life, long enough to feel at home, long enough for a lot of good things to happen. But also long enough to forget. That’s right. I’ve been living here so long that, occasionally, I forget what it’s like to be home.

I forget what Fourth and Trade are like on Friday nights in the summer. I forget what cicadas sound like in the backyard. I forget that bluegrass isn’t just a trope, that BBQ isn’t just food we heat on the grill, and that not all the best stories are short. I’ve lived here long enough to forget what the South is like, who I am, and the places I am from. It scares the crap out of me every time.

When this happens, I cry. Usually big, ugly tears. And then I text or call Husband, who is as familiar with this travesty as my retelling of it. He is a good listener — a rare breed among New Yorkers — so he dutifully listens to me spew, careful not to interrupt or mansplain, and only once I’m all cried and storied out, he helps me remember why I can’t let myself forget.

Then I dig real deep, gather my courage, and go hunting. What for? My Southern voice, my Southern ear, my Southern roots, my Southern self. Where do I find it? Usually at bookstores, filed under “regional interest” or tossed in the discount bin.

Yeah, don’t get me started on those politics. We’d be here all day! But I do sometimes wonder, do New Yorkers feel this way in Southern stores? Not just with books, but with everything else they miss, things that aren’t as commonplace in their adoptive homes and road trip pit stops? Do they find the essence of their beings being as deeply discounted as mine? And if they do, is it also on the regular?

This stuff isn’t talked about in my circles, but I’d venture to guess that we are more alike than different, sisters and brothers from north of the line. I bet somewhere out there, a New Yorker is just as afraid of forgetting, just as aware of her/his unique way of being in the world. And that sort of thing is something we need to pay attention to. Maybe we all have a responsibility to help our neighbors. Scratch that. Not maybe. We definitely do.

Anyway, this week was one of those weeks for me. A week of lonely forgetting. A week of discounting. A week of searching everywhere for a clue that maybe, just maybe, being me was OK on this island. A clue more than people saying they were inclusive. A clue that people actually are.

These clues are hard to find, but thankfully I am resourceful and determined. I fight for the things I care about. Because of that, I found something. This week’s clue? Kim Wright’s Last Ride to Graceland. I won’t give away any spoilers, but she had me from page one. Rare. After that, I took the book home and read voraciously. I read like there wasn’t going to be another clue, another book, another home to be had. And you know what? It was the best homecoming I’ve had in awhile.

The only issue? Now I wish I really was home. If that were the case, I could tell Kim Wright how grateful I am, how necessary she is, and how much I wish other people knew this too. But for now I find joy in remembering. For one more day, I don’t forget. For one more day, the South is alive and well. For one more day, I can visit Carolina In My Mind.

And it’s glorious.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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For more information about Elvis and Graceland, check this resource out.

For Kim Wright’s reflections on her trip, and its connection to the book, familiarize yourself with this post over at South Writ Large.

For more information about the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, which Last Ride to Graceland was the 2016 recipient of, do some reading over here.

For a review of this book from the Charlotte Observer (Wright is a Charlotte resident), mozy on over to this link.

And for some other female, Carolina-based authors you might consider adding to your bookshelf, check out Authors out of Carolina over here.

P.S. Why is it that larger (read: national) newspapers don’t cover Southern literature until it’s as “well known” as The Help? Maybe someday, someone will change that.

Food for thought.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Making Home: The Surprising Power of Pinterest

Pinterest is my favorite (anti)social media platform. I love to vision, to collect, to create. And I love to revision, recollect, and recreate. Pinning allows me to do what I do best: be in progress. And with that approach, the applications are truly endless.

These days, I use it mostly for home inspiration and visioning our lives forward. Those of you who’ve followed me on this or previous journeys know that Husband and I live partly between two worlds. We dream of living fully in both of them. A predicament. We aren’t there yet, and may not be for awhile, but until then, Pinterest allows us to move closer in spirit. And I don’t just mean toward our goals.

Husband and I are first-time homeowners. A couple years back, we bought a beautiful “fixer” in a place many people would love to live. The neighborhood is super-established and actually, I’m still shocked they let us buy here, because it’s one of those places where families spend generations in the same home.

When we closed, we knew we had years — maybe even decades — of work ahead of us. It was a challenge we took on fully and with love. In the relatively short time since, it’s already seen some massive changes. The house breathes again and with each project, it grows stronger. That brings our hearts such joy. But the process hasn’t always been easy.

For as much as Husband and I are well-suited, we are also very, very different. I’m the extrovert to his introvert. I’m the free spirit to his rule seeker. I’m the explorer to his homebody. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, building a home together — especially when you approach it as restorative like we do — can be challenging.

