Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ready for a break

I'm at loose ends tonight. I've finished the rough draft of a novel, won't do more until I hear from my critique reader, and not ready to jump into another novel so soon; I'm caught up on various other chores, even got my income tax information to the accountant. And I'm flat out of blogging ideas. So I'm taking a break for a week. No writing, no blogging, minimal email and Facebook. I've got six books on my iPad, and I'm going to read ad laugh and dance and play, eat fine meals and sleep a lot.
So please mark your calendar and check back...oh, next Friday or Saturday, and I'll be back with more Judy's Stew and Potluck with Judy. Until then, see 'ya!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The women's movement redux

Watching a fascinating PBS documentary tonight on the women's movement. A lot of terms and events come flooding back to me--Katherine Switzer who in the late '60s outraged the running world by entering and completing the Boston Marathon, a male race for seventy years; NOW--the National Organization for Women; "consciousness raising" groups; Women's Liberation; the sit-in at Ladies Home Journal; Roe vs Wade; ERA and Phyllis Schafly. I lived through those years but there was much I wasn't aware of. I knew there'd been a split in the movement, but I didn't understand it until hearing Gloria Steinem's words tonight that Betty Freidan wanted women to have new lives in society as it exists, but Steinem and younger women wanted to transform society. And I didn't realize that  women of color early on saw women's liberation as a cause for white women; they didn't believe it would do anything for them. It took work and time for all women to come together. Because I was raised by a doctor I was aware of the problems of abortion and later, married to a doctor, of both abortion and the pill, so I kind of had a sideways knowledge of the sexual revolution. Still, it was eye-opening to hear Sarah Weddington talk about Roe vs Wade.
I graduated from high school in the mid-fifties, part of the generation who expected to marry, raise children, and live happily ever after. I majored in English because some man was going to take care of me, and I wouldn't have to worry about making a living (that didn't quite work out and I raised four children as a single parent, but that's another story). My then-husband and I were just "conscioiusness raised" enough that we were considered the slightly amusing, on-the-edge young couple by the medical society in which we moved. We adopted children, incuding a mixed race baby; I was the first to wear a denim suit (wish it fit me today--from Neiman's and really good looking); I had ambitions to write and Joel supported me. I remember one doctor, new to town, who introduced me to his wife, saying, "She's a woman's libber."
Yet watching tonight I realize how much I was on the fringe, benefiting from what women of greater courage and nerve accomplished for all of us. Hearing Freidan, Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogebrin, Susan Brownmiller, Judy Blume, Sarah Weddington, Bella Abzug, Hillary Clinton, and others showed me the intensity of the ongoing movement. That I raised four children alone and had a good career in publishing is due to those women whose shoulders I stand on. An eye-opening documentary. Hope they rerun it.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dogs are so funny!

Sophie with a favorite bone
Sometimes Sophie seems to know exactly what's going on and what we're saying to her. Other times she's clueless--or ignores us. This morning Jordan came in after taking Jacob to school, and Sophie, rope toy in her mouth, attacked, all but demanding, "Play with me, play with me!" Jordan declined because she didn't want to be jumped on in good work clothes. When she left, Sophie was the picture of dejection, rope toy still in her mouth. She stood looking out the window toward Jordan's car as if saying, "I can't believe she left me." When she heard the motor start, she dropped the toy. I'm sure she was saying to herself, "Well, there goes that."
A bit later, when I went to change so I could run some errands, she watched me anxiously. She knows what it means when I make the bed, take off pjs and put on jeans and a shirt. She slunk into her crate. I thought it was nice enough for her to be out since it was to be cold later but she clearly objected, so she stayed in her crate while I was gone.
Last night, she caused me some embarrassment. She's not a bad barker and certainly not one of those who barks to hear herself, but when she's in a frenzy over some critter, she has a high, shrill bark. I went to bring her in, but she was jumping at the back fence; obviously there was something up there. I don't remember hearing her bark, but I do know she ignored me when I called her. Then the neighbor behind us called and mentioned gently that they were trying to go to sleep early and Sophie was disturbing them. I went out, used my sternest voice and a chew stick as temptation, and got her in. This morning I sent off an apologetic email and got a pleasant reply, saying Sophie doesn't usually bother them.
Right now, Sophie is curled up at my feet, under my desk, good as gold, and we're both happy campers. She reminds me of the little girl with the curl: "And when she was good, she was very good/And when she was bad, she was horrid." I cannot imagine life without a dog--especially without Sophie who long ago worked her way into my heart..

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A bit of Cowtown Marathon nostalgia

