Friday, December 31, 2021

Here we go again


Set-up for a cancelled party,
I think it makes a nice still-life.

When you begin the day by getting the tea bag string so tangled with the spoon, you have to use scissors, you get a hint it might not be your best day! Yesterday I cancelled the small open house I’d been planning for New Year’s Day—come and go for black-eyed peas, ham, and good luck. Only at most twenty people and, I prayed, not all at once because twenty people would crowd the cottage beyond conviviality. The guests were my closest friends, people I knew would be vaccinated, masked, careful. Even so, one good friend wrote that they would come only if they could stay outside, and a neighbor couple sent heartfelt regrets. Still another friend said she was relieved and they had planned to stay on the patio. A grandmother planning a trip to see grandchildren said she was refusing all social invitations as she kept herself virus-free for the visit. As a final blow, the wonderful woman who was going to “spiffy up” the cottage that morning reported she has tested positive.

This was particularly poignant for me. For fifty years or more, I gave an annual tree trimming party with sixty or more guests. I began cooking and freezing things in November. The week of the party I laid dishes out on the table with little notes in them of what went in which dish. (When he saw that, Christian said to Jordan, “You and your mother have a screw loose.”) It was a big deal party—cheese ball, caviar spread, smoked salmon, an annual tradition that I looked forward to and so did my guests. I haven’t done it in at least six years—hard to cook like that when you need a walker, and then in the cottage there was no room.

So this was to be a mini-recreation of tree trimming, and I was excited about it. I’m a bit surprised that instead of sadness, I feel relief. I wouldn’t want anyone to get sick because they came to my cottage. I will say planning a party that doesn’t come off is a great way to straighten your living quarters—Jordan and I put away a lot of the clutter in the cottage, most of it in places where it will not appear again at least for a while. And I sure have stocked up on liquor, including that really good eggnog with the nog in it.

I did offer curbside pickup on the patio for black-eyed peas in the late afternoon on New Year’s Day. I expect it will be a tad too cool for much patio sitting.

I am sad, relieved—and a bit angry. For myself, I am going into quarantine again, just when I’d been working to convince myself I didn’t want to be a recluse. Having stayed home for almost a year, it was hard to get into the routine of going out again. But I was enjoying restaurant dinners and the like—and now, boom! Yesterday alone, there were a thousand new cases in Tarrant County, and the total for the last week is something like 5,500. If people had listened to the science and not the politics and followed the advice, vaccinated, worn masks, kept social distancing, the omicron would not have had so many hosts.

I honestly don’t understand anti-vaxxers and, yes, I am angry at them. They are so self-absorbed with their indignation that they fail to see their folly could not only kill them, it affects the rest of society. We’re all in this damn boat together. It was philosopher John Stuart Mill who believed that individuals should have absolute freedom except when their actions could harm another or the community in general!

This morning I put a pot of peas on to cook (you don’t know how badly I wanted to fill out the alliteration with pickle instead of cook!). Tonight I’ll still be in my jammies, and I’ll cook my favorite comfort food—salmon croquettes. TV? Probably not. Rather a good book, I don’t know if I will last until midnight or not, but I will treat myself to a nightcap of eggnog. I’ll be perfectly happy, but I hope that my New Year’s Eve doesn’t set a pattern for the year.

A Scottish blessing, traditional on Hogmanay (the last day of the old year): “A good New Year to one and all, and many may you see.” And there’s an Irish custom you should know. I’m told it’s traditional to open the door to be sure the old year leaves! An especially good practice this year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

When do you really start the new year?


When Sophie was home with Christian in the main house, 
she kept watch out the front door for any lurking dangers.
Christian labeled this, "Our security system takes a break."
Soph knows one place she is not allowed is that gold couch.

Some people claim that the gap between Christmas and New Year’s is the perfect time to cut yourself some slack, take it easy. January 2 you can once again set the world on fire. But for now, read several books, watch a lot of movies, treat yourself to that second glass of wine after dinner. Most times I would say, “Have long lunches in your favorite restaurant,” but with the omicron variant spreading so quickly, I think I’ll leave that out.

For me, though, the lax period extends from about Thanksgiving to Christmas. I’m wrapped up (pun intended) in Christmas planning and preparations—buying gifts and wrapping them, cooking for gifts, planning meals (most of my meal planning comes to naught because my daughters take over kitchen duties and generally ignore my suggestions; when I said recently that I missed the cooking, Colin suggested that I could be the wise consultant; soon enough Jordan wanted to know how to tell if her egg casserole was done and I told her to stick a silver knife in it—does that qualify as wisdom? But I digress.

After Christmas, I am energized rather than experiencing the letdown that many do. Having not done much serious work for over a month, I am full of ambition and goals.  This year is no different. My goals aren’t exactly New Year’s resolutions—those come in a whole different category about being a better friend, being less judgmental, thing like that. But it’s my work plans I’m thinking of now. At present, I have two projects as many of you know—another Irene mystery to finish (“The End” is a long way away, as I’ve just begun) and the Helen Corbitt book. I think I’ve decided that Corbitt will be my priority, at least to get fifty pages done and to focus on interesting a publisher. Those are goals that will develop slowly—for instance I am waiting to hear from the archivist who has Corbitt’s papers and since she’s with an academic institution, I figure she’s on vacation until classes resume. So I’ll fill my days with re-readng what I have on Irene. But I really hate to juggle two projects at the same time.

Today I played catch-up, paying bills, answering emails, ordering some things—all stuff that I had put aside during the week I was in Austin. Yes, I had my computer, but there are some things that are just easier done at home with my big-screen monitor and my files close at hand. Too, I need to straighten my desk: I am having a very few people in for a come-and-go open house this weekend (one can’t have a large guest list in a 600-square-foot cottage) and I need to make sure the cottage sparkles. Cleaning my desk is a big part of that. Jordan has cleared some surfaces to the point that I am wondering how I can live and cook in this space between now and Saturday!

