29 Oct 2010

Haunted House and Gruesome Graveyard: Story Settings for Halloween.

I love this time of year, with its dark, windy nights, the colourful leaves piling up on the lawn and the fruits of our summer labour (which is basically limited to watching the fruit grow and ripen) stacked in the pantry.
I don't even mind the fuss about Halloween, but it probably helps that trick-or-treating is not very popular here.

Actually, I remember only one instance where one of the neighbour's kids came to ring our door bell on Hallow's Eve, possibly lured by the jack-o-lantern I'd put on our doorstep. It happened a few years ago, and it was an utterly embarrassing experience.
I try not to have any candy in the house, so I had to dig into my emergency stash of dark, bitter (Belgian) chocolate.
Who could have guessed that he wouldn't be happy? Either way, we haven't seen him since. I can only assume he survived.

What I love most about the end of October is that invisible blanket of deep but snug melancholy that seems to cover us all. Once more, we remember our loved ones, we start contemplating the year that's coming to an end, prepare ourselves for a cold (and possibly long) winter, and gather around the fire to express our hopes for what might come next. (There might have been some projection going on in this paragraph.)

It's also a great period for writing. I usually find my imagination running wild, especially late at night, trying to squeeze my novel or other stories into twists and turns I wouldn't think of during the lighter half of the year.

Today, in anticipation of the days to come, I wanted to share a few pictures I've taken over the past couple of years. It's an eclectic collection, but they're all places or buildings that could be the perfect setting for a ghost story, a scary novel or a real-life Halloween gathering with friends.

Now picture these locations on a dark October night. What gloomy adventures could be happening there, at this very moment?

Boscastle, Cornwall. The Museum of Witchcraft

Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire, England

Graveyard at Asthall, Oxfordshire, England

Details on one of the tombs.
Graveyard at Asthall, Oxfordshire, England

Church of Notre Dame at Epernay, France

Alchemist's Street, up in the castle. Prague, Czech Republic

Old castle steps. Prague, Czech Republic.

Graveyard, Crail, Scotland

House in Olot, Catalunya, Spain

Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany

Temple of Mars, Rome, Italy
[Except for the jack-o-lanterns, all images in this article were made by the author]

This post was inspired by the Halloween "Book or Treat" blog party for Unicef. You can find out more - and donate - after clicking on the image below:

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26 Oct 2010

Manage your body weight - the green way - part four: the list!

Continued from part three.

Now let's look at a few more green, sensible and meaningful ways to get rid of those energy reserves. I'm offering a long list here, not because I think you should do them all, but to make sure that there are at least a few suggestions in there for everyone. It's by no means comprehensive, so feel free to add any ideas you have in the comments below.

- If you have one, walk your dog more often. He/she will love you for it. (Don't try this with cats. It simply doesn't work.)

- If you have kids, play active games with them: tag, ball games, limbo dancing, lifting them in the air and pretending they're aeroplanes, and whatever you can think of that requires muscle activity. If you don't have kids, borrow your sister's, brother's, neighbour's, ...

(c) T.M.O.F. - cc
- Instead of dumping it in the dryer, hang your laundry outside. Consider this valid exercise. As a bonus: you'll have to take it back in afterwards. Double exercise points!

- When unloading groceries: don't pile up shopping bags or boxes to carry them inside in one go. Instead: walk a few times back and forth. Much better for your back, and every extra step counts. (Although I have to admit: piling them up and balancing isn't bad either, as it counts as weight training)

- Try to combine walking or working out with grocery shopping. Instead of driving your car to the supermarket and then going for a walk, jog or workout afterwards, consider walking or jogging to the baker's or the neighbourhood store.

- Bring a packed lunch to work, take it to a nearby park or public garden, go for a walk, and have lunch al fresco.

- Wash your car by hand (with a spunge and a bucket of water and just a little bit of soap) instead of driving to the carwash. There's no need for lots of hose action if you apply "the force", i.e. muscle power. If you have kids or a playful spouse or friend, get them involved.

(c) Daniel McCullum - cc
- Two words: snowball fight. In the absence of snow, water balloons will do.

- Use the commercial breaks during your favourite television programmes to get up, stretch a bit, do a silly dance to one of your favourite songs, or get a couple of minutes of house work done.

- Wiggle your toes any chance you get. Don't forget to enjoy it.

- Make love as often as you can. Sex is a great way to get your heart pumping and your whole body moving. (If you're under the legal age in your country, or a sex addict: please ignore this advice. Silly dances are fun too)

- Instead of going out to eat, with a partner or with friends, prepare a picnic basket, go for a walk and have a fun or romantic picnic in a beautiful setting.

- When you take the bus or tram to work: get off a couple of stops before or after your regular one. That way you have a short walk that helps you to be fully awake for work, or that can refresh your buzzing mind afterwards. It's also a great way to see more of your surroundings, to meet people in a different environment or to get inspired for other activities: you might see posters for a concert, an art exhibition or a museum you haven't been to. Also: vary! On a bright sunny day, be brave and go for more stops; if it's cold, go for a brisker walk.

