Tag Archive | Writing

Pining for Alpine

I just attended my fourth writer’s retreat in Alpine, Texas. I can’t tell you how much good this does for the people who attend. We spend five days living, eating, and breathing writing. I come back feeling re-energized and ready to write.

Far West Texas is my favorite place to be in the hottest part of the summer. It’s always 10 to 12 degrees cooler than here, and it gets downright nippy at night. I get a week in my favorite place, doing my favorite thing, taught by some of the best writers around, and comparing notes with like-minded people. Heaven.

My teacher this year, Mike Hall, an editor at Texas Monthly, is a really nice guy. He was approachable and genuinely interested in helping us take the next step. I got my ego stroked and my confidence built, so much so I’m determined to finish the book I’ve been working on forever. The whole project is a lot clearer than it’s ever been, so maybe 2015 will be my year.

Paisano Hotel, Marfa

Paisano Hotel, Marfa

A big part of the fun on these trips is playing tourist with my husband. Bryan and I visited Marathon, Marfa, and Alpine. We’ve been to each one before, but there’s always something new to see. That’s something people don’t expect from tiny towns sitting in the desert.

Marfa has really grown and has turned into a clean, pretty little town. In addition to becoming quite the art colony and providing Marfa Radio which saves tourists suffering NPR withdrawal, it has two traditional claims to fame: the Presidio County Courthouse, which is one of the prettier members of the Tacky Texas Courthouse Club, and the Paisano Hotel, where the cast of Giant stayed while filming the movie in the mid-1950s. A young friend of mine announced she has never seen Giant but planned to rent it after hearing about it in Marfa.

Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa

Presidio County Courthouse, Marfa

“Or you can read the book,” I suggested.

“There’s a book?” she asked wide-eyed.

The exchange made me feel old, but I smiled picturing Edna Ferber watching us, thoroughly disgusted.

Gage Hotel, Marathon

Gage Hotel, Marathon

Marathon Cafe

Marathon Cafe

Next Bryan and I headed for Marathon, pronounced MAR-a-thun. You swallow the last syllable. The one visible place to eat turned out to be a highpoint of the trip. Just the other side of the historic Gage Hotel sat the tiny Marathon Café.

We complimented our waitress, who turned out to be one of the three owners, and the floodgates opened. The residents of Far West Texas have learned to be polite to the tourists but not to get too friendly. We are different; we are The Others. And they never know exactly how we’ll react to open friendliness. I always try to get people to talk to me. It’s half the fun of traveling out there.

We found out the café was owned by three cousins, all older ladies with painful arthritic joints. As is normal there, none of them plan to retire anytime soon. Hard work is ingrained in them from childhood. You work until you get too ill or too dead to continue. A niece did the cooking. She had trained at the Gage Hotel and brought her considerable talents to the tiny family concern. Bryan said his chicken fried steak was excellent, served interestingly on top of the cream gravy. My hamburger quite simply was the best I’ve had in years, and she seemed surprised when I told her so. We will definitely go there again next year.

Sometimes we revisit favorite places, only to find them closed up or reincarnated as something else. Businesses come and go out there with the suddenness of death in the desert. Apparently you’ve got a window to make it or else. There’s always a little feeling of relief when we arrive and find a favorite haunt still standing and still in business.

Our last stop was Alpine. I had just spent a week there and had seen everything in town three times. But we discovered the Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross University campus last year and decided to go back. For one thing, they have a great gift shop, and I always stock up on memorabilia there. The displays don’t change drastically, but one of the blessings of advancing age is short-term memory loss. I see places for the first time over and over.

One of my favorite exhibits is a large topographical representation of the entire area. Plates on each side list points of interest and landmarks. Push the large, red button next to the plate, and a tiny light goes on at the appropriate place on the map. In the vastness of the place it’s easy to get turned around, and I enjoy lighting up the places we’ve just seen.

Black Bear, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

Black Bear, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

Pterosaur, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

Pterosaur, Museum of the Big Bend, Alpine

I like the stuffed black bear, whose relatives are repopulating the area. I also like the life-size replica of a pterosaur, which won’t be back anytime soon, hanging from the ceiling. Between dinosaurs, and later on Comanches and Apaches that gave the settlers many a bad day, Far West Texas has always been a pretty busy place. I prefer the toned-down version of today.

