“AYTCH”

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about the H-E-B grocery store is that you pronounce the hyphens.

Well, not exactly pronounce them. More like acknowledge them, and let them influence the way you say, “H-E-B.”

First, I want to go on record as saying that it’s a hassle to type out the store’s name that way. Holding down caps lock and then releasing it to press the hyphen key back and forth a couple times really slows the flow of thought. It’d be easier if the store’s name was, “H_E_B” with underscores, which are made with caps lock on and therefore require less effort when combined with the capital letters. Or I’d be ok with “h-e-b.” Would you be ok with “h-e-b”? I typed it twice with almost no effort, because we’re just a couple of concerned grocery shoppers trying to make Kerrville a better place to live, work and buy chorizo.

And let’s face it, this blog is about me and for me and I’m pretty much my own star reader, and if “H-E-B” becomes too burdensome to type, I’ll simply refer to my favorite place to buy groceries using the name of the store I shopped at during college in Raleigh, North Carolina: Piggly Wiggly. That name is infinitely easier to type, has great cadence and is quite fun to say (try to say it without smiling and then try it a second time without saying it slowly and elongating each syllable; I bet you can’t do it). “Piggly Wiggly… — pigg-uh-lee wigg-uh-lee” — sounds like a baby gurgling, right? It also contains four G’s, a much-neglected letter, except in several words I just used and which I’m sure you’re happy about. G is a fun letter.

But, all right, let’s let bygones be bygones.

And so that you know I’m willing to hassle with caps lock and hyphens for your benefit since you may not shop in Texas, the truly correct way to say the store name, with emphasis and broken into syllables, is “AYTCH-ee-BEE.” That, too, required alternating caps lock and hyphens. But I’m feeling generous.

The main thing here is that if there were no hyphens, half of us would pronounce the store name as, “HEBB,” right? Like, if you’re from Jersey, California or Tulsa, you’d say, “HEBB.” Like, I don’t say I’m going to make a cash withdrawal at my local “see-aytch-ay-ess-ee” bank, do I? (No, I do not.) H-E-B wouldn’t even come across as capitalized during our conversation! All in lowercase, “hebb” would receive no more respect than any other dadgum word in this post except for AYTCH. And that’s not really a word. Except among my cousins in eastern North Carolina, who’d say to me when I was a boy, “Howdy! C’mon over and scratch this AYTCH here on thuh taupe of muh back! Do that and I’ll give you a Co’-Cola. But before you come in here cut out those lights in the living room, because after you finish your Co’-Cola, I need you to carry me to the Pigg-uh-lee Wigg-uh-lee, and we ain’t coming back here till suppertime.”

But I would not pronounce the unhyphenated name as “hebb,” because I have known for a long time that H-E-B stands for Howard E. Butt.

And there are so few decent Howards in the world.

A quick survey: a New York City shock jock (__Stern); __ The Duck; a screaming politician (__Dean); a frumpy suburban dad in “Happy Days”… (__Cunningham); and the brilliant and rich but eccentric turn of the 20th century magnate (__Hughes). Then again, the sometimes-CEO of Starbucks (__Schultz) is one of them I’m proud to have my name associated with.

Also, I am Howard Frank Freeman IV. (As in the Latin “the fourth.” Not, as some Okies say in conversation, “Howard Frank Freeman the iv.”

My mother always wanted to name our first-born son, “Howard Frank Freeman V,” so that she could nickname him “Quint” — the Latin for “fifth.”

It was a good plan, granted it was the plan of someone other than the child’s parents, until Karen said, “Beverly, we’re naming him Carter.”

She replied, “You can call him whatever you want, but I’m calling him Quint.”

Mom could be like that.

Gambusia Affinis

Gambusia Affinis. We need more Gambusia Affinises. If indeed that’s the plural. It’s Latin, so…affines. (Nominative plural for masculine and neuter nouns. And, yes, of course I had to look that up. In high school, I took Latin III with Mr. Smith, but he’d spit while he talked, so I’d get distracted and tune out somewhere after the singular dative. In fact, he’d point something out to the class and exclaim excitedly, “D’you see? D’you see?!” We chortled behind his back that he was saying “juicy.”) What we are talking about, in Latin or otherwise, is the mosquitofish—that is the famed mosquitofish that is both fish and mosquito-eater, a lovely combination indeed.

