Lite-Brite

Naturally, I thought I was the smart one. Naturally. I pretty much know my way around Kerrville roads by now. Generally speaking. In almost any setting, I have an intuitive sense of how to get from here to there using shortcuts and a sense of traffic flow that even Google would pay me to consult on. You know: blue, yellow and red areas to tell you where the slow-downs are. I wouldn’t give Apple Maps the time of day. And Waze is too proletarian.

Yesterday ended my traffic flow consulting practice even before my first client signed on the dotted line. But the consolation was that not even Google would have known that the Loop 534 bridge was closed due to the Kerrville Triathlon.

“Wait,” you command (you did use the imperative tense, so I must write it that way). “Didn’t you see those electronic signs? You know. The ones with the digital orange letters on the black background? They were as clear as the Lite-Brite games we had as kids. Are you trying to tell me that your ambition to consult Google made you forget your childhood?!”

Certainly not.

For starters, as a game, Lite-Brite sucked.

There were plenty of other games of its era that were better and more worth the time we spent not on Pong. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, to name just one. To press those right and left-hand jab buttons and finally hear the satisfying grind of your adversary’s ridged and anodized metal neck popping his head upward gave young boys a sense of impending manhood. It was the MMA of 1970s bedroom carpets.

And look at this photo of Lite-Brite. I’m not exactly sure what it’s supposed to be, but my guess would be an outerspace unicorn that just let loose a rainbow fart. That’s way too big to be a wing. But you decide.

Does its low resolution compare with the high-res and creative freedom found in an Etch-A-Sketch? And what about hand-eye concentration? Someone adept at Operation would scoff at those who with limited artistic ability stick colored pegs in a black background any which-a-way — do you see the parallel here? With Lite-Brite, you can call anything “art.” (And, as many of you know, I have to tread lightly on this topic…) But even with Play-Doh: it was great for sculpting and even better as a late afternoon appetizer. It was only after several budding artist-wannabees tried using the colored pegs as tapas that they printed “Choking Hazard” on the box. They should have printed: Only For The Feeble-Minded.

Second, consulting Google would come with lifetime free 100GB storage. So there’s that.

But back to my story.

I went to Daily Donuts yesterday to do the right thing and get donuts and kolaches for the boys. It had little to do with the extra jelly donut I purchased, and you will be hard pressed to find a witness to say otherwise. My boys were sleeping when I returned. So: no loose ends.

Let’s get back to the “return” home part, which for a while seemed to be in doubt and then most assuredly was in doubt.

On the way to Daily Donuts, I took Bandera Highway down to Medina Highway.

“Did you see not only the signs but that the loop bridge was closed?” you ask.

Well, sure! What do you think?! Do you think that a Google consultant with 100GB of free storage and who can compare the bridge-closed sign to Lite-Brite would be so feeble-minded to have missed that? So: yes. But being who I am, I figured coming back would be different. You know: the ol’ doing the same thing thinking the outcome would be different That kind of head-spinning mental agility.

Besides, turning onto S. Sidney Baker from Bandera was a hassle. Like, it took three minutes instead of thirty seconds.

After I got two large kolaches, one with cheese and jalapeño, and six donuts, including two jelly donuts, one which I was actively eschewing, I got back on Main Street. Just so you know, getting on Sidney Baker from Daily Donuts is quicker through the broken concrete parking lot in front of the auto loan place. Google doesn’t show that short cut. You learned it here.

I decided that I’d try my luck with the Loop 534 bridge from that side of the river. On the off-chance. I mean, what if those who live at the VA want to go to Brew Dawgz? Are they expected to drive all the way down to Sidney Baker and then Bandera before they can get a burger with onion rings? Seems a bit much, if you ask me. And what of ordering Papa Johns? Should the driver go to Sidney Baker to deliver to third-shift workers at the hospital? And, getting cold pizza, do you tip? Or do you stiff the guy and contribute to a lowered living wage all because a person in tights riding a $2,000 bike is blocking your delivery guy’s 2005 Honda Civic from getting through? Or if you wanted to go to Gravity Check down Bandera Highway at 9:00am and wait till Noon for it to open?

Truly I say to bikers: Share the road.

Getting from Daily Donuts to home is normally a 5.1-mile and 10-minute proposition. That’s according to Google Maps. And, more importantly, according to me.

On my way home, I approach the Loop and, lo and behold, it’s closed. I slow down and kind of glance at the police officer standing at the intersection as if to say, Seriously?! I just came from downtown and am more than a little surprised, Officer. This is actually the best way home, and my vehicle contains a jelly donut that I eschew but will not eschew in approximately 7 minutes.

Turns out, he ignored my look.

At this point, I made a strategic decision within a millisecond. One must do this while driving. I could go back to Sidney Baker and home the way I came, swallowing my pride, putting my Google contract in jeopardy and adding on the 7-10 minutes that I lost, or I could continue south on Highway 27 and use another crossing.

I continued.

Pointless of course to turn through the gravel company because it would have led me to Riverside, as would of course the turn onto Riverside itself a bit further down toward Center Point.

Remember those words: Center Point. It’s the key to this whole story. As is the phrase Damn, I spent way too much time eschewing that jelly donut. That, too, is key.

The trick now became how to cross the Guadalupe since they stopped using the wooden ferry 175 years ago. Even then, it’d be unrealistic to expect a ferry made of cedar trees to support a 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe.

I knew for a fact I could cross at the Center Point River Road in a few minutes. I mean, what if I lived right there? Even if they had it closed, could they stop me from bringing donuts and kolaches to my children before heading out to the swimming hole?! No, they could not. (In my mind at least.)

But they could. And they did. And the police officer, hiding his authoritative amusement behind dark glasses, easily ignored my plaintive look.

I continued on.

When I hit Sutherland Lane, a final way to cross over via Center Point River Road, and saw that it too was closed, I admitted defeat and decided it would be a nice drive to go through Center Point itself. I hadn’t been down to San Antonio Street in a while, and I can’t recall when I’ve ever driven from Center Point to Bandera Highway via San Antonio Street itself. (And isn’t it odd that farther north I could have crossed the Guadalupe on foot much more easily and quickly than in car? I’d simply have carried my plastic bag of donuts and kolaches and listened to Joe Rogan on Spotify along the way. This is what the early settlers did, minus the plastic bag.)

