Sunday, August 3, 2014

What Happens Next

One of the things I rarely do on this blog is to talk about my work life. Really: no sense in depressing you people who drop by and read this any more than is absolutely necessary. And that's really only half a joke. As the years go by, fewer paid writing gigs are available as magazines disappear and the reading public, what there is of it, begins to feel entitled to high-quality writing for nothing, just like has happened with music.

This means that those of us who want to stay alive have to either find another way to make a living (and at my age that's hard) or else figure out how to make a living off of books. And never has that latter course been harder. The small quality publishers who kept what are called mid-list writers alive over the years have been gobbled up by media conglomerates beholden to bean-counters whose only interest is the bottom line -- again, something you'll find in the music business. Hell, I believe one major publishing group is owned by a company that also includes a bunch of record companies. Structurally, it's all the same: you put out product, market it to the potential audience via targeted advertising based on research, and with luck you make a profit. Producers of product that isn't immediately profitable are let go. There's no development of talent any more: it's not cost-efficient.

Over the past five years, I've been represented by a superb literary agent at a top New York agency. Of course, during that time we've both been trying to sell something so we can each pay our rents. I came to him with a good idea, an idea he thought was good, too, but he had a word of advice. "This isn't a big book, much as I like it. You have to lead with a big book for your first book, because if you don't, there won't be a second book." And, unfortunately, I had to agree he was right. So I came up with a big book idea, or at least what I thought was one, and spent a long time researching enough of it to be able to figure out what I knew, what I needed to find out, and where what I didn't know was located. I got brilliant cooperation: my subject had somehow fallen between the cracks, and at the moment I was meeting people and doing preliminary interviews, interest had just barely started to revive. One thing I was waiting for was the publication of a catalog of a large gallery exhibit that had ignited this revival of interest. But one by one, the publishers turned us down. I went looking for a new idea. While I was looking, the catalog was published and the New York Times reviewed it, saying it was good as far as it went, but would have been greatly improved by some context. Which, of course, was what my book was: the context.

Anyway, my ship was threatening to go down, and I grabbed the first available life-preserver: do a history of rock and roll, but do it in the way I did it on my shows on Fresh Air: not so much emphasizing the big stars -- how could I possibly compete with Mark Lewisohn's immense three-volume history of the Beatles or Peter Guralnick's magisterial biography of Elvis? -- but instead concentrating on the forces within the culture and the music business as much as the individuals, successful or not, that caused things to happen.

This guy's in it
That way, I can trace the emergence of an act while talking about the other acts that were around before the name everybody recognizes got famous. Everybody talks about Elvis, Scotty and Bill mixing hillbilly and blues elements and making those trailblazing records in 1954, but not so many people realize that their fellow Memphians, the Rock and Roll Trio, the Burnette Brothers and killer guitarist Paul Burlison, who were doing this same idea earlier than Elvis.

And, as with Memphis, it's important to recognize that scenes existed, and the ambiance they created gave birth to lots of ideas as people explored ways of making music. Long before NWA were conceived, South Central was a maelstrom of musical activity, much of which is well worth your attention even today.

So's she
The problem was, in order to lay this out, I wrote a book proposal that was very, very long. I don't know that this is the case, but I suspect most of the editors took a casual look, said "Ho hum, another rock history book," and passed. The idea that my radio stuff is on a program with 4.5 million listeners, and that my archive gets 20,000 hits each time I have a piece on the air didn't seem to resonate with anyone. Me, if I were in the publishing biz and was approached by a guy with numbers like that, I'd sign him even if the book didn't seem like much. After all, do you know how many books you have to sell to make the Times best-seller list? If you're used to record-biz numbers, you'll be amazed. A friend who's taught journalism told me that one of his mentors when he was coming up told him "The publishing business understands everything but readers." Ain't that the case, though?

Two editors got it. One I talked to and he was totally on board. He went to the suits in his company and they told him it was "too ambitious." (Now there's two words people rarely use when they're talking about me!) The second guy wanted me to write a book he had in mind, but that book seemed to be one that had already been written. Not only that, but it was first published in 1984 and is still in print. That alone is a miracle. And it was too bad: this guy had no suits to report to. He was the suit.  I don't follow the publishing industry, but if I did I'd have known that he's a legend, and that a major publisher had just given him his own imprint to do with as he wanted (well, within reason). But...not gonna happen.

Except it did. Unknown to me, a friend in Oakland who had a book deal had that deal with this guy. And they'd talked a lot. The guy's daughter was going to school in Oakland, the publisher went out to visit her and hung out with his author, the author mentioned that it was too bad he wasn't going to do my book and the publisher agreed. "Why don't you split the book in half," my friend suggested, "and let the first part build the audience for the second part?" "Oh, man," the guy said, "why didn't I think of that?" E-mails flew between Austin and Oakland and New York, a phone call hashed out the details, the agent and the publisher traded facts and figures and...last Tuesday we all reached a deal.

And these guys will damn sure be in it!
It's a real good deal, the money will be enough to pay the rent during the year I have to write this first volume (the second volume is another thing entirely, and we're not even talking about it yet), but not enough that my lifestyle will change noticeably to anyone who isn't my landlord, who will be very gratified to get a check on the first of the month. I'm hardly going to get extravagant, but I am going to celebrate when the check clears the bank by buying a ticket to New York, spending a day hitting the museums, and then getting on a train for Montreal, where I'll spend a few days before heading back. I don't like to use the word "deserve," but I do need a break from Austin.

* * *
There's even a weird postscript to this. About a year ago, the guy who owns the rights to a book I did in 1983 called Michael Bloomfield: the Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero got in touch because he wanted to do it as an e-book. Since my relationship with him has always been a bit touchy (the book was in print for three weeks, and ever since I found out it was out of print and going for ridiculous amounts on the rare book market I'd been asking him to reprint it, and he'd refused), I insisted my agent be involved in any dealings. He reluctantly agreed, and we signed an agreement splitting everything 50/50. And there it sat. 

He gets his own book.

After the rock and roll book looked dead, my agent sent the Bloomfield book around -- I'd revised the text, although it needs a bit more work -- and, to everyone's surprise, got a bite. The day after we'd made our deal for the rock and roll book, he was offered a concrete deal for the Bloomfield book! That was last Wednesday. "What are we going to do tomorrow?" he asked me. The movie! The movie! (Although too bad Philip Seymour Hoffman's not around to play me...)

So it'll be a notch above broke not poor around here, but I'll still be the same old me, and you can count on the blog continuing, especially once I get some needed repairs done on the car and can drive around central Texas and over to Louisiana to visit my favorite smokehouses for some sausage and tasso. Stick around: this should get interesting. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Edontic Gourmet

Or, what to eat when you ain't got no teeth.

Actually, I used to have a corkboard above my desk in Berlin, on which were tacked a bunch of weird items, including the business card for a business called No Teeth Bar-B-Q, discovered by a friend of mine driving to Austin to visit me. He made me curious enough that we drove out there and sampled the man's wares. Yes, it was soft. Yes, it was tasty. We gorged ourselves and drove back to town, by which time I was sweating copiously and deeply in need of something to drink: the meat was just laden with MSG, to which I don't react real well. But I had his business card, and loved his motto: "You don't need teeth to eat my beef."