One Sunday, runners in the full marathon will go right past my house, and I'll sit on the front porch much of the morning and cheer them on. My daughter says she'll put signs in my yard.
I've heard various stories in recent years about who started the marathon. I was always told the idea was hatched in my living room. A group from the Institute for Human Fitness--all men, no women--met every Sunday to discuss the programs of the institute, a project of TCOM (now UNTHSC) devoted to helping people achieve wellness through physical fitness--an appropriate osteopathic concept. While they discussed fitness, a friend and I were in the kitchen fixing the richest, most sinful desserts we could imagine--I particularly remember Italian Cream Cake. And those fitness gurus ate every bite. But I was told the marathon idea sprang out of those meetings and my then-husband, Joel Alter, was one of the founders, along with Charles Ogilvie. Joel claimed the once-classic symbol of the race, Cowtown Charlie, was him, and it could have been with the big moustache. But I always thought it was Charlie Ogilvie.
The night before the first marathon we sat in the house and heard sleet. "@#$%! I didn't want sleet" was Joel's response. He left in the wee hours in the morning, and still early, I bundled up four children (one of them probably three at most) and drove over ice and snow to Fort Worth's Historic National Stockyards Discrict. In those days I worked in the Communications Office of TCOM and was doing publicity for the marathon. When we got there, I turned the children loose and spent the day doing whatever pr people do, including popping in occasionally to the RV that a local radio station had brought to the site and giving live on-air reports.
Now, I am horrified that I turned my very young children loose on the North Side, but they have assured me they were always with a huge bunch of kids. And they all survived, so I guess I should banish it from my long list of motherly guilts. They looked forward to race day every year, and, frankly, so did I. After Joel and I split, I did publicity one more year--I think to prove to him and to myself that I coiuld do it. And then I bowed out.
Charlie continued to run well into his eighties and always took first in his age group--no surprise there. Sometimes he'd take me to the carb-loading pasta dinner the night before, and I loved seeing old friends. I made a couple of really good friends through the marathon.
Today, of course, the race is a far different thing, a mega race with a full-time, year-round paid staff, probably ten times the number of runners we ever dreamed of, so many side events it makes my head spin, and this year, so I read, an exposition for runners, complete with demonstrataions of osteopathic soft-tissue maniuplation. The Institute for Human Fitness, a great concept, is long gone.
Tomorrow when those runners go by, a host of memories will flood me. Those were good days, another lifetime ago.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Talking to Yourself

A recent thread on the Sisters in Crime list was sparked by a study announcing that women speak about 20,000 words a day, while men speak only a paltry 10,000. The implications for women writers were many—if we write all day and don’t speak those words to people, then we should be able to write a book in, say, a week and a half (not guaranteeing the quality of the manuscript)—thereby far outdistancing our male rivals, if that’s what they are. But the one idea that got me the most was a comment that it is hard to spend all day alone, with no one to talk to, as many writers do. Writing is essentially a solitary experience. The writer said she used to call her widowed brother in the late morning, and he would have to clear his throat because he hadn’t yet spoken to anyone that day. As a writer who lives alone, I identify with that.

Usually, during the week, I have lunch and/or dinner engagements with friends, and on school days, I have Jacob bounding in for a snack and homework. Then his mom comes to pick him up, and I get to visit with her. But on weekends, I often spend long days talking to no other human except perhaps a grocery-store clerk. And I admit it often makes for blue, introspective days.

I have plenty to do—always. Writing projects, marketing, all the things that go with being a writer plus bills, e-mail, Facebook, all the things that go with living in todays  world and keeping a house and a life going. And in advance of every weekend, I tell myself I have lots to read. But I miss the human interaction that energizes me. And in truth all I can think is, “How much worse would it be if I didn’t write? If I didn’t have that to keep me busy?” I can’t imagine it.

The writer cited above did say it’s perfectly acceptable to talk to animals, and I surely was relieved to hear that. I talk to my dog all the time—and she talks back though unfortunately I don’t speak her language. She’s so expressive! I am desperate to know what she means and wants. When she was a pup, I hired a trainer who came to the house. He helped a lot, but he also told me not to talk to my dog unless I was giving a command. Well, I just couldn’t do that. I have a dog for companionship, and I am by golly going to talk to her.  I aim long monologues at her, particularly when we sit on the floor together just before she goes to bed.  I do think she may lose patience when I sing “Good Night, Irene” as I put her in her crate—where, by the by, she goes willingly for the night. It’s her safe place. And it makes me stop singing.

Aside from talking to the dog, one of my tricks for brightening the weekend is to invite company for Sunday supper. But this Sunday everyone wants to watch the Oscars, which bore me, so that doesn’t work. I am going to make a huge pot of Bolognese spaghetti sauce—if I freeze it, so be it. I’ll have a good supper Sunday night—and curl up with all those cooking magazines that arrived yesterday and I haven’t read yet.

How about you? Do you relish solitary days or find them a bit uncomfortable?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

National Sticky Bun Day

Today is National Sticky Bun Day, and it just so happens that sticky buns are the breakfast house specialty at the Blue Plate Café in my new mystery series. Kate arrives at six-thirty every morning to make them, and I like to think she makes them the way my mom used to. Here’s Mom’s recipe for roll dough and then directions for turning it into sticky buns. I’m sure Kate makes the basic dough every night before she closes the café and then she’s ready to go in the morning and have sticky buns hot and fresh when the café opens at seven.

Basic roll dough

2 pkg. granular yeast

½ c. warm water

Pinch of sugar

1 12-oz. can evaporated milk, plus enough water to make 4 cups

1 scant c. vegetable oil

1 c. sugar

Dissolve yeast in water (add just a pinch of sugar to help the yeast work) and let it rise about five minutes. Mix milk and water, oil, and sugar. Add dissolved yeast. Stir in enough flour to make a thin batter, the consistency of cake batter. Let this rise in a warm place until bubbles appear on the surface (probably 1 hour—check it at 30 minutes).

Separately, mix

1 c. flour

1 tsp. salt (or less)

1 heaping tsp. baking powder

1 level tsp. baking soda

Sift seasoned flour into first mixture. Keep adding more flour until it is too stiff to stir with a spoon. Knead well. Don't let the dough get stiff with too much flour, or your rolls will be heavy. This dough will keep a week or so in the refrigerator.
To make good, gooey pecan rolls for breakfast, roll the dough out to a flat rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar and dab with butter. Roll up into a tube and slice into pieces of about 2 inches. Grease the bottom of an 8x8 pan thoroughly and then cover it with Karo white syrup and pecan halves. Place rounds of dough, cut side down, on the Karo/pecan mixture. Bake these at 350o until brown and center rolls appear cooked. Be sure to turn out of the pan immediately, while still warm. Cold cooked syrup turns to concrete. Rinse the pan immediately with very hot water.




Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Roses to brighten a dull day

It's been wet, dreary, and bone-chilling cold today. I know, if I lived in Bismarck I would think 47 degrees was spring, but I don't--I live in Texas, and I'm spoiled by the warm days we've had. Today was the first day all winter that I've gotten out my warm winter coat. And it felt good.
A good friend and I exchange "Flowers of the Month" gifts at Christmas--it's a program sponsored by the local AAUW I believe whereby we go to the designated florist and show our certificate each month and get a small bouquet or plant. It also gives us a good chance for lunch and a catch-up visit. Today, to our delight, the flowers were the small roses pictured above. The florist said they were the last shipment of their Valentine's order, though I think--and hope--she said they had just come in. We'll see how long they last, but they are nice tight buds today. We also used the occasion to have hearty bowls of soup at the local deli--Jean had split pea and I had bean and barley. And catch up we did.
Then this evening Betty, my weekly dinner pal, and I ate at the Cat City Grill--I had lobster bites and she had blackened scallops and shrimp in a cherry sauce. We split tempura asparagus. Lot of batter but it was all soooo good. We considered dessert but discarded the idea. And once again, we had a good visit and lots of laughs.
Tonight they say we're supposed to have fierce storms in the early morning--just about the time Jacob goes to school--but I don't think it will be so cold. That's the thing about Texas weather--you can stand it because it rarely lasts long. And friends and flowers can help you through the dreariest of days.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sophie gets a bath

Miserable Sophie
Sophie is twenty-one months old--almost a big girl. Everyone told me dogs settle down at two, but now they've backed off saying that, and I've realized I can't much longer excuse her behavior with "She's still a pup." But at heart she is. She will sit, lie down, drop it (sometimes), leave it, come (not if she's outside--then she deliberates whether she wants to come in or not). She's well housebroken and in general has manners. Two things she hasn't learned: "Off," which means don't jump on me, don't jump on guests. She goes absoutely bananas over visitors and adores Jordan so much that she goes into a frenzy every time she sees her. The other lack in her education is that she's not leash trained. She's too excited to be outdoors and, even at twenty-six pounds, she could pull me down. I just haven't pursued it. She gets her exercise chasing squirrels, which is her favorite pastime. And sometimes, from an excess of energy and happiness, she simply runs in circles in the yard, dashing around whoever is trying to catch her.
She is as sweet as can be, and every night before she goes in her crate, I get down on the floor, she climbs into my lap, and we have a love session. During the day, she follows me from room to room, checking on what I'm doing, and at night she'll sleep at my feet under the desk. But if I'm at the desk during thge day, she gets restless, wanders the house and finally begins to jump on me.
Patient Sophie
Sophie's been to the groomers several times but either they make her look like a poodle or they're so expensive I can't afford it often. So tonight she had what I think is her second bath in the tub. A friend who does some grooming came to do the deed. Sophie cooperated fairly well, though I helped hold her in the tub. She was semi-patient during the trim part and very good about having a "sanitary" trim. But we could not cut her nails--no way. And that was the thing that most needed doing.
Poodle mixes don't shed and don't have that doggy smell but tonight she smells sweet and looks fluffy and adorable. This is fluffy, clean, sweet-smelling Sophie.

Monday, February 18, 2013

First draft blues--or is it relief?

With the first Blue Plate Mystery, Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe, just uploaded as a digital book to various platforms, I just yesterday finished the first draft of the second in that series. So far I'm calling it Murder at Tremont House, but that's tentative. (Kelly O'Connell fans, don't worry: A Kelly O'Connell Mystery, titled Danger Comes Home, will come between the two in the new series, next July.)
Meantime I'm trying to analyze how I feel about finishing that draft, after many nights of lying awake with plot threads going through my mind. Most writers feel great joy but I didn't. I think the biggest feeling I had was relief, as if a weight was off my shoulders. I knew how it would work out--and it did. I think it's okay but such a decision is far down the road. I also feel a bit blue, like I'm saying goodbye to characters I've lived with for a long time. Of course, that's silly--I'll be going back to them a whole lot in the months to come. But it's a funny feeling, almost like I should start the third book in the series right away--which is of course the last thing I want to do.
Next step is to send it to my favorite beta reader. His critiques are thorough, to the point, and offered without mercy. He always finds the good, and then digs in and tells me what bothers him in a work. He's priceless. But he's out of town, so I can't whisk it right off to him.
Besides, I have one final scene in the epilogue to write--no, please don't get me involved in a discussion of whether there should be epilogues or not. I like to end the book on a fairly dramatic note and then tie up the loose ends. And I've done all but one "loose end"--it maybe the hardest scene to write because it will irrevocably change the direction of the next Blue Plate Mystery. At any rate, I find myself dragging my heels about the scene. Tonight, I've promised myself.
I read a Facebook post tonight by a writer who had cut her first draft from 115,000 words to 107,000 but still had scenes to write. She said she doesn't know how anyone writes a 65,000-word novel. I do. This one, in draft, will probably come out about 62,000 words. I long ago faced the fact that I write short. When others moan that 450 words isn't enough for a book review, I sometimes wonder whatever I can say to take up 450 words. Maybe it's a blessing. I've know writers who, when asked for four pages submit twenty and act wounded when you request cuts.
Meantime, the age-old question: what am I going to do with myself while waiting for the critique? Maybe go back to the book of blog posts that an editor suggested. It's my fall-back project, and I can't be without a project.
A TCU English major was assigned the duty of interviewing an author and her teacher suggested me. She came by tonight--a delightful young woman--and one of her questions was, "Why do you write?" My answer? "Because I can't not write."

