Monday, May 17, 2021

Goodbye to an old friend

 

Just beginning to come down

Almost thirty years ago I bought this house because two things spoke to me: the large front porch, partially roofed, and the huge elm tree that stood like a sentinel at the foot of the driveway. I think I mentioned last week that a large branch fell off suddenly, unexpectedly one afternoon about two o’clock. An hour later, and it could have landed on a child leaving the elementary school across the street. Today we lost the tree.

Over the years, several branches have fallen. Once I came home late at night from a long trip to find the front yard covered in branches. Another time, a neighbor rushed down to saw a branch that hung by a thread, saying he was afraid it would fall on a child. Then he charged me sixty dollars. I finally figured out that it was the city’s tree, because it’s in the boulevard, the patch between the sidewalk and the street. Thereafter, I called the city whenever it lost a branch, but I did so with fear and quaking, because I was terrified they would take it down.

Somehow, in my mind, that tree anchored the house in the neighborhood. I could not imagine the property without it. But last week, when the city cleaned up the fallen branch, the arborist said the tree was dead and a danger. And today, they came to take it down. Jordan pointed out that you can see how hollow some parts of it were. I’m a bit relieved, because we are to get storms tonight, and I don’t need to worry about a tree falling on the house and killing my family. (Yeah, I can usually find things to worry about.)

A sad view of the destruction
Taken from the front porch looking at the school across the street

The house will be a hundred years old next year, so I’m assuming the tree is that old. That leads to the question of another tree. I will check but I don’t suppose the city replaces them. I know no tree, unless maybe a junk tree like a hackberry, will grow in my lifetime, but I feel a tree is a legacy I must leave behind. It will seem so odd to have a sapling where that grand, majestic tree was. I don’t think another elm. Perhaps oak, because they seem to do well in Texas. A redbud? Pretty, but I don’t know.

I read somewhere recently that research has demonstrated that trees communicate with each other through their root systems. Sounded a bit anthropomorphic to me, but I am always willing to believe such spiritual things. So now I worry about those other trees, like the lovely oak that stands between our front lawn and the neighbors. Are they missing my elm?

The city did a fairly nice job of cleaning up, shaving down the big roots that might trip people and taking the stump down to ground level. But the stump is still there. We will have to find someone to grind it out and fill the resulting hole with dirt. It’s not a DIY project for this household.

And we have other tree concerns. The pecan that provides wonderful shade for my patio and probably keeps my cottage cool in the afternoon is shedding those tassel-like catkins that result from blooming (no technical botanical discussion here). They blanket my patio right now and cling to Sophie’s fur whenever she ventures outside, which is sometimes five times an hour—you know: I want in, I want out, I want in, now I think I’ll go out. Jordan blows the patio daily and trained Jacob to do it when she was out of town recently, but with all the rain we’ve had, the catkins don’t easily blow away.

And then there are two glorious big oaks at the edge of the drive—gorgeous canopies that shade the main house and no doubt help keep it cool. But their roots are encroaching on  the already-skinny driveway, making it a hazard for the unsuspecting driver. I have lots of friends who won’t even attempt it, which is a problem if they’re picking me up. Complicated but there are few other places where my walker and I can fit. We can’t move the drive even an inch, because it already abuts the neighbor’s property line. I worry about these trees as much as I did the one we lost today. But I am also thankful to live in a neighborhood so full of luxurious trees.

Joyce Kilmer was right about never seeing a poem lovely as a tree. He just forgot to mention worry and maintenance.

What's left tonight


Sunday, May 16, 2021

Kitchen thoughts on a rainy Sunday morning



We’re getting a lovely, soft, gentle rain this morning, and it’s supposed to last all day. Good day for books and naps and a pot of soup. I was talking recently with a longtime friend who will be moving into an arrangement like mine—a cottage on her daughter’s property. I asked how much space she would have and volunteered that I have 600 square feet. She said her cottage, not yet built, would have about 1200. That got me to wondering what I would do with more space. What I have is fine—except the kitchen. I would love a bigger kitchen.

