Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Some thoughts on writing

Yesterday, I wrote 1,721 words on my work-in-progress, otherwise known as my WIP. Today I wrote 1,652. Proud of myself, except that it got me to thinking about measuring writing, if you can do such a thing. Most writers I know judge their daily progress by words written. They set a daily goal—for many it is a thousand words. And they judge themselves at the end of the day and then at the end of the week by how many words they have written. Lord knows I’m among the guiltiest.

Mostly here I’m talking about mysteries, because those are the authors I know who fall into this word trap—and I hasten to add that not all of them do. But bear in mind that the average mystery runs about 80,000 words, so if you wrote a thousand words a day, it would take you eighty days to write a novel, not counting weekends, holidays, and those days when the words just don’t flow.

The downside to all this is that there’s a temptation to set increasingly more difficult goals for yourself. Mine used to be a thousand words a day, but with this new novel the words seem to come easier and I’m averaging about 1500 a day. So now that becomes my goal, and if I only make a thousand, I feel somehow deficient. I’ve slacked off, not tried hard enough, given up. It becomes a contest with yourself.

Of course, the goal of writing should be quality, not quantity. But that somehow eludes many of us. My mysteries these days are indie published, which means I publish them. So I have no deadlines. I may say to myself that I want to get this novel out in time for summer beach reading, but there is no contract under which I’ll be punished if I miss the deadline. No one cares but me.

On the other hand, some among mystery writers—and I’m taking this from posts by Sisters in Crime—believe that what really matters is getting that first draft written. Just pile up the words. You’re going back to revise and edit anyway, and that’s the time to seek quality, not quantity. Some writers do five or ten drafts—or more—before they are satisfied with a manuscript.

I don’t. I tend to write it, go back and check for inconsistencies, awkward phrases, repetition, etc. But I rarely if ever revise to the point of changing major structures in the plot. So what I write is pretty much what stays there and becomes the final book.

When I moved from writing western historical fiction to mysteries, a move I haven’t really finalized yet and don’t intend to, I discovered a whole new world of everything from rough drafts to agents and publishers and, most of all, promotion or marketing or whatever you want to call finding clever ways to say, “Please buy my book.” But one big thing I learned was the difference between plotters and pantsers. Plotters map out the book in advance. Well before that first sentence, they have down on paper what is going to happen in each chapter, how it fits into the arc of the book, and so on. They know how each character looks and feels and how they will act. When  you write historical fiction, this is easier, because history gives you the road map.

When you’re a pantser, like me, that road map is not there. Literally, I write by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea, and often it’s the first sentence that gets me going. But then I’m off and rolling—at least that’s what I hope. The plot unravels as I write. Frequently I can’t tell you until well into the novel who is the murderer, sometimes not even who is the victim. My characters surprise me and take the book in wildly different turns.

Texas novelist the late Elmer Kelton used to say, “Listen to your characters, and they will tell you what’s going to happen.” I have known very few authors who disagree with this.

With the cozy mystery I’m currently writing, a culinary novel set in contemporary Chicago (my hometown), I am fortunate because the plot easily moves along, often without my interference. For instance, yesterday when I was napping and semi-asleep, I worked out the backstory that the protagonist needs to know to solve the mystery. So now I have notes that will carry me forward for several days. And I find maybe the mystery is going to be a small part of the story. The relationship between characters is the main story.

Writing, for me, is an exciting process of discovery. But I wish I could get over the fixation with word counts. Even as I say that, I’m checking to see how long this blog post is and finding its way longer than most. Sorry.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Storms, salads, and a workday

Everything outside my cottage is almost eerily still right now, the ornamental grasses that I so love barely stirring. In the distance I hear occasional thunder that I am sure will move closer quickly. There were wild storms to the north of us last night with good-sized hail, and tonight storms are predicted for us. High winds, possible hail, possible flooding but little danger of tornadoes—praise be for small favors. Sophie is terribly apprehensive and sticking to my like glue. Jordan has laid out a candle and matches for me, made sure I have a flashlight, though none of us can find the good big one I had. It’s foolish in Texas, I know, but I sort of like that feeling of anticipation.

Today was the workday I wish I had every day. Sophie got me up a little before eight—our newfound routine with the crate works well, except that last night I didn’t latch it tightly and she worked her way out. (Tonight, with storms, I won’t crate her, because I know she needs to be close to me.) Anyway, she woke me a bit before eight, and I drank my tea while checking email, two professional lists, and Facebook. Yes, I am a Facebook devotee and ready to do battle with anyone who scorns that social medium. I learn a lot from Facebook, being careful about sources (okay, sometimes I slip up). And I’ve made new friends, re-hooked with old friends.

Today, on another list—professional for mystery writers—I contacted a woman who lives in Chesterton, Indiana. May not sound like much to you, but when I was a kid, we had a primitive summer cabin (really! No plumbing or electricity) at the Indiana Dunes State Park, on a high bluff looking down at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. We had to carry our clothing and groceries in through a mile in the woods, but I cannot describe adequately how wonderful that cabin was nor what great memories I have. Chesterton was the charming town where we went to shop. Author Nancy Nau Sullivan tells me it still retains a lot of its charm today. What a nice surprise.

Back to my workday—after checking social media, I spent the morning and early afternoon writing. Achieved 1,721 words today. Since I’m pretty much a first-draft writer, most of those are probably keeper words. But by two-thirty, I’d written my words, had my lunch, and was free to spend the rest of the day as I wanted, without offending my work ethic. So I read, explored specialty pages on Facebook—the New York Times Cooking Community and one called Reminders of Growing Up in Chicagoland. I didn’t end up with time to read much today, but that also is part of my ideal day. I am reading a novel that doesn’t really grab me and yet I’m determined to finish, which may account for my not working it in to my day. But I have two waiting that I am anxious to read.

To go on with my day: I nap somewhere around two-thirty and get up around four. No, it’s not sound sleep, but it’s a good time for me to doze and dream and plan—and write in my head. Then I catch up with Facebook and, most evenings now during the quarantine, I cook, and the family has dinner in my cottage.

Tonight it was Cobb salad—cut up a rotisserie chicken, fried some bacon, added cherry tomatoes, quartered artichoke hearts, crumbled blue cheese, sliced avocado. All dressed with leftover herb sauce I’d made the other night for salmon. Although I've written about Cobb salad as a composed salad, this one ended up more tossed. Still so good.

