Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Triathlons, rain--and, as always, grandchildren

I had a glimpse into another world this weekend. Jordan, Jacob and I stayed at the Austin Hyatt Regency, because the whole family gathered to cheer Jamie and Brandon as they did the Austin Annual Triathlon, which includes a daunting swim in Town Lake--not water I'd want to swim in. The Hyatt, where I've often gone for suit-and-tie meetings, was filled with a new crowd. There were bicycles everywhere, and a lot of very strong, fit looking women in workout clothes. Yes, there were men, but it was the women I particularly noticed--no primping, all no-nonsense. Tables were littered with healthy snacks and water bottles, and the talk was all insider stuff abut racing. Strangely, there were a lot of dogs going up and down the elevators. When we walked to the hotel from the parking lot one night, Mel said, "Look at all the bicycles in the window" and it seemed every lit room did indeed have a bicycle.
It all came to naught. Monday, the day of the race, dawned gray and rainy. When we made our way to the dining room for breakfast, I said idly to the hostess that I hated to think of my boys swimming in that water. She quickly said, "Oh, they won't let them. They've cancelled the race." (The hostess had become my friend by then--when you travel with a flirting, gregarious baby like Jacob, hostesses and wait staff become your friends; our second morning, the waiter from the day before came by and said, "Jacob, my man, how you doing this morning?" Jacob favored him with an enormous grin.) I felt a sense of relief, followed by the knowledge the boys would be really bummed out. They got up at four, were at the check-in by 5:30, first heard that the swim was cancelled, then stood around in the cold wet rain until about 7:00 p.m. when the entire race was cancelled. Brandon was home eating breakfast by 8:30, and Jamie was back in bed at the hotel. I had told Brandon Saturday that I heard it was not to rain Monday morning, and he said, "I'm praying for lightning." But when I said Monday, "You got your prayer," he said, "Standing there waiting, I was ready to do anything, but NOT pack up and come home."
When we checked out of the hotel, the atmosphere had changed dramatically. No longer electric with anticipation, it was filled with grousing--"Look, radar shows the storm has already moved on" and that kind of thing. Mel said later it was like one giant funeral.
The weekend was anything but a bust. We Alters were all together--eight adults (missing Christian, who was indeed sorely missed), seven children with five under three, and, miraculously, no extra dogs. We "hung out" at Megan and Brandon's, watching the children play. I was mightily impressed by how loving my children are with all the little ones, not just their own. They are genuinely affectionate, showering equal attention on each baby. There's absolutely no "My kid, your kid." They were all little babies to be loved and adored, and I certainly did my share of that.
Traveling with Jordan and Jacob, however, was a trip in itself. Jordan was anxious about watching Jacob in strange surroundings--justifiable, since he's walking and curious as all babies 11 mos. old are. But she was also anxious about his sleep, and I was not allowed to have a light in the room after he went to bed--at 7:30. I sat on the floor in the hall outside the bathroom in our hotel room and read. It meant I drank an extra glass of wine and went to bed early, which wasn't all that bad. The hotel bed was comfortable beyond imagination, and I missed it on Monday night when, at Megan's, I could stay up as long as I wanted but slept on an air mattress.
The neat thing is that I feel like I've had a vacation. I didn't think about work, check email, or do anything businesslike the entire time--okay, this morning I visited for 15 minutes with one of our designers but the talk was almost all personal and very little about business. And for some reason I can't fathom, it was those sumptuous hotel breakfasts that made me feel like I'd gotten away from it all. Give me corned beef hash any day, and I'm happy.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Writing a book

Garrison Keillor had a wonderful column in the paper this morning, about writing books. He talked about the agony of the author, trying not to be distracted even by world news. "Writers," he wrote, "get obsessed with a project and lock the doors and sit and work at it, like animals in a leg trap trying to chew through the leg, which is not good strategy." And after the book is published--great joy? No, maybe relief, sorrow that it's gone because it was what filled your life--and then there's that passage you meant to rewrite and didn't.
