Life, Uplifting

Life, Uplifting

It’s no secret that I’m historically bad at growing plants. I joke that I have a black thumb – so much so, that I have been known to kill silk plants. I used to have good luck with pothos, arrowhead, purple zebrina, spider plants, and asparagus fern – let’s face it, those are harder to kill than silk plants and they made good “starter plants” during the houseplant craze of the 1970s. But I hadn’t really kept plants since the 1970s, and given my luck with the artificial kind (they don’t like having their dusty leaves vacuumed – let’s just leave it at that and never mention it again) I really hadn’t tried.

I Have a Talent for Killing (Plants)

Now, everyone knows pothos. It’s a vine. It is the “ubiquitous office plant” precisely because it requires so little maintenance. It grows incredibly fast. Trim it below the nodes (those look like tiny horns – that’s the roots trying to show themselves) and get them to take root in a styrofoam cup with tap water and cheap paper towels. In fact, I had my office cubicle looking like a jungle of pothos, once, but when I took my cuttings home to plant them in real soil and real sunlight, they were so accustomed to processed food (paper towels, chlorinated tap water, fluorescent lighting, and general abuse) that within 24 hours of sticking them into some good, fresh potting soil, introducing them to natural sunlight, and talking gently to them, they turned brown and died. That’s my kind of plant.

My husband doesn’t understand why I don’t do better at raising cactus. I tell him it’s because I’m neglectful, not mean. This may be why my spicy peppers – if they fruit at all – have so little flavor. Apparently, those thrive on outright abuse.

Let’s NOT Go Play in the Dirt

Ask my dad. “Playing in the dirt” was never something that appealed to me at all. He once went to great lengths to dig a hole, fill it with dirt and water, and make “mud pies” with me when I was little. I think I stuck my hands in, pulled them out, and begged to be allowed to run inside the house and wash them. I don’t recall coming back outside, that day – at least not till he assured me that I never had to make “mud pies” again. I can’t say that my aversion to mud pies has changed, much, although I did make pinch pots out of mud, once, when I had no clay on hand, and that was…no, that was still kind of nasty.

As a kid, I loved to climb trees and run barefoot through the grass. I was less enamored of tending the yard or gardens, and two apple trees taught me there were some jobs not worth doing at any price. I mean, maybe, if anyone had ever sprayed them for bugs. If we had ever enjoyed the fruits of those trees, it might have been worth the dime a bucket to pick up the squishy-slimy, worm-eaten, bug-infested, vinegar-scented droppings of those two prolific trees. But no.

My dad used to chide me for eating the winter pears straight off the tree, warning, “You’ll break a tooth!” but I could scramble up into the branches of those trees and pick the barely-ripe fruits while they were edible. I liked crab apples for the same reason. Tart and tasty! No worms could work their way through those. My grandmother once canned the pears, and they were delicious!

If my husband wants guaranteed dirty looks – and sometimes, it amuses him to do this – he’ll hand me a screwdriver and suggest I go weed something. I’ll meet his eyes with my own steely gaze and offer to drive to ACE Hardware and buy enough Weed-Be-Gone to kill them all. Enough to share with the neighborhood, if needed. Enough to drop from a Cessna and poison us all in our beds while we sleep. Since he’s decided he’s into somewhat organic gardening, he knows a stalemate when he sees one and drops the subject. Once I learned that there where things you could spray on weeds and pest-type bugs to make them die, I was all for “better living through chemistry” and the environment be damned.

I’m kidding about that last part, but I will admit that the best way to make your introverted, book-loving, housecat of a kid hop on a bike and disappear for the better part of the day is to hand them a screwdriver and point at the cracks in the driveway that are sprouting grass and weeds. “Go, feral child – run free! Just be back by dinner time.”

A Shallow Grave (for Plants)

My organic gardener husband noted that I had made a few half-hearted (or half-assed) attempts at growing little pots of kitchen herbs. I even asked him, once, to pick up some purple zebrina for me when he ran out for more heavy-duty yard and garden supplies. And I managed not to kill it. I even remembered how to root the cuttings. Before long, I had a small tabletop jungle. He bought shelves for the kitchen, and I moved the jungle to the shelves, closer to sunlight. There, they have thrived. I have had to prune and repot them all – twice! Here are some “before” and “after” photos from 2018 through 2021:

Spider Plant and Purple Zebrina

The spider plant was returned to the yard after the Great Texas Freeze of 2021. I’ll clip some of the babies once they begin to flourish again, as ground cover.

