The Ugly Mushroom and Stellar Jayne

Welcome to 2005
December & January, 2005

 
My ever-strained faith in humanity gets strengthened every time an awful natural disaster hits a developing country because, when it does, I get overwhelmed with requests at work from people who want to help.

But, as with most sudden disasters, we have to say no to the vast majority of people who come out of the woodwork ready to help. For instance, the United Nations continues to ask that NO new volunteers go to the areas affected by the Tsunamis unless they are *completely* self-sufficient and working through an established agency -- there is still absolutely NO food, shelter, water, or medicine to spare in much of the area (though Thailand has been able to open some of its resorts, and is asking people to please return as tourists, as the people there rely entirely on that economy for their livelihoods). In this and most cases of natural disasters, what continues to be needed most are financial contributions, to allow relief organizations to purchase exactly what disaster victims need most urgently and to pay for the transportation necessary to distribute those supplies. While, writing a check doesn't satisfy ones need to help, it truly is often the best thing. And it's important to always keep the needs of the people affected by the disaster first and foremost. If you have not donated yet to relief efforts in South East Asia, please consider doing so ReliefWeb to see a list of the various organizations working in the region. If you are still not sure -- then I personally recommend the World Food Programme or Save the Children. Remember how the world stood with the USA on September 11, 2001? Let's return the favor. And please don't give a restricted gift (meaning it's only for the organization's tsunami-related activities): let these organizations decide where the money should go. They are the experts, they are on the ground, they have a great deal of experience, they know what's best.

What has happened in South East Asia does not take away from the fact that thousands of children will die today in the developing world, as you read this, from malnutrition and treatable or preventable diseases, like malaria, and that thousands more people will die of HIV/AIDs in Africa. These, too, are tsunamis, of a different kind, and these organizations are working to address the detestation they have caused. Let these organizations decide where your money would do the greatest good.

And if you have given to the relief efforts, please keep in mind that there are still worthy causes right in your own city. Please don't choose to stop giving to those organizations you usually do because of your gift to the relief organizations per the recent tsunami. The need for money and volunteering within your immediate community is not diminished by what is happening elsewhere.

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I am, indeed, the Ugly Mushroom. It's a reference to me on my bicycles. For October and November, I road two bikes every working day: the first, I rode (and still ride) between here and the Sinzig train station, and the other I rode between work and the Bonn-Bad Godesberg train station (I sold the bike at the start of December and started taking the bus instead). From Oct. - Nov, I rode more than 12 kilometers every week day. My route to the train station exposes me to much more traffic than when I lived in Bad Godesberg, and I decided that I like my head a lot more than my hair style. So, I started wearing a bike helmet, and it makes me look like a mushroom. And as I usually have a pained expression as I ride my bike, I become the ugly mushroom.

If you see a Buddha in the road, please hit him. But don't hit me.

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Speaking of Buddha, I just read the most fantastic book -- twice: Buddhism Without Beliefs , by Stephen Batchelor. His book is a reminder that Siddhartha (Buddha) was not a ritual-bound mystic who claimed absolute knowledge of the universe and all its workings, he never claimed to be a savior or a deity, and he never set out to establish a religion. Rather, he was a man who challenged us to understand the nature of anguish (usually called "suffering"), and to embark on a healthier way of living for own mind, body, and soul, as well as all others, that is not bound by dogma or religion, and can be practiced by anyone , regardless of their backgrounds or religious faith (or complete lack thereof). Batchelor points out that what the Buddha taught is not something to believe in, but something to do, in every day life -- an every day path to awakening.

I also read the Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism , which is very good, but not great. It's the best resource I've found yet, by far, for explaining how Buddhism came to be, and the various ways it is practiced all over the world. No Buddhist has been able to explain to me what Buddhism really is, and some who have tried turned me off of it, both through their explanation and the way they lived their lives. But this book does the job of providing the basic understanding I was looking for. It's even funny at times. My criticism is that the author's own personal beliefs/interpretation about what the practice of Buddhism should or shouldn't be shows through a bit too much, IMO. Still, I recommend this.

And in case you were wondering: I believe that not only was Jesus a liberal Jew -- he was also a Buddhist.

