Saturday, December 30, 2006

Sgt. Jason Campbell (USMC) is in Austin.

Adam, Jason and Adam's friend Brad, all bumming around tonight. And tomorrow, Jason's family gets here and this weekend we ring in the New Year with champagne, sushi and dim sum.

It's so cool.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


I've been reading the new biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. and I'm finding it as good a read as everyone else is. It raises similar questions for me as if does for a lot of other people. It does something very valuable. It complicates things in ways that make them seem everyday life.

I knew the outlines. The doctorate in psychology, the sitting down and writing a story and selling it under the male pseudonym, sui generis so to speak. The outing. The murder/suicide. What I didn't know was the tortured complications, the equivocations, the false starts, the early writing, the years of thrashing about from art, to journalism, to intelligence, to a late college career. I thought she was this cool, competent, ex-CIA, woman of the world. And she was in many ways, but she was also not-so-competent, not-so-worldly, given to exaggeration, never able to figure out what to do with her college education, cushioned by a bit of privilege, normal messy human being. Who like so many of us in science fiction, thought she was an alien, and never figured out that almost everybody thinks they're an alien.

Was she a lesbian, or did she want to be a man? Sure. No. Yes. All of the above. I think she might have considered sex reassignment today. I don't know that she would have gone through with it. She might have been a lesbian today. She might have stayed bisexual. We're almost as screwed up with our absolutes (you're straight OR gay OR bi) as she was with her lack of choices.

Tappen King once said to me, while we were talking about pseudonyms, that he felt they could do harmful things to a person, and that he felt the Tiptree pseudonym contributed to Sheldon's eventual suicide. (This was twenty years ago and I may be doing violence to what he said.) Talking at World Fantasy to Beth Meacham, she pointed out to me that being Tiptree allowed Sheldon to write, and that once she was outed, she pretty much stopped writing.

I think that the pseudonym was a mixed blessing for Alli Sheldon. It allowed her a voice, but a voice she felt in many ways was not her real self. I think that Sheldon's suicide might have been averted had she had access to better medication for bipolar disorder. She said one time, describing how she felt during an acute depressive episode that she felt as if she was viewing events through the wrong end of the binoculars, that everything was so distant and unconnected. I felt a strange and nervous thrill because I've used exactly that analogy with my therapist. But I'm thinking is acute disassociation is a symptom of depression, wearing a persona can't help but have contributed to worsening depression.

The book has had the strange effect of knocking Alice Sheldon off her pedestal and making me think so much more of her. If you haven't read it, and you have any interest, I recommend it.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Traditions Cont'd.

Humiliating the dog.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Iggy Redux

Iggy the Reinguana restored to his traditional Christmas Glory.

Friday, December 22, 2006


Iggy the Christmas Lizard does his annual job of guarding the household presents.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


When I was in Staten Island, trying very hard to write publishable stuff and pretty much not getting published, I got stuck a lot. I would say that this was a result of the inevitable crisis of faith that comes with rejection letters and the deep concern that I was not, in fact, serving some sort of apprenticeship on my way to becoming a writer, but rather, was just not getting a full time job. But I still get stuck and I have been published and I'm still not getting a full time job. (Which bothers me intermittently, but not enough to, you know, actually get a job.)

Sometimes when I was stuck, I'd clean my kitchen floor. It requires attention but is not particularly mentally taxing. So I thought my subconscious could cheerfully solve my stuck-ness and my kitchen floor would be clean. Today, trying very hard to get some characters off a beach and into a lake, I am stuck again. So I decided to scrub my kitchen floor. But before I scrubbed the floor, I needed to put a few things in the dishwasher--which meant I had to put the clean dishes away. And then I needed to clean the counters, and take the burners off the stove and soak them. And clean the cabinets because there was dried food on some of them from the previous owners. And finally, after the microwave had been cleaned and the front of the fridge and the dishwasher, I scrubbed the floor.

I still have no idea how to get these particular characters off the goddamn beach and into the lake, but my kitchen is very very clean. Which is quite satisfying.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Adam Films the House

Adam used my camera to film the new house just a week after we moved. The film won't give you a really good sense of the house, but it will give you a pretty good sense of our every day life. Sort of.

