All posts by Rebecca Nolen

I blog about many things.

Christmas 2011

Scrooge's third visitor, from Charles Dickens:...
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This year Christmas came early in the form of a perfect grand baby. Her birthday in September felt like summer – weather wise. Here it is December and the leaves have turned color. So we have a lovely Fall for Christmas. And grand baby has doubled her birth weight into a dimpled little round thing with great lungs.

Thankfully this old house has extra thick walls. This doesn’t help my daughter to sleep because baby sleeps  in her room.

Christmas brought activity that didn’t involve a tree or lights. Amongst many calamities, serving a hot meal, making sure the dog got outside occasionally, or staying calm took priority rather than a trip to the attic, decorating, un-decorating, and then re-stocking the attic. Call me Scrooge. Seems we are spending the important holiday moments at someone else’s house with someone else’s decorations anyway.

Besides, I am feeling Scroogish.

Perhaps I feel this way because we didn’t drive around looking at lights in the neighborhood, or because I didn’t turn up the volume to endless holiday songs whilst wrapping gifts, or the fact that we visited Santa at the mall with the baby before Thanksgiving. Christmas just snuck up and walked past while I was looking the other way. I suddenly realized it while singing carols in church last Sunday. Whoa! It’s Christmas.

When I was very young and living in South Houston, Christmas was a big affair. Huge. My parents went all out with the decor. Lights, the tree touched the ceiling, streamers from corner to corner of the living room like a used car lot. We had a cardboard fireplace taped to the wall with a tin electric fire. It didn’t put off any heat. The nearby gas heater did and that was enough. Some Christmases the warm weather outside made even the fake fire warmish. That’s weather in Houston.

We didn’t receive gifts or toys during the year, ever. Instead my mother bought what she bought all year long and saved them, wrapped, in some t0-this-day-secret place until Christmas morning. What good, I ask you, were three brothers if none of them could discover the secret hiding place? Was there not a curious bone in any other them? Humpf!

I learned years later from my older brother that we were poor! I never knew. I thought we were kings and queens living as we did in our yellow asbestos shingle home with the white rock roof. I was inordinately proud of that canary yellow house. Even if the rock rained off the roof when the wind blew and the tar would drip when the weather got really hot. There was a pot of tar in the back yard that I would play in when it was soft.  I grew up happy in my world of dolls, lizards, mud pies and climbin’ trees. My brother Jon and I went fishing in the summer, caught crawfish in the flooded ditches in the spring with a string and a piece of bacon, (it was the novelty capturing these alien bug-like creatures – we didn’t discover eating them until we were grown), and we rode our bikes to grandma’s house every season of the year for more trees to climb and her chocolate chip cookies. Life was good. Poor? No way!

Maybe that’s why my mother used the same tinsel every year (and scraping it off the tree after Christmas was tedious) and she cut napkins in half throughout the year (also tedious).

There is something about being appreciative of things when you are small, something about seeing value in everything outside of the presents under the tree. Like enjoying the box more than what was in the box.

Maybe my parents had the right idea about not giving us anything (new) all year. Maybe the anticipation was the really special thing about Christmas. These days it is all too easy to give and get all of the time. What else are those shelves of items along the check out lines for? For you to suddenly realize what you needed. Or for the kids to scream and throw tantrums for. (The only time I ever shop-lifted was a package of Chiclets from the line. My grandmother caught me chewing the gum and made me take a hard-earned nickel to pay the store manager. I seriously never stole a thing ever again.)

Our grand baby doesn’t care about Christmas presents, decorations, or tinsel. Though she does love shiny things – her eyes get huge and she has that way of smiling that melts me. This year she doesn’t even care about the box. All she wants for Christmas is us – those who love her.

And that’s what she is getting.

Merry Christmas Y’all!

The Lamp Incident

Two lamps with lampshades.
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The husband decided to replace the temporary paper blinds. I don’t think the paper blinds look so bad. From the outside, in the dark, and if you shut one eye they do look like those expensive pleated blinds. But no, he wanted to put something real up. He went and got some mini-blinds, which are okay in my book but not great. I like the expensive pleated blinds.

He was working on getting those mini-blinds installed. Beneath possibly fifty coats of paint the hundred-year-old window casings are made of petrified wood. At least that was what it seemed like around all the objects dropping and bad language coming from my husband as he tried numerous ways to get the parts and pieces screwed in place.

Different sizes of ladders were called for and produced. Different screw drivers. “Why is my cordless screwdriver never charged?” he asked me.