In a bit of related trivia, Jordan went to the grocery this morning with my list in her hand. My list included a two-lb. piece of boneless ham—I know, I know, bone-in is so much better and the boneless is scraps welded together with who knows what—but I simply wanted it to dice and stir into black-eyed peas. I now have two 2-lb. boneless hams. I foresee ham in our future meals and am welcoming great recipe suggestions.

I’ve thought about my expectations, other than ham dinners, for 2022 with some puzzlement. Everywhere I see the hope that 2022 will be better than the previous two years, but I am leery of the omicron variant and can foresee another surge strong enough to send us back into at least voluntary quarantine. When Covid-19 first hit, I didn’t know anyone who had it. Gradually that changed—some of my family got it, a few friends. Still I was isolated and felt remote from it. Not so now—several close friends and/or their families have come down with the omicron variant. I am more alarmed than I like because I read that in heathy people who have been vaccinated and boosted, it should be mild, but the jury is still out on the elderly (ahem! That’s me!) and the immune-compromised (that’s one son and one son-in-law plus one close friend).

Other than an abundance of caution and the fact that Mercury will be in retrograde a lot of the time (I never understand that, but I know it’s not good), I do think 2022 will be a good year, and I have high hopes for it. How about you?

Monday, December 27, 2021

Memories of an Austin Christmas


A Christmas photo of me with my four loves

Before we bid Christmas and 2021 goodbye, I want to share a few thoughts and pictures of a memorable trip to Austin. Jordan, Jacob and I traveled on December 21—Christian followed two days later. Both on the way there and the way back, I was pleased and surprised by how much land in Central Texas is still worked as small farms and ranches, so much open land. (Sure, I’d seen it before, as recently as July, but it really struck me this time.) A wreck outside Leander sent us on a detour and suddenly, we were smack in the city with ticky-tacky boxes all jammed together, each identical to the next. The contrast made me sad, but then I realized I was being judgmental—many people were happy to have those homes. Good lesson in taking another viewpoint. In an unfortunate coincidence, coming home we happened on a wreck between Hico and Glen Rose that had only happened minutes before. As Jordan said, if we hadn’t stopped for a potty break and to buy me some chocolate, we might have been there at just the wrong time. Makes you think—with gratitude.

In Austin we were at daughter Megan’s house—all eighteen of us during the days. The nights were cool, but the kids liked to sit on the patio, so one night I bundled up.

Colin helping me keep warm

On Wednesday, we had lunch with a writer I know from a small online group but had never met—a real treat and a highlight of the trip. Stephanie Raffelock writes about women coming into their own as they age—a message I find most encouraging. Her new book is Creatrix Rising. But we talked mostly about cooking—the turkey we planned and her duck confit. I didn’t even know how confit is pronounced—kän’fē]—but now I am determined to try roasting a duck—I’ll let the confit part wait. In the oven in the main house. I got a new toaster oven for Christmas that will give me much more flexibility and an air fryer, but I don’t think it’s up for a whole duck.

Lunch with author Stephanie Raffelock

One night we all piled into cars and drove the Trail of Lights, an Austin phenomenon once sponsored by the city but now presented by individual sponsors. It is fantastic, best I’ve ever seen. I was particularly impressed by the tunnels of light. This picture hardly does it justice.

Christmas morning was pandemonium, but what can you expect with eighteen people? The old controversy about when to open presents was neatly solved—on Christmas Eve, Jordan gave each of the girls matching pajamas. I posted a picture Christmas night. Christmas morning the gift opening vs. breakfast dilemma was equally well solved—the guests sleeping in an Airbnb and a hotel were so slow to get there, we were all starving. So we had breakfast and opened gifts afterward.

Me and Jordan in our Christmas pajamas

Our Christmas dinner was traditional and delicious. I keep hearing of people who have prime rib and duck confit and even enchiladas, but not my family. Megan, with Melanie’s expert stirring, made the best gravy I think I’ve ever had—a combination of my mom’s technique (shake flour and cold water in a jar really hard) and the addition of Central Market gravy. So flavorful—and plenty of it. I always worry about running out of gravy—probably selfish because I really want it all over everything.

I posted the other night about my grandsons but can’t resist sharing this picture of them. The youngest is the tallest, and the oldest is the shortest. Each so very different and individual, but when together they seem a bonded unit. I alluded to the Beatles before, but that really only applies to Sawyer, the oldest, who is a skilled guitar player. The other three are more into individual sports.

My grandsons--how did they get this big and old?

Hope each and every one of you enjoyed Christmas, whether you celebrate the day or eat Chinese. It’s a special time. And now, into the new year.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Christmas wish for all my friends


The women of the Alter family

Hope you had the merriest of Merry Christmases

And that 2022 brings you the gifts of this blessed season—

Peace, hope, and love.

“And of these the greatest is love”

(The guys would join us but

nobody gave them matching pajamas!)

Friday, December 24, 2021

Thoughts on Christmas Eve


A holiday moment with my boys

Last night my family and I sat in a big circle in the living room—all sixteen of us plus Trevor, who is new, and I looked around at all those lovely faces, and thought how lucky I am. Lots of laughter, lots of “remember when?” conversations. One granddaughter said, with a huge smile, we haven’t had everyone together since pre-Covid. And we hadn’t—it was so nice to have them all in once place This time, we are all vaccinated, boosted, and tested the day before we arrived. Still for me an air of unease hangs over the gathering. The omicron variant looms. Meantime we make merry and act as though nothing is wrong. One of my granddaughters, a college student, had said that this was a time in her life when she had nothing to worry about. When I heard that, I nearly clapped my hand on my head—it seems to me there is so much in this world to worry about.