I know it’s self-indulgent and spoiled of me in these days when so many are suffering so terribly, but I would love to spend each day like this. I often think that I live in two worlds—in mine, where I am safe and happy in the cottage but out there is another where people are suffering horribly and dying gruesome deaths and medical personnel are risking their lives as are the people who make our world go round—delivery people, mail carriers, grocery workers and so on.

It strikes me that why I am so vehement against trump and McConnell and Barr and their cohorts is that daily my sense of moral outrage increases. How can they, how dare they play politics and satisfy their personal grudges and greed at the cost of the suffering and lives of Americans .what is it now—a million cases and seventy thousand dead? More than Vietnam? I can imagine no punishment great enough for their sins against humanity and against democracy. And because of them, I do not sleep soundly at night. But I do speak out, often and loudly. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

How to answer a grandson, an episode with Sophie, and my compulsive nature

When a grandchild comes to you and says, “I need a favor,” the proper answer is not, “What?” or “Why?” or “How much?” When Jacob made that announcement this morning, I said, “Okay.”

“Stand up,” he commanded. “I’m going to take your picture.” And he did, saying it was for school. I never got more clarity than that. When he showed it to me, my thought was that, except for the quarantine haircut, I don’t look like I’m suffering in this life of isolation. And then I remembered a time way back, when he was maybe five, that he insisted on taking a picture of me. So here are Jacob’s two pictures. I’m considerably younger in the early one but maybe not quite as full of smiles.

The problem with Sophie, I decided today, is that while I think of her as a medium-sized dog—thirty pounds—when excited, she has the shrill bark of a small dog. And she was excited today: the yard guys came. She always barks, and it didn’t used to be a huge problem, because they came in the late afternoon, and I just kept her in the cottage and endured the barking for twenty or thirty minutes. But now they come right when I want to nap.

Today I had a brilliant idea: I locked her in the bedroom with me. Fail! That just meant that I was confined with a barking dog in a small room that acted as an echo chamber. Then she decided she could best protect me if she got on the bed, which was okay for a few minutes because she was still. But when a slight noise alarmed her, she stood on the bed and barked, which rocked the whole bed. Then for a blessed short while, she lay quietly on my feet, and I dared not move.

I was dozing, happily plotting a scene in my mind (napping is when I do my best thinking about whatever I’m writing). Then she came unglued again I gave up and let her out of the bedroom. She proceeded to bark frantically for about twenty minutes.

Suddenly there was quiet. I tried to recapture the plotting moment, but it didn’t work. Got up reluctantly and began a different kind of plotting—grocery lists with Jordan.

Tonight a good friend of Jordan’s, someone I’m fond of, came for a distanced happy hour, but I begged off, pleading that I had promised to make German potato salad (Christian’s favorite) to go with our burgers tonight and I had a lot to do.

That sense of having so much to do has only come over me recently, but I find it puzzling. Yes, I am working on a new mystery, but I have no deadline. I am in every sense self-employed. But today I wanted to finish up my newsletter, do grocery lists with Jordan, write a blog, make the potato salad, and, I wish, make progress on the novel. None of it must be done today—except that in my old compulsive mind it does.

Jordan wanted to talk grocery lists this morning, and I put her off with the explanation that I was doing something I really wanted to do. It occurred to me that, yes, the urgency is in my own mind, but it’s not because I’m compulsive. It’s because I have it in my head where these projects are going, what I want to say, and I want to commit it to the computer before it leaves my brain. Could I call it inspiraton?

A lot of people would still say I’m compulsive. Writers will understand.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Thankful Sunday

Mark and his brisket
So much to be thankful for this sunny Spring Sunday. First and foremost, the New York Alters—both Uncle Mark and Aunt Amy have had the corona virus but are recovered. Mark says nothing heals like a brisket from Angelo’s in Fort Worth—his nephew, my Colin, sent it. And we are all thankful and offer continued prayers for my niece, Emily, who is an R.N. at Lennox General in New York City. In recent years, she has worked on an orthopedic unit but now it has been converted to COVID-19 unit. That’s Emily in the picture above, the one in the foreground without her cap. Every night at 7 p.m. crowds gather in the streets outside the hospital to cheeer medical personnel as they leave their shift.

My mom used to tell me all things end in some good, and that’s generally the message we’re getting about the pandemic. We will never go back to normal as we knew it but will carve out a new normal, which most of us hope will be much improved. One of the encouraging signs pointing in that  direction is the renewal of the earth due to quarantine. Without so many people running around, driving cars, flying planes, the earth is restoring itself—the air is clearer, the waters purer, animals are returning to national parks and other areas where they had disappeared. Thanks to Regina Rosier for one of the most stunning pictures I’ve seen: Lake Michigan’s waters have turned clear revealing hundreds of wrecked ships on the lake floor. Having grown up almost on Lake Michigan’s shores, that’s especially meaningful to me.
A shipwreck on Lake Michigan's floor

Jordan and I “went” to church together, and once again I am super impressed by the creativity our church staff shows in these online services which combine pre-filmed segments—the senior minister preaching, other ministers leading us in prayer and thanksgiving and communion, a special message each week for children—with beautiful photography, sometimes of the sanctuary and other times of the natural earth. Today one scene carried me mentally back to the Smoky Mountains, though I don’t know for sure that’s where it was. For a hymn, they re-ran a segment from November 2018 of the entire congregation singing—for a moment  you felt like you were in the sanctuary again.

A neighbor, mother of one of Jordan’s grade school chums and today’s close friend, sent me a loaf of homemade bread. Jordan sliced it this morning, and we used it for communion for the online service. It smelled so good and reminded me of the bread my mom used to make. I can hardly wait for breakfast tomorrow when I will toast it and slather it with real butter. Jordan made herself a piece of toast at lunch, and the smell was wonderful.

This morning I read an article about how they deal with the elderly during the pandemic on the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. One village has had only one case of the corona virus—someone who returned from an overseas trip. The elderly live with their children, not in nursing homes which, as we’ve seen, are petri dishes for the virus. The grown children manage the household, feed the parents, minister to their needs, and visit with them to stave off boredom and depression. It struck me those are all the things Jordan does for me. I just didn’t have to move to Sardinia, and I am beyond grateful for not being in a nursing home—I watched my mother deteriorate rapidly in such a setting. I am sheltered and safe, blessed beyond belief, and eternally grateful.

