Monday, September 30, 2019

Of dreams and final exams

There it was again, that dream that I’ve had so often. It hasn’t come for quite some time, but last night it came again. I’m in college, but I haven’t been going to class—indeed, don’t know how to find the classroom for whatever subject is involved. Of course, I haven’t been studying or keeping up. The dream takes several forms—sometimes I’m taking a class I despise, like paleontology. Sometimes it’s a subject I’m fairly good at but would still need to do the assignments. It always ends with my assuring myself that I already have a college degree, and I don’t need these credits. I’m told it’s the almost the most common recurring dream for many adults.

Last night’s version was a bit different. I knew I had a doctorate in English, but I wanted to teach, so I was back in school taking philosophy, English and French. I had to spend all my time on a thick, dense philosophy book, so I ignored English and French, subjects I’ve always been good at. There are several flaws in this dream: I never wanted to teach, because while I’m pretty good at leading workshops, I’m lousy at regular classroom presentations. I’ve done enough teaching at the college level in my day to know that I don’t shine in the classroom. But I wouldn’t need to go back to school if I wanted to teach—I have the qualifications already. So where did this come from?

Psychologists are reluctant to offer firm theories about dream interpretation, but off the record some suggest that this dream is typical of type A personalities, people with strong ambition and drive who like to be in control, feel a sense of urgency, and value success (guilty!). The dream is likely to come in times of stress, when the dreamer is afraid of not meeting a certain goal (guilty again!).

I would tell you there’s no stress in my life, but that’s not true. I suspect I live in a state of perpetual stress. Right now, the fact that I’m not enjoying driving my car and dread outings where I must drive alone is stressing me, but I can push that to the back of my mind. More prominent, and I recognize it, is stress over my current work-in-progress, the history of a major Texas ranch and the family who owned it for 165 years.

I finished a first draft, getting all the facts, the chronology, the timeline in order. The result is a manuscript that is much shorter than my editor wants, and when I read it, all I could think was “vanilla, it’s plain vanilla.” I know, from working with this editor before, what I must do—I have to go back and interject my storytelling skills, insert fictional scenes and dialogue to make it lively and readable. Of course, that horrifies historians, so I’m caught betwixt and between. But I will go back and begin editing all over again. I just keep procrastinating, and it weighs on my mind. Right now, I’m doing the easy stuff—reading for typos and repetition (gosh, there’s a lot of that) and stylistic inconsistencies. But I’m going to have to buckle down and get serious.

It’s easy to procrastinate these days, what with the national turmoil. I would say I spent a large portion of the morning reading about the latest developments, the latest intrigue—and posting responses online. Last night, a friend who is a political activist said to me, “Keep your opinions coming. They’re valuable.” I hope she’s happy today, because so many things I read about trump and Barr and Giuliani cried out to be shared, information that any intelligent voter needs to know. We live in perilous times, and I think the most important factor is an informed public—some will scoff and cry “fake news,” but the tide has turned.

Tomorrow I’ll get serious about that book.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Becoming my mother and thoughts on someone else’s long marriage….

They say we women all become our mothers as we age. When my mom got older, she had a series of strokes which affected her ability to think clearly. One little result of that bothered me a lot—her clothes were always spotted. You could tell what Mom had for lunch by looking at her outfit. I swore I would never get there, but today I happened to look down at the T-shirt I sleep in. You can count how many times I’ve brushed my teeth by the drips of toothpaste! And then there’s that spot of marinara.

Another clothing faux pas. I wore what I thought was a cute, coordinated outfit to church this morning. As a matter of fact I also wore it to dinner last night. A turquoise-and-gray top, with gray pants and gray shoes. Imagine my surprise when we got home at noon and I looked down in broad, full daylight only to discover that my pants, far from gray, were blue. I asked Jordan why she didn’t tell me, and she said she didn’t notice. Maybe no one else did either.

Tonight I went to a dinner party and managed, I think, to wear an appropriate outfit—okay, that turquoise top again but with gray pants this time—and not to dribble food on my shirt, though we were in a Mexican restaurant with plenty of opportunity for dribbling salsa and pico de gallo. I gathered with some fifty other people to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of friends Carol Roark and Lon Burnam. We celebrated our friends and clapped when Lon made a short speech about their first meeting.

The whole gathering was like a mini-meeting of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, and we were all energized, even before the news went around the room that Nancy Pelosi had lunch in Fort Worth today with a couple who were in the very room with us.

For me, the party was a chance to see friends I hadn’t seen in a while and sort of catch up, though the noise level was extreme and half the time I couldn’t hear what someone was saying to me. Still, I managed to re-hook with a friend that I thought had moved out of my life and to garner a speaking arrangement for spring, after my Alamo book comes out. So it was fun, with an extra layer of good for me.

Lon is a former Texas legislator and now a consultant for causes he cares passionately about, like world peace and nuclear waste and the environment. Carol, a historian and librarian, retired as director of the Texas Collection at the Dallas Public Library and now pursues independent projects she cares about, like digitalizing records of the local black genealogy society. She also writes books and has edited some of mine. They travel frequently, sometimes together but often not. Seeing a couple like Lon and Carol, with a long marriage but yet degrees of independence, makes me think of those wonderful words from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra”:

Grow Old with me,

                The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made . . . .

They fill me with admiration for what they have accomplished, because I know the forty years haven’t always been easy, but as a survivor of a marriage gone terribly wrong, I also admit o a twinge of jealousy. Happy longevity is something not many achieve. God bless them.


Saturday, September 28, 2019

Old friends, good times

I love these ladies! We have been friends for at least forty years, probably more. Three of us are the divorced ex-wives of osteopathic physicians. In one of life’s little ironies, two of those men are deceased, while we party merrily on. The fourth woman is the widow of a physician all of us loved. We have gone our separate ways, sometimes for long periods of time, but then one or two at a time, we come back together again. For the last year or two all four of us have come together for dinner every couple of months. When one of them thanked me for once again organizing a get-together, I repeated what I often say: Friendships are like gardens. You have to tend to them and cultivate them.

