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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Still Plays with Trains

The tee shirt that my breakfast companion wore said, “Still Plays with Trains.” It reminded me of my father, gone now a year and a half, who was a lifelong lover of trains. Shortly before his death he turned in to his editor his last book, this one about the Rochester Division of the Erie Railroad. It was from him that I learned to enjoy rail transport.
Growing up, I shared my basement bedroom with Dad’s HO-gauge model railroad setup. Dad shot hours of 16mm film of trains, especially those pulled by steam locomotives. Turns out his early diesel movies were sufficiently popular they were made into videos. I may be the only Boy Scout to have earned most of his hiking merit badge by walking abandoned track in and around Rochester. Dad knew the mileages from any point to another and would drop me off at various points along the lines and I’d walk home.

My first memory of traveling by rail was from the mid-1950s. Actually, my memory is of being told the story as I don’t directly recall it. My parents, my (then) baby sister and I were traveling on a train and ate in the dining car. Back then people dressed up to take the train, and the dining car service was starched white tablecloth, cloth napkins and good silver. For whatever reason my father was at a different table than the rest of us. We finished dinner first and my mother informed me how to use the fingerbowls. ( In a LOUD VOICE I called across the aisle, “Daddy, they’re for washing your fingers. You’re not supposed to drink the water.”
In 1967 on a return trip with my father from Boston to Rochester on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we had to sit on our suitcases in the aisle from Albany to Syracuse where seats finally became available.

When it came to railroads, my father could make friends with anyone. He managed to become acquainted with a Canadian National freight crew because they were still running one of the early diesels on a “milk train” route. He arranged for them to take me along for a day. He dropped me off in Madoc, ON (if I recall correctly) and picked me up in Bancroft, ON that night. I rode in the caboose (they still had them) where I helped check manifests and ate lunch with the crew. They didn’t let me anywhere near the couplings, but I did throw some switches and I rode much of the trip away from towns up in the engine. Everything the crew and I did that day broke the rules, but the crew and my father thought it would be a great experience and to heck with management’s rules.
Whenever I can conjure a reasonable excuse I take train rather than fly. The most recent opportunity came when I decided to participate in Left Coast Crime in Monterey, CA as part of the promotion for the April 2014 release of the second Seamus McCree mystery,
Cabin Fever.
We took sleepers from Savannah to Washington, DC to Chicago to Emeryville, CA (outside San Francisco). After attending the conference we trained from LA to New Orleans and detrained at Birmingham where we rented a car and drove home rather than spend two more days going up to Washington, DC and back down to Savannah.

On this trip the most interesting railroad-related conversation was with a guy from the Cincinnati area. He’s the engineer (civil, not train) responsible for a G-gauge (~1/24th actual size), 25,000 sq. foot train set with over two miles of tracks. It has three sections relating respectively to the late 19th century, mid-20th century and modern railroads. There are streetcars as well, realistic buildings constructed by volunteers and an elevation change of eleven feet. I’d never heard of this place and I lived in Cincinnati until four years ago. It’s on my list of things to do the next time I’m in the area.

The finger bowls are gone, as are the silver and fresh flowers on the tables. The scenery is just as spectacular, the people we eat meals with are just as interesting; and there is something that reaches deep into my core as I hear the whistle blow, we approach a crossing and a father holds his child on his shoulders to watch the train pass. The kid waves and I wave back.

I’m thinking of asking for that tee shirt for my birthday, because really, I am just a kid who still plays with trains.


~ Jim

Monday, April 14, 2014

Cooking wth phyllo

Sorry, no Judy's Stew tonight. I was so late and tired last night I didn't post my Sunday night Potluck with Judy, so it's up tonight. If you want to know what went on in my kitchen this weekend, please see
Thanks. Back tomorrow with another update--assuming something worthwhile happens.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

