The Northeast

I usually like to go along with things, but this looks like a lot of traveling.

We’re taking JetBlue, which worries me. Not a week goes by without an airplane falling out of the sky. And JetBlue is especially concerning because some years ago one of their planes crashed in Florida, leaving a perfect plane-shaped outline in the swamp. The image stuck with me. But, contrary to expectations, this turns out to be a new aircraft and it’s very nice. The seats are leather so the odor of a million farts won’t be absorbed by upholstery. Also, there’s more legroom and all the technology works. 

Because the flight was delayed for a couple of hours we don’t arrive at Logan until midnight. But don’t worry—we still make last call at the airport Hilton’s bar and a glass of wine is exactly what’s needed. 

The next morning we uber into South Boston and move our luggage into a B&B, Encore, that’s run by a jovial old German whose partner is involved in Boston’s theater scene. Masks and theater posters are on every wall. The partner, whom we don’t meet for the two nights we’re there, is an Edward Albee fan, or maybe even a friend. Several poster ads for his plays hang in our room. And if you look closely you’ll see that they’re signed by the cast, directors, and producers. 

The first day we walk the Freedom Trail, which begins at Boston Commons and ends at Bunker Hill. It takes four and a half hours to cover the entire thing. The path is made clear by red bricks laid in the sidewalk. I highly recommend this adventure that passes by Paul Revere’s house, the site of the Boston Massacre, statues of famous revolutionary leaders, the Old North Church, etc. When we get back to the room we collapse on the bed and take a nap. That evening we go out for Indian food, which, tragically, is unavailable in Marble Falls. Lamb vindaloo! 

The next day our feet are sore from walking across all those cobbled streets and it’s quite chilly, so we take a tour bus that basically follows the same route, only with the driver’s entertaining commentary. We leave the bus at the Barnes and Noble, where we go in and ask at the information counter if they have Old Buildings in North Texas which, unsurprisingly, they do not.

“It’s an unusual book by an excellent new author,” I tell the woman. “Why do you not have it in stock?”

“I’ll order a copy right now,” she says. 

“Not one copy,” I say. “Twenty at least. It’ll fly off your shelves.”

Her smile tells me she thinks I’m demented. David and I thank her and leave. 

“It was my understanding that Old Buildings was to be distributed in the states,” I whine to David. “Arcadia has a distributor that they’re paying to distribute it. Doesn’t that mean it should be in book stores?”

“Call them. Find out.”

David believes in being proactive while I believe in not bothering anybody. 

The next day we pick up our rental car and drive up the coast to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The town is quaint, a cobbled shopping street with a hundred restaurants and two hundred shops full of t-shirts, mugs, and hats. Because we’re post-season, the number of tourists is manageable. We visit an enjoyable ten-acre walking museum, Strawberry Banke, which preserves and presents three hundred years of the history of Puddle Dock, one of the first Portsmouth neighborhoods. I like looking at old stuff and there are costumed artisans to explain and demonstrate everything from boat building to cooking. 

Every restaurant advertises lobster rolls, which seem to be an area specialty. So that evening we each order one. There might be variations, but what we’re given is a huge amount of lobster that’s been marinated in garlic butter and wrapped in a warm heated roll. I get the smallest on offer and David gets the next bigger size. They’re expensive and rich. The advantage seems to be that the lobster is peeled for you. What’s not to love about that? But I’m talking about consuming five thousand calories at the end of the day. That lobster roll will be with me until I die. 

Our Portsmouth hotel is generic, which I confess I prefer—two queen beds, cable, a desk for writing, and no interaction with a maniacally hospitable host. 

The next morning we’re once again on our way, this time to Portland, Maine. Another touristy area, this one bigger and right on the waterfront. More t-shirts and restaurants. Once again we’re on foot. Five miles from the outmost tip of a wharf to the observatory, the highest point in the city, from Longfellow’s home back down to the water where we eat salads, trying to fool ourselves into believing that fresh greens and grated carrots will cancel out last night’s lobster rolls. 

We spend the night at Fleetwood House, a B&B run by a woman well into her seventies who, needing supplemental funds for her retirement, spent a small amount to make her extra rooms habitable. She’s friendly and generous with her recommendations about local restaurants and attractions, but there’s no disguising that she’s not able to keep up. My feet are filthy after walking barefoot across the floor of our room. When I dry my face on a hand towel my cheeks end up coated in dust. And I don’t want to think about what the grainy bits in the sheets mean. The breakfast, toast and fruit, is presented attractively, but no protein. Bye, Portland. You were worth visiting. 

Next up, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. A couple of my Marble Falls friends recently returned from Acadia and one of them—was it Cathy or Jane?—said that Bar Harbor was so over-the-top packed with tourists that they could only tolerate it for the length of a single meal before moving on. As David and I have reserved a room in the biggest hotel on the busiest street, we have no choice but to disregard their opinion.

The Bar Harbor Grand is exactly what I require at this point. Luxuriously large room with a generous writing surface, accommodating staff, on-site parking (this can be a problem), and a wine shop next door where I found a lovely Australian Malbec.

Tomorrow we will go hiking. 

 Acadia’s dramatic coast.

Acadia’s dramatic coast.

 David at Otter’s Point. I can’t believe we made it all the way up there!

David at Otter’s Point. I can’t believe we made it all the way up there!

 The beginning of the Freedom Trail. Follow the red bricks for miles and miles and . . .

The beginning of the Freedom Trail. Follow the red bricks for miles and miles and . . .

 The most photographed lighthouse on the east coast, just outside Portland, Maine.

The most photographed lighthouse on the east coast, just outside Portland, Maine.

 Taken on Cadillac Mountain. Acadia is majestic. See the fallen cloud in the background? I’m a little cold.

Taken on Cadillac Mountain. Acadia is majestic. See the fallen cloud in the background? I’m a little cold.

Education: Apologize, Why?

Curtis and Anna often forward interesting articles to us. Today Curtis has sent one concerning a controversial school assignment in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. I don’t know anything about Cuyahoga Falls, but from what I glean, this is a progressive school district, with both teachers and parents wanting the best for their kids. The article in its entirety can be found on Yahoo Lifestyles, titled Controversial School Assignment Asks Who is “Deserving” of Life. Have a look at this description of the project:

The assignment, which was given out by an unidentified teacher at Roberts Middle School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, instructed students to examine a list of 12 people selected to fly on a spaceship to another planet to avoid the Earth’s destruction. However, due to the ship’s space limitation, students must cut four people, ranking the list into “most deserving” and “least deserving” of life.

The list included people from different ethnicities, educational backgrounds, and sexual orientation; some were famous athletes or actors; some were old, some young; one of them had addiction problems and another was mentally handicapped. 

I gotta say, this is just the sort of project I would have loved as a kid. The discussion would have been lively and self-awareness would have taken an upsurge. And there’s the added personal benefit that, early in the school year it would serve the purpose of separating athletes from musicians, princesses from tomboys, and intellectuals from morons. Useful information indeed—but wait a minute, is the objective to teach tolerance or build partitions? Maybe it’s an attempt to help young people build respect for one another even though their interests and backgrounds are diverse. 

The parents protested, deeming the assignment disturbing and inappropriate for the age group: it was given to seventh and eighth graders. Is thirteen too young to consider disquieting concepts or to explore the leanings of one’s soul? I don’t think so. 

“This paper divides,” said Bernadette Hartman, a mother of one of the students. “It doesn’t pull anybody together.” 

“What did he expect to get out of this?” asked Denise Patron, speaking of the teacher. 

Do these parents fear that contemplating weighty concepts will give their kids brain pain? 

Maybe the teacher thought it would be a good idea to encourage school children to think, surely a righteous goal of all teachers. These mothers’ names sound Caucasian, right? I’d be interested in hearing an Asian homosexual athlete’s opinion about this venture.  

One parent, however, brought up a relevant point—as this was intended as a first of the year ice-breaker, and a teacher might judge a student according to who they want to kick off the ship, might a prejudice be introduced that could influence dealings between teacher and student for the whole year? I suppose this could happen. Teachers aren’t perfect. 

 “One of the District’s goals this year,” reasons Todd Nichols, Cuyahoga’s school superintendent, “is training in the areas of diversity awareness and social justice. In this case, the intent of this assignment aligned with the goals of the District.” 

This sounds sensible and justifiable. But then he abandons his stance by offering this apology:

“The teacher and District offer their most sincere apologies for the offense caused by the content used in this assignment.”

It must suck to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Why did the parents interfere? They seem to sincerely believe that this assignment was going to harm their children in some way. How can teachers teach if every time an innovative idea comes their way they must first run it by every parent of every child in the classroom? 

Common sense dictates that kids are resilient. I doubt lives would have been ruined if the parents had had the patience to wait and see the results of the assignment rather than assuming a traumatic outcome. One of the inherent truths about sending your children to school is that they are away from your watchful eye for several hours a day. If you choose to send your child to school, you’ve got to trust the system instead of tearing it down. The parents who protested in Cuyahoga, Ohio need to choose their battles more wisely. They should have let that teacher do his job. 

 No illustrative picture, so just me this time. 

No illustrative picture, so just me this time. 

The Fall

The concrete is damp and the rubber soles of my shoes are thick and dense, like the toe brake on roller skates, which is why the shoes stop moving and my feet continue on. The fall is terrifying and the one-inch gash on my left cheek is embarrassing. The bloody line on my face sends me racing to the first aid section of the drug store to get whatever that stuff is that helps lacerations heal without leaving scars.  

It’s called Mederma and it really works! After a single application the gash looks less red and angry. I wonder what would happen if I put this all over my whole body. Would every blemish and old scar fade away? I’m tempted. My advice to the vain among us: keep Mederma around because you never know when you’ll fall on your face. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work instantly. The gash’ll be the first thing people notice about me for the next week. 

“You tell everyone who asks about it that I’m left-handed,” David says as we’re on our way to church. He knows how this looks and he’s adamant that people know he helped, not harmed. 

“It’s funny that you think anyone is going to ask,” I tell him gloomily. “People will assume the worst.”

“No one assumes the worst at church.”