We caught up on children and grandchildren. We rejoiced with one who has just had a major surgery and reassured another who faces surgery soon—signs of aging, I guess. We oohed and aahed over one whose son was moving back close to her and lamented other children far away. We talked of people we knew and missed. When one name came up of someone who’d dropped from our radar due to personal and health problems, someone said, “She should know that we still care about her.” Most names brought us happy memories, though there were a few snarky comments about some of the people in our shared past. All in all it was a joyful, happy evening.

We met at Ellerbe’s, where the service and the food are both fine. When they started to seat us on their second level, I suggested as politely as I could that their ramp was a bit steep for my walker. It took a little fiddling, but they found us a table downstairs. Our waiter was charming, took this picture of us, and let us linger over three courses of dinner—I never ever eat an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert, but I did tonight. Actually I had two appetizers—one when others had their salad and one as an entrée. And  brownie as dessert. Result is that I am almost uncomfortable tonight—too rich, too good. One of those lovely evenings that leaves me happy with my life.

Speaking of tending friendships like gardens, there was gardening going on at our place this morning. Our neighbor had a mountain of mulch dumped in his driveway. After he had, as he said, mulched everything on his property twice, he asked what we wanted. The picture below is the best I
could do through my office window of the neighbor and Jordan mulching the bed under my window, under Jacob’s supervision (sorry about the green lamp in the foreground). Jacob did work harder at other times—I saw him spreading mulch and shoveling it into the wheelbarrow. That stuff smells so good—like the best parts of a barnyard. Far as I can tell, there’s still a mountain of mulch in the driveway next door—and the wife’s car is in the back yard, hemmed in by the mulch. Which I guess is all right because she is staying home with a two-week-old beautiful baby girl.

Menu items that recently struck me: last night on the menu at the Italian place where we dined, chocolate salami was on the menu. And today I saw an ad for kale candy canes—I don’t even like kale in salads, but I love salami. Not chocolate though. Two food adventures I’ll be skipping.

Blessed Sunday ahead, everyone.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Bragging on a grandchild

My Apple genius granddaughter
As you may remember, I did a face plant on the bathroom floor at two a.m. three weeks ago. Glad to report my bruises are almost gone. But when I fell, my Apple watch did not call Colin or Jordan as it is programmed to do. That was the main reason Colin gave me the watch. So we’ve been wondering and worrying and planning to go to the Apple Store whenever Colin comes up here or I go to Tomball.

But today I had an inspiration. My oldest granddaughter is a student at Colorado University and works part time behind a genius bar at an Apple Store in Boulder. I sent her a long email, detailing my woes, and then spent the afternoon texting with her as she walked me through checking various settings. I had to apologize for my denseness, but she was sweet and patient—gave me clear instructions where to find various settings. Finally, she suggested that old remedy—turn it off and let it re-start. Then Jordan called me as a test—and voila! It worked! I can answer calls on my watch, and should I fall again it should notify Colin and Jordan.

When Colin gave me the phone, he said, “Now if you’d just fall on the floor, we can trust that it works.” I declined, and I decline to test it again, but I feel reassured—not that I plan to fall again!

Different kind of evening tonight—it was Central Market’s 25th anniversary celebration. Mary had two tickets and her husband was not interested, so she and I wandered the market while he sat in the café and read. I don’t get inside Central Market often anymore because I used their curbside pickup service, but it was fun to go up one aisle and down another, spotting several items I forgot about but will now remember for my next order—the pimiento cheese I like, chicken sausage with spinach.

The celebration consisted of different food stations and involved a lot of waiting in slow lines, but I got one of their motorized carts and waited in comfort, looking around at people and groceries all the while. At each station, the serving was small, but I still felt like I’d eaten when we got through. We had a good green salad with crisp apples, cheddar, and a vinaigrette—delicious; a bite of strip steak with micro greens—steak was good, greens had no dressing so weren’t appealing; crab bites (I was afraid they had shrimp and didn’t try, though I can eat crab and love it), sushi, chocolate with a bite of orange, crisp toast with citrus and yogurt, ice cream with Balsamic vinegar drizzle, bread and butter, Parmesan with a pear/Balsamic drizzle. We skipped the salmon bite and the station with jalapeno bites and margaritas.

I did just a bit of grocery shopping, and Mary was patient about fetching items I needed—avocados on sale, a special cheddar that has Roquefort embedded in it, chips and Jordan’s favorite dip.

Mary, Joe and I went to dinner afterward at an Italian place where they had pizza and I couldn’t even finish my Caesar salad. Good visit, good times.

Another of those evenings when I was struck by how good people are to the handicapped. One group at Central Market urged me to get in line ahead of them. I thanked them profusely and explained I was waiting for someone; a woman stayed behind to open the restroom door for me—the kind of door I often struggle with. She saw me out with a cheerful, “You have a good one.” Such incidents reinforce my faith that most people are good. Got to remember that in these trying days.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Tidbits from a significant day

Somehow, today, a blog about what I did today or how cute my dog was doesn’t seem appropriate. I have tried to stay away from politics in my blog and confine my comments to independent posts on Facebook, but as several people have said, today was not about politics. It was about the future of our country. I feel this has been a significant day in American history—the day Americans, or their representatives in Congress, finally got fed up and said, “Enough is too much.”

It’s also been a busy day. Random thoughts cross my mind, some about Greta Thunberg who I think is absolutely amazing. She has the courage and class that those attacking her will never achieve, and her passion has built an enormous following in just over a year. To think of a sixteen-year-old addressing the United Nations—power to the youth! One of the best things I saw today was a picture of her talking with Jane Goodall, their faces lit as their eyes locked. You could almost feel the palpable bond between these two crusaders. And one of the funniest is that image of her glaring at trump. At first, I thought his comments about her were just vacuous, the mumblings of a disordered mind that didn’t know what to say. But then I realized that gave him too much credit—he was openly mocking this girl who understands the world and science in ways he unfortunately never will be capable of grasping.

One of the worst things I saw today was our squatting president addressing the UN and calling for isolationism. With modern technology in everything from communications to weaponry linking us inescapably to every far corner of the earth, how in the world does he expect that idea to fly? It was naïve, self-serving, and outright stupid. It justifies his bigotry and his apparent desire to make America not just great again, but white again. I was pleased to see that Congress today began considering the legitimacy of his ban on Muslim travelers to the U.S.—just now? Better late than never, I guess.