My kitchen is probably 6 x 10 feet, with a counter that holds a double sink and a smaller counter that holds my hot plate and toaster oven. In my small space, I have a huge refrigerator—but no stove. The lifesaver has been a wooden butcher-block type piece I had built for a different kitchen years ago. A lower shelf holds junk—dog food and treats and water, paper bags for carrying out garbage, a couple of odd flowerpots I should get rid of.

What I don’t have: air fryer, instant pot, microwave, and storage space, although Jordan has loaded my cabinets with a remarkable amount of canned goods—she did that at the beginning of quarantine, and we keep replenishing it.

In my limited quarters tonight, I’ll cook pork medallions in a mustard/tarragon sauce and a black bean/corn/feta salad. Maybe I’ll ask Christian to make some noodles. Jordan has been away for the weekend, so this is a welcome-home dinner.

Last night I stumbled on a website all about things that Americans cooked and ate in the fifties and sixties but never see now. I beg to differ with the author—for instance, my family still loves our Christmas cheeseball, and I would like some cheese fondue made with Emmenthal. The fifties were notable for jellied foods and most of those were pretty extreme, but I have a chicken loaf recipe that I treasure—just chicken, saltines, and Knox gelatin. Also on my maybe list: creamed chipped beef on toast. I know, I know. It has a horrible reputation, and the last time I made it I didn’t find it as good as I remembered. But I have had it when it was a rich and good breakfast dish. A banana split may not be as popular as it once was, but I think it would still be a tasty occasional treat.

One of the longest lasting controversies in the food world is about cooking with canned soups. Many people declare them passé, but I still fix recipes that call for mushroom soup (several tuna and chicken dishes) and my family craves a rice dish that has cream of celery soup. I remember a critic who reviewed my first cookbook and declared haughtily that she would never use canned soup—she would make her own. I looked at recipes for approximating what the Campbell folks do pretty well and decided that it had as many preservatives, were three times the work, and probably were watery. Nope, I’m sticking with my canned soup. They take up some of that minimal space in my cupboard.

Not so high on my list: jellied potato salad made in a loaf pan—potato salad is so good. Why mess with what works? How about onions stuffed with peanut butter and baked? I’ll pass on that too, thank you. Rainbow grilled cheese? I shudder to think how the cheese got to be all those colors.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to sell hot dogs. Food companies offered recipes for a crown roast made with hot dogs, the center filled I think with mashed potatoes. (Sauerkraut might be a tiny improvement.) Or you could make a jellied ring of Spaghetti-Os and fill the center with chopped hot dogs.

All of this interests me particularly because of my study of Helen Corbitt, the duenna of food service at Neiman Marcus. Throughout a long career, not just as Neiman’s, she was spokesperson (and teacher) for the highest quality as opposed to expediency, and she came to fame just at the height of the introduction of convenience foods to American kitchens. A fascinating contrast.

If you’re interested in the website, here’s the link: Profitable Food Industry Trends Through the Decades | Investing MagazineYou might find some old friends among these vintage recipes. I would welcome your comments, stories, and recipes.   Contact me at j.alter@tcu.edu

 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Feast or famine

 

Egg salad on rye, garnished with heart of palm

Most nights I have company either for happy hour or supper, be it friends, neighbors, or family. Last night was a special treat. Longtime treasured friend Linda came in from Granbury (for non-Texans, it’s maybe forty miles from Fort Worth, so Linda doesn’t just casually drop in). Jordan joined us for a half glass of wine, and then Linda and I were off to meet three other friends for dinner.

The ladies we met, like ourselves, were former wives of osteopathic physicians. Linda and one other are widowed; three of us are divorcees though only one ex-husband survives. (No, I’m not rubbing my hands in glee—they were friends of mine too.) We meet for dinner only occasionally, but quarantine kept us apart longer than usual, and we were glad to share stories of old times, catch up on families (who got Covid and who didn’t), and share our outlooks on life now that the world seems to be opening up again. As usual, I was the only one who enjoyed quarantine, and Linda, who knows me better than the others, snapped, “Of course you did. You’re a nester.” I think she’s right.

