Friday, February 10, 2012

December 29, 2011 The 2010 Christmas Letter

   It’s been a very strange year. Chrissy & I took six trips this year but only one together. We started the year with three dogs. We ended the year with three dogs because Fluffy is one tough old girl and we couldn’t give Roxy away because she became Oslo’s best friend. We hung out with 800 Santas and 500 tubas in NYC. After 25 years, Chrissy decided to go back to school. I was saved from death twice this year, once by the lucky choice of an artery and once by donkey poop. I had a religious experience in Sedona that had nothing to do with a vortex. I ate breakfast with my feet hanging over the edge of the Grand Canyon and I made Chrissy laugh hysterically as I was wheeled into emergency surgery. So if any of that sounds interesting to you please read on and I’ll try to make it amusing. If you are bored already and believe me I don’t blame you…I’ll save you the time and wish you a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year now.
In March, I went to Arizona. I thought a week of hiking by my self would be good for me. I am happy to report that it was. While eating at the bar in Sedona’s Heartland Café, I met a local search & rescue volunteer. I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad omen. It turned out to be a good thing and not because he ended up finding me cold, dehydrated and lost in a canyon, which was a definite possibility in my mind. He told me about hiking in Fay Canyon. The next day I hiked to the end of Fay Canyon, climbed about one hundred feet up the boulders to a narrow shelf path along the side canyon wall. I hiked along that for about a half mile. I was all alone. I sat there for at least an hour, relaxing, admiring, and enjoying the complete silence and a beautiful sunset over the mountains. While lying on the smooth rock of the canyon staring up at the blue sky, I watched the hawks and the ravens floating across the canyon. I was mesmerized, I felt like I was floating with them. It felt as close to a religious experience that a heathen like me can have.
The next day I would feel like I witnessed something straight from the hand of God as I looked into the Grand Canyon for the first time in my life. I really wanted to hike into the canyon on this trip. Unfortunately I never considered that snow would be an issue. As I looked down the Bright Angel Trail, I saw nothing but an ice covered path. So I ignored the men on donkeys wielding ice picks. I ignored the “crampons recommended” sign. I ignored the fact that people from Illinois are called ‘flatlanders’ for a very good reason. I ignored the fact that unlike hiking up a mountain, the hardest part of this hike would be the return trip back up the canyon. Really what could go wrong? I’m Irish, it’s Saint Patrick’s Day and I’m wearing green. The luck of the Irish lasted until the first switchback with a steep downward slope. As I slide 50 feet down the trail, the only thing that stopped me from falling 200 feet into the canyon was the huge pile of donkey shit that had melted the ice at the bottom edge of the switchback. So, as I teetered over the edge I pictured the donkeys sliding downhill to this spot and shitting themselves…which is exactly what I did. I continued on because it was a beautiful sunny day and the canyon was perfectly lit with amazing colors in every direction. The contrast of the snow covered scenery in the shade with the sunlight colors in the canyon were             so unbelievably beautiful that I completely forgot about the icy trail, my aching knees and the long climb back            out. I hiked almost a mile and a half down the trail before my knees said it was time to turn around. I made it back to the bar at the Maswik Lodge just as the sunset and celebrated Saint Patrick with some Harp beers.
On my last day at the Grand Canyon, I got up before sunrise and hiked west on the Rim Trail toward Pima Point.       I stopped between the Trailview Overlook and Maricopa Point to eat my breakfast. The wonderful views were available all along the trail and you can sit and rest on the edge just about everywhere. So I sat down with my legs over the edge and ate the greatest poppy seed muffin with the most incredible half pint of milk. It is possible that the view with the sun rising over the canyon had influenced my taste buds. Anyway, I heard a woodpecker in the tree above me. When I stood up to take a picture, I saw a female bighorn sheep climb down onto a rock outcrop in the canyon. I couldn't believe my luck as she stayed there while I changed to a telephoto lens and took some pictures. For the second time on this trip I felt like the hand of God was on my shoulder and this time I was surprised he didn’t push me into the canyon. Some other highlights of my trip were…hiking in Red Rocks State Park all alone because the park ranger let me in an hour before it opened…seeing 1000 year old cliff dwellings at Montezuma’s Castle…feeling really good about my hiking ability on the 4.5 mile trail around Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock until two ladies in their seventies told me they hike this trail everyday…hiking up the lava & snow covered Lenox Crater Trail at Sunset Crater National Monument…seeing      the 900 year old Indian pueblos at Wupatki NM…feeling good about my pace while hiking up the two thousand foot elevation gain on the Siphon Draw Trail at the Lost Dutchman       State Park until two women about my age passed me while knitting…I didn’t make it to the Flatiron.

