Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Personally, I’m glad to see 2008 on its way out. Beyond the politics, Hurricane Ike, the financial meltdown and all war-related issues, we were diminished by the loss of two close associates and friends, Drew MacWilliam and Marjorie Arsht. Over the past several years, I’d spent more time with them than with anyone else I know, except my husband, so their loss created a considerable void at the center of my life.

In fact, looking forward to 2009, I find myself a little intimidated. We have no idea of the new challenges we will encounter and I feel a little panicky, just thinking about them.

So, instead, I try to focus on small things—like finding a way to make sweat pants attractive. Or getting my business and personal files in order. Maybe this will be the year those things happen.

And exercise! That’s a verb, not a noun—a distinction I keep fudging.

I hope to make more time for creative work. Short stories. Try to complete 10, maybe, that I’m not ashamed to show people. Is that too small a goal?

Of course, in a serious vein, I pray for my husband’s continued good health, and my own, and that of all our family and close associates and friends, including those who blog. And I hope to attain for myself an outlook that embraces optimism and serenity, and allows me to discover both of these in the midst of whatever else may be going on.

That latter goal is why, right now--on New Year’s Eve--I’m trying to look past the artificial marks of the calendar. Instead, I’m thinking of today, as just that—today, a sunlit Wednesday. Tomorrow is tomorrow, Thursday. And after that comes Friday and the weekend. (I love weekends.) Night falls, day blooms once more, winter offers its mild interludes, prophesying spring, and so on. These are the measures the earth provides, as it moves around the sun. Like the world, itself, they carry no lines or numbers or man-made demarcations.

See? Already, I’m feeling better.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Some road shots

Driving back from Round Top this afternoon, I decided to go have a look at the new cell phone tower. We know folks on Kneipp Road who can probably see the thing from their front porch. I hope I'm wrong. It's just a cell tower, but still...

The following are two scenes that caught my eye as I drove--the first because it is what it is, a chimney and fireplace that have survived when the house around them has disappeared.

The second one interested me because of the geometric shapes.

Monday, December 29, 2008


The bovines here seem emblematic of a kind of friendship, looking out as one upon the moving world beyond the fence. Or perhaps they are mother and daughter.

In any event, following a visit from an old dear friend this weekend, I’ve been thinking about friendship, the kind we have in a world where families are fragmented and people dispersed thousands of miles from where they were born. This circumstance has been more the rule than the exception for my generation, and those born even a decade or so before me.

One result, of course, is that it has become difficult to stay involved in the lives of friends, particularly the friends of one’s youth.

Maybe it was inevitable that the internet would spring up to collapse those distances with an ease not dreamed of by my immigrant grandmother, who did her connecting with pen and paper. She wrote letters every day, to siblings and cousins in France and Germany, to best friends from school even though one of them lived in Hong Kong, and the other had become a nun in Tennessee. She wrote letters to her four daughters, wherever they were, and the circulation of these letters provides for her descendants a window into the world they inhabited.

We today use email, and we blog. We find new friends, blogging, and the connection does a great deal to fill the holes left by the distances we have moved across the planet in our diaspora of prosperity and commerce.

So when the chance arrives to spend time with a childhood friend, it’s both rare and extraordinarily special.

My friend Donna lived two streets away from me in high school. We played basketball, tennis, and other sports together; we carpooled; together in my car, we snuck into Rice University to visit her boyfriend; I was there the morning after her dad—brandishing his shotgun—ran off a carload of boys intent on wrapping her trees with toilet paper. He’d grown tired of removing this emblem of adolescent popularity. Later, I lent her the first SLR she’d used, and she quickly surpassed me in her photographic skill. We married very different men, and for a long time we lived quite different lives less than two blocks apart on the eastern side of the neighborhood where we grew up. She moved away, finally.

Then, when LH and I began to live parttime in Santa Fe, there she was, with her second husband, Walt. After half a lifetime, two marriages and one divorce each, we reconnected. We see each other now in bursts, when grandchildren bring her and Walt to Texas. And at those times, we find ourselves moving forward in conversations deepened by references both of us—and few others—understand. There is considerable comfort to this, and to the way we can see the other shining through the changes time has wrought upon our exteriors. She remains each incarnation of the self she has been over time, and I can only hope I am the same for her.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Howdy and Co.

Some old dear friends, passing through, stayed with us last night and gave our guest area, otherwise known as my office, a particularly good test. That's because they brought their dog, a Labradoodle named Howdy, and he spent the night up there with them, navigating our narrow steep staircase with aplomb.

Howdy is a Labrador crossed with a poodle, the offspring of which is crossed again with a poodle. The resulting pup bears a designation involving letters and numbers, but the reality is the most adorable big dog you'll ever want to see.

Really big, folks.

He has a Labrador-sized head, with curly fur on it, which makes a truly impressive spectacle. And he is fast. He had many opportunities to indulge his speed, as we have a considerable assortment of lethargic rabbits and squirrels who have grown lazy under the disinterested gaze of Bronte.

When he wasn't out chasing these creatures, he made sure to keep an eagle eye out for any interlopers who might dare to trespass. We thought he looked just like a boy in a dog suit. Click on the images to see why.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Turkey for hire

Companies I work with were generous this Christmas. Please note the amazing flower arrangement behind the less colorful, but surely more tasty, smoked turkey, above.

Problem is, LH is on a lowest sodium possible diet, so smoked turkey is OUT.

I'm trying to find a worthy home for this delicious hickory smoked item from New Braunfels Smokehouse. I tried a church in Brenham, no answer. Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Round Top suggested AMEN in LaGrange, but they're closed until Monday.

Anyone got any ideas???

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Books

This year, for the second time, we decided to give only books to each other for the holiday. That's right. Books from Brazos Bookstore in Houston. Brazos is one of the last remaining independent bookstores, and at the holiday season, it is absolutely stuffed with wonderfulness. (I say that even though I have a small ownership interest in the store which might prejudice me somewhat.)

