Friday, August 18, 2017

What a day, what a week!


Today my local family came home from a four-day vacation at Lost Pines, a Hyatt resort property in Central Texas. They go every year with friends and look forward to it—water sports, lots of fishing for Jacob, general relaxation. I promised them a welcome-home dinner today and made family favorite Doris’ casserole. Imagine my disappointment when Jordan announced that Jacob, having just had his eleven-year-old check-up and gotten four shots, was on the couch and not joining us for dinner, and Christian was not feeling well. Christian did join us for dinner—said he thinks the pecans he ate backfired on him. It was a subdued meal, but the casserole was good, and we got good pictures which I will use for a blog I’m to do with a recipe attached.

This was a funny week. With my family gone, I scheduled myself heavily—lunch out two days, dinner out two evenings and happy hour guests the third, a dental appointment. In spite of all that, I got a lot of writing done and feel good about most of it. Plus took care of busy details of various kinds, kept up with my blog and with my email.

It was a great week for feedback on my writing—two posts as a guest blogger and one online review. Plus, today came unexpected news that six of my young-adult novels will be given new life as ebooks, beginning this month and one a month. I signed that contract a year ago, but with all the turmoil in my life I’d forgotten about it, so the news came as a great surprise. I approved cover art today for the first one. I’ll be sharing details on the blog, you can be sure.

It was a wet week too. We had a lot of rain, and yesterday’s storm blew down some small pieces of the big, old elm in front that I’m so protective of. Walking coach Teddy came and neatly stacked them. When we walked, we came up and across the front porch, and we both noticed a hanging plant that was really drooping from lack of water—too high for eleven-year-old Sam to reach as part of his watering chores. Teddy watered it.

Walking was hard of me today. Partly because I worried about the ache in my back, even sometimes at my computer. Teddy, with his usual calm manner, reassured me—yes, it’s probably spinal stenosis because almost every adult my age has it, but no, it’s not severe or I’d be feeling sharp pains. And my breathlessness today? High humidity. He said he was even breathless. I finished the walk in better style than I started it, simply because I felt reassured.

So tonight, I feel lazy. Going to spend the rest of the evening reading. Tomorrow is another day, and I can work then. May next week be as adventure-filled as this.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rain in Texas, Tattoo in Scotland, and good friends


The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but in Texas this August it falls on everything and with unusual frequency. We had a good storm this afternoon. I heard the distant thunder but at first, it’s often not recognizable—could be the construction trucks from the never-ending gas pipe work or any other number of city noises. But then a great clap right overhead, and Sophie was on her feet barking defiantly. I hadn’t even realized that she’d crept up close to me. It blew harder than usual this afternoon, and I worried about the umbrella on the deck. A friend who came by to pick something up about five, reported we lost a small limb or two from the big elm tree in front—the “suffering” tree that I was so indignant about earlier. And the rain continued, slowing down but still coming for well over an hour. Now it’s less a question of watering things than it is to dump water out of flower pots so the plants don’t get root rot.

Elmer Kelton wrote the classic novel, The Time It Neve Rained, about the 1950s drought in the Southwest. But years later, he wrote an article, “The Time It Always Rained,” about the problems that beset sheep ranchers when there is too much rain. I don’t have enough ranch knowledge to enumerate those problems, but I was struck by the fact that too much rain is almost as bad as too little. There are those pests!

A social day. Margaret, a steadfast friend since we met as student wives in Missouri in the early sixties, took me to lunch to celebrate my birthday, almost a month after the fact. We had delicious blue cheese burgers and good slaw with cabbage, kale, and a nice, just-right dressing. Each of us brought half of our lunch home. Then Margaret, good soul that she is, took me grocery shopping. Having spent too many months sending people off with grocery lists and getting some questionable products back, I find grocery shopping for myself a pure delight. And now that I do the motorized carts, it’s even better. I’m not sure Margaret had as much fun as I did.

