Tag Archives: Czarina

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The biggest difference between the Czarina’s family and my family: Christmas dinner. My maternal grandfather, who loved to cook but didn’t like the time wasted on long trips, would have laughed himself sick over this. My paternal grandfather would have thought about this and said “You know, this could work.” The Czarina and her family, though, look at this and just collectively scream in horror. After ten Christmas dinners with me, you’d think they’d be hoarse by now.

And now for something truly different

And now for something a bit intriguing. In the middle of November, the Czarina and I took our niece Emily to the annual Dallas Gem & Mineral Society Gem, Mineral, Fossil, Bead & Jewelry Show (*gasp for breath*) for a quick recce. The Czarina is always looking for new stones and beads for her jewelry, and I was looking for intriguing rock and slag glass samples for saikei arrangements. The big surprise wasn’t just in glass, but what kind of glass we found.

Uranium glass slab

Ray Thorpe of the Horseshoe Bend Knappers comes out to the Gem & Mineral Show as often as he can, and he regularly demonstrates his skills at knapping flint, obsidian, and slag glass for very appreciative audiences. Ray also sells slabs of knapping stone, and I was already drooling over some of the chunks of obsidian and chert that he had available. Out in front, though, were these slabs of custardy glass that really weren’t all that impressive, until a fellow dealer came over with a high-power UV LED flashlight intended for phosphorescent mineral hunting and ran it over a slab.

Most people are unfamiliar these days with uranium glass, but uranium used to be used as an additive to glasses to produce particularly vibrant colors. The main side effect is that both clear or “vaseline” and opaque or “custard” uranium glasses fluoresce under UV light. I’ve been collecting vaseline glass since I was in high school (the Czarina even found a beautiful vaseline glass juicer that she gave me for my birthday a few years back), but I’d never once seen any uranium slag glass. Ray got his from a collector in West Virginia who took advantage of the dumped slag from a long-defunct uranium glassworks, cut it into slabs, and used the more uniform slabs for knapping. (And boy howdy, you need to see knife blades and arrowheads made from uranium glass to believe them.) The rest he sold, and I promptly bought out his current stock for experimentation.

Now here’s where things get even more interesting. My day job is in a venue with some VERY interesting characters, and one of my co-workers is a former nuclear reactor tech from the US Navy. He still dabbles with various related projects, such as Geiger counters the size of keychain fobs (since the tube is so small, it’s not incredibly sensitive, but it can detect beta and gamma particle sources), so he dragged in his professional Geiger counter to see exactly how much radiation these slabs were emitting. It turned out that custard uranium glass is a slight alpha particle emitter, meaning that its only danger would come from ingesting or inhaling fragments (one reason why I don’t plan to use that vaseline glass juicer any time soon), but its radiation emissions were otherwise negligible. Another one of my co-workers is a glassworker in his spare time, so he naturally asked “Do you have a piece to spare?”

Several years back, the Czarina started lampwork training in order to make her own glass beads, and as with flintknapping, I picked up just enough knowledge to be dangerous. One of the things I learned was that different glass compositions have differing expansion and contraction rates when heated and cooled, and mixing incompatible glasses means that the final product cracks or shatters when it cools to room temperature. Mike was very familiar with these incompatibilities, and initial tests suggested that he had glass that could be miscible with the custard glass slabs. A final test to incorporate it into a paperweight, though…not so much.

Custard uranium glass paperweight

As can be told by the extensive cracks, that custard glass wasn’t quite compatible. However, Mike plans to use another piece and convert it into frit, and try again. In the meantime, this paperweight could theoretically come apart at any time, and I have plans for the fragments as part of a moonlight garden project when it does. And the rest of the custard glass? Keep an eye open at the Czarina’s next show, because she has some ideas for club-friendly pendants.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The Czarina gives me grief about remembering all sorts of odd anniversaries, usually those involving the two of us. Here’s one worth remembering: as of tomorrow, November 23, 20 years have elapsed since we first met. Well, that’s the day I remember meeting her, because she relates my first meeting her six months earlier and making quite an impression. I think she just came across some other lunatic who looked and sounded just like me, because it’s either that or I was popping back and forth randomly through time in 1991 and I still really haven’t met her for the first time yet.

In any case, the plan is for us to celebrate a few more of these odd anniversaries, at least until sanity intrudes and she comes to her senses. With luck, that won’t happen for a while, because I let her know that I love her in the same way I did a decade ago: by asking “Does this rag smell like chloroform to you?”

Curse of the Frugal

As mentioned in the past, at times, my paternal Scot ancestry and the habits associated with it are a curse. An absolute curse. I don’t mean just in the traditional ways, such as competing within the family to see who could knit the longest Tom Baker scarf with one’s nose hair over the winter. (We Riddells not only beat out everyone else in the vicinity on this, but also being able to knit whole tocques from a single eyebrow hair. See, there’s cold, there’s COLD, and there’s “preparing for life in Canada”.) I mean as in coming up with ideas to use available resources that come off as just crazy.

By way of example, this year set off combat shock in almost everyone involved in horticulture in Texas. The summer finished the job started by the particularly long and brutal sub-freezing snap back last February, and we’re now chopping and sawing and pruning the trees that didn’t make it. This also means that a lot of enterprising individuals are out picking through the spoils piles for wood. With dead pecan and mesquite trees, this means smoking wood for grilles and commercial smokers. For everything else, it’s firewood in anticipation of another bad winter. Texas generally doesn’t have weather that justifies stocking up on firewood, or even using a fireplace for more than a few days out of the year. After this last February, though, I don’t blame anybody a bit.