But, as usual, my understanding of human nature is accurate. As we enter the sanctuary our fellow congregants steal furtive glances then look away. Because they’re determined to be tactful (though there’ll be talk later) I have no opportunity to clear David’s name. Also, I’m compelled to explain that ordinarily under these circumstances I simply would’ve stayed away. But I have altar guild duty and so am bound by my annoying sense of responsibility to attend, a situation that serves to reinforce my father’s emphatic advice which resonates from my childhood: “Jennifer, do never volunteer!”

This same sort of surreptitious conclusion jumping happened years ago when we were living in Cairo. David and I were playing squash and he caught my eye with the side of his racket. I was a beginner and had taken a stance in the wrong place, so it was my mistake. By the time we walked into the Swissair that evening to meet friends for dinner I had quite a shiner. David and I thought it would be entertaining to see if the other couple brought it up. They didn’t; though in retrospect I guess we should have set the record straight. Steve and Molly probably still think of me as a victim and David as a violent man. 

Another result of the fall is a badly bruised knee. I’ve never been a proponent of icing sore joints or injuries, mainly because I’m cold enough already. Right now, in the middle of the summer, I have heavy fuzzy socks on my frozen feet. This particular ice pack, purchased when David had a shoulder issue, is meant for use at joints and it wraps handily over and around my knee. Lore has it that the cold is supposed to lessen swelling, which will ease the pain. I’m dubious. When has cold ever felt good?

To my amazement, when I remove the ice pack, the knee feels better. But only temporarily. Ten steps later it’s sore again. No warriors for me for a while.

As well as coming down hard on my knee, I tried to catch myself with my hand, which is now purple and swollen at the base of my thumb, into my palm, and down my inner wrist. Right handed, I’ve never given much thought to how much I use my left hand; but now I’m aware because it hurts every time I clench it. So, also no downward facing dogs. 

I don’t often feel fragile, but I do now; and this fragility leads to a lack of mindfulness. I pull out from the driveway and can’t remember if I closed the garage door. I go to the grocery store and forget to buy eggplant for the moussaka. I stand in my closet and can’t remember why I’m there. I guess the knowledge to hang on to here is that bodies heal. Also, it could have been so much worse. 

 I've tripped over these dangerous toes several times, so it was inevitable that one day I wouldn't be quick enough to save myself. They're are now retired. 

I've tripped over these dangerous toes several times, so it was inevitable that one day I wouldn't be quick enough to save myself. They're are now retired. 

 Warm socks are vital any time of year if you're me.

Warm socks are vital any time of year if you're me.

 A new addition to my medicine cabinet. 

A new addition to my medicine cabinet. 

Languishing

There’s a large package propped by the front door. 

“What’s in the package?” I ask David. 

“A surprise!” An obvious tease. 

With a hmmph! I walk on by.

The door is in the middle of the house. As my activities range from one side of the house to the other, it’s no exaggeration to say I pass by the door a hundred times a day.

The package is still there the next time I cross the central area. I’ll spend the day in a befuddled fog if that package remains there much longer. 

“Are you going to tell me what’s in the package?” I ask once more. 

“That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Funny because it’s childish.

“That box can’t live there forever,” I tell him next time I pass it. If it’s still there in five minutes I’ll stow it in the garage.  

He’s doing it to bug me. He knows how I am—obsessive, picky, unwavering in my need for organization. 

For instance, since I was stupid enough to buy socks with designated right and left feet, I’m now compelled to make sure I get each one on the appropriate foot. Every once in a while I’ll forget to check, and when I realize I’ve got them wrong I’ll take the socks off and switch them, though any sensible person knows there’s no such thing as a right or left sock. 

“You’re the last person who should have bought socks meant for specific feet,” David says. 

He’s right. What was I thinking—that I needed yet another thing to obsess over?

My yoga mat must always run parallel with the lines of the floor. And if the mat in front of me doesn’t also line up, it’s a distraction during the whole class. I’ve been known to ask strangers to straighten their mats. 

A picture hanging crookedly is troublesome on a subliminal level. 

And dirty glasses and dishes belong in the sink or dishwasher; never on the counter, which is to remain clean and clutter-free. 

Let it go, people say. It sounds easy, but it never is. 

These days I’m obsessed with whether or not Old Buildings in North Texas and its author will be invited to participate in the Texas Book Festival, which would be a huge honor, a monumental step in my career, a justification for the hours and effort. 

Notices go out until the end of August. I check my inbox first thing every morning. Sometimes, when I wake up in the night, I’m strongly tempted to kick back the covers, traverse the width of the house, and have a quick peek; but I’m not yet that far gone, though throughout the day I don’t go fifteen minutes without checking my computer or phone. 

I remind myself of what I know: I have no control over this. I’ll either be invited or not, and fixating will make no difference. 

The one thing I do have control over is the way I react to the situation, and this is exactly what I’d preach if a friend or family member were behaving as foolishly as I am. 

However, the question mark concerning the book fair has branded itself into the precise area of my brain that regulates my day-to-day thoughts, so that whatever I do and wherever I go, it’s always there, throbbing and demanding attention, until not only have I lost control of where my mind goes, but also every other aspect of my existence—I’m eating too much, drinking too much, unable to step away from my devices, and not even fully present when I drive.  

“I’m going to meet Tom at the Double Horn for a beer,” David says. “You want to come?”

The Double Horn, a local microbrewery, is always a good time. And Tom knows everybody in town, so there’re always interesting things to learn.

I say no. But I don’t tell David it’s because my hopes and expectations are consuming me to the point where I’m almost paralyzed; and that drinking a beer with friends would be impossible for me right now. I’m unable to relax, unable to track other people’s stories, unable to finish household projects. Unable to write.

I miss my dog.

 The package by the front door. It turned out to be a bird feeder stand and it looks a lot better than the last one. 

The package by the front door. It turned out to be a bird feeder stand and it looks a lot better than the last one. 

 Because it's just above the light switch, this little "Mercado" picture often gets knocked askew. If it's not a right angle it's a wrong angle!   

Because it's just above the light switch, this little "Mercado" picture often gets knocked askew. If it's not a right angle it's a wrong angle!   

Woman All Over the Place

Woman, you have a lot to pack into a relatively few number of years. Between eighteen and thirty never hit pause. 

First, get through college. Going for an advanced degree? Don’t take time off, go straight through, even summers. 

Build your career fast because when the right guy comes along you want to be on an equal footing. Also, your parents told you that you could be anything, do anything. You were taught there are no limits. 

You meet him at work, or a friend plays matchmaker, or he’s a neighbor in the building. He’s attractive and clean and you laugh at the same things, so between your twenty-sixth and twenty-eighth year, marriage happens; or maybe it doesn’t. 

If you get married, you and your husband buy a house, work hard, switch jobs for more pay, spend your free time exercising and socializing. 

Married or not, your new job is going well. You spend the first two years gaining experience and proving yourself. Then you get promoted. And promoted again, until you are in charge of a few people; and then you’re the boss of several people. You assign tasks; you take meetings and address large groups. Your husband is proud. Your parents are proud. 

Or maybe you don’t work in the corporate world. Maybe you’re a sixth grade teacher, then a principal for a few years; and then, you’re so good at what you do, so innovative and dedicated, that you are voted in as the superintendent of the entire school district. 

And then it’s time for a decision. If you don’t start having babies now, when will you ever get to it? 

The first baby comes and you and your husband are joyful. You continue working and the baby fits right into your day. He’s easy. Put him in his carrier and take him everywhere. Or maybe your baby’s a girl. Either way, you raise your child the way you were raised—there are no limits. You can do anything. 

You love to read to your baby. He or she learns to talk—three questions discussed every minute. It’s your chance to pour all your ideas about teaching and nurturing into this one compact pitcher. 

Or maybe children simply weren’t meant to be, and you’re okay with that. If you got married, your couple life is great. Your husband is your best friend. You support each other and tell each other everything about your days. You go out to dinner a lot and you have season tickets to the symphony and the baseball games. You’ve heard that Italy’s a great place to go, but there isn’t time. You’ve got your place in the company, or in the school system. Or maybe, as superintendent of the schools, you got a taste for politics and you decide to run for mayor. 

The middle years are like a pleasant ride along the coast—except for that painful time when your husband fell into deep love with a much younger woman, a woman who was very much like you when you were in your twenties. 

Was he trying to recapture the early years? Maybe you work things out and stay together. Maybe you lose him and find another. Or you might decide to remain single. 

Either way, there comes a time when your child, or children, are grown and gone. Or maybe there were no children. And sadly, your parents are no longer among the living. You miss them every day and spend lengthy segments of time remembering things that happened long ago. 

You stayed with the first husband or turned him in for another one—either way, he’s dead. 

Or he never existed. 

You retired a year ago. The people you worked with loved you. They gave you a dinner and a substantial financial send-off. 

What’s your next step? 

In a small town in Texas there is an old hotel for sale. 

You pull into its driveway and continue through a portico that’s supported by four sturdy brick columns. A gate can be installed across this entry.

A block off the highway, the hotel has only recently closed; but it’s been poorly maintained. Weeds pop through cracks in the tarmac and paint peels along the trim. Green, red, and blue doors are faded. 

A single story, it’s one of those L-shaped structures where every room looks on to a hardly magnificent, but respectable, pool. 

You roll to a stop in one of the slanted spaces facing the rooms. Getting out of your car, you enter the front building, reception, where there’s a counter and, beyond, a dining room and kitchen. The fusty smell of dirty fixtures and fabrics makes you sneeze. That carpet will have to go. 

Pulling out your phone, you call Liz, a friend who’s in the same position as you—no husband, no family nearby. 

“I’ve found it,” you tell her. 

“I’ll let everyone know,” she replies. 

Four months later a dozen women occupy the premises. Walls have been knocked out to make the units larger. Old carpet has been replaced by tile. The trim has been painted and the parking lot resurfaced. The pool is cleaned weekly and there are daily water aerobics classes. In the water old women with flabby arms sway and march. Some giggle and splash and some take this workout seriously as they look doggedly forward, determined that the pain of arthritis and sciatica won’t defeat them. 

