01
Dec 14

Gape at the art; stay for the company

Pamela Carter at work in her studio.

Pamela Carter at work in her studio.

I wish I could say that discovering the work and personage of Pamela Carter was the culmination of a quest to find beauty in a world gone mad.

In reality, it was borne of a desire to escape the bitter November wind blasting in my face and a diversion from the interminable wait between breakfast and lunch on a gluttonous holiday.

My mother, my sister Kate,  and I were leaning into the wind on Main Street in Wellington, Ontario on the last day of our second-annual girls’ getaway to Prince Edward County. We were trying to ignore the languid voices in our heads urging us to just sit down and eat more yummy things despite having had breakfast 90 minutes before.

“Look!” My mother said, pointing to a sign. “It says there’s an artist’s studio that way.”

She canted starboard and strode the short few steps into the residential area, leaving Kate and I in her wake. Mom normally walks at a sedate pace that her shih-tzus generally set, but at that moment she was motoring so quickly you’d think we were heading to an antiques giveaway.

We passed small, white Victorian homes with wraparound porches and gingerbread trim perched close to the narrow streets of the village of Wellington. Quaint is the word.

Mom halted at a white cottage with a dark green metal roof, where a wind-starched flag out front declared the premises to be open.

On the wood-trimmed screen door was a smaller sign with that read, “Please don’t let the cat out.”

We knocked, and the door was opened by a slim, petite woman my mother’s age with dancing brown eyes and a pixie cut styled into fashionable white spikes.

“Squeeze on through,” Pamela Carter said, and then craned her head around to keep a wary eye on her corpulent tabby pacing at the entrance.

Light streamed through the windows of her studio, and the light in each painting drew us forward like we were hypnotized.

“Feel free to wander around,” she told us. And we did. I think our mouths were hanging open the whole time. Good thing it wasn’t fly season.

I adored everything I saw and kept wondering how a human being could capture so many people, scenes, animals and objects, and make them so exquisite.

Pam’s cat Rothko dreaming of his next escape. Perhaps Harry Houdini would have been a better namesake for this feline instead of famous abstract American painter Mark Rothko.

Pam’s cat Rothko dreaming of his next escape. Perhaps Harry Houdini would have been a better namesake for this feline instead of famous abstract American painter Mark Rothko.

The way that Pam paints people brings tears to my eyes because she paints them with love.

One painting in particular makes my heart squeeze when I think about it. It’s called Girfriends’ Night Out, and features three sundress-clad young women strolling along Main Street at twilight. Their long hair is clipped up and you can see the elegant line of their necks, the delicate musculature of their upper backs, and the gentle curve of their shoulder blades. The girls reminded me of my daughters and nieces.

There were still-lifes in the kitchen, portraits of children in a cozy alcove, street scenes of Wellington in every season, and a display of miniature paintings from a recent trip to Provence in one of the sunlit corners of her studio.

“Can I go upstairs?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “I think I made my bed.”

The paintings are the draw, but it’s Pam who makes you want to stay. She is the type of person you want to spend time with–fun, happy, and engaged. Our connection with her was instant.

My mom loves to interview everyone we meet. She wants to know everyone’s story and Pam was no exception.

Originally from Montreal, Pam said that she taught art for “a hundred years”. On retirement she joined the Pastel Society of Eastern Canada where she served as president for two years. She moved to Toronto in 2005 where she continued to teach art at Toronto French School, Upper Canada College, and University of Toronto.

After four years, Pam fled the big city and put down roots in Wellington. She had friends in town and fell in love with the area. She bought her current home in 2009, and put the studio addition on.

She is thrilled to be painting full time and is grateful to be a member of the Arts Trail. During the Annual Studio Tour, Pam said that it’s not unusual to get 400 people through her studio.

Her commissioned work is also booming. During our visit, two were ready for shipment–one a scene of children building sandcastles at Sandbanks Provincial Park, and the other a painting of home that’s an anniversary gift for a lucky husband.

Pam pointed at the latter, and explained that she often gets commissioned to paint homes. She laughed as she told the story about a client who wanted a painting of her mother’s Wellington home for her mother’s birthday.

Pam worked away at it and sent a photo of her finished work to her client.