(c) Manjith Kainickara - cc
 - Grow a garden. Don't let it die. If you have a piece of land, however small it is: cultivate your own fruit, veggies & herbs, and take care of them. If you don't have the space, be creative: get pots for your balcony or window sill, look for allotments or communal garden projects in your area, or talk to an elderly neighbour with a plot of land. They might love to get some help or let you use it, in return for a small share of the harvest. Herbs especially are great, because they're easy to grow, and they really spice up your meals with their gorgeous scents and vibrant shades of green, yellow, red, purple, ....

- Have a housecleaning competition with your partner, roommate or children. Assign each competitor a room, or part of a room, and the first one to get their side spotless, wins the prize! This is by far my least favourite tip, regardless of the prize.

- Get to know the area or city where you live. Challenge yourself by hanging up a map, putting pins where you've already been, and give yourself a week, a month, ... to fill up the empty spaces.

- Volunteer in a soup kitchen, animal shelter, community building or after-school project. Most of the work includes physical activity and it's a great way to give back the energy you've been storing.

- Mind your posture. It's not just better for you physically (it takes more muscle effort so you'll burn more calories), it also helps to boost your confidence and makes you feel better about yourself.

(c) Jean-Pierre Dalbera - cc
- Dance. At parties, weddings, in clubs or on your own. Take dance classes. There are so many genres to choose from: bellydancing, African, hip-hop, flamenco, salsa, swing, jazz, Bollywood, Indian temple dancing, tap dance, ballroom, capoeira, disco, medieval, you name it. There's a style for everyone!

- Visit interesting places. Travel, explore and discover parts of your country, continent, planet, galaxy, that you haven't been to before. Few things are more inspiring than being in a new environment.

Play an instrument. Any one will do, but the heavier the better. Percussion comes highly recommended.

- Organise birthday parties for your kids, family or friends. Look for fun and creative themes and make the decorations, toys and games yourself, on your own or with friends, family or other parents.

- Walk around when you're on the phone (works significantly better with mobile phones)

- Move your scanner, printer, ... further away from your desk so you have to get up every time you need to use it. Don't get annoyed about it. Consider it exercise and praise yourself.

- When you drive to work, park your car further away. Even if it's just on the other side of the carpark, or a couple of blocks away, every extra step counts.

- Take the stairs whenever you can. If you start off in a really bad shape, take the elevator to 1 or 2 floors below where you have to be, and walk the rest.

- Take massage classes with a friend or partner. Practice often on the people around you. Be sure to get their permission first.

- Stretch, swing and shake! Whatever you're doing, whether it's cooking, reading, typing or slouching. Stretch in all directions, swing your arms and legs, wiggle your shoulders and shake that bootie.

These are just ideas. I hope you've found a few you like, and most importantly: I hope they've inspired you to come up with your own, which - by the way - I would love to hear.
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24 Oct 2010

Manage your body weight - the green way - part three. Exercise!

In the first article in this series, I had a look at a few underlying principles of managing your body weight, and tried to frame it in a more ecological and holistic context.
In the second, I explored the food side of weight management, with the underlying principles and a bunch of tips and tricks to consume fewer calories while still maintaining your quality of life.

And the same principle applies to exercise: any type of weight management that's going to work in the long run, shouldn't impose on your quality of life. It might itch a little here and there, but that'll be generously compensated in many other areas, feeling like an overall win.

Even though it makes more sense not to consume more than you need, the reality is that many of us don't want to resist or avoid high-calorie foods all the time. Or give up chocolate and stop going to cocktail parties. Does that mean we're doomed?
(c) Capt Kodak - cc

Not in the least. It's perfectly possible to manage your weight and still enjoy the good things in life. I know I do, and have done so for years now. You just need to be aware that it's a balancing act, and it requires making informed decisions. Fortunately, there's no such thing as failure. There's just learning, improving your strategies and moving forward.

First, let us get back to the 'green' basics.

When we consume too many calories, what we basically do is take in more energy than we need. That energy comes from somewhere. In life, there's no such thing as a free lunch, literally.
The energy comes from other life forms (the plants and animals that we've eaten, and indirectly from the sun), and we consume that life to continue our own.

When we take in more energy than we need for our normal activities, our well-functioning bodies store it as fat, unless (or until) we use it up. Until we do, it also means we are taking more from this world (in the form of food) than we are giving back (in the form of activity). That doesn't make us bad people, and we don't need to feel guilty about that. It's part of being human, but so is the ability to be aware.  

(c) sparktography - cc
Don't give in to guilt. It's generally not useful in a healthy weight management plan. Instead, we risk using it an excuse.  

Guilt makes us feel bad about ourselves, and often powerless, which then becomes another reason to remain sitting on the couch, wallowing in self-pity or self-reproach. 

Instead, what we really need is the courage to face the facts. Then we can start looking for useful ways to burn our excess energy. Giving back to where it came from. Look at your fat as potential, waiting for you to devote it to a worthy cause.
There's a huge difference between being overweight, and being someone who has been "storing energy up till now." That difference is made by what you decide to do, right now. You are not a victim. You have more control over your life than anyone else. It might not always feel that way, but it is true.

