Sunday, May 31, 2020

The taste of home cooking

Dinner tonight: filet with mac and cheese, wilted lettuce
Like many other Americans, my family is not ready to sit in a restaurant and enjoy a meal. Even outdoors, even with appropriate social distancing. I’m blessed that they realize that I am vulnerable because of age. So we eat at home. We’ve been cooking a lot, but since restaurants began take-out, we’ve occasionally had a take-out meal—hamburgers, a club sandwich, a chicken dinner, enchiladas. We are pretty firm though—if the restaurant servers aren’t masked, we don’t want their food.

I got to thinking about it today and decided the benefits of home cooking are many. First of all, the food taste so much better. Granted, sometimes take-out meals lost something in transportation, but I haven’t had one yet that I’d choose over something prepared in our kitchens.

We’ve had some great meals. Stand-outs for me recently were the Mongolian beef Christian fixed and Jordan’s chicken enchiladas with cream cheese last night. But there have been Christian’s Asian meals and my down-home cooking of meatloaf or casseroles. Fairly often, Christian cooks the entrée, and I do the side. Tonight, for instance, our salad was wilted lettuce—a memory from my childhood. Fry some bacon, crumble it and toss with lettuce; dress the salad with the still-warm bacon grease and about half that much vinegar. Yeah, not good for your arteries, but we don’t eat it often, and it is so tasty.

The other benefit of cooking at home is that hackneyed word, togetherness. Jordan and I have spent a lot of time discussing recipes, weighing what her boys—Christian and Jacob—would like, sometimes discarding my experimental ideas (sob!), and making lists. Unfortunately we rarely follow our weekly lists, mostly because we end up devoting one or two nights to leftovers. But both of us are enjoying looking through recipe sources, finding things we think sound good. The chicken enchiladas are a perfect example—I had that recipe in my “to try” file for maybe a year but finally interested her in it. And it turned out to be a real keeper. Okay, it was a bit rich.

Tonight, however, I have a cooking catastrophe. I fried bacon for our wilted lettuce, then left it to warm until just before dinner was served. Jordan, a bit rushed and frustrated, said, “That thing is flashing at me. You’ll have to turn it off.” I thought she meant the toaster oven, looked at it, and it was clearly off. But after dinner, I discovered that the light on the induction hot plate was flashing. I thought she hadn’t pushed the off button twice as required—but it wouldn’t push. Unplugged it, plugged it back in, and it beeped incessantly. I think my hot plate has given up. A search on Amazon was a bit confusing. Jordan and Christian had rushed off to a birthday party but promised to be back soon, so I am waiting for them before making a decision. Maybe I’ll let the hot plate sit overnight and see if it collects itself by morning.

In light of what’s going on in our country, a dead hot plate is small pickings. I am still counting my blessings and praying for our country.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Saturday just feels different

Dinner tonight - cheese enchiladas
If you’re quarantining, as my family and I, Saturday’s no different than any other day. Sunday, for us, stands out in the week because we attend virtual church service and we try always to have a special Sunday dinner as a family. But Saturday? No. You get up, do whatever it is you do during these days, eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, follow your routine. As I’ve confessed more than once, I am a creature of routine, and I do best when I have a set pattern for my days.

Monday through Friday that works just fine. My day includes work, reading, internet activity—yes, I follow social media, usually at the same time each day. But Saturday just feels different. On Saturday, email slows down (I get an extraordinary number a day) and social media isn’t as active. You can’t take care of business details effectively, so I have two follow-ups on my desk for Monday morning. Not as much takes up my time, so this morning, I browsed through the New York Times Cooking Community Facebook page--twice, something I rarely do. Even so I started on my manuscript and wrote my thousand words well before lunch—usually it’s 12:30 before I get there.

No rule says quit at a thousand words and many days I go over, having done as much as 1700 in one day. But today at a precise 1,014 I ended a scene and thought it best to do some thinking and planning before going on. So there I was, not yet noon, and I was through work for the day. I do have a couple of projects that call me, but I had effectively met my goal for today.

My day got a lot more interesting late this afternoon. Good friend Jean came for a distanced happy hour—we laughed about quarantine, but she has been so isolated that she has not had to put gas in her car for over two months. We talked of many things—history and houses—and it was good to take a break from riots and looting and conspiracies and health crises. As our country is in a mess on many fronts, it amazes me that daily life goes on so pleasantly.

Jordan was our chef tonight, and we had chicken/cream cheese enchiladas—a recipe I’d clipped some time ago because of her love of all things with cream cheese. The enchiladas were rich and delicious, and the recipe madelots—she says we have 300 left. She made a huge salad with blue cheese dressing, and we feasted.

So another Saturday down. I just counted. This is twelfth Saturday I’ve spent in quarantine. No wonder I’m tired of them. It feels good to be opening up just a tiny bit from quarantine—we are only seeing people, no more than two at a time, who we know have been as careful about quarantine as we have. Still, it’s a bit scary since asymptomatic people can spread the virus. I read today that twenty-four states have uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19, and Texas leads the list. To me, it’s due to two things: a lack of strong national leadership and a large section of the populace who is non-compliant. I wonder what outbreaks there will be after this weekend of protests.

