24 posts categorized "Barbara O'Neal"

August 26, 2011

DogLandia in the suburbs

I am pretty sure it is a covenant in my neighborhood that you own a dog. At least one, and we still smile indulgently if you have three, even three big dogs, as many do. I meet a great many of these dogs on my morning walks through the clipped and landscaped parkways of Briargate, because I am walking my own dog, Jack.  There used to be two, but Sasha, the sixteen year old terrier, died a couple of years ago.


Now, Jack is a chow mix. A chow mix who was rescued from a highway at five weeks and brought to me by my sister in law who knew I was grieving my old dog, who'd been put down six weeks before. Now, if you know anything about dogs, you know chows don't have the best reputations, and deservedly so. They were raised to be protection dogs for the Chinese royal family (or so I hear) and so they are both utterly devoted and very protective of their beloved. They are also very pretty, furry dogs, which means people want to hug them. Also, if you know anything about dogs, you know there are important socialization things that happen to puppies with their mother and sibling-pack between the ages of 1-8 weeks. Jack lost three weeks of introduction to Dogness. So, I am not only the emperor, I am his mother, and he is not a dog. Exactly. Except when he is.

So, I have a gorgeous, fluffy, puppy-looking creature that all children want to hug, housing the neurotic, nervous heart of a terrified pup who was abandoned on a superhighway. Not always the best combination of qualities in the suburbs, where every expects all dogs to be big hearted, friendly golden retrievers. I can't calculate the number of times I've seen a joyful creature flying down the Photo(2) paths, ears sailing out behind, tongue lolling, and the owner, seeing my apprehension, calls out, "Oh, don't worry. She's friendly." The trouble is, Jack is pretty sure that dog is going to kill me, and it is his sworn duty to protect me at all costs. He and I stop, and he sits down at my side, very close to my calf, and looks up at the bag of chicken breasts in my hand. I call out, "Mine is not, really. Can you leash her, or something?" (I do not mean to sound like a cranky person, but there is a leash law in this parkway. Because, well, not all dogs are golden retrievers, any more than not every girl is going to be Snow White, with long shining locks and a smile for every creature in the Realm.)

Photo(3) I know all the dogs on this route after years of walking them. Every dog and every human, but mostly the dogs, and I know most of their names, unlike the humans. We all walk our dogs every morning, somewhere between 7:30 and 8:30, depending on the weather and how long it takes to get breakfast. Notable is Jack's nemesis, Tiger. He's a rotweiller-ish mix with a brindle coat and a long nose who has to wear a nose harness along with his other leash because he snarls at other dogs. His brother is a dachshund who seems a bit myopic and never seems to notice what's going on until Jack and Tiger start lunging at each other. Their mother is a hearty professional woman of some sort who also wears her Avon Walk t-shirt, both the white and the pink (which represents completion) for walks. We don't get time for long chats, but I ran into in the grocery store once, and we were both proud of that accomplishment, a marathon one day plus a half-marathon the next in the high mountains around Breckenridge (from whence I write this piece, by the way.)

There are others--a pair of ordinary black dogs, walked by a vigorous middle aged woman in great shape, who probably runs Pikes Peak or something; a couple of Corgis on their stumpy legs, walked by either an old woman or an old man, both humans very hearty and plump, who like to sing out hellos! in a somehow British fashion. Sometimes I see the Airedale and his dad, a military man, jogging through. Once Sasha, getting deaf and hostile, slipped her leash and attacked that good-natured Airedale for no reason at all. I had to lunge for Jack, eager to Protect, smashed my face on the way down and cut my lip, while the military guy fought off the crazy terrier with a stick he carries for that purpose. Sasha finally gave up, ran down the path to be captured by a couple of old women. The Airedale was bitten and bleeding, and I called out my name and phone number to the military guy. He waved and ran on. Two or three days later, walking Jack by himself since Sasha was healing and in time out for bad behavior, I ran into the military guy without the Airedale. I apologized profusely, explained about the deafness and that we'd never had this trouble, and could I pay for hte vet bills? He waved a hand. "Things happen," he said. "I was a medic in Afghanistan and patched her up myself. She's fine." Which might be weird in your neighborhood, but I live in a town with five military bases.

My favorite dog is a black Scottish terrier named Barney. His mother is a 70-something woman who Photo(4) wears the heavy black sunglasses that make me worry that she has macular degeneration. She walks Barney in a stroller, and not a cheap one, because he has something wrong with his legs that makes it hard for him to walk for very long at a time. Mainly, they walk so Barney's mom can talk to people, I think. I see her stopped talking to Tiger's mom (Tiger and Barney are fine) and the very lean 80-something who walks the route by himself every day. Barney took a disliking to Jack a long time ago, so we don't stop to talk, even though Jack is now a very mannerly soul who has even been known to sit down on his own when we see another dog coming. But one day, Barney exploded out of his fenced yard and went for a run. The parkway would be safe enough, but there is a very busy street bordering the subdivision. Jack and I had just crossed it toward home when we saw Barney barreling down the sidewalk, hell-bent for the street. Except that when he caught sight of Jack, he made a detour and headed straight for my dog, who outweighs him by at least fifty pounds, deterimined to kick some chow ass on his once chance. Jack heard the challenge and took the stance, ready to kill. I could see Barney's mom running after him, screaming, more afraid of the street than anything, and I had visions of poor old Barney being eviscerated by Jack, who would probably end up being imprisoned and put down as a dangerous dog, all right in front of our eyes. Blood, destruction, death! So, as the ragamuffin terrier attacked the chow, I screamed and stomped and yelled and maneuvered to keep him out of the street. At one point, the terrier bit Jack's paw, and he bit back and my heart exploded, because it looked bad right across the belly, but finally the little guy gave up and ran back toward his mother, who was sobbing by then. A burly park worker caught Barney and delivered him safely to his mother, who buried her face in his unrepentant fur, and carried him home. Now, every time I see her, she says, "I love you, Jack!" And if she is with another person, she says, "You see that dog? He saved my Barney's life! I love you, Jack." Jack likes it. He prances when she says that. Barney sits docilely in in his stroller when we pass. There is no more snarling. They have evened things out in their own dog way, which as nothing to do with ours, but it doesn't matter. In Doglandia, the humans and the dogs together make the whole. Do you have a dog park or dog world you regularly visit? Do you have a dog that would not qualify for Dog Citizen of the Year?

