Impossible things to try before breakfast: Bicycle Gymnasts and JINX’S MAGIC

Two gymnasts riding the same bike. One standing on 1 leg with 1 arm in the air.
Things you never knew were possible on a bike. © Jan Decher, 2015.

What makes us decide to try impossible things? A thing can call to us, but we still don’t try it. Some of it must be inborn and some must be the recognition that a thing is possible.

In Crossing Unmarked Snow, William Stafford captures the “inborn” part beautifully.

The things you do not have to say make you rich. Saying things you do not have to say weakens your talk. Hearing things you do not need to hear dulls your hearing. And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are why you are in the world.

This weekend, I went to a summer festival for the local YMCA. Three bicycle gymnasts put on a show. Most of what we saw looked impossible. How do you learn to stand (on feet or hands!) on bike handlebars while the bike circles the floor? A bicycle pivots at the handlebars. We’re talking acrobatics with traveling scissors. Generosity was so evident. The performance was free and stellar: concentration, coordination among the riders, and now I can’t even remember if there was music. I was too busy clapping.

It’s so miraculous when something impossible works. Ice skaters, musicians, dancers, and others practice and practice, but when the performance comes, it’s still miraculous. My husband said afterwards: “They have so much CONTROL over their bodies.”

The encore was a fleet of smaller bikes for kids 6-12 to try out. Little kids lined up right away. Older kids looked on regretfully from the sidelines.

I still couldn’t imagine myself doing a handstand on a moving bike, so I went to help at the used book stand. A customer handed me a stack of books and beamed.

“How much work goes into writing a book?” She smiled, shaking her head. “I can’t even imagine.”

Since I’ve been writing fiction for a long time now, I can imagine that very easily. It looks impossible when you see only the finished product. But with consistent work, a miraculous fragment or two becomes less rare.

So much so, that the audience continually raises the bar. “We’ve seen that already.” Once you’ve proved that something can be done, nothing is the same. If you want to amaze people again, you have to create something else.

This weekend, I read JINX’S MAGIC and marveled over author Sage Blackwood’s performance. I was completely immersed in the story until the very end. Not an easy feat in a sequel.

Jinx’s learning style made me think of the bicycle gymnasts. He learns magic by climbing inside a spell and seeing how it works.

The bicycle gymnasts pitted their muscle control, balance, and ability to work together against gravity, acceleration, and painful falls. They kept coming up with new twists and combinations until you were sure they were going to fall off.

What kept me reading in JINX’S MAGIC was the tension between the characters. Were they on Jinx’s side or not? Would they support him at the critical moment or let him fall? I wondered if Jinx would make the right choices for his own life and for the Urwald. It makes me want to climb into the novel and take it apart so I can see how it works.

Author Joanna Penn commented that one of her goals is to show society that it’s possible to make a living with art.

Both JINX’S MAGIC and the bicycle gymnasts showed me unexpected possibilities. You have to see that something is possible before you start walking down that road to a new adventure. It doesn’t even have to be very possible. Just imaginable.

 

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What do Babies and Manuscripts Have in Common?

Baby gray flamingoes in a flock of pink adults.
Baby flamingoes are gray and wobbly. But then they grow up. Weltvogelpark Walsrode, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

How is a manuscript like a baby? These baby flamingoes in Weltvogelpark Walsrode don’t look anything like their parents.

I’m thinking about the time when my mom came to visit and I had a new baby in the house. I was obsessed at the time with the number of errands I could accomplish before the baby put an end to them.

We lived in snowy Minnesota and doing errands with a new baby was a major expedition. It meant packing the snow-suited child in a thrift store perambulator with a down pillow as a blanket. The snowplows clear the streets, but they throw up snow walls on either side, blocking the sidewalks’ connection to the streets.

The snow is a mix of salt, sand, ice, and snow and, after a few wind-chilled days, settles into a concrete-like mass only accessible to goats. (No complaints, mind you, this sort of physical activity can help a new mother avoid depression and find her waistline.) The other advantage to packing up a child is that you don’t have to heave them in and out of the car and wake them up. I proved very early that three errands were the maximum allowed.

The other option was the car. It’s embarrassingly unenvironmental and wickedly convenient. I once took a visiting Dutch conservation biologist on a tour of all available drive-throughs in our neighborhood. We had a pay-at-the-pump gas station, and a drive-through drugstore, bank, and county library. That’s four.

