Tag Archives: Czarina

A decade later, under the sea turtle

At the time, the end of 2002 wasn’t ending so well. The job that moved me to Tallahassee just ended without warning, with my getting word literally a half-hour after buying the plane tickets to come back to Dallas for Christmas. Considering the condition of the economy at the time, finding something new wasn’t all that great a prospect. That didn’t prevent the Czarina and I from getting married shortly after I got back, at the old Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Married under the Christmas Origami tree

We knew that the future could be a bit rough, but our biggest debate at the time concerned the actual location. The crew at the museum gave us an incredible rate for leasing the upper floor, and all we had to do was decide on exactly where. The museum featured a temporary display of a cast of an Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, a big predatory dinosaur native to the area, as well as permanent mounts of a Columbian mammoth, a large mosasaur collected from the shore of Lake Heath, a giant sea turtle named Protostega, and a Tenontosaurus, at the time the first Texas dinosaur ever on permanent display in a Texas museum. She vetoed saying our vows underneath the Acrocanthosaurus, as she felt that doing so underneath a giant carnivorous reptile might set a bad precedent for the subsequent marriage. We settled on her first choice, and had a quick but thorough ceremony underneath the Protostega. For the next decade, every time we went to Fair Park, we’d drag people out to the Museum, and show them the exact spot.

Acrocanthosaurus

To this day, I still give her gentle grief about not going for a more, erm, lively representative of our relationship, as the Acrocanthosaurus cast went back to its owner shortly after the wedding. Be that as it may, we wouldn’t change anything else.

Front of the Protostega

As mentioned earlier this year, the old Dallas Museum of Natural History merged with the next-door hands-on science museum The Science Place to become the Museum of Nature & Science, and the old composite museum was evacuated for the new Perot Museum of Nature & Science in downtown Dallas. When the new museum opened this month, we both made plans to spend our tenth anniversary underneath the relocated Protostega.

Top of the Protostega

The Czarina and the Lake Heath mosasaur

The Czarina at the Perot Museum

Ten years later

And there we are, a full decade later. I need a bit less peroxide to even out the white hair than I did then, and she’s lost quite a bit of weight since then, but we’re still together and still happy doing so. The only reason why we haven’t booked our twentieth anniversary festivities at the Perot is because we can’t purchase tickets that far in advance. As soon as we can, though, everyone is invited.

Have a Great Weekend

Ten years of marriage later, this is still the song that runs through my head whenever I’m out with the Czarina. Because she really is that great.

*SIGNAL LOST*

*BEEP* “Thank you for visiting the Triffid Ranch Web site today. Nobody is here to answer your queries, because today I’m taking my lovely wife out for our tenth wedding anniversary. If you are in need of assistance, or if you’re looking for a good excuse to get out of the house, we will be at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, where you are welcome to join us. If not, just keep an eye on the newsfeeds, because we’ll probably get there one way or another. Now where did I put my bail money?” *BEEP*

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?

Status updates

It’s been an interesting day so far. As mentioned earlier this week, the Czarina underwent emergency dental surgery this morning to remove a very aggravating wisdom tooth. Between the anaesthetic when she came out of surgery and the gauze packed into her jaws to stanch the bleeding, she was too far out of it to object when I called her “Alvin”. The real shame was that she got very upset with me for even suggesting making our very own “David After Dentist” video, so she made me swear that I wouldn’t record her and then put the results on YouTube. Hmmm. It’s about time for me to set up a Vimeo account, isn’t it?

If there’s an immediate good side to the situation, other than having two wisdom teeth lying in an envelope on the kitchen table and a lifetime’s worth of memories of your One and Only asking “Is this going to be FOREVER?”, it’s that this broke the dominance battle between the Czarina and Cadigan. As soon as we got home, Cadigan smelled disinfectant and latex, and immediately figured “Oh, you poor dear. You got fixed, too.” When last I left them, Cadigan was perched on the bed, guarding the whole area against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Leiber, he was just confused, but then that’s his life story.

With that interlude over and done with, it’s back to plants. Between warm temperatures and high humidity over the past week, including point-blank fog and mist yesterday, the carnivores are happier than they’ve been in months. Now if I can just find the lone grasshopper that sneaked into the greenhouse and took big chunks out of some of the plants I was going to show at this weekend’s show in Arlington…

EDIT: I shouldn’t jinx things, ever. Five minutes after sharing this, I got a call from the Czarina. “I think she stained the bathtub.” Now I have to ask “So what was that beast eating?”