“We lost the charger three moves ago.” Was the correct answer but I hemmed around that with “I can’t find the charger, use this nifty T-shaped screwdriver I got you for your birthday.”

He cursed the T-shaped screwdriver and used it anyway.

He finally figured it all out and had the study’s blinds installed in a short hour and a half. Two windows down. Four to go.

He did the dining room because that only required moving the baby’s changing table, an old dresser, a lamp and a few dozen miscellaneous breakable things.

Now the living room seemed like it would go the fastest because the only thing to be moved was the couch. It’s a small couch. I left the room and when I came back I found him at the top of the ladder leaning forward with the drill poised to go at it. He had moved a side table, the one with the lamp on it. The lamp that wobbles because the lamp shade is so heavy. The ladder’s legs were straddling both the drill’s cord and the lamp’s cord. The lamp, a tall, rusted iron affair with this old, stained-glass lampshade. The lamp’s cord was stretched tight. This didn’t look like it would turn out well. I turned off the lamp and went to unplug it.

“I need that light.”

I looked up at him on his ladder. “But it will fall,” I said.

“I’m being careful!”

Best not argue. He is after all putting up blinds, which is one less thing for me to worry with if I were to ever get around to finding a way to sneak the expensive pleated ones into the budget. A far, far better thing for me to do was to walk the dog.

Back home, the dog and I walked in on the husband holding a broom and dustpan. “What’s up?” I asked because I hadn’t see the mess on the floor. Yes. It’s true. The nice, stained glass lampshade, bent and broken into unrepairable pieces. “Oh,” was all I could manage.

I didn’t need to say anything else. I could tell he felt bad about it. I found a spare linen lampshade and stuck it on the iron lamp. It was a little crooked, but keeps the light shaded and that’s all a lampshade is for.

The next day I took the glass bits and crooked copper-works across the street to my neighbor, Joan Son. ( She is an origami artist. I asked her if she knew of anyone who could use the old stained glass. She did. I’m glad to recycle old things into new ones.

I thought that was the end of that. I have more things to worry about purchasing than a new lampshade so I didn’t worry about the lamp after that.

Except it was my birthday this past weekend and my husband walks in from work with a sack from Pottery Barn. I love Pottery Barn. And you guessed it – it was a new lampshade. It was a good-looking one. But honestly Pottery Barn isn’t known for their lampshades. And when you buy a lampshade for a room you should buy the exact lampshade for all the matching lamps, right?

He could tell I wasn’t enthused. And I was sorry when my daughter came home from work and my husband asked her her opinion. “It’s pretty,” she said. And then paused. “Wait. Wasn’t that the lamp that you broke? You bought a lampshade for mom’s birthday gift?”

All of which didn’t make him feel any better. I apologize dear husband for how badly you felt about the entire lamp incident. Accidents happen. Let’s forget about it and move on.

I have to admit the mini-blinds do look better than the paper blinds.

Snakes Alive Part 2, and My Brother’s Early Embalming Efforts

I’m not a crazed snake handler. I don’t long for a pet snake. I’ve never even rehabilitated a snake. I tried once. I found a snake twisting itself in knots to scale the bird bath, a green grass snake. There was a dry spell at the time so I realized it was trying to reach the water. I picked it up and put it in the water. It seemed to soak it in, lolling in the water, opening its mouth. I then placed it at the edge of the wooded area where it could get under cover and safe from the cats. I walked away but heard a PIFTH and turned up in time to see a hawk scoop the snake up and carry it away. What could I do but let nature take its course?

I learned early to educate myself about things I was afraid of, the things I was constantly coming into contact with – snakes, bugs, arachnids. I grew up in the country with brothers and a lot of snakes, bugs and arachnids.

Many years ago, while traipsing through the woods in Cedar Hill, Texas I came close to stepping upon numerous Copperheads. They were everywhere. It was Springtime when they gather in clusters to mate and when they are especially irritable at being disturbed. More recently a Copperhead brushed against my hand when I was moving a rock in my Sugar Land garden. With I say “brushed” it isn’t with the same as coming into contact with something furry that the word “brushed” implies. Instead, it was more the sensation against the skin of something smooth, dry, and weirdly cold. I stood back and watched it slither out of sight, and caught my breath before slumping to the ground.

I’ve had numerous encounters with rattlesnakes – also in Cedar Hill, Texas. A wild and wooly place, full of dry limestone shelves which make good hiding places for snakes and scorpions and tarantulas. I sighted a three-foot long canebrake rattlesnake while walking along a sandy creek bottom in Brenham, TX. Canebrakes are very aggressive and highly dangerous. This one paid no attention to me at all. It was one of those shuddering moments of full clarity when every nerve feels exposed.

