Category Archives: Personal Interlude

Buy the ticket, take the ride


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.

But.

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.

Meanwhile, Back In Reality…

While it’s been a bit quiet around the electronic homestead, that’s due to changing priorities instead of deliberate omission. Last week’s show at All-Con was quite the success considering the timeframe (this was the first time in seven years that I’ve tried to conduct a plant show right after a move, and that’s a game best conducted by the young), and all available time since then has been dedicated either to getting the gallery in operational condition or in cleaning up the greenhouse. If someone has a good working vaccine for sleep without nasty side effects, please pass it along.

Anyway, for those keeping up with the Triffid Ranch over the years, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the priority right now, and for the next five weekends, is preparing for this year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend on the first weekend in May. This involves getting together a lot of surprises and probably the largest collection of plants ever displayed at a Triffid Ranch event. With the move from the Galleries at Midtown and the subsequent ending of the ARTwalks, it’s time to amp up the number of outside shows and events, and the first one on the schedule is SmallCon in Addison, Texas on September 9. This list WILL expand throughout the next few months, so keep an eye open for further updates.

Other than that, it’s back to the linen mines: photos from All-Con and a final overview of leaving the old Valley View Center space will be up shortly. Again, if someone isn’t developing that vaccine for sleep, this is what is called “creating a new market.” Get to it.

“It’s the beginning of the end, nothing lasts forever…”

The last nearly twelve months of work on the Triffid Ranch gallery have been among the most productive and successful months of my entire life. Besides having the opportunity to work on larger enclosures than what was practical or sane to bring out to Triffid Ranch shows and lectures, it helped buffer the massive leap between a home-based business and one that might actually grow into a full-time retail establishment. I’ve met an incredible number of wonderful people, heard a lot of fascinating commentary, and managed to juggle full-time employment and gallery fun with only a few regrets that nobody has discovered the 87-hour day. The only other regret is that this stage ends in another six months.

Upon moving in, every artist at the Galleries at Midtown knew that this was a great but ephemeral opportunity. We knew from the beginning that the once-great Valley View Center, which had survived innumerable threats from other shopping venues only to succumb to the power of the smartphone, was going to be demolished and replaced with an outdoor mall arrangement. We knew from the beginning that we’d best make hay while we had the chance, because the combination of central location and inexpensive rent would end once the next stage started. We knew all this, and yet it’s still hard to get over how the current gallery residents will be the last people in Valley View Center as the lights go out and the demolition crews come in. Gee, it’s as if life imitates art:

Well, we got the word last week, but the official notice came out today: the city of Dallas approved the new plan for the mall redevelopment, so everything has to be turned off by December 31 as part of the deal. We’ve been told by the owner that they’re seeking an interim location for the galleries until the new MidTown is complete, and that gallery and workshop space is going to be part of the draw for MidTown, but that’s at least three years away. In the interim, the Triffid Ranch is moving.

Where we’re moving is a good question: a lot depends upon location, rent, and available parking. “When” is a good question as well: we’re going to stick it out in the current location for as long as we can, knowing that when the Christmas season ends, we’re leaving whether we like it or not. In the interim, work continues at the space, we’ll continue to prepare for shows and events, and ARTwalk, obviously, continues all through the remaining time here. In particular, stick around for the one-year anniversary party on August 20 (this doubles as Caroline’s birthday party, so grab cake and barbecue while you’re here), and let’s celebrate what we have while we still have it.

When we moved in, we figured realistically that we’d have a year in the space before the demolition started, and we hoped for two years. 18 months is a good compromise. Now let’s see where we go from here.

Ah-TSU!

A minor update, but one directly tied to (anti)social media. After starting a Facebook account eight years ago, it became time to close everything down. It’s happened in bits and pieces over the years: realizing that work wasn’t getting done because of constant queries while online, deactivating the account, and then getting back on when that was the only way to contact old friends or vital sources for information. The combination of the utter toxicity of Facebook in the current US presidential election cycle, the fact that Facebook was holding the Triffid Ranch page hostage in the hopes of paying to get updates viewed by people who had requested as much, and the simple fact that Facebook was making me nostalgic for the thoughtful conversations and commentary on LiveJournal, finally pushed me over the edge, and I’m staying off. Probably permanently, too.

That’s not to say that the Triffid Ranch is staying off social media. It’s just time to move to a healthier place. In a roundabout way, that’s to mention that everything that doesn’t quite justify a full blog post is going over to Tsu. If Facebook is that unemployed uncle at Christmas dinner who can’t speak except in Fox News bullet points, Tsu is that artist aunt who keeps getting you hooked on Spirograph and polymer clay. Besides a much less obnoxious ad presence, Tsu actually pays for original content, so with the combination of being compensated for new material and being reasonably sure that comments won’t be hijacked by that friend of a friend who only wants to pick fights, it’s a much better idea.

Anyway. https://www.tsu.co/TexasTriffidRanch. Come by to say hello, or just come by to read. Either way, I promise that the Drama Llama will not come along and take a forty-pound dump in the middle of your living room.