A few years ago, my husband “upcycled” the base of our daughter’s old basketball hoop and turned it into a small container garden for me. Two problems: it’s very shallow and it’s in a very wet and shady spot. After the recent freeze, I have only two plants that have survived (I’m really just shocked than any did!): oregano and the purple chrysanthemums I planted three or four years ago just to give the thing a spot of color while the other herbs…did not thrive. How these survived – uncovered – through the freeze, I will never know. I’ve even planted mint there – twice. Mint is pretty hard to kill; some might say “impossible to kill.” And yet… I’ve killed it. Twice.

That said, I once planted mint in some railroad-tie flower boxes in front of a rental house and never could get them to take in the two years we lived there. But a friend bought that house, and she said, once, that she’d had a devil of a time getting rid of the mint that had taken over, and finally just gave up and took out the containers, too. Anyone need mint removed?

But the purple chrysanthemums and the oregano vines – those have survived even the Great Texas Freeze and Mass Die-Off, despite my certainty that nothing there would survive even if we covered it. They are not the plants I’d have bet money on, had I been placing bets, but they are hardy little things.

“My point is that life on earth can take care of itself. In the thinking of a human being, a hundred years in a long time. A hundred years ago, we didn’t have cars and airplanes and computers and vaccines…It was a whole different world. But to the earth, a hundred years is *nothing*. A million years is *nothing*. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.”

― Ian Malcolm, in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park

Life, Uplifting, Finds a Way

“People were so naive about plants, Ellie thought. They just chose plants for appearance, as they would choose a picture for the wall. It never occurred to them that plants were actually living things, busily performing all the living functions of respiration, ingestion, excretion, reproduction—and defense.”

Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

Perhaps to encourage my nascent, blossoming, plant-growing, life-preserving talents – or, more likely, to assuage my growing horror with the world and in response to my frequent mutterings of, “I’m not going to ‘off the grid’ or live in a bunker with a bunch of zombie fools, but a little victory garden might be nice” – my husband has built me the ultimate veggie garden. No, this didn’t come in a kit, though with Although he insists that it is “ours” and I will of course feed us both if it produces anything worth eating, I’m pretty sure it’s mine now. I’ll arm-wrestle him for it, if I have to. He built it to my height – just hip level so that I barely have to bend to reach the other side. It’s 7′ by 28″. It has a ledge for a water bottle and troughs for gloves or small tools, and a larger rack, below, for the full-sized rake, hoe, and shovel. This is just before planting:

And this, just after planting and after he added a bit of netting to keep the birds from eating my seeds.

The signs? I made those with “Shrinky Dink”-type plastic and permanent markers. Little works of art, hot-glue gunned to scrap wood cut to order by my ever-patient and incredibly talented husband.

Today, just five and a half days after planting:

Holy cow, wait, what? He’s infused this garden wedge with his green thumb magic, I swear – it can’t be my doing! Even the beets are starting to sprout. I thought they were supposed to take at least ten days. Good soil, a friend assures me, but I’ve used good soil before and nothing like this happened.

They’re hardly out of the woods, yet; a few hot, drying summer days in Houston could end them all, I’m sure. I’ve gently watered them twice a day – just before and after their sun-bath. But if these tender little shoots can think positive, uplifting thoughts as they send their delicate roots deeper into the soil, I can, too. There is something about that that lifts the spirits, isn’t there? I hope I don’t get too attached to these tiny little plants. I can’t even imagine how the 4H kids do it, knowing their pet projects will one day be dinner. Nevertheless, I am so looking forward to fresh produce!

And then, there’s this:

You see that one fragile, delicate stem with its six tiny green leaves? That is a passion flower that I planted from a seed in 2019, in a larger pot with some of my purple zebrina cuttings. It grew tall and spindly, then sort of fell over onto itself and got lost or choked amongst the purple zebrina’s vines. Can you spot it in there?

And yet, here it is. Same plant. It never died. It didn’t exactly thrive, but it poked its head out, once again, and said, “Hey, I’m still here!” so when I repotted the purple zebrina for the second time, I gave this poor little passion flower a home of its own and a spa day in the sunshine.

That’ll either bake it to death or perk it right up. Who knows? Clearly, the answer to that somewhat rhetorical question is: “Not me!”

