Saturday, March 31, 2012

The power of power

This morning I woke to that absolute quiet that only a house without electricity has. None of the noises that you aren't aware of until you don't hear them--the hum of the refrigerator, the slight roar of the hot water heater, the happy sound of the alarm system clicking off. Theere's something stagnant about a house without power. It was also a dull, cloudy morning. I took care of the dogs--in and out twice for Sophie who couldn't make up her mind--and went back to bed. But I thought about all the things I could do without power--make potato salad, yoga, read the paper, check email on my phone which was forutnately charged. My big worry was the crockpot of barbecue I'd been letting cook all night--and one of the things I missed when I woke was the smell of it. Turns out the power had only been out about ten minutes--I checked with neighbors. Then it was all over the neighborhood e-mail "Buzz" about what happened: at least one car had struck the utility pole at a major intersection a block away. One story said two cars were racing--at 7:15 in the morning? Please!
I survived, cutting up celery, onion, and potatoes (pre-cooked thank goodness--I learned this trick about cooking them ahead so they're easy to peel, although some recipes call for warm potatoes to soak up the dressing). Made the dressing and dumped it all in--it's been my diet downfall the rest of the day. I love potato salad and this particular recipe--you can find it online if you search for County Line Potato Salad. I timed my trips to the refrigerator carefully--getting everything I needed at one time so I didn't open and shut a lot. Made tuna for my lunch. Opened the refrigerator and shoved everything in, including the bbq which had cooled to warm by now. Just then the power came on--The first clue was not lights but sounds--a beep from my computer, the printer waking itself up. At the same time the sun came out. I decided thanks was due to God and Oncor, more much more to the former.
I took the bbq back out of the fridge, cooked it some more, did my yoga, read the paper, and was ready to collapse. But I still had to shred the cooked meat, cook down the liquid from the crockpot and add the saved-back sauce. Got it all done and took a  long nap.
Tonight Jacob is as tired as I am. He had a baseball game followed by a b'day party. I picked up a sweaty, dirty little boy who refuses to take a shower--we'll revisit that in the morning. He turned down a trip to one of his favorite restaurants in favor of chicken nuggets and TV and is now, about 8:30, eating a peanut butter-and-honey sandwich. We'll both be early to bed tonight.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ah, domesticity!

Sometimes I get in the mood for a domestic day--and today was it. Trips to two grocery stores this morning, although of course I already have a list of what I didn't get, and cooking tonight. For a while I was out of the cooking mood, but I'm back in it.
Guess the grocery store wore me out because I came too close for comfort to sleeping past time to get Jacob. Came awake with a start--I'd turned off the alarm twenty minutes earlier--and flew into cotton knit pants and a T-shirt, the outfit Jacob calls my "jammies." I asked him if he was embarrassed, and he said yes. Thank  you, Jacob. No one else seemed to notice. Nor did they notice that I was almost stumbling because I'd been so sound asleep--one of those dreams where you're two layers down into dreams. Fortunately he was far from the last child left on the playground.
Nice surprise for him: Meredith, my next-door neighbor, took Jacob and her two (Abby, four, and Grayson, one) to ride the park train--brave girl. I told Jacob to mind Meredith, which I knew he would, but forgot to tell him to watch out for Abby. No need. Meredith said at the first bridge, he threw his arm across her and said, "I have to hold on to you just in case." Obviously, Abby thinks he's a hero, as shown in this picture.

Jacob and his daddy had supper with me on the porch--that pork roast bits I wrote about in Potluck with Judy ( The salad was special--first greens from my gutter garden. Jacob, predictably, did not like the meat. But Christian and I lingered over wine on the porch and had a nice visit while Jacob captured roly-polys and created a home for them in an ice cream cup.
It was late when I started to fix bbq--but it's all cooking merrily away in the crockpot now. After going to all the trouble to make the sauce--and it is a bit of trouble--I nearly forgot to turn the crockpot on. It was plugged in, wasn't it? What more does it need? Potatoes are cooked, and tomorrow I'll finish up the bbq and make potato salad--all for neighbor Jay's b'day dinner Sunday night. I am so glad to be back in a cooking mood.
Monday I'm fixing a strange chicken salad for Elizabeth--we're going to work on her memoir. But since she's gluten free I thought to just fix a big tossed salad with a vinaigrette--until I found this on Pinterest: chicken, lime juice, salt, cilantro, and garlic. Think I'll add some scallions, since I have them in my garden. Or maybe serve the scallions separately, with salt to dip them in. I remember that from my childhood. So good when they're fresh out of the ground--or, in this case, the gutter.
And then it's on to Easter dinner--the $8,000 leg of lamb with a gratin of potatoes, onions, and tomatoes. But more about that later.
I'm taking a vacation from writing--and from my conscience. Such fun!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

My green world and other thoughts

In the spring my porch feels lik a tree house, surrounded by all the lovely light green of new leaves. I often take a book and a glass of wine out there but forget the book in enjoying the surroundings--except for the occasional noisy car that goes way too fast down our street. This weekend I'll make my annual purchase of fountain grass for a large pot in on corner of the porch and sweet potato vines to replace the pansies. I have one pot that doesn't get sun and have to figure out what to do with it, but the herbs are doing well. Oregano, left on its own, will take over. Today I transplanted the basil a friend brought me some time ago from the greenhouse window to a larger pot on the porch. And my chives, still growing from a plant purchased years ago, are flourishing. Wondering what other herbs I want.
Today was a productive day. I've been saying all along that the fourth Kelly O'Connell Mystery will be out in 2013 but is not written, barely imagined, and has no title. The managing editor at Turquoise Morning Press reminded me I had to submit a proposal--or at least a synopsis--so I could get a slot and a contract. Went back to my notes, and oh joy! Found two different plot lines using the device I knew the book would center around. One sounded much better to me, and I wrote a 750-word proposal and got it off to my editor.
Then Christian and I had a brief email exchange about marketing the books to realtors, since Kelly O'Connell is a realtor. He said hed been talking to an agent friend about that, and maybe a news release. so I wrote a release directed at realtors. May do some blatant promotion along that line on Facebook. Cleaned odds and ends off my desk and am ready to get back to the chili book. I feel like I'm always "getting back" to the chili book.
I got to thinking about pleasure reading. It used to be that if a mystery grabbed me, I could read it in two days. Now it takes me two weeks, beause so much else seems to distract me. Yes, writing--but Facebook, Pinterest, cooking magazines, dogs, children, friends. I am so fortunate.
Jacob and I did home work, as we do almost every afternoon. The line that rings in my ears: "Juju, you don't understand." Right, Jacob, I don't understand kindergarten home work--do you?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

