Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Family fun and a bit of nostalgia


Jamie, me, Jacob, and Jordan

Jordan’s selfies often have us all at such angles that we look tipsy. We weren’t, but we were having a great time at Pacific Table last night. Jamie said he’d be in town early, but when I tracked him, all day, he was at Clearfork. Since he’s in charge of sales for an international toy company, all I could think was that he was selling lots of toys to Neiman’s. Not so. He has a company office space at WeWork, which enables him to work at any of several locations. He knew, rightly, that if he came here, he would be distracted, so he appeared on my doorstep about five, and I promptly put him to work installing iPassword on my computer. Successful installation, but we were unable to figure out how to use it. Waiting for advice from the two other sons who advised me to get it.

Jamie, Jordan, Jacob, and I went to dinner at Pacific Table—Christian was at a work event. Jamie had carefully made reservations for the patio, since I’m leery about sitting in a packed restaurant right now. But when we got there, the patio was closed—staffing problems, which are apparently common in the restaurant business these days. But it was okay especially on a Monday night. Few people there, and we had a corner table, way off by ourselves. All the staff were masked, although our wait person’s mask hung just below her nose. None of the patrons were masked. Sigh.

Fun to think Jacob, our picky eater, is sophisticated enough to order California roll—and then eat what Jamie didn’t want of his. I debated trout Almondine and fried oysters with Caesar, but Jordan decided for me by pointing out I can cook trout at home but probably won’t cook oysters. And the Caesar salad was delicious—it may be my favorite in town.

Dinner was the high point of a good day. I finished the first edit/rewrite of my work in progress. Managed to add six thousand words, fix lots of typos, and make Henny, the heroine, a bit feistier, which is her trademark characteristic. I’m hoping to do one more read-through and then send it to Fred, who reads and critiques everything I write. He saw me through the TCU English doctoral program fifty-plus years ago and remains my good friend and teacher. How lucky am I!

Scooby and a tiny Sophie
He tolerated everything except when she tried to steal his treats

This morning this picture popped up on my memories on One Drive. It must be a new Microsoft thing, but they send me memories every day. This one struck close to my heart. Scooby was wild and crazy, the result of having been an ignored back-yard dog and sometimes abused, the first third of his life. We had a rough time getting used to each other but eventually both were devoted, and he was perhaps the sweetest dog I’ve ever had (shhh! Don’t tell Sophie!). He slept by my desk so much that the floor in his spot is worn down to bare wood, and he slept by my bed every night. When Sophie came along, he taught her manners—with medium success. I will always miss Scoob.

I swear some day I’m going to write something about dogs I have known and loved, be it a longish essay or a short book. I probably have the closest emotional relationship with Soph, because she is the dog of my retirement—spoiled enough that she thinks I should be here all the time with her. And protective enough that she barks frantically at many things, including the yard guys last night which nearly drove Jamie crazy. But each dog, going back to early childhood, was special, a character in its own way. Telling their stories is on my bucket list.

Tonight, I’m going to try to breeze through the last of that novel I’ve been reading about replacement of Japanese citizens in Chicago.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Sanitizing history


There’s an old saying that most of us have heard a thousand times, with a hundred variations: Who doesn’t know the past is doomed to repeat its mistakes. If we don’t study history, we’ll bring ourselves down by repeating the follies of earlier generations. It seems, though, in our rush toward patriotism, that bit of advice is being left behind. But that’s not new.

I read today that schoolchildren are not being taught about the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of about 60,000 Native Americans from Florida and the Deep South to Oklahoma in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead of being taught how the people of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations were marched under guard, with many dying, school children are told that the Indians agreed to move to make room for new settlement. A blatant and horrible distortion of the truth. They were moved to make way for white greed.

Similarly, at least one textbook informs children that Africans came here as “workers”—no mention of slave ships, slavery, cruel overseers, families torn apart. I suppose children are also not being taught about the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII. Another big blot on our history. I’m reading a novel called Clark and Division right now—the title being the name of an intersection on Chicago’s North Side, in a community where many Nisei (first generation) and Issei (born in Japan) were settled when transferred from internment camps.

Truth in history is giving way today to the current furor over critical race theory. If it weren’t sad, I’d be amused by the people who are so emphatic that CRT (as it is called) should never be taught in K-12. If only these loud voices knew that they make themselves look stupid. CRT is a graduate school discipline which studies the effects of racism on our society. It is mostly confined to law schools and would never be taught to school children. I love the response of an elementary school teacher who said, “If I can get them to read and write and do basic math, I’m a success. Who would have time to teach anything more?”

Here in Texas our governor has decided to enter the history fray. He was probably happy in 2016 when Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller were banished from the classroom, as was slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and Moses was credited with the principles espoused by America’s Founding Fathers. (Better go back up on that mountain again, Moses). I think those extreme standards have been relaxed, but now Governor Abbott has proclaimed that teachers must always use the word heroic in describing the defenders of the Alamo. That, he said, is not debatable.

That of course ties right into the controversy about the current myth-breaking book, Forget the Alamo, which essentially says that the Texas Revolution was all about slavery and the heroes were really a less-than-heroic bunch, many of them adventurers and mercenaries. Reviews ranged from recommending its pages if extra toilet paper is needed on a camping trip to “Well-written, compelling and meticulously foot-noted, [this is] an excellent analysis of the Alamo as both a significant historical event and an enduring Texas legend.”

All this reflects a burning desire on the part of some Americans and many Texans to portray our history in flawless patriotic terms. It’s not a new argument for education. From the seventies into this century, Mel and Norma Gabler from East Texas held sway over the choice of textbooks with their mom-and-pop business called Educational Research Analysts. They were fierce enemies of what they described as humanism—anything anti-American, anti-family, and anti-God. Textbook publishers, needing a profit, couldn’t do one set of books for Texas and another for the rest of the country, yet Texas was a big market. The upshot was that the Gablers basically dictated what was taught across the country—and the truth suffered.

And therein, lies the origins of today’s sanitized history. When I asked one of my grown children what they knew what the Trail of Tears was, the answer was negative. I’m afraid to ask the grandchildren. Enough, Sunday evening rant over.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Our own rituals


Jordan's chicken Caesar wraps

AS we go through life, I think all of us develop little rituals. I’ve thought about this a lot lately because some are so repetitive they annoy me—sometimes when I brush my teeth in the morning, I think with a sigh that it just has to be done again that night. And when I wash my hair, I think how it delays me getting to my day’s work. First world problems for sure.

Lately I’ve developed a more cheerful ritual. Saturdays may have long been cooking days for me, but now the Burtons are often gone, and I plan meals I want to cook. Then my good friend Jean comes and  enjoys them with me, though she is great about contributing a salad or a bottle of wine. For the last two Saturdays the Burtons have been going to Waco—and didn’t go. But they weren’t here for dinner. Last week, Jean and I had spanakopita, and I nibbled on leftovers for breakfast for several days. The leftovers are one big benefit of these dinners.