Domestic Goddess

Just kidding, but while I’m channeling this mad, Suzy-homemaker energy, I figured I might as well make a fresh batch of torshi. We’re finally out, some three years after the last batch. The recipe says it takes something like two hours and fifteen minutes, but I’m guessing that’s only if you have help, chop fast, or make it more than once every two or three years. It took me about four. Hours, that is. Not years. It just feels like years, when you’re standing on a ceramic tile floor, chopping, chopping, chopping, chopping, ohmygodmorechopping

In about six weeks, my feet and hands will have stopped aching and the first jar will be ready to open. On that day, I will declare that it was all “worth it,” until the next time we run out and I am facing a mound of vegetables and herbs to be chopped and diced.

Till then…

I’m going to go soak my aching feet! At least it’s not my feet pushing up daisies…

Happy 1st of NaNoWriMo!

Happy 1st of NaNoWriMo!

A Walk in the Park

November and NaNoWriMo have become as much of a tradition for me as apple cider and ghost stories in October. To kick things off right, I recommitted to my health and fitness goals, last week. I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I took two long walks – 6.5 miles – around my favorite local park, this week. The first time, I was exhausted and in pain. I took three days “off,” and the second time was a breeze. I didn’t even have to stop for rest, and averaged about 18 minutes per mile. The more I exercise, the more I realize I don’t want to derail my efforts with unhealthy eating, though I did pay for that Trick-or-Treat Blast from Sonic on Friday, and will finish paying it off today. Fortunately, the weather is great and a walk in the park isn’t really much of a chore.

Health and well-being should never take a back seat to anything. It seems obvious, but we all tend to forget that. Even the “fitness nuts,” as they pursue their addiction to the gym with grim determination, sometimes forget that a well-lived life is a well-rounded life. I think this is why my favorite exercise is a long walk in the park. “Travel” is (mostly) out of the question, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take little “day trips” and appreciate our usual surroundings. Combining this with “cardio” – power-walking several times around the 1.7 mile path – hardly seems like work. I’m “getting my steps in” while I get lost in my thoughts, listening to music or reveling in silence and birdsong. I can listen intently for the scurrying of tiny feet, stopping suddenly, inches away. It’s comical how squirrels seem to think that if they freeze, staring back with beady little black eyes, we won’t see them.

“Hi, Squirrel.”

His bent tail reminds me of a story my mom used to tell me about her own childhood. She and her brother had a BB gun. They were playing around in the back yard, and she took a turn. Shot a squirrel in the tail. That squirrel haunted her for years – she’d see it running around with its broken tail, glaring at her as if it knew, making her feel guilty. She owned a gun, but never shot at another living creature again. I saw this squirrel in the park, and for half a second, wondered if he had a message to give me.

It’s been years since I last saw a grasshopper, but they seem to be making a comeback. Scroll fast if you’re squeamish about insects, but remember that grasshoppers are vegetarian and don’t bite or sting humans.

Walking in the park, yesterday – Halloween – was fun. Earlier in the week, I ran across this spooky Jack-o-Lantern. A grinning orange pumpkin head, washed up on the muddy banks of a gloomy lake.

Someone should have added a headless scarecrow, just to make the picture complete.

I found some more “hidden” Jack-o-Lanterns there, on Halloween. They seemed happier. Maybe that’s because they were perched atop bales of hay, and seemed to be having a lively, friendly conversation. They didn’t seem to mind my eavesdropping, and taking a selfie with them!

We have an overabundance of Halloween candy. Despite the pandemic, Trick-or-Treating, done with the usual levels of parental hypervigilance, ought to have been safe enough. And so, we set out carefully wrapped bags of factory wrapped treats.

I thought it was a little sad, at first, but as we went outside to gather up the treats, we saw that the street was full, and little costumed children were emerging from cars. “Wait,” I said to my husband, thinking that, although the hour was late, they might want candy. But no – a neighbor was hosting a party. I guess I know who I’ll be avoiding at the mailbox for the next two weeks or so.

No, chocolate is not “NaNoWriMo fuel.” It is a reward for walking 6.5 miles – twice in one week – at the park.

Halloween Acrostic & a Bonus Hidden Message

I think only one person found the “hidden message” and I practically had to lead him to it and point it out. Which is fine, because Mitchell Allen has been writing word puzzles and brain twisting stories for as long as I can remember, so for him to admit that I “got him” with this is serious bragging rights for a day! If you see it, leave it in a comment below (no fair helping, Mitchell!).

