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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Last Best Book I Read in 2012

The Secret Keeper

I ended the year by finishing a book that kept me turning pages later into the night than I would have liked.  Hard to put down is the best way to describe this newest novel by Kate Morton, Australian author. 

Ms. Morton has written other notable novels--The Forgotten Garden, The House At Riverton and The Distant Hours. (Click on the titles to read more about these earlier novels.) The stories in all the books are family sagas, use flashbacks to tell the story and keep the reader interested. My favorite is still The Forgotten Garden.

The Secret Keeper moves numerous times from 2011 back to 1961 and to WWII days in London where three unlikely people meet and interact. Deceit, murder, desire for more than what one has, and love figure into the story. Ms. Morton weaves her story carefully and with skill.

In 1961, sixteen-year- old Laurel, is witness to a murder. A stranger comes to the family home, engages her mother in conversation and in a moment, her mother stabs and kills the man. It is said to be self-defense, but Laurel, who saw the murder but did not hear what was said, has hoped to learn the secret that caused her mother to act so out of character. As the mother's 90th birthday approaches, Laurel searches and probes until she learns the story of her mother and two other people in her life during those war years. The use of flashbacks in the book are not distracting at all. I found myself looking forward to returning to the 1940's over and over again as the story progressed.

There are twists and turns galore in the story, and I must admit the final one took me completely by surprise. That must be credited to good writing. 

If you're looking for a good read for these winter days, stop by your library, local bookstore or order it as an ebook. I did that this morning to find a couple of books to keep me entertained on this snowy day in our town. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bet You Never Knew This

To finish this Christmas week, here's a big bunch of trivia! But there are some interesting bits here. A friend sent it to me so I wanted to share it with you. The text copied fine but the pictures did not. Too bad as there were some pretty cool pix.

is the longest word typed with only the left hand
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
And "lollipop"
is the longest word typed with your right hand.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
No word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, or purple.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = "Dreamt" is the only English word that ends in the letters "mt".
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Our eyes are always the same size from birth,
but our nose and ears never stop growing.
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The sentence: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" uses every letter of the alphabet.

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The words 'racecar,' 'kayak' , and 'level' are the same whether they are read left to right or right to left (palindromes).
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There are only four words in the English language which end in "dous": tremendous, horrendous, stupendous, and hazardous
There are two words in the English language that have all five vowels in order: "abstemious" and "facetious."
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
TYPEWRITER is the longest word that can be made using the letters only on one row of the keyboard.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
A cat has 32 muscles in each ear.
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A goldfish has a memory span of three seconds.
= = = == = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
A "jiffy" is an actual unit of time for 1/100th of a second.
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A shark is the only fish that can blink with both eyes.
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A snail can sleep for three years.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Almonds are a member of the peach family.
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 And here is more of the facts we need to know, if only to impress others!
An ostrich's eye !cid_X_MA20_1355682294@aolis bigger than its brain.
(I know some people like that also)
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Babies are born without kneecaps. They don't appear until the child reaches 2 to 6 years of age.
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February 1865 is the only month in recorded history not to have a full moon.
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In the last 4,000 years, no new animals have been domesticated.
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If the population of China walked past you, 8 abreast, the line would never end because of the rate of reproduction.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Leonardo Da Vinci invented the scissors.
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Peanuts are one of the ingredients of dynamite!
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Rubber bands last longer when refrigerated.
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The average person's left hand does 56% of the typing.
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The cruise liner, QE 2 moves only six inches for each gallon of diesel that it burns.
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
The microwave was invented after a researcher walked by a radar tube and a chocolate bar melted in his pocket.
(Good thing he did that.)
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The winter of 1932 was so cold that Niagara Falls froze completely solid.
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There are more chickens than people in the world.
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Winston Churchill was born in a ladies' room during a dance.
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Women blink nearly twice as much as men.
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Bonus!! All the ants in Africa weigh more than ALL the Elephants!!
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Now you know (a little) more than you did before!!
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Goals for 2013 For Writers and Others, Too

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” –Mark Twain

I saw this quote by famed and beloved author, Mark Twain, recently. It's the perfect piece of advice for your writing life in the fast-approaching new year. 2013! It's going to be here in a matter of only days, so now is the time to begin thinking about your hopes and dreams and real goals for this next calendar year.

In some respects, a year is a gift to us. It's ours to do with whatever we want to with those 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days. We can choose to make it a do-nothing year or one that is filled with achievement using the goals we set for ourselves. 

When 2012 was about to arrive, one of the goals I set for myself was to step outside my comfort zone in submitting my writing. I can't say I was fantastically successful, but I did submit to publications I had never tried before, including a new anthology series. Only a couple of my stories were accepted in these publications, but it wasn't a total wipeout by any means.  

Another goal I set last January was to have another story published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology series. I met that goal and added #13 to my list of Chicken Soup books. A good feeling.  I also wanted to increase the traffic to this blog and that has been achieved. 

The one sentence that stands out in the quote for me is Sail away from the safe harbor. Only a few words but what power there is in them. Whether it's in your writing life or the rest of your world, consider trying it in 2013. Take a chance now and then and set out for unknown parts. Do some exploring, dreaming, and discovering as per Mark Twain's advice. It could turn out to be the best year of your life.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Don't Throw Out The Leftovers

The day after Christmas means lots of leftovers for us from the big meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Good leftovers! Roast turkey breast and prime rib plus a few side dishes, rolls, cookies and Chocolate Eclair Dessert. We won't mind finishing those items up one bit. I had enough to send some home with my daughter this morning, too. 

In our writing life, we often have some leftovers. Good ones and some that are not so hot, too. Before the new year begins, maybe you should sort through some of those leftover stories, poems and articles that you never got quite polished enough to submit to a contest or an editor. 

