Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The times, they are a-changing

I remember recently telling Jamie that I so much don't want my kids and grandkids to think of me as old. (The subject was the fact that I sometimes don't answer my cell phone when it's under my nose, and I had seen him and Melanie exchange what I interpreted as alarmed looks as one of them said, "Jude, your cell phone is ringing." It does play "When the Saints go marching in" rather loudly, so it's hard to miss but I guess I tune it out.) He said they were not alarmed; they just thought it was funny.
But it occurred to me today that I'm in grave danger of becoming one of those old folks who reminisces about "the good old days." Everything around me is changing. My university is changing its physical appearance boldly and dramatically, building elaborate gateways and entrances to the campus, huge buildings that are right up on the curb, leaving no welcoming green space. The new student union under construction has been described as LaQuinta with an arch. We once had a vice chancellor in charge of buildings and grounds who insisted that the campus have lots of trees and lots of inviting green space, so students could study outdoors and classes could meet on the lawn. It was warm and inviting. I read this morning where a Starbucks customer complained the store had lost its "mom-and-pop home-away-from-home" feel, and that's how I feel about the campus.
My church is changing--the order of worship changes almost weekly, most of the people who "were the church" for me are gone. My good friend Betty, who involved me in lots of things, has retired. I knew our last minister and exchanged writing words with him a lot, he married Jordan and Christian; I'm not sure the new minister could put my name with my face. The Church and the Arts Committee of which I was an active member for years is on hold, virtually inactive. Part of my disconnect is of course my own fault--because I don't feel like it's my home-away-from-home, I've stopped going regularly. But I'm afraid if I go back--and I will--it won't be the "good old days." I don't want to change churches--I want my church to be for me what it always was.
Our daily newspaper is changing, now so slim it barely lasts you through a cup of coffee. There are few features, lots of glitz and glamour (I do NOT want to read another word about Britney on that dumb page called "Blab!"), syndicated book reviews. They did publish the letter I wrote about the disappearing newspaper and several friends contacted me to say hooray for you for writing. But the newspaper didn't listen. I don't want to take the Dallas paper--I want my hometown Sunday paper to take over an hour to read.
Change is inevitable--and good. I know that as well as anyone. But it sure does come with a price. Maybe, just maybe, I have to work on my adaptability.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Thoughtful talk

Tonight eleven women met in my living room for a happy hour/work session. We were talking about the book to which we'd all contributed, Grace & Gumption: Stories of Fort Worth Women, and the book with which we plan to follow up in a couple of years: Grace & Gumption: The Cookbook. The talk and the exchange of ideas was lively, and I marveled at how freely we threw out thoughts. One woman wondered if the description she had of how to butcher a deer (1850s chapter) was too graphic, and we assured her not. Another moaned that her women--all philanthropists--didn't cook; they had servants to do that. At the end of the evening, we were all excited about the project and filled with ideas. We'll meet again in several months to exchange information found.
One contributor suggested that we were defeating ourselves--we had done the book to showcase the accomplishments of women, outside the home, and now here we are, putting them back in the kitchen. But a chorus countered that idea. Said one, "Women need to take back to the kitchen. Now it's cool for men to cook, but demeaning for women." Others of us insisted that was what women did--they accomplished outside the home, and yet they kept the home running smoothly and the family fed. And some of us, me included, insisted that cooking was a relaxing avocation. It will be interesting and fun to see how this book goes together.
And speaking of cooking, Saturday night I had a delightful dinner party. I served buffalo meatloaf (made with the heartiest recipe I know--with ketchup, mustard, onion, celery, etc.) and cooked in a skillet in the oven, along with an Italian veggie recipe I had seen Michael Chiarello do on the Food channel, and my standard blue cheese salad. My guests raved, though one said he thought I needed practice on my Toll House pie and he'd be glad to test for me. But good as the food was I was more impressed at the conversation. I sat at the table as we lingered over dessert and silently marvelled at how wonderful it is to have friends who have thoughtful and intelligent discussions about things that matter. One of our number is an Episcopalian priest and his wife is deeply involved in the crisis that is tearing that church apart in our diocese, the others of us are struggling with matters of faith, so there was a lot of religion talk, a smattering of politics (we were all in agreement), a bit of light-hearted banter. It was a soul-satisfying evening.
The weather has brightened, and so has my mood. It wasn't sunny today, but it was warm and didn't rain, a mixed blessing--we need the moisture but that cold rain can really dampen spirits. At least mine.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mothering, cooking, and books--the essence of Judy's Stew

