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. 

Wonderful News!

My new novel, Why Stuff Matters, will be released in the UK on October nineteenth. I’m currently involved in a blog tour, where I write essays and do Q&A’s for different British blogs. I’ve noticed that a few of these blogs have won awards for being stars in literary critique circles, so I have high hopes for good reviews and good sales.

Why Stuff Matters is about a grieving widow, Jessica, who inherits an antique mall from her mother. The elderly people who have booths in the mall are eccentric, cynical, and so acquisitive that they undercut one another, scheme over the possessions of the dead, and, in one case, kill in order to hang on to their stuff. When Lizzie, Jessica’s precocious and larcenous twelve-year-old stepdaughter, is dumped on Jessica’s doorstep, the dynamic between old and young is hilarious. I had so much fun writing it!

And more good news is that my publisher, Arcadia, has such faith in my novels that they’re getting a foot in the door of the American publishing industry by distributing Old Buildings in North Texas in the US starting in April. It’s a bit overwhelming, but also an honor, to be their flagship.

So, as you can see, I’m quite excited by how things are going.

Though I’m busy writing, I’m also traveling.

We are in Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta, which attracts “hundreds of thousands” (quoted from their website) from all over the world, and provides the lion’s share of the annual income for the town and its tourist industry. The weather is gorgeous, the people are nice, and the restaurants, shops, and galleries are interesting. The main event is the Mass Ascension, a designation that holds cultish undertones and rings oddly to the ear. The Mass Ascension takes place on opening morning, when over six hundred balloons float upward from a grassy field at sunrise. It sounds like a magnificent sight.

But Albuquerque messed up.

We get on the hotel shuttle at five-thirty in the morning, which takes us to a park-and-ride in a mall parking lot, where buses will pick us up to take us to the balloon park. When we arrive at the mall our driver is shocked to see a line of two thousand people, three quarters of a mile long.

“This doesn’t look good,” she says, concerned. “I’ve been driving this shuttle for six years and I’ve never seen a crowd like this.”

It’s dark outside, and very cold. Getting to the end of the line is a hike, but spirits are high. Kids still in their pajamas scamper around. Old women huddle beneath blankets. As usual, I haven’t dressed appropriately. Freezing, I tuck myself between David and a man I’ve just met, hoping for vicarious warmth. All around us, strangers talk and laugh with one another. In our conversations with the neighbors in front and back, it’s evident that many have paid for airline tickets and expensive hotels rooms in order to see this one event.

The line is so long and circuitous that the buses we are supposed to board aren’t in sight. The sky grows lighter. We shuffle forward at a pace of twenty yards every five minutes.

At sunrise, seven o'clock, the event that we traveled so far to behold, and got up so early for, takes place twenty minutes away. Twelve hundred people still wait for rides in the mall parking lot. Fury flies through the air.

There is no apology, no acknowledgement that a mistake was made, no explanation, no refund. Speculation abounds among the frustrated and enraged people.

“How did this happen?” Freezing feet stomp hard into the tarmac.

“My ticket’s right here.” Waves the ticket so all can see.

“What do we do now?” A disbelieving whine. This question is applicable. We have been dropped here and have no transportation back to the hotel until nine-thirty.

A common speculation makes its way through the line. This massive error is being blamed on “the computer”. The weak-ass excuse is that “the computer” sent everyone who bought their ticket online to this particular parking lot instead of evenly dividing them between the five other pick-up points. 

I pull out my phone and search for the nearest breakfast place. There’s an Egg and I just up the street. David and I leave the line and head toward the restaurant.

Anyway, the whole situation is rotten, rotten, rotten. It’s left me feeling sour and vindictive toward Albuquerque. Twelve hundred people. Fifteen dollars per prepaid ticket. Eighteen thousand dollars. I hope Albuquerque chokes on it.

This morning we’re on our way to Steamboat Springs in Colorado. 

 Isn't it beautiful? I have a few advance copies and, as the supply lasts, I'll send a signed copy to any friend who promises to post a review on amazon.co.uk.