This business of writing

Don't know that I have my thoughts organized on this, but I've been thinking about it for quite some time. I follow several writers' listservs. A theme on many is that you have to treat your writing as a business. Yet, I'm amazed at some writers, particularly those who manage their on backlist as ebooks and those who publish independently. Amazed, awed, but stymied. They track sales daily, they compare their sales to comparable books, they experiment with different digital prices--free, ninety-nine cents, when to raise, when to lower. Many of them are constantly at war with diffrent e-platforms, though most often Amazon, and they agonize over writing letters of complaint, getting action in lowering, raising prices, whatever they want. Writing is indeed a business, and they micromanage it--but when do they have time to write?
A big controversy wages these days over the Kindle Select program, whereby an author can agree to post a new book digitally only on Kindle for 90 days; in return you get five days in which you can give the book away free. Some give close to 20,000--sorry but it hurts my Scottish soul to give all that away. On the other hand, give-aways boost your ranking on Amazon (something I don't pay attention to, unfortunately), and many authors report a boost in sales of all their books after the free promotion. There's also something about certain high-level Kindle patrons can "borrow" books and the author gets a small payment. I don't understand this, and from what I read it doesn't end up profiting the author. Some authors praise the KDP Select program to the high heavens, but lately more are bitterly complaining.
My new novel, No Neighborhood for Old Women, comes out as an e-book April 8, and I had at first thought to rush headlong into the Select program but now I'm undecided. My publisher, wisely, leaves the decision up to me. If whatever decision goes amuck, I have no one to blame but myself.
I appreciated a post today where the author said she isn't really very good at marketing, and she wants to stay home and write. That's one big reason I sought out a small press--and let me tell you again how happy I am with Turquoise Morning--and another reason that I am having ePub scan, prepare and post two of my older titles--Libbie and Sundance, Butch, and Me. For a small percent of royalties they will handle the business details. I can move ahead with my writing.
I do have one free short story, a short story collection, and an award-winning novel up on various platforms as e-publications that I manage. But I'm lazy or lackadaisacal about it. I don't check in on them very often. Today when I did, I was surprised to find that one platform told me I had only two items; logged in again, changed whatever, and found all three. But another time when I logged in, I found only one--Skeleton in a Dead Space. Eventually I discovered that I have two sites on Smashwords (an umbrella posting service that posts books to a variety of platforms except Kindle)--one for me, one for Turquoise Morning. That seems self-defeating--I want readers to be able to find all my books with one click. The TMP publisher is going to see about merging them, and then I'll have to deal with getting the ePub books merged into the site also.
What happened to the good old days when you wrote a book, sent it to an agent or a publisher, and went on to the next book? I recognize that in many ways a bright new world is dawning for writers with the rising acceptance of self-publishing and the growth of e-books, but the business end baffles me. I also recognize that as a retiree who appreciates the extra income but is not dependent on it, I'm in a fortunate position. But I retired because I managed a publishing business and was tired, tired, tired of spread sheets, unit costs, profit margins, and all that. I retired so I could write--and so far, it's working well. One book in 2011, two in 2012, and two scheduled for 2013. Give me publishers any day.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The mystery surrounding Etta Place

There she is--Etta Place, the mysterious and beautiful woman who was The Sundance Kid's Lover, the woman who rode and robbed banks with the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, the woman who mysteriously disappeared after the infamous shootout in Mexico that killed Sundance and, so everyone thought for a long time, Butch Cassidy. Here, she graces the cover of the reissue of my 2002 novel, soon to be available as an e-book.
No one knows where she came from, though rumor has it Sundance found her at Fannie Porters's "gentlemen's parlor" in San Antonio. I was free to make up my own version of how she got there, and I did. I also told the story of the inseparable relationship between Sundance, Butch and Etta in her voice--as I chose to interpret it. No one knows what happened to Etta after the shootout. One story is that she disappeared into South America; another that she died in a Denver hospital of appendicitis; but a third has her living and running a respectable boarding house in Fort Worth. Since I'm in Fort Worth and I once knew a man who swore he remembered being introduced to her as a very young boy, that's the story I chose to go with.
The cover to the published version of this book distressed me. It looked like a generic western, with men riding away from a train, while shooting back in that direction. Where, I asked, is Etta? One of the major points about her story and this book is that a woman rode on those train and bank robberies. The reply was that I already had an audience among women and they wanted to draw men to my book. I don't remember that it was a hugely successful strategy. I'm hoping this cover will draw women--and some men--to the novel.
Ever since the 1969 movie about them, there has been an ongoing fascination with those two outlaws. Relatives of each man have surfaced to write their own books, and there has been some solid research along with many books based on rumors.I relied on several sources, inserting fictional scenes of semi-domesticity, high living at the Brown Hotel in Denver, and close escapes One of the problems Butch and Sundance faced in their heyday was imitation--bank robberies that they didn't commit but that were blamed on them anyway. The same has proven to be true in litrature, so take this book for fiction. And read it for fun and a bit of history.
Here's what a couple of critics said about the book:
"Alter is a meticulous researcher but never at the expense of a skillful first-person narrative."—Publishers Weekly. "Judy Alter is one of the finest writers of Western fiction! Her realistic portrayal of historic events touches the imagination and stirs the spirit."—The Literary Times 
But here's the best recommendation: This is the only book I've written that made my book-loving son-in-law laugh out loud, maybe the best compliment I've ever had. Sometimes I'm quite sure he doesn't read the books I give him, but he read this--and laughed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

For what it's worth....

My thoughts on the Trayvon Martin tragedy: This morning for the first time I heard a public figure use the word that's been on my mind all week. Doris Kearns Goodwin suggested on "Meet the Press" that we should study existing vigilante laws and change them. Her reference did not deflect the conversation from the racial issue involved. Florida has something called the "Stand your ground" law, but I"m not smart enough about its  implications in this case.
I could not be more upset over the killing of a young man who was apparently well behaved and had a bright future ahead of him. Nor do I disagree that a racial issue lies at the core of this tragedy. And there's the ugly fact of profiling: did Trayvon Martin really die because he was wearing a hoodie? This senseless incident leaves no room for levity but as an Anglo woman in her seventies, I love my hoodies and wear them a lot. Am I to pack them away, or am I safe because my skin is white and the years show on my face?
The problem of vigilante justice has been with the world through the ages.In this country it goes back to witch hunts in Massachusetts and comes right on up through nineteenth-century "cowboy law" in the Old West and on into too much of the twentieth century with lynchings in the South. Men have always wanted to take justice into their own hands, rather than leave it to the law.
George Zimmerman tells us he was afraid for his life, he shot in self-defense. Yet he did not follow police phone orders to stop following the boy. What was he doing out there, alone and armed, anyway? In my neighborhood--not gated, I hasten to add--we have neighborhood patrols. These volunteers are trained by the police, and they patrol in pairs, unarmed, in cars. Their duty: call the police if they see anything suspicious.And that's their only responsibility.
That of course brings us to one of modern America's sticky wickets: the right to bear arms and the powerful NRA. I know I'll raise the hackles of a lot of my friends, but I am opposed to the right to carry arms. Just as we learn to interpret the Bible as it relates to our era, so we should interpret the Constitution. I doubt our forefathers meant for everyone to carry a Saturday night special in a pocket. If Mr. Zimmerman hadn't been armed and if he had obeyed police instructions, Trayvon Martin would no doubt be alive.
A special prosecutor will sort this out and is much more knowledgeable, both about the case and the law, than I am. But it seems clear to me that this incident is about both race and vigilantism, and we should listen to Doris Kearns Goodwin. I always thought she was one pretty smart person anyway.
This morning our minister began his sermon by saying he'd known sermons to be pitched at the last moment in favor of preaching on a current subject. He wasn't, he said, going to do that, but he talked about Trayvon Martin, how he'd agonized over the tragedy, lost sleep over it, hadn't yet sorted it out in his mind and certainly wasn't ready to preach on it. Then he preached on the day's topic, "Could you forgive Peter?" The text had of course to do with Peter's denial of Jesus, just as Jesus had predicted. As he preached about learning from mistakes and letting that learning, with grace, guide your future life, I thought whether he meant to or not, he was preaching about Trayvon Martin and, even more, George Zimmerman.
Somewhere I read that this case will do for this generation what Emmett Till's death did in the 1960s. It's a horrible way to learn a lesson.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

