Monthly Archives: February 2014

Have a Great Weekend

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Cat Monday

Cadigan & Leiber

Have a Great Weekend

25 years ago today, I started what turned out to be the biggest mistake I ever made, in a life full of humdingers, with my first-ever published writer credit. I don’t regret meeting the now-old and dear friends I met along that strange trip, but let’s just say that I’m glad I can look at that mess from the other side of the chasm.

Things To Do In Dallas When You’re Dead: Spring 2013

Deep Ellum mural

The days get longer, the polar vortex slows in its attempts to freeze Galveston, and the Czarina can read weather reports from Michigan and Wisconsin and not try to set her bath water afire in order to get a little warmer. We’re not quite to spring yet, but we’re getting there, so it’s time to get back outside and do something. Do what, you ask? Well, time for some ideas.

Firstly, we’re now three weeks away from All-Con 2014, one of the biggest costuming and general weirdness conventions in the Southwest. This year, in addition to the now-expected Triffid Ranch display in the vendor’s room, come out for two different discussions on carnivorous plants, including one demonstrating the fluorescence of certain species under ultraviolet light. This is in addition to all of the other great panels and demonstrations, so buy your tickets before the Addison fire marshall steps in and yells “Okay, no more.”

Along that line, as mentioned a couple of months back, after two shows this season, the Triffid Ranch goes on hiatus until May 2015 in order to rebuild stock and cultivate new species of carnivore previously unavailable at events. That means that if you can’t make All-Con, come out to Texas Frightmare Weekend at DFW Airport for the blowout final show of 2014. Among many other events, TFW is hosting a 60th anniversary celebration of the premiere of Creature From The Black Lagoon, which has special significance to me. Many of the underwater scenes in that film were shot in Wakulla Springs in the Florida Panhandle, and my strange and sordid trip through the world of carnivorous plants started with one weekend in September 2002 spent exploring the springs. Between this and a screening of the movie at the springs held as a fundraiser, coinciding with the Czarina visiting me in Tallahassee just before we married, I have lots of fond memories involving that movie, and it’s only fair to return the favor to Loyd Cryer and the rest of the crew at TFW and give them a plant presentation that will never be forgot.

Black orchid

In between that, though, is an event unrelated to the Triffid Ranch, other than the fact that I finally get to attend. For years, Gunter’s Greenhouse, one of the best orchid nurseries in the country, held an open house to show off its collections to the general public. For years, it always coincided with All-Con, and All-Con management frowned on my leaving my booth to drool on orchids. As of late last year, Gunter’s was purchased by the Dallas orchid dealer Dr. Delphinium, and one of the new changes involves moving the open house to the weekend of March 28 this year. Sadly, the great display of Tahitian vanilla orchids won’t be available, due to a pest infesting and killing off the vines, but speaking from experience, the trip will be worth that very minor disappointment.

The Hoodoos of Richardson

Chalk hoodoo

Sometimes, when trying to describe the particular travails of Texas horticulture, it’s necessary to go to great efforts to explain why basic techniques that produce great results elsewhere are nearly worthless here. At other times, those demonstrations literally pop out of the ground. In my case, I nearly ran into one while bicycling home from the Day Job one afternoon this week.

Travelers to Alberta might be familiar with the famed hoodoos around Drumheller. Those rock formations are completely natural, having formed when weather-resistant caprocks protect the softer stone beneath them from erosion. Dallas isn’t amenable to real hoodoos, what with our horrendous storms and thick clay soils, so all of the boulders one sees on the sides of strip mall driveways and in suburban front yards came from elsewhere. Most of the ones seen around here today are legacies for the SUV craze of the late Nineties, where the only way to get inattentive or incompetent drivers to make their turns in the correct places was to delineate the driveway with rocks slightly smaller than the vehicles in question. The piles here were a lot smaller, and composed of local chalk, but they also had a very human origin.

Hoodoo and filled hole

Based on the filled-in hole in the center among the four piles, someone needed to do some digging for practical reasons, such as to fix a fiber optic cable or possibly a water line. Judging by the piles themselves, whatever went into the hole had as much volume as the displaced rock, and it apparently made more sense to leave the piles behind than to haul them away. It certainly offered more amusement to the drivers stopping at the intersection by the piles to gawk at them. We Texans are a very easily entertained people.

Chalk hoodoo

The whys and wherefores of the hoodoos make sense, and now it’s time to look at what else they can teach. When you hear North Texas gardeners complain about “black gumbo,” they’re talking about the Blackland Prairie soil that covers most of the area. Most experts agree that this soil is potentially some of the most fertile on the planet, or would be as soon as worms, grubs, and the occasional armadillo mixes it up with lots and lots of organic matter. Right now, it’s thick and sticky when wet, and its high water content means that it shrinks and produces gigantic cracks when dry. During full-scale drought, that shrinkage means that the subsidence can damage house foundations, break water mains, and threaten life and limb. I mean that literally: during the drought of 2011, I nearly broke my ankle while mowing the front yard when I stepped in a monstrous crack in the yard that wasn’t there a few days before. Given a few more weeks of severe drought, that crack might have caught small animals: one here in Garland nearly ate a puppy. Further north and west, at the edges of the Woodbine Formation, the clay changes color from black to deep red and orange, and goes down 10 to 20 feet, interspersed with flat boulders of blue quartzite strong enough to break the bucket on a steam shovel. (Yes, I witnessed this firsthand when I was a kid.)