A Video Blog on Cancer

This may not be near as funny if you haven't, you know, been there.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Oxtail Ragu with Gnocchi

I've had gnocchi (potato pasta--kind of like dumplings) in restaurants before. They're usually sturdy little solid lumps. Kind of heavy, a little chewy. Thursday is gnocchi day in Rome and although I didn't hate gnocchi (it's all starch, how could I?) I admit I didn't really understand.

Having made homemade gnocchi, I now understand. Gnocchi deserve a day of their own. Really.

Monday I finally made the oxtail ragu with homemade gnocchi. The ragu recipe asks for homemade stock and homemade tomato sauce. I had homemade chicken stock--actually a brown chicken stock in the Italian manner, because that's what I like. So I was good there. I made the tomato sauce. Tomato sauce isn't hard. I found really good Italian canned plum tomatoes at Whole Foods last week, so I was prepared. But it did mean that I had to start cooking at noon to get dinner on the table by seven. When you make tomato sauce you have two options. One is to crush fresh tomatoes with some garlic and basil and cook it for just a few minutes. The other is to simmer it for a good long time. The tomato tastes fresh for a few minutes, but when it cooks longer than that, it gets acidic and it's not good. The solution to that is to cook it for a much longer time, the way Italian grandmothers do, and then it slowly becomes really good again. I don't have an Italian grandmother and my only living grandmother when I was a child was a lousy cook, but it's still true.

I made it, and now I have a couple of pints of homemade tomato sauce in the freezer. That has to be a good thing.

Oxtails are pretty ugly pieces of meat. A slab of beef, say, a brisket, is pretty anonymous. Sure, it's meat, but you don't look at it and think, 'oh! that's the cow's wall of muscle just at the end of the ribcage and along the belly. But because oxtails are 1. called 'oxtails' and 2. bear a striking resemblance to what you would expect to get if you chopped a cow tail into lengths and took off the hair, it's pretty obvious looking at them what they are which is probably why they're kind of unpopular. There's also not a lot of meat on an oxtail. I mean, when was the last time you saw an animal with a big fat tail? Besides, say, a lizard.

So why bother? (If you've ever watch Alton Brown of Good Eats, you should imagine him explaining this.) The answer is bone marrow and collagen. Bone marrow is a sublime substance. Cook a piece of tough meat with lots of connective tissue, and a thick bone split to allow you to get to the marrow for a really long time and what you get is, well, good eats. Bone marrow and collagen will saturate the cooling liquid so that the result is an almost gelid, thick, meaty tasting substance that sticks to pasta, or potatoes or even a spoon like an exquisite sauce.

I dredged my oxtails in flour and browned them in olive oil and then cooked them in a lot of wine--a whole bottle--some homemade stock and some homemade tomato sauce for almost two hours. Then I took them out, let them cool and took the meat off the bones (what little meat there was) and put the meat back in the pot with all that good braising liquid, and cooked it some more.

The house smelled so good the dogs thought they were going to die of starvation.

It's great stuff. But the gnocchi. By this point I was a little worried about ruining this great stuff by screwing up the gnocchi but I couldn't think of anything else to put this on that was good enough for it. I made the gnocchi dough and followed the directions for making gnocchi. Making pasta, like pie dough, and tortillas and a bunch of other foods is often a matter of experience. I can't make tortillas you would feed a dog. And my biscuits aren't to great, either. So I was prepared for my gnocchi to be, well, sad. But my directions (which were slightly different than the ones in the link above because I used Mario Batali's recipe from Babbo) seemed straight forward enough and low and behold, as I followed them, the things that were supposed to happen did happen. The dough came together, and when I had incorporated all the flour, although it wasn't all satiny and elastic and stretchy like pasta dough, it wasn't like mashed potatoes, either. So I cut them and flicked them off the fork. The photo is actually of my gnocchi, by the way. And here's another.

As I heard Bob pull into the garage I put them in boiling water, and in a minute or two they were ready. Then I put them in a sauce pan holding some of my heated ragu turned them in it and emptied it all on two plates.

I'm sorry I don't have a photo of the finished dish but that's because we ate them. They were lighter than air. The ragu was everything it was advertised to be. Sort of like the best pot roast you've ever had. Plato's ideal of braised beef. And I have a couple of quarts of oxtail ragu in my freezer, so if someone drops in unexpectedly for dinner, it's all there.

If you want the gnocchi recipe, let me know. It makes a ton. And it takes some time. But damn it's good.

