Saturday, November 28, 2020

It’s a dog’s life—or should be


The Burton Cavaliers

When I was young, green, and new to Fort Worth, I worked writing copy for Tandy Leather catalogs. I found myself working with several wives of students at the Baptist Seminary. One day one was telling a story about the family dog which was eating too much (whose fault is that?) and getting fat. The daughter, maybe twelve, had taken the dog’s face in her hands and said, “Pooch or whatever, you’ve got to stop eating so much or you’ll die, and you can’t go to Heaven.”

Instinctively I said, “What an awful thing for a child to say to a dog.”

“But Judy,” the mother said, “it’s true. Dogs don’t have souls, so they can’t accept Jesus as their savior and therefore can’t go to Heaven.”

I’m not prepared here to get into a theological discussion of whether or not dogs have souls, but I am quite sure they have feelings. They love, they trust—and too many of them are betrayed. I heard lately of a man who needed to rehome a twelve-year-old dog because he was getting married and couldn’t take his dog (I’d rethink that marriage!). Or people who no longer want their dogs and just turn them out to wander and get lost. We all know stories of dogs kicked out of cars who chase the cars as they speed away—they are chasing the only person they know, even if that person is not a dog owner 

I heard recently that this time of year people turn their older dogs into shelters to make room for new puppies. Outrage! Would you turn in Grandma to make room for a new baby (being a grandma, I sincerely hope not!).

You see it in the eyes of shelter dogs. They are lost, abandoned, scared, waiting for the only people they’ve ever known to come back and save them. And too often those people don’t come back.

A dog is a lifetime commitment—not your lifetime but the dog’s. It is a living being with feelings of love, loyalty, hunger, fear, cold, joy—the whole range of emotions we feel. Treated right, they are loyal, trustworthy companions who will often go to any lengths to help or save their people.

Different dogs for different folks. Christian always wanted a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel because they are quiet dogs, bred to sit quietly on the king’s lap. But they come with congenital heart problems and may require expensive veterinarian care. My Sophie is half poodle, half border collie—one of the doodle dogs recently popular. But she s a cross of two of the smartest breeds known. We don’t get to put much over on Sophie. In a long life of dog ownership, I have had collies, farm collies, Irish wolfhounds, Cairn terriers, Australian shepherds, a Labrador with just a hair of Rhodesian ridgeback in him—each breed comes with their own characteristics, habits, personalities.

Another problem: the dog that needs a new home because the owner suddenly is unable to care for it and the family doesn’t want it. I can’t imagine that, but it happens. Have you made arrangements for the care of your pet in case you die or are unable to care for it? My family has long had an informal agreement about my dogs—Colin would have taken the Aussie if anything happened to me; now, if that happened, you couldn’t pry Sophie out of Jordan’s arms. I have a friend with no children, family members not liable to love her cats—so she has provided generously for them in her will.

A dog is a four-legged, furry member of the family and deserves to be treated as such. Spread the word. A pox on people who abandon dogs.

Jordan and Sophie
Soph thinks she's a lap dog

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Toaster Oven Thanksgiving


Jordan at her table

Late last night, I scrolled through Facebook, amazed at the number of people who, celebrating alone because of covid, nonetheless had the traditional meal, set a fine table for themselves. Oh sure, corners were cut—one picture showed a frozen turkey dinner, but a nice place setting; several who were feeding one or two opted for a turkey breast; one woman said they just served gravy out of the skillet. But this adherence to tradition, in whatever form it took, speaks of an optimism to me, a belief that Thanksgiving next year will be better, that we will be with our families again. I love seeing that attitude during the weirdness that was Thanksgiving 2020.

I also read about people who couldn’t put food on their family table. One Fort Worth suburb gave out 800 meals yesterday. I’m sure similar stories are told across the country—the stock market may be doing well, but people at the other end of the economic spectrum are suffering. Yesterday was also a national day of mourning for indigenous people, a fitting contradiction to the happy story we were told as children about the Pilgrims and the Indians sharing a feast. The native people came out on the bad end of that deal and still do. I shared on my page a moving picture of a home on a northern reservation, cardboard fastened on all the exterior walls to serve as insulation. In the midst of plenty, we must remember all those less fortunate.

We had a bountiful feast at our house/compound, despite a few glitches. We were supposed to be in Austin, where all seventeen of us would gather to celebrate in Megan’s new house. That didn’t happen because we followed safety guidelines. All the families had dinner at their home, with no more than six people. We had just the four of us who always eat dinner together. But Jordan pulled out all the stops to make it as festive as possible.

She set an absolutely gorgeous table, using the Golden Grapevine china that my mother and my aunt had chosen for me when I was far too young to care about china. It belongs to Jordan now, who puts it to better use than I ever did. She used gold chargers, Italian wine glasses embossed with gold, and the gold-washed flatware. (No, she has not been influenced by Donald trump’s penchant for gilt—this was tasteful and elegant.)

We started with happy hour on the front porch. Jean joined us, at a socially correct distance, but to my delight she brought northern white bread dressing. We had Jordan’s cheeseball, a family tradition, and a chutney spread I like—only this year I made it with cranberry chutney. Lots of laughter and fun, but we couldn’t convince Jean to stay for dinner. She had her own dinner for one all planned—and covid kept her from joining us at the table. She feared both getting it and giving it.

For dinner, we had turkey, which Christian cooked in his air fryer, mashed potatoes (which Jordan forgot until we were all seated and had said grace. I think it was Jacob who said, “Something’s missing.”) But there was mac and cheese (Christian’s mom’s recipe) and green bean casserole and fresh rolls and real butter (the latter is important to me). And there was dressing—northern white bread dressing that Jean brought. Jordan and Christian have always known cornbread dressing, but, darn! They liked the northern style (I thought I’d get it all to myself.)

Putting that feast on the table was more problematic than usual, because the oven in the main house was out—and the repairman can’t come until next Tuesday. It literally was a toaster oven holiday. Jordan cooked the mac and cheese in the toaster oven in the cottage; the mashed potatoes were in the crockpot; the green beans cooked in their toaster oven, and the dressing re-warmed there. Jordan even went across the street to use a neighbor’s oven for Jacob’s beloved yellow cake—the neighbors had gone off to a Thanksgiving celebration. I call that real neighborliness!

