Friday, August 30, 2013

Digging up my roots

I realized today how little I have explored my roots. Oh, I know who my grandparents were, and I’ve actually done some work on I can trace my father’s MacBain family back to the time the first MacBain came to Canada from Scotland (War of 1812) but my mother’s family, first generation German, were a complete blank. I can’t even spell my grandmother’s maiden name, though I can pronounce it.

It’s the little but significant things about immediate family that I realized today I don’t know. My father died in 1975, when I was married, living in Texas, with four young children. Dad died at M. D. Anderson in Houston following surgery for an aortic aneurysm. We had a memorial service in Fort Worth and were gratified that colleagues from Chicago with whom he’d worked almost all his life flew down for it. It’s a blur now, all these years later, but I think we had a reception at our house. And then we took Mom back to Tryon, North Carolina, where they were living, for a memorial service and to ready the house for her move to Fort Worth.

But what happened after that? Did Mom go to Canada for a burial? Dad was born in Mild May, Ontario, and grew up living in every small town in southern Ontario. Whenever we drove through that country, we’d go through a small town, and he’d say, “That was the parsonage we lived in.” His family was moved every two years so it was hard to say where he was from except Ontario. By the time I came along, my widowed grandmother lived in Oakville, and that was Canada for me, except for rare trips into Toronto..

Today, doing some work on my cousin’s affairs (she is disabled, and I handle her affairs), I realized I don’t know where my father is buried, except that he’s buried next to my sister, who died as an infant, in some cemetery, probably in Oakville. When I was a child, Oakville was a small, placid town. My grandmother lived a block and a half from Lake Ontario and a few blocks from the small center of town. We walked. Today Oakville is a sprawling, huge suburb which someone told me is a fashionable place to live. I can’t even remember the name of the street my grandmother lived on, though I could walk you room by room through a house that is probably no longer standing.

My cousin has some furniture in her room, and I’ve asked the Senior Health Centre folks to take pictures and send them to me. I want to see if I recognize anything from my grandmother’s house. But of course, there was a whole other side to my cousin’s family—her mother was a MacBain, like me, but her father was a Denison, and she will someday lie in the Denison family cemetery. I have this all figured out, but I can’t find my father or my sister.

I remember when my grandmother died but I didn’t go to Canada for the funeral; if I had I might know where my father is. It’s one of those times I want so badly to talk to my mother.

Tonight at the dinner table, my son-in-law was appalled that I haven’t visited my mother’s grave, here in Fort Worth, for years, and he was even more appalled that I don’t know where my father is buried. We aren’t the kind of people to visit cemeteries. I can’t remember ever being taken to do so as a child or young person. But suddenly it seems important to me to find my father. I guess I’ll begin searching on the Web.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Some days are all about food

A current local thread on Facebook asked what restaurants now gone people missed most--my gosh, you'd never know Fort Worth had so many defunct restaurants. There are currently over 625 comments on that thread (no I didn't count them--the original questioner announced that). I did respond early on, so now I get all future responses in my mailbox. Some are getting quite repetitive, and I've resisted the urge to add Papa Joe's on NW 28th St. to the list. It was a hole in the wall, and I doubt many remember it but it sure had good chicken fried steak. Salad was a wedge of lettuce and a bottle of French dressing on the table, and I never ate there without thinking the back room was a fire trap. It's long gone.
One person asked why there is always so much interest in food, and I appreciated the response someone else gave to the effect that food binds us together. We share our lives when we share food; we become family and community at meals.
As if to prove that, I had dinner tonight with two longtime dear friends. We were celebrating one's birthday--and instead of letting us pamper her she served an appetizer (Havarti and apple slices--I ate so much I wasn't hungry) followed by dinner at the restaurant of her choice--already full, I had a small plate of crab and salmon cake. And then back to her house for chocolate crème brulee. (I really meant not to eat dessert but since it was a birthday and it was chocolate....) We had a wonderful time talking about everything from ailments and doctors (we've reached that age) to travels and animals and careers. I am blessed to have such friends.
But today it seems food was the highlight of my day. It began with grocery shopping and a bit of thinking about menus for the week--a post on Mystery Lovers' Kitchen reminded me that my version of curried chicken salad would be good. Beyond that, I'll live on tuna and ham salad and eggs--and meals out.
Then a friend and I had lunch at George's Imported Foods, a Greek deli. I had a wonderful Greek turkey sandwich, which was turkey and good Greek salad in French bread (pita was a choice, but I'm just not a pita fan). So good especially because the bread soaks up that lemony dressing--and I brought half of it home.
I stepped on the scale this afternoon, and it reminded me that I need to have fewer days about food. Writing? Nope, didn't get any done. Yesterday, almost 3,000 words; today none. Not a disciplined way to write a novel.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Travelin' Jack is Back

Last week I wrote about the little black kitten that showed up briefly in my driveway and then settled himself on neighbor Susan's porch. Elizabeth bought cat food, and the two of them fed him--he was really skinny and ate voraciously, so we all thought he'd stick around, grow to be a rat repeller without ultrasonic sounds. The next day he disappeared. Susan worried about him, and I feared a predator had gotten him. Elizabeth said she was sure he'd come back. In absentia, Susan named him Travelin' Jack.
Today the music teacher at the school across the street put a notice on the neighborhood email that she'd found a lively, sweet, mischievous black kitten. Susan and Elizabeth rushed over to see her, and she delivered the kitten to Susan tonight. She'll keep him in the basement, visiting often, for a few days to encourage him to stick around. Elizabeth went over and said he curled right up on her lap and went to sleep.
We need a good varmint repeller---the predators (owls and hawks, some coyotes) that everyone sees are in the south end of the neighborhood and never seem to make it up to our area. Jaimie and Greg at the end of our long block are overrun with feral cats--but they too avoid us.
Other than it was a blah day. Do you ever have a day when you feel just "off"? That was me today. Don't know if it is the heat or fatigue (I woke at 4:40 and couldn't go back to sleep) or what. Still I managed to write 2,300 words--a respectable accomplishment for a day. Jacob was wild after school--second grade has released a flood of adrenaline apparently, plus he's overjoyed that he has no home work all week! Cancelled dinner plans didn't help my outlook, but I had a half of a pimiento sandwich, sliced cucumbers, and the best plumcot I've ever eaten--so ripe and sweet. Finished the day with wine on the deck with Susan and Elizabeth--nice ending to a blah day.
OK, pity party over. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The first day of school--and some trivia