Today I cooked most of the day—almost no computer time. The menu was lamb meatloaf and zucchini casserole, mostly because a couple of weeks ago I asked Jean if she would prefer salmon or lamb—I specified burgers. She said she loved lamb, but I talked her into salmon because it seemed lighter for a summer meal. As it turned out, I decided I like the croquettes my mom taught me to take of canned salmon better than the fancy and expensive burgers made from fresh salmon. Lesson learned.

But I felt I owed Jean some lamb, so tonight I made a meatloaf of ground lamb and beef, with thyme, basil, onion, garlic, ketchup, and Worcestershire. Delicious, and I have plenty left for one of my favorite lunch treats—a cold meatloaf sandwich with mayo. The lamb is subtle, but it’s there and you can taste it. I know I’m always crowing about cooking what Jordan and Christian won’t eat, but I have to say in their defense they both like this meatloaf. If you want the recipe see “Gourmet on a Hot Plate,” (Gourmet on a Hot Plate: April 2020). Once again, I forgot to take a picture—but, hey! Meatloaf looks pretty much like meatloaf.

Tonight, I paired it with a zucchini casserole that was good but not as great as I wanted it to be. Zucchini was steamed, sliced, mixed with a sauce of butter, sour cream, Parmesan, salt and paprika, and egg. Maybe the zucchini was steamed too much; maybe there wasn’t enough sauce; maybe (my first thought) it needed more salt. Jean and I decided it needed some breadcrumbs, in addition to those on the topping, more salt (that was me—she doesn’t like much salt and once tried to grab the saltshaker out of my hand because she thought I was using too much!), and maybe a bit of cheddar—or more sour cream. I”ll play with what’s left.

But all in all, it was a good dinner, although slightly heavy for a warm night. I’ve had several light meals lately—for lunch a couple of days I made myself a sandwich of cream cheese spread with a bit of mayo and dill, smoked salmon, and cucumber. If that’s not self-indulgent, I don’t know what is.

Last night Jordan fixed us lettuce wraps with Caesar chicken—refreshing and good. She served them with pickled cucumbers and added a plea for me to pickle more cukes This morning I found a cucumber on the cutting board in my kitchen—think that was a hint? So this morning, I made a new batch of pickled cucumbers and onions. Here’s what I did.

Pickled cucumber


Sweet onion

1 c. cider vinegar

1 c. water

¼ c. sugar

1 Tbsp Kosher salt

Pack a clean pint jar with layers of onion and cucumber, packing down as tight as you can. Heat remaining ingredients in a saucepan and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let cool slightly but not to room temperature. You don’t want to pour boiling liquid over the cucumbers and onion, but neither do you want to let it get cold—moderate heat helps marinate the vegetables.

Refrigerate well.

Couldn’t be easier. Now, what shall I cook next Saturday?

Friday, August 27, 2021

Taking a long look at myself


Tonight I jumped into a discussion of why writers blog, confessing that I don’t blog about the craft of writing much but more about whatever crosses my mind. Someone responded saying that’s what blogging started out to be—a sharing of thoughts. And so I’m sharing some thoughts that have been on my mind.

Mostly, I try to save political thoughts for Facebook and keep them off the blog. Maybe it’s because at least one person dear to me is on the opposite side of politics, maybe it’s because I fear I’ll sound shrill. It is not because I fear losing readers for my books. I figure the people who disagree with me probably wouldn’t read my books anyway, and I’m not going to bend to their prejudices.

But I have given thought lately to my voice on social media. If you know me at all, you know that I’m a yellow dog Democrat. I have a friend who is, if it’s possible, even more of an activist than I, and she told me once that she also posts about her garden and her beloved grandsons so that folks will know there is a warm, fuzzy side to her. I thought that some of the best advice I’d ever heard.

Today, a good friend referred to me, not in a critical way, as “Biden happy.” I thought about that a long time. I do defend Biden, especially in this Afghanistan tragedy. And I admit I think of him as a basic, honest, decent guy who has devoted his life to this country and who wants desperately to do what is best for America. He’s also knowledgeable about our history, our government, and our international relationships. I also see him as almost a tragic figure, beset by overwhelming problems not of his making about which he can do little but his best. And he’s trying.

But that doesn’t mean that, like trump followers, I’m a cultist. It’s not that I’m Biden-happy, but the truth is that I believe in morality and the truth. My fervent defense of Biden would be given to anyone in his position. I am outraged by the lies and distortions of the truth, the armchair military experts who are quick to claim he’s done it all wrong. Come on, folks, he’s safely evacuated over 100,000 people in less than a month—the biggest humanitarian evacuation in history.

When Barack Obama was president, I was quick to defend him. In retrospect, I see some things I wish he had done and didn’t, including pulling out of Afghanistan once Osama bin Laden was out of the picture. All along I thought he treated his opponents with kid gloves when he should have had an iron fist, but that’s the kind of guy he is—restrained and classy, not a bully. Will I feel the same way about Biden in future years? Maybe so. Maybe I’ll look back and see things he could have done better. But who am I to judge a man of his expertise and dedication?

There are several distinctions among those who criticize Biden. Some are knowledgeable about the Middle East, have perhaps served in Afghanistan and made friends, and see a better path to victory. Among their number are the many who grieve, as we all do, the deaths of Americans (and Afghans, who died in much greater numbers) outside the Kabul airport yesterday. I too grieve for the lost military men (I don’t think there were any women) and their families. But I would point out I also grieve for the 901 people who died of covid today in Florida under the watch of Ron DeSantis.

Then there are those who oppose Biden and look for any excuse to blame everything on him because they are either all-Democrats-are-evil Republicans or the remnants of trump’s followers, may their numbers decrease. Their opposition is irrational, and they will not listen to reason (though I keep hitting my head against that brick wall). They are the people who insist the withdrawal could have been done better, but when you ask them how, they have no answer. Include Kevin McCarthy in that number, as he whines about 5,000 Taliban prisoners released and overlooks that it was trump that negotiated that release. They are probably also the people who are taking ivermectin.

And finally there are the people who just have to criticize. It doesn’t matter to them who’s in power, because they are automatically against that person, sure that we are being cheated, scammed, lied to, robbed of our rights—you get the picture. I am reminded of the unvaccinated man who, dying of Covid, said, “I don’t like being told what to do.” American freedom and individualism have long been traditional values, but these people take that idea too far. If you told them the sky was blue, they’d have an argument.