Isn't it beautiful? I have a few advance copies and, as the supply lasts, I'll send a signed copy to any friend who promises to post a review on amazon.co.uk.

 As you can see from the similar cover design,  Why Stuff Matters  is a partner book to  Old Buildings in North Texas . They both take place in the same town--Caprock, which is the setting of many of my novels, and is based on my hometown, Amarillo, Texas.  

As you can see from the similar cover design, Why Stuff Matters is a partner book to Old Buildings in North Texas. They both take place in the same town--Caprock, which is the setting of many of my novels, and is based on my hometown, Amarillo, Texas.  

 I was happy on the day before the fiasco.  

I was happy on the day before the fiasco.  

The Glacier Experience

David wants to go to Glacier National Park, so that’s what we do.

On our first morning in Glacier we take a Red Bus Tour, thinking it’ll be a good way to learn about the park and get a feel for the various hikes. Hiking is basically all there is to do here. Having done no research, I packed cold weather clothes. To my dismay, the temperature is in the eighties; but honestly, the word glacier is in the name of the place, so cold weather is a given. Yet I smolder in my sweaters, jeans, thick socks, and hiking boots while everyone else runs around sleeveless and in shorts and sandals. It’s not the first time I've been inappropriately clothed and it won’t be the last.

The air smells of smoke. And the sky, which should be a blinding blue is, instead, a hazy gray. Our bus driver/guide tells about the Sprague Fire, which has closed a portion of the park. The fire started a couple of months ago when a tree was struck by lightning. So far it’s taken out thirteen thousand acres. 

“It’s what nature does,” our guide merrily informs. “The fire renews the forest.” He sounds like he’s in love with fire.

The tour takes us up the Going to the Sun Highway, a motorway made up of switchbacks overlooking steep cliffs, filling me with the horrifying knowledge that we’re going to fall over the edge and die. But instead of dying we arrive at Logan’s Lodge, which marks the Continental Divide. Above us, smoke. Below us, smoke. There’s much talk of bears, moose, and mountain-climbing goats, but a goat could cross a hundred feet in front of us and we’d be unable to see it. 

“No one seems concerned about this fire at all,” I tell David.

“Part of the experience,” he says.

The first day the smoke is bearable. The second day it’s less so. By the third day the sun isn’t visible and our fellow hikers wear filter masks. Our rental car is covered in ash. People doggedly go about the business of enjoying their vacations. There are mountains all around us, but we can’t see them.

As advised by friends, we spend four nights in West Glacier in Apgar village, and three nights in East Glacier, at St. Mary’s Lodge. Both cost as much as a four star hotel room, but they definitely aren’t that.

In Apgar the cabin we stay in has a ceiling so low that we can touch it—and we are not tall people. The shower is so tight that I bump my elbows every time I turn. The toilet paper is like wax paper. The sheets are clean, but the fabric is pilled. There is a one-person-at-a-time kitchen. Taped to one of the cabinets is a note asking us to please wash the dishes. I don’t give this much thought until it’s time to go and I run tepid water over the cups and silverware and stick them in the drainer.

“I hope the last tenant did a better job washing the dishes than I did,” I say.

“I don’t think expecting the paying customers to be responsible for cleaning the dishes for the next people is a wise policy,” is David’s response.

When it’s time to move from Apgar to St. Mary’s we stop for a hike at Two Medicine. As I’m standing in the restroom line, the woman in front of me mentions that she’s been staying at St. Mary’s and is now on her way to Apgar.

“How was St. Mary’s?” I ask. “We’re going to be there tonight.”

“They charge way too much for what it is,” she says.

I like the room at St. Mary’s Lodge better than the cabin in Apgar. It has a television and a comfortable shower and the sheets are softer. With no kitchen, though, and only a couple of restaurants in the area . . . oh well, we didn’t come here for the cuisine. This part of the park, too, is full of smoke. I’ve begun to cough, my nose is bleeding, and my eyes are red and burning.

When David asks at the front desk where the nearest liquor store is, the man tells us that the Canadian border is only twenty minutes away.