I thought some people might be interested in what books we actually gave and received.

Hale, for example, has been immersed all morning in National Geographic: The Photographs. I was in the store hoping for inspiration when the cover of this little book jumped out at me. It's the famous closeup photograph of the Afghan Girl, the one with the striking green eyes that was everywhere in the media a few years ago. On the back cover, there's a similarly posed photograph of the same person, a mother now, and seeing the change is quite moving.

We each gave the other Philip Roth's new book, Indignation. (Obviously, we don't coordinate.) I got Toni Morrison's A Mercy, along with the theory of light and matter, by Andrew Porter (an award-winning collection of short stories), Kathy Huber's book on Texas Flower Gardens, and a lovely book on home decor called Casa San Miguel.

I gave Hale John Le Carre's new one, A Most Wanted Man; also, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, the Untold History of English by John McWhorter and The Widows of Eastwick, by John Updike.

None of these choices are shots in the dark, of course, but rather books chosen out of a thousand references to subjects of interest over the year. How could one ask for a more personal gift than that, or one that will give more lasting pleasure?

Now to find space in our bookshelves...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Day Before Christmas

(Please note that the day's installments are posted at the bottom of the earlier entry.)

Our day began with mud, glorious mud. We've been having rain showers. Rain at any time, even Christmas Eve, is so welcome, after the awful drought.

The homely Christmas tree is damp. The boughs for the wreath and garland are damp. So while I wait for them to dry a bit, I'm blogging. In installments. Blogging the day as the mess in our little house turns into Christmas, however small.

I hope.

It occurred to me to do this, since we're spending our first Christmas in the country, and it's just the two of us, my husband and I. Son and daughter-in-law are spending the holiday chained to the workplace in NYC, so I thought I'd give them a virtual day of Christmas prep down here. Just think of all they're missing!

So this is the first installment: the tree:

Installment #2, two p.m.

Presents are wrapped, and the wreath that goes on the fence by the gate is up. This is a storebought wreath with the only red ribbon they had left. It does not pay to decorate for Christmas this close to the day itself. The nursery in Brenham had discarded all their live trees and greenery on Monday. We arrived on Tuesday and got fakes. Real fakes, in any event. No pretense about that. (The yucca isn't fake, though.)

Now Installment #3, at four p.m.--the wreath, clearly handmade, including handmade bow. Once I took a test in which one of the components was a measurement of digital dexterity. Out of a possible 100, I scored seven, and they counselled me to avoid clothes with buttons. Also, not to expect much when making things like wreaths and bows.

Our final installment, at 8:30 p.m., is the little tree with little decorations, and not too many of them. Please note the necklace of cranberries! We are pooped, and so, a very Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! (Did someone else say that somewhere? It sounds familiar...)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hunker Down

Perhaps because of the unusual cold lately in Texas, some of the resident animals have decided to lie down on the job.

December View:

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Homemade Decorations

I had the best intentions. Our homely cedar tree, cut from the bank of our own pond would wear popcorn chains and cranberry necklaces, in addition to the personal decorations we have grown to love.

So we got a bag of cranberries from the local store. And a bag of popping corn. I started with the berries, which I intended to string while Hale watched the Texans lose to the Raiders.

Fairly quickly, I learned two things: first, these cranberries had been around awhile. They were getting old and soft. Second, my needle was too big.

I had bought an assortment of needles, and some black thread, which I thought would be invisible on the tree. The large needle I began with, however, was so much wider than the thread that the holes leaked. Just a little, but still. You don’t want cranberry juice all over your tree, no matter how homely it may be.

I changed needles. I even managed to thread the tiny thing on the third try.

After an hour and a half of less than galvanizing football I had eighteen inches of strung berries, and I quit.

I hope to do better with the popcorn.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


A workman is taking down a chimney on the house beneath us, brick by brick. He has set his lunch in a handy location, by the roof vent.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I was filling my car today when I looked up and saw this December View.

This was on the corner of a busy intersection (Willowick and San Felipe) at a gas station where I've been trading since I was a small child. I have never seen either the doves or the oranges before.

Today's temp was 75, but freezing is predicted for the weekend. I wonder what it will do to the oranges...

Then the sun came out:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

We remain in Houston, where Kirby Drive has become a no-drive zone. Not that half the world isn't trying.

Between Richmond and Westheimer, parts of the street have been ripped away. There are concrete barriers reducing the lanes on each side to two. A very tall condo nears completion on the east side. A large mixed use complex proceeds on the west side. Trucks protrude partway into the traffic. Cranes swing overhead. Side streets are closed for re-paving and businesses have gone bust or moved. It is, to put it mildly, a mess. And it won't be much better when those large structures begin disgorging their residents.

Extricating myself from the snaggle, however, I saw a fine picture. Don't you hate that? A fine picture and no camera on the seat beside you?

A young boy waited for a bus in front of a large bed of roses in the yard that once belonged to former mayor Bob Lanier. He was leaning against the brick wall talking in a pleasantly absorbed way into his cell phone, while tangerine roses fanned out behind his head. Nice.

Instead of that scene, however, here is my December View for today. Another lingering remnant of Hurricane Ike, taken yesterday:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cling, clang

I was trudging into the Walgreen's pharmacy this afternoon when I spotted the guy, a tall African-American man of middle age, with a cheerful face. He was positioned next to his Salvation Army stand immediately beside the entrance. Ringing his bell, he greeted customers with a resonant "Merry Christmas!"

This year Houston has been hard hit, with Ike, followed by the downturn everyone is experiencing, so I reached into my purse and grabbed a bill. A woman overtook me and pushed her donation into the can, and I followed suit.

As she passed through the door, the Santa reached over and hugged me. "If you'll take me home with you on Dec 24, I'll cook your Christmas dinner," he declared, laughing.

"You don't know what you'd be letting yourself in for," I rejoined.

"I make a great pecan pie!" he said.

"Oh, lord, don't say that!" I said and the door closed behind me.

