The best-laid plans, and all that. The old Chinese curse about living in interesting times definitely applies through this month, and apparently beyond. The news about the Dallas County shelter-in-place order requiring all residents to stay at home unless conducting essential business is now international news, but the subsequent mandatory orders applying specifically to Richardson and Garland are just as big a deal. Right now, the Dallas County order will be up for review on April 3, the Garland order until at least April 7, and Richardson cut to the chase and set its order to run until at least April 29. Any way you look at it, anyone in the greater Dallas area isn’t going anywhere, especially since local police are empowered to ticket and/or arrest anyone running about without good reason.
And how does this affect the Triffid Ranch? Quite honestly, it stops everything for the next month, and directly affects the rest of the year. Unlike the twerp at the mail drop last Monday who wanted to argue that the Dallas County order didn’t apply to him because of one tiny issue that he assumed invalidated the whole order, the orders aren’t up for debate over here. As anybody in US Army Basic Training learns on the first day of Nuclear/Biological/Chemical training, you do NOT take off your mask until someone with the proper authority gives the proper “ALL CLEAR” signal. You may be melting in the heat, and you may want the freedom to take it off and relax, but it’s there for a reason.
So what this means is that every Triffid Ranch event scheduled for March, April, and May has been rescheduled, delayed, or otherwise put on hold. The planned April 18 Manchester United Flower Show open house is delayed. This also means that all appointments will have to wait until Richardson’s order is lifted, although remote consultations are still open. (If anything, if you’re looking for a custom enclosure, the delay should give it plenty of time to get established by the time you’re able to pick it up.) Among the important events:
As always, keep an eye on the Shows, Lectures, and Other Events page for changes to the schedule: everything depends right now on how well the COVID-19 situation flattens out, and what gets scheduled against what. Until then, stay safe, stay distant, and we’ll see you when we see you.
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.
There’s usually nothing quite like the Monday after a big show, and with two shows this last weekend, I was expecting a humdinger of a Monday morning. I had no idea. For those catching the news, the north Dallas area was hit by multiple tornadoes on Sunday night, and the damage is still being assessed. To cut to the chase, the gallery was fine: aside from a power outage, everything was in good shape after a quick morning inspection. (People regularly ask about the odd electric clock running in the gallery that still lists the date as sometime within 2000. This is my blackout clock. It’s an easy way both to tell that the gallery was hit with a power outage and to determine how long it’s been back on. After last April’s horrendous storm and subsequent power outage, I’m seriously thinking about getting an emergency generator, just for the freezer.)
The rest of the area, though, isn’t as lucky. The big tornado tore a divot through residential and business areas just south of the gallery, running roughly parallel to LBJ Freeway. Apparently the neighborhood in which I lived at the end of the last century was hit very hard, as was the shopping plaza where I had my old mail drop between 1997 and 2012. North Haven Gardens came pretty close to being wiped off the map, and the main tornado then hopped Central Expressway and took out the gallery’s local Home Depot. Another tornado touched down just east of the gallery, disintegrating both a train crossing and all of the trees in the immediate vicinity. It’ll probably be a few days before anybody gets a good assessment of the damage, but the good news is that tornado sirens and phone alerts worked and no fatalities were reported.
(One aside: not only are we fine, but thanks to the City of Garland keeping up proactive maintenance on power lines, we kept power all through this. The only scary moment came after returning the rental truck for last weekend’s shows: this marks two times in my life that I’ve viewed a funnel cloud from the underside, and it’s a phenomenon I’d be very happy to leave to experts.)
In the meantime, if things go quiet, it’s mostly from helping friends and neighbors dig out from the mess. Thank you for understanding, and normal snarkiness will resume shortly.
A little side-project tied to the October gallery open house this weekend: with the exceptions of side-trips to Tallahassee, Portland, and northeast Wisconsin, next December marks 40 years in North Texas. In that time, I haven’t done a lot of things either expected of me or intimated that it might be in my best interest. I’ve never been to South Fork or the 6th Floor Museum, I haven’t been to Six Flags Over Texas since 1982, I haven’t gone to a high school football game, and I have yet to come across a rattlesnake in the wild. (I had to go to Tallahassee for that.) One of the things I’ve wanted to do besides come across a seven-foot Western diamondback, though, was to eat prickly pear cactus fruit until I fell over, and that’s now checked off the bucket list.
The prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is a regular component of the Texas experience. Technically, the Dallas area isn’t the eastern edge of its range (Opuntia is found growing along the Gulf Coast into the western coast of Florida, often growing in the crooks of mangrove trees), but Dallas marks where the pine trees of East Texas are supplanted by cactus. In our area, they tend to show up in poor, well-drained areas such as along culverts and bridges, and they’re just cold-tolerant enough to survive most Dallas winters. The cactus has not only been a food source for humans for centuries (the pads and fruit are referred to in Spanish as nopales and tuna respectively), but if you’re lucky, you’ll see little tufts of what look like white cotton lint on the pads. Those tufts are camouflage for the cochineal bug (Dactylopius coccus), the source for the cloth and food dye carmine. (That little bug is the main reason why prickly pear was a major invasive pest in Australia, but that’s a story for later.)
Anyway, prickly pear fruit is much like apples: just because it looks ripe doesn’t mean that it is. I’d been watching a lone cactus clump near the bike path I take to the gallery, telling myself that this would be the year that I harvested that patch. In 2017 and 2018, someone else harvested the whole lot in early September, probably realizing afterwards that nice purple tuna had all of the flavor and consistency of aquarium gravel at that point. This year, though, they stayed until mid-October, and a preliminary test suggested that the whole clump was ready. Tuna don’t have the vicious spines that the pads do, but they’re still covered with irritating hairs to dissuade cattle and other big herbivores, so it was time to go out with kitchen tongs and a big bag.
Now remember those irritating hairs I mentioned? Those need to be removed before eating. The traditional way was to burn them off, either in a campfire or in the flames of a gas stove, but silicone hot mitts also work very well in removing hairs without getting a handful. (Trust me: you do NOT want these hairs stuck in your skin, as they can take days or even weeks to pull free, and tweezers tend to break them.) Whichever you choose to clean them, a good rinse with water, and they’re ready for processing.
A lot of recipes are available for prickly pear fruit, but I knew exactly what their fate was going to be: sorbet. After coming across a good recipe, the next trick was to puree them, as the skin adheres to the pulp when they’re this ripe. Even in the initial testing with a smoothie maker, the juice was flavorful enough that it would have made a great breakfast juice. The plan, though, was to go further.
The final juicing yielded about four liters of liquefied fruit, and then came the real joy: straining. Prickly pear seeds never stop tasting like aquarium gravel, and they’re packed in enough that they’re a threat to the teeth. This meant that a new colander got quite a workout. (Friendly warning: not only will prickly pear fruit juice stain just about anything it touches, but expect at least some seeds to get through unless you’re straining through cheesecloth. Just be prepared for that.)
The next stage started after the juice chilled in the refrigerator for 24 hours, and that involved an ice cream maker. Some enthusiasts prefer making a prickly pear sorbet at relatively warm temperatures to keep up the consistency: others recommend freezing it hard so a spoon takes off shavings. However you want to do it, make sure your ice cream maker is well-cleaned, check it regularly if it’s electric, and make sure it has plenty of ice in the bucket.
The end result? Well, the end result went into ramekins and then into the freezer, and those attending this weekend’s open house gets to try it firsthand. It’s not as outré as horse crippler cactus ice cream, but if it’s popular enough, this may have to be a regular addition to the October open houses. That is, if I don’t eat it all myself.
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Posted onMarch 3, 2019|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
For those who tuned in late, your humble gallery operator once used to be a pro writer. Thirty years ago this month, my first published article appeared in the pages of the long-defunct science fiction zine New Pathways, and that continued for another 13 years. Ten years ago this month, the first collection from that wild period, Greasing the Pan, saw print. After that, aside from a few relapses, bupkis. It was a very easy decision to stay away, if not for much-missed friends and cohorts who kept assuming that I’d come back “any day now.” I may write occasionally on subjects of particular passion, but I’m not going back to being a writer, and I’ve had to excise a lot of people, all of whom assume that the calendar will flip back to 1997 any day now, who refuse to understand the difference.