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I've been to two Bonn basketball games. It's a professional team, the "Bonn Baskets." The gym is only the size of my high school gym back in Kentucky, but it is always full. The fans are so.... not German! They are almost like Kentucky b-ball fans! They beat drums, they yell, they clap, they cheer, they stand at the start of every quarter until Bonn scores -- it's great! An so unlike the three NBA games I've been to, where I was the only person standing or yelling for the first 90% of the game. The little cheerleaders/dancers are pathetic though... perkiness usually really bothers me, but these girls sure could use a big ole' dose of it. Many of the players on Bonn's team are from eastern Europe (many last names ended in "vic", pronounced "dish", or something similar), and as at the first game they were playing Belgrade, that meant a lot of the players knew each other. Belgrade lost, and the fans set off a smoke bomb in the last seconds of the game -- naughty naughty. For the second game, also an International one, against Portugal, a friend snagged us VIP tickets, so we had this fantastic meal and all the beer we could drink before and after the game. A Portuguese player got thrown out near the end -- that was exciting. Oh, and there is a guy from the USA on the Bonn team: Altron Jackson, who attended the University of South Florida. I've never heard of him until now... wow, I'm so out of college basketball now...

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My brother Darrell bet on Stellar Jayne in the Breeders Cup -- she ran third. Yes, it was spelled with a "Y".

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The year didn't start off so well immediately -- I got sick. At first, I thought I was suddenly really depressed. I couldn't figure it out. I had just had lunch with friends in Bad Godesberg, and was waiting for my train home. And I felt so tired and sad, all of a sudden. It took several hours for me to figure out that I was having some sort of allergy attack. I was in bed by 10:30. I felt so bad for ruining Stefan's NYE -- we had a couple of invitations, and I tried to get him to go without me to at least one of them, but he refused -- he said he should stay home to make sure I was okay (ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh). He did take a few really great pictures of the fireworks all over our neighborhood -- our hilltop home is perfect for such viewing.

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The year got quite a bit better a week later, when we took our first motorbike ride of the year. We went to the part of the Nürburgring, otherwise known as "The Green Hell", that is still used by Formula One (but not the entire track, as it used to be). If you pay a fee and sign a waiver, you can take your vehicle on it -- motorcycle, car, RV, whatever. There is a place where people unfamiliar with the track go to fast and often become airborne, and that's where we wanted to watch. Unfortunately, the track was closed for the season. But the ride there and back was beautiful, through the Ahr Valley, a major wine going region, and one of the few red wine regions in Germany (they produce Spätburgunder, or, pinot noir, and little is sold outside the region). The are craggy cliffs all around, with ancient vineyards carved out in terraces. We went through Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Altenahr, and all of the other little villages leading up to Nürburgring, passing numerous other motorcycle riders and many cafes catering especially to motorcycle riders (and, ofcourse, we stopped at one, so I could warm up with some hot chocolate). The lovely villages of this area look almost too quaint to be true, and many establishments combine wine tasting and accommodations under one roof. We saw kayakers -- I would definitely like to try that when it warms up. I'm hoping to find a place to go horse-back riding as well. There are tons of places to go on serious hikes. According to Lonely Planet Germany , the best times to go to this area and avoid the throngs of daytrippers from Belgium and Amsterdam is from November to May. I'm sure weekdays in the summer are at least manageable.

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BEER WARS

Thank the stars, Germany has won the beer battle for 2006 World Cup. See, Anheuser-Busch paid $40 million as one of the tournament's 15 sponsors. That meant that, in Germany, the land of some of the best beer -- maybe the best beer -- in the world, during the World Cup, the only beer you could buy at a stadium would be some of the nastiness beer ever made. Under the new agreement, German beer maker Bitburger will be allowed to sell its beer in the stadiums but it won't be allowed to put up advertising. Remember: this is where a Beer Purity Law of 1516 is still in place. Germans are the world's third largest per-capita consumers of beer, drinking 117.5 litres last year, behind only the Czech Republic and Ireland.

Sadly, however, Anheuser-Busch won in the World Trade Organization in its battle to "protect" the Budweiser brand name against use by a Czech brewer, which makes "Budejovicke pivo" -- that translates to "Budweiser beer" in English. The Czech beer is so far, far superior to the American brand called Budweiser -- the Czech version is good beer, the American version is, well, disgusting.

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It was the 1980's, every night, here in Sinzig!! You could come over and groove to Duran Duran and Blondie and the Eurythmics and Madness and the Clash and Cyndi Lauper and Madonna and on and on!!

"You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round round round..."

