Sprocket

On Grief

A little over a month ago, my dog died. We had to make the decision for him, and Jim and my parents had to do it: I had frittered off to England for some research on my novel-in-progress.

When Sprocket was near the end of his life (we didn’t know it with certainty until it became obvious he was in pain), I said to a close friend that I was watching myself very closely: that seminal events by definition chart who you will be, but they also show, to a degree, who you are. I have seen other people’s grief, but I wasn’t sure what I hoped would happen to me.

For many reasons watching a pet die is different from what happens to you when a close friend or relative dies. Pets are a reflection of you (yes, people are too, but just hang onto that thought for a moment), and they only ask that you love them and take care of them. People are so much more complex, and so, although I really hesitate to use the word “pure” in this context, maybe the relationship between a pet and a person is what we hope we can give to all the living beings in our lives, although things like clashing personalities and life events show us differently.

A pet’s world is tiny. It is you, your home, its pack. This small world allows for emotions that we might not otherwise exhibit.

But this post is not about that. This post is about the things that helped, that really helped, when things were really bad.

Getting on with it. Jim and I were far away from each other. But I was with my good friend Nic, who is one of those who just lets people get on with whatever it is they need to do. Grieving is one of those. It was 10AM or so California time when Jim asked if we could “talk,”–Nic and I looked at each other and said, “Uh oh”–and 6PM British time, and Nic and I were having a slow dinner, or drinks, in the little living room of the place we had rented. It was painfully teal, which is crazy, since I love teal. The chandelier had teal accents. I dripped slow tears the entire night and used a lot of toilet paper and paper towels. If I had been with someone who fussed, I may have felt mortified. But Nic just sat in the room with me, doing her thing while I was trying to do mine, and so I was perfectly fine snotting myself and just cleaning up the tears where they fell. Later, of course, I went into my room and cried horrible, wet-faced, drooling tears, and it probably helped that Nic and I were, believe it or not, in the middle of a task when Jim called to tell me what needed to be done, but still. Sometimes you just need a space to be sad.

Say everything you ever wanted to say before. We found out Sprocket had osteosarcoma in July. Between then and Sprocket’s final trip to the vet, there were two times when we thought we’d have to say goodbye. And there were the trips to the river, and trips to see friends, and weekly trips to Sprocket’s oncologist, where he got his radiation treatments. Every single time he went under anesthesia, I told him I loved him and I would see him soon, and that he was a good boy, and I thanked him for his many years of friendship. And each time we thought we’d have to say goodbye, my entire family did the same, especially the penultimate time, which happened the day before my brother and his family left us from their holiday visit. Everyone said goodbye; everyone said they loved him. My sister-in-law, who is a neat, tidy person, got down on her knees on Sprocket’s ratty old bed and hugged and kissed my dying dog on his head, and my niece sat close to him and patted him. My brother wrote to me the night Sprocket died. He wrote, “Everything that needed to be said was said.” My sister-in-law texted photos. And our vet sent a note that said we did the best we could, and that it was obvious how we cared for Sprocket. Those things together have me resolving to never leave things unsaid, even if they might be embarrassing to say. My mom, most taciturn of people when it comes to showing emotion, still says to me, “We gave him a good life, didn’t we?” For me, that means telling him at every opportunity how much he mattered, even if he didn’t speak the language, exactly.

Remember the good times. Oh, gosh. How people do like to say this. And yet, it is the truest of all things, that it really does help with the “terrible feelings of loss,” as our good friend Dan’s mother wrote to us. As I read Carol’s words, I had the same sense of skepticism I always have with what sound like well-worn platitudes, but then later that night, I could only fall asleep by remembering the feel of Sprocket’s perfect little cranium beneath my hand; his funny mustache and the whuffing he would do in our ears when he felt like we weren’t paying enough attention. Wet nose; cold tunnel-air from it; funny little toes gripping my palm when I told him to shake. And later, when we finally posted to facebook that we had said goodbye to Sprocket, we asked all of our friends to post their favorite stories or memories of him. We were not prepared for the hundreds of memories that came through, some with their own photographs. We laughed, and cried, and even though we were still apart from each other, this helped us individually, more than I can properly express.

Take joy in other people’s good fortune. I really worried that I would be one of those people who couldn’t stand to see other people with their dogs after Sprocket died. But I was in England at the time, and so there were dogs everywhere, happily going off on their own down trails and rolling in sand and also meandering around in bookstores. The evening after, Nic and I were messing around in a bookstore when a fat springer spaniel came in. It was smelling things, and I asked if I could pat it, and the thing sat on my foot and *barooooooed* randomly, and its owner said, “Flash! Flash! You must stop making that noise!” and I think I was so surprised, and so pleased, to hear myself laugh, even though I was sad, even though I couldn’t stop myself from telling her that my dog had just died. And when I finally got home and was jogging my usual hamster-wheel route around my neighborhood, I saw people with their dogs and spent all my time being grateful that these people had these creatures in their lives.