You've already got the bones, so all you have to do is a bit of revising and polishing to flesh it out enough to make your story worth sending out for publication. Spend some time going through your files to see what qualifies as a 2012 leftover. They couldt appear in a different light to you now that they've lingered in a file somewhere for weeks, or even months.

You might find a few that aren't worth saving. So go ahead, take a deep breath and dump them. Or, if that is too painful, print a copy and keep in a folder somewhere. But make a list of the ones that might be possibilities. If there are too many to finish up this next week, they will make the perfect inspiration for starting 2013. 

Don't throw out your leftovers until you sift and sort. As for me, I'm looking forward to a turkey sandwich for lunch with a little cranberry sauce, a cup of tea and definitely a couple of Christmas cookies.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Saddest But Most Memorable Christmas

On this Christmas Eve morning,  I'm going to post a story that is about my saddest Christmas. Even so, it is also one of the most memorable and most treasured even though it happened ever so long ago. Perhaps it can help others who have experienced sad Christmases.

                                               Christmas Spirit—Lost and Found
By Nancy Julien Kopp

The first Christmas commercial flicked across the TV screen in early December. My eyes were closed, head resting on the back of my chair, a cup of tea balanced on my lap, but I heard the tinkling of sleigh bells, the sound of carolers and laughter. I stayed still, wishing the joyful sounds away. I didn’t want to feel Christmas this year.
I didn’t spend my days Christmas shopping or decorating the house or baking cookies. Instead, I read books about babies born with spina bifida, asked questions of doctors about hydrocephalus, and made phone calls to a hospital an hour away from our home to ask about the condition of our only child, born in November.
It was 1966, and we didn’t have the option of staying with Julie at the large children’s hospital over an hour away from our home. When she was a few days old, we drove on icy roads to admit her after our pediatrician had made the arrangements. A paperwork snafu gave us four precious hours with her in the crowded waiting room before the clerk told us to go to fourth floor west where a nurse waited for us.
Ken and I rode the elevator to the fourth floor and walked down a long corridor. A white-uniformed woman walked toward us. She put her arms out to take our baby girl. As I placed Julie in this stranger’s arms, I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to
crumple in a heap. Instead, I looked into the nurse’s eyes, and we smiled at one another, woman to woman.
She held Julie in the crook of one arm and smoothed the pink blanket with her free hand. “We’ll take good care of her.” She turned and proceeded down the long, empty hallway before I could make any farewell gesture to our sweet baby girl, before I could hold her close and inhale that special baby smell.
We returned a few days later to find that we could only view our daughter through a nursery window. She lay on her tummy so there’d be no pressure on the bulging tumor in the open area of her spine. She would have surgery to close the opening. Later, a shunt would be placed at the base of her brain to drain fluid. Farther down the road would be more surgery to straighten her legs in hopes that she might one day learn to walk on crutches, not a certainty, only a hope.
I asked a nurse about the big wooden rocking chair sitting in the nursery.
 “Oh that’s for our hospital volunteers who come in to rock the babies. It’s nice to have a personal touch.”
Why couldn’t it be me who rocked her? Why not a mother’s touch? But hospital rules in those days were stringent, and parents were discouraged from asking favors. The rocking chair appeared to be the one thing that didn’t scream institution. Bare walls, bare hallways, no color except in the waiting rooms. But that would soon change.
I still didn’t care about Christmas, but the hospital volunteers must have signed on as Santa’s helpers. The next time we visited, the halls glowed with Christmas banners and
ribbons and small, decorated trees sat on tables in the waiting areas. The babies had dolls or toys tied to their cribs, a gift from the hospital auxiliary. The nurses wore Christmas pins on their uniforms, the green and red colors standing out on the snowy fabric. I chose to ignore these obvious signs of holiday spirit. When Christmas drew too close, I pushed it away.
As we waited with other parents to talk to our child’s doctor, I wondered if these mothers were skipping Christmas this year, too. I’d probably go out soon and buy the necessary gifts for our parents and siblings, but it would be an obligation, not a joy as in past years.
On Christmas Day, we stopped by the hospital before going to my parents’ home. By this time, Julie had been there for nearly four weeks and gone through two surgeries. When the elevator doors opened onto fourth floor that Christmas morning, holiday music played softly over unseen speakers. The melodic carols fairly floated down the long corridor. The banners and ribbons on the walls seemed brighter than they had on our other visits. A nurse passed by us with a “Merry Christmas” greeting, which I didn’t return.
Julie was awake when we arrived at the nursery window. Still lying on her tummy, she raised her head and looked right at us with her big blue eyes.  I had a sudden vision of Mary and Baby Jesus looking at one another just like Julie and I were doing. The
message was there for me. I needed Mary’s faith, needed to stop the sorrow and self-pity, needed to dwell on the positive strides Julie was making.
Ken put his arm around me while we watched our little girl on her first Christmas morning. The music surrounded us, and I felt the ice around my heart crack and break into tiny bits as I let the spirit of Christmas warm me. I’d pushed it away with every bit of force I could muster, but today thoughts of Mary and her precious son took over. After all, wasn’t this what Christmas was all about? The birth of a child the world had waited for? Wouldn’t we want to teach the treasured story to our child one day, too?
Shame for the way I’d tried to shut Christmas out of my life brought a single tear trickling down my cheek. I should have embraced this special holiday from the day I’d heard that first TV commercial. I needed the spirit of Christmas more this year than any other.
We blew a kiss to our little girl and walked hand in hand to the elevator. I’d finally opened my heart to what Christmas had to offer when I found the spirit in the face of our baby girl. The carols sounded sweeter, the nurses cheerier, and the decorations more elegant. It would be a Christmas etched on my heart forever.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wishing Can Make It So


Another Christmas memory for today. 

