Not Really a Bucket List But Kinda, Part I

  • Salsa lessons
  • Going blonde
  • Catching a fish
  • Ballroom dancing
  • Getting comfortable with talking to the press
  • Boxing lessons
  • Aerial dancing or aerial yoga
  • Trying quinoa
  • Getting a “perfect workout” score at the gym
  • Not hating Mother’s Day
  • Playing with a rock band
  • Drafting state legislation that gets made into law
  • Making my garden productive year-round
  • Being less scared
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Maxine’s on Main

Originally published on Yelp!, January 2008.  The management and menu have changed since then…sadly, the derelict potatoes are no more.

The flair is back!

A few things have changed since the Bastrop institution Maxine’s on Main (905 Main Street, (512) 303-0919) changed ownership a few months ago.  The century-old bricks have been power-washed, and the newly painted walls are now a fresh butter yellow and sage.  The linebacker-sized plush (and very dusty) Tweety Bird has been retired from its perch on one of the ancient bicycles hanging from the ceiling.  And, in response to the changes in the local dining population, Maxine’s is now a non-smoking establishment

But there’s still an old iron headboard being used as a pot rack, and cast-iron frying pans hand-lettered with advice.  The bikes are still hanging from the ceiling, just without their passengers.  Drinks are still served in Bell jars (the lids are saved for Christmas tree ornaments in these parts).   As before, the tables are covered in soft, thin linens that look like faded pillowcases, gingham picnic cloths, old patterned housedresses.  The same two cooks are dishing up the same great food. And the walls are once again festooned with framed black and white photos from rodeo yearbooks; with license plates, vintage signs, and cartoons; with a wild variety of clocks, including one that surprises the unsuspecting diner with stealthy (and eerily accurate) bird calls.

Maxine’s opens at 7 am for breakfast, but there’s usually a group of regulars hanging out on the sidewalk by 6:30.  When the doors open, they head in to the two long tables in the front – Maxine’s is a seat-yourself kind of place – and settle in for the duration.  The coffeemaker is in the dining area, not the kitchen; and while the cheerful waitresses are always happy to serve you, you are more than welcome to get your own coffee.  And for those who want to warm up their pie, there’s a microwave for the customers, too.

Most days there’s a steady stream of diners, and always room for a few new ones, at this local hangout that is famous for its breakfasts (don’t miss the derelict potatoes!), burgers, and Badlands award-winning chili.  The waitresses – some of the friendliest in Bastrop County –  report that the greens, peppery with chunks of salt pork, sell out when they’re on the menu – which isn’t all the time.  Maxine’s prides itself on using organic produce and free-range eggs from local farms, and if greens aren’t on the farm, they won’t be on your plate!

Want to take a bit of Maxine’s home?  Try one of the homemade pies – call ahead and they’ll make your favorite, even if it’s not on the menu – or get a gift basket of fresh jams, jellies or pickles.

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A List of Things that Scare Me, Part I

  • Small talk with strangers
  • Bugs
  • Networking events
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Hospitals
  • Jumping from great heights, with or without safety gear
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A Review of China Grill (Bastrop)

Originally posted on Yelp!, November 2007:

Vile, vile, vile.

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Flo’s Pancake House

Originally posted on Yelp!, September 2007:

Out on Muldoon, heading toward the Glenn Highway, it gets kind of sketchy.

Colorful tourist traps and seafood places give way to seedy, hole-in-the-wall diners and Mexican and Chinese joints.  The Volvos and sporty SUVs are gradually outnumbered by pickups, rusted panel vans, and tricked-out motorcycles.  Cute moose-themed trinkets are replaced by real moose dining on the foliage lining the road.

And any sensible swanky restaurant evaporates in the unassuming majesty that is Flo’s Pancake House.

At Flo’s, you park in the puddled lot, take a deep breath before stepping out into the rain, and hope your car won’t be rear-ended by some giant in a hemi or a semi trying to get back on the road, fueled only by coffee, No-Doz, and the pancakes provided by the house in question.