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Yoga and me

I would love to tell you that I can do a headstand or the pigeon or any number of poses, but the sad truth is I can't even stand on one foot very well. I'd also love to tell you I practice my yoga every day, but, alas, I don't. I average about four days a week. If I don't do it early in the morning, I'm probably not going to get it done that day unless Jacob goes home early and I have no plans for the evening. Sometimes I let my desire to watch the news get in the way in the evening. So mornings are better--if I don't have errands to run and things to do outside the house.
And oh my! can I procrastinate! I remind myself of the late Erma Bombeck who would rather scrub floors or wash windows than face a blank computer screen. I fiddle with this and that in the kitchen, I straighten things I would never otherwise think of straightening. Finally I make myself go in the back room, spread out the mat, takes off my shoes and get to it.
And then I enjoy it. If I think about 30-40 minutes, it seems forever, but before I know it, I find myself doing the closing exercises of my routine. And there are some things I can do that I'm pretty proud of. Wish I knew the names of all the poses, but I'm getting pretty good at warrior, and I can do ten mini-push-ups (may not sound like much but at my age, for someone who started four years ago, I think it's pretty good). I can hold the boat pose for a count of 20; one day when I did that my yoga instructor said, "Do you realize how much strength that takes?" And I'm really proud of my spinal balance--you kneel on all fours, then extend one leg and the opposite arm. I added an exercise--one leg raised with the hips off the floor and supported by the opposite leg, bent at the knee; then the other leg; and finally both legs, with hips off the floor,, supported by your arms. That led Elizabeth to say, "Look at you! You're doing pilates!" Little did I know.
I should add that Elizabeth, my yoga instructor nad longtime friend, lives in my garage apartment these days. I don't take lessons, but she's around if I want to ask about a certain pose or something.
At the end of a yoga session, you're supposed to relax and meditate. When I first started and was taking regular lessons, Elizabeth said to me one day, "You're reading the titles in the bookcase, aren't you?" I was. But these days I really do empty my mind and go through a relaxation series, followed by meditation which for me turns into prayer. And when I'm done, I truly do feel refreshed and better.
I"m prone to falling. As my oldest son Colin said, "Mom, it's not that your balance is bad. It's that you don't look where you're going." I've taken several falls in recent months--the worst was when I fell into the open dishwasher, after tripping on a turned up rug--but I have, knock on wood, avoided serious injury. I attribute it to yoga.
 So why do I procrastinate? I think because I always feel the rush of other things I have to do. But of all the things on my plate, yoga is probably one most important to my well-being. Maybe I can work up to five days a week.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A thousand words

Tonight I passed the 51,000 mark on my work-in-progress, the second Blue Plate Mystery. I have a new writing plan. On January 2nd, I sat down at my desk and told myself to begin the book. It didn't matter if I only wrote 500 words. I would begin. I wrote a thousand words that night--maybe a little less than four typewritten pages--and found it wasn't that hard. So that became my goal--a thousand words a night. I think I've missed two nights (haven't checked this against a calendar): one night when my kids and grandkids were in town and half of them were staying with me, and last Tuesday night when I wanted to watch the State of the Union address and the response. I loved the former, thought it substantive and clear, and laughed aloud over poor Senator Rubio and his great, all-consuming thirst--a plastic water bottle on TV? But I digress.
Someone asked me the other night when I write, did I write daily, etc. My previous answer has alwawys been no, I have no schedule. I write when I can. I found though that this haphazard approach meant there were long spells when I didn't work on the novel, and I began to lose the thread. I can in no way judge whether or not the new routine is making a better book or not. Once through the draft, I will send it to my favorite beta reader for a critique. But I do feel it's making me linger over scenes and bring them to life more, to delve deeper into my characters. My beta reader always says, "What's your hurry?" and reminds me of his writing professor at Rice who said you should be able to see every scene like a photograph--a goal I try to keep in mind. I have written almost all of this one at night--mornings are taken up with business, errands, grocery, doctors, email, the newspaper, and so on. It's been easier to discipline myself to write at night. Hmmm, wonder if you'd call me a full time wirter? I can't spend six hours at the computer--after two hours at the most, I begin to write drivel.
Most writers write long and then have to go back and cut. Standard advice is to "kill your darlings." You have to delete scenes that you think are really great but don't move the story along, sometimes even delete favorite characters. Once a group of us wrote a collaborative novel, Noah's Ride, and one chapter ended with a baby and three children in danger. The next chapter was to be written by a friend of mine, and I said, "Mary, don't you dare kill that baby." Her reply? "The baby will be all right, but pray for the other children." And by gosh, she killed them in a house fire.
I have no such problem. At 51,000 the end is in sight. I know what's going to happen, and I'm crossing my fingers I can make it to 60,000 words. I'll probably pick up two or three thousand more in rewriting and editing. The usual word count for a cozy is 70,000 but anywhere in the sixties is acceptable and that's where I'm setting my sights.
I've written my thouand for tonight, after dinner with a good friend. Now to read that book I'm reviewing. Not far enough into it yet to form an opinon.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What ever happened to arithmetic?