I was more than a little bothered. I’d taken my first cup of coffee outside to the back porch around 5:40 AM. I sat in my chaise lounge as I am wont to do. This is my routine most mornings if I rise before dawn: have my first cup outside without my phone next to me. It’s a slightly uncomfortable feeling as you well know, Dear Reader, if you have to do anything without the thing with which you are accustomed to doing everything. Yet it is sometimes desirable, occasionally even essential. For example, my personal opinion is that men who use this thing to conduct business conversations in airport bathroom stalls should immediately be stripped of their first class boarding status and placed in Group 9, where the fight for overhead space for carry-ons typically results in having one’s bags gate checked. Flight attendant upon my informing her of his men’s room transgression: “What. You don’t like having your bag gate-checked, Mr. First-Class Would-You-Like-A-Drink-Before-Takeoff-Person? Tough. Stop using your phone in the shitter.”

When I get up and prepare to go outside, I always wear a hoodie of some kind. Even on warm summer mornings when the air is in the low 70s. This way, if the gambusia affines haven’t done their job down at the Guadalupe River, I have back-up. I simply pull my hoodie over my head, blocking out most of the mosquitoes’ runway to my ears. Would you not agree that the buzzing in your ears is often a lot more annoying than a bite? But having to do so spoils the moment, and my coffee usually accompanies me back inside when it’s only half finished.

Today I asked myself, What besides the gambusia affinis eats mosquitoes? Because we all ask ourselves, don’t we, “Why on God’s green earth would He make mosquitoes?” I mean, that’s a really common question. If you’re honest, you’ve asked yourself that, especially if you’re not wearing a hoodie and even if you don’t believe in God. At that moment, drinking your coffee, especially if you’re not wearing a hoodie, you become a True Believer. You might then doubt God’s goodness or at least His wisdom. That’s ok. Don’t feel bad. Many of us have felt that way, except in places where gambusia affines are plentiful. Because where gambusia affines are plentiful, mosquitoes are few, and atheists are numerous. Mosquitofish are most often found in the southern parts of Illinois and Indiana, throughout the Mississippi River and its tributary waters, and as far south as the Gulf Coast in the northeastern parts of Mexico. (This is true; I looked it up.) If you don’t believe in God, you will find like-minded mosquito-less friends somewhere between Marion and Evansville. (And this is simple logic.)

So in lieu of gambusia affines, I wondered, What birds eat mosquitoes?

I knew purple martins did. And bats. All of a sudden I hear a lone bird singing in the tree to the left of the porch. It was the first birdsong of the morning, and it was so crisp and loud that I thought maybe it would wake Karen. (Our bedroom windows are directly next to that tree.) I wondered two things: what species was that bird I was hearing, and could it pass muster eating mosquitoes as contrasted against the gambusia affinis? After all, the mosquitofish is specifically named for its prowess at eating mosquitoes.

I didn’t know whether the bird I heard was a purple martin, a mockingbird, or some other species. (If I don’t know what bird it is that I’m hearing, which is usually, I assume it’s a mockingbird, because it obviously mocks other birds so much that it fools you and me, and if I say it’s a mockingbird, I sound knowledgeable, especially if you have less clue than I do. Once when we were on vacation in Ruidoso, New Mexico, I heard and saw what I thought was a raven. As you know, they can be easily mistaken for crows. But ravens have special spiritual significance when they appear in your life. They can be an omen. So I actually researched online the sounds and slight physical differences between the two species, like their beaks and tails, to determine if I was hearing a crow or a bird that might mean I am the long-awaited savior. The savior part is crass Tuesday humor. But I can assure you that I did indeed research ravens with the full expectation that seeing one meant something of grave importance. Those of you who know me will roll your eyes and be like, “Yeah he did.”)

While I didn’t have my phone with me on the porch today for the aforementioned reasons, I thought, “There must be an iPhone app that helps me identify birds by sound.” Sure enough there is. Apparently, the best one is Merlin Bird ID. (That is, if you consider a 4.8-star rating on the App Store from 44,000 users as opposed to Bird Genie, which has 2 stars with 93 users, the first of whom was smart and gave it a 1-star try and 92 others who were not so smart.)

I went inside to my office and downloaded Merlin Bird ID and waited for the 983 MB file to install—that file was only Texas’s birds, by the way—and quickly walked back to the porch, hoping that the bird was still singing. It was. I followed the instructions and found out that it was either a Carolina Wren or a Purple Martin. Most likely a Carolina Wren (so said the app).

I marveled at the app. And I also felt a deep satisfaction knowing that bird’s specific tribe. I found myself not caring whether it ate mosquitoes or not. There is something most satisfying about encountering something, having it enhance one’s appreciation of nature and the peace of the morning, and then finding out what its name is.

Gratitude comes much more easily when you know the name of the one you’re thankful for.

“Siri says”

Fernando Llano/Associated Press

Last night Moon did its dance with Earth and Sun, and we went out back to watch. Karen, Teak and I stood for a while, looking south, and then I sat. Shortly, those two lied down.

