Saturday, April 30, 2011

Among the Texas literati

Tonight was the annual banquet of the Texas Institute of Letters, and it was a grand night for TCU Press. The two major awards went to our authors--one to Jan Reid for the best novel, Comanche Sundown (TCU Press, 2010) and the lifetime achievement award (Lon Tinkle Award) to C. W. Smith, who has published several novels with us, including the forthcoming Steplings, a book about which we are all excited. (Sorry, folks, but I still consider myself a part of TCU Press in retirement.) In addition, two of our books were finalists in their categories--Edmund J. Davis of Texas, by Carl Moneyhon in the nonfiction category, and Smurglets are Everywhere, poetry by Alan Birkelbach with illustrations by Susan Halbower, in the juvenile category.
It was a fine evening of seeing old friends, people I've missed and wanted to see, meeting new people, seeing some I didn't know well but wanted to know better. I got hugs from Bob and Jean Flynn, Bob Compton, Fran Vick, Barbara Whitehead and Bruce; I visited with Susan Wittig Albert, a fellow mystery writer (she much more established than I), and said hello to countless people, some of whom have published with TCU and some not.
TIL is 75 years old this year, an organization founded to promote the appreciation of the literature of Texas. Membership is by invitation only, though the banquet, meetings, and awards are open to anyone. Sometimes in that group people's egos get in the way, but for the most part is a collegial bunch of writers who cheer for and support each other. TIL, with UT Austin, sponsors two annual six-month writing fellowships--fellows get to spend six months at J. Frank Dobie's Paisano Ranch devoting their time to writing, with rent and modest living expenses paid. Over the years, TIL has wisely elected young people to membership so that it's not one of those groups where everyone will go old at once.
All told, I'm proud to belong to it, and pleased to have been at the banquet in Dallas tonight. After all, I don't get to many banquets--and rarely to Dallas. We got stuck in an awful traffic jam on the bridge over the Trinity leading to downtown Dallas--there was no alternate route by which to escape. So maybe that's why I don't go to Dallas much.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Hats on and a day off

It was a flawlessly beautiful wedding--a fairy tale come true. Fascinated as I was by the bride and groom, I couldn't help studying the hats. So much has been said about them already that any comments I might have are redundant. But I can't decide between those big hats--picture hats, I guess--worn on the side of the head and those bits of feathers and geegaws perched on top of the head. I worry about those side-of-the-head affairs--what keeps them on the head, especially on a windy day like it apparently was in London today. But I think I'd choose one of those, though I'm not a hat wearer. I was a big disappointment to my late father-in-law, who was a hat maker by trade.
I woke up about 3:30 and thought I'd check what was happening. Guests were arriving at Westminster Abbey, milling about in what seemed confusion. For a bit, the hats kept me watching--one woman had something shaped like a gondola covered with royal blue sateen or silk on top of her head. Others had those wide hats, which I thought might block the view of those behind them. Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie apparently got the "Bad Hat Day" award--you can see them on the internet. But after a few minutes of ogling hats, I went back to bed. My inner alarm clock woke me again at 5:00 and I turned the TV on just in time to watch Kate arrive at the church and the wedding ceremony.
Then back to bed. Once again my timing was impeccable--I woke at 7:15, in time to see the royal couple come out on the balcony for the traditional kiss. I've heard some comments that it was an awkward kiss--give them a break! There were one million people in front of them, the Queen on the porch along with both their families, and two billion people watching on TV. Did we expect passion? I thought it was a gentle kiss, familiar, showing that they are really fond of each other.
Now I'm watching an all-evening replay of the festivities. After all, a royal wedding doesn't happen that often!
Having gotten off to such up-again, down-again start to the day, I decided to take a day off and be lazy. I went back to bed, slept an hour-and-a-half and got up filled with energy. Did laundry, potted herbs, did some  yoga, and worked at my desk. It was a beautiful morning to be working on the porch with the herbs, and I'm glad to have them in their pots. I repotted a cactus, a traumatic process for me and the cactus.
God bless the royals! They've given all of us a break from the troubles that surround use--economic woes, tornado loss of life and damage, wars abroad. It's great to have a bit of ritual to remind us of majesty.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Weddings and tornadoes

It seems the trendy thing to say these days is, "I'm so sick of the royal wedding." Well, I'm not. I'm not setting an alarm but I often wake up about 4:00 and go back to sleep--I may just stay up tomorrow and take a nap about 8:30. I've left the whole day free to enjoy the wedding celebration. I guess it's my Scottish blood but I enjoy the pageantry.
I worry though about Wills and Kate--they are such a cool, golden couple. I do hope they can keep that throughout their lives and not get tangled in the scandals that have plagued the House of Windsor. I'm sure the Queen hopes that too. I was greatly cheered to learn that the newlyweds will have no domestic staff--they both like to cook and are apparently not challenged by making beds and doing laundry. Good on them!
Tonight on TV I saw a segment on the security for the big event--and that made me a bit nervous. I pray that no misguided terrorist disrupts what should be a wonderful day for England and for all the world. Especially in America, we've lost such a sense of tradition--I love that it continues in the English monarchy. And, nope, I don't resent a monarchy at all, especially the English one which is largely figurative while the country is almost democratically governed. So, please, no terrorists.
I won't be buying souvenir plates or cups or such, but I'll treasure the memory of seeing this wedding. I remember as a fairly young child getting up in the middle of the night to listen on the radio, with my parents, to either Queen Elizabeth's coronation or her marriage to Philip--I'm never sure which, as the memory is vague. My oldest daughter and I sat up far into the early morning watching the funeral of Princess Diana--and, if I remember correctly, crying. I hope this one will be a happy memory.
And while I'm praying for the happiness of William and Kate, I will also pray for all those people in the South, principally Alabama and Mississippi, who lost loved ones, homes, everything. Nature has unleashed fierce power this spring, and we are all in awe--tornadoes, wildfires. None of us can feel safe. A friend of mine said today it just emphasizes that we have no place to go. I told her I have lived in two houses in Fort Worth with basements, but I don't have one now. I guess we put it out of our minds, thinking it won't happen here. Tuscaloosa shows us it could.
So pray for the people of the South, for William and Kate, and for all of us in tornado alley and wildfire country.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Anticipating what you already know

