Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blessings for a quiet time

When my neighbor, Susan, came in for happy hour tonight she said, "It's so quiet. Usually there's so much going on here." I told her Jacob would be here shortly and that would change...and sure enough it did. Sophie came in from the yard, Jordan and Jacob arrived, and suddenly everyone was talking at once, haggling over who was doing what for New Year's. Good gracious--we haven't even gotten through Christmas yet and they're planning New Year's. Of course, it all has to be planned around those football games, which neither Susan nor I care one whit about.
But basically, it was a quiet day, and I treasure those as we approach Christmas. So many people are rushed, harried and hurried in these last countdown days that I'm almost afraid to say I have it all done and I've been piddling. Emails, Facebook, updating my iPad's Kindle selections, culling through recipe magazines that piled up on my desk. I found so many recipes I want to try that we'll have to have a feast every weekend for weeks to come. But it's a pleasant feeling, and a part of me says that for those of us who celebrate Christmas this is the way it should be: quiet, contemplative, a time to ponder the wonder of the holiday and of God's great gift of love given to us. I'm enjoying it.
I did start the day off at an small but elegant breakfast party with a really innovative menu--a wonderful egg and Gruyere and prosciutto casserole, a distinctive broccoli and cauliflower salad with a hint of blue in the dressing, and some lightly pickled beets--I adore beets and made a pig of myself. My shoes weren't nearly the hit they were last night, but it was a different crowd, one where I knew some but not a lot of the guests. Still it added to my sense of peace and grace about the season.
Home for a nap, a quiet happy hour with Jay (until Susan finished vacuuming) and then Jordan and Jacob arrived. Jay and I have great political discussions--he a conservative and me a liberal but we both recognize logic so sometimes its sort of fun.
Now Jacob is on his iPad in the back room--he who won't sleep back there and insisted on light when he did is perfectly content to work on his iPad in the pitch dark. He's anxiously waiting for me to get off the computer. It's a bit disconcerting that he knows more than I do--yesterday morning he had to restore the sounds to my TV. Tonight he wants to play games so I asked the all-important question: are these games free? "juju, you pull them up on line. Of course they're free!"
Off to sit by the fire and read. I hope everyone also has a quiet and peaceful night.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My dancing shoes

These are my dancing shoes--well, not really. They're a pair of Inkka hightops that I told Jamie I wanted for Christmas and since we won't all be together this Christmas, he gave them to me early. I asked Jordan today if I could wear them, with black leggings and a really cool black top plus my squash blossom to a spiffy cocktail party tonight, and she said, "Go for it!" So I did.
First thing when I walked in, the hostess (who I have literally known all her life), said, "I love your shoes!" And in a few minutes someone behind me said, "Those shoes really make a statement." After that, my shoes were the talk of the evening, and the ham in me came out--I loved it. I even told people I wore the squash blossom to pick up the turquoise in the shoes. I do have to confess that I'm learning to tie shoes all over again--almost walked out of them in the grocery today. But tonight I felt camp, trendy, whatever. And since it was a party where I knew few people, the shoes were a wonderful conversation starter.
I realized today I have a split personality. It was a wet, sometimes rainy, chilly day, and a part of me kept saying what a nice night it would be for a book by the fire. I felt the same way before I went to a dinner party Wednesday night. A small part of me could easily become reclusive, spending all my time at home. In fact, recently I said to a friend that I spent a lot of time at home, and she replied, "Yes, but you bring people to you."
I can't count on that, however, and I always enjoy events when I get myself in gear and go out--I loved the dinner party a few nights ago, and I had a great time tonight. I recognize that the tendency toward being a recluse is neither healthy nor, in the long run, enjoyable. I need people in my life, and if I sat home and expected them to come to me, there are a whole lot of people that I really like but would never see.
Tonight, I saw a former neighbor, now married to the mother of one of Jordan's school chums, and I met new people. I'm learning to be so bold as to slip into the conversation the fact that I'm an author. The woman who'd first commented on my shoes said her husband was writing, and we had a bit of talk about that--as much as I could hear over the music.
It was a lovely evening with spectacular food, and I'm so glad I went. Thanks to friends who took me under their wing so I didn't have to go alone. Tomorrow is a breakfast party and guess what? I'm going to wear my dancing shoes!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A holly, jolly Christmas

