Home in the heartland

JOURNALISM, LIFE, NOTRE DAME, NYC

This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu

My final night in Toledo, Ohio, I climbed up to the roof of my apartment building to watch the sunset. Brilliant orange hues silhouetted everything below the horizon a dark, velvety black, and only the banks poked above the skyline. The colors were bright and bold, beckoning me to stay.

Straight in front of me on North Superior Street, I could see the old newspaper building where I’d spent long hours that summer covering everything from robberies to school board meetings to controversial city investments. From above, the streets looked clean and still and silent, but I knew that was far from true. Up on the rooftop, I couldn’t see trash rolling through the roads or crooked “for sale” signs hanging in dusty windows. I couldn’t see the crime, deterioration and poverty, all hidden in plain sight.

I lived that summer in a building that once housed the famous LaSalle & Koch Department Store, and until 1984, one of the largest Macy’s stores outside of New York City. It had since been converted into massive loft apartments, but you could still see the Macy’s sign painted on one side, like a faded tattoo. As I watched the sunset that night on the roof while a couple on the far side clinked Coronas, I thought about my three months in Toledo. I’d been intensely lonely and completely out of my comfort zone, but reporting stories throughout Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan solidified a longer relationship I’d been building with the Midwest as a region, a fascination with the place and its history.

I knew I’d come back. After all, there were more stories to tell.

The first time I connected with the Midwest was through the words of Nebraskan poet Ted Kooser, when I was 16. I picked up one of his collections at a book festival near my home in New Jersey and couldn’t stop reading — the poems were nothing like what I’d read in school. His words were simple, beautiful and timeless. I did not find out until later that Kooser was in fact Poet Laureate of the United States at the time, the first selected from the Great Plains.

Kooser’s poems, with titles like “Dishwater” and “Creamed Corn,” find beauty in the mundane. Kooser takes basic daily occurrences and shows that just beneath the surface of everything and everyone is something extraordinary. He changed my perspective on what constitutes great writing. Now, I believe great writing is found not necessarily in complex plots or exotic settings but in people — their histories, struggles and challenges. And no region in America exemplifies this kind of writing better than the Midwest. Think Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a classic depiction of small-town America, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The Midwest, of course, is vast and varied, but a common theme fueling its literature is a strong sense of place and a focus on the people who live there.

Another aspect of the Midwest that makes it ripe for great writing is its relationship with the past. While New York City, my current home, paints over the past as quickly as it can build new skyscrapers, the past seems to linger in the Midwest. When I lived in Toledo, everywhere I went I could see remnants of a time long gone — beautiful Victorian houses slowly decaying, an old theater that sat empty most nights, even hot dog joints that opened in the 1920s and haven’t changed much since. Toledo’s past hovers over every street, over every building that was once grand and isn’t anymore. In Rust Belt cities like Toledo, the past is so present, it’s almost a character in its own right.

I spent my formative years in the Midwest, and only after five years of living in New York City do I understand how much that impacted me — as a writer and as a person. Both sides of my family are from Brooklyn, New York — I have no roots in America’s heartland. But after four years at college at Notre Dame in South Bend, a few weeks in Iowa City in high school and, of course, my summer in Toledo, the Midwest now feels like home.

The region is a crossroads of cultural influences, but I believe it shares some common characteristics. For one, the land is mainly flat, surrounded by the Rockies on the West and Appalachians on the East, giving the region its distinguishing wide-open feel. While the small agricultural towns of the Great Plains differ immensely from the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes, I’ve found Midwesterners to be politer and more community-oriented than their counterparts on the East Coast. And while, in New York, most people come from somewhere else to achieve and transform, Midwesterners have a strong sense of identity and pride in their roots.

So which region better reflects me as an individual? The self-assured, quieter Midwest, or the more rushed, aggressive Northeast? Right now, I don’t long to live in the Midwest — I’m happy where I am, in a city that simultaneously excites and exhausts me. But every time I arrive back to Ohio or Indiana or Iowa, a part of me feels at peace. I love the predictability of main streets, the kindness of the people, and the brilliant summer sunsets that soar on for miles into the distance because the topography offers so few disruptions. Being in the Midwest reminds me there’s so much more to America than I know.

One summer morning in New York, I was on a subway train so packed that I couldn’t even put my left foot down — all of the floor space was taken up. After about 10 minutes of this discomfort, a woman in front of me got off the train, revealing one of my favorite poems by Kooser, “A Winter Morning,” on a billboard where advertisements usually go on the subway walls:

A farmhouse window far back from the highway

speaks to the darkness in a sure, small voice.

