Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Curled Up And Died

The new ones that I like to call "Trend Setters."

Promise me right now that you won’t judge me too harshly for what I’m about to reveal. I know I shouldn’t share this, but am hoping that anyone reading this will find me quirky rather than psychotic. But like Sue on The Middle, I think of my curlers as my friends.
For those that haven’t seen The Middle, Sue is an extremely awkward teen-aged girl who wears garish childish sweaters and who has no clue how to fit in with her peers. In the episode I refer to, the family is collecting things to put in a yard sale and Sue’s brother Axl taunts her for not being able to get rid of her old curlers, who she thinks of as friends.
When I first saw that episode, my mouth dropped open. I’d thought I was the only one! I know people often personify inanimate objects, but this was the first time I had proof that it entered the mind of someone (albeit a writer on the show who thought it fit the personality of Sue) that curlers could be considered ‘friends.’
My Clairol Kindness rollers have been with me a long time. My husband thinks I’m weird because I like to curl my hair in the morning and then switch them up so none feel neglected. Plus, I don’t use them all when I set my hair and want to make sure that everyone gets a chance to make me beautiful. It’s important to them.
I’m missing one of the smallest rollers. I like to pretend that she wanted to do something else with her life. I let the curlers think that’s an option, rather than letting them know that I think she was kidnapped or abandoned somewhere along the way in my life. I’ve had those curlers a long time.
Then I killed them in Germany.
When I arrived, I looked through my suitcase frantically. Where was my converter? I had my adaptor, but couldn’t find the converter necessary for wattage differences on smaller items like curlers and blow dryers. I must have left it at home. I bit my lip and debated a moment, but then plugged the cord into the wall like I’d done a thousand times before.
I could smell the motor burning as my curlers got hot. I quickly yanked the plug out of the wall, then wrapped my hair around my faithful friends. That was the last time. The next day, my Clairol Kindness friends didn’t heat up at all. They were dead.
Stupidly, the day I’d killed them was a Saturday. Now I had to go to work with flat, yet paradoxically frizzy hair. I was so angry at my curlers for dying. How could they leave me like that, right when I needed them? Like anyone grieving, I went into denial and tried plugging them in again, bargaining with the big hair salon in the sky to let them work again just this once. Finally, acceptance. They were gone.
To make matters worse, part of my work day was a trip to a hair salon.  I was mortified. I hung my ponytailed head in shame and hoped that none of the hairdressers noticed me. I could imagine the disgust on their faces. I thought one of them might yank me by the hair and plunk me down into a salon chair so that they could fix me. I secretly wished they had, though I didn’t have time. They let me pass and I left the building, tightening my ponytail and wishing it at least looked sleek. I spent the remainder of the trip sporting rubber-banded frizz.
When I finally had to pack for the trip home, I glanced at my curlers and felt a sad pang in my chest that I wouldn’t be taking them with me. At first I couldn’t bring myself to put them in the wastepaper basket, but then decided that like Travis, I had to put Old Yeller down. I didn’t want them to sit in lost & found, feeling abandoned and wondering when I’d retrieve them. So I said my goodbyes (silently, in my head; I’m not crazy) and put them in the garbage for the maid.
Once I got home, I hurried to the store for a new set of curlers. My old curlers were probably 20 years old and yet I expected to see a new set of spiky white plastic Clairol Kindness curlers on the shelves. It was not to be. In their place were sets of modern, high-tech(ish) curlers with heat sensitive buttons and foam wraps. I bought the ones that looked easiest to use and headed home to try them out.
My new curlers are not my friends. They’re more like trendy girls in school, with their purple and black foam and shiny gold clips. They’re ├╝bercool. I’m not. They probably talk about me when I leave the bathroom. I think they’re messing with my hair on purpose because I’m having one bad hair day after another. I feel pressured to go buy some salon shampoo so they’ll like me.
I miss my Clairol Kindness friends. I take comfort in the fact that fictional Sue on The Middle knows what I’m going through. I just hope my hair doesn’t actually look like hers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Space Invaders

During my trip last summer to Paris and Brussels, I posted a picture and description of the "Space Invader" street art we saw ( We'd first learned about Space Invaders while watching Exit Through The Gift Shop and were excited to wander the streets in Europe in search of them.

Imagine my surprise in Germany when I was walking through our office building there and looked across the courtyard to the other wing and saw post-it notes forming a Space Invader in the window.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Independently Wealthy

People always ask, "what would you do if you won a million dollars?" The answer is easy: I'd travel. But winning a million dollars is an event; a once-in-a-lifetime circumstance. Face it, the money would eventually run out. It would be better to be independently wealthy.

So, what would I do if I were independently wealthy? The answer is almost the same: I'd be a travel blogger.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Kindness to Strangers

This is not the woman in the airport, of course, but a flower seller in Paris who looked something like her.

She sat in a seat near the gate; an archetype of the immigrant woman in her dark blue skirt, blouse, coat, heavy shoes, and blue scarf tied on her head. I sat near her as we waited to board the plane to Germany  and pulled my book out of my carry-on bag.

I'd barely opened it when she tapped me on the shoulder and held a piece of paper out to me. It was tucked into a protective plastic sleeve and on it was typed:

I do not speak English. Could I please borrow your phone to call my daughter in the United States. (616)###-####.
(I don't know the actual number.)

She held this in front of me and waited. Inside, I cringed. Why me? What was it about me that projected the word 'sucker', 'gullible', or 'mark'? Was this some type of scam? Was there some ulterior motive? Was she going to use my phone to charge thousands of dollars somehow? Her typed paper and plastic sleeve seemed too rehearsed, like the "mutes" who come up to people in tourist areas in Paris and San Francisco, with cards telling us they're mute and asking for donations.