The cream-colored moon slowly turned blood-orange as predictably as the plot of a movie one watches for the second time. Yet, maybe not so predictably: Science and The New York Times assure us that the dance was to happen between 9:28 PM Central Time and culminate at 12:56 AM Central Time, so why do I feel that the slow, water-boiling-in-a-pot phenomenon might actually not happen as stated? Why do I think that Moon might actually turn fire engine-red, or that the decreasing cuticle-shaped cream color might halt at any minute and have us standing, sitting, lying down for much longer. Hours. Days. Longer. Is it possible that Nature could surprise me? Science is only as good as what scientists have observed repeatedly in the past, until the past no longer repeats itself.

Whatever.

I have to work in the morning. This lunar thing really needs to be on schedule.

Before dawn I take my coffee out onto the back porch. It’s quite light, a silvery light, though I know Sun doesn’t join us for another hour. It has rested in the dance hall over by the punch bowl and, for all I know, it has had a “little too much,” if you get my drift. For all I know, it is planning an eclipse of its own all day today, a bit ashamed that its exchange with Moon and Earth was supposed to have been a line dance, but it actually turned into a scandalous lambada. Saucy minx.

The New York Times says the sun will indeed appear, hungover (my word, not theirs), at 6:42 AM Central. But they’ve been wrong before. They’ve claimed that objects are not real when, a year later, they said the same object is real. Some days, Science and The New York Times come across like they’ve made a deal and spewed speculations onto my desk, charging me $0.99 per month for the first three months and then renewing automatically each year for $129.95.

Last night, Moon took a long time to hide itself behind its orangey veil.

We had each guessed how long it would be before we saw the cream color appear on the left side after disappearing on the right. I guessed a few seconds. Teak said later that he had kept silent about his guess of “30 minutes,” which was the best guess among the three of us though still a ways off.

So I’m drinking coffee a little while ago, and it’s got that silvery light. I walk out past the pecan tree to the left of the house to see that Moon has appeared in all its glory, unobstructed and dancing only a little ways above the horizon in the west-northwest sky. It is alone. Neither Earth nor Sun — sun is still sleeping it off for another hour, or so says my iPhone’s weather app (also suspect if you ask) — get in the way of Moon’s solo performance. It is ballerina-white.

I pull the chaise onto the back lawn past the shadow of the tree and plop myself down with my coffee to “moontan” a little. Ever tried moontanning? It doesn’t require sticky lotion, and you don’t sweat. Yes, there are fewer bikinis around, but there’s no line for the restroom.

The stars join the dance in a supporting role.

They come in from stage north.

My gaze falls lazily somewhere around the northwest, so that the rods in my eyes do their work of seeing lighter objects during the dark. How marvelous that the eye has cones and rods for different purposes as we travel through this Time we call our Life! If you don’t marvel at that, you are clearly an automatically renewing annual subscriber to The New York Times.

The stars zip across the cerulean-blue sky, and I recall a discussion last night about the moon’s speed traveling around the earth.

I had grabbed my iPhone and asked Siri, “How many miles is the moon from the earth?” He — my Siri is an American male voice — said, “Here’s what I found from Nasa dot guv. The Moon is an average of 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away.” Pfshaw. Like he knows that exactly. Siri, a voice who did graduate work in servitude at UC Berkeley, decided to give me the distance also in kilometers, like I give a fuck, and to virtue signal that he is politically correct in a country where the last time we heard the word kilometer was on July 3, 1776, when General Sir William Howe asked his Colonel how far away the rebels were. He only wished the answer was in miles, not kilometers.

At my command, Siri then gave me the circumference of the moon’s orbit around the earth, based on the radius I’d just asked about. I then Googled — giving Siri a chance to check its allegiance — the circumference of a circle with a radius of 238,000 miles, the answer being 1,495,398 miles. Finally, in my head I calculated 1,495,398 miles divided by 24 hours , and came up with 62,308.25 MPH. (The “in my head” part is a flat-out lie, but since you read the Times, you frankly wouldn’t know a lie if it came up and bit you in the nose.)

That’s how fast Moon was dancing around Earth while turning orange.

I marveled at how those specks of white light must have been traveling just now.

POSTSCRIPT: I just asked Siri, “How fast does the moon travel around the earth?” and he gave a completely different answer than the calculation we both did last night. He said, “Here’s what I found from CalTech dot edu. The Moon orbits the Earth at a speed of 2,288 miles per hour (3,683 kilometers per hour).”

Again with the kilometers.

I then reminded myself that the orbit was an ellipse and not a circle. But Siri told me the ellipse is a “slightly squashed circle,” so that wouldn’t make a lot of difference in the circumference. I’m baffled by my way-off calculations, and even more distraught at how not-fast shooting stars are when they hit the earth’s atmosphere, which were said to be between 25,000 and 136,000 MPH. That’s really not that fast at all, if you think about it. I mean, right?!