Just as I admire those who had a traditional meal all alone, I admire Jordan’s determination to keep the spirit of a holiday. She might easily have said, “Oh, it’s just us. Let’s just eat around the coffee table in the cottage like we always do.” But she made it special, a holiday, a celebration. A sign of optimism and hope.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

What's on your plate?


Americans never debate food as much as they do as Thanksgiving approaches. This year, I’m beginning to feel it’s a little de trop to want turkey. People are having everything from tenderloin to pizza and decrying the traditional turkey. Frankly, I like it, look forward to it, have mourned the last few years because we were always at one child’s house or another and never had leftovers. A benefit of staying home this year is that we will have the leftovers. I’m already having dreams of turkey hash.

Today there are ways to cook the turkey that my mom never thought of. I remain a fan of good old oven roasting, which provides good flavor and lots of gravy. For several years, my sons and sons-in-law have fried turkeys, and I admit that produces a good bird with crisp skin. But still, my Austin daughter and I often have a separate turkey roasting in the oven, so we’ll get gravy. Then, there was the year of the rancid oil—but we won’t go into that horror. This year, we are operating in this house without an oven (long story), so Christian will air-fry the turkey, which he would do anyway because he loves that way of cooking the bird. I have bought extra gravy from Central Market. It’s usually good in flavor but pale in color, and since food is half eaten with the eye, I use Kitchen Bouquet to darken it.

Then there’s dressing or stuffing. I think years ago we solved the nomenclature problem: stuffing goes inside the bird; dressing is fixed in a separate pan. About the same time we figured that out, we realized that while stuffing the bird had real flavor advantages, it also offered health problems in the form of potential food poisoning. I don’t know anyone who stuffs the turkey these days.

In Texas, there is not much controversy about dressing—except in my mind. I do not care for cornbread dressing. I want good old northern stuffing made with Wonder bread and lots of celery and onions and butter and sage. My good luck because my friend Jean also loves northern stuffing and will bring me some. She is a bit upscale though and uses Pepperidge farm white bread to make it. Meanwhile Christian will make the cornbread dressing of his childhood.

And then there are sides. My family is firmly convinced green bean casserole is essential, and they want it made with canned green beans, mushroom soup, and French’s onion rings. Period. One daughter-in-law makes it with fresh green beans (the horror!), sour cream, and Parmesan. We’re all polite, and it’s good—it’s just not the same. Recently I’ve discovered that some families consider Brussel sprouts traditional, and I’ve come to realize that my family wants mac and cheese on the table.

Folks move away from traditional desserts too. I have a childhood friend whose large family still makes my mom’s chiffon pumpkin pie recipe. Pumpkin won’t go in my house, which bothers me a bit, but one son loves sweet potato pie. Mostly we don’t pay attention to dessert because we’re too full by the time it comes around. This year, for the four of us, Jordan will make a chocolate pie and a yellow cake with chocolate frosting—the latter because Jacob loves it. Overkill in my mind, but I am quiet about it.

So there it is: in spite of all the trendy changes and rebellious choices of new foods, my family comes down firmly on the side of tradition: the four of us will have turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, dressing (with northern for me), green bean casserole, and mac and cheese. For dessert, chocolate pie and yellow cake.

Although we have much to be thankful for this year—health, plentiful food, meaningful work, a safe home, the love of family, a year without the devastating losses many families have faced—it is a year tinged with disappointment. We should be in Austin, at Megan’s new house, with all seventeen of the family. Covid put the squelch on that gathering, so we will give thanks for a new administration coming in, a vaccine on the immediate horizon, and other blessings—and we’re watching for the next occasion when we can all gather at Megan’s. Heck, we might just create our own Alter holiday some weekend.

Meantime, join us in giving thanks. May your table be bountiful, your journey easy and happy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

All those things I don’t do well

I can figure my way around a paragraph or a page of prose and I’m pretty much okay in the kitchen, but outside those areas I’m at a loss. Several years ago when I was director of TCU Press, the editor was a man who could fix—or jerry-rig—most things. I have forgotten what the occasion was, but I will always remember him saying to someone, “She’s not exactly handy.” The result is that when I do the slightest mechanical thing, I tend to be inordinately proud of myself.

In the last couple of days, I have “fixed” three things, and I am bursting with pride. Never mind that one of them just involved deliberately leaving the thing alone. The commode in my cottage wouldn’t flush. Since I do not have two bathrooms in my small quarters, that’s a real problem. It not only wouldn’t flush, it wasn’t making plumbing noises like it was working on something. So I left it alone. Two hours later, it flushed perfectly! Deliberately ignoring a problem is part of my tool kit.

The light in the panel in my refrigerator door that goes on when you get water or ice? It suddenly was on and stayed on. Now in my small quarters, nothing is far apart, and that light bothered me at night when I slept. I finally got so I pulled the pocket door between bedroom and kitchen partly closed. I meant to ask Christian about it—until I discovered a light bulb image on the control panel.  Pushed it, and voila! The light went out. See how handy I am.

The third thing—and these things always come in threes—that broke was my Apple watch. I put it on the charger and saw that instead of the usual panel of numbers, I saw just the corner of one big number. After it charged, it was the same. My phone does that sometimes and I simply reboot it. Not an option with the watch. There’s only one button you can push on the phone, and I pushed it. Nothing. So I called the genius granddaughter who works at an Apple Genius Bar in Boulder. She said we’d zoom the next day. Meantime I remembered what she told me—the watch is nothing by itself. It needs the cell phone, which is essentially its switchboard. So I opened the watch app on the phone—I wish I could tell you what I hit after that, but I just kind of touched buttons. I think it was “complications” which sounded logical to me. Anyway, suddenly the phone was back to normal.

I wrote that to genius granddaughter but told her I’d still like a zoom call to see her pretty face. Still waiting tonight, though she said she’d’ call sometime after she got out of class.

So that’s three things I have fixed—or ignored while they fixed themselves: the toilet, the light on the fridge, and my watch. Color me proud, and let’s not talk about the fact that Christian had to show me tonight how to use a pill cutter.

Apparently there are horrendous storms headed this way. Thunder is rolling in the distance and I see lightning flashes. Reports from a friend who is about forty miles to the west at a local lake is that it is like a hurricane. Sophie is in, and I have given her a Benadryl, just because. I enjoy a good storm, but I’m aware of the dangers. When Jacob came out with word of it, I asked him to check on us after it passes.

