Make Pens Great Again

Although my mother brought me into the world when she was 18, my Mom first saw me when she was 38.

A generation laid between the two women.

Likewise, 23 years separated my biological father’s age and my 44-year-old Dad.

I had small-town military blood from both biological sides, going back two generations, yet I grew up on New York City’s Madison Avenue, where World War II veterans now faced off in battle over three-martini lunches.

Though I was programmed to go to college and never had a thought of enlisting, I did wrestle in high school, quite successfully so. I suppose that was the way I expressed my combat DNA during the rage of hormones. That said, I was horrible at fisticuffs and routinely got my ass kicked on the streets of 1970s Gotham and a few times in college, when I had decided to settle differences with two-legged takedowns while my opponents found the advantage with upper cuts.

Shortly after 9/11, when I had barely finished taking Hebrew during seminary — having got straight A’s — I figured I could put my expertise toward learning Arabic, another semitic language, and joining one of the U.S. intelligence agencies. The army told me that, at 37, I was too old to join. When the twin towers fell I had wept, my chest heaving uncontrollably. My next reaction was to fight back. Our middle son, celebrating his first birthday, buried his face into a chocolate cupcake, oblivious that the world around him was burning.

They say the pen is mightier than the sword.

These days, I wonder if that’s still true.

During this election cycle, the most violent in my lifetime, the “pen” has become the viral video, the tweet, the stump speech. The venomous Facebook post. (Mine included.) The skewed media analysis, both “right” and “left.” The pen no longer writes in a straight line according to the rules we learned in elementary school. It’s now a mere appendage of our emotions: it zigs and zags and scrapes and tears the page beneath it.

“Dementia” clashes with “Nazi.” Pregnant words miscarry their meaning, and we are left with hollow emojis: Anger face. Vomiting face. Face with skull exploding.

But those words and emojis aren’t pens or even “swords.” They’re daggers, switchblades wielded by thugs whose victims don’t see them coming. Or leaving.

Perhaps we’ll soon return to the patiently forged swords of “I yield my time back to the gentleman from ____” and “To The Editor:”

Perhaps on January 21.

Breathing slowly and steadily

The King Ranch Chicken Casserole was billed as a “mood enhancer” for “cold winter evenings.” I’m always game for a mood enhancer, and while it was a mild October evening, it was after all to be a “mood enhancer.”

And that was enough to cook it.

Growing up in New York City, we didn’t have “casseroles.” I was raised on apricot mousse, sushi, and nameless middle eastern dishes my father cooked after retirement. And of course Entenmann’s. You can get them at Walmart occasionally. Someone recently told me that the Moonies cult owned Entenmann’s. I’ve not verified that, but either way it has no effect on how tasty I remember their cherry cheese danish.

Anyway.

I don’t think I heard the word “casserole” until I went to college and dated a girl from upstate New York whose family had moved to North Carolina when she was 12. She was, by most measures, southern, and her family made casseroles. And, yes, I did have my first tuna casserole there. Her name was Carla, and her family was originally from Fulton, New York. One summer she and her family took me to Fulton, which lies north of Liverpool, New York. Liverpool, of course, is where you’d stop for a bite at Heids of Liverpool.

Coneys at Heids of Liverpool (New York)

You can try one of their “coneys,” which is like an albino sausage. Or you can have an amazing hot dog. But. You have to ask for a “frank,” not a “hot dog,” or it’s possible you won’t be served.

We stayed at her aunt’s home, which was across the street from a cremation service.

Back to the casserole.

I needed a mood enhancer.

I had been called a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer by two friends in the last week, most recently yesterday. One had gone further and said I might as well be marching with Hitler. Both freedom fighters were women, and both had known me for some time. One I’d known since college, and we’d had a brief romantic mood enhancement in the late ’80s. She decided some time later that she was a lesbian, and I’d like to believe there was no correlation. The other was a woman I’d known around 2008-2009, when we both had kids at P.S. 9 elementary school in New York City. We didn’t know each other long, but serving on the PTA together and standing in the schoolyard at 3:00 with other parents does have a way of creating the bond of neighbors at the same stage in life. Many of the parents from that time kept in touch through Facebook. We now know that Mark Zuckerberg puts the kibosh on what some people say but allows others, behind the safety of their keyboards, to launch verbal SCUD missiles at newly discovered targets.

My college friend has cut all ties with me. The other woman, the P.S. 9 one, may well have felt little connection with me to begin with. I had liked her, though, and my friend from college was one of my oldest friendships, excepting my five closest friends from adolescence and my younger brother. That one stung a bit.

With this election, it seems almost any relationship is up for grabs. Possibly even marriages.

“I wonder how ___ and ___ are doing,” I said casually to Karen last night in bed before we turned out the lights and when the two helpings of King Ranch Chicken Casserole had sufficiently enhanced my mood. My remark was more of a musing than a question and referred to a couple I’d known for decades.