August 12, 2011

Tanline City

by Barbara O'Neal

I am a Colorado girl  woman, born and raised.  Rocky Mountain High and all that—the scenery is splendiferous and the weather is unbeatable and people take their exercise in the outdoors.  They do everything outdoors, all summer long. 

Which is the problem for me at this time of year.  It’s the battle of the tan lines. At 7000 feet, the atmosphere is thin.  There is virtually no humidity.  The two conditions mean that the sun is intense.  I am naturally prone to tanning and never think much about sunscreen except on my face, where it goes on in thick layers.*    I also spend at least a few hours at day outside. Walking the dog, puttering in the garden, hiking; even going to the grocery store or running errands means another layer of tan. 

All of these things mean I have tan lines.  Lots of tan lines. Sharp lines at the shoulders and chest where tank tops and swim suits end.  Fainter lines on upper arms from t-shirts and upper calf from capris and fainter still on the thigh from shorts. 

But the worst, most embarrassing emblem of Colorado Womanood are my feet.  The are deeply IMG_2050
tanned with big fat stripes across ankle and toe from Tevas.  Not the cute ones with tiny little straps that you can wear in public, but the solid granola style that you can actually wear to hike or bike or anything else you like.

If I did not have to go anywhere else, I would live in those Tevas.  In my neck of the woods, they’re perfectly acceptable footwear, along with heavy duty sunglasses meant to cover the entire eye area and keep irises from burning.  (Oh, I forgot those tanlines—the goggle look.  Not quite as extreme as the ski-goggle tan, but bad enough.)  In Colorado, Tevas are kinda sexy. They mark you as a woman who can Do Stuff. 

And I am that woman.  I like that marker.  However, I sometimes travel to other places.  Worlds where shoes become an entirely different conversation and the standards of hipness are…um…not the same.   Every summer, before the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America, Facebook posts are all about shoe finds, complete with brand names I’ve never heard of and would get me laughed right out of my own town,  while I am freaking out about my tan lines and how to IMG_2054 hide them.  I try alternating shoes—I have a whole collection of other sandals I wear for Real Life, as when I go to the store or out to dinner or even just down to Pueblo to see my mother.  I don’t actually wear the Tevas all the time.  (And believe me, I do know never to wear them in Europe, where one could be laughed right off the streets.)

But nothing helps.  Last weekend, I went to Minneapolis for a reunion of the women with whom I hiked the Camino de Santiago last summer.  This is an athletic, outdoorsy lot.  One friend in particular has contests with herself to see how many sports she can do in one day (basketball, rollerblading, golf, swimming, hiking), but she does not have these tan lines.  We all went water-skiing and swimming.  I was the only one so tattooed by the sun, and trust me, the feet were silly looking indeed.

I would love to make a resolve that this will ever happen again, but it will.  By the end of September, my feet will be as dark as coffee beans and the tan will not fade until February.   I’d like to  IMG_2045 say that I’m going to replace these sturdy Tevas with something more appealingly feminine, but that’s not going to happen either.  I might buy a second pair, but for the sturdy Stuff I Do, like hauling bags of mulch and soil, digging holes for trees, and hiking modest mountain trials (for the big ones I do wear actual shoes) I gotta have Tevas. 

So it will all happen again next summer.   Ah well.  I guess you gotta be who you are. 

Do you have footwear native to your neck of the woods?  Or tales of woe when you travel outside your locale? 

*I know, I know. Don’t lecture me—I should be slathering it on everywhere, but I just don’t.  I already have to wear entire bottles of lotion from head to toe (see note about humidity), and I really don’t want another reason for mosquitos to add more unsightly bites to my bare arms and legs. 


July 22, 2011

Long and Silky

 by Barbara O'Neal

4422832082_89fbd7959b_z The other day, I saw a woman at the grocery store pulling her long hair over her shoulder.  The day
was breezy, and she was capturing the mass of it to keep it from blowing wildly.   It was very long, past her waist, and she smoothed it with a palm, lovingly, as one might stroke the back of a cat or a child. 

As will happen periodically, the sight of such long hair made me wonder if it is time to grow mine out again. It wasn’t so much the look of it, but the way her hands moved over it in that sensual, comfortable, pleased way.   There is nothing like the feel of all that hair, moving over shoulders, arms, back, breasts.   

My mother and I warred over my hair from youngest childhood. I always wanted it long, long, longest.  She, who had to take care of it (and has never had hair much past her ears), wanted it short.  She tortured my locks into tight braids and 5615821627_76c2c86d00_z twisted it into rag curls for Sunday school—releasing into golden tumbles that drew the commentary of friends and relatives alike.  I’m sure that’s where my attachment came from—all that attention pouring down on my four-year-old self. 

When I hit third grade, my mother talked me into a cut.  I thought it was going to be a little trim, but she cut it OFF, to my ears.  I felt like a boy. I felt ugly and strange and gnomelike.  I started growing it out that second.  She didn’t come near it for nearly four years. 

Then at the end of seventh grade, when I was suffering from a bad case of the invisibles from being twelve, and my best friend was one of the most stunning girls in our class (who long black wavy hair) my mother suggested I might enjoy feeling more modern.  I fell for it.  The beautician showed me a drawing of a long necked woman with tendrils curling around her neck and I was seduced.  Again. 

It was the most awful haircut of all time.  It showed off the color, the most boring shade of dishwater blond that can grow on a head, and cowlicks spouted every which way, and I vowed, with God as my witness, that I would never cut my hair again.

