For your consideration:
When composing and constructing plant enclosures for the Triffid Ranch gallery, a lot of back stories and inside jokes get mixed in. Sometimes, it’s serendipity, with an object with a lot of backstory that just happens to be the perfect inclusion to a new enclosure, and a little voice in the back row says “Let it go, so someone else can appreciate it.” Others are items with so much context that they encourage the construction of the whole arrangement. However, keep an eye open for one particular set of additions, because there’s some sentiment tied to it.
My parents-in-law first moved to their house in the late 1960s, back when Dallas was still just a bit more than a town and long before the oil boom of the 1980s expanded its sprawl in all directions. My wife spent the first days of her life in that house, and grew up not far away from the gallery’s current location. She has all sorts of stories about how the neighborhood changed over the decades, with new people moving in to replace those who moved elsewhere, additions added and removed (she loves telling the story of the neighbors who refused to clean their big sunken pool and thereby deal with the clouds of mosquitoes rising off it every evening, so she introduced bullfrogs that made so much noise that the neighbors took out the pool), walking a succession of Norwegian elkhounds to friends’ houses, and keeping in touch even after moving out on her own. Her story became my own in 2002, including the house hosting our wedding reception. The years went on, with my planting roses I’d grown from cuttings taken from roses planted in front of our own house and neglected. The roses at the original house were cut back too far just before the worst heat wave since 1980: they’re gone, but the cuttings are still in the back yard, throwing off gigantic pink and red blooms to everyone’s delight.
Eventually, though, the story of my in-laws’ time in the house had to end. The house was already too large for them to maintain easily when Caroline and I married, and the tales of my father-in-law installing Christmas lights on the eaves outside went from comedy to incipient terror. Finally, at the end of August, they made the decision to move from the monster house in which they’d resided for a half-century, and moved into a retirement apartment. The house went through the now-inevitable estate sale, and then it went onto the market. We just received word that an offer had been made by a couple that admired it and wanted to keep it as it was and not tear it down for replacement with a McMansion, so we can still drive by from time to time and share our memories. Its actual involvement in our lives, though, is done. As someone who moved a lot both as a kid and as an adult, I had defense mechanisms in place to mourn in my own time, but it’s understandably hit Caroline a lot harder than she thought would happen.
That’s where the Honeymoon Wall comes in. To hear my mother-in-law tell it, her dream with this house was to put a stone wall in the back, a promise she made on her honeymoon. It took a little longer than she planned, and that wall required building an extension declared “the playroom”. The stone came from trips to the Rocky Mountains, ranging from a deep navy igneous rock to a truly stunning light green stone with darker blue veining running through it from all directions. The Honeymoon Wall, once finished, witnessed the family growing, spreading, and reuniting, including our reception, and the chunks of rock that didn’t make the wall were incorporated into edging on a wildflower garden in the center of the back yard. That was the state of affairs until the estate sale was over and the house was vacated for the last time.
Before the house was cleared, all of the extended family was asked about taking everything not needed for the new apartment, and I was asked repeatedly “are you SURE you don’t want anything?” I really didn’t: we had our own furniture and our own keepsakes, but I asked if I could rescue some of the rocks in the back. One included a rather large petrified log found in the Brazos River decades before, and the rest of them were extra Honeymoon Wall pieces. A bit of experimentation revealed that they polished up in a rock tumbler quite nicely: they weren’t gem quality, but the blue stone was mistaken for sodalite, and the green was different enough that it caught almost everyone’s eye.
Now, a month after the estate sale, the experiment goes to its next stage. The idea is to add pieces of those Honeymoon Wall extras, big and small, to new enclosures, starting with “Hoodoo” from October. Those who know the story will recognize and appreciate the bits of Honeymoon Wall as they encounter them, and I hope to be in the business of constructing carnivorous plant enclosures long enough that customers specifically look for the tumbled stones. For everyone else, though, it’s all about the hidden context: they won’t know that the stone in their enclosures had its origins in a wish nearly seventy years old, but I will, and knowing that bits of that wish are spread across the continent is good enough. Selah.
I’m out at the Dallas Fantasy Fair as you read this, but it’s time to reminisce. 20 years ago this Sunday, the final broadcast of a television experiment went shooting out of Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t the catalyst, and it certainly wasn’t the cause, but that broadcast was a good marker for my life Before and my life After. Considering how the life After turned out, the show’s final message couldn’t be more appropriate. Here’s to everyone, including an old friend who is still horribly missed, who changed the world without realizing it at the time.
For all of you having to work on Thanksgiving Day in the States, and for those working Black Friday everywhere, a reminder that the movie that popularized today’s theme song premiered 40 years ago. It’s still the best documentary about life in Dallas in the 1980s ever made.