The world’s largest limestone quarry is in the next town west of where I live. For over two years I have been on the waiting list for a tour of the Thornton Quarry. This was my lucky year. They drive you down into the pit in a school bus. It’s been a very long time since I was on a school bus. In high school, we had to sit three to a seat. Now Jimmy & I barely fit on the seat and Jimmy has probably lost weight since high school. Uh-oh, I’m not letting that get me down, at least I am cooler than the geeks on the bus with their little hammers who are all excited about fossil hunting in the quarry. I can’t wait to take pictures from the bottom of this giant hole in the earth that I have looked into almost every day for the past 25 years. I have to admit seeing the eight story high stone crusher, standing next to the 20 foot high dump trucks and seeing boulders as big as my house was very cool. But as soon as Jimmy showed me a rock with a perfect fishbone fossil in it, I was pushing the fossil hunting geeks out of my way while scrambling across the rock pile looking for interesting fossils. Damn, I seem so much cooler in my own mind than I am in real life.
My parents are always telling me “this better not end up in your Christmas letter”. But what am I suppose to do when they provide such a wealth of material. Here is an example, a simple phone call. ME: “Hi Dad” HIM: “Hey I just rented a big camper” ME: “What?” HIM: “You know a motorhome. We’re going camping.” The conversation continues with details of how long they talked about doing this and I can tell he’s really excited about the whole thing so I’m happy for him. Hell I’m a little jealous because I’ve thought about doing the same thing. But then it happens. ME: “Where are you going?” HIM: “Bolsa Chica ” ME: “You rented a camper to spend 3 nights in a parking lot at a beach in the same town you live in”. HIM: “Yes!” I’m sure there was stunned silence followed by uncontrollable laughter on my end. He tried to defend his plan by telling me about the camper’s shower, the kitchen, the beds and I just kept replying but you will be five minutes from home. Anyway, they took their big adventure and decided to e-mail the following pictures to me…my dad smoking a cigarette in a parking lot, my mom smoking along side the camper and from their big hike at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve which is home to over 320 bird species…I get a picture of a seagull, wait Chrissy says it was a pigeon. My parents also took a month long cruise on the Queen Mary 2 this past fall. My mom must have really enjoyed the cruise especially the fruity drinks with umbrellas in them because we got a postcard that was addressed to us on the right half of the card but written on the left half was “Dear Georgie & Marcy”. When I called George to read him his card, he said the card addressed to him said “Hello Gregg & Chrissy”. When I e-mailed my mom about it, her reply was the standard “BRAT!” e-mail I receive from her on a weekly basis throughout the year.
Just to prove this isn’t all about me, I’ll update everyone on Chrissy’s busy year even though she refused to write this part herself. Chrissy has continued working with Polar Bears International (PBI) and the American Association of ZooKeepers (AAZK). Her Trees for You & Me fundraising project did so well last year that AAZK & PBI decided to co-sponsor it and make it an annual fundraiser to help the polar bears. This year she attended the PBI Reforestation Committee in St. Paul, the AAZK Conference in Philadelphia and the AZA (American Zookeepers Association) Conference in Houston. So the quiet Chrissy that you know has spoken to school kids, animal groups, conferences and at local nature preserves on her own time. She has created a slide show and brings props to further her cause to save the polar bears. She also decided to go back to school to get her masters degree in picking up bear poop…oh wait she says it is a Master of Arts in Zoology and before I asked she says it has nothing to do with drawing animals. Now she can say I’m an idiot and she would be correct. But when she had to write a proposal for her Trees for You & Me to be published in a trade magazine, I noticed some atrocious spelling mistakes and quite a few grammatical and sentence structure errors. As I politely offered advice on correcting these fourth grade mistakes she started getting mad at me. She finally had enough when I wondered how you can get a masters degree without being able to write a simple sentence. She left screaming “just act like this is sex and do it yourself”. For the record, she submitted my rewritten version. You can donate at to help the polar bears.
After talking about it for years, I finally signed up for a photography workshop in Coney Island with Andy Levin’s 100Eyes organization. He prefers to photograph projects of social significance such as the issue of land use in Coney Island. Simply put, the issue is should Coney Island remain a public space for everyone to enjoy or a private space for the rich to enjoy? I strongly support leaving the beach side of Surf Avenue as an amusement area for everyone to enjoy.  
I loved every minute of the week I spent taking pictures all over Coney Island. I met some fascinating characters… lifeguards, street performers, couples in love, artists, writers, photographers, homeless kids, sideshow performers, clowns, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markewitz, the regulars at Ruby’s bar, handball players, the participants in the Mermaid Parade and a Russian couple that was so happy to be in America they planted red, white & blue flowers in the community garden. I stayed in a brownstone in Carroll Gardens. It was liked I lived in Brooklyn for a week. I stopped for a bagel on the way to the F train to Coney Island and grabbed a Nathan’s frankfurter on my way ‘home’. Late one night, I grabbed a slice of pizza and a lemon Italian ice and ate it on the stoop of the brownstone. Chrissy called me and we talked while I ate. I told her about my perfect day ending with a slice and an ice and asked her jokingly “is this heaven?” Then I heard someone yell from the next building, “It’s as close as you’ll ever get motherfucker, now shut the fuck up!” God I love New York. You can see the final Coney Island Workshop project at & see my photos on my blog at
THE LEG INJURYsung to the Gilligan’s Island theme song
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, A tale of a man named Gregg
That started in this forest preserve and how he hurt his leg