ER doctors and nurses regularly relate how so many of their most interesting cases involve someone telling them “There I was, minding my own business, when Some Guy came up and shot/stabbed/sodomized/defenestrated me for no reason whatsoever.” Well, there I was, biking to the Day job, minding my own business, when Some Guy threw a particularly vicious idea into my head. No provocation or anything. That idea was “You know, what’s to keep you from using this bounty to heat your plants this season?” And one thousand years of ancestral Riddells, from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, stood up and screamed “HURRAH!”

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Czarina wasn’t there to save me from myself. Besides, give her an engineering problem, and she’ll spend the next six months researching every possibility and offering a plan that’s both cheaper and more efficient than anything I could come up with. Not that I’m complaining about this, but then she kvetches about how this took time away from jewelry design.

I’ll also note that using available biomass for greenhouse heating isn’t new, and the wonderful folks at FarmTek have a lot of commercial biomass heating solutions available for consideration. I’ve also been drooling over FarmTek’s radiant floor heating systems, too. The problem with having a very small nursery is that these solutions really aren’t all that practical, especially when most of my issues can be handled with a much smaller option.

The idea kept eating at me, though, and I started researching what the Victorians did to keep small greenhouses warm during bad English winters. That led me to reports of people using converted Franklin stoves with water boilers for supplemental greenhouse heating, and from there to the Good Time Stove Company, and its collection of refitted and repaired gas, wood, coal, and electric stoves.

Oh, my. Who else wants a steampunk nuclear weapon?

This is an idea that may have to sit for a while, at least until the Triffid Ranch gets a new greenhouse solely for tropical plants. Several friends with expertise in wood-burning heating point out that the worst thing about going with wood in severely cold weather is the “one a.m. feeding”, but I’m also glad to note that our current climate means that nights like those are rare. Now, cooling a large greenhouse is a bigger issue, and one that requires a more high-tech solution for Texas summers. And so it goes.

A little foggy

As usual, the Czarina is overachieving, so she’s laid down the law concerning the upcoming holidays. Since we have Christmas and our ninth wedding anniversary coming within days of each other, she’s already making plans for giftgiving, not just for me but for the entire family, and she will not be stopped. The time between now and January isn’t a holiday: for her, it’s a military campaign. I just warn friends not to use the obvious Jack Kirby reference, because even though the comparison fits, as does the physical and temperamental resemblance, she really, really hates being called “Big Barda“. (Keeping up the geeky analogy, have pity for her. She’s obviously married to Ambush Bug.)

Because she’s so determined this year, the edict has come down from the mountaintop: a minimum of presents this year. It’s not necessarily due to finances, but because she has major issues with my getting her things that are interesting but not as functional as she’d like. Last August, for instance, I bought her a Fresnel lens for her birthday, which was much appreciated but not quite as useful as she thought…at least, without a big stand on which to focus it as a solar forge. Instead, she wants to take care of things that we really need. Since I fear her sharp and terrible elbows, I comply.

The problem is that most of my present wishes are inordinately practical, too. We’ve both been running our own businesses for too long: we look at the usual lovey items that married couples get each other, and snort “That’s okay, but what I really want is something that does something.” In her case, that’s relatively easy, because there’s always a surfeit of interesting stonecarving and stoneshaping gear out there. In my case, though, either my ambitions are a bit too expensive (a new greenhouse) or too esoteric (a full sterile tissue propagation facility). I have plans, but they require lots of planning.

And this is where Loch Ness Water Gardens comes in. I’d already been complaining about the lousy lack of humidity this summer and fall (one day, 80 percent relative humidity, and the next, down to 9), and misters simply weren’t cutting it. I’d been poking around for a while for commercial fog humidifiers, but most either had inadequate reservoirs or were too big for an operation like mine. More importantly, they didn’t have style. Worse, I’d found a few ultrasonic misters on the market, but they were mostly designed for reptile care. They were great for chameleon enclosures, but they wouldn’t cut it in a greenhouse.

I just recently came across the crew at Loch Ness Water Gardens via Twitter, and was already impressed with the company’s sense of humor. A quick peek through its offerings, though, and I was hooked. I didn’t know that ultrasonic foggers had improved to the point where they were available for pond applications, and discovering the five-disk pond fogger…well, that’s that.

Mind you, this won’t replace plans for a full evaporative cooling system further down the road. This will, though, keep things nice and sultry for when the temperatures aren’t quite as high, especially at night. Put this inside a good 100-gallon Rubbermaid livestock tank, switch out the LEDs in this with UV and deep green LEDs, and it’ll be the creepiest little greenhouse in Texas.

And just to finish the story, the Czarina already passed on what she wants for the holidays, and I’ll have a full month to mess with her head in the meantime. This is going to be too much fun.

“Today on Handyman’s Corner…”

Things are getting interesting at the Triffid Ranch, so apologies for a lack of immediate updates. The Czarina and I are switching out computers (gently used PC so she can do bookkeeping, gently used Macintosh for me for several upcoming projects), so our evenings are punctuated with screams of triumph, rage, and exultation, often all at once. People listening to the racket outside would have every reason to believe we aren’t married.

Between this and our current run of late-season thunderstorms, things have fallen behind. I still haven’t had the chance to relate the story of Frank Garza of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs in Cleburne (although I will say that they’re the best hot dogs I’ve had since I left Chicago 32 years ago) or the final assessment on last weekend’s Discovery Days show at the Museum of Nature & Science last weekend, but the’re on the way.

Anyway. Several friends (including the Dallas music legend Barry Kooda) are regular enthusiasts of the various local and statewide auction houses and excess inventory sales going on through the area, and these can be dangerous. This isn’t just because you can find yourself almost literally drowning in “great deals”. It’s because the ideas that come with them are so crazy that they almost make sense, and crazy ideas with logic behind them make the baby Czarina cry.