Reminder: December Midtown ArtWalk

Just as a friendly reminder, the December Midtown ArtWalk is scheduled for the 19th, and we have reason to celebrate. The soft opening for the Triffid Ranch space occurred right between the Czarina’s and my birthdays, so we brought out separate birthday cakes that pretty much summed up our relationship. Yeah, it’s that bad.

opening_cakes_1opening_cakes_3

opening_cakes_2

Anyway, this month’s ArtWalk is special for one particular reason: at the end of the month, we celebrate 13 years of wedded bliss, so it’s time for a party. You can imagine my disappointment at discovering that the theme for a thirteenth anniversary isn’t tacos, so this is one tradition that changes on December 19. Come out for the carnivorous plants and the jewelry, and stay to place bets on whether we’ll survive to see 14.

Twelve years of marriage…

As of this evening, the Czarina and I celebrate a full 12 years of marriage: a full quarter of my life. Naturally, that’s absolutely no way that I could possibly make her shake her head in dismay and horror, and so in tribute to the great Dave Brockie, I believe this should be played at our fiftieth wedding anniversary:

Not-so-great news: the new mailing address

It’s been one of those years. On top of everything else, the insurance settlement check for the bike accident finally came in, literally the day before an emergency trip to a 24-hour dental office for a root canal. 12 hours earlier, a little twinge in a bicuspid, and any Sunday morning involving a very sweet and friendly dentist uttering the words “pus” under her breath more than three times in five minutes isn’t a Sunday morning you want to repeat. On the bright side, at least I know for a fact that a day job co-worker is so annoying and fatuous that a root canal is a preferable experience. Always look for the positive, right?

Well, it keeps adding up. After 15 years of keeping the same address, the old mail drop simply wasn’t practical any more, so we decided to keep up the tradition of a mail drop. This isn’t just to discourage random passersby from dropping by because “I wanted to see your plants,” or even the flood of Abilene residents who drove all the way out with their grandchildren with no advance warning. When it comes to plants and plant accessories that require stable temperatures, the local UPS driver leaving these on the front porch isn’t an option. This is in addition to legal documents, seed catalogs, and other items that can’t be sent by E-mail. It may be a tax writeoff, but it’s one that we use nearly to death.

The problem was that out of a sense of misguided loyalty, I stuck with a UPS Store location, not knowing that my original locale was an exception when it came to customer service. That was my first mistake. My second was assuming that the neurotic manning the front counter, a control freak who wouldn’t let customers get their own mail from their own boxes, might get better with time. My third was in sticking around for nearly five years, even after discovering that the UPS Store headquarters takes no responsibility for how its franchisees behave in public. This included throwing fits about being asked for packages that he didn’t see right away, or fussing about the contents. Finally, after the second or third time he yelled at my wife because of his unstated policy that mail couldn’t be left for more than a week (a policy, I might add, he never brought up with me), we figured that if we were going to take abuse from a failed EDS engineer, we might as well get paid for it and moved to a new locale.

Our fourth mistake was trying to get mail forwarding while we let friends and businesses know about the move. The owner of the franchise took our new address and a credit card number, with the idea of forwarding mail at least until after tax season and being charged every two weeks for shipping the mail. That lasted until we discovered this week that the neurotic was returning that mail as undeliverable, and when asked why he wasn’t forwarding it, he told Caroline “We don’t do that.” When I got on the phone, not only did he rationalize and argue, but he then blatantly lied and said “We weren’t informed of the forwarding.” Uh HUH.

Anyway, for those considering a mailing to the old 5435 North Garland Avenue address, please belay that, as things have changed. Our new mailing address is:

Texas Triffid Ranch
2334 West Buckingham Road
suite 230-204
Garland, Texas 75042

I’d like to add for locals coming across this via Google searches that this main address offers a great shipping alternative. John, the owner, is a consummate professional and a joy to work with, and a professional is always better than a guy with his head so far up his own rectum that he’s a Klein bottle with legs. Give John lots and lots of business, and tell him specifically that you heard about him here. He’ll love that: apparently our old UPS Store is responsible for a lot of his return and repeat customers. And so it goes.

“Meanwhile, back in reality…”

New bike

As can be noticed, updates over here have been a bit sporadic, partly due to Day Job work schedules, but I’d like to show off the new bicycle. Thanks to the intrepid folks at Richardson Bike Mart, I now have a new bicycle: a Specialized Rockhopper 29. It’s not spectacular and it’s not flashy, but it’s a good basic bike, perfect for Dallas commuting, as it handles well and manages to avoid most of the hazards of city biking.

Bike wreck

You may be wondering about what happened to my old bike, or why I say “most of the hazards of city biking,” but that’s best explained with a quick photo showing one next to the other. As can be noted, the old bike isn’t in much condition for riding: its handlebars were shorn off, the derailleur and chain ripped free, the wheels scrunched, one of the cranks bent underneath the main gear, and the frame itself bent. Getting a new bike was the only option, as the cost of repairs rapidly exceeded the cost of a replacement.

