Sunday, October 31, 2010

Superior wisdom of the masses

I can't say enough good things about the blogosphere!  The efficiency with which it delivers practical knowledge is simply unmatched by anything else we've got going on right now in the way of public education!

People who are unfamiliar with the blogosphere often wonder, "What's the point?  Why do some people upload so much of their life's minutiae for public consumption?" 

The point is that some of those minutiae are invaluable to others.  If some suburbanite is trying to develop backyard gardens on the upper Texas coast, I want to hear from them, and I don't care how trivial their observations are.  If someone is attempting to garden in unconventional ways, such as in livestock tanks, I want to hear from them, too.

What I DON'T want is to have to get a degree in horticulture just so that I can grow a friggin' head of broccoli in my back yard.  I have other interests and other responsibilities in my life, and only so much time available for the gardening thing.  Taking a class was a very useful start, but it's not the same as getting out there and digging. 

Whatever is on someone's blog is also available to come directly out of their mouths but, again, I don't have time to go to a bunch of group meetings.  Furthermore, when words come out of peoples' mouths, there are no pictures available, so the visual learning element is lost.  Plus I am limited in my ability to later refer back to words that entered my ears; stuff gets lost in translation.  As a newbie, I need step-by-step illustrations. 

Besides, I don't have time to track down these people in real life.  With Google and a cuppa, I can find them before I have to drive Cayley to school in the morning. 

A lady in Houston provided me with the jackpot moment of learning on choosing a soil vendor, courtesy of her own expensive mistake which she chronicled in this invaluable post.

A guy in El Segundo California sent me an email and generously educated me on the issue of zinc.  Initially I wasn't planning to line my stock tanks with heavy-gauge plastic; yes, the stock tanks are galvanized, but zinc is not particularly toxic to humans (it's listed as a "nuisance" pollutant in EPA's drinking water standards, rather than as a toxin per se - think about it: livestock drinks out of these tanks, directly ingesting zinc, no big deal) so I wasn't worried about it. 

He set me straight by explaining that, while zinc may not cause humans and animals much concern, it inhibits woody growth. 

Can you imagine?  If I hadn't found this guy, I would not have lined my tanks, zinc would have leached into the soil to some degree, and the gardens would probably have underperformed, or perhaps outright-failed, and I NEVER WOULD HAVE FIGURED OUT WHY!!

Invaluable, I tell you.  Blog content is like rocket fuel for the climb up the learning curve. At the end of this post, I'm going to put a bunch of search strings, just in case they help anybody else who is parsing threads pertaining to this type of stock tank gardening. 

Meanwhile, back at the neo-suburban ranch, I figured out quite quickly that we need to build an outdoor work bench, like, yesterday.  But Lawrence is out of town this weekend, so that little project could not get swiftly done; I had to build a temporary bench myself out of found objects.  In this manner I finally identified a productive use for that damned pile of excess bricks left over from the construction of our house.

Camo-bench: slightly freakish-looking as it blends into the side of the house, the bench-equivalent of the many anoles we've got running around here.
And here are the morning transplants, most of which I got yesterday morning at the Clear Lake Shores Farmer's Market, and put into temporary pots of "black gold" (that term being a no-caps descriptor, not the commercial product) in preparation for transplant into our future plastic-lined stock tanks.
Three broccoli starts, one Swiss chard, two varieties of oregano (I used a LOT of that stuff our cooking), a lemon mint, a sage, and a purple and green garden ornamental of the salvia family; close up below.
My favorite color combination, especially when the green is rich and dark like this. 
Hail to the great google spirit of the internet:
stock tank gardening
livestock tank vegetable gardens
suburban gardening
urban gardening
zinc in stock tanks
using stock tanks as gardens
Houston soil yards
Houston garden soil

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Knee deep in blood

Cayley came home from school the other day frustrated that the tormentous behavior of a middle school nemesis is waxing once again (as I predicted not ten days ago), but vowing not to succumb to her urge to put the kid in her place. 

"Yer gonna cra-ack!  Yer gonna cra-ack! Nah nah nah nah nah!" I teased her, because this general issue has has become one of comic relief for us by this time. 

Of course, that little dollop of quasi-reverse psychology made her even more determined to avoid yet another repetition of the pattern that has historically characterized their exchange: the self-centered kid affronts, Cayley rejects, and then all hell breaks loose as the kid goes overboard on the social warpath seeking disproportionate revenge.  Cayley began to formulate alternate strategies in earnest, and concluded that she should clear the path for another girl to re-establish appropriate boundaries on their joint behalf, thus getting the job done while simultaneously deflecting the heat from herself.

