Flood warning!


           In Iceland they call it Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood.
           Books have been the gift of choice for Christmas since WWII when currency restrictions limited imported giftware. Now Iceland publishes more books per person than any country in the world. The Iceland Publishers Association puts out a catalog every year. When the catalog shows up in every mailbox, the excitement begins. People select the titles they think will please each person on their list. 
            Christmas gifts are usually opened on Dec. 24 and everybody spends Christmas Eve reading. It’s a tradition!
             This year I am taking a tip from Jolabokaflod. Each day in December, on the Sue Merrell Books Facebook page, I will recommend a book by a local author. There’s a flood of good stories out there, something perfect for everyone on your list.

Miles and marketing


I’m part of the lunch bunch generation. Meeting for lunch was the way we made business connections when I was working. Now that I’m retired, it continues to be my primary way to connect with friends.  That is until fellow author friend Janet Vormittag came up with a more healthy option.
         Janet is currently riding a wave of success with her latest book “You Might Be a Crazy Cat Lady if…”  Last spring she asked me to meet for lunch to discuss book marketing ideas. It was quickly apparent this was going to take more than one session, so Janet suggested meeting at Johnson Park and discussing marketing ideas while we walked up and down the wooded hills.
          Over the summer we talked and walked at least once a week. We read and discussed “Online Marketing for Busy Authors” by Fauzia Burke,  which influenced changes in our Websites and Facebook pages. We came up with totally off-the-wall ideas such as my traveling shoe posts and her Crazy Cat Lady parties. We signed up for book events such as the Pumpkin Fest in Montague and the Trail of Michigan Authors in Muskegon. We both did radio interviews with Zinta Aistars.We even explored a new walking trail in Ottawa County.
        Now the trees have turned, the leaves have fallen, and this morning we sought refuge from the cold wind by walking at the mall.  No doubt we racked up more miles than book sales, but the walks impacted more than our Fitbits. This weekend Janet is featured at the Novi Pet Expo, an idea we discussed on our very first walk back in May. And next weekend I’ll participate in the Local Author Jamboree at The Book Nook and Java Shop in Montague, something that’s been on my bucket list for years.
     To paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we rest, miles to go before we rest.

What time is it anyway?


Does the very idea of turning the clocks back every fall (and forward in the spring) make you fighting mad? Maybe that’s why Daylight Savings Time was so popular during WWI and WWII.
            Things could be worse. When New Zealand scientist George Vernon Hudson first presented a paper on the idea in 1895, he suggest turning the clock ahead TWO HOURS in March and back two hours in October. Imagine trying to adjust to that! Ten years later a British builder, William Willmett came up with an even more complicated plan: move the clocks up 20 minutes on each of four Sundays in April and back again on four Sundays in September.
            The whole idea didn’t really catch on until April 30, 1916, when Germany set their clocks ahead an hour to conserve coal during WWI. Not to be outdone by the enemy, the United Kingdom and France followed suit a few weeks later. I mean it could be really confusing for spies to leak the time of a bombing raid and the Red Baron shows up an hour early.
             Daylight savings time went away after the war and then came back in WWII. It  was used year-round. FDR called it War Time. Spring forward, fall back became the law of the land in 1966, although the dates vary a little over the years.
             This year the time change coincides with a full moon, so your biological rhythm should be extra confused. When you find yourself with an extra hour on your hands this weekend, use it to download the Kindle version of Full Moon Friday. It’s on a 99 cent special Saturday and Sunday. Celebrate the craziness. 

And it keeps on ticking


             This week  I went to see “Wicked” for the fourth time and was surprised to realize how timely the social commentary is almost 20 years after it was written. The first time I saw it on Broadway in 2004, George W. Bush was president. We had been chasing Weapons of Mass Destruction in in Iraq and discovered we had been deceived. So the lines about the wizard telling people the lies they want to hear and the government uniting people by blaming others seemed right on.
            Now, in 2017, with Mr. Trump in the White House, the Wizard’s line that he lies “only verbally” seems so much funnier.  And Madame Morrible making up fake news releases about the so called “wicked ” witch is unbelievably current.
           This timelessness is discussed in “Wicked: The Grimmerie,” a book about the making of the musical. When Gregory Maguire wrote the novel in 1995 it was in response to government lies from Watergate to the Gulf War.  Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book for the musical, says when she started working on it in 1998 the wizard seemed a lot like Bill Clinton and his scandal at the time.
           “The Wizard has no power. He has to exploit the fear and ignorance of others. That is a theme in history that repeats itself over and over,” says producer Marc Platt.

Oh, dear.
           I always thought the clock face and all the cogs and gears in the set of  “Wicked” were to signify the time machine that is taking us back to the story before “The Wizard of Oz.” Now I see that we, like the people in OZ, are trapped in the clock. The cogs of our world are pulling us continuously, helplessly through an unbroken cycle of deception. Like clock work.

