Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Some people think you are where you came from. I used to work for a woman who introduced herself this way, "Hi, I'm D____ S_____, I grew up in ______________ and my family has farmed their land for over 100 years." She'd beam then, satisfied with her place in the constellation of life.

That summation made me grit my teeth.

What about the person she'd become in the many decades since she left her parent's house? Our business prospects didn't care about her past, they wanted to know whether she could help them today.

I'm in the middle of writing Chapter 20 of my first book, a murder mystery. The end is in sight. But at the beginning, before I knew I could write a book, I had to find the points of the star from which the lines would come--an opening, a death, a killer ending, and...characters.

How do you create a whole person from nothing? I wrote down their childhoods, where they went to school and what they studied, the kind of work they did, the families they created as adults. Their passions, their faults. The hard bounces they'd taken from life. The choices they'd made that formed them into the people they were when the book started.

Virtually none of that is in the book, but it informs every page. When I sit down now to write, I know the people and I let them take the scene where it needs to go, in their way, in their words.

They're still writing their biographies. I like that idea. I'm still writing mine too.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Enjoying the Moment

We had a good time when my parents were here for Father's Day. The BBQ was spectacular, and Dad liked my first-ever coconut cake so much he even ate it for breakfast.

On Sunday we took a field trip to Aquarena. My mother grew up in San Marcos but she hadn't been to Aquarena in many decades. It's not the same as it was when she was a girl. No more submarine theater and diving pigs. But you can still take a glass-bottomed boat ride and look down through clear 68 degree water to where the Edwards Aquifer bubbles up to form the San Marcos River.

It was a day to remember, for all of us. Denny and I, who had never seen the bottom of the river. Mother, who was a girl when she left her hometown. And Dad, who's looking toward the end of his life and enjoying the pleasures he can have now, while he can have them.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Number 80

We reached a milestone in May. A Savannah sparrow  made a late appearance at our bird bath. It wasn't the first time we'd ever seen a Savannah sparrow, just the first time at our home in the Texas Hill Country. We broke out the good glasses and a nice bottle of wine.

We've had visits from birds that are more rare...

The endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler, which nests only in ashe junipers with a diameter of at least 22 inches. It's breeding range is limited to a small section of Central Texas.

A pair of Crested Caracaras, flying across our street. We didn't expect to see tropical falcons found in the US only in the very southern portions of Texas, Arizona and Florida.

And our favorite, the Painted Bunting, the most beautiful songbird to fly in the United States. Painted buntings have never been common and their numbers are declining now from loss of habitat in the US, Mexico and Central America. But they're doing well at our place...for the last three summers we've watched female Painted Buntings show young ones how to hunt bugs, find seeds and bathe in our birdbaths.

I guess our excitement at the Savannah sparrow says we live quietly. And that we're bird-nerds. But the sighting was also a coming of age here in our Texas home, # 80 on our house bird list.

Eighty species is a powerful number for a one acre plot. An amazing number. An awesome number. A number that gives hope for survival. For them, and for us.

Painted Bunting - male

Improbably wonderful, isn't he?

Thanks to Tomyris95 for use of his Flickr photo. To see more of his gorgeous images, click on this link to his Flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/people/23736263@N04/

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

The thermometer on my front porch read 110 F this afternoon. I had just come in from checking it when I saw a reclusive Yellow-billed Cuckoo balancing on the rim of our front bird bath. He drank for a long time. They're good-sized birds, heard more often than seen.

Yesterday, a consistent screech in the thicket behind the house pulled me, along with all the small birds in the neighborhood, out to look for danger. A snake? A cat? A hawk? The screech was that kind of death warning.

What I saw was a juvenile Yellow-billed Cuckoo making its first attempts at take-offs and landings. Awkward, each landing a riot of flapping and swaying. But not dangerous, except, perhaps, to the cuckoo.

After a while the screecher gave up and we all went back to our jobs--looking for food, finding water, tending fledglings, writing books...the beauty and drama of life flowing through us.

My thanks to Tripp Davenport for the use of his photo for this post. For more of his images, click this link for his Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tdavenport/3505778843/ .

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

House Concert

You never know, when you meet people, who they are in private. Our friends Mary and Cliff are bringers of music in addition to their other talents and gifts. A few weeks ago they invited 60 friends to hear Karen Ashbrook and Paul Oorts perform at an inaugural house concert, christening the room Mary and Cliff built just for this purpose.