A friend sent me one of those ubiquitous emails, this about a woman who felt she was invisible as a mother and bemoaned the days when she had read books, studied, had a future other than laundry, cooking, chaffeuring, etc. Then a traveler returning from Europe gave her a book on cathedrals, inscribed something to the effect of "in honor of what you're silently building." It seems no one knows who built the great cathedrals--the workers who labored for years never got credit. The mother saw the analogy to her own situation and realized she was quietly building lives.
It resonated with me though not quite in the way intended. People often say to me, in somewhat awed tones of amazement, that they don't know how, as a single, working mother, I raised four children to be such really good people who live really good lives and are raising their own good people I'm stumped for an answer. I did what most mothers do, and in fact, I was often deficient. I sometimes think of things I didn't do or did do and shouldn't have, and I think they raised themselves in spite of me. Was I too strict? Not strict enough? Did I read to them enough? Did I monitor their homework? The only thing I can be sure of is I fed them regular good healthy meals. And yet they don't seem to see it that way. Megan once said something that indicated that even in tumultous times--and there were those!--they knew they had me. When I told her how much that moved me, she said, "Oh, Mom, we've all talked about it." Makes me humble and grateful for my wonderful family.
Today I'm cooking for company. I was going to cook what I call the $8,000 leg of lamb. I once fixed it for my friend Sheila, who emailed the next day to say she'd pay me $8,000 for the recipe. What makes it good is that you make a gratin of sliced potatoes, onions and tomatoes. Then put a cake rack over that, and the lamb on the rack, so that it's juices drip down into the vegetables. It was pretty wonderful, but one of my guests tonight doesn't eat lamb. So I'm doing a good but plebian meatloaf and experimenting on an Italian vegetable dish, plus a Toll House pie that is sinfully good. But this morning, making the meatloaf mixture (which has everything but the kitchen sink in it), I watched "Simply Ming," one of my favorite cooking shows on PBS. Ming was cooking steak and potatoes with a side dish of haricots vert with lemon butter and scallions or some such. But he said he hates to let a steak rest on a cutting board because all the juices go into the board, so he rests it on the potatoes. He took what looked like quartered, boiled regular Idaho potatoes, sort of mushed them a little, and set the steak on top. Great idea! For the next dish, he heated a skillet to very hot and sauteed cubed zucchini, scallops, and chopped scallions. I missed what he added for seasoning, beyond salt and pepper, but I bet soy sauce would be good. He served it with rice, but I'm not much of a rice person. I'd eat it plain.
I'm reading a book called A Charmed Life: Growing Up in MacBeth's Castle--it's both dark and funny, though one guesses that the Scots can be pretty dark sometimes. It's part, though, of my stocking up on Scotland. We plan to visit Cawdor Castle, known as MacBeth's Castle because of Shakepseare rather than history, I gather. Than I'm going on to investigate how to publish my languishing novel on Kindle.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


When I write my kids emails I often just put "stuff" in the subject line--it means not much, a whole lot of nothing, whatever.
Yesterday morning, I had a rude awakening. Scooby wanted to go out at 6:30, so I thought I'd let him out and crawl back to bed for 15 minutes. But when I turned the alarm off, it acted funny, and when I got to the back door, it was open and the dog was already outside. The bolt was turned in the door and the key in the lock. My first thought was to make sure no one was hiding in the house, so I called for Scooby to come back in. He looked at me as though to say, "I've got a Milk Bone and I have to pee and I don't think so!" I finally convinced him with another bone and took him through the house, although everywhere we went he was dancing in anticipation of another treat. As I truly thought, no one lingered in a closet. So I put him back out and remembered the cat--he hadn't greeted me as usual. So I went out the back door--barefoot in the cold--calling, "Wywy, Wywy!" A meow from the other side of the fence, and an impatient wait at the gate. I wanted to tell him he'd gotten over the darn fence, and he could very well get back over it. But I struggled with the lock, with Scoob dancing around me. Wywy went right to the back door and looked at me like, "What's taking you so long?" Animals! I did finally figure it out, I think--the night before Scoob and I had gotten tangled when he came in for his night treat--I had the box top in my hand along with the small dog bones and got mixed up in getting the right thing to him. I must have closed the door but not tightly and then not paid attention when I turned on the alarm. Lesson learned--from now on, I test the door and watch to see that the alarm kicks in.
I've been riding my stationary bike harder than usual--got the resistance up to the third level for four or five minutes and my pulse to 126. Result? A shin splint. So I'm off the bike for a few days. If it isn't one thing . . . .
I got an email from Sara Paretsky today, and I'll treasure it as I do the few signed letters I have from famous authors. I read her Writing in an Age of Silence--as I mentioned in a previous blog. I wrote to tell her how much of an impression it made on me, a child of the South Side, a publisher and author who appreciated her clear explanation of New York publishing today, and a liberal who deplores what's done with the Patriot Act. Although she's on tour, she wrote back a gracious and kind note. I was thrilled. A year or so ago I had a chance to have a quick glass of iced tea with another "big name" mystery author who is one of my favorites--I found her abrupt, unsympathetic, and unfriendly, though I later learned she was carrying on her lecture tour in spite of great family tragedy. That night, onstage, she was charming and funny. But I sure didn't find her that way in person. So I was glad Ms. Paretsky turned out to be so human.
I seem to be in a food-writing mood on this blog in recent days, but tonight I had an "invented" dinner. I saw a recipe for stuffing manicotti with chicken strips and then making a sauce of cream of chicken soup and Velveeta. Well, it just happens I had Velveeta left over from Christmas (a chili/cheese dip) and no idea what to do with it. It's not something I would ordinarily cook with. But I am not about to stuff manicotti for one person. So I roasted a half chicken breast, boiled some spinach noodles that were in the cupboard, cooked a part of a bag of chopped broccoli, and made a sauce of chicken soup, white wine (well, the recipe called for water--how dull!) and Velveeta, and baked the whole thing. After a while I stirred it to mix in the lumps of now-melted Velveeta and then topped it with Parmesan. Really good if I do say so, but I probably have two more meals left over.
Jordan didn't eat the Brussells sprouts last night. Even the smell turned her off. But Jacob loved the tiny bits of her lamb chop she gave him.
We are under a winter weather watch, with possible--probable?--freezing rain in the morning. Hope it doesn't happen. I have too much to do, including a trip to the grocery to buy ground buffalo for a meatloaf for company on Saturday. Knowing that such weather--"Stock Show weather, we call it in Fort Worth"--is coming makes me feel colder just hearing about it. Maybe, like so many other predictions, it will come to nothing. Then again . . . .
Back to my book on surgery. I'm almost finished. My problem now is too many words!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A miscellany of trivia

