More Than Enough–on walking at 5:00 a.m.

I’ve been thinking about topophilia of late. “One’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to a place,” as University of Wisconsin geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who coined the term, defines it. Where I’ve had this feeling, of being tied to and restored by a place, is just outside my door. 

This morning I can’t see much of the place because I’m out in the pre-dawn hours, walking. In a walk around the block that’s not a block, a block that’s bigger than a block (a road sign calls the street Wagon Wheel Lane, but it’s more oval than a circle) in a thirty-minute walk consisting of four laps, I cover a mile and a half. It’s just me and the road, thirty dark houses, the sky, and the shadows. 

What is it about walking in the not-quite dark? The sky feels closer, and deeper. This morning there’s a bright full moon in the west. On the east side of the earth, Venus outshines the stars. I carry a small flashlight with me, in case a car or jogger or dog walker comes by, to announce my form, but at this hour I’m all by myself. A mile away, on Telegraph Road, a heavily loaded truck slowly accelerates. I hear an owl in a tall pine close to the road. Otherwise, quiet.

I am temporarily and self-consciously alone.


Later today my wife and I will walk together. This time of year we have to walk carefully, because the walnuts are dropping.

We have a short-long walk (five miles) and a long walk (eight miles), in and around and out of the neighborhood. Depending on how we feel or the time of day or the weather, we alternate these two routes.  All through June and July, along the short-long route we take note of the walnut trees bearing the best fruit on limbs that are low enough for us to reach. “There’s one,” Tizi says.  “Look at those,” I say. And we point up into branches heavy with walnuts, hard green globes, some almost the size of tennis balls. 

We tell ourselves we’ll have to remember these spots. Ballantrae Road. Inveray Road. Inkster between Quarton and Lone Pine. 

Late July and early August, when the nuts are ready, we come back in the car, stop by the side of the road, and pick 75-100 walnuts for a liqueur our daughter makes. Grain alcohol, split walnuts (including the pungent lime-green jackets), orange peel, cloves, some sugar, and a long infusion period. In six weeks to two months, the mix will turn brown, then black, until it’s time for filtering and bottling. Nocino, the Italians call it. A digestivo. 

By the end of September, the rest of the walnuts have softened. They drop from the trees and break open, revealing their ugly black innards. The roads and sidewalks are a smear with these drops. For weeks, where the best trees are, we’ll walk single file, carefully stepping around the inky splotches underfoot.

While we walk with difficulty, we talk. Also with difficulty. 

Single file walking was not made for a person hard of hearing. This morning, ten feet ahead of me, Tizi asks me a question. 

My answer: “Huh?” 

In certain spots along this sidewalk you can hear the thud of falling walnuts. Fat rain. What if I got hit on the head by one?

She repeats the question. I know it’s a question because of the rising intonation at the end of the sentence, but I still didn’t get it.  

Since I started thinking about being beaned by a walnut, I’ve been humming to myself, an affliction I enjoy–readily available music in my head. I ask her: “Who sang that song, ‘The raindrops keep falling on my head’?” 

She answers, without turning, “Burt Bacharach.” For some reason, I hear and understand this.

“He wrote the song,” I say. “Someone else sang it.”  

“Dione Warwick.”

“It was a guy.” I find out later that it was B.J. Thomas. I have to look it up. I think for a second, then start to sing, to the tune of that song, “Black walnuts keep falling on my head.”

“Watch out. Here’s a bad spot,” she says, pointing at a section of sidewalk shaded over with walnut trees, patches of cement stained black. So bad she slows down a little, closing the distance between us. 

And I’m still singing: “But that doesn’t mean my hair will soon be turning black…”

I’m sure she would like to change the station. It’s a sappy song, truly. And she’s got it in for Burt Bacharach, whom she thinks of as one of the kings of sap (Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, she does not cotton to you either.)  

It’s warm this morning. She stops, pulls off her jacket and hands it to me. “Hold this,” she says. 

I can’t help myself. It’s not heavy, it’s her jacket. I sing this, to the tune of “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” She shakes her head. Whereas I can never have too much music, even music I don’t particularly like, she can. I’m testing her patience. 

“Do you have a calorie counter on that thing?  That’s what I wanted to know, back there.” 

My Fitbit, she means. I can tell her how many steps we’ve walked, and yes, probably how many calories we’ve burned. I’m still learning the device.  

Behind me another walnut hits the sidewalk. We carefully resume our steps, and I think: What if I got hit on the head by a walnut and it miraculously restored my hearing? Not just normal hearing. What if it made me a super-auditor? I could hear everything Tizi says, on our walk, in the house. I could hear those two guys working inside that house across Lone Pine road right now, those two women walking in our direction, a quarter mile away. In restaurants, two lovers at a table in the back, whispering to each other. 

These things happen–a bump on the head, then miracles–on tv, in the movies, in medical literature. Suddenly this guy knows the square root of any number you give him. Suddenly this woman speaks perfect Portuguese. In medical literature, this phenomenon is called “acquired savant syndrome.” Scientific American calls it “brain gain,” citing the example of a woman who suddenly feels the need to draw triangles, which evolves into accomplished abstract design in the manner of Frieda Khalo and Picasso. A boy hit on the head with a baseball can suddenly compose piano concertos. 

Or what if I could suddenly remember everything–the names of all the teachers I ever had, the kids in every class I ever sat in, as a student and as a teacher; all the significant conversations, even the most trivial small talk; the words to every song I ever heard. Right now, on the jukebox that is my brain, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” is playing. It’s a song I’ve heard 500 times, and I know only these words: “I am just a poor boy though my story’s seldom told…something or other, something or other, then “In his anger and his pain, I am leaving I am leaving,” something or other, something or other, “…lie lie lie…lie lie lie…”

On the home stretch down Van Ness, Tizi says something like ikle blat.


Again, ikle blat.

I have to catch up. We’ll stop under a large maple tree where every morning she smells something she can’t put her finger or her nose on. “Do you smell that?” she’ll say.  And I’ll say no, no I don’t. In addition to auditory, do I have olfactory deficit? What would a surfeit of smell be like, being a super smeller? Maybe wonderful. Possibly terrible. Any such surfeit could be a curse.

“Broken glass,” she says now. “I wondered if you saw the broken glass back there.”


All but four of the thirty houses have yard lights on at 5:00 a.m. It’s a neighborly contribution of light, I know, in the interest of safety. But the moon is more than enough. The shadows of the tall cottonwoods make the road look wet, like giant walnut stains, also like islands or continents that I walk across. 

Part of the time out there I’m thinking about green beans and when I ought to get a haircut (soon). Then again, I can’t look up at that sky and not feel something, not be awed by the depth of its emptiness and also by a kind of presence. Back home I consult my Emerson for help, Emerson, who referred to “over-soul,” not god, but something mystical that helps man and woman “weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but live with a divine unity.” I seriously doubt that I’ll get there, but I’m opening my defective eyes and ears, all my poor senses on these strolls in the dark, looking up in wonder.

When Bacco Smiles–from American English, Italian Chocolate

My wife’s old aunt has an omino (the diminutive of uomo, the Italian word for “man”). Omino.  Little man.  When she wants to cook a rabbit for lunch, she has an omino who sells her the rabbit. She wants fish, she has another omino. She has a repair job to do in the house, she calls a different little man. We were having lunch the other day, a baked orata she got from her fish omino. I asked her about the wine. Dark red, slightly frizzante, in a full liter bottle with a metal cap, no label. She says—of course—she has an omino.

     “He lives just over there.” She points a crooked finger toward a hillside. “He’s been bringing us wine for years.”

     I want an omino.

     In particular, I want a wine omino.

