Five questions not to ask New Yorkers when you’re building a travel writing portfolio

If travel writing is all about storytelling, then I’m in big trouble

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This guy didn’t want to answer any of my deep questions. Photo: M. Yung

As a Midwesterner and an aspiring travel writer visiting the Big Apple over spring break, I wanted to use a trip to New York City to build my portfolio. Sounds easy enough, right?

However, good travel writing is all about storytelling, or so the big-time travel bloggers tell me. And in order to tell a story, one must fully immerse oneself in a new culture. One must talk with the natives, learn the local customs, and ask the hard questions. Y’know, the questions that reveal fresh cultural perspectives and which way is north.

Watch out world, my travel storytelling is gonna take off any minute based on the slew of revelatory conversations I generated with New Yorkers by asking them these five riveting questions:

Number 1: Where am I?

I asked this question of a 60-something man standing against a concrete column at LaGuardia Airport. I was trying to find the pick-up spot for the Uber I had reserved. “D Terminal. The lower,” he informed me before shifting his feet and looking away.

See what I mean? There’s good fodder for a story.

Number 2: How do we get to the ferry?

The 20-something construction worker rose from the barrel he was leaning against and walked toward us. I think I had interrupted the break he had been taking at the far west end of Huron Street in Greenpoint. He pointed one block down, toward India Street, just south of where we stood. “Go through all the construction, keep to the right, and you’ll get there,” he offered.

Can’t wait to build a ten-minute read off that one, I told myself.

Number 3: Why do you think I need a fork?

Just as I uttered this profound query,  a rice noodle slinked off my chopsticks, splashing a drop of broth onto my glasses. The young waiter at Lao Ma Spicy in Greenwich Village had just walked by our table and offered me an alternative utensil. Apparently, I seemed to be struggling.

I mulled over his offer. My stomach rumbled. “Yes, that would be fine,” I said. I set down my chopsticks, blotted my glasses with the corner of my napkin, and waited for a fork to appear.

A travel tale for the ages, folks.

Number 4: Is this train headed south?

When I asked this head-scratcher, I had just become separated from my daughter as we headed back to our flat one evening. She had boarded the train; I missed it. Man, those doors move fast. So I hopped on another train on the opposite side of the platform. After finding a seat, I wanted to verify that I was indeed on the right bullet to Brooklyn. I asked an Orthodox Jewish man next to me; he looked up from his scriptures and confirmed that yes, the G train would take me south.

A novel will come from that encounter. I just know it.

Number 5: How do we get out of here?

After wandering around the subway maze that exists below Times Square, I posed this question to a man striding by in a navy blue uniform. He looked to the ceiling, waved his finger back and forth as if tracing some imaginary constellation and replied, pointing off in the distance, “Take that train to Court Square.”

Yet another meaningful exchange.

All right, maybe my conversations weren’t the kind to evoke rich and meaningful dialogues upon which to build fascinating tales of travel and intrigue. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll be able to focus on the people and places I’m experiencing instead of merely focusing on how to navigate public transit.

So, thank you, New Yorkers, for exploring my existential wanderings on street corners and in subway stations, and for not ducking away too quickly when you realized that I was just another tourist, confused, bewildered, and amazed at the city you know and love so well.


My daughter and I visited NYC for a week in mid-March. We asked questions when we needed to, just not ones that will give my travel writing the shot in the arm that it needs. It was a great trip, nevertheless. Feel free to leave a comment or follow my blog for more. And thanks for reading!

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A dull ache for a sharp object left in Italy

When Mom’s pocket knife gets confiscated

 

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Photo: Paul Felberbauer on Unsplash

When the security employee at the gate asked me to step aside, I remembered. My pocket knife. Oh no, my pocket knife, I thought, realizing I had left it earlier in the little cosmetic bag inside my purse. I had forgotten to check it with my luggage and now I was at the gate and my knife was going away.