To summarize, pride and a desire to have free Google storage space turned into a trip that was four times the miles and three times the minutes it would have taken going home the way I came to town.

But like I said, Lite-Brite sucked then, and it sucks now.

Give me Janis Joplin between the sheets

Birds have always “anchored” me. From the time I was three or four, birds have not only reminded me where I am when I wake up and hear them, but also their descendants remind me where I’ve been. Their morning song pin-pricks me and lets me know I’m indeed awake. They are objective and unsubtle; they wake me when they want to. They anchor me in the present and let me know my past is real.

Karen turned our patio behind our 349 West 84th Street apartment in Manhattan into a little “café,” as she liked to call it. Appropriately so. At one of two metal tables covered by canvas umbrella, I’d drink coffee and listen to myriad birds in the morning. Robins, sparrows, cardinals, jays, even red-tailed hawks and crows or ravens — I’d like to think they were ravens, since the two-block stretch of 84th Street that included our building was called “Edgar Allan Poe Street;” he was rumored to have written the poem on Broadway and 84th — sounded like a symphony orchestra warming up. Toward the end of our time there, the people two buildings down started to keep chickens out back. I found their sound dissonant and, therefore, unwanted. Theirs were the sounds of a banjo and fiddle, not an oboe and first violin.

But it was at the café that I’d hear the song of the towhee, which Mom helped me remember as “DRINK-your-TEA!” I can’t hear their call without thinking of Mom. In that respect, the bird anchors me to her as much as to my place.

The towhee was the bird that let me know I had woken up in Point O’ Woods on Fire Island. Mom and I stood on the small concrete front porch of what I later learned was the smallest house in the community and probably the only one my parents could afford to rent. We looked south, over a thin stand of trees and past the “truck road” — with very few exceptions, only utility and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive on Fire Island, and they use one-lane sand roads — past the tennis courts, which usually start hopping at 7:00 AM during summer hours, and ultimately toward the beach and ocean, from which the sun rose.

We’d face that direction and Mom, with Virginia Slim cigarette and teacup in the same hand, would look down and smile at me and use that phrase — “DRINK your TEA!” — to help me remember I was awake. She’d smile with purple smoke curling around her twinkling eyes and then turn back to take a drag. A noisy sip. And more quiet there between us. Listening. Sun rising. Tennis balls hitting rackets. Feet shuffling on clay. Laughter.

Our 84th Street café reminded me between 2007 and 2017 that I had awakened years before when I was four. That the past was not a debatable premise, as YouTube and Spotify podcast philosophers like to muse indulgently to hundreds of thousands of viewers and listeners who are online and hoping to get as rich as those philosophers by monetizing their own accounts. Because if you can’t make a killing from your streaming video gameplay on Twitch or lingerie activity on OnlyFans, perhaps you can spout outrageous ideas like that hearing towhees is actually an illusion, a sound file that’s activated in real-time to keep me unaware of the Matrix-like “simulation” they believe I’m living in. These opportunists who think they’re so smart are blind to the irony that Descartes would tersely remind them of with his five famous words. Spouting these things in Descartes’s era might even have got you tarred and feathered with the same coating worn by those beautiful beasts you said weren’t real.

In Texas, the bird that most reminds me I’ve awakened here is the turkey vulture. Overhead, it looks like a hawk or even majestic eagle. On the ground, its ugly red head — “ugly” to me; I’m not being judge-y here, but I think most people would agree with me if they’re really honest with themselves; I mean, seriously, would you actually put a couple of them in a cage in your sunroom and call them “Skittles” and “Coco”? No, you would not — and its hopping around roadkill remind me not only that I live here but also that I drive everywhere. (Does that mean that I don’t really wake up until I turn onto Bandera Highway? Scary thought. But then again, I live in a simulation, so fuck it.) The circling overhead of multiple vultures is somehow beautiful to me, like a dance, and to see them on the roadside comforts me to know that a needless killing at night is converted to deer tartar.

Yet, vultures don’t have a song. And that bothers me, because it’s sight rather than sound that tries to keep me anchored, yet it is sound that has gone largely unchanged because the source has been largely unchanged. It is sound that is imposed on me rather than me on it. But with sight, I am the source. And I have changed quite a bit over the years, or so I’ve heard, and cannot by nature anchor myself. That’d be like a ship telling itself to stay close to shore “or else it’s gonna get an ass-whoopin’.”

The other bird I associate with my place now is the purple martin, whose swallow tail is more distinctive to me than any song which, if it has one, I’m unaware of it. The Guadalupe has herons, elegant birds whose front and back yards I am privileged to paddleboard through. They, too, sing only now and then when I get too close.

But we live on a golf course, where song birds are not so numerous as elsewhere. Golf courses don’t honor nature so much as manicure it to the point of looking like a Desperate Housewife instead of the Janis Joplin that nature really is.

And frankly, I’d rather wake up next to Janis.

Shells the size of pennies

There was one there already — a Great Egret. As I looked south, down the Guadalupe, I saw three more of the elegant white birds. Their necks started to form question marks as they relaxed and settled in. And then the egret closer to me flew to its siblings. It was replaced by its cousin the Great Blue Heron, which landed on the light-colored rock you see in the center-left of the photo. The tranquility of this place is better told in gray-scale tones than in loud color.

I had heard about this river access from Karen, who heard about it from a neighbor where we live. Apparently, not many people from our housing development know about it. Residents can enter through a gate with a combination lock that gets hot quickly in this sun we all know well. I must confess, while I’d feel somewhat unneighborly if we lived in a gated community, for some inconsistent reason I have no problem having resident-only access to this part of our amazing river. I can list multiple reasons that would sound justified to me (e.g. not wanting to be around loud music), but truth be told I’m getting older — something I’m told happens quite often — and there’s no getting around my being kind of snobby and elitist about this aspect of Hill Country life. I’m going to lean into it.