Holiday Cooking

During the holidays, we always had huge family meals. This was Ohio, so some years the weather was great, some years family was driving between Cincinnati and Dayton in snow. They holidays were usually at either my mother's or my Aunt Marie's. (My grandmother, pictured here with my father and his two brothers, was a terrible cook. Since she was born in the 1890's and I was born in 1959, she was pretty much beyond the whole entertaining thing anyway, but after my grandfather died in 1969, someone would be dispatched to bring her to our place if the party was at our house. If we were going to Dayton, she went to my cousin's in Cincinnati.)

The meals involved huge hunks of roasted meat. Turkeys or prime rib or a pork roast. Mashed potatoes, gravy, a vegetable casserole, homemade rolls and pie. Everybody knew everyone else's preferences. I didn't eat lima beans, my nephew didn't eat peas, Pat, my sister, liked her meat medium well done and my dad and I liked it medium rare. My sister made the best rolls. So she was always asked to bring the rolls--big fluffy crescent rolls. My aunt could have happily ignored the whole meal and just eaten rolls. Aunt Marie often brought seven layer salad. I love seven layer salad. And I love green bean casserole. I know I'm not supposed to, they're kitsch food. But I do.

And the pies. My mother, my sister and my aunt all made pies. Pecan pies with real whipped cream. Cherry pies from my aunt's cherry tree with the incredibly sour cherries. Lemon Chiffon, and pumpkin. All from scratch. Every dinner ended in pie and a discussion of the meal. The hostess usually complained that the meat was too done or not done enough, and everybody praised the pies and talked about the crust. Was the crust short--mom liked her crusts short, Marie preferred them not so short. I didn't know what they were talking about and long after I started contributing to meals (and got a reputation as a good but weird cook) I avoided baking pie for fear I would screw up the crust.

About ten years, we were all at my Aunt Marie's--she's dead now, and she moved to New Mexico a couple of years before she died so this may have been one of the last big holiday meals. My grandmother has been gone since the eighties. My sister was making gravy at the stove and I was putting out food. Pat and I had made most of the dinner--something I didn't even realize until I saw her pouring the gravy. My kid was roaming around somewhere bored and Bill was there with his wife and kids and I realized that Pat and I had become the generation that cooked. My mom and my aunt were old. Pat and I were middle aged.

I was disturbed by the realization.

This year it's in the 70's here in Austin, and I've got family flying in right after Christmas for the holidays. Adam and Jason and Brad and Gary and Jane. I'm looking forward to the cooking. I'm not making any of the old stand-bys. I made turkey for Thanksgiving and a pumpkin pie, but for New Years I'll do lots of fun kind of nibble food. We might roll our own sushi. But it has become comfortable to me to think that holidays mark the passing of time. That we make our families anew every year. It's no coincidence that this is the darkest time of the year and in many ways, the hardest. It's such a triumph that so many of us have such good associations.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where Does This Guy Shop?

From Babbo, Mario Batali's cookbook of recipes from the restaurant of the same name.

"Fennel pollen was very difficult to find when I first tasted it at Macelleria Cacchini in Panzano, but now it seems ubiquitous."

(Yes, I know it's on the internet. That's not the point. I can buy pig cheeks off the internet, too, but they aren't exactly ubiquitous.)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Does Gavin Grant Know About This?

The Haggis Hunt

Has he ever seen one of the buggers?

How much beer was involved?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Men are From Mars...

I was invited to lunch last Thursday by a new friend. Catherine invited a bunch of women to lunch as a kind of Christmas present. So I got to meet a bunch of new people. About all we had in common was Catherine.

Bob works with three other engineers and designers. They get along really well. They're incredibly busy, but even so, they get a chance to talk seeing as they are all in the same office.

By the end of the two hours we were talking about our kids. One of the women told how her daughter came home from high school and said that a guy at school had asked her to give him a blow job and she thought this was really nice.

Bob told the guys at work about how he had found fire ant nests on the side of our house. Fire ants are nasty biting, stinging critters. Highly aggressive insects that come boiling out of the nest and up your shoes and grab onto your skin with their mouth pincers and then curl up and sting you with their abdominal stingers. All of the guys had remedies for fire ant infestations.

