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.