And now the latest relapse: a discussion on sorcerers’ gardens and on running magical nurseries as a business, in the March 2019 Clarkesworld. Most of this was due to wanting to explore certain tropes in fantasy literature with a high potential for humor (let’s face it: “Johnny Pink Bunkadooseed” would make a great story), and part of it was due to the reputation of nonfiction editor Kate Baker. This isn’t the only planned relapse: I’m currently composing a similar take on unorthodox carnivorous plant tropes for the April issue. Just don’t expect a return to pro writing, because the gallery and its care is a lot more important.
In the meantime, feel free to spread this far and wide, because I can’t wait to read the stories and novels running with the concepts therein. And because every idea thief needs to leave his knife, this wouldn’t have happened without the influence of Tobias Buckell, Saladin Ahmed, and the crimefighting team of Ernest Hogan and Emily Devenport. Always give credit to friends: always.
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When I was in high school, I read a comment in a magazine from a neurologist stating that “pain is the body’s way of keeping you from dying of tetanus from stepping on rusty nails all day.” One of the many regrets of my feckless youth was that I didn’t write down the magazine’s name nor the doctor’s name, because this statement should be the Triffid Ranch’s mission statement. When you think of all of the important advice given by the wise to the young, most of it may sound as if it’s intended to avoid death. Go back to all of the important advice given by parents, family, teachers, co-workers: it’s not intended to avoid death, but to avoid pain. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t pick up the cat by the tail. Don’t stick your fingers in a light socket. Don’t hold firecrackers in your hand and then light them with a sparkler. Unplug the lawn mower spark plug before reaching underneath. Always cook dried beans for a while before eating them. None of these may kill you outright or even quickly, but it’s amazing how mind-searing pain will make you choose differently with subsequent decisions. I’d tell you how I know this, but let’s just say that I had no fingerprints on my right hand between 1984 and 1987. (I won’t even talk about why I avoid New Year’s Eve festivities, considering that one New Year’s Eve 25 years ago led to a slew of bad decisions that cascaded and replicated into the 21st Century. An assemblage of the alternate individuals I’d be today if I’d just stayed home at the end of 1993 could populate a reboot of Orphan Black.)
In lieu of the usual look back on the previous year with hope of learning lessons from it, let’s look at 2019 with the idea that we all learned something from 2018. It doesn’t have to be much, but the desired goal is to note what causes us blinding agony, and, you know, maybe avoiding said agony for the duration of one’s lifespan. If it’s a particularly pertinent lesson, maybe it’ll become impressed into myth and legend: “You see how that person stops everything and silently cries every day at noon for an hour? DON’T DO WHAT THEY DID.” Likewise, if the action or lack thereof led to a significant cessation of pain or even an overload of joy, this deserves at least as much attention.
Numero Uno: It’s time to drop nostalgia. The new book Typeset in the Future: Typography and Design in Science Fiction Movies by Dave Addey came out a couple of weeks ago, and the chapter on the future realism of 2001: A Space Odyssey contained a gem about the videophone shown near the beginning of the film. Bell Telephone had originally premiered the videophone in 1964, with the intention of introducing videophones across the world based on the exceptional response it received at the 1964 World’s Fair. The problem was that the perceived demand didn’t actually exist except among a few executives looking for an excuse to launch it: the alleged ecstatic survey results came from people who attended the World’s Fair, who made their way to the Bell demo, who tried the videophone, and then stated that they’d be willing to pay for video calls if videophones were available. Nobody ran research of how many people would be willing to pay for videophone service who didn’t see the demo at the World’s Fair, or even if they’d run in the other direction and start communicating with carrier pigeons if videophones were the only other option. Bell finally gave up after spending millions of dollars on pushing a videophone solution that just didn’t appeal to any but a very few, and a solution that was a lot more expensive than existing phone options at the time with no obvious must-have bonus. (It’s very telling that Skype and other video apps only took off when the price of a video call dropped to nothing, and when the technology necessary to make said calls was easily folded into other technology that was easy to access and transport.)