You hear grandparents complain, "I don't know why they can't do things the way we did in the old days!" I used to shrug such comments off, but now I'm tempted to join the chorus. Every day I help six-year-old Jacob with his first-grade homework. He has a spelling list, to prepare for the weekly test on Friday, a math or logic exercise, and a short book to read and write four sentences about.
He's a medium reader. Sometimes he whizzes through a book with few stumbles; other times he looks at me and says "I've never seen that word before." Then we sound it out, letter by painful letter, so that he's capable of saying a word in odd sounds but not putting it together into a word.  Trying saying, "A-rrr-ou--nn--dd"--it doesn't sound at all like the word. The other day he collapsed in giggles at his own cleverness when, trying to figure out "after" he looked at me and said "Rain forest!" Made me giggle too but didn't help with the job.
Then the essay--oh, my! He can write it, with help spelling the words he doesn't know, but it's hard to make him decide what he's going to write about (there is a list of possibilities). Sometimes I want to scream and say, "Just write it! Write anything!"
In math, he can do spatial relationship problems just fine, but sometimes the questions are so ambiguous that I'm as befuddled as he is. His father looks it all over at night, and one night he called to complain, "When are they ever going to teach him plain arithmatic?" We had exercises with coins (which cost me practically my whole change purse in object lessons!) and he knew a quarter was twenty-five cents but when I asked what two quarters made, he guessed thirty cents. No one had taught him to put 25 over 25, add 5 and 5, carry the one, and come out with 50. He counts by fives, which is how we got there, but it's hard when you throw pennies into the mix.
As for the spelling list, he does well, usually gets a perfect score (104 with ten words and two bonus words) but that's after lots of practice all week. I have to remind him to put vowels in between most consonants. English is a difficult language to say the least. How does he learn that "oo" has one sound in "soon" and a totally different one in "door"? He likes to play Hangman, so that's one of the exercises we do; at home last night he copied each word three times (he doesn't like that) and took a pre-test. Today we'll do a pre-test again. The list this week is, to me, easy because he consists of a word and then the form with "ed" added: ask, asked, plan, planned (got to get that double "nn"--he doesn't yet have a good enough ear for the languate to recognize that "planed" and "planned" are different).
By the time we get to fifth grade, I'll be over my head. I don't remember my children having homework in the first grade, let alone this much, and I am pretty sure I didn't have it. The world is changing too fast for me sometimes.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Death of a distant old friend

I received a card in the mail today that was both joyful and sad. It let me know that an old friend of many years died in December. And I do mean old. I have no idea of her age but I would guess she was at least in her late eighties and maybe early nineties. I have not seen her in fifty years, and I didn't know her that well then.
My husband-to-be, my brother, and I were all in school in a small town in Missouri, they studying osteopathic medicine and me working on a graduate degree in English. My brother in particular became good friends with a faculty member who also owned a working farm. The man used to treat me, and I remember how calloused and tough his hands were from farm work. One day he abruptly said he could no longer treat me but gave no explanation. I felt I had somehow displeased him. I also remember he predicted whatever I would die from would be ennervated from a specific area in my upper back which was weak--a thought I still remember and try to put out of my mind.
I saw less of his wife. Indeed, I clearly remember only one occasion. We all went to the farm for breakfast, and she served fried cheese, among other things. I loved it, though my brother tonight said he didn't particularly like it but it was the first thing he remembered about her too. I have since tried it but haven't been able to duplicate it.
We moved on from that town, John to Colorado, and Joel and I to Texas. A few years later we heard that this woman had left town and her husband suddenly in mysterioius and what turned out to be tragic circumstances. She moved to Massachusetts, built a new life for herself, and never looked back.
But every year I got a Christmas card from her. In tiny handwriting she detailed world travels and adventures and asked about my writing. I would reply at some length--something I don't always do with Christmas cards. I enjoyed hearing from her and was always amazed--and flattered--that she kept up the correspondence and felt a connection to me. This was the first year I didn't get a card, andd the one I received today, from a friend of hers, confirmed my suspicion. She died in mid-December. I suspect I was on a mailing list or in a card file someplace and the friend knew to send the card.
Today's card consisted only of a lovely poem that spoke of her enjoyment of people and life, her travels, her motorcycle, and the many people who shared her life. A picture on the front shows a happy, smiling woman (I wouldn't have recognized her, and I doubt she'd have recognized me) against a montage of photos of her life, including a clear one of her late husband in his army uniform. Between the poem and the pictures, I know she had a happy life after she left Missouri, and I am glad for her. I told John I hated to throw it out because it seemed like throwing away her life. I'm saving it for him.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Bad Book Covers