A Wish, An Angel, and A Big Baby Doll
By Nancy Julien Kopp

My bottom lip quivered when my mother laughed and said, “You’re too old for baby dolls.”

I didn’t think twelve was too old to play with dolls. My cousin, Carole, had the most wonderful baby doll, one the size of an actual infant. She wore real baby clothes. I coveted that doll more than anything I’d seen in my entire life. The one time of the year we got new toys was Christmas, so this was the perfect time to ask for one.

I took a deep breath. “Carole has one, so why shouldn’t I?”
 This time my mother didn’t laugh at me. She stopped rolling the pie crust dough. “Girls who are twelve and in sixth grade don’t play with dolls. Carole’s only eleven and in the fifth grade.” She started rolling the dough again.
Why did a year make such a difference? I only had one doll, a Shirley Temple look-alike given to me six years earlier. At twelve, I had perfected sulking, and so I proceeded to do so. I watched while my two younger brothers turned the pages in the Sears catalog writing their initials next to the toys they wanted. The catalog filled quickly with the letters H and P. It probably wasn’t worth putting any N’s there. I only wanted one thing, and it looked like I wasn’t going to get it.

Even so, I harbored a twinge of hope all through the weeks that led up to the big day. We lived in a small apartment with little storage space, so my mother wrapped the gifts she purchased immediately and stacked them on the dressers in the bedroom where she and Dad slept. She delighted in sending us in there on made-up errands so we could watch the piles grow.  I didn’t see a box that might hold a life-size baby doll. Maybe tomorrow….
Signs of Christmas were all around us. We listened to an episode of the The Cinnamon Bear on the radio every day after school. The same story about two children and a stuffed bear searching for a special star ran every year in December, and despite knowing the ending, I listened every afternoon after school while I snacked on the latest Christmas cookies that appeared daily, washing them down with cold milk. But I thought about the big baby doll.
Mom baked many kinds of cookies, storing them in gaily patterned tins. I helped frost the sugar cookies and sampled the others that came out of the oven as soon as they cooled. Tiny rolled-up rugelach, powdered-sugar-coated crescents, and of course, chocolate chip.  Cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes, and frosted layer cakes made our holiday special. We had fudge every Christmas—so soft and gooey, it had to be eaten with a spoon. While the spicy smells of the holiday filled the air, I thought about the doll.
A few days before Christmas, Dad put up the tree and strung the colored lights. Next, we three kids hung the ornaments. Being oldest, I was in charge of the upper branches. Howard worked on the next tier, and Paul, who was only four, put ornaments on the bottom branches. We finished with silver tinsel that shimmered in the Christmas tree lights. Christmas music played on our big console radio in the living room. If I got my doll Christmas morning, it would be a perfect holiday.
A special angel adorned every tree of my growing-up years. Mom pressed the angel’s pink satin dress, smoothed out her gold wings, and fluffed up her hair so she was ready to stand on top of our tree, watching over us. Dad waited until we decorated the entire tree, then he put the angel on the highest point. That year—1951-- I wondered if angels could grant special Christmas wishes. Just in case, I silently told her mine. She didn’t laugh or scold, just smiled sweetly while I inhaled the special aroma of the fir tree.
On Christmas Eve, we kids brought one of our everyday socks to the living room and Mom pinned them onto the back of an overstuffed chair since we had no fireplace with a mantel. We knew Santa would fill them with an orange, walnuts still in the shells and a few pieces of candy. Before we went to bed, Howard, Paul and I brought out all the colorful packages from the bedroom and watched as Dad arranged them under the tree.
It seemed almost magical with the lights, ornaments and the packages filled with secrets underneath, all watched over by the sweet pink angel on the top. All too soon, we were shooed off to bed with the annual reminder that the sooner we went to sleep, the sooner Christmas would arrive.
In the morning, my brothers found the gifts Santa brought them next to the tree, for Santa never wrapped his gifts. The boys knew immediately who they were from. Each of them received one of the items they’d marked in the Sears catalog weeks earlier. No Santa gift for me. Twelve year old girls didn’t play with dolls and they didn’t get gifts from Santa either. I swallowed my disappointment and settled down on the sofa waiting for Dad to pass out the wrapped packages, one by one.
We opened many packages that held practical items like new socks or pajamas and others that had small toys and comic books, some jewelry for me. I noticed a good-sized box in the corner that I hadn’t seen the night before. When we’d opened all the others, Dad handed me the big box. I looked at him and Mom, then at the angel on the tree. Could it possibly be?
“Open it,” Dad said.
I ripped the paper off and removed the lid, and gazed down on the face of the big baby doll I’d hoped for. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or hug my parents. Instead, I lifted the doll carefully out of the box and cradled her against me.
I looked at my mother still in her bathrobe and slippers on this holiday morning. My bottom lip quivered once again, but I finally got the words out. “But you said I was too old for dolls.” 
“Sometimes mothers are wrong. Daddy and I decided that if it was something you wanted so very much, you should have it. You’ve never had a lot of dolls like some girls.”
I laid my treasure on the sofa and rushed to my mother’s side. I hugged her and thanked her and then put my arms around my dad and squeezed hard, whispering my thanks in his ear.
Everyone moved to the kitchen to eat breakfast, but before I joined them, I stopped to say a silent thank you to the pink angel on the treetop. I picked up my special Christmas gift thinking about the fun Carole and I would have later in the day when her family joined ours for dinner.

winged angel

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Christmas Tree Story

Today I am posting another Christmas memory story. This one is about how my family selected and put up the Christmas tree. We lived in a small 2 bedroom apartment--a far cry from the elegant scene above. But there was a special spot for our tree and a special place where we went to get it. Not the forest with Dad chopping our own but to a big city lot where....well, read the story here.

