Don Stille, Grammy Nominated Jazz Accordionist

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com

A shot I grabbed of Don at a street fair in Chicago, September 2017

A hot, sunny Saturday afternoon welcomed thousands to Edgewater, a small, eclectic neighborhood in the north end of Chicago, where artists of varying kinds had collected to show off their stuff. Potters, jewelers, mask makers and painters line the streets between Broadway and Sheridan, while stages at either end of the two block festival, along with a smaller central stage, open up to performers of various kinds from the community.

I slipped onto the front row to listen to the artist dubbed as a Grammy Nominee, and immediately began snapping photos. I’d grown up listening to my mother play the accordion, and witnessed my cat writhe in torture over it. But I’d never heard anything like this before. Don Stille. Wow.

Don’s music is a fusion of pop, classical, and traditional music into a style unique to him. His brilliant playing, speeding through the notes, or gracefully stroking the keys while expanding the bellows, transports his listeners to other times and worlds. In that other world, twilight sinks in while the water laps against the dock, and all is at peace in the business of the over-planned, overwhelmed lives that we lead. The key to all of this is his accordion, an instrument most people of my generation might consider “lame.”

As he packed up to head out to his next gig somewhere else that day, I grabbed his card and asked if I could call him for an interview. He gladly accepted, and we both went our ways, enjoying the day, more jazz and perhaps a little too much sunshine.

On Monday I called, and still intrigued by his work, I asked him to tell me about his life as a musician.  How had all of this amazing talent on a less commonly explored jazz instrument begun?

“When I was just a little tyke…I had coordination issues. Using my knife and fork wasn’t great.” Door-to-door accordion salesmen frequented St. Louis, where Don Stille was born, and when one particular salesman dropped by one night when Don was only five years old, his dad bought the accordion and signed Don up for lessons. “My dad, in his infinite wisdom thought this was an idea: he thought maybe it would solve my coordination problem… Within a week [of starting lessons], my coordination issues had pretty much cleared up.”

Who could have predicted that such a simple solution to such a normal problem would lead into a lifetime of great music?  “I was really digging the music and was improvising on the music they gave me to learn. It was a common sense thing, and it grew into a lot more.”

Don Stille has been playing ever since. And since he’s now 72, that’s been a while.  He’s played locations like The Green Mill (Chicago), at the New Orleans International Jazz Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, Old Town School of Folk Music, Joe’s Pub and The Metropolitan Club in New York City, DePaul University, Yale University and various other venues across the country. He’s been playing with Bonnie Koloc for years, and in the past has played with famed entertainers and musicians like Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin and Ben Vereen, to name only a few.

“I am also a member of the Artist Ensemble in Residence at University of Chicago. And the ensemble New Budapest Orpheum Society or NBOS… [which] did a recording a couple of years back.” A lot of the music that they performed was specifically the Jewish Cabaret music found in Warsaw before and during the Hitler years. Most of it is extraordinarily heavy, but it’s telling the stories of the people in that time, in that place of great darkness in world history. “The album is beautiful…it was sent into a contest for a Grammy…We got a certificate and medal.”

While all of that is pretty awesome, what stands out to me in chatting with Don is the kindness and humility of his spirit. When I first met him at the early afternoon performance at the Edgewater Arts Festival in Chicago, I never would have guessed the acclaim he might grab onto and hold out as his banner. Instead, his energy and graciousness immediately drew me into his music and the conversation during our interview.

I had to ask what jazz means to him. Don responded, “That’s a very complicated question to answer. What it means to me… It is the music, the genre, that enables the performer to improvise, to spontaneously create…” Jazz, as he feels it, is a tremendous medium to express oneself. As to his own music, fusing different genres captures him because, “… It enhances and enlargers what I can express. I’m interested in many different styles of music, and I can call upon that in performance…[jazz uses] whatever genre or musical category to tell my story. I hope that [my audience] will feel that I took them on a musical turn.” Be it a melancholy tune like ‘Round Midnight or the ethereal Crepescule (Twilight), Don hopes to “get people to that place that helps them feel like they’ve had an experience worthwhile. It depends on them, and the way I’m telling the story to get [them there].”

I asked Don to continue. What is his favorite part of performing?  “…Up until 15 years ago, it was about pyrotechnics with piano or accordion.  It was so crucial to me—what the general populace thought. It was sort of an all-about-me mode. I’ve realized more recently that an instrument is like a [bridge] to connect to the audience—to connect them with [the] music.  I enjoy connecting to a sentiment within me, and hope I can convey that to someone who is listening. It’s enabled me to perform on a different level. It’s more rewarding than the way I used to do it.”

“What is something you want our readers to know about you or your music?”

I could hear the smile in Don’s voice as he said, “I would want them to know that what I do comes from the heart. I always try to tell people to believe whatever you believe. I’m not big on religion, but I’m big on [the] spiritual. It’s something that directs us all. We should all try to connect to that spirituality. This music flows through me, and I am enjoying it as much as I hope they are. I’m happy to see what rolls through…and that is what I would want people to know about me.”

With a multitude of jazz greats of bygone years to listen to, emulate and learn from, folks like Fats Waller, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others, I wondered which current artists Don most enjoys playing with or listening to. “…Here in Chicago I’ve always enjoyed playing with world class players, such as: Stewart Miller (Bass), Bob Rummage (Drums), Eric Schneider (Sax), Mark Olen and Art Davis (Trumpet and Flugelhorn), Daniela Bisenius (Violin and my musical soul-mate). There are many more but…too many to name here.”

“And if you could have shared a stage with anyone from jazz history, who would that have been?”

Don took a few moments to think this one through, but answered, “In terms of [a] great musician/trend-setter, and someone with tremendous impact and a good person? I would say Louis Armstrong. As far as I know, everything I’ve read about him, he’s a great human being. Took a lot of heat, got stereotyped by a lot of black musicians, especially the younger generations…he was a tremendous musician…[had] that power as a player and as a person.”

