The Library Thrift Store

I’ve heard positive comments about the Library Thrift Store. “They have treasures!” “Their prices are reasonable!” “They get new things in every week!”

At the corner of Third and Avenue J, the store does a booming business. In fact, at times it’s so crowded that cars are parked out by the curb and in the empty lot across the street.

I like resale shops and antique stores. If you’ve read Why Stuff Matters, you know that I wrote an entire farcical novel about people and their obsessive regard for stuff. I enjoy pondering provenance. I’m fascinated by the inflated prices stuck on chipped dishes and stained tablecloths. Every time I drove by there I thought—Quick, Jen, get in there before they sell all their stuff!

But before could I stop in for a browse, I became annoyed with the library’s head librarian and was therefore not of a mindset to spend money in their silly shop. Here’s what happened:

My author’s copies of Why Stuff Matters arrived from England. The first thing a writer does at this point is donate a signed copy to the local library. This is what David and I had done with Old Buildings in North Texas, but at that time the head librarian had been out. This time, however, she was there, perched behind the counter. When I explained who I was and offered her my lovely book, she held out a reluctant hand, accepting it as if it carried germs.  

“Thank you,” she said in a tone that lacked conviction. 

“I’m available to speak at one of your Meet the Author events,” I told her. 

I wasn’t comfortable putting myself forward, but in the name of publicity I was willing to climb the barrier. At that point I had prepared a talk that I’ve since given to readers’ groups and writers’ groups, and at several libraries across the state. Discussing inspiration, creativity, style, and editing decisions, it’s humorous and informative. I add readings of the opening chapters and take questions, which is always fun because I can be witty. It’s gone over well. 

“We’re booked up months in advance.” Her words are reasonable but the tone is glum and her eyes don’t meet mine. 

This unspoken negativity is one of my peeves. No without saying no. A slight so slight that only the most perceptive can perceive it. And why the attitude? At the very least a librarian should greet a writer with kindness and encouragement. 

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. 

 I tell her it was nice to meet her and David and I leave the library. 

“Why didn’t you ask her to put you on the schedule on her next open date?” he asks once we’re in the car. 

“If she wanted me she wouldn’t have right away offered an excuse.” 

“You’re too sensitive.”

“I’m just the right amount of sensitive.”

And that brief story is why I’ve been reluctant to support the Library Thrift Store. That was a year ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to get over the callousness of a stranger. 

Wednesday afternoon. Hot midsummer. As usual, the parking lot is full. The nearest space is half a block up the street. I park, get out, and, before entering, take a few photos. What is it about this place that draws such a crowd? I’m about to find out, though I’ve made a guess based on the local demographic. Retirees abound in this part of Texas, which means people are dying all the time. And what do their middle-aged children do with the stuff left behind? Why, they donate it to the local charity shop! Dead people’s stuff. How delightfully morbid. 

It’s not delightful. Out-of-style clothes. Costume jewelry, no gold or diamonds. Shelves of best sellers from the eighties and nineties. Sets of encyclopedias. The framed art is a letdown—prints bought at Kirkland’s, nothing of value, nothing unique. There is absolutely no item here that I haven’t seen a thousand times in similar places.

But I do have some positive things to say. The store is roomy and the overhead lights are bright, lending a sharp clean look. Also, jumble stores usually smell musty, but here someone has taken care that all the clothing is fresh and pressed. And though the framed work might not be quality, it has all been recently dusted. The few items I find that are of interest are priced fairly. So, as these places go, it rates highly on the Waldo resale scale. 

But wait a minute. There’s a slew of people working here. Five gray-haired women behind the long front counter. Three men busy with brooms. Two women wiping surfaces. 

There’s a door at the back that’s posted with a No Entry sign. I go on through to fine another large room. Seven long tables hold mixing bowls, wigs, cowboy boots, waffle irons, and pink flamingos. Stuff covers every surface and climbs up the walls. The room is so cluttered that it’s difficult to separate one item from another. A dozen gabbing people hang out around the tables. In a back corner a space has been cleared and three ironing boards are set up with three women ironing tops, pants, and linens. 

I’ve seen enough. On the way out I don’t come across a single other customer. 

And the mystery of why there are so many cars is solved. All these people who don’t have jobs anymore need something to do and an air-conditioned place to spend their time. Curiosity was eating at me and at least now I know. 

Always crowded, lots of stuff inside.

Always crowded, lots of stuff inside.

These canisters were in good shape and only fifteen dollars. I’ve seen them for three times as much at the antique mall in Burnet.

These canisters were in good shape and only fifteen dollars. I’ve seen them for three times as much at the antique mall in Burnet.

Whatever these cost, they’re not worth it.

Whatever these cost, they’re not worth it.

The Marble Falls Public Library, where I’m not appreciated.

The Marble Falls Public Library, where I’m not appreciated.

Childbirth Empathy

Here’s an excerpt from Sam’s most recent email where he tells about accompanying some friends to an unusual activity, a new trend among the thirty-somethings in Beijing: 

. . . a husband (or anyone else who wants to do it) gets electrodes stuck to his abdomen and is then zapped at different levels to simulate labor pains. The level adjusts from one to ten, where ten is meant to be something approximating actual birth pains. Beth had a great time watching her husband writhe, and Thomas said it was the most painful thing he'd ever experienced. I'm glad Julia isn't interested in such a vindictive way of showing love.

Oh Sam. While I’m sure Julia wouldn’t ordinarily wish unnecessary pain on you, giving birth is hardly an ordinary circumstance. You have no idea what sort of snarling beast a woman in labor can turn into, nor how poorly an otherwise sensible man might comport himself when coming face to face with the primitive creature that is clearly a fraction of the whole. 

Considering Beth’s sadistic pleasure, I’m going to assume that she and Thomas have had a baby in the last year or so. I imagine the whole experience is still fresh in her mind, including the way her husband floundered ineffectually at her bedside as she was wrenched, stretched, and torn. 

How useless he must have felt. But he’s not alone; no man on the planet has a clue. His moon-faced sympathy, befuddled offers of help, and strained encouragement must have all echoed foolishly as they ricocheted off the transcendental barrier formed by her consuming hell.   

When a woman is at her best, her man is at his worst. It’s a balance thing. 

Sam’s tale evokes my own experience and a resulting envy that what is available now was not available when my first son was born. David is the best husband. All he ever wants is for me to be happy. He’s a rock. But at the time it was one mistake after another. 

We all have our stories and I’ll make this brief:

When Curtis was born we were living in Holland. There were no childbirth classes. No one in the hospital, doctors and nurses included, spoke English. David came directly from running a triathlon. He was sweaty, filling the entire room with brackish steam. He’d heard somewhere that breathing was part of the process, so he puffed hot runner’s breath directly into my face for the whole thirty-hour labor. 

It was a weekend and he joked about what a good corporate wife I was. I spent a single night in the hospital and was sent home on Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning I was running a high fever, at which point David began to don his suit and tie, getting ready for work. We actually had a screaming fight about him leaving me, sick and alone with a newborn. He even turned caveman, using the word “hysterics” in the most antiquated chauvinistic sense. What man does that? The best of them, that’s who. David, bewildered and disoriented, suddenly a father, was striving to meet his new responsibility in the only way he knew—by working. 

They say the trauma fades, joining other memories that have been boxed and stored; obviously it’s more a fester than a fade. 

As I said, knowing what I know, if it were possible and if I had it to do over again, I’d hook him up to that labor-simulation contraption so fast that he wouldn’t have time to puff out a single triathlated protest. 

From a woman’s point of view, the advice I’d give a man faced with the upcoming birth of his first child is that if he truly wants to empathize with his wife, and if he wants her to view him as her equal, he should go get those electrodes placed on his abdomen and crank the level up to high. Feel her pain. 

Really, look at the size of that head!

Really, look at the size of that head!

Welcoming Julia

When I tell my cleaning lady that my son, Sam, is engaged, and the situation, which is that Julia is British and working in the US, and that Sam lives and works in China, she becomes concerned about Julia’s status. 

“They must marry within ninety days,” she states authoritatively. 

“I can’t see that happening,” I say. “They live on separate continents. The arrangements will be tricky.”

She becomes agitated, opening and closing her mouth, clearly with something to say, but her English isn’t great. 

“She will be sent from here if they not marry in ninety days.”

Oh. She’s coming at it from what she knows. She’s in the US illegally and must soon leave the country. She married an American in April, likely in an attempt to meet the ninety-day deadline. She knows my son is a lawyer and asks if I will talk to him about an alternative. She desperately wants someone to tell her that her life isn’t fixing to be disrupted. I say I’ll ask Curtis, though he isn’t in the business of telling people what they want to hear. 

If she leaves Texas I will find no one better to do what she does. She fights dirt like a warrior and she sings while she works. She pays no taxes on the puny amount she makes, which I don’t mind. 

I share the woeful news of her pending departure with a friend. 

“You hired an illegal?” Lydia, shocked and indignant. “Why, Jenny, you’re part of the problem!”

“What problem?” 

I see no problem other than Maria having to go away. At least Lydia stands by her principles. She has no cleaner because there is no cleaner to be found who isn’t here without sanction.  

That Maria sees a comparison between Julia and herself is naïve and somewhat poignant. 

And none of this is to the point. It’s just me pondering the lives of two people from different countries and their relationships to the US. One of them is a forty-something Mexican who has no skills other than joyfully cleaning my house. And the other is my future daughter-in-law who has recently received her masters from the Harvard-Kennedy International School and is the Belfer Center’s Research Director on the issue of international cyber policy, specifically focusing on American and Chinese cooperation on the issue. As far as I know, Julia is a British citizen and has no intention of becoming an American, though she’s enjoying her time in the states. 

We went to Boston, yes, to see Julia walk across the stage, but primarily to meet her parents, who are themselves immigrants to the UK from Malaysia. Retired now, Julia’s mother was a midwife and her father was in IT in Plymouth for his working life. These days both of them are dedicated to bringing eastern treatments and remedies to their corner of England, which is timely in that lately old medicines are becoming new medicines and the established western medical culture is opening its mind to holistic concepts. 

Khim and David—yes, another David—Julia’s parents, were friendly and predisposed to like us, as we were them. We love Julia, they love Sam. Getting along was inevitable. David (not my David) seemed reticent, but a conversation with him revealed him to be a thoughtful man who holds his opinions until asked. Khim has an inclusive heart. She possesses no deception, no ulterior motives. As soon as we shake hands she merrily begins to share and probe. Within five minutes we’re merry pals with many things in common. Two family friends accompanied them to Boston—Helen, twenty-five; and Julie, early seventies. 