I'm not quite so bad as to lock myself up and turn off the phone. I'm always hoping to be distracted by a phone call, an incoming email, a visiting neighbor--anything. Unless, of course, it's one of those rare times I'm on a roll.
Right now I'm not on a roll. I'm on a dead stop. I'm writing a book for fourth graders about Joaquin Jackson, a Texas Ranger who had a long and distinguished career with the oldest law enforcement agency in the country, went on to have a few brushes with Hollywood, and now has written his memoir. He's larger than life, as testified to by the picture of him on the cover of a 1993 issue of Texas Monthly. He's a wonderfully dedicated man--and yet, sometimes, he shows a compassion you'd not expect from a Ranger, an understanding of those on the other side of the law (unless of course there was a brutal crime and then, stay out of his way!). I've read his memoir (co-authored) and the websites about him, but I can't wrap my mind around how to translate all of this--some of it brutal, some profane--into a book for fourth graders. I can't even figure what questions I would want to ask him in person (I may well get that opportunity late in June). The banal, "What advice would you give to youngsters?" comes to mind, and maybe it's a starting point--but it might also be a dead end if he says something like, "Always tell the truth."
Of course, I know the answer to this problem--sit down and write. Quit worrying it in your mind. Every night I come home determined to do that--and I distract myself (have you ever read a P. D. James novel? Most absorbing!) but when I do there's this sense of guilt that I should be working on "the book." So tonight I'm going to work on it--except what am I doing? Posting on the blog! Maybe I can write one paragraph that I like (I did write a page that I didn't like) and that will set me off. Cross your fingers, please.
We had heavy heavy rains today, good for my new grass. I was to have lunch with good friends close to where they live because he is in a wheelchair. I called to ask about the impending storm, and his wife agreed that we didn't want someone in an electric wheelchair out in the weather that seemed to be looming. So I left the office, thinking I'd do a couple of errands before it hit. Between the door and the car--which isn't far--big drops fell, and once I was inside the car, the heavens dumped. I drove home, but then it seemed to let up, so I circled back and went about my errands--where it hadn't rained at all. Then about 3:30 the sky darkened and opened up again with another deluge. No lightning, very little thunder, but lots of rain. It's predicted off and on tonight and tomorrow. Good kind of an evening to puzzle out that first paragraph.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Doctors and friends

I went to the ophthalmologist today, a trip I dread. As I said in the office before I left, I'd rather go to the dentist and gynecologist four times than go to the eye doctor. But it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. The doctor, who is a friend and someone I've seen for years, had moved to a new building, and going someplace new always makes me a little apprehensive. I needed to remember that those days are gone, and I can confidently go new places these days--but the habit of anticipation lingers. Then Melinda, in my office, offered to drive so I wouldn't have to drive home with dilated (in the office, we call it "violated") eyes, which was a blessing. As it turned out someone else came to get me, and we all met for a lunch at a new restaurant. The only appetizer on the menu was waffle fries sprinkled with gorgonzola and chopped scallions--an absolutely inspired appetizer! And next time I won't dread the ophthalmologist so much--though I was glad not to drive with violated eyes.
The Alter clan will gather in Austin this weekend. Jamie and Brandon are doing a triathlon, and I'm not sure what Colin is doing but some part of it. With regret, we'll leave Christian behind because he can't get off work--or doesn't think he should, which is perfectly undertandable. But it should be fun and a pleasant break. As always, I start planning early for a weekend away. And double as always, I'm grateful for a close family--and kids and grandkids who seem to want the old lady around!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Paula Deen's new book

I've been reading Paula Deen's It Ain't All About the Cookin', and I've read with mixed emotions. But it should tell you something that I've read the book--279 pp.--cover to cover in two days--part but not all of that was a decision today that I'd been proofing and working, morning, noon, and night for a part-time salary, and I deserved a little leisure reading. But something compelled me about this book, even as I was critical. I was originally drawn to it because Ms. Deen is totally honest about her bouts with agoraphobia, something I know up close and personal. Comparing my past to hers wasn't much help--she was in some ways worse than I ever was, but she has bounced farther back than I. I doubt there's much that scares that lady, and a lot still scares me.
