But where is Vega?

My morning routine, when done “right,” starts with a cup of coffee out back and under the stars if it’s the right time of year. Wrong time of year and it’s either too cold or the sunrise doesn’t align with the my-rise. I take a chair from the porch–one of those white plastic armchair jobs you might find at your local pool–and move it into the yard, far enough out from the house so it feels like the invisible roofline doesn’t extend over my head and far enough from the neighbor’s tree to the left to avoid feeling hemmed in. I feel exposed there underneath that what-is-it?-ness, and that feels good. And “good” not in terms of comfort; rather, quite the opposite. The moon is waning toward a new moon on Saturday, so its light at my back is still bright enough to cast a faint shadow from me onto the grass yet dim enough to allow that shadow to be whatever fear my mind might conjure it to be. We have a black cat, and typically all three cats are raring to get outside when I get up. The black one, Bucket, stations himself just outside our bedroom each morning, and when I crack the door and move my right foot forward, he wheels around without looking up and heads for the backdoor, just to the left in the living room. (Frankly, I think he’s reached a point of taking me for granted, which cats are wont to do.) So he’s the color of a shadow, but only darker. His midnight-purple fur absorbs the light, as might a black hole. Outside, and as I shift slightly with my coffee, seated in that white plastic porch chair, I notice out of the corner of my eye–don’t ask me whether its rods or cones that afford me night vision; I always have to Google it and have yet to assign a heuristic to distinguish them; please drop a comment if you have a good one–I notice a shape also moving slightly. I don’t catch on that the movements are synced. The shadow is dark, and so is my cat and so is a skunk because, frankly, at my age either an eye rod or cone may have decided to sleep in and not help me determine whether I’ll have my leg brushed up against by Bucket or spend the rest of the day in a tomato juice bath. (That simple solution wasn’t what was required, by the way, when our chocolate lab, Leo, was sprayed last year. It was a combination of Dawn dish detergent and like baking soda and something else, or some such concoction. I know it was three things mixed together. And who keeps even one jar of tomato juice in their fridge, after all, let alone a sink or bathtub full?! But back to having coffee under the stars.) I sit there and wonder if Bucket is a skunk or is even there at all. So I “pss-pss-pss” the way one does with cats–as if there’s some magic to that primitive call; but we all know that “pss” substitutes for a cat’s name regardless of its identity, because names are meaningless to them; in fact their name for each of us is as generic. It’s “piss off, yourself. I’ll come when I want affection. Not before, not after.”–I do that universal cat name sound, and then I take my leg and kind of swirl it gently around the area of the shadow to see if Bucket is there. I do that while telling myself that I’m trying to rub his back with my foot. But if he were there, which he isn’t, I’d actually be kicking him in his face. But I do that because it might be a skunk and I don’t want a skunk anywhere near me–half invisible because of the mediocre work of my rods and my cones. Yet that would have been an unwise thing to do with my foot anyway because of the whole day-spent-in-a-bathtub-of-tomato-juice-and-HEB’s-closed-now-anyway. But I do that to feel less exposed sitting in that chair as if before a firing squad–does one ever get to sit during executions, or is it always standing or lying?

I get up out of the chair and look up.

Navy blue with pin pricks.

The waning moon is to the southeast, and Orion is due south at almost eleven o’clock on an imaginary overhead arc. It requires me to tilt my head back at an angle at which I can’t drink coffee with enough confidence that I won’t pour it down the front of my hoodie. I hold my left hand, the one not holding my coffee cup–do you do that, too? Hold your coffee cup with the same hand because after a few decades of holding your coffee cup, it would almost be as unnatural as writing with your untrained hand?–I hold my left hand at arm’s length and, with one eye shut, I raise my forefinger up against Orion’s belt. It fits neatly within the outer two stars, obscuring only the middle star (planet? cluster? galaxy?). I start to wonder what cataclysmic event would have to happen that, at a distance these stars are from us, the left and right stars would travel even slightly toward or away from that middle star. I decide, standing there, that once inside and before writing to you I might Google–again with the free advertising–how far the left star is from us and how far the middle is and, using my A+ in 9th grade geometry, I’d determine how long it might take for the left star to travel to that middle star. I remind myself that the three stars constituting Orion’s belt are vastly different distances from us, and I’d spend the better part of the workday trying to solve this math problem, becoming more knowledgeable but also more unemployed. I remind myself that the whole purpose of coming out here first thing in the morning with coffee only, no phone, is to connect to the Maker of those pin pricks around me. I conduct this connection half mindlessly. I don’t really think about the Creator, to be honest. I simply enjoy where I’m standing. Standing there both mindlesssly and also incredibly aware. I figure that such mindless awareness is itself an acknowledgement that there is a God outside me.