Our discussion of jazz past, naturally led me to ask what direction he sees jazz heading in.

“Since the very beginnings of this Art Form (and this is probably true for any form of artistic expression), each group of emerging young artists has focused on pushing and stretching the fundamental elements that define this music, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic. This is no less true today, which is the good and natural process of growth and evolution. That being said I think the important thing to remember is that amidst the quest for the more complex, thicker musical colors and textures, we must keep the human connection intact. What we express must have its roots planted somewhere in our life-journey experience. Quoting from the timeless classic American Songbook ballad, As Time Goes By, “It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”

As our conversation drew to an end, I asked Don what projects he’s currently working on. He said that he’s starting to explore the world of healing music. He’s also currently working on a project with Daniela Bisenius, a Romanian-born violinist. With a specific focus on Gypsy Jazz, aiming to educate, they’re booking their performances into libraries and the like. To learn more about Don and his music, please check out his website.

Natalja: A Jazzy Cabaret Singer, Inspired by Movement and Collaboration

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com

A shot I snagged of Natalja performing at a street fair in Chicago, September 2017

I came upon the Coffee Studio on Clark Street, here in Chicago, just minutes past 7:30. At first, I didn’t recognize her, but this feeling made me lean in closer to see if the woman sitting there outside was her.  “It is you!”

Natalja looked up from her book, rose to greet me, and we discussed the noise of the traffic at that hour on such a busy street, and decided to take our interview inside where I could actually hear her. Ordering tea and a tasty roll, we found a place in the back to settle in for the next hour and half. I pulled out my phone to record and we laughed over testing the voice recorder and the screen going blank a few times before I had this thing figured out.

I had suspected, back at the Edgewater Arts Festival where I first heard Natalja sing, that I liked her. As our conversation through the evening progressed, I knew I had made a new friend—a kindred spirit in love with jazz and the world of music. So, I asked this Italian songstress how she got into performing.

“I think I’ve always known from an early age that I was on a search for something authentic, and that finding my voice was really a subtle but consistent goal of mine. Even if I didn’t state it out loud, there was a drive to find my voice, and I grew up with piano in my home, and music. And yes, my family on my mom’s side is very musical and artistic in general, specifically music, [but]…I got into sports. I’ve always been a strong athlete. I ended up doing synchronized swimming. It is one of the hardest sports. You have to be graceful, strong, and you have to perform, and you have to have discipline…you practice every day, [for] many hours. And it is physically [taxing], but a well-rounded sport. I would say that is how I got initiated into performing. When you go to a meet, you have to put on a specific swimsuit and make-up and you have to do your hair, and then you have this one chance to show what you’ve worked on for a year in front of judges…it’s pressure. And you use music and the body, and that expression through the body.

“I quickly discovered that is something that came naturally to me and I love it. [But I had to leave synchronized swimming] because I did not like the judging, and wanted the freedom of expression. And that took me to dance, and I started exploring the different ways of using my body, while staying connected to music. The component of music…always gave purpose to movement. That’s also how I got to be multi-disciplinary. And then I got into theatre because there’s expression of the body and voice needed support in terms of story and message.

“Synchronized swimming…that’s part of my childhood. But what really brought me back in terms of performing is that you have to do music, you have to create… You have to sit down at your piano. That was my grandfather. I find it interesting, every time I sit down with an artist who has a strong something…it is someone who has a strong connection with a grandparent, and that is me, too. I use his music…it was really him who appeared to me in a dream. I woke up and I sat down at the piano and, I was 20, and I started by using his music, and using his chords and re-learning how to play. Writing lyrics to his music and then connecting his work with my work and making that show. And that first show was called Return to Self. And it was just his music. His repertoire is pretty big. One day I want to record all his music.”

“So how long have you been performing, Natalja?”

“Well, I would say roughly since 2005. With small things before then, but when I came to Chicago that’s mainly when I started performing, choreographing, writing for music theatre… I wrote a musical with my grandfather’s music, and I’ve collaborated with composers and lyricists on smaller, ten minute things, and then I wrote my show, the Selkie. I have always gravitated towards original work rather than auditioning for existing shows. I wanted to be a part of the free process of making things. It’s kind of like my road. Sometimes I would do other people’s projects, but there were always elements of improvisation and creation on my part. And then I wound up going to school for Theatre Creators. That is heavily based on your own approach, and what you need to tell. It’s…what you make of it, but there are amazing tools for being in touch with your body and finding your authentic works.”

So I asked her how jazz figures into all of these things for her.

“Jazz to me means freedom within a structure. It means diversity, acceptance of differences, being able to step outside the box, and I always find that jazz musicians, at least on stage, look very happy—they look like they’re having fun. I come from a family where all music was present. I didn’t have that beautiful chance to see a lot of live music (because of living in a small town), but I at least had recordings…My family was very into, as far as their own music, the academic approach, like classical. Theory [was very important]…You play and read and try to be perfect. There was always the pressure of not messing up and playing the wrong note. My first approach to making music was that, and I didn’t quite like it. It made me feel like I was never good enough, because I was comparing myself to Mozart. And so jazz gave me the opportunity to see the music differently…not looking at it note by note, but looking at the chords, the progressions, the arc. It is about [my] interpretation and the story inside of that. And of course there is the practice and the discipline and the precision, but there is more playfulness. [Using] the body and the syncopation…and it’s fun to listen to.”

We spoke of many things through the evening, but I wanted her thoughts on jazz today and where she thinks jazz will head in the future.

“I have just come back from an intense week of cabaret,
 (her recent mounting of “The Selkie” in Paris), “[and]…it’s funny how there are moments in life when you are more into one part of life…So right now, Cabaret is more on my mind, but because I come from a love of jazz, my cabaret is very jazzy…I think that jazz is everlasting. There’s this discussion that Cabaret is dying or that opera is dying, or other musical forms. I don’t think anything is dying. There will always be someone passionate enough to keep it alive. And jazz I think transcends. Jazz is not really a style. Already within it there are so many ways to express.