See, this is what happens when one of the only channels we had for a while was VH1 Hits. I didn't even like the music in the 1980s, for the most part. But when you don't have much choice when it comes to TV viewing... this channel actually isn't very good: it plays more promos for itself than music videos, and what was a hit over here in Europe was definitely not necessarily a hit in the USA. Plus, they play far too much 1980s -- there are some good film clips that make great videos from the 1970s. Heck, play some Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show! But we dumped the cable package that had this channel -- most of the channels didn't work.

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Speaking of Elvis, there was an exhibit called "Elvis in Deutschland" at the Haus der Geschichte der Budesrepublik Deutschland (The House of History of the Republic of Germany), and I went to it the day before what would have been his 70th birthday, with a co-worker who also adores him. It wasn't just about his time in Germany -- it was also about his influence, and that of rock and roll, on Germany. My favorite part? The pink caddy, ofcourse! So much room, such a simple dashboard, and that color... It was also very cool to see his army jacket and a lock of hair from when they gave him his army haircut. And so much memorabilia from the time. There was a diary from a girl who tried to see Elvis when he disembarked at Bremerhaven, and it was opened to one of her entries, which my co-worker translated for me -- it was just precious. I had no idea that East Germany was so intimidated by rock and roll, how much they saw it as a threat. They invented a dance for their youth called the "Lipsi", which was a nice, calm, flowing two-person dance -- oh so boring. It never caught on. And I learned a new German word: "Halbstarke."

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DOG UPDATE

During our first two months here in Sinzig, Albi was a bully about the beds in the living room. She is so great about playing with other dogs, and letting Buster knock her out of the way when they are walking and wanting to smell the same thing, but she is a BULLY about beds. And her food bowl. It's gotten a little better, mostly because Buster gives her a wide birth if he passes her while she's on her bed. But he's still good at taking over a bed when she gets up to greet Stefan or have a drink, and she respects it when he does so (but only if he's laying down already -- if he's still standing, then it's still negotiable -- dog rules are fascinating...).

For these four months here in Sinzig, Buster is more lively than he was our last several months in Bad Godesberg, even before he got sick. I guess he needed a change -- maybe even a challenge -- to get his mind off of his slowly degrading body. Would you believe he now walks up this 90 step hill twice a day? I have to bend over and push him behind his butt, but he can, indeed, get up. 15 years old, going on 16. Amazing. We often go to an abandoned orchard near our house and I let Buster off leash, something I can't do elsewhere, because there are too many bikes or ledges to deal with elsewhere. And he is so happy just to wander wherever he wants. I should bring something to sit on in the grass, so he can just keep wandering around as he likes for as long as he likes. Albi, meanwhile, runs around like crazy, trying to catch mice. I could just watch them forever.

Buster's is as healthy as a 16 year-old-dog can be. He's still so aware and alert, and his personality is perfectly intact. He remains demanding and bossy-- he has no idea that the world does not revolve around him. He marches around like the little dictator that he is, and has different barks for wanting outside, wanting a treat, or wanting Albi to move. His appetite is fantastic -- better than it's been in probably a year. But he is obviously a very old dog. His back legs get weaker and weaker. Many people comment on them, how they don't seem to always go where he wants them to. I wonder just how much longer he can get up and down this hill. I've noticed recently that he can't raise his head as high as he should be able to -- he can't raise his head high, pointing his nose into the air. I doubt anyone else would notice it He's also have some bathroom issues (no peeing indoors though, thank goodness). He has a massive tumor on his chest, which you can see now in almost all of his photos -- he got it before we left Austin, and the vet said it was fatty tissue and that we shouldn't risk surgery. Now, probably eight years later, it's as big as my fist. At least it hasn't broken through his fur.

Albi went into heat around NYE. I guess it's good timing, since there aren't a ton of people out walking with their dogs in the winter. She's always been a tough broad and knew how to say "no" -- but this time, for a few days, she decided to give in completely to her hormones. It was AWFUL. She ran up to every male dog like a... a... well, a bitch in heat... and she was more than willing, much to the delight of the other dogs. No consummations, thanks to fast acting dog owners, but it made me CRAZY. As I've mentioned before -- I didn't get her fixed because, when I got her, she was 6 and a half years old, and the vet said he did not feel comfortable putting her under for such major surgery at her age. His exact words, "If she were my dog, I wouldn't take that chance." And given how much I LOVE my vet...

Albi, I think, loves living here, loves all the space to run and run and run, loves getting to meet so many new dogs. I just wish we had another big long walk to take her on -- just one is great, but I'm sure she would sometimes like a change. Oh, and in the morning, guess which side of the bed she goes to get her morning loving? Hint -- not mine.