Before anyone asks, I’m in excellent condition. Other than a small scrape on my left knee, I survived the whole incident. I joke that “my bike gave its life to save mine,” but that’s pretty much the truth. Years of Dallas riding taught me the value of safety gear: I’d sooner go out without lungs than without a helmet or gloves. The same goes for lights on front and back, reflective tape along the side, and a keen eye for inattentive, distracted, or just plain stupid drivers. When you combine all three, though…

Dead bike

I’m fond of noting that I love Lexus drivers for one good reason: they advertise themselves. The fact that Toyota puts its big “‘L’ is for ‘Loser'” logo on front and back means that it’s possible to get warning of a Lexus driver through a rear-view mirror long before the dolt every gets close, allowing the attentive bicyclist, pedestrian, motorist, or homeowner to get the hell out of the way. Naturally, Lexus drivers go on and on about how their vehicles are “safe”, meaning that they’ll survive what my best friend refers to as “a failure to drive,” and who cares about anybody else. Crumple zones so they can run into vehicles or houses and walk away, lane drift alarms so the driver can go back to texting or posting on Facebook while on the highway, lots of bright shiny objects along the dashboard to make driver and passengers think that they’re more capable than their abilities…yeah, I’ve had a lot of experience with Lexus drivers as a whole, to where I’ve gone to extra effort to watch for that logo on front and back. Too bad for my bike that this one got me from the side.

Dead bike

The story’s pretty easy, really: the driver was leaving work, stopping for a moment in a parking lot before heading out the driveway. I saw the vehicle stop, and slowed but continued going, figuring that the driver was tweeting or adjusting a car radio before going. By the time I got to the driveway, she accelerated in a hurry to start the holiday weekend a bit early, and I went under the front wheels. Thankfully, I bounced, landing on my work backpack, while the bike lost handlebars, wheels, chain, and derailleur. The driver obligingly stopped before I followed it, crying “I’m really sorry” over and over, and I have to admit that a near-death experience tends to bring out some of my more vicious behavior. No profanity, no abuse while yelling at her, other than “What the hell is it about all you Lexus drivers being idiots?” Personally, I thought it was a valid question.

That said, now everything’s up in the air. A quick talk with her insurance company got a very quick response, with an agent swearing that I’d hear from the claim adjuster within two business days. That’s now four days behind, but that’s also expected: I worked for The Hartford in its Worker’s Comp division twenty years ago, and we had at least one valid bomb threat per month before I left because its adjusters were doing their best to run out the clock on any claim without legal representation. Well, that’s been taken care of, and now it’s a matter of waiting. Thankfully, I have a perfectly vindictive attitude about owed funds: just ask Craig Engler one of these days about his last run-in with me over unpaid writing fees. And so it goes.

Otherwise, things are reasonably back to normal. Yes, some drivers have their heads so far up their colons that they could be described charitably as “Klein bottles with legs” but that won’t stop me from riding. One dolt, in nearly 40 years of riding, that nearly took me out? That’s not a bad track record. Besides, the quiet of early-morning roads, being buzzed by red-tailed and Harris’s hawks during the day and screech owls and big brown bats in the predawn morning. the feeling of responsibility that only knowing what my own physical limitations are determines where I’m going and how fast…the accident just confirms a need to be just a little bit more careful. Either that, or to make sure that the next Lexus dingbat kills me on the spot, because nobody would believe the police report of my ripping off the rest of my nearly-severed leg and beating the driver into a coma with it. (I’d never kill someone who hit me. I’d prefer to have them wake up several weeks later as a punchline, with the nurses at the hospital taking cash, checks, and Bitcoins to allow complete strangers to come up, laugh, and point.)

In the interim, regular blogging will resume shortly: keep an eye open for several new developments. The sooner the reimbursement check comes for the bike, the sooner everything really goes back to normal.

The Trumpetvine That Came to Sarnath

Scarlet Trumpetvine

I’ve commented elsewhere about Some Guy, because you can always connect the worst advice on the planet to Some Guy. Horticulturally speaking, Some Guy can be blamed for all sorts of concentrated vile, but one of the most pernicious involves spreading tales about effective use of scarlet trumpetvine (Distictis buccinatoria).

D. buccinatoria doesn’t sound quite so bad upon first glance. It’s a very enthusiastic climbing vine, sometimes growing as big around as your leg, with a nearly fernlike thick foliage. Its name comes from its equally enthusiastic blooming habit, with bright red blooms that attract hummingbirds by day and hawkmoths by night. It also sprouts from its roots, growing a thick corky rind around an extremely tough and fibrous root core. If you’re looking for a tenacious and full vine that covers just about anything, you can’t find anything better in the Dallas area.

And that’s precisely the problem. Scarlet trumpetvine blooms lead to long, beanlike seed pods whose contents are gleefully spread by birds, so they end up everywhere. They don’t seem to have anything indigenous that keeps them under control, so while their leaves make excellent shelter for lizards and beneficial insects, they also transpire so much water during the day that any wood underneath them starts to rot very quickly. Since nothing seems to trim back that foliage, that means that fences, walls, posts, and sheds are rapidly buried under thick blankets of trumpetvine.