You dodge the raindrops on your way to the entrance at the narrow end of an ordinary-looking,  long, thin rectangular gray building.  You walk in. And you Seat Yourself.

Inside, it’s your standard greasy spoon: along one long wall of steamed-up windows, a row of red vinyl booths with chipped Formica tables; down the center of the place, another row of booths; and opposite the windows, against the other long wall, an endless gleaming counter backed with stacks of dishes, bins of condiments, and bright mirrored cases displaying pies of dubious vintage and ancestry.

I know I’m in Alaska again as I read the plastic menu.  The eggs come with bacon, sausage, ham, or reindeer.

A fifty-something six-foot buxom blonde waitress – perhaps Flo, perhaps not – sails up to me like a galleon and asks for my order in a cheerful, booming voice and resumes her running commentary to all and sundry as she busses the table of three men who just left.  It seems they did not unfold their cash: they just left a crumpled fist full of bills on the table, wadded up next to their congealing dishes.

She is not pleased.

I make a mental note to give Flo only my crispest bills.

“Godammit,” says Flo. “Look here, they left tar on the seat. Godammit. How’m I s’posed to get that offa there?”

“Well, they looked like working men to me,” offers a nearly identical cheery blonde battleship in the back of the joint.  She could be Flo’s sister.  “I think they were roofers. Roofin’ men. They were real dirty.”

“Godammit,” says Flo again, shaking her head like a mother with a rambunctious but adorable child.  “I’mma charge ‘em for it next time they come in.”

A lengthy conversation among patrons and staff ensues about whether 409 is the best cleaning agent for tar; and if so, where the hell is it.

As I eat my breakfast – French toast and sausage, scrambled eggs, hold the reindeer – a man behind me starts flirting with Flo.  I saw him earlier, as he came in chewing on a toothpick; he’s in a ratty t-shirt and jeans and has a handlebar mustache and merry eyes and a trucker hat balanced on top of his head.  She’s about to take a day off, it turns out, and is looking forward to some rest.

“You better be rested up,” rasps the man lewdly, cracking himself up.

Flo takes in a breath.  I wish I could see her in the pie mirrors.

“What, for you?” she sniffs. “Skinny guy like you, you couldn’t handle me.”

“Oh, sure I could,” he says.  “It’d be just like ridin’ a big rollercoaster.”

The Battleship stops cleaning the counter to applaud and laugh, and the other patrons chuckle.  I can’t see Flo, but she must have sent some look, because the laughter dies off fast.

She heads over to another table to refill some coffee.  A man there, 40-something, both his clothes and person clean but slightly faded, quietly asks her where the other waitress is.

“The other one?  Oh, that’s my sister. She doesn’t work here.  She was just helpin’ out.”

“Oh.” He sounds sad. “That’s what she said.  I just thought I might see her again.”  He clears his throat. “She married?”

This is the funniest thing Flo has ever heard. “Married?  Shoot, she hasn’t had a date in 14 years!”  She laughs and laughs, great booming sounds of joy echoing off the booths, the pies, the patrons.

Battleship joins the fray: “That’s a terrible thing for a sister to say!”

Flo, wiping her eyes: “It’s true!  It’s so true!”

And those two go at it for a time, the lovelorn faded man’s question forgotten, but his coffee cup?  Never.

As I pay my tab with fresh, flat currency, Flo, ever the multitasker, is in the middle of telling the room another story.  “So I pulled her ponytail and throwed her…you couldn’t see nothin’ but air and feet.”

Everyone laughs at Flo’s boldness, and no doubt secretly ponders her prodigious upper body strength.

From what I can tell as I look around Flo’s Pancake House, this is not a new story.  It’s an old one, a story that these folks – all but the fresh-faced, rapt brunette now behind the counter for the lunch shift – have heard again and again.

But I’m pretty sure it gets a little better every time.

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Leon’s Country Store

Posted on Yelp!, August 2007:

Leon’s Country Store in Rockne (pop. 200) was recently voted first runner-up for “Best Bar” and first place for “Coldest Beer” in Bastrop.  Owner Herman Goertz took it over from his dad, who’d been serving icy brews to thirsty Texans since 1969.  Herman and his brother, the local DA, are equally beloved – though by arguably different constituencies.

