After the last two years, the traditional resolutions and promises for the new year come off more as daredevil threats: “My plans for 2022…” is right up there with “There isn’t a pepper too hot for me to eat…” The mere fact that a carnivorous plant gallery can survive the last two years, in Dallas of all places, is amazing enough. Making grandiose plans for expansion or renovation is ignoring the voice in the back room, sounding amazingly like the late Bill Paxton, yelling “I’m telling ya, there’s something moving in here and it ain’t us!”
With Bill placated, though, we can talk about potential plans. As I like to tell people, though, I had plans at the beginning of 2020, and they were all going perfectly when I rolled into Austin for the first show of the year, stopped to get something to eat, and saw the announcement on the television at the back of the bar that SXSW was being cancelled. After that, any plans became moot. “Man plans, God laughs” pretty much sums up the last two years, and we can all hope that it’s just laughter and not laughing and pointing.
Firstly, the big emphasis on 2022 is going to be staying home. That is, now that the gallery and its location are established and city leaders are noting its presence, it’s a matter of utilizing the space more and not using it merely as a headquarters for shows outside the area. This doesn’t mean that outside shows will stop: anything but. It just means that given a choice between announcing an open house and hauling everything out for a five-hour show, the open house now makes so much more sense. 2022 will also see an expansion on the outdoor Porch Sales once the weather stabilizes in spring: those are always a lot of fun, and this understandably eases the minds of those a bit leery about indoor events.
Secondly, shows outside the gallery are going to have to be a bit, erm, larger. Just as the separation of the Triffid Ranch and Caroline Crawford Originals is happening at the gallery one bit at a time, the same is happening with our joint presence at shows and events. That was already happening anyway, what with changes with existing shows and audiences, but 2022 will probably be the last year we’ll be sharing space at Texas Frightmare Weekend. After that, the plan is to move to 10×10 spaces, because the plants are outgrowing (pun intended) the standard two tables at Frightmare, to the point where well-meaning friends admitted that they didn’t stop by because “you were just so crowded.” This applies elsewhere, too: both the Oddities & Curiosities shows and the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays shows have already moved over to 10×10 spaces, and that’s about the only way to have enough plants on hand to make attendees happy. Sadly, that means that the little science fiction and fantasy conventions with which the Triffid Ranch started are no longer an option, but the way those have been changing, it’s for the best for everybody.
Thirdly, 2022 will be a year for telepresence. We just finished a major gallery renovation last year, and now it’s time for another. This time, the renovation is to make video streaming much easier, with the idea of regular events being run exclusively through Twitch and YouTube. The logistics on these are finally getting worked out, and the plan is to start toward the end of January. “I wish I could make an open house, but I live in Antarctica” is no longer an excuse.
Well, enough of that: with a promised thunderstorm followed by severe (for Dallas) cold this weekend, it’s time to batten down the hatches in preparation for the possibility of a white Dallas New Year. Go have fun, tell everyone about the next open house on January 15, and the plants and I will see you then. Go in peace.
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Posted onJune 23, 2021|Comments Off on State of the Gallery: June 2021
And here’s where it gets interesting. Got a few minutes? Well, let’s compare notes.
To start off, as mentioned a little while back, May 2021 was the busiest month for the gallery since the Triffid Ranch first put down roots back in 2015. June already exceeded that, and we still have a week and change to go. It’s been a blowout month for commissions, the Porch Sales have been a hit, and now that outside shows are starting up again, things are getting intense. Last weekend’s Oddities & Curiosities Expo show in Austin not only was the biggest one-day show since this little carnivorous plant gallery started up, but it was the first time nearly EVERYTHING sold at a show since the first trip to Texas Frightmare Weekend in 2009. As I joked with fellow Expo vendors in the same situation, a few more enclosures go home with people, and I’d be able to fly back.
Not that June is over: aside from appointments to schedule commissions, we still have the June 27 Porch Sale to consider, taking advantage of unusually (for North Texas in summer) cool and cloudy weather this coming weekend. I can also assure new and established customers that nearly everything you see will be new, because just about everything sold last weekend and it’s time to restock. After that, it’s a matter of getting ready for the July Carnivorous Plant Weekend on July 3 (4:00 pm to 9:00 pm) and July 4 (10:00 am to 3:00 pm).
Not that everything is smooth: the Thursday evening Twitch installments will have to be delayed for a while in order to work out technical issues with the gallery’s Internet connection. (It’s the same situation at home, but here, I suspect that someone’s porn download habit exceeds everyone else’s total wireless consumption by about 5 to 1, especially in the early hours before dawn,) Once the wonderful folks at AT&T figure out why the wireless connection keeps cutting out every ten seconds during a stream, it’ll be back.
Another issue involves the Day Job, that which guarantees both regular income to keep the gallery going through lean times and job benefits. The schedule is up in the air at the moment, but trips to the East Coast might be necessary through July and August, directly affecting gallery events. Because of this, July and August might be a little quiet, but that should be rectified through the rest of the year, especially when things start cooling off.
As for outside events, the sixth anniversary of the gallery’s opening coincides with the revival of DFW Tap Talks, science lectures in a bar environment, and that first event features your humble gallery owner discussing “Insects: They’ve Got What Plants Crave!” at Rohr & Sons in Fort Worth. Naturally, as they expand events into Dallas, we’ll be trying those, too.
Otherwise, with things reopening again, it’s time to go back to old friends, which is why the Triffid Ranch returns once again to Austin for Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays 7, as if they could keep me away. Since two years have elapsed since the last one, expect a lot of new surprises, and not just because of the improved venue.
And one last bit. I can’t talk about particulars just yet because it hasn’t been hammered down yet, but something big, on a personal level, is coming up in October. Let’s just say that it involves a road trip from 30 years ago, an opportunity to meet old friends and annoy old aggravations, and introduce a whole new crew to the joys of carnivorous plants. Let’s also say that when I got the offer, the last time I used the phrase “I feel like Anton LaVey getting an invitation to the Pope’s bat mitzvah,” this was during my writing days when I received a critic’s preview invitation to see Star Wars: Episode One in 1999. When I can talk about it further, people who knew me back then will boogie ‘til they puke, and those who only know me as a gentle purveyor of carnivorous plants will get to see a whole new world. Details will follow.
Well, enough of that. Time to get get back to editing the photos from the Oddities & Curiosities Expo, of which there are SO MANY. Talk to you soon.
Posted onMay 14, 2020|Comments Off on State of the Gallery: May 2020
The first third of 2020 has been quite the decade, hasn’t it? We should be thankful: it hasn’t gone full Mad Max: Fury Road (or even the Canadian version), and the current federal plan to open up everything was named “Operation Warp Speed” instead of the obvious “Operation Impending Doom 1”. Things are opening up slightly, and so many of us have gone from “hunkering down and waiting for instructions” to “taking care of each other because nobody else will.” Of course, we haven’t hit Memorial Day Weekend yet: as I learned 40 years ago this June, all bets are off when things start to get hot outside.
As for the gallery, both the need to care for plants and the need to reorganize continues, and the last two months led to a lot of cleaning and reorganizing, the likes of which haven’t happened since we first moved in three years ago. The reorganizing of supplies and accessories meant rediscovering all sorts of things buried in odd places, and their rediscovery means being able to use them all up. To that end, expect to see a lot of new enclosures, both originals and commissions (the latest commission is going to be a special surprise, so keep an eye open for updates), if and when things stabilize.
As far as activities at the gallery are concerned, for obvious reasons, the open houses aren’t going to be an option for a while, but the Flash Sales on the gallery front porch continue through the whole month of May. They may continue in the mornings through the summer: everything depends upon the weather, and trying to conduct anything in the afternoon and evening between the middle of June and the beginning of October in North Texas is just folly. In the meantime, they’ll run every Sunday in May from noon to 6:00 pm, always with a mask and a smile for car-side pickup.
Outside events continue to get interesting. As of May 15, the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo is still scheduled for the end of June, but everything depends upon both the city of Dallas and the state of Texas as to whether it gets rescheduled. That already happened with the Austin Oddities & Curiosities Expo: all convention events in Austin have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, so this year’s show was rescheduled for June 2021. The same applies for shows rescheduled for August and September: things may stabilize enough to allow big events to go on, and they may not, and all we can do is wait for word.
Because of that uncertainty, expect a lot of virtual events, especially now that a lot of the initial technical issues with the Twitch TV channel have been rectified. Well, kinda: Twitch still has issues with its tablet app freezing up at the end of a stream and not saving the preceding stream for later viewing, so it was time to join the early 2000s and start a YouTube channel as well. There’s not much there yet, as it just started, but expect a lot of strangeness in the very near future, especially with demonstrations of fluorescence in North American and Asian pitcher plants, as well as fluorescence in blooms you wouldn’t expect. (Most Americans have never seen an aloe bloom, so just wait to see what one looks like to a hawkmoth or hummingbird. It’s high time to crack out the fluorescent mineral lights that were just unearthed during the storeroom cleanup. (It’s also time to give the crew at Glasstire their five-minute virtual tour, so there’s that, too.)
Other than that, the main focus is getting everything ready for something resembling normal operation, and now that the shelter-in-place order over Dallas County has been lifted, the Triffid Ranch reopens by appointment. It’s time to get back to work.
(And before you ask, the cat at the top of the page is Benji, the greenhouse cat. No, I don’t know his real name. No, he isn’t mine: he has a collar and a tag, so he belongs to someone else. All I know is that most mornings, I find him camped out in the greenhouse, and he has a thing about perching on one of the benches and giving me the perfect Japanese cat print smile. I just can’t take a picture of it, because the moment he sees a camera or phone, he demands attention and ruins the shot. He and my cat Alexandria also apparently have a relationship: she has no interest in going outside, but she loves to camp out in the closed garage and talk to him through the garage door. Things could always be worse.)
The end of any year in the Gregorian calendar that ends in a “9” always ends the same: innumerable alcoholic amateurs assuming that they’re channeling the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, massive disappointing clearance sales with clothing stores acknowledging that styles WILL change and soon, and the continuing war between pedants on whether a particular decade ends at the end of the “9” year or the end of the “0” year. Personally, since 1970, which just never rolled over and went away until about 1987, my attitude has been that those “0” years are transition years: the decade that was dies tonight at midnight, but the beast won’t die until the signal travels all the way through its bulk and reaches its tail, and it’ll thrash around for a while in the process. We now have a year to find out what the Twenty-Twenties are going to look and sound like, and we shouldn’t worry about the exact date of death. What matters right now is that as of midnight on January 1, the Twenty-First Century is now one-fifth over, and we should start behaving like it. Want a semantic cause? Start insisting that those still using the term “turn of the century” need to emphasize which one.
There’s no question that 2019 was a year of transition, of what the author Harlan Ellison referred to as “the hour that stretches.” Harlan’s 1988 collection Angry Candy started with an introduction discussing all of the friends, cohorts, heroes, and fellow travelers he’d lost by that point, and how the sudden conga line of mortality directly affected his storytelling. At the time I bought that collection when it came out in hardcover, I was nearly 22, so I had no real grasp of his pain: now, I’m the age he was when Angry Candy was published, and I understand far too well. You may not recognize the names of Jeb Bartlett or Rob Fontenot or Laura Huebner, or of my father-in-law Durwood Crawford, but they made the world just a little more fun and a little more kind, and they’ll always have a spot in the Triffid Ranch pantheon of heroes alongside Adrian Slack and old Harlan himself. (And I have to leave a little room for my late cat Leiber, as his life stretched across nearly a third of mine, and not hearing his happy chirps when I’d look at all of the cat fur in the vacuum cleaner and scream “WHY IS THIS CAT NOT BALD?” has left the house just a little darker and lonelier, no matter how much Alexandria and Simon try to fill the gap.)
As far as accomplishments are concerned, this was a good year because of their sheer number. This was the first year a Triffid Ranch enclosure was entered in a professional art exhibition, and the first year of making more than one trip outside of Dallas to show off enclosures. (Next year will be even more fun, with at least three shows in Austin, one in Houston, and the first-ever show outside of Texas in New Orleans in August.) This was a year for workshops, and a year for presentations, and a year for rapidly changing directions. This was the year, a decade after the first halting Triffid Ranch shows, where I never regretted quitting professional writing less, because those workshops and presentations did more actual good than writing about long-forgotten movies and books ever did. Expect a lot more of those in 2020, too, because the life of a carnivorous plant grower is always intense.
With that year in transition comes a few unpleasant but necessary sidebars. 2020 is going to be a year without Facebook: after a lot of thought about Facebook’s accessibility for friends and customers versus the company’s issues with security, its never-ending throttling of Page access to subscribers unless the Page owner pays for “boosts” (and the ever-decreasing reach of those boosts thanks to ad blockers and the company’s own algorithms), it’s time to leave early so as to avoid the rush. Social media access continues with both Instagram and Twitter (just search for “txtriffidranch”), but the rabbit hole opened every time someone sent a message that lowered Triffid Ranch Page posts if I didn’t respond immediately to yet another discovery of that idiotic Santa Claus Venus flytrap video just takes up too much time. Besides, if you’re wanting news on what’s happening with the gallery, that’s what the newsletter is for.
Anyway, thank you all for sticking around, for coming up and asking questions at presentations and lectures, for buying enclosures so I have room to place new ones, and for coming out to open houses. You’re appreciated, and just wait until you see what’s planned for 2020. The first open house of the year is on January 25: you won’t want to miss this one.
Posted onNovember 29, 2019|Comments Off on Vital notice: Nightmare Weekend Before Christmas Cancelled
Apologies for the relative lack of notice, but due to a death in the family, the Nightmare Weekend Before Christmas open house this weekend is cancelled. We’ll return on December 7. Thank you very much for your understanding at this difficult time.
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When composing and constructing plant enclosures for the Triffid Ranch gallery, a lot of back stories and inside jokes get mixed in. Sometimes, it’s serendipity, with an object with a lot of backstory that just happens to be the perfect inclusion to a new enclosure, and a little voice in the back row says “Let it go, so someone else can appreciate it.” Others are items with so much context that they encourage the construction of the whole arrangement. However, keep an eye open for one particular set of additions, because there’s some sentiment tied to it.
My parents-in-law first moved to their house in the late 1960s, back when Dallas was still just a bit more than a town and long before the oil boom of the 1980s expanded its sprawl in all directions. My wife spent the first days of her life in that house, and grew up not far away from the gallery’s current location. She has all sorts of stories about how the neighborhood changed over the decades, with new people moving in to replace those who moved elsewhere, additions added and removed (she loves telling the story of the neighbors who refused to clean their big sunken pool and thereby deal with the clouds of mosquitoes rising off it every evening, so she introduced bullfrogs that made so much noise that the neighbors took out the pool), walking a succession of Norwegian elkhounds to friends’ houses, and keeping in touch even after moving out on her own. Her story became my own in 2002, including the house hosting our wedding reception. The years went on, with my planting roses I’d grown from cuttings taken from roses planted in front of our own house and neglected. The roses at the original house were cut back too far just before the worst heat wave since 1980: they’re gone, but the cuttings are still in the back yard, throwing off gigantic pink and red blooms to everyone’s delight.