Still, these are moments to be treasured. How many women have grown children who sit around, late at night, and talk about their pet grammatical peeves? Brandon began it with his irritation at people who say literally when they mean figuratively, like “I’m literally dying here,” to which he replies, “Really?” My outrage at people who misuse lay and lie came up—it’s by now a family joke—and Megan expressed her displeasure at people who overuse “that” which led to a discussion of extra words. I suggested “There is a study that shows….” Should be “A study shows….”

Today Colin and his daughter Morgan took me to lunch—a lovely chance to visit and talk quietly about things that interested each of us—even how to roast a duck. And last night, I sat in a corner with both my sons, and we talked about many things, including a stock investment I’ve lost track of (don’t ask!) and they think will be their inheritance.

My four grandsons, ages fourteen to eighteen, are the disappearing persons at this gathering. They come and go silently, and we’re never sure where—for coffee, to throw a football, shoot some baskets. But every time they go in and out, in single file, that classic picture of the Beatles crossing a street leaps into my mind. A couple of them have haircuts that increase that image.

Tonight Morgan and Colin went to the airport to pick up Morgan’s boyfriend, who the rest of us had never met. The rest of the group decided they had to give him a proper welcome—they scrounged up candles and stood in the front yard singing carols.  The plan was to ask him to lead them in song—whether that happened or not, I’m not sure, but I heard a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells.”

Tonight, following our family custom of many years, we had Brandon’s chili for Christmas Eve. Yesterday I wrote a Gourmet on a Hot Plate blog about a salmon recipe I thought showy enough for a Christmas Eve meal. Before Brandon joined the family, we used to have a bit of a problem deciding on a traditional meal for Christmas Eve. But last night I felt like a bit of a hypocrite recommending salmon for others while I knew a great bowl of chili awaited me.

Tonight we had the usual argument—some who married into the family (now called outlaws, thanks to a gift Lisa came up with) come from traditions where gifts are opened on Christmas Eve. The Alter tradition and my childhood one was to open gifts on Christmas morning—one gift, then a big breakfast, and then gifts. We’ve had to modify that to mollify both the outlaws and impatient children, so everyone opened one gift tonight, followed by cries (from my two sons, the wretches) to open them all right now. I quieted them with my usual threat of disinheritance. I think were I not here to enforce custom, they would open them all tonight.

These are all moments to treasure and make me so grateful for my family. And sometimes a bit picky, snarky, whatever—I’m looking at different generations who do things differently than I would, so I bite my tongue—except about the gifts.

For all who are celebrating tonight, I share your joy. For those who are grieving or lonely, I wish I could wrap my arms abut you. In the words of Tiny Tim, “May God bless us every one.”


Sunday, December 19, 2021

More chutney, some awesome Christmas lights, and a sense of caution

My Christmas orchid towering over Serenity with her poinsettia headdress.
I feel as though I live in a greenhouse.
So wonderful!

My project of the day was a second batch of chutney—this the cranberry/apricot. I think I perfected my technique, because it didn’t take me nearly as long, and I think the chutney is better. Yesterday, I let it thicken too much—good flavor but not so great on the consistency.

Tonight, I went to Pacific Table with three longtime friends. We try to have dinner together fairly frequently, but tonight was in celebration of Subie’s early December birthday. Okay, we were a bit late. We also had a small Christmas gift exchange, and I was thrilled with the book Carol gave me on dairy restaurants. She purchased it at New York’s Tenement Museum, Author Ben Katchor traces the history of these establishments, originally begun to cater to kosher laws which required the separation of meat and milk products. Eventually, some critics claim, the dairy restaurants morphed into Dairy Queen and similar chains. The book has wonderful, humorous illustrations, and I look forward to digging into it.

Subie brought me a beautiful orchid, of a color I’ve not seen—sort of off-white, but with pale striations that almost make it look like the blossoms are of thin wood. And Kathie contributed a jigsaw puzzle which should be great fun at our family get-together.

Lovely evening. I ordered my usual—Caesar salad with fried oysters. Pacific Table has hands down the best Caesar salad in town, and the fried oysters are so well seasoned you shouldn’t even think of cocktail sauce. The restaurant was, however, a bit noisy.

On the way home, I mentioned that I’d been told that the light display at Cook Children’s Hospital was spectacular, so we detoured—and were delighted that we did. It is an absolute fairyland, wonderful to see. Cars slowly drove by—and a parked limo blocked traffic, making a minor jam, but I guess if you can afford a stretch limo you don’t care.

I came home to the realization that I need to get my neighborhood newsletter out the door first thing in the morning, so I spent much of the evening proofreading and following up on odds and ends.

These are the days of anticipation. For many, they are frantic days, worrying how you’ll ever get everything done. For some of us, like me, everything seems done, so you worry about what maybe you haven’t done. And you don’t want to start anything new because…well, Christmas is just around the corner.

A sense of—how to say it? Caution? Dread? —hung over us at the dinner table tonight, because we all feel we are headed into another severe Covid season. Of course, there’s a good reason we feel that way—it’s predicted all over the media. So, we talked about maybe having to go back to patio parties and small—what was the word? Hives? Coveys? That small group you felt comfortable socializing with. We all seemed to feel we were headed to mandates (which doesn’t bother any of us), masks (doesn’t bother us either, though I don’t hear as well when people speak through a mask), and perhaps school closures. I am the only one closely affected by that, because I am the only one lucky enough to live with a grandchild. For his sake, I hope schools don’t close—he hated his year at home but bore it with good grace; on the other hand, I want to keep him safe. And my six other grandchildren, scattered as they are. Always a dilemma.

At any rate, when people toast, as we did tonight, to making 2022 a better year than 2020 or 2021, I have some hesitation. For my own part, I survived quarantine nicely, pretty much with spirits intact, and I would expect and hope to do so again. And you should see all the toilet paper Jordan has secreted away on a high shelf in my closet. What was that phrase a while back? “Buckle up, Buttercup. It may be a rough ride.”