taking out the garbage on Saturday night

This was one of those long empty Saturdays. The fact that I was taking out the garbage at 7:30 on a Saturday night tells you something about my social life. On the other hand, it was a kind of pleasant day.
My old dog, with his permanent head tilt to the left, seems occasionally to hold his head straight. Coincidentally, the terrible crick in the left side of my neck is almost gone. Sympathy? Maybe that's the best answer. I wonder, though, since it lasted a week, if it wasn't a virus. Anyway, I think both of us are better. And eating better--but then, I never stopped eating!
If you have a rambunctious dog and haven't heard of bully sticks, run, don't walk, to Google and find them. They keep the dog occupied for hours. Thanks to Patty and Ralph for bringing them to me--they've been a godsend, and I've ordered a pack. Rationing them one a day, because they aren't cheap.
Some years ago I seemed to fall a lot. Colin, my oldest, asked, "Mom, have you ever considered that it's not your balance? It's just you don't watch where you're going." I have, knock on wood, gotten over the falling--maybe I watch better. But at the time he, with all good intentions, put double-faced tape at the corners of all the rugs on my hardwood floors--most of the rugs are kilim or dhurrie and I should have thought about consequences to the rugs, but there were none. Still, don't do it! The rugs and the tape soon part company, but the tape adheres tightly to the floor. I tried Glue Gone and I don't know what else. Finally someone told me WD40. I thought I'd gotten most of it, but when the dining room rug went out for cleaning and repair this week, I found lots of tape under it. The advice I got was a light coating of WD40--hah! I soaked those tapes, then let them sit for hours. Yesterday I spent painful hands-and-knees time scrubbing up tape. One piece left and I couldn't face it, so today about noon I sprayed it; when I finally went back to it about seven-thirty tonight it came right up. Now I'm afraid to have the living room rug cleaned for fear of more tape.
Yesterday was a celebration--I am out of the post-surgical shoe and into regular shoes. The doctor said to try but it's comfortable to me, and I'm careful not to bend the questionable toe--makes getting down on your hands and knees to scrape tape a real trick, but I did it. My gait, my balance, and my self-confidence are all improved--to say nothing of my stylish look(?). But it is the season for capri pants and leggings and they'd look awful with that huge shoe sticking out. I am also doing some  yoga--seated and standing--that doesn't endanger the foot. Slightly less than two weeks,which I thinks is great.
Grocery this morning and then the day was devoted to writing a new talk to deliver at Baylor, since I found the old one on what I've learned about writing mysteries was inappropriate--especially to the title of my talk. Bless Google Alerts--one came up today publicizing the Baylor Literary Festival in April and saying I would talk about "Exploring Women in the American West." Cozy, contemporary mysteries hardly fit that, so I shelved the ten pages I'd written and started over again. It's okay, because I wasn't thrilled with them, but I'll save them and steal bits and pieces here and there--who knows, some of it may turn up in a blog. Now I actually have a new ten pages roughed out plus a couple of ideas. But I quit for the night. Going to read Avery Aames' Clobbered by Camembert. Also did some odds and ends and a bit of cooking--made a Mexican cheese ball to take to supper at neighbors' tomorrow night. Cream cheee, cheddar, pepperjack, red pepper (I hate bell pepper but used pimientos--don't tell me, I know they're cured bell peppers), cilantro, chili powder, etc. Then made tuna cakes for supper--made four, have three left over. But they were pretty good. Want either recipe? Add the name Kraft and Google them, though I substituted ingredients--like panko for Stove-Top. I'm really trying to avoid processed foods.
And, that, folks is my trivia day. Not very exciting but satisfying.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Did you ever swim in Lake Michigan?

Memoir class always gives me food for thought, and tonight was no exception. Sometimes pieces go in clusters, and tonight they were all childhood memories. One that clearly struck a note with me was written by a woman my age about her summers at a cottage on Lake Michigan. Everything rang familiar--the hot sand in summer, the icy cold waters of the lake, the suspense of the first trip to the beach to see what had washed away during the winter. All these years later, details crowd her memories, the kind of details that make an experience come alive. Oh yes, I may talk to her about avoiding passive voice and dangling modifiers, but it was a great piece. And those of us who grew up on Lake Michigan shared stories--the undertow, the polio scare and being pulled out of the water with blue lips, being taught to swim parallel to the shore.
Another piece was a woman's tribute to her father, chock full of the small moments she remembered with him--trips to the grocery store with the butcher counter in a corner and the butcher in a bloody apron, riding standing in the front of the car, the fear she had of her parents dying and then finding her dad lying on the living room floor with a nervous stomach one day, the family's belief in Pepto Bismol as a cure-all. She didn't need to tell us she adored her father and he, her--every incident shouted it out. And her opening ws funny--she was Andy Mac until she was born and turned out to be a girl. This one made me think of how different things were back then--no seat belts, no central air, no sophisticated cancer treatment in a small Texas town--when the diagnosis came it was too late.
A woman not much older that my kids told of the night she gave a farewell party for her best friend and people she didn't know came. She was horrified--and afraid--when she spotted a beer. Made me think of the parties my children gave--and some they gave when I was out of town and thought they were old enough to be trusted. They told me about them years later, and now I can laugh about it. Interestingly enough, this woman's mother is also in the class, and I am awed by the fact that they are so open with each other, though I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise. My kids are open with me, and for the most part I am with them--some things would only make them uncomfortable, and I don't share those. There's no reason.
But back to memories: everyone exclaimed over the detail in which these women remembered their childhoods, but someone suggested that once you begin to write, it all comes flooding back, and someone else said it's all there in your brain. It just has to come to the forefront.
We laugh a lot at these stories--like the little girls who thought they had eaten poison and would die any minute, so they invited their nemesis, the girl they hated to play with, to come over if she would taste their "lemonade." They figured if they were going to die, she might as well too. Of course all lived to tell the tale, and now the writer is appalled at their cruelty. We dismissed it saying children five and six don't understand the finality of death.
Another woman said she was bothered about presenting because her life hasn't been funny. I assured her it's all in the way you tell it, and that gave her an idea.
I learn so much each week from these women--and we share so much camaraderie. Have  you thought about your childhood? Tried writing about it? See what extra memories writing might bring up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sorry? I missed that joke.

I probably began to lose my hearing more than 15 years ago, though I was in deep denial, as most people are. Whether or not I could hear depended on several things: background noise, the voice of the speaker (some people speak softly, mumble, are "mush-mouthed," etc.) But I wasn't hearing lectures, even though I always sat in front, and I wasn't hearing in church. My brother was a particular problem, because he got mad if I didn't tell him when I didn't undertand, yet I didn't want to interrupt every two minutes.
Not being able to hear struck me as particularly unfair since I had never flown airplanes nor shot at rifle ranges and I am the last person to listen to loud music. I don't like the term idiopathic--medical speak for we don't know why it happened. But one day I found a tiny article buried in the paper indicating that women who had been given a combination of estrogen and progesterone were showing a high percentage of early hearing loss. Because I had an estrogen-driven cancer,when I was finally given estrogen, it was combined with progesterone. I asked my gynecologist if he knew about this research, and he said, "No, but I will by tonight."
A  problem most people don't realize about hearing loss: often I can hear the words, but it's like I am brain-damaged. They don't make sense to me. Other times, the most simple word can baffle me. That particularly distresses my local daughter who often gives up and my grandson who says, "Never mind."
Hearing test after hearing test showed moderate to severe loss, but it increased each time I was tested. Having your hearing tested is, in my mind, akin to being asked to read the ophthalmologist's eye chart: you feel like the bad child who hasn't done her homework because you can't do it.  About six years ago I broke down and got hearing aids--to say they are expensive is an understatement. Insurance pays sot of close to one-quarter of the cost.
Hearing aids help but they aren't a magic cure-all. They make restaurants more difficult because of background noise though you can adjust for that to some degree, and the music in church will never again sound the same. Now it has a tinny quality. The other day it seemed like the minister, a favorite of mine, was yelling at me, so I tried to turn them down but never did get a satisfactory adjustment. Besides, I now have a newer, Cadillac version--at the same high cost. Hearing aids have a life--and a warranty--of five years. These are better, I can tell, but still not perfect.
I decided to blog about this when a young woman (probably 40s but that's young to me) wrote a piece for my memoir class that combined her own diagnosis of hearing loss at 19--genetic--with that of her daughter at 13. She wrote of the feelings of denial that welled up in her, and the confusion she had felt at 19 when there was some hint of a brain tumor and yet she was never told why her mother was so upset. She wrote of her reluctance to face the fact that her daughter had the same problem and to seek help for the daughter. She read of the feelings of isolation that she felt as a young woman, and boy! did I identify! She cried in presenting the piece, and my heart went out to her. (I repeat all this only with her permission, though she remains unnamed.) She finally bought her daughter the most expensive aids she could--and bought some for herself.
But later, in conversation, she told a story about talking with a minister and a couple of friends. The friends laughed heartily, and she followed their lead--without any idea of what they were laughing about. It makes you feel dumb and isolated, an outsider. I know that feeling too. I tune out on convesations I can't hear.
So if someone seems distant, doesn't laugh at the right time or respond the right way, give them a break, make sure they heard. We try to hide our hearing aids--they aren't exactly cosmetic--but we can't always hide the deficiency.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A bit in the doldrums