This was definitely my strangest Christmas moment of the year.

December View for today is the twin towers of Greenway Plaze and the tallest pine tree inside the Loop to survive hurricane Ike.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Small, good things

I woke up this morning thinking about “things” and Christmas. We’ve been trying to enjoy a small Christmas for several years now. Not having young children or grandchildren around, there’s no need for the pile of gifts under the tree that used to seem so important. (There’s no need for the tree, either, but you have to draw the line somewhere.)

That brought me to consider what gives me the Christmas feeling, other than carols, of course. Ornaments, for example. During our travels over the past decade, we would carry special ones with us to produce a feeling of home years and miles away from the real thing.

Many of these Christmas essentials are handmade, or look that way. There are personalized metal angels, wooden pigs, gingerbread men made out of clay, and the little card that was attached to a long-forgotten present that bears my mother’s shaky handwriting as she expressed her love to her grandson. She died the following spring.

My favorites for looks, however, are two glass circles that I hang on the tree with lights behind them so they glow.

And one hand-painted one by a well-known Houston artist that was given to me in 1977 by Karl Kilian. I've always thought it was Charles Schorre, but the signature on the back looks more like Earl Staley. In either case, well loved.

They’re my December View for today.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


There's a new chapter of Absent, my novel, posted on my other blog this morning. The chapter is set in Santa Fe.

In looking through photographs of Santa Fe, where we had a condo for several years, I was reminded of a great poem, by Elizabeth Bishop:

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster

Friday, December 12, 2008


It seems to be human nature to protect one’s own ox, while ignoring the effect that might have on the neighbor’s. I’ve seen two examples of this already this morning.

The first has to do with the smoke in our apartment.

On account of Christmas prep, we’re back in the Houston flat for a while, where we experience the sun-struck day outside through a filter of UV film. I can only vaguely hear the squawk of a blue jay through the glass.

The smoke I refer to above is coming through the AC vents and it’s stronger today than usual. Much of the time recently it has been minimal or absent, but that was in mild weather. Today it is cold outside (by our standards) and so all the smokers in the building are indulging their addiction (feeding their ox) inside. One of the worst offenders is down the hall, a renter in the unit right next to the elevator. Our building has the units under negative pressure, so all the odors from the units flow out into the corridor, which has no air circulation. Nice, huh? As a result, when you wait for the elevator, you get a nice bath of cigarette smoke.

Moreover, a quirk in our ventilation system allows her and others’ smoke to enter our flat, where we don’t smoke and where I happen to be allergic, thanks to growing up in my mother’s house.

Pardon me while I cough...

The second example of oxen I have in mind has to do with the auto bailout. Non-bailout, as of right now. Eight Republican Senators, voting with the majority of their party, provided the margin that killed the bill.

There is logic to their position, even if it lacks heart. Narrowly viewed, if the auto industries went bankrupt, they’d be rid of the union contracts that pay American workers more than workers in American-based auto plants owned by foreign companies. Everything would have to be renegotiated—if the bankrupt industries even survived. This has the virtue for those Senators of being consistent with Republican free market principles. (Remember what Wilde said about that: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” But he was British and he’s dead, so what did he know?)

Their position seems somewhat less pure, however, when you factor in the presence of foreign auto plants in their states. The Republicans voting for the bailout included those from states where the American auto industry and its suppliers are located. That’s part of the rust in Rust Belt. Republicans voting against it included those from states where companies like Toyoto have built their U.S. infrastructure.

Everyone, it appears, is looking after his own ox. Who’s looking after ours? That’s what I’d like to know. There should be someone out there in a position of leadership who understands the big picture, whatever it may be. Or is that too much to ask?

December View for today is the last farm scene for a while. This is a collection of buildings along Winedale Rd. I missed yesterday and will double up when I have some new ones, maybe tomorrow. City scenes...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

It's Cold

For anyone who's interested, I've posted the Prologue from my novel on my other blog. Comments are welcome.


What’s that weird white stuff under the oak tree out back? Wait, look at the mulch pile! It looks like a heap of...


Excitement in the vicinity of snow will seem strange to anyone from the north, but for native Houstonians it's a common reaction. Even though we lived in Santa Fe one winter, I’ve never had enough of it.

Up there at 7000+ feet, you get lovely dry snow in thick layers like meringue. And when the weather warms, it doesn’t melt; it shrinks. You can see the retreat by the damp places it leaves temporarily behind, like wet shadows. The only dirty part is if they’ve sprinkled reddish...something…sand?... on the streets, and then followed with a snowplow to produce pink snow banks, which sound more attractive than they are.

This morning, however, is typical of winter in central or southeast Texas: A balmy seventy-five yesterday afternoon, then a forty-degree nosedive overnight, plus a 20 mph wind. Break out the parka, the gloves, long handles for, say, five days—at the end of which the temperature will have climbed to seventy-eight again (actually predicted for next week).

I’m not complaining, although I remember that cozy winter in Santa Fe: Pinon fires in the kiva fireplace; the soporific effect of nightfall when the snow that iced adobe walls would pass through white to blue and seem to glow from within; long walks with the dog while snow fell in the gathering dusk. Born in Colorado, Bronte loves cold weather and would take off down the slopes of unblemished meringue in pursuit of rabbits, real and imaginary.

But I also remember the ice. White ice, black ice. Our driveway sloped up to the garage, presenting a daily challenge. If you tried to walk down it, you’d suddenly be airborne. The only way LH could reach the paper in the mornings was to edge around the slope in the snowy verge, where his boots could sink in a couple of inches for traction. We definitely don’t miss that. (He especially doesn’t.)

It’s mid-morning now and the snow has melted. The fencetops have been dusted with birdseed, and a large woodpecker shares the largesse with one redbird and a very plump squirrel. Life returns to normal.