That these two women would feel comfortable accompanying them to Boston, sitting through a three-hour graduation ceremony, and participating in group activities is a revealing detail about the family Sam is marrying into. Julia’s people meet the world with open arms. I have no friends who would journey across the world with me and applaud my grown child’s accomplishments; nor, frankly, would I welcome the intimacy. But their ease with relationships is something to admire, possibly even aspire to. 

Sam has always been outgoing, comfortable with pretty much everyone, interested rather than judgmental. This sincere openness is something he and Julia have in common. Also, I see in their relationship a “got your back” quality, which is always good. They’re both proactive and ambitious, but also generous. Julia seems more organized than Sam, while Sam is an ideas guy. So, they’re balanced. As to what their future holds, Julia is in Boston for the foreseeable future and Sam intends to extricate himself from his interests in Beijing at some point. This vague plan is so opposite to the way David and I have done things that David becomes jittery just thinking about it. 

“So many uncertainties!” he says.

“Not our concern,” I say. 

My preoccupation is the melancholy that comes from having sons. They say if you have a daughter when she marries you gain a son; and if you have a son when he marries you lose a son. While both sons do a good job of keeping us in the loop, my older son and his wife live three blocks from her parents. And the eventual plan for Sam is that he and Julia will settle in the UK, which is where Julia’s parents are. 

I don’t mean to sound bitter or disappointed; and I’m not. The ultimate goal, always, was for my kids to be happy. But still, there’s a sadness that comes when your children are grown and gone. 

“That’s why you have a dog,” David hollers from the next room as he arrives at this point in the blog. 

And he’s right. I pet Dilly, who’s been sleeping in my lap for an hour, place her gently on the floor, and push away from the computer. 

Julia before graduation. Congratulations, Julia!

Julia before graduation. Congratulations, Julia!

Julia, Sam, Khim, David, Julie, and Helen drove to Niagara Falls. Sam’s license wasn’t up to date so Julia and Helen, both used to right-side driving, took turns behind the wheel. I was beside myself with worry!

Julia, Sam, Khim, David, Julie, and Helen drove to Niagara Falls. Sam’s license wasn’t up to date so Julia and Helen, both used to right-side driving, took turns behind the wheel. I was beside myself with worry!

Julia and her parents, Sam and his parents.

Julia and her parents, Sam and his parents.

The ring. She was giddy, Sam was thrilled.

The ring. She was giddy, Sam was thrilled.

Summer Lunch Program

“Here’s a thing we should do,” David says as he sits behind his computer, gazing at the screen, reading glasses perched.

“What?” It’s feigned interest. The last thing I want to do is something I should do.

“Hand out lunches to kids during the summer.”

It has its appeal. This sounds like a thing we can do together. David has become so busy volunteering in the community that he has little time to do things with me or even to keep up with his responsibilities here at home. On the other hand, I’m protective of my time.

“Are you competing to see who can do the most good works?” I ask with a dubious squint. 

“No.” But he sounds defensive. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

So he signs us up to attend the mandated orientation meeting. Because this is a federally funded program there are hoops to be jumped through before we can come in contact with food or kids. We expect to hear about these hoops at the meeting. But in actuality what we’re subjected to is the muddlement of two women who take up positions between the flags at the front of a large room and wonder aloud why they’re there and what it is they’re supposed to be communicating. 

To the bewilderment of the potential volunteers, the women mainly talk to each other about what they should be talking about. At one point they discuss different hand-out locations throughout the county and which ones will offer chocolate milk. One of them gives a power point presentation that tells how many children are fed by the program each year and how important it is for kids living below poverty level to have lunch. The pair spends a lot of time apologizing about how we were required to attend this meeting. 

As I said, I value my time and this has been an hour wasted. We exit the building with only the knowledge that we’re required to take and pass two exams—one concerned with food handling and the other in civil rights. We are not told the names of these courses, where to find them, what’ll they cost, or how much time they will consume. 

“I want nothing to do with such a disorganized program,” I say to David. 

The lack of forethought that went into this meeting is appalling. Standing unprepared in front of a group is the stuff of nightmares. Apparently not for these two women. 

“I’ll figure it out,” he says. 

When we get home he emails everybody he knows who might be able to point us to the courses. Eventually he hears back from someone and he sends me two links. 

The food-handling course is geared toward restaurant workers. It teaches the different types of food contaminants, the temperature at which bacteria stops proliferating, how to properly put on rubber gloves, how to wash a dish, how to empty a trash, what to look for when you suspect an insect or rodent infestation. I reiterate: we will be handing out prepackaged sack lunches to children. The food exam takes three hours from my life, hours I could have spent playing spider solitaire or checking out the deals on Zulily. 

The civil rights course and exam isn’t quite as long. It consists of six simple chapters that give rules about being sensitive and treating all people uniformly; except, of course, those with special needs, and them we must treat better while maintaining the illusion that they’re being treated equally. 

Believe it or not, there’s a fine line between treating someone in a wheelchair equally and giving a person in a wheelchair special treatment. As a class, handicapped people seem to want both. 

Civil rights, to sum up: be kind to all, but not overly kind to anyone. I already know this and feel the course to be a waste of my time. An hour and a half. 

I’m to begin my lunch duties tomorrow and have just received a reminder that I must clear a background check before I can take my position behind the sack lunches. This is the first I’ve heard about it, though I suppose it’s best to make sure I’m not a pervert. Will there be time to get this done before tomorrow? I can’t be bothered to care. 

Oh, and the way this project is laid out, David and I will not be doing any of it together. I anticipate a chaotic farce. I agreed to this misadventure during a few fuzzy seconds when I forgot who I am and what I was taught by my father: 

Jennifer, do never volunteer. 

David, scheming to get me involved in good deed doing.

David, scheming to get me involved in good deed doing.

The apartment complex where I’ll be handing out lunches. Though people whisper about it as though it’s a shameful slum, it’s quite pleasant and well-maintained. I don’t get the attitude.

The apartment complex where I’ll be handing out lunches. Though people whisper about it as though it’s a shameful slum, it’s quite pleasant and well-maintained. I don’t get the attitude.

Here’s the other venue for lunches in Marble Falls. Apparently the Boys and Girls Club came close to going broke last year and all the businesses in town rallied around and donated food and funds.

Here’s the other venue for lunches in Marble Falls. Apparently the Boys and Girls Club came close to going broke last year and all the businesses in town rallied around and donated food and funds.

Cambridge Graduation

I swore during that last flight out of Singapore that I’d never get on another airplane, which casts me in a nonconforming role as more than half the people I know are constantly catching flights to cruises in the Mediterranean or cooking tours in Italy. Well, they didn’t live their middle years the way we did and it’s understandable that they want to see what’s out there. But six years ago, as far as I was concerned, I was done. 

But my reasonable expectation that David would want to slow down was apparently unfounded. Since we returned to the states we’ve taken at least two holidays a year that required getting on a plane. Some have been trouble-free and some have been irritating. None have been comfortable. I’ve chronicled every one of them so my friends and family have suffered right along with me. 

Today our destination is Boston, where tomorrow we’ll cheer for Sam’s girlfriend, Julia, as she graduates from the Harvard Kennedy School of International Studies. Talk about a couple of overachievers. As it looks like Julia will be a permanent part of Sam’s life, it’ll be an opportunity to meet her parents, who’ve come from London. 

Yes, she’s British and the two of them have plans to eventually settle in the UK, which is far away from Texas. Honestly, the only way they’re getting me there for a visit is if a baby enters the picture. Other than that, see you on Facetime, Young Sam. Or hey, you can come see us. 

Because we’re traveling on United we must switch in Houston to get to Boston. It’s one-thirty when we alight in Houston. Though I hate flying, I love airports, which are gold when it comes to people watching. I like to stroll slowly, observing body types, quirks, clothing choices, family dynamics. 

But there’s no going slow for David. He rushes, frantic to move forward. When he gets hungry he becomes fidgety and tense, which is only a step away from becoming snappish. My new priority is to find him food. 

“Hungry?” I ask. 


But typically before he can relax for a meal, he wants to get to the vicinity of our gate. Oh, but look at the information screen. Our two-thirty departure has been pushed back to five-thirty. I point it out to him and he visibly deflates, then rises up, even more determined to push onward toward the gate in order to make sure that no mistake has been made. Nope. It is what it is. Originally planning to arrive at our hotel between seven-thirty and eight, now it looks like we won’t get there until nearly midnight. 

This happens to people all the time. It’s happened to us again and again. But still, each time it hits like a slap. Dehumanizing. No apology for the inconvenience. No explanation as to why. 

Back to basics. While I could easily live off my fat for a year, David isn’t fortunate enough to possess my famine backup plan. 

We passed several nice eating establishments on the way to the gate, but because we’re here and we’re hungry, we go to the nearest restaurant. It looks okay. 

An apathetic woman mumbles that we can sit anywhere; then she turns and shuffles away. iPads are set on stands in the center of the table, which precludes cross communication. A waiter appears and explains how to use the iPads to place our order and pay. Okay, we comprehend. The waiter fades away.

“If we order our food and pay here at the table,” I ask, “what does this waiter do?”

“Brings it to us, I guess.”

But it’s delivered by someone we haven’t seen before, a woman who asks who ordered what. She sets our corresponding meals before us and then she, too, disappears. 

Behind David six or seven people hang out. They’re dressed alike, all in black, so I assume they’re staff. They laugh and tell stories and when one of them pushes a tray off the counter where he’s leaning, making a huge noise, the volume of the laughter rises to a disturbing level. I wonder who’s in charge. No one, it seems. 

I look at the table, befuddled. David, also, looks confounded.

“Were we supposed to order silverware on this thing, too?” I ask, clicking the food icon on the iPad to see if silverware must be ordered separately, as though not actually wanting to eat the food is a normal option. 

David’s a fixer. He hops up and goes in search. Seeing a woman in black who seems to be guarding a drawer, he asks for silverware and napkins. Apparently she tells him no, because he drags himself back to the table. 


“She said she doesn’t have any.”

It’s a mystery. He ordered a Korean chicken sandwich, sixteen dollars. I ordered chicken shwarma, fourteen. These are things you can eat without silverware, but not without a napkin. 

“Look at all this dry lettuce, fresh from the bag,” I say. “Shouldn’t there be dressing of some sort? And how am I supposed to eat it?” 

The guy who initially introduced us to the process shows up with silverware and napkins. 

“May I have salad dressing?”

“Ranch or lemon vinaigrette?” he asks.

I tell him ranch and after a “right away,” he takes off to join the joking and laughing group. The ranch dressing is forgotten, never to be seen. The dry green and purple leafy stuff remains untouched. 

As we’re leaving I comment that the guy doesn’t deserve a tip. 

“They charged the tip at the front of the meal,” David says. 