Chalk hoodoo
Here, though, the Black Prairie soil is relatively shallow, and it’s usually frosting on the thick and deep sponge cake of the Austin Chalk. Back about the time dinosaurs were stomping around near Glen Rose, the Dallas area was underneath the warm and shallow waters of the North American Seaway, and it would have been possible to paddle or raft your way from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay. Not that you’d want to, considering the number of aggressive and very hungry sea-going reptiles that considered that waterway home.

Chalk trace fossil

Now, for palaeontology buffs, the Austin Chalk is a treasure. It’s a little coarser in grain than the fine sediments of the Eagle Ford Shale: unlike the Eagle Ford, you generally won’t find ammonite shells in the Austin Chalk. However, shells are occasionally found, along with a lot of trace fossils from digging organisms. If you have patience, a couple of tons of spare chalk, and a lot of dilute acid, you can treat the rock with acid and find teeth from the many species of shark that also called the North American Seaway their home. You won’t find anything on a par with Carcharocles megalodon teeth, but the Seaway had a lot of specialist sharks and rays that scattered discarded and worn teeth all through the Austin Chalk sediments.

Chalk trace fossil

Fast-forward 90 million years or so, and contemplate the chalk formed by sediment pressure times time. People who don’t live here always ask why houses in Dallas generally don’t have basements, and the chalk is a big reason why. It’s why we don’t have subways as well: it’s structurally weak, so tunnels made in it have to be shored up to the point where it isn’t economically viable to continue. (Not that this stopped the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system from putting in a train tunnel on the edge of Highland Park in the mid-Nineties, but that was due less to improved digging techniques and more with politics.) Between the shifting clay on top and the porous chalk below, any building foundation either has to be dug deep into the chalk or put in as a slab that “floats” atop the clay, and basements on residences are generally the worst of both worlds.

The same geologic factors that affect construction also affect plant growth. Take a look at our indigenous trees, and they’re also shaped by the battle between clay and chalk. Either they produce shallow but wide roots through the clay, such as the various oaks in the area, or they produce extremely long and strong roots that punch through cracks in the chalk, such as with mesquite. Everything else does its best to hang on in whatever clay it can find, thus helping to explain our fleeting but tremendous displays of spring wildflowers. In areas such as this one, which might have a centimeter of soil or less atop chalk, even lupines like the Texas bluebonnet can’t get established. Those areas stand out by their dearth of ground cover, as only a mist of grass can survive there in spring and fall, and the summer months are notable for the feel of barely-concealed rock underneath your boots.

As for these hoodoos, they’re sadly not long for this world, one way or another. If some human effort doesn’t knock them down or otherwise disperse them, the combination of gullywasher storms in spring and brutal sun in summer will crumble them all in about a year. Five years from now, their only trace will be random piles of chalk chips, along with whatever bits of fossil shell and tooth may have been concealed within. And so it goes.

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Cat Monday

Cadigan and Leiber

Have a Great Weekend

“Let’s go dark, and see what we find…”

Winter moon

It’s my firm belief that almost any holiday can be improved by adding a touch of Halloween to it. Christmas? Already been done, to great effect. Easter? Well, the man did say “This is my body: take of it and eat.” Arbor Day? That’s any given day in the Triffid Ranch greenhouse. There are limits: Veteran’s Day in the US and ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. However, the ones generally labeled “overly commercial” can be amped up quite a bit by adding a touch of darkness at the right time, under the right circumstances.

One of the best in that category is St. Valentine’s Day, and not just because of roses and chocolate. Go out tonight and stare up into that absolutely magnificent full moon starting to rise this evening, and just tell me that you don’t have the urge to take after one of the most famed unorthodox yet incredibly devoted couples in movie and television history:

(Well, okay, so our relationship is a bit closer to this, but that can’t be helped.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pick up the Czarina and take her out to dinner. That full moon isn’t the only sight of uncommon beauty around here.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

First, the congratulations. Old and dear friend Dave Hutchinson just saw his latest book, Europe in Autumn, published on both sides of the Atlantic. Considering that we’ve been commiserating over the state of journalistic careers on both shores for the better part of a decade, and he was sufficiently bereft of sense, taste, and sanity to buy my last book, the least I could do is pass on word. After all, he’s had to put up with me for a significant portion of the 21st Century so far, and that’s something that nobody should do without access to strong drink or electroshock therapy.