It may have been the stormy weather--and falling barometer--but I was a bit in the doldrums today. Maybe it was too much of my own company. Who knows? But I looked it up on the web--it means, as you might suspect, a period of inactivity, stagnation, listlessness. The phrase is thought to come from an archaic word dol meaning "stupid" with the suffix of "rum" as in "tantrum." Oh, good!
The doldrums has a maritime meaning--it's an area in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans near the equator where the winds are so high in the atmosphere that the water is perfectly still--reflecting the sky. Think of "The Ancient Mariner": "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted sea."
That was me, hanging on a painted sea. However, I'm a firm believer that you have to get yourself out of the doldrums or you'll malinger there forever--don't think I can carrythe maritime analogy any further, though there was something about the horse latitudes. But, after retreating to my bed for a bit, I got myself together, did some chores that needed doing such as feeding the dogs, and went to dinner at the Old Neighborhood Grill. Our neighborhood evening was three ladies for most of the time and girl talk, until one husband joined us. He had just come from a church meeting, and since we all go to the same church, talk turned to church affairs. All interesting, and got me out of myself.
Tomorrow will be brighter, though I understand there are showers in the future. At least not downpours!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dogs, dog people, and the afterlife

It's hard to take a picture of a black dog, so I proudly present two pictures of Sophie in which you can almost see what she looks like. Patty Pressley brought her some bullysticks today, and at one point Sophie looked like she had a stogie sticking out of her mouth. Sorry I didn't get a picture of that. But Scooby, not Sophie, is the dog on my mind tonight.
I just read and shared a touching post on Facebook about the letter a four-year-old girl dictated to her mom to be sent to God after her dog died.She included a picture so God wold recognize the dog. And some kind postal worker replied to her with a lovely message, sending the picture back since in Heaven we have no bodies and he had no place to keep it. The picture showed the little sprite hugging what appears to be a black lab.
Not all kids are that firm in their faith of an afterlife for dogs. Jacob believes, but when I said I was worried about Scooby today, he said, "Probably he's dying and he'll go to Heaven." Wonder if that's how he'll dismiss me someday. He did tell me once solemnly that he knew I would die because I'm old.
I remember still, with dismay, when I worked with the wife of a student at the Baptist Seminary. She was telling how her 13-year-old daughter took their dog's face in her hands and said, "Now, Fido (or whatever the dog's name was),  you've got to stop eating so much or you'll get fat and die. And  you can't go to heaven." Instinctively I said, "What an awful thing for a child to say to an animal." The mother calmly replied that it was true: because dogs don't have souls, they can't go to heaven. I managed to mutter, "They can to my heaven." Besides, who believes that dogs don't have souls? Dog people know better.
I've thought a lot about dog people lately--those who are and whose who aren't. I don't know how you explain it, but "liking dogs" doesn't make you a dog person. Dog people recognize dogs as individual beings with feelings, fear, love, hunger, al the same things that make us human. And they reach out to them in a way that non-dog people don't. Dogs are companions, not creatures to be kept for your convenience. I need to refine that thought a bit.
Jacob is right in that I've been worried about Scooby. He hasn't eaten since he came home from the vet Thursday night. Tonight he ate about half a cup of dry food after I stirred the juices from roasting chicken into it--but he daintily ate around his pain pill. I didn't even try the antibiotic. I do think I see improvement, though he walks with a definite tilt to the left, the direction in which his head is permanently cocked. (As a sympathy gesture--I guess--I've developed a horrible crick in my neck, on the left side, of course). But he's livelier, tries to play with Sophie, comes when I call him. I'll call the vet in the morning about meds and food--can't be roasting chicken all the time for him. But I'm sure not ready to give up on him, poor baby. I know he's still scared, but he soldiers on.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Letting go

A small spell of anxiety yesterday led me to understand that I'd let things get under my skin. It was a bad week--foot surgery, seriously ill dog, a family upset about which no more needs to be said, a manuscript that I obsessed over getting done because it wasn't coming together as I wanted--or the editor and I weren't in agreement. On top of all that, I reviewed a book about agoraphobia. Now why was I dumb enough to do that--that's like bringing all those old ghosts right up here in front.
Today I woke up with that old feeling--will it happen again? This time I took charge, went happily about my errands, did stuff at home. I decided not to obsess about  that incomplete manuscript? I'll get to it, at a leisurely pace, when I can. I'm supposed to be reading galleys of my 2002 novel, Sundance, Butch and Me, but I put a new cozy mysery on my Kindle--it's my treat for tonight. My choice was Lorraine Bartlett's The Walled Flower. Had a "picnic" on the porch with Jacob, took a long nap, and am relaxing about things. Jacob is with me from noon today until two or three tomorrow. He had such a hilarioius good time at the party last night I thought he'd be bored with me, but he woke me from my nap by saying, "I love you, Juju" (okay, truth was he wanted company while he used the potty) and tonight he said, "This has been the best day." Why am I so lucky?
Yes, I'm still worried about my dog--he isn't eating and therefore isn't getting his pain pills or antibiotics. But I've put all the rest behind me. Sure will be glad, however, when I can do yoga again.
Anybody who struggles with anxiety--and I know there are many of us--will understand. I wish all of you peace and comfort.
Happy St. Patrick's Day to all the Irish from one with just a bit of Orange Irish in her Scottish bloodstream.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A moment to savor

Jacob is telling Maddie, my oldest grandchild, some secret--from the way he looked at me, I know it had to do with me, but the picture is so cute I'll forgive him if he was saying, once again, "she's old."

Jordan invited a few friends over tonight for drinks and snacks on my porch to celebrate her birthday tomorrow--my St. Patrick's Day baby. But Jordan's small parties always turn large, and there were probably 25 here, including quite a few children who ran and played on the front lawn and had a high old time. Two episodes of beach balls going into the street--one meant David, Jordan's first-ever boyfriend and still so dear to us, walked over a block to get the ball that kept rolling and rolling. The second time, a ball that is apparently beloved by four-year-old Abby next door sailed down the street, crossed the street, jumped the curb and tumbled down the incline into the parking lot behind the school--I watched its path in awe because the ball seemed to have a life of its own, twisting and turning as it would. Abby and her mother drove to get it because Abby was distraught. I'm always glad to see Jordan's friends, most of whom are dear to me. Lacey decided I should not be on my feet (well, I said the doctor said that) so every time I sat down she was in front of me with a stool or chair for me to put my foot up. And when I tried to clean the kitchen, she  yelled at me--she confessed that to Jordan. But she and Amy did yeoman's work cleaning up, and I have only a few things to attend to tomorrow. My heartfelt thanks to them.
Jamie and his family arrived long after I'd given up on them coming--traffic from Dallas was awful, as usual. But after most people had left, the grandchldren entertained us. Jacob is a great showman, and he did his hip hop moves for us--he's really pretty good. Then Edie did the splits and the  yoga pose, crow, and Maddie demonstrated how seventh graders dance these days. Great hilarity.
The moment to treasure came at the end of the evening when Jamie dragged out the old box of family photos that's behind the chair in my room--some of the kids have gone through and taken their childhood pictures but not all. He delighted in going throiugh the pictures, exclaiming about this person and that place and remembering instances and toys and people from their childhood. It made me happy to realize once again what a good childhood they had and how fondly they remember it and the people and dogs involved--there were a lot of dogs. Jame was particularly interested in how old people were and, of course, in many pictures his father and I were younger than he is now by quite a bit. That astounded him. He saw pictures of his brother as a toddler with one foot in the commode, pictures of himself as a fifth grader (dig that hair!), pictures of his older sister at what he called "an  unfortunate period of her life" (bad hair, bad glasses) and getting ready for her senior prom, and a picture of his baby sister crawling through the space left in a multi-paned swinging door after he kicked out one panel accidentally. All those memories--such good times. It occurs to me that today we don't save boxes of photos--they're all digital. I wonder how, forty years from now, the grandchildren will be able to go through them and say, "Remember? That was Aunt Jordan's birthday party on the porch!" And maybe Jacob will remember how he always told me I was old when I wasn't!
Anyone want leftover chili/cheese dip?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The week that was