“Let’s go to the duty free and get some Grey Goose for the room,” David suggests. So that’s what we do.

“Why are you coming to Canada?” the border guard asks as she examines our passports.

“We’re going to the Duty Free,” David tells her, pointing across the street to the white square building with signage that declares Beer! Souvenirs! Cigarettes! Duty Free!

The woman grunts acknowledgement and returns the passports.

We drive across the street, park, go in and find our Grey Goose. The clerk, a woman in her early twenties, is the only other person in the shop. After David pays, he grabs the bottle to carry it out, but the clerk stops him.

“I have to deliver it to you,” she explains as she takes a choking grasp of the neck of  our Grey Goose. “Just drive over there and wait beneath those trees.” She points to a cluster of thin trees thirty yards away, just beyond the border station. Though we’re familiar with the procedures involved in buying duty free, this seems unnecessarily clandestine.

We get in our car. She follows us out and, clutching our bottle, clambers into a van. We drive across the street with the van following close behind. She has left the shop unattended, which goes against every known retail directive; but, as nobody but the border guard is in sight, I guess the shop is safe from marauders. But still, what would she have done if there had been other customers in the store? We circle behind the Canadian border office and come to a stop beside the three scrawny trees. There’s a sign posted on one of the trees that says DUTY FREE PICKUP AREA. The clerk gets out, approaches David’s window, hands him the Grey Goose, and tells us to have a nice evening. She gets in her van and drives back across the street.

Sometimes rules force people to act in absurd ways. Bewildered, we chuckle all the way back to our room in St. Mary’s, where we sip Grey Goose from plastic cups and watch the coverage of Hurricane Irma.

DSCN0859.JPG
 Smokey!

Smokey!

 This cute little bar was forty miles from anything. We ate a really nice lunch here. 

This cute little bar was forty miles from anything. We ate a really nice lunch here. 

 In taking this picture, David slipped on the rocks and scraped his arm pretty badly. 

In taking this picture, David slipped on the rocks and scraped his arm pretty badly. 

 Every once in a while the air would clear for a few minutes. 

Every once in a while the air would clear for a few minutes. 

 Everybody on the hiking trail was offering to take pictures of everybody else on the trail. 

Everybody on the hiking trail was offering to take pictures of everybody else on the trail. 

Action on the Hogs

“Are you going to the meeting with the hog trapper?” Curtis asks me.

He and Anna are staying with us because of Hurricane Harvey. Their neighbors have informed them that their Houston home isn’t under water, so they’re relieved about that. Now they’re anxious to get back to their own space, but heading in that direction at this point would be unthinkable.

On the other hand, the weather in Houston has resulted in a gentle rain for Marble Falls, a benign soaking at the end of a two-month drought. But just because we’re happy to have the rain doesn’t mean that if I walk up the street to talk about hogs, I won’t end up getting wet.

“I’m considering it,” I respond. “A person who traps hogs for a living is bound to be interesting. But what should I wear?” It’s not my appearance that concerns me; it’s the question of rain gear. Will an umbrella be enough, or should I don my quick-dry pants, hiking boots, and a poncho? It depends on so many things—the angle of the rain, the length of the meeting, the temperature.

“It’s wet out there,” he says. “I, too, am curious about catching hogs.”

"If you get wet you can always get dry again,” is David’s reasonable contribution.

Though the hog damage in our yard has been minimal, David has been concerned about the nighttime prowling of the hogs, especially after the destructive swine completely wiped out a neighbor’s lawn. Sad, too, because her grass was the greenest and most weed-free in the cul-de-sac.

Anna is reading and wants to stay dry, so she chooses not to meet the hog catcher, though she assures us that she's with us in spirit. At one o’clock David, Curtis, and I walk up the street and hang out in front of our neighbor’s savaged lawn. I decided that an umbrella is enough in the way of rain protection, though the lower portion of my jeans is already damp.

Always happy to help, David takes some pictures of the destruction. The homeowner and her boyfriend come out to greet us.