December View for today is from the warm part of yesterday, Bob Mann from Austin telling a story to LH on our front porch.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


LH has gone to lunch with two writers from Houston and one from Austin, meeting at Klump’s on the square in Round Top. These guys are professionals who make a living from writing sentences and/or teaching others how to do it.

I’m sitting here wondering how much longer they will have those jobs, in print media, at least.

And it's got me thinking about reading words on a paper page. Reading fiction, in fact. Why should reading novels endure? What exactly is it we get from a good piece of fiction that we can't get from a movie? They’re both telling stories, after all.

In my view, it comes to this: Fine fiction takes you out of yourself for the duration of the story; and yet it brings you back to a fuller understanding of yourself when you are done.

Film can do the first, but the images are so intense, and fall so rapidly upon one another, that you have no opportunity for reflection about what you’re seeing. You can’t put a film down after a particularly moving scene while you consider its meaning. (Well, you can put it on pause, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it? In fact, the stilled image sits right there on the screen and reproaches you for stopping it.)

Also, books last longer. They are portable. Even e-readers are portable. Film is now portable, too, but enjoying a movie on the go requires the presence of earphones and the right kind of computer. A book just requires it own small self, and you.

Obviously, however, the gap between books and film is narrowing.

That leaves us with the one big difference. That is, books require a deeper engagement of your imagination. You are peopling the story, putting faces on the characters, creating the sound of their voices. You are the set designer, too.

In the case of fiction, less remains actually more.

For now.

December View for today is the remnant of the farmhouse where Mr. and Mrs. Muske spent their lives:

Monday, December 8, 2008

To Do

The shed is nearly finished, except for paint. Rain is in the forecast for tomorrow, so it’s a fine line, I’m told. Every day for weeks has been rainless, many of them sunny, but right when we need to paint, rain is on the horizon, so to speak. 30% chance. If we paint, that will immediately rise to 85% probability.

I am relinquishing all fantasies of control.

Ahhhhhhh…Yes, that feels better.

We’ve been talking about the next project. Our yard gate barely latches any more. The reason for this is the enormous Lady Banks rose that arches above it. Even the rose wouldn’t have caused a problem, though, if one of the landscape people hadn’t tried to force a machine that was too big though the gate’s opening, breaking off one of the support posts at the ground. Now the post is held in place by the fencing wire, and the rose itself.

We are hoping to jack up the rose, remove the broken post and replace with another post. Since the broken post is set in concrete, however, this will not be easy. That’s why talking is all we’re doing, so far.

After that, there’s the vegetable garden gate…presently a piece of scenic chicken wire.

We never run out of projects, it seems. You will note that none of the above has anything to do with Christmas. I'm ostriching Christmas prep, it appears.

December Views for today are photos from Saturday’s holiday celebration in Round Top. There was a parade, then brass band music, German Christmas carols by the Winedale singers, and Santa:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oso Blanco

The white bear was lying on our doorstep when LH got up this morning. He’s not a really a bear, of course, but a large white Lab who belongs to our neighbors down the road. He’d been here last night, too, the first time ever in the dark. Before that, we hadn’t seen him for several weeks, maybe more than a month.

He’s become a well-known wanderer in our rural neighborhood since the day in late August when the people on the corner of our road brought him house to house in their truck, trying to find his owner. At first I thought he was a great Pyrenees. He has the wide forehead characteristic of those giants. Upon closer examination, however, it was obvious he was a Lab.

After I’d talked to the good Samaritans for a while, I had a thought. LH had been at the neighbors’ a few weeks before and had commented to me on the particularly fine pair of yellow Labs who lived there. Very pale ones. I put two and two together, and I was correct. He was their dog.

A few days after that, he appeared at our yard fence one morning, a silent, alert visitor. (I’ve never heard him bark.) He has a little scar on his right cheek, so I was certain it was the same dog. I let him into the yard and he and Bronte had a lovely time, playing. After a time, I noticed he limped. Badly. Was it a paw? No. It was worse than that. If you have Labs, by now you have guessed: dysplasia. The curse of inbreeding in the species.

But he’s an easy-going fellow, quite happy here today—right now asleep at my feet. He seems lonesome, though, and I do know that he frequently visits the people who live at the corner of our road. They have a chocolate Lab and a dog door, an apparently inviting combination, as the white bear sometimes appears without notice in their kitchen.

The trick with having him here, is Bronte’s green eyes. She loves playing with him, but the more he follows me around, the more she notices. The principal trigger of her notice was my fault, however. I tried to situate them in the living room, so all three of us could be in one room together, and I could write this blog entry while they slept.

We have an ancient tweedy sofa, more than thirty years old, that has comforted three generations of Labradors. Now it is hers. She knows it and we know it. She will not lie on a dog bed. She has never even acknowledged that a dog bed is intended for dogs, namely her, to lie upon.

Earlier, I had brought out the spurned dog bed for Bear and placed it on the porch. He plopped right down. Great, I thought. Maybe she will learn by example. Look, here's a dog,lying on this plush piece of foam rubber. See? I think that was when she sat down in the grass and scratched her ear.

Now, I carried the dog bed into the living room and set it at the foot of the sofa, expecting him to flop again. I told her to hop to her accustomed place. He heard me, though, and beat her to it, settling right down in the center of the sofa. “There’s room for you, too,” I told Bronte. And she jumped up into the corner space, but she did not seem happy.

So there they were. After a little while I noticed that she was sending me a message. Her look said: Okay. Now what are you going to do about this? It was as clear as speech.

I got up. I summoned the Bear off the sofa and instructed him to lie on the dog bed,which he did. I told her to hop on the sofa, and she complied. Peace.

About two minutes later, I noticed he was back on the sofa, curled up on the far end. “Plenty of room for the two of you,” I told her.

She was not mollified.

So, while he's here--before his owners come for him--we will shower her with attention. It’s only for the day, right? Hale has taken her for her walk, while the Bear sleeps at my feet.