“That’s not my mother’s house,” was the verdict.

We chortled and choked at this.

My sister Kate basking in the light next to a commissioned painting.

My sister Kate basking in the light next to a commissioned painting.

Then, what?

“Well, I painted the right house after that in record time,” she laughed.

In the end, the wrong house just needed the right owner, she explained. It sold.

Our stomach rumblings started to get the better of us, so we asked where we should go. Tall Poppy Cafe was the order of the day. Pam was invited to join us, but she had just eaten breakfast there.

Kate wanted to take Pam home with her, but I felt that it was probably best for Pam to continue living where she was. Pam is doing what she loves and we love what she’s doing.

If you’re lucky enough to live in or travel to Wellington (in the near future), you can see Pam’s paintings at her annual show at the SideStreet Gallery on Main Street. The show opened Nov. 30 and runs until Dec. 31, 2014.


22
Oct 14

Greetings from Ottawa

Today, my compulsive family head-counting adds up to the right number every time, and my thoughts turn to those families whose numbers fall one short.

I’m sad for Nathan Cirillo‘s son, parents and sisters.  I think of the  crushing, years-long gauntlet of grief that started this morning and now stretches endlessly before them: setting one less place at the table for family gatherings, the daily realization upon waking every damn morning from here on out that their father/son/brother is dead and will not show up, will not answer his phone, will not post his own photos. Ever again.

I keep seeing that picture in my mind of bystanders giving first aid. The woman sprawled across the steps to bestow the futile kiss of life and the man perched above Cirillo’s chest, frozen in mid-compression. And this picture posted moments before.

I’m also thinking of the family of the dead gunmen Michael Zehaf Bibeau. I can only imagine the horror of his mother. Like Nathan Cirillo’s parents, she has lost a child–the worst possible loss for a person to bear. But her grief is compounded with the knowledge that the baby she birthed, nourished and raised was capable of these horrifying acts. I wonder if she will be allowed (and if she will allow herself) to grieve.

Kevin Vickers is also on my mind. He’s the hero of the day. Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms dashed to his office, grabbed his gun and shot the assailant. I was under the misconception that the sergeant-at-arms role was purely ceremonial. I figured that it involved heading up an internal parade of parliamentarians while wearing a funny hat and carrying a sceptre-like encumbrance called a mace. The mace would be the only weapon needed for bashing some sense into the occasional mouthy miscreant. But no, it’s a critical security appointment, and this man, who looks like a senior citizen, stood up and protected his charges when it mattered most. Move over Clint Eastwood. I suspect though, that Vickers is probably feeling kind of bad that the attacker managed to enter HIS HOUSE in the first place.

I hope the recriminations are minimal, and that our government finds the balance between security and freedom that doesn’t irrevocably change the Ottawa and the Canada I know. As much as I bluster to the contrary, under this gruff exterior beats the heart of an optimist.

You know what would also break my heart? If the small-minded and xenophobic used these tragic events in Ottawa and just south of Montreal as an excuse to attack the law-abiding, and peaceful people among us who practice Islam.


02
Apr 14

Happy me, happy you

Look at these happy birds cuddling and grooming each other. Wait a minute! The bird on the left looks like it could be a vampire!

Look at these happy birds cuddling. Wait a minute! The bird on the left looks like it could be a vampire!Image source: wallpaperswala.com/happiness/

Meditation means practicing compassion for ourselves and others. It sounds rather easy, but it ain’t. Silencing the Judgy McJudgerson that dwells within is very tricky because that J-McJ is a wily, well-armed bastard.

He’s got two guns–one aimed at your head and one at everyone else’s. I’ve been listening to Pema Chödrön’s Noble Heart lecture where she revisits meditation instructions and provides solutions for meditation challenges. A common thread in the meditation instruction involves two intentions:

  • The end of suffering for yourself and others.
  • Happiness for yourself and others.

Each intention starts with the self and moves outward. Sounds simple. As Pema Chödrön so succinctly puts it, “When you’re sad think of others, and when you’re happy think of others.”

The benefit of this approach is that when you’re sad, angry, in pain, or lonely, and manage to think of others, you know that you’re never alone. It reminds me a bit of that old adage “misery loves company”, except that you truly wish for the best for all concerned.

