ISO the Zeitgeist … and an Agent

After reading the bios of 353 literary agents, I’m considering writing a novel about an orphaned, emotionally damaged dragon girl who steals an ultra-secret spacecraft with time-travel capabilities to find a giant lizard shaman in a distant galaxy 5,000 years in the future who can excise her demons, and while there, falls in love with the shaman’s shape-shifting daughter, who is secretly plotting the overthrow of her planet’s evil kingdom. It ends happy.

Let me say first off that my amazing family would love this novel … my neurodivergent daughter, my bi-racial 14 year old grandson who proudly told me last week that he is pan-sexual, my transgender son, my queer daughter-in-law. They would love it. Characters who exist outside “the mainstream,” just like them. Characters conquering the unimaginable. Just like them. I am grateful for a growing tower of literature, written by new, underrepresented voices, that reflects the world as they see it.

The trouble for me is, I couldn’t actually write that novel. It’s not my world, my experience. The world I am writing about – the world inside the 102,000 words of my historical novel, the novel that has sent me on a quest to find an agent, and ultimately a publisher – is squarely in the mainstream, as out of favor, I am gathering from all those agent bios, as chewing gum.

I am a straight, white, 66-year old woman, one of about 100 million older women worldwide. From my deep dive into the hive mind of the literary agent community, I’ve come to think of myself and the other 99,999,999 as kryptonite. When I arrive in their inboxes with my query letter about a white family struggling through the Jim Crow south, the barren Montana prairie, California in the depths of the depression, their right index fingers are drawn to the delete button. I’m trying to come to terms with this, while still clutching the 102,000 words to my chest like a poultice.

There must be a way in. I’m trying to understand how agents work, what they could possibly want, aside from time-traveling dragons. What I could write them in my query that doesn’t sound like “old women debut novelists are people too!”

In “Funny Lady” the exquisite Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) is in her fancy train compartment, and Billy Rose (James Caan), desperate for her affections, is watching her rub lemon halves on her elbows. “What do you want from me?” he asks. “Am I supposed to go for your elbows, or what?”

That’s how I feel most days, sitting down to my agent research: my elaborate, meticulous spread sheet, my subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace and QueryTracker, my bookmarked Manuscript Wish List, my printed lists, stippled with cross-outs, my daily commitment (since August 8, 2022) to submit two queries a day. What can I say in a query letter to conquer the chewing gum brush-off? Should I go for their elbows, or what? What exactly is “voicy”? What constitutes a “commercial hook”? (See above: dragons.)

It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve failed to comprehend the zeitgeist. Like that day the nurse handed me and my first born child and a diaper and sent us home from the hospital. It took us a while, but the mother/daughter thing grew on us.

Querying is like a glory hole. You stick your query letter and first three chapters through the hole, and you have no idea what will happen on the other side. So you hunt for clues. You read the laundry basket full of articles on how to query, which often contradict each other like black socks and white sheets in the same load.

After weeks of whittling, rewriting and paring my query letter to the sparsest, pithiest I could get it, I came across this advice: “You goal is to establish a relationship …” A one-way relationship, sure, but … give it a shot in three paragraphs in which you roll out a riveting pitch line, lay out the plot, establish your writing cred, list comparable reads, and describe your audience.

Whoa, boy. There’s a tweet going around in the agent community of late as one agent after another announces that they’ve gotten THE QUERY from the rampaging writer who doesn’t want to fill in the blanks and just rants, “Read the fucking thing!” He’s the incel in the querying population and he’s not going to take it anymore.

I am not going there. I’m trying hard to understand – have compassion even – for the thousands of agents out there who face a firehose in their inbox each day, from people just like me, desperate to start a relationship in three paragraphs. Some of us are old ladies who know nothing about dragons. But we are audacious enough to think we know human nature. And what is a dragon anyway, but a lonely little girl in Riverbank, California, just trying to make her way through the heavens, to love and resolution, and maybe, a happy ending.

Maybe I do know how to write that book.

Some Thoughts on the Royals’ Underwear

I read, when Princess Diana was still alive, that the Royals threw away their underwear after one wearing. I was thinking of that this morning as I replaced the worn-out elastic in the waist of a skirt I bought in 1992. A skirt so old, the company that sold it, J. Crew, folded, at some point. Tossed off the stock exchange like yesterday’s panties. (Though I see someone has resurrected the brand now.)

Are the Royals’ nether regions so yucky that dropping their underpants in a bin is the only thing to do? Maybe the Royals are too shy to present their streaky underthings to the Royal laundress. Or is it, as I suspect, simple excess? Could it be the whole underwear thing is at the root of the recently-departed Queen’s disdain for Diana, and her testiness at times with Kate and especially, Meghan? Something tells me the Queen was a game enough girl to make it through World War II with a stiff upper lip and her underwear on rotation. Princesses these days!

As I thread a piece of elastic through my old skirt’s waistband, I think about all the places this skirt – size Medium, 100% Rayon, made in Singapore, dry clean only – and I have been together. It is one of those classic pieces that still, to my eye, seems to be in style. Though you could argue that at 66, I ought to be wearing something longer and less swishy. But no matter. I still love it.

I bought it when I was the communications manager for Oregon’s Economic Development Department. It’s chief charm then was that it didn’t wrinkle, and I could throw it in a suitcase with a blazer and flats to wear to a museum dedication or a medium density fiber board plant tour, or to a governor’s speech. I wore it with a gray cashmere twin set and brown boots to the police cadet academy graduation for my daughter, who is now my son. Banquet chairs, train seats, bar stools, bus benches. It’s been everywhere. Worth repairing. Rayon has the half-life of plutonium.

Now that my skirt’s waistband is no longer sagging like an old lawn chair, I can wear it out to dinner tonight. I’ll be pairing it with sandals and my husband’s favorite black blouse, which I bought at Ross’ Dress for Less eight years ago for $17. I think the Queen would have liked me.

Nine Chefs Point the Way

Chef’s Collective at Ruby June Inn: Summer Saturday nights under the sky and wisteria, on the White Salmon.

The best way to change an ailing institution is to blow it up. That’s what COVID did to the restaurant model as we know it. I chortle with glee every time I read of ways post-COVID restaurants are mixing it up, changing the rules … kicking the bums out.

And by bums, I mean miscreants in the kitchen. In my restaurant owning years, the pressure to just keep the doors open seven days, seven nights, meant I hired and kept on – as the kid says in Little Orphan Annie – “bad people.” But staffing shortages have made chefs and restaurant owners see things in a different light. Instead of cramming their restaurants with bad actors, just to keep the doors open 5, 6, 7 days and nights, they’re saying, “With this crew we have, how many hours should we be open?”

Last week I was talking to a friend, a chef and restaurant owner who has struggled the last ten years with keeping a big enough staff to run full-tilt. At the beginning of this year’s busy season, he wasn’t looking to hire anyone. He fired people instead. Under-performers. Gripers. People who brought the whole operation down. Now, on their reduced days and hours, the whole joint is joyous. I’m gonna guess he will make more money too. Churn is terribly expensive and shortens your life span.

Six years ago when I started my dinner series, “Supper Club” at what was then Husum Riverside Bed and Breakfast, we did a few things that seemed radical at the time, too. Pay in advance for a fixed dinner menu you won’t see until you are arrive and sit down.

I had a blast for three years. Enter, stage left, Chris Wiggins and Gretchen Wolf who bought the property, and spiffed it. It’s now Ruby June Inn. We reimagined the dinner series too. Today, it’s nine chefs who rotate through the summer, presenting a dinner every Saturday night from mid-June to mid-September. $100, 20% auto gratuity. Gretchen’s amazing wine pairings are extra.

I’m doing two dinners this year, but just as important, I’m hauling my apron and knife bag up to the inn and reporting for duty to assist two other women chefs in the collective. And they’re helping me at my dinners. Love to just show up and say, “Yes chef.” We are learning from each other in ways large and small. And bringing a new jam to the kitchen: high-powered estrogen energy, something not found in this industry until recent years.

How do folks like this new model, one that certainly takes away a lot of their choices: one seating at a specific time, no menu choices? Maybe some “weird” food they’ve never had before?

This year, the entire season sold out in three hours. Three hours.

Update: Last week, we added a winter dinner, just for fun. Working with the fabulous Chef Krystyna Livingston, we created a French country feast. The 40 seats sold out in 30 minutes. 

Trash to Treasures

What do oxtails, short ribs, lamb neck and fava beans have in common? At some point, all of them were bench warmers, or as they say in baseball: they rode the pine. Sat it out. No one wanted to see them on the field.

I can just see a little fava bean singing, “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.”

Oxtail and ravioli

Of course that meant if you could find them, they were cheap. Our local farm butcher here in the Hood River Valley would sell us oxtail for $1 a pound. For the longest time.

Then the tide turned. First, about 18 years ago, with short ribs. Those dedicated steak-and-burger eaters discovered, thanks to restaurants (like mine) that short ribs were dang near angelic: luscious, pleasantly fatty, drool-inducing when braised two to three hours at a low temp, with tomatoes, red wine, mirapoix, fresh thyme. We served them with braised kale and collards, over mashed potatoes. Yeehaw.

And then, you couldn’t find them cheap anymore. Same with lamb neck and oxtails.

Six years ago, I started a supper club, and told folks they were going to pay in advance, and they’d see the menu … after they sat down. (SOP these days, but then, it was kinda different.) So, the first dinner in April 2017, I made oxtail and winter onion stew with Wildwood Farm leeks and shallots and L’Amuse goat gouda croutons. Wish I’d been out at the tables when the guests – most of whom had never eaten oxtail, assumed it was offal and awful – saw it on the menu. Probably shudders all around.

But after the five-course dinner, many diners said the oxtail was a revelation … incredible! … and their favorite dish of the night. I may have personally driven the cost of oxtail out into the stratosphere along with short ribs.

I’m saving a discussion of lamb neck for another time, when I will go on a rant about some farmer/butchers calling it “lamb neck chop.” Grrrr.

Fava beans: Planted for years (and still today) as a nice winter cover crop, and promptly plowed under. Heresy. Yes, I do know it’s a bean in a chastity belt. You have to take them out of their big winter jackets, drop them in boiling water for a minute, and then slip them out of their skivvies. Two steps. Who cares? It’s nice conversation food: spend some time with your loved ones, shelling them on the back porch. How it’s supposed to be.

With basil in abundance and fresh brown eggs in my fridge, they became a very quick and easy supper last night. The Giants – Dodgers came couldn’t even drown out Stu’s moans of pleasure.

Here ya go:

Fava Bean Bowl with Polenta, Pesto and Egg

1 cup shelled and skinned fava beans (this will probably require 15-20 fava beans)

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup dried Italian corn polenta (Bob’s Red Mill also grinds a nice one.)

2 cups water, or chicken or veg stock

½ cup milk

2 teaspoons butter

salt and pepper

4 tablespoons pesto (you’re on your own here … look it up … basil, garlic, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil, yadda, yadda …)

2 eggs

2 teaspoons butter

red pepper flake

Make the polenta:

Bring the milk and water or stock to a boil in a saucepan. Drop in two teaspoons butter, some salt and pepper, and then whisk in the polenta. Let it return to boil, whisking all the while, then move the pot to your simmer burner, the one you cook rice on. Turn it as low as it will go so that bubbles are just now and again bursting to the surface. Whisk or stir every few minutes. Let it go about 15 minutes. The longer it cooks, the creamier it gets.

Saute the fava beans:

In a saute pan large enough to fry two eggs, add the olive oil, the prepped fava beans, and a little salt. Saute on medium high for about two minutes, and remove to a small bowl.

Fry the eggs:

Add the butter to the same pan, crack in the eggs, and fry them until they are brown around the edges, the whites are cooked, but the yolks are still runny. (You may have heartier eaters in your family. If so, cook four eggs.)


Spoon the polenta into two nice pasta bowls. Divide the pesto between the two bowls, spooning it over the polenta. Spoon the sauteed fava beans on top, and add a fried egg to each. Sprinkle with red pepper flake. Serve with good bread.

The Wise Guy in the Back Yard

Paulie Walnuts died this week, along with Tony Sirico, who played him. Paulie was one of Tony Soprano’s wise guys: a psycho, a dedicated, kind uncle who also happened to kill more people – nine – than any other character during The Soprano’s six-year run. Charming, vain, not too bright. Vicious, in an endearing sort of way.

Kind of like my vegetable garden. I go out there every morning expecting leafy lettuce, succulent peas, budding tomato plants. And some days, that’s what I get. Other days, it’s bolting arugula or petrified radishes. What the hell happened to the radishes? They were tender and sweet last week. There’s baby carrots, and then there’s minuscule carrots. I have the latter. Overnight – seriously – the spinach has gone to seed. The green beans are too afraid to climb their nice bean poles. Maybe, like Paulie and Tony Soprano, they need a therapist.

Unfortunately, the garden and I are co-dependent. I water him, and he feeds me, or something approximately like that. I go out there with the colander and bring back what I can find, because dammit, you gotta eat something.

So tonight, that bolting arugula has lost its head. I cut off all the flowers, hoping to encourage lusher, lower growth. The flowers came back with me in the colander.

They will become arugula flower pesto, with pistachios, olive oil, fresh garlic I was smart enough to buy at the farmer’s market, and some Pecorino Romano. Big sloppy spoons of the pesto is going on some Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. And to cook it, I’ll steam some fat lacinato kale leaves … a garden success story … and wrap each pesto-napped fillet in a leaf, brush with more of that olive oil, and bake for just a few minutes. Alongside, we’ll have some red and purple roasted potatoes.

As our therapist might ask us, “How does that make you feel, Bolted Arugula?”

When Your Ex-Husband Calls

Answering the phone used to be thrilling. It was your best friend, or Publisher’s Clearing House, for real. OK, yeah, occasionally it was bad news. But when you picked up, you knew someone wanted you, the actual you, not a number on a robo call list.

Forty-six years since my first phone bill came in the mail, and my phone is now a tyrant, demanding my constant attention and adoration. I must jocky around the furniture to answer its insistent twings and twangs, an exercise that usually ends in radio silence on the other end after you say, suspiciously, “Hello?” because who the hell do you know in Syracuse? No one, apparently.

The other day I got a call that has me thinking the scammers must have watched the movie “Idiocracy” and taken it to heart. Because, duh, how could they think I am that dumb?

Phone tweedles. An Austin, Texas number comes up. An Indian-accented voice says,

“Hello, this is Dave, your ex-husband.”

I may be a doddering sixty-six, but neither of my two ex-husbands is named Dave, and neither has an Indian accent, charming though it is.

What idiot would think a man with a name that has never appeared on a marriage license with your name is actually your ex-husband calling, no doubt in jail somewhere and needing your credit card number, right away, darling.

My instant reaction: I laugh heartily. And then, bless his heart, so does Dave. The absurdity of it all. I hang up.

Do you remember when your friends would call to just chat? Chat. That word meant a voice-to-voice aimless conversation in which secrets were divulged, jokes exchanged, maybe a recipe or two. Not i-chat or we-chat or e-chat or snit-chat, a communication arranged via an app which requires 230 megabites of download, and the acquisition of 45 new settings you must learn to, ya know, chat.

When I was in high school, my best friend Anita lived in a house of seven with one phone and I lived in a house of three with one phone. We would talk to each other at night, in our respective kitchens where the phones resided. No one bothered to listen to us but we knew they were there, just around the corner. The sound of the television in the next room was loud enough to camouflage recitals of our deepest yearnings, but still. I would wrap the corkscrew yellow cord around and around my index finger, relaying sightings of Sam, or Lee or dishing on the cheerleaders, those haughty mean girls whom we desperately wanted to look like, just a little, but would never admit to it. Even to each other, in the corner of the kitchen.

We did our homework, and then, if my mom wasn’t talking to her sister, and Anita’s sisters weren’t talking to their boyfriends, we could chat. The anticipation made the homework go down easy. Sometimes that chat lasted an hour, until someone in either kitchen called, “My turn” and we went to the end of the line, until the next night. Somehow those intimate conversations held off the demon of adolescence and gave us a space to be safe, each in our own kitchens, my brother wandering in and out for another pickle or crackers and milk. I thought girls who had their own pink princess phones in their own rooms, sleek lines, no crusty edges because your mom used it right after she made pie crust, were so lucky. I was wrong. They were living out their phone lives in seclusion, where anything could be said, and no one nearby could raise an eyebrow. Where calls might go on and on, late into the night, and become an obsession.

Like so many wonderful, previously exclusive things – a new dress, sex, dinner out, vacations – phones have now become essential, cheap and ubiquitous. So many people now carry a cell phone that restaurants put out a little sign on each table with a QR code and expect you to look at their menu on your little phone screen, scrolling through columns of food and drink as tiny as gnats. If you don’t have a cell phone (inconceivable!) they will hand you a wrinkled, dirty menu with a frown. What a plebeian!

This has raised my dander. I refuse. I chalk this up to the grandeur of watching the Cinerama production of 2001 Space Odyssey on a giant, curved screen where things literally came right at you. Today, I’m supposed to watch Top Gun Maverick on my smart phone. No deal. Not happening.

WHEN I WAS IN college, the human-to-phone ratio increased dramatically. I lived in a co-op with 30 students. We shared a phone. Across the city, my boyfriend lived in a co-op with 50 students. They shared a phone. In his house, each person had a code, a series of electrical buzzes that rang in the halls when someone called for you, downstairs, on the one phone. His code was short-short long-long. I have no idea what his phone number was, but I remember that code. I would call and ask for Gary, and I could hear whoever answered the phone take a second to scan the list, then hit the buzzer. I could hear the short-short long-long buzz emanate from the phone room. Two minutes later, Gary would say, “Hello?”

It was always a delicious anticipation, those two minutes. The best two minutes of the day.