Do you ever read a book or see a movie for the second or third time and still find yourself getting anxious as the scary, climactic, whatever part of it approaches? That's what's happened to me tonight--I'm doing the absolute last read-through on my mystery, and as that climactic scene approaches, I'm distracting myself, turning to other things, etc. I don't know if it's because the scene always scares me a bit--it really does--or because I'm afraid I'll see the flaws in it. As I've read through, at this late stage, I've thought of totally different ways the plot could go, pieces that I didn't think worked, etc. I guess I'm at the point of chewing it to death and I best get it done and back to the editor. But the part about reliving the tension of the scene holds true too. Years ago I wrote a short story, "The Art of Candle Dipping" (now free for download on Smashwords) that affected me that way. The story garnered some acclaim, and I found myself reading it aloud to an audience on more than one occasion. And darned if I didn't cry each time. Other people's books do that to me but I'm not sure what it means when your own writing makes you emotional--is it ego, a sign that you like your writing, or, praise be, a sign that it's pretty good? I have no idea, but I'll have to wait for reaction to this particular ending. Meantime I'm almost through with that final edit . . . and itching to lose myself in reading something by someone else.
My big accomplishment for the day: I hydrated the cat. Gave Wywy 2 cc. of Ringer's solution subcutaneously. Moksha, the wonderfully kind and gentle petsitter, came to watch and help--and he actually got the needle onto the tube, so I have to learn to do that before next week when I do it alone. It went pretty well, except early on in the procedure Wywy decided he'd had enough and bolted from my lap, a move I wasn't expecting. In the flurry of the moment I didn't think it through and thought he'd go running off still attached to the tubing and bag of solution. I bolted after him, and nearly tripped over the tubing. Moksha meanwhile, had a much calmer head--after saving me from tripping, he turned off the drip. The needle, of course, had slipped out of Wywy's back when he ran. I retrieved a now-angry cat, Moksha put a new needle in place, and we proceeded. I was ready for the tensing of muscles that would indicate a break for freedom and kept a firm hold, all the while talking softly and encouraging. We finally got the 2 cc. into him, and then I fed him--showing him I wasn't mean.
Betty and I went exploring tonight and split a really good deli sandwich and each had cole slaw. Really reasonable meal, although the wine was pretty weak. Decor meant for a motorcyle gang--I swear the waiter looked at us as if to say, "What are you two ladies doing here?" I was glad when another older couple came in. Not a place we'll go back to, but we drove by a place I've wondered about for a long time. I came home, looked it up on the web, and decided it must be our next dining adventure.
Colin called tonight and we talked a bit but then I said, "Oops, Betty's here. We're going out to dinner." His response was, "You have a much busier social life than I do." I do hope he's glad his aged mother isn't sitting home withering.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Day at the Ranch

I had a first-hand tour of how dry Texas is today when we drove around my brother's ranch on his mule (forgot the real name but it looks like a heavy-duty golf cart that can go over weeds, brush, dips, etc). Jeannie and I make this pilgrimage every spring to see the calves and the land. Last year, if memory serves, we went earlier, and the grasses were green. Today there were deep grasses, dried gray and brown, the kind of stuff that would burn quickly. We saw only scattered wildflowers, though the prickly pear had some great yellow blooms and there were a few paintbrush here and there and, along the roadsides, lots of black-eyed Susans and what looked like Queen Anne's Lace to me--do we have that in Texas? John says someone told him it's the driest year in forty-four years, which would take us back to the drought of the '50s (read Elmer Kelton's The Time It Never Rained.) I know it's dry in Fort Worth, and we talk about needing rain, but this took my breath away--not in a good sense. The land is still beautiful, and so are the cows who wander up close to the mule, thinking they'll be fed--and they were. The calves romp and play with each other, though two were so new you could still see the umbilical cords.
John had thought they'd be working the calves today--branding and castrating--and he thought we might like to come for that, though he said, "I don't want to hear any, 'Oooh, doesn't it hurt them?'" The work day had to be postponed, and I'm just as glad because we had much more chance to visit and we got the tour. When we get way back in the ranch--what I call the "back 40"--I am so lost I have no idea which direction the house is. Yet I'm impressed at how John knows the land--where the trails are that are easiest to drive over, where to detour to look at a certain fence or spot, etc. Made me think of what I once read about pioneers learning to read the prairie so that they never got lost in the endless land. This isn't that endless, but it's pretty disorienting to me. As far as I could tell today we rode along five side of the ranch--but I know it only has four!

A big part of our annual ranch day, after the tour, is sitting on the porch, drinking wine and eating lox and bagels--strange traditions we start. John and Cindy added today some cheese, an excellent Gouda made in Granbury (and sent some home with us). Above you can see the view from the porch across the road to one of the pastures, our lunch table, and my brother, or as I like to call him these days, Farmer Peckham (he's only been a rancher since '97; before that he was a physician; I think he likes this a lot better!)
A lovely day. John often says I don't get out in the outdoors enough, and he's probably right--but I enjoyed all that fresh air today. Weather was just perfect--nice breeze, comfortable temperature, not a blaring sun. I am city girl, but it's grand to have relatives in the country.

Monday, April 25, 2011

History meets the modern world in a fine novel

I just finished reading Charlotte Hinger's Lethal Lineage. Charlotte and I have been friends for years, since our days in Western Writers of America (I suspect Charlotte is still a lot more active than I am), and I always considered her Come Spring a classic about life on the western prairies for women. Now she's turned her hand to mysteries--and a fine hand it turns out to be. Award-winning Deadly Descent was first in the Lottie Albright series (and I enjoyed it a great deal). Now it's followed by Lethal Lineage.
Having lived in western Kansas for most of her adult life, Charlotte knows that barren, wind-swept land and its people like she knows her own soul, and she pours that knowledge into her mysteries. Lottie, however, is a relative newcomer, albeit married to a longtime vet/rancher. Still Charlotte shows us Lottie learning about the land and its people, particularly by serving as head of the local historical society where she encourages people to submit written and oral bits of their histories.
Charlotte effectively blends that knowledge of the land with deep and thorough research, this time into the Episcopalian church in western Kansas, the ancient practice of glebes (land assigned to support a priest). Glebes were fairly common in the East, but there was only one in western Kansas. In addition, she weaves into her story the horrors of Africa's Hutu-Tutsi Wars and the terror that survivors carried with them, even into new lives in this country. And the oral histories of the folk of western Kansas weave into this in an amazing conclusion.
Hats off to Charlotte. This is the kind of book I wish I could write, and I give it five stars. Read it. You will too.
I understand that the FCC says if I am going to review books, I have to make a disclaimer that the above is my own opinion and also have to state my guidelines for reviewing books: well, this isn't a book review blog, though I have often reviewed for a variety of sources, including major newspapers. Nope, this is just one mystery reader's personal opinion. From time to time, I'll review books I liked. If I don't mention a book it means I've never read it or didn't like it well enough to recommend. So there you have it--I liked Lethal Lineage.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter lessons

I think the Lord wants us to learn to be flexible. This morning about 8:30, I happened to be reading email and in my junk mail was a notice that the power was out at the church and services would be held in the ballroom of the TCU new Brown-Lupton University Union. We debated, decided to go and take Jacob with us--and I am so glad we did. As though it were magic, they had transported the choir, the bell choir (and, of course, their bells), hymnals and programs to the BLUU. TCU did a mighty work to make this happen--the room was set up for a dinner and transformed almost instantly into lecture-style seating. There was an orchestra, so the organ wasn't that much missed. The clergy and choir members wore street clothes, not robes, but it was the Easter service we know and love.
When Alan Lobaugh, a senior associate minister, got up to administer communion, he said, "This was not what we had planned." Everyone laughed, but he turned it into a devotional, saying he was sure that was what the disciples said on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday at the empty tomb. The lesson to me was God doesn't want us to be complacent. But a big shout-out to TCU and UCC for pulling this off with such style and grace.
Easter dinner was just a delight, in spite of all my worries, although it was sort of a marathon. Jay and Susan arrived at 1:45, followed shortly by the senior Burtons, and it was close to 6:00 p.m. before we broke up. I had meant to serve at 3:00 but it didn't work that way, and we sat on the porch until almost 4:00--I was getting light-headed from hunger. We sipped wine and ate hors d'oevres, watched Jacob and a friend egg hunt, laughed, told stories, and had a wonderful time. My dinner was a success, and the Burtons brought a delicious brisket. The dinner table was full of conversation, and we lingered over dessert. Jay had made individual bunny cakes--red velvet cake--and I had my ice cream pie. Everyone asked for a small piece of the pie but we ate maybe half, and I sent the rest home with Jordan for her boys,, big and little.
Jordan was an enormous help today, from straightening the house before everyone got here to making sure the dog was fed and the dishes done. Everyone pitched in, and clean-up was not difficult at all. I think I'm getting spoiled.
Last night we had a tremendous show of lightning and thunder but precioius little if any rain. Tonight, distant rumbles tell me we're in for the same thing. God teaching us to be flexible again, except, please Lord, I'd like a little rain. Apparently parts of Possum Kingdom where the fire still burns didn't get rain either, and on Facebook someone said lightning had started two fires in their pasture. Scary times. We don't need that kind of flexibility.
The Easter season--and Passover and other spring festivals--is supposed to bring renewal and rebirth. I hope we can all feel renewed and, uh, flexible!
Hey, it's actually raining. I can hear it!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Glories

