Monthly Archives: September 2011

Have a Great Weekend

Is it just me, or was Lady Gaga better back when she was still Dale Bozzio?

Thursday is Resource Day

Now that the Triffid Ranch is between shows, Thursdays aren’t insane for a while. Well, if they are, it’s “filling your house with dog-chewed Star Wars action figures” insane, not “shooting at school buses” insane. I don’t know about anybody else, but I can live with that. Just pass me that tranquilizer gun, just in case this Thursday wakes up before we finish tagging its ears, fitting it with a radio collar, and painting “87” on its butt.

Where to start? Well, without going into long digressions about high-pressure cells and cold fronts, Dallas is going into cooler weather this week. The definition of “cooler,” of course, depends upon your perspective and sense of humor, as I’m still thinking of decorating for Halloween by putting a life-sized model of Venera 13 in the front yard. Even so, this means two things: gardening and music, not necessarily in that order.

For the music, the area around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is already notorious for its extensive autumn music festivals and concerts, and when I say “notorious,” I really mean “don’t expect to have a free weekend between now and the second week of January.” I could focus on the obvious events, such as the Fort Worth Music Festival this weekend, but let’s try something a bit more unorthodox. In this case, it’s time for a trip to Cleburne, southwest of Dallas, on October 21 for the Jam 4 Bats benefit. Last June, the owners of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs discovered that their building hosted a huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the upper floor, and rather than simply force them out, Fred Garza is hosting a benefit to put bat houses all over Cleburne for their benefit. I, for one, haven’t had a good Chicago-style hot dog since I left Chicago in 1979, so I already want to order a Bat Dog. Coming out for music, well, is just gravy.

(And concerning the bats themselves, Mexican free-tails are migratory, so they’ll be leaving the building by the beginning of December. At that point, the idea is to clean out the existing guano, repair any damage, and seal the building so the bats can’t simply move back in. I’ve already talked to Amanda at Bat World Sanctuary about collecting the guano for gardening, but there’s going to be a LOT more than I or any other individual will be able to use. To that end, I’m trying to organize local gardeners and gardening groups to assist with the cleanup. As soon as I know when we’d be able to get in, I’ll spread the word, and we’ll all be up to our armpits in well-aged, high-nitrogen guano by Christmas. And yes, you have to be a gardening junkie to look at guano in that way.)

And as far as gardening is concerned, I owe my friend Leah Shafer, former columnist at the late Dallas tabloid Quick DFW, a few favors. Thanks to her, I now know about Discount Home Warehouse Architectural Salvage. The Czarina’s already been nuhdzing about building me a new, larger greenhouse, so this was already perfect. Then I discovered Discount Home Warehouse has gardening materials. It’s already time for me to consider putting in a new raised bed in the front of the house, and I’ve been wanting to put in a small pond for both wildlife and aquatic bladderworts. Oh, we’re in trouble.

Other than that, it’s relatively quiet right now, but probably not for long. I’d best enjoy this relatively free weekend while it lasts.

A shoutout for a friend

In the past few years, I’ve had more than a few newspaper, Web site, and television interviews, and the conductor of each and every last interview asks “So how did you get into carnivorous plants?” Each and every time, I blame Tallahassee. No, not the character in the film Zombieland. The one and only Tallahassee, Florida, the place that saved my life. Three months there changed my life more than years spent anywhere else, and I’ll always be grateful.

Describing the first nine months of 2002 as the worst decade I’ve ever had only touches upon the horror. Besides the general dotcom bust economy and the resultant ongoing unemployment of myself and most of my friends, the house I was renting went back on the market, facilitating a sudden move. Two cats and my maternal grandmother all died within a week of each other. After months of searching, the only job I was able to snag was as the wine manager for a big liquor store, which was a bit like hiring Sid Vicious to manage a tailor shop. My first marriage ended in May, and I coincidentally quit pro writing on the same day, after dealing with the latest entitlement brat who vaguely promised payment “once the magazine was profitable.” As always, it came back to the job: if I wasn’t sweeping up broken wine bottles dragged in by drunken SMU students (redundant, but there you go), I was dealing with screaming technical recruiters who admitted they only wanted my career references so they could cold-call them. Fun times.

Finally, in early September, I received a call from Homes.com, a company then headquartered in Tallahassee. Seeing as how Florida was the only state on the east coast of the US I hadn’t visited at some time in the past, I gleefully accepted the offer of flying out for an interview. After letting me look around the area, they made me an offer, cut me a moving expense check, and sent me back to Dallas to pack. Nine years ago last week, I rolled into Tally in a 1997 Plymouth Neon, back of the car packed with clothes and basic survival gear, ready to start work.