 A Christmas Tree, A Pink Dress and Golden Wings
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 In the 1940’s, we city folk didn’t cut down a tree in the fields but kept our own tradition. On a cold December evening, Dad announced that it was time to find a Christmas tree. My two younger brothers and I grabbed heavy coats, hats, gloves and snow boots, and flew down three flights of stairs to our 1939 Plymouth. Our excitement bubbled over in giggles and hoots.

The corner lot Dad drove to was normally empty--now in December, dozens of evergreen trees magically appeared, lined up like soldiers going into battle. A string of electric light bulbs ringed the entire lot, making it appear like a stage show.
The proprietors, who were also hunters, had erected a wooden teepee-like frame to display two dead deer and a black bear in a prominent corner. Animal rights groups didn’t protest in those days.

My brothers and I marched round and round the frozen animals.

“Go ahead, touch it,” Howard dared.
My hand reached within inches of the thick, matted fur, but I quickly drew it back. “You first,” I challenged, but Howard only circled the animals, hands behind him.

Meanwhile, Dad walked the rows of trees, pulling a few upright, shaking the snow off.

He called to us, and we crunched across the snow-packed ground

 “No,” we chorused. “It’s not big enough.”

We followed Dad and thumbed our noses at several others. “Not big enough,” we said, stamping cold feet to warm them.

The owner ambled over, so bundled up he looked akin to the dead bear. He kept a cigar clamped in his teeth and wore gloves with the fingers cut off, so he could peel off dollar bills from the stack he carried to make change.

Dad shook the man’s hand and said, “OK, let’s see the good trees now.”

The burly man moved the cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, rolled his eyes and finally gestured for us to follow him.

We moved across the pine-scented lot to a brick building. The man opened a door, and we tromped single-file down a long flight of concrete steps. Dozens of trees leaned against the walls. Dad pulled out one after the other until he found a tree that we three children deemed “big enough.”

Silence now, as the serious part of this adventure commenced. Dad and the cigar chomping man dickered about the price. Finally, money changed hands, and Dad hoisted the tree. We jostled one another up the steps to be closer to the green treasure.

Dad fastened the tree to the top of the car with the rope he’d brought with us. The boys and I knelt on the back seat, watching to make sure the tree didn’t slide off the roof of the car during the short drive.

Once home, Dad hauled the tree up three flights of stairs to our apartment and put it on our small outdoor balcony. We’d wait until close to Christmas to bring it in and decorate the branches. Several times a day, I peered through the glass door to check that no one had stolen it. Why I thought someone would climb to the third floor to steal our tree is a wonder.

Days later, Dad carried the tree inside and tried to put it in the stand, but it was no use. The tree was too tall. It should have been no surprise, as it happened every year. Dad found his favorite saw and cut several inches off the tree trunk. When he put it in the stand, it rose like a flagpole, straight and tall, nearly touching the ceiling. There was a  collective “Ahhh” from the entire family.

Dad hummed a Christmas tune as he strung the many-colored lights, then Mother helped us hang sparkly ornaments, and we finished with strand upon strand of silver tinsel.

Finally, Dad climbed a step-stool and placed the last piece on the top. What joy to see our special angel with the pink satin dress and golden wings. There were times I could swear she smiled at me.

That sweet angel got lost somewhere over the years. Most likely, she’d become tattered and torn, and Mother discarded her.

Now, my husband brings our tree upstairs from a basement storage closet. Artificial, always the same height, never needs to be made shorter. It’s easier, but I miss those cold, snowy excursions to the tree lot with my brothers. I still put an angel on top of the tree. She’s nice but not quite the same as the one with the pink dress and golden wings.

Family traditions may change, but the memories last forever. They are what makes us the people we are today.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Tribute to A Fine Man

A True Fairy Tale
The castle in Zbraslav where Joe grew up

A True Fairy Tale
Joe at the end of the table in Zbrslav, Czech Republic--Ken and I on left end of table

A True Fairy Tale
Joe pointing out a ceiling mural in the castle to a friend

We received word that a fine man passed away this morning. Joseph Barton-Dobenin was 94. His life is like a fairy tale. I am reprinting a story I wrote several years ago about his life and the good he has done on this earth. My tribute to the Baron who was known to us as "our friend Joe."

A True Fairy Tale

By Nancy Julien Kopp

Children have been enchanted by fairy tales penned by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen for centuries. Aristocrats and castles, trolls and witches fill the pages eagerly turned by little hands. Good versus evil is often the theme, and suspense captures the reader’s attention. But can such stories really happen? Yes they can, for I am acquainted with a man who starred in a real-life fairy tale.

I know him as my friend, Joe. He retired after a long career as a professor in the college of Business at Kansas State University where all knew him as Joseph Barton-Dobenin, American citizen. But once upon a time, he was the Baron Joseph Barton-Dobenin of Zbraslav, Czechoslovakia.

Joe was the eldest of three sons. The three boys grew up in a castle surrounded by lush, park-like grounds. Their family owned a brewery that stood within sight of their home, as well as a great deal of property in and around Prague. Rumbles of possible war in Europe cast a shadow over Joe’s high school years. When his father died, Joe inherited the title of Baron, and responsibility weighed heavily on his shoulders. With his mother’s guiding hand, he carried on in his father’s place.

Before he could enter university, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and German officers moved into the castle. The family worked in the fields each day along with the people of their village. Life was hard, but they managed to survive until the end of the war. Then, at war’s end, Czechoslovakia ended up in the hands of Russia. With no choice, the people now lived under Communist rule. A baron could be no part of the communist life, so Joe landed in prison.

One of his brothers was sent to work in a uranium mine, and Joe’s mother and youngest brother moved to a tiny apartment in Prague when the castle was seized and turned into a national museum. The real estate and businesses the family owned were confiscated, too. They’d endured and survived the grim war years, but this proved even more forbidding. Hope disappeared like smoke from a chimney.