What a week it's been, between my dog and my foot. I'm pleased to report that my foot is almost without pain. The shoe is a nuisance--perhaps you read my Facbook post about what Jacob said when he saw it: "That's new. When are you getting a wheelchair?" But it's a minor problem, and I go back to the doctor for a new and smaller bandage--and permission to take a shower, thank goodness.
And tonight Scooby is home from the vet after spending two nights there because of idiopathic (means we don't know what the heck caused this) vestibular disorder. The vet put it in clear terms for me: it was like Scooby was on a big drunk. He had no balance, was confused, unsteady, couldn't focus. And of course he was scared to death. Such episodes are not unsual in older dogs and usually pass in two or three days. He is much better tonight but still wobbly and he has a head tilt, which they tell me may be permanent. I think it's kind of cute. I went out back to play with both dogs--and really to love on Scooby--tonight but Miss Jealous Puppy would have none of that. Scooby really tried toi play with her, barking, snapping, turning to get her--she is of course way too fast for him, but he was game. Now he's in his most favorite place ever, his bed, and the puppy is sort of amusing herself in my office, every once in a while jumping on me to entice me to play with her. In a bit I'll play okay--with the grooming brush.
When my kids were of an age where they came and went, even overnight, I was always so glad when all four were under my roof. Tonight I feel that way about my dogs. Of course, it would be nice to have the children too, but....
Working on m chili manuscript for two days untl my brain is fried--endnotes attributions, picture inserts, all the details that aren't nearly as much fun as the writing. But it's given me a taste for chili--espeicially since I had the sloppy joe I made and froze a week ago for supper and, yep! It tasted scorched. Not sure my skillet has recovered yet. Jordan has invited some people for a porch party tomorrow night, so I'll make that standby:Velveeta and Wolf Brand chili. So good.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A book review: Agorafabulous, by Sara Benincasa

Sarah Benincasae is a stand-up comedian, writer, blogger, and podcast host plus she has a one-woman show, titled appropriately enough Agorafabulous. She is also agoraphobic, and if you have a hard time putting those facts together in one person, so do I. I am agoraphobic, but I prefer alternate terrms such as "recovering agoraphobic" or, even better, anxiety disorder. Early in the book, Benincasa defines agoraphobia up to a point: "agora" from the Greek for market place; "phobia" from the Greek for fear. It is indeed a fear of the market place, of crowds. But it becomes fear of fear. If you have a panic attack, say, driving a car, you aren't about to drive a car again for fear of that heart-pounding, breathless fight-or-flight reaction, the sure conviction that you're dying. "Fear built on fear," she writes, "begets all kinds of little falsehoods."
Benincasa lists the things that, at her worst, she was afraid of: leaving home, having a wet head, driving, being a passenger in a car, New York City, Lincoln and Holland tunnels, flying (Oh, do I know that one!), taking the bus or subway, vomiting, sex, being pregnant, having an abortion, and God. She reached her low point in her senior year in college when she was literally afraid to leave her bed, foregoing needs for food and personal hygiene (take that one where you will). Through parental intervention, therapy and meds, she clawed her way back to a normal life, though she followed several blind alleys before she ends up finding her life work--as a comedian. It's the classic story: you have to reach the low point before you can begin to recover.   
Much of the book is devoted to her recovery and the blind alleys--a commune run by an enraged spiritual guru, a stint at a community-service oriented college in North Carolina, a teaching spell in Texas, a try at graduate school. Recover she does, and I am happy for her, though she admits late in the book that anxiety can rear its ugly head at any time you don't expect it. What I had a problem with in this book is attitude, though it's a strange thing for an agoraphobic to have and a most natural one for a stand-up comedian. It's not the constant use of the F-word--or maybe it is; after all I"m of a far different generation. But more than that she turns this debilitating condition into the subject of comedy. That works well for her, but not for the misunderstood thousands of people in our society who suffer from varioius forms of anxiety and are often told by well-meaning family, friends and colleagues: "Get over it." The book jacket describes the content as "hilarious" and I find that a poor choice of words. Anxiety is rarely hilarious.
Near the end of the book, Benincasa gets into a conversation with a New York cabbie who had a panic attack the day before.He thought he was dying of a heart attack and went to the emergency room. He wanted reassurance that the doctors were right, and Benincasa talked to him about the fear, the voices in your head, the shame, "about recovery, management, setback. And pills." She thinks she convinced him that panic attacks were real and the doctors has diagnosed him correctly. It's her moment of compassion, and I applaud her for it.
If someone ever tells you they can't drive on the highway, go up an escalator or walk across a huge empty parking lot alone, listen to them. Their fears are very real. I know, because those are some of the things I don't do to this day. Like Benincasa, I'm very lucky. My anxiety was never as severe as hers, though at one point I had a hard time leaving home. Through therapy, education, a few meds, and a lot of good luck, I've conquered most of it. I live a full happy life and have had a successful writing career, with occasional reminders. But I never joke about anxiety--or agoraphobia.
Sara Benincasa's memoir is Agorafabulous: Dispatches from My Bedroom (William Morrow and Co.).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dogs and feet--not my best day

My foot surgery yesterday was so painless, I thought I was home free--no pain until I got up in the middle of the night and realized it dinged at me a bit. Today, it hurts to walk--not excruciating, just annoying. Aspirin doesn't seem to help, and I don't want anything stronger.
But last night my old dog, Scooby, kept collapsing when I tried to bring him in. He had no balance, and his legs, especially the back ones, kept giving out. I had to call the pet sitter to come take him to the vet this morning. When I woke at four, I couldn't go back to sleep--sure that the vet would say to put him down. She didn't--she said give it a day or two. She did say since both the dog and I were lame, it would be best if they kept him so we didn't trip each other--a sensible notion. Sometimes these things pass, and he did seem a bit better by the time I left the clinic. Scoob is lounging in the "luxury site" at the vet's, but the report this afternoon was "no better, no worse." I bet he'd rather be home in his own bed, which he loves.  They reported that when they took him out to pee this afternoon, they rigged a sling to keep his back end upright. I'm apprehensive about this. I thought Scooby was eleven-and-a-half, but it turns out I was a  year shy--he'll be thirteen in August. I'd been railing at the gods that he should have a couple of good years left. Now I'm somewhat mollified, but I still don't want to lose him.
Scoob is a gorgeous blue merle Australian shepherd. I got him at three-and-a-half from the Humane Society. He had been abused and has never lost some characteristics of that--the sweetest dog in the world tried serously to bite the vet tech today over rectal temperature-taking. Grabbing hold of his collar scares him, and I have to keep him by me because his house manners are not reliable if I'm not watching. But he has a way of looking at me with adoration that just breaks my heart. This morning, when I was getting ready to leave the clinic, he clearly didn't want to leave my side. Made me teary. We do get so invested in our animals.
Sophie, the puppy who jumps on Scoob's rear end and doesn't help matters at all, doesn't seem to miss him as much as I thought she would. Played outside by herself quite happily for a good portion of the day and is now asleep by me.
My day got a lot better when my brother came to get me for lunch, with his wife and mother-in-law in tow. We met Cindy's sister and her significant other at Carshon's and had a high old time, mostly planning an Alter/Peckham/Azuma reunion for May. Aunt Patty is the one who has taken that particular bull by the horns and done a great job of organizing people, etc. (I'm resisting mixed metaphors or I'd talk about herding cats, which is what getting all those people to agree on a date amounts to.) Today we decided a scavenger hunt for the kids would be great fun--they will range in age from almost two to thirteen. Lots of laughter lifted me out of the doldrums, and tonight I look forward to dinner with my neighbors at the Old Neighborhood Grill.
So, bad, distrubing things, even minor pain, aside, I am blessed with family and friends and oh so grateful.