This morning, my email brought me the most dramatic picture ever of a sunrise--all reds and golds and purples, taken from the sender's porch. Surely an Easter sunrise picture. That was followed by a link to a video of Carrie Underwood's rendition of "How Great Thou Art," my favorite hymn of all time. What a way to start Holy Saturday. Jacob asked if I knew "the Easter song" and I sang the first lines of "Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Alleluia." Turns out he had in mind the song about hopping down the bunny trail! The birds outside my kitchen window have been singing their little heads off all day, as though they too know Easter is tomorrow. On a more practical note, I wonder if they knew a storm was brewing. Scooby definitely knew and is hiding in his bed, as thunder begins to roll in.
When I was young I sang in the youth church choir--no comments needed from those who know I can't carry a tune. We sang an anthem that began, "One early Easter morning/I wakened with the birds/And all around lay silence/Too deep for earthly words." I can hear the melody in my head, though I can't sing it for anyone--and won't try. I emailed a lifetime friend from those days, and she too remembers those lines--but that's all. My friend Betty, a church organist for forty-plus years, has never heard of it. If anyone can give me more information about this piece of music I'd be grateful. (My singing is so bad that when I called my oldest son the other day on his birthday and offered to sing, "Happy Birthday," he declined--and Jacob has been known to put his hands over his ears if I sing.)
My Easter table is set, with my mom's Suzie Cooper china that she adored. I mostly only use it at Easter, because the colors are so right for spring. Over the years I have given lots of big dinners, often for about twenty. So I don't know why dinner for eight boggled my mind all week (we added a ninth person yesterday and I decided to squeeze four people on one side rather than unset the whole table to add another leaf). I worried and planned and other things went on hold "until I get past Easter." It's honestly an easy, cook-ahead meal (Christian's parents are bringing the meat), so there's no reason for me to be so uptight. I'll fix two appetizers (crudities with a dip and fromage fort--which is really fort or strong), potato salad, fruit salad, rolls, and the ice cream pie is in the freezer. My neighbor is bringing a bunny cake.
It's supposed to rain and storm tomorrow--shades of Easters in my Chicago childhood. I had planned to have a mid-afternoon happy hour on the porch but now am uncertain. Hope Jacob and his friend Eva don't have to hunt indoors. Good Friday should be dark and stormy, and Easter should be full of sunlight. But, hey, I'm not in charge of that. All I have to do now is go clean some radishes and make cucumber sticks.
Want to make fromage fort? This "strong cheese" is a recipe from Jacques Pepin, who said his father would use up odd bits of cheese this way. Take those leftover cheeses in your fridge--about a pound--and add three or four garlic cloves, a heaping tsp. coarse black pepper, and a half cup dry white wine. Whir it all in the blender until it's a spread. Serve with crackers. I had quite a bit of romano this time, some cheddar, and something unidentified (maybe manchego). It's really pungent but so good. If you use blue cheese, it's good but changes the character of the whole thing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter musings

It seems self-centered of just plain wrong to say that so much is going right in my world, when there is so much gone awry in the world at large, beginning with the people who lost homes in the Fort Davis and PK Complex fires. It will be years before life returns to normal for some, and small businesses will suffer from the absence of tourism. I pray for strength for all those affected. Someone once wrote that you should pray not for what distresses you but for what distresses God. That can set your mind to wandering the world, from Haiti to Iraq and Lebanon, with Libya and other places in between. Of course I sincerely believe that the Lord is distressed at what our state and national governments are doing--on Capitol Hill, a big issue these days is how green to go. No more paper cups. Crockery anyone, so you can get on with running the government?
But my world, as I said, is good. Wywy, my cat, is eating voraciously, peeing a lot (good sign for a cat with his kidney disease) and pooped today for the first time since he was at the vet (pardon if that's too much information, but I viewed it as a small triumph). He is enjoying life--sat in the middle of my class of women last night and "allowed" them to love on him, sleeps on my bed and, if I'm there too, curls up close to me. Sure, I'm realistic, but it's nice that he's still himself for a while.
Jacob is happily watching TV, having eaten a good dinner and three chocolate cookies. His request for another was denied on the grounds that I don't want him swinging from the ceiling at midnight.
On Easter, Jacob, his parents, and I will go to church, and then I'll cook a mid-day meal for them, Jacob's other grandparents, and my neighbors. We'll have an egg hunt but will miss the noise and fun of all the cousins--one little friend is coming to hunt eggs with Jacob.
I just made an ice cream pie, which Jacob thought looked wonderful. I froze it just a bit and then pressed cookie crumbs and sugared chopped nuts into the top. Proudly called Jacob to look at it, and he asked, "What happened to it?" Oh well, lose some!
I have edits to my mystery to work on, which is fun for me. So yes, it's a good world.
Whatever your faith, may you relish this springtime season of renewal.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An eating adventure