The photo here was taken shortly after I entered the area, having been the only car there, and walked down onto the treacherous and unstable bleached limestone rock to take a closer look. I’d forgotten the water shoes that Karen had reminded me to take, and since I didn’t want to swim in my sandals, I ventured out in bare feet.

The water closest to the shoreline and maybe an inch deep, was probably close to the air temperature of 93 degrees and uncomfortably warm. I told myself it would be easier once I went a little deeper. Soon enough I found myself walking on hundreds of small shells, each the size of a penny, and I remembered it was one of these shells that my son Teak had landed on when jumping into a different and deeper area of the river. The shell ripped his heel open and ended his summertime swimming weeks ahead of the school year. Cuts take longer to heal for a 58-year-old, and I didn’t want to be dry-docked until I started taking out IRA contributions to pay for getting the stitches removed.

I told myself the river bottom would get better soon.

It didn’t.

Small shells gave way to sharp rock and then more sharp rock of a different kind before the water depth even hit six inches. Not only did I wish at this point to have my water shoes, but even my sandals would have sufficed, since the closer I got to the middle of the river, the more it appeared that the darker areas were not indicative of depth but rather of greater concentrations of river moss. [Note to readers, especially those who are from Kerrville: I Googled in vain a more exact or even correct description of what I call “moss.” If I am wrong and you blow up the Comments section below, I must warn you I will be tempted to cook up some egret tenders, and then we will be even-steven.] Therefore, I wouldn’t be able to swim and take the weight off my feet, the heels of which became more and more like cannon fodder to the penny-sized shells waiting for their victim. The underwater terrain was to my soles like free-solo climbing the limestone bluffs would be to my palms.

When I reached the point of turning back, I made a decision to go home and get my river shoes. I had been toying with the idea at almost each step.

In my mind were two paths: “This is so beautiful. I want to get the river shoes and come back.” Or, “This is so beautiful, but (I’m lazy) and I don’t want to make the effort to go get the shoes and come back.” I chose to get the shoes.

This was an uncharacteristic decision, since typically I would have called it a day — a short one — and told myself, “Note to self: next time bring river shoes.”

But yesterday was a “today” that flies as effortlessly as a heron, and one doesn’t know when one will next see a heron like yesterday.

Creation in a new light

Since February 1 of this year, I’ve been taking photos from our backyard looking northwest. More precisely, it’s probably west-northwest.

I take each photo ten minutes after sunrise. Sunrise on February 1 was 7:35am Central Standard Time, and sunrise today was 6:52am Central Daylight Time.

I’ve titled this series — which by no means includes each day but rather does include multiple days from each week since the start — #10MinutesAfterSunriseInTexas. If you go to Instagram and do a search for similar posts, you might find a series called “10 minutes after sunrise,” but there are only four such photos, and they don’t announce mornings in the great state of Texas but rather in places like Maine, where the sun actually rises only about seven days a year, in late June.


So I became interested in what I could learn about the sunrise here.

Previously, only a spectacular sunrise or sunset would earn my attention. It dawned on me that because I pick and choose what I want to see, I might be missing something even more spectacular.

See these two galleries below, followed by an observation I had. I’ll save others for later.

  • Gallery 1 is four photos from the first half of February. (Earliest is upper left and moves clockwise to later dates.)
  • Gallery 2 is two photos from the first half of February contrasted against two from the first half of May. (Earliest is upper left and again moves clockwise.)

To the naked eye, we can see differences, especially when sunrises are separated by a few months.

The camera — machine #1 — picks up differences further still. One day, I was sure it was an overcast-gray only. But the camera picked up more blue than I had noticed. The camera didn’t operate on preconceived notions about what it wanted to see.

It just reported.

Then, I added a second machine to see what I might be missing and to “say” what the camera didn’t have the tools to.

Adobe Capture is an app that allows you to create various patterns from photos. It also can compile a “swatch” of five colors that it deems dominant in that photo.

The series on the left is from early February — February 1 at top, February 14 at bottom. The series on the right, like the gallery, shows the first two February photos at top and the last two May photos at bottom. Move the vertical slider back and forth by clicking and holding the “< >” to compare and contrast.

On left is a machine impression of the February photographs. On the right is a machine impression of the first two February photographs (on top) and two photographs from this month (on bottom).

There are six conclusions I’ve made so far from looking at the photos over time, not through my eyes but through the eyes of two unbiased machines, that of my camera and Adobe Capture. I’ll share just one for now:

The sun doesn’t make the difference; the clouds do.

This was my problem at the start. My idea of a “great” sunrise or sunset not only was that it was sunny, creating a “golden hour,” but also that it was brilliantly so. Nothing wrong with that, granted.

But it is the clouds, playing off the sun, that create various shadows and shades of blues, browns and greens that I had missed until I filtered them through these two machines.

#10MinutesAfterSunriseInTexas is my way of seeing creation in a new light.

More to come.

My peach ice cream and a black man’s spoon in it

Memories often are formed around food or meals. Like when you tried your first bite of cheesecake or tiramisù — can you guess my bias for which course I like the most? — or like that disastrous dinner when you drove from Denver Airport at 5,000 feet above sea level to your buddy’s house another 3,500 feet higher, had an amazing steak dinner lovingly prepared by his wife and then, with sudden altitude sickness, puked it up?

That puking steak thing has happened to all of us at some time or another, or at least it should, because then I wouldn’t feel so naked right now. Please comment below what your most embarrassing food story is. Or actually your most embarrassing story, period. Like, things that have traumatized you to this day. Only five people regularly read this blog, so your secret is safe.

I digress.

Food and meals aren’t always funny or facile tropes in TV shows, like the “look who decided to come home for Thanksgiving dinner” episode.

How about the meal memories that reveal a true weakness? One that leaves you much more naked than admitting to puking up a steak.

“He’s a prince from Ghana.”

Yeah, right, I thought, in whatever the six-year-old, first-grader equivalent was. I was a NYC-savvy grade school cynic.