My writing process

Holly Gilliatt, one of my favorite authors, tagged me in a blog hop where we're supposed to write about our writing process and tag four others authors. So far I've only found two willing to participate, and I almost didn't write tonight. It's late, I've been in the kitchen all evening--making a cucumber salad and the filling for spanakopita. The latter is a great adventure for me, because I've never ever worked with phyllo. Tempted many times, but I always shied away. This time I'm going to do it.
First let me tell you about Holly, because she's one of my special people. She writes women's fiction--not romance novels, but novels with a lot of love and sentiment in them. I've been editing those novels, and I'm pretty rough on her about overwrought passages, etc. But the more I read, the more I like her work. She may be a sentimentalist, but she's got a knack for capturing women in their glory and their bitchiness. And she's funny. Much more mod than I am--well, she's almost half my age. But what I consider bad words tumble easily onto her pages, and she's always citing music and musicians I've never heard of. Holly has two books in print--Love in Sight and Til St. Patrick's Day, with a third coming soon. Read them and enjoy. Find Holly at
Now to my writing process. I'm afraid the answers will be brief and not what you expect.
1. What am I working on? The sixth Kelly O'Connell novel. I have 30,000 words on paper and wish to heaven I knew what's going to happen next.
2. How does your work differ from others in the genre? Big disappointment here, folks. I don't think it does much. The parameters, guidelines, whatever for cozies are pretty well set, and I think for eight books I've been following them. So if you like cozies with amateur female sleuths, you should like my Kelly O'Connell and Blue Plate Café mystery series. That is not to say I may not break out of the mold soon but I'm cutting my teeth on what for me is a new genre.
3. Why do you write what you write? Ah, easy! Because I've read cozies all my life and wanted to write mysteries after a career writing about women of the American West. In breaking into a new genre, I followed the conventions. But watch my dust soon!
4. How does your writing process work? My instant answer is "Not well." I have no set schedule. Though retired and single, I have such a busy life that sometimes writing gets shoved to a secondary burner no matter my good intentions. There are grandchildren, exercise, cooking for company, errands and doctors--and not enough hours in the day. If I could write a thousand words a day, I'd be a happy camper. But that doesn't always happen. Neither does my yoga
So there is yes, folks--my rather writing process. Hope it turns out okay.
I'm tagging Michele Drier and Maya Corrigan. Maybe two more volunteers will come forward.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Memories of my mom

My mom would be 114 today, or maybe I should say her soul is 114. As a child I had no trouble remembering her age because I knew it was the same as the year--after she got over that spell of telling me she was fifteen and my father 16. My fondest memories of Mom are of her happy silly moments--and oh, did she have them. Like the time a friend with no relatives came to the house because she needed someone responsible to sign some banking papers for her. It was  breakfast, and my mom was convinced that something really bad would happen if you didn't eat breakfast, so she put toast in for Rose and then wrote, "Alice P. Mac" on the signature line, checked the toast, and came back to write Bread instead of Alice P. MacBain. She told stories of when she and all our uncles were young and in school, and I decided they were sillier and wilder than we would ever be--like the time my aunt lost her husband in a one-room apt. She came out of the bath, couldn't find him, finally heard a soft knocking--opened the door to find him standing there stark naked. He had just stepped out to pull a fuse as a joke to a fellow who was bringing his bride home that night, and the door locked behind him. When Mom told these stories, the tears of laughter rolled down her cheeks.
She was delighted when grandchildren came along, rather late in her life. She'd read them fairy tales, but when it got bloody--as fairy tales can--she substituted, "She hit him." Once, when my two oldest were about one and two, Mom was in the back seat between their car seats. For some reason, they both set up a howl. The louder they howled, the harder my mom laughed. My father drove as if he didn't know any of us. My youngest daughter was her particular favorite because by then my dad had died and Mom had moved close to us. Jordan says to this day she can smell Grandmother's house, and she thinks she could draw the floor plan. We had family dinner at Mom's every Sunday night--a ritual we all enjoyed.
Mom was an incredible cook, and she taught me. She'd let me make a mess in the kitchen, and when someone asked why she did that she answered, "If I don't, she'll never learn to cook." I once made a cake that tasted awful, and she asked how much baking soda I put in it. "Nine tablespoons," I replied. She nearly fainted, but when she looked at the recipe, it was indeed a mistake there, not mine.
Mom's life wasn't all joy and happiness. She had hard times--I think some that I don't know about, but I do know she lived through the Depession as a young adult (and all her life she saved leftovers, bits of string and foil); she lost her first husband to a wound from WWI and she lost her last child, my younger sister, in infancy. Once, after we'd all left Chicago she went back to visit a dear friend. They were walking down Michigan Avenue when the friend dropped dead beside her. My mom had incredible strength, although these and other ordeals left their mark.
We camped every summer in a cabin without running water, plumbing or electricity. Mom cooked as though she were in that remodeled kitchen at home that brought her such pride. She carried more than her share of the packs as we hiked a mile through the woods to get to that cabin--we carried in all food and clothes and other supplies. I can still see Mom hanging clothes on the line to dry, her arms strong and brown from the sun. And she swam until she was in her eighties. I think her nonathletic daughter was a disappointment to her.
In her early 80s Mom's mind began that slippery slope, due to a series of small strokes. She was frightened and cross with my now teenaged children. And that ladylike woman, always known for being a model of decorum, did some outrageous things. I wanted to shake her and say, "Mom, be yourself!" But the woman I had known, loved and tried to emulate, was gone, replaced by a shell.
Today I try to banish those memories and replace them with the good times, the fun we had together, especially in the kitchen and with grandchildren. I often wish she--and my dad--could see how wonderfully those children have grown up and what great children they are raising. And I am sad that my grandchildren don't know my mom.
I love you, Mom, always have, always will.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