Well, politics these days isn't so trivial--it's both fascinating and frightening. But it's funny once I announced that I was for Hillary, friends and bloggers have come out of the woodwork trying to convince me Obama is the man. I'm not convinced that he'd be cool and strong in a crisis, and I still believe that we need someone with experience. But today I'm ready to toss them both overboard if they don't stop bickering. I don't want them to tell us what's wrong with the other one--I want them to tell us what they'll do for us. My friend Carol last night said she's waiting for all the candidates to say the entire slate will be involvement in high government positions, no matter who wins. They must, for instance, use Bill Richardson's expertise on international relations. Carol says she wants an Edwards/Obama ticket, though that doesn't look possible now. But the fighting is unbecoming and doesn't make us look any better as a nation than the anger and belligerence of the current administration does.
On a happier note, my Kindle arrived. Much intimidated, I charged it up, opened it, and paged easily through the user's guide that opens automatically. Then the menu came up, and there were the four books I've already ordered--including one on how to publish your manuscript on Kindle. But I don't know how to open the books. I'm stumped. I'll have to call customer service. It's a wonderful device--size is good, it's easy to read, lightweight. The keyboard is small, and I haven't figured out what to do with it but I'll keep trying. I don't want it to be one of those things I underuse because I don't understand all parts of it--which is to some extent true with the computer!
Tonight Betty and I went for comfort food--she had soup and salad and I had a baked potato. It's cold and raw out and we felt the need for that kind of food rather than sophistication for our palate. But we had the most sour waiter--I wanted to ask if he ever smiled. Last night, Kathie and Carol came from supper--they're both friends and book colleagues--and I fixed a spaghetti that Megan would say "rocks." Whole wheat spaghetti with a sauce made of olive oil, chopped Italian parsley, capers and just a touch of anchovy (3 filets, not paste). You stir fry thinly sliced Savoy cabbage in oil, then add haricots vert and fry quickly. Then add the sauce and pasta and a generous amount of good shredded parmesan. It was delicious but by the time I did the dishes the anchovy smell was stronger, and I felt the little bit of leftover wouldn't keep well. Tomorrow night I'm doing lamb chops, brussel sprouts, and salad for Jordan--shhh! she doesn't know about the brussel sprouts but I'll roast them and they'll be sweet and good.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nice day with some political thoughts

What a nice day! I had three emails in response to my Dallas Morning News column on Robert E. Howard (prolific pulp writer of fantasy, horror, westerns, and creator of Conan the Barbarian among others) that ran this morning, plus one comment on my blog. I felt like I was really talking to people. And it was a lovely day besides--I spent the morning getting ready for dinner guests--making a pot of chicken/vegetable soup, setting the table, etc. I lingered over the morning paper and then over watering the houseplants and trimming away the overgrown and dead parts. Tonight two good friends came for dinner--they were on their way home from Market in Dallas. We had a lovely visit, talk ranging from the old house they just bought to politics. The soup was okay, the salad really good, and the company excellent. The wine was so-so--they brought a cabernet called Wrangler. Since neither Linda nor I drink red, Rodger got to taste it and declared it tasted like wrangler wine--though eventually he said it improved after it had been open a while (he did admit that might be due to his having had a glass already). Linda and I drank a chardonnay called Cupcakes--she admitted she buys wine by the label, but it was perfectly fine I thought.
Today I also finished reading Sara Paretsky's Writing in an Age of Silence. It resonated with me for several reasons--she writes abut her heroine V.I. Warshawki's adventures in far South Chicago--not my part of South Chicago but still the same general territory. And she writes about commercial publishing--there used to be more than forty publishing houses in New York but today there are essentially seven publishers, and they are all big corporations with many businesses. Books, she points out, have become products, just like Pampers. (In fact, one corporate conglomeration brought in the head of their Pampers division to manage Simon & Schuster). Publishing today is strictly a bottom-line business and Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and a lot of other great American authors would never see print today. The days of Maxwell Perkins, the editor who published Wolfe and others because he loved books and good writing, are gone. Today's editors spend more time with spread sheets than manuscripts, according to Paretsky. It makes a great argument for university presses--but I, a frustrated mystery writer, find that cold comfort. On the other hand, as the director of a small academic press, I plan to use her comments with my administration.
Paretsky is even more powerful writing about the Patriot Act and its effect on freedom in the United States. She cites a horrifying list of individual cases--people being arrested and held for days without being able to tell their family where they are--all on the most flimsy charges. I closed the book with a profound sense of sadness for our country but a determination to do more to speak out--maybe this blog is my first step in that direction.
Another step--I sent a check, albeit small, to Hillary Clinton's campaign today. For me, it was a significant step. As an on-the-record liberal, I am beseiged with phone and email solicitations from the Democratic candidates, from Move-On, People for the American Way, and the national, state, and local Democratic parties, but I have held them all off, saying I would contribute when I made up my mind. And I think it was less Sara Paretsky than Meet the Press, George Stephanopoulos, and the MacNeill hour that made me decide today that the time has come to support Hillary. I think she has the courage, knowledge, and capability to begin to heal the economy, do something about health care, and, most important to me, end the war-with-no-end in Iraq. Whoever moves into the White House next year has an enormous task to fix the mess we're in, but I think she's the best choice.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Comments, comedy, and grocery shopping

