Spring Scene

April 1, 2012

ImageThe aloe are blooming. The small green one in the front is a Crosby’s Prolific. The tall thin blue collection in the back are blue elf aloe. There’s a third, smaller flower stalk in there, if you can see it. That stalk rising to the top of the image is already a foot tall.

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Gardening Update

March 31, 2012

The first pepper of the season! The original first pepper is to the right.

The subtitle to this is “The Cactus Friend“, inspired by the painting by Carl Spitzweg. I want to show off my spreading collection of succulents outside my front door, before presenting my indoor greens.

My interest in gardening began in late March, from two separate flashes of inspiration. The first was a scientific article explaining how keeping a plant on your desk is good for your health. The second was a picture on Twitter from a person I follow, showing off enough houseplants to turn a room into a jungle.  I wanted that, too.

The succulents were an early, easy choice. I live in Arizona; it’s too damn hot and sunny for many plants. I could keep the ferns and ivies and whatever inside, and line up the cacti on the walk. The succulents can take the heat, and the sun, and I have to water them only occasionally. Obviously, I have had better luck with these plants than the indoor ones. My thumb was not green so much as black, when I began.

The factors that led me to bring home this plant and not this one (other than price, of course; I am not made of money): color, shape, size, care level, and name. I like round shapes anyway, so some of these were automatic buys. Others had such unusual or bizarre appearances that I had to bring one home. I am an odd creature myself, and surrounding myself with a freak show of plants is just flattering. I wanted green things, because they should look like plants (and not coral heads or organs, like the brain cactus). And finally, regarding names, anything with a food reference is a strong appeal to me.

So, here they are, and some background info you may or may not find interesting:

My first purchase was a Golden Barrel Cactus. Many of my first cactus finds were at the farmers market, which were cheap and close at hand, but lacking in variety. Just the sort of addition a beginner would make. I bought another Barrel Cactus on the first trip, as well. Same size and round shape, which I like, with some color, a pleasing addition.

Next was this Thimble Cactus, and an aloe vera, both from the farmers market. Now I was adding some variety to my new garden. The last plant I brought home from the farmers market was another little round succulent, a Notocactus.

A few weeks later, the wife took me to Lowe’s, and one stroll through the garden center had me hooked. Here was variety like I hadn’t imagined. How could I have been so dull with my collection? The enormous variety of plants, the colors, the shapes, the names—it was like a boy entering a candy store for the first time. I could have spent hours just eyeballing the different specimens. I wanted to know the names; I wanted to compare the colors. Some came in tiny 1-inch pots; others were gallon-sized. Some were hanging plants, trailing vines or limbs over the rim of the pot. Now that would look nice in the kitchen. Automatically, I began to compare and contrast.

This is when my interest in the names peaked. There’s the string-of-pearls, which looks like a mound of green  jewelry. Another, called Watch Chain, looked just like its namesake. Crown of  Thorns. Hen and Chicks. Hindu Rope. Prayer Plant. Christmas Tree Cactus. Octopus  Plant. I was browsing gardening websites, and laughed out loud at the  Drunkard’s Dream—this stick-shaped plant has stems shaped like whiskey bottles. This was much more fun than long Latin classifications.

So I started bringing some home.

The Crown of Thorns has a dramatic name, and even its own legend detailing how the crown Christ wore on the cross was made of this plant (ouch!). While it was blooming, little red petals appeared at the top of the stems. It reminded me of a mafioso wearing a red flower in the lapel of his pinstripe suit—a little flair on something otherwise tough and spare.

My undying interest in food led me to bring home some oddities: the Jellybean Plant (its candy-shaped leaves turn red under bright sunlight); and a Flapjacks (I like this one for the name; the shape and color of the leaves would never remind me of pancakes otherwise).

The latest addition is a succulent called Key Lime Pie. Sure, it looks more like something out of a Caribbean reef, but the color and shape suggests slices of pie (maybe if you squint hard).

And then there’s the freak show, those lucky finds I wasn’t expecting, or even had a clue such unique plants existed.

First was a Zebra Cactus, then a String-of-Buttons (I think; the only label on the pot was “ASSORTED FOLIAGE” and I haven’t bothered to analyze Latin names), both from Fry’s. This was before I was bowled over by the selection at Lowe’s.

