Friday, December 31, 2010

And a good new year to all

Jacob welcomes in the new year--quite a bit before midnight. We celebrated with a hat, horns, and a Black Forest cupcake apiece. Two-year-old Abby from next door came to play, and her parents and I ate hummus and crackers while the children played. Finally I fixed everyone hot dogs in crescent rolls and then they took a sobbing Abby home--she wanted to stay and play! Now Jacob is up way too late watching the New Year's TV in my office. We're both ready for bed soon but  may make it to 11:00 when the Times Square ball will fall.
And tomorrow--oh, my--the parade and the big game with TCU paying Wisconsin. Last prediction I heard was that we won't win but I think it's pretty special just to be at the Rose Bowl. Seems like half my friends are in Pasadena right now. I've wondered about those who drove with the blizzards in Arizona and the rain in southern California.
Several people have suggestd to me that 2011 will be so much better than 2010--and maybe it will. The stock market closed higher, and the predictions are for the economy to recover. I have too many friends who have suffered the loss or severe illness of a loved one in the past year. If you've had problems in 2010, be they economic, career related, illiness of yourself or loved ones, I do sincerely hope 2011 brings you new times. But I have to say, selfishly and personally, 2010 wasn't all that bad. I finally settled in to retirement and decided I love it; I spent more time than usual at family gatherings, always a blessing; I think I made real progress on several writing projects. So if like me you've had a good 2010, I hope 2011 blesses you with even more of the good you've enjoyed. My thoughts and prayers will be with each and every one for a wonderful year of love, happiness, and accomplishment.
Oh yeah, there's tomorrow. Ham, black-eyed peas, and de-Christmasing the house in addition to that football game. LIfe never seems to get dull.  Now if I can just gt Jacob to admit he's sleepy . . . .

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Resolutions seem to be made to be broken, so right off the bat I'm going to break one. A few weeks ago I vowed never to mention Weight Watchers again on this blog, but I'm so proud of myself that I have to break that vow. I lost 1.7 lbs. over Christmas week! Not that there wasn't temptation aplenty--Lisa made Norwegian hamburgers and sausage quiche, potato casserole and tortilla soup, chicken parmigiano and other delicacies. But I worked around it--I could have eaten three helpings of each but I settled for one modest helping (okay, I cheated on that darn potato casserole--it's so good and has everything bad in it from butter and cheese to sour cream and cream of chicken soup plus, of course, the potatoes and a buttery corn flake topping). But whereas Colin put his chicken parmagiano over noodles and doused it with pasta sauce, I had mine plain without noodles. (Jacob told Aunt Lisa it was the best chicken ever). So, yes, I'm bragging. And today I spent a small fortune at Central Market stocking up on fruit, lean lunch meat, yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, etc. A New Year's resolution I hope to keep: lose 8-10 lbs.
And toward that goal, I did my first yoga tonight in almost a month. I quit when I had those painful displaced ribs, but I went back to it tonight and was pleased at how smoothly my routine came back to me and how well my muscles performed. The only pose that was really difficult was down dog--and it sort of is all the time.
I just blew all those resolutions and went with friends and neighbors to a new place called Hot-tubs Grotto. They thought it was  a beer joint and ate before we went but I knew better and had delicious Kobe beef sliders--plus too much chardonnay. But we talked, laughed, and had a good time  The chef is the son of my friend Rodger Preston and the stepson of my longtime good friend Linda--he came out to greet us. In fact, everyone in the place was friendly. It's a good place to put on the "go back" list.
Now it's late and all those deep thoughts I meant to share about writing and such stuff have flown. Maybe tomorrow . . . and maybe not, since Jacob and I will be ringing in the new year

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Home again, home again

It's nice to be home. The cat greeted me with indifference until he/she decide on hunger; the dog sniffed at the strange-dog smell on my pants and then dumped his food out to feed the possums--his way of expressing his displeasure that I'd left. But he's happily settled in his bed now. Funny thing--he gets so impatient in the study with me and just wants to go to his bed.
We had an iffy start to the drive from Houston. It went from mist to serious rain and back for about a hundred miles but finally we passed out of rain and eventually into sunny weather. Jordan did a great job of keeping her cool and sense of humor in spite of bad conditions. Jacob napped--never successful in the car--and woke up whiny. We discovered a great place for a late late lunch--the Collin Street Bakery sandwich shop on I-45. Jordan had never heard of the bakery, so I had to explain about its international reputation for fruitcakes, which elicited the response, "I don't approve of fruitcakes." Well, okay. But she did admit that the sandwiches, potato salad, and pound cake were scrumptious And it was the cleanest roadside restaurant I've stopped in for a long time. We'd put it on our list, except it's at least three hours from Houston and we usually get hungry before that. Still, it was a neat roadside fan.
Tonight I've unpacked, taken care of the animals, caught up with my desk, started a wash, and generally gotten back into routine. But the list of chores for tomorrow is long--and doesn't have anything to do with writing!

Zoo Day

Five and a half hours at the zoo--someone counting heads every minute. Five kids and five adults--good ratio. Picnic lunch on the grass (Lisa packs a good lunch!), a ride on the train, and the unusual sight of lions mating (Jordan kept trying to move the kids on before one asked; Lisa posted a picture on Facebook, but I won't!). The day was long but lots of fun, kids so excited, grandmother so tired:-)
The day went from one highlight to another--they all rushed out to a friend's farm to explode the big gingerbread house--I stayed behind partly because I'd walked enough for the day and partly to wait for an old family friend who was coming by for a drink. But everyone else arrived back happy about what a success the grand explosion was! Picture above was taken before the explosion.
Then dinner, defrosting tamales, heating fresh sauces, making margaritas, visiting. laughing about old times. Jason, our guest, was once Jordan's boyfriend and we were all fond of him--it was really good to see him again, looking older, wiser, and leaner, having taken up running.
Great Christmas holiday with much if not all my family--now home and to routine.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Family fun and a bit of work

How we spend our days. The kitchen table has become computer central. We all sit enveloped in our own computer worlds. This morning, for the umpteenth time, I finished revising my mystery. I'm ready to submit it,and I have a small press in mind. I feel much better about it since I revised it yet again--amazing how many extra, unneeded words you can take out. I found I used a lot of "seemed to"--well if someone seemed to think, they could just plain think. Rhetorical questions have to go as do too many meanderings in the mind of Kelly, the main character. I still like this novel a lot and feel optimistic about it. But I was pleased for the past days with leisure enough to revise--and I finished it just in time.

Jordan and Jacob, back from Coppell and family Christmas with the Burtons, arrived in the early afternoon, and the kids have been yelling, screaming, and having a high old time ever since. Megan expected to arrive about 5 but was delayed; at 6:45 she was barely out of Austin, so she'll be a late arrival, with Sawyer and Fordy. I worry of course about her driving at night. But she sends us frequent emails on her progress--some fancy program I don't understand that tracks her progress. The pictures above show the cousins making faces and me sitting watching them on the arm of the couch--Colin says I was trying to look like a teenager, but I think I look more like an old lady who had an extra glass of wine!
Lisa fixed chicken parmigiano tonight, and I fixed a salad. So good. I need the recipe. She dips it in garlic butter and then a mixture of bread crumbs, parmesan, and herbs. Jacob told his Aunt Lisa it was the best chicken ever. Family times are happy times, and I am so blessed.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Too Old to be a Tekkie?

I got a new iPhone for Christmas, Lisa got an iPad and, and I was learning to add RSS feeds to my Outlook--big learning curve for both of us, Last night, Colin was going crazy, as one or the other of us called out, "Colin, I need help!" He declares that the problem with both of us is that we are impatient and want instant results. When I said I'd lost the Facebook icon on my phone, he found it. Today, he patiently walked me through adding an RSS feed again, and now I'm proficient at it. Well, sort of. I added Facebook to my phone all by myself, can take and send photos so I think I'm pretty good. I've had lots of trouble with the keypad--my fingers are too big. I bought a stylus and still rely on it a lot but I noticed today my fingers are doing better. Last night Lisa stayed up until 1:30 learning her iPad but before I went to bed she gave me a tour (on the iPad) of Central America. Then Morgan tried to show me Houston, and we got hopelessly lost in North America until we both collapsed in giggles. Jordan has announced she got a laptop for Christmas and she expects Colin's help with it tomorrow. Colin actually brags on me that for an old lady I'm a pretty quick learner for tech things--ah, triumph!
We decided we were housebound yesterday and had cabin fever, so today we went shopping--for fireworks, no less (Yes, I frowned in disapproval) and then to a clothing store where I bought a cute top I think I'll wear a lot. Later, we got out for a test run of blowing up their gingerbread houses that Colin and the children make from scratch. Apparently for the Houston Alters this is a tradition on New Year's Day, but they decided to do it early this year for the benefit of nephew Sawyer who loves explosions. I'll try to post the video below. We drove to a levee, far from houses, and did the test, which made Lisa scream and then laugh. But then everone looked for sparks that might ignite dry grass. We heard fire engines in the distance and had a moment of panic, but they were headed elsewhere. Quite an adventure for a grandmother who does not believe in fireworks in any shape or form. Besides, unless you were in the sun, it was cold as blazes out. My dog will sleep inside again tonight--too cold for even a heavy-coated Aussie.
It was a grand explosion, which has caused Colin to rethink his plan for the major explosion. The picture is of Kegan and Morgan with the test gingerbread house, the one Morgan made. She seemed quite philosophical about offering up her creation--and it was blown to smithereens. Here are the gingerbread houses before and a link to the video.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas cheer and the matter of mysteries