It was lovely to have dinner on a patio surrounded by trees, at a table still socially distanced. Caesar salad, veal piccata, and a couple of glasses of wine. We came back to the cottage and sat on the patio with Jordan and Christian until the chill in the air drove us inside. Linda was to meet a friend this morning in the Stockyards district, so she spent the night on my couch rather than drive back to Granbury, and I kept her up later than she’s used to talking and working at my computer. Strange but nice when you’ve lived alone for so long to wake in the night and know there is someone else in the cottage. I have one light in the living area that stays on 24/7, but she turned it off to sleep. So I kept thinking, “Why is it so dark in here?”

This morning we lingered over tea and scones. Then she was off to the North Side, and I was left to play catch up and do some work. Somehow it slipped my mind that I was supposed to be reading page proofs, so I devoted time to that.

But if last night was a feast of company, tonight is a famine. Jordan has gone to Austin to visit older daughter Megan, and the Burton boys—Christian and Jacob—were helping someone move and would eat dinner thereafter. So I was on my own. When you have no inspiration for dinner, what do you fix? Usually with me, it’s tuna, but tonight I made egg salad.

I’ve been making egg salad all my adult life, always the same ordinary way. So I saved a recipe with ideas for variation, principally bacon and cream cheese. But when it came right down to it, I remembered the reason I quit buying Central Market egg salad was I didn’t like the bacon in it, and when I tried to put cream cheese in a dish a few days ago, it was hard to work with and clumped, even though I heated it. I decided on plain old-fashioned egg salad with mayonnaise, mustard, and dill relish. Made a great sandwich.

A thought in passing: Americans do and believe so many things these days that are, to me, beyond belief. But the current one that boggles my mind is all the people who panicked and began to hoard gasoline when the East Cost pipeline was hacked. I saw a couple loading the back of a Suburban with containers of gas. My first thought was that I didn’t want to ride anywhere with them. But looking further, I began to appreciate their use of proper gas containers, because I saw pictures of people putting gas in plastic bags, tying the tops, and putting them in their cars. Are they serious? What level of stupid are they?

Did you read about the man who loaded his Hummer (who knew they were still around) with gas (it did not say what kind of container), got in, and lit a cigarette? Within minutes, his Hummer was ashes. Fortunately, he escaped injury.

A post somewhere on the net skewered these hoarders, saying some people at a party hearing there might not be enough pizza to go around, take three or four pieces, while others, fearing not everybody would get some, limited themselves to one piece. It is, the poster aid, a perfect illustration of Americans today.

Which brought me back to the theme of so many sermons at my church today: do you always think of others first or do you think of yourself? A question that might make a lot of us do some deep introspection.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How to write a mystery

 

Now available in paperback, digital, and audio editions
You're bound to love Henny and laugh at Irene

The other night I started a blog on how to write a mystery, because I’d discovered a new and unorthodox method. Since it seems to be going well, I’ll try again and hope I don’t erase it. I well know that a whole bookstore could be stocked with nothing but “How to write books.” Too many would-be novelists read book after book as a way to dodge getting to the actual writing. But they need to search no more: I have come up with the formula.

The backstory: way before pandemic and quarantine, I idly started a mystery about a second-tier TV chef in Chicago. Just playing with ideas, I told the story from the viewpoint of her assistant or “gofer,” a young transplant from Texas. Chicago is my hometown, and Henny, the narrator, settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where I grew up. Lots of fun to revisit the scenes of my childhood, but also fun to research the many changes in the long years since. But after about twenty thousand words, I was distracted by nonfiction assignments that actually came with advance money. I labeled the fragment “Saving Irene,” and put it aside.

Fast forward a year to the middle of quarantine. I had finished my nonfiction assignments and was at loose ends, so I reread “Saving Irene.” To my surprise I liked the tone, the story, the way it was headed. Long story short, it was an indie publication in September 2020 and got really good reader comments.