What a downer way to end a Christmas blog! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all, and for just this brief time, put Covid and abortion and politics and warfare out of your mind, and enjoy the season.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

The cranberry controversy


My accomplishment for the day--
six tiny jars of cranberry chutney

It was tradition when I was growing up that Mom made raw cranberry relish for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You know the kind—ground cranberries, an orange, and an apple, and some sugar—how much sugar depended on your taste, but Mom didn’t’ use a lot of it.

We had an old wooden stool, its green paint chipped (I can see it as I write). Dad would clamp an equally old hand grinder to the stool and grind away. None of us were considered strong or tireless enough for this chore, but I remember many happy evenings in the kitchen watching him. And we loved the relish. I have since had it with canned pineapple added—not as bad as you might think—and in a jelly base. You know, the jellied salads of the Sixties. I rather liked it—strawberry Jell-O I suspect.

Fast forward a whole lot of years—my children wouldn’t touch it. And then at least two of them married people who like that jellied stuff that comes out of a can with ridges on it, and they insisted on serving it for holiday meals. My relish had its fans though, principally my brother and one of his brothers-in-law for whom I one year made an entire extra batch.

We no longer can gather our two families for the holidays. There are simply too many of us—we don’t easily fit under one roof, and it’s too much work for any hostess, even though we all pitch in. So some years I fix a batch for John and then wonder how to get it to him at the ranch.

Today, instead of relish, I made cranberry chutney, with figs in it, hoping that would travel better. Chutney is a new favorite of mine. Basically, chutney is a spicy condiment made of fruits or vegetables with vinegar, spices, and sugar, originating in India. Mango is the most common flavor, but it can be done with everything from cauliflower to coconut—apples, pears, tomato, peach, and combinations. Lots of recipes online. I liked two cranberry recipes I found—the one with figs because it called for bourbon and the apricot one because I love all things apricot

So that was my big project today, and my product was six tiny jars of chutney. I do mean tiny. Another of my online ordering faux pas—I didn’t realize how small four-ounce jars are. So today I made six small jars with figs, and tomorrow I plan to make six with apricots. In addition, Jean brought me a jar of chutney from the farmer’s market. I now have a wealth of cranberry chutney—I’ll share some and see what my family says. A plus: the cottage smelled wonderful when I was cooking it.

Tonight, when Sue and Teddy came for wine, it did not smell so good. I was cooking spinach for Jordan and me to have for supper. Christian has gone to Dallas, so we fixed a recipe that sounded delicious to us, but he would not have enjoyed—salmon on a bed of spinach, tomatoes, and artichokes, with lemon butter sauce. As I write, it’s cooking and smelling great. Watch for the recipe this Thursday on the Gourmet with a Hot Plate blog. Would be a great way to welcome in the new year.

Our deconstructed salmon dinner.
Jordan says we have to have this once a week.

Good visit with Teddy and Sue. Caught up on their recent visit to Ottawa (Ontario) to see her parents, who are friends of mine. Her dad is having health problems but overall, the report was encouraging. And it’s always good to visit with them about books and current affairs and all that’s going on in the world. I’m so glad Sue brought Teddy into my circle of friends. He’s a keeper. She, of course, has been my “Canadian daughter” since she lived next door too many years ago. Good times, good friends. 

A lovely day.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Visits to the past


Picture just because I liked it.
Hope it's apt.

I went back to the past twice yesterday and today, and I guess what I learned is that it is never the same—good, but not the same. Yesterday, Melinda, who worked with me for over ten years at TCU Press and became a special friend, picked me up for an outing to the TCU Press Christmas book sale and then lunch. I worried a lot about the physical aspects of this—tiny though she is, Melinda drives a huge SUV. Would I be able to get up into it? (It was touch and go at first, but then I mastered it, except poor Melinda had to fetch a stepstool and my walker every time I got out—I was afraid she’d swear she was never going anywhere with me again; she has denied that). Then I worried about the long hallway and rather steep ramp at the alumni center. I made it down the ramp just fine, by holding on to the railing with one hand, while Melinda parked the car. Then it turned out we were in the wrong part of the building, and I had to turn around and go right back up that blasted ramp. But it too was okay.

The book sale was a nostalgia trip for me. I barely knew the staff that were there, but I met the new marketing manager, with whom I had some correspondence, and we had a good visit. I’m hoping to get with him after the holidays, because I want to tell him about some programs we did in the past. But the big thing to me was browsing the books for sale, recalling this title and that, the work that went into them, the authors I’d worked with. Reminded me of a really good time in my life, with work that made me happy. Sad that several authors have now left us—and proof that I am getting older, as if I didn’t already know that. I spent two dollars and came away with four books, three of which I meant as gifts. Gave Jordan hers, only to find out they already have it.

Lunch was great. Melinda and I always have lots to talk about and laugh heartily, from family doings to politics—okay, the latter is not so funny. But we have a great time getting caught up. And we splurged—had wine with our lunch, and I had a lobster Cobb salad. Good, but the lobster was watery, like it had just been defrosted.

Tonight, Jean and I went to the Tavern for supper—sat on the patio, because it is quieter and the weather was balmy, though we are expecting storms later tonight. I had the hamburger I’ve been craving for days. We ordered a fire-roasted artichoke for an appetizer but almost couldn’t eat it—way too much pepper. After dinner, we went on an extended tour of several neighborhoods to look at the Christmas lights. Sometimes they all blur together, sort of look-alikes, so it was fun to find a house here or there with imaginative and different decorations. We agree we are both fans of lights but not blow-up Santas and related figures.

On one street in Berkeley, my neighborhood, all the houses have pitched roofs, some with more than one pitch and all outlined in white lights. Made a real cool picture when you looked down the street. Jean’s favorite, ever year she says, is a tree on Colonial Parkway that is decorated with rather delicate purple lights and then strings let hanging loose from the tips of branches, sort of like a weeping plant basket.

