Monday, March 30, 2015

Inspiration Monday: A Home by Any Other Name...

This is my neighborhood in early spring:

Taken just a few days earlier, this is a client's neighborhood in early spring:

Here's what you have to know: my client loves her neighborhood just as fiercely as I love mine. More. She loves it without lakes and ducks and communal flower beds. She loves it without a homeowner's association, without a patio set, without any strings at all attached.

If you're expecting me to tell you she loves it because she has known homelessness and she's grateful enough to love anything anywhere, you're wrong. The truth is, she begged for this apartment, this very one surrounded by the barbed wire wall and the crumbled pavement. Her unit is nice, but that isn't why she chose it over the one with the big kitchen, or the one beside the restaurant, or the freshly remodeled one with the comfortable balcony. She chose it because it was where she felt the most at home, and there's nobody walking the earth who can tell her differently. Maybe that's a clue that no one should. This is the place she feels the safest, the most accepted, and the most herself. She picked out this place because she wasn't just looking for a place to house her, she wanted a place that would be her home. Her home. Not mine, not for anyone else with their well-meaning raised eyebrows. Hers.

There are a lot of ways to define "home," and a great many of them have nothing to do with houses. A person could find a home of sorts in the people one cares about, the work we spend our time and energy devoted to, and in the little things we do that makes us who we are.

For me, wherever I am, I can feel utterly content if I can find enough peace and time to pull out one of my ever-present notebooks and a beloved pen to scratch out a few words that will either become something artful...or not. It sews my mind to my body, and keeps my feet on the ground. I love playing music, and know my instrument as intimately as my own limbs. No matter how long I let it lie fallow, playing it always feels like I have just thrown open the door to a place I've always known. I'm at home wherever Husband is, because the deepest, most neurotic parts of me settle down and purr when he's near. I love all that he is and I know as long as I can find him in the dark, I will never be lost. The point is not in where I am, but in who I get to be: freely, safely, happily myself.

What is your home like, both the one you live in and the one that lives in you?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Staples Sustainable Earth Spiral Notebook

Anyone who writes a great deal (especially with fountain pens) is usually on the lookout for a good value on paper. There are a few good options out there, especially if you're willing to dive into a vat of Norcom Composition Notebooks and pull out all the good ones, but that's another post. The Staples Sustainable Earth notebook is a good place to start.

Sustainable Earth by Staples isn't your mama's recycled paper. The paper is made from recycled sugarcane called "bagasse," which is the by-product of sugar production and a highly renewable resource. That means my notebook has as much in common with a cupcake as a tree, and that's pretty cool.

So the paper makes mother-earth happy, and me too. How about my pens? Yes. Yes, they're happy. Even now.

You see, Sustainable Earth paper has gone through an identity crisis in the last few years. When it was originally launched, it had slightly different branding. More importantly, it had slightly different paper. I heard over and over from other fountain pen users that this paper was incredible (and cheap!), so I had to have some. There was only one problem: there was no Staples in my area. Not even close.

I eventually dropped by one while traveling and got that kid in a candy store feeling. There were options. Large or small spiral notebooks, composition books, several cover designs. The covers were heavy and durable, and the spiral substantial and strong. There was even a kraft paper two-pocket folder on the front page.  I wish I would have filled my arms with them and bought all I could carry. Instead, since this paper was as of yet untested, I bought only a single letter-size one-subject notebook.

The paper in that notebook was incredible. It was very thin paper, but had an hard finish on it. The paper was smooth, but the finish on the pages gave it an almost "cockle" effect, like old-school onion skin paper. Every line I drew was crisp and vibrant and there was zero bleedthrough with anything I threw at it. As much as I wanted to gobble up that notebook with my daily writing, I decided to conserve it. I cut up a few pages to make cahier-style handbound notebooks to hold me off until I could get back to a Staples to buy more.