More nonfiction and then loose ends again. Several people wanted more of Henny and Irene, and I had committed to name a character for someone who contributed to MysteryLovesGeorgia. So I started, “Irene in Danger.” This time, I quit at sixteen thousand words. An early reader liked it, but I wasn’t sure.

During all this for at least a year, I was delving into the life and cooking of Helen Corbitt, leading light of food service at Neiman Marcus stores. Her fascinates me because she came to prominence in the late fifties—after Poppy Cannon advocated for convenience foods but before both Julia Child and Betty Freidan who exerted polar opposite influences on American cooks. I had hoped my nonfiction publisher would be equally enthralled, but the new editor wrote that she didn’t think a cook in an upscale department store was worth a book. Her loss. I have now sent a formal proposal to an academic publisher and been assured they would give it careful consideration. Which means I’m back at loose ends until I hear from them, which may be a while.

I wrote profiles for the Handbook of Texas Online, the most recent of a husband-and-wife team who were instrumental in saving the history of Fort Worth’s Stockyards district from Disney-like commercialization. A light dawned: I could bring Kelly O’Connell, heroine of eight mysteries, back in a Stockyards setting. The first ten pages went well and after that, crickets. Sound familiar?

I went back to “Irene in Danger,” decided l like the tone, the story, the characters. And this time around the dialog flowed naturally. I’m back to writing it. I make no promises, because as you can see I’ve abandoned manuscripts before. But I’m trying my old formula of a thousand words a day. Slow but steady going. Still not quite to twenty thousand. We’ll see what happens.

I have once again been distracted, this time for page proofs of The Most Land, the Best Cattle: The Waggoners of Texas. Due in September.

Retirement is such fun!

 

 

Monday, May 10, 2021

A really dumb mistake

 


No blog tonight. I was almost done with a brilliant (of course) blog on how to write a mystery. No joke—I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and the words flowed. Then I noticed a funny symbol by the second paragraph and tried to delete it—and deleted the entire rest of the blog. Then spent way too long searching for ways to recover it. Finally located the recycle bin, but it wasn’t there. None of Windows’ helpful hints were helpful. If you want my newfound take on how to write a mystery, you’ll have to wait for another night. I will say that in a long career of writing on computers, this is maybe only the second time I have lost copy. I’m really lucky. But now I’m burnt out and too frustrated—or angry with myself—to rewrite it.

I will content myself with some trivia: one is that my oak leaf hydrangea survived the snowmageddon and is flourishing with big, beautiful blooms. But it is another dark and stormy night in North Texas. Thunder rolling, but we are lucky—the hail all around missed us, and we got a nice rain. I’m grateful the hail didn’t batter those new blooms. Jacob moved the deck plants under the roof overhang, just in case. Now we’re sorry they didn’t get the blessing of the rain, but there’s a better chance tomorrow with a 90% chance of rain—a mixed blessing. I will have to get out in the late afternoon for a medical appointment, and it is the day the neighbors come for happy hour. I have said since we’re all well vaccinated, we can move happy hour indoors if need be.

I had planned to go to dinner at a patio restaurant with friends who live perhaps a mile from me, but we cancelled because of the prospect of rain. She emailed to say she was glad we weren’t there in the lightning, but I honestly did not see any lightning tonight. Sophie for sure heard the thunder though, and it didn’t please her.

The other thing is to post a picture of my second-oldest grandchild and her father (my second son). She was ready for her high school prom, and since graduation will be distanced and limited—we won’t get to go—I am grateful she had the prom experience and an all-night after-party that I am assured was well chaperoned. This is Eden, getting a kiss from her dad, Jamie. Needless to say, I love them both a lot.

G’night all. Maybe tomorrow I’ll share my new secret on how to write a mystery. It’s an untried theory at this point anyway, so you’re not missing much.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Mother's Day memories

 

Me, Jordan, Christian's sister Julie, and Christian's mom

Facebook was alive with pictures of mothers today, many of them vintage, taken when the mothers were young. I loved looking at them, but it made me sad that I have few such of my mom, and they are packed away because of my limited space. When she was very young, Mom’s father told her she took such a bad picture the only place he would hang it was in the barn. She avoided the camera the rest of her life, but at midlife, when my best memories are, she was lovely with wavy auburn hair and a quick smile.