The kitchen has been renovated. And out in the dining room women play mahjong and bridge every afternoon. A book group meets every other week. There are movie nights; or someone might want to watch television in her own room. 

You take turns with the shopping and cooking. You all move slowly and you laugh a lot. Your hips are broad and your boobs sag. And you look out for one another, giving rides to doctors or chemo or church. 

This isn’t permanent; it’s just another stop along the way.

 This isn't the best quality photo because it's taken by a modern Poloroid. This is me with Curtis, our oldest. He and his wife and her parents were up from Houston for the weekend. We boated and ate a great meal and laughed a lot. 

This isn't the best quality photo because it's taken by a modern Poloroid. This is me with Curtis, our oldest. He and his wife and her parents were up from Houston for the weekend. We boated and ate a great meal and laughed a lot. 

People Love This Book!

Since Old Buildings in North Texas was released in the states, finding reviewers has been difficult. Though copies have been sent out in return for promised reviews, few reviews have actually appeared. I prefer it when people do what they say they're going to do, but as I don't work for the book review enforcement agency I have no control, which makes me crazy. I was happy to see this one, posted on Lone Star Literary Life, a prestigious and popular site for Texas booklovers. Thanks, Michelle Newby, for your kind words about Old Buildings in North Texas. 

http://www.lonestarliterary.com

2016-10-07 23.16.36.jpg

Sam's Brand

I could tell from the packaging that this is an elegant product.  

IMG_0233.jpg

Because our son, Sam's, company is in Beijing, I figured it would take two weeks to get them, but they arrived in four days. When Sam says he has distribution in the states, he means it!

IMG_0230.jpg

The +1 at the temples signifies Sam's business plan--for every pair of these glasses sold, a destitute child in rural China will be given an eye exam and, if necessary, glasses. I know China is viewed as a monster these days, but this has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with children so far removed from our world that they have no access to eye care. 

 The case is classy and plush, but the glasses also came with a flat soft case so, if you're like me and carry a small purse, they can easily fit into it.

The case is classy and plush, but the glasses also came with a flat soft case so, if you're like me and carry a small purse, they can easily fit into it.

 I'm colorful today.   Sam's been in China for eight years. Since we moved from Singapore we don't see him often. We miss him but are proud of the work he's doing. I thought nothing new could be done with glasses's styles, but Sam found a way. You can find your Mantra on the website, which is also topnotch. 

I'm colorful today. 

Sam's been in China for eight years. Since we moved from Singapore we don't see him often. We miss him but are proud of the work he's doing. I thought nothing new could be done with glasses's styles, but Sam found a way. You can find your Mantra on the website, which is also topnotch. 

https://www.findyourmantra.com

Absurd Imposition

Faye, our yoga instructor, has an unusual request. 

“I have a project that needs your help,” she says to the class. “I have bits of paper and pencils up here on the stage and after class, if you would, I need you to write down something about me that makes me unique as an instructor.”

She smiles benevolently over us. It’s an absurd imposition. I look around to see if anybody thinks this is as silly as I do, but the faces around me glow with tolerance and good will. 

“I know,” she continues, “it sounds like I’m asking for compliments, but that’s not the case. I’m working with someone to discover what traits combine to make me who I am, and I really need your input.”

Huh. Working with someone. Translation: she’s seeing a therapist. I’m not surprised. She’s the type who would enjoy having someone focused solely on her for a full hour. 

At the end of class only three out of twenty respond to her request—the two Marys and me. 

This is what I write:

1) I like your class and your explanations of the poses are well-articulated. 

2) On Friday you spent twenty minutes talking about yourself, which means we only got forty minutes instead of the full hour. I came for yoga, not to hear about your flat tire or how you met your husband. 

3) Also, you say, “take a breath,” and right after that you say, “now, on your next inhale straighten your knee.” Take a breath and inhale mean the same thing, which is confusing to those of us who know the meanings of words. As it is, you’re asking us to inhale twice. It would be more accurate to say, “exhale,” or “release your breath” rather than “take a breath.” And it’s upsetting to someone as hypercritical as I am when you use a verb as a noun. 

I return my comments and pencil to the stage, where I meet the Marys, also turning their remarks in. I know them from Mahjong and they’re both sincerely kind.

“I wrote something mean,” I tell them, happy to have offset the praise that I’m sure they slathered on thickly. 

Short Mary rolls her eyes. She knows how I can be.  

“You need to be more tolerant,” Tall Mary says. 

“Oh, I’m way better than I used to be,” I tell her. “I used to be self-righteous and petty. Now I’m just cantankerous.”

(An aside: This is the first experience I’ve had living in a small town. In Marble Falls I run into someone I know everywhere I go. I know people from Mahjong, yoga, and church, along with folks I’ve met through David, who’s involved in Habitat for Humanity and the Helping Center Garden. What this means is that I’ve had to put aside vanity. It’s inevitable that at one time or another every person in town will see me with limp hair and no makeup. 

LJ and I came upon one another in the grocery store yesterday. Going at a fast pace across the back aisle, she stopped abruptly when she saw me. Wearing a full-brimmed hat and large sunglasses, she looked like she was shopping incognito. 

“I almost didn’t recognize you,” I told her as I wondered what her disguise was concealing. 

“Good,” she said. And away she buzzed. Obviously she hasn’t yet come to terms with the vanity issue.) 

Back to point. 

There is a type of woman who views herself as a bottomless well of wisdom, a sage to guide the growth of others. In her life she seeks a position where she can be a teacher, a mentor, a philosopher. She likes to be in front of other women and she enjoys it when they look at her from a lower position. She shares profound reflections about how much the rain nourishes her soul and how the most insignificant decision can change your life. That’s Faye to a T. She loves having us in front of her, looking up at her, mirroring her movements. We’re captive receptacles for her to pour her knowledge into.  

Is she narcissistic? Delusional? Lacking in confidence and overcompensating? 

And what tickles me is that I wrote her before I met her. In my Snoop series, Wendy is the facilitator of a grief support group. She’s always late; she’s condescending; and she believes that her every utterance is life-changing. Here’s an excerpt from a passage I wrote two years ago:

Wendy doesn’t allow anyone to go outside and smoke at break time. She thinks the separation of the group will disrupt the flow in the circle. So the few people who are longing for a cigarette are jittery and a little hostile. As we gather around the coffee pot all eyes are on Wendy who, taking the central position, commands our attention. During the session she dons a sympathetic expression and nods supportively when someone shares. But at the break it’s The Wendy Show all the way. Her gestures are flamboyant; her voice carries; her opinions are emphatic. She’s unable to tolerate a single conversation that doesn’t revolve around her. 

So intimately do I know this character, and so much does the self-absorbed yogi remind me of her, that the other day I called the yogi by the made-up name, Wendy, instead of her real name, Faye. I’m going to have to watch that.

 It's a very trendy and clean facility with, as you can see, many services.

It's a very trendy and clean facility with, as you can see, many services.

 This is a not very good picture of my friend, Jane. I play Mahjong with her. I do yoga with her. And her husband works on the Habitat houses with David. We see each other all the time. 

This is a not very good picture of my friend, Jane. I play Mahjong with her. I do yoga with her. And her husband works on the Habitat houses with David. We see each other all the time. 

Amarillo Disparaged

We had some brilliant minds in our Amarillo High School graduating class, young men and women who moved to distant places and made prodigious differences in the world. An astronaut, doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, artists, authors, entrepreneurs, and gifted musicians--all outstanding in their fields. I often think about the kids I went to high school with, and I'm amazed how so many great and successful people came out of that arid windy town where ideas are aborted immediately after conception. 

I know no one who lives there now. 

Because my novel, Old Buildings in North Texas, has recently been released here in the US, I’m concentrating on publicizing it. This is progressing here in the same way it did when the book was released in the UK, which means a publicist has arranged guest postings on blogs and reviews to go in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. 

As my books are published internationally and set in fictional Caprock, which is based on Amarillo, you’d think people in my hometown would be interested or, at the very least, curious. But I contacted the editor of the Amarillo Globe News two weeks ago, attaching a press release to communicate that this is a legitimate book published by an award-winning literary publisher. I haven’t heard back from him. This excerpt from one of the posts I did for a British blog will explain why I’m not at all surprised:

Having lived in seven countries over a thirty-year period, I’m often asked why I place my novels in a stark dry town in Northwest Texas. It’s because it’s the location I know best. Though the ex-pat life is enlightening, I don’t have other cultures in my bones the way I do Amarillo. I’ll point out that I say bones rather than heart. I hardly love the place. But its vernacular is mine and I comprehend on an intrinsic level the mindset of the people, who are stubborn, religious, big-hearted, abhorrent toward change, and suspicious of success.

In Amarillo, liberals are appreciated in the same way children are; they’re expected to keep their voices down and not touch anything. And, while outwardly the city appreciates the arts, it’s understood that any artist will be out of favor if he or she steps too far outside conventional societal boundaries. Also, if some performer or scientist shows outstanding talent or ability, well, Amarillo as a whole wishes they’d take their genius elsewhere. 

And though the population makes an effort to move forward, when it comes to cultural trends and economic development, they somehow manage to always be several years behind the rest of the country. 

Reading this a year after I wrote it, I realize that it comes off as supercilious, which is not truly the way I feel, though it’s obviously the way I felt at the time. All I can think is that I must have been in a mood. For the most part, Amarillo is composed of good people going about their daily business. Mainly what I remember from my years there is that the hands of the clock never seemed to move and nothing ever changed. 

Here’s another disparaging excerpt, this one in the voice of Olivia from OBiNT:

In Dallas I worked as the regulars’ editor for Dallas Flair, a local fashion magazine. It was my dream career, a grand life in the making.  Here in Caprock, with my background (and I am impressive—BA in English from Rice, MA in Journalism from Columbia, magna cum laudein both) I should’ve been able to get a job on the newspaper, the Caprock Chronicle, which, as far as I can tell, is none too choosy. And there’s a local magazine here, too, that I’m well-suited for. Called Caprock Comfort, it has more to do with home decorating than fashion, but still, it’s work I could do, a theme I could get behind. I like comfort as much as the next person.    