Let me preface this by saying that Betty and I had some of the best food we've had in a long time tonight. But the way there was meandering. I had purchased a Groupon certificate for $40 worth of food for $20 at So7 Bistro, so we decided to go there. We'd been there once before, but tonight we lost it, absolutely couldn't find it. Parked in the garage and walked to where I thought it was only to be confronted by a space undergoing remodeling. After we got back to the car, Betty decided to ignore my instructions (except that I had the address on the certificate). We found it, quite far from where we expected it to be and not, as the address indicated, on 7th Street but on an adjoining street. Parked, went in, and found we were the only people there (about 6:20 p.m.) Not a good sign.
When we were there before, we had a medium experience--a really not bright waitress, okay food but nothing to write home about, and a terrible mix-up about the bill. And I thought the atmosphere was stark. So we were unsure tonight to begin with, although I'd heard they'd lightened the menu and the restaurant had changed hands. The menu made us more unsure: quite limited, although bistro entrees of coq au vin, lamb shanks, veal piccata, etc., all in the $20+ range, sounded good. I mentioned to the waitress that I'd looked at the menu online last week and there was a steak salad we were interested in trying (Don has added steak salad to the Star menu and wants to jazz it up a bit). The waitress said she was new (oops, another bad sign) and if they'd had it, they don't now.
Betty and I usually try to dine lightly and fairly inexpensively. So we looked, as we often do, at the appetizers. Crab cakes called to us, but we confessed to each other neither of us had ever eaten mussels, which were on the menu in a tomato/garlic/basil sauce. We decided to split the crab cakes and mussels, but we didn't hold out too much hope.
Well, we were so wrong. The mussels were delicious because of the sauce--I dipped each tiny one in so much sauce that I dribbled on the table. But I'll eat mussels again. I feel about them the same way I do about calamari--a bit chewy, but the sauce makes them worthwhile. The crab cakes, however, were some of the best I've ever had--served in a basil cream sauce with field greens liberally doused with the same sauce. We liked them so well, we ordered another round. I could have happily eaten a salad with that dressing and nothing else, though the crab cakes were meaty, little if any filling, and just crispy enough. House wine was reasonable and good (I'm not an oenophile!). All in all, a pleasant experience.
So, those of you in Fort Worth, try So7 Bistro (2401 West 7th, but actually around the corner) if you haven't. It's worth exploring to find it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I was explaining to one of my memoir classes the other day about fiction writers being either outliners or pantsers. Outliners have thorough outlines before they ever hit a key on the keyboard; pantsers write by the seat of their pants. I have heard some outliners talk about elaborate charts with post-its so they can move incidents about, detailed lists of physical and emotional traits of characters, a solid knowledge of what will happen in each scene. The trick seems to be to write in terms of scenes, not chapters. That I can understand because I get carried away writing sometimes and forgt to break it up into chapters! But the advantages of this method are clear--the author knows the novel backward and forward before even beginning to write.
It's not that I begin without any outline--I have some rough notes on where the project is going, a general idea of who the victim or victims are, and a vague notion of the killer--sometimes I'm half way through a novel before I decide which of the possible suspects did the evil deed. But what I like about pantsing is that new incidents, scenes and complications occur to me as I write. One thought leads to another--if that characters said that, then maybe this could happen . . . and so it goes. Sometimes it's like I'm not writing it myself but someone is dictating. I've heard more than one successful authors say, "Listen to your characters and they will tell you the story." The biggest proponent of that theory was Elmer Kelton, and he had great success with his methods--albeit backed up by extensive historical research.
When I told my class I was a pantser, a good friend remarked that she was surprised because I tend to be organized, sometimes too much so, about everything from cooking and entertaining to planning my day's schedule.
But I got to thinking about the difference. Melinda, TCU Press production manager, and I used to talk endlessly about right-brain and left-brain. She knows she is left-brained--logical, thinks sequentially, rational, analytical, objective, looks at parts and can put them together. Thus she is wonderful about figuring out computer problems, grasping the overall business picture of an organization, figuring out what the structure of a problem is. She thinks of details that I used to flit right by.
On the other hand, even as director of the press, I tended to act on instinct. Organized, yes--my desk was always clear at the end of the day, queries and phone calls and emails answered, whatever came in taken care of. But throughout my life I've done everything from buying a house to buying a car impulsively. And I acted on impulse or instinct at  the press--a sense of what would sell and what wouldn't, an instinct about what kind of event would work, a subjective sense about things. I used to tell my former boss that God didn't mean me to read spreadsheets, and one day he countered with "Oh yes she did!" Sure, I can read them and grasp what they tell me, but I still followed my instinct. Did I make mistakes? You bet, but I also had some pretty good instincts that brought us some fine books. Melinda never trusted me to proofread--"You're right-brained," she'd say. "You don't have the mind for details." Actually I'm not that bad at proofreading.
Does being a pantser stand me in good stead as an author? Hard to tell at this point--so many of the novels I've written in the past were history, so the "plot" was laid out for me, as it were. But I've written two mysteries I like (and a few others I'm not sure about) and I found that instinct did lead me, telling me where we'll go next. Only publication--coming soon for one--and reader reaction will tell if my method is successful.
So what about you? Right-brained or left? Outliner or pantser. It doesn't just apply to writing folks--it has to do with all life.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Memoirs, edits, and a puny cat

My daytime memoir class met today. Those ladies have the most interesting stories, usually told with a nice bit of humor so that we end up laughing a lot. Today we got sidetracked by long discussions of people who are cat lovers and those who are not. Then of course it veered into dog stories, and I finally brought the discussion back to memoirs. But I think that talking and sharing is as important to the class members as the writing of the memoir, though once again I can see memoirs taking shape in a few people's work. This class doesn't have the repeat rate the evening class does, and I don't really expect many to get very far on a memoir in seven weeks. We'll see what happens.
Tonight I finished the edits on my mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space, and sent it back to the editor. Sign of the changing internet world--she lives in Wales. I think a couple of language differences cropped up between us. Made me laugh. One has to do with plural vs. plural possessive, and the other is the colloquial, "I were you, I wouldn't . . . ." She kept wanting to make it "If I were you," but I told her in conversation, lots of us say, "It were me," etc. It is a good feeling to have that off my desk. I planned to devote all day tomorrow to it, and now it's done. I can read that new issue of Bon Appetit that arrived today!
But tomorrow has a project. My cat is not acting right--not eating much, not pooping much, throwing up a bit tonight The vet said it's time for them to look at him. Another bill I don't need, but I am a tad worried. Wywy will be 19 this spring and seems healthy, but these recent symptoms concern me.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday--and a bit of calm

I went to church today for the first day of Holy Week--and Jacob went with me. He didn't mean to. He wanted to go to day care, but when we got there--late, of course--the room was empty. The four-year-olds had gone to walk into the sanctuary with their palm fronds, which I think Jacob would have been too shy to do anyway. So he went to church with me. He was intrigued when the choir sang and when a children's choir--some his age, I swear--sang. He lasted through the opening hymn, weekly remembrances, welcome and response, pastoral prayer and Lord's prayer--though during the prayers he began to mouth to me that it was time to go. Later I told him when people bowed their heads in prayer, he must be extra quiet. But after the Lord's prayer, we went to the four-year-old class and found them in their classroom, so I slipped back into the service. It was comforting to me to hear the message that Jesus had come to bring us all God's love and forgiveness. I sort of needed that in this week of bad news. On the way home, Jacob told me he really liked the singing, and later when I began to sing something to him he put his hands over his ears. I told him I thought he liked my singing (which is always off-key) and he said he did in church but not at home.
We had an early but pleasant supper on the porch. I made chicken bundles in crescent rolls--you mix chopped, cooked chicken with cream cheese and green onion--and I added salt, pepper, and Worcestershire--and make four bundles out of one package of rolls. Then top with crushed seasoned croutons. Delicious and easy. Jacob even asked if I would make it again. To make sure Christian had enough, I gave him all the leftovers from last night in addition to the chicken bundle and the salad that Jordan made.
Tonight I'm deep into edits of Skeleton in a Dead Space. Hope to get it back to the editor by the end of the week, though with a large Easter dinner looming that's a bit problematical. But I'm enjoying doing it. Easter already? It's hard to believe.
For those of you who follow Holy Week, may you feel the joy and anticipation of this greatest of Christian holidays!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Where in the world are we going?