Lots of gardening going on this afternoon. I think the Burtons are clearing out old supplies, shelves that collect junk, a plastic wading pool once used to house a lonely fish. Jordan has planted flowerpots along my patio, and this week the yard crew will deliver two fountain grass plants and will plant colorful penta in front of the deck. I love Spring in Texas.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Growing up—and bored—in the time of quarantine

Add caption
These pictures were on Facebook, with lots of comments about the difference a year makes, so it seems redundant for me to say that. Except to say Jacob also now has a deep voice—and a new mullet haircut that he really likes. For an only child, he’s been remarkably understanding about the quarantine. We got past “It’s annoying” rather quickly, and now he seems to grasp the importance, and he follows the rules. He and his parents have been playing card games late at night, going for walks and drives, and I truly think this has brought them closer together than if he had gone about the normal business of being a teenager. And I have to add that of the two pictures, I think Christian looks better in the new one—he’s lost a bit of weight, his color is better.

That said, I know nothing else to say about the day. I wondered this morning—and still do wonder—why if you’re self-isolating and self-employed Saturday seems any different than any other day. And yet it does. I woke with no ambition this morning, and it was almost noon before I got myself together to do much except piddle. I did finally buckle down and work on a newsletter to my fans—you know, all three of them—and was overwhelmed by how much work it took to pull it all together. What I have so far, late at night, is the roughest draft I’ve ever seen.

It’s that Puritan work ethic again—I think I should write and accomplish and achieve every day. That I don’t have to do that is a lesson I’m trying to learn from the pandemic. But it nags at me that I did not write word one on the new mystery today. Maybe the Lord or the fates or whoever is telling me I don’t quite have the next plot step in my mind, and I need to think more about it. I confess I do some of my best creative thinking in bed when I’m dozing—half awake, half asleep. The subconscious is a marvel not to be underestimated.

The Burton family is out tonight—dinner on the lawn with friends. Jordan assures me they will all stay six feet apart. So I fixed myself a good solitary supper—beans on toast and spinach. The beans were canned pintos left from the night we had taco salad—I didn’t do them quite right. I should have softened some butter to spread a thick layer on the rye toast. I thought sautéing the beans, with celery, onion, and garlic, would be enough, but that mixture soaked up all the butter and there wasn’t enough to soften the toast. Still the beans were delicious. The spinach—straight out of the can with a little salt and butter—was as good as always. It’s a throwback to my childhood, when my best friend and I waited for my folks to go out to dinner so we could split a can of Spaghetti-O’s and one of spinach.

Once, my parents took us on Dad’s business trip to Kalamazoo, Michigan (yeah, we hit all the high spots). Mom took my friend Eleanor and me to lunch in the hotel cafeteria, but she noticed Eleanor wasn’t eating her spinach. Knowing how much she liked it, Mom asked what was wrong. “I think it’s fresh,” Eleanor whispered.

I look back on those days with fondness. I had a good childhood, but I am not necessarily of the school that thinks kids today should be raised as we were so long ago. It’s a different world, with different opportunities and challenges. The thing I find most encouraging today is that young people, like my grandchildren, are listened to. They have more of a voice in family affairs and in their own lives. I don’t think we are necessarily setting a good example for them, but perhaps they will learn—especially from the pandemic.

But none of my kids or grandkids will eat canned spinach. Oh, well.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Cooking and Writing

That’s the way my world goes in these quarantine days—cooking and writing, and I’m not sure which comes first. But this week I wrote six thousand words on a new mystery. There’s a backstory. Over a year ago, in one of my fits of “what shall I write about,” I started a mystery. I wanted to do something in the culinary tradition. For some unknown reason, I, who love to cook, had created in Kelly O’Connell a protagonist who didn’t know a frying pan from a toaster. Kate Chambers, of the Blue Plate Café Mysteries, was a bit better—a gourmet cook in her private life, but a short order one in the small-town café she inherited. And food was really secondary in the stories. So I wanted to do something with food front and center.

I wrote nineteen thousand words about a young woman who was assistant to a TV chef but whose ambition was to manage the food segments on the TODAY show. She lived in Chicago, in the neighborhood I grew up in. As soon as she met her neighbor, she decided he was a great guy but gay. No romance there. And someone was threatening the chef she worked for. There's the story.

I’m not sure but I think I put it aside when other projects called—principally nonfiction for the publisher who did my book, The Second Battle of the Alamo. I got involved and forgot about Henry Smith—yep, that was her name, short for Henrietta.

Now, with the pandemic and quarantine, I find myself again without a project. My publisher is on furlough, which means the editor hasn’t looked at the manuscript I sent that was due May 1. I have no clue if she’ll be back working May 1 or not. And I’ve had no word on the proposal for a third title I submitted. So here I am again—aimless.

On an impulse, I pulled up that unfinished mystery, read it, and thought, “This is isn’t half bad.” I liked the voice, and I found several plot threads. That discovery has energized me and propelled me through  days of quarantine. This week I wrote six thousand words on the novel, blogged every day but one, and produced a twenty-four page newsletter. I think that novel energized me. And I’m having fun. (Sorry, Elaine, it's not another Kelly mystery.)

On the cooking front, Christian and I collaborated on a terrific dinner tonight. Grilled salmon with an herb sauce, and tossed salad with a creamy blue cheese dressing. The herb sauce was a bit of a pain—chopping all those herbs—and next time, I would cut back on the oil and vinegar. It was a bit too runny, I thought. But oh so good. Picture is above.

Last night I dined in solitary splendor and resisted Jordan’s suggestion that I have my last salmon cake. I’ve been enjoying those with mayo on rye bread for lunch. So I baked an egg on top of layers of torn sourdough bread, chopped spinach, and grated sharp cheddar. After I cracked the egg on all that, I covered it with a thin layer of buttermilk to keep it from drying out, and baked it about twelve minutes at 350. I like my eggs runny--you may want to do it longer. It doesn’t show all that well, either fresh out of the oven or all mushed up, as I like it. But trust me, it was good.
Baked egg after smushing

Now I need to go doze, so I can figure out what happens to Henry in tomorrow’s installment.