Be safe, stay inside, and hide under the covers until the storm passes.

Monday, November 23, 2020

A dog day (aren't most days?)


It doesn’t take much to be the highlight of the day around here—a grocery trip, a new recipe, a bit of gossip. Today it was Sophie’s spa day. I had been unhappy with her previous groomer—that’s putting it mildly. The groomer shaved her stomach for whatever purpose I will never have an idea. The whole trim was rough, uneven, and she trimmed her face close instead of the Benjie look that I like. She used our hose and left it strung across the front yard. Color me unhappy.

So, on the recommendation of our wonderful pet sitter, Jessica of Ball and Bone Pet Care (that’s a plug, folks—use Jessica, she’s awesome) I called Aussie Mobile Pet Care. As Christian pointed out, the name is deceptive. You might think they only care for Aussies, but it’s not the breed that gives them the name. The phone is answered with a hearty, “G’day, mate!”

It dawned on me last night that Sophie had a 10 a.m. spa date this morning, even though it hadn’t made it to my calendar. So at eight I called to confirm, and the “G’day, mate” guy said, “Actually, I have you down for eight. The groomer is outside your house now.” Jordan scrambled to get Sophie out, which meant that my carefully constructed list of instructions ended in the trash barrel. As Jordan said, I had sent a picture of how I wanted her to look. They came pretty close, and I am pleased.

I wouldn’t want you to think Sophie rules the roost around here, but I am having a problem with her. Her clock and mine don’t mesh. She sleeps all day until four, which is about when I get up from my afternoon nap. Then she’s wired until midnight. The trouble is, she’s wired outside. When I call her to come, she stares at me—if she were a child, I would call it an insolent stare. She refuses to come in, and I have sat until midnight, waiting for her to take my bribe, desperately yelling into the back yard: “Cheese, Sophie, cheese.” She loves a tiny strip of Velveeta. Jacob claims I disturb the neighbors. I know, I shouldn’t have to bribe her. I should have her so well-trained that she comes immediately to my call. In my dreams. Have you ever tried to convince a half poodle, half border collie of anything?

My salvation now is a semi-arrangement with Christian. He agrees that either he or Jacob will be up until eleven, and if Sophie is still out at eleven, I can call, and they’ll get her and bring her home.

Right now, it’s eight o’clock and she’s outside. I might like a short nap, if I can get her in. A big IF. Sometimes, my walker and I venture outside to find her. Ordinarily I do just fine getting over the high lintel between my cottage and the patio, but there’s usually someone watching. Doing it alone, in the dark, is a whole different thing. I am careful to tuck my phone into the seat of my walker, for security. Sophie is often so startled to see me in the yard at night that she comes right in. But I am reluctant to do that as the weather gets colder.

I did just now go get her, and it worked. I’m off for a quick nap and then will work until the wee hours.

Life with a dog is such fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Falling into bad habits


My family has left me on my own for supper on this drizzly Sunday afternoon. I’m not particularly blue about it, because I have a dinner plan—I will open a can of that good salmon I get straight from Oregon, put a lot of lemon and a bit of sour cream on it, and run it under the broiler. But I realize how quickly I would fall into bad habits if I totally lived alone.

Jordan has a cardinal rule: you don’t eat dinner in the clothes you slept in. But I am still in those clothes—a bright tie-dye T-shirt that the Tomball grandchildren made for me years ago and a pair of pants that could pas for slacks if your standards aren’t too high. But on the positive side, I have cleaned up, my hair is washed, and my bed is made. I’ll probably eat supper a lot earlier than we would eat if we were having family dinner.

I’ve just talked to Megan in Austin and of course we hit on the fact that all 17 Alters were supposed to be at her house for Thanksgiving. It’s not going to work out that way. They are recovered from covid and have disinfected their house thoroughly, including using those special lights hospital use. The problem, for me, is the trip down there. As soon as you tell me we can’t stop, I will have to make a bathroom stop—as Megan pointed out, a woman with a walker doesn’t have the bathroom options a man does. My sons do not feel that they have quarantined well enough to be with the family, so we will be four separate family units. It is more than a little sad to me.

It really is a gray day and chilly with drizzly rain predicted. I’m grateful that Jordan has decorated the cottage for Christmas, and I have two bright spots of light—a glass block with Christmas lights inside it that I’ve had for years and Jamie’s table-top artificial fireplace that glows with realistic flames. Or, depending on how you look at it, depicts the fiery eruption of a volcano. Scientists have now proven that putting up lights will make you happier, and these days I think we should give scientists all the credit we can. So I’m glad for that bit of scientific knowledge..

Beside that scientific boost, I’ve had a longtime habit justified in print. For years, when entertaining—a formal dinner or the huge tree trimming parties I used to give—I put the serving dishes out days in advance and put a little note in each to remind me what I intended to put in that dish. After she married and began to entertain on her own, Jordan did the same. Christian was astounded and finally told her, “You and your mom have a screw loose.” (Megan would be the first to let you know that gene for organization skipped her.) Today in his column, Sam Sifton mentioned putting the dishes out early and putting a sticky note in each. Need I say more?

A couple of nods to nostalgia: when I was a kid, my mom used to mix cornmeal with milk or water (I don’t remember which), pour it into a loaf pan and let it harden. Then she’d slice it, fry the slices, and serve them to us for breakfast with lots of maple syrup. We called it fried mush. These days, we have a fancier name for it—polenta—but you can put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig. I made tamale pie with polenta for the family last week, and it reminded me how much I liked fried mush. So when we ordered from Central Market, I got more polenta, and this morning I fried a couple of slices in butter and slathered them with real maple syrup. So good. I was a kid again.

My other nostalgia trip even pre-dates me. But Sam Sifton mentioned in his column that this is the 125th birthday of Hoagy Carmichael and offered a link to Carmichael doing his 1930 classic, “Georgia On My Mind.” And there was Lauren Bacall in the still photo accompanying the music, looking intently at Carmichael who looked up sideways at her. Classic 1930s jazz. I loved it.

And speaking of anniversaries, I thought this anniversary of the assassination of JFK went by with little public notice. Too bad, when we are embroiled in one of the worst political threats our democracy has ever seen. It would be soothing to go, even briefly, back to the days of Camelot.