My list was short, but I promised to cook dinner for my family tomorrow night. Then an opportunity came up to include a recipe in a guest blog, so I decided to kill two whatevers with one meal. I will cook a family favorite for them and take pictures for the blog. But it’s not a last-minute meal, at least not for me, and I needed some supplies.

Tonight, neighbors Margaret and Dennis came for happy hour, joined by Teddy and Sue. Margaret and Dennis have just been to Scotland and knew I’d want to hear all about it. Among other things, they went to Tattoo, an enormous military celebration of Scottish music and entertainment. Warmed the cockles of my heart when Dennis said that mind-boggling spectacle was great but not the highlight of the trip. He was most impressed by the majestic landscape of the Highlands. Fun for me to listen and relive some of my trip to Scotland. They kindly brought me a program from Tattoo and a kilt pin for my clan, MacBean. Dennis said, “Your clan is shrinking,” and I told him it’s always been small—but proud.

A confession: I am so grateful for company and for those who get me out of the cottage, but all day today I was thinking, “When will I write my thousand words for today?” I wrote maybe 200 just before they arrived at five and wrote the rest before I did the dishes. Now that’s focus.

And I got bookmarks today for Pigface and the Perfect Dog. Excited to start passing them out.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Special Milestone


My oldest granddaughter is college-bound, and I had been fairly vocal about wanting a Maddie hug before she leaves the nest. She drove over from Frisco to have supper with me last night. It’s the first time she’s driven here by herself, and the first one-on-one visit we’ve had since the days I used to babysit with her when she was an only grandchild—now there are seven of them. When she walked in the door, I said I viewed the visit as a milestone, and she was all grins as she agreed.

I asked what she wanted for dinner, and she remembered the Italian restaurant where we’d had good food and an unfortunate waiter several months ago—no reflection on the restaurant and kudos to them for quickly correcting the situation. We went to Bravo, sat on the empty patio with the evening breeze just beginning to stir, and had a lovely time.

We talked about college. She’ll go to Colorado University where, according to her previously announced plan, she’ll major in psychology. This fall she’ll take psychology, philosophy, biology, and American history from 1875. I envy her the history course and reviewed in my mind the things she’d cover—Industrial Revolution, Columbian Exposition if she’s lucky (she would if I were teaching the course), world wars, Korea, Vietnam. She seemed unaware of WWI and WWII and high-fived me when I told her they’d surely be included.

Maddie is a certified nursing assistant, with an eye on an R.N. degree. She’s also young and strong—perfect person to help me with my walking. We walked down the driveway to the car and from the car across the parking lot, into the restaurant, and headed for the patio. We weren’t too far from our goal, when I had to stop and ask for the walker—my stamina had run out. But she said she was very impressed with the improvement I’ve made. I thrive on praise like that.

We talked about the family wedding where she was a flower girl, and I told her stories from her childhood, and we talked about her cousins and family fun. At the end of our meal, I thanked her for coming all the way to see me. She grinned and said, “I was glad to. You’re fun.” What better compliment can you get from an eighteen-year-old?

She’s one of the many blessings in my life.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Waiting all summer for this day




August 15, 2017

Today is the day I’ve been waiting all summer for—cover reveal of my new novel, Pigface and the Perfect Dog (an Oak Grove Mystery). It’s my first full-length novel in over a year, and the first time I have revisited the college town of Oak Grove since The Perfect Coed was published three years ago.

Kudos to Sherry Wachter for the great cover, which I think matches the cover of The Perfect Coed in style and color. I’ve itched to share it with you for weeks, but when you sign up for a cover reveal, you’re pretty much bound to that date. So today’s reveal can be found at


English professor Susan Hogan and her partner, Jake Phillips, chief of campus security, return in this cozy mystery with an edge. Susan thinks she’s about to meet her maker when she confronts a rifle-carrying man, who looks like a pig, in a grocery store. Jake investigates the body of a young college student, shot in the back and found in an empty pasture. Aunt Jenny showers love on the new puppy a young man from the grocery gave her, but she feels she must get rid of that heavy collar.