Be safe out there, folks. It’s still scary.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Dreaming a novel

Last night was one long dream for me. I was telling myself a novel in three parts—three parts because twice I got up to use the restroom, not out of necessity, but because I wanted to leave the world of that dream. But the characters were persistent and kept returning, although they changed considerably from segment to segment.
At first, there were three people, two men and a woman, incarcerated at a prison in a desert, presumably for nonviolent crimes. They escaped disguised as employees (more like cleaning people or someone in scrubs than guards) and spent the night in a nearby empty house. Then they took off in a van.
Sometime during the night they morphed into three women. Think Thelma and Louise or a “Golden Girls Take to the Highway” episode. While they were always on the run and in some perilous circumstances, including snowbound in a cave, they agreed it was the best time of their lives. (Don’t anyone get Freudian on me!). Finally, they ended in a twin city area—two small towns. They grocery shopped in the lesser town figuring they would not know anyone. But they ran into the husband of one; then another met the love of her life, and the third asked for a ride to the bus station. I woke up, and my mind finally went back to my WIP.
I know I’ll never turn the dream into a novel, what with changing characters and a lot of unexplained things like the snowy cave, but the kernel of a story is there if I wanted to pursue it. What I found interesting is the process involved, the way the story flowed in spite of my efforts to stop it. I thought of Elmer Kelton, the late dean of Texas fiction. He once described writing his award-winning novel, The Good Old Boys, saying he was sitting at the bedside of his dying father and listening to stories of the old-time cowboys at the turn of the twentieth century. Suddenly, he began writing, and the words wouldn’t stop. Elmer used to say that it was like a horse with the bit in its teeth, and he was just along for the ride.
Elmer wrote that way. One of his favorite pieces of advice was, “Listen to your characters, and they will tell you what’s going to happen.” He did not use Scrivener or Grammerly, a story bible, or any other devices and aids designed to help novelists tell a story. He simply told the story. A graduate of the University of Texas, he was not some unlettered genius but was knowledgeable about structure and the need for a story arc. He just never let those things dominate his storytelling.
For me, the three-part structure of my dream is significant, because I too learned about structure in school. Not so much the arc within an arc and subplots and all the intricacies that guide us today, but the basic Shakespearean pattern of rising action, climax, and denouement. To this day the parts of a novel to me are the beginning, middle, and end. 
To say that storytelling should be natural is not to jump into the pantser vs. outliner controversy. I’m a pantser who works best from a page of rough notes. But I know everyone has to choose the way that works best for them. Perhaps what I want to suggest about storytelling is that it should be less of a science and more of an art, more instinctive and organic.
If you’ve never read Elmer Kelton, you have a treat waiting for you, whether you think you’re interested in cowboy literature or not. Start with The Good Old Boys, move on to The Wolf and the Buffalo—Elmer set out to tell the story of a particular buffalo soldier, but a Commanche chief kept taking over the story. And then move on to his classic, The Time It Never Rained, described as one of the twenty or so best novels by an American of the twentieth century.
Me? I’m going back to sleep and see what happens next.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Big doings in the neighborhood

I thought of Mister Rogers tonight: “It’s a lovely day in the neighborhood.” I am fortunate to live in a close-knit neighborhood with a lot of community pride. In fact, I I live across from the community elementary school. And tonight that provided one of those special neighborhood moments, though I only heard it distantly.

At Lily B. Clayton Elementary, known locally as “Sweet Lily B.,” there’s a tradition of “clapping out” the graduating fifth graders. The students parade down a long hall as families, friends, and faculty line the hall and rhythmically clap. It’s a moment to bring tears to your eyes—I know because I was there for the clapping out of Jacob and also, earlier, of my Canadian daughter Sue’s son, Hunter.

This year there would be no clapping-out ceremony due to social distancing, quarantining, whatever you call it. But school administrators arranged for a clap-out on the street in front of the building tonight. We were in the back yard with socially distanced happy hour guests, but we heard and enjoyed the hoopla. Police cars and fire department vehicles led the parade with horns and sirens blaring someone played "Pomp and Cirumstance" on a car radio, and kids hung out of cars, waving at the people on the street. A perfect show of neighborhood joy for these young kids who have accomplished so much and yet not been able to celebrate as they expected.. Jordan snuck out to the front porch and took the picture above.

We had a company happy hour  with two couples who are longtime friends of mine. Jordan worried and worked a lot to arrange it so seven people could sit with appropriate distancing. In spite of rain threats during the day, it was a lovely evening, perfect temperature, and the garden looked pretty. Everyone brought their own drinks, glasses, snacks, and even napkins. I wonder if this is the entertaining of the future. Guess it is, at least for the foreseeable future. But we were certainly glad to see these friends, and there was much lively discussion, even if it did seem to focus on true crime stories such as the Cullen Davis mansion murders. Not sure how we got on such a topic.

I had prepped dinner tonight, knowing we wouldn’t have a lot of cooking time. Jordan went to Central Market this morning, intending to go inside first thing when it opened instead of using curbside pick-up as we usually do. Seemed to me a perfect time for us to have a seafood supper, so she came home with a pound of bay scallops, plus shrimp for Jacob—he adores shrimp but we all doubted he would try scallops.
Note my fancy new fish spatula

I made scallops Provenҫal—tossed the scallops with salt, pepper, and flour and sautéed them in butter; added chopped shallots, garlic, and parsley to the skillet and cooked a bit longer. Then added white wine and cooked gently until the sauce just thickened a bit. Christian, who apparently wasn’t sure he liked scallops, said he wanted his well done. I explained that well done scallops were rubbery, and besides, they would all be done in one skillet—they were after all, the small bay scallops, and it wasn’t like putting steaks on the grill and assigning each to a person. Apparently, I got it right, because he said he now realized he likes them. Such fun enlarging his taste—he joked that I had made a salmon eater out of him, and now a scallop eater   Hmm, maybe I'll go for mushrooms next.
Another pleasant evening. We all agreed that the days go by quickly, even without scheduled things to do, without lunches and dinners out, without haircuts and doctor appointments and shopping trips and travel. It’s strange to be so comfortable in such difficult times, although at least for me personal comfort doesn’t keep me from worrying about the state of the country. I pray for our nation daily, because I think we are in perilous times.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Don’t name that baby girl Karen!