This is getting way too long but let me close with a thought of what each of us can do: look at yourself, examine your beliefs, and then become part of the solution, not the problem. What is within your capabilities to do? Write your congressperson with support, not a complaint; volunteer to help those who need it, including welcoming Afghan immigrants. Look around—you’ll find an opportunity.

And do try to avoid being shrill. That’s my resolution.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Blog dilemmas—what to write?


The first Kelly O'Connell Mystery
published in 2011; republished, 2016

No post last night because I had nothing to say, except maybe to jump into the political fray or the great mask hullabaloo which I generally avoid doing in the blog. I have strong feelings about masks, as you might suspect—I can sort of understand vaccine reluctance, though I pretty much view it as superstitious or stubborn—but I can’t understand all this crowing about masks and freedom. How did the two become intertwined? Your freedom ends at the point it intersects mine, or as someone put it, your freedom to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose. There, that was more than I wished to say.

And Afghanistan: I feel strongly that the media is crucifying Biden when they should be praising him for managing the largest human evacuation in history—nearing 100,000 tonight. Yes, he and his administration made mistakes, but I am weary of Facebook experts who know just what he should have done. Truth is, even with all I’ve read, I don’t understand the complexity of the Middle East and couldn’t begin to discuss it intelligently. Questions about how many Americans are left in Afghanistan and how many Afghans we’ve been able to get out are all over the net, with a lot of accusations and misinformation. I shared a couple of informative articles on my Facebook wall. Check it out if you’re interested.

I was accused tonight of being a racist because I posted thoughts on the difficulty of getting Afghan citizens out of the country—I failed to mention women and the terrible fate that awaits them under the Taliban. Yes, I am heartsick about it, but that wasn’t what I was posting about. The subject was evacuation, and how my accuser went from that to claiming I only care about white women, never those of color, I will never understand. Here’s the funny part: I was so indignant when I read the criticism that only the first name registered, and I thought it came from someone I considered a friend. Turned out it was a stranger. Whew! Glad I didn’t jump my friend. But the huge problem of racism is not something I’ll tackle in my blog.

I did have a couple of successes today: after two days of fruitless effort, I managed to create a series page on Amazon for my eight Kelly O’Connell mysteries. Now I have to wait 72 hours to see if it really worked. But you know the satisfaction you get from figuring out a computer tech problem? That was me. And I registered a dispute with Discover over a pair of shoes for which I was charged but which never arrived. (Seriously, thirty minutes after I filed the dispute, the shoes arrived.)

I do have writing news that makes me happy—I’ve started editing the second Irene book, Irene in Danger, and I’ve reached out to editors, readers, and a designer, tentatively scheduling the publication for late October. With two books, Irene’s story is now a series, and I need a series title. You can help. My thought so far is to call each book “An Irene in Chicago culinary mystery.” That gets Irene and Chicago in there but leaves out Henny and Patrick. Still, it’s the best I can do without creating a title that is an entire paragraph on its own. Your thoughts? Comment below or write me at j.alter@tcu.edu.

I even had vague thoughts about a third book—Irene Saves the Day. Irene has been on the victim side in the first two books, so maybe it’s time for her to switch roles. And maybe Henny opens a restaurant—or becomes a chef in an upscale Chicago restaurant? I won’t get it written for over a year because I have two more major projects on my desk. But it took me that long to think about the second book, so who knows?

And those are all the things on my mind tonight. The writing and cooking parts make me happy because they are the only ones I can control. Know that feeling?

Monday, August 23, 2021

Not my best day—and a bit of history

Go cook dinner, Juju! The sum total of my accomplishments today: I made pickles and emptied the garbage. That shouldn’t take me all day and it didn’t, but the rest of the day was wasted mostly with computer woes. 

McAfee, the security company, notified me this morning, that the email address I use for business and the one I generally give to people, was found on the Dark Web. Now I wasn’t sure what that is, but it sounded ominous, worse than all that Dark Money trump used to whine about. I was never sure if dark money came from good guys or bad—come to find out it comes from non-profit organizations, which are not required to list their donors. The Dark Web, I found out, is the unregulated area of the web—no sponsors, no rules, nobody in charge. And no surprise, it is usually associated with illegal activities.

The notice suggested that I change my password on accounts where that email address was the username—and I did that. Changing passwords has long been my nemesis—the university makes me change every six months, and it’s always an ordeal. My password is too long, too short, too weak; the new password and the confirmation don’t match; I am holding my mouth wrong and thinking evil thoughts. It always takes me several tries. So this morning that process was repeated too many times. With some big sites, finding out how and where to make the change is a challenge in itself. Most offer a solution if you forgot your password but not if you just want to change it. Along the way I got at least two people who spoke English with an accent which made it hard for my old ears. No kidding—the morning was almost gone by the time I got this done. And of course, there’s the problem of thinking up new “strong” passwords. Sophie’s name just won’t do.

A second problem popped up last night when I was doing some Amazon work on my book titles. One of my Kelly O’Connell mysteries, Desperate for Death, doesn’t show me as author but cites the woman who edited it along with Calliope Designs, which I’m not sure I ever heard of. So I had to figure out how to email Ingram—they have not yet responded. 

I did have a nostalgic moment today, but even that wasn’t pleasant, though it’s a bit of history. My friend Katie Sherrod posted something about “sundown” towns, and my mind went plummeting back to the Sixties when I was in graduate school at Truman State University in northeast Missouri. The next town over, where I often went to catch the Santa Fe (pre-Amtrak days) for Chicago, was a sundown town. I never actually saw the sign, but I heard about it: “The sun never sets on a n****r in LaPlata.” In other words, Black citizens were welcome to come for day work, but they better leave by sundown. Then this morning, reading a bookish online newsletter, I came across the obituary for historian and author James Loewen who, as the piece said, did not teach American history sedately but charged through it, destroying myths left and right. His best-known book? Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong. 

One of the particular objects of his wrath was ongoing racism in this country, and he zeroed in on sundown towns, writing a book titled Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. In one of his final messages to his followers, Loewen wrote, "I hope ALL of you will use my new website at justice.tougaloo.edu to cause social and intellectual change. With your help, we can all use the energy freed by BLM and George Floyd's death to create a new America in which accurate history prompts positive social change in the present, and such efforts lead to a nation willing to face its past with both eyes open wide." I wish I had known Mr. Loewen. I guess I wish Governor Abbott had too. 

