Friday, June 23, 2017

Parties and birthdays and oh the fun!

Today is a happy birthday for the oldest of my boy grandchildren—Sawyer Hudgeons (if I could remember all four of his names, I’d use them). My Austin hard-rock kid is thirteen today. Sawyer definitely marches to his own drummer….er, guitar. He’s been going to the Austin School of Rock for at least two years now, and shows real talent both on the guitar and singing, performs easily and happily. Besides that, he’s a happy, sweet boy. I can hardly believe it’s thirteen years since we all rushed to Austin to celebrate his arrival.

And today was Jacob’s belated—adult—party. In truth, Jordan used his birthday as the occasion for her first big party in my house. The house has a happy party record and over the last twenty-five years has been the scene of cocktail parties, baby showers, humongous birthday celebrations, and most of all—tree trimming parties. In recent years, they’ve been strictly no-tree tree-trimming parties, but they were as full of laughter and love and food and wine as ever.

Jordan once again showed herself the mistress of party giving. Tonight was potluck, with some really good contributions. Jordan and Christian provided beer and wine—we’re stocked for months to come—along with meatballs. And a sheet cake. Everyone gathered round to sing happy birthday to Jacob, and I looked at the people—a happy mix of people of all ages. Two of Jordan’s friends who are special to me brought significant others I’d not met before and was glad to meet tonight, though they need to come back when it’s a little quieter and we can visit. One of those longtime friends, David, has been like family since he was fifteen. As he left the cottage tonight he said, “Tell the blog world hello for me.” So there you have his greetings.

Some people drifted out to the cottage, and I had a separate party there but went inside for the cake-cutting. Lots of fun. Now there’s a group on the patio outside my door, and I’ll join them in a few minutes.
A bit of trivia: I wrote Jacob a note and gave it to him this morning--long, funny story but my point here is that he handed me the note and said, "I can't read cursive, Juju." I had to read it to him. I am horrified--and a bit angry--that this child completed fifth grade without reading cursive. I vaguely remember they studied it, maybe third grade, and practiced but apparently not long enough nor hard enough. How will he function in the world? How will he sign a check. Someone pointed out to me that today they don't sign checks. Cursive is irrelevant, but I read somewhere learning cursive fine tunes the brain, just as music does. I'm on the prowl for workbooks with the Palmer method.

And an odd new imaginative exercise: designing niche literature courses. For some reason last night, in that twilight between sleep and full wakefulness, I was designing a lit course around the theme of old men. I decided to start with King Lear and include Tuesdays with Morrie. Didn’t get much further, but the idea has great possibilities. Is it an indication I want to teach again? No way. I love my retirement life and my writing life.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Live and Learn—a Cooking Failure

A dismal morning made it hard for me to get going. I was sluggish. No rain, and as the day slowly brightened, so did I.

I’m still in lost in Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Her description of a grilled cheese sandwich and how to do it is sublime, so I tried today at lunch. You butter the bread, grate the cheese and pile it on as thick as you can. Spread a thin layer of mayo on the outside of the sandwich to prevent scorching and press more grated cheese into the bread. In theory, that will give a crisp crust. I worried about keeping that grated cheese on the bread while I flipped.

Turned out that was the least of my worries. I settled the first side in the pan easily, but the cheese stuck to the pan, not the sandwich, and when I tried to take it up, I came away with a soggy sandwich and the crisp cheese crust remained in the pan. Flipping it did no good—now I had two soggy sides. The cheese did form that crisp crust in the pan, but I had to scrape it up and eat separately. I’m quite sure this is not what Reichl intended, and I have tweeted to ask for directions. Should you cook at high heat or low (I did low, envisioning a long, slow browning). Should you put oil or butter in the pan? I put olive oil, but maybe that was wrong.

Grilled cheese is always problematical to me. It’s like the little girl with the curl: when it is good, it’s so very good, and when it’s bad, it’s horrid. I too often burn the bread before the cheese melts. At least now I’ll always grate the cheese—makes it melt faster and better.

