White and Wrong – A kindly indictment

Anybody who knows me will tell you I’m totally Mr. Christmas.


I’m jolly, for one thing, and, as a “winter”, I look sharp in red. I also drink deeply from the cup of human kindness when thirsty, love getting free stuff, and harbor no fear of reindeer such that are properly restrained.

True, nobody who knows me ever calls me Mr. Christmas to my face, possibly because they also know I’m uncomfortable with praise, being subject to so very much of it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t apply that tender title to me outside of my hearing. It just fits, because I love everything about Christmas.

Okay, so I’m not crazy about unloading precious monies better spent on myself obtaining gifts for people who’ve possessed everything they could ever wear, watch, read, hear, and play since I gave it to them at least a dozen Christmases past.

And sure, I could do without the herd of relations flying in from all Creation, looking for a weeks-worth of sit-down suppers, messing up my guest beds and persistently trying to “catch up” in the middle of my favorite television shows.

For that matter, it kind of sticks in my Craw of Peace and Brotherhood that the networks routinely dump all of my favorite television shows each December, replacing them with syrupy seasonal fare that invariably looks cheap and canned in reruns.

And I admit to feeling a twinge of Grinch everytime some Kringle-Come-Lately throws on a free-with-your-fill-up Santa Hat and carries on like they’re Mr. Christmas, when anybody who knows me will tell you they couldn’t muster a fraction of my legendary cheer on their best day.

And then there’s the weather, which usually stinks.

On the other hand, I love Christmas lights.

A lot.

Maybe too much.

Christmas lights are the reason for the season, as far as I’m concerned. Inexpensive to purchase and to operate, the smallest string transforms the blandest landscape into a glittering realm of beauty and wonder. The monotonous paths of our lives are made splendid, the everyday enchanting, the dreary delightful and the mundane marvelous.

I will flatter myself to say that I put on a pretty decent display, myself. I do it in part for myself, because it makes coming home after dark even more agreeable than usual, and partly because Peter, my brother and Cohort in Christmas, wouldn’t hesitate to flay my hide clean off if I didn’t, but mostly I think of dressing up the house in its holiday finest as my own little gift to the neighborhood. It pleases my generous heart to think of the grateful smile that must touch my neighbors’ pursed lips as, wending their weary way home after a long day of drudgery and disappointment, they spy my fanciful handiwork through its encircling veil of trees and spontaneously recommit themselves to Charity and Good Works, and – then and there – decide to bite the bullet and pay for the costly and life-saving medical treatment so desperately needed by whomever passes for Tiny Tim in their impoverished household.

It’s my gift to the world, really, because Tiny Tim could grow up to invent some boon to all Mankind, like bacon-flavored toothpaste, or self-applicating toilet paper. You’re welcome in advance.

I confess that, driving down my street of a December night, I feel a warmth and solicitude toward those of my neighbors thoughtful enough to cheer my passage, and take disapproving note of those so dim of spirit or black of heart that they can’t be bothered. But there’s a third group on my street, and on every street, and they’re the ones to whom I direct this impassioned epistle. I’m talking about you white-light people.


One month a year you get to wreath your colorless hovels in sparkling splendor, and you choose white lights. For 31 too-short days you can illuminate your benighted lives in every shade of joy, and you put up white lights. After feasting upon the incandescent banquet that I have laid for you, you go home and plug in a string of white lights.

How is that right?

I mean, don’t you white-light people get enough undifferentiated visual stimulation every other day, hour and minute of the year? Every lamp in your house is white. The flourescent bulbs at your office are white. Car headlights are white. Streetlights are white. Flashlights are white. Your Coleman propane lantern burns white. Even the sun – the sun – is little more than a koo-koo-kajillion-watt, thermo-nuclear yard light bathing the Earth in an inexhaustible stream of radiant vanilla pabulum and keeping the solar system up at all hours.

Show some imagination, is all.

In my book, white lights aren’t properly Christmas lights at all. They’re just really tiny reading lights that you can’t possibly read by. They’re an affront to the concept of Christmas decoration. A broken promise. A cheat.

“Icicle” lights? Who do you think you’re trying to kid? They don’t look any more like icicles than Cindy Lou Who looks like a Bumble.