Time to cook supper. With my track record today, I’m almost afraid. Don’t even ask what can go wrong!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Something to brighten your Sunday

Christian is definitely a pot gardener—no, not that kind of pot! He prefers to grow beautiful, flowering plants on the porch but doesn’t care as much about the beds and lawn. The result is that the front porch of the main house is a stunning riot of color. Tonight, he was grilling on the porch, so he while he waited for the grill to heat, he took photograph of his plants. When I told him he’d be on the blog, he said, “Oh good, I’ll be famous!” Here are a couple of his photographs:
By contrast, Jordan and I get the back yard, which is too heavily shaded and not easy to beautify. In recent years, we’ve done better than this year. I don’t know if it’s the constant rain, the lower temps, or what. But our porch plants aren’t faring as well. The bougainvillea, which had finally begun to bloom again after a long dormancy, lost all its blooms during a rainstorm, and they haven’t come back. Tonight I thought Jordan put a dead plant on the corner of the deck railing, but she swore it is a hydrangea that is just beginning to show new growth. The hyacinth vine on the fence is flourishing, and I hope to plant more seeds next spring. And the pentas are doing well, though I think they have more green leaves and fewer blossoms than other years. I haven’t yet planted my herb garden. Christian wanted to varnish the wood to preserve it, and every time he set aside time to do that it rained. This weekend he has gotten one coat on and has plans to finish two coats by next weekend. Meantime, it is upside down on the porch because he was painting the bottom. Progress.
If Christian is the master of the garden, my domain is the kitchen, and I scored a success tonight. We have been in a terrible rut where the only green we had for dinner was asparagus, a tossed salad, or canned green beans. I tried unsuccessfully to enlarge our repertoire—one night I fixed Brussel sprouts which went over like a lead balloon. Even I didn’t like them. But tonight, Christian shaved a half lb. of Brussel sprouts. I would have done it, but he doesn’t like the core and wanted to work around it. It made a surprising amount, though they cooked down. I sauteed the shavings in in olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, until they charred a bit. Then, just before serving, added fresh lime juice and a bit of pecorino cheese. Christian and I both liked it a lot. Next, he wants to try doing it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But I felt I really scored. Sorry I forgot to take a picture. And that’s a wrap on another Sunday night dinner.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Tidbits from a Saturday


Cheater's spanikopita

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art who are over twelve must now be vaccinated—I assume that means show proof. Visitors under twelve must be accompanied by a vaccinated person. And everybody must wear a mask. Yay for institutional responsibility.

And yay for corporate responsibility: when a resort at Jackson Hole, WY held a fund-raiser for Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan, and Mark Meadows, Patagonia said it would no longer supply its products to the resort. It had been their largest customer in the chichi resort area.

Today was a cooking day, as Saturdays often are for me. When I woke up this morning, my first thought, a downer, was that I had all that cooking to do, and I really wanted to get to things on my computer. I thought that was odd for someone who professes to like to cook as much as I do. Maybe, I thought, I like the idea of cooking, the culling of recipes, the thinking about food. But given my puritanical conscience, I was dicing onion by about nine-thirty this morning. Made the filling for what I call cheater’s spanakopita (I use puff pastry instead of phyllo—shh! Don’t tell your favorite Greek aunt!). And I made a tomato soup that Mrs. Electra Waggoner Biggs used to serve at the Waggoner Ranch—yep, it’s for a blog promoting my forthcoming book on the Waggoners, and I had to take a picture of it. Actually, it was pretty good, and I am glad to have some left over for lunch.

But what struck me this morning about cooking was that once I get into it, I enjoy it—even dicing onions (I wear onion goggles). There’s something mechanical and almost meditative about it, and I like the precision when I make myself slow down, read the recipe, take it step by step, and clean up as I go—the latter is a big deal with me, a lesson drummed in by my mother. So it was a good morning, and by eleven o’clock, I was back at my computer where I learned an awful lesson.

I started watching a webinar on making the best use of Amazon and immediately was overwhelmed by the knowledge that I really wasn’t using Amazon to my advantage at all. In the first fifteen meetings, the speaker, award-winning mystery writer S. W. Hubbard, gave me so many chores, I paused the tape and clicked on Amazon to begin to correct my omissions. I’ve decided that will be a week-long project—listen to the tape until I find the next thing I should do, and then click over to Amazon. I’ll watch the webinar in chunks.

These are bad days for our country, days when, no matter our political sympathies, we are almost in agony for the Americans trapped in Afghanistan and for the Afghans whose lives are in danger. The subject of blame is all over the media, and I don’t want to go there, though as you can imagine, if you know me, I have some definite ideas. In addition, the East Coast, around Boston and Cape Cod, is bracing for an unusually severe storm. California is burning, and kids in Florida and Texas are dying. The masking controversy, unbelievable as it is, is tearing our country apart—a phenomenon it is beyond me to comprehend.

It’s definitely a time when everyone needs a Dammit Doll, and Jean brought me one today. When frustration gets more than you can stand, you just bang his head over and over on the nearest hard surface, while yelling, “Dammit, dammit, dammit!” Your guess on who he resembles.

Friday, August 20, 2021

A trivia day


So lovely to have a daughter who fixes lunch. Jordan saw a picture, maybe on Pinterest, and recreated it—taco salad in an avocado shell. Delicious and healthy, and it made me feel spoiled. Who needs tuna fish every day?

Actually, our menu is tending toward Tex-Mex this week. Wednesday in honor of National Fajita Day we ordered fajitas from eatfajitas.com, which is the website connected with Lanny Lancarte’s restaurant, Righteous Foods (I still think it’s the wrong name for a restaurant, but I like their food a lot). The chicken was absolutely out of this world—flavorful and moist. And the queso will now always be a favorite of mine. Then tonight, Reatta was offering an enchilada special to benefit the local Boy Scout Troop, so Christian ordered it. Jordan and I are declining in favor of sirloin patties and salad. My mom cooked really good ground beef patties in a skillet heavily sprinkled with salt, no grease and that’s how I’ll do mine. Jordan doesn’t want all that salt and wants her pattie cooked more.

We had sunshine today, but the temperature was still mid-nineties. I admit it’s a bit cavalier of me to say it wasn’t hot—I didn’t stick my nose out the door, though I work much of the morning with the French doors to the patio open and the a/c off. About noon I turned the a/c on but still keep the doors open. Love the feeling that I’m bringing the outdoors inside. Also there’s a practical consideration: with a flexible screen on the door, Sophie can come and go at will.

Of course, I must lock her out when I want to do my exercises, such as they are. I walk a circular route—down the bathroom hall, into the bedroom, then the kitchen and back to the living area—five times. It gives me about a hundred feet each time. And then I do prescribed chair yoga exercises. But the whole routine drives her wild. We haven’t figured out what bothers her—is she protecting me? From what? Does she think there’s something the matter with me? If I sit down at my desk and behave myself, she calms right down. Maybe I need a dog psychiatrist.

