Loquat to No-quat
April 7, 2021 8:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I have spent the past few weeks repairing the landscape around our house following the devastation of the Great Texas Freeze-Out of 2021. We make a great team; she tells me what to do, and I do it.

So far, we've taken out the following dead, or mostly dead, plants:

  • 4 pittosporum
  • 4 ligustrum
  • 4 palm trees (3 sagos & one unknown -- to us -- species)
  • 2 or 3 nandina (which weren't dead, but this was a good excuse to upgrade the landscape)
  • loquat tree -- more about this later
  • multiple rosemary bushes
  • 1 aloe vera
We're still waiting to see whether the potted bougainvillea survived in our cheapo greenhouse after the little ceramic heater shut off unbeknownst to us just when we needed it the most.

We also pruned back to the ground more than 20 big liriopes (aka monkey grass)...a process that was mind-numbing and back-breaking. There's never a machete around when you need one.

Mashup photo of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride 'operating' on a 'mostly dead' aralia plant
I spent way too much time making this image,
so please pretend to be impressed.
Speaking of plants that were mostly dead, the four aralias -- which were 5-6 feet tall -- in our front courtyard appeared to be goners, but are already flourishing from the ground, and looking quite content.

We replaced the pittosporum and ligustrum with 7 Lucky Leaf hollies pruned into a "pyramid" shape. The spots where the nandina previously resided are now occupied by Japanese boxwood, plus a quite fetching Crimson Queen Japanese maple tree. We haven't decided what -- if anything -- will go where the palm trees used to be. All of the replacement plants are hardy down to 0º; I hope we never find out if that's accurate.

Now, about that loquat tree...

Of all the plants we lost to the freeze, the loquat was the most distressing. We think the tree was planted by the original owners of our house when it was built twenty years ago. It was around fifteen feet tall, and its wingspan was about the same. Its blooms brought butterflies in the summer, and the fruit was coveted by deer. The thick foliage attracted all manner of birds and lizards, and the squirrels used it as a jumping off point to access the big pecan tree that grows out of our deck. It had survived all kinds of weather, but was no match for the record-breaking cold in February. For what it's worth, we haven't seen a single loquat around the city that survived.

Here's a rather large gif depicting the decline and death of our tree.

Animated gif showing stages of decline and death of our loquat tree

It may have taken two decades to grow the tree, but it took us only about four hours to reduce it to its component parts, including some logs that I hope will prove to be good firewood by the time the next polar vortex rolls around.

Of course, once the tree is cut down and the leaves and branches hauled off, there's still the problem of the stump. I thought about hiring someone to dig it up and take it away, but I was curious about what kind of root system it had. My guess that it didn't have a tap root, but instead had a network of lateral roots which didn't extend very far into the ground. If that was the case, it should be a relatively easy task to cut a circle around the stump and pry up the root ball.

I was half right. The root system was indeed shallow. The task was anything but easy. I tried a variety of tools, but finally settled on a pickaxe and a long-handled shovel. It took four hours stretched over two days but we finally broke the large root ball loose. I say "we" because Debbie provided some critical assistance at the end by using some long-handled loppers to snip through the last remaining roots that I couldn't get to with the pickaxe. We finished the job this morning, too late to include in the preceding animation.

Photo - Loquat root ball

That's about 150 pounds of loquat stump, roots, and embedded soil and rocks. I'm probably going to have to chainsaw it down the middle in order to load it into the pickup for disposal. My chiropractor will finally be able to afford that swimming pool she's been saving up for.

Replacement of the loquat tree is a challenging issue. It provided a rather significant privacy screen for our backyard and even our house, and we're not sure what to replace it with. We have a lot of options, ranging from another tree to multiple tall shrubs. I'm sort of partial to a vitex tree because they're fast-growing, but magnolias and desert willows are also still in the mix.

At the end of the day, we're thankful the damage from the winter storm wasn't worse, and we've actually been able to upgrade some of the landscape that we weren't really thrilled with but lacked motivation to do anything about. We're also thankful that we can afford the cost of replacement plants, and that we have the physical strength to do the work (if not the mental acuity to avoid it).