“Star” lights? Last time I checked, stars come in a variety of designer colors like blue giants, red dwarfs, and green clovers. Truly, you mock the very Cosmos.



I’m not trying to make trouble.

I’m not proposing that Congress enacts laws criminalizing the sale, possession and use of white “Christmas” lights, and if they did anyway I would be among the first to call for moderate sentencing guidelines for persons convicted on such charges.

It’s Christmas, after all.

I’m not asking for Peace on Earth, or a 92-inch plasma, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up at the plasma. I’m just asking for a shade more creativity. You’ve got the whole spectrum to choose from. Be the rainbow.

I’m begging you.

Color my world.

With All Due Respect

So the other night I’m watching TV.

I watch TV in the evenings because it’s easier than learning to play the banjo and more relaxing than trying to teach myself Mandarin Chinese.

Mike Nelson was on. Mike Nelson is a weather-guy for Channel 7 News. He’s the highest-paid television news personality in the market. Mike Nelson teaches kids to do the “Tornado Dance” whenever a camera is within range. It’s an uncomplicated step. The kids spin in place, and howl like a gale, and spin and spin, and then fall down like a trailer park. The Tornado Dance is Mike Nelson’s signature contribution to education and the arts.

But Mike Nelson wasn’t demonstrating the Tornado Dance. He was being interviewed by a pretty young Channel 7 news correspondent. She was asking him questions about recent Colorado flooding. Mike Nelson said the floods were “extreme”, and that we could expect more “extreme” flooding in the future, and well as extreme drought, and extreme winds, and extreme calm, and extreme snowfalls, and other weather-type phenomena of frightening extreme-ness. All that extremity, said Nelson, was our punishment for stuffing the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide. It was Nelson’s opinion that catastrophic “climate change” is our doom and we are the architects of our own destruction.

“What,” the doe-eyed beauty asked in conclusion, “is your biggest concern about climate change?”

Mike Nelson was ready for the question. I mean, really ready. Almost like he knew it was coming.

“I think what bothers me most is the lack of respect for scientists,” he said, earnestly.

My Hot-Pocket slipped from my fingers and into my lap, leaving small streaks of tomato sauce on the front of my Snuggie. If I’d heard right, Mike Nelson was predicting meteorological Armageddon, but was principally “bothered” that “scientists” weren’t getting their due props. Who, I wondered, choking on outrage and bone-dry Hot-Pocket crust, wasn’t giving scientists the respect they deserved?

Scientists are aces in my book. From anti-lock brakes to colonoscopy to GPS, scientists have made life in the 21st century an impossible dream of comfort, safety and convenience that would have been unimaginable even 100 years ago. Scientists have made it possible for me to research anything and everything in excruciating detail without ever getting up from my ergonomic chair, and to waste a few hours playing Spider Solitaire when even that stupefying expediency becomes too burdensome. Via the Internet I can discourse at length with people from Denver to Djibouti without having to shave first. The World Wide Web is science as magic, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t benefit substantially from its creation, or who wasn’t, at the very least, impressed by the quantum leap forward it represents.

No scientists are more deserving of admiration than agronomists. Agricultural sciences have made it possible for Mankind to feed itself. Yes, people still starve, but not because there’s nothing to feed them, but invariably because political scientists have diverted the bounty to other, political, uses. Drought- and pest-resistant strains, improved farming techniques and technologies, and better fertilizers and crop-management strategies have combined to produce annual yields sufficient to the dietary needs of 6.5 billion mouths. While agricultural scientists may often go unsung, I’ve never heard anybody speak ill of them.

Cataracts used to spell the end of sight. Now they’re just an unpleasant afternoon. Both of my parents would be dead right now if not for the stents given them in simple out-patient procedures. For that matter, one in three people of your acquaintance might be dead right now without a helping hand from medical scientists. Ticker gone bad? They can give you a new one. Blood pressure slowly killing you? There’s a pill for that. Cancer – just about any cancer – used to be a death sentence. These days, folks with colon cancer have a 70 percent chance of beating it, and, if detected early, nobody dies of breast cancer anymore. If anyone’s been beefing about medical scientists, they’re not doing it where I can hear them.