So let us look at ways to transform that stored energy back into meaningful activity. It has come from the world, it is now time to give it back. You have the insights, the energy reserves, and the motivation. You might not have the perfect knees, back or metabolism, but we can all work with what we've got. 

I want to make clear that I am not pleading against fitness or workouts. If you enjoy running on a treadmill and it makes you feel good about yourself, keeps you motivated, gives you energy and strength for other projects: great! Your health and well-being are what matters most.
(c) Ulf Liljankoski - cc

But if you're not getting much out of it, and you're just dragging yourself to the gym purely to lose weight, it might be time to find an activity that feels useful, that motivates you to go on, that makes you happy to be alive, that makes you feel part of the greater clockwork. 

Personally, I am a great fan of weight training (workouts with free weights). Yes, the heavy ones. Yes, like the guys in the gym, and no, it won't make you look like a body builder. (Lots of great information about that on http://www.stumptuous.com/).

Why weight training, and why it doesn't feel meaningless to me? Plenty of reasons:
  • It's great willpower training (everyone who's tried it knows how great it feels when you squeeze out that last rep)
  • It's a very efficient way to become stronger, which is useful for many other daily activities, from carrying groceries (or children), gardening or house work, helping friends move house to defending yourself or getting out of an emergency situation
  • It's something you can do at home, with basic and inexpensive equipment.
  • It doesn't take hours a day to build it up or maintain it.
  • You can start off slowly with a few simple exercises, two or three ten minute sessions per week, and build it up from there, together with your physical abilities and your confidence. .
But any other increase in physical activity will make a difference. It's important to take your starting situation into account, and build it up from there in a way that increases your overall health and joy in life. Step by step, changing and adapting along the way.

Don't forget: every time you wiggle your toes in joy or wave at a friend or neighbour, you are making your muscles work and you're spending energy. Every extra step you take, you're burning off calories. And if you've enjoyed that step and on top it has benefited friends, family, your community or the world at large, it pays off times ten!

Up next: a list of green and meaningful exercise tips & tricks.
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22 Oct 2010

Tweet Tweet: the sound of fear.

I started using Twitter a few days ago and I'm still fascinated, ánd terrified.
It's official now: my lurking days are over. I've been on Facebook for a while, I've got two blogs, and now I'm tweeting too.

On the one hand, it feels like these networks open up the world. So many people become approachable: artists, celebrities, fellow writers; men and women you've been following from a distance for years turn out to be real human beings who are willing to share their interests, and even respond to yours.

But at the same time, we put ourselves out there. We give away pieces of information that are all pretty innocent on their own, but will we remember in a few weeks, months or even years what we have already given away, and whether or not all those dots put together might paint a way too complete picture of who we are?
How come we lock our doors, hang curtains in front of our windows and use passwords to protect our computers, and then show so much of ourselves to people we barely know, or don't know at all?

Part of me tries to talk me into a false sense of security by arguing that there's nobody out there who cares, or who wishes me harm. But how could I be sure? Most of us, even when we try to live our lives without harming others, can be sure we've failed on a regular basis. We all have ex-boyfriends, -girlfriends, -husbands or -wives; fellow students, pupils, students or co-workers we might have pissed off, or people who are envious by nature, or plainly disturbed.

I hope this hiding-in-plain-sight doesn't come back to bite us in the arse.
At this point, I don't think it is even possible to estimate how much social networks are changing our world, and as with all kinds of evolution, this will have up- and downsides.

On the positive side: it's such an inspiring environment to be in. These tools bring people together, they connect us to human beings on the other side of the planet who sometimes feel closer to us than our next-door neighbours, and they enable new forms of art to emerge. Think of Eric Whitacre and his virtual choir performing Lux Aurumque, to name but one great example of what technology can help us achieve.

But beyond our need to express ourselves and share our stories and events with the world, have we forgotten about the darker side of humanity?

We cannot live our lives in fear, but are we prepared to face the consequences of this openness?

I'm still trying to work it out for myself. It's a tricky one for a writer...
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20 Oct 2010

So Your Partner's a Rational Creature ... - Part Three.

Continued from: Rational creature - part 1 and Rational creature - part 2.

Fundamental difference #2:

Rational people process (nearly) everything in their head first.

On top of that, the rational part of our brain is significantly slower to respond than our emotions.

This means that, when confronted with new information or an unfamiliar situation, a rational creature will usually do nothing. At least, that's what it will look like, while their brain is working like crazy. On the inside, they're looking for similarities to known situations, considering different responses, looking for the appropriate way to react, etc. On the outside, we see ... nothing.

Of slippery slopes and minefields:

Feelers often misinterpret that lack of immediate response as not caring. We tend to consider Thinkers cold fish, and this can cause quite a few conflicts, especially in romantic relationships.
(For more info on the Jungian or MBTI terminology 'thinkers' and 'feelers', have a look here.)

The rationale behind this suspended reaction is that, by a certain age, thinkers have already learnt that their first response to a situation, especially one that is emotionally charged, is a bad idea.

When dealing with feelings, logic's usually not the way to go. For someone who bases their decisions on logic and observable data, emotional situations are minefields. They don't have enough information to go by. They have no idea how to respond, because the observable data are limited to: 'she's acting strange,' or 'he seems upset.'