“Yeah,” she said, “I wonder how they’re doing during this election.”

“I mean,” I went on, “he’s somewhat conservative and she’s progressive. Perhaps they’re like James Carville and Mary Matalin [the 1992 campaign managers for Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, respectively].”

I paused to consider. “Nah. Mary Matalin was more of a Bush-type Republican.”

My mood had by then developed a bit of an edge.

Since it was well past the time when I should go for a third helping of the casserole, I rested my left arm on our 90lb chocolate Labrador retriever, who was curled into a mound between Karen and me.

I moved my hand over his chest and kept it there: feeling his breathing, which was steady and slow.

In.

And out.

In.

And out.

In.

It’s enough

The Ford F-150 is doing just over 55MPH on Bandera Highway heading toward town, and I’m feeling the baritone noise of hot Texas air coming in through the driver’s side window and the angled quarter glass, because sometime after the truck’s purchase in 1988 the AC went out and the rancher who drove it before we got it in 2018 would probably have scoffed at spending hard-earned cash on a luxury like cold air in the summer or hot air in the winter. “What’s that?! Cash for something you can’t even see?” is probably what he’d tell me if I were to muse aloud to him.

The scene — me behind the wheel, right hand gripping at about one o’clock and left hand wrapped around the metal divider of the valence window — makes me think of riding in Poppa’s beige station wagon in Rhode Island in the late ’60s. He’d taught mom to drive, and mom had taught me in Tootsie’s Mercedes Benz. The Mercedes always at least a box or two of chocolate Carnation breakfast bars in the trunk that Tootsie would eat after a round of golf, but my younger brother and I would eat them on the down-low. After all, our grandparents were rich. Weren’t everyone’s?

Poppa drove the three miles from the house on Spencer Avenue in Warwick — the house with a backyard like a waterfall practically down to the bay — to the farm, which was technically in East Greenwich, just over the demarcation line (the thoroughfare appropriately named Division Street). On that brief ride, we’d pass the “ghost house” on the right. The story was that you could still hear the sword of a fallen Revolutionary War officer clank down the long staircase on some blustery winter nights. I could imagine it, with trepidation, and I didn’t have enough doubt about the veracity of this claim to not think that Poppa was pretty badass just to know this. If he’d had his way, Poppa’d be taking out that phantom with his .30-06. He one he used to bring down moose and bear in Canada. No 18th century rebel in threadbare leggings would be his match.

So we’d drive and I’d hear The Beatles, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” come on the radio. We’d listen to that 2-1/2-minute song, and when it was over, I’d still be leaning out of the front passenger window, my six-year-old frame almost half over the side, belting out the chorus:

I wanna hold your ha-aa-aaa-aaaand,
I wanna hold your haaaaaaaand!
I wanna hold your hand
!

And sometime after the tenth or so time repeating the same chorus into the New England summer wind, Poppa would reach over and gently pat my back.

Filterless Camel cigarette wobbling from his mouth, he’d say, “I think that’s enough.”

Enjoy responsibly

Yes, I created my own salsa.

I’m calling it “Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa,” and the consensus — that would be me, my wife, and my youngest son, a fellow foodie — gives it thumbs up.

Here’s how I got there and how you, too, can make it.


Why a salsa?

Over the years, visiting Texas has given me a true appreciation of salsa, both verde y roja. Pico de gallo…eh, not so much. Queso? Sure, but my stomach tomorrow shows my enjoyment today. Mamacita’s green “salsa”? You bet! But I made that once off a bootleg recipe I found online, and boy does it use a lot of garlic. And sour cream or cream cheese and whatever, so it was like having Zabar’s in my Mexican food.

More recently, I came across McKinney-based Bernard’s Gourmet Foods and its variety of Texas-made salsas, created by Chief Salsa Officer David Bernard, and well marketed by Michele Bernard.

I learned that their salsas don’t contain water or other ingredients (tomato paste) that are fillers. They roast their vegetables to add sweetness. My favorite is their tomatillo, which I made when I first moved to Texas.

So I set out to make my own.

Never figuring it would be difficult, since I kinda knew how things taste when smashed together, I set out to create a sauce to give you a kick in the back of the throat, rebounding into a great big smile on your lips.


What’s in a name?

My salsa is called, “Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa.”

“Salsa” is self evident. I mean, if I called it “Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Shoes,” most people wouldn’t eat it.

“Billy Dobbs” is a family name. In fact, it’s my family. In fact, it was part of my name at birth: “William Dobbs ____.” And “Billy Dobbs” almost sounds Texan. Or least Alabama, which is where my birth mother’s family hails from.

Now.

About “rough stock.”

You see, I couldn’t name it “Howard’s Salsa.” We’ve already established that. I could certainly create something like “Howard’s Real New York Bagels” or “Freeman Quick Falafel Mix,” or “Pizza by Howie, Yo.” Yeah. Those don’t really do it for me. (Though before long I’m gonna derive my own bagels, because you can’t get good ones here. Pizza is found at Home Slice in Austin.)