It was a day full of toys and cheers and laughter, and a few tears, a quiet Christmas compared to some our family has but one with its own special charms. Morgan and Kegan didn't wake up too early--in fact, I got up at 7:15, just before their mother finally gave up and wakened them. The morning moved at a slow pace--Santa presents, cook breakfast, finally open presents while breakfast baked. Then most of the day was playing with toys. Above, Colin and Lisa are figuring out the kids toys--transformers are really difficult!--and the kids are in time out for fighting over said toys. But here's a happier picture of everyone playing with Morgan's Zhuzhu Pets--lifelike little hamsters that move along the tracks above.
I spent much of the day reading and working on my manuscript--have just tried to read two mysteries and given up. I usually don't order titles for my Kindle without reading a sample, but this time I did. Both novels were slowed down by way too much backstory--in one I swear I was halfway into the book before there was a dead body, and I still hadn't figured out the characters. In the other, the narrator spent pages recounting the detective couple's early life.A helpful way to learn--by other people's mistakes.
I've enjoyed our quiet Christmas, grateful for the time to know these two grandchildren whom I don't see as often as others, grateful for quiet time with family and books. I hope every one of you enjoyed the day in your own way.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tracking Santa

The children are excited about tracking Santa--they discovered he's already been to Norway and Africa and several other countries that they picked out on the map. At the top Morgan is standing guard over Santa's tray to keep the dog from getting it.
Colin chose the church for us tonight--a nondenominational one with rock music, many AV screens for streaming, rotating kleig lights, and piped in mist or smoke. The message was a traditional one, and I tried to put my mind in a worshipful frame, telling myself God appreciates differing forms of worship--something I truly believe. But, later, when pressed, I said it was not the way I prefer to worship, having been raised in the Methodist and Prebyterian churches and attending the Christian Church these days. I did find an echo of the Calvinist emphasis on the sinfulness of man's nature. It strikes me as ironic that generally people at non-denominational churches are those disenchanted with traditional Protestantism and yet they're hearing the oldest form of that branch of Christianity. Colin however heard a different message.
We came home to eat chicken and pork tamales from Pappasito's--delicious!

My wish for each of you is a happy holiday. For those who celebrate Christmas, may your day be filled with joyful gratitude, plenty of presents, and lots of love.

It's here, it's here!

That was the cry of five-year-old Morgan as she reminded me first thing today that it's Christmas Eve. Colin, Lisa, Morgan and Kegan are with me for the holidays, and the children are a delight. It takes them a day to warm up to me but they are softening. Their Scandinavian heritage prevails not only in their oh-so-blond hair but in the gnome they treasure--it will go back to the North Pole with Santa tonight.. And for Christmas we'll have Norwegian hamburgers instead of turkey--fine with me because it's much easier than the traditional dinner.
I"ve had a Facebook discussion with Elizabeth about these. They are called kjotkaker in Norwegian (with that o with a slash through it). Usually we have them on Christmas Eve but this year we've elected to do them Christmas Day. They aren't necessarily a holiday dish, and I fix them at home sometimes. In fact, the recipe can be found in Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books ( but here it is:

Norwegian hamburgers

3-4 slices of onion

3 Tbsp. butter (do not use oil)

1½ lbs. extra-lean hamburger (extra-lean is important)

2 eggs

3 Tbsp. cornstarch or potato starch

½ tsp. pepper

Milk as needed

4-5 envelopes instant gravy mix, prepared as directed

2 beef bullion cubes

Sauté onion in butter. Mix hamburger, eggs, cornstarch and pepper. Add milk as needed; start with ¼ c. and add ¼ c. at a time, but DON’T let the meat mixture get soggy. The last time I made a double batch of these, they tended to fall apart while I was browning them. I bet my mom's trick of throwing a little instant tapioca into meatloaf would work here, too. Shape into patties and brown in same skillet as onions. Remove.

Make gravy in skillet, according to package directions. Add 2 bouillon cubes. When gravy thickens, return burgers and onions to pan and simmer 45 to 60 minutes.

Serve with white rice, egg noodles, or boiled potatoes. Peas, beets, or green beans are nice with this.

Lisa learned to make these from her mom, Torhild, who grew up in Norway, and I learned from Lisa. But I can't believe some sixty yearsa ago they had packaged dry gravy mix in Norway! If you use the packets, don't forget the bouillion cubes--they hide the packaged gravy taste nicely.

Elizbeth, here's your challenge: can you make them gluten- and dairy-free?

Tonight we have a busy agenda. After 5:00 church, we have to put out cookies and milk for Santa, reindeer food, porridge for the gnomes and treats for them. Quite a list of chores. And then of course we'll track Santa's progress across the sky.

May your Christmas be joyous!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas a bit early

The Burtons and I had our Christmas tonight since they'll be in Coppell on Christmas Day. I fixed a casserole of chicken, sour cream and cream of mushroom soup with Ritz cracker/butter crumb topping--so good, though next time I'll add a bit of white wine and I might eventually try blue cheese in it. But hats off to Riley Adams for the recipe that appeared on the blog Mystery Lovers Kitchen some time ago. I'm sure you can still find it. Riley has the very best casserole recipes, and she uses a lot of "buttery" crackers (I always translate that to Ritz) with melted butter. I think her motto must be "Calories be damned!"
We opened presents with great excitement on Jacob's part--he got Star Wars figures and a transformer from me, and the two of us got matching aprons from his folks. Maybe he'll start cooking with me. I gave him some Star WArs pancake molds with a Darth Vader spatula. His Uncle Colin, the king of pancake makers, will have a picnic with those.
After presents we went to look at Christmas lights--Chesapeake Oil and Gas has the most amazing display of lighted trees I've ever seen. Even Jacob was impressed though when we drove through a few neighborhoods he announced he was tired of looking at houses and wanted to go home. Still it was a nice night and a good kickoff for the holiday season. I had all the indoor Christmas lights on--I'm one of those Scrooges without outdoor lights--and a fire in the fireplace.The difference that fire makes in one room is amazing--you walk into the living room and feel enveloped in warmth. I love it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More about mysteries

Mary Higgins Clark is still scaring me. I think what's frightening about her novels is that she makes you face the possibility of the existence of pure evil in human beings. I remember writing a college paper on Iago, the villain from;Othello. The moral dilemma was whether or not Iago was purely evil or was driven to evil by circumstances and those who conspisred against him. I have always chosen to believe that pure evil does not exist in human beings, but Clark makes me doubt that long-held opinon.
Recently one of the Sisters in Crime lists or sub-lists has had a discussion on meaningful deaths. If you're writing about murder, the victim cannot, should not be a throw-away character. Whoever he or she was, they were (ok, pronoun mix--I recognize it and don't know how to get around it) were meaningful people with lives and hopes and dreams and fears. Someone has to feel the impact of their deaths. In Pretend You Don't See Her, the first victim dies six months or so before the novel opens; the second, in the opening pages but almost off-screen as it were. The reader hasn't had any time to build up identification or sympathy or compassion for that person. On the other hand, through the course of the novel, the reader  comes to know--and at least for me, to like very much--Lacy Farrell who is being stalked and hunted. If she dies, the impact on the reader will be overwhelming. In my Skeleton in a Dead Space, the first victim is, obviously, a skeleton. Hard to work up much sympathy for an unknown person who has been dead for many years, and yet so that the death has some impact, I have had Kelly O'Connell, the main character, create almost a fantasy life for the skeleton, so great is her need to know who that body is. In another novel I'm working on (and have put aside for a long time) the first victim (off-screen) is the central figure's grandmother who raised her--the impact of that is easily portrayed. But there are other deaths--of  scoundrels, each in their own way. How do you work up reader sympathy for that? I think it must come from the impact on the central figure who never expected to come close to murder.
Last night, in editing Skeleton, I had an "aha" moment. One of the things we're told about writing any kind of story is that you have to create characters the reader will care about. But another maxim, for mysteries, is start the suspense right away and keep it going. I realized I'd been so occupied with characters--Kelly O'Connell and her two daughters--that I'd spent lots of time on Kelly picking the girls up from school, what they ate for dinner, homework in the evenings and getting them to bed but I'd left the mystery in the background. I'm working on remedying that. And though I've read that manuscript carefully a least a dozen times, I'm all of a sudden seeing lots of extra words--"I seemed to feel" could be "I felt," and that kind of thing. I wonder how many times one can rewrite and revise. No, I don't want an answer.
Nice day. I had lunch with my friend Charles' daughter, Marsha. It was the first time we visited since his death, and we both talked about him a lot. Marsha is blind, and she has taught me about helping a non-sighted person and, I suspect, about helping people in general. We were going to the Flying Fish which she said she liked a lot but when I mentioned Carshon's she said she really liked that, so there we went, which always suits me fine.
Tonight I was expecting Sue and her parents for cocktail hour. What I wasn't expecting was Jacob, but his mom brought him about 4:45. He settled in to watch TV minus a shirt, and I told him he'd have to put it on when company came. When they arrived, he promptly appeared in the kitchen with his shirt. We got it buttoned and then he was off to watch TV--we didn't see another thing of him, so the shirt didn't really matter. Sue's parents are from Canada but they winter in south Texas, and I do enjoy visiting with them. So it was a pleasant evening. More of the holidy spirit, which I feel strongly this year. I'm convinced 2011 is going to be a good year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The mystery of mysteries