Actually, I think Jacob looks apprehensive,
and I look grim.
We both got over it.
Yesterday got away from me, what with welcome calls to make for the church, corrections on a manuscript I’m editing, a blog I forgot I had to write (which sent me scurrying to the kitchen this morning so I’d have a casserole to take a picture of), and an occasional spell with my work-in-progress. No Judy’s Stew.

But those of you who read this regularly know I wouldn’t forget the first day of school. I sent good wishes to all my grandchildren—have had responses from two families. Megan reported before the fact that her boys were really excited, and Jamie and Mel both reported that the girls were excited (though Maddie, at fourteen, pretended to be blasé) and ended up the first night fighting over space at the kitchen table to do homework. The year is under way.

Of course, I was most involved in Jacob’s first day. In fact, I had orders to be in the driveway, dressed and “cute,” by 7:50 yesterday morning. Trailed along while Jordan took Jacob to his new classroom—she would have forgotten to introduce me to the teacher as the afternoon pick-up person if I didn’t remind her. But all went well, and Jacob seemed quite happy in his classroom. He has a teacher we didn’t know, but she said she’d seen him in the halls and was delighted to have him in her class.

Maybe I forgot to write about it because I had to rush him home, shove a chocolate pudding into him, and make him brush his teeth, so he could head off to the dentist with his dad. Today it was less of a rush but still a time crunch to get him ready for Little League practice. Poor kid said, “I just want to quit everything but school.” I bit my tongue to keep from saying, “Amen.”

Today when he was changing clothes, Jacob had a bit of an attitude—okay, a lot of attitude. I’ll wait out the week but there’s going to be a new regime around here. Jordan keeps saying, “You’re were so tough as a mom. What happened to you?” I don’t think I was really that tough, but she seems to think it’s a good thing.

Meantime, I made progress today on the work-in-progress and even came up with a new title. How does Living with Secrets strike you? And I did make a good casserole—look for it Thursday on Yes, I’ll remind everyone. And the exterminator came—we sincerely hope he took care of the rats, but I’m pleased that he was extra careful of my dog’s safety. Final achievement—and this is Elizabeth’s—we ordered a case of our special tuna and a case of salmon from the Pisces cannery. My pocket book is depleted but my salivary anticipation is high. I’ll post about that special fish sometime.

Peace and a happy evening to all. I’m off to the Old Neighborhood Grill for neighbors’ night. Pork cutlets sound so good. Notice how often food crosses my mind?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The rats are back

I thought the rat repeller I bought was a great invention. The rats disappeared from our trees, and I settled back into rat-free contentment….until Elizabeth told me one morning last week that she was sitting at her desk, looked idly out the window to see a rat “frolicking” in the back yard. The next day it was three rats. They came and went from under the new deck. Jordan said all I had done in building the deck was to create a rat haven. In the few days I was away, the rats grew bolder. Elizabeth wrote me that it was time for the exterminator. See the picture above that she sent.

By serendipity, a couple of nights later as we sat on the deck, a black kitten, maybe three months old and way too skinny, came walking up the driveway. We held Sophie back as best we could, but she was ballistic and wanted that cat. The cat decided retreat was the best option, even though there was a fence between it and the dog. I posted about the stray kitty on the neighborhood email, only to be told that others had found kittens and apparently someone had dumped a litter in our neighborhood.

Next morning, lo and behold, the kitten had taken up residence on my neighbors’ front porch. It followed Jay when he went to get the paper and then settled down on the porch again, comfy as could be. Elizabeth bought food, and she and Susan fed it and gave it water, for which it was apparently grateful. We thought we had a rat catcher, and Elizabeth began to think of ways to transition it from Susan’s front porch to our driveway. Today, however, no one has seen it.

Meantime, Elizabeth’s yoga partner told us that mothballs work, so tonight she scattered mothballs under the deck (where my dog can’t get them), and we’re hoping for the best.

But I have to say there’s a weird psychic connection here. Elizabeth sees the rats. I’ve never seen one (okay I did see one in the trees tonight—there was a slight chance of rain and I took the repeller inside). I’ve never seen them “frolicking” in the yard, and I said when Elizabeth leaves for five days over Labor Day and we don’t see rats, I’ll know there’s a connection.

So she did some research on rats and the Chinese Year of the Rat. Rat traits are: cleverness, problem solving, order of things, and desire. They have a gift for getting what they want and can seek out and find what most cannot. They have the intelligence to figure out mazes and the nose so they may lock onto their desire. They can fit in places where others cannot. As long as there is an opening large enough to get their head through, the body will follow. Rat’s teeth are constantly growing, so gnawing through something as trivial as iron pipes makes them an undesirable force. There’s a legend about Rat being honored as the first animal of the Chinese zodiac and forever alienating Cat. But I won’t go into it here.