I don’t know if this grieving process will be the same as I get older. I’m sure I will learn more about it as time goes on. But these are the things I’ve learned, and maybe they will help you, too.

The very last photo I took of my boy.

The very last photo I took with my boy.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Good citizenship

This is Sprocket.

 

Well, that’s Sprocket and me, anyway.

Sprocket likes to run and play, like any other dog. And, like any other dog owner, I will say that he is probably the best behaved dog I know. His recall is pretty much 100%. He waits when we get to a street, until I tell him it is okay to cross. If we see someone coming with another dog, or children, we pull off the sidewalk and he sits until I tell him it is okay to say hello, or he waits until they go by. If we see another dog in the park, I make him sit and wait until I have walked up and greeted the dog and asked the dog owner if it is okay for Sprocket to say hello. If not, then I return to Sprocket and release him from his sit. If it is okay, I call him to come play.

We made sure he learned all of these things because Sprocket is primarily an off-leash dog. And I should say that in every city we’ve lived in, the local law enforcement seems to have become used to seeing him off leash. They largely turn the other way.

White Plains has been a challenge. It is by far the most dog-unfriendly city I’ve ever seen. Everywhere there are signs like this:

I am not proud of the fact that law enforcement has to look the other way. I do not ordinarily flaunt the fact that Sprocket can be walked off-leash when most other dogs can’t be. But I am saying this now because I have been made genuinely curious by something that happened on Saturday morning.

It was beautiful out, and Sprocket and I walked down to the local schoolyard to play. There is a track there, one I’ve written about before, and there were kids riding their bikes on the track and people walking around it. Normally, people are having lunch and playing soccer or volleyball and lots of kids are rollerblading around the track or riding their bicycles. Today, though, it was mostly just walkers and one or two bicycles. Sprocket and I were in the middle of the field in the track oval, playing fetch.

I was on my knee, saying something to Sprocket, when I noticed a man coming over. He was not smiling, but he was walking doggedly towards us. Usually people want to say hi. But this man’s face was not friendly. So I stayed where I was.

He got to within a few feet of me and pointed. “There are two signs, one there and one there, that say ‘No dogs allowed,'” he said. He’s right. They look like this:

“I know,” I said. “We’re not bothering anyone.”

“The signs are right there,” he said.

“Uh huh,” I said. “When you see people riding their bikes, or rollerblading, or drinking booze in here or playing soccer or volleyball here, do you go up to them and tell them they’re breaking the law?”

“So you’re saying that their wrong makes you right.”

“No. I’m just asking if you treat them the same way you’re treating me.” Here I point. “That little girl has been here on her bike for awhile. Are you now going to tell her she can’t be here?” [Here I was erroneous. I thought the sign included bicycling too, but it doesn’t, for some weird reason. Bikes on a track are much more dangerous than skates.]

“I’m going to call the cops,” he says. “You can argue with them.”

“I’m not arguing with you,” I say. “I’m just curious.”

After that the situation disintegrated. Sprocket and I left the field with me yelling something about ruining everyone’s Saturday and then I believe I said very loudly that the man was a terrible citizen and that he should be ashamed of himself and that it’s always dog owners who pick up after the riff raff of White Plains.

And it’s true, too. The first sign I posted above, the brown one, is in the park across the street from us. When we first moved here Sprocket and I would go very early in the mornings and play ball or frisbee when there were fewer people. Now, no matter when we go, there are dogs in there. They run here and there while we owners keep a sharp eye out for glass 40s or food containers with leftover fried chicken in them, where people who are stoned or drunk will leave them after they’ve eaten off their binge drinking or whatever.

We pick up after ourselves every time. Sometimes I will pick up after errant dog owners…maybe they didn’t have a plastic bag with them.

Despite our poaching the park, I still feel like a good citizen. But after I’d told the guy out loud that he was being a bad citizen, I had to take a really hard look at myself: Am I being a good citizen?

What do you think?

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A New Way of Seeing

Wow, am I cranky. Peeps, I am so cranky I can hardly believe it. I think I would be lying if I said I don’t know why, so I’ll just try to talk you through it.

1. I am scheduled to do a half-marathon on trail October 2. That’s this weekend, and I have been looking forward to it for a long time now.

