Dog Days Not So ‘Ruff’

There’s no mistaking it. They’re here – the Dog Days of Summer that is. Me, being ever the weather nerd, noted yesterday was the 52nd day at or above 100 degrees (or 38 Celcius for any of my readers living anywhere besides the U.S.!) of the year so far at my home. More surprising, the heat’s extended to places like northern New Jersey, where Newark had five days in a row in that temperature range, and Britain where airport tarmacs began melting in the 104 degree heat recently. Britain as in, home of the pasty-skinned locals and homes with no air conditioning. That Britain.

I’ve heard the expression “Dog Days” since I was young and always assumed they just referred to any old hot spells in summer. I was surprised to find, according to the Farmer’s Almanac and Wikipedia both that this year the “dog days” end tomorrow , on August 11. They began on July 3. Who knew? Not me. Turns out they’re a specified time and it ties in to the meaning of the phrase.

I was never sure why they were “Dog Days” but I had guessed it had something to do with dog behavior in summer. It’s said only “mad dogs” (and Englishmen) go out in the mid-day sun. Your typical perky pup usually prefers long snoozes in the shade to tiring jogs on the most humid days, and the wiser people among us probably concur. There’s a reason Mexicans used to take “siestas” after lunch on a summer day. Thus, dog days were lazy days, days so hot it makes doing anything seem like it’s doing too much. Turns out I was wrong. The Dog Days are days when Sirius is prominent in the early morning sky.

Sirius, also called the “Dog Star” is in the Canis Major constellation – Big Dog – and the ancient Egyptians noticed it always was prominent in the mid-summer pre-sunrise sky. Lacking calendars with wacky Far Side cartoons to tell them what day it was, they planned some of their agriculture and festivals around the star showing up. The Canis Major days. After a month or so, the nighttime sky had shifted enough for it to not be on their dawn horizon and the period was over for another year. I think I like my explanation better.

It all got me thinking though, of the four seasons. When I first came to Texas, I was rather dumbfounded that most of the locals hate summer. As a northerner, it made no sense. After all, in Canada, we look forward to the “Dog Days” …both of them! I kid, but winter’s are long there, days short for close to half the year. So when we get to shed layers of clothing, spend evenings outside at concerts or sporting events, or just strolling around, without seeing our breath and shivering, that’s reason to celebrate! Not to mention things like summer holidays, BBQs, picnics, sleeping with the windows open, and for us guys, yes, seeing the ladies shed some layers of clothes. They have legs! Who knew? Not us in mid-winter! It’s a fun time to enjoy being outside, get together and do things. Little coincidence that most of the big festivals, fairs and picnics are held within the brief late-May to Labor Day time frame there.

Down here though, things are a bit different. While up there, people revel in the days when it hits 80, here people wait longingly for the time when the nights at least will drop below that temperature. Air conditioners run non-stop, and electric bills and tempers rise in lockstep. Fingers get burned on the steering wheel of cars when you hop in before the AC starts blasting…and one still drives, even to the neighbor’s it would seem, because who wants to be walking anywhere when it’s 111 in the shade. And shade is nowhere to be seen? Texans, it seems don’t care much for summer.

It got me thinking too, if we have summer “Dog Days” what would represent the other seasons?

Fall here comes late, but can be rather pleasing… cool, sunny days. But where I came from, although fall meant miles of glowing, beautiful fall colors mostly it meant cold, rainy, dreary dark days…until the rainy days turned to dreary snowy ones! Once Labor Day had passed I guess we had the Elephant Seal Days of Autumn. Cold, gray, wet and a bit on the mean side. Of course, many older northerners take the first few snowflakes as a message to fly south to sunnier locales for a few months. As soon as the Snow Goose Days arrive.

Winters here when we see snow long enough to take a picture, let alone for the kids to make a tiny snowman, are memorable. Up north… they’re endless. Or so it seems. Cold, best spent indoors as much as possible, snoozing or ignoring all that goes on outside one’s door. Those little furry masked bandits have it right. They don’t quite hibernate; they just stay in their homes for days on end, sleeping a lot when the winter winds howl and pop out briefly when the sun comes out….on the Raccoon Days of Winter.

Which leads us to spring. I always loved spring up north…when it finally arrived. Days were lengthening, it was getting warmer, new growth popped up everywhere, birds were plentiful and singing and summer things like baseball were beginning to slowly get back up to speed. Down here, well lo and behold, people like spring too, for many of the same reasons. It just shows up much earlier and lasts fewer days before turning to full-on summer. But it seems everywhere, people are a bit happier and more energetic when spring has sprung. They even have a “spring” in their step. During the Baby Goat Days of Spring!

One good thing about the Dog Days… they give us time to sit inside, sweat and ponder – about things like Baby Goat Days!

Animated Hank More Real Than Real People

Recently I’ve been pleased to take part in an ongoing review of great TV shows with a number of other pop culture writers, hosted by Max at his Power Pop blog.  There I’ve written recently about Friends and about Emergency, both of which I’ve discussed here at one time or another, but for openers I picked something a wee bit off the beaten patch. There are so many good TV shows to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll opt for one that seems to hit close to home for me (LOL – literally)… King of the Hill.