The founder of the iPhone function now called “Siri” is a Norseman whose parents called him Dag Kittalaus. Well, they called him “Dag.” His surname was already determined. Mr. and Mrs. Kittalaus decided on “Dag” over a meal of herring and goat milk. Figures, right? Anyhoo, Kittlaus was going to name his daughter Siri which, in Dag’s native Norwegian, means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory.” (True.) His wife gave birth to a boy. (True.) Dag also spoke Mandarin and wanted to name the function “管家,” except that Steve Jobs said that most iPhone users wouldn’t know how to say “Hey, 管家, how long does a soft boiled egg take?” and then all of us would be eating hard-boiled eggs. (That Mandarin does actually mean “butler.” If you don’t believe me, simply type in the two pictographs or say the word, and up will come “butler.”)

If you know why my calculation was off, please do comment below. It may explain why in college I switched majors from Math through a flirt in Geology and landed on English, the least terra firma of the three.

POSTSCRIPT #2: After stepping away for a moment, I realized that the reason the Moon travels so much more slowly than what I had thought is that the Earth is spinning while the Moon is traveling. But it seems that that would create an apparent speed that was actually faster.

POSTSCRIPT #3: Then when driving into town, I figured it must have to do with the phases of the moon, so it travels “around” us much more slowly.

But I’m still stumped.

Comment below if you know the answer. Without asking 管家.

It’s a yogurt, silly :))

Last night was the first time in a while that I made something that actually required a recipe. Seared salmon, Uncle Ben’s Rice, H-E-B frozen tuscan style vegetables, bacon — all those of course were straightforward — with a cream sauce for the salmon. That last one was made from a recipe by (IG handle) @LittleSunnyKitchen.

It was Teak who had suggested salmon. I always like the concept of eating fish, but H-E-B sells salmon for between $10.99/lb and (for organic, never-frozen salmon) $15.99/lb. Translated into beef terms, we are getting pricey. Go to Wahoo, which I love, and the price is practically double. Don’t get their shrimp unless you want to live high on the hog using your 529 Plan.

Nevertheless, we needed to eat healthily. (I was going to write “…eat healthy.” But the latter, being an adjective, is incorrect. It can’t modify the verb “eat.” It would be more correctly used in this sentence: “We eat only healthy salmon, organic and never frozen.” To “eat healthy” leaves off the thing that follows the adjective that is both healthy and also eaten. But to “eat healthily” means that the act of eating is healthy. Of course, I might have confused things because while “eat” or “eating” are verbs and would be modified by adverbs, the “act of eating” used as a whole phrase is a noun and would be modified by the adjective “healthy.” But also “the act of eating healthily” could be correct if you understood it to be that the eating was being modified rather than the act of it. I could go on — I actually could, so don’t tempt me — but suffice it to say, “We needed to eat good.”)

So off to the big H-E-B I went.

There’s something about entering the parking lot of the big H-E-B on Main street, slowing up for slow (and generally unhealthy) pedestrians who are crossing in front, when — Dear Reader, let’s confess this together — there is with some pedestrians the teeny-tiny urge to inch the car gently into their right thigh, rendering them either bruised, immobile or sufficiently frightened enough to move more quickly. And there’s something about, for me, finding a spot way out in the Hinterlands (so you get in a good walk), and then entering the foyer with all the big shopping carts, which makes me think, “It would be a crying shame to use this big cart and buy only enough items to go through the self check-out” — where actually more than two big carts don’t fit anyway — there’s something about all of that, that instead of getting only the ingredients I need to make dinner, I indulgently stop first at the olive bar just inside to the left. Why, you ask? Same reason someone climbs a mountain. Because it’s there.

Now…I love H-E-B, as you know. The title of this website honors a section of the old H-E-B. In fact, it honors a section of the long-gone Iteration 1 of the store that fed any self-respecting Texan or NYC blue-blood who aspired to be a self-respecting Texan: the biscuit section. In further fact, the old store’s biscuit aisle was replaced with an extensive yogurt aisle, indicating a cultural shift toward eating good from eating not-really-that-good-at-all-if-we’re-honest-with-each-other-remember-being-honest-about-maiming-slow-pedestrians?-let’s-keep-that-honesty-between-us-going.

We’ve had a new cultural shift.

We’ve moved away from Yoplait — tell me you didn’t enjoy the tactile sensation of peeling back that foil top, and tell me you didn’t lick it — and even away from Greek yogurt toward Icelandic yogurt in particular. My favorite is a brand called Umferðarmiðstöð. One time I wanted a mixed berry Umferðarmiðstöð. It caused a bit of a stir, followed by 12 weeks of intensive marriage counseling in San Antonio.