Dad had taken me to lunch with one of his work colleagues. They worked for a company called Transportation Displays Incorporated, “TDI.” In second grade, our teacher Mrs. Ricciardi asked each of us to stand up at our desk and state aloud what our fathers did for work. An innocent and honest mistake, I said my dad “worked for the FBI” (rather than “TDI”). I got major street cred for that, until moments later when I had to confess that it was in fact “TDI,” a company that sold advertising space. Specifically, they sold “out-of-the-home” advertising space to companies like Time, Inc. and advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam.

Needless to say, this new status reduced my cred. Like, to zero.

One of the benefits of having a dad who worked for TDI and not the FBI is that Dad would bring home commuter rail posters from a completed ad campaign, like the Cutty Sark one shown here. Dad told me that commuters would remove these stiff posters — probably 1/8-inch thick — from their metal frames and would use the horizontal surface to play cards on them during their hour-long ride into or out of the City.

Dad amassed these and other posters in our apartment’s second bathroom, a half-bath which he’d converted into tool shed and curio cabinet, and which was thoroughly cleaned out only after my father died in 1998. Dad was a pack rat but an organized one. Advertising posters were stacked neatly alongside baby food jars holding different sizes of nails and screws, and scraps of plywood, and jars of paint which might have only an inch of gooey Navajo White at the bottom but which could be salvaged with a little thinner, because that’s what you did when you were born in 1921 and saw hungry men show up at your backdoor looking for a meal and your family let them in — total strangers, yes, but strangers whose only likely crime might be to steal a random parsnip.

Dad brought home things like that just because. And also because it was easier to bring home commuter rail posters than bank robbers.

(We need another subhead to say, “He’s a prince from Ghana.”)

Have to continue my thought above. So I met a lot of people in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. People who were famous, eccentric or exotic. Or exotic, eccentric and maybe famous, like a woman named “Lady Enid P__” (last name intentionally omitted) who was a tall and sultry friend of Dad’s from Australia and used to give my brother and me dollar bills and let us wrestle with her. I mean, tell me that isn’t practically the sexiest thing for an 8-year-old kid struggling to understand anatomy. She was from Australia.

Still not getting to Ghana, are we.

I’m delaying the shame is why.

Dad took his non-FBI colleague John Okawa and me to lunch one day. At the end of the meal, we ordered dessert. (Of course we did. What lame person would not allow their kid to order dessert at the end of a restaurant meal. I mean, please correct me, but that’s just something that should not be tolerated in America. Let your kids order freaking dessert. Like, every time. Kids are dealing with enough already, like wrestling with sultry Australian gentry for pay.)

So we’re ordering dessert and I order peach ice cream. And I am STOKED to get this peach ice cream. Stoked. It’s served, and I take a bite. Maybe two at most. Mmm. Cool. Tasty. Peachy. An amazing restaurant-quality, all-American ice cream experience that had not been denied me.

Then Mr. Okawa, a very dark-skinned man who Dad had described as a prince from Ghana — yeah, right, an African prince is here in New York selling 2×3-foot spaces on the Long Island railroad to whiskey-drunk bond traders — turned to me and asked very kindly, “May I have a bite?”

I was genuinely caught off guard.

Now, you must know, Dear Reader, that as a kid I had a serious Germ Phobia anyway. Like, that was already there. Anyone who knew me would tell you this. But this moment was qualitatively different. Because Mr. Okawa’s request for a bite of my ice cream, even with his own spoon, didn’t just introduce germs, but they were especially germy germs. And I feel it’s important to say this in the context of “race relations” in 2021: this was in 1969 in New York City, and anyone who wasn’t alive then but looking back now and thinks they know what racism is and isn’t should instead worry about what people one hundred years hence will think about their strong belief that avocados are the “good kind of fat.” In 100 years, they will probably say that avocados scream when you tear their flesh from their beautiful, if rough, exterior. They will say to those reprobates then, “Hey, you avocado-eater, don’t ‘rough-rind-shame.'”

Mr. Okawa’s request added a layer of germiness in my mind. He was a dark-skinned man, and I was a very white kid who candidly didn’t have any known dislike of black people. I simply didn’t know many black people — which is probably why Dad had me meet him in the first place — and to have a black man want to dip his spoon, which he may or may not have used on his own dessert already, was a bridge too far.

I hesitated, which was answer enough. I still remember that moment, that hesitation, the millisecond of indecision between “yes” and “no,” and it was in that millisecond that I exposed the brokenness between people who are different in skin color and can’t escape the fact. And, yes, a six-year-old’s actions and words can exacerbate brokenness, or they can heal it. Six-year-olds wield that kind of terrible power.

Of course I said, “Yes.” Yes, he could have a bite. Was a 6-year-old going to say no to an authority figure over something like that and embarrass his father?

But after Mr. Okawa, the Ghanaian prince and ad salesman, took a bite, I said I was not hungry for my dessert anymore. To this day, I feel the shame as I recall sensing my dad’s embarrassment and Mr. Okawa’s… what: pity? anger? frustration? empathy? powerlessness? sadness? at my decision that his Black Person Spoon contaminated my dessert. I avoided eye contact with both men.

That was 52 years ago.

2020 sucked but shone light on us all, and that’s a good thing

I think what brought this to mind was that yesterday I had a long, and I thought helpful, talk with an old and very dear friend about Election 2020 and my support of President Trump. My friend and I had disagreed intensely during the election season, and he sincerely wanted to know now what compelled me not just to vote the way I did but how it was that Trump was disqualified in my mind, particularly because of his racist statements.

I felt, and I hope he did, our conversation yesterday was in the context of love. Much of what my friend brought up were things I couldn’t defend. Some of them were indefensible because my friend was right, and others I chose not to attempt to defend because I thought it would lead down rabbit holes and be unhelpful to explain my vote. But he was surprised — and refreshingly candid about his surprise — to hear that the “fine people” statement surrounding Charlottesville, which President Biden used to launch his candidacy, was once and for all debunked for the nth time during the Senate trial in the second impeachment. At that time, Trump’s lawyers played for everyone present or watching TV Trump’s full statement at the press conference where he was reputed to call white supremacists “fine people,” which he absolutely did not do. (This, of course, introduces the whole media bias thing, which is a rabbit hole and a dead-end hole at that.)