Once you immerse yourself in the world of mysteries and such lists as Sisters in Crime and Murder Must Advertise, you begin to learn about the various subgenres. It' not easy--there are thrillers and crime fiction and P.I. novels and cozy mysteries, historicals and contemporaries and espionage novels. I am fuzzy on what separates some, but reading Pretend You Don't See Her by Mary Higgins Clark has made one distinction crystal clear to me. Like all of Clark's novels, which I hate to read when I'm home alone at night, this is a thriller. The reader knows from the get-go who the bad guy is and he's never just sort of bad--he's usually sociopathically evil. In this novel, a young woman witnesses a murder and is the only person who can identify the killer, a notorious hired assassin who takes pleasure in killing. She is forced into the Witness Protection Program because the government desperately wants her alive to identify him if and when they catch up with him. I've always vaguely thought the Witness Protection Program would be awful--you have to leave your whole life, including family, behind and go somewhere completely strange--which is what Lacey Farrell does, assuming a totally new identiity. No spoiler here: word gets out where she is, but you knew that or there wouldn't be enough story for the novel. And somewhere in the back of your subconscious you know Lacey is going to return to her old life and her family and maybe take the new man she's met with her. But meantime, the tension from the writing is so palpable and graphic that I frequently have to set the novel down. Take a breather as it were.
I just finished reading Randy Rawls' Death by Diamonds, a P.I. novel in which the P.I. is a woman, thankfully more rounded than Stephanie Plum of Janet Evanovich's books. But still, there are some pretty brutal and violent scenes and deaths in this novel. It's a good read and I liked Beth Bowman and rooted for her, but I could never write some of the scenes in that book. Once again, in this book you know who the bad guy is early on, but how is Bowman going to defeat him.
Which brings us around to cozies, what I'm trying to write: murder and violence happen off-stage, the central figure is usually a female amateur sleuth, and there may be a few hold-your-breath moments, but really the books are just what the word says--cozy. And the reader doesn't know who the villain is and must figure it out along with the central figure--if it's really well done, you don't figure it out ahead and are surprised. But then in some, you can guess. My kind of reading. Now if I can just write a good one. I'm going back to work on Skeleton in a Dead Space after I finish this post.
Warm and sunny here today. I shudder as I read and hear on TV about the awful weather in California and the northern and eastern states. We are having a dry winter, but so far mild. I expect winter to hit like a blast any day now. Meantime this is lovely weather, makes it hard to stay inside and work--and read scary thrillers.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My work ethic conscience

My conscience has been bothering me because I started yet another revision of my first mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space, and then put it down in the rush of the season. Even after cleaning up from Friday's party, I could find other things to do, other books to read, and ignore the manuscript. Tonight I finally got back to it. It's always to my mind a little chancy to put something down and pick it up even days later, let alone weeks (which is what I've done with another novel). I think to write a good novel you have to live in the world of the characters and have them in  your mind all the time. I haven't done that, but then I know Skeleton almost by heart. It was fairly easy to pick up again. Going back to my Blue Plate book will be a different thing. I have of course great plans to work hard over the holidays, which I know I won't do. But after the new year, maybe fresh eyes will be a good thing.
This morning Jacob and I piddled. I was horrified to realize at noon that I hadn't made my bed yet. But we had a good time, and he kept himself busy all morning without TV. He ate three waffles and most of a pbj and was excited when his mom mentioned a taco at 1:30. Child must be in a growth spurt.
Yesterday I ate leftovers--savory thing with strong flavors, so today I really wanted bland. Had a tuna sandwich and hummus for lunch, turkey meatloaf and roasted brussel sprouts for dinner. Tomorrow all the leftovers go out--tomorrow is their latest "use by" date. I'll be glad to clear out the fridge though it seems a shame to throw away good food.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holiday parties

Giving a holiday party is a bit like packing for a trip--going through the house wondering what you forgot! Since I'm a compulsive who does things way ahead, I had lots of time for that kind of second guessing. Then after the party, you feel slightly like a truck has run over you. At least I did last night as I was cleaning up, especially my feet.
But inbetween are those golden hours of greeting old and dear friends and watching them enjoy each other--and the food. I had warned everyone I wasn't going all out this year but of course they thought I did--my triumphs included a Reuben spread--the ingredients of a Reuben sandwich put into a spread--and a salmon terrine with cream cheese, lots of it, and capers and dill. In spite of my fears, it was easy to make--its layered--and easy to unmold. I still had a few sprigs of dill in the pots on the porch so they decorated it. Medium successes: chopped chicken liver and herring--the few people that eat those loved them but they're not items of general appeal. Still I remember when I used to serve large bowls of herring and everyone loved it.  Failures: the bean dip with pesto and lemon juice--unappetizing color and texture; brie because it didn't cook right, though everyone ate it. Things I didn't cook that were okay: marinated vegetables and hummus. I really overestimated on desserts and am now frantically trying to think of people who need them so I won't be tempted.
I've been giving some form of a tree trimming party since the mid-sixties, and many people have been coming almost that long. These days it's an almost annual, no-tree tree-trimming party because I never put up a tree any more. It's just that the label has stuck to the party so firmly. But the best part of it is that people see others they're really fond of but don't see often. It's a time of a lot of hugging, and this year it was a time of a lot of children--three of my grandchildren, four of my brother's, and two of Jacob's cousins. I had a separate kids menu--grapes, carrots, cherry tomatoes, pigs in a blanket, cheese strips. The children ranged in age from 11 years to 3 months. All in all, it was a lovely evening.
And after a good long sleep, I was glad I cleaned up last night and only had to put dishes away.
Today I nibbled on leftovers and then served them to guests. An author I'd worked with and encouraged to rewrite his novel (it was subsequently rejected after I left the press) wrote to say he and his wife would be at a B&B just blocks from my house and could we get together for coffee. I invited them for a glass of wine, served leftovers (they'd never eaten chopped liver and liked it a lot), and we had a delightful visit--very pleasant people, good conversation, both about writing and lots of other things. It kind of carried the festive mood of the weekend over.
Jacob is here. He arrived sleepy, turned very shy for my company and sat in my lap refusing to speak to them, and finally livened up with a little food and ice cream. Now we're fighting the to-bed battle. Ah, well.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

More Haute Cuisine--or Living High on the Hog

Yesterday it was French, today it was upscale nouvelle Mexican (how's that for mixing countries and languages?). Melinda and I had lunch at Lanny's Alta Cocina, a small but very sophisticated restaurant. The chef, Lanny Lancarte, is a member of the family that runs Fort Worth's Joe T. Garcia's Tex-Mex restaurant, so he grew up around food. But he knew he wanted to do something different, went away to the Culinary Institute of America and interned in restaurants owned by Rick Bayless. He came back to Fort Worth to create his own kind of food in his own kitchen. A typical dish: Atlantic char with Jalopeno Buerre Blanc with Spinach Tortilla (read more about him and his restaurant in Great Texas Chefs--sorry a little self-serving plug).
Melinda had a chili rubbed chicken breast salad with manchego, red grapes, sugared pecans, and a balsamic vinaigrette--a large plate but she devoured every bite. Any time I see carpaccio on the menu, I go for it, so I had a tapa--carpaccio with a horseradish/caper dressing and a good balsamic vinaigrette salad. Melinda shared her manchego and I tasted a sugared pecan. While waiting for our lunch, we dipped a light flat onion roll into olive oil with capers. So good. Plus we had a great visit.
Dinner tonight was much more prosaic--leftover stew--but  it was good. I spent the evening doing last-minute party things, cutting up veggies, making pigs in a blanket for children, etc. Now I'm back watching Guy Fiery again--he eats some incredible things, huge piled-high sandwiches, deep fried this and that, hot peppers, stuff I wouldn't touch and yet it all intrigues me. Reminds me of the time I told our local down-and-dirty food critic I wanted his job, and he said, "You don't want my waistline."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Haute cuisine and home cooking