 Trouble in Oak Grove begins with open-carry protestors in the grocery store and leads to a shooting, breaking and entering, threats, a chase, an attempted kidnapping, and a clandestine trip to the woods late at night. Will Susan Hogan land in trouble…or the hospital…again? Will Susan and Jake survive this as a couple? Susan is still prickly but she learns some lessons about life, love, and herself in this second Oak Grove Mystery.

Reader reaction to The Perfect Coed thrilled me.

Susan is a prickly character, and she doesn’t put up with any guff from her male colleagues, the cops, or even Jake. Aunt Jenny is funny and a great cook. I have a feeling all these characters will be returning for a sequel, so you’ll want to pick this one up now before you get behind. You won’t regret it.

Bill Crider, mystery author

Few mysteries open with a single paragraph of eye-popping intrigue, but The Perfect Coed is full of such moments and its introduction is apt warning that readers will rapidly become involved in something far from mundane or predictable: “Susan Hogan drove around Oak Grove, Texas for two days before she realized there was a dead body in the trunk of her car. And it was another three days before she knew that someone was trying to kill her.”

—D. Donovan, Senior eBook Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

Pigface, as I affectionately call this new novel, is available for pre-order on Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Pigface-Perfect-Dog-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B073VSDKMH/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1502833947&sr=1-1&keywords=pigface+and+the+perfect+dog in both paperback and ebook form. It will be available September 7.

For those in the Fort Worth area, there’ll be a launch party September 21, 5:00 -7:00 p.m., at the Wine Haus, 1628 Park Place Avenue. Cash bar, snacks will be offered, and fun will definitely be had. Ya’ll come celebrate with me, please. Many of you will get an evite soon; if you don’t hear by September 11, please let me know. Questions, comments? Write me at j.alter@tcu.edu.










Monday, August 14, 2017

Sanitizing the South


All across the South there’s a move to take down Confederate statues. They are symbols of a dark blot on our history—slavery, the plantation system, an era of extreme human bondage, cruelty to humans. I do not believe that these monuments were built to terrify blacks, as one editorial this morning claimed, but they were built to glorify men who today we do not consider heroes. That they have become rallying points for hate groups probably means that they should come down. But I view that destruction with sadness. It’s like trying to erase history.

The plantation system, with all its inequities and unbelievable cruelty, helped shape the South as we know it today—a region most of us recognize has a rich heritage of literature, music, art, food, and manners. The Civil War, fought to preserve slavery or that culture (depends on your point of view), shaped our country in ways we can never fully appreciate. It moved us beyond slavery to the land of equality our forefathers wanted. To remove those statues is to attempt to remove history, and we can neither erase nor rewrite history. Those men who fought for the Confederacy were part of the great war which molded us, albeit they were on the wrong side..

Let them stand today as reminders of the schism in our country, the positive outcome of the war, the progress we have made toward being civilized. The hate groups that rally around these statues (with tiki torches, no less—how inappropriate is that?) are beyond the understanding of most of us. But rather than spend money, effort, and time taking down statues, let us direct our energies to combatting hatred in our country. What can we do to reach out to those people, understand them (there probably is no understanding), help them change and rid themselves of anger? If I were convinced tearing down statues would help, I’d be for it. But I think it will only further enrage them—that is, of course, why they were in Charlottesville, to protest the scheduled teardown of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

If we sanitize the history of the South we might well begin to look at other parts of the country. The cowboy myth of the American West wasn’t particularly violent, but the clashes between settlers and native American were awash in cruelty on either side, unbelievable barbarianism and cruelty. Shall we destroy statues to pioneers and Native American leaders, besmirch Daniel Bowie and others? History has given us a re-interpretation of Custer’s Last Stand, one in which the general doesn’t come out well at all. Can we not apply that lesson to the South without destroying monuments?

And what about New England? Those Puritans could be extremely cruel and insensitive to those who didn’t think as they did. Shall we ban The Scarlet Letter from school reading lists?

