Whatcha gonna do stew

As I have mentioned, my husband collects cookbooks. In fact, he owns every cookbook ever published by Cook’s Illustrated. If you have the time and patience (and can afford the often hard to find and expensive ingredients), I must admit most of recipes they publish are foolproof.

However this is his favorite cookbook:

With recipes from all the greatest cowboys and gals (at least in film)

By the time we were allowed to get a television, cowboy shows were a thing of the past but Joel grew up on them. This cookbook contains not only recipes but pictures of the old stars and tidbits about the television shows, movies, and songs from that era. So I can understand why he’s so fond of it.

How many stars can you match to their cowboy roles? I got 2 – Paladin and Davy Crockett

Many of the recipes were written with a snide dig at other cookbooks:

Does anyone know where Poohawk Territory is? Sigh, my grocery doesn’t sell bogus feathers!

There are even recipes for genuine cowboy cocktails:

And, if you’re having a dinner party, menu ideas (note the vegetarian option)

Note the vegetarian option

However, tonight Joel tells me he’ll be making this dish:

Pretty fancy hey? I’m so happy we spent a fortune on all those gourmet cookbooks!

I’ll let you know how it turns out. One thing I do have an affection for from those days when being a cowboy was every little boy (and some girls) dream. Cowboy songs.

Some days are just that way

It’s one of those days when the sun won’t come out to play. It’s not that cold but everything is damp and so … it feels downright frigid.

At 7:30 I awoke to the wailing of the cat. He had dental surgery yesterday but refuses to take his pain medication like a man or even a brave cat. He prefers to meow in misery and then run off to hide when he spots me with a syringe. Eventually I gave up.

Then I got an email from my favorite apocalyptic poet reporting further evidence that we’re headed for cataclysmic doom and gloom … increased lightning strikes on the polar ice caps. Look on the light side, I felt like saying. Perhaps it’s the universe using electroshock therapy to jolt us into sanity? It worked for Sylvia Plath, right?

Lightning over the Pacific

Around noon it dawned on me that I should soak one of the kitty’s treats in the liquid pain killer and then conceal the treat in his bowl of wet food. I was hoping that since the pain killer didn’t seem to have any odor, it didn’t have any taste as well. Of course, I didn’t let the kitty see me spiking his food. Apparently it worked. Kitty is now sleeping soundly. Well, as soundly as a kitty ever does.

I had just gotten cozy and was about to start work on the book I’m editing when Joel (hubby) brought in a Tommee Tippee package addressed to a Francis Houston at this address. “Find out if she lives nearby. I’m cooking,” he said. We get packages for our neighbors all the time. But as far as I could tell through google searches, etc., there was no Francis Houston in my town. Don’t know what to do with the package as there was no return address. Need a Tommee Tippee cup?

At three o’clock I got a call from the vet. He wanted me to know that during surgery they found out the cat has a chip. Someone cared about him enough to have a chip installed. However they never registered him. Happy news, said the vet. We can register him ourselves. But what if word gets back to his real owners …. do you think, after six years, they’ll want to claim him? Think they’ll settle for a Tommee Tippee cup?

This may be the last you hear from me. I hear prison sentences for stolen Tommee Tippee cups are quite long. Yes, some days.

What I learnt at Christmas

How was your Christmas? We spent two days driving (under the threat of stormy skies), two days shopping for last minute but absolutely critical (don’t ask) things, and two days cooking. We survived although arrived home … exhausted.

I learnt the best time to drive across LA on the 405 is 10 o’clock in the morning!

This year I tried to make linzer (jam-filled) cookies. They were okay but I learnt not to use mint jelly as a center. The cookies looked Christmassy but tasted like mouthwash.

I learnt about seals and sea lions with the other Junior Rangers. There are many differences between the two but the important one (the one I remember) is: sea lions bark and seals grunt.

Would you believe I’m the one in pink? Probably not.