George W. and Condi never did show up at lunch today, though I heard the restaurant was a favorite of theirs. Rise is a small restaurant in North Dallas, very French. They specialize in  individual souffles--for your main course such things as cheese, smoked salmon, lobster (cooked in the lobster shell) and several orthers, too many to remember. For dessert, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkin, strawberry, etc. Each comes out perfectly puffed and browned. How do they do that? You think just one would fall flat! Jeannie and Betty split the Salad Nicoise--no canned tuna here, it was seared ahi. I had a Parisian jambon sandwich--translates to a delicious ham sandwich on a baguette with Gruyere, cornichons, and butter--no mayo, no mustard. They both had pumpkin souffles for dessert, and I got a bite of each--delicious. My mom used to make a spinach souffle that I loved but that is still a bitter topic with my brother. Back to Rise, it's lovely  with old-world decor and yet a casual, comfortable place. I enjoyed it thoroughly. And it was fun to visit with Betty and Jeannie--I see Betty once a week but Jeannie has been so busy I haven't seen her in a while.
From the sublime to--well, maybe not ridiculous, but home cooking. I came home and started on food for my cocktail open house Friday night. While I cooked, PBS had a Christmas music special that was glorious. Featured Natalie Cole, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and David McCullough telling the story of the song, "I'll be Home for Christmas." That choir is simply magnificent.
Of course it was a good thing I started on the food--discovered I don't have enough veggies, and I don't have the can of canellini beans I need for one dip. Besides Jordan has  been calling me all day with items to add to my shopping list, particularly to feed little mouths. There will be ten or twelve children. When my kids were young I thought of this as strictly an adult party--the kids either disappeared into their bedrooms or slept through the whole thing. Must be the change that comes with being a grandmother--it is now definitely a kid-friendly party, although they won't like much of my menu (I'm afraid Jordan and Christian won't either--oh, dear!). I'd tell the menu, but I don't want to give it away. Read on Saturday. The desserts are all baked and in the freezer, ready to come out tomorrow.
And speaking of food, I'm watching Guy Fiery's show about diners, drive-ins, and dives. Somebody is baking three huge meatloaves. If there's a comfort food I love, that's it. This cook slices them (thick slices) and then browns quickly on the griddle, serves with gravy. Must find out where that place is! I keep thinking my friends at the Star Cafe should write to Fiery about their restaurant.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An accidental stew

If I ever doubted that simple marketing techniques work, I believe it now. I walked into the grocery this morning to be confronted by a bargain--a large pack of freshly prepared stew vegetables for $3.39. My mind immediately went--Jacob for dinner, hot dogs, something better, stew. Of course the pkg. would have made stew for an army, so I sidetracked. But the items I ended up buying that were not on my list: stew meat (I worked my way down from a pot roast that cost over $13 to stew meat for $3 someting--after all my dinner guest is a four-year-old!), cream of mushroom soup, Lipton's Onon soup, frozen carrots, raw red potatoes. Came home and put the stew together according to a pot roast recipe I've had for years: flour and brown the meat, add carrots and potatoes chunks, mushroom soup and a small bottle of red wine--the kind of bottle they serve on airplanes. Then sprinkle with 1 envleope onion soup mix, stir and let it cook all day.
I went out to lunch--ah, indulgence, I had a bacon cheeseburger that had a bacon/1000 Island sauce. For old-time Fort Worthians, it was like eating the bacon cheeseburger at Carlson's all over again. I never ever eat hamburgers (except at home), let alone cheeseburgers. Maybe it was the holiday spirit. Anyway, still feeling guilty from that though very full and satisfied, I opened the door to a house that smelled heavenly. The onion soup really makes a difference. I just stirred it a bit and kicked the heat back up to 275. I hope Jacob will like it--he should since he eats meat and gravy, potatoes and cooked carrots. I may throw some corn or peas in at the last minute, but then, why fiddle with a good thing.
Papa Cardinal was back at the feeder today, and he's a bully--chased all the smaller birds away. Fie on him!
Later: Jacob took one look at the stew and said "I don't like it." I told him if he didn't taste it, the TV was going off. I did not fall for: 1) I want Mommy, 2) tears, 3) I want to lie down. I won the skirmish but not the battle--he tasted twice, didn't like it and announced he believed he'd have a hot dog (he thinks it's a short-order restaurant). I don't believe in food battles with children, so he had a hot dog, some sweet peas, part of a banana, and a small bit of ice cream. Then we watched a video card someone had sent me three times--great chance to repeat the Christmas story. Next Jacob requested a video we'd seen before of a dog swept off a boat and saved from a shark by a dolphin--by luck I found it again. Now he's tucked into bed watching TV and I'm going back to my book. That's the sum total of my accomplishments for the day.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bird, a guest blog, and a big e-book announcement (big for me)

I refilled the bird feeder this afternoon, and before I got back into the kitchen to look out the window there were six birds on it. Yesterday I had a mama cardinal and the day before the papa with all his fine coloring. I love watching them. Decided to put a bird feeder on the front porch next summer, if I can figure out a way to keep the squirrels away from it--and I think I can. One pesky squirrel comes to the tree next to the kitchen bird feeder and stares at me with those beady eyes as though challenging me. I have a secret weapon: my dog!
Speaking of outdoor things, I forgot to mention last night that today, Monday, I was guest blogger at My subject? "The Vanishing Front Porch." If you check it out on Tuesday, please scroll down past the Tuesday post to read mine. And leave a comment. I discovered today several random readers share my love of front porches.
My big announcement: my novel Mattie and my short story collection Sue Ellen Learns to Dance are both available now for Kindle on Amazon and for all other readers, including online reading, on Smashwords. The short stories have been up a while, but I spent last week buried in the Smashwords Style Guide, trying to get both projects in proper shape. I never did get paragraphs indents in the short stories, but the paragraphs are separated, so if it's not good fiction style at least its legible. Both books are priced at $2.99, the minimum Kindle price.
The short stories are dear to my heart. I can't sit down and say, "Today I'm going to write a short story." I either have the idea or I don't. So these 14 strories were written over many years, most previously published, two winners of awards from both Western Writers of America and the National Cowboy Museum. The one that still makes me cry if I have to read it aloud is "The Art of Candle Dipping," based on a true story I found in the files at the Log Cabin Village in Fort Worth.
Mattie is also special--the first adult novel I wrote out of whole cloth (the only previous one had been specifically written for serialization in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram during the Texas Sesquicentennial Celebration). The story of Mattie jumped into my mind after I read about Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix, a pioneer physician on the plains of western Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century. But the characters and plot have no relation to Dr. Fix, although I did "lift" the incident of her sewing a silver dollar into a man's skull after he was hit by the handle of a well rope gone amuck. But the loves of Mattie's life are pure fiction, as is her daughter.
It's a big milestone for me to have made these two titles available digitally. Watch for free samples on my web page soon. Meantime, I'm turning back to my first mystery, polishing again, and, I think, getting ready to submit to a small press.
Yes, Christmas is coming, but I think I have that under control and I'm still spending days at my desk. I did polish silver tonight. Sometimes in cold weather I am overcome with ennui, and I can't tell you how many times I walked by those dishes before I made myself polish them tongiht.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My KInd of Sunday

It was definitely my kind of day, with a twinge of guilt because I didn't go to church. But I slept so late that when I finally pushed back the covers both animals were desparate--the dog to go pee, the cat to eat (I remember going to the bathroom at 4:00 a.m. and being so in a good sleep mood that I didn't feed him as I often do). I piddled--washed my hair, read the paper, read e-mails--until almost ten. Then baked the cookie dough I'd made last night and got things ready for supper tonight. Even made homemade croutons--they are so much better, you wonder why you ever use the others. Tonight I saved the leftover salad--not sure if I'll eat it tomorrow or not but it had sliced hearts of palm, feta, and those good croutons. I thought just lettuce would make a dull salad and hadn't thought to buy an avocado or anything, so I searched the cupboard. I always have hearts of palm and I had French bread to serve tonight--voila! a salad!
Then I spent much of the afternoon reading the novel I'm deep into--one reason I'm not a great, famous and wealthy writer is that I keep getting distracted  reading other people's books. I tell myself it's education.Took a nap and then bustled around getting dinner ready.The black bean soup was great--saute onion and garlic in olive oil, add 1 can diced tomatoes with juice, 2 cans of black beans drained and rinsed, 2 tsp. cumin, a tsp. chili powder, a cup and a half chicken broth,some cilantro chopped. Take out a cup, puree it in the blender, and return to the soup. Serve topped with cilantro and feta.
I also served the oatmeal/cranberry/white chocolate cookies I made this morning--oh, my, did those cookies smell good when they came out of the oven! And they were good tonight, even if not still warm and fragrant. My breakfast for tomorrow: two oatmeal cookies.
My dinner guests were my mentor Fred and his wife Patt--we had a lovely visit, talking about craft projects, travels, a little bit of a lot and a little bit of nothing. Fred has been in my life since the late 1960s when he hand-carried me through the TCU English doctoral program. And he still critiques, advises, etc. and makes a great lunch companion.
A thoroughly nice day. Sorry I have no profound insights or thoughts to contribute to the general good.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

How have wars touched you?