“I’m sorry about your lovely grass,” I tell her.

“I saw the hogs last night around ten. They’re big, like over two hundred pounds.” Using hand and arm gestures, she shows how tall they are, and how big around. “And then they were out here again this morning around five.”

She and her friend introduce themselves to Curtis. And I’m shallow enough to feel pride because he’s tall and broad-shouldered and is wearing a Columbia Law t-shirt.

The man who lives across the street meanders over.

“I want to meet this hog trapper,” he says.

Apparently we aren’t the only ones who are bored with playing backgammon and discussing the rain.

A big red truck drives by.

“I bet that’s him,” I say. He slows and looks at us but doesn’t stop. He's sporting a home-cut mullet. See? Intriguing from the get-go.

A friendly couple from further up the street arrives.

“I want to get a look at this hog trapper,” the wife says. “I have questions.”

“They’re hitting our grass every night,” the husband says. “But our damage isn’t as bad as this.” He looks at the pitiful state of the woman’s yard and shakes his head, which causes the rest of us to do the same. She’s going to have to redo her entire lawn.

The red truck pulls up again, this time from the opposite direction. Our hog trapper emerges, approaches, and introduces himself. We circle around him like he’s a celebrity. In addition to the disastrous hair, he wears a t-shirt with the sleeves cut out, making room for his fleshy biceps. The shirt says Port Aransas across the front, an indication that he stands in sympathy with the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Also, several of his front teeth are missing, a clue that he’s been in a bar fight or two.

“Oh yeah,” he says, shaking his head sadly as he views the plowed-up grass. “You got hogs alright.”

“How’s this going to work?” asks a neighbor.

“I’ll put out a couple of cages. I’ll give you my number and when you get one, give me a call and I’ll come get it. I have to come all the way from Burnet, so I won’t just stop by every day to check.” Burnet’s twenty minutes up the highway.

“What about other animals getting in the cages?” someone else asks.

“Oh, I’ve caught a deer or two, and you don’t want that. There’s a quick release. Just unhook the door and the deer’ll run on out.”

“How long will the cages be here?”

“A month should do it, just to make sure we got ’em all. I’ll just go get the traps now.”

He heads back to his truck, gets in, and drives away. The group disperses.

“I’m confused,” I say as the three of us head home. “If he was called here to set traps, why didn’t he bring the traps?”

“I guess he’s got his own way of doing things,” David says.

“Showing up to trap without the traps is inefficient.” Inefficiency disturbs me in all its forms.

“Maybe he came from somewhere else.” This from Curtis, who seems satisfied with the meeting. “He seems to know all about catching hogs.”

But I’m not satisfied. There are questions that weren’t asked and answered.

“How does he get a heavy hog out of the cage and to the meat processing plant?” I ask. “It’s not like he can just ask it nicely to please get in his truck. Also, what do they do with the meat? Do they call it local pork and ship it to the grocery stores? Or do they put it in dog food? And what drew the hogs here in the first place?”

“All will be made clear in time,” David philosophizes.

Huh. In order for this to be made clear I’ll have to observe this procedure from front to finish. Don’t lose sleep over this; when I find out how he gets the beasts from the cages to the slaughterhouse, and what they do with the meat, I’ll let you know.

 Everything you're looking for in a real live hog trapper!

Everything you're looking for in a real live hog trapper!

 Look at the damage! You can tell by the grass that hasn't been ruined that this was a really nice lawn. 

Look at the damage! You can tell by the grass that hasn't been ruined that this was a really nice lawn. 

 The cage. I'll post a picture on Facebook if they ever catch a hog.

The cage. I'll post a picture on Facebook if they ever catch a hog.

 

 

           

            

Courageous or Rude?

The woman sitting next to me at the Mahjong table tells me that I get on her nerves. I’m not surprised that she finds me annoying, but I am surprised that she would say so. We have a regular group of about twenty women, and if we all start sharing what we truly think about one another the outcome will be disastrous.

“What about me gets on your nerves?” I ask impassively, with no intention of altering my persona to suit her sensibilities.