Always a good day when you learn a new word. My new word of the day is Karen. If you already know what a Karen is—notice, it is what, not who—I’m sorry for being late to the party. Apparently, the term has been in slang usage for some time. A Karen is a middle-aged, privileged, entitled white woman. You know her, she calls the police on a black family picnicking in the park or a young black girl selling cold drinks on the sidewalk.

I saw the term this morning in an article entitled, “Karen” isn’t going “wild.” She’s just being documented. The article began by comparing the term to the use of the N-word, saying both are offensive. Minutes later, I read an account of a white woman and black man who tangled verbally in Central Park when he, a dedicated bird watcher, asked her to leash her unruly dog. It escalated, she called the police and, according to the report, lunged at him, breaking social distancing. The man was later quoted as saying, “Her inner Karen came out.” Police came, no summonses were issued, but by evening “Karen” had been temporarily furloughed from her job and asked to surrender her dog to the rescue group from which she got it. Now that’s a word I already knew: Karma.

Later today I saw a clip about a middle-aged, overweight white woman, with unkempt hair, yelling at a Mexican family for playing Mexican music in the park. Maybe they should have played “Degüello.”

Don’t name your new baby Karen (with apologies to the only Karen I know who is a really good person).

We resumed our weekly ladies’ happy hour tonight with neighbors Mary Dulle and Prudence Zavala—so good to see these ladies again. We sat distanced, and everyone brought their own drinks. Mary brought individual appetizer plates for each of us, and Pru brought each a canister of piroulines—great dessert tonight. We sent them home with bags of chocolate mints—the good kind you sometimes get on restaurant plates, and a bag of corks for Mary who swears someday she will do something with them. During this quarantine, I’m trying to guilt her into it by supplying lots of corks. Jordan plans an early morning trip to Central Market tomorrow and so asked each of the ladies what they needed. That’s how the world works these days—going to the store? Check with your neighbors. Sitting on the patio was so pleasant—no bugs, though Pru brought her bug zapper—lovely temperature, slight breeze, a perfect evening.

Now Christian is fixing Mongolian beef, and Jordan has put Louella’s rice in my toaster oven. We will have a good dinner—and I’m hungry.

Stay safe and well, everyone.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Thoughts on a rainy Memorial Day

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
                from "In Flanders Fields," by John McCrae
                McCrae, a Canadian teacher, served in WWI and died January 1918

The all-day rain probably ruined a lot of Memorial Day picnic plans—but then maybe it saved some people from crowd exposure they didn’t need. Whichever, I found it a delightful day. Too wet to even stick my nose out of the cottage, so I wrote an amazing (for me) 1800 words.

Sophie was not so taken with the rain, though she did sleep until I woke her. But even with the patio door open, she refused to go out in the rain. Finally about eleven, she began to bark at me, and I had the distinct impression that she was telling me to make it stop raining, so she could go pee. My explanations fell on deaf ears. She finally did go out, took care of business, and came right back in.

Later, I watched Christian and Jacob try to get June Bug to go out. Jacob came and closed my door so there would be no repeat of last night’s horrendous peeing accident on my floor. June Bug took one step out the door and stopped dead still. Christian patter her on the behind, urging her to go on. As if to say, “Nope,” she turned to go back in the house, only to find her way blocked. Finally Jacob had to pick her up and carry her down to the grass. Gave me a good laugh for the day.

Like most of America, I take Memorial Day seriously as a day to pay tribute, something more significant than just a day for a picnic. Many who post on this day come from a military background, which I always think makes the impact of the day on them heavier. I do not come from such a tradition, although now it sounds unreal to say that my father fought in World War I. By the time I came along, the war to end all wars was twenty years into his memory, and he rarely talked about it. Althought Dad fought for the Canadian Army, not American, I suppose he could still be called a doughboy--the nickame given to soldiers at that time. Books I’ve read about that time—and the wonderful work of the war poets--have made me realize that as a foot soldier he probably endured some pretty tough times. He was subject to chest colds, which was attributed to having been mustard gassed. And when jet planes began crossing our skies, every time one whined by—the really did whine in those days—Dad would duck for the garage if he was outdoors. It sounded like incoming artillery to him.

If any of my uncles were in the military, I don’t know about it, though I do know my brother’s father was in WWI and had shrapnel in his face. The decision at the time was to leave it, but Russell Peckham died in 1934 of meningitis, an infection from the shrapnel. My brother was a Navy pilot in the days just after the Korean War. For much of his service, he was in Corpus Christi, and when I finally visited there, I felt like I already knew the city from his descriptions.

We had our Memorial Day picnic on Saturday—hot dogs and macaroni salad—and I had another picnic yesterday when the Zavalas sent me a bounteous feast. So tonight, I will try to rescue a pasta/tomato dish that didn’t work, add a chicken breast left from yesterday, and a bit of the corn dip that Jordan took with her tonight. A nice satisfying meal. I have some editing to do on what I wrote today and then a culinary mystery to settle down with. I’m not hooked yet, but then I’m not far into it. It is set in Santa Fe, in an upscale Austrian restaurant (really? In Santa Fe? Is this an exercise in the absurd?) so it has some compensations.