For instance, as related far too often in the past, this last summer was the worst in Texas history, both in temperature and in duration. In the process, I lost several plants that I’d had for years, mostly due to our record highs in low temperatures. Many carnivores, such as the cobra plants of Oregon (Darlingtonia) and the sun pitchers (Heliamphora) of South America need a significant temperature drop between day and night during their growing seasons, and that just isn’t possible through July and August without technological assistance. I won’t even start on trying to control humidity as well, because that story is getting really boring.

I was already working on possible solutions, and ones that wouldn’t take ridiculous amounts of power or maintenance, when I went poking on Lone Star Online, a site specializing in auctioning off state and local government surplus. And there, there on the Group W bench, was a lot for two, count ’em, TWO Traulsen rotating food display cases. With a current bid of $75, no less.

Refrigerated case

One part of my brain knew exactly what was going to happen. Namely, I could hear the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheaths, drooling venom onto the floor as they prepared to wield sudden and bloody retribution for challenging her reign. Even if I argued “It’d stay in the garage! Honest!”, the cries of triumph and horror coming from the front of the house would be drastically different in tone, especially if they were followed with my sobbing. The other part, the part that always gets me into trouble, thought “Okay, it’s glass. It’s designed to keep up humidity so that pastries and other baked goods don’t go stale. If it can keep Key lime pie from turning into a dessicated mess, it would definitely work on keeping Darlingtonia and Heliamphora cool and humid. Now all I need to do is figure out how to upgrade the lights to high-intensity LED arrays to put out enough lumens to keep both plants happy…”

And this, friends, is why you never want to let your brain get you into trouble. It’s bad enough when I suggested to the Czarina that we could always buy a house with a pool so we could cover it with a pool enclosure and turn it into one giant greenhouse. She’s either going to scream in rage at my wanting to drive down to Austin to pick up a rotating pie and cake display case, or she’s just going to sigh in exasperation and tell her mother about it. Then I get two pairs of elbows coming at my already-compromised cranium.

For the record, I have no intention of driving down to Austin for these. I’m just going to keep an eye open for a local restaurant closing, and snag one then. Now all I need is a Possum Van to carry it home.

Pumpkins scream in the dead of night

Don’t get me wrong: I like Halloween. I like Halloween very much, and as far as I’m concerned, the year goes straight to pot right between November 1 and February 2. (For those who live outside the US, February 2 is the day Sid Vicious rises from his grave, looks down at his shadow, and realizes that he has to wait six more weeks until spring.) It’s just that for the Czarina and myself, Halloween itself has the same urgency that New Year’s Eve had for Hunter S. Thompson. Namely, this is the day where we back off and let the amateurs have some fun.

That’s why I’m actually glad to see Charlotte Germane’s thumbnail guide to Halloween gardening, and not just because the Czarina regularly impersonates Morticia Addams when she’s out working with her roses. We all have to start somewhere, and going with dark foliage and blooms as background or as particular highlights is the big difference between “planned horror” and “someone forgot to mow last week”. The only problem is knowing when to stop, as we both know far too well. When you’re buying the Crassula ovata cultivar “Gollum” just to see the expression on your mother-in-law’s face, it’s far too late.

Thursday is Resource Day

We’re now in the final stretch before FenCon VIII, so expect at least some radio silence. Now that the soul-stripping heat has let off for a while, and the Yellow Hurty Thing in the Sky is behind a welcome layer of cloud cover, it’s time to get to work.

Well, all work and no play makes Jack Nicholson overact, so there’s time for some fun. Specifically, for those in the Dallas area, the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park hosts its latest Beer & Bones adults-only event tonight, starting at 7:00. If you can’t make it, make plans for the next one on December 15, but try to get out while the weather is cool and the attitudes mellow.

Should you want to stick with something more horticulture-related, there’s always something to be said about crashing the criminally underappreciated Texas Discovery Gardens on Friday. Its upcoming The Art of Nature exhibition features a reception on Friday evening, and then it’ll run through the end of the year. With the State Fair of Texas coming up on September 30, either get out there now to avoid the parking horrors, or show up during the Fair to see it and the State Fair Fall Garden Exhibition at the same time. Or after you see what Hanson has been up to since 1997: I’m not one to judge.

In more personal news, I received a postcard from Scott Elyard of Coherent Lighthouse, letting me know about his and Raven Amos’s Dinosaurs & Robots art show next month. Years back, Scott and I discussed that odd fascination with jungle ruins and dinosaurs that runs through fantastic art for the last seventy years or so, and this card made me realize that the only thing odder than dinosaurs in old Mayan ruins has to be robot dinosaurs in Mayan ruins. Anyway, his piece “Trikeratos” piece inspired me, and so back to the workshop for me. Heh heh heh.

Finally, the Czarina acknowledges that it’s time to get a new greenhouse. The current one was a cheapie hobby greenhouse purchased from a friend nearly seven years ago, and the plants outgrew the greenhouse about two years ago. Since she won’t let me have display cases or crocodile monitors, I’ve picked out a greenhouse she can get me for my next birthday, and it’s a beaut. I’m sure she’ll even help me harvest my own organs to pay for it, too. With a grapefruit spoon.

“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky, we know Paul Riddell’s a junkie.”

Until today, I thought I was going to be the happiest boy in the world this weekend. This is the weekend where the Czarina pulls out her brand new spot Fresnel lens and we conduct serious scientific experiments involving melting glasses and metals with solar power. You’ll probably be able to hear the whooping and hollering and the cries of “Hold my beer and watch this” from McMurdo Station. Using solar death rays with your true love to turn rock, glass, and metal into vapor: my life is one giant trophy full of ready-to-hatch dinosaur eggs with the word “WIN” spelled across the front in twenty-carat rubies.