I wanted to ignore her and pretend that I couldn't help. I wanted her to give up on me and go away. But there was something about her and her request seemed so simple. I decided to take a chance and hoped that I wasn't about to learn a costly lesson. So, I pulled out my phone and dialed the number on the paper. I heard the line ring on the other end and handed the woman the phone. She began talking rapidly in Russian while I sat near her and opened my book. It seemed legitimate after all.

Then suddenly, she handed the phone to me.

"Hello?" I said dubiously.

"Hello! Thank you for letting my mother use your phone! She doesn't speak any English and is trying to get home. Bless you. Can you find out where her bags are? She doesn't know where her bags are."


"Bless you. God will surely reward you."

At this point, the woman was holding a baggage claim sticker in her hand and thrusting it toward me. I looked at it and saw that it was marked with an airport code.

"She has her baggage claim ticket," I said to the daughter on the phone.

"But she doesn't know where her bags are. Please, can you find out?"

"I'll see what I can do," I said reluctantly, kicking myself for getting involved. I felt that I was somehow responsible for this woman now when all I'd wanted to do was be nice and let her use my phone and sit back and read my book until we boarded the flight. Instead, I found myself going to the ticket counter and explaining the situation to the ticket agent there. He listened to my tale and then walked over to the woman.

"She doesn't speak English," I told him. So he looked at her claim ticket and then asked for her boarding pass. She stared at him blankly and didn't respond. He looked around at the other passengers and asked whether anyone spoke Russian. One man did, so he came over and translated. He told her the ticket agent wanted to see her boarding pass and she answered in a fast, anxious flood of words.

"She says the boarding passes are in her luggage and that someone took them from her before her flight here. She says they gave her this ticket." (The baggage claim form.)

Dawning passed across the face of the ticket agent. He knew exactly what was going on. Knowing that the woman didn't speak English, the agents at the place where her flight originated had sent her carry-on bag ahead for the other agents to handle. He had her boarding passes at the gate and went to retrieve them. I called her daughter back and let her know that everything had been taken care of and that the agents had her bags.

"Bless you, bless you," she told me. I handed the phone to her mother so that they could say their goodbyes before we headed off to Europe. She smiled at me and grasped my hand in hers. I was suddenly so grateful that I hadn't let cynicism and skepticism keep me from helping this woman. It would have been so easy to have walked away, or feigned ignorance, or to have pretended not to understand that she was asking me for help. My initial reaction had been to shake my head and pretend I didn't have a phone. I didn't want to get involved. But afterward, I was so glad I had. I have relied on the kindness of strangers many times in my travels and it was finally my turn to reciprocate. I set out on my journey a little less jaded. I wish I could have thanked her for that.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Weihnachtsmarkte In Darmstadt

Luckily, the Darmstadt Weihnachtsmarkte started before we left Germany. Many others start next week and we were encouraged to extend our trip to stay for one of the Christmas Markets in the bigger towns like Frankfurt or Wiesbaden, but having no other experience, the Darmstadt Christmas Market was fine for us.

We wandered around smelling gingerbread and gluhwein (warm spiced wine) on the chilliest day here so far. We stopped and sampled bratwurst and German chocolates and wondered whether it was going to snow. We admired the Christmas decorations, candles and all the festivities and thought about putting our Christmas trees up back home. Then we spent our remaining Euros, wondered how we'd pack everything in our luggage, and called it a spectacular end to our German adventure.

Friday, November 25, 2011

I Think I Found Where Dr. Seuss Might Have Lived

Theodor Geisel doesn't actually have anything to do with this housing complex - at least, as far as I know. But when I first saw a picture of the Hundertwasser WaldSpirale building, I immediately pictured it as the place where Dr. Seuss would have lived.

In fact, this architectural design is the creation of Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasser was a painter, architect and philosopher with definite ideas of how people should live. He liked undulating floors and is quoted as saying, "an uneven floor is a melody to the feet." He also believed that people should be able to lean out their windows and paint as much as they could reach so that anyone looking at the window would know that an individual lived there. He felt that "human misery was a result of rational, sterile, monotonous architecture."

There is nothing montonous or sterile about his Wald Spirale (translates as forest spiral) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The residential complex has no right angles. It has no regularly sized windows. In fact, each window is unique. Trees grow out of some windows and along the roofline. The floors are uneven. There are turrets and zig zags and a rainbow of colors. I wanted to sit and look at it for hours. But after walking 45 minutes from my hotel to see it, intending to sit and study all of its nooks and crannies while I sipped a large coffee, I arrived to find that it was surrounded by other residential buildings and that there were no benches where I could sit and admire all the eccentricities before me.

So I stood there, snapping pictures as people arrived "home" and stepped out of their cars, laden with bags. I stood as a few people brought down their garbage to the well-hidden dumpsters. And then I stood a minute more as people scowled at me gawking at their apartment house as though I were a voyeur who was trying to figure out how I could get inside. (Okay, so they had me pegged correctly.) Reluctantly, I left.

If only Dr. Seuss HAD lived there. I think he would have invited me in.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey

Turkey Terms

The chef carving our turkey at our German
Thanksgiving meal. Es schmeckt gut!
 Poult - a baby turkey.  A chick.

Tom – a male turkey. Wild males are known as gobblers.

Flock - a group of turkeys.
Jake -  gobblers that are less than a year old.
Hen - a female turkey.

Jenny -  hens that are less than a year old.
Caruncle – the brightly colored growths on the throat region.  Turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.

