The space heater is on the higher of two settings and is about five feet away on the floor and exhaling — exhaling only — toward me under the desk. It is slightly unpleasant.
I stretch my neck and lean forward to look over my computer screen at it. Black, it’s shaped like a decapitated pyramid. If it was moving, its vent would be a hypnotic spiral.
It’s been raining this morning, so my normal ritual under the stars was abbreviated to a standoffish admiration from the back porch. To the left, watching our black cat consider its next steps. Listening to heavy drops hit something metallic at the house to my right. Not original drops; drops, rather, that had already fallen and were falling again from roof or gutter onto an aluminum surface of some kind.
How many times does a drop drop?
I’m in flannel pajama bottoms as I start to work, which was about an hour or more ago. My t-shirt is one that I wear every morning. I wash it occasionally. It and my other morning t-shirts are perfectly normal shirts — it’s not like they have profanity or naked ladies printed on them — but I wouldn’t wear them in public. It’d be like wearing underwear to shop for groceries.
And yet, I can work like this, at least for a little while. I can certainly write like this.
I could probably write while naked and maybe one day soon I will.
Monarch butterflies land on branches at Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. On Thursday, July 21, 2022, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said migrating monarch butterflies have moved closer to extinction in the past decade – prompting scientists to officially designate them as “endangered.” (AP Photo/Nic Coury, File)
In the fall of 1972 or 1973, when I was 9 or 10, the monarch butterflies were making their way to Mexico. I was fortunate enough to see the daytime sky as densely dotted with them, it seems, as with the stars at night out at our beach house on Fire Island, New York.
I remember it was cold. Cold and rainy. This made each monarch’s air travel much like flying a 3-inch wet Kleenex. For, you see, the monarch butterfly itself is the small creature carried along on those wings, not the wings themselves. We see the latter, but it is the former that must make the long journey.
One morning I awoke and went to the beach. Wearing corduroy pants and a cable knit sweater Mom had made, with a matching one for my younger brother, Jim. I probably wore a white turtleneck. The shirt was probably clean, since Mom kept it that way despite young boys’ proclivities to soil them making forts or fighting off enemies with imaginary guns or tree branches for broad swords. Jim might have even been with me.
As the previous day’s sky had been speckled with these marvelous creatures, so now the beach on this drizzly morning was littered with those orange and brown wings. Some still attached, some detached or tattered.
I walked along and grew sad. I picked up four butterflies that were intact and seemed like maybe they were just knocked unconscious. I carefully transported them — I don’t recall how — and then placed them on the ledge of our second-floor balcony, facing the sun in the south and shielded from the stiff north wind. I monitored them. Waiting for their wings to dry so they could journey on.
The next day, I checked the ledge and three of the four were missing. “They must have dried and flown away,” I told myself.
Mom helped me identify and then write to the Fire Island National Seashore office and report to whichever man was in charge that I had successfully rescued three monarch butterflies from the recent storm, even though I’d lost one. I don’t recall if he wrote back. I do recall that I was still sad about that one.
I wrote up that story as an article for the first edition of a newsletter I’d launch the next spring. The publication had articles (news and also features), poetry and cartoons I had lifted from Highlights Magazine. I offered it to subscribers, and my grandmother became its sole patron. Not enough, I’m sorry to report, to keep it in the black, so I had to shutter it a month later.
The homeowners’ association where we live here in the Texas Hill Country has created a small monarch butterfly “layover station,” for lack of a better phrase. It’s a split-rail enclosed area of probably 75 feet by 35 feet not far from the main road leading into the development. Karen and I often remark that we wished it was a dog run.
Perhaps what little allure it holds for me is about potential, not actual.