A quick glance through this morning's newspaper was discouraging--the Texas House okayed that 80 mph speed limit and the Federal House approved a budget plan which targets women's health issues, children, and the elderly, the Wisconsin judge instrumental in cutting workers' rights was re-elected, albeit by a slim margin, the Mexican government has totally lost control of the province of Tamaulipas. Not to mention the Middle East and suicide bombers. Nor the wildfires which are causing unbelievable havoc and destruction in West Texas, with the loss of at least one life. I know predictions of the world going to hell in a handbsket have been around for centuries, but sometimes it seems all too true. I'm tempted to say this is the worst of times, but then I remember medieval times were pretty awful, and the Industrial Revolution was no picnic for the poor. So I guess we plod ahead day by day, which seems a grim way to live life.
Except my life isn't grim at all, and I sometimes feel guilty that I am exempt from the troubles that beset so much of mankind. Wildfires could hit Fort Worth, but it's not likely they could get to the inner city where I live; a tornado could touch down--it happened a few blocks from here but was minor, and I just trust it won't happen again. Most of those I care about won't be adversely affected by the attacks on women's health issues and children's health care, though I may suffer a bit if the Republicans are successful in their cuts of aid to the elderly (how strange to think of myself in that category!). But generally I am isolated from the world's woes--and I am both grateful and puzzled, as though I must do something to help others. I think the piddling amounts I give to charity are drops int he bucket, and I carry a sense of guilt.
Meantime, with all the unhappiness in the world, my life went merrily along today. Chrisitian and I took Jacob to the church Easter egg hunt, which turned out to be a non-event. We expeced a carnival-like atmosphere, but instead we sat on our blanket, isolated, eating our sandwiches. The people I know are too old to be there, and Jordan and Christian haven't joined a Sunday school group so there was no one Christian or Jacob knew. And no one came to speak to us, though I noticed a Hispanic family, who wandered tentatively in and did talk to us for a moment, was warmly welcomed. Ah, diversity! The egg-hunt, when it happened, was another non-event. Jacob decided he was too shy to hunt eggs. We went home.
Tonight Weldon and Elizabeth came for a b'dy dinner for Elizabeth--tomorrow's the day. We had great fun talking on the porch, grilling chicken, and visiting. I grilled chicken thighs, marinated in a bit of lime juice and salt, and served with a tomatillo salsa--really good. Accompanied by a pinto bean ragout and a gluten- and dairy-free coleslaw. Elizabeth brought gluten-free cupcakes for dessert, though I declined. We really had a good visit and a good time, though Jacob was in a bit of a "Look at me!" show off mood. We ignored him as much as possible.
So here I am in my smug, comfortable, happy world, while the larger world seems a shambles around me. I know no one person can solve it--if Barack Obama can't, I certainly can't--but it remains a quandry for me. Perhaps Palm Sunday services will help me tomorrow.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A day at a middle school

This is sort of how I spent my day. I spoke to three groups of 7th graders at Kerr Middle School in Burleson, Texas, today--and my hat is off to all middle school teachers, most of all mydaughter-in-law Lisa who is in the trenches every day. The kids were, for the most part, polite, engaged and a delight. Oh yeah, there was always an undertone of conversation buzzing around, but the teachers were really in control. A few students got pulled from the sessions, others got reprimanded--they had to sit up (no lying on the floor) and pay attention and, most of all, button their lips. I was talking about my y/a historical novel, Sam Houston is My Hero. Seventh-grade students study Texas history so they knew all about Sam Houston and the Runaway Scrape, which made it easier. As I always do, I tried to let them teach the class. I gve them the basic facts of a story I had started with--a young girl, age 12, who rode across Austin's Colony after the fall of the Alamo (where her father died) telling men they had to join Houston and fight for Texas. It's a scrap of history based on little more than hearsay but I thought it made a good story. After having talked to the students about what they were reading and writing, I challenged them to take those bare facts and write three or four sentences about how they would have completed the story (that's what they're doing in the picture). Their answers included paranormal elements, zombies, and all kinds of fanciful things. Then I told them why I did what I did, how I submitted the book for publication, what the publication process it, etc. And then we were into a discussion of publishing. Each of the three groups had a personality of its own--questions were plentiful in some, like pulling teeth in others. Thank heaven for teachers who jumped in with questions of their own. But some of the youngsters asked really thoughtful questions, and only one asked about the money I make. I always welcome a chance to tell them authors are NOT rich, at least most of them. I asked what they were reading and of course it was Harry Potter, the Hunger Games (actually required reading in 8th grade), and Stephanie Meyer. They are not into history, although one teacher told me she heard a girl say, "I'm going to read that book." Hey, success!
The assistant to the city director shepherded me all day, picking me up, taking me for lunch, bringing me home. Kellye is a delightful and most accomplish young woman with lots of repsonsibiities. We had a good visit, and I hope to keep in touch with her--but you know how those things go.
I had given up speaking in public because it made me nervous, but lately I've been dipping my toe in again. Thanks to Jim Lee, who always told me he didn't know why I got nervous because I did a good job at it. So today was another exercise  in stretching my boundaries--and I felt good about it.
But, boy, was I tired when I came home. I started checking the 96 emails I had waiting and literally caught myself falling asleep over my computer. A two-hour nap refreshed me some, but I will be early to bed tonight. Lisa, how do you do it (other than being a lot younger than I am!)?
Tonight I'm piddling--Facebook, Twitter, emals, reading the last of this morning's paper. Nope, no great American novel today--once again, life gets in the way.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Life gets in the way

My youngest grandson, Kegan David Alter, when he opened
the package of Star Wars figures I sent for his birthday. That is life at its best.
I did not work on the great American novel at all today--or yesterday. My excuse is that life gets in the way. Too many things to do. Today it was errands, menu planning for a friend's b'day dinner this weekend (a challenge since she and her husband are gluten- and dairy-free) and for Easter, when I think there will be nine of us. Menu planning is one of the joys of my life--it's like cooking in anticipation, and I relish it. I won't detail here but will report if some of my experimental recipes turn out well--liked naked (no tortilla) chicken tacos with tomatillo sauce, or vinegar-based coleslaw. I went by the office, then to CVS to buy plastic eggs and jelly beans (and ended up spending $45--how does one do that for plastic eggs and jelly beans?). Then off to buy a pair of canvas shoes to wear around the house--threw the old ones away with great ceremony. They were down to their last threads, the soles worn through in places, and they smelled bad. Also bought myself a pair of Easy Spirit walking shoes.
Tonight Easter has claimed my attention--spent a good while filling 36 large plastic eggs with jelly beans to drop off at the church for Saturday's egg hunt. Christian and I will be taking Jacob, along with a picnic lunch. Then I got small--really small--Easter packages ready for the out-of-town grandchildren, a b'day present for Lisa, and cards for various other people. I think that all was the $45 but I now have a lifetime supply of unwrinkled tissue paper. I don't know about you, but I save it and when I pull it out of the bag to use in a gift, it's so wrinkled I'm embarrassed. Got lovely pastel shades today.
Last night's program on Elmer Kelton for the Burleson Mayor's Club was a success but with a glitch. I reviewed Elmer's life and accomplishments for the audience of about 50, stressing the way being the son and grandson of working cowboys and then an agricultural journalist had shaped his approach to the people of West Texas and the land. Jim Lee took over to lead a discussion of The Time It Never Rained--only nobody discussed and the poor man worked really hard for 30 minutes. I maintain it was because the facility--the Burleson campus of Hill and Texas Wesleyan colleges--is in a former church building, and the lecture hall was the sanctuary. There we were with soaring beamed ceilings, beautiful stained glass, church pews--who discusses in church?
I'm hoping for a better outcome tomorrow when I talk to three junior high groups at a Burleson school about my novel, Sam Houston is My Hero. But I know from my oldest granddaughter, kids her age aren't into history--they're reading The Hunger Games and Stephanie Meyer (two of the books most often challenged on censoring lists). As Maddie's mom once told me, if I could make Texas history into a vampire story with paranormal elements and love gone awry, she'd be all over it. I keep telling myself I'll pretend I'm talking to Maddie. I emailed her for advice--shoot, I even need wardrobe advice so they won't think I'm an old lady (which I am)--but she hasn't come up with anything. Tomorrow will be a long day but, I hope, a pleasant one.
And then maybe I'll get back to writing--but wait, there's the Easter egg hunt Saturday and Saturday night's dinner to cook . . . .