Karen and Paul played a program of traditional Celtic, Belgian, and French music on hammered dulcimer, flute and harp guitar. Accomplished musicians from the Washington DC area, they were in Texas briefly to teach at a music camp in Kerrville. Individually and together they've played at the White House, the Smithsonian and The Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.

I know why they're in demand. The audience was taken as melody and harmony swirled around the room, setting heads to nodding and toes to tapping, joyful and mournful and lively and quiet. Real music flowing like an incoming tide from the passion of real people.

You can pretend you were with us and enjoy this sample from their performance at Harp Guitar Gathering 5:

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Culprit

A bit ago I put up a post about the mystery of finding our bird feeders empty on the ground, (Hill Country Mysteries: Morning Mystery ).

We had a number of suspects but I think the field has narrowed...now we take the feeders in every night...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sunset Therapy

Some years back, there was a a time when my stomach hurt all the time and it was hard to sleep...

I couldn't do much about the situation. But every evening, no matter how late I was working, I went outside for 20 minutes to watch the sky change color. I sat on the trunk of my car in my business suit with the little bow-tie and the low-heeled pumps, and filled my mind with radiant light.

As the oranges and golds melted into pinks and indigos, my knots and tension melted into quiet.

I've been a sunset watcher ever since.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Gift of Bar B Que

My 86 year old father has been smoking meat for longer than many people have lived. He knows how to choose a brisket, the secret of the best dry rub, the premium kinds of wood, and how to build the fire and sustain it in a way that makes the sweet rich smoke bathe the meat, transforming it from mere beef to sacrament.

A couple of years ago, he gifted my husband Denny with a BBQ barrel and helped him condition it for use. Then he taught him all the secrets.

Mom and Dad are coming to visit for Father's Day weekend. Denny will fire up the barrel and make the world's best smoked brisket. I'll make Mom's original recipe BBQ sauce. We'll serve the meat with slow-cooked pinto beans, cole slaw and jalapeno corn bread made from Aunt Flossie's recipe. Then I'll bring out the home-made Coconut Cake, rich in butter and eggs, like my mother used to make when my father was young. We'll tell stories and laugh. It will be a good day.

Dad doesn't have much use for store-bought presents now. He already has everything he wants. But you can never have too many good days.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Cranberry Pepper Pork Loin Roast

Pork loins were on sale last week, if you bought the whole thing. In our case, the whole thing was seven pounds and some-odd ounces, a LOT of meat for two people. So I sliced some off for chops, froze a section to roast some other day and then tried a new recipe-- Cranberry Pepper Pork Loin Roast--with the balance. My niece and her partner were glad to help us out by taking some and it fed us all happily for several days.

I'm thinking this would be a lovely Thanksgiving entree--it's delicious and healthy, the prep is done the day before, and it cooks in a reasonable amount of time, freeing me up to sleep late. Hard to ask for more...

The recipe is adapted from Peggy Trowbridge Filippone's, which I found on the website About.com. It resulted in perfectly cooked, flavorful meat with a sweet and hot and spicy moist crust.

1 (4-6 lbs) pork loin roast
1 cup dried cranberries
1 1/2 Tablespoons ground chipotle chili pepper**
1 teaspoon garlic powder***
1 teaspoon onion powder***
1 Tablespoon kosher salt
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 teapsoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage

**I didn't have chipotle powder so I used a combination of 1 1/2 Tbsp. of my favorite single-chili powder, a wonderful Nambe` from New Mexico, which you can purchase here, The Chili Shop , plus 1 heaping tsp of smoked paprika. Folks who prefer a milder flavor can try reducing the amount of chili powder or using ancho chili powder instead.

***Generally I like using pressed garlic and minced onion instead of powders but the powders were fine in this, no off flavors. Maybe someone who knows more than I do would know if the raw states are more likely to burn or turn bitter during roasting.

In a food processor, pulse the cranberries, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, brown sugar, thyme, and sage until cranberries are chopped into small flecks (next time I'll be more patient and pulse longer...).

Rub the spice mixture over the surface of the pork loin. Wrap tightly with plastic film or place into a zip-top bag. Refrigerate overnight.

The rub is moist and a little slippery but the time under wrap in the fridge helps it adhere to the meat.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 450 F. Put the oven rack on the lowest level in the oven and place the pork loin in a roasting pan.

Bake in pre-heated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce oven heat to 275 F. Roast an additional 3/4 hour to 1 1/2 hours or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the roast indicates a temperature of 150 F. (Roast will continue to cook after you remove it from the oven.) Check at 10 minute intervals until it reaches desired temperature. Tent the roast with foil and let rest for 10 minutes before carving.