I get scared though, because at night, the landlord let's his dog, Busty (he's fixed), out, and she wants to go out SO BAD... so I let her. And then I sit here and am in a complete panic. I start to think, I shouldn't let her go, what if she gets hurt or runs off, and then when I don't let her go, and Busty is out there somewhere while she's here staring so longingly, I think, geesh, how can I keep her in here to suffer like that - Busty always comes back, and she will too.

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So, am I excited about the next Star Wars movie?!

No.

I'll never stop loving those first two movies. The Lee Family gave me the infamous R2D2: Beneath the Dome "documentary", and while watching it, and while seeing scenes from the first two movies, my heart started pounding. Pound. Pound. Pound. I felt flush. I was ready to watch the original first two movies right there, right then, yet again. But, ofcourse, George Lucas, who has gone over to the dark side, refuses to release the ORIGINAL two films on DVD -- he will release only his reworked versions, designed not to improve either film but to show off the abilities of his special effects team.

Admittedly, the preview for the third film (which I saw on German TV in ENGLISH -- very rare for that to happen) sent me over the edge as well, but only because it has a big hunk of the first movie in it.

Yes, I'll go see the next Star Wars film. And I'll go and be disappointed for a fourth time... I'll never understand how a movie series could go so wrong after going so very, very right...

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What am I excited about? Why, the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, ofcourse, due out July 16!! Yes, the fourth movie is supposed to come out before Christmas. I'm not as excited about that, as the movies have been rather uneven... but I'll be there the first day, nonetheless, and, at least, thrilling to The Voice.

The book will be delivered to my house on the day it's released, thanks to Stefan... it was part of my birthday gifts from him. He scored major boyfriend points for it.

My 39th birthday was rather awesome, because my dear friend Sharron was visiting from Austin. She had been in Lebanon the week before (long story, but I'll let you know when the book is published), and this was her first visit to Deutschland. Stefan joined us and we went to my Canadian friend Brian's apartment for drinks and lots of laughter. Then we went to Mediterano, a restaurant in the Bonn Altstadt (old town), on the corner of two other restaurants, all owned by the crazy wonderful Turkish guy Omar (the one who also owns the Düner Haus where SOME people have danced on tables). We got to the restaurant and Spanish music was blaring over the PA, and the waiters turned out to be all latino, so I was speaking my broken Spanish all night (they were beyond sweet, smiling as I butchered their language). So we're all sitting there, friends old and new, laughing and talking and choosing what to eat and drink, and who comes in the door and sees me instantly -- Omar. He does this overly-dramatic look-down-at-the-floor-I-cannot-believe-it look, then strolls across the room with arms open and a huge Omar grin. We kiss and hug and I have no idea what he's saying, as usual, because he speaks only Turkish and German. He sits down and laughs when Sharron says what she knows in Turkish ("thank you" and the numbers to 5), and then he learns it's my birthday. And then there is a bottle of sekt (German champagne) and singing and music and "Que sera sera" by Doris Day on the PA system (inside joke). He also gave us his the-world-is-all-one-people speech, at the end of which he points to each of his wait staff and saying, "Ecuador, Peru..." and then he goes around the table and points to each of us and says, "Canada, Texas, Germany, Kentucky -- ist gut. Ist wunderbar." I love Omar. We drank, we ate (the food was FANTASTIC -- WOW!), we were treated like royalty, and then we went across the street to the Düner Haus, and he kept making me and Sharon dance (not on tables). Surprisingly, we were back in Sinzig and I was in bed before 1 a.m. -- I'm getting old.

We were all moving rather slowly the next day, when we made the obligatory visit to Cologne so Sharon could see the cathedral and have the rude-Cologne-waitress experience. Stefan made pizzas that night (yum), and we all just kinda laid around that day. The following Monday, Sharron and I did a little shopping, ate at my favorite Turkish restaurant in Bad Godesberg (where the manager commented that I did not eat as much as I usually do -- wow, they really know me here... and another guy at the restaurant did magic tricks for us), and then came back here so that Sharron could cook for us (she volunteered, I swear, I didn't make her) -- Texas King Ranch chicken. Major, major yum.