This was also, I might add, the era of The Brady Bunch and Long and Silky shampoo. We watched the Tumblrldof5jsusc1qb8p5x_large
Bradys religiously and my sisters and I all swooned for Jan and Marcia’s hair.  We wanted to have the longest hair of all, the swingiest, silkiest, swishiest hair known to womankind.  The clincher was a short story, published in Redbook, called Rowena’s Hair.  The woman in the story had living hair. It talked to her. Protected her.  Counseled her. 

I knew just how that felt.  When my hair was long, it was almost like an ally.  An extra blanket, a shield to hide behind.  I loved brushing it out, and feeling it swing around my body, across my back. I let it grow and grow and grow.  Nothing made me cut it again for more than a decade.

But time makes you consider other things.  Babies, for example, got tangled in it, so I cut it off when they were small. Grew it out again when I felt the invisibles of young motherhood coming on.  Kept it that way until my career meant I had to go out and speak and travel and look like a grownup.  I do not hate my shorter hair right now.  The cut suits me.  It’s easy enough. 

111203558_e21cdbd1c0_z Watching that woman in the parking lot on a breezy day, however, I heard the siren call of my hair again.  Perhaps it is the invisibles of middle age making me wish for that long, shiny flag of hair again.  Perhaps it’s only that I so rarely see hair so long anymore.   Whatever the source, I suspect I will be growing it out again in the near future, suffering through the bad six months of getting it all to one length. 

Or perhaps I will not.  Perhaps I don’t have the vision or the patience or the ear for listening to that rustling voice of promise in my tresses anymore.  


How do you feel about long hair? Did you have it? Do you now?  


July 08, 2011

Ian and the Blue Gill

by Barbara O'Neal

Three women, ranging in age from senior to ancient, are settled in a half circle at the end of the dock.  The chairs have been dragged down to the pond from the main house, metal lawn chairs with green and white woven seats.  My young son and I sit on the wooden slats of the dock.  A little while ago, there were some bigger boys, young teenagers in baggy shorts and skinny chests, daring each other to swim in the murky water with snapping turtles and water snakes, but they’re gone now.

The old women wear cotton skirts and sensible shoes and soft cotton hats to protect their good complexions. Gnarled fingers fix bait. Fishing lines trail lazily in the water of the small pond.  The air 2143129809_1ffac3b16c
is thick and still, so hot I find it hard to breathe, and my son’s pale cheeks are flushed.  We are Colorado natives, and this is the countryside of the border between Missouri and Illinois. 

I’d rather be almost anywhere else.

I hate fishing. I hate humidity.  I hate the heat.  Before we arrived, I’d been excited about this gathering with my husband’s family, but the reality is daunting. It’s hard to understand some of their deep south accents, and I don’t understand references to times and people I don’t know. And maybe they’re not patronizing me, the much-younger, blond wife of an older African-American man, but all the usual in-law negotiations seem particularly exaggerated.

I’m shy.  Young—not yet thirty--and bookish, melting in this heat they all take for granted.  I don’t even know where I fit in the world I came from, much less this one, and the effort of it all is making me weepy and irritable. Ian, sitting beside me on the dock, is like me, studious and thoughtful, while his younger brother is running like a wild hellion through the orchards with his cousins, a Williams through and through, the spitting image of his grandmother, sitting here on the dock in the dappled shade of midafternoon. 

Ian and I share a more pensive nature, and we have escaped to the dock so Ian can fish with his Grandmother Lurelean, who is one of the kindest humans I have ever known and will influence my life more than I can even begin to imagine that day, on the dock.

Even in all my bristling insecurity, I know for sure that my mother-in-law loves me  and my boys.   
She sees through to the truth of things—that this marriage, for all the differences in age and culture, is a genuine love match, and she is overjoyed that her son, who wandered and wandered, is settled at last, a good husband, a kind and devoted father. 

In the oppressive, inescapable heat, I’m feeling slightly ill, and wary of complaining, since it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else.  Not even Ian with his earnest expression and his own fishing line, baited for him by his grandmother, who is sitting with one of her sisters and their mother, Mama Mag, who is past ninety, and wearing glasses so thick her eyes look cartoony. Mama Mag, it must be said, has no patience left in her for small children—she’s raised or helped raise too many of them.  Fishing is her passion, and she isn’t thrilled to have children on the dock. Ian promised to be quiet, and she grudgingly let him stay.

Honestly, I have no idea where he got the idea that he wanted to fish in the first place. I can’t even imagine that he’s ever heard anyone talking about it.  We live in the city and none of my family go fishing. We rarely go to the mountains or even to the reservoir, where he might have seen others doing it.  

51329992_45c09b4e0e_z But there he sits with the old women, his fishing line in the water.  He’s five.  Surprisingly pretty, with a plump mouth and vivid, changeable eyes and tumbles of  hair which tend to be too long because I’m forgetful and don’t get it cut as often as I should.  His hands, which will one day be long and graceful and very beautiful, are still a little plump.  The women murmer to one another now and then, commenting on his stillness, but I could tell them his tenaciousness is already legendary. They’ve caught some blue gills, which are kept alive in a cooler.

Suddenly, the thick dull silence is punctured by splashes.  Exclamations. Ian has hooked a fish! His grandmother leaps to her feet to help him reel it in, and there it is, thrashing and splashing against the line, a slippery, glistening blue gill.  It shines in the sun, and they land it together, and put it in its own cooler of water. It stares wildly up at us, and Ian squats down to admire it, beaming at the praise of the old women.  Even the ancient one warms the slightest bit.

 And that’s that. He declines the offer of another baited hook. He isn’t interested in fishing anymore, though he sits quietly and happily with his grandmother.  His dad comes down to the dock and Ian shows off his catch, and everyone fusses once again.

As the day wanes, the children are cranky, and it’s time to drive back to St. Louis. Ian is anxious about his fish.  “How will we get him home?” he asks.  “What will we feed him?”

One of the men now on the dock laughs heartily. “Son, you’ll eat him, not the other way around.”