The chicken was so dry that it took me half an hour and lots of water to choke it down. David’s sandwich was too salty and the French fries were cold. 

 I realize that airport food is notoriously crappy, but walk the extra hundred yards to a better place. Hell, Wendy’s or Potbelly would have been better. 

The place is called Ember. Avoid it. Turn away. 

Houston should be embarrassed by this place’s presence in their otherwise lovely airport!

Houston should be embarrassed by this place’s presence in their otherwise lovely airport!

This was my meal after I was finished digging the three tiny chicken chunks out of way too much bread.

This was my meal after I was finished digging the three tiny chicken chunks out of way too much bread.

After lunch David hung out beneath the dome that amplifies your ordinary voice to a super loud one. He pretended to discuss weighty matters. He’s a good time when he’s been fed.

After lunch David hung out beneath the dome that amplifies your ordinary voice to a super loud one. He pretended to discuss weighty matters. He’s a good time when he’s been fed.

The Sad Option

David has been doing a Bible study up at the church. It’s a four-year study and it’s involved a lot of reading. This year, his first, covered the Old Testament. Mostly he’s been disturbed by and has commented on the way women were treated and viewed over four thousand years ago. 

“They were treated like livestock,” he says.

“They had no say in anything,” he says. 

“They were no more than slaves,” he says.

It speaks highly of David that he’s appalled that a man with a perfectly intelligent wife wouldn’t make use of her advice or opinions. I am his sounding board, as he is mine. 

“Isn’t it wonderful how we’ve evolved?” This is my merry chorus to his bemoaning, the refrain in major after the verse in minor. 

And we have evolved, haven’t we? Look at all the progress that we, as a civilization, have made. There was a time when equal rights and democracy were unheard of. There was a time when those of an alternate sexual orientation were forced by law to live lives contrary to their truth. There was a time when bullies were respected instead of loathed. 

There was a time that, when a young single woman became pregnant, she dishonored her family and might even be kicked out of her home, in addition to losing her dreams; and in her desperation she sought dangerous methods to make the problem go away. Abortion is as inevitable as pregnancy and as a society shouldn’t we make certain that it’s safe? Legislating against it shows a lack of sense that’s embarrassing. 

 I can honestly say that among the women of my generation that I know well, more have had abortions than not. Each woman I’ve discussed it with says that, all these years later, she still believes that the abortion was the right decision; and she also believes it was a tragedy. 

If that’s not screwed up I don’t know what is. 

Is it possible for a person to hold two opposing opinions at the same time? Obviously, it is. I’ve always viewed abortion as an abhorrent necessity. Also, I don’t believe that returning to unenlightened times is a smart plan. 

There’s practicality to consider as well. Take Kuwait, for example. David interrupts. 

“What does Kuwait have to do with it?” he asks. 

“I’m telling about how the Kuwaitis imported workers from the Philippines and Bangladesh, then refused to pay them so they were forced to take to the streets and beg.”

“I don’t get how that’s relevant.”

“They imported people and then didn’t take care of them. If abortion is made illegal we as a society will get stuck taking care of all the unplanned babies.”

“It’s a stretch.”

That it is. 

“You’re right. I’ll delete that bit.” (But I don’t.)

Much has been made of the fact that the lawmakers who are pushing the anti-abortion agenda are white men. The pictures and names of these men have been released and I believe some of my friends have printed those pictures and pinned them on their dartboards. Truth: unless you’re a woman who’s lived through it, you have no idea how frightening and devastating an unwanted pregnancy can be, or how heartrending the decision to have an abortion is. Having said that, these men were elected. I assume it’s because their policies are supported by the majority of the voters.

Because the topic has recently been brought front and center, a debate has commenced in my head; which is too bad because I’ve determinedly avoided thinking about it for years. It’s a touchy issue that brings about extreme emotions and I prefer to keep things light. 

So. What are my beliefs on the subject? 

I believe that life starts as soon as sperm penetrates egg. I believe that abortion is a reasonable option, though a sad one. I believe that it’s not my place to judge another’s path. I believe in the separation of church and state. I believe every individual has a right to choose. 

And I believe that Roe v. Wade should stand.

Because I didn’t want to post a picture of an aborted fetus, I am posting a picture of the wild flowers across the street. There has been a lot of rain this year, which contributed to a long and prolific flower season. These are Indian blankets and they’re getting leggy, but they’re hanging in there. .

Because I didn’t want to post a picture of an aborted fetus, I am posting a picture of the wild flowers across the street. There has been a lot of rain this year, which contributed to a long and prolific flower season. These are Indian blankets and they’re getting leggy, but they’re hanging in there. .

Dilly and Me

It’s grooming day for Dilly. I drop her off on my way to yoga and I will pick her up after. The place I take her is in a strip mall on 1431; difficult to get into and so I go the longer back way in order to avoid getting stressed. 

Gossip has it that the guy who greets us from behind the counter was once a female, an unexpected alteration for someone in simple Marble Falls. He’s friendly and always happy to see Dilly. The bothersome thing about him, though, is that when he takes Dilly into his arms and she starts licking at his face, he licks her back. Tongue to tongue. 

I like dogs and I’d be the first to tell you that my dog is the most wonderful of all the dogs in the world, but a dog’s tongue goes to places I want nothing to do with. I draw the line at a saliva exchange and I think other people should too. 

After yoga I stop by the post office to submit three copies of Why Stuff Matters to the TCU Texas Book Awards. Every time I send my books off it’s with hope in my heart. Winning any kind of recognition is unlikely, but I’m satisfied that three new people will soon enjoy my work. Though it’s immodest to say, it’s difficult to dislike my style, though one critic was quite traumatized by the notion of geriatric crooks and murderers; but I could tell from her tone that she idealizes old folks, which is her problem, not mine. Also, only a person with no sense of humor doesn’t recognize comedy when it’s right there on the page.  

Speaking of traumatized. The groomer also operates a doggy day care and Dilly, freshly trimmed and shampooed, is in the middle of six dogs that are way bigger than she is. When the guy plucks her from the pack and flies her to my arms she goes limp with relief. Then she tries to lick my face. 

“We don’t do that,” I tell her. 

Fearing that she’s picking up bad habits from the guy and from all the uncontrolled dogs, I pay and get her out of there. Into the back seat she goes.

“Did you have a good morning?” I ask, meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror. “You look great.”

In response she wiggles all over, joyous at once again being with me. See, this is why it’s good to have a dog. Not only does she love me unconditionally, but with her it’s all about me. While people expect me to show an interest in their lives, all Dilly’s interested in is where I am and what I’m doing. There’s not a self-absorbed bone in her body. 

When we get home she goes straight to her bed and sleeps for three hours. Poor thing. Getting groomed and then playing with many exuberant dogs has exhausted her. 

After her nap she comes to find me. In front of my computer is the first place she always looks. I pick her up and set her in my lap. She leans into me and gazes adoringly up my nose. She’s a cuddler. They say that the way a dog communicates its love for its owner is by locking eyes, which under ordinary circumstances isn’t comfortable for a dog. Dilly meets my eyes all the time. She meets everybody’s eyes. She loves everyone. She’d give her heart away a hundred times a day if she could find enough people to take it. This little girl needs someone to protect her from herself and that’s why she has me. 

“You’re so spoiled,” I tell her. 

She sighs and I take her off to the kitchen for a treat.

Dilly’s a rescue dog, a total mutt. We got her in October and it’s estimated that she’s about four years old.

Dilly’s a rescue dog, a total mutt. We got her in October and it’s estimated that she’s about four years old.

My Way

It’s been pointed out that in my first two published novels I misspelled the word y’all. Those who know me well have accused me of obsessing over this error. Untrue. I make mistakes every day and painlessly move on. What I’m fixated on isn’t the misspelled word; it’s the fact that I can’t correct it.

I spelled it like this: ya’ll. In school I was taught that y’all isn’t a real word and, as such, possesses no official spelling. Online there seems to be controversy over the issue—but the y’all spelling seems to be the most commonly accepted; though I took a survey of friends and about half spelled it the way I did. 

In light of this, I’ve elected that in the future I will drop the apostrophe altogether, a course of action which will be considered scandalous in that, though highly debated as to placement, the collective opinion is that there’s an apostrophe in there somewhere. There will be denigrations from reviewers and critics. My spelling will be scorned by grammarians and the IOPS (International Organization of Professional Spellers).

As the writer this is my decision. I’ve made a similar choice by using the word “alright” rather than the archaic “all right.” Even when the computer indicates that my “alright” is in error, I ignore it and continue blithely on. So far no one has voiced a protest. 

Another of my rebellions is the renaming of the panhandle as “North Texas” instead of the way it’s known throughout the state, which is “Northwest Texas.” My fellow Texans have accused me of either ignorance (preposterous, as I was raised there) or of deliberately perpetrating a fraud upon my readers who are unaware of the preferred designations of the Texas regions. Because of my bullheaded renaming I have been asked if I’m even a real Texan. The truth is that I knew my title, Old Buildings in North Texas, would be met with bewilderment and vexation, but I did it anyway. Calling the panhandle “Northwest” when it’s the furthest north, but not the furthest west, has always baffled me. So unapologetically I stand, willing to take the hits, knowing that, in my small way, I have done my part in correcting what I have always viewed as a misnomer. 

As well as spurning the rules pertaining to alright and yall, I have decided to incorporate a fresh way of dealing with tags. For those who don’t know, the tag is the necessary portion of the dialogue that identifies and sometimes describes the speaker. Taken fromSnoop, my mystery series, here’s the way it’s normally done:

“All the women in the building are getting fatter,” she says.

From the same manuscript, here are a few of my less conventional wordings:

“Because, Joe, I spoke with her,” said patiently, as though I’m instructing a child.

“Why are you telling me this?” Wendy wants to know.

“Hey, Miss Nosey.” Manny’s name for me.

“Yes, very much in demand, as always.” Sarcastic. 

“My boss would never let me take a nap in the middle of the day,” from Joan, who lacks discipline when it comes to buying items online.

These techniques are neither typical nor acceptable. In fact, each of these five lines of conversation breaks unassailable rules. How audacious to be so disregarding. Considering that the only purpose of the tag is to let the reader know who’s speaking, it’s best if it’s unobtrusive. The tag is not a platform for showcasing one’s vocabulary; so no “opines” or “ripostes” or “retorts” to distract from the flow. The best way to maintain this link between the spoken words and who says them in an inconspicuous way is to stick with the simplest verbs like “says” or “asks” and this, too, can be distracting in that it becomes repetitive after a while. So in some instances I do away with the “says” or “asks” altogether; instead, as demonstrated above, I use a single adjective or, as with the last quote, treat the tag as a continuation of the exchange. 