The best I found at Lowe’s, at least as if this writing (because you know I will get more), is the Eve’s Needle, or Eve’s Pin plant. Looking at this specimen, I was reminded of video games I played when I was younger: giant worms rising up from the ground to attack the heroes. The pink blooming flower just adds to the plant’s offbeat appeal.

For something a little less grotesque, there’s the Vera Higgins plant, also called Alpenglow (because the leaves turn red at sunrise and sunset, and the plant grows on mountainsides):

And a Blue Chalk Sticks, another example of a plant with a WYSIWYG name:

Also outside are some more familiar greens. The wife, finding the garden idea agreeable, wanted me to be practical, as well.

On a whim, she bought an upside-down tomato planter at the drugstore. The instructions said the plant will bear fruit in 90 days or so, which should be soon.

I also planted eggplant and cucumber for her, in long planters she bought at Lowe’s. The table I found at Goodwill. You didn’t think I was going to spend some big bucks on new outdoor furniture, did you?

Now that summer has  really begun, and  the daily temperature slowly climbs above 100 degrees, I’m very interested to see how these greens will fare. But that’s for another post. Next up is all the growing things I have indoors.

A thought occurred to me one Saturday morning, and the moment was important enough that I internalized it and still remember how it played out. I was at work, as usual, and made the mistake of going on Facebook. Saw my friends comment and post photos of their latest vacation, party, or whatever they had done with their free time; read their comments on how difficult college was, and various First World problems like fussy smartphones and long lines at the campus Starbucks. And I thought: I am not anything like this.

I am five years older than my classmates. I finished high school when they were 11 years old, usually. I enlisted in the Navy afterward, and served abroad for five years. I worked, I traveled, I got hitched. My experiences and my knowledge put me in a different category from my younger peers. Many of them grew up in Arizona, and already had decade-old cliques when I arrived as a veteran.

My thought: if life is an ocean, then these college kids are reef fish sporting in the shallows, and I am some grotesque thing gliding through the sunless depths. Our motivations are different, as well as our behaviors and ideas. And there is an enormous gulf between. No wonder I never get invited to their parties.

The common fangtooth

I was always an outlier on the graph. When I headed the Society of Professional Journalists student chapter, I was working with students who were 18, 19, 20 years old. I turned 21 when they were in middle school, and that particular birthday, so important for a college junior, is an opaque memory for me.

They mostly lived in Phoenix, in the dorm next to our school. I have an apartment in Tempe, 30 minutes away on the light rail. The leadership experience was a mixed one, and I think my faults stem from not having a greater connection with the members. How to motivate them when I am present only a few hours a day, for two or three days of the week? How to make them care, when I am only an abstract? That gulf got in the way. But other times, working in a more administrative role, behind the scenes, I got things done. I was in my element, those deeper, darker waters. You have to want to descend that deep.

The stonefish

In an odd way, I am proud of it. I make no apologies for being true to myself, even if that means self-imposed seclusion and thought patterns too different for most others to understand (such as comparing myself to a deep-sea fish). Of course, this only applies to my friends from college. I have friends from high school and the Navy, older folks like myself; closer, more meaningful relationships.

I have some friends who are like me, deep-sea thinkers. There’s not many of us, just as those unusual creatures dwelling miles beneath the surface are rare. We’re too weird to belong anywhere else, and too many of us would diminish that. The reef fish don’t want us up in the sunny bays, where life is easy. That place asks for no contemplation. You can’t keep secrets when the water is transparent, and everyone is always there. I’ve tried that, and it wears me out.

The coffinfish

I am an introvert; I am inward-looking. I am no good with crowds. I don’t enjoy huge public events, and big parties sap my energy. I wouldn’t go to the college parties anyway. I wouldn’t belong, because my appearance and being wouldn’t fit.

So, my metaphysical imagery.  Campus was the reef, and the schools of brightly-colored fish were in the hundreds. The underclassmen flocked and gathered, and their movement between the campus buildings was not unlike a crowd of fish zipping past a coral head. Me, I moved alone and silently, something right above the sandy bottom, drifting. When you look over the side, and see that big, inscrutable shadow moving ponderously below the surface: that was me, each day of school. I shifted the waters a little, and moved on to deeper ones. I had no place in the shallows. Sometimes my passing was noted, but memories are short and there is always something new to excite the fish.