It's been a while since I ate barbeque, although I did go to Franklin's earlier this year and the brisket there was almost no-teeth soft. And I'm hoping to check out some of the so-called also-rans here in Austin when I have money and time to do it now that I do, sort of, have teeth. But let's start at the beginning, where we left off the last post.

I had to pick up some prescriptions after the extraction, and a friend of mine drove me to Costco, near my house. There's a Whole Foods in the same shopping center, so, still mopping the occasional drool of blood (and, I'm sure, terrifying the patrons) and still semi-stoned from the anaesthetic, I walked in while I waited for the pharmacist to fill my order. Right inside the entrance to the fruit and vegetable department was the juices and smoothies department. Aha! Something for when I got home! Then I drifted over to the soup aisle, which was pretty well stocked, and bought a small box of black bean soup, remembering that that was an item I liked cold. There was dinner.

Except...not. Whatever fruit juice-combo-drink I'd bought ($4) was just what the doctor ordered, but the black bean soup turned out to be, um, full of beans. Imagine a delicious puree of well-seasoned black beans with BBs floating in it. I swallowed the liquid. I couldn't do a damn thing with the rest, the lovely new teeth in my mouth notwithstanding.

For breakfast the next morning, I think I'd bought a Bolthouse Farms Breakfast Smoothie, strawberry flavor ($4, also available in peach). It was fantastic. Fortunately, Costco hadn't been able to fill my complete prescription the day before, and a friend offered to drive me back. So I did the same routine, with the previous day's experience in mind. First I got some more stuff from the cooler, and then I went to the soup aisle, where I paid more attention to the one-quart boxes of creamed soups. There was no difference in price, so I grabbed a couple made by a company called Imagine and tried not to think about John Lennon. As I stood in line waiting to pay for the bottled drinks ($4 each) and a couple of boxes of soup ($4.69 each), I thought back to the Monoprix I used to shop at in Montpellier, cruising its aisles and thinking about stuff I could probably eat there. One big item was brandade de morue, which is essentially whipped potatoes with onions and desalinated salt cod, a local specialty that's way better than it sounds, especially after it's been stuck in the oven briefly to brown the top. There were bunches of cold soups sold in glass, most of which I'd never tried. There was also a variety of puréed vegetables sold in plastic trays by Bonduelle, the French agribiz giant. I would think of them again.

It took a long time for me to get used to the new teeth. I had an appointment for a week after the extraction, and I was gratified that the blood was gone fairly quickly, but there were other pains. The dentures cut into my gums something fierce. Thursday night, I woke up with adrenaline coursing through my blood, my tongue working furiously at the lower denture. No biggie: it had just hit a sore place, but it had done so when I was asleep, hence the panic. It took me hours to get back to sleep. Of course, the dentist's office was closed on Friday, and all weekend, but I was back on Monday, and some adjustments were made.

Meanwhile, I wasn't enjoying dinner much. My routine was a Bolthouse product most days for breakfast, occasionally supplemented by another brand I can't remember that's not as good and costs $4.95 at Central Market, and a Thai-style iced coffee, brewed the night before so it would be room temp when I woke up. Because the nearest Chinese/Asian market is miles and miles from my house in North Austin, I didn't use authentic Longevity Brand condensed milk, but it was pretty tasty anyway, and experience showed that I wasn't ready for anything hot in my mouth yet. Downside was a sugar rush that I was afraid would kill me. Lunch was another fruit-juice combo ($4), and dinner another creamed soup. The good news was, there were lots of varieties of creamed soup, but the bad news was they weren't always good. The Imagine soups mentioned they were low sodium, which is good because as anybody who reads labels knows, most canned soups are MSG-rich. Having forgotten the very rudiments of chemistry, though, I was surprised that adding a touch of salt to the soups didn't work. No, stupid: they have to be heated or the salt will just sit there in discrete pieces instead of seasoning the liquid.

Fortunately, I discovered that there was a brand that was, compared to Campbell's, low in sodium, but actually contained enough salt to be tasty. I was already aware of Pacific because I discovered they sell chicken broth in a four-pack of 8 oz. boxes, close to the boxes of chicken broth I'd had to go all the way to Spain for when I lived in France. But it turned out that they had a whole range of boxed "creamy" soups, most of which worked cold. Especially good were the spicy black bean and curried red lentil soups. Then there was another stroke of good luck: I had to visit my GP to get some blood pressure meds refilled, and since he's quite near Trader Joe's I went over there to see what they had. What they had was the best soups I found during this whole episode. There's no question that Trader Joe's Latin-Style Black Bean Soup and Trader Joe's Creamy Corn and Red Pepper Soup lead the pack. They're also $2.95 each, which made me regret not picking up more: it's at least 20 minutes to and from that shopping center, depending on traffic.

But good or bad, I was getting tired of creamed soup, Bolthouse smoothies, and Thai iced coffee. Finally, I snapped. I poured a bowl of cornflakes, added some milk, and let it sit a while. If you would like to replicate what happened next, simply insert a wine glass into your mouth, bite down hard, and chew. Even soggy cornflakes were too much. Fortunately, there was a smoothie in the refrigerator. But that was beginning to piss me off, too: berries of every description were showing up in the markets. How much could it cost to make a smoothie? How hard could it be? I asked around to find out how to do it, and once I eliminated the recipes with kale (don't get me started), I had a formula. And, one trip to Target and $25 later (seven Bolthouse bottles, I figured), I had a blender with a special smoothie function. Then I went and bought some strawberries, some blueberries, some bananas (for texture), organic plain yogurt, and some wheat germ, figuring that was the "whole grain," or close enough, that I liked in the Bolthouse drinks. Thus:

1 part ice cubes
2 parts fruit (includes banana)
1 part orange juice or milk
1 part yogurt
1 tsp - 1 Tbsp wheat germ or protein powder or whatever

Put the ice cubes and the frozen banana in first, then the liquid, then the rest of the fruit, the yogurt, and the grains. Whiz until blended.

Chef's notes: The flavor of bananas is extremely pervasive. Half a banana is plenty. Don't forget the wheat germ or you'll have trouble later. Ignore that strange odor when the machine is working. All electric motors make it when they're getting broken in. Also when they die.

Taster's notes: It appears that all supermarket fruit is made out of cardboard except for Fredricksburg peaches, which are as local as they come. It is currently peach season.