How easy it is to be spooked

So much tragedy in the news--always, but it somehow seems worse to me tonight. The stabbing at a Pennsylvania school--you reach out emotionally over the distance to the parents of the wounded, especially the one boy on life support, and to the family of the perpetrator. Grief that I cannot imagine. And the hit-and-run at the California day care center, with one child dead and several injured--as with Newton, how do you send your young child to school one day and then learn that he or she is never coming home again? The ongoing search for Malaysia Flight 370--those families must be numb by now, and yet they need the closure.
I see minor tragedies all around me--ones that don't make the world weep but only those directly involved. They touch my heart as much. I'm known for posting lost, found, and endangered dogs on Facebook. Tonight I read about a woman whose Westie was apparently taken from her driveway. Several other expensive lap dogs were missing in the same Fort Worth neighborhood which points to a thief who probably took them for sale. I know only too well the panic that comes when a dog is missing. I watch Sophie like a hawk because she's convinced there's a great big, wide, welcoming world out there. She knows nothing of cruelty to animals--why would she? She has a coterie of people who love her. And she knows nothing of cars, has no street sense. A dog fight? What's that?
Tonight I got spooked, and I think it's because of that Westie in the context of larger tragedies. Sophie was outside, and I was at my desk when I heard a noise in the driveway behind me. Actually it sounded like drops of water, but I ruled that out since it's not raining. I decided I'd feel better if Sophie were inside--she's quick to bark at both imaginary and real threats, though we have few of the latter.
I went to get her, but she didn't come and I felt a moment's panic. If I'd thought for a second I'd have realized none of the motion-sensitive lights came on, and Sophie rarely comes immediately when I call her. But, with my usual bribe of "Treat!" I slammed the door and went into the kitchen, a technique that usually work. But I was thinking, "What if she doesn't come this time?" (I've been working on a Kelly O'Connell mystery tonight, and Kelly does a lot of "what if" thinking!) Of course, when I went back she was on the deck and ready to come in. I had let my imagination run away with me again--better at nine at night than three in the morning!
But I think we get more easily spooked in a world where tragedy, major and minor, seems to be all around us. I remember when that tsunami hit in December several years ago, a non-believer friend said to me, "I see you so firm in your belief and I think I could join you, but then something like this happens. How can I believe in a God who lets a tsunami kill thousands?" I was at a loss, so I asked a ministerial friend who said, if I remember rightly, "Shit happens." But I think the best answer I got was from another minister who said, "God doesn't prevent tragedy--man-made or natural. But he is there to guide us through it, to wrap us in his love and hold out his hand." I believe that.
And I'm not going to get spooked at three in the morning. Now I have to go let Sophie in again.

And Then There’s Great-Grandkids

Once again, it’s Wednesday and guest day at Judy’s Stew. Please welcome Marilyn Meredith, my guest for the week who took her clue from all my posts about grandchildren. She certainly leaves me behind in that department. F. M. Meredith aka Marilyn Meredith is the author of over 35 published books. She enjoys writing about police officers and their families and how what happens on the job affects the family and vice versa. Having several members of her own family involved in law enforcement, as well as many friends, she’s witnessed some of this first-hand. Tell us about your grands, your greats, and your new book, Marilyn.

After reading Judy’s blog and learning that grandkids are an important part of her life, I thought I’d expound a bit on the greats as I have a slew of them. Obviously I have the grands too—but the youngest is in her twenties now and the oldest has teenage kids.
My eldest great is the same age as the youngest grand. His big interest is martial arts, staying in shape and writing and performing Christian rap.

The youngest lives next door and I see her nearly every day. She’s one and a half and a true delight. So much fun to watch her grow and hear all the new words she learns each day. And since her mom is pregnant, we’ll soon have another baby around.
In between there is one great-grand daughter who loves to make You-tube videos, her sister is into Polynesian dancing, and her brother is great at baseball and basketball. In another family, a great-granddaughter is an expert Irish dancer and her dance team will be performing in London this year. Her brother loves racing in the soap box-derby.