Against this stillness, only a kettle’s whisper,

and against this starry cold, one small blue ring of flame.

That poem greeted me like the familiar smile of someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and for a moment, the oppressive heat and crush of people vanished. Kooser’s words were a small but comforting reminder of my connection to somewhere else.

I know I’ll travel the long, flat roads back to America’s heartland again, before the future finally steamrolls its lingering past. I want to drive around the region, listen to the stories to be told there, learn more about these cities and where they’re headed. Maybe those wide roads will take me out to the rolling cornfields of Nebraska, or back to my former homes in Toledo or South Bend. But for now, I’ll find my Midwest haven in the worlds of Kooser and Robinson and Anderson, and escape, through their stories, to the places that have become a part of me, while the sirens of New York City wail incessantly outside.

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Lessons learned from my college newspaper

CAREER, JOURNALISM, NOTRE DAME, PUBLISHED WORK

Late nights. Early mornings. Not enough coffee in the world to keep you awake during that morning calculus class. It’s a story most college newspaper editors know well but would never change. We’re willing to put in the hours not only because of the close-knit community, one of the biggest draws, but because the skills you learn working for a college newspaper are invaluable across professional industries. Here are five reasons why.

You meet a wide range of people.

College is a bubble, but working on the paper exposes you to a wide range of people and viewpoints. During my four years on The Observer at Notre Dame, I interviewed a British literary scholar, the Chief Marketing Officer of Subway, the University president and the only Orthodox Jewish student on campus. Reaching beyond the bubble has huge value later on in the working world.

You get used to criticism.

Most professors at Notre Dame weren’t outwardly critical of my writing, focusing on what I could do better instead of what I did wrong. While I appreciated this approach in my classes, criticism is an unavoidable aspect of the professional world and life in general. My freshman year, I remember the first article I received back from my editor was completely covered in red ink, entire sections crossed out. I probably went home and cried that night, but soon learned not take things so personally (and that criticism helps you improve).

You master the art of succinct writing.

I used to think the phrase “writing is an art” meant I could use an unlimited number of words to make things sound beautiful. Now I believe that regardless of the writing form, every single word needs to have a purpose. Working on the paper taught me to boil down stories to their very core, write conversationally and include only the most powerful quotes. All of this prepared me well for a career in digital media.

You get comfortable leading conversations.

Most people love talking about themselves. Once you learn that, asking questions and leading conversations isn’t all that hard. When I started out as a reporter, I was scared to even place a call to a stranger. I read and reread my emails 10 times before requesting an interview. But with experience, I gained the confidence to assert myself during interviews, pursue contacts and ask the tougher questions.

You learn to work well under pressure.

Some of my most stressful days in college, I was under deadline for an article on the same day I had a major test. I spent free moments calling sources and writing while simultaneously trying to memorize history or statistics formulas. The Observer demanded everything of you, and you had to figure out how not to let your grades slip. It took years, but I learned to stay calm and trust that everything would get done (and that the world wouldn’t end if it didn’t).

I loved being an English major at Notre Dame. But truthfully, none of my classes stand out to me years later the way my days and nights spent in The Observer office do. While I nurtured my love for literature through my major, the newspaper that gave me the hands-on, practical education I needed to jump into the real world after graduation.

In the end, I’m thankful for the sleepless nights and overconsumption of chocolate. The Observer was the best (free) course I took at Notre Dame.

*This column was originally published in The Observer 

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Enoch Wu

CAREER, JOURNALISM, NEWS, PHOTOGRAPHY, TECHNOLOGY

Photo courtesy of Enoch Wu

Enoch and I met two summers ago while I was interning as a reporter for The Toledo Blade. He is a photojournalist for the nearby Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune, and we ended up on the same assignment out on an airport runway in Millbury, Ohio. I noticed he was holding an iPad (back then they still seemed pretty scarce!) so while waiting for our interviews and photo opportunities we began discussing technology and the future of journalism.

Enoch is a talented photographer who is also technologically savvy. He says his interest in technology goes back to childhood, when he was exposed to computers at an early age and “always had a sense to tinker [with] things and break things.” When he used a computer, Enoch said, he would dig into the software to see what he could change or manipulate. As a child, he even mischievously figured out how to subscribe to PCWorld Magazine and have it charged to his parents’ credit card. Today, his morning ritual includes keeping up-to-date with the industry by checking various photography and technology sites.