Back to Angela and Bob:

Angela and Bob are talking about an article she's been reading, about how microwaving your food is bad for you.
Bob, being his rational self, points out - quite sharply - that microwaves don't do anything but make water molecules in food vibrate rapidly, thus creating friction and therefore heat, and in that sense microwaving isn't all that different from other forms of cooking.

Angela, unable to detect a caring tone in his voice - probably because there wasn't one - feels like he's calling her stupid. He discards what she said based solely on factual arguments that she can't counter with facts of her own. This feels very unfair and disrespectful of who she is as a person. (For a Feeler, nearly everything is about people because that's what we're focusing on.) As a result, Angela gets angry and, because she doesn't want to start a fight, she shuts up.

Bob notices her change in behaviour, but has no idea what happened. After all: he was just correcting an incorrect assumption. It wasn't personal. He asks Angela if something's wrong, but she denies.
Shortly after, Bob goes to watch TV, only to notice that there's significantly more rattling and smashing of pots and pans than usual.

(Again, pardon the gender stereotyping, I'm going for maximum recognisability here. Please adapt names, characters and situations at will.)

Bob now has every reason to suspect something's wrong, but he sees no way of finding out what. Until he gets more information, he does nothing, hoping it will pass.

In the meantime, Angela is still angry and winding herself up to boiling point. Bob can be such an uncaring arsehole sometimes. She bottles those emotions up on top of everything else, and we've got great potential for future self-combustion.

In the meantime it should be quite clear what the basis for this conflict is, and that there's no point in trying to blame either one of them. Each person reacts in their own way, and the conflict doesn't come from either one of the individuals, it comes from the mutual misunderstanding of the other person's social language.
In so many people's everyday lives, a lot of energy is wasted in situations like this one, energy that we could spend on something that's actually fun!

Now, let's look at what we can do to avoid this in our own lives:

For the Emotional Creature:

- Be aware that lack of feedback or response doesn't equal that your partner doesn't care.

- Your partner is not a mind reader. Try and express yourself as clearly as you can, especially when strong emotions hit you.

- When a particular feeling comes up, it's usually triggered by something. Every feeling is a valid response, you're not being silly (most of the time, anyway). It means there's an issue that needs to be dealt with.

- Don't waste mental energy blaming the people around you for not understanding. You are not a victim. Once you've calmed down, as you always will, analyse what has happened and talk about it.

For the Rational Creature:

- Be aware that a feeling is often difficult to analyse, especially for the person who's experiencing it (and while they're still feeling it.) It's an automatic response coming from an old part of our brain, pointing out that something's not right.

- Know that, when you notice in the feelers around you that something's off, you're probably right. However tempting it might seem to ignoring the situation, in the long run that's not a good idea, as it will keep coming back. The longer you wait, the bigger the fallout - and the damage.

- We all function in a social context. Roughly 50% of people are Feelers. That means you can't avoid them no matter how hard you try. And believe it or not, it would seriously reduce the quality of your life if you could.

- However unjustified or unintelligible you think emotions are, don't belittle them or treat them as unimportant.  While the feeling is 'active', it's very real and extremely important to that person.

- It's important to be there to listen, consider and offer comfort. If you don't know what to say, that's okay. You don't have to say anything, just be there.

- Even if your partner repeatedly tells you they're fine, if you have sufficient clues that that's not true, don't believe them. Feelers tend to put up a brave face. Don't pressure the matter either, just let them know you're there, and plan a joint activity for the (very!) near future. Chances are by then the feeling will have gone through its first processing rounds, and your partner might be ready to talk about it.

- Make use of Feeler friends and relatives. They can often help you to translate. Be careful with delicate topics, though, your partner might not like other people to know the specifics!

To keep in mind:

Once the strong emotional response has cooled down, conversation is possible again. It's important to find out what triggered the problem. Usually it's some form of misunderstanding related to how a message was communicated.
Thinkers have a way of giving factual information in a very cool way, deprived of emotion. Because to them it's about the facts.
Feelers read a lack of emotion as coldness, and tend to associate it with disrespect, disdain, disagreement, etc. Mainly because when they try to keep emotion out of what they say, it usually means they don't agree or don't approve and try to spare the other person's feelings.

We're really not that different on the inside, but we do speak a different social language. In order to understand each other, we need to learn to translate.

[Might be continued in the future.]

Image: 'Close Up of The Thinker' by Todd Martin, available under a creative commons license. © 2005, Todd Martin.
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16 Oct 2010

Searching for the rainforest: the eco-friendly search engine.

Most of us know that searching the internet has an impact on CO2-emission. We don't always want to think about it, but really, we know. Bits and bytes might not produce exhaust fumes while travelling the internet highways, but the servers the search engines are running on consume a huge amount of energy.

Fortunately there is hope, in the form of a green alternative called... Ecosia.

It's backed by Bing and Yahoo, so it's an actual search engine. It might not be as massive and versatile as Google, but for most of the stuff we're looking for online, it does a good job. And the more people who'll start using it, the more opportunities Ecosia will get to grow and become even better.