So here I stay, down, down, down below where it’s comfortable. There’s no light, so I make my own. That kind of mind is unwelcome up in the bright reefs. Those fish don’t come down; they don’t know how, and the distance is too great anyway. They belong in the reefs, where they can show their colors and socialize. And I belong down in the solitary depths, to be myself and reflect; and occasionally be pulled up to the surface to remind the people there that individuals like me exist, that we live outside their social circles and think in ways that apply only to us. And it will always be like that.

It occurred to me that I have  a blog, and that I haven’t posted anything in a long time. Somehow life went on.

This post will be like digging through your junk drawer in the kitchen. Just saying.

I don’t read enough. I took on the ridiculous goal of finishing Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo by the end of the year, and made it a little over halfway (that’s 700 pages, for the uninformed). I did finish The Portable Abraham Lincoln and half of Herodotus’ The Histories. This is related to my 2011 resolution, which is…

Read more, watch less. I have dozens of unread books on the shelves, some dating to 2006. I intend to read them all. One novel, one nonfiction, one history, one philosophy, one poetry book. A different one each night of the week. Dumas’ doorstop of a book is for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Maybe I can finish by Memorial Day.

Presently I am renting three movies at a time from Netflix. I want TV shows online (I’m a third of the way through the first season of “The X-Files”). My Netflix queue is always hovering near the 500 movie limit. Granted, that’s with nine in the Saved list (I’ve been waiting for Barfly since 2006, by the way). It occurred to me that the watching of movies has gone all wrong on me. My motivation has become simply to watch the movie and get it out of the queue, rather than enjoying it for what it is. So, in 2011, I will rent only one movie at a time. I will read more, on the nights when I have no movies.

I will write more. I will e-publish these spy satires I’ve been working on since 2005 (the first novella is in draft#6). I will write a post about that later.

My New Years Resolution for 2010 was to own less. I gave away 10 percent of my stuff: clothes, CDs, books, movies. I’ve deleted about 10 percent of my Facebook friends, those people I met at events and never saw since, or students I worked on a project with for one semester.

Since I am reading more, and have several hundred new books in my Amazon.com shopping cart, why not give away more books? Here’s the deal: rather than me taking boxes to Goodwill, you can come over and take what you want. A caveat:  you must have read this first, and commented. And you can’t pick a title I haven’t read yet. Everything else is fair game. Knock yourself out.

So. Nineteen movies. Both seasons of Masters of Horror. A collection of translated Japanese and Chinese ghost stories. The Gothic classic The Monk by Matthew Lewis. The “Halloweenie” episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete and my favorite Halloween movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Now what?

My favorite holiday of the autumn has passed, although my saints calendar tells me today is a sort of Halloween afterparty, All Saints Day. In ten days we observe Veterans Day, another favorite for different reasons. But for now, I’m easing up on the horror diet. In fact, the next movies Netflix is shipping are Ratatouille and Iron Man. It’s time to mix and match film genres, and build a powerful repast to match a Thanksgiving dinner table.

Some thoughts:

Matthew Lewis wrote prose and poetry well. His desire to be known as a poet got in the way of his writing, however; poems jam his novel like beach sand in swim shorts. The novel is a perfect example to me of the It Got Worse trope, and it does not end well.

Which is fine with me, because I prefer bittersweet or downer endings. Happy endings are the truest example of fiction, especially fantasy. if I can’t suffer along with the characters, then what is the point? Being happy for strangers is boring.

The MoH series was a long trek with peaks and valleys. Some of the famed directors earned their “Master of Horror” title, others not so much. Some common threads weaving through the episodes: struggling marriages, fathers facing down pure evil, women disrobing frequently, and a lot of people being flayed alive.  I don’t know why that should crop up so much, but it did. As much gross-out as horror in these shows.

Now, Body Horror is all good and well, but I like some variety. An overwhelming sense of dread, an atmosphere of confusion, a vague unexplainable threat; these are fine horror elements. Not to say MoH lacks these, but maybe to say the episodes needed more.