I wanted a name that would yell, “TEXAS!” And since I don’t have any Texas creds, I needed something to represent that for me.

What about something related to rodeos? Yeah! That was it. Rodeos.

So I Googled “rodeo terms.” Seriously. I did. Don’t tell anybody. And among those terms is “rough stock.”

This refers to the rodeo events that involve bucking horses and bulls.

Ram NCFR

What could be more rodeo than riding a bull or bucking bronco bareback and having to hold on by one hand, never being allowed to touch the animal with the other or face disqualification. (Hence the raised opposite arm.)

And so there you have it: Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa.

I’m unsure about the hyphenation of Billy and Dobbs and whether to put an apostrophe after Dobbs to indicate possession. But as I follow the Chicago Manual of Style (for the most part), I’d also have to add another “s” — Dobbs’s — and then people would all be slurring their words when saying the name. So much so that they’d be embarrassed that others would think they drank too much tequila the night before. See? It would be a total disaster.

That one extra “s.”


How it’s made

You’ve waited long enough.

Let me share the recipe and directions.

First, here is a look at my process: I took several recipes I’ve either used or which looked good and compared them on an Excel spreadhseet. (Yup, I seriously did that.)

My recipe and directions, in an Excel spreadsheet

Second, I removed any obviously non-salsa ingredients (e.g. bell peppers, after momentarily seeing that this was unique and therefore worthy of considering). I coded in yellow those items that I thought would taste good together, including one recipes use of sugar (I used Texas honey). I coded in green those items that appeared in all recipes, so that I would not overlook the basics. There were only three:

  • tomatoes
  • cilantro (not used in many salsa, oddly enough; it’s what gives salsa that “fresh” feel, like you could eat it for the entire Super Bowl)
  • salt
At H-E-B… Somehow the name “Frieda” doesn’t go. I had a landlady named Frieda. A converted Mormon.

Third, I had to put these together and add some things I thought would taste good. I also wanted to add some ingredients that would give this first go-round some real heat. So instead of serrano chiles accompanying the jalapeños, I used habanero chiles. I also left the seeds in both, so the kick was close to knock-out strength yet not overpowering.

H-E-B was selling Carolina Reaper and Ghost Peppers, but I thought I might not get repeat customers if I used those.

Fourth, an important step that I learned — referenced above about Bernard’s — is that I wanted to roast the tomatoes. So I did.

Below are the ingredients and recipe.




Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa. Batch #1.

INGREDIENTS – Yields 8-10 cu.

7 tomatoes, preferably vine-ripened, but Roma are ok, roasted

1 green tomato, roasted

1/2 red onion, diced

3 medium-sized habanero peppers, retain seeds, diced

2 jalapeño peppers, retain seeds, diced

2 garlic cloves, roasted then minced

cilantro, to taste, but no less than 1 cu.

juice and pulp of 2 limes

2 tsp real Texas honey

1 tsp cumin, and to taste

1/2 tsp cayenne, and to taste

3 tsp salt, and to taste

white pepper, to taste


DIRECTIONS

  1. Pre-heat oven to 450.
  2. (wash all vegetables).
  3. Remove garlic cloves from skin.
  4. Place tomatoes (green and red) and garlic on cookie sheet.
  5. Roast tomatoes (green and red) and garlic for 20-25 minutes, until slightly withered.
  6. While tomatoes are roasting, dice peppers and onion.
  7. Remove tomatoes and cool under cold water. Remove garlic.
  8. Remove tomato skins.
  9. Mince garlic.
  10. In blender or food processor on pulse setting, puree 2 tomatoes. (I might change this to a coarser setting next time; tomatoes came out a bit too runny.)
  11. Add peppers and garlic and continue pulse-puree until mixed. DON’T over-blend.
  12. Add remaining 6 tomatoes and 1/2 of your cilantro.
  13. Blend together.
  14. Add 1/2 your onions.
  15. On pulse-stir setting, mix together.
  16. Add remaining onion and cilantro and pulse-stir.
  17. Add spices, salt and pepper, and pulse-stir.
  18. Melt honey slightly to a runny consistency, and add.
  19. Add lime juice with pulp and more salt if needed.
  20. Pulse-stir. MAKE SURE NOT TO OVER-BLEND, or you will get homogenous red soup.
  21. Chill mixture for an hour or more.
  22. Keeping fire extinguisher nearby, enjoy responsibly.

Necessary partners

I swam yesterday at the Kroc Center.

There’s something about doing lap after lap — and the 25-yard length achieves this effect more than does a 50-yard pool — that brings the swimmer into something like a meditative trance.