2. I have been plagued by injury.

3. Now we are less than a week before the race, and although I know I won’t have a problem completing the race, I’m now in a position where I don’t feel like I can log in anymore miles because I’m terrified of hurting myself before the race. (This is because the last injury was two weeks ago, when I pulled a heretofore-unknown muscle in my pelvis during a routine speed workout.)

4. Therefore, although I’ve been undertaking normal activities, and some not so normal, like tottering around in 3.5-inch heels to and from dinner and a Baptism and walking around Manhattan in a pair of not-smart sandals that obviously hve lost their cushioning, I have not been working out, and my body is PISSED.

5. Therefore, I am pissed. But still cautious about hurting myself before the race.

This is a ridiculous, self-fulfilling prophecy. So I am ignoring it, and trying to alleviate The Cranky.

Today I want to talk to you about art. This past weekend we had some friends in town from Chicago, and we visited both the Neue Galerie and The Met, and the following day we walked over the Hudson River on the Walkway and then went to the FDR Presidential Home and Library. Then we had dinner at the Culinary Institute of America, from which Jim’s father graduated.  If that seems like a lot of culture, it was, but it was also full of art in all its aspects: natural, historical, visual, and culinary.

I did not have my camera with me, and my Blackberry has decided it Does Not Want to Take Photos anymore, so I had to rely on others for those. (This, incidentally, is another reason for The Cranky.) But this is a good opportunity for me to share with you my latest endeavor, which is to be a better recorder of life through not only words and type, but also visual arts.

Some of you may remember that I took some art lessons awhile back. This is me and my art instructor, Jan Cianflone:

We are on her porch, the last day of my art lesson, just before I went to Whidbey. Towards the end our lessons took place en plein air.

Jan ran me through several different media. We started with pencil and charcoal and spherical objects. Here’s a photo of some eggs:

And here’s the chiaroscuro charcoal I did of those same eggs:

We also did some gesture drawings, which I really enjoyed, from magazine pages. Fashion magazines are good for these, since the models tend to be lanky and long and the shoots tend to be of exaggerated poses. I wish I still had the actual page this came from. This is a 3-minute gesture drawing.

From there we moved into pencil washes. I really enjoyed working with the more suggestive lines of these, as opposed to the more definitive lines of plain pencil.

and then we moved into pen-and-ink, which I really loved, but only in this one case, because, as it turns out, you can’t mix color as well in these big markers as you can in something like watercolor. Although, I did love the broad stroke of the pens…

We did some drawing from life of my favorite hairy subject. (I call this the Grandma-Moses Sprocket.)

And from there, I was on my own. It was a remarkable six weeks, and although I’m still experimenting and learning, here are some of the results:

The Whidbey dock. I’m not happy with this drawing. I love the loose evocation of the trees at the top of the drawing, but I’ve really done a hack job on the dock, which looks cartoony and stiff. I know a lot of this is me learning my own style, but it’s definitely frustrating to see something like this.

I drew it from life, but, for comparison, at an obviously different time of day, here’s a photo.

Later on in the week, I did this drawing, which is of a house that sits on the lagoon near where we had our afternoon classes. I got really lost in the grasses near the bottom of the drawing and just didn’t have the energies or the know-how or the artistic balls to try and complete the suggestion of river that ran along the lawn of the house.

On my way home from Whidbey, I tried to do a marker-and-ink drawing of an airplane at its gate. When I looked up again, the airplane had disappeared. Sigh.

Here’s my most recent drawing:

Personally, it’s my favorite. For comparison, here’s the photo:

I want to get to a point where I can suggest things better and allow the viewer to make their own interpretations. But i guess a girl has to start someplace.

There are many more drawings I want to do. I still haven’t covered my beloved city, or the lovely impressionistic photos of Seattle I took at night, when the iPad camera will only suggest light and glimmer. I think those will be next.

Ultimately, I hope the drawing will inform my writing. It’s only just now occurred to me, actually, that the protagonist in the novel I’m writing for my thesis is an artist. Lately, she and I haven’t been communicating very well, and my adviser has suggested that I spend the day in her shoes, so I’m doubly glad that I took lessons with Jan.

It’s always nice to have another way of seeing things.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Photo crazy

Is it art?

Sprocket doesn't think so.

I call this one "study in noodles"

We went to the PepsiCo Gardens with Jim's family.

I like this sculpture of a bear crawling out of the pond.

I also like the filagree pattern this tree casts on the ground.

Wow, look at the pooch on me. Not the dog, the belly.

Lillies! I like!

big fat tadpoles were on every stalk of the lily pads.

Love this angular tree trunk. Dunno what happened to it.