I was thrilled today to receive notice that Darren Fleming, public speaking coach of Australia, had posted a comment on my blog. Imagine that! Someone in Australia is reading what I write. Thanks, Darren. And it's comforting to know that people who are good at public speaking are often nervous about it. I don't think I've overcome the nervousness, but I've shown myself I can rise above it--and that's a great thing.
A bit of comedy from tha speech. I was telling the women about Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, the first woman elected governor in the United States. (She wasn't the first in office because Nellie Ross of Wyoming beat her to it when her husband died and she was appointed in his place.) Miriam wanted nothing more than to stay home, raise her daughters, and work in her garden. But Ma (her daughter says they would never have dared call her that!) ran at her husband's request, because he had been impeached, and she needed to restore the family honor. I told the ladies if that reminded them of Hillary and Bill . . . . and then, knowing I was in Republican country, I let the comment trail off. They laughed heartily.
But the next day, by serendippity, someone forwarded me a column from the Washington Post that compared Hillay and Bill to the Fergusons, named me as a Fort Worth writer and winner of the 2005 Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement (still a biggie for me, and I love to see it in print), and quoted from the book. Needless to say, I got the big head, and my publisher was ecstatic.
It's been very cold here, and today was better but still cold. Still it was sunny and bright and a happy kind of day. I picked up my friend Charles--he's 91, and I don't like to let him drive--and we went for spinach enchiladas. Then I dragged him to Central Market, which he called an "interesting experience" and said he was "learning the ropes" (it is different than shopping in most markets--you package vegetables in a plastic bag, weigh them after punching in a code, and slap on a sticker with the price). Charles called me the queen of scratch--I asked him what he meant, and he said it was because I only bought things to cook from scratch! Of course. No TV meals for me.
Tonight is predicted to be very cold again, but I am tucked in for the evening. I've done some good work today--drafted a white paper (I really don't understand that term, but I wrote something about the women's writing series we propose for a support grant), wrote up some notes for a cookbook, and keyed in some recipes for the Great Chefs of Texas book. Think I'll quit and go back to reading Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky. From the little I've read, I find that's she's more militant, angrier than I expected--but that's not a fair judgement because I haven't read enough yet.
My long weekend will be pleasant. Good friends are coming for soup and salad tomorrow night, and Monday I'll meet old friends for lunch and then cook a new (and experimental) pasta recipe for two good women friends. We meet occasionally on Monday nights and call it "Girls Night Out."

Friday, January 18, 2008

Goofs, good food, and electronic upsets

Yesterday, reporting my triumph in public speaking, I forgot to mention my huge goof. After the speaking, Katie and I were signing books and also selling them--it made things frantic and left lots of room for mistakes. I had said cash or checks only because we didn't have a cash box and taking cash is always a problem for TCU Press. One lady had neither checkbook nor credit card with her. I told her she looked honest and to give us her mailing address and we'd bill her. Katie was handling that sale, so I turned to her to tell her to write "Please bill" on the order form. Then I looked back at the book I was signing and wrote, "Please bill." Everyone laughed, and Katie suggested that I think of someone I know named Bill to whom I could say, "Please, Bill, enjoy this book!" The only Bill I know already has a copy!
It reminded me of a story my mom used to tell on herself. She always signed her name Alice P. MacBain. One day a single friend of hers, with no other family or close friends, came by to ask Mom to sign some legal papers that had to do with Mom acting as a responsible party for Rose--I suppose it was in case something happened to her. Mom learned that Rose hadn't yet had breakfast and immediately her nurturing side came out. She put bread in the toaster, wrote Alice P. Mac, and went to check on the toast. Then she came back and wrote Bread instead of Bain. She laughed and laughed about that story. I guess it runs in the family.
Susan suggested we put a sticker on the book I ruined that says "Office copy."
But still on the note of yesterday's ego-boosting speech, I treated myself to a lovely dinner last night. My friend Betty, who explores restaurants with me, and I went a local bistro and had the tapas platter--spinach-stuffed mushrooms, fried smelt (which I don't think I'd ever eaten before but liked very much), bacon-wrapped dates, and spicy edamome (I passed on that) plus a side order of venison pate. Betty said I couldn't have dessert since I had already had a sinfully rich dessert at lunch--but I did. I had chocolate mousse and an extra half-glass of wine. Went home glowingly happy--from food, not wine!
I hate it when my electronics are misbehaving--Dish TV, computer, DSL, whatever. Today I used the remote to change the TV from the news channel to the food channel and it went bananas, told me that it was a subscription only channel and I had to connect to the download system, then told me I couldn't do that because I had no telephone connection. Yikes! I never could get it to go back to straight programming, either using the remote or the manual buttons, and spent a good 45 minutes on the phone with a tech whose English was seriously accented. With my hearing, the problem was worsened, and I spent a lot of time saying, "Pardon me? I didn't understand you." After all that time, she decided my receiver is defective and needs to be replaced. I doubt that--I think it's the remote. But a repairman is to come Monday. Meantime the TV in my office, where I spend most of my time, doesn't work, and I have an old small-screen black-and-white substituting. And on a long holiday weekend of all times!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Public Speaking 101--and a succeess