Eventually, though, the story of my in-laws’ time in the house had to end. The house was already too large for them to maintain easily when Caroline and I married, and the tales of my father-in-law installing Christmas lights on the eaves outside went from comedy to incipient terror. Finally, at the end of August, they made the decision to move from the monster house in which they’d resided for a half-century, and moved into a retirement apartment. The house went through the now-inevitable estate sale, and then it went onto the market. We just received word that an offer had been made by a couple that admired it and wanted to keep it as it was and not tear it down for replacement with a McMansion, so we can still drive by from time to time and share our memories. Its actual involvement in our lives, though, is done. As someone who moved a lot both as a kid and as an adult, I had defense mechanisms in place to mourn in my own time, but it’s understandably hit Caroline a lot harder than she thought would happen.
That’s where the Honeymoon Wall comes in. To hear my mother-in-law tell it, her dream with this house was to put a stone wall in the back, a promise she made on her honeymoon. It took a little longer than she planned, and that wall required building an extension declared “the playroom”. The stone came from trips to the Rocky Mountains, ranging from a deep navy igneous rock to a truly stunning light green stone with darker blue veining running through it from all directions. The Honeymoon Wall, once finished, witnessed the family growing, spreading, and reuniting, including our reception, and the chunks of rock that didn’t make the wall were incorporated into edging on a wildflower garden in the center of the back yard. That was the state of affairs until the estate sale was over and the house was vacated for the last time.
Before the house was cleared, all of the extended family was asked about taking everything not needed for the new apartment, and I was asked repeatedly “are you SURE you don’t want anything?” I really didn’t: we had our own furniture and our own keepsakes, but I asked if I could rescue some of the rocks in the back. One included a rather large petrified log found in the Brazos River decades before, and the rest of them were extra Honeymoon Wall pieces. A bit of experimentation revealed that they polished up in a rock tumbler quite nicely: they weren’t gem quality, but the blue stone was mistaken for sodalite, and the green was different enough that it caught almost everyone’s eye.
Now, a month after the estate sale, the experiment goes to its next stage. The idea is to add pieces of those Honeymoon Wall extras, big and small, to new enclosures, starting with “Hoodoo” from October. Those who know the story will recognize and appreciate the bits of Honeymoon Wall as they encounter them, and I hope to be in the business of constructing carnivorous plant enclosures long enough that customers specifically look for the tumbled stones. For everyone else, though, it’s all about the hidden context: they won’t know that the stone in their enclosures had its origins in a wish nearly seventy years old, but I will, and knowing that bits of that wish are spread across the continent is good enough. Selah.
Everyone who has ever worked a day job for a while has stories about the coworkers who made it either a little easier or completely intolerable. Back when the Triffid Ranch was still just a vague plan for the future, I worked in a call center for a company that processed electronic payments for utility companies, and our mutual experiences with the company’s customers make me very protective and supportive of my former coworkers to this day. On the other, a recent position came with a coworker so aggressively stupid, so willing to spout whatever racist and just plain ignorant commentary came into the pencil eraser that was the closest thing to a brain he had, that I still refer to his Big Thinks as “vowel movements.” Some of the former make enough of an impression that they’re invited to parties and family events long after parting ways, and some of the latter make one avoid certain locales and events so as never to run into them again. Only a few, a very few, qualify as true inspirations, where you can say your life went in a drastically different and better direction because of their presence, and these are people for whom you try your best to return the favor. And so starts the story of 12 years of Larry Carey.
Larry really doesn’t need much of an introduction in Dallas, being well-known both in the gallery community and in band and club publicity with his hyperdetailed posters and flyers, but we’d never made an acquaintance. Larry and I might have bumped into each other in any number of venues and events in the Dallas area, but we probably wouldn’t have, so a mutual work environment was the perfect place to shove us together. I first encountered him in a job interview for a company that’s now just a tiny block in a multinational organization chart, where he asked for a non-technical writing sample and I gave him a copy of an essay I wrote years before on using the human colonization of New Zealand as a guide for the biological colonization of Mars. That wasn’t the only reason he became my new boss, but it definitely helped, and the peripheral knowledge we shared, both with us and with anyone else willing to join in, was a perk that eclipsed free popcorn and foosball tables.
In an industry where most software and hardware engineers are so busy studying for the test that they’re honestly offended at the idea of learning something that doesn’t directly apply to a promotion or raise (the both of us have spent most of our lives being asked “WHY do you know this?”), and in private endeavors that encouraged tight specialization in art or music knowledge but an aversion to science or history, our coffee-break discussions rapidly spiraled through wide vistas of seemingly unrelated information. Even better, we usually complemented the other’s information in strange and disturbing ways: thanks to him, I’m still the first gardening writer to namedrop Papa Doc Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. (For the record, the plant was Datura stramonium, the angel trumpet, and that discussion over the space of two weeks turned up both D. stramonium‘s history with the Bacon’s Rebellion insurrection in the Jamestown colony in Virginia and a lot of really good reasons as to why anyone seeking a cheap high by ingesting or smoking Datura is in for a world of despair and horror. We even came across a thoroughly horrible story involving gardeners who grafted Datura roots onto tomato plants for improved disease resistance, and where the gardeners didn’t realize they left just enough Datura stem above ground until they made tomato sandwiches with the first tomatoes of the year and went straight to the ER.) And then the subject would veer toward his specialty, quantum theory, and we’d be off for another mathematical or natural history adventure. The physical and chemical properties of lunar soil simulant, the implausibility of terrestrial life utilizing arsenates instead of phosphates in a DNA molecule, the physiological mechanisms behind dream sleep, Bell’s Theorem and quantum foam…this went on for YEARS.
One of the interesting sidenotes later became a priority, when Larry started discussing art and art theory. Most people working in tech with artistic endeavors on the side usually keep them very quiet: the general response by managers to discovering an employee with a sidegig in writing or painting is usually an assumption that the employee will be leaving “once you hit it big.” Interviews are bad enough: I had one hiring manager with delusions of journalism look at my writing background at the time and assume that I’d leave “as soon as you find your perfect job,” even though I stated I’d have to take a massive pay cut to do so. (And then there was the interview where the head software developer piped up that the company didn’t need a technical writer because he was an accomplished writer specializing in Star Trek fanfiction featuring the erotic exploits of Wesley Crusher and Worf. It shouldn’t be a surprise that not only did he get the job, but that the company went under about six months later.) After about three or four months, Larry felt comfortable enough to show me some of his latest work after a long discussion on the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. As someone already familiar with a long run of surrealist comics artists ranging from Jack Kirby through Matt Howarth to Mary Fleener, saying that Larry’s distinctive frameworks, which he referred to as “mandalas,” sank right into the right receptors in my braincells was a decided understatement.
Long story short, the next seven and a half years were a crash course on the limits of my knowledge and how much more I needed to learn, and Larry was in the same situation. When it came to art, I was tabula rasa, and he gave me plenty of recommendations on artists and movements that had influenced him. That led me to looking for new resources for inspiration, dragging in new discoveries from the local Half Price Books stores to make sure he hadn’t already seen them, and then taking his recommendations to look for more. he knew very little about the back history on natural history and palaeontology art, so introducing him to Charles R. Knight, John Sibbick, and Marianne Collins led to a whole new explosion of paintings and prints. He started experimenting in color, leading up to the now-famous Triffid Ranch poster, which he presented to me in 2012. (He refused to take any payment for that poster, which is why all sales of shirts and posters go right back to him. “Pay the writer” is important, but so is “pay the artist.”) Both he and the company inspired me in turn: one of the advantages to working in a company specializing in hardware is a surfeit in odd discarded accessories and packing materials, and many of the early Triffid Ranch enclosures incorporated hoarded packaging elements such as the ultradense foam shipping cases for touch screens. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Larry and his inspiration, the current gallery wouldn’t exist, and those foam panels and blister packs were vital during the gallery’s earliest days for enclosure construction. And then there were the original mandalas Larry gave me for birthdays: the hallway leading to my office is referred to as “the Larry Carey Exhibition Hall.”
Eventually, though, the party had to end, and the conversations couldn’t make up for what was increasingly a toxic work environment. The company already had a reputation for, erm, interesting selections for employees, such as the predecessor who thought that coming to the Halloween family party in a gimp suit was acceptable. However, steady attrition and annual October layoffs eventually produced a supersaturated soup of psychosis. Coming into the break room to find an engineer curled up in a little ball on the counter, eyes scrunched shut in rage, because “I’m angry at my government” makes jobhunting much more of a priority, especially when people started taking bets on which coworker would be the first to come into the office with a shotgun “because God said Baby Jesus needs more blood.” The next job was in some ways even more perilous, but that put me in the perfect place for the position that allowed me to lease, stock, and open the first gallery three years ago.
And so that leads us to today. Larry and I tried to stay in touch, but schedules and workloads conspired, and he dropped off social media in order to focus on day job work and art. I finally managed to catch up with him last week, and oh boy did the news get interesting. Our old company went through a succession of buyouts, ending with pretty much everyone getting laid off, and Larry found himself with a new company in Eugene, Oregon. Even better, I’d caught him just a week before he and his wife packed up everything and moved there permanently. Oregon didn’t do much for me when I lived there two decades ago, but I respect the decisions of friends who stay, and it’s apparently exactly what Larry has needed for years. More interesting coworkers on the day job, a local community that encourages art, plenty of time to read and paint…yeah, I’m not the only one wondering what he’s going to accomplish once he’s established. Seeing what three months living in Tallahassee did for me a third of my life ago, I understand far too well.
After all this, a toast to Larry, and nothing but honest wishes for a long and lively arts career. I’m proud to call you a friend after all this time, I was honored to have you as a boss, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
One. Thirty years ago, I purchased an anthology written by one of my favorite authors at the time. The author was Harlan Ellison, the volume was Angry Candy, and the theme was death. Specifically, Ellison was 54 when I purchased my copy, and every story had been conceived and finished at a time when it seemed as if all of his friends and cohorts were dying. To look at the timeline he included with his introduction, he wasn’t kidding: childhood heroes, contemporaries, students…it was a horrendous chronicle of funerals and eulogies, and they seemed to concentrate within the previous three to four years. Three decades later, I understood the logic behind that pattern: when you’ve lived long enough to have a large assemblage of friends and acquaintances, you run into a convergence of demographics, mortality statistics, and confirmation bias that really appears to be an active effort to kill off everyone you know.
Again, it took me three decades to understand the feeling, especially after losing several people I knew and admired at the time I was reading Angry Candy. Harlan’s death this year just added to the sensation of feeling big chunks of your old life peeling off like old scabs, with twinges of pain and interesting new scars. One of the big messages the scars leave is that once you get to a certain age, if you’ve made an active effort to go in a different direction, you can look back and mark the exact year and month that your life diverges from Before to After. A lot of people never do: these are the people on Facebook desperately nagging about high school class reunions and how “you really need to be
there, because you’ll regret not getting back in touch.”
Two. For the most part, I love living in the future. The thought of going back to where things were in 1998 or 1988 (much less 1978) brings on waves of nausea instead of nostalgia. Every once in a while, though, reviving a nearly-dead concept has its merits. In the case of the eternal Port-o-John fire that is Facebook, it works less and less at what it was originally intended to do: stay in touch. Between the ever-changing algorithms determining what users may and may not see, the ever-increasing push for businesses to pay for willing subscribers to see posts (and then watching as those posts are buried in the main timeline under idiot memes and political diatribes), and Facebook’s lackadaisical attitude toward personal privacy, it’s once again time to back off and consider the brevity and efficiency of email newsletters. The reader opts in, the writer provides regular updates, and no interruption from that grade school classmate who sees messages to and from the reptile men from Arcturus in contrail patterns.
The phenomena converge:
About a decade ago, a big scab came free when I sold off the majority of my writing library on eBay. This was a matter of getting rid of reference materials, review copies (you’d be amazed at how many critics will hang onto advance reading copies of books because of that one neckbeard who claimed “you never actually read it!”, just to recite line and verse as to passages that justified a particular review), magazines containing published articles, and the innumerable books read, or that should be read, while building a voice. The vast majority went out early, only to discover that particular books are only valuable if someone is willing to pay the price, and that there’s a huge disconnect in perceived value between a book that can stay on a shelf or in a bookseller’s transport box until it finds a buyer, and a book that has to move within a week in an online auction.
In a subsequent evaluation of current library needs, though, I came across a cross-section of Harlan Ellison collections that escaped the original slaughter. It already was time to find them new homes, as I already know the stories by heart, and rereading them just doesn’t work when too much new reading keeps intruding. This came at a time when younger friends complained about the unavailability of much of Ellison’s work, both between earlier books being out of print and later books being snapped up from used bookstores and hoarded until the inevitable estate sale. That gave me an idea directly involving a much-needed relaunch of the Texas Triffid Ranch newsletter, and one where everyone wins.
In essence, here’s the deal. I’m looking for subscribers, and I have a big pile of Harlan Ellison books that need new homes. For the next nine weeks, this is the scenario that runs every week:
Numero Uno: Subscribe to the Texas Triffid Ranch email newsletter. It’s free, it’s going to come out once per month or so, you can unsubscribe at any time, and none of your personal information will be shared with ANYONE. (That’s why I’m putting out word about the subscriptions here. As easy as it would be to sign up friends and acquaintances, I refuse to do so without their permission and prior knowledge.)
Numero Two-O: Every Sunday starting on August 12, five lucky subscribers will be picked from the general subscriber pool, contacted for a mailing address, and given a randomly selected book from the pile. Said book will come with various magazines, flyers, stickers, and other cultural detritus to be determined, and the recipient gets it all delivered for free. This will run every week while supplies last. (Incidentally, signing up early means a better chance of winning at the beginning of the giveaway, so jump in now while you have the chance.) This applies worldwide, so anyone reading this from Antarctica is in for a serious surprise.
Number Three-O: You get a new (to you) book, including the possibility of rare volumes, I get more bookshelf space, and everyone wins.