“I see that there are a lot of musicians that record alone. They have maybe a studio at home and they can do anything. So maybe there are going to be a lot of one man bands in the future…Which is not great…the big band is not as prevalent and that’s what I love. And my voice really shines there. And that is maybe a little bit dying. I think mainly because it takes a certain level of management or organization that nowadays people can’t afford or don’t want. We’re independent…In the future I see again maybe more collaborations that require more technology and not people, like people Skyping in. But…I have faith that eventually people will be tired of isolating themselves. I’ve always been an ensemble driven artist, and it’s funny because now I find myself doing a one woman show. But because I am ensemble driven, my show still allows me to collaborate in different ways. [At one point] I had to put together a band. I have a sound engineer, and I have a friend who comes in and gives another ear [to my performances]. And in the future, maybe someone to help me with bookings. Initially I was thinking a full orchestra would be great. But realistically, it has to be [only] me.”

“So, what is something you would like for others to know about you and your music?”

“I would say that my music comes from my body awareness. And it’s been, and it is, a process of connecting many things. That, in my case, accumulates in the voice. [T]here’s a study behind my music that is really rooted in the body. I feel like a lot of people think of the voice as just something that comes out of your mouth, but it’s a whole operation. And I feel that the more you connect to your body, and the more you practice, and the more curious you are about your body…and you know your bones, and where the alignment is and you take care of the nutrition and exercise…the more you do that, the freer your instrument is, and then it is really connected to your soul. [That] is more authentic…more you. And what I want my music to do is to give that responsibility to each person to be responsible for their own self, and not try to imitate a voice or a movement, and to dedicate oneself to listening to one’s own way.”

Natalja is a woman of many talents and interests, dancing with a company in Chicago, as well as mounting her show “The Selkie” around the city (and Paris!). She also embarks on a brand new project in October 2017, combining the elements of the culinary arts and the performing arts from the same people group (such as Italy in this first manifestation). To learn more about her works, or maybe catch one of her shows, visit her website.

Andy Brown, a Man of International Talent with a Heart for Local Music

I was able to snag a shot while Andy performed at Cellars Bar and Grill in January 2018

Originally written for Jazzgroupiez.com – 2018

He has played piano since he was young and started saxophone in middle school. But at fifteen, he got a guitar, and found his passion. “Some of the musical things I had learned as a young guy [transferred to guitar]. My dad wants to take credit for it…and he should take some of it. But until I got into it on my own, it didn’t really do much for me.”

Andy Brown is an established jazz guitarist who gigs around the country, as well as jazz festivals in places like Rio de Janeiro, the Netherlands, and Germany, and more local fests like Chicago Jazz Festival and the Chautauqua Jazz Party in Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s played with renowned artists such as Scott Hamilton, Howard Alden, Ken Peplowski, Kurt Elling, and even accompanied Barbara Streisand on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009. He’s performed for Nobel Peace Prize dinners where presidents and former presidents were in attendance, and once for the opening night gala for the Chicago NATO Summit.

But what makes Andy’s story fascinating is his journey into jazz and his many insights into that existence today and the years ahead.

“How long have you been playing jazz?”

“Probably since I was about seventeen years old. That was in 1992. I started playing a lot of gigs since I was in high school and have been doing it ever since. I started as more of a Blues artist. I was playing in Cincinnati. [I] started playing with older musicians in my senior year of high school, two or three nights a week.” They had steady work all over town, playing up to six nights a week. “We had a van and went around and played every night. I did that pretty much full time right out of high school. It wasn’t that really unusual for people in jazz…some didn’t make it through high school. Like Stan Getz. Nowadays there’s a huge academic side of jazz, where mostly it’s an industry to provide income for people who don’t have enough gigs. It’s best to go right into it. Just go do it. I’ve been doing it ever since, full-time.”

“Who have been some of your biggest influences?”

“My biggest influence was a guy from Cincinnati. I lived in Cincinnati. Kenny Poole, a local kind of genius. [He was] a world class player [who], through circumstances and choices of his own, stayed in Cincinnati, and built a following and a reputation. He was very eccentric. He set a good sort of [image] of what a good musician was. He played almost every night and I would go and listen. There weren’t too many other young musicians going and doing this, so I sort of had him all to myself. Eventually he had me sit in with him, and I would learn from that. We would feed off of each other. He would give me advice in the moment…what was working and what wasn’t. Another influence was Cal Collins, an equally great jazz guitarist, who had just gotten more fame. He was Benny Goodman’s guitarist, and he was in his mid 40s at the time, and all of a sudden he’s playing Russia, and all over Europe and the world. Through that association with Benny Goodman, he started making a name for himself. He never moved to New York or L.A., but stayed in Cincinnati. He was playing around Cincinnati all the time, too. Sometimes he would play with Kenny Poole. Cal was real hot, and Kenny was reserved and mellow. They were like fire and ice. Together they had everything you could want to hear. Cal gave me tips, never any lessons…they both exemplified what it means to be a good jazz guitarist and what it means to be good. It was sort of lucky, every town has their own people, and they were the best I’ve heard to this day. They’re two of the best I’ve ever heard. Not too often two of the better people who have ever done it [are in the same smaller town]. It could be part of why I’m a jazz guitarist. They helped to shape me [as a guitarist]. The style I wanted to listen to and play is totally from them. We listen to records from long ago. Most of our heroes are long gone. Most of my main music heroes are people I heard in person and even played with. It’s just what I saw, my playing isn’t a throw-back, it’s what I saw and it was a natural part of what I do—it’s what was around me.”

The more I spoke with Andy and listened to his story, the more fascinated I grew. This man has seen and experienced some amazing music, and when I listen to him, I do.