But it's also five weeks since the operation, and I've been pushing solid food on myself bit by bit. Early on, I bought a tiny amount of pasta salad at Whole Foods. I knew it would taste awful -- their prepared food is horrendous, which is a new phenomenon -- but I had to try. First was a pasta salad. Not quite glass shards, but lots of pain. And a tiny cube of cucumber -- aiee! So that was out for a while. The gaspacho at the soup bar at Central Market, too, had those cuke cubes, but I got it a few days later, and managed to make my way through it. (Note to self: make some of that creamy God's Pacho before all the local tomatoes burn up). Then one day I was at Whole Foods and noticed a whole array of those Indian dishes that come in thick metal-foil envelopes and can be microwaved or heated in a pan, and I noticed that one of them was dal makhani, one of my favorites ever since I first had it at Gaylord's Restaurant in San Francisco 40 years ago. Surely I can do this, I thought. I took it home, zapped it in the microwave and was through it before I'd realized that this was the first solid food I'd had in a long, long time.

I'm quite sure I'd have gone to the local Indian supermarket for more (there are dozens of brands and dozens of dishes available, and they're good to have around the house for those days when you're utterly uninspired or haven't had time to shop), but this set off an overwhelming urge to cook my own food. First off was...let's see, what's not very chewy? Eggplant! So a portion of Fuchsia Dunlop's reliable Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (total cost: $2, with leftovers for a lunch) served on rice. I chewed oddly, but there was no other problem: I had conquered something at last. Since then, I've been gingerly easing back into action with Chinese and Indian dishes, pasta (which I overcook slightly), hot dogs and potato salad (Sabrett's, available at Central Market! A taste of home!), and my famous hamburger curry. I suffered through a loaf of bread for toast -- that's not quite ready -- and yet now I can deal with cornflakes. Coffee's been hot for some time. One lunchtime, I took a bag of Gaytan White Cheddar cheese puffs -- bigger, thicker, and airier than a Chee-to -- and carefully ate half of it. Verrry carefully.

It seems to me that the way to deal with this is to push the limits as often as I can (and go back to the dentist for adjustments, the next of which happens tomorrow) and accept defeat when it happens: this weekend a friend and I stopped into a place in Austin's Chinatown shopping center for some báhn mì, that irresistable Vietnamese sandwich that people love because it almost always is made with the best baguette in town (secret: if you don't like the local baguettes, see if there's a Vietnamese bakery nearby). I was defeated by half of mine, but I also realized this won't always be the case (at which point I'll go back and get one at Tâm Deli, where they're much better than at this place). Some day, I hope, I'll be eating like a normal human being again. And if I'm eating cold cream soup then, it'll be because I want to, dammit.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Travails of Toothless Ed

At first, unbearable pain sent me to a dentist in Berlin, Dr. Basic. Which is how the friends who took me there pronounced his name, like basic training or something. But when he talked, it was obvious that he was from Eastern Europe and his name was really pronounced BAH-sitch. His office was scary. So was what he said to me.

"There will be danger. There must be danger." I didn't like the sound of that. I stayed just long enough to ascertain that it was his accent. The word was "dentures."

But, at that time, there would be no danger, and no dentures. There was no money, and even scary Eastern European dentists in bad neighborhoods in Berlin have to get money for their services.

Then the pain got worse. Somehow I was referred to another dentist, an Australian in a somewhat better neighborhood. It was between him and an Orthodox Jewish woman in a really bad neighborhood -- hell, I used to live there -- who'd gone to the same dental school as my maternal grandfather (just joking about the bad neighborhood, folks). What they all had in common was that they spoke English, something I require for overseas medical problems whenever possible.

The Australian's was the highest-tech dentist's office I'd ever seen. We did X-rays and I handed him my Röntgen-Karte, a government document that keeps track of how much radiation you've absorbed. He looked at the results. "See this here?" he said, noting some white clouds where my gums were. "That's pus, and it could go any minute, into your bloodstream, into your heart or your brain and bingo! You're dead!" The solution, it appeared, was to get rid of the rotten teeth that were causing it to exist. He gave me a quote. Okay, let's do it.

There are neighborhoods in Berlin that go on and on and contain nothing edifying. Kebab stands, hairdressers, bars, dentist's offices. That's where he was, a subway ride with transfer and another transfer to a bus. No particular landmarks. Just undifferentiated ugliness, with him somewhere in it. He'd given me a prescription for some kind of antibiotic to clear up some of the infection, which meant that on my first date with the woman who was to become known as Lady Drunkula, I had to abstain. (You know the type: only drinks white wine because you can't be an alcoholic if you only drink white wine, right?) So when that was over, I made my way back to his office, my pockets stuffed with €50 notes. It was time.

He prepared a couple of needles. "This," he told me, "is a great anaesthetic. Developed in Finland. You Yanks can't get it. FDA hasn't approved it. Fools." But it was. Seconds later, my entire head was numb, but I was perfectly conscious. "Right," said the doctor. "Let's see the money." That was rather abrupt, but I pulled it out of my pocket and he snatched it from me. He snapped each bill from the roll, loudly, and held it up to the light. Then he did it again. And a third time. He handed two of them back to me. "Here. A discount for cash." And without changing his rubber gloves, he got to work. It was amazing.

Close your fist around a finger. Pull the finger out. That's what it felt like. Seven? Eight? I don't know how many teeth he pulled. Once I felt a twinge of pain. But just a twinge. The teeth were gone. Then I chomped down on some goo. "You'll have to do without your teeth for a couple of days, but we'll have your bridge ready by the end of the week, so I'll make you an appointment and you can come in and we'll get you straight." So I left, numb head and all, waited for the bus, got on, made my transfers and soon enough I was home. A couple of days later, I went in, he looped some metal around two of my molars, and there were my falsies. We shook hands and I was out the door.

Over the weekend, they snapped in two. I called him on Monday. "Get in here," he growled. He was livid. Unbelievably angry. He took the bridge, disappeared for a while and came back. "Here, this'll work. I don't want to see you here again." Fair enough: this one held except for one tooth that snapped out. I could deal with that. I was more concerned with my growing relationship with Lady Drunkula, anyway. She lived right around the corner. "Plastic teeth," I warned her before the first time we kissed. "Aaaah, I've dated older men before. C'mere."

The teeth worked out far better than the relationship. At least they hung around and never tried to kill me. About six months later, I got a postcard with Garfield on it. It was from the Australian's partner, Dr. Schreck. (This was another thing that gave me pause about him: Schreck means horror in German. The star of the incredibly creepy 1921 German vampire film Nosferatu was Max Schreck, which I'd always figured was a made-up name to capitalize on his role in the film, but it was apparently his real name!) It reminded me it was time for my checkup, which I didn't remember having been told about, and a subsequent check revealed that the Australian had vanished utterly.

The teeth and I got along well for the next few years, but I knew there was more disease to deal with. I had other things on my mind, though, not least of which was leaving Germany for France. Of course, as this blog has documented, not long after I got there, I lost my sense of taste and smell to some sinus polyps, brilliantly diagnosed and treated (although it took a year to get back to normal) by the great Dr. Jean-Claude Marrache. In 2013, though, I had a recurrence and went back to see him. He wrote a prescription, said "I guarantee you'll be back to normal in 48 hours" (it turned out to be more like four), and, when I asked him if there were any relationship between the gum infection and my problem he paused a moment and then said "Duh." He sat down and wrote a name and an address on a scrap of paper. "This guy's office is literally around the corner from you, and he's a friend of mine. Every year he goes to America and rides a Harley down Route 66, so I assume he speaks English."