I went to Philadelphia last Wednesday. Nice city. Great clients.

The sky over White Plains on Friday evening was wonderfully Hudson-River-School-like.

I caught Jim mooning over this deluxe edition of Stratego.

We took our friend Anna, her soon-to-be stepsons, and her fiance on a hike in Harriman. Here are the stepsons.

Here's crazy dog Sassafras, Joe, Anna, me, El Jefe, and Sprocket,

Sprocket got wet.

I went into the city yesterday to meet my friend Alexandra for lunch. She was in from Chicago. We had a picnic on the High Line and I got a burnt nose.

The MTA set up a TV in Grand Central so everyone could watch The World Cup finals. Beat sitting in a sweaty bar.

Perfect clouds again over White Plains

Look! The Ritz-Carlton building is the same color as the sky! Or maybe it's just a reflection. 😀

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled ‘blog

Hi there.

Coherency will now fly out the window as I update my life to my three followers.

First, some photos and a small comment on friendship:

I have known Kelsey since October 2008, when we went through our ShelterBox 3-day assessment together. Our paths diverged from there, but we stayed friends, mostly because we have the same sense of humor. Kelsey has since lived in Texas, Hanoi, Budapest. This September she will be studying in London; this summer she will be stateside again, in Boston, I think. I am lucky to have such friends through such a tenuous connection. Kelsey came to visit just before I left for Haiti.

When I returned, spring had happened. All of the trees were green and budding, and the flowering trees and shrubs were in full bloom. The park across the street from us has these gorgeous flowering cherry trees. They make lovely carpets of soft pink petals all over the ground.

Here is a gratuitous Sprocket photo.

There are lots of other pretty flowering plants in this park, including this purple one.

I wish I knew what it was. Is it wisteria? I don’t think so; somewhere my visual memory tells me that wisteria is much more delicate-looking.

Elsewhere in the park, there is a dogwood. The blooms were hanging too high for me to get a good photo. There are also dandelions.

Shortly after I got home from Haiti (and after my meander through the  park, taking photos that I have to explain because they are too bad to be explicit), I realized that I needed to write a column for the newspaper, and that my credit card bill needed to be paid, and that I had missed the deadline for registration for the MFA program I’ve enrolled in (yes, yes, more on that later), and also that…oh, God, I have to drive to Pittsburgh.

Kara got her doctorate recently, and her family and I went to see her walk. We almost missed her; there were many many students. But before that we had a day to mellow out in Pittsburgh. I bought a vintage dress to wear to a wedding later this year; and we had lunch at Enrico’s on Ellsworth, where I took this photo:

I liked the light. It didn’t seem to come through in the photo, though. Kara’s had this camera bag for awhile, and it just gets prettier with age.

Also there was this:

I really like these metal flames. There is something very primeval about it (I know, duh), and I just like the idea of an Italian joint with wood-fired pizza having an oven covered in flames.

I also liked this:

This is probably the best-tasting BLT I’ve ever had. It was very, very messy, but the taste made up for it. Alas, it was too big for me to eat all at once.

We also saw this curious substitute for a guard-dog. Hey, if you could have a dinosaur guarding your home, wouldn’t you?

The next day we putzed around the house, and we went to see the marathon go by, which has inspired me to Do Another. I love race day. I get all teary.

Then there was this:

And then there was this:

and that is the end of Kara’s long journey to her doctorate degree. V. V. exciting. Our Pittsburgh journey would take me 18 hours of driving altogether. It was not pleasant. But I got to eat Cracker Barrel meatloaf, and I also managed to leave only one peg remaining in that idiot game they have at every table. It is the first time I have ever done that (I am usually a two or three or even four-pegger), and here is the proof:

I can never duplicate this, because I was listening to Kara saying something and I wasn’t really paying attention to what I did. [Insert left-brain/right-brain commentary here.]

Ohoh. Also in Pittsburgh we saw an awesome exhibit featuring artists’ renditions of teapots. Yes, teapots, that wonderful form that instantly evokes comfort and prettiness. No, not beauty. Teapots are not beautiful. They are pretty to within inches of beauty. But they are not usually striking. These, however, were:

Tea set made entirely of cockle-burrs. Called “Tea for Sudan.” Owtch.

And I like this one. Total polar opposite of “Tea for Sudan,” it is comforting and very very easy on the eyes.

Er. I think that might be it, except ohOH on the way home I received this e-mail, as a comment on a book review I’d done earlier:
Hello, I’m [Txx Nxxxxx] and I’m a Student i need some information about Elijah of Buxton , i need background information, conflict, Rising action, falling action, climax and the Resolution. (THEME)! Thanks

First of all, student, you are lucky I am kind and am not revealing your name and e-mail address here. Second of all, you need lots of help with your capitalization. Second of all, hell, call me old-fashioned and whatever, but dude. Read The Book. And then sit and have a good think about it.

