Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Startup

The Daily Life Text

December 22 Startup. Whbat’s a business that you found this year that you love? Who thought it up? What makes it special?

Hands-down, easy-peasy question: Braithwaite Wallets. This is a company that makes wallets like no other, and that’s nice, but it’s nothing compared to what followed after I bought their wallet: After I made an investment in their good, they made an investment, too–in me.

They made a big donation to ShelterBox for my Ironman efforts, and followed up by posting about ShelterBox and telling all of their customer base how proud they were to have me as a customer.

Connor Fertser , Braithwaite’s founder and a designer, designed the wallet that I bought, the Vagabond. It’s an incredible piece of work and has served me well, and although I was thrilled when I got it in the mail, I was to find out even more amazing things as my relationship with Braithwaite went on.

First, those of us who were first-generation adopters of their wallets walk around knowing our wallets are backed a lifetime guarantee. That guarantee covers loss and theft. This guarantee was created because Connor’s brother-in-law had his wallet stolen, and Connor couldn’t stand the bereft look Steve gave him when he had to tell Connor he’d lost a prototype to a Braithwaite wallet.

Second, when the production of the wallets hit a snag, Connor let us know about it in the Braithwaite blog. He encouraged us to ask questions, and promised total transparency. This is a word that’s bandied about a lot in bigger companies and rarely taken for its true meaning. Connor used this method because he couldn’t stand the idea of keeping us, his first customers, in the dark when things went awry, even if it only meant a few weeks’ difference in delivery.

Third, when I ordered the wallet I got immediate confirmation by e-mail and then a really nice letter in the mail telling me which number wallet I’d received and how proud Connor was to have me as his customer.

Fourth and finally, the packaging of the thing was gorgeous. It came in a serious black linen box, numbered and signed, and lined in black tissue paper. I went a little weak at the knees when I opened mine.

I’m away and don’t have access to the box to shoot photos, but I wish I did. And yes, yes, I’m aware that the whole “best packaging” thing happened a few days ago. Sorry.

Anyway. Go buy a wallet from Braithwaite. You won’t be sorry, either at the heart that Connor has put into his company or his work, and you won’t regret feeling like a rockstar just because you ordered a wallet.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Word or phrase

The Daily Life Text

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.”

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.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Tea

The Daily Life Text

Yes, yes, I’m late again. But some of these things don’t strike me. I don’t have any idea how I should categorize 2009 in a word, although I think I’m beginning to get a feel for the word that would be most appropriate, given the fact that I have fifteen minutes to write this before my next meeting: hectic!

Anyway, more on that later.

My tea for the year is one that I drag out for all special occasions. It’s called Montana Gold, from the Montana Tea and Spice Company.

goldbagI first discovered it sometime in the mid- to late-90s, when I was pondering a move to Bozeman, Montana. Look! Isn’t it pretty?

mt_bozeman04I mean, I literally was going to up and move from my little apartment in Astoria, New York, to a beautiful little pad smack in the middle of town. I went to visit for a week, and loved it. It was where various writer friends from my tenure at Audubon magazine lived, and they were all awesome people and very good to me. I was about to cut ties. I was about to embark on an exciting career as a mountain girl, living in the shadow of the Bridger Mountains, skiing every day of the season and writing about outdoors stuff until it came out of my ears. Maybe I’d learn to telemark! Maybe I’d finally be cool!

Over my week or so in Bozeman, I got very, very drunk with some select people, had a blast, and, when I’d come back to New York after signing the lease for my new Bozeman apartment in the old post office, sat up bolt upright one night and knew that that was not the life for me, at least not yet.

Thing is, I wasn’t that good of a skier, and I was not so enamoured with writing for the outdoors world that I could–or knew how to–make it my career. And, I found myself saying, an awful lot, when interviewing awesome people doing awesome things, “Man, I’d like to try that, instead of writing about it.” Some people are awesome enough to do the double duty, but I was not capable.

But that doesn’t mean that some parts of Bozeman did not worm their ways into my heart. The mountains have imprinted themselves on me. I continue to find wilderness where I can. I aspire, at some point still, to lead the mountain lifestyle, in a little mountain town. And I continue to drink this tea, which I found at the Leaf and Bean in Bozeman, pictured here:

leafnbeanThe tea gets dragged out whenever I am feeling blue. It is a mix of rooibos, cinnamon bark, orange peel, and some other magical stuff, like hope, freedom, and spice. It comes out when a good friend is over and I can foresee a long afternoon chat. It comes out when someone is in need of comfort, or when someone looks particularly joyful and in a mood to celebrate, and usually when I care about someone enough to impress them with something wonderful.


I guess it’s not the best tea of 2009. It’s kind of the best tea I’ve ever had.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Place

The Daily Life Text

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.