The Russians finally released Joe. He’d had plenty of time in prison to consider his options in this new world. He decided to leave his homeland and find a way to bring the family together again in a free country. His mother sewed the jewels she’d managed to save into his coat, and an escape plan emerged from long nights of talking. To this day, many of the details remain a secret. Joe hid in the men’s’ restroom at the big train station, away from the Russian soldiers who marched the halls. Despite a few frightening moments, the escape plan worked, and Joe made his way to France and then to Tunisia, where he toiled in the fields. He’d had plenty of agricultural experience during the war in his own fields.

A year later, his days were monotonous, and the future looked bleak. One night he thought about an American banker who had visited the castle in pre-war days. When the visitor left, he clapped Joe on the shoulder and said to look him up if he ever came to America. More and more Joe thought about the banker’s words, until he knew he must set sail for the United States. He’d saved enough money for his passage to New York. Though he spoke several languages, he knew no English, but that did not deter him. His mother and brothers still lived in a communist controlled land, and his aim was to get them out, too.

He arrived in New York, a stranger in a land where he could not understand a word spoken to him. Was it luck or an angel who put him in the path of a woman who spoke German, a language he spoke fluently? She helped Joe make a phone call to the American banker he’d met years earlier. No doubt surprised to hear from Joe, the man instructed him to have the woman help him buy a train ticket to Nebraska.

The man operated properties taken over by his bank, and he put Joe to work managing these repossessed farms. It wasn’t long before Joe knew he would not earn enough to bring his family to America. A college education would help. He qualified as a displaced person so was able to enter the University of Nebraska at no cost. He earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in business, and he married a girl from Nebraska.

He started teaching in the Business Education department at Kansas State University, returned to Nebraska for his doctor’s degree and spent the remainder of his career at Kansas State.

During the many education years, he received word that his mother had passed away. He dared not return to his homeland for fear of being imprisoned again. How his heart ached at not being able to say good-bye to his strong and beautiful mother. He thought often of her portrait which adorned a wall in one of the dining rooms in the castle.

Joe told his wife, Elizabeth, that he would never return to Czechoslovakia until it was free again. By the time the Communist rule came to an end, Joe’s brothers and their families had immigrated to the United States, too, and Joe had retired. He and Elizabeth made plans to visit his home country. He’d related stories for so long about the castle and all the precious things in it, his family, and friends in his home village of Zbraslav. Now he would show it to her.

When they arrived in Prague, Joe’s heart nearly broke upon seeing the deterioration of the beautiful city he’d once known. Neglect was evident in the once-magnificent buildings, and the people walked with heads down, no smiles upon their faces. Pride had somehow been destroyed. What would he find when they visited the castle? He and Elizabeth secured transportation to the small village where he’d once lived so happily. The castle remained a museum for the forty-some years of Joe’s absence. When he climbed the steps and entered his old home, his heart beat faster, and he was both fearful and eager to see what it looked like inside. Nothing had changed. Every piece of furniture, every rug, every piece of porcelain remained. When he walked into the dining room, his feet could carry him no further. He faced his mother’s portrait, painted in the days when she ruled as Baroness. The tears he had not been able to shed at her funeral came in earnest as he gazed at the young woman wearing a froth of a dress.

Joe introduced his American wife to several old family friends. He learned that many of valuable paintings the family had left with friends remained hidden by the villagers. Not all of them, however. Some were sold to keep families alive and others remained stashed in attics. Joe discovered that the new government returned confiscated properties if ownership could be proven. Never dreaming he would have any of the family property again, he began the legal process to see if he might get some of the holdings back. As if by magic, he became the owner of a castle and real estate in downtown Prague. But he had no intention of moving back to the Czech Republic. He had given up being the Baron long before. He was an American now. He knew he must return to his homeland to oversee the many business details, and so their retirement years slipped into a new routine. Four times a year Joe and Elizabeth journeyed to the Czech Republic for three weeks at a time, and the rest of the year they spent in America.

But now Joe had a problem. What was he to do with the profits from these newfound businesses? He devised a plan which would help the youth in the Czech Republic and to also benefit the American university where he’d taught so many years. He started a scholarship program for Czech students to come to Kansas State University for one or two semesters. And come they did. After the first group completed their time, word spread around Prague like wildfire. Students at Czech Tech and Charles University learned that not only could you spend a wonderful year at an American university, but the man and his wife who made it possible also invited you to their home for dinner, became your American family. More students came each year, and now some of the Kansas State students have gone to Prague in a reverse exchange.

Joe tells the young Czechs that they are the future of their country. “Study hard,” he says to each new group. “Go home and help the Czech Republic.” And they listen to this man who lost so much and then regained it almost fifty years later.

Fairy tales often end “…and they lived happily ever after.” I think Joe would agree that is the way his story ended, too.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Humorous Side of A Family Christmas

Christmas is a beautiful, heartfelt religious holiday for Christians. The story of Jesus' birth is beloved and stories, essays and poetry have been written about it for centuries. 

But Christmas has it's humorous and fun-filled side, as well. Once Santa Claus came on the scene, writers started sharing the more light-hearted parts of Christmas. To be sure, Santa's gift giving stemmed from the gifts brought by the Three Kings to the Christ Child, so it still adheres to the true Christmas story. 

But soon, we were reading about Mrs. Claus and the elves, the reindeer, including Rudolph with his red nose. Frosty, the Snowman came into being and we all watched A Charlie Brown Christmas many times with our children. That's what the entertainment industry gave us. How much better than some of these violent movies of today! 

In our own families, there have been humorous and fun-filled times in Christmases past. We need to record those times that brought the warmth of family and a sense of enjoyment. Think back over the years and which Christmases come to mind first? Those are the ones you should write about for your memory book or for a nostalgic personal essay to submit to an editor next fall. 