Since then, I have switched to Hill Country brand yogurt, so that we were able to recently celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Bug juice

We called it “bug juice,” and the rule we all followed was, “you kill it; you fill it.” Even as a counselor at Camp Carolina, I abided by both the lexical and behavioral practice, and it was one by which I could not pull rank when having to “fill it” but only politely ask a kid in my cabin to serve as my proxy. He need not agree, of course, and there would be no retribution (of course) — the culture at the camp did not embrace a tone of revenge — but it was part of a camper’s citizenship so to do.

The table’s two pitchers’ worth of bug juice — a Kool-Aid or off-brand of some flavor that sometime in the past a counselor told a camper was the juice of smashed bugs — weren’t enough to slake the thirsts of seven teenage boys and a counselor. So each pitcher was “killed” (emptied) quickly, and the one who poured himself the last drop was obliged to walk to the kitchen window and get another pitcher. So there we were, passing the pitchers around and — like musical chairs or Russian roulette — trying to avoid being the one who realized that there was not a drop left in the pitcher that could still be divided.

This brought out one’s lesser angels.

One might have a half-full glass of bug juice — in some areas of the country, a half-empty glass might have justified this act, but by and large a glass that is 10% or more full would not warrant this act — and, seeing the pitcher getting low, one might take it and start pouring into that half-full glass until a meniscus formed. Then the science principles we learned in the classroom from September to May were brought to the lab: exactly how full is too full? Can bug juice be manipulated into a more pronounced convex shape than can water? Schoolboys in the safety of prep schools we were not. We were outdoorsmen at the eastern edge of the Smoky Mountains in Brevard, North Carolina, and we were preparing to canoe the Nantahala or Chattooga river, and I was their leader. But having the comfort of a half-full glass and nearly draining the bug juice, leaving the half-empty owner to kill and fill…that was not worthy of good citizenship. Since base revenge and shunning were not in our code, we resorted to perfectly acceptable forms of retribution like short-sheeting the bed or putting Corn Flakes in the perp’s pillow case. Those were creative and, let’s face it, funny to local Cabin Law Enforcement.

I haven’t even addressed how this policy of kill-it-fill-it applied to meatloaf or pizza, bacon or eggs.

Camp Carolina was for only the robust of soul.

Splurging on a Tuesday night

It was easy enough to gain a solid five pounds over Christmas weekend. And, for that matter, it was fortuitous that Christmas fell on a Saturday morning, because I’m slack about eating healthy on the weekends anyway. Of course, Boxing Day is always a favorite holiday of mine to cast cholesterol concerns aside. And, with Epiphany coming up, and falling on a Thursday at that, it’s clear that I’ve had and will have many justifiable excuses to eat and grow fat.

Last night was cause for constraint, however. It was a Tuesday evening after all. And it wasn’t Christmas or Epiphany or Groundhog’s Day, another favorite culinary holiday of mine.

So I ate lunch with a friend at Antojitos — making sure to dominate the shared and free chips and salsa (I mean, I was picking up the tab, which entitles me to a majority control of the chips) — consuming both corn tortillas that came with the meal. By the way, I had huevos rancheros, and far be it for this gringo to point this out, but I’ve always had my tortillas sitting underneath the huevos, not on the side. They came as a side dish. I will say that the ranchero sauce they put on the huevos was excellent, as were the refried beans. The rice was typical of that which comes with most Tex-Mex meals: if you were to take cotton candy and shape it into sepia-colored rice, that’s what a mouthful would feel like.

Unless I’m forgetting a meal or snack somewhere in the afternoon, the next opportunity to eat would be at the movie we were going to, “House of Gucci” at the AMC in Boerne.

At the movies, I’ve been known to have both popcorn and Twizzlers, but never on any day except Christmas, Boxing Day, Epiphany, Thursdays or the occasional Friday (Wednesday too, but only if Thursday happens to be a holiday).

It was Tuesday night, which called for extreme constraint. The kind of constraint as practiced in 1996, when Christmas fell on a Wednesday, and I have a firm belief that eating wildly should never be done on a Tuesday except when that Tuesday is Christmas Eve, which this past week fell instead on a Friday and which, as I have stated, can be among the “occasional” variety when caution is thrown to the wind.

So we ordered a large popcorn to share and two drinks. (There was a time when we shared a large drink, too, but let’s be reasonable. There comes a time when one needs his own gallon of Cherry Coke Zero.)