Oh, wait. He’s getting up. He’s walking slowly, limping, into the living room. He's jumping on the sofa, and curling up in the left corner. It really is so much more comfortable there.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

December Morning

A beautiful morning, quite cold for our area. There was a thin layer of ice on the decking in the back yard. Inside the house, the new heating system still mystifies me with its quirks. A room that was warm last year with the old system is now chilly. And the reverse. Why? Part of our small house is old, mid-nineteenth century when they thought air space between layers of imperfect siding was plenty insulation. It isn’t, of course, so the old rooms are much colder than the newer ones.

I don’t particularly mind the cold, though. Up here in my attic office, it’s much warmer. The narrow, steep staircase acts like a chimney drawing the heat up. We have vents up here, but generally I keep them closed in winter. The stairs provide more than enough warmth.

The main reason I don’t mind the cold, however, is that out here in the country, there is a picture to look at through every window, and that more than compensates for physical discomforts. I am talking about the simplest things—light on a fence post, morning light falling across an old chair, a rose bush. The day is still, and cardinals fly tandem raids upon the sunflower seeds that LH sets every morning atop the fence posts.

One might almost say on such a day that one is happy.

December View for the day is an abandoned barn on the old Muske farm. Mr. and Mrs. Muske lived on this small acreage into their nineties. Every summer he planted a wonderful vegetable garden, and I'd see Mrs. Muske tending her flowers in one of the old sunbonnets people used to wear.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Today has been topsy-turvy, so all I have is pictures of two trees who have seen better, in the sense of healthier, days. December View from within a mile of our little house. I tried to bring them over from my flickr site but I couldn't get it to work, so the image quality isn't very good.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


(December View image for today follows. Please see end of post for what it is, if you don’t already know.)

Don’t know about you, but we keep old New Yorkers around for dipping into during dull moments. There’s not really a place to sit in our house where you won’t find a New Yorker within reach. Every few months, we have to go around and collect their tattered selves, and send them on their way to the landfill.

Last night therefore, while waiting for sleep to fall upon me, I opened the Oct 20, 08 issue and my eye fell upon “Late Bloomers”, an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers.

As it happens, this was a big mistake. The trick to bedtime reading is that you should look for intrinsically uninteresting material. Also it should be material written in a voice you don’t mind hearing replayed in your head for the next few hours. I had no trouble with the voice, but the subject was far too riveting for my own good.

Gladwell begins with the story of Ben Fountain, whom we know as the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, one of the hot story collections of 2006. He sets us up with how Fountain quit his law firm job to write fiction, with no more track record than a couple of college creative writing courses. Had some early luck with two stories, then nothing until he got a story published in Harper’s, after which le deluge of success.

Same old, same old, right? Well, not exactly. Because the fateful day he quit the law firm was in 1986, twenty years of publishing not one word before taking the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

I found this enormously encouraging, since my first two published stories hit print right around that time and I’ve been laboring in the vineyards pretty much ever since.

Even more interesting, though, is the analysis of what makes a late bloomer. “Genius, in the popular conception ,” Gladwell says, “is inextricably tied up with precocity.” Think Mozart or Picasso. A researcher from Chicago named David Galenson, however, decided to find out if this myth was true. It was not.
I don’t want to recapitulate the whole article here, but it’s worth reading. Late bloomers, apparently, are the marathon runners of the artistic world. We’re the ones who have to explore, and try, and fail, and try again, and just keep on hanging in—indulging in a continually experimental process of attempting to realize our fuzzy goals.

Late bloomers get better as they get older.

I’ve been a little downhearted lately over how many years (about the same as Fountain’s) I’ve spent working on a story about post-partum depression, a continually evolving novel that by now probably amounts to three separate novels, with only an element or two in common. Just knowing that this might yet prove not to have been a complete waste of time is quite consoling.

(The image is the surface of Winedale Road, a material we call "blacktop.")

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


My son phoned last night from New York, right near the end of The Mentalist, the show on CBS with Simon Baker. (My secret vice.) I wouldn't have answered anyone else's call.

The cell phone reception was terrible. Lots of banging and swishing and what sounded like his voice in the background, but garbled. I thought the noise was on my end, so I climbed part way up to the attic office, thinking it might clear if I got higher up. I kept saying: “Will, I cannot understand a word you’re saying…”

Finally after about three minutes of this, while I imagined that he was being mugged on a city sidewalk, the call went dead. By then, I was hyperventilating.

I phoned him back—went to voicemail. I phoned his office—went to voicemail. No way I’m going to phone his wife and panic her over this. So I texted him. Then I sent an MSM, whatever the heck that is. And finally I emailed him. The gist was the same in all of these: did u just call me? please let me know u r ok. (I hate text messages.)

About five minutes later I received this response:

“Don't think so. Maybe phantom dial while I was ordering pizza? Pocket dials can be pretty amusing.”

Amusing. Oh, yes. Absolutely.


Oh, by the way, I'm joining Deb in December Views.

My image for today is an abandoned farmhouse near Round Top:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


At nearly four in the afternoon here, the shadows are lengthening. Following an early morning "jack frost", as the locals say, the air is soft. Our windows and doors are open to it. A light breeze stirs from the south, accompanied by a feeling of expectancy that's broken only by the rhythmic trill of a cricket. No birds, no machines.


Husband is immobilized at the computer downstairs, working on his Sunday column. I have walked the dog for a dunk in the pitifully shallow tank (Texan for pond) followed by an intense session of retrieving tennis balls.

Unaware of all this bucolic serenity, an editor somewhere in the northeast is reading my novel manuscript. He began yesterday and found the first page riveting. Fantastic. Only 352 to go…I expect…nothing much, really. I do not expect lightning to strike with a contract. I do not expect publication at all, in fact.

The news from the world of publishing is bleak. Last week I heard that venerable Harcourt (now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has announced it’s no longer acquiring adult trade fiction manuscripts. The editor of that division promptly quit. Editor Jonathan Galassi, winner of the Maxwell Perkins award for excellence in publishing, said recently that no one in the business really has any idea of where it’s heading. They don’t know how many people are still reading.