A cheering thing today: the UK Supreme Court bashing Boris Johnson and declaring his suspension of Parliament illegal. What a world we live in when the two mightiest Anglo countries are in such political crisis (though I don’t think we can continue to call America an Anglo country, except possibly by heritage and tradition). With impeachment set for trump and the probable resignation of Johnson, it’s as though, however briefly, the good guys are winning.

Of course, Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of impeachment proceedings was the big news of this busy day. Do I expect those proceedings to remove trump from office? Absolutely not, though it would be a welcome miracle. Do I expect the House to vote for impeachment? Absolutely yes. And that will expose the extent of trump’s corruption, treachery, and quite possibly treason. And the Senate will be put in the difficult position of either convicting or defending a terribly corrupt man at the helm of our country. (Did everyone hear that the other day he began a speech with, “When I took over America….”? Enough to make your blood crawl.)

Impeachment based on the Ukrainian scandal overlooks a list of sins so long that I’s hard to put it into words. Someone posted a list of trump’s abuses of authority recently and when I printed it out, it came to almost three pages. We can’t overlook the leaking of classified information, the confiscation of needed military funds to build the wall which is his obsession, his affinity for dictators and his alienation of our traditional allies, his obviously shaky mental state, his flagrant abuse of the emoluments clause—I could go on for three pages. But if the Ukraine scandal is the thing that does it, so be it. I will be grateful.

It's going to be a rocky ride, folks, and an interesting fall, but I am hopeful, and I have faith in the American process and the American people. Today, we said, “No more.”

Monday, September 23, 2019

Shades of a bygone era

Seems to me that every day we lose a bit of graciousness in this country, a sort of soft slipping away of a kindlier, gentler way of living. I read with dismay that Amtrak is going to discontinue dining cars and fresh, cooked-to-order food on its trains.

I’m dating myself badly with these thoughts, but I grew up in the era of the trains. My father’s family lived in suburbs or Toronto, and every summer we traveled from Chicago to Ontario to visit. Some years we drove, but the best were the years we took the train. I slept in Pullman berths, where the porter made your seat into a bed and when you were safely tucked in, drew the curtain so you had privacy. Those berths were double-decker, but being young, I was never allowed on the top berth, and I usually slept with my mom. But I have clear memories of waking in the night when the train stopped at a station and looking out the window at the people gathered on the platform. In the mornings, you wakened, made your way to the loo, took care of business, and brushed your teeth. Then, scrunched in that berth, you dressed quickly so as to be ready for breakfast in the dining car.

Some years Dad splurged, and we had a bedroom, with a commode that masqueraded as a plush-covered seat right out in the middle of the roomette. You still had berths, and I still slept in the bottom. The porter would knock gently on your door to tell you it was time for breakfast.

Best of all in those trips was the dining car, with white linen tablecloths and napkins, and goblets of ice water, and porters in starched white jackets—do I really remember they also wore white cotton gloves. I was probably ten or under on those trips, so the food didn’t impress me so much, though everything I hear is that it was elegant and delicious. I remember being catered to by kindly men who seemed to anticipate my every wish. And I thought it was wonderful to sit at those tables, with my parents, and watch the landscape go by—probably by morning we were well into southern Ontario.

A few years ago, research for my Chicago novel, The Gilded Cage, brought me smack up against George Pullman, the man who invented the Pullman car and revolutionized railroad travel. Along with Marshall Field and Palmer Potter of the Palmer House Hotel, he was one of the robber barons of Chicago who believed in helping the poor—as long as the poor obeyed their rules.

In the 1880s, Pullman built a model community on Chicago’s far South Side, called appropriately Pullmantown, for his employees. This community of look-alike houses was luxurious in its day for its amenities—indoor plumbing, gas, and sewers. But residents had to follow a strict code of behavior. Pullman believed that fresh country air—no saloons, no red-light district, no labor agitators—would lead to happy contented workers. Residents paid rent to the company and shopped at the company store, worshipped at approved churches. Newspapers were not permitted, nor were public gatherings, speeches, and the like which might agitate people. Step out of line, and you lost your job and your home.

The panic of 1893 caused Pullman’s business to falter, so he cut jobs, laid men off, and raised rents. The result was predictable—the nationwide, bloody Pullman Strike of 1894. Sort of takes a bit of luster off the memory of my 1940s trips in Pullmans.

So these days, were supposed take the train and eat packaged food. Amtrak has lots of reasons it’s more practical, more convenient, will satisfy more customers. My daughter, who probably only has vague memories of an uncomfortable train trip to San Diego sleeping in freezing cold coach cars, assures me this is better. More practical, and people will get what they want. And I am left with visions of all those disposable dishes adding to our planet’s waste problems.

Me? I think I’ll just travel by Vonlane luxury motor coach from now on. Sure, it’s pre-packaged food, but attendants anticipate your every need, bring you pillows and blankets, serve you wine. And best of all? It’s always on time.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Working the room

Last night there was a wedding reception for some of Jordan’s closest friends. They married some months ago in a small, family ceremony and just had the reception last night at La Puertita (the chapel) at Joe T. Garcia’s. I was pleased to be invited, though Jordan had some words of caution. Basically, she said she and Christian would “park” me at a table while they mingled and socialized. In my day, we called that “working the room,” basically moving around the room, chatting briefly with this one and that, never getting caught in a long conversation, meeting new people. A networking skill that takes a bit of practice, but before the walker I was pretty good at it. (Maybe I should divide my life into before and after the walker—naw, I have better divisions.)

True to her promise, they parked me at the first table inside the door, and I was a captive because Jordan folded my walker and stuck it against a wall out of my reach. I need not have worried about solitude though—since I couldn’t work the room, much of the room came to me. I am so blessed to be friends with many of my children’s friends. A steady stream of people came to give me a hug, sit for a minute in the chair next to me, share people-watching with me. The bride’s mother, whom I’ve met, came over to make sure someone would fetch me a cheese nacho, and the bride’s father, whom I’d not met, came and sat for a chat. So did both her sisters, and the groom wandered over twice to be sure I was taken care of.