Hallowed haunts all children know on Halloween!
A witch’s brew, spooked lemonade — as little happy
People cram their sacks with sweets to eat!
Pretending merry mischief, upon the stoop they creep, to
Yell the chorus, “Trick or treat!” Good
Heavens, it’s a sequined devil! Princess? Something
Airy, like a fairy — Tinkerbell! And me,
Lighting up the entry way, I hear them give
Little squeals, delighted, as shuffling zombie feet
Outside signal their arrival: More of my
Well-mannered ghouls. Autumn’s crisp, clean smell
Evinces all the joys of fall; this, but one treat.
Evening comes to send them scattering home — or
Now, one wonders, were they there at all? Oh, marvelous trick!

The 1st of NaNoWriMo – Kick Off to a Month of Literary Abandon

This will be the first NaNoWriMo in which I have the entire month off work! This is my work. Which means there really are no excuses, this month, doesn’t it?  And since “excuses” include this blog, which does not, itself, count towards the word count, I must be off!

Healthy breakfast: :heavy_check_mark:
Coffee: :heavy_check_mark:
Big tumbler of water close at hand: :heavy_check_mark:

Although the required daily word count to “win” this thing is only 1667, I’m aiming for 2000+, so I can enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday guilt free, without derailing any goals.

Till later, Commentaters.





Riley the Rollerblade Bird

Riley the Rollerblade Bird

I was so stunned, I didn’t even think to take pictures.

We had been on vacation for a week. My daughter had left her Rollerblades on a chair on our back porch; they’d been there for weeks, if not months, and she had outgrown them. I should have simply thrown them out, I suppose. But it is said that everything happens for a reason, and apparently I’d left them there so that a Carolina Wren could build her nest and lay her eggs in one of them.

Unfortunately, she didn’t build a barrier against the downward slope of the skate opening, and one of the eggs had rolled out and lay smashed on the concrete. Another had hatched, only to wriggle out of the safety of the nest and onto the chair. But at the very edge of the opening, a tiny bird still struggled to live. Precariously caught up in the nest, but wriggling towards its doom, this little bird was clearly hungry and thirsty. Mom was nowhere in sight.

The thing wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t cute, adorable, charming, sweet – the only adjectives that came to mind were hideous, pitiful, pathetic, and not long for this world. Where was its mother? Had she given up at the loss of the first two? I went back inside and waited. Now and then, I looked out to see if I could catch a glimpse of her, for surely she’d come back to feed her baby if she was anywhere nearby.

Nearly 24 hours passed. It’s hot here in July. That this little bird survived so long without food and water, that it continued to struggle with such determination, convinced me that I had to do something. But what? What do I know about rescuing a baby bird, particularly one that looks like a preemie? I found a shoebox and lined it with grass and leaves. I put it on a heating pad, set to Low. I carefully lifted the creature, which by now we’d dubbed “Riley the Rollerblade Bird,” and laid it in the box. I could see its heart and stomach and other organs through the translucent skin of its tiny belly. The thing wasn’t even as large as my thumb. What did I think I was doing?

I mashed up some fresh plums and a little distilled water. Probably a bad idea, but it was dehydrated and if it opened its little beak any further, I thought, it would swallow its own head. (I learned later that it’s a miracle I didn’t kill it trying to give it water and fruit; Carolina Wrens need a very special diet containing certain enzymes that only the mother herself, or specially-trained wildlife rescuers, can provide. And one drop of water gone astray would have gone straight into the bird’s lungs, drowning it or paving the way for an upper respiratory infection that would likely kill it.) I bought mealworms from PetsMart, chopped them up as fine as I could, and tried to offer those. The hungry little baby wanted them, but couldn’t quite manage such a mouthful. In desperation, I turned to the Web.

There, I learned about wildlife rescue organizations. Our local organization put me in touch with a wonderful woman who lives nearby and was willing to take Riley in. She had the enzymes and special food he needed, as well as an incubator and medicine. It was touch and go for a while, but under her care, he thrived and grew and eventually was rehabilitated and learned to fly. Then, one day, he left her to join the other Carolina Wrens.

These are some of the pictures taken by Elaine, the woman who rescued Riley. You can see his transformation from tiny, featherless monstrosity to fine young bird in just a matter of days. I can’t find the photo she sent me of Riley outside sunning himself, just before he took off to join the others, but I can tell you that he was a healthy, handsome young bird.

The next year, a small wren took to sleeping in one of the hanging baskets on my porch. Never even bothered to build a nest, just snuggled down into the dirt in the midst of a tangle of ferns. I like to think it was Riley, come home.

I found this lost tale, and the photos, while going through the “archaeological dig” of a home office that’s gone largely unused, in favor or working nearer the coffee pot downstairs. I’ve been clean it out to set up as my writing nook, and 20-year-old photos I once thought were long lost are one of my rewards.

