Captain of My Choices: An Essay

Life is a series of choices. They come at you bam, bam, bam from cradle to grave. We’re hard-wired for it. As little kids, we’re choosing a favorite rattle or middle-of-the-night wailing slot before we’re even aware a choice was involved. Parents know this via age-old wisdom, and though as adults they’re making horrible choices themselves, they try to get their kids choosing better.

There are countless choices at a supermarket. For example, store-brand Froot Loops always seem sketchy somehow, but they are fifty cents cheaper. The greenish state of bananas weighed against your banana-eating forecast. Then there’s the cat food aisle. The cat food aisle has a barrage of flavor combos, tuna and chicken and giblets. I don’t picture what goes into giblets. That’s a choice. Ignorance is bliss.

The cans come in delicate broths or cheese bits or some fondue-ish suspension. With test-marketed names like Gourmet Grill and Fresh Catch. It’s good fun choosing the flavors that your cats will decide they hate. But there’s one flavor that stops me cold there in the cat food aisle, muzak bouncing, stuck at some invisible crossroads.

Sea Captain’s Choice.

This cat food hypnotizes me. Can’t say why, which only deepens the allure. The can is simple and solid. A glimpse of two fish filets to keep us landlubbers grounded. No-nonsense, but no glitz either. And there’s barely a cat pictured on the label. Yet, that name–that name, Sea Captain’s Choice–that bluest blue label, the blue of tropical waters, island coves, buried treasure.

What I think it is, it makes me wonder about the captain. What kind of man is he? Or she, if the family’s daughters have taken the helm. A stern captain, to offer so consistent a pâté and so clean and tight a can design. A captain like this ventures through life with taut riggings and swabbed decks.

Our captain has made choices. It’s right there on the label. A cannonade of choices–and came to live with them. Like did they choose the sea, or did the sea choose them? The latter, I’ve grown to believe. Destiny surrounds anyone born who braves the oceans for the sole purpose of cat food.

More choices. Hard choices. Which fish are best among their catch, where to find them, why those primo selections remain unspecified on the label. It could be any fish, carp or marlin or even shark, caught or personally wrestled from the water anywhere. Cagey, my captain. Another choice, never to be pinned down as you ply the seven seas after a dream.

You need a crew for such an undertaking. A hearty crew, bosuns and mates. Another wave of choices, from who gets selected to how those brave sailors hired went to sea themselves. Some running from their crimes, some running toward cat food glory.

Maybe that’s why the Captain grabs me. I long for a captain. A steady hand to help chart my stars. Except, let’s be blunt, I couldn’t cut it in any sailing life, let alone under so formidable a command. Fact: I sunburn easy and prefer the shade. Fact: I like to sleep in. Fact: I have deplorable knot skills that I have chosen not to improve. Besides, if there is a call of the sea, I choose to hear it as a call to the Marriott swim-up bar. Sure, there was that time we went out twenty miles off Florida for gambling, but let’s be honest: That was about the craps table and complimentary drinks.

One day, the supermarket didn’t have any Sea Captain’s Choice. Not like they were out of stock. I mean, gone. The shelves had pushed the other cat foods together where Sea Captain’s Choice had always been, how supermarkets choose to fool the untrained eye into believing the shelves are super stocked. The captain, gone. I worried. Had the Captain gotten out of the cat food game? Had they made a disastrous choice, say to chase a school of cod into a furious nor’easter?

Or had they made a terrible choice? Captain, did you leave half your crew to the Kracken so that the rest were spared? Did you dump your catch to escape a grasping whirlpool? Captain, what drives you to take such risks? Or did you make the ultimate sacrifice? You’ve seen the movies: perfect storms, pirate clashes, megalodons. Anything can happen out there, when the sea chooses.

At whatever stage of the grief process, I began reflecting on why this Captain mattered so much. I hadn’t met them. I wasn’t joining their quest. I don’t eat the food. The cat does. Yet I stood there in the aisle, blocking the shelf guys and other shoppers, and slumped in unexpected loss.

A choice. A last choice.

My choice. I’d chosen to fill in certain rough-sketch details about this Captain and their quest, down to their final reckoning. And I’d chosen pretty well, if I might say so. It’s more fun buying from Captain, My Captain than from any old blue can slingers. In life, choose fun where you can. Choose adventure, even if it’s fiction.

Well, I’d overreacted. Sea Captain’s Choice soon returned to the shelves. The supermarket had just been out of stock and just chose trickery to keep panic from setting in. Be that way, supermarket. I choose the high road. The high seas and that Captain my Captain forever beyond the horizon, a built-up fascination I’ll never really understand.

In life, we don’t get all the answers. Only choices to make and the next questions each choice brings. Like, for one, why the hell do I have a cat anyway?

Her choice, I guess.