Gizzard – the part of a turkey’s stomach that contains helps them grind up food for digestion.

Snood - the flap of skin that hangs over the turkey's beak.  Like the caruncle, it turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.

Wattle - the flap of skin under the turkey's chin. Like the caruncle and snood, it turns bright red when the turkey is upset or during courtship.

Beard -  feathers that grow out from the chest of male turkeys and some hens
Drag marks - marks left by gobblers when they strut. The wing feathers are dragged along the ground and look like someone drew a line in the sand.
Basted or Self-Basted — bone-in turkey products (such as whole birds) that are injected or marinated with a solution containing butter or other edible fat, broth, stock or water, plus spices, flavor enhancers and other approved substances should be labeled as “basted” or “self-basted.”
Free Range or Free Roaming — in order to use these terms on a label, poultry producers must provide a brief description of the bird’s housing conditions with the label when it is submitted for approval. The To be free range or free roaming, the birds have continuous, free access to the outdoors for more than 51 percent of their lives.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Shame Masks

In Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval city in the Franconia region of Germany, it is easy to walk along the cobblestoned paths that wind through the town and consider it nothing more than a picturesque throwback to older times. But a stop at the Kriminal Museum shows a very different side of those medieval times and life within its massive stone walls. There on display are iron maidens, witches chairs, neck violins, finger screws and at least a dozen shame masks.
The entire museum was fascinating, though I was especially drawn to the shame masks. All of them were made of iron and many were rusting with age. The masks ranged from simple bands of iron that (I’m guessing) were only  slightly uncomfortable to full iron head coverings with tongue depressors to stop one from talking.
Each mask was created for a specific crime and was meant to look ridiculous and encourage taunting from the other villagers. Imagine walking around the streets of your town and seeing your neighbors weighted down with shame masks fit to their crimes. Here are a few of the infractions punishable by shame masks:
Big nose - sticking it in other people's business
·         Pig masks worn by people who acted like pigs
·         Masks with tongue depressors to stop people from talking
·         Masks with long iron noses to signify those who stick their noses into other people’s business
·         A wolf mask to be worn by men who tell smutty jokes
·         A shame mask with bells, so everyone knows you’re coming
·         Masks with long ears and either sealed off or over-exaggerated mouths for those who listen and gossip too much
·         Masks with eyeglasses for those who see things they shouldn’t
·         And my personal favorite – a full iron mask with devil’s horns for those who have bad thoughts. (I think I’d try to keep mine secret.)

Shame Flute
The round part goes around the neck and
the finger are smashed beneath the iron
bar to give the illusion that the musician
is playing his instrument.

In addition to the masks there were greatly oversized necklaces of wooden dice for those caught cheating at games or who were unable to pay their debts. There was an enormous rosary with beads the size of softballs (I can’t remember if they were iron or wooden) that was worn as punishment by those who fell asleep in church or who didn’t show up to church. And they knew, because everyone had an assigned seat, so you’d better have been in it and reverently paying attention!
There were cages not much rounder than a bird’s cage that people were caged in. And an iron baker’s chair for bakers whose bread was too small or too light. They were strapped into the chair and then lowered repeatedly into water. There were even shame flutes for bad musicians. Their heads were put into a neck violin and then their fingers were crushed under an iron bar so that it looked like they were playing their instruments, but might never again.
Face it, no one could catch a break in medieval times. The town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber certainly looked pretty, but I’m glad I didn’t live there a few centuries ago.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

We spent Saturday wandering around Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a medieval town surrounded by a massive stone wall. We'd been warned that the crowds are typically very large and that Rothenburg can take on the illusion of being a make-believe medieval village along the lines of an amusement park rather than a real town that has been preserved. We found neither myth to be true.

There were crowds, but not swarms of people like we expected. We also wandered off the main drag of shops and were very well aware that people actually live in Rothenburg. Their houses and apartments were incredibly quaint and we thought it might be nice to live there. Or maybe not. Can a tourist town ever really feel like it's your own?

A montage of pictures is featured here. Similar to my experience on the Great Wall of China, I found that every time I put my camera down and looked up again, I was charmed all over and took another picture. It was just so beautiful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Popcorn and a Movie

Great concept, but could they add movie theater butter?
I know I was singing the praises of German immersion and re-learning the language. But after 10 days, I was craving a little English, ya know? A piece of home. So I went by the local Toys 'R Us and got a bag of freshly popped popcorn from this vending machine right inside the door. Then I found the pay-per-view movie channels on the hotel's TV and sat and watched Water for Elephants auf Englisch.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Weihnachtsmarkte is Coming!

In Germany, Christmas is something to be celebrated, and boy, do the Germans know how to do it! All across Germany (and in Austria and parts of Switzerland), some of the larger cities create Weihnachtsmarkte, or Christmas Markets, in their town squares. This looks something like a festival and each draws crowds by the thousands throughout the month of December.

As I walked through the market square in Darmstadt, I saw carpenters and shopkeepers starting to erect the booths and displays that will be Weihnachtsmarkte soon. A gigantic Christmas tree awaits trimming. Signs promising gluhwein (warm spiced wine) and Christmas cookies went up. Trucks crowded the market square unloading boxes and boxes of Christmas wares. Weihnachtsmarkte is coming! I can't wait!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Darmstadt, Germany

A restaurant near the Market Place in Darmstadt, Germany.
With one training class behind me now and one to go, I was finally able to leave the hotel and wander around the city I'm in. Darmstadt is located in Hessen, not far from Frankfurt. It actually has a few notorious claims to fame, if one does some research. During the rise of Nazi Germany, Darmstadt was the first city in which Jews were forced to close their shops.  Some years later, 3,000 of these Jews were taken to concentration camps.  It is also the city where Ecstasy was invented. Darmstadt doesn't advertise these facts. I found them on my own while looking for things to do because Darmstadt is not a tourist destination; more a place where people live and work. There is also a university here, and some interesting churches and architecture to look at as one walks around. So that's what I did. I walked around.