Suffice it to say, I’m worried about the pipes and the wiring in both houses on my property. Hope those mothballs work.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thoughts on A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames

I don’t often review books on this blog, but this book had some lessons for me and did some unusual things with the so-called cozy genre of mysteries. Maybe Terry Shames would not call her new novel a cozy, but I would, and I find it remarkable for the way it breaks the “rules” of the sub-genre. There’s been a lot of talk among mystery writers about rules since Elmore Leonard’s death prompted the re-circulation of his list of rules. The general consensus seems to be you have to know the rules in order to break them successfully.

I was drawn into A Killing at Cotton Hill immediately by the voice of the narrator/lead character. Samuel Craddock is perhaps someone you’d not expect a woman writer to create. Once a small-town sheriff, he spent the rest of his professional life as a land man in Texas. He’s widowed, lives in a nondescript house in a small town—except inside is a fantastic collection of original art. He owes the collection, and his knowledge and taste, to the late wife he still misses.

Craddock is remarkable because he opens up his mind to us as readers. He ruminates, looking at a murder and at suspects from all angles but pretty much going on his instinct about people. It’s the rumination that intrigues me. I have been told by my mentor to stop rushing through my novels, slow down, and really let us see how people think and feel. Shames does this capably in what I believe is her first novel, and she’s sending me back to my work-in-progress in a new frame of mind.

I call this a cozy because it’s a slow, gentle mystery. The murder takes place off-screen at the opening of the book—one of the hallmarks of the cozy. But cozies are almost always narrated by women, amateur sleuths who happen onto murder in the course of their daily life. Craddock is not only obviously male but he’s no amateur—he has that background as a sheriff, and he has connections. There’s no love interest, though one widow in particular would like to latch on to him. Craddock doesn’t want to mess with the emotional swirls and tangles of romance—he’s still misses his wife, but he’s content with life as it is.

The other remarkable thing Shames does is to tell her story in present tense. I am impressed beyond words that she can maintain that point of view and make it work. Samuel Craddock, talking in the present, takes the reader every step of the way with him as he investigates the stabbing of his old friend, Dora Lee Parjeter.

Read this book. You’ll be drawn in as I was by Craddock’s slow, deliberate country wisdom. As I wrote last night, I just spent a couple days with my brother. He’s a Chicago kid who went “country” long ago, and he has that same quiet wisdom, that same instinct about who the good guys are and who are the bad guys, that sense of moral obligation, far different from religious piety. I admire it in my brother and in Samuel Craddock.

I’ve learned a lot reading this book (alas, editing called me away and I’ve not finished it) and from my brother. The “rule” they tell you about constant action, no description, just isn’t always true. Character carries the day—in fiction and in life.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A day in the country—from a seven-year-old boy’s perspective

Jacob has not confided much of this to me, so it’s mostly how I think he felt about being at the ranch. He's been there many times since he was an infant, but this was the first time there wasn't a mob of family and he was the only child. The visit began just right when my brother gave him a camouflage gimme cap which he almost refused to take off the rest of the trip. John asked him to help collect eggs, and Jacob came back to proudly present Aunt Cindy with two eggs. Dinner was great because Aunt Cindy served delicious home-made French fries and a grilled cheese, while the rest of us struggled along on salmon and fresh squash. When bedtime was suggested, it drew a protest of “I’m not tired yet.” All it took was for Uncle John to say, “Son, are you going to help me with chores in the morning?” Jacob was instantly in bed and asleep.

The next day John had a shadow—Jacob followed him everywhere. The day began with the trip to get the paper—when Cindy began to walk, John asked Jacob to walk with her and “Take care of her for me.” John's way of giving him some responsibility was masterful. We followed in the Kubota, and then John took a turn at walking. Back at the house for breakfast, Jacob kept saying, “We’re going to move the cows, and it’s going to be a lot of work.”

First we let the chickens out for the day, and Jacob was aghast when he asked if I wasn’t going to help, and I said “No, I’d stay in the mule.” I mean, how much trouble is it to open two gates to the hen house? Then he ran to meet the aged—and not very sociable—horse and pet the miniature donkey who alarmed him a bit with her rubbing and bumping, all of which were the donkey's way of seeking affection. And finally we had to pick vegetables.

Actually moving the cows from one pasture to another was indeed a lot of work, and not quite as much fun as he envisioned. When Cindy got out of the Kubota to herd on foot, Jacob found himself alone in the back seat with cows milling around everywhere. “I don’t want to be back here alone.” So he climbed carefully around, looking a little nervously at the cows at his feet. Once in the front he felt safe enough to laugh at the way cows run—they do have a funny gait, and in her haste, one almost fell right in front of us. But Jacob was a bit worried about the bull, though I assured him it wouldn’t charge into our vehicle. Frequent question: “Where’s the bull?”

That afternoon, the excitement was looking for Bigfoot tracks…and we found them on the muddy edge of a stock tank. The ecstatic look on Jacob’s face was worth everything! Ever patient, Aunt Cindy walked the entire edge of the tank with him, but they found no more Bigfoot prints—just some wild turkey tracks. But that discovery made Jacob’s day.

What was important, though he might not have fully realized it at the time, was both the discipline and the positive reinforcement Uncle John gave him, saying at one point, “Jacob, you’re a good hand. You have an instinct for animals, and you go slow with them.” Indeed Jacob made friends with the two German shepherd males but quickly learned when to keep his distance, and he loved the cat. John praised in other ways—instead of saying, “You must eat something,” he said, “He’s a healthy boy. He’ll be fine.” As our father had done, however, he insisted on table manners and respect. And when appropriate he exploded with authoritarian firmness, as when Jacob was clowning around in the tub rather than getting his bath done and letting others have their turn! Aunt Cindy just showered Jacob with love and "What can I fix for you?"