I’ve seen more dead rattlesnakes than live ones. Once my brother, Jon, brought home the stiffening body of a good-sized timber rattler he’d killed at the cow pond behind our house. He arranged its body on a board, super-glued it down and injected it with formaldehyde. (I have no idea where he got the formaldehyde – isn’t that illegal? And hypodermic needles?) And thirty years later, he still has the shriveled thing, coiled in a striking position, mouth open and fangs extended. Did he realize how dangerous those fangs were? Dead snake venom doesn’t lose its lethality.

Not bad for his first attempt. Generally he would skin the snakes he killed and salt the hides, that is he would scrape the hide free of flesh and rub salt into the wet side, over and over until the skin was dry but supple. He still has the six-foot hide from a diamond-back water snake – the thing is as big as a boa constrictor.

Most snake stay clear of humans. Pit vipers can, with sensitive heat seeking “pits” at the front of their head, determine the size of the warm-blooded creature before them. If they aren’t in danger of being stepped on or have not already been stepped on they really would rather not waste their poison on something too big to eat. Snakes get away from any contact with humans as soon as possible.

With one exception.

I save the scariest for last.

Like the diamond-back rattlesnake, the water moccasin or “cotton-mouth” (named for the white mouth-lining that it displays when threatened) grows into a sizable snake. They are both thick bodied snakes, with large fangs and a good quantity of poison. And like the diamond-back rattlesnake, the poison of the cotton-mouth not only kills muscle tissue, it also destroys blood cells and damages nerve cells. These are snakes that can kill humans.

Now, with a rattlesnake you have an early warning system. Their rattle is unlike the sound of the baby’s rattle. It is more like a buzzing not much different – though maybe louder – than the sound of cicadas. But water moccasins do not have an early warning system, unless you count their smell. Because they do smell especially when disturbed. They smell like death.

The water moccasin swims with its head above the water. It moves through the grass and tall weeds the same way. The reason is though a pit viper, they use their sight to much greater advantage than any other snake. In this way they remind me of what I’ve read of the black mambas of Africa.

Another thing different about these vipers is that they eat dead things. Maybe that’s where they get the smell they carry.

It is my experience  water moccasins are scarier than any other snake because they do not run away. Every other snake will disappear, or steer clear of humans. No so the water moccasin. They not only do not back down but will approach. I can’t attribute them some human trait like curiosity to explain this behavior. There are only two explanations. Either they are so prehistoric in their “programming” that they have to follow their path of migration, or they are an aggressive snake.

When we moved to the house next to the muddy-bottom Oyster Creek, we didn’t count on the water-moccasins. The first week after we moved in two of them tried to get into the garage, at the same time. They would not back down. I wasn’t sure they were water-moccasins because I’d never seen one up close so I carefully draped them on the end of a shovel and flung them into the woods nearest the water. After several more encounters I know now those two copper-eyed reptiles were fully grown water moccasins. And the thought give me the creeps.

They come in different colors as per their age. Young ones have diamond-back markings and are as lethal at birth as the adults. The older the water moccasin gets the more the markings on their back fade to dark brown. Their sides retain some markings that fade to cream on the belly with a little yellow sometimes along the length of the body. Their eyes, like other pit vipers, have a slitted pupil, which squeezes into near invisibility in the sun.

Many more water moccasins tried to enter our home. The strange behavior of the cats warned us. It was a particular action they did. Obviously spooked, the three of them jumped like cat popcorn.  I would find a water moccasin curled to strike behind a potted plant or the garden hose. I killed quite a few. I didn’t just kill them. I chopped off their heads. People have been bitten by dead water moccasins. Why is this? Because these snakes are programmed to strike. It’s primitive. It’s primal. I didn’t make this up because every one of my headless water moccasins continued to “strike” with their bloody stump, the head opened and closed its mouth with fangs dripping venom.

There are two things that give me the willies – the large palmetto bug (a giant cockroach common in the south) and the water moccasin. The willies is defined as “the shivers”, the “heebie-jeebies”, and a shuddering fear.


Here is a picture of me with a headless snake, which is still trying to strike at me.


Snakes Alive! Part One

I miss snakes. Since moving to the city, I haven’t seen but one snake. When we lived in Sugar Land I spotted them weekly and sometimes more often. The dearth of big city snakes hasn’t always been the case. Accounts of the Allen brother’s landing in the swamp included malaria-carrying mosquitoes and poisonous snakes amongst the many dangers. But we’ve become civilized, no more cannibals or quick-sand (except perhaps at the downtown courthouse) and not many snakes.