“What do you enjoy most about performing?”

“That’s the medium through [which] music takes place. Almost like if a tree falls in the forest…if it falls, does it make a sound? As a jazz musician, that’s when the music happens. You improvise in public. If you’re improvising in your room, does it even take place? The whole act of creating the work of art by a painter is private, but it’s presented in public after. [For] the improvising artist, the art form is only done in public. It’s creating the music. The music doesn’t really exist except when you’re performing…it doesn’t really exist unless you have an audience… That’s the nature of performing arts—you have glitches, unlike movies or recordings where you can edit.”

Sensing that Andy would have some real insight into the subject, I asked what he felt about the current state of jazz and its future.

“[That’s] a good question. Obviously it’s an opinion. I think jazz is probably progressing similarly to the way Western classical music went…You can trace the evolution of the music. Playing parties, concerts and teaching. It took a lot longer for western classical [than jazz to evolve] of course. Bursting open with freedom and more tonal[ity]. Reaching its outer limits. There’s parallels within all western arts.”

Everything gets more and more “out there,” Andy noted, and loses its form. Comparing music to other art forms, he asked where the visual arts go from Jackson Pollack?

He continued: “Classical [music] got more academic [and] competitive, and now every virtuoso is out there teaching at universities. And it seems like jazz is going that same way.” No longer in the taverns and clubs it’s “…organizations that are affiliated with cultural institutions that program concerts. The jazz academia world has exploded. [Now] it’s [about] getting into teaching… the new landing [of] a steady gig [is] getting your adjunct teaching gig at universities. All the students are pursuing their PhDs just to get adjunct teaching jobs. If you have a lot of heavyweight credentials, you basically have to have a PhD or at least a Masters to teach. The whole thing is more and more around the academy and its tentacles. Like classical music, it’s not in the night clubs and taverns and local music scene. And I see jazz going that way. I think it’s inevitable, and I think it’s unfortunate. I think jazz should be more grass roots like blues and bluegrass. They’re beating the drum to get jazz respected as the cultural music of America. I wish they would just leave it alone and just let it survive and let it grow on its own. It may still do that, but I just see it going [that way].”

Andy gave examples of this direction. “There’s this series Symphony Centre Presents. Each year they have more and more concerts, they have 14 or 15 concerts scheduled. Like Herbie Hancock, Keith Gerad, from fall till spring. How many people are going to go to more [concerts and gigs] than that? It’s all great, but it helps lead people away from the jazz scene. We always go to store front theatres, it’s just more fun…but if you go to Broadway in Chicago, that’s all you do. How many more nights a year are people going to go out? It makes it tough for the smaller community, I think. I guess it’s probably nothing new. People go to the big shows…and where does that leave the local theatre? There’s this pride in the Chicago theatre scene, but Chicago is not New York, so they make a big deal about when New York people come in. So they go there, instead of seeing the local [shows]. In Cincinnati, there are only locals, so no one had a choice but locals. The Symphony Centre is great, but the more concerts they do, the less people go out to community performances.

“There’s always talk about how to get people into the clubs, it’s cool to get people to jazz festivals, and it’s the one jazz experience for people in a year. Why don’t they have these festivals set in clubs instead of in Millennium Park? Everybody wants to expose people to it, but…I think that’s where it’s headed: festivals and subscription series and less Kenny Poole playing in a little jazz club. It depends on the vibe that you promote.”

I’ve got to agree with Andy. The concert series like the Symphony Centre has are awesome, and help to expose people to the arts, specifically jazz, in a broad way. But the best way to support and grow our jazz community is by going to the local clubs and restaurants and smaller venues where our artists play.

I asked Andy other questions, to which he responded with great insight. But since I ask this question, I always want to give the opportunity for that answer to be heard: “What is something you’d like our readers to know about your music?”

Andy replied, “It’s possible to have music be fresh and of the moment, even if it’s not the most cutting edge or current trend. You can be creative within a variety of mediums whether its cutting edge or not. There’s this bag that jazz has to be cutting edge and modern…[like using the] latest heavy metal guitar sound… but…you want it to be fresh and not stale, but that’s something different than a new style.”

He’s got regular gigs at both the Green Mill and at a local restaurant called Cellars Bar and Grill, and plays at festivals and fairs, and other locations and venues on the regular. To keep up with his playing schedule check out his site.

2020 International Women’s Day Honoree: Jerrie Mock

Jerrie Mock, moments before her takeoff on March 19,1964

You have probably heard of Amelia Earhart. And you likely know that she was an aviation pioneer. You probably know she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, solo. And you’ve probably also been taught that she was the first woman to fly around the world.

But that last part isn’t true. Amelia may have signed up for such an adventure, but she didn’t make it. The woman who did make it around the world solo happens to be my grandmother, Jerrie Mock.

Jerrie Mock with one of her planes – photo from her collection

She was a girl from a Newark, Ohio, a small town not too far from Columbus. She wasn’t anything “special” as far as the world was concerned. Even when she made the flight, she wasn’t all that accomplished as a pilot. In fact, she only had 750 hours’ flight time under her belt, which isn’t a whole lot of time for such a feat.

She’d always dreamed of flying around the world, though, and in 1964, she decided it was time. On March 19, she took off from Port Columbus, the airport in Columbus, Ohio, and flew to Bermuda. From Bermuda, she flew onward making multiple stops, exploring small bits of the world along the way, until 29 and 1/2 days later, she arrived home in Columbus and officially became the first woman to fly around the world.

Jerrie Mock in the cockpit of Charlie, her faithful Cessna 180

To read more of her adventures, you can get her book, Three-Eight Charlie, via Kindle or a paperback copy on Amazon. You can read some of my own stories on her adventures in Papua New Guinea and around the world. This year, I’m also hoping to release podcast episodes of her adventures on the anniversary dates of each stop along her trek.