When we try to rewrite or erase history, we start down a slippery slope. Surely, we can be more constructive. I am proud to be an American and proud of our heritage. I decry those who would pervert that heritage and use it for hatred. But, as a literature and history student, I want to preserve our history intact.

This was hard to write and didn’t come out the way I wanted at all, but I have done my best. Many of my colleagues and good friends will disagree vehemently, and I understand that.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hello, 3 a.m. – meet indigestion


Indigestion is not a word in my vocabulary. It doesn’t happen to me—at least not that I’m aware. But  three a.m. is no stranger. I rarely sleep the night through in one long sleep but rather two- or three-hour intervals. Last night the two came together.

I woke up about three-thirty with the feeling that everything in me was in turmoil, a great feeling of unease. If I sat up, I was less aware of it, so I sat up. I read phone messages, I planned a novel, I went to the bathroom too many times. But each time I lay down that scary feeling, located in the middle of my lower chest, was there.

We all know that everything is scarier at three in the morning. I thought of my friend Bobbie who died halfway out of her bed, apparently going for help. I thought of Don who, home alone, felt unwell and called 911. The parameds told him if he hadn’t called in the next three minutes, he’d be a dead man. I thought of the man I worked for who complained of back pain and it turned out to be a massive heart attack. I tried to remember what I knew if anything about silent heart attacks. I was cheered that I really didn’t think it was my heart—I had no sharp pain anywhere and I wasn’t aware of a rapid or louder heartbeat.

After an hour in which my imagination ran totally away with me, I called Jordan. Sweet, caring girl. She came out, diagnosed indigestion, and asked if I’d taken a Pepcid. “Never in my life,” I replied. She went inside for them, gave me one, and settled on the other side of my bed. The culprit she thought was that kielbasa we had for dinner plus two not-small helpings of German potato salad with it’s heavy vinegar component. I remembered the night Jordan, driving us home from Dallas, had her first-ever attack of heartburn (after barbecue sandwiches), so severe she kept threatening to pull off at the next motel.

Sophie totally puzzled by both of us in the same bed at the same time joined the party and went from one to the other, giving face licks.. I began to feel better, but it was one of those elusive things—I thought I’d feel better if I could just turn my mind off.

After about half an hour, Jordan went back to her own bed, and I finally slept. Woke a couple of times and finally got up about 8:45—late for me. I’ll be glad for a nap this afternoon, and I guess I should put some Pepcid in my medicine chest.

And kudos to Jordan for once again proving herself a good caretaker--and a loving daughter.

It’s a rainy day, good day to stay in my jammies and chill. Good plan.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tangled thoughts and some happy notes




One mama who is happy to have her boy back
I tried to write a post tonight about white supremacy, Charlottesville, and Confederate statues, but my thoughts are too tangled to make it coherent. Anyone reading this knows how strongly I deplore white supremacy and today’s violence. Were I in Charlottesville I would have stayed hidden inside, partly because I fear violence and party because I think going out to protest the marchers gave them a certain credibility. I am, like everyone, devastated by the deaths and injuries.

It may surprise some that I don’t favor destroying Confederate monuments. The Confederacy and the Civil War are significant parts of our history, and we are foolish to try to either deny or rewrite history. Let the monuments remain not as objects of glory but as reminders that we are now better people, shaped by the fire of that war.

Hate has been legitimized in this country by a president who encouraged violence at his political rallies, mocked minorities and the disabled, banned certain nationalities from our shores, and still strives to build a wall to keep out an entire race of people. It is a sad day for a nation founded on the belief that all men are equal.

On another note. It’s been quiet around the Alter/Burton homestead lately, but today we welcomed Jacob home from camp where he had, in his words, a blast. He went for two weeks; one week in, he wanted to come home. Now he says he wants to go back next year for four weeks. He’s tanned and healthy and happy and grew two feet, I’m sure. I’m glad he’s back. To celebrate, we fixed Polish sausage for dinner—a favorite of his, but I found I didn’t buy enough. Double that order next time.