One of the best available arguments against the existence of advanced indigenous or extraterrestrial civilizations on Earth in the distant past is a lack incontrovertibly artificial artifacts or technological byproducts in geological deposits predating modern humans. Even with radioisotope decay, the byproducts of that decay would still be recognizable as such, as with the Oklo natural nuclear reactor. Even in a degraded or decomposed state, if an advanced civilization sent representatives from other stars, or developed on its own from native life forms millions of years ago, detritus from exploration, settling, or accidents might still be found eroding out of badlands, moraines, and other areas of rapid geologic upheaval.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 24 1/2″ x 18″ (45.72 cm x 60.96 cm x 45.72 cm)
Plant: Nepenthes “Poi Dog” (unknown hybrid)
Construction: Polystyrene, polystyrene foam, epoxy putty, strontium europium glow powder, stone.
Shirt Price: $150US
Today would have been my grandmother’s 96th birthday, so let’s celebrate it in style:
One of the many inspirations for the gallery and what we’re doing died 25 years ago today, so it’s particularly appropriate to doff hats and remember Vincent Price. If not for an NBC broadcast of a documentary on carnivorous plants narrated by Price, my life would have turned out very differently.
The response to the new Netflix series The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, which premiered last weekend, has been interesting. What’s particularly interesting has been the very polarized responses from friends and colleagues whose opinions I respect and often admire. Two friends whose contributions to goth culture in the Nineties were vital in establishing said culture were livid: they were furious as to the overly cutesiness and the attempt to sell creativity to and for the terminally uncreative. Others equally vehemently celebrated a show that was trying its best to be a little dark, but not too dark. Finally, at the bequest of Caroline of Tawanda! Jewelry (and Delenn to my GIR at the gallery), I sat down and watched a few episodes. Not that my opinion means anything at all, but the only issue I had was that so many of the projects looked like video accompaniment to an upcoming book (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all) and had nowhere near enough detail to allow a casual watcher to recreate most of them without additional online help. Then again, neither does The Great British Baking Show, and that’s not why people watch that, either.
What excited me about Curious Creations wasn’t just that so many of us incipient gothlings would have done just about anything for a show like this a quarter-century ago, but that it shows an inherent strength to Netflix. Namely, instead of worrying about its programming playing to Peoria, Netflix management realized that not copying what everyone else is doing in a particular format gets more viewers, not fewer. Combine that with the current trend in comfort viewing that emphasizes creativity and encouragement toward excellence, and we might have the new movement in entertainment for the next decade: getting those curious about a particular artform or art movement moving in the right direction.
If this is more of a trend toward celebrating more gonzo artistry, as the upcoming second season of Curious Creations suggests, then one thing is certain: it’s time to start pitching more shows of this caliber. I can think of two horticulturalists, Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center and Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster, who would be perfect for their own gardening shows, and letting Stewart McPherson travel the world to view carnivorous plants in the wild would be incentive for me to pay for Netflix access for the next five years all by itself. (If nothing else, an all-Amanda Thomsen show has the added novelty of watching her family, including three singing dogs and the world’s most put-upon cat, in action, because they’re ALWAYS entertaining.) Just don’t ask me to pitch a show with my horticultural and social sensibilities to Netflix: it’s already been done.
Everyone who has ever worked a day job for a while has stories about the coworkers who made it either a little easier or completely intolerable. Back when the Triffid Ranch was still just a vague plan for the future, I worked in a call center for a company that processed electronic payments for utility companies, and our mutual experiences with the company’s customers make me very protective and supportive of my former coworkers to this day. On the other, a recent position came with a coworker so aggressively stupid, so willing to spout whatever racist and just plain ignorant commentary came into the pencil eraser that was the closest thing to a brain he had, that I still refer to his Big Thinks as “vowel movements.” Some of the former make enough of an impression that they’re invited to parties and family events long after parting ways, and some of the latter make one avoid certain locales and events so as never to run into them again. Only a few, a very few, qualify as true inspirations, where you can say your life went in a drastically different and better direction because of their presence, and these are people for whom you try your best to return the favor. And so starts the story of 12 years of Larry Carey.
Larry really doesn’t need much of an introduction in Dallas, being well-known both in the gallery community and in band and club publicity with his hyperdetailed posters and flyers, but we’d never made an acquaintance. Larry and I might have bumped into each other in any number of venues and events in the Dallas area, but we probably wouldn’t have, so a mutual work environment was the perfect place to shove us together. I first encountered him in a job interview for a company that’s now just a tiny block in a multinational organization chart, where he asked for a non-technical writing sample and I gave him a copy of an essay I wrote years before on using the human colonization of New Zealand as a guide for the biological colonization of Mars. That wasn’t the only reason he became my new boss, but it definitely helped, and the peripheral knowledge we shared, both with us and with anyone else willing to join in, was a perk that eclipsed free popcorn and foosball tables.