But I'd already decided to move back. A couple of years ago, unfortunately, both of the molars anchoring the bridge had fallen out, so I had to be careful eating. Then two upper teeth began to hurt and push themelves out. I looked awful. Then I moved and one day one of the uppers fell out at my desk. The next morning, the other fell into my orange juice with a pretty clink as it hit the glass. I now looked like someone's meth-addicted hillbilly cousin.

This was me on Sunday. I had an appointment on Monday. Just in time: I had another tooth threatening to leave, I had only two teeth to chew with, and I was a mess. I had been to see Dr. Shane Matt and his crew,  bit down on some allegedly blueberry-flavored gunk several times and waited over a month for some dentures to be made. I was about to lose every tooth in my head, and I was glad.

I won't pretend it was fun. It was worse than the Berlin experience because some of the teeth really, really didn't want to come. A couple shattered. And when it was over, they slapped some dentures on me. A friend came and drove me to Costco to buy the antibiotics and pain-pills I'd been prescribed, and I was drooling blood all the way. Naturally, they didn't have the pills ready, so I wandered over to Whole Foods next door to see what was available in terms of bottled smoothies. Some good stuff, actually. A company with the unpromising name of Bolthouse Farms makes interesting combinations, like the breakfast smoothie I had this morning. A company named Evolution Fresh makes a delicious product called Protein Power that I bought despite the note from the founder, one Jimmy, on the side which says, in part, "You deserve to drink something you feel good about, because it makes you feel good." Nobody who puts something that stupid on packages of his product deserves to get rich.

Yes, I'm drinking three meals a day, dammit. (Please spare me the jokes.) My gums are swollen, the teeth don't fit quite right, and more importantly they don't meet right, which means I can't chew. Biting, too, isn't going to happen for a while because of tenderness. It pisses me off: the refrigerator is filled with leftovers of Indian, Chinese, and Italian food I'm going to have to throw out because no way I'll ever get to them in time. But I keep telling myself I'll be able to eat stuff I haven't been able to eat in years -- this story began over ten years ago, after all -- and that's going to make a difference. And hell, I might just be losing weight with all these damn smoothies and stuff.

But although I'm not any prettier, I do know I'm already healthier: all my nose issues have started clearing up ("Duh" -- thanks, Dr. Marrache) and my digestion will improve once I can chew thoroughly again.

Definitely no prettier
I appreciate having friends close enough by that they haven't minded taking me to the dentist's office and shopping for liquid food, and once I'm cooking real food again, they'll be glad they did. As for me, I gotta go slosh some saline solution around my mouth again and take another antibiotic.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Midyear Migas

Sorry about the long silence. It's been over a month since my last post. At first, I was holding off until the second half of the dancehall tour happened, but circumstances intervened (Steve's now got his own dancehall to manage!), so that's on hold. Then things started going south around here, and since I like to keep the tone of this blog away from complaining and doom and gloom, I (wisely, I think) refrained from posting any of it. Suffice it to say that the book I spent a year researching and writing a proposal for, a proposal my agent loved and submitted over the course of nearly a year and a half to over 20 publishers and imprints, failed to find favor with any of them. Since one reason I moved back to Austin was that the arts library at the University of Texas has much of the stuff I'll need to write this book, I began to wonder why I moved back. I don't have much in the way of a social life here, I've lost all interest in live music, and only one of the people I've invited over for dinner accepted.

But there are things that'll be turning around in the next 30 days, unless my landlord decides not to renew my lease (somebody tell me why I took the 8-month option instead of the 12-month option, please). In that case, since I still don't have a credit rating and nobody will rent to you without one, I'll be on the street, my stuff in storage. I'm hoping that doesn't happen: my course at UT starts up again on August 1, and there are already six people signed up, and there's a project in the works that should be unveiled before that that I hope will solve all the current problems. But more on that when I'm ready to unveil it. All I know for certain is that on Monday I go to the dentist and wind up with new teeth, so for the first time in a decade, I'll be able to bite and chew like a normal person. Which means I can take on some barbeque and not have to arrange dinner around its chewability factor.

Anyway, excuse the absence, and let's move on to the very few things there are to write about here.

* * *

First, yes, food. I continue to navigate my way around American foodways, and continue to be confused. Not, of course, that anyone seems to cook any more. Too many times, I've headed off to the supermarket and returned with stuff that's already prepared, or half-way so, and heated it up and dumped it on a plate. That's in part due to the fact of the audience of one, but also due to the fact that too many times I head to the market with no idea of what I want to make. See dental problems, supra.  Now, I'm writing these words after returning from the closest farmer's market, Sunset Valley, which is held on Saturdays. To someone who went twice weekly to the market in France, it's a huge disappointment in terms of variety. Of course, I'm grumpy enough to wish that the musicians would just go away, ditto the handcrafts people and the prepared-foods people. I've heard that Tacodeli is a fine place indeed, but I don't go to the farmer's market for tacos.  Or kombucha on tap or all the other gluten-free, vegan, blahblah stuff. I want fruit and vegetables. 

Of course, I may not know the cycles of the growing season yet (and the Austin Chronicle discontinuing Kate Thornberry's farmer's market because the crazy dame asked if she could be paid for it doesn't help), so every couple of weeks I head up there to look around. Occasionally I get eggs, and then I walk around seeing who's got what. Lotsa squash today, and some of the most overpriced tomatoes on the planet: so-called heirloom tomatoes were €3.50 a kilo in France, and here they're $3.95 a pound.  Plus, nobody seems to know what kind they are. Bah. Looks like there's some okra already, but that's not high on my list at the moment. At least the ragged grey bundles of kale are gone. So the result of today's expedition is shown below. 

One humongous bundle of basil ($3.50!) and one tiny melon ($3!). But some of that basil will become pesto, and the main reason I bought the melon was because it was the first one I saw that wasn't the size of a basketball (you think I'm joking? Okay, a soccer ball. Seriously). Those cost a buck more, but I doubt they have much flavor. At any rate, there's far too much of them for me to use up, so later this afternoon, I'll go buy some Mexican ("key") limes to squeeze into the center of half of that some morning for breakfast. Still, compared to the bounties I used to photograph in France, this ain't much. 

Next impossible-to-figure question: why is there only one kind of juice in the store (orange), which exists in about 40 different forms (with pulp, some pulp, no pulp, added calcium, etc etc)? What's the deal with pulp? Who cares? Why put calcium into orange juice? Why can't I buy less than 1.75 liters? I sit back and remember being able to get mandarin juice, pineapple-lime juice, strawberry-orange juice, blood orange juice, and many other flavors, all in one-liter containers, made by Tropicana, an American company. Ah, well, maybe some day. 