I learnt that when newborn whales breach for the first time their puffs are heart-shaped. For some reason, that warmed my poor old heart.

Baby whales breaching

I learnt to enjoy being on the coast.

Looking south toward La Jolla
Lastly I learnt that a brand new, blue basketball is always a great Christmas gift. (Leave it to Granny to get a little goofy with Photoshop after a bit of the bubbly – well, perhaps a bit more than a bit!)

Christmas in Ivry

This past year has been a hard one. Like so many people I know, death has hung over me. Last year we stayed home and watched the family open presents via zoom. My husband had just lost his brother and I was frozen by the loss of my mother. So making merry was not in the schedule. But, as I have written before, my favorite Christmas stories are not about Santa Claus. Nor have they involved decorated trees and presents.

I’ve been rereading a book I published (via Booktrope) back in 2014. It was based on the year I spent in Europe as a witless, clueless blunderer and, besides a lot of really bad writing (sigh), I came across this memory of another favorite Christmas:

And so once again, I packed my duffel and hit the road, only this trip to Paris would be quite different from my first. My aunt lived in an apartment in Ivry, a working-class suburb south-east of the city. The apartment had just three rooms—a kitchen, a living room/dining room, and a bedroom. No bathroom. There was a communal bathroom down the hall—for the primarily Greek residents of the fourth floor—and a bucket in the closet for “emergencies.”
We arrived late in the evening having taken a wrong turn or two. Then, exhausted and unable to find suitable parking, we abandoned the car in a dark alley and made our way past overflowing garbage cans to the apartment building. Lover boy greeted us at the door but didn’t offer any help with my aunt’s massive suitcases. I could understand why he’d gone AWOL. He had the scrawny physique of someone who would flunk basic training so why even try. Upon seeing her lover after a week’s absence, Auntie, overcome with passion, dragged him into the bedroom where he would have to pay dearly for her efforts to get him asylum in the United States. I curled up on a couch near the window. Above my head hung a birdcage covered by a table cloth. I watched as snow fell on the colorful umbrellas in the square below until finally falling asleep.

The next morning I awoke covered in birdseed as the parakeets above me demanded to be uncovered. “Alright, alright,” I said uncovering the cage. Two parakeets, one yellow and one green, stopped their squawking to marvel at the sun pouring in through the window and then changed their tune to something more pleasant.
“I’m making cherry pies! Get freshened up and come help me!” My aunt yelled from the kitchen. She’d already assembled three pies and was covered in flour.
Lover boy, evidently exhausted by a night of passion, slept until noon. He stayed up most nights, Auntie explained, drinking red wine at a neighbor’s apartment, chain-smoking as he and his compatriots debated politics in their native language. They were all socialists and not communists, she said. Your uncle is wrong. She’d fallen in love with Che Guevara. So romantic!

I helped her make pies all day, rolling dough and sweetening fruit. That night, Christmas Eve, we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower and wandered down the boulevards, oohing and aahing at the Christmas lights and holiday decorations. Most of the restaurants and stores were closed, but there was a vendor on almost every corner selling roasted chestnuts. They smelt better than they tasted.
Christmas in France is a daylong feast. People of all different nationalities came and went from my aunt’s apartment, either crowding around the table to eat and drink or, crowding around her small television to watch the horse races. First we laid out platters of cold cuts, salamis, olives, and pickles served with a pink Chablis. Then a fish broth with baguettes. A few hours later, someone brought a roast goose and spinach quiche. There was a brief respite mid-afternoon as the ladies chatted and the men watched horse races. At the end of the day, we ate my auntie’s pies and drank champagne. I thought we were finished, but then someone arrived with a fruit and cheese platter.
I gained not only several pounds but a new boyfriend: a Frenchman in his late eighties or early nineties, who would only admit to being forty.
“Je suis âgé de quarante ans!” He boasted, throwing his short arm over my shoulders as we sat side by side sipping cognac.
“Mais oui, bien sûr!” The others laughed as someone brought forth a Polaroid camera and took pictures. My face looked swollen and my stringy hair unwashed. But he kissed the photo and swore he would keep it always. A picture of his amour. And then he grabbed my face with both of his crusty hands and gave me a passionate and juicy kiss, sending all the other guests into giggling fits.
They took Polaroids of that too.