Oddly, the reason I’m not working for one of these publications isn’t because I’m an addict or that I’m unqualified. It’s because I left the area. 

“Tech not good enough for you?” asked Stanley Mason, editor of the Caprock Chronicle.  “Most of our staff went to Tech. Or Pan UT.”  Located two hours to the south, Texas Tech is as far as most people from Caprock go for their higher education. And Pan UT, the panhandle branch of the University of Texas system, is even closer—half an hour to the southwest, in Gorman.  

“Columbia? Isn’t that in New York?” asked Susan Riley, editor of Caprock Comfort.“Why’d you go way up there? That must have been horrible.”

As most ex-pats know, family and friends from home don’t want to hear about experiences from the outside world. They’re happy to see you, but they lack curiosity and are caught up in their own lives. This conversation between Olivia and her therapist offers another reason why someone from Amarillo might not appreciate OBiNT:

“Tell me about living in New York.” Jane dons an interested expression.  

“It’s busy,” I say, happy to comply. “There’s always something to do.  You can take a short subway ride and end up in a completely different neighborhood where they speak Chinese or Russian or Arabic or Portuguese. And the way people dress is fascinating—all the cultures shown in fabrics and designs right there on their backs, and you can see how one style influences another. And everybody walks. People are out and moving, not getting from place to place in their solitary cars.”

Her eyes have glazed over, which makes me stop talking. The prospect of a world beyond Caprock has rendered her catatonic. It takes her a few seconds to realize I’ve gone silent.

My treatment of Amarillo in my novels is hardly kind. I suppose it’s understandable that no one at the Amarillo Globe News would care to read a book that denigrates the town and its people. On the other hand, why wouldn’t they want to read it? If there’s anything folks in Amarillo enjoy, it’s becoming indignant and holding a grudge. 

My novels do offer some positive things about my hometown. At times I grow nostalgic when writing of the flat hard land and the shadows cast by the gnarled mesquite, the fierce wind and the blue, blue sky. Also the dialect has always pleased me—the fixin‘ tos and the ya’lls and the gunnawunnas (as in You’re gunnawunna take care of that). 

And the people also possess two of my favorite qualities: a sense of humor and a lack of pretention; after all, it looks like they named their new baseball team the Sod Poodles.  

 This is Amarillo High's mascot. I think it's supposed to be a dust devil, or maybe a tornado. To me it looks like the lovechild of Mr. Peanut and a bowl of butterscotch pudding. 

This is Amarillo High's mascot. I think it's supposed to be a dust devil, or maybe a tornado. To me it looks like the lovechild of Mr. Peanut and a bowl of butterscotch pudding. 

 Another good thing that can be said about Amarillo is that it has nice broad streets. 

Another good thing that can be said about Amarillo is that it has nice broad streets. 

David and the Squirrel

David hangs the bird feeders from a couple of tree branches.

About the tree: David, a master gardener who should know, says it’s a Chinese elm; but the tree specialist who trimmed our trees a couple of years ago called it a post oak—either way, it lacks charm. It looks dead most of the year and it’s slow to grow. So, not so enamored with the tree. 

On the other hand, we enjoy the feeders because they attract so many birds—painted buntings, cardinals, goldfinches, the black-crested titmouse, and house finches—just to name a few. A red-winged blackbird flies in at the same time every afternoon, signaling his arrival with a boisterous Caw!

An aside about bird watching: We thought it was an insignificant pastime until we visited the Kinabatangan River in Borneo, where there was an abundance of birds that are found nowhere else in the world. At one point we spotted a rare type of kingfisher hopping from branch to branch along the bank. This kingfisher is a much-desired sighting on birdwatchers’ lists; and later we met a man from Australia who’d been coming to the lodge for twenty years hoping to catch sight of one, and we saw it on our first time out. Amusing, right? 

Back to the squirrel: It climbs out on a branch and slides down the wire to the feeder. In an effort to thwart it, David fastens a slinky at the top so that it bounces and dangles down the length of the wire. This idea comes from Sam’s childhood friend, Jimmy, who, even when he was a kid, had a gift for using items in ways unintended. The slinky puzzles the squirrel for a day or so, but then it starts simply free falling to the feeder, paying no attention to the slinky at all. 

David’s next move is to add a barrier over the feeder, an unattractive plastic hat. It hangs crookedly, but does the job in that the squirrel is deterred—until it realizes that it can jump directly to the feeder from the trunk, coming in under the barrier. This causes the feeder to swing, which means the squirrel is not only getting to the birdseed, but also enjoying a fine ride. 

David’s reasonable response to this is to move the feeders as far out on the branches as possible, a distance of about eight feet from the trunk. Both of us, when we see the squirrel make the jump, go, “Whoa!” 

At this point David goes to The Tractor Store for professional advice. I go along just for fun. 

“Them squirrels is ninjas,” the guy at the store tells us. “There ain’t a thang you can do.”

At this point I suggest to David that he utilize the old umbrella base that has, for no reason I can discern, been out behind the rock line ever since we moved here. (Here’s something you may or may not know: the word “utilize” is not a synonym for “use”; it actually means to make use of something in a manner not originally conceived.) 

“Stick a tall pole in the base,” I say, “and move it away from the tree so the squirrels can’t get to it. Then put a PVC T-junction on top with a couple of pipes acting as arms and hang the feeders from them.”

He gives it thought and likes the idea. 

We go to the specialty plumbing store, a manly hangout for contractors and ranchers. David explains what he wants to do and why to John, the man behind the counter. The other customers chime in. 

“Shoot’em,” one man says in a way that makes me think this is probably his response to every problem.

“Stop feeding the birds,” another says.

Even though it’s for a futile mission, a sale is a sale. John is happy to saw the pipe to David’s specifications.  

We pay for the pipe and as soon as we’re home David constructs his new feeder stand. The pipe we purchased is of a larger diameter than the pole he found in the garage, so duct tape is involved. It ends up being the most unattractive object I’ve ever had in a backyard.

The first night something big knocks the whole shebang over, which makes the squirrels happy because all the seed is on the ground; they don’t have to go to any trouble at all. 

Finding his new contraption in this subjugated position prompts David to hook some rebar through the base and pile rocks on top of it. 

“That squirrel won’t defeat me!” he insists. “And I think it was a hog that knocked it over.” 

But he can’t be sure, so he buys a motion-activated camera that will enable him to see what’s going on out there at night.

Tongue in cheek, Sam cheers David on in this squirrelly combat, advising in an email that this new bird feeding stand could be quite a money-maker because people everywhere want to keep squirrels off the bird feeders. 

“You can come up with all kinds of inventions,” Sam says. “You’ll live like Wallace and Gromit.” 

Curtis wisely points out, “Maybe the issue isn't so much the design but the idea of putting food in the middle of the squirrels' habitat and expecting the squirrels not to eat it.”

To David, I say, “One of my Mahjong friends told me that when she put out a squirrel feeder, the squirrels left the bird feeders alone.”

“I’m not going to feed the squirrels!” is David’s response. 

I don’t know what makes birds more deserving than squirrels, but that seems to be the case.  

“The squirrels never bother the squirrel-proof feeder. Why don’t you just get another one of those?”

“The birds like the brick.” This spoiling is the way birds gain a sense of entitlement. 

A squirrel shimmies up the pole, climbs all the way to the top, crawls out the arm of the bird feeder, and drops to the feeder. 

David attaches the slinky to the pole. 

The squirrel climbs to the bottom of the slinky and makes a giant leap to the feeder. 

David sets the feeders higher. 

The squirrel picks its way over the slinky, making it all the way to the top, where it drops on to the feeder.

David runs outside, waves his arms, and yells, “Get out of here!”

And I gasp, concerned for the startled squirrel as it drops ten feet to the ground. It seems to be limping as it scampers away. 

David adds a new obstacle—a broad cone placed about midway up the pole. So far it seems to be working. This battle has been going on for several months.

So far David’s gone after armadillos, deer, hogs, and squirrels. What will he do when there are no more backyard enemies to fight?  

 Not exactly gorgeous, is it?

Not exactly gorgeous, is it?

 Chinese elm or post oak? What do you think?

Chinese elm or post oak? What do you think?

 More difficult to knock over now.

More difficult to knock over now.

 This is what a slinky looks like when you hang it from a pole.

This is what a slinky looks like when you hang it from a pole.

 This collar seems to be working. 

This collar seems to be working. 

On the Water

Summer has been slow in coming this year and today is only the third warm day we’ve had. The sky is clear blue and it’s unusually windy, which is the reason we decide to aim the boat up the river as opposed to taking a right out of the marina and heading toward the dam-end of Lake Travis. The river is more sheltered.

This is our last time to use the boat club, which we joined a year ago. The contract is for two days a month, but we’re confined to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, which means those of our friends and family who are only available on weekends are unable to join us. Also, the contract doesn’t recognize weather, which means that we paid a monthly fee for the winter months. This is called “The Toe in the Water Plan” and is designed for neophytes who don’t know whether or not they like boating. We like it fine, but it irked to pay for those months when we didn’t use it. And, with the obligations David’s taken on, sometimes we had trouble finding the time. 

There’s a difference between the river and the lake coastal topography. For the most part, summits and dramatic cliffs surround the lake. The houses that offer views of the water are massive, elegant, and highly perched. Elevators carry homeowners to their boats. A house on Lake Travis is very expensive, which you’d think would make it cost prohibitive, yet its shores are greatly populated. There are a lot of really rich people in Austin. 

The land along the river is flatter and the homes are less flashy; though, as the lakeshores have become more and more crowded, river properties are being developed. 

Coming out with us today are David’s sister, Leanne, and our friend, Charlie. Charlie owns a house on Lake LBJ, so he’s comfortable in a boat. Leanne recently moved to Sun City, a Del Webb community in Georgetown, which she refers to as adult day camp. She’s gone boating with us quite a few times. Now that we’re no longer going to be in the boat club, our next water experiences will most likely be on Lake LBJ, as it’s much closer to us. 