Why am I going on about this? For two reasons. The first is because sometimes it’s a good idea to examine goals and think about how to achieve them. How will I go about attaining my prime objective, which is to create a distinctive style that is simple yet complex, innovative yet respected by traditionalists? What decisions will I make? 

And secondly, to make the point that before a person breaks the rules by doing something jarringly wrong, she must know on a profound level how to do it right. So, now that I know how to spell y’all correctly, it’s perfectly acceptable to spell it like this: yall.

Bye yall.

It’s right if I say it is.

It’s right if I say it is.

Las Vegas

I had a bad attitude concerning the trip. It seems like every time I turn around we’re checking our bags at another ticket counter. After that last flight from Singapore I swore I’d never get on another plane, yet here we are in Las Vegas. It was years ago that I spent time here (I won’t admit how long it’s been) and I recall it being gaudy, loud, and dismal. But this is our second day and I’m having a great time. 

We’re staying in the heart of the eight-mile strip, so yesterday we took the monorail south to the Luxor with the intention of walking back to the hotel. The Luxor was magnificent with a gigantic sphinx towering over the portico and, guarding the entries, several burnished Anubis (tried to find plural for Anubis, couldn’t. Anybody know?) But it was so unlike the real Luxor that we had to laugh. Where were the flies and the stinky smells? Where was the sand? Where were the beggars and vendors who hassle you until you want to knock them down? 

Moving north, the casinos we strolled through were breathtaking. There’s a reason they call the MGM grand. And there was a spring flower display in the exhibition hall of the Bellagio that was magnificent. Tulips of every color and in full bloom reached toward the domed ceiling. Incongruously there was a pagoda and piped-in tunes from the Orient; and blossoming cherry trees were also on display. I don’t know who thought to mix the Dutch and Japanese cultures, but it worked. 

We walked six miles, in and out of vast casinos and malls, across bridges and crosswalks. Every time we turned a corner a facade gave notion of an imaginary or romantic location—faux Paris, faux New York, faux ancient Rome, faux Vienna, faux Camelot. Amazingly, there was a massive roller coaster winding between tall buildings. It was all striking and well maintained. A lot of money’s pouring into this economy every day. Hmm. I wonder where it comes from . . . 

When we arrived back at the hotel we lounged by the pool for a while, a time spent gawking at partying millennials and hearing the whoo-hoos of the zipliners as they flew by. The weather was perfect—clean air, clear sky, just the right temperature. Then we went back out for dinner and to see The Blue Man Group—although to my mind, three does not a group make. We didn’t know what to expect from the show, but it was funny, innovative, and the percussionists took drumming to the highest level. Though the show was so high energy that later I couldn’t settle into sleep. Nevertheless, that’s just me and it’s a show I’d highly recommend. 

This morning the time change is still playing with my head so I wake up way too early—locally four-thirty. I fiddle around with writing until David wakes up; then we get dressed, grab yogurt and tea downstairs, and monorail it north to walk south. Because I’ve heard of Circus Circus I think it must be worth a stop-in. But wow, don’t waste your time. It’s old and smelly. Tear it down and start over. 

Next we come upon Encore, which is as subdued as a library, conducive to thoughtful poker. An interior design genius has been at work here—butterfly themed, colorful, elegant. If I were to give an award for most beautiful casino on the strip, this would be it; well, maybe tied with the Bellagio, but the Bellagio was crowded and noisy, and the Encore is an ode to serenity. 

We get distracted by a mall called Fashion Show. People who haven’t lived in small British villages or third world countries don’t understand why I love malls. So what if they’re bourgeois? Having lost them once, I will never take them for granted again. At The Walking Store we feel compelled to purchase shoes. We walk on with happy feet. 

At this point we’re casinoed out. Dutifully we ooh and ahh through the Venetian, but it’s time to go rest for a bit before readying ourselves for tonight’s show, Love, a Beetle-themed Cirque. On the way to the Mirage we stop for drinks and nachos. There is no normal here. David’s bloody Mary comes with whole strips of bacon, waffle fries, a pickle, and orange slices impaled upon a stalk of celery. It’s a meal perched atop a glass. David’s appalled and somewhat intimidated. What is he supposed to do with this? What prompted someone to ruin a bloody Mary in this way? In this town there is no comprehension of the concept that more is not always better. 

Having claimed chairs at the bar overlooking the pedestrian intersection between Harrah’s and The Linq, we watch tourists wander by. There are so many of them. Everyone seems confused. We witness arguments. There are way too many painfully obese men and women. “People, take better care of yourselves!” I want to shout. Gastric sleeves should be free. Three booming speaker systems pound at us from different directions, no melody discernible. Sensory overload. 

Thankfully, the Cirque is uplifting. We have the best seats, fourth row, aisle. The actors greet us as they await their cues. And, because I know and love the tunes, it doesn’t leave me as unsettled as last night’s show. 

Tomorrow we’re doing a Pink Jeep tour of Hoover Dam. There will be dam jokes, which will be fun. 

One last thing—this has got to be the last smokers’ stronghold in the US. It’s been so long since I’ve been around clouds of cigarette smoke that I’ve forgotten its disastrous effects. After just this small amount of time my inner nostrils are caked with blood, I’m coughing, and my eyes are burning and so bloodshot that strangers ask me if I’m alright. The local activists need to step up their game!

This is the central design in the ceiling of the lobby of The Bellagio. Gorgeous, right?

This is the central design in the ceiling of the lobby of The Bellagio. Gorgeous, right?

So desperate are Las Vegas entrepreneurs for novel concepts that sometimes they step across the line between good ideas and bad ones. A restaurant where haircuts are taking place?

So desperate are Las Vegas entrepreneurs for novel concepts that sometimes they step across the line between good ideas and bad ones. A restaurant where haircuts are taking place?

And we had to get this shot. See the roller coaster in the background?

And we had to get this shot. See the roller coaster in the background?

The Fashion Show Mall. One of my new favorite places.

The Fashion Show Mall. One of my new favorite places.

The Willow City Loop

We’ve got a free afternoon, which hasn’t been happening a lot lately mainly because David has become so deeply entrenched in volunteerism that he has little time for anything else. Having been raised in a household where we were instructed to keep our heads down and never volunteer, the motivation behind his need to be of help to others eludes me. On the other hand, I’m cheerfully discovering that I receive credit through association. Because David’s so obliging, people automatically assume that I am, too.

We set out around one, head toward LBJ’s hometown, Johnson City, on 281, but take a right turn before we get there.  And now we find ourselves on a modest two-lane country road, recently resurfaced. We pass only two cars on our way to Willow City and, though the speed limit is sixty, these other vehicles are going forty. Country drivers in no hurry. And neither are we, but twenty miles below the posted limit is too much. Are they driving so slowly because they’re oohing and aahing over the bluebonnets that line the verges? If so, these folks need to get over it. This time of year you can’t take two steps without tripping over a wildflower. 

Pretty pictures of bluebonnets are all over the Internet right now, even shared by people who aren’t Texans; and the Willow City Loop is the best place to go to view their splendor. Everyone says so. There’s a sign as we approach the loop that tells us we are no longer allowed to pull to the side, stop, and get out and take pictures. A neighbor warned me. Apparently this time of year there are so many tourists going at the slowest pace possible that, most especially on weekends, it takes two hours to do a drive that would ordinarily take about forty minutes. 

Thankfully this is a weekday and the place isn’t crowded. We’re amazed by the beauty of the area right from the start. The people in charge of the loop (no idea who that is) have gone to some trouble to please the tourists. Boots of every ilk are hooked upside down on fence posts. We turn a corner and come upon a rusted tractor beneath a windmill, posed perfectly for picture taking. And charred trees amidst the blossoms. 

It’s not long before people are pulling off the road and stopping to take photos. It’s the way of things—tell someone what they can’t do and they do it anyway. 

“Pull over here,” David tells me. 

“But the sign said not to!”

“Everyone else is doing it.”

“If everyone else were leaping off a cliff would you do it, too?”

“There are no cliffs around here.”

I pull over and he gets out. Before us is a sparkling creek with small dunes poking up through the water, bluebonnets dotting the green banks, and willows leaning in. Lovely. David walks around talking to strangers about how pretty this spot is, how there are so many flowers this year, how great it is that spring’s here. Words. He can talk to anybody about anything. And the same way people assume that I’m helpful because he is, they also assume that I’m friendly simply because I’m married to a friendly person. And sometimes I am friendly, but usually I keep my tongue still. 

I stay in the car because Dilly’s with us and I don’t want the hassle of leashing her, which she dislikes, or stuffing her into the front-riding halter, which she also dislikes. And now you’re wondering why I don’t just let her out, set her free to smell the damp earth and priss around in the shallow water. Because once she takes off the only way I can get her to come back is to bribe her with treats and I didn’t bring any. I suck at dog training.

Every time we take a curve we come upon more periwinkle majesty, but not only shades of blue; Indian paintbrush, vivid coral; Mexican blankets, fiery yellow and red; winecups, well-named, literally the color of red wine and shaped like cups; Black-eyed Susans, yellow with brown centers; evening primroses, the softest pink. 

Beneath a sky so clear that looking at it makes my eyes tear up. All these flowers against green fields, surrounded by ancient live oaks. There’s a beautiful view in every direction. The air smells heavenly. 

We’re glad we came. 

Look beyond the near ones and you see that the whole field beyond is covered with them.

Look beyond the near ones and you see that the whole field beyond is covered with them.

And more of them.

And more of them.

And bluebonnets aren’t the only wildflowers here.

And bluebonnets aren’t the only wildflowers here.

New Habitat House in Marble Falls

It’s been a month since our carpet and tile was taken out and the reflooring was interrupted by the discovery of a leak in the master shower. Since that time we’ve been living with and walking on unfinished cement floors, which are in a constant state of erosion. The furniture still sits where it doesn’t belong and my clothes, the counters, the dishes and glasses, the bath towels, and the bedding are all coated with dust. At this point I have been gritty for weeks and my dust allergy has me popping Sudafed and Claritin several times a day. 

Since I’m inhaling grit in my home, it’s no wonder that I feel the need for some fresh air. And what a happy coincidence that the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity decided that quick, they’d better get that house painted because we’re fixing to have several days of rain. 

Habitat’s David’s thing, not mine, but this isn’t their scheduled day, which means many of the regulars won’t be available. 

“I’ll come and paint as long as I won’t end up standing around waiting for decisions to be made.” 

I have a picture in my head of several well-intentioned workers slumping aimlessly in a circle around a can of paint, brushes in hand, as they await direction, but the people in charge are so reluctant to sound bossy that the workers never receive clear instructions. Being subjected to dithering leaders is the worst thing about charity work. 

“We’ll be happy to have you,” David says, glad that I’m coming out of my house-focused funk. “There’s plenty of painting to go around.”