Between breathing and the repetitive and — if done right — well-timed flip turns, every 11 strokes give or take, the body falls into a rhythm where the rhythm becomes one’s sole focus. Almost all but that rhythm is tuned out.

Breathe, stroke stroke stroke, breathe, stroke stroke stroke, breathe, stroke stroke stroke, breathe, stroke stroke; turn. SLAP! You feel your ankles and lower calves hit the water with a satisfying completion of one length.

Repeat for 100 yards, rest; then 200 yards, rest; then 400 yards, rest…

The lifeguards, rotating every 15 minutes, wear red one-pieces or shorts and have skin made golden by hours under the Texas sun. They are only kids — probably college students at the oldest. The manager is in his late 20s or early 30s. They watch me because they have to, but maybe they watch me extra closely thinking, “I wonder when this old guy is going to push himself too hard and I have to drag him out. I wonder how much he weighs.”

That thought vanishes as I concentrate on my breathing.

I’m out of shape. Or maybe I’m merely pushing myself to a place I’m out of shape for. I start to consider stopping short of the next yardage I’m trying to reach. But I relax and tell myself, “I love swimming; I love to see the water rush by my mouth as I turn my head to breath; I love to feel the water move beneath my body and watch my arms extend out in front of me.”

It’s an activity — swimming — that’s not mimicked anywhere else in my life. Walking, running, lifting weights, even push-ups and sit-ups, are all found elsewhere in some form. When in the water, one either treads water (also not mimicked anywhere), floats, sinks, or swims. Water and swimming are, at some point, necessary partners.

When finished with my desired laps, I get out of the pool and feel both the hot sun and also the promised fatigue in my arms and chest and back.

I dry off and walk toward the locker room, hoping my upper body leads the way while also self-consciously shielding my stomach with a towel. It is that part of me and everything attached to it that would justify a lifeguard’s earnings, and then some.

No title, just a dream

The corner of Schreiner and Hays Streets in Kerrville, Texas.

There’s a building–pictured above–that has been somewhat of a dream of mine.

Like most dreams–whether of people, places or things–it is unlikely to come to fruition. Not only because I lack the skill set to make it happen (“skill” including the capital) but also I don’t have the immediate motivation to create it as I do to dream aloud of it.

But unlike many other kinds of dreams, my pondering it, ruminating over it, letting my eyes caress the details of it, this dream seems to be a socially acceptable thing, and so I’ll write about it.

The lot is up for sale, at least it was until recently. When I passed by last week, I didn’t see the Brinkman Commercial sign on it. If it’s sold, my dream still holds.

Here are its features:

Artist’s rendering of new Broadway Bank building. SOURCE: The Daily Times
  • A corrugated metal structure, which I’d keep, though I could see it getting hotter-n-hell with the material heating up in the summer. There must have been a decent cooling system there before, so I’d leave that to the engineers and architects to figure out. All I know is that the corduroy effect is a pleasant one to my eye, and it’s not the ubiquitous limestone or sandstone.
    • Even the new Broadway Bank building on Main and Sidney Baker, though its smooth exterior emits a nice modern effect, has a homogenous beige façade that reflects the primary demographic of its account holders.
  • The east side, on the corner, has a ~20 x 10 foot slanted roof “shack” that appears snapped onto the larger building almost like a LEGO piece. Lacking much light, that would need to be remedied if it were to serve as the retail place I would hope it to be. More windows of course, but maybe even a large skylight, since the harsher afternoon light might be partly shielded by the main building, or could be designed to be.
  • The two sets of huge sliding doors on Hays must stay. They are fabulous.
  • There’s a dirt and scrub lot to the south–the left of the photo where the trees are.

What would this whole building and lot be used for?

It would be a coffee house/artists’ maker space/retail shop.

It’s a block away from the newly renovated H-E-B. It’s two blocks up and one over from Pint and Plow. Therefore, it’s within walking distance of other frequently visited locations.

I may be unfair in my distinction here, but describing locations as how many “blocks” away from each other they are is a pedestrian measurement system. Drivers measure distances in time: 1 minute, 5 minutes, “about a half hour” away. Time in a car means nothing to a pedestrian, who walks about 3.5 to 4 miles an hour (if brisk). I knew exactly how long it would take me to walk twenty blocks in New York City, and there was never any “traffic” to speak of. Even meandering clots of tourists didn’t require me to slow down or be fined for speeding in a Work Zone.

Granted, places like Fredericksburg have most of their walkable area on the main drag. But it seems that the city of Kerrville will be stymied for economic growth–not only by not having additional businesses here but also the accompanying population growth of younger families that bring vitality and tax dollars–until we string together more areas to which people can walk and walk between. Again, Fredericksburg has proven that people will walk around in Texas in the summer. Consumerism, after all, makes us do crazy shit.

The inside of my building there on Schreiner and Hays would feel open and airy on the inside. It would keep the trusses exposed and perhaps have large fans pulling the hot air up and out. Convection? I’m purely speculating here and throwing around multi-syllabic terms to sound more informed.