The temperature this morning was cool-your-coffee-quick degrees when I stepped outside to have those first precious sips. “First precious sips.” I feel that same routine first-ness when I finish reading in bed at night. I set my book down, get up, pull the bottom sheet up and over the top of the mattress — I absolutely hate sleeping on wrinkled sheets (“Ok, Mr. Princess And The Pea”) — and then crawl under the covers. I lie on my back — though I almost never sleep that way, or at least don’t sleep well that way — and let out a sigh. Really, it’s a sigh. Sigh. Such a beautiful word. Almost onomatopoeic. I notice that onomatopoeic has not only a lot of vowels, but it also has all the vowels except a “u.” (It also doesn’t have a “y,” but Y’s are like thumbs. They’re vowels but not vowels.) So I decided to do a little research — that decision was a moment ago; I’m a long way off from sighing in bed, and my coffee is fucking cold by now — and Googled “words with all of the vowels.” Here’s what I got:
“The Guinness Book of World Records” is now simply “Guinness World Records” online. It changed names in 1999. Heading toward Y2K, while most people feared the sudden collapse of technology, Guinness leaned in. Books became dinosaurs. Except that Caitlyn Jenner, nee Bruce Jenner, will write an actual book, it will be sold at Barnes & Noble, and people will come and have their physical copy signed and perhaps shake Caitlyn’s hand, which will crush the reader’s from having thrown so many shotputs and hurled so many discuses. It will be ok. Because if violence is threatened, Caitlyn can hide in either bathroom. Sorry: low blow. As it were.
But I do want to go back now to those words.
Eunoia. This is a beautiful word. First of all, it actually is beautiful. It comprises the Greek “eu” (beautiful) + “noia” (thought) and can refer to the goodwill between a speaker and her/his audience. (Again, Caitlyn has a distinct advantage here. OK; last time. Promise.) You pronounce it “yoo-NOY-uh.”
The only other real word in this list that we all use is sequoia. The rest of those words above are for professors who live celibate lives, and not by choice.
For example, if you Google “adoulie meaning,” you will get a list of sites that let you know what andouille sausage is. Seriously. If, at the end of this post you are not disgusted, click there and see for yourself.
“Miaoued” means meow’ed, like what a cat does. I am totally serious. Look it up. Its synonym apparently is “miaow.” We all know that both of those spellings for meow — which has fewer letters and is, after all, the choice of writers on a budget — have been created by professors at Ivy League schools to justify their Endowed Chair Of Stick-Up-The-Butt. And while “meow” is a cat sound and onomatopoeic, “miaou” is the sound of a professor teaching a class on cat sounds.
Moineau is French. Look it up. It doesn’t count. Why Google includes it shows that Silicon Valley is going socialist. Why Guinness includes it explains why it no longer has a spine.
Suoidea. This will require my naked contempt. DON’T GOOGLE THIS YET. It is a word from vertebrate zoology — danger already — and means “A superfamily of artiodactyls of the suborder of Paleodonta which includes”…wait for it…
And since Suoidea is a type of “superfamily” — “Look at me! I’m a pig, and I live in a superfamily! Whoopee!” — there’s no singular identity within the word. I can’t say I’m a “suoid.” I can say I am suoidean — piglike. I can even say I am from the land of Suoideania — a farm. I can say I like to eat Suoideanese food: trough scraps. Or that my art is suoideanesque.
Sometimes, beautiful words have ugly meanings. Other times, while rare, ugly words have beautiful meanings.
Let me tell you: it hurt a lot more than the photo might suggest. Sometimes the smallest injuries, like a paper cut, can rival the agony of being riddled with bullets like Sonny Corleone (James Caan) in The Godfather. After all, Sonny died, albeit after convulsing in the driver’s seat, through the front passenger door, then up against the side of his twelve-cylinder Lincoln Continental. So, after some production value on the New Jersey Turnpike, Sonny dies, goes back to his trailer on the Paramount Pictures lot, and has a double whiskey and a cigarette.
This was worse than that. By far.
It was a cooking accident. As are all mishaps in the kitchen. They’re “accidents.” And by definition they’re silly. I was making what turned out to be an epic meal.
I’m zipping around the kitchen finishing the appetizer in the Traeger while also checking on the roasted potatoes and trying to time them with the meatloaf, which still needs the glaze and another 15-20 minutes in the oven after that. The green beans and chipotle corn are canned, so I can heat those later on the stovetop. The potatoes are getting dry so they come out. I want to tent them so I can throw them back in the oven until the meatloaf, which is taking way too long, is done. (Remember, it isn’t “done” until it has the glaze baked on. The recipe says the glaze is to die for.)