Before Herman’s family took it over, it was a general store.  It’s still paneled with rough wood, faded and peeling a bit outside and kind of dark inside – in a good way, as old country places so often are.

We walk up the soft, worn wooden steps and cross the gallery, and open the peeling white wooden door and find ourselves smack in the middle of a smoky circle of mismatched chairs occupied by folks who eye us coolly without stopping their conversations.

“Thanks for comin’ in!  Glad to have ya!” yells Herman, over the jukebox.  He is compact, with thick, messy hair, and a build that looks as though he could have built this place with his bare hands.  His eyes are large and expressive in a tired, lined face.

He turns toward the bar.  “Holly,” he bellows.  “Holly! Get these girls what they want to drink.”

Holly gets our beers in record speed – they are definitely cold, hallelujah – and we take a walk through the place.  Behind the circle of chairs and parallel to the front counter are a few bookcases and shelves featuring country-store-type items, including cases of grape Nehi.  The top shelves are crowded with dozens of spit-polished trophies from dart tournaments.

The backs of the bookcases are covered with hundreds of snapshots from past nights at Leon’s: Halloween parties with sumo wrestlers, Marilyn lookalikes, and men in pig suits; a guy on his horse inside the bar; Herman in a Santa suit surrounded by sweet young things.  Here and there, a year scrawled on the picture by a Sharpie gives a rough timeline to the colorful chaos.

There’s a room to the farthest side of the building that folks use for events, family reunions and other parties, but it is closed up and empty.  We turn back toward the music and laughter and opt for the two open stools at the end of the bar in the middle room, next to the pool tables and the dance floor, and under a sign that says

THIS ESTABLISHMENT
WILL NOT SERVE
LADIES

and in smaller type, adds

TO MINORS.

Heh.

The bar is full of people in jeans and tees and cowboy hats who know each other well enough to yell and abuse each other – and, we find out later, dress up as each other at Halloween.  A bumper sticker on the wall reads, “God bless Johnny Cash.”   The jukebox plays and a couple two-steps around the room, dodging pool cues and good-natured taunts.

The crowd at the bar are so friendly, they more than offset the little group at the front in the circle of chairs.  A cute blonde in a hot pink “South Padre!” t-shirt and crystal necklace hops down from her stool.  “I don’t think I know you girls.  I’m Tanya,” she smiles, holding out her hand.

We allow as we were both named Jennifer, and she laughs.  “Oh, good, only one name to remember!  Where you girls from?”

We tell her, and Jen asks Tanya where she lives.  Tanya gestures over her shoulder.  “Oh, just about 50 paces that way.”

Jen teases her. “So if we can’t drive home, we can just knock on your door?”

Tanya gives each of us a hug, and says cheerfully, “Sure, honey! Mi casa es su casa.  I have a fold-out bed and an air bed so you just come on over.  So nice to meet you!  Y’all come back!”

I love Texas.

We are entertained most of the evening by a darling 24-year-old man who lives nearby, but was just back from a month traveling through Ecuador.  During that time, someone swiped his electric bill payment from his mailbox, stole his identity, forged some checks, and shopped at three different Wal-Marts.  If we ever go to Ecuador, he tells us, the drinks are cheap, and if you drink enough, they’ll give you more drinks for free, just to say thanks for drinking so much.  Good to know.

Leon’s has egg rolls and Hot Pockets for $1.50, but no glasses.  You drink out of the can or bottle.  Luckily, they have brown paper bags full of coozies that customers have brought in.  Jen gets one from the District 28 electrical workers’ union.  Mine celebrates an obscure Venezuelan musical tradition, courtesy of Miller’s Latin American marketing team.

We’ll be back.  The beers are cold and cheap, the company is fun, and no one is trying to be hipper than anyone else.  It’s a great, laid-back place.

Leon’s is open from 10am to, apparently, whenever.

NOTE: If you’re a non-smoker, be prepared to peel your clothes off the second you get home and put them directly in the washing machine.