     One of the special pleasures of being in Italy is local wine. It’s young, it’s light in alcohol content, it’s great with food. And, by American standards, it’s incredibly cheap.

     Consider the carafe—that ubiquitous vessel gracing the trattoria table. There are days we order a quarter liter, or a half liter, or sitting down to eat with a large appetite and the prospect of many luxurious foods, we know we’re going to need a full liter. All the years I brought people to Italy on eating excursions, they inevitably extolled the virtues of the wine. They would say, What is it about these Italian wines? I don’t get tipsy. I can’t get enough of it. And no headache.

     For some time now, when I buy wine, I go to Zonzini. It’s a store just down the road from our apartment in San Marino. He is part wholesaler, part retailer, a purveyor of, among other things, bottled water by the case, chocolates, liquor, and wine. The high ceiling and cement floor, along with the floor-to-ceiling metal racks, give the place the feel of a warehouse. Behind the cash register there’s a stock of wines from all over Italy. You can go back there and look. Typically I stand in front of local wines, the ones from Romagna, and select Sangiovese Superiore. My criteria for selection are attractive label and price. The wines come from nearby towns, Imola, Predappio, Cesena, Bertinoro, San Patrignano. Until recently, I had my standards. I would not go lower than 5 euros for a bottle.

     That was then.

     Alas, Bacco has smiled upon me.

     I have an omino. Her name is Francesca.

     Okay, so she’s not a little man. And technically she’s not really an omino because she works in a store. Your standard issue omino does not have a website; he has a farm. But I’ll take her.

     Across from the mercato centrale down in Rimini, a sprawling fish-meat-vegetable-fruit market, I notice this store one day: I Vini delle terre di Malatesta. It’s well lit. It looks like a high-end enoteca. Lots of racks, lots of bottles with attractive labels. Except in the back corner, I notice two faux kegs protruding from the walls. On each keg two spigots. Three reds, one white. For each wine there is information about its source, alcohol content, and price. This store sells vino sfuso, the stuff you get in trattorie by the carafe.

     “Bring your own bottles to the store,” Francesca explains, “or we have bottles you can buy, and fill, and reuse. Buy as much as you want.”

     I taste the two reds, a Cabernet and a Sangiovese, and choose the latter. She fills a handsome bottle, packs it in a thick take-it-with-you sack. All for 3 euro. In the U.S., the sack alone would cost that much. I take the wine home and love it.

     In fifty years Italian wines have come a long way. In the American consumer’s view, such as it was, Italian wine was kind of a joke. Buy a straw-covered Chianti fiasco, pour out the wine, and plug up the bottle with a candle. It was like Mateus. Great bottle. The wine? Meh. Then again, fifty years ago, Americans were not wine drinkers. And the Italians were smart, my wife likes to say. They kept the good wines for themselves. No doubt that’s part of the story. So many omini, so much good local wine.

     Then along comes Giovanni Mariani, Jr., son of Giovanni Mariani, Sr. The latter founded the House of Banfi, in Greenwich Village, in 1919. Mariani the younger introduced Lambrusco to the American consumer in 1969, sold 20,000 cases of the stuff that year, then 50,000 cases the next year. By 1975 imports of the bubbly sweet red increased to 1.2 million cases, in 1984, a whopping 11.2 million cases. Lambrusco is a wine you drink cold, a forerunner of that unfortunate American contribution to wine culture, the wine cooler. (I remember, in the mid 70’s, a night out in Columbus, Ohio, with a couple friends, cruising bluegrass bars, guzzling Black Russians, and finishing the night drinking Riunite, on the rocks.) Riunite and Cella wines established the Italian footprint, or wine stain, in the American market. According to Funding Universe, “By 1980 Banfi alone was bringing more wine into the US from Italy–some nine million cases a year–than France and Germany combined.”

     Thanks for that sweet red wine, Banfi, we might say. The wine was pretty bad. But there’s more to the story. One word:


     In 1977 the Banfi organization charged oenologist Ezio Rivella with finding the perfect location in Italy for a vineyard. He was their omino. He did his job. The place he found was Montalcino.

     Today a Brunello di Montalcino will sell for up to $250 a bottle. American wineheads flock to that far flung Tuscan town. Rory Carroll, writing for The Guardian, reports, “Those who get to taste [Brunello] come away drooling adjectives such as intense, full-bodied, fruity, smooth, rich, chewy, velvety, super-ripe, spicy, gigantic. In the battle with the new world, Montalcino stands as a citadel of old world might and venerability.”

     And today, Coldiretti, an Italian grower-producer organization, boasts that Italy is the largest wine exporter in the world. In 2013, the U.S. imported $1.3 billion in Italian wines.

     In omini we trust.

     Probably every trattoria and osteria in Italy has an omino. He’s the proprietor’s cousin or uncle, he’s a farmer with some vines who makes local swill that’s dirt cheap and consistently good. The omino’s vino sfuso graces the table, complements the food, goes down easy.

     Except when it doesn’t.

     In Novilara, in the hills above the Adriatic, is a restaurant where we eat tagliatelle and beans. The food is something of a religious experience; the house wine, on the other hand, for two of three consecutive years was terrible. It was kind of a joke. But not.

     And just last week my wife and I had lunch in a Pesaro trattoria. At the table next to us a couple local guys ordered wine by the glass. The server did not stand on ceremony. He didn’t show the label or smell the cork or linger and watch as the guys swirled, sniffed, and sipped. This was a joint. He brought them stem glasses, the wine already poured, then he brought them their food. I confess at the moment I felt just a little smug. We ordered the house wine. Don’t they know how good it is, how simple and delicious in bistro glasses? When the server came to our table and set down a half liter carafe of red, I turned over my bistro glass, poured some wine, and had a taste. Someone’s uncle must have had a very bad year.

     Then there’s Fabio, our new friend. A couple nights ago we had dinner at a local agriturismo that serves strozzopreti with sangiovese, sausage, and radicchio, a dish of pasta that is life changing. And the wine was exceptional.

     “It’s a sangiovese,” Fabio said, “with a little merlot added. You can taste the merlot—it makes the wine a little rounder.”

     I wasn’t really sure I could taste it, but I nodded my head.

     He said this year the grape harvest was not very good. They didn’t make wine.

     “If you don’t have good grapes,” he said, “you can’t make good wine.”

     They still had a lot of wine from the year before, enough to get them through the year. We could buy some if we wanted to; a bottle, a five liter jug, as much as we wanted.

     In omini we trust.

     Trust, yes. But verify.

On Wine Tasting and the Limits of Winespeak–from Get Thee to a Bakery


“You taste wine the same way I do,” the guy pouring says.  “We all have the same equipment: nose, mouth, tongue, palate.

     Technically, yes.  And it’s very nice of him to say that.

     It’s my last day in Sonoma. I’ve had a head cold all week, so none of my “equipment” has been working very well.  Thus far I’ve had only a few sips of wine with lunches and dinners. This afternoon I’ve decided to visit some tasting rooms, to open my mouth and let the wine in. There are over 425 wineries in Sonoma County, 15 or so within a few miles of where I’m staying. This one is known for its chardonnays and pinots.

     I’ve just tasted the third of three pinot noirs the winery is pouring today, and listened, amazed, to the wine guy’s description of the wine, a brief disquisition on its body (medium), its structure (supple), acidity (tangy) fruit (cherry pie) spice (an allspice matrix!) barrel time (old French oak) tannins (pliable) and finish (persistent).

     “I don’t taste cherry,” I say.

     Nor do I detect structure. I understand tannin but I don’t get pliable. I tell him my mouth is dumb. I’m just not a very good taster.

     He asks, “Did you like it?”

     “Yes, I did,” I say, and empty my glass into the spittoon.  On a scale of 0-3, 0 being never again, 3 being bring it on, I’d give this wine a 2.