I tried to recover my cooking skills by making a layered salad for the Jacob adult birthday Jordan is having tomorrow night. Layered salads require a lot of chopping—eggs, tomatoes, lettuce, green onions, cutting up bacon, etc. While I chopped and cut, I kept thinking how much Ruth Reichl enjoys that part of cooking and wishing I enjoyed it half as much. The salad was a big problem in terms of a container too—I discovered the glass dish I’ve always used has gone to some child’s house, and I had no appropriate dish. Friend Subie finally came up with one that although not glass will work. And tonight Betty said of course she has a trifle dish! Aarghh!

Betty and I took Jacob out to dinner tonight while his parents went to some event connected to Christian’s work. Jacob declared he wasn’t hungry, picked at his mac and cheese, but ordered two root beers and left the second sitting on the table. Conspicuous consumption! Betty and I split miso salmon on a bed of spicy vinaigrette noodles—absolutely delicious.

So now I’m home, settled, and anticipating the first big party to be held in the house since we made the big move. I used to host parties a lot, particularly at Christmas when I had a no-tree tree-trimming party. When December came around last year, none of us had the energy or the will—it was a low point for me. So now I’m delighted to anticipate a party in the house and yard. Jordan has worked hard getting it all perfect.

To my hot-blooded friends who couldn’t sit outside: I sat on the patio tonight for a long time and loved it. Just perfect.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dinner with wimpy friends    

Every month or so, I have dinner with three ladies I’ve known a long time. Tonight, we had reservations at a restaurant that has a lovely, shaded patio with lots of fans. I love patio dining and had lobbied for that tonight. I lost. One has bad allergies and doesn’t like the heat; another is adamant to the extreme about heat (I think 70 is her cutoff); the third agreed the temperature on the patio was fine but the whirring of the fans bothered her. Honestly, ladies! Really?

We ate inside, but the patio was a great joke. I had emailed them earlier to suggest that I am as uncomfortable in air conditioning as some of them are in heat. They sort of got the message, enough that when I ostentatiously draped a wrap around my shoulder they laughed. And made jokes about patio dining and the like. Finally, one said, “I can tell we’re going to end up in the blog tonight.” So here you are my wimpy friends. Note that I am kind enough to omit your names.

Inside/outside controversies aside, we had a lovely evening. They are interesting ladies—two are docents and one is knowledgeable about museum quality art, which sometimes leaves me in the dust in the conversation. I went armed tonight with a report on the Netherlands art investigator who thinks he can solve the Gardner Museum thefts and return the art work undamaged. Never had a chance to throw my knowledge into the discussion, but we talked about cruises—one had just been on a cruise and was at best medium enthusiastic; the other is getting ready to go and taking lots of books. I, who have never cruised and hope not to, recommended sitting on her private deck or patio, watching the ocean go by, and reading. Of course, I’d have my computer with me.

Lunch today was a different story but equally lovely. One of the joys of my work at TCU Press was that I often made friends with authors. Chloe Webb is one of those. Her book, The Sacred Harp Legacy, was one that touched my soul, and she and I became good friends, occasionally going to lunch at the deli where we both ordered egg salad sandwiches. Chloe’s husband is in iffy health, though doing well right now. But she has suffered a great loss and been in a dark tunnel of her own, probably darker than the one I’ve just emerged from. I hadn’t seen her in a while so it was good to connect when she came to the cottage for lunch today. I had lunch at the deli earlier in the week and brought home egg salad for her as a surprise. With sliced fruit and a pickle (odd combination but it worked), it made a delightful lunch. And the conversation was interesting, reassuring, thoughtful. We share a strong faith that has carried us through our tunnels.

So tonight I am grateful for friends who sustain me—old friends and new, those who share my tribulations and my joys. Thanks, y’all.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jacob is Eleven   

I think we all have a tendency on a child’s birthday to think back on the life, however short, calling up those golden memories. Today I remembered the first time in the hospital when I held Jacob. And the way we used to put him, in his Bumbo or whatever that early seat was, in the middle of the dining table as a centerpiece. He was always so happy, it made for happy dinner hours.

He walked early but didn’t talk for a while. Not that he didn’t have anything to say. He spoke volumes in gibberish. I used to talk back to him as though we were carrying on a conversation. His Aunt Betty thought it was hysterical when we’d go to dinner because Jacob got all the inflections of conversation right, just not the words. In Houston once, a distant cousin asked me seriously if Jacob spoke Chinese. Of course, the day came when we couldn’t shut him up.