Growing up in South Houston I enjoyed catching copper-colored grass snakes. I would try to keep them as pets. “Try” because my mother would figure it out and empty my catch-jars. My brothers and I would catch glass-eels, and pipe-fish at the back-water fishing cabin near Galveston, and at home we would find flat-worms under rocks, the kind we would later cut up in biology class. And there were the earthworms.

Once I listened to a hysterical woman describe the reason she could never garden. “It’s those pink snakes everywhere.”

We had good healthy (earthworm laden) soil in Sugar Land.

Earthworms are God’s gift. If it weren’t for them the world would stink something fierce. They eat organic material and turn it into pure, sweet-smelling earth. Thank God for them!

Unlike the flatworms, they do not regenerate if cut in two. They die. An earthworm is intricately made with a gizzard for grinding food because like chickens, they have no teeth. They have a five chamber heart with red blood. Their liver takes up over three-quarters of their body, their stomach and intestines take up the rest. So be careful fellow gardeners with your spade. If seen on the sidewalk, carefully move that earthworm to the grass and out of sight of the early bird. Please.

My first and only sighting of a snake in Houston happened while visiting Rienzi. Rienzi is a mansion like something from an Agatha Christi play, all white limestone curved lines and art deco. They give tours. The gardens are designed by someone famous, but I can’t recollect who. The gardens are proud to be called “very European”. Staircases that lead to avenues, with views at every turn, from clipped lawn to sculpted bushes. All very fancy.

My husband and I had ended our walk through the greenery and were taking the stairs to main-floor ground level when I saw a flash of red out of the corner of my eye.

There, slinking from a raised bed and wiggling across a cement walkway was a coral snake.

In Texas there are garter snakes that are banded with the red, black and yellow so we have a little saying to distinguish between a coral snake (lethal) and the banded garter snake (harmless). All snakes are beneficial, like wine taken in moderation. My thing is that if you kill all the snakes you see you are only leaving more room for the poisonous snakes because there are far more non-poisonous snakes in Texas than poisonous. So chances are the snake you see will not be a poisonous snake. My best advice to you is: if you see a snake, don’t engage it in battle, just run away.

So as I watched this gorgeous red and black and yellow banded snake pass by within a few feet, I recited my little saying. “Red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black safe now, Jack.” This little guy’s yellow bands touched his red bands. This was a genuine coral snake, one of the most lethal of all the poisonous snakes.

I was so thrilled.

I’ve never seen one in the wild. And the ones in cages at the zoo look so washed out and “beat-down”. This one was active and perfectly glossy. Its red was red and its yellow yellow, the colors so bright as to hurt the eyes. It was about twenty inches long, and about as big around as my finger from tip to stern. They can reach as long as three feet but it is rare to see a coral snake much less a really long one. Unlike pit vipers they remain a very slender snake throughout their life, eating small insects and vermin that they can get their tiny mouths around.

There are two types of venomous snakes in America, the pit viper group includes the Copperhead, the rattlesnake, and the water moccasin, and the coral snake. The venom of the pit viper group attacks muscle cells (though some have nerve attacking properties) effectively rotting the cells and doing horrible damage that can lead to loss of limb and even death, the coral snake’s venom like the cobra in other parts of the world, will shut down the nervous system. The Texas Coral snake has two fixed fangs at the front, which means that those fangs can reach just about any part of you that you get near it. The pit-viper’s fangs are hinged. They stay flat with the closed jaws but swing forward when the mouth is opened.

Coral snakes are shy, which is why I was so thrilled to see one. When threatened they curl up and hide their head. I didn’t get near enough to my rare coral snake to make it feel threatened. It squiggled across the walk, up the side of the raised bed of another garden where it disappeared beneath the leaves. Gone forever.

And that’s okay.

Not So Important Baby Equipment

As the grandchild’s arrival grew near we got busy with equipping the house with what we thought would be important.  Two showers of wonderful gifts left not many holes in the list. For every new gadget and every improved gadget I remain amazed. How had we survived all these generations without?

Here are some things as grand baby’s caregiver I’ve discovered were unnecessary. And also some things that can’t be done without.

Number one unnecessary: The co-sleeper. As my mother-in-law told me take out a sock drawer and line it with a waterproof pad, it works just as well. The idea is that you put this little container in the bed next to you (the new mother) because, well if you’re a new mother you know the because. The co-sleeper we bought was awkward and the baby never got comfortable enough to sleep in it. It’s in the closet now.