Third, man, I really have no idea what you’re asking me for here.

So here’s a neat little segue: I am not going to get my MFA because I want to teach students like Txx. I am going back to school so I can be a better writer, specifically in long-form fiction. Eventually I am sure I will teach, but I would like to publish first. And when I do teach, I would like it to be older students, who have lived a little and who need a little push. I will probably end up engaging in some kind of writing coaching, if there is such a thing.

So I’ve chosen the Whidbey Island Writer’s Association for my school of choice. After much waffling and back-and-forth, I am happy to report that I am very very excited about this. Learning things is always good. Learning things that will help you to become what you have wanted to become for years is incredibly exciting.

It is going to cost me an arm and a leg. I am a little bit worried about that. But life has been busy lately and I see no reason to slow down, really.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Perhaps our last snow day

It was near fifty degrees out yesterday, so Jim and Sprocket and I went for a stroll at a nature preserve that I’ve been reading a lot about, but haven’t actually visited myself.

The Teatown Lake Reservation is in Ossining, New York. They are the hosts of Eaglefest, an annual event celebrating that most noble of carrion-eaters, and have 15 miles worth of hiking trails. They’ve been in our local news quite a bit, as they’re about to acquire another 72 acres of land as part of an open space initiative.

It was such a beautiful day out, bright sunshine everywhere, and, obviously, mud, as all of the snow that was piled up from the previous weekend melted. There were lots of people out everywhere–the overflow parking lot was full–and although we didn’t get to visit the nature center, we did have a really nice day.

I wore my slick-soled Blundstones, which proved to be a big mistake–the snow, which was wet and heavy, was also packed down in enough places where folks had walked earlier that day. Anyone who’s ever skied in the late afternooon knows what that means: mini-berms everywhere, some iced over, some mushy, some hidden under kicked up snow.

I had my twenty-pound pack on, too, all of which combined to make our 2.5-mile walk quite adventurous, at least insofar as my core, hamstrings, ankles, and knees went. Here are some photos.

I love this bridge, although I wasn’t able to capture the running water and the reflections it made on the rocks just above the brook. Jim crossed this bridge stomping at the crusty snowy bits and kicking them off, all in the guise of making it easier for future visitors to walk and not slip, but he inadvertently let loose his true intent by muttering, under his breath, “DESTRUCTOR JIMMY!” Sigh. Boys are so transparent.

I love these trail markers. They were everywhere. I was very tempted to pull them off and use them as coasters in my own home.

There’s apparently a permanent orienteering course at Teatown. Very cool. This marker says that if you turn 96 degrees from looking at the sign and walk 23 paces, you’ll find the next marker. Orienteering. The sport that proves that the universe makes sense, after all.

Why does everyone say “mossy green”? Personally, I prefer this color, which I am calling licheny green. Okay, so they’re two different colors. Still, this one is preferable to me.

Some deer had been before us. I did not take pictures of the deer poo. This was good enough evidence.

Spotted this way-cool underbelly of tree. Looks like a massive star anise. Good for a garnish on a massive cocktail.

Overlook Trail is very very short but very steep and slippery and sometimes treacherous. At some point I slid down on my rear. Stupid pack!

I liked this little wishbone in the snow. Sprocket was completely insane on the ride up there. Now he is lying flat on his side, moaning. He must be pretty pooped, too.

I hope this is not the last of our snow days yet, although it’s supposed to rain later this week, and I must confess that standing outside in nothing but shirt-sleeves was really nice this morning.

In May we will have been here a year. It hardly feels that way…!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Word or phrase

December 17: Word or phrase. A word that encapsulates your year. “2009 was _____.”

Yes, please! I know it doesn’t exactly flow. But when I think back over 2009, I specifically remember a post that Lara had up on her site that ended with “Bring it.”

I think that’s such a great phrase. Lara lives in England. She is tall and collected and has terrific posture and is the very epitome of capability. I look upon her life with a certain sense of awe over her many accomplishments. When she says “Bring it,” it sounds cool, like the general challenge to the universe it’s meant to be.

This is Lara. On the other end of the transom, I was ripping my hair out because we couldn't settle on reservations for Ironman. Dyou see how calm she is? Mmhmm.

This is Lara. On the other end of the transom, I was ripping my hair out because we couldn't settle on reservations for Ironman. Dyou see how calm she is? Mmhmm.