I read a blog about bad book covers this morning and it occurred to me that I had a "Can  you top this" story for historical inaccuracy. The above is the cover of the 1994 edition of my historical novel, Libbie, based onb the life of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, wife of George Armstrong Custer. As a book designer friend of mine commented, Libbie looks like Madonna in nineteenth-century garb. She's stand knee deep in the grassy plains of Kansas; in the background is the bare, red earth of Arizona. Libbie stands next to a barbed wire fence--barbed wire was first introduced at the Menger Hotel in 1884, and Custer died in 1886. There is no way the plains of Kansas were fenced when Libbie wass there. And finally, there's the fort--a stockade, such as they built a century earlier in the East to fight off Mohicans and other eastern Native Americans. there was not enough wood in the American West to build such a sturdy stockade. In the book, Libbie makes a big point of being surprised that forts of the West had no fences nor barricades. They consisted of clusters of buildings set close together on the prairie or wherever. It is, as another friend said, "the ubiquitous West" with all the western symbols the artist could think of thrown in. I do have to say this book sold more than any other I've ever written, which says something about the lure of romance and the dimissal of history by most readers.
Today, Libbie has a much more appropriate cover, if not as eye-catching. It is available through ePubWorks on a variety of digital platforms. The costume is much more like waht Libbie would have worn--she sewed fishing weights in the hem of skirts to keep the prairie wind from blowing them up around her. And there are lots of pictures of Libbie living out of a tent.
She's a favorite of mine for what she put up with in that wild and crazy husband, and I'm glad to see her story available again.
Let me hasten to add that I love the covers on the Kelly O'Connell Mysteries that Turquoise Morning Press has done for me, and I'm expecting compliments on the cover to Murder at the Blue Plate Cafe when it appears next week.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Product Details
Buy this book! I heard a wonderful program on this collection of short stories tonight, and I guarantee you'll chuckle--maybe a few belly laughs--all the way through it. Jim Lee, the author, is an old and treasured friend, although he claimed publicly tonight that I once rejected his short stories on the grounds that short story collections are hard to sell (only time I've been publicly booed that I can remember). In my defense, the stories were then set in he's moved them to Texas and caught the flavor, humor, and pathos of rural Texas. And he'll sell them because he'll do public talks about them and captivate people. I should have had more foresight. I do remember the postal carrier from those stories years ago, and he's again prominent in this collection.
Jim is many things--a scholar, a prolific author of nonfiction, essays, and book reviews, a folklorist--but above all he is a raconteur, a story teller, a public speaker par excellence. He can spin a yarn that will keep you fascinated or send you into smiles if not giggles. And sometimes he breaks into song, which he did tonight. He taught English at the University of North Texas for forty years or more, served as department chair for a long time. He's a member of everything that counts in Texas--Texas Institute of Letters, Texas Literary Hall of Fame, Fellow of the Texas Folklore Society. But he's also a loyal friend who reads what others have written and offers unvarnished opinons--sometimes too unvarnished. And, finally, he's a gentleman. These days he generally wears a fedora and tips it when he meets a lady. I've known ladies to swoon over that handsome man wearing a hat. I won't divulge his age here, but he's older than you think and than he looks, and he talks about it often.
For a long while, when I was director of TCU Press, Jim was our acquisitions editor. He was proud of pointing out that his letter of appointment specified "without compensaation." But he made a lot of good acquisitions and probably saved me from some major mistakes. We used to lunch often and shared family stories, ups and downs. He never hesitated to take me to task when he thought I was out of line, and I appreciated that. These days, I don't see much of him, and I miss him. He told me recently he was staying home and washing his hands frequently to avoid the flu; I think he was staying home and writing short stories. This, his first venture into published fiction is further proof of his versatility.
Jim Lee, that transplant from Alabama, is a true Texan, and he's produced a book that is true Texas.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Blue Plate Cafe Mysteries...and how they grew

The first book in my Blue Plate Café Mysteries series launches next week as an e-book, with print to follow shortly. Such fun to introduce a new series, and I’m particularly excited about this series, because it is deeply connected to some rich and wonderful times in my family’s life. When my children were little, we began to visit Reva and Charles Ogilvie at Arc Ridge Ranch, outside Ben Wheeler, Texas—about an hour east of Dallas. It was a glorious place for city children—forests, ponds, alligators, beaver, pastures, sometimes horses, occasionally a rescued wild burro, paddle boats from which the boys could fish, and for a while a small sandy beach where the kids could swim (with careful supervision, because of the alligators, who mostly stayed hidden in a cove).

Reva and Charles soon became Aunt Reva and Uncles Charles, and we spent what weekends we could there as well as at least one two-week vacation. We had our own cabin, with a full kitchen and two bedrooms. I would arrive with so many groceries that Charles said I was fine if the creek rose. Reva and I cooked together a lot, and both of us thoroughly enjoyed it. Then we’d eat on their front porch (a Florida room with louvered shutters) and stare out at the small, peaceful lake.

Charles was raising a steer in a pen between our cabin and the main house, and he named it Houdini because it was an escape artist. The kids loved Houdini and always stopped to pet him. One night at dinner, Charles asked them how they liked their meat. They chorused that it was delicious, and he said, “You’re eating Houdini.” Charles was not one to mince the facts of rural life. Another time I watched an alligator stalk a baby duck, and I said, “Do something, Charles.” He shrugged and said, “It’s the law of nature.” The children had a fine upbringing at the ranch, and they were disappointed to learn that our cabin wasn’t really ours—other people also rented it.

When Reva and I didn’t cook, we often went to a café known as The Shed in the nearby town of Edom. We had grand and glorious times, especially on Saturday nights when catfish was the special. I remember once chiding Charles, who was very conscious of what he ate, for ordering lemon chiffon pie. “It’s all air,” he said. “Not the custard part,” I replied, and he said, “Shut up, Judy.” In later years, we laughed about that.

When my marriage failed, we didn’t go much until the kids could drive, and then we resumed our trips to the ranch. Later, when the kids had mostly moved away, Jamie and Mel, now his wife of fifteen years, used to take me out there for weekends.