To me, the architecture is beautiful, though many of the buildings/structures/houses I saw were not marked as anything special. The streets around the city center and market place are cobblestone, which always makes a city seem quaint to me. They are pedestrian traffic only and here I found exactly what I wanted to find: two used bookstores that had some books in English, a library, a Starbucks and currywurst. Currywurst is the street food that I'd hoped to find, but thought I might not unless I headed farther north in Germany. (I wrote about currywurst here: )
It was delicious!

So stomach full, re-caffeinated, and book in hand, I sat in the city center and watched the crowds. It was a wonderful afternoon. I'm glad I didn't let Darmstadt's Nazi and drug-laden past keep me away. Though truth be told, those little character flaws might have drawn me to it in the first place. Maybe the tour books ought to mention those.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

I wish I had a picture of a flapper from the 1920’s to post alongside this brief book review. Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl was such a fun chick lit novel with a double entendre in its title that it deserves a more compelling picture than this car.
Twenty-seven year old Lara Lington attends the funeral of her 105-year-old great aunt Sadie and is suddenly startled to discover that Sadie’s ghost is in the room.  But she is not embodied as the old woman she became, but rather as the young 23-year-old woman she was in the 1920’s. She says that she always felt like she was 23 no matter how old she looked on the outside. Kinsella captured my thoughts exactly. In my mind, I’m still 25.
Sadie wants to know where her necklace is and won’t rest until it is found. Feeling guilty at never having gotten to know her great aunt, Lara agrees to help find the necklace. During the course of this search, Lara and Sadie get to know each other better through zany antics that could only happen by having an invisible helper.
Kinsella is known for her easy-to-read style and humor. She had a lot of fun exploring the possibilities of having a ghost in her novel and that fun comes through on every page.  Throughout the book we’re given glimpses of lifestyles, fashion, and what society was like back in the 1920’s. This may be the only time I’ve ever thought to myself that I wish I’d lived in that era. Or maybe I should be glad that I just escaped into the ‘20s for a day while I read the book.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Breaking Dawn

My daughter won tickets to the preview of Breaking Dawn last night. She and her father went. (Drat me being in Germany!!) No spoilers here. I'll just share their reactions:

"This was the best one yet."

"This is my new favorite."

They both really liked it. The only thing that surprised me is that my daughter suddenly switched from Team Edward to Team Jacob. Hhmmm... I'm trying to remember the book. I never switched allegiance. I wonder why she did?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

German Immersion

Looking up toward the Heidelberg Castle

Unlike many other countries I've visited in the past few years, Germany presents itself to the world auf Deutsch. The billboards and signs are not in English. Neither are television programs, airport announcements, or labels. There may be a couple of English menus in restaurants, but the Germans do not find it necessary to make things bilingual. When in Germany, sprechen Sie Deutsch.

This could be a little intimidating if you don't speak German. Luckily, I do. Or did. I took four years of German in high school and traveled to Germany the summer of my sophomore year as an exchange student. I was pretty sure that I would recognize enough words on my trip here to get by. Besides, most of the people I've met here do speak English, though I've found that they typically only speak English to the Americans and British and continue speaking German amongst themselves even when English-speakers are involved in the conversation.

I think of this as German immersion, and it has worked. I am becoming more and more fluent in German each day and am thrilled by this turn of events.

Two nights ago I flipped through the television channels and found "Glee" and "King of Queens." They were dubbed in German, but I've seen the episodes and easily followed along. (I did find it interesting that all the songs the Glee kids performed were in English, and Doug's name was changed to something else on King of Queens. Not to mention the fact that a Brooklyn accent doesn't really come across in German.)  I picked up a few words here and there.

Then last night I flipped to a channel and found a Piper Perabo movie on. It's not one I've ever seen, but it looked like a romantic comedy, so I decided to watch it while I worked and found that I understood most of it. I was thrilled and felt quite accomplished.

This morning I turned on the television and flipped through a few channels as I got dressed and then realized that it took me a moment to realize that when I heard a few English words, they were English. I found that amusing. Then I went to the training course that I'm in Germany for. As I went through the hallways, a German stranger came up to me and asked me a question in German and I was able to answer her back. Ja wohl!

I still have another week in Germany and am hoping that I become more fluent as the days progress and I continue to be immersed in German. It truly is the way to learn a language. Well, that and four years of German classes beforehand.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Mercedes-Benz Museum

My friend and her husband are really into cars. I didn't know this about them until we started driving down the Autobahn and both of them were nearly salivating over all the Mercedes, Porsches, BMWs and assorted European sportscars whizzing past us. So we decided to go to the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. The Porsche Museum is right next to it, but we only had time for one.

I'm not a car person, but I'm game for anything. This wasn't something I would have ever done on my own, so embraced the new experience and "went along for the ride." 

The museum itself is a very precise-looking chrome building. When you enter, you're given an audio guide and take the elevator up to the 7th floor. That starts the journey of the German automotive industry -- which seemed very similar to the alleged American automotive industry journey, or so I thought. We learned right away that Benz and Daimler designed the first automobile. I went along with it and then thought - wait a minute. Doesn't Henry Ford make the same claim? So I asked the experts: my two friends. They conceded that Daimler was the first, but we had a nice long discussion on how interesting it was that three different men were working on the same idea at the same time in history.

