Friday, October 23, 2020

Rain, cold, and cozy

 


Lovely morning today—thunder woke me, followed quickly by the gentle paw of a very nervous dog. I just buried into the covers and dozed, listening to the thunder and rain. Sophie lay next to me, as though mere proximity to me would protect her. When I got up, she followed right at my heels to bathroom and kitchen. When I opened the door to give her a chance to go out, she hung back and looked at me resentfully. When I settled at my desk, I looked out at a world as dark as though it were evening. Sophie may cower, but I love such a morning. I love being cozy inside and watching a storm.

The rain and thunder eventually went away but the temperature continued a downward slide. It’s in the fifties now and predicted to go to the mid-forties tonight, a huge change from yesterday eighties. I may have to turn on my fireplace. The one regret I have about my cottage is that it doesn’t have a fireplace, but there simply is not room for it. Every square inch of space is put to good use. Jamie met the need by getting me a desktop electric fireplace—it’s a miniature version of those TV screens you see that show a fire. Mine has a remote monitor. Jamie envisioned it on my desk, but that too is crowded—it looks great on a side table by the couch.

It’s definitely soup weather. Tomorrow I’ll make freezer soup again. I’ve collected several small icebox dishes of odds and ends. I think the soup will be more beef than chicken, given the nature of my leftovers. I know there is a good-sized container of beef gravy from my ill-fated experiment with short ribs. Two short ribs also, but I’m not sure I’ll fix them.

It’s been a week of leftovers, broken one night when Christian made Mongolian beef, served with rice, and tiny vegetables—broccoli, carrots, etc. We sometimes get so carried away with recipes we’ve found that we have to call a halt to new cooking and eat what we have. Tonight I’ve fished out the one salmon patty I knew was buried on a freezer shelf and will cook the green beans Jordan brought home. I’m the only one in our little compound who eats fresh green beans—go figure, but they all like canned better!

I’ve had a busy week—produced a 28-page monthly neighborhood newsletter, which effectively takes three days of my time. In between I’ve been proofing the pages of a reprint of my 1990s historical novel about Jessie Benton Frémont. I finished it but realized that somewhere about page 100 I hit my proofreading groove, so now I’m going back to review that first 100 pages. But my Kindle is calling—I have downloaded samples of four or five books I want to try. Ever buy a book you’re sure you’ll love—and realize twenty pages in you didn’t want to read it? Kindle’s sample program lets you try the prose, the style, get to know the characters. Another problem I have in bookstores—I buy a book, get it home, and realize I’ve already read it! If you order a book from Amazon that you’ve already read, they tell you that you already own that book. I sometime feel guilty about my heavy use of Amazon, because I’m a big advocate of the independent bookstore. But I can’t get past the convenience, especially for me as almost a recluse, of Amazon for everything from books to kitchen supplies and bug spray.

It’s a book kind of weekend, and I intend to take full advantage of it. Hope you can curl up with a good book.

Monday, October 19, 2020

A quiet noisy day—and where did you grow up


Today was one of those quiet days when I enjoyed my own company—Sophie and I were alone all day. I was proofreading pages for the reprint of my 1990s novel, Jessie—more about that another day, but I will say proofreading is intensive tiring work.

So as per my habit, I took an afternoon nap. And suddenly the world burst forth in sound. Sophie barked as though she wanted to go out, and I told her it was too early. But then I heard the cause of her agitation—a lawnmower. The yard guys were here for their regular Monday visit. Soph tolerates the mower but the blowers drive her to frantic barking. I have learned to kind of tune it out and hope they will be gone soon. But now  the same crew does the house next door—so instead of doing our yard in one quick job, they do a bit of ours and then a bit of the neighbors. Then they come back to blow the yard, and, when I think they’ve left, they come back to blow the driveway. So the whole event takes between thirty and forty-five minutes, during which Soph is either barking, poised to bark, or protectively taking one of her chews everywhere with her.

But today there was another sound. I heard it dimly and thought it awfully rhythmic. Finally dawned on me a marching band was practicing in the schoolyard across the street. And practicing … and practicing. When the yard guys had finally closed all the gates and left, I let Sophie out, but she came right back and for a long while was reluctant to go out. I think the marching music scared her.

Jordan broke my solitude, as she usually does, by coming out to watch the news and have a glass of wine with me. It was to be a leftovers night, and we decided we wanted a huge salad. She made her trademark blue cheese salad with hearts of palm, cherry tomatoes, and avocado. Wonderful dinner.