Sweet dreams amid the rain.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Highlights of an ordinary day

General Tso's chicken with a lettuce wrap
Ordinary days are pretty common during quarantine, and this started out to be one of them. I have noticed that the weather affects my mood more in quarantine than usual, and this morning I felt draggy, a bit lethargic, not bursting with enthusiasm. Of course, I did—it was predicted to be rainy day, although the sun shone all morning. In the late afternoon, a friend who lives maybe three blocks away emailed they got 20 minutes of rain. I was looking at dry sidewalks. One of us has our stories mixed.

Highlight of the day should be Christian’s dinner. He really looked forward to cooking for us. General Tso’s chicken, a dish I’ve heard about a lot and never tried. But more about that later.

The day began with church, after I fiddled with email and the news of the day which was as it often is pretty discouraging. But church was good. I am continually amazed at the creativity and passion that my church brings to online services. Today, the photography particularly impressed me. And the way they involve lay members in the service—children participating in the call to worship, a member reading Scripture. And an inspirational message from Dr. Russ Peterman on the current theme of “Now, what?” So we’ve had Easter and we have the resurrection, but how does that help us live our daily lives on this planet—and in this sorely divided country? His answer? To remember that all of us, no matter our beliefs on politics and the virus, are children of God. That’s an oversimplification, but ….

Then my neighbors, Pru and Victor Zavala, surprised me with a feast for lunch. They hurried to grill before the rain came and sent a plate of corn on the cob, chicken thighs, sausage, and beans, with strawberry sweet bread for dessert. Absolutely delicious. I believe Victor has a career as a pit master should he ever want to give up surgery. Oh, and a sweet strawberry bread topped with turbinado sugar which gave it a slight crunchiness.

So I settled down to nap and then work at my computer while awaiting Christian’s dinner. But June Bug, one of the Burton Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, had a special treat for me. Junie is nine or ten, deaf, has had a heart attack, and—there’s no getting around it—senile. Sweet as she is, her elevator does not go all the way to the top. She likes to come in the cottage because she thinks she can snitch some of Sophie’s food. But tonight she got right in front of me, squatted, and peed a lake on my wood floor (fortunately she missed the rug, but she did highlight the uneven floor of my cottage—everything runs downhill to the north, so pee ran into corners and under the desk). I called Jordan. She came out, justifiably furious, and began a lengthy cleanup process, assisted by Jacob. I was shoved out of the way, but I couldn’t tell which smelled worse—the pee or the cleaning/disinfecting products. Finally, I poured two glasses of wine and we went to the patio. Jordan even jokingly offered Jacob a glass, but he laughingly declined. More turmoil than any of us needed on an ordinary day. June Bug is banned from the cottage, but that means someone has to either tell me she’s out or shut my door—sometimes she sneaks in and I don’t know it until she comes from the bedroom, having gone the long way around.

But we got past that bit of trauma and had a great dinner. I sat on the front porch with Jordan so I could see the pugs that a neighbor walks every evening about 7:30--cute dogs and a friendly neighbor. Then General Tso’s chicken--fried chicken pieces in a sweet/sour sauce—so good. And Christian made lettuce wraps with ground turkey because he couldn’t find chicken. At dinner, he said, “I have a confession,” and we waited breathlessly for what would come—but it was that the filling for the wraps was turkey, not chicken.

Also at the dinner table, we discussed long-range plans if the pandemic continues for a year or more. Where would we go to get away? Perhaps building plans in the air, but it’s a thought to consider. If staying healthy is still a primary concern in the future, how and where will we live? I’m too old to think about it, but I recognize in myself the signs of becoming a recluse. I need to work on that. More about it at another time.

All in all, another satisfying day in quarantine—with unexpected highlights. And a lot to think about.

Friday, May 22, 2020

What’s wrong with America?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, and I’m proud to be an American. This pandemic has brought out the very best in some Americans—I see it in my neighbors reaching out to each other, I read about random acts of kindness, and hear stories thata reinforce my belief that most of humanity is basically good, kind, and caring.

But it’s hard during an unprecedented crisis to see so many people picketing and protesting because their rights are being infringed upon. They demand their freedom! They want to get a haircut, sit in a restaurant or a bar, go to the theatre, live life as they’ve always known it. They don’t seem to recognize that these are not normal times and all of us have to make some adjustments.

I am in full sympathy with those who call for re-opening businesses, because they cannot survive economically without a paycheck. We have to recognize how many American live paycheck-to-paycheck. But in my mind, staging protests is not the way to accomplish that goal. And as we gradually re-open (too fast for me), workers lose all my sympathy (not that they care) if they do not wear masks and take other safety precautions in this time of plague. It’s called being a good citizen, a good American.

Those who protest that masks infringe on their rights and do so while armed with assault weapons are beyond contempt. I want to say to them, “Get over yourself.” That is the most selfish act I can imagine, because they not only assert their so-called independence and reveal their inner weakness, they endanger the rest of us and put an extra burden on front-line workers. And that's not the kind of America the armed forces we will honor on Memorial day fought and died for.

A colleague posted a memory about WWII when the world, principally England, lived in blackouts. No sliver of light could show as a target for Nazi bombers. America had blackouts too, though fortunately without bombers. I was a very young child in Chicago during the war—let me emphasize very young—but I remember my uncle was a warden, and I used to go with him to be sure people were complying with the blackout and to warn those who weren’t. Today, some selfish souls would claim the blackout infringed on their rights, and whoever warned them would be at risk of being shot. Bring on those bombers!

