“Push” as a newspaper article

Here’s a fun exercise: take an essay you’ve written and turn it into a newspaper article to explore the difference between creative nonfiction and journalistic writing. I chose “Push”.

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Agra, INDIA (AP) — A 43 year old American woman visiting the Taj Mahal had a physical altercation with an Indian vendor after he accosted her traveling companion. Melinda Baumann of Charlottesville, Virginia, was visiting the popular tourist destination with her partner of 15 years, Marjorie Garmey, when the incident occurred. Witnesses say Baumann used both hands to shove the teenage vendor, of no known address, off balance. The incident then ended without escalating further.

At issue was the purchase of a beaded necklace. On her way into the temple Garmey had promised the young man that she would consider purchasing his jewelry after visiting the historic site. When she exited the temple an hour later, the young man was waiting for her. But Garmey and Baumann refused to stop.

“At first I felt sorry for him because he has to work so hard for so little,” Baumann explained. “And I even admired his tenacity, standing outside in this heat for an hour waiting for us. But he got really aggressive, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, circling Margie as she tried to walk to the bus, and pulled on her arm.”

Baumann described what happened next. “When he jumped in front of Margie to block her way, I felt he was threatening her. I didn’t know what he would do next. I got so angry I pushed him back hard.”

The vendor was not hurt. “I wasn’t too surprised when she pushed me. It happens to me all the time with these Westerners. But the lady looked very shocked.”

“I just couldn’t believe I did that,” Baumann said. “I’m not an aggressive or violent person. In fact, I’ve never laid hands on another person in anger. What kind of person have I become?”

Garmey provided some insight: “I was very surprised when Melinda pushed the guy, but she was just trying to protect me. We’d had a kind of challenging day, what with seeing such extreme poverty and starvation, deformed children begging alongside our bus, and so much garbage lining the streets.”

The vendor will not press charges.

Cabin Fever

MB wireless

The things I had to do to get decent wireless...

The first time I walked in, I couldn’t believe I was going to have to live in there for 14 weeks. I bleakly noted that at least it had a three-foot square window, at that moment looking out onto the black nothingness of Nassau, Bahamas, where we were docked. I stood in the doorway with one bulging bag slung over my shoulder and another large rolling duffle trailing behind me and thought: “How the hell are we going to live in this tiny space until May without killing each other?” My heart sank.

The cabin was about 10 feet by 10 feet with two single beds, one against each wall, each with a life-jacket lying ominously on the pillow. Immediately to the left of the door where I stood was a large two-door closet that ran floor-to-ceiling. A built-in dresser sat next to the closet with a small refrigerator and television on upper shelves, both secured to prevent unfortunate mishaps during stormy seas. On the right, I took in the tiny bathroom that was barely big enough for one person; and beyond that, a three-paned vanity mirror with desk and a small armless chair. The mirror seemed incongruous: we were to live in spartan close quarters for a whole semester, but at least there would be plenty of opportunity to primp.

It was January 2008, and my partner Margie and I had just opened the door on the adventure of our lives. I’d been asked to spend the spring semester providing library services to 732 undergraduate students on board the MV Explorer as we voyaged around the world. We left Charlottesville in a snow storm, barely getting out before the airport closed, and arrived in balmy Nassau that night. Once our names were found on the manifest we were allowed to board the Explorer about 15 minutes before last call at 2300 hours in the faculty/staff lounge. The first impressions of the cabin were rushed and not very positive as we tossed down our luggage and scurried off to explore the ship and hopefully down a much-needed glass of wine.

Our cabin, 5002, was at the very front of the ship (“fore”) and adjacent to the captain’s quarters. Only faculty were assigned rooms on this particular hall, so it was quiet, but more subject to the extremes of riding the waves. Eventually we got to be old sea dogs about it, but early on it was downright alarming. We’d ride up a wave about 20 feet, then come slamming down with a thunderous crash. I learned not to leave my laptop sitting on the desk after it collided with the floor. Safer, I determined, to just leave it on the floor where there was plenty of “to” and “fro” but at least no more “down”.
On our first few nights at sea the ship pitched and swelled. We were tightly tucked in our little beds but nonetheless we rolled fore and aft, from port to starboard. The dresser drawers opened and slammed shut, the television rhythmically swiveled back and forth, bottles in the refrigerator rolled to and fro, the chair toppled. Nothing stayed on desks or night tables. Sleep? Yeah, right. We kept the life-jackets within easy reach and learned to anchor everything down.

Being a librarian on a ship means pretty much always being on duty. In this floating Academical Village the faculty and staff live 24/7 with the students: we did almost everything together as a community. Everyone attended Global Studies class at 1020 hours each class day; everyone attended the pre-port lectures to learn about customs, health concerns, and logistics a night or two before docking in a foreign country. We ate together in the same dining rooms, we socialized together in the evenings. We were everywhere together. There was little privacy. It was like summer camp, but without mosquitoes.

The first few weeks were rough. I had to adjust to seasickness (meds helped but made me woozy) and we lost an hour every other night as we sailed across the Atlantic. When not on duty in the library I snuck away to my cabin to catch a catnap. Sometimes lying down was the only way to counter the nausea, but it was calming, too. I missed my dog, but we put photos of her on the walls, and our belongings decorated the space: clock radio, books, jeans, pillows, all from home, all making the space familiar and comfortable as we adapted to our new surroundings.