Anyway, it’s also time to remind him of why he worries about my coming to visit unbidden. As in his walking out of his house into the garden and tripping over my sleeping body on the front steps, with a big sign taped to my back reading “PLEASE TAKE ME IN”. Poor Dave already believes that Texas is a deathworld writ large, and he refuses to spell it out in correspondence. I tell him about armadillos, horned toads, mockingbirds, and coyotes, and he merely refers to my home as “Australia Lite”. More than fair: he’d last about five minutes outside of the United Kingdom anyway, and if he came here, he’d have to be wheeled around in a armored bubble like some deformed hamster, just to protect him from the mosquitoes and horseflies. Well, that and the mountain lions: I didn’t tell him about the mountain lions that sleep in the streets of Fort Worth.

Anyway, to celebrate his new book, I realized that I need to put together a package for him, and I told him so. I could hear the shudder of revulsion and horror from here. You’d think that we had chainsaw duels in the middle of downtown Dallas or something. (Well, we do, but only when fighting over prime parking spots on Friday nights. We’re not barbarians.) And this is why I figure it’s time to send him a collection of Texas ephemera, unique in its power to make him glibber and meep just a touch more in his sleep. The trick isn’t just to play on his fears that Texas is as bad as he suspects, but to go waaaaaay past those fears and burn Hank Hill cameos into his corpus callosum. This might take some effort.

Well, I’ve already found the first item, after the Czarina needed to make a trip out to the famed Turner Hardware. For those not familiar, this is the other Dallas icon named “Turner,” and not quite the force of nature as the other. (If we ever get Dave out here, this is someone I plan for him to meet, by the way. How often do you get the chance to meet the guy who justifiably beat the hell out of Kurt Cobain?) That said, we have the perfect garden decoration for Dave, absolutely guaranteed to keep his guests talking about him…and looking for easily-accessible sedatives. I could even tell those guests “Of course they’re real. How do you think we keep the horseflies from stealing the children out of the back yard?”

Shotgun shell lights

Well, this is a start, and a pile of swag that both Turners would be glad to assist in increasing. Now to find a rattlesnake ashtray

Thursday is Resource Day

They say that you learn as much from experiments that failed as experiments that succeeded. I don’t know who “they” are, or if they’re related to every emergency medical tech’s nemesis, “Some Guy.” Like Some Guy, “They” tell you to do, say, or act in a way that immediately threatens life, limb, or sanity. The difference is that Some Guy is more active. Some Guy tells you to pee on an electric fence, and when you do it, he disappears, leaving you to explain the situation to family, spouses, or law enforcement officials. They simply stand back, whispering ideas, and let you take the hit yourself. They tell the absolute truth, and They have no reason to dissemble or fabricate anything. The problem, of course, is that you only learn this when you’re trying to explain to your wife exactly WHY the cat’s head is shaved on only one side.

Ginkgo seeds
The power of They particularly presents itself with any of the culinary arts. You’ll hear a murmur of “They say that canning tomatoes is easy,” or “They have all sorts of ideas about what to do with Buddha’s Hand citrons.” What THEY never tell you is the details, so you have the learning experience, and they never will. They always hide in the background while you do something “easy”, like extracting honey from honeycomb, and vanish when you look over your shoulder, covered in honey and waving an electric uncapping knife over your head like Toshirô Mifune, and yell “So what do I do NOW?” And that’s how They got me to try frying ginkgo nuts.

It was inevitable that They were going to get me once again, and I heard the bullet before it got me. A few months back, a confluence of factors led to further study of ginkgo trees, which led to contemplations of the proper way to roast and eat ginkgo nuts. “People have been doing it for thousands of years,” I thought. “Nobody would be doing it if it weren’t worth the effort, right?”, They whispered. I’m sure They were just as persuasive when convincing Napoleon that invading Moscow in the winter was a good idea, and it might have been so if They hadn’t left out just a few teeny tiny details.

Procuring fresh ginkgo nuts itself wasn’t a problem. Being this close to Chinese New Year, many local grocery stores have at least a few mesh bags of ginkgo or “white nuts” on hand, and many of the Asian grocery stores in the vicinity sell ginkgo nuts in bulk. I knew that the nutmeats are toxic unless cooked, and that some people have issues with contact dermatitis from working with or eating them. Okay, that’s a start. I came across a lot of fascinating recipes for using the nutmeats in stirfry and in soups, but not much on their preparation. Most started with “get a skillet, put one tablespoon of oil in the bottom, heat until the oil starts to smoke, and add nuts.” Yeah, They left out a few details that made the experience a lot more interesting.

Ginkgo seeds

The first thing to consider is that the shell of a ginkgo nut isn’t particularly tough. It’s not as thick as, say, that of a pistachio. However, it makes up in ability to retain pressure what it lacks in armor, which means that a critical failure leads to a small steam explosion. Picture a popcorn seed popping, only with sharp shells going in one direction and a green lump of what looks like slug snot flying in another. Do that in an open skillet without a lid or cover, and your kitchen rapidly resembles the scene of a Drazi loogie-chucking competition. Oh, and popcorn merely burns a bit when a freshly popped kernel flies out and lands on your hand. Ginkgo nutmeats fly out and stick.