So I realize that the left-hand star might be millions of light years closer than the middle star and that I might have no easy way to determine how long it would take for it to meet the middle star in this pre-dawn sky. And when I put my mind to determining such things, I realize that I’m aware and focused on placing myself within this reality around us. For a moment, I forget about Bucket and skunks and tomato juice. I forget about the lights from the houses behind me now as I look over ours; I forget about the dark smudges of live oak trees or the pickup truck that turns from its side street same time each day and drives deeper into the development (because I’ve already witnessed that somewhat foreign-to-the-dark-and-still-silence event). I forget about those things, and I start to wonder about where Lyra is. Where’s Vega; its anchor? It’s the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere. I can see that through the branches of the neighbor’s tree is Jupiter. Compared to my forefinger at arm’s length, it’s practically the size of a pinhead. “How many angels,” you ask, “can dance on the head of a pin?”

Tell me please, if you find out.

My prediction for car names in 2050

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 distance to 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:

King Midget Model III. You absolutely know this guy is British.
  • 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.

Trilobite

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…)

The Saunter

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.

Like those made by a master Artist

“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.

Wags rips a yuppie a new one.

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.

Like a mosaic created by a master Artist.

Mangoes, taxi drivers and God

The bats were out again this morning. Around 6:15am. Until recently, I was a bit put out by them. Strike that: I was a bit repulsed by them. I didn’t like them. But then I learned that bats pollinate fruits like bananas and mangoes. I’m agnostic regarding their involvement with the latter, which are hard as hell to cut and make edible, but I am — as I’m sure most of us are — grateful for the banana side of its deployment. And I also learned that we and bats and whales might share a common ancestor from millions of years ago. Yep. Depending on your stance on evolution, we hang out at the same get-togethers on Thanksgiving Day.

In the same breath, I’ll add this: I am as comfortable believing I evolved from a billion years-old protoplasmic blob on Earth’s surface as I am that I came from a 59-year-old blob inside my mother’s womb. Both are miraculous; both are life; both are sacred to me. My and others’ lives and the health of Earth are mine to steward. That is what I believe. ‘Nuff said.

This reminds me of a story.

Shortly after moving to New York from Lubbock in 1995, Karen was riding in a cab with a driver whose name was Nufsed (pronounced NUFF-sedd). She knew what his name was because every yellow taxi in the city must display within view of the passenger an ID plaque with the driver’s name and Taxi and Limousine Commission license number. She being the friendly Texan, she starts talking with “Nufsed,” and because it seems Nufsed is struggling with something in his life, she steers the conversation toward spiritual matters. They reach her destination and she wishes him well and vice versa. A week or two later, she gets in a cab to go somewhere else. (She had not yet realized that real New Yorkers take the subway everywhere, not cabs, but then she hadn’t met me yet, nor had she benefited from my extensive knowledge of the subway system. In fact, she often joked with people while we lived there that the main reason she married me was for my knowledge of the subway system. Now living in Kerrville, Texas, which doesn’t enjoy the benefits of the New York City subway system nor my knowledge of same, I am rendered mostly useless except for my ability to make a decent chicken fettuccine alfredo.)

But back to the story.