I think that we do a lot of damage to ourselves when we start thinking that we’re the only ones dealing with painful emotions or circumstances. This can arouse our inner J-McJ who’s quick to jump on our own vulnerabilities and hit us with two quick kicks to the kidneys.

The least of the damage is self-pity. The worst is self-destructive coping mechanisms that further erode our connection to ourselves and others, such as drug and alcohol abuse, over eating, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, or other numbing out strategies: workaholism, compulsive TV watching, gambling, you-name-it…

We’re all pretty good at self-defeat. Many plod along the downward path, while others drive Kawasaki Ninjas down it. The faster and farther you travel down the bad road, the harder it is to change direction. As long as you’re still alive, it’s never too late to take a turn for the better.

Lately, I’ve been in the position where I have more time to practice meditation, and the intentions that I mentioned above. Why? Well, because I was recently laid off.

I thought I would be spared, but I was wrong. I was flabbergasted and stricken because I so enjoyed the work I was doing and the people I was working with. I remember walking down that long hallway to the HR office and feeling stunned.

I felt submerged when severance details and condolences were expressed. As I tossed my stuff into a file box, people streamed in to say goodbye. That was really hard. Kindness is often my undoing, and it’s difficult to say goodbye for an ending I didn’t plan.

I thought of all the others in the office that day who got the news, and the awful task of my colleagues who had to notify the unlucky. I thought of all the other laid-off workers I’ve read about in business news and only gave a momentary “poor-them” consideration. I now have more of an appreciation for how they felt.

Then, I went home and cried for a while. But that’s OK because crying when I’m sad is my new thing. It helps me feel better and then move on. I’m also spending more time with my family and friends, looking for work, re-evaluating my personal and work goals, and having some fun.

The other day, I went for a three-hour ski through the back-country trails in the Gatineau Park with my husband. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping; we laughed, and talked, and whooped our way down some wild downhills. It was magical.

Today is my birthday. My husband and I went out for lunch, and he was flabbergasted at the amount of sushi I could put away. I savoured the sweet rice, the fruity avocado, the salty tang of glistening fish, and the chewiness of the seaweed that held it all together. Every bite was superb.

I’m wishing you sun and fresh air, and the most exquisite sushi ever. Unless of course, you don’t like sushi. In that case, you are a cretin with the palate of an infant, and I wish you Chicken McNuggets instead.


22
Mar 14

I saw the sign

I was out for a run while visiting friends in Kingston, and saw this:

sign

Clearly, there’s “me” in accomplishmen [sic], but no “t”. This remiinds me of another saying that goes like this: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

I initally misread the name of the school as “Poison Park” and thought, “What were they thinking?” But that initial impression was wrong. Then, I noticed the spelling mistake and I laughed, but that mistake doesn’t get in the way of the important message–the one I needed to see.

Now,  can’t get this song oout of my head:

Editor’s note: A discerning reader has pointed out that the “T” has fallen to the lower right corner. It’s a case of instabili-T. This reminds me of one of my favourite books, When Things Fall Apart. Thanks, Tanya.


17
Mar 14

Being a kind parent to your inner child

Illustration by Susan DeCaire“There, there. It’s okay.” 

Today, I want to focus on staying still. I’ve written recently about my penchant for running away to avoid seeing things as they are, and my entertaining failure at staying in the present moment.

So, let’s explore what to do when you want to stop running away from emotional pain:

1. Acknowledge the pain or sadness or anger. There. Done.

Aren’t you glad we had this conversation? Except with anger. I find it helpful to recognize anger as an avoidant emotion.

2. Look at the anger and ask yourself, “Am I angry because I’m hurt, or ashamed, or sad?”

Then be prepared to feel a black hole opening in your personal universe that will vacuum up your soul. Just kidding. But maybe despair will be tempted to roost there for a while.

3. If you’re sad, feel free to cry.

4. Treat yourself with compassion. Try to avoid yelling at or berating yourself. Often we are so mean to ourselves in ways we’d never be with another human being who shared their hearbreak or fears with us.

5. Practice being your own best friend. Maybe you and your friend-self can have a little conversation over imaginary coffee.

Keep in mind that this is not an invitation to wallow. This is the first step in acknowledging and taking responsibility for our emotions.