Budget Travel Tip: Motivation to Run on the Road

The golden hour at one of my favorite paved trails in Elk Grove Village, Illinois

Over the last few weeks, my hubby and I have been down with a nasty virus. Not THE virus, but one that’s knocked out a lot of people in our area, according to the clinic we visited twice this past month.

I’ve got hope that this bug will die, and I’ll get back on the trail and treadmill, running my 5ks and 10ks again. Soon.

In the meantime, I’m daydreaming about my upcoming travels to reach my 52+ Country Goal. That means I’m planning my first international half-marathon race.

I’m someone who needs a specific goal to keep me training. If I want to run loads to improve my overall health, the motivation of “feeling better” isn’t enough. I need a race – something I can’t get out of to keep me running. Otherwise, I get bored and stop training.

Enter the Virtual Race Platforms

Medals from a few of the races I’ve run with Virtual Pace and Moon Joggers.

Because I can’t afford to enter major races all over the place, I needed to find something else to keep me motivated. One day, about three years back, I discovered the Virtual Pace Series and the Moon Joggers. They solve this problem and give to charities I can happily support and don’t cost me a load of cash I can’t spare.

These virtual race platforms provides me with the motivation to keep up my race training. They have select periods of time (or specific dates) for each race to be completed during. When you sign up for a given race, you receive a runner’s bib and the medal after the race.

I don’t always wear the bib when I’m running the races, though I usually do. After the races, I snag a photo with the medal, wherever I’m running the race, whether trail or treadmill.

Shield Maiden Race – September 2018 – Virtual Pace Series

Using the Races for Long-Term Plans

This spring or summer, I’m going to run an international half-marathon. These virtual races are my training distances building up to that lengthier distance again after months of barely running due to illness, unexpected travel, etc.

My goal this year is to run the equivalent of one race per month. These virtual races will be most of the races, leading up to the two or three organized races I’ll be running throughout the year.

Getting the Right Gear Is Uber Important

Finally, I wanted to note that it’s important to have the right gear for these races, especially when running overseas. You’re not as familiar with the terrain, so the proper gear is even more important.

I swear by compression hose for calves. These allow me to run distances on unknown terrains – such as hills, that cause issues for my left calf – with less chance of injury. A collapsible water bottle is another excellent choice, as I can crumple it up and toss it into my backpack without taking up a lot of space or adding weight. I usually carry three of these with me on my travels.

Running tape, the right sports bra, running shorts with pockets (running belts haven’t done a thing for me yet. If anyone has a great suggestion, let me know!), and culturally appropriate tops are important, too. (i.e. don’t go running in a tank top if you’re visiting a country that considered sleeveless shirts unacceptable!)

How to Add Some Humidity To the Air in Your Home

Recently, I wrote about us working on improving our immunity fighting skills by taking special care to do certain kinds of cleaning, etc. One of the items was adding more humidity to the air in our home, especially because ours is so dry and dusty.

These are the ways we’re doing that.

Hot Showers Become Steam Baths

Image by midascode on Pixabay

This is one my husband and I have been employing for quite some time. Specifically, we discovered this was great for me when I was having asthma attacks on the regular, due to seasonal allergies.

There are two ways to take advantage of this. The first is leave the bathroom door open and part of the shower curtain or door, if you can do so without spraying the room while you shower. This immediately releases steam into the air that then spreads out into the outer room and evaporates.

The second is more for extreme relief. Crank up the shower as hot as it will go and let it run, with the door open, for 10-15 minutes. It’s a bit wasteful, but if you’re desperate, it adds loads of moisture very quickly.

Water Bowls with Marbles

Image by Carrie Kellenberger on Flickr

Find some pretty bowls, pots, or wide-mouthed jars and set them out around the house. Specifically, placing them on windowsills and around heating vents and near fans will be the best spots to place these. If possible, add some rocks, marbles, or similar, and then fill with water.

The water will evaporate into the air and add some moisture without waste or energy use. Plus, our cat always has some extra places to drink from.

Teapot Steam

Image by MasterTux on Pixabay

This one doesn’t add tons of moisture to the air unless you drink loads of tea or pour-over brew coffee. But letting the kettle steam and whistle for a minute or two will add a little bit of moisture to the air. We both happen to drink a ton of tea, so it winds up being a little productive for us.

Lightly Damp Curtains

Image by Pexels on Pixabay

This one is a last resort in my opinion because of the possibility of mold, but if you’re really desperate, you can very lightly mist water over the curtains around the time they’ll receive direct sunshine.

I would avoid doing this on cloudy days, as they may not dry out quickly enough to avoid molding. Which, of course, is worse than dry air.

Re-Purposing Candle Warmers

Image by Lars_Nissen_Photoart on Pixabay

This handy little trick is something I hadn’t even thought of until I spotted it on SimpleMost. But the second I saw it, I knew it was a great option for us. We have one or two of these candle warmers lying around, and though we use them sometimes to add some lovely scents to our home, we are definitely going to start doing this with them now, too.

A Sponge Humidifier

Image by tomekwalecki on Pixabay

A simple way to add some moisture to the air is by using a sponge and a zipper seal bag. You’ll want one of those large sponges like you’d use for washing your car, and a zipper seal bag large enough to hold the sponge.

Pierce the zipper bag with several holes, then fill the sponge with water but squeeze out the majority of it to avoid leaking. Then, put the sponge in the bag and hang it somewhere in the room, away from the wall. Moisture should increase in the room within a few short hours.

To repeat the humidification, microwave the sponge every other day to kill germs. Clean out the bag with soap and water. Then, refill and squeeze out the sponge, return to the bag and repeat for up to 2 weeks with the same materials before replacing.

We’re recycling a set of three bags to allow the bag to dry completely between each use.