“You say things most people wouldn’t say,” she tells me, pressing her lips together as though she’s eaten something sour.

Well, there’s no arguing with that. I know myself; and I am outspoken. I could point out to her that I have a delightful sense of the absurd, and that while she finds me audacious, there are some who think I’m fun. Although, as she doesn’t comprehend humor, this would be a waste of words. I decide that I will avoid her when I can; but as we have a rotation, playing with her every once in a while is ineluctable.

And so, a couple of months after she tells me that I get on her nerves, I’m once again sitting next to her over a set of tiles. I’m coming from another table where I had an impressive Mahjong, having had a pure concealed hand (no jokers, can’t pick up tiles from the discards), which means that the original thirty-cent win is doubled. And, as East, I rolled doubles at the beginning of play, so it doubles again. Also, the person who gave me the winning tile must double that. I made enough off that one hand to buy a couple of tacos!

So it’s understandable that I’m in a merry mood when I arrive at the table where the repressive woman sits. Soon, without realizing it, I allow her dour attitude to effect my mood. I become serious, sinking into a thoughtful mien. We all play quietly and quickly, only speaking to name our tiles as we put them out.

But the woman who told me I make her nervous is the one who’s getting on my nerves today. Every time she discards a tile, her hand returns to her mouth and she picks at the space between two of her lower teeth. She makes little sucking noises as she digs.

I look around the table to see if anyone else has noticed.

My eyes meet those of the woman across from me. She grins, raises a brow, and gives an upward chin jerk, a silent communication meaning “I dare you.” She knows me well. I look to the woman on the other side of me. She looks like she’s about to throw up.

Sip! Sip! Sip! goes the woman who apparently needs to floss.

I can’t concentrate on the game. The only thing for her to be excavating like that is old food. The longer it goes on the more grossed out I become.  

Every one of us has her spit on our fingers.

Realizing that I’m close to an outburst, I take a few calming breaths and contemplate the state of our politically correct society. We are so afraid of speaking out when someone is acting offensively, that we’d rather put up with it than say anything.

Sip! Sip! Sip!

Okay, I’m done.

“Stop it,” I tell the cavewoman abruptly, but without rancor.

“What?” She straightens as though she’s been poked.

“Think about what you’re doing.” People should be mindful. Does she not know where she is? Does she not pay attention to herself?

“What?” she asks. “What am I doing?” I guess not.

“You’re picking at your teeth and touching the tiles. It’s revolting.”

“Oh. Well, I have something caught in my teeth.”

I give her a look.

“I’m sorry,” she says, humbled.

I shouldn’t have said anything. Why, oh why, do I always speak up? Now the other women will think I’m intolerant, overly critical, and tactless. They’ll be reluctant to sit with me, for fear I’ll point out some mortifying flaw.

Furthermore, the inherent consequence of all this civil sensitivity is a her-or-me conundrum. Do I say something that will embarrass someone and hurt her feelings; or do I refrain, to my own detriment? Most, I think, would choose to sacrifice their own wellbeing rather than take a stand. But not me, which is why I got on her nerves in the first place.

Play resumes. She doesn’t do it again. A few minutes later, when she leaves our table to go to the next one, I hear her tell her new opponents that she needs a few minutes before she can play because she’s got to go clean her teeth.

“You’re ballsier than I am,” the woman across from me says.

“I feel sick,” from the woman sitting next to me.

“She’s moved on and we’re left playing with spitty tiles,” I say in a tone fraught with indignation.

The three of us pull hand sanitizer from our purses. A new player joins us and we offer her some hand sanitizer, too.

The tiles don’t speak to me for the rest of the afternoon.

 I have no pictures to represent the blog, so this is how I look these days. 

I have no pictures to represent the blog, so this is how I look these days. 

 I found this guy on my floor when I got home from the grocery store. I feel the same sort of revulsion when I look at him as I did when Cavewoman picked her teeth. 

I found this guy on my floor when I got home from the grocery store. I feel the same sort of revulsion when I look at him as I did when Cavewoman picked her teeth. 