There's so much I admire about Paula Deen--her self-made success, her determination, her faith in herself. She chose the toughest business in the world, a restaurant, and not only made it work, she became a superstar. She has a marvelous attitude about getting along with people, especially customers--it's basically called southern hospitality. And she has a great sense of family loyalty, to the point it almost got too much for me, and Lord knows I'm a family person. I also liked--a lot--her advice to people who think they want their own restaurant. I've seen just enough of the business to recognize the truth of the harsh picture she paints and the wisdom of the advice she gives, especially about charming your customers and making them glad they've put their feet under your table.
As an author, Paula Deen is also bitingly honest--there's not much she doesn't reveal, though sometimes I wished she'd kept this or that particular point to herself--or at least expressed it differently. She's unabashed about her use of four-letter words, as I generally am about the occasional "Shit" or "Damn" that slips from my mouth. But she says some things I'd never say (which isn't to say I'm right and she's wrong but it is to say I found some of it jarring!).
I think the thing that most bothered me was probably not her decision but an editorial one--the publisher retained her southern way of speech. I suspect it comes off a lot more charming in person than it does on the printed page. In fact, I thought I'd check that out by watching her TV show tonight, but to my dismay you have to subscribe to the Food Network! I've long insisted as editorial policy that the way to indicate dialect is very gently with a minimal use to suggest the overall, broader use. But this is full of double negatives and "Yo Momma" and such, and I found that distracting.
I think I kept reading because, even though I know she's success, I wanted to hear the end of the story. The last chapters dissolve into a sort of collection of mini-essays that offer her views on whatever topic came into her mind, from Christmas to judging people by their appearance--but the meat of the book is her life story, and it's a fascinating one. That's what kept me reading.
There are recipes but not that many, and they sound delicious but none jumped out and made me want to fix it right away--that wasn't the point of the book. And, Lordy, does she use the cream and butter. I surely don't agree with her about cholesterol, but maybe that's because mine is high.
As I've probably said before here, I've written a cookbook memoir. Mine will have more recipes and less memoir than this, which makes me think maybe I should go back over it one more time (Ive found a publisher, but it won't appear until 2008 at the earliest and probably 2009). But even if I get more honest about my life and feelings, I'll never be as frank as Ms. Deen, and I don't know if that's a good thing or not. But it's me.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reitrement and Longevity

My friend Betty is retiring as Minister of Music at our church. She's been playing the organ there for over forty years, and the music program, which is absolultely glorious, is of her doing. But Betty's had lots of administrative duties, and even when we go out for an easy evening of drinks and tapas, there's an edge of harried to her--or was. With retirement just over a month away, she's begun to relax, and I see a whole new person emerging. She said tonight one of the church ladies had gathered a small group of retirees for lunch to give her advice on retirement, and she in turn let loose with some of her dreams--like owning a Hummer (they were horrified at the gas consumption, and she assured them she wasn't going to buy one, she was just feeling free to dream about it!).
I'm happy for Betty--she always said she'd know when it was time, and she says now she knows that time has come and feels good about the decision. But when people ask me, sometimes impatiently, when I'm going to retire, I simply say, "I'm not ready." I still can't imagine at this point being ready. I'm busier than ever and probably happier than ever. I don't know how many years that will last, but I'm going to take it a day--well, maybe a week--at a time.
I've been proofing a forthcoming TCU Press title, Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women. Fourteen writers each contributed a chapter on women important to the city's history--chapters divided according to categories and not individual women, so there were a lot of women covered. What struck me is that I kept reading that this one died at 95 and that one at 90 and another one at 93. These women, each accomplished and passionate about something in life, lived to ripe old ages. I am convinced there's a connection. No, Betty, I don't think you're dooming yourself just because you're retiring. You'll stay busy. I suspect music is like writing--you never walk totally away from it.