Monday, March 12, 2012

New Life for Old Books

In the early 1990s, I wanted to break my fiction out into a "big" book, rather than the short fiction I'd been doing for Doubleday's western fiction series. I told then-edtor Greg Tobin I wanted to write a fictional biography of Libbie Custer's years with General George Armstrong Custer. After all, theirs was the "Great Romance of the Western Frontier." Greg coughed, hemmed, hawed and said he'd have to see a hundred pages before he offered a contract. Long story short, it was published and did better than any other book I've published. Not the big breakout book, but nice respectable sales. Of course it went out of print, and in those days who knew to save digital files? Even if I had done so they'd be on a diskette and difficult to access today. So I have paid a company to scan all 300+ pages. Just finished proofing the galleys, and it should be available for e-readers soon.
I suspect I'm as proud of this book as any I've done. I wrote it with Libbie's journals spread out before me, and yet I tried to give her a voice that was real to me, not the public voice she assumed in her zeal to make sure Autie went down in history as a hero. Read an except here
In proofing this book, I was surprised at how much of me there is in Libbie and how much of my attitude toward my marriage, then some ten years in the past. And I was also surprised at the change in my writing style. Libbie is not clumsy, don't get me wrong, and when I began to read it, I thought, "Darn, this is better than I thought." But I also noticed some slight changes in style--I've learned not to repeat similar words too close together; I've learned to avoid what I now think is that awkward construction, "It was then that ...." I've learned to omit unnecessary words to a greater extent.
Don't let me discourage you from reading this. I got some nice comments on Facebook about it, and I still think it's the most human approach to what I see as Libbie's dilemma--marriage to Custer was not al happy romps across the prairie, and I tried to capture that realistically. This is BSP--blatant self-promotion: I think you'll like Libbie if you haven't read it before. I'll post on Facebook when it's live and available to order.
Watch next for Sundance, Butch and Me, my take on Etta Place's life with the Hole In The Wall Gang and her romance with The Sundance Kid. It's no accident that in the title, Butch Cassidy comes between Sundance and Etta. Fiction after all can suppose, imagine, and take liberties. Want a preview of my approach? Read the short story, "Reunion," in Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories, available as an e-book for 99 cents.
Enough bragging, but I'm excited to see these older works available to readers once again. Hmmm, twenty years is older? My, how time flies.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Running headlong into modern medicine

There are three things I swore I would never have: a torn rotator cuff, a root canal, and surgery on my feet or hands. My record is not very good. I tore my rotator cuff so long ago that by the time it was diagnosed the shoulder specialist said the muscles were atrophied and there was nothing to repair. That sound he heard was a long sigh of relief from me, because I've heard it's a horrible surgery. My shoulder works fine, and I keep it limber by doing yoga, etc., because I know a frozen shoulder requires treatment even worse than repairing the torn rotator cuff. No, I cannot lift a stack of plates onto a high shelf with my right arm--but my right arm can help my left arm, and we all get along just fine.
Then I had a bad toothache--root canal called for. All I can say is that it was one of the longest, most unpleasant mornings in my life, and the tooth is a tad sensitive to this day. I know better now than to swear I'll never have it again--but I am talking to the Lord about it a lot and asking his preventive help. I'm not sure dedicated dental hygiene helps--I think the need for root canals is just visited on  you willy-nilly.
But Monday I am having minor foot surgery--voluntarily. It's funny how once you commit to this, telling yourself it's no big deal, it's on your mind all the time. I found myself thinking about it a lot today, marking time by before and after. It truly is no big deal--arthoplasty on two hammer toes, and not major toes--the third and fourth. The podiatrist will do an office procedure under local anesthesia, and he says to think of it like having a tooth pulled. Not sure that is comforting. But I have heard horror stories of earlier repairs--a tourniquet around your leg, which subsequently causes serious blood clots,  breaking the adjoining toes to straighten all together, etc.My doctor assures me none of that is true today--he will pop out a bit of the joint; discomfort for a couple of days, an orthopedic shoe for a month--so fashionable. These toes have caused me a lot of pain and confined me to tennis shoes--talk about fashionable--for some time. And, as the doctor said, they're not getting magically better. It' time.
Ever faithful Betty will take me, Greg will clean the dog poop from the yard (he told me I put my request so delicately), several people will check on me, and I may just play this to the hilt. But still a bit--okay a large bit of me--is nervous about the actual procedure. I tell myself it will soon be over and I'll be on the other side.
I hope not to concentrate on it all day tomorrow. What can you do to help? Make me laugh, please.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her--some thoughts

Not much I can say about Deborah Crombie's latest novel, No Mark Upon Her, that hasn't already been said--and better. Her capture of the King's English, as the Brits speak it, is convincing and consistent. I'm no expert, but it sounds right to me and others who know more have praised it highly. In this, her sixteenth Duncan Kincid/Gemma James novel, she takes on the world of competitive rowing and captures not only its special language but the passion rowers feel for their sport and some of the ins and outs of technique. Watch for her again on the Thames--she tried rowing for research but seems so taken by it that I wouldn't be surprised to see her in a single skull.
No Mark Upon Her is also suspense at its best, intricately plotted, and just when you think you have it figured out, Crombie is one step ahead and throws a curve into things.  Duncan takes on his "guv'nor" in this one, and the reader truly wonders if he'll come out of it unscathed. Gemma meanwhile is supposed to be ignoring police matters because it's still her turn to be home with three-year-old Charlotte, the child they've adopted who still shows many fears from losing her parents. But Gemma can't ignore cases tangential to this one.
Above all, however, what draws me to read each novel in this series as soon as I can after pubication is the way Crombie pulls the reader into the lives of Duncan and Gemma and their sons, Kit and Toby, and now little Charlotte. Scotland Yard detectives become human when you watch them deal with family and child-raising issues.
Finally, there's Deborah herself who as far as I can tell has not let success go to her head, though she clearly delights in it. She makes everyone, including me, feel like a friend, and she's likeable, down-to-earth, and wryly funny.
I recommend her books a lot, and I always say start with the first in the series--they're listed on the verso of the title page. But I have a list if you want to ask. This time I say start with the latest novel. In my opinion it's her finest so far. Read No Mark Upon Her and then go back to A Share in Death. You'll enjoy watching the relationship between Duncan and Gemma grow and change and watching Crombie's increased mastery of the form--and you'll get a cracking good mystery with each read. Oh, and a nice taste of England, with a bit of Scotland thrown in. What more could one want?
I'm not one of those who feels obliged to find some flaw with each book or author, so my recommendaiton is without qualification.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Bummer of a day