“What?” His eyes fill with tears.  “I don’t want to eat him!”

Everyone chuckles this away at first, thinking he’s just encountering the reality of eating what you’ve killed.  They think he’ll change his mind once he takes a bite of that sweet flesh.

But his grandmother is looking at him in her careful way.  She puts her hand on his back. “What do you want to do with him, baby?”

Ian says, “I want to take him home.”

It dawns on me, finally, where he got the idea of fishing.  Every year at the local State Fair, there is a display by the Fish and Wildlife Organization, a giant freshwater aquarium filled with big river trout swimming in greenish water for all to see.  Ian loves it, the coppery, flashing fish, their long feathery tails. 

There in the cooler is a shimmery blue fish with ruffling fins. “You wanted a pet,” I say. “You thought you would get to keep him?”

Ian, blinking hard, nods. 

Arranged around us are the old women, who love to catch fish and eat them.  And men who’ve fed their families on the fish they caught, the animals they hunted.  They are not happy with boys who cry, and for good reason.  In their old world, it served them to make men tough and stoic. 

But there is Lurelean, who gently shakes her head at the old man.  “He’s as tender-hearted as his daddy,” she says, and that daddy steps up.

“We can’t take him home, son,” he says. “But we can let him go.”

 Someone protests. “That’s a good supper there!”

 “Leave the boy alone,” Lurelean says, enfolding her gnarled hand around Ian’s.  His daddy carries the cooler, and together, the three of them tip the fish into the water, where it dives into the depths and swims away, traumatized but free to live another day. 

Finally, we are driving back to St. Louis in the twilight.  The children are exhausted, and I sit in the back seat with them, one on either side.  Lurelean sits in the front seat with her own boy, who used to take two buses on a Saturday afternoon to go to shop for her hearing aid battery.  A boy maybe a bit too sensitive for his environment, who grew up and became a man who could help a boy tip a living fish back in the water.  They’re talking quietly, peacefully, and I am enfolded in the tenderness and coolness.

We’re passing little towns and bushes and wide fields of grass. Where, suddenly I see stars in the grass. “Stop the car!” I cry “What is that?

My husband pulls over. “What is it?”

“Are those fireflies?”

Lurelean laughs gently. “Isn’t that a wonder. Child, you’ve never seen fireflies?

1327493432_511128ee1c_z The boys and I stare astonished wonder, shaking our heads.  They don’t live in Colorado.  My
husband puts his arm around his mother, touches the back of his sons, touches my head.   We stand at the edge of the road, watching light dance in the twilight, humidity enveloping us like arms, the quiet of evening like acceptance, sparks of belonging dancing in the grass. 

And I think of the blue gill, back there in the night-dark pond, swimming free.


(As I remembered this, it was no surprise to me that my child is now a vegan.)

 Have you ever experienced being the outsider somewhere? What do others take for granted that you find astonishing? 







June 24, 2011

The Ghost in the Garden

by Barbara O'Neal

Have you ever lived with a ghost?  I have.  In fact, I’m pretty sure she wanted me to save her house.


My eldest son was in kindergarten when I first saw this house.  It was a narrow, two story brick, with a bay window on the top floor, and deep porch.  It was well over a hundred years old, and looked it—the yard was bare dirt, baked by the southwestern sun to absolute sterility, the paint on the old wood was peeling.  There was a crack in the brick over one window.  It was empty. Abandoned.

But every day, as I passed by with my son’s five-year-old hand in mine, the house caught my eye.  A pair of windows faced east, illuminating a staircase with a beautiful old banister, and spilling sunshine into the open front rooms.  The light was so inviting, so peaceful, that often I would pause on the way back home and peer in the windows to see what else I could see.  That inviting upstairs bedroom with the bay window.  The enormous front windows overlooking the street, arched and ancient, the glass thin and wavery.  One of them had a tiny bb hole in it.  The kitchen was horrific—a single bank of cupboards made of tin, covered with wood-grain contact paper.

It had been condemned for the wiring.

I could not bear it.  I dreamed of the house at night, feverishly imagining the yard filled with flowers, and lace curtains hanging in every window (a genetic Irish trait, I’m afraid).

A relative of my husband told me to “claim it,” tell God that I wanted it, that it was mine and I would take good care of it.  What did I have to lose?  I tried it.  As Ian and I walked by the next month, I claimed it. 

Then, because it never hurts to be practical, I set about tracking down the owner. After a lot of dead ends, I finally found him, an old man in Arizona who just wanted to get rid of it.  He wanted a mere $20,000 for it—which might as well have been $10 million for our small, poor, young family.  He was so eager to sell it, however, that he carried the loan and let us have it for the sweat equity it would require to become livable. 

It was a long haul. For the whole first winter, we lived with an exposed brick wall in the living room and bare pine floors through the house.  I put up with the impractical, horrible kitchen for seven years.  

It was worth it. The terrible, tiny bathroom had a giant window and a claw-foot bathtub.  The bay window looked over treetops and the roofs of other houses.  The dining room had long windows (though no two windows in the house were the same size) where we ate supper every evening and my husband's Sunday breakfasts complete with homemade biscuits.  My boys grew up there. 

The first time I felt the ghost, my white cat Piwacket and I were out in the side yard trying to see if there were any old plants that might be planted there.  It was overgrown with weeds, and Pi leapt on flies and grasshoppers, then suddenly stopped and dashed over to an empty spot in the yard and started winding around somebody’s ankles.   For a minute, I just gaped, but the feeling of approval and benevolence was so powerful that there was no reason to be afraid.

An old woman lived in the house across the alley, Electra McKinney (a name I have saved for the right book, and will use one day) and when I started watering the dry dead dirt of the yard to see what might grow, she leaned over the fence and said with approval. “She had a beautiful garden here once. I hope you can save some of it.”