Maybe your most memorable Christmas moment has to do with a dinner disaster or a fully-decorated Christmas tree that fell or a funny gift that someone gave you. Think about those moments today, jot down some notes and write it later--after Christmas if necessary. But don't pass up the opportunity to record some family history for your children and grandchildren. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Christmas Story About A Teacher

My heart goes out to all those affected by the tragedy in Newtown, CT last Friday. It's made me think about the courage and love that teachers have for their students. So many of the teachers there put the children first and foremost, before shielding themselves. So, today, I'm going to post a Christmas story about a beloved teacher I had in the fifth grade, when times were simpler and less frightening. The story has been published three or four times.

 The Best Christmas Present Ever
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 In 1949 the twenty-one children in my fifth grade class learned one of life’s greatest lessons. Ten year olds usually care more about the importance of receiving gifts than the considering the joy in giving them. But that year, we found out that giving truly is better than receiving, and it was all because of a special teacher.

 Lyle Biddinger served on a navy destroyer during World War II, went to college on the GI Bill and landed in a Chicago suburban grade school teaching fifth grade. We were his first class, and he was the first male teacher in our Kindergarten through eighth grade school. Young, handsome, and an outstanding teacher—he was all any ten year old could ask for.

During family dinners, I talked endlessly about what Mr. Bid had told us that day, what he’d shown us, the games he’d taught us. He may as well have been sitting at our table every night, for his presence was evident Monday through Friday. I hurried through breakfast so I could get to school early, and I offered to stay after class and do whatever little jobs needed to be done. I wasn’t the only one who acted this way about Mr. Biddinger. Oh no--all of us adored him.

We were so proud to be in his class. We preened our feathers like peacocks around the kids in the other fifth grade. He was all ours, and like kids of that age, we let everyone know it. Our teacher made learning fun, and in the 1940’s this was a new approach. At one point, some of the parents went to the principal and complained that Mr. Biddinger spent too much time playing games during classtime. School should not be fun; it was to be hard work. Somehow Mr. Biddinger and the principal placated the disgruntled parents, and life went on as before in the fifth grade.

December arrived, and the Room Mother contacted the other parents. Each family was asked to give a modest amount of money to be used for a Christmas gift for the teacher. It was not an unusual request in our school. Next she called Mr. Biddinger’s wife to find out what might be the perfect gift for him.

It was to be a secret, of course, but we all knew about it, and whispers and notes flew back and forth. Our class Christmas party would be held the last day before the holiday break. We would have a grab bag gift exchange, punch and cookies and candy. We’d play some games, get out of schoolwork and give Mr. Bid his gift. The days trickled by slower than ever before, and our excitement grew steadily. We looked forward to our school Christmas much more than the one we’d each have at home.

 Finally, the big day dawned. Our Room Mother arrived bearing the punch and brightly decorated Christmas cookies and hard candies. But where was the big box Mr. Bid’s present was in? We didn’t see it. We wriggled in our desks and fretted. Whispers sailed around the room until Mr. Bid scolded us. “Settle down,” he said, “or the party’s over as of now.” Quiet reigned. The treats and grab bag gifts were passed out. We munched on our sugar cookies and slurped the red punch. The classroom door opened, and a strange woman walked in. Mr. Biddinger’s looked surprised at first; then a big smile crossed his face. We were soon introduced to his wife. The Room Mother disappeared into the hall but was back in seconds holding a good-sized box wrapped in Christmas paper and tied with a wide red ribbon. The chatter in the room ceased immediately, and all eyes were riveted on that box.

The Room Mother cleared her throat, walked to our teacher and said, “Mr. Biddinger, this gift is from your students. They wanted to show their love and appreciation by giving you something special.” As she handed him the box, the room tingled with an air of excitement.

 Mr. Bid seemed excited, and that alone thrilled us. He untied the bow and handed the ribbon to his wife. Next came the wrapping, and we all leaned forward. He opened the box and lifted a hunting jacket from the folds of tissue paper. This had been his fondest wish for Christmas, Mrs. Biddinger had told the Room Mother. He loved to hunt on the week-ends whenever possible, but the special hunting gear was beyond a teacher’s salary at that time.

For the first time, the man who taught us so much became mute, totally speechless. He turned the jacket over and over, looked at the special pockets on the inside and outside. He tried again to say something but couldn’t. But the sparkle in his eyes and the smile on his face said all we needed to know. He finally found his voice and told us over and over how much he loved his new jacket. “It’s probably the finest gift I’ve ever received,” he said. He didn’t say why, but we knew. We had no doubt that the reason was that it came from his first class, the twenty-one ten year olds who adored him.

I don’t remember the gifts I received at home that Christmas, but I’ll never forget the gift we gave Mr. Biddinger. It was the best Christmas present ever.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Write About A Christmas Memory

Our doorbell rang after dinner the other evening. Ken answered and all he could see was this poinsettia plant. Our neighbor girl was holding it and she was completely blocked by the pretty plant. It was a lovely surprise gift from good neighbors. I wanted to share the picture because it si such a cute pot--Santa's boots.

It brought to mind all the many special parts of Christmas, the nice little surprises that come along. Many of them are worthy of a story you can write for your memory book or to submit next year for publication.

Write about the year you were so sick that nothing was going to be done and a neighbor stepped in to help. Write about the year your child had a special desire for a Christmas gift that wasn't going to happen. Write about the year you were to sing a solo at church and ended up with laryngitis.

There are so many small happenings at holiday time. They happen, time passes and they're lost. But they won't be lost if you take some time to write the story.

I've written about our saddest Christmas more than once, when our first baby spent her only Christmas in a children's hospital. Even the sad or tragic events deserve to be written about and kept in your memory book.