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Cadigan

One of the biggest liabilities to having a packrat memory is having a realistic assessment of your own accomplishments and achievements. This is one of the biggest reasons why the Czarina and I don’t have any kids of our own, and prefer to adopt others for Halloween and Christmas. (Let me tell you: the best thing about our adoptive daughter Jenny is that we adopted her when she was 25. School’s already finished, she already had her own job and her own place, and we didn’t need to give her The Talk.) Namely, I remember all too well what I was like when I was a kid. I wasn’t a leather-jacket- and motorcycle-boot-wearing monstrosity until my early twenties, because I understood the value of the statute of limitations. Heck, I pulled stunts back in high school so secretively that I still can’t talk about them, but let’s just say that I’m quietly glad that the demolition of that high school removed most of the best evidence. If you see a little aluminum box in the wreckage of the newspaper staffroom, about so long by yea wide, just call the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NOW.

The Czarina feels the same way, even though she wasn’t the sort to get into trouble in high school. In fact, we regularly joke that we should be glad we didn’t meet back then, because they tell jokes about that sort of spectacle. “Susan Foreman and Herbert West, sitting in a tree,” and comments along that line. My mother-in-law used to tell the Czarina, only half-jokingly, “I hope you have kids just like you.” Combine the two of us, and I dare anybody to say that without screaming.

Well, we figured that we’d bypassed that. Who knew that it still applied to one’s cats?

Here’s the situation. We’ve introduced previous readers to Cadigan, the newest member of the household. She’s about seven months old, which is the feline equivalent of mid-adolescence. For a cat, she carries an impressively human amount of teenage angst and rebellion, to where I expect to come home to find her with a purple Mohawk. Naturally, since the Czarina is home much more than I am, this means that I’m the Good Guy, who brings home treats and the occasional bit of chicken. This also means that all of her dominance displays and all of her subversive behavior aim right at the Czarina. She’s going to lose in any pack quarrel, but she hasn’t quite realized it yet.

It started with the Czarina’s bathtub. We can both attest that the secret to married bliss is having separate bathrooms if at all possible, with hers in the bedroom and mine on the other side of the house. This works extremely well on weekdays when I have to get up much earlier than she does, and the cats only harangue me in there when they’re particularly worried about something. A few rumbles of thunder, and Leiber tries to climb into the shower. Therefore, it was rather surprising to see Cadigan rush out of the Czarina’s bathroom in a furtive manner, and even more surprising to hear the Czarina’s scream of rage.

“PAUL! Come here! Did you see what your daughter did in here?”

I looked inside, and wished I hadn’t. “Well, either she mistook the bathtub for the litterbox, or someone dumped a dead copperhead in here.”

Now was NOT the time to bring up the first thing that came to mind, which involved the John Waters movie Pink Flamingos. In fact, to avoid judicious application of the Elbows of Doom, I wasn’t going to bring up John Waters at all. We went out into the living room, and there was the cat, perched on the back of a chair, with a very self-satisfied expression on her face. I should hope so: she’d managed to lose about four pounds just thirty seconds before, and she only weighs two.

That’s when I realized that when faced with disciplinary issues involving children, human or otherwise, we both default to the lessons taught to us by our parents. The Czarina started lecturing the cat, who was about as threatened by this as being grounded for a month. Me, I suddenly understood why my father was on so many business trips during my high school years. I no longer had worries about Cadigan getting a Mohawk. She was going straight to “sneaking off and getting married in Vegas to a guy she met on the bus” territory.

And the dominance battles continued. Another massive dump in the bathtub, and another. This wasn’t a matter of a potential health issue: I was rather familiar with similar expressions of displeasure (having become quite good at doing them in double-parked convertibles that blocked in friends’ cars back in the late Eighties), so it was a matter of finding the issue and fixing it. Cadigan wasn’t angry at me: she was angry at the Czarina, so I had to be the good cop.

“Now, Cadigan, your mother is halfway to getting an ice cream scoop and turning you into a Davy Crockett cap. Do you REALLY want that?”

“Shut up! She’s not my real mother!”

“Apologize. NOW.”

“What are you going to do: ground me?”

“I’m serious, young lady. I’ll give you a bath if I have to.”

“You should be glad you got me fixed already! I could come home with KITTENS!”

That went over about as well as can be expected. After she learned that she actually got punished for her exploits in the bathtub, she learned that the best way to get our collective goat farm was to jump onto the kitchen table and skip off as soon as we noticed. Yeah, about as subtle as a ball-peen hammer, that one. It’s minor, but it gets just the right response, and it’s rapidly become the feline equivalent of playing with matches or stealing my credit card to buy new ringtones.