But the highlight of the day came when I zoomed in to the Hyde Park (Chicago) Book Club for a discussion by Carlo Rotella, author of The World is Always Coming Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood. No, the neighborhood is not Hyde Park but South Shore, to the south on the lakefront. I have two clear memories of South Shore—the Country Club on the lake, with a magnificent clubhouse and extensive stables. Neighbors took me there for special dinners—“You don’t have to eat fish, it’s not Friday”—and a beloved aunt and uncle who lived in a three-story apartment building on Jeffrey Boulevard (my uncle owned the building and had his medical office in the ground floor). In my young years, South Shore was a sophisticated, upper class neighborhood.

Rotella made many points tonight, among them that South Shore, once considered occupied by Irish and Jews, transitioned to a Black neighborhood in the sixties—upper middle-class Blacks. Today it is symptomatic of the disappearance of the middle class and has evolved into a two-class neighborhood: the haves and the have-nots. When it makes the news, it’s usually because of a shooting. It’s a neighborhood that, because of its lakeshore location, lives in fear of being gentrified again.

More important to me were his ideas about neighborhood. The neighborhood you grew up in, he said, always lives within you. It shapes who you are. He cited his own example of locking front doors and cars, a by-product of growing up in South Shore in the seventies. It could as easily apply to me growing up in Hyde Park in the fifties.

I found all this fascinating because of the increasing turn of my thoughts to Hyde Park. I’m wondering if that’s a function of age. Once when someone in Austin asked me where I was from, meaning where did I live, I said Chicago, and my daughter quickly said, “Mom.” So I corrected it to Fort Worth. But in truth I am always from Chicago—Rotella just made me realize how it has shaped me, from locking doors to loving old houses and eclectic neighborhoods.

I’ve now set two books in Chicago—The Gilded Cage, which is Chicago history (1847 to 1895) and could not be set anywhere else, and Saving Irene, in which I deliberately chose Hyde Park as the setting. And I’m contemplating a third, set in Hyde Park. Rotella is right—he calls it the container, but I call it the home/ neighborhood you grew up in—it never leaves you.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

This and that around the cottage

 

Sophie and neighbor Greg Smith
enjoying the last of patio weather

We are enjoying the last of patio weather. My Canadian daughter and her husband came by the other night because, as she said, she knew cooler weather was coming and she didn’t know how they’d be able to see me once it was too cool for the patio. We have made full use of the relative safety of outdoor entertaining (in tiny bunches) during quarantine. Cooler weather will present a problem. The low table on the patio actually is a fire pit with a wooden, removable top—but with a fire pit, you toast one side and freeze the other. Not conducive to prolonged, casual visits. Christian has seen some outdoor heaters with reflective back panels at Costco and says he’ll come home with one soon. Meantime this evening we are expecting two sets of neighbors.

I keep finding appetizer recipes that intrigue me—like one with anchovies parsley, and mayo—but we have not yet gotten back to chip and dip type dishes. When Jordan does that for friends, she provides individual small spoons—a lot of trouble.

We had an uninvited guest the other night, though we are still puzzled by identity. On Saturday morning, Jordan noticed one of the plants sitting on the deck was nearly destroyed, something had taken out a swatch of the pettas that line the front of the deck, and that same something dug a hole in the deconstructed granite that covers a small strip close to the house where nothing will grow. I suspect either a possum or a coon, but we are puzzled. The yard is fenced, gate closed—if there’s a gap large enough for a coon or possum to get in, that gap is large enough for Sophie to get out (Jordan’s dogs are not inclined to wander and, in truth, Soph is less interested these days—she seems to have decided she should stay put where she has a good thing).

But do possums climb fences? Coons? It’s a four-foot hurricane fence. I presume the critter came in close to the point of its destruction, which would be by the gate, but I always check the gate morning and evening. And to reach that inner gate, they’d need access to the driveway—a six-foot fence and an electric driveway gate. I can imagine a raccoon digging and being destructive, but do possums do that too? We have had possums even traveling along the high wires at the back of the property—hmm, guess that answers my question about them climbing. I work so hard to make folks believe possums are our friends, I’d hate to be disappointed.

Cleaning house is not one of my skills, and now that I need the walker, it is beyond me. We had a lovely woman who came every two weeks ever since I’ve been out here, but we’ve stopped that because of COVID. So Saturday she was to come for only the second professional cleaning since last March—bless Jordan who has been doing what’s needed all along. I was going to pack up my computer and work in the main house while she was here, and yes, I was excited. You know that old joke about cleaning the house so the cleaning lady can come? That’s what we did, though I left dishes in the sink because I knew she’d wash them, clothes on the bed because I knew she put them in the laundry, garbage to be carried out. She called in sick with allergies. I cannot tell you how disappointed I am. I so looked forward to that smell of a house that’s just been thoroughly cleaned.

Last weekend with exquisitely poor timing, I made a pot of chili for Sunday supper. It was in the nineties—hardly chili weather. Today on what promises to be the last really hot day, I have made chicken soup. I need to coordinate with the weather forecasters.  I have the patio door open to enjoy the lovely day, and I don’t look forward to keeping it closed. I’ve been coaching Sophie—always in the fall, she forgets she knows how to go in and out if I leave the door open just a crack. She can paw it open to go out, though when she forgets she flings herself against it in frustration, thereby closing it securely.