I just finished reading The Day the World Came to Town, by Jim DeFede. It’s an account of 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, when thirty-eight jetliners, carrying thousands of passengers, were marooned there by the shutdown of American air space. The people of Gander put their own lives on hold and willingly shared their homes, their clothes, their linens, their food, and their goodwill with people from all over the world. They loaned their cars, bought toys for the children, cared for the animals who had been on board. They counseled with distraught parents, worried about the children from whom they were separated in what was a scary time for both adults and children. World tension was at a high, but you’d never have known it in Gander and surrounding small towns.

Nobody protested, nobody talked about their rights, nobody scorned the passengers as “foreigners”—one African American woman was probably the only black person on the island, and she drew attention less because of the color of her skin than because she was a tall and commanding figure and her hair touched the small of her back.

Friendships were forged, some to last a lifetime. One woman discovered that the daughter of a host family lived in the same town in the American South as her own daughter. Thousands of miles away, the two daughters got together, and the Newfoundler was able to reassure the American daughter about her parents’ safety.

Among the stranded passengers was an internationally known European fashion designer, Werner Baldessarini. When a Saudi prince offered to send a private jet to rescue him, Baldessarini turned it down. He did not feel he should be given special treatment, and he had made friends among the other passengers. He wrote:

There was no hatred. No anger. No fear in Gander. Only the spirit of community. Here, everyone was equal, everyone was treated the same. Here, the basic humanity of man wasn’t just surviving but thriving.

Those words echoed in my mind long after I finished the book. I wish every American, but especially the minority who are making themselves so prominent, could read them. And then again, I’d say, “Get over yourself. We are all in this together.”

PS: The events at Gander are the basis for the successful Broadway play, Come from Away.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The weekend the world changed

On the Vonlane bus to San Antonio
Tomorrow marks eleven weeks of social isolation for me and my local family. I asked Jordan tonight about individually wrapped Clorox wraps and she said she was able to get plenty the weekend we went to San Antonio. Since then, she’s never found them in stores. As we talked I realized that was the weekend the world changed.

We went the weekend of March 7 because I had a chance to sign The Second Battle of the Alamo at the annual meeting of the Alamo Society. Jordan, Jacob, and I took the Vonlane “executive” bus to Austin. That part of the trip was like other times I’ve ridden that bus—nice lunch service, friendly attendant, nothing remarkable.

In Austin we picked up Megan and her son, Ford, and drove on to San Antonio. At that time, San Antonio had a few cases of COVID-19 and the proactive mayor had declared an emergency. So we went with hesitation. An email to the president of the society beforehand assured me that many from the group were already there and everything was fine. Armed with wipes, sprays, and what-have-you, we ventured forth.

We stayed at the historic Menger Hotel—a two-room suite for me and my girls, a separate room for the cousins (they were thrilled). Jordan sprayed every inch of those rooms every time we went into them. She harangued us about washing our hands frequently. She was vigilante.

But life in San Antonio seemed to go on as usual—we walked crowded streets, mingled with the tourists at the Alamo, ate in some really good restaurants, took Ubers around the city, and had a fine time. Come Sunday, we drove back to Austin, ate at a Mexican restaurant, and then the three of us boarded a Vonlane for Fort Worth. And that’s when I saw the changes.
The girls left me to nap while they took the boys to the River Walk.
It was a ruse--they went to drink margaritas.

Over the weekend, Vonlane had really upgraded their sanitary measures. No masks, but the attendant wore gloves and frequently offered us sanitary wipes. She used tongs to hand us baggies of chips and Styrofoam containers of supper. We did have a catastrophe—the driver braked suddenly, and my salad flew across my trail table, sailed across the aisle, and landed upside down under the driver’s seat. The attendant, wearing her gloves was unflappable and cleaned it all up easily. But I was struck by the difference in sanitary measures from Friday to Sunday. That marked, for me, the beginning of the change in our lives.

When we came home, Jordan and Christian took Jacob to Broken Bow in Oklahoma to fish for spring break. It was a good choice, as they saw almost no people. I don’t remember what I did most of the week, but I clearly remember that good friend Subie and her sister Diana took me to the Arlington Women’s Club where I talked to a group about my life as a writer. It was a speaking engagement I had worried and fretted about and wished I’d never accepted, but as usually happens, it went well. I just need to get over the anxiety beforehand.

That evening, Carol and I went to Lucille’s for super and remarked that it was less crowded than usual. We wondered if people were staying home because of the novel corona virus. The date was March 12, and I have been out of the house only once since them—to ride with Jordan when she picked up to-go food. That weekend, the stay-at-home directives came down, but for me the world really changed the weekend before.

What stories my grandchildren will have to tell their children.
Grandsons at the signing

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Social life in the time of corona

Tonight dear friends were to come for a distanced happy hour. While I have been quite content working away in quarantine, I have missed my friends who used to come frequently for happy hour. I’m sort of a shy person but also one who feeds on people, and prolonged solitude is hard for me. Thank goodness for Jordan and her family

It’s a long, tangled story but the people who were to come tonight are special. She is like another of my children, albeit just a couple of years older—she calls herself my Canadian daughter. And she is married to a wonderful man I adore. They had wanted to come earlier, but when we found out they had been to a restaurant, we cancelled and rescheduled. I guess knowing everyone else’s doings is one of the problems of social media. She did explain they were twelve feet from anyone else and the waiter wore mask and gloves.

So tonight  we were all spiffed up. I was not in my usual T-shirt and leggings, Jordan rearranged the patio for distanced seating, and Christian came home early. And there we sat—5:30, 6:00, 6:30—enjoying each other’s company. We went inside—and let me mention the patio was uncomfortably warm tonight, first time this spring for that. At any rate, I emailed and got a quick answer. There had been a mix-up. She didn’t think I had confirmed, and she knew we were nervous about visitors and could we reschedule.