My mom made a mild comment. “Babies grow up you know. One day, the baby will suddenly be able to do something she couldn’t.”

I didn’t know. Our children are now 21 and 14 and they do all the amazing things other peoples’ children do (and more 🙂 of course). You’d think I knew how this worked by now, but growth still takes me by surprise.

Right now, many #pitchwar contest hopefuls are waiting to see if their manuscripts have unexpectedly grown-up. Like any field of endeavor, writing fiction involves a long list of skills to practice. Maybe today, our strengths are dialogue, pacing, and persistence. Tomorrow, we may find a new vehicle for our story, and achieve a new high in plotting, humor, or voice. “No” doesn’t mean failure. It means “not yet.”

We may yet find a way to delight.

Good luck Pitch Warriors! Many thanks to Brenda Drake and the 108 Amazing Mentors! (They have to be capitalized because they are.)

 

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Rituals for Starting Work: medieval construction, coal mining, printing presses

Detailed 3D model of castle, church, moat and outbuildings. Schloss Horst Museum, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Model of medieval construction workers building Schloss Horst.

Over the weekend, I visited a castle, the Schloss Horst Museum in Gelsenkirchen, a printing press, the Historische Druckwerkstatt that offered a trip to the age of lead, and a coal mine, Bergbaustollen Nordsternpark.

Schloss Horst turned out to be a museum that drops you into the everyday life of the past. Animal sound effects, dust, sand, realistic puddles, and holes in the fence for the medieval supervisors to judge their workers’ industriousness completed the medieval construction site. There was also slate-chipping to try, medieval clothes to try on, and a room-sized model of the village as it must have been.

We walked by the table where the workers were paid. Each worker had a split stick–one half was his receipt and the other have belonged to the paymaster. Grooves cut across the stick showed how many hours had been worked.

Our tour guide showed us how to use a wooden table as a visual adding machine and money conversion tool. He was so fast laying down coins and moving them to the next marking on the table, I couldn’t take any pictures. He said people of the time would’ve been much faster. Personally, I would find a line of construction workers holding sticks to be highly motivational.

In the print shop, there was a newspaper article about the printers’ “Gautschfest” subtitled “Freisprechung der Lehrlinge” (literally: the ceremony of speaking the apprentices free) showing a stoic apprentice being doused in a barrel of water.

After our tour of the coal mine, our group leader was invited to don “an apron for the backside.” One coal miner then held a huge shovel behind her and the other struck the shovel with a hammer so it resounded like a gong.

Not sure why rituals give us something to push against. Maybe we feel like we belong, or feel a bit more in control when we know the proper response. A little bit of ridiculousness comforts us when we are set loose in the cold, dark world.

The coal miners had a greeting ritual before they went down in the mines: “Glück auf!” In English, the word “Glück” means something between gladness and luck, which is probably what it feels like when you come up from the mines at the end of your shift.

"Glück auf!" engraved in white on a black stone. Miners pre-shift greeting and mine shaft.
Best wishes for this week, whichever mines you work.

So I wish you “Glück auf!” on this Monday morning.

 

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Past Adventures: Stories of Immigration

Double-masted sailing ship in Bremerhaven harbor
For many people, Bremerhaven was the gateway to a new life in the new world. © Laurel Decher, 2015.

Last week, my family and I visited the German Emigration Museum in northern Germany. The museum is in Bremerhaven, literally “Bremen’s harbor”, so there are ships, a complicated harbor lock, and lighthouses. From the outside, the museum is big and square, but the inside is much more like a Disney experience.

At the ticket counter, we were each given a passport with a key card and a person’s name and invited to follow that person’s story through the museum. We waited on the wharf at night, boarded the huge ship and got to see the accommodations for each era of immigration–most were pretty terrifying. Then we “arrived” at immigration and eventually at Grand Central Station in New York City.

Having made this trip many times ourselves, it was really, really easy to imagine ourselves in the plight of our relatives. Would we have cleared immigration in those days? Would we have had all the right answers to the border crossing questions?

My husband’s aunt emigrated to the U.S. and my great-grandparents on both sides did too. The museum provides laptops so you can find out what ships your own relatives traveled on, what ports they left from, and other interesting details. It’s a surprisingly fun detective activity to do with your kids.

You can research your past even if you can’t get to Bremerhaven using a free trial membership for 14 days on Ancestry.com or with the free Ellis Island passenger search.