That’s the first thing I think of when I recall Mom—laughter. She was always quick to find something to laugh, even giggle about. When we were young, she told my brother and me stories of our fathers (they were roommates) in their medical school days, and the tears would roll down her cheeks. She could recall her own foibles with equal glee, like the time she signed important legal papers Alice P. MacBread (the name was MacBain, but she was making toast).

Once secretary to Robert M. Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago and founder of the Great Books program, she remained intellectually curious most of her life, reading everything from historians Will and Ariel Durant to nutrition theorist Adelle Davis. She was a strict believer in Davis’ theories, and healthy eating was important to her. She was equally comfortable fixing a full dinner each night for my meat-and-potatoes father or entertaining twenty or so friends and Dad’s colleagues. In summers, she carried clothes and groceries on her back in a duffel bag for a mile and fed us from a primitive kitchen that had no electricity, no running water, and only bottled gas. Mom taught me to cook by letting me experiment in the kitchen, and I bless her to this day for that.

She was tough. Born in 1900 (always easy to keep track of her age), she lived through the Spanish Flu and WWI, lost a husband to complications from a war wound, lived through WWII and married my father, saw us through the polio years (one of the stories she didn’t laugh about) and all the ups and downs of life in America until the early 1980s.

I lost Mom in 1987, but I really lost her much before—to dementia caused by a series of small strokes. It broke my heart, and I wanted to shake her and ask where the gracious lady, full of manners and good taste, had gone. As it was, I didn’t handle it well, but I did the best I could. To this day, I talk to her—about people from the past, about cooking, about her grands and greats—she never knew any of the greats though she adored the grands.

One other woman mothered me. In my sixties I met Bobbie Simms, bookseller and former English teacher, some thirteen years older than I. She was half mother, half sister, a great booster of almost anything I did but never shy about telling me when she thought I needed bringing up short, from having on too much perfume (I didn’t—she was sensitive) to being overly ambitious for my writing. She adopted my grown children because she said they still needed a grandmother, and they adored her. “Bobbie tells it like it is,” they used to say. For a few years, we had a grand time doing “literary” things and lunching and shopping. I lost Bobbie in 2000.

The two are buried in Greenwood Cemetery here in Fort Worth, and I used to drive by, wave, and shout, “Hi, ladies! Are you talking about me?”

We had a lovely Mother’s Day lunch today, joined by Christian’s parents, his sister, her husband and two daughters. Much laughter, many stories told, and memories shared. Christian fixed pulled pork sliders, I made potato salad, and Jordan made a huge fruit salad. So good. Julie and Aaron brought rich, rich desserts which did me in, and I had to nap for two hours after dinner. Just barely recovered now, at seven, but it was a wonderful day. And I am blessed.

Mother's Day table


Saturday, May 08, 2021

On kitchen duty

 


Today I spent far too long making potato salad for our Mother’s Day lunch. Which really means I spent far too long peeling potatoes. My plan was to use Yukon gold, because I like the texture and because I wouldn’t have to peel them. But when it came to it, I couldn’t put unpeeled potatoes in a salad. I remember Paul Simms, now long gone, who was infuriated when restaurants started serving mashed potatoes without peeling new red potatoes.

We are having Christian’s family—his parents and his sister, her husband, and their two daughters, ages something like eleven and thirteen. Let me tell you that making potato salad for this crew of ten is no simple matter. Two of them—Jacob and his grandfather—do not eat onions. The grandfather is so vehement about it that I’ve never heard what his objection is, but Jacob has said, more gently, its not the taste but the texture. That surprised me, because I turn down few foods because of texture. I can even eat tripe in pepper pot soup, a good tongue sandwich, or the chicken-fried lamb kidneys my mom used to fix. Yet I know texture is a thing—we have family members who will not touch a mushroom.

Christian admits to being a picky eater, and today I replayed the cause. His mom always said she fixed four separate meals for a family of four. I swore I would never do that, but right now there are two single-serving containers of potato salad without onions in my refrigerator.

