The One With Mount Everest

I once interviewed a man who’d climbed Mount Everest. It was my first major interview at my first job out of college. The article was scheduled to appear in the lifestyle section of the city’s newspaper—a local-guy-does-good story.

image via Wikipedia

Mount Everest. image via Wikipedia

He was soft-spoken and congenial with a smattering of gray in his blond hair. He wore an argyle sweater vest. He held a 9-5 job to support his school-age kids. He was genuinely surprised that I was there to write a piece about him. He didn’t seem the kind of rugged thrill-seeker interested in risking his life. When we sat down on his porch, I got out my new reporter’s notebook and flipped open the cover to the first page. I had not written a single question or note in advance. The arrogance of that moment still astounds me.

I thought that by speaking off the cuff in a conversational tone, I would get more “authentic” answers. So instead of asking this modern-day Magellan thoughtful questions, I asked him how cold it was (-2° F) and if he got altitude sickness (yes). Even worse: this interview took place just after the 1996 Everest blizzard that killed fifteen climbers. Did he know any of these mountaineers? How did he feel about his accomplishment in light of this tragedy? I’ll never know. And even worse: at that time, only about 1,200 people in the world had reached the summit since Edmund Hillary was the first in 1953. I was sitting across from a man who had done something less than .0000002 percent of the population had done.

Steve Almond called this a “problem of entitlement” in a recent article in Poets & Writers magazine. “I mean by this that a significant number of the students I’ve encountered in creative writing programs display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance.” Did I feel entitled? Probably. It’s a tempting thought when you’re twenty-four and it seems you have the world on a string. I’d bet this applies to many recent graduates regardless of degree.

Entitlement isn’t all bad. Entitlement is what drives change. It is what makes the Rachel Carsons and Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Cesar Chavezes and Martin Luther Kings say, “Enough.” But taken too far, entitlement gets us into trouble. It fools us into believing that someone owes us something because we’re “special.”

life preserver

 

Almond believes there’s something else behind the entitlement. People who feel out of their element and overmatched assume a “posture of superiority.” In other words, it’s a defense mechanism. Hindsight being 20/20, I was a bundle of nerves hiding behind a press credential. If I botched the interview, I might never get another chance to write for this newspaper. Then everyone would know that I had no idea what I was doing. Going into the interview so unprepared was an act of self-sabotage.

 
AnvilEntitlement can be a life preserver or an anvil. Many of us have been left holding the anvil thanks to the Internet, which “has allowed us to trumpet our own opinions, to win attention by broadcasting our laziest and cruelest judgments, to grind axes in pubic. It has made us feel, in some perverse sense, that we are entitled to do so.” And the most insidious thing about the anvil kind of entitlement is that it erodes respect. Every time someone posts a snarky review about a writer being overrated or takes pot-shots at someone on Twitter or Facebook, respect and empathy go out the window.

Hiding behind entitlement is disrespectful to all involved. In the end, the gentle mountaineer patiently explained the ins and outs of climbing Mount Everest, answering questions I never thought to ask. Luckily, I recognized it for the life preserver it was.

 

Have you been on the receiving end of “anvil entitlement?” 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With Arnold Palmer

When I was twelve, the food court in the local shopping mall was a magical place. My friends and I would get dropped off by a well-meaning parent, who couldn’t wait to have a few minutes alone to shop in peace. Armed with our allowance, we scoped out the dozen or so fast food vendors clustered around an army of tables and chairs. We’d wander from stall to stall, weighing all the possibilities. Pizza? Lo mein? French fries? We had our pick. No compromise needed. It’s not that the food was particularly tasty, and it definitely wasn’t healthy, but we had choices. So many choices! To a twelve year old, making a decision without any parental input was exciting, even on something as small as which fried, greasy, gooey item to have for lunch.