And on a personal happy note: I wrote two thousand words today on the novel I’m working on. My daily goal is a thousand words, but yesterday if I was lucky I wrote three hundred. The words wouldn’t come. The late Jerry Flemmons, who gave me lots of good advice and counsel, always said when writer’s block hits the thing to do is put your butt in the chair and write, no matter how meaningless the words. I tried yesterday, honest I did, but I stared at a blank screen and finally resorted to Facebook. Today with everyone gone, I wrote twice my daily goal and made a lot of notes for tomorrow’s writing.

I would say all’s well and the world is in its place, but clearly it’s not. Not with Kim Jung-Un and Trumpf rattling sabers and not with the tragic events of Charlottesville. But when I’m discouraged I remember William Faulkner’s Nobel speech—“I believe man will not only endure, he will prevail.” Call me Pollyanna.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Indignation over a tree


            The landmark that distinguishes my house is a wonderful old elm tree in front. The house was built in 1922, and I suspect the elm dates back that far. For twenty-five years, I have lived in feat that a Texas storm would bring it crashing down. Part of the fear, of course, was that it would land on my roof, but the greater fear was losing the tree. It somehow gives majesty to the property; without it, my house would be bare, exposed, just sitting there. A couple of years ago, I asked the city to check some dead branches at the top—it’s their tree, since it’s in the boulevard. The forester who came out said the dead was because trees were stressed by the drought we’d been having, but the tree was healthy. When I said I was so afraid he’d say it had to come down, he said, “No ma’am. We’re in the business of saving trees, not cutting them down.”

So today comes a letter from someone working with city planning. They want to install a ramp on my property and establish a new crossover to the school across the street. The letter writer said they would take out my “struggling” tree and replace it with a young tree of my choice. I’m afraid my answer was a bit sarcastic, but I was insulted by his use of struggling. I pointed out that losing the tree would diminish my property values, and no young tree will grow to that majestic height during my lifetime. I’m sorry, but what dolt wrote that letter? I told him firmly no and do not expect the matter to be pursued. There is a ramp and a crossing with a guard half a block down, and folks can use it. As for the planning person, he should talk to the forestry department.

This plays into my current concern about trees. I edit our neighborhood newsletter and am grateful to Linda Simmons, who advocates the city’s tree replacement program and has done an article about the importance of trees to a neighborhood. This flies in the face of our Texas governor who wants to pass some silly law permitting cities to cut down trees willy-nilly. I’m not a fan of the governor—that probably goes without saying—but this vendetta about trees is ridiculous. He was crippled by a tree falling on him, sued whoever (the city of Austin?), and received a settlement that apparently set him up for life (he has since pushed legislation which limits the amount of liability settlements). Then he tangled with the city over a huge old tree that stood where he wanted to build his house, as I hear the story, and he lost. So he’s angry at trees, and apparently not educated enough to recognize their aesthetic value nor environmental purpose. My Austin kids had a tree literally growing into their house—when they remodeled, the contractor cut it down, without a permit, and got a fine. But nobody hates trees because of that. What a petty world Texas government is. Yes, I am sorry about the governor’s injury, but I don’t think he’s handled any of this with grace.

Lovely unexpected rain tonight. I went in the house for happy hour with friends. Coming out, poor Jordan and friend Marge tried valiantly to help me walk, carry my wine, and hold an umbrella. No small trick. Such good girls.

When you live alone, you are innovative about meals. I particularly like a brand of marinated tuna, Tonnino’s—in olive oil and oregano. Found it in the store today, so tonight I cooked some orzo and added green peas and leftover corn at the last minute. Drained it, and stirred in tuna with some of its oil. So good. I had doubts about the corn with tuna, but it was great. One more leftover banished!


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Walking goals and a pleasant visit


Teddy walked me the length of the driveway today, but the gas people were replacing sidewalk, so we couldn’t go to the stairs. I suggested we do a toe touch to the street instead, which we did. But this meant I didn’t have stairs to get back up the incline. He warned me to lean into it and use my body to help me go up, but I didn’t realize how hard it would be. Teddy’s wisdom: going down the incline is a psychological problem; going up, is a physical problem. Apparently, I used new muscles or at least those unused for a long time. By the time we got back to the cottage, I was winded…and hot!