Talk about tragic!

Some days it seems like the world is coming to an end. Hurricanes one after another. Fire burning up Montana and now California. Earthquakes in Mexico. Mass shooting in Las Vegas.

But I just heard about a tragedy that tops them all. Some fungus is attacking cocoa plants which means there could be a shortage of chocolate! OMG! Anything but that!

And then I read that it’s not just any fungus but one that can clone itself. Doesn’t that sound like science fiction? Clones are attacking the one plant that can help us survive hurricanes and fires and earthquakes! (Not to mention semester finals, dates with jerks and crummy performance reviews.)

These clones cause “frosty rot pot” which is devastating chocolate production in Central and South America. The good news is cocoa plants are surviving in Brazil and West Africa, for now.

I asked about this fungus at my favorite chocolatier, The Grocer’s Daughter in Empire, MI. They had heard about it but said it hasn’t affected their supply, which I must say is fantastic.

Think I’ll go nibble some right now, in case another catastrophe hits and I need cheering up!

Tomorrow’s another day


I call her Scarlett after the heroine in “Gone with the Wind.”  And considering the weather forecast, I may regret that choice.
           My Scarlett is a 2004 burgundy Mustang, 40th anniversary edition, with about 40,000 miles. It’s my Keys car, a spunky convertible for trips to the beach or Key West when I am enjoying my 4-month snowbird residence on Big Pine Key. I bought it in 2014 from another Big Pine resident who always cared for the little lady, keeping her safely tucked away in a garage.
            She’s had to adjust to slightly rougher times under my ownership, being stuck under a cover in an outdoor storage lot for eight months of the year.
             But she’s tough. Always ready for a trip into the city. She loves parading down Duval Street. Going to hear writers lecture. Or toting volunteers to the house walk. Or heading the other direction to Marathon for the Celtic Fest. She’s a feisty dame.
            This weekend, however, she may have to tangle with an even stormier broad: Irma. An evacuation order is in effect for tourists and residents starting today. But spunky Scarlett will have to hold onto her soft fitted cover and hope for the best.
            I know when lives and homes are in danger, worrying about a second car sounds trivial. And as much as Scarlett enjoys attention, she would never want pity. She will make it through. 

Obsessed with pot

Traveling with a group of senior citizens often means the guide needs to know as much about area restrooms as the historic sites.
            While I was  visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, recently, our guide encouraged members of our group to “wait 15 minutes” for much better rest room facilities. But when we arrived at The Peter and Paul Fortress, the restroom she had been touting was horrifying. Parked in the open square was an old bus that had been turned into a restroom. After our guide paid our admission, the line of ladies entered one end of the bus, where each collected a handful of toilet paper. We proceeded down the narrow bus aisle selecting an available stall, no larger than the space between bus seats. Even with partitions we were all in one narrow space, sharing verbally our frustrations at not having enough room to pull down our pants. We were all laughing as we emerged, whether the job had been completed or not, to run our hands under a faucet at the other end of the bus.
             If this was “better restrooms” we feared our trip was doomed. 
             Yet,  later in the day,  while visiting St. Isaac’s Cathedral, we happened to visit the Lions Palace Four Season Hotel just across the street. The elaborate marble and gilded public restroom there was suitable for the tastes of Catherine the Great!

             But our opinion of Russian restrooms reached new heights while we were visiting the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Known for its high-tech, interactive museum exhibits, this new facility was not about to offer anything ordinary. The toilets by Panasonic featured push button controls for spraying and blow-drying every orifice.  And the seats, of course, were heated.
             Gives new meaning to the “hot seat.”

Russian Rainbow


  I had been wanting to take a Viking River Cruise through Russia for years, but I’ll admit I was a little bit afraid.
             It wasn’t just the mounting evidence that the country tampered with our election process. I also read about  growing fears in the Baltic States that Russia was preparing to invade. In March, as I was making arrangements for my trip, Sweden re-instituted its military draft partly because of these  fears. There was the chemical warfare in Syria backed by Russia.
            And then there are all the US sanctions against Russia. Costly sanctions that are getting in the way of oil drilling in Siberia, as well as the more recent sanctions expelling Russian diplomats from the US.
             But I trusted Viking. I figured they wouldn’t take tourists into harm’s way. And I must say the trip went off without a hitch– except for an airline snafu on the way home. The Hermitage, the ballet, Red Square… all lived up to expectations. And the guides’ comments about various political situations helped me to see their perspective.
            In the daily newspaper provided by the ship, I followed as the issue of sanctions came to a head in Congress and Putin responded by announcing plans to cut the number of American diplomats by September. It made lots of headlines but didn’t effect our scheduled tours in any way. 
            One afternoon, as we were cruising across a lake, a rainbow came out. Suddenly I realized that  God’s promises are not just for Americans. It’s a big, complex world. They have sunshine and storms everywhere. And yes, there are rainbows in Russia. 