Sweet dreams. Take care and stay quarantined. It’s too soon to open up the world, in my opinion. And don’t fall for false and crazy cure suggestions. We’re in this for the long haul, but we can stay safe if we self-isolate and wear masks and gloves. I’m appalled at the people who don’t take those simple precautiions.To say nothing of protestors.
Oops. Just discovered three gnats in my wine. It's that season again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day and someone special at 50 or thereabouts

Colin with his birthday present from his mom--a Leatherman
I'm afraid he gave his son that haircut, and I may have to chastise him soundly
Hard to believe that only fifty years ago paying attention to the environment was such a new and innovative idea. Sad to say we haven’t made a lot of progress in those fifty years at being stewards of the earth, especially not with recent rollbacks of regulations meant to protect our world. I do find it remarkably interesting that social distancing, which has kept people at home across the globe, has resulted in dramatic cleansing of our air and water. We have fewer cars on the road, planes in the air, factories spewing out garbage—and the world is responding. I love that nature has come back in the form of wildlife to our national parks and even to some urban areas, as well as cleaner air and purer water. Clear proof that man is the polluter.

But I always celebrate Earth Day for a different reason. If that holiday is fifty years old, my oldest son is fifty-one today—he was just a year ahead of time. Of course I didn’t meet Colin David Alter until eight days later when the adoption agency called to ask if we minded that he might have red hair. Mind? We were ecstatic. Of course, his hair was never red, but he was perfect in every other way and has brought me so much joy over the years. He is also the one I rely on to keep my world in order—from my finances to my family relationships. He is truly the oldest child who will be the patriarch of the family and acts in that capacity already, keeping us all in line and in love with each other.

Colin has the unique ability to calm me and set me straight when I’m headed in the wrong direction. He is ever peaceful and patient. I remember once getting so frustrated at a driver who cut him off, and he said, “Look at you. Why are you getting so upset.” Other times, he has said to me, “Mom, I don’t know how I drive a car when you’re not there to help me.” I love that boy so much.

April 22 is another bittersweet memory. It is the birthday of my younger sister, born in 1942 and dead at the age of six months. I was always told she died of a heart defect, but I sometimes wonder if it was not SIDS that was just not recognized. I remember little about Isabel Jean MacBain, but I vividly remember the day she was brought home from the hospital. My brother John and I quarreled over who would get to pull the blanket off her face—I got the face, and John got the feet end of the bassinet. I also remember sitting on the couch, very still, so I could hold her (I was four at the time). But I remember nothing of her death, nor does my brother. I do remember my mom took to her bed one day a year with a migraine and it had to do with Jeannie, but I don’t know if it was the anniversary of her birth or her death.
Watching my two daughters now, I sometimes long for the sister I almost had. When they were in high school, my girls were geat enemies, but they are the closest of friends ow, and I am so grateful for that relationship for them. But a bit of me wishes I too had it. Would Jeannie and I have been good friends? I am quite confident we woud.

Happy Hour from Jay's perspective
We thought Earth Day was going to show us the power of Mother Nature today, with strong storms and possible tornadoes predicted. Nothing happened. We had a bright, sunny day, with pleasant temperatures. We sat outside in the evening and had a socially distanced happy hour with neighbor Jay, whom we have come to call “the man behind the screen.” The breeze was gentle and wonderful.

Also had a near-catastrophe tonight. The screws holding the seat on my walker to the frame came apart. I thought It moved a little a couple of times today but wasn’t alarmed—until it nearly dumped me on the floor. I’m not sure if it was plain instinct or I saw her coming out of the corner of my eye, but I yelled, “Jordan!” She, bless her, came running and did her best to fix it, but she has neither the tools nor the skill. I have asked neighbor Jay if he can look at it tomorrow. Meantime I am being very careful and only sitting in it when absolutely necessary. Jordan has long been after me to walk more and scoot less, but there are simply a lot of things I cannot do without rolling around on the seat—like all
Jordan repairing my walker
the cooking I do.

Sweet dreams, everyone. W need them, we need all the joy we can find in life.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Almost a new Sophie

Sophie at her best
Those of you who read my blog even occasionally know that I adore my dog, Sophie. Now almost nine years old (good golly!), she is half border collie, half miniature poodle, and all sparkle. Alternately mischievous, full of energy, and stubborn, she can also spend an entire day sleeping in the same room where I’m working..

Soph’s had some problems lately, principally allergies. Especially in the morning, she huffs and snuffs and coughs and—yeah, spits. Once I give her Benadryl, she’s okay, barring a few minor evening flare-ups.

But Sophie badly needed a bath and a haircut even when this quarantine started, so now, five and a half weeks in, she was really shaggy and—yeah, smelled a bit doggy. Besides I suspected that allergens were lurking in all that thick fur and a cut would make her feel better.

Apparently dog groomers are considered essential, so yesterday we broke quarantine just a bit and welcomed the mobile groomer to the house. (They do the grooming in their own trailers, not the house.) Jordan did all the dealing and left me in the cottage (less exposure for the vulnerable).. The groomer and I “had a moment,” via Jordan on the phone. The young groomer, her first time here, read my instructions that there would be no shaving and said Sophie’s face would have to be shaved. It was too matted. A long time ago a groomer, from this same company, taught me you never have to shave—you can always tease the matts out. Sophie’s face was cut way too short once before but it was my fault---I said to trim the moustache when I meant the beard. She spent six weeks looking like a fox. The part of her charm that is not in her silly, feisty personality is in that Benji-looking face. I held firm, and today I can feel a couple of mats. I’ll have to see if she’ll hold still for me to work on them.

But she is like a new dog—full of energy, sneezing less, just looks happier to me.

Sophie’s other problem was really a problem for me, not her. She got into the habit of wanting to go out at four or five in the morning. If she’d come right back in or mind my command to come, I could live with it. But she does neither. One early morning, she lay on the deck and watched my frustration grow for an hour. I offered cheese—her favorite treat—to no avail. I am not comfortable going back to bed and leaving her out—too many things can go bump in the dark.

So now Sophie, who was crate trained as a pup, sleeps in her crate. She doesn’t seem to mind and goes into it voluntarily some in the day. At night, when I’m ready to go to bed, she watches me prepare her treat—Benadryl wrapped in a sliver of Velveeta—and then runs to the crate. I never hear a peep out of her until she snuffles in the morning.