Leanne is useful to have around because she researches things that I’m too lazy to look into. In this instance, she shares information about the Lower Colorado River Authority, which was created in 1934 and consists of six lakes, formed by six hydroelectric dams along the river. In addition to providing energy, the LCRA oversees forty parks and recreation areas; and it works to conserve the water and keep it clean. You might have heard the names of the lakes and not realized that they’re part of the chain. The lakes in order are Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, and Austin. Because they’re basically the managed Colorado River, they’re all elongated in form.

This area is called The Highland Lake District and if you live here, you most likely have a view of the accouterments of electricity—wires, towers and power plants. It’s something I’ve heard people complain about, but if we didn’t have the dams, we wouldn’t have the lakes, so I’m okay with it. To sum up, the LCRA is a major entity in this part of the country. 

David’s in control and we zip across the lake with the wind coming at us so hard that the force pushes me into the seat. He slows a bit and Leanne and I both start slathering on the sunscreen. When we get to the river I take the wheel so David can have a visit with his sister. We were right to head for the Colorado because it’s quite calm. In the back of the boat Charlie has his phone out, following our progress. Every once in a while he’ll call out our location: “Lago Vista!” “Spicewood!”

About fifteen minutes out there’s a huge resort called The Island. Its buildings are spread out overlooking the water. There’s a shiny dome in the center. 

“I wonder about this place,” I say. “I’ve never seen anybody here. I think it’s abandoned.”

“The fountain’s running and the grounds are in good shape,” Leanne responds.

“But the marina’s totally empty.” Three long banks of slips, enough to berth sixty boats. 

“Maybe it’s haunted.”

I cut the motor and break out our snacks—cheese, crackers, pita, hummus, tangerines, wine. We munch and discuss common interests. Charlie and his wife, Diana, just bought an RV, and Leanne and her husband, Doug, have a pull-along, so traveling is the main topic. 

This RV business doesn’t appeal to David and me, though it’s very popular in our area. We’d just as soon fly to our destination. And when we’re on the road we like to move fast. I tend to curse at the bloated slow-movers. 

Charlie surprises us by jumping in the water, which we all know is only seventy-one degrees. He’s crazy! David takes the challenge and he, too, goes over the side. Leanne won’t be outdone by her brother, so she dives. 

I sedately sip wine from a plastic cup and pop another cheese cube into my mouth. This is an adventure I’m happy to miss. 

David only stays in for twenty seconds, and Leanne comes out right after. Charlie stays in a bit longer. The three of them are shivering, but they warm up quickly in the sun. 

As we bob in our boat bliss settles over me. It’s one of those wonderful times when there is absolutely nothing negative in my head, no worry or pressure or angst, just friends talking in a boat on a beautiful day. 

 The resort. Haunted? Abandoned? 

The resort. Haunted? Abandoned? 

 Signs of the LCRA are everywhere.

Signs of the LCRA are everywhere.

 Here we are. 

Here we are. 

Maudlin

Here’s a snippet my father enjoyed telling: When he was around twelve years old his mother invited him to go to a movie with her. 

“It’s one of the greatest movies ever made,” she told him. In fact, she loved it so much that she had already been to see it twice. 

Thinking that a film that earned such high praise and repetitive watching was surely worth seeing, he agreed; and was dismayed when his mother spent the last half of the movie mopping at her tear-soaked face. At this point in the telling he would mop at his face and make sobbing sounds. 

“What was good about it if it made her cry?” he would ask. “And, knowing that it made her cry, why would she choose to see it again and again?”

He gave a snide chuckle, obviously thinking his mother was silly. Apparently he didn’t understand women at all. 

Spoiler alert: Barbara has died.

For those of you who don’t watch BBC’sCall the Midwife,Barbara was the daughter of a vicar, the wife of a vicar, and the encouraging force behind half the births in the East End in the sixties. She was spunky and funny and cute, a charming character who was so sincerely good that I had trouble liking her. 

And yet last night when it became clear that she was a very sick young woman—a diagnosis of meningitis coupled with septicemia—and her handsome husband and all her broken-hearted friends gathered around her hospital bed as she sank into death, I cried like my German grandmother—copiously and with gusto.

I cry through that damn show every week. 

The next day I talk to my friend, Jane, who also follows the show. 

“They killed off Barbara!” I tell her indignantly

“Yes. I think she wanted off the show.”

“Then why didn’t the BBC do what they usually do with these drawn out period dramas—send her to Australia and bring on a new character?”

I often cry over books and movies. I can still remember crying at the end of Bridges of Madison County. Why? It was known to be a soppy novel and I saw the ending coming from the first page. I should have been ready for it, yet it got to me. Those two people so in love, living their lives apart. How tragic.

Having called the book mawkish, I admit to being incapable of writing anything that would make someone cry. I simply couldn’t do it. 

Full disclosure—also, I cried at the end of Toy Story 3. But who wouldn’t? Andy gave Woody away and was going off to college. Just thinking about it makes me feel gooshy and sentimental. 

That I cry over stories, but seldomly over real-life tragedies makes me question my humanity. 

For instance, one of our yoga instructors has recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. So now she’s at home, dying. My friends whisper her names in hushed tones. 

At yoga, when it was announced that this woman would no longer be with us, women started crying. A box of tissues was passed around. 

Impatient, I looked at my watch. This carrying-on ate up twenty minutes of our class. 

How is it that I was prepared for it when no one else was? The woman was quite old. She’d been repeating herself, forgetting words and the names of the positions; and often, when she turned around, she was surprised to see us all standing there, awaiting her instruction. 

And here’s my pragmatic assessment: she will be missed. But I’m more worried about the husband she’ll be leaving behind. The two of them have been married for fifty-seven years. How will he cope? He won’t know how to navigate without her by his side. 

Now that’s something to cry about. 

 Because I needed a picture to put here. 

Because I needed a picture to put here. 

Cabo!

Arrived in Cabo San Lucas yesterday afternoon. I froze all day getting here, so the thaw was welcome. We’re staying in a two-bedroom villa at The Westin, which looks toward the ocean. The coastal formations are dramatic and the surf is fierce. David wonders why no one’s in the water, but from what I see, a swimmer runs the risk of getting bashed into the rocks.

It’s difficult to slip into vacation mode when my mind’s focused elsewhere.  

Old Buildings in North Texas is being released this month in the US. This is exciting and intimidating. I was welcomed with enthusiasm in the UK market. The British readers found the main character, Olivia, to be self-aware and self-absorbed, which she definitely is; but they sympathized with her predicament and enjoyed her sense of humor.

It’s an unusual book and if people knew about it I’m sure copies would fly from Amazon to Kindles by the thousands. 

And on this matter, I’m adrift. Arcadia’s in-house publicist’s ideas are good, but they have yet to materialize. My agent said I should contact the independent bookstores in Austin and set up readings. She envisioned a whole scenario where I get a mediator (one of my friends, she said. In my whole life I’ve never had a friend I would impose upon in this way) to glowingly introduce the novel and me. Then I’d read an excerpt, after which the mediator would ask me questions, and then this mediator would invite the audience (How many people? Three? And how did they find out about this reading?) to discuss and ask questions.

If this were an organized event I’d be happy to do it. I’d stand where I was told to stand, do the reading, answer queries about the creative process, and sign the many books (and where do these books come from?) people were standing in line to buy. But it’s beginning to seem that not only am I expected to be the star of the event, I’m expected to organize it and populate it as well. I haven’t got a clue how to go about this.

David just got up. He has trouble getting the coffee maker going. Frustration with cursing. He figures it out. The waves outside are crashing on the beach, one of my favorite sounds. We’re going for a walk later. Then to the steam room. I slept in an awkward position and woke up with a crick in my neck, so I’m hoping the heat will relax the kink.

This afternoon, reading by the pool. What am I reading? A guilty pleasure. I’ll never in a million admit that I read this author.

After OBiNT was published, it was surprising how many friends and strangers worriedly asked about my personal experience with drug addiction.

Here’s one response I gave:

“I haven’t ever been addicted, but I sympathize because I form habits, which hound me to the point of obsession. Back when I smoked cigarettes I’d check my purse for my pack at least five times before allowing myself to walk out the door. And these days, I don’t feel comfortable unless the wine rack is full.” 

To a good friend who should know better, another response:

“Do you think I’m incapable of imagining drug addiction without actually having gone through it? I’m a fiction writer. Writing about things I know nothing about is what I do!”

My experience with drugs is limited to smoking pot in high school and college. Surprisingly, considering that it was illegal then as it still is in Texas, the thought of getting caught was not a deterrent. In every other aspect I was the consummate goodie-goodie; but, when it came to marijuana, in a decision contrary to my values, I chose to ignore the law because it was stupid. And now, as its legitimacy spreads from state to state, my heart hurts for people who were born too early. Lives were ruined because of pot.

Oh. I see that Curtis, my oldest, has sent me an article listing five cool bookstores in Austin. Two look suitable for a reading. The others—one presents itself as a trendy new-style bookstore, but it’s really an old-fashioned book mobile; another is dedicated exclusively to science fiction and fantasy; and a third is only interested in selling books that link politics to conspiracy theories. Huh.

The publicist in the UK has suggested that, because of the addiction aspect of the book, I write a posting about drugs in the US. So I look up statistics and try to write an informative piece, but my heart isn’t in it. I’m not Fareed Zakaria, and no one wants to know what a fiction writer from Texas has to say about this critical issue.

I do have a rather simple opinion, which is that as a population we’re both impatient and gullible. If we’ve got a pain or a twinge, we take a pill. I pop two Ibuprofen every morning. Just because.

And if the television tells me I might have inflammatory bowel disease or thyroid cancer, I take it seriously. If someone has asthma and there’s an advertisement for a new medication claiming to work better than what they’re currently taking, they run to the doctor and demand that drug.

The other day I counted six one-after-the-other pharmaceutical commercials.

I know four people who have been on anti-depressants for years. Tragic things happen, but doesn’t it make more sense to join a support group instead of taking pills forever? And isn’t it healthier to process painful emotions in a natural state rather than an artificial one?