Guess we all have some adaptation to cooler weather on our horizons. I’d keep it Spring and Fall all day long, with daylight savings time, if I could.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

 

The silver lining

When I was young my mom sometimes sang a WWI song to me with the line, “Through every dark cloud there’s a silver lining shining.” I think I found my own silver lining in the pandemic and quarantine. And it’s Zoom.

Yesterday I was on a panel discussing culinary mysteries, part of the annual Bouchercon international mystery convention, named in honor of writer, critic, and editor the late Anthony Boucher. Each year, Bouchercon is in a different city, and a local committee works for two or three years to put together a program. It’s a fan con, designed to attract readers, rather than a writers’ craft workshop. For writers, it’s a prize to be on a panel because it’s a terrific way to say to readers, “Look at me! Read my books!” Rumor has it 800 fans registered this year.

I have only been to Bouchercon once, when it was in Austin, many years ago. A friend and I drove down, and I remember coming home laden down with free books, book bags, lots of bling. I also remember being overwhelmed by the size of the meeting and number of panels available. Back then, I was a fan, directing TCU Press and writing Texas history. I’d never thought of writing a mystery.

By the time I turned my sights to mystery, it was usually too far and too expensive to go to this meeting. I really don’t like to travel alone (I know—reveals the shy girl who lives inside me), especially if there’s flying involved (yes, I’m a white-knuckle flier). And then when walking became difficult for me, I just wrote off the idea of ever going to Bouchercon.

But the pandemic changed everything. This year the Bouchercon committee in San Diego had to switch horses in mid-stream and plan a virtual conference! And voila! I could easily attend from my computer at home. I registered and was fortunate enough to be put on a panel. “Let’s Eat” was moderated by Mary Lee Ashford and panelists included Nancy Parry (aka Nancy Coco), Leslie Karst, Maya Corrigan, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Kaira Rouda, and Bharti Kirschner. Note to mystery readers: look for their books. They offer a wide variety, from Bharti’s set in India to Leslie’s Sally Solari mysteries in Santa Cruz.

Yes, it was intimidating. No, I didn’t disgrace myself, but I didn’t come across as brilliant and scintillating either. As one friend wrote to me, I did just fine. Still, it was fun to hear other authors talk about where they got their ideas, how they incorporate food into mysteries, why culinary mysteries are so popular. And it was great to bring Saving Irene to the attention of readers, most of whom had probably never heard of me and my books.

I spent much of yesterday and today watching panels. I”ve enjoyed discussions about creating fictional small towns, one on “furry friends” in mysteries, one on writing humorous mysteries, and another on marketing. Who knows? I may tune in for the awards ceremony tonight where the coveted Anthony Awards are announced in several categories.

Even if I only went to Bouchercon once, I have been to many writing- and book-related workshops and events over the course of a long career in publishing. For years I was a regular at Western Writers of America, Texas State Historical Association, Texas Institute of Letters, Texas Book Festival. I know that the big attraction at such gatherings is the “schmoozing,” the friends encountered and deals made in the aisles of an exhibit or over a drink in the bar. And of course that’s what’s missing from Zoom conventions. Technology will never replace that, and many will be grateful when we can resume in-person meetings.

Meanwhile, though, technology is offering wonderful opportunities. The complexity that went into planning Bouchercon amazes me—pre-recorded interviews with guests of honor, business meetings, live panels, all with appropriate graphics. A sure-fire way for registered attendees to tune in without difficulty—once my “magic link” didn’t work, but I got a quick message that I needed a new magic link and one appeared promptly in my inbox. I’ve written before about how impressed I am with the technology my church has put in place for remote services—Bouchercon took that technology to an entirely different level. I see a whole new career field for young people—or maybe it’s been there a while and I’m just learning about it. Either way, I’m blown away!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Of laundry and motherhood

Happy mom with her four children

I am growing weary of hearing about Amy Coney Barrett’s seven children. Some days I really wonder if she is being considered for Mother of the Year instead of a seat on the highest court of the land. In fact, I wonder if she’s such a dedicated mother how she will have time for the judiciary

Today I heard that a senator even asked her who does the laundry at her house. Are we kidding? And do we care? Truth we all know is that she has hired help to do the laundry, in spite of her proper reply that she encourages the children to each take responsibility. Can you imagine seven children fighting over whose turn it is to have the washing machine?

When my four (see I can understand her a bit—she just outdid me!) were young, they were on a kid’s TV program called “Hobab” which, so they told me, meant helper. The moderator asked each in turn what they did to help their mommy at home, and my little angels reported that they made their beds and picked up their clothes and did any number of other household chores.