Some years Christmas makes me feel like a social butterfly (which I am definitely not!), and this is one of those years. This week I had lunch and dinner with friends Monday and Tuesday. Thoroughly enjoyable, including my lobster fix and taking two little boys to the Old Neighborhood Grill.
Last night I went to a small dinner party hosted by good friends. Three other couples, people I know but not well, made up the guest list. I told the hostess later that I felt like a teenager who'd been invited to sit at the adult table (when my children were young and we all dined with my mom, including my brother and his children, one child got to sit at the adult table each week--it was a big deal!).  I decided it is really interesting to have dinner with people you don't know well--brings a new zest to the conversation. I am often surrounded by a dear and valued cocoon of family and friends--but our conversations--say politics, for instance--are predictable. This was a stimulating evening--no, we didn't talk politics:-)
The social whirl continues with a cocktail party tomorrow night and a breakfast Saturday morning. After Christmas I'll have a hard time settling back down to work. Obviously I'm not getting much work done these days.
Fortunately I have good reading--right now I'm deep in the new Coffeehouse Mystery Once Upon a Grind by Cleo Coyle. I always enjoy that series. Tonight is cold and damp--a good night to stay home with a book and a baked potato for supper.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Please welcome my Wednesday guest. Joyce Ann Brown is a landlady, storyteller, retired school Library Media Specialist, former classroom teacher, former realtor, and a freelance writer and award-winning author. CATastrophic Connections is the first book in the author's Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery series. A klutzy Kansas City landlady, with the help of a psycho cat, locates her missing niece who is framed for embezzlement and murder, and the two join forces to bring the true evildoer to justice.

Writing gurus advise, "Keep paper and pen handy at all times to record words, phrases, scenes, characters, and impressions which you might someday need for a story." Such good advice! It's hard to remember all those juicy tidbits unless one writes them down and keeps them handy.
Too bad my right brain is in control of my writing (my life?) and causes me to poo-poo organizational skills. The notes I take when I am out and about end up on old envelopes, backs of business cards, and napkins. (Yes, my friends, some of my best stories started on a fast food napkin.) After I take those notes, of course, I rewrite each in meticulous detail into a fat journal which I keep under lock and key in a desk drawer beside my computer—I wish. No, I stuff the notes into my purse and later into a pile on my desk at home.
It's a good thing my imagination runs wild. If the tidbit is good and is something I know I can use, I bounce it around in my mind for a few days or a few months until I work it into a scene or short story. My mystery, CATastrophic Connections, grew from two bizarre stories which piqued my shiver sensors. My Halloween ghost story, "A Hit and a Miss," placed in a contest and was published by Kings River Life magazine. That story resulted from a story a former neighbor told me, a story so dark and unfortunate that I had to make it even darker and let a ghost help solve it.
Okay, okay, so I have used some of those stories I collected so carelessly. However, there are many more I lost or vaguely remembered. It's hard to reproduce the original delightful inspiration. An enigmatic story I heard some years ago wants to be told in my next book, but I can't remember exactly how it went.
I have an idea, a left brain plan, to combat my right brain randomness. The Smart phone which I've started to use for my calendar, a timepiece, a restaurant finder, my pedometer, a calculator, a compass, and even a telephone, believe it or not, might be the answer. It has a function called Memo with a little picture of a notepad above it. If I can just speed up my one-finger typing or become adept at voice-into-type, and if I can remember I put the notes onto my phone, the little phone notepad could become my portable journal. What a brilliant thought!
Now, let's see, where did I see that Memo app?