Austin, TX

I have a hankering for lamb vindaloo, and Marble Falls has no Indian restaurant, so David and I decide to spend the weekend in Austin. Our hotel, the downtown Sheraton, has been taken over by a grief recovery convention. The participants wear matching t-shirts and their motto, hanging on a banner in the lobby, is “Good Grief,” which I think is a clever play on words. Considering that it’s a grief group, there’s a lot of laughter and echoing good cheer.

“They don’t sound like they’re grieving to me,” I say with a judgmental snort.

“What does grief sound like?” is David’s response.

We get settled into the room. I’m still wearing my yoga clothes from this morning, and my hair is flat and stringy, so there is much work to be done. Though I’m aware that every restaurant in Austin is casual, I prefer not to go out looking like a wilted slob. David watches golf on television while I improve my appearance.

He has made a reservation for Saturday night at The Clay Pit. Parking is always a problem in Austin and this restaurant that holds a hundred people provides only ten parking places. We park two blocks away and it’s raining outside; but it’s a light rain, we have umbrellas, and walking is good for the soul. If we’d driven around more we would have seen the parking garage right across the street.

We’re led to our table, which is in the cellar.

“The ceilings are low,” our host warns as he leads us down. “And the stairs are rough and crooked, so be careful.” I follow just behind and above his head, which is a bald dome with puny Rasta strands hanging limply from his nape. The effect is so disastrous that it’s difficult to look away.

The beam at the base of the stairs is indeed low, but David and I aren’t overly tall, so it’s no problem. And I have the joy of being placed in the perfect spot to watch people descend and bump their heads, which many do. I chuckle every time. David asks for a martini and I ask for a glass of Malbec. After our drinks arrive, we peruse the menu. David orders Chicken Mughlia and I, as anticipated, order the Lamb Vindaloo. This turns out to be the best Indian food we’ve ever had, including actual Indian food in India. Thanks to our friend, Tere, for the recommendation. 

The place is lively, full of glowing energetic young people. This is something we miss. The majority of the citizenry of Marble Falls is old and rendered dull and slow moving by arthritic pain. But in a town populated by college students, the enthusiasm never dies.

The next morning we take a sweaty walk up Eleventh, through the grounds of the capitol, which contains monuments to represent every historical event and the three ethnic groups that influenced Texas history (Latino, Caucasian, African American; sorry, Asians, you weren’t here yet). I take a picture of the statue of the longhorns because I’m currently writing a novel about a longhorn stampede, a happy coincidence.

From there it’s down South Congress, along Lake Austin, returning to Eleventh on Trinity, and back to the hotel where we get ready for brunch at Geraldine’s, located on the fourth floor of the Hotel Van Zandt. Right away we learn something unexpected, which is that we cannot be served bloody marys before noon unless there is food on the table.

“What?” I ask the waitress. “I’ve had brunch in Austin many times and I recall always getting my bloody mary before the food came.”

She shrugs, saying, “It’s the law. But I can bring you a couple of biscuits so there’ll be food on your table and then you can have your drinks.”

We accept this solution and she walks off.

“That’s crazy,” David says, truly appalled by this astonishing rule.

“What a weird arbitrary law.” I am flummoxed. When did this law get passed? What is the thought behind it? Who told lawmakers to pass such a law?

The couple at the next table sympathizes with our confusion. Apparently they encountered the same situation and had the same reaction.

“Our tax dollars at work,” the husband says with a disapproving click of his tongue.

“But what prompted this law?” I ask.

“Maybe they don’t want people getting boozy when they should be in church.” The man smirks.

“But that’s not for them to say. And how does the order of the arrival of food and drink at the table pertain to anything?” I’m getting worked up. It’s absurd to think that people up the street in the capitol building believe they have a say in when I can drink a bloody mary—well, they obviously do have a say. I force myself to take a breath in and let it out. The biscuits arrive, along with the bloody marys. The couple at the next table wishes us a good day and departs. 

Later, on the way home on I-35, traffic slows way down.