I remember reading a book by Jill Bolte Taylor called My Stroke of Insight. She had a massive stroke at the age of 37 and re-learned how to walk, talk and feed herself. A neuroanatomist, she became her own lab rat in her recovery. Among her discoveries was that the actual life span of an emotion is 90 seconds. That’s how long it takes for the brain to fire and the neurochemicals to be released, and travel through the system.

Why do we stay upset so long? Because we keep creating and reciting the narrative that revives and prolongs the emotion. This blogger describes it beautifully in her piece Gone in 90 Seconds. I don’t know the name of the blogger, but she was being treated for brain tumours. Her most recent updates indicated that treatment was successful, but there hasn’t been a post since November, and this leaves me wondering about her current situation and hoping for the best.

I recall a time when I was upset about something, and my mother happened to call me. Instead of using logic to tell me why I shouldn’t be feeling the way I was feeling, my mom quietly listened and said, “There, there. It’s okay.” I sagged with relief. In that moment I was that hurt little kid who was reassured and calmed by my mother’s loving presence.

We have such a paradoxical approach to emotion. On the one hand, any difficulties or suffering we’re experiencing aren’t legitimate, we’re told, because they’re first world problems. On the other hand, suffering is this huge monster that’s so scary that we are compelled to run and hide.

How’s this for paradox? Facing emotional pain is both the hardest thing we will ever do, and it’s no big deal. When I stop running and stay with things as they are, the world won’t end. Fear or heartbreak won’t kill me. And if I stay stay put, I have the chance to find the space between the end of that emotion or thought, and the beginning of the next. In that gap, I can find the kind and wise part of myself who can look at my crying inner child, and say, “There, there. It’s okay. Everything is going to be okay.”


05
Feb 14

Sorry, I can’t see anything with this hogweed in my eyes

You know that yoga teacher of mine? Well I’m getting a little freaked out about the things she says in class. It’s clear I’m being targeted.

She spoke of the importance of “seeing things as they are and learning to grow from there.” I was so sure she was looking right at me that I wobbled out of Warrior C.

Great advice if you happen to be contemplating the cheerful, lollipop-red petals of a tulip or eating a slice of chocolate cake. But what if now sucks giant, steaming donkey balls (as my bloggy buddy Stereo is wont to say)? Maybe you are scared, sad, in pain, bored, tired, or beset by cravings. Who wants to stay with that?

I’m sick of seeing things as they are with “compassion and extreme honesty”. My mother often describes compassion as, “your pain in my heart”. Yeah, well you can keep it.

How can we function when we carry around other people’s pain as well as our own? And we’re supposed to do this without the cloak of denial shielding us from direct experience? You know how that feels? Something like leaving your house without your pants on when it’s -30C.

I’ve never had a problem seeing things clearly. It’s my legacy superpower from growing up in an alcoholic home. My x-ray vision sees through seven layers of bullshit, and that combined with my inability to mince words can make me a very difficult person to be around. That said, I call “bullshit” on myself as much or more than I call it on others.

And for the record, my dad has been sober for 30 years now, and I’m so proud of him. I don’t have words enough to express my gratitude that his favourite drink is now grape soda.

It’s the clear seeing with the compassion that gets a little hard to bear. I can pick up the emotional atmosphere swirling around in a room, put a smile on my face, and….then head for the punch bowl or hide in the bathroom. Other things in my avoidant bag of tricks include: eating too much, working too much, exiting the building, reading too much, watching too much TV, and swimming around in over-large glasses of Pinot Grigio.

According to my buddy Pema Chödrön, we’re supposed to resist the urge to run away and just stay with that pain and discomfort. I try to embrace the present moment, which works as often as it doesn’t.

Quiz time!

1. With the term, “As often as it doesn’t”, the author means:

a) Always.

b) Never.

c) Half the time.

d) Fuck off.

I think my unconscious is getting sick of this scene too. The night before my wobbly yoga class I had a dream that I was on the run with my kids. We hid in a farmer’s field where I started pulling up giant hogweed plants and rubbing the juice into my eyes. For those who don’t know their pernicious, invasive plant species, hogweed can cause severe skin irritation, and burning.

