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: 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!

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Reading Words: “if the creek don’t rise”

“If I got a special life to plan, then I’m in a pickle cause nobody told me and I don’t know the first thing bout how.”

Sadie Blue,  p.212

if the creek don’t rise

I don’t know Leah Weiss, but we’re both originally from North Carolina — something I learned when I picked up her book. It was sitting there on the shelf next to a handful of other “new releases,” and I was fresh off a deep-dive into Appalachian everything, so the title grabbed my eye.

During my first read of Weiss’ novel, I had difficulty. It took me about 50 pages to get the voice of her characters properly situated. Some of the language they used, I was familiar with. Some of it, I was not. Truth be told, I was wholly unprepared for this book, which is an interesting place to be. It leaves you ready to learn.

Over the course of some heartbreakingly human events, Weiss shares important lessons that we’d all do well to ponder more — or at least differently:

(1) We’ve got to do better about ensuring that all people have access to opportunity, but we can’t lose sight of the importance of basic needs — food, water, safety, shelter and love — in the process.

(2) We’ve got to do better about being aware of our motivations. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a stronger lens on this more of the time? This isn’t to say that we’d necessarily make different decisions, but maybe we would, if we knew what we were really after in life, and how that affects others around us.

(3) We’ve got to do better about NOT believing that cultures can or should civilize other cultures. There’s much we can learn from each other — we are all students, we are all teachers, and we’d all do well to listen at least as much as we speak.

and finally

(4) We’ve got to do better about remembering that there’s more than one side to every story. This includes being aware of power dynamics that enable one narrative or a series of narratives to dominate over others.

On that note, I’d encourage y’all to spend some time with the residents of Baines Creek. They may not have all the answers, but they ask questions that matter. And you don’t find that everywhere.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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*For those interested in a deeper dive, I’d recommend starting with:

This book review from NPR/Book Reviews.

This interview with The News & Advance.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

 

Reading Words: “The Potlikker Papers”

“[A]sk questions about who we are and how we got here, about who cooks, who cleans, and who earns a seat at the welcome table.”

– John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers, p.5

A few months ago, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for something medicinally Southern. After I paced a few uninspiring aisles, I found a hardcover someone had clearly misplaced.

I used to work in retail, and I get how maddening it can be for associates to constantly find and replace items that people scatter across the floor in the moments where they find something “better” than what they’ve got in-hand.

Unable to resist, I picked up the book and resolved to put it back where it belonged. That book was The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, and as it turns out, its proper place was with me.

Since that day, I’ve seriously savored Potlikker. And while I’m not a professional book reviewer, I do want more people to hear about this text, so I’m thrilled to feature it as my first Reading Words entry on the blog. Here we go!

As a Southerner, history major, food lover and woman, I was given so many reasons to fall “in like” with Potlikker Papers. Among them:

(1) There’s a cohesive narrative about how the famed “New South” came to be, and it does justice to both the opportunities and consequences of this cultural shift. In the process, Edge helped me realize that I wasn’t totally out of my mind to worry about the idea of home — both up North and in North Carolina.

(2) The book treats women as the serious contributors that we are — and indeed, always have been. To see this done, and to see it done in a way that doesn’t just start with Julia Child and end with Ina Garten, was refreshing. Not all women make the history books, but our stories are part of something that matters. It is never a bad day when someone else realizes this.

(3) It’s near-impossible to strike a true balance between hyper-local foodie writing and something that most people would label as “capital H” history. Edge’s people’s history has come pretty darned close. Many cultures contribute to the beautifully complex tapestry that is the American South. Edge has a knack for making sure we know about more of them, without presuming to have “found” or “discovered” them himself. Bravo, sir.

More broadly, my reaction to Edge’s book would not be complete without addressing how the South gets viewed. In many respects, Edge and I are in agreement. The South is not perfect — far from, as a matter of fact. But this does not excuse or explain America’s long, bizarre tradition of “yo-yo-like” changes in our cultural acceptance threshold.

Up and down, our perceptions of the South go up and down on the tiniest of threads, controlled by what feels like one user at a time, many of whom are ignorant to how the South has changed, is changing, or will continue to change.

In times of professed love, I’ve seen a range of reactions, from cultural appropriation, to patronization, to relocation, and everything in between. And I’ve only been on this earth since the ’80s, which is to say, not that long.

In times of disdain, reactions are more sinister, and usually kick off with a piece from someone who feels they “know better” in their chosen medium of record. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you’d recognize their voices, because the attitudes and beliefs they communicate invariably trickle down to everyday people like you and me.