I rarely go to the food court anymore—there is no shopping mall near me, and I generally try to stay away from fried food. But recently I put on my stretchy pants and ventured to a food court, Brooklyn style. It’s called Smorgasburg, Every Sunday in the summer and early fall, more than 100 food vendors set up stalls at the Brooklyn Bridge Park. (On Saturdays, they’re in Williamsburg, if you’re in that hood.)

I had that familiar rush of excitement when I saw all the options, but this wasn’t the food court of my youth. The New York Times called it “the Woodstock of eating” and Time Out New York said it’s “a glutton’s paradise.” Yes, please.

First, let’s cruise the options. Are you hungry for a certain cuisine?

 

Bolivian food?

Smorgasburg

 

Burmese noodles?

Smorgasburg

If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there is also Malaysian street food, Mexican sandwiches, schnitzel, and Indian dosas. Oh, you’re looking for something refreshing? It is hot out here.

Smorgasburg

 

Blue Marble also has a shop in the Cobble Hill neighborhood. Started by socially- and environmentally-conscious friends Alexis Miesen and Jennie Dundas, Jennie and Alexis raised nearly $100,000 to help Rwandan women start their own ice cream shop in the city of Butare. Read more about their partnership. (A location in Haiti coming soon.)

 

Smorgasburg

A wave of nostalgia hit when I saw that Kelvin had a stall selling slushies, just like my old-time favorite Orange Julius. But Orange Julius never had Arnold Palmer. If you’re only familiar with Arnold Palmer, the golfer, Arnold Palmer, the flavor, is a tasty, but simple concoction of iced tea mixed with lemonade. Then, this fabulous barista (below) suggested that I drizzle in cherry syrup.

P.S. This slushie was so cold, I had brain freeze for ten minutes.

P.P.S. I was on a fantastic sugar rush.

Smorgasburg

Or maybe you want something off the beaten path. How about pickles? Or truffle-oil frites? Or Asia Dog (hot dogs with Asian spices)? Might I recommend these cornbread bites from Jack’s Chedbread, company motto: Cheesy and corny since 2012.

Smorgasburg

 

Okay, cheddar cornbread isn’t that unusual. How about the next food mash-up (a la the cronut) that will sweep the US? May I introduce the Bruffin.

Smorgasburg

 

I couldn’t leave you with only having a slushie. That’s amateur hour. As your faithful blogger on the street, I take my responsibility seriously. So, I went for this: an almond dulce de leche doughnut from Dough. It left me speechless. It looks like it would be heavy and overly sweet, but it was airy with lots of flakey goodness. I wish I had taken a picture of it cut in half to show you, but I was too busy inhaling it to take photos. Honestly I’d forgotten there was such a thing as photos.

Smorgasburg

 

 

In addition to all the delicious eats, Smorgasburg has something the old food court of my youth never had—a killer view:

Brooklyn Bridge Park

 

Brooklyn Bridge Park

 

 

Small announcement:

The Loft

This fall, I’m teaching a creative writing class through The Loft Literary Center. This class is one of my most popular. It’s called Back to Basics, and it begins September 22. Best of all, it’s online! You can sign on in your pajamas (Not that I’ve ever done that.)

Course description: If you have a great story idea but don’t know where to begin, Back to Basics will get you off on the right foot. This course will take you through each major element of creative writing to help you hone your skills in that area. Through structured writing exercises and analyzing master works, we’ll examine the key components of good creative writing. Whether you need some fixes for common plot problems or want to brush up on dialogue, these targeted classes will give you all the strategies you need to succeed at the craft of writing. This class is perfect for beginners who want to learn more about the mechanics of writing prose.

Registration is now open and if you sign up today, you’ll get an early bird discount.

 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Garden

He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing.  ~Cicero

I do not have a garden, yet I have watched more than my share of gardening television shows and had lengthy conversations with my neighbor, who is a landscape architect, about how much to water gerberas. I just finished a book written by the head gardener at Versailles who spent nearly 300 pages describing his love affair with the “world’s grandest garden.” As someone who has little knowledge about flora, I am continually fascinated that you can put a small seed in the dirt and within a few weeks gaze upon a purple blossom or pick a ripe tomato.