I kind of got carried away, and I apologize for this long blog. Stay safe and well—and cozy tonight.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Saturday, November 21, 2020

A perfectly rosy day



 That’s the kind of day I’ve had—a perfectly rosy day. This morning, the sun shone so brightly that I thought I might have to wear sunglasses inside. And though I thought the prediction was for low seventies, the temperature soon climbed near eighty. Balmy and gorgeous with a slight breeze.

The main event today was a visit from my longtime friend, Linda. We’ve probably known each other over forty years, with the friendship increasing as we grew older. We’ve seen each other through bad times and good, and we can laugh together about ex-husbands (mine) and deceased husbands (hers). We have old friends in common and feel close to each other’s kids.

Linda lives in Granbury. If you shopped the square a few years ago and went into an upscale gift store called Almost Heaven, that was Linda’s store. After too many years, she got out of retail and, like me, is now retired. Having grown up in Granbury and lived there most but not all of her adult life, she hates Texas summers and bought herself a tiny condo in Taos. And though I encouraged her to write—she’s good at it—she found her passion in painting, probably because of one teacher in Taos. So anyway, between distance to Granbury and her long absences in Taos, we don’t get together nearly as much as we’d like. Pandemic complicates things. We were masked at first and socially distanced this afternoon. One thing Linda said resonated with me. She talked about how lucky we are that each of us has our passion—her painting and my writing. Our passions keep us young.

I fixed tuna salad—ubiquitous at my cottage—and Jordan served the three of us lovely salad plates with tuna, cottage cheese, a pickle, hearts of palm, and a scone to top it off. She laughed that she still has her waiting skills—she can hand carry several dishes at once. We loved it and have already decided on the menu for our next get-together—salmon croquettes (I’ll fix those) and salad with blue cheese dressing (Jordan’s specialty).

Sophie is an important part of my patio entertainment. She wanders from person to person, only occasionally venturing beyond the patio to scold an errant squirrel or investigate something. The patio is her territory, and she is most happy there.

After Linda headed home, Sophie and I had a long and lovely nap. I slept so deeply!

Tonight, while we wait for whatever Christian will do with chicken, Jordan is in my tiny kitchen, making the cheeseball that has been a holiday tradition all her life and most of mine. I remember Christmas Eve when I was quite young—we went to friends of my parents for a huge buffet. Two items I remember are marinated shrimp (I’m now allergic and can’t eat those) and cheeseball made with blue cheese, cream cheese, and Old English, which they no longer sell. We use Velveeta—shhh! Add a few other ingredients, chill and serve with crackers. But it’s not easy to mix all those cheeses. I’m glad Jordan is doing it and not me.

I just turned on the news. Full of the horror of Covid19. Two terrible things are threatening our country, our people and our way of life—the virus and the political upheaval caused by trump’s attempt at a coup. In my cottage, I feel apart from all the turmoil sweeping the country. I won’t tempt fate by being smug about being isolated and safe, but I do feel like I’m in a bubble that allows me rosy days.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Cheer for a weary nation


When Jordan put up my Christmas decorations—and those inside the main house—last weekend, I thought it a bit premature. But I soon heard of others who were decorating early. To me, before Thanksgiving is early. Then I thought all that’s happened in 2020—pandemic, quarantine, impeachment, election—and the way 2020 has become a bad joke, even when people die. When the death of Sir Sean Connery was announced, someone on Facebook posted, “Thanks, 2020!” We all seem to be living in suspense—what will 2020 bring next?

The holidays begin with Thanksgiving and move on to Christmas, Hannukah, Duwali (Duwali actually comes before Thanksgiving), Kwanza,--what have I missed? They bring us bright lights and candles, seasonal music and too much good food, warmth, comfort and light. For a brief period of time, we feel that all is right with the world—a far different feeling than what we’ve had all year when all seemed wrong with the world.

As I looked at my decorations last night before unplugging the lights, I thought of the line from an old Christmas carol, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.”

For many of us, rejoicing won’t be what we want it to be. My Austin daughter posted about her anger because she should be hosting all seventeen of us at her new house (yes, she wants to show it off!) for Thanksgiving; instead, she’ll be hosting her own family—husband Brandon and sons Sawyer and Ford. The rest of us will all be with our immediate families, rather than all of us together. A major change for the Alter clan who are used to getting together at any and all excuses—all seventeen of us, loud, noisy, and happy. This year will be very different. But it is what it is, and we have no other choice. I suspect Christmas will be the same way. We will have to celebrate how we can.

We started a bit of celebration last night when neighbors came for our regular weekly happy hour. One brought dinner for all of us, to our order, from a wonderful local seafood restaurant—a fried lobster sandwich was a true treat. Another neighbor brought wine, and Jordan set out plates—real plates! And she made chocolate pie—her first ever—for dessert. I convinced her to put real whipped cream on the top. So good. We felt very festive.

Tonight, Jordan spent a lot of time on the patio, assembling a large storage “thing” she had ordered to hold things like the heater, etc. when we didn’t want to leave the out for the weather. While she was working, she got the most amazing picture of an owl sitting in a tree watching her. She said at first he was on the ground, but she disturbed him, and he flew up in the tree and then took off. She called Jacob to come sit with her and watch for the owl to return, but of course he didn’t. After all of ten minutes, Jacob said, “Bird watching is boring,” and went inside We’re not recommending him to the Audubon Society. I’ll post Jordan’s picture here, but it’s so dark I’m not sure it will reproduce.

Cheers, folks, resolve now to make your holidays as cheerful as you can. Let’s not let 2020 beat us!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Christmas is upon us


Jim Shores Santa

At least in my cottage, it is all of a sudden Christmas. And we haven’t even had Thanksgiving yet. I always thought you put Christmas decorations up that long weekend after Thanksgiving, when men were all watching football. Jordan has apparently not gotten that memo, and she has been busily transforming my cottage into a kind oif fairyland. She has managed that outdoor light that goes through a filter which transforms the beam into a sprinkle of a thousand tiny green pinpoints of light—and a few red dots. It used to go on at random times, like ten in the morning, but now it goes on in the evening. I love looking at it, though I’m not so sure how neighbor Jay feels about all those dots in his casita. Fortunately, he’s not there much.