This sounds perfect if you want trumpetvine to stay, but just TRY to remove it. This is where Some Guy comes in, because the trope going through yuppie neighborhoods is that “you should plant trumpetvine around telephone poles so that it’ll cover the pole.” Not only does this make the local utility reps absolutely loathe you, as reaching the pole, much less climbing it, is impossible when sheathed in trumpetvine, but it also guarantees that the seeds will spread elsewhere. Chop it down, and it readily resprouts from the roots. Mow down the new growth, and chunks will reroot and spread through the immediate area. Spray it with herbicides, and the sprays wash off the leaves and kill off everything underneath. In my case, I made the mistake of letting trumpetvine get established along a wooden fence during the summer of 2011, and I’m still cutting it back every week from the roots from that summer.

Scarlet Trumpetvine

Now, Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster repeatedly argues that scarlet trumpetvine is of the Devil. I’d argue that if confronted about trumpetvine, Satan would stand up and profess true innocence, arguing that some things are too foul for him to consider. You could go through other pantheons, and every possible suspect would do the same thing. Loki would swear upon Yggdrasil that he wouldn’t think of doing such a horrible thing. Set would set upon his heels and cry at the accusation. Tezcatlipoca would be found in the bath, repeatedly scrubbing himself with wire brushes. Camazotz would go back to his old cutting habit. Nyarlathotep…Nyarlathotep would just sit back, vomiting silently in utter terror that someone would give him credit for creating or developing scarlet trumpetvine.

This garden season, have some sympathy and some taste. When you’re saturation-nuking the garden to blast out trumpetvine, don’t randomly assign blame for something of such cosmic horror. Instead, just ask yourself “What did those gods of chaos and evil ever do to you to deserve that sort of insult?”

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 1

Cover: Miniature Gardens by Janit Calvo

Okay, so you’ve taken care of holiday obligations. Whether you’re buying presents for Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, or Yak-Shaving Day, if said holiday happens before the end of the year, you probably already have all of your shopping done, the packages wrapped, and the gift exchanges planned. You’ve done all you can for everyone else, but what about yourself?

Seriously. Once the holiday obligations are done, the next few months in the Northern Hemisphere are going to be miserable. Short days and long, dark, cold nights, and nobody wants to get out into it. New movie releases are so bad that the term “Sargasso of January” applies to the much-hyped and equally unwatchable films, and even Netflix can’t help if you’ve already watched every episode of Farscape. It’s time for outside stimulation, and at affordable prices.

With this in mind, it’s time to put together a list of resources and venues intended to keep you safe and sane in this post-holiday season. Hang on and check back every day between now and New Year’s Day, because it’s going to get FUN.

Firstly, for the last five years, St. Johns Booksellers in Portland, Oregon has been an official partner with the Triffid Ranch for books and other print materials of all sorts. Owner Nena Rawdah has been a friend and cohort for a full third of my life now, and I don’t just recommend the store because I owe her for not killing me when she had the chance. I’m also recommending the store, should you live in the vicinity, because of its newly revamped and updated interior, perfect for author readings and other opportunities to get out of the January Oregon damp. And if you don’t have the opportunity to get to the Portland area, well, call or E-mail about your book requests. I can state with authority that it has quite a palaeontology selection in its science section, because that used to be part of my library.

Also in Portland is one of my favorite publishers, and I’ve related for years that the little pine tree logo on the spine of a Timber Press book is an automatic endorsement of the contents inside. Without fail, Timber Press books get me through long and tough Januarys, and now might be the time to purchase your copy of Janit Calvo’s Gardening in Miniature in preparation for March and April. And if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, it’ll give you plenty of preparation for things to do during the long, dark June.

More to follow…

Icepocalypse now, walls of flame, billowing smoke, who’s to blame?

Icepocalypse Now

The hype started up early last Tuesday. We were in for snow, ice, asteroid strikes, blazing angels, Wal-Mart gift cards…the local meteorologists were whooping it up about this was going to be a storm for the records. By Wednesday, we all knew that something was up when we hit near-record high temperatures that afternoon and everyone started pulling out swimsuits. That didn’t keep everyone from laughing at the National Weather Service. “Oh, they say that all the time. They always predict a worse storm than what we actually get. Just watch: we’ll get a little bit of rain, and that’s it.”

Oh, we of little faith. The snowmageddon started sliding in from the northwest on Thursday afternoon, and it just kept getting worse. And worse. I have an incredible ability to wake up about thirty seconds before a power outage, and so I woke up about five minutes before the alarm clock went off, wondering “Why am I conscious right now?” when everything went dead for the next five hours. When the exemplary crews at Garland Power & Light weren’t able to get power reestablished right away, that’s when we knew this was going to be bad.

And to stop the immediate comparisons to your local weather and how “this isn’t so bad,” that’s true. Kinda. This was definitely the worst ice storm I’ve seen in Texas in the 34 years since I first moved here, exceeding the big storms of 1983, 1996, and 2011. We almost never get ice storms, much less ones of this intensity, and this one compared favorably to ones I experienced in Michigan when I was a kid. In Michigan, everyone has snow tires, heavy-duty ice scrapers and snow brushes, and other regular accessories for a typical winter up there. We don’t have snowplows, salt trucks, and tire chains because they might be used once every ten years or so. Hence, we’re caught flatfooted nearly every time. And this one? Nobody was prepared for this mess, because we simply don’t see storms like this.

