On War

This was not the blog I expected to write for this week. As many of you are doing, I am watching the news, and praying and donating to the Ukrainian Red Cross* Making a #bookstacksforcause on my IG to help others donate to the charities they feel will help the most. Yet I feel impotent and torn. Part of me is in disbelief that this is happening now, in 2022. As if our era was too advanced for such thuggery.

Evidently not.

Germany bombed my mother in WWII. She was living just outside of London, in Wembley. Mom doesn’t speak of it often, but she still has night terrors about it, some 80 years later. My mother used to wake us all up with her screaming when I was younger. Dad says it still happens. Now more people will have that terrible scar.

My generation learned how to “duck and cover” under our desks when the air raid signals went off when we were in grade school. If we have another cold war, will another generation of children need to learn to do this? Oh wait, I forgot, they’ve already learned how to run/hide/fight active shooters while at school. What a terrible curve to be ahead on.

The Ukraine is a beautiful place. I visited it a long time ago when it was still part of the Soviet Union. For those of you who are forty and above, this is the map of the USSR you’ll remember:

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I went on a trip called “Camping and Driving in the USSR” while I was still in college at Northwestern. I learned how to speak Russian in a vague, get yourself fed, find the toilet sort of way before I went. Ukrainian is a different language. If you were baffled why we’re suddenly spelling the capital city Kyiv now, it’s because that is how they spell it in Ukrainian, as opposed to the Russian variant.

I remember three things about the trip I took forty years ago. The sunflowers. Miles and miles and miles of them. It’s gorgeous. Their little heads follow the sun, and when the sun isn’t out, the beautiful things turn their faces to each other.

Just like the people there are doing now, as they stand up to Putin and his mad invasion.

The second thing I remember is the churches. Back then in the USSR, church had been outlawed as the State was all, and religion ‘nothing but a sham.’ In Moscow they’d let the enormous church with the onion domes stand because it was an iconic building, but many of the churches were burnt out husks when I was there, never rebuilt after the 1917 Revolution. However, there were still functioning churches in the Ukraine. I stood in the back of an ancient, gilded, frescoed church and listened to a service, basking in the incense and the peace inside its walls. I didn’t understand a word, but I felt their faith. It brought me to tears.

The third thing I remember is the people. I’d come down with dysentery, and was very, very, disgustingly sick while I was there. As in, I lost over ten pounds in less than a week. Not the diet one aspires to.

The public restrooms were far flung at that time, and the lines to get into them were long. And when you’ve got dysentery, you don’t have a whole lot of say about when you “go” and when you don’t. I was in terrible distress in the middle of Kyiv, sure I was going to be horribly sick in the middle of the town square, waiting in one of those lines.

A woman who could have been anywhere from 40 to 60 years old noticed. She bustled up to me, put a cool hand on my forehead, and tutted. I didn’t speak Ukrainian, but she spoke Russian. Ascertaining my problem, she barked at the twenty or more people standing in line, moved them aside, and got me into a stall just in the nick of time.

It was a “squatter” which meant you put your feet on either side of a hole in the cement and squatted. The toilet paper was a book—you just tore pages out of it to wipe with. This was standard back then for toilets in the USSR. The woman waited for me. She took me outside, bought me a small bottle of warm Pepsi, and wiped my face and arms and hands with a cool cloth while we sat in the shade. Two other women came over and offered me bread. The three of them sat with me, a perfect stranger in the middle of the square in Kyiv that day, and tended me until I could walk on my own. They insisted on walking me back to the VW Van that we were driving through the length of the USSR to be sure I was safe.

That’s who is getting bombed. And I’m furious.

*/https://redcross.org.ua/en/

On Urban Hiking, Finding Peace, and Guacamole

I like people. I really do. Just not in big doses. Or over long periods of time. The length of a televised pro football game is about as long as I can hang. Which is good, as I quite like football, and make a killer guacamole that I’ll bring to your house when we watch the game. Recipes below for an Easy Guac, and a more time-consuming one.

While there are days when I wish I had my very own cone of silence to retreat into and just breathe until my metaphorical inner ear finds its balance again, most of the time I content myself with either curling up with a cup of tea and a good book on my kindle, or I go for a nice walk.