The nights he slept on his bed in the family room, got scared, and came to sleep with me. Or the night, when he was about three, when he crawled into my bed and said, “My bed is wet.” Eventually he gave up his bed and slept with me. These days he wouldn’t dream of sleeping with me, and I miss that closeness.

There was the time he made up a tune and sang to me, “I’m uphappy today.” He broke the chorus with, “Juju made a booboo.” I had gotten hummus on something I shouldn’t have, and he thought it was so funny he worked it into his song. I still treasure the video, a selfie he did.

He and I shared many happy days—a New Year’s Eve when we toasted in the coming year with kid wine. Jordan worried that I’d post the picture, and people would think I’d given him wine. The nights when he used to think it was fun to go to dinner with Betty and me. Now he thinks we’re boring.

He came out to the cottage this this morning to open his gift—a new grip for his putter—and asked plaintively if we’d have family supper tonight. We did—but we three adults were at the dining table, and he and his overnight guest ate in the family room. Such togetherness. A childhood friend is spending the night, a girl a head taller than he is. She couldn’t go to the swimming party today because it was all boys. Right now, they’re giggling on my couch, fishing for something they’ve apparently dropped, and I’m suspicious.

Jordan had a trying day—16 boys playing basketball and then swimming. I meantime had a peaceful day working in the cottage and by evening was craving company. And so the day ends. Happy birthday, Jacob.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Cooking, Cookbooks, and Writing

I am a firm believer that the Lord works in mysterious ways to make his will known. I’m beginning to believe he wants my writing to turn more toward food writing, just when I have several mysteries in mind to write.

My reading choices make me think this for one thing. I am reading Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes, that Saved My Life. It’s a chronicle of her life the year after Gourmet Magazine, of which she was editor, abruptly went out of publication. When your career is pretty much the source of your identity, as hers was, that’s one of life’s major blows. She dealt with it by cooking. Only Ruth Reichl can get away with prose recipes, but she does and makes them so appealing and generally simple that the reader is drawn in, as though to a novel.

Next on my list is Give a Girl a Knife! by cookbook author and James Beard winner Amy Thielen. It starts with her life in the kitchens of upscale New York restaurants, with dishes I’ve never imagined let alone heard of, and follows her move back to the basic food of her Midwestern roots. I’m looking forward to reading it.

And then there’s the fact that I’ve been cooking more and more lately, sometimes for myself—scallops for supper last night the way I like them, sautéed in butter, nothing fancy—and figs stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in prosciutto for company. I’ve made Welsh Rarebit, fettucine with smoked salmon, guacamole with feta, southwestern tuna with cumin and chilies, beans on toast (an old dish now elevated to trendy status and new to me), lamb chops with garlic, capers and anchovy, from scratch tomato sauces, orzo with spinach and feta, a new cucumber and avocado salad with a tang to it (and the feta I added), stuffed zucchini, a sardine pate,

The list of things I want to cook is as long as that of the dishes I’ve made in recent weeks. So maybe the Lord is telling me something about that memoir I keep talking about writing. Maybe food, along with writing and child-rearing, has been a staple of my life. Witness Judy’s Stew which was designed to be a mix of writing, cooking, and grandmothering—and that was eleven years ago.

I’ve done one memoir cooking, Cooking My Way Through Life With Kids and Books, but that was eight years ago. Perhaps today I would bring more depth and insight to such a project, making it less a chronicle of what happened when and more a memoir that explores, if you’ll pardon a dramatic phrase, the depths of my soul. I have lots of new recipes from those eight years to share.

The idea is rolling around in my mind. I had intended to write about my year out of life, due to deteriorating physical and mental things, but maybe one of the most significant things is that I didn’t cook during that year. And now I’m cooking again—with gusto.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father’s Day

In addition to the good looking boy and his dad,
note the colorful and beautiful altar cloths
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there. My own father has been gone over forty years. He walks on in my dreams and lives in my heart, a proud Scot. I wish I had a digital picture. I am now just a month shy of the age he was when he died of heart failure a couple of days after surgery. Weird thought. But I owe him for many things—faith, a work ethic, a tin ear, the love of reading, and that Scottish heritage of which I’m so proud. As I age I look more and more like him and his sisters. Were she living, one of his sisters would tell you that’s not a good thing.

