“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.