Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A new look

Please admire my new look on the blog. Seven or so years ago, when I started a blog, I knew nothing about it. In fact, when daughter-in-law Melanie suggested it, I protested I had nothing to write about--at that time my writing career was sort of on hold, though I was experimenting with mysteries. But publication in the mystery genre was still several years away. "Sure you do," Mel said. "You can write about writing and cooking and grandchildren, and call it Judy's Stew.' I stuck my toe in the water and liked it, but I give all credit to Mel. But at the time I knew no better than to use one of the standard templates offered by Blogger. When I asked two designer friends to redesign my blog, they threw their hands up in the air. So my deepest thanks for the new look go to Becca Allen, of the TCU Press staff, who took it on as a free-lance project. She did a great job!
Over the years the blog has sort of evolved. The cooking part branched off and is now in my once-a-week food blog, "Potluck with Judy." That's in large part due to Elizabeth who kept urging me on--a friend for over twenty years, she lived in my guest house for a year and knows how important cooking and food are to me.
"Judy's Stew" became more and more a personal blog, especially since I have an author page on Facebook. My audience is, I hope, readers more than writers, so I write very little about writing technique, marketing, all the ins and outs of being a professional writer. I want readers to know who I am as a person.
I write about whatever strikes me at the moment, and I don't shy away from topics that are verboten on most blogs, primarily politics and, to a lesser extent, religion. To the chagrin of some of my family, most blog readers know I'm a confirmed liberal, and I'm proud of my committed membership in Fort Worth's University Christian Church (the family is not embarrassed by that).
Everyone knows I raised four children, mostly as a single parent, and have seven grandchildren who are of course the most beautiful and smartest in the universe. The new banner on the blog shows all my family along with my brother's extended family We're a happy and noisy crew when we get together.
My dog, Sophie, a cross of border collie and poodle, appears in my blog fairly often. She's a great companion, loving, affectionate, and full of mischief when she gets excited.
And yes, I spend my days writing and doing writing-related work. Of course then there are my duties as editor of the neighborhood newsletter, welcomer of new visitors to the church, homework coach for the second-grade grandchild who goes to school across the street from my house. And entertaining and going out with friends. Those are the things I write about, and I hope the new look reflects the essentials of my life.

Monday, April 21, 2014

That last chapter

This seems kind of a BSP post (blatant self promotion) but I don’t mean it that way. I just finished proofing (again, for the umpteenth time!) a novel I plan to self-publish in October. As I proofed I dreaded getting to the last chapter. There is, I hope, sufficient tension all the way through the novel, but I know in advance that the last scene is scary, the main character nearly meets her maker, and it makes my teeth on edge. Even though I wrote it, and even though I know the ending. I wonder if other writers feel that way.

I have a short story, “The Art of Dipping Candles,” that has been reprinted many times, and I’ve been called on to read it publicly several times. Same thing: when I get to the end, it makes me cry. I can’t help it—it’s just so damn sad.

Beyond that I’ve had lessons in computer difficulty today. I could not download a mobi file from an email and save it, no matter what I did. Then it turned out I’d been downloading it all the time. I even dug out my generation one Kindle, found the cords, charged it and prepared to try to connect Kindle to  computer—though I had no idea what to do next. Fortunately that little dilemma was solved.

Then I thought I’d begin reading about how to download files to Create Space—not actually doing it, mind you, but just reading about the process. I soon found I’d already listed the book and found myself loading text, trying to load ISBN (International Standard Book Number) which Create Space rejected. I had purchased it from R. R. Bowker, so will have to call one or the other about what to do. Then I tried to upload the cover—I only had a jpeg and they wanted a pdf. A friend converted it for me. I knew this was going to be a long, slow process, so I feel good about even having a start. I want to have ARCs by June.

And I wrote 1150 words on the new Kelly novel tonight. So watch my dust—I’m on a roll! And come October, watch for The Perfect Coed from Alter Ego Publishing (no snickers, please—that was once on my rural mailbox). It’s both an adventure and an experiment for me. Come along for the ride.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A day of anticipation

I like Easter Saturday. There’s so much anticipation in that day sandwiched between the grief of Good Friday and the joy of Easter.

For kids, it’s anticipation of Easter egg hunts and treats and…oh, yeah. And church. Jacob went to bed last night wishing that it was already Saturday because then Easter would be the next day and the Easter bunny would come. He did have a good discussion with neighbor Jay about the meaning of Good Friday and Easter. To my surprise, Jay taught Sunday school more than once, and he did a good job of explaining what Christians see as the love of God in sacrificing his son and the reassurance of the resurrection. Jacob took it all in seriously, and he replied intelligently, though by today he was a bit foggy on the details. He’ll be at sunrise service with the rest of us, but I know a big part of his mind will be on the egg hunt. Actually he’ll have two egg hunts, but that’s another story.

For many of us as adults, it’s a day of preparation which heightens the anticipation. Jordan says it’s like Christmas Eve—so much to do, so little time. I know it’s been a cooking day for me—German potato salad for a family gathering tomorrow; sloppy Joe for a working dinner tonight; setting the table for Easter breakfast. Jordan prepared for the Easter bunny, straightened what she thought needed straightening about my house including the bathroom, laid out things for the morning I hadn’t gotten to yet. And then she went home to do the same at her house.