220695561_1c5e1b951b “She” had died in the house a couple of decades before. I never learned her name. The owner’s mother, it turned out, who had lived there since 1932.  When I watered her yard, the long-dormant plants she had loved began to sprout—ancient roses and Naked Lady lilies and honeysuckle in the backyard, a rose of Sharon and mulberry bushes in the front.  It became a lush background for my nascent gardening skills.  I added more roses and perennials and herbs. I planted baby’s breath and day lilies and a thick lawn beneath the trees in back.  Electra McKinney gave me things from her old garden, too, irises and lamb’s ear and asparagus starts. 

The cats liked playing in the side garden with the ghost.  Sometimes a dog would dance with her in the back yard—perhaps she was throwing ghost sticks for them.  My husband was not as fond of her when she appeared at the side of the bed in the middle of the night.  (He actually made me move the bed to another part of the room and that did the trick.  When we divorced, I moved it back and she 2742500090_7065849782_z

seemed to approve. I slept like a baby between the two long windows.)  As the animals passed away, I buried them where she seemed to like to sit, and I liked imagining that they would be wandering through the yard, too--many friendly presences to keep a gardener company.

I lived in that house for almost twenty years, when my life took a turn and I fell in love with a man in my old home town of Colorado Springs.  I left the ghost and the house to someone else, who did not care as well for it. The yard has gone dry, again, and some unfeeling soul cut the Rose of Sharon down to the ground, though the peach tree still produces.  At night, in my dreams, I sometimes wander through the rooms, and stand at the window of the study where I wrote so many, many words, a window that overlooks the side garden with the ghosts of woman and cats.  We wonder, all of us, who will next save our house.  When a young mother will wander by, and catch sight of the light pouring through the windows, and see the flowers on the peach tree, and wonder if there is something else that could be coaxed to grow in that barren soil...

Have you ever known a ghost?  Do you haunt a place you once lived? 

(I will be checking in from airports today, as it's a travel day for me...but I will check in, promise!)


June 10, 2011

How to be a Perfect Mother In Law

by Barbara O'Neal

216411_10150157611105893_698160892_6602988_6015592_nMy son was married on April 7.  This means that I am a new mother-in-law. I have to forget everything I knew about mothering, and adopt a new approach.  

This is not the simple transition I imagined it would be.  For one thing, the son who got married is my mama’s boy, a child so devoted to me as a baby that I called him my joey.  He was two weeks late emerging from the womb, and then I carried him on my hip for the next ten months because he wouldn’t allow anyone else to so much as change a sock.  He’d howl piteously even if it was his father. 

He’s grown into a strapping man who towers over me and has tattoos all over his arms and shoulders DSCN3392
(including, natch, one for “Mom” (please note the quill)).   His bride is a serious, level-headed Air Force sergeant who looks at him with enough love in her eyes to make any mother happy.  He’s an exuberant character, and worships the ground she walks on.  I liked her immediately and have only grown to love her more
over time.

All good. 

Here’s the thing: because I love the two of them together so much, I find myself wanting to write a happily-ever-after manual for them.  Offer advice on everything from how to eat (together when you can) to how to talk to each other (kindly and with support) to activities (find a game you can play together). Most of it sounds like it’s been distilled from women’s magazines from the past thirty years.

And yet….I keep thinking about it.  I’m experienced! I’ve been married.  Divorced! My parents have been married for 50 years. My in-laws were married for 60.  I wrote romance novels! I know stuff. 

I find myself picking on my son more than my daughter-in-law.  I want to tell her to make him do housework, even if it isn’t quite the way she would do it, because she’ll want a helpmate.  I want to tell him cook for her more, or take her out. I nag him to go to movies she would like as often as what he would like.

But then I remember my mother in law, who was absolutely marvelous at this.  She always greeted me with pleasure. She didn’t criticize the way I fed her son or the way I raised her grandchildren.  She supported me in all things, in all ways, and that in turn gave me confidence and allowed me to trust her.  It also made me feel like a million bucks in her company.  Smart, loving, wise.  (She died seven years ago and I still really, really, really miss her.)

In all of this, I’ve realized that I have had as much trouble letting go of my mama’s boy as he had letting go of me.  He is, like me, creative and curious and inclined to crash through the wilderness than take a path already made.  He hasn’t yet found his place in the work world and I get anxious about hat (even though he’s the ripe old age of 26).  As I’ve monitored myself for offering unsolicited advice toward my daughter-in-law, I’ve noticed how much I nag my son. 

Rather than trusting him. Respecting his ability to make good choices and live a productive, loving life.  (And yet, look at his choice of brides! How smart was that?)

The wisdom in being a great mother-in-law is the same wisdom there is in being a great mother of adults—I can offer my faith in their intelligence and good sense and earnest desire to build a life of meaning and joy.   (And look at them! Some good potential for joy there, huh?)

So unless I am asked directly for advice on any subject, and by directly, I mean, “Mom, what do you think I/we should do?”, not just telling me about a problem or challenge they face, I am not offering any. I can trust them to live their lives without me at the helm.  They’re doing a great job, both my sons as adults and my newlyweds. 

Will this be easy? Not on your life.  But it’s the only sane and loving way to be a mother of adults, and it’s great practice for grandparenthood.   <gulp>

 How have you navigated the transition to being a parent of an adult, being an in-law, being a grandparent?   What advice would you offer me? 


May 27, 2011

Extreme Gardening

by Barbara O'Neal

It’s garden season, and for the first time in six years, I have a real garden of my own.  It’s quite a project.  My beloved, probably weary of hearing me bitch about the idiocy of using scarce water to (barely) keep a backyard full of blue grass alive in a climate where it was never meant to grow, gave me a Christmas gift of a garden plan and the people to put it into operation.   


We started with a very bland rectangle. The most boring suburban backyard (complete with winter-killed grass) you can imagine.  



Over the past month, we've come to a series of raised beds.


Which I'm in the process of planting.


Now, a garden project in most places sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea.  Grow some roses, and some corn, a little lettuce and some dahlias. 

In the Rockies, even on the Front Range where I live, gardening is not a sport for the faint of heart.  We live at 7000 feet above sea level.  The air is thin, which means less oxygen (babies born here actually develop larger lungs than other people).  It also means the sun is scorching.  