I say, “you” because I can do no such thing. Gardening is a skill I wish I possessed. I admire people who can sustain small villages with the bounty from their backyards or who can turn trees into art. I want to be this person, the one with dirty knees who smells like the earth, closer to the cycle of nature. Unfortunately the last time I tried to grow anything, every leaf withered into brown crisps within minutes.

When I need a garden fix, I go to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardena beautiful respite in the middle of the city.  Here’s what was in bloom just last week. 

 

Water Lilies

Water Lilies Brooklyn Botanic Garden

 

 

 

Water Lilies Brooklyn Botanic Garden

 

Water Lilies Brooklyn Botanic Garden

 

 

Shakespeare Garden

Shakespeare Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Plants from the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground, long heath, brown furze, any thing.  ~The Tempest

Shakespeare Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Good monsieur, get you your weapons in your hand and kill me a red hipp’d bumble bee on the top of a thistle. ~A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

The Blooms

Sunflower Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Nothing says summer like sunflowers.

 

It looks like a baby eggplant, but apparently the taste is quite bitter.

It looks like a baby eggplant, but apparently the taste is quite bitter.

 

Anyone know the name of the pink round blooms in the top half of the frame?

Anyone know the name of the pink round blooms in the top half of the frame?

 

I love the showy blooms as much as the next person, but my favorites are these oaks. Majestic.

I love the showy blooms as much as the next person, but my favorites are these oaks. Majestic.

 

Do you have a green thumb? What’s your favorite plant or tree? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Dosas

It’s time for another installment of Tourist in My Town. Today I’m taking you to Washington Square Park, located in the heart of the NYU campus in Greenwich Village. Last week I went to the park for a very specific reason. But I’ll get to that in a moment. (Spoiler alert: it involved food.)

The centerpiece of the park is this arch. It was erected in 1889 to celebrate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as president. These days the arch is dwarfed by the buildings around it, but I imagine that it was quite imposing in its day.

If you peek through the arch you can see Fifth Avenue on the other side.  Can you believe that cars used to drive through the center?

 

Washington Square Park

Hey, no swimming allowed.

Washington Square Park

 

 

 

Washington Square Park

 

Washington Square Park

That’s the Empire State Building visible through the arch.

 

Washington Square Park isn’t your typical park in that there isn’t a huge expanse of green space or ball fields for recreational activities. So what do people do?

Play chess. They’re always ready for a game.

Washington Square Park

These guys would give Bobby Fischer a run for his money.

 

Take their dog to the dog run. While studying.

Washington Square Park

Rover, can you help me with this calculus homework? It’s a beast.

 

Listen to a jazz trio. These guys are students at NYU and perform in the park nearly every day. People applaud when they finish a set.

Washington Square Park

 

Stop and smell the flowers.

Washington Square Park

 

 

Skateboard.

Washington Square Park

It’s so much better if you do it right under the No Skateboarding sign.

 

Now, the real reason I went to Washington Square Park. This guy:

 

Washington Square Park

His name is Thiru Kumar and he operates the NY Dosa cart, a Washington Square Park institution.

Washington Square Park

There’s always a line. Always.

 

Mr. Kumar’s food has been reviewed in just about every local magazine, newspaper and website imaginable. Even Rachael Ray comes by. But the real proof is in the dosa as it were.

The grinning, thickly mustached Kumar works his small grill like a hyperactive DJ, pouring batter, spreading on curried potatoes, and sprinkling a crunchy dice of carrots and peppers (the Pondicherry masala dosa). When the batter is cooked through, Kumar folds it with an artist’s flair, effortlessly lifting the ethereally thin lentil-and-rice-flour wrapper from the grill, then chops it into sections and serves it with a gingery coconut chutney and a small tub of spicy lentil soup. ~New York Magazine

My mouth is watering just remembering how good it was.