Where it differs from the traditional search engines is that at least 80% of the revenue they're getting from ads and sponsored links is donated to a rainforest protection program run by the WWF. On top of that, Ecosia's server network is powered by green electricity.

By using Ecosia, with every search you do, you can save an average of 2 square metres of rainforest in Juruena National Park in Brasil.

For those who want to know how it works: about 2% of the searches on Ecosia lead to sponsored links. It's clicking on those links that generates the income. Don't bother trying to spam it with fake searches and maniacal clicking, they've got systems in place to detect those. Just use it as your first and foremost search engine, and your 'normal' searching behaviour will make a difference.

http://www.ecosia.org/. Share it on!

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13 Oct 2010

One person's nightmare, another one's dream: physics books for change...

What a hopeful story, what a fabulous guy, and: what a difference access to information can make in a person's life.
It's ironic, really, how what causes nightmares to some (hello, physics books!), can make someone else's dreams come true.

This 6 minute video shows the important role of libraries. (Combined with willpower, a creative mind and a problem-solving attitude.)

I wonder how many great people: scientists, writers, doctors, advocates of change, started their journeys in the local library. My guess would be: most!

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11 Oct 2010

Hate crimes. Or: where I fail to understand.

I came across this article via a blog I'm following and it made me angry. Not the article, obviously, but the crime it described in gruesome detail.

Over fifteen years ago, a professor of American literature I was lucky to study with as an exchange student in Southern Germany, called me "too relativistic". I understood why: I had the habit of looking at everything from so many angles, that I was unable to pick just one point of view and treat it as 'the right one'.

Since then, I've learnt to manage it better, but the need to look for the underlying whys and hows of ... well, everything, is still there. In most sufficiently complicated situations, I can't decide what's right or wrong, I see mainly different points of view: developed, taught and learnt in differing circumstances. Some of them cause pain to some, joy or comfort to others. But they all have underlying reasons, that are there to be looked for and - sometimes - found.

I guess this relativism is such an intrinsic part of being an ENFP, that I'll be that way until I depart from these realms. And I'm happy about that, because this characteristic has been a driving force for me to keep adapting and learning, and every time I was at risk for taking things too much for granted, it's given me a good kick in the butt.

However, I've discovered there are limits to my attempts - and ability - to understand.
The things that tick me off most are unfairness and abuse of power, in all their forms, and especially when they're pointless, unprovoked and directed at creatures who stand no chance in that situation. And most hate crimes tick all of those boxes.

Yes, I do understand that our inner animal wants to pick a fight when it feels threatened, and that many of us would be capable of resorting to violence in order to protect something or someone that we consider ours, part of our family or tribe.
But can someone tell me what's so threatening about the freckled redhead in the playground, or about women, ethnic minorities or the gay couple next door?

Or are more and more people feeling so powerless in this modern and estranged world, that those bottled up emotions grow into hate that needs to find a way out and gets aimed at anyone who happens to be close by, a bit more different or more colourful and vulnerable enough not to hit back?

And more importantly: how will this end?

Will this continue until only a few are left standing, only to discover that the diversity of species was a prerequisite for survival? Or do we - on the other side of the spectrum - decide to protect our minorities and most vulnerable creatures by making them hide under layers of plain cloth or standardised behaviour, which would make our beautiful planet so much less colourful and interesting?

How can we match our needs as individuals with those of the many tribes we are part of: our families, our social circles, our communities, neighbourhoods, villages and cities, our countries, continents and the entire planet?

So far I have only questions. Because I'm still trying to understand. NOT to justify and NOT to rationalise, but to understand.

Until we do, I fear we have no solutions. Until we do, I'll use my outrage as fuel to keep looking for answers, grateful as I am for the many colourful people in the tribes I'm part of.
Ignoring this anger would be bad, for their sakes as well as mine. Chances are it'd bottle up and turn into hate. And we don't need any more of that, do we?
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10 Oct 2010

Cider, sushi and Sunday aperitifs.

Another lovely sunny day today, which I wanted to celebrate with a healthy pre-dinner drink, especially after last night's (Somerset) cider tasting.

Two dear friends had got us the ciders (3 kinds: Cox's, medium dry and oak matured), and after a bit of doubt what food we'd pair them with, we decided on sushi.
I tried to make sushi for the first time about a year ago, and found out that - once you get the hang of it - it's not really that hard.

Of course I wouldn't compare mine to anything made by a real sushi chef, but for 'regular home consumption' they're pretty good.

On top of that they're fun to experiment with, they're healthy, made with a variety of good quality fresh ingredients ánd my immediate environment loves them, which is what matters most, really.

Pairing sushi with those exquisite ciders was a bit of an experiment, but we were surprised at how well it worked. Definitely something we'll be doing again!

But this morning I felt like a healthy, refreshing, sugar- and alcohol-free aperitif, so I decided to go for one of my (as yet unnamed) classics. Name suggestions are always welcome, by the way.