Now, as to what is involved, the photos list most of it, but I’d like to point out a few extras. Among others is an autographed copy of one of Ellison’s early novels, Spider Kiss, when it was first published under the title “Rockabilly!” There’s also a copy of Six Science Fiction Plays edited by Roger Elwood, containing what was the only publication of Ellison’s original screenplay for the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” for twenty years. Likewise, the paperback edition of Wandering Stars contains Ellison’s classic short story “I’m Looking For Kadak,” still one of my favorite stories. While Ellison’s recounting of the nightmare of being the story editor for the Canadian television series The Starlost is well-known, Ben Bova’s The Starcrossed was a barely fictionalized comedy about his involvement as the science advisor for The Starlost, with Ellison slightly fictionalized as “Ron Gabriel” and included on the front cover. A rare copy of From the Land of Fear contains what may be the cigarette ad that inspired his essay “Driving In the Spikes” on personal revenge. (For those unfamiliar with the situation, the ad was a violation of Ellison’s contract with the publisher, and when the publisher ignored the contract, things culminated with Ellison mailing the publishing company’s comptroller a dead gopher, sent Fourth Class Mail.) This includes several copies of The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, including the first printing of The Other Glass Teat published only after Spiro Agnew left the White House. (And that was a story in itself.) Finally, the collection includes a limited-edition slipcased hardcover of A Lit Fuse, the Ellison biography published two years ago. What’s not to like about this?
So again, subscribe and get free stuff. Better, feel free to let friends and cohorts know, so they can get free stuff as well. Best of all, if I really hate you, if I really, really loathe you and want you to suffer, you could get the booby prize: one of two volumes from a notorious fourth-rate Harlan Ellison impersonator from the 1990s. If that doesn’t clean out your lower GI tract all at once, I don’t know what will.
Posted onJune 29, 2018|Comments Off on Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)
A lot of people already have their eulogies and anti-eulogies in print and online right now, so I’ll just add a small sheaf of commentary to Harlan Ellison‘s funeral pyre. During my writing days, he was a friend and inspiration, but his greatest influence came after I’d quit pro writing. Ellison had a reputation for taking one piece of artwork and writing whole stories based upon that piece, sometimes in bookstore windows where people could watch him work. My whole purpose with the gallery, and pretty much everything I did with the plants before that, was to create something with enough mystery and enough wonder that he’d take a look and want to fill in the rest of the tale. That’s why, when people want to know the stories behind the enclosures at the gallery, I ask “What story do you want there to be?” And so it goes.
(Incidentally, the photo above comes to us from 1999, when Harlan and I were both guests at Readercon, a literary science fiction convention in Massachusetts. He turned 65 that year, and people much closer to him than I knew how he credited reading Golden Age Green Lantern comics for part of his fascination with the fantastic. Hence, with the help of several people, Harlan had his very own Alan Scott ring. It won’t make any sense to anyone not familiar with DC comics, but after posing with this ring, he looked at the GL ring my ex-wife had commissioned a few years before, grabbed my hand, and pulled the ring to his wife Susan, yelling “Look! He’s got a Hal Jordan ring!” When I explained “Well, more Guy Gardner,” he sat back and scoffed “Oh, of COURSE.” I miss precious little of my writing days, but I don’t regret the circumstances of that conversation, ever.)
(Note: with the 2018 Triffid Ranch show season getting ready to start, a lot of bystanders and longtime customers interested in starting their own small businesses ask for advice and recommendations about attending and selling at shows. While asking me for business advice is comparable to asking Jeffrey Dahmer for tips on vegan recipes, these ruminations might be of some entertainment value, especially among those thinking about jumping into the show circuit.)
As of this coming May, the Texas Triffid Ranch celebrates ten years since it went live, and nothing over the intervening decade was as good a teacher as doing lots and lots of shows in various venues. It originally started with comic and science fiction conventions, and moved over to various craft fairs and art shows for years before everything moved to the first gallery in 2015. Lots of little shows helped nail down what works and what doesn’t: the items that clear out within the first ten minutes and the ones that don’t move at all, the displays and support gear that knocked everyone’s socks off and the ones that really needed to be thrown in the trash before the show. A book on camping that I owned when I was a kid recommended that beginning backpackers should make lots of local trips, then deliberate as to what they should bring with them after they get back. The phrase “every ounce that you didn’t need feels like a pound when you’re on the trail” applies equally well to everything that needs to be loaded and unloaded at a show location, especially if you’re the only one doing the heavy lifting and you can’t get your cart close enough to where it all has to go. The experiences and occasional scars lead to sometimes great after-show stories (I have friends at Texas Frightmare Weekend who still call me “Sparky” after my truck was struck by lightning before one show), but they also explain the occasional winces when someone asks “So, have you considered vending at (fill in the blank) show?”
It’s a very valid question, and one that’s asked all of the time. Sometimes it’s asked by bystanders who don’t want to purchase something right then who hope to snag it at the next show. Sometimes it’s asked by someone who came across a mention of a new event seeking vendors to fill a dealer’s room, or a pop-up show looking for something different. Many times, it’s asked by customers far enough away from Dallas that they’d be willing to travel to a halfway point, and other times by those who’d just love to see the plants in their own home towns. It’s the next question after answering “No,” “Why?”, that’s the entertaining one.
The reason for the entertainment is because no one answer applies, and each vendor answers it differently. Sometimes it’s because the show has bad timing with other events, sometimes it’s due to logistics such as access to transport or parking, and sometimes it’s because the vendor had such a horrible experience at a previous show that bankruptcy and homelessness are preferable to setting up another booth at the next one. A lot of times, though, it’s purely a matter of economics: unless a vendor is in his/her business solely as charity, the basic idea of being a vendor at a show or event is to try to make more money by the end of a show than what the vendor started with at the beginning. Even if the vendor IS a charity, the idea is to get more of a return, either by reaching more people or more unquantifiable reasons, than the vendor would get by staying home and slamming his/her head in a car door. Figuring out which shows and events are amenable to these needs and which ones don’t have any compatibility is a skill that has to be learned, usually from years of experience.
To start, let’s define why a vendor wants to go to a particular show, and vice versa. The motivations for the vendor were just mentioned, so let’s take a look at the venue. Some shows are nothing more than markets: the organizers rent or otherwise utilize an otherwise unused space, indoors and/or outdoors, and rent individual spaces to the vendors and anybody else willing to put down the money. These may or may not charge an entry fee to attendees who want to come in and look around. Some are tied to a charity or other nonprofit organization, where in addition to charging for vendor booths, vendors may be asked to give a percentage of their final sales. Others offer vendor spaces as a way to pay for other programming: a great example is with literary conventions, where fees for vendor spaces help pay for spaces for author readings, signings, and other activities. A real cynic would bring up the shows that are intended as private parties for the organization staff, where the only reason anyone else is allowed entry is to pay for the beer, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
While we’re at it, it’s time to bring up something that should be absolutely clear: the reasons for attendees to go to an event aren’t the same as for vendors, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Without fail, when anyone asks a vendor about setting up a booth at a show that didn’t work out that well, an explanation of the why gets at least one utterly enraged person whining “Well, I liked it!”, as if that neutralizes any of the vendor’s issues. It’s GREAT that you had the time of your life at a show, that you encountered the experience or the person that completely changed your world, or even that you found someone willing to take your extensive 35-year collection of Chuck E. Cheese game tokens. You’re coming in for an experience to take you away from daily concerns: for us, it’s work. (This is why most vendors will gracefully bow out of going to parties or any activity other than a medically induced coma after shutting down for the night. We’ve all been “on” all day or night, and while we love you all, all most of us want to do is sit someplace quiet with a drink of choice in hand and an hour or so of down time before going to bed.)
Let’s start with a breakdown of costs, to help explain which events make sense and which ones don’t. Above everything else is the basic fee for setting up at an event or convention, the shorthand for which is “Booth”. The Euclidean ideal of Booth is a space, usually 10 feet by 10 feet (the average floor area of a show tent) in which a vendor can put up tables, shelves, displays, and everything else needed with which to conduct business, and everything else is incidental. Many shows include a table and two chairs as part of Booth, some include electricity or wifi access, and others charge fees for everything other than the floor space. The prices are also wildly variable, depending upon the venue, any support required to set up, and the intended audience. Some shows offer discounted rates for educators or artists, but also segregate the discount spaces from the main vendor area and refer to the space as “Artist’s Alley.” Either way, if you hear a vendor bragging about how “I made Booth about an hour after we opened,” that means the vendor sold enough in an hour to cover the cost of the space and everything provided as part of the booth fee. As a general rule, the booth fee has to be paid long before the vendor can set up, and walking in and telling the management “I’ll pay you with the money I make at the show” usually gets a response of roaring laughter or short gestures with a taser.
Sidenote: To make sure that the vendors at a festival or show offer products that match the theme or tone, those events may need to prescreen applicants before allowing them in. Since this requires a staff to go through applications and determine who fits the show theme and who is showing up with a big crate of flea market vacuum cleaners (and don’t laugh: I’ve seen it) before any ill will starts between vendors, expenses have to be covered. Smaller shows roll those expenditures into the booth fee, but larger ones that have to sift through thousands of applicants may charge an application fee. More often than not, that fee is nonrefundable, but it’s also a small fraction of the price of a booth. If the application and fee go in and the jury decides that your booth is essential, then and only then does an invoice for payment go out. This is why having a separate bank account for business makes sense: keeping booth and application fees in the business account means that the fee money isn’t grabbed by accident to pay personal expenditures, and show management really like the vendors who can pay for their spaces nearly immediately instead of after multiple reminders.
Sidenote two: As with application fees, some fees and donations are completely acceptable in the business, but might be a dealbreaker for some vendors. For instance, many shows run by nonprofits may request a donation of an individual item or service for a raffle or auction, or a percentage of total sales over a day or weekend, with the proceeds going to the show. Just make sure that the event has clear wording on whether unsold donations are kept or given back to the vendor: a big first-time show of my acquaintance last year decided to host an art show full of solicited artworks, where the organizers assumed, “because that’s how it’s always been done,” that they kept all unsold artwork for themselves. One show of my acquaintance has a non-refundable “preference fee,” where paying the fee encourages the vendor’s room organizers to give preference for particular locations, but it’s not a guarantee. Likewise, although this has only happened to me once, any mention of an additional deposit to be refunded at the end of the show is a big screaming red sign warning “the only way we can keep vendors from packing up early and leaving on Friday evening is by holding their deposits hostage, because that’s the only money they’ll be getting the whole weekend.” If a proviso in an event sounds suspicious or otherwise dubious, such as one show that not only charged for booth space but required a $1 million insurance policy against possible damages (and the number isn’t a typo), bail if you feel uncomfortable making the expenditure.
Now we get into incidental expenditures, which are only incidental compared to booth fees. Unless you live literally next door to the venue, you’ll need some sort of transport to get inventory and displays to the venue location. Starting out, a car may work, but rapidly a larger vehicle becomes essential, and it’s completely your choice as to whether you buy it or rent it. Renting a van or truck makes more sense if you have fewer big shows in a year, but the convenience of not having to worry about depreciation and maintenance is offset in being charged by the mile and/or the day and whether the day of your show coincides with every apartment dweller in your neighborhood needing to move. (Very seriously, should you go for rental vehicles, reserve your chosen vehicle early, and always budget about three times as much time as you think you’ll need for setup and teardown.) Do you have a cart or dolly to haul heavy stuff to the booth location, or will everything you plan to sell fit into containers you can haul yourself? An equally important question: do you have someone who loves you enough to help you set up and break down without thought of compensation, or will you have to pay for assistance, both in compensation and in event passes? If the venue doesn’t include electricity or wifi access as part of Booth, these are usually covered as separate charges, and their use depends upon how badly you need lights or video displays. (With a lot of hotels, the electrical fees can be almost as high as the booth fee, and a disturbing number of hotels still charge for wifi as if it’s still the 20th Century. You laugh, but being stuck in a hotel banquet room where the manager has an illegal jammer for hotspots and charges $75 per day for slow and spotty access is something that still happens.) Local shows mean being able to sleep in your own bed and bring your own lunch, so consider hotel and food costs if you’re doing one out of town. And with outdoor events, you’d best have some kind of tent or other shelter, and tents of a suitable size can be expensive. Add all of this up with the booth fee, and this gives you the absolute bare minimum you need to make in sales before you break even.
Since we’ve covered costs, let’s look at time. Assuming that you’re a small vendor who still has to work a day job to pay bills, a remotely busy show schedule burns through accumulated vacation and personal time before you know it, and every unpaid day spent at a show means a bigger chunk of disposable income gone if the show is slow. Don’t measure time just on days, either: there are the hours spent getting to and from the location, the hours unloading and setting up, the minutes spent trying to locate something that you SWORE you packed up before you left, the seconds of life left to the person trying to encourage you to take a chance on another show by shoving aside a customer just about ready to buy…it all adds up. Does the event location allow you to have a reasonably leisurely setup, or do you have to get everything in and at the booth within a half-hour or so? Is the loading ramp on the other side of the building from the booth location, and will you have to pass through crowds to get to it? If the event is outside, will you have paved spaces over which you can haul your stuff, or is the main area a combination of grass and mud? If you need a tent for an outdoor show, how much time do you need for tent setup and securing before the event starts, and can you drive your vehicle directly to the spot or will you have to haul tent and all across pavement or mud? And when breaking down at the end of a show, is that on a tight timeline, or will yours be laborious enough that letting the quick packers leave first makes more sense? This may sound pedantic, but a show that runs late on a Sunday and requires an extra four hours to get home and unpack might require taking Monday off as well to recuperate, and you have to decide if that’s worth the return.
Another aspect of time: how can that time be best used? Because of the rather limited belts of clement weather in Dallas before and after summer, a lot of unrelated events get scheduled for the same weekends, and determining which ones are worth choosing is usually gained from experience. For instance, let’s start with the assumption that Event A is a three-day event while Event B is a one-day event. On its face, a longer duration suggests that Event A might draw more attendees, but then consider that Event A is a three-hour drive away while Event B is literally down the road. Alternately, Event A very peripherally connects to your inventory and what your company is about, while Company B is loaded with exactly the sort of potential customers you’ve dreamt about your entire life. And then there are the other factors, such as your inventory being perishable or living: can you risk being caught in a traffic jam in the middle of summer heat and an inadequate truck air conditioner? Do you need special permits to bring your inventory across state lines? Or, and there’s no delicate way of putting it, does the event have any indications that it’s overinflating the number of projected attendees, or that it’s going to have huge numbers but attendees who come out with one shirt and one $5 bill and don’t change either for the entire weekend?
Finally, the last big factor that every vendor should consider is experience. Every year, any number of organizations decide to start a big event and solicit vendors and attendees, and some of these events may turn out to be blowout extravaganzas sung about in myth and legend. Others fall flat on their faces due to poor organization or sometimes just bad timing. Even the successful ones may not get a second year due to logistical issues or an inability to find a suitable venue. Since blowout and dud shows can be indistinguishable a week before opening, experienced vendors tend to be leery of first-year events, and are much more likely to pay for booth space the next year, after they’ve compared notes with the people with spaces from the year before. (This isn’t completely dependable: certain sleazy operators are known for buying the names of shows where the previous organizers had to drop out of the business, pitching the new show to vendors on the reputation of the previous organizers, and refusing to honor any of the contractually obligated commitments promised. One show here in Dallas runs every few years under a brand new name, so as to avoid online search results, because the organizers know that the vendors don’t sell a thing but the organizers need the booth fees to pay for the after-show staff party.) It can be a hard thing to turn down what appears to be on paper a sure-thing first-year convention or festival, but from long experience, I’ve had fewer regrets on passing on excellent shows than celebrations on dodging bullets.