This has been a busy desk week for me—lots of little tasks, most of which don’t mean much to non-writers. But I wrote a blog to boost my forthcoming title, The Most Land, the Best Cattle: The Waggoners of Texas. It contains a recipe, so I have to fix it and photograph before I can send the post off. I’m sure it’s from the eighties—calls for a can of tomato soup and then fill the can with milk. How many remember making tomato soup that way with good old Campbell’s®? This is a chilled soup that Electra Waggoner Biggs called “Crunchy Soup.” After the post is published, I’ll share it.

But I also updated an entry for the Handbook of Texas, put together the Berkeley Place Association newsletter, the Poobah, for September (well, mostly), and wrote a newsletter. Those of you who read Judy’s Stew probably feel you already know way too much about what I’m doing but if you’d like my newsletter, please write me, with your email address, at j.alter@tcu.edu. This newsletter describes the projects on my desk, offers a recipe (Christian’s potato salad), and has a giveaway—three copies of Saving Irene to the first three people who write me, promising to write a review for Goodreads or Amazon. Remember, a promise is a promise.

Tomorrow I’m allowing myself a cooking day—it’s almost like a vacation day.


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

When are you going to quit writing?


One of my often overlooked books 
and the only collection of short stories I have
Available on Kindle for ninety-nine cents.

The question startled me. It came from my son’s friend, a man in his early fifties who retired two years ago. After a long minute, I replied, “I don’t think much about that.” I suppose turnabout is fair play because I had asked him what he was doing these days. My thought, which probably showed, was that fifty is far too young to bow out of the working world. His response was, “If I was working, I couldn’t do what I’m doing.” I didn’t pursue it, but I’ve thought a lot since about his question. When am I going to quite writing?

I’ve been writing since I was about eight and wrote my first short stories on a small pad of lined paper. In high school, I submitted a short story to Seventeen, but it came back so rapidly that, as the late Texas author Elmer Kelton would have said, “it must have had a rubber band on it.” When I was out of graduate school and home with babies, my song was, “I’d write if I knew what to write.” I did some free-lance pieces and even scored one in McCall’s about adoption. My first novel was published as young-adult fiction in 1978 and for too many years I was pigeon-holed as a y/a author.

In 2010 I retired as director of TCU Press. Over my working years I had produced a fairly respectable body of work in terms of quantity if not quality. I wrote fiction and nonfiction for adults and young adults, book reviews, a couple of columns with short runs, books for school libraries, short stories. I wrote whatever would pay. I didn’t really retire eleven years ago—I just sort of switched focus and became a full-time author.

It didn’t take long to establish a routine that still shapes my days—I work at my desk from about eight until around two. Then it’s nap time and my real working day is pretty much over. In the late afternoon, I play on social media and frequently cook dinner for my family. After dinner, I may read, write a blog, or just explore on the computer. It’s a daily routine that makes me happy.

I write because I cannot not write. Writing, they tell us, is a business, and we must treat it as such. But it is to me more than a job. It’s a way of life. It’s not only what I do but who I am. No, I never made the bestseller lists and truth be told all I earned was “walking around money,” but I have people who write me that they enjoyed my books, countless notes from schoolchildren, enough feedback to make me feel that I am contributing something to the world (that’s something I worry about a lot). Writing gives me purpose in life (raising four kids definitely did that too! I have always said my tombstone should read that I was a mother, an author, and a publisher—in that order.).

I have enough projects on my desk and in my mind to keep me busy for two or three years. Whenever I get near the point of wondering, “What shall I write next,” I revert to worrying about a memoir. I have lots of stories to tell, but sometimes I think I’m overwhelmed by the idea of organizing them. There are days when I think I’ll cherry pick from blogs I’ve done over the past fifteen years and compile them into a memoir. But then I’d have to choose a theme—personal life and children, writing, cooking?

I suppose the day will come when the words I put on paper don’t make sense—or at least don’t carry as much impact as I hope they do now. And I may well be too tired to sit at a desk for six hours. I already notice that I am much less driven than I was ten years ago, and I think not writing will come as a slow progression rather than a sudden stop on a pre-announced day. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I’ve got writing to do.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

My no-post post


This will be brief tonight, because I don’t feel I have much to say. I am heartsick over the Texas Supreme Court decision backing Governor Abbott’s ban on face mask mandates, and I worry about all those young children returning to overcrowded classrooms with probably half their fellow students unmasked. So grateful my grands are all vaccinated. And I am heartsick over the too-quick fall of Afghanistan. The latter is not our problem, though we’ve made it that for too long; the former is indeed our immediate and urgent problem.

My personal opinion? Governor Abbott is running for president on a purely pro-trump agenda, from hard right on individual “freedumbs” to spending a fortune of taxpayer money on a short, two-mile section of the wall that never will be built and never did any good anyway. And his “all hands on deck” to deal with the flooding in the Austin capitol? Showmanship to appeal to trump’s base—he’s a man of action and courage. No, folks, he’s a mean, little man with no compassion, no concern for anyone besides his own ambitious career plans. The thought of him as president sends me scurrying to check my passport.

Afghanistan? It was an exercise in futility, and we should never have stayed there. But it traces back, not to Biden, but to Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra affairs. Google it and study up if you need to. And Trump set the deadline for withdrawal and had already withdrawn the bulk of our troops. Not only do our troubles in Afghanistan go back ro Reagan, so does our problem with immigrants at our southern border. Reagan and cohorts used the profits from armed sales to Khomeini, in exchange for hostages though they denied it, to fund Sandinistas who over-ran a socialist government in Nicaragua and installed a dictator. The godawful conditions in Central America trace back to that. When will America learn to tend to its own problems and stop trying to impose governments and regimes on other countries. And that should include lessons learned in Vietnam, but apparently those lessons were never learned. We have enriched the war machines in our country at the cost of an unbelievable number of American lives. More heartache.

All that aside, I had a peaceful day, with online church, a bit of cooking, some reading, and a nap. The day was capped by dinner with Jean—salmon burgers, made from fresh salmon not canned, and a wilted lettuce salad because I knew she loved that. Plus Jordan’s brownies for dessert. And Jean brought me two big, beautiful tomatoes from the Farmers’ Market. I foresee a tomato sandwich for lunch tomorrow.

I’m going to sleep and try to wake in a better frame of mind, figuring out how I, as one individual, can contribute to the causes I care about. Right now, I figure my concern for students is balanced against my anger at Abbott and those parents who whine about liberty and their freedumb so they can send sick children to school unmasked.

Surely the world will look better tomorrow.


Saturday, August 14, 2021

A reading kind of a day



Rain was forecast for Fort Worth today, and I hoped for a cloudy day that would inspire me to spend the whole day reading. It sort of happened—cloudy in the morning, thunder around noon, and a nice rain. But then the sun came out. Didn’t stop me. I kept reading.