A couple of wives I’d not met—both from our neighborhood—came to chat, saying they knew all about me and my books (nice bit of flattery) and one husband I’m fond of settled in for a political discussion (we agree heartily!). Jordan’s BFF, David, was solo because his wife was in Dallas, so he sat next to me for longer periods of time. He’d wander away—to work the room, I suppose—and then come back, and we shared some good laughs.

When the buffet opened, Jordan brought me a plate (how could she forget I love those beans?). David and Christian settled on one side of me, Jordan and Amye on the other,  with Marj and Colman across the table, and I met some folks, also around the table who were new to me. The food was predictable and familiar—it’s good to have “the dinner” every once in a while.

The young people dropped me off at home about 9:30 and went on to party, although the bride had suggested I could party with them and be the designated driver. David pointed to my glass of wine and said, “Too late for that.” I was glad to be home but oh so glad I went to the party.

It was a social weekend. Friday night, some new neighbors came for supper. Jordan, Christian, and I collaborated on the cooking—she made mashed potatoes, he roasted a tenderloin and made sauces, and I made a big, green salad that, believe it or not, sits in the fridge overnight, plus a goat cheese/wasabi appetizer. We had fun getting to know these people—seems when you first meet people you always have so much to talk about. She is a stay-at-home mom of four (I could relate to that) and he, a surgeon at the county hospital, so we had a bit of talk about the new medical school. All in all, lots of fun—and, again, lots of laughter.

Now to settle down to work.
Chandry and Jordan showing off their high heels.
How do they walk in those things?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Fall might really come to Texas

Jacob with Kit, our newest neighbor
I think the high today was something like 82—a blessed relief. People have complained long and loud about the endless summer, but to my memory after over fifty years in Texas, September is always hot. We can’t count on it to cool down until the first of October, so if temperatures are dropping now, it’s an early blessing. I notice in the evenings, with my patio door open, there is a refreshing breeze.

Of course, Texas hasn’t escaped weather woes. The flooding in southeastern Texas is a major disaster, much of it in an area just recovering from Hurricane Harvey. I am grateful that daughter-in-law Lisa reports that she and my Tomball grandchildren are high and dry—this morning she said they could get a deluge, but tonight she reports it skipped them. Tomball is far enough northwest of Houston, I guess, that it was spared. But my son Colin is stranded in Atlanta tonight because Houston International Airport is closed. Wish I’d suggested he fly into Dallas/Fort Worth, but I know he’s anxious to get home to Tomball. And I’m glad he’s not on those highways tonight.

We have a new baby girl next door to us, and Jordan got a picture of a smiling Jacob holding her. Yeah, she looks a bit scrunched up, but it doesn’t seem to bother her—she’s sleeping peacefully. Jacob always wanted a baby sister. Once when he was about three, I caught him cradling a crumpled up set of pajamas in his arms. He looked at me and explained, “This is my baby sister.” I guess the Lord never saw fit to give us that little girl. Her name was chosen, and Jacob has been told it’s now his name for his first daughter.

A peaceful, quiet day in the cottage. I got some work done—a blog, some copy for a newsletter, and a rough rough start on an epilogue to my book about the Waggoner ranch and its place in Texas history. That kind of stuff is hard to write. There’s no research in front of you, just the whole body of what you’ve written from which you have to draw conclusions. I had promised my editor the book would have a feminist slant—now I’m not sure that’s working out. She’s terrific though, and I’m looking forward to her comments.

I decided spending days at home is not good for me, although I’ve gotten out every day this week. But just to get out, I took a shirt to the cleaners. Part of the value of that was the driving—my old insecurities about driving have started to come back, but today I was delighted with how comfortable I felt behind the wheel of my 2004 VW convertible. I do love that car, and I can easily make it twist and turn to avoid Jordan’s big SUV parked next to me, the new fence, and the gate in our jiggedy-jogging 1920s driveway. I’m going to keep doing small errands. Besides, the shirt is a favorite and I want it back yesterday! The cleaners, knowing about my walker, gives me cheerful curbside service. People are so nice for the most part.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Thoughts on Fort Worth's new medical school

Today I went to the TCU Retirees luncheon to hear Dr. Stuart Flynn, the founding dean of the new TCU and UNTHSC medical school. As I listened to him talk about training empathetic students, memories of my own experience with osteopathic medical school came flooding back.

No, I never was a student, and I didn’t marry my husband until a few days after his graduation, so I didn’t really earn that PHT (pushing hubby through) certificate. But my affiliation with osteopathic medicine is lifelong, and my involvement with the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine was intense in the 1970s. I am the daughter of the president of an osteopathic college, the sister of a former clinical dean of TCOM, the niece and cousin of several (most now passed on), and the aunt of two practicing D.O.s. I take my heritage seriously. My ex- was founding chair of the department of surgery when TCOM opened in 1970, and I was director of communications (and then assistant) in the late seventies. I like to say I grew up at TCOM and its sister hospital, Fort Worth Osteopathic.

I applauded today when Dr. Flynn stressed training empathetic scholars and the importance of the doctor/patient relationship. Patients, he said, want to be seen as people, not “the hip” in Room 215 or “the gallbladder” in 240. He talked about bedside manner, and teaching students to look a patient in the eye. All good stuff, and it took me back to the late ’70s when TCOM developed a whole new approach to the medical school curriculum. Instead of emphasizing the treatment of disease, they designed a curriculum that emphasized wellness and the prevention of disease. I remember my good friend Charles Ogilvie developed a wellness scale, with ten being optimum health and one, miserable illness. If I remember correctly, most people live at about six or seven, and the goal was to raise that number. So what happened? Students did abysmally on state medical exams. They had been taught humanistic medicine, but no one taught them to the test (teaching to the test is a problem with education from kindergarten on up to my mind).

So it’s lovely to see this more humane approach today, but to me it seemed like re-inventing the wheel. Especially with the new school’s close affiliation  with the parent of TCOM, where that philosophy has long prevailed.

My question to Dr. Flynn, had I lingered, would have been, “What does your school bring to the table that isn’t already on the table? Other than the fact that a medical school is a feather in TCU’s cap, what’s the reason for two medical schools in one city? Can Fort Worth, with only one major county/trauma hospital, provide enough clinical opportunities to train these young people? Empathy is major, but so is clinical knowledge and experience.