I’m no longer defending Trump — it’s not helpful to anyone — even though I defend my having voted the way I did in 2016 and 2020, because I made what I thought were selfless and patriotic decisions both times and even if I’m proven wrong by history. I told my friend, “I may have voted for P.T. Barnum, but I also feel like he enlarged the tent” of those who felt forgotten or wanted a voice. And yes, Nazis found a voice through Trump. But so did lots of blacks, Latinos and others. Look at the data.

I’m also defending the fearless search for honesty, candor and forgiveness. Humility. Placing relationships before “the Truth.” For who among us knows “the truth”? The truth is a vapor. As soon as you see it, it disappears. It’s more helpful to know that Truth exists “up there,” like clouds, than to try to bottle it up and show it to a friend. Avocados will likely always be good for us and will not be found to scream. But there are avocado equivalents now that will be vociferously denounced a hundred years hence. Will my descendants decide I’m no longer worth remembering because I decided that a black man’s spoon contaminated my peach ice cream? Or because I voted for Trump? Twice?

And the real question for me to answer is: if I knew that in one hundred years my descendants would disown me, would I disown them first?


[photo credit: Justin Shockley]

Tea and cinnamon toast at midnight

We’re about two to three hours past the time that, as a young boy, I’d often find Mom and have a “midnight snack.” “Midnight snack” is a general term, not anchored to 12 a.m. The phrase has a bit of elasticity, like saying “block party” can be anything from a little get-together among adjacent Manhattan buildings to all of the East Village erupting after the Rodney King verdict in April 1992.

That last comparison didn’t really flow, I’ll admit, but as it’s 3:48 a.m. as I write, long past the “midnight snack” range when I might have had a little get-together, I’m rapidly approaching the riot stage of insomnia.

As a kid, I often couldn’t sleep. This hasn’t changed much. Nowadays, naps are often more successful for rejuvenation, especially when I have a 90-pound labrador retriever sleeping next to me. Having Leo as my nap buddy is like taking half a bottle of Benadryl without the life-threatening part.

When I couldn’t sleep then — and “then” means between the age of about 5 until the age I became a blackout drinker, so maybe by second grade (again, kidding/exaggerating, ok? Brain fog.) — I’d either find Mom in bed and rouse her, or I’d find her already in the kitchen.

If I found her in bed, I’d tiptoe past Dad’s side and over to hers and whisper close to her ear, “Can we have a midnight snack?”

As a parent now myself, and as a father who’s much less nurturing than a mother would be — even on a wide-awake Sunday afternoon; I mean, NFL…right? — this sweet little whisper up close at the side of my head while I try to sleep might as well be someone tickling my eardrum with a toothpick.

Nevertheless, I have no recollection of Mom ever saying, “Go back to bed.”

On the contrary, even though Dad never watched the NFL and was very nurturing as far as men go, he too found a way to get me back to bed with minimal disruption in his own sleep, which was to tell me that if I slept on my back, I’d have nightmares. Which really meant, “I know you are only in second grade, but you snore when you come home drunk.” Like I said, practical but loving.

I haven’t told you what the “snack” consisted of. In short:

  • Tea
  • Cinnamon toast

I may have had milk, but I also may have had tea. Kids of American/Anglophile mothers also drink tea. (When speaking directly to her, we’d use the English “Mummy,” not the lazy “Mom” or “Mommy,” and certainly not the more southern, “Mama” or “Momma” — although one cannot distinguish between homonyms at 12:30 a.m.; I don’t know if you knew that. Of course, if the emphasis of “Mama” is on the second syllable, that might become acceptable.)

As for the “cinnamon,” Mom and Dad had mixed that and sugar in a small glass jar that probably had rosemary in it until recently, before my brother and I experimented in the kitchen. We buttered the toast and then sprinkled the cinnamon-sugar mix on it.

Knowing what I know about that midnight snack and its soporific effect, if you tickled my eardrum with a toothpick these days, I’d thank you.

But don’t come over now and try. It’s four hours past snack time and I need to go find Leo.

Toddler. Kitchen step-ladder. Open flame.

Custom countertops and Nazi butt-kicking

My family’s kitchen on East 96th Street in Manhattan was perhaps ten feet wide by fifteen long. But, of course, the countertops took up enough space to make the kitchen more of an L-shaped space that opened at the kitchen entrance — Dad had fashioned swinging doors with louvers, like an Old West barroom — turned right toward the fridge with expandable countertop to the left (Dad made), and took a sharp left toward the window with a copious runway of four or five feet until you reached the stove on the left, double sink on the right. (Window in the middle, looking out over 96th Street.) To the right of the runway, before you got to the sink, was a custom countertop (again, by Dad) with a built-in raised cutting board (Dad) surrounded by inlaid tiles bought in Spanish Harlem (Dad…and me, age 7. Maybe younger brother Jim was there also, but as I am the owner of this blog and therefore seeking glory only for myself, I will avoid any uncertainty about the participants.).

Yes, Dad created this kitchen infrastructure like the architect he always wanted to be. That is, until his father died and he had to drop out of college at age 20 to support a stepmother and three younger half-siblings. That was 1941. Dad was a 4F, which perhaps was fortuitous, because were he not, he’d likely have had to serve or would be faced with the task of deciding whether to stay or go. His poor health made that decision for him.

Going into advertising sales was not his “passion.” Nor was doing so following his “dream.” But it provided for four other people at a time when — having had its ass kicked in the ’30s — America was about to kick some Nazi ass in the ’40s. It also provided for us growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. His valor was demonstrated in flying home from a client in California and then flying off to Chicago two days later. They don’t give out medals for that, just new fiscal year goals.

I remember oregano. Oregano and lots of rosemary.

The kitchen wasn’t all about Dad’s incredible handiwork. (It was indeed incredible what that man could do.) It was also about Mom’s cooking. Mom made great meals for kids and adults alike and, because of that, she required a lot of herbs and spices to be on hand. They sat on four shelves that were easily accessible to any child who crawled onto the countertop and then kneeled. That would get you to the good stuff on the top as well as to the bronze mortar and pestle, weighing as much as a small wood-burning fireplace.