Jacob brought his parents to supper last night, and I had a wonderful visit with his father, who I never see now that he's working two jobs. But I realized something really fun about Jacob--he talks gibberish, with his little fist in his mouth. If I answer him in kind, with my fist across my mouth, he responds, and we have this "conversation," with him looking so delighted and pleased with himself. He'll say something and look at me as though to demand, "Okay, it's your turn!" It's like watching the beginning of communication, because he truly is communicating with me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


My dog Scooby (no, I did not name him--he came with that name) is an eight-year-old Australian Shepherd, who thinks he one or two. I got him from the Humane Society five years ago, and he was wild as a March hare. They told me he'd been a junkyard dog, by which they meant someone just threw him in their back yard and fed him occasionally but paid no other attention to him. I hired a trainer and during one session I asked when Scooby would calm down. "Oh," he said, "maybe when he's ten." We've had an Aussie in the family before, and I knew that's true. Well, Scooby has calmed down a good bit, though my family doesn't believe it at all. He's not good in the house when there's company, because he gets too excited. He'll snatch anything edible if he thinks he can get away with it, and though he's technically housebroken, he's not reliable--I keep him in sight all the time he's in the house, and when I'm not home, he lives outside where he has a perfectly good dog house. But at night, in my study, he lies quietly at my feet, though every movement on my part causes him to jump in anticipation of something--a treat, an adventure, who knows what. And when I go to bed, he sleeps (barricaded and leashed) next to me and puts his head on the mattress to be loved. He is probably the sweetest dog I've ever had.
But Scooby is terrified of thunderstorms, absolutely, out-of-his-mind terrified. The first storm we lived through together, he hid under my desk and pawed at me until I had great bruises on my legs. He's gotten better, or so I told myself--it was, I thought, because he knew he finally had a safe, secure home. Lately though, he's gone bananas again. (I figure my anxiety comes and goes, so maybe his does too; besides, like all of us, his routine was broken this weekend by having two other dogs--or is that getting too psychoanalytical about dogs?) We've had regular early evening storms--short and not intense, but nonetheless thunder and the heavy air that comes before a storm. One night while all the kids were here, he bullied his way in when Lisa came in, and I had a horrible time getting him out. But last night was the worst. I let him in deliberately, an act of kindness, because it was storming. But later, with storms long gone, I couldn't get him to go out, even to eat his dinner. He balked, he hid, he pulled out of his collar (it's too big since he Colin took him to get a summer haircut--I can't manage him on a leash because he wants to herd everything from UPS trucks to strollers and bicycles), he jumped and squirmed and had to be dragged. And every time I got him to the back door, he bolted the other way. To his credit, Scooby never threatened me, never growled. And to my credit, I didn't yell--I tried to talk comfortingly, explaining that I would never let anything happen to him. My talk fell on deaf ears. Finally after about six frustrating tries, I literally threw him out the door (with only a slight bit of guilt). He absolutely could not stay in from 5 at night until 6 in the morning! Later when I let him in for the night, he went happily to his bed as though nothing had happened. And tonight, the predicted storm hasn't appeared, so Scooby is content. If I go near the back door, he's there, looking like "Won't you let me in?" but he's not frantic. And pretty soon I will let him in, and he'll have his treat and then sleep at my feet.
Life with dogs is almost as complicated as life with children and grandchildren, but I wouldn't be without any of them. Or that cat that bit me and threatened Mel this weekend--the cat won that standoff until Jamie came along, hustled him into the house, and gave him a stern scolding.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Children and grandchildren

A truly memorable weekend. All my children and grandchildren were here, though Megan and her family stayed with Jordan. The boys and theirs stayed with me, and we all got together for lunch and a long visit Saturday, supper Saturday evening, and a special day today.
For lunch we went to the local deli, Carshon's, where we've been eating for forty years (well, I have, and Colin has for his 38 years--he thinks no trip home is complete without a visit to Carshon's). With all seven grandchidren, we were quite a troop. A nice older lady stopped to tell me how much she was enjoying watching all those beautiful children--lovely of her. I felt that some of the other patrons were looking a little askance at us, as though my kids were behaving like rabbits. After all, we do have three under one year! Saturday evening was barbecue on the porch, nicely cooled by a brief but heavy rain.