In classic form, things didn’t end all that well. At that point, Homes.com was emerging from a bad bankruptcy, with a new CEO trying to save the company. I was brought aboard to document the features of a software package called PREP, designed to help real estate agents keep tabs on clients who had both looked at houses and actually purchased them. In classic dotcom fashion, the old company had given it out free with matching laptops to everyone who purchased the company’s Web hosting services, with the idea of selling printing and video services through “strategic partners”. During the bankruptcy, all of this fell apart, but that meant the company was still fielding incessant calls from realtors angry that their increasingly obsolete laptops wouldn’t be replaced or repaired for free. By the end of December, the company decided to stop support on the old PREP, shut down plans to make a whole new software package, and lay off everyone involved. Naturally, this happened about three days before I was to fly back to Dallas, five days before Christmas, and nine days before the Czarina and I were to be married. Because I purchased my plane tickets literally hours before I got the news, this meant flying to Dallas, getting married, flying back to Tally, loading up the car again, and driving the whole way back on New Year’s Day. That’s a story in itself.

I’m still good friends with several people from the Homes.com days, and they always apologise for dragging me out to Tally for such a short time, only to have this happen. I always respond that not only am I not angry, but I’m actually thankful. Making that trip to Florida was the best thing that could have happened at that time, for a lot of reasons. Again, that’s a story in itself. The most important thing, though, was that I was introduced to two places that derailed my life up to that point.

The first, Wakulla Springs, was a wonder deserving of a full week of exploration. (Again, story all on its own.) The second, though, was something I spotted while on that initial interview. Not too far away from the airport was a sign advertising a museum, and the first weekend I was in town, I tracked it down the Tallahassee Museum and practically moved in for the rest of the time I lived there.

The name is a bit of a misnomer: the Tallahassee Museum has big outdoor exhibits on early colonial life in northern Florida, particularly from when the turpentine trade was the main economic engine. The rest of the area, though, is closer to zoo and wildlife park than standard museum. Long nature trails run through most of the property, allowing visitors to see everything from black bears to spotted skunks to red wolves in naturalistic enclosures. Most of northern Florida is already primeval (at times, swimming at Wakulla Springs, I half-expected to see dryptosaurs coming to the spring edge to drink), and wandering along the edge of prime cypress swamp made a huge impression.

The most important thing I came across, though, was a small terrarium exhibit in one of the buildings. Inside were the first carnivorous plants I’d ever seen live other than Venus flytraps: Sarracenia purpurea, the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s one thing to read about them, but to see them up close was intoxicating. Even worse, I was informed by the helpful provost that the surrounding land was just rotten with carnivorous plants.

It’s no exaggeration to say that in sheer variety, the Tally area has more variety in carnivorous plant genera than just about anywhere else on the planet. Besides several species of Sarracenia and their hybrids, you have butterworts, bladderworts, sundews, and even a population of Venus flytraps. To this day, I haven’t heard a straight answer as to whether these flytraps were ones planted at some time in the past that went feral, or if they’re possibly a relict population from the last ice age, where all of the suitable flytrap habitat between North Carolina and Florida is now underneath the Atlantic. Considering some of the geniuses I met at Wakulla Springs who were working on masters degrees and Ph.Ds in the hard sciences, I figure that someone at Florida State University might settle this before too long.

(As an aside, another one of the reasons why Tally was such a needed Tanelorn was that it resembled my birthplace more than I wanted to admit. In some ways, it was even better: Michigan State isn’t exactly known for alligators and anhinga. Besides, I get more joy out of being considered an honorary Seminole than a legacy Spartan: most ‘Noles I meet in Dallas hear that I lived in Tallahassee and automatically invite me to game-watching parties “because you’re one of us.”)

What a difference nine years make. The Czarina and I never got the chance to set up house in Florida, and maybe that was for the best, considering the economic strains of the next couple of years. Instead, I came back with as many books on Florida natural history as I could find, and shortly after coming back to Dallas, really started digging into carnivorous plant research. It’s all been downhill from there.

And here’s where I return the favor. Out of many wonderful memories of my time in Tallahassee (and that includes my roommate discovering that my ex was a physical and temperamental ringer for the character of Edie Monsoon from the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, thereby leading to half of Tally’s gay community wanting to meet “the guy who used to be married to Edie”), one of the best was volunteering for the Tallahassee Museum’s annual Zoobilee fundraiser. (In fact, based on my prior liquor store experience, I was one of the bartenders, leading to many attendees wishing that their own bartenders were as lavish with the vodka and scotch as I was.) It was much therapy as volunteer work, and I was a brand new man when we finished up for the night.