"Why bother with games like that?" I asked (paraphrasing).  "Just deal with it straight up.  Give her what you think she deserves."

"Mama!" she admonished, giggling insanely.  "Why are you always so impatient?"

It's a valid question and I often forget that neither Cayley nor Lawrence will ever be fully able to understand the answer to it, because neither has seen the things that I've seen in my life.  We are all products of our experiences, and they simply weren't a product of mine, so I thought I'd take a crack at further explaining that here.

Bullshit makes me impatient because I've had the privilege of seeing so much of humanity that is diametrically opposed to it, AND because I've watched so much of that extraordinary humanity die.

I've worked extremely hard in my life to maximize the opportunities I was given, but I also had something else going for me:  I got an enormous number of lucky breaks along the way. 

Without question, my luckiest breaks entailed opportunities to meet extraordinary people who ultimately gave so much of themselves to me. I can't produce a laundry list of ALL those people and their corresponding gifts in this blog, because it would make many of them uncomfortable if I told their stories out loud.  So what I'll do instead to make my point is restrict my descriptions to just a few of the dead ones, the ones whose social comforts I no longer have to consider:
For three precious years, Didi was the big sister I never had.  Our babies were born just 41 days apart and became so bonded as infants that they developed their own shared language.  As well as being second mother to my child, she was a brilliant artist and business owner, and she taught me so much about being loving and being TOTALLY REAL that I'm no longer able to tell what is original-me and what is actually HER living on inside of me.  Didi was the Terminator who was inexplicably programmed to protect me (and her other loved ones) even as she was forced to drag her severed chassis forward across the floor on her one remaining elbow: half paralyzed by an unsuccessful brain surgery and unable to speak without slurring, she still felt driven to help me develop ideas for my own business and to encourage me to network with other people in her professional circle.
Her last public request was for some of my cooking. 
Didi was killed by cancer at the age of 45.   
If I had that proverbial "one more day" to spend with a loved one who had passed, without question I would choose to spend it with my paternal grandmother Pearl.  I still have recurring dreams of being able to do exactly that. She and I were so far apart in age that I never understood her personality (which in some respects bears eerie resemblance to my own) until I grew into adulthood and, by that time, she was gone.  When I was a child, she would get so excited to see me that she would literally jump up and down.  She tried desperately to help me in ways I couldn't understand at the time. 
Pearl was killed by cancer at the age of 72.   

No other human being has had as profound an effect on my life's trajectory as my friend Graham: he was the man who brought me to America as an intern at Johnson Space Center, the event from which pretty much all else in my life has derived.  He was arguably the most accomplished scientist of his specialty in the entire world when he died, and a crater has been named on the Moon in his honor.  When I think of him now, it's not his pioneering and absolutely ferocious intellect I remember, however - it's his wit, and his depth of feeling.  Years after I worked for him, we were having a visit when he looked at me and said, "I need to talk to you about something I've got going on in my life, because you're the only one I can trust."  I don't know what I ever did to deserve the honor of holding such a great person's trust inside of myself. 
Graham was killed by cancer at the age of 52.  

When I was asked to say a few words at Larry's memorial service, I totally bunged it up.  I couldn't begin to explain what he meant to me then, and I can't do it now either.  Factually, Larry was my graduate thesis advisor and the leader of our research team at Washington University in St. Louis.  I doubt if anyone would argue that he was one of the finest scientists who has ever lived, of any discipline; the scientific community was not content simply to name a crater on the Moon after him - they had to dedicate landform on Mars in his name as well.  In the photo above, you can see eyes that are kind yet absolutely uncompromising; a piercing, exacting intellect who taught me through and through that I need to be myself, regardless of the cost or degree of nonconformity.  The last time I visited Larry, he openly mourned the fact that I was not able to bring Cayley with me (she was in school); just days from dying, he was not concerned with his own situation or comforts - he just wanted to be able to reach out and contribute to the people he cared about. 
Larry was killed by myelofibrosis at the age of 70.  
I didn't know Cayley's first cousin Arun well, but I knew him enough to know that he was wise beyond his circumstances, and that he was destined to be the future leader of their family generation.  I can still hear the echo of his strong and hopeful voice as we would talk on the phone, fighting ten thousand miles of ocean and the howling winds of cultural disparity, but still able to communicate.  Arun and four of his classmates were killed in a car crash when they were all around 21 years of age.   
This is an eerie picture to me now because it shows Cayley flanked by the ghosts of two Uncles.  I can remember a day long ago when Gil (right) cut fresh roses and put one on the bed of each child in his home (where I spent many of my holidays).  Roy (left) was so dedicated to my Aunt that he refused to leave her alone on this earth even as his body failed.  I flew home to spend a bit of time with the family as they were dealing with his illness, and I couldn't believe the dedication that I saw in him.  When all hope of recovery was gone and medical intervention ceased, he still continued to fight like nobody I've ever seen before.  A human being is not supposed to live for more than about a week without water; I believe he held on for nineteen days. 
Both Roy and Gil were killed by cancer well before their natural ends should have arrived.
Many people only see stuff like this in movies, not in real life.  I could describe additional people without even getting around to those who are still living, but seven stories are enough for now.  I'm getting finger fatigue here, and the rest of the day's responsibilities are beckoning. 