Number one necessary: Besides diapers, waterproof pads, light-weight blankets for swaddling, and onesies, a swing is essential. Back in the dark ages I had one for my children, too, a clunky wind-up thing. The ones now are so far superior with mobiles, and music, and a really comfortable-looking seat that baby can and WILL sleep in for hours (thank you baby-swing inventor wherever you are!)

Bassinets are just pretty. Enough said.

One surprising new piece of equipment (wish I could find one in an adult size) that looks like a lounger and is made of memory (ahhh) foam. It is called a Nap-Nanny and has the child sleeping in a slight recline so that burp and spit up doesn’t do any harm. Spit-up is really scary with a newborn. It comes out of mouth and nose so that the baby is choking if she is flat on her back. How horrible is that? A baby flat on his/her back is the recommended position these days to prevent SIDS. But what about drowning? Yuck.

Baby clothes in sizes 0 to 3 months are nice, but not necessary by the truckload, this coming from the grandma who couldn’t resist.

Baby gyms are cute and seem to make sense except to the baby. What needs to be invented is a “tummy-time” blanket. Something water-proof that has bright colored textured geometric shapes for when baby is on her tummy practicing holding up her head.

An important piece of equipment to purchase if you have a dog is a play-pen. The baby bouncer, Nap-Nanny, etc fit inside and baby can nap or bounce without the dog licking her face. Note: Bouncers are great but newborns look really uncomfortable sleeping in them.

And my daughter points out that the Boppy pillow is an essential for nursing moms.

There are a lot more essentials like diapers and formula (a tricky road paved only by trial and error) and the car seat. We went with a Chicco because of its simplicity. All of them are awkward to get into the middle of the backseat with a sleeping baby nestled within. This is back twisting stuff so exercise to strengthen lower back muscles beforehand.

A lot of available things aren’t necessary but many are so by trying out different things and reading reviews you may be able to come up with the best options for your baby without breaking the bank. And it helps to have friends with older babies willing to lend their advice, tips and that baby swing (Thank you, Emily!).

Welcome to Utopia

English: City Hall of Pearland, Texas Español:...
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This book Welcome To Utopia: Notes From A Small Town is a good read. The perspective surprised me, a native Texan, because I grew up in that small town atmosphere. This account comes from a New York City girl, Karen Valby, who moves to Utopia, Texas for the purpose of writing this book. She follows some regulars at the Utopia General Store “The coffee drinkers” branching out to all the people who intersect them in life.

It wasn’t an earth-shattering, life-changing book, just a good read for someone who has been there. I’m not one of the “Coffee Drinkers” in life but my father was so I guess I’m one of those whose life was impacted by that little Texas ritual. My father always found time to sit and drink coffee and chat about anything and everything. Wherever he was or whoever he met, it was the next question after his greeting…”Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”

The dictionary says that Utopia is an imaginary place described as perfect or ideal in all aspects. Karen Valby points out that Utopia is definitely not perfect. Most of its young folk want to leave but many find themselves pulled back into what they know to be familiar and then learning to like it.

I remember going to school in Pearland and how I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t want to grow old with the Texas twang snarling my speech, and a dead-end job at the local insurance agency. I didn’t want to have a husband and two point five children.

I did, too. I went to Chicago almost immediately after high school. It was an exhilarating experience. After a few years and dozens of people falling asleep listening for the END of a story I was telling, I learned to speak faster with more clipped non-accented words. Now I’m hard pressed to come up with Texan words, though I do “dish up” folks from the stove, and I usually am “fixin’ to” do something, most of my “Texian” has disappeared from my vocab-bank. I completely lost the “R” in the word ‘wash’, as in “I’m doing the warshing up.” It’s gone. I don’t say it anymore and I blame Chicago for that. While living there I was once asked to please spell ‘wash’. Then that person asked “where is the ‘r’ then?”

I’ve run into people I went to high school with who still live in Pearland. I had good friends I’ve reconnected with. I’m glad for that but just as glad I’ve had the experiences I’ve had, too.

And I’ve come full circle – in Houston with a husband and two point five children (I count the dog as the point five).

Still not Utopia. But it’s all good.

The Curious Case

Upon reflection of the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” I think the story is brilliant.

Here’s why: I oversee the care of my 86-year-old mother and the care of my nine week old grand child. The two are similar in that they don’t have a lot of choices about life. So I can see where the storyline comes from. The writer asked “what if?” and there it was.