One of the downsides of the evening was that Jordan and I had planned carefully and had a dinner that could be served quickly after guests left. We opened a prepared jar of spaghetti sauce—shhh!—and doctored it with olive oil, garlic, herbs, and anchovy  paste. It seemed a shame to waste it on a night when we could have easily cooked. But it was good, and we enjoyed it served over buttered linguine with lots of parmesan.

But the evening points up the difficulty of entertaining these days. Much as we love and trust our friends, we are not ready to invite them into either the main house or the cottage with some screening. It’s a truism that just because we have known them for years and love them does not mean that they could not be silent, asymptomatic carriers of the virus. And yet, isn’t it awful to screen your friends? Another friend was to come Thursday night to the patio but wrote to say her sister would be arriving that day and was it okay to bring her. The note came with assurance that if we said no, she’d understand. And we did reluctantly say, “Let’s reschedule.” The sister would undoubtedly be flying in, and we aren’t ready for that second-hand exposure.

We have been waiting to have several other friends over, though Jordan says we can only have two at a time—space doesn’t allow distancing for more. She and Christian have had a few friends over for happy hour on the front porch, but that only works if the guests are willing to respect the distancing rules. Before all this, Christian entertained clients at happy hour several times a week, and he has now tried to move a bit of taht to the porch at a much reduced rate.

Through all of this, Jordan is most protective of me. Her reasoning is that her mom is eighty-one and vulnerable and she isn’t taking chances. I am beyond grateful for all she does to allow me to stay in solitary comfort and safety. I know some think we are being over-protective, but it’s what we are comfortable with.

A dear friend said to me, via telephone, the other day that she has lived a good life and is not afraid to die. She is close to my age though not quite as old. Good heavens, I’m beginning to think few are as old. Anyway, my response was that I am not  sure if I am afraid to die or not, but I know two things: I am enjoying my life as it is so much that I am not willing to risk it, and I definitely do not want to risk the agonies of an extreme case of COVID-19. Yes, some cases are mild, but others are excruciating, and we have all read or heard the stories. Take, for instance, Chris Cuomo’s account of his long and difficult battle.

Sorry, but we’re going to continue to be over-careful. If you’re close to me and want to visit, I hope you understand that I too long to see you, but I’m not taking chances. Someday this will pass, and I intend to be here, hale and hearty and looking forward to enjoying a glass of wine with you.

Monday, May 18, 2020

It’s a dog’s life

Bringing Sophie home
Sophie, my border collie/miniature poodle cross, is nine years told today. Getting on in middle age, almost an old lady, though she doesn’t seem to know it. She has celebrated most of the day by sleeping in several of  her favorite spots, with occasional forays into the yard to check on the squirrels.

That day nine years ago, we went as a family to a kennel outside McKinney to look at miniature golden doodle puppies—Jordan, Jacob, Jamie, Melanie, Maddie, Edie and me. The doodle babies were eight weeks old—four more weeks before they would be ready to go—and they were sleepy. The breeder said she had one bordoodle left and would we like to see her.

Sophie, tiny and black, charged into the room and took over. She was lively, full of mischief and licks and tiny puppy bites. She cuddled into whoever held her. We were charmed. And we brought her home, because she was twelve weeks and ready to go. Jordan, Jacob, and I spent the night in Frisco that night, and Sophie slept in the guest room with me. I crated her, but, yeah, she ended up in the bed. She woke me once and piddled on the carpet, something that sends Jamie into frantic spasms. I sopped it up, and he was never the wiser.

I had retired by then and was home all day every day with Sophie, which is probably why I did a better job of housebreaking than I ever have with any dog—and believe me, I have had a long line of dogs in my life. But I couldn’t control the teething—those sharp little teeth would chew on anything. She instantly destroyed stuffed toys, so we stopped getting them for her. She chewed the wood edge of the bottom of my bookcase, and to this day it is covered in duct tape. She clawed at my arms for attention, and I remember once I embarrassed Jordan by going to church in short sleeves, exposing all the little bloody marks on my arms. But there came a day, suddenly, when she was civilized—or as civilized as she was ever going to get.

Sophie today
Sophie does not like to be told what to do. If I tell her to come inside, she’s likely to stare at me. If someone tries to drag her somewhere, she’s likely to growl, though she’s not serious about her threat. She chases squirrels with gay abandon, barking furiously, and she considers the yard guys her personal enemies to which she must alert me by shrill barking the entire time they are here.

But she is a companionable soul who loves affection. When she is especially excited, she runs in wide circles at top speed. She used to do that in the yard, but we have planted so much of it that she now makes a circle in my cottage—down the hall, through the bedroom and then the kitchen, out the door to the patio, and all over again. She is deliriously happy when there’s a houseful of people and will go from one to the other, looking for attention. She particularly loves my children and grandchildren. In quiet moments—of which there really are many—she will lie and watch me intently. Thunderstorms scare her, and she won’t leave my side when they come. When I talk to her in long sentences, which I do—she’s often the only one around to talk to—she wags her tail tentatively, as if to say, “I’m not certain what you’re saying, but I trust you.”

Sophie shares our backyard world with her two cousins—the Burtons’ Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. They are half Sophie’s size, if that much, and have about a quarter of her energy. She buffaloes them, but at the same time she can’t do without them. If she senses they are out, she has to be out with them. She will take her discarded treats to the deck and leave them for Cricket, because she knows Cricket sometimes snatches them. She is constantly on the alert lest June Bug, who is always starving, eat her food. Sophie is inclined to be happy knowing it’s there but not necessarily gobbling it down—until Junie comes along.