The weather is also…er…challenging.  It’s almost June and we had a hard freeze last week.  This morning, at eleven am, it’s 46 degrees.  My neighbor, looking over my fence at the newly created raised beds in the backyard said, “You’re putting in a garden? What about all the hail?”


It will hail.  It has already hailed three times on my baby little plants.  I will build hail-protectors out of PVC pipe and window screens to haul out as necessary, because I have lost entire gardens to bad storms more than once. 

But what is a gardener to do?  Give it up because it’s hard? 

I am a gardener, thus I garden.

In England, gardening is a national sport, and for good reason.  I am astonished anew every time we go back to visit CR’s mother.  She has foxgloves large enough IMG_0687

 to sail the seas in.  Roses climbing to heaven, grass thick and starred with buttercups. Everything grows with hedonistic abandon, and naturally, everyone gardens.  CR’s mother is quite a talent, which doesn’t sit well with her neighbor.  That neighbor, (Barbara, too, as it turns out), takes me aside secretly to show off her wisterias and exotics, all called properly by their Latin names.  These two older English ladies are thrilled that I share their passion, and send me home with gloves and potato bags and all manner of beautiful gardening treasures. 

It would be lovely to garden in England.  Or California (oh, for an orange tree! For avocados!).  Or the south where wisteria drips from every surface.

Here I am, however, in the high desert where it will not rain enough and then fling hailstones.  Where the sun will scorch baby plants and give me wrinkles, but eventually coaxes out roses and corn, squash and sage.  Since mailing my book last Monday, the only thing I’ve cared to do is plant and dig and arrange and make notes on my plantings.  (Imagining myself to be Vita Sackville-West, composing my own tiny Sissinghurst.)  My neighbors will pity me, they with all their grass, but in August when the corn is over my head, when I’m bringing them tomatoes hot off the vine, filled with the flavor of sunny days and cool nights, they’ll envy me. When I’m plucking peaches from my tree, and collecting new potatoes in jackets the color of garnets,


they’ll know why I stick with it.  In the spring, my lilacs will explode, and the tulips will dance.  Next year, it will be even better, and the year after that….and the year after that.   

I am a gardener, so I garden.

What is gardening like where you are? Love it? Hate it?


April 22, 2011

Kitchen Catastrophes

Jael McHenry Guest Blogs 


I love to cook. Love it. When my husband was in business school we would regularly invite over six or eight or 12 people, or as many as 20, for dinner parties. I almost always made something I’d never made before, because where was the fun in that? I roasted lamb, stuffed peppers, rolled fresh pasta, simmered molé, churned ice cream, and braised everything I could get my hands on, with or without a recipe. When people asked what the secret of my far-ranging cookery was, I answered cheerfully, “Don’t be afraid to fail!”

But here’s the thing: sometimes, I totally failed.

During a birthday party I ran so far behind schedule that I was still frosting the cake while everyone else was eating dinner. Two batches of ice cream froze so solid we had to chip, not scoop, them out of their containers. The Guinness pork with sweet potatoes was too sweet, the macaroni and cheese too rich, the carrot-ribbon salad too citrusy. And when I overreduced a balsamic vinegar reduction to drizzle over some strawberry-and-feta skewers, it was so black and sticky we couldn’t get the skewers off the plate.

Ddl 003 We all have kitchen catastrophes. On my food blog, http://simmerblog.typepad.com , I try to write about the failures in the same detail as the successes, because doing something wrong can teach you how to do it right. I never would have suspected that failing to seal a pan sufficiently would turn my sweet, syrupy homemade dulce de leche into an inedible rock-hard sugar-and-milk mess, burned nearly black in parts. On another occasion, I tried making mussels at home for the first time—they stuck to their shells so badly that I started to worry I’d undercooked them, and pitched half the batch directly into the trash and monitored myself for signs of food poisoning the rest of the night. I might never do it again, but I’m not sorry I did it the first time – cooking is about experimentation.

And that’s the thing. A kitchen catastrophe is rarely a real catastrophe. Your dinner guests want you to succeed. They want to eat delicious things and have a good time.

When I served all those flawed experiments to all those students, nobody really cared. They ate what was edible and chuckled over what wasn’t. They chipped away at that ice cream until every last bite was eaten. They tugged free the bits of strawberry and feta that hadn’t been trapped in the reduction and licked their fingers afterward. And they said thank you, and poured me a glass of wine, and asked when we’d be doing this again.

IMG_2439 Full disclosure: I did set the oven on fire once, which could have been an actual catastrophe, but I  learned from that too.

In my book, The Kitchen Daughter, a shy young woman who has always cooked just for the sake of cooking learns how to use food to connect with others. Ginny has Asperger’s syndrome, which makes social situations hard for her, and her parents have always protected her, shielding her from any interactions that might turn uncomfortable or confrontational. Basically, they’re afraid to let her fail. (And what parent wouldn’t be?) But when they are both suddenly killed, Ginny has to find a new way to navigate her world, including her overbearing sister Amanda. Amanda wants to take over their mother’s role of protecting Ginny. Ginny wants independence, and with it, the freedom to fail.

And what’s the worst that can happen? To Ginny, or to any of us? That’s a big part of what the book is about. What happens when we try. What happens when we fail. And how the word “catastrophe” is, like many other words, all relative.

TKD-cover-medium McHenry_authorphoto



Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), and a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael's work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.

April 10, 2011

Where in the World are the Tarts?

Brunonia Barry Barry_mapoftrueplaces
I've been on the paperback book tour for The Map of True Places. Or rather, I should call it the culinary tour of Connecticut and Vermont. Great stores, great people, and great food and wine at about nine PM every night. I tried, Weight Watchers, I really tried! But it's just not hospitable to refuse these local favorites. Local Vermont Cheeses and maple cured sausages? Okay, so maybe that was breakfast, but you get the idea. I'm back home for a few days, hitting the treadmill and the bike and eating my five point Think Thin bars. More tour to come, but I'm determined. Thank God I'm not going south this time. On my last tour, I went to Charleston and New Orleans. Weight Watchers didn't stand a chance.