As kids in the 5- to 8-year-old range, we were fascinated by the smells of everything coming from that kitchen. Herbs. Spices. So we would take it upon ourselves to use Mom’s herbs liberally — she had no saffron that I recall — and stir them into a pot of water that we would already have simmering. On a gas stove.

Did I mention that we were too young to reach the stove without using a step ladder? I can’t recall whether we stood on the top step, but any manufacturer warnings about that — if even invented by 1970 — must surely have been printed on the underside. And who stopped for directions when making spice soup?!

Fear not

This is not a story that ends badly, like me with clove-shaped scars on my right cheek or daring my brother to eat a tablespoon of crushed chili flakes. (Well. That might have happened.) It’s not even a story.

Rather it’s a memory of a small kitchen, a family of four, lots of meals, and no devices of any kind.

Mom and Dad never owned a microwave.

“Biscuit Aisle” podcast launched: focuses on food and family

One of my favorite podcasts out there, offered on Spotify, is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin is a journalist-turned-historian, and he says he likes to focus on extreme human behavior, especially in wars, both ancient and modern. He details these over the course of 5- and 6-hour episodes. Listening to two back to back, you’d almost be able to drive across Texas. Another of my favorites is The Allusionist (about language and words) and yet another is 99% Invisible, which is about the “process and power of design and architecture.”

Likely, I’m not the only one out there who sees something cool and says, “I’d like to do what that person does.” Well, I’m no historian, English language expert, or design guru. One of my main attributes, however, is that I’ve spent more than two decades asking questions and listening as a nonprofit fundraiser. Typically, this happens over a good meal that someone else pays for. Seems tailor-made for a podcast like the one I’m doing now.

This honed skill of probing for truth and then listening for it, between bites, could be turned into conversations that might be helpful, or at least entertaining, for a listener.


I’ve done two interviews so far with fellow “foodies,” who more often than not are much younger than I and who look a sight better in a spaghetti string dress. (I know this to be fact.)

Instagram is the social medium platform I use to post photos of the meals I make, and many of those I’m connected to just happen to live in Texas, Canada, India or the U.K. Typically they are between the ages of 25 and 44, overwhelmingly female, men skewing slightly younger than women, and are active on Instagram chiefly on Thursday mornings at 9:30 U.S. Central Time. This would make sense, given that the times in the U.S. and Canada, the U.K. (6 hours ahead during Daylight Savings) and Mumbai (10.5 hours ahead) are waking hours for everyone in this group.

I say that there are a lot of foodies who fall into these demographics, but of course this is the “audience” that Instagram algorithms have chosen for me based on the small snowball of my early follow choices and which then rolled downhill gaining size and momentum.


Against that backdrop I decided to interview other foodies and hear about their passion for the subject. A lot of food posts on Instagram at large are marked as #foodporn or #burgerporn etc., not unlike others marked as #architectureporn. Anything visual can be turned to an idol of fascination, if the visual is both the first and last stop of engagement (there is in fact no porn itself on the platform). But food posts usually represent a person having lovingly created the dish, which is typically enjoyed at a restaurant with a friend or lover, or at home with family. An #architectureporn photo might be of a glistening skyscraper containing hundreds of people. Or not. We can’t tell from the looks of it. Or it might be of an ancient building that hasn’t heard laughter in centuries.

But food posts have an immediate history and an active present. Lip smacks and closed-eyed smiles, laughter with the person next to you, sometimes grimaces and the word “interesting” being bandied about, and always clearing the plates afterwards.

I’ve conducted two interviews so far on “Biscuit Aisle.” Another episode is coming soon with a man who has become a part of the food scene in the greater Kerrville area. The first two interviews are with foodies from Houston and Toronto. Their Instagram accounts are below.

Please visit their pages, listen to the interviews and subscribe to the “Biscuit Aisle” podcast! Thanks.

“May contain one or more of the following”

Know how when you are in that liminal space between sleeping and waking? And when your thoughts are half illogical and half brilliant? Sort of like you have just stumbled upon your life’s work, only to learn later that it’s highly unlikely that at age 57 you can become fabulously wealthy by surfing in exotic locations and posting photos on Instagram?

Surely you know what I’m talking about. Surely you have your own dreams elevated by those states, only to come crashing down by the time the dog needs to pee or — going the other way from waking to sleeping — you get elbowed and told to stop snoring.

Last night entering a waking state but having spent sufficient time dreaming about it — could have been three hours, could have been three seconds, but who’s counting — I realized — that is, I knew it was in the process of being adopted industry-wide — that food package ingredient labels were soon to replace — nay, some already had — the phrase “May contain one of more of the following” with symbols representing those various ingredients that we like to think don’t make their way into what we’re about to take a bite of, but actually are there.

That’s what I was dreaming about. It made total sense to me.

And now that the dog and two of the three cats are awake, now that I had to pull the chaise lounge chair off the backyard lawn so that the grounds crew could cut the grass, now that my Coffee #1 is almost finished, getting cold in fact, I realize that this move by the food industry makes total sense. If a company can make more money doing something, and do it legally and without losing customers, why would it NOT do that?

“What are you talking about? It’s not even 8am yet in Kerrville, and MY coffee is still hot, even if yours isn’t.”

To explain further what I mean — not replacing words with symbols; everyone knows what that would be; rather I mean the advantage of doing it — I’m going to use an example from the music industry that many of us who are of a certain age are familiar with.

LED ZEPPELIN

This is the “Zoso” symbol that the legendary rock band chose to be on the cover of their fourth album.

For those who are too young to know, an album is a “10-inch sound storage medium” that a band or singer would use to deliver their music. They had only three channels to get their music out: this medium (we called them “records”), live concerts, and the radio. The only medium we could access at anytime was records. Concerts didn’t happen all the time and, even then, getting tickets was challenging (as it is now), and for a radio station to play the song you liked, you had to call in and ask the DJ to play it. Of course, there was a fourth medium available to listen to your band’s music: to record it when the song happened to play on the radio! Alas, you’d usually need to be ready with your hand on two of your cassette player’s buttons at the same time: the play button and the record (two syllables, class) button. And you’d still have the DJ’s voice over the first few notes: “And here is the song jumping to #1 on the charts this week by the Bay City Rollers, “I Only Want To Be With You.” So when you listened to the recording on your cassette player, the only corrupting sounds were the DJ’s introduction of the song and the jackhammer in the background working on the New York City steam pipes.