Until the moderator came to Jordan, the youngest and then maybe four or five. She looked at her siblings with amazement and said, “The maid does all those things.” Then asked about the role of policemen, she brilliantly said, “Policemen are your friends. And if you don’t have a Cadillac, they will help you get one.” We have not let her forget those answers to this day, though she has had some hard lessons on who does the laundry and makes the beds and washes the dishes. And she now knows that policemen won’t get you a Lexus (today’s version of the Cadillac).

Last night a friend was telling about a woman who complained that she could barely raise one child, while my friend and neighbor made raising four look so easy. As the mother of four, I had the quick answer to that one: “Tell her that raising four is always easier—they entertain each other.” I didn’t add that with four you don’t have the time or energy to helicopter over one.

I have never forgotten the time a nursery school mother called me to ask if my oldest daughter was free a week from Thursday. I’m sure I gulped. Who in the heck knew? I wasn’t sure what the child was doing in the next ten minutes, and I surely did not keep a social calendar for her. When that same child was ready for pre-school—oh so ready!—she wasn’t eligible for the TCU pre-school where her brother went because of the way her birthday fell. So I visited countless pre-schools. What I found was that many of them specialized in pandemonium. I ruled those out right away—she had that at home, and I sure didn’t need to pay tuition for her to get that at school.

My four kids, the product of a rowdy, happy, childhood, have been known to say to me that they couldn’t handle more than two children. I look at them in amazement, but then each married people who were from two-children families. Is this some kind of conspiracy against big families? Those who married into our family are generally, I think and hope, delighted with our frequent (until pandemic and quarantine) family get-togethers. But occasionally I see one or the other off in a corner with a look on his or her face that clearly says, “How did I get into this situation?”

The other line from my kids which used to crack me up when the grandchildren were little was, “Mom, you just don’t understand how hard it is.” Oh, really? That’s when my thought that four is easier than one or two came roaring back.

Politics aside, I admire Barrett if she is truly that dedicated a mother. Two of her children are multi-racial and adopted (do I have that number right?) and the media seems to invoke sainthood for that. My four children are all adopted, a fact long since put in the past and never talked about because we are a family, a tight, close-knit loving family. And one child is multi-racial or whatever, although as his wife once said to me, “He doesn’t really believe that.”

I am the loving mom of four loving children, and I believe anyone can fill that role. Nope, Judge Barrett, I don’t give you any special chops for having seven children. And, seriously, I don’t think you’re the Mother of the Year.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Writer’s Ego

 



Any honest writer will tell you that feedback matters. We crave praise for our work, kind words from readers. We want to know not only that you’ve heard of our books but that you’ve read and enjoyed them. I consider myself a slightly shy and retiring person, but I freely admit to that ego Getting feedback often requires that we put shyness aside and boldly ask readers to write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, and I do that, along with other things to stroke my ego

Some of the best compliments I’ve gotten about my mysteries include the reader who swore she saw Kelly O’Connell, the star of her own mystery series, going into a very real restaurant that figures in the Kelly O’Connell books—my fictional character had become that real to her. Or there was the reader who praised my characters as being just like people you’d meet in the grocery store. Both those remarks made me glow for days.

But it’s the unexpected bit of recognition that truly brings delight. Recently I heard from an old friend, someone I worked with at TCU years ago (no, for both our sakes, I won’t say how many years). She and her daughter, on a daytrip to Chicago, visited the American Writers’ Museum on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. It’s a place I wanted to visit on my last trip to Chicago, but then, in 2016, it had not yet formally opened. The museum idea was first considered in 2009, and years of planning, developing support, and fund-raising preceded its 2017 formal opening, as did some trial online exhibits.

Carla Good and her daughter tried an interactive display—the museum required social distancing and masks and gave gloves and a stylus for the interactive displays. The one they tried encouraged visitors to search for their favorite authors and then create a bookmark. It should be noted that Carla is an avid reader and her daughter, Colleen, is reference librarian in a small Indiana town. Carla searched for several authors with no result—until she keyed in Judy Alter. She sent photos, which I’m attaching, along with a note saying she just wanted me to know that I’m remembered in my hometown.


To me, the recognition is more than that. The museum does not celebrate primarily Chicago authors. It celebrates all American authors, presumably living or dead. I have no idea of the number of authors this country has produced, but I bet it’s astounding. To think that I am included in that number and others are not gives me pause—and a needed bit of humility. So I’m grateful to the American Writers Museum for including me and to Carla Good for telling me about. The museum is a definite stop on my next trip to Chicago. Since I seem to be writing fiction set there, a trip is not out of the question.

But for the sake of my ego, should I write and offer them cover art for those they apparently don't have? Surely they too can snatch pictures from Amazon, but who knows. Maybe I'll bring that up on my visit there.

