Olives and Antifreeze ALWAYS come in Two Colors except when They Don’t.

Spring in Sicily. 500 green olive trees against a blue sky.
These 500 olive trees have nothing to do with antifreeze colors, so this is foreshadowing. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We have a supposedly American car, a Ford Fusion, but it lives in Germany, so it has to have German antifreeze. Natch.

Instead of 5-gallon, yellow, Prestone jugs, Germany has white, soda-bottle-sized Kühlerfrostschutz bottles.

I was a little leery about Kühlerfrostschutz, because buying oil for the car was a major research project, even after I copied down all the numbers from my two-volume car owner’s manual. I’ve lived in places with cold winters all of my life, so I get the 10W40 and 5W30 and such (thanks, Dad!).

Still, I was unprepared to be an oil buyer. In Germany, the make and model of my car influences the kind of oil. Really? Remember, it’s a Ford Fusion, not an airplane.

Newsflash: Germany is the land of car drivers. I somehow missed that. I was taken in by the excellent train system.

So, I was cautious about making an impulsive antifreeze purchase. The wrong kind might give my car culture shock. At a local building mart, I asked which antifreeze I should buy, figuring the Hellweg* would be as close to Target or Wallmart as I could get.

*(The name doesn’t mean what you’re thinking–it actually means path of light, but that’s only true at Christmas decoration season. The other building mart is called Obi which sounds like Star Wars, but isn’t.)

My first advisor said he thought the blue antifreeze was for newer cars and red was for older ones, but–maybe because he was half my age–we weren’t quite clear on what ‘older’ meant.

My second advisor said if the car had ‘red’ already in it, it should always get red, because you NEVER mix them. This seemed like an astonishingly simple answer for a car-related topic in Germany.

I asked if there could possibly be another color, but he was very firm: “There’s red and there’s blue.”

So I bought ‘red’, diluted it 50:50 with water, filled up my car, and felt generally virtuous and good-stewardly.

At the grocery store, I found the same antifreeze for half the price. Forget all those rules about what to buy where. What’s worse, I found another color: purple!

What if the red and blue got mixed together one day at the factory and. . .presto, new product? I can’t tell you. I shut my eyes to the purple. It’s the color of Byzantine Emperors and has nothing to do with lowly writers. I remain true to ‘red’.

While at the grocery store, I tried to buy black olives for salad. They all were labelled “geschwärzt” meaning ‘blacked’ like. . .uh, shoe-black.

I always thought black olives were ripe forms of green ones, in the same way that red sweet peppers are ripe forms of green peppers.

Another newsflash: Black olives can be simply ripe olives, but some have Eisen-II-Gluconat (E 579/ferrous gluconate) added to the brine to make them blacker or to ‘fix’ the black color. Evidently, this doesn’t make black olives a good source of dietary iron, but I’m not sure why not.

The California Olive Committee describes something similar, so it’s not just in Germany.

Even if you don’t like olives, the photos in this “Beginner’s Guide to Olives: 14 Varieties to Try” will make you want to go visit all of these places where they grow.

If you’d like to read about the 500 olive trees from the beginning of this post, you can find their story here.

Best wishes with your purchases of whatever color! May your 2018 be filled with happy meals featuring a healthy Mediterranean diet and safe transportation!

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10 MORE Great Books for the Young Readers (9-12 yrs) on Your List

graphic of book covers described in post

Need book recommendations for the 9 to 12 year old readers on your gift list? Here are the 10 books for this age group I really, really enjoyed in 2017.

This list has heartwarming adventure stories about orphans, the Middle Ages, life in the theater, and adventures at sea. Quite a few of these will make you laugh out loud!

For more about a book, click on the title to read my GoodReads review.

Book cover for EMELIN with boy and girl in monks' robes against a dark snowy monastery1. EMELIN by Jackie Randall is a story of a girl with a rare talent for illustrating books. Her talent is the only thing that stands between her and lifetime of hunger.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love the Middle Ages!
  • Readers who love scrappy heroines!
  • Readers who love books about books!

 

2. THE INQUISITOR’S TALE by Adam Gidwitz is an exciting story with entertaining illustrations–arrows shoot across one of the pages–and three very different children and a magical dog.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love the Middle Ages + magic!
  • Readers who love funny + true characters + amazing plot twists!
  • Readers of graphic novels/comic books who enjoy fast-paced, illustrated adventures.

