Musings

frog on toilet

Unmentionable?

“Write what you know.”

And something everyone knows is you have to go to the bathroom several times a day. When you gotta go, you gotta go. It’s non-negotiable.

So why do fictitious characters hardly ever need to do this?

Not that I’m keen to know every time someone in a novel needs to take a whiz, but considering how awkward it is to be “took short,” wouldn’t authors who want to make their characters suffer take advantage of physiological realities? Especially when you consider the amount of coffee imbibed by some characters and their creators. What about a detective hot on the trail of a suspect who has to stop and look for a washroom? Or a romantic scene short-circuited by a call of nature?

And what about villains? There may be other ways to foil their evil plans.

Hmm.

Seriously, I’ve read advice to the effect that readers relate better to characters with real human imperfections than to flawless types who never mess up or encounter any of the annoying little problems of life. Like running out of TP. Or making an entrance trailing some from one’s stiletto heel.

So what prompted these scatological speculations? The main character of my current work in progress is right now in a situation where the facilities are minimal and basic. No hot shower, no triple-ply TP, and maybe no toilet as such — awkward for a young American woman visiting a village on the west bank of the Nile in 1962. And things are going to get worse.

I suppose the reason for the absence of bodily functions in fiction is obvious: “Eww, who wants to read about that stuff?” Well, hardly anybody, including me. As a fictional device, this is one where “less is more” applies. Which is why my character will have to cope with the lack of facilities off-page. Besides, if I do my job right, she’ll have a lot more to worry about.

 

washroom sign

Images courtesy of Pixabay

 

 

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dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).

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The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

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Campion

In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.

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Oriental Hellebore (in March)

 

Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.

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Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.

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Aster frikartii “Monch”

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“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.

setting sun through wildfire smoke, maple tree

Strange Days

The south coast of British Columbia is in the middle of a heat wave. High temperatures are in or near the 30s (degrees C; 85 to 100 F), but more than that, easterly winds have brought a haze of smoke from fires in the interior.

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The light has a strange coppery hue. As it rises and sets, the sun is blood red, and the moon is a rich gold colour even when high in the sky. Parts of the garden are on life support delivered by hose and watering can, and some plants are doing peculiar things.

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The foliage of this columbine plant has turned a dark purple, almost black.

Having an afternoon sleep (siesta?) is the thing to do, but on getting up I feel weirdly disconnected. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear chanting from somewhere in the neighbourhood, or to meet a small dragon in the woods. It’s as though some unknown prophecy is manifesting. And in those days the sun was the colour of blood, and fires sprang up, and strange beasts roamed the land…

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All this is fancy, of course. People close to the fire zones, who have been evacuated or lost property to the fires, are living the grim reality.

We’ll all welcome cooler temperatures — and rain.

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blue flames question mark

Why, Oh Why? #1, Parking Lots

Some things I notice in daily life make me think, say and wonder, “Why, oh why?” Are there good reasons for these irritating phenomena? If so, perhaps someone could point them out.

First up, parking lot design.

Maybe it’s just the city I call home, but I’ve noticed a couple of things about local parking lots that never fail to bug me.

Running the Gauntlet. Why, oh why do the people who design parking lots for shopping malls or plazas insist on running all the vehicle traffic right past the mall and store entrances? Everyone has to cross that road to get from car to shops, which frustrates drivers and endangers pedestrians. Could it possibly be that the pedestrians are seen as traffic-calming devices?

The logical place for car access to parking spots is around the outer perimeter of the lot. Moving vehicles would be directed away from the places where all the customers are headed. Bollards or other devices would separate the vehicle parking area from the pedestrian zone running along the shop fronts or mall entrance. All drivers would approach parking spots from the far edge of the lot. Those who need to park close to the stores would still be able to drive to the nearest vacant spot. Handicapped parking spots would be located where they are now. But no one would have to worry about getting mowed down in their final approach to Canadian Tire, the bank, or the grocery store.

The Landscaped Lot, known by me as the Parking Lot From Hell. Here, the rows of parking stalls are separated by narrow strips containing plants — small trees, shrubs and ornamental grasses. I have two problems with this.  First, the space taken up by the landscaping makes it harder than necessary to maneuver one’s vehicle without risking collisions and close calls. Teeth are gritted on arrival and departure, and many trips to one of these mazes are challenging. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more fender-benders in landscaped lots than wide-open ones.

Second, the plants deteriorate. When newly installed, they look attractive, but inevitably, many of them decline and die, going from spiffy to sad, despite routine watering and maintenance (which is not always provided). Narrow beds in expanses of asphalt and concrete can’t be called ideal environments for most trees, shrubs and perennials. Shoppers intent on spending and acquisition tromp heedlessly through them. No one appreciates these plants, especially once they start to look scruffy and battered. What’s the point? It’s a parking lot, not a park.

Old-fashioned parking lots that are just expanses of asphalt with lines painted on it work much better for the intended purpose — parking. Yes, they look butt-ugly and prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground. To mitigate this, parking lot designers could develop durable yet water-permeable surfaces. That would be more effective than the pathetic plantings. Swales and rain gardens around the edges of lots or along pedestrian walkways may also help.

This is the first in what may become a series of posts. Hopefully not a long series. Muttering “Why, oh why?” is not the best way to spend one’s energy.

Here are a couple of pictures that have absolutely nothing to do with parking lots.

 

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Lewisia flowers

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Bewick’s wren on ornamental wooden egg.

purple anemone and flowering currant

Wordless

The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.

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A happy spring combination — perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and pasque flower or meadow anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Guest Author: Audrey Driscoll – Weird rabbits…

Sue Vincent invited me to contribute a post to her estimable blog, so I wrote this.