We aren’t helped at all by the realization that we haven’t dealt with a kitten in the house in a solid decade, and Leiber wasn’t rebellious. In fact, he was so neurotic that he spent his nights meeping until someone yelled “SHUT UP, CAT!”, in which case he knew we hadn’t abandoned him. These days, he sticks to his new role as the elder statesman, mostly by climbing onto the couch and giving his most disapproving expressions to the new interloper. That’s when I remind him “Go ahead and laugh, cat. I have permission to get that crocodile monitor after all.”

And won’t that be fun? Speaking from experience, the lizard wouldn’t waste its time with the bathtub. He’d go straight for the dishwasher.

September 20, 2002

2012 is full of personal and professional anniversaries, but one of the two most important happened ten years ago. A few days over a decade ago, I pulled into Tallahassee, Florida, and my entire life changed a day later.

Economically speaking, 2002 was pretty much defined by the shakeouts from the dotcom bust, and my previous career as a technical writer correspondingly suffered. Half of the job postings in my line of work were excuses to claim that experienced professionals were considered before hiring the CEO’s grandchildren, and the other were nonexistent jobs posted by recruiters seeking new names for databases. By mid-March, I finally resorted to working as the wine manager of a liquor store, which both helped remove any urge I had to drink and sharpened my loathing for the Southern Methodist University contingent. I saw a lot of horrible and pitiful things during those days, including things that brought on sympathy for at least one person I previously loathed (and that’s a story for another day), and everyone rejoiced when I received a job offer from a tech company in Tallahassee. The day after leaving the liquor store, I was driving my Plymouth Neon along Highway I-10 to Florida, narrowly missing two tropical storms in the process, and pulled into Tally on a beautiful warm Friday afternoon. Get set up first, I thought, learn where everything was, and then come in for my first day rested and ready.

To cut to the punchline, the job didn’t work out. The company was still mired in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and my team was responsible for maintaining and updating a software suite that was once the jewel of that particular industry. Sadly, said software suite had a whole collection of frat-brother “understandings” attached to it, particularly involving partnerships with other companies that hadn’t survived the crash, so the plan was to produce a new, top-of-the-line version for the Aughts. The company’s finances didn’t allow this, and when the CEO killed the new version, he also killed the need for several programmers and a technical writer. I got the informal word about the layoff literally an hour after I’d purchased plane tickets to come back to Dallas so the Czarina and I could get married, but had to wait two weeks for the final word if I wanted to get any kind of severance. There I was, two days before Christmas and five days before the wedding, back to where I was at the beginning of the year.

If you think that this is a pity party, though, don’t worry. In many ways, this was the best thing that ever happened to me. Among other things, I don’t want to think about what would have happened if we’d both moved to Tally and then received my pink slip. Worse, I can only imagine what would have happened had we still been there when the real estate bust started four years later. For a glorious three months, though, I was in a whole new world, and a trip on my second day to the Tallahassee Museum gave me my first exposure to a carnivorous plant in the wild. It was all over after that.

In the meantime, the two of us look back on that last decade and chalk up everything to our long-distance relationship in those three months. I learned how far I could push myself, especially when I moved back. (By the time I hit the Texas border, I figured “Hey, I’ve only been driving ten hours straight. What’s wrong with going on to Dallas and sleeping in my own bed?” The Czarina still hasn’t forgiven me for that one.) In her turn, she learned how to trust herself and her own instincts. We both remain friends with a whole load of people we met during those days, and several were vital in efforts to start up the Triffid Ranch after I started getting the hang of growing carnivores. We definitely aren’t the people we were in 2002, and we absolutely weren’t the people we could have become if I hadn’t taken that job and fallen in love with Florida natural history. As it should be.

With the sudden surprise news that the Perot Museum is opening a month early, we’re thinking very long and hard about celebrating our tenth anniversary the way we started things: looking at the undercarriage of a prehistoric sea turtle. Now it’s time to see what the next decade brings.

Nemesis sighted off the port bow

We all have a nemesis in life. All of us. If we’re lucky, we’ll only meet that nemesis in our final days, when it’s far too late for it to cause any damage. If we’re very lucky, we find a nemesis that can be used against our enemies, or against our friends for comic effect.

I say this because I’ve discovered mine. Her name is Miss Sweetie Poo, and she’s an essential component of the Ig Nobel Prizes, the annual award for scientific endeavours that should not and must not be replicated under any circumstances. The Ig Nobels are to the real Nobels what the Golden Raspberry Awards are to the Oscars, only with more duct tape, more paper airplanes, and less butthurt whining from the organizers of the Saturn Awards about the similarities between their winners. This year’s Ig Nobel ceremony is next week, and as usual, its selections will lead to the absolute best head explodey.

