A shadow over lunch (appologies to HP Lovecraft)

The four of us sat at ease, each with a different sandwich, eating amongst the din of the crowded restaurant.  Except for Dave; he had a salad.  The topic had started at issues related to one unit’s inability to deliver quality services and had slid into the feminization of Russian surnames.  Our coworker with a Russian last name confirmed to me that her and her mother shared a last name ending in “ova” while her brother and father’s last name ended in “ov.”  It was an interesting conversation and I was amazed that I had never noticed that before.

The concept of gender in Russian names came to light when my friend Leigh Bardugo described her process for developing names in her debut novel, Shadow and Bone, and the other atrocities she allegedly performed on Russian culture.  I was perplexed why she would admit this, as the audience was mostly 14 year old girls and a few of their mothers.  There was no real reason to call attention to facts less than 2% (yes, I’ve done careful scientific research to reach this number) of her readers would notice.  I was only minimally out of place in seating area, with Lambchop sitting to my left.  I was the only male member of the species and I’m pretty sure I was the only one over 50.  Nevertheless, as much as I like to tease Leigh that she is the 2nd of my name amongst the roll of Awful, Awful Knights, I wouldn’t dream of missing her book tour.

Here I was in an independent book store in Petaluma with 20 teenager girls, listening to five authors talk about their just published debut novels.  I’m there because one of the authors is my friend.   It makes me think about why the others are there.  Clearly, the obvious answer is marketing.  And the marketing becomes more sophisticated and viral every day.  On a whim, I had looked at the reviews of Shadow and Bone on Amazon.  One of the first was a scathing incitement of how Leigh’s use of Russian culture and language as seeds in her world building was an affront to all people of Russian heritage.  Whoa?  Really? 

The reviewer’s point was that since some of the names, culture and items in this fantasy world were inspired by Russian culture, and unabashedly so, they should have been grammatically correct and exact in all details.  The reviewer went on a very long rant and gave the book 1 out of 5 stars; only because 0 stars wasn’t an option.   I believe this redefines myopia.  Not only that, this was in the first week of publication.  Don’t we have better things to do with our lives than be trolls on the internet?  Remember, this book is categorized as “Young Adult.”  Do we really think the same 14-year-old girls that believe in sparkly vampires care if the heroine’s last name is given the proper gender in a world that doesn’t exist?  I can see writing a critical paragraph on this topic in a balanced review, but not 1 million trolls on a death march.

I am beginning to think there is too much weight given to online criticism.  Yelp, Amazon, Good Reads, Angie’s List etc. all give outlets to the common man (woman, child or wombat) to take someone, their book, business or product and trash it with no accountability.  Why?  Even if 90% of the reviews are good or even fair, people focus on the shiny objects, the fireworks, and the circus parade.  On the Internet that focus is the trolls and the nuclear weapons they bandy about with little forethought.  Far be it from me to tell the world that negative criticism should end.  I won’t.  But people need to put a bit more thought into why they feel the need to trash someone or their work.  If they think they are helping form opinions, they are wrong.  They are the monkeys dancing for an audience of sheep.   I think the sheep need to move along – there may be dogs about (non-obscure Pink Floyd reference.)  They aren’t tastemakers.  They are the freaks at the sideshow.  I prefer to think for myself and edit out the extremes.  Sadly, I do enjoy a good sideshow from time to time.

For the record, I read the book with the eyes of a 50 year-old world weary consultant.  I think it was 3 round trips on the train and a few 20 minute sessions at home.  It was well plotted, interesting and definitely well done for its target audience.  The book was an enjoyable diversion and cared about the main character. That’s what a book in this genre should be, in my opinion.  I will be reading the sequels; I believe it is meant to be a trilogy. Had I read this as a young adult I would have loved it.  It made me think of Jon Carter of Mars with a feminine twist.  Of course I had criticisms — none of them terribly important to a book written for the YA market.  I don’t need to impress you with how smart I am.  Clearly, you think I’ve something interesting to say.  At least some of the time.

At lunch I was eating a Cobb sandwich.  Think of it as a BLT with avocado.  While I had not noticed the gender of last names, I did notice a bite of tomato landing on my shirt.  I took my napkin in hand to attack the offending red bit and remove it from my already colorful shirt.  As I pulled the napkin away, I realized I had left a green smear of avocado on my shirt.  I hadn’t noticed the napkin protecting my lap had done its job too well.  It wasn’t in any shape to remediate shirt born messes.  It made me ponder the concept of trying to help solve a problem, but making a bigger mess.  And I was thinking of work again.