Olivia, the main character in Old Buildings in North Texas, is a product of this drug culture. All her friends used, so she did, too. She was raised to be the best she could be. She was held to a high standard. Her mother discouraged detours and didn’t understand failure. Yet somehow, with her mother’s voice always in her head, and while living her successful professional life, Olivia succumbed to addiction. Rehab was a humiliating backward step, which she handled with determination and equanimity.

And OBiNT is funny, too. Who wouldn’t want to read a comedy about addiction recovery? It’s just a question of getting that lovely book cover in the public eye . . .

Breakfast is delicious—a buffet. I’ll make a list: fruit, pancakes and waffles, cold meats and cheeses (Brie!), poached eggs, potatoes, yogurt, sausage, cereals, pastries; and an omelet bar, too!

Off for our beach walk.

Nothing solved.

 See? Quite dynamic.

See? Quite dynamic.

 The resort from the beach.

The resort from the beach.

 From the interior. 

From the interior. 

 Another beach shot.

Another beach shot.

Agave Requiem

The blue bonnets have begun to bloom. In a couple of weeks the entire countryside will be dressed in shades of periwinkle. Friends and family who’d like to visit us, three weeks from right now is when you want to come. 

Last year about this time one of the two huge agaves out front bit the dust. Now the other one is in the first stage of its demise, which was inevitable. I don’t know the names of plant parts so I’ll just say that when it’s time for one of these agaves to die it shoots up an impressive phallic stalk. When the first one stopped growing, its stalk had risen through the branches and above the canopy of a good-sized oak tree, a height of about thirty-five feet. People stopped by to comment.

“You know when it does that, it’s fixing to die, right?” This from the fourth neighbor who wanted to educate us.

Sadly, we did know. When the obelisk lost its upward momentum, and all the elegantly curved leaves at the base had turned to brown mush, the problem became how to get the rotting thing out of there. It had once been a grand and dominating fixture, drawing admiration from everyone. But when it was fully expired the whole area was soggy and smelly from the decaying leaves.

Ordinarily a dead agave is simply left to dry out because the root ball is densely fibrous and staggeringly heavy. But our house is the first one people see when they enter the cul-de-sac; and as such, our front area is appropriately kempt. Leaving the stalk to turn brownish gray and list slowly sideways until it collapsed was out of the question. It would take years.

So David climbed a ladder and sawed across the stalk, creating vulnerably between top and bottom. As strategic advisor, it was my responsibility to repeatedly remind him to Be careful up on that ladder! He tied a rope around the top part, tied the other end of the rope to his truck, climbed in, and pressed the accelerator. And as the truck rolled forward the top of the stalk rattled and shook, then snapped off with a mighty crack! It fell through the branches, landing hard and pointing straight up; then falling over and almost hitting me because I was stupid enough to be standing right there. 

David hacked off the putrid leaves and sawed at the bottom portion of the stalk until all that remained was the base, which weighed a couple of hundred pounds. He fastened a chain around it and, hooking the chain to the truck, pulled the mass out of the ground and on to the driveway, where, to my house-proud horror, it stayed for two weeks, which is how long it took to find someone willing to haul it off.  

The whole process, from the time the stalk first appeared, to disposing of it, took about four months. And now we’re going to have to go through the same thing again. At least we know what we’re getting into.

Did the majestic agaves influence our decision to buy this house? It’s a possibility. They were certainly a magnificent element of the big picture. And I fear no plants will ever be worthy of replacing them.

Here’s an unusual snippet:  A couple of years ago David was clearing the area around the agaves of the babies, several of which sprouted on a weekly basis. One of the needles pierced the back of his leather glove and pricked his hand. He immediately pulled the glove off and studied the painful area; but he couldn’t see a needle, though the swelling was immediate.

A few days later the hand was still swollen. He went to the doctor who looked at it and poked at it, and then said she was pretty sure there was no foreign object in there. She put David on antibiotics, but the hand continued to bother him—hurting and swelling until the skin of the whole hand was purple and strained.

This went on for several weeks, until suddenly it settled down. Fast forward eight months or so, when the palm of David’s hand became tender and inflamed—and then one day the tip of the needle popped out of his palm. This is all kind of gross, but it’s kind of cool, too, to ponder the inherent tenacity of the needle in remaining imbedded for that length of time, and maintaining its original integrity and purpose in what, to it, was an alien environment.

Good-bye, agave. We’re glad we got to enjoy you for a while.   

 Another one bites the dust. Day one.

Another one bites the dust. Day one.

 Day two. That's about a foot of growth in a single day. 

Day two. That's about a foot of growth in a single day. 

 Of course he kept it. It's part of him now.

Of course he kept it. It's part of him now.

 This little lime sizzler will never live up to the agave. 

This little lime sizzler will never live up to the agave. 

Solitude

David’s gone to Port Aransas for a few days to help with hurricane cleanup. Originally I thought that maybe, while he was gone, I’d go to Houston to help my sister move. But when she pointed out that, as she’s between homes, she would be unable to offer comfortable accommodation, I chose comfort over being helpful. I’m not like David, who beats me hands down when it comes to helping others.

So, because I was dithering about the Houston trip, I ended up with no plans at all, which isn’t always a bad thing.

I spend the afternoon getting my sewing room in order. The scraps that’re too small to use outnumber usable fabric. While sorting, I watch a movie called Glory Road, about the NCAA championship game between Texas Western University in El Paso and the University of Kentucky, arguably the best game in the history of all games since the beginning of time; and it changed, literally, the future face of basketball. I’m not fond of sports but I love sports movies. One of my many endearing paradoxical quirks.

Ever since a month ago, when David decided to go on this trip, I’ve been looking forward to a period of solitude. When he’s not around I sing loudly, trailing cheerful tunes as I move through the house. It’s not because his presence is oppressive, it’s because my voice is too horrible to inflict on another person. Another thing I tend to do when he's not home is stay up later and drink more. It's good that he's not gone often. 

Also, we’re too much in each other’s business. We comment on one another’s activities to an absurd extent.

“Washing light clothes?” he’ll ask as I carry the laundry basket full of light clothes to the laundry room.

“Going to the gym?” I ask as he stuffs his workout clothes into his gym bag.

After organizing my fabrics I feel the need to get out of the house for a while. Though I recently vowed to stop buying stuff I don’t need, I’m in the mood to walk up and down the colorful aisles of either Dress for Less or Tuesday Morning. Both are jumble stores, with good deals to be had if you’re willing to dig through tons of ugly useless items in order to find treasure. For my purposes, Dress for Less is more about clothes, though they also have household items, perfume, and luggage; while Tuesday Morning is more geared toward kitchen paraphernalia and festive paper plates; although, come to think of it, I found one of my favorite articles of clothing at Tuesday Morning—a white undershirt that’s so soft and cozy that I wear it all winter. I’m wearing it now.

I choose Dress for Less. I’m offended when I take a top to the try-on area and the clerk takes it from me, hangs it on her rack, and tests the anti-theft device to make sure it’s secure. The clothes in this store are so cheap that they practically pay the customers to buy them, and yet they must have had a rash of shoplifting; why else would some higher-up instigate such a petty policy? In the end, Dress for Less renders nothing I want or need. I leave having relearned what I already know, which is that if you want to be treated with respect you should shop at a respectable store. Oh well, it was a place to go.

Later, as I’m walking through the house to fetch a glass of wine, I glance into the backyard. There are six deer out there. I like to see which plants the deer are devouring, so I stop at the window to enjoy their presence for a while. Every evening at this time a fox meanders through, so I’m not surprised when he appears stage left, strolling along comfortably, head held high like he owns the place (it belongs to humans, silly fox). He comes to an abrupt stop when he realizes that he’s surrounded by deer. The deer have halted their munching and are watching him with snooty disdain.

Now I comprehend where the phrase “high-tail it out of there” comes from, because the fox does exactly that. In addition, I’ve learned that foxes prefer not to be surrounded by deer. I decide to include this wildlife incident in a blog so my friends will be equally informed.

Tomorrow I’ll go to the new HEB, which opened its doors for the first time this morning. This store has been the main topic of conversation amongst Marble Fallians for at least a year. It apparently has curbside service and ready-to-prepare meal kits. Over the last month, as the old store emptied out, anticipation has grown to a preposterous level. Some of the women in yoga were there when the door opened at six a.m. They spent the first few minutes of our time praising the layout, the bright lights, the cooking demonstrations at every juncture, and the thoughtful provision of maps.  

Get a grip, people. It’s a grocery store.

 An excellent winter shirt to be worn under sweaters for soft warmth. 

An excellent winter shirt to be worn under sweaters for soft warmth. 

 You can't tell it from this picture, but this shopping cart is twenty feet tall. Things are CRAZY at the new HEB.

You can't tell it from this picture, but this shopping cart is twenty feet tall. Things are CRAZY at the new HEB.

 I got a nice email from a reader in New Zealand today. She picked up  Old Buildings  at the library and loved it so much that she ordered  Why Stuff Matters  online. It feels weird that my work is in the library in Christchurch, but it's not available here; a situation which will be remedied in April. 

I got a nice email from a reader in New Zealand today. She picked up Old Buildings at the library and loved it so much that she ordered Why Stuff Matters online. It feels weird that my work is in the library in Christchurch, but it's not available here; a situation which will be remedied in April. 

 

 

 

 

The COLD

I haven’t been to a dentist in close to ten years. This is because lounging back while someone pokes at my perfect teeth is a waste of time and money. I brush and floss every time I put food in my mouth. Every dentist I’ve ever seen has been in awe.

For the last couple of years I’ve been telling myself that I should probably make an appointment to get them cleaned by a professional, but if there’s one thing I do well, it’s procrastinate. Eventually I became annoyed with my habit of considering action rather than taking action; so I called the dentist David goes to and made an appointment for this afternoon.

The dentist’s office calls.

“We need to reschedule,” a woman informs me.

“Why?” I ask, irked because it took genuine volition to make the appointment in the first place; also, I’ve arranged my schedule around it. We went to Houston last week instead of this week because of it. When a friend invited me to run to Bee Cave with her today, I said no. Because of THE APPOINTMENT, which is now CANCELLED.