My French boyfriend!

The day after Christmas, I caught the train back to Gunthersblum, leaving my aunt happily peeing in a chamber pot for love everlasting. It was the last time I ever saw her. Glowing as she baked her signature cherry pies for unemployed socialists. Cheerfully planning a future that would include a loving and faithful husband all the while with a twinkle in her soft brown eyes and her dimpled cheeks pink with joy.

I probably won’t get the chance to add another post before Christmas so Happy Holidays everyone. Be safe and warm and surrounded by love.

Our slice of sweet

Back in 2015 I published a series of stories about the travels I took through Europe as a clueless but cute dipshit which I entitled Europe on Five Dollars a Day. I’m extremely sentimental and so I’ve attempted to hold onto every receipt, ferry ticket, picture, and postcard from those trips. Some things have been lost but I managed to hang onto two letters I received from a young Italian by the name of Massimo. I met him after our camera was stolen so you’ll have to take my word that he was gorgeous but not at all vain.

The news has been so grim lately that yesterday I found the letters and sat down next to the window to reread them. My first thought was to transcribe Massimo’s beautiful thoughts and fix the English but … you know … they’re perfect just the way they are. At least to me.

Here’s the first one, exactly as written. If you like it, I’ll publish the second tomorrow.

Dear Jan,

Thank you for those few instants spent all together. With your smile you has been the AMERICAN DREAM of three young Italians so different for character but who represent the typical Italian today with his good qualities and his defects. I believe that one of positive points of progress is meet often persons of different countries. I believe especially among youngmen these meetings are formative. Our charge of enthusiasm, our love that is shift from religion to the humanity, let us exceed in speed the barriers of language and of custom of the world. The only obstacle remains the time that conditions us particularly. By custom we put off till tomorrow our moments of happiness, without realizing that we shall be able to have every day our slice of sweet. Lately I have read a Dale Carnegie book and I have found useful the advise to consider every day like a lemon to squeeze dry. But the day spends quick and often remains a little of juice to squeeze. When you were among us, it could not squeeze sufficiently. The opinions, the experiences, the feelings that could have blended, have remained in our mind. There, perhaps they will germinate overbearingly because they will be so as we think they are. The reality is always different, less romantic, but has always a fascination which draws us, lets us act. The action is infact the flag of a modern man. To operate, to enter into the world, to give the better part of us to others disinterestedly. That is very difficult, this is the way that about 2000 years ago had indicated us a J.Cr. and it is strewn with incomprehension.

Here at Worksop, in a fine day we have gone to Clumber Park, the nature surrounded, submerged us, reshuffled us, let us become more genuine, more human and I should have wanted to feel near me, also only to behold your eyes, and to see your smile as at Ostende the first time I met you. I write you as even if we have decided on coming to see in our travel to Italy I should like to receive your news here at Worksop to know like that you spend your time and which impressions have awakened for you these three Italian youngmen. Waiting your news with pleasure, I send you a spontaneous smile with the saluts of Albert who has tried to express in correct way these my words and of Andrei who after reading has begun to smile. Salut by all us also to Carolyn

The Anchor

Mother and Sally exchanged Christmas Cards for over seventy-five years. Every year, no matter that they ‘d barely seen each other since high school, they sent each other Christmas cards. For most of those seventy-five years, they lived four hours from each other and could have easily visited, but I didn’t meet Sally until Mother’s ninetieth birthday.