An anecdotal comment on the Alter theme: when my ex and I lived in rural Missouri, he labeled our mailbox with “Alter’s Ego.” One of his professors from medical school, supposedly an educated man, said, “I get the Alter part, but what is the e-g-o?” Today, I use Alter’s Ego as the name of my imprint for my independently published books. So here’s a nod of thanks to that man I married all those years ago.

And here’s another stroke for my ego: I will be on a panel Friday for Bouchercon, the annual and large international mystery con which is going virtual for the first time, due to the pandemic. One of the other panelists sent a graphic about it, and I’m pleased to share it here. (Okay, I admit it's an older picture and belies my age!)



 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Daughters

 

Daughters






Sisters

Remember that old rhyme, “A son is a son until he takes a wife/A daughter is a daughter all of her life.” Not to diss on my sons because I am still close to both of them, but the daughter part is spot on.

My daughters are four-and-a-half years apart in age. For much of their young life, they shared a bedroom—the age gap was just enough to make that difficult, but there was no other choice. In the mid-1980s we moved to a long, low ranch-style house and converted the two-car garage into a bedroom the boys shared (that was a disaster of sorts, but that’s another story). For the first time, the girls had their own bedrooms, adjacent but separate. By then they were something like ten and fifteen, with wildly different habits and interests.

Megan was in that teenage phase where she’d slam into her room and avoid all of us. Her room was a mess, but a wise person told me to pick my battles and, for the most part, I chose to ignore the chaos of dirty clothes and an unmade bed. Jordan, on the other hand, was still in the “Yes, Mommy” phase, which I enjoyed. When Megan would throw a teen tantrum, I’d look at Jordan and say, “You won’t ever do that, will you.” Her answer was always, “No, Mommy.” In later years she did it in spades in her own way, but that too is another story.

For some reason, my good intentions as a mother overcame my common sense, and I allowed Jordan and her friends to spray paint whatever they wanted on the walls of her bedroom—I was shocked by some of the language. Megan thought the whole thing disgusting. Jordan tells me she once walked through an apartment complex on her way home from school, only to see Megan sunning in Jordan’s pink bikini. To this day, she says, “She stole my bikini!” Megan had a series of boyfriends; Jordan was just beginning to think boys might be interesting. Megan dieted; Jordan did not. I could go on.

To say that they were not close is an understatement. But somewhere along the way, they made up—and then, gradually, they became best friends. This past weekend, as I’ve said, Jordan went to Austin to celebrate Megan’s fiftieth with M’s girlfriends. She reports a wonderful time, and she sent a picture. Not the usual numerous pictures she usually sends, but just one.  Makes me wonder.

At a John Mayer concert
They are both dippy about him and travel wherever
to hear him sing. Beats me!

They call each other, “Sister.” When anything of note happens around here, Jordan quickly says, “Let’s call Sister.” Be it good news or bad. And sometimes I find out they’ve been talking behind my back. They’re still different in many ways—Megan, a lawyer, and Jordan, a luxury travel consultant. Megan likes to cook; Jordan pretty much lets Christian or me cook whenever she can. Megan is an avid football fan, especially if TCU is playing; Jordan doesn’t much care. But both are essentially cheerful souls, gregarious, with a positive outlook on life. Both like to lunch and shop and sit by the pool soaking up the sun. Both are the mothers of sons, which gives them a lot in common. (If karma really worked, they would have daughters to repay them in kind—I long ago decided boys are easier because you generally don’t know what trouble they’re into; girls are in your face about it.)

My girls truly love each other. (Well, all my kids love each other, and family reunions are high on their lists, so pandemic is especially hard on us). I am so blessed that the girls are such good friends and that they often include me in their adventures—and long lunches. I’m proud of them and just wanted to brag a bit on them.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Fall is in the air


My gorgeous daughters
in a very blue light

It may be 95 as I write, at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, but this morning as I waited for the teakettle to sing to me, I stared out the window, watching several leaves drift slowly out of the trees. I think it is supposed to turn much cooler tomorrow. With my usual bad sense of timing, I made a pot of chili for supper. I offered to change the menu, suggested meatloaf, but Christian opted for the chili. It’s Cincinnati chili, sometimes known as Skyline, and is a real departure for me. Curious? You can read about it in “Gourmet on a Hot Plate” this coming Thursday.

It’s been a quiet weekend. Jordan has gone to Austin for a belated celebration of Megan’s 50th with some of M’s girlfriends. She plans to stay over tonight and return in the morning. Early Saturday morning, we had joint mammogram appointments—sort of like mother-and-daughter dresses but not quite. At her insistence, we went to the clinic she has used for years. I had never been there. Made a mental note to dig out my insurance card—and that was the last time I thought about it until I walked in the clinic door. They would not take my word that I would call in the information. I had to reschedule, which bummed me out because I’d gotten up earlier than usual to be there—and the new appointment is even earlier on a Saturday.