I noticed a couple changes in the movie-going experience, which has eluded us or we it for about two years. The last movie we saw outside the house was “A Star Is Born” at the Rio 10 here in Kerrville. After that, there was a gunman who holed himself up in the theater and was removed only after the cops used tear gas, which took a while to clean the theater of, and then COVID hit. (In its own inimitable way, COVID was also a good excuse to eat a lot.) Coincidentally, that last movie starred the same actress as the one last night: Lady Gaga. I thought she looked familiar, and in my opinion was quite good in her role, as she was in “A Star Is Born.” (If you disagree, fine. But know that you are not welcome for dinner, not even for the traditional feast I prepare on St. Patrick’s Day.)

The popcorn… All I can say is that there is still nothing like movie popcorn. It’s the best.

One of the changes in movies now is that before the previews, guests are encouraged to download an app called Noovie Arcade, which allows the patron to use their phone to play an augmented reality game on the screen. I have to admit, it looked fun.

Another change is that they have increased the number of previews from three or four to approximately 26. That’s only my guess; I lost count after they were still previewing movies from 2019 that had come and gone without wide distribution but which are now on-demand on Hulu.

On the way to the theater, I remarked to Karen that this would be the first movie in two years that I couldn’t hit the pause button on. In fact, with “House of Gucci” having a 140-minute run time, I did have to run to the bathroom at one point.

Yet, no pause and dozens of previews notwithstanding, it was a pleasant experience. Sitting in the dark with strangers enjoying a shared experience. Having no say whether the movie continued with or without me, allowing me to be at its mercy.

In those times, one can lose oneself into the story. And I did.

But by the 18th preview I had already finished our popcorn.

Anime eyes

Since producing the very simple book I call “Under This Texas Sky,” I’ve been looking up at the clouds even more. And since most of my time outside is while I’m driving, looking up at the clouds is not advisable. Most of the time.

I’ve also been starting to take photos again ten minutes after the sunrise, which is a moving target but gives me a baseline to see how each morning looks particularly in relation to the sun. There’s a building across golf course and road, about 200 yards away, whose southern side gets lit up about that time during the darker part of the year but is a “muddier” light during the warmer months. The sun, perhaps slightly lower at sunrise during these colder months, hits the side of the house fully, while a more obtuse angle might defuse its effect.

So analytical!

Speaking of 200 yards to the north, I got a voice mail one morning last week from a woman who said she found Buttons, our cat.

Apparently, Buttons — who is the adventurous non-human in our family — had explored the community to the north of us. In fact, she had explored up the street that is across that road and apparently also let herself into the caller’s home. (She can jump up and open door handles.) Buttons is a slight cat, only 7.2 pounds. (She needs the extra “0.2” to sound heavier than air.) She has “anime” eyes, as Karen likes to say, and looks innocent and sweet. She is neither. She relies on her sibling, Bucket, a ‘fraidy cat who doesn’t like to explore but has other skills, to open the pocket door to the laundry room, and then she does her thing with the handle. She’s so good at opening the back door that we now keep (our dog) Leo’s collar on almost always, so that if she escapes, leaving the door ajar, Leo doesn’t race out the back.

So I called the woman and said I’d be right over.

Buttons was backed into a corner between the washing machine and a wall and protected from the front by a step ladder. She was looking up at me, licking her chops the way scared cats do. And I thought, “Silly girl. You got yourself into this. Why should I be your enabler? Can’t you see we’re in a codependent relationship that must stop?

I brought her home, was able to keep her in for a while — we have to keep front and back doors locked so she doesn’t do her door thing — until she slid past me once while I was entering.

Karen was a bit upset by my inattention to this, especially since I hadn’t kept her in long enough to eat.

I had figured perhaps that she wanted to dine out. I was merely showing her some tough love.

[photo: Wallpaper flare]

Cardamom

What ended my chances to be on a reality cooking show that had a grand prize of $100,000 probably came in the third round of interviews when the culinary expert asked me, “What’s your favorite condiment?” and my answer after a rambling monologue was “cardamom.” I talked about other “condiments” like curry (“My wife doesn’t really like it.”) or standards like rosemary, thyme and other “condiments” that might have featured in a Simon & Garfunkel song. Sure, cardamom is not only not found in most recipes but is found in “my favorite recipe for pancakes,” something I’d pointed out after this verbal adventure of about thirty seconds, which is a lifetime in a “job” interview for a spot on a TV show where 30 seconds might cost tens of thousands of dollars if you are car company whose Lincoln Navigator is being driven by Matthew McConaughey. But the salient point — really the only point — is that cardamom is a spice. It is not a “condiment.”

Ketchup. Mustard. Mayo. Whatever-the-fuck.

Those are condiments.

She was asking me about mayo, when I had thought we were going to talk about why cardamom makes my pancakes so much better.