I'm reading Libby Hellman's Set the Night on Fire, partly because Hellman's reputation as a mystery author precedes her, partly because I've read her posts on a blog called The Outfit: A Collective of Chicago Mystery Writers, but mostly because it links the present to the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, my hometown. Most of the Sixties--rebellion, the Beatles, the war, all of it--passed me by. I was busy with my own life, adjusting to turning thirty, marriage, and motherhood. Oh, I do remember being shocked and upset at the brutality of the police in those riots and the absolute horror of the Kent state shootings. The thing I most clearly remember is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the riots that followed, including predictions of riots in peaceful Fort Worth (they never happened). I worried that my husband would be drafted--he was an osteopathic physician and so would have gone in as a regular infantryman rather than a physician and he'd have made a lousy soldier; a high school classmate was in the first class at the Air Force Academy and one of the first shot down and buried at the academy in Colorado Springs. But pretty much the war was somewhere else, and something I didn't think about much.
In the last nine years I've thought about war a lot. I wasn't about to join Cindy Sheehan's troops--I'm much too timid and mild for physical protests, but I hated the wars. I could see some justification for going into Afghanistan, where the 9/11 bombers had come from, but I wondered that the government thought the U.S. could tame all those warring tribes, since no other troops had been able to do so for generations. And I doubt they understood the enormity of looking for Al Quaeda in that mountainous terrain. But I was vehemently opposed to the invasion of Iraq to "make it a democratic country," especially with no hard evidence of the WMDs that later turned out not to exist. For heaven's sake, they had their own culture--who are we to say they should become democratic? I heard the mounting casualty statistics and watched the names scroll by on TV with great sadness. "Shock and awe" had no meaning for me. But still, the war was at a distance, and while I grieved I didn't feel touched. I knew no one who had gone to war, and I knew very few who had a family member with the troops in the Middle East.
The war has now become more personal to me. In August my sister-in-law's new brother-in-law (how's that for complicated?) deployed to Afghanistan, and the Alter family went to a big send-off party. I was relieved when he told me he had a desk job and would be relatively safe, but my brother pointed out he's in southern Afhganistan, one of the worst regions, and has to get back and forth to his base.
Now today my brother calls with news that my nephew is deploying to Iraq, probably in March. I comfort myself that as a physician he's not in as much danger, but still it brings this war even closer to home. He and his wife, also a physician, have three children, the oldest only four-and-a-half. I hate what war does to people and what it does to families. One of my hopes was that President Obama would quickly get us out of these wars--and close Guantanomo--and I guess he's doing the best he can. But it's not fast enough for me.
As I look back at my life, war and the military have never been a part of it. My dad fought with Canadian troops in WWI and when jet planes first crossed our Chicago skies, the whine would send him running for cover--it sounded like incoming artillery shells. I have been told I was playing on the kitchen floor when Dad stuck his head in to say that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, but I don't remember that or V-E Day or V-J Day (I do remember FDR's death). I remember when Dad came home to announce we were at war--the Korean War--on a rainy June day when a distant cousin was visiting and we were all getting ready for another cousin's wedding. My brother was a Navy pilot just after the Korean War, but other than knowing he was flying planes, I was too wrapped up in being a teenager to pay attention. I'm sure my mom worried--well, darn, I know she did.
But war has always been distant, and I don't like having it up close. I often think about what a protected life I live in comparison with millions around the world--it somehow doesn't seem right to just thank God for that. It makes me think I should do something useful.
I know a lot of you have been touched much more closely by war, and I'd love to hear your comments.

Friday, December 10, 2010

E-books--oh, my!

I've been working hard for two days to post Mattie on Kindle and Smashwords. Finally got it up on both, though don't go rushing there. I have to proof and okay. But today comes a letter from the reprint publisher of Mattie discussing reversion of rights, which I'd asked for, and saying they're considering making some backlist available as e-books and pod. Am I interested? Of course, it's easier for them to do it than me, but I've already done it. I replied to that effect, only to find out that I shouldn't have posted it without checking with them first. I thought, since I had rights from Doubleday, the original publisher, it was all ok. Not so. But the representative of Leisure Books was nice, said they wouldn't want to rob me of revenue (as if I'll make a fortune) and we'd cross the bridge of their rights if they decide to e-publish. Fine with me. They'd probaby format their version better than mine, but tonight I must begin to proofread all over again. I may put that off until tomorrow. This bright new technology isn't all that bright sometimes--formatting is hard.
And then once you get the digital books up, there's the problem of marketing. Watch for a link here to free samples soon (I hope) on my web page. Is all this hard work to build a career worth it at my age? Yeah, I think so.
Dishwasher is repaired, toilet fixed, and my back bettter--things are looking up. However, tonight I think I smell sewer gas in the house--not sure how to tell if it's a gas leak, but since I smell it mostly in the bathrooms, I suspect it has to do with the plumbing. Or my imagination. I'll ask my neighbor to give it a sniff test tomorrow.
Went to a Christmas Open House today with spectacular food--a whole salmon with andalouse sauce (mayonnaise with pimiento and maybe tomato puree--I didn't know either until I looked it up), wonderful cheddar and Maytag blue cheese with figs, dates, and dried apricots, green beans and asparagus with good sauces--I didn't even try the desserts. Oh, and a flaky phyllo thing that had sort of lemon-flavored goat cheese baked in it--tiny pastries. Sooo good. I think I was the only person there who was not a docent at the Amon Carter Museum but they were all so friendly (I guess docent training makes you outgoing). I especially enjoyed a visit with the Carter's librarian where we discussed everything from research and publishing to Kindle and e-books. A pleasant late afternoon event and nice to get home before dark.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A good day--and a salmon croquette recipe

Do you ever have a day that just feels good? I had one today and decided it was about  time. I've had a bad week--a sore back that really really hurt, a commode that had to be rebuilt, a dishwasher that needs a new part (very expensive, as in very very!). But today was good, and I'm not sure I can explain why. Monday when I looked at my calendar I realized I had nothing on it for today, and since I like to get out once a day, I called a friend and we decided on lunch. The only flaw in my day was that my friend had some not-good news from the doctor and cancelled lunch. But other than real concern for her, even the cancelled lunch didn't mar my day. I was deep into getting my novel Mattie ready to post on Kindle and now I've got it done, although it will be several days before it's up--don't worry, I'll trumpet! And I did some cooking planning and made a grocery list, the most immediate things being a batch of oatmeal/cranberry/white chocolate cookies and a black bean soup with feta and cilantro. If that doesn't tempt you, nothing will. I also corresponded with the editor about my Texas food book, and I think we've settled on separate books about three food groups--chili, Tex-Mex, and chicken-fried steak. I'm not sure there's a whole book, even small, to be written about the latter but I'll give it a shot. And the editor agreed that we have to include side dishes, so that gives me room to discuss some of the other companies I found, like O. B. Macaroni. I'm looking forward to starting this, after I finish a couple of things on my desk. But it was a good, productive day at my computer, and I didn't get cabin fever at all. Oh, and lunch? I made a sandwich of a leftover salmon croquette, one of my favorite sandwiches of all time. I had made the croquettes last night with that good salmon from Oregon.
Tonight Betty and I went to dinner. She wanted to try the Cowtown Diner. I was reluctant, thinking it was all steak, but not so. We split the meatloaf plate, with mashed potatoes and peas and carrots. Meatloaf came with nice gravy, and it was pretty good.
So now I'm back at my desk, going to figure out how to post Mattie to Smashwords. If I remember correctly, it's not as complicated as Kindle, so I think I'm doing well.
Want to make my salmon croquettes? Take a 7.5 oz. can salmon, drain and flake. Add one egg, a double pinch of instant tapioca (if you have it--it binds the ingredients), some Worcestershire and dry mustard, salt and pepper, diced onion, and enough ground saltines to hold it together. (My mom always said you can't use anything but saltines; I used some other crackers in my cupboard, but crackers are important--don't use mashed potatoes.) Shape into croquettes (or patties if you wish) and roll in more ground crackers. Saute at low heat--these burn quickly. Serve with lemon. The next day, make sandwiches with mayonnaise on the bread and extra lemon on the croquettes. One 7.5 oz. can makes four croquettes.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Leftover chili