I am, in many ways, Lara’s opposite. I leave a trail of things wherever I go. When I unpack, I tend to do it all over the place. I Leave a Mark, as it were. I am messy. When you picture me saying “Bring it,” you must picture me with strands of hair poking out everywhere, quite possibly standing amidst a pile of papers, out of breath from exertion and somewhat red-faced from whatever mess I’ve just created. I look wild-eyed, a little frenetic, even. I have probably preceded “Bring it!” with a dopey-sounding “Hunh? What’d you say?”

Yes, this is me, almost all the time. "Hunh? Wha? Oh!"

Yes, this is me, almost all the time. "Hunh? Wha? Oh!"

In spite of the general mess that is my life, I got a lot done this year. I did Ironman, and fulfilled a lifelong dream to become part of the worldwide disaster-relief community. We moved back to New York. I did a half-Ironman and bought some great artwork. I made some new friends and reinforced ties with others. I made a fair number of meals for friends and hosted some good parties and drove across the country with my Dad. My brother got engaged. I broke my digital camera and bravely bought another one in a foreign airport. I was nice to a lot of strangers and they were nice back.

Life is good, and wide-open. But I think it’s probably only wide open because I make it a point to live this way. So while “Bring it,” doesn’t exactly fit for me, there is a certain propriety to “Yes, please”:

“Hey, Eesh, wanna come to London to visit?”

“Yes, please.”

“Hey Eesh, wanna do this race with me?”

“Yes, please.”

“Hey, Eesh, you should really, really try some of this esargot.”

snails

These are water snails, not escargot. It's what we eat in Taiwan. Meh!

“Um. Yes, please?”

Indeed. Escargot. I ate them, if only to please my aunt.

If eating snails can make everyone this happy, well, um...Bring It. :D

If eating snails can make everyone this happy, well, um...Bring It. 😀

So there you have it. I’m not cool enough to say “Bring it,” but I’m more than happy to say “Yes, please,” every day of the year. Bring on 2010. I’ll Yes-Please it into the ground.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Place

December 11 The best place. A coffee shop? A pub? A retreat center? A cubicle? A nook?

I really had to think about this one. In the end, I picked the most mundane of places: our current apartment. Back in Chicago, we lived in a huge, drafty 1400-square-foot spot. It was a ton of room and badly put together, and, frankly, I didn’t want to be there. Chicago, I mean. I got to like it by the time we left, but it wasn’t my idea to move there and it took me a good long while to just shut up and live in this terrific city for however long I got to experience it.

It's huge! This room isn't even the bulk of it! (New Year's, '05)

It's huge! This room isn't even the bulk of it!

It was in an awesome, post-Victorian-era greystone that had been gutted and re-done. We liked it, but it had so many elements already built in, like an original sideboard dating from 1912, when the building was built, and pocket doors. High ceilings and poor insulation made the place super-chilly, so we ran the fireplace a lot. Perhaps the thing I hated the most was the fact that it was so big that Jim and I just spread out. Things got lost and hidden, and, with the addition of basement storage just below us, it was a recipe for way too much clutter.

We lived on the first floor, where the front door is, of this house.

We lived on the first floor, where the front door is, of this house.

Also, I had a terrible habit of walking around without either my contacts or glasses in, so I probably didn’t see the clutter part of the time. It was awful.
Before the move to Chicago, we lived in a small place in Croton Falls, New York. It was about 750 square feet. It was Jim’s place; I moved in when my Manhattan roommate got married. It felt tiny, expecially for two people who owned two bicycles apiece and, eventually, a 19-foot kayak. But we loved it. It was Sprocket’s first home.

Our back door was arched and exited onto a massive porch. We loved it. So did Sprocket. (Fuzzy!)

Our back door was arched and exited onto a massive porch. We loved it. So did Sprocket. (Fuzzy!)

Anyway, in May this year we moved from Chicago back to New York State, to White Plains. It’s a weird place. The social divide here feels tremendous at times. But our apartment? I love it. We’re back down to 1100 square feet, and the missing 300 square feet has allowed us to regain some of the efficiency we had when we were living in 750 square feet.
Now, when we’re done cooking, we put things away. We store extra things in the storeroom. We keep most stuff stores away in cabinets. It’s not perfect. But it’s closer to the way we want to function.
Perhaps best of all, this new home was a blank slate. Aside from the obnoxious radiators, which stick out of the wall and reduce the published living space by something like 20 square feet in each room, it had no quirky features whatsoever. So it’s truly become a place that we’ve made our own, and in full partnership.

our couch in Chicago was big enough for three hounds & three people! 98 inches!

our couch in Chicago was big enough for three hounds and three people, all at once. 98 inches!