So, pour that second cup of coffee tomorrow morning and write about a Christmas memory that was special to you. Who knows, you might come up with a story you can send to Chicken Soup for the Soul for their next Christmas anthology.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Want Arms Like Carl?

Writers need to keep exercising just like Carl above if they want to come out on the top end of the writing totem pole. So, how do you do that?

You write consistently. Writers who write something once a month are not going to keep their skills as sharp as the ones who write daily. We read in books on the craft of writing that we must do it every day. That doesn't necessarily mean that you need to do it for several hours every day.

On the contrary, even a short 15 minute exercise per day will keep you in shape. Sure, some days you'll be on a roll and spend a few hours working on a project but on other days, you either are too busy with other things or aren't inspired to work on a long essay or story. 

For me, blogging is my way to keep writing every day. I may not be writing a story to submit to an editor or contest, but I'm writing. I'm using my creativity and keeping my writing skill honed Monday through Friday every week. Most of the time, I write something on Saturday and Sunday, too, but not always. Hey, everybody deserves a day off now and then. 

I also think that reading about the craft of writing on a regular basis helps keep you on top of the game. Like all fields, there are trends in writing and every writer should make themselves aware of what they are. When I was writing a lot of children's stories, mood pieces were big, and then suddenly one day, that was over. There are times when social conscience stories are big in children's books and then other times when just a good, entertaining story is sought. As a writer, you need to know about these changes.

You need to read about the changes in publishing, such as the move from print to ebooks that is happening now. You can always benefit from reading marketing newsletters and books by writers about writing. 

Be consistent in both writing and reading about writing and you'll have arms just like Carl before you know it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Avoid Regrets In Your Writing Life

The quote on today's poster can relate to just about any part of our life, but let's look at what it says to writers. The chances and decisions part fit the writer quite well.

Whether you're a newbie writer, a hobby writer or a professional, there have surely been times that you didn't take a chance when you could have. That old monster, Fear, steps in and leers at us and we pull back.

But what if you, as a newbie, had gone ahead and signed up for that class on writing? What if you had found the courage to submit to a name magazine? What if you had forged ahead and attended the writer's conference last year? You don't know for sure what might have happened, but it's possible that some good may have come from whatever chance you had and passed up. When the next one comes up, take it. You'll have no regrets that you missed out.

Even the already-published writer sometimes passes up chances that appear. Maybe you wanted to submit a story to a highly-renowned literary contest  but that other monster, Lack of Confidence, stepped in front of you and you held back. If you don't enter, you don't know if you can win a contest. You don't know if an editor will turn you down if you don't send your work. Take a chance. What's the worst that can happen? The editor can say No. That's not the end of the world. Maybe some other editor will accept the same piece later on.

As for the decisions, if we wait too long the opportunity may have disappeared. We don't want to make decisions with too much haste, but we also shouldn't take forever agonizing over them. Look at the situation from all sides and then act, or not, whatever way you decide to go.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pay Attention To Verbs

I am reminded every time I read a submission from someone in my critique group about the importance of using active verbs. Those whose work is saturated with active verbs bring a story to life.

The reader sees the action, the prose becomes visual and the story captures interest. In reverse, those stories that are filled with passive verbs like was, is, are, become just kind of lay there with no zip at all. We are told what is happening but we can't visualize it like we can when verbs such as jumped, vaulted, somersaulted are used.

Long ago, the moderator of the crit group I belonged to scolded regularly about using verbs that end in ing. "They're weak," she'd say. Go through your manuscript and change every one of the verbs that end in ing. You'll have a stronger story in the end.

We also rely on what are considered weak verbs that aren't in the was, is, are category. If you say, Zoe walked to the store. we have no idea as to her mood or anything else. walked is a perfectly good verb but it isn't a strong one. If you said, Zoe hurried to the store. that tells us a lot more. We know she wasn't just putting one foot in front of the other which is what walked indicates.

Take a verb like run. It seems perfectly good, doesn't it? It shows us that someone is moving at a fast speed. Now, list as many words as you can that could be substituted for this weak verb. A few to get you started are raced, sped, flew. Those verbs are much more lively than run, aren't they?

When you think you have a story all finished, take a few minutes and look at your verbs. How many are passive and how many are active? Strive for far more active verbs and you'll end up with a much better story.

A verb is just a word but it can make a big difference in your story. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Decorating The Tree Brings Memories

Free Christmas Card Clip Art Image: Christmas Card or Christmas Background with Gold and Red Christmas Decorations
The other day, Ken put up our Christmas tree. His job was easy, pop the parts together and plug in the pre-lit tree. "There," he said, "now you can decorate it." Where was the 'we' in that statement? He did bring up the boxes of ornaments from downstairs for me and after he went out on some errands, I set to work. 

As I hung the glistening ornaments that I'd bought at places like Target and K-Mart, I let my mind wander to the rest of the items on my schedule for the day. But once those ornaments were up, I started on the special treasures we've collected over 48 years of marriage. 

As I did so, my mind wandered back to the times and places where we'd gotten these special ornaments. I have a set of six tiny wooden angels, each one sitting inside a round wooden hoop affair. They're quite small but detailed. I found them in a little shop near the Drake Hotel in Chicago when we were at a convention. Ken had a meeting at the famous old hotel every other year, and I always went with him. Going back to my hometown of Chicago was always a treat and getting away from caring for children and house ranked high, too. So, the tiny angels reminded me of all of that and more. 

Some of the ornaments were ones we'd bought when traveling in the USA and overseas, and each one brought back memories of the place where we'd purchased them. I am partial to angels and couldn't resist buying the little eskimo angel in Alaska. When I hung her on the tree, all the delightful parts of our Alaskan cruise rolled back to me. I bought some Ukkranian egg ornaments in Prague which the Czechs use at Easter, but I put them on the tree to remind us of our two trips to that beautiful city and in honor of the many Czech students we've hosted. 