From my viewpoint, the whole trip was a learning experience for Jacob—although the lessons may not sink in right away. It’s a trip he’ll remember, and I hope we repeat it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A stay in the country

Me with my brother a few years ago

 Jacob and I have just returned from two nights at my brother’s ranch near Tolar, Texas, where we got a good taste of country life. I’m quite sure Jacob and I had different perspectives on it, but for me it was another needed lesson in relaxation. After much internal debate, I took my computer, rationalizing that I had so much work to be done, so many files coming in that I had to save various places on my computer. I might as well have saved the trouble—my email worked once briefly on the computer, though the iPad and phone got emails regularly once I was hooked up to the Peckham home wifi. I did spend what my brother thought was an appalling amount of time at my computer. When I got home tonight, it worked perfectly. I’ll call TCU to see what the problem was.

But it’s so true the pace in the country is slower. Although John and Cindy do run a working ranch, with cattle, he is a retired physician, and he and Cindy do things on their own time schedule.

We were late getting there Sunday—probably six—and John took Jacob to collect eggs, feed the miniature donkey, and I don’t know what else. Then we had a happy hour, delayed by some experiment with the new magic oven and the fact that the salmon was undercooked even for my taste. But we had wonderful salmon, stir-fried vegetables (from the garden, of course), and a bit of leftover rice salad that I brought. By then, all that work I thought was so urgent didn’t seem urgent at all. I read a book before going to sleep and slept late (for me) the next morning.

Next morning, we dallied over coffee—me at the computer again, frustrated by its failure to connect-- and finally we started off on the mile to get the paper. Cindy walks and John follows in the Kubota—a mechanized mule. Jacob walked with Cindy for a good part of the way and then said his stomach started to hurt. Coming back from the highway, where the Star-Telegram leaves the paper, John walked for almost half a mile.  Just when he was about to get in the mule, a neighbor rode up on a bicycle, then another neighbor drove to get his paper, and they stood and “jawed” for a long while. Even I was getting that empty in the head feeling from needing to eat. So John suggested a chow break before they moved cows from one pasture to another, which is a complicated procedure—more about that from Jacob’s perspective tomorrow. But John acquired a shadow--Jacob dogged him everywhere he went, wanted to help, and was mightily disappointed this morning to learn that he'd slept through the successful move of the cows to the pecan pasture. John was firm but full of praise for Jacob's empathy for animals, and the child beamed. Oh, yeah, a couple of times he was too much but mostly it was good.

Moving the cows was only partially successful, but we were hot, dirty, and once again hungry, so we broke for lunch, naps, quiet time. A bit of idle visiting, and we were off to tour the ranch and look for traces of Bigfoot—by then I admit it was hot, and I was wilting.

And the day was gone—it was time to cook the steaks and have happy hour. If I ate that well every day, I’d be a blimp. Cindy made that ubiquitous potato casserole that everyone loves, as well as special home-made fries for Jacob. (The have a restaurant-quality special “magic oven” does everything.)

Bedtime, and Jacob was all excited because he had a very loose tooth. But my point is that the day just seemed to fade away. I never once looked at the clock. Yes, I worked at my computer but without the sense of urgency I frequently feel. I need to do that more often.

Tomorrow, a day in the country from a child’s perspective, complete with jackrabbits, a bull, a steer with horns, and Bigfoot.

Thanks to John and Cindy for hospitality, a great time, and fellowship. I know many families where siblings aren’t close, and I am grateful to John for our relationship and to Cindy for all the things we share—from cooking to grandchildren to animals. We have a lot to talk about when we’re together. What a nice break from my daily life.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Madison is in high school

Not very long ago—I’m sure it was yesterday—Maddie, my first grandchild, was a beautiful baby with dark, curly hair and wide brown eyes that stared at me when someone said, "This is your Juju." Then she was a toddler, walking and talking early, so beautiful that people in restaurants and shopping malls stopped to comment. It made her mom nervous, and she’d say, “No, no, she’s not that beautiful.” She was our diva, the focus of family gatherings, given to temper tantrums over we weren’t sure what. I remember once it had something to do with a special dress, and I was the only one she’d come near—not her mom or her Aunt Jordan. Pleased me no end. Another time, spending the night here with her mom, she wanted all eyes on her and said, “Stop talking, Juju.”

Then suddenly she was in school. Once I visited her class, at the suggestion of a teacher, but the day I went there was a substitute who said, “Maddie’s grandmother is here because she has wrote some books.”  I considered fainting. The teacher provided no guidance as I tried to talk to the kids, but it didn’t faze Maddie. She took over the class.

As other grandchildren came along, Maddie was the caretaker—she played with them, changed their diapers, got them into pajamas—and they adored her. By then she had Eden, her younger sister, and being the two oldest they often shared babysitting chores. Once—only once—Maddie spent a weekend with me when Jacob was a toddler, and she played with him most of the weekend. At the time, she said it was the best weekend of her life, but she never came back without her family.

There are so many memories—one phase I remember distinctly is American Girl dolls and how pleased she was to get one for Christmas.
Another Christmas, she saved money to buy me a turquoise bracelet because she knew how much I love turquoise. She was front and center at a family gathering where she sang for us in a beautiful, clear voice, and we thought she had a future in music. She sang in the Frisco Youth Choir, and she wanted to go to Julliard. But then she wanted to be a chef, a teacher, a writer. She wrote wonderful funny pieces about her mom and dad and one about me as a role model which I can almost recite verbatim because it thrilled me so. Now her goal is to play basketball, and she’s darn good at it.
Maddie with basketball superstar Kevin Durant
at basketball camp this summer

Maddie’s strong, with an independent will and, for fourteen, an amazing sense of who she is. But she’s not the rebellious teen-ager. No insolence, no piercings, none of the things parents dread. Perfect? No, I’m sure she’s not. But as a granddaughter, she comes darn close.