Even with this, I know other people are going to have even more fun. I know this because Black Jungle Terrarium Supply in Turner Falls, Massachusetts is having a two-day End of Summer Sale, with all of its live plants marked down an additional 25 to 50 percent off. If you’ve ever seen Black Jungle’s gigantic solarium, you can understand why this is such a big deal. If you haven’t, let’s just say that it’s just a little smaller and a little less exciting than The Eden Project, but not by much. Nobody’s going to write an episode of Doctor Who around it, but an enterprising screenplay writer could use it as the home base for a Nero Wolfe who dabbled in carnivores and ant ferns when the orchids became too cloying.

Birthday beatings

I love the Czarina with all my heart and soul, and that’s probably why I give her so much grief. It’s obviously an addiction to adrenaline: walking up to a black rhinoceros and slapping it in the face, giving a Komodo dragon a thorough flossing, or going to a science fiction convention and telling the assembled crowd how the only thing you loathe more than Star Wars is its fandom are easy. Nothing compares to making the right comment that ends with the last things you see for the next six hours are her elbows going for your forehead. When it’s birthday season, it’s time to double down.

Now, the Czarina is exactly three weeks short of three years younger than I am, so she starts worrying about birthday celebrations around April. A lot of this comes from her being part of a very large and very enthusiastic Texas family, where quiet birthday parties are about as alien as dressing for minus-forty temperatures. (I regularly try to describe minus-forty weather to her, having lived through far too much of it in my childhood, and it’s much like describing the concept of “plaid” to Stevie Wonder. Our nephews and nieces love the idea of ice and snow for playing and skiing, but they question the sanity of anybody willingly living in places that stay frozen for eight months out of the year. I do, too, which is why I’m in Texas instead of Ontario.) Her mother reminds her of her obligations around February, so she has six months to fret and fuss to herself over whether she’s neglecting me. Naturally, I regularly steal Bill Cosby’s comment about how his kids can’t sleep at night unless they’ve had a good beating, and this time of the year, I sleep incredibly well.

It usually starts on the weekend, when we have some free time. We both know the rules. She asks for my input while keeping control of the situation, and not giving in to completely unreasonable requests. In turn, I know that if I make completely unreasonable requests for the next hour, for things she knows I don’t really want, I can drop a good humdinger and she’ll agree to it before realizing her folly. I can then look at her, tears running down my legs and into the stormdrains, and weep “But you PROMISED!” until she realizes I’m messing with her again. This fuels the adrenaline addiction, because one slipup, such as using the words “Wyoming real estate” or “threesome,” and I’ll need years of therapy before I regain such advanced skills as color vision and bladder control. Those elbows are sharp.

The other trick is to push the edge of “How does Brundlefly eat?” territory without going over. For instance, the esteemed garden guru Billy Goodnick commented on Facebook a little while back that the best way to take care of the arguments in a marriage about leaving the toilet seat up at night is to use the sink instead. I told him “Naaah. Use the dishwasher a couple of times, and she’ll be GLAD you use the sink.” When the Czarina saw this, her first response was to impersonate her mother and sigh “Oh, PAUL!” My immediate response was “What? I was going to say ‘oven’!”

And so the bladeplay began. She asks innocently “So what do you want for your birthday?”, and before the first syllable can emerge, yelling “And NOT a crocodile monitor.”

She’s obviously learning, as it’s only taken nine years of marriage for her to pick up my opening gambit. “Well, I had something I wanted, but SOMEone wouldn’t let me haul it home.”

“If you bring up that stupid case one more time…you know it’s GONE, right?”

“Yes (sniffle), because someone wouldn’t let me get a truck to pick it up. (sob)”

“Okay. Aside from a crocodile monitor or a glass case, or the case so you can keep the crocodile monitor, what do you want for your birthday?”

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. I mean, I have an answer, but finances won’t allow it for a while. I could have a smartaleck answer for her, and then she’d just look at me and say “Mm hm. And you got one of those when you were ten, right?”

*mope* “grumble* *scuff shoes in the dirt* “Yeah.” She’s remarkably perceptive as to the fact that it’s not 1976 any more, damn her.

“I’ll ask again, and I want an honest answer. What do you want for your birthday?”

Okay, then. I told her what I’m telling everyone else: get something for yourself. I’m serious.

To start, I can’t say enough about the intrepid crew at Bat World Sanctuary in Mineral Wells, Texas. Not only am I glad to contribute what I can to help out, but I’m still going through the kilos of bat guano they let me sweep up last year for fertilizer. (Yes, I spent the Czarina’s and my anniversary last year sweeping up bat guano, and I thanked them for the privilege.) It’s definitely time for you to adopt a bat. Every bit you chip in means a bit more guano for my dragonfruit and the Czarina’s roses, so everyone wins.

If you’re more inclined toward the floral, then get me something nice. Get a membership with the International Carnivorous Plant Society or a premium membership with the International Brugmansia and Datura Society. There’s also the North American Sarracenia Conservancy for those with a more particular bent, but all of these will work quite well.

Oh, and don’t listen to the Czarina when she mocks me about wanting a pony. She’s still ticked off at when I introduced her to the works of the exemplary author Jeffrey Somers. Specifically, he has a married life much like mine, only he refers to his wife as “the Duchess”, and she’s much shorter than he is. Otherwise, the beatings are identical. My mistake was noting that I truly fear the day that my wife and Jeff’s wife meet, because they’d probably be friends for life, and then Jeff and I would be in real trouble. I even started using an endearing nickname for the love of my life based on this observation.

Kids, take my word for it. Even in the days before Google, the Czarina would have found out what “MasterBlaster” meant sooner or later. And when the Duchess finds out, I’m going to need skin grafts on the insides of my nostrils from where the two of them yanked out my nose hair.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The best thing about summer in Texas is the end of it, because you get a whole five months to plan for parties and events. You can peek outside your shelter, shaking your fist and the big yellow hurty thing in the sky as it turns everything you know and love to ash, or you can plan for the day when sunset is at a sane time and the air doesn’t smell like charred flint. This is what kept Texans sane in the days before air conditioning, and it really applies now. To make matters worse, all of my friends are at the Independent Garden Center 2011 show, and knowing that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is testing the hotel staff’s tolerance of impromptu Ween karaoke and random midnight gunfire makes me grind my teeth down to the gumline. The day she finally figures out how to flush metallic sodium down the toilet so it clears out every greywater line in the hotel, I’ll stop calling her “amateur”.