We moved along, winding down the spiral floors as we traveled in time through Mercedes-Benz history. We looked at cars from the 1930's, then '40's, etc. etc., hitting a different era on each floor. My friends were in heaven. They picked out which cars they wanted and took picture after picture of themselves with their dream cars. The cars meant nothing to me, but I enjoyed watching them ogle the machinery.

That's what they are to me: machines. I can barely tell one car from another and often don't remember the make and model of my own car until I take a moment to think about it. So the cars meant nothing to me. There was no personal connection. UNTIL... we saw Princess Diana's Mercedes. She was criticized for having too fine a car and so got rid of it. Her Mercedes now sat next to the Popemobile in the museum. I found myself inches away from Princess Diana's Mercedes! She'd sat in it, lifted the handle, adjusted the mirrors. She'd touched it! NOW I was interested.

We continued our journey, finishing our journey near the race cars that bear the Mercedes-Benz name. My friends continued taking pictures and dreaming of the cars they'd collect if they ever won the lottery. As we left, they wanted to make sure that I'd had a good time and hadn't been too bored. Bored? No way! I saw Princess Di's car!

This Mercedes-Benz belonged to Princess Diana.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Soccer Tournament

Looking down on the Mercedes-Benz Arena, where I later walked down and watched a German soccer practice.

My 11-year-old daughter's soccer team made it all the way to the state tournaments this weekend. The Stingrays were a wonderful team in the true sense of the word. There were no particular stand-out players; they all played well and played together. It was a fun season to watch.

Unfortunately, I missed her game, but happened to be standing outside the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Stuttgart, Germany, watching young men play soccer on the field there as her game was happening back in the States. It made me reflect on the past ten seasons that she's played, and how many more there might be in her future.

When she first started, the game barely resembled what we know as soccer. The coaches stood out on the field with the kids, physically moving them to their positions and then running alongside the kids, giving instruction as the game continued. It was more like a soccer swarm; the kids started out in positions and then all moved as a group, following the ball around the field. They didn't know what they were doing or which direction they were heading. All they knew was that they were supposed to kick the ball.

Then they started to learn how to dribble, and pass, and play their positions. As the seasons and levels progressed, they learned fancy foot moves and stops. They learned the more intricate rules of the game and got more aggressive. As I watched the young men on the field I thought their game was not much different than my daughter's team now. They may have been a little more spread out, kicked the ball harder, and perhaps ran a bit faster, but it was otherwise similar and was fun to watch.

My daughter's team lost 2-0. I believe the girls are mature enough to realize that this was an incredible feat. Not only did they make it to the state tournaments, but they played the best of the best and held the other team to 2 points. It was a victory in my book and I was sorry to miss it but luckily, we still have many soccer seasons ahead. I look forward to going to state tournaments in the future.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Castle Keepers

The side of the Heidelberg Castle in Germany is adorned with a row of lions. These lions don't look all that intimidating to me. Not like gargoyles or anything. But lions are a part of the Heidelberg crest. So I started thinking that if I had a castle, I'd have a row of my dog's head representing/protecting our home. Surely our little brown camera-loving beagle would keep people away.

Okay, maybe not.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

5 Burning Questions When You're Traveling On Business

Another nice hotel room. This one is at the Dorint in Frankfurt.

1. Do you speak English?
I am always relieved, yet sadly dismayed, that nearly everyone in the world says 'yes.'

2. Do you take American Express?
I am always relieved when the answer is 'yes,' which is not that often. I've learned to carry a lot of cash, which seems unwise, but necessary.

3. Are you supposed to tip the taxi driver?
I'm such an American. No wonder the world thinks we're rich! I am thrusting money at everyone who so much as looks at me. Not everyone tips taxi drivers and restaurant servers. It seems like they should be thrilled to see me coming.

4. Can you call me a taxi?
It's easy to get from the hotel to wherever you're going, but getting back may not be so easy. And taxi drivers rarely speak English.

5. When can I go home?
Don't get me wrong. I LOVE to travel, but sometimes it gets a little too George Clooney Up in the Air-ish. I'm a little too familiar with airports, airlines and hotel rooms right now. I miss my my family. This weekend I'm missing my daughter's state soccer tournament, her school carnival, her awards assembly, and too many other small moments that I just won't get back. Business travel is fine, but I'd rather be seeing the world with my family.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fresh Meat

After my trans-Atlantic flight, my co-worker took me to the office and then to a mass retailer in Germany to buy supplies for our upcoming training classes. As we passed by the meat section, I had to stop and snort out a laugh. Maybe it's the jet lag, but I found it oddly humorous that the "Fresh Meat" signs in their meat department looked like they were painted with blood spatters. Slap happy, I then wondered if these signs were done in bad taste? (Pun intended. I know it's bad, but I'm tired.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

No Winner This Time

In September, I took part in the WritersWeekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. I wasn't one of the winners this time. We were given this writing prompt and had 24 hours to craft a story. Think about where you might take this story.

She was standing on the porch of a sagging cabin with bright
yellow leaves collecting around her feet. As the cold wind
billowed her skirt, she shivered and wondered if the owner
of the purse really lived here. She knocked timidly and the
door quickly opened, revealing a tiny girl holding a
hideous, bald doll...