Decorations have gone up inside too. I have no mantel, so the top of a lawyer’s bookcase substitutes as home for my beloved Jim Shores Santa Claus (purchased back when it was a real splurge for me). Next to him are three poinsettia candles, the most unusual I’ve ever seen, a gift though I don’t remember from whom. Pushed together, they form a beautiful pattern; apart, each is a riot of red. Woe to anyone who lights them. And next to that is a glass block with tiny multi-color lights inside. It was a carefully-made gift from a friend of Christian’s, some twenty years ago, a friend who has long since dropped out of our lives.

Santa Mac

Jordan worried about the coffee table and kept trying to put the Shores Santa there, but I insisted he has been on the bookcase the four Christmases I’ve been in the cottage. So she stole Santa Mac and put him there—Santa Mac is as you would expect a Scottish Santa but he’s bigger than you’d think. He’s wearing a kilt and a sporran and he clutches a bagpipe, though not in a position any good Scot would recognize. He’s a gift from another good friend that I do not see these days because of quarantine. Santa Mac is named after my family name of MacBain. The couch sports a bright Christmas pillow, given to me years ago by a friend after I gave a program for her book club.

On the end table by the couch is the over-size brandy snifter full of Christmas ornaments that I’ve put out for years. Now Jordan just sets it up high in my hall closet from year to year, untouched except for an occasional much-needed dusting. And next to it is my Christmas tree, a small, artificial one though this year I meant to order a real one from a company that sells authentic miniature trees. Mine now is supposed to look like a Norway pine with separate distinct branches. It doesn’t have lights because it’s too hard for me to get over there to turn them off at night.

If you were doing a circle around the living area in my cottage, you would have come to these things in order. And then you would come to my tabletop fireplace. It was chilly this morning, and I turned it on for its cheer and its heat. It makes a great addition to the room.

Remembering the origin of many of my Christmas treasures makes me a bit sad, because several have come from people who’ve moved on out of my life. I suppose that’s inevitable—people come and go from your life and only the very best stay. I used to have huge tree-trimming parties at Christmas, and as I put out my large collection of ornaments, I could tell you exactly who gave me which. And the same was true—many had moved on, a few had died, but many ornaments came from people I still treasure. I cannot tell you how much I miss those big parties! I’m ready to make lists and freeze some fruit breads and get out dishes and decide on appetizers. Always the blue cheese ball and the caviar dip and maybe this year the curry with cranberry chutney—what do you think? I am making myself nostalgic! But I can hardly fit eighty people into a 600 square foot cottage in a year of social distancing.

2020 is what it is, and we must all make the best possible of it that we can. Stay Safe, well, and full of holiday cheer!


Sunday, November 15, 2020

A little late, but better than never



My Jordan has never been much of a cook. She wasn’t interested. Oh, she can make a quesadilla or buttered noodles for Jacob’s supper, and on occasion she has made our family favorite, Doris’ casserole. But, especially since quarantine, she’s been content to leave the cooking to Christian and me, because we both enjoy it.

I’ve posted before about the mother-daughter relationship we share when planning meals. Really, when making out the grocery list, which we divide between two stores—Albertson’s, where she goes, masked and gloved, and Central Market, where we do curbside pick-up. Grocery list night is when we decide the meals we’ll have. And we decide it by who cooks what—Christian, who loves Asian experiments, can cook fried rice this night, and mom can cook tater tot casserole, which I read is a Midwestern staple.

Recently Jordan has made said tater tot casserole, German potato salad (Christian’s favorite), and traditional American potato salad. Several years ago she called to ask me what to do with leftover meatballs, and I suggested a white sauce. “How do you do that?” When I told her, she said, “Too much trouble. I’ll open a jar of spaghetti sauce. Now she’s made white sauce  twice—she just doesn’t know it.

The night she made German potato salad, she cooked the bacon in tiny pieces, fished them out, and was ready for the next step. I had told her flour and vinegar/water, so she started to pour the vinegar/water into the pan. I yelled, I admit it, so she’d stop, and she said, “Please don’t yell at me. I’m trying to learn.” She was right of course, and I apologized, but I saw a choice between throwing out ingredients or having a lumpy sauce. My yell was instinctive, but it was enough to stop her. She stirred in the flour, then by small bits the vinegar/water, and worried that the sauce was too thin, but it was just fine for coating potatoes.

Tater tot salad was a bit more complicated—two layers each of ground meat cooked with onion, and two layers of what is called a soup, though I’d call it a sauce. Then the whole thing is topped with tater tots and grated cheese. Jordan sailed through it, making a white sauce with milk. The only sticking point came when the recipe called for undiluted beef base. We read again and put it in. The final result was really good.

I asked Jordan the other night if she knew how to make a white sauce, and she said no. “But you’ve just done it,” I said. She caught on and said, “Bacon grease.” So I gave my lecture about technique vs. ingredient. Any grease, flour, any liquid. Home run.

Tonight, Christian is grilling burgers, and Jordan has made her first

mayonnaise/mustard potato salad. When she asked how to do it, I, who have made various kinds for over sixty years, told her, using such amounts as a dab of mustard. “I have to see it in writing,” she said and found a recipe. Just now, she gave me a taste, saying she knew it needed a lot more. “Nope,” I said. “It’s perfect.” “More salt?” she asked and I said no.

During all this, I am kind of looking over her shoulder—and washing dishes as she finishes with them. I was telling my friend Jean about Jordan’s cooking, and she said, “And she’s learning in such a difficult kitchen.” I agreed if she can cook in my tiny kitchen, with a hot plate and a toaster oven, she can cook anywhere.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

More on the shingles saga


What we wish shingles looked like

Sorry I haven’t posted for a couple of days. The medications which I am gratefully taking make me sleepy. This morning I did a thing unheard of for me. I let Sophie out about 7:30, didn’t do any of my regular morning routine except to make a cup of hot tea. I read some emails, fiddled a bit on Facebook, and when Sophie came back in, I went back to bed and slept until 9:45. And I’m sleepy as I write this.