Serves: 6-8

The rub blackened some in the process but didn't acquire a burnt taste. I went for a walk and stopped to talk to the neighbors and...ours came out at 155 F internal temp. Fortunately it was still moist and a little pink inside.

I made a bit of sauce by taking some of the rub off of the roast, thinning it with a bit of Amontillado medium sherry, which is a lovely light gold color and has notes of almonds, toast, and roasted oranges (to my taste anyway), then heating the sauce to burn off the alcohol. I keep a bottle for cooking, currently it's Osborne, a Spanish Jerez Xeres sherry. It's a great addition to salad dressings and sauces.

Denny really liked the roast. He made smashed potatoes to go with it, using a bit of basil-garlic olive oil and some fat-free half and half. I poured a Nobilo Marleboro Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. The zingy grapefruit and pineapple flavors complemented well. Next time we'll try a Pinot Noir. I think the earthiness and cherry flavors would complement too.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Serendipity 6-17-09

I'm starting an occasional series of images, pictures I loved as soon as I got them out of my camera. No theme, just interest. If you have one you'd like to share, post it on your blog and leave a comment here. I'll add your link to this post.

Here's my visual serendipity:

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Wild West

When you move to the Texas Hill Country, you don't have to go out looking for Wild West critters, they come to you.

This well-washed scorpion was still alive when I opened the dishwasher the other morning. Didn't need any coffee after that.

And the six-inch Giant Redheaded Centipede (Scolopendra heros) fell out of Ernest's playbox a day later, for which I'm thankful. The tip-out probably saved Ernest's little pink nose, which he sticks into everything, from a poisonous nip by the centipede's claws.

The critters have a place in these hills. Their kind were on this land when we got here and they'll be here when we're gone.

I just don't want to find them in my bed...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra)

Three years ago, when we bought the house we live in now, the 'yard' looked like a wreckage area. On the plus side, it contained some typical Texas hill-country trees. But every square foot not occupied by tree trunk was covered in weeds, rubble and juniper shards. All embedded in sun-baked clay. Oh, and there were rocks. LOTS of rocks.

That fall I wrecked my hands breaking up clay with a pickax so that I could plant thousands of seeds, a riotous assortment of wildflowers and grasses. Amazingly, most of it came up.

If you asked me which was my favorite, I'd waffle, depending on the season and what butterflies I'd seen on the flowers. But there is no contest as to the hummingbirds' favorite, it's Standing Cypress.

The seed will come up in a wide range of habitat--sun, dappled shade, rocky fields, sandy soil. Modestly drought-tolerant, somewhat deer resistant (almost nothing is deer-proof, particularly in time of drought).

It first appears as a stem of soft ferny green, which slowly grows into a low mounding basal-rosette. It will winter, spring, summer, fall and winter again in this form and then, suddenly, shoot a single tall slender stem skyward, from which open a succession of vibrant red trumpets.

Hummingbirds do aerial combat over standing cypress.

At the end, it seeds and dies. And the cycle starts again.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I love research.

Playing outside of my daily life is one of the coolest things about writing a murder mystery.

Now I understand why people like bikes--the syncopated rhythm vibrating up your spine, the wild flying roar washing over you and tugging at your back.

You see
the land 360, no frame. Time and space surround the bike like a bubble, as if the ride is the only reality. Vignettes burn a fast brain-path, gone before the second look.

My protagonist takes more than one ride...I'm thinking maybe I should too.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Rush Hour

Rush hour at our house is 6:45am - 8:00ish. The sky is light, the air is cool. And the hummingbirds line up to bathe in the waterfall. Sometimes six or eight of the tiny birds circle, whistling and diving, fighting to be the first or the only. Everyone gets a turn eventually but the line doesn't move quickly.

When succession is won, the victor loops down to hover in front of the waterfall. There will be a practice dive, maybe three. The final dive must be perfectly calibrated--a swoop ending in a clean slide onto the edge of the flat rock where the water sheets gently. There a bird's claws can anchor. And the less-than-a-penny-weight force of nature will twist and wiggle and flap, tiny wings flinging droplets into the air.

At least once a week I observe rush hour. I sit on the back porch in my pajamas with my coffee and binoculars. Time does not pass. I don't see the changes in the sky or the deer that wander next to the thicket. Until the birds fly on to morning flowers, rush hour is the only reality.