This Gregg was a mountain biking man, Actually not so brave or sure.
He went riding this beautiful day, for a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

Down the ravine he did ride, didn’t notice the chain had popped off
And slammed the pedal into the ground, He didn’t know it then but his foot could be lost.

The leg swelled up and off to the ER he did go
First an ultrasound, then a CAT scan too
Call a surgeon and his wife
The ruptured artery, the fasciotomy and a long recovery
here on Gregory’s mountain bike

After the surgery, I remember waking up, disorientated and not sure where I was. A nurse asked me "On a scale of one to ten, how much pain are you in?" I believe my response was something along the lines of “it fucking hurts!" As I began to remember where I was and what had happened to me, she began to ask again. I cut her off by saying, "my pain goes to fucking eleven!" Apparently she wasn't a big fan of ’Spinal Tap' because she asked Chrissy if I was always like this. When Chrissy said yes, I heard several nurses say "you poor girl". What follows are a few things I remember from the haze of two months spent on drugs and my couch. I remember Chrissy laughing uncontrollably as I was wheeled into the OR. But first I’ll have to backtrack to that morning. When I got out of the shower, Chrissy was laughing because I had one hairy ass cheek and one bald ass cheek. I have no explanation for that condition. Anyway, in the ER the surgeon was explaining how he would take a vein from above my ankle to repair the artery behind my knee. As he wrote “this leg” on my left leg, he explained that I would be flipped over for most of the surgery. After he left, Chrissy started laughing because they are going to wonder why I have half a hairy ass. Then the nurses came in and explained how they would have to shave my leg. I thought Chrissy was going to explode as she tried to stop laughing. As the nurses wheeled me to the Operating Room, they told Chrissy to say goodbye. It was then that I heard what could possibly be the last words my wife would ever speak to me…she stopped laughing just long enough to blurt out “Maybe they can shave the other ass cheek for you!” The next night Chrissy came into the ICU with a surprise…my mom. When I told her, “I guess major surgery is what it takes to get you to visit me”, she started threatening me with physical violence. I had to call the nurse to protect me. Actually it was comforting to have my mom who is also a nurse there with me. That safe feeling of having my mom/nurse there lasted exactly one day. One of the many things I learned from this injury is being anesthetized causes constipation. I had Chrissy bring me White Castles to help solve this problem. Even the sliders couldn't break through the constipation. My mom told the nurse that I should be given Milk Of Magnesia. The nurse looked horrified but said she would check with the doctor. My mom hounded the nurses all day to get me some milk of magnesia. As I was being transferred out of the ICU, Chrissy & my mom left for dinner and the nurse gave me the milk of magnesia. I get settled in my new room and I am introduced to the nurses. The nurses’ aide assigned to me is Lashonda, a 110 pound black woman who is extremely pregnant. As she leaves she tells me to press the call button if I need anything. Because I am a fall risk, I have to call anytime I want to move. Five minutes later the milk of magnesia is beginning to take effect. I figure I can hold it off for awhile...thirty seconds later...I'm pressing the call button. As Lashonda helps me to the bathroom, I have two thoughts...if I fall I will crush this pregnant woman and then I will shit all over her. I make it to the bathroom and spend a good 10 minutes making sure I am done before pressing the call button. I settle back in my chair as I thank Lashonda. Five minutes later I am in severe pain in my bowels and pressing the call button. This occurs repeatedly throughout the evening with Lashonda saying “not again” each time. I tell the nurse to get another bed ready because I'm going to kill my mother. Chrissy comes in without my mom who decided to stay at the house. I am surprised she didn't show so she could enjoy the pain and discomfort she caused me. Over the course of three hours, I swear I shit over a dozen times. By the end I had stuff coming out of me that I had eaten ten years ago. I must have lost 5 pounds during my shitting frenzy. I should have known my mom didn't fly out over her concern for me, it was to torture me. As I spent more time on the couch watching mind numbingly bad daytime TV shows, I developed something more serious than my leg injury…my brain stopped functioning. I began to drool and was no longer able to put together any cogent thoughts. I demanded to see a specialist because I thought this might be a permanent condition. The doctor told me my brain would be fine. When I asked him how he can be sure that I am not retarded, he asked me if I believe anything that Glenn Beck says. When I reply “Hell no!”, the doc says then you are not retarded.