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

A weekend vacation

No, I haven't been anywhere. I've been home, but it's felt like a vacation. Jacob with his grandparents, his parents in Cancun, and me at home--reading, editing, doing whatever I wanted at my own pace. I finished one book, started another, which keeps calling me back, read the edits on a manuscript, and made a brief stab at formatting an older manuscript I intend to re-invent.
But primarily it's been a weekend of my favorite foods. Friday night I made myself salmon croquettes--I've learned to do them a way that is a bit easier than my mom's way, which I've done for years. They're one of my favorite foods, not only because they're delicious when freshly made but because they make wonderful sandwiches the next day on rye bread with mayonnaise. And that, of course, was my lunch on Saturday.
Saturday evening my good friend Sue (Canadian daughter as I call her, after the dubbed me her Fort Worth mom) came for dinner, and I scrambled eggs with diced smoked salmon, chopped tomato, and sliced scallions. It's a one-dish meal and so easy, but so good.
Tonight good friends are coming for pasta--at least that's what they think. But I'm really going to make a family favorite--green noodles. This dish, which my kids love, has a history. When my brother was dating his first wife, she had little money. One night when he was coming for dinner and her cupboard was bare, she melted butter, added spaghetti and lemon juice. Over the years I've added to that bare-bones recipes, first substituting spinach tagliatelle for spaghetti and then adding sliced scallions, chopped artichoke hearts, and mushrooms. A few years ago when I had my first bumper crop of basil and made my own pesto, I added a frozen ice cube of pesto and topped the whole thing with parmesan. It's another one-dish meal, served with crusty bread. Comfort food that brings happy family memories.

Green noodles
1 16-0z. pkg. spinach egg noodles
1 stick butter
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced (I always buy whole and slice them myself)
4 scallions, chopped
1 can quartered artichoke hearts
1 ice-cube size piece of pesto, thawed (about one Tbsp.)
Juice of one lemon (more to taste)
Grated fresh Parmesan
Cook and drain noodles. Melt butter in the skillet. (Megan, weight-conscious in high school, used to insist that was too much butter, and it may be--use part olive oil.) Sauté the mushrooms and scallions in the butter. Add lemon juice to taste—I like lots; the mushrooms soak up the lemon and are delicious. Add artichokes and noodles and toss to coat. Heat briefly to warm. Top with Parmesan and serve.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Small favors

Sometimes we pray to God for huge favors and dispensations--some pray for health for a loved one, others for love, others for money. For too many of us, prayer is sort of a litany of "Please,
God, give me...." I've been known to ask God's help with problems that are really bothering me, but today two minor things were on my mind and they worked out just fine, without my mentioning them to the Lord. I guess he knew.
Yesterday I left my favorite white quilted vest in a restaurant at lunch. I called immediately and asked how early I could get it this morning. "Nine o'clock," they said. I knew they opened at eleven, so I figured they'd be preparing for the day and it would be hard to gain access, let alone get someone to notice me. I worried about it, and about parking--their handicap parking is the most inaccessible spot I've ever seen. But I got there at nine-thirty and was amazed--barely found a parking space way back in the parking lot, but one that provided me easy access. I forgot they open for brunch at nine on Saturday and Sundays. My vest was at the front desk, and I was on my way in three or four minutes.
Last night a man from the rug company I use delivered a clean rug and asked where it went. When I said under the dining table, he said he'd be back tonight at six with someone to help him. I expected a dinner guest at six and it wouldn't be a big deal--but still not real smooth. Then the owner of the company called and explained they close at noon on Saturdays and could they come about eleven. I told him that worked better for me, and two men arrived and very carefully moved my unstable antique table, took great care to center it on the rug and under the chandelier and went their way.
Small favors but they brightened what was already a happy day. They made me think of Anne Lamott's new book, Small Mercies, which is high on my "TBR" (to be read) list. I don't mean to imply that the Lord is behind every small thing that happens in each of our lives but sometimes I do feel divine intervention has a hand in turning things out right. My happy day ended with a lovely visit with my Canadian daughter (her mom lives in Ottawa so she calls me her Fort Worth mom). Besides, how can a December day when the temperature is in the 70s be anything but good?