Maddie starts high school next week. How did that happen? She’s grown up behind my back. In recent years, I haven’t seen as much of her—her family has an enormously busy schedule, including her heavy involvement in basketball and Eden’s track activities, and when she’s here, Maddie has her nose in a video game or a book—I’m amazed at how easily she transitions from print to digital. But where I once understood her world, these days she lives and moves in a world I don’t understand—a basketball, digital, hip world. And she’s going off to a new adventure.

There are six others behind her, and I know they to will go through these various phases and eventually I won’t understand their worlds either. But I trust them to grow into good people. Meantime, I’d sure like to put some bricks on their heads to stop all this growing up.
Morgan, who just earned her blue belt in karate
Kegan, who was named Soccer Star of his team
Stay sweet, my Maddie. I love you, and you carry my best wishes with you as you start this next phase of your life.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A happy ending

Jordan got a "new" used car today--like her wrecked one, it's a Toyota, has about the same number of miles, is in good condition with a few tiny glitches, The big thing is it's a Sequoia, with one more seat than the Forerunner that was hit and totaled. She's a happy camper tonight. We happened to meet in a new restaurant where she and Christian had gone to celebrate, and I had gone to have my weekly dinner with friend Betty, so Jordan proudly showed us the car.
I'm still more thankful than I can ever say that she wasn't seriously injured and that I had picked up Jacob that day so he wasn't in the car with her.
My mom always told me all things work toward some good end. Tonight I really believe it.
PS The lasagna and Caesar salad at the new Bravo! were delicious but huge. We split and came away quite full. Now to write my thousand words for the night.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Solitude, with vegetables

Yesterday I spent the entire day at home, in my nightgown, no makeup--I did wash my hair. Other than brief conversations with my brother and my youngest daughter, I didn’t talk to anyone but the dog. Believe me, I talked to her a lot. It wasn’t all bad—I got back to work on my novel and feel good about it. And the long day made me most grateful for breakfast, lunch, and dinner plans for today.

But last night, in an effort to divert myself, I decided to make the cauliflower cakes I’d found a recipe for. They sounded good, with lots of cheese, and I had the cauliflower in the fridge, so I set to work on it. When I got the batter or whatever ready to fry, I knew I was in trouble. The mixture had eggs for firmness but it needed some sort of filler, like bread or cracker crumbs. Too runny. The cakes didn’t stick together and were almost impossible to turn. Plus they didn’t brown well and didn’t look too appetizing. No, I’m not showing a picture but should anyone want one, I have cauliflower cakes for Cox’s Army in my fridge—and they are big because I didn’t have the patience to stand there and cook lots of small cakes (that may have been part of my problem). The one I ate was pretty good--needed more salt, but it was flavorful. I probably won’t eat the rest and after a few days they’ll go in the garbage—the few days will assuage my conscience about wasting food.

But the whole thing made me think about vegetables. I am surrounded by vegetable-challenged people. My youngest daughter is medium picky—no squash or zucchini, just learned to like asparagus, doesn’t like cooked spinach. I can count on one hand the vegetables that both my sons-in-law like. Christian is particularly fond of canned green beans, so I dress them up with vinegar, bacon and onion. He loves it.

Sunday night I had company for supper but had the forethought to ask one neighbor if he eats spinach. His reply was that he loves it raw in salad but won’t touch cooked greens. There went my main dish—layers of cheesy polenta (like cheese grits, I guess) filled with spinach. I still plan to cook that sometime, but I needed to cook a hot dog dish and photograph it for a guest blog, so I made German potato salad with hot dogs chunked up in it. My three guests all professed to love it.

To me the logical accompaniment was cabbage, and I had seen a recipe that called for buttering one side of cabbage wedges, sprinkling with onion and garlic salt and wrapping in heavy-duty foil. You were then supposed to put them on the grill, but I didn’t want to ask anyone to fire up the grill, so I put them in a moderate oven. I thought it was good, and the spinach-challenged friend said he liked it. Don’t know if he had his fingers crossed or not, but he ate most of it. But one of the other guests took one bite, at my insistence, didn’t touch the rest, and asked me not to tell his wife, who is traveling, that he didn’t eat his vegetables.

Cooked cabbage and cauliflower are not generally on my menu, but I like the idea of expanding my repertoire. Now if I could just figure out what to do with kohlrabi and get over my hesitance about kale.

I will keep experimenting with vegetables. The solitary days not so much.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Of Food and Gods

 I have long maintained that if you know what a person eats, you know a lot about them. A fast food cheeseburger or homemade chicken salad? Chicken fried steak and a beer or a rib-eye with a glass of red wine? A vegetable-heavy meal or a meat-heavy one? Middle Eastern, French, Japanese—or always good old American food. My good friend Jim Lee once wrote that the foods we eat, the way we eat them, and the imagination we bestow upon their preparation will tell much about us to historians, folklorists and anthropologists of Buck Rogers’ twenty-fifth century.

In the same vein, I am reminded of Ellen deGeneris’ plea often seen on Facebook about not judging people by their sexual preference. “Can’t we just judge them by the car they drive?” With my VW Beetle convertible, I think I pass that test with flying colors.

But yesterday our senior minister, Larry Thomas, suggested another way of looking at and interpreting people. He said in divinity school, a professor had said, “Describe your God for me, and I’ll tell you how you treat your family, your neighbors, your colleagues, and your friends.” The statement made a big impact on me. He talked about many years ago asking that question of a couple in pre-marital counseling. The woman’s God was kind and loving and forgiving. The man’s God was sort of Zeus, a figure of great and perhaps indiscriminate power, waiting for someone to mis-step. Our minister said he knew if that man didn’t rethink God and come up with a new vision, the marriage was doomed.