Lesson #1: ALWAYS KEEP A STOUT LID ON ANY PAN USED FOR FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Since They didn’t warn about detonating nut hulls, it stands to reason that They wouldn’t say anything about the type of oil necessary. That’s because They didn’t say a damn thing about how hot those ginkgo shells would get when resting on the bottom of the skillet. To get enough heat to cook the nutmeats sufficiently, the shell tends to scorch. If the shell is scorching, then it stands to reason that the oil will smoke. Well, it might appear to do so, but never underestimate the ingenuity of fools and children. In a classic example of “failing to master the basics before moving to experimentation,” I thought “I really like chili oil, and I can only imagine that it would improve the flavor of the ginkgo nuts.” And with the same hubris, General George Armstrong Custer went to Little Big Horn.

Nearly 30 years ago, I found myself in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, going through Nuclear/Biological/Chemical warfare training as part of US Army Basic Training. At the end of the day, while wearing protective masks, all of us were marched into a chamber loaded with CS gas, told to take off our helmets and masks, and the drill sergeants waited to see our reactions. Not only did the indescribable pain of a lungful of CS gas teach us all the importance of getting on our masks in future encounters so we’d never have to deal with this again, but it still haunts my occasional nightmares. Even better, since I was the “nice guy” in the platoon, I knew that the drill sergeants were waiting for us to bolt for the door, where they’d ask a herd of semi-paralytic teenagers such vital questions as “What’s your name, Private?” and “What’s your First General Order?” before letting us through. Therefore, I stayed in for about twenty minutes, not realizing that two groups had entered and left past me, waiting my turn for interrogation and release.

I’m not saying that chili oil smoke compares to CS gas. Among other things, exposure to chili oil smoke still allows you such advanced skills as color vision and bowel control. However, I now know how grizzly bears feel.

Lesson #2: NEVER USED CHILI OIL WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Because They never whispered a word about the use or misuse of chili oil, They also got great mirth from the realization that a standard kitchen stove fume hood wasn’t going to be enough. The smoke detectors in the house went off. The cats ran to hide in the bathroom. The Czarina didn’t say anything, other than to open up the windows and turn on the industrial-grade venting fan in the garage. Asking her “Well, aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” didn’t do a whole lot, either, and I now know exactly how long it takes for a bruised spleen to stop aching and pulsing.

Lesson #3: ALWAYS HAVE GOOD VENTILATION WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Finally, the house cleared, and since the outside air was running just about freezing, the command decision was made that we’d vented as much smoke as possible. I swore that if I ever used chili oil again, I was to do it outside. The current batch was finished anyway, so I poured it into a bowl, waited for the nuts to cool, and started to dig in. Before that, though, it was time to turn off the fan, close the windows, and reset the heater, because while it wasn’t going to get brutally cold, the great outdoors weren’t going to get any warmer.

The next morning, I woke up to find one of the cats in one of the windows opened for venting. Specifically, Cadigan was letting me know her supreme displeasure in discovering the one window I’d missed. Did she make her displeasure known before dawn? Oh, of course not. Her amusement just increased when I looked at her and told her “Okay, cat. You’re getting a job or you can move out.”

Lesson #4: ALWAYS CLOSE THE WINDOWS AFTER FUMIGATING THE HOUSE WHEN FRYING GINKGO NUTS.

Not only are They really good at avoiding complete information, but They’re also good at passing on what seems to be good advice. Since I’d received several warnings that ginkgo nuts needed to be cooked because the raw nuts are toxic, I worried about the nuts that hadn’t popped. “What if they’re only medium rare, and I turn purple and explode?” Reasonable, but They gave a suggestion: “why not put the unpopped nuts into the microwave? A minute or so should settle the matter, right?” In retrospect, this was a classic example of the Texas demonstration of an individual’s fitness for public office: “Hold my beer and watch this.” Again, remember what I said about fools and children.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite meals when left to my own devices was an egg and cheese sandwich. Pulling out a skillet and frying up the eggs was too much effort, and I discovered very rapidly that putting two or three eggs in a bowl, covering it with Tillamook cheddar, and putting the mess into the microwave was a lot more fun. I knew that leaving the bowl uncovered was an impending disaster, so I covered the lot with a good stout plate, set the microwave for about 4 minutes, and let it rip. I didn’t have to listen for the oven’s beeper: instead, I listened carefully for the aftermath of the outside of the yolks cooking faster than the inside. After a time, enough steam pressure built up inside that the yolks exploded, and THAT was my Pavlovian cue. I also knew enough to let things cool down, because I didn’t want red-hot egg yolk spattering me when the yolk ruptured while being moved.

These days, I look back on that recipe and remember Dallas musician Jeff Liles‘s crack in his first Cottonmouth, TX spoken-word album about a sandwich “grabbing my heart like a fist.” Even though I haven’t had one in nearly three decades, those sandwiches taught me very valuable lessons about microwave oven science. Namely, when something starts going off in the oven with very sharp reports, don’t assume “Oh, my wife is storing 5.56 mm ammo in the microwave again.” You cut the power. Thankfully, I had a top, too, but the ginkgo nuts built up a bit more pressure before detonating. The successive percussions didn’t take out the cover, but it did look like Yog-Sothoth took one long sneeze in the bowl. The nuts were still edible, but they were missing something. I think what was missing were the seedling embryos’ souls.