There is still a crying need for more physicians in Texas, especially in rural areas. This was the case when TCOM opened, with the stated goal of training physicians who would go into rural areas. But one of the arguments for an M.D. school has long been that it would attract heavier research funding. To my mind, research trains specialists who are unlikely to then go to rural areas where family physicians are needed.

I know my knowledge of medical education is woefully out of date. I do know, for instance, that students begin clinical experience in their first year instead of the old system whereby they spent the first two years studying basic sciences and the last two in clinical rotations. A great change that puts that doctor/patient relationship in the foreground immediately. And no more one-year internships, as in my day. Students must do a three- or four-year residency, with slots somehow assigned by some sort of national clearinghouse. Only there aren’t enough slots for the students that attend medical school. Is it fair to enroll a student for whom there might not be the required post-grad slot?

Maybe I’m just defensive about osteopathic medicine—a lifelong habit. But I really wish I could have talked with Dr. Flynn. Maybe he’ll talk to the retirees again in a couple of years and I can send him my questions. Who knows? It may all be clear by then. I wish the new school much success, but I don’t want it to crowd out traditional osteopathic medicine.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Tears of joy, tears of sadness

It’s been a week of mixed blessings on our block of Park Place Avenue. One family lost a beloved grandfather; another welcomed a brand new baby girl. So Jordan and I are making a double batch of our standby recipe—Doris’ casserole.

This is a family favorite, beloved by all but one of my children (she doesn’t like cream cheese, sour cream, etc.). It was served to me at a dinner party nearly fifty years go by a woman named Doris. If I remember the story correctly, it was called Mrs. America’s Beef Casserole. A friend who also makes it calls it American lasagna. Doris’ husband was a resident in training, with my ex, and when he completed his training, they moved to Granbury. I didn’t see much of Doris in later years but when I did she barely remembered the casserole. Doris died several years ago, and I think that the recipe lives on is a nice tribute to her.

In fact, the recipe has become ubiquitous. It was included in my first cookbook—Cooking My Way through Life with Kids and Books. It’s been served at a TCU luncheon and one son’s decade-changing birthday, served to countless guess in my home and Jordan’s, and reprinted in countless guest blogs. I guess you’d call is my signature dish, though Jordan makes it as often as I do

Doris Casserole

First layer:

1 lb. ground beef

1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes

1 8 oz. can tomato sauce

2 cloves garlic, crushed in garlic press

2 tsp each sugar and salt (I cut back on those but sugar is important in tomato-based sauces—my mom taught me years ago it sort of rounds it off.)

Pepper to taste

Brown ground beef in skillet. Drain grease and return to skillet. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer 20 minutes, until it thickens a little.

Spread in a 9 x 13 pan.

I gave the recipe to a friend who insisted the noodle layer should come first. I assured her it shouldn’t.

For noodle layer:

5 oz. (approximately—they don’t come in this size pkg.) egg noodles

3 oz. pkg. cream cheese (here again, you have to fudge; cream cheese doesn’t come in 3 oz. pkg. anymore)

1 c. sour cream

6 green onions chopped, with some of the tops included

Cook egg noodles and drain. While the noodles are hot, stir in cream cheese, sour cream, and green onions. Spread over meat mixture.


1-1/2 cups (or more) grated cheddar cheese (do not ever buy pre-grated cheese; it has wood particles to keep it from clumping. For heaven’s sake, it’s not that much trouble to grate it yourself. No, that is not something I read on Facebook and took for gospel. The cheese monger at Central Market told me about this.

Top the casserole with grated cheddar, bake 35 minutes at 350 or until bubbly and cheese is slightly browned.

This is supposed to feed six, but it disappears quickly. Leftovers, if any, freeze well.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

A brag—and some thoughts on writing

You know what a bad thing it is when a bridesmaid outshines the bride? Well, I think these two ushers outshone the groom last night (with apologies to Gavin Hudgeons). My Austin grandsons, Sawyer (curly hair) and Ford, were ushers at their uncle’s wedding and, according to reports, did a great job. No, they’re not twins—just real close in age.

Do you ever get a phrase or saying stuck in your mind like an earworm? The one that’s stuck in my mind is so silly I almost hesitate to admit it. “Writing floats my boat.” Of course, there’s a story behind it. I’ve been sort of hibernating while my face heals, and, frankly, I’m getting cabin fever and feeling a bit sorry for myself. And there’s another factor in this mix—I can now see the end of the project I’m working on. Whereas before I knew where it had to go each day, I’ve now gotten to the end and am fitting in odd bits of information where they’ll work best. There’s no way finishing this—even with a photo search—will take until the May deadline. For years my big fear as I finish a project has been, “What will I do next?” And that’s where I am now.

I find myself procrastinating, fiddling the day away without any substantial work—there is still work to be done. But I read or I spend too long on email and Facebook or I cook (my great distraction). And then I’m not happy with myself and don’t feel good. (Didn’t know you were going to get armchair psychanalysis, did you?)

Anyway that’s how I felt the other night when I suddenly sat down and wrote a blog that I think was one of my better ones. The words came fast, and I was pleased with what I produced—and all of a sudden, I felt much better about myself. And that’s when the phrase came to me: Writing floats my boat. I am a much better, happier person when I have a project I can dig into. If I didn't write, I'd wake every morning wondering what I was going to do with the day. 

So I’ll pay attention to business, finish this book and send it off to be edited, and move on to a new project. I have a couple of ideas.

Happy start of a new week, everyone!

Saturday, September 14, 2019


Every day Jordan says to me, “You look so much better today.” It’s affirming to have her say that, and maybe her positive attitude does speed up my healing. This picture is me two weeks after my great face-plant on the bathroom floor. What looked bad enough that morning two weeks ago got worse as the bruises migrated around my face, following facial planes or the lymphatic system. I only landed on one side of my face, and we were surprised that the bruising jumped my nose to give me another black eye and then, a couple of days later, made slight line across the bridge of my nose. One friend looked at me and exclaimed, “You’re bilateral now.”