Fields of ice

On a personal level, the storm and the power outage tag-teamed me. First, specialized greenhouse tape specifically purchased so it wouldn’t go brittle in the cold went brittle in the cold, and the north wind blew out a panel on the main greenhouse. Combine that with the outage cutting heat at a critical time, and all of the thermal mass I put in last October didn’t make up for the sub-freezing drafts. I’ll have to wait until things warm up, but it looks like at least a two-thirds loss of everything inside, including a new line of bonsai Capsicum peppers intended to be premiered at the next show. It may be possible to salvage, but that has to wait until temperatures rise again and I can perform a decent evaluation.

On the bright side, at least the Czarina and I weren’t insane enough to be vendors at the scheduled Fair Park Holiday show in downtown Dallas. That one was shut down early, but probably more a matter of a lack of vendors than the worries about weather. But about that later.

I’m also not complaining more, because the damage here was a lot less than that right around the area. Most of North Texas’s trees are various oaks, which generally don’t shed their leaves until spring, which meant they made wonderful nucleation sites for the incoming ice. They’re also not adapted to dealing with large amounts of ice, either, so local trees’ branches aren’t adapted to shedding or carrying huge amounts of snow or ice weight. With more flexible trees, such as crape myrtles and mesquite, they obligingly flattened to the ground and waited it out. The same thing with small oaks, such as the three-meter-tall oak that obligingly impersonated Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree when saturated with ice. Larger trees, though, and saplings from more brittle species just snapped. Expect photos shortly of the mess preventing my neighbor from being able to open his garage door for the two tons of shattered oak blocking his driveway.

Triffid Ranch Charlie Brown Christmas tree

And the temperate carnivorous plants put out for winter dormancy? That’s going to have to wait until spring. The layers of ice definitely killed off any still-living traps and phyllodia that the plants could use for photosynthesis, but most are used to worse conditions than this. The Sarracenia purpurea, for instance, should be right at home. In the meantime, while the ice lasts, I get views like this:

Iced-up Sarracenia

And one little bit of good? I’ve spent the last four years attempting to get results with growing the South African proto-carnivorous plant Roridula in Texas. One of the hardest problems is getting the seeds to germinate, and I tried everything. Scarifying the seed coat to encourage germination. Putting the potting mix in a smoker and smoking it heavily before adding seeds. Chilling the seeds before planting them. No results, and looking over the wreckage in the greenhouse made me think about just pitching them and giving up. Wouldn’t you just know that this sort of chill was exactly what Roridula dentata needed to get up and going? Now just to keep the seedlings going, as apparently decent air circulation is essential, and I don’t dare risk bringing them inside if they’re this happy just to lose them to fungus infections. And so it goes.

Personal Interlude: Preparing for Cyber-Conversion

It’s quick and smartaleck to describe the air of North Texas as “a bit too thick to breathe, and a bit too thin to plow,” but it works. Even without Governor Rick Perry’s incessant efforts to give the Environmental Protection Agency the finger every time the EPA tries to improve Dallas’s air quality, our local and immediate atmosphere continues to work its absolute best to kill all life in the area. Dust blown off the Edwards Plateau from West Texas, more dust alternating from either Oklahoma or Central Texas Hill Country, junk blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, and a whole contingent of fungus and mold spores, pollen from gymnosperm and angiosperm plants, cow belches, and the hydrogen sulfide from the mudflats of the Trinity River in the summer…in case of tornado, just separate off chunks of air with a chainsaw and build a shelter strong enough to withstand a nuke strike.

The practical upshot is that Texas hates me. Three years ago, trying to find a solution to an inability to get restful sleep led to a trip to an allergy clinic, and the initial allergen tests showed me allergic to most of Texas’s life forms. This, of course, makes working anywhere outside of a silicon chip fabrication facility rather problematic, so the immediate solution involved a long series of allergy shots. Considering that I share an aversion to needles with one of my childhood role models, and for much the same reason, going through the regimen demonstrated that I valued a decent night’s sleep much more than I wanted to scream and hyperventilate over a needle barely able to catheterize a mosquito. Three years of shots, and then a re-evaluation: I’m now immune to the various things in the aerosolized manure we cheerfully call “air”. The injections just encouraged previously barely noticeable allergies, though, leading to a whole new line of shots. At the rate I’m going, I may be immune to everything short of hard vacuum and death by fire by February 2061.

Ah, but there was that little issue with being unable to breathe, so it was time to go to a sleep clinic for further evaluation. I’d been to one clinic back in 2010, but never got a reasonable evaluation of my sleep habits: such things happen when the evaluating doctor is too busy trying to refer his customers to buddies offering medically worthless dentifrices and polishing his D magazine “893 Best Doctors Willing To Buy Full-Page Advertising In Our Special Issue” award to give it. This time, though, new doctor, new sleep clinic, and a whole new breakdown on how inefficient respiratory structures conspired against sleep during the summer.