Here's how to make it:

  1. Take a long-drink glass
  2. Add an ice-cube if you want (I would do this in summer, I didn't now)
  3. Add a splash of grapefruit juice
  4. Add a splash of lemon (or lime) juice
  5. Top up with sparkling water
  6. If you have a sweet tooth: add a bit of natural sweetener. (I use stevia).
  7. Stir and taste if it needs more grapefruit, lime or sweetener
  8. Add a splash of carrot juice for the taste and the orange gradient effect.
(Use freshly squeezed juices if possible, but bottled will do, as long as it's got no added sugar. You don't need a lot of juice, it's just a bit for the taste and the colour, so this drink isn't high in fructose either.)

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9 Oct 2010

Natural Beauty: the Art of Andy Goldsworthy.

For the past couple of weeks my immediate surroundings have been colouring in the abundant yellows, browns and reds of autumn. The air is filled with the scent of leaves gently breaking away from their hosts and, in spite of the bright blue sky, the October sun barely manages to chase off the morning chill.

Autumn has really come, and it's the perfect backdrop for devoting some time and attention to one of my favourite contemporary artists: the English photographer / land artist / sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.

Personally, I think he's a genius, in body, mind and soul. He succeeds where many fail: in joining forces with nature rather than using or abusing without consideration. His combination of ideas, shapes, colours and textures breathes a purity and intensity that make my heart sing. His works not only reflect the beauty of nature, but blend in a careful human touch, marking a point in time, reminding us of the cycle of the seasons, of the ever-turning wheel of life and death.

But words cannot do justice to his works. You need to see and feel them for yourself.

Here are a few of my favourites:





Find out more @ the Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue or check out his books and DVD.

All pictures & works featured in this post are © Andy Goldsworthy.
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7 Oct 2010

Rêver de roulottes...

The summer holidays are gone again, which tends to make me a bit melancholic. I usually deal with that by becoming slightly more domestic, expressed by a sudden interest in making chutneys, pumpkin soup and fruit liqueurs in all the beautiful colours of autumn.

It also makes me fantasize about the summers-to-come, and the places I would love to go next.

I'm not a list-making type of person, but I have a number of places in mind where I still want to go, for different reasons. Sometimes to discover a country, area or culture I'm really interested in; to visit a site of great historical (or personal) value, or just because I've found a rare, pure holiday gem that calls to me, regardless of the location.
This can be a precious B&B, a quirky boutique hotel or any kind of place where I feel that the owners have put a tremendous amount of love, time and care into creating something that's truly unique.

A few months ago I found one of those, or at least one that - on its website - seems to have that magical potential. It's located in the high Beaujolais region in France, and it consists of beautifully decorated historic ... gypsy caravans!

Wouldn't you like to spend some time in one of these... living out your creative, romantic or vagabond dreams?

More pictures on their website: http://www.lesroulottes.com/ 

In case you're considering to get one of your own: check out http://www.les-verdines.com/.
Or if you'd rather just stick to dreaming, I love Jeanne Bayol's books and the pictures on her website: http://www.jeanne-bayol.com/.

Have a great autumn!

Thanks to Pascaline and Jeanne for so kindly letting me use their pictures!
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6 Oct 2010

Writing, Persian rugs and the paradox of perfection.

For the past 1,5 years, I've been writing on my first full-size novel. I hadn't written 'for real' since I was a teenager, and it was a really big step to take.

But so far it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made, with lots of positive consequences that have rippled through to almost every other aspect of my life. It's helped me to stand still and concentrate on the world around me more often, and - through doing that - it's bringing me a lot closer to myself and what I really value.

The process of writing has caused quite a few confrontations with myself; some anticipated and some totally unexpected. Fortunately they all occur in a safe environment: my own fictional world, a realm where lots of things pop up, but where I'm in control. Most of the time. I can more or less decide which issues to deal with first and when, by carefully popping in and out of that world whenever I please.

One of the things I found out along the way, is that I'm more of a character-driven than a plot-driven writer.
That didn't surprise me, really. Whenever I read something, observe people or even when I watch TV, I always connect with the characters first. It doesn't matter that much whether I like them or not, as long as I feel I can grasp them, understand where they come from or suspect that they have a good reason for doing what they do.

That, indirectly, lead to me a very important realisation: I suddenly understood that I loved my own characters way too much.
Because of this, I'd been trying to chisel them to such perfection that, if I would run into them in the flesh, I'd really really dislike them.
Even though I'd been aware of this risk before I started writing, and tried to avoid it, I'd still fallen into the trap. And I knew that, until I'd go back to the drawing board to touch them up with a bunch of carefully constructed vices, blemishes and shortcomings, my characters could never be my friends.
Because, let's face it, in reality, perfection is not just boring, it's utterly detestable.

So why do so many of us - myself included - keep striving for it: in what we do, in how we look or even in wanting to become "our perfect self"?
Is perfection something we'd even want to attain?

While thinking this over, I remembered one of my history teachers once telling us about the 'Persian flaw', an imperfection that Persian rug makers deliberately wove into their carpets, because only God is perfect.
That idea has always resonated with me. Regardless of our individual concepts of 'God' or our relationship with Him/Her/They/It, the Persian flaw always makes me wonder: how pointless (and/or conceited?) is it to strive for the full 100% of anything?