* * *

Speaking of cooking, since I notice that Mick Vann has posted a couple of long pieces on his knives (here's the first of the series; there are two more), I'll post a shorter one on mine. When I left France, I was using three knives, two Henckels, a big chef's knife for chopping and a smaller one for mincing up garlic and carving tomatoes and the like, and a beautiful Japanese knife that was razor sharp, which I used for turning, for instance, herbs into powder. The Japanese knife had a serious injury early on in France as I cut into a saussicon sec from the market and hit the metal brad that's used to seal it closed, which had inexplicably migrated into the meat. This hurt, I gotta say. I'd bought this knife in the market in Kyoto at the legendary Aritsugu store, and I'd taken exquisite care of it up to the moment when it hit that metal and the edge got dinged badly. 

Then, when I moved, I wrapped those three knives up and shipped them with the rest of the kitchen stuff, which, since it took months for the movers to get here, meant I needed knives in Austin. Fortunately, in King Tut's Tomb, aka the stuff I'd had in storage for ages, there were two Chinese knives, bought years ago and almost never used. One was a cleaver, the other a flesh-cutting knife.

Meat knife, cleaver (L-R)
Now, there had been times when I wanted a cleaver, and all of a sudden I had one. To my great surprise, it did great service when it came to, for instance, chopping stuff really fine: ginger, garlic, onions, etc. I haven't dismembered a chicken with it yet, and I don't know if it'll do that, but I use it pretty much exclusively for chopping at the moment. And since I've been doing a lot of Chinese food here since I moved back, it's come in very, very handy. Enough so that the big chef's knife more or less just sits there.

The other knife, though, its acquisition lost in the haze of time, was a revelation. When I was at Aritsugu in Kyoto, there was a saleslady who spoke impeccable English. I was admiring a number of knives there because I was looking for, well, what I got: a fine-chopper, but razor-sharp enough to cut tough stuff like meat. She explained that the vast majority of what they carried was for sushi, and so the blades were shaped for that: |/. The straight edge helped cut thin, even slices. (For comparison, a French chef's knife would be \/, and the cleaver ||.) They only had one or two French-style blades, and she showed them to me and I chose one, which she sent back to the master to hone perfectly. (She also asked if I wanted my name in Japanese for free and for reasons I still can't figure, I declined). Anyway, this knife-of-unknown-origin is clearly a |/, and when it comes to slicing meat for Chinese food, it just glides through it. Flank steak is no problem, and it laughs at chicken.

If it helps, the meat knife seems to be a Shigemitsu from Sakai, Japan, which means I probably bought it in San Francisco's Japan Center in 1970. The cleaver is a Three Rams brand, no doubt acquired in San Francisco's Chinatown at some point, or maybe at Austin's legendarily smelly, cramped Oriental Market on Airport Boulevard.

And a little secret: I had a friend who was a chef for many years, and every day he took to work a nice selection of really beautiful knives, all in a cloth doohickey with slots for each of them that rolled up and was tied shut. Then he would proceed to use two, maybe three, of them. "They don't respect you if you don't have an impressive collection," he said, "but hell, how many do you need?" Exactly.

* * *

Finally, a cretur update, which the delicate may wish to skip. 

As the weather warmed up, I began to notice a small grey gecko living in the wood trim of the garage, who'd walk around close to the house and gorge himself on ants from one of the anthills near the front door. He'd disappear fast when I walked by (although one time he was so busy gobbling ants I almost stepped on him). But he vanished, and one morning I found an odd turd in the driveway. Not quite an inch long, but pretty fat, and in the shape of a J. I wondered if that might have been the gecko, but also worried what kind of animal might have deposited it. I do have something of an attic in this place, and would prefer it keep devoid of opossums, raccoons, and squirrels, not to mention rats. 

So imagine my alarm when another, identical, J appeared on the back deck. I enlisted some more savvy friends to help me figure what it was, and it took no time at all: toad. Really? A toad with an intestine big enough to leave that? Dang. Anyway, I haven't yet laid eyes on Turdy, as I've been calling him, but it did remind me of the evening I was sitting on my porch in my old place here, enjoying a summer storm passing over, and listening to the stereophonic frog chorus that lived in two nearby culverts. One was tenors, one basses, and they'd alternate and then sing together. I can't imagine any female frog in Texas resisting them. Anyway, my ears were open, and I heard this intermittent squeaking sound, like someone making annoying noises on the outside of a balloon. Squeeeek. Long pause. Squeeeeeeek. What was weird was that my ears told me it was coming from a few inches away. The next time it happened, I found it: there was a crack in the concrete of the porch and something was emerging. More of it appeared with each squeak. Finally, there was a huge push and a toad emerged, fully three inches long. How it had pushed itself through that crack I don't know, but I saw it happen. It sat there, inflating a bit and, after a couple of tentative steps, hopped off to the nearby creek in search of what the frogs were in search of. I've since read about toads who've lived in suspended animation for upwards of a century, sometimes put as a joke in a cornerstone of a building. Many of the ones who do this are the famous Texas Horned Frog, or horned toad, as depicted on Texas license plates. What's ironic about that is they're just about extinct. I've been in their habitat a lot and never seen one outside a zoo.  Anyway, Turdy likes it near lights that attract bugs, evidently, so he's welcome to hang, even if I don't see him. 

And, just to reinforce stereotypes, I found another cretur a couple of weeks ago. When I moved in here, I sprayed the garage with some kind of fog that, it alleged, stayed live for months. Sure, I told myself, as long as it kills what's already there I'm cool with it. But it appears that it does work, because one fine morning I found this dandy, who hadn't been there the day before. 

Yes, that's a quarter
Everything is bigger in Texas! Admittedly, I drove over him with a handcart as I was trying to get a bookshelf into the house, but it didn't hurt him much except to detatch one of those huge antennae. These roaches are so-called tree roaches and are much happier outdoors than they are in your kitchen, and will frequently run for an open door or window if given encouragement. You do not want to smash one, since they contain, um, plenteous soft filling. 

* * *

So there we have three short items on the year's longest day. Wish me luck for Monday, and stay tuned; there's about to be some action around here. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

More May Migas

I had what I can only describe as a stupid revelation the other day when I realized that the main reason I was eating as well as I am is not because of the quality of the ingredients I was buying (when it comes to fruit and vegetables, after all, France led in that area most of the time) but the fact that 99% of the cookbooks and recipes I use were written for Americans using American ingredients. After all, I struggled for years to make cornbread in Europe, trying this version of cornmeal and that version and failing over and over, and eventually smuggling back bags of cornmeal from Texas or whatever US destination I'd been in and parcelling it out like a precious substance -- which it was! -- and never, for instance, using it as the sliding medium on the pizza peel, in favor of semolina.

But now I can get it whenever I want, and my preferred kind (Lamb's) is available in the supermarket down the street for two bucks a bag. (I have no idea why this kind is so much better than everything else I've tried, but all I know is that I asked a friend to mule me some cornmeal when he visited from Texas one time and the results were stupendous).

Diligent research had settled me on the Northern Cornbread recipe from The New Best Recipe, but I was mooching around the Internet one day after I moved back to Texas and found one that looked pretty good. Hey! I told myself. That sounds good -- and I can easily make it. So I did.

Last Sunday's sunrise
The picture here fails to get the intense yellow of the cornbread and cheese, but it looks even better if you click the picture and make it bigger. The recipe is here (scroll down some), and if you play around with it a bit (ie, I omit the garlic, which made no difference whatever in the taste last time, I remembered not to stick the cheese in the batter, which made the cornbread almost indigestible, and I trusted my eyes and nose to warn me when it was done, because I think he has you bake it too long) you, too, may make perfect Texas cornbread. It also freezes perfectly, and if you wrap a defrosted hunk in foil and bake it at 350º for around 15 minutes, you'd almost never guess it was leftovers.

I guess as far as revelations go, that one's sort of a "Duh" moment. Still, at my age you take the revelations you get and are happy you're still getting them.

* * *

I forget who's directly responsible for this, but at long last I have a concise explanation for what it was about living in France that bothered me and why I finally had to move. I do know that it came about because I had read and enjoyed a book called Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr, who's Fisher's great-nephew. The book's kind of inside baseball for anyone not fascinated by the subject, but it did remind me that Fisher is a fascinating character. At any rate, someone recommended Two Towns in Provence by her, commenting that I might get more out of it than the average person. 

The book is actually two books, the first, Map of Another Town, about her time(s) in Aix-en-Provence and the second, A Considerable Town, about Marseille. Both are fairly close to where I lived, in Montpellier, although I never visited either during my 20 years in Europe. So I went down to Book People and picked up a copy (which I had to special order, but hey, the  price was the same as Amazon and they're an indie bookstore). One evening I started reading it, and immediately fell under the spell of her prose. All I'd read by her up until then was her food writing, collected in the classic The Art of Eating, and the prose there was also magnificent. But this, this was a different matter. 

The basic story is that as a young woman, Fisher had lived in (and, I think, studied in) Dijon, and had discovered France and its ways there. The man she was married to at that time died young, and she had two daughters to look after. But when they were old enough, the three of them went to France and stayed for a while in Aix, where the girls went to school and Mary Frances Katherine...observed stuff. She talks of this as a map, an ordering of her surroundings that permeates her consciousness, just as Dijon, which still showed up in her dreams, did. Living in a boarding house, she isn't exactly a resident of Aix, and in a chapter called "The Foreigner," she nailed something I'd certainly experienced, but never managed to solidify into words. Here's the passage. The second paragraph, in particular, made me sit up straight and re-read it several times before I could go on. 

In Aix, I came in for a certain amount of the old patronizing surprise that I did not have an "American accent," which I do; that I did not talk through my nose, which I don't; that I knew how to bone a trout on my plate and drink a good wine (or even how to drink at all), which I do. I accepted all this without a quiver: it was based on both curiosity and envy. 

What was harder to take calmly, especially on the days when my spiritual skin was abnormally thin, was the hopeless admission that the people I really liked would never accept me as a person of perception and sensitivity perhaps equal to their own. I was forever in their eyes the product of a naïve, undeveloped, and indeed infantile civilization, and therefore I was incapable of appreciating all the things that had shaped them into the complicated and deeply aware supermen of European culture that they firmly felt themselves to be. 

It did not matter if I went four times to hear The Marriage of Figaro during the [Aix] Festival: I was an American culture-seeker, doing the stylish thing, and I could not possibly hear in it what a Frenchman would hear. This is of course probable; but what occasionally depressed me was that I was assumed to have a deaf ear because I was a racially untutored American instead of simply another human being.

This wall never falls, yet she persists. To do so, she has to create a shell which practically nobody but her girls gets through. She's forced into a selfishness in her relations with others, while accepting that this diminishes her in some ways. But it also allows her to deal with France on her own terms, to do the things she wants to do, and, in its egotism, perhaps makes her the amazing writer she was. France's loss, by all means.

There's still the second half of the volume to go, and I'll jump into it soon. But it's a relief to be reminded that it's not just the draconian demands Americans have to satisfy to get a visa, not just the absurd banking regulations (on both sides) that prevents them, effectively, from having a bank account, not just the absurd bureaucracy that stymied me. No, there was, as they say, something in the water.

I fully intend to go back to France as many times as I can in the future, but I know I can never live there. It was there, after all, that I learned an important lesson: that beauty is as important a factor in making me happy as accomplishment and love and good health, and that, furthermore, it's far easier to make happen. I suspect I'll find that principle espoused in pages of Mrs. Fisher's that I still haven't read because a lot of the time, I think we're on the same road.

* * *

Incidentally, one of the really rewarding things I've done since I've been back has been teaching a history of Austin music course at the University of Texas' "Continuing and Innovative Education" program. I learned a bunch of stuff myself, and not just about how to teach it far better the next time around. I'm teaching it again in August, and I guess enrollment is open, because two people have already signed up for it. I know: Texas in August. But the room's air-conditioned, and there'll be neat photos you've never seen, cool music you've never heard, and UT's air-conditioning, which they're paying for. If you've got to be in Austin during August, it's a great way to spend Wednesday evenings.  Sign up! See you there!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Tanz(hallen) Im Mai

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, although I hadn't really been aware how much I'd wanted to do it. I've known Steve Dean for a long time, ever since he and his mother were running the Aus-Tex Lounge, one of innumerable clubs that I used to stop into on my rounds as the music guy for the Austin American-Statesman 35 years ago. Thanks to Facebook, I've discovered his fascination with old Texas dancehalls and their preservation, and when I was teaching my history of Austin music course through UT (and I'll be doing it again in August), I had him and a friend of his come in to talk about the 1950s country dance hall scene (and the formidable Harold McMillan to discuss Austin's East Side blues scene, but that's another blog-post).  I was astounded by how much he'd learned, and discovered that he had a book coming out, the first of several volumes that'll cover the entire state.

So when he announced he was doing a tour of central Texas dancehalls on May 10, I got on board. Originally there were going to be something like 15 people, but the larger block of participants had to change to another date, so I was told to be at the Midway Food Park at 9:30 am.  And I would have been, if Google Maps hadn't decided it was just over a cliff about six miles from where it actually is. I burned up a lot of gas finding it,  but just as I gave up and was on my way back home, I realized I'd driven past it almost an hour ago, and found my way in. Fortunately, problems at the vehicle rental company delayed things, and I drove up to find Steve and his friend Sherry (who was going to drive) helping a pair of documentary filmmakers pack their gear into a Ford Explorer. At about 10:15, we hit the road.

First stop was Hye, population maybe 105, owned by two entrepreneurial brothers who have decided to turn what there is of it into a roadside attraction. It's mostly a footnote of American postal history, in that Lyndon Johnson, who grew up nearby, is said to have mailed a letter there when he was four years old, no doubt asking someone to vote for him for something. There was a chili cookoff setting up when we got there and the air smelled great.

Steve hustles to get into the Hye Market. Must've been the bacon bread
Inside the market was a cornicopia of food and drink all laid out for tasting -- and sale, of course. I took a pass on the craft beers, locally-distilled whiskey, wine, and vodka, but checked out the salsa, spaghetti sauce, and barbeque sauce, all sopped up with the excellent breads (overpriced at $6.75 a loaf) on sale there.

What we were there for, though, was this:

Hye Dancehall, fallen on hard times
As there would be at most of the halls we subsequently visited, there was someone to let us in and reminisce about childhood nights spent falling asleep to the music from the stage. There are plans to rescue this hall and turn it back into a venue for music in about two years. Hye's on a well-travelled patch of highway, so unlike so many of the stories Steve tells, this one has a shot of success.

Our next hall was in beautiful downtown Albert, where a renovated hall awaited us next door to a tiny beer-joint.

Albert Hall. There will be no Beatles jokes, please

Albert Hall, interior
The whole town was sold to an Austin businessman ten years ago, and he put it up for sale on eBay, only to get a winning bid from an Italian who never paid up. Like most halls, this one has live music on a regular basis, usually once a month. The Albert Ice House next door is a popular hangout for locals and passers-by, but I remain suspicious of the food trailer parked next to it, which offers french fries with goat cheese. Although, come to think of it, goats do feature on some of the farms we passed.

Next up was a place I'd as soon have missed, but the film crew obviously needed it. Luckenbach, Texas, really does exist, and Waylon Jennings' hit song put it on the map shortly after I visited it in September, 1976 and interviewed Hondo Crouch, its alleged only inhabitant and front-man for its legend. I don't remember where we sat and had our chat, but he did his charming thing, there was nobody else around except for a friend of mine who'd driven down to Texas from Alaska when she'd heard I was doing a story on Texas and would be seeing Willie Nelson in the process, and who burst into tears the next morning at the La Reyna Bakery on S. 1st in Austin as I was reading the paper: apparently not long after we'd left Hondo had succumbed to a massive heart attack and died, and his obituary was on the page facing her.

Today, it's the Central Texas tourist trap to end all tourist traps (if only!),  although for some reason there were only a couple of hundred people there yesterday.

Luckenbach Hall from a distance. To the right, parked motorcycles, tourists, food trailer not featuring goat cheese. 

Interior. Rosie Flores had played the night before
Somehow we temporarily lost our documentarians there, so it took us nearly forever to get out of Luckenbach. If you're planning on visiting the Hill Country, I hope you can take some hints from this post to find other places to visit.

Steve was a little concerned at this point because we'd told the folks in Grapetown that we were going to be there at 3, and it was that time when we pulled out of Luckenbach. Despite there only being 76 people in Grapetown these days, the reason for the dancehall is still active:

Shootin' at stuff since 1887
This whole part of Texas is rich in Texas-German history, since a bunch of settlers started arriving from Germany in the 1840s and only increased with the failure of the 1848 revolution, when many families wanted to escape mandatory conversion to the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, the Prussian state religion, and the military conscription that went with it. All manner of religious nonconformists flocked to Texas and, being Germans, immediately started building breweries, making sausage, and forming singing and gymnastic and shooting Vereins, or non-profit organizations. Each year, the Grapetown Eintracht Schuetzen Verein (United Shooting Club) held a massive fund-raiser/dance/shooting championship/barbeque that lasted an entire weekend, and built a dancehall to go with it, which was used for weddings and other celebrations during the summer. It's still in pretty good shape, but so is the Verein.

Steve gets the story from a Verein vet

Grapetown School

Grapetown's other building
Bikers love the Hill Country, so just down the road from Grapetown a guy from Austin who had the brilliant idea of opening a Hooters clone called Bikinis decided to build a Bikinis in a town which he bought and renamed Bikinis, building a dancehall there. To the credit of the motorcycle enthusiasts of the world, they rarely seem inclined to stop for a beverage there, and the locals don't seem to be in mourning over this. Recently, his Bikinis location in San Antonio burned to the ground. If, for some reason, you want to experience Bikinis, Texas, I suggest you do so very soon.

Steve's been booking shows in Twin Sisters Dance Hall. so that was our next stop after a very late lunch or early dinner at a place called Hillbillyz, which featured wooden doors leading to the kitchen and prep area made out of a 1941 or 1948 Oldsmobile woody, some rather provocative taxidermy involving two coyotes, some relaxed bikers, and some okay barbeque. Twin Sisters is named after a pair of extinct volcanoes visible from the highway as you approach, and its dance hall is amazing.

Twin Sisters Hall
The inside is capacious, and Steve managed to talk a couple of the guys standing around to get out a couple of ladders and put down the curtain in front of the stage for the first time in ages.

Wanna buy a Hudson? A Kaiser? Go to your eternal rest in a Packard hearse?
This is the first curtain like this I've seen outside of a museum in decades. Each of those boxes or circles advertises a local business, who helped pay for the painting and manufacture of the curtain (made out of duck cloth in Mexia, Texas in this case). From the phone numbers and goods listed for sale, this would appear to date back...well, several years. Early '50s, to judge from the automobiles listed. The board above the stage lists some somewhat newer merchants, but it, too, has some age on it. The place needs some work, but it's getting it, and the folks who run it are as nice as can be.

Steve had deccided on a magnificent finale, so we drove to Anhalt Hall, which is officially in Spring Branch, and is a mammoth facility overseen by the Germania Farmers Verein. Apparently there was once an actual Anhalt, Texas, and this building, on the edge of the Verein's property, may be what's left of it:

The building is huge, and has been added onto many times since the first structure was built (for a whopping $344) in 1879. Steve had a key, but most of the lights weren't accessible, so we poked around in the dark. The main hall is, as you'd expect, cavernous.

The bar area was also huge (as is to be expected: the Farmers Verein lobbied heavily against Prohibition, as did much of German-Czech central Texas)

I'll have a Grand Prize, please

and the kitchen was finally outgrown a decade ago and housed in another building entirely. The stage (on which Asleep at the Wheel performs at a yearly benefit for Texas Dancehall Preservation) has a fence in front of it, and the fact that old-timers continue to dance there (also obvious from the performers for the Maifest currently up on the hall's website) is seen on this sign.

But if you look above that sign (there's another banning t-shirts and bluejeans, among other clothing), you'll see a truly remarkable sight: curved beams made from timber left to soak in the river and gently coaxed into the arches that still support the roof today.

The sun was setting as we began the journey home, but my head was buzzing with Texas history and amazing scenery (which I didn't photograph because we were in the car when it was surrounding us). It was, as Steve noted earlier in the day, a perfect time to be in the Hill Country, with relatively low temperatures, moderate breezes ventilating dance halls, beer joints, and biker barbeques alike, and the last cycle of the wildflower season, with firewheels (a daisy-strawflower-like plant), poppies, thistles, and especially prickly pear cacti in riotous bloom. It was just icing on the cake that, as I left Midway, I discovered a way to get home in about ten minutes. To hell with Google Maps.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Maytime Migas

Creturs: I've always loved the way Davy Crockett spelled this word, which gives a clue as to how he pronounced it, most likely. (It's also a reminder that, as a semi-literate backwoodsman serving in the Tennessee Legislature, he was most likely more intelligent than most of the creturs currently serving there).