I don’t get out much, as everyone knows, so I was truly impressed at the social distancing respect I saw. When any woman walked through the clinic doors, she stood back, waiting until the patient at the desk had moved away and the receptionist motioned. I did not see one person without a mask. If everyone would follow these two guidelines, we’d squash this damn virus. Makes me so angry at the whole darn Republican party, though I know there are a few mask wearers among them. Still, trump is the worst, and why is Lindsey Graham refusing to be tested?

Quarantine hit me in another way today. For more years than I care to count, I have belonged to a monthly breakfast group called the “Book Ladies” (we’d have welcomed men, but none seemed inclined to join us). We have not met since March, and today’s reminder said that the café where we normally meet is open for inside service. But like a chorus, all of us said we are not ready to eat in a restaurant. Online we don’t get the good exchange of book news that we always shared.

I miss restaurant meals. Food never tastes as good when it travels from the restaurant to home, and we have pretty much decided we like what we fix at home better. Christian, Jacob, and I had take-out last night, courtesy Jean, but that was mostly so we could eat on the patio and share a meal with Jean. It’s not restaurant food I miss—it’s the sharing of meals, the fellowship that implies. How to put that feeling into words is much on my mind because I will be on a Zoom panel this week about culinary mysteries at Bouchercon, the annual huge fan con which has had to go virtual this year. I’m struggling to say succinctly why I am turning more and more to food writing—and I know it somehow has to do with caring and sharing. I don’t think I’ll get all Biblical and talk about loaves and fishes, but there is a spiritual element to it.

And, for me, that’s one good thing about quarantine. We eat together as a family most night—the Burtons come to the cottage. Either I have made supper, or they bring it. I was pretty good at planning meals for one—and there are some things they won’t eat that I would like to fix for me. But that’s all outweighed by the sense of family we get in sharing meals. My mom always told me all things work to some good end, and perhaps that is the good she would see in quarantine.

Sweet dreams, all!

Friday, October 09, 2020

Lots of cooking, a Zoom reminder, and the wine bar of my dreams

Lamb Ragu

We had a domestic invasion of sorts this past week. Some critter died either under the kitchen in the main house or in the wall. The result was an insufferable odor that lingered for days. And made Christian reluctant to cook when he came home in the evening. So I’ve fixed dinner several nights, fixing one old favorite and trying out three new recipes.

One night we had chicken pot pie, mostly because I remembered Jacob liked it so well once before that he used a strawberry to wipe up the sauce. When we told him that this time, his response was predictable: “That’s gross.” Another night, chicken piccata. Jacob loves his dad’s version, and I was hoping he would like mine as well. Actually I ignored the recipe I’ve used for years and tried one I found online. Because I can’t fit four chicken tenderloins into my skillet at once and because I was afraid the amount of meat was a bit skimpy, I cut it into chunks and browned it in two separate batches, then combined it to reheat in the sauce. Jacob liked it well enough to claim the small bit leftover.

One night we had a quick and easy lamb ragu—that’s what the recipe said, but when I cook these days, mostly seated in my walker, nothing is quick. And things get spilled a lot. But the recipe was fairly straightforward, so the easy part was true. And it came out with a velvety texture that I really liked.

My tour de force was a deviant version of skillet spanakopita, and if you read last night’s blog, you know about it. If not, you can check it out at https://gourmetonahotplate.blogspot.com/. I don’t want to repeat myself. I posted the picture of it on the Facebook page for the New York Times Cooking Community and so far I got 170 likes and about 20 comments. I am in danger of getting the swelled head, except I probably have to credit Jordan’s photography as much as my cooking.

Tonight’s potato salad is already in the fridge, and Christian will grill our salmon.  One thing about quarantine—we are eating well, and so blessed.

Last night was leftovers or, as we call it, dinner on your own, because I wanted to Zoom attend a 6:30 meeting of the Tarrant County Historical Society. I connected to the meeting without a problem—I really am getting better at this—but couldn’t figure out why my picture didn’t show. A few minutes in, I was gobsmacked—isn’t that a wonderful word?—to realize I hadn’t pulled out my laptop. There’s obviously no camera on my remote monitor, so to participate I have to open the laptop so the camera can see me! It’s a bit of a problem with my new computer set-up, but I will figure it out and remember this learning lesson for when I’m on a panel next week for a big national mystery fan convention.