The uniformed employee explained in her thick Venetian accent, “We must take this from you. If it’s you really need, you go downstairs, fill out the form, and it be sent to you.”

Standing there, I knew we wouldn’t have time to make those arrangements. And besides, it wasn’t a valuable possession. But then again, it was.

For twenty-five years, I had carried that pocket knife.

Back in 1990, I had chosen it from a mound of identical ones heaped in a small cardboard box next to a cash register in the sporting goods department at a Kmart in Topeka, Kansas. It had cost my boyfriend (now my husband) an entire dollar. It featured a steel blade, a wooden casing, and bronze hardware that over the years, had polished to a golden shine from being nestled in my purse for so long.

Similar to how candy bars are placed at checkout stands to captivate small children, that box of $1 knives held equal allure for the fishermen and hunters who visited that department. Not that I was one of them. We had gone to the store to use the restrooms tucked away behind the restaurant at the back of the store. As he waited on me, he spotted the knives and bought one for me.

“Keep it in your purse. It’ll come in handy,” he told me. He was right.

That little knife had been many places… all over Missouri and Kansas, Nashville, Asheville, several cities in Maine and Vermont, Columbus, Atlanta, Sarasota, Highland Park, Phoenix and other Arizona locals, multiple sights in the Los Angeles area, Oregon and Washington State, Cape Town and other South African cities, DC, New York City, Taos, Breckenridge, Crested Butte, Dallas, New Orleans. Over the years, we had journeyed across the country to attend annual family reunions, exhibit my husband’s ceramic art at festivals, and accompany him as he served artist residencies.

And now, its final destination would be Venice, Italy, where it would be left behind, a hindrance to a quick departure, discarded inside a gray plastic tub under the counter.

I regret leaving that silly little knife because it wasn’t just a pocket knife. It was a symbol of family life and motherhood and had been more often used for non-cutting tasks. That knife spread peanut butter on sandwiches many more times that it ever cut into a fish or snipped a cord on a tent or tarp. It was this mother’s indispensable tool. As such, it was always easy to locate.

My son and daughter both knew I carried a pocket knife and I passed it back to them at least once or twice on every road trip we took over the years. Need to break open a family-sized plastic bag of M&Ms? Get Mom’s knife. Opening a DVD? Get Mom’s knife. Got a stray thread hanging from your hem? Ask Mom to hand back her pocket knife.

Just prior to leaving Venice, as I buckled up inside the plane, regretting my decision to leave my knife, I recalled how six years earlier, I had flown from Johannesburg to Atlanta with a knife my son had purchased as a souvenir. Despite its massive four-inch blade, he had somehow forgotten to pack it in a checked bag. I offered to stow it inside my purse, warning him it would likely be confiscated at our first departure.

Nope. X-rays and inspections by hand never discovered it. Of course, that would happen to a brand new knife without any peanut butter experience. And of course, that knife has since been long forgotten, I might add.

As for my knife, I have since replaced it, but the blade on my new one is narrower and not quite as functional as the one left in Venice. I mean, you can spread peanut butter on a slice of bread if you really want to, but it’s the not the same as my Kmart special.

I’m one of those people who feels sorry for the last Christmas tree on the lot. So it’s no surprise that I’m still feeling nostalgic for my lost pocket knife… a year and a half later.

Somewhere in Italy, it’s languishing in a gray bin of confiscated sharp objects. Maybe it’s been recycled by now. Maybe it’s been donated to a charity. Hopefully, it’s performing some mother’s mundane tasks, making her life a little easier, and definitely more memorable.


Had an experience similar to mine? Like this post, follow my blog, and feel to leave a comment about any precious object that’s drifted out of your life. Thanks for reading!

 

 

Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder

Write inclusively… or else.

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Photo: Carl Newton on Unsplash

Little House on the Prairie, Ch. 11—Indians in the House

By Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Laura was frightened. Jack had never growled at her before. Then she looked over her shoulder, where Jack was looking, and she saw two naked, wild men coming, one behind the other, on the Indian trail.