Goodness, that was a long sentence. You’d think I was Charles Dickens writing at a penny a word for a periodical.

But I digress, which happens to introverts who’ve been around too many people for too long. Thoughts scatter and it gets difficult to stay on track. We fray around the edges and need to regroup. These days, simply going to more than two stores in a row can create this state, even if one of them is a bookstore.

On a walk, I don’t listen to books or music. I enjoy hearing the birds and the way the dried leaves and scattered acorn husks crunch underfoot. The rustling and clacking trees make when the wind bends them. That soundtrack is part of my centering process. Within that song, that I regain my sense of peace. It’s also when my book characters speak to me, or new ideas filter up from the creative pond muck.

Yes, I prefer my walks to be nature-heavy. I wish I lived in Colorado year-round so I could just do a mountain trail, but there are nice areas here too. There’s a lake in Dallas that works quite well for that if you go at odd hours. Otherwise, there are lots of bikes and, you know, other people on the path too. Defeats the purpose. But it’s lovely. There are several long trails that branch off of the one around the lake, too. Only thing about those is that there are people living beneath the multiple overpasses and it makes me feel awkward and like I shouldn’t be there.

I’m lucky that I live in a neighborhood where I can just step out my door and go on a walk for an hour or so. Three miles does the trick most of the time. Sometimes I need longer to unwind, and I’ll go for five. I see all sorts of things on my walks.

The only time I don’t like to walk in the neighborhood is when the political signs go up in yards. It’d be nice if I didn’t think less of people because of their affiliations, but I do. I’d much rather admire their holiday decorations or pretty flowers, or the way their porch invites you to come up and sit for a spell.

You never know what you might see, or what could happen on an urban hike. Yesterday my walk took me next to the high school football stadium, and they were blasting old Madonna songs before a soccer game. My pace picked up. I *might* have busted out a move or two. The mail delivery person saw me and laughed, and she danced in the street too. It was fun to Vogue again.

I will say while the streets here in Dallas are pretty bad, which you wouldn’t think they would be, seeing as how the weather is sunny and warm 80% of the time, the sidewalks (if you get any) are worse. Here is an example of a bumpty sidewalk. There are lots of these as trees planted when the neighborhoods were originally built have grown into massive, towering things with big roots that don’t care about the strip of concrete. They’re going wherever they please. The shade in the summer is much appreciated, so I won’t complain about them, I’ll just keep a sharp eye out for where my feet are going.

Soon the insanely hot weather here will once again push my walks to before sunrise. That’s a different sort of walk. You get the double gift of seeing the sun rise and feeling smug about it, but you also have to deal with the people who’ve been in the bar all this time and are just now weaving home. During this brief winter interlude, I’m enjoying going out anytime I need to find my peace again. It’s a blessing.

GUACAMOLE: Easy and Less So: Both serve about 6 people. Double if you need/want to.

EASY: Get 4-5 ripe avocados and a container of TJs Pico de Gallo (I prefer mild). Mash avocados, drain Pico, dump in and mix. Seal tightly and refrigerate.

LESS SO: 4-5 ripe avocados, bunch cilantro, washed and stems removed (this is the time-consuming part), juice of one seeded lemon, 5 seeded and chopped Roma tomatoes, 1 bunch green onion, diced, 1/4 red onion, diced, dash of cumin, pinch of salt. Put lemon and salt in bottom of bowl first, then add onions and tomatoes. Mix. Dice avocado and add the cumin. Mash to desired consistency. Seal tightly and refrigerate.

On Valentine’s Day Then and Now 

Growing up in the 60s and 70s in the Midwest meant that my friends and I had childhoods unfettered by screens. There were only three television channels until PBS came along. No such thing as home computers for a decade or so yet, and phones were attached to the wall.

Not to wax too nostalgic, but it felt to me as if there was more time and more freedom for us at a younger age. I was judged to be old enough to walk to school by myself at the start of first grade. It was just seven short blocks down to the grade school and the Junior High (as we called it then) was right next to it. Some days I’d walk home for lunch. 