 

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Normally, I wouldn’t

Occasionally, my mind wanders.  It flits hither and yon finding the shiny objects my synapses fire up.  I think about things normal people don’t.  For instance, “what is normal?”  Dictionary.com says:

nor·mal  [nawr-muhl]

adjective

1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal; regular; natural.

 I’d like to think I’m normal, but I know I don’t conform to many standards.    Of course, I try to make sure I shower daily, wear clean clothes and help my fellow men, but Lambchop always reminds me I’m “crazy behind the eyes.” Perhaps that is the new normal.

Normal seems to change ever generation or so.   I am thinking about “conforming to the standard.”  There was a time when a woman’s dress shouldn’t show her ankles.  Covering up was normal.  Then skirts rose.  And rose some more.  Now any length is basically acceptable and normal.  I still don’t think men who wear their pants below their crotches, showing off their Dime Store underwear are normal.  They must like walking with one hand on their waistband.  Perhaps in 10 years it will be considered normal.

Here’s where I’d normally veer into music.  Since I’m not normal, let’s talk about meals.  A family dinner at 6pm or so used to be normal.  It is how I grew up. How often does that happen now?  Normal for the Monkey was having his meal in his bedroom while his brother and mother ate in their rooms.  How many of us eat in front of the television on a table meant more for beverages than meals?  Fast food used to be a treat or a road trip accessory, now it seems like it has replaced the home cooked meal as the norm.  That saddens me.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the greasy stop from time to time.  I enjoy cooking for my family and prefer being together with them over a casual meal as often as possible.  Wouldn’t we be better off reinvigorating the family home cooked meal?  There is a million dollar idea in there; I just need to workshop it.  Fast foods, compartmentalization and alienation seem to go hand in hand. Maybe McDonald’s should add jello to its combos to remind us of where we came from.  I remember when my father insisted my mother include wiggly squares of jello, they were so much better than the molded version.  We don’t have that discussion eating fast food from a bag.

What seems to be the new normal is less connected and more scattered.  That meal on the go keeps us moving.  Why sit and talk when you can text?  Are we so afraid of what others might see in our eyes that we limit our contact?  Or have our children not learned how to connect?  We have Facebook, Twitter, Skype and texts.  I would never say they are not wonderful.  But they shouldn’t replace contact and relationship building.  Perhaps that is the new normal.

MTV brought us the age of ADD television.  Don’t like what you are watching? No worries, it will be over in 3 minutes, 30 seconds.  Then music videos and television took it a bit further with edits and severe visual changes every 6 seconds or less.  What would happen if the younger generation actually watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope?”  There are only a few edits, making it look like one long scene.  It is a fantastic movie and visually different from almost every other movie.  I’m afraid it would cause people’s brains to seize up.  I don’t want to stop progress, but I would like to see the instant-gratificationism of the world decrease noticeably.

It seems over the last 20 years every kid gets a ribbon or a trophy or medal for showing up.  Participation has replaced achievement.  We all know the phrase “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing!”  While that might be a bit too competitive for many, it underscores the need to compete.  When everything is instant, even our coffee and our oatmeal,  and participation is prized higher than achievement, we get mediocrity.  (No instant coffee for me please – grab the French Press.)  We lose our ability to build relationships because, “we tried.”    I’ve seen “tried” become a euphemism for “it was too much trouble to really put in any real effort.”   That can’t be good for relationships or the economy.  I would gently suggest we take Yoda’s advice, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”  We shouldn’t be afraid of the work or effort required in “doing.”

 I had a co-worker once tell me I was an iconoclast.  Really?

i·con·o·clast/ [ahy-konuh-klast]

noun
1. a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.

2. a breaker or destroyer of images, especially those set up for religious veneration.

Synonyms
2.  nonconformist, rebel, dissenter, radical.

Again, I might dismiss cherished beliefs and traditional institutions, but I’m not attacking religion.  Well, not that often.  I am however a bit of nonconformist, which of course keeps conforming as I get older.  Once the hair got cut, the torn tee shirt traded for a suit and I joined the work force I began moving toward the center, albeit slowly.