How I’m Fighting Our Poor Immunity In the Home

Image by Myriams-Fotos on Pixabay

Lately, we’ve been getting sick. A lot. And I’m the girl who never used to get sick at all, until I wound up working as a nanny for a family that appears to have had a very similar immune system to my own. We constantly passed illnesses back and forth, despite me only being in their home about 20 hours a week.

Then, I married a man who has several auto-immune diseases, including Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and others they’re still working on diagnosing. He has no gallbladder, a history of depression, anxiety, and migraines. Sometimes, it’s hard to know if he’s having his “usual” cocktail of illnesses or if he’s actually ill.

While I don’t have any of those issues, apart from some anxiety episodes, I have struggled with fighting off the flu, colds, and other viruses.

It’s time to do something about that. Even if I feel too ill to do it today, I’m going to anyway. And these are some simple ways I’m doing just that.

Using Clean Towels Daily

Image by joe137 on Pixabay

This is one of the more wasteful ones, which I’m not thrilled about, but using only clean towels every time we shower is really important for our health. Those great, natural cleaning bars and soft lotions help us feel great, but they’re limited in power by using dirty towels. So, we’ve invested in enough towels, washcloths, and hand towels to use new ones every day.

Take Out the Garbage Immediately

Image by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

We don’t take trash to the dumpster every day, but we do make a habit of not letting the trash overflow, get smelly, etc. In other words, every day, we check all the trash cans in the house to make sure lids are closing properly, and nothing smells funky. We also immediately take out any trash that’s got meat, fat, fish, eggs shells, or similar animal products that could make us sick once they go bad.

Give the Cat More Frequent Baths

Image by Ihtar on Pixabay

Like most kitties, our feline friend isn’t fond of baths (despite once loving them!). But the reality is that she’s a contributor of potential germs and illness around the home. She collects blobs of germs in her fur. And though she cleans them out with her tongue, she’s still carrying them. So, bath time has to come pretty frequently, even if she’s not terribly happy about it.

And because Stardust is so unappreciative of this process, we use a water less cat shampoo that won’t irritate her as much as standard bathing options.

Keep Pet Areas Clean

Image by birgl on Pixabay

It’s easy to neglect that litter box tucked into a corner, especially if you use high-quality litter that prevents odors (a must with the very stinky Lady Stardust!) and keeps the area smelling odor-free most of the time. It’s also easy to neglect cleaning her dishes in the dishwasher/by hand daily because, well, cats don’t seem to mind using the “same dish twice.”

It’s more of a hassle cleaning out her dishes daily, but it’s worth it. Fewer germs are collecting in her dining area that way.

It’s also more of a hassle cleaning out the litter box near constantly, but, again, it’s worth it to reduce germs and potential illness. So, we scoop any time she uses it. We change out the litter frequently (partial changes constantly, full changes on schedule with instructions on packaging).

Vacuum and Sweep Daily

Image by MabelAmber on Pixabay

This one isn’t as critical for everyone, but for those of us who have dust or pet-hair allergies, sweeping up and vacuuming away everything on the floors is key to improved health.

Our cat sheds giant clumps of fur every day. Our house is excessively dry and dusty. These both mean that we need to sweep daily and vacuum every other day, especially in any of the areas where the cat likes to snuggle down for a nap.

It’s a bit of extra work, but to feel better, it’s worth it.

Of course, we also use a robot vacuum that a friend gave to us. It’s been a real life saver on days when we’ve been sick. We just charge it for a few hours and hit the clean button and let it run wild. Stardust isn’t terribly thrilled with it, so she stalks it, but we’re all adjusting.

Never Leave Dirty Dishes Overnight

Image by StockSnap on Pixabay

I’m a cookbook developer. That means, sometimes I make five or six recipes in a single day on top of the regular cooking I do for our meals. That’s a lot of pots, pans, bowls, platters, and baking sheets. It’s tempting to call it a night when I’m tired and just leave the pile of baking pans beside the sink. “I’ll get to it first thing.”

Leaving dishes overnight, though, isn’t a good idea. There’s already food particles – obviously, else they’d be clean! – and that means insects, rodents, and other nasties are going to be attracted to your kitchen, even if you’ve never seen them inside before.

Change the Tablecloth Weekly or Bi-Weekly

Image by ponce_photography on Pixabay

It may seem wasteful to change out a tablecloth this frequently, but much like with dirty dishes, food particles collect and attract nasty critters that can make you sick. So, we’ve learned that we need to clear the table after every meal and change out the table cloth once or twice a week.

If you don’t use a tablecloth, using a good, natural cleanser after every meal is your alternative.

Add Homemade Humidifiers Everywhere Around the House

Image by wajahat993 on Pixabay

Our apartment is excessively dry. We both wake up each day with dry throats, dry eyes, and sometimes other issues.

We have two humidifiers that run pretty much all the time, but that’s not energy-efficient or great for the environment. But we can do some natural humidifier options that will help our house and home be healthier.

Drink Tons of Water and Skip Sugary Drinks

Image by ClassicallyPrinted on Pixabay

“Water, water, I love water!” to quote a song from one of my musical scripts, Nadia Trouve. And I really do. That cool, clear, sparkling liquid that cools and refreshes is a glorious fluid all our bodies need.

But even I, a water fanatic, can struggle to get enough water in daily. So, I use an app on my phone that reminds me to take a swig, in case I haven’t in the past little while, multiple times throughout the day. If I haven’t drunk in the past 1/2 hour, I take a guzzle.

Drinking enough water not only helps you keep your weight maintained, but it helps to keep your immune system healthier and stronger. Dehydration causes illness.

If you find yourself low on water intake, try adding in some non-sweetened (not just 0-calorie, but 0-sweetener, as that causes other problems) carbonated water, fruit infused water, and herbal iced tea. I also drink a ton of black and green tea, both as iced and hot tea, depending on my mood. I just don’t ever add any sugar or milk.