“There’s a wreck up there,” I tell David. “This is about rubbernecking.”

Ambulances whiz by on the other side of the highway. Four frighteningly smashed-up cars block the opposite lanes. Looking at the crushed cars, I’m sure people are dead or dying from this accident. Up ahead police vehicles block trucks and cars, keeping them from entering this portion of the highway, directing them to a two-lane flyover. Unmoving traffic is backed up for miles and miles.

“Those people are going to be trapped in their cars for hours,” David says.  

The highway system in Austin is notoriously confusing.

“This was a nice little break,” I say. "Although spending an overnight in pursuit of food seems indulgent."

“First thing I’m going to do when I get home is water the plants.”

 Our state capital is lovely.

Our state capital is lovely.

 Longhorns on the capitol grounds!

Longhorns on the capitol grounds!

 Best Indian food in the world!

Best Indian food in the world!

 Don't expect a bloody mary if there's no food on the table.

Don't expect a bloody mary if there's no food on the table.

 Geraldine's is so pretentious that they delivered our bill in an antique book. The food was excellent, as was the bloody mary.

Geraldine's is so pretentious that they delivered our bill in an antique book. The food was excellent, as was the bloody mary.

Now Available

My novel, Old Buildings in North Texas, is now available on Audible—or should that be in Audible? This doesn’t mean a lot to me, as I tend to read books rather than listen to them, but my husband, David, assures me that this is a good thing.

“The more avenues for selling, the better the exposure,” he tells me.

Well, there’s no arguing with that. He sits at his computer and explores the Audible website as I hover behind, impatient that I’ve been summoned from another part of the house to watch him slide his mouse around. 

Audible, it turns out, is an entity you have to join, which right away gets me ruffled because, as a general rule, I’m not a joiner.

“You pay a monthly fee,” David explains, “and you download the audio versions of whatever books are available in this format.”

He decides it’s great, pays up, and becomes an Audible member.

We only recently joined the Boat Club, and now he’s joined something else, which I think borders on making too many commitments. Is it wise to go around impulsively joining things? Must we now join a club for books being read to us instead of reading them for ourselves? What’s he going to join next?

“Will you have to swear an oath to be a member of this club?” Sometimes clubs make you recite promises you’ll never keep. I fear that it’ll be the Mother Candle initiation all over again. 

“It’s a book club. No oaths, no promises.”

“And with this monthly fee can you download as many books as you want?”

“Of course not. Then people would join for a single month and unload years’ worth of reading.”

“But it’s not really reading is it?”

“Let’s just see what happens.” He’s much better at “wait and see” than I am.

He calls up the sample of Old Buildings and we listen as a woman I don’t know reads the first few paragraphs. Her voice is of a similar pitch to mine, so it’s not jarring. Her pace is relaxed and even, though she lacks my Texas accent which, as some who’ve listened to the podcast available on my website know, either lends authenticity or, as others might say, is relentlessly distracting.

“Do you know anybody who listens to these Audible books?” I ask.

“I imagine lots of people, like commuters or painters.”

“Painters? What kind of painter—artistic or someone who paints your house?”

“Either one.”

And now I’m wondering about this person who narrates my book. I’ve been informed of her name, Sally Vahle, so I return to my own computer and look her up online. She was born in Minnesota, grew up in Wisconsin, has had small parts in a few movies I’ve seen, and is active in the theatre community in Dallas. I think she was a good choice. I hope she enjoyed my novel.

One advantage that’s clear is that, though Old Buildings in North Texas was published in the UK, on Audible it’s readily available in the US. Also, Audible has generously given me ten promo codes to use for publicity. As I did when Old Buildings was first published, I will happily give these promo codes to anyone who’s a member of Audible, or intends to join, in exchange for reviews on the Audible website.  

 Here they come again! It's a pretty book, isn't it? If you haven't read it yet, here's an opportunity to get it from Audible Books. 

Here they come again! It's a pretty book, isn't it? If you haven't read it yet, here's an opportunity to get it from Audible Books.