This year, the Tallhassee Museum Zoobilee starts on October 14, two weeks from Friday. The theme: Twentieth Century dinosaurs. I probably won’t be there, much to my regret, but if somehow something amazing happens and the financial floodgates open, just look for the white-haired loony with the big idiot grin on his face.

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that must DIE NOW

In his classic novella “Frost and Fire,” Ray Bradbury described a world of horrible extremes between day and night. Nights were killing cold, and anything caught outside when the sun rose above the mountains burst into flame. The story itself followed the descendants of a band of colonists, all of whom lived their entire lives, from birth to death, in eight days. These people, and their descendants, rushed out as soon as the ice melted and took advantage of the short hour where plant life emerged, rushing back to hide in their caves before the temperatures became too dangerous. In return, they rushed out each evening, retreating only when the cold became impossible to endure.

This, naturally, is a perfect metaphor for life in Texas. Now you understand why Chicago columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La”: I’m slightly ashamed to say that the malls occasionally keep us sane in the worst of our weather. And now that it’s possible to go outside without getting second-degree burns on the insides of your lungs, we’re going berserk.

(Not that the heat is completely done. We recently broke our 1980 record of 100F-plus degree days in Dallas, and we could get a few more before the end of the week. However, it’s possible to go outside in the morning and think “autumn is here” instead of “the next time the weatherman predicts a chance of rain and it doesn’t come through, I’m going to tie him to a tree, get a stick, and use him as a Viking pinata.”)

The urge to get outdoors means that half of north Texas wants to evacuate the hydrogen bomb shelters we laughingly call houses all at once. This means that we have lots of outdoor events. LOTS. Live music shows, hot air balloon races, Renaissance fairs, the State Fair of Texas…heck, even Lewisville takes a break from singing the high school football fight song for a hearty tournament of bobbing for French fries. (Actually, I kid. Lewisville is a lot more civilized than it was when I lived there in the Eighties. I understand the place even has indoor toilets these days.)

Because the weather will, with fits and starts, remain roughly like this between today and Christmas Week, this means that people try to start their own events to go with or compete against existing ones. That’s about the time the Triffid Ranch gets letters and phone calls, from all over, asking about about participating in lectures, fairs, tours, and the occasional Discovery Day. This usually culminates around Halloween, because carnivorous plants just make Halloween a little sweeter. After that, not quite so much, but there’s still a lot to show, a lot to talk about, and a lot to do, and every event keeps me from having to deal with cleaning out the greenhouse. I mean, you should see it these days.

I try to do as many as I can, weather and season permitting, but sometimes circumstances get in the way. (An old friend regularly invites me to show plants at a show she manages in Dallas every year, and the only reason I regularly have to decline is because it runs in February. When all of the temperate carnivores are in winter dormancy and the tropical carnivores are muddling along, waiting makes much more sense.) Sometimes, an invitation coincides with an event already scheduled months or even years earlier. Other times, logistics get in the way, such as with well-meaning invitations well out of state. (The cost of permits for commercial transport of plants across state lines means that there’s simply no way to recoup costs unless the show is huge.) And others…well, it’s about time to talk about that.

Now, one might assume that because we don’t have children that we dislike them. Anything but. Shows for kids are the best kind, because kids ask the best questions. I’ll drop just about anything to show plants to students of all sorts, because there’s something about the light in their eyes when they learn about, say, the bats that roost in Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata pitchers. Adults try to hide their interest with snide comments and Little Shop of Horrors references, but the kids really want to know.

On another side, many might assume that because of my background in science fiction literature, I’d stay away from science fiction conventions. In fact, I’ve argued for years that most conventions are full of serious gardening enthusiasts who are neglected and ignored by standard garden shows and garden centers. It’s to the point where I’m half-tempted to organize a gonzo garden show, just for the enthusiasts with no time for cutesy garden gnomes and packets of cosmos seeds. I only draw the line at gaming conventions and literary science fiction shows, and that’s purely because of economics. Gaming conventions attract gamers, who generally climb into tournament rooms and refuse to leave for the weekend, so they rarely visit the dealer’s room. Literary conventions are instead full of wannabe writers who preface every sentence with sob stories about how they spent every last penny they had to get to the show: the old Comdex joke about how attendees come out with one shirt and one $20 bill and never change either for the entire weekend is, sadly, far too true for literary conventions.