Back to Zoso.

A fan page claims that the band never came out and said what the symbols meant, but the two best-known members of the four had this to say:

Lead guitarist Jimmy Page (whose symbol is first, the “Zoso,” which is the only one that can be pronounced) said about the exercise: “We decided that on the fourth album, we would deliberately play down the group name, and there wouldn’t be any information whatsoever on the outer jacket. Names, titles and things like that do not mean a thing. . . . I had to talk like hell to get that one done.”

Adds frontman Robert Plant: “Each of us decided to go away and choose a metaphysical type of symbol which somehow represented each of us individually — be it a state of mind, an opinion, or something we felt strongly about, or whatever. Then we were to come back together and present our symbols.”

I actually think this is awesome.

It was their fourth album. It wasn’t their first one, which either established your trajectory or is often forgotten due to your sophomore album. This one had “Whole Lotta Love,” to give you an idea that the band was here to stay. By their fourth, they’d already been topping charts for two albums.

This is where we bring food back in.

They apparently wanted to avoid getting in a rut, and everyone also knew their names. But Robert Plant didn’t mysteriously transform — now watch this closely — Robert Plant didn’t mysteriously transform from “sodium caseinate” (a milk protein) to the symbol above.

According to that same fan page, Plant’s symbol, the frontman’s humble caboose of Zoso, “features the feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness. It is also the emblem of a writer. Plant says the symbol he created was drawn from sacred symbols of the ancient Mu civilization, a fantastical place that supposedly existed until 14,000 years ago.”

If you’re still reading, my point is this: Zeppelin avoided being in a rut and decided to do something different. But they still ended their Zeppelin years as Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and the fourth guy. Plant continues to write music and collaborate with others such as Alison Krauss. “Pagey,” as Plant calls him, is now raising Vizslas in the Scottish Highlands. Bonham passed away in 1980. And the fourth guy is still a symbol, hoping to resurface as the symbol for monosodium glutamate.

(That’s true of Plant and, sadly, Bonham. I made up those things about the other two gentlemen, as far as I know.)


The heart of the matter: packaging

Parsons graduate student Maya Weinstein made her own high-fructose corn syrup. Here is her recipe:

“Mix 10 cups of Yellow Dent #2 corn extract with one drop sulfuric acid, one teaspoon Alpha-Amylase, one teaspoon Glucose-Amylase, and one teaspoon Xylose, strain through a cheesecloth, and heat. Then, once the slurry has reached 140 degrees, add Glucose Isomerase, bring to a boil, let cool, and enjoy!”

Every time you eat one of the following foods, you are ingesting sulfuric acid:

  • Soda
  • Candy
  • Sweetened Yogurt
  • Salad Dressing
  • Frozen Junk Foods
  • Breads (popular brands)
  • Canned Fruit
  • Juice (popular brands)

In effect, next time you watch a movie with a Coke and Twizzlers, don’t trip getting seconds because you’ll explode.

My liminal waking state solution was simple: make some of the most egregious ingredients into a symbol, something — as Robert Plant had suggested for the rest of Led Zeppelin — “metaphysical…which somehow represented each of us individually…a state of mind, an opinion.”

On second thought, now that I’m awake, just buy an apple.

“Spaghetti-Western” Cuisine

“Spaghetti-Western” films were gunslinger movies shot in Italy or other parts of Europe and directed mostly by Italians. Perhaps the best-known example is Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” An eminently watchable movie in its own right, it also was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino to become a filmmaker, according to Tarantino himself. (You can read about that below.)

Clint Eastwood’s smirk with that cigarillo — lit with a match struck on his boot sole, or maybe it was against his eyelid, one can’t be sure — and its lazy smoke caught beneath the brim of his hat and perhaps irritating his left eye and causing him to squint. The occasional dialogue that looked very different when you watched the actors’ mouths and what you heard. Evil men who were never children; they were born as 45-year-olds wearing black hats.

My question today is: didn’t those people ever get hungry?

If indeed “Blondie” — the “Man With No Name,” played by Eastwood — or the other actors suffered from a lack of acceptable cuisine out in the salt flats near Granada, Spain, I’m here to help. I’m developing a new cuisine just for those kind of characters. They might be unsavory, so I’ll provide the savory for them. (Ba-dum-dum. I’ll be here all week, folks.)

It’s called “Spaghetti-Western Cuisine.”

“El Paso Porco”

Let’s put this in context.

You’re Clint Eastwood.

You’ve just endured a Mexican stand-off.

No, not “endured.” Not by a long shot (you might say).

No. You’ve kind of sauntered into and out of this life-and-death scene through which the viewer and other two gun-slingers tip-toed. You shot your main opponent and he rolls into a shallow grave. Then, approaching the other opponent, whose revolver you had sneakily unloaded, you shoot the dead man’s hat from the side of the grave into it. And then his revolver.

You might be a great shot, but you get hungry like everyone else. You don’t want a caesar salad. Not after shooting like that. You don’t want avocados, though those are plentiful not far from Durango, Mexico, where a portion of the film was shot. If you slung guns today in Rancho Santa Fe, California, avocados would be great, thank you.

No. You want meat.

Enter stage right: the “El Paso Porco.”

el paso porco

What is the “El Paso Porco”?

On my Instagram account, you’ll see the write-up, but I’ll expand here. I wanted to combine something Italian with something western. Not long ago, I made chicken-fried chicken parmesan. That attempt was nominally successful in terms of integration. In terms of taste, it was a home run. But the only “western” thing about the dish was that I soaked the chicken in buttermilk first. It was nonetheless a move in the right direction.

Generally, when any of us says, “a move in the right direction,” that seems to imply that we’re moving away from a wrong direction, and that we’re moving away from something.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, my father worked for CBS, which aired a lot of westerns. These movies became so predictable and tired that Dad and his coworkers took bets on how they’d end. The American-made westerns became tired, like lunchmeat in grade school. Baloney sandwiches, which had long been ripped from their original Italian context of Bologna. (See why we have all this culinary dysphoria?)