You enter off Hays, through those sliding doors, which are open most of the year and create additional air flow. Much like Pint and Plow, there is a bit of outdoor dining in front (along Hays), and then most dining and drinking happens inside. Maybe some happens in the lot, which is cleared out, with those cool-looking light bulbs hanging from trees strung across the area. Picnic benches allow us to enjoy the climate most of the year (like Pint and Plow or Hays City Store).

As you walk through the main inside area, off to the right (the west side of the building), there is an artists’ “maker space.” Here, artists of various kinds can paint, do metal work, sculpt, etc. Maybe there’s a plexiglass divider to cut down on noise. Or maybe there are times that quieter creation (painting, jewelry design) can be done during dining hours, and other art (metal work with welding, carpentry with table saws) that’s done after hours. That space is rented out.

The neighborhood is mostly commercial, but there are some residences, so to keep the nighttime noise level to a minimum its license for live music would be limited to acoustic.

The retail space on the corner would sell merchandise like Pint and Plow has, branded around the space. It would also sell some of the local art made on site. And, of course, it would sell what seems to most people as a square peg in a round hole but, for me, is an essential: snap shirts.

I know.

Seems a bit random.

But without the snap shirts, the whole project just doesn’t come together for me.

The return to Texas — Part 2: The “Wall”

I’ve decided to bring myself down to earth in this post, given my quasi-… no, my very real — if well-meaning — recent soapbox post, which always puts me in a position of standing too high up, wobbling as it were on a crate that was meant for carrying items rather than one man’s opinion.

I will tease myself.

Long ago, one of my relatives was playing Trivial Pursuit and the question came to him, “What man-made structure is 13,000 miles long, 30 feet wide and 20 feet tall?” The relative, probably distracted with something else like getting more beer and pretzels, but needing to give an answer said, “The business building at Harvard.”

This was not the correct answer.

The answer, I might have conjectured if I were in the room back then, is “The wall separating the U.S. and Mexico in 2020.”

This, too, is incorrect.

What’s worse is that I am usually pretty savvy about maps, topography, and having a sense of direction. I am my own best GPS. But with our trip back from Ruidoso to Kerrville, one of my reasons for taking the route we did was ostensibly to see part of “the wall.” This was not only unfulfilled but also was innocently — nawwww, c’mon: naïvely — conceived.

I lobbied successfully for the blue — and longest — route home.

As I mentioned last time, we had three routes we could have taken, and I lobbied successfully for the longest of the three.

Why, you ask?

Well, along this route, there appeared to be on Google Maps an unusual landmark/structure — not sure even what to call it — and it was this entity that was in part causing my intrigue.

You see it, don’t you?! Help me out here.

When I zoomed in on Google Maps, I saw the following land mass:

Well, you say, it’s obviously a mountain range, you north-easterner, you Yankee.

It didn’t seem so obvious to me at the time I decided to lobby for the longer route. I did the two-finger zoom-in on my phone and became convinced of my belief:

  1. The thick black line ran concurrent to the U.S.-Mexican border.
  2. The thick black line had a distinct start and finish.
  3. The thick black line appeared to have a sharp incline from north to south. Surely this was an indication of something vertical — like a wall! — that Google had to make slanted in order to show it at all.
  4. I swear I could make out on the southeast end a small guard tower and at least two armed border patrol agents eating lunch.

In short, it sure as hell looked like a man-made structure — like a wall!

‘Twas not.

Like the Great Wall of China, which is incorrectly said to be visible from space, so the U.S.-Mexico wall is no more visible from that height than is Cinderella’s Magic Kingdom Castle, or the Empire State Building, or even Cowboys Stadium. (Well, maybe that’s visible from space or, at least, that’s what folks say with conviction.)

Here is what I saw on Google Maps as we passed by what I thought would be two border patrol agents eating lunch in a guard tower:

Beautiful, as these things go, but definitely not a wall. No guard tower. No armed border patrol agents. No lunch.

The fake wall notwithstanding, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride along the border, and even the section of I-10 that followed. I thought that last part, which ran more than 450 miles along the Interstate, would be boring.

It was not, as there were plenty of aging and abandoned houses and old buildings, all of which would have made great photos were I allowed to stop. But I was not.

There was even the gas station where we filled up, took rest breaks, and where there was no employee to be found — it, too, seemed abandoned — so I took a soda and Snickers bar, waited for quite some time at the counter, even said, “Hellooooo!” a couple times, then left some cash on the counter and got back on I-10.

There is a certain romance in being a wanted man.

The return to Texas — Part 1: Mescalero

On Monday we drove the nine hours from Ruidoso, New Mexico, back to Kerrville.