I often think I’m misunderstood, at least in the workplace. I know I can be seen as a dissenter.  I often see what can go wrong and in an effort to forestall disaster, I bring up problems so they can be identified, contemplated and rectified.  How do you prevent things from going wrong if you simply ignore them?  Let’s be honest, we all know too many people who act like ostriches and hope things go well.  Ignore it and it will go away; like Don Draper and his tooth. The happiness fairy will make it better.   That’s not me.  I’m not really negative, I prefer to think realistic.  It’s the whole ounce of prevention thing.  If that makes me a radical rebel, so be it.

The world has become a more complex place- more to do and an increasing number of moving parts to break.  Perhaps it takes a few more iconoclasts and rebels to keep progress headed in a constructive direction, not a destructive one.  This might be the new normal.

 

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Nuclear Missile

I started this blog because I felt I had some creative writing to do.  I knew somewhere in my mess of a mind were concepts and thoughts that should be shared.  Of course I also recognized that there were certain topics I should avoid. Writing about the workplace and the personalities here would be a rich soil, yielding an abundant harvest.  It would also be wrong.  So I try to stay away from those topics.  This blog isn’t anonymous and as entertaining as the characters and situations at work may be, I don’t need to limit my employment opportunities.  And no, you cannot have my Facebook password.

Family and friends is another hole I try to avoid stepping in.  Every family has its characters and dysfunctions.  Mine is no exception.   I’m not going to write about how my mother’s actions during my childhood lead to skyrocketing therapy bills (I’m not in therapy – yet) or how a new pattern of dogs taking over the lives of family members is emerging (it is.)  No, it is far better to skip these topics and look for other areas to pontificate on.

By now you realize that music plays a major role in my life.  I have strong reactions to lyrics, songs and grooves.  If you stop and think about it, Mike Campbell is one of the best and most prolific “hook” writers there has ever been.  Do you know who he is?  But writing about my thoughts on music is a bit of a cliché.  I know I will continue to touch on the topic from time to time, but I don’t want to run the ship aground unnecessarily.

Speaking of clichés, last week a salesman, whom I really like coincidently, spouted them like fire hydrant cooling of inner city children in the summer heat.  “Let’s not get wrapped around the axel.”  “Let’s put all our wood behind this arrow.” What?  Where did that come from?  I’d never heard that phrase before, but I know it was a cliché.  I was unsure of its origin; Native Americans or Porn Films?  No, dissecting the anatomy of a cliché isn’t as interesting as first thought.

Taking the train to and from work, and other commute related activities, takes up about 2 hours each day.  Sometimes I see things that lead to me comment.  And by things I mean people.   Ever wonder what Gilligan might look like if didn’t get stranded with the island and became a junkie?  I know. I walked behind a strung out Bob Denver doppelganger today.  Who knew they made pants in a size 22×34?  Seriously this guy was skinny and creepy.  And to think I used to like Maynard G. Krebs.  I’m rethinking that position.  I don’t think I want to have a blog about BART and I’m late to market with the “People of WalMart” website.

I probably should spend more time thinking about what makes me tick.  I used to joke that I was complex.  I’m really not.  I’m just a simple guy who likes to think the machinery that makes me go are very Rube Goldbergesque.  Give me some good wine, sharp knives to cut with, food to prepare, football and a few other nerdy pursuits and I’m quite satisfied.  I can’t imagine completely opening up and sharing the scary thoughts that run through my head.  Some of them might scare you.  I might lose some friends.  But in no way are any of them complex.  And no, I do not think 3 knife blocks is too many.

I reflect on mistakes I’ve made, some of them so trivial that only I remember; others stand tall, like half dome reflecting shame on a night sky.  What if I had done that one thing differently, so long ago, would things have been different?  I think the path might have been different, but not the outcome.   For example, had I tried harder in college, I would have had the opportunity to go to a top tier Graduate school.   I wanted an advanced degree.  But when it came down to it, would I have quit my job? Probably not, I had a family to support.  While there were options for night classes in SF in the late 80s, I wound up in the best of those.   Same end result.

What is motivation really? What makes any of us tick?  Is it trying to keep from disappointing our parents?  Is it really to set a good example for our kids?  Is it greed or is it lust?  Is it the 7 deadly sins or the 10 commandments?  There must be good reasons why people went to such lengths to enumerate them.  Perhaps the advent of the internet meme is just a reconfiguration of religious memes.  I know I’m motivated to improve and achieve; mostly to impress my parents.  The patterns of our childhood continue on well past adolescence.