My mother sees life closing in on her. Her movements are more tentative, frailer, smaller every day. She is less and less sure of walking across the room. She can’t make the television change away from one channel. I’ve explained it a dozen times and written it down. But no, she’s decided the television doesn’t work.  Her values, beliefs, and determination remain strong but the world she maneuvers within has become tighter, tougher. It must be scary for her. She refuses to admit defeat, which is good for her but quite worrisome for those who care about her.

On the other hand, my grand child’s life unfolds within a growing world every day. She can see better. At birth her eyesight was only as well-defined as her mother’s face. Every week her distance vision grows sharper. She’s now sitting up and watching the football game with her grandfather. Her bright smile and obvious excitement at every turn has me believing that she’s a bundle of possibilities and not just a little bundle of flesh and bone with arms and legs that seem to sneak up and surprise her with their wild movements.

The baby’s movements are changing and growing more precise every day as her muscles grow stronger. My mother has lost most of her muscle mass. She holds up her arm and I can see each bone with the flesh sagging around it. She struggles to get out of a chair. She has never cared much for any physical activity and forget exercise, though she did go through a Jack LaLanne phase.  At this point, she is a poster child for “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” If I remind her that she needs to walk to gain strength, she gives me that thin-lipped look, with an ever so slight shrug. No, she doesn’t want to, so it isn’t going to happen. She tells her helper that I make her tired.

So the writer for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” must have experienced or seen the connection of opposites with the very old and very young and asked “what if a person was born old, grew younger, and died a baby?” What kind of difficulties would this present? What kind of difficulties would this present for everyone else? Especially those who loved that person?

While my grand child increases joy in our home, worry over my mother grows. I try not to think about it but then if I don’t think about it, here comes the guilt. Worry-guilt all for love. It’s a curious case of not really knowing what to do, nor how to do it.


For the Love of Rocks

My parents took my three brothers and me to just about every state or national park from Texas up to Minnesota and across the entire eastern map of the U.S. As I recall forty three  state stickers were plastered to the back of the old pop-up camper. Purchasing the stickers at Stuckey’s became integral to the race to compile more stickers than any other camper. This was before “Survivor” type reality TV. No one was going to vote us off the campsite if we didn’t reach yet another far-off place during our usual two-week summer vacation. But my parents were fiercely competitive in their camping mode. Some states we visited multiple times, of course, because we had to get from here to there, and we usually took a different route from there to here.

This isn’t a travel blog.

Every other year our destination was Iowa, to visit the relatives, and every OTHER year it was North Carolina. Cherokee, North Carolina to be specific. We all loved the Smoky Mountains National Park. Something for everyone there. Fishing, hiking, swimming, wading across slimy rocks in swift, freezing water, drinking same water and coming down with the terrible heebie-jeebies, and watching Native American dances in town.

From each park I took, okay,  I stole a rock or two. Once I stole a frog. It was a huge green bull frog. The only reason I got that frog from Tennessee to Texas was because my mother never knew I had it in the car’s backseat until we arrived home. I was not allowed to keep him in my bedroom.

The frog got away.

The rocks from all over the US, I kept. I rearrange nature.

Weirdly, I was born loving rocks. Or dirt. Maybe mud. Definitely bugs. And usually snakes. Perhaps from watching my older brother. He was a digger. I am a digger. He went into landscape architecture. I am a master gardener. At least that is a good cover.  The truth is I believe in hidden treasure. So I keep digging.

Anyways, I grew up watching him, and wanting to be like him and have his stuff. He had a chemistry set. I wasn’t to touch it. Did you know chemistry sets have gum arabic? Did you know that gum arabic doesn’t have any flavor? He had a rock collection. One that he carefully compiled over years of saving to buy the bits glued to cardboard squares with their proper names in stiff typeset. I wasn’t to touch it. I especially liked the fool’s gold. I think I still have that one.

My personal assemblage of stone amounted to some weight as we visited a lot of parks and this collection process spanned many years. I kept them at my parents home hidden-in-plain-sight in the “rock” garden until I had a house and room for them. Much to my husbands despair I carted them around move after move. I used the rocks as decoration or as garden borders. About seven years ago we sold our house so quickly – it was such a shock because houses weren’t selling then either – that I wasn’t prepared. I forgot the rocks. The majority of them are still there in Sugar Land, Texas.

So this is much ablog about nothing.