In addition to his work for the Sentinel-Tribune, Enoch shoots event photography for Toledo.com. He is also a freelance wedding and portrait photographer. For Enoch, whose primary passion was music before college, photojournalism is more than the act of capturing a moment with a camera.

It’s about telling a story through an image.

“Henri Cartier-Besson, the father of photojournalism said it the best: ‘Photography is nothing — it’s life that interests me,’” Enoch said.

Here are the highlights from my Q & A session with Enoch, including some of his work from the Sentinel-Tribune. And make sure to check out more of his photography at enochwu.net!

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

SF: We’ve all heard the common expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  To what extent do you agree with that? What do you think a photo can portray that a written story cannot?

EW: I tend to think that in today’s world, with technology and mobile phones, a picture has become a commodity and there is not enough emphasis put into making a photo worth a thousand words. The process is so instantaneous that people don’t think about how and what they are photographing—a proper photo is worth a thousand words. 

It’s hard for me to say what a photo can portray that a written story cannot. Both photos and stories can evoke emotion and thought; both can open doors to new ideas and take people to new worlds. I’d say the main difference is that in reading, people must imagine a scene and a moment, whereas with a photo, that information is provided in a condensed visual form and does not require as much imagination.

SF: Who are some interesting people you’ve gotten to photograph or work with through your job?

EW: Oh, there are so many interesting people with interesting stories. Perhaps too many. [Recently] I photographed a smart 10-year-old, deemed the youngest developer with an app in the Apple App Store. It was exciting for me to see such a young “geek” doing something cool. It was also exciting to associate a little one with technical jargon and to see the wonderful support of his father, who is an intellectual property lawyer. What a perfect team.

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

SF: Dream subject to photograph?

EW: I don’t “dream” to shoot anyone since I believe that it’s about my subjects, I care more to hear their story and to photograph them the best way to tell their story. My subjects are on level ground, whether it is a three-year-old or the president of the United States.

But now that I think of it, it would be interesting to photograph Paypal/SpaceX/Tesla founder Elon Musk, or Jonathan Ive, the lead designer at Apple. There are musicians, too—it would be interesting to shoot Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian classical artist, or Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, or Björk, for that matter.

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

SF: Clearly, the newspaper industry is in a state of rapid change, and must transform drastically to survive. If you had the power to revolutionize the industry, offering different forms of digital content, what would you do? 

EW: I would use my entrepreneurship knowledge to find a way to raise the bar for journalism once again, to bring long-form journalism back and to draw people to enjoy reading again. Some of us still love reading, but I have a sense that it can be made enjoyable for those who may not necessarily enjoy it at the moment, and for those who are glued to the television.

In my work, quality is key, and I stand firm in the matter that my work should speak for itself. Therefore, I would expect the same had I the power to “revolutionize” the industry.

Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.

It’s more complicated than just digital content and pay walls. We need to reevaluate newspaper business models and practices that rely on a world when print journalism was at its peak. We need to bring the right people in—visionaries who are concerned about the future of editors, journalists, photojournalists and other newspaper staff rather than people [only] concerned primarily about monetary gains, finding Band-Aids to put off bankruptcy. We need to include people who look at the web seriously in all aspects: security, intellectual property, design and digital content, of course.

Solutions must be concrete, not half-baked ideas that fail. This is no time for failure as the jobs of so many great newspaper staffers are at risk. The medium of written journalism and the importance of reading are at stake, too. Written journalism is an imperative part of our future—our democracy and its success depend on it.

SF. What are your goals for the future?

EW: Right now I’m taking life as it goes—taking advantage of my full-time position at the paper and freelance jobs in Northwest Ohio, with the goal of building my ideal collection of gear and continuing to meet new people and create connections.

One of my personal goals is to return to music with a greater passion towards it. My standing long-term goal, lets say a period of five years, is to utilize my entrepreneurial sense to develop something that will secure my future as a photojournalist as well as the future of many other newspaper staffers. I’ve always wanted to run my own design firm too, but that is a tabled goal until the ones above come to fruition.

SF: Interesting fact about yourself?

EW: I secretly aspire to be Steve Jobs, to change the world…and photography is a cover.

*This interview was condensed and edited.

Header photo: Copyright © 2012 Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune. All rights reserved.