But today was really special. Five of the seven were dedicated at my church, University Christian. The Disciples don't baptize--they dedicate, parents pledging to raise their children in loving homes and guide them in matters of faith until each child is old enough to make a decision. Usually it's a covenant with the congregation, but Colin and Lisa, Megan and Brandon couldn't do that since they don't live here, so the church kindly arranged a special private ceremony in the chapel and tailored it to the circumstances--asking my children to pledge not only to support their children, but to support each other as brother and sister. Then, in a great departure from the usual tradition in the main sanctuary, the ministers invited family and friends to come join around the parents and children for support. It was wonderful to see some of my close friends there to support my children and grandchildren.

Afterwards there was picture taking and much visiting but we made it home where we had a brunch for about twenty people. No, it wasn't a Mothers' Day when I was pampered, for I worked hard--but I was catered to in my any ways and particularly felt surrounded by my children's love--and by the babies, some of whom spontaneously rushed up once or twice to hug me.
Tonight they've all gone home, the kitchen is clean, the laundry is almost done, the living room sports baby stuff for Jordan to take home, and my house is almost but not quite back to normal--a mixed blessing. I'll be finding a stray soft drink can here and crayon there for days and undoubtedly someone will have left something--I just haven't found it yet. But Scooby, Wynona, and I are back in our routine. Wynona is frankly relieved, but Scooby like me probably has mixed emotions--he has his house back, but he doesn't have the two buddies he shared his yard with all weekend.
My main emotion though is gratitude, for I am truly blessed and lucky with family.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Friends, Finances, and Family

Last summer a group of 15 women met two or three times on my front porch. All writers of one sort or another, they were contributors to a TCU Press book called Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women. We met to hash out who would write what chapter, what women would be included in each chapter, with several women sometimes "trading" for the multitalented woman they wanted in their chapters. During these sessions, something wonderful happened--we became a small but close-knit community. Today the book is at the designer, scheduled for October publication. And tonight, all but one of the women returned to the porch for a group picture to go on the back cover. It was a brief but joyous reunion that led the photographer to say we were just great. "Everyone did their own thing," she said. "I loved it." Yep, that's us--doing our own thing. The one woman we missed was central to the project--Katie and I had talked off and on, casually, about the need for such a history for years. One day in March 2006 we invited Ruth to join us for lunch, and the idea became a reality. Katie did a yeoman's job of editing, which she and I finally described as "herding cats." She was called out of town by a death in the family, but her picture, as editor, will be on the inside jacket flap. And everyone else was there--though once again it took an effort like herding cats.
On a completely different note, as I marched toward retirement (and then retreated a great deal), I've been trying to get my legal documents and finances in order. This weekend a good friend whose avocation is managing money came to advise me. I was pleased that he thought I'd done extraordinarily well for a single mother and was well set for the future, but he pointed out a couple of areas I needed to consider. One was a stock I bought for $750 in 1956 when I was seventeen, working and not yet in college--my father told me never to touch it, and I haven't. It is today worth more than I'm sure Dad ever dreamed--and surely more than I did. But it shows signs of "volatility" and Jim said I might consider selling. Today on the phone he said, "You know, I can't really tell you what to do. I sense you have a sentimental attachment to the stock." I'd never thought about being sentimentally attached to a stock, but he was probaby right--my father told me to buy it and told me never to sell it, and I haven't. But a stock isn't warm and fuzzy--I think I can get beyond that sentimental attachment. I'm sure Dad would understand.
For some time now I've been planning a menu for the brunch we'll have aftre the grandbabies are dedicated Sunday, though it would help if I had a better idea of how many to expect. But now I've started to put out serving dishes, with little slips of paper indicating what goes in each. After all, no one is going to use the dining table before then (the family will have to eat on the porch Saturday night!). I do that routinely before a large party, and it leads Christian to say to Jordan (who does the same thing), "You and your mother have a screw loose." But, hey, it works for us.