But perhaps Mike Nelson was talking specifically about weather scientists. True, weather-wonks take a lot of heat, but mostly because they’re sticking it out there every night at 5 and 10 and their mistakes are so easy to see. And that’s unfortunate, because they perform a helpful service, thanks in large part to the extensive network of weather satellites designed by aerospace scientists that allow them to see weather coming from much farther away than you or I can by poking our heads out the kitchen window. Do I condemn weather-folk for their frequent miscalculations? Absolutely not, and if people tend to grumble when they get caught in a thunderstorm without umbrella and galoshes, they’re typically grateful for a timely heads-up when the morning commute is apt to be on the slickery side. No, if there’s rampant disrespect for weather scientists, it’s news to me.

 Then again, maybe I misunderstood Mike Nelson’s lament. Maybe when he said “lack of respect”, he meant “lack of obedience.” Maybe he meant that we, the great unlearned, should be more compliant to the commands of our scientific betters. If so, then Mike Nelson and I may have a problem.

 The thing is, being smart doesn’t make you wise, and sometimes it doesn’t even make you smart. Scientists, for all their education, for all their insights, for all their focus and knowledge and ability, are wrong precisely as often as, well, anybody else. For every ballyhooed triumph of science, like mapping the human genome, or the Higgs boson, there’s an equal and opposite failure, like Einstein’s static universe, or Windows Vista. Whatever Mike Nelson may think, a science degree doesn’t confer infallibility, and a Nobel Prize in science doesn’t come with a Bat-Phone to God.

And I have to believe that Mike Nelson isn’t suggesting that scientists are somehow more virtuous than we dullards. Any good scientist in the marvelous field of robotics will assure you that most scientists are not artificial beings, but rather are reg’lar folks like thee and me, and subject to the same weaknesses, lapses, and personal, philosophical, political and financial predilections as any other creature of flesh and bone.

Billions of dollars worth of crops are still destroyed each year. It’s not for nothing that about 10 cents of every dollar spent on health care goes to pay malpractice insurance premiums. My computer is still a sitting duck for every worm that comes winding down the Inter-pike. Do I really have to remind anyone about the ill-starred Mars Climate Orbiter? And yes, Mike Nelson and his well-groomed TV colleagues are quite capable of some pretty spectacular prognostic blunders. Right about now a lesser person would bring up the Ice Age scare of the 1970s. But I won’t.

It wouldn’t be classy.

Do the weather-heads deserve our scorn for missing the daily high by almost 35 degrees? Heavens no. If I know anything – and that’s certainly debatable – it’s that the study of weather is, like all natural sciences, hideously complex and only poorly understood. I recall a very interesting feature that appeared in the Denver Post awhile back. It involved the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the handful of hard-working scientists who spend 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, dreaming up complicated weather-predicting models on their computers. It’s their goal that, by plugging all known weather data into their ingeniously devised models, their computers will spit out an accurate picture of the weather to come. It’s a miserable, painstaking, and very cutting edge discipline, and I have only admiration for the people who undertake it.

Here’s the interesting part – every time one of those talented nerds comes up with a new climate prediction model, it has to be tested for accuracy. They test it by picking a recent day – yesterday, for example – then turning back the calendar a week, or a month, or whatever, and applying the model based on previously documented weather conditions. If the model is correct, it will accurately predict yesterday’s weather. In a fit of journalistic competency, the reporter asked how often they get it right. In a fit of surprising candor, the climate scientist told him.

“So far, we’ve never had a model that got it right,” he said. “There’s obviously some factor – or possibly several factors – that we’re not taking into consideration.”

Now there’s a scientist worthy of respect. More than most, the beaker and Bunsen set hate to admit that there’s anything they don’t know. Would that Mike Nelson – who clearly counts himself among that useful class – could muster such humility. Because if I interpret the subtext of Mike Nelson’s statement correctly, and I think that I do, it’s his position that anybody who doesn’t automatically and utterly accept the scholarly conclusions  about climate change reached by Mike Nelson for no better reason that because It Is He Who Hath Sayed It is guilty of disrespect at best, and at worst of willful ignorance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a scientist, nor have I ever been credited with the invention of a vomit-inducing dance for pre-adolescents. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’m more stupid than my fellows, and if the foremost scientists working in the field of weather prediction can’t accurately foresee weather that’s already happened, then I can’t in good conscience get behind an economy-crushing carbon tax, or paying Third World countries for permission to turn up my thermostat, or henceforth riding my bicycle to the grocery store, purely on the say-so of an engaging on-air personality whose chief professional responsibilities are reading from a teleprompter and looking good in a suit.

