Notes From a Small Island

Notes from a Small IslandNotes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

I want to like Bill Bryson, he can be quite funny at times, and I really enjoyed his audio tour of the Roman Baths in Bath England, but sometimes he can be so insufferable. I find his frustrations with regular people trying to do their jobs while he willy-nilly wanders around without a plan or a schedule very irritating. You know how to avoid that sort of frustration? Have a plan and a schedule. If you’re not going to have a plan or a schedule then it’s rude to be angry at someone because their day doesn’t suit what you want. If you’re going to wander around unscheduled it seems to me you’d need to be a lot more chill than Bryson apparently is. He seems to feel that because he thinks something should be a certain way that he has the right to be angry when it isn’t. In addition to those times in the text when I just wanted to smack him, there is his unbounded love for the English language. Look I was an English major, I appreciate the language, but don’t use twenty words when two will suffice especially when it’s not funny to do so. Okay, so I wanted to like this book more than I did. I did appreciate some of the places he went and his descriptions when they weren’t ridiculous. In short, I found this book very uneven. I have a copy of The Road to Little Dribbling, but I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll read it. Perhaps next year.

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I Heart New York

Sometimes a change of scenery can be a tremendous tonic. New York City is a tonic and a half and then some. My husband and I recently spent five days there courtesy of his parents and it was just what we needed to get away for a while and do something completely different. We ate like hobbits while we there going from restaurant to restaurant and occasionally enjoying a museum between meals. We caught up with some old friends, missed others, and generally had a resoundingly good time.

When I was younger, I enjoyed the city in the company of natives. We took the subway or walked everywhere, but for some reason, even when walking places, I never really oriented myself. Perhaps it was because my friends always knew where they were going, so I didn’t really worry about it. On the rare occasions when I’ve had to go to NYC for work, I really just went from the train to the hotel to work and back again and never really thought about where I was in reference to the rest of the city. On this trip though, I was walking around with my husband in Chelsea which was a part of the city I’d spent a lot more time in than he had. For the first time, I had a real sense of where I was going and where I was in relation to other parts of the city, and I really felt like I knew where I was. Some of this was because we walked almost everywhere, and when we weren’t walking, we took a cab or Uber, so I was able to get a real sense of the map. The subway, as wonderful as it is, is pretty disorienting in that regard, or at least it is for me. To me, the subway is like falling through the rabbit hole. You disappear underground and magically reappear somewhere else with no reference points as to how you got there. I know that the platforms are labeled and there is a subway map, but for some reason that information just doesn’t stick in my head. On this trip though, by the time we were walking to dinner Saturday night, I was completely comfortable with where I was going and knew exactly how to get back to where I’d been. That’s kind of a great feeling in a city that large and I needed that.

The view from our hotel room on W 23rd Street and 7th Avenue.

The view from our hotel room on W 23rd Street and 7th Avenue.

Why is there a dog here?

I recently went to London with my friend Kristin and we stayed with our friend Heather at her flat in Marylebone. The three of us always have a good time and I’m always happy to go. As we have on other trips, we spent a fair amount of time in art museums. On this trip we visited the The Wallace Collection, The National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. They’re all amazing and I highly recommend them if you visit London, especially The Wallace Collection with it’s eclectic but amazing assortment of art and armor.

When I see a lot of different artwork all at once, I tend to reach a saturation point, after which I just start looking for dogs. You find them in the most interesting places in a wide variety of paintings from many different eras. Usually the dogs are clearly a natural part of the scene or perhaps even the focus of the painting, but not always. For example:

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This is a serious painting of a serious religious event. No I don’t remember what it’s called or who painted it when. I was saturated by this point in the day, but look at the little white dog. Why is he in the painting? Why would a dog be in church at all? The sign next to the painting didn’t say, but I wonder.

Then there’s this:

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This is the corner of a huge painting of four Dutch looking guys after they’ve signed an important document. It was painted to commemorate a significant political event, and yet the artist includes a lovely portrait of this little dog. I believe this is someone’s actual dog. Perhaps the artist included a beloved pet. Maybe the dog belonged to one of the men pictured and was actually at the event. Or maybe the patron of the painting asked for a portrait of his own dog to be included. The sign next to the painting didn’t mention the dog. Whose dog is this?

The more I looked, the more dogs I found in strange places or sometimes doing strange things. In one painting that I didn’t take a picture of because the dog was too small and the painting was too high on the wall, there was a dog crouched to defecate. It was a beautiful large landscape featuring a lot of winter activity, but toward the lower right corner there was a dog getting ready to do his business. Was the artist trying to say something about the commission? Was his patron a jerk? Was this dog a way of thumbing his nose? Or did the patron ask for it as an inside joke? I don’t know. Once again, the sign didn’t mention it.

And then there were paintings where clearly the dogs just don’t belong.

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This painting of a satyr morning over a nymph was painted in 1495 by Piero di Cosimo, but it almost looks like two different paintings. The satyr and the nymph are exquisitely portrayed, but the dog in the foreground as well as the dogs in the background are much more roughly painted in like an afterthought. Look at the white dogs forelegs. They’re improbably positioned unlike anything else in the painting. It makes me wonder if the patron looked at the painting of the satyr and the nymph and said, “You know, Piero, there’s a lot of room on the right side and in the back. How about throw in some dogs. People love dogs.” So Piero threw them in.

So those of you out there with an art history degree, enlighten me. What’s up with all the dogs? I’m not complaining mind you. I love dogs, but it is curious. Don’t you think?