Here's where I took mine:
A quilt on display at the Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Alone in the Woods 

Celia stood on the porch of the sagging cabin. Bright yellow leaves collected around her feet. As the cold wind billowed her skirt, she shivered. Did the owner of the satchel really live here? She knocked timidly and the door opened, revealing a tiny girl holding a hideous, bald doll with one hand, the thumb of her other hand stuck firmly in her mouth.

“Where’s your mama?” Celia asked.

Beck looked back at her, unspeaking. She sucked on her thumb and clutched her doll to her chest as Celia looked beyond her into the cabin. It was completely bare, save some scattered leaves on the floor. The only sign of life was the small black girl before her.

“It’s okay. You can tell me where your mama is. Or your papa.”

Beck remained silent. Celia turned around, searching through the rustling trees for an adult, or anyone else who might answer her questions. Seeing no one, she turned back to Beck. She thrust the calico-patched satchel toward the girl.

“I found this. Back that-aways,” she said as she waved toward the forest behind her. “Does it belong to your mama?”

The small girl’s eyes grew wide. Her thumb popped out of her mouth as she reached for the bag. Celia held it at arm’s length and studied the girl.

“It is your mama’s, isn’t it? Where is she?”

Beck didn’t answer, but instead looked into the woods beyond Celia. She darted out onto the porch and ran past Celia, heading toward the area where Celia said she’d found the bag. Celia remained on the porch, unsure whether to follow. She thought about leaving the bag and hurrying home. Her own father was sure to get angry if he discovered she’d been traipsing through the woods where Negroes were hiding.

Celia was pulled from her reverie by the sound of a small voice in the distance. “Mama!” Beck cried balefully.

Celia watched as Beck tripped over a tree root and fell to the ground. She let out a soulful cry and remained where she lay, calling for her mother again and again. No one answered. The silence that met the two girls was final. It was only Beck and Celia in these woods.

Celia slung the satchel over her shoulder and crunched through the leaves toward Beck’s small, weeping body. As she approached, she heard Beck mewling “Mama” like a kitten into the rich, dark soil of the earth beneath her. Celia reached down and shook her gently.

“I’m not going to hurt you.” Beck remained in place, unmoving. She reminded Celia of an animal playing dead. “Let’s get up and go inside, okay? It’s cold.”

Beck remained still. Celia stood and peered through the trees again, hoping that someone would come to her rescue and take over. She was just a girl herself and didn’t know what to do about this small child before her. But no one came.

Celia stooped down and tugged at Beck’s arm. “Come on, now. You’re going to freeze.” Beck did not respond. “Let’s go inside and wait for your mama.”

At that, Beck finally turned her head and looked up at Celia, who loomed over her as tall as a tree herself. Beck glanced around and came to the same conclusion that Celia had; the two were alone in the woods.

Beck slowly rose to her feet and walked beside Celia back to the cabin. “What are you and your mama doing out here anyway? It doesn’t look like you live here.”

A sudden thought crossed Celia’s mind. “You all aren’t slaves trying to escape are you?” She held the satchel out from her body and looked at it suspiciously. “Is that why your mama was carrying a bag out in the woods? To carry all your things?”

Beck didn’t answer. Her thumb found its way into her mouth again and she clutched her doll tightly to her chest. Celia watched her and snuck a hand out to touch the raggedy doll’s bald head. “What’s your doll’s name?”

Beck didn’t answer.

“You don’t say much, do you?” Celia asked. “You are a slave, aren’t you?”

The small girl gave no response. “I know you are,” Celia continued.  “Who were you here with? Your mama? Papa? Do you have brothers or sisters?”

Beck’s silence was maddening.

“I could turn you all in, you know,” Celia said sharply. “I was just trying to be nice, returning that satchel I found on the ground. The least you could do is answer me.”

At the mention of the satchel, Beck reached out again and touched the worn fabric. “Mama,” she said softly.

“Where is she?” 

Beck began to cry. Celia took a deep breath and searched the cabin and the woods one more time. They were still alone. She felt a wash of relief. She was sure to get in trouble if she got caught playing in the woods. She’d be in even more trouble if her father thought she was helping Negroes hide.

“Take it,” Celia said as she thrust the bag into Beck’s tiny hands. “But don’t tell anybody that I’m the one that gave it to you. Understand? Nobody.”

Beck dropped the doll and hugged her mother’s bag to her chest.

“You tell anyone I was here and I’ll make sure they hang your ma. Got it?”

Beck nodded, her eyes wide with fright as Celia raced out the door. Then she sat on the floor, thumb in mouth, and waited for her mama.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Day After

A classroom in Haiti, where I doubt they take education for granted. (I am in a really foul mood.)

The election results were a disappointment in our house. Our school levy failed. Again. My first reaction on mornings like this is to think about moving. Where can we go where the residents understand and appreciate how valuable our schools are? Why don't the people in our community who don't support our schools just leave? We're a bedroom community with excellent schools. That's the main attraction in living here.

But then I just sigh, slump my shoulders, and shake my head. I live in a community where people live well beyond their means. Now, with our economy in turmoil, they can't afford the increased property taxes. Or so they claim. Let's just cut to the chase: they can't afford the houses they live in. The property taxes are just the icing on the cake.

So, it's a typical 'Day After' for me. I vacillate between wanting my nay-sayer neighbors to move, or wanting to move myself, leaving them to the scraps of education they've reduced our schools to.

I hate the day after Election Day. Someone always ends up feeling defeated, and for the past few years it's been me.

(Okay, the pity party and ranting are over.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Once a Book Hoarder, Always a Book Hoarder

If you look around my house you will find bookshelves in every room. Even the bathrooms and kitchen. My husband and I LOVE books - not just reading them, but being surrounded by them. I cannot pass by a stack of books, whether it be at yard sales, bookstores, thrift stores, or other people's houses without stopping to examine them and salivating a little at the thought of holding them.