Well, moving on. I’m pages away from finishing my collection of Baudelaire poems. I’m halfway through my collection on Existentialism. I’m two-thirds through my collection of Lincoln’s writings. I’m nowhere near finishing the historical magnum opus that is Herodotus’ The Histories. As a lark, I am going to read The Count of Monte Cristo by December 31. I may have to put Netflix on hold to do that. I won’t have time for fine cinema and literature all at once.

Goodness, I love this season. I already explained why in my previous post, so let’s get to the season highlights.

First, the reading. I plowed through my big Lafcadio Hearn collection, with lots of emotional peaks and valleys. This is a book to be read in portions. The Japanese ghost stories were excellent. What Hearn did, to give you a free history lesson, was collect the tales and translate them for an American audience. He did this with some Chinese ghost stories, also included in this book. Hearn wrote in the late 19th century for a variety of American newspapers before moving to Japan to lecture, and much of his work was flowery at best, purple prose at worst; the editors of this collection chose his best pieces, which still get grandiloquent at moments. But he wrote for his times, so I let it pass. The other stories include features on life in New Orleans and the Caribbean, and have nothing to do with Halloween. I enjoyed the stories nonetheless, both for the subject matter and Hearn’s narrative voice.

Now I’m reading a classic of Gothic fiction, The Monk by Matthew Lewis. Like Hear, Lewis wrote for his time, and at a red-hot pace. The Monk, unlike other Gothic tales, is rooted firmly in the supernatural. There’s vengeful ghosts, the Wandering Jew, and even Satan himself shows up. But, being a writer in the Romantic period, Lewis had to throw in a lot of poems. These are sprinkled throughout the text, showing up as songs or carved into rocks for characters to read. I’m only about a third of the way in, and haven’t gotten to the notorious scenes of rape, incest, torture and murder (funny how this stuff gets a free pass because the work is considered a classic). I’ll give a detailed recap in a later post.

So. Onto the films. First, a big shout-out to Netflix. If you use Netflix, you understand my enthusiasm. I’ve been watching three or four, sometimes five, movies a week, both rented DVDs or viewed online. Here’s the rundown on the rentals:

Survival of the Dead: the latest in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series. I enjoy these films for the mood and atmosphere, and Romero’s social commentary. This one was about blood feuds, I guess, which take priority over the zombie apocalypse. Features a few clever zombie kills, another Romero touch.

Captivity: paint-by-numbers torture porn.  I read the reviews and rented it anyway. Curiosity and the cat, etc, etc, etc.

The Brood: an early David Cronenberg film. Dense, chilly, with some ham served up by David Reed. Also an infamous scene of an external womb and a tongue bath. You will never look at children in snow suits the same way again. I give it a B+.

Kwaidan: a 1960s Japanese horror film. Actually four short works, which show up in the Hearn book (which is why I rented this). A great example of impressive low-budget special effects, huge sets, surrealist images, and a creeping sense of dread. Highly recommended.

Interview with the Vampire: An interesting look at how to make vampires not scary. I liked it for the conflicts and characters. The only true vampire film, featuring the purest interpretation of the vampire myth, is Nosferatu.

The Fog: A John Carpenter movie before he got famous. A good setup for a ghost story, but this one falls flat. Left me feeling empty and wanting, like there should be more coming but nothing does.

Carrie: The original. Veers from the original book, but stands as a solid, separate work of art. Glad I finally got around to seeing it.

The Crazies: The remake. The original, an early George Romero piece, was all about the condemning social commentary. This one goes for a twist on the modern zombie story. Passable.

Sleepaway Camp:  a drop of water in the tidal wave of 1980s slasher flix. Lots of big 80s hair, a cook who likes children a little too much, an episodic plot, and a weak attempt to set up red herrings. Features an infamous twist at the end, which is the best reason to watch this. I knew it was coming, but it  freaked me out anyway.

Re-Animator: this is one of those trashy movies that fits into “So Bad It’s Awesome” for me. Lots of T&A, lots of blood and guts, and of course, Jeffrey Combs. See it if you haven’t, but be prepared to squirm in your seat.