But as an aside. I still have a large beach pebble from Maine (a gift from a friend), a lightening-glass chunk in turquoise (see movie: Sweet Home Alabama), an illegal stalactite (no, really, I took it before the laws), slate pebbles from the beaches of West Cornwall, England, some sandstone from West Texas, and I even took a stone from the mountain top where Ronald Reagan’s Presidential library sits. I’m really surprised that I got away with that. I did do a little surreptitious thing with my jacket and bending to “tie” my shoe. You see I had already been caught sitting on RR’s saddle and wearing his hat. (Wow. Stop! Within seconds we men in dark coats surrounded us. “The sign says ‘don’t touch’.”) I really had not seen the sign. I just wanted to pose for the pictures my mortified husband was taking. Unfortunately the camera was broken. Who knew? We took a lot of pictures we didn’t know we weren’t taking. I would never be able to show the pictures of me wearing the gipper’s hat and sitting on the worn-out saddle draped on the saw-horse? I do not lie. It happened.

This is the beginning of my new collection.

So for all of those who LOVE rocks as I do – rock on!

Thought for Food

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Restaurants appear and disappear all around my neighborhood. What is it that attracts people to open up a restaurant in such a terrible economy?

I can think of several reasons why 0pening a restaurant might be like writing a novel. I’ve written a novel. I wonder if I could open a restaurant…

It takes a dream. I make lovely lasagna- people will flock. My book will sell and I will make millions.

It takes an idea – a menu or a story line.

It takes a lot of perseverance. The bank will love my proposal and give me a loan for this restaurant straight away. I will finish my novel even though I have no editor on the sidelines urging me forward.

It takes more perseverance. Okay, so the bank thinks I’m just one of millions with a lasagna recipe, I’ll go to another bank, or I’ll create more and even greater recipes. (You can see the analogy).

My husband and I try to visit the new restaurants at least once, and depend upon our daughter to try out the ones we can’t get to in time, before they close, I mean.

Why do they close? There are two reasons I believe restaurants are so quick to open and just as quick to close and only one of them has to do with the food. First, because the food was less than exceptional. In a world full of restaurants and people who eat at restaurants, the food must be beyond good.  Secondly, a restaurant fails because of lack of business acuity. For instance, one recently closed restaurant handed out menus that had no English subtitles. I need to know what I’m ordering. Another is close to failing (despite wonderful food) because they added no sound-proofing along the walls and their patrons can not carry on a conversation below shouting level.

In the world of book writing a novel doesn’t get published for two reasons (And I’m being simplistic, I know.) First, because it isn’t well written. Secondly and more importantly, because the writer doesn’t push forward and persevere with publication.

But there are restaurant that are extremely successful that serve mediocre and even BAD food. (You can see the analogy I’m making. I hope.)

At Baby Barnaby’s people line up for hours on weekend mornings to get in and get a bad breakfast. On my visit I ordered a simple dish and after a few bites, could not eat it. I didn’t say anything to the waiter because I don’t want my plate whisked away and redone with spit added. Nor did I mention this to others who planned to try the restaurant. Everyone is entitled to eat bad food. But the others I had in mind have stood in line and then reported the same experience. Yet, people line up. And now I’m warning you – don’t do it! Save your money! Stand in line at the Breakfast Club instead.

There are soooo many restaurant around us. You would think I’m fortunate. I live blocks from Midtown, which is the epicenter of Thai/Vietnamese restaurants in Houston. Every one that we’ve tried isn’t worth a second visit. There is an excellent Chinese restaurant on Buffalo Speedway and I-59 called Q’uin Dynasty (five stars from me, consistently good, too). There are four Greek/Mediterranean restaurants in walking distance from my home. Not a one of them serves anything decent except the gyros. That gets boring. There are four Mexican or Tex/Mex restaurants within a few square blocks. I can’t get excited about any of them. The neighbors gather every Friday night at the pink Mexican restaurant. I will point out that of all the Mexican restaurants the pink one is the best. I think the name is La Palisado – or something else that I can’t pronounce, so it remains “the pink one.”

We went to a cafe around the corner last week and I ordered the chicken salad stuffed avocado. How could I go wrong? I received a plate sprinkled with dry iceberg lettuce with brown edges, a halved avocado with skin intact. I would describe the chicken salad as boiled chicken mashed with mayonnaise. It had been squished into the center of the avocado. I would at least grind down that cooked chicken so it wasn’t stringy, and then I would add some flavor.

Even the doughnut shop on the corner, (how can you mess up a doughnut?) can’t compare to Dunkin’ Donuts. But their parking lot is crowded with cars.

It isn’t all bad. There are incredible restaurants nearby. Marks, Davino’s, The Chocolate Bar, Little Bigs, Indika’s, and that hole-in-the wall Cajun place behind the gas station to name only a few. There are others yet to be tried and I will report.