Using All Natural Cleansers Everywhere, Every Day

Image by evita-ochel on Pixabay

It adds work, again, but we’ve been fighting off colds, flus, and other bugs so frequently in the past year that it’s well worth the 10 minutes daily to do some quick clean swipes with all-natural cleansers on the counters, tables, bathroom counters, sinks, tubs, and everywhere else I can think of. This will clean everything daily without adding chemicals into our lives.

Do a Nightly Reset

Image by Nick Keppol on Flickr

This also just takes a few minutes everyday, but helps tremendously with keeping things clean and cozy, while also fighting any build-up of dust, germs, etc.

All this involves is going around the house at the end of the day and picking up items like jackets, shoes, cups, books, etc., and putting them where they belong. It should just take about 10 minutes. It will help you get some stuff cleaned up and remove germ and dust build-up at the same time.

Do Laundry Every Time There’s a Full Load

Image by AGKrejci on Pixabay

We have an advantage over many folks in two ways: 1. Our laundry is right next to our apartment door. I can toss a load in while I’m wearing my pajamas, and no one will see me. 2. We both work from home, so we can literally do laundry every time there’s a full load. We don’t need to wait for a specific day of the week.

Doing laundry every time there’s a full load is advantageous in multiple ways, but primarily it prevents the germs on clothing from collecting and “stewing” together for long before they’re eliminated by detergent, water, and the heat of the dryer.

Consume Lots of Vitamin C

Image by silviarita on Pixabay

Vitamin C is one of the nutrients that helps our immune systems fight off colds, flus, etc. It’s not a miracle vitamin like some folks claim, and it should be consumed in natural forms (read: fruit and vegetables) in order to be truly effective. But even in lesser forms, I found in college that when I was consuming 100% of my recommended Vitamin C intake daily, I was healthier, happier, and almost never sick.

Make Sure We’re Getting the Other Nutrients We Need

Image by 3638148 on Pixabay

My husband and I both tend to be anemic, so getting iron and folic acid are critical to our health. I’ve noticed lately that my fingernails are a little flat, which is often linked to iron deficiency. I’m also feeling sluggish and tired a lot, despite usually being a very energetic individual. Yep. Iron is low.

It’s important to know what nutrients you struggle to consume. I recommend studying nutritional information and the natural sources of the vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal health. You’ll be able to identify immediately some of the things you don’t get enough of.

You should also see a doctor and get some blood work done to find out any other deficiencies you have, especially if you deal with depression, anxiety, chronic illness, chronic exhaustion (diagnosed or not), notice oddities in the shapes of your nails, have sinus issues a lot, etc.

You should also look for a nutritionist or dietician specifically if you eat a specialty diet, such as Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, etc. The reason? A dietician can give clinically sound advice on how to consume the missing nutrients from your dietary profile.

For example, folks who don’t eat animals products don’t get enough Vitamin B because this nutrient is found in meat, dairy, and eggs, and not in plants. That’s a huge problem for energy and health overall. Gluten-free and low-carbs folks (myself included) don’t get enough fiber typically, as well as some of the natural vitamins and minerals found in wheat and grains.

Once you’ve consulted medical professionals, do everything you can to consume the nutrients they recommend through natural means. Yes, take any supplements your doctor recommends, but focus as much as possible on changing your diet. Supplement pills, powders, and liquids, can only be absorbed so well by your body (which is why some nutrients are at something like 3000% DV).

A Sabbath for Caregivers

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.                                                                  – Hebrews 4:9-10

Image by Claudio_Scott on Pixabay

There are some days when helping those we care for just plain hurts. We’re exhausted, cranky, have physical pain or illness, and we just feel like we can’t do it today. But there’s this guilt – this sense of “I’m all wrong and selfish” because we just need a day off.

But there’s a reason God gave us the Sabbath in the Old Testament: “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:3, NIV)

On the days when I feel like I just can’t help my husband – whether it’s because his body refuses to work or because he’s tied up emotionally by his PTSD – I have to remind myself of these passages. Neither of us is going to make it if I don’t get some rest of my own. It’s okay for me to do the bare minimums, and then just snuggle with him on the bed, resting in his arms.

Jesus, your love is so kind and gentle. You take care of me when I cannot care for myself. Please help me to rest in your love, especially on days like these, when I just can’t help other people. I need your strength.

25 Budget-Friendly Destinations for 2020

I love reading Fodor’s Go List with 52 destinations each year. It’s a great selection of locations based on trends, travel ideals, significant events – think centennials, celebrations, etc. – and other criteria, and gives people some great ideas on where to go throughout the present year.

Well, this year, since I’m doing a year of travel – hitting that 52+ country list in my own travels – I thought I’d like to build my own “Go list” for the year, even if I’m not visiting everywhere on it myself.

My list is based on similar criteria as Fodor’s, except I’m only going for budget-friendly travel destinations – somewhat, of course, based on where in the world you live.

Where in the World You Should Consider Traveling to in 2020

Every location and destination is someplace I love, would love to see, or otherwise heavily recommend visiting, with reasons given as to why you should.

Hopefully, paired with some travel and budgeting tips I’ll supply in the next several weeks, you’ll be able to build your own itinerary for the year on a budget that won’t bankrupt your piggy too badly.

Look for longer posts for each of the locations as the year passes. These posts will include a more in-depth look at each location, the best ways to get there, things to do while visiting, how to give back to the community as you visit, and more.

For now, let’s take a brief look at each spot.

Latin America

Antigua – Guatemala

The Arch in Antigua. Image by Carlos Adampol Galindo on Flickr

Filled with historical sites, churches, and fascinating history, while being surrounded with volcanoes and mountains. It’s a pretty awesome spot.

El Yunque National Forest – Puerto Rico

La Mina Falls, image by Ron Kroetz on Flickr

Come here for some amazing hiking and wandering, waterfall spotting, and more.

Santo Domingo – Dominican Republic

Image by sergejf on Pixabay

If you’re interested in history, ruins, and fascinating cities, you’ll love this Caribbean spot.