Lesson #5: NEVER PUT GINKGO NUTS IN THE MICROWAVE.

Will this escapade stop me? Oh, hells no. Another batch later, and practice makes perfect. Just so long as They don’t convince me that the best thing to wash down ginkgo nuts is a durian smoothie, the Czarina won’t kill me in my sleep this week.

The News:
From a botanical and mycological standpoint, the understanding of organism migration, with and without human help, keeps offering up more surprises. For instance, discovering that the death’s cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, is spreading across the planet, isn’t news. I can see that every time the fruiting bodies emerge from the thatch in my front lawn and threaten to block out the sun. (Go ahead and laugh. After three steady days of rain, you’d think I was growing Prototaxites in the front yard. It’s also endlessly engaging to note that many plants, including orchids, depend upon a symbiosis between the plant and a similarly unique fungus, which fuse the plant’s root system to the fungus’s mycellia network. In this case, the plant supplies carbohydrates while the fungus provides nitrogen from various sources. Those “various sources” can include decaying organic matter (hence the fungus in my lawn feeding on grass thatch, dead leaves, and the occasional squirrel dropping), but in the case of the eastern white pine tree, its symbiote gets its nitrogen by capturing and absorbing springtails and other insects that it catches and digests.

The real surprise, though, is coming. As a recent article in Slate by Cat Adams notes, A. phalloides is now found on every continent but Antarctica, mostly due to the transport of spore- or mycella-contaminated soils to new locales. The kicker? Its expansion across the planet involves it not being so fussy about its oak symbiote as other fungi, and it moving to support different oaks as well. Considering that the one absolute component of North Texas flora is its wide range of oaks, the surprise is that A. phalloides hasn’t taken over the entire state. Which it probably has.

Likewise, most people today don’t consider the noble bottle gourd other than for its shapeliness, a few look at its historical value, and very few consider its origins. Those who do, though, have a great story to tell. Based on DNA analysis between known North American bottle gourds and those of Asia and Africa, it appears that the bottle gourd came across the Atlantic on its own, instead of being transported by humans. Obviously, the “how” is an interesting question, but it’s not impossible: it’s very easy to see bottle gourds and other squash species being transported via flotsam rafts in floods, as it seems to work very well for other species. The “when”…well, that’s a question where I suspect that the answer will be even more entertaining than anyone realized.

The Reading:
Now that the snow and ice are gone and we can be reasonably sure that the Dallas area won’t be hit with crippling temperatures for the rest of the year, it’s time to start plotting and scheming plans for miniature gardens and arrangements. This means lots of time in the work area, building new frames and setting up new enclosures, so it’s time for inspiration. When contemplating taking a series of enclosures to a new level, it was time to dig out my copy of High Aztech by the exemplary Latino science fiction writer Ernest Hogan. Part of this is because I’ve been proud to call Ernest a dear friend for 25 years now, and part is because his view of the resurgent Tenochtitlan of 2045 offers a lot of room for experimentation. As he’s always pointing out, there’s nothing wrong with looking at the past if you’re using it to build the future, and I already have some serious ideas involving Mexican butterworts and futuro-Aztec backdrops.

Likewise, most reading material should have a soundtrack, so it’s time for suggestions in that regard. This week, check out the new album Down Time by DJ earWIG. It’s not necessarily greenhouse music (as related many times, my preferred greenhouse working music is a bit more lively), but it’s excellent music for reading, writing, studying, and generally expanding the cerebrum beyond all normal limits.

The Store:

I’m of two minds about beekeeping these days. While I certainly support anyone raising and caring for honeybees these days, I’m nostalgic for my beekeeping days back when I was in high school, but not so much as to get my own hive. That said, I know that at least one hive is in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch, considering the number of honeybees who come out to drink water from the Sarracenia pools, slurp up nectar from the fresh blooms in spring, and collect by the dozens in the traps in fall. This is the time of year where I start looking fondly at the Dadant beekeeping equipment catalog, not because I want to spread myself further with my own hive, but because I missed the smell of fresh wax and propolis more than I knew. One bee suit…one suit wouldn’t be bad, would it?

The Event:

Any excuse to head out to Fort Worth is a good one. Whether it’s causing trouble at the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History or wandering about in the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, I look forward to reasons to make the road trip. February 20, we have a humdinger, as author Amy Stewart presents a chat on her new book The Drunken Botanist at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas. Considering how much I enjoyed her book Wicked Plants, I may skip out of work early to make sure I can make it.

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Cat Monday

Cadigan

Have a Great Weekend

Thursday is Resource Day

The absolute best thing about February, other than that it’s blessedly short, is that it’s a good month for planning and organization. The Christmas holiday season is over, everyone’s recovered from that stress, and one of the better ways to fend off cabin fever is to plot out the next few months’ activities. In our house, that mostly involves upcoming shows and events, especially now that the Czarina went freelance at the end of last year.