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em!

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em!

My Furred and Feathered Friends

My friend Michael P. is at war with a squirrel he’s named the Dark Lord SquirrelRon. I am somewhat more amused by my own garden squirrels; after all, being an amateur gardener, I view their thieving mischief as high compliments. I caught three of them rolling ecstatically in the damp earth between my peppers, mint, and basil as if they were high. At least they’re not plagiarizing my writing. I suppose real gardeners might find that statement about being flattered by the squirrels as annoying as I do when talented novice writers act all giddy when people steal their writing, or when they, themselves, devalue their work by doing it for free.

On the other hand, I’ve personally gotten more entertainment out of watching the squirrels play and chase each other up and down the live oak next to my garden than I have reaped value in herbs and other foodstuffs harvested from it over the last several years: two mojitos’ worth of mint, two or three dinners seasoned with fresh basil, and a few parsimonious little peppers lacking zing. My tomato plants grow into vine-y trees to rival Jack’s beanstalk, but never yield fruit. My thyme dries up in the Houston heat. The basil is good, but it would be just as good and just as plentiful if I plucked it from stem the minute I brought it home from Ace hardware in its little plastic pot. It’s pretty, though.

The garden is set back against the fence, in a shady spot beside the live oak. The tree drops its leaves and acorns all around, and the squirrels have taken to burying them at the base of my herbs. Which would be fine, but they insist on digging up their treasures every week. Or perhaps they are stealing from one another. I wonder if it’s a game to them.

My friend Lynn Y. sent me an invitation to play one of those stupid Facebook games: Thug Life. So I shot her in the face, burned down her pool party patio, and took all her money without batting an eye. This is what I’ve become, one of the Virtual Gangs of COVID-19. I’m friends with a corrections officer in Louisiana; he plays Thug Life, too. You’d think he got enough of that nonsense on the job, in real life. Apparently he does, because I exploited a glitch in the system, stole all his money every chance I got, and sent him this to taunt him:

Took him three weeks to get revenge. But back to the squirrels…

It’s hot, here in Houston. We came close to hitting 100º, and it’s not even summer, yet. I felt bad for my furred and feathered friends, so I recycled an old aluminum rice cooker, filled it with dirt, added two cups to fill with fresh water, and decorated it with plants and a few small rocks. They love it.

When we replaced our breakfast nook light fixture, I recycled the metal-and-plastic shade by cleaning it thoroughly, giving the metal a coat of RUST-OLEUM, and turning it upside down next to the rice cooker. I added another cup, a few plants, and water.

That poor gnome. He’s seen better days, hasn’t he? Then I hung some bird seed and suet (below, at left), out of the squirrels’ reach, nearby.

Indoor Jungle

Now that I’ve proven I no longer have a black thumb, I’m also letting the houseplants plot a take-over of the kitchen, while I “repurpose” and “recycle” things like old teapots. What kitchen is complete without “succulent” things?

Teeny-Tiny Tree Crabs

I have other friends in the garden. Between the crepe myrtles, nearer the center of the yard. My friend Mitch M. should avert his eyes (this is as close as you’ll get to a “trigger warning” on my blog, by the way – but if anyone’s more arachnophobic than I am, they should probably just scream and run, now).

No, these are not spiders. I have mentally reclassified gasteracantha cancriformis as a “teeny-tiny tree crab that loves crochet as much as I do.” Because, let’s face it: if this were a spider, I’d have to kill it. But since it’s not, I have dubbed myself “Protector of the Spiny Orb Weaver” and insist that my husband gently move its web when he’s working in the yard, so as not to kill my tiny tree crabs while protecting himself from face-planting in their remarkable handiwork.

From what I’ve read of them, they have very short lives. I hope they’re happy in my garden. This year, so far, I have two black and white tree crabs and one orange and black tree crab. Despite what the literature on gasteracantha cancriformis says, I usually don’t spot the orange and black beauty until closer to Halloween. And despite my insistence on calling them all “he” (much the way I used to name all my stuffed animals “Herman” or “Oscar”), these are probably females. The females are larger and spin the pretty, distinctive “doilies on which to dine.” So refined!

Because, you know, if they spun webs, they’d be spiders.

And they might have to die. Unlike Apeksha Rao’s Spyders. I have asked her to take over my blog for the next day or two, so do be sure to read what she has to say, and leave a note – we both love to hear from readers.