No disrespect intended.

Learning to forgive

There’s something I need to get off my chest.

I’ve been holding it inside most of my life, letting it fester, and I hope that bringing it out into the open will help me move past it.

Let the healing begin.

A clean slate.

A new beginning.

It’s time to move on.

I hate California.

Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong. Let’s say I resent California.

Always have.

And let’s say I don’t actually resent the whole of the Golden State. The Bay Area is aces in my book, what with the great food and the streetcars and Alcatraz and bridge-jumpers and such. And Monterey is swell.

Let’s say I resent Southern California generally, Los Angeles specifically, and Malibu bitterly. I’ve lived with this unhealthy resentment since I was a child, and it has in a small way blighted what should have been many happy hours of television viewing, which is ironic because many imperfectly-happy hours of television viewing are what raised that persistent bile in the first place.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been to SoCal, and I liked it. I found the climate agreeable, the scenery exotic, the ocean magnificent, the attractions numerous and gratifying. Disneyland did not disappoint the boy that was I, and teen me couldn’t get enough of SeaWorld. The eucalyptus groves, the piers, the colorful nut-cases and the ever-present glitter of tinsel were sources of fascination and delight. I even loved the beaches – those famous, broad, sun-soaked bikini-clad beaches – which is kind of ironic, since they are in no small part responsible for my lifetime of secret antipathy. But I can state without reservation that I have never blamed the beaches.

I blame Hollywood.

I suppose it all dates back to the surfing craze and movies like Beach Blanket Bingo, Surf’s Up and Gidget. One needn’t know a grommet from a honker to appreciate Sally Field reclining in the sand wearing a form-fitting one-piece, and the idea of cutting loose at a late-night clambake with a bevy of beach-babies could make even the most hydrophobic young hodad lose his water.

In the 80s, blockbusters like the Karate Kid, Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High didn’t improve the situation, although by that time, at least in my case, the emotional damage was largely done.

I love the Beach Boys. Always have. Heck, who didn’t? They don’t get much play these days, but I still sing along when “I Get Around” or “Help Me Rhonda” somehow slips past the metal-manic program director at 99.5 The Mountain.  But they were kings, once upon a time, and they presided over a large and imperial court of surfing nobility. Toss in music by the Ventures, the Surfaris and Jan and Dean, and, for a while there, the national soundtrack had a decidedly west-coastal cast.

In my formative years, adolescent viewers were constantly awash in Southern California. All the best TV shows were set in California, from the Brady Bunch to Charlie’s Angels to the Beverly Hillbillies to The Monkees to The A-Team. Even programs not set in SoCal were too obviously filmed there, forcing impressionable young minds to either believe the whole world is an unvarying landscape of dry hills and even drier palm trees, or accept that everything on every screen was a reflection of California culture. Battlestar Galactica? Take Dirk Benedict out of his smart tunic and put him in Karachi sandals and he’s Ricky Nelson in Malibu U.

What’s my point? I’m glad you asked.

Yes, I liked the shows. I liked the movies. I liked the music. But the subtext of it all never varied. California was cooler than whatever backward armpit you had the lousy luck to live in. Californians were smoother, wittier, better looking and better dressed.

Kids in California surfed, and when they weren’t surfing they were riding dirt bikes, and when they weren’t riding dirt bikes they were performing martial arts, or hang-gliding, or combating injustice, or going to teen parties that were so much better than anything you’d ever be invited to that you were effectively doomed to a life of social disappointment. The girls in Los Angeles were cuter, the boys muscle-ier, the food tastier, the sun shinier. The schools were fun. Big fun.

Not like my school.

Before you say it, belay it.

I’m not jealous.