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On Aging

I have grown old enough to develop radical acceptance. I insist on the right to swim in warm water at every opportunity, no matter how I look, no matter how young and gorgeous the other people on the beach are. I don’t think that if I live to be eighty, I’m going to wish I’d spent more hours in the gym or kept my house a lot cleaner. I’m going to wish I had swum more unashamedly, made more mistakes, spaced out more, rested. On the day I die, I want to have had dessert. So this informs how I live now.

~ Anne Lamott

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On Fireflies

And these are my vices:
impatience, bad temper, wine,
the more than occasional cigarette,
an almost unquenchable thirst to be kissed,
a hunger that isn’t hunger
but something like fear, a staunching of dread
and a taste for bitter gossip
of those who’ve wronged me – for bitterness -
and flirting with strangers and saying sweetheart
to children whose names I don’t even know
and driving too fast and not being Buddhist
enough to let insects live in my house
or those cute little toylike mice
whose soft grey bodies in sticky traps
I carry, lifeless, out to the trash
and that I sometimes prefer the company of a book
to a human being, and humming
and living inside my head
and how as a girl I trailed a slow-hipped aunt
at twilight across the lawn
and learned to catch fireflies in my hands,
to smear their sticky, still-pulsing flickering
onto my fingers and earlobes like jewels.

~ “Fireflies” by Cecilia Woloch, from Carpathia. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2009.

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Travelin’ Notes

(originally published in December 2007)

Beaumont, TX: I love that the list of vegetables here includes mashed potatoes, steak fries, mac ‘n’ cheese and dumplings. The vegetable of the day? Dressing. Yum.

Greenwood, MS: Deeply disturbing poverty in the hometown of Viking appliances. The streets are old brick, just like in beautiful Natchidoches, but look forlorn rather than historic. Here the feeling is one of sadness, disrepair, and loss.

I decamp for the night at the Bridgewater B&B, run by a 62-year-old psychiatric nurse. Her training comes in handy as she lives next to a pair of bachelor brothers from a famous family, both of whom are a few biscuits short of a picnic. One lives in the downstairs part of the mansion and is (she says) delusional, believing he is a civil servant. Should I ever go mad, remind me to be more ambitious in my delusions. The other brother lives upstairs; he is (she says) a paranoid schizophrenic and believes he runs a radio station from his room. He may be correct, but no one in town has been able to tune in. Perhaps he is on Sirius. There’s a hotshot down the street from us at home who is supposedly some kind of subscription-radio celebrity.

The B&B is on the Yazoo River and is rich with period detail – stained glass transoms above all the bedroom doors, and larger stained glass windows and doors throughout the house. It is full of burnished antiques and there is a suit of armor on the stairs. It would appear that in days of old, knights were really small.

A door between two upstairs bedrooms gives onto a gallery with porch swings and a view of the quiet river and the trees on the opposite bank. I have the house to myself.

The kitchen is well-eqippped and guests are welcome to whip up whatever meals they’d like on the Viking stove with ingredients from the Viking refrigerator. (Please place dirty dishes in the Viking dishwasher.)

For dinner, the innkeeper recommends her favorite restaurant. “It’s owned by Greeks,” she whispers confidentially, in answer to a question I had not asked but perhaps others had.

The place is crowded and dirty, the food is not particularly good, and the menu cover features old newspapers with disturbing celebratory headlines including “WAR ENDS AS JAPS ACCEPT UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER.” If the (possibly) mentally ill, unsupervised brothers living next to the giant house where I’m the only guest was creepy, this place is off the charts. The B&B is lovely, but I can’t wait to get back into my time machine in the morning and head toward the state line.

Vicksburg, MS: Leaving town, the landscape is lush with cheerful leafy trees still delighted from an unusually rainy spring, and happy in their home on the river. Then the farms start – corn, mostly, looking as though the spring rains have passed them by. Unlike the endless plains and prairies of the Midwest that became large, flat fields with orderly rows, these farms have low, sloping hills, and are lovely in a different way.