Seventy degrees and humid with a pleasant breeze. Hard to believe that three days ago it was down to twenty-seven. I arrive late because I must let our work crew in before taking off. At the Habitat House I’m greeted and made to feel welcome by the other volunteers. I’m given a paintbrush and told to get started. So much for my fear of ditherers. 

I introduce myself to the man painting to my right. He tells me that he’s been building Habitat houses since 2001. Worked on twenty of them. Good for him. 

I dip my brush and start poking at the wall. I’m not gifted in this area. I tend to scrub instead of stroke. 

“I’ve got to leave for a doctor’s appointment,” one guy announces to the whole group. “I’ll be back in half an hour.”

This draws laughter because the guy’s delusional. A doctor appointment eats up at least two hours. 

Another painter calls the shade of paint “Babyshit,” which is funny because it’s true. 

One thing about Marble Falls is that there are no zoning restrictions. You might find a real nice house adjacent to a falling down one. Next to this house on one side is another house, similar because it’s also Habitat-built. However, on the other side is a property that’s a cluttered disturbing slummy mess—leaning walls, bald roof, screens curled, dirty walls surrounded by dirt. Old stuff propped against more old stuff—mattresses, poles that serve no purpose, rusted tools. 

The man and woman who live in this long-neglected house wander over. The woman is tall and thin and there’s something disarranged about her features. She walks up the steps and enters the house as though she has a place here. She remarks on the progress and when people cease to pay attention she continues talk, talk, talking to no one as she shuffles through the construction zone like a spook. The man who came with her takes a place on a bench and, with a vacant eye, watches us paint. He seems to possess no volition. I find the pair disturbing. 

“What’s with those two?” I ask my co-workers.

“They hang out and watch.” The man on my right is clearly confounded.  “We’re they entertainment. Like they have nothing better to do.”

“Looks like mental illness to me.” I say this because this couple is acting crazy and they must be doing it for a reason.

 “The city’s fined ’em twenty-five thousand on account of the state of that lot,” says the guy on my left. 

“I think they’re trying to get ’em out of there.” From the right. 

“It’s their home. Where would they go?” I ask. “Marble Falls isn’t in the business of creating a homeless class.”

“It’s a puzzle.”

Mostly the conversation is made up of grumbling about the lack of a leader in the building of this house. From the beginning a lot of bickering and hurt feelings took place and continued to take place until the person who had agreed to take on the role of Head Guy resigned. These people I’m working with today view this as a hindrance, but I’m not seeing it. The house looks good and it will be finished on schedule. Everyone’s working together and they’re all getting along. The electrician, roofer, and plumber have done what they said they’d do. All this success without somebody hovering around dithering over what to do next and how to do it. What could be better than that?

Our friend, Tom Luckenbach, tall enough to paint a ceiling without a ladder.

Our friend, Tom Luckenbach, tall enough to paint a ceiling without a ladder.

Dan’s been working on Habitat houses since 2001

Dan’s been working on Habitat houses since 2001

This is Reverend Perry. He and his family are the recipients of the house. The foundation behind him is for the next house to be built in this row.

This is Reverend Perry. He and his family are the recipients of the house. The foundation behind him is for the next house to be built in this row.

They let me use a roller! The bright colors chosen by the owner of the house behind me caused quite a stir. But I imagine that nice woman is happy in her cheerful yellow house. I call it the Easter egg house.

They let me use a roller! The bright colors chosen by the owner of the house behind me caused quite a stir. But I imagine that nice woman is happy in her cheerful yellow house. I call it the Easter egg house.

Backyard Thug

Seven o’clock a.m. For the last couple of hours I’ve been working on my current project, Clarence’s Wheelbarrow. It’s my habit to leave myself something to ponder and a vague plan about what I’ll write tomorrow. Today the prompts I’ve left on the screen are Where is Caroline Rush? and Does Grace really drink too much?

That’s enough to get me started. Hopefully by tomorrow morning I’ll know where Caroline is. Not sure what to do about Grace’s drinking though. The people who know her best tell her she drinks too much but, stubbornly oblivious, she thinks she drinks just the right amount. 

Pushing back from the desk, I go into the kitchen and put my empty water glass in the sink. Then I shuffle to the back window to look outside because it’s always best to let the sunrise give you an idea of what the day will hold.

There’s an animal grazing beneath the birdfeeder. Because it’s that time of day when everything is shadowy and gray, my vision isn’t clear. It’s one of the woodland creatures that are of a certain size. Here’s what it could be: skunk, raccoon, rabbit, armadillo, badger, possum, or feral cat. Here’s what lives in this area that it’s definitely not: bird, coyote, deer, fox, snake, feral hog. 

I go into the bedroom where David’s just kicking back the covers.

“There’s an animal in the backyard,” I tell him, “and I can’t tell what it is.”

Pulling on a sweatshirt, he follows me out to the living room. Because our house is still torn up from the Shower Disaster of 2019, we must make our way around a dresser, a chest, and a couple of tables. In the murky light we bump into things. 

And at the window we stand, squinting. 

“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “Let Dilly out.”

He says it to get a rise. He knows I’d never purposely let my delicate magnolia blossom confront a beast of nature. 

“I’m going out,” I say, fearful yet brave.

“Don’t let it get you.”

I step out on to the porch, drawing the animal’s attention so that it turns and shows me its face, which is almost elegant. A long snout, markings around its eyes that run up and down enhancing the elongated snout; and an exaggerated widow’s peak that adds to the overall vertical appearance. 

“Too bad about your goofy ears and pink nose,” I tell it. “They’re ridiculous.”

I go back inside. 


“You didn’t scare it away. It’s still out there.”

 “It’s mangy and its tail is hideous.”

Mange is a pestilence I’ve had experience with. There were mangy foxes in England and our then dog, Charlie, got it just from hanging out in the yard. He lost almost all of his hair and was tragically humiliated. 

Now I have that to worry about. 

I also worry about Grace’s drinking. She’s too young to be drinking so much and so regularly. In her early thirties her favorite thing to do is drink wine while watching her favorite shows on television. She recently resigned from teaching so she no longer has that social outlet. And now, isolated, she spends her days looking forward to her first gulp of Malbec. She’s been depressed and experiencing panic attacks so her few friends think she’s self-medicating; and I agree. 

How am I going to find humor in a young woman sinking into the abyss of alcoholism? How could this possibly be funny? For the amusement factor I look to her neighbors, an absurd chorus of elderly do-gooders who are determined to see Grace through.  

As her creator the problem I’ve run into is that I must be true to her character. She loves her wine so why would she give it up? Yet giving it up is a must if this story is going to end on a hopeful note. 

So I’ve decided to give her something she wants more than wine. Also there must be some sort of wakeup call, a fright of some sort. 

But what will she love more than her TV and her drink? And what traumatic event must take place in order for her to realize that she needs to make a change?

This is what I ponder as I glare at the stupid possum who has laid claim to our backyard. He’s out there every time Dilly needs to go out. I have to chase him off just so she can pee and believe me, this backyard thug doesn’t move fast. How do I get it to go away? 

Too bad the foxes left. A couple of years ago they were plentiful. I can still remember the heartrending scream at dusk when a fox got the last rabbit. At that point, because the food supply was gone, the foxes moved on. At least the rabbits were cute. Homely and waddling, this beast has an inexplicable sense of entitlement. It thinks it owns Dilly’s backyard. 

I am very mad at it. 

How do I make it go away?

How do I make it go away?

Travertine 2019

Because we’re having old carpet pulled up and tile installed, we decide to take a little holiday, Monday through Friday, and leave the guys to it. We hear it will be a dusty venture. We’re not familiar with the Corpus Christi/Port Aransas area so we decide to spend a few days there. We hear that the Padre Island beaches are nice. 

Don, the contractor is claiming that the work will be done by Friday, but David and I have doubts. It’s a large area to cover—four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large den, and the kitchen. We get away noonish and the trip is uneventful, three and a half hours on mostly good road, though San Antonio’s highways are a disgrace. We’re staying in Corpus Christi, at The Residence Inn, a Marriot offshoot, which proves to be nicer than we expect, with two desks, two comfortable bedrooms with bathrooms, three TV’s, and a kitchen/dining area. 

On Monday evening we take a walk along the water, have dinner at Landry’s, then turn in early. On Tuesday morning we look forward to going for a walk along the beach out on the island. But as we’re preparing to leave David gets a call. He goes still and I can tell by his dreadful calmness that something bad has happened. 

“That’s the last thing I wanted to hear,” he replies to whatever’s been said. 

Once again he goes silent, leaving me curious and trepidacious. 

“What’s the next step?” he asks. 

More of the caller talking while David holds the phone to his ear. At last, obviously troubled, he gives a good-bye and ends the call.

“Who was it? What’s wrong?”

“The tear-out exposed a water leak in the shower of the master,” he tells me. 

I replay the grandiose phrase in my head. The Shower of the Master. My imagination interrupts my anxiety. What does the Master’s shower look like? Is it bedecked in gemstones and gold? What has the Master done to deserve this magnificent shower? Does his possession of this shower create resentment amongst the staff that must keep it free from mildew and lime deposits? 

I return to reality. This is terrible. But Don assured David that, though his crew can’t do any further work in the master until the leak is fixed, they will do the other rooms and return after the shower has been deconstructed and rebuilt.

We drive to Port Aransas through the thickest fog either one of us has ever seen. Visibility is no more than a hundred feet. The island town is still rebuilding from Hurricane Harvey. Crumbling walls and rotting roofs stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the pristine new-builds. 

The beach is as great as we’ve been led to believe. Broad and flat with firm sand. Very clean. I never thought I’d see a beach comparable to the beaches of Goa, but the beach outside of Port Aransas is that nice. Also, much easier to get to. 

David’s on the phone for the whole walk. He calls a friend of his who knows a contractor and then he calls the contractor. He calls a neighbor and asks him please to stop by the house, take a look, and let us know if it’s really as serious as Don says it is. He gets a call from Don telling us that it’s worse than he originally thought. They think the pan is compromised. The water’s been standing for a long time. There will be mold. Poor David is hardly getting to enjoy the beach.

While he’s handling the situation I watch people play with their dogs and I wave to men who take their fishing seriously; and I judge the dozing geezers in their lounge chairs whose bare abdomens rise high like round mountains. 

Our plan is to stay in Corpus for a couple of days, then spend a night in a hotel along the River Walk in San Antonio, where we’ll drink bloody marys and wonder about the people who stroll by; and after that, a night at a multi-starred B&B in Fredericksburg. Home on Friday. But the next morning the report we receive from Don is even more dire than yesterday’s. The wall and floor of the bedroom that abuts the shower has also sustained damage.