Triffid Ranch booth at FenCon X

Among cohorts, “So when’s your next show?” only yields to “So what shows are you thinking of doing?” when it comes to talking shop. Anyone doing trade shows, conventions, or art shows asks the same questions. Sometimes, it’s because the person asking it wants to wander around as an attendee instead of as a vendor, and wants to hear some options. Some want to expand into new events and venues, and need options in order to make an informed decision. Some want the war stories, so they avoid wasting time, money, and energy on a waste of a show. And others just want to compare notes. Either way, in these tight economic times, we’re all looking to minimize the risks: the last thing any of us can afford is to get stuck with another FedConUSA, so we share information as best as we can.

I’m often asked by people why I show plants at science fiction conventions, and I can say with complete honesty that it’s because of the crowds and the scientific leanings of said crowds. Within people who regularly attend such conventions, they ask how I choose paricular shows, and I admit that science goes right out the window when I go for gut instinct. I also warn that my opinions shouldn’t dictate another vendor’s decision. Oh, I can name at least a good dozen factors with shows and events that trip my internal alarms, but what might set off my gag reflex might set off another person’s salivary glands. Some folks prefer the thrills of first-time shows, while I’m extremely cautious about any event that doesn’t have, at minimum, two years of history. I’ve had extremely bad experiences with “charity” events, but just because I didn’t sell a thing at the event and received no support from the organizers after my booth fee check cleared doesn’t mean that someone else might do well. There is one factor, though, that I warn everyone in the trade show and art venue circuit to avoid, and I can sum it up in all of two words. Just two.

You’re going to laugh.

Unless you’ve been exposed to this before, I know you’re going to laugh.

The only reason you won’t laugh is if you’ve been a vendor at a show where these two words were a major part of the promotion. If so, you’re too busy screaming in rage and horror.

Those two words? “Live DJ”.

Now, to start, this isn’t a slam against actual DJs. We’re talking the DJs who regularly play clubs and intermissions between live music events. I have nothing but respect and love for my friends who do this for a living, on everything from hiphop to electronica, because much like standup comedy, I know hard it is and how I don’t have the skills for it. One slightly mistimed song, or one that breaks a theme that’s lovingly kept people dancing for the last hours, and you’re done. The good ones know why they’re there, and know that if they have a reputation for being one of the Good Ones, it’s because they understand their audiences, and get a thrill out of a venue that’s packed to the gills.

For years, I used to complain about the loudness in most clubs, and how it made communication in anything other than text message or semaphore flag nearly impossible. Of course, I talk too much, so for me, anything that inhibits my twenty-hour vowel movement crimps my style and threatens my reputation. A DJ friend explained to me, though, that a club environment that’s too quiet is a club environment that’s crashing. The main source of income for most clubs comes from alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, preferably consumed in mass quantities, and talking gets in the way. The standard volume in a dance club precludes small talk, so patrons have one of two choices: drink or dance. You drink, you feel full of confidence, and you get out on the dance floor. You dance, you get tired and/or dehydrated, and it’s back to the bar to get more fuel. If alcohol isn’t your thing, then most clubs carry lines of various energy drinks that both encourage dancing and offer enough of a markup to be profitable. When you either run out of energy entirely or meet someone that encourages a different use of that energy, the idea is then for you to get out of the way, since you can’t just sit around and talk, and make room for newcomers who bring in additional revenues for the club owner. Turn down the music and you destroy that dynamic, and the club eventually changes the locks and puts out a “For Lease” sign.

Now, consider this dynamic with any kind of retail venue. Even the local Hot Topic turns down the volume to a dull roar, because customers and retailers need to be able to communicate. Ever notice that auto dealerships and optometrists don’t have DJs playing every day? That’s because the salespeople working those markets need to be able to communicate nuance: what this product does for you and how it’ll do it, and that’s absolutely impossible when screaming.

That’s one reason to avoid any show or event with lots of loud music, but that isn’t foolproof, either. Many live music events have vendor spaces out front or along the edge, but the organizers (the good ones, anyway) understand the need for customer communication. That’s why, at the big downtown music festival, the vendor booths are all along the edge. About the only ones close to the speaker stacks by the stage are those where customers are happy to point and throw money, such as for T-shirts. In those sorts of events, even the food vendors are further on out, both to avoid the crush of bodies and to hear a customer’s requests.

No, the other reason why I run screaming from any event that advertises a “live DJ” is that, without fail, none of these ever have a real DJ. Without fail, it’s always someone who thinks that being a DJ would be such a cool opportunity because it’s a job that doesn’t entail work. The costume is identical: plaid shortsleeve shirts over an “ironic” pseudo-vintage T-shirt, Cory Doctorow birth control eyeglasses without lenses, moustache and beard that resemble a kid’s attempts at learning to blow bubble gum on a dusty playground. The Target-purchased trilby that he insists is a “fedora”. Ex-girlfriend’s jeans and filthy Converse sneakers. Oh, and a smirk that only the wearer’s mother would think was cool. The idea here isn’t to get people to dance: it’s to shove the DJ’s musical tastes or lack thereof down everyone’s throats. fresh from the DJ’s brand new MacBook Pro. Odds are, he’s spent months nagging everyone he knows about being given a chance to play something other than his little sister’s birthday party, and he’s been given this opportunity so the organizer’s phone is no longer full of pleading and whimpering.

