Tag Archives: Tallahassee

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.

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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?

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.

Absolute Surefire Steps to Kill Your Venus Flytrap: Step 2

Curious about the context? Check out the introduction.

Some of the content in this series appeared, in much shorter form, in Gothic Beauty magazine.

Step 2: Plant it in your garden.

Running a carnivorous plant nursery means you get a lot of interesting phone calls and E-mail messages. This tends to double after a television or newspaper interview. I gleefully drop everything to help out the kids who call because they need help with recent carnivore purchases, because they were usually given nothing other than the “Really Eats Bugs!” schpiel, and they pay attention. (I’ve even had kids who asked for advice show up at Triffid Ranch shows years later, proudly showing off photos of their latest successes, and I suspect I’ll hear from a couple of Nobel winners in another twenty years.) The same is true for elementary and high school science projects, because I’m always amazed and awed by the originality and innovation of the students coming up with particular experiments. And then there are the, erm, others.

Some are just aggravating, such as the woman who demanded that I find a commercial greenhouse that would store her Boston ferns over the winter without charging her for the privilege. Others are a bit daft, such as the woman who needed map directions so she could come over to “buy carnivorous plant food,” and called me a liar when I pointed out that this is a market that hasn’t been touched by Ralston Purina. Yet. Some are a bit obtuse, such as with the woman whose husband saw a plant on television that “he can’t describe and he doesn’t know the name for it, but he wants to know everything about it.” Some elicit sympathy, such as the administrative assistants whose bosses expressed a vague glimmering of interest in getting a flytrap, and their jobs are on the line if they don’t have a plant on the boss’s desk on Monday morning. (Those actually hurt when they call in the dead of winter, and I have to tell them that my flytraps are all in dormancy.) And then there are the ones that leave me absolutely gobsmacked, such as the demand from one individual who drove all the way out to the Triffid Ranch maildrop and wanted me to reimburse me for his gas and mileage because I wasn’t there to let him “see your plants.”

(As an aside, I love you all. I really do. Unfortunately, I can’t offer tours of the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to liability issues. If you want to see the plants, you’re more than welcome to come out to a scheduled show, but private tours are something that won’t happen for a while. This had to be stamped in stone after the call from the woman who wanted to come out from Tyler to see plants at her convenience, and her convenience was at 2 in the morning. As I said, I get odd calls.)

The most common calls after “I want to see your plants,” though, are a mystery. At least once per month, and at least four or five times per show, I get a request for carnivorous plants. Not one or two or even a dozen, but pallets full of them. Once, this was for a birthday party where Venus flytraps were going to be given away as party favors. Most of the time, though, I heard the same sentence over and over: “I want to plant them in my yard to eat up all the bugs.” One guy wanted to put a solid line of them around his house to keep ants from getting through. Another wanted them to take out the mosquitoes in his neighborhood so they’d stop taste-testing him when he was gardening. All of them, though, seemed to think that putting carnivores in their yards would act as some sort of shield against insects, spiders, scorpions, hermit crabs, and any other member of the phylum Arthropoda that dared attempt to intrude on human territory. Heck, even my sister-in-law wanted to buy a stand of Sarracenia, because she thought they’d helpfully zap every last bug that came near her swimming pool.

I’m still clueless as to where this misapprehension on carnivores and their pest control powers comes from, unless the assumption is that anything that eats bugs is some arthropod Terminator. (I’ve come across the same assumptions with both purple martin and bat house purchases, even though both purple martins and bats go after much larger prey than mosquitoes. When I explain that the best biological control for adult mosquitoes requires a healthy habitat for dragonflies, they start this funny squeaking and chittering in horror.) I used to try to explain that because carnivorous plants can’t get out of their pots and chase prey, they have to attract insects as food, and said insects could very easily veer off and decide that humans or their food is much better. After one such call, where I was told repeatedly “Well, I was a doctor for 37 years, so I think you’re wrong,” now I just smile and nod and refer them to a much less organic pest control system.

This isn’t to say that you can’t use carnivorous plants as biological controls. You just have to look at a smaller scale, and understand that the bugs won’t leave for good unless you remove the factors that attract them. For instance, Peter D’Amato at California Carnivores relates that he’s heard of people using sundews and butterworts as organic flea traps. Set up a hungry sundew in the center of a room, and put a light directly over the sundew. When the room goes dark, the fleas gather at the light, jump at it and miss, and adhere to the sundew’s leaves. It works to feed the plant, sure, but a more conventional flea control is both more cost-effective and easier to maintain. (Likewise, I heartily recommend using lanceleafed and spoonleaf sundews to assist with controlling problems with fruit flies in kitchen areas. Set the sundew in the kitchen sink at night, remove the cover if it’s in a jar or terrarium, and leave it open all night. In the morning, close it up and put it back in its normal locale to photosynthesize, and each fruit fly it captures helps break the fruit fly life cycle. This, though, is in combination with one obvious fruit fly control: cleaning your kitchen so the fruit flies don’t have any reason to come back.)

The biggest issue with the whole “wall of flytraps” pest control method, though, involves planting them in your garden. Unless your garden is a sphagnum moss bog, with extremely acidic soil that’s nearly nutrient-free, a flytrap’s life expectancy in that garden can be measured anywhere from days to hours. Standard garden soil is usually too alkaline, too dry, and too salty for a flytrap to stay alive for more than a couple of agonizing days. Planting them alongside your tomatoes or chrysanthemums, or constructing a bug killer berm for them, is a waste of good flytraps.

To get an idea of what flytraps and most other temperate carnivores need, you don’t need to visit Tallahassee, Florida, but an understanding of its weather and soil is almost as good. Tally is situated on relative lowland, with a soil that’s usually about half sand and half humus. Because of the regular and intense storms, the more mellow of which would set off tornado sirens in Dallas, most of the soluble minerals and salts were washed out over thousands to millions of years. The top layer of most bogs in the area is a thick layer of live sphagnum moss, which secretes acid in an attempt to crowd out competing plants. In addition, what little nitrogen that was in the soil is usually trapped in evergreen needles, which is in a form pine trees can use but precious few other plants can touch. Carnivores bypass all of this by getting their nitrogen and phosphorus from insect prey, so their roots rarely get exposure to either element in large quantities. They’re also susceptible to salts, so with most of the phosphorus and nitrogen in garden soil being in the form of various salts (either in various salts in commercial fertilizers or urea with animal manure), standard garden soil will burn their roots right off before too long.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making a bog garden specifically for carnivores and other acid-loving plants. That bog garden can be constructed inside a container, a large freestanding pool converted to the purpose, or even a specially constructed area that minimizes the effects of soil nutrient runoff from other areas. Just don’t expect it to offer a magical cure for your mosquito problem.

Next: Step 3 – Water it with tap water.