Together we sigh a sad sigh. 

“We’re going to have to go home and see for ourselves.”

“Our house, our responsibility.”

“What was supposed to take a week is going to take two months.”

“It’s going to cost at least twenty thousand.”

“If we hadn’t decided to retile we never would have known.”

We turn into the neighborhood at around two. Trucks line our driveway. The interior of our home is a construction site. Floors are torn up. Dust coats everything. Pieces of furniture have been taken from places that make sense and scattered willy-nilly throughout the house. We have a working toilet in one bathroom and a working sink in another. The toilet in the master leans at a precarious angle in the tub. The refrigerator is in the middle of the kitchen and the stove has been moved to the dining room, along with a mattress, a chest, three office chairs, a desk, and tons of other stuff. Our formal living area, which ordinarily holds a couch, a chair, and a central table now holds sixteen pieces of furniture, all crammed together and I can’t get to any of them. 

We’re advised not to take any action toward repair until we talk to our insurance agent, who ignores our calls for two days. When we finally hear from him he tells us he can’t get out here for five days. We can’t get started on the work until he does his assessment. Also, it’ll take time to find a contractor. What we thought would be a two-month ordeal is going to turn into a three-month ordeal. 

I don’t do well in chaos.

MacDaddy’s, tasty food for lunch in Port Aransas.

MacDaddy’s, tasty food for lunch in Port Aransas.

The bar draped in plastic. Can you tell how dusty it is? That much dust is everywhere.

The bar draped in plastic. Can you tell how dusty it is? That much dust is everywhere.

The dining room.

The dining room.

The front room.

The front room.

An Afternoon in Coppell

You do what you have to do to get where you want to be.

I start the three and a half hour drive to Coppell at eight-thirty. I don’t need to be there until one-fifteen or so, but delays can happen on the road and after going to the trouble to write and practice this speech, I don’t want to let Adrienne, the organizer of this event, or myself, down.

I’m on my way to read a few chapters from both my books and then to share my experience of taking a book from the first sentence to publication. Apparently hearing authors read their own work is a treat for the readers, though I’ve never been happy with the way I talk so fast or my silly accent. It’s surreal that there are people fond enough of my books to want to hear me read from them.

On my mind as I cover the miles is the novelty of my own ambition. For a quarter of a century I told David that my dream was for someone to like one of my books well enough to publish it. Just one. In my fantasy I was humble. And how embarrassing it was to tell people I was a writer but I had no publisher to stand behind my work. 

And now two novels have been published and it’s not enough. I want an entire library shelf loaded with books that bear my name. How bizarre it is that at sixty-one I’ve become consumed by aspiration. I’m just beginning when others are winding down. I’ve completed three installments of my mystery series and I want someone to love it as much as I do. 

Meet my main character:

I’m Fran Furlow and I work in a dermatologist’s office. Thankfully I have no part in handling the oozing sores and flakey moles that walk through the door. That’s for Dr. Hamm and his nurse, Hazel, to do. I’m the receptionist, a job that carries very little responsibility and leaves me free to attend my support groups and take care of my friends. 

Don’t you love her already? She’s out in the world now, getting looked over by others who will make decisions about what happens to her. And the reason I’m obsessing over her is because when I get to the end of this drive I’m expected to stand in front of many people and give a talk. And I don’t want to think about that. Nevertheless—

I use my family for inspiration. Curtis deposes witnesses and argues in court. Sam lectures at universities, sits on panels, and interacts with Chinese people on Chinese TV in what is evidently fluent Mandarin. Where did this self-assurance come from? And David, also, was always giving technical presentations to strangers. 

Aloud, I tell myself, “If the boys I raised and the man I’m married to can do it, so can I.”

I’m met at the Cozby Library in Coppell by Adrienne, Frank, and Steve, who represent the Friends of the Library. They’ve all read Old Buildings in North Texas, the book I’m here to publicize. (Honestly, I feel like I’ve been publicizing it forever. This is what happens when books get released twice—once in the UK and now in the states. Why Stuff Matters will be out here in June and then it’ll be another round of here we go again.)

The three of them tell me how much they enjoyed the book, which makes me grateful that they gave it a chance. People telling me that they like my books is a huge thrill. On the other hand, I’m a quiet person, not used to being the center of attention. As their guest author, I must temporarily put aside my reticent ways. 

I’m introduced to the audience, about thirty people, a respectable number. As OBiNT was discussed at their library’s book group this month, most are familiar with it. 

The reading goes well, with laughter in the appropriate places and only a few tongue stumbles. The prepared talk—well, I get through it. I make plenty of eye contact and have interesting stories to tell. And what is unusual is that as I’m speaking my mind divides into two halves; and one of these halves is really nervous and the other says slow down, stay calm, you’re doing fine. I believe this is the first time I’ve ever experienced this two-headed phenomenon. Thank you, the nervous half of my brain says to the encouraging half. 

The Q & A is the fun part because the book is funny, so the audience assumes that I am also funny, which I am. One woman asks me to expound on the experience of working with an editor and another gives me kudos for leading her to enjoy a self-centered and devious protagonist. The pleasure these people found in the novel is one big stroke for my ego. 

Never in a million years did I see myself doing what I’m doing right now. I have another one of these talk-and-reads in April and I think it will be easier and I’ll do better. Like I said, you do what you have to do to get where you want to be.

How professional I look!

How professional I look!

The Friends of the Library set up my books and sold quite a few. The woman standing up is Adrienne. I’m grateful that she organized this event to help publicize my novels. I was at a table over in the corner signing the purchased copies.

The Friends of the Library set up my books and sold quite a few. The woman standing up is Adrienne. I’m grateful that she organized this event to help publicize my novels. I was at a table over in the corner signing the purchased copies.

Coppell was a lovely suburb north of Dallas. Their library is a lovely facility. It’s shameful that it’s been several years since I’ve been in a library. Usually I order and download from Amazon.

Coppell was a lovely suburb north of Dallas. Their library is a lovely facility. It’s shameful that it’s been several years since I’ve been in a library. Usually I order and download from Amazon.

Paul Waldo 1958-2018

Husband, father, brother, friend. 

Everyone’s favorite.

Died of a heart attack on Sunday morning. Sixty years old. Unexpected and devastating.  

The first characteristic that comes to mind when I consider Paul is that he was charming; in a good way, not a calculating way. Everyday he told his wife, Betty, that he loved her and that she was beautiful and desirable. It sounds corny, but he made it work. 

Also, he was mannerly towards women. He held doors and watched his language, gestures that might be considered old-fashioned, but I always appreciated them. If he saw me carrying something, even if it was a little thing like a cake or a shopping bag, he’d rush forward with a “Here Jenny, let me get that.”

He had an uncanny knack for discerning and complimenting the one thing that a person valued most or had put the most effort into. Once when he, David, and I were grabbing Chinese in Houston, he gazed thoughtfully at me across the table and told me that he’d never seen teeth as perfect as mine. Another time when I was wearing one of my favorite sweaters, he told me that the color looked great on me. How was he able to so accurately pinpoint the source of my vanities? And he was this insightful with everyone, not just me. He could meet a person for the first time and immediately perceive what she or he held most dear. 

I’m not sure how accurate it would be to call him the last of the wildcatters, but that’s the way I thought of him. I know he loved his work and, as he was materially successful and so very personable, I’m certain he was highly respected and will be missed by his peers.

Once, at one of our many Waldo gatherings, David complained that people came to business meetings with their minds closed, which led to arguments, shouting matches, and hurt feelings; and Paul offered this advice: 

“I have a trick for when a meeting gets noisy. I cross my arms over my chest, lean away from the discord, and keep my mouth shut until someone asks for my opinion. Then all eyes turn to me. The quiet man wins every time.”

“But that’s manipulation,” I said, indignant because a person should be authentic. 

“If crucial information isn’t being heard because people are acting like baboons, the reasonable response is to create a calm environment where communication can take place.”

So in this way Paul taught me that, though handling people and manipulating people carry essentially the same meaning, they’re not the same thing at all. Being able to handle someone is an admirable gift while manipulating someone implies a selfish or even dishonest agenda. He was indeed a wise man. 

He never made an enemy and he never lost a friend. I never heard him insult anyone. He was never cruel or impatient. He didn’t judge harshly and generously took family members into his home when they were down on their luck. 

He and David talked on the phone at least once a week. He was more than a brother; he was a cherished friend. 

He was one of the best of us and we are heartbroken. 

Rest in Peace Brother Paul

Rest in Peace Brother Paul

Waldo's Christmas Letter 2018

“When are you going to get started on the Christmas letter?” David asks. 

It’s a simple and reasonable question, asked for the first time, so it’s not like he’s nagging. So why do I feel like I’m being hounded? I’ve been feeling grumpy for a few days now and I’m not sure why.

“And say what?” I want to know. “We used to have such exciting adventures. But for the last few years there’s been no new news.”

“We took that trip to the northeast in the fall.”

“And I blogged the crap out of it. The people who would read a holiday letter would’ve also read the blog.”

“We got to see Sam while we were in Boston.”

“His situation’s as stagnant as ours is, so why write about it?”

“But now his company’s SamCentric.”

SamCentric is a word I came up with when Sam told us that in an effort to move Mantra forward he’s going to become more visible. Does this SamCentric approach mean that Sam is going to become a celebrity in China? It sounds like he already is. His last video received three million views and pulled in ten thousand comments; and he’s got fifty thousand followers. 

“If Sam moved back to the states,” I say, “that’d be something I’d put in a letter.”

“You can’t be irritated with Sam for living in Beijing when we were out of the country for nearly thirty years.”

“It was different. Our parents didn’t miss us at all.” 

This is true. A divorce reshapes a family and my parents kind of wrote me off when they split up. And David’s mother had children and grandchildren galore. Demands were coming at her from all sides, so she was fine with us being elsewhere.   

“You can write about Curtis and Anna.”

“And say what? That they work a lot and take vacations every once in a while?”

“One of your books was released in the states; that’s a big deal. And you had that blog tour.”

“Big whoop.Old Buildings has twelve reviews on Amazon. Beartown has two thousand, three hundred, and thirty-two.”

Old Buildings is hardly Beartown.”

“That’s true, but Norah Roberts’ last book got over a thousand reviews. She’s been writing bestsellers for so long that at this point her work is no more than hackneyed regurgitation. Yet still she gets the readers and the reviews.”

“Playing the comparison game is never a good idea.”

“The absolute only thing that’s changed this year is we got a new dog.”

“So write about that.”

So, here’s the Christmas letter: 

We’re fine and the boys are fine. The only change has been the arrival of Dilly. So here’s a little about Dilly:

I got her from the local no-kill SPCA shelter. She’s a total mutt, but people seem to find comfort in labeling. 