It was particularly fun for me to ride through Berkeley because I could tell Jean who lives there and what the history of that house is, the house designed by the first woman architect recognized in Texas and the only true art deco house in the neighborhood. I realize I’ve lived in Fort Worth over fifty-five years and spent almost thirty of them in Berkeley.

I guess nostalgia is one of the joys aging brings. At this time of year—and many other times—I look back on a lot of good memories. My life has been full of memory-making incidents, large and small, and I am grateful. Tonight, looking at lights, I remembered countless trips to join the bumper-to-bumper traffic around Luther Lake where there were the most creative lights and their reflection in the water made them extra special. For the kids, each year it was a new and wonderful experience all over again. Tonight, because I hadn’t gone light-looking in several years, it was once again new and wonderful.

I remember other magic moments at Christmas—the look on a grandchild’s face during the Christmas Eve candlelight service when the sanctuary was darkened and everyone raised a candle as they sang, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” The look on children’s faces when first allowed to the tree on Christmas morning—by then they’d been awake and impatient a long time, having to wait for the adults to get going. Christmas always was and always will be magic. Despite the fact that all the little ones in my family are teens, I look forward to new memories this year.

And then, there is always reality. I just read a post where Facebook wanted to share my memories. From ten years ago, it said Jacob arrived in a grumpy mood and told me how mean I was. Win some lose some, but even that is a treasured memory.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Truly a workday--and a bit of self promotion


Nothing on my calendar all day—a day to knuckle down and take care of all those brush fires on my desk. So I answered emails, checked comments on Facebook (yes I check to see who has commented on my blog because I want to be polite), straightened out my calendar (somehow I had confused Saturday and Sunday for January 1, until a friend pointed it out to me—then I had to correct with people with whom I had made plans). I wrapped a couple of gifts, wrote some Christmas messages to my grandchildren (yes, the kind with green inside) and filled out that awful form to return a package. I ordered socks for one of the girls, a tiny thing, and the sent me a large, navy men’s shirt. The return form requires a twelve-digit item number be squeezed into a quarter-inch space—impossible and frustrating! I filled in the holes in the bibliography for the Helen Corbitt project and corrected some format problems in a short story.

And that brings me to the blatant self-promotion I want to do tonight. I am so grateful to so many of you for following my career as a novelist and, I hope, reading my books. But did you know I have written short stories. Note that’s in the past tense. I probably haven’t written one in almost ten years. My theory is the right impetus has to hit you for a short story. I can’t sit down and say to myself, “Okay, I’m going to write a short story. What should it be about?” I must have the idea, though sometimes the idea can come from a direct challenge, such as the opportunity to be included in an anthology of WWII memories. I wrote “An Old Woman’s Lament about War” in a day for that one. More often, my short stories came from small incidents in the past—I’d read about something and think that would make a story.

The point of my rambling tonight is that my short story collection, Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories, is available on Amazon, and I’d like to suggest it to you if you have someone on your guest list who reads in short bursts. That’s what short stories are for. Mine are almost all about women—I think of one exception—from the nineteenth-century American West to the present. A couple of them have won Spur Awards from Western Writers of America.

The title story, “Sue Ellen Learns to Dance,” was inspired by a Dorothea Lange photograph of a Depression-era mother in a battered old pick-up, her wan and depressed children clustered close to her. One of the saddest pictures I’ve ever seen. But I balanced it with the memories of an old woman who once, young and beautiful, had danced in Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre. “We were never wicked,” she insists.

“Fool Girl” comes from an incident in Harry Halsell’s reminiscence, Cowboys and Cattleland. I simply did a gender switch on the main character. Halsell’s book, by the way, is available in several editions but almost always with the same material. Part of a long line of cattle ranchers and connected by marriage to the Waggoners of Texas, he was the father of journalist Grace Halsell, author of Soul Sister, among many other books. Soul Sister is the feminine equivalent of John Howard Griffith’s Black Like Me.

But I digress, wandering away from my own short stories. The story that still makes me cry at the end came from a record in Fort Worth’s Log Cabin Village files about a Commanche attack on a settler’s homestead. “The Art of Dipping Candles” won a Spur from Western Writers and a Wrangler (Western Heritage Award) from the National Cowboy Museum. It like several others, was written quickly, as though once the idea came to me, the words just poured out.

If you’re inclined to read short stories, please check it out: Sue Ellen Learns to Dance and Other Stories - Kindle edition by Alter, Judy. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @

And forgive me for such an outright bragging about my own work. I just felt, as I reformatted “The Art of Dipping Candles” that the short story collection is often overlooked.


Tuesday, December 14, 2021

And so, Christmas really begins….


Our bountiful table

Jordan and I hosted our regular neighborhood ladies’ get-together tonight, but with a difference: it was a holiday potluck, and oh my! we all went overboard. The bountiful table is pictured above. Pru brought tenderloin sandwiches and marinated mushrooms; Mary, poire rouge (a wine concoction that everyone raved about, except I stuck to chardonnay—better safe than sorry) and a wonderful citrus tart with chocolate ganache and real whipped cream; Jordan fixed a cheese and salami platter and our family favorite salmon spread, and I added pickled herring (Jordan and Pru didn’t touch it, but Mary and I love it), and a goat cheese log filled with pesto and rolled in toasted sesame seeds (usually I burn one batch and then do a second, but this time I watched and was successful on the first try). A wonderful and satisfying meal.

And we exchanged gifts. I have gotten one or two gifts and put them aside, so tonight we opened all. Some great and good surprises. Remember that song, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?” That’s how I feel tonight. My cottage is brightly lit, my tiny fake fireplace blazes away, the outdoor lights are bright and beautiful, Sophie is calm and sleeping (she did filch the top half of my tenderloin sandwich!), and all is well in the cottage.