They grew up in the same small town in New England. They were the same age, went to the same schools and the same church, and both left that small town after high school. But those are the only things they had in common. Teenage Mother liked to gamble, smoke, and party but did well enough in school to earn a scholarship while Teenage Sally apparently never rocked the boat. She met a soldier returning from the war with only one hand, married him and left for the West Coast, probably while my mother was at the university.

Sally’s husband worked for the Post Office until his death. They bought a house just south of San Francisco where they raised three children. After his death, their daughter moved in down the street to take care of Sally. According to the daughter, Sally’s children all did well and produced equally successful children.

In December 2019, after baking Christmas cookies for her neighbors, Sally sat down at the kitchen table and died. I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to go.

Mother somehow graduated from college although to hear her reminisce about those days it’s hard to understand how. She started her career in Hartford Connecticut, about thirty miles from where she’d grown up, and soon got married. My father spent about seven years trying to survive in the corporate world … jumping from company to company all over the states. And Mother went along with him having children and attempting to be a housewife. Once they settled in Reno Nevada Mother had finally had it with the charade. She went out and got the career she’d always wanted and resumed the lifestyle she’d had in college.

For some reason (which I never understood) through all of the turmoil — and it was turmoil — Mother always looked forward to Sally’s Christmas Cards. I wish one of them had survived but then Mother was never sentimental. I imagine they contained a synopsis of Sally’s year: How the husband was doing, how the children were doing and maybe even an account of a vacation to Yosemite. Or perhaps they just contained holiday greetings.

I finally met Sally during the year that Mother lived with us. Her daughter contacted me and we got the two ladies together, coincidentally on Mother’s 90th birthday and had lunch at a restaurant near my house. She looked about twenty years younger than my mother and said very little but smiled a lot. They sat together mostly in silence, affectionately touching and gazing into each other’s eyes and when the restaurant closed to prepare for the dinner rush, there were tears. On all our faces.

Christmas 2019 Mother called to tell me she had not received a card from Sally. She said something must have happened because Sally would never forget to send a Christmas card. Since both ladies were now approaching 94, I thought perhaps Sally’s mental state was slipping and so I contacted her daughter and heard about the Christmas cookies.

Telling Mother that Sally had died was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Mother died in August 2020. I wish she’d exhausted herself making cookies and sat down to die, but it was during the plague and smoke from the fires made the air too hazardous to even open the windows. I played her music from the 30s and 40s on my iPhone, read aloud from a book, and played solitaire until finally in the morning her spirit escaped. She just didn’t want to go through another Christmas without getting a card from Sally. From what I know, the two ladies probably wouldn’t have enjoyed going on a cruise together but they anchored each other to this world. Some old friends are like that.

Ode to Grey

I hope you enjoy this poem from Bijou

tin hats

Do you ever care about something,
so much that a pressure builds up
hot and sweating, red and painful,
around that one thing and magnifies it-
so that any ebb and flow of energy surrounding that thing,
cut and bloody, wet and heady,
well you know, it
either gets you
stimulant-virgin high or
paints all your reds black,
over and over and over
until suddenly,
burst and bleeding, crushed and steaming,
you kind of turn grey from it all
like living TV static and you think
grey is a kind of comfort, a nothing,
a quiet,
you mouth the words but
don’t say them in the heavy grey-
lack of color, without a name-
that’s better, isn’t it?

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The once in a lifetime plant?

Many years ago, when my mother was living with us, my husband went to the Home Depot for something innocuous like a screw or a nail and returned with a bulb that was about the same size as a grapefruit. He said he’d found it in a bin next to the check out stand on sale for only fifteen dollars.

For those of you who aren’t gardeners, that’s a lot of money to pay for a bulb! Needless to say, mother got a big kick out of making a daylong fess about Joel’s foolishness. “Oh, they saw you coming alright! I could have gotten thirty bulbs for two bucks at the Walmart … ” (you get the picture). Then she sat at the window and watched him plant the thing in the middle of the garden. “You can’t let him go to the store alone again or you’ll end up in the poor house.”