Years ago, I used to force myself to give talks and speeches, figuring it was essential to promote TCU Press and my own writing--if you don't get out and talk about your books, no one buys them. I know from the press that the most successful authors are those who are willing to go out and speak to groups and who will take the risk of an autographing where no one shows up. I still don't mind the autographings but several years ago I decided no more speaking. My career had advanced as much as it was going to, I reasoned, and the anticipation before public speaking made me so nervous it wasn't worth the effort. Friend and mentor Jim Lee kept saying, "I don't know why you won't speak. You're really good at it." But I was firm.
Somehow a few months ago, my resolve cracked. A woman I'd met and emailed with asked me to speak at a luncheon at the Pecan Plantation Country Club. It's easy to agree to do something that's months away. We also agreed that Katie Sherrod, editor of Grace & Gumption, would also speak.
This morning that months-away event was right up in my face--10 o'clock at a country club an hour from Fort Worth. I didn't feel the panic I used to feel--medication must be working--and I hadn't prepared in laborious detail. I used to write out speeches word for word, then repeat them endlessly in the privacy of my bedroom--the children had a nanny who told them, "Your mother is talking to her papers again." This time I had a one page outline of things to cover. I planned to be Katie's warm-up act. Yes, as I waited through the inevitable, interminable business meeting, I was a little apprehensive but not really nervous. Then, at the last minute, I had to change my plan because there was a woman in the audience whom I'd spoken to by phone several years ago and whose great-grandmother's story gave me the bones for a young-adult novel.
So off the cuff I began with that, then launched into my "accidental" careeer as a writer for children and young adults. I told them about my first novel, then the rejection I got that said my writing was "pedestrian," and about the editor who says when I write for second-graders he just cuts my sentences in half! I showed them the five books I've done in the Stars of Texas series and told just a bit about each. And I ended with the story of a substitute teacher in granddaughter Maddie's room who announced to the class, "Maddie has brought her grandmother today because she has wrote some books." You know what? They laughed throughout, and afterward, Katie and I were both complimented on our senses of humor (we were surprised that the women were surprised!). Women kept coming up to us to say it was one of the best programs they'd ever had (Katie is always polished, funny, thought-provoking, and perfectly relaxed, so I hadn't worried about her!) They also commented on the rapport between us as we easily passed the mike back and forth during a Q&A session--well, why not? We're good friends. I will add that in addition to the ego boost we got a terrific lunch, including the richest chocolate ice cream I've had in forever.
It's a wonderful feeling to do something well that had worried you. So now I'm home--a glass of wine, a nap, and dinner with my friend Betty. Life looks pretty good.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Practicing my balance

Bebe Bahnsen sent me some really useful exercises to strengthen leg and ankle muscles and thereby improve balance. I'm really glad I live alone so no one can see me walking around the house on my toes, then on my heels, or doing sit-to-stands ten times rapidly. But I'm doing them. This morning I slept in, didn't make myself get up and exercise--which I had been dreading for a long time. Instead, I got up a little before 7, got to work, then came home and exercised before lunch. May be a new routine.
All this exercise is of course preparation for Scotland. Jordan--who is by the by a travel agent--got me a map of the British RR system. I had asked for reservations to Inverness, which is where I found some great-sounding b&bs. When I looked at the map, I realized it's really north. But I think now it would be fun to go to Inverness, spend a few days, then take the train to Aberdeen (about halfway to Edinburgh--Jordan corrected my spelling, because I'd been writing Edinborough; some Scot I am!). After a few days in Aberdeen, we could finish up in Edinburgh.
Last night I fixed myself Salisbury steak (no, not the kind in the aluminum tray), mashed potatoes, and salad--delicious. I slathered that gravy over the potatoes and loved it. Tonight I took leftovers to Jordan's and told her the meat needed to be heated in the skillet. I looked over as I was making the salad and thought she was stirring an awful lot for a dish of meat patties. Turns out she didn't get the concept of patties, so we had ground beef and mushrooms in gravy. But it was still good.
I'm a latecomer to P.D.James mysteries, but I'm now reading Innocent Blood and am thoroughly intrigued by it--the cautionary tale of what an adopted girl finds when she goes after her biological parents--but as always I find James slow. She sometimes becomes tedious in characters' introspections and in descriptions. I always have to get halfway through the book to get really hooked. Meantime, I'm back to my surgery text.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Blessing of Good Neighbors