After we cleaned up, Jordan and I had sort of a conference call with Megan, doing some menu planning for the big Alter get-together. There will be at least eighteen of us this year—a wonderful resumption of tradition after last year’s Covid isolation. Everyone is self-testing a day or two before we get together, and we are being extra cautious. But I am looking forward so much to having all my children and grandchildren together.

Christmas aside, I ran into some trivia today that I can’t resist sharing. Here’s a quote that I liked:

Books have a soul.... A book that sits on a shelf is nothing but a bundle of paper. Unless it is opened, a book possessing great power or an epic story is mere scraps of paper. But a book that has been cherished, and loved, filled with human thoughts, has been endowed with a soul.

From The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa


The reasons this struck me so particularly today is that on Bookbub I saw an advertisement for a $1.99 version of the Iliad on Kindle. Maybe it’s just me, but something struck me as so wrong about that. I admit I have not read the Iliad in its entirety—I have read portions, I have studied about it, but I’ve never read it (in contrast to Beowulf which I actually had to read and memorize in graduate school—I think it’s a rite of passage). But to have that mammoth and classic work available in electronic form for pennies just seemed wrong to me. I guess I think it should be carved on rare tablets of stone. And no, it wasn’t abridged! Reminds me of the summer my oldest child swore to read Moby Dick. I don’t think he ever made it all the way through.

And then there are matters culinary: for your enjoyment, I suggest the newest wine on the market: Oreo. Seriously. It’s a cookie-flavored red wine from the Barefoot Wine people. They claim it has “flavors of chocolate and cookies and creme along with notes of oak," and "has aromas of chocolate, with natural flavors of blackberry and dark cherries for a smooth and lingering finish." I think I’ll pass.

No Oreo wine for you? You can try pastrami tacos. In Los Angeles, there’s a young couple who are mixing Jewish cuisine (hers) with Mexican from Guadalajara (his). Think matzoh ball soup meets caldo de pollo or chicken liver tostadas. When they met, he was a sous chef, she the lead line cook at a prestigious restaurant. During quarantine, they began to combine their cuisines, and apparently, they are the hit of those who know in LA. So far, they offer their menu three nights a week at Malli, a pop-up in a wine bar, but look for them to expand.

The wonderful world of food never ceases to amaze me, from a sumptuous Christmas potluck to a pastrami taco. And a little picked herring and live paté along the way.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The devil made her do it

Stalking a squirrel--a quite moment
but it didn't last long

Sophie woke me at six-gosh-awful-thirty this morning, with the devil in her soul. I let her out, got her back inside after about five minutes, and went happily back to bed. Happy did not last long. She was having none of this stay-in-the-house business. She barked, she whined, she squeaked, she batted her empty food dish about noisily, and then banged her empty water dish on the floor (I got up, refilled it, but that did not quiet her). I spoke firmly, I yelled, I said things I’m glad she couldn’t understand. She responded by bouncing against the bed repeatedly. I swore I was going to teach her a lesson and stay in bed until she quieted down. She won once again.

When Jordan came out, I said, “Sophie’s on a tear this morning.”

“I know. The whole neighborhood knows.”

We finally let her out, figuring she might have to pee, but no, she was hunting squirrels. At first, she was quiet, running all over the yard, but then she began yipping. And I began worrying. Running is in her blood—part border collie—and it’s great for her to get the exercise, but the last time she spent an entire morning running, she tore the pads on her feet and was in miserable pain. It was almost eleven in the morning before Jordan got her inside and only then on a leash.

All this is funny in the re-telling, but it has a serious side. She gets into a manic phase. Once she’s in this mood (it doesn’t happen often) and outside, no amount of my calling, offering cheese, anything will get her attention. And being bound to a walker, I can’t go out and chase her. She doesn’t, as I hoped she would, wear out. And I am powerless.

This afternoon, she was subdued, slept a lot, no sign of limping, etc. Reminded me of the down phase the manic/depressives experience, but it was only temporary. By gosh, when I let her out about four, she went right back to it. I am leery but will let her out about ten this evening, hoping the squirrels are all abed for the night. Can I explain to this darling dog that she is ten years old and should be settling down? She won’t care.

The rest of my day was definitely on the downside. Some odds and ends at my desk—why do they take so much time? A good long nap, grateful that Sophie also slept. My friend Mary Volcansek came for happy hour tonight and at her insistence brought the snacks—wonderful smoky Gouda and an artichoke dip that I ate too much of. We had a good, pre-Christmas visit. After she left, I snuck in a second brief  nap, something I rarely do, and so tonight finds me at my computer, once again doing odds and ends. A happy hour cancelled, Poobah business, book review business, and a bit of Christmas stuff. I need chocolate!

Sweet dreams, everyone.


Sunday, December 12, 2021

My musings after a musical church service


Church has been iffy for me of late, even though I consider myself a regular churchgoer. For several reasons, some good, some not so much so, we have not gotten into the habit of physically going to church since quarantine, though I livestream the service almost every Sunday. Even that became iffy for a bit because the church had sound problems and listening intently became a strain. Now those problems are solved, and this morning I “attended.” A wonderful Sunday to be in church either physically or virtually.

The rituals of the service were interjected between movements of Vivaldi’s Gloria, which was, as our minister said jokingly, the best sermon he preached all year. It filled the entire worship hour. As a violin drop-out (when I was seven my parents recognized I had neither the ear nor the talent for it), I still am transported by stringed music, and what Vivaldi does with strings is beyond glorious. The choir out-sang themselves, and the entire experience was transforming. And thought-provoking.

The ministerial prayer focused on the terrible storms that have devastated many states and the solace that God can bring, in churchgoer’s eyes, to the victims. Once, a friend asked me how I could believe in a God who lets such devastation happen (after a terrible tsunami), so I asked our then-minister how to respond, and he said bluntly, “Shit happens.” But he went on to say that it is when shit happens that God is there for us.