On the way home, Jordan asked Jacob what his God looked like. His answer was that God is good, loving and kind but he went on to say that he lived in a huge building that is fifty stories tall, which of course, made me think of “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” Jacob asked his mom, and she said, “Kind and loving, wrapping his arms around us,” and when I was asked, I added “fatherly and forgiving.” The discussion deteriorated a bit until I suggested we were suddenly talking about images of the North Wind rather than God. Strangely, none of us mentioned a sense of humor, but daily instances convince me God has one.

I know it’s a cliché that people think of God as a fatherly figure with a long white beard and flowing white robes, and that God can’t really be contained in any one image. But it’s an interesting thought that how you feel about God reveals what you feel about yourself and others.

I know a few people, not many thank goodness, to whom I could say, “I know what your God is like.” Authoritarian. Vengeful. Angry.

Most of us leave little record of how we see God. We are more likely to leave a record of what we eat. Hmmm, wonder what twenty-fifth-century historians will make of German potato salad with hot dogs and corn?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Losing yourself in a fictional world

Writers should read--seems a simple enough thing. I learn a lot by reading other writers' mysteries--they give me ideas, they make me think of things I could do in my books, and they reveal some things I seriously want to avoid. But I don't read much these days--it's partly a matter of time and partly, as I think I've said before, that it's hard for me to move from one fictional world to another. So when I'm writing, I rarely read--though it would probably do me good to read non-fiction.
The last few days I've been caught up in novels--Julie Hyzy's Grace Takes Off, which smoothly does something I've worried about: she takes a series character out of her normal setting, at least for part of the novel. I've wondered--can I send Kelly out of Fairmount on a trip? I may just do it when I get back to the work in progress. Now I'm in the midst of The Little Black Book of Murder, by Nancy Martin, who has created the wackiest ever blueblood family of sisters from Bucks County, now fallen on hard times. Watch for a review, but it too is a good read, and I'm stealing time to go back to it. And thoroughly enjoying losing myself in someone else's fictional world.
I did take time to cook today, which always relaxes me--German potato salad, which will have hot dogs in it, for tomorrow night. I'll serve corn and baked cabbage--shh! Don't tell my guests about the latter. Cooked cabbage is coming back into vogue but some people may not react well. I changed the menu partly because one of the guests said he loves spinach salad, doesn't eat cooked spinach (I had a delicious dish of polenta with cooked spinach in mind). But I also changed because I'm pushing hot dog ideas in order to publicize Danger Comes Home, with its Bun Appetit haute cuisine hot dog café, and I need a picture of this dish for a blog. At least the appetizers--Gouda and crackers--and the dessert--ice cream with raspberry appertif/chocolate sauce--should be hits.

For myself tonight I made an abbreviated version of salade Nicoise--with hard-boiled egg, avocado, roasted green beans, and Tonnino tuna packed in garlic olive oil. Tonnino is a brand of tuna I've just discovered (and my pocketbook wishes I hadn't)--several interesting varieties, like one packed in olive oil with oregano. For tonight's salad, I sprinkled it with capers, drizzled a bit of the oil from the tuna over it, added a bit of salt and pepper, and squeezed lemon juice over all. So good. Sometimes it's fun to make an elegant meal just for you. First time I've roasted green beans, and they were great.
Happy weekend, everyone.

Friday, August 09, 2013

An old friend came to visit

My old friend, anxiety, came to visit yesterday. There’s no one reason for these visits, and I’ve stopped trying to figure a pattern. It may be weather, a new experience facing me, an extra sip of wine the night before—who knows? All my doctor says is “You’re not wired like most people.” I used to be ashamed of my anxiety and try to hide it, but these days I know that it’s the most common mental illness in our country, affecting some 40 million adults to varying degrees. Generalized anxiety disorder, which I think fits me, affects 6.8 million adults. No, I didn’t have panic attacks yesterday—though I’ve had my share of those—but I went through the day with a general sense of uneasiness, shaking hands, heart occasionally pounding, especially at one point when I felt dumped on by a lot of work having to do with the cousin in Canada I care for when I really had other things to get to.

I did everything on my schedule—took my car for repairs and came home in a loaner (that in itself enough to cause anxiety—driving an unfamiliar car), had a pleasant lunch with a good friend, picked Jacob up and sent him off to neighbors’ for a play date, and fixed dinner for four adults and Jacob—good food I might add (marinated pork tenderloin, twice baked potatoes, and salad). By evening, with a couple of glasses of wine, I was more relaxed.

But in a way an anxiety day is like a day with a migraine—the next day you have a hangover, a vague sense that the uneasiness is out there and might return. But once again, I functioned like a normal person (hey! In most respects I am)—went to the vet, the post office, and the grocery, exchanging happy banter with all I came in contact with.

When I wake in the morning with that vague sense all is not right with my world, my dog is my biggest comfort. My New York relatives years ago had a cat they named Anxiety; I wouldn’t say by any means my dog should be named Tranquility. She’s smart enough (half poodle, half border collie) but not calm enough to be a service dog—yesterday she tore through the house all evening because Jordan had brought their two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Sophie thought the idea of playmates was wonderful; they on the other hand were appalled by her bold and blatant attempts to play (she weighs at least twice as much as they do and maybe more and is much more active).

But in the late evening and early morning, Sophie and I have little love sessions—we sit on the floor, she quiet and calm, and I pet her and talk to her and tell her how wonderful she is. She in turn gives me a few face licks or earnestly washes my hand. Those morning sessions kind of anchor me in the world and assure me that all is in its place.