“Because of the COLD,” she tells me. “We don’t want to put our patients or our staff in danger.” She’s taken on a prissy tone.

Danger from cold? You put on a coat and go. What’s dangerous?

Yesterday, when I stopped by the grocery store for wine and dinner, the parking lot was packed. People were cruising around and around, trying to find a space. I lucked into one. A friend of mine stood at the entry to the store. Fretful and disheveled, she waved me over.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Why all the people?”

“Don’t go in there!” She gives a wild-eyed grimace toward the interior. “It’s a zoo. There’s nothing on the shelves, the people are crazy; and look, there are no carts.” I look: no carts.

“But why?”

“Because of the COLD!”

Is there a store rule against using shopping carts when the temperature drops below freezing?

The COLD has caused the Y to close; so no spin class for David.

The yoga studio is also closed. No warriors for me.

Is it cold outside? Yes. Currently twenty-seven degrees. I reckon a person’d die if they wore no winter gear and stayed out in it for a while. But that’s not the plan. The plan is to get into the heated car, drive somewhere, and enter another heated place.

This closing of businesses and schools is a collective wimp-out.

A contagious fear of the temperature.

A mutual indulgence.

A weak excuse for a day off.

“What are you going to do today?” David asks, woeful because he loves his schedule.

“I don’t know. The general population seems to feel that the outdoors is dangerous.”

 “How can that be? There are places way colder than this, and they haven’t closed down.”

“It’s a puzzle.”

My friend, Mary, calls.

“What are you doing today?” she asks, adding, “I’m going to spend the day reading in bed.”

“You should read Why Stuff Matters. It’s exceptional.” A shameless plug.

“It’s so cold outside, I can’t even make myself go near a window. It’s depressing.”

“You’ve seen colder.”

We both grew up in Amarillo, where blizzards blow through every couple of winters. We’ve seen our share of snow-covered cars and roof-high drifts. The only weather event taking place here in Marble Falls is a measly dip on the thermometer. A few plants might freeze. And because of this, people mobbed the grocery store and fear leaving their homes.

David pops his head in while I’m on the phone.

“They’ve cancelled mail delivery on account of the COLD!” he says.

“We live in a ridiculous town,” I tell him.

He turns and goes away.

“I’m going to feel bored and useless all day,” Mary tells me before ending the call.

I’m not bored. Because I’m a writer I always have something entertaining to do. 

 The COLD backyard. This is as far as either of us went from our door today. 

The COLD backyard. This is as far as either of us went from our door today. 

 My teeth. 

My teeth. 


2017 Waldo's Holiday Newsletter

Hi friends and family!

We kicked off the holidays with our annual Open House, which went very well. Over fifty people dropped in to sample David’s delicious eggnog. It’s fun to watch the different groups that we’re involved in interact. A friend from my Mahjong group will know someone who works on the Habitat house; or a friend from church will know someone who’s in Master Gardeners with David. It’s a small community.

Our firstborn, Curtis, is still lawyering in Houston. This year brought big changes for him. He bought a house (inside the Loop of course) and married Anna, a lawyer for Shell. The two are perfect for each other and David and I are happy that they’re happy. The spring wedding took place in Napa, a welcoming town composed of the things I love most—antique shopping, restaurants, winetasting, and historical neighborhoods to explore. We enjoyed the trip.

Here’s what we hear from Sam these days: his business, Mantra, is no longer a fledgling enterprise, as he currently employs five people, and has taken the company international, which means his glasses are now available for order in the US. He’s been living in China for several years and sometimes goes weeks at a time without speaking English. This year he was interviewed by NPR, China; and he has done a Ted Talk, which will be released soon. The glasses and website are classy and innovative. Here’s the website so you can see what he’s been up to:

https://www.findyourmantra.com/

He and his girlfriend, Julia, live in the Hu tong district of Beijing, a tightly packed maze of interconnected dwellings, a trendy area for the millennial ex-pat up-and-comings, and a place the locals want to escape. Julia, a Brit, works for the British Embassy. She’s spunky, smart, beautiful, and she was very helpful when we visited Beijing. We’d like to see more of Sam, which makes me wonder how my parents felt when David and I stayed overseas for years at a time. I never felt like they missed us at all, not the way we miss Sam. On the other hand, what did we expect? We dragged him from country to country: that he decided to follow the same lifestyle is a testament to how much he enjoyed his childhood.

It’s hardly new news, as I’ve been all over Facebook about it, that my second novel, Why Stuff Matters, was published by Arcadia in October. It’s out only in the UK because I met my agent, Helen Mangham of Jacaranda, in Singapore and, as she’s British, her contacts in the industry are also British. Plans are in place, however, to distribute my first book, Old Buildings in North Texas, in the US, which means that, as of April, it will be available here. So, that’s been a milestone. As to how I spend my time when I’m not writing—I abandoned yoga and tried spin class for a couple of years, which I never enjoyed. Now I’ve returned to yoga and am much happier. And I just finished pinning a quilt, which involves crawling around on the floor and using the recently resumed yoga stretches.

Those of you who know David know that he’s a joiner. Two golf groups, Habitat for Humanity, and Master Gardeners keep him busy, plus he enjoys his workouts and spin class at the Y. He works at the Helping Center, a local food bank, on Fridays, the Habitat house on Saturdays, plays golf on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and has been asked to be a mentor for Master Gardeners, which means organizing a lesson once a week. Busy, busy. He gets irritated with me when, every morning, I ask him where he’s off to, as though I should have his schedule memorized. But he’s all over the place. I can hardly be expected to keep up.

That’s us in a nutshell.

Ya’ll have a happy Christmas and a great year to come!

Jen

 Every one of these gift bags holds a bottle of red wine, given to us by people who came to the open house. I guess I've made my preferences known. Thanks, friends. 

Every one of these gift bags holds a bottle of red wine, given to us by people who came to the open house. I guess I've made my preferences known. Thanks, friends. 

 Curtis and Anna at their wedding in Napa. They're fun to hang out with. 

Curtis and Anna at their wedding in Napa. They're fun to hang out with. 

The Lost Slap

When I was little I loved romantic comedies, which gave me false ideas about what a relationship should be. Not to worry, growing out of it was painless. But what’s applicable today is that in the movies there was most often a conflict between the main characters; and while they were battling it out, the woman regularly grew indignant with the man over his insensitivity, or because he grabbed her by the arm or tried to kiss her. And that’s when he’d get THE SLAP.

The lift of an open hand. The pullback and swing. The satisfying slap! as palm meets cheek. Perfectly delivered, a lesson taught. The slap. Why did we lose it and where did it go?

When I was around fourteen the quarterback of the school football team approached me in the hallway and, surrounded by his all-boy entourage, put his hand on my breast and squeezed. Right there, with other students swarming by.

“Soft,” he said, turning and shuffling away, followed by his laughing pals, leaving me stunned, open-mouthed, and humiliated.

Back then I wondered what it was about me that invited it.

But now I wonder why the hell I didn't slap him.

The Women’s Lib movement began as a push for freedom to explore, expand, and to no longer be bound by inhibitions and outdated restrictions; altogether, a worthwhile goal. Oh, and equal pay for equal work. But in the end, the crusade left women thinking that if they wanted to be equal to men they had to act like men. Women became louder and more palpably sexual, which was disconcerting for those of us who were reserved and lacked confidence; but great for men who were no long required to defer to our sensibilities. There would be no more holding doors open or refraining from telling dirty jokes when women were present. What started as a push for autonomy and equal pay ended in a loss of respect for women on all fronts; and there’s still no such thing as equal pay. So it seems we lost it all.

As to the young man who groped me at school, he wasn’t a monster. He was immature, had cohorts to impress, and was probably as confused as everybody else about interactions between the genders. Nevertheless, the act shaped me.

When I got out of college, moved back to Amarillo, and got a job, many of us, men and women, would go for drinks after work. Sometimes I went and sometimes I didn’t. Here’s a joke told to the group by one of the more esteemed supervisors (male; there were no female supervisors) on one of these drink nights:

A sack boy was carrying a middle-aged woman’s groceries to her car.

“I have an itchy pussy,” she told him as they walked along.

“Ma’am," the kid responded, "you’re going to have to point it out. All these Japanese cars look alike to me.”

Isn’t that offensive? It was so disgusting that I still remember it. Everyone laughed uproariously, the women included, though not me; I was always outside, more of an observer. Did all men think that kind of joke was funny? I feared so. Was the women's laughter sincere? I couldn't tell.

Also, at work, there were affairs between married guy bosses and younger female subordinates. Everybody knew. The couples went on double dates. And that’s probably the reason why I chose to stay as far away from a nine-to-five job as I could. I’m timid. I have no idea how to stand up for myself.

But all worked out well for me. I married a nice man whom I’ve never seen disrespect a woman, and, because we lived in so many foreign locations, I never worked outside our home, and therefore wasn’t subjected to the indignities I was certain were a part of my peers’ working world back in America.

And now, as happens with trends, the mess that was left for my generation and our younger sisters is righting itself—or rather, a clutch of defiant women is righting it. The men who have been called out for their crude behavior have received a much-deserved slap.

Careers have been ruined and there’s no doubt that behavior will change. But this groping and advancement in return for sex started long ago. It went on for so long that the creeps thought it was acceptable, that it was their right. Why did we (I stand with all women here) let them get away with it? Why weren’t these accusations trumpeted years ago? Why wasn’t Women’s Lib about that instead of burning bras?

Things would never have come to this if we’d held on to our slap. Perfectly delivered, a lesson taught. When we reclaim our slap, which we're now in the process of doing, let's keep it.

 I have no picture appropriate for this posting, so all you get is a picture of me peeking out from behind a big plant.

I have no picture appropriate for this posting, so all you get is a picture of me peeking out from behind a big plant.

Stopping by Amarillo

I was born and grew up in Amarillo, Texas. Other than my deceased father’s wife, Linda, I don’t know anyone who still lives there. And technically, she doesn’t live in Amarillo; she lives half an hour east, in Washburn, a flat grid composed of dirt roads and small houses in weedy lots.