When Birds Attack
March 17, 2021 3:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Let me dissuade you from making the obvious assumption about the title of this post: it's not about Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. It's actually much scarier.

We were finishing supper yesterday evening when I heard a *thump* and out of the corner of my eye saw not one but two birds fluttering next to one of our big windows. It appeared that at least one of them landed on the patio.

Photo - Stunned cedar waxwing after flying into a window
A slightly stunned cedar waxwing wondering what hit him.
It is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence for birds to bang into our windows, although it's thankfully rare that any of them suffer ill effects. But I don't recall ever seeing two birds hit a window at the same time.

I rushed over to window to have a look, and sure enough, there was a dazed cedar waxwing standing -- "standing" is always a good sign -- on the patio. I figured he'd be there gathering his wits for a couple of minutes, and then would fly off, none the worse for the vitric encounter. What I didn't expect was what happened next.

Remember when I said that it appeared that two birds hit the window? Well, what I assumed to be the second one made an appearance, and it wasn't there to offer succor. Nope, it was there to finish what it started.

At the risk of seeming coy, rather than attempting to describe what happened next, I'll refer you to the following short (a little more than two minutes) video. But first, a warning:

Graphic - Fake MPAA film rating

If you averted your eyes from the video, I'll summarize it for you. The mockingbird attacks the smaller bird three times before I decide to step in and break up the fight. The mockingbird retreats, and I coax the cedar waxwing onto my finger.

Photo - Cedar waxwing perched on my finger

It seems quite content, if still a bit stunned, in the company of its protector. In fact, it shows no sign of wanting to be anywhere else...and I have things to do (like wash the dishes). I transfer it to the fence.

Photo - Cedar waxwing perched atop our back fence

I walk back to the house, checking on it every few minutes. The mockingbird shows no sign of interest (I do watch it chase away another bird that wandered into its territory). However, after ten or fifteen minutes, when the small bird hasn't yet flown away, I wonder if it is physically able to do so. 

I walk back outside and tap on the fence, and to our relief, the little bird flies into a nearby tree, seemingly without any permanent injuries.

Now, alert Gazette readers will recall that I described a scene during The Great Texas Freeze Out of a few weeks ago in which a mockingbird chased a robin away from the berry-laden yaupon in our back yard. My theory on this latest episode is that the cedar waxwing -- a known berry eater -- attempted to dine on some of the tasty yaupon fruit, and reaped the whirlwind in the form of a belligerent bullying mockingbird. In an attempt to escape the pursuit of the mockingbird, the smaller bird slammed into our window (I don't know if the mockingbird did as well, without injury, or if it pulled up just in time to avoid a collision)...and that's when the beatdown began.

The mockingbird malevolence is no surprise; anyone who has been around them for any length of time can attest to their aggressiveness. As it turns out, there have been documented instances of mockingbirds killing other birds. Debbie found this article (PDF) describing another battle over berries between a mockingbird and -- you guessed it -- a cedar waxwing. Unfortunately for the waxwing, there was no one to intervene on its behalf and it didn't survive the encounter.

Cedar waxwings are pretty little birds, and northern mockingbirds are the state bird of Texas. There's no real winner when the two species collide, but the former will almost surely always be the big loser. Sometimes, Nature needs someone to step in and even the odds. 

Back Row Grace
March 5, 2021 9:29 AM | Posted in: ,

I'm sure you're all familiar with the Biblical parable of the back-row concert goers.

No? Hmmm...I could've sworn strongly posited that was in the Bible. Oh, wait. Maybe I'm thinking of this:

Now He began telling a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, "Whenever you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and the one who invited you both will come and say to you, 'Give your place to this person,' and then in disgrace you will proceed to occupy the last place. But whenever you are invited, go and take the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are dining at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
  -- Luke 14:7-11 (NASB)

So, if you substitute "bought tickets to" for "invited by," and "an Everly Brothers tribute concert" for "wedding feast," and "assigned seat" for "place," and "listening" for "dining," and "in the concert hall" for "at the table," then you'd have a[n almost] perfect description of what happened to Debbie and me last Sunday night. Here are the deets.