I was following a recipe from daughter-in-law Lisa, which called for a good bit of pickle relish and then an astounding amount of salt, which I reduced. I also cut back the mayonnaise, but the salad is still soupy. I’m hoping the potatoes will absorb some by tomorrow. There’s a reason you do best making these things ahead.

And then there’s the matter of eggs—the recipe calls for four hard-boiled. Christian doesn’t eat hard-boiled eggs. I’ve left them out, but I’m wondering if that’s not the reason there’s a bit too much dressing for the number of potatoes. I did add celery just to have something besides potatoes to justify the term salad. But truth is neither Jacob nor Christian like celery.

What happened to three bites for politeness? Or even, “Sit there until you eat it or go to bed”? One of my children didn’t like lamb, but he ate everything else in sight, sometimes ravenously. Instead of picky, he was sort of all-embracing, so I respected the one thing he really didn’t like, just as I ask people to respect my aversion to bell peppers.

Making potato salad for ten just wore me out. Maybe it was all the figuring of who eats what. Let’s see, what was I supposed to be doing today? Oh yes, writing a mystery. I did a big 300 words today—at that rate, I’m sure I’ll leave an unfinished novel. Maybe someone will turn it into a posthumous publication for me!

A truth about me: left alone, I would turn into slob. I’m eating dinner alone tonight. Jacob wants to order in, so we just ordered hamburgers from Shake Shack, which he tells me are the best. I shall eat in the pajamas I’ve been in all day. And I sort of haphazardly pulled the covers up on my bed.

Usually, I nap in the afternoon and then make my bed, so when the family comes for supper, it’s neat and I look disciplined. The physical therapist I just worked with was adamant that making your bed is a sign of a disciplined mind—he makes his kids do it every morning. So when he was coming, I made mine in the morning. Several years ago, the same therapist worked with me before I had surgery and when I was having a lot of problems. I remember I felt guilty or inadequate because my bed was always a rumpled mess. I simply didn’t have the energy to make it—just getting through the day took all I had. Somehow the fact that I make my bed every day is an indicator of how far I’ve come from those days. But today I give in to laziness.

It’s good to be lazy every once in a while. Try it. Tomorrow will be a busy, full day. I’m storing energy.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Up, down, and sideways

 


Probably most writers agree, but that’s how I felt about my writing today. At the beginning of the week, a good friend came by for a glass of wine, and I waxed eloquent to her about my progress, the proposal I’d submitted to an interested editor, the new mystery I was just beginning to think about. “I’ve got my groove back,” I announced, perhaps prematurely.

I will have to wait however long for word on the proposal. But meantime, I can work on the new mystery. I wrote 3000 words. Then I decided they were trash, discarded them, and spent a couple of days starting over—some 700 words that first day. If you realize that a mystery is at bare minimum 60K words, you know that 700 words is hardly worth talking about. Yesterday I added 1300 words, but I didn’t feel good about them. That’s not unusual. Authors generally write, think it’s a bunch of trash, let it sit, and go back to it.

So that’s what I did today, and re-reading, I plugged in facts and dialog and things that came to my mind, and before I knew it, I was at 2700 words. Not much new copy, just expanding and polishing what I’d written. But this time I felt good about it. Who knows what tomorrow will bring, except that I know I have to make enough potato salad for ten people for Sunday’s Mother’s Day lunch. Still, maybe I’ll get a few words in. And maybe, sooner or later, I’ll hit my stride with this book, and the words will flow. At this point I think I can tell you who is murdered and who is the prime suspect (but innocent)—but you never know. These things change.

Things I figured out today: a mystery author on a writing thread I follow talked about how different it was to compile a guest list for her son’s upcoming virtual wedding, rather than the lavish affair she’d always thought he would have. That sparked my memory, and I realized I’ve been to one virtual wedding and a funeral since pandemic started. At both of them, I sat silently as a spectator, feeling that everyone else knew each other and I was kind of an outsider. The wedding was my New York niece’s, replacing the wonderful blowout she had planned for the Caribbean, but I felt that the guests were all the people she had grown up with. My two daughters and I were silent spectators.