Yikes, y’all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Snap, snap

I’ve started taking photographs again.

I did quite a lot of it when I was in my twenties, but I decided I couldn’t do both photography and writing and I was better at writing (ha!), so I’d focus on that. Narrowing my focus was a problem back then. Now, well, has the focus narrowed, or just my interests?

I feel a little strange returning to the past like that, though. It appears that my aesthetic sense of what’s interesting has not developed very far in the interim. I still respond to light on edges of things, geometric shapes and textures.

I’ll have to be careful not to become static and bore myself. Boring myself is one reason I’ve never successfully been able to keep a journal. After a little while, all the Me just seems entirely sterile and uninteresing. Will this blog be different? It might be if people enjoy reading it.

In any event, you no longer have to make choices between various media and arts in the way I did. On a blog or website you can write, show photographs, show video--just enjoy a complete submergence in the delights of your own ego as it interacts in its customarily fascinating fashion with the world.

I feel somewhat self-indulgent, of course, as I contemplate doing precisely that. But it’s a non-toxic, low calorie indulgence, so why not try?

By the way, that’s an apple core, above.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dot, dot, dot

Today I’ve got a three-dot entry, a newspaper term for unrelated subjects held together by … (an ellipsis).


I happened to see a bulldog in an ad, so—ever susceptible to canine appeal—I Googled bulldogs, got a puppy breeder who recommends checking out the rescue groups before buying a puppy. So I did. Mind you, I’m not in the market for a dog at present. Our own sweet girl is eight, however, and there's no way I’m going through the two dogless years again that we endured post Max.

Anyway, here are the rescue sites:

And the puppy breeders (about whom I know nothing, so am not recommending in any way):

But there is a whole lot of adorable-ness on their site.

English bulldogs are actually a rather sad lot in many ways. They’ve been so inbred for the short nose that they can’t breathe properly; and their little legs have been distorted for the same reason. My son had the cutest, dearest little bulldog—Dewars—who died very young from a heart/breathing disorder. He warns me in stern terms against falling for one. Who knows? I’ve been a Lab person for decades.

A lovely book for the winter-repressed, snow-bound friend or relative is Summer, by (Texan) Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga. I keep it around for dipping into in every season. Beautiful, evocative pictures and text by well known authors like John Updike and Calvin Trillin. The hardback seems hard to locate, but it’s worth the effort.

I rely on Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times to rev my engine in the mornings when she appears. And today, once more, she delivered. But, for a change, my ire derived not from a dose of her customary vitriol. No, today it was the subject matter that did the trick. Seems this fellow in Pasadena, California has decided to let people in India write his online newspaper that focuses on local news—that is, the news occurring in, around and to, Pasadena. And he found them by posting a notice on Craigslist. (!) Oh, go read the piece. Dean Singleton, a newspaper publisher cited in the article as favoring outsourcing of newspaper writing, once owned the Houston Post. No wonder it died.

To calm down after that, I baked a pan of biscuits. I enjoyed one with a small pat of butter. Real butter. And I’ll freeze the rest. Or so I say….

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Whoa up. Did you see the piece in today's Chronicle about anti-energy drinks? Come on, folks. Anti-energy?

It appears that this new trend takes its inspiration from the club crowd, high on Red Bull and other energy producing drinks and powders but wanting to come down. Rappers go on about their favorite beverage for this purpose: “sipping syrup”, which means, I gather, codeine cough syrup mixed with alcohol. Over the past 8 years three of them have died from the effects of such elixirs.

That is so totally cool in some quarters that companies have begun to market a carbonated version, substituting valerian root and melatonin for the codeine. Any member of the sleep-challenged menopausal brigade probably recognizes the names of those two natural and legal downers. They’re used by many people to induce sleep.

Although their effects when combined with alcohol—already a central nervous system depressant—have not been studied, those ingredients themselves aren’t really of particular concern. What rocks my boat is the fact that you’ve got a society, here, of people stimulating themselves from the moment they wake with uppers—legal ones like caffeine—then searching desperately to calm themselves at the end of the day with downers. To some degree, of course, it’s the way of Western Civilization--in Britain, all that tea and pubs; in France, morning coffee so stout you can walk upon it, followed by wine the rest of the day (although that process seems to be changing in recent months). Other cultures, too, seek enhancements on both ends of the energy spectrum. It may be a broad human need.

What’s different to me is the intensification. The new energy drinks offer huge amounts of caffeine, and people drink them into the night, to keep that “energy” going. They do this with a fine disregard for the poor old human nervous and circulatory system. We have limits and we don’t necessarily know what they are, physiologically, until we’ve passed them and bad things result. Panic and anxiety attacks are the least of it.

Most of us have approached the edge of our limits with the common caffeine shakes, just from a “normal” intake of coffee during work hours. Caffeine shakes are a warning, y’all.

I don’t know the physiology behind it, but I think of the process as a swing, arcing back and forth from a rope tied to a tree limb. The higher it’s pushed on each end, the more friction the rope sustains from the rough bark. Eventually, the rope breaks. A less extreme arc, and the rope will last much longer.

Given the discomfort of too much caffeine, though—shakes and quivering at 3 AM cannot be pleasant—it’s no surprise that people high on the energy drinks or whatever would want something to bring them down, smooth them out, let them sleep, but why don’t we call the whole progression by its proper name?

Because what it is, drug abuse.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Weird Thing

Does anyone know what this is a picture of? I found it on the ground in our yard.

Food Fog

Is there anyone out there who still really enjoys food? Making a meal like yesterday's traditional feast makes me wonder.

There's a great pleasure in making a meal for a group, even on a day where the various ingredients are more or less standard. You plan it, and create each element according to a schedule, and if you bring it off with only a couple of mistakes, you feel like you've accomplished something. (My biggest mistake was when the pepper grinder came apart in mid grind and deposited its load of peppercorns on top of the uncooked dressing! I wonder if anyone else bit down on a peppercorn?)