Because of this, I’m tentatively making plans for a Triffid Ranch party, open to customers, patrons, and interested bystanders. It would have to be after the big show at FenCon at the end of September, but this isn’t a problem when you live in a place where October lasts for six months. It won’t be anything spectacular, such as the spectacular Sarracenia Northwest open houses, but it won’t be too embarrassing. Details to follow.

I’d just like to add one note. Once the Czarina gets involved, her addiction to bad puns will be unstoppable, and there may be trouble. It may get bad. The moment she serves anything that looks like this, all of you have permission to shoot me in the head, because it’ll be obvious that the woman I married is gone, and life won’t be worth living. Thank you in advance.

“Time for the Time Lord’s secret weapon: duct tape!”

The Czarina’s birthday was the Saturday before last, and for her birthday, I bought her (among many other things) a spot Fresnel lens. The response has been obvious: her mother rolled her eyes in disbelief when she heard what her son-in-law bought for her youngest daughter. Her father, on the other hand, is hinting about keeping this on hand for science experiments out at his ranch. The latter is the most tempting, seeing as how it’s really hard to start county-wide brushfires when you’re conducting refraction experiments at the bottom of an abandoned limestone quarry. If the cattle get in the way, well, we’ll discover how well-done the gobbets are after we scrape them off the quarry walls.

Much more seriously, we’re planning real science, first at the ranch and then back home. For the Czarina, we’ll be making a metal oven intended to maximize the heat produced by the Fresnel lens, that molten metal or glass doesn’t cool too quickly while it’s in the melting crucible. For me, I’m making Nepenthes pots from discarded LP records, and getting the grille started very quickly. I suspect that this will be her favorite birthday present yet.

A death in the family

The summer has been rough on all of the plants, and a few casualties were inevitable. Sadly, one of the most poignant for me was the death of the Nepenthes hamata I recently purchased from Sarracenia Northwest. The next time I try this, I’m getting a full air chiller system: it was handling daytime temperatures for the most part, but the house was just getting too warm during the day and wasn’t cooling off enough at night for it. It’s for the best that the Czarina didn’t see my reaction when I discovered it this morning: the last time she’d seen me cry like that, I was watching the end of Alien, when the only well-developed character in the movie besides the cat was blown out the airlock.

Have A Great Weekend

Saturday is the Czarina’s birthday. Just sayin’. If you don’t hear anything over the weekend, it’s because she’s going to be far too busy celebrating.


For further grins and giggles, I’ve discovered that the threat of picking up that glass case offers unlimited entertainment possibilities. It takes a certain demented mind to come up with brand new ways to torment the Czarina, or in my case, a mind wracked with the 24-hour summer flu going around. I come up with all sorts of Lovecraftian takes on destroying one’s sanity when mortally ill (I’m by now notorious for leaving ER techs in helpless laughter while they’re trying to suture me back together), and this one was a beaut.

By yesterday evening, I was feeling lucid and coherent enough to join my parents-in-law for dinner. Naturally, the terms “lucid” and “coherent” are subjects of intense discussion when talking about my train of thought on my better days, and when in this condition, I’d leave Charles Manson shaking his head and muttering “That boy ain’t right.” Also naturally, it’s not a perfect night unless the Czarina bellows “Now, LISTEN, Sparky!” at least once while we’re eating. The cats and I have one thing in common: we cannot sleep at night unless we’ve had a good beating.

We were starting on my mother-in-law’s exemplary pot roast when I broached the subject. “You know, I had a great idea about that case…”


“But it occurred to me…”


“Now there you go, cutting me off, and I haven’t even said ‘How does Brundlefly eat?’ yet. I can get away with saying this: you knew I was like this when you married me.”

*sad, hopeless sigh, as a tiny portion of her soul decided to play Russian roulette with an automatic to save time* “Am I going to regret this?”

“Not at all. I have an idea that would make salvaging that case a sane and reasonable proposition.”

She put her chin on her hand, just waiting for my non-Euclidean logic to justify my being capped in my sleep and buried in the desert somewhere. “Really.”

“Absolutely. It would be great…”


“…it would be wonderful…”


“…it would be a perfect…”


“It would be a perfect enclosure for a crocodile monitor.”

I will say that Akira Kurosawa would have been amazed and impressed by the Czarina’s economy of movement with a killing blow at that point, and her mother joined in with a glare that would have burned a hole in the wall had it been aimed at the wall instead of between my eyes. Her father just rolled his eyes and told himself “At least he’s better than the last husband,” which really isn’t saying much. The night was rent with screams and the occasional reminder of “Hey, at least I’m not blowing the mortgate money on drugs, right? RIGHT?” Some people just don’t know when they have a better deal than they had a decade ago.

Anyway, if you don’t hear from me by Monday, it’s because the Czarina will have taken the issue with my sneaking down to the hotel to rescue that case under her wing. Four rolls of duct tape are enough to immobilize any human alive, and please don’t ask me how I know this. And I’ll be giggling “And you BELIEVED me?” the whole time? Oh, our tenth anniversary is going to be an absolute blast.

“I’m a Time Lord, but I can change, if I have to, I guess.”

Now, I may joke that my life resembles a horrible mashup of select episodes of Doctor Who and The Red Green Show, but there are times where this assessment doesn’t come close to the real story. I may also joke about the Czarina’s exceptionally sharp and venomous elbows, and then she puts them on display. Then, then, I occasionally have an adventure where all of the stories come together at once.