So here’s what happens at any kind of trade or craft show where this noxious pest is allowed to hold court. Crowd piles in, and he starts up his carefully crafted playlist of Nineties-era whiner rock. The crowd gets comfortable, asking vendors questions, and the sussurus of conversation starts to overwhelm the godawful music, so the DJ turns it up. The crowd gets louder in order to be heard, and the DJ gets louder still. By this time, the DJ is already flummoxed that passersby aren’t throwing undies at him instead of noting the chorus from Beck’s “Loser” and asking “So…is that an offer?” The music gets even louder, and any request, civil or otherwise, to turn it down is met with verbal negatives or hand gestures. By this point, the crowd leaves, the vendors are nearly homicidal, and the DJ cranks up the music even louder to impress the cute girl on the opposite side of the venue. (She isn’t paying attention: she learned years ago how to block out lousy music at college parties.) Finally, the music finally stops when the vendors pack up and leave or when the organizer literally pulls the plug, leaving our DJ sobbing “You people are so RUDE!” as he stomps off.

“And how many times have you had to deal with this?”, you may ask. Well, let’s just say that this is why I’m so leery of first-time shows until I can wander the grounds as a potential customer. I escaped before the Creed retrospective got too thick, and I’ll also note that with every show that featured a pantomime DJ of this sort, the organizers never had a second show, mostly due to vendors bringing up some variation on Proverbs 26:11. Correlation may not equal causation, but I like to call this “dodging a bullet”.

The News:
Because I raise and sell carnivorous plants, I’m constantly exposed to the misunderstandings among the general public about what carnivorous plants do. I understand the apprehensions among kids about getting close to Venus flytraps: all they know about the plants is what they’ve seen on television and in the movies, and that’s generally not positive in the slightest. After years of seeing CGI flytraps that swing back and take chunks out of the unwary, they’re understandably concerned that the flytrap won’t pull itself out of the ground and chase them down the hall. At the very least, they see the trapping hairs on the edges of a flytrap leaf and assume that they’re sharp, so I regularly explain “Want to get an idea of how strong those hairs are? Reach up and touch your eyelashes. That’s how strong they are.” I did this once in a school lecture, and even the “too cool for this” kids were surreptitiously reaching up to check it for sure.

The biggest one, though, is a regular complaint among the carnivorous plant community, and that’s the automatic assumption that these plants will magically wipe out every insect and other pest within the time zone. I’ve complained about this before, where I gently have to explain that no, a berm of Venus flytraps around a house won’t act as a deflector shield against invading arthropods. As with the kids, most of this is understandable, as [interesting plant] + [potential practical application] + [youth of customer] = [one hell of a lot more interesting than a potted mum]. It’s the people who won’t take the hint that asking the same question eighteen slightly different ways won’t give a different answer. And then there’s just the squick factor of oversharing of pest issues, such as with the hipster who came up to my booth last year, saw the word “carnivorous plants” in the banner, and yelled “Cool! Got anything that will control bedbugs?”

When it comes to dealing with insect and other arthropod pests, we’re losing, we’ll always lose and we lost the entire war the moment our distant tetrapod ancestors climbed out of Devonian rivers. I liken the efforts to keep our domiciles, our bodies, and our foodstuffs free of exoskeletal invasion with the efforts to keep your bike from being stolen when parked in public. If they’re determined, really determined, they’re going to get what they want, so the secret is to make their objective difficult enough that it’s not worth the time. This requires understanding the problem and the real solution as opposed to the hoped-for one, which often requires more study than glancing at the back of a can of Raid before blasting away and screaming like Bill Paxton in Aliens.

(A slight digression. Having a lot of friends in different fields means that I’m able to compare notes with people in all sorts of interesting avenues of study, and we all have the one catchphrase or movie quote that we have thrown at us day in and day out by people who think they’re the first individuals in the history of life on Earth to make that comment. Dentist friends hear half-remembered quotes from Marathon Man all day long. Antarctic researchers already know all of Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing by heart, after having it quoted to them over and over. Contrary to popular opinion, dinosaur references don’t begin and end with Jurassic Park. Myself, I’m so desperately sick of Little Shop of Horrors quotes that I’d fall over dead from joy to get one reference to Bill and Josella Masen. Since I only know one entomologist, I’m constantly looking for new references, because I can only imagine that they’re nearly homicidal from years of Starship Troopers references yakked at them. It’s time for all of us to expand our cultural horizons, folks.)

This is why I’d like you all to meet Gwen Pearson of Charismatic Minifauna, who forgets more about insect, arachnid, and crustacean issues every night when she goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn. In particular, she’s constantly looking for new material on humanity’s war with the Class Insecta, including new Center for Disease Control warnings about the misuse of pest strips and injuries related to insecticides used for bedbugs. I’m not saying that reading one of her blog postings will eliminate your very ingrained and justifiable phobia of small critters with more than four limbs, but it will make you consider the why of your reactions to said critters. Also the “who,” but that’s a different story.