I will need some aluminum foil. It’s where I store all my wraps/foils/etc., in a lower cabinet in the pantry. (I call it “the cupboard,” but Karen corrects me and says it’s a pantry. I think of “pantry” as a small room, something a realtor might include in a listing, while a cupboard might be small enough for only a pre-schooler or a hungry small dog to hide in. In that same category of misnamed objects and domiciled areas, I still call it a “bureau;” Karen says “dresser.” I’m right, of course, because this is my blog and that’s how I roll.)
So I yank out the aluminum foil–Texas Tough brand from H-E-B–but along with it comes a box of Glad plastic wrap.
You can probably see in the photo to the right that Glad conveniently includes a small tree saw with teeth not unlike those of a great white shark. When I’m putting away leftovers, I always use Glad Press’N Seal, which works so much better than plastic wrap. I use the plastic wrap primarily for the box it comes in and for this small saw, which doesn’t actually cut through the plastic wrap but does allow me to trim back the sage bush behind the house.
So the Glad Bush Saw comes falling out of the cupboard along with the aluminum foil and somehow–it happened so fast, like getting T-boned at an intersection, except people walk away from those “accidents” all the time; just ask my son: he rolled our Hyundai Santa Fe three times after getting hit in front of Papa John’s/Brew Dawgz and literally walked away without a scratch (true story; it was a miracle)–somehow I attempt to keep both foil and Shark Teeth Bush Saw from falling onto the floor and to do so I must have grabbed the saw in my left hand and also tried to push it up with my left knee at the same time while going for the aluminum foil with my right.
The combined effect of my left knee pushing and my left hand grabbing was that I thrust my forefinger along the triple row of teeth of a Great White Shark which, let’s face it, “Jaws” Captain Quint would attest–had he not been eaten–that it did not hurt nearly so much as my cut did. Quint actor Robert Shaw, too, went back to his trailer after he dies a gruesome death and splits a six pack with Caan, who’s already finished off a bottle of Cutty Sark. The two of them talk about directors, starlets and why Shaw didn’t beat out Duvall for the role of Corleone consigliere. Shaw is getting hot under the collar, but Caan shrugs him off saying, “Look, Bob, at least you have a shot at the sequel as a crime boss. I’m toast for the whole trilogy.”
So I grunt a low-throated “Ow!” because at my age, even while wearing a (manly chef’s) apron, you don’t scream or emit any high-pitched noise that might indicate that this actually hurt. Which it did. Like a motherfucker. It was the dignified yell of a black-hat gunslinger finally caught at the business end of the Dodge City sheriff’s rifle getting shot, falling off his horse and saying, “Ahh! Ya got me!”
“WHAT?!” Karen shrieked from the other room. (Because the women in Dodge City always “shriek,” even to this day.)
I went over to the sink and put my finger under the cool Texas water that we pay dearly for except the adjacent Comanche Trace Golf Course which buys its water from a very wealthy lady who owns the groundwater rights so golfers get free water all the time but we only get water if I pay my bill before the 5th of the month after the due date or I get a kindly written but clearly stated reminder that my vended water will be shut off by the 15th if the balance due is not remitted immediately by clicking here and they take all forms of payment except for Diner’s Club. (Does anyone still use Diner’s Club? My dad, a Madison Avenue advertising man, did. All the time.)
So I’m taking all that in–Diner’s Club, paying for water when golfers don’t, “cupboard” or “pantry” (although we all know it’s “cupboard”), and the inherent and schizophrenic bias for and against men named Robert getting cast in the Godfather saga–I’m taking all that in yet every time I move my finger out from the water it bleeds like a sunuvabitch, and my main thought is, “Please, God, let me not need stitches, because the meatloaf has at least another ten minutes at 375 before the glaze goes on.”
The “Gremlin” by AMC was a great Hot Wheels car. We’d set up parallel bendy orange tracks starting at the radiator in the living room–about shoulder height when we were in third grade–dropping down to the Persian carpeted floor and extending the length of our hallway. (How long was the hallway? Several Christmases’ and birthdays’ worth of Hot Wheels track long.)