Is this everything? Not in the slightest. This hasn’t even touched on how to know when to cut your losses on a formerly successful show, at what times it’s best to ignore “being professional” and pack up before the show is over, or what to do when a show organizer simply won’t take “no” for an answer and keeps pushing to get you to register for a show when you’ve repeatedly declined. However, after considering these factors, when a vendor begs off repeated requests of “So why aren’t you at this show?”, the points already shared explain why.
Comments Off on Show Advice: The Costs of Doing Business
(Note: with the 2018 Triffid Ranch show season getting ready to start, a lot of bystanders and longtime customers interested in starting their own small businesses ask for advice and recommendations about attending and selling at shows. While asking me for business advice is comparable to asking Jeffrey Dahmer for tips on vegan recipes, these ruminations might be of some entertainment value, especially among those thinking about jumping into the show circuit.)
It’s every beginning vendor’s lament: why isn’t there just one kit available with all of the stuff I need to start selling my stuff at a show? It’s bad enough to discover all the things you should have had ready for your first show, but it’s even more embarrassing to discover that item or service that you absolutely needed for the fifth or twentieth show. “Worse” is discovering, long after you’d despaired and kludged together something that performs a very specific function, that someone else had a perfect solution that you didn’t know about because you weren’t asking the right questions. It doesn’t get any better as time goes on, either: consider the number of old-school vendors who purchased halogen lighting around 2002 for suitable light for ceramics or jewelry, who now grind teeth on LED kits selling for a fraction of their paid price, using a fraction of the power, and producing a tiny fraction of the ambient heat.
The reason that nobody makes an all-in-one beginner’s show kit, aside from an issue of units moved, is that every vendor has specific needs that a generic kit won’t fill. A glassworker will share certain bits of show equipment with a jeweler, but possibly more with a potter or a blacksmith, and probably very little with a painter or someone offering unique beef jerky. Needs change based both on increased inventory and on changing markets: aside from the halogen lights mentioned above, what may have been an essential item a decade ago might be pointless to carry today. (For instance, when I started selling plants a decade ago, I regularly brought out a small bookcase, full of various new and used books that applied to the subject at hand. Three years later, I left the bookcase at home for good because of Amazon and the then-new habit of customers scanning a cover and making a purchase online. I still make book recommendations, but the weight of the books and the bulkiness of the bookcase soon became more effort than they returned.) However, the need for a recommendations list still applies, and the organization of my list of recommendations comes from a rather unorthodox source.
For those who aren’t classic Volkswagen enthusiasts, one of the classic guides to Volkswagen repair and maintenance is the very thorough, very detailed, and very funny book How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by John Muir. The pertinent aspect we need to focus on is that Muir broke down tool kits and collections into three categories. Type 1 tools were the ones any Volkswagen driver should have in the vehicle at all times, no matter what. Type 2 tools are ones that should be in the vehicle if possible, but absolutely should be available at home for more advanced repairs. The Type 3 toolkit was a collection of items that may not be necessary for emergency repairs, but that the Volkswagen addict would need for tuneups, overhauls, and extensive modifications. You didn’t need a Type 3 kit in the back of your 1973 Superbeetle for an everyday commute, but combining all three toolkits took care of pretty much everything that might go wrong with an air-cooled engine.
With this inspiration, a decade of Triffid Ranch shows hasn’t come across the full spectrum of possible necessities, but that decade managed to sift through “a lot of weight to haul around for something that gets used maybe once per year,” “nice to have,: and “I’ll set your grandmother on fire if you try to steal mine” items and accessories. Much like the aforementioned Volkswagen tools, this guide breaks them down into Type 1, Type 2, and Type 3 accessories. These include:
Type 1 Toolkit – Essential At All Times
A dependable credit card reader or POS (point of sale) system: Cash may still be king, but the introduction of Square and other mobile credit card processing apps immediately changed the game for most vendors: it meant being able to take credit card payments without expensive and irritating credit card processing systems. Fifteen years ago, anybody setting up a business license or applying for a tax ID number in the States was hounded for years with random unsolicited phone calls about purchasing credit card readers that may or may not have been legitimate, but Square and Paypal killed that market. (Imagine that.) Today, most attendees at any event you can imagine will tell you “I just don’t carry cash any more,” and any purchase that requires cash is probably one that won’t happen. If you can afford to have 40 to 60 percent of your potential sales walk off because you can’t or won’t process credit cards, knock yourself out, but everybody else this far into the 21st Century will have some kind of card reader and software ready to take that payment. Pick the card processing service you like the most, but pick one, preferably one with a reader that can process chipped cards, and have it handy for all shows. Later, if you have enough items that you need to track incoming and outgoing inventory, a point of sale system will make you and your tax accountant very happy, but worry about being able to process purchases before you worry about tracking them.
A cash box and sufficient change: Although paying by card is more and more of a standard, never, ever pass up any cash thrown in your direction. This requires (a) enough change to break larger bills and (b) a lockable and securable box to hold that change. Depending upon the size of the show, that means both making change for innumerable transactions under $20 and the occasional big transaction requiring more than $15 in change in return. Make sure that this box can be kept secure so that it can’t be snatched if your back is turned, nor set underneath a table or boxes to where reaching it is inconvenient. While I won’t tell you how much change you need, make a fair assessment on your inventory (most items under $15 will be paid for in cash) and bring at least twice to three times what you think you’ll need, in both bills and coins. Any excess in change at the end of a show is just that much more change that won’t have to be collected before the next one. Also, if you are selling in a state that charges sales tax, make sure not only to have enough coinage to handle a day’s transactions, but purchase a sales tax calculation card so you don’t have to punch the final amount into a calculator with every transaction.
Sidenote: everyone who has ever worked retail will tell you about That Guy who walks in right at opening and tries to pay for some tiny item with a $100 bill. You are not obligated to give up all of your change because he didn’t want to get his bill broken beforehand, and point out that you may not have any way to get change for anybody else. If this happens often enough, or if you have concerns that these are attempts to get rid of counterfeit bills, feel free to display a sign reading “We Cannot Give Change For Any Bills Above $X.”
All necessary permits and IDs: This category depends upon federal and state law and municipal ordinances at a show location, and requires research that depends upon what is being sold and where. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS RESEARCH. At the bare minimum, in the US, register for a state tax ID number long before your first show, and keep a copy of the tax ID with you at all times. A tax ID confers a lot of privileges in most states, such as being able to purchase wholesale inventory, but it’s also vital for both state income and sales taxes. (For instance, here in Texas, residents do not pay a state income tax, but pay a state sales tax on most items purchased within Texas. Oregon has exactly the opposite situation, with a state income tax but no sales tax.) Since all businesses selling items within Texas are expected to collect and pay sales tax, tax agents can and will hold event organizers responsible for allowing sales without that remittance, so most events require proof of tax ID before vendors can start setting up. This also applies to food, alcohol, or other perishable permits, additional handling permits for restricted items, inspection tags, and anything else that may be regulated in the state in which you’re operating. If the cost of those permits is higher than the potential return on sales, then you might want to reconsider exactly how badly you want to do the show.
Sidenote: For a very long time, many movie and television intellectual property holders looked the other way when various small vendors offered products that infringed upon copyright law, partly because tracking down infringers wasn’t worth the time and partly because sales of little handmade items were seen as encouraging sales of larger and more expensive licensed items. Those days are as dead as Fotomats and milk delivery. IP agents can and will drop by shows and conventions and drop off cease & desist orders against individuals selling items that use the agents’ parent company’s intellectual property without compensation. The good news is that if you’re serious about a particular product, many IP holders are willing to negotiate licenses based upon expected sales: for decades, plastic and resin model kit manufacturers have worked with movie and TV studios on official licensed products that trade a very low licensing price in exchange for not being able to use the actual property name. If you get a license under those terms, bring that paperwork with you to be able to show any agents asking about your permissions to sell a particular item. Just don’t be surprised that arguing about the invalidity of copyright law with bootleg toys, clothing, music, or sculptures won’t go very far.
A dependable, sturdy cart and/or handcart: These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but pick one based on the needs of your inventory and displays, as well as accessibility in elevators and in narrow hallways, and be reminded of the adage “Cheap is expensive.” If you can, spend the extra money and buy one with pneumatic tires. Hard rubber tires are okay on hard, smooth surfaces such as hotel hallways, but they always manage to get caught in tracks and elevator floors, and they’re nightmarish on irregular surfaces such as unpaved lots or trails. Much like discovering exactly how many inclines your “flat” neighborhood has once you start bicycling it instead of driving, hard cart wheels let you learn exactly how irregular and gravel-strewn that allegedly immaculate roadway or parking garage really is. Spend the money to get a good cart, because there’s no guarantee that the event location will have any to borrow (a lot of hotels are banning the use of luggage carts by event vendors, because they tend to disappear for the entire weekend and hotel guests can’t access them), and treat that cart as if your liver is strapped to the underside. That means respecting it and not bashing it around because you can, making sure the wheels are properly inflated (get a good bicycle pump, and not one of the bike-kit pumps intended to strap onto your bike, unless you like sitting around for the next three hours pumping up a flat or underinflated tire), and never EVER lending it to someone you don’t know who just needs to borrow it “for just a minute; I can pay you!” Even if you get it back, which isn’t always a guarantee, you have no guarantee that you won’t get it back damaged or demolished. If you trust someone enough to lend a cart, get something as collateral that requires that person to come back, such as car keys or at least two children. Anything else, and it’ll walk because “what I left is worth more than the cart,” and you still need that cart to haul your stuff back when the show is done.
Sturdy storage tubs: If you’re just starting off and can’t afford anything else, you can squeak by a few shows with those cheap Rubbermaid tubs intended for longterm storage of Christmas ornaments. If the total weight of items in each tub exceeds 10 kilos, you need lots of packing to protect fragile items, or if the items need to be protected from weather extremes, spend the extra money for locking, stackable storage tubs. Those Rubbermaid Christmas tubs can’t handle larger or bulkier contents for very long, they have a real problem with cracking or rupturing when used often, and stacking them with any significant weight in the upper tubs means that the lower ones probably will be flattened by the time you get to your destination. Stacking tubs means increasing the amount of inventory you can bring to a show that can be fitted into a vehicle, and tops that lock onto the tub mean that contents won’t go bouncing out if your vehicle hits a pothole. Most importantly, don’t even think of using cardboard boxes unless you like playing with cardboard slurry when setting up or breaking down in the middle of a thunderstorm. You may think it won’t happen to you: I thought the same before getting caught in a near-tornado in Fort Worth and watching fellow vendors make frantic dashes to their vehicles with containers that fell apart in their hands.
Pens, pencils, and Sharpie markers: You don’t have to go crazy with different varieties of pens and pencils, and you don’t absolutely have to buy pens and pencils with your contact information on it, but you WILL need some sort of writing implement at all times. It’s not just for you writing down essential information for transfer to more permanent media: it’s for others either getting information from you or giving it to you. Throw at least a pair of permanent markers (I recommend Sharpies, but I also recommend checking them on a regular basis both for ink flow and for unmashed tips), for marking packages, bags, and wayward children.
Flyers, postcards, and other physical media with your contact information: You’d think that in the days of the internet, physical media wouldn’t be necessary. Put up a URL or QC code on a banner, and you’re golden, right? That argument is complete garbage for two reasons. The first is that while people are more and more likely to take a photo of a URL than in times past, that’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to read the final photo. “Vern, is that an ‘l’ or an ‘i’?”The second is that it might not be accessed in the first place. The best way to prevent that worry is to make sure you have plenty of physical media with your contact information. I am perpetually surprised at the number of vendors at shows who think that ripping up a sheet of lined spiral notebook paper and scribbling contact information in it is enough to guarantee a later sale.
Now, what you decide needs to be on your card, sticker, refrigerator magnet, or NFC chip is up to you, but a few tips based on experience. Unless you have a physical storefront location, don’t include your address on business cards, unless you want people to stop by in the middle of the night. (I’ve had a maildrop since the beginning, and the Web site specifically states that this address is a mailing address only, but I still get at least one person per month who goes to that address “to see the ranch” and blows a gasket to discover that they can’t just walk in to see the plants.) After you settle on a logo and design, pass it to a few friends for readability: if it’s so Illustrator-poisoned that a friend can’t figure out what you’re selling, then your customers definitely won’t. While supplemental material can be photocopied, don’t use photocopied flyers as the main promotion material: the only venues that still do this are old-school science fiction conventions where the head of promotion had to sneak access to his mom’s Xerox at work. These days, postcards are considerably cheaper than they were in times past (especially through online services that cut deals for bulk orders), they can look exceedingly professional, and they’re just large enough that they’re less likely to be dropped in a pocket and forgotten.
Batteries or other power sources, especially for phones and tablets: Even with the best of shows, accidents happen that might cut off your electronic devices’ access to sweet light alternating current. Sometimes, it’s incidents outside of the event organizers’ control: a personal favorite was with the hotel that suddenly decided that the event couldn’t have access to electricity…after most of the vendors had paid for same. (The hotel manager stalked through the event the whole four-day weekend, making sure that nobody at the event was stealing his power by inspecting every last outlet on the floor.) In others, you only discover an issue when you arrive and someone breathlessly tells you “Oh, yeah, we don’t have power” because the organizer decided to spend the money on an ad…on AM radio. In all of these cases, anybody running a point of sale system or credit card reader is going to be wincing, and wincing even more if the phone or tablet doing the processing doesn’t have a full charge. Even if the event has the most dependable power source ever seen by humanity, purchase a power storage device good for at least an additional eight hours of continuous use, and KEEP IT CHARGED. Experienced vendors know from firsthand experience that a lot of transactions can occur long after official closing hours or in situations where you’re unplugged, and those transactions can’t be completed on a device that’s completely drained.
Clips and fasteners: Clothespins and paperclips for holding paper and light cloth together, heavy clips for attaching signage to your table, Zip ties for securing power cables, or bungee cords for holding folding items closed while transporting them: get good ones and make sure to have them in an easily accessible container.
Lightweight displays and table covers: With the shows that offer tables and chairs as part of the booth fee, most include tablecloths and table skirts to make the (usually beaten half to death) tables look better. If you have so little in the way of inventory that you can lay all of it atop your table, then you’re done. If you have more, or if it needs to be shown in a particular way, make sure to get or make displays that show them the best, because presentation DOES matter. Likewise, make sure to have at least a couple of good tablecloths to make your items stand out or to garner interest from passersby that you wouldn’t get from standard white tablecloths. Oh, and for those vending at shows over multiple days, bring a couple of sheets to cover your table and inventory once the show shuts down. Should you be a little late arriving the next morning, the sheet signals “gone Chopin, be Bach in a minuet” and minimizes the chances of early arrivers messing with your displays.