But now I have two goals: to walk with a walking stick (not a cane) and to make it to the end of the driveway to meet friends who can’t drive up—and then back down—my skinny 1920s driveway. Teddy says at least two or three weeks before we try the walking stick, and that’s fine—I view it as a step toward walking independently. I could make it to the end of the driveway today with the walker, but that incline remains a psychological barrier.

My good, longtime friend Fred came for lunch today. He was my major professor in graduate school and has remained a friend ever since—that’s a lot of years. He reads and critiques everything I write, and I always feel like he’s a cheerleader. We lunch about once a month, discussing everything but politics (we agree, but it’s pointless) and mostly we talk about our writing projects. A true scholar, he is writing articles and reworking a manuscript on pioneer women in aviation. He is also one who does not handle my driveway well, and I won’t ask him to do that

So today I made turkey burgers and a wilted lettuce salad. Did your mom make wilted lettuce? Mine did. She’d take fresh leaf lettuce from the garden, douse it with a bit of vinegar and then pour warm bacon grease over it. Of course, crumbled bacon went into it too. It doesn’t wilt the lettuce but simply coats it with deliciousness. The first time I mentioned it to Christian he said, “I’ll pass,” but when I fixed it he said it was delicious. Turkey burgers not so much—I really like them at the Old Neighborhood Grill but have not been pleased with my two at-home attempts.

We topped lunch off with frozen peach custard—a sweet end to a meal. And we had a most enjoyable visit. Having had to stand me up for lunch two or three times, Fred tells me he’ll take me anywhere I want to go. So that’s my goal—to walk the driveway to his car so he can take me to lunch.

Goals are great. So far, I’m doing well with my thousand words a day goal, in spite of other things going on in my life. Christian paid me a great compliment the other night, and I wish I could remember the way he worded it. But he essentially said I have the best of both worlds—the world of the mind, because I work at my computer every day pretty much alone, and the world of a social life, because I love being with people. I am lucky, and I know it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Compassion as a state of grace



A friend of mine posted about an incident the other night that brought to my mind the few people I know whose lives are lived by compassion for others. Heather teaches cooking classes, and the other night when she had a small class, an older man on a cane wandered in. They tried to welcome him and make him comfortable, but when she looked in his eyes she saw only blankness. There was no way to reach the man, the soul inside that body. It turned out the man’s daughter was shopping, and he wandered away from her. Heather said that blank expression brought tears to her eyes, and she could barely hold herself together to finish the class.

She’s like that. Right now, she’s collecting school supplies for a program called Communities in Schools which provides basic backpacks and supplies to needy children. She’s been known to take a homeless person under her wing, and she says one of the jobs that made her happiest was working in the kitchen of a homeless shelter. We talked about her outreach, and she said, “I see people and faces. A car could crash in front of your house, and I wouldn’t notice, but I see people.”

I have a firm faith that most people are kind, generous and caring, even though tensions in our country seem to have brought out the worst is many of our fellow citizens. But there are many more good people than angry, bitter, defensive, and un pleasant—or prejudiced. I see that daily as I shop and go to restaurants on my walker. People hold doors for me, ask if I need extra assistance, go out of their way to make sure I’m okay. Still people like Heather, for whom compassion is the ruling operative in their lives, are few and far between. They have my undying admiration. I think it’s a quality that is inborn, not learned, but I suspect we all can cultivate it. I’m trying.

Heather is also my cooking buddy. She’s line cook at one of the major museums in town, one with an elegant restaurant. She brought me lunch today—a wonderful green salad with blue cheese and figs, deviled eggs with a flip of smoked salmon on each, and a blueberry/strawberry scone. Delicious, and pretty, as you can see above. She confirmed my suspicions about how to use the mandolin I was given, taught me how to change temperature and time on my toaster oven, and suggested ways I could fix a couple of recipes I had trouble with. Plus, we had fun.