The most direct route was of course how we’d driven there the previous Monday and was actually 8 hours and 22 minutes on paper (see here what I mean by “on paper” in a digital world), but I wanted to see another part of Texas, which would lead us down through the Mescalero Reservation, then skirt El Paso’s northeastern edge, and run along the U.S.-Mexico border for what appeared to be 20-30 miles before landing us back onto I-10 — one of the main arteries of American driving.

(I thought I-10 would be boring; I was wrong. But that’s for another post.)

So that’s what I wanted to do, and I proposed the alternate route to the family. But since the proposed drive was forty minutes longer than the most direct route — ten minutes longer than what I thought was an acceptable delta — I lied. I said that my detour — the reasons for which I explained as important to me, so at least I was candid when it came to my self-interest — would be only about “a half hour” difference.

Monday night at 9pm as we reached Junction, Texas, (we’d left Ruidoso about 10:30am and lost an hour crossing from Mountain to Central Time) about 70 minutes from home, my middle son complained that I had to stop for one final bathroom break. After I chided him for making a fuss over a half hour difference in routes (well, forty minutes…actually 38 minutes according to Google!), I also reminded him that he didn’t have the prostate of a 57-year-old man.

I was speaking into a gale.

London, Texas. A developer has purchased this building on the “main drag” (where there are no STOP signs) and plans to turn it into a boutique B&B.

My further intent with this route was to be able to perhaps snap off a few photos along the way. Lately I’ve become enamored of the sagging and even dead architecture and industrial matter one sees along roadsides and in decaying towns. Perhaps it makes one feel more alive: to see dead things.

Other than a pale rouge building in Ozona, Texas, with its windows busted out and some cream colored curtains blowing through them toward the street, like soft sobs over departed tenants — a building that didn’t take a good picture — other than that, I was locked to the steering wheel, and after about Hour 5 was often reminded of my detour. There even came a point when the three-member crew came near mutiny and claimed that I hadn’t asked their permission. This was patently false: when I lied about the longer route — because even writing here I call it a “detour” when in fact I like to think I was exposing everyone to an “additional exploration” on our return trip — taking 30 minutes longer (as apposed to 38-40) and asked them if I might take this route out of my own fascination — to wit, “to please consider indulging me” — each family member in his or her turn consented. There was a bit of grumbling, a bit of neutrality, even apathy, but consent they gave. I held them to that.

I’ll admit to being a bit of an ass about it, but since I’d arranged the whole trip and did most of the driving to and from and most of the cooking while there, I figured that my indulgent request was less a matter of gaining consensus than of exercising divine right. Operative word: “ass.”


The Mescalero Apache Territory, just south of Ruidoso, sits at 6,611 feet. I mention that because it felt like we were driving uphill for a while from Sudderth Boulevard and Route 70 in Ruidoso, where the altitude was 6,900. A couple of us admitted our ears were popping.

But this census-designated place — that’s a thing: “CDP” for short, meaning it’s a “place” only for the purposes of counting heads, of which there are about 1,400 — had gained some notoriety in the descriptions of it by my oldest son, who claimed that when white people ventured uninvited into that territory, there were reports of said whites being scalped.

I struck back, “Surely you’re kidding.”

“Seriously!” he said seriously.

“Where did you see a report about this?”

“Well…I’ve heard people talk about it.”

Ah. Well. That settles that.

It had sounded a bit too on the nose: like the next detail he’d describe would be how they’d whoop and dance in a circle around a bonfire, or perhaps around a King Ranch edition Ford truck, with what was left of the family of four from Highland Park who simply were looking for some turquoise earrings and hand-woven rugs but took a wrong turn after their ears popped and they became disoriented.

What was undeniable, however, was the seeming isolation and even poverty as we came over the ridge and passed Apache High School. Perhaps much of the housing on either side of the highway was set back — in fact, a number of dwellings were; I say “dwellings” because I could see only steep gravel driveways leading from Route 70 West up into the pine tree woods but no buildings; I have no idea of detail beyond “dwelling” — but what was visible from the road was sparse and generally disheveled. Tools and equipment lied haphazardly in yards. Run-down siding protected the interior of buildings from the winter snow. Vehicles like faded ornaments dotted the space between road and trailers.

I tend to give Native American peoples a pass when it comes to not more aggressively or obviously bettering their station in life. That statement alone has so much white-person baggage and bias that in many circles it’s worthy of scalping.

Perhaps I “infantilize” them, as today’s phrase bandied about by white conservatives is applied to black Americans who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement. But much like black Americans brought to this continent against their will and treated inhumanely for centuries, so indigenous peoples already here were unwitting hosts who saw their across-the-pond relatives — for we are relatives, that is undeniable — arrive and offer not gifts to be received and enjoyed without strings, but make deals with them that were outside the realm of their cultures and therefore entered into naïvely. Not even naïvely, but blindly. For these same white Europeans who duped them would be the first to cry “foul” if Martians came — or, shall we find a different and distant planet to draw aliens from, since Mars is kind of a done deal now and waiting for its first Musk-Virgin-Braniff Hotel — and made an exchange in the Martians’ favor that was completely beyond our cultural experience and wisdom to understand. The only reason we whites justify what we’ve done is because it hasn’t happened to us. Yet.