Viets_Uplift Elaine Viets    
I'm spending this weekend in my hometown, St. Louis, at the Missouri Writers' Guild Conference, where I'll get to see Nancy Pickard, another featured speaker. I hope I didn't disgrace myself giving the keynote speech at the banquet last night. I promised the conference organizers my talk would be mercifully short. Sunday morning, I teach a three-hour master's class on creating characters. Then I fly home to Fort Lauderdale on Southwest Airlines. That's the airline that had a plane with a huge hole in the fuselage. Don assures me the flight will be perfectly safe. I told him if I die in a plane crash, I will haunt him for the rest of his days. At night, he will hear me whispering "I told you so."


Barbara O’Neal HowToBake
I am cooking for zillions, cleaning my house because it hasn't really been cleaned since I went underground to finish the current book two months ago.  (It is not finished, BTW.) There is a wedding this week.  My son and his smart, tough, beautiful fiance, whose mother referred to her as "ours."  Doesn't get any better than this, I promise you.   Next week, I'll get back to finishing the book.  Now, if you will excuse me, I have some bacon jam that needs to go in the crockpot.....


Kindred Spirits_lowres Sarah Strohmeyer
I am on deadline for my YA book Smart Girls Get Everything!

[Yet she had time to look up the recipe for Barbara’s Bacon Jam to post on Facebook.][Sarah's link broke, but this is another recipe.]


I'm hunkered down with the windows closed, praying for rain, waiting out pine pollen season. Another week should do it. These pine trees are way oversexed. No wonder they're the first trees to grow in a barren field.
Tomorrow, I'm off to a week-long retreat with some of my writer friends, so I'm packing the car with computer, notebooks, bedlinens, a 12-pack of Pepsis,a bottle of bourbon and a frozen casserole for the night when it's my turn to cook supper. (No Cheetos though. Gave them up for Lent.) I hope to come home with 5000 more words on my 2012 book and a good sense of where the book's going.


[When I asked the Tarts to write these, I sent a reply to Margaret that I had problems with alder tree pollen and had in Washington State, Vermont and California. To which Diane chimed in…]


Chamberlain_midwife Diane Chamberlain
No no, Holly, you don't understand what Margaret is talking about. The pine pollen isn't the make-you-sneeze type. it's the takes-over-the-entire-world type. I made the mistake of opening my office window yesterday and by evening a layer of yellow dust was on every sheet of paper and piece of equipment and ME in my office. I’d covered all the porch furniture with green sheets that are now completely yellow. I've lived lots of places but never experienced anything like this till moving to NC. So this time of year, when you long to open the windows, you must fight the urge and keep them closed.

So that's what I'm up to, along with being chained to my desk, 2 weeks from deadline with the book from hell (oh wait...they all are) that still has no title. It's this deadline that's preventing me from going away with Margaret and the gang for a week of writing and balderdash. :(


Harley Jane Kozak Kozak_DateRefuse
I'm rehearsing this week for the Romantic Times Convention -- I'm the M.C./Joan Rivers-type person for the Mr. Romance Contest (male cover models), as well as singing, dancing and performing Shakespeare at the Vampire Ball, in a show entitled "Zombie Dancers from Planet 9."


Kathy Reschini Sweeney
Today, I am in shock.  My baby boy is 16.  He was a bit of a surprise - one that has turned out to be the greatest delight of my life.  But don't tell him I said that.  He already gets away with too much. How did all these years go by?  I need cake.  Stat.


Joshilyn Jackson Jackson_BackseatSaints
Today my husband and I are engaged in an EPIC SCRABBLE BATTLE. The loser must give Mentally Ill Grudge-Holding Cat his Kitty-Prozac all month. Mentally-Ill Grudge-Holding Cat needs his meds, but he hates to be touched only slightly less than he hates to be pilled. The person who loses this battle gains Mentally Ill Grudge-Holding Cat’s considerable, baleful, and long-memoried  ire. OH, this cat. You shouldn’t make him angry. You wouldn’t LIKE him when he is angry. And since I work from home, I am available to be ired at all hours of the day. So.  I am not going to lose. I have a pocket full of blank tiles and a fistful of illegal tranqs. I LOVE my husband, but if first skill and then luck and finally cheating all fail me, I will have no choice but to roofie my beloved and swear up and down I was victorious.
PS Margaret! I read this and immediately thought
Margaret are you grieving over all your pines unleaving?
 But pines don’t have leaves. And un-needling does not rhyme.
Margaret are you feeding, needing, bleeding, pleading, BAH!
 I actually get a grant from the state of Georgia to NOT write poetry.

Yes yes it is a SPECIAL pollen bowl kind. We have it. For a month the purple car is yellow and the orange car is yellow and my cream trimmed rosey-bricked house is yellow and the green grass is yellow and THE VERY FREAKING AIR IS GOT’DAMNABLY YELLOW.


Sticky fingers_1_very_sm Nancy Martin
I'm hitting the campaign trail to sell Sticky Fingers.  (In the Philadelphia area?  Come to the Borders store in Springfield on Friday, April 15th at 6pm or at the Philadelphia Book Fest on Saturday from 11am to 1pm.)  I'm also finishing up the 8th Blackbird book--which should be published early in 2012.  And . . . my iPad arrived!  Now I have to learn how to use it.  Any suggestions for good apps?