Every time we visit, Bryan and I try to figure out a way to move out there, and every year we realize we can’t. There are down sides to living in such a remote place: medical care is sketchy and usually far away; there is no quick way to get out there or back here from out there; and I’d have to hold auditions to find people to talk to about politics. With kids and grandkids in Central Texas, there’s a lot to stay for.

Still, I think we both started thinking about our next trip out there as we unloaded the car from this one. Far West Texas calls to both of us. As a friend, Joe Nick Patoski, said, “You either get this place or you don’t.” Bryan and I get it.

Five Christmases, a Birthday, a Broken Finger, and a Virus

The title of this post is the answer to the questions:

1) How were your holidays?

2) Why haven’t you posted to your blog in such a long time?

We had five separate Christmas get-togethers. The evening after the first one, I fell in a parking lot and broke my pinky finger. Going with my upbringing (If there is no blood and no bones sticking out, you’re fine!) I continued the holidays wondering vaguely why my finger hurt so much.

The day after actual Christmas, I hosted a 65th birthday party/roast for a friend who has had a rough year. You can’t go wrong with 20 old friends and Threadgill’s comfort food. Then it was off to Longview for the last Christmas and to see our family there.

Every bit of all this was a blast. We had wonderful holidays and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The first day back from the trip it was time, however, to get the finger checked out. Eight days after the fall I found out it had a hairline fracture. No wonder it hurt.

New Years came and went, and two days later I was wrestled to the ground by a virus. It had the earmarks of flu but no fever, so I just had to tough it out for two weeks with over the counter medicine. It ended the day the cedar pollen went through the roof, which landed me back in bed.

Okay, enough already. I am finally well and anxious to get back to my life. And back to my writing. My pinky finger can finally hit Enter without too much pain, and I’m ready to go forward.

One benefit of the illness, I was able to restart my diet. I had turned into an eating machine over the holidays, but that all changed with two weeks in bed. I’m pleased to report my stomach has adjusted to Small Bird Diet II, and I’m on my way to whipping my figure back into shape.

I’ve been fighting the battle of the bulge my whole life. I was a fat baby, child, and teenager. As an adult, my weight roller coastered so much, I collected enough different sizes of clothes to start my own thrift shop. But one of my New Year’s resolutions is to declare war on my body, get control of my weight this year and keep it under control. My other resolution is to cut back to three or four Christmases next year.

So if you haven’t seen or heard from me in a while, now you know why. But I’M BACK! Pull up your socks and tune in for adventures in 2014.

A Childhood Memory

childhoodLast month I attended the Writers League of Texas annual writer’s retreat in
Alpine, Texas. This was the third year in a row I have participated, and it is
fast becoming a tradition both my husband and I look forward to.

I attended the memoir class taught by Donna Johnson and Christine Wicker. This
class dug up a lot of my past, some sweet, some not-so-much. If you want to get
in touch with yourself, try a memoir-writing clinic. Be prepared, though.
There’s no such thing as free therapy, as the old saying almost goes. Ours was
the only class that came with Kleenex.

I want to share a piece I wrote as one of the class writing exercises. It is one
of my fondest childhood memories, and I’m grateful for the chance to bring it
forward again.


My older brother dug holes in our backyard. They were large and deep enough to
sit in undetected by casual passersby. I loved those magnificent holes Tom
shared with me.

Mama allowed him to have only one hole going at a time, lest the backyard become
an unusable No Man’s Land. He always filled one hole in before starting another

I watched for signs Tom was about to start another hole. I tagged along to watch
him choose a site. He was limited to a four-foot radius around the mulberry
tree. Grass wouldn’t grow there anyway, and Mama had given up trying. He walked
around and around, kicking a rock here, prodding a dirt clod there. Finally he
would sink his shovel into the ground, and I’d know he’d found his spot.