In my whole life, I have rarely lived without a dog. In the last fifty years, the only time I can remember was when my son took his dog, the second son’s dog died, and my dog died—seemed to happen all at once. It was six months before I got another dog—and that was probably seventeen years ago or so.

 When my kids were little, especially my younger son, we had cats, but I am not a cat person. Once when he was a late teen and had spent the summer elsewhere working, Jamie brought home a kitten. I had that cat for nineteen years and adored him. Part Maine Coon, he had a sweet, loving disposition and a lovely fluffy coat.

But I am a dog person. Sophie is my friend, my sounding board, my companion. I’m glad she’s feeling better. I could not live happily without a dog. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Earth Sunday

My patio during the hailstorm

Earth Sunday started with a bang in my small corner of the world. The last weather report I’d heard said showers would be gone by seven or eight in the morning, so I thought nothing of them. It was neither particularly sunny nor particularly gray—until about ten or so, when I suddenly began to hear distant thunder. Gradually, it got closer—and so did Sophie, who crept up to lie right behind my chair. Then came a heavy, steady rain. And then! A new noise. Took me a minute to realize, it was hail.

North Texas is notable for unpredictable weather, but we don’t get a lot of hail, especially not this late in the spring. Last I can remember was several years ago, in March, when I had a devastating roof leak. This was mostly small hail, maybe dime-size, but there were a few balls that approached quarter or even golf-ball size. They sure seemed to rattle against my south windows. A few minutes can seem like a long time, but it was over fairly quickly. And, praise be, no damage.

By the time we “went” to church, the sky was clear again. University Christian Church is doing such a terrific job with keeping us together as church during social distancing. Today, in recognition of Earth Sunday (Earth Day is Wednesday, April 22), the service was filmed outdoors, except for a few musical parts. Try as I might I couldn’t recognize the spot and will have to drive by the church to find it, but the service began with senior minister Russ Peterman, casually dressed, coming through an arbor with some kind of blooming spring vine all over it. Other segments were filmed in various spots, but the sense of God’s nature was strong.
Russ Peterman preaching, outdoors, without notes
Pretty impressive

Fittingly, the sermon was on the global reaction to the health crisis. Pointing out that the Chinese symbol for pandemic or health crisis has two symbols—one for disaster and one for opportunity—Dr. Peterman suggested that this is a time of deep awakening. Because social distancing, staying at home, with fewer factories operating, fewer cars on our roads and planes in our skies, has resulted in such dramatic dropping of dangerous gasses in the environment and in cleaner air and rivers, he suggested that we can either go back to what was normal—or we can move forward to a new and much better normal. It is up to us.

In a nostalgic note, I have to add that I loved the music. Various stanzas of “For the Beauty of the Earth” were interspersed, with different soloists, throughout the service. It is one of the old hymns from my childhood, and I can almost sing all verses without a hymnal. This morning, I hummed along with the music…and loved it.

We haven’t been doing much take-out for our meals. I guess it’s partly economical, partly li8king our own cooking, and partly leery of contact with the outside world. But last night we ordered from Enchiladas Olé which has recently opened a second location in our neighborhood. May be the best chicken enchiladas with sour cream sauce that I’ve ever had. Good guac, spicy beans, rice with each serving—and such generous portions. We’ll do that again.

So here we go—another week of quarantine. I’m craving, of all things, oysters Rockefeller—credit that to an article I read about oysters—and I’m missing good friends. One wrote me this evening that she is ready for shared glasses of wine, and I certainly am too. But I have work to do, and I’m content. Like many Americans, I am afraid that the president and some governors will open the world too quickly, and we’ll see great spikes in cases. I am also appalled at the protests, except that I have known we have ignorant protestors who are always looking for a cause and have now found a new one. A meme today said they are protesting because of “Muh freedums.” So apt. It both amuses and horrifies me that they feel it appropriate to carry rifles during their protests. Their ignorance and thoughtlessness is appalling, especially when you read about the severity of some cases of covid-19 and the desperate and lonely deaths of many victims. I hope common sense prevails. I know I for one am staying quarantined and am most grateful to be able to do that. I hope you can too.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A day with a goal and the virus gets up close and personal

Today dawned bright and sunny—I know because Sophie had me up at seven and again at seven-forty-five. But by late afternoon it had turned gray again, there was rain to the west of us, and rain in our forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning. Jordan insists tomorrow will be a lovely day and I will sit outside, because she’s going to clean the cottage and doesn’t want me to breathe the fumes. That means, Lysol spray and bleach and all those things I think are too strong for our environment. But, hey, I am grateful she does it, and yes, I’ll sit outside.

Today was a day with a goal: I worked on putting together the next issue of our neighborhood newsletter together. For once, I have a plethora of contributions—I think people took lots of pictures because they’re bored. It’s great and will make an interesting issue, but I have to figure out how to handle it. Still I was glad for the chore, because I know it has a goal—the issue will come out the first of May, the Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise. (Did you know that old saying does not refer to a flooded creek but to the days when settlers feared an uprising by the Creek Indians? That’s your history lesson for today). Anyway, so much of my time these days is spent on what you might call spec work—novels I don’t know will be published, research projects I don’t know will come to fruition—that I am grateful for a guaranteed project.

In the course of working on the Poohbah newsletter and skimming the internet, I’ve done what bored people do—collected bloopers. Here are a few:

--some one who referred to her under ware (underwear)—can’t remember the context but it wasn’t as risqué as it sounds;

--someone else who wrote about taking our lifestyle for granite (for granted)—maybe she meant it was carved in stone

---on a cooking site, someone referred to a well-flowered cake pan (well-floured)

--these remind me of a young lawyer I dated in my salad days who truly thought it was chester drawers (chest of drawers). Now that was supposed to be an educated man!

Corona virus got up close and personal today when I learned that my Bronx brother- and sister-in-law have both contracted it. He is in day 21 and almost well. I knew he had been tested, but it came back negative. His doctor/daughter said there is a 30% false negative result. Sure enough, tested again it came back positive. The first test was a method they have already discarded as not accurate, which shows you how much we are still learning about this virus. My sister-in-law has only shown symptoms for six days, but she says the disease “packs a wallop.” I worry about her, because I hear he is doing the cooking. I love him dearly, but a cook he’s not. I recently wrote him for his mother’s brisket recipe, and he patiently explained that he eats it, he doesn’t cook it. He referred my request to his wife, who was most helpful. I am grateful they both seem to be doing well.