I’ve kind of stuck close to home so as not to raise curiosity, but I have gone out to eat a few times. Sometimes no one notices, but at Carshon’s deli the other day I got lots of attention, first and foremost from the staff who know me well. But then a woman across the room smiled at me in such a friendly way I had a moment of panic, thinking do I know her and not remember? No worries. She came over and said, so kindly, “You’ve had a bad fall, and I’m so sorry.” We chatted for a bit, with details of my fall and how lucky I am, and she ended with a story that made me hoot. A woman sprayed hair spray into the toilet (I’m not sure why—odor control?). Her husband came along, sat on the toilet, and threw his cigarette into it. The whole thing exploded, leaving him I’m sure with unmentionable injuries. That lady really brightened my day.

But a few minutes later I looked up and saw a table of four men, their heads all turned to stare at me. My friend Carol said they were probably imagining some lurid tale of a jealous lover who beat me. I think I’m a little old for that.

Today, when I realized I do look better, I tried to take selfies to show that. I absolutely give up. I look awful in any selfie I’ve ever taken—old, saggy flesh, gray stringy hair. I even went and powdered my face, but there was no improvement. Jordan came along and took the picture above, and while I’m no raving beauty I look a hundred times better than the selfies I took.

I had a friend once who commiserated with me about the fact that I am anything but photogenic. Bobbie, now passed on and much missed by me and my family, was half mother figure half friend, a real soulmate. My kids used to say, “Bobbie tells it like it is.” In this case, she said something to the effect of  “Bless your heart, you don’t look nearly that bad in real life.” Thanks a lot. My children, on the other hand, are all terrifically photogenic. Makes me want to slap them upside the head.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The back story behind a novel


Today is what I’m calling a soft launch for a reprint of one of my early novels about Texas, So Far from Paradise. But I’m sharing the story behind this one, because I think it’s kind of interesting. I hope you will too.

In 1986 a kind of fervor swept Texas as the state prepared to celebrate its 150th anniversary. The governor appointed a Texas Sesquicentennial Commission, cities hired special coordinators to oversee events, and everyone practiced pronouncing “sesquicentennial.” Larry Swindell, then-book editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, called me to say he was looking for a novelist to do a commissioned work for the newspaper. I immediately suggested Elmer Kelton. Larry countered with, “I like the idea of Judy Alter.” At that point in my career I had only published two young-adult novels. Me, take on a long adult novel? I hemmed and hawed and suggested other people, but Larry was persistent. Suddenly it dawned on me I was looking opportunity in the eye and about to blink. I agreed to write a novel that would be serialized in the paper. Shades of Charles Dickens.

Larry was liaison for the project, and I remember him emphatically declaring, “We are not going to write a novel by committee.” He was available and generous with his advice, but he never dictated. I was on my own, a greenhorn at fiction, but I produced 75,000 words which were published in twice-weekly installments. The newspaper provided striking illustrations.

Reaction to the novel was a surprise to me. One woman called to say that her great-grandfather lived in Paradise (it actually is a small town in Texas), and I responded with a polite, “Really?” She was a bit exasperated when she replied, “Don’t you see? They would have known each other.” A man wrote to say he’d gotten a degree from TCU and did any of the Beldens go to TCU? My fiction had become my readers’ reality—a high compliment, I think. I admit I got used to answering the phone to hear praise, so it was a shock one day when I cheerily said, “This is Judy Alter” and the voice on the other end informed me it was the IRS calling and my ex- and I owed them a bunch of money.

The year came and went, and Sesquicentennial faded as folks moved on to other things. I began writing historical fiction in earnest, put So Far from Paradise behind me, and sailed on to a career that involved historical fiction, cozy mysteries, cookbooks, a book column or two, essays, book reviews, even blogging. Lately though, my research has turned back toward Texas and its rich history, and suddenly So Far from Paradise seemed relevant again. Thanks to Steve Coffman, editor, and McClatchy newspapers for giving me permission to give the novel new life as an eBook.

Ranching is a man’s story, but in So Far from Paradise, Cassie Belden recalls the story from a woman’s point of view—life on the plains of North Texas, the Comanche and Kiowa raids, the cattle drives, the building of an empire, and finally the move to Fort Worth, where the city shaped her family’s life even as the cattle barons shaped the city of cowboys and culture.

Fort Worth historian Carol Roark, who edited this go-around for me, said the novel reads like a cozy only it’s a western, not a mystery. Maybe I’ve, unconsciously, combined the two genres that have always held my attention.

So Far from Paradise, as an eBook, is available for $3.99 on Amazon, Kobo, B&N, Apple Books, Tolino, and several subscription services.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

You really can’t go home again

Friend Jean told me that the newspaper had a feature on the Indiana Dunes and she thought that was where my family and I spent summers. It was, and I was excited about seeing the article, anticipating memory-evoking prose and maybe some familiar scenes. She brought me the article when we had supper at Tokyo Café tonight, and I could hardly wait to get home to read it.

A major disappointment. At first glance, I thought it wonderful that the Dunes had been upgraded to national park status, but reading further on I realized that the national park is a much larger swath of land that encompasses the smaller Indiana Dunes State Park of my memory. A major highway cuts through the national park which also encompasses such surrounding towns as Chesterton, Valparaiso, and Beverly Shores—all familiar names from my day but surely not part of the park. Tours suggest staying in those towns, down to what B&Bs and restaurants are recommended.

In my day, some sixty-plus years ago, there were two entries to the park—the beach, which featured a pavilion—we called it The Pavilion—which was always to my mind crowded and dirty. People were not careful with their bathroom habits, their food, and their trash. To get to our secluded cabin by the beach, we would have had to pick our way through crowds of beach bathers (I have less attractive names for them) and then walk a mile down the beach, in the hot sun, carrying whatever we needed. My family much preferred the woods.

We would park in a small parking lot with a canteen that was sometimes open, sometimes not. Then out came the duffel bags and backpacks because we had to carry clothes, groceries, books, whatever we needed, and we headed into the woods. I can almost follow the route and the various trails in my memory, though surely if I were there today, I’d be lost. Usually we went in the daytime, but I remember one night when Dad stopped all of us on the trail to let a skunk pass. A mile of up and down on sandy trails, watching for poison ivy, and we were home, home being a small cabin with no running water (a cistern pump), no electricity, and an outhouse. We thought we were uptown when we got bottled gas for cooking and a real refrigerator.