Heading south, the sweet rolling curves give way to something more bleak, flatter, swampier, and wide open to the blasting Delta sun.

Natchidoches, LA: Just one of the many, many reasons I adore Louisiana…I wandered into a lovely small bookstore to ask if he had a state map.

“Hmm,” he said. “No, I don’t. But I can have one by tomorrow.” I explained that I was headed out of town and thanked him anyway. He stopped me from leaving and called to order some from the Visitor’s Center, and started to direct me there – and then stopped. “That’s too far to walk in this heat,” he said firmly, and directed me to a store a few doors down that would have them.

How did he know they’d have them? Because he called to ask as I stood there, and told them I was on my way.

I purchased a few books for the road, and gave him my credit card, asking if he needed ID. “No,” he said. “I like to think people who buy books are honest.”

As I walked out the door, I heard him greet a customer by name…and heard the customer say, “Put it on my account.” I had no idea anyone did that anymore.

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“I can color. You can color, too.”

(originally published December 2007)

There’s one person who taught me the skill that has allowed me to achieve everything I have in my life. I thanked him a lot when he was around, but there’s no way it could have been enough, given what I have gotten from it.

The person was my dad, and he taught me how to read.

My father grew up in a big stone house with a cook and a housekeeper and a baseball team of siblings. He attended a Hogwarts-y private school with short pants and striped neckties and was studying to be a priest when his father died unexpectedly. The family was unceremoniously removed from the house, which belonged to his father’s employer, and private school became a luxury they could not afford. They gathered their worldly belongings, got on the biggest ship they’d ever seen, and sailed to America.

The first years were rough. He settled in San Francisco and got a job that paid him exactly the amount of his boardinghouse rent, which included two meals a day, except Sunday. From Saturday night to Monday morning, he went without. His proudest achievements in those early days were losing his accent and passing his citizenship exam.

When I was about three, we started to sit in the early evenings in our wooden garage, me at a second-hand child’s desk and he in a worn kitchen chair, in front of a blackboard and a small easel. He read to me every day after he got home from work and brought me workbooks and alphabet books and chalk. It was my favorite time of day, smelling his aftershave and listening to his voice reading Kipling and Wordsworth and Yeats, along with Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales.

I still remember the day it all came together. There was no warning. One moment, I was a four year old kid, sounding out the letters one at a time, and guessing at the words that the sounds made. And then I saw it: I saw the word. The word as one whole thing, with a life of its own. Its own shape, literally – a unique silhouette made up of letters in a particular order that made that one word and nothing else.

And I saw the next word. And the next.

I read it aloud: “I can color.”

And then, “You can color, too.”

And I turned my first page.

When I started kindergarten that fall, there was no stopping me. I read every book I could. We got a circle of construction paper for every book we read to add to the paper caterpillar with our name on it; I still remember how proud my dad was when he saw how my caterpillar stretched around the corners of the classroom.

My favorite part of Christmas each year was opening the best presents, the books. Sometimes it was Nancy Drew (the numbered volumes appealed to my OCD), sometimes a bestseller, sometimes a classic. I’d go to the room I shared with my seester, plop down on the bed, prop myself up on my elbows, and read the words, gulping shape after shape, until my hands went cold and numb. Then I’d roll over and read some more.

Every day since then, I’ve read something. Each book has left its mark on my politics, my philosophies, my preferences. Stephen King, Raymond Carver, Anne Sexton, James Lee Burke, Andrew Vachss, Maeve Binchy, Shakespeare, Gail Evans, Dean Koontz, Homer, Seth Godin, Tom Peters, James Patterson, John Donne, Michael Crichton, Bill Bryson: they have all influenced me. I’ve made friends with Dave Robicheaux and Alex Delaware, Shylock and Madeline, Jurassic Park dinosaurs and the Man in the Yellow Hat. Books have comforted me when I was scared, kept me company when I was lonely, prevented reckless mistakes and encouraged reckless behavior.

Even though my father has been gone for many years, I remember him every time I learn a new word. That’s a pretty amazing gift, in my book.

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