In an industry where most software and hardware engineers are so busy studying for the test that they’re honestly offended at the idea of learning something that doesn’t directly apply to a promotion or raise (the both of us have spent most of our lives being asked “WHY do you know this?”), and in private endeavors that encouraged tight specialization in art or music knowledge but an aversion to science or history, our coffee-break discussions rapidly spiraled through wide vistas of seemingly unrelated information. Even better, we usually complemented the other’s information in strange and disturbing ways: thanks to him, I’m still the first gardening writer to namedrop Papa Doc Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. (For the record, the plant was Datura stramonium, the angel trumpet, and that discussion over the space of two weeks turned up both D. stramonium‘s history with the Bacon’s Rebellion insurrection in the Jamestown colony in Virginia and a lot of really good reasons as to why anyone seeking a cheap high by ingesting or smoking Datura is in for a world of despair and horror. We even came across a thoroughly horrible story involving gardeners who grafted Datura roots onto tomato plants for improved disease resistance, and where the gardeners didn’t realize they left just enough Datura stem above ground until they made tomato sandwiches with the first tomatoes of the year and went straight to the ER.) And then the subject would veer toward his specialty, quantum theory, and we’d be off for another mathematical or natural history adventure. The physical and chemical properties of lunar soil simulant, the implausibility of terrestrial life utilizing arsenates instead of phosphates in a DNA molecule, the physiological mechanisms behind dream sleep, Bell’s Theorem and quantum foam…this went on for YEARS.
One of the interesting sidenotes later became a priority, when Larry started discussing art and art theory. Most people working in tech with artistic endeavors on the side usually keep them very quiet: the general response by managers to discovering an employee with a sidegig in writing or painting is usually an assumption that the employee will be leaving “once you hit it big.” Interviews are bad enough: I had one hiring manager with delusions of journalism look at my writing background at the time and assume that I’d leave “as soon as you find your perfect job,” even though I stated I’d have to take a massive pay cut to do so. (And then there was the interview where the head software developer piped up that the company didn’t need a technical writer because he was an accomplished writer specializing in Star Trek fanfiction featuring the erotic exploits of Wesley Crusher and Worf. It shouldn’t be a surprise that not only did he get the job, but that the company went under about six months later.) After about three or four months, Larry felt comfortable enough to show me some of his latest work after a long discussion on the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. As someone already familiar with a long run of surrealist comics artists ranging from Jack Kirby through Matt Howarth to Mary Fleener, saying that Larry’s distinctive frameworks, which he referred to as “mandalas,” sank right into the right receptors in my braincells was a decided understatement.
Long story short, the next seven and a half years were a crash course on the limits of my knowledge and how much more I needed to learn, and Larry was in the same situation. When it came to art, I was tabula rasa, and he gave me plenty of recommendations on artists and movements that had influenced him. That led me to looking for new resources for inspiration, dragging in new discoveries from the local Half Price Books stores to make sure he hadn’t already seen them, and then taking his recommendations to look for more. he knew very little about the back history on natural history and palaeontology art, so introducing him to Charles R. Knight, John Sibbick, and Marianne Collins led to a whole new explosion of paintings and prints. He started experimenting in color, leading up to the now-famous Triffid Ranch poster, which he presented to me in 2012. (He refused to take any payment for that poster, which is why all sales of shirts and posters go right back to him. “Pay the writer” is important, but so is “pay the artist.”) Both he and the company inspired me in turn: one of the advantages to working in a company specializing in hardware is a surfeit in odd discarded accessories and packing materials, and many of the early Triffid Ranch enclosures incorporated hoarded packaging elements such as the ultradense foam shipping cases for touch screens. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Larry and his inspiration, the current gallery wouldn’t exist, and those foam panels and blister packs were vital during the gallery’s earliest days for enclosure construction. And then there were the original mandalas Larry gave me for birthdays: the hallway leading to my office is referred to as “the Larry Carey Exhibition Hall.”
Eventually, though, the party had to end, and the conversations couldn’t make up for what was increasingly a toxic work environment. The company already had a reputation for, erm, interesting selections for employees, such as the predecessor who thought that coming to the Halloween family party in a gimp suit was acceptable. However, steady attrition and annual October layoffs eventually produced a supersaturated soup of psychosis. Coming into the break room to find an engineer curled up in a little ball on the counter, eyes scrunched shut in rage, because “I’m angry at my government” makes jobhunting much more of a priority, especially when people started taking bets on which coworker would be the first to come into the office with a shotgun “because God said Baby Jesus needs more blood.” The next job was in some ways even more perilous, but that put me in the perfect place for the position that allowed me to lease, stock, and open the first gallery three years ago.
And so that leads us to today. Larry and I tried to stay in touch, but schedules and workloads conspired, and he dropped off social media in order to focus on day job work and art. I finally managed to catch up with him last week, and oh boy did the news get interesting. Our old company went through a succession of buyouts, ending with pretty much everyone getting laid off, and Larry found himself with a new company in Eugene, Oregon. Even better, I’d caught him just a week before he and his wife packed up everything and moved there permanently. Oregon didn’t do much for me when I lived there two decades ago, but I respect the decisions of friends who stay, and it’s apparently exactly what Larry has needed for years. More interesting coworkers on the day job, a local community that encourages art, plenty of time to read and paint…yeah, I’m not the only one wondering what he’s going to accomplish once he’s established. Seeing what three months living in Tallahassee did for me a third of my life ago, I understand far too well.