No.

Answers like these during a 15-minute phone interview on October 12 with a producer (a culinary expert who helped produce the show) I believe ended my chances to be a contestant. The next step would have been a trip to Albuquerque on November 27, and filming until December 11 depending on how well I did. The winners of each round in this competition of home cooks wins cash, and the final winner gets a hundred grand.

But getting cut?

It’s all good.

I mean, I have a load of darks to wash that’s not going to wash itself.


A nice woman had approached me on October 1 through Instagram. A direct message. These days, when you get a DM on Instagram, it shows up in “Requests,” and these are usually spam, or people promising they can increase the number of my followers, or college-age women asking if I want to see them lose their virginity on video. (No joke; it’s pretty messed up.)

But there were several things that tipped me off that this might be legit:

  • The writer addressed me by first name
  • She identified herself with her whole name and identified the company she worked for
  • She used paragraph breaks in standard fashion along with proper punctuation
  • She ended the first paragraph with the words “$100,000.” (Sure. I know that that’s one word, and it’s not even a word. But I tend to see each zero as a thing. You know: 0 = debt repayment. Another 0 = new chef’s kitchen. Another 0 = put it into Karen’s business, etc.)
  • She wrote — in successive paragraphs with appropriate breaks — how she came across me, what she wanted to discuss and closed with her name again and title.

I looked her up on LinkedIn, and she seemed legit.

I replied later that day that I’d like to talk, and so we did.

They were going to start a new streaming show, through a “major food network,” that was a competition of home cooks who have short-cut hacks on making meals quicker. The hacks could be food prep or cooking techniques, or they could be how to use a kitchen tool in a new way that made meals easier.


The initial approach had come on a Friday morning. I responded late that day, and over the weekend we scheduled a call for Monday. It went fine enough. She asked me what I would do with the $100,000. (I’ve seen Chopped forever and they ask this on the show; I surmised that they ask this early on so that my reasons would sound compelling on camera.) I said, “I’d probably get a new chef’s kitchen. I’d put some money into my wife’s art business. I’d help my kids with their educational and career goals.”

All true.

Not the whole truth, of course. Because somewhere in there would be a new surfboard. And I’ve needed a new pair of brown slip-on leather shoes, because my Maddens have a slice in the bottom of the right one, and if I was walking to appointments instead of driving, most surely my socks would be soaked on rainy days. So: new shoes. I didn’t mention that to the nice woman, because she probably lives in L.A., where you also drive and where it doesn’t rain. And if it does rain, nobody drives.

I digress.

Killed the interview.

She said she definitely wanted me to go to the next step and scheduled a video interview for me with another casting agent for the next day. Hell, I thought, I’m rocking it. Shoes, here we come.

The Zoom interview was about 45 minutes long, and the young casting agent, a man in his late 20s or early 30s, informed me that this video would be shared with producers, along with my answers from the previous day and the written application I’d had to fill out, and their decision would be based on those.

I got this, I thought. Zoom is where I live. I use Zoom all the time for work with strangers and colleagues and I can kill this. I know how to look into the camera even though I’m not looking into the person’s eyes and I can come across as personable. I can totally do this.

This was a little different, because I was not interviewing specifically for the casting agent but rather auditioning for some unseen person or persons in Los Angeles who saw hundreds of interviews like this. He said that although the interview would take a little time, they would edit it down to a couple minutes and present it to the show’s producers. You know, those people who drive on non-rainy days and have more than one pair of work shoes.

He coached me along the way on how to say things to appear excited. He had me repeat a couple answers here and there, rephrasing things, giving shorter answers, looking more excited. This was around 4pm, and frankly I was a little tired. I needed to snort some cayenne pepper to get myself going. And so I did. Just kidding. I said I needed to. But I didn’t do it.

It was a day or two later maybe when the first casting agent called me to schedule the next call, the third one that I mentioned above, which would be a “culinary expert” on the show. I actually just now found her on LinkedIn, and she’s a beast. Serious background in chefery and culinary education. (Chefery is as much a word as cardamom is a condiment by the way. Chefery has those squiggly red lines under it, indicating it’s not a condiment. And I’m going to fucking leave it as is.)

She was all business. She peppered me — you knew that pun was coming — with questions like, “What four ingredients must you have to cook with?” (I answered garlic, onion and a couple other things.) “What oil do you use?” Olive. “What’s in your dry pantry?” I had to ask for clarification; she said, “Anything not perishable.” Hence, drypantry, airhead. I mentioned pastas, and realized that didn’t make me stand out. Rice, pinto beans, canned goods… (Should I mention that they are Del Monte, a brand I hate?) None of these made me stand out. I forgot all about the large bag of chia seeds I bought from H-E-B, which will probably last me until the canned goods perish after the apocalypse. That answer was probably a fail.