3. E. G. Foley’s THE LOST HEIR (Book 1 of The Gryphon Chronicles) is a historical fantasy set in a fantastic Victorian London and is charming all the way through. E.G. Foley–the husband and wife team who author these books–clearly know what young readers will enjoy.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who like to fly!
  • Readers who love unicorns, mermaids, villains, fairies and Queen Victoria!
  • Readers who want every chapter to deliver!

4. Gary L. Blackwood’s THE SHAKESPEARE STEALER is the exciting and twisty story of a scrappy orphan boy called “Widge” who gets the job of stealing Mr. Shakespeare’s newest play.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love theater!
  • Readers who love backstage secrets!
  • Readers who love series!

 

5. Holly Goldberg Sloan’s SHORT is the hilarious story of a girl who is short for her age. She gets a part as a Munchkin in the local production of The Wizard of Oz. Short people are calling the shots and that changes everything!

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love theater!
  • Readers who love to fly!
  • Readers who love when kids are in charge!

 

6. Linda Sue Park’s A SINGLE SHARD is about the orphan, Tree-Ear, who wants to “throw” the famous pottery vases that are beautiful enough for royalty. A philosophical, whimsical, and beautiful book!

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love the film, THE KARATE KID!
  • Readers who love the Middle Ages + Asia!
  • Readers who want to know what life was like for an orphan in Korea a long time ago!

7. Lauren Wolk’s BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA is a warm adventure story with lots of fascinating angles! I loved this book.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS and sea adventures!
  • Readers who love ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and warm friendships and adoptive families!
  • Readers who love buried treasure!

 

8. Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD is a wacky story that really shouldn’t work at all and the perfect cure for a gloomy winter day when you need to laugh out loud!

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love to laugh!
  • Readers who love when the underdog wins!
  • Readers who love colorful families!

9. Jessica Day George’s PRINCESS OF THE MIDNIGHT BALL is a re-telling of the fairytale called the twelve dancing princesses in English and die zertanzte Schuhe in German. I actually liked the second book in the series even more: THE PRINCESS OF GLASS.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love fairy tale re-tellings!
  • Readers who love dancing (and knitting heroes!)
  • Readers who love series!

10. Andrew Clement’s FRINDLE

Both of my children really enjoyed this book when they were younger. I finally read it and it’s so much fun! Excellent and funny.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love school stories!
  • Readers who want to make their mark on the world!
  • Readers who love stories about what happens when you don’t follow the “rules”!

BONUS: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer’s THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND (Young Reader’s Edition) is the true story of a boy who reads about physics in his tiny village library after a famine means he can’t pay school fees any more. He’s determined to build a tower that will keep his family from ever going hungry again.

Who is this for?

  • Readers who love libraries!
  • Readers who love true heroes!
  • Readers who want to be inspired!

WARNING for sensitive readers: there’s a very sad part about William’s dog that could be challenging. I skipped over some parts during the famine times, but the rest of the story is perfect for all readers!

 

If your voracious readers have read EVERYTHING and you need MORE, here are my 2016 top 10 books for Middle Grade readers (9 to 12).

Best wishes for wonderful holidays with your loved ones!

Happy reading and writing!

See you in 2018!

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If we start now, can we IMAGINE a really wonderful, peaceful 2018?

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if we are spending our imaginations in the wrong direction. My husband suggested that it was about time for something really, really good to happen. How about a peaceful reunification of North and South Korea?

As a writer of fiction, I know that imagination is a muscle. The more you use it, the longer it works and the stronger it is. Whenever I talk more than I write, the muscle atrophies a little.

I mean, if you could imagine any wonderful thing coming to pass in 2018, what would it be? Is it hard to come up with a positive suggestion? It’s so much easier to complain about things that need to be fixed.

In Berlin, there’s a fascinating and, I think, even-handed exhibit about the pain and hope in Sweden, Korea, Tanzania, and the U.S.A. after the Protestant Reformation.

It’s called Der Luthereffekt: 500 Jahre Protestantismus in der Welt. 2017 is a year for celebrating Martin Luther, so the exhibit is called “The Luther Effect: 500 years of Protestantism in the World.”

The exhibit is a mixture of amazing historical artifacts– like

  • the moose leather tunic the King of Sweden wore while miraculously surviving a battle in 1627,
  • an amazing rune stick/sword sheath,
  • a traditional wedding crown for a Sámi bride, the Laplander culture in the far North of Sweden,
  • and eyewitness accounts from people all over the world about how their lives have changed over the last 500 years.

One of my favorite discoveries was the Peace Train that traveled from Germany to Korea via Russia in 2013 to peacefully demonstrate for reunification. Here’s a post about the Peace Train in English. A lot of people used their imagination to come up with this one.