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Elmer Kelton

Raise  your hand if you've read a book by Elmer Kelton. Raise both hands if you've read The Time It Never Rained. That novel was the choice this year for the Mayor's Book Club in Burleson, a city adjoining Fort Worth, and Jim Lee and I presented a program tonight. Elmer, who died in 2009, was a Texas treasure, a man who wrote novels about the American West that weren't westerns. And The Time It Never Rained has been called one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in the twentieth century.
Elmer was ranch born and raised but he was a bookish child with poor eyesight, and he never made a hand. HIs younger brothers could rope much better. His idea of watching the herd was to keep one eye on the cattle and the other on the book he'd propped up in his saddle. As he neared high school graduation, he told his father he wanted to study journalism, and in his words his father gave him a look "that could have killed Johnson grass" and said, "That's the trouble with you kids. You don't want to work for a living." Elmer studied at UT, his education interrupted by WWII, from which he brought home an Austrian bride and her son. He began publishing in Ranch Romances, a popular magazine, and then writing pulp, formulaic novels for Ballentine Books. In the 1970s he broke out of the stereotype with The Day the Cowboys Quit, a novel about the cowboy strike at Tascosa in the 1880s. As in all of Elmer's books, the research behind the story was thorough and impeccable. Other major novels during the 1970s included Stand Proud, The Man Who Rode Midnight, The Wolf and the Buffalo, The Good Old Boys, and, of course, The Time It Never Rained, all published by Doubleday.
For forty years, while writing novels, Elmer worked as an agricultural journalist, most of those years as editor of Livestock Weekly, the weekly bible for West Texas ranchers. He traveled to auctions and sat in coffee shops and absorbed the people and the land. It was his country, and he spoke their language. He said once he wrote Time because it became harder and harder to write a story about the drought. There were only so many ways he could say, "It isn't raining." He wrote the novel but New York publishers rejected as a quiet agrarian novel; in the early 1970s, he rewrote it completely and it was published.
Elmer liked to put characters in a time of change and see how they react. In Time, Charlie Flagg, a rancher getting on in years, sees change all around him. The seven-year-drought of the 1950s causes him to sell his cattle and raise sheep; then sell his sheep and raise goats. He loses his leased land and has to take a mortgage on what he owned free and clear. Others are taking government aid, but Charlie refuses. He had always been the patron, but relationships between Anglos and Mexicans are changing. His son leaves the ranch for the rodeo circuit, marries a floozy from Dallas. The fire has gone out of Charlie's own marriage. And yet he clings to what he knows is right; he plods ahead day by dogged day. This is a story of West Texas and the kind of people who survived in that dry, unforgiving, and unpredictable land, the land that Elmer knew so well. No spoilers here except to say that Elmer didn't believe in tying things up in neat little packages. That's not, he explained to me once, how life happens.
If you haven't read Time, maybe you saw the Tommy Lee Jones movie of The Good Old Boys. That book too is a good place to start dipping into Elmer's sixty-plus novels. TCU Press has reprint editions of many of the major ones (1.800.826.8911 or
Elmer Kelton died in August 2009. I miss him still. There's not a book festival, historical meeting, or literary gathering where I don't still expect to see him. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a world without Elmer. In tribute to that feeling, Jim Lee and I edited Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories, now available from TCU Press. Elmer was one fine writer and one great and humble man.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Fires, memoirs, and a new favorite saying

Authors are always told that the best way of selling books is word-of-mouth. Someone reads your book, likes it, and recommends it and so the network spreads. But it's an elusive thing. Shelf Awareness, a daily online report for booksellers, had a wonderful definition today. Word of mouth is the marriage of enthusiasm and anxiety. I'm adopting that as one of my favorite sayings.
I just read the Facebook page on the Fort Davis fire--heard yesterday from an author there who wanted to let friends and family know that he and his wife and their home are okay but friends on the east side of town lost their homes. There's something mystical/magical about being from that part of the state. The support and offers of donations, from clothes to horse feed, are amazing, as are the inquiries about specific individuals and areas. It's as if everyone in that Fort Davis/Alpine/Marathon triangle knows everyone else. It reinforces my positive feelings about Texas, just when they were having a bit of a hard time in view of the fact that we can now shoot feral hogs from helicopters--what happens when some gun-crazed idiot shoots a person by mistake? And soon we will be able to drive 85 mph on our highways because "Texans have a lot of ground to cover." I rarely admit President Nixon did much good, but he instituted the 55 mph speed limit that saved not only money but lives. Texas will shortly be the state with the highest speed limit in the nation. Such a distinction! And while on the subject of politics, the Facebook Fort Davis fires page says the governor and his office have been noticeably silent and absent from their tragedy.
Memoir class at TCU Human Resources today. In the past this class has been difficult--it's hard to take an hour out of your work day, switch gears and think memoir instead of work. But we had a delightful, hilarious time today. When we prodded the three who presented, stories behind their stories came pouring out. They'd written the surface, and I think they see the difference now. One participant was reluctant to reveal some of the negatives in her family story, but I insisted that if you don't write it all as it happened history will be whitewashed. Not a good thing. We laughed, we joked, we had a good time and yet I think we got serious work done. I came away feeling good about the class. (Oops, I started to write very good--after I just lectured them today about very being a weak intensifier that means nothing!)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unabashedly a family weekend memoir