But how much of the pleasure of the day actually connects to the food you’re eating? There’s anticipation, and the enjoyment of seeing family, and the absence of guilt since you’re all together in real time for once. And the food is good, sort of, except you always eat too much and it’s uncomfortable. The food never tastes like you remember, either. Each one of you at the table has his/her own memories of childhood holidays, taste memories as well as sentiment. Nothing ever quite matches.

Yesterday, the food was made with lots of butter and no salt. My husband is on a low sodium diet, so even the butter was unsalted. Butter in the sweet potatoes (and cumin, and a little brown sugar); butter in the green beans; butter in the gravy. How often do we use butter? Try never, except when eating out. Since we avoided salt, however, I figured I’d better use all the flavor I could find elsewhere.

I used to be a pretty good cook. Once I even made blanquette de veau for thirty while coming down with the flu. But that was before cream and butter were removed from everyone’s culinary arsenal. There are no substitutes, you know. Not that taste as good, anyway.

I do still try—olive oil, a lot of Italian dishes, curries, etc.—but the medical profession keeps finding things to remove from our approved list. And mainly, we should eat whole grains and fiber-rich food. Whoops, no we shouldn’t, if we need to restrict potassium.

A lot of people on low-sodium diets to regulate blood pressure substitute potassium salts instead to flavor their food. But people on Cozaar, one of the secondary control drugs for blood pressure, have to eliminate potassium from their diet, or risk kidney problems. Instead they are directed to eat the white stuff nutritionists been telling us for years to avoid--white bread, white potatoes, for instance--the emptier the calories, the better. I love the irony, really. Eat foods with fewer nutrients (including potassium) and less fiber in them, in order to take a potassium drug. Then take something else to undo the effects of a diet without fiber. Terrific.

I wonder if the reason for so much American obesity is precisely this: That we’re constantly nagged on all sides about what we shouldn’t eat, which increases our anxiety and focuses our attention with every nag on food itself, the great emotional palliative. So we eat. Maybe if we just made meals that taste good, and are full of balanced nutrition so they’re good for us, too, we’d all be walking around at our proper weight and on minimal medication. And we’d be happier. Let’s not forget about the health benefits of being happier.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The extraordinary turmoil and roller-coaster emotions of the past two months have given many Americans, and Texans, a different perspective from which to view Thanksgiving Day. We remember recently lost friends (Drew MacWilliam). The grass stretching out below my window here at Winedale has turned the exact color of russet that she loved to wear. We have guests coming for the Feast--Hale's daughter and grandson, and his peripatetic son. It will be very meaningful for Hale, I think. The last friends we had here for a meal were Drew and her son, Walker, freshly in from New York. Her children orchestrated many visits to Houston to see her during the 14 months she knowingly battled pancreatic cancer. He, however, was the one who drove her to see our much altered house.

The other afternoon I walked out to the pool to test the chill. An insect whizzed by and I instinctively ducked. It was a dragonfly, a big one, making organized swoops across the water and adjacent flower bed. I stood very still and his loops became tighter as he approached me. Perhaps he was curious. At times, damselflies have lighted on my float in the pool, but I've never been this close to a moving dragonfly. He was beautiful, as most of them are, a pretty blue and gray, but flying too fast for me to catch much detail. An appreciation of the varied beauty of these creatures is one of my recent discoveries.

More practically, Richard has been working on enclosing the shed for storage. He makes steady progress. We have engaged a yard crew who begin work Tuesday. My son and his wife are well. We, at Winedale, are alive and ambulatory and not yet destitute.

For all these blessings, I am truly grateful.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Money and Chocolate

The Sunday papers and their continuing coverage of the financial implosion have energized a rainy Sunday morning, here at Winedale. To the accompaniment of birdsong, we read of the Citigroup disaster.

Greed was at the heart of it, of course. There was too much money to be made and all the other guys were doing it...But also there was the fundamental belief among our nation's leaders for the past maybe 12 years that markets are governed by rationality; that people acting in the market would make rational decisions, as though the rational, thinking, cognitive part of the brain were actually in control.

Anyone who's tried to diet knows otherwise. We've got this rational brain, sitting on top of a seething mass of ancient drives. The rational part wants to be in control, and often fools us by declaring that it is in control. By the time a human being is in a position to destroy lives, she/he should know that's not true.

You're at a restaurant and you've managed to resist eating too much when the waiter comes by with the dessert cart. There's this impossibly gooey, chocolate decadence glistening on the plate before you. That's when your rational brain should say: No, I've had more than enough food and it was delicious. But what it says instead is: oh, just this one time won't hurt.

"This one time" became the everyday culture for Citigroup and all the other brilliant and doomed financial institutions. A leadership comprised of dieting women might have avoided some of it. At least they would have recognized the process by which "decisions" were being made.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Still in Houston and looking west from our flat at sunrise. If I take off my glasses, it's a Frankenthaler painting, although I doubt she'd pick the colors I see, and the middle strip, comprised of rectilinear blocks, almost certainly wouldn't please her. Top two-thirds, a deep blue sky; bottom one-third (just a bit shy) a darkish blurring of tree canopies, moving toward fall; in the middle a strip of the buildings, their faces, brilliant orange reflection of the rising sun.

The light the past few days has been stabbing bright, uncharacteristic for Houston. We have a good view of its transit in winter from our southwest corner flat. The view is the reason we chose this unit. We're on the sixth floor, just above the tops of the trees. It's like the treetops unroll a lawn before us.

When we're in Winedale, I tend to forget the beauty of this view, which reminds me--on the southern side--of the view across central park to the Dakotas. Our twin foci are two glass towers of Greenway Plaza. The romance may be in the associations of the former, but the beauty resides here, as well.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Small and slow

It turned out to be three and a half inches of blessed rain. And the world of our small acreage celebrated. The birds, instead of feeding, sang. Invisible chorales.