Insecure, maybe, but never jealous. Fact is, even as a pup, I have never aspired to the Malibu scene, or the ostentation of Beverly Hills, or to emulate the bizarre, alien Valley culture. Why would I want to live in California? I grew up in Colorado, and it was pretty awesome. Still is.

As a lad, I lived in constant low-grade frustration, quietly desperate lest the country not understand that the Centennial State is, indeed, cool, and that I, by extension, was just as hip and with it and tuned-in as Tatum O’Neal. Fact is, I could find nothing portrayed in the California-centric media that was in any measurable way superior to my own circumstance.

Maybe I didn’t have an ocean nearby, but I had a lake to boat on if the mood struck me, and a creek to tube in if I just felt like getting wet. I also had snow, and mountains, which equal skiing, which is at least as cool as surfing and, quite frankly, looks better on TV.

I perceived no obvious lack of hipness in my friends. I had buddies that made Jeff Spicoli look like Ralph Macchio, and if I didn’t own a dirt bike, I knew plenty of guys who did. And we didn’t ride around some sissy track. We took our chances in the unforgiving forest primeval. My schoolmates of the female persuasion were of uniform quality and pleasing proportion, such that I could easily, and frequently, imagine them holding their own against Annette Funicello in an all-bikini clambake dance contest.

And yet, for all that, Hollywood never took any notice at all. In return for my generous investments of time and interest and money, the quiet-on-the-set crowd could only rarely be bothered to even recognize Colorado in passing, much less acknowledge that my Rocky Mountain home might possess some small feature of value not to be found on Pacific shores. Like we weren’t good enough. It felt like a snub, and it hurt.

And I resented them for it.

And I resented California.

And, in my heart of hearts, I still do.


That felt good.

Yeah, I know it’s stupid. In time I came to understand that everything was filmed in California because that’s where all the cameras were. It just made good economic sense. As I matured I came to realize that Dobie Gillis was no more an accurate representation of American life than Gilligan’s Island, or the A-Team, or any of the other fictionalized, glamorized, dramatized and homogenized nonsense that Hollywood perpetually churns out. I eventually concluded that my real-world peers in California probably looked, lived, laughed and loved pretty much the way I did – excluding Pamela Anderson, of course – and that to measure my existence against the entertainment industry’s illusory yardstick must necessarily kill my spirit by inches.

Knowing helps, but the scars run deep.

I have forgiven the Brat Pack, but I won’t forget the way they made me feel less-than.

Even Ally Sheedy.

And that’s saying something.

Even today I generally avoid shows that are set in Southern California. It’s an almost subconscious aversion, and admittedly unfair. On the other hand, it’s spared me the discomfort of even momentary exposure to steaming twenty-something piles like The OC, Beverly Hills 90210 and the Big Bang Theory.

I guess you could say I’ve grown. I now know that our 31st and most populous state is a fine and proud and admirable place chock full of scenic wonders and cultural delights and scientific marvels and a stout citizenry that likes me just the way I am.

And I resent it.

Always will.

Except now I feel a lot more comfortable with that.

In psychological parlance that’s called a “breakthrough.”

I see our time is up.

Let the healing begin.

Lettuce vs Cabbage

Lettuce thinks it’s so great.

Lettuce thinks it deserves an invitation to every table and a throne on every dish.

Lettuce thinks it out-ranks all other leafy greens, and believes itself manifestly superior to those humble, but hard-working, species of produce that dangle, or flower, or burrow in the earth, or recline on the vine.

Salad plates? That was lettuce’s idea.

That grossly inflated self-image is distasteful, certainly, but understandable. Lettuce is, after all, the most vain of vegetables, and recieves constant, unhealthy re-enforcement from large, entrenched and unreasoning culinary factions more interested in form than function. And never was a sterling reputation so utterly without foundation.

The Emperor has no clothes.


Were the truth known, lettuce has for too long been standing in the warm light of admiration more rightly occupied by a valiant victual of impressive attainments, proven character and unquestioned merit, and that’s an injustice I mean to correct. I’m talking about that hardy herbaceous biennial of the Family Brassicaceae; that compact cluster derived from the wild mustard plant and beloved of the ancient Celts; that noble crop that Cato the Elder in his wisdom praised as “the first of all the vegetables.”