Friday, December 12, 2014

A quiet, empty house

I'm feeling a little pensive tonight. My house is quiet and empty after having Jacob here for three days. Even Sophie has chosen to be outside instead of in with me. Jacob's gone to visit his grandparents in Coppell--they are so much better than I am about taking him to football practice and the like. He'll have a good time, and it's good that he's there, but I miss him. He was all dressed up this morning because his class was going to Bass Hall to see a performance of the Nutcracker. At the last moment, he decided against his tie (it was a different shade of red, and I thought the decision wise). I did not make him tuck his shirt in, as his parents would have--I think it looks dorky. The hardest part of having him was making sure he was fed, dressed, teeth brushed, (who cares about that curly mop?) and out the door on time--the school is across the street and I watch until he gets to the crossing guard.
We had good moments in our three days--I realized he's spoiled and wants to eat out every night. We went to the Grill one night and to Lucile's another. Last night he was distinctly disappointed when I said we were staying home--but he settled for scrambled eggs (I almost made an omelet because I turned away for a moment too long). At Lucile's he wanted to taste lobster, so I gave him one tiny bite from my pot pie. He tasted it and announced next time he would order lobster (this child has a supreme disregard for cost). When I asked if he wanted another tiny bite, he said no thank you. Doesn't bode well for a future order of lobster.
Tonight for my solitary dinner I made salmon cakes (a favorite of mine--eating them is enhanced by anticipation of a sandwich with mayo and lemon tomorrow) and zucchini vegetti. A friend gave me a spiral thing that turns vegetables into spaghetti--I sauté the zucchini with a bit of butter-flavored olive oil, salt and pepper. A good dinner--and I could read while I ate.
Tonight I read a seasonal letter from a fellow Guppy that really resonated with me. She quoted Ursula Le Guin who predicted hard times are coming, times in which we will need artists and writers while we live in the grip of capitalism. But she reminded human resistance can change things, and change often begins in art. "The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It is freedom."
The writer of the message went on to say the two things she thought most important are to take care of our planet and not pollute it--sometimes I think we're already too late in coming to that conclusion, but it is so vital. And we need to see all people on our planet as equally human. I wanted to rise up and cheer, though these are two cardinal principles that are being trodden into the dirt right now. It all reminded me of William Faulkner's speech (when we all thought that atomic bombs would wipe life from the planet). Faulkner believed that man would not only survive but will prevail. I have to believe that too, just as I have to believe that Le Guin is right--we need artists and writers in our lives now.
It makes me wonder if what I write is frivolous--and there's a bit of me that vows to change that.
Okay, pensive mood over.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Read the newspaper lately?

Some days, reading the newspaper is so discouraging you just want to go back to bed. Today was one of those. Here are a few things from my glance through this morning, mostly without comment:
Jose Feghali was a suicide--such a waste of wonderful talent
The government may shut down again at midnight--accomplishing just what? Ask Speaker Boehner.
The Republicans are pulling some fast ones--burying a provision to take Arapahoe ceremonial lands for mining companies deep in an unrelated bill; trying to rig the electoral college so it corresponds to voting districts, which are already so gerrymandered there's no opposition; putting in the tax bill provisions that amount to if Wall Street makes money, they keep the profit--if they lose money, taxpayers cover the debt.
Student aid has been cut by $303 million--when what we most need is an educated public
Doctors face a 40% cut in Medicaid fees--no, they don't need to make the great wealth they did in the sixties but today they too have student debts to pay off, office costs, etc. What this means is more and more physicians won't see Medicaid patients--and some won't see Medicare patients these days
Texas schools didn't qualify for competitive aid grants from the Federal government because of large class sizes--but our soon-to-be-governor cut funding for schools
The leader of the House panel on Benghazi now says he isn't satisfied with the results of their study--this makes how many times we've fought the Battle of Benghazi?
What is happening to America? Whatever it is, it isn't good--and I am usually singing the Pollyanna song.
I waited all day for some redeeming piece of good news but there just wasn't any. For me, it was an ordinary day--good, not bad, but nothing remarkable. I did see tonight that Speaker Boehner doesn't have the numbers for his tax bill and has postponed calling for a vote. That's good news.
May tomorrow be brighter for all of us. Wonder where our elf will land tonight?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The elves in my house aren't always on the shelves