Bummer all around--or mostly. I went to a "Meet and Greet" at an upscale, high-rise retirement community this morning to meet women who might be interested in my memoir class, but someone had dropped the ball. The energetic, enthusiastic woman who had contacted me and set this up is out on medical leave, and somehow no one else picked it up. Nada. Not one person. So I came home. But I had dressed and gone up there--an hour out of my day that I could have put to better use. Only good was that I visited with my longtime friend, Margie, who now lives there but even that wasn't good. She told me her husband has some new, potentially severe blood disorder--no energy, etc.
When I came home about eleven, it was steamy hot--I opened the car windows. About an hour later, Jordan called to ask if I had a spare jacket for  Jacob. A norther had blown in with the suddenness that happens in Texas and dropped the temperature thirty degrees. Darn cold and damp to boot. It rained but had quit by the time I went to get Jacob. I took one of my down vests which he flatly refused to put on until his teacher asked him if he wanted to miss spring break. At last, reluctantly, he wrapped it around himself for the short walk home.
Linda, who always eats dinner with me before memoir class, bailed today because she didn't feel well and all that rain was predicted (she has an hour drive to get here), so that was another disappointment. I had bacon and eggs for supper instead of the anticipated meatloaf at the Grill, but then someone brought chicken salad and pimiento cheese finger sandwiches to class and I made an absolute pig of myself.
Memoir class is always rewarding--tonight three people presented memories of their childhoods and did a terrific job of evoking time and place. We could smell, hear, see,and feel the places they described, especially a lakefront cabin on Lake Michigan. I grew up with such a cabin, and Mary Margaret's piece tonight made me most nostalgic. Some really good writing comes out of these women, and I am amazed and gratified. We talked a lot about description--how much is too much? General consensus: description draws us in as readers. When we stood in our circle to close the session and said one word about how we felt, mine was enriched. You know what? Maybe it wasn't such a bummer of a day after all.
Stay tuned, please, for blogs to come on the reprints I'm about to get posted as e-books--I'm excited-- and my thoughts on loss of hearing.  Subjects that are rattling around in my brain.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Not much

I thought I wouldn't post tonight. Buried in a set of galleys, nose to the grindstone, and no deep thoughts nor exciting events to report. But I decided I needed a break. Started the day at the Volkswagen dealership where they ordered a part so I have to go back Friday--double drat. They also told me I had two nails in my right rear tire--but the tire place they sent me to was really fast and reasonable. VW told me ten minutes, and that's what those tire people did. Lunch full of laughter with Dick Hoban and his daughter and one of her co-workers at the zoo.
Tonight had my second meal in two days at The Woodshed--and loved it. A beet and ricotta salad--ricotta was too bland for these smoky sharp beets. They deserved goat cheese, but it was still great. Then the animal of the day was lamb--the most tender, flavorful I've had in forever.
But of course the day got interesting with a special news report on Super Tuesday. The Republican race continues to amaze--and leaves me, for one, breathless wondering who will eventually win. I cannot imagine the Repubican party with Rick Santorum as their frontispiece. It strikes me that John Boehner has been very very quiet lately--and for a while he was all over TV screens. Of course the outcry about Rush Limbaugh goes on but the point has already been made, and those that still call for denouncing him are simply coming late to the party. There are, as I've said, many things that I waited late in life to learn and wish I'd learned much earlier--add an interest in politics to that list. Though this year it's like watching a carnival. Funny, if the future of the country weren't at stake.
Tomorrow another early day--dentist at 8:30! But for today, that's it. I repeat, no deep thoughts, no great adventures.
Now I'll happily go back to proofing galleys of my 1994 novel, Libbie--a fictional biography of Elizabeth Custer. Look for more about that later.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Who--or What--Are You? And Do You Re-Read Books/

We seem to be fascinated these days with classifying people--and heaven knows, there are any number of ways to classify them. Here are the classes into which I clearly fit: senior citizen, woman, liberal, Protestant. Therein if you're into statistics, you can tell a lot about me from how I'll vote in November to how I feel about Rush Limbaugh--don't ask.
But there are other, less clearly defined ways of looking at people, and some of them are amusing. There's been some buzz on the internet lately about introverts and extroverts--my daughter-in-law wrote about that on Raggedy Madness and announced she's an introvert though capable of being as social as the next one when the situation calls for it. I've read several pieces about this inborn disposition and have decided I'm an ambivert--dead square in the middle. My favorite place to be, admittedly, is at my desk in a quiet, empty house, probably with a dog asleep at my feet (ah, I'm in heaven right now for that's the situation). But give me, say, a week of evenings alone at my desk, and I am irritable, bored, lonely, cross--name a negative and I'll claim it. I love to have my house full of people, my favorites being of course my children and grandchildren. But there are a lot of friends I like to have come join me for supper, a visit, whatever. Fill my house with people--or take me whirling off to parties and dinner with friends and meetings--for five days, and I long for the solitude of my house and my office and the undemanding company of my dogs. I'm not happy for any length of time as an introvert or an extrovert, so I clearly define myself as an ambivert.
Yet another classification has come to my attention in the last couple of days. I've talked here before about authors who are plotters (everything carefully plotted out before they write that first sentence) and pantsers (those who write that first sentence, and let the muse loose to see where it will carry them). Now someone on a mystery listerv has raised the question of whether or not pantsers ever re-read books or watch a movie twice. I'm not sure I see the exact correlation but apparently the thought was that if you're a free enough spirit to be a pantser, you must be bored with planning and knowing ahead and you won't want to read a book twice. The theory is getting shot down because lots who consider themselves pantsers write about the books they read annually, or those they love to go back to occasionally. I've got to admit not only to being a pantser but to almost never re-reading a book. Nothing makes me more distressed than to come home from the bookstore (or download from Kindle now) in anticipation of an evening of cozy reading only to find after five pages I've already read the thing. One of the wonders of the Kindle program--and probably other digital programs--is that you can preview twenty pages of a book. If you don't know by then if you've read it, you might just as well give up and read it again.
What about you? Do you re-read books? Think it makes you an ambivert? 

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Daughters and teachers--and who's in charge of the schoolroom?

Across the nation, the educational crisis is a major concern, though I'm not certain how to define this crisis. But here in Texas, where the crisis is very real, it has to do with major budget cuts, teacher layoffs, and teacher fatigue/burnout/whatever you want to call it. In Fort Worth, the ISD is offering early buy-outs to teachers, which is good in that it avoids layoffs--but wait, we need more teachers, not fewer!
I have now seen the Texas educational crisis up close and personal when I was in Houston last week. My daughter-in-law, Lisa, teaches math and science in a Houston-area school district where, as she delicately puts it, the kids aren't real interested in learning. Lisa is a creative teacher, recipient of several honors. She is full of ideas, new ways to make learning a challenge kids want to accept. For instance, she went with her own daughter on a school field trip one day last week and came home saying what a great classroom the outdoors would make. You could teach kids about ecology and environmental issues, weather, insect and animal life, geography and geometry. Her mind was busy.
But Lisa comes home every night head-in-her-hands exhausted. Some days it is after six before she's home, and she's in bed by 8:30 or 9:00, totally worn out. She's out the door by 7:30 in the morning. One day she said to me, "Those kids just wear me out." She's aware that her exhuastion is not fair to her husband, my son, or to her two children, ages seven and almost five. She doesn't want to come in the door, crabby and short with everyone, no time for fun. Yet some nights she can't help herself. I said something tentative about needing a life out of school, and she agreed, said she had resolved to do only what had to be done at school. And she did tell me that she and her daughter, Morgan, spent yesterday gardening together--preparing beds, going to the nursery, planting. A great day for mother and child--but probably too rare. Lisa knew she had a stack of projects waiting to be graded. Her students were clamoring for their grades.
Lisa is also fortunate in her choice of husbands, not just because he's my son but because he's a patient, helpful guy. He does the dinner dishes--albeit not till morning, which drives me crazy. But Lisa simply puts her dish on the counter and walks away. He often does laundry, and putting the kids down for the night is a cooperative project. Lisa freely admits she doesn't know how teachers do it without someone helpful like Colin.
How long will Lisa continue to teach? I have no idea. Right now she still loves her work, but the day may come when she throws her hands up in the air and gives up. We'll all be the losers if that happens.
She's been talking a lot about education to my other daughter-in-law, Melanie, who is upset at the slim attention paid to the gifted and talented program in her youngest daughter's school. Her oldest daughter--my oldest grandchild, brag, brag--is an outstanding athlete and gets all kinds of support from the system, from equipment to extra time. The youngest gets 90 minutes a week out of the regular classroom. (See Raggedy Madness, "Fast Food Education Nation," , ) Melanie and Lisa have been designing the ideal school they'd run. I wsh it could be more than a pipe dream for both of them.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to ; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."  We seem to have lost track of the importance of education in this country, and I f ind it scary. When the politicians, not educators, make policy decisions (including textbook choices), when the easiest budget to cut is education, when a politician calls a liberal education a threat to the country, when we pay our sports hero but not our thinkers and teachers, we are in great trouble. I hope my two daughers can make a difference, but they need help, folks.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A visit with family