As the drive from Colorado to Marble Falls will take us through the panhandle, David and I decide that we’ll stop in Amarillo and revisit our old hangouts. Also, Linda is in possession of my father’s photo albums, which hold his favorite memories—pictures from his childhood, report cards from his school days, and the article in the paper announcing his US citizenship. Daddy led an interesting life and I’d like to ask for copies of a few of these things, which I’ll gladly pay for.

I put a signed copy of my latest novel in the back seat, thinking that I’ll be seeing Linda and that she might appreciate it.

“I can’t get hold of her,” I tell David the night before we leave Steamboat Springs. “The number I have for her has been disconnected. I messaged her through Facebook, but she never got back to me. And I don’t have her email.”

“We’ll figure something out when we get there,” he says.

“My cousin said her daughters have been asking for thoughts and prayers on Facebook. Maybe something’s wrong.” How will I ever know if I have no way to reach her? We pack up that night and leave early the next morning.

As we’re getting closer to Amarillo we see things that take us back—Boys’ Ranch, Vega, Cadillac Ranch. The wind farms stretch from the highway to every horizon. Because of the wind that never ceases, the stench from the cattle yard outside of Bushland pushes us eastward.

I haven’t spoken to Linda since Daddy’s funeral. Bad of me, I suppose, but we moved to Kuwait, came back to Houston, moved to Singapore, then came back to Houston. Then we moved to Marble Falls. Being an ex-pat was a self-involved lifestyle and I tended to think only of the person or situation in front of me.  

“I want to drive by Charles Street,” David says. He always refers to his childhood home by the street name, as though he had the run of the whole block instead of just the one house—though I guess this is understandable because, from what he’s told me, he and his neighborhood pals were in and out of each other’s houses constantly.

“And we’ll drive by the house on Fannin, too.” And just saying the street name brings the recollection of a game my sister and I, and all the neighborhood kids played in our front yard on summer evenings. When headlights turned on to the street there was a complex list of tasks to perform and bases to touch before the car reached us; and if we didn’t get it all done in time, we were DEAD.

We spend the night in a hotel on I-40, with a plan to get up and take a nostalgic tour before heading back to Marble Falls. I still haven’t been able to get hold of Linda. I call the hospice care place where her profile says she works, but it no longer exists.

“You want to go out there?” David’s talking about Washburn.

“Getting home is a long drive,” I tell him. “And we don’t know if she’ll even be there. She might have moved.”

So we settle on the plan of going by his house, then my house, then hitting the Canyon Expressway and heading south.

Charles Street has aged elegantly. The trees cast a pleasant shade and every house has flowers in the window boxes and green grass, which is a phenomenon in this part of the world.

“It looks a lot better than when we lived here.” David gets out to take pictures to show his sister and brother.

The route to the house where I grew up becomes rougher and more derelict the closer we get, until, when we turn on to Fannin, I’m appalled.

“It’s like the Third Ward.” It never was the richest part of town, but it’s become a slum. Every house has a lopsided couch in the front yard, or a couple of rusty cars in the driveway, or a refrigerator on the porch. Old broken stuff is everywhere. Hoarders occupy every house on the block, which is profoundly disturbing. I have zero tolerance for clutter.

Our house. My father who, by himself, bricked it in and added a three-story addition, would be horrified to see a truck parked across the front yard, weeds in the raised beds, and foil on the windows. The trim is in awful shape. The garage door doesn’t fully close. There’s a tilting refrigerator over by the fence.

David stops across the street and gets out to take some pictures.

“What kind of people just let things go like this?” I ask him when he gets back in.

“Poor people.”

“People who have meth labs in the basement.” So I’ve taken two hits today. The house I grew up in has become a slum. And I don’t have, and apparently never will have, a single picture of my father.

David sighs. He doesn’t like it when I’m unhappy and he can’t fix it.

“Let’s get back to a civilized land,” I tell him. “Where the HOA doesn’t allow people to throw their ugly old junk in their front yards.”

We head home knowing we’ll probably never see Amarillo again.

 My childhood home. Can you see the refrigerator on the left? The truck is nice. 

My childhood home. Can you see the refrigerator on the left? The truck is nice. 

 My sister, Trina, was once friends with the girl who lived in this house. 

My sister, Trina, was once friends with the girl who lived in this house. 

 David was right. His childhood home looks a lot better now than it did thirty-five years ago. 

David was right. His childhood home looks a lot better now than it did thirty-five years ago. 

 A plea. Please, if you've ordered and read Why Stuff Matters, would you post a review on amazon.co.uk? It'll only take a few minutes and it'll support my book. Thanks. 

A plea. Please, if you've ordered and read Why Stuff Matters, would you post a review on amazon.co.uk? It'll only take a few minutes and it'll support my book. Thanks. 

Beginnings

After I type the last sentence of a manuscript, I have no idea what to do next. So I return to the beginning of the project I just completed and toy with it. I run a spell and grammar check. I fiddle with the chapter titles. And, in fussy mode, I review my characters to make sure I haven’t inadvertently used too many names that start with the same letter. Though this seems superficial, having a cast consisting of Donald, Daisy, Dick, and Drew can be a distraction.

But eventually, though I will long for the familiarity of the finished book and the friends I made there, I must say good-bye and move on.

I tuck the finished work into a file and pull up a white screen. I stare at it for a while, then play a few games of solitaire. For the next few writing sessions, I allow myself to mourn the loss. Solitaire, blank page, solitaire, blank page.

After a few days of this wasteful floundering, I apply a rule, a game of sorts, in which I’m not allowed to push away from the computer until I’ve written something. If I produce no more than a single sentence, at least I’ll have something to get me started the next morning.

Here is an opening that started that way—no story, simply a description of a room that came clearly to mind. I wrote it up and left the computer. Then I spent the day looking forward to returning to it because it wasn’t only about the setting; it was also about the main character, Karen:

Saturday morning, ten o’clock. The strategy room on the DA’s floor of the Caprock Tri-County Courthouse, a corner chamber made inharmonious by the sort of imperfections that make me squirm—a landscape hanging crookedly, a bank of cabinets with two drawers not quite closed, a set of blinds with an uneven slat.

The fact that a few wrongly situated items caused Karen to squirm told me that this was a character I could work with. I imagined a woman with OCD, under constant assault as she navigated her way through a day. To what degree did her OCD affect her relationships and her work? How did she react when she came upon a filthy counter or a misplaced item at the super market? Also, there was the inevitable question—why is Karen at the DA’s office on a Saturday morning? I had to continue writing to find out. 

A time or two, while fretting over getting a new project off the ground, a character has leapt, fully formed, onto the blank screen. A rare gift, this occurrence renders a plot in which the character calls the shots. From the opening of Old Buildings in North Texas, meet Olivia:

Before they’d let me out of rehab someone had to agree to act as my legal custodian. There it is, the snappy truth about why, at the age of thirty-two, I live with my mother. She now has control over every aspect of my life, from my finances to my laundry. One little cocaine-induced heart attack and it’s back to my childhood to start over.

From the moment of her arrival, Olivia pleased me. I knew the color of her hair, her build, and her background. She was furious with herself over her mistakes, and she was admirably devious. She was resourceful and witty. She was arrogant, bitter, and empathetic. She lived with me for a year, and I miss her.

When a starter idea simply isn’t there, I often rely on the most universal topic there is—the weather. This first paragraph is set in Sugar Land, southwest of Houston:

It’s so humid outside that the air molecules are sweating. The sky is churning and burdened, filled with smudged shades of gray. I didn’t realize it was so stormy. I’ll be racing the rain throughout my entire run.   

Is a stormy day interesting enough to pull a reader in? I’m not sure. But an interesting facet of the narrator’s character is found in the last sentence: she is such a slave to her exercise routine that she’s willing to go for a run in a storm. In fact, this discipline eventually reveals a well-meaning martinet, a woman so obsessed with propriety and procedures that she’s unable to communicate with people who aren’t as exacting as she is.

Here’s another kickoff containing weather:

Eddie steps outside the store when the rain begins. There isn’t a cloud in sight, hasn’t been all day. In fact, the sky is so bright and clear that just looking at it causes his eyes to water. The downfall stops as suddenly as it started and, to his delight, the eastern sky presents a double rainbow. You don’t see that every day and he takes it as a sign that something good is about to happen.

But the next thing that happens is the opposite of good—Eddie’s ex-wife shows up.

In Why Stuff Matters, I opened using both factors—the capricious weather and a strong, fully defined personality, Jessica, a grieving widow in charge of the elderly concessionaires in an antique mall. Here’s her voice:

My antique mall is the only building in this part of town that has a basement, so as soon as our county is included in the tornado warning that streams across the bottom of the television screen, I tromp down to the main floor from my third floor living quarters, unlock the front door, and prepare to be overrun for the fourth time this month.

The first chapter ends with Jessica, the main character, standing just inside her glass storefront as she watches a tornado destroy the apartment complex across the street. It’s a dramatic opening that morphs elegantly, unexpectedly, and humorously into a microcosmic revelation concerning humankind’s grasping nature.

It was a pleasure to write about and come to know Jessica. Why Stuff Matters is an unusual and entertaining read, which I think you’ll enjoy.

 A sunny day in Albuquerque.

A sunny day in Albuquerque.

 I've been looking at this book cover a lot this week. It's very attractive. 

I've been looking at this book cover a lot this week. It's very attractive. 

 Taken in Vega, TX. This stuff is of no use whatsoever, but somebody loves it.

Taken in Vega, TX. This stuff is of no use whatsoever, but somebody loves it.

 This is where I went to elementary school. Look at the flags. The only reason for this picture is to show that the wind blows all the time in Amarillo, Texas. 

This is where I went to elementary school. Look at the flags. The only reason for this picture is to show that the wind blows all the time in Amarillo, Texas. 

 I know this blog tour is supposed to be about WHY STUFF MATTERS, but this old house speaks to anyone who's read  OLD BUILDINGS IN NORTH TEXAS. 

I know this blog tour is supposed to be about WHY STUFF MATTERS, but this old house speaks to anyone who's read  OLD BUILDINGS IN NORTH TEXAS.