After all this, a toast to Larry, and nothing but honest wishes for a long and lively arts career. I’m proud to call you a friend after all this time, I was honored to have you as a boss, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
(In Episode One, we discussed the horsecrippler cactus, Echinocactus texensis, the easternmost barrel cactus in North America, and its extremely visible fruit. The idea was to see how well horsecrippler cactus fruit juice worked as a flavoring for ice cream, based on earlier experiments. We return to the program, already in progress.)
Because of the uncharted territory of cactus fruit ice cream, the output of the juicing sat in deep freeze until plans could be made for a proper ice cream cranking. As every science fiction movie and novel involving deep freezing will tell you, lots of developments come up while the juice was sleeping. Among other things, researching the preparation of prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) fruit noted that gently roasting the fruit in an oven or over a fire brought out the flavor by converting the starches in the fruit into sugars. Experiments with a couple of late-ripening horsecrippler fruit confirmed that while the roasted fruits’ flavor was still awfully subtle, the character changed enough to justify more experiments next spring. Those experiments also gave ideas for prickly pear gelato when the prickly pears ripen in October. Onward.
Since the whole ice cream making process was new, the best option was to work from scratch, figuring that improvements could be made with more experience. With that in mind, I started with a good ice cream base recipe, dropping in the frozen juice during its reduction in order to sweeten it. To minimize the risks of losing the whole batch, everything was done in one-liter batches, in order to get a better feel for the process as it progressed. This turned out to be a wise decision, as the best mix required a lot less whole milk than the base recipe recommended.
Ice Cream Base
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
2/3 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 large egg yolks
Oh, yes, and a recommendation for any recipe using eggs: you may note that most of the recipes recommend reducing your base and then straining it through a sieve. There’s a reason for it, as no matter how well-blended the base may be, the egg yolk can and will congeal along the bottom, essentially making ice cream-flavored scrambled eggs. Those chunks can and will get into the final product, so take it as friendly advice. Another recommendation: some people may think that ice cream-flavored scrambled eggs are a great idea. Those people are perverts. For them, I’m making a batch of venison sorbet, and I’ll gleefully scream “HAPPY NOW?” while they’re eating a big bowl each.
Working on the second batch, it’s easy to see both how distinctively brilliantly colored the juice is, and how well the color spreads through the ice cream. Considering how pastel strawberry ice cream can be, if nothing else, horsecrippler fruit might make a good natural coloration for frozen confections of all sorts. Again, experimentation: seeing if the juice can be dried is a possibility for the future, but that depends both upon availability and timing. It’s not as if anyone is going to be growing fields of horsecripplers for food colorings any time soon.
And now it’s time to put everything in the ice cream maker. Normally, the final mix goes into the refrigerator and chills overnight before going into the ice cream maker. Because of day job commitments and general exhaustion, I cheated and gave the mix a good bath in dry ice while the machine was turning. That cut down on the time spent in the maker, improved the consistency by producing lots of tiny ice crystals instead of large ones that affect the palatability, and made lots of fog on the garage floor. When trying something this new, always go for the unquantifiables to make things fun. Just be glad I didn’t have access to a significant quantity of liquid nitrogen: there’s an Air Liquide facility just south of the gallery, though, and I may have to ask about bulk rates…
WE HAVE ICE CREAM. I REPEAT; WE HAVE ICE CREAM.
Now to finish up. We may have ice cream, but it’s still at about the consistency of soft-serve, so it needs firming up. Into the freezer it goes, waiting for someone to be one of the first individuals on the planet to try horsecrippler cactus ice cream. And so it goes.
As for what’s going to happen to it? Well, that depends. The plan is to serve up samples to everyone coming out for this month’s Triffid Ranch third anniversary open house on August 18, so you can try for yourself. Alternately, I was serious about the prickly pear gelato: cactus isn’t common in Dallas proper, but I know of several bushes in neglected areas throughout the city, and going on a fruit-collecting expedition in October is a good excuse for a trip to either Glen Rose or Mineral Wells. I was also serious about the liquid nitrogen, too: how many art galleries in the Dallas area can brag about having ice cream tastings, too?
“20 percent chance of rain,” I said. “Weather radar shows nothing,” I said. “Clouds coming up, but they’ll burn off before they get to me,” I said. “If it starts raining, it’ll be over right away,” I said. “The gutters are overflowing, but the water won’t get above my bicycle’s axles,” I said.
And it keeps coming. Want to get an idea of how intense one of Dallas’s admittedly rare summer rainstorms can be? This isn’t a fire hydrant. This is the downspout for a strip mall rain gutter, about 15 minutes after the rain started, and about an hour before the rain ended.
All in all, considering how badly we needed the rain, every last drop counted. Best of all, the nearly 10 centimeters we got will roil up the Trinity River, stirring up the anoxic muds responsible for the hydrogen sulfide fug that distinguishes downtown Dallas most summers. For a couple of days at least, Dallas is going to smell PURTY.