So this is the place I call home. Really, really and truly. Not “Jim’s place, which I crashed into,” or “our Chicago apartment (we had to move for Jim’s job),” but “our place.” Great things will happen here.
Oh, and there is a spare bedroom and a spare bath, and spare keys. Our friends are always welcome.

I have wanted an Arco lamp forever. it's too big for the room, but whatev.

I have wanted an Arco lamp forever. it's too big for the room, but whatev.

galley kitchen; dining table under bar, funky lighting.

galley kitchen; dining table under bar, funky lighting.

elements of a bedroom: lamp, ratty old bear; books; lint brush; 400-count sheets.

elements of a bedroom: lamp, ratty old bear; books; lint brush; 400-count sheets.

elements of an entryway: a Sprocket and a ShelterBox. Um, yeah.

elements of an entryway: a Sprocket and a ShelterBox. Um, yeah.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Album

December 10: Album of the year. What’s rocking your world?

I have purchased only a few albums this year, and a lot of them aren’t new. I guess I look at music the same way I look at books. There are so many great ones out there already that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on too much if I don’t purchase it right away. Consequently, I still have a copy of Vanity Fair on my bedside table, and most of my book reviews are about books that were published several years ago.
Anyway, I bought one this year that I really like and that I haven’t yet tired of. It’s called Bitter Heart, and it’s by a young artist named Zee Avi
zeeavi_music_cd.
I like this album for its music, sure, but I also like it for its circumstances:
Me and Jim, in a car, on our way someplace.
Bright, sunny day; car humming smoothly under us.
Hound in back seat.

It may have been a day like this...windows open, hound-hair blowing...

It may have been a day like this...windows open, hound-hair blowing...


NPR on the radio, and me reminding myself why I love NPR so much. It makes me feel like I’m learning something, all the time. I especially like it when Jim is with me because he makes noises while listening: “Hunh!” and *snort* and laughing.
As for the music itself, well, I like the fact that it evokes nostalgia and modernity all at the same time. This is a girl on the ukelele, or on the piano, with classic instruments like the horn weighing in at some point. She’s barely even old enough to know anything about life, at a young twenty-something, and she’s singing about age-old things like addiction, unrequited love, fitting in. Her songs have Filofaxes, satellites, mobile phones in them. She recounts these stories in a beguiling island tone, and the lightness and lilt of her music belies the sometimes-heavy subject matter of the songs.
But–yeah. It’s the remembrance of that day, so like many others in my life this year, that makes this my favorite album.
roadtrip. standard view for me. :)

roadtrip. standard view for me. 🙂

Here’s another photo of another good day. This one was filled with good friends and a lake. Wonder what that soundtrack would have been like?

gratuitous hound photo

gratuitous hound photo

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Things I Acquired This Weekend