‘Mary! Look!’ she cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.

They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.”

I remember reading this excerpt as a young girl when prairie mania reigned in one small slice of American pop culture. The craze for all things “prairie” owed its popularity to a series of nine volumes collectively called the Little House books. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series’ popularity was aided by the launch of a TV drama, Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon. I owned the entire Little House set and a pricey collectible wall calendar. I even visited Mansfield, Mo. with my family to tour Wilder’s final home where she wrote her books.

Spellbound through that breathless chapter where the Indians later entered the Ingalls cabin for tobacco and cornbread prepared by the girls’ mother, I considered how vulnerable the Ingalls were as they settled into the frontier of the Osage Indians who lived nearby. Based on my own background and Wilder’s perspective as told through the eyes of Laura, I never considered the vulnerability of the Osage and their culture. I just wanted to keep reading and turning the pages, so I could finish the book and dash off to the bookstore to buy the next.

The sage was enthralling and heart-breaking: white settlers making a home on the American frontier, occasional clashes with the Native Americans, Laura’s coming-of-age, tenuous friendships with the Olson family, Mary’s blindness.

Diverse? Not at all. Inclusive? Nope. It was 1975. As such, Wilder’s Little House series was considered a darn good story and was deemed worthy of recognition.

Until last week.

That’s when the American Library Association (ALA) and its branch, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), decided to change the name of its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Inaugurated in 1954 and awarded to Wilder herself for her book series, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” according to this ALA newsletter.

Sounds reasonable. Few would disagree that Wilder’s books indeed made “a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature” over the years, albeit not universally among readers.

Here’s how ALSC President Nina Lindsay explained the name change in a letter to her board of directors: “Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced…”

She continued, “Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion—something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award. While many of Wilder’s books received Newbery honors, (and one may easily find other books within our award canon that don’t live up completely to our current values), we recognize that the name of an award itself holds significant power… The ALSC Executive Committee noted that the name of the award is a currently potentially significant barrier to achieving our goals, and is within our power to change.”

It’s a change many authors, publishers, librarians, and teachers advocate. Debbie Reese, founder of the comprehensive website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) and a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, believes the images contained in Wilder’s books of “Native people, cultures, and history work to misinform young readers.” One example of misinformation is the dehumanization that appears in Chapter 11. Here’s one instance:  Wilder writes the Osage Indians’ eyes were “glittering like snake’s eyes.”

To counter these messages that misinform young children, the AICL website recommends works “by Native authors who write books that provide children with accurate information about American Indians.”

After all, Wilder’s books do contain racist depictions and stereotypes (in Chapter 11 of Little House on the Prairie and in other books in the series) of Native Americans and Africans. In addition, Reese cites Wilder’s recurring descriptions of the land as “empty” and her arguable notions that Indians were primitive beings without civilized, autonomous societies.

Therefore, to celebrate contemporary authors with an award named for an author whose perspective is found objectionable, seemed incongruous for some members of ALSC, which exists to engage “communities to build healthy, successful futures for all children.”

And let’s not forget this: the ALSC is not censoring Wilder’s work. Anyone can still purchase her books or find them at their local library. The ALSC merely removed Wilder’s name from its prestigious award.

It should also be noted that the decision does not appear to have been made hastily and members did not unanimously favor the change. An ALSC task force conducted a survey of members and ALA ethnic affiliates. The results: 305 favored the name change; 156 did not. Still, according to the ALSC task force’s recommendation, “We believe that this decision serves the best interest of our Association, its members, and all of those they serve, not only now, in 2018, but in the long term.

But what about history? Is it wise to attempt to remove evidence of the prejudicial attitudes from our past by denigrating the authors who recorded them? Wilder’s works were clearly set in the past and while they contain objectionable content for some, they remain a historical account. According to a statement from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo., “Mrs. Wilder believed her books to be historically accurate and reflect American life during the Western Movement. However difficult it may be to agree with social mores within these years, the fact remains that was a different time and what was accepted then would not be today.”