That took longer than I hoped, and by the time I got my hands on another one, the changes had begun. They looked the same, had the same quality cover, spiral, and kraft-paper pocket, but there were a couple of distinctions. First, the price had gone up, double. It had been so inexpensive before, it wasn't too much a price jump for the quality of the paper, so I bought two small spirals this time. One for me, one for Husband.

We could tell right away it was different. The paper no longer had that hard finish. It was still thin, but not "crispy" like before. When we tried them, our fears were confirmed. Not only was the paper different, it was inconsistent. We had grabbed our two notebooks at random, but I came out the lucky one. The paper in mine was noticeably softer and more absorbent, but it was still very good. Husband's was not so good. His notebook feathered and bled like a sieve. It also had a distinctly fibrous look to the paper grain that wasn't present in mine. We also noted that the ruling lines on mine were much crisper than his, which were feathery and bloated.

By the time I filled that good little spiral, we had gotten a Staples in our area. That left me free to paw through their inventory for the good ones. The good news is that I hit on more good than bad. The trick I used was to look for the notebooks with the crispest printed lines. For the most part, I've been happy with my findings, and I stocked up. It's a good thing I did because we didn't have our Staples long before they decided to move out of our market and closed them up.

I still long for the older formulation, but that's because I'm spoiled. If I had never found that original notebook and got the newer kind, I would have been completely over the moon at its performance for the price. It's not perfect, but it's darn good.I've filled a couple of these, and they get the job done without too much fuss. Paper this thin inevitably has a lot of showthrough, but I haven't seen much feathering or bleeding with any of my pens. It actually behaves better than some much more expensive papers (I'm looking at you, Moleskine). The covers and spirals have proven to be just as durable as they look. I haven't had the problem I hate second-most with spiral notebook: the dread crimped spiral of doom, scourge of page turns everywhere. (The problem I hate first-most is that left-handers end up with spiral embedded in our arms when we try to write on the front side of the paper. Turning the notebook and being an underwriter helps.)


So what now? Should you buy one of these?

As of this writing, the smaller size spiral (9 1/2 x 6) retails for $4.49 each, and the larger letter size goes for $7.39. The composition notebook goes for $5.29. Those prices are getting pretty high when you can get Rhodia pads for around that. The redeeming factor for me is that it is a sustainable/recycled product that is constructed durably and, I think, attractively.

If I still had a Staples store near me, I would probably sift through their stock every so often, but in my case, I would just be chasing a memory.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Inspiration Monday: The Last Night

As I passed by on my nightly walk, he stood in front of his house and leaned on his cane. His thick white hair and beard made him easy to see in the anemic light of the streetlamp. He waved like always. I paused my music as I waved back, just in case he decided to speak. He didn't always, but when he did, he liked to talk for a long time.

I met him about a year ago. I had been on a walk then, too. The neighborhood geese had lined up in the street in front of his house, blocking my path like an army battalion. He had ambled over beside me, shaking his head at them. I paused my music and we chatted while watching the teenage geese waddle stubbornly behind their parents. He didn't mind the geese, he said, as long as they stayed out of his yard. They scared his squirrels away when they came on his property, and that was a problem.

He told me about the squirrels, how he liked to sit on his back porch and watch them run in his trees, fueled up from his feeders. They never chewed on his roof like they did mine. He said it was because he gave them a home of their own and made sure they always had enough to eat. They respected him, he said. They communicated.

Partly because I was simply too shy to end the conversation, partly because I could see how lonely he was, and partly because he was simply a kind, interesting person, I stood there and stood there while he talked. He told me about his good wife who had died and left him alone a few years back. When it happened, he hadn't known how to cook or where the checkbook was. She was the best part of him, he said, and that was harder to find again than the checkbook. He told me about his son who was smart and stubborn and didn't come around anymore. He smiled and told me about his youngest daughter who used to live close and was his rock, but she had her own family now and left him missing her more often than not. He had Sally though, his little rat terrier who had slept between him and his wife, and who never chased his friendly squirrels.