Today the tree man, Lee Davis, has come. He will auger holes around the drip line of our stressed trees, and fill them with good compost. Vertical mulching it’s called. I, edgy after the many well-intentioned injuries we have inflicted on the trees, am simply trusting that it will do no harm and may do good. He is a “certified arborist”, which is what the experts have advised people to consult when they have stressed trees. Alors…

What makes it worse, though, is that I’m not there. I had to run in to Houston for a couple of meetings, so this work on the trees proceeds in my anxious absence.

Anxious seems to be the refrain of my life, presently. Press on, that’s the sage advice. Ignore the anxiety, whatever its cause, if you can’t do anything to alter the course of what you’re anxious about. Trouble is, anxiety forced underground has a way of bubbling up at inopportune moments. Still, those moments lie in the future.

Presently, instead, I will think of the small miracle of nature I saw this morning, as I waited for my car beside a planter, filled with lariope. There, slowly oozing along one narrow strand, was a quite beautiful snail. In my garden, I deplore snails, of course. But this was in a concrete planter, ten feet from San Felipe, one of Houston’s busiest thoroughfares. The busy people dropping their cars, hurrying inside to their appointments, would never see this little fellow.

But I was waiting, so I bent down to watch: The perfect dappled gray and creamy texture of its soft body emerging from the crisp brown striated shell; its extraordinary patience, clinging to the narrow leaf; its perfectly formed tiny horns. How did this creature arrive in that unlikely place, three feet above the pavement, in a container with sheer sides that—at this restrained pace—would surely have taken him days to scale?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Rain all afternoon. A nuisance to so many people, hurrying to appointments, coping with rush hour traffic. But for us, a spa treatment by mere proximity. The moisture pouring down, entering our pores as certainly as it soaks into the soil beneath our beleaguered oak trees. We move more languidly, our joints oiled, our imperfections blurred. Is this how plants feel when rain falls after a long time without?

We'll know how much there's been in the morning when Hale checks the rain gauge, but he estimates 2 and a half inches. The most rain since March. All the swales worked to retain the water across the trees' drip lines then convey it on away from the foundation of the house to the creek.

At 2AM the irrigation switched on, a whirring of noise against the aspidistra, which means it had been running for a while before we noticed. I went out to turn it off, and when I returned onto the open back porch I created a terrible disturbance of sleeping birds--gray doves--so rudely awakened. A panicky flutter of wings, disoriented, and I told them not to worry, and I ducked inside quickly, shutting off my flashlight. When I looked out there a moment later, they were back in place, hunkered down in the rose canes that weave among the porch trim. It is really nice to know that our snug house can offer shelter to birds, as well, on a stormy night.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Day One

I'm trying to figure out how to deal with not writing fiction for a while.

Recently, it occurred to me that I've been using fiction to escape living. (I don’t know why I didn’t notice this years ago.) Maybe I'm noticing it now because for the past two weeks I've found myself obsessing about a measly 8 pages of text. Obsessing is not a good feeling. It's like you're a gnat caught in water swirling down the drain--very hard to reverse course.

I should mention that the pages in question comprise the beginning of a 350 page novel I completed last May. They were not virginal text. No. They'd been rewritten before, many times, in the first person, the second person, and more than once, in the third person. For a while this section had reposed in the middle of the plot, where I still think it made more sense.

Now it was to be the beginning of a revision of this novel. More than a revision, actually. A complete re-write, with an up to the minute 2008 story line featuring terrorist acts and the US presidential election. Why on earth?

Rejection, that’s why. The agent who read it passed it on to her 20-something intern. The intern clearly missed the point. She failed to appreciate the mature nuance of the complicated ending, and even got the factual aspects wrong. I’m being judged by a 20-something intern and I failed the test. It pissed me off.

Once I calmed down, however, I saw that she was right about the ending, of course. The complications were too complex. To get the emotional point, one has to be able to follow the plot. Her boss was also correct in her explanation that “quiet” novels—that is, reflective novels focused on character rather than plot—are difficult to sell in the current market. She already represents a number of established authors whose novels in this vein are being turned down. Why take a flyer on someone new? That this conclusion depressed me is an understatement, of course.

The lesson I drew from it, however, was that I had to try harder. I had to grab the reader in the first 50 pages.

So I decided to begin again and invigorate the plot. I’ve begun again before, I’m ashamed to admit how many times. For more than twenty years I’ve written drafts of novels and, finding them unsuccessful for one reason or another, set them aside and started over. I called it persistence.

This time, though, it went much more slowly. I began to obsess. That’s when I understood that I don’t have the energy to write this story again, even with a different, "noisier", plot. I’m tired of these characters. Bone tired. They have run out of quirks with which to surprise me.

So, although I have other ideas for novels, I think—for now—I might just write about where I’m living. I have the good fortune to be in the country, at present. I sit here in the corner of a room formed by two windows at right angles. My computer occupies an old desk from a country school—the kind with initials carved in the wood and a hole in the top where the inkwell was intended to go. I look out onto a rose garden, and beyond it into woods.

It’s bucolic, and yet it is not a dream of arcadia. There are worms and carcasses. The beautiful live oak that shades part of the yard is in extreme stress, losing many of its leaves. After a drought of several years duration, the tree may not make it. We have contributed to the problem, too, in the way that human beings, attempting to solve one set of problems, often create completely new ones. Our responsibility for these mistakes requires contemplation. Stewardship of the land is not all that different from raising a family. You do the best you can and hope.

My husband and I, the ones who commit the acts and must reap the contemplation, are not young. Every day presents its own challenges, connected to the effect of age upon the body’s mechanics. Who will build fence? Who will spread compost? Who will clean the gutters? These chores must be managed.

But there, off to my right, is a post oak whose leaves appear to be gilding by the moment despite the day’s temperature of 77 degrees. Elm saplings in the woods have already engaged the transition and begun to drop. Here in the middle of November in central Texas, it is autumn. Change is constant. We will witness it.