Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wildlife in the City

I'm always interested to see wildlife in the city. How do these animals adapt? Some (like the squirrels around my son's college campus) seem to thrive on pizza crusts and half eaten junk food thrown in trash cans. Others seem lost in a tiny space taken over by urban sprawl. We live in an urban neighborhood, the houses are close together and there's a fair amount of traffic on our street. But there is a bit of green space behind the house. Our tiny back yard butts up against a ravine known around town as "the hollow." A weedy, steeply sloped hole basically, too deep and swampy to develop. I am so grateful for this ravine.

Sometimes I've seen a family of deer down there. I wonder about the city deer and how their life differs from their country cousins. Do they have enough land to roam? Enough food to eat? Is their food source different? I think about the tranquil peaceful woods, and wonder if these city deer mind the noise of the city.

I've seen wild turkey down there too. Once in a while a bunny. I heard something once that sounded like a bear, but I never got any firm proof of this.

I recently read about a fascinating organization that offers an educational experience observing wildlife in NYC. Earthwatch Institute's mission is to engage people worldwide "in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment." Cool! They offer experiences around the world. In the U.S., expeditions include studying seals in Alaska, terrapins in Pennsylvania's salt marshes, and wild horses on an island off North Carolina. The New York City expedition offers 9 days exploring the greater metropolitan area. According to the website, you will study "a range of wildlife species and the quality of their varied habitats. Depending on the time of year, you may track and camera-trap mammals, catch frogs and salamanders in nets or pitfall traps, identify birds, or survey native and invasive plant species. "

Of course, around home, I mainly see a few varieties of birds: pigeons, crows, warblers, finches. Sometimes I toss breadcrumbs outside. Who usually retrieves them? My friendly squirrel. That's okay, I love watching the squirrels. Some may disagree, but I think squirrels are the best city wildlife! They always look like they're having fun. They love to tease Kelly, taunting her from the ground and then easily darting up a tree when she runs after them.

Paws for Reflection: Learning about wildlife in my area can help me understand how my actions affects them.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Top Dog: Hudson

I often write about our Yellow Lab, Hudson. Here he is when he was a puppy. He was such a sleepy, mellow pup for about the first three weeks we got him. Then--look out!

Why we chose a Lab: We researched breeds and thought a lab would fit our family. Labs are known to be active, good with children and devoted. Somehow, we also got an image of a calm, gentle lab stretched out in front of the fireplace. That was never Hudson's personality. Plus, we don't have a fireplace.

Hudson's favorite toy: The Daily Growl--a plastic squeaky rolled up newspaper.

Favorite activity: Swimming. Whenever we took him to the lake, he could barely wait to get out in the water. He didn't mind icy cold water, and was a strong swimmer. Even though he adored being out in the water, he always turned around and swam back the instant we called him. For a retriever, he never seemed to bother about the ducks that shared the lake.

Food treat: Pizza crust

Trick: Uh....I guess you could call this a trick. When I said "Get your toy!" he would run to the toy box and grab something to play with. That's all I've got.

Why we loved him: He always rested his head on my husband's feet. If my husband wasn't home, he'd sleep on his shoes. He was sooooo devoted and when he got sick, he was so brave. He endured pain stoically. Hudson was a wonderful member of our family for 12 years.

Paws for Reflection: Some little puppy may grow up to be that one special Top Dog in your life.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

That Big Word: Verisimilitude

When writing personal experience stories, or ghostwriting someone else's story, the question of truthfulness frequently crops up. Composite characters, creative license, stretching details to make a point; it's all prickly. No reputable writer will deny that truthfulness and accuracy is utmost on their mind. We all remember James Frey. Yet we've also been taught about verisimilitude and the idea of telling a true story in a writerly fashion to best convey emotion and meaning. If we want readers, our work must be compelling. Some may wonder where to draw the line. And when you're reading, how can you know what to trust?

(Although referring to the movie and not the book) I found John Grogan's recent blog entry regarding the movie Marley & Me, quite interesting:

John Grogan's Blog: "The movie is not quite my book and not quite our real lives, and I think moviegoers, at least those who have also read or will read my books, understand that. It's a fictionalized movie inspired by my book, not a documentary. The director and screenwriters took liberties, invented characters and scenes and fudged some facts to make the story work for screen. I'm fine with that, especially because I have my books as a public record of the real story."

He adds that movie director David Frankel did a wonderful job that "captures the emotional truths of my family's experience."

I agree, in a movie, we might come to expect that the events are "based on fact." I recently read an article on the movie "Twenty-one" and the far-from-fact portrayal of many of the details and people in that movie. In non-fiction books, however, I think the reader is expecting more than just the essence of the truth. It's not always easy to convey the facts in the most interesting fashion when you have to stick to the truth. More than once I've interviewed a narrator, hoping for a certain answer that would fit perfectly in the story I'm writing. And when the narrator's answer is not what I hope for, it's disappointing. The trick is to craft something interesting and exciting around that true answer. When we've succeeded at that, the outcome is an article we can feel confident is both factual and entertaining.