I also worry about my niece from that family. For several years, she has been an R.N. on an orthopedic unit at Lennox General (in Manhattan, I think—my knowledge of New York is slim). Her unit has been converted to a COVID-19 unit, so she is one of the medical personnel in the thick of it. Her sister, a doctor with young children, is working from home—praise be.

My California relative that I can’t define (she is my ex-husband’s child by his second wife but feels like a daughter to me) writes that in Santa Clara, California, a study has shown that between 40,000 and 81,000 residents had the virus. The reported number of cases was 965. Pretty scary statistics.

As I write, it’s ten o’clock at night, and I hear the rhythmic sound of my grandson practicing basket shoots in the driveway. Got to love that kid. Sophie is, of her own accord, asleep in her crate. Nice now, but I wish it would last until at least eight tomorrow morning. That’s my magic hour.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Living with fear and other thoughts

I have been boldly saying that though I find much inconvenient about this quarantine, one saving grace is that I am not particularly fearful. I think it’s because I feel so isolated and secure in my cottage-cocoon. But recently some dreams have made me aware that of while I am not consciously fearful, my subconscious is. The other night I dreamt that a cataclysmic event had shifted the earth off its course, and we all lived in terror of the consequences. Then I realized that we had only lost a few minutes and life was going on as usual. When I woke, I still thought that was true and had to convince myself that it was only a dream. I’m not a sci-fi fan, so I have no idea where that came from.

More realistically, I have twice dreamed that I was at a concert and someone coughed on me. Note: I have never been to a concert (except the symphonic kind) in my life, never to one of a major artist, though I have longed to see Joan Baez and Neil Diamond in person (that dates me). But one night, Christian, Jordan, and I were at a concert; another I was with my parents, and there was a great fuss about getting me a handicapped seat—another note: I was never on a walker until years and years after I lost my parents. Each time I had to convince myself it was a dream, not reality.

I talked with a friend the other day about this. She, some five years younger than I, said she’s had a good life and isn’t afraid of dying. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid, but I am not anticipating it with the joy of some. I know people who think they are going to find streets paved with gold, but that’s not my vision. My main thought is, fear aside, I don’t want to die. I like my life. I want to enjoy my family, see my grandchildren grow and develop. I have things to write, dishes to cook. I still have lots to do, and I’m hopeful that I’m contributing a bit to the world. But the final thing I said to friend Jean is that I do not want to die of COVID-19 because it is a miserable death.

On a much cheerier note, I’ve been reading Minding the Store, by Stanley Marcus. Probably should have read it years ago. I began it on a hunt for mention of Helen Corbitt, but I ended reading it for itself. Marcus was a bit of a formal writer, but he was also an accomplished storyteller, and he had anecdote after anecdote about retail life. It was a great glimpse into a world that was unfamiliar to me.

But the part that most interested me was his account of the political atmosphere in Dallas in the early Sixties, culminating tragically in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Marcus later said he had warned JFK against the trip to Dallas, fearing he would be humiliated; he never thought he would be assassinated. Marcus was an outspoken and courageous liberal who nonetheless managed to be a civic leader in a highly conservative city. I was appalled at the narrow vision of some in the city, including the city’s leading newspaper, and impressed by Stanley Marcus, his insight, and his courage. There are so many parallels to today’s political world, lessons I hope we all learn about cooperation and working together. Not happening yet.

Outside my window these days I see ornamental grasses. When the wind blows, they wave and move like dancers in diaphanous gowns. I am fascinated by watching them. Sometimes, when I am at my computer, I catch that movement out of the corner of my eye and think someone is headed to the cottage. Sometime soon, pentas will be planted along the front of the deck, covering up a bare stretch. Can’t wait to have a flowering summer yard.

Today was another chilly, drab day. Supposed to be eighty by Sunday, but then cooler again with rain a possibility, sometimes slim, for the next few days. I could feel the effect of the falling barometer on my disposition today and had to work hard to overcome it.

How about you? Does the weather affect your mood?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Breaking the routine

A banner day! For the first time in almost five weeks, I left the cottage. And my car had an outing too. I told Jordan some time ago that I wanted to try the chicken salad from Chicken Salad Chicks, but she stalled. She is leery of take-out food, especially in combination with chicken salad which, as she pointed out, “Someone has to cut up by hand.” But then someone raved about it to her, so she decided we should try it. And I got to go along for the pick-up ride. Nice to be out. I had seen how green everything is in my yard, but it was lovely to drive down University, between the park and the Botanical Garden, and see everything greened up for spring. Chicken salad was good. I think I like my own better.

Going on that short errand at eleven o’clock broke up the routine of my day, because late morning is when I get the most done. By noon I didn’t want to start anything new—rationalization supreme!—and went back to the mystery I am reading. That makes two days I’ve postponed that bit of research I’d mapped out for myself. I guess procrastination also reigns supreme. But I have no deadlines, so it’s okay if I take a day off. Darn my Puritanical work ethic!

Filled out the census form today, which was a puzzler because I thought I’d already done it. Two or three weeks ago I got a short form in the mail requesting information about residents at our address. So I filled it out for all four of us and returned it. Yesterday, I got a much longer form, addressed more narrowly to 2115A Back which I assumed is just my cottage. So I filled it out for just me—online, which was super easy and quick. But now I’m worried Jordan, Christian, and Jacob won’t be counted—or they’ll be counted twice. I am not sure about the accuracy of the census. Besides, I hear they were going to delay it.

This was also the day that my hair reached the tipping point. Looks fine on the left side of my head but ridiculous on the right—must have something to do with sleeping patterns. Today I threatened to have Jordan cut it, and to my surprise she was not at all hesitant. Said, “I can’t mess it up that badly.” I’m going to write the friend who usually cuts it and ask for advice.