“She’s half poodle and half shitzu,” one neighbor says. 

“She’s also very skinny,” another says. “I think she’s poodle, shitzu, and whippet.”

It’s true that she has the haughty snout of a poodle and the protruding lower teeth of a shitzu, but she also has the long feet of a rabbit. She’s white with a tinge of cinnamon along her back, and, as with most white dogs, the distinctive copper tearstains. Like I said, a mutt. 

At first she was scared of everything. She would crouch into submissive position every time she heard a loud noise. Once, trembling with fear, she went prone in front of an oncoming car! She flinched when the wind blew strong. Also, she cringed when I held out a hand to stroke her head, a sure indication that her last owner hit her, which upsets my heart. She sounds like a wimp, which isn’t such a bad thing. Her timidity made me believe that she’d never stray and that she would forever rest her faith in my ability to keep her safe. 

That was two months ago, when I naively thought that, because she was so fearful, she wouldn’t go far. But she’s grown more confident by the day and more territorial in the cul-de-sac. Now she takes off after other dogs, wanting them to be her friend; when she hears our neighbor’s voice she runs to his house and jumps into his arms; and she follows our guests to their cars, begging them for a ride to anywhere. 

The shy princess has become an insecure teenager with daddy issues, needing everybody to love her and seeking affection from strangers. 

My belief was that the advantage of having a small dog is that if she doesn’t do what I want her to, I can easily pick her up. But I can’t pick her up if she’s not there. She runs away fast and doesn’t respond when I call. I have no control, which, come to think of it, is probably why I’ve been so grouchy lately. I tend toward discontented introspection when disorder invades. 

I know how to train a dog. I was just being lazy, hoping she’d figure out my expectations and then train herself. How stupid is that? So now Dilly and I are spending two sessions a day with her on the leash as she learns how to heel, sit, and come when I call. She’s catching on quickly, but I don’t fool myself. Once she’s off that leash she’s gone, which is a dangerous way for a little dog to be.  

And here’s the part that makes this a Christmas letter— 

We wish our friends and family, and their friends and family, the most Merry Christmas ever and a safe and serene 2019. 

The Waldos

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Doesn’t she have the sweetest face?

Doesn’t she have the sweetest face?

I trained her to yawn. See the poking-out lower teeth?

I trained her to yawn. See the poking-out lower teeth?

Travertine it is! I thought it was funny that everyone I’ve ever known weighed in on the tile issue, and nobody responded to my sentimental homage to my thesaurus. Practicality conquers whimsy. This picture doesn’t do the travertine justice. But believe me, it looks a lot better than our old kitchen tile, and it’ll look so much better than carpet in the other areas.

Travertine it is! I thought it was funny that everyone I’ve ever known weighed in on the tile issue, and nobody responded to my sentimental homage to my thesaurus. Practicality conquers whimsy. This picture doesn’t do the travertine justice. But believe me, it looks a lot better than our old kitchen tile, and it’ll look so much better than carpet in the other areas.


We’re replacing the carpet in the bedrooms and the back living area with tile. Also, the tile in the kitchen and bathrooms is dated, so it’s going away, too. The floors in the rest of the house are dark hardwood. This project is quite an undertaking but the carpet is years old and stained. It’s time. We’re dreading the mess. 

We go to a tile place in Bee Cave. We’ve come here before and were waited on by a knowledgeable personable salesperson and we’d like to work with her. But sadly, we’re told she’s unavailable because she’s recovering from brain surgery. So we tell the sloppy man behind the counter what our plans are and, though he seems reluctant to leave his chair, he heaves his backside up and circles around, leading us toward a corner where there are several rows of tile racks.  

His nose is red and every inhalation is accompanied by a wet sniff. He wipes his dripping nose with the back of his hand and rubs it down the leg of his pants. 

“Do you have a cold?” I ask with clear disdain.

“Allergies,” the sad sack tells me.

Huh. That’s what they all say. I pull hand sanitizer from my purse, use it, pass it to David. 

We pull out a few pieces of tile that we like and the guy says we can take them home and bring them back when we’ve decided. We load three heavy tiles into the trunk. 

“Brain surgery, hah,” I tell David as I drive from the lot. “I think she went to lunch and he was poaching her clients.”

“If so, he wasn’t very good at it.” David has no respect for salespeople who aren’t energetic, good-natured, and helpful.

On the way from Bee Cave we spot another tile store. We drop in and a lively woman named Mariah says she’ll be happy to come look at the house, bring samples, and guide us through the decision-making process. The next day she brings several tiles based on what we described, none of which we’re crazy about. 

“Well, now that I’ve seen your home I have a better idea of what you’re looking for.”

She comes the next day with more tiles. She explains color variance, which is the flow of different shades through the whole tile lot. A high variance will give the floor a sense of drama and movement. David and I prefer the high, but we can’t discern the authentic range of color from only a single tile. We’re mired in indecision. 

“I’ll leave them with you,” she says merrily. “You can return them when you’ve made up your mind.”

Now we have six tiles laid out across the carpet, bordering the dark wood floor, the wall, and the stone base of the bar so we can see what goes with what. Unfortunately nothing matches anything, nor does anything complement anything. And they all have too much gray, which, I’ve been told, is the new neutral. 

The next day on the way to the Costco on William Cannon in Austin, we see another tile place and decide to check it out. 

“Will we still be going from store to store a year from now?” David wants to know. 

“So far I’m not inspired by any of it.”

“Isn’t inspiration a lot to ask of tile?”

This store is different. It sells only to contractors. We’re supposed to choose our tile and then tell the contractor which one we want. The store gives the contractor a discount, which he or she either will or won’t pass on to us. If we want to take tiles home we must pay eighteen dollars per tile and will be fully refunded when they’re returned. We choose three that we kind of like; but they aren’t inspiring. We’re given a list of store-sanctioned contractors. 

I carry all the samples we’ve collected around the house, looking at them in different light, holding them up to the wall—clash, match, or blend? We take off our socks and walk on them. The no-slip one is sandpaper beneath our feet, so that’s a no-go.

In our possession we have nine tiles. 

“There must be hundreds of tile stores in Austin,” I say. “We could go to them all and do the entire house with the samples.”

“That’d definitely give us a high variance.” 

“Do you know which of these belong to which store?”  

“I’m keeping track.” 

Sure he is. 

One thing we’ve learned is that pictures never show the true color. Our floor is much darker than this and we concluded that the tile is too dark, but that’s not discernible at all in this picture.

One thing we’ve learned is that pictures never show the true color. Our floor is much darker than this and we concluded that the tile is too dark, but that’s not discernible at all in this picture.

High variance, but too dark with way too much gray.

High variance, but too dark with way too much gray.

See, this is what i’m talking about. In this picture the paint has a gold tinge, when in reality, it’s a pale shade of taupe.

See, this is what i’m talking about. In this picture the paint has a gold tinge, when in reality, it’s a pale shade of taupe.

The Death of Roget

I’m fortunate to have an activity that consumes me. Some people don’t require an immersing passion and are content to pass their days tending to interests that float by or difficulties that pop up. But when I write a sentence that makes me laugh or use a word in a particularly clever way, my joy is set for the whole day. And when a plot seems weak or inauthentic I descend into a state of upheaval. 

This morning I’m stumbling over the use of the word “virago.” It scans well and the meaning fits, though I want to make sure it’s not just a good word, but the perfect word. 

Here is the sentence:

“Caught between the two viragoes, I make no attempt to intervene, but instead take a deep breath, focus on my hands in my lap, and go to a serene place in my head.”         

It feels right. But my fear is that use of the archaic vocabulary will distract from the story. Perhaps a more current word would be better. So I turn to my most outstanding helper, Peter Mark Roget, who created a system of ordering words by nuance as well as meaning. There is no greater resource when it comes to synonyms and extended connotations. For instance, in the index there are seven entries for “wobble,” an indication that the word is subject to seven subtle distinctions; and each entry gives at least thirty words that are near in meaning or connected to wobble in some way. The progeny of words doesn’t get much better than that. 

But to my disappointment, there is no virago between viper (two entries) and virgin (twelve entries). For the first time, Roget has let me down. 

Flummoxed, I rush down the hall to discuss it with David, who’s in the bedroom getting dressed for the day’s work on the Habitat house. The house the crew is currently working on will belong to Pastor Perry. It’s going up next door to the last one they built. To further enlighten, the recently completed house caused grumbles and discord within the local chapter of Habitat when the young owner/recipient requested yellow paint and lavender trim. Because of this nontraditional choice, arguments ensued and feelings were hurt. In the end, freedom of expression won and she now lives in a house that looks like an Easter egg, which I find charming while others term it an eyesore.  

“There is no entry for virago in my Thesaurus,” I tell David, waving it about.

“Internet,” he says. 

So to the internet I go. I’m disheartened when I see how many entries there are. I scroll through three pages of thesauruses that include virago without coming across Roget.

Oh Roget, Roget, incomplete and obsolete. Superfluous. A redundant tome. Inferior. Worn and Torn. 

Virago has two opposing meanings. 

The first: a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman.

This accurately describes my two characters. 

The second: a woman with exemplary or heroic qualities. 

Well, there’s nothing exemplary or heroic to be found in my bickerers. 

But then I come across a couple of other synonyms: shrew and termagant. Also from a long-ago century. I look ’em up. Shrew: famously and obviously Shakespeare; Termagant: well, it’s all over ancient literature from Song of Roland to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And many others, but these are the only ones I’m familiar with. 

I decide to leave virago where it is for now. And look, I’ve squandered thirty minutes having fun with alternative words for bitch. 

David has gone his way and I have half an hour before I need to leave for yoga; plenty of time to wallow in sentimentality. I take a picture of my old Thesaurus and consider how much it’s helped me over the years. When I moved from country to country I carefully packed it in my luggage rather than putting it in the shipment to follow later. When I required subtext—humorous, snide, imperious, or otherwise, it offered endless choice. It was indispensible and beloved. 

And now look at it. A yellowed corpse. Symbolic of my growth yet with no purpose at all. Rendered pointless by the mighty www. 

I tie on my hiking boots. In the garage I locate a trowel. Hugging the volume to my breast, I trek across the crunchy damp grass to the back of our property, the section that’s easy to dig in because it’s been churned up by feral hogs. With David’s trusty gardening tool I dig a hole. I make it deep so the hogs and armadillos can’t sniff it out. I lay my old friend down, slap cold mud over it, and tamp it. 

Good-bye, Roget. 

Seen better days.

Seen better days.