In the realm of edible foliage, Cabbage wears the crown.

I don’t hate lettuce. Oh, it’s fine as a bed for something battered and deep-fried, or piled on a slice of rye with bacon, tomato and mayonnaise. But it’s no cabbage. It’s a fop, a popinjay, a proud face on a craven heart. It’s all trailer and no feature presentation.

Lettuce has no flavor, unless apathy is a flavor. The leaves of aspen, birch, or People Magazine would make a more favorable first impression. Lettuce is the only substance bland enough to make raspberry vinaigrette seem interesting.

Cabbage introduces itself with a firm handshake and even gaze. A little sweet, a little nutty, and with just a hint of menace, cabbage greets the tongue without flinching and won’t be intimidated by garlic and oregano. 

Lettuce has the French knack for folding when the going gets tough. Put lettuce anywhere near a knife and it immediately turns coward-brown and begins losing its composure. It has a Pheonix sunbird’s delicate internal thermostat, only with the dial reversed. Just watch it as it turns limp and listless and whiny at the slightest breath of temperate atmosphere. An hour at room temperature transforms even the crispest of that class into an unappetizing sludge the most famished and least critical gerbil can’t abide.

Not so cabbage.

Cabbage is a matador – brash, resolute, self-assured, and fearless in its purpose. It gives respect to the diner, and demands it in return. Slice it, dice it, chop it fine or shred it into confetti, cabbage will hold its ground, stay the course, keep the faith. A week in the refrigerator soaking in a zesty cream dressing won’t break cabbage’s will, nor dull its satisfying crunch. If cabbage could talk it would say please-sir-may-I-have-another.

Besides lackluster service as that most uninspired of sides, the dinner salad, or lending unnecessary bulk to pedestrian hand-foods – taking up valuable taco real estate better occupied by smoked and seasoned pollo, for instance – lettuce is good for exactly nothing. It’s a two-trick pony, and neither of them are fun or surprising.

Cabbage is the most versatile of viands. It makes a better, livelier salad than lettuce could ever hope to, and that’s just the tip of the, er, iceberg. Steamed and bathed in butter it’s a party in your mouth. Coarsely-chopped cabbage adds gumption to soups and stews, and when finely-chopped supplies nutritious heft to any sauce or casserole. Shredded and pickled it’s matchless on a brat or other wurst. Shredded and fried it’s the soul of pork fried rice and egg rolls. Speaking of rolls, try wrapping rice and ground lamb up in tidy shroud of lettuce sometime.

You won’t try it twice.

Determined lettuce-boosters will hope to dazzle you with a description of their favorite leaf’s nutritional attributes. True, lettuce contains many ingredients compatible with a healthy diet. Just not as many as – anyone?… anyone? – no, sorry; the correct answer was “cabbage.”

Not only does cabbage contain more essential calories and protein – the precious fuels of life – it’s got nearly twice the fiber of lettuce and less than half the unsaturated fats. In addition, cabbage is an excellent source of vitamin C, and a single cup supplies about two-thirds the recommended daily allowance of Nature’s unsung hero, vitamin K. Add to that a generous periodic-table’s-worth of vigor-inducing minerals like iron, calcium and potassium, and a body might well sustain on little but cabbage and water.

And how sweet would that be?

But maybe you’re not into awesome nutrition. Maybe you’re the kind of Narcissistic mule who cares only for food’s superficial qualities. Lettuce, if you’d like to know, comes in unimaginative varieties like “Romaine”, “Looseleaf”, “Red”, and – God help us – “Arugula”. Cabbage, on the other hand, strides boldly onto the menu under proud and historic banners such as “Late Flat Dutch”, “Early Jersey Wakefield”, “Danish Ballhead” and “Savory.” What’s in a name? Good eating, that’s what.

Incredibly, even in this age of dwindling energy resources there will be unrepentant lettuce lovers who discountenance and malign cabbage’s remarkable ability to fabricate combustible gold within our very bowels. On the contrary, besides its potential to power a brighter future for all races and peoples, I consider that rare and wonderful capacity to be cabbage’s most cherished gift.