Dinner tonight was a sort-of stir fry—lost my stir fry pan in the great downsizing and worried tonight about the cookware for my hot plate. It’s coated, and I wasn’t wild about using really high heat—so I didn’t. Turned out great. Ground pork, asparagus, ginger, scallions, garlic,  soy and sherry. A hit with all the family. Lesson learned—and I think it’s not the first time I learned it: fresh ginger is hard to mince. Now I have a huge piece in the fridge. Someone on the NYTimes Cooking Community said her husband had shopped for her and brought home way too much ginger—like eight pieces. She showed a picture, and someone else responded that would be gone in three weeks in her house. I don’t know what she does with it, but I couldn’t help commenting that it would be a lifetime supply for me. That one piece I have will probably wither before I use it, but Jordan points out it is really good for you.

Frost warning tonight, at least to the north of us. What has happened to the weather?

Sunday, April 12, 2020

In its own way, a glorious Easter

Easter happy hour on the patio
If you can get past to comparisons to “how it should be,” this was really a glorious Easter, at least here in North Texas. Rolling thunder woke me sometime in the early morning, and I got up to release Sophie from her crate because I knew she be frightened and want to be close to me. But by the time I got up for good, it was a glorious sunny day, the kind of day you think Easter should be.

My strongest memory of Easter in the Chicago of my childhood has to do with heavy winter coats. I would get a fancy Easter dress, often organdy or some sheer fabric, with petticoats beneath—and then the weather would force me to top it with my drab, old winter coat. No such problems here.

Another of my earliest memories is the anthem we learned in choir: One Early Easter Morning. This morning, when I turned on my computer, the first thing I saw was an email from my lifelong dear friend Barbara. Nothing except the first lines of that anthem. Brought happy tears of memory to my eyes.

Jordan, Jacob, and I “went” to eleven o’clock church online, while Christian attended inside the house. The music was glorious—brass, timpani, wind—and a vocal quartet that were superb. The message, inspiring and nicely linking the resurrection to the difficult period we now find ourselves in. I am so grateful to my church as the staff continues to explore ways to keep us together and create meaningful worship in the midst of physical distancing.

Jordan dressed for church. Unfortunately, neither Jacob nor I did. And I didn’t realize that we were all having brunch together. Just as I finished my tuna and cottage cheese, there they came, bearing bacon and eggs and potatoes. We had a grand time, mostly talking with Jacob about colleges because he’s suddenly decided, after years of devotion, he may not want to go to Baylor.

A nap for me, while the Burtons went to do a birthday drive-by for a good friend. I am amused that these have become common across the nation. The first I heard of—for the 14th birthday of a friend’s daughter—seemed original to me, but I soon learned it is a “thing.” Just as I woke from my nap, thunder was rumbling again but it did little more than make Sophie nervous.

Our Easter table
with Jordan's cake
Easter dinner
After that the focus was on dinner which, as always, was late. I made scalloped potatoes—I have always had trouble getting them right, but I nailed it this time. I used to try for Colin, because he loved them, but they were always mushy. Christian cooked a brisket, following directions I remembered from my Jewish mother-in-law—it was delicious, though he wasn’t happy with the gravy. Jordan made deviled eggs, cucumber salad, and a cake. And set an elegant table on my coffee table. It was al delicious, and we lingered over Jordan’s cake—a memory from her childhood: yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

So different from other Easter tables with lots of family and friends, but we are together and healthy and beyond grateful. I come away from this holiest of days with the sure knowledge that we will get through this.

Tonight, the wind is blowing, and the temperature has dropped dramatically. I’ve heard predictions as low as the thirties in the night. Crazy weather.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A bit of political thinking, a bit of cooking

Up at 6:30 this morning with Sophie who needed to go out—I watched, and she really did need to go—but she came back in fifteen minutes, and I went back to bed. Still sleepy when I got up at eight.

The day’s news woke me up. It’s all about the novel corona virus—or is it? I see some silver linings, believe it or not, in this terrible pandemic that has hit the world. All over the globe, people are staying home—and the air is cleaner, the rivers purer. It’s an obvious connection—people going about our daily lives are polluting the earth and climate. I pray we can learn a huge lesson from this. It’s not just cars—it’s planes and all kind of things. As an agricultural friend of mine said, “It’s not cows.” Pope Francis has even said the pandemic is the earth’s way of cleansing itself. I’m not sure I’d go that far but it’s an interesting thought.

The other lining came to my attention just today when I read about an economist who says that we should let venture capitalists and mega corporations fail. Many corporations squandered their bail-out two years ago in buybacks for executives and are now hurting again. We, the taxpayers, do not need to rescue them. The world might be a lot better off without greedy billionaires. It’s a thought I’ve had, but it’s nice to see it come from an economist.

We need a new normal, because obviously the old wasn’t working. So maybe climate protection and an end to the domination of big business may be part of that new normal. My fingers are crossed, my prayers said.

But much about the news today scares me. The White House will not bail out the United States Postal System, which is hemorrhaging. Of course they won’t—trump doesn’t want the possibility of a mail-in election, because the higher the turnout, the more like a Democrat victory. He, who wants to do away with all regulations, wants to privatize the post office. How has that privatization of other things worked out in the past? Not very well for the consumer. I don’t think a transition from public to private could be accomplished between now and November—probably a fact trump is counting on. Pray Congress steps in with some backbone—a long shot for the Senate, I know.

Republican corruption continues to amaze me. The Senate slipped a tiny provision into the virus rescue bill—something like a paragraph on p. 230 of an 800-page document, that will allow trump and Jared Kushner to get payments for rents lost. In addition, due to McConnell’s bargaining, taxpayers will be bailing out corporations to the tune of $500 billion—with no supervision except for trump, unless Congress again gets a backbone. Schumer and Pelosi are fighting the best they can, but it astounds me the ways the Republican party can find to take advantage of American taxpayers.

I am worried too, really worried, that trump’s frantic concern to restore the economy will result in opening our world way too soon—resulting in many more infections and deaths. Governor Cuomo said it today—it’s a choice between American lives and another dollar. For trump, it’s  desperate attempt to win re-election—and I wonder if it’s not made more desperate by the knowledge that he will be indicted as soon as he is out of office.

All this goes on outside my tiny, constricted world, and I am grateful that we have the internet so I know what’s happening in the larger world. But I am also grateful for the safety and security of my tiny world, where the days blend into each other. I was thinking today that the only thing that distinguishes one day from the other is what we cooked and what we ate. Yesterday it was carnitas for dinner—a funny story. I ordered 2.5 lbs. of pork shoulder (would have preferred pork butt which doesn’t have the bones) and got 7.5 lbs. That’s a whole lot of carnitas.