A Freedom Train was established in 2014 that travels right to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. One bridge is broken and the other is newly repaired. It’s a powerful image of something that wants to be completed.

This pair of bridges reminds me so much of the abandoned underground train stations between East and West Berlin. As an exchange student in Germany, I spent countless evenings listening to fellow students argue about whether Germany could ever be reunited.

Guess what? There are still scars, but Germany is one country now.

Is it naive to believe that good is possible? The stories we tell ourselves matter. Imagination is a muscle that we can build. What if we all imagined something good–together?

Here’s to a wonderful, peaceful, hopeful 2018!

DMZ Train
Imjingak
May 21, 2014
From Seoul Station to Dorasan Station
Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism
Korean Culture and Information Service
Korea.net (www.korea.net)
Official Photographer: Jeon Han
—————————————————————
평화열차 DMZ Train
임진각
2014-05-21
서울역-도라산역
문화체육관광부
해외문화홍보원
코리아넷
전한

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Serious about Writing a Series?

I’m over at The Winged Pen today with a round-up of the best online mentors to help you plan a series of novels.

Read the whole post here: Six Mentors to Help You Plan Your Novel Series.

 

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Beauty and an Escape from Death

October vineyards in Mayschoß in the Ahr valley, Germany. ©Jan Decher, 2017.

People look beautiful and shiny to me just now. When I look at families pushing baby strollers or see young couples deciding how to spend their money in the grocery store, or older couples making careful choices, I’m struck with how “temporary” they  look.

A little more than a week ago, I almost lost my husband to pulmonary emboli* while we were standing on the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change. Thanks to the quick first aid work of our youngest, a passing doctor who stopped, and a kind person who called the ambulance, my husband got almost immediate care.

The whole thing feels impossible. No set-up, no foreshadowing. The week before we were hiking for hours in the sunlit Ahr valley.

We’ve been given another chance. It’s tantalizing to know what to do with it because it feels like a “temporary” awareness. My brain keeps trying to tell me I imagined the whole thing: “There’s no need to change anything now.” But I want to remember long enough to benefit from the experience. It’s a gift that we are still here together.

The next day, I stumbled over this Bible passage in the daily reading:

19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden,
The God who is our salvation. Selah.
20 God is to us a God of deliverances;
And to God the Lord belong escapes from death.

Psalm 68:19+20. New American Standard Bible (NASB)Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation

I underlined it in my Bible years ago, but I had forgotten it. It makes me think about all the people in dangerous places, escaping with their lives.

We were just standing on a street corner and people came to help us right away. Humbling.

Thank you to the EMT‘s Notfallsanitäter from the Bonn Feuerwehr and to the staff at the St. Peter’s hospital, the Petruskrankenhaus!

*Public health note on pulmonary emboli: I’m an epidemiologist not a doctor, so this is my population-level view. 🙂 Basically, a thrombus or a blood clot–often in the legs–cuts off the circulation at a fixed point, causing swelling and sharp pain. Some people don’t appear to have this warning or misinterpret it as something else.

A pulmonary emboli is like a rogue assassin. It breaks free from a thrombus somewhere and gets stuck in the lungs, causing shortness of breath and sometimes collapse and death. Blood thinners can be given to prevent pulmonary emboli if you know you are at risk. See your doctor. 🙂

If you want to know what puts people at risk for deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, this nested case-control study from the Mayo Clinic gives a good list: Surgery, trauma, hospitalization or nursing home confinement, cancer with or without chemo, pacemaker/catheter, superficial vein thrombosis, neurologic disease with partial paralysis. Varicose veins are a stronger risk factor for younger people (45 years) than for older people.

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4 Things Trappist Monks know about Safe Spaces for Creativity

Abbey and church buildings painted white with red trim against a blue sky
Abbey Mariawald, the only existing Trappist monastery in Germany. Founded 1470 A.D. Heimbach, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about safe spaces to create art. On the weekend, we visited Abbey Mariawald, famous for its split-pea soup. Judging from the number of motorcyclists, families, and hikers, they’ve hit on something with universal appeal. They also have a private life that soup-eating tourists don’t see.

  1. While tourists are welcome in the shop, the cafeteria, and the patio, the rest of the Abbey was closed up tight. The Abbey, the Abbey church and the long wall around them were painted a dazzling white. If you want to go in, you have to ring the bell for the Porter and tell him your business.