When I get out of my chair, the muscles in my face are stiff from smiling and my mind is as clear as the water falling over the rocks.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ladies in Red

We've been afflicted with aphids. Well, not us personally, but my Esperanza (Tecoma stans) and Blue Mist (Clonoclinium greggii). I've been doing the water spray and finger-rubbing thing without much effect, while I waited for the weather to warm enough for the arrival in force of ladybugs--one of nature's best aphid eaters. And I've seen one or two ladybugs in the past month, but even at an 80-aphid-a-day habit, it wasn't enough to make a dent.

At 5:00pm Friday afternoon, the temperature was 102, plenty warm...making a case for getting reinforcements.

So thanks to our friend Cathy, we received a package of Ladies in Red (http://ladiesinred.com/). They come in a little mesh bag. The label says it holds 1/3 cup, or approximately 1,500 ladybugs, and I'm happy to report that 1,499 of them were alive and active. We thought that was probably enough, if we could just get them on to the plants before they flew away.

It's a little tricky...they rush the corner as soon as you snip it. They crawl fast and everywhere--from the mesh up your hands and arms to your shoulders and hair. It tickles, lots of tiny whisper-tickles. The more forward ladybugs fly if they're not happy where they are--and they weren't flying toward the esperanza. So Denny and I held our hands on the mesh long enough to acquire a light cover of ladybugs, which we carried down to the aphid-afflicted plant-tips. Then it required a little hand-dance to get the bugs from our skin to the leaves as the ladybugs didn't seem inclined to go green on their own. But once they found an aphid patch, they settled.

Some flew but more stayed, tucked in among the leaves. I hope they raise families, dynasties, even.

For more complete information about ladybugs, click the title to this post for a link to a University of Kentucky entomology page.

Friday, June 5, 2009

5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

Every woman knows that chocolate is therapeutic. Now, thanks to my friend Gigi, who introduced the 5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake at book club last month, we can all have an emergency serving of chocolate cake in just minutes. Improbable? Yes...but r e a l l y good, particularly with a little vanilla ice cream. Besides, if you split it with a friend, it's only half a mug, and how bad for you can that be?

5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake
1 large coffee mug (microwave safe)
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa (we used 3 tblsp)
1 egg
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional--we didn't use them, increased cocoa instead)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Add dry ingredients to mug, and mix well. Add the egg and mix thoroughly.
Pour in the milk and oil and mix well.
Add the chocolate chips (if using) and vanilla extract, and mix again.
Put your mug in the microwave and cook for 3 minutes at 1000 watts.
Allow to cool a little, and tip out onto a plate.
EAT! Served 2 easily.

We eat and drink as well as read at this book club...I'm pretty sure that it makes our discussions better. This month's book was People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, a fascinating story within a story within a story, old and new juxtaposed.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Butterflies are my favorite mystery.

This Painted Lady was still flying here on December 15, 2008. The thistle hosts were long withered...could she have grown up on the rock rose? Or the asters, past seeding and dying back for winter? A beautiful mystery...

For more detailed information on the Painted Lady, click the title of this post to go to the Butterflies of Texas web page.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Girl's Picnic

Gigi enjoyed her swine flu vacation. She didn't teach a single class for a week, and still got paid. On Tuesday she called and asked me to a picnic.

I brought homemade soup, she made a killer salad and we sipped herbal tea on her patio looking down the hill. We talked about books and grandchildren and work and life and plants. It was a great vacation.

Monday, June 1, 2009

It Starts Today

There are two dates that all southern coastal residents know like they know their own birthdays-- June 1st and November 30th, the first and last days of Hurricane Season.

The rest of the country may yawn, but on the coasts, people start buying batteries, water and canned goods. They lay in a couple of tarps, check the chain saw, and pull out the weather and battery-powered radios. People who have been through hurricanes before put copies of their valuable documents, including insurance policies and photos of their undamaged homes, in a travel box with family photos.

I'm thinking about all of my Florida friends today and my sister on the Texas coast. Hoping that they'll be safe this year.

My stomach still knots up on June 1st even though we live hundreds of miles from the ocean now. I lived on the Atlantic coast of Florida for twenty great years. Scuba-diving, sailing, kayaking, year-round green gardens, wearing shorts on New Years, I loved it. And I lived in Coconut Grove when Hurricane Andrew hit, and years later in Vero Beach when the eyes of Frances and then Jeanne went over our barrier-island home three weeks apart. I know what it feels like to sleep under a blue-tarped roof without electricity, to be exhausted and afraid.

I still miss the ocean. But I don't miss hurricane season.