Spring arrived. Mother decided we didn’t provide enough entertainment and moved into one of those fancy places with a bar, beauty parlor, gym and theater. But in the backyard, nothing emerged from the ground where the magic bulb had been planted. In fact, years went by and nothing emerged until last August. Fire season had come early. We had massive fires to the north, east and south of us. The air quality hovered between unhealthy and hazardous to your health. The apocalypse had come to Northern California and with it, the penis plant.

I have to admit, it was more than just a little spooky. It grew and grew and eventually blossomed and was spectacular. After the blossoming stalk fell to the ground and died, foliage emerged and basked in the sun until January. After the foliage died, I wondered what would happen August 2021.

Well, nothing happened. The blossoming stalk never emerged. Perhaps it was the coolness of the summer or the lack of rain. I certainly hope it wasn’t the unhealthy air that the plant needed! However, after a couple atmospheric rivers rolled through the area, I went out into the garden and here’s what I found:

I have no idea if the foliage will be followed next August by a blossoming stalk. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

My artistic rendition

Maybe it only blooms once in a lifetime. One look is all you get.

But it’s green here in California which is always nice and the Mexican lavender is happy.

I do wish Mother could have seen the Red Quill in all its glory. I doubt she would have apologized to Joel but he’s good with children and old folks. Even if he’s somewhat of a sucker for a magic bulb.

Dreads and fears in the sensitive soul

T’is that time of year when the lights oft flicker and fail. Mercifully I have many a crossword puzzle to keep me occupied through the candlelit nights.

Years back, my schedule being tight because of child care and commute issues, I had the choice between two classes: Supernatural Literature and Early Christian Art. At the college I attended, art history classes required field trips and a ton of memorization and so I went with the supernatural. I’d read all the popular sci-fi novels in high school and so figured I’d be rereading books like Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land. I was wrong but I wasn’t the only one with this misconception

On the first day of class the front row of the lecture hall was full of burly young men. It was a sight rarely seen in the English Department. Generally athletes took Eng 101 and then were never seen again. When Professor Hutchins arrived on his bicycle, late and in a fluster, he took one look at the buffed up dudes and raised both eyebrows as if to say “righty-dighty!” Then he began writing the syllabus on the blackboard. He’d had some trouble, he explained, making sure the book store could purchase all of the volumes he wanted to cover. They were quite old and some of them were out of print. But, he went on to explain, he had his sources and if he could figure out the damned Xerox machine, he’d have copies of his syllabus available in his office.

Righty Dighty! (aka Algernon Blackwood)

He began by explaining the difference between science fiction, fantasy and supernatural. Science fiction is what could be or what exists elsewhere (in the future or the past or in a distant galaxy). Fantasy draws heavily on magic. However, supernatural literature is based on what exists but is not understood. For example: obsession, death, prophetic dreams, and yes, even romantic love. He then read this passage from Algernon Blackwood:

My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty. So many of my stories, therefore, deal with extension of consciousness; speculative and imaginative treatment of possibilities outside our normal range of consciousness…. Also, all that happens in our universe is natural; under Law; but an extension of our so limited normal consciousness can reveal new, extra-ordinary powers etc., and the word “supernatural” seems the best word for treating these in fiction. I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe. A “change” in consciousness, in its type, I mean, is something more than a mere extension of what we already possess and know.

Algernon Blackwood

As he read, the athletes all began shutting their notebooks and shuffling out of the class. He didn’t seem at all surprised.

We began with the Irish writer J.S. LeFanu (1814 -1873) who has been credited with adding the psychological element to what were previously creaking doors and black cat ghost stories. In his novella, Carmilla, Le Fanu was also credited with equating passionate love with death:

“… my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die – die, sweetly die – into mine.”

The vampire to her victim
Illustration by DH Fristen who also illustrated the first Sherlock Holmes books

Because Le Fanu was not only a Victorian but also a Calvinist. sexual arousal was a source of contradictory feelings:

“In these mysterious moods, I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.”