Perhaps my difference in thinking about indigenous Americans and blacks brought from Africa is because I have seen a black man become president, another become a Supreme Court Justice, another successfully lead a Fortune 50 company, and one of my closest black friends become a doctor and then retire at age 50 — 45 even. Now a black woman has been put forward as vice presidential candidate because it’s one party’s sense that this is the best or even only way to win: to put forward a black person as that party’s champion. It’s not affirmative action — giving a leg up to someone who needs it — it’s action that says, “We need you. Please give us a leg up.”

That’s different.

It’s welcomed.

Perhaps the news leaves out more than I can imagine. But when was the last time I heard anything at all significant about native peoples? When have I heard any descendants of the Lenape Tribe demand reparations for, or simply inalienable squatting rights on, the island that was craftily manipulated away from them by the Dutch and then maintained at a healthy distance from them by the English? Certainly, some Lenape great-great+-granddaughter has an opinion on what has become of her ancestors’ beloved Mannahatta? They didn’t even want to “possess” the land, since the land never gave her permission to be possessed by any people, let alone by an uninvited people who offered the equivalent of $24 for it.

So it was over this unexpectedly ear-popping ridge we drove, through the Lincoln National Forest until we reached US-54 south at Tularosa.

We left behind us the set-back homes of the Mescalero Apache and the “sacred land” of Geronimo, whom the Mescalero website describes as:

…highly sought by Apache chiefs for his wisdom. He is said to have had supernatural powers. Geronimo could see the future and walk without creating footprints. He could keep the dawn from rising to protect his people.

MescaleroApacheTribe.com

We white Europeans do create footprints, footprints that tend to be indelible.

And yet, for Europeans like me, who have lamented and confessed yet done nothing to redeem the past, those footprints may be washed away by the waves lapping against the shore, but they also are remembered by the ocean.

In the ending and in the beginning

Last night I re-read Poe’s “The Black Cat.”

It’s not typical bedtime reading, I agree, but perhaps you’ll give me some grace about that since, after all, I was drinking chamomile tea and lounging on the couch in the bedroom while Karen did her reading. (Lounging back and drinking hot tea is not advised, by the way.)

This story, having been written by the same prose writer and poet who animated the bird that has so obsessed me these past few days, was one of the only stories I read in secondary school that I recall with any accuracy. Most of what I learned at Trinity is blurred, as if Math and English and Social Studies and History were thrown into a blender and came out as a smoothie that was as tasty as when in 8th grade Mike Turnbull offered me his mother’s carrot juice. (I.e. not tasty.) Combine that not-tasty smoothie with the protein add-ons of social cliques, puberty, a wrestling coach with a penchant for groping teenage boys, and a lack of desire for any future not involving surfing and girls — in that order — and “The Black Cat” stands out as a high point in my early years.

Odd high point. Like standing on a mountain under which coal miners toil night and day, some of whom see the canary first as it’s lying on its side.

But high point it was.

And the lines that I read, which stuck with me, which actually made me cry in 8th grade — Cry! Imagine an adolescent boy crying at literature; the picture still startles me — were these:

One day, in cold blood, I tied a strong rope around the cat’s neck, and taking it down into the cellar under the house I hung it from one of the wood beams above my head. I hung it there until it was dead. I hung it there with tears in my eyes. I hung it because I knew it had loved me, because I felt it had given me no reason to hurt it, because I knew that my doing so was a wrong so great, a sin so deadly that it would place my soul forever outside the reach of the love of God!

The specific line that has always stuck with me, the one that I never had to re-read as I did last night and other nights and days, was “I hung it because I knew it had loved me…”

What a tragic and desperate act. And yet what a true account of what someone like Poe’s narrator, like all of us who drink beyond our control — who have warped views of God that make us drink beyond our control — would do in order to gain some foothold in a world where we often feel we cannot access the Divine, which makes us want to run away from or kill that Divinity, which we know is impossible. So instead we kill what we can; we kill what we know loves us and is within arm’s reach. That, we can do. That is in our control.

Please, you say, I actually haven’t had a half cup of coffee yet. I saw your link on Facebook and decided to navigate over here and read this?!

Fear not.

As someone who’s killed his fair share of cats, proverbially speaking — and aren’t you glad I didn’t say “dogs”? No one likes someone who kills dogs. Cats kind of have it coming, do they not? But dogs?! Never. — I can relate to this killer because of his acute desire for God and his accompanying inability to fully access that intercourse. There is an obstacle there that one feels utterly helpless in the face of. One knows that Love is poured onto us yet can never be fully reciprocated.