My reading choices today were eclectic to say the least. I started with the new and much lauded book, Forget the Alamo, which proposes that the Texas Revolution was all about slavery and nothing more. I have lots of quarrels with the authors, from their narrative tone to a few of the facts—Adina DeZavala was not a raven-haired beauty of twenty-five when she fought to save the long barracks at the Alamo; she was a failed schoolteacher of forty with her hair in a sloppy bun. I think maybe they cherry picked the evidence to support their thesis, but I totally agree that racism was a huge part of the cause of the rebellion. And I was intrigued by a couple of sections—the true story of those Texas History Movies, which people still praise today, and a discussion of how seventh grade field trips suddenly teach Mexican kids that they are the enemy. I still have half the book to go, so maybe more later. I intended to go from there to a Diane Mott Davidson culinary mystery which has me in its clutches. I’ve found caterer Goldy Schultz such good company late at night.

But a friend wrote me that she was reading Rushdie on Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I’ve never read anything by Rushdie and always thought he was intellectually beyond me. But I was intrigued—if it was a book, I wasn’t up for it. But it was the text of the first Philip Roth Memorial Lecture. I pulled it up, read it, and was glad I had. Rushdie is not as off-putting as I thought. His literary knowledge is way impressive, his insight into human behavior and cultural similarities penetrating, and his sense of humor just enough to lighten what he says. I read it with respect and enjoyment. And learned a lot about Roth and Saul Bellow. Time well spent.

But what really got me today was a pop culture piece on what the Royals eat. I’m a fan of the monarchy plus a foodie, so this was right up my alley. I can do without lovage soup (Prince Charles’ favorite) and treacle (Prince Harry’s choice) and even that Canadian staple, poutine, which Meghan Markle loves. Kate Middleton drinks some weird health drink with algae for breakfast—no thanks. But Prince Charles’ baked egg was almost like I do it, except I use cheddar instead of whatever hard cheese the Brits use.

But the late Prince Phillipi, may his memory be a blessing, loved coulibac—salmon in a bread wrapping, sort of like a piscatory version of Beef Wellington. I’ve made it, and I love it. And the Queen Mum’s Brussel sprouts—I don’t much like sprouts, but I’m determined to try these—grated and sauteed with olive oil, onion, garlic, salt and pepper and served with a squeeze of lemon. The Queen also likes smoked salmon and eggs for breakfast—obviously a woman who shares my good taste. And she’s fond of Gleneagles pate, composed of trout, mackerel, and salmon—I’m going to look for that in the store, but I doubt with any luck, and I think making it may be a bridge too far. It calls for a total of three pounds of fish and six sticks of butter!

Maybe none of it would be as good as the soy-baked chicken, wild rice, and salad we had for supper tonight. Wish we’d taken a picture before Christian carved it.

Now I’m off to read Goldy Schutz. Rain tomorrow and through Monday. I’ll get so much reading done.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Is this our future?


I had a guest for happy hour tonight, a longtime friend of my oldest son. I’ve known him since they were in high school together and, later, tended bar at several restaurants. Back then, I prayed they would find themselves something out of food service, and eventually both did. I’m fond of this man, and when I found out he was in town—actually because left a gift of wine on my porch—I said he couldn’t be in Fort Worth without coming to see me. We settled on five o’clock tonight.

But then he texted, with great honesty, “I am unvaccinated.” I replied we would visit on the patio, socially distanced and masked. He asked if he could stand on the sidewalk and not wear a mask, but I said no. He’d have to stand so far away that I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I am beyond grateful that he cared enough to put on a mask to see me (he apparently never wears one). When he arrived, he reached out and said, “Can I hug you?” and I said, “No. No hugs.” So we sat and visited for almost two hours.

I had jokingly warned him that he would get my mask lecture, and at first, he said he’d submit. But then in a late message, he said, “I’m not looking forward to that lecture.” We visited for maybe twenty minutes until the subject came up, and I asked why he wasn’t vaccinated. He laughed and said, “Boy, you wait twenty minutes, and then boom! You’re right on it.”

Essentially his opinion is that it’s a virus and it’s going to be around forever, and it would do no good for him to vaccinate or mask. The virus he said will continue to mutate and we’ll never beat it. “Now they’re talking about a third shot. And then it will be the fourth. When will it end?”  He repeated what I consider the now a shop-worn line, “We all have to make a decision that’s best for us.” My plea that we vaccinate and mask for others, fell on deaf ears. So did my reminder that the virus mutates in victims, so the more unvaccinated people who get sick, the more opportunities for mutation.

He’s not a Trumper, although he is by no means the liberal that I am. But the vaccination issue for him wasn’t even political. It was just kind of a “it is what it is.” He’s angry about covid because his two sons lost a year and a half of schooling, and he believes that everything that comes along, from evictions to staffing shortage to what-have-you, gets blamed on covid, as though it’s an easy peg to hang all your troubles on. And he thinks the government is too much in our live--in Texas I would agree with him.

I admit I wimped out. I was prepared to go into full campaign mode, convince him, so that by the time he left he’d be headed for the nearest clinic to get vaccinated. It didn’t happen. No way. We had pleasant discussions about a lot of things, some reminiscences, nice talk. We agree about abortion (though he is a good Catholic), and we agree (I think) about Governor Abbott, Daniel Patrick, transgender students, and a lot of other hot-button issues. When we disagreed, it was amicable. The one topic I didn’t bring up was the border wall. He was born in Columbia and in his home, they still speak Spanish, so the Border Patrol was in many ways a logical career choice for him. I didn’t ask about it, didn’t ask what he thinks of the wall, though I wanted to.

I decided friendship and amicable relationships were more important, and in this instance, it was a good decision. But I see it as an omen for the future as we head into a second surge of covid. Are we going to choose our friends—and moderate our discussions—based on what others believe, especially when it goes counter to science or, in some cases, what I consider morality? It’s a hard call. If he had defended Abbott, would I have jumped into the fray? I have distanced myself from the very few friends who were/are ardent trump supporters. But is this dilemma, like his prediction for the virus, always going to be with us? I want peace and friendships, but on the other hand, I feel so desperate to have people follow the science and protect themselves to protect the rest of us. It’s a dilemma.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Patterns of History


Orchard Street on the Lower East Side
maybe about turn of the 20th Century

Dinner on my own again tonight, and I was dithering between shakshuka and scrambled eggs with corn and goat cheese (more about all of that another night) when my computer reminded me that I had signed up for a webinar on tenement kitchens from 6:00 to 7:00 tonight.

Several years ago, I reviewed a book titled 97 Orchard Street, a fascinating history of one tenement building on New York’s Lower East Side. The book traced the history of various families who occupied the building, as the waves of immigrants poured into New York from various countries. First, in the mid-1800s, came the Irish, forced to flee the potato famine. Then, around the turn of the century, refugees from the pogroms and harsh conditions in Eastern European countries, and by 1940 immigrants from south of our border. Little did I realize at the time that 97 Orchard Street and a companion building at 103 were the center of a museum devoted to the study of immigration. Next time you’re in New York, the Tenement Museum at 103 Orchard is well worth a visit.