Chili only gets better when it's left over. The other night at our chili cookoff, Jay was just a tiny bit scornful of my chili because it had beans in it. I know very well true Texas chili does NOT have beans. And don't fall into the trap of thinking chili is from Mexico. It was "invented," "concocted," whatever by chuckwagon cooks in Texas. In fact, native Mexicans look down their noses at it as some inferior Texas dish. True Texas chili never had tomatoes either--basically just meat and seasonings, cooked a long time.
I admit I'm not a purist. Judy's Mild and Tentative Chii has tomato sauce and beans, but it's so easy and so good. You simply brown a lb. of hamburger or chili ground beef with 1 medium onion and as much garlic as you want--I used four medium cloves. Drain off the juice and brown again, so you get that good browned taste. Then add 1 8 oz. can tomato sauce, as much beer as you want (I used a whole one because I kept letting it cook down--and even then it was pretty thick, like stew, which chili isn't supposed to be). Add chili seasonings to your taste--I used four very generous teasoons, plus a  couple of dashes of Tabasco. Let it all simmer. Just before serving, stir in beans--I used Ranch Style, rinsed, but Elizabeth uses black beans. Either one is good. Offer toppings of grated cheese and diced red onion. I bring this up again, because I had the last of the chili for supper tonight (I'd sent a bunch home with Jordan). It was sooo good that I began to regret giving some away. My chili may be mild--Susan said it had a bite to it--and not real Texas chili, but I really like the recipe. Next I'll move on to Judy's Sloppy Joe, which I also love.
Elizabeth Edwards' death surprised all of us. Yesterday's announcement led us to believe that she had a few weeks left, so the news of her death today was a shock. But a blessing. I suspect once she'd made the announcement, she was ready and just let go. The media, social and otherwise, is full of sympathy, praise, there seems nothing to add. But I have to say, for myself, she was a role model in grace and strength and determination. Would that each of us could live life as fully as she did, both its joys and its sorrows. God bless her family, even John who was reportedly at her bedside with the children.
My dog has a new and puzzling problem--he who has always tried to sneak in the house whenever he could is reluctant to come in at night. He hesitates, looks at me, looks off into space, takes a few steps closer, and then stops. I finally have to pretend to close the door--and then he comes in. Similarly, he's a little slow to come into the office--we went through this several months ago, but I thought he was over it. I don't know if it's age or if something scared him inside. He stays briefly in my office and then wants to go to his bed, when of course I hoped he'd want my company. But he's one content dog in his bed. Yep, I think he needs a friend.

Monday, December 06, 2010

An Accidental Autobiography

I'm proofing the scan of my 1988 novel, Mattie (Doubleday), about a pioneer woman physician on the Nebraska frontier in the late nineteenth century. I'm thinking I'll post it next on Kindle because it's short, the rights have reverted to me, and it won a Spur Award as Best Western Novel from Western Writers of America. Roughly based on the life of Georgia-Arbuckle Fix, who practiced medicine in Benteen, NE, it is purely a work of fiction, chronicling the central figure's struggles in medical school, her relationshp with her mentor, her medical practice on the prairie riding miles to see patients, and her marriage and its dissolution.
I probably haven't read this in the 20-plus years its been in print, but I was struck by how much autobiographical material is in it. There may be more of me in it than of Arbuckle-Fix. I was six years divorced when I wrote it, and I wove into Mattie's marriage all the early happiness and then later uncertainties of my own marriage. My daughters were teen-agers then, and I'm afraid those difficult years are reflected in Mattie's only daughter. (Must add that my daughters are my best friends these days, but it wasn't so in high school!.) I researched frontier medicine and living conditions thoroughly for this novel, but my own life and my own feelings kept creeping into the first-person narration.
This has gotten me to thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of writing yourself into fiction. The classic wisdom is "Write what you know," and certainly it's more clear to write about emtoions you've experienced--the disappointment of divorce, the heart-pounding desperation of an anxiety attack, the loss of a parent. I could never, for instance, write about the loss of a child, because--praise the Lord--I've never experienced that. So in this sense that writing what you know brings a certain authenticity to a manuscript. I wonder if that's why critics talk about juvenalia--people write, sometimes very well, at such a young age that they haven't really experienced the world and don't have the maturity or insight that comes later with experience. Maybe that's what Mattie is, even though I was near fifty when I wrote it.
But there are pitfalls, and one is getting so carried away with sticking to the reality of your own life that you never let your fictional character have any freedom to develop. You force him or her into the mold  you have in your mind. I remember the first adult novel I wrote--for a newspaper serial at the time of Sesquicentennial. The editor who was coaching me kept saying, "This is fiction, Judy. Let yourself go." I was writing a fictional chronicle of the lives of a prominent Texas ranch family, but he didn't want me to be bound by the actual facts of their history. And eventually I wasn't.
The other danger, it seems to me, is the sort of narcissitic one of letting the manuscript get top-heavy with emotion, so that it collapses under its own weight and interests no one. Each of us has a tendency to think we're the most important person in the world, or the most interesting, and yet we have to strive to keep ourselves out of our fiction lest we get carried away with our own feelings.
Mattie is accidental autobiography. Certainly, I wrote it without knowing I was writing about myself. Now, twenty years later, I think it may be a little top-heavy with angst, but readers will have to see for themselves. I hope to have it up and running on Kindle before the holidays. I know it's not the book I would have written today. The mystery I'm working on has autobiogrpahical elements, but they're not as harsh and emotional. Maybe I've matured in twenty years.
For the novelists among you, what about you? Do you stick autobiographical elements into your fiction? I may be all wrong on this one, with egg on my face.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Chili Cookoff and Social Media

Jay, Susan, Weldon, Elizabeth and I had a chili cookoff at my house tonight--note, if you can see them, the cookoff judges badges that Jay provided from his years in Terlingua. He and Susan have apparently both been judges in the past. It all started because I posted on Facebook that with cold weather coming, I was going to make a pot of chili. Elizabeth responded that sounded good and she was going to follow my lead, so I suggested she bring hers over since Jay and Susan were already joining me. At first I thought we could co-mingle the chilis but Elizabeth and Weldon are gluten free, and I put beer in mine--they do too (she uses my basic recipe) but they use gluten free. Jay then said I had awakened the inner cook in him, and he made a pot. Jay clearly wins the prize for best and most authentic chili--made with short ribs, not ground meat, no beans but lots of beer, a bit of chocolate and some chipotles in adobo sauce. It wasn't as hot as I feared, and I could taste the chocolate--really good. My chili, as he implied, was more like stew--a much thicker mix of chili-ground beef, beans and beer, but Susan declared it good and said it did have a bit of a kick to it. In my cookbook, Cooking My Way through Life with Kids And Books, I call my my version Judy's Mild and Tentative Chili--and I like it. I didn't try Elizabeth's, figuring except for black beans it was like mine, but Jay pronounced it delicious. Susan brought a big salad and some French bread, and we ate in front of the fireplace. Talk ranged from cats, dogs and possums to yoga, Christmas cookies (and the value of lard). Fun evening.
Jordan and Christian came for lunch and to pick up Jacob. He practically put himself to sleep last night, and this morning announced with great good cheer, "I waked up!" He was cheerful and happy and silly all morning, and at one point said, "I am so happy." Irresistible! Christian said at lunch he felt like he was eating at a local tea room--chicken salad with the ladies. But it was pretty good, and Jordan said the potato salad was perfect.
I am not ever going to mention Weight Watchers again. This morning I announced I was dropping out, but Jordan pushed me to stay in. So I am, but I'm not letting it limit me. What I've learned is that I must eat small portions. I could have eaten four helpings of potato salad at lunch but I contented myself with one small portion, and today I've had exactly one oz. of toffee--that's probabl too much. Anyway, that's the last word you'll hear from me about Weight Watchers--I decided at the party last night that people who talk about their weight all the time are dull, dull, dull.
Spent several enjoyable hours playing hookey and reading--Whiskey on the Rocks by Nina Wright. I am enjoying it thoroughly and love the Afghan hound at the center of the story, a free spirit if there ever was one. But I also studied a blog on using Twitter and made some small progress toward feeling more comfortable with that social media site. After all, if it weren't for social media, we wouldn't have had a cookoff tonight!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Falling off the wagon

