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 Annihilation comes 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.