In short, she is sweet, spoiled, smart, and I am completely besotted with her. So Happy Birthday to Sophie. Sorry, but no chocolate cake. Maybe an extra treat.
Cricket and June Bug
I call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Looking back down a long road

My family

Today I’ve been thinking about how life plays strange tricks on you and doesn’t turn out the way you expect. When I was in school, I never chose a career path because I thought some man would marry me and take care of me, and I would spend my days reading Silver Screen and eating bonbons. The closest I came to a future vision was maybe owning a small bookstore. Fate had other things in store.

Fifty-six years ago today I married the man I intended to spend the rest of my life with. He was not then nor ever the love of my life, but I thought I loved him, and he loved me. We married in my brother’s back yard in a small Missouri town, with a row of bushes separating us from the goat pens next door. Little did I know what lay ahead of me—graduate school, four beloved children, a career in publishing, a life as a writer—and divorce.

For many years, we were the charmed couple, younger than his medical colleagues, less conventional in our lifestyle, the perfect family in the dream “doctor’s wife” house with the children and the station wagon. Gradually, after fifteen years, it fell apart. It would be easy for me to blame him, as I know it was easy for hm to tell others how bad the marriage was, but the truth is divorce always has two participants.

At the age of forty-two I found myself the single parent of four, mistress of a large (and expensive) house, and unemployed. I was terrified, and I think the kids might have been too, though they were visibly relieved that the bickering and tension were gone from the house. Gradually, we put one foot ahead of the other and moved on.

I went into a career in academic publishing, work that I loved and, I think, was good at. My children each found their own ways, sometimes a crooked, jagged path, but today the oldest is a CPA, my oldest daughter a lawyer, the second son was owner of his own toy manufactures representative company and is now in charge of US sales for a larger firm, and the youngest a luxury travel advisor. All four are happily married, and they have given me seven terrific grandchildren. I laughed that after their childhood, crowded with noise and love and laughter after the divorce, none of them wanted more than two children. I could never make them understand that raising four is a whole lot easier than raising two. More expensive, but easier.

Today, we are a happy, strong family, always ready for the next family get-together. The children’s father no longer walks this earth, but when he did—at family wedding receptions—I think he recognized that we were a family unit without him. With joy, we have reached out and absorbed into the family his daughter from his second marriage.

When Joel left us, I remembered Robert Browning’s words in “Rabbi Ben Ezra”:

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

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

        I thought marriage was like a roller coaster, with ups and downs, and you rode it to the end. He didn’t seem to agree. But a few years after he left, I realized what an enormous favor he had done the children and me. We were healthy and happy. I never heard from them any bitter longing for the father they’d lost nor any wish to search for their biological parents—all four are adopted, but as I will tell you fiercely, they are mine.

God has truly blessed me, and I can tell you, fifty-six years later I am one happy camper. No, there’s no man in my life, but I have lovely memories. And I am content with the world I have now, even in quarantine. A tip of the hat to Jordan, who keeps me safe these days, and to the other three who are wildly supportive.

Who knew all those years ago what would happen?

Friday, May 15, 2020

The week that was

Dinner tonight
Black bean enchilada with fruit salad
During quarantine, one of the most common complaints I read on the three cooking-related lists I follow is that folks are burned out on cooking, out of ideas, done with it, so ready not to cook but not yet ready to venture to restaurants. I read an article today about Baltimore chef and artist Krystal Mack who hails the return of the community cookbook. You know, those spiral bound cookbooks from the Junior League or the church sewing circles or whatever. My first signed publication was in such a book, put out by the auxiliary at my father’s hospital. I contributed a garlicky cheese dip, and there it was in round, childish handwriting—my name, Judy MacBain.

Today we fall into the trap of thinking cookbooks should have glossy, four-color photographs and complicated new recipes that challenge cooking skills. Not so, says Mack, who compiled a five-dollar book that includes poetry and activities. Titled How to Take Care, the book’s proceeds support national organizations that fight domestic violence. The recipes, gathered from her fellow chefs and artists, are simple and inexpensive. Recipes, she says, that give power back to the people.

Makes me think that my Gourmet on a Hot Plate fits right into that category. Recipes for non-cooks, beginners, families. You don’t have to be confined to a hot plate to follow them, but they too are simple and inexpensive.

During quarantine, Jordan and I have planned meals a week at a time. Not a rigid schedule, but one that gives us some idea of what to fix. This morning I asked her what was for dinner tonight and suggested the one take-out we planned for the week.

“No,” she said. “I want to save that for the weekend.”

Duh. This is the weekend. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Where did the week go?” she asked.

The answer is I’m not sure. I have developed a schedule for these quarantine days. I sleep as long as Sophie will let me—usually about eight o’clock but sometimes, groan, much earlier. After fixing my tea, I settle at my desk to answer emails, check the world news, study the writing lists I belong to, and check out Facebook. Believe it or not, all that takes way too much time. Then I am free for my projects—these days it’s mostly writing the novel I’m working on, but it is also my neighborhood newsletter, which has gotten much busier with quarantine. I think more people have time on their hands and also more are doing good deeds for others—those reach me as contributions to a Cheers column. There are blogs to write, and I have some personal legal documents to study.

Sometime after noon, I break for  light lunch and work until two or three when I get unbearably sleepy. After nap I change clothes (having worked in pjs all day), put away any dishes in the kitchen, and once again catch up with what’s going on in the world, take care of emails that have popped up, and drink a glass of wine with Jordan. We watch the news and then take our wine to the patio.