In recent years, I’ve enjoyed watching my sons and sons-in-law grow into their roles as fathers. Each has his own style and parents in his own way, but they are kind and loving and are raising great kids. I’m a big fan of fathers.

We celebrated Father’s Day by going to early church because Jacob was an acolyte. I’d forgotten how few people attend the nine o’clock in the summer. The church was still empty, so I stood to see if I could spot Betty and her family in the back. To my astonishment, the acolytes were coming down the aisle to start the service. I quickly sat back down—wouldn’t do to embarrass Jacob.

I carried a can of corned beef in my purse to church. No, I didn’t expect a hunger crisis. I adore corned beef hash (it’s a great vehicle for ketchup), so I asked Jordan to bring some from the grocery. She couldn’t find it, brought canned corn beef which came in a can suspiciously shaped like the cans of Spam from my childhood. I took it to church to put in one of the bins of donated food, but we never saw one. Long story short, I came home with my corned beef which takes up precious space in my pantry drawer. That’s right—a deep drawer is the only pantry I have.

We celebrated Christian with brunch at The Tavern, a favorite of all of us. Jacob likes the mac and cheese. I had migas because I’ve never in my life had them and thought I should try. Won’t try again—I’m not that fond of corn tortillas. It was okay—I had peanut butter toast when I woke up (at 6:30 thank you) this morning.

Busy week ahead. I want to keep writing my thousand words a day; have lunch and happy hour plans tomorrow—for the latter, Subie and I are running away from home, just the two of us. Dinner plans two nights, a lunch guest one day, and Jacob’s birthday. The actual birthday is Tuesday, and Jordan will oversee a party that will include baseball or basketball in the school yard across the street, followed by swimming and, I think, pizza. Friday night there will be a potluck for adults in Jacob’s social circle—don’t laugh. It’s a bunch of people.

So blessed to have such a full life.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Skiing—and this Business of Walking

I bought some new skis. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never skied in my life and am not likely to start at this age and in my current physical state. For one thing, I’m the opposite of naturally athletic; for another, I’m afraid of height. I cannot imagine myself at the top of a mountain slope, preparing to take off downward on a couple of pieces of wood with poles that would probably be useless in my terrified hands.

No, I bought skis for the back legs of my walker. Previously I had to move the walker ahead by lifting it slightly after a couple of steps because while the front legs rolled, the back were plain and either balked or squawked. Now it glides, even going easily from one surface to another, and enables me to walk normally, one foot after the other, without unnatural pauses, I think ultimately the skis will help me improve my walking strength.

Monday will be five months since my surgery, and I’m still not walking unassisted. I do great on my walker and can go lots of places, which has allowed me to resume a semi-normal life going to church, shopping a bit, out to lunch and dinner. About a month ago a neighbor with whom I had lunch and who had hip surgery about three months before I did, emphasized that I was making progress and full function comes at different times for different folk. She was back-pedaling from her statement that by four months post-op she had given up her walker. And I have a neighbor close by who has had two hips operated and; his wife tells me he was off the walker quickly, and I remember him offering to do a dance at supper one night. I feel slow, retarded, lazy, inadequate—you name it.

And I fear I’ll never walk again. My brother brought me a brochure yesterday about a fancy, very stable, very expensive walker he thought I should consider. When I said I hoped not to need a walker forever, he warned that I might not but I will probably never have much stamina again. I didn’t tell him, but I was crushed. In my dreams, I walk freely and confidently.

My surgeon warned against comparing myself to anyone else because he said he’d never seen a hip in the shape mine was in. (I’ll spare you the gory details.) But don’t each of us think our situation is the most dramatic, the most extreme? For me, the comparisons are inevitable. I see both him and my family doctor next month, and I’m anxious to hear what they have to say.