I have decided I cannot write the great American novel, let alone a sequel to Saving Irene, until the shingles pass, and who knows when that will be. Research on the web leads me to conclude that the average case lasts two to six weeks. I figure I’ve had it a week and a half. I look awful. Last night we had friends for happy hour, and I wore a mask even though I have been strictly quarantining—it was to hide the ugly, red lesions on my face rather than to keep from spreading contagion. Once when I slipped it down for a sip, I could tell my friend was surprised to say the least.

Back again after a break for a nap.

To illustrate what I mean about these meds, it is now 5:00, and I haven’t finished this post which was my sole project. I have kept up with emails, including answering a long letter from a friend I haven’t seen since lockdown began. And I have had two long naps.

It’s hard for me to type—either the disease or the medication affect your muscles, and something has happened to my fine muscle control. Periodically I have great tremors in both hands (I always have a slight tremor in my left hand). When that happens, my hands bounce around on the keys, hitting ones I had no intention of hitting. Even when the tremors do not appear, I have a hard time typing accurately. A good paragraph takes me a long time. I will be so glad when these shingles have run their course.

Sophie doesn’t know quite what’s going on. She alternates between staring at me and jumping up on the bed. Much as both of us would like for her to be a cuddly pup, she simply isn’t. She can’t help squirming.

Obviously, there’s not much for me to tell. It has been an absolutely gorgeous day, and I have had the patio door open whenever I was upright. Sometimes a lovely, gentle breeze blew in. Last night when friends came for happy hour, we thought it was a bit cool but lovely on the patio. The temperature is supposed to dip again tomorrow, but only into the sixties. The mild weather is so out of step with what the weather should be in late November that it makes me nervous.

Like many Americans, we are saddened and befuddled by what to do for Thanksgiving. We were supposed to go to Austin to Megan’s new house, which I have not seen. A jolly mix-up of all the Alter clan, all sixteen of us. Obviously, that isn’t happening. But the Burtons and I still l planned on going—until the surge in corona cases made us uncertain. Jordan has done so much to keep me isolated that it seems folly to risk it now. Meantime, we waited too long to get a pet sitter, so Christian will be here. Thinking we would go ahead and go, he invited his sister and her family. It’s all a muddle, and I may end eating dinner alone in my cottage. Given this awful year and how much has gone wrong, I would be thankful.

This morning I was thinking that the tremors in my hands made me feel like an old woman. Then I laughed aloud. “Judith,” I told myself sternly, “You are an old woman.”


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Something’s fishy

Blogger apparently won't let me post on the weekly blog, Gourmet on a Hot Plate. So I'll post it on Judy's Stew. Hope I haven't lost the other blog completely, but Blogger has strange and unfathomable ways.  That is also why part of this is single spaced and part double. I don't have time in my day to argue with Blogger.

A friend told me once she thought she’d becomes a pescatarian—no meat, but fish for your main source of protein. We won’t go that far—Christian so loves a good steak, that I could go forever without eating. But we have been working more fish into our diet. It’s a slow process of introducing Christian to new things—he loves grilled salmon now, after years of declining it. One night years ago I fixed it for Jordan and me with a butter/anchovy sauce. Christian took one bite and said if it was that good, he’d love it. Now he experiments with all kinds of seasoning and sauces.

Since my shingles diagnosis, the family was reluctant to eat out here with me (we’ve since resolved the problem of contagion). Eating alone, I realized I was subsisting on fish. I order salmon from a fishing family in Oregon. I took a can, drained it, put it in a single serving casserole dish, gave it a lot of lemon and a sprinkle of salt and pepper and topped it with sour cream. Ran it under the broiler briefly—a delicious supper. Another night, I had old-fashioned tuna casserole, which neither Jordan nor Christian will touch. Here’s what I did

½ cup white wine

Assorted dried herbs of your choice, I used pinches of marjoram, basil, oregano, thyme,

One can tuna, drained and chunks broken up

1 can mushroom soup (if ambitious or a purist, you can make your own white sauce)

½ cup green peas

Whatever pasta you have left in the cabinet, just a handful, cooked


2 Tbsp. butter

tuna casserole

Put herbs in wine and boil hard until herbs turn black. Add to tuna. Add other ingredients except butter and panko. Put mixture in an oven-proof dish.

Melt butter and stir in panko, mix thoroughly and then top the casserole. Bake at 350o for about twenty minutes. Serves two generously.

But the real star of our fish menu was the lemon-baked cod we had one night recently. We tried it deliberately to enlarge our fish menu. It was a hit and goes on our list of keepers.

1-1/2 lbs. cod filet

1 lemon

2 Tbsp. butter

½ c. panko

½ Tbsp. dried parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Bake the cod on a cookie sheet. Cover the sheet with foil and drizzle olive oil on it. Lay the cod filets on top of the oil. Pour lemon juice of the filets generously. Salt and pepper and sprinkle them with dried parsley (it doesn’t have much taste, but it looks pretty). Melt butter and mix it into panko. Cover fish with buttered panko.

Bake at 350 for twenty minutes. Do not overcook. Overdone fish is a tragedy.

What unusual fish is on your menu? I remember my mother baking haddock in milk. I didn’t much like it, but I think I might try new recipes for haddock.d

Happy fishy eating!


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Sleeping my life away


The thing about shingles is that the medication makes you sleepy. I am in danger of sleeping my life away. Last night about nine, I lay down to take a quick nap, planning to get up and blog. I woke up at midnight, did the bare essentials—locked up the cottage, turned on the alarm, saw that Sophie had water—and went back to bed. I slept until nine this morning. And then the day floated away as I dealt with emails and read Facebook.

Line of the day—I’m sharing with a line from an email with you before I go public with it, but it is so funny. This comes from author Ann McCauley who wrote a great review of Saving Irene. She says she wants to be invited to Henny and Patrick’s wedding, but please do not seat her at the table with Irene. I love it when my characters become so real to people. There is some buzz about Irene in Danger, the sequel on which I have not written word one. But Ann insists the wedding has to be at the Palmer House. Such fun. And, yes, I do listen to my readers.

Lots of nice things have happened to me in the last couple of days. Yesterday morning, a dear friend called. She lives not far away but we haven’t seen each other because of quarantine. She’s had some family business to worry over and tend to, but the restaurant they own is going along with their supervision being remote. It was good to catch up, but I was sad we can’t see each other. She does not quarantine as strictly as I do.