We did indeed attend a show entitled The Everly Brothers Experience, sponsored by the Horseshoe Bay Cultural Enrichment Society. We didn't have any preconceived notions about the entertainment value of this program, because we didn't know that much about the Everly Brothers. While their musical career stretched for decades, their prime was in the late 50s/early 60s, and we were more children of the pop/rock era beginning in the mid-60s.

As it turned out, the performance was incredibly entertaining (and even educational, from a musical history perspective). The performers, Zachary and Dylan Zmed, along with their drummer, Burleigh Drummond, are truly gifted musicians whose tribute to Don and Phil Everly is flawless. Their stage act is also hilarious, in a Smothers Brothers (link provided for you whippersnapper who are too young to recall these cultural icons) sort of way, and their knowledge of the musical history of that era provided some fascinating details. If you ever get a chance to see this show, we recommend without hesitation doing so.

This YouTube video will give you a taste of their talents.

I snapped a couple of photos with my phone. The weird lighting was because of the...well...weird lighting. But note the picture on the right. This was my first concert where the drummer mounted a coke* bottle on a cymbal stand and played it with a metal spike. According to Zachary Zmed, this was really the way the record was cut (but forgive me as I can't remember the song. Let's just assume it's called The Coke Bottle Song.).

Photo collage of the Zmed Brothers and the drummer playing a coke bottle

I'm sure that you're now thinking, that's all well and good, but what does that have to do with one of Jesus' parables? OK, let me 'splain.

Because of this COVID thing -- perhaps you've heard of it -- seating at the show was spaced out and seats were assigned according to some unknowable algorithm. When we arrived, we were directed to seats on the last row of a room that was sort of like a big hallway down from the main concert area. It's not a huge building, so they weren't exactly nosebleed seats, and we were sure the sound system would be adequate, but it wasn't exactly going to be an intimate performance.

But, a few minutes before the performance began, a gentleman approached us and said something to the effect that there are a couple of center stage, front row, and you have been chosen to occupy them if you would like. I considered the implications of this offer for, oh, a nanosecond or two before proffering an enthusiastic acceptance. 

We followed the man -- who turned out to be the president of the Cultural Enrichment group -- to the front of the room where two chairs were set, each containing a three-inch-thick cushion embroidered with the name of the previous president. Those seats were reserved for him and his wife but they were unable to attend that evening and we were the beneficiaries of their absences.

I'd be lying if I said we didn't feel a bit self-conscious about this unexpected elevation in seating status. I'd also be lying if I said we didn't absolutely enjoy the unimpeded view of the program. To quote that eminent philosopher, Mel Brooks, "it's good to be the king!"

I'm pretty sure that Jesus had something else in mind with His parable, but for a brief moment, we felt like the humble-but-honored guest at the wedding. 

*This is Texas and we don't employ meaningless, and, frankly, wimpy terms like "soda" or "pop." They're all cokes, even if they're not Cokes.
Howdy, buckaroos. We just received the cancellation of the boil water notice that we've been living under for the last eight years* so I'm giddy and in the mood to engage in some mindless activity...like blogging.

I don't know if you heard, but Texas traded places with Antarctica for a week, and then Hell took over. But, things are looking up, at least for us here at Casa Fire Ant. We went from 3º on February 16 to 73º yesterday, so our reputation for science fiction-level weather remains intact.

In the midst of the misery, there were some bright spots, and I learned a few things. For instance, did you know that mockingbirds and robins  don't get along? For a couple of days, I watched with great amusement as each of them tried to stake a claim on the big yaupon in our back yard, laden with delicious (to a bird) berries. The first time I noticed their jousting, the robin chased the mockingbird away. But thereafter, the mockingbird, having apparently gotten a pep talk from his buds, bullied the robin. I've known for a long time that mockingbirds are pugnacious avians, having had to wear a motorcycle helmet in order to mow the grass around a tree containing one of their nests, but I had no idea their hostility extended to other birds.

Photo - Robin in yaupon
Above: The robin enjoying a rare moment of peace
Below: The mockingbird enjoying the fruit of his victory
Photo - Mockingbird in yaupon, with a berry in its mouth

We'll talk more about birds in a moment, but I think it's extremely important that you take a moment to contemplate the sheer genius of a website that allows you to draw an iceberg and then view a simulation for how it will float. Just imagine how different things might have been for the Titanic had the crew been able to access this technology. OK, probably not much different. But the point is...it's really fun to play with. And in observance of Texas temporarily becoming a...well, you know...here's what it would do if totally immersed in water (insert your own broken water line joke here at such time as it's not too painful):

Drawing - A Texas-shaped iceberg

And speaking of being frozen, here's a cardinal (the bird, not the cleric) in an icy loquat tree (which, by the way, is likely dead...it just doesn't yet realize it. I'm referring to the tree, not the bird, and certainly not the cleric.).

Photo - Cardinal perched in an icy loquat tree

Speaking of things that may (or may not) be dead, there's quite a bit of chatter going around about a claim that a thylacine has been spotted in Australia or Tasmania or one of those places where the toilets flush in the wrong direction. I'm sure I don't have to explain the implications of finding that an apex predator -- the largest carnivorous marsupial known to science but thought to be extinct for almost a hundred years -- is still kicking. Yes, that's right. If the Tasmanian tiger/wolf/what-have-you is real, then confirmation of the existence of the chupacabra cannot be far behind.

[In all seriousness, the discovery that a species previously thought extinct is still alive would be a Very Cool Thing. Let's hope it's true.]

In closing, let me leave you with a visual recipe for the most delectable dessert you'll likely ever encounter that can be made in a matter of mere seconds.

Animation showing how to mix delicious rice pudding with even more delicious coconut cream to make the most delicious dessert

*This might be an exaggeration, but there's no way to know for sure since our clocks AND calendars froze.

Golf Courses Are Wasted On Golfers
February 1, 2021 9:43 AM | Posted in: ,

Disclaimer: The following contains what might appear to be disparaging and/or disrespectful observations regarding that peculiar breed of humanity known collectively as "golfers." In truth, no disrespect is intended; some of my best friends and many of my beloved relatives (two of whom are PGA Tour winners) are golfers. Nevertheless, even they will admit that there's something in their brains' wiring that just isn't natural. But who am I to judge? After all, while they're searching for missing golf balls, I'm in the same vicinity searching for snakes.

I don't recall why, after six years of living here, we suddenly decided to try running on the local golf courses. But I do know precisely when it happened.

Photo - Selfie of me on the Ram Rock golf course after a run
Why am I smiling? Well, I finished a run and didn't die. Always a good thing.
It was the morning of November 23, 2020 -- a Monday -- and Debbie and I were running up Bay West Boulevard, as we had done hundreds of times before. But this time, as we neared the intersection with Broken Hills, instead of continuing on another mile or so to the Cap Rock clubhouse, or making a u-turn and heading back home, I suggested going right on Broken Hills, and then making another right onto the cart path leading to Ram Rock #7. And, as they say, the rest is history.

OK, let's back up. Unless you live in Horseshoe Bay (or visit here often), you have no idea what I'm talking about, so let me provide some context.

Our house is strategically located so that within a half mile radius, ATBF, there are four private 18-hole golf courses (see the locator map below). We can actually use the cart paths of three of them: the aforementioned Ram Rock, its close (and easier, by all accounts) Apple Rock, and the spectacular Summit Rock. (Escondido is the exception, as guards will chase off anyone without a chip embedded in their neck. OK, I jest...probably. They're trying to live up to their name, but the joke's on them; we all know where it is.)

Locator map showing golf courses more or less adjacent to our house
Our house is located in the center of the half-mile radius circle.

Our house is ~150' from the cart path on Ram #11 (that's how all the golfers I know refer to locations on the courses; some of them with homes adjacent to the courses don't even know their own street addresses...they simply say, "oh, we're on Apple #4" and if you get a blank look on your face, they know that you're not One Of Them and not to be trusted. OK, I jest...probably.). From that point, there are a multitude of running route options that vary significantly in terms of distance and elevation change. 

Photo - Our house as viewed from the Ram Rock golf course
This is a view of the side of our house as seen from the Ram Rock #11 fairway.
The perspective is deceiving; there's actually a vacant lot between our house
and the fence marking the boundary of our neighborhood.

For example, turning left on that path takes you up the front half of Ram Rock for 1.5 miles, with an increase in elevation of about 100'/mile. That's nothing if you live in Colorado or the Himalayas, but if you grew up in the flatlands of West Texas, it's a brutal eye-opener.

Photo - View of creek and Bay West bridge near the Ram Rock #11 tee box
The aforementioned left turn starts out deceptively flat, and very pretty.
This is the creek that flows under the bridge on Bay West Blvd.

But turning right takes you on a relatively flat 4-mile out-and-back course that winds past four Ram Rock holes and continues onto the Apple Rock cart path for five additional holes; the midway point is a turnaround that looks out over Lake LBJ.

Photo - A view of a portion of the Ram Rock #11 fairway and green
Making that right turn takes you along a wooded neighborhood with multiple creek
crossings. This is a view of part of the Ram Rock #11 fairway and green.
And speaking of green...they put colorant on the fairways in the winter.

Photo - A view of the Ram Rock #14 fairway
There's a spot on this route where you can see the fairways of three holes:
Ram Rock #s 13, 14, and 15.

Photo - A view of Lake LBJ from the Apple Rock 12 tee box
This is one of the views of Lake LBJ from the Apple Rock #12 tee box,
access to which entails crossing two short bridges over lake inlets.

Photo - One of the two crossings of Pecan Creek on Apple Rock #16
The return trip from Apple Rock #12 takes us over not one, but two crossings of the
winding Pecan Creek. This is the fairway on Apple Rock #16.

Summit Rock is a bit of an exception, as we can access it only by running on streets for a mile (and by crossing the main east-west highway that splits Horseshoe Bay), but once there, the route is a bit less developed than the more established Ram and Apple courses. Parts of the Summit Rock cart path are staggeringly steep, and although the views of Lake LBJ plus another twenty miles of the Texas Hill Country are unequaled, running them is a masochistic endeavor (so we don't). Instead, we wind through some very pretty neighborhoods where traffic is essentially non-existent. Either we're too early for the residents, or nobody actually lives in those million-dollar-plus homes.

Photo - The wooden bridge over Pecan Creek between Summit Rock #14 & #15
Above: The wooden bridge spanning Pecan Creek and
leading to the Summit Rock #14 fairway.

Below: A view of Pecan Creek (which eventually flows just behind our house) 
from the Summit Rock bridge.
Photo - A view of Pecan Creek between from the Summit Rock bridge

One significant benefit of where our house is located is that the closest access point of each of these three golf courses is past the midpoint of an 18-hole round. So, we don't have to hit the trails at the crack of dawn to avoid golfers. By the time they make it to anything past #12, we're already home eating bacon and eggs and biscuits. (Don't judge us. Why do you think we run, anyway?)

Besides avoiding traffic on the streets -- which, granted, is never all that heavy, but still... -- we've gotten to know the other regulars who are out early walking their dogs or just walking for exercise (we seem to be the only runners). Of course, when I say "know," I don't really mean KNOW as in "we know their names." We've just seen each other enough now to merit friendly smiles and waves, and in the infrequent times Debbie or I run solo, some of them remark on that fact that our partner is missing. That's pretty cool, I think.

We've also enjoyed seeing the backs of houses that we've seen from the fronts for years. Some houses look fairly mundane in the front, but have spectacular living areas in the back overlooking the golf courses. We also get to experience up close some features of nature -- like the creek crossings mentioned above -- that are otherwise inaccessible from the street. Oh, and did I mention that there are restrooms -- with heat and a/c -- about every mile or so?

Not everything about running on the cart paths is perfect. The concrete can be hard on one's feet and joints (I'm not sure it's much worse than the asphalt of the street, but my wife disagrees). Running on the grass can mitigate that but that has its own challenges. We also often have to dodge the course maintenance crews that tend to the greens and sand traps every morning. They're pretty good about yielding the right of way, but there are spots where it's tough for them to get off the path in order to let us by. We try not to impose on their work responsibilities.

The real attraction of the cart paths is the scenery. Views like the ones I've shared today make us feel a continual sense of blessing that we get to live in surroundings like these, and that we're healthy enough to get out and enjoy them.

Photo - Looking down the 10th fairway of Apple Rock, with Lake LBJ as a backdrop
This is the 10th fairway of Apple Rock. It is NOT on our regular route.
If you could see it in person, you'd know why. It's far steeper than it looks.
Even the view of Lake LBJ doesn't motivate us to run there.

Photo - A view of the Ram Rock #16 fairway on a frosty morning
Sunrise over the Ram Rock #16 fairway on a frosty January morning.
Alert Gazette readers will no doubt remember the pair of Egyptian geese that resided last year on the golf course nearest our house. They left for parts unknown after their lone progeny reached maturity, and we wondered if we would see them again. Based on my cursory research, they're not migratory so they'll keep to a specific vicinity as long as there's a sufficient source of water. Our local golf courses provide a consistent supply of water, so perhaps they simply moved to another spot on the course where we couldn't see them from the street.

In any event, they -- or another pair who looks suspiciously like them -- are back. We first noticed them about a month ago during a morning run on a cart path (for local readers, it's the Ram Rock course). They were hanging out near a small bridge spanning a creek about a half mile from our house.

Photo - A pair of Egyptian geese on a creek bank on the golf course

The next couple of times we ran by, at least one of the geese would waddle (or flap) petulantly away from an almost-hidden corner of the bridge and we wondered if they were nesting there.

That question was answered one morning last week when we stopped for a moment and peered down at that sheltered corner.

Photo - Nine Egyptian goose eggs on the ground

As you can see, geese are somewhat cavalier with their nest construction, and the clutch of nine eggs was not accompanied by the presence of, you know, an adult goose. That was concerning.

We were perturbed enough by the absent parents -- and the exposed eggs -- that we returned later that afternoon to check on things. We were relieved to see the following maternal tableau (although, honestly, it could have been a paternal tableau, since both parents take turns hatching the eggs).

Photo - Goose atop the clutch of eggs

We quickly left so as not to disturb the happy scene, and felt that things were once again right with the world.

Alas, our relief was short-lived. On our morning run the following day, we found this unpleasant scene:

Photo - Scattered and broken goose eggs

The eggs were scattered, several were broken and obviously consumed, and more were missing. More bits of eggshell were on the nearby bridge where a predator had apparently stopped for a meal.

Photo - Broken bits of goose eggshell

The pair of geese were about fifty feet away, across the creek. If they were devastated by the dastardly development, they gave no sign, but their vigil was still a bit heart-rending.

Photo - The pair of geese near the destroyed nest

There's no way to know for sure what animal(s) did the damage. My guess is that it was either a raccoon or a fox, but it also could have been a skunk, possum, or even an armadillo (they've been known to dig up and eat turtle eggs).

Honestly, though, this was not a huge surprise. The nest was not well hidden, and although geese are protective of their nest, they're no match for a predator like a fox or raccoon. Raccoons often are found foraging in pairs and two of them could definitely overpower even the most committed geese.

If there's any good news here, it's that the geese have moved downstream, closer to our house, and to the area where they managed to raise progeny last year. So, there's still the possibility that we'll see goslings at some point this spring.

Bienvenidos, 2021. Don't let us down.
January 1, 2021 12:13 PM | Posted in:

Photo - Two Egyptian geese standing on a golf green

Welp, here we go again.

Following a wild 'n crazy NYE (we were in bed before 10:00), we felt justified in sleeping in this morning: I didn't get out of bed until 6:30. (Go ahead and laugh it up; you'll be old someday.)

We got bundled up and headed out the door for a four mile run in the cold and breezy weather, and recovered with a heart healthy breakfast of bacon, eggs, and biscuits. This meaningful experience was followed by online language lessons (Spanish for me; Spanish AND German for her) and Bible reading (Genesis 1-3 and Matthew 1 for me; unknown for her -- we're on different tracks).

I washed and folded a load of laundry. It's now 12:10 p.m. CST and I've completed the first blog post of this new year.

With any luck at all, this will represent a typical day in the most boring year ever. I'm OK with that, and I suspect the geese are as well.

Hasta mañana, o más tarde...

Adios, 2020. Thanks for trying.
December 31, 2020 10:17 AM | Posted in: ,

For all its faults -- and, yes, there were multitudes -- 2020 could have been much worse.

For example, the Patriots could have won the Super Bowl. The Walking Dead could have turned out to be an ongoing documentary series. Beto O'Rourke could have fulfilled 68 Biblical prophecies. Our sun could have gone supernova...although that might not have been all bad, assuming it waited until today so that A&M could end up as a Top Five team in the absolute last CFP poll.

No, looking back on the year, I have to admit that some good things happened and even more bad things didn't occur.

On the plus side, Debbie and I discovered the pleasures joys not-absolutely-horrible experiences of running on golf courses (it only took three years of living 150 feet from one to figure it out). I had approximately 83 doctor's visits but only one of them required a bone graft. Only one of the eight new tires I bought in 2020 had to be replaced within two weeks of purchase. None of the snakes we ran across inside or immediately outside our house proved to be venomous and all of the centipedes we ran across were less than a foot long. I learned that filling a divot inside a cup of Cozy Shack rice pudding with coconut cream is akin to the nectar of the gods. And there was that one time that our internet service actually provided its promised 25 mbps download speed.

I did lose blogging momentum in 2020, ending the year with only about seventy entries (and ten of those occurred during the first ten days of January), so y'all should be thankful for that. I can honestly promise that that will occur again in 2021, because in this area, past results are indeed predictive of future performance. Plus, I'm not trapping raccoons anymore, and that will eliminate about 40% of my potential subject matter.

Anyway, all of this is to simply say...well...I'm not sure. I hope 2020 was relatively kind to you and yours, and that 2021 will improve on all the successes and joys that you found, and replace those you missed. And if 2020 was a profound disappointment in the area of personal goal achievement, perhaps you can take solace in knowing that you weren't alone:

For unto us a child is born...
December 24, 2020 7:20 PM | Posted in:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would some day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered,
Will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary, did you know...?

The blind will see,
The deaf will hear,
And the dead will live again.
The lame will leap,
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb...

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy
Is Heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding
Is the great

"Mary, Did You Know?"
Words by Mark Lowry, music by Buddy Greene

Music Review: Sturgill Simpson's "Cuttin' Grass, vol. 1"
December 2, 2020 8:48 PM | Posted in:

Yeah, two music-related posts in a row. It just sometimes works out that way, but not to worry; we'll return to our usual mindless drivel pretty soon.

If you visit the apparel page on the e-commerce section of Sturgill Simpson's website and scroll down a ways, you'll see a t-shirt with the question "Who The **** Is Sturgill Simpson?" emblazoned across the chest. Of course, there are actual letters in place of the asterisks, but this is a family blog, sort of, so you'll have to use your imagination.

The message on the t-shirt may be crude, but it's actually a pretty insightful question from the perspective of how Simpson's musical focus changes dramatically from album to album.

Album Cover - Cuttin' GrassHis 2016 album, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, earned him a Grammy for Best Country Album (even though cynics would argue the only thing country-sounding on the record is his vocal twang). Sound and Fury is a 2021 Grammy nominee for Best Rock Album. And don't be shocked if Cuttin' Grass, Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions), released digitally in October but just now available in vinyl or CD, doesn't show up in 2022 as a Grammy nominee for Best Bluegrass Album.

