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.
From Elvis In Nashville (hereafter referred to as FEIN to spare my typing fingers), a compilation of songs by you-know-who that became available last Friday, raises two questions.

First, how much Elvis is too much Elvis? Second, assuming your answer to the first question isn't "any Elvis is too much Elvis," which Elvis do you prefer?

Album coverI've spent a considerable amount of time over the last two days listening to FEIN. I call it a compilation instead of an album or a record, because it's a multi-volume collection of 74 items (the iTunes term for tracks is particularly useful in this case because we're not necessarily speaking only of songs) totaling four hours, twenty-five minutes, and fifty-four seconds of listening time. In other words, it's a beast and one could be forgiven for thinking it would be a slog to get through. Hence, my first question.

Some context is essential. In June of 1970, Elvis Presley traveled from his beloved Memphis to RCA's Studio B on Music Row in Nashville, and spent a week with some of the world's best studio musicians (a group you've no doubt heard referred to as the Nashville Cats). That week of work resulted in three albums. The first 40 or so songs on FEIN are the remastered studio recordings of those albums. 

So, why not just buy those albums and save oneself a few hours of listening? Well, primarily because the albums in their final form did not do justice -- in my opinion -- to what took place in the studio. They were overproduced -- again, my opinion -- with the addition of horns and strings, background singers, and other effects that sometimes masked, or at least distorted, the brilliance of the original music. But don't take my word for it; here's what a writer at Rolling Stone Magazine has to say about it:
While those albums had their moments, they also suffered from being overly polished. ... From Elvis in Nashville removes those distractions to focus on Elvis's voice and the chemistry of the band. -- Joseph Hudak
The operative word here is "chemistry," and FEIN makes it crystal clear that Elvis and his studio teammates are absolutely comfortable with each other, and the resulting music is a revelation.

I was not a fan of Elvis's music until later in life. I didn't dislike it; it just wasn't on my musical radar. But as I've aged, my musical horizons have expanded (forgive the tired cliché), and I've come to appreciate his unique talents. FEIN has taken my appreciation to another level. 

So, you may ask, if the first forty tracks are basically the final studio recordings of songs that were released on albums, what about the remaining thirty-four? Excellent question, and easily answered. Those tracks are rehearsals and preliminary takes of the final recordings, along with a couple of brief jam sessions in which the Cats cut loose on their own. 

For example, the final version of Twenty Days and Twenty Nights runs just over 3 1/2 minutes; the preliminary version is comprised of takes 5, 6, & 8 (7 must have been horrible) and runs almost six minutes. So, why would anybody want to listen to recordings of efforts that weren't deemed good enough to land on an album? That's slightly harder to explain. 

For me, it comes down to being curious about how music is songs are constructed or assembled. The additional tracks on FEIN give us a peek inside the sausage factory, so to speak, by capturing the dialog among Elvis, the musicians, and the producer, and when taken in total, reveal much of that chemistry mentioned in the quote above. Granted, this means that about half of FEIN is not something that you'd put on the stereo at a party or even for background music; it requires careful listening (I highly recommend doing that via a good pair of headphones) and a desire to hear more than just the musical notes.

So, let's end by riffing on the first two questions I posed at the top of this post. If your tolerance for Elvis's music is limited to the popular songs on which his fame rests -- and this probably encompasses the majority of people -- FEIN might be too much Elvis. On the plus side, there's such a wide range of styles and genres represented on this compilation, ranging from overwrought ballads to down-the-line country to conventional covers to swinging rock and roll to songs bordering on novelty, that everyone is likely to find something that appeals to them. But if you're in it solely for the music, you might find half of the compilation boring or unnecessary.

The second question -- which Elvis do you prefer? -- comes down to this: did you like the Las Vegas glitzy big-production Elvis-as-entertainer (try not to focus on body image issues), or did you appreciate more his talents as a pure musician? I'm firmly in the latter category, and for anyone else who falls alongside me, I highly recommend FEIN.

Additional Notes:

I haven't touched on the technical aspects of this recording but the remastering supervised by sound engineer Matt Ross-Spang is an impressive bit of artistry on its own. I mentioned earlier that listening on headphones was a good way to catch the background dialog, but it will also underscore the absolute clarity of the music itself.

Don't be misled by the description of the music as not being "overproduced." These are not stripped down, simplistic arrangements. The Nashville Cats as a group produce a complex-yet-clean musical setting for Elvis's vocals; it's a thing of beauty when eight musicians at the top of their individual games come together in a flawless, tight production.

This collection has way too many tracks to review individually, but there are a handful worth spotlighting. Elvis's covers of classic country songs like Bob Wills's Faded Love, Make The World Go Away (popularized by Eddy Arnold), and Willie Nelson's Funny How Time Slips Away are standouts.

Then there's Whole Lot-ta Shakin' Going On, a high-energy (an understatement) arrangement in which Elvis eventually succumbs to scatting that is almost indistinguishable from ecstatic glossolalia. 

Finally, it's worth pointing out that the recordings of the rehearsals and preliminary takes are uncensored, and in at least one case, neither is the final studio version. Got My Mojo Working / Keep Your Hands Off of It appeared on the 1970 album Love Letters from Elvis. That version has been carefully edited, and not just to add horns, strings, and background singers. If you listen closely, you might pick up on the briefest of skips in the lyrics. The version that emerged from the studio as heard on FEIN has those skips filled in, as well as keeps some editorial comment by Elvis after the song ends. Without going into detail, let me just say that the FEIN version was somehow overlooked by Apple's iTunes Store censors, as it would normally earn the "E" flag (for "Explicit"). 
Debbie and I recently returned from a very enjoyable and occasionally adventuresome stay on South Padre Island with our good friends Sam and Trish. Their house is mere yards from Lower Laguna Madre (aka "the Bay") which bounds the island on the west side, and an easy walk from the Gulf of Mexico (aka "the Gulf" [duh]) on the east side of the island. 

If you live anywhere north or west of San Antonio, you probably know that getting to South Padre Island (hereinafter cleverly referred to as "SPI") is a bit of a slog, driving-wise. It's not a hard drive, just a long one. Most of the route south of San Antonio is on two interstates, first I-37 and then I-69, the latter of which deserves the title of the nation's weirdest interstate. Feel free to look it up if you don't believe me. Plus, it's the only interstate highway I've ever driven that has 20 mph school zones in places. I'm sure there are others; I mention that fact only to warn you that speed limits along I-69 vary abruptly and precipitously, and the local constabulary maintains a constant vigilant presence along much of the route, if you get my drift.

Anyway, the drive to SPI is worth making, especially if you have such great hosts, and by "great" I mean -- among more traditional definitions -- the unwillingness to try to talk you out of certain foolhardy endeavors. More about that later.

We hauled our two inflatable paddle boards (Sea Eagle LB11s) plus our inflatable tandem kayak (Sea Eagle 385ft) in the bed of the truck, knowing that we'd be spending a lot of time in the water, weather permitting. Sam and Trish also have the same model of paddle boards.

Our first outing was paddle boarding on the Bay. It's not unusual for the winds to be too strong for stand up paddle boarding (I've written before about my windsurfing fiasco on the Bay), but we were blessed with an absolutely calm, clear, and warm day. We ended up paddling about three miles, round trip, and had a great time.

Photo - Trish, Sam, Debbie paddle boarding on South Laguna Madre
Trish, Sam, and Debbie paddling to the horizon

One of the neat things about the Bay is that it's very shallow, averaging three feet or less except for some narrow boat channels here and there. It would be possible, albeit non-advisable -- it's about seven miles -- to wade from SPI to the Texas mainland near Port Isabel. The shallow depth and calm water meant that we could observe some of the abundant sea life that thrives there, including southern stingrays, crabs, snake eels, and lots of fish of different and unknown (to me) species.

On day two, we drove forty-five miles to go ten miles. Our destination was Boca Chica Beach, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf. There's no direct route to get there, so it's 20-something miles from SPI to Brownsville, and then an almost 180-degree turn takes you back along State Highway 4 another 20-something miles, where the road dead-ends into the Gulf. Turn right onto the beach and head a couple of miles across the sand and you'll find yourself watching as river water flows one direction and ocean water flows the other and they form a blue/brown swirl.

Photo - A deserted section of the Boca Chica beach
A line of pelicans head south along the shoreline at Boca Chica

Photo - The delta where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico
Looking toward the mouth of the Rio Grande

Photo - A heron keeps watch over Boca Chica beach
This wizened-looking heron appeared to be keeping watch over the beach at Boca Chica.

Our day trip had a dual purpose. The route brought us to incredible scenes of nature, but it also took us past an impressive manmade achievement. Boca Chica is the location for the SpaceX suborbital launch site, as well as the main production facility for SpaceX's Starship spacecraft and SuperHeavy first-stage booster rockets. In combination, they comprise the system that SpaceX plans to use to carry crew and cargo to the moon, to Mars...and beyond (*cue the Star Trek theme song*).

There's way too much to discuss about SpaceX's presence in South Texas (visit the preceding link to fill in any knowledge gaps), and I don't understand most of what we saw on this day trip, but here are a few photos to give you a sense of what's down there.

Photo - SpaceX production facility at Boca Chica
Part of the SpaceX production facility. If you could peek inside that tower, you might see a spacecraft under construction.

Photo - SpaceX's Starship SN8 on test facility
SpaceX's Starship SN8 at the testing facility. I can't believe they wouldn't let me fly my drone there.

Photo - View of SpaceX's Starship SN8 from Boca Chica beach
SpaceX's Starship SN8 as seen from Boca Chica Beach, perhaps a mile away. I have no idea what the structure on the right is used for (platform for testing the Starhopper, perhaps?). Hey, really need better signage, amigo.
Update (11/21/2020): My slightly better-looking but MUCH older cousin, Marshall, pointed me to this video which has a highly-educated guess about the purpose of the mystery structure shown in the photo above. The entire video is interesting, but the actual reference in question appears after the eleven minute mark.

Photo - Closeup view of SpaceX's Starship SN8
Closer view of SpaceX's Starship SN8. That's dust -- not smoke or steam -- blowing around the base. Interesting to note that Elon Musk has been quoted as saying the inspiration for the rocket's shape comes from Explorers on the Moon, the 1950s Belgian comics series featuring Tintin.

Photo - SpaceX's Starhopper
This is the Starship Hopper or Starhopper, a low altitude vehicle previously used by SpaceX to test the rocket engines -- named Raptors because why not? -- and other components that will be used in the Starship. This one is now out of service, and has been repurposed for something else that's probably classified and well above my pay grade.

Say, speaking of design inspiration...does that Starhopper remind you of anything else? Anything at all?

How about now...

Photo - Comparison of Spacehopper to R2D2
Nothing new under the sun

You'll recall that the Boca Chica launch site is about ten miles from SPI, as the crow flies. Ten miles seems like a long way, but Sam and Trish told us that when SpaceX fires up its test engines, the sound rattles their windows.

The next day, we hauled our kayak to a Gulf-facing beach on the north side of SPI. As I mentioned at the top of the show, foolhardy endeavors were bound to appear on the agenda at some point, and this day was that time. Sam and I had made a pact to see if the non-seagoing kayak could thrive -- or at least survive -- in the semi-pounding surf rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico. 

According to Sea Eagle's website, the 385ft is rated for Class II rapids, which are defined as those with regular waves... maneuvering required...handled by intermediates who can maneuver canoes and read water. Of course, this classification actually only applies to rivers, not to open ocean. And while we certainly were going to confront regular waves, the classification says nothing about how high those waves should be. And, finally, there's that last requirement about the skill level of the kayak's operator(s). We were emphatically lacking in all stated qualifications. In other words...bring it on!

Under the watchful eyes of our wives (Debbie was the videographer), who were remarkably calm, having already consulted our life insurance policies, Sam and I ventured bravely into the raging sea. I could exhaust my vocabulary describing what happened, but how about just watching a short video instead?

Pretty impressive, huh?

What you don't see on the video is that by the time we confronted the second or third wave, the kayak was filled to the gunwales (that's a real nautical term...I think) with water, as the waves were big enough to wash completely over us. It's a testament to the design of the kayak that we never came close to sinking, and we could still maneuver it, albeit not gracefully.

The biggest problem with a kayak full of water is that it's pretty dang heavy, so heavy that we couldn't lift it out of the water when we returned to shore and could hardly even turn it over to empty it.

The other aspect that's missing from the video is the fact that we didn't get nearly as far into the Gulf as we thought or planned. We were so busy trying to stay upright and pointed into the waves that we made very little actual headway. It took us about a tenth of the time to return to shore as it did to get out into the Gulf, and that included the only time we capsized (we turned slightly sideways coming back in and an opportunistic wave took advantage of that mistake).

We were out less than twenty minutes, and arrived back onshore completely exhausted and bedraggled. 

We can't wait to do it again.

Our last full day SPI  included church services at Island Baptist Church (where the pastor is an Aggie and joined me in celebrating a big football win over South Carolina the previous day) and kayaking/paddle boarding in the Bay. It was a good finale to a great getaway.

But we cannot close this chapter without remarking on the weather and the sunsets. It's my observation that every region of Texas claims to have the best sunsets, but in all honesty, our home in the Hill Country is sub-par in that regard simply because of all the trees and, well, hills. But SPI has no such distractions, and the view from our hosts' balcony offers exquisite views almost every evening.

Photo - Sunset on South Padre Island
A typical sunset over Laguna Madre

But the weather there can be a bit...unusual. Don't take my word for it; Weatherbug never lies.*

Photo - Screen capture of Weatherbug app showing humidity to be 1%
Does this look right to you? 

If you've never been to SPI, you should consider adding it to your bucket list. It's a special place, even if the humidity is off the scale.

*Weatherbug always lies.
Apologies for the post title. RhymeZone let me down again.

God gave us ten commandments that are intended to create a pretty good basis for life, but sometimes life calls for something a bit more...specific. Like, say, don't eat yellow snow. Or don't talk about Fight Club. Or, for example, don't squat with your spurs on or bring a flamethrower to a pillow fight. (I might have misunderstood that last one, but it sounds like a good idea anyway.)

I adhere to the aforementioned rules plus countless others, many of which I learned via the consequences of violating them before I knew their importance or relevance. And, recently, I added a new one: don't open an animal trap before you know what's in it.

As you may recall, I keep two armadillo traps in the back yard pretty much year around. Why? Well, I've trapped 82 so far, so the "why" should be obvious.

The traps are basically rectangular wooden boxes with doors that drop down on either end when an animal wanders into them. They have pretty sensitive triggers, so the doors sometimes drop to wind, or because a squirrel got in and then escaped through the small hole in the top where the trigger hangs down. And occasionally a particularly intrepid armadillo will manage to lift one of the doors and escape, and it drops back down afterward. Closed trap doors don't necessarily mean there's an armadillo inside.

Photo - Armadillo trap with closed doors

My normal routine is to check them first thing in the morning because it's not nice to leave an animal in a trap for too long. If the doors are down, my usual means of checking for the presence of an armadillo is to lift one end of the trap and listen for an animal sliding around inside (the armadillos are usually asleep by this time). This has proven to be a failsafe method of knowing what my next steps should be: reset the empty trap, or haul the armadillo far away for a safe release.

However, I recently learned that "failsafe" is no longer an applicable adjective.

Last week, I went into the back yard shortly after sunrise and saw that the doors were closed on one of the traps. I started toward it, intending to tip the box to confirm there was an armadillo inside, and as I got closer, a small, dark-colored head popped out of the hole in the top of the trap, and just as quickly disappeared. 

"Well, great..." I thought to myself, "...a rock squirrel got inside overnight and can't get out."

Alert Gazette readers will no doubt recall that there's a[t least one] family of rock squirrels living on the creek bank behind our house. You'll also remember that those squirrels are much darker than tree squirrels; their coloring ranges from dark brown to almost black. They're also bigger than tree squirrels so it's not impossible that one could get trapped.

However, as I got closer and the head popped out and back in, I realized that it was not a squirrel at all. See if you can guess what I was dealing with*...

Armadillo trap with skunk

Fortunately, I was wearing my x-ray glasses**, and was able to confirm the identity of the occupant of the box...

Armadillo trap with skunk - X-ray style image

That, mis amigos, is a Mephitis mephitis, aka striped skunk, and it had no business occupying an armadillo trap. Especially since I now had the unenviable task of getting it out.

I tip-toed to the trap and carefully peered through the small hole in the top, and if there was any doubt before about the occupant, it was now gone.

Photo - Armadillo trap with skunk inside

Now, notice the wood shavings on top of the trap (as well as on the skunk's back). It seems that the animal didn't take kindly to being incarcerated and decided to chew its way out. Here's a better view of the damage it was able to do.

Photo - Armadillo trap showing evidence of chewing by skunk

The stick hanging down is the trap's trigger and it should be about six inches longer***. From a biological taxonomy perspective, skunks and beavers have nothing in common except membership in the class Mammalia, but they both seem to know their way around a piece of wood.

Fortunately, releasing a skunk from a wooden armadillo trap is considerably less fraught than getting them out of a wire varmint trap [see here and also here]. Since they can't see you, it's easy to sneak up and gently lift the door on one end of the trap (preferably on the end opposite of where you'll be standing; this should be another rule to add to the list).

Photo - Opening the door of the armadillo trap

Once the door was opened, I quickly retreated to a safe spot (I hoped) to observe the skunk's exit. It took a few minutes before the animal decided it was safe to leave. (I apologize for the blurry photo; it's actually a screen capture from a video.)

Photo - skunk emerging from armadillo trap

However, the skunk apparently spotted me and -- similar to the groundhog seeing its shadow -- quickly retreated back into the trap. It apparently had no inkling that I was much less a threat to it than it was to me.

I positioned myself on the wooden deck overlooking the trap and tossed a few pecans and sticks down hoping to startle the skunk enough to make it leave, but not enough to make it you-know-what. 

That strategy had mixed results, in that it did succeed in making the skunk leave the trap, but it also caused it to head directly under the deck. We've got our fingers crossed that that was a very temporary refuge.

Needless to say, I have a new tactic for checking the contents of an armadillo trap, one that doesn't involve upending it. And this is one rule that's not made to be broken.

But there's still an unanswered question: what would prompt a skunk to enter a dark, non-baited box that smells like armadillo? Was it a sense of adventure, or a state of inebriation, or perhaps a dare from one of its skunk frat brothers? It's a mystery.

* Full disclosure: this is actually a mockup of the protruding skunk head, as I wasn't quick enough with my phone to capture an actual photo. Sorry [not sorry] for fooling you.

**I don't really have x-ray glasses, and I'm still mad about that misleading ad in the back of that March, 1966 edition of Mad Magazine.

***Thanks to the skunk, I had to fashion a new trigger for the trap. The replacement will withstand a beaver assault [famous last words, right?].

Steam Fog on Lake LBJ
October 28, 2020 7:50 PM | Posted in: ,

Folks who live in close proximity to Lake LBJ no doubt noticed an eerie phenomenon yesterday. Even though it was not a foggy day, the lake was covered with a thick blanket of what looked like smoke or mist...and the windy conditions blew that fog across the sky so that at times it did resemble smoke from a wildfire. 

It was a malevolant presence, likely concealing horrible apparitions. Although that could have been my imagination, given that this is the week of Halloween and I may have watched the movie adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Mist a few too many times. 

In reality, what we were witnessing was a meteorological phenomenon known as steam fog (aka steam smoke, water smoke, sea mist, etc.). It's not uncommon in these parts, but it's rarely as thick as it was yesterday. In fact, for most of the day, the surface of the lake was completely obscured.

Steam fog occurs when cold, dry air moves across the surface of warmer water. So when that frigid cold front blew in Monday night and dropped temperatures a couple of scores of degrees, we got to witness the result of textbook conditions for the creation of steam fog.

I spent a half hour or so taking some photos of Lake LBJ in an attempt to capture some of the mysterious-looking fog. Here's a photo of the Wirtz Dam shrouded in fog. The area between the dam in the background and the trees in the foreground is all lake.

Photo - Steam Fog over Lake LBJ (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

This photo below shows Horseshoe Bay Resort (foreground) and some condominium complexes (mid-ground). The long thin row of trees along the background is Lighthouse Drive, and you might be able to vaguely make out the northern shore of Lake LBJ. Again, the strips of fog are resting on what would normally be seen as water.

Photo - Steam Fog over Lake LBJ (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

Of course, the steam fog phenomenon isn't always scary or eerie. It can create quite a beautiful scene, such as the early spring occurrence on the creek behind our house, as shown below.