Type 2 Toolkit – Good To Have
A sturdy folding table and chairs: Many shows and events seeking vendors advertise tables and chairs as being provided as part of the booth fee. Others simply lease out the space to put said tables and chairs, and it’s completely up to you as to how you want to arrange it, and still others charge extra for them. One way or another, having a good table and chair set is worth the expenditure, especially if the provided items are inadequate to the task (which happens often) or they just aren’t available. For ease of transport and setup, I recommend tables that fold in half for storage, and I also recommend buying a new table instead of depending upon that one that a friend or neighbor had in the garage for the last decade. (Neil Young was right: rust never sleeps, and you don’t want to discover rust’s effect on support pins or table legs five minutes after getting all of your sale items and displays on top.) The most important thing to consider is how much weight that table will support, and whatever you do, do NOT assume that it will and bring it to a show without verifying this. Test it first, preferably with something nonbreakable. Likewise, when doing outside shows, always bring boards or other supports to go under the table legs, unless you like your table sinking into the ground and dislodging everything atop it.
Banners and signage: Signs and banners serve two very valuable purposes. The first is to attract attention from a distance and encourage potential customers to give your booth a try. The second is to prevent particularly stupid people from wandering up and bellowing “WHAT’S THIS?” at your inventory over and over. (To be fair, some will do that anyway, either because they’re too lazy to read or because their lives aren’t complete unless they interrupt a conversation with a paying customer with a well-placed vowel movement. The best you can do is reassure yourself that the idiot will choke to death on his 42-ounce cup of Brawndo.) Even a few years back, banner options consisted of heavy vinyl either tacked to a backdrop or wall or installed in an equally heavy frame, but now vertical and horizontal banners are available in a wide variety of materials and print options. In addition, lightweight display stands are more and more affordable, allowing vertical banners to go up on tables or in front of extra inventory. Right now, many big-box office supply stores offer excellent online options for composing the layout of your own banners before sending them to print, thereby making sure that any mistakes in spelling or syntax are yours, and in matching the right display stand to the right banner.
Lights: The bad news: even indoor shows have problems with available ambient light, especially if the venue hosting the show hasn’t switched out its fluorescent tubes since the Harding Administration. Outdoor shows have even more problems: even discounting the problems inherent when the big yellow hurty thing in the sky ultimately descends in the west every night, sufficiently overcast days can make viewing unlit items a bit problematic. The good news: at the turn of the last century, most lighting options with a remotely decent lumen output involved energy-hungry and heat-intensive halogen or incandescent light bulbs, which were both delicate and dangerous to work around until they had enough time to cool after use. Today, LED options both provide similar lumens for a fraction of the energy of incandescents, but they can be used in places and around items that would have been a serious fire hazard 20 years ago. Any discussion of lighting options is an essay in itself, but do some research, look into power options (for venues without available electricity, running an LED array off a marine battery with a DC-to-AC inverter is now a practical reality), and consider the best light type and source for your inventory.
Heavy displays: Need bookshelves, heavy racks for large pieces of clothing, or wire racks for displaying jewelry or electronic items? These qualify as “heavy displays.” Obviously, the heavy displays depend upon what you’re selling, but make sure they’re kept well-maintained, and consider weight and fragility when bringing them to a show. Remember that plastic scratches, glass chips and shatters, metal gets metal fatigue or pops welds or rivets, and wood gets dry rot, and a catastrophic failure of your display could potentially lead to injury or death. Consider why you need a heavy display and why you’re bringing it: that big glass display case being discarded at work might make a great display for your inventory, but consider that glass is both heavy and fragile, and you’ll experience them both sooner or later, especially if you’re moving it by yourself. Without fail, really big shows have at least one vendor who gives up on trying to haul back a big set of metal racks or glass shelves that are a nightmare to move in and out of elevators, and they stay put because the other vendors know better than to take them for themselves.
Type 3 Toolkit – Nice But Not Absolutely Necessary All The Time
Tent and sidewalls: It’s possible to go through a healthy vendor career without ever needing to show items outside. During the extremes of summer and winter, the only people more happy to see a show listing that reads “Indoor vending” than the vendors are the customers. The rest of the year, though, having access to a tent opens up a lot of opportunities. Some events include access to pre-pitched tents as part of the vendor fee, but a lot will emphasize that you need to bring your own. Most vendors go with standard 10 x 10 pop-up tents: getting ones in custom colors or with custom signage built-in is at the discretion of the vendor, but they’re definitely not necessary. Just make sure that either the tent comes with sidewalls or that sidewalls may be purchased separately, and not just to keep rain out during a show. Outdoor events generally hire security crews to watch over vendor tents left overnight, but they expect that the vendors put up sidewalls on all four sides before the vendors leave for the evening or break down and move out any valuable items.
Tent weights: Anyone wrangling a standard pop-up tent into position can complain about the weight all day long, but consider that a typical show tent has a lot of surface area with a relatively lightweight structure underneath to give it shape. With a sufficient amount of wind, and that “sufficient amount” may not be all that much, a tent makes an excellent parachute. If all it does is bounce up on two legs before falling over and blowing across a parking lot, consider yourself lucky, because anyone doing outdoor shows long enough in windy places like Texas can tell you stories of tents flying up in severe winds before losing lift and coming down to crash. Pop-up tent frames are strong, but they’re not strong enough to handle the impact of falling two stories or so before slamming into a hard surface. The spectacle of flying tents can be minimized either by buying commercially made tent weights that wrap around the tent legs, or by making your own from concrete or metal. However you go about it, remember that tent weights don’t work if they’re left at home or they’re not attached to the tent in some way, and the word “weight” in “tent weight” is there for a reason. Remember that cart or handtruck in your Type 1 toolkit, and make sure beforehand that it can handle moving the tent weights, either all at once or one at a time.
Is this everything? Well, that’s a good question. Let me know after you’ve done a decade’s worth of shows: you’ll probably teach me a lot when we compare notes.
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 Annihilationcomes 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.
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.
While it’s been a bit quiet around the electronic homestead, that’s due to changing priorities instead of deliberate omission. Last week’s show at All-Con was quite the success considering the timeframe (this was the first time in seven years that I’ve tried to conduct a plant show right after a move, and that’s a game best conducted by the young), and all available time since then has been dedicated either to getting the gallery in operational condition or in cleaning up the greenhouse. If someone has a good working vaccine for sleep without nasty side effects, please pass it along.
Anyway, for those keeping up with the Triffid Ranch over the years, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the priority right now, and for the next five weekends, is preparing for this year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend on the first weekend in May. This involves getting together a lot of surprises and probably the largest collection of plants ever displayed at a Triffid Ranch event. With the move from the Galleries at Midtown and the subsequent ending of the ARTwalks, it’s time to amp up the number of outside shows and events, and the first one on the schedule is SmallCon in Addison, Texas on September 9. This list WILL expand throughout the next few months, so keep an eye open for further updates.
Other than that, it’s back to the linen mines: photos from All-Con and a final overview of leaving the old Valley View Center space will be up shortly. Again, if someone isn’t developing that vaccine for sleep, this is what is called “creating a new market.” Get to it.
Posted onJune 24, 2016|Comments Off on “It’s the beginning of the end, nothing lasts forever…”
The last nearly twelve months of work on the Triffid Ranch gallery have been among the most productive and successful months of my entire life. Besides having the opportunity to work on larger enclosures than what was practical or sane to bring out to Triffid Ranch shows and lectures, it helped buffer the massive leap between a home-based business and one that might actually grow into a full-time retail establishment. I’ve met an incredible number of wonderful people, heard a lot of fascinating commentary, and managed to juggle full-time employment and gallery fun with only a few regrets that nobody has discovered the 87-hour day. The only other regret is that this stage ends in another six months.
Upon moving in, every artist at the Galleries at Midtown knew that this was a great but ephemeral opportunity. We knew from the beginning that the once-great Valley View Center, which had survived innumerable threats from other shopping venues only to succumb to the power of the smartphone, was going to be demolished and replaced with an outdoor mall arrangement. We knew from the beginning that we’d best make hay while we had the chance, because the combination of central location and inexpensive rent would end once the next stage started. We knew all this, and yet it’s still hard to get over how the current gallery residents will be the last people in Valley View Center as the lights go out and the demolition crews come in. Gee, it’s as if life imitates art:
Well, we got the word last week, but the official notice came out today: the city of Dallas approved the new plan for the mall redevelopment, so everything has to be turned off by December 31 as part of the deal. We’ve been told by the owner that they’re seeking an interim location for the galleries until the new MidTown is complete, and that gallery and workshop space is going to be part of the draw for MidTown, but that’s at least three years away. In the interim, the Triffid Ranch is moving.
Where we’re moving is a good question: a lot depends upon location, rent, and available parking. “When” is a good question as well: we’re going to stick it out in the current location for as long as we can, knowing that when the Christmas season ends, we’re leaving whether we like it or not. In the interim, work continues at the space, we’ll continue to prepare for shows and events, and ARTwalk, obviously, continues all through the remaining time here. In particular, stick around for the one-year anniversary party on August 20 (this doubles as Caroline’s birthday party, so grab cake and barbecue while you’re here), and let’s celebrate what we have while we still have it.
When we moved in, we figured realistically that we’d have a year in the space before the demolition started, and we hoped for two years. 18 months is a good compromise. Now let’s see where we go from here.
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A minor update, but one directly tied to (anti)social media. After starting a Facebook account eight years ago, it became time to close everything down. It’s happened in bits and pieces over the years: realizing that work wasn’t getting done because of constant queries while online, deactivating the account, and then getting back on when that was the only way to contact old friends or vital sources for information. The combination of the utter toxicity of Facebook in the current US presidential election cycle, the fact that Facebook was holding the Triffid Ranch page hostage in the hopes of paying to get updates viewed by people who had requested as much, and the simple fact that Facebook was making me nostalgic for the thoughtful conversations and commentary on LiveJournal, finally pushed me over the edge, and I’m staying off. Probably permanently, too.
That’s not to say that the Triffid Ranch is staying off social media. It’s just time to move to a healthier place. In a roundabout way, that’s to mention that everything that doesn’t quite justify a full blog post is going over to Tsu. If Facebook is that unemployed uncle at Christmas dinner who can’t speak except in Fox News bullet points, Tsu is that artist aunt who keeps getting you hooked on Spirograph and polymer clay. Besides a much less obnoxious ad presence, Tsu actually pays for original content, so with the combination of being compensated for new material and being reasonably sure that comments won’t be hijacked by that friend of a friend who only wants to pick fights, it’s a much better idea.
Anyway. https://www.tsu.co/TexasTriffidRanch. Come by to say hello, or just come by to read. Either way, I promise that the Drama Llama will not come along and take a forty-pound dump in the middle of your living room.
Just as a friendly reminder, the December Midtown ArtWalk is scheduled for the 19th, and we have reason to celebrate. The soft opening for the Triffid Ranch space occurred right between the Czarina’s and my birthdays, so we brought out separate birthday cakes that pretty much summed upour relationship. Yeah, it’s that bad.
Anyway, this month’s ArtWalk is special for one particular reason: at the end of the month, we celebrate 13 years of wedded bliss, so it’s time for a party. You can imagine my disappointment at discovering that the theme for a thirteenth anniversary isn’t tacos, so this is one tradition that changes on December 19. Come out for the carnivorous plants and the jewelry, and stay to place bets on whether we’ll survive to see 14.
Comments Off on Reminder: December Midtown ArtWalk
As of this evening, the Czarina and I celebrate a full 12 years of marriage: a full quarter of my life. Naturally, that’s absolutely no way that I could possibly make her shake her head in dismay and horror, and so in tribute to the great Dave Brockie, I believe this should be played at our fiftieth wedding anniversary:
It’s been one of those years. On top of everything else, the insurance settlement check for the bike accident finally came in, literally the day before an emergency trip to a 24-hour dental office for a root canal. 12 hours earlier, a little twinge in a bicuspid, and any Sunday morning involving a very sweet and friendly dentist uttering the words “pus” under her breath more than three times in five minutes isn’t a Sunday morning you want to repeat. On the bright side, at least I know for a fact that a day job co-worker is so annoying and fatuous that a root canal is a preferable experience. Always look for the positive, right?
Well, it keeps adding up. After 15 years of keeping the same address, the old mail drop simply wasn’t practical any more, so we decided to keep up the tradition of a mail drop. This isn’t just to discourage random passersby from dropping by because “I wanted to see your plants,” or even the flood of Abilene residents who drove all the way out with their grandchildren with no advance warning. When it comes to plants and plant accessories that require stable temperatures, the local UPS driver leaving these on the front porch isn’t an option. This is in addition to legal documents, seed catalogs, and other items that can’t be sent by E-mail. It may be a tax writeoff, but it’s one that we use nearly to death.
The problem was that out of a sense of misguided loyalty, I stuck with a UPS Store location, not knowing that my original locale was an exception when it came to customer service. That was my first mistake. My second was assuming that the neurotic manning the front counter, a control freak who wouldn’t let customers get their own mail from their own boxes, might get better with time. My third was in sticking around for nearly five years, even after discovering that the UPS Store headquarters takes no responsibility for how its franchisees behave in public. This included throwing fits about being asked for packages that he didn’t see right away, or fussing about the contents. Finally, after the second or third time he yelled at my wife because of his unstated policy that mail couldn’t be left for more than a week (a policy, I might add, he never brought up with me), we figured that if we were going to take abuse from a failed EDS engineer, we might as well get paid for it and moved to a new locale.
Our fourth mistake was trying to get mail forwarding while we let friends and businesses know about the move. The owner of the franchise took our new address and a credit card number, with the idea of forwarding mail at least until after tax season and being charged every two weeks for shipping the mail. That lasted until we discovered this week that the neurotic was returning that mail as undeliverable, and when asked why he wasn’t forwarding it, he told Caroline “We don’t do that.” When I got on the phone, not only did he rationalize and argue, but he then blatantly lied and said “We weren’t informed of the forwarding.” Uh HUH.
Anyway, for those considering a mailing to the old 5435 North Garland Avenue address, please belay that, as things have changed. Our new mailing address is:
Texas Triffid Ranch
2334 West Buckingham Road
Garland, Texas 75042
I’d like to add for locals coming across this via Google searches that this main address offers a great shipping alternative. John, the owner, is a consummate professional and a joy to work with, and a professional is always better than a guy with his head so far up his own rectum that he’s a Klein bottle with legs. Give John lots and lots of business, and tell him specifically that you heard about him here. He’ll love that: apparently our old UPS Store is responsible for a lot of his return and repeat customers. And so it goes.