Physical defenses. We went into the church at 2:00, the time for the None service. We didn’t have to speak to the Porter, but there were 4 physical barriers:

–A glass double-door entry to get into the church,

A metal grille with a gate labelled “Nur für Beter” [only for those who want to pray]

–A fence-like rood screen between the congregation and the monks.

The hoods of the monks. Trappists wear white robes with hoods, so each monk had yet another way to make an individual safe space while singing or praying.

The monks chanted the short service in Latin and the ethereal sound swirled around us. It felt magical.

It would have been impossible to sing that way with a constant stream of doors opening and closing.

Monks know how to structure their space and their time so they can make their art in community.

2. A writing community can be a safe space. Two other writers and I held a one-day writing workshop at the local YMCA. We created a “writers’ buffet” with a variety of writerly tools to choose from, ranging from writing prompts to character and plot development and an exercise on the dreaded inner editor. Everyone liked the tools. But the most empowering thing we did was create a supportive atmosphere for writing.

3. Writers stop writing because they don’t feel “defended.” Jennifer Louden’s and Jennie Nash’s  (Author Accelerator ) recent webinar about getting scary work done advertises a course, but also truly inspiring and insightful tips. According to Jennifer and Jennie, writers don’t stop writing because of fear of failure or even fear of success. Writers stop writing when they don’t have a protected area to create their work.

What’s even worse: When we don’t have a safe space and we stop writing, this can devastate our creativity because then we’re not keeping promises* to ourselves.

*Keeping promises: For a sort of evolutionary narrative what taking out the trash has to do with creativity, check out Chris Fox’s short video.

Cows resting and grazing in a beautiful green meadow with the hills behind changing colors for fall.
These cows at the Abbey Mariawald apparently feel well-defended. Cows might be a useful addition to your next writing group. ©Laurel Decher, 2017.

4. How to create defenses for your creative space. In his excellent book, Motivation for Creative People, Mark McGuiness writes about separating internal and external outcomes to create a safe space for ourselves to write.

Focusing on the outcome: publishing, prize, earnings etc. takes us out of our safe space.

Focusing on the goal of making the-scene-we’re-working-on more exciting, funnier, or more vivid takes us deeper into our safe creative space. This is what we mean by “flow.”

The monks at Abbey Mariawald have been singing and praying since the year 1470.  We could take a page from their book** and

–Separate the business and creative sides of our work.

–Choose physical spaces that let us fall into the work

–Seek out other creative people to get the writing juices flowing

–Practice keeping small promises to ourselves.

**I love this tactful request to tourists to return “borrowed” notebooks. What might you request to make your creative space safer?

Note from the monks of the Abbey Mariawald asking that you return the notebook if you accidentally take it with you

“Dear visitors of the Abbey Mariawald, We would like to offer you the chance to follow along in the Divine Office and in this way to lift your heart up to God. If you happen to take this notebook with you when you leave, please make your confession to your priest and let the notebook wander back to us. The monks of Abbey Mariawald.”

 

 

 

 

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Life’s soundtrack should be big: Rossini Opera Festival makes a splash

Front door of Rossini Theater with palm tree and poster for Rossini Opera Festival
Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is on the radio and I’m thinking about emotion in music and the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy was over the top! I love watching live orchestras and this one had 5 string basses. 🙂 And the audience was as fun to watch as the opera!

I didn’t expect a fashion event. Of course people are well dressed at a fancy cultural event, but there was so much creativity in people’s outfits. Italy takes fashion seriously.

Black "flat" shoes with sequins and bow ties in three places.
These beautiful sparkly shoes would please any Dorothy or reform any Wicked Witch.

La pietra del paragone was set in a wealthy Duke’s house, complete with swimming pool on the stage. In the opening scene, the cast sang while wearing 1950’s swimming suits in bright colors.

How can you sing, fall into a pool, come up dripping, and sing some more? Don’t people have to breathe?

The comedic characters were dressed in ever more extreme fashion with amazingly clashing shades of salmon and mustard. Of course, the hero and heroine got more and more elegant.

I’ve always enjoyed the comedy of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas and accessible operas like Carmen and The Magic Flute. This performance made me feel that singing at the top of your lungs is the only way to live.

Things are going on in the world. Make a noise! Belt it out! Articulate at top speed! And dress up. 🙂

Is what we mean by catharsis? I thought the “sense of relief from extreme emotions” only applied to tragedies. This wasn’t one.

When my mom was getting chemotherapy years ago, she listened to Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle. At the time, I wondered if that would ruin the music for her. But I think it was a way to give a heroic backdrop to a life and death battle.

Life is ridiculous and tragic and heroic. Opera with a swimming pool is just the ticket.

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