Humor Short Stories This Whole Writing Thing

Seconds: “First of a Fine Spectacle”

Did you know Russian empress Catherine the Great wrote operas?  She did, badly, or so goes her history. Anyway, back in my own when came an anthology call for Catherine the Great stories and here she was upon research having tried her imperial hand at librettos. I wrote it, a comic romp. Got a yes. So there I was, 2013, me and a Catherine the Great opera romp. Not everyone can say that’s in their locker, y’all.

I like this one. It’s imperfect in execution but wonderful for its tomfoolery. It appeared only then in Pure Slush‘s Catherine, Refracted. Today, our world is struggling. People could use a breather romp. So, here is that Catherine story. As published, all hindsight editing resisted to preserve its goofball spirit. I hope it brings a needed smile.


Katerina hooded her gaze. “La Harpe told you everything?”

Her footman intoning “Katerina the Second, Empress and Autocrat of All the Russians,” still dizzied me even after it no longer echoed through her salon. My endless bow had me near toppling over, blood pounding in my ears. I, the librettist known for his single glorious failure, had been dragged into a private audience with the Empress herself.

“I’d have us speak plainly.” Katerina said. “Mr. Nowicki, are you quite well?”

I was not. My business in Saint Petersburg, to discuss texts for the soon-to-open Bolshoi opera, had ended badly. Before I could present my tragedy Kristall-Herzen, a fortune teller in love with her destined murderer, La Harpe made clear the true commission: to supervise texts credited to Empress Katerina. We debated the matter, he considering it an honor and I a prison sentence to be shunted into a ghost-writer’s closet. In that sense I won the argument when imperial guardsmen hauled me away.

“Mr. Nowicki?”

Katerina stood beside the piano, her face a once-perfect egg now swollen by age, her dark blue eyes still dancing with intelligence. Her white gown glowed in the sunlight surging through the windows. Outside the river flowed oblivious to my plight.

“Mr. Nowicki, I am accustomed to having my questions answered.”

France Humor Short Stories Travel

Paris Always Wins: Behind “The Montparnasse Moon Shot”

Bob’s Spot in Paris

There is a particular spot in Paris I go whenever there. It’s on the west tip of Île Saint-Louis, a prow of a park cutting the Seine into gauche and droit channels. The park is hardly a secret. Thousands of bateaux passengers cruise past it, thousands more stroll the river walks or zip along in the Parisienne traffic crush. But it’s hard-ish to get down there. Stairs and a short walk deter the less resolute. All the better, right? The park is quiet by local standards, shaded in places, and those bateaux passengers are merry (insider tip: wine is involved), and I feel history coursing by.

This nugget did not make “The Montparnasse Moon Shot.” Neither did my forever nipping into bodegas and sandwicheries, nor this friterie I know on the Right Bank. A travelogue of Paris was cut from the early drafts.

2013. I’d been writing France stories, and though one featured Paris already, it was a bit of a love letter. The famous sights, the simmering romance, so forth. Spend time there, and you grasp that Paris is hardly all City of Lights. It’s loud. Restless. Gritty, and if in some places it smells like urine, that’s because someone urinated there. I wanted that real Paris for a next story try. Real Paris seen through the eyes of someone who didn’t care much one way or the other. They had a job to do, and that job could show the myths of Paris as lovely bunk.

Good doggie

Enter that staple of the Paris romantic: café culture and in its analog day the pinball machine. And another from the lore box: the wolves of Paris that set after poor townsfolk centuries before anybody in Rohan or Westeros. The townsfolk got their wolf eventually, and they left architectural nods to the legend if you know where to look.

France Humor Travel

Mangeot of the Somewhat Nordlands: Among Les Français, 2018

Lately my traveling alter ego Mangeot of the Nordlands has chronicled expeditions through Norway, Quebec, and now France.

Try not to judge him too hard. He means well.

13 April — Tours

We arrive among Les Français (meaning “They who put sauces on anything”) at their chief aerodrome of Paris. It is a grand city of Statuary and much stone and plentiful macaroons. It is neither clean nor particularly well-lit.

There is Much Strife among the trainsmen. We journey forth regardless as far as they will convey us, into the Touraine. We stop at the drizzle-swept outpost of Tours, pronounced “TWO-er” and meaning in Old French “Why are you not smoking?”. The country folk greet us in a State of Ennui until we demonstrate means of payment. Then fine chefs serve us their Kir and Martini Rouge and treat us to feasts of savory pies made with chicken egg and salted pork. They show us all manner of chateau. Over local wine in which the townsfolk take Great Pride, they ask if I have read the writings of their noted author Balzac. “Some,” I say. “Oui,” they say, “you must be forgiven. You who are possibly from the Nordlands.” I nod. “Perhaps less so,” I say. “But still there is this,” they say. “Why are you not smoking?”

16 April — Bordeaux

We cross the Loire and sally forth into the hinterlands. Onward we venture, beyond the cloudy gloom and Lordly Manors, beyond the Signals of Wireless Service under what our quartermaster tells me is an International Roaming Plan. Our party presses into the Aquitaine, which I translate as “We wait until after the nap.”

In these Darkest Wilds we arrive among the Bordelaise. These are a river people who