     These wines probably have Parker points and Wine Spectator ratings, both of which use a 100 point scale.  Suppose the third wine is a 92. I wonder: What would make it a 91? A little less pliability? Or a 93? A slightly larger slice of cherry pie?  This may be an example of effing in ineffable. How do you quantify a qualitative judgment?

     Eons ago, as an undergraduate in a survey of 20th century British literature, I wrote a midterm essay in response to this assignment:

     “Referring to at least two of the authors we’ve read in the course thus far, analyze the nature of metaphor in modern literature.  What, specifically, are the metaphors in, say, Conrad and Yeats? If the metaphors are vehicles for their ideas, what are the limits of metaphoric expression?”

     Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, it was a take-home test.  Over the weekend I thought hard about “the nature of metaphor in modern literature,” thought about it until my head hurt.  I poured over a handful of Yeats poems, with helpful annotations I had made, like these– Cycle of time. A vision of hope.  Mutability of experience. The body. I re-read my marginal notes on Heart of Darkness– Knitters of fate. Categories of defense.  The failure of language. Existential challenge—all the while trying to figure out exactly what “the limits of metaphoric expression” might mean. I wrote, I returned to my notes and annotations, I revised and gradually stopped writing.  My essay had a long finish.

     Next class I handed in three closely written pages and waited a week for the professor to return my work.  When I got it back, I found a few phrases of my essay underlined, a few phrases double underlined, along with an occasional question mark and few trenchant exclamation marks in the margin.  Flipping to the last page, as we all do, I looked for the grade. It was an 87. I knew what that meant, a B. Okay, but 87? How had he arrived at that specific number, and not, let’s say, 86 or 88. Those underlines and double underlines, did they add to or subtract from 100? What could I have done, what exactly was he looking for that would have made my essay an 89 or 90? I suspect he might not have been able to explain how he arrived at 87 or what I could do to raise that number to 88 or 90, beyond telling me something like be smarter, make better connections.

     A few years later, as a young teacher, I filled a gradebook every semester with marks (I decided on A through E) for 22 students in each of the five classes I taught.  Homework, quizzes, exercises, essays, midterms, finals. At semester’s end, for each student, I would see something like this: C, A, B-, B+, B-, D, E, A-, A-, C+, C+, C, B+, A-, E, E, B, B, B.  To arrive at a final grade, I laid a ruler across each row of marks, tracking student performance left to right, across fifteen weeks, and on the far right rendered my final judgment: B. Sometimes upon further reflection, I affixed a minus or a plus to that letter.  Never quite sure, except in my bones or in my heart or vaguely (very vaguely) in my head, if that grade with its plus or minus was a true value summarizing those letter grades.

     This was long before the advent of spreadsheets and grading technologies, before primary trait analysis.  And I’m pretty sure this grading practice was widespread: impressionistic, holistic, supported mainly by the authority the individual who rendered the judgment. It was an 87 or a B+ because a full professor said it was. Nuff said. Much like a pinot is a 92 because Robert Parker or Wine Spectator say it is.

     Words help. They name qualities, characteristics.  Words and categories enable dissection, which enables analysis and evaluation. The problem is, some things are easier to dissect than others.

     I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Thanks to Isaacson’s helpful descriptions of the great artist’s paintings, I now look for Leonardo’s use of shadow and “sfumatura,” for the characteristic depictions of water and hair and landscapes in his paintings. I imagine I see left-handed brushstrokes. Knowing something about Leonardo’s work helps me see the painting of other artists at the time differently. Huh, I might think, look at that pile of rocksDid the artist even bother looking at nature the way Leonardo did?

     As an undergraduate, even farther back than “the limits of metaphor,” I took a music appreciation class. I must have listened to Mozart’s Symphony #40 a hundred times. That symphony and that recording, by Sir Georg Solti directing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, established my frame of reference. I’ve been startled by other recordings of that symphony I’ve heard since, by how fast the first movement runs, by the chug and lurch of another director’s minuet movement.  I’ve listened to other symphonies with, well, enhanced appreciation, noticing how the second movement in #40 compares to the second movement in Mozart’s #41 or, because of repeated, careful listening, how it compares to the amazing, mournful second movement in Beethoven’s 7th.

     But seeing, listening, and tasting are not equal.

     Seeing and listening lend themselves more readily to dissection and appreciation than tasting.  A Leonardo just sits there, on the wall or on a page or a screen. Pull back from the artwork, or move in close, or alter the angle of your viewpoint. You can take a very long look. It’s a freeze-frame experience.  Likewise, in music: rewind, replay, revisit the same performance, the same shift to a major key, the swelling of sound, the crescendo. Listen, take it in. Looking carefully, listening intently, you can make the experience last as long as you like.

     A taste, on the other hand, is brief, intense, and evanescent; a couple sips and it’s finished.  When you look and listen, you may get tired, but you don’t get full. Or drunk. And what about memory? Are memories of what you see (a sunset, a face, a painting) and what you hear (a bird call, a child’s laugh, a piece of music) more retraceable and detailed and vivid than memories of a gustatory experience?

     There are super tasters, I know, sipping savants in the wine world, people endowed with if not supernatural equipment then with highly discriminating taste and deep stores of palate memory.  I bow to them. To communicate with us, they deploy a special language. They say things like this about wine:

     “Already revealing some pink and amber at the edge, the color is surprisingly evolved for a wine from this vintage. However, that’s deceptive–as the aromatics offer incredible aromas of dried flowers, beef blood, spice, figs, sweet black currants and kirsch, smoked game, lavender, and sweaty but attractive saddle leather-like notes. Full-bodied and massively endowed, with abundant silky tannins, it possesses the balance to age for 30+ years” (Robert Parker, on a 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape).

     This is a pronouncement handed down from on high. It makes me want to taste the wine, but only after I’ve whiffed some beef blood and licked a sweaty saddle.

     What sets the apprentice taster apart from the journeyman is years of experience and control of the language. Years ago a friend took me to his wine club dinner.  A dozen men descended upon a restaurant (oh, yes, all men). Serious guys, they each brought their own box of Riedel glasses. It was an evening of blind tasting, eight wines chosen to accompany a nice dinner.

     For 2-3 hours, we tasted wines in pairs and talked about them. Two Amarone, for example, one a 2003, the other a 1999. I was given a notepad and pencil. After the pours we swirled and sniffed, we sipped and deliberated. Then we went around the table and described the wines and our tasting experiences.  Compared to these guys, I was still in short pants. “Full bodied,” I could say. “Nice color.” But they would have at it, making little speeches, practicing the lingo, somming it up. I went to three of these dinners. Every night I finished at the bottom of my class. And every night, the same two guys identified all the wines correctly. When they talked, I took notes. The older wines were tight. Some wines’ tannins were grippy. They talked, but they didn’t revel in winespeak.

     Those nights I was reminded of graduate seminars I attended in which students, me for example, practiced speaking litcrit, making statements like this: “Deconstructionists have to be aware of the text’s shifts or breaks that may eventually create instabilities in attitude and meaning. At the verbal level, a close reading of the text will highlight its paradoxes and contradictions, a reading against the grain, in order to reveal how the ‘signifiers’ may clash with the ‘signifieds.’”

     Right. I am not ashamed to say I have no idea what that means. To me it’s a black hole.

     Words help, in wine tasting, in the consumption of literature. They can explain the 87 and 92. They also can get in the way. The cabernet, the novel, did you like it? Yes. Do you want to more? Yes.

     To most consumers, that’s enough.

Hang Up–taking my tech for a walk

There’s a guy coming down the hill on Sodon Lake Road. Tizi and I are walking up the hill, twenty minutes into our morning route. He’s wearing hiking shorts and walking shoes. So: we’re on the same page, out walking for our own good.