I get impatient with people because I've been privileged to receive extraordinary gifts, the very best that humanity has to offer, both intellectually and emotionally.  When I see people acting in stupid, vindictive, or self-absorbed ways, it doesn't strike me as being an irritation or an inconvenience - it strikes me as being an obscenity.  It's just such a vulgar contrast to the unimaginable generosity that I've been lucky enough to receive in my life and the remarkable human courage I've witnessed that I simply cannot deal with it. 

I've watched people struggling to do justice to their loved ones even as they were sucking in their last breaths.  I've watched incredibly loving, extraordinary human beings dying horrible premature deaths in front of me without a single thought to their own needs, their excrutiating pain, or their unfulfilled potential.  And I'm supposed to feel some degree of patience or sympathy toward people who act like self-centered idiots?  Not too f*cking likely to happen, I'm afraid.  I don't have it in me.  I don't want to have it in me.  I just want to get away from that kind of stuff as fast as humanly possible.  It no longer sounds like a cliche' when it's dying people who are teaching it to you:  life is too short and too precious to waste on intractable situations. 

Anyway, that's a portion of the short version as to why I am routinely impatient with people.  Contrary to our social and cultural doctrine, patience is not automatically warranted.  Sometimes I need to save it up for the people upon whom I really need to be expending it: the extraordinary people who are still on this earth, who bless me with their genuine love - the ones I struggle to do justice to, whose gifts I'll never be able to repay.

"I just want to hear stories about Cayley,"
a ninety-pound Didi murmured from her hospital bed.

Me too.

Mama Didi Stuart:  The Ghost of Halloween Past.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Trees, please

As soon as I saw it, my reaction was, "THAT is the one." 

It's that deciduous thing still in its bucket.
A white crape myrtle, not pink.  Including the root ball, it's thirteen feet tall.  It took two men at Bradshaw's Nursery to load it into my van, and just me to load it out and bring it round to the back yard (it's upward of 150 pounds, but I'm considerably stronger than I look). 

Yet another attempt to use the dog for scale, if only she would stay still.
They tell me that white crape myrtles grow much faster than the other varieties.  I did not know this.

What I do know is that the shadows are really long in the early mornings now; we are only about seven weeks from winter solstice, and our back yard faces north, so it bears the brunt of it.  I can't wait to see how all this landscaping looks come spring!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

They've landed!!

No, we are not trying to compete with Area 51 for the title of 'most flying saucers' - just trying to get more of the garden thing going!
Having a U-Haul rental joint close by is very cool. 
Empty-nesters only in the galvanized steel sense and only for the moment.  L was proud of his tethering job.
Roll, roll, roll your tank...
We made a temporary hinge in this section of the fence so that we could get all the landscaping stuff in from the vacant lot next door.
And there they are, flaked-out dog in the center for scale!  They have to be leveled, plumbed, shined-up, plastic-lined, and underpinned before the soil goes in, but you get the idea.  BTW, I took this photo standing on a six-foot stepladder.  When standing on the ground, the viewing angles are different and the houses in the background are not nearly as imposing. 
In case you're wondering what the hell these things are, well, they're stock tanks.  Livestock tanks, two six-foot diameter and one four-foot (it was only when we got them home that I realized the metaphorical significance of the choice - two big ones and one little one). 

It is within these that I plan to build our vegetable gardens.  There are several reasons why I can't garden here in the conventional manner: 

(1) Because NOBODY can - our gumbo clay soils are so poor that they can't even really be amended.  The only way to garden is to build beds on top of the native soils, and to put specially-blended soil mixtures in them.