The tragedy is that, in both of these times, Southern culture as it really exists — in all of its complex people, places, looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes — gets completely lost. And to be perfectly clear, this is dangerous for more than the American South.

So, what can we do in the face of this challenge? We can keep the conversation going, keep sharing stories of what life is really like, keep asking important questions, keep welcoming others into the fold as things grow and change. And we’ve got to start, like many foods we should probably eat more of, from the ground, up. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a copy of Edge’s book in the process. Let’s get cooking.*

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

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*P.S. For those with further interest, I’d recommend starting with:

This interview with NPR/The Salt.

This interview with Saveur.

This interview with the Southern Register / Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

See what nags at you from these pieces, then keep digging, keep reading, keep listening. This region, its people, their voices have been ready to be heard for a long time.

How ready are we to hear them?

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

We’re all a little North by North Carolinian

Born into a family who worked really hard to put down stable roots in North Carolina, I suppose I should have stayed there. Instead, I went to college far from home, met the New Yorker who would become my husband, and now live in a small, suburban community on Long Island.

Husband and I are very lucky. In addition to each other, we each gained a new home (and friends and family) through our union. I gained New York, he gained North Carolina, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this doesn’t mean life is perfect. I have to acknowledge that, from time to time, it can be hard to live as a Southerner in the elite club of generations-long Long Islanders. I miss the voices of the South, the foods, the sounds, the smells, the entire way of life — one which, through the process of assimilation, I must often hide if not outright deny in order to be taken seriously.

I have an incredibly supportive spouse. And his family and friends have been welcoming since the earliest days of our courtship, but unfortunately I cannot be around these loving souls all the time. Outside of this support system, the process of assimilation can be lonely and terrifying. In this environment, it’s hard to find other people like me, or at least other people who’re open to knowing people like me.

I started to grapple honestly with this predicament about a year ago — with trusted friends, with family, in church, at work, in other writing projects, basically everywhere the topic nagged at me. Since we carry our identities with us everywhere, and since the world around me isn’t always welcoming, that nagging happened a lot. And then it started to happen even more, and grew even stronger, to the point where I knew I had to do something about it. I knew that I could no longer hide in silence. Especially because, through earlier work and conversations, I knew I wasn’t the only person out there experiencing this struggle — and it wasn’t just happening in New York. Stories like ours are about the struggle to build a loving home, a way of life, in any place that, quite frankly, would rather we weren’t there at all.

There are several ways to build a life in these scenarios:

(1) Deny everything about yourself, and learn very quickly how to do life in a completely different way, in completely different words and meals and jobs and goals and expectations, and then prepare to find out that sometimes, even when you play by every rule, those around you won’t see past the person they want you to be.

(2) Build community with others like you, if you can find them, to celebrate and protect your heritage. Society may rail against everything about you, but you can build collective agency, and at least have others to cry or laugh with about the social experiment your lives have become.

(3) Grow an insanely thick skin and resist the actors that seek to silence you, but do this because of and through love. Love takes a helluva lot more strength than hate. But it also has the greatest capacity to affect change, so it’s worthwhile if you can master it.

Spoiler alert: I’ve tried 1 and 2 before. Both helped, but were more reactive than I’d prefer. I’m onto the third attempt now, and that attempt is this space, North by North Carolinian. Rather than deny or simply expose the factors that have the potential for harm (and many do), this space will take up the yoke of building more open-mindedness, trust and love for others who aren’t always like us. This space is dedicated to celebrating the good in different, if not altogether divergent, cultures.

At a time when I desperately miss home, I feel compelled to collect the stories, recipes, music, art, and culture that speak to who I am, rather than being made to forget what they mean to me, a North Carolinian up North.

At the same time, I feel compelled to lift up and celebrate what makes life up North lovely and full. There are so many stories, recipes, and pieces of culture that matter and help me create meaning here, as I make my life and my home in the great state of New York.

Each of these places, each of these cultures, are wildly beautiful. Each of them matter. And so do their people. With this in mind, I hope North by North Carolinian accomplishes something positive, however simple it may seem on the surface. I hope it opens minds and hearts. I hope it elevates conversations. I hope it highlights and preserves heritages rather than destroying or minimizing them over fear of difference. And as one, small act of love and resistance, I hope it amplifies the light from many people, places and things who seek to remind us that we all matter, all of the time.

Join me in the process of building a life between and as part of two cultures. May we all be brave enough to honestly examine and own ourselves, and in the process may we come to see that we are all needed, exactly as we are, exactly where we are, for as long as we choose to be there.

We’re all a little North by North Carolinian. 

xoxo,

Ryan

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Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle