Time for ALA!

I’m excited to participate in my first American Library Association Conference this coming weekend at the Morial Convention Center right here in my hometown of New Orleans! Michelle Obama will open the event on Friday evening. Saturday morning I’ll catch the presentation of  Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also wrote a little book about baseball. If you are around, stop by the Pelican Publishing booth on Sunday between 11 AM and 12:30 PM and share your favorite dog rescue or baseball story with me.

History Lesson in Black and White*

Mississippi Beach, 1947

 I am one in the grayscale photo, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
balanced on dimpled, toddler legs.

My morning shadow stretches
toward the wooden pier behind me,
hinting of the woman I will become.

Across the highway, oak trees brush the sky.
I smile into the camera, unaware of my white privilege
and darker girls on separate “but equal” beaches.

It is August 1947, one month before the mighty oaks
are felled and the pier is crushed to kindling
by a great September storm.

Thirteen years before little Ruby Bridges.
Twenty-one years before colored only signs
succumb to storms of change, a long over-due tidal surge.

Twenty-three years before Natasha’s feet
leave prints in the sand where I once stood.

Kathleen Schrenk, 2018

*The inspiration for this poem came from Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “History Lesson,” from her book Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000). You can read her beach poem here.

Making the Decision

“We’ve made this trip too many times,” my husband said as he put down the empty cat carrier and unlocked the back door. We had just returned from the vet’s office where we had “said good-bye” to our feisty, loyal, intrepid, tortoise-shell cat. She had literally walked into our lives one morning in September, 2010. Within the first few months of her stay with us, Whodatcat had eliminated the post-Katrina mouse infestation that no catch and release mouse trap, sticky trap, or the snap-them-in-the-neck-and-kill-them trap had been able to do. She even quite generously shared her bounty with us, placing little game trophies on the back step or in our dog’s feeding dish.

We’ve owned dogs and the occasional cat for at least forty-five of the fifty years we’ve been married.  We’ve made the lonely trip home seven times—eight if you count my classroom gerbil. It never gets easier. I know some people who have decided to forgo the joy of pet ownership because the pain of parting with a beloved companion is more than they want to endure. I can respect that choice, but it’s not for me.

I am genetically wired for pets, dogs in particular. (See The Dog Gene, July 2016.) I will always have dogs and possibly another “accidental cat.” When I sign on for that owner/pet relationship, I know that somewhere down the road I’ll be faced with making the decision of when it is the right time to end the animal’s life humanely.

Deciding when to euthanize a pet is like selling stock. It’s unlikely that a person will be able to pick the optimal time. For most of our animals, my husband and I waited too long. Whether it was out of selfishness—we wanted more time with them—or cowardice—we weren’t strong enough to make the decision, we prolonged the life of a terminally ill pet that was probably in more pain than we wanted to admit.

Whodatcat was diagnosed with inoperable, aggressive, intestinal cancer before Christmas. If she hadn’t vomited blood, I would not have suspected she was ill. The veterinarian gave us choices, and we picked the middle road. He prescribed a steroid to drizzle over her food to reduce inflammation. She ate heartily and seemed to thrive. We knew, however, that the cancer was continuing to spread throughout her body every minute of every day.

Last Friday, she vomited blood again, came inside, ate her breakfast, and attacked a chair. In other words, she seemed perfectly normal, except for the throwing up blood part, which is pretty hard to ignore. We talked to the vet. We could increase the steroids, he said, and give her medicine to stop the bleeding and quell the nausea. Maybe she’d have a couple of more months. She’d still have cancer. It would continue to spread. Then, one day she wouldn’t seem to be perfectly normal. She would stop playing. She would stop eating. She would be in pain.

We made the decision to put her down that afternoon. I held her as the vet gave her the sedative. She relaxed into my arms. She was warm, she was comfortable, and her fur was soft. She was still beautiful. We told her good-bye and headed home with the empty carrier.

Did we time it perfectly right? Maybe we got out of the market a little too soon, for us. But for Whodatcat, we were able to spare her the pain of a lingering death. For Whodatcat, I think we timed it just right.


Living With Whole30

Since ancient times, people have gathered together to share their meals. We sometimes dine alone, but more often than not, dining is a social event. Never before have I been more aware of this than during September, when I chose to go on the Whole30 Diet. If you’re not familiar with it, Whole30 is similar to a Paleo Diet. To give you a short version, permitted foods are meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, nuts, eggs, and fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit. Dairy, grains, legumes, white potatoes, pasta, sugar, additives, and alcohol are forbidden.

In any town, this would be a tough diet to follow. But I live in New Orleans.  We celebrate births, baptisms, weddings, deaths, and everything in between with food and drink. We discuss what we’ll have for dinner while eating lunch. Food and drink are sacrosanct. Part of this town was in an uproar when a venerable restaurant switched from hand-chipped ice to ice cubes for their cocktails. That’s how intense we are about the dining experience.

I picked the month of September to try this experiment because daytime temps are still in the 90s, relative humidity hovers around the same number, and it’s the peak of hurricane season. That makes September an “off-month” for events here.

I quickly discovered that the term “off-month” is relative. In the month of September, I attended: a book release party at Rock and Bowl; The Curtain Call Ball at Le Petit; the opening play at Le Petit; a welcome back dinner at the home of friends; a Saints football game; book club; a lecture presentation/cocktail party; my monthly manuscript critique group; brunch with visiting friends; lunch with more visiting friends; a birthday party; and a birthday dinner at a restaurant in the French Quarter. This does not count three committee/board meetings that I attended. In the New Orleans tradition, food and alcohol were a part of all these events.

Why did I choose to do go on the diet? I wanted to lose weight, have more energy, reduce inflammation from arthritis, and feel better during morning workouts.

Because I love fruits, vegetables, chicken and seafood, I originally didn’t think this diet would be so great a challenge. I thought the hardest part would be giving up wine.  At social events, however, it was easy to order a glass of club soda and lime or a La Croix. Before dinner at home, I drank tea or La Croix while my husband enjoyed a whiskey sour. I wish the food restrictions had been solved that easily.

Eating at home was manageable, although I did miss my “go-to” breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and granola; I grew tired of eggs and meat in the morning. Dining out, whether at someone’s home, a party venue, or a restaurant, was the greatest challenge. In most restaurants, I was limited to salad, oil and vinegar on the side. Maybe I could top the salad with grilled shrimp or chicken. Often I had to request that cheese, beans, corn or candied nuts be left out.  At a party venue with a buffet or passed hors d’oeuvres, I couldn’t ask for a special order. I usually ate nothing, unless there was a raw veggie or fruit platter.

When dining at someone’s home, I chose not to ask what was in the food or make special requests. That resulted in “diet failure.” At book club, for instance, I found out after I had eaten roasted butternut squash that it contained brown sugar and butter. At the welcome back dinner, I did toast with a glass of champagne and accept the peach tart placed in front of me. It seemed rude to do otherwise.

What were the results after thirty days? I lost ten pounds; gained energy; and felt better and burned more calories during my workouts. The pain has lessened in some of my joints; but some, especially my neck and jaw, showed no improvement. Those are the physical results. More impressive, however, were the mental and emotional results.

I have gained empathy for the person who must always be aware of what she eats because of health issues. The diet set me apart from others. It was isolating. People who have life threatening food allergies, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, lactose intolerance, high cholesterol, and other dietary limitations, don’t experiment for a month. They have a life-long commitment or suffer severe consequences.

I have become more aware of what I put in my mouth. If I fixed a peanut butter and cracker snack for my grandson, it was likely I’d fix some for myself and lick the spoon, whether hungry or not. If there was a bit of leftover food from dinner or from a party we had given, I’d eat it rather than throw it away. I like to snack. Going forward, I hope to channel my increased awareness and break the habit of mindless eating.

Will I do it again? Probably not, at least not as strictly as I did this time. Am I glad I stuck with it for thirty days? Absolutely! The physical benefits were good, better than I expected. But being mindful about what I eat, conscious about how diet affects my body, and sensitive to the special dietary needs of others are lessons I hope will stay with me for life.



On Monday, September 11, The Crescent City Farmers’ Market and hundreds of seafood lovers lost a unique individual, a force in the industry. Clara Gerica was the flavor of New Orleans, and you know I’m not talking about her shrimp, crabs, and black drum. In her memory and her honor, I’d like to share with you a paper that I wrote for English 2016 at UNO three years ago. The assignment was to sit somewhere public—a coffee shop, bar, park—and eavesdrop; then, write about it. I chose to sit in Clara’s seafood stall at the Thursday market at American Can. This is for you, Clara.

Overheard at the Market

            “I got whole shrimp, hand-peeled and deveined shrimp, crabmeat—special lump, regular lump, and claw—soft shells, drum, sheepshead and catfish. This recording goes off every three minutes.” Clara laughs, and her signature cackle can be heard all the way to the parking lot. The sign on her tent at the Thursday market says “Fresh Seafood,” but that isn’t all Clara serves up. Political commentary, philosophy, cooking advice, and family stories are dished out in equal measure.

“I had a dog looked just like that,” she tells a customer. “Part shepherd, part golden retriever. Best dog I ever had. You only get a couple of good ones in your life, and he was one of mine.”

It’s hot. Heavy, gray clouds hang low in the sky, pressing the heat down to the pavement. Clara’s royal blue, sleeveless t-shirt is wet with perspiration and water from the ice-chests holding the shrimp. Her long, brown hair is pulled back from her face and restrained in a functional pony tail. She’s an ample woman—full-figured—with a swarthy complexion. She is of a proud, Louisiana fishing family. Sweat drips from her forehead and she wipes it with a red bandana.

“They say cooler weather’s coming next week. We’ll see.” She hints at a distrust of the meteorologists.

“There was a decent breeze last evening,” a customer comments. “Felt pretty good out.”

“I live on the water,” says Clara. “The porch is nice. But by the time I get home, I don’t always make it out there.” She laughs again.

In spite of the heat, the stall smells clean. The scent of fresh shrimp mingles with the tempting aroma of cinnamon from baked goods in the booth across the way. To the left of Clara’s booth, dairy men discuss the laying habits of their hens. “Too hot to lay,” one says. “Not getting but thirty eggs a day. Come fall, it’ll be up to at least seventy-five.”

“Those are some beautiful shrimp,” an older man passing through comments.

“Sixteen – twenty count,” she says, “just pulled ’em out of Lake Borgne yesterday. Six dollars a pound, or four for twenty.”

“Wish I could get some, but I’m too long on the road and I don’t have an ice chest.”

“How long?”

“Hour, hour and a half?”

“I can pack them for you. Wrap them in newspaper and double bag with ice. They’ll be fine.”

He orders four pounds. Clara pulls on her heavy, blue rubber gloves and plunges strong arms the size of two large catfish into the icy water. The shrimp are weighed in a hanging, galvanized scale and dumped onto newspaper to be packed for travel.

A fortyish woman wearing a worn green t-shirt advertising Cafe Loveless Hotel stops to look at the soft shells. “I love these, but I don’t know how to cook them,” she says.

“Just like fish,” Clara tells her. “Dust them with Zatarain’s fish fry and deep fry in hot oil. Or you can pan sauté them in butter and olive oil. Me? I like them fried. Want me to show you how to clean them?”

The woman gets squeamish when instructed how to cut out the eyes, squeeze the swim bladder, and remove the gills and testicles. But she orders three.

“You want ice with that?” Clara asks.

“Got any redfish?” a grandmotherly African-American woman wants to know.

“Those are game fish—can’t sell ’em. I sell redfish, they shut me down and send me to jail. Years ago, we fought that bill and lost. Spent a lot of time in Baton Rouge to lobby the legislature. My daughter here was a baby. All her clothes made by my Grandma and everybody said how cute she looked. But it came down to the vote, and we lost. I said, ‘You’re taking food out of my baby’s mouth,’ but they still voted against us. Yep, we got the best politicians money can buy. I saw the white envelopes change hands with my own eyes. How ’bout some black drum?”

“Is your crabmeat fresh?
“Just picked it last night. I pick Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday markets.”

“I need a pound of claw. Want to make a crab and eggplant bisque with these finger eggplants I just got.”

“Sounds good,” said Clara. “I’d like your recipe.”

“I’ll just be making it up as I go along.”

“You got two good ingredients. It’ll be good. Some dishes you can’t mess up. Want ice with that?”

“I got whole shrimp, hand-peeled and deveined shrimp, crabmeat—special lump, regular lump, and claw—soft shells, drum, sheepshead and catfish. This recording goes off every three minutes.” The market fills with people stopping by on their way home from work. Clara’s laughter spills over the crowd and rises above the blue, green, orange, and yellow umbrellas of the market stalls.

Epilogue: Today I’m fixing shrimp bisque with my last pound of Clara’s frozen, deveined shrimp. Rest in peace, Clara.

Hurricane Harvey Animal Assistance

If you are interested in helping animals affected by the flood, or if you are preparing to evacuate or shelter in place with an animal, please read the important information below.


Louisiana SPCA Tropical Storm Harvey Updates

Animal rescue and local preparations

NEW ORLEANS – The Louisiana SPCA is continuing to make advance preparations for Tropical Storm Harvey to assist with animal rescue efforts locally, should the need arise, and to already affected areas.

Texas Response

  • We are in contact with Houston SPCA and SPCA of Texas. We are encouraging the public to NOT donate tangible items. From our past experience with Hurricane Katrina, the immediate need for animal disaster assistance is monetary donations. This allows affected shelters to purchase the items they need without having to sort through and store thousands of donated items. Once the floodwaters recede and the groups are able to assess damages and needs, they will be able to better tell the public what tangible items they need. Please make monetary donations directly to Houston SPCA or SPCA of Texas.
  • For owned animals, consider donating gift cards to places like Petco and PetSmart. This will allow pet parents to purchase the items they are in most need of.
  • If you are an animal welfare professional and want to volunteer your skills to assist with the relief efforts, please visit our website and complete the online form. Volunteer information will be shared directly with Houston SPCA and SPCA of Texas so they can contact you if they require your assistance.

Local Preparations

The Louisiana SPCA is in constant communication with the City of New Orleans and state representatives to ensure we are prepared to provide assistance should localized flooding occur. “Because we are not safely out of the danger zone yet, we are doing our best to reduce intake and move adoptable animals out of our facility,” says Louisiana SPCA CEO, Ana Zorrilla.

We are creating as much space possible at our facility should the need arise to take-in animals affected by flooding. We transported 30 adoptable cats and dogs to Atlanta Humane Society late Friday night. In addition, we are encouraging members of our community to adopt a shelter pet. The End of Summer Adoption Blowout is being extended through the week to help make space. The Adoption fee is reduced to $10 to cover the cost of the City’s rabies license. Adoptable animals can be viewed at www.la-spca.org/adoptables.

We received a delivery of 100 wire crates from the state to assist with setting up a temporary animal shelter should the need arise.

We will pick-up and house any pets owned by homeless individuals that enter a shelter during flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey. Current open shelters include New Orleans Mission, Salvation Army, Ozanam Inn and Covenant House.

Humane Law Enforcement is currently only responding to emergency calls. All other calls will be responded to once threats from Tropical Storm Harvey are gone. If you need to report an animal emergency call 504.368.5191 x 100 or email dispatch@la-spca.org.

Pet owners that reside in Orleans Parish and need the City’s assistance to evacuate, be sure to register by calling 311. Registering in advance is critical.

We are in contact with several Louisiana animal groups. Below are a few updates that we want to make the public aware of.

  • St. Landry Animal Shelter – Despite media reports and social media chatter, the physical shelter has not flooded. There are outside kennels that were flooding from rainfall and those animals have been safely evacuated. The shelter is extremely full however and we are working to transport out as many animals as possible to so they can better assist with rescue efforts. At St. Landry Animal Shelter’s request, the Louisiana SPCA is assisting with coordinating and executing large scale transports. Currently, Greater Birmingham Humane Society has agreed to take in about 25 large dogs and we are working to secure other transports with Capital Area Humane Society in Ohio and Nashville Humane Society. The Louisiana SPCA is sending a team to complete health certifications for each animal so they can be transported out-of-state.
  • Lake Charles – We have spoken with the animal shelter in Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish Animal Services & Adoption Center, and they are currently not in need of assistance. As the weather forecast changes for Tropical Storm Harvey, we will continue reassess their needs and assist.

We are urging pet owners to make sure they have made provisions for their pets in the event of localized flooding. Be sure to have the following items ready to go should you need to evacuate quickly:

  • Food and water – Keep food in an airtight, waterproof container. Water should be in addition to the water you need for yourself and family.
  • Medicine and medical records – Keep an extra supply of medicines your pet takes on a regular basis in a waterproof container. All boarding facilities and veterinarian offices require proof of immunization before accepting animals.
  • Collar with ID tags, harness or leash – Your pet should wear a collar with an up-to-date rabies tag and identification at all times. Include a backup leash, collar and ID tag. Place copies of your pet’s registration information, adoption papers, vaccination documents and medical records in a clear plastic bag or waterproof container. Talk to your veterinarian about permanent identification such as microchipping and enrolling your pet in a recovery database.
  • Crate or other pet carrier – Get a portable, secure and covered pet carrier in advance. The carrier should be large enough so your pet can completely turn around and lie down. Mark your name, address, phone number and alternate contact information on the carrier.
  • Sanitation – Include pet litter, small litter box, newspaper, towels, plastic trash bags, poop bags and household chlorine bleach. Do not use scented or color safe bleaches or those with added cleaners. Use 16 drops of regular bleach per gallon of water.

For the most up-to-date information from the Louisiana SPCA be sure to visit our Facebook page.

The Louisiana SPCA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to promote, protect and advance the well-being of Louisiana’s companion animals. As the oldest and most comprehensive animal welfare organization in the state, the Louisiana SPCA provides care for over 43,000 homeless and companion animals annually. For more than 128 years, the Louisiana SPCA has been committed to serving the needs of the people and animals in the community and across the region as a 4-Star Charity Navigator rated nonprofit ranking in the top 1 percent nationally. For more information, call 504.368.5191 or visit www.la-spca.org.







Like Riding a Bike

It had been more than a few years since I’d taught in a classroom setting, and when I had, my largest class numbered twenty-three students. After taking early retirement, I tutored one-on-one in the S.T.A.I.R. program, led Junior Great Books discussion groups, and, as a volunteer docent, explored the butterfly gardens of City Park with young children. Each of these activities involved groups of fewer than twelve children.

So when I accepted the opportunity to do my first school presentation of A Dog Steals Home at Northshore Elementary in Knox County, Tennessee, I was a bit overwhelmed to find I would be working with one hundred seventy-five fifth graders. The butterflies from the City Park gardens seemed to have relocated to my stomach.

Then the demons of self-doubt moved in. Are middle-graders today a different species from those kids I taught years ago? How will I keep the attention of children who were practically born with tablets or cell phones clutched in their little fists when I don’t even own a laptop? What if they ask a question I can’t answer? What if they didn’t like my book? The “what-if” birds pecked away at my self-confidence.

As I prepared for my presentation, the butterflies, birds, and demons began to scatter. They were lurking around somewhere, I’m sure, but I was too busy to look for them.  I outlined my talking points, wrote and sent writing prompts for the teachers to use for a “pre-visit” activity, and requested that the teachers have students submit questions for me to answer on my visit.

I arrived in Knoxville the afternoon before the presentation and stayed at the home of the teacher who had arranged my visit. She offered the use of her laptop and worked with me to put my talking points on a flipchart file for the students to view. We added pictures and diagrams from the internet and from my downloads. I spent some time looking over the students’ replies to the writing prompts and chose a few to share. I was impressed by the quality of their responses.

The next morning we arrived at school early so my host could set up the laptop and I would have time to practice using it. My first group arrived at 7:45—sixty bright-eyed fifth graders! The session flew by as I led them in discussion questions. They shared their thoughts willingly and actively supported opposing viewpoints.

Then I had a chance to answer their questions. Just as I had been impressed when I read their writing prompt responses, I was equally pleased with their questions. “What inspired you to write this book?” “What was the hardest part about writing?” “Where did you get the ideas for your characters?” “How do you get a book published?” were just a few. They listened to my answers and responded with more questions if they weren’t clear about something I’d said.