But I've always been aware that with living in Texas comes creturs. Some are vertebrates, some aren't, some are pests, some aren't. All of 'em have to be dealt with. The largest one I was ever near was one I didn't see. My old house here had a porch screened-in on two sides, a sleeping room that I used for its intended purpose. One morning about 6 my dog leapt up off the floor and started growling oddly. Then he puffed out his fur and started walking on tiptoe, still growling and hyperventilating. I heard something crashing around outside and figured it was another dog, although this was peculiar behavior. No problem. It went away and I went back to sleep. Later, I was walking the dog on some land at the end of my street and there were two men on horseback with rifles. A couple of little Hispanic kids were hanging around near them, and one of them, a girl, came running up to me. "Did you see it, mister?" she asked. What? I asked. "La pantera!" And sure enough, a circus train on the nearby railroad tracks had had a breakout. No, I told her, I hadn't seen it, but I'd heard it a few hours ago. The men confirmed that they thought it was long gone, but it had left a trail over here and their dogs were investigating.

And although the next-biggest would have been the armadillo the lady next door swore was digging up her garden, the actual next-biggest mammal would have been squirrels. I have them here, too, brown ones that I don't encourage, since with luck there will be a modest garden happening here before long. More on that in a minute.

Further down the scale of vertebrates are amphibians and reptiles, and with the proliferation of neighbors' cats, these are rarer and rarer. Which, since it's currently rattlesnake mating season, doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise caution outdoors. In my old neighborhood, that patch of land at the end of the street was part woods and part UT student housing, brick cubes baking in the heat and parking lots. These were beloved of a cretur I had heard called the Texas Racing Lizard, dark green with lighter green stripes on its side, and the ability to really haul ass when it was time to leave where it was. It would start to run and then, to run faster, raise up on its hind legs when shelter was in sight. Honestly, it was as close to seeing a dinosaur as I've ever come. But most of the lizards have been anoles, probably America's most common lizard.

Photo: Wikipedia
The pink sac means it's looking for a mate, and its other mating behavior is doing pushups with its front legs. I once sat on my porch and watched a female watching a male. He was on a tree limb some ten feet above her and he'd do his pushups and then blow out his sac, then walk a little further out, do it again, and...finally, one set of pushups caused the tree to flip him into the air. The female watched the arc as the male soared up, then down. Time to look for another boyfriend. From that same couch on the porch during a cleansing summer rainstorm, I heard a creaking sound very near me, becoming more and more urgent. I looked around and it was coming from a crack in the concrete. Something brown was stuck there and, as I watched, a large toad pushed itself out of the crack, stood there for a moment, and then ambled off. I later learned he could have been down there for 50 years or more.

I've seen a couple of tiny anoles around here -- it's kind of early for them -- but the star reptile so far has been a complete surprise. I walked into the bathroom with the bathtub (yes, I have two bathrooms) and a motion in the corner of my eye made me look into the bathtub where a very odd being was wriggling. It was about two inches long, had no legs, and had a body made up of alternating rings of black and gold. At the end was a black bead. Had to be a worm, I thought, and turned on the shower just long enough to get it down the drain. Then, the other night, it was back -- or one of its cousins. At that point it occurred to me that its motion, making S's, was that of a snake, not of a worm, which undulates its belly and moves in a straight line. This time the cretur was wriggling towards the hall closet, and I picked up a piece of paper, caught it, and flipped it out the front door. Casting around on the web made me realize it was a Texas Blindsnake, identical except for markings with the one in this account. They're also known as Flower Pot Snakes, because they're frequently dormant in commercially-sold plants. And they eat ants, which is fine by me, as well as by my flipped visitor, who should have landed near a couple of anthills. Every specimen ever examined has been female, incidentally, which means they reproduce by parthogenesis.

Birds, of course, are vertebrates, and here's where I'd like pictures, because one very noisy daily visitor is a woodpecker. He's pecked a hole in one of the backyard trees that looks like it's been there forever. He stops by to peck it out a bit, so that the moisture from the tree trunk attracts insects, but he's also canny about visiting at times when the light is bad, so I haven't taken a picture. I *think* it's a Ladderback Woopecker:

Wikipedia again: obviously I don't have cacti in the back yard.
Austin is on two major migratory flight-paths, and yet the birds I've seen have all been locals: cardinals, jays, mockingbirds, grackles, grey doves, and the odd cowbird. Beats the city pigeons I had to stare at in France.

It's the invertebrates you have to worry about, though. Until the last year I lived there, my last place had an awful lot of cockroaches. Then a couple of those transparent geckos moved in and ate themselves silly. I didn't even see another cockroach that whole year. And (knock on wood) I haven't seen many here, and the ones I have seen have been either logy with the cold or dead. Mostly, though, I've had pill bugs (which turn out to be wood lice), who all seem to have an appointment with one of two spiders who hang out in dark places with a litter of pill bug corpses around them. Oh, and just recently, as the sun goes down, waves of fireflies in the back yard. I hadn't seen fireflies in decades: I don't think they even exist in Europe. I have a ceiling fan with lights under it in my office, and that seems to be flickering at a frequency they like, since they keep flying past the window and lighting up. And yet, in all the years I've been seeing fireflies, I've never yet seen the earthbound female glow-worms they're signalling to. Weird.

* * *

And yes, I'm going to try gardening, at least on a small scale. I have a huge deck out back which a friend calls the "mosquito feeding station," which explains why, even if another friend gives me his dad's old grill, I'll be eating indoors. I have some jalapeno and New Mexico Sandia chile seeds planted, and although it's been weeks, it's only today that I spotted a touch of green in the planters. I was pretty impatient with them, but then I realized that in New Mexico, where these seeds came from (thanks, Carol!), the Hatch Chile Festival is held on Labor Day weekend and that's only the start of the harvest. Plenty of time, which is good since I don't have planters and enough soil yet. 

A friend who drives to Dallas a lot stopped in at a nursery and got four tomatillo plants which I'm going to have to re-pot, along with some cilantro, which has bolted, meaning it's time for me to dig it up and harvest what leaves are there plus the all-important roots, which figure in some Thai recipes I've got here. Funny: the whole time I lived in Germany, cilantro plants came with roots, which I threw out. Now that I live in a place with a huge East Asian supermarket and have at long last bought what I'm told is the definitive Thai cookbook, all the cilantro is rootless. Nor have I seen the roots being sold separately. But the bolting indicates that it's already getting hot, that it may be too late to plant or repot basil, and that I'd better rely on the farmer's market (if I can afford it: these people are very weak on the concept, I think) or the supermarket for tomatoes. Anyone with big pots they're not using, get in touch. 

* * *

Same for shelving: I need to get these books out of their boxes and organize my CD library. Yes, some of the crisis is over, and I'll be here a while. Not too long: I won't want to live in Austin more than a couple of years, the way things look now. Where next? Who knows? One fun at a time, please. 
Site Meter