Life changes. Reva gradually slipped into Alzheimer’s, and the last time we were there, Charles was living alone. We went for my nephew’s wedding in Tyler, maybe ten years ago, and that Sunday morning we all had breakfast at The Shed. Then son-in-law Christian said his grandmother had a house in Edom where he’d spent a lot of time as a child and he wanted to see if he could find it. It doesn’t take long to drive every street in Edom, and we did but with no luck. When he got home, his grandmother told him the house was right next door to The Shed.

So that’s where the background comes of the Blue Plate Café. I changed the name of the restaurant and the town (though barely), and the book is dedicated with love to the memory of Charles and Reva Ogilvie, now both gone. I miss them sorely. And the book is my small tribute to their love and all they did for my family and for me.

Some of Reva’s recipes are included at the back. Another tribute.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Wild days, Wild days

Emily Dickinson may have written about "Wild Nights, Wild Nights," but I had no such luxury. Instead I had a wild day day. First of all, I can't go out my front door and lock it. I can go in and I can  lock it from the inside, but can't lock it from outside, so I go out the backdoor--a bit of a nuisance. Then we had driveway congestion this morning, and I had to wait for Jordan to get back from taking Jacob to school before I could leave for a dental appointment. Then I was 30 minutes early for my appointment--me, who has no patience for waiting in a doctor's office. And long story short, I was there two hours for a simple cleaning--their schedule and not my mouth was the problem but I was at the point I wanted to say, "I don't care what you do, just get me out of here!"
Then I realized I'd pulled my car up too close to the electric gate--when I left for lunch I wouldn't be able to get out the gate from the backyard. So I went to move the car, judged the distance, and thought it would probably be all right. It wasn't. The gate hit the car and stopped. I hit the opener again, thinking it would close. It didn't. It kept trying to open. and then it wouldn't do anything. So I had essentially broken the gate. I locked it manually. It will be fixed first thing in the morning but my contractor who keeps my house together essentially said, "Please don't try to do it yourself." I asked if that's because I screwed everything up and he said, "Well, partly." When I called him I said, "This is disaster-a-day-Alter." Not sure he was amused.
Then I ordered ebooks from Amazon and couldn't get my Kindle to work. Finally did work that one out all by myself tonight but the books haven't arrived yet.
Oh, and the accountant tells me I goofed by not sending my estimated return certified with return request, so now I have to call the IRS and ask why the check hasn't cleared the bank. He advises patience in making such calls. He's new, doesn't know me well, so I explained patience is not my long suit. I'll arm myself with a book and make the call.
Every day has its bright spots: enjoyable lunch with two friends, and I'll be eating with the neighbors at the Old Neighborhood Grill tonight. Then I'm going to pull the covers over my head and start over again tomorrow.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Anxiety is a funny critter

Anxiety is a funny critter. It creeps up on you for no reason and blindsides you when you’re not expecting it. Then it plants itself in your mind, so if you’re not actually aware of it, you’re asking yourself, “Am I anxious? Is it going to come back?” It’s like living in a state of anticipation, even if you keep telling yourself to live in the moment.

Currently I’m having a bout with anxiety though some of the symptoms seem to be getting better. The good thing is I know this too will pass—just as that critter snuck on me, one day soon it will slink away and I will go back to feeling I can conquer the world. So I hold on to that thought.

I once told a friend that I wished I could stop being so introspective, and she replied, “Oh, that’s what I like about you.” I don’t think she understood: yes, being introspective and taking stock of yourself, analyzing your reactions to people and events, is good. Hopefully it will make you a kinder, more gentle person. But constantly taking your emotional temperature is destructive, a habit to break.

I find that days at home are long and difficult, even though I have plenty of work on my desk. I need the diversion of people, so I am grateful for lunch and dinner appointments, sometimes even doctor appointments—though I’m not looking forward to the dentist in the morning.

A more cheerful report will follow, I promise—a promise I make to those of you who read my blog but more importantly to myself. Thanks for listening. I post this in part to express myself but also because in posting before about anxiety I’ve found several of you share the problem. Maybe my words will help all of us.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Meat and Potatoes--on the go

A friend and neighbor recently had a hip replacement, and during his early convalescence, his wife wore herself ragged caring for him and sleeping on the couch so she could hear if he needed something at night. Friends brought food, and I volunteered to supply dinner one night. By that time, Joe was well enough—dressed and walking around—that they insisted I stay and share the meal with them. So, after ascertaining that they were lamb eaters (not everyone in Texas is), I fixed a lamb meatloaf. I grew up on lamb and love it, especially a cold roast lamb sandwich the next day. This meatloaf makes equally good sandwiches. With all courtesy and acknowledgement to the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen Web site, I present the recipe here. It’s from The Nero Wolfe Cookbook (1975). If you haven’t read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf novels you should—Wolfe was a gourmand who planned meals with his chef, Fritz, and considered murder a distraction from life’s primary purpose—eating good food.

Here’s the recipe:
1-1/2 lbs. ground lamb (fortunately I live near a wonderful gourmet market that always has ground lamb; if not, you can ask the butcher to grind it from cheaper cuts but not the leg; my mom would have ground it at home—having Dad operate the grinder—but I don’t have a grinder.)