As can be noticed, updates over here have been a bit sporadic, partly due to Day Job work schedules, but I’d like to show off the new bicycle. Thanks to the intrepid folks at Richardson Bike Mart, I now have a new bicycle: a Specialized Rockhopper 29. It’s not spectacular and it’s not flashy, but it’s a good basic bike, perfect for Dallas commuting, as it handles well and manages to avoid most of the hazards of city biking.
You may be wondering about what happened to my old bike, or why I say “most of the hazards of city biking,” but that’s best explained with a quick photo showing one next to the other. As can be noted, the old bike isn’t in much condition for riding: its handlebars were shorn off, the derailleur and chain ripped free, the wheels scrunched, one of the cranks bent underneath the main gear, and the frame itself bent. Getting a new bike was the only option, as the cost of repairs rapidly exceeded the cost of a replacement.
Before anyone asks, I’m in excellent condition. Other than a small scrape on my left knee, I survived the whole incident. I joke that “my bike gave its life to save mine,” but that’s pretty much the truth. Years of Dallas riding taught me the value of safety gear: I’d sooner go out without lungs than without a helmet or gloves. The same goes for lights on front and back, reflective tape along the side, and a keen eye for inattentive, distracted, or just plain stupid drivers. When you combine all three, though…
I’m fond of noting that I love Lexus drivers for one good reason: they advertise themselves. The fact that Toyota puts its big “‘L’ is for ‘Loser'” logo on front and back means that it’s possible to get warning of a Lexus driver through a rear-view mirror long before the dolt every gets close, allowing the attentive bicyclist, pedestrian, motorist, or homeowner to get the hell out of the way. Naturally, Lexus drivers go on and on about how their vehicles are “safe”, meaning that they’ll survive what my best friend refers to as “a failure to drive,” and who cares about anybody else. Crumple zones so they can run into vehicles or houses and walk away, lane drift alarms so the driver can go back to texting or posting on Facebook while on the highway, lots of bright shiny objects along the dashboard to make driver and passengers think that they’re more capable than their abilities…yeah, I’ve had a lot of experience with Lexus drivers as a whole, to where I’ve gone to extra effort to watch for that logo on front and back. Too bad for my bike that this one got me from the side.
The story’s pretty easy, really: the driver was leaving work, stopping for a moment in a parking lot before heading out the driveway. I saw the vehicle stop, and slowed but continued going, figuring that the driver was tweeting or adjusting a car radio before going. By the time I got to the driveway, she accelerated in a hurry to start the holiday weekend a bit early, and I went under the front wheels. Thankfully, I bounced, landing on my work backpack, while the bike lost handlebars, wheels, chain, and derailleur. The driver obligingly stopped before I followed it, crying “I’m really sorry” over and over, and I have to admit that a near-death experience tends to bring out some of my more vicious behavior. No profanity, no abuse while yelling at her, other than “What the hell is it about all you Lexus drivers being idiots?” Personally, I thought it was a valid question.
That said, now everything’s up in the air. A quick talk with her insurance company got a very quick response, with an agent swearing that I’d hear from the claim adjuster within two business days. That’s now four days behind, but that’s also expected: I worked for The Hartford in its Worker’s Comp division twenty years ago, and we had at least one valid bomb threat per month before I left because its adjusters were doing their best to run out the clock on any claim without legal representation. Well, that’s been taken care of, and now it’s a matter of waiting. Thankfully, I have a perfectly vindictive attitude about owed funds: just ask Craig Engler one of these days about his last run-in with me over unpaid writing fees. And so it goes.
Otherwise, things are reasonably back to normal. Yes, some drivers have their heads so far up their colons that they could be described charitably as “Klein bottles with legs” but that won’t stop me from riding. One dolt, in nearly 40 years of riding, that nearly took me out? That’s not a bad track record. Besides, the quiet of early-morning roads, being buzzed by red-tailed and Harris’s hawks during the day and screech owls and big brown bats in the predawn morning. the feeling of responsibility that only knowing what my own physical limitations are determines where I’m going and how fast…the accident just confirms a need to be just a little bit more careful. Either that, or to make sure that the next Lexus dingbat kills me on the spot, because nobody would believe the police report of my ripping off the rest of my nearly-severed leg and beating the driver into a coma with it. (I’d never kill someone who hit me. I’d prefer to have them wake up several weeks later as a punchline, with the nurses at the hospital taking cash, checks, and Bitcoins to allow complete strangers to come up, laugh, and point.)
In the interim, regular blogging will resume shortly: keep an eye open for several new developments. The sooner the reimbursement check comes for the bike, the sooner everything really goes back to normal.
I’ve commented elsewhere about Some Guy, because you can always connect the worst advice on the planet to Some Guy. Horticulturally speaking, Some Guy can be blamed for all sorts of concentrated vile, but one of the most pernicious involves spreading tales about effective use of scarlet trumpetvine (Distictis buccinatoria).
D. buccinatoria doesn’t sound quite so bad upon first glance. It’s a very enthusiastic climbing vine, sometimes growing as big around as your leg, with a nearly fernlike thick foliage. Its name comes from its equally enthusiastic blooming habit, with bright red blooms that attract hummingbirds by day and hawkmoths by night. It also sprouts from its roots, growing a thick corky rind around an extremely tough and fibrous root core. If you’re looking for a tenacious and full vine that covers just about anything, you can’t find anything better in the Dallas area.
And that’s precisely the problem. Scarlet trumpetvine blooms lead to long, beanlike seed pods whose contents are gleefully spread by birds, so they end up everywhere. They don’t seem to have anything indigenous that keeps them under control, so while their leaves make excellent shelter for lizards and beneficial insects, they also transpire so much water during the day that any wood underneath them starts to rot very quickly. Since nothing seems to trim back that foliage, that means that fences, walls, posts, and sheds are rapidly buried under thick blankets of trumpetvine.
This sounds perfect if you want trumpetvine to stay, but just TRY to remove it. This is where Some Guy comes in, because the trope going through yuppie neighborhoods is that “you should plant trumpetvine around telephone poles so that it’ll cover the pole.” Not only does this make the local utility reps absolutely loathe you, as reaching the pole, much less climbing it, is impossible when sheathed in trumpetvine, but it also guarantees that the seeds will spread elsewhere. Chop it down, and it readily resprouts from the roots. Mow down the new growth, and chunks will reroot and spread through the immediate area. Spray it with herbicides, and the sprays wash off the leaves and kill off everything underneath. In my case, I made the mistake of letting trumpetvine get established along a wooden fence during the summer of 2011, and I’m still cutting it back every week from the roots from that summer.
Now, Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster repeatedly argues that scarlet trumpetvine is of the Devil. I’d argue that if confronted about trumpetvine, Satan would stand up and profess true innocence, arguing that some things are too foul for him to consider. You could go through other pantheons, and every possible suspect would do the same thing. Loki would swear upon Yggdrasil that he wouldn’t think of doing such a horrible thing. Set would set upon his heels and cry at the accusation. Tezcatlipoca would be found in the bath, repeatedly scrubbing himself with wire brushes. Camazotz would go back to his old cutting habit. Nyarlathotep…Nyarlathotep would just sit back, vomiting silently in utter terror that someone would give him credit for creating or developing scarlet trumpetvine.
This garden season, have some sympathy and some taste. When you’re saturation-nuking the garden to blast out trumpetvine, don’t randomly assign blame for something of such cosmic horror. Instead, just ask yourself “What did those gods of chaos and evil ever do to you to deserve that sort of insult?”
Posted onDecember 16, 2013|Comments Off on Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2013 – 1
Okay, so you’ve taken care of holiday obligations. Whether you’re buying presents for Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, or Yak-Shaving Day, if said holiday happens before the end of the year, you probably already have all of your shopping done, the packages wrapped, and the gift exchanges planned. You’ve done all you can for everyone else, but what about yourself?
Seriously. Once the holiday obligations are done, the next few months in the Northern Hemisphere are going to be miserable. Short days and long, dark, cold nights, and nobody wants to get out into it. New movie releases are so bad that the term “Sargasso of January” applies to the much-hyped and equally unwatchable films, and even Netflix can’t help if you’ve already watched every episode of Farscape. It’s time for outside stimulation, and at affordable prices.
With this in mind, it’s time to put together a list of resources and venues intended to keep you safe and sane in this post-holiday season. Hang on and check back every day between now and New Year’s Day, because it’s going to get FUN.
Firstly, for the last five years, St. Johns Booksellers in Portland, Oregon has been an official partner with the Triffid Ranch for books and other print materials of all sorts. Owner Nena Rawdah has been a friend and cohort for a full third of my life now, and I don’t just recommend the store because I owe her for not killing me when she had the chance. I’m also recommending the store, should you live in the vicinity, because of its newly revamped and updated interior, perfect for author readings and other opportunities to get out of the January Oregon damp. And if you don’t have the opportunity to get to the Portland area, well, call or E-mail about your book requests. I can state with authority that it has quite a palaeontology selection in its science section, because that used to be part of my library.
Also in Portland is one of my favorite publishers, and I’ve related for years that the little pine tree logo on the spine of a Timber Press book is an automatic endorsement of the contents inside. Without fail, Timber Press books get me through long and tough Januarys, and now might be the time to purchase your copy of Janit Calvo’s Gardening in Miniature in preparation for March and April. And if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, it’ll give you plenty of preparation for things to do during the long, dark June.
More to follow…
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The hype started up early last Tuesday. We were in for snow, ice, asteroid strikes, blazing angels, Wal-Mart gift cards…the local meteorologists were whooping it up about this was going to be a storm for the records. By Wednesday, we all knew that something was up when we hit near-record high temperatures that afternoon and everyone started pulling out swimsuits. That didn’t keep everyone from laughing at the National Weather Service. “Oh, they say that all the time. They always predict a worse storm than what we actually get. Just watch: we’ll get a little bit of rain, and that’s it.”
Oh, we of little faith. The snowmageddon started sliding in from the northwest on Thursday afternoon, and it just kept getting worse. And worse. I have an incredible ability to wake up about thirty seconds before a power outage, and so I woke up about five minutes before the alarm clock went off, wondering “Why am I conscious right now?” when everything went dead for the next five hours. When the exemplary crews at Garland Power & Light weren’t able to get power reestablished right away, that’s when we knew this was going to be bad.
And to stop the immediate comparisons to your local weather and how “this isn’t so bad,” that’s true. Kinda. This was definitely the worst ice storm I’ve seen in Texas in the 34 years since I first moved here, exceeding the big storms of 1983, 1996, and 2011. We almost never get ice storms, much less ones of this intensity, and this one compared favorably to ones I experienced in Michigan when I was a kid. In Michigan, everyone has snow tires, heavy-duty ice scrapers and snow brushes, and other regular accessories for a typical winter up there. We don’t have snowplows, salt trucks, and tire chains because they might be used once every ten years or so. Hence, we’re caught flatfooted nearly every time. And this one? Nobody was prepared for this mess, because we simply don’t see storms like this.
On a personal level, the storm and the power outage tag-teamed me. First, specialized greenhouse tape specifically purchased so it wouldn’t go brittle in the cold went brittle in the cold, and the north wind blew out a panel on the main greenhouse. Combine that with the outage cutting heat at a critical time, and all of the thermal mass I put in last October didn’t make up for the sub-freezing drafts. I’ll have to wait until things warm up, but it looks like at least a two-thirds loss of everything inside, including a new line of bonsai Capsicum peppers intended to be premiered at the next show. It may be possible to salvage, but that has to wait until temperatures rise again and I can perform a decent evaluation.
On the bright side, at least the Czarina and I weren’t insane enough to be vendors at the scheduled Fair Park Holiday show in downtown Dallas. That one was shut down early, but probably more a matter of a lack of vendors than the worries about weather. But about that later.
I’m also not complaining more, because the damage here was a lot less than that right around the area. Most of North Texas’s trees are various oaks, which generally don’t shed their leaves until spring, which meant they made wonderful nucleation sites for the incoming ice. They’re also not adapted to dealing with large amounts of ice, either, so local trees’ branches aren’t adapted to shedding or carrying huge amounts of snow or ice weight. With more flexible trees, such as crape myrtles and mesquite, they obligingly flattened to the ground and waited it out. The same thing with small oaks, such as the three-meter-tall oak that obligingly impersonated Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree when saturated with ice. Larger trees, though, and saplings from more brittle species just snapped. Expect photos shortly of the mess preventing my neighbor from being able to open his garage door for the two tons of shattered oak blocking his driveway.
And the temperate carnivorous plants put out for winter dormancy? That’s going to have to wait until spring. The layers of ice definitely killed off any still-living traps and phyllodia that the plants could use for photosynthesis, but most are used to worse conditions than this. The Sarracenia purpurea, for instance, should be right at home. In the meantime, while the ice lasts, I get views like this:
And one little bit of good? I’ve spent the last four years attempting to get results with growing the South African proto-carnivorous plant Roridula in Texas. One of the hardest problems is getting the seeds to germinate, and I tried everything. Scarifying the seed coat to encourage germination. Putting the potting mix in a smoker and smoking it heavily before adding seeds. Chilling the seeds before planting them. No results, and looking over the wreckage in the greenhouse made me think about just pitching them and giving up. Wouldn’t you just know that this sort of chill was exactly what Roridula dentata needed to get up and going? Now just to keep the seedlings going, as apparently decent air circulation is essential, and I don’t dare risk bringing them inside if they’re this happy just to lose them to fungus infections. And so it goes.
Posted onJuly 31, 2013|Comments Off on Personal Interlude: Preparing for Cyber-Conversion
It’s quick and smartaleck to describe the air of North Texas as “a bit too thick to breathe, and a bit too thin to plow,” but it works. Even without Governor Rick Perry’s incessant efforts to give the Environmental Protection Agency the finger every time the EPA tries to improve Dallas’s air quality, our local and immediate atmosphere continues to work its absolute best to kill all life in the area. Dust blown off the Edwards Plateau from West Texas, more dust alternating from either Oklahoma or Central Texas Hill Country, junk blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico, and a whole contingent of fungus and mold spores, pollen from gymnosperm and angiosperm plants, cow belches, and the hydrogen sulfide from the mudflats of the Trinity River in the summer…in case of tornado, just separate off chunks of air with a chainsaw and build a shelter strong enough to withstand a nuke strike.