In my dream, I realized that I needed medical attention, or I’d go blind. But I didn’t want to go to the doctor’s office because I was afraid that as soon as the nurse swiped my OHIP card, the police would storm in and arrest me. Then I woke up.

My yoga teacher knows too much. Clearly, she’s an alien and I’ve been probed. OMG, I’ve been probed!

Quiz time!

2. Choose at least two meanings from the list that explain lesson of the author’s dream. Feel free to add other possible answers in the comment section below:

a) Socialized medicine leads to the arrest of innocent people.

b) Don’t go to yoga class.

c) Life would be much easier with a lobotomy.

d) Stop running away from direct experience.

e) “Life is hard, pass the crack pipe.” “Yessir, Mayor Ford.”

f) Avoidance causes more pain in the long run.

g) Don’t pursue a career in agriculture.

***

Here are other posts that outline my yoga teacher’s meddling:

***

I’m currently listening to the The Pema Chödrön Audio Collection.


22
Jan 14

The mastery of now

“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” — Thich Nhat  Hanh

I’m pretty good at clinging to the stuff that makes me miserable. I know I’m not alone in this. We’re all architects of our own suffering.

Eckhart Tolle, Pema Chodron and others have written about how preoccupation with the past feeds resentment, while focus on the future breeds anxiety and fear. I suffer from both afflictions, and the only antidote is to be in the present moment.

I feel that I made some pretty good inroads on the resentment front this past year. Now, I’m targeting the latter for my own peace (piece?) of mind.

The only problem is finding the perfect circumstances. Everything would be fine if people didn’t keep handing me stuff to worry about. Assholes.

Take this weekend. I was so worried about something and it was a situation where I could do nothing, but wait. If I followed my habitual patterns, I’d manufacture worse-, worser- and worcestershire-case scenarios in my head.

Not this awakened being. Nosirree. Know why? Because I was going to make “Now” my bitch.

How? By providing conscious, first-person narration in my head for the day.  How did it go? Something like this:

  • Now, I’d really like to have pancakes  for breakfast. We don’t have anymore maple syrup. Just that cheap, sugar-water shit.
  • Now, I’m disappointed, and I’m frying eggs.
  • Now, I’m gazing into the faces of my daughters as they talk to me. Now, I’m thinking how intelligent, engaged and beautiful they are.
  • Now, I’m aware of the crumbs sticking to my socks as I clean the kitchen. Now, I’m annoyed.
  • Now, I’m pacing and thinking of that thing I don’t want to think about.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m walking into the kitchen to eat something for the sake of eating it.
  • Now, I’m checking Facebook on the main computer. Now, I’m aware of the stupidity of this because my phone also gives me Facebook updates.
  • Now, I’m making salad.
  • Now, I’m pouring a glass of wine.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m eating chips while looking at the salad.
  • Now, I’m eating an Ah caramel.
  • Now, I can taste the chemically aftertaste and wonder if they use tar pond runoff as a secret ingredient. Now I’m wondering if these tasty treats have an expiry date.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m looking out the window looking really, really intently at the snow.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m eating more chips.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m pouring another glass of wine.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m eating more chips.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m aware of a vague feeling of discomfort in my stomach.
  • Now, I’m sprinting to the bathroom.
  • Now, I’m congratulating myself for having my phone in my hand.
  • Now, I’m checking my phone.
  • Now, I’m patting myself on the back for being such a good multi-tasker.

Not too bad. I’m thinking of patenting this method. Let me know how it works for you.


14
Jan 14

A rare breed

The long-eared dabbit can be found lurking near the door or food dish, and is apt to cower in the closet if she senses annoyance or a thunderstorm. Otherwise, the dabbit can be found reclining on the living room couch or sprawling across the most comfortable bed in the home.

Also worth noting is the chocolate-scented ears and the mournful expression.

dabbit

Are we going for a walk now? How about now? Is now good?

 


31
Dec 13

Conversations worth having

My yoga teacher has a way of saying things that laser straight into my frontal lobe. You know what she said last week? She said, “Concentration cuts through thought patterns that no longer serve you.”

It makes me wonder if she pawed through my recycling and found my shrink receipts. This is exactly what I’ve been working on this year, ditching coping mechanisms that got me through one family crisis after another, but were tripping me up everywhere else.