That, in a nutshell, summed up a lot of attempts in 2018 to revive events and venues that died in the 1990s. Either it’s easy to forget that the people who keep nagging about reviving a dead venue have no obligation to put down money on it, the people organizing it are so attached to fond memories from decades past that they assume that everyone else must be as into it as they are, or the intended audience has simply grown past or expects more. If more than ten years have gone by between the last time the venue was open and its revival, the odds are pretty good that its original audience is too distracted to notice its return, and training a new audience as to why This Is A Big Deal may take too long. More than 20 years, and the bright young kids that made the event or venue what it was are probably grandparents by now. What appeals to them probably won’t to their grandkids, and any attempt to revive a venue has to take those grandkids into account.
This may be a roundabout way to explain why you shouldn’t expect to see a Triffid Ranch tent at the Woodstock 50th anniversary event next year (mostly because “lectures by noted futurists” bring on horrible flashbacks of being trapped in a broom closet with Bruce Sterling in 1999), but it’s also a warning not to expect to see the tent at other revivals. There’s just not enough of a return, and new events and venues are a lot more fun.
Numero Two-o: Forget Facebook. 2018 was an experiment in getting more word out about Triffid Ranch events and open houses via social media, and the final tally is a resounding “meh.” Sadly, Facebook is the one that’s getting cut out more and more in 2019: the pressure to boost articles on Facebook Pages in order for readers to see them is getting ridiculous, more people are either leaving or cutting back on Facebook because of its much-publicized security and privacy issues, and then there’s the whole problem with trying to gauge commitment based on a medium that has no expectations tied to it. The money spent in 2018 on trying to reach new attendees via Facebook is better spent on signing up for more local shows, and if I want to go with ads again, I’ll go with a more effective medium, like AM radio.
Numero Three-o: Focus on home. The very good news about the gallery is that the move to the current location means that a lot of the perceived stigma of being at Valley View Center is gone. (At least now I no longer get people bellowing “But the mall is going to be torn down!” when I pass on the new address.) Now the trick is to get the word out to people already well-trained to ignore ads. Thankfully, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex has a simply incredible number of one- and two-day markets and shows scheduled through 2019, so the plan is to set up at as many as weather allows. This includes forays into Austin and Houston as well, because I miss friends, customers, and cohorts south of Dallas.
Number Four-o: Don’t forget the little people. When friends finally get a major return on years of hard work with a new book, a movie deal, or a museum show, I always tell them “Now, don’t forget us little people when you’re accepting your Nobel.” I’m only half-joking: not only do I have faith that they WILL get that Nobel Prize, but it’s a reminder to me. I haven’t spent enough time thanking all of the people and organizations that helped get the Triffid Ranch off the ground and where it is, and 2019 is the year where that goes into overdrive. To everyone who came out to a gallery show, stopped by a booth at one of 2018’s shows, or who simply keeps reading site updates while waiting for a new episode of Starcher Trek, thank you, and I’m going to do my utmost to repay the kindness. Now let’s put 2018 in its grave before it can bite one last time.
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.
For all of you having to work on Thanksgiving Day in the States, and for those working Black Friday everywhere, a reminder that the movie that popularized today’s theme song premiered 40 years ago. It’s still the best documentary about life in Dallas in the 1980s ever made.
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The response to the new Netflix series The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, which premiered last weekend, has been interesting. What’s particularly interesting has been the very polarized responses from friends and colleagues whose opinions I respect and often admire. Two friends whose contributions to goth culture in the Nineties were vital in establishing said culture were livid: they were furious as to the overly cutesiness and the attempt to sell creativity to and for the terminally uncreative. Others equally vehemently celebrated a show that was trying its best to be a little dark, but not too dark. Finally, at the bequest of Caroline of Tawanda! Jewelry (and Delenn to my GIR at the gallery), I sat down and watched a few episodes. Not that my opinion means anything at all, but the only issue I had was that so many of the projects looked like video accompaniment to an upcoming book (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all) and had nowhere near enough detail to allow a casual watcher to recreate most of them without additional online help. Then again, neither does The Great British Baking Show, and that’s not why people watch that, either.