Meantime, grateful for every invitation, I get out as often a I can—my goal is once daily either to go out or have someone in. I do my leg and shoulder exercises almost daily, and I walk, with help, down the driveway or in the backyard. And I dream of driving my cute VW convertible, doing my own grocery shopping, and running free again.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Cooking, Working Day

Figs before cooking
I forgot to take the after cooking picture

Boy, I was a busy beaver today. Wrote 1250 words on my new novel, answered emails, read Facebook, did a lot of busy work at my desk. But my big accomplishment was cooking. Thanks to Paige Pritchett for bringing me figs from her mother’s tree—and roundabout thanks to Ann Chappell. Tonight, for happy hour I stuffed the figs with blue cheese and wrapped them in prosciutto. Technically they should be grilled, but I had no option except the toaster oven, and mine is so tiny I had to do ten figs in two batches. But they were delicious—rich, but delicious Christian wasn’t sure about figs but since he loves blue cheese and likes prosciutto, he tried them—and I think liked them. When we weren’t looking, Sophie snatched one off Phil’s plate. She scarfed down the cheese and prosciutto but spent a long time licking the fig before she finally decided to eat it.

I haven’t always been a fig fan, though my parents loved them. When they retired in North Carolina, they had a huge row of tall fig bushes lining the driveway. When Colin was maybe five, we’d put him on top of the van we then drove to pick figs. Mom cooked them for figs and cream—how British for my Anglophile father—and they ate them straight from the bush I don’t remember eating them.

In recent years, figs have become trendy and I confess it’s a time when I succumbed to fashion. I thought if they were so popular I ought to try them…and I did. And liked them a lot. But then as a kid I always liked Fig Newtons—who didn’t? I remember my kids ate those cookies happily.

My other cooking accomplishment tonight was stuffed zucchini. I parboiled it, sliced it in half, and scooped out the insides to mix with bread crumbs (good use for leftover artisan bread from the freezer), chopped celery, scallions, and a tad of red onion. Sautéed all that in butter and olive oil. Seasoned it with salt and pepper and loaded it back into the zucchini halves. When I was ready for supper tonight, I topped one half with grated cheese—I have had grated gruyere in the fridge for some time and used that. Baked it—again my only option. That and a half ear of corn made a satisfying supper, especially after the rich figs.

I topped it off with Frango mints. If you don’t know about them, I urge you to look them up on Amazon. Originally made and sold by Marshall Field and Company, these rich minty and creamy chocolate candies—small bites, really—are a taste from my childhood. My mom used to get them for me. In recent years, daughter Megan has gotten them. Last year she ordered two boxes for my July birthday but with the Texas summer heat they arrived melted into one large, unappealing hunk of chocolate. When the weather cooled, she ordered new boxes. I ran out of them a couple of months ago, but Amazon listed them out of stock. When they notified me they were again available, I ordered a box. Megan worried about the temperature, but they arrived melted at one corner but otherwise fine.

Another happy day.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Leftovers for lunch, dogs and Neanderthals

Leftovers may be the best lunch. Today I had half a turkey burger (minus the bottom half of the bun which I somehow left in the restaurant last night), a small bit of egg salad, some green beans, and some shaved Brussel sprouts in Caesar dressing—thanks, but I’d rather have romaine with my Caesar dressing.But it was a good lunch—better if I hadn’t followed it with a chocolate bar or at least a good portion of one. Help! I need self-discipline.

If you want a mixed-bag experience, take two eleven-year-old boys for dinner. They’re buried in their phones and iPads. We went to the Star Café, which friend Betty and her husband own. Boys ordered fries, didn’t eat them; dessert—one ate his, the other said he doesn’t like spiced apples. Why did he order apple pie? They wanted to wander around the Stockyards, which I wasn’t comfortable with. But when prompted they were good with please and thank you.

Why I sometimes don't make my bed
Sorry for the fuzzy picture, but she's so cute
I read somewhere that your dog is the mirror of your soul. Since my Sophie is sweet, lovable, loyal, sometimes cuddly, I like that idea. But except for a rare instance or two when my children were tiny, I’ve never had the unquenchable urge to run away and explore the world that besets her. Indeed, I’m known as an anomaly among my friends because I don’t really care to travel just for travel’s sake. There are places I want to go—the cities where my children live, Scotland of course, maybe Alaska—but it’s the destination, not the journey. Sophie on the other hand wants to take of willy-nilly and see the wide, wide world. And I’ve never barked at the toaster.