It’s time for me to stay home a bit, get my bearings, and then leap back into the world. The good thing about anxiety—at least for me—is that it’s always a passing thing. In a day or so, I’ll wake up thinking what a wonderful world I live in.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Car woes

My car is in the Volkswagen hospital tonight. It made weird and alarming noises when Jordan drove us to the country last weekend, and as long as it was at the dealership I asked them to check the persistent rattle in the driver's side door. That turned out to be more expensive than the alarming noises, which were loose fender liners (whatever those are). The latch on the door needs to be replaced, the oil needs changing, and they will wash and vacuum (much needed).
Meanwhile I am driving a sedate Passat. Don't get me wrong--I'm grateful for a loaner. But it's just a car. Jacob was excited, thought I'd gotten a new car, liked the new car smell (he complains my car has a funny odor). But I'm not a particularly happy camper in that car. For one thing, there's that terrible sense of responsibility that you're driving a loaner and must return it in the same pristine condition in which you received it. But beyond that--it's just a car. Sedate is a good word for it.
I bought my Beetle convertible in 2004 because I declared I would not be a stodgy grandmother, and I wanted a car with personality. I am the subject of laughter hidden by hands at the dealership--a nine-year-old car with 24,000 miles on it. But I love my car, top down, top up. People stop me on the street to say they like my car. A woman stopped me the other day at Central Market to ask if I would buy one again, and my answer was an enthusiastic yes. We had a big dinner tonight for which neighbor Jay joined us, and he said "The car is you!" I justified the expense of these repairs because I'm going to drive that car forever--and he said, "Until we take the keys away from you!"
Ellen Degeneres has been on Facebook with a post that says something to the effect of "Can't we stop judging people by whether or not they're gay and just judge them on the car they drive." I think that's so true--just like you know people by the food they eat, you know them by the car they drive. Yeah, I have had my share of Chevrolets but I've also had a VW bus, a Karman Ghia, a black-on-black VW convertible with walnut paneling (a woman stopped me one day and said, "My husband would kill for that car."). I've had a Mercedes, a Sterling, and my first car was a VW bug the color of tomato soup with striping(popular in the sixties)--my theory is anything with personality.
One other problem with the Passat--I don't think it will fit in my 1922 garage. The Bug barely makes it!

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

The importance of food--it's not just nutrition

My interest in food definitely led me to write the
Blue Plate Café Mysteries
I had an editor once who thought I lingered far too long over where and what my characters ate. I disagreed vehemently and held my ground. Food tells us so much about a person. Folklorist and scholar James Ward Lee once wrote that food “may provide as much information about the way we live and see the world as the people we elect to office or the houses we build or the books we approve or the movies we film…to historians, folklorists and anthropologists of Buck Roger’s twenty-fifth century.”

I recently read a blog by the mother of a two-year-old who said that every meal was a battle, but it was a battle she was willing to fight because so much of our lives takes place over food. We come together as family over food, we celebrate holidays and special occasions with special food. When we begin to date, it’s over food, whether it’s the soda in a drugstore of my day or that special dinner before prom. Apply for a job, and your interview is likely to include lunch, where your manners, your ability to carry on conversation, and your eating habits will be judged.

I worry sometimes about the grandson I’m closest to because he is what I’d call a picky eater. My advice, like that of the mom of the two-year-old, is to offer him what we eat; if he doesn’t want it, his next chance will be the next meal of the day, even if it means going to bed hungry. His mother says, “He has to eat,” but I don’t think so. He’s a solid child and won’t waste away. When we have pets, we put their food out and if they don’t eat it, we shrug and say they’ll eat when they’re hungry. I feel the same way about children, and I’ve watched several of my grandchildren develop appetites for a wide range of food, when I would have given up hope early on. Two granddaughters have always loved everything from dolma to sushi, but one is a vegetarian out of conscience, and I respect that. Jacob, the one that lives near me, is a vegetarian out of instinct—the child just doesn’t like meat—and I’d respect that if he were a little more adventuresome about other foods.

Two of my sons-in-law are what I’d call vegetable-challenged. The list of vegetables they’ll eat is limited, though they have strange likes that I can’t fathom. Christian loves radishes and will eat an entire pack at one sitting (which causes some physical distress); he’ll eat green beans, asparagus if he has to, broccoli or squash, never.

Today I sent my neighbor a list of things I wanted to talk to him about and realized that three of the five items had to deal with meals. I am never happier than when I’m planning a dinner menu. Tomorrow I’m fixing a belated birthday dinner for Christian—crock pot pork tenderloin in a sauce of soy, maple syrup, oil, mustard, diced onion, and garlic salt. Yum! Because it’s his birthday dinner, I’ll go the extra mile and make twice-baked potatoes, though I have four potatoes for five people. Should work well.

I know I’ll have more to say about food in future blogs, but to see some of my recipes you might check out back posts of “Potluck with Judy,”

I’m going to set the dinner now for tomorrow’s supper—oh yeah, I’m a plan-ahead cook.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Nothing to say

No blog tonight. I'm not in the right frame of mind. But I will say I had an interesting "first" today--I hard-boiled some eggs to devil, and when I shelled and cut them, one had two yolks. I don't think I've ever seen that before, and I will say it made it hard to devil.
Tried a deviled egg recipe I'd found in a cooking magazine--horseradish and vinegar as well as mustard and mayo, then top with bread crumbs and broil. I really wondered about the broiling but thought what the heck--I'll try it. Not a success. My guests did not eat heartily. More popular was the goat cheese log with wasabi paste. So the egg recipe went into the recycling bin.
I did have a nice visit with two good friends. Christian came to get Jacob and chatted for a while, and then Jacob was persuaded to show off some of his moves. He's still got it!
Sorry--perhaps more interesting stuff tomorrow night.