He takes the opposite shoulder of the road and we pass each other. As we do so, these words occur to me. They rise unbidden: “Hail, neighbor. And well met.” One of the benefits of having read Shakespeare, odd salutations. 

I say it, but not very loud. More for my benefit than his. He wouldn’t have heard me anyway. I can see by his earbuds he’s in two places at once. 

Tizi says, “For heaven’s sake, don’t say that.” 

It’s early enough, I tell her, I could have said Good morrow to you, sirrah.

Everyone we pass is connected. Later, when we reach Long Lake Road, we’ll see a guy walking up the sidewalk, holding his cell phone in front of him, at chin level. Is he talking to someone? Is he filming his walk? Good God, is he watching television as he walks?

Welcome to the devicification of modern life.

I can’t talk. I have a phone in my pocket. I’ll check it before we reach the end of Sodon Lake Road, look at the time, see if I have any messages. (One of our grandsons just had a few teeth pulled.)  And I’ve recently become even more devicified. I’m wearing a Fitbit again. With some accuracy it counts my steps. With less accuracy it monitors my sleep phases: light, REM, deep. I don’t need Fitbit to tell me I slept well or poorly. (The last two nights it has both under- and over-reported duration, and in both cases rated my sleep “fair,” whereas I would have rated it “good”). But I like the step counter and especially the little vibration it emits on my wrist 10 minutes before the hour. That vibe is a reminder: get up and move.

“Which way to the lake, I wonder.” I say this to the back of Tizi’s head.

If she heard me, she’s ignoring the question. We’ve walked this route fifty, if not a hundred times, and we have never seen Sodon Lake. I tell her it must not be much of a lake. “Pond, more likely,” I say. At the top of the hill, behind the next five or six houses, the land slopes down. “Maybe it’s down there in that gully,” I say. When does a pond become a lake?

“I hope Scout is out,” she says.

Scout the dog, a young collie. A lassie she loves.

I address the back of her head: “When does a pond become a lake What do you think?” 

“I love Scout,” she says.

Out west of the town where I grew up, we had Wagner’s Pond. No one would have thought of calling it a lake. Behind the house where we live, there is a Walden Pond. Same. It’s a lake to no one. I’d bet money that Sodon Lake is no bigger than Walden Pond. But Long Lake, which the next road is named for, and which is also nowhere in sight, it’s a legitimate lake. I’ve driven past it. I’m sure everyone living next to it is happy it’s not called Long Pond.

Wherever we go, we meet these device-enchanced walkers. In truth, if I were alone, just me and my Fitbit out for a walk this morning, I would probably also be further connected to my device. I’d be blue-toothing music. Right now, on a 30 second loop that’s been earworming me for half a mile, I’ve been humming, circa 1966, the Knickerbockers’ song “Lies!” I would be singing it, but I only remember a few words of the song, Lies! That’s all I ever get from you.  If I had earbuds I could listen to it on my phone.

“Hail, neighbor” reminds me of how our son answered the phone when he was in middle school.  Every caller he would salute by saying, “Hey, what’s up, dog?” (Hail, dog, well called.) One night Tizi said to me, across the kitchen table, “Who’s Doug?” 

Those were landline days. In the American home there was one centrally located phone that everyone used (ours was in the kitchen), the home phone, vestiges of which are still visible on registration forms you fill out. Ian Bogost, writing for the Atlantic, recently lamented the end of the landline. It had its uses. A child home alone, assuming she did not have a cell phone, could be taught to call 911 in case of an emergency. The landline was “unlocked.” On a landline, Bogost notes, “Everyone might have to talk to grandma, depending on who picked up.” Or a neighbor. Or the plumber–“I’ll be there in ten minutes.” 

Nowadays, post-landline, what do we do about the undeviced family member? Before she went digital (finally) and got deviced, if I went to the grocery store and needed to ask my wife a question, she was unreachable. I was very close to her on the grid, like a mile away, but she was definitively off it. 

In the house I grew up in, there was one phone, a Northern Electric black rotary phone. Telephones back then were like Model T’s. They came in any color you wanted, as long as that color was black. The phone was made of hard rubber, plastic, and metal, and weighed more than 5 pounds. On the rotary dial there were letters visible, enabling you to indicate the switching system, called the “exchange,” that your line was connected to. Our town’s exchange was Oxbow. The first telephone number I memorized was OX 59111. Yes, back then you remembered telephone numbers. You kept your list of “contacts” in your head. Some of them are still there. Danny Leman was 59103, Ronnie Fritz was 59303, Jeff Schilling was 56431, Dean Gaul was 59633.

Innovations came along. The heavy desk phone gave way to the wall phone. Then came the “trimline” and the “princess.” Rotary dial, a quaint technology that took forever to enter a telephone number, gave way to digital keys. (I remember my children marveling at how slow it was when they dialed their grandparents’ old phone, a trimline with rotary.) For a telephone line you paid Ma Bell. Compared to today’s prices, it was cheap–in the extreme.

This was before “voicemail,” an awful term we would never have suffered if it weren’t for the advent of email. In the front room of our house, my father’s office, the location of our home phone, he had a machine he called “the recorder” that he switched on when he was out of the house. “Hello, this is John H. Bailey . . . “ It was the size of a microwave oven. As late as the mid-70’s, college friends of mine who went off to New York to become actors all had an answering service they would call to collect messages. Then came voicemail.

Those good old days, however, became the bad old days. The landline phone began to ring–all the time. Every night when we sat down to dinner, it rang and rang and rang. You picked up the phone to shut it up. On the other end, solicitors. “Hi, Mr. Bailey, I was wondering if you would be interested in virus protection for your computer.” “Hi, Mr. Bailey, the governor needs your financial support in his re-election campaign.” Some callers, total strangers, acted like we were soon to be good buddies. “Is this Richard?” “Is this Tiziana?”

I had a cellphone by then. As did our son and daughter. We said goodbye to the landline. 

“You’ve got mail!” The AOL guy said it with such enthusiasm. And at first that enthusiasm was infectious–I’ve got mail!–until it wasn’t. These days, with AOL a distant memory, one of my morning rituals is deleting email, anywhere from 30 to 50 messages a day (all those calls at the dinner hour). Like most people, I also screen calls. If the number isn’t in my address book, associated with a name I know, I usually kill the ring and let the call go to voicemail. Pew Research reports that Americans answer only 19 percent of unknown calls on their phones. The average American looks at her digital device 144 times a day. Peter Frost, a psych professor at Southern New Hampshire University, says that young adults use their device 5 ½ hours a day. Given stats like these, can digital detox be far behind? If not that, mental meltdown.

Experts in “sleep ecology” say no screens an hour before you go to bed. And no devices in the bedroom. This morning at 4:30 a.m., lying awake, I saw the giant screen on Tizi’s iPad light up on her night table. The visual equivalent of “you’ve got mail.” The other day I read about a “digital well-being” setting on my iPhone, which I couldn’t find when I tried. To get digital well-being, I guess I need an upgrade. A new digital setting to treat my my digital device dependence. Methadone comes to mind.

This morning Fitbit tells me I walked an average of 93,914 steps a day last week. I slept an average of 5 hours and 50 minutes a night. For a while I will continue to track this data and find it useful, but really, the app is just a digital bauble. When we walk for two hours, up and down some hills, past walkers and dogs, past lakes and ponds, I know I’ve exercised. When I wake up at 4:00 am, having gone to bed at 11:30 pm, I know I’m going to sluggish later in the day. 

“Bring your phone,” Tizi says before we leave the house to walk. Because what if the kids call?

“Bring your phone,” she says when I go out for a walk by myself.

Implores me. Because what if something happens? I might trip and fall and knock myself unconscious and be found lying by the side of the road, found by a digital walker who would call for help. Who is this guy? the walker might wonder, and finding my device in my pocket, touch the screen, waking it up. “Press home to open.” Then, “Touch ID or Enter Password.” Oh well.

“Yes, 911, there’s some guy lying by the side of Sodon Lake Road. Can you help?”

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Bag Man–the things I carry

We heard animals last night, yipping and howling in the woods across the road from the orchard. It was not a sound we are acquainted with.

“Coyotes?” Tizi said. 

“They sound like dogs,” I said.

Coyotes, David confirmed the next morning. 

They’re out there. The next day, driving over to the Sportsman’s Cafe for breakfast, we saw one loping across a dry grassy meadow along Triangle Road, like it owned the land. Just like it belonged there. Which, of course, it does. It’s wild out here. The other day at the tasting room, a guy described the trouble he’s been having with a brown bear. A big brute he said. Not quite grizzly size, but big. It comes scratching at the front door. The dogs, he said, annoy it, shoo it away. If need be, he said, he can take care of it. Pests like these—coyotes and bears, not to mention pests of the two-legged variety—are another reason people around here arm themselves.  Many of them, I suspect, carry.

That morning I couldn’t help but notice I was the only guy in the restaurant openly carrying—a man bag. Anywhere I go, I don’t quite feel normal without it slung over my shoulder. The way those guys—and probably some of the women—don’t quite feel normal without their guns. In this place, I am an oddity. 

In some contexts, virtually everywhere I’ve been out here, a man bag can feel downright  unmanly. I feel so urban toting it, kind of metro-sexual. In my bag I carry my wallet, a cell phone, a ballpoint pen, a pair of glasses, a couple plastic toothpicks, nail clippers and an Emory board (so necessary since I stopped biting my nails), and two sturdy plastic bags from a local grocery store back home for bagging groceries when I shop, wherever I shop, for lunch.  

 My son calls my bag a murse. In some circles they say mote (a man’s tote bag). Shops selling them say messenger bag or mail bag.. I wear mine cross-body, like a bandolier ammunition belt. The way Indiana Jones, a gun-toting manly man, wears his man bag.

I can imagine Indie growling, “It’s not a man bag! It’s a satchel.” The term is unfortunate. Simon Chilvers writes in the Financial Times, “The term ‘man bag’ is arguably one of the most irritating in fashion history: ugly sounding, borderline patronising, borderline sexist.” 

“It’s not a purse. It’s european.” So says Jerry Seinfeld in “The Reverse Peephole” episode. To which George Costanza says, “A man carries a wallet” (George’s emphasis).  

I carried a wallet for years, in my hip pocket, like most American men. At some point Tizi commented on my pants, how the fabric was worn thin on my hip pocket. “And doesn’t that blob back there bother you, sitting on it?” she asked me once. I hadn’t thought about it. But now that she mentioned it, Yes it did.   

So I emptied my pockets. And I’ve never gone back.

A cursory study of the etymology of “wallet” suggests the accessory used to be a man bag. A reliable unnamed source indicates: “The origin of the word wallet can be traced back from the ancient Greek word Kibisis which was the word used to describe the sack carried by the God Hermes.” That sounds like a stretch to me, but if it’s okay for Hermes, it’s okay for me. An online etymology dictionary I consult suggests wallet comes into English in the 14th century, from Old French “walet,” a term denoting “knapsack,” or from Proto-Germanic “wall,” a word for “roll.” Or possibly from the old French “golette,” for “little snout,” which I do not understand but immediately love. The point being that a wallet used to be a bag. A man bag.

Bags were necessary because the pocket had not yet been invented. Think of it: life with pockets. In Hannah Carlson’s delightful World’s Use of Pockets: Men’s Clothes Full of Them, While Women Have but Few . . . Civilization Demands Them, she notes: “For centuries, how you wore your purse distinguished masculine from feminine dress, but the purse itself did not belong to a single gender.” But in the 15th century, along come pockets, primarily on men’s clothing, signaling, for centuries, the end of the man bag. On men’s clothing, pockets. In which they keep their stuff. When I was a kid, I was frequently made aware of my father’s presence by the coins (he called them “silver”) or car keys jingling in his pocket. He kept a wallet, which he called a billfold (my Italian father-in-law called his a portafoglio) in his hip pocket.  In my mother’s case, I recall her reaching into a apron pocket for a tissue, but otherwise, in my memory she is more or less pocketless.  

Pants pockets gave, and continue to give, boys and men a place to put their hands. Hands in pockets can give a man a casual, stylish, insouciant look. But there was and is a downside. In 18th century satirical engravings, hands in pockets indicated lechery. When I reached a certain age my father would say, “Don’t stand around with your hands in your pockets, looking idle.”  

With the advent of pockets, pick-pocketing became a thing. I was on a crowded bus in Florence a few years ago with a group. A guy I was traveling with advised me and the members of our group to keep our hands in our pockets to protect ourselves from thieves. By the time we got to Fiesole, this poor guy had been fleeced. 

I wear my bag slung across my chest, bag left. In an emergency I can reach into it with my left hand and grab my nail clippers.  I was pleased to note recently that’s how Indiana Jones wears his bag, bag left. We are men of inaction and action. Now that I think of it, in all the Jones movies, which I love, I have never seen Indie open his man bag and take something out, ammunition for his pistol, let’s say, or a hankie. Well, he knows what it’s for. And I know what mine is for.

A few years ago I guy came to our house to do some work. Tizi chatted him up. She needed a name. I think she was looking for a blacksmith.  

“I know one,” the guy said. “I got his name and number right here.” 

He reached around to his hip pocket and hauled out his wallet. Folded in half, it was fat as a deli sandwich. He regarded it with pride, held it out for us to admire. Yes, it was certainly big. Then he opened it, fluttered through a stack of bills and business cards and papers and receipts and photographs, and eventually pulled out a thin slip with a name and phone number written in faded, slightly smeared blue ink. 

“My whole life is in here,” he said. He closed his fat wallet and, with an adoring smile, held it out again (again!) for us to admire. When he shoved it back in place in his hip pocket, I wondered how he could even walk straight.

Hold It Right There–how we feel and why

Aristotle, 14; Charles Darwin, 5. 

It sounds like the final score in the big-names-in history wrestling contest. Aristotle destroys Darwin.

It’s actually the number of human emotions these thinkers could think of. Both list fear and anger. Aristotle distinguishes between shame and shamelessness; Darwin doesn’t bother with either of those. Darwin includes love; Aristotle, friendship.

Fast forward to the early 20th century, there is a giant leap in human emotion theory, when psychotherapy gets rolling, and shrinks list as many as 90 emotions. (That must have kept them—and their clients—very busy.) Recently, University of California psychologist Paul Ekman has returned to basics, listing 7 human emotions. He actually uses a system (the facial action coding system, or FACS) for recognizing and coding them. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, and contempt. That’s what we humans emote. And he knows it when he sees it.

This week we’ve been faced with a range of emotions out here in Mariposa. Rapture, disgust, fear, and regret. 

Yesterday Tizi and I picked Kerr apples. These beauties hang on eight trees in the row closest to our kids’ house. The Kerr apple is in the crabapple family, about 1” to 1 ½ inch in diameter. They are tart and sweet at the same time, and they are gorgeous to behold. As they ripen, they become dark red; given sun and time, that color deepens to a ravishing burgundy, bordering on purple.

They don’t hang on branches so much as bunch like grapes, and they come off the tree with dark green leaves you leave behind on the ground, if possible. You can’t look upon these apples and not feel moved by their natural beauty. The emotion, in a word: rapture.