What excited me about Curious Creations wasn’t just that so many of us incipient gothlings would have done just about anything for a show like this a quarter-century ago, but that it shows an inherent strength to Netflix. Namely, instead of worrying about its programming playing to Peoria, Netflix management realized that not copying what everyone else is doing in a particular format gets more viewers, not fewer. Combine that with the current trend in comfort viewing that emphasizes creativity and encouragement toward excellence, and we might have the new movement in entertainment for the next decade: getting those curious about a particular artform or art movement moving in the right direction.
If this is more of a trend toward celebrating more gonzo artistry, as the upcoming second season of Curious Creations suggests, then one thing is certain: it’s time to start pitching more shows of this caliber. I can think of two horticulturalists, Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center and Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster, who would be perfect for their own gardening shows, and letting Stewart McPherson travel the world to view carnivorous plants in the wild would be incentive for me to pay for Netflix access for the next five years all by itself. (If nothing else, an all-Amanda Thomsen show has the added novelty of watching her family, including three singing dogs and the world’s most put-upon cat, in action, because they’re ALWAYS entertaining.) Just don’t ask me to pitch a show with my horticultural and social sensibilities to Netflix: it’s already been done.
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Posted onJuly 13, 2018|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
“20 percent chance of rain,” I said. “Weather radar shows nothing,” I said. “Clouds coming up, but they’ll burn off before they get to me,” I said. “If it starts raining, it’ll be over right away,” I said. “The gutters are overflowing, but the water won’t get above my bicycle’s axles,” I said.
And it keeps coming. Want to get an idea of how intense one of Dallas’s admittedly rare summer rainstorms can be? This isn’t a fire hydrant. This is the downspout for a strip mall rain gutter, about 15 minutes after the rain started, and about an hour before the rain ended.
All in all, considering how badly we needed the rain, every last drop counted. Best of all, the nearly 10 centimeters we got will roil up the Trinity River, stirring up the anoxic muds responsible for the hydrogen sulfide fug that distinguishes downtown Dallas most summers. For a couple of days at least, Dallas is going to smell PURTY.
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It’s been…interesting around the gallery this last week, mostly because the focus is on having everything ready for Texas Frightmare Weekend next week. (I’ve been joking that the response to the phrase “We’re a week away from Frightmare!” is enthusiastic cheering from the attendees, cries of “Once more into the breach, once more!” from the staff, and a sustained Brown Note from the vendors.) Everything is coming through so far, so here are a few photos of the blooms in the Sarracenia pools as they emerge from winter dormancy:
And a little extra in order to demonstrate that carnivorous plants aren’t a dependable form of insect control. This little corner of North Texas is becoming an enclave of the longhorn crazy ant, and they’re doing quite well in disturbed areas such as suburbs. The last two months have been a rush of insect controls such as orange oil drenches, to which they respond by moving their mounds a few meters away and starting fresh. Well, apparently they’ve discovered Sarracenia nectar, both in blooms and in traps, and it’s not turning out well for the little junkies:
The Sarracenia are benefiting for the moment: a percentage of the nectar-slurpers will fall in and feed the plant. However, each pitcher catching five or six per day does nothing for the hundreds of thousands or even millions back in the original nest, so about the only sure way to take out the nest involves art. And so it goes.
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.
As mentioned a couple of weeks back, things have been a little crazy around the Triffid Ranch, and not just because we went from rainstorms that would have stunned Gilgamesh to classic North Texas Hot’n’Dry with nary a transition. Details will follow very soon, but the upshot is that the Triffid Ranch outgrew its origins, and it’s time to evolve. Best of all, that evolution involves air conditioning.
I’m regularly asked by friends from outside Texas as to why I stay in the Dallas area. After all, Texas’s governor is a joke, Dallas doesn’t have a great historical reputation, and the city is entirely too close to Lewisville. Of course, McMurdo Station is too close to Lewisville. I stay because while so many other great cities of the world have so much to offer, Dallas is the only place I know where I can get up before dawn to go to the Day Job, wait at a train station for a transfer, and watch, in the day’s first light, giant robots with guitar necks for heads tromping through the city. With that sort of spectacle, how could you leave?