We never had a conversation quite like that again, though he never failed to wave to me on my walks. I always waved back and paused my music, just in case. Sometimes he would chit-chat about the goings on of the neighborhood, but my restless feet kept me from standing there like the first time. Still, I kept my eye out for when his daughter's SUV would show up in his driveway and I'd smile, knowing he was enjoying her visit. I would sometimes pet Sally as she ran around in the yard, never setting more than a foot in the road. I grinned when I saw squirrels scurrying through his trees and hoped the geese wouldn't bother them. That was it, though. Waves, smiles, and a few kind thoughts to interrupt my own worries.

Last night, while he leaned on his cane under the glow of the streetlight, he waved me over to him. "Come see Sally," he told me. "This is her last night."

We both looked down at the little black and white terrier, and she wagged her tail. He told me about how it was, with her pancreas not working anymore. "She's sick, but she doesn't want me to know it. It's in her eyes, though," he said. "I can tell she knows she's sick by the way she looks at me." He told me she had never suffered a day in her eleven years, except for missing his wife when she died. He told me how they had saved her from going to the pound as a tiny puppy by scrounging up $50 to give a woman who couldn't afford to keep her. "It was meant to be," he said.

The little dog came to my hand and licked my fingertips. I saw what he meant about her eyes, but she wagged her tail anyway. I told him I was so sorry, but it felt hollow. Then I told him about losing Bella, and how I hadn't known her last night was her last. I told him I was glad for the weather, for the both of them. I didn't know what else to say. I still don't know what I should have said.

A car came by and I moved to the other side of the street. I called to him that I would pray for him and I would think of him and Sally the next day. "Come say goodbye to Sally one more time before you go," he said, beckoning me back to his side of the street. "She needs to say goodbye to all her friends." It wasn't until that last sentence that his voice ever cracked.

Bella, my copilot
I didn't expect that. I didn't expect anything when I went out for my walk, except maybe some shin splints and a little bit of a backache at the end of things. The rest of my walk back to my house, I thought about how many nights pass me by that mean so little to me but may change the world for someone else. I thought of Bella again, and how I couldn't decide if it would have been better or worse to know her last night was her last. I thought of my new puppy Ally, waiting at home for me, still recovering from surgery and craving all the comfort I could give her.

That conversation definitely changed my night. It got me thinking about the blessing and curse of a last night, of knowing it. I still don't know if I was given a choice if I would trade the bliss of ignorance for the dread of dawn. I don't want to think about choices like that, but sometimes I may need to. I do know I'm glad I got to say goodbye to sweet Sally on her last night.

My neighbor will be on my mind. I don't know him well, but how well do you have to know someone before you can care about them? He's gone through so many last nights in his life, and I know that someday I will walk by his house and pause my music to wonder where he is. I probably won't know that the last time I wave to him will be the last. Probably neither will he.

If you're ever struggling to figure out what's important, either in your life or your creative endeavors, think about The Last Night. Think about what you (or a character) would do if you knew it, and think about what you would miss if you didn't know it. Think about what piddling worries would leak out your ear, and how much more you would appreciate the simple blessing of a clear night kissed with a warm spring breeze.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tools of the Trade: Moleskine Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Gift Box

I have long said I think Les Miserables is the greatest novel ever written, and The Little Prince is the wisest one. I love so much about Le Petit Prince, from the sweet illustrations to the philosophy tucked into the so-simple-it's-complicated story. I've got multiple copies of the book in several translations, and an untranslated French copy. It even inspired me to respect a snake. Sort of.

My friend Stacey (who is the very, very coolest) shares my love of the book, and knows me well. For Christmas, she gave me this the Moleskine Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Box Set. As if that wasn't enough, she also gave me the Le Petit Prince Moleskine Planner.