Before picking yesterday Tizi and I drove into town and had breakfast at a place called Happy Burger. It was an unhappy breakfast. I love the ambiance. In a stroke of genius, someone decided old record album covers could serve as wallpaper (and ceiling paper). The whole time we were eating I looked up and around. Mitch Miller, Julie Andrews, Nat King Cole, Wilson Picket, Roy Clark, Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Jack Jones. The Beach Boys. Gerry and the Pacemakers. I kept pointing them out to Tizi. 

“Look, there’s Glen Campbell.”  

“Look, Dean Martin.” 


“That’s enough,” she said. 

According to my facial action coding system, acquired in years of marriage, I saw she was in a state of disgust. She was patting down her hash browns with a paper napkin, for the third time, trying to soak up the grease. “We’re not coming back here,” she said.

Because of those album covers, put me down for regret, which none of the emotion scientists include. 

“Steve’s breakfast,” she said, “is way better.”

Attached to a gas station and a small general store, Steve’s is full of locals. They belly up to tables, eat and gab and laugh. The atmosphere is friendly, companionable. Even an amatuer user of the FACS can read happiness. Except for the signs and posters hanging on the walls. Whereas Happy Burger’s decor elicits delight with faded photos of entertainment icons (will you get a load of Wayne Newton’s hair!), the theme in Steve’s is all Second Amendment. It’s unsettling.

“Everyone out here has guns,” David says when I mention the signs on the wall. In the West he means. In Mariposa. “Almost everyone carries.”

I tell him about a guy I talked to in the tasting room on Saturday, who said there are heroin addicts galore out there, breaking into homes, and if they break into his house, he said, their next stop will be the medical examiner.

“I don’t know about the heroin addicts,” David says, “but basically everyone out here is just waiting for a break-in.  They want to use their guns..” 

“Assault weapons?”

“Lots of them. To protect themselves from the government.”

Mariposa is an old mining town.. The county, also named Mariposa, was established in 1850. There are lots of small communities in the county: Mariposa, Midpines, Bootjack, Catheys Valley, El Portal, Hornitos, Coulterville, Fish Camp, and Wawona. Mariposa in particular has a certain old West 19th century charm. No one locks their doors.

The town, and the county, currently feels threatened. And not just by phantom heroin addicts.

Siege mentality is too strong a term. Let’s just say Mariposa residents like things the way they are. That feeling has been in bold relief recently, with dubious thanks to Terramor.

Right now on every country road you drive in the area—Triangle, Darrah, Tiptop, Wass—in front of homes you see the signs: Stop Terramor. Terramor is an outdoor resort-building operation, selling “glamping” to people with campers. The tagline on the Terramor website (they sell their program, with similar resistance, in other localities around the country) is “Start planning your adventure.” To residents in Mariposa County, Terramor will be an assault on a way of life, impacting water resources, bringing pollution, traffic, and increased fire hazard.   

They’re fighting Terramor. They’re preserving their way of life.

”Can you imagine these trees in the spring?” Tizi says.

We’re picking in the late afternoon. I’m on an eight-foot ladder grabbing fruit in the top of a Kerr. She’s in the lower branches and picking up drops as well. Late afternoon the sun arrives at a point in the sky, you’re no longer baking while you pick. There’s a breeze. Today the sky is perfectly blue, which we remark upon every so often. There must be a fire somewhere—in Oregon or Washington, in Canada. That’s a new normal. Today is the old normal.

Happiness gets little mention in emotion science. Maybe not until the 20th century. Maybe not until an American adds it to his list. Happiness is so frivolous, so transitory, unlike the more visceral emotions, like anger, fear, or disgust. “The fact is that the commitment to happiness in Western culture is relatively modern,” writes Peter N. Stearns in Harvard Business Review. “Until the 18th century, Western standards encouraged, if anything, a slightly saddened approach to life,”

“It’s a good day,” I say. When I come down off the ladder, I reach in my pocket for my phone.. “Hold it right there,” I say. She’s reaching for the fruit. I take aim and shoot. It’s a good picture. We’ll want to remember this day. We were happy.

Lighten Up–reading, working, sleeping

I’ve been using my Kindle as a flashlight the last couple mornings. At 4:30 a.m. the display lights my way from a bedroom to a hallway to the kitchen, where I can light a light and make some quiet coffee and pull on shirt and pants.  

For 7-10 days we’re staying with our son and his wife in the Sierra Nevada mountains, at their 800-tree apple orchard, where we have come to visit and to pick apples. Yesterday morning Tizi and I picked 600 pounds of Yarlington Mills.  It was work. It was good old-fashioned honest manual labor, and I was muscle weary and dead tired when we finished. (Long days of more work lie ahead.) I may have been tired, but I was done sleeping by 4:30 this morning anyway.  I’m cursed with the habit of waking up preternaturally early (to use a fancy word I have always loved—I honestly don’t get that “preter” prefix, but I’ll take it). To get up and wander about someone’s house, even a close relative’s, at that hour feels anti-social. The clank of a spoon is a gong, the flush of a toilet is a roaring waterfall, a cough or sneeze is a car crash. 

Mornings, wherever I am, are mostly for reading. Just now I’m reading something on Kindle. What is it? I don’t remember the title. A bad thing about Kindle: you don’t look at a book cover every time you read. You’re not reminded: Oh, it’s Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. When you open Kindle it goes directly to the last page you read. Then you click a few times to get to the title page.

Right now it’s Joy in the Morning, by P. G. Wodehouse, an aptly named bunch of British nonsense published in 1946. This morning I’m making myself read this book (forced joy), determined to hang in there for 30 minutes or so, because when I read in bed at night, especially after a day of apple picking, I can get through only 3-4 pages—in relatively, I might even say preternaturally, large font on the display for old eyes reading in bed at night. Three pages and out. Next time I open to the book, I think: What happened? What’s going on in this story? Where were we? So this morning, I’m focused on Joy. 

Kingsolver engaged large themes: gender politics, environmental change. Wodehouse is all froth and fun. The story is so weightless I embarrass myself reading it. The fun is that I’m keeping company with oddly named characters: Nobby Hopwood, Stilton Cheesewright, J. Chichester Clam, Boko Fittleworth, Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps. And reading along, provided I’m awake, I stumble upon sentences like this:

“The first sight of Boko reveals to the beholder an object with a face like an intellectual parrot.”

“This man of letters is a cross between a comedy juggler and a parrot that has been dragged through a hedge backwards.”

“Like so many substantial citizens of America, he had married young and kept on marrying, springing from blonde to blonde like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag.”

“It isn’t often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.”

The story is so silly, so weightless, of such little moment, it feels like a waste of time. Shouldn’t I be reading Dostoyevsky? 


Embrace the silliness. You can be serious later. 


Yes, a cough can be a car crash.

I get coughs these days that can’t be stifled. The cough is triggered by something going on, or not going on, in my gullet. I recall my father saying one time, “Floyd has a difficult time swallowing.” Floyd Campbell, his best pal, couldn’t swallow? I was young. They were old. I couldn’t imagine. You swallow how many times a day, when you have to, a bit of saliva, a glass of water, a bite of sandwich. It’s like heartbeat. It just happens.

But lately I’ve been feeling liquids, just a few drops, taking a wrong turn, going windpipe-ward rather than esophagus. Muscles soften, fail to do their automatic work. Breath knows where to go, food and drink know where to go, but there it is, the fact of being an older person. A sip of coffee, a small sluice of water, there can be an errant trickle down the trachea. Resulting in a choke dressed up as a cough. 

“Reductions in muscle mass and strength are well known complications of advancing age.” Thus reports the National Library of Medicine. And: “In fact, people over 65 years of age have seven times higher risk for choking on food than children aged 1–4 years of age.”