My neighbor, probably 25 years younger than I, has decided that I need a walking program, and since he wants to start walking, we'll walk together. (I sometimes suspect his need to walk is a kind invention to mask his helping me!) I haven't been walking for over a year because of insecurity about my sense of balance--due to a lot of things too long to go into here, but anxiety is a big factor. And Jay is right--I need to get in shape for Scotland. In fact, I'm late starting. So this morning we went for our first walk--.6 mile at a brisk pace, though towards the end I had to slow down, and Jay admitted he was winded too, which made me feel better. This will be an uneven program, since he's out of town a lot. After a few trials, he may take Scooby, my dog whose joy for life makes him impossible on the end of a leash in spite of training efforts--you can't always train the herding instinct out of working dogs. Jay's wife, Susan, will take their dog Pecos. This morning she said she didn't think it would be cool if Pecos pulled me down. As far as balance, except for curbs and one huge break in the concrete where a tree branch hit me simultaneously, I thought I did pretty well. Meanwhile I'll keep riding my reclining bike but will increase the resistance, and I'll keep doing my stretches.
For this morning's walk I wore new shoes--what I call my old-lady-ugly-comfortable shoes--they are SAS brand and have a larger than normal toebox, to accomodate my bunions and hammer toe. Very comfortable--and not quite as ugly as I expected.
Jay and Susan are good neighbors. They suggested sharing costs for taking down a tree between our houses (a very narrow space) that was dead but covered with ivy which we suspect harbored rats. And while the tree came down, they took Scooby over to their house to have a "play date" with Pecos. That night, Friday, they came over for a glass of wine so we could trade keys and checks and what have you. All of us are delighted at how much more light we get into our houses.
Then last night Jordan, Christian, Jacob and I joined them for Jay's lasagne of which he is rightfully very proud--it was outstanding, and we had a jolly evening with Susan's parents also present. I sort of knew the Halbowers from church and about but hadn't really met them, so that was fun. We had a lot in common to talk about. For years I lived without good neighbors--college kids on one side and an eccentric elderly man on the other. Now I have good neighbors on either side, and I'm blessed.
Jordan was very grateful that they invited us to dinner because she claimed my house smelled. When she walked in, the cat had "missed" the litterbox, something I took care of right aftercoming back from dinner. I had also just sprayed a water repellent on those new SAS shoes, and it did smell like a pesticide or something. And there is a lingering eau d'rat in the kitchen, but it's quite faint. I've lived through dead critter odor that was a lot worse. Today the catbox and water repellent odors are gone, and I spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen without discomfort--but then, my nose isn't as sensitive as Miss Jordan's.
Anxiety is a funny thing--it seems to come and go for no reason. Right after Christmas I seemed to have a new attack, and I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for anything. It was easier to stay home, and I could see how, in some ways, becoming reclusive would be too easy--but I also knew it wasn't something I wanted to do, so I kept forcing myself to do things. But Friday, for instance, was a day of bad balance--I kept trying to go into stores, etc., without my stick, and the result was some very tentative walking. But Saturday morning I woke up feeling enthusiastic, neither discouraged nor disheartened. I set out happily on errands, walked easily, and life was good. A part of me wonders if sleeping late in the morning makes a difference, although that may be way too easy an answer. But oh is it tempting.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Rats! and aging--rats again!

The rats are losing the battle. The exterminator was here today, and we figured between us we have removed seven or eight dead rats from my property, enough, he says, for a clan or family or whatever they call them. It was a month, maybe more, since I found the first one in the yard and called my neighbor to dispose of it. The BugStomper, a nice guy named Pat, says I should have called him then, before they got moved in. But the odor is gone, and he says I should be all right until next winter. Then I'll have to do it all over again--but sooner. He says one of those he found today as a "huge" (great emphasis on that word) roof rat.
Tomorrow the tree people will take down a dead tree between my house and Jay and Susan's. It's covered with ivy, and we all think rats are living in the ivy. Pat says I may have more sudden activity because of that, but he's left enough bait that it shouldn't be a major problem. Scooby will go visit Pecos, Jay and Susan's dog, during the day--we're curious to see how they get along, but my prediction is after some preliminary butt-sniffing, they'll frolic and play.
This noon while I was piddling in the kitchen and fixing my lunch I turned on the Martha Stewart Show--I often do--and one of her staff was talking about how she stayed young at 50. She did look good, and I admired her, but I wanted to say, "Humphh! How about working on staying young at 70?" I think the fact that I'll turn 70 next summer weighs on my mind more than I acknowledge. I make jokes about "Wait for the old lady" or something, but I don't feel 70, and I don't want to act it. I said to my children that I so don't want them to think of me as old, and I think it was Jamie, who said, "We don't think that. We just think it's funny you don't hear your cell phone." Megan said, "You're the same old Jude, only older." On the other hand, some body parts--feet--and functions--balance--are failing at a rate that I can only attribute to age. Of course, everyone says staying involved is the key, and I'm doing that, with my finger in a hundred pies at once. My boss said the other day I can never retire, because she'd have a million questions to which she'd say, "Judy would know the answer to that!" It's nice to be needed.
My head cold lingers. I think it takes away my sense of enthusiasm. Then again, maybe it's post-holiday blues. It's not bad, just a niggling thought that I'm not excited about much. And I should be. This spring holds a lot of exciting things in store. So I'm working on my attitude and my balance and my optimism. Can't do too much about my feet except watch the shoes I buy.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The rat saga and the primaries

The rat saga continues. I've not found any more, knock on wood, nor have I heard scratching in the walls. But sometimes when I walk into the kitchen, I think I catch a faint sniff of that odor you get when something has died in the walls. Fortunately I have a humongous head cold and can't smell much. The exterminator is coming tomorrow, and since he told me last week he could smell the rats (their urine), I'll ask him about this whiff I'm getting. I did notice that the floor of the bird feeder--empty until I'm sure the rats are gone--is covered with droppings. My neighbor told me she saw a rat inside my feeder. No wonder the bird seed disappeared so fast. Jordan and Christian are still declining to put my Christmas things up in the attic--they may be in the guest room until spring!
The primaries in New Hampshire have left me feeling a bit more hopeful. Iwaffled--I admit it--when Obama seemed on such a roll. Several editorials suggested that a newcomer would indeed be a good thing, bringing no political baggage. But my brother suggested that he heard echoes of Jimmy Carter, who has been so much more important to the world as a former president than he was effective as a president. And when I thought Hillary would lose, I ached for her--and then realized I ached for us as a country. She knows that pulling troops out of Iraq will not be an easy thing to be accomplished in months; she knows the world of international politics. And maybe, like a lot of other people, I became a full convert after her emotional talk in a cafe in NH was broadcast, showing her as very human and very concerned. Yes, she can be calculating and strong--but is that necessarily a bad thing in this world? I'm going to do what I can to work for her campaign. And, though this sounds bipartisan, the Republican candidates scare me, because they would all carry on the Iraq war and the belligerence of the Bush administration. So I pray for peace.
I saw a wonderful email--one of those that is forwarded thousands of time--but this one was photos of a polar bear playing with sled dogs. When the dogs' owner saw the bear coming, he thought he'd lose his dogs. But the bear was apparently just lonely--he frolicked and hugged and played with the dogs, coming back every day for a week. Why can't people be like that?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Things I hate