Since 23andme told me I have a high number of Neanderthal markers, I decided I should look into Neanderthals. My thought was that perhaps they’ve gotten a bad rap. Indeed, they have! The best site I found on the net was titled, “Neanderthals are People.” Thanks to popular literature and comics, we envision them as short, stocky, beastly caricatures with lots of hair and dark complexions. They may have looked ape-like but evidence of intelligent behavior has been uncovered by scientists.

Neanderthals lived in families, took care of the sick and elderly, buried their dead. They controlled fire and had primitive tools such as axes, picks and cleavers. Yes, they frequently lived in caves, but they had rituals, made jewelry, and mixed paints for their faces and bodies—actions which indicate a world view beyond their immediate knowledge. Although not demonstrated conclusively, it’s possible they had language and some constructed sea-worthy boats.

So, to the gentleman who posted on my wall that he knew all along liberals were Neanderthals, I’ll claim the label. It’s not an insult.

My Neanderthal ancestors account for only four percent of my overall DNA but they may be the cause of my straight hair and relatively sparse hair on the back of my head. Do you suppose I could blame them for my tendency to weigh seven percent more than normal?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A day of violence and tragedy

In the words of one survivor, the London apartment fire was horrific, with a high number of dead and injured; the UPS shooting in San Francisco was equally horrific—four dead, including the shooter. Tragically, our country is so deadened to daily shootings we almost take no notice, unless it affects someone we know or love or unless it’s right in our backyard.

Some resent that the baseball field shooting in Virginia got so much more attention than the other tragic events of the day and, indeed, the other shootings that have become all too common. But this was different—a shooting apparently politically motivated and aimed at members of our government. Party is irrelevant in a situation like that. It was a blatant attack on our government, and on all that America stands for. We weep together as a nation and thank God that no lives, except the shooter, were lost.

It is shameful to politicize such a tragedy, but I cannot help but view it in terms of what goes around comes around. The most prominent congressional victim, Congressman Scalise, ironically is the one who introduced a bill that weakened gun control laws and made it possible for the mentally unstable to get weapons, not that this shooter has been proven to be mentally unstable. Gun rights advocates are already using this as an argument for guns for self-protection, but it is unlikely that baseball players, if gun owners, would have carried their guns onto the field with them. The armed guards who were on duty did a heroic job of preventing further injury and loss of life. They are true heroes of the day. But even they couldn’t completely prevent the attack. I see this violence as an argument for making guns less accessible, particularly assault weapons, though I’m not sure what kind of fire power the shooter carried.

Several studies have analyzed the increasing violence and anger in our country since Mr. Trump began campaigning and calling for violence against detractors at his rallies. I think he and those of his party who support him, for all they talk about unity and praise God there was little loss of life, need to take a long, hard look at themselves and their policies.

Millions are about to lose their health insurance; many of the poor and underprivileged have already lost needed benefits. Veterans have either lost long-promised benefits or will. The poor, the young, the old, the chronically ill will lose health care in the cruelest bill to be proposed, let alone rushed through the Senate with undue haste and secrecy. But tax cuts are in store for the ultra-rich. The environment is encroached upon daily; education is treated as an elitist privilege; social security is threatened, even though it is not the government’s money; international relations are in the tank, and suspicions about Russian collusion run high; the list of outrages grows daily. It makes a lot of people angry, and it apparently was enough to push Mr. Hopkinson, a dedicated progressive, over the edge to violence. It may push others too, but there’s a dark message there if the administration and Congress will listen.

Tonight, as I pray for the victims and their families, I pray also for those who angered the shooter in Virginia, that they may be touched by human compassion and reach out in a positive way to those they were elected to serve and protect. Most profess to be Christian, and as a practicing Christian myself, I hope they can remember the teachings of Jesus. Hate and greed were not in his vocabulary. I pray too for those devastated by the tragedies in San Francisco and London. Who knows if London’s fire was preventable—I’ve heard complaints about poorly done renovations—but the tragedy in San Francisco might well not have occurred were the national mood different.

Please pray with me, in the way of your choice. And then reach out and hug someone.