These races between my brother and me weren’t about speed, though that certainly helped. They were about perseverance. Would the car go the distanceto win. Did that one car that was fastest right after my brother’s birthday in September get a slightly bent axle over the next couple months, giving me the edge on December 25.
My Gremlin Hot Wheels would win. A lot. Beating almost every 2-inch challenger.
And that’s where the comparison between Hot Wheels cars and real ones ends.
Most of us never would have bought the real Gremlin automobile. I mean, even looking at the photo above, you go, “Cool!” But then immediately, “That would be such a cool Hot Wheels car.” ‘Fess up. That’s what you were thinking, too, right?
Invariably, they looked like this, or worse:
My theory — and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to theorize this — is that it was all in the name.
The last Gremlin produced was in 1978. But filmmakers knew a good thing when they saw it: why not leverage that to make “Gremlins” in 1984. When the movie came out, we all remembered what a crap car we either owned or almost did.
A lot of car names have come and gone. Here are some that, mercifully, have gone:
Horseless (absolutely real name; look it up)
OctoAuto (Spiderman’s foe on the New Jersey Turnpike)
Dymaxion (the car that was an early loser to Tesla)
Dauphine (much like its human counterpart, it ran on expensive Bordeaux wine, which during a dry season would make it undriveable the next year)
Model III, by King Midget
Aerobile (some consumers pronounced it with a long “i,” and they opted instead to buy a Dauphine, not realizing a drought was to hit southwestern France the following year)
the “Janus” is not a bad name but its maker has a clunker of a name: Zunndapp.
Morgan Plus 8 Propane (can be used for commuting or barbecuing.)
Iron Duke (not bad, but Mustang drivers always challenged you to a drag race and that quickly got old)
Multipla (which syllable gets emphasized?)
Biturbo (what the hell is this anyway)
We all have our favorite cars and names. I’d like to offer some of my own for manufacturers to start working on. After all, brand marketing starts at ideation.
The name was first used by Electrolux for the world’s first robotic vacuum cleaner but that appliance was phased out. Most robotic vacuum cleaners bump into one’s feet and don’t navigate around dog shit — look it up — and therefore have gone the way of the Gremlin.
Stapler Type Z
This sleek car is actually not meant to go anywhere. It is designed to sit in your driveway and make your neighbors envious. (Model in ballgown standing alongside only comes with the EX trim level, and she’s union so…)
Unlike the Stapler, the Saunter does go. But slowly. In fact, it’s designed for the occupants to enjoy their surroundings by being immersed in them. In its inimitable genius, Mercedes has designed a car that can actually ride along a beachfront boardwalk without breaking any local ordinances, allowing its driver and the person riding shotgun to step out at any point and get an ice cream or cotton candy. Or to ride the Merry-Go-Round. The Saunter’s maximum speed is 18MPH, the trunk has room only for a picnic basket and it does not come with a windshield or ABS brakes. In urban areas, it is allowed in dedicated bike lanes if those lanes are wide enough (which is never). It also rides well in planned communities.
There is no radio. Listen to the birds. Smell the roses.
“Shushi.” Pronounced SHOO-shee. That’s how my dad said it after he took a course in making sushi in…must-have-been 1990, 1991, 1992? Maybe it was as early as during my college years in the ’80s. I know it was at least a few years before he died. He was still generally in a good mood.
It was Dad who had taken me out for my very first sushi. Mid-80s. I’m pretty sure it was at Hiroshi Sushi on Third Avenue between 38th and 39th. I know it was just a block or so down from work, and it was quite near the Irish bar on the corner — now a TD Bank — where my colleagues and I went on Fridays for lunch, have corned beef and cabbage and three mugs of beer ($1 each), and then I’d go back to work and put my head on my desk for an hour or so. I could do that; my office door didn’t have a window.
Dad brought me into Hiroshi Sushi and we walked toward the back. If it’s the same place, the thin corridor of dining room opened up into an alcove with skylights, and it gave you the feeling of being in New York City with its urban sheen but not its cacophony.