We met my brother George and his wife Marcy in NYC in early December. We had fun even if Georgie was either complaining about the cold weather or telling me he needed to find a bathroom. Do you know how hard it is to find a bathroom in NYC? I finally snapped and said you don’t need a bathroom. “You need to find a hospital so a doctor can either check your mangina or give you a man’s bladder.” The trip was a great time because unlike family, New York City never disappoints you. We stayed at the Inn on Second, the same Brooklyn brownstone where I stayed on my trip in June. There are incredible restaurants throughout the Carroll Gardens neighborhood and we hit quite a few of them with no disappointments. We also stumbled into some of those only in New York moments like… Eating gelato at Grom’s in the West Village when we found ourselves in the midst of SantaCon, eight hundred Santas, elves and reindeer spreading good cheer while stopping at every bar in the Village. It was a giant party that spread from Washington Square Park to Christopher Street…Being at the Top Of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) at midnight when asked by a young man to take a picture of him & his girl, when I ask if they want the Empire State Building in the shot, she yells just take the picture, it turns out he just proposed and she was still shocked & crying. Then she called her mom and said “I think I just got engaged”, followed with “because I got a big fucking ring on my finger!”…Catching the vintage subway train the only time it is filled with a fun loving group of people dressed like it is 1930 and we are in the car that has a band playing old tunes while people jitterbug…Standing at the entrance of the ice rink as five hundred tuba players walked out there to play Christmas carols for everyone in Rockefeller Center.

It wasn’t much of a year but it had its moments. One moment, the passing of Chrissy’s Uncle Mat, did bring back the fond memory of my last visit with him. We spent a Thanksgiving night in his living room talking about all the things we had in common…photography, politics, family and traveling the world. When we finally walked into the kitchen to check on Chrissy & Marilyn we were surprised that five hours had passed but we were not surprised that the leftover food was still sitting on the counter. Obviously that is a moment that I remembered over the years. So I’ll end with a moment I’ll remember from this year. Due to various reasons and circumstances, we only had a couple hours to spend with my Aunt Maryann & Uncle Freddie. When we arrived Maryann had the dinner table set and one of her incredible Italian dinners, this time chicken and eggplant cutlets, cooking on the stove. We caught up over glasses of wine. Unfortunately Freddie was stuck at work and we had a plane to catch. As soon as we were done eating the best meal we had all week in NYC, the cabbie was honking his horn out front. When I hugged my Aunt goodbye, she hugged me a little tighter…maybe it was her way of thanking me for stopping by, maybe she wished we had more time together…when she wouldn’t let go, this caused me to get choked up…maybe because I had no idea when I would see her again, maybe because I wasn’t able to do one of my favorite things spend the night talking, drinking and eating at my Aunt’s house. Maybe it was just a hug from someone who has treated me like a son for as long as I can remember and my tears were because I am grateful for being treated that way. Or maybe, like my mom says I am just a piss eye.
Either way, it is moments like these that remain in our memory for a reason. Since this letter is once again late, I’ll hope you had a Merry Christmas and my wish for you in 2011 is that you have many moments that you’ll remember forever.

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