My mouth is watering just remembering how good it was.

 

Have you been to your local park lately? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

The One With the Clarinet

A man shuffled through my subway car. “Hi. My name is Sonny Payne. I’m homeless and I’m hungry,” he repeated like a mantra as he tried to dodge the standing-room-only crowd. “If you don’t have it, I can understand because I don’t have it. But if you have a dime, a nickel, or a piece of fruit, please help.” I know his spiel like I know my address.

Sonny Payne isn’t the only person on the subway asking for money. I’ve been approached by a variety of people, including but not limited to: A blind man with a white walking stick who deftly skirted around a bike messenger without missing a step. A woman who said she lost all of her belongings in a fire. Talented singers, accordion players, and doo-wop groups. Teenagers doing Le Cirque-esque tricks on the center poles. Men who outright admit that they’ll be using your donation to buy a bottle of Southern Comfort at the next bodega they stumble across.  But a long time ago I made it a policy not to give money to people on the subway.

I figured that I could just make the decision and I wouldn’t have to think about it again. This way I’d ease any guilt I might feel in the process. Because, I thought, if I gave to one, I’d be reaching into my pocket constantly for change. I’m not pretending these people don’t need my change more than I do. But if I were to break my standing rule, who gets it? Do I then have to give money to every Sonny Payne I meet or, for that matter, every time I meet Sonny Payne?

Every once in a while I start to rethink my position.  Not long ago, a man with torn clothes, but not all together unkempt came through the subway car with his baseball cap extended for donations. “Just a penny. A penny will do. A penny. A penny,” he said as if he was composing a song. At first I wasn’t moved to contribute. A woman across from me began making the standard maneuvers to find change— shifting in her seat, reaching deep into her purse. The man paused, not wanting to assume or be pushy, but anxious to move on. Time is money.

I noticed something I’ve suspected to be true, but hadn’t really brought to conscious thought before. It seems, more often than not, the people giving money don’t seem to be in a position to give. They’re not the ones carrying smart leather briefcases, tapping away on their iPhones. They’re wearing paint-splattered jeans and hard hats. Their hands are callused and scraped. Maybe the ones who appear to have less know what it’s like to need it more. The pangs of guilt I’d always hoped to avoid chimed loudly.

The man waited patiently for the woman still digging through her purse. Like someone who’d lost her keys she kept trying the same pocket over and over as if change would magically appear. The train came to a stop at the next station, his cue to move on to the next car, but she was still searching. His head hung low, maybe debating the further loss of dignity of continuing to wait while she grabbed at crumbs and empty wrappers. “That’s all right, miss. You can get me next time.” He continued down the aisle. “Just a penny. A penny will do…” By the time I considered getting my wallet, it was too late. He was on the platform, and the doors had closed.

Then yesterday morning, I’d been lucky enough to grab a seat. As many of you know, I write during my commute. I was embroiled in my latest novel when a man hopped into my subway car just as the doors closed. He was holding a clarinet. Buskers are not uncommon on the subway. Some are “sanctioned” by the transit authority through a program called Music Under New York:

Yep, she's playing a saw. And she's really good at it!

Yep, she’s playing a saw. And she’s really good at it.

 

and some are not.

They were amazing.

Amazing!

 

 

The buskers who work the train cars are typically not part of Music Under New York. That’s why they work the cars; it’s harder to get caught. The clarinet player warmed up a bit and then launched into this song:

It was a beautiful rendition, clear and crisp. He had certainly received lessons or trained for years. He swayed back and forth in time with his eyes closed. I watched him for a moment, my pen poised over the paper, and I felt a connection–a passion for the work we were creating, separately but together. We were both tapping into a creative spark, different means to the same end. He finished the song and passed through the car to collect donations.

This time I was ready. I put my change into his hat. He winked and said, “Keep on writing.”

 

Was there a time you had a change of heart? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!