The Hills Have Eyes: The remake. A disappointing experience. Feels like it was written by a computer, like the smooth jazz you hear in elevators. No characters, just ciphers. Victims #1-4 do their thing, Killers #1-4 do theirs. Ninety minutes passes, the necessary deaths occur, and we get an “Or Is it?” ending. Fail.

The Fog: The remake. You know where this is going. The Plot-o-Matic really went into overdrive with this. Selma Blair is in her underwear for a scene, but that can’t make up for this trite, CGI-laced wheel of cheese. I was actually angry at this movie, and a movie really has to be bad for me to feel insulted by the time the credits roll.

I have another 16 titles at the top of my queue. I think I’ll have to continue observing Halloween well into November. Unlike, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas, this is one holiday that never goes stale.

My 45-Day Halloween

September 10, 2010

I love autumn. It’s my favorite time of year. The last three months pack in the most holidays, and my birthday, and with the cooler weather I can enjoy being outside and wearing more formal outfits than Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops. The sun sets earlier, giving me more opportunity to turn down the lights, put on some quiet music, and cozy up with a mug of tea and a book.

But this year, I am arranging things differently. The evening’s entertainment will fit the season, and because I have so much to consume, I’m celebrating Halloween on September 15th and continuing into November for as long as I can take it, until my brain turns into jelly.

Last year was a real freshman effort: I read Penguin Classics’ American Supernatural Tales every night in October, and queued up only horror movies on Netflix. I averaged one, maybe two movies a week.

This year will be different. This year I’m filling up the mental tank with High Octane Nightmare Fuel.

The plan is three movies a week, through the mail; and two–at least two–online. The reading is still mandatory. This year I’m finally getting around to finishing my copy of Lafcadio Hearn stories, purchased in 2007. I have the 1964 Japanese film Ghost Stories (Kwaidan) high up in the Netflix queue (along with 40-odd other titles), based on folk tales Hearn had translated for American audiences in the 1890s. So I’m getting educated as well as frightened.

The movie list is an eclectic one. I added classic titles like Rosemary’s Baby and Them!; some David Cronenberg films; zombie movies; vampire movies; American cheese; and some ghost stories.

For online viewing, I queued up all the episodes of “Masters of Horror” than I haven’t seen, and a bunch of horror movies clocking out at 100 minutes or less (because I get uncomfortable sitting before the computer any longer).

I sprinkled the queue with some feel-good comedies, to act as a mental balm as the weeks go on. By early November I’ll be using Nickelodeon cartoons and one of the finest (and holiday appropriate) episodes of “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” as an extra-strength dose of brain bleach to get me functioning again.

I go into this with some trepidation. I’m guilty as charged of having an overactive imagination, as well as still retaining some childhood fears. While I’ve outgrown my fear of the dark, I’ve learned to be more afraid of what is hiding in the dark. I never sleep with my arm or leg draped over the side of the bed, because I’m afraid something will grab me. Sometimes when I wake up thirsty, and sit up to drink water from the cup on the nightstand, I think to myself, “What if hands reached out from under the bed and grabbed me?” When I get up to use the bathroom, I avoid looking in the mirror because I am afraid of what I will see looking back at me, maybe right in my face or in the room reflected behind me.

But then, that’s what makes this horror so delicious, compared to the mundane horror of everyday existence. It’s easier to deal with vampires and ghosts than the idea of going into poverty, of letting down your loved ones, of losing your spirit as the world grinds you down. The scares I find in entertainment media are easier to take than the scares of the real world. In this different kind of frightening, I’m also escaping.

I won’t be going back to school this month. I don’t have to: I already graduated. Maybe one day when my wallet is fatter I’ll go back for grad school. Staying in school is a fine way to wait out the revival of the economy, but I don’t feel like taking on another four-figure load of debt from student loans. Now I’m in the longest class of all, and I expect to hear good things when I finally stand before the Big Man Upstairs.

I’m keeping busy in the meantime, of course. I don’t have any homework or assigned projects from school, but I do have some self-imposed ones. With classes and internships behind me, I have more free time to write. I put aside one story, something I’ve been writing at a crawling pace all year, for another, longer one, that has been sitting unfinished since the previous summer. I go to the campus library to write in the afternoons, both for the peace and quiet of an upper floor of a library, and because staying home with the air conditioning running all day really swells the electric bill.

