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 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.

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.


January 2, 2010

So. My name is David Olson, and this is my blog. I am a public relations senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and closer to 30 than I am to 20 (as of this writing).  Some numbers: I have been married for 3.5 years, I served in the Navy for 5 years, and have been a veteran for 4. I read books in large numbers and watch TV rarely. I enjoy solitude as a pleasure and seclusion as a privilege, so do not expect many posts on popular culture. I have many thoughts and ideas and I will attempt to share them here. Do not expect Genius material from me; the best thought I ever had was to accept I know very little. But I am learning all the time. Join me.