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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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?!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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?!
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.
“You’ll swim and swim and swim,” he told us at the beginning. “And then you’ll swim some more.” That was Art Hawkins describing the legendary “Flotsam & Jetsam” 1-mile ocean swimming race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.
In case you’re not familiar with Point O’ Woods, a private community — a legal corporation, actually — then you are also not familiar with the “Flotsam & Jetsam” race. Usually not found as separate words, like “Did you see that flotsam coming from the wreck of the S.S. Minnow?” or “We don’t need that chum; it’s soon to be jetsam,” flotsam and jetsam are basically the crap you see floating in the ocean, which could be the floating remnants of a sunk vessel or jettisoned rubbish, like styrofoam cups, which both float after a shipwreck and also form really effective jetsam. (In fact, white styrofoam cups are such effective flotsam AND jetsam that there should be an international campaign to replace all current flotsam and jetsam with white styrofoam cups. Preferably the white styrofoam cups that contained nasty coffee and had a brown plastic stir straw that was unintentionally and inevitably hit, knocking over said white styrofoam cup and spilling coffee onto table and splashing over “Jake,” the 250-pound boatswain who is likely to make you into flotsam and jetsam. (Again, please note: words used together, not separately.)
History of the Flotsam + Jetsam race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island
I switched here to the use of the “+” between the two words, because the early logo contained a plus sign, signifying safety (like the red cross).
In fact, that was what the race was originally designed for: promoting ocean safety. I won’t go into too many details about its history, because an essay in a book on Point O’ Woods’ 100th anniversary describes it better. It describes it better, because its author was me after researching it extensively. I’m not that “me” anymore.
Over the years, men and women have competed to have their names engraved on the silver trophy. Top man, top woman and now, I assume “Top ___” (however one identifies). I am considering going back this summer and tell them I now identify as “The Flotsam + Jetsam Winner.”
Everyone else can go play tennis.
After the win
I won the race the first or second time I entered.
Of course, it wasn’t really a fair fight, since I was in my 20s and doing triathlons regularly. I was competing against, mostly Wall Street bond salesmen whose generous torsos made them ideal flotsam. (Shoot! There I go… I used one of the words by itself.)
The year I won, my main competitor was my mate, Dave. He had done more triathlons, was in better shape, and pretty much could beat me in any physical sport. The one thing I had on him was underhandedness.
When you swim, you can employ same- or alternate-side breathing. Same-side swimmers usually breathe on the fourth stroke. Alternate-side swimmers do so on the third stroke. This does a couple things: gives us more oxygen per four strokes and also helps us “steer” better in long distances where one doesn’t have the benefit of pool markings to look down at. Breaths every third stroke balance out our trajectory, but in either case you have to occasionally breathe and look directly ahead to confirm your bearings.
It also helps in one other manner. And this manner is also where underhandedness comes in.
Dave breathed on his right side only. I was an alternate-side breather.
So I allowed myself to trail just behind him, letting him set the pace and perhaps wear himself out. About 100 yards from the finish (as far as I could tell in an ocean setting and half-looking at Mr. Hawkins at the shore’s edge with an air horn to blow for the winner), I pulled up to Dave’s left side. His blind side. I was between Dave and the shore.
He may have looked over at me a bit later, but at that point, I’d pulled far enough ahead on his blind side that I crossed the finish line comfortably and heard the air horn.
For participating and completing the race, everyone got a cloth patch to sew onto one’s bathing suit: An “F+J” patch that, I must say, was quite an honor. It wasn’t one of today’s “everyone who plays tee ball gets a trophy.” It was “everyone who started and who I see coming out of the ocean after a mile–Congratulations for making it, here’s your patch.”
Deviled eggs and martinis
Up until perhaps the late 1970s, Point O’ Woods had a post-race tradition of all swimmers going back to the Main Beach and leisurely heading out to the sand bar — a little offshore and somewhat shallow at the time — and enjoying deviled eggs and martinis.
You read right.
Someone would bring a thermos or five of martinis, and someone else would bring some deviled eggs into the ocean to enjoy while standing on a sand bar.
This practice was ended some time before I became F+J club president in 1990. It didn’t end because I was sober (that happened only in 1994). Nor did it end because most Americans over the age of Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex not only didn’t eat deviled eggs but didn’t even know what deviled eggs were. It ended, my guess, due to a combination of other things.
It ended because the ocean bottom changed. The sandbar was largely eliminated, so that deviled egg eaters would have to place a half-egg with paprika into mouth, chew, breathe through nose and risk choking and drowning. People of the Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex generation certainly didn’t mind dying, of course. But they’d have rather died by a Kraut bullet at the Battle of the Bulge than a cooked egg white filled with mustard and mayonnaise. Cause of death? “Choked on soggy hors d’oeuvre.”
It ended also because younger people joining didn’t like martinis — this dislike, however, went through a renaissance in the 2000s, but by that time, young people no longer took swim lessons, so martinis were forever de-coupled from the Flotsam + Jetsam race — nor did they like deviled eggs, nor cigarettes-after-sex, which for some reason were considered harmful carcinogens. (Battle of the Bulge bullet is more harmful.) They had no idea who Cary Grant was.
Death by device
It ended because analog life was replaced by digital life.
Swimming is inherently analog: You can’t have a device with you while swimming, the exceptions being a cocktail glass, toothpick for olive, and two fingers to grab the egg, and that’s only after the formal swimming part. Swimming is inherently analog: You do it with friends; you swim on their blind side for the win and then the shoreline hug, when you hear: “You sly dog, you!” A tired but intimate smile.
You do it and focus on nothing but breathing and good technique.
You don’t even think about winning.
You don’t even think about martinis and deviled eggs.
You think, if you think at all, about swimming and swimming and swimming. And swimming some more.