I knew even fewer people at the funeral which was for a neighbor I’d gotten to know when her grandson and Jacob were in kindergarten together. The boys were great pals briefly, but when the grandparents moved away, the boys grew apart. Still the neighbor lady, Mary, and I had a common background—she had gone to osteopathic medical school at the college where my dad was president, though after his time. Still, to this day anyone from the Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, seems like family to me.

Tonight, Christian cooked dinner, and I was grateful for the break in cooking chores. Let me amend—he cooked the entrée. Chicken Francese, which he aptly described as chicken piccata without the capers. Jordan fixed Louella’s rice, a family favorite, and a terrific salad. It was a wonderful dinner, and I’m full and sleepy.

Jordan and I did one of our frequent calendar reviews tonight and figured out that, except for Sunday’s Mother’s Day lunch, we will not have dinner together again for over a week. I have plans Monday and Thursday, she and Christian will be out Tuesday and Wednesday, and she leaves Friday for a weekend in Austin. We are definitely getting back to normal after quarantine.

I’m not sure getting back to life as it was is reassuring. I read today that Tarrant County new virus cases are up—110 today, over 200 a couple of days ago—and so are deaths. And here’s a statistic that should alarm and inform all of us: U. S. deaths of unvaccinated people, 577,000; deaths of vaccinated people, 74. From what I read that figure is for the entire duration of the pandemic to date. It makes you want to shake the anti-vaxxers who endanger all of us by encouraging the growth and spread of variants. Why oh why can’t they see what they’re doing to the rest of us?

Maybe for the same reasons I can’t see the road ahead in my mystery. We each have our own fixed ideas. What’s a problem is reconciling those with the good of the community at large. Having said that, it seems futile to say, “Happy dreams.” But nonetheless, that’s my wish for each of you.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Another day, but not another dollar

 


That phrase, in its proper form—another day, another dollar—is one of resignation, an acceptance that tomorrow is going to be just as unrewarding as today. Not at all a reflection of my feelings, except about today. The phrase comes from the nineteenth century when sailors were paid a dollar a day. Joseph Conrad publicized it in his seafaring novel, Narcissus.

And as long as I’m adding to your trivial knowledge, thanks to Prudence Zavala for a word that is totally new to me: drupes. It means a fruit with a large pit or stone, like an apricot or a peach. Good thing Jordan went grocery shopping with Pru this morning or I never would have known it.

Moving on, this was an absolutely gorgeous day but, for me, otherwise unremarkable. I started the day with 3000 words on my current WIP, decided they were all wrong, and started over again. So now I have 650 words on the new version, and I’m still not sure where I’m going, though I think this new version is more promising. For mystery readers, here’s a puzzle: how soon into a book do you expect a murder to happen? The old wisdom was that it had to be in the first chapter, preferably on the first page. I think that’s a bit extreme, because I think a reader often needs to know the background and surrounding circumstances to appreciate the full impact of a murder. But I once got a murder into the first sentence. Here’s the opening paragraph from The Perfect Coed:

Susan Hogan drove around Oak Grove, Texas, for two days before she realized there was a dead body in the trunk of her car. And it was another three days before she knew that someone was trying to kill her.

Sorry to say such lines don’t often spring to mind, and I am struggling with this new manuscript. Since I declare myself a pantser, I should be able to jump in and just begin telling the story. I sort of know who’s going to be murdered, but I’m not sure. And I’m not sure how to get there. Thoughts about a cold case are flitting through my mind. I think the advice I offer others in a lot of situations is apropos here, and I should take it: quit over-thinking, and just jump in and do it. Maybe tomorrow (hear that procrastination?).

The young man who I supported in the city council race came by this morning. I had written to sympathize and tell him I thought he was gracious in defeat—with emails and Facebook postings. Told him I’d be interested in his future plans. So we had a pleasant visit, some about politics, some about everything from mutual acquaintances and what a small town Fort Worth basically is to discussions of children and puppies. A pleasant interlude in my morning, and I hope he’ll continue to come back occasionally.