BICYCLE!
Head and chest cold
Bruises
Questionable photographs
New vernacular

HOW does one acquire so many fabulous, varied, tangible and intangible things in the space of one weekend, you ask? The answer is simple: FAT TIRE NARNIA. What *is* Fat Tire Narnia?
Well. Let’s just say that it involves mountain bikes and the never-ending search for good places to ride. Yes, yes, I know I said, particularly after Isabella was stolen, that I really didn’t know if I was going back to mountain biking. i’d invested what I saw as a fair amount of time and never really gotten any better at it, after all. But then, see, Friday afternoon, we crossed the border into Massachusetts, and the leaves were gorgeous and crunchy, and somewhere deep in my physical memory there was a buried a sense of woods, trails, and the curious, fragrant crunch that occurs when you fall off your bike into a pile of soft, welcoming leaves. There was speed, and crisp, cool air, and the joy that comes from being out on your bike in the woods in the deep of the fall. It’s different from riding in the summer, you know. Anyway. Jim and I pulled into Colin and Carli’s house in the early afternoon, and we mucked about Melrose for a bit, getting to know the town. Chris came in later that evening, to a nice seafood dinner at Turner‘s and some nice local microbrews to boot, and then we all called it a night.
The next morning, after some faffing about buying groceries and getting fueled up with coffee and whatnot, we packed our cars and headed off to East Burke, Vermont, home of Kingdom Trails, only to get stuck in a lot of leaf-peeping traffic.
Here is proof of the pretty foliage.
DSC00366
There are no pictures of awful leaf-peepers or the traffic they caused, ‘cos there were’t any when I took this photo. That’s ‘cos I figured out too late that the white screen my camera was showing was indicative of a smashed LCD, rendering my camera useless. So I pointed it around and took random photos of leaves, but it didn’t much feel right (my camera doesn’t have a viewfinder).
I took a bunch more like this:
DSC00371DSC00376DSC00368
and then gave up. Sigh. Too bad, because there were some really good times that weekend. Good thing Boyd had a video camera, and Colin is an inveterate shutterbug.
Anyhow, we pulled into East Burke, Vermont at around 3:30 that afternoon, just enough time for the guys to squeeze in a late-afternoon ride, and Carli and I packed up Lily (Colin and Carli’s gorgeous little 3-year-old girl) and Sprocket and went off to the campsite to set up camp, but not before I looked shiftily at the local bike shop and tried to talk myself out of buying a bike right then and there.
At camp, Carli and I encountered several problems: the campground was shaped like a circle with a couple of off-shoots that we didn’t see at first, making finding our site a small adventure; Sprocket kept on trying to explore the greater area; the hammock Colin had thrown into the car at the last minute turned out to be not-a-hammock, the ground was almost too soft, so on, so forth. By the time we got everything set up, it was time to meet the boys back in town for dinner.
I just about made up my mind to get a damned bike when all three boys came rolling across the street on their bikes, covered in mud, faces covered in shit-eating grins the likes of which I’ve never seen, not even on athletes crossing the finish line after a long race. Cos, see, finishing a race is still work. There’s a very different feeling to doing something that you’re just good at, something that doesn’t involve winning, that just involves being out with friends and riding to your skill level.
We ate at the local pub, finding some terrific beers on tap and discovering the crap service that exists in a small town that revolves exclusively around mountain bikers and locals, and then we went back to camp to experience the hell that is starting a fire in damp weather.
puboutback
I put my Leatherman to good use (also, some handy skills that I picked up from watching Bear Grylls on TV–shut up), shaving wood into teeny tiny bits for tinder and then dumping the entire pile of shavings into the dirt just shy of the fire pit (blame too many micro-brews). At the end of the night, it fell to Jim to save the evening, since he apparently breathes sheer oxygen from his lungs, where the rest of us mere mortals exhale only a shallow mix of useless CO2 and other pointless gasses. At any rate, our dismal fire fell prey to the damp in the air and an eventual rain as we slept that night.

my hero!

my hero!

I woke up feeling groggy and snotty, but rallied enough to drag my arse up to the bathroom and brush my teeth. Sprocket came with me, hellbent on saying hello to whoever was in the bathroom stalls. Good thing mountain bikers have a good sense of humor. When I came back we’d decided on abandoning the oatmeal-in-a-camp-pan breakfast and settled on a hot breakfast somewhere in town, thereby putting me in striking distance of the bike shop again.
I wandered in with our friends, trying to stay casual, loose, but then I found a real steal, and, bolstered by four people who clearly weren’t going to let me out of there without a bike anyway, I walked out with a ride I really like, a new pair of shoes, pedals, and cleats, all for a nice price.
Carli and I left the boys for a ride while we drove Lily into the neighboring towns, hoping to get her to sleep, and then we went back to camp for lunch and then geared up for our own ride.
Colin, Chris, and Jim returned with predictable shit-eating grins again, and we suited up, left Sprocket and Lily with Colin, and proceeded on our own ride.
It was a sheer joy being back on the bike again. There’s nothing really unrideable, even for me, about the trails at Kingdom Trails, and I’m hoping that we’ll go again before the season’s out. I executed one stunning crash on a run that involved some banked berms and chose to peg-leg my way down the rest of the trail, but that’s OK–I’ll get better as time goes on.
The rest of the afternoon’s kind of a blur. Our time on the trails went by in a ridiculous flash, all woods, leaves, laughing, and Carli taking out a small defenseless tree, and then we headed off to dinner in a neighboring town and back to the campsite, where the fire lit successfully and we chatted into the night.
It was a terrific trip. There is something really cool about getting together with people you don’t really know, making that leap into friendship, committing yourself fully to an experiment, only to find a good match all around. Lots of laughs and automatic inside jokes, things that can’t be posted here because they won’t make sense to anyone else.
For Jim, I think it was an extra-sweet trip. We know only a select number of people who can keep up with him on a mountain bike, and while he always enjoys riding with me or our mutual friends, it’s not the same as actively pushing your partners–and being pushed–while still having a great time. Onward and forward, to the next Fat Tire Narnia.

Great beer: Switchback, Trout River, Magic Hat, Flying Dog, Dogfishhead

Great food: Poutine! Poutine! Poutine!!! Powerfood on a plate!!

P.S. Congratulations to Laini Taylor, whose book Lips Touch is a National Book Award finalist.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.