The back of our cabin looked out over the serene woods, while the front, high up on a dune, offered a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. The cabin sat literally at the southernmost tip of the vast lake, and it was where I learned to love storms, watching them roll down the length of the lake from the north.

I got no sense of that long lost world from the article, which seemed written for the tourist who wants to drive, in comfort, from one B&B to the next one, with a nod to those who want to hike. A two-mile trail takes in the Bailly homestead, site of early settlers to the area. It was definitely not in the park I knew.

My dad and a friend owned the cabin as bachelor physicians, and we continued to share it with that other family all the years I remember. Sometime along the way the State of Indiana exercised it eminent domain rights and took over the cabins, leasing them back to previous owners every year. It was always a waiting game—would the lease arrive this year? In 1969, the year my folks retired and moved to North Carolina, the lease was cancelled. The state rented the cabins as weekend getaways for a few years and then burned them all.

I don’t think I could bear to go back and see the spot where our cabin stood, though the way dunes shift and change the landscape, I probably couldn’t even find it. But I often go back in my mind. I had a favorite spot, halfway down the dune to the beach, on a path to friends’ cabin. There was a little outcropping, and at sunset I could sit there, my arm around Timmy, our collie mix, and watch the sun set behind the skyscrapers of Chicago, some forty miles across the lake. The sun would be a huge red ball and the skyscrapers, tiny black dots in front of it. Sitting there, in my mind these days, I am in my safe spot.

I guess maybe memories are better than today’s reality.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Two kids from Chicago

For almost ten years, I turned from writing about the American West to writing mysteries, albeit all set in contemporary Texas. But life brings you funny opportunities, and a sad death opened a door for me—it’s a long story, but when my friend Debra Winegarten knew she was dying, she asked me to write the Alamo book for which she’d done so much research. I had encouraged her work on this project, urged her to set other things aside and focus on it, because it was a book I would have loved to write and I thought it offered her a great opportunity to enlarge what was already a burgeoning career. You’d have had to know Deb to understand that, but she was the Energizer Bunny with boundless enthusiasm and incredible chutzpah (good Jewish girl that she was, she’d have loved that description). Her most outstanding trait: she made outrageous requests of publishers and others and usually got what she was after—a lesson for all of us to put timidity aside. With some sadness, I took over project. The Second Battle of the Alamo will debut next March, probably on the 7th and probably at the annual meeting of the Alamo Society at the historic Menger Hotel in San Antonio. I hope Debra will be there in spirit and is looking down on me as I write tonight, on the first anniversary of her death.

That book led to another contract with the same publisher—Globe Pequot—and the same editor—Erin Turner, who I like a lot and feel fortunate to work with again. So now I’ve been researching the Waggoner Ranch in North Texas, still to this day the largest ranch in Texas under one fence. It’s a fascinating story that ultimately boils down to a conflict between heritage and wealth. With a history of the grit and determination that built the ranch, the last heirs sold the land in 2017. Wealth—or greed to be blunt—won out, and in a sad break with history, no Waggoner descendant lives on or owns any of the 197,000-square mile ranch. Other family-owned Texas ranches—the King, the Pitchfork, the Burnett Ranches, Lambshead—remain in the hands of descendants of the founders. But not the Waggoner. It makes me sad.

But it also brings me to what I meant to write about tonight. The listing of this massive ranch for sale in 2015 prompted several YouTube videos—I suppose as marketing tools. But they are impressive—the cinematography excellent, the landscapes sweeping and magnificent, the scope of the ranch—oil, cattle, and horses—well covered. I have watched several times, enthralled each time.

So I called my brother, who runs a few cattle down by Tolar, some forty-five miles southwest of Fort Worth. I called him because I thought he, a retired physician who has always loved the ranching life—dare I say this? since our uncle’s horse, pulling a wagon with John and Uncle Floyd in it, ran away when he was a tiny kid and all he could think was he wished he was home in his bed. Today of course, he has a more seasoned approach to ranching, but he loves the land and the cattle. I thought he would enjoy the video—and he well may when he figures out how to find it on the internet. (Clue: do a search for “YouTube sale Waggoner Ranch” and go for the six-minute video.)

But even as I called him, I had this funny thought about the strange tricks that life plays on us. Here we are, two kids from the South Side of Chicago, now in our “golden” years, and one of us raises cattle and the other revels in Texas history. I’m sure our parents would be surprised, and I am pretty surprised myself.

Maybe another day, unless you’re bored, I’ll trace the roots of my interest in Texas history. Most of my career has been spent writing about Texas and the American West, and particularly about the women. It’s where I belong, but it’s a far cry from Chicago’s South Side.

So here’s to Debra, may she rest in peace and smile upon us as we carry on her work, and here’s to John, a Chicago kid turned rancher. Pretty amazing.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Gone to the movies

I did it! I went to the movies. The friends I went with, knowing my usual avoidance of film, asked when the last time I saw a movie was, and I replied that I think it was Julie and Julia. That was 2009, so that makes it ten years.

Of course, today was no average movie in a commercial theater. We went to see Raisin’ Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins, showing at the Modern Art Museum. I’m not a judge of movies (obviously), but I enjoyed this. Lots of laughs, yes, for Molly’s legendary wit could pierce the thickest political armor. But there was so much more to this film—a serious statement about democracy and our responsibilities as citizens. As she constantly reminded us, publicly elected officials work for us, not the other way around. I wondered also if the film wasn’t about a woman who, surrounded by friends all her life, was essentially lonely. She grew up in conflict with a father who told her she wasn’t the beautiful sister and was constantly angry at her.

Lots of people familiar to Texans—and a few outliers—appeared as narrators in vignettes, from Ann Richards to Ann Lamott (the latter a surprise—I never guessed a connection between them). A couple of people I’d met over the years and many more who were familiar from the liberal wing of Texas politics—Ronnie Dugger, Dave McNeeley, Kaye Northcott, Lou Dubose, Cecile Richards, Jim Hightower, along with friends and classmates of Molly, past and present. These vignettes gave continuity to the film and made it not only the story of her life but saved it from being a pastiche of one-liners. Cinematography was beautiful and some scenes could make you fall in love with Texas all over again. An enriching afternoon.