A lot of people already have their eulogies and anti-eulogies in print and online right now, so I’ll just add a small sheaf of commentary to Harlan Ellison‘s funeral pyre. During my writing days, he was a friend and inspiration, but his greatest influence came after I’d quit pro writing. Ellison had a reputation for taking one piece of artwork and writing whole stories based upon that piece, sometimes in bookstore windows where people could watch him work. My whole purpose with the gallery, and pretty much everything I did with the plants before that, was to create something with enough mystery and enough wonder that he’d take a look and want to fill in the rest of the tale. That’s why, when people want to know the stories behind the enclosures at the gallery, I ask “What story do you want there to be?” And so it goes.
(Incidentally, the photo above comes to us from 1999, when Harlan and I were both guests at Readercon, a literary science fiction convention in Massachusetts. He turned 65 that year, and people much closer to him than I knew how he credited reading Golden Age Green Lantern comics for part of his fascination with the fantastic. Hence, with the help of several people, Harlan had his very own Alan Scott ring. It won’t make any sense to anyone not familiar with DC comics, but after posing with this ring, he looked at the GL ring my ex-wife had commissioned a few years before, grabbed my hand, and pulled the ring to his wife Susan, yelling “Look! He’s got a Hal Jordan ring!” When I explained “Well, more Guy Gardner,” he sat back and scoffed “Oh, of COURSE.” I miss precious little of my writing days, but I don’t regret the circumstances of that conversation, ever.)
To be continued…
I get a lot of people asking “So why sell plants at a horror convention?” Well, I have a lot of reasons. The biggest one for coming out to Texas Frightmare Weekend is a matter of balance. Most artists, particularly those specializing in dioramas, will tell you that balance is always better than symmetry except in military parades. Balance is a natural flow for maximum aesthetic appeal, while symmetry always screams “regimented” and “controlled”. Texas Frightmare Weekend has a lot of strengths, but one of its greatest is the understanding that the two dealer’s rooms need balance. No one particular art form dominates: because of a very careful jury system on incoming vendor applicants, instead of just giving spaces to the first vendors to apply, a lot of different vendors have opportunities. Original art has room, T-shirts have room, sculptors and tattoo artists have room, and attendees don’t look across a vista of a full room of exactly the same things on each and every table. That’s why when the doors open every day during Frightmare, people are already waiting, and they sprint in to see what they missed the last time. Between vendors and guests, this is why Frightmare doesn’t follow the lead of other conventions and schedule multiple events throughout the year: the attendees beg “Have mercy on my wallet: I love it all, but I need to pay rent, too.”
It’s been…interesting around the gallery this last week, mostly because the focus is on having everything ready for Texas Frightmare Weekend next week. (I’ve been joking that the response to the phrase “We’re a week away from Frightmare!” is enthusiastic cheering from the attendees, cries of “Once more into the breach, once more!” from the staff, and a sustained Brown Note from the vendors.) Everything is coming through so far, so here are a few photos of the blooms in the Sarracenia pools as they emerge from winter dormancy:
And a little extra in order to demonstrate that carnivorous plants aren’t a dependable form of insect control. This little corner of North Texas is becoming an enclave of the longhorn crazy ant, and they’re doing quite well in disturbed areas such as suburbs. The last two months have been a rush of insect controls such as orange oil drenches, to which they respond by moving their mounds a few meters away and starting fresh. Well, apparently they’ve discovered Sarracenia nectar, both in blooms and in traps, and it’s not turning out well for the little junkies:
The Sarracenia are benefiting for the moment: a percentage of the nectar-slurpers will fall in and feed the plant. However, each pitcher catching five or six per day does nothing for the hundreds of thousands or even millions back in the original nest, so about the only sure way to take out the nest involves art. And so it goes.
Ah, All-Con 2018. A lot of bad craziness happened at this year’s show, mostly involving the host hotel. Said hotel changed its name and ownership the week of the show, where potential patrons looking for the “Hotel Intercontinental” were understandably confused. There’s also something to be said about hotel upgrades that weren’t even close to being finished by the Thursday morning the show started, with lighting fixtures missing, exposed wiring hanging from the ceiling, elevators of dubious functionality that closed on entrants without warning, and the main escalator leading to the second level broken and blocked off. Inside the main dealer’s room wasn’t much better: the carpet in the main banquet hall was freshly installed, sure, but one of the vendors played a game of “How Many Razor Blades and Screws Can We Find On The Floor?” and picked up two full handfuls of broken and dulled razor blades within about fifteen minutes. (The carpet HAD been vacuumed beforehand, as installation was being completed as vendors started moving in stuff on Wednesday night, but with a vacuum that had seen a significant portion of the Twentieth Century firsthand. Besides, that vacuum would have been hard-pressed to clean up the cocaine that flowed across that part of North Dallas and Addison in great rivers during the hotel’s prime, much less the amount of metal left in that carpet, so everyone spent the rest of the weekend joking about who was going to be the poster child for the “Telethon for Tetanus.”) And then there was the parking…
Oh, the parking. One of the grand mysteries concerning convention hotels in this foul Year of Our Lord 2018 is the assumption that people will keep coming back to the hotel for future events when the parking situation assumes that the current year is 1974. The number of hotels in Dallas that barely offer enough parking for hotel guests and staff when the venue is half-full, and then advertise their availability for conventions and conferences with room for three times that count, just beggars the imagination. To make matters even better, most of these hotels automatically assume that convention and conference attendees have their own transportation: Addison has a DART bus hub not far away, but the space between the hub and the hotel last had sidewalks put in back in the 1980s, back when “pedestrian” was a local euphemism for “too poor to afford the valet” and accessibility wasn’t even remotely considered. (By way of example, that immediate area is full of “sidewalks” with telephone poles planted right in the center, requiring users to walk into the street to get around them, and you can imagine the sheer fun faced by those with disabilities trying to get back onto a sidewalk that’s lacking ramps and inclines.) Combine that with a frantic construction boom in that vicinity, where the slightest rain turns an entire block into a morass of slimy, clinging mud with no option for getting past it without walking into the middle of a busy street, and it’s no surprise that a lot of potential convention attendees circled around the hotel, gave up when they saw that even the valet spots were full, and went home.