For three years in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, I was pulled out of that easy walk to go to a different school, an accelerated learning program or ALC school that was a bit further away, next to the community pool that only charged 25 cents to get in and 25 cents for a locker and a place to stay cool and wet during the long summer days in Wichita, Kansas. It was also around the corner from where the BTK killer nabbed some of his victims, but we didn’t know about such things back then. 

I had a red Schwinn bike with basket panniers on the back that I rode to get to school at the ALC, which would take me about 15 minutes. I’d ride three blocks on a side street, take the “bumpty sidewalk,” so called for all the trees that had nudged their roots under the cement, down two blocks to the main street, then a left and up a couple more blocks to the big intersection. Back then there was a grocery store on one side where I’d buy a Marathon bar or a Bit O’Honey when I had enough change scrounged up. Across from that was the Sinclair gas station with a green Brontosaurus for their sign. The attendants came out to fill your car and wipe down the windows for you. I don’t remember what the third corner was, and on the fourth were grassy fields and a barn with horses. Riding past all that another long block or two was the school. I rode back home for lunch many days for chicken and stars soup. We must have had an hour for lunch, I don’t know how I’d have made it otherwise. 

The ALC was a small group of 20 or so “smart kids” nested into a larger population of “normal kids,” which led to some fairly fraught encounters on the playground. I made lifetime friends in ALC, and still communicate with many of them. We had great teachers, read Homer in 4th grade, learned to type, went on spectacular field trips, learned Spanish from a teacher most of us detested, and ran around the backstops as part of gym class, which most of us also detested. 

Valentine’s Day at that school was also fraught with tension for me. We made pockets out of manila folders and decorated them with our name on them. These were taped below the chalkboard (oh, the smell of chalk! And the squeak of chalk!) at the front of the class about a week before Valentine’s Day. The envelopes were supposed to be for all the Valentine’s cards and candy our classmates gave us. We’d have a party with punch and cookies and open them. 

You could make the Valentines, or you could buy them at the store. By 6th grade, most were buying them. My mom came from England, and didn’t quite understand the idea that we could just buy pre-made valentines, so I ended up making mine every year. Being an egalitarian-leaning person even back then, perhaps fueled by my own deep understanding of loneliness and being left out, I always made one for everyone. I’d get red and pink and white construction paper and big white paper doilies and cut them into triple hearts with “lacy” edging scavanged from the doilies and write something nice on them. One for everyone. Maybe even glue a red dye #2 hard candy heart (wrapped in cellophane) to the center of it too. 

I was always sure I wouldn’t get anything in my envelope. It was awful, seeing other kids’ containers filling up while mine stayed pretty flat as the week rolled around. My good friends came through, of course, with cards, as well as some of the kids whose parents made them do a Valentine for everyone. 

My dear friend Laura, who saved my sanity throughout those ALC years, and continues to do so to this day, sent me a Valentine this year. I love it. 

Valentine’s Day has lost its power to make me feel less than these days. My husband and I got married ten days after Valentine’s Day, and that has replaced the “romantic” February celebration. These days I like to bake for the family to celebrate the day. I made sugar cookies this year. I’ve given you the recipe before, but here it is again. It makes a sturdy cookie that is close to shortbread in flavor and delicate mouth crumble. If you want just plain cookies, be sure to sprinkle sugar on them the moment they come out of the oven, and press it in while the cookies are still warm. I prefer to putter about with royal icing, recipe for that is below as well. As for the dubious artistry, well, it really is the thought that counts, right?

 

THICK SUGAR COOKIE RECIPE 

This makes somewhere between 18-24 cookies, depending on how big your cutter is, and how thick your cookies are. I aim for about a quarter inch thick. It gives the cookies a good strong base for the icing. 

3 cups flour 

½ teaspoon salt 

1 cup butter, room temperature 

1 cup sugar 

1 large egg, room temperature 

1 heaping teaspoon baking powder 

1 Tablespoon vanilla, it’s okay if a little more splashes in there. 

Cream the butter and sugar together until creamy, add the egg and vanilla and mix. Sift the flour and salt together and add in three batches. The dough will be a bit crumbly at first. Knead and shape into a disk. Put in fridge overnight or at least 4 hours before rolling out. I take mine out about a half hour before I want to roll it. 