I already knew how to use chopsticks, of course — in New York especially, kids learn how to use chopsticks about the time they learn the difference between a Four In Hand and Half-Windsor knot — but he taught me about wasabi and ginger, where to lay my chopsticks when not eating, and also that if we were sitting at the sushi bar itself that I should pay attention to the sushi chef as he did his work, because it was special, almost sacred.
One summer while Mom, Jim and I were at our beach house, Dad took a course in making “shushi.” (Still to this day, I’ve never heard a single person pronounce it like that, and still to this day I wonder if his sushi teacher said it this way.)
He would make it at home, and he did a reasonably good job.
I must admit to you, Dear Reader, that just now I was looking up sushi terms to write a little more precisely — I have always loved good nomenclature since learning sailing terms as a teenager, and part of getting a skipper’s rank was a test on “nomenclature;” even “nomenclature” itself is cool nomenclature…but. Back to it. — I was looking up sushi terms and was reminded (Okay…I pretty much learned for the first time) that “sushi” refers to the seasoned rice itself, not necessarily the final product we’re served (with seaweed, rice, seafood or vegetables). In fact, if I’m going to be very vulnerable right now, I’ll admit that I thought “sashimi” was sushi without the seaweed — that sashimi was simply the fresh uncooked fish sitting on top of rice. Sashimi is in fact the fresh sliced fish all by its glorious self.
All that said, Dad did a pretty fair job of it. He was adventurous with eating. Not with everything, but with eating? Yes. He’d say, when anyone eating with him balked at trying something like salmon roe — which I still won’t eat — “Oh, c’mon! Live dangerously!”
“Live dangerously!” was always a tell that he was smiling inside. That he took great pride in his two sons and his daughters-in-law. That he was enjoying the company of anyone fortunate enough to dine with him.
It is said that people who enter a crowded room are one of two types. One type says, “Here I am!” The other type says, “There you are!” Dad was the latter.
After a while, Dad was neither.
Dad ended himself in 1998, and in looking back I recall that he hadn’t been doing much dangerous living in the kitchen. In his cooking heyday, in addition to sushi he’d have made various Middle Eastern dishes, most of which had no names, dubious ingredients, but were nevertheless quite tasty. He’d make pesto and freeze some of it in ice cube trays, so that when he needed it, he could pop out a block or three and add it to pasta. He always was delayed in getting dinner on the table. Mom would have to remind him to check the broiler for the Italian bread he was toasting: “My love! The BREAD!” The slightly burned loaf would emerge with blackened edges. Scrape, scrape, scrape.
At a certain point, it was he who did most of the cooking, not Mom, because Dad was at home a lot. He got fired when his firm went through a leveraged buyout and the new C-Suite men thought he wasn’t sanguine enough in his sales forecasts. He was a “realist” (his word), born in 1921 and growing up in the Depression and WWII, losing his mother when he was 9 and his father when he was 20, requiring that he quit college in his junior year so he could support his stepmother and three younger half-siblings. But the early Boomer ass-clowns now in charge of Dad’s company had experienced suffering no worse than whether the cuffs of their bellbottom pants got dirty. At the time, I hated them. I suppose I still do. A little.
I ask myself: should I remember Dad as someone whom I saw last as an inert corpse on his bed with an empty bottle of gin on a silver tray at his side and a clear plastic bag over his head; a farewell note nearby? Or should I remember him as the father who’d put me on his shoulders when I was four, wade out into the ocean to where we could both break through the crests of gentle waves after he’d remind me: “Hold your breath.” Should I remember him as dying alone and maybe afraid? (For who can know what went through his mind at the end.) Or should I remember him as someone who was nothing less than heroic in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s and 1960s and so on and so forth, as he became the mainstay of a family that extended over generations.
Well, Dear Reader, I have to remember him as all of that.
All of that at once, as we all get remembered, or at least as we should be, if those who remember us are being generous. For generosity, in time, is something we tend to outgrow or ignore. Or withhold.
The “worst” among us now were once children who shared an ice cream cone with the family dog. And the “best” among us then sometimes leave final impressions among their loved ones that become secreted away. Rarely discussed. Causing their wives to feel shame.
The contrasting and complementary decisions we make are like tiles placed alongside each other. Like those Dad placed around the edges of a cutting-board he made when I was ten.
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.
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.
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.