I've mentioned before that I do actually get rid of them through Bookcrossing. I read them and release them all over the world. But my stacks never actually dwindle because as soon as I get rid of one, I find myself buying 2 or 3 to take its place.

I've tried to trace the roots of my book hoarding obsession and think I can follow it back to 1st grade when I learned to read and couldn't get enough of books. I was in Mrs. Montgomery's class. We had those old elementary school desks that had a hinged desktop that lifted up to reveal the storage space beneath it. That was where you were supposed to keep your pencils, crayons, paper, glue and scissors. I kept those there, along with a dozen or so library books.

During class, I'd often surreptitiously lift the lid and read a few lines of the page I kept open inside my desk. Every chance I got, I was reading and hiding new books in my desk. I got away with it for a while, until I finally had so many books crammed in there that my desk top wouldn't close. Mrs. Montgomery lifted the lid and discovered my hoard. I had dozens of school library books hidden inside, along with all the requisite papers and crayons.

I was in big trouble, apparently. Mrs. Montgomery scolded me and told me I had to stay inside during recess and clean out my desk. I laugh to this day at the fruitlessness of this "punishment." Skip recess and lovingly look through the accumulated books in my desk? I feigned shame at my crime. But truly, it's a miracle that episode didn't turn me into an early childhood delinquent.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Kerfuffle Over Snollygosters

Newbery Honor author Ingrid Law
OKI Children's Literature Conference, November 5, 2011

During the OKI Children's Literature Conference this past weekend, Newbery Honor Winner Ingrid Law (author of Savvy and Scumble) shared her love of word play. She prefaced it by talking about the time she brought a robin's egg shell to school and exclaimed, "Look what I brang!"

Despite being criticized by her teacher for incorrect grammar, or perhaps because of it, Law grew up to love words and word play. When she comes across an interesting word, she jots it down on paper, collecting the sounds and meanings like other people collect stamps.

Here are a few of her favorites:

snollygoster - a clever, unscrupulous person; a crooked politician

sardoodledum - Dramatic works with exaggerated, contrived, trivial, or deplorable plots; soap opera; melodrama

scumbleto soften (the color or tone of a painted area) by overlaying parts with opaque or semiopaque color applied thinly and lightly with an almost dry brush.

And a few of mine:

kerfuffle - a disturbance, a fuss, or a commotion.

bissextile - A leap year; A year having an extra day. (Okay, I like this word because my husband is a leapling, or Leap Year baby.)

gargoyle  (though to be honest, I'm not sure whether it's the world I like, or just gargoyles I like).

January  I just really like the sound of January.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Using Animals in Children's Literature

Keiko Kasza shares her illustrations at the OKI Children's Literature Conference
November 5, 2011
Thomas More College, Kentucky

When I took a Children's Literature class in college, we discussed the reasons that so many works include animals as characters instead of people. The major reason seemed to be that children can relate to animals in stories because animals are the only creatures lower than them on the power scale. Meaning, children often feel powerless, but are one level above the powerlessness of animals.

Author/illustrator Keiko Kasza offered three different reasons that she chooses to use animals as the characters in her picture books (The Wolf's Chicken Stew, My Lucky Day, A Mother for Choco, The Dog Who Cried Wolf, etc.). In her keynote address at the OKI Children's Literature Conference yesterday, she gave these three reasons:

1. They're cute and fun.
2. She says she can't draw humans as well as animals, and doesn't have to worry about figuring out
    body types and human characteristics.
3. Animals give her books universal appeal.

She may have been half-joking about the first two reasons, but was very deliberate about the third. Her books have been translated into more than 14 languages and are universally accepted. By using animals, she doesn't have to worry about depicting a certain race or culture in negative ways. She doesn't have to worry about balancing various cultures in her artwork in ways that she might need to with humans.

Plus, the animals give her artistry a sense of whimsy. Her characters are cute and fun, just as she says in her first point. The stories may feature animals, but they definitely center around issues that children may face. Her animals solve the problems themselves, empowering themselves in ways that children may learn from.

All of that is wonderful, of course, but the main reason to read her books is for the stories. They're fun and beautifully illustrated. They're everything that picture books for young children should be.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Happiness Balloons

I sometimes get email updates from Jonathan Harris - a sociologist who travels around the world doing all sorts of interesting projects. I heard Jonathan speak at a conference I attended in 2010, which inspired me to start this blog. He's often in various parts of the world doing unusual experiments. It's always fun to get email updates on what they are.

Jonathan's latest email was about a project he did in Bhutan in 2007 in which he interviewed people there and asked them to rate their happiness on a scale of 1-10. The full story and pictures can be found here:

Mimicking Jonathan again, I did my own little experiment. (Very little.) I asked a dozen Americans to rate their happiness on the 1-10 scale. I did not expect the results to be very high. I consider Americans to be a people constantly searching for happiness. Still, I was surprised to find that I was right.

No one said 10 when I asked them this question. For the most part, people said 8 or 9. Some people wouldn't answer me, suspicious of the question. We're not such a happy-go-lucky people. I found it sad that not even the two children I asked could answer with a 10.

Where do I rate my own happiness? I give myself a 9. The only thing keeping me from a 10 is my job, so I can't complain too much. I probably shouldn't complain at all since I'm lucky enough to have a good job. Still, if I didn't have to work, I wouldn't. I counted that as a point off my happiness quotient.