To get around that obstacle, the only thing in our power to do is to kill the thing we think is the obstacle. As Poe’s narrator knew, what he wanted in truth but could not feel he had was the love of God. The obstacle he felt was the one-sidedness of that love. So “in cold blood,” out of rage over that imbalance, that injustice of the one-sided nature of Love, he kills a creature where there had been a two-sided love. He killed because he had the power to kill that creature. That, he could do. We kill not only what we love but also what loves us. For it is what loves us, that which we find we cannot fully love back, that scares us to death and can drive us mad and, if it does, it is what we must kill. What loves us today during our Earthly course points us to the love of God, a love so powerful that we can only acknowledge it yet never return it in kind. It is this maddening imbalance that causes some of us — some of us who drink and drug and fuck and gamble to the point of believing we’ve lost our souls — to do what for most people is unthinkable: we kill what loves us. And we do it so that we place ourselves outside that Eternal Love. It is not only a consequence; it is also our aim.

That’s the shocking tragedy.

Yet.

There is always hope, and this hope cannot be manufactured. It exists eternally.

In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a song called Psalm 88. It ends with this line: “… darkness is my closest friend.” But it begins with this one: “O LORD, God of my salvation, / I cry out day and night before you…”

And in that ending and in that beginning is the answer to the unexplainable crime of killing what loves us.

And in that ending and beginning is hope.

And in that song as a whole — with that ending following that beginning — is where the killer may finally find peace.

What nepenthe cannot stall

The birds are the first ones to make an impression on me each day — they are the first creatures I encounter since I’m often the first in our family to wake and rise — and so these near countless varieties of friends make morning what it is to me.

  • There was the eagle I saw at Lake Champion as I sat on a dock with coffee; again, before anyone was up. Just after sunrise. This bird — “bird”? …that word seems too simple for such a majestic creature — swooped from its nest across the water, about 100 yards away. With one near-effortless beat of its considerable wings — wings alone that are almost frightening, not to mention the talons below them or the eyes that lead them — it glided across to my side, about 75 feet to my right, and then circled back, dropping to the water’s surface, and cleanly fished an unwitting prey from its morning swim. Causing barely a ripple and with maybe another three or four (at most) beats, it returned home with breakfast for all. It took me more effort in New York City to go to the corner bodega for toasted bagels.
  • New York City… from our terrace on 84th Street, especially during summer mornings with coffee under the umbrella, I’d hear catbirds, towhees, blue jays, sparrows and robins of course, the occasional red-tailed hawk, the annoying chicken next door during our final two years there, and — perhaps a couple times — the elusive raven.
    • It was not a crow — for Poe did not get a tapping from a crow, because he could have easily ignored that; no, it was a raven about which he wrote on that very street 150 years prior to my sitting on the terrace. The rapping and tapping came to him during a cold December and was made known to the world on January 29, 1845. Likely the raven wanted to be somewhere warm, at least somewhere warmer than perched on a window ledge between Riverside and Broadway. It was a “visitor,” the poet surmised. But the raven wanted more than warmth; it had wisdom, and it perched on Poe’s bust of the goddess. The two of them — bird and Pallas — offered only silence about the demise of the beloved Lenore.
  • Only silence. It was on a bright morning at Point O’Woods, a gated, exclusive beach community that I summered in from age 3 to 40, when my mother taught me to hear the bird that sang, “Drink your TEA!” We stood on the front step of that small white house — probably the most affordable in the community — stood there before the tennis players clad in white bicycled past for their early court times and listened. When the towhee called, Mom would look down at me and chirp, “Drink your TEEEEA!” Then she’d crinkle her nose conspiratorially, and I’m sure I smiled back. Who wouldn’t?

Here in Ruidoso it is the ravens that greet me each morning.

It’s said that they have wisdom to impart. Was it wisdom that Poe’s Raven — “that prophet…that bird or devil!” — was offering, or was it prompting in Poe an unanswerable question. “Where is Lenore? Do the angels speak her name? I must know!”

The question I have for the stately ravens here in Ruidoso is, “What is it you have to say? Is there any message for me? Are you even aware that I am here? Yes, I had a ‘Lenore’ whose fate was a mystery to me for 56 years, and now I know. That’s been answered. The angels have not begun speaking her name, but they will before long. Surely you’re not here for that. So why do you appear each morning here and throughout the day? I’m beginning to feel both trapped and unwelcome by your presence.”

As I write, I hear more of the bird’s gargled and cryptic wisdom. Unlike the towhee, whose song was a greeting; unlike the eagle, who merely let me admire her, not considering me at all; the raven calls me yet holds me at a distance. He offers me knowledge of my future in a language I can never know. He asks me to consider and decide on a path without telling me all the facts. Indeed, without giving me a single one. He poses only new questions.

Unlike the others of his breed, his presence — as Poe sadly knew — brings no blessing.

Wisdom rarely does.