Instead, wouldn't it make more sense to spend that extra energy on revaluing our unique, individual set of imperfections, and to see how we can turn them into a gift, for ourselves and/or others?

What are your Persian flaws that set you apart from everybody else, and what good can they do?

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4 Oct 2010

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education | Video on TED.com

I love this guy, and I love his "Hole-in-the-Wall" project.

Sugata Mitra is an educational scientist. This is a presentation he's given at TEDGlobal earlier this year, about his experiments in remote villages in India, where kids teach themselves lots of different subjects without the presence of a teacher, just by having access to a computer and the internet.

17 minutes of inspirational fun!
Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education - Video on TED.com
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3 Oct 2010

Manage your body weight - the green way - part two: how to take in fewer calories?

In a previous article: Manage your body weight - the green way I pointed out a few reasons why it's a good idea to consume fewer calories when you want to lose weight or maintain your current weight.
Not only because it will most likely help you shed those extra pounds, kilos or stones, but also because it makes sense in a wider ecological context.

It took me a while to gather the courage to write that previous article, because I know how sensitive the subject is (been there, got the T-shirt and got rid of it again. It's way too big now and I plan to never need it again). It's so easy to get demotivated rather than inspired, to feel put down rather than uplifted.
In the end, I wrote it anyway, because it's something I strongly believe in, and it represents a way of thinking that makes small and everyday actions and decisions part of a greater whole, which - to me - makes them more meaningful. Most of the time, that's worked as a huge inspiration.

The most difficult changes when you decide to manage your weight, health and everything connected, are the new mental attitudes and habits you have to develop. That and the old ones you have to get rid of. It requires being honest with yourself. No more excuses. You are not a victim, your past might have shaped you in many ways, but it does not determine all of who you are or where you're going. You are yóu, right now, and yóu shape your future by making healthy decisions, day by day.

Again, easier said than done, so let's look at a few basic principles that can help us manage.

First of all, you don't have to do this alone. Even though we might not be aware of it all the time, we all have an amazing ability to learn and adapt. Your best friends on this journey are Patience and Knowledge.

Patience because there is no quick fix for weight loss and weight management. Run from anything or anyone who claims otherwise. You don't gain pounds overnight, regardless of what the scales tell you the day after a heavy night out. (Most of that weight is water because your body is doing a good job at dealing with the food & drinks you had.) Fat accumulates gram per gram, and that's how you're going to lose it.

Knowledge is equally important. You need to become aware of what foods are bad for you, and try and see through the mounds of unreliable and false information that are out there. Learn about calories, about how certain foods (e.g. sugar, trans fats) are processed by the body and which ingredients (e.g. sugar, trans fats) to avoid. And learn to read food labels.

But the kind of knowledge that might be even more important, is knowing yourself: your strengths and your weaknesses. You can make this journey easier for yourself by finding ways that work for you.
For instance, if you know you are a social person, get your friends to help and support you, or look for people who want to do this with you. Start a club with regular activities, cook healthy meals together or for each other. Regardless of how busy you are, you can find ways to make this a co-op.
(I'm going to devote a later article to this topic: practical tips & tricks for different types of people, so stay tuned for that one.)

Here I want to focus on more general principles that can help anyone, regardless of your specific personality or preferences. These are strategies have really helped me (and many others), and even though the specifics of our minds and bodies are all different, we still operate according to the same basic principles. After all, we're all part of nature.

Here we go...