Moleskine Le Petit Prince Limited Edition Box Set

I've been a Moleskine user for nearly a decade, and I've sampled pretty widely from their product line. I've seen a few limited edition sets come and go that I thought would be cool to have, but they're pricey and I never pulled the trigger to buy one for myself. When I heard about this one, I didn't even look at the pictures because I knew I would want it, and I didn't expect I'd ever lay hands on it. Well. Stacey proved me wrong on that one, and I'm so glad she did.

The set contains:
  • One photo/keepsake box
  • Three Le Petit Prince postcards
  • One sheet of Le Petit Prince stickers
  • Six ruled Volant notebooks, each with a Le Petit Prince illustration on the front cover, three orange, three Prussian blue
First, the box. It's a nice, big box for photos or other small objects. It is styled like a large Moleskine notebook, with an elastic strap closure. It's a nice package, and I like that it is useful rather than designed to be discarded. The front is engraved with text from the original French Le Petite Prince, but there is no illustration or imagery otherwise beneath the paper label. The interior of the box is designed to cradle the 5 x 8.25 Volants perfectly, and there is a ribbon attached to assist in removing them. Once I have used up the notebooks, I will probably use this box to store ink samples and pen parts. It is certainly much nicer than the shoebox I currently use.


Next, the postcards.  The scenes depicted on the three postcards fit thematically with the the "acts" of the book. I eventually plan to mat and frame mine. The stickers included are nicely colored and include some iconic (and heartbreaking) scenes from the book. I don't know if/how I will end up using them, but they're a nice addition to the set.

Lastly, the notebooks. I've used Moleskine Volants in several sizes over the years, and I enjoy the form-factor. The covers are flexible plastic, and the binding is glued. They're a little more durable feeling than the Moleskine Cahier, which has a thick paper cover, but the plastic makes it feel a little less romantic. They open flat and are consistently constructed across all six. The paper is off-white and ruled with relatively subtle gray lines.

My one gripe with Moleskine has always been their paper consistency. You might get one that has amazing smooth paper that can take the wettest fountain pen and make the ink pop off the page, and then turn around and get another one that feels like writing on the illegitimate child of a grocery bag and a roll of toilet paper. That hasn't been enough to stop me using them because I really like their durability, form-factor, ruling options/styling, and relative availability, but I know a lot of extensive writers who spend a lot of money looking for quality notebooks that no longer touch them. It's not enough to give us a good notebook once in a while. We want to know that when we pay for a premium writing experience, we're going to get one every time.

I've found the Volant from this set I've been using to be on the lower end of the Moleskine quality range. The paper looks great, with a smooth finish and crisp ruling (especially compared to some of the lower-quality Cahiers I've had that looked and felt like sandpaper). I thought I was in for a lucky Moleskine experience, but the ink test page never lies. There are some considerable feathering and bleedthrough issues, especially with wetter/broader fountain pen nibs.It can hold its own with a fine nib and relatively conventional ink, but there is still some spotting and showthrough. If you're a ballpoint or pencil user, you won't have a bit of problem.

Personally, I'm not that bummed about the paper because it's definitely not the worst quality Moleskine I've ever used, and for what I need out of this notebook, it'll do fine. This Volant trucks along with me in my work bag where I tend to hustle in notes with either a Uniball Signo gel pen or (if I'm lucky), my Pilot Metropolitan or Kakuno, both fine nibs and nearly always inked with well-behaved Pilot Iroshizuku Take-sumi. I'm not afraid to write over blots and bleedthrough, and I still adore the cover, the form-factor, the ruling, and the flexibility of the notebook. I'm still not sure what surprises are in store for the other five in the set; this is the only one I've tested, and there's no guarantee the other that came with it will have the same paper quality.

This set was originally released in 2012 and is currently discontinued, but can be found in new condition with a little digging.

Le Petite Prince 2015 Weekly Planner

But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you.”  --Antoine St. Exupery, The Little Prince

This planner was not part of the Gift Box, but is a welcome companion. It seems appropriate to drop in a little review of it as well.