There's an elf floating around my house. He's not your standard Elf on the Shelf in red. Rather, he's a clown who looks like he might do mime. Dinglebell--that's his name--belonged to Elizabeth the year she lived in my garage apt. and I guess when she came to visit at Thanksgiving he flew back hidden in her suitcase. Anyway, he appeared right on target Dec. 1 and has been flitting around at night to odd places in the house. The first thought on Jacob's mind every morning is to find his elf--if he's at home, he looks for Jack, his Elf on the Shelf; at my house he looks for Dinglebell. On his way to school from home he has to find Dinglebell at my house. This morning when I woke him for school and asked what he wanted for breakfast, he said, "I'm not telling you until I find Dinglebell." This took a while. (Note to Dinglebell: please don't hide in such obscure places.)
The other elf in my house is my adorable eight-year-old Jacob. I have to say Dinglebell is a lot easier to deal with sometimes. But Jacob is staying from Tuesday till Friday after school when he'll go to his other grandparents (I get the school and homework duty but then they'll take him to football, and I'm mightily glad to be relieved of that). I woke at three this morning, worrying about getting him out the door to school on time--a worry he doesn't seem to share.
(Jacob can be a bit of a ham)
So far all is pretty smooth. Last night he played with a friend, then they both came here where I cracked the whip about homework and then took them to the Grill. Tonight Betty and I took Jacob to Lucile's for Lobsterama--he tasted a tiny bit of lobster and declared he was ordering it next time but no thank you, he didn't want another bite. He liked his six-inch cheese pizza. I had lobster pot pie which was delicious but didn't really give me my lobster fix. I'm going back for lunch Friday and will probably have the lobster BLT.
I enjoy having Jacob here--though I lose patience at times. This afternoon he did not want to do his math--it was too hard, he'd do it tomorrow, it wasn't fair, it was stupid (I cautioned against using that word again). I explained if it was that hard, he might not finish it in one day and should start today. When he got into it--with my help--he enjoyed it. Same thing with a shower--begged and pled to put it off until tomorrow, told me no one at school would smell his hair (I did). Once he got into the shower, I thought I'd never get him out. He uses the hand-held shower head to spray water all over his body until I call enough.
Lessons learned: tonight I'm discussing breakfast choices before he goes to bed. And if he wallops me in the eye with his elbow again, all bets are off. Meantime I wonder where Dinglebell will end up tonight. Big sigh.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

A marketing puzzle

One of the sad truths about the writing life these days is that writers spend as much time or more marketing their books than they do writing them. Or worrying about marketing and how to improve it. Gone are the days when your publisher handled marketing--all the author had to do was write, revise according to edits, and then smile and look pretty on book tours. Today we do all the work--and it's a big cause of worry. If I don't have many reviews on Amazon, how can I increase them? Is my blog attracting readers? Should I do some paid advertisings? Sponsor a giveway? Help!
I have a puzzle that is a bit different--I'm not at all worried about it but I wish I could figure out the secret so I could apply it to other titles. In the late 1970s Doubleday published a short novel of mine, Mattie, about a pioneer woman physician on the Nebraska frontier in the late nineteenth century. It was in the DoubleD series, which sold primarily to libraries and prisons, and as those books did, it sold modestly. It went out of print and was picked up by Leisure Books, which subsequently went out of business and the rights returned to me. I put it on Kindle at 99 cents, not expecting to have many sales. Within months, the book's sales ballooned--I got what I thought were large royalty checks, and they kept coming.
Today the royalty checks are a lot smaller, but that little book keeps selling and every week it gather two or three new reviews--it now has over 300, mostly 5-star. I do nothing to promote it because I'm not sure what to do. Perhaps it's the 99-cent price; I'm sure it's not the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, though I was mighty proud of that when I received it. The subject matter isn't in-your-face enough to sustain this long interest. A book of short stories, posted to Kindle at the same time, barely has any sales and maybe ten reviews.
I wish I knew the secret. I'd apply it to The Perfect Coed, which is the only other book I have control over. But it's a good dilemma to have.
Here's the opening paragraph of Mattie:
My mother was an unmarried mother, fallen woman, they called her back in Princeton, Missouri. They called her that and a lot worse names, most of which I didn’t understand at the time, thank goodness. It wasn’t just that Mama made one mistake—me—but I had a little brother, Will Henry, and neither of us had a father that we knew about. Will Henry was seven years younger than me, and you’d think I’d remember a man being around the house about that time to account for my brother’s appearance, but I didn’t. I used to wonder if Mama had somehow gotten caught in the great war just passed or if my father had fought in that war. For much of my growing-up years, Mama never told us if we had the same father or not. When either of us asked, Mama became flustered and impatient and usually just said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” There would be tears in her eyes that made me feel guilty and cruel, so I would abandon the subject