What to do about dinner with nine adults and seven children Saturday night has been a great debate. Megan wants a patio where children can play. For various reasons, several patio restaurants are out--smokers, etc. I think the patio will end up being my front porch, and the dinner will be barbecue or Mexican. But I am looking forward to the weekend.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Darkness and Silence

This mornng at about three o'clock, every light in my house blazed The electricity had been off since Wed. at 6:30 in the evening--two nights and a day. When it went off, all the lights were on because it was the proverbial dark and stormy night, so when the power came back the house was lit up like I was having a party. The lamp in my bedroom went on, which woke me, and I crawled out of bed to turn out lights throughout the house.
Wed. night I was bummed about the lack of electricity--tried to go to bed early but couldn't sleep, tried to read by candlelight but couldn't do it and gained a new appreciation for Abraham Lincoln. The next morning dressing was hard--my bathroom is a windowless cave, so I rigged a dressing table--a mirror propped up by books--in the family room to put on my makeup by the window (thank goodness it was a sunny morning). Without a blow dryer, I had to wing it on my hair. But by last night I had things more manageable--my neighbor and I had supper from a restaurant down the street so we didn't have to open our refrigerators, and then I read on the porch until I couldn't see. Came in and did some "piddling around' stuff, and then settled down with a manuscript by candlelight--much easier to read than the small print in the book I'm reading.
I learned a couple of things in this dark period--first, I really can survive without my computer on all the time, though it was hard for me. I also missed watching the evening news--I want to keep up with what's going on in our poor old world. But the thing that struck me most was how eerily silent a house without electricity is--we're used to the a/c sounds, the refrigerator clicking on, the washing machine or dishwasher going. Without all that it's almost spooky. Sue next door said last night she opened a window, lit a candle, and sat in her favorite chair reading. She heard all kinds of things she wasn't used to--people talking as they walked their dogs, laughing as they came home late from who knows where. Sue said it made her feel like she was eavesdropping but I thought she should have felt cheered that she lives in a real neighborhood, in the best sense of the word.
The storm itself was something to behold. I was dressed to go to a program, but the friends I was going with and I kept trading phone calls and delaying our departure--finally we just cancelled the whole thing. I've seen rain and flat line winds in Texas before but not often--it was amazing to stand at the front door and watch the rain blow down the street, which was soon at least ankle-deep in water. I was fortunate and did not have any damage but throughout the city there are huge trees uprooted and many home suffered flooding from overburdened sewers and runoff that came too fast. Jean and Jim, with whom I had evening plans, said they got 3.5 inches in about 20 minutes.
Before all that I had intended to go to the program--a presentation by one of our authors who is also one of my favorite people, the prof who hand-carried me through graduate school. His book, Boys' Books, Boys' Dreams, and the Mystique of Flight, studies the series books for boys of the '30s, '40s, and '50s and their importance in shaping the aereonautic culture of our country. Jim, a pilot, would have found it fascinating, and I'm sorry we missed it. The show went on--with only about 15 people there.
After the program I intended to come home and blog, but now I can't remember what I was going to say except that the new medication is making me feel worlds better. I may not be ready to jump on a plane to Canada or drive to California, but my footing is more sure and my peace of mind is greatly improved. I don't wake with a sense of dread any more. Of course, old fears are hard to forget--and I have to remind myself that I can do things easily now that I wouldn't have tried a month ago. I haven't given up my walking stick--Sue says it's a fashion statement now, and I'm actually looking for a new one--I saw a shorter one with a silver head in the hardware and I think it would make a nice go-to-church stick.
I'm also looking for one of those painted screens people used to use to cover their fireplaces in summer--Jacob makes a beeline for the fireplace every time he is at my house. He smiles most engagingly when we tell him, "No! Hurt you!"
A week from tonight I'll be expecting the whole gang--and cooking up a storm.