Tonight’s program was on tenement kitchens and looked at three successive families—the Moores from Ireland and the Rogshefkys from Russia, who both lived at 97 Orchard, and the a single Puerto Rican mother (Romanika?) who lived at 103 with her two sons (97 had by then been condemned). A knowledgeable curator walked us through each kitchen—the first two apartments probably some 325 square feet where conditions were so crowded, children slept in the kitchen. We saw the progression from coal to gas to electricity. Each segment featured a typical dish from the family’s culture—boxty, from Ireland, was a pancake-like dish prepared with grated potatoes, egg, and seasonings. Several viewers commented that it looked like Jewish latkes, and I did think it emphasized the similarity of cultures—many feature their own versions of the same food, with a different name.

The Jewish/Russian dish was cholent, a stew put on to simmer before sundown on Friday and eaten after services on Saturday (Shabbat or holy day) when orthodox Jews are forbidden to cook. Cholent is made mostly of whatever is on hand, and usually includes beans of some kind. In my years of being married to a Jewish man and coming to love the food, this is one dish I never was served or tried to cook.

The dish for the Puerto Rican woman was a rice pudding—sorry the name escapes me—made with coconut milk, and the process of making coconut milk was painstakingly described. You did not just go to the local grocery and buy a pint. The dish also had several seasonings, including what looked to me like a lot of cinnamon. Again, this demonstrates the link between cultures—several viewers chimed in to say that rice pudding was a staple of their Jewish backgrounds.

This program interested me partly because I’m interested in American history but more because increasingly my food interest is on American food, and I well realize that our culinary traditions involve a lot of the melting pot—we have absorbed and incorporated from the many immigrants who have been welcomed to our shores. No better illustration exists than the popularity of Mexican cuisine which may have first moved into Texas (and in many instances become Tex-Mex) but has also moved throughout the country.

It struck me as I watched that one of the lovely benefits of retirement is that I am free to dart down this rabbit hole and that. When I read the news in the morning, if a particular item interests me, I can take the time to search out more information on the internet. So it was tonight—I wanted to watch this, and I could easily take the time out from what I meant to accomplish tonight. My deadlines are my own.

Supper? I had a ham and cheese sandwich. I’ve got another dinner on my own this week and will have to decide between inventing shakshuka for one or those scrambled eggs. Hmmmm.


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Some thoughts on Governor Cuomo


Here, I go, out on a limb, but I am saddened by Governor Cuomo’s resignation. He did the right thing today by resigning. He saw that the state of New York and the country at large could not afford to be wrapped up in a probable impeachment trial when there is covid to fight, an infrastructure bill to pass, and other major matters. But a part of me wishes he had toughed it out, as he said all along he would.

I’m not at all sure he’s a serial sexual harassment offender. He is what he has always been—big, bold, and brash. He’s a product of New York and the Italian culture. As he said, he has always hugged men, women, children, and I would add probably dogs. I have known men like that and appreciated them. In fact, I spent almost twenty years with one. It’s boisterous affection but not harassment. (Don’t get me me into a consideration of cultural differences and Puritanical stances against spontaneous displays of emotion.) Cuomo said today that there was a line he would never cross, but apparently the line has been redrawn. I thought that perhaps the most telling line of anything he said.

The MeToo movement changed America irrevocably—what was once natural now became suspect, and as Cuomo pointed out, it’s hard to know where to draw the line between spontaneous affection and offensive behavior. Cuomo says he never intended to offend, and I believe that—to a certain point. I surely don’t want to whitewash him, and I am sorely troubled by the aide who says he put his hand under her blouse and groped her breasts. But what, really, do we know about that incident, other than he says, she says. As a male friend said to me tonight, if it was a loose-fitting top and he hugged her, something approximating that might have happened.

And that’s another part of the story—he says, she says. Eleven women have accused him; he denies all accusations. The New York AG has investigated, at his request, and come up with the accusations from eleven women. But we don’t know the stories behind their relationship with the governor. There has been no trial where the charged has a chance to prove his innocence. I would like to know, for instance, if any of those women were former romantic partners of the governor. Facebook is not a reliable source, but today I saw a picture of Cuomo and one of his accusers in a chummy pose (and much younger), looking very happy together. So what happened, and why did she come forward now? I know all the theories about women’s reluctance to come forward, and I suppose there is comfort in numbers, but all of a sudden eleven women? It needs investigating, and there should have been a fair trial.

So there’s another thing. I am one of the least likely ever to propose a conspiracy theory, but the governor claims this was a politically motivated attack. And I think it’s a strong enough possibility that it should be investigated. The former president, troublemaker that he continues to be, is not above revenge, and he and trump quarreled publicly.

I think perhaps what upsets me the most is that I am angry at my fellow Democrats. As they did in the Al Franken debacle, they got in a feeding frenzy of righteousness and rushed to judgement on one of their own, forcing him to resign. I wish someone had said, “Hold on. Let’s not be in a hurry. Let’s let this work out as it will, according to the American judicial system.”

There is however another politically motivated possibility. By resigning, Cuomo assured that the governorship would stay in Democratic hands at least throughout his term. If a Republican gets the governor’s seat, he could pardon Donald trump for all crimes in New York, which I believe include sexual and financial violations of the law.

I am troubled that we are a country whose Senate, in Republican hands, will twice refuse to impeach trump (although in fairness sexual crimes were not the issue in those trials, but he is a good suspect for multiple sexual offense that go beyond harassment) and will elevate Brett Kavanaugh to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court, when a credible source accused him of attempted rape and multiple other accusations were never investigated. The sad conclusion is that Republicans protect their own at the expense of the country; Democrats, in a fit of righteousness, destroy their own.

I don’t think today advanced us as a civilized or respectable member of the international community, and I wish President Biden hadn’t joined the chorus so quickly. I am a Biden fan, bigtime, but not about this.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Texas—love it or leave it?


I’ve always resented those “America, love it or leave it!” slogans with the clear implication that whatever America does, we should love it. I call that blind patriotism. There have been periods in my adult life when I did not love what American did—the Iraq War, Guantanamo, the continuing death penalty—and I did not want to fly the flag in my front yard or put a flag decal on the back window of my car. This was particularly true during the presidencies of George W. Bush and trump. To me, it’s akin to parenting—you love the child with all your heart but not all of the child’s actions. Or that old aphorism, which is not biblical, though some will take it that way: love the sinner, scorn the sin.