The practical upshot is that Texas hates me. Three years ago, trying to find a solution to an inability to get restful sleep led to a trip to an allergy clinic, and the initial allergen tests showed me allergic to most of Texas’s life forms. This, of course, makes working anywhere outside of a silicon chip fabrication facility rather problematic, so the immediate solution involved a long series of allergy shots. Considering that I share an aversion to needles with one of my childhood role models, and for much the same reason, going through the regimen demonstrated that I valued a decent night’s sleep much more than I wanted to scream and hyperventilate over a needle barely able to catheterize a mosquito. Three years of shots, and then a re-evaluation: I’m now immune to the various things in the aerosolized manure we cheerfully call “air”. The injections just encouraged previously barely noticeable allergies, though, leading to a whole new line of shots. At the rate I’m going, I may be immune to everything short of hard vacuum and death by fire by February 2061.
Ah, but there was that little issue with being unable to breathe, so it was time to go to a sleep clinic for further evaluation. I’d been to one clinic back in 2010, but never got a reasonable evaluation of my sleep habits: such things happen when the evaluating doctor is too busy trying to refer his customers to buddies offering medically worthless dentifrices and polishing his D magazine “893 Best Doctors Willing To Buy Full-Page Advertising In Our Special Issue” award to give it. This time, though, new doctor, new sleep clinic, and a whole new breakdown on how inefficient respiratory structures conspired against sleep during the summer.
The upshot, after being rigged up with cranial electrodes and heart monitors and watched in my sleep with infrared cameras, was a diagnosis of moderate apnea. Enough apnea that it affected REM sleep, which explained the crippling bouts of depression every summer. (Of course, that could have just been from looking at the thermometer.) Enough apnea that neglecting to treat it would probably lead to heart damage or a possible stroke, and that’s nowhere near as fun as my planned manner of demise. All that remained was to ascertain the best method of treatment.
“Okay, we know the problem,” I told the Czarina one afternoon after the initial test. “All I need is a tracheotomy, and I can both breathe and smoke through the same hole.”
“What are you talking about? You don’t smoke.”
“Hey, Bill Hicks was onto something here. Get me an apple corer, and I’ll take care of it right now. Ker-CHUNK!”
“You are NOT giving yourself a tracheotomy.” See, this is why I can’t win with the Czarina. Most people would sit back, grab some popcorn, and watch the show. She actually fusses about my staying alive and stuff. She obviously married me for the money: my current net worth is $4.81, and that’s if she cashes in the glass Dr. Pepper bottles in the garage for the deposits.
The doctor, who is a joy to hang out with by the way, noted that the ongoing allergy shots were doing quite a bit of good, but proper treatment required being a bit more aggressive. The most extreme required surgery to remove or tighten up pharyngeal tissues in the back of my throat, keeping them from jamming up my windpipe and generally acting like wearing a prom gown to a chainsaw duel. (I offered again to try essential knowledge from my people’s wisest savant, but the Czarina both hid my Dremel tool and changed the lock on the shed, keeping me away from the hedge trimmers. She’s just trying to keep the value on the internal organs she can sell: that part is obvious.) The more reasonable solution, though, involved continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. Back to the sleep clinic, this time to be tested with a CPAP machine to ascertain the best positive pressure necessary to keep me from choking on my own throat.
Now, when going for any sort of medical treatment, one of my absolute steadfast rules is “consider the opportunities to scare the hell out of your loved ones”. The best part of sitting in a hospital ER with a bad bout of pneumonia is that I can get away with telling her “I’m gonna TRY…not to…come back…”, and any threat of violence just might make things worse. (Of course, that wasn’t helped with an intern who believed me when she asked for symptoms and I said “Other than the zombie bite, I’m fine.”) Covered with electrodes, gauges, wires, a full head harness, and a full facemask, what could make the situation absolutely terrifying? Why, adding goggles and then sending my new selfie to her. I love living in the future.
Now, after a decade of marriage, the Czarina is almost used to these sorts of things. None of the obvious comparisons, or even asking if I needed fava beans and a nice Chianti with dinner. She just looked at the photo, looked at me, and said “If you’re going to wear THAT to bed, you’d better expect only to sleep.” And she’s absolutely right. I’m going to have to get out my old Nixon mask to go with it.
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Posted onJune 24, 2013|Comments Off on “Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?”
So, about last week. Between plant and Day Job obligations, a big smiling reminder of my old writing days arrived last Tuesday in the form of Australian author Stephen Dedman, and poor Stephen got the barest beginnings of a Dallas tour. That is, he got a firsthand experience with the insane sprawl of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, as with how our roadways were inspiration for those in R’lyeh. Even worse, he had to deal with my babbling about minutiae on Dallas, from the geology and palaeontology (we drove within spitting distance of the Arlington Archosaur Site) to the backhistory of the Fair Park area to our current surreal impending celebration of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That’s when Stephen inspired a particular bit of japery for the end of November.
For the last fifty years, anything involving John Kennedy in Dallas has been a circus. There’s the actual assassination, of course, as well as the tourist industry that built up around it. Then there’s the backstory, which entities such as the Dallas Morning News want to bury and pretend didn’t happen. Then there’s the current effort for a massive panegyric the weekend before American Thanksgiving, simply entitled “The 50th”, which intends to “celebrate the life of Kennedy” without, you know, actually saying what happened to end it. Complete with efforts to make sure that nobody “extreme” gets anywhere near it. If there’s one thing any good circus needs, because it already has plenty of clowns, it’s costumes.
So here’s the idea. It’s a dangerous vision, but one that should be the maraschino cherry atop this gigantic, indigestion-inducing banana split of an event. It’s open to everybody who wants to participate, and it won’t cost a thing.
The idea: on November 22 of this year, Dallas gets a flood of time travelers. Famed travelers from fiction alongside ones brand new to the continuum, with outfits to match. Before you know it, the streets of Dallas are full of temporal explorers, cartographers, and marauders of all sorts, all asking the same question: “Which way to Dealey Plaza?”
At this point, half of the fun will be the responses. After all, if time travel is possible, then (barring the Morphail Effect, of course) an event as big as the Kennedy assassination should be so flooded with time travelers that they should outnumber the temporally static by a thousand to one. There’s no reason to believe that you wouldn’t have visitors planning to change the time line, keep it static, or take out anybody trying to do either. That’s why, when asked by reporters or passersby as to what’s happening, just hinting “I’m here to see history” is a good start.
The punchline comes around 12:20 Central Time, as the streets continue to flood with the Displaced. By this point, there should be more Daleks on the streets of Dallas than on those of London in 2100, and I won’t even start with the Yithians. At that point, everyone looks down the road where Kennedy’s motorcade drove a half-century ago, pulls out watches, clocks, sundials, chronometers, and hourglasses, and all exclaim at once “Right time, but WRONG YEAR!” before evacuating downtown.
And the best part? We can do this every November 22. We can even retire from the field of ostentation to hang out at the best party in town that weekend afterwards. What say you?
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Because of the recent news of the death of Roger Ebert, it’s time to remember him best with the best tribute ever made:
And for those who remember my old film review days, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I connected to the character of Jay Sherman in The Critic a bit more than most. Hence, I’m waiting to repeat the dialogue after 10:15 to famed Australian film critic Robin Pen when he finally meets the Czarina:
Posted onMarch 22, 2013|Comments Off on Personal interlude: Outliving Lovecraft
As of today, I’ve hit an interesting milestone, one that I never thought I’d reach when I was in my twenties. Right now, I’ve outlived the quintessential horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Part of the reason for keeping up with this minutiae lies with joking that only writers, and science fiction/fantasy/horror writers in particular, can get away with dying in their late forties and still dying “tragically young”. Another reason is that considering the vile garbage I wrote back in my own writing days, every day I saw past my 28th birthday was more of a surprise to me than anyone else. The biggest reason, though, is that my plans for fame and world conquest involve doing something now, instead of waiting for it to come to me thirty years after my death. (Can you imagine what HPL would have done with the royalties off the movie adaptations of Re-Animator or From Beyond, much less all of the stuffed “Cuddly Cthulhu” figures out there?)
In the meantime, it’s back to the linen mines, what with setting up new arrangements for Texas Frightmare Weekend and getting a whole new load of seedlings established by then. Howard Lovecraft was a distant relation, so if I follow any of his traits, it won’t be his rampant racism or his unwillingness to take care of himself. Encouraging a sense of cosmic wonder, though: that’s a laudable tradition to continue.
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As events and venues continue to expand, so will the Triffid Ranch, and things have outgrown (pun intended) the little hobby greenhouse from where all of this started back in 2008. Five years since the first Triffid Ranch show at the sadly defunct CAPE Day? Sheesh.
Anyway, that expansion means that it’s time to set up a new greenhouse specifically for Nepenthes pitcher plants and other heat-loving, humidity-loving plants. The details are too long to go into, but a dear friend of the Czarina’s and mine had a spare shade frame that needed to be moved, and her sense of Scottish frugality is even stronger than mine. Hence, the new Nepenthes frame goes up right after this weekend’s show.
It may not look like much here, and it looks even less impressive stripped to raw parts and put into temporary storage. In its full complete state, covered with fresh greenhouse film, and full of pitcher plants and bladderworts, though, it’ll look glorious.
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?
Admittedly, it’s due to both that sudden freeze we had two weeks ago and our current unnaturally dry autumn, but anyone want to tell me again about how North Texas doesn’t get fall color? (As noted before, this is definitely due to our current lack of precipitation, because I’ve passed these trees for years on my way to the Day Job, and never once seen a smidgen of color from them before. I’m glad for the moment of beauty, but I’ll also be very, VERY glad when we start getting rain again. It’s getting to be a bit too much like 1952, meteorologically speaking, to suit me.)
As one of the longtime vendors at the North American Reptile Breeders Conference shows in Arlington, I’d looked forward to visiting Plano Pets (in Plano, Texas, naturally enough) for a while. Always avoid procrastination whenever you can, my friends: by the time I finally got out that way, it was in time for a big moving sale. Even then, it was definitely worth the trip.
For those unfamiliar with Plano Pets’s reputation, this is a classic pet shop in the old sense. Yes, the old locale carried items for dogs, cats, and various small mammals, but their two big draws were the fish and reptile selections. By the time I got out there, they were pretty well-cleared, but oh, you could see what once was.
That’s not the important part. The important part is two-fold, in two lessons on how to do business. Speaking both as someone who gets a lot of odd requests for plants, and someone who worked at a shopping mall pet shop in the mid-1980s, I’m putting together a similar list to this one and displaying it prominently the moment the Triffid Ranch opens a retail space.
And the other lesson? Say hello to “Fred”.
For those unfamiliar with reptiles, Fred is a black-and-white tegu, the Argentine equivalent to a monitor lizard. When I first started keeping exotic reptiles in the 1980s, I was told over and over “You don’t want a tegu. It’s not that they get big; it’s that they never get tame, and they’re always vicious.” Nobody sent Fred that memo, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s one big scaly cat. He likes being held and he loves being pet, and I haven’t met a lizard that so enjoyed having his ears scritched since my late savannah monitor Afsan.
Fred, in many ways, demonstrates a very valuable point about Plano Pets. Fred’s keeper, and his father, regularly come back to the store to let everyone know how well he’s doing. In fact, about once per month, weather permitting, they bring in Fred as well, partly to say hello, and partly to let other customers know that the foul reputation tegus have for being aggressive isn’t valid any more. (It used to be true back in the Eighties, when all of the available stock in tegus was wild-caught, and the survivors making it to US pet shops were traumatized beyond belief. These days, with both an exceptional captive breeding population and improved knowledge on their habits in the wild, that perception is about as cliched as the perception of orchids being tough to raise.) In the meantime, Fred’s public appearances mean that he’s in a controlled environment, where herpetophobes can look without any worries of his getting too close. (My mother is morbidly afraid of snakes, and I understand now all too well that the last way to get someone over a phobia is to force the issue. This was taken to a specific point the afternoon this photo was taken, as one spectator had no problems with her daughters saying hello to Fred, but she herself couldn’t get past her phobia of lizards to enter the store.)
As of now, Plano Pets’s new location is still up in the air, but the crew has hopes of making an announcement soon. Until them, with Fred as an example, previous Triffid Ranch customers are more than welcome to send in photos of their plants. In fact, with the owners’ permission, I’d like to start posting a regular listing, just to show that carnivorous plants aren’t that difficult to raise, either.
It’s been a rough week for just about everybody, and the weather in North Texas this week just compounded the misery. It’s supposed to break tonight, but as with all things meteorologically related, I’ll believe it when I see it. I have to keep that attitude, because that’s the only way to stay sane.
The last three weeks have been roughly the same thing, over and over. Hot and sunny. Hot and sunny. Slightly warmer than the surface of Venus. However, last week, we had a surprise squall come through. For about five glorious minutes one evening, we had a perfect rainbow visible from just one spot. This spot is always a good one for catching rainbows in the evening if the conditions were right, but this one had the brilliance you usually only see in the desert.
Even better, although it doesn’t show up well in the photos, this full rainbow was a double.
As I mentioned, this spot is especially good for catching rainbows, especially with sudden squalls rushing to the east, but this one isn’t the most impressive I’ve caught yet. This site is the only one where I’ve seen double rainbows, but this is the second double I’ve seen so far. Early last year, though, I was lucky enough to head this way and spot a triple.
And as far as the Czarina was concerned, though, it was even better. She’s inordinately proud of her car, so you can imagine how thrilled she was to see what was at the rainbow’s end.
The day before he died, we gave Tramplemaine one last view of the garden. He was never much for going outside, but he was always curious as to what I was doing out back. Since we knew it was time, we gave him one last request, and gave him as much time as he wanted.
I’ve had a lot of cats in my life, but nobody as inherently fascinating as Tramplemaine. In pace requiescat.
And in extremely mournful news, the premature wake for ranch cat Tramplemaine came true this evening. If things go quiet for a while, that’s why. Nearly fifteen years is a good run for a cat, but it was far too short a time for us.
For various obscure reasons, the Czarina named the little tuxedo cat that showed up at her front door “Tramplemaine,” after the character in the stage play Noises Off. He insinuated himself into her life the way he did with everyone else: he just popped in as if he held the deed to the place, and looked at everyone else as the hired help. He knew his place, and his place was to make sure that everyone and everything ran smoothly. If it didn’t, everyone involved had to answer to him.
The first time I met him was at the end of 1998, when the Czarina and her ex-husband needed a catsitter while they were at an out-of-town show. The two of us had been good friends long before we ever got involved, and I figured that this wouldn’t be a problem. Come in, scratch ears for a few minutes, put down fresh food, and leave. Little did I know that he’d want conversation, too. Everyone, and I mean everyone, talks about how their cats are unique, and that they all understand what their humans are saying. I know perfectly well that most of that understanding is really picking up verbal, pitch, and positional cues, so I was surprised to discover that he really did want to talk. He wasn’t very good at responses, but that was more an issue of anatomy than education. Even then, he gave a good shot: once, when he was caught sharpening his claws on the couch, the Czarina yelled at him “What the hell are you doing?”, and he clearly enunciated “Idunno.” In that regard, he was already more eloquent than most teenagers I know.