I did laugh. He referred to another candidate as “so very young” and I wondered how young someone had to be to be young from his point of view. He’s late thirties; the candidate he referred to, who made the runoff, is late twenties. It all sounds long ago and far away to me.

 We are waiting for the city to come take down the tree. They said this week, though Christian doubts we can count on that. He once watched a tree that had the X of doom marked on it for months before it was finally cut down. I hope that doesn’t happen, because every spring storm that comes along is going to make me nervous now. A domestic problem of less severity but more immediate annoyance has popped up: my kitchen faucet emits a high-pitched whine when in use. Annoying is probably too mild a word. Jordan has threatened to stop doing dinner dishes as long as this continues. I will call the plumber tomorrow but hope they can counsel over the phone, and I can avoid a high-priced house call.

And so ends another day. Tomorrow should be brighter and better. Maybe a bit warmer, but it couldn’t be much sunnier. And that is always cheering.

 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Farewell to a tree

 

Not my tree but close
I couldn't find an image of my tree. 


Almost thirty years ago I bought our house because I loved the spacious front porch and had visions of entertaining on it. And entertain I did—from dinner for one or two to pot-luck Mexican parties for Jordan and a whole crowd of her friends. In fact, the front porch is where I watched the romance between Jordan and Christian blossom. But always, what anchored the house and the porch to the neighborhood, indeed to the earth, was the huge old elm at the curb next to the driveway.

We treasured that tree, watched birds nest in it and squirrels chase each other. Once when someone told me vines would kill it, I tore down all the vines that were creeping up the trunk—not an easy job and hard on my hands. Periodically, it lost branches—large branches. Once a neighbor charged me sixty dollars to rush down and trim a branch which he declared was a hazard to children coming and going to the school across the street. Another time, I came home from my oldest son’s wedding in the Caymans to find tree branches covering the whole front yard.

It took me years to figure out that because it was in the boulevard it was the city’s responsibility not mine. When I finally realized that I could save a whole lot of money by calling the city when the tree had a problem, I had a new worry: would they cut it down? I had friends who went on vacation and came home to find a huge tree that had been in front of their house gone. Such is the stuff of nightmares when you live in an older neighborhood with huge trees that arch across the street to form a canopy. It’s one of the things I love about my neighborhood. Finally, one city arborist said to me, “Lady, we are in the business of saving trees, not tearing them down.” Still I knew that the tree was old and would become a danger. Today, I suspect that it’s almost a hundred years old—that’s how old the house will be next year, and I imagine the tree was planted when the house was built.

So today a forestry crew from the city parks and recreation department came to clear away the fallen branch. And they delivered bad news: the tree is rotten and a danger. They will come back this week to take it totally down. So we are left with dilemmas. Will they plant a new tree? Even so, it won’t grow appreciably in my lifetime. Will they take away the stump? Christian thinks probably not. What about the roots that extend gosh knows how far? Today I assured a neighbor who lives a block away that the roots probably reach to her house—they certainly reach nearly to our house on the far side of our yard.

I am heartbroken, but I know I would be more so if the tree fell and hurt someone. We were lucky yesterday that the branch fell at two o’clock and not three, when children were on their way home from school. And there’s that old possibility that I always worried about—the tree could fall on the house. It’s spring, the season of violent storms in North Texas, and it could happen any day.

I wish now they would come take it away first thing in the morning. It has begun to seem to me like anticipating surgery—you just really want to get it over with. I have not gone out to the curb—not easy for me to do—but a part of me thinks I should go thank the tree for shading us, for giving us a sense of place and stability all these years. I don’t want it to go without a grateful farewell.

And there’s that nakedness that the house will feel. The kids sit out on the porch a lot, especially late at night, with a glass of wine when they can talk about the day. I am selfishly glad that I am back in my cottage, where I sit on the patio and don’t go to the front of the house that often. I can put it out of my mind. But then again, that doesn’t seem quite fair to the tree.

Maybe I need to call up the spirit of Joyce Kilmer.