Bake at 375 for 10-11 minutes (turn sheet midway), the edges will just be looking slightly golden. Cool on sheet for 5 minutes and then on a rack.  

ROYAL ICING 

Make sure your cookies are completely cool. Sift together 4 cups of confectioner’s sugar, 3 Tablespoons of Meringue Powder (it’s a magic ingredient, no more separating egg whites!) and about 3-4 Tablespoons of warm water. Mix to get a thick paste with a fork, and then beat with a mixer, roughly 10 minutes on high. Add water or confectioner’s sugar to get the consistency you want for icing. I use Americolor gel paste for my colors. A little goes a long way. Your hands might become a bit colorful for a while, but it washes off after 4-5 good scrubs. 

On Longhorns and Lowriders

We had family in from out-of-town last weekend. Texas was having gorgeous weather, so we all opted to take a wander over to the Stockyards in Fort Worth. I’d recommend this to anyone for a slice of Americana that has been nicely preserved. It does slew slightly over to touristy, but in so doing, allows you to get a cup of bougie locally roasted coffee and sit on the sidewalk outside of a hundred-year-old building with original wood floors and watch the world go by.

I’ve missed the simple act of being out and seeing people over the past couple of years. Not necessarily interacting but enjoying the diversity of a crowd.

This was a decidedly diverse crowd.

The Stockyards has a rodeo arena built in 1907 as well as a few long blocks of restaurants, attractions, and western-wear shops that connect to the vast areas where the drovers used to park their cattle on the long journey up from lower Texas up to the railhead in Kansas on the Chisholm trail. Back in the day, this place was the last “civilized” outpost on the trail, a place to get a real bed, a real bath, and a real good time with the women-folk.

Between the 1880s and the 1950s, the Stockyards grew to become the largest livestock-trading center in the Southwest. It was the place to get your horses and mules during the First World War, with Allied military officers from all over the world purchasing their animals there for the war effort. It became so prosperous they dubbed it “The Wall Street of the West.” It thrived all the way up into the 1950s, so the place had a good run.

It’s thriving again due to some infrastructure investments. Just like days of yore, when cowboy culture and commerce intersected, the place attracts all kinds, from packs of Harley riders to Hasidic Jewish kids on a sightseeing tour, to Trump touters to 70s-era hippies, and of course cowboys. There was a stock show in town, so there were plenty of authentic folks wearing broken in boots and big belt buckles they’d earned being the best at something on the Rodeo circuit.

There’s a mix of shopping; high-end stores in mule alley and at the far end, a whole indoor section of smaller stores that are priced a little less. You can get new dinnerware if you’d like.

For authentic boots and belts, go to Leddy’s on the corner of Exchange and Main.

Highlights of our stroll down this historic street included visiting the statue of this Bulldogger fella, Bill Pickett, who figured out if he leapt from his horse and caught a steer by the horns, twisted the steer’s neck around and bit its lip, he could bring it down in record time.

If someone did that to me, I’d fall over too.

He interestingly did not die doing this, instead meeting his end being kicked in the head by a horse. They didn’t mention if he was trying to bite it at the time. In 1972, Pickett became the first black cowboy to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Lisa Perry is the sculptress who created this wonderful bronze

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The other highlight, besides plain old people watching and admiring the architecture of the old buildings, is the Longhorn herd. We’ve seen the cattle drive down the street before, but it’s always fun and worth it to do it again. We also trotted over to the pens to see them at leisure, drinking water, and enjoying the sun. There are sixteen of them, and what we noticed this time is that all of their horns grew in unique ways. They were quite graceful moving around each other and things. The man who owned them said that on long drives, the cattle get up behind slower brethren and nestle a horn behind their backside to help push them along. I will say they move at a good clip on the “drive” down the street and seem to enjoy the walk.

We capped off our day in Fort Worth at the charming Bearded Lady for drinks and nibbles. They allow dogs on the outside patio and have heat lamps for chilly evenings. Nice, diverse music plays and the waiters are the perfect mix of laid back and attentive. Get the fried pickles and roasted Brussels sprouts. Your mouth will be happy that you did.