That said, for all of the nightmares of access, those of us who came out for All-Con, both vendor and attendee, made the best of the situation. Yes, the total attendance numbers were way down from previous years. That just meant having more of an opportunity to talk to regular attendees, including several that have been coming by the Triffid Ranch booth since the beginning of the decade. THAT made hotel incompetence and stupidity worthwhile, especially with the patrons now raising their own families and bringing their kids by to see plants for themselves.
To be continued…
2017. Oh, where do we start? Talking about the new gallery after having to move out of the old one is definitely an “Aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” situation, but it’s a perfect summation of the entire year for the Triffid Ranch. In fact, this is the first week since before the move that things are relatively quiet. Not that this will last. The synopsis:
Although the short moveout notice led to a bit of a panic in the actual move and then a long rebuilding, it actually worked out for the best. True, the new gallery is about 120 square meters smaller than the Valley View location and it doesn’t have the big industrial sink in the back, but it also has a much more central location for just about everyone in the greater Dallas area. It also has direct access to a DART Red Line station, several excellent restaurants across the street, a nice grocery store around the corner, and some great neighbors, including the porcelain mask and glasswork dealer right next door. Meeting clients for consultations and viewings is much easier for all parties involved, partially because the local traffic congestion is so much less than around Valley View. And should I mention again the DART stop that drops people off right across the street, so they don’t have to deal with traffic congestion at all?
Another factor with the new space is the closed-off main gallery area, which requires artificial light for both finished enclosures and new plants in propagation. That may sound like a disadvantage, but this cuts out light pollution that might affect germination, growth, and blooming. This is a roundabout way of noting that the exceedingly popular Manchester United Flower Show event from 2016 is coming back next spring, and with even more bladderworts than before. The better light and climate control of the new gallery also means that the much-promised expansion into ultra-hot peppers and exotic succulents such as stapeliads, delayed this year because of the move (quite literally, we got the moveout notice two days before the planned pepper seed potting extravaganza), will happen as scheduled. The ultimate plan, since 2018 has five weekends before Christmas, is to offer Bhut Jolokia, Dorchester Naga, and Trinidad Scorpion pepper bushes as highly unorthodox but pre-decorated holiday trees during the Nightmare Weekend events. We’ll see.
Because of the gallery move and the resultant unpacking and organizing from February to June, signing up for new shows and events moved to the back of the “Things To Do” list, and they stayed there for most of the year. That wasn’t an absolute, but as it turned out, focusing on getting the gallery open was advantageous.
Why? Lots of reasons apply, but one of the biggest was the ongoing shakeout of conventions and fairs in the Dallas area and elsewhere. Ever since the Triffid Ranch’s first show in May of 2008, science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions have been an essential part of the show season, and that isn’t changing. However, with the exception of Texas Frightmare Weekend and its dedicated and prudent staff and crew, it’s been a really rough year for conventions. To be honest, considering the spectacular and financially devastating implosions of conventions big and small this year, it’s time to pull out the writing-days duster to go with all of the bullet-dodging. Even with existing conventions, numbers are way down for most. Anybody familiar with convention circuit cycles knows that the current downturn was inevitable: the same thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s with big media-related conventions, as new fans grew up and discovered that hitting every convention within the timezone was incompatible with day jobs and new families. The only difference between this cycle and previous ones was in the length, mostly due to the influx of new fans brought in by movies, television, and costuming. A lot of the current generation of congoers are too young to remember the previous crash in the mid-Nineties, so it’ll seen like the end of the world, but I promise that with every bust is the promise of another wave. The big question right now is how long things need to remain fallow before that next wave starts, and a lot of the pain will be felt by vendors at these shows whose entire business history lies within the current cycle.