This weekend my oldest granddaughter, Maddie (soon to be 12) had two lead singing roles in the "Wicked"--she was the wicked witch--parts of a musical review at her middle school--and one walk-on part of the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz section. She did beautifully of course, her voice strong and clear and sure--she has a wonderful sense of pitch and rhythm (she did not get those from her grandmother!). The fact that she was always the witch did not cast her in becoming costumes, but she overcame that with her poise and innate self confidence. And her sister Edie and cousin Jacob were overcome with happiness (as were the adult members of the family).
Jordan, Jacob and I had a wonderful visit with the Frisco Alters--they are always so good about taking us interesting places to eat. We had lunch Saturday at P. F. Chang's (Maddie's request, honored since she was the star). All loved it except Jacob who wasn't sure. The picture is the kids at the foot of the huge casting of a horse in front of the restaurant.
Saturday night after the play Maddie went off to a cast party--listening to her tell tween stories of boys and girls at breakfast this morning was priceless. But the rest of us came home, sat around the kitchen drinking wine, eating pizza (I ate salad righteously), telling old stories and repeating new gossip. We were joined for the play and after-play kitchen party by Rob and Lara--longtime friends. Jordan and Rob were in high school together, and he now works for Jamie--smll world. Lots of hilarity until I finally decided I had to go to bed.
Today we had brunch at the Original Pancake House in Frisco--a lengthy affair to wait for a table for seven, then wait for Dutch babies, but it was good. The wait was made much more tolerable by a balloon artist, and Jacob and Edie got balloon figures. Jacob asked for Elmo and was delighted with the result. But when Edie said she didn't know what she wanted, her mom asked the man if he could make a violin. I thought he was going to say, no, that was beyond his list, but he smiled and said he sure could. The resulting picture shows Edie (also known as Beastie) playing her balloon violin. She has recently started taking violin lessons and has a half-size violin. She looked impressed when I told her I started--back in ancient times--on a quarter-size instrument. But I had neither the ear nor the patience for violin, did better at piano, though I can do neither with any grace now. Edie has the discipline to stick with it.
We came home after brunch, savoring memories of a wonderful weekend. Jacob came home with me while Jordan went out with friends. I caught up with my computer, read the newspaper, unpacked, got in a nap, and fixed dinner. Whew! Jacob sweetly watched TV while I napped but then went to play with Abby next door while I cooked meatloaf (he hated it) and roasted potatoes--he thought those were okay if you put ketchup on them. Jordan, Christian, Jacob and I ate on the porch--lovely evening.
A sweet family weekend to treasure. Tomorrow back to work--a meeting, a class, and a presentation to prepare for. Retirement? Phooey!

Friday, April 08, 2011

Blatantly political

Sorry, folks, but politics is too much on my mind tonight. So is indignation. I listened to a most informative Diane Rehm program this morning. The general impression I got was that the Republicans are going to shut down the government as sort of an advertising gimmick, preparation for the 2012 budget. A Republican legislator has already drafted that budget which will, in the words of one commentator, take us back to the days before LBJ's Great Society, even before FDR's New Deal. Ummm, wasn't that the Depression? And it has nothing to do with Planned Parenthood. The Republicans are using that as a weapon so they can shut down the government and blame the President. According to what I've heard and read, it's a risky tactic that may well backfire on them as closing the government did in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich and his buddies shut down the government. President Clinton gained stature in that one. May the same thing happen again.
That the Republicans are willing to shut down the government, sending military forces and government employees on forced leave, closing down everything from the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian as a grandstand move is beyond comprehension. And yet members of Congress will not be affected--they'll get their payhecks. It' time to reform Congress and the rules by which it governs itself.
To me it's also beyond comprehension that Republicans are so concerned about the life of a fetus but then so willing to abandon children once they're born. So far, they've targeted women, children, the elderly, the disabled, and the military. But never corporations. It does not make one proud to be an American.
I am hearing rumors--TV, Twitter, etc.--that many leading Repubilcans, including Governor Mike Huckabee, have urged Rep. Boehmer to let it go. Planned Parenthood, according to Huckabee, is an infintestimal issue. Some predict a compromise before midnight, but I'm not sure. I hope I'm wrong, but I think having gone this far, Rep. Boehmer is not going to turn back. It will be on his watch--and his conscience--and may the voters realize that next time they go to the polls.
I''m watching an Army wife in Germany who says her family will suffer if that have to go one week without a paycheck. "It makes no sense to me," she says. "What are they fighting about?" What, indeed? Egos? Power?
Apparently no one expects the shutdown to last past the weekend--it is after all for show and absolutely meaningless. Kudos to President Obama and Senator Reid for not being bullied.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Back to work

Today was the day I marked to get back to work on my novel-in-progress, No Neighborhood for Old Women. I started the day with wonderful intentions, got up early, had a blank calendar. By the time I answered emails, read Facebook and Twitter and the newspaper, made the bed, did a laundry, watered the plants, did my yoga and showered, the morning was gone.
After lunch, I went through the entire manuscript and keyed in answers to the questions that a critique partner asked. I figure if they stumped or bothered her as a reader, they would bother others. It wasn't too much work, except that I'd get mixed up between the copy with her questions and my own working copy and have to back up. But her suggestions were most helpful, so a big shout out to Mary Haywood, who has a good novel of her own under way. I also read back through my folder of notes--it's not one-fourth as thick as my folder on the first novel. I'm not sure if that's a bad sign or good. But I found a couple of early ideas that I'd had and discarded--and now I'm cogitating on them again.
But the big thing to me was that it felt like coming home. I was among familiar people that I knew and liked and cared about. Yeah, I know--they're my creation. But they really have taken on a life of their own, and I think that's a good sign. Once started, I am to keep at it as much as possible. But of course tomorrow the post office and the grocery store beckon, and I have a class at night.
Betty and I ate at Uncle Julio's tonight--I love their crispy beef tacos and guacamole. The restaurant has a sentimental charm for me. Colin tended bar there for so long I feared he would make it his profession (he's now an accoutant for five upscale golf courses). I clearly remember one night when Megan, Brandon, and I sat at the far side of the waiting area. Suddenly an ice cube landed in my glass of wine. I looked at the bar to see Colin grinning. He had thrown it quite a distance with unerring accuracy. I was impressed. I was also impressed always by the fact that since my son worked there, I had to tip generously. Since all my kids worked their way through school in restaurants, that was the case in a lot of places I ate. I haven't eaten in Julio's in a while, and it was good to be back there. I resisted but Betty succumbed to the chicken enchiladas with sour cream sauce.
I have to go back to my friends in No Neighborhood now. G'night.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Appetizers and haggis

My daughter Jordan had a happy hour party for her girlfriends on her patio tonight and kindly invited Betty and me. Betty worried about her hairdo after a day of gardening, but I assured her the girls would never notice us old ladies. Everyone brings an appetizer--and there were some delicious things. Artichoke dip, cold cuts and cheese, a stunning vegetable tray, a casserole thing with tomato sauce over the top, a shrimp and pasta dip. We ate heartily--more than enough for dinner. Appetizers are, to me, a satisfying meal. I like a taste of this and a taste of that.
The other night I watched one of those chef face-offs on Food Network. This wasn't Iron Chef but a show called Chopped. Contestants, all established chefs, were given a basket of ingredients for each of three courses--appetizer, entree, and dessert. The requirement was that within 30 minutes they create a dish using all ingredients. The appetizer basket contained two items I remember clearly--some kind of fruity cereal loops (like Fruit Loops only not) and canned haggis. Robert Irwin, raised in England, knew about haggis though he balked at the fruit loops; Anne Burrell complained that it smelled like dog food. But they were innovative, making haggis pate and haggis patties, etc.
Haggis, in case you don't know, is a traditional Scottish dish, often piped in with great ceremony. Even Scots either love it or hate it. It basically consists of organ meats--liver, heart, lungs--mixed with spices and oatmeal--the steel-cut kind, not Quaker rolled oats) and baked inside a sheep stomach. I have tasted it--once, at a St. Andrew's dinner--and while it wasn't awful, I wasn't ready for seconds.
But I've heard that haggis, made fresh in Scotland, is a whole different thing and quite good. Hmmm--am I ready for that? If it comes in small servings, I'll probably try a bit. I know my kids won't touch it. What I'm really hoping to find in Scotland is kidneys and bacon for breakfast. Wonder if they have ketchup?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Front porches and a bit of trivia