The upshot, after being rigged up with cranial electrodes and heart monitors and watched in my sleep with infrared cameras, was a diagnosis of moderate apnea. Enough apnea that it affected REM sleep, which explained the crippling bouts of depression every summer. (Of course, that could have just been from looking at the thermometer.) Enough apnea that neglecting to treat it would probably lead to heart damage or a possible stroke, and that’s nowhere near as fun as my planned manner of demise. All that remained was to ascertain the best method of treatment.

“Okay, we know the problem,” I told the Czarina one afternoon after the initial test. “All I need is a tracheotomy, and I can both breathe and smoke through the same hole.”

“What are you talking about? You don’t smoke.”

“Hey, Bill Hicks was onto something here. Get me an apple corer, and I’ll take care of it right now. Ker-CHUNK!”

“You are NOT giving yourself a tracheotomy.” See, this is why I can’t win with the Czarina. Most people would sit back, grab some popcorn, and watch the show. She actually fusses about my staying alive and stuff. She obviously married me for the money: my current net worth is $4.81, and that’s if she cashes in the glass Dr. Pepper bottles in the garage for the deposits.

The doctor, who is a joy to hang out with by the way, noted that the ongoing allergy shots were doing quite a bit of good, but proper treatment required being a bit more aggressive. The most extreme required surgery to remove or tighten up pharyngeal tissues in the back of my throat, keeping them from jamming up my windpipe and generally acting like wearing a prom gown to a chainsaw duel. (I offered again to try essential knowledge from my people’s wisest savant, but the Czarina both hid my Dremel tool and changed the lock on the shed, keeping me away from the hedge trimmers. She’s just trying to keep the value on the internal organs she can sell: that part is obvious.) The more reasonable solution, though, involved continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. Back to the sleep clinic, this time to be tested with a CPAP machine to ascertain the best positive pressure necessary to keep me from choking on my own throat.

Now, when going for any sort of medical treatment, one of my absolute steadfast rules is “consider the opportunities to scare the hell out of your loved ones”. The best part of sitting in a hospital ER with a bad bout of pneumonia is that I can get away with telling her “I’m gonna TRY…not to…come back…”, and any threat of violence just might make things worse. (Of course, that wasn’t helped with an intern who believed me when she asked for symptoms and I said “Other than the zombie bite, I’m fine.”) Covered with electrodes, gauges, wires, a full head harness, and a full facemask, what could make the situation absolutely terrifying? Why, adding goggles and then sending my new selfie to her. I love living in the future.

Sleep Mask

Now, after a decade of marriage, the Czarina is almost used to these sorts of things. None of the obvious comparisons, or even asking if I needed fava beans and a nice Chianti with dinner. She just looked at the photo, looked at me, and said “If you’re going to wear THAT to bed, you’d better expect only to sleep.” And she’s absolutely right. I’m going to have to get out my old Nixon mask to go with it.

“Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?”

So, about last week. Between plant and Day Job obligations, a big smiling reminder of my old writing days arrived last Tuesday in the form of Australian author Stephen Dedman, and poor Stephen got the barest beginnings of a Dallas tour. That is, he got a firsthand experience with the insane sprawl of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, as with how our roadways were inspiration for those in R’lyeh. Even worse, he had to deal with my babbling about minutiae on Dallas, from the geology and palaeontology (we drove within spitting distance of the Arlington Archosaur Site) to the backhistory of the Fair Park area to our current surreal impending celebration of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That’s when Stephen inspired a particular bit of japery for the end of November.

For the last fifty years, anything involving John Kennedy in Dallas has been a circus. There’s the actual assassination, of course, as well as the tourist industry that built up around it. Then there’s the backstory, which entities such as the Dallas Morning News want to bury and pretend didn’t happen. Then there’s the current effort for a massive panegyric the weekend before American Thanksgiving, simply entitled “The 50th”, which intends to “celebrate the life of Kennedy” without, you know, actually saying what happened to end it. Complete with efforts to make sure that nobody “extreme” gets anywhere near it. If there’s one thing any good circus needs, because it already has plenty of clowns, it’s costumes.

So here’s the idea. It’s a dangerous vision, but one that should be the maraschino cherry atop this gigantic, indigestion-inducing banana split of an event. It’s open to everybody who wants to participate, and it won’t cost a thing.

The idea: on November 22 of this year, Dallas gets a flood of time travelers. Famed travelers from fiction alongside ones brand new to the continuum, with outfits to match. Before you know it, the streets of Dallas are full of temporal explorers, cartographers, and marauders of all sorts, all asking the same question: “Which way to Dealey Plaza?”

At this point, half of the fun will be the responses. After all, if time travel is possible, then (barring the Morphail Effect, of course) an event as big as the Kennedy assassination should be so flooded with time travelers that they should outnumber the temporally static by a thousand to one. There’s no reason to believe that you wouldn’t have visitors planning to change the time line, keep it static, or take out anybody trying to do either. That’s why, when asked by reporters or passersby as to what’s happening, just hinting “I’m here to see history” is a good start.