I put the meat on to cook at 4:30, forgetting that my hot plate kicks off automatically every thirty minutes. By the time we finally got all the liquid boiled off and the meat crisp, it was 8:30. But they were so good.

Today, thanks to a friend who sent me a recipe, I made a tuna loaf. We’ll see tomorrow how it comes out. And tomorrow we’ll cook an Easter dinner—brisket, scalloped potatoes, salad, and maybe a cucumber salad. Probably an Easter dinner so different from the usual it will remain seared in my memory

Yep, food marks the days and keeps me sort of sane. Political machinations keep me angry.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Night of the Dog

Maybe this should be Morning of the Dog, because it happened in the morning yesterday, just too early. Sophie decided she needed to go out at 5:30 a.m. She announces this by doing a little dance by my bed, clicking her nails on the hardwood floor, accompanied by a vocal addition of soft, innocent, growl-like sounds.

I admit to being a helicopter mom to this dog, something I think I can honestly say I didn’t do to my children. But I don’t like Sophie to be in the yard unless I’m at my desk where I can survey most of the yard, with one blind spot. Second choice is if I’m in the kitchen area where I can still keep an eye on things. What am I afraid of? The big thing to me is dognappers—either someone who thinks she would make a darling pet (they don’t know her yet) or a dogfight owner looking for bait dogs. The latter is my absolute terror. I think she’s big enough that no creatures of the night would bother her, and if they did, I’d sure hear the fuss.

Leave her out alone in the wee hours of the morning? Never. So that meant there I was, sitting on my walker, trying to read on my phone with blurry eyes—and getting angry. You see, she doesn’t just go out to do her business and come back in. She likes the night air, likes to survey her kingdom from the deck. I see her watching me, and I imagine a rebellious cast to her eyes. She stayed there until 7:30, by which time it was full daylight.

I called “Cheese,” which usually brings her running for a tiny bite of Velveeta; I waved one of her rawhide chew treats; I tried my most commanding voice and ordered, “Come,” which I had once long ago trained her to respond to. I tried turning out the outdoor light and noisily slamming and locking the door (I’m sure my neighbor appreciated that!). Nothing. I considered taking my walker out to the yard, but Jordan has ordered not to do that unless someone is around. For one thing, the lintel in the doorway is high.

About 6:45 I gave up and went back to bed but couldn’t sleep—I kept jumping up to see that she was still on the deck. Finally about seven I gave it up and fell asleep, only to waken with a start when she began to paw at the patio door. I jumped up, afraid she’d tear the screen. She came in as though nothing happened, and I slept until nine. Felt out of sorts all day—bad start to the day.

Since this was not the first time she’s pulled this trick of late, I decided the only thing to do was get her crate out of the attic and crate her overnight. She likes it and goes into it willingly. So last night, I put a rug in there, closed the door behind her, gave her a Benadryl in cheese, and turned on the living room a/c. She slept all night without a sound.

I however did not sleep so well, wracked by a guilty conscience that I had locked my poor, sweet dog up. I didn’t exactly get up to check on her, but I tossed and turned and wakened frequently. So this morning I called the vet to ask if that was cruel and unusual punishment, and they said no, but don’t give her access to water during the night. When she heard that, Jordan said, “That really is cruel and unusual punishment.”

I love my dog desperately, honest, I do. But she is willful and stubborn. She’s also lively, happy, curious, and great company, especially now that I’m alone 80% of the time. But there are limits on my patience. The crate stays for a few nights.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Figuring out the distance

I recently wrote in correspondence about feeling disconnected from reality, and a friend asked me to expand on the thought. For many, it’s a heightened sensitivity to the despair and grief in the world today. For me, it’s almost the opposite.

A much younger friend wrote about missing her life even as she expressed gratitude for blessings—she misses dinner dates with her husband, getting together with friends, travel, freedom. She bemoaned that people let themselves go (so glad we were not doing Facetime) and mentioned my “sunny-side-of-the-street thing.”

Daughter Jordan found a “coping calendar,” and she’s been using it to push us into family discussion in the hour before supper. The other night, my grandson said he was grateful for my positivity, and my son-in-law said he admired my resilience in isolation when he knows I’m a social being. They overestimate me, but I do try to be a positive person.

If I look back over my long life, I will tell you that I’ve been lucky and had few real traumas. But if I take a closer look, there was divorce, single parenthood (four wonderful teenagers), cancer, the loss of my parents, hip surgery that resulted in my needing assistance to walk, eye surgery that may have been the worst thing yet. It hasn’t all been easy, but always I knew I would come out on the other end. And I know that I and my family, friends, neighbors will come out on the end of this too. We will survive with grace.

So what’s the disconnect? I sit here in my cottage, going about my life much as usual—writing, reading, cooking. Thanks to Jordan, I am safe from the outside world. I feel like I’m in a cocoon, albeit one constructed of Lysol and Clorox. And yet I know there is, as one friend puts it, a world of hurt out there—disease, death, fear, grief. Am I Pollyanna because I feel disconnected from that? Insensitive? I know full well that we have to recognize and acknowledge fear and grief when they visit, but I’m not going to let them dominate my life.

I am doing what I can from where I am. I cook for my family, and I’ve stepped up my internet presence, checking on friends and family, especially those who are alone. Commenting on things I might normally pass, sharing recipes with those I know cook. In short trying to be more chatty than usual because I think in these times, we need warmth and comfort and friends.

I was tempted to tell my young friend what she doesn’t want to hear: have patience. Life will return to normal. Except I’m not of that “let’s get back to normal” school of thought. Obviously, normal wasn’t working for us. We all have to work together to create a new normal. Bill Gates perhaps said it best: “Whereas many see the Corona/ Covid-19 virus as a great disaster, I prefer to see it as a ‘great corrector.’
It is sent to remind us of the important lessons that we seem to have forgotten and it is up to us if we will learn them or not.

Some good things happened today:

I wrote 500 words (my goal) on what may or may not be a new novel

I thought I lost a bunch of copy on my computer but found I had inadvertently copied a lot of unrelated stuff into it; I was able to delete and save the original.

Our grass was mowed, just before it got knee-high.

I started reading a new novel that shows promise.