And the bar—I’ve not been to many bars in my life. Back when I was single and head over heels about my first love, they were still called cocktail lounges. I can still see one in my mind—dark, soft music, leather booths with high backs for privacy. But bars? The crowded, raucous kind authorities want to keep closed these virus days? Not for me, though my grown kids more than once suggested I might meet an eligible man in one. Eligible? At any rate, I’ve found online a bar that intrigues me. It’s the Bookbar in Denver—a wine/book bar. When you belly up to the bar, you find yourself at a long, chest-high bookcase crammed with books. My idea of heaven—books and wine. I tried to copy the picture, but the internet didn’t cooperate. So here I sit with a new book on my Kindle and a glass of wine at hand. Almost Heaven. (My friend Linda will get that if she reads this.)

 

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Two who set standards for me to live by


Two men who profoundly influenced me are much on my mind in these troubled times. One is my father, Richard N. MacBain, and the other is Charles D. Ogilvie. Both were physicians, liberals, men of intellect, honor, and integrity. And both cared deeply about our country and were avid followers of politics. I would never wish anyone dead, but there are days when I think it’s a blessing that they are not with us. They would be so upset at the current state of the country.

Dad, living in Chicago although Canadian by birth, was a lifelong Democrat. He always claimed he voted for the best man, but we all knew that in his judgement the best man turned out to be a Democrat. Roosevelt was a hero to my family, and I grew up on the stories of what he did for America. In the household of my childhood, there was no television—I didn’t have Howdy Doody, Disney on Sunday night, and a host of other programs. We finally got a TV because Dad wanted to listen to the Kennedy/Nixon debates. He found Kennedy inspirational, though he would be horrified if he knew what we know today about the man’s personal life; he found Nixon despicable.

Dad was a preacher’s kid and a staunch member of the Methodist Church all his life. Integrity, faith, honesty—these were deeply engrained traits. I saw him put friendship behind principle when necessary, and I saw him hold his head high and remain firm when he was the target of abusive verbal attacks by an unhinged former friend. He was administrator of a small hospital, where the maintenance and housekeeping crews were among his best friends. Dad put democracy into action in his own little sphere.

My father taught me many things, including punctuality and a strong work ethic that I can’t deny even if I want to. I disagreed with him about some things—he once, with good intentions but bad judgement—changed the course of my life. I’ll never know if it was for the better or not. But I loved him, and I will always, always respect him. He would be distraught today.

I met Charles Ogilvie when I was a young married woman and knew him for over thirty years until he died, somewhere in his nineties. My family vacationed at his East Texas ranch, and my kids called him “Uncle Charles.” He was an anomaly in East Texas (think Louie Gohmert country)—a futurist, an environmentalist and naturalist, probably an agnostic although he attended the Unitarian Church in his last years. Charles’ integrity came from an inner standard ingrained into him, whether by his parents or himself I never knew.

He had the misfortune to live long enough to see the Tea Party flourish in this country. Those people fascinated and repelled him, and he often talked to me about his fear of their power, assuring me they were not people I would like.

Dad had Nixon; Charles had the Tea Party; and we have the era of trump. I am truly grateful that neither man lived to see people like the trump family take over the White House, to see racism flourish again, to see armed militia became so powerful and common that they are declared domestic terrorists, more dangerous than most foreign powers.

Both men valued the intellect and were avid readers, not of light stuff like I write, but heavy, serious things—Churchill, Will and Ariel Durant, and others of that ilk. Charles read futuristic works that I had never heard of. They would be beside themselves at the dumbing down of America, the disdain for education and intellect shown by a good number of our citizens, and, gentlemen to the core, they would be distraught at the decay of manners, the lack of class shown by so many.

Dad and Charles, I miss you, but rest in peace. You would not be happy in the 21st century.

Monday, October 05, 2020

Going way back in time and memory


Photo by Marc Monaghan

A great blast of nostalgia hit me when I read my email this morning. One message from the Hyde Park (Chicago) Historical Society contained an article about Promontory Point, the scene of many of my happiest high-school memories, although in retrospect they are tinged with a bit of adolescent awkwardness.

Better known as just “the Point,” it is a finger of land that juts out into Lake Michigan from about 55th Street on Chicago’s South Side. Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the city’s recovery from the Great Fire and the man still, all these years later, responsible for much of Chicago’s architecture, envisioned a city park in a thin strip along miles of the waterfront. The 40-acre Point made entirely of landfill and completed in the 1930s, long after Burnham’s death, was the southern most part of what became Daniel Burnham Park.

Aerial view 1940
Chicago Public Library

Along with an abundance of native trees, two things mark the Point in my mind. One is the pavilion, partly open shelter and partly one large enclosed room. Sometimes our church youth group reserved the pavilion for a picnic supper or some such, and I think maybe I went there with the Girl Scouts. I know we all used the smelly restrooms (I hope today that feature has seen improvement.)