Sturgill Simpson grew up in Kentucky and was exposed to bluegrass music at an early age. However, he professes to having been more interested in rock and pop. 

That changed later in life. In his own words:
Many years later, after returning home to Kentucky from the military and living for some time out on the West coast, I was driving down the road one day and the public radio station played an old Monroe Brothers song and it absolutely floored me. A wave of emotion slammed me in the chest and I had to pull over on the side of the road. I was pretty much drifting at the time--completely lost, I guess you could say--and hearing that music brought everything to the surface.

It sounded like home. Bluegrass music is healing. I truly believe this to be true. It is made from ancient, organic tones and, as with most all forms of music, the vibrations and the pulse can be extremely therapeutic.
So, years later, having explored/experimented with different genres of music -- from metal, to psychedelic, to country -- he decided to try his hand at bluegrass. He surrounded himself with some of the most accomplished musicians in the genre, partnered with his favorite engineer/producer, and in three days recorded Cuttin' Grass.

The special genius of this collection is that each song was previously recorded by Simpson, but not in a bluegrass arrangement. Again, from Sturgill:
I typically go into the studio with most of the album written in my head and end up throwing half the songs away and writing the rest during the process once the album reveals itself for what it wants to be. But with this record, I just went though my back catalogue and listed which songs I thought would work best and surrounded myself with musical wizards, so at most there might have been some second takes...but not many. Once they learned the form, we just went in and hit record. Ferg [engineer David Ferguson] and I told everyone, "What you play off the floor is what it's going to be--we're not punching in solos or overdubbing anything, it's just going to be totally raw and live." Due to modern recording technology and the endless choices it brings, even modern bluegrass recordings have suffered from the soul-sucking pursuit of perfection. Merle Haggard once told me that "perfect is about the most boring thing on Earth." When it comes to music, he was dead on. As a result it was the fastest recording I've ever made.

Adapting the songs was pretty easy; even a few of the tunes that I thought might be a little weird worked very easily. Some of the more esoteric psycho-babble songs, like the song "Just Let Go," we got in the first take. It was just extremely easy, fun, everybody was laughing the whole time. Mostly, I was just humbled and amazed to be in the room with all these musicians. You can't overstate all their talents--truly next-level freak show kind of stuff.
Now, there are a ton of examples of where someone has taken a song from one genre and rearranged it to sound like bluegrass. For example, I have in my iTunes collection a bluegrass version of Wipeout, and another of Run DMC's Walk This Way. They're fun arrangements, and the musicianship is fairly impressive...but they're still gimmicks. The songs on Cuttin' Grass, in contrast, are the real deal, starting with the quality of the lyrics. Sturgill Simpson is a gifted songwriter, and the arrangements complement the lyrics in an easy and natural way.

Still, I find it fascinating how the musicians on this record were able to transform the songs from their original genres. It's almost as if Simpson unconsciously realized that they were bluegrass from the get-go, just biding their time to reveal their true characters.

I've taken the liberty of editing snippets from a couple of songs so you can compare the original arrangements to the new bluegrass versions. Both of the songs are from the previously mentioned Grammy-winning A Sailor's Guide to Earth, the inspiration for which came from the birth of Sturgill's son. Each sample has a short segment from the original arrangement, followed by three seconds of silence, then the same lyrical segment from the new album.

The first sample is taken from a song entitled Breakers Roar. As you'll hear, the original arrangement is a lush, almost melancholy production. The new version is more stripped down, but no less heartfelt. [mp3; length - 1:50]

The second example, All Around You, contrasts a slow, horns-heavy bluesy original with an upbeat mandolin-forward version. [mp3; length - 1:03] 

I confess that I'm not sure I know anyone personally who is a big fan of bluegrass music, and I further admit that I came to the genre only within the last few years myself. But the more overproduced and lyrically shallow songs I hear coming from Nashville, the more I'm drawn to the simplicity and honesty of the kind of music I hear on this record. You should give it a try; you might surprise yourself.