I fell off both the diet and wine wagons yesterday, and I've been analyzing the reasons. One is that I bought some homemade toffee that is so delicious--but so high in Weight Watchers points. Still, it calls to me every time I go through the kitchen. And I keep thinking a half ounce doesn't matter. But those half ounces add up. Then I made some potato salad that I absolutely love. I use the County Line barbecue restaurant (Austin and San Antonio) recipe, with lots of pickle relish. I made this because Jordan requested potato salad and chicken salad for lunch Sunday. I made both yesterday, and if the toffee calls to me, the potato salad literally shouts. It is, I warned Jordan tonight, robust to say the least--I think I overdid the pepper a bit. But those two things, toffee and potato salad, have not helped at all, plus Weight Watchers has changed their point system. You get more points a day, but foods cost you more--I haven't adjusted, and last night I ws ten points over my daily quota. Yep, this morning I was a pound heavier.
My horoscope today said something to the effect that I shouldn't take a initial encounter too seriously and rush into passion. Friendship before love. I think it meant the potato salad.
The wine wagon is a different thing. I've discovered that my wine consumption goes up with the disruption of my schedule. Terrible to be a person who lives by a schedule of meals, but I like something small shortly after I get up, lunch around noon, and dinner around six. Last night, with the autograph extravaganza, I knew it would be after eight before I had supper. So I ate a banana before I went, then snacked on cheese (oh, so many points) and had two glasses of wine--adding up all those points because I really wanted a meal.
So today I resolved to stick to my points in food and my personal wine limit. So far so good, and it's nearly ten o'clock.
Jordan and I went to a party tonight with wonderful, lavish food. I bypassed the sliders and brie sandwiches and ate salmon, chicken, and veggies--delicious and almost no points. This was a party that I always enjoy but rarely go to--because of a staircase. I've known the hostess all her life--she's the daughter of a longtime friend. She and her husband live in an older, lovely home, but the only access is up a fairly long set of steps between the sides of the driveway. Nothing to hold on to. In a couple of other years,  my friend and her husband parked in the driveway next door and we crept across the lawn, but tonight Jordan said we were doing the stairs. And we did--piece of cake. Saw several people I know and was glad to see, ate that good food, had a glass of wine. When we left I had a full escort  down the stairs--Jordan walked in front of me, the husband of another young woman I've known all her life walked beside me and held my hand, and our hostess walked on the other side. I felt a little silly. I would have been fine with just holding on to Chad's hand. And I could have walked on the slanted driveway pavement too. It was fun to go to a bright holiday party.
I came home to wait for Jacob who arrived at nine to spend the night. He stayed up extra late but was giggly and happy and is now talking himself to sleep.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The search for a dog

I've decided that my dog, Scooby, needs a playmate as he ages. Someone to rough-house with would keep him young. This is Scoob, but it doesn't really show how beautiful he is. (I have one friend who insists he's the ugliest dog he's ever seen--his eyes are even different colors; hey! he's an Aussie, better known as a Wigglebutt.) Yesterday, my neighbor Susan and I went dog-looking at the humane society. I had gone to see a dog named Branson. Branson turned out to be smaller than I expected, and his head doesn't match his body--Susan claims that's his charm. But it's like a head from one breed, and a short-legged Aussie body. But tonight she was still pushing for Branson--I'm afraid she'll adopt him if I don't.
 Then we found this little lady, who looks like a terrier with Aussie coloring. She had the most remarkable eyes, as though someone had put lots of black eyeliner all around them.

This was the guy that stole my heart, though you can't see him well. Susan said he was too squirmy to get a picture, and that's the problem. If I remember correctly, he's part Aussie, part Catahoula, both high energy breeds, and he isn't even a year old yet, at least didn't look that way to us. Susan, an inveterate dog lover with two rescued dogs of her own, admitted he would be a handful.
This morning someone said to look on Craig's list, which I did. The notion of what is and isn't an Aussie is fuzzy--I found a picture of a Rottweiler mix labeled Aussie; wasn't a thing about that dog that looked like an Aussie.
Years ago, we had bearded collies. They were sweet, loveable, but a lot of trouble in one way or another. There was a bearded collie at the humane society but I took one look at all that hair, thought about grooming, gave her a sweet pat and reassuring words, and went on my way. I think the Lord was reinforcing my own suspicion--just before the holidays is not a good time to get a new dog! But the idea is firmly planted in my mind.
Tonight was the TCU Press Annual Autograph Extravaganza--three hours. I thought it would be interminable, but it was actually a lot of fun. I saw people I hadn't seen in a while, visited with friends old and new, including the Grace & Gumption ladies who are so special to me, and sold a few books. All in all, a good evening.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The holiday spirit

Catch the holiday spirit at the TCU Press Annual Autograph Extravaganza, Fri. Dec. 3, 5-8 p.m., the Kelly Alumni Center on Stadium Drive on the TCU campus. Thirty authors will sign their books, Jan Reid will talk about his new novel, Comanche Sundown, and there'll be refreshments (cash bar). It's always a lot of fun and you just might find yourself chatting with mystery author Deborah Crombie or Alex Lemon or Texas Poet Laureate Karla Morton or some of the ladies who wrote Grace & Gumption and its companion cookbook. Come, mingle, shop for books for Christmas gifts, and have a great time.
Santa is in full view at my house these days. No tree, but Santa everywhere--and manger scenes. I've decorated the dining table, buffet, library table and mantel.

 Last night I decided to put the finishing touches on the mantel by adding white lights. Lesson learned: put up lights before decorations (I know to do that on trees but didn't know it applied to the mantel). I knocked half the ornaments off (thank goodness not my mom's beloved Madonna and Child). I did knock off a wonderful creche scene in a gourd made in Central or South America and sent me by dear friends. Several of the figures came loose, but I repaired it with flour-and-water paste and toothpicks. Quite proud of myself, even if the Madonna's halo is a bit crooked--that's a tiny space for my big hands. I was creating (I hoped) a Mother and Child theme for the mantel--since I couldn't find the candlesticks that usually give it some sort of unity and organization. At the center is the nativity scene below, made by women in a South American village. They have completely rejuvenated the economy of their town with these manger scenes. My friend Linda, who owns Almost Heaven on the square in Granbury, gave me this several years ago, and I have since given several for gifts.

Not everyone has the holiday mood. A group called the Dallas Fort Worth Coalition of Reason has taken advertising space on public transportation buses for signs that proclaim, "Some people are good without God." Basically, they're atheists trying for equal time but at the wrong time of the year. Reactions vary--one Facebook post called it "God-bashing" and said a sign to the effect of "Be good for goodness sake" would be acceptable but not one that draws God in. My friend Fred said at lunch today, "Some people need to get a life." I read one atheist who justified the signs by saying, "Christians can't think they own December," and that smacked of bitter grapes to me and, yes, God-bashing. I'm really sorry they can't share the joy of the season. After all, it isn't just Christmas--it's also Chanukkah and Kwanza.
The rest of you all, revel in the joy of December. It's a special time of year.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Writing out of the box

This is the new cover for the Kindle version of my 1988 novel, Mattie, which won a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. I've had the text scanned and just need to proof but I hope to get it up in a week or so. The novel is roughly based on the story of pioneer physician Georgia Arbuckle Fix who rode the western Nebraska prairie to see patients and learned to "read" the prairie as though it had roads. When Doubleday published the novel, they put her soddie in a lush green setting, ripe with trees and other foliage. It looked a bit like England but certainly not western Nebraska. I had emphasized that her soddie on the river was at the only tree crossing for miles--she had three trees. I think the cover above captures the barrenness much better, and I love the sense of space that sky gives. Kudos to Vicki Whistler, who designed it.
When my novel, Libbie, about Elizabeth Bacon Custer, was published, the cover was truly a misrepresentation--some New York artist's concept of the West. As one friend said, Libbie looked like Madonna in 19th century dress. She stood in a prairie, with tall grass all around, by a barbed wire fence--oops! Barbed wire was introduced, I think at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, in 1874 and Custer was killed in 1876. No way the prairie was fenced in those two years. In the background is a fort, sitting on barren tan ground, the soil of Arizona in contrast to the Kansas prairie she stands in. The fort is built of sturdy logs, with a stockade around it. I had made the point in the book that Army posts in the West did not have fences of any kind--their very openness bothered Libbie, but there were no trees to build stockades. So much for artistic accuracy. At the time I was so glad a NY publisher was putting out my work that I didn't complain until too late. Lesson learned.
I read somewhere the other day that in order to attract an agent or a publisher, the author of a mystery had to think outside the box. The author cited as an example was Charlaine Harris who writes paranormal-vampire books and has indeed been wildly successful. I'm not going there. I have no interest in the paranormal/vampire material that is so popular today (my granddaughter loves it). But I got to thinking about the three mysteries I've written--I'm pretty happy about the first but intend to revise; not so sure about the second; pretty happy about the third, though it is in draft stage. But they are nowhere outside the box. They're perfectly typical cozies--the kind I like to read. Single heroines who are amateur sleuths but also beset by romance problems, clever with-it girls who manage to rescue themselves and solve murders but at the same time ordinary people like you and me. Okay, I admit it, sort of Nancy Drew all grown up and sophisticated--and in more dangerous situations.Hmm. I decided I should begin to think outside the box--but how? Then I thought of Kaye George, a friend and fellow writer who has created a mystery set in the Neanderthal era. Think she can sell it? She's come close a lot but no banana. There have of course been successes with such novels, notably Jean Auel's work and that of  Michael and Kathleen Gear. But I wonder if maybe outside the box is part of the problem--that and publishing trends. Right now, while vampires are big, thinking outside the box in that direction is fine; take it in another direction and you might be in trouble. All this circular thinking leads me to suspect that thinking outside the box is not the answer: witing the very best novel you can is! And watch for Kaye's novel--from all I've read about it, it's darn good and her reserch into that period of history is spot on.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Let the celebrations begin