She asked me, “Do you do more baking or cooking?” “What’s your go-to dish?” “How much do you spend on groceries each month?” “If you had an hour’s notice, what kind of meal would you make?” I answered all these relatively well.

Then she asked, “What’s your favorite cuisine?” Oh, man, here I’d hit it out of the park for sure with the prowess that got me all the likes and praise on Instagram. I told her all the dishes I had made: the pastas and smashburgers and healthy options with fish and chicken casseroles, and I even made sure to outline my secret weapon: spaghetti-western food. People hadn’t heard of this: not Hollywood, not the streaming TV-viewing public, not even that fruity-hairstyle-driving-a-Lincoln-probably-running-for-governor-of-Texas guy. I was killing it. Killing. It.

Until she repeated the question: “No, I mean, what’s your favorite cuisine. Like: Italian, French…”

This was not going well. I said meekly, “Probably Italian.” Which was probably the favorite cuisine of 90% of those interviewed, too.

And yet those 90% knew cardamom wasn’t a condiment.


I inquired several times with the original agent whether they’d made a decision. I got a note on November 2 — that was Election Day in case you weren’t paying attention. Yeah. Election Day. — that informed me that I had “not been selected to move forward with the show.” It was a gracious note. A single paragraph. (I myself might have made it two, just for readability’s sake. But hey, she wasn’t auditioning for my upcoming Reality Grammar Show. I’m serious, by the way. Still pitching it to the perpetually-shoed Hollywood types.)

There came a point between my final interview and when I got word of being cut — a span of only three weeks — when I started to cook occasionally with methods and a mindset that were geared to being the kind of cook who might win on a show like this. Not the kind of cook who cooks to enjoy cooking.

Hey, I’m all for winning $100,000.

But there really is a truth to how different it is between doing something you enjoy for the love of it versus for the money, and perhaps having it spoiled. (This is why famed surfer Laird Hamilton doesn’t compete: surfing is not a competitive activity in his mind. It’s a relationship between the person and the ocean.)

I’m ok having a dry pantry that has things I forgot to mention during the interview because they are pushed to the back when I bought the 10-pound back of white rice at the beginning of COVID. I’m ok even calling cardamom a condiment, because I’m still going to use it in my pancakes despite its category. I did so this past weekend. Everyone loved the pancakes.

I’m still ok thinking my spaghetti-western cuisine is a thing. She didn’t ask about that. The culinary expert, that is. And she’s a freaking culinary expert. Pfft. Right.

It is a thing. And I’ll turn it into an even bigger Thing. And there will be food trucks and restaurants and t-shirts and key chains.

Maybe not key chains. Who buys key chains at a restaurant?!

I’ll have to noodle on that one.

Restoration

With torrential rain last night and early this morning — “torrential,” that is, contrasted against our standard “none” — you know I’m going to talk a little about the sky. Or skies, as I pointed out recently. Carol Arnold yesterday on Facebook posted a painting of hers inspired by a rainstorm in Junction, Texas. She had been driving home from Marathon.

Marathon is the town you drive through to get to Big Bend’s main visitor center. Yes, you could go through Terlingua but from Alpine, where you’re staying, if not Marathon itself, it makes more sense to go through the latter. You have to go through a border patrol checkpoint, because in Big Bend you can cross into Mexico, most notably by wading into the Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Pass. In fact, you can get to Mexico there without getting your shirt wet.

The drive back from Marathon along I-10 East affords many big-sky panoramas. There are only a few places in the U.S., and even the world, where you can still enjoy a natural panorama. Human settlement, even one with low-rise dwellings, can’t be considered a “panorama.” It would take Nature to restore it.

Click-hold and move the bar above to reveal all of Carol’s painting, and look to the lower right. That swath of dark means someone’s getting dumped on. In Junction, that’s probably the people coming out of McDonald’s just off the highway on their way to or from Mason.

My photo is aimed southwest from Comanche Trace. Planes are probably grounded at the Kerrville-Kerr County Airport. Or if the dump is far south enough, people at Toucan Jim’s restaurant are scampering inside from the backyard dining area, running and giggling as they grasp onto the stems of margarita glasses and the edges of plates with jalapeño poppers. Feeling the sizable raindrops start to cool their skin under their light-colored shirts, now polka-dotted with gray, and knowing it’s only a sudden and short-lived luxury. Table neighbors, strangers just moments ago, glance at each other and smile. They begin friendly negotiations to determine who gets to sit at the bar to finish their meals and who looks for a spot elsewhere inside. Men stand sideways between bar stools and occasionally apologize to the person behind them.