In the end perhaps you, gentle reader (I can’t even type that with straight face), may be my therapist.  Your fee is not exorbitant and your feedback, let’s be honest, not overwhelming.  But it’s there and I’m here and now you are here. If I write like you are reading this, then you must be, right?  Will you fluff up that cushion to your left? It’s distracting.

A Sunshine Day-Dream

 

The day couldn’t have been more perfect.   A bright sun lit the day, not too hot, no traffic and good tunes.  I was headed to the Napa Valley on a mission of mercy.  I traveled solo. There was wine to pick up. I wasn’t far too far along when the strains of the Grateful Dead filled the car.

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care,
Saw my baby down by the river, knew she’d have to come up soon for air.

 Sugar Magnolia. A great driving song.  A song about a groupie.  Well kids, gather round and we’ll discuss the pantheon of Groupie Songs.  “We’re an American Band by Grand Funk.”  “Sally Simpson” from Tommy by The Who.  “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” by The Beatles.  And the infamous Mudshark.  Wait, that’s not a song.  No wonder Frank Zappa tried to replace it in our mythology

Sweet blossom come on, under the willow, we can have high times if you’ll abide
We can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.

Willows.  Damn, those horsetails are really taking over the back yard.  For a plant that wants a riverbank or wetland to grow in, they are moving all over the garden, quickly.  Mental note to self:  I need to pull the ones near the green Japanese maple.  Perhaps we should worry about the horsetail apocalypse, not the zombies.

She’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need,
Takes the wheel when I’m seeing double, pays my ticket when I speed

 I really only use one hand when I drive, the left one. Is that odd? I speed, but not nearly as much as I used to.  I’m more comfortable at 75 than I used to be.  It used to be 83. What’s happening to me?  I really don’t need a ticket.

She comes skimmin’ through rays of violet, she can wade in a drop of dew,
She don’t come and I don’t follow, waits backstage while I sing to you.

Well, she can dance a Cajun rhythm, jump like a Willy’s in four wheel drive.
She’s a summer love for spring, fall and winter. She can make happy any man alive.

What’s a Cajun rhythm? I guess Zydeco doesn’t fit lyrically.  I never knew what a Willys was till I read I am Legend by Richard Matheson.  Now I  know it’s a military jeep,  Never expected to learn that from a horror novel.  And then there is the “Omega Man” with Charleton Heston.  What a funny movie in retrospect.  Perhaps a scene by scene comparison with the Will Smith vehicle is in order.  No, that might be too painful.

Sugar magnolia, ringing that bluebell, caught up in sunlight, come on out singing
I’ll walk you in the sunshine, come on honey, come along with me.

 

Could this be any better of a day? Sun is shining, traffic is thin and the wine country is less than 30 minutes away.  But none of that crappy honey mead shit. God that stuff was awful. (If the person who gave that to me reads this, I’m sorry.)

She’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need,
A breeze in the pines and the sun and bright moonlight, lazing in the sunshine yes indeed.

Sometimes when the cuckoo’s crying, when the moon is half way down,
Sometimes when the night is dying, I take me out and I wander around, I wander
’round.

 

McMurphy? Chief?  Nurse Ratchet?  Could anything be further from this song?

Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin’, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine
Sunshine, daydream. Sunshine, daydream. Walking in the sunshine.

 

As life imitates art, I was in a day-dream, driving, smiling and enjoying the sunshine leading me towards what lay ahead.  The song changed.  It was “Teacher” by Jethro Tull.  A song about a “groupies’” devotion and disappointment with the “guru” he chose.  The opposite of “Sugar Magnolia.”  Circles in Circles.  Symetery.  And clever DJs.

 

 

I am a Friend of Chauncey Gardiner or a Modest Admission

My name is Lee and I am an addict.  It’s hard to put this out there.  I’m pretty sure most of you will judge me harshly. I know I should know better , but I can’t help myself.  I doubt  you’ve been there.  Its my own private torture.  I have a succulent addiction.  In a pinch I’ll settle for a cactus.  I find reasons to go to Home Depot, Lowes or OSH looking for cool little $3 plants.  Who could not love a $3 plant?  In pots or in the ground, they grow, sport colors and make the world a happier place.  Sadly, some die, but in Nature’s Kingdom that just makes room for more.  And my addiction grows like a ravenous vine.