My memoir classes had a reunion holiday party tonight, for me the first party of the season. Some of these ladies know each other very very well, from sharing their memoirs; others, from different classes, had never met. Yet they all chattered and gossiped and had a wonderful time. We were each to wrap and bring a book that we were ready to pass on to someone else, and then we had a Chinese auction. Elizabeth said she'd never seen such a cut-throat auction, but people kept "stealing" other people's books--for a moment I had a Joanna Fluke cozy that I was really looking forward to reading, but someone stole it, and I ended with a Mary Higgins Clark--hers are terrific mysteries but a bit scary to read when one is home alone. We had great refreshments--including latkes, which I'd been missing, and spanikopita, which I love. Altogether a simply wonderful evening.
'Tis the season in other ways. It seems I spend my time running errands. Today it was a haircut, followed by a trip to get  festive paper plates (does everyone realize how expensive they've become?), then a trip to DSW to look for everyday shoes for me. Nada. The one pair that might have been okay was only ten dollars cheaper than the really neat Merrells I ordered yesterday. Then to the camera shop to leave Jordan's camera to be repaired--6-8 weeks and $125. Oh, my! More errands tomorrow. I can see the Christmas season rushing by without much writing done but, hey, that's okay. I set my own deadlines, and all this holiday stuff makes me happy. That's what retirement is about--doing what you want to do. Though that small voice inside me adds, "Make sure you do for others." Does taking Jordan's camera to the repair shop--which I had a hard time finding--count?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Remembering Elmer Kelton--once again

I didn't post a blog last night because I was consumed with reading a pdf proof of Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories. It's not a festschrift in the proper sense of that term, because it includes several personal memories, but it is a book in tribute to the late, beloved author. I read it once in Austin, surrounded by all the hubbub of family. When I came home and read in peace and quiet I was amazed at how much more I caught--little things like misplaced commas and quotes mostly, but a few misused words. And, horrors, a dangling modifier--a grammatical error that can send me screaming into the night.
The book is due from TCU Press in the spring. Jim Lee and I co-edited--we've teamed up on some good projects. The essays and memories in this one are by people who knew Elmer well--all friends because everyone he met became his friend, but some of these folks have taught his work in the classroom. And probably my favorite essay is the one by his son, Steve, who succeeded his dad as editor of Livestock Weekly. Steve subtly blends in a son's memories with a more business-like assessment of way Elmer's work as an agricultural journalist contributed to the realism of his fiction. A truly great essay from a guy whose arm I had to twist to get him to write it.
Now I've sent the corrections off and am feeling--well, lazy, idle, whatever. Yesterday I bustled around and got lots done, like pulling up dead plants from the porch and a wash, but today I've been sort of lackadaisical and had such a sound nap that I woke up totally disoriented. Ate too big a dinner of leftover potato salad and egg salad and feel full and sleepy. But my Thanksgiving accomplishment is that with all that rich food, I lost a pound. Feeling super about that. Anyway, I guess I'll stumble my way through the rest of the evening, maybe reading a book. Tomorrow I must start reading the version of Mattie I plan to put on Kindle. And then I have to review and do a bit of rewriting on Skeleton in a Dead Space to put it on KIndle.
Meantime I'm reading Double Shot, a foodie cozy mystery by Diane Mott Davidson who is the star of that genre, in spite of all the other contestants. If anybody has read any of her novels about Goldy, the Colorado caterer, and also watched the Barefoot Contessa on TV, tell me if you don't think they're a perfect match! Ina Garten should play Goldy in a movie. Oh, bother, the fact that Garten is a chef and not an actress is a trivial thing!
Enough. I may eat chocolate.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Home again--and some lessons from Thanksgiving

No matter how much I enjoy being someplace else--and I did love our Austin Thanksgiving--I am always glad to be home again. We drove on Saturday to beat the Sunday traffic, but we didn't get away from Austin until 3 p.m, which I thought was a bad plan--and it turned out to be. Traffic slowed just past Temple and bunched up off and on until Hillsboro, slowing us sometimse to 10 mph, averaging maybe 40-50. Nerve-wracking. We were tired and hungry, and Jacob got weepy--though a few Cheerios, Goldfish and raisins restored his blood sugar. Actually got to my house a bit after 6:30, which isn't bad--it just seemed that way. My cat could have cared less about seeing me but wanted food; my dog didn't care about food, but he was delighted to see me.
Leftovers are always the best part of a holiday meal, but here are a couple of things I learned:
--Mashed potatoes and gravy make a wonderful breakfast. We never get enough gravy from the turkey, so I made traditional gravy out of the drippings, scraping up all those good brown pieces, and then we added two quarts of prepared gravy Megan had bought from a home delivery service in Austin called The Soup Kitchen. Their gravy was quite pale, so I added a good couple of dashes of Kitchen Bouquet which turned it a lovely rich brown and spiced it up just a bit. It was the best we've made in a long time. Weight Watchers doesn't count too heavily for mashed potatoes, but they just don't know how much sour cream and butter Jordan puts in hers!
--I learned to love chess pie. I'd heard about it, probably never eaten it. Mel made it according to her great-grandmother's recipe which calls for corn meal and vinegar in the filling. Jordan called it baked sugar. I ate finger-sized slivers of it and was heartbroken this morning to discover it was all gone. Weight Watchers has never heard of chess pie (or vinegar pie) so I figured it was fair just not to mention it. The foods that I eat that Weight Watchers knows nothing about are numerous--I think they need a more sophisticated dietitian. Meantime I plan to ask Mel to share the recipe.
Elizabeth was right--going on Weight Watchers before the holidays made me a more conscious eater--I managed to come in almost on target with my points by taking a tablespoon of this and that. With so many offerings, that's a great way to taste everything and yet not feel stuffed. There again, Weight Watchers doesn't realize Lisa makes green bean casserole with sour cream, jack cheese (or monterrey, I'm not sure) and corn flakes soaked in a whole stick of butter. I cannot begin to tell you how much butter we used on Thursday!
--A non-cooking lesson for everyone who might find themselves in cold country. A norther hit Austin Thursday afternoon, like a snap of the fingers, dropping the temperature dramatically within minutes. That night it was really cold. I sleep in the office, the only upstairs room, that is always much colder than the rest of the house (and I don't think the heat was on at all that night). I could not sleep and realized it was because I was cold--my feet were like blocks of ice, and I was curling around myself to keep warm. Finally got up and got my sweats--put on the shirt and made a pocket out of the pants for my feet. It took a while for them to thaw, but then they were warm and toasty. Another problem is when the air gets cold, so does the air in a blow-up mattress. The next night the girls put a duvet on it for me, and I again slept with my special foot warmer and my sweatshirt and was as toasty and warm as I could be. Slept very well. I may sleep with my feet in sweat pants all winter--their soft lining makes them just wonderful, better than a cat on my feet.
We were supposed to come home on Sunday but came today for a variety of reasons. Still, I cannot get over the idea that it is Sunday. Jordan said something about Christian having a day off tomorrow and I asked why he wasn't working. I looked at businesses we drove by and wondered why they were open on Sunday. And tonight, of the newspapers left by Moksha, the pet-sitter, I threw the thickest on my desk to read. I swear I searched that thing three times looking for Parade, until it dawned on me it was Thursday's paper and was thick because it had all the ads for the Friday super sales.Okay, I'm beginning to get it: tomorrow is Sunday.
Back to routine, but overwhelmed by things to do. Some of my porch plants froze and I have to uproot them, especially the sweet potatoes. And my driveway is solid leaves, though I don't plan to tackle that.
How about you? Did you learn any life lessons over Thanksgiving? Are you charging into December feeling that you have a ton of things to do? A freind sent me a Biblical verse about living in the day and knowing God will help you face whatever tomorrow brings. I do wish I could learn to live in the moment and not worry a week or so ahead. I'm working on it.