(2) Because this IS a suburban backyard, and the garden(s) have to look cool, in keeping with the rest of Casa Caylawral.  It wouldn't look right if I dug some hillbilly hole out there.  Furthermore, we simply don't have the space to put in conventional 4' x 8' garden row sets.

(3) Because our industrious dog will defecate upon anything, ANYTHING I place upon the ground.  She is fully trained not to jump on furniture, however, and I'm quite confident that I can keep her from crapping on our onions and oregano if they are confined to these things.

Obscene dog pose.  Yard looks worse than it actually is - no rain whatsoever for SIX WEEKS now.  That tank in the foreground needs a serious cleaning.
After a lengthy internet search involving every vendor in America, I settled upon Behlen Country stock tanks, which are sold at the American Fence & Supply store about one mile from here.  They looked more sophisticated than other farm tanks, with cool bands and ribbed sides, like something you'd see at a contemporary art museum.  The six-foot tanks are a bit wide for this endeavor (difficult to reach all the way into the middle without climbing into them) but they are what the landscape asked for aesthetically. 

We are pleased with the way they look, and they aren't even set up yet.  We have so much stainless steel inside the house and absolutely none outside, so these finally provide balance and cross-reference.  As well as looking nice, these three tanks together provide an equivalent growing area as two 4' x 8' garden beds. Another advantage - not so much working on the knees (mine aren't what they used to be!). The growing surface is accessed by stooping, and not too low.  Or by squatting on a camp stool next to the side.

Incidentally, Lawrence is getting into this garden thing - it's bringing out the Aggie in him.  I initially thought that this pursuit might develop into my offset to his fantasy football, real football and political passions.  But he's already making plans for an automatic irrigation system for these, and he found a website where a vendor sells a special onion cultivar developed at A&M.  And he wants tomatoes, REAL tomatoes, not the tasteless kind sold in grocery stores (incidentally, during my gardening class, they explained why store-bought tomatoes taste so poorly - it's because the industrial ag system must harvest them X days ahead of when they should be harvested, in order to have them ripe when they hit the stores.  The too-early harvest halts certain biochemical processes necessary for good taste).

One more step in the process is now complete!  I haven't been able to recreate like this in years.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Cayley and I began working on her fourth annual science project yesterday and, regardless of outcome, this one is destined to occupy a warm place in my heart. 

For her first project, we traveled around Harris and Galveston Counties. 

For her second project, we went to Stafford and Beaumont once apiece, and High Island three times!!

For her third project, we had to make an overnight trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana.

But for her fourth, we have finally come home.  Literally!

The developer of our neighborhood is actually a friend of mine; our association pre-dates our build contract.  With his permission, Cayley was able to take unofficial temporary custody of the land next door to us for this project.  THIS is her laboratory!! 
We started measuring and staking yesterday and began work on the experimental design.  Once we get going, the appearance of this land will begin to look very different from the above pic. 

Is there a name for the phenomenon by which the experiences of youth are often not fully comprehended and valued until well into adulthood?  There were so many events about which I said, "Yeah, whatever" as a child, because I was too cool to get excited about a lot of what went on in the adult world, and because I was too preoccupied with the daily logistical challenge of growing up to bother contemplating "deeper meanings".  It wasn't until many years later that I realized the extent to which those events shaped my identity. 

I see the same phenomenon manifesting now in Cayley.  We view science projects very differently.  For her, it's just one more in a vast set of performance requirements she must juggle; it is unfortunate that GT school has reduced learning to a soul-less assembly line but, by virtue of the sheer volume of assignments heaped upon the kids, this has absolutely occurred.  For me, Science Fair is a satisfying recapitulation of childhood and a vicarious chance at opportunities that were not available to me, and that I would have died for!  Whereas Cayley had won three District Science Fair gold medals by the conclusion of grade 6, I didn't even have access to science education at that point in my life.  By grade 6, in our wretchedly-poor school district, we had only one hour of science per week (and it consisted of a superficial instruction relegated to Friday afternoons when none of the other kids were interested in paying attention).  Every week, I used to wait patiently for that one precious hour to roll around, but if there were special events or the slightest other extenuating circumstances, it was always cancelled, and I would be so crushed!  Science was not considered to be part of our core curriculum, but it was the only part of school I enjoyed.

Sometimes Cayley tells me that she wants to back off the science effort and perhaps devote her energies to something else.  I tell her that she can absolutely do that if another priority is identified; we have both certainly gotten our fill of winning Science Fair medals by now!  But then she'll change her mind and reiterate that she wants to be a veterinarian.  If that's her priority, she has to do the science thing.