So watch out. 

It happens this morning. A sip of water, noise. I disturb the peace.

My muscle mass will be tested today. We’ll be pressing apples, making cider. You don’t just press a few. Think tons of apples. By the end of the day, three tons. 

It’s a complex production. On one end, the station Tizi and will work, it’s lifting and dumping. Between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. I’ll lift roughly 3000 pounds of apples, in lugs (appropriately named) that weigh roughly 35 pounds each, dumping each lug on a conveyer that carries the apples—sorted, screened for spots of rot and bug bite—to the press. Inside the barn, David and his associate Cody take over, minding the machinery that crushes the apples and pumps their juice to containers where fermentation will begin. 

It’s repetitive work, it’s mindless work, and it is glorious. 

At one point, David steps outside and hands us a clear plastic glass. In it, the juice. “This is the only apple we press,” he says, “that makes green juice.”

It’s cool and green and delicious. It goes down easy, and it goes where it’s supposed to go. The muscles in my throat, like those in my back and my arms, know what to do.  

After such exertion you sleep like the dead. That too is glorious. Then, awake. Kindle light, coffee, some reading. And daybreak. 

Ride It–desert miles and wild horses

“That’s two,” Tizi says.

“You’re counting?”

Whatever she murmurs in response I can’t hear. Because even with my hearing aid cranked to HIGH, I can’t hear murmur in the car. And besides, this I don’t really want to hear.

It’s a little tense at the moment. We could be counting wild horses. When we drive out to California to visit our son, we take this desert route on purpose, to see the horses, starting 70 miles west of Elko, Nevada, on I-80 to Battle Mountain, so named thanks to a skirmish between marauding Californians and native tribes in 1850. A few miles east of Battle Mountain you see the giant BM on the mountain side. The Californians prevailed.  Heading south on route 305 we come to route 50, along which on Bureau of Land Management land, roughly 2000 horses run wild.

Routes 305 and 50 are two-lane roads. And all the routes after them taking us to Yosemite will be two-lane, through beautiful high desert. A center line is visible, the road surface is good, though noisy in places (hence the muffled murmur). To say these roads are little traveled is an understatement. Between BM and nowhere, there’s nothing for miles. 

This morning, when we took the exit off I-80 and started down route 305, I looked at the gas gauge. Got enough? Tizi asked.  Well I guess, I said. 

Now I’m not so sure. Where I stop in the middle of the road, there are a dozen wild horses standing thirty feet off the shoulder. 

“Horses?” Tizi says. As in: is that why you’re stopping.

“We have a decision to make,” I say. 

She frowns. “How much?” she asks.

“About a quarter tank.”

She gets out of the car, walks across the road, crosses the shoulder to take a few pictures. I’m about to reach for my phone when I see a blue dot in my rearview mirror. Forty-five minutes down 305 and now route 50, we’ve seen one car. This one makes two. I take a position at the back of the van and hold out my hand. It’s the universal stop-please-help signal. At first it does not seem to be working. Then, blue begins to slow.

The driver, a woman, runs the passenger window down.

“You shouldn’t park here,” she says. “It’s dangerous.”

“How far to a gas station?” I say. 

She thumbs in the direction of BM, where we just came from. I point toward the future: more horses, more nothing, and then what.

She tells me again I shouldn’t park here. “There’s a lot of mine traffic,” she says.

I ask again. Gas?“

“Probably Austin. It’s about 60 miles down the road.” In case I missed it, she shakes her head in irritation. Michigan license plate, horse gawkers, stopped in the middle of the road. 

“Austin,” I say when Tizi gets back in the car.

“How far?”

“About sixty miles.”

“They’re beautiful,” she says. Meaning the horses.

“I think we can make it,” I say.

That’s when she says: That’s two. Twice I’ve taken us to the edge. Out here, obviously, is no place to run out of gas. No place is. But this place is extremely no place.

Okay, so we had a bad breakfast. It was our third stay in this hotel back in Elko. I remembered the buffet as adequate.

This morning at 6:00, when we left the room and walked down the hall, she asked if there would be eggs. I said I thought so. I said I remember the buffet as more than adequate. 

It was not. Extremely not. A breakfast like this separates the Americans from the Italians. Yes, there are eggs, in sandwiches that were made within the last 24 hours and shelved in small single-serving paper bags. If you rip open a little pouch of hot sauce and squirt it on the sandwich, it’s better than not bad. The cereal mix I make, spooning granola, walnuts, and what I think are bran flakes (Tizi swears they are Frosted Flakes, to her a sugary abomination) is satisfactory. But I’m willing to bet the Meadow Gold 2 percent milk, with no expiration date on the carton, saw better days a day or two ago. When the conveyor belt toaster that warms two halves of an English muffin completes its task, half the muffin tips off the track and falls on the floor. Under these adverse circumstances, I can still make a meal. Tizi cannot.

So when we get underway again out there in desert, setting our sights on Austin, that is to say, hoping to set our sights on it, she is not in her best humor. 

“Beautiful along here,” I say.


“I could swear last year we saw the wild horses on the other side of the road,” I say.


“You can tell they’ve had a lot of rain. It was nowhere near this green last year.”

I know it’s dangerous to stop in the middle of the road, but for the next thirty minutes, we see only two cars. Both coming at us. None going where we’re going. 

What if there’s no gas in Austin? I don’t want to, but I begin playing out the scenario and plan of action. The scenario is clear; the plan of action is not. 

“This is a Pony Express route,” I say. “I think the Middlegate stop was a Pony Express stop.”

Middlegate is somewhere down the road, beyond Austin, deeper into the desert. The gas gauge sinks well below quarter tank. Thirty miles to go. What if there’s no gas in Austin. I begin to fantasize about seeing the Austin city limits, passing Austin community schools, waving at the chairman of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. A thriving community out in the middle of nowhere. Finally we round a curve. Austin does not come into view, but I see a sign, white lettering on a blue background. “This city adopted by…” A sorority that picks up litter. That bodes well. Where there’s a sorority, where there’s litter, there must be gas. 

There is. 

The next leg, route 50 to route 361, is lonely but not fraught. I drive 80 mph on two-lane 50, full of gas, full of sass. We see four antelope. That buoys our spirits. We see the sign for Rawhide. Thirty miles off route 50, out deeper into nowhere. I wonder if there would be a statue of Rowdy Yates, the Clint Eastwood character in that TV show. We pass another historical marker for a Pony Express stop.

“How about those guys,” I say. “Riding out here?”

At Middlegate we stop at an inviting hovel. Out here any sign of civilization is inviting. She peels and eats a peach we brought from Michigan. I take a few pictures. We’re good again.

Facsimiles–the West, a breakfast, some shade

I couldn’t be this lucky, I think to myself. What are the odds of finding a rattlesnake skin that’s been sluffed off, left behind in one piece, and in pretty good condition? But there it is, of all places on the driveway of the Fairfield Inn, in Laramie, Wyoming. I figure, Well yeah, I’m out west. This is Laramie. It’s where rattlesnakes live. And cattle rustlers and sherrifs and matronly good-hearted bar maids and well-dressed hanging judges. 

Modern man takes a picture. I’m reaching for my phone as I walk toward the skin, thinking we could take it home, frame it, hang it above the mantle. What better memento. 

Then the skin comes into focus: it’s a necktie.  Some poor guy packed a sloppy suitcase, or  lost his job, or quit his job, or left the hotel in a hurry after a dangerous liaison. What does modern man do? I take a picture anyway.