I never blog beforehand when I'm going away. It strikes me as waving a banner that says, "Hey, my house is empty. Come on by," even though my house isn't totally empty. There are two dogs and the pet sitter is in and out. But in the last few days a few may have caught hints that I wasn't in my usual place.
I was in Houston with my oldest son, Colin, his wife, Lisa, and their two children--seven-year-old Morgan and four-and-a-half -year-old Kegan. I did all those grandmotherly things that I probably don't do enough with Jacob--I see him almost every day, and I rarely see these children. I think that made me more conscious of being an attentive grandparent. I went to gymnastics and a soccer game, and I listened to Morgan read her two short books every night. In truth I was impressed with her reading, though she has to work a bit on intonaton and expression:-) While they were at school and at work, I did a lot on my chili book, did my yoga each day, and was quite domestic--emptying and re-loading the dishwasher (the first time I emptied it and shelved unwashed dishes, so after that we had to clarify), made a pot of chili one night, two batches of brownies another day, not sure what all but one day it was noon before I got to my own work. Colin came home and asked, "You weren't bored?" and I assured him not. Colin is a controller for five golf courses and Lisa teaches 7th grade math, the children are in day care, and everyone is gone until 6:30 at night. And they're all in bed by 8:30--I had a two-hour visiting window.
These are children I don't see as much of and the little one has been really shy about hugging me--or allowing me to hug him. We broke that barrier this time, to my great joy, and both children clamored for my attention, hugged me goodnight, told me about their day. It was a delight. Lisa said tonight she thinks it's better when it's just me rather than all the family, and she's probably right. That doesn't happen often, but now I will have to make it happen more often with those children and with daughter Megan's Austin sons.
Colin took me from Kingwood--north of Houston where they live--one day to the Omni Galleria for a lunch with my former colleagues from A&M and associated presses. It was a real treat for me to see everyone and to show off my handsome son, though he expected a "luncheon" and got a box lunch. Good thing I convinced him he didn't have to wear a suit. Today, he hauled me and my baggage back down to the Omni. The baggage was much condensed because I didn't want to go into the hotel looking like the Joads had arrived. Still he took it up to the second floor, then down to the parking garage to stash in Melinda's car, and then came up to return her key and ask, "Are you okay now?" I rely on Colin, his steadfastness and his strength, a whole lot, poor boy. But I love him dearly.
Another delight of being out of my routine and element: for the first time in several weeks, I was able to pick up a book and lose myself in it. I'd saved Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her for this trip, and I got a good start on it. Now, of course I don't want to do anything but read--and a few other things do call. But she is quite simply an exceptional writer. A Texan, she has the British lingo down pat, from car park for parking lot to the expletive "Sod him!" In this book, she ventures into the world of competitive rowing, with its own peculiar language and customs and does a triumphant job. I'm a great fan and love reading the book.
Now I'm back home, with dogs to feed and love, groceries to buy, errands to run, meals to cook--the whole nine yards. But I'll find time to keep reading.
And Morgan delighted me as I left today by asking, "Can we face time with you?" Of course she can, sweet thing. I'm feeling like a happy grandmother tonight.

Friday, March 02, 2012

How Did I Get Here, Part 2

My talented, beautiful and intelligent daughter-n-law, Melanie (I have two daughters-in-law who fit that description, so I have to specify) wrote that she gave up two things she loved to do--writing and ballet--because she couldn't make a living at either.  Young, I had no such practical ideas. In college, I majored in English because I liked to read. A career? Pouf! I was a daughter of the fifties. Some man was going to marry me and take care of me, presumably while I read Silver Screen and ate bonbons. Soon I found myself with a Ph.D. in English and no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Oh, there was a man to take care of me, but that went awry after nearly twenty years.
I had always written, starting with short stories as a ten-year-old and progressing to stories of teen-age angst that Seventeen, that bible of young girls, rejected without hesitation. I found myself doing pr and editing a medical journal and an alumni newspaper--paste-up and all in the old days, though I'd had no journalism training. Once I had that Ph.D. and children and was a stay-at-home wife and mom, with a nanny thank-you-very-much, I settled down to write. There were literally days when I thought I'd write if I only knew what to write. Unlike some senior citizens who become successful authors almost by accident (See Radine Nehring's excellent post on the subject at, I was always dead set on a career. I had banished that girl who wanted to read and eat bonbons.
Flash forward forty years. No blatant self promotion, but I have over sixty published books--fiction for adults, fiction for young adults, a lot of nonfiction for young readers, some miscellaneous titles such as a literary biography and a cookbook, and now mysteries. I also have some rather nice awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Western Writers of America. I'm neither rich nor famous, but it's a respectable record for a writer. Still it was never enough. I wanted more. Once a woman who was my sister in spirit suggested I'd had as much success as I could expect and I ought to quit worrying about it--she was always forthright. But that wasn't my way.
I had as many rejections as acceptances--or more--over the years, and I have every author's stack of rejected manuscripts that will never go anywhere except to my archive at the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos. Bantam/Doubleday stayed with me for much of 1990s. amd several childrens' publishers and book packagers were steady clients in the late '90s and early in 2000 until the market changed, so they said. I never had a secure long-term publishing home with enough faith in me to work out a career plan.. 
Today my mystery career is off to a great start--the first Kelly O'Connell Mystery published, another due in April, another in August, the start of a second series in January, and a fourth as-yet unwritten and unscheduled Kelly O'Connell Mystery due in 2013. There's a lingering question in my mind about why I had to be in my seventies for this sudden roll I'm on, just as I wonder why I wasn't at thirty the woman I am now. My brother says he sees it as me re-inventing myself once again, which he believes I've done a few times before. He wanted credit for that statement, and I am glad to give it because I take it as a compliment. I think the capacity to re-invent yourself, if that's what I've done, comes with age and perhaps as a close friend suggested grace.
My new blooming career is thanks to Turquoise Morning Press. I'm a big believer in the small press movement that, along with self-publishing digitally, is changing the publishing world forever. But I doubt I would have been swept up in this movement thirty years ago. I wasn't ready, and neither was my writing. Almost certainly, retirement had something to do with this, freeing me to focus on my writing and also freeing me of a lot of stress. I'm also a fan of retirement, although all those years I would have told you I had the ideal job as director of a small academic press. And what I learned all those years on the "other side" of publishing stands me in good stead. Yet I'm a poster child for retirement, and a fan, if somewhat reluctantly, of aging. Just joined a Facebook page called Spunky Seniors--you gotta love it.