1//2 lb. ground pork (not sure why that is there, since lamb has enough fat on its own, but I didn’t quarrel)
2/3 c. bread crumbs
¼ c. chopped parsley
¼ c. chopped shallots
½ tsp. dried basil (I didn’t have any so defrosted a pesto cube and threw it in)
1-1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground pepper
½ c. grated Parmesan
½ c. dry white wine
½ c. melted butter

I bought the lamb and pork on a Thursday but wasn’t slated to serve the meatloaf until the following Wed., so of course I planned to freeze the meat. Then it dawned on me that since I was cooking that evening for my kids’ arrival, I should go ahead and make the meatloaf and then freeze it. Worked fine.
Combine lamb, pork, eggs, bread crumbs (homemade in a processor is fine—you can also do the parsley and shallots in the processor), salt, pepper, cheese, and wine. Wash your hands carefully, dig in, and mix thoroughly. Shape in an oval loaf.
Brush loaf with melted butter (I forgot to do this, didn’t miss it at all). Bake on a rack in a shallow baking pan—you need the rack so the fat can drip off the lamb. Place in oven pre-heated to 350. Bake 1-1/2 hours. Let stand before slicing.

To go with this, I experimented with a potato trick I found on Pinterest:
Peel one raw russet or Idaho potato per person and thinly slice almost but not all the way through—hard to do and I cut through a couple of times. Drizzle with olive oil, kosher salt and pepper. You can add garlic powder, or as I did, some herbal seasoning. Bake at 425 for 40 min. The potatoes come out beautifully golden and crusty. When Mary took the last bite, an end piece, she said, “This is going to be noisy but so delicious.”

To do these two dishes simultaneously, you really need two ovens because of the varying temperatures. At 350, potatoes don’t brown; at 425 meatloaf dries out.

I served a salad that night, but here’s the dish I’d round that meal out with:

Sauteed zucchini
Shred about one small zucchini per person.
Melt 2 parts butter to one part olive oil in skillet—go light because you don’t want a greasy vegetable when it should be crisp.
Sauté minced shallots or scallions until soft; then add grated zucchini.
Season with salt and pepper. I didn’t do this but I think a hint of lemon would have been the perfect final addition.
Optional: stir in some crème fraiche or heavy cream and simmer until absorbed—but who needs the calories? Besides, I liked the crisp cleanness of the zucchini.
This is a variation of a Julia Child recipe.

 Enjoy a hearty meal…and love those leftovers.

Saturday, February 02, 2013


Sometimes writing is a great joy; sometimes it's like slogging through mud. Today has been a muddy day, and that about sums it up. Nice dinner with a good friend, but now I'm back at the computer, slogging through 400 more words which will probably be as exciting as I feel right now. Maybe I should just go to bed...or read someone else's good book.

Friday, February 01, 2013

A chance to hear an icon

I’ve been missing from the blog for a couple of days because life got in the way—lunches with friends, dinner one night at a local high-rise retirement community followed by my presentation on writing mysteries. I tried to make it a workshop but with minimal response. Still the audience of abot thirty was attentive, and I was pleased. Took dinner the next night to friends—he has just had a hip replacement, though doing remarkably well, and she has run herself ragged taking care of him. Still, she insisted on putting everything out on nice serving dishes-I would have served the meatloaf in the pan I cooked it in! And then last night my weekly dinner with Betty—fun but I was in an off-mood and an off-appetite all day. I did get my yoga done two of those days and my thousand words all three. But today was the capper.

My friends, State Representative Lon Burnam and his wife, Carol Roark, had invited me to sit at their table to hear Gloria Steinem at the Planned Parenthood Annual Luncheon. Who would turn down an opportunity like that? Even though the luncheon was, as Carol predicted, a mob scene. We parked almost three blocks away to avoid valet parking, which was going to take forever.

Hearing Steinem and seeing her at the distant podium and, much better, on a large screen, was awe-inspiring, just because she’s such an icon for the women’s movement and because we remember all the risk she took, all the barriers she broke down. I was fascinated by her hands—extremely long, thin fingers which she used in a most expressive manner. She tailored her speech a bit to Texas, giving a nod to Sarah Weddington and Barbara Jordan and saying at one point she looked forward to coming back when we have a worthy successor to Ann Richards—who doesn’t wish for that day? She was witty and clever, but she didn’t say much new we hadn’t already heard.

Statistics about violence against women: since 9/11, more women in this country have been killed by their husbands than by the 9/11 attacks and the Afghan and Iraq wars combined—pretty appalling. She issued the usual warning that if women don’t have control over their own reproductive rights, we cease to be a democracy. Kind of comforting to think almost 500 people in this city, the only major Texas city to vote red in the last election, turned out to hear that message.

But Steinem lost me when she listed how having children limits a woman—in education and job opportunities, pay scale, health care, and other areas. I know a lot of women have experienced these limitations, and I feel fortunate that I have been blessedly free of them in the workplace, but at the same time I thought she was diminishing the role of motherhood and overlooking the tremendous benefits that come from raising children. I should know—my four look after me.

Today, while I was at the luncheon two of my chldren got all upset because my home alarm went off and they couldn’t find me—for more than two hours. My daughter and my tenant knew where I was, but nonetheless they alarmed the neighbors and the police came—there goes another $50 call for a false alarm. Still it’s nice to know they are so concerned.

As we walked into the hotel where the luncheon was held, a handful of  protestors carryied signs saying, “Adoption, not Abortion,” and “No Taxpayer Dollars to Planned Parenthood.” I did manage to tell one that I was the mother of four adopted children, but I don’t think she got the point. It’s too bad these folks don’t recognize that women’s health care, not the dispensing of abortions, is that primary goal of that organization—mammography is a big part of it, providing health care to the indigent, picking up what the states, particularly Texas, won’t, providing counseling on birth control to avoid abortions. You’re right, Gloria, come back when we have a worthy success to Ann Richards.