King of the Hill was a long-running animated prime-time cartoon that somehow had characters a lot more “real” than most of its contemporaries made with real actors. It ran on Fox Network for 259 episodes from 1997- 2010, and has been seen in re-runs in syndication and on some of the streaming services. I’m not a gigantic fan of Fox overall, but one thing they do well is cartoons!

It typically ran on Sunday nights after The Simpsons, – itself a hilarious and ground-breaking show – at 8:30 Eastern time. Fox seemed to clue in on how much of a good thing they had going with Sunday night cartoons aimed at adults and forever were searching for ones to lineup with their corporate flagship show and its yellow-skinned Springfielders. Some of them caught on (e.g. Family Guy or, though I can’t fathom why, Bob’s Burgers), others were come and gone faster than you could say “Eat my shorts” …anyone remember Border Town? Although a few of the post-Bart and Homer series might have now topped King of the Hill in episodes, I don’t think any have topped it for humor and creating characters we felt we could relate to. No wonder Time magazine once called it “the most acutely-observed and realistic sitcom about American life, bar none.” Perhaps all the more surprising since its main creator was Mike Judge, whose previous claim to fame was Beavis and Butthead.

King of the Hill revolved around Hank Hill and his family – wife Peggy, tween son Bobby and their dog, a lazy hound called Ladybird. And the niece who lived with them, to Hank’s mild disapproval, Luanne. They were a typical, middle-class Texan family living somewhere in the suburbs, in the city of “Arlen.” Hank sold propane, and propane products and was proud of it. Peggy was a substitute teacher, specializing in Spanish classes (although her knowledge of the language was barely functional) who loved Boggle and making green bean casseroles; a woman described as “confidant, sometimes to the point of lacking self-awareness.” Like most Texans, they loved things like rodeos, pickup trucks and Dallas Cowboys football – in one memorable episode Hank tries to get together a movement to move the Cowboys training camp to Arlen, but they pick Wichita Falls. To which Hank replies that city which claims to be “north Texas! More like south Oklahoma if you ask me!” a pretty stinging insult in the Lone Star State! Bobby, to his dad’s chagrin, is chubby, has little interest in sports and wants to be a stand-up comedian or worse yet, a clown.

Joining Hank is a supporting cast of neighbors we all seem to know in real life. There’s Bill, balding, overweight veteran who’s lonely and cuts hair on the nearby military base for income and amusement. Boomhauer, the suave, thin ladies man with the weird hillbilly accent who always seems to have female companionship and little to do outside of that but drink beer with the other guys and watch the world go by. (In the final episode’s surprise twist, we see his wallet lying open and find he’s a Texas Ranger – the elite branch of the state police.) And there’s Dale, a man ahead of his time. Chain-smoker, exterminator by day, full-time conspiracy theorist and paranoid political commentator at night. Somehow he’s married to the lovely Nancy, the local TV weather girl and they have a son, Joseph… who looks nothing at all like him nor the blonde Nancy…but suspiciously like John Redcorn, the Native “healer” who has been giving her lengthy massages for her migraines for years. Dale has trouble figuring out why Joseph looks like that…but thinks maybe his wife was abducted and impregnated by aliens. And we can’t forget Cotton, Hank’s cranky old father, lacking the bottom of his legs due to a war injury, nor the Khans. The Khans are from Laos, and while their daughter, Kahn Jr. (Connie to her friends) has assimilated well and is Bobby’s erstwhile girlfriend, and mother Mihn tries, Kahn Sr. fancies himself a successful businessman and can’t believe his bad luck landing up on a street full of hillbillies and rednecks. Somehow, the men all seem to get along and bond over things like appreciation of a good garbage can or love of (in Khan’s case, grudging acceptance of) Alamo Beer.

For the most part, the stories were fully relatable. They never starred in freaky Halloween episodes nor a big Broadway show (although ZZ Top did guest star once and put Hank unwillingly into a reality show following him around) or get abducted by aliens, perhaps to Dale’s surprise. Instead there were events like Hank trying to get the city to rescind it’s bylaw necessitating water-conserving toilets, or camping out in the local Megalomart with Dale (which bears a lot of resemblance to another American big box department store) trying to catch a rat. In one episode, Bobby gets picked on by bullies leading Hank to try to get the boy into a boxing class. Instead of that, Bobby ends up in a women’s self-defence course and learns to kick anyone he’s mad at in the testicles…Hank included. And one of the final episodes really amused me … I was born and raised near Toronto, if you didn’t know that already. In it, Boomhauer decides to take a vacation in Canada and temporarily trades houses with a Canadian family. Hank and the Canadian dad take an instant disliking to each other, with them competing over who brews the best beer and whose brand of lawn mower rules. End result? Both get arrested for DWI while mowing their lawns; Hank and his buddies eventually sell a “keginator” beer-pump to bail the Canuck out of jail, because that’s what neighbors do. “We’re Americans,” Hank declares “we’re the world’s welcome mat. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Canada, Laos, or God forbid, even California!”