Hypervigilance and bracing for disaster aren’t life enhancing skills? Who knew? They might help me identify signs of bed bugs in hotels, but they make it harder to find and recognize joy. This is why I didn’t write that much either. Do you know how much energy it takes to cry at your therapist week in and week out?

Living in crisis mode stunts the spirit and shrinks the world to a tiny life boat on chaotic seas. When the seas calm, eventually you have to come to shore, but the lifeboat is what you’re accustomed to. Instead of seeing abundance, you see scarcity.  As a result, my husband and I were adept at demonstrating for our 11- and 13-year-old daughters how to endure life instead of live it.

I remember reading about Temple Grandin. Being autistic, she did not understand what love was until her mother explained it like this, “Love means helping things grow.” It doesn’t mean smothering the life out of each other. It doesn’t mean pursuing your own dreams at the expense of others; it doesn’t mean disapproval, withdrawal or silence.

Things had to change and the only way they were going to change was to have some very hard conversations—with ourselves, with therapists, and with a marriage counselor.

How two people who have spent over two decades together could consistently misread each other’s cues continues to amaze me. This journey helped us learn lot about emotional responsiveness. It took a third-party for the two of us to stop defending our old positions in fights that could never be won and really listen to what the other was looking for—reassurance, acceptance, and love.

Ash Beckham talks about coming out of the closet, but says that we all have closets whether we’re homosexual or heterosexual, male or female, black, café au lait, or white. These closets are the difficult conversations we’re avoiding. These conversations will take everything you’ve got, but they’re worth it.

I’ve learned a lot about what to let go of and what to keep, what I have control over (very damn little) and what I don’t (everything and everyone else).

I’m grateful for my life, grateful for my family, and grateful for my friends. I say this every morning. I know that I’m not protected from pain and suffering, but with a team like this, I feel like I can face anything.

Note: I want to thank my therapist (who shall remain unnamed), and the Ottawa Couples and Family Institute. I recommend the book Hold Me Tight written by the Institute’s founder Sue Johnson for anyone in a relationship or who wants to be in one. I also recommend How to Hug a Porcupine by Julie Ross for tips on how to talk to and listen to tweens.


29
Dec 13

Barbarity fatigue

 For the love of The Seven, can you stop torturing Theon already? And do we really need to hear how genitals catch on fire, George? Really?

For the love of The Seven can you stop torturing Theon Greyjoy? Puhhlease?!

My standard exasperated eye roll at the vagaries (I just misread that as “vaginas”. Admit it. You did too) of human behaviour has been replaced with my shouty interior voice hollering, “What a mummer’s farce!” You know what the means? Too much Game of Thrones, that’s what.

I had to put down Book 5, A Dance with Dragons, because the maiming and killing were getting to me. I’m actually listening to the book, but I doubt my reaction would be much different if I were reading it.

I figured that my high level of empathy was making it difficult to proceed through the story. You know that study saying that people who read fiction are empathetic because they find it easier see things from other points of view? Turns out, that can’t explain my reaction because it’s literary fiction that raises one’s emotional intelligence, not mysteries or thrillers. I find a lot of literary fiction to be a whole lot of writerly wankery that’s gratuitously depressing.

Clearly, I’m a philistine: my tastes are low brow; I use too many adverbs in my writing; and I often consume books in audio format instead of the print version. But, I digress.

So, perhaps my empathy is genetic. Too bad that I didn’t also inherit my mother’s classiness. The flip side of being empathetic, at least for me, is that the violence is difficult to leave at face value because I can see myself as the victims, as well as the perpetrators in the most gruesome scenes.

We all like to think that we’d never be so unlucky or stupid to the victims of violence or misfortune. We’d also like to think that we’re too evolved to descend into such barbarity as to kill and maim. It’s better to be the killer than the killee at least in fiction, right?

Faced with the similar conditions (a disputed crown, dwindling resources, an imminent winter, a few dragons, a dwarf, and a bunch of snow zombies) and the temporary suspension of compassion, who wouldn’t be hacking and smiting their way across Westeros?

Reading is often an escape for me, but these days my escape needs an escape. Some comedy and silliness is in order. Any recommendations?