The Reading:

Three years ago, I was lucky and honored enough to have one of the best writing experiences I’ve ever had, by way of an article on carnivorous plants in reptile and amphibian vivaria for Reptiles magazine. Having been screwed over by some of the most aggressively incompetent editors in the science fiction community (Hi, Charlie Jane!), working for Russ Case and his stable of editors at Reptiles was a joy, only improved by getting a payment check exactly when promised. There’s very little about my old writing career about which I’m particularly proud, but that article for Reptilesthat is one I’ll cherish for a very long time.

In the meantime, I may have to get to work on further pieces. Reptiles and its sister magazines were recently bought by I-5 Publishing, and one of the first actions by I-5 was to update the magazine’s Web sites. Hence, not only is the new Reptilesmagazine.com easier to access and view, but the magazine itself is available in digital versions for phones and tablets, free with a standard subscription. My previous article isn’t available save for references, but it may be time for a revised and updated view based on new information.

The Store:
The Dallas area has a lot of interesting secrets, which usually have tiny hints that they even exist. One of those is the little storefront here in Garland at the corner of Plano Road and Walnut Street that simply reads “BONSAI” from the sign out front. On the weekends, it’s closed, with the parking spaces filled from the laundromat next door, so the joy comes from visiting the website for Dallas Bonsai Garden. Tools, supplies, soil, and whole plants, at remarkably reasonable prices, and if you live in the area, you can call in an order and pick it up to save on shipping. Of course, all orders over US$75 come with free shipping, so it’s completely your call. All I can say for sure is that I have plans for a hon non bo project that requires properly shaped ginkgo trees, so Dallas Bonsai Garden is going to be getting quite a bit of business from me this year.

The Event:
Finally, you have longrunning horticultural groups in Texas, and then you have the Heart O’ Texas Orchid Society down in Austin, running strong for nearly a half-century. I bring this up because the Society’s next Orchid Rodeo is scheduled for March 22 and 23, and I’ve needed a good excuse to visit Austin’s Zilker Botanical Garden and the Hartman Prehistoric Garden therein. Not only is flying from Dallas to Austin a superior experience to driving there, but this will be after the national nightmare that is SXSW. Win/win, all the way around.

“If I owned Texas and Hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.”

Last week’s horrendous ice storm hitting the Southeast US missed most of North Texas, giving us a few scares but not inflicting any serious damage upon the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. We also missed out on the predicted icestorm coming through the area in time for Super Bowl Sunday, and even if we had, everyone was already prepared. We got some desperately needed rain last Sunday and on Tuesday morning, but the sleetstorm passed to the north, and we weren’t subjected to last-minute panics of idjits sliding around Dallas highways crying “I need to buy the bread and milk and hot wings!”

No, our problem is that, for North Texas, this is the Winter That Just Won’t Shut Up. We get bouts of seriously cold weather, yes, and usually right about now. For instance, we had the record snowfall in February 2010: for us, 12 inches of snow was “record”, but that’s to be expected. We also had the horrible ice storm and week of deep cold in February 2011, just in time for the big Super Bowl game hosted at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. In 2012, though, we practically had a year without a winter, as we skirted freezing temperatures but never really went over. That was the late winter where the dogwood and quince trees started blooming in late February, and we all waited for a last-minute ice storm that, thankfully, never came through.

This winter, though, hasn’t been particularly abusive since the Icepocalypse in December. No major storms since then, no major power outages, and no glass-slick highways. The problem, though, is that we regularly and consistently go well below freezing almost every night, and have done so at least twice per week since the middle of December. I’ve now been in Texas for a third of a century and I’ve never seen a winter quite like this, and my mother-in-law, who keeps up with these things, can’t remember a winter like this in all of her time in Texas, either. Considering that she’s a native, I trust her assessment.

In the meantime, all Texans have one thing in common, no matter their political, economic, social, or educational backgrounds, and that’s our ability to kvetch about the weather. Some joke that we should make it into an Olympic sport, but our skill at complaining about inevitability means that nobody else could come close. It’s like entering the SpaceX Dragon in the bicycle race, and then wondering why the silver and bronze winners had such lousy times. And with a winter like this, we’re currently stomping the pros. After two months of cold, nasty, depressing weather, we’re starting to sound like Chicagoans, and that’s saying something.

The real worry? We’re whimpering and snuffling and grumbling now about how cold it is, and how we can’t wait until summer. Oh, woe, we’ll never thaw out! Misery, despair, high heating bills! WhatEVER will we do? I worry because we’re only four months away from the beginning of summer, and even the most vile Texas winter is a kiss compared to the blasting nightmare waiting for us in June and July. And I’m not looking forward to the pterosaur rookery impersonation coming from legions of maroons just waiting to tell each other, and anybody they can catch, “It’s HOT!” all through August.

So, yeah, go ahead and sing your select cuts from the Frozen soundtrack. Have fun. I can tell you what to expect for a soundtrack in July, and you aren’t going to like it:

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Cat Monday

Leiber