The punchline comes around 12:20 Central Time, as the streets continue to flood with the Displaced. By this point, there should be more Daleks on the streets of Dallas than on those of London in 2100, and I won’t even start with the Yithians. At that point, everyone looks down the road where Kennedy’s motorcade drove a half-century ago, pulls out watches, clocks, sundials, chronometers, and hourglasses, and all exclaim at once “Right time, but WRONG YEAR!” before evacuating downtown.

And the best part? We can do this every November 22. We can even retire from the field of ostentation to hang out at the best party in town that weekend afterwards. What say you?

Personal interlude

Because of the recent news of the death of Roger Ebert, it’s time to remember him best with the best tribute ever made:

And for those who remember my old film review days, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I connected to the character of Jay Sherman in The Critic a bit more than most. Hence, I’m waiting to repeat the dialogue after 10:15 to famed Australian film critic Robin Pen when he finally meets the Czarina:

Personal interlude: Outliving Lovecraft

As of today, I’ve hit an interesting milestone, one that I never thought I’d reach when I was in my twenties. Right now, I’ve outlived the quintessential horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Part of the reason for keeping up with this minutiae lies with joking that only writers, and science fiction/fantasy/horror writers in particular, can get away with dying in their late forties and still dying “tragically young”. Another reason is that considering the vile garbage I wrote back in my own writing days, every day I saw past my 28th birthday was more of a surprise to me than anyone else. The biggest reason, though, is that my plans for fame and world conquest involve doing something now, instead of waiting for it to come to me thirty years after my death. (Can you imagine what HPL would have done with the royalties off the movie adaptations of Re-Animator or From Beyond, much less all of the stuffed “Cuddly Cthulhu” figures out there?)

In the meantime, it’s back to the linen mines, what with setting up new arrangements for Texas Frightmare Weekend and getting a whole new load of seedlings established by then. Howard Lovecraft was a distant relation, so if I follow any of his traits, it won’t be his rampant racism or his unwillingness to take care of himself. Encouraging a sense of cosmic wonder, though: that’s a laudable tradition to continue.

The next big project

As events and venues continue to expand, so will the Triffid Ranch, and things have outgrown (pun intended) the little hobby greenhouse from where all of this started back in 2008. Five years since the first Triffid Ranch show at the sadly defunct CAPE Day? Sheesh.

Side of the new greenhouse frame

Anyway, that expansion means that it’s time to set up a new greenhouse specifically for Nepenthes pitcher plants and other heat-loving, humidity-loving plants. The details are too long to go into, but a dear friend of the Czarina’s and mine had a spare shade frame that needed to be moved, and her sense of Scottish frugality is even stronger than mine. Hence, the new Nepenthes frame goes up right after this weekend’s show.

Front of the new greenhouse

It may not look like much here, and it looks even less impressive stripped to raw parts and put into temporary storage. In its full complete state, covered with fresh greenhouse film, and full of pitcher plants and bladderworts, though, it’ll look glorious.

Anniversaries, all coming together

Everybody has their own personal anniversaries, but it seems as if all of mine are converging this year, particularly this month. Among others, I first moved to Texas a third of a century ago, culminating with meeting my best friend on December 7. (Yes, he also refers to it as “a day that will live forever in infamy,” too. I can’t blame him.) Thirty years ago, I was hospitalized for my first bout of pneumonia, leaving me with a very distinctive shadow on my left lung that still scares radiologists and causes quack doctors to recommend expensive CT scans “to make sure”. Twenty-five years ago, I came across the first issue of a magazine that ultimately led me toward a career writing for science fiction magazines. The last two have a lot in common, because they both involve illnesses that can kill if left untreated.

Fifteen years ago yesterday, I moved back from Portland, Oregon to Dallas, in a car filled with a wife, four cats, a hatchling savannah monitor, a grapefruit tree grown from seed, and an assemblage of photos and postcards of the famed concrete dinosaurs of Cabezon, California. Of all of these, I only have the postcards, and a lot of other things that meant a lot to me at that time are now gone forever. At the time, I was glad to escape Portland (I’m not exaggerating when I state that watching the giant bugs in Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers in Portland made me homesick for Houston. HOUSTON.), but as is always the case, I met some of the most interesting people in my life when they were living in the area, AFTER I left. And so it goes.

Ten years ago, I was temporarily staying in Tallahassee, Florida, with plans to move there permanently. The real estate boom was still a glint in the pizza delivery guy’s eye, and the company that hired me had just come out of a dotcom bankruptcy, planning to revive its fortunes on an update to the software package for which I was writing an operation manual. Management decided to scuttle the update and lay off the new hires, which left me without a job three days before Christmas and six days before the Czarina and I were to be married, but everything ultimately worked out. In the meantime, I met a ridiculous number of fascinating people in the Tally area, started my ongoing addiction to carnivorous plants, and realized that the person I was circa 1997 wasn’t someone I particularly liked. The trick to this sort of realization is to notice and rectify it, and that’s a work in progress. I also married the most wonderful woman in the world just before New Year’s Eve 2002, and that made all of the drama of the previous five years worth it.