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Album

The Daily Life Text

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

Gwen Bell’s Best of 2009: Challenge

The Daily Life Text

So Gwen Bell is doing this project, okay? It’s not really about getting people to read your stuff, it’s more an opportunity to reflect on all of the things that have happened over the course of 2009.

We already know that I’ve been terrible about blogging this year–yes, yes, let’s face it–and that’s largely because a lot has happened. So I’m going to take up Gwen on her December project. I’m late (they started December 1), but I think this will be good for me. Perhaps I’ll fill in days 1-8 as bonuses later.

In the meantime, although it’s December 10th, I’m starting with her December 9th question: What was your greatest challenge of the year?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Was it Ironman? Was it moving? Was it ShelterBox, or the only really honest novel I’ve written of the four currently gathering dust on my desk and in my hard drive? I have been turning all of these things over in my head, and the winner is ShelterBox.

But you know, it wasn’t the extensive interview and training process, or the fact that I think training for the physicality of the thing was worse than Ironman training; or even that I’m finally a part of the disaster-relief community at large, that makes this stand out. It was more the fact that I learned to trust myself.

Something I haven’t really spoken about when I talk about ShelterBox is that when our teams hit the ground, we’re autonomous. We make the decisions; we tell HQ to send more boxes or keep them back; we deal with whatever problems arise. Obviously, this mean you need to carry around a certain amount of trust in your own decisions and actions.

This is not something I am good at. I mean, I know I’ve done good things and made good decisions; it’s just that, much of the time, I do the thing first and then spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over it, rather than just saying, “Right, okay, you did the thing, so just shut up and carry on.” I don’t know what excuse to offer for this lame, hunted-rabbit-like behavior, but then again, the time is long gone for excuses.

some days i feel like this. sheepish AND nervous in a rabbity way.
some days i feel like this. sheepish AND nervous in a rabbity way.

I don’t know how ShelterBox HQ eventually saw through the fluff, crap, and mutterings I go through while I’m reaching the right decisions, but they did. More embarrassing still is the fact that I *knew* when I was in a place where I didn’t feel secure. At those moments, I was loudest, most strident, uber-aggressive. Awful, and not the way I want to live my life.

The whole experience has taught me an invaluable lesson: If you waste time faffing about with should-I-shouldn’t-Is, well, you’re not only wasting time, but energy, too, and I need all of that I can get. Also, that you are your own worst betrayer: even if you think you’re exuding confidence, if you’re feeling insecure, it will show. This isn’t pleasant for anyone, and it’s absolutely awful to recollect.

It’s hard to learn to trust yourself. Sometimes it takes nine days in the woods with angry British people screaming at you to pack up your kit before the tsunami hits to help you figure it out. But it’s worth it in the end.

Shelterbox SRT Training 113
My graduating class, and the day I learned not to bark at people.

Oh, look. It’s the end of the tunnel.

The Daily Life Text

Well, it’s the end of one tunnel, anyway. I believe I am finally fed up with being inactive.

What happened? This:


I mean that quite literally. Over the course of the day yesterday, I ate an entire pizza. I mean that I had a slice of cold pizza for breakfast, two slices for lunch, two slices for dinner–and I think I must have padded the rest of the day–and my waistline–with it.

It was a bizarre, other-worldly experience. I’ve never done such a thing before. I think I might refer to it as a milestone from now on. I’m not sure what I was trying to prove. Suffice it to say that after I had polished off the last piece, at around 9PM last night, I felt quite ill and realized, with some horror, that exactly yesterday a year ago–and about that same time, 6PM PST, I was toasting my first-ever marathon with a well deserved glass of pinot grigio. Sigh.

dv14I mean, crikey! Look at how happy I am! And healthy! Here’s another one, just for nostalgia’s sake:

deathvalleyLookit me, with my dorky little running belt and my loping gait!

Now, I’m not implying that I’ve grown an extra chin, or extra hips (or maybe I have; some photographic evidence speaks to the contrary), but I must confess that it has been an extraordinary experience to see just how little I’ve done since July. It *is* fascinating, however, that I didn’t really miss the activity. I seemed to be perfectly, shockingly happy to Loaf.

Until yesterday, the Day of Galloping-Galooting Gluttony. And then I realized what I miss the most about training. I miss being healthy. I miss knowing that I *can*. Can what? It doesn’t matter. Here follows a short list of things I could do when I was training.