This morning on Facebook, someone posted, “We can do nothing about these storms,” and I wanted to shout “Oh, but we can. We can take climate control seriously. We can pass the Build Back Better legislation. We can become caretakers of the earth instead of exploiters.” Science has demonstrated that climate change has intensified the severity and frequency of devastating storms. So it’s not simply a matter of faith. There are practical steps we can and must take. Remember when in Sunday school they talked about being God’s helpers? Not just for little kids.

And from there, of course, my happy little liberal mind went straight to politics, and I mixed politics and religion. If God (insert the deity of your choice) is our savior, he/she will not let the bad guys win. I know the world today is full of skeptics, yet there is no reason I should feel naïve or apologetic about saying, “I believe,” so here it is: I believe God will not let insurrectionists and fascists and perverted religion take over our world again as they tried to do in the Holocaust. That’s not to say we can sit back and say, “God will take care of it.” We have a big, huge role to play (think God’s helpers) but in the end, as we are taught, love will triumph. Not cruelty, nor punishment, nor greed for wealth and power.

Meanwhile, in Texas, it is clear that a whole lot of Texans despise our governor, lt. governor, and attorney general. I’ve seen estimates that if all who are inclined to vote blue turned out, we could defeat them despite voter suppression and gerrymandering. But pundits, who supposedly know whereof they speak, say that Republicans will retain control in Texas and retake the country in 2022. They cite the pattern for mid-term elections, blah, blah, blah. I am tired of politics as it always is. I want to see something unheard of and wonderful happen as people turn out in droves to speak for equality, diversity, kindness, and, yes, love. We simply must not dismiss what’s happening with a shrug and, “That’s politics.”

I don’t often write about religion—it’s a purely personal thing for me. But this morning’s service moved me in several ways. I’ll step down from my private pulpit now.

On a more ordinary note: we (Jordan and Christian and I) were expecting guests tonight for a birthday happy hour, and we planned a wonderful charcuterie. Then one of our guests reported in ill. A disappointment, but we had our own happy hour—nice family time in front of their almost-decorated tree, lots of catching up. Good food, but I’m going to scramble a couple of eggs in a bit. A comfortable Sunday night.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Some thoughts on marriage


Jordan and Christian
married seventeen years tonight

I have not been married for some forty years, so I am not of the school that thinks a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle (I once said that to a man only to see him slam his fist on the counter in front of us and say, “Right!”—five minutes later, he came back and sheepishly said, “I just got it.”) At any rate, my personal thoughts on marriage aside, it is a delight tonight to offer congratulations to Jordan and Christian on their seventeenth anniversary. As I said on them on a card today, they make marriage look good.

Christian staged their anniversary evening carefully—they went to the Amber Room, that secretive cave for cocktails at Wishbone & Flynt. Then it was home where he cooked lobster, shaved Brussel sprouts, and mashed potatoes. In what I thought was a really sweet approach to family, they included Jacob in their dinner, down to the lobster tail (that kid who can be a fairly picky eater loves lobster, crab, and shrimp—he’s not a cheap date!). Meanwhile Jean and I ate chicken hash and artichoke hearts in a sauce, and I didn’t think either were my best successes. But they were okay, and we had lots to talk about and catch up on.

But the day’s events have made me think about love, marriage, and loneliness. My friend Babette Hale is facing her first Christmas alone after the death of her husband, beloved Texas columnist Leon Hale who died at ninety-nine last spring. She posted a column today about being alone and yet not really being lonely (The Book in the Drawer ( and, as I wrote her, it spoke directly to me, even though I am not a grieving widow. My ex-husband died some eight years ago, and while I mourned because of a lot of good memories, it was a far cry from losing someone you’d lived with and loved up to the moment.

I am of course at the age where a lot of my women friends, both close and personal and online, are being widowed. And I am watching how some handle grief. I admire those who can clearly grieve and yet carry on with life without a lot of dramatics. Jean has always been clear about that—she loved Jim deeply, she wishes he had not gotten Alzheimer’s and that life had taken them in a different course but given the reality she will carry on. And as she said to me tonight, she feels he is always with her. That is a kind of devotion that makes me almost envious, though there is one man from my past that I think is always with me—as I am with him.

Today I talked to an old friend who lost her husband recently. We have been distant since pandemic, okay really since trump’s election, but I felt the need to call her and voice my support, let her know I had been thinking of her. To my surprise—relief? —she sounded upbeat, hearty, laughed at a few things. She said, “I miss him desperately,” but she was carrying on with life, has already moved into a condo in the building where her daughter and son-in-law live. My admiration is great, and I am hoping we can renew a forty-year friendship.

Some women bleed all over the internet about their grief. I wish I could comfort them. I even wish I could understand them. I want to preach: get ahold of yourself, move on, treasure the memories but have some respect for yourself. Truth is, I am not in a position to do that, because while I have loved more than one man, some deeply, some on the surface, I have never lost a true love to death.

But loneliness I know about, even though I have the most supportive family network any woman could wish for—four children, their spouses, seven grandchildren. We spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, usually Easter together, and without their support, I would not be living independently in my cottage (hats off to Jordan who really makes it possible). But still, like Babette, I know that I am alone, that I am responsible for myself. It’s a strange time of life, and one in which I think each of us makes that choice: I will be happy, or I will be sad.

I remember my mom in her eighties (which I where I am now) saying, “All my friends have died.” I’m not quite in that sad a place, but it’s a problem for me to grapple with. And sooner or later, for most of us.

Friday, December 10, 2021

How was my day? Meh.


Dover sole, otherwise known in my cottage as fish hash. 
But it was so good!

Sorry there was no blog last night. I had one half written about why some authors make a lot of money, and I don’t. It had to do with big publishing and deadlines and pressure vs. the comfort of setting your own deadlines as an indie publisher, and it referenced a contemporary mystery that has gotten a lot of buzz, more than I thought it deserved. I decided it sounded like sour grapes, deleted it, and didn’t have the heart to start over again.