  1. Avoid sugar. It's not a coincidence that I put this on number 1. Avoid sugar in all its forms. Not just refined sugar, but also corn sugar, cane sugar, honey and all other sugar-like products that are marketed as healthier. Avoid sugary drinks as well, including unsweetened fruit juices (as they still contain a lot of fructose.)
    There are 2 big reasons for this: a) sugars make you crave more sugar, and are therefore likely to make you eat more (see below), and b) all those sugars contain a high percentage of fructose, which is now regarded by many nutritional scientists as one of the number one causes of obesity, cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. That research shows that our brain ignores fructose intake (meaning that all fructose-calories you take in don't trigger satiation), which means you'll need to eat a lot of other foods in order to feel satiated, leading to a much higher overall calorie-intake.
    It is okay to eat fruit in its pure form, with all its fiber, vitamins and minerals. But avoid fruit juices, even the unsweetened ones.
  2. Reduce highly processed and refined carbohydrates: white breads, white pasta, sugar (see above), in short: anything with a high glycemic or insulin index. Those foods break down easily during digestion, releasing glucose quickly into your blood, thus making your blood sugar levels spike first and drop later, which makes you crave more carbs. They're associated with obesity, coronary heart disease and type II diabetes.
    For most of these there are healthier alternatives, made from whole grains. 
  3. Avoid trans fats. All fats contain a lot of calories (9 kcal per gram), but they also help to make you feel satiated, and many fats are good for you. Don't worry too much about saturated fats and full-fat dairy. Lots of modern nutritional research shows that they have been incorrectly associated with cardiovascular disease. Butter, coconut oil, palm oil, etc. aren't bad for you (but: use in moderation because of the high amount of calories). (Partially) hydrogenated fats like the ones you find in margarines are the ones to avoid, as are roasted nuts and many vegetable oils when they've been heated.
  4. Avoid ready-to-eat meals and ingredients. You have no idea what's in them, and they often contain a lot of sugar, salt and additives. Instead, try to cook from fresh, and develop strategies that work for you:
    • cook larger batches and keep them in the freezer for later in the week
    • make a list of basic healthy ingredients that keep a while and make sure you have them in the pantry, cellar, fridge or freezer. Focus on items you can make a quick yet healthy meal with, in about the same time it would take you to order in.
  5. Eat 5 to 6 smaller meals a day, instead of 3 big ones. This gives a psychological bonus: it reduces the time between meals, which makes it easier to stick to smaller portions. This way you don't have to eat to "bridge the next 5 or 6 hours", and it helps to prevent the big hunger spikes right before a meal that make it harder to make healthy choices.
    Be careful though: don't use this as an excuse to eat more. Calculate the total amount of calories you need per day, and divide that by 5 or 6. It usually means that you aim for 5 to 6 smaller meals of around 300 calories each. You'll soon learn to optimize those 300 calories: eating more vegetables for instance gives you a lot more volume for those 300...
  6. If it's not good for you, don't buy it. When the cravings hit, you can't guttle what you don't have in the house. And the cravings will come: your brain will try anything to hold on to those fat reserves. Therefore: manage your environment to minimize the risk of digging in.
    Counter the cravings with positive thoughts and distractions. Focus on your quality of life by refusing to buy or eat anything that doesn't meet the high standards you choose to set for your life. Drinking water or herbal tea can help as well, as very often a craving is actually disguised thirst.
    It's important to know that your daily willpower is a finite resource, so pick your fights carefully.
  7. Don't ever go shopping on an empty stomach. It's a battle that's very hard to win: your brain will point out every food item in the entire store. You'll see, feel and smell food everywhere (a natural reaction - it's your brain's way of getting you to eat when you're hungry), and you'll almost inevitably come home with easy, ready-made food, stocked with sugar, salt and all kinds of additives that you want to avoid.
  8. Drink lots. Often when you think you're hungry, you're actually thirsty. Still water is the best, followed by herbal teas if you like the taste. Drink milk or lactose-free alternatives if you want (count the calories though if you're trying to lose weight).
    Avoid artificial sweeteners: there are so many contradictions in the research results that it's just too risky.
    Experiment, come up with your own combinations and recipes. One of my favourites is a sugar-free and low-calorie chocolate milk, with skimmed milk, pure cacao powder and sweetened with a few drops of stevia.
  9. Look for clever and healthy/healthier alternatives. Many "quick" comfort foods can be replaced by a healthier alternative. Be creative, experiment and enjoy! A few suggestions:
    • make your own sugar-free lemonade: squeeze 1 lemon or lime in a glass with an ice cube, add a few drops of stevia (a natural sweetener) and top up with sparkling water.
    • quick pizza: take a slice of (wholemeal) bread, a few tomato slices (juice and seeds removed) or a spoonful of tomato puree, some fresh or dried herbs (basil, oregano, chives, nettle, ...), salt and pepper and a slice of cheese (mozzarella or other). Add some vegetables (or leftovers) and bake in a pan, in the oven or under the grill. It's quick and delicious and you can vary according to your own taste: with spinach & feta cheese; smoked salmon, cream cheese & dill; mushrooms & blue cheese; bell peppers & feta cheese; pesto and vegetables; ... 
  10. True quality of life above everything! Don't settle for crappy food. If you want to eat a piece of chocolate, don't go for lesser quality.
    Choose quality over quantity, and you'll find that you'll often consume less.
    An example: I promised myself, when I really wanted to eat potato chips, I could, but only from the best chips place in town. I chose not to settle for anything less. An interesting side effect was that I actually craved it less because it wasn't forbidden, and that half of the time when I did want chips, that particular place was either closed, or I couldn't be bothered going over there and had something healthier instead, because that was the only stuff that was close by.
    Also: focus on what you really want. Food is often just a substitute for something else. Are you bored and inclined to nibble? Do something interesting, challenge yourself, call a friend, go for a short walk, read something, meditate, do a couple of sun salutations, go online and read an inspiring blog, or write one of your own. Choose to be honest with yourself. It's the best way to learn and change the habits that don't help you ahead.
And, very important for all of the tips above: it's okay to get it wrong sometimes. Every day offers you new chances to start over.
Continued in: Manage your body weight - the green way - part three: exercise!

Want to read more?
Here are a few interesting links where you can find more background information and/or inspiration:

Sugar: the bitter truth.- a 90 minute video: a presentation by Robert H. Lustig, professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California. Well worth the 90 minutes.
Krista's Eating section - the "eating" section of stumptuous.com, full of inspiration, recipes and tips&tricks.
Fitday - one of many sites that help you to keep track of what you're eating. The free account gives you access to a calorie calculator, a personal journal, weight & measurement tracking, and much more.
World's healthiest foods - a list of the healthiest foods, in-depth descriptions of the health benefits, related articles and recipes.
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