And Tom’s holes were always clean. I never got my play clothes dirty sitting in
them, and you could take books and magazines down there without fear of ruining
them. I would run my fingers across the hard-packed walls or floor without
soiling my hands. I always suspected Mama cleaned our holes when we weren’t

When the hole was finished, we observed a brief dedication ceremony, culminating
in both of us climbing in and sitting down. I was protected, circumscribed, and
unassailable, totally safe. Sitting in that hole with Tom felt like a hug.

Candlestick Maker, Indian Chief…Writer?

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.” Everyone knows the nursery rhyme. Along with “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker,” it was the only career counseling I received in my youth. And the fact I was female ruled out most of the above.

At one point it looked like I might turn out to be a thief, one of the few equal opportunity professions back then. At the age of six, I stole a roll of Five Flavored Lifesavers from the Handy Andy grocery store where we “traded.” When my mother discovered them in my sock drawer, she took me back to the store, asked for the manager, and had me confess my crime and beg him not to call the police and have me arrested. That experience pretty well cured me of a life of crime. As an adult, I once went back to HEB in a driving rain storm because the cashier had given me too much change.

My parents made it very clear there were only two occupations open to proper young ladies, my mother’s Number 2 goal for me and my sister. Number 1, of course, was getting married and having babies (in that order). On the off chance we had to work a few years until we could retire to housewifery and be “taken care of” the rest of our lives, we could consider only teaching and nursing. We weren’t choosing a career; we were just killing time while waiting to be taken care of.

It’s not that I was a feminist in those days. Being taken care of didn’t make me nauseous back then. I did wonder if women ever worked at jobs they enjoyed and weren’t ready to ditch at a moment’s notice. I had seen pictures of World War II’s Rosie the Riveter, dressed in pants (!) assembling aircraft and tanks to lick the Axis. I also knew those women left the factories in droves, supposedly happily, to return to the kitchen and nursery when Johnny came marching home.

My choices were further narrowed by my mother’s ban against being in the same room with naked people. Hospitals were full of the naked and near-naked, and were not the kind of places for me. That left teaching, and it was understood that if I wasn’t married within a week of my Senior Prom, I would go to college and double-major in teaching and virginity.

My point is, if I had told my parents I wanted to be a writer, they would have taken me to the family doctor for a penicillin shot. If I had persisted, they would have checked me into one of the places Mama went when she became “nervous.” They could have more readily pictured me as a candelabra-carving Native American.

I tried hard to fit in, to be what they wanted. I refused to become a teacher, mainly because they were so determined to make me one, but I did conform enough to get married, have a baby, and make a stab at caring about dirty yellow wax buildup and collecting recipes involving ground beef.

But writers have little choice in whether they write. Mostly, we have to do it, like fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly. I finally succumbed in my 40s. Both my parents had passed, blissfully unaware of my latest trip down the road to Perdition. I started writing for real in 1997, and I’ve been feeding my writing jones ever since.

Making enough money as a writer to call it a career happens to only a very gifted few. The rest of us have day jobs, night jobs, or sugar-daddies/mamas. And still we soldier on, filling up pages of paper or cyberspace  with words that  will hardly live forever. Mine have the life expectancy of a May fly, not a Hemingway. Not that it will stop me. And I’m grateful I don’t have to convince people to lay out good money to read my words. Getting them to read them for free is hard enough .

Like Popeye, “I yam what I yam.” I’ll continue to write as long as I can stick two thoughts together with super glue. When I can’t write anymore, it will be time to move to a nursing home, and I hope you’ll come visit me. You’ll recognize me. I’ll be the old lady wearing a Cheyenne war bonnet.

Channeling George Gobel

Lonesome George Gobel

Lonesome George Gobel

Did you ever have one of those weeks when the last thing you wanted to do was write something funny? Well, actually that was the next-to-last thing. The last was being pregnant. Possibilities and impossibilities aside, I’ve just waded through a very unfunny week and come out the other side.

Author Karleen Koen asked our Writers Retreat class to describe what our writing muse would look like if we had one. George Gobel immediately leapt into my mind and wouldn’t leave. If I had a writer’s muse, he would definitely look like Lonesome George.