Altogether, I have 18 greats and 13 grands. There is the potential for more as three of my grandsons recently married. (One of these I learned is also expecting this year.)
The big difference with greats is I don’t babysit when they are little. I can’t chase them around. Well, I could, I suppose, but I’d never catch them. It’s up to their grandparents to buy them the presents they want—I’d go broke if I tried.

I rely a lot on Facebook for pictures and news. Fortunately, the majority of them live in California and I do get to see them once in a while.
And to bring this around to writing, my family is proud of the fact that I’m a writer—though only certain ones actually read my books. With one of my granddaughters, at her request, I went to school and gave a talk to every one of her classes, first through eighth grade. Since the kids were the same, I had to come up with new ideas for each presentation.

I’ve spoken to other grandkids’ classes about writing, grammar school and high school. And this winter, I visited a great-grandson’s third grade class and we planned a story together. Great fun!
Of this whole bunch, so far, there is only one who is interested in writing.

And now a bit about my latest book:
Murder in the Worst Degree: The body that washes up on the beach leads Detectives Milligan and Zachary on a murder investigation that includes the victim’s family members, his housekeeper, three long-time friends, and a mystery woman.

Find Marilyn at these sites:

And enter to win a copy of her new book:
Once again I am offering the opportunity to have your name used as a character in a book if you comment on the most blogs during this tour for Murder in the Worst Degree.
Tomorrow you can find her at:


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Some thoughts on a social day

I had breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Old Neighborhood Grill today, the small but wonderful restaurant that figures so prominently in my Kelly O'Connell Mysteries.
Breakfast was the monthly meeting of the Book Ladies,, most of us now retired from careers that had something to do with books. We have two authors, me and Carol Nelson Douglas, a former reviewer who has contributed chapters to textbooks, retired librarians, and so on. Sometimes we talk about books--who's reading what, etc.--and sometimes we talk politics. Sometimes, as with most groups of women our age, the talk degenerates into health care but that's rare. Today it turned briefly to the writing careers of Carol and me and how many books we have each written--and then Carol gave us the history of the ebook rights contracts that have tied up profits for so many authors. Trying to be modest about my diet, I had one egg over easy, a thick slice of orange, and half a piece of toast to slop up the yolk.
Lunch with a friend I don't see often enough but we always laugh and have a great time, mostly talking about families and grandchildren. Genie was good enough to help me once with a major injury for a character in one of my books--because she'd had that injury and one of her daughters is a physical therapist. Once again, we were good--all side vegetable dishes.
Tonight was neighbors' night at the Grill, an occasion Jacob rally looks forward to, especially now that friends Subie and Phil Green are back in town and bring Phil's seeing-eye dog, Santiago, to dinner. I'm not sure who Jacob likes best--Phil, Subie, or Santiago. Tonight he went so far as to determine the seating arrangement. I had a slice of meatloaf and some green beans--but I snacked on some of Jacob's fries with ketchup. Surely my diet will forgive.
Came home just in time to meet Jacob's parents and they sat for a glass of wine. So all of a sudden, it was nine o'clock, I hadn't written a word on the novel, and I was too sleepy. But you know the lesson of the day? Enjoy sociability when it comes your way. I can always work. I saw a blurb on today about how loneliness can lead to an early grave, and tonight I thought how fortunate I am to have such an active social life, so many friends. I don't have drop-dead deadlines except those I impose on myself because I'm compulsive, and probably this is the time of life to relish the joy that comes my way. (Jacob kindly informed the whole table of my age tonight.)
It reminds me of a self-help tape I had for a long time: "Life is Uncertain. Eat Dessert First." The other afternoon Jordan, Subie and I were contemplating my new living room arrangement, when Jordan asked, "Did your realize Jacob just went and helped himself to ice cream?" No, I hadn't, and I really encourage him to ask first--to prevent constant snacking. But before I could protest, she called out, "Jacob, did Juju teach you that sometimes it's okay to eat dessert first?" I honestly did one night recently when he was in a funk. My own lessons come back to haunt me.
But I like today's lesson about enjoying my family and friends at this point in my life. A thousand words a day suddenly doesn't seem that critical..