I’ve got cattle rustlers and sherrifs and matronly good-hearted bar maids and hanging judges on my mind because I’ve just feasted on the Fairfield Inn complimentary breakfast, and while eating it, enjoyed watching black-and-white reruns of a television show called Laramie. I watched it when I was a kid. The show ran from 1959 to 1963. It starred John Smith (born Robert Errol Van Orden), Robert Fuller (born Leonard Leroy Lee), Hoagy Carmichael (that’s his real name), and Spring Dell Byington (that’s her real name). This morning it was on the big screen in the hotel breakfast room. The sound was turned off, which I very much appreciated. In the episode showing there was generic trouble afoot. I couldn’t help but notice how scrubbed and pristine the black and white scenery was, how well dressed the characters were. It was another era of television, of westerns, sans dirt, sans whiskers, sans whores and gore and the profanity you see and hear in Deadwood or Hateful 8. 

“This is good,” I said to Tizi. On my third trip to the board, I’d scooped up scrambled eggs with salsa verde. “Want some?”

I knew the answer. First she shriveled, then said, “Powdered eggs.” 

“Is that even a thing?” In the army maybe? And not anymore?

She emitted a barely audible Ugh, pointed at  my plate. “What’s that green stuff?” 

“This ‘green stuff’ is salsa verde.”

Ugh. Again. She frowned at her plate. “I think this is artificial bacon.”

“From this day forward, I will always have scrambled eggs with salsa verde,” I said.  “It’s that good. And look: Nutella. They’ve really got it going here.”

On regular intervals a kind lady emerged from the backroom and replenished napkins and waffle mix and artificial bacon.  She also  cleared tables.

“This was terrific,” I said when she walked by.

“Why thank you!” she said.

On screen Spring Dell Bylington, her brow furrowed, was imploring the sheriff and hanging judge for help.

“Maybe later,” Tizi said, “we can find some good food.”

After breakfast we drive 600 miles. As is our habit now, we look up in the sky and check for smoke. Day before yesterday, leaving Des Moines, we debated: was that haze or smoke? Or was it good old-fashioned fog? This morning there’s a brown strip across the horizon, an inversion layer. Under scattered, not quite blue skies, we cross the high desert, pass through Salt Lake City, and run the salt flats toward Bonneville at high speed. Finally in Nevada, we see it: blue sky. Deep blue.  All blue.  With large fluffy white clouds that cast wide shadows across the terrain. 

In Elko, where we’ll spend the night, we search—for fresh vegetables and for shade. 

The former, I know, is a fool’s errand. We ask the clerk-in-training at the hotel desk where Tizi can find some nice fresh vegetables. The clerk is stumped. I imagine a French fry is the closest she’s come to such fare. 

“I mean,” Tizi says, “like an omelet?”

Clerk-in-training number two, also not long out of pigtails, appears and says with confidence: Try JR’s.

JR’s is a casino restaurant. They serve breakfast. The vegetables in Tizi’s vegetable omelet were fresh once, then frozen.  She is neither happy nor unhappy.

My tacos, on the other hand, are a triumph, eliciting pleasures exceeding those I experienced this morning scarfing scrambled eggs and salsa verde.

Back at the hotel, we drive around the parking lot twice, looking for shade.  There are a few minor trees, some stunted bushes, gravel, and cement. No significant shade.  Shade matters to her—more than it should, I think. But she’s had a bummer dinner, so I circle the parking lot once, then twice, and begin a third rotation when she points. “There.” At the end of the building, shade possible tomorrow afternoon.

“It will be cool in the morning,” I tell her.. ”We’ll leave early enough, shade won’t matter.”

Morning. Breakfast. I, for one, can’t wait. Laramie will be hard to beat.

iThink–towns, cows, silence

“Don’t forget the cows,” Tizi says.

How could I? If I think Iowa, I’ll think corn; in Nebraska, it will be cows. Since we crossed the state line they’ve appeared on hillsides, in fields, standing, sitting, lying. A few lucky ones, wading. It’s hot. There’s a hurricane in in the Pacific—Hilary, weather people are calling it/her, a once-in-a-lifetime event. It’s just been downgraded to a “tropical disturbance.” Well yes, I imagine 12 inches of rain in Los Angeles would be plenty disturbing. Here in the Midwest they’ve issued an excessive heat warning. It will be 114 in Des Moines tomorrow.  

Most of the cows are black. They dot the hillsides. Where they congregate, I’ve noticed, a mob mentality takes hold. Lead cow indicates: I’m turning my back to the Interstate or I”m facing that scabby tree by the pond, or I’m walking up this hill, and they all fall in line. There’s not a non-conformist cow among them. Like birds on a wire: Guys, perch looking West. And they do.

I won’t forget the cows. 

There’s a lot I want to remember as we burn up the road. We’re in no great hurry, but there’s a great distance to cover. Everything flies by. There is a too-muchness about it all.
I don’t want to forget crossing the Platte River, which, Google tells me, trappers used and both the Oregon and the Morman Trails followed during the westward expansion. (Mystic rivers! A couple years ago we floated the Snake. The year before that, when we crossed the Missouri River, leaving Minnesota entering South Dakota, I was tempted to pull over. Along Interstate 70, the Colorado River calls to you. I’m history. Slow down, you dolt.) In Nebraska the Platte reminds you it’s there, branch after branch.

I don’t want to forget the names of towns. Welcome to Friend, Nebraska. Have you been to Montezuma? How about Happy? In another life, if it were a very long one, we would take the exit in Milford and check out the giant covered wagon, spend a little time at the Plainsman museum. Strategic refueling helps. If you stop, make it count. Yesterday we refueled in Waco, Nebraska, at the scuzziest gas station I’ve ever set foot in, with a pothole-filled drive I thought I might bust an axle driving over. And where was Waco? No town in sight. It must have been down that neglected two-lane one way or the other. There was no telling, and I didn’t ask.

Once in a while, I pick up my phone and record a detail. I take a note, voice to text. “The blond cows look like rocks lying in the fields,” I say, and it’s saved for future contemplation. But at 81 mph, even on a long straightaway, I don’t like touching my phone. It’s dangerous. Coming soon, I hope, an app for that. We need an iThink app that records your thoughts. Thought to text. You think it, the app writes it. I could be journaling as I drive, capturing every passing curiosity. A town called Funk, a town called Wynot. It would be messy, I know. Thoughts are chaotic and multi-directional. You wouldn’t want the app to record everything (“let not light see my deep and black desires”). You would need commands. This thought, not that one. “Hey, Siri, I’m thinking…”  A command like that and bingo! Thought capture. “Hey Siri, I thinking the stick man face I saw in Laramie.”

A lot of this time in the car, we ride in silence. Alone in our thoughts. Long periods of meditation and reflection, broken by observations. “I wonder if Frank will take that job.” “When will Gabriel have those teeth pulled?” “That place we stayed in Oklahoma City was nice.” We’ll chat a few minutes, then return to our thoughts. I know we could be doing something—listening to books, listening to music, tuning in podcasts. But the idleness is full and rich.
We get snippets of NPR. Radio reception waxes and wanes, mostly wanes. Tizi suggests podcasts. 

“Let’s get that going, she says. “We could listen to Rachel Maddow.” 

Well, yes we could. I’m interested in what she has to say. But that will be the end of the enticing blackout. What will that mean? How will that feel?

“You know we tried this once before,” I tell her. “The first time we took the long drive, we were coming into St. Louis, and I tuned in a podcast I had saved.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“It was a bust.”  

Today we’ll drive across Wyoming and into Utah, finishing the day in Nevada. With Rachel Maddow and who else? I predict this too will be a bust. There will be too much going on outside, streams and rivers, more cows, and horses, and mountains and desert, historic names and places to be savored in silence.

Hey Siri, keep things quiet. Just us and our thoughts.