No, the one absolute is with music. I’m not talking about events where vendors and musicians work together, such as with the Fort Worth Music Festival. It’s the events that advertise a deejay that should be avoided at all costs. The problem is that the deejay who works in a dance club or between sets at a live music venue is mostly interested in getting as many people as possible out on the dance floor, not only freeing up seats along the side but getting everyone hot and sweaty enough that they want lots of drinks. The focus is on the music. At a show and sale, invariably the alleged deejay is some fedora-wearing hipster who’s determined to jam his tastes in music down everyone else’s throats. It’s a sale, so customers try to talk over the horrible whiner rock or Seventies nostalgia trips. The deejay gets hurt that the customers aren’t paying attention to him, so he starts turning up the volume. Customers try to yell over him, so he cranks it up even higher. Before you know it, the decibel level rivals that of an F-16 at takeoff, and potential customers leave because they’re tired of having to scream to communicate basic concepts. The Czarina and I were at a show a few years back where the deejay was so obnoxious that we could only communicate via dry-erase boards, and trying to explain the vagaries of carnivorous plants is nearly impossible under these circumstances.

(I say this because several friends have already brought up the upcoming Etsy Dallas Jingle Bash in November, and I’ve tried to explain that we’re not attending because of the nightmare that was last year’s show. Apparently, the complaints about the deejay racket at last year’s event caused the Etsy Dallas crew to organize a Bash Pass, allowing those willing to pay an extra $20 to shop an hour early without musical accompaniment. While that’s a brilliant way to bring in an additional $1400 for the show, why not skip the access fee, put the hipster back on “funemployment,” and encourage even higher attendance for those with an aversion to Pomplamoose and Marcy Playground?

Silly question, that. Yet another reason to talk about organizing that gonzo gardening show.

And for those with a local show seeking something different, if this tirade doesn’t dissuade you, give a yell. Next year should be a very interesting year.

The party’s over

The party at FenCon VIII is over for this year, and the next big Triffid Ranch presentation starts on November 5 at the Museum of Nature & Science’s Discovery Days: Reptiles and Other Critters weekend in Dallas’s Fair Park. This year’s FenCon was an interesting mix: so many people from my old writing past came by that the show started to resemble a Dallas Fantasy Fair reunion, along with a lot of kids. The latter were the greatest joys, because they always had great questions or anecdotes. (For instance, the son of one of our fellow vendors had an acquaintance who was snagged by “some weird plant,” and we managed to work out that his acquaintance was nearly the victim of a devil’s claw.) Among other premieres:

de Marigny (2011)
de Marigny (2011), $350
Remember the conversion effort on that Eighties-era hexagon tank from a while back? Here’s the final effect. This set includes a custom-cut glass top to keep in humidity and prey animals, and it contains a Nepenthes bicarcalata pitcher plant, a spoonleaf sundew cluster, and appropriate statuary. The top is arranged so that it can be used in conjunction with standard high-intensity reptile enclosure lighting, or (preferably) natural sunlight.

Uncle Sam's on Mars
Uncle Sam’s On Mars (2011), $35
The Viking 1 lander model was one for which I’d been searching for years. The clay bonsai pot was one I’d had for years, but that needed just the right elements for it to work. The Crassula in this low-key saikei arrangement is some strange hybrid that I haven’t been able to identify, but that demanded to be included with this pot and this model. Together, they’re a reminder of the Mars explorations that almost were.

iTerrarium Mark II
iTerrarium Mark II (2011), $150
Some may remember when David Shaw proudly showed off the first-generation iTerrarium, my efforts to reuse the nearly indestructible polycarbonate shell of a second-generation iMac. After cutting and buffing the rear handle into an access hatch to reach the interior of the iTerrarium, it was fitted with a single light socket for a compact fluorescent bulb (23 watts for carnivores) and a thermometer and humidity gauge on the inside. The iMac in question was a DV SE G3/400, so it still retains the original transparent graphite rear shell. Future versions will include custom paint on the rear shell (to both block and reflect excess light and to do something with the original Bondi blue shell), latches on the rear hatch to secure it for use for reptiles and amphibians, and electronic temperature and humidity gauges.

Well, that’s it for the moment, but it’s a start. Just wait until I’m done with the new projects for the Fair Park Holiday Market this coming November.

EDIT: You know that I’ve been married to the Czarina for a while when I start picking up her propensity for reasonably witty or at least memorable puns. Normally, I loathe puns, but describing the act of packing up everything and loading it into the cargo van on Sunday as a “Jenga tu Madre,” though, just fits.

Have a Great Weekend

Why, yes, this is pretty much a documentary of the preparation for a Triffid Ranch show. Why do you ask?

No Sleep ’til FenCon

Time to get finished with the preparations for the latest Triffid Ranch show. If you’re going to be at FenCon VIII, stop by and say hello. If you aren’t, I’ll tell you what you missed. Selah.