For those of you only recently able to drink legally, Gobel was a television comedian during the Golden Age of that medium. His show ran from 1954 to 1960, and after that he was a regular on Hollywood Squares, a game show for quick-witted celebrities. Easy-going to the point of semi-coma, George was short, ordinary-looking, and sported a brush-cut flat-top, out of style even then. His beatific countenance concealed a dry, wicked, and thoroughly skewed sense of humor.

One of his comedic foils was his wife, the never-seen “Spooky Old Alice.” They were married over fifty years, and they died the same year. He liked to pretend he was a hen-pecked husband, but it was clear he was just in love.

Some of his famous quotes are: “If it weren’t for electricity, we’d all be watching television by candlelight.” “If you build a better mousetrap, you will catch better mice.” “I’ve never been drunk, but often I’ve been overserved.” And the classic, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world is a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes?” George Gobel taught me an appreciation for things that bring a smile to your face fifty years after you hear them the first time. He also taught me ordinary is funny. The harder you have to work to make something funny, the less funny it is.

So Lonesome George and I are out here on this deserted island together. I tell him about my most recent knee surgery, #3. I tell him #4 may be in the near future. He says, “You know, I’m as much of a fan of bi-lateral symmetry as anyone, but it seems to me if you have to have two knees, there should be some way to sync them, like electronics. You get one knee operated on, knock it against the other one, and hey-presto, they’re exactly the same.”

I say, “But then wouldn’t my surgeon be forced to drive a Mercedes with only two wheels?”

“No problem,” he counters. “He just tells his friends it’s a Segway.”

Some women might want to be marooned on a desert island with Hugh Grant or Daniel Craig. I’ll take Lonesome George every time. He’s a-Musing.


High Resolutions

Christmas is over and it’s time for me to deal with my annual will power outage. We still have to get through New Year’s, but except for blackeyed peas, it’s a non-fattening holiday. It’s no wonder most of my resolutions for the new year pertain to eating, or rather not eating, and losing weight accrued between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I have learned, however, to be realistic in making these resolutions, lest I stack up a pile of failures before the year even gets off the ground. Take it slow, take it easy, open one eye, a tentative toe in the water. Small victories are still posted in the win column. Here is my annual list of resolutions I think I can handle.

I will…

  1. …not buy bigger clothes, especially underwear. Being uncomfortable is great motivation to lose weight.
  2. …not wear baggy clothes, even if the tight ones make me look like the Michelin Man’s girlfriend.
  3. …reacquaint myself with the wonders of kale. Temporarily banished from my kitchen for the holidays, Big K  is back in town.
  4. …show people at least as much patience as I show my dogs.
  5. …call at least one friend per week to catch up, and not just monitor their lives voyeuristically on FaceBook.
  6. …dust something every day.
  7. …work to become a better writer by writing more and better.
  8. …remember to take my reusable bags into the grocery store with me every time.
  9. …check the care label in clothes before I buy them, and put back anything “dry clean only” or “hand wash, dry flat.”
  10. …stop rationalizing why I need to buy a new outfit, eat a doughnut, or watch one more episode of an NCIS marathon.

Some people may think I’ve lowered the bar a bit too much, but I say, “Baby steps, people!” If these resolutions work out this year, I’ll consider upping the ante next year, and the next, and the next. With any luck at all, I’ll pass on before I have to  do anything too strenuous, like climbing Mt. Everest or walking the entire Houston Galleria.

Feel free to use my resolutions or come up with your own. Be realistic, circumspect, and flexible. And by all means, let me know if you come up with some I can use next year.

Grammar Crimes and Misdemeanors

All right, class. It’s time to rant against grammar atrocities. I may only write about them once a year or so, but anyone who spends much time with me hears about them frequently. This could account for my Native American name, “Sits Alone Grumbling.”

Several years ago I published a monthly newsletter, “Janet Grammarseed’s Advice to the Wordlorn,” grammar wisdom directed at middle schoolers. If I started it up again, the target audience would be much larger. Just as Booth Tarkington’s classic, Seventeen, today would be retitled Eleven, Maybe Twelve, my little newsletter would be renamed, “Watch Your Damn Language!”