Two friends I care deeply about have left Texas because of the politics—one went to Colorado quite a few years ago, the other moved to New Mexico just this summer. Now a childhood pal writes me that she doesn’t see how I can stay here with all that’s going on. It’s that love it or leave it mentality again. My knee-jerk response is that my four children and seven grandchildren are here (well one is in Colorado but we haven’t lost her yet), and unless I can convince them all that we need a compound in the village of Dores in the Scottish Highlands, I’m not going anywhere.

Also of note is that so much of my career is dependent on Texas, its history and its lore. Of the fourteen mysteries I’ve written, thirteen are set in Texas. I’ve written about Texas women, Texas chefs, Texas food, and Texas history. When I was director of TCU Press, the focus of our publishing program was the history and literature of Texas and the American West. As a transplant of fifty-six years, I sometimes feel like the embodiment of that T-shirt we used to see in the seventies: “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could.”

No, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t want to. But I do want our old Texas back, before people like Abbott, Patrick, Paxton, Cruz, and Cornyn (sounds like a nursery rhyme, doesn’t it?) took over. I could never say it was well as Texas Monthly’s acclaimed writer, Mimi Swartz. She published a marvelous essay in The New York Times titled, “Texas Has Broken My Heart.” If you subscribe to the Times, look it up; if you’re on Facebook, you can find it on my wall.

When I was a very new writer, I did a small children’s book called The Texas ABC Book, and I used to think no other state had a history interesting enough to cover the entire alphabet. Who else has a tale as wild as that of the Yellow Rose of Texas or a state food as colorful as chili? What other state has seashore, mountains, and desert all within its borders. I’ll claim the iconic Alamo as part of our colorful history, though I’m well aware it’s under fire now with the publication of Forget the Alamo—still I think the story of Adina de Zavala and Clara Driscoll and their fight to save the long barracks and chapel is a wonderful bit of history—and speaks to the spirit of Texas women, just as does the woman who refused to let General Houston have her oxen to pull his cannon. When he stole them, she had the last laugh—and stole them back and gave Houston a good trouncing with a whip in the process, to his humiliation.

So yes, I love Texas, but not what it’s become today—a state where every effort is made to limit who can vote, a state where abortion is illegal, no matter extenuating circumstances (have any of those old white men ever had to carry a deformed or dead fetus in their bellies?), a state where teachers are told what they can and cannot teach, a state where local control of vital health matters is over-ridden by an ambitious governor who ignores the real—and correctible—problems facing his state while worrying that trans kids may want to play high school athletics? Or use the wrong bathroom. We’ve clearly lost much of what once made Texas great.

But I’m an optimist. I believe we can get Texas back if we protest loud enough—so cheers to the Texas Senate Democrats who have stalled the voter suppression law and to the cities and school districts who are defying Abbott’s ill-conceived anti-mask mandate order. We must vote the greedy and ambitious out of office and vote in real Texans, who understand Texas life and values as clearly as Mimi Swartz does. Read her essay. She says it far better than I can.



Sunday, August 08, 2021

Learning to like my own company


My "on your own" dinner tonight
a loin lamb chop and asparagus with a sour cream/lemon/crumb topping
Yes, I know, white wine with red meat,
but that's what I like.

The Burtons are home tonight, after spending several days at Lost Pines, a resort down near Bastrop where they can lounge by the pool (sounds so boring to me), Jacob can golf and fish. They do this every August as a family vacation, always taking along a neighborhood buddy for Jacob.

For quite a few years—fifteen or more—I lived alone, although Jordan periodically returned until she married. Still, essentially, I was alone and used to it. But five years ago when I first moved into the cottage and was frail after several health problems, including a major surgery, I quickly got used to not living alone. So the first year they went to Lost Pines, I was almost aghast: They’re leaving me alone? I orchestrated a tight schedule of people to visit me or take me to dinner or do anything to keep me from being afraid of being alone.

This year was totally different. Yes, I planned a schedule, but it pretty much fell apart—my Friday night dinner companion (we were going to Lucile’s) was exposed to Covid and went into quarantine, and my Saturday night company suddenly found she would be out of town Saturday night. Only then she wasn’t, and she came over on Friday night when neighbors also walked down for happy hour. And of course there was dinner at the Drover and before that a visit from my Canadian daughter and her husband. So I had plenty of company, except Saturday night and that was just fine.

But I learned several things. One is that when they go on vacation, I somehow think I am on vacation too. I sleep later, nap longer, and generally take it easier. So one morning I slept until eight-thirty, which is pretty unheard of for me, and I wouldn’t have gotten up then but Sophie was pretty insistent, and my conscience pricked me—there’s something about staying in bed too late that conflicts with my work-ethic upbringing. Still, I tell myself I can sleep late even if they are all in the house and getting ready for the day.

Another lesson I learned is one I’ve known a long time: when they are gone, I cook the things they won’t eat. I actually didn’t do as much of that as I thought this week. I stuffed a large zucchini one night with a tuna/cheddar/crumb mixture of my own invention. It was really good and fed me one night and two lunches. I was out to dinner that one night and had leftovers the next day for lunch. Friday night I fixed the Great Outdoors-style sandwich that Jordan and I are loving—and so is Jacob. Saturday night I made a lifelong favorite—salmon croquettes—and had cucumber salad and avocado salad with it. The cucumber salad is a recipe I found for “refrigerator pickles” but when I read it I thought that’s marinated cucumber, not pickles. (The cucumber is sliced, as are the onions—my mom kept a version of that in the fridge all summer, but this had a bit of sugar to soften it).

Now home and heading into a new school/work year, Jordan is going on a rather strict eating regimen which cuts out a lot of the things I like to eat. Having done so well eating on my own, I decided I will cook for the family when they want things I can agree on, but there may be more nights I want to cook for myself. Like cube steak with onion soup gravy or fish tacos with lime/cilantro crema. Or scrambled eggs with corn, goat cheese, and tomatoes—does that not sound wonderful?

So tonight, we batted out a week’s menu—we will only dine together three or four nights, and on the menu are flank steak, baked fish filets, and a roasted soy chicken—an old recipe of mine that I remember fondly. One night my niece is coming with her two daughters, and I’ll make finger sandwiches, but Jordan will eat with Christian because she can’t have the bread in the sandwiches. Not that Christian couldn't have the sandwiches, but just that I'm sure he will opt out.

But I digress from the lessons I learned. The biggest one was that I like my own company. I was just fine Saturday when I woke up knowing I would not see another human all day—after all, I had Sophie for company, didn’t I? I actually looked forward to the day—wrote on my work-in-progress, read a novel, fixed my salmon patties. A good day. And now I know I can do that again. No, I don’t want to go a week without human companionship, but a day or two is just fine. So I guess the lesson is that I am going to be a bit more independent now. Swell, just when we are looking at having to semi-quarantine and mask up again!

Stay safe everyone.