We have all the difficult time, budget and style discussions most couples do. But we have them twice over, once for our lives in his home and once for our lives in mine. Finding balance is really hard, and as we’ve discovered, so is moving from the theoretical to the concrete. They don’t teach you about home renovation or how to build the perfect bi-state lifestyle in school or in pre-cana.

Lucky for us, Pinterest helps fill the gap. It allows us to daydream, search, and ultimately plan for the lives we want to construct, in a process that’s as healthy and iterative as our actual lives. The importance of that gift cannot be overstated. Sure, we have these big, sometimes impossible-feeling dreams, but with a little help from crowdsourcing and my love for organization, we’re beginning to find that some of those dreams are (dare I say it?) becoming a reality. In celebration of that milestone, I offer this ode to Pinterest and the joy-filled life it helps us build together. Here we go. Pinterest, thanks for giving us the push we needed to:

(1) Replace pining with pinning. For the longest time, I had zero faith that we could afford to build a life in New York. Then we found our neighborhood and our house found us. Part of that was our stellar realtor, and part of that was my by-then obsessive pinning. Before we knew what we were looking for, Pinterest helped us narrow our list of “must haves” and “nice ifs” down to something manageable. The result was really close to the place we call home.

Recently, we outgrew unflattering pining of another variety. As we started to feel that familiar itch, it was reassuring to know that we could replace the pine with a pin … or two … or, I believe, 55. But who’s counting? In all seriousness, no matter where this road takes us, with any luck we’ll end up just as happy, in a completely different way, in the not-too-distant future.

(2) Build on tradition for the modern age. Our home was built a hundred years ago — really. That was part of what drew us to the house. Two other families, and three generations, called it home before us, and in some ways it showed. Lime green paint from the ’70s? Check. All over the house? Check. Early 1900s tile adhered directly to plaster walls in the bathroom, with no hope for removal except by professionals? Check.

Needless to say, we have some work to do. But we don’t want to lose the character and charm of our home in the process. So, keep the picture railing and vaulted ceilings? You bet. Pick neutrals that are both easy on the eye and get the historical stamp of approval? Of course.

We aren’t rolling in dough, so we won’t be hiring an interior designer, but we absolutely can pin away to our hearts’ content. Things like paint colors, period pieces, and old blueprints for similarly-styled Dutch colonials? They’re all there, alongside plans for the renovated kitchen, bathrooms, and garage we hope to one day have. Part of the joy in owning an older home is adding your page to its long history of style. But in our case, first we needed to ….

(3) Arrive at a common style. I tend to be more casual and minimalist. Husband tends to favor things more formal and traditional. When we first got married, we lived in this insanely small apartment in the city and there wasn’t much to argue about, because not much would fit in the space.  When we bought our house, that changed.

Suddenly, as we started to fill rooms, it became clear that we weren’t on the same page. Trips to the store or online shopping weren’t fun, they were torturous for both of us. Part of that was the struggle to imagine individual pieces in rooms with barely anything else in them. And part of that was that we didn’t want to admit we weren’t seeing eye-to-eye.

When we’d had enough of that charade, Pinterest was there for us yet again. I pinned things I thought I’d like, things I thought he’d like, and led weekly reviews each Sunday. Over brunch and every single show on the Food Network, we kept what worked and culled what didn’t. And guess what? A style emerged. I think designers call it “contemporary coastal.” We call it a miracle.

I recognize that Pinterest didn’t do this for us. However, it made our process of home-making a lot easier than it would’ve been otherwise. Checking to see if something  meshes with the vibe? Yep, we did that. Searching for an image of something your loving partner can’t quite visualize in the space? Yep, we did that. Wishing we had done so before rushing out to buy something that ultimately didn’t work? Yep, we did that too.

While all this was going on — and yes, it was a lot — Husband and I didn’t even realize that something else, something far more important was happening. Sure, we respectfully refreshed the house, but we also refreshed our relationship. Our marriage was strong beforehand, but this process taught us how much more learning and growing we could do together. Frankly? That’s what marriage is about. Did we need that reminder? Hell yes.

Now, nearly two years, hundreds of pins, and what feels like endless home improvement projects later, we sit in our living room and enjoy each other’s company, taking in the progress we’ve made. And while one of us occasionally asks how we’ve managed to do it all, by the time Sunday rolls around, we both remember. The secret to making home is right beside us, and has been all along. It’s us, with a little help from Pinterest.

xoxo,

Ryan 

North by North Carolinian

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Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

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.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

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 Balzer+ 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.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

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.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

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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Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle