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 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's really fun to play with. And in observance of Texas temporarily becoming a...well, you'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 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.
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?].