The planner is designed like a standard large Molekine hardcover notebook, and feels much the same to use. The opening section of the planner includes yearly calendars, time zone information, flight destinations, and even a ruler printed on the edge of a page. Some of these things may come in handy to some, but for me, they're more or less filler except for the yearly calendars.

The calendar pages are set up nicely for my purposes, with a week on the left and a note page on the right. It works out that the note page provides guide lines for the following calendar page, allowing me to keep things neat if I'm so inclined. (So far, I am. Check with me again around November.)


I have a separate planner for work--I use a battle-worn Staples Arc with custom pages--so this has become my personal planner. I keep up with band performances, travel plans, visits and activities with friends, bookbinding orders/shipping dates, and blog posts. (Yes, I do try to plan those. No, I don't often succeed. I'm trying!) 

The paper is thin and prone to bleedthrough, but is smooth and pleasant to write on. Again, I'm not too uptight about bleedthrough and have no problems writing right over it.

Maybe moreso than the Le Petit Prince Gift Box Volants, Moleskine really turned on the charm with the theme. Even the label, which I almost crumpled and threw away, has a little Easter egg on the reverse side: The Little Prince's passport.

Instead of the usual Moleskine "If found, return to..." page, they did a special version that made me smile. Here is the one in the Le Petit Prince Volant and the one in the Le Petit Prince planner. 

On the back pocket is printed a passage from the book in English and French. It happens to be one of my favorite quotes, and had it not been printed there, I might have written it in myself. Lovely.

The pocket contains some Le Petit Prince stickers to use however you wish, and in my case a heck of a lot of post-it notes, receipts, and some flags to keep all the planner sections easily accessible.

My biggest fear with this planner is that I will grow attached to it over the year and be sad when it expires. I may have to try my hand at using the cover to rebind a journal or something when the time comes. 

The End

This has got to be the longest review I have ever written, but there are a lot of components to cover! I hope it was helpful, and I hope it might inspire someone to read one of my all-time favorite books. Thanks again to the wonderful Stacey for such a thoughtful, perfect gift, and for remembering, "All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Code White: Everything Stops

Recently, I got the opportunity to co-present a training on homelessness and mental illness for the county Sheriff's Department. As an officer walked myself and my colleague through the maze of our sprawling urban jail, the PA rumbled to life. I could barely understand anything it said, but our guide stuck out her arm in front of us. "Code White," she said. "Everything stops."

And it did. Everyone stopped what they were doing. She listened for a moment, and then went on to tell us the code system for the jail. Code White is a medical or mental health emergency, and only designated staff are authorized to move through the facility until it is lifted. We sat on a bench, and we waited. I had time to look around and notice what I would only have walked quickly by without the Code White. It looked kind of like jail on TV, with cinder-block walls and hard metal benches. There was an unexpected cheerfulness in the reflection on the tile floor. I'm sure I wouldn't have noticed that otherwise. Cheerfulness was not at all what I expected to find there.

We're having another kind of Code White situation in Tennessee right now.

People love to make fun of southerners for freaking out about dustings of snow that would have trouble rivaling sugar on a powdered doughnut, but there are reasons. Reasons! Most of our cities are not prepared to treat the roads and our drivers might be able to handle mud, mountains, and grass, but ice is not exactly in our wheelhouse. Anyway, that said, the snow we've got basically amounts to a Tennessee blizzard. I'd be stopped in my tracks anyway, but since I also have a raging cold, you might say I'm feeling under the weather. *rimshot* (Okay, okay. I don't feel good. I have to amuse myself somehow.)

Snow days (and/or sick days) are good for a lot of things--watching a snow-hating puppy bound back inside the house like her tail is on fire (or like she wishes it was), watching funny TV with Husband (who has the BEST laugh), and getting past the exposition of a book that's been on the TBR pile too long.

These slow-downs and stop signs are also a chance to catch our breath and take a look around and what we've been missing. We can take in our surroundings a little more fully, run through the thoughts we've pushed to the backs of our minds, and hopefully, give a little reflection to whom the Code White may be an emergency.