And that leads us to today. The Texas Triffid Ranch celebrates its fifth year next May. With only two embarrassing relapses, I haven’t returned to writing for science fiction, and it becomes harder to contemplate going back when nonfiction is so much more fun. In the meantime, it may be time for a party later this month. Who’s in?

And a moment of transitory beauty

Autumn color in North Texas

Admittedly, it’s due to both that sudden freeze we had two weeks ago and our current unnaturally dry autumn, but anyone want to tell me again about how North Texas doesn’t get fall color? (As noted before, this is definitely due to our current lack of precipitation, because I’ve passed these trees for years on my way to the Day Job, and never once seen a smidgen of color from them before. I’m glad for the moment of beauty, but I’ll also be very, VERY glad when we start getting rain again. It’s getting to be a bit too much like 1952, meteorologically speaking, to suit me.)

Observations: Plano Pets

As one of the longtime vendors at the North American Reptile Breeders Conference shows in Arlington, I’d looked forward to visiting Plano Pets (in Plano, Texas, naturally enough) for a while. Always avoid procrastination whenever you can, my friends: by the time I finally got out that way, it was in time for a big moving sale. Even then, it was definitely worth the trip.

For those unfamiliar with Plano Pets’s reputation, this is a classic pet shop in the old sense. Yes, the old locale carried items for dogs, cats, and various small mammals, but their two big draws were the fish and reptile selections. By the time I got out there, they were pretty well-cleared, but oh, you could see what once was.

That’s not the important part. The important part is two-fold, in two lessons on how to do business. Speaking both as someone who gets a lot of odd requests for plants, and someone who worked at a shopping mall pet shop in the mid-1980s, I’m putting together a similar list to this one and displaying it prominently the moment the Triffid Ranch opens a retail space.

Plano Pets mission statement

And the other lesson? Say hello to “Fred”.

Fred the Tegu

For those unfamiliar with reptiles, Fred is a black-and-white tegu, the Argentine equivalent to a monitor lizard. When I first started keeping exotic reptiles in the 1980s, I was told over and over “You don’t want a tegu. It’s not that they get big; it’s that they never get tame, and they’re always vicious.” Nobody sent Fred that memo, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s one big scaly cat. He likes being held and he loves being pet, and I haven’t met a lizard that so enjoyed having his ears scritched since my late savannah monitor Afsan.

Fred, in many ways, demonstrates a very valuable point about Plano Pets. Fred’s keeper, and his father, regularly come back to the store to let everyone know how well he’s doing. In fact, about once per month, weather permitting, they bring in Fred as well, partly to say hello, and partly to let other customers know that the foul reputation tegus have for being aggressive isn’t valid any more. (It used to be true back in the Eighties, when all of the available stock in tegus was wild-caught, and the survivors making it to US pet shops were traumatized beyond belief. These days, with both an exceptional captive breeding population and improved knowledge on their habits in the wild, that perception is about as cliched as the perception of orchids being tough to raise.) In the meantime, Fred’s public appearances mean that he’s in a controlled environment, where herpetophobes can look without any worries of his getting too close. (My mother is morbidly afraid of snakes, and I understand now all too well that the last way to get someone over a phobia is to force the issue. This was taken to a specific point the afternoon this photo was taken, as one spectator had no problems with her daughters saying hello to Fred, but she herself couldn’t get past her phobia of lizards to enter the store.)

As of now, Plano Pets’s new location is still up in the air, but the crew has hopes of making an announcement soon. Until them, with Fred as an example, previous Triffid Ranch customers are more than welcome to send in photos of their plants. In fact, with the owners’ permission, I’d like to start posting a regular listing, just to show that carnivorous plants aren’t that difficult to raise, either.

And now a quiet interlude

Rainbow

It’s been a rough week for just about everybody, and the weather in North Texas this week just compounded the misery. It’s supposed to break tonight, but as with all things meteorologically related, I’ll believe it when I see it. I have to keep that attitude, because that’s the only way to stay sane.

The last three weeks have been roughly the same thing, over and over. Hot and sunny. Hot and sunny. Slightly warmer than the surface of Venus. However, last week, we had a surprise squall come through. For about five glorious minutes one evening, we had a perfect rainbow visible from just one spot. This spot is always a good one for catching rainbows in the evening if the conditions were right, but this one had the brilliance you usually only see in the desert.

Double rainbow

Even better, although it doesn’t show up well in the photos, this full rainbow was a double.

Double rainbow

As I mentioned, this spot is especially good for catching rainbows, especially with sudden squalls rushing to the east, but this one isn’t the most impressive I’ve caught yet. This site is the only one where I’ve seen double rainbows, but this is the second double I’ve seen so far. Early last year, though, I was lucky enough to head this way and spot a triple.

Intense rainbow

And as far as the Czarina was concerned, though, it was even better. She’s inordinately proud of her car, so you can imagine how thrilled she was to see what was at the rainbow’s end.

At the rainbow's end