Anyway. As I was saying, Miss Sweetie Poo is my one serious weakness, in the form of a cute 8-year-old girl. That weakness is the fear of conducting a lecture or presentation, or merely showing off plants at a show, and hearing these words, over and over:

See, this is why the Czarina and I don’t have children. It’s also the reason why I won’t let her rent children, either. We have a niece who’s a few years too old for the position, but I’m sure that she’ll be open for suitable compensation to fill in. I’ll make some particularly devastating point during after-dinner conversation, lunge for the kill…and get knocked out of the air like Green Lantern being smacked with a big yellow pillow. (Please note that the Czarina can’t get away with this. Not only does she not have >the right voice to pull it off, but I know where she’s ticklish. Besides, her reputation precedes her, with lots of other people seeing her angry and crying “Not the elbows! Not the elbows!”, and she’s certainly not afraid to use them on me if I get out of line.)

The Aftermath: Discovery Days at the Museum of Nature & Science

Texas Triffid Ranch table

Last weekend’s Discovery Days show at Dallas’s Museum of Nature & Science went off without a hiccup, even with the slightly melancholy vibe running the entire weekend. As of September 16, when the current Planet Shark exhibition closes, so will the Science Museum building, previously known as The Science Place for the last three decades. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent over the last quarter-century in this building (the original Robot Dinosaurs exhibition opened on my 21st birthday), this was a second-to-last opportunity to say goodbye to an old and dear friend.

The welcome sign at Discovery Days

The idea was simple: come out with a sampling of carnivores for exhibition, and answer questions the attending kids had about the plants and how they lived. As with last year’s Discovery Days show, both kids and adults kept me on my toes with thoughtful, sharp, and detailed questions about carnivorous plant physiology and habits. What was new this year was the number of visitors, both from out-of-state and out-of-country, who had great insights. When I wasn’t talking to a Romanian engineer about Transylvanian dinosaurs (and he was absolutely amazed that such a thing existed) and his world-famous countryman Baron Nopsca, I was helping to identify pitcher plants on Luzon in the Philippines. If I was twitching by the end, it was only because of the sheer amount of information that attendees shared, and I only hope that I was able to return the favor.

A small selection from my carnivorous plant library

As I did last year, I brought out a cross-section of reference books on the subject to show examples of plants I didn’t have in my collection at the moment, but it may be time to get an iPad and go electronic. My back still hurts from hauling them out of the car on Sunday evening.

Sarracenia lid and lip

All of the plants were popular, but the big Sarracenia hybrid was the belle of the ball. In fact, a couple of people made precisely that comment. Not only did she draw interest in the first place, but she was ultimately more accessible to understanding basic passive-trap physiology than any other plant there. (In particular, one attendee had a slight freakout when I was demonstrating with a UV light how the lid interiors and lips of the pitcher fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and she literally squeaked “It’s a sonic screwdriver!”) That said, most of the kids liked her cousin…

The provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador

I was regularly asked if I named individual plants, and I was half-tempted to nickname the two Sarracenia purpurea “Red” and “Harold” for the duration of the show. Considering the number of Canadians, not to mention us Canadian anchor babies, out to see the sharks, that may or may not have been prudent. Bringing “Red” out, though, was especially important for one four-year-old with a look in her eye that I knew well from her age: “Don’t you DARE patronize me.” She wanted everything explained to her exactly the way I would have done with her parents, and she asked as many questions as she could about the hairs on the lip and composition of the debris in the bottom of the pitchers with her admittedly slightly limited vocabulary. I hope to run into her again in a few years and see how far she leaves me in the dust in scientific inquiries.

Nepenthes ampullaria

And the other surprise hit? Explaining the number of mutualistic relationships between carnivores and various animals had some kids engrossed, especially when I told them about the relationships between Nepenthes ampullaria and the frog Microhyla nepenthicola. Frogs that nest and breed in pitcher plants? Oh, that shattered a few fragile young minds. (I’ll say the greatest satisfaction came with a group of teenagers who claimed that they were there to watch out for little brothers, and they must have hung out on Saturday afternoon for an hour, asking every question they could. I don’t know if they were too fascinated to pretend to be nonplussed, or if I treated them like adults, but they asked some of the sharpest questions the whole weekend long. And so much for kids today being lazy and stupid, eh?)

As mentioned before, this was the last actual event at the old Museum, but I’ve been assured that the crew wants a carnivorous plant presence at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which opens next year. In the meantime, I’m planning to organize one last outing to the current Museum on September 16, where those of us who remember the two separate museums in Fair Park can come out and have one last look around. For the Czarina and myself, it’ll be particularly important, as we were married under the Protostega in the Texas Giants Hall at the old Museum of Natural History, and this is as close to renewing our vows in the same place as we’re going to get.

Happy birthday to the Czarina

Today is the Czarina’s birthday. Look busy.