Sometimes the hardware/home improvement stores aren’t enough.  Then, I travel to Cactus Jungle in Berkeley. A joyous nursery devoted to colorful and eye-catching succulents.  Its like my crack.  I dream of adding colors, textures and visual magnets to my yard and the house.   I can’t have too many.  Aeoniums, agaves, aleoes, crassulas, echeverias, sedums, sempervivums and more.   I go to Cactus Jungle too often.  I walk in and the staff see dollar signs.  when you spend $200 you get a $10 off.  I often give them a full card (20 punches) and they almost always give it back to me for the next trip.

some of my plants

For as bad as my addiction is, I  am lucky that Lambchop humors me.  Mostly.  I wake in the morning to see how the patch outside my window is growing.  I grab her to see things growing beyond my expectations.  I slyly avoid pointing out the deaths and prat falls in the garden.  Perhaps she notices the empty, growing stack of terra cotta pots. I haven’t gotten to hiding them yet.   Sometimes the squirrels dig out the ones  I’m propagating.  And I use the word propagate too often I’m told.  It is about to replace Spartacus as the drinking game du jour  (“apologies” and “gratitude”) in our home.

For several months I had talked of making a pilgrimage to Succulent Gardens in Castroville.  This might be the holy grail of  succulents.  I found them when I was looking for ways to make a vertical garden and they specialize in them.  They specialize in everything.   Before I get ahead of myself, we had to get there.  Lambchop had suggested a day trip a while back.  We had settled on May 26, because we were free.  It turns out so was most everyone else. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and the road was packed.  Castroville, you see, is the artichoke capital of the world.  Perhaps everyone was going there.  Or could it be that Castroville is on the way to Monterey and Carmel.  Well, maybe that was it.  Our 110 mile,  two-hour drive took closer to  three hours.  That happens on holidays.  we got there around 2:30pm  and they closed at 4pm.  Would I have time to browse?   Seriously, this place has 4 acres of plants.

Driving in, there was small empty parking lot and a giant “grow house.”  I don’t think it was a hot-house.  The landscaping facing the road and around the grow house was fantastic . I should have taken photos but I didn’t.  I was awestruck.  We walked in and were blown away with what we saw.  Plants, Plants and More Plants.  This photo I took.  This is a very small sampling of what we saw.

I was overwhelmed.  2′ plants. 3″ plants 4″ plants 6″ plants 8″ plants and 10″ plants.  It took an hour just to walk the 2 houses and small open space that were open to us.  I had visions of spending thousands of dollars to feed my beast, but I limited myself to a modest number, taking home 3 larger plants and about 20-25 smaller ones.

One of the joys of succulent overload is matching up various smaller plants in bowls or unique containers.  They tend to live harmoniously and grow into a visual delight.  While some folks plant larger plants in this type of arrangement, I tend to go smaller so as they grow I can see what’s happening and then add or change the arrangement to suit the container.  I had bought a lot of very small plants to build arrangements and a few gifts.  As we walked – well, wheeled the wagon – to the car Lambchop commented on how restrained I was.  In retrospect, I did hold back — but then I  was already planning my next trek to Succulent Nirvana;  Disneyland in Pots. Probably August.  I could have spent a few thousand dollars and still wanted more.  No worries, It was no more than a very nice dinner.  No, not French Laundry nice.

One of the most striking about the excursion was the help.  The two gals working the nursery were helpful, knowledgeable and, above all, patient.  As one helped me with the two fluorescent Aloes I wanted (they looked like someone set them aside and angering other patrons was not on my to do list) I made my usual comment, “I’m hope plastic is OK.”    Believe it or not I think I was in the last place on earth that took checks.  Cash or Check was my only option.   For just this reason, I always keep an emergency check in my wallet.   I would have had to put several plants back, I didn’t have that much cash in my pocket. I’m still amazed at that checks are accepted at a retail establishment.  Well, it was Castroville.

I realize that I have a monkey on my back.  I’ve embraced him and garden frenzy I create and maintain daily.  Today I ordered several difficult to find books on succulents and their health, propagation (DRINK!) and sprawl.  My monkey needed a banana.  He’s satisfied.  For now.