By 11:45, I had met with all three groups—all one hundred seventy-five students! I loved that some of them wanted to stay and talk, asked me to sign scraps of paper if they didn’t have a copy of the book, or gave me suggestions for my next book. Some students had illustrated my book chapter by chapter! Not one demon, butterfly, or what-if bird had made an appearance during the entire morning. I realized that teaching, perhaps, is a bit like riding a bike. Once you learn how, you never forget.


Looking Outside the Box

“It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed is you.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald

A friend posted Fitzgerald’s quote on my Facebook page when I returned from Italy recently. If my garden is a litmus test of this statement, I’d say the first half of the hypothesis is correct. Azaleas bloomed as they always have this time of year—great splashes of hot pink, coral, and magenta—like a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Live oaks wore pollen “worms”—thousands of tiny yellow ribbons in their hair. Sparrows twittered in the bushes, and the honey fragrance of alyssum permeated the air. Spring had arrived on schedule, even without me here.

But what about the second half of the hypothesis? Has travel changed me? I am cautious by nature, not a risk-taker, not a breaker-of-rules. I color inside the lines, think inside the box…more likely to say “no” than “yes.” I hate flying.

Yet I repeatedly board a vehicle weighing more than 700,000 pounds at take-off and travel at an altitude of 34,000 feet across a body of water approximately 3500 miles wide to experience how people in other countries live. I climbed an ancient Norman tower on the Adriatic coast, even though the sign clearly warned (in English and Italian) not to climb it as there was a chance the rocks would crumble and fall.  On a white water rafting trip, I said “yes” to the invitation to jump from a twenty foot high cliff into the river. In Matera, I ate crapiata, a bowl of legumes and herbs, much tastier than its name suggests. I braved a visit to Naples. I grabbed a pickpocket’s hand from my purse, yelling “hey” in my sternest teacher-voice.

Travel forces me to at least look outside the box and question the rules. It makes me push my limits a bit, stretch my tolerance of things different. I can guarantee I’ll never make the ninety foot dive from a bridge into the sea on the Amalfi Coast. Neither will I eat pigeon in Orvieto or horse rib in Ostuni.  But I do want to hike the Walk of the Gods from Positano to Amalfi town. And  salami and cheese for breakfast now seems as common as bacon and eggs.


Manger Scene

mangerThe small manger scene had been a gift from my mother-in-law when our oldest son was a toddler. The Italian molded resin and wood Nativity set held up well over years of handling by our three boys. I had wanted a creche they could touch and play with, using their imaginations to re-enact the story of Jesus’s birth. And imagine they did! In their minds, baby Jesus was not the divine Lord, but rather a mischievous little boy, just as they were. He rarely slept peacefully in the manger, but could often be found riding the donkey, petting the sheep, or up in the hayloft—a concerned Mary climbing the ladder to watch over him.

Now, forty-five years later, another little boy, our grandson, plays and imagines with the Holy Family. Like his father before him, he creates his own scenes in the stable. His current passion is the Saints—not the heavenly ones, but the very human ones who wear black and gold and sport fleur-de-lis on their helmets. In his most recent diorama, the Baby is prostrate in His manger, a shepherd and camel lying across His chest. Joseph, the fullback, is down in the hay behind him, apparently tackled by an errant reindeer. The right offensive tackle, an angel, blocks the donkey, a cow, and a sheep while a troubadour cheers on the sideline. On Jesus’s left, Mary continues to protect his blind side, blocking a king bearing gifts and a camel. Another camel, the center, stands in front of the manger, shocked that Mary has been unable to save her Son from being sacked—prophesy from the mind of a five year-old, perhaps.

We don’t know much of Christ’s life between his infancy in Bethlehem and his coming-of-age experience in the temple when He was twelve. I’d like to think He had a childhood as my children and grandchild imagined it—a very human savior who understands when His followers stumble, fall, and struggle to rise again. Because He empirically knows the challenge of being imperfect, His acceptance of us as we are is that much more divine.