Photo - Steam Fog on the surface of Pecan Creek (Horseshoe Bay, Texas)

I'm not normally a fan of frigid, windy weather, but when it results in amazing phenomena like steam fog on the lake, it's hard not to be impressed.

Caterpillar Complaints and Captures
October 16, 2020 11:24 AM | Posted in: ,

Spoof of Indiana Jones movie still

Alert Gazette readers will recall my lament from last spring regarding an infestation of walnut caterpillars and their fecal flotsam. Well...lucky us. It turns out that these creatures make twice annual appearances -- spring AND fall -- and we're now in the middle of their curtain call.

This is also the time of year that the pecan trees begin to drop their leaves, so we're dealing not only with caterpillar poop falling onto our deck from the trees in our back yard, but also the leaves. My mid-morning ritual now consists of firing up the leaf blower in an attempt to bring a modicum of order to the deck and back porch. Of course, those efforts yield results that last at best a half hour or so, but, like Sisyphus pushing that rock, my fate is simply to keep trying.

Now, all of this is annoying enough, but this is also the time of year when the walnut caterpillars launch themselves from the tree and rain down like multi-legged storm troopers. In the past, we've tried (a) ignoring them, (b) sweeping them, and (c) squishing them. The first approach proved unworkable, the second was futile, and the third was gross. So, this time around I've initiated Option D: harvesting them. 

Equipped with leather gloves and a bucket, I've picked up literally hundreds of caterpillars. I realize that for every one I catch, there are probably a hundred more that go...somewhere. But I figure that for every one I catch, that's one less to deal with next spring when the next generation hatches.

I haven't figured out their life cycle or behavioral patterns. I mean, they drop out of the trees, but then immediately find the nearest wall and start climbing back up again. I don't know; maybe it's like an amusement park ride to them. But it's a somewhat unsettling thing to stand on the back porch to watch -- and hear...they make a faint but obvious plop when they hit -- them fall. They seem to be slightly stunned when they hit the deck, but quickly recover and start crawling around.

Anyway, I'm collecting caterpillars by the bucket, and the creepiness factor increases when you look into said bucket. The following scene brings to mind the phobia of Indiana Jones:

Animated gif of walnut caterpillars crawling around in a bucket
They could be really short snakes.

As with most things, this too shall pass. At least walnut caterpillars don't transmit COVID-19.

Do they?

A Story
October 12, 2020 2:46 PM | Posted in: ,

I wrote the following story more than a decade ago. I posted it to the Gazette at that time, but for reasons now lost to me, I didn't include it a few years later when I rebooted the blog following an extended hiatus.

My inspiration came from the life of a real person, someone who -- as it is often said -- was famous for being famous. You would recognize the name, but it's not really important, because it could be about any one of least where the important facts are concerned. Anyway, while contemplating the hot mess she had made of her life, I began to think about how God might use one very flawed individual to affect the entire human race.

My purpose in republishing this is because today, in 2020 -- a year of grief and strife and uncertainty -- it's exceedingly important to understand that there's more to this world and this life than our physical eyes can perceive. Spiritual forces and battles swirl all around us, and they often envelop us. But there is a God Whose love, grace, and mercy provides us assurance that in the end, He is our Rock...our Advocate...our Salvation.

Once upon a time, there was a little golden-haired girl who slumbered in silken sheets, and God whispered his love to her, and she smiled in her sleep.

As she grew older, God continued to whisper to her, but she forgot how to listen to him. She smiled less and less, even though she lived in the midst of riches that the rest of the world could only guess at.

At some point, she began again to hear a voice in her sleep, but it wasn't God speaking, and it didn't make her smile. This voice didn't tell her she was loved, but that she could be loved, if only she would do...things. Things she knew were unspeakable, but the voice convinced her otherwise.

So she did them, and sure enough, the world said that it loved her. The more outrageously she behaved, the more it applauded her, and the stronger the voice spoke to her in those times no one else would.

Then one day, she did things that even the world would not accept, and her freedom was taken away from her. Everything she held important was taken away.

As she lay on her prison bunk, far from the silken sheets of her youth and drifting in and out of a fitful sleep, the golden-haired girl thought she heard a familiar voice, so soft, so tender. She didn't know how to answer the voice; she didn't know if she even deserved to hear it. But she lay still and silent, and then a wonderful, unimaginable thing happened. She was changed -- not physically, not so you tell just from looking at her, although the smile she'd lost as a little girl returned -- but in her heart and soul and spirit.

Later, when she was released, the world pretended again to care, and the acclamation seemed overwhelming but the young woman was untouched by it all. The world didn't notice.

A television network came to her and offered a vast sum of money if she would tell her story in front of their cameras, much to the outrage of the competing networks who deemed it unethical (besides, they would have paid more). She agreed to do so, and was soon seated in a studio across from a professional-looking woman -- a TV star -- who had a long list of questions designed to satisfy the needs of the millions of people who would be watching when the taped segment was finally aired.

So, tell us what prison was like, began the professional interviewer, who had heard it all before, many times over.

I will tell you, but first, I want to thank your network for paying me so much money to be here. And I want to let you know that I will be donating that money -- plus another five hundred million dollars -- to an organization called Voice of the Martyrs.

The interviewer frowned, and heard frantic conversation from the director and crew over her earpiece. What is Voice of the Martyrs?! Who knows anything about it? Oh, you've got to be kidding me: it's something religious!

The golden-haired woman continued, with an assurance hitherto unseen. Prison was both the worst and the best experience of my life. But what I want you to know is that I learned once more how to listen to God, and I re-learned his love and grace. I let him change me, and as wonderful as that is, what I want more than anything in the world is for you to experience that same change.

The interviewer's eyes had narrowed to slits, her worldly cynicism turning her lips to flint. She'd heard it all, and she wasn't buying it.

The golden-haired woman continued speaking, her voice low and calm and sweet, her face beatific. And another marvelous thing happened. As she listened to the woman's story, the interviewer's features began to soften, following her heart. Her lips loosened and her eyes widened and glistened. And wondrously, inconceivably, she found herself down on her knees, sobbing and crying out to the same God she'd denied her entire life, since the time she, too, decided to stop listening to his voice in her youthful sleep. 

The golden-haired girl knelt in front of the TV star, wrapping her lovely arms around the star's shaking shoulders, and calming her with whispers of God's love and redemption.

The producers and director were aghast, and the network executives wasted no time in calling to express their extreme displeasure. We can't use this; it's completely worthless. We'll be laughingstocks around the world. They instructed the producers to destroy the tape, and they mentally wrote off their investment.

Leaving the studio an hour later, the golden-haired woman emerged from the studio hand-in-hand with the interviewer, both faces tear-streaked but smiling, and were engulfed by waiting paparazzi and hangers-on who were oblivious to what had just occurred on the closed set inside the building.

The pair pressed through the mob, the people reluctantly parting, puzzled at the expressions on the faces of the two women. At the street corner, they hugged, and the TV star continued to the right to her parking space. The golden-haired girl waited for the light to change so that she could cross the street to a waiting limo. She found herself standing next to a bag lady, pushing a shopping cart and heading in the same direction.

The bag lady, seemingly confused by the scene at the nearby studio and mumbling incoherently to herself, stepped off the curb before the light changed, unmindful of the onrushing bus. No one noticed, because they were all focused -- eyes and cameras -- on the golden-haired woman.

And thus they were witnesses to the shattering impact of the bus slamming against her slender body, but not before her sacrificial leap had pushed the bag lady out of harm's way. The mob grew temporarily silent at the sight of golden-haired woman's lifeless body, limp and broken, but some would later speak of an inexplicable smile on the lips.

None of them noticed the bag lady's exit, nor the faint glow emanating from beneath the tattered red watch cap she wore.

As expected, hundreds of photos and videos of the golden-haired woman's unselfish act appeared within hours on the internet and via national and international news broadcasts. However, the release of the taped network interview on YouTube was completely unexpected -- and unexplained. The producers would later swear that it had been destroyed immediately following the phone call from their bosses.

Within a few days, every corner of the earth had seen or heard the golden-haired girl's clear and beautiful testimony of God's salvation, and her cogent explanation of how to follow in her footsteps.

Then, a few days later, seven trumpet calls, blown by unseen lips, were heard 'round the world.

This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14 (NASB)

For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." 1 Corinthians 1:19 (NIV)