Nancy Pickard Pickard_scentofrain
I’m busy distracting myself from my book that keeps saying it doesn’t care if I need to make a living, it still has percolating to do.  Have I ever mentioned that I think commerce and art are TERRIBLE bedfellows?  Of course, that’s not what my favorite Kansas playwright thought about it.  William Inge, who wrote Picnic, Splendor in the Grass, Bus Stop, Come Back Little Sheba, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,  (wow, right?) said that forcing art through the commerce sieve and vice versa was hunky-dory.  His actual quote is:  “Literature flourishes best when it is half trade and half an art.” I agree, but only when my book actually gets finished and then published and I get paid.  Until those moments, the bedfellows continue to kick each other and bellow and be total nightmares. And let’s not overlook the fact that Bill Inge killed himself.  Damn, I just made myself feel like sitting in this coffee shop and crying. He was so brilliant, and he suffered so from depression and from hiding his sexuality from the pigs and bigots of his day.  Well, you’d never know it from what I just wrote here, but I’m actually feeling happy and springy, in spite of sieves and stubborn books and tragic playwrights.  Here, everybody, have a double latte and a chocolate truffle.

Hank_drivetime Hank Phillippi Ryan

The ducks are back! But you know that..Flo and Eddy have been baffled by the ice on their backyard pond, but other than that, it's a sure sign it's spring. My tulips and crocuses are pushing their way out of the still-frozen earth, and I saw a whole flock of robins in our neighbor's yard. (It was almost scary, you know? Cue Tippi Hendren.)  Right now I am somewhere in the air between Boston and Indianapolis,  gave a speech in Indy to a wonderful group who wanted to know all about e-publishing.  (Gee, I wish I knew. Don't we all?)  Yes, there's a new book (cross fingers please, everyone) which I am editing now. (It's easier to cut than add, right?)  Looking forward to the MWA symposium in two weeks, then the gala Malice Domestic convention where DRIVE TIME is up for an Agatha for Best Mystery of 2010. (Yes, our NancyP is up for one, too, sigh, but she's sold more books than I have, I bet, so don't I need the teapot?)  Is it time to send my winter clothes to the dry cleaners? Ah, I'll think about that later. 

March 25, 2011

Altars, altars everywhere

By Barbara O'Neal 

Recently, I dragged Christopher Robin to a small art gallery in Manitou Springs, where they were having a show of altars. I admired them, one after another, puzzling out their messages. Some were crude and rough, some quite elaborate. CR said, “This is just what you do.”

As will so often happen, the obviousness of a thing slapped me in the head. Yes.  Of course I do.  I make altars out of everything.  Altoids boxes are excellent. Cigar boxes. Niches in desks and corners, naturally.   

Altars in all forms fascinate me, from descansos erected on the side of the road to honor the dead killed in car accidents, Buddhas covered with dollar bills at my local nail salon,  the altars piled high with crutches and requests scribbled on a photograph:  “Save Ricardo.”  A friend and I drove down to Chimayo New Mexico in December, to one of the only pilgrimage sites in North America.  There is a deep well with holy dirt that people collect to spread over the sick to heal them of their ills, and an altar to Virgin of Guadalupe, but my favorite is a little stall devoted to Santo Nino, who is a little boy saint dressed in a pilgrim’s cloak.  He is said to wander the area healing sick children, and wears out his shoes, so people bring him new ones, child shoes. His stall his littered with them, and it’s possible to hear the whispers of the prayers rustling the air. Who is more earnestly praying than a mother for a sick child, after all?


Honestly, Santo Nino and his shoes give me the creeps a bit. I really would not want to run into him on a dark night, his cape flapping, his cocky hat clapped down over his hair.  He reminds me a little too much of Chuckie.

One of my favorite kind of altars is descansos. Not everyone agrees with me, of course. Many states have fights over when to leave them up, when to take them down. The can be a little creepy, too, I guess, those constant reminders that you are not as safe as you think you are.  They are common in Colorado, and in New Mexico, it's against the law to dismantle them.  They become entrenched parts of the landscape, as this one has--

--so well-tended over time that they become a part of their world.  It’s a loving tribute, a determination to remember the dead as you would wish to be remembered. This one was decorated for Christmas.  

I make altars of all sorts all the time. They seem to sprout wherever I am. In my study, there are two. One is tucked into a niche of my desk.  It holds blue jay feathers  in pottery jars and egg-shaped rocks and a large Ganesha statue piled with American quarters and pound coins and Euros from a handful of different places. Last summer, I added a bottle of water taken from the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, where I waded in the waters to see if it would heal the torn meniscus in my knee. It was not healed but I did manage to walk 100km of the Camino de Santiago afterward, so maybe it was a miracle.  

The other altar is quite Catholic in aspect, with a Virgin of Guadalupe covered with rosary beads collected from my travels, and a very special one my teenage son brought back from Barcelona when he went with a class trip. It is he who provided me with the Virgin, whose halo used to light up with laser lights until I lost the cord.  Still, she has a pretty face andI like her very much.  She holds all the photos of people I give her without complaining.


Altars often make their way into my books, even inspire them.  For awhile I was fascinated with the tiny rock star altars that were showing up here and there in tourist shops.  When I found a dollar bill that said, “Tupac is alive!” I made one to honor that little bit of magic.


Making it helped me puzzle out the story of a lost young girl in A Piece of Heaven (which has maybe the most magic realism of any of my novels, aside from The Lost Recipe for Happiness). The altar and bill showed up in the narrative.  A double descanso in Chimayo helped inspire Lost Recipe.  One I saw along the Camino keeps showing up in my new book--crude and cold, but somehow I have not been able to dislodge it from my brain.  I would have spent the entire day there, reading the walls and prayers and petitions.  It plays an important role in the book. 


The day we saw the exhibit of altars, Christopher Robin and I wandered around Manitou afterwards. In an antique store, and he found an old teak jewelry box for $20 and gave it to me for a project.  It has Chinese mountains on it, and green Asian fabric inside. There are mirrors, very intriguing. Three days after he gave it to me, I found a passport that had been lost for more than three years, so that went inside.  I suspect it will be a travel altar of some kind, but that’s not clear yet.  We shall see. 

I have no idea where this fascination comes from, but maybe we don’t always have to know everything.   I just love them. That’s enough.

Have you ever seen an altar that spoke to you?  Do you have a passion for something a little offbeat?