Being a vet would involve a heck of a lot more than simply lovin' animals up.  Sickness, surgery, death - it's the whole nine yards. 
Anyway, these questions, like many others, will naturally work themselves out in time.  Meanwhile, we've found yet another original means of celebrating our new home.  And I do think that Cayley will one day look back on these projects and see them for the first time as having the specialness that I can perceive right now. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Micro-Taz and other nonsense

Last night, something found its way into my newly-installed Earth Machine.  When I opened the cover, something moved very, very fast, so fast that I thought it might be a snake, perhaps a small Racer, because it really went like a bat out of hell, round and round inside, until I wondered if it would perhaps propel itself upward with a force exceeding 1G and thus project itself onto my face.

This is a very effective piece of artwork in large part because it's fulla thirds and diagonals.
It turns out that it was some sort of fleet-footed lizard.  I couldn't see what kind, because it was dusk, and because it was moving at relativistic speed.  He managed to squeeze back out of the thing and then he disappeared behind the garden shed.

He was in there feasting on those f*cking fruit flies that have been plaguing me - good for him.  I haven't figured out what to do with the flies.  I'm covering my compost with carbon feedstock as required, and there's no odor, but there is a veritable cloud of flies.  Flies are never good news in the subtropics.  We don't want those.

So I'll add the lizard guy to my list of fly countermeasures, and I'll hail the subtropics while I'm at it: Nature always finds a way around here - I love that about this area.  To look at our neighborhood, you'd think it represents the ultimate in scorched-earth experiences (having been plowed under in its entirety with all indigenous macro-life annhialated a year ago when construction started).  And yet the compost bin is on the ground just one week before a carnivore manages to defy the diversification odds and arrive from... somewhere.

Starbucks inadvertently gave me two other good ideas this week, and one of them also pertained to flies.  Starbucks has a wonderful recycling program called "Grounds for your Garden" in which they give away 5-lb bags of their spent coffee grounds (and they generate A LOT of spent coffee).  They just park them in a bucket near the door and people take them as they want. 

Only trouble is, this stuff is like mahogany gold.  You can basically forget about growing decent Gardenias in greater Houston unless you feed them Starbucks material (we're ALL addicted, humans and plants alike).  So a lot of people want this stuff and it's hard to get your hands on it.  Except I found a new Starbucks on the Gulf Freeway, sort of away from the neighborhoods, and I think it serves mostly Yuppies with BMWs who don't really have an urge to collect used coffee grounds.  I managed to abscond with 10 lbs a few days ago.

Now, in the Before Time, you'd crack open a bag of Starbucks grounds, and it would just be grounds.  Well, somewhere along the way, Starbucks must have realized that their employees were spending a lot of friggin' time scraping the grounds out of the filters.  Furthermore, the filters were not being recycled, and they are compostable.  So when I got THESE two bags of grounds, I found a bunch of soggy filters still in them.

Initially this irritated me but then I realized that I could take my tongs and spread out the filters on top of the active surface, sort of like a compost equivalent of the Shroud of Turin.  This may indeed help with the flies where loose carbon material was still allowing them to penetrate.  We'll see.

The other idea pertained to the bags themselves.  Initially I thought I would simply recycle them, but they're really good quality vacuum bags.  Cocaine bricks don't come into this country packaged as robustly as Starbucks coffee.  If I wash them out, I might be able to use them as outer sleeves on the organic artisan breads I'm always freezing (frozen organic bread is 10x better than the fresh garbage they sell in mainstream grocery stores). 
I accidentally holed this first one (shown here stuck with a magnet to the fridge to dry) before I got this idea, but I think I'll try it out.  Those artisan breads need to be double-bagged to minimize freezer burn and, to this day, I haven't found an ideal way to do this via either recycling or via purchase of a new product (Ziploc bags are too small, wrong shape; used bread bags are too flimsy).

So there you have it - you can rest easier at heart knowing that your next Starbucks cuppa has at least the potential to be a zero-waste proposition, supposing that's the kind of thing that floats your existential boat.  Me, I just want fewer flies and better bread. 

And this post is mostly unimportant nonsense, really, but I'm taking my lunch break, and I didn't feel like reading the news.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grow ops

So I went to a public gardening class sponsored by the Texas A&M AgriLife extension today.

Skip this and go straight to their FB page.  I just thought I'd put this here because it's such a pretty flyer.
By the time I was done with that six hours, my brain was ready to explode.  I can't believe how different the recommended practices are here relative to Nova Scotia - I might as well be planning a garden on another planet.  In another solar system. 