Calvinists believed that the only way to salvation was through deprivation. Anything pleasurable could lead to damnation. In Le Fanu, dreams are the portals to all sorts of mischief:

“But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.”

Unlike sci-fi and fantasy, in a supernatural novel there is no happy ending. The monster might be killed by the hero or heroine but the conditions that created the monster still exist.

“… to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes the playful, languid beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I head the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.”

The ending of Carmilla

The title of this post is from the 1963 version of Best Ghost Stories of JS LeFanu, Introduction by E.F. Bleiler.

You can probably guess that Carmilla was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I don’t know which … a beautiful young woman or a handsome middle aged man … makes a more frightening vampire. What do you think?

The Perfect First Sentence

Tomorrow (Oct. 24) would have been my friend Carol’s birthday. We’re both at the age where we don’t like to be reminded and so a simple card or email (preferably something hilarious) would suffice. If the weather allowed, a hike would be ideal. We generally met at Inspiration Point, a walking trail along the coastal ridge. Looking east, you can see the Briones Reservoir and beyond, Mt. Diablo. Looking west you can see the entire Bay Area and on really clear days, even the Golden Gate Bridge.

Looking east from Inspiration Point

Last year we couldn’t meet because of the air quality. And also because she’d just gone on hospice. I’d known Carol for over thirty years. Aside from our walks, we also shared a love for writing. This mutual love led us to sign up for all kinds of crazy events focused on helping you formulate “the perfect first sentence,” along with the perfect blurb, the perfect bio, the perfect elevator pitch, etc., etc. In addition she joined many writer’s critique groups and attended many writer’s retreats. Carol did a lot better at those events than I did. She was always the loudest and friendliest person in any room. I stutter when I get nervous which is my perpetual state of being.

Anyway I spent those last few months of her life helping her compile a collection of her stories and publish them on Amazon. After her death I found this story on my old laptop. It should have gone in her book. It’s perfect. And so, in honor of Carol Teltschick, here is The Perfect First Sentence.

They whispered it to her as she rounded the corner of Rose and Thornton at thirty-five miles an hour, careening downhill out of control, as usual. It was the perfect first sentence. Absolutely perfect – every word, the nuance, the flow. Shaking badly she pulled off to the side of the road to try to trap it.

Damn! She snarled. She had nothing in the pockets of her spandex outfit with which to capture the wicked little beast. No pencil, no pen, no lipstick. And so she tore a twig from a nearby aspen tree and wrote the line in the mud by the side of the road. She would come back for it later; after the biopsy.

All these months (and money) I’ve wasted attending seminars and work shops, she thought as she peddled towards home. And there it was, all this time, on the corner of Rose and Thornton. I’ll be damned. All the blurbing and pitching sessions, the lectures from the agents and established writers all saying the same thing: you have to write the perfect first sentence otherwise your book will not sell. Like a maniac, spending hours in the saddle, whipping the poor first sentence like a tired old mule until it keeled over and died on the page.

They neglected to tell her that you cannot write the perfect first sentence – you must glide through it on your way to someplace else.

Last night I dreamt of Manderly… The first sentence can’t be too strained but must flow into the story like a stream.

Whenever it is a cold November in my soul…The first sentence must set the tone for the rest of your book.

I round the corner of Rose and Thornton and I am flying.

“I’d like to take your hand and throw it across the room. That’s what I’d like to do,” She screamed at the radiologist, after he explained he’d have to reinsert the needle at least five more times. She was laying face-down on a table with her boobs dangling through two holes like udders. The pain, indescribable. Remember, the words lying in the mud waiting for you to return. See them in your mind, she thought and then the needle broke through her skin again and she screamed.

Afterwards it was children she craved. Minds uncluttered by sympathy or guilt. She would be their auntie; take them when their parents had to work on long hikes or to the seashore. Bake cookies, read stories or just listen.

She forgot the perfect first line in the mud.