The woman asked her daughter why she thought it was nice. The daughter explained that the guy was thoughtful because he didn't want her to get pregnant. (The guy and the daughter are not dating.) The mother sat down and explained why a sixteen-year-old boy asking for a blow job may not be behaving altruistically, and about blow jobs and stds. And we shuddered and commiserated about this strange world we were trying to prepare our children for. By the time I left lunch I knew how many children each woman had and a significant amount about her present circumstances.

One of the guys said that what he liked to do is take a burnz-a-matic torch and fire it up and lay it sideways so that the flame is parallel to the ground, about an eighth to a quarter of an inch above the opening of the nest. The ants will come boiling out and as each one comes out it will fry and pop and get blown away by the torch. This really doesn't eliminate the problem of course, because it doesn't get the queen, but it's cool as hell.

What's so-and-so's wife's name? I asked my husband. He hadn't a clue. But the fire ant problem is eradicated.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Japanese Learning English

One of the Clarion West 2006 found this. Gord lives and works in Korea, so has a real appreciation for English as a Second Language (ESL) and having both taught ESL and lived in China, I would say I thought I had seen a lot, too. But this is pretty damn weird.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Gripe, Gripe, Gripe

I can't wait until I have a routine.

Yesterday I got a new doctor. Today I found a place where I will get my prescriptions refilled and got a flu shot. Tomorrow the dogs go to the new vet to get their nails trimmed. None of which is a big deal except that, of course, it is because, I had to find them all and, you know, deal.

And find where they were.

And figure out how to get there without making too many U turns.

Next week I may have a temp job, but that hasn't been confirmed. I was, as I've said, a temp for years. The thing I got most tired of being a temp?

It's always your first day.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sambet's Cajun Store

The first week I was here, I spent a lot of time doing U-Turns. U-Turns are a feature of Austin life. The major highways like I-35 and 183 have frontage roads that run parallel to them. Grocery stores, restaurants and businesses crowd these three lane frontage roads (where the speed limit is 50 mph, meaning you're going 50 until the guy in front of you stops to turn left into McDonald's.) The frontage roads are only one way, running north alongside the freeway that runs north and south along the freeway that runs south. So inevitably, if you stop somewhere on one of them, you are going to have to figure out how to go under the freeway and back the other way. So there are special U-Turns that whip under the highway and dump you onto the three land frontage road going the OTHER way at 50 mph. It's exciting to go to the grocery.

There's a strip mall near me at McNeil and 183 that is at my intersection so when I saw, tucked in the high grass, one of those signs on wheels where the magnetic letters usually spell out 'Big Sale On Sleeper Sofas' or whatever that there was a place selling Po' Boys and Muffalettas, I was hopeful but cautious. I like New Orleans food. I've never had a bad meal in New Orleans in my life. But the sign looked untended. So I fought my way across traffic and turned into the strip mall.

Sambet's Cajun Store had the front door open, which is weird. Texas seems, like Ohio, to be big on controlled environments. Out front was a white plastic table and four plastic chairs and four middle-aged guys eating stuff out of those red plastic baskets and Styrofoam bowls. The door opened onto a dark looking storefront. My hopes began to rise.

The menu at Sambet's is written on a white board above the counter, and the tables are all shoved together in long rows, so that basically there are three long tables in the crowded storefront. One of the ceiling fans was on the fritz, as was the deli case in the back. But the walls were covered with shelves of hot sauces, beans, spices for crayfish boil, and rice mixes. And the smell.

The owner is a talker. She knows half the clientele and has that wonderful ability to remember that she's seen you before. The mainstay is mufs and Po boys. The sides are chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, jambalaya, dirty rice, shrimp etouffe, and chicken and jalapeno gumbo. The food isn't cheap, lunch will set you back almost ten dollars, but it's good. The gumbo is smoky and rich and thick. She doesn't use okra or file to thicken it (I know, I asked) but it sure tasted good to me. I ordered a lunch of two sides and a hunk of French bread and a soft drink and she handed me a chilled mason jar for the soda fountain. There was blues playing. The room was about half full of guys on their lunch hour.

Since then I've had a couple more of the sides and Bob and I have each had a Po boy. He had a roast beef (covered in gravy and so sloppy to eat it was impossible) and I had the shrimp (chock full of deep fried crispy shrimp with mayo.)

I assume they close the doors and crank up the air conditioner in August.

It was my first food find in this town.