Most evenings we eat in the cottage. After supper I take a really short nap—sort of like Grandpa who used to fall asleep on the couch--and then I work or read until midnight.

I think I am a creature of habit. Routine makes me comfortable and secure. So now, with a project I’m really enthusiastic about, the days seem to flow into one another, and, yes, the weeks go by quickly. Yesterday marked nine weeks since I have been out in the world. And I’m okay with that.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Online wedding

Well, the pandemic brings new experiences every day. This morning I went to an online wedding—not Zoom but an app called GoToMeeting. My niece, Emily Alter, and her fiancé. Max Krol, were married at 10:30—9:30 a.m. in Texas. They had planned an elaborate destination June wedding in Turks & Caicos, which made the Texas Alters rejoice. Colin and Lisa actually lived on Provo, one of the Turks & Caicos islands, and I visited them there. It would have been familiar territory.

But COVID-19 interfered. Air travel began to look more and more unwise, and they were unsure about the resort they were working with. Common sense prevailed, and they cancelled everything. Emily has been an R.N. on an orthopedic floor at Lennox General in Manhattan for several years, but with the pandemic, her unit was converted to care for COVID-19 patients. We are all extremely proud of her and more than a bit worried for her. Obviously, she had no time to plan a wedding.

Enter the City of New York. Mayor De Blasio and Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council, conceived of a plan they called Project Cupid, and Governor Cuomo signed it into law. The online marriage license program is a way of encouraging love during the time of pandemic. Previously New York residents had to appear in person to apply for a marriage license. Under this program, the whole thing can be done virtually—documents submitted, payments made under a secure electronic program. The signed marriage license is delivered electronically. The program is available in eleven languages and translation assistance is available if needed. One more wonderful example of the things being done by caring and kind people these days. They truly outweigh the outrageous rebellion and selfishness we see from some.

I was unsure what form the wedding would take, but by 9:30 Jordan, Jacob, and I were at my computer (Christian had a work appointment). Turns out the ceremony would be conducted by the family rabbi who married Emily’s older sister and brother. The rabbi estimated that, with quite a few households logged on, there were close to a hundred people in attendance. Lots of bantering back and forth preceded the ceremony. The bride’s father wore a white shirt and bow tie but joked he couldn’t stand up because he didn’t have pants on. My oldest son and his family were all spiffed up, Colin and Kegan in sport coats but I suspect they too had shorts on the bottom.

My Tomball family in their wedding finery
 Megan tuned in from their Austin apartment while Brandon logged on from his parents’ home in Midland where he was on a belated Mothers’ Day visit. The rabbi took center stage and joked that this was Uncle Mark’s way of avoiding the expense of a Caribbean wedding. But he turned solemn for the actual wedding, which included the ritual of exchange rings and the traditional stomping of a glass by the groom. Afterward, the bride and groom cut a cake, and one-by-one people chimed in with their congratulations.

It was a day for happy tears. Last night I was awake awhile in anticipation, but I expect to have sweet dreams tonight. And I’m still in a bit of wonder at what can be done with technology.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

An ordinary day

I waited all day for the rains that were supposed to come, but we got just one slight shower in early afternoon, accompanied by just enough distant thunder to make Sophie nervous. In contrast, Megan reports that in Austin it dumped all day.

I wanted rain for my garden that is beginning to look really good. Last week, the yard guys planted an amazing number of pentas along the front of the deck, where no grass will grow. I had thought one flat of pentas was a reasonable cost and, yes, I knew there’s be a bit of labor involved. But it’s something I can’t do myself, and Christian cannot either. Besides his interest is in filling the front porch with beauty, and he does a tremendous job of it.

Still I was surprised by a crew of three, some heavy equipment, and at least thee flats of pentas. And then I was surprised by the bill. But they look great, and they are right where I can look out the window by my desk and enjoy them. They should bloom all summer.

The other blooming plant—a bush really—that I’m much enjoying is the oak leaf hydrangea. There is one directly under the window by my desk. When we had regular hydrangea there, they never grew tall enough for me to see, and I only enjoyed them when I went in or out the driveway. But the oak leaf blossoms have grown tall enough that they peek over the windowsill.

The true beauty though is an oak leaf that is by the back fence—I can see it distantly from my desk through the patio door, but I really enjoy looking at it when we have happy hour on the patio. We haven’t done that in a couple days—busy schedules,                                                                                                      and I’m not much for sitting out there myself. I need a little help getting my walker over the high lintel—when we built this cottage, we had no idea I’d need a walker. All that aside, the plant is magnificent. Next to it, a turks cap, once tall and glorious, is now a ground plant struggling to gain some height. I don’t know what happened to it, but I used to love the tall red blossoms.

Other than admiring my plants, it was an ordinary day—work at my desk, leftovers for supper (sometimes a very good thing—tonight a salmon cake, corn pudding, and a bit of guacamole). But these days, I am aware of what a blessing an ordinary day is, when we are surrounded by such gloomy predictions.

I would not say Dr. Fauci was gloomy at the hearings today. He was, instead, knowledgeable and realistic, but the picture he painted of what happens if the world opens too soon was grim. I am appalled at Rand Paul’s rudeness to him and much impressed by the good doctor’s grace in handling that rudeness. There’s been a lot on the net today about class, since McConnell brought it up in reference to President Obama’s comments on the handling of the novel coronavirus. Dr. Fauci gave a lesson in class. I’m sure it went over McConnell’s head.

Ah, me, what days we live in.