As I said, a week or two later Karen took another cab ride — eschewing the subway — and lo and behold the driver was Nufsed! Now, you have to realize that as many yellow taxis that you already think you see in shows involving New York City, that apparent ubiquity is probably under-represented. There are more than 13,000 yellow cabs shuttling fake New Yorkers from one place to another at a cost of $0.50 for every ten feet. More recently, add to that number another 9,000 “Black Cars,” which is the term used for Uber and Lyft drivers and the like. So Karen got in the cab and greeted Nufsed, and he remembered her as well, even though riders are not required to display an ID tag. (Ba-dum-dum. “I’m here all week, folks.”)

You have probably already have guessed that this kind of thing “just doesn’t happen.” Until it does. It’s so unlikely to happen that as many years as I spent in New York, and as capable as I am of remembering faces and names — that’s what essentially I’ve been paid to do for more than a quarter century — what happened to Karen has never happened to me. (Yes, I did take the occasional cab or two.) All I can conclude is that whatever spiritual matters they discussed were matters that, if I know Karen as I do, they are things that Nufsed needed to hear and things that might well have given him new hope in life. New reason to believe he is loved. Their meeting again was no accident, but it can’t be explained.

So I don’t like bats. Or didn’t so much until I remembered their usefulness in consuming mosquitoes that otherwise might have been vexing me. Or until I learned that they cause bananas to be in my life or until I learned that whales and dogs are in my life because of our common ancestor. I like whales and dogs a lot.

So I don’t like bats that much today any more than I like the distant and pimple-covered cousin who, on that large family Thanksgiving Day, stations himself at the far end of the food table eating most of the guacamole and even double dips. (This is Texas. Use your appetizer of choice.) This distant cousin, however, is also the one who volunteers to clean the kitchen later that day, when the rest of us are falling asleep in front of the Cowboys-Giants game on TV.

But I’m big on miracles. I’m big on not knowing how it was that Nufsed and Karen crossed paths a second time in a way that “just doesn’t happen.” I’m big on not knowing how it is that, as my belief goes, all living creatures evolved from an ancient blob in the same way I myself grew from a more-recent blob. (I do also believe, however, that one human’s origin may have been only half-blobulous.) I’m big on mystery, because it is Mystery that breaths faith into my waking moments.

It is said, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I believe that. But today I believe it in a new way, because of bats and because of Nufsed.

I used to think that the “evidence” was certain prescribed beliefs that I grabbed onto like a life-preserver and that underscored the truth of what I could not see, which was the existence of God. The life-preserver was tangible, it floated and I could grab it and hold it under my chest and stay alive until rescued by a search team from Bora Bora. The life preserver didn’t work for the person next to me, mind you, but it worked for me and my minimum survival, thank-you-very-much-now-fuck-off.

Today I believe that the “evidence” is mystery itself — the “things not seen” — that provides me reason to have and live out faith. That I can’t explain why Nufsed and Karen met twice. That I find it completely compatible, philosophically, biologically and theologically, that I came from two different kinds of blobs, as did bats, whales and dogs. Each creature — except perhaps for the aforementioned Half-Blobulous One — came from an initial blob and a secondary blob as it started its journey toward waking consciousness. That’s what I believe, at least.

The more mystery I encounter, the more mystery that arises one day that science explains the next day and which is then supplanted by new mystery, new science, and is again supplanted the following day…the more that that dynamic repeats each day that I live, the more faith I have that the original blob I came from has blossomed into something so beautiful, so marvelous, so unbelievable — so increasingly Mysterious — that today I have indisputable evidence that I will never have an answer to it other than to declare: “God.”

[PHOTO: Phys.org]

“AYTCH”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there are so few decent Howards in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

Mom could be like that.

Gambusia Affinis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Siri says”

Fernando Llano/Associated Press

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

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

Whatever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stars join the dance in a supporting role.

They come in from stage north.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again with the kilometers.

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

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

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

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

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

But I’m still stumped.

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

It’s a yogurt, silly :))

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve had a new cultural shift.

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

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

Bug juice

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

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

This brought out one’s lesser angels.

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

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

Camp Carolina was for only the robust of soul.

Splurging on a Tuesday night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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