Even so, the quest for diversity and inclusion in historical literature takes precedence. With its action, the ALSC is indirectly controlling authors by condoning the events, characters and the actions of the characters those authors write about, historical or otherwise.

Regardless, the end result of all this is that now Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name comes with a warning label attached. And so does the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is what that label says:

  • Your characters will speak and behave with respect for all.
  • Your plot’s conflict must offend no one now nor in the future, and include the diverse views of all parties.
  • Your character’s thoughts and impressions must not be their own, or the author’s, but of those with the ability to make institutional change within the prevailing culture.

In short, write inclusively or you will be punished.


Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts? Click like and leave a comment so more people may see this and be able to weigh in. 

Anyone Who Has Time to Clean is Not Reading Nearly Enough

Books, books, and more books that I have read

 

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Photo by Annelies Geneyn on Unsplash

 

Here’s a list of books I have read off and on over the past year or so… all of which were excellent distractions from the writing I should have been doing. I have a hard time reading and writing simultaneously. I’m either reading all the time, or writing all the time.

These books are listed in no particular order. You can see that my interests are far-reaching. I can read about a TV sitcom one week, and ISIS the next. As a result, I know a little bit about a lot of things. It’s just who I am and I’ve come to accept it.

I want to write something we can learn from.

The valentines in this picture will probably lead you the wrong way. They make this picture look colorful, nostalgic, and cheerful. If you study the other documents in the picture,  you will see a tragedy emerge. And it’s one that is very difficult for me to think or write about.

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Here it is: when my grandmother (who passed in 1998) was 21, her two younger brothers, ages 17 and 15, took an airplane ride at a 50-year celebration of the founding of Hume, Missouri. Apparently, the pilot underestimated the length of the field when it came time to land and to avoid a fence, he ascended, planning to give it another go. On the ascend, the plane stalled, nosedived, and crashed. All three on board eventually died. One boy died on the way to the hospital 25 miles away, the other died later that night, and the pilot died three days later. The crash occurred on July 24, 1930.

My grandmother never spoke of this. I only learned about it and of her brothers, Warren and Nelson Kerns, when I happened to discover a photo.

The boys’ mother, at the time of the accident, was visiting her parents in Santee, California. She returned by train, alone, to her husband and daughter (my grandmother) to bury her sons.

The tragedy shocked and devastated the tiny community of Hume. One newspaper reported that approximately 1,000 people attended the funeral service.

My mother assembled a large envelope of documents for me about the boys and their untimely deaths: newspaper clippings, photos, school grade cards, handwritten letters, valentines. One brittle envelope contains locks of hair I presume were gathered from the boys before burial.

Warren and Nelson were fascinated with aviation, which may have seemed like a fantastical vocation to two boys who worked hard, long hours on the family farm.  I also found in that envelope some airplane diagrams drawn in pencil. They obviously possessed a propensity for mechanical thinking and creativity.

I have thought about my grandmother’s brothers many times over the past several years. I feel compelled to somehow honor, or at least recognize, their lives and deaths and the unspeakable pain that my grandmother, great-grandparents, and other family members endured. I don’t know what I will write or create.

The story will be difficult to tell properly because I know I have a tendency to dwell on sentiment and sentiment can be boring, predictable, manipulative. I want, instead, to write something that will honor the coping, the perseverance, and pragmatism of these people from whom I have descended. I want to write something we can learn from.

This was written in a letter that the boys’ mother received from her own mother two months after the deaths: “I have been so worried over it all I have not been fit to think right or do anything. One must try hard to turn our thoughts on other things. There is plenty to do and we must surely go forward and do our part. The dear boys are safe and happy and free from all the trials of this world and soon we too may be over there with them. Life is short — at the longest — and there is much to do and we can be happy in doing if we will.”

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