So here I am on a Friday night. Yes, I’m wearing what I slept in, and yes, I only faked making the bed, kind of pulling the covers up. Jordan announced everyone was on their own for dinner, so I took advantage of it. Lazy and laid back. I sauteed some filet of sole from the freezer—I dislike freezing fish and I can’t remember what extreme circumstances led me to do it with this, but it was good. As usual, I cannot get that delicate fish to hold together, and I end up with fish has that has a delicious flavor but little eye appeal.

Honest, I was dressed and out this morning, for a podiatrist appointment. When I asked about my one very puffy foot, he said, “If you were sixteen, I’d be worried. As it is, you’re good to go.” Cold comfort. Gone are the days of trim ankles and shapely legs.

This has been the week that was—a threatened school shooting at the high school (it came to nothing), a contested election in our neighborhood association (we never have contested elections), doctors’ appointments, and a lot of Christmas planning and doing. Writing took a back seat, though I did find some renewed interest in my Helen Corbitt project, and I saw the covers for three reprints of historical novels that will come out in 2022. I’m trying to ease off deadlines, self-appointed or not, and enjoy the holidays, so I’m doing some work ahead—my neighborhood newsletter. What that really means is that I’ve worked hard all day, but I can’t tell you doing what or what I’ve accomplished.

The evening is still pleasant though the temperature is supposed to drop dramatically before morning. Still, tonight I have the patio door open, and a few minutes ago I heard a small dog barking frantically, without stopping, long enough that I became concerned. I called a neighbor who I thought lived next door to the barking dog. Turned out she was at a party with Jordan across the street. Jordan sent Jacob to look, but the owner was not home, and there was nothing they could do for the dog. To my relief, it is no longer barking—at least, I hope that’s a good sign.

Just about that time, June Bug, the Cavalier spaniel who forgets her house manners, snuck into the cottage which is forbidden territory for her. Since I was on the phone with Jordan, I told her—she called Jacob, and he came out to get her. After he got her back outside, he said, “I’m just going to look around a bit. It smells really weird in here.” I told him I’d just cooked fish.

All in all, not a scintillating day, and at not quite nine o’clock, I’m ready to sleep. Can I blame it on the changing weather?


Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Breaking routine and an interesting day


Last night the whole outdoors turned an interesting shade of pink.
Jordan tried to capture it in this photo, and you can see the pink.
But what's clearer is the wonderful fall colors of 
my oak leaf hydrangea. 

Routine and varying it has been on my mind lately, as you know if you read the blog often. I sometimes feel married to my routine, but I don’t think it’s a good thing. I’d sort of like to be more of a free spirit. It wasn’t exactly earth-shaking, but I did rearrange my day’s schedule today.

Usually, mornings are my work time. If I’m going to do any serious writing or research, it better be before my two o’clock nap in the afternoon. Today I reversed that completely. You know those little household chores you put off? I did a bunch of them before I even turned on my computer this morning. Hung up the clothes that were piled on a chair in the bedroom—I tend to ignore that pile because guests can’t see it from the living area. I opened the box of dog chews sitting on the coffee table and dispensed with some recyclable trash, retrieved a new box of tea bags and a bunch of napkins from McGee’s closet where Jordan stashes them (are you old enough to get that one?) and refilled both holders, put away clean dishes, and even washed a few that had, shhh! sat overnight. Finally, with a hot cup of tea, I sat down at my desk. Even then I did piddly things—figuring out recipes to write about for tomorrow’s Gourmet blog, reviewing notes for a Zoom call tomorrow, and so on.

But it was this evening, that the day got interesting. At five-thirty, I watched a Zoom program from the Tenement Museum, an interview with Mayukh Sen, a very young (and as the blurb tells you perhaps unnecessarily, brown and queer) culinary author and James Beard award-winner. He was interviewed about his new book, Tastemakers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized American Food. Although Sen originally intended to write about the food these women prepared, the book ended up being about race, culture, identity, gender—and, of course, food. Included are Italian Marcella Hazan, the deity of Italian cuisine who today writes for the New York Times, Mexican-born Elena Zelayeta, a blind chef; and Norma Shirley, a champion of Jamaican dishes, with four others.

The interview was a bit disconcerting because the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen lagged behind the actual dialog by about a minute, so I was torn, going from listening to reading. But the setting was wonderful—a reconstructed Fifties apartment in the museum building, 97 Orchard Street in New York, complete with plastic covers on the furniture (Oh, do I remember those from the tiny one-bedroom apartment where my ex- grew up) with antimacassars, floral wallpaper, and a big-screen TV console.

The program whetted my appetite for the book, because, always with my Helen Corbitt project in mind, I wanted to read how these immigrant women fit into capitalist society and authored cookbooks, what they brought with them from their homeland, how they adapted recipes for an American audience. Alas, the book is not available on Amazon (heresy! first time ever I’ve searched for a book and not found it on Amazon). It’s sold by Barnes and Noble for their Nook ebook device or $23.95 for hardcover. I have a hard time reading print—I think it’s the lighting in my office—so I’m reluctant to buy the hardcover. I could download the Nook program free but not sure about using it on my computer rather than a Nook reader. I’m a bit frustrated.

Hot on the heels of that Zoom program came our neighborhood association meeting with, probably for the first time in the group’s history, a contested campaign for president. This was preceded by a spate of emails, lots of rumors, a couple of phone calls, so I expected fireworks. Thanks to our president’s firm control of the meeting, it was calm and orderly. In a first, we will vote by SurveyMonkey; to vote you have to be a dues-paying member in good standing and present at the Zoom meeting.

So now, at eight o’clock, I’m Zoomed out, but happy with the diversity of the day. Eating honey cake with a bit of wine. Life doesn’t get much better. I swear I’m going to finish that Cuban American culinary mystery tonight--but that's another story for another night.