Some of the ornaments are ones special people have given to us as gifts, and so each of them reminds me of a relationship with the giver. 

My mother saved one of my baby rattles that always went on our Christmas tree, and the angel at the top of the tree never changed. She watched over our tree in a pin satin dress, her golden wings in back and a cloud of blonde hair. Somewhere over the years, those things were lost. How I wish I had them now. Ken's mom gave our children some special little angels that always graced their tree, and our kids now use them on their own trees. More memories.

Memory upon memory flooded back as I finished decorating the tree. Writing about your own special ornaments for you memory book would be a great addition for the December section. I know it's a busy time of the year, but at least take a few minutes to jot down some notes and write about the ornaments later. If you can do it right away, the emotion will still be with you and make a better story. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Meals We Remember

One of our dinners with students
We act as a Host family for Czech exchange students at Kansas State University. Quite often, they do not go home for Christmas, opting instead to travel in the USA during the school break. Some years, we have had several students come for a Christmas dinner. After one of those dinners, I wrote a short story and sent if to Chicken Soup for the Soul for a Christmas book. Months later, they contacted me with the good news that the story would be included in the book

On Sunday, we are having four students join us for a meal and conversation. Three are from the Czech Republic and one from Germany. For the ones not going home over the holiday break, this will be the only Christmas in a home that they will have. The story that appeared in the Chicken Soup book is below.

It’s The Simple Things
 By Nancy Julien Kopp

Ken and I have been a host family for Czech exchange students who come to study at Kansas State University for the past 6 or 7 years. The students live on their own, but we are there to answer questions, show them around town when they arrive, and invite them to our home for dinner now and then. They lead busy lives, but we e-mail or phone to keep in touch.

This year, we have two young women who are both majoring in the study of Architecture. Jana and Klara attend university in Prague, but both come from smaller towns in the Czech Republic. They arrived in the USA the day after the new airline regulations regarding what can be carried on and what must be checked went into effect. The day before they left home, their luggage had to be sorted out and rearranged to meet the new regulations. Then there was a paperwork snafu in New York when they went through immigration and customs. Before they knew what happened, they were taken to a tiny room filled to overflowing with other immigrants who had problems of one kind or another. Most all the people in there were from Asian countries or the Arab world. These two tall blonde girls huddled together in a corner expecting the worst. Finally, the paperwork got sorted out and they had to find a new flight to Kansas City since they’d missed their connecting flight with the delay. The customs officials in New York refused to help them, so they marched off to find the counter for their airline and managed to get on another flight with the help of a kind and helpful ticket agent.

Meanwhile, we knew only that they had not arrived when they were scheduled. Once they knew what flight they would be on, they did call and a full twenty-four hours beyond the expected time, they arrived at our door--desperately tired, longing for a shower, and hungry after traveling nearly two full days and nights. They spent their first week with us in our home while looking for housing and getting registered on campus. We spent the time getting to know one another and taking them to meetings and testing places on campus as well as orienting them to our community. At the end of the week, they had found a little house to rent with two other Czech students and were ready to begin the semester’s classes.

That hot August week seems so long ago. In early December I invited Klara and Jana and their two housemates to come to dinner to celebrate Christmas. Most of the exchange students travel around the USA during the holiday break, so we try to provide an evening of Christmas cheer for them each year, as it is often the only Christmas celebration they will have. It is heartwarming to watch the wonder and joy on their faces when they walk into our home and see the decorated tree and other Christmas symbols throughout the house. We have a special meal and linger at the table to talk about Christmas traditions in their country and ours. I place a candy cane above each dinner plate, and this year’s group were as surprised as all the others in years past. Candy canes are not known in the Czech Republic, and the students like them. I guess it is because they are something different. “What do they taste like?” they usually ask. Try and describe “peppermint” sometime. It’s not easy. One of the young men said he was going to Walmart to buy many candy canes to send home to Prague for Christmas.

Turns out it’s the simple things that mean something to these young people far from their families and their own country. A home-cooked meal, conversation, knowing someone cares about them and maybe having a candy cane for the first time. For Ken and me, it’s another simple thing. We end up receiving far more than we give with all of the students we’ve had. Not every Christmas gift comes in a box with wrapping paper and a bow.

Published in Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas (2007)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Gift For Bloggers

Free Christmas Present Clip Art Image: Gift Wrapped Christmas Present in Red and Green with a Gift Tag
It's that scratch-your-head time of year. What kind of gift are you going to give to your great-aunt who is in a nursing home, your dad who already has everything, your nephew who likes nothing anyone gives him? We often spend way too much time agonizing over what to give someone. We'd like it to please the recipient but finding that just right gift is not an easy task. We probably worry about it more than we should.

Those magazine and newspaper articles that publish gift-selection articles around this time of year can be a lot of help. I've found a few ideas in them that I might not have thought of myself. 

Today, I'd like to give you an idea of what to give your favorite bloggers. What? You're not planning on buying them a gift? Well, not to worry because the gift I have in mind will cost nothing but a few moments of your time. I have three gift ideas bloggers would appreciate. 

1.  Sign on as a Follower if you read the blog on a reasonably regular basis. Some editors look at the numbers and the bloggers keep track of increases in the number, as well. 

2.  Pass the blog on to others. This is one way bloggers increase the traffic to the blog. Word of mouth advertising has always helped retailers, contractors, and service people. Works the same for bloggers.

3.  Leave a comment on the posts you especially like, or even those where you disagree. It's gratifying to bloggers to receive comments. Keeps them from wondering Does anybody care about what I write?

So, there you are--3 gift ideas. No cost. No wrapping. No shipping. Time involved is minimal.