Peter Mark Roget, 1779-1869

Peter Mark Roget, 1779-1869

Dilly in the house! A bonus for those who stuck it out until the last picture. It’s been a while since Trip died and I was ready for a new dog. So look who I found at the local SPCA. She’s adorable, and even better, she adores me. It breaks my heart that when I reach out to pet her she cringes. She’s been hit in the face at some point. She’ll get over that. She’s a total mutt, I think mostly poodle but she’s got the protruding lower teeth of a shitzu. She’s tiny and frail, only six pounds. Dilly’s going to be very happy with us.

Dilly in the house! A bonus for those who stuck it out until the last picture. It’s been a while since Trip died and I was ready for a new dog. So look who I found at the local SPCA. She’s adorable, and even better, she adores me. It breaks my heart that when I reach out to pet her she cringes. She’s been hit in the face at some point. She’ll get over that. She’s a total mutt, I think mostly poodle but she’s got the protruding lower teeth of a shitzu. She’s tiny and frail, only six pounds. Dilly’s going to be very happy with us.

Texas Book Festival

David suggests that we attend the Texas Book Festival so that I’ll get a feel for who participates and what its goals are. At first I’m reluctant because Old Buildings in North Texas isn’t going to be there and it should be. My novel belongs front and center with the other Texas novels. Stupid people in charge. Stupid unwieldy organization. Stupid other writers who’ve been called in while I’ve been left out. But even in my bitter state, I’m able to recognize the folly of holding a grudge against a festival. 

The festival office sent me an apologetic rejection letter, from which I gathered that the book hadn’t even been read because, for one thing, it was submitted too late, and for the other, there were several thousand entries and not enough reviewers. My book fell through the cracks, as I feared it would. 

Next year’s submission period opens in January. Woefully, Why Stuff Matters will not be released in the US until March. Once again, too late. I will have to figure out a way around it. 

The UK publicist came up with the idea that when I submit Why Stuff Matters I should also arrange and offer a panel discussion. This, she said, would make the organizers look favorably upon me, for I will have filled a slot in their schedule. 

I’m intrigued. A writer can go on about writing forever. There are so many facets to be explored—the publishing experience; grammatical license; editing; writers’ groups and whether or not they’re helpful; the creative process, organic or methodic; innovative vocabulary . . . these are just a few. And within each topic are endless subtopics.  


Moving on. David’s suggestion is a wise one. I need to see what, who, and how. 

It’s a fresh sunny day in Austin and the festival is being held on the capital grounds, which, after the recent rains, are lovely, clean, and lush.

We take seats and observe a panel rendered cohesive by their genre; in this case, fantasy. The three authors are introduced, they each summarize their books for the audience, and then they take questions. I could do this. I’d be great at it! My conclusion, however, is that these authors did not, as the publicist implied, offer themselves as a prearranged panel in order to be included in the festival. This grouping was organized by the Festival planners. Though this doesn’t mean that her counsel missed the mark. There are multiple ways to get things done. 

We wander through the maze of tents. There are tents for book signings and posted schedules telling when the authors will be available. There are tents for purchasing books and tents for purchasing random things, such as T-shirts and gardening boots. There is a tent for publishers of every ilk—vanity, boutique, university affiliated, and highly reputable. 

The theme of the entire event is a noble one—literacy, a cause I will forever feel passionate about. To this end, children’s authors are a dominant presence. In one of the panel discussions a seven-year-old boy sits next to me with his nose buried in a thick book. It brings on a wave of nostalgia. My boys were avid readers from kindergarten on. 

Another theme is diversity. Latino writers are heavily represented and we stop to listen to a discussion of how it feels to be an undocumented resident in the US. Also, in an attempt to make the mostly white audiences comprehend a cultural view other than their own, African Americans, Muslims, Jews, and Asians discuss their issues and hold up their books. 

Sadly, this event seems to have no place for a blond woman who has a strong narrative voice and tells unique and humorous stories. Though there are few solid novelists, most guest authors, fiction and nonfiction, brandish a cause or an agenda. Angst about violence, oppression, or prejudice; the treatment of the addicted and the disenfranchisement of the mentally ill; the difficulties of the middle class; even voter suppression—all are topics of books and subjects of discussion. 

We stop in front of the booth representing the Writers’ League of Texas. 

“What is this organization and why would I want to join it?” I ask the garrulous man who steps forth to greet me. 

“Mainly, we’re all about networking. We meet once a month at By the Book.” By the Book is a popular store in Austin.  

An introvert, my reaction is one of horrified cynicism. Very few times have I met with other authors where there has been no competition, no one-upmanship. A writer’s ego is humongous and fragile. Also, what do writers have to discuss with one another? It’s a solitary occupation and we each have our own opinions, style, and genre. 

“What did you find out about it?” David asks as we walk away. A proponent of joining, he’s wondering why I didn’t sign and pay. 

“Overall, this has been a humbling experience.” I’m despondent. “This book fair is massive, there are too many authors in the world, and I have no socially deep and insightful foundation propping up my writing. How do I get from the outside to the inside?”

Yet I hold to my dream: maybe next year. We stop in Bee Cave for barbecue on the way home. 

Yep, I was there. Also these are the sunglasses Sam manufactures. Mantra Eyewear.

Yep, I was there. Also these are the sunglasses Sam manufactures. Mantra Eyewear.

This is what a panel looks like. I so belong up there!

This is what a panel looks like. I so belong up there!

Rows and rows of tents on the Capital Grounds in Austin.

Rows and rows of tents on the Capital Grounds in Austin.

New Haven, the Pit

Yale is all there is worth seeing in New Haven. Step off the elegant campus and you’re surrounded by worn buildings and derelict homes—in short, a ghetto. Signs are posted on every corner euphemistically identifying the area as The Historic District, but I don’t know why New Haven bothered; these few fusty blocks are nothing to be proud of. The houses loom over the streets with stairs leading from the cracked sidewalk to broad porches with high-reaching columns. I’m certain that at one time these homes were impressive, but these days the wood rot around the roofs, windows, and eaves is clearly visible and the smell of old carpets is so prevalent that the moldy odor drifts heavily out into the narrow street. 

David and I have elected to stay in one of these historic mansions, a yellow edifice built in the 1850’s. We look up and down the street, observing all the other decaying buildings. Dubiously, we approach the porch of the house where we’ll be sleeping for the next two nights. 

“I estimate it would take a half million to restore one of these homes to its past glory,” I tell David.

“That’s probably about right.”

He rings the bell and the door is answered by a petite man, approximate age, eighty. As a host in a house of historic significance, he invites us in and starts giving us a tour as soon as we’re through the door. 

He speaks with an accent, Greek we think. We follow him down a tight hallway and turn left into the common area. Ancient crown molding in the lofty ceiling; dull brass chandelier hanging crookedly; furniture rickety, old but not valuable; watery light, dirty windows. 

“The importance of this house,” he tells us, taking a central position, “is that the man who built it was a co-founder of the Baldwin piano company, very famous. You know of it? And because the factory burned down he invented and installed the first in-home sprinkling system, which you see there.”

And he points behind us. Dutifully, we turn and look. Yes, heavy pipes cross the ceiling. There isn’t a surface in this room that hasn’t been claimed by dolls. And there isn’t an inch of wall free of paintings or framed dried flower arrangements. Also, paintings are stacked ten-deep and lean against walls and in doorways. The paintings are all about duets of color, splotches of green next to blue, or red streaks lined in purple. I’m no artist and I certainly know nothing about painting, but is it art if you do the same thing again and again? 

“What’s with the dolls and paintings?” I ask, not too concerned about whether he catches my disdain. All these old art projects smell bad, as though they haven’t been shifted in twenty years. 

“My wife is an artist. She carves the dolls from wax.”

“She makes the clothes?” The clothes are lovely. 

“Oh yes. Everything. And the paintings are hers, too. And see her three dimensional art?”

Oh. I didn’t see it before, but some of the paintings have faces or body parts emerging from them, as though the colorful canvases are giving birth. 

He leads us to our room. As we make our way back through the cramped hallway to the stairs, I notice a couple of opened Arm and Hammer boxes tucked between dolls and behind stacks of pictures. Pointless. He would have to bury this house in baking soda to make any difference at all.

We chose this place off the internet because we thought it sounded interesting—a house with a past. We stayed in Duke’s Mansion in Charlotte a couple of years ago, and it was a lovely experience. But, as with most of the places on this tour, the description online simply isn’t true. We’re promised a room on the ground floor, a refrigerator, a television with cable, and two queen beds. But what good is a television if you can only get one channel? And we’re on the second floor; there’s no refrigerator; and there’s only one bed and it’s a double. At least there’s a small desk where I can write. 

The landlord acts proud of this tight cell as he points to the undersized bed, tells us of the fresh towels (I should hope!) in the bathroom, and explains how the paintings in here are also the work of his wife. He leaves us and that’s the last we see of him. 

“I think his wife’s dead and he’s got her remains preserved somewhere on the premises,” I say.

“Ordinarily I’d call poppycock, but in this case I fear you you’re right.” (I use a writer’s license; David never says poppycock.)

We settle into the room, then walk around the corner to New Haven’s Little Italy—more dank frontages, Italian flags drooping. Our planned destination is Pepe’s, which has been ranked as the number one pizza place in the country. I’m very strict about what goes in my mouth and in the last dozen years I’ve allowed myself exactly two slices of pizza. Discouragement brought on by finding myself in this pit called New Haven weakens my will, causing me to eat three slices of Pepe’s pizza, which is as delicious as is claimed.  

I come awake at two a.m. with a picture of our creepy host in my mind. Withered and hunched, he’d barely been able to make it up the stairs to show us to our room. I hate to think how long it’s been since this comforter has been laundered. As far as I can tell, the man’s on his own in this fetid mansion; and he’s certainly in no condition to go the extra mile when it comes to changing bedding. I begin to itch. There is no more sleep to be had. I kick back the covers and spend the rest of the night composing this posting. 

Historical dolls.

Historical dolls.

See how many? Dolls are everywhere. She must be obsessed!

See how many? Dolls are everywhere. She must be obsessed!

Ah. The boy doll is proposing to the girl doll.

Ah. The boy doll is proposing to the girl doll.

The mansion. It looks better in this picture than it really is.

The mansion. It looks better in this picture than it really is.

In Newport, a wonderful place to visit. Brahmin. Their flagship is my mothership!

In Newport, a wonderful place to visit. Brahmin. Their flagship is my mothership!

On the last day of our trip we meet up with Sam in Boston. As it’s been two years since we’ve seen him, it’s good to have an opportunity to catch up. He’s in town to give a presentation at Forbes’s Thirty under Thirty conference. Proud of you Sam!

On the last day of our trip we meet up with Sam in Boston. As it’s been two years since we’ve seen him, it’s good to have an opportunity to catch up. He’s in town to give a presentation at Forbes’s Thirty under Thirty conference. Proud of you Sam!