Monday, April 07, 2014

Making cozy even cozier

Ever since Jordan was a teen-ager, she loved to rearrange furniture. She'd move beds, dressers, everything in her room by herself. Today she delivered an ottoman I'd bought at a garage sale and just kind of set it in the living room. I wasn't sure where to put it, but I said we would need to rearrange. She clapped her hands, said "Where's the wine," and began moving furniture.
The ottoman that started all this now sits in a corner and has a permanent occupant--my stuffed cheetah named Clifford. (Of course there was the time I dreamt Clifford was walking around the house--Jordan said, "Shhh. Don't tell anyone that!" and then she told everyone she saw.)
Jacob got involved in the first step--sweeping behind the pieces she moved. Then he took one side of each chair and helped position it. Decided he loved the new look, but we weren't so sure. We sat, looked, rearranged. Finally we settled on an arrangement we like well enough or me to live with it for a few days and see how it wears.
One thing I really like is that we created a cozy conversation area in one corner. Of course now one chair partially blocks a doorway, but we'll just have to watch where we're going. Jacob delighted in demonstrating how someone could fall over it. Note the three items on the table--Jordan's version of feng shui. There should be wine glasses--hmmm, wonder where they went.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Weekend doings

I so often have a seven-year-old on Saturday night that weekends without him loom long and empty. Frequently I fill them with dinner guests but I decided against that this weekend for several reasons--mostly the diet I'm trying to maintain and my budget, which has already run riot by the fifth of the month. Instead I decided to do a lot of those little things that had been undone, I packaged up and returned two lampshades to Amazon--they didn't fit the lamps, and I learned a lesson about old floor lamps (definitely mine) and uno fittings. Went to the grocery and then to the hardware for a nozzle to replace the one that gave me an unnecessary and unneeded drenching yesterday, Then I buckled down to the chores that had been looking at me--I made some tile and tub cleaner--equal parts white vinegar and Dreft, cleaned the kitchen sink thoroughly, and washed my prayer shawl in it. Tricky part was finding a place to lay the wet shawl out but I cleared enough space of kitchen counter, turned it frequently, and replaced wet towels on which it lay.
Now barely damp, it's on the table in the playroom. Tonight it feels soft and smells wonderfully fresh. Normally it lives on the back of my office chair for chilly nights. Finally I made an all-purpose cleaner, according to a formula I'd found in the neighborhood newsletter--more complicated, it used rubbing alcohol, white vinegar, a bit of laundry soap, a tiny bit of ammonia, and plenty of water. We'll see. They're in spray bottles, labeled as neatly as I can be with a Sharpie.
A friend came to pick me up for lunch, and when I regaled her with all this, she said, "Little Miss Domesticity."
After a good lunch--best tuna salad in town is at Swiss Pastry Shop--the day deteriorated into Facebook, email, and a nap. But tonight I'll write--and savor my feeling of accomplishment.
Tomorrow is supposed to be rainy and, while it won't be cold, I still feel a pot of vegetable soup coming on.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Twas a dark and stormy night....

That classic first line of a bad novel is true in North Texas. We're surrounded by tornado warnings, though ours has just expired. My daughter had hail at her house, while I relished about five minutes of steady, medium rain--the good kind of rain, just not enough of it for our drought. All evening lightning has flashed around the sky and thunder rolled over us. As my Mom used to tell me, the gods are bowling. As long as the sky doesn't turn green and no rotating clouds are reported, I enjoy a good storm. Tonight we're being warned to stay away from drafts because of lightning--otherwise I'd throw open my greenhouse windows and let some of that rain-freshened air in the house. It's cooled nicely outside but is still stuffy inside.
Once when my four children were little, we left them with a nanny for an afternoon. When the sky turned green, I called the nanny and said, "You do know what to do with the children in a bad storm, don't you?" We had a house with a basement. "Oh yes, ma'am," she said. "What?" Now I have no basement, but Sophie and I will go to the big closet in my bedroom, though I've never had to do that in twenty years.
When I was a kid, we had a cabin in the Indiana Dunes State Park, at the very food of Lake Michigan, high up on a dune--three flights of stairs from the beach. One of my great delights was to watch a storm roll down the entire length of that huge lake, cresting in wild whitecaps as it reached the beach and bringing with it rain, lightning and thunder. Maybe I didn't know enough to be fearful, and I'm thankful to my parents for not teaching me that fear.
Jacob on the other hand is fearful of storms. The other night he saw three lightning flashes, and I suggested he go to the back door because Sophie would want to come in. He insisted I go with him, explaining, "You know how lightning frightens me." Once there he stood inside the open door and called, "Come in, Sophie. It's lightning." About a lot of things he's fearless and brave, but storms get him.
Me? I'm actually hoping for more storms--my new plants need the rain. Just not violent winds or tornadoes, please.