Traveling in third world countries was fascinating but exhausting. When I arrived back at the cabin after a few days in port it felt like I’d come home. Hot and tired, we’d swipe our IDs to enter our clean, cool cabin, and collapse onto bed with great relief. No space has ever felt so welcoming and safe.

The cabin came to be my refuge, my cozy little home. Who needs more space? I didn’t require more than I had in that tiny cabin: a little floor space, a little natural light, a serviceable bathroom, my own bed. It was private, it was peaceful, it was perfect.

Lessons Learned

This is at least the third time I’ve tried to write this story… I’ve tried to write it as nonfiction, but struggle with how to tell the true story of the elephant when I didn’t experience it firsthand. Am I on the right track by using Stefan as the narrator? Suggestions for a title?

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I found the key under the passenger seat, slid it into the ignition, and started the Land Rover. Nobody worries about it getting stolen in the middle of a game reserve in Eastern South Africa. The baboons are clever, but not quite to that degree. My latest group has arrived this afternoon for their safari adventure near the banks of the Black Umfolozi River. There are half a dozen students from some forgettable small college in the United States. I see so many of these privileged Western kids come through that I don’t bother to remember the details. The only thing that matters is that they listen to and learn from me, because I am Stefan and I am the man in charge.

I’ve gotten the group settled in their sturdy canvas tents on platforms. All dwellings are off the ground by at least a foot to deter the dirt-dwelling insects and reptiles. I’ve instilled in the group the need to use hurricane lamps and flashlights to guide their way after dark over the well-worn paths to the bathrooms. They are all armed with 100% DEET to protect from mosquitoes and the possibility of malaria. There is little protection from any other wild animal: No fences to keep out the rhinoceroses and lions; nothing but a zipper between them and the snakes. The hurricane lamp stays lit all night long, a sentinel in front of each residence.

Now we are off on our first evening safari. The Land Rover is open on the sides and has a canvas roof to shield from the sun and rain. When a young lady spots her first rhinoceros on the side of the road she gasps, alerting the others to the rhino’s presence. The rhino’s eyesight is poor, but compensated by excellent hearing and sense of smell. A charging rhino may feel threatened by what she cannot clearly see. I correctly tell the wide-eyed youngsters that she won’t charge, and in fact she turns and ambles away. In spite of her bulk, she is surprisingly agile. I feel I’m making headway in getting the group to trust my superior skills as a ranger. I am highly trained to read the body language of wild animals. And if I ever miss a cue, there is always a gun within reach. But I don’t tell them this.

Animals are least active when the temperatures are hottest, so we spend one long afternoon in seminar. I teach the youngsters that the savannah habitat is favored by the Big Five: buffalo, leopard, elephant, lion, rhinoceros. The Big Five are so named not because they are the largest, or the hardest to find: these are the most dangerous animals to hunt because they attack when injured. The lifespan of an African elephant is 60 to 70 years. They are herbivores and form extended families led by a matriarch. An elephant favors his left or right tusk, as evidenced by the wear on one side.

One young lady in our group is having trouble absorbing this new information. Her desire is to get up close to an elephant, perhaps to offer it a peanut or a pat on the trunk. I tell her it would be a good way to get killed. Elephants can be ferocious. Destructive. Even vindictive. I see doubtful smirks pass among some in the group.

On the last night in camp we sit around the campfire. There is a commotion not far off: large branches snap like twigs as a large male elephant paces back and forth just outside camp, furiously snorting and huffing. The elephant wants to come through, and we are in his way. I quickly explain this to the group, and this time I don’t see any eye-rolling. The elephant is agitated and we don’t want to piss him off any more than he already is. They scurry to their tents like little mice as I warn them not to poke their heads out, no matter how tempting, if they don’t want to experience the wrath of a young tusker.

Within a few minutes quiet settles over the camp. From inside our dwellings we are all listening for whatever will happen next. Soon we hear it: the angry elephant comes lumbering out of the brush and plows through the middle of the camp, disregarding whatever is in his way. Large jugs used for porting water are kicked to the side and the logs we were just sitting on are pushed like tinker toys into the smoldering fire. The earth shakes as three tons of elephant crashes past the outhouses nearest the tents. The footfalls lessen as the elephant continues out the other side of camp and back into the quiet night. I unzip my tent flap to go survey the damage. I am not surprised when no one in the group ventures outside again.

At breakfast there is much false bravado, and cameras come out to capture the remains of the dusty footprints and crushed jugs. I hear the young men lie to the pretty young ladies that they came out last night in time to see the tail of the elephant as it left camp. Too dark to get a photo, they lie. I hold my tongue. We have to pack up and get to the game reserve gates where the group will be picked up and taken to the airport for their flight home. There is no time to waste on teaching them more lessons of the savannah: we are out of time and the adventure is over. They have learned all I can teach them in a few short days.

But we find as we try to drive out of camp that the elephant has delivered a final lesson. He has pushed a large tree down across the road. It blocks our way out so effectively that we can’t get around it. The youngsters miss their flight, and I tip my hat to the elephant.

The beginning

My hometown is known for having more bars per square mile than any other in the country. This was not why we moved there. My father got a job as an architect with a company that made modular buildings, so we landed in Oswego, New York in 1969, just before I turned 5. After the company went out of business a few years later, Dad opened a one-man architectural firm in a converted room in the front of our three-story house on the east side of town. The street-level sign, “Carl Baumann, Architect”, had a red arrow pointing up the cement stairs to the front door.