(Incidentally, the current implosion is why shows outside of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex require a LOT of vetting these days. For the last three years, Galveston of all places has been the focus of a series of intended conventions and shows that made huge promises of giant crowds and wild events, only for everything to disappear about a month before the start date. The things disappearing include booth fees and deposits: without fail, vendors receive cryptic letters about refunds “eventually”, just before the show’s Web site and Facebook page shut down in the middle of the night. Again, bullet-dodging: several friends lost a considerable amount of money they couldn’t easily replace on one show that fell apart when a fellow vendor called the hotel to find out about loading access and was told the hotel had no knowledge about the show at all. Even worse, most of these incidents weren’t due to any specific malfeasance, but instead from not understanding that telling friends “Hey, let’s put on a show” and actually launching an event have a lot of steps in between that are lubricated with elbow grease and the occasional liter of blood. Combine this with an absolute certainty that somehow, magically, everything will work out all right in the end, and you get shows that create rueful new memes for attendees and financial disaster for vendors and guests.)
Alternately, besides plotting new events at the gallery (many of which may include the previously mentioned neighbors, depending upon their schedules), it’s time for more outreach as well. The move precluded a lot of lectures and events at schools and museums, and it’s time to get that back up and going. Among other things, I’ve needed a good excuse to bug the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History about getting involved with one of its adult programs, and it may be time to do a black light show with traps and blooms to show how they glow under ultraviolet light.
When it came to local news coverage, 2017 was much more lively than 2016. It started with the final ARTwalk at Valley View, with the Dallas Observer reporting on plans for the remaining artists, and then with the Observer coming back for the soft opening last July. Suffice to say, nobody was more surprised than I was to win a Best of Dallas Award this year, or eighth place in the best date spots in Dallas. This coincided with a serious reevaluation of the Observer over the last couple of years: the paper is no longer the smarmy, bloated mess it was at the beginning of the century, and it’s now the paper we all wish it had been back when competitors such as The Met and DFW Icon were trying to usurp it. (In particular, I exaggerate not a whit when I compare dining editor Beth Rankin to the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, one of my childhood heroes. Her articles are a wonderful blend of serious, funny, and thoughtful, with a constant subtext of “I gave you enough rope to hang yourself, so thank you very much for surprising me” like Royko’s best columns. And if you don’t think Dallas needs someone like her, just look back 17 years to when the Observer was facing, and losing, actual libel suits for its dining coverage.) Now that the gallery is established, it’s time to get more word out, and buying advertising means that supporting the new Observer goes beyond lip service.
Elsewhere, a shot of the old gallery even showed up in a pictorial in D magazine of Black Friday 2016 at the old Valley View space. I won’t even complain about it being run a year late, presumably spiked in favor of the monthly “76,233 Best Doctors Willing to Pay For a Full-Page Ad” cover story: I’m just thrilled to discover that someone at D has an interest in plants and plant byproducts that never comes anywhere near the term “levamisole toxicity”. Miracles abound.
Strange as it may sound, 2018 is going to be “more of the same”. Most of the plans for next year include lots of alternatives to the shows in which it all started, starting with more events at the gallery. This includes more involvement with groups such as the Arts Incubator of Richardson, as well as gallery tour events through the Dallas area. In addition, it’s time to return to events sadly neglected while getting the old Valley View gallery going: among many other things, it’s time for future Triffid Ranch tables at local reptile shows, museum events, and one-day pop-up shows. Everything, of course, depends upon the Day Job and factors completely uncontrollable, but it’s time to go outside, and 2018 is the year to start walking.
As a sidenote, the upheaval prevented attempts to keep up with everyone online, and that’s already being rectified. In addition to an increased posting schedule, those efforts include a new mailing list that starts up at the beginning of the new year, improvements to the current site (some of you may already notice that the ads that infested the old site are gone, and now it’s a matter of going through all of the external links and removing or updating the defunct ones), and maybe even a bit of video. Now to develop a vaccine for sleep so there’s time to do all of this.
As always, time and tide melt the snowman, so 2018 might end on a drastically different note. As if anyone expected anything different. The main thing is that 2017 epitomized “Hold my beer and watch this,” and barring a truly unfortunate accident with temporal paradoxes, we won’t have to go through it again. Now let’s go explore the new year.
To say that Anno Domini 2002 was a bunkerbuster and kidney stone of a year was a bit of an understatement. The year started with the realization that the tech boom of the previous four years was over and done: much as with the pundits seeing signs of recovery from the crash of 1929 in January 1930, business analysts watching the detritus from the dotcom boom kept seeing new sprouts in the manure pile, but they weren’t visible from the ground level. The number of poorly managed built-to-flip tech companies blaming their implosions on 9/11 just kept climbing, and those of us who made plans for the future based on relative employment stability pretty much dropped everything and hung on. In my own case, the company that had hired me for a three-year stem-to-stern documentation revamp suddenly made the news for creating the 38-day monthly reporting period, and while its co-CEOs wouldn’t see the inside of prison for fraud for a few years, the rest of us wouldn’t be there to wave goodbye. Goodbye, steady paycheck: hello, wildly variable schedule at a Dallas liquor store that paid enough for rent or the car payment but not both at the same time.