I've been counting my blessings while I've been sequestered in the house. The last one on the list is the ability and time to do so.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Inspiration Monday: I Had a Tree Once

I have a thing for trees.

I get lost looking at them sometimes, if I'm blessed with a quiet moment to do so. I watch the branches sway in breezes I can hardly feel. When I'm bored, I draw them. Doodles, really. Nothing too serious or artful; just a way to pass the time squiggling leaves and branches into each other.

I don't really even know why they captivate me. Maybe it's because they symbolize so much: strength, perseverance, growth, rebirth, usefulness, fruitfulness, solitude. They're so simple, but so complicated at the same time. It's easy to signify a tree with a stick and a cotton-candy canopy, but try measuring out each and every branch, splitting and multiplying, on and on like a rebellious, asymmetrical fractal. Capturing those haphazard limbs in keeping with nature is like trying to create a line-drawn interpretation of a break dance.

Maybe my fascination started young, with an ancient, mean tempered hickory tree that lived in my childhood backyard. That tree had to be a thousand feet tall, or so it seemed at the time. It would bean you in the head with a green-skinned hickory nut just for the fun of it, and I had been warned all my life never to touch it because it had enrobed itself in a poison ivy armor to repel my sticky child fingers.

That tree and I regarded each other warily for years, and I gave it its berth. I only had to run over a couple of those fallen hickory nuts with my bike before I found the side yard more to my liking. That was The Tree: black bark, trunk as thick as an elephant, canopy in the sky, craggy, gnarled, and heavy.

One day, I got brave and I touched the tree. I was feeling vinegary and defiant, so I carefully dodged the poison ivy leaves, and I ran my fingers over the rough black bark. I don't know what I expected to happen, but I figure at least one good thunder clap would have been appropriate. Instead, absolutely nothing happened. Yet.

Never wont to push our luck, my family chose the only viable option: we moved.

Okay, maybe the incidents weren't connected, but if that tree ever shared its side of the story, I know it'd take credit.

Husband has a special tree, too. One Christmas, my father-in-law took us driving past the old house where they lived when my husband was very young. One year, they planted their Christmas tree in the backyard, an adorable Charlie Brown tree set in the ground by a father and his little son. That was why they did it--for that memory, and the hope that someday we would be taking that very drive through their old neighborhood to see how it had grown. Of course, they didn't know they were planting the Little Tree That Could, which would eventually turn into the Godzilla Evergreen of the neighborhood, gobbling up the modest backyard and stealing into the neighboring yard. Yards. Both of them. I know hyperbole is a writer's indulgence, but I'm serious--air traffic control has to be aware of this thing. Has to.

When we drove by and looked at their gargantuan former Christmas tree, Husband and his father both just grinned, so proud they had planted it, and that something in the way they had done it had propelled it to flourish beyond their wildest hopes.

I hadn't given much thought to my "tree thing" until today when I was sitting in my office with a client. This client is experiencing a number of mental health and medical struggles that can sometimes make communication difficult for her. Today, she wasn't doing well. Her speech was tangential and hard to understand. I did my best to hang in there with her, and eventually we settled into silence. She sat in her chair, staring at a tree I had drawn on our office whiteboard as part of a long-over drawing game. She looked at that tree a long time before she spoke. "I had a tree once," she said. "My dad planted a tree for me when I was a little girl, and I have always liked them. I like how they start small and they grow so big. That tree reminds me of my dad, and yeah. I like that tree."

That was the most coherent communication I had with her all day long, and it was the first time she had ever spoken about being someone's little girl.

I guess I'm not the only one with a thing for trees, and maybe that's part of a craving we all have, to weather the storm, stand strong and tall, to bend and not break, thrust our fingers to the sky, to bear fruit, and share our shade.

Whatever your creative endeavors may be, don't forget to water them. With toil and patience, the seed that started so small will grow so, so big.