Paws for Reflection: I'll just say that, although I write mainly non-fiction, this is one reason I enjoy writing fiction pieces, too!

P.S. Speaking of Marley and Me, I also enjoyed reading that Cesar Milan from National Geographic Channel's The Dog Whisperer has been working with Grogan and his family, and their new labs Gracie and Woodson. Yay!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cabin Fever

In Vermont, we used to talk about Cabin Fever this time of year. It was a time when we got so snowbound and stuck in the house for so long, we were nearly crazy from isolation. I don't hear the phrase used much here in New York. However, I know I'm sick of the snow and cold weather.

Here are some ways to get through the dreaded cabin fever:
1. Embrace the outdoors! Take up a sport like snowshoeing or cross country skiing. If you can't beat the weather, join it! If your dog's a cold weather breed, don't forget to take him along.

2. Organize a game night. Invite a few friends over, sit by the fireplace (if you have one. We don't, and I always wanted one.) and get ready for the night to whizz by! Some of our favorites are Scattergories, Catch Phrase, Dominoes, and Canasta. What games do you enjoy?

3. Curl up with a great book. 'Nuff said.

4. Bring in some pretty blooms, like the flowers pictures above. Nothing will get your thoughts turning to spring faster than a fresh bouquet. Pick bright, cheerful colors and breath in that wonderful scent.

How do you get through the winter doldrums?

Paws for Reflection: Love the season you're in.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Living with Less

How are you doing on those New Year's resolutions? Any of them gone by the wayside yet? It's pretty easy to start off strong, and then lose steam about now. I can't say I've done real well myself. I need to lose another 10-15 lbs this year. So far, the scales haven't budged an ounce. I want to commit to taking Kelly out for a walk every day, even in the winter, but the sub-zero temperatures lately have put an end to that for both of us. She just runs out in the yard for a minute then begs to come back in. Today it's up to a toasty nine degrees.

But there are ways to make sure our resolutions become habits. If you haven't read Leo Babauta's fantastic blog yet, make sure you take a look. Zen Habits covers "achieving goals, productivity, being organized, GTD, motivation, eliminating debt, saving, getting a flat stomach, eating healthy, simplifying, living frugal, parenting, happiness, and successfully implementing good habits." Who couldn't use that in their life? The only thing it seems to be missing is dogs.

My daughter Kate introduced me to this blog, and while she's not what I would typically consider Zen-y, she's one of the most motivated, organized and together people I know. So Leo's advice must be working, right?

The best part of Leo's Zen-like advice centers on the Power of Less. This is where you learn how to do less and get more done. For the new year, he suggests making new habits instead of making resolutions. And, he tells you how to get that done! He also teaches us how to manage email so that we don't end up wasting countless hours of productive work time reading and writing emails. I'm guilty of that! It is pleasurable. But, where did the day go? Perhaps Leo's New Year's Challenge will start you on the right path. See what you think.

I've decided that my first goal is to drink more water. I'm focusing on this for the entire month of January. More specifically, after every can of Diet Coke, I'm going to drink a bottle of water before I can earn the next soda. I love Diet Coke. But too much of anything is probably not a good thing. So far, it's going pretty well. The Power of Less. Less soda. Must be a good thing.

Paws for Reflection: Is there something you can simplify in your life today?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Best Friends

Does your dog have a best friend? I always wondered if a dog is happiest with other dogs. We used to have two dogs; our Yellow Lab, Hudson, and Kelly. They didn't really play together much, but Kelly did love to lick his ears and his eyes. (yuck!). Sometimes I worry about having an "only dog." But Kelly doesn't really play well with others. Since I am home all day, I guess I am her best friend. I've heard of dogs who are best friends with cats, rabbits, even deer. I just had to share with you this report from CBS Assignment America about an unlikely friendship.

Paws for Reflection: Have you hugged your best friend today?

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Other Side of the Fence

Several days ago I noticed Kelly licking the top of her paw. I didn't think much of it at first, dogs do tend to lick after all. But as she continued, I tried to get a look to see what was wrong. No easy task because she is so furry. She definitely had an injury of some sort there. It was red all around the division between two of the toes. She kept skillfully pulling her foot away and tucking it under her body, so it was hard to get a good look.

The next day I soaked the paw in a bowl of warm water. I tried dabbing on some vet-approved antibiotic cream. Kelly wasn't limping, the foot wasn't swollen, but after a few days, I didn't feel confident that I knew what was wrong, or was treating it properly. So I prepared myself for the hefty bill and carted her off to the veterinarian's. There, the doctor shaved the fur off Kelly's paw to get a better look, and what she found was two puncture wounds, indicating a bite. She gave Kelly a rabies booster, some antibiotics, and told me to continue with the cream.

But here's the thing: Kelly never runs loose, we live in the city, and our house is separated from the neighbor's by a tall stockade fence. So what bit her?
A squirrel? maybe. A cat? perhaps.