To start off, let me introduce you to my friend Barry Kooda, one of the biggest catalysts in the Dallas music community. Barry’s been an influence on Dallas music for working on 40 years: he’s best-known outside of the city for his work with the Nervebreakers, the band that opened for the Sex Pistols when the Pistols played at the Longhorn Ballroom in 1978, but if he wasn’t in a band, he was influencing other musicians for decades. I’ve known him since 1991, when I moved to the Exposition Park area near downtown, and I can say that I’ve had a tiny influence on him. If you don’t believe me, ask him about the Tyrannosaurus and Ichthyosaurus tattoos on his arms.

Anyway, Barry still keeps everyone updated via Facebook, and he passed along a beaut yesterday. Specifically, he came across a display case being discarded behind a landmark hotel, and sent along a photo:

Barry's Display Case

Barry's display case

Now, you have to understand that I come from a long, extensive line of packrats, and the reason why I enjoyed The Red Green Show when it was running is because it’s funny when it’s fiction. The family joke is that everyone was hoping for another Tim Allen when I was born, and instead they got a Tim Burton. The reality is even more insidious, because the packrat gene just took a new and deadly form. Unwatched, I’m just as likely to produce a real-life “Handyman’s Corner” segment and take it into directions that nobody really wants to see.

So there I was, with the offer of a freestanding case that would be perfect for a permanent Nepenthes display. All for no cost, either. All I had to do was figure out how to get the thing home. With a carefree inattention to reality or the repercussions of my actions unseen since my first marriage, I waited until the Czarina picked me up from The Day Job and asked, gently, “Do you think we could look at a display case tonight?”

Absolutely amazingly, she didn’t pin me to the car seat with her elbows. Even more amazingly, she only said “After we eat.” This plan might work after all.

Well, after getting her dinner, we drove down to the north side of downtown to the hotel, and after a bit of wrangling, found the case. It was a bit, erm, larger than I expected. With the base, it stood at least eight feet tall, meaning that even with dismantling it for moving, there was no way it was going to fit into the car. The Czarina didn’t bother to point this out: she just kept mumbling “No way. No way.”

It’s not that it’s a bad case. The base and the molding are brass, with a stout shower-glass backing on good strong hinges. The top had a lighting system, and the plug is still in place. The base is hollow, meaning that it could be perfect for setting in a sunken container for a bog garden arrangement. Best of all, you see what look like sandblast-etched decorations on the side? Those and the advertising for the presumably long-dead spa that owned this case are all made of contact plastic, so a bit of peeling and a bit of Goo-Gone would clean them up nicely.

The Czarina was helpful and thorough. No threats, no yelling, and no untoward displays of the elbows. She noted that with big pieces of glass like this, merely putting them on the bottom of a flatbed would still risk breakage. Since they probably weren’t pieces of safety glass, that breakage could possibly be catastrophic. Worse, we don’t have any place to put it while I cleaned it up, save in the back yard. The garage is too short. The back porch is too short. The greenhouse is definitely too short. She’s right, she’s always right, why do I keep doing these dumb things?

And then my father’s lineage calls to me, over a thousand years. I really hope that someone else gets this before Sunday. If it’s still there by then, I’m renting a truck.

384 days and counting

It’s been a bit crazy as of late. As the newsfeeds keep noting, the drought in Texas is now comparable to the big drought in the early 1950s. This is particularly significant because my parents-in-law were married in the middle of that, and they have lots of particularly disturbing stories. (Among other things, discovering that the plethora of reservoirs built in North Texas by the Army Corps of Engineers over the last fifty years was the direct result of the water rationing imposed by that drought. It says a lot about how rapidly North Texas grew after the reservoirs were built that they’re not enough any more.) It’s also been particularly brutal to state agriculture, between the heat and the utter lack of moisture. I keep joking about how if it gets any dryer, we’ll all have to walk without rhythm so as not to attract sandworms, and it’s pure gallows humor.

Anyway, it’s a bit quiet around the Triffid Ranch, mostly due to the lack of humidity. The Sarracenia are squeaking by, but they generally stop producing traps once the humidity consistently goes below 50 percent during the day. Flytraps have it even worse: between the heat and the dryness, they tend to shut down, and sometimes come back in the autumn. This year, though, I can’t make any promises, considering that the summer has killed all but two species of triggerplant in the collection, including seedlings from seed given to me by Ryan Kitko. (I’ve become convinced that nothing but nuclear flame can destroy Stylidium debile, as it survives both freezes and ridiculous heat, and keeps coming back after I’m certain that it’s already dead.) The Nepenthes are all in the greenhouse, and said greenhouse is getting fitted with a full mister system tonight so as to keep the humidity high and the temperature (relatively) low. I don’t even want to talk about what happened to the Darlingtonia I raised from seed five years ago.

If there’s any joy in Triffidville, it comes from renewing my membership with the International Carnivorous Plant Society. I could mention the seed bank, which allowed me to learn a ridiculous amount about the growth and habits of the devil’s claw (Proboscidea lousianica). I could mention the Carnivorous Plant Newsletter, which is one of the best benefits of joining the ICPS. (I’m now at the point where it’s one of the few print magazines I read from cover to cover any more, and considering my voracious reading appetites, that’s saying something.) I could mention the cultivar registration list, which should prove beyond a shadow that carnivorous plant enthusiasts have a good warped sense of humor. I could, but then I’d have to beat you with a pool noodle, yelling “Join, you scurvy shysters! JOIN!” at the top of my lungs, and that’s no fun in this heat.