The gift of music.


Don’t be blue, Pumpkin. Lettuce had a good run, but it’s time for iceberg to slip back under the waves and surrender the succulent seas to one far more scrumptious. Cabbage is the new sovereign of the supper table, the fresh and feisty prince of the popular palate.

The King is dead.

Long live the King.

Cacti vs Cactuses

Awaiting my turn in the dentist’s chair, I started thumbing an old copy of ‘Arizona Highways.’

It was either that or ‘Dentistry Today’, and I figured that before an hour was up I’d know more than I necessarily want to about the dental arts in general and my personal oral apparatus in particular. And anyway, ‘Arizona Highways’ is a fine publication full of pretty words and informative pictures and colorful advertorials plugging everything from authentic Southwestern art I can’t afford to posh Sonoran resorts I can’t afford. I had just finished drinking in the delicious details of a sumptuous Lake Havasu dinner cruise I can’t afford a when my eye lit upon this irresistible header:

“Cacti or Cactuses – readers find the proper plural a thorny question.”

As your luck would have it, that’s something I know something about. Stickery succulents, I mean, not grammar. Fact is, it’s long been my custom to spend a couple months each winter in Tucson, and it’s been my custom while in Tucson to get acquainted with at least one new hiking trail each week, which practice has made me intimately – and at times painfully – familiar with the Sonoran Desert’s most fearsome flora. And it is by virtue of that hard-won credential that I herewith settle this divisive question for good and always.

They’re both wrong.

With all due respect to the Romans, for whom I harbor a deep and abiding affection, their language isn’t just dead, it’s petrified. And even Latin’s most ardent admirers must admit that the needlessly abrupt “-i” as a plural suffix form for words ending in “-us” is irregularly applied, at best, and is at worst timorous and unreliable.

The accepted plural of octopus, for example, is generally accepted to be octopi, and if an abacus were used to count itself twice it would be abaci. On the other hand, colleges and universities have no compunction about maintaining multiple campuses, and no person of serious mind has ever described a convocation of unfairly demeaned anatomical orifices as a clutch of ani.

Perhaps worse, “cacti” carries the subtle stink of affectation; a 50-cent shine on a 10-cent word that persons of unlikely intellectual ambitions trot out because they think it makes them sound scholarly. As a plural for cactus, the word “cacti” is to be shunned, as are all who use it.

Turning to “cactuses”, please understand that I have nothing against the “-es” plural suffix. It has a long and honorable record of service. It’s comfortable, predictable, versatile. A short and retiring supplement, it wields a potent grammatical authority that complete words of far greater definition and prestige can only dream of. It’s just no good for cactus.

In that case, “-es” takes the starch out of the very word it means to exalt. It sucks all of the smart, staccato vigor out the hard Cs and the T, and sends an otherwise distinctive term sliding down into a hissing swamp of weedy sibilance. Aesthetically, “cactuses” does not well become the mouth. Taxonomically, it’s a grave affront to some of proud Nature’s most durable, and most dangerous, herbaceous creations. It’s a blameless suffixed forced to evil purpose by the ignorant, and people of good conscience will avoid it in both written and spoken discourse.

Having now seen the two widely accepted plural forms of “cactus” utterly and irrevocably discredited, it would be fair to wonder what alternative I propose. Only this:

The only legitimate plural of cactus is…cactus.

How simple, and yet how sublime. And don’t look so shocked. It works for moose, and for fish, and for pants. Why not cactus? Go ahead – try it on for size.

“Thank you for the generous gift of this single potted cactus.”

“Thank you for the generous gift of these two potted cactus.”

“Ouch! I pricked my finger on this solitary barrel cactus.”

“Hello, 911 dispatch? I have fallen face-first into an unspecified number of barrel cactus”

See? There’s no discomfort associated with this flexible usage, nor unpleasant aftertaste. Fact is, I’ve been doubling-down on cactus for years without social stigma or legal complication. And if my inspired expedient occasionally meets with resistance from the ignorant and the puritanical, right-thinking folk invariably thank me effusively, and are grateful to be at last free of the self-doubt and grammatical uncertainty that formerly plagued them in cactus-related situations.

And you’re welcome, too.