When the two of us started seeing each other, Tramplemaine set the ground rules for my dating her. There was the time he got on the top shelf of a very tall bookcase and knocked books on my head, just to watch how I reacted. Most nights, he slept on the Czarina’s head to watch over her, and would try to wash her hair in her sleep if she was having nightmares. More often, he was the one having nightmares, and I learned this by awakening to being kicked in the face by an unconscious cat.
It didn’t stop there. Tramplemaine understood early that I was a sucker for cats, and he learned rapidly that he could flop on my side of the bed and pretend complete obliviousness that I might want to sleep there as well. This usually continued with my looking him dead in the eye and telling him “You know, animals sleep on the floor.” He’d just look back and mang a bit, to tell me “I know. Better get a blanket and pillow, because it’s cold down there.” He’d ultimately move to the Czarina’s pillow, but would retaliate by walking on my head when he’d get up in the middle of the night. Between that and Leiber, our other cat, sleeping on my ankles all night, I knew my place in the household, and that was “official cat feet warmer.”
Just about everyone who met Tramplemaine had a story to relate about him, but one of the best ones was when we threw a New Year’s Eve party shortly after our first anniversary. De and Tom, two old friends, had come out for their first real gathering since becoming new parents, and De tried to pick up Tramplemaine to move him from a chair. She nearly threw her back out picking him up and exclaimed “Who knew such a small cat would be so heavy?” Tom immediately responded “That’s because black is very slimming.” Tramplemaine understood the compliment, and was his best friend for the entire night.
In truth, Tramplemaine played everyone as the help, with the exception of Leiber. Leiber is a sweet cat, but he’s so dumb that he trips on the carpet pattern when he gets up in the morning. Tramplemaine had great fun with a stepbrother who could and would walk into windowpanes without realizing what was wrong. Worse, Leiber continued to sound like a kitten well into adulthood, so his idea of a mighty battle cry was a squeaky “MEEEEEEEEEP!” The first few times the two of them would play together, I heard the squeaks and thought he’d been locked in a closet somewhere. Then I’d hear Tramplemaine’s lusty yowls and realize the truth. After a while, we started referring to it as “The Ming and Mang Show”. Neither of them had any interest in going outside, under any circumstances, but they had no problems with fighting for a prime window spot to watch birds and squirrels, so we were often awakened by Ming and Mang practice bouts at dawn on a Sunday morning.
That was another thing about Tramplemaine. Most cats don’t mind nicknames, and many really don’t notice the difference between nicknames and given names so long as they’re stated in the same tone. With Tramplemaine, a nickname was horribly undignified, and we both realized it. Leiber, on the other hand, gleefully answered to “Shit For Brains”, and Tramplemaine got quite a bit of humor out of whatever new jape we could use to get Leiber to come for dinner. (As mentioned a while back, Leiber was named after the author Fritz Leiber. If I’d known he was going to be that dumb when he was a kitten, I would have named him “Niven”.)
Not that things were always perfect. When the Czarina first let him in, she assumed he was an older cat because of his attitude, and was surprised to discover at his first vet visit that he was probably no more than six months old. Considering the dangers of her old neighborhood, she’s convinced that she saved his life, and I don’t doubt it. Shortly before we got married, she got word from the vet that Tramplemaine was also testing positive for an incurable form of Bartonella, which meant regular antibiotics and steroids for the rest of his life. The vet noted that most cats with this form of bartonellosis usually live a year or so, and the Czarina was understandably busted up about this. This cat was the only good that came from her previous marriage, and to have him taken away that soon was just an added cruelty. Who could have foretold that he’d beat everyone’s estimates for nearly a decade?
Another one of the issues he had came up when the two of us started doing shows together. The first time we came home from a bad show, we walked in to find Tramplemaine hiding under the couch. Apparently, her ex would demonstrate his displeasure at a bad show by throwing whatever he could get his hands on, and Tramplemaine simply learned to duck and cover. It took five years, but he finally accepted that no matter how bad the show, I wasn’t going to act the same way, and he’d greet us at the door like a sympathetic neighborhood bartender instead of finding a good fallout shelter.
For most of his life, Tramplemaine continued to run the house as he saw fit, but the years started to take notches out of him. The bartonellosis gave him ulcerated gums that would clear up temporarily with a new regimen of antibiotics, but about a month ago, he started attempting to eat dry food and then spitting it on the floor. It wasn’t out of disgust, but out of pain. We took a look at him, and found a new lump on the side of his right jaw. An emergency vet’s visit told us the worst: Tramplemaine had a tumor on his jaw, and based on prior experience with the vet, these tumors in cats were incurable. Their spread and growth could sometimes be stopped with chemotherapy, but how do you explain to a nearly 15-yer-old cat as to why he’s this miserable? Even if the chemo didn’t kill him, this wasn’t a guarantee that other tumors wouldn’t pop up right after the treatment, so the vet was quietly relieved when we decided that extreme measures wouldn’t make a difference and all we could do was make him comfortable.
That was about three weeks ago. Last week, he had us particularly spooked by his refusal to eat wet food, and the Czarina just cuddled him for a bit and asked “Are you ready to go, little man?” For about three days, he sauntered around as of telling us “Boy, did I play YOU!”, but he started sliding again. Barring an absolute miracle, which seems to be awfully lacking in this house, Tramplemaine might live through the weekend. In the meantime, so long as he isn’t in pain, we’re going to make him as comfortable as we can, and then we’re probably going to take him for his last vet trip on Monday. At this point, it’s the only thing we can do for him, and since I wasn’t able to be there for my previous cats when they died a decade ago, I’m making a point to be there for him at the end.
In a roundabout way, this is all to explain that if nobody hears from either of us for the next few days, that’s why. Some people may say “it’s just a cat,” but Tramplemaine is a cat that’s been an essential part of my life for one-third of it. He deserves as respectful a sendoff as I can give him.
I’ve touted the Beer & Bones events at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park for a while, and last week’s “Space Cadets” B&B involving space science was one of the best yet. It was also a little bittersweet, too, as this was the last one to be held in the old Fair Park Museum of Fine Arts building. Starting next January, while the old buildings will remain (considering that they’re historical landmarks from the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition), most of the Museum’s activities are going to the new Perot Museum in downtown. In my case, I realized that I’ve been causing trouble at the Museum for half my life, back when this building was still The Science Place. Man, where has the time gone?
Crowd-wise, this was one of the most diverse as well. Any time you have a space-related event in Dallas, there’s at least one twerp who comes out in his Star Trek uniform (the best I can figure, someone’s still nostalgic for the Federation Science exhibition that ran there back in 1995), but the vast majority of attendees were there to learn something. Oh, and to meet other local science junkies: I suspect that about half of the attendees were high school and middle school teachers on vacation, and this was perfect for them.
As has been the case since the beginning of Beer & Bones, what really makes the event work is a combination of exemplary activities and events orchestrated by MNS staffers and the presentations made by outside volunteers. This time, the National Space Society of North Texas came out to display samples of simulated lunar soil, discuss upcoming robotic and manned space missions, and generally turn vaguely interested bystanders into space science enthusiasts. I’ve been an enthusiast since the Mariner missions of the Seventies, and they made me excited.
Then again, that’s what the Museum has done best from the beginning. The old walls have plenty of stories: the robot dinosaur exhibitions, BodyWorlds, the long-running human body and hands-on physics demonstrations…this place has a lot of good memories associated with it.
Finally, as I was leaving for the evening, a small mystery. The Museum terrazzo floors feature inlaid constellations and planets across the lobby, with the terrestrial planets right near the ticket counter. For instance, here’s Mercury…
…and Mars. However, off to the right of Mars was this strange little body that I first thought might have been the asteroid Ceres or Vesta. Then I saw the name.
Now, seeing as how the IMAX theater in the Museum is dedicated to the founders of Texas Instruments, this might be a reference to Cecil H. Green, the geophysicist who helped found TI. Of course, this being Dallas, it might also be a reference to Cecil Green the Dallas race car driver. Considering that “Cecil Green” appears to be a green and pastoral world, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it had been discovered and named after Canada’s one and only Time Lord. I’d ask for elaboration at the next Beer & Bones, but since there won’t be one at the old museum…
Posted onJune 7, 2012|Comments Off on Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains
Last year, my best friend Paul Mears and I did something that we’d been planning since we were freshmen in high school. Namely, we made a road trip across Texas to Cross Plains, in order to crash the Robert E. Howard Days celebration. For those unfamiliar with “Two-Gun Bob,” he was an extremely prolific pulp magazine writer of the 1930s: in many ways, he, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith completely changed the face of American literature, particularly fantastic literature, through their mutual association via the magazine Weird Tales. In fact, a few of you may have seen a little movie called The Whole Wide World starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger from about fifteen years ago:
Last year, the occasion was a bit somber, as the Saturday we arrived was the 75th anniversary of Howard’s suicide. That didn’t stop fans and enthusiasts from coming to the Robert E. Howard Museum from all over the planet.
What’s funny is that while I was the person who introduced Mears to Howard’s work, he rapidly exceeded me in reading just about everything Howard ever wrote. In particular, he wanted to emulate a famous photo of Howard enjoying the loosening of Prohibition:
This is funny to me, of course, because Mears much more closely resembles a young H.P. Lovecraft.
As mentioned previously, this is a bit of an event for Howard enthusiasts, so we’re also going to hang out with friends. Well, when I say “hang out with friends,” what I really mean is “say hello to Mark Finn.” When I say “say hello to Mark Finn,” what I really mean is “make him regret bitterly not killing me when he had the chance.” Mark and I have been friends and fellow troublemakers for working on twenty years, and he’s blessedly one of the few writer friends from the old days who doesn’t nuhdz me about coming back to writing about science fiction. Part of that is because he secretly enjoys my gardening tirades whenever we get together, and part of that is because he knows and understands that my old science fiction writing sucked the farts from dead cats until their heads caved in. Either way, it’s a good reason to hang out with him, as he’s coming out with a big pile of copies of his book Blood and Thunder, and I’ve been requested by several Day Job friends to snag autographed copies. After that, we’re going to talk about local zoology and botany for a while, because I have an idea for a container garden project that absolutely needs his assistance.
Naturally, this won’t be just about pulp magazine nostalgia and a remembrance of a life cut far too short. This time last year, Cross Plains was at the beginning of a drought that exceeded that in North Texas, and the last time the area was hit so badly was when Howard was still alive. The rains returned this year, though, so I’m looking forward to getting photos of the Edwards Plateau flora. Among many others, I hope to get an identification of this bush on the REH Museum property, seeing as how everyone had left for the day by the time I saw it.
As can be seen, much like the rest of Cross Plains, there’s a lot of beauty, so long as you can get out of the blasting sun to appreciate it.
Anyway, Robert Howard Days runs this Friday and Saturday, so we’ll see you out there if you’re there and lament not being able to torment you mercilessly if you aren’t. See you then.
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Posted onMay 9, 2012|Comments Off on Texas Triffid Ranch: Year Two
A solid year and 350 posts later, and the new Triffid Ranch blog finishes its shakeout cruise. Now it’s time to add some improvements, get rid of some things that don’t quite work, and try to make it a bit more consistent. Most of all, the original Triffid Ranch site is working on four years old (having launched in time for the Convergence 14 convention in Ybor City, Florida), and it definitely needs a refit. Time to do everything at once.
Other than that, it’s more of the usual for the next 365 days. More research, more observations, more learning and sharing what comes across the firmament. Heck, I might even open up the blog to comments this year.
Posted onApril 30, 2012|Comments Off on I get by with a little hemp from my friends
One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.
For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.
For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.
Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”
As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.
As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.
And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.
Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.
Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.
The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.
The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”
Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.
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Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Mike Royko, the quintessential Chicago newspaper columnist. To say that Royko was one of my most influential journalistic role models as a kid doesn’t even come close to the situation. In fact, not only did Royko influence the state of the newspaper column through the Twentieth Century, but I submit that media through the Twenty-First owes him recognition as well. You wouldn’t have had newspaper columnists as diverse as Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, and Lewis Grizzard without Uncle Mike’s inspiration, and I’m certain that if he were alive today, he’d have one of the most-read and most-quoted blogs on the planet.
At the same time, considering what has happened to standard journalism since he died, I also think he really got the last laugh. Royko was famous for quitting the Chicago Sun-Times the day after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, and laughing when Murdoch tried to pretend this wasn’t an issue and ran old Royko columns in their place. In some afterlife, I can see him cutting up with his friend Studs Terkel, howling “They practically gave me a state funeral! Talk about leaving early to avoid the rush! I wonder what they’re gonna do for Skip Bayless and Elvis Mitchell: set fire to the garbage can before tossing them in?”
Goodbye, Uncle Mike. And goodbye to your lifelong pal Slats Grabnik, too. There are times where my old friend Edgar Harris mourns that we won’t get any more anecdotes from Slats or Dr. I.M. Kookie as well.
(Naturally, this isn’t helped by taking a look at the Welsh resort Portmeirion, the shooting location for The Prisoner, and its extensive gardens. It’s on the list of places to visit when the opportunity presents itself, after McMurdo Sound and the Blue Mountains of Australia.)
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I have good news and bad news concerning the spate of tornadoes ranging through the Dallas area yesterday. The good news is that I didn’t make it, and I’m now doomed to walk the earth and feed on the flesh of the living. The bad news is that since I don’t have any other priorities, the Czarina wants me to mop the kitchen floor. (Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but right now the cats are shedding their winter coats. Five minutes after I finish mopping, they come strolling in, and visitors compliment us on our new grey felt floor covering. I’d shave them both if I thought it would do any good, as Leiber in particular appears to be part tarantula whenever he’s picked up. One neck scritch, and you can see his outline in shed hair on the carpet.)
Anyway, seriously, we missed the worst of the storms. No baseball-sized hail, no tornado touchdowns, and no panic at the Day Job over which of us would make the best food source if rescue wasn’t coming. Lots and lots of rain, a full two inches’ worth, which made the Sarracenia very happy, but nothing abnormal. Of course, just try defining “abnormal weather” in North Texas if you want a complete semantic nervous breakdown. Considering the climate anomalies over the last two years, anything short of an asteroid strike, and the local meteorologists just shrug. Now it’s time to help everyone else clean up, because while things could have been a lot worse, we still have quite the mess.
EDIT: And to add to the weather-related spectacular, I just realized that I got the Harry Potter scar on my forehead thirty years ago Monday, when I was hit in the head with a sheet of plywood caught in a dust storm coming through the Dallas area. Considering that this would have caught me in the throat had I been standing up, instead of leaning over a pig pen (long story), I had enough fun with weather-related mishaps before I turned 16. Monday was also the 30th anniversary of my first published article, a book review in my high school newspaper, so I can state with authority that disasters and misery tend to come in pairs. And so it goes.