I could make a restaurant work. I am married to a man with a good head for numbers, I DO have some great recipes and my business plan is simple – if you feed people enough tasty food, they will be back.

No, I don’t think I will start that restaurant business any time soon (though that may change as the really great restaurants are becoming fewer and farther between. And I am hungry.)

For now, I will stick to writing more tasty novels.

How opening a restaurant is NOT like writing a novel:

If at first you don’t succeed it is much too expensive to open another restaurant.

Here is a recipe:

My Mom’s Shrimp Dip

1 8 oz. block of cream cheese (room temp)

1 cup mayonnaise (gotta be the real stuff)

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 lemon, juiced

1 and 1/2 cup fresh shrimp* (cooked, peeled, chopped)


Best eaten the next day.

*the secret to good boiled shrimp is this. Put the raw, unpeeled shrimp in rapidly boiling, seasoned water. Wait two minutes. Turn fire off. Let shrimp sit in seasoned water for fifteen minutes. My favorite seasoning is two tablespoons of liquid Zatarain’s Crab and Shrimp boil, and two tablespoons salt.


pen and ink on paper
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This week my mother fell for the fifth time since January. I couldn’t be reached by phone to rush across town to open her door,  so emergency personnel broker her door down. She was fine after the firemen picked her up off the floor and sat her in her chair. Her blood sugar was very high and she had been dizzy.

I didn’t find any of this out until the next day when I checked my phone messages. I called her and she sounded a million miles away, very weak. She said she didn’t know why she fell. She felt fine now. I talked to her care-giver who told me that mom hadn’t been taking her medications in a timely manner. A doctor’s appointment was arranged.

Thank heavens for Facebook.

I messaged the doctor before the appointment to explain what had been going on. The doctor asked my mother during the visit what she wanted to do to feel safer? My mother and I had been discussing a nursing home where there is 24-hour care. She has cried and worried and resisted the idea before now. She hasn’t set foot in a nursing home since the 1970’s. Most nursing home facilities are very much improved from the 1970’s. The doctor asked her what would happen if she fell and broke a bone? After all, she does have severe osteoporosis. My mother shrugged. The doctor said, “I would feel more at peace if you were being taken care of all the time.”

No tears this time except from me.

My mother nodded, “Well I can’t cook anymore anyway. Can’t lift the pots!”

She can’t cook any longer. The one thing that she has always loved to do. She can’t do it. Never mind she can’t make it to the toilet, or can’t dress herself, or is falling when there is no one to pick her up, no – she can’t cook!

I knew she would find the marker that tipped the scales somewhere.

You see, I didn’t want to rush her this time. When my father passed away. I rushed her. I packed her up before he was in the grave and took her body (but not soul) out of her home and into mine. If she had been capable she would have kicked and screamed the entire trip. She was almost ready for the home at that moment, but I wanted to help her get strong, to have that last fling. So I -oh-so-politely encouraged her to do her own laundry, take out her own trash, do her own dishes, things my sainted father had been doing for her for twenty years and the reason for her condition.

She DID get stronger. She made her own bed, picked up after herself, called for pizza delivery. But she grizzled about my abruptly moving her out of her home and worse – taking her five bedroom ranch home and reducing everything to a garage full of boxes – within four months of my father’s passing. She was actively mourning losing her mate of sixty years AND her things. And I was responsible.

Eight months later, I found an independent living facility for seniors where there was security. Unlike her home out in the country where there had been several armed robberies and doors being kicked in. This time we moved her, she was more willing.  She was ready to get away from me.

Within months of being there, she was truly happy. She blossomed in the camaraderie of fellow seniors, especially the ice-cream socials. She gained weight. She walked the halls. Her blood pressure was good. Her anger at me waned. She even told me one day that she was thankful for me. “If I hadn’t lived with you I wouldn’t love this place so much.”

I think she meant she was thankful.

So today I called her social worker. I called a nursing home my brother and I had chosen. There is a bed available. All systems go. This is tough though. I keep telling myself that she will love to get involved in all the activities and having her hair done at the on-site beauty salon.

My daughter is due to have her baby this week. We are thrilled. Baby CoraBelle will soon be here. Finally.

I know my mother wants to see the baby, especially precious as her birthday is this week. She’ll be 86.

My cup is full. I grab my schedule as I can. Isn’t it that our life’s portion is meted out by hours, minutes, seconds. These portions add up to become passages. We didn’t witness the beginning, we don’t know the end. Life is in the journey.