I’d also like to pass on the announcement of the 9th International Carnivorous Plant Society Conference in Seekonk, Massachusetts, running from August 11 through the 13th of 2012. The Czarina has already promised that I can go, but only after we make a trip of her choosing before then. (She wants a nice quiet trip to San Francisco, and I only plan to disappear for a day or so while we’re there.) Only 384 days to go, and I understand that my 300-pound Samoan attorney should be out of the shop by then.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

The Czarina regularly complains that I pull her leg so often that, after nearly nine years of marriage, she walks in circles. The problem is that while I am rather fond of rushing up to her with a new dictionary to tell her that her picture is in it next to the word “credulous,” most of my tales are true. If one of the best signs of having an interesting life is having interesting stories to tell in Valhalla, I’m going to keep Odin and Thor laughing their heads off. I could tell them how I’ve managed to scare the hell out of most of my childhood role models (including Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and Johnny Rotten) without intending to do so. I didn’t scare the hell out of Harlan Ellison until after he was asked to relate his story of being fired from Walt Disney Studios (in the commissary at lunch, he suggested the idea of a Disney animated porn film), and I topped it with my tale of getting an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. There was the incredible bendy squirrel story. There was the story of joking about Elvis Presley living in the Roy Orbison Celebrity Rehab Clinic and Retreat in Sheepdip, Wyoming (where he took potshots on the small-arms range with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, flew ultralights with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and taught charm school classes with Sid Vicious and G.G. Allin), only to have a crazy woman calling up late one Sunday asking for directions to Sheepdip. There’s even the horrible saga of exactly how I know that savannah monitor urine looks exactly like crack cocaine.

The Czarina used to doubt these stories, thinking that I was yanking her chain. She knows better now.

Among these tales, there’s the best one: how I was born not far from Hell. This isn’t a metaphor for what a horrible kid I was, nor is it a friendly warning to parents about how they should keep their children away from a diet of palaeontology and sarcastic humor or face the consequences. I mean every last word: I spent just short of the first ten years of my life next to Hell. I’ve just never been there, and I suspect I’m not going there any time soon, either.

Those too young to remember the great Texas heatwave of 1980 wouldn’t have any reason to know this, but one of the only things that got many of us through that blasting nightmare of a summer was a bit of humor. Most of that involved a remarkably effective series of advertisements for Lone Star Beer. Well, “effective” in that we could always associate Lone Star with giant armadillos, but not necessarily effective in getting people to buy the stuff. Sometimes an ad campaign can be too effective.

The other entertainment? Calling up the receptionist in City Hall in Hell, Michigan and asking if indeed it was true that Texas was hotter than Hell. Much like my being subjected to Little Shop of Horrors quotes, it was probably funny the first eighty times or so. That’s probably when the receptionist started quoting General Phil Sheridan, the governor of Texas during Reconstruction: “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.” (Spoken by a man who’d lived through a couple of summers in Austin, no doubt.)

The funny thing is that, while I was born less than an hour’s drive from Hell, I never saw the place while I lived there. Oh, I could tell you all about Dinosaur Gardens up in Ossineke or the turtle derby in Paw Paw, or even about the Ingham County Courthouse in Mason. (With the last, right after it made the National Register of Historic Places, it had a bit of a scandal after someone dumped marijuana seeds into the flowerbeds, and a civic-minded courthouse employee encouraged the growth of “such a beautiful plant.”) Although it was recommended to me quite often throughout my childhood and adolescence, though, I never went to Hell, much to my later regret.

Since the Czarina is a native Dallasite, I’ve seen all of her old childhood haunts, and we’ve made vague noises about heading up to Michigan for a week’s vacation, just so I can see mine one last time. I just have no interest in moving there. We could be the absolute last tipping point, ensuring that there was no more room in Hell. When that happens, it’d be just like Dallas, so why leave?


We still have seven months until the next North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington, but the Triffid Ranch may join the long and exalted list of vendors at future DFW Lone Star Reptile Expos. This, of course, means that a road trip to this weekend’s show is necessary. Besides, any excuse to hang out with fellow reptile enthusiasts is a good one.

And for the record, no, I’m not getting a crocodile monitor on this trip. It’s not even because I fear the Czarina’s fearsome, unnaturally sharp and venomous elbows. It’s just that I learned one lesson a very long time ago: if your life starts resembling a GWAR video, it’s getting a bit too exciting.

Things To Do In Fort Worth When You’re Dead

This is a special weekend in North America, and it should be celebrated in an appropriate fashion. July 1 is Canada Day, and is usually celebrated around here by calling up Canadian friends and singing them the National Anthem in French. (Of course, this is the alternate universe National Anthem, the one sung in the South Park movie by Terrance and Philip that should have won the 2000 “Best Original Song” Oscar. It’s because I love them to death, and because I know, being of Canadian ancestry myself, that getting them angry enough to skin me is the only way to get them to visit.) The subsequent Monday, of course, is celebrated in the US as the name of a really, really lousy alien invasion movie from fifteen years ago. I won’t bring up Texas Independence Day, because our 175th anniversary was last March, but we usually save the fun for July anyway. It’s too cold for barbecue and iced tea at the beginning of March anyway.

So. This weekend is also a special one, because it’s one of those incredibly rare days where the Czarina doesn’t have to work on Saturday. Who’s up for combining Canadian, American, and Texan sensibilities and attending the Science Saturday open house at the brand new Botanical Research Institute of Texas building in Fort Worth? Just replace the cactus with Mounties, and it’ll be just like being in Calgary.

Now THAT’s garden sculpture!

My friend Chris Blakeley in Seattle just shared a little posting on the steel artwork of Andrew Chase. Specifically, of Mr. Chase’s tyrannosaur sculptures.

Oh, dear. I can hear the Czarina telling me “Where are we going to put it?” Naturally, the answer is “Out in the front yard. Add a tank and a Dalek, and we’ve got a life-sized Rowan Atkinson nativity set.”