Brrrr! It was cold in North Texas this morning. We've been spoiled by days in the upper 80s, after a real cold spell. Last night guests and I ate on the porch and enjoyed the balmy temperatures. Gale-force winds (well, almost) were blowing but the porch is open to a breeze but sheltered from the strong winds by the house next door. I love the openness of the porch, the chance to stare at all the old trees that line my street, and the opportunity to exchange greetings with neighbors.
When I was a kid on the South Side of Chicago we had a screened-in porch. It was wooden, an obvious addition to the house, in contrast to my concrete-and-brick porch that was clearly built as part of the house. But we lived on that screened-in porch all summer--ate three meals a day there (as I recall on a card table--fancy we weren't). On hot nights, Mom and I slept out there, she on the porch swing and me on a cot. She had  rigged a waist-high curtain so that no one would know I was sleeping practically on the sidewalk, and I was always cautioned not to talk when we heard people go by. After all this was Hyde Park on the South Side--in the 1950s a changing neighborhood. My aunt who lived two doors down had her purse snatched as she got out of the car one night--laugh was the robber got her Bible. She always said she hoped he read it. But caution was warranted, and we were cautious. That's another nice thing about my porch here in Fort Worth--I feel safe openly entertaining guests and eating out there. No, I'm not about to sleep there, but I have fond memories of those hot sticky nights in Chicago (before a/c) when we took advantage of every breeze.
Milestone day: I got a check from Amazon for sales of the books I've posted. Not a big check, mind you--it might buy me a fancier lunch than I usually get but that's all. But still it was a nice surprise and spurs me on to pursue the rights to some of the rest of my novels so I can post them. They say the more books you have on Amazon and Smashwords, the more your sales increase. And "they" say you make more money selling a novel at 99 cents than at $2.99, though I haven't yet figured out how to get Kindle to accept that lower price.
And an adventure I'm proud of: I went to the Star Cafe tonight, by myself, to a political fund-raiser. I don't much like to drive to the North Side alone, and I sure don't like to go to cocktail parties where I don't know anybody. But I wanted to support Betty and Don who were giving this fund-raiser, so I geared myself up, went, found people I knew, had some wine, and talked politics--came away with new knowledge and a new idea about who to vote for as mayor. Former mayor Ken Barr was there, and he seconded Jim Lane's words that the city doesn't need a mayor who needs "on-the-job training." A bonus: I came home with dinner rolls and tenderloin in my purse. So I feel good that I supported Betty and Don, I stretched the edges of my circle, and I had a good dinner. Win, win!

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Grace--or a good rant?

Squirrel bulletin: this is my new super-duper bird feeder. It has spring-loaded perches--a bird's weight doesn't do anything, but a squirrel's weight closes them down. I put it up this morning, and at first I saw neither birds nor squirrels, but by afternoon I saw a brave bird eating; when another bird came along, he'd chase it away--there are plenty of perches, for pete's sake! They are really mean and squabbling little creatures. Several were fluttering around and chirping; even the papa cardinal flitted by a few times. I suppose they'll get used to it. One squirrel got on it and prowled up and down, never did get any seed that I could tell--and I stood inside and watched. It occurred to me if he went at it upside down he might get some--here's hoping he doesn't figure it out.
Last night I read a blog about grace, that quality that is bred into southern girls. Now, being a northerner, I could beg off, except that I know my mom tried hard to teach me about grace, with such sayings as "You catch more flies with a teaspoon of sugar than a cup of vinegar." It's a lesson I've learned to a certain degree. Grace is about turning the other cheek, meeting an insult with a smile, being above the fray. I'm sure it makes you look the better person, but sometimes it surely is hard. The woman who wrote the blog got a cancer diagnosis and a pink slip from  her employer in the same day and yet she managed apparently to handle them with grace. What she wasn't able to handle so easily was counseling her young daughter on how to handle insults.
Sometimes a rant is good for the soul. I let loose with a rant (mild) at someone near and dear to me yesterday. I felt better, but I don't know about the recipient. Still, I'd been carrying the burden of my hurt with me for several days--as my kids would tease me, "My nose was out of joint." So I unburdened myself. I think if I'd relied on grace, I'd still be carrying that burden--not good for my soul. And sometimes those things you want to rant about and don't get buried deep and come back to bite when you least expect them. The trouble with a rant is that you never know if it's justified or if you're being petulant and you can end up feeling guilty for petulance.
My conclusion: grace most of the time, but an occasional rant if you're sure it's justified and the object of your rant will listen. What's your thought on grace or a rant?
Went to a wrap-up party tonight for the highly successful poetry symposium at TCU, featuring Billy Collins, former poet laureate of the United States and a poet with many books to his credit. I went with my friend Mary Volcansek--we joked about being dates, but neither of us really wanted to go alone. To my delight there were several people there I wanted to say hello to, and I met some new faces, including the writer Alex Lemon who recently made a good splash with a memoir. He's on the TCU faculty and I'd heard a lot about him but never met him--liked him a lot. So it was fun. Mary and I stayed an hour and left--just enough time to greet the people I wanted to but not so long that I hung around wondering who I should talk to next. And it was good to get dressed up (well, sort of) on a Saturday night and go out.

Friday, April 01, 2011

April Fools and Ancestors

Several funny April Fool's Day jokes. One committed liberal announced on Facebook that she was becoming a conservative Republican, and my first thought, "Dear heaven, why?" It was April Fool's joke. But the best one came from the U.S.Army. Army officials announced a new look for the military--they were replacing all headgear (berets, etc.) with Stetsons, harking back to the glory days of the Old West. Now I admit the Stetson is a good looking hat and the one with crossed rifles that they showed was handsome. But of course I thought, "What? In this economy, they're wasting money on new hats for everybody." Then Brian Williams said NBC News found out they'd been had. The Army has a sense of humor.
I remember the days of greased door knobs and other tricks when my kids were teenagers. If you know my children,  you can guess which one was the primary culprit--he's still a trickster today. Sometimes I wish I was clever about thinking up things like that, but I'm not. I have had several emails today that clearly said, "This is not an April Fool's joke."
Spent some time with today. Jeannie came over, we had lunch on the porch (pimiento sandwiches with just a bit of cayenne--so good! and such a beautiful day! 89 this afternoon) and then played on the computer. She is much more patient than I am, but then she does needlepoint, something I would never have the patience for. I remember two people my dad talked about--Eric McBain, who I found today, was Dad's cousin. But I can't find Norma Hodgson. Until maybe last Christmas I heard from her every year--now I wish I knew the connection. I also want to find my great-aunt Carrie--I remember holding her hand and going to the five-and-dime where she always bought me a treat. I did send out some emails, hoping for leads on getting beyond William McBain who was born in Scotland and died in Canada. I think maybe I found his parents, but I can't be sure. There are more McBains in this country than I ever thought of. I told Jeannie I'd look the name up in the Inverness phone book, and she laughed and asked, "Do you know how many you'll find?" I guess she's right. Wish I'd come across someone who's already done this and would share the knowledge--Jeannie enjoys the process; I just want the answers.