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Posted onJuly 6, 2014|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn, the Saladin Ahmed Edition
At the new Day Job, the relationship with my co-workers is still new enough that an idle conversation on any subject other than “so how was the weekend?” tends to veer off into “And how do you know this?” territory pretty quickly. At my age, it’s not as bad as it used to be: not only do co-workers expect at least a few interesting stories from anyone pushing 50, but the statute of limitations now usually applies to the better ones. Also, many of them are funny or at least curious now, but the old saw about how “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people” also applies when enough time has gone by that the stump no longer aches on cold rainy nights. Even so, some casual discourse still leads to my supervisor looking at me with that expression that says she’s looking for a convenient garbage can if in case she gets sick right then and there, and I have to remind myself that “C’mon, it isn’t THAT bad” isn’t always a suitable defense.
Even with the much more mundane stories, context and backstory is everything, as my writer friends often discover. Sometimes, the backstory becomes a bit of incipoient head explodey, as Saladin Ahmed discovered last week.
I’m going to go into further discussion on Saladin later this week, as his hugely enjoyable first novel Throne of the Crescent Moon made me consider how underutilized conventional and magical gardens are in contemporary fantasy novels and stories. His style and scope are regularly compared to that of the late Fritz Leiber, and I regularly joke with Saladin that, to quote another Texan, I knew Fritz Leiber and Saladin’s no Fritz Leiiber. HowEVER, I could see the two of them off in the corner at a conference or convention, gleefully comparing notes and asking “By the way, have you read this?” until they were kicked out for scaring the cleaning crew. (Me, partisan? You bet. Saladin was born not far away from where I was, and we Michigan kids stick together.)
Anyway, one of Saladin’s many interests is on how imagery from science fiction, comics, and role-playing games ends up in popular culture, and he recently shared via Twitter a collection of punk band flyers using classic Dungeons && Dragons illustrations. I could have told him about my adventures with introducing the Dallas skateboarding community to Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life in 1992, directly leading to seemingly half of the band flyers in the city featuring the denizens of the Burgess Shale. Instead, since it was related to the subject at hand, I let him know that one of the remaining artifacts of my sordid youth still in my possession had more of a direct connection than he realized.
As mentioned, backstory is everything. At the end of 1987, I was a feckless twentysomething first encountering music that wasn’t in saturation airplay on our local AOR radio stations, and had become hooked on the backlist of famed Austin proto-punk legends The Butthole Surfers. Right about the time I started a new job at Texas Instruments, word got out that the Surfers were going to play at the Arcadia Theater, the famed and long-cremated live music venue on Dallas’s Greenville Avenue, and precious few things mattered to me more at that point than getting to the concert. Tickets were cheap, getting down to the Arcadia wasn’t as big a deal as they would be to someone who hadn’t already bicycled the length and breadth of the city, and the new job meant that the other bills were covered. And that’s when everything cratered. My roommate (now the famed glass artist Robert Whitus of Drink With The Living Dead) had a family crisis that required his moving back home, a slight bout of bronchitis that required a trip to the ER stripped out the extra funds, and working nights at Texas Instruments meant that there was no blasted way I could get that day off to hit a Surfers concert. Paul was a very sad boy, but he soldiered through, swearing that he was going to catch another Butthole Surfers show at another time.
(As it turned out, it never happened, but not for a lack of trying. When a big show promoting the album Independent Worm Saloon in 1993 was rained out in a nearly catastrophic thunderstorm that threatened to electrocute everyone on the stage, I took it as a sign that it simply wasn’t going to be. And wouldn’t you know that the rescheduled show conflicted with yet another new job, and I couldn’t even find anybody at the last minute to buy the tickets? I still have them around the house somewhere…)
Fast forward over two decades, to me wandering through the flagship Half Price Books store, up the road from where the Arcadia used to reside before it burned down in 2005. I can’t tell you why I started poking through that New Arrivals cart, but peeking from inside a box was a flyer from that very Butthole Surfers show that I missed. My own flyer had gone the way of all concert promotional material, but here was one in nearly pristine condition.
Now, its method of preservation also explained why I couldn’t just take it or just pay for the flyer and leave everything else. That flyer had been stuck inside a box for the last twenty years, where it had acted as a character sheet for a role-playing game. Specifically, it was a character sheet for the long-out-of-print TSR science fiction game Star Frontiers. If I wanted the flyer, I had to buy the whole game, and the stern crew at Half Price wasn’t about to let me get out of there without the full monty.