The other feature emblazoned are my memory are the revetments or retaining walls of huge blocks of stone that kept the Point from dissolving back into the lake. When I was in high school, my friends and I rode our bikes to the Point where we spread our blankets and unpacked our snacks, radios, and suntan lotion on the grass above those rocks. If you wanted to swim, you jumped in off the rocks, watching carefully for those that were submerged. The water was cold and deep.

I was probably as good a swimmer as any of the others, but I had learned to swim on the sandy beaches of the Indiana dunes where the caution was always, “Be sure your foot can touch the bottom. Never get out over your head.” The big fear was the undertow which could drag you out too far to swim back. So I swam, always parallel to the shore, always touching my foot down. No way I was going in that deep water with nothing to hold on to but slippery, moss-covered rocks. I was always afraid the other kids would think I was chicken—and they would be right.

A family on the stone revetments
photo by March Monaghan

The kids I met at the Point mostly came from my church youth group, but my friend Eleanor Lee and I were kind of the hangers-on with the group, most of whom were older. We knew them all well because frequently when they weren’t at the Point, they gathered at Eleanor Lee’s house, thanks to her older sister Elizabeth. Neither a raving beauty nor an accomplished flirt, I felt like a bit of an ugly duckling and longed to be “cool” enough to be casual with those kids, probably high school seniors.

Years later, when I actually dated one of those older boys fairly regularly, we must have outgrown the Point. I don’t recall that we ever went there. I think too by then it was less safe than in our day, when there were people spread all over it on weekends. I think by today it has been reclaimed and residents feel free to go there, stare at the lake, sit on the stone benches.

It is such a place of strong memory for me that I managed to work it into my new mystery, Saving Irene. Henny and her next-door, good-looking, not-interested-in-girls neighbor, Patrick, ride bikes to the Point and picnic.

This morning it was like magic to see those scenes again. I hope you’ll like these pictures from the Point.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Back in the world



I’m back! I have a computer—a new Lenovo, a new remote keyboard, and a large remote screen. I’m in business again and so glad to be!

Several years ago, I had a TIA (mini-stroke) and ended in the emergency room. The doctors mistakenly said I didn’t have a TIA (later demonstrated by MRI) but was in what they called a state of altered consciousness. I’m not certain what medical textbook they got that out of, but the phrase certainly describes how I felt this past week. Without a computer, I was useless and didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt isolated from the world, though I tried to keep up on my cell phone and iPad. But I can’t type fast or accurately on those gadgets, so it was a losing game.

Worst of all I had projects and deadlines that required a computer. My online class on creating a fictional chef began last Thursday with me missing in action; on Saturday I was on a Zoom panel for the Boerne (TX) Book Festival—managed that on Christian’s computer. A calendar note popped up reminding me I had a deadline for a guest post about Saving Irene—I did a rough draft on Christian’s computer. Jordan was a magician and set me up on that with my email account and Word program. Wonder of wonders, when I opened Word on the new computer, that file was there. The internet world continues to amaze me.

This morning, in addition to going to church online I played catch up—answered emails, apologized to some for my absence and failure to congratulate on some good news, thanked my youngest son who spent three hours last evening setting all this up. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea where to begin. I have been working on a computer since they first came into common use—probably the late eighties. Remember those ancient slow machines with two big floppy disks? One for the program and one for the document you were working on? So give me thirty-plus years, and I’m still techy challenged. I think it’s less me than the fact that technology changes so rapidly. And I’m glad it does—today’s streamlined computers are such an improvement. And in a year, my new one will already be dated!

The grocery list was a big frustration of my week of isolation. I keep a running list on my computer—with items for both households, at least for our dinners. Thursday Jordan had to go to the store with a list reconstructed from memory and as we planned meals for this week, she kept a list by hand. I’m pleased to say we got most of what was on last week’s list, and I’ll send a new order to Central Market tonight.

I had a grand time on the book festival panel, talking with authors Sarah Bird (Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen) and Elizabeth Wetmore (Valentine) about strong Texas women. My first Zoom panel so I was a little intimidated, but I found I felt quite at ease—more so than when appearing onstage in person—and plenty to contribute to the discussion. A wonderful hour. Thanks to Caren Creech of the Patrick Hearth Public Library for putting the program together—and most of the festival, I think. We got good response online from people who had watched it. Zoom is going to be a good thing for me, enabling me to attend meetings that, if they were held in person, I couldn’t make. So this Thursday I’m going to “zoom attend” the meeting of the Tarrant County Historical Society.

In the category of it’s always something, a critter—probably rat or squirrel—has died under the kitchen of the main house, and the odor is apparently unbearable. So in a sudden reverse, Christian is not fixing us supper—who wants to cook in a kitchen that smells that foul? So I’ve fixed chicken pot pie—my own recipe and one of the few things I cook that Jacob really likes. I caught him once scraping up the last of the sauce with a strawberry.

I am certainly looking forward to this week as a change from last. Cheers, everyone!