Whereas Janet Grammarseed skipped across the Heartland, gently correcting grammar and spreading good syntax wherever she went, today’s approach would require a much tougher avatar. Enter the Gramminator, roughing up anyone who fails to reach agreement between subjects and verbs, amputating dangling participles, and kicking ands and buts.

When our children were young, if they made a grammar mistake, say, at the dinner table, my husband and I would grab our throats, pretend to choke, fall on the floor, and feign unconsciousness. Perhaps that was a bit extreme, but our son sends grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated texts. Our daughter is poised for a career in journalism—the last bastion of complete sentences.

I admit I’ve mellowed. I’ve given up trying to explain the subjunctive (If I were, if it were…) When confronted with most grammar atrocities, I close my eyes and peacefully chant, Om-m-m-m. Now I focus on only one grammarcide. I’ve drawn a line in the sand of my Zen garden regarding that particular pockmark on the face of my Mother Tongue, and  I refuse to budge.

I am dedicated to bringing The Word about the past tense of sneak…one small step for grammar, one giant leap for grammarkind. The faux pas that has me digging in my heels is so legitimized by use, it actually appears in some dictionaries, obviously those toadying to teenagers and the news media.

The past tense of sneak is sneaked—not snuck.

Snuck is the sound one makes when trying to rid oneself of nasal congestion. It is the result of phlegm, not stealth. Be honest. Does snuck sound like the language of Shakespeare and Churchill? I think not.

I’m not asking for much. Please, teach your children and yourselves along with them: a word that sounds like a goose with post nasal drip has no place in the Land of the Well-spoken and the Home of the Grammatically Correct.

If I could just eradicate that one atrocity, the use of snuck, I might earn a mention in Wikipedia as the Eradicator of Snuck. Move over Jonas Salk. Perhaps then I could hang up my grammar spurs and live out my Golden Years in peace.

Or not.

A Chance Encounter

Writers with a Sense of Place ClassI recently attended the Writers League of Texas Summer Writers Retreat in Alpine, Texas. This was my second retreat at Sul Ross, and they just keep getting better. Last year Karlene Koen taught me I DID have a book in me and that fiction is not a four-letter word. She is a dear mentor and friend. This year I took Joe Nick Patoski’s class, “Writing with a Sense of Place.” He gifted me with a boost in self-confidence as a writer and the knowledge I really do have a writer’s eye. He is a treasured new friend.

During the week of the retreat, he gave us several writing assignments, and one of my favorites was to write about a character we had met in Alpine. Here is mine.

Every time I come to Alpine I meet what I consider typical characters of the area. I usually meet older people, middle-aged to elderly, just your general grown-up. What makes this trip different is the young man I met on my way to class yesterday.

I work sometimes at an Austin high school, so I’m no stranger to the young’uns of our breed in their adolescent Blunder Years. As I approached the building, I caught sight of a strapping giant of a kid, obviously an undergraduate-type but with the face of a little boy. He looked like a balloon figure of an eight-year-old boy, blown up out of all proportion like the balloons in Macy’s parade. This man-child could have floated easily between Bullwinkle and Popeye on Thanksgiving Day.

He was neatly dressed in the ubiquitous, painfully blue West Texas jeans, definitely not stonewashed Levi’s, and a polo shirt, tucked in, of course. Instead of a backpack, he toted one of those shiny, aluminum briefcases. At first I thought it might hold his lunch, being the appropriate size for a lunch this boy would consume, but I soon realized it was on more serious business.

He got on the elevator with me, although he looked like he could build a staircase, much less use one. I smiled at him, to let him know I wasn’t one of those crabby old ladies, and he immediately grinned back and said, “Good mornin’, m’am.”

I smiled again and returned his greeting. He looked very pleased with the way the conversation was going.

“Are you taking classes here, too?” he asked, a touch of disbelief in his voice.

I explained I was here for a writers retreat and that I had come over from Austin. His face lit up, and he looked like he was going to wag his tail any minute.

“Oh, I’m from San Antonio!” The nascent connection solidified as I told him I grew up there.

The ride up one floor didn’t last nearly long enough, and soon we were wishing each other a good day. As he went down the hall, he looked as if I had made his day, meeting someone from “home” and all. He certainly made mine.