Monday, August 05, 2013

A Day in the Country

Uncle John and Jacob watching the jackrabbit.
My brother and I were city kids, raised in the South Side of Chicago. Oh, John had a bit of farm experience as a child--we had two uncles who had small farms, and I always remember the story of the time a horse ran away with the buggy John was in. He told Mom all he wished was to be home safe in his bed. But our knowledge of country life was slim, and he said to me yesterday he thinks a child misses a lot by not growing up in the country.
You see, John, long retired as a physician, is now a rancher, with cattle on his land. He lives in the country and is happier than I've ever seen him. Yesterday, Jordan, Jacob and I took a picnic lunch (my sister-in-law was away helping her mom move) and went to see John. We had an absolutely lovely visit.
Jacob wanted to see cows, so we got in the ranch mule (motorized) and went to look at where John had some brush cleaned away, creating more pasture land. We saw his vegetable garden, with vegetables grown in bales of hay. Then we went to the pasture across the road where the cows were hiding way back in the shade of trees or standing in the stock tank. We downplayed John's comment pointing at one yearling and saying "That's next years steaks." Jacob has seen the cattle before, but each visit brings it's new excitement.
This time, it was a jackrabbit. John spied one in some brush by the side of the road. When we stopped, he and Jacob got out to look. Of course, the rabbit put up his huge ears and sprinted out of his hiding place. I honestly don't think I've ever seen one in reality before myself. Jacob was pleased. We came home dusty, tired and hot but thoroughly happy.
John has been part-farmer for much of his life, so maybe those early trips to the farm made more impression on him than I realized. When he was in family practice in Colorado Springs, he lived on acreage and had horses and a barn. Even way back in Kirksville, Missouri, when he was in osteopathic medical school he had a barn and a couple of horses and ponies on his property (I never would ride, even the pony!). Once he cut himself on barbed wire and, overalls and all, went to the ER to get a tetanus shot. The young doctor said, "Mr. Peckham, a man in your line of work should keep up his tetanus protection." John didn't tell him he too was a medical student.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Goodbye, pests!

For a week or more, Elizabeth and I have been meeting on the deck about nine for "rat watch." She spots them; I don't. Sophie barks at them. As I think I posted the other night, one fell out of the sky right next to Elizabeth, skittered dazedly around the deck, and took off. Fortunately, Sophie did not catch it. Last night Elizabeth activated (that's my right brain again--I don't do well with printed instructions) the sonic rat repeller I ordered. We think it worked! There was much less activity in the trees, and though Sophie sat on alert watch, she didn't find much to bark at.
Neighbor Susan has a theory: hawks are nesting a few blocks away, and they drove the rats out of their area to ours. Her husband keeps offering to go after them with a pellet gun, but I know what goes up must come down, and I'm fearful it will come down on Sophie. So our faith is in the rat repeller. We'll go out tonight to see if it works, and then that's the last joint rat watch for almost two weeks, as Elizabeth leaves for India tomorrow, taking a group of yoga students, including Susan.
Rat watch has a side benefit. Elizabeth and I have always been close, since she was my help-study worker in the office twenty years ago, but now we seem to bare our souls out there while watching rats (maybe it's the wine!). At any rate, I will miss her these next two weeks. And I do feel the bond between us has grown much stronger. Thanks, rats! My mom always told me all things work to some good end.
But there's another pest we worried about--mosquitoes and the ever-present threat of West Nile Virus. We used to slather ourselves with repellent--fortunately Elizabeth put me on to an organic one that doesn't smell so bad and doesn't have Deet. But some guests say, "No, I want the poison, the stuff with Deet." Jordan is obsessive about protecting Jacob, because the mosquitoes love him.
Now we have, thanks to Mary Dulle, a mosquito repellent lantern (boy, those were really complicated instructions and I thank Elizabeth and my good friend Linda for putting it together). We've discovered the last two nights that it's really effective.
So we sit in a rat-free (we think) and mosquito-free environment and listen to the tiny fountain that Katie Sherrod gave me. I mean, is that bliss or not?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Oh, rats!

Late one night a couple of weeks ago, my oldest daughter, Megan, and I sat on the deck, when the party was winding down and most everyone had left. "You hear that squeaking sound?" she asked. I said I did, and she said with great sureness, "It's rats." When I reported this to Elizabeth a night or two later, she said, "Do we know that she knows this for sure?"
The next night, Elizabeth came in and said, "Megan was right. I saw them."
So we've met for rat watch (with wine, of course) every night about eight-thirty or so. Elizabeth's night vision is better than mine, as is her hearing unless I have my hearing aids in. So she sees them and hears them (sometimes I do, and I caught a glimpse of a bold one going from the tree to the gutter one evening).
Last night was the kicker--a baby rat fell out of the sky (actually probably from a tree) and landed too close for comfort to Elizabeth. She and my friend Linda had just been discussing talking to the rats, explaining to them, that we know they're hungry but they should move on. When the rat fell, I said, "Just talk to it, Elizabeth." She did, but it's unprintable.
The attraction has been my fig bush. Every year something eats the figs, and I thought it was birds and squirrels, so we put up tin pie plates. But those don't phase rats--and Elizabeth has seen them eating figs. Tonight the fig tree is bare of fruit, but the squeaking was less and we only had two sightings.
Sophie has been vigilant throughout. She sits alert on the edge of the porch and occasionally dashes off to bark at a tree or branch. She has a grand time, and I suspect she at least keeps the rats off the ground. She did chase the one that landed at Elizabeth's feet but fortunately didn't catch it.
Greg, the lawn guy, think they'll move on now that the food supply is diminished. But I've had rats in my attic (and bats in my belfry) before and don't want to repeat the experience. I've ordered a sonic rat repeller.
It's lovely to be so surrounded by trees, but it does have drawbacks. And some year, I'd like to have my fig crop. My mom loved figs and often had a huge crop in North Carolina.