Of course a 2:00 p.m. show time was right when I usually nap, so I came home and had a late nap. Sophie did not like that at all—after what she deemed long enough, she began noisily to drop her chew toy on the wood floor. Then she jumped up on the bed, peered at me, and pretended to settle down. But she lay next to me and kept nudging me, gently but still nudging. When that didn’t work, she came back to check my face and gave me a gentle lick, soon followed by more vigorous licking. I gave up.

Trivia for the day: thanks to a Facebook friend for enlarging my vocabulary. Do you know what a snollygoster is? A politician who uses his or her office for personal gain rather than the public good. If the shoe fits….and so on. What a wonderful word!

I have new friends in my bathroom. Last night a tiny gecko was running around in the shower and then moved to one wall. If I could have been sure I could do it without hurting him, I would have moved him outside. As it is, I left him untouched and just watched him in admiration. I hope he finds a crack and makes his way outside. I’m less happy about the tiny black spider who has staked out the wall next to the commode as his territory. I well know that spiders don’t have to be big to bite and their bite can be painful. But, Schweizer-like, I don’t want to squish the little fellow, so I keep a wary eye on him. His cousin was on the toilet seat one day, and when I tried gently to brush him off, he fell in and presumably drowned. No funeral was held.

Another week coming up. Make it a good one, my friends.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Old-fashioned cooking

As has become my habit on Saturdays, I did some cooking today. Sometimes I don’t want to buckle down to desk work on the weekend, and cooking makes me happy. I doubt, however, that my cooking made Christian happy. He is the most patient son-in-law, but I really thought this morning he would say, “Please, Juju. No more cooking. It’s too much work for me.”

The problem is that my  kitchen is not set up for baking, so I need a steady stream of equipment and supplies from the house to make brownies. Last night I told him what  I needed—a large icebox dish (no, that is not an old-fashioned term!) and an 8-inch square baking pan. This morning I added a request for the hand mixer. Then, with brownies almost ready to go in the oven, I sent out a desperate plea for baking powder. Christian and Jacob escaped to the Baylor game in Waco.

The brownies have a back story. My neighbor and good friend, Mary Dulle, is a member of the Facebook New York Times Cooking Community, as am I. The other day she posted that she had made the brownies she remembered from her childhood, and they were dry. She needed help but confessed she had substituted whole wheat flour for white and added flaxseed. No brainer! No wonder they weren’t right. Online I advised her to just go back to the original recipe. Over wine a couple of nights later, she was resistant (putting it mildly) to that idea. Okay, I could go with the flour change but not the flaxseed. I decided there was nothing for it, but I would have to make the original recipe. I may save her one brownie. Watch for the recipe in Thursday's "Gourmet on a Hot Plate" blog.

Easy and good, except that I suspect the pan is a 9-inch square, which means the batter was in a thinner layer, which means it could be dry. I will try after supper tonight. In a strange irony, Christian and Jacob (the latter somewhat reluctantly) went to a nutrition class this morning while I was making good, old-fashioned brownies with white sugar, white flour, and real butter. Christian said he didn’t feel he had to be healthy all the time—an occasional lapse is okay.

My other project was potato salad, just because I’ve had a yearning for it. I used the County Line (an Austin bbq joint) recipe, which is all over online. I seriously considered substituting green onions for white but simply, out of respect for Jacob, cut back on the amount and diced it fine.

Tomorrow night for Sunday supper Christian will grill lamb burgers, and we’ll have potato salad and maybe wilted lettuce. A posting on the Cooking Community page reminded me that I love wilted lettuce. Will do some tonight for my supper—that and potato salad will be dinner, though the potato salad will be better tomorrow.

And I’ve got a good book to top off the evening--The Chillbury Ladies Choir, set in England during WWII. Reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Grown up crushes

My daughters are in San Antonio tonight. I suspect if they ever admitted the real reason it would be because they wanted a sisters’ getaway, which I heartily approve. But the reason they give is that they are there for the John Mayer concert tomorrow night. Both are grown women—surely they don’t mind my saying they are in their forties—and to my mind should have outgrown such, but they are so crazy about this singer that they once went to Chicago to a concert. He was in Dallas last night, and Jordan said if she could get a ticket, she’d go. I protested that she would see him Saturday night in San Antonio, but I was met with an eye roll and something about if he’s in your hometown. I did not point out that we live in Fort Worth and Dallas is not her hometown. No matter, she didn’t find a ticket.

I first heard of Mayer several years ago when I was editing fiction for a small press. A woman whose writing I liked a lot—Holly Gilliatt—had written a chick lit novel titled, Till St. Patrick’s Day, a line taken straight from a Mayer song. You cannot copyright titles, so she was in the clear using that, but she wanted to quote lyrics. If I remember correctly, Mayer was agreeable, but the recording company was not. The music business is pretty cut-throat.

The gist of the story—and of his song—had to do with singles, young and dating. If you were in a relationship in the fall, you wanted it to last through Thanksgiving and Christmas, because who wants to be alone during the holidays. And then, God forbid you should not have a significant other on New Year’s Eve. Next, quickly down the calendar comes Valentine’s Day, and everyone knows you need a sweetie on February 14. So you made the relationship last. But then the next big day is St. Patrick’s Day. Meh. Who cares? It’s okay if you break up by then. I liked the novel a lot more than the premise behind it.

Because my daughters were so taken with Mayer, I read a long interview with him. I tend to do that—when my oldest son went to an evangelical church, I went with him one Sunday to see what it was like. When my oldest daughter was reading Danielle Steele, I plowed through one of her novels. Neither of those were enlightening experiences, but now I read the interview with Mayer. My impression? A man coming into middle age who was making the most of his angst. In fact making a career and a huge profit off his angst. Needless to say, that is not a popular opinion with the girls in my family.

I did venture to suggest that they reminded me of the teenage girls who swooned over Frank Sinatra. Old as I am, that was before my time, but I’ve seen pictures. When I said that to Jordan, I got a blank look. Do you suppose she even knows who Sinatra was?

So they are off. Jordan looking cute in all black—does she ever wear color—with a T-shirt that says “JM,” flying to San Antonio, and Megan driving from Austin to meet her. I hope they have a good time, but I will be glad to have them safe back where they belong on Sunday night.

Do we ever stop worrying about our kids? I don’t think so.