In the afternoon, a childhood friend sent a message asking for my phone number. I sent it, and she called immediately. Judy and I lived next door to each other from before I can remember until we were both grown. I have seen her and her Episcopalian priest husband occasionally. When they travel through Texas, they put me on their visit list. But it’s been a while, and I was glad to hear her voice today. We had a grand, long conversation. She loves the Hyde Park references in Saving Irene but she specifically loved one character that resembled someone we both knew. What fun. She said we’d talk again soon. She and her husband, who has retired, live in Muskegon, in cold north Michigan, along with Judy’s younger sister, Nancy. I’m getting lots of input about a second Irene story, do Judy and I will talk about that.

I got the December issue of Southern Living, which always makes for a good day. And Jordan made the dinner tonight, while I sort of supervised and washed a good load of cooking dishes. Tater tot casserole is apparently a favorite in the Midwest. I just heard of it but realized tonight it’s a complicated recipe: meat layer, sauce layer, repeat, then add tater tots and top with cheese. It was delicious. Jordan and Christian both thought it tasted like stroganoff, though there is no sour cream in the sauce, which is a mire poix in a white sauce—I think the white sauce is what they tasted. Anyway, it went on our list of keepers.

Last night’s entrée also went on the keepers list. Christian pounded chicken breasts flat, slathered with onion soup dip—you know, the stuff your kid could eat a whole bowl of and, truth be told, probably you could too. It’s an old friend and highly addictive which means it has lots of salt. Once you covered the chicken with that, you cover it with panko. Sauté until it is gold brown on both side and the meat is cooked through. The sour cream keeps the meat moist and good. Jacob wants it for dinner every night.

I’m thinking tonight about quarantine and the surge and wondering if I’ll ever be able to dine in a restaurant with friends. I’d like to break out of my cocoon. And I’m thinking too of a defeated president who is threatening the security of the nation by satisfying his ego and refusing to concede. They are not happy thoughts, but the determined way Biden is handling transition gives me hope.

Be safe and well, my friends.

Monday, November 09, 2020

The shingles saga continues

That's my tuna casserole for supper. It has green peas in it, and I discovered Sophie likes them. When I was breaking up frozen clumps, several spun away and landed in her water dish. She meticulously fished each one out and ate it!

Saturday, when I realized what was wrong and my doctor/brother confirmed that I had shingles, I was kind of cavalier about it. Sure, I remembered when my mom had it, at just about the age I am now. She suffered in agony for days, tried everything—osteopathic treatments, acupuncture, pain killers. Nothing worked until she discovered a physician, a family friend now gone, who injected the nerves and blocked them. She was blessedly free of pain and so relieved she didn’t seem to mind that the virus had knocked out some of her teeth. I was praying that wouldn’t happen to me, but John, my brother, assured me that since I was relatively pain-free, I would have a mild case. After all, I had the initial shot to prevent shingles; I just haven’t had the new, two-shot treatment for prevention. My doctor now says it’s in my future. 

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, everything suddenly changed. I had fierce, excruciating pains in my teeth and ear. Every time a pain hit, I could imagine a minute army of men deciding where to strike next—which tooth? The ear? Just in front of the ear? I was brought to tears a couple of times—unusual for me. 

Sunday morning as soon as it was reasonable, I called my doctor’s office answering service. The PA on call could do nothing for me: she wasn’t allowed to prescribe over the phone and, no, the doctor would definitely not take call. I was left to ride out the pain until Monday morning. Jordan has more—what? Boldness? Chutzpah? Nerve?—than I, and she announced that the situation was unacceptable. She called a wide network of friends, looking for pain meds. More importantly she bullied the PA into texting the doctor. He called almost immediately. We had a virtual appointment, and he prescribed meds. Jordan picked them up; I took my first dose and slept all afternoon. 

Sleep is one of the signs of healing I’ve always thought. Hope so. Last night I lay down for a quick nap at 8:45 and woke up three hours later. That’s why Jordan could demand today, “What were you doing texting at one o’clock in the morning?” I was taking care of business I’d missed all day. Today I slept hard for three hours in the afternoon and I hadn’t even taken one of the meds with codeine in it. 

The kids are afraid of contagion. Christian has had shingles and never wants it again. Jordan didn’t believe me that I can’t “give it” to Christian, because he already has the virus in his body. It’s the one that causes chicken pox in childhood, and if you have that disease as a kid, the virus stays hidden in your body, only to pop out, often in times of extreme stress. I clearly remember having the pox as a child and having socks put on my hands so I wouldn’t scratch my face.  The one I worry about is Jordan, who is in the cottage frequently and who has never, as far as I can remember, had chicken pox. I would say none of my kids have had it, but Megan once was tested and found to have had it. It must have been a mild case because none of us remember it.

Since I’m pretty much ostracized out here, I’ve been eating things that I like. Had leftover cod and a baked potato last night; eggs scrambled with mayonnaise this morning, a delicious salad of avocado, cherry tomatoes, blue cheese dressed with straight lemon juice for lunch, and for dinner—a tuna casserole, made the way I used to make it for the kids. Jordan doesn’t remember that and doesn’t want tuna in anything but tuna salad. Christian won’t eat tuna at all, so you see I have to take these opportunities. Since I’m feeling so much better, we will have a family meal tomorrow. It will be good not to be Typhoid Mary.
I always end emails and sometimes this blog with a caution to stay safe. Tonight, it strikes me there is so much to stay safe from—covid, shingles, angry trump supporters, the world at large. Y’all stay safe and well, healthy and happy.

Saturday, November 07, 2020


The dog in my life

The good and the bad, and the in between

The good news today, for many of us, is that the election has been called in favor of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. More of our countrymen—and the international community—are rejoicing tonight than not, but I know that there are many who are disappointed, angry, and convinced the world—or America—is going to socialist/communist/whatever hell in a handbasket. To them, I say I’m sorry. I know their disappointment. I felt it sharply four years ago, and I have lived with it ever since then.

But for the rest of us, there is a much-needed sense of joy. Joy has been absent in the current presidency. Many pictures of trump and Melania show a dour-looking couple, bored, unhappy, wishing they were someplace else. Pictures of Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden are filled with laughter, secret smiles shared, gestures of affection—and dogs. Donald Trump has apparently never had a dog and considers pets low-class, at least that’s what I hear he said to the Pences, who have pets. I remember a meme on Facebook that showed trump at the podium saying he would have a dog, but he didn’t have time. Below it was a picture of a small dog in a prayerful position, with the caption, “Thank you, Jesus.” The White House will now have dogs—two big German Shepherds.