One of the things I hate is technological problems. I want all my Tvs, my phones, my computer all to work without my having to worry about them. I watch the TV in my office a lot, even keep it on, muted, when I'm working. But last night I tried to change it to the food channel--my favorite--and it refused. I pushed all the right buttons and ended up with snow. Looked at the Dish receiver in the family room, and the TV 2 light wasn't on. Unfairly, I accused Jordan of doing something when she hooked up the DVD player for Jacob, though she swore innocence. I spent at least 45 minutes on the phone this afternoon with a technician, who had me running from one TV to the other. Finally got TV 2 back working.. But tonight it won't change channels--I'm stuck with NBC which isn't too bad since it's the one I watch most--but it's frustrating. I called again, did some more "experiments," and they're sending me a new remote. I guess those things can go suddenly blink--anyway that's what this one seems to have done.
On a happier electronic note, I'm slowly mastering the digital camera that Melanie and Jamie gave me for Christmas. I've taken a few pictures and last night, after a lesson from Jordan, I sent a picture of Jacob to Jamie. He had been afraid I'd just put the camera aside and not learn how to use it, so he was pleased. But as I told Jordan tonight, when I'm home alone there's not a lot to shoot. She suggested Scooby, but he's so goosey that if I even shift in my chair, he's up and in my face--not a photo op.
Another thing I hate: rats. I walked into the bathroom tonight to find Wywy the cat hovering over a dead baby rat--now, if I had not turned on the light and stepped carelessly--let's not even go there. Once again, there was no one else around to dispose of it, so I did--with copious paper towels, followed by much hand washing. That makes one dead adult rat in the yard, either two dead babies or one twice also in the yard, and two in the house. My neighbors and I are having the "rat tree" cut down Friday.
I'm still struggling with a cold and it occurred to me that I rarely have colds and I've had a lot of them this year. Then it occurred to me that I have an 18-mos. grandson whom I see quite a bit. Bingo!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A long-lost relative, critters, and a good dinner

I had a wonderful phone call tonight. When I answered the phone, a very Canadian accent said, "This is your cousin Norma." Actually I think she's my father's cousin. She was born on his 21st b'day (in 1918) and is named after him. I've exchanged Christmas letters with her for years, but I can't tell you when I've talked to her. Perhaps when I was a young child--I remember of course always hearing about her, and in my long-ago memory either she or her mother took me to the five-and-dime in Oakville, Ontario. But she called tonight just to inquire how my family and I were getting along, and of course I was glad for news of her. She'll be 90 on January 29 (which would make my dad an astounding 111) and still lives alone in her house, which she says she'll do as long as she can manage the stairs. She sounds sprightly and lively and very "with it." We talked about the two relatives from my side of the family who still live in Toronto, and I forgot to ask about the McKnights, which I must do. She was thrilled that I'm going to Scotland to look for the MacBains this spring. Family is a wonderful thing, and it's particularly touching to me to be in touch with one so distant. I'll keep up the communication.
Another phone call was less cheering. I talked to my brother this morning, and he told me that a mutual friend's daughter died of breast cancer yesterday. She was probably in her late 40s. Our children are not supposed to die before us, and I'm sure this is a tragic blow. I've written a note. Other than that sad note, John and I, who disagree violently on politics, had a very interesting and non-angry talk about the outcome of the Iowa caucuses. When we both calm down and put down our guard, we agree on a great deal.
I'm having an exercise in critters. The exterminator told me he either saw four rats or one rat four times in my attic. Well I either saw two dead baby rats or one twice in the backyard--Scooby isn't talking. But I finally scooped up the critter with some other garbage. So if I find another one, I'll know it's a new one. I have heard no more noises in the wall but have begun to see those huge black flies that come when something dies. Swell! Tonight a less distrubing critter was in Scooby's water dish--a gecko was floating on the top. I assumed the poor thing was dead, but when I emptied out the old water, it scurried away to live again another day and catch more pests. Geckos are such good friends and so cute.
Jordan, Jacob and Christian came for supper today. I roasted a chicken with herbs and potatoes and shallots, and I made Jordan make the salad because she's been wanting to master the blue cheese dressing that I do in the bowl. She did very well. Jacob did not. He apparently still doesn't feel well and was fussy and needy--but it's okay. Everyone's entitled to a day like that. I've had more than my share lately.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