  • Eat whatever
  • Drink, without considering totally useless calories
  • Sleep well, and all through the night
  • Swim two hours at a time
  • Run a half-marathon every weekend
  • Ride 40 miles at the drop of a hat
  • Manage my time better

Heck, back then, I could eat a whole pizza and not take another second to think about what it was doing to my health. ‘Cos back then, then answer was nothing. If I wasn’t eating the pizza to make up for energy burnt during that day’s workout, I was fueling up for the following day’s workout. I hadn’t thought of my activity as adding so much to my life. I only had previously thought of it taking time away. The truth is, I became much more efficient, all the way around, when my time was limited. I was happier. I miss that.

And so, without making too much of a fuss about it, I believe I will go back to being happier, thank you very much.

By the way, here’s a photo of Dan, Audrey, me, Jim, Flat Stanlina, and Sprocket in front of Dan’s Christmas tree. I like to think of it as our alternate family photograph. And…wait a minute. Is that a double-chin I see, hiding behind Flat Stanlina? …



The Daily Life Text

My goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.

You’ll excuse my absence, please…I’ve been holed up, working on my project for National Novel Writing Month. It’s over now, though, and I should really stop neglecting this ‘blog. A lot has happened, and since I’m not really very good about keeping a written journal any more, I must confess to feeling a little bit scared that if I don’t jot something down on these digital pages, one day I’ll wake up and realize that whole chunks of life are missing from my memory. Yikes!

But that won’t happen with November, because really, all I did was write.

The NaNoWriMo experience is fascinating. I learned a lot of things about myself. First and foremost, perhaps, that I write very quickly. This is mostly because I’m very good at letting myself ramble. So maybe it’s not really that I’m a speedy writer; it’s that I generate a lot of text in a short period of time because I’m turning things over in my head, and that translates directly into words on the page. (I have absolutely no doubt that the current 50,000 words I have down now will gradually be whittled down into something not even half the size.)

Second, I learned that I really do love to write.

Third, I learned that I also like the process of a verbal dump first, and then whittling down second. I don’t think this is any real surprise; after all, this is my second time with NaNoWriMo, with much the same results. Also, this is, if I think back to my editing life, the way it’s always been with me.

So there’s another year over. I am deeply grateful to the NaNoWriMo process; I’d informed my critique group that I was going to have a revision of my latest book to them by the first of November, and, after two months or so of doing nothing but working with existing text, it was a sheer pleasure to spend a whole month indulging in logorrhea.

Okay, who’m I kidding? I have been doing other things since since last I saw y’all–I went to a TweetUp at a lovely winebar in Mt. Kisco and met a bunch of great people that might lead to more freelance relationships. I’ve got a new freelance gig that looks like it might be long-term, writing copy for an awesome company. (Yes, that’s my copy you see on the front page.) And there are other things going on. But not exercise, sadly. This time last year, I ran a marathon! (Today is the annual Death Valley marathon, at which I had fully planned to be this time last year. Oh, the best-laid plans…)

I’m still completing my applications to a few MFA programs, but I’m looking forward to several more freelance projects between now and then. I guess, the thing is, although I’ve really enjoyed this freelance lifestyle for the past umpteen years, it’s time to step up my game, either with more challenging, enjoyable freelance projects (I count the work for in that category) or with publication of one of the four manuscripts I have lying around.

Perhaps this is all just year-end ruminating, but I feel like I’m approaching a period of great activity. I’m visiting my friend Jody in her new home in North Carolina in a week; I’ve got several freelance projects immediately on deck that I need to take care of; and the completion of those applications will be the crowning point, I think, of that activity. The Christmas holidays will be here in no time flat and I want to go into them–and come out of them–feeling refreshed, happy, and satisfied.

And no, I’m not thinking about any revisions for my most complete novel to date, even if I’m sitting on top of a bunch of great feedback from my critique group. That is, not until Monday, anyway.

Here are some photos from the three weeks I’ve been away from TheGoodDirt.

parkHere’s the park across the street from us. Sprocket and I poach it every morning. We like it there, although it’s only a 1/3rd mile loop around.

ciprianiHere’s Jen, Anna and me at Cipriani Dolci, where this happened to me, but where, nevertheless, I had a terrific time with my friends.

mejimgrandmasHere are me and Jim and an errant biplane on the shores of Lake Michigan by Grandma’s house in Sheboygan the day after Thanksgiving. I love her house. She’s been living on the same plot of land for all of her 84 years. Pretty cool.

dantreeWe helped Dan shop for a tree after Thanksgiving. It was so nice to see him, even if he was terrifically jet-lagged from his time in Hawaii. Rough life, I say.

bunnyearsOur amazing friends Lisa and Ron hosted a dinner party for us. Lovely! They made pasta that impressed the Italian at the table, and we played a rollicking game of dominoes. (Really? Did I just say that? Yes.) A mis-communication between the photographer (me) and the photographees (them) resulted in the above ridiculous photo.

And now, onto a continuation of my own rough life: Reading, writing, not exercising. Sigh.