I made goals and stipulations. At least five hundred words a day. I try to fill up a page before I check the word counter. Sometimes I write more than two thousand words. Then I feel accomplished. The story is part of a series, and I have pages and pages of notes, and another story already outlined. Soon as this old one is done and put away to cool until revising time, I’m going to start the outlined one. I spend half as much time again on research. I sit in Tempe, Arizona; but I can describe places a thousand miles away after absorbing what I want from the Internet. Google Earth is great for a writer with no travel budget or vacation time soon.

It’s how I define the way I live, aside from the routine acts of just surviving. I have a job, but I’m seeking a career. What I want is to write full-time, but that kind of luck is capricious and fickle, and meanwhile I have bills to pay.

Now that I can put more time and energy into writing, I can get a little introspective. Going for those two thousand words is easier if I just watch the page fill up rather than agonizing over the narration, the dialogue, the characterization. I’m a perfectionist, wanting everything just so, and my writing is no different. I get stuck from nitpicking as often as from writer’s block. But I’ve learned that it’s best just to write it down. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be on the page. That’s what revision is for.

Of course, a journalist can’t take such ease. But a self-imposed deadline, a self-imposed word limit (and in a minimum, not maximum) is a luxury I can partake now. I won’t describe the stories, because they aren’t finished and you probably don’t want to hear it, but I’ll add that I plan to throw them on lulu or some other online publisher by year’s end. Another goal, a more fanciful one, was to print up chapbooks and give them as Christmas presents.

In the meantime, with a part-time job and not a better-paying career, I’ve worked on other disciplines. Last week I altered the cocktail hour routine and switched the wine and liquor for ginger ale and tomato juice. I altered my whole evening routine: less music and movies, more reading. I woke up feeling as fine as I did the night before, but I realized I missed the ritual and ceremony of the violet hour. It’s almost a fetish for me. The wife doesn’t mind (much). She’d rather I stayed home and listened to Dean Martin and made martinis with a particular attention, than go out all night and end up in whatever conceivable trouble.

Of course, I’ve had to reign in the money. I’m more conscious of it now, and I’m checking the bank balance at least once a week. I cut off the frivolous spending, even on little things like books and CDs. I have plenty already. I was eyeballing a seersucker suit, something to define the summer with. I spent the money on AAA membership instead. I ration the liquor on the sideboard, because Lord knows the price of gin and whiskey won’t ever go down. And I bide my time. As for that seersucker suit, I know Joseph A. Bank will another big sale in the future. I don’t need to rush.

Why I Love Books

July 18, 2010

My bookcase is about ten feet tall, with eight shelves. Every shelf is full, and I have more books piled on top of the bookcase and in layers on the bottom shelf. I have more books on my nightstand, a rotating litany of genres, and another row on my desk shelf.

I want more.

I also have a flatscreen TV in the living room, but I only turn it on for the morning news, or for evenings with Netflix or the Cox music channels (classical and jazz especially). I prefer books. I always have. Sometimes I feel guilty about having too many clothes, or liquor bottles, or food in the fridge. I feel like I’ve bought too much, I’ll never get around to using it all.

Not with books. Yes, I have books on the shelf that have sat there for months, even years. I don’t care. I’m taking my time with these books. Sometimes I rearrange them, just for the hell of it. The current system is genre, then by author. I have dozens of classic titles by Penguin and Modern Library. One of the few New Years resolutions I have kept is to read as many classics as I can, for the benefit of my mind.

The classics are arranged by fiction, general nonfiction, history, philosophy, poetry, and religious texts. I have one example of each on my nightstand, and I read from a different book each night. My goal is to eventually read every title on the shelves, author by author (or subject, for I have many compilations).

It is a very private, but rewarding activity. Sometimes I plan my whole evening around it. I set an early bedtime, so I can be showered and between the sheets, with a cup of hot tea beside me, and enjoy an hour or two with my books. My body relaxes, but my mind stays active. All the hassles and gall of the day are pushed aside in favor of something more important to me. It’s better than going to the gym or the club. It’s an experience that will never get old, because every time I do this I learn and feel something new.

And that is why I love books.