I think Jonathan Harris was wise to conduct his experiment in a country where the King values the happiness quotient of his people. Though we're a country whose foundation is built on the right to pursue happiness, it seems to elude us. I'm sure if Jonathan did his experiment in several countries, America would rank higher than most other parts of the world. But not higher than Bhutan, based on my simple calculations. I wonder why the people there are so happy?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Why I Love County Fairs

I'm sure that as a child, I loved going to the fair for the rides and the colorful game booths; the chances to throw a dart at a balloon or ring a bottle to win a decalled mirror or giant stuffed animal. We ate funnel cakes and corn dogs. Calliope music played as we walked the midway, sniffing a mixture of popcorn and cow manure in the air.

Okay, maybe the cow manure smell doesn't sound like a pleasant memory of the fair. But it was, and still is. It's a comforting smell from childhood. It's home.

I grew up in southwestern Ohio before it was subdivision after subdivision. We used to have neighborhoods -- not gated, and not named. Just neighborhoods that were simply defined by the proximity of main streets and side roads. Often these neighborhoods ended as soon as there were houses with acreage, or fields, or farms. Southwestern Ohio was still largely farmland.

We'd drive along the roads with our windows rolled down, cresting over the hilly country roads as manure-scented air wafted through the backseats. We'd zoom by cornfields and cow pastures. We'd see clothes hanging out on the line and vegetable gardens and septic tanks flanking either side of the small brick ranch houses. I could imagine the interiors; the houses and lifestyles in Butler County all seemed pretty much the same. The individuality came out in the county fairs. That's where one could see the similarities between county residents and also see who excelled at their crafts.

Everyone grew pickles or pumpkins or cucumbers, didn't they? But did everyone excel at it? The prized garden vegetables were submitted to the county fair. Where else could one win a ribbon for nurturing and growing large, healthy vegetables? Or showcase their quilts and knitting and nature photography?

I love the art display buildings at the fair. I love wandering along and admiring the needlepoint works, and the precise stitching on sewn goods. I study the paintings and sketches and photography. There's some real talent in our area. I especially like the artwork that depicts life in our county. It's somehow transformed into something more beautiful than just the backdrop for our lives.

The pies, the cakes, the cornstalks, the gardenias -- all of the best homegrown/homemade goods to be prized. We get an inner glimpse at the lives of our neighbors: Stella Adams crimps the edges of her pies by hand. Nora Jacobs uses a fork. Henry Thompson grows vidalia onions the size of a cantaloupe. Stew Pickens breeds hybrid roses.

What treasures we have in our county and its residents. The week of the fair is a time to embrace that and appreciate and admire the roots of our county life. Oh sure, it's still fun to take a spin on the Tilt-O-Whirl, and look out over the race track from the top of the ferris wheel after your powdered sugar rush from funnel cakes, but to fully enjoy the fair, you need to step off the midway and into the arts buildings and see what talent has grown in your county. Much of it fertilized by the cows in the next building...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bad Day

I had to let someone go today. Sadly, it was a reflection of the volatile economic times. Call it downsizing, or a layoff, or whatever you want to call it. The bottom line is that we’re cutting our work force and it started with her.
If you’ve never been in this situation, you’re lucky. I do not relish this duty at all. It’s awkward from the moment you start walking toward that person, to asking her to go with you to talk privately, to sitting down across from her and thanking her for all the hard work she’s done, but…
My co-worker says I handled it beautifully with kid gloves and sensitivity. I hope so, but don’t feel any better about the fact that I know this woman’s income is gone, and that she was planning a vacation next March, and that we had to walk out of that room and back to our desks and finish our days as though we hadn’t just emerged from a huddle room with a plan to terminate her employment.
If it hasn’t happened to you, then it’s difficult to describe your demeanor afterward; the distance, the wall you put up between yourself and the rest of your officemates as you finish out the day and try to give the newly displaced person some dignity. I tried to walk away and let her have some privacy to speak freely about her feelings among her colleagues. I tried to tone down any frivolity that might have come up as a routine part of my day. I tried to stay somber and professional when all I really wanted to do was go home and not have to face her anymore.
I tried to imagine myself anywhere else and watched the clock until it was finally over.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fat Pants

We pulled these off the rack at the local thrift store.

I think most women have at least one pair of "fat pants" - loose pants that you pull on when you're feeling bloated, big, or just need to feel comfortable. We often like to fool ourselves into thinking that our fat pants are somehow flattering, or at least disguise some of the "fat" that caused us to wear them in the first place. We certainly don't want to draw attention to ourselves on days like these, so I think the fat pants I picture here are out. I don't think I'd even wear them on a "skinny" day.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Third Time's A Charm?

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month at starts again today. Despite my upcoming travel and heavy workload, I decided to take part again. In fact, that's exactly why I decided to participate -- so that I do not lose sight of my writing life. Work could so easily get in the way. I'm not going to let it.

I first did NaNoWriMo two years ago when I completed my 50,000-word middle-grade novel The Witch Wore Pink. That was a huge high; a great accomplishment, and is work that I continue to be proud of.

Last year I started an alien abduction mystery I titled Out Of This World, but dropped out at the 32,000-word mark. I was stuck and couldn't figure out how to finish. I wish I'd persevered. I still want to finish that novel someday.

Today begins my third NaNoWriMo. I have no idea what I plan to write. I only vaguely know that it will be adult fiction, and I have my main character's name.  But what she does and how the novel will play out is completely unknown. I'm hoping that I will find that freeing. At least freeing enough to get me to 50,000 words of craptastic fiction. (We're encouraged to write crap. It's a first draft, after all.) We'll see how it goes. Hopefully the third time's a charm.