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My latest treasured music-related find happened while we were in California back in September 2004, but I didn't get it until later -- I didn't have room to pack it, among other things, and Reb had to mail it to me. At the time, we were in Borders, and it was one of those "buy three get the fourth CD free" deals, so I was wandering around looking for what would be my free CD, and not having any luck. And just when I was about to go grab anything, I saw "Beautiful Dreamers: the songs of Stephen Foster." Being a Kentuckian, I just had to have a closer look. All I saw was that BR549, Michelle Shocked, and Allison Krauss were among the artists, so I bought it. It wasn't until I got it home that I found out that the first song was my favorite Foster song, "Beautiful Dreamer", and that it was sung by the dreamy Raul Malo. Exquisite. And the rest of the CD is just as wonderful. I keep playing it again and again and again...

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By stark contrast, and on the complete opposite of the musicial quality spectrum: Eminem is such a joke, and I'm so ready for the joke to be OVER. He has three themes: women are whores, disgusting stuff is funny, and he's a misunderstood martyr boy genius. Never mind that these are pathetic themes to get famous for -- how can the world not be just completely tired of this BS? What exactly is supposed to be interesting or innovative about this guy? He's not only insulting -- he's damn boring. Ofcourse, if he were singing about a racial group instead of women, oh, the protests, the outrage... Can't wait until he's playing the county fair circuit and no longer showing up on my TV.

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One of my two friends named Betsy back in Austin, Texas occasionally makes me tapes from American TV. The most recent tape had the premiere episode of "Lost." I knew nothing about this show whatsoever, and so I had no idea where it was going, what it was about, etc. The show is somewhat interesting -- I wouldn't mind seeing the next two or three episodes, to see how this story will unfold. But what is way more interesting about the show than the story is Naveen Andrews. Oh, my. I recognized him immediately, but wasn't sure from where... now I know: he was in The English Patient and Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. Now I have to hunt down Easy and Bride and Prejudice . Don't ever cut that hair, Naveen.

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I've been trying, at long last, to update some of the other personal pages on my web site, such as my list of causes near and dear to me. In addition to updating existing pages, I've added a list of sites that can help you support the United Nations

and a list of organizations fighting Christian extremists! -- the ongoing struggle against those who want to make the USA a "Christian" nation

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Me and my fellow Americans on page 340 or so of the gallery at: sorryeverybody.com

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So, my job ends in February officially, though I have so much vacation time that I get to leave at the end of January -- just a few days from now. It's been an amazing four years. I've learned so much, in an area I never ever dreamed of being a part of. I have always loved mission-based work, as opposed to working for a for-profit, and having that love expanded to an international setting has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life (the other moment was seeing "Star Wars" the first time -- I'm not kidding). I think that, no matter what the future holds for me professionally, I cannot ever turn my back entirely on this world. At the very least, no matter what my next job, I intend to volunteer via onlinevolunteering.org, so I can continue to engage with people all over the world, and make at least a little difference in my own way.

As I've said earlier, I'll be spending the first five months of 2005 finishing my latest course (which is the hardest ever, by far), then taking the exam at the end of April. Next month, I may take an online course to get certified in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). In March or April, I'll take an intensive Spanish course in Spain for two weeks, and, I hope, then take the exam for basic Spanish fluency in Cologne through the Instituto de Cervantes in May. May will be tough for other reasons as well: Stefan will be in the great American West for this entire month, and I'll be on my own, truly, for the first time ever here in Germany. To say I'm nervous about it would be the understatement of the year. The day after I take my Spanish test, I will, at last, start studying German. I'll start with some CDs I have, and then begin an intensive German class in June. I'll also start my last course then for my degree in development.

I may not have a job for the first six months of 2005, but I will be one busy girl...

The last six months of 2005? Write my paper for my degree, which is due in October. In September, Erica and I are planning to go to Berlin and then Croatia. A few friends have said they may visit in 2005 as well.

Somewhere in 2005, I hope that I can go to Rome and Paris for long weekends.

Ofcourse, all of these plans will have to be adjusted or even thrown out if I do, indeed, get consultancy gigs or, even, a full-time job. The fact is that, you can plan all you want to, but life will change your plans whenever it wants to.

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Don't forget! Stefan is planning for his motorbike trip in the USA for May 2005 and he is still in need of some key information! Please read about the info he is looking for, and any advice you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

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Also, don't forget -- as of our trip to Norway, you have to subscribe to a special Yahoo group I've created specifically for the posting of photos, if you want to see pictures. First, create a Yahoo ID, if you don't have one already. To get one, go to www.yahoo.com and get one! You won't get "spammed" because you have a Yahoo ID. Then, contact me and let me know, and I'll give you details on how to join.

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Some things to check out:

If you have read this blog, PLEASE let me know. Comments are welcomed, and motivate me to keep writing.


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