From Russia with Love

When friends hear that I visited Russia recently, they ask little about the art or architecture or landscape. They want to know about the people. What are Russians like? Are they rude? Violent? Noisy? Drunk? Pushy? In other words, are they what we expect the enemy to look like?

Not at all.

Take Ludemilla, for instance. She hosts a tea for  a dozen or so Viking River Cruise passengers several times a month in the summer. Her large 1936 log home is just a block off the main street in Yaroslavl.The exterior is decorated with gingerbread frames around the windows, a large vegetable garden in the back yard, a rustic gazebo for outdoor dining and a large sandbox for her grandson. Black rubber slipons to protect her shoes from the muddy garden lean against the doorframe.

Potted plants filling the deep window sills can be seen through the sheer living room drapes that are decorated with garish orange eyelash curls. The room is wallpapered with stripes of green ivy. Among the toys and books and knickknacks on the shelves is a huge faux wedding cake made of fabric and wrapped in cellophane. The fake cake is much larger than the small television. Framed pictures on the walls range from family photos to a paint-by-number treasure to a classic landscape.  The table is spread with a pink checked plastic cloth, china plates and water glasses painted with assorted fruit.

Ludemilla serves plates of sliced vegetables — the cucumbers are from her garden but not the yellow peppers she explains — cheese slices, dark bread, pickles and a white cake with raspberry topping. And homemade vodka. The “moonshine” is the centerpiece of the Viking visit and our guide, Dimitry, teaches us how to guzzle quickly to avoid the bitter taste.

Ludemilla, 60,  has lived in the house 40 years. Her late husband was a member of the communist party and they came to Yaroslavl for him to work as an accountant  in a nearby district office. Now her daughter and grandson live with her. Although Ludemilla doesn’t speak English she tries to answer our questions as translated by Dimitry. At one point she rushes from the room and returns with a sweater to try and answer one woman’s question about fabric care. She bustles about the room non-stop attending to her guests.

Her home is much more spacious than the Kommunalka we visited a week earlier in St. Petersburg.  After the 1917 revolution, the large apartments of the wealthy were divided up among several families so each person could have equal space, about 27 square feet. Most of these have been torn down over the years but a few still exist. Larissa, a retired nurse and widow of a seaman, served us hot tea and a delicious cheese-filled coffee cake in her one-room  portion of the apartment.

 The four unrelated residents share an entry hall crowded with their shoes and coats. They also share a common kitchen which is narrow and old-fashioned. They share common bathroom facilities which have a clawfoot tub in one room and toilet and basin in another. The whole building is aging with crumbling concrete steps and wavy floors. But Larissa’s one room portion is well furnished with a makeshift bunk over her office space for when her son visits. She has a shiny new stainless steel refrigerator in her private room, as well as a computer and printer. A shelf unit separates the office area from the formal living room with a sofa that makes into a bed. The room is also home to a friendly cat, a noisy bird and lots of potted plants.

Larissa purchased her  share in the Kommunalka about 10 years ago to be near a daughter and grand children who live in St. Petersburg. She remembers communism as being more “calm” than the current democracy and enjoyed the availability of plenty of schools and gym facilities when her children were growing up.  The people have more freedoms today, such as the freedom to travel, she says, but that is only a freedom for people who have lots of money. She wore a cross around her neck and said she attends the Russian Orthodox church a little more regularly  now than during the Communist regime.

She has a car and drives to her “dacha,” family property she inherited about 10 miles from St. Petersburg where she has a garden. She can’t afford to build a house on the property but considers it her summer getaway.

We met lots of other Russians more briefly. The young woman who smiled and moved aside when a group of tourists invaded her car on Moscow’s subway. The woman with a stroller who waved as our boat passed her in a riverside park. The fishermen who never even looked up from their task as our boat passed. The young motorcyclists that filled the sidewalks near the Moscow University.

They served us food, they guided us through their cities, they sang and danced for us. Some of them speak highly of President Putin; others not so much. They seemed very much like Americans.

Warming to camping


Camping has come a long way. Every year about this time I go to the Lake Michigan Camp near Pentwater. Along with friends Sue Willison and Mary Kay Williams, I rent a platform tent that comes with six cots. It’s got a power pole within extension cord distance so we cook on an electric skillet, heat water in an electric tea kettle, have a lamp on the table and a fan if it gets hot.
          But this year, for the first time since I started going to the camp 10 years ago, it was cold and rainy. Instead of going over the dune to the beach we stayed inside and played Jokers and Pegs. But even with our sweatshirts and hoods we were still cold. Then we discovered the extra heat generated by the crockpot that was cooking our dinner. We put the pot at our feet under the table, stretched that beach blanket over the knees of the three tentmates, and stayed toasty warm while we played.
         Wonder what our pioneer ancestors would say?