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

A while ago it occurred to me that when humans become extinct, unless aliens arrive on Earth to dig up and appreciate our music, art and writing, it will become meaningless. The animals that survive our presence on this planet will never read our books, sing our songs or admire our creations, even though vines may festoon our sculptures and birds nest among their twining stems.

Culture, I thought, is unique to us. Then, for some reason, I remembered those weird rabbits.

What rabbits?

Near the end of Part I of the late Richard Adams’s wonderful book, Watership Down, the band of homeless rabbits comes across a warren whose inhabitants display peculiar behaviours. They practice complicated etiquette, recite poetry and make things they call Shapes by pushing pebbles into burrow walls. It turns out this warren is managed by a nearby farmer. He protects it from predators and delivers…

View original post 1,247 more words

can of Spam

Pseudo-Haiku From Spam

I gather February is National Haiku Writing Month.

I write no haiku. This poetic form has quite exacting conventions and a long history. I suspect it would take considerable study and practice to become proficient in it, but many in the West seem to perceive it as “quick and easy poetry.” The result is a lot of of polysyllabic word-clumps intended to convey some fleeting notion. Or maybe I’m being disrespectful of well-meaning haiku writers.

But…

I was shoveling spam out of my email inbox the other day.  Most of the time I hit the “empty spam” button without looking at what is about to be flushed. But a couple of gem-like phrases caught my eye. I noted them down.

Rearranged a bit, here they are:

Body is a baggage for life / Protect stomach lining / Better tomorrow starts now.

Starry mood? / The energy of bright feelings / Just enables.

Quick start, long action! / Life is well when you take the right meds! / Be confident!

Afraid to fall? / Do not push me / You’re mighty!

You will note that these word-strings do not contain the 5-7-5 syllables prescribed for haiku. That, among other reasons and with apologies, is why I call them pseudo-haiku.

Feel free to guess what the spammers were trying to sell.

“Spam” image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

April 19, 2014

 

Shower Thoughts

I actually remembered a thought that floated into my brain when I was in the shower this morning. Usually, these random ideas vanish by the time I’ve dried myself off, leaving behind at most a frustrating husk — now what was that great idea again? Lost forever, the thought is inevitably a priceless evidence of genius.

This time, I bustled out of the bathroom, grabbed a pen, flipped open a notebook and wrote this: psychopomp & psychopath. Puns, etc.

Not exactly a pearl of wisdom, eh? Let’s see…

I started by thinking (as I often do) about the piece of writing I’m working on now, which is set in Egypt. I was mulling over the concept of the soul in ancient Egypt — a rather complex composite of the ka, the ba, the akh and some other bits and pieces. At this point, the brain skipped to psychopomp, which is not Egyptian but Greek, meaning “one who conducts the souls of the dead to the afterlife.” Then I got to thinking that “psychopomp” is a rather unwieldy word. (I see the spell-checker thinks it’s not a word at all). Someone unacquainted with it would probably focus on the “psycho” part and think of serial killers. But what’s a “pomp?” Pomp and circumstance? Or pompous? A serial killer who thinks he knows best?

The main character of the 4-book series I have published becomes a psychopomp. Unfamiliar and weird, it’s useless as a keyword for book discovery. “Conductor of souls” is less mystifying, but may suggest a “soul train,” which would be totally misleading.

In a short story I published recently, the psychopomp recognizes a psychopath — two, actually — which takes him onto a difficult path, indeed. A psycho-path? I could say more, but I won’t, in case anyone wants to read the story.

To capture other, possibly more valuable shower thoughts, I think I’ll stash a notebook and a writing implement of some sort in the bathroom. That way I’ll have to hold the thought only until I finish toweling off. And if I get a notebook and pen designed to work in wet conditions, maybe not even that long.

It will be interesting to see if the thoughts captured are of more significance than these.

 

 

 

One Way Mirror

We took down our Christmas lights today. No more blue glow from the porch this evening.

A day or two after Christmas, the world changes — completely. Christmas trees and decorations are still up, but seem less relevant with every passing minute. Shame on anyone who dares to play (or hum or whistle) a Christmas tune. The excitement that started building in November has reached a climax and dissipated. The deadline of Christmas Day is dead, and new ones appear on the horizon. Valentine’s Day. Birthdays. Spring break. School holidays. The wheel of the year must trace an entire revolution, through budding, blooming and fading, before those coloured lights of the winter solstice look right again. The only way to get there is forward, through the raw brightness of the new year.

For some reason this abrupt shift was especially acute this year. It may be because on New Year’s Day a strong northeast wind came up, bringing a week of cold, dry weather. OK, it wasn’t true Canadian cold, but cold enough for us West Coast types — minus 5 degrees C (23 F) at the nadir, which came last night after the wind finally dropped. But air hovering around the freezing point feels murderously cold when propelled by a 30 or 40 knot wind. That wind seemed to blow Christmas and its trappings right out of town, intensifying the effect of the annual post-holiday shift.

Another slightly disconcerting thing was a feeling that I should be going back to work, as though the nine months since I retired on March 31st were just an extended holiday, now over. I have to say I’m happy to reassure myself that it’s not so, emphasized by the fact that the first new items of clothing and footwear I’ve acquired since then are without question “loafing clothes.”

Cozy lounging sweater (with hood) and purple felt slippers.

Cozy lounging sweater (with hood) and purple felt slippers.

Remember those geraniums (pelargoniums) I resolved to pull through the first episode of cold weather several weeks ago? Well, I added extra insulating materials and covered everything with a tarp. When I unveiled them today they looked alive, but I’m wondering if they’re actually green zombies that will eventually show their true deadness by turning brown.

Pelargoniums tucked in against the cold.

Pelargoniums tucked in against the cold.