I’ve written about the relationship between food and mysteries but it occurs to me you could do a great article on food and Christianity, from the feeding of the multitudes (Jacob was retelling the story tonight and said Jesus’ mother told him there wasn’t enough wine and to hurry up and make more) right up to today when so many of our holidays center around meals and traditional foods. Turkey at Christmas, ham or lamb for Easter…and in my family, a big breakfast on each of those days.

Tomorrow I’ll host breakfast for between seven and nine adults and two children right after the early service. We’ll have breakfast parfaits (strawberries. yogurt, granola), an egg casserole, link sausages and biscuits or hot cross buns. I love the buns, buy them every year, and I think I’m the only one who eats them.

Tonight Jordan made the egg casserole (I really don’t believe in doing it the night before but she told me “that’s how we young people roll, Mom”—I bit my tongue on several counts) and I finished setting the table. So the sloppy Joe sustained us during this activity. Morning will be hectic with the two young ones hunting eggs and Jordan and me getting breakfast on the table.

A break in the middle of the day—for me, a nap. Then it’s off to Jordan’s for mid-afternoon dinner of ham, beans, potato salad with Christian’s family. Preceded of course by an egg hunt for Jacob and his two cousins.

In the midst of it all, I will try hard to keep in mind that miracle that draws us together, the mystery of the stone rolled away, the glory of the risen Christ. A feeling of awe and grace came over me last year at the sunrise service—it’s magic to go in the dark and, sitting in the garden, watch the sky go from gray to pink to daylight. I’m filled with anticipation of the good news.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Is this what happens in old age?

I had a full calendar today--a haircut appointment, a dermatologist appointment followed by lunch with a friend, a play date for Jacob at our house and happy hour with the neighbors. The only one of those things that worked out as planned was the happy hour.
Went to my haircut, waited half an hour for Rosa, thinking maybe I'd gotten the time wrong. Finally got her on the phone--my appointment was a week ago today. No wonder my hair seems extraordinarily long--now I have to live with it until Tuesday morning. No special Easter "do" for me.
The dermatologist actually worked out more easily--I saw the appointment on my calendar twice, called  and found out it is for a week from Monday. And the friend I was having lunch with cancelled because she's having a busy week. But getting all those things wrong on my calendar shook my self-confidence.
Anyway then I was free to join good friends Phil and Subie who were lunching with Bob Compton, who we all know from his days as Dallas Morning New Book Editor. We ate on the patio at Nonna Tata--okay, it's a graveled covered area, but it was outdoors on a gorgeous day. Had my favorite thing--braseola (the beef version of prosciutto) covered with sliced grana cheese and a light lemon dressing with a side of wonderful potato salad--the no-mayo kind.
After school, a good friend came home with Jacob--the friend's grandfather always accompanies him, and we have great visits while the boys play. But today, I soon had four boys playing football in the front yard and two moms on the porch. One mom took her son home, and the other mom took all three boys to her house--bless her! The grandfather and I had a nice long visit, and then I had a quiet afternoon and got lots done. Jacob went from the first boy's house to that of the original play date; then the grandfather took them all to the schoolyard to play. It was after six-thirty when Jacob came in, sweaty and exhausted.
Meantime I was having wine and southwestern tuna on the deck with my neighbors. Lovely evening, good company, good food.
Struck me again how lucky I am to have friends of all ages--from the grandfather I visited with after school (his kids are twenty years younger than mine so he's much younger than me) to my neighbors in their fifties to the mothers of Jacob's school friends who are younger than Jordan. Variety truly is the spice of life--and I like my spicy life.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Play dates

My kids never had play dates, but I don't think I was a neglectful mother. We'd just never heard of the concept back in the seventies. Besides, with four kids, they had plenty of action at home. I remember once when the mother of an only child called me and wanted to know if Megan was available to play a week from Thursday. I nearly exploded! How in the blue blazes did I know what Megan would be doing that far away, but I assumed she'd be playing with her brothers and sisters. (That's another thing--I don't remember elementary school having so much homework; Jacob and I spend much of the afternoon doing homework--either I've forgotten or I really didn't do that much with my children.)
At any rate, we had a play date around here yesterday. My friend Jeannie brought Mabel, a two-plus-year old cockapoo to play with Sophie, my almost three-year-old bordoodle.
Mabel is staying with Jeannie, and I do believe she thinks she's died and gone to heaven. All she wants is to sit on a lap and be loved--but she would prefer it to be Jeannie's lap. We thought a play date between the two would be perfect.
It was and wasn't. Sophie thinks all comers, be they dog or human, love her and have arrived for her delight. Mabel hasn't been around that many other dogs or people, so she's hesitant and protective with a tendency to be belligerent. If Sophie came too close to Jeannie, Mabel took out after her. Sophie, who can run faster, simply circled the yard, thinking it all a good game. Sometimes they'd calm down and sniff each other, but there was never any real play.
While we ate lunch, we'd find them lying together under the table but then something would set one off and they'd be at it again. We had fun, but we're not sure about the dogs. I guess though it's like children--you have to give it more than one try.
It's a little hard to see Sophie in the shade, but she's there. I never realized before Sophie how hard it is to photograph a black dog.
So this is what my retirement has come to--second-grade homework and play dates for dogs.

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. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finger_bowl) 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. http://www.entertrainmentjunction.com/cincinnati_entertainment_and_attractions/model_trains_journey 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 http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com.
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 http://hollygilliatt.tumblr.com/post/82253436253/writing-process-blog-hop.
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.