This isn’t as insignificant as it seems. You can tell much about a man’s soul by the way he treats animals. Loving an animal, to me, shows an ability to reach out beyond yourself, to have empathy, to care even about the helpless among us. You can tell a lot about a man by his reaction to a dog, but you can tell even more by the dog’s reaction to the man. I have always trusted a dog’s instincts.

There is also something—a whole lot—to be said for a man (or woman) who lives life with joy. I think joy bespeaks a certain comfort in your own skin, again an ability to reach beyond yourself. In this administration, joy has been lacking in the White House—there have been no arts performances such as we’ve seen with previous administrations, few if any state dinners (maybe a few ostensibly welcoming foreign dignitaries), no welcoming people into what is supposed to be the people’s house, no seeming enjoyment of the role of leader of a major nation. A president should bring us more than health and wealth. He (and someday she) should bring us art, literature, music, crafts, the best of man’s creative and imaginative minds. I hope to see that restored.

Our country made history today with the confirmation of the first woman to be vice-president. We are, however, way behind the world. Several countries have women at the helm—Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (who successfully controlled the corona virus in her country), Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Finland, Denmark, Norway and Taiwan are all led by women. I have great faith that Kamala Harris will one day take her rightful place on that stage and show us that the twenty-first century is the era of women coming into their own.

In the midst of celebrating, I had an “Aha!” moment: that toothache I’ve been nursing is not a toothache at all—I have the shingles. I should have known—the characteristic skin lesion on my chin, the intermittent shooting pains, the fact that pain skittered from throat to mouth to ear. My mom had this in her eighties and was miserable for a month or better. I am grateful that my case seems to be milder. Still it is one of those diseases that caught early can be wiped out by medication. I did not catch it early and am now five or six days in.

Jordan is concerned (that’s a mild word for it) about contagion. Shingles results from having had chicken pox sometime in the past—I did as a child; she never did. The skin lesion is the key to contagion—once it is dry and crusty, you are no longer contagious. So I will stop putting hot cloths on my chin immediately. Still, I am sort of ostracized out here in my cottage. I am, however, optimistic and relieved to know what it is. Also relieved I’m not facing extensive dental work—at least, I hope. I have had the first shingles vaccine several years ago, and I wonder if that is not making mine a milder case.

And the in between: I was looking forward to a writers’ conference tonight, the highly  respected Crime Bake usually held in New England. I signed up for this year’s Zoom version and set aside the hours six to eight for it. But when I tried to “zoom” in, the program told me the host was already hosting another meeting. I think I just hit one of the glitches about Zoom. So I’m reading and waiting for President-Elect Biden to speak

Happy dreams, all. Tonight, may you dream of joy and good times and dogs and health and democracy triumphing.


Friday, November 06, 2020

COVID-19 creeps closer

When the pandemic first started and we were all strictly quarantined, the change in our lives was very real—but to me, in my bubble in my cottage, the disease seemed distant. I remember a friend who thought my family was being over-cautious asked, “Do you know anyone who has had it?” I didn’t, although I heard that a neighbor a block away had been hospitalized and recovered.

But now it’s coming closer. The wonderful woman who helps me with the housework I can no longer do called to say her son had been diagnosed. One woman he worked with in a small team refused to wear a mask, although the others were all properly masked. Now all five team members have the virus. Shows you what one noncompliant person can do. And I worry that she and other family members may get it.

And the other night a friend of Jordan’s called. Her daughter had seen her boyfriend over the weekend, before Jordan and the friend went for a long walk together. Because they were outside and staying six feet apart, neither wore a mask. (A doctor friend has since told Jordan that when you exercise outside you should stay twenty-five feet apart, because with exercise you exerting more energy and expelling more air.) In effect, Jordan was exposed to a person who was exposed to someone who was exposed to someone who came down with the virus. See how distant the connection can be? It was enough to send Jordan yesterday to be tested. Our doctor’s office told her that the instant test has an accuracy rate of ten percent; the longer test, where results don’t come in for twenty-four hours, has an accuracy rate of eighty percent. So although we’re quite sure Jordan is all right, she and I are keeping a distance until she get confirmation.

Seems like it’s always something. This morning I woke with the sure conviction that those shooting pains on the left side of my face had organized and settled into a toothache. Fearing it would worsen over the weekend, I called the dentist’s office—haven’t had a call back yet, but I’m not supposed to get in a car with Jordan until she’s cleared so I have no way to get there. Life can get complicated.

And yet another complication—Wednesday night I placed a curbside pick-up order with Central Market, to be picked up at eleven yesterday morning. The day went south because of Jordan’s COVID test, and it was five o’clock before Christian went to pick it up. They had no order. I booted up my computer and found a three o’clock message confirming cancellation of the order. I thought maybe they had a new policy and automatically cancelled if you were late, but no—they told Christian the cancellation came from my computer. Here’s the rub—at three o’clock, when I supposedly cancelled the order, I was sound asleep. All I can think is that a poltergeist got to my computer. Hoping the order will be there this afternoon.

Today wasn’t through with me yet. I got an email from the organization that manages my TCU benefits, asking that I deposit the check they recently sent me. I do not keep checks lying around—if I got it, I deposited it. There were directions for fixing it online. But the web site “couldn’t locate my records” and I couldn’t log in. So I called. Of course, they had to transfer me two times; the woman I ended up talking to didn’t seem to understand what I was saying, told me to hit “Forgot my password.” The site promised an email, which never arrived. We played this game for a while, until I bowed out and decided my aching tooth and I needed a nap Tried again later, and the web site was down. Color me frustrated.

But there is good news tonight, Charlie Brown. Jordan’s COVID test came back negative, the groceries were waiting at Central Market, and I sent off the files for an audio version of Saving Irene. Proud of myself for figuring out the submission process to ACX—it wasn’t easy. As for Jordan, she confesses in retrospect that she’s much relieved—although she had assured me she was not concerned. I will get my hair cut tomorrow morning, which will make me feel much better, and while I may have a bad weekend, my tooth will be treated early next week. I’m looking on the bright side!