But then I remembered a spat Kelly had with the neighbor's dog. I heard barking and growling, opened the back door and called Kelly in. I didn't see the neighbor dog, or any other animal in our small yard. And I didn't think much of it, since there was a 5 foot tall stockade fence between the two! But after investigating, there is one section of the fence, about half way up, that could be pushed apart just a bit...maybe enough for a paw and a jaw to meet. Kelly would have had to be up on her hind legs, at just the right angle, but it is possible. So that may solve the mystery of the bite on the paw.

The good news is, Kelly is fine. The vet bill was just as hefty as I'd feared. We'd recently decided to forgo a great sale on a Planet Fitness membership in order to save money. Kelly's medical bill cost almost as much as one year at the fitness club! Not that I would do it any other way, but it kind of stings to have made that decision to save the money, and then it all disappears days later in the blink of an eye.

Paws for Reflection: Sometimes it's best to stay on your own side of the fence.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Want to be a Writer?

I've receive many emails from thoughtful Guideposts readers, commenting on my stories and asking how they, too can get started as a writer. One piece of advice I always give is to study books, magazines and blogs on the craft. One such blog, Patricia Punt's Dialogue is "a place for writers to share ideas, news, tips, markets and more." Patricia is a writing coach and teacher who truly has a heart to help and to inspire her students. (She also loves dogs!) Patricia asked me to answer some questions from her readers, and you will find the questions and responses on her blog all this week.
Please visit her blog regularly! You'll be glad you did!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Little Love Up On the Shelf

When I was a little girl, I had a collection of seashells. I lived in a city in Vermont. I'd only been to the ocean, Cape Cod, once. My grandmother lived in Florida, and occasionally she'd send me shells she picked up off the beach. I didn't have a huge connection to the sea, but for whatever reason, those shells were my treasures. And guess what? I still have some of them in a shoebox in my closet. I really should put them out somewhere.

I'd like to be a collector, but I don't really have the space. But I do love to decorate (wherever I can find the space) with special objects, things that are personal and meaningful. For Christmas this year, my husband and I received two beautiful dog statues created by the artist Jim Shore. One, a yellow retriever with a folksy quilted pattern that represents our old dog, Hudson. The other is a terrier type dog, as close as you can get to our mixed-breed Kelly. We cleared off a space on top of a bookshelf to display the dogs, and then added a third dog, a dalmatian to represent Schuyler, our first dog. We really enjoy seeing these statues up on the shelf and reminding us of the dogs in our life.

Do you have a special collection? Something to represent your love of dogs, or otherwise? I'd love to hear!

Paws for Reflection: Beautify your work space with a collection of something that makes you feel good. It may be photographs of family, seashells from a trip to the beach, or notes written by your children.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Marley & Me and me

Although I'd read the book--twice, read the reviews which basically panned the movie, scanned the negative blogs and heard from people who couldn't even bring themselves to see the movie because they couldn't stand the idea of watching a badly behaved dog with clueless owners, I still had to go see Marley & Me.

It wasn't because I loved the book. The first time I read it, I thought it was okay, even a bit boring. What was all the fuss? About a year later, I read it again, this time with more interest. I liked the story better the second time, and appreciated Grogan's fine-tuned writing style and humor.

But, my husband and I had to go to the movie because we owned a Yellow Lab, Hudson, who passed away two years ago. And I guess I was hoping that seeing that big oaf of a dog on the big screen would connect with me, would somehow ease the hurt that still lingers after all these years, from losing a dog we loved.

Hudson was not as naughty as Marley, but he was rambunctious, difficult to train, hardheaded and slightly dense at times. He loved to swim, even in the chill of October weather, and although he was a retriever, he was always oblivious to the ducks paddling by. Toward the end, he found it difficult to walk, or get up, or get down. His favorite place to sleep was on my husband's feet, or if my husband wasn't home, Hudson rested his head on Mike's empty shoes.

The movie Marley & Me, unfortunately, did not live up to my hopes, which were very meager to begin with. The puppy Marley was cute, but somehow I never felt the movie gave us a connection with him, at any age. Even the canine actors looked completely different to me. I don't mean the differences from puppy Marley to adult Marley--but even the different scenes of the same age Marley seemed to be played by totally different looking dogs. Although I like Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, they didn't seem to do much besides yell "No Marley" sometimes with a bemused look on their face, and run back and forth across the screen as Marley knocked over lamps/babies/furniture/pedestrians/bistro tables or ate diapers/necklaces/walls.

Slight spoiler alert: if you haven't read the book or seen the movie--and still plan to--don't read this paragraph. I have to admit, there were a few scenes where Mike and I couldn't hold back the tears. But it was not due to the movie plot, which did attempt to jerk every tear out of you it could in one prolonged scene, but because we were thinking about our Hudson. The big, old, yellow dog and, well you know...

Paws for Reflection: We all cried at Old Yeller, too. Right?