If evil is the loam of the decay of virtue, from which new good will sprout again, 2002 was a raised bed garden the size of a football field. In very short succession, I lost two cats, brother and sister that I’d bottle-fed as kittens after they’d been abandoned at a Goodwill truck 14 years before, and a grandmother. Driving out to bury one of the cats led to a head gasket on my car blowing out, with a very expensive tow back to town. Oh, and let’s not forget the root canal, or the move to a barely affordable apartment just before the divorce was final. The absolute nadir, though, was watching as a haphazard pro writing career crumpled under the deaths of innumerable seemingly stable paying publications. This was matched by any number of wannabe editors who assumed that publication was enough of an honor without grubby compensation marring it, and by the end of May, with just the latest zine dweeb asking for submissions and responding to queries of payment with “Since I’m not a well-heeled trust fund baby, I’ll pay when the magazine starts making money and not before,” I was done.
By the middle of September, when the despair of working retail in a liquor store during the holidays was a regular morning and evening dread, a glimmer of light came through with a call from a company in Florida seeking a technical writer. It was coming out of a dotcom bankruptcy, they warned, and Tallahassee wasn’t Miami or Orlando. The pay wasn’t what was standard for that sort of position a few years earlier, the benefits were pretty bad, and the lead developer would disappear for weeks in his quest for a Russian mail-order bride. However, one of my potential co-workers brought in her pet Vietnamese potbellied pig on Fridays, the initial interview went well, and I had an old friend in Tally who recommended the place as somewhere to relax: Jeff VanderMeer, whose novel Annihilation comes out as a film early next year. Jeff had delivered several well-placed slaps upside the head during my writing days, and if he was living out there, then it was worth the monumental move out there, wasn’t it?
To cut to the end, the job didn’t work out. Three months in, and about three days before I was to fly back to Dallas and marry Caroline, Delenn to my GIR, the president of the company decided that the gigantic software project planned for January 2003 didn’t need to happen, and a dead project didn’t need a technical writer. Since I’d already paid for plane tickets about an hour before getting notice, that meant sitting around in Tallahassee for three days before returning to Dallas, getting married shortly after Christmas, and flying back to Tally on New Year’s Day to pack up everything and drive back one last time. Noon on January 2, 2003 found me on a nearly-deserted beach in Gulfport, Mississippi, looking across Coke-bottle glass water on the Gulf of Mexico, coming across the occasional enormous fish bone or mangrove seed, and wondering “So what’s the rest of the year going to be like?” Considering how the previous four months had gone, most people would have been embittered for years on both career and locale and never returned.
In many ways, Tallahassee was the right place at the right time. A lack of money precluded a lot of activities, so that meant sitting in a rented room and reading all night. (My roommate was thrilled with this, as I was decidedly less dramatic than his previous roommate, AND I paid my rent on time without reminding. He was also a hopeless fan of the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, so discovering that my ex was a physical and temperamental ringer for Edie Monsoon just meant that half of Florida’s gay community had to come by and meet Edie’s third ex-husband.) That also meant getting a cram course on Florida natural history and paleontology, especially from the number of Florida State University postgrads at the long-defunct goth venue Club Jade looking for an ear actively interested in their research. The geology and history of Wakulla Springs, the world’s largest freshwater spring, took up a lot of that spare time, and the springs’ steady year-round water temperature meant that swimming outdoors in unchlorinated water in December was an option. The biggest lateral turn in my life, though, came upon a visit to the Tallahassee Museum my second day in town. The Museum is more of a wildlife park and nature preserve than museum as most people would know it, and among enclosures for Florida panthers and river otters were collections of plants that I’d vaguely read about but had never seen in person. Right at the Museum entrance was a collection of Sarracenia purple pitcher plants, and right there was where my old life ended.
Returning to Dallas in 2003 wasn’t a huge improvement on 2002: moving back didn’t remove the reasons for moving out. What changed, though, was a big chunk of Tallahassee that remained under the skin. About a week after getting back, a run to a local Home Depot for new bookshelves led to coming across a display of assorted carnivorous plants for sale, and that’s when it really went down. Although I suffered a few writing relapses (all but one being so aggravating or humiliating that the bug is burned out forever, culminating with threatening to dox the entire management ladder at SyFy in order to get paid), the rest of the time between then and now has focused on the carnivores. This has led to friendships with experts and fellow dilettantes in the field, for all of whom I’d take a bullet without hesitation, and a constant sense of “So what’s next?” Every time I ask that question, someone comes up behind and tells me “If you like that, check THIS out,” and down another rabbit hole I go.
In a very roundabout way, this is a way of thanking the Dallas Observer for voting the Texas Triffid Ranch as one of its Best of Dallas 2017 winners, and a way of thanking those friends and cohorts for getting me here. John, Devin, Summer, Tim, Patrick, Sue, Jeff, the whole crew at Club Jade, the grad students/lifeguards at Wakulla Springs…all of you. I literally wouldn’t be who I am today without you, and I don’t think I would have liked the person I would have been without you. I owe you all a drink, and I hope to have to chance to pay out in person.