Now, that would have been enough of a solved mystery for the crew handling my estate sale, asking “Why the hell did he have this?” I haven’t bothered with gaming since I was in high school (although I used to paint lead miniatures for gifts for friends all the way up until about 1994), so it’s not like I had a stockpile of old games or something. Saladin’s notes about band flyers and role-playing games, though, made me want to get this out to the general public. Somewhere, someplace, is some fortysomething punk whose day is going to be made by a friend telling him “You remember that Dralasite character you used to play back in the Eighties? Well, he’s ONLINE!”
And to add to the embarrassment, I’m sending Saladin the whole game pack, flyer and all. He’ll probably have a blast of belated nostalgia going through the game rules. If he decides to auction off the flyer, though, he’ll probably pay off his kids’ college fund. I think Sludge the Dralasite would want it that way.
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It’s my firm belief that almost any holiday can be improved by adding a touch of Halloween to it. Christmas? Already been done, to great effect. Easter? Well, the man did say “This is my body: take of it and eat.” Arbor Day? That’s any given day in the Triffid Ranch greenhouse. There are limits: Veteran’s Day in the US and ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. However, the ones generally labeled “overly commercial” can be amped up quite a bit by adding a touch of darkness at the right time, under the right circumstances.
One of the best in that category is St. Valentine’s Day, and not just because of roses and chocolate. Go out tonight and stare up into that absolutely magnificent full moon starting to rise this evening, and just tell me that you don’t have the urge to take after one of the most famed unorthodox yet incredibly devoted couples in movie and television history:
First, the congratulations. Old and dear friend Dave Hutchinson just saw his latest book, Europe in Autumn, published on both sides of the Atlantic. Considering that we’ve been commiserating over the state of journalistic careers on both shores for the better part of a decade, and he was sufficiently bereft of sense, taste, and sanity to buy my last book, the least I could do is pass on word. After all, he’s had to put up with me for a significant portion of the 21st Century so far, and that’s something that nobody should do without access to strong drink or electroshock therapy.
Anyway, it’s also time to remind him of why he worries about my coming to visit unbidden. As in his walking out of his house into the garden and tripping over my sleeping body on the front steps, with a big sign taped to my back reading “PLEASE TAKE ME IN”. Poor Dave already believes that Texas is a deathworld writ large, and he refuses to spell it out in correspondence. I tell him about armadillos, horned toads, mockingbirds, and coyotes, and he merely refers to my home as “Australia Lite”. More than fair: he’d last about five minutes outside of the United Kingdom anyway, and if he came here, he’d have to be wheeled around in a armored bubble like some deformed hamster, just to protect him from the mosquitoes and horseflies. Well, that and the mountain lions: I didn’t tell him about the mountain lions that sleep in the streets of Fort Worth.
Anyway, to celebrate his new book, I realized that I need to put together a package for him, and I told him so. I could hear the shudder of revulsion and horror from here. You’d think that we had chainsaw duels in the middle of downtown Dallas or something. (Well, we do, but only when fighting over prime parking spots on Friday nights. We’re not barbarians.) And this is why I figure it’s time to send him a collection of Texas ephemera, unique in its power to make him glibber and meep just a touch more in his sleep. The trick isn’t just to play on his fears that Texas is as bad as he suspects, but to go waaaaaay past those fears and burn Hank Hill cameos into his corpus callosum. This might take some effort.
Well, I’ve already found the first item, after the Czarina needed to make a trip out to the famed Turner Hardware. For those not familiar, this is the other Dallas icon named “Turner,” and not quite the force of nature as the other. (If we ever get Dave out here, this is someone I plan for him to meet, by the way. How often do you get the chance to meet the guy who justifiably beat the hell out of Kurt Cobain?) That said, we have the perfect garden decoration for Dave, absolutely guaranteed to keep his guests talking about him…and looking for easily-accessible sedatives. I could even tell those guests “Of course they’re real. How do you think we keep the horseflies from stealing the children out of the back yard?”
Well, this is a start, and a pile of swag that both Turners would be glad to assist in increasing. Now to find a rattlesnake ashtray…