Onto the scene of that dusty and tired backdrop strode in Italian directors like Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari and Franco Giraldi. These four, according to Quentin Tarantino, are the four greatest Italian movie directors. Tarantino, as any fan knows, often uses the trope of a “Mexican stand-off” as portrayed masterfully in the Leone classic. And he uses similar epic music. His latest movie, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is a direct descendent of Leone. (For the record, I don’t see the lineage. I see it in “Pulp Fiction” and of course in “The Hateful Eight.”)

In fact, it was Leone more than the others, who made a deep and lasting impression on Tarantino. And it was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” that for Tarantino was a primer in how to make films.

What’s more, Leone even influenced now-arcane video games like Billy Frontier:

But getting shot by or shooting a blue alien and chaps-wearing upright bull can make any gunslinger downright hangry.

For this man or for the woman identifying as a cigarillo-smoking gunslinger, spaghetti-western cuisine is heavy on carbs but is also designed for the paleo alpha male or, again, the woman who identifies as an alpha male. (If, however, she’s a beta male then the deal’s off; she can bloody well go to Dairy Queen.)

Sweet Italian sausage on a toasted baguette. Jalapeño relish and a creamy chipotle sauce.

A great experiment and a new addition to the line-up of “Spaghetti-Western Cuisine.”

my own summary of the “El Paso Porco”

How do you make “El Paso Porco”?

Thanks for asking. It’s really not hard. The hard part is the condiments. The meat is sweet Italian sausage with that hint of fennel. (Even a gunslinger has a sweet side. You might not see it, but it’s there. His mother can see what we can’t. Except for the ugly one. He had no mother.)

JALAPEÑO RELISH

If you’re eating a sausage, you’re basically eating an Italian hotdog. It’s Italian meat delivered in dachshund form. You might be tempted to put it on an Italian bread like a ciabatta or focaccia. But those are too seasoned and don’t look like hot dog buns. So instead you choose the Italian baguette. It’s a French type of bread with the word “Italian” modifying it. An Italian hot dog bun. Lean into it.

I made my relish using THIS RECIPE. The jalapeño pepper definitely enters the room without knocking. That’s why we have a doorman.

CREAMY CHIPOTLE SAUCE

That’s right. Cream. Chipotle to keep the palette fiesta going strong. And sauce to make this scrumptious. The recipe I used is HERE.

The recipe calls for the “cream” to be European-style yogurt or Mexican crema. Unless the European-style yogurt is of 19th century Spanish origin, I’d have none of it. I wanted authenticity, and our local and awesome H-E-B stocks Mexican crema. It’s about three feet to the right of the Hill Country brand, 128-ounce satchel of shredded Colby Jack cheese.

Despite its slight kick in the throat from the chipotles in adobo, it mercifully softens the tightening, noose-like effect of the relish. So: good-cop-bad-cop. But you’re still gonna be crying mommy.

Toast the baguette under the broiler, and skip any additional cheese. The Mexican crema serves a dual purpose.

Add sides like butternut squash and organic beets as urban sophisticates to your brutish entree, and you are good to go. Time to get more bad guys. And ugly ones, too.

As an alternate to the hot jalapeño relish, try my Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa.

How “spaghetti-western” food differs from other food

Why does there need to be a “spaghetti-western cuisine,” anyway? Aren’t there enough food choices out there already? Furthermore, isn’t this a bit too niche: hungry gunslingers? Well, I’ll concede that latter point, because most hungry gunslingers either died a violent death 150 years ago or are aging conservative Hollywood actors who live off lime jello and cottage cheese. So, yes.

But, if you look at Instagram, there is a glut of food but absolutely NO choice for NextGen gunners. Say: gamers. We’re talking serious scale here.

Instagram has a cacophonous display of food (as it does with architecture, thatched-roof hotel huts over crystal waters or big-breasted Slavic women). How Instagrammers get people’s attention is using hashtags and obscenely beautiful photography and now video. The photos and videos don’t display how we live. Rather, they underscore how little we have. They are market-makers. I’m here to fill a hungry market. A market with a hole in its stomach. I’m on a mission of mercy.

According to Hootsuite, the most popular hashtags have little to do with these images. I find consolation in knowing that the #1 hashtag is “love.” I don’t know what “#instagood” means.

Back to food and “spaghetti-western.”

I won’t even go into all the food photographs. Anyone on Instagram has seen everything from the seven-patty hamburgers with American cheese dripping over the side — who’s gonna actually eat that?! — to the white-plated anorexic portion of wagyu beef on thin toasted bread, a bite that cost the Instagrammer “120$,” but was “so worth it.”

Really?!

Have you a hearty meal draining your kid’s 529 College Fund.

“Texas Takes on Italian Classics”

Spaghetti-Western Food — what I also call “Texas Takes on Italian Classics” — is a fusion of comfort-food and rustic Italian food, mostly southern Italian but also some northern. An homage to what puts meat on our bones — meat that a gunslinger needs to keep slinging guns, whether in Dead Man’s Gulch or Palermo — and Italian cooking that’s been passed down through the generations.

Chicken-fried chicken parmesan was another example. I made a tiramisù, but it was traditional. No gunslinger whom I’ve met would eat something with “lady fingers” in it. The “Texas-take” on that would be to substitute tequila for the cognac.

And of course there are Texas items we can put on pizza or over pasta, but we need to tread lightly there. We’re tip-toeing around tradition. No brisket or salsa as such on a pizza, and definitely not Velveeta. That deserves a showdown at dawn. Jalapeños? Yeah. Venison sausage? Sure. Especially in a ragout.

The fusion also blends the Texan “sovereign swagger” and the “bigger-is-better” ethos with the Italian stability of two thousand years of culture and European dominance. A Dallas Cowboy running back father mated with a woman identifying as a Roman centurion.

And because of an innate “manifest destiny” of the Lone Star State and its residents, don’t be surprised if you see Italian tradition on four wheels driving into a town near you.