On Becoming a Recluse

Today, I thought it too tempting to become a recluse. My head cold still bothered me. I woke in the early hours, and though my eyes wanted to sleep, my nose didn't. At one point I heard an alarming noise outside--I guess I had dozed off--and then realized it was just my breathing. I couldn't breathe easily and when I could, it was a noisy business. No wonder Scooby went outside early. When I finally got going, I had to force myself to make my two grocery store trips--if I hadn't needed things from each store so badly, I'd have curled up at home. But once home, I felt better and did a lot of chores--even including scooping up the poop pile in the back yard and finally getting rid of that dead baby rat. But I realized I could too easily return to being housebound--which I once was--and I really need to keep making myself go places. Tomorrow morning I'll go to brunch with Betty and then Jordan, Christian and Jacob will come for Twelfth Night dinner.
Tonight I'm watching the presidential debates on the theory that I'm so confused I ought to do everything I can to educate myself--but the programming is so filled with media padding that you don't often hear that much from the candidates. A sort of discouraging thing. Would Iowa and New Hampshire be that important if TV and newspapers had other things to focus on?
Speaking of newspapers, I wrote a letter to the editor recently, and they called yesterday to verify that I'd written it, so I expect it will appear in a day or two. Our local newspaper keeps shrinking--the paper claims that the print form is losing money and they'll focus on the internet. I think the print version is losing money because it gets slimmer and slimmer--less hard news, lots of fluff like a silly section called "Blab!" They have "rolled together" several sections--arts and lifestyle on Sundays, food and lifestyle on Wednesday. There go two of my favorite parts of the paper! I'm sorry, but I really like to linger over the paper with a cup of coffee, particularly on Sunday, and I find it increasingly dissatisfying.
Fixed myself a good dinner tonight. Last night I braised three chicken thighs in a chicken broth/white wine sauce, but that's really the kind of dish that's much better the next day--and it was. My neighbor Sue's parents are Canadian snowbirds--they winter on the Texas Gulf Coast every year and always spend several weeks at Sue's house. One night when they invited me to dinner, her mom fixed a casserole of artichoke hearts and Brussell sprouts--delicious. She used frozen Brussell sprouts but tonight I roasted fresh ones--so good! The casserole sauce for 1 pkg. Brussell sprouts (or equivalent fresh) and 1 can quartered artichoke hearts is 1/2 c. mayonnaise, 1/4 cup melted butter, and 1/4 cup Parmesan. Brussell sprouts always make me think of my nephew, Russell--when he was little we called them Russell sprouts. They're an under-rated vegetable--true, boiled, they're kind of boring, maybe even unpleasant. But try roasting them--trim, cut in half, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss with your hands. Then bake at 450 for 15-20 minutes, turning frequently--they carmelize and turn a lovely brown, but you don't want them to burn.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Elections--and rats

What an odd combination for a column title. No, I mean no connection between politicians and rats. But today being the Iowa caucuses, I feel the sense of suspense, as though we were tonight letting a tiny number of people elect the next president--and we may well be doing that. As long as I can stay awake, I'll watch the results. As a dedicated Democrat, that's the race I'm most interested in naturally, but I honestly don't know how I'd vote if I were in Iowa tonight--and yet I would feel obligated to vote. I could easily acceept any of the top three candidates--and I really like Bill Richardson. As for the Republicans, Mike Huckabee scares me but I can't see that he'd be elected--hey, I've said that before and look what happened! Eight long years of George Bush. I like Romney--he's smooth, polished, professional, knowledgeable--but he stands for a lot of things I don't like--continuing the war in Iraq, outlawing abortion, and so on. What a muddle.
Today has been the day of the rat for me. I think I recounted on this space that I found a large dead rat in the yard some time ago and then a dead mouse in the house earlier this week--in retrospect, I think it was a dead baby rat. I found another of those in the yard yesterday (though it had vanished by today when I wanted to show it to the exterminator--I do NOT wish to consider what happened to it!). The exterminator said he wouldn't guess that I have a herd in the attic, but he either saw four rats or one rat four times. Mostly they were small and young, so there's a nest up there. He was interesting, because he can smell them--a talent I am grateful not to have. He doesn't rush in and blanket treat but carefully studies where they are, what he thinks are their paths through the house, etc.--and then that's where he treats.
My neighbors and I are going to have the dead tree between our houses taken down--it's thickly covered with ivy and we think rats are nesting up there. Pat, the Cowtown Bugstomper, said it's possible, but when the tree comes down, more rats are likely to seek refuge in my house. So he'll come back next week to check the baits, etc.
And tonight, standing in the kitchen, I distinctly heard clawing in the wall behind the wine rack. I knocked on the wall and it went away. Yuck!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The pink Christmas tree

When I was a child, I had neighbors who, childless, adopted me as their own. I called them Auntie E. and Uncle Jack, and they probably provided most of the clothes I wore as a child. They spoiled me rotten, took me to the country club where, one night when I ordered fish, she, a devout Catholic, said, "You don't have to eat fish, dear. It's not Friday." They also took me to a fancy dinner club at the Chicago stockyards, where I remember branding my own steak. I was as much at home in their house as my own, and I adored them. In the dark streets of Chicago, Uncle Jack never allowed me to go two doors from their house to mine--he escorted me.
Auntie E. had a Twelfth Night custom that I've never heard of before or since--she would light a fire, and each of us in turn would throw in a small piece of the Christmas tree, making a silent wish as we did so. I thought it was charming, and I've carried on the custom with my children, though these days it's down to Jordan, Christian and me.
But I haven't had a tree in years. I used to cruise the streets, find one that had been set out, and furtively clip some branches. But each year more and more people go to artificial trees. I called Jordan tonight and asked if she had any live greens. She said, "Nope. That's your problem. It has been for 32 years (all of her life)." I told her this morning as I drove by a new house that stands out like a sore thumb in our neighborhood of charming old houses, I saw they had put out a pink Christmas tree. "I refuse," I said, "to clip a pink Christmas tree." Her reply was, "You may have to." I guess tomorrow I'll take clippers and drive the streets, looking for a green tree--or maybe a flocked white one would be okay. Pink is definitely out! Funny how those traditions get ingrained--if I don't have three small twigs, I'll feel really bereft. Then again, maybe it's silly to think of making a selfish wish on a night meant to comemmorate the arrival of the three wise men with their gifts for the Baby Jesus. The secular and the sacred.