Within the frame of a museum, their hardship looks like a grand adventure. It helped us frame our own adventure, in the opposite direction, when we immigrated to Germany three years ago. It makes me want to write a story with time-travel.

 

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Four Paintings for Writers in Cologne’s Wallraf Museum

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“The Art of Poetry” by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Wallraf Museum. Cologne.
Man lost in book in a big, green chair with feet propped up on books.
“Don Quichote” by Adolf Schrödter. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
Letters with red sealing wax, a comb, other things you might find on a dressing table.
“Quodlibet” by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.

Painting of Snowwhite asleep in a glass case in the forest. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
“Schneewittchen” [Snow White] by Marianne Stokes. Wallraf Museum, Cologne.
The magical inscription on this painting reads: “We cannot lay her in the dark earth,” said the dwarfs and so they had a transparent glass coffin made so that she could be seen from every side laid her in it and wrote on it her name and that she was a kings daughter. Then they carried the coffin into the wood and some of them always watched her and the birds also came and bewailed Snowdrop. First an owl. Then a raven and lastli a dove. So Snowdrop lay a long long time in her coffin looking as though she were asleep. –GRIMM”

The “lastli” pleases me greatli.

 

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25 Possibly Erroneous and Surprising Things I’ve Learned About Life in Germany

Summer farmhouse and tree making shade in Sauerland, Germany.
Borders don’t have to have barbed wire. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

After three years in Germany as an American ex-pat, here’s my list of what I’ve learned so far:

1. Germans value sharing public spaces. This makes for a lot of conditional traffic laws. For example: “If there is a bicycle in this bicycle lane, you may not drive your car in it. But if there isn’t, you may.”

2. Saving energy is valued more than convenience. For example: the train and store air conditioning goes out whenever it gets hot enough to need it.

3. Plastic packaging is a big deal. There’s so much of it that it gets its own trash can in every household.

4. Our neighbors value walking in the woods as much as we do.

5. The whole country is full of pyromaniacs. I’ve never seen so many fireworks.

6. Volunteering is the way to find yourself inside a society instead of outside.

7. There are rules for everything and the response to overwhelming complexity is sometimes: “Es geht nicht anders” meaning: “I had to break at least one rule, there was no other way to do it.”

8. The trains and public transportation system sometimes set impossible standards for themselves. For example: the doors on the newest trains open too slowly and destroy the schedule. Solving problems with more complexity seems to be the way things develop. Maybe not unexpected in a land of engineers.

9. Public libraries are an American legacy.

10. Southwestern flavors–salsa and tortillas that aren’t sweet, green chili peppers, enchiladas–have not arrived here.

11. Creamy must be important because palm oil is in Nutella and is added to every kind of roasted peanut butter I can find.

12. Natural medicine is big because people can’t afford medical care here either.

13. Grown-ups live in apartments. I’m still struggling with this one.

14. People commute here as a lifestyle. Children start commuting very young and don’t ever seem to stop. This promotes bookstores and e-readers and magazines. I don’t know what it does to the accident statistics.

15. Chocolate cannot solve things, no matter how large a quantity is available.

16. Cake is consumed on a regular basis, not just for birthdays. Cookies are for Christmas. A chewy chocolate chip cookie is not possible or even necessarily desirable.

17. Pursuing things other than money is quite acceptable.

18. Houses from 1905 with outdoor latrines, gas stoves, single-pane windows and wood floors are still available on the market. All other houses seem to be four times the price.

19. Germans drive cars just as much as Americans and more than many Vermonters.

20. Bikes are regularly ridden without helmets and in the pouring rain. Corollary: Light rain is considered “good weather”.

21. Many Germans value liverwurst, blood sausage, and salami for breakfast. (See any hotel review website.)

22. Bakery bread is whole grain–you get to choose how much of each grain you want. 25% wheat and 75% rye, or the other way around? On the other hand, white flatbread with flavored cream cheese is popular party food.

23. Books from other countries (i.e. translations) seem to be preferred in bookstores and libraries. There seem to be few or no creative writing programs in this country.

24. Melted cheese to Germans doesn’t mean the same thing as melted cheese to Americans. German melted cheese usually involves potatoes. Or isn’t hot when served.

25. The preferred method for giving official information in a broad range of categories is a one-on-one appointment.

Do any of these resonate? Or sound off?

 

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Creativity: How our challenging circumstances are the key to success

Lenne River near Werdohl, Germany
Power from obstacles. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.

[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.

We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.

Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s.
It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.

So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?

The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.

To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.

 

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