Lots of interesting bits of information this day, so hang on:

Numero uno, the recent television interviews have scared quite a few online friends who’ve never heard my voice before now. Apparently, I don’t sound thuggish enough. To make matters worse, the Czarina and I are now being compared more often than before to a certain fictional power couple:

Personally, I’m extremely insulted. My eyebrows are white, not red. Besides, although the Czarina looks really good in a pillbox hat, her voice is much deeper than this. (And that sound you just heard was of the Czarina’s elbows sliding out of their sheathes, drooling venom on the floor.)

Numero two-o, never knock serendipity. At the same time that Tillamook reminds us all that it’s National Vanilla Milkshake Day, I got into quite the interesting discussion with an Armenian co-worker at the Day Job about vanilla versus mesquite flavorings. She knew as much about the historic uses of mesquite as most of my fellow Americans, which began and ended with using mesquite wood for meat smoking. With that in mind, it’s time to drag out the ice cream maker, pick up a bottle of mesquite bean syrup, and try mesquite ice cream as an alternative to vanilla. (The plan, in a few years, is to have enough greenhouse space to grow a Vanilla tahitiensis orchid for my own personal use. If you’ve ever seen the stunning V. tahitiensis on display at Gunter’s Orchids in Richardson, you’ll understand why this is such a tall order. Much like a Vanda orchid, Vanilla is a vining indeterminate orchid, and those vines grow to be as big around as a man’s leg. When someone asks about buying one from Gunter’s, the crew asks “How many feet do you want?”, and cuts off a suitable segment for home rooting.)

Numero three-o, you know you’re charting odd terrain when Popular Science magazine gets involved in the discussion of the hottest pepper in the world. Personally, as addicted as I am to hot peppers, I just remember when the 2011 ZestFest ran in Irving last January, and the publisher of Chili Pepper magazine had to be hospitalized for a reaction to too much Bhut Jolokia. It’s a tough call as to whether having a quote from one of the great philosophers of the Twentieth Century on your crematory urn is a compliment or an insult.

Dinosaurs (and worse) in the garden

Every six months or so, I look for a more effective tree-rat repellent. Traps haven’t worked, and most of the recommended repellents have no effect at all. In fact, I think they’re gargling the mothballs everyone has suggested for their aggravation. I suspect that it’s time for more determined measures, so I’ve looked into statuary. Aside from the obvious selection, which the Czarina will not stand for, it may be time for custom work. After all, what says “bog garden” like a custom fiberglass Cthulhu emerging from the muck?

“Oh, we have such wonders to show you.”

The Czarina is quite fond of quoting a book by Eric Hansen called Orchid Fever. In it, Hansen describes an orchid enthusiast in Spitzbergen, above the Arctic Circle, who keeps his collection in a well-heated greenhouse during the summer and moves them to a space in the laundry room for the winter. His wife refers to the orchids as “his green harlots,” so the Czarina sympathizes whenever she looks inside the greenhouse.

Personally, I don’t see what the problem is. I mean, I could be like a lot of other husbands. I could insist upon dragging her out into the cold on Sunday mornings in December to watch Dallas Cowboys games. I could pull the bedcovers over her head and then pass gas. I could plan a roadtrip and charge the 300-pound Samoan attorney to her credit card. (I’ll do that with the crocodile monitor, but only when she’s out of town. Once she looks into its beady yellow eyes, she won’t want to send it back, especially if it’s already gotten used to its lizard bed by then.) I just have a rather disturbing addiction to plants that eat flesh, and it’s not like I’m raising opium poppies or making breast milk cheese.

That said, I made the plunge. I have a Nepenthes hamata from Sarracenia Northwest on its way. Where is your God NOW, er, I mean, what can it hurt?


My wife and confidante Caroline and I have been married for nearly nine years, and she’s put up with an inordinate amount of grief from me over the intervening decade. Best known for her exemplary jewelry, she’s also known throughout the online community as “the Czarina”. (The nickname came from when I was teaching her how to play chess shortly after we married, when she reminded me of the character in Fritz Leiber’s famed chess ghost story “Midnight by the Morphy Watch”.) She’s marginally taller than I am, at a full six feet, so I’ve joked for years about how she’s popped me in the top of the head so often with her elbows that I can use the dent as a candleholder. Further mythmaking ensued, with my relating how I can tell she’s less than happy when her elbows slide out of their sheathes and drool venom on the floor. It’s to the point when people meet her for the first time, they don’t ask “Where are you from?” or “May I see your jewelry?” They always, ALWAYS ask “May I see your elbows?”

This drives her mad. So does the observation that our marriage could be described as particularly deranged fan-fiction involving the romantic exploits of Delenn and GIR.

This doesn’t mean that I avoid behavior that annoys her. In fact, the best image most friends and general spectators have of us in public involves me lying on the ground in a fetal ball, paralytic with laughter, while she kicks me in the ribs and screams “What the HELL is WRONG with you? HUH? What is WRONG with you?” (This was first instigated when my best friend asked if we were planning to have kids, and I pointed out that any children of mine would be at the school science fair with the project “How Does Brundlefly Eat?” She apparently had issues with my joking about this at dinner.) She often paraphrases Bill Cosby when she asks me if it’s impossible for me to sleep at night without a good beating.

And so it goes into discussion of pets. We already have two cats: one is smart enough to be working on his Ph.D thesis and the other is so dumb he trips on the carpet pattern, and our carpet is a uniform blue-grey. “That’s not enough,” I say, so she asks me what would, in my deranged little world, make a good pet.

“A crocodile monitor, naturally. Preferably one trained to eat the squirrels in the back yard.”

Personally, I don’t see why she has such an issue with a crocodile monitor. We’re only talking about a three-meter-long lizard with a potentially venomous bite, that climbs trees to snag prey as heavy as it is, and whose indigenous names in New Guinea invariably translate to “demon” for its habit of hunting hunters. I can’t figure it out. I mean, how could you say “no” to this cute widdle face?

Crocodile monitor profile