United States

Yosemite National Park, California

Image by tspdave on Pixabay

Who wouldn’t want these kinds of views on a hike?

Zion National Park, Nevada – United States

Image by InfiniteThought on Pixabay

Zion offers you the opportunity to drive down into an immense canyon. From down in, you can hike, run, camp, or climb.

Des Moines, Iowa – United States

Image by 2564368 on Pixabay

An unexpected delight in the middle of nowhere, Des Moined seriously has some awesome urban experiences.

Big Bend National Park, Texas – United States

Image by tpsdave on Pixabay

Beautiful scenery by day, dark skies by night. The perfect combo for outdoor lovers who want to see the Milky Way.

Keystone, South Dakota – United States

Image by TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay

From Keystone, visit Mt. Rushmore and tons of state parks that are completely awesome for any outdoor interests.

Missoula, Montana – United States

Image by Wesley Fryer on Flickr

It may seem random, but Missoula has some amazing things to offer visitors who love the outdoors, shopping, and more.

Europe

Dublin – Ireland

Image by Wesley Fryer on Pixabay

Why wouldn’t you want to find some shamrocks and sausage rolls?

The Isle of Arran – Scotland – United Kingdom

Image by shilmar on Pixabay

The Isle of Arran is one of my absolute favorite places in the world. Amazing hiking, waterfalls, animal sightings, and more.

Bucharest – Romania

Image by Florin Stanciu on Flickr

This amazing city offers amazing history, tasty food, beautiful architecture, and intriguing entertainment.

Santa Maria Island – Azores

Image by SMASOLTRAV on Pixabay

WThis stunning island off the coast of Portugal offers amazing cuisine, scenery, outdoor sports, and more.

Setenil De Las Bodegas

Image by waldomiguez on Pixabay

This city combines life under a rock with beautiful Spanish countryside.

Guernsey, England – United Kingdom

Image by bobbeeez on Pixabay

An English island getaway filled with World War II history, sheep, and beautiful people.

Gearrannan – Scotland – United Kingdom

Image by rachinmanila on Pixabay

For an amazing, historical experience in a once-abandoned village in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

Andorra

Image by joannaaustin on Pixabay

One of the smallest countries in Europe, Andorra offers amazing sight-seeing, hiking, mountain climbing, exploration, shopping, and more.

Brighton – England – United Kingdom

Image by 921563 on Pixabay

A charming, urban area of England with loads to do while taking it as as easy as you like. In other words, a spot for an actual vacation.

Warsaw – Poland

Image by Websi on Pixabay

Here, history comes to life from so many periods and cultures. Take a guided tour or wander on your own. The whole place is fascinating.

Prague – Czech Republic

Image by Julius_Silver on Pixabay

Pretty much everywhere in Europe is loaded with history. Prague isn’t any different. But nearby you’ll also find some strange and unusual things worth visiting for, especially if you’ve got a thing for the macabre.

Australia

Hobart, Tasmania – Australia

Image by carley05 on Pixabay

Hobart’s my favorite city in Australia. It’s got this amazing homey “brown” feeling to it that makes it so comfortable and safe. And nearby, there are mountains, nature preserves, animal sanctuaries, a temperate rain forest, and Alpine territory within a couple hours. Just watch out for the kebabs in the city. They taste amazing, but they were the only thing that’s ever given me food poisoning before.

Darwin, Northern Territory – Australia

Image by Patjosse on Pixabay

Another one of my favorite spots in Australia is Darwin. The city is intriguing, filled with art, museums, historical sites (WWII anyone?), and wildlife. Plus, it’s within an hour or two of Litchfield National Park with an easy smooth drive for someone not used to driving on the left side of the road. Plus, you might just spot some sugar gliders in the wild in the area.

Africa

Casablanca – Morocco

Image by postcardtrip on Pixabay

This was one of my grandmother’s favorite spots on her journey around the world. It’s a truly fascinating city with history, rich colors, fascinating culture, and tremendous beauty.

Asia

Living Root Bridges, Various Villages – India

Image by Surajram Kumaravel on Flickr

There are many of these fascinating structures made from living trees. They’re primarily in more remote areas of India where the bridges are needed for daily travel. And they’re well worth the hike getting there.

Da Nong – Vietnam

Image by austinjojoe on Pixabay

The whole region is truly fascinating and beautiful. You can explore and shop, dine out for not a whole lot, and experience things you’ve never seen or done before. And, while you’re in the area, you can take a long cable car over the mountains up to the famous Golden Bridge and the French provincial theme park while you’re around.

Get Your Suitcase Ready

So, whether you’re going to make it to international spots or more local sites, you can do any of these for not a whole lot of money. Look for individual posts coming up about each spot, with stories on what to do, how to get there, what kind of budget you’ll need, and more.

All the Lovely Things

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things.                                                                                                                                                    – Philippians 4:8

Image by RondellMelling on Pixabay

Some mornings, when I look at my husband and know it’s going to be one of those days, I want to go back to bed and forget that I have any kind of responsibilities. It’s exhausting to think about what lays ahead when he clearly won’t be making it out of bed, either.

The discouragement can be overwhelming.

But if I intentionally think about the things that God has created that bring joy and excellence into our lives, I find just a hint of motivation to get up and face the day. These lovely things – even in the midst of suffering – are where I find strength. God’s goodness – despite the pain – is where I can rejoice.

Every time you face discouragement, you can remember the beautiful, wonderful, honorable things that exist around you. A flower that fights through the weeds, a flavorful cup of Chai tea, the story of a woman who fought against all odds – these things can motivate you and change you, making you more like Jesus.

Heavenly Father, please help me in my discouragement. Remind me of the good things you’ve given me and the good things you’ve done, so that I can find hope, joy, and motivation to work through the tough moments in life. Whatever is honorable, pure, and lovely is from you. Please remind me of that on days like this.