The show had Greg Daniels co-writing early on, a good pedigree since he’d worked on Saturday Night Live, the Simpsons and co-wrote the Seinfeld episode “The Parking Space”. When it first came on, I liked it and often watched it, but it took years for it to really grow on me and come to appreciate how fully nuanced the characters were and how much attention to detail of human nature it showed…all the while being hilarious. There was a great sense of humanity in it all. People like Hank were trying their best, having a hard time keeping up with the changing times (he was the holdout on the office’s love of Facebook, for example) but doing his best to understand and be better. Nancy had her ongoing affair, but called it off eventually when she realized it was wrong to do to her husband, wacky as he was. And Luanne, sweet as pie and about as dumb as one too, with her little Christian puppets trying to teach kids right from wrong, boyfriend Lucky in tow. Lucky got his nickname when he slipped on pee at a Walmart and sued them for hundreds of thousands! (That makes watching it a tiny bit sad as both of the voice actors are gone – Brittany Murphy who did Luanne, and the one and only Tom Petty who was ‘Lucky’). They were all good people and the shows funny. But once I came to Texas…boy howdy, it took to another level for me.

Judge spent time in the Dallas Metroplex when young and said he based it on the suburbs like Arlington and Garland, Texas. Once I saw Waco, it seemed like Waco was Arlen…or vice versa. There are so many details that ring true like the Bush’s beans at dinner or love of Whataburger. When Peggy wants to have a serious talk with Bobby, she’ll treat him to one of those burgers…leading him to suspiciously note last time she took him there, she told him about Doggie Heaven!

I started this thinking I wouldn’t have enough to say about King of the Hill. Turns out I have too much to say for one column really. So one more thing – I just reminded myself how funny the show was. I think I’m going to go watch a few now!

Boffo Beer Blog #17 : King Grackle Has Surely Come

I’m back with a new beer to take out for a flight…Texas Beer’s King Grackle Stout. As I’ve noted before, I like birds and so this one was a “must try” for me. And decidedly Texan!

For those who aren’t familiar, grackles are blackbirds, long, slender, social and shiny. where I came from (as well as much of North America) there’s the Common Grackle, a noisy bird a bit bigger than a robin and a sure sign of spring when they return in March. As they say though, “everything’s bigger in Texas” and here we host the Great-tailed Grackle, a much larger version of the regular ones and one of the biggest songbirds on the continent. And boy do we have them! They nest around the cities but in winter, they’re joined by their friends and cousins from the colder states and congregate in flocks that can number in the thousands, often in trees around shopping areas. They’re bold and eat almost anything and are thus successful…and like most animals that thrive in urban areas, the locals by and large hate them. But I always find them colorful, enjoy watching them fly out of nowhere to chase a passing hornet and am in awe of their synchronized twists and turns as the flocks get ready to settle for the night. Cities like Dallas, Austin and Waco have the biggest numbers of them anywhere.

So we have a bold, quintessentially Texan bird which is mostly black in color. Fittingly, the beer named after it is dark and bold as well. The brewery describe it as “a full bodied stout that flies boldly above the flock.” They note that it’s “bold and flavorful” with “notes of coffee and chocolate.” Which might sound unusual but actually is typical of European stouts and could pretty well describe Guinness too.

The Texas Beer Co. is a relatively new addition to the roster of craft brewers around the state, starting up in 2015 with the help of a Kickstarter fund as well as private investments. They built their brewery in an old brick building in Taylor, not far from Austin, and like many others, have a Taproom on site which offers trivia nights and live music in non-pandemic times! Among their popular brews are a blonde ale, a Hoppy Duck IPA and Pecos Amber, a beer which took a gold medal at the 2018 Great American Beer Festival.

For my try, I popped open a 12-ounce can (suitably dark and adorned with a picture of a Grackle) and poured it, noting its similarity to Guinness in appearance. It was almost black in color and produced a tall, creamy caramel-colored frothy head which lasted some time. I had it with a toasted ham and tomato sandwich lunch with some cut-up green tomato (unfried) on the side.

My first impression was that this is a strong drink. Strongly-flavored with a foamy head that actually retains a bit of texture when drunk. It is bitter, but not displeasingly so and rather hoppy. I could detect just a hint of chocolate in the mix (they actually use some cocoa brewing it) and although it didn’t taste precisely like coffee, it did evoke a bit of a feeling of a cold, strong black coffee. Thankfully, I like black coffee.

As it might be assumed, it held its own with the meat sandwich and the tomato (green tomatoes , by the way are quite meaty and less “sweet” than most typical ones). It actually created an odd little “zing” when washing down the sandwich and had a nice silky, creamy kind of feel. Substantial was a word which came to mind. The chocolate hints and strength of it make me think it would go well with a real coffee over a sweet pie or ice cream dessert as well. But at over 7% alcohol (the can says 7.5% but their website claims 9%) it is a brew for enjoying when the day is done. You’re probably not going to be flying energetically after downing one.

Overall, I like it for times when a drink with a bit of kick and intensity feel right. It might not be my everyday choice for cooling off with or having while watching a couple of innings of baseball, but it’s one I might just keep on hand. I rate it 7 out of 10 for strength, 7 out of 10 for flavor and

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3.5 out of 5 king grackles!

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