Up north, you get one shot - Nature fires its starting pistol, you basically slam your crap into the ground inside a short window of opportunity and, if you're lucky, you pull something back out of the ground before the next glacier advances. 

Here, everything is staggered, and you orchestrate your deployment according to a county-specific regime that resembles a DNA sequencing chart:

Furthermore, because the seasons are more loosely defined, you also have the luxury of staggering your individual deployments.  So in other words, you might plant two broccoli starts per week for four weeks so that you don't end up with an entire ass-load of broccoli all at the same time (something you might have no choice about up north).  Yeah.  You stagger both your species and your individuals.  It left me thinking, Jesus Murphy, I hope someone has written an app for this!

We did projects.  And we got to take the projects home at the end of the class.  I felt like I was back in kindergarten again.
The gardenguys were utterly convinced that if I keep that central pottery piece full of water (which oozes out into the surrounding soil), I'm going to be eating lettuce out of this contraption 45 days from now.  I'm going to try it primarily to see if they're right, and secondarily because I really like lettuce.
And eating broccoli off this little sucker in the same amount of time.  Notice the tag with the name and harvest days in brackets?  That small piece of genius derived from a local Master Gardener who figured out that he could go to Walmart and buy Cheap Shit From China, specifically a vinyl mini-blind, and cut up the slats to make plant tags.  He worked out that the cost is about 1 cent per tag if he does it this way.  And the tags are extremely durable.
For the asexual reproduction exercise, we made cuttings of Russian Blue basil, and some oregano.  Once again, they seemed convinced that if we tend to this Ziploc-and-soda-straw greenhouse, this stuff'll actually take.  That would be cool, because the basil cultivar was to die for.  I've never seen stuff that nice in Lowes.
Anyway, a good time was had by all, and we'll see what the morrow brings.  Or the next 45 of them, actually.


CNN is running its annual "Heroes" poll and I've voted for the first time.
Lo and behold, this cheery-faced woman is actually intent on doing something for America.  I certainly don't condemn those who wish to devote their lives to building footbridges in Kenya or saving turtles in Mexico but, by any objective evaluation, Americans are sinking right now, sinking farther into their couches as their fat asses pull them more forcefully toward the center of the earth, sinking economically beneath the rising tide of globalization, and sinking psychologically as they come to terms with systemic corporate and political corruption

Anybody who steps forward (in this case, literally) and makes an effort to reverse any of these trends has my vote.  For sure, most people around the world are in far worse condition than we are, but we matter too, and if we, the earth's current economic powerhouse, don't get up off those fat asses and define our collective future, all the footbridges in Kenya aren't going to matter much in the grand scheme of things.  People regaining respect for (and control of) their own bodies is a necessary first step in this process.

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body"
1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Better sight, and clearer vision

First, the topic of "better sight".  We always knew that this day would come...

... but I'm satisfied that it has come later than it might otherwise have, and like a lamb rather than the lion that tore into my young life:  my eyes were three times as myopic by the time I was three years younger than she is now. 

Paternal genetics may account for part of her offset (although my perfect-eyed biofather's genes did not help me in the slightest), but some of it is hopefully being reaped from years of conscious management.  It has long been known that indoor activities (with particular speculation on "near-work", which includes reading, texting, TV, computers, etc) can profoundly exacerbate myopia in those of us who are predisposed to it.  Time spent outdoors (as opposed to indoors where, by definition, all work is "near-work") appears to greatly affect the way the eyes grow and function. 

This causality has been historically downplayed in our society.  Governments worried that, if people found out about the damage they were doing to themselves, they'd read less, study less, work less, and the U.S. would fall even farther behind educationally and competitively as the world globalizes.

Well, what's good for the country is not necessarily good for the individual, especially when the individuals have as strong a genetic disposition as we do.  In an effort to stave off both the duration and intensity of myopia, Cayley has always been encouraged to spend as much time as possible outdoors, and she was never allowed to read as much as I did when I was a child.

WHAT?!  Yes, you heard me correctly: in this super-competitive, academically-cutthroat historical period in which we now find ourselves, I did not let her read much beyond the minimum required for school.  Those much-ballyhooed programs like Reading Rumble and whatever its precursor was called?  Not allowed.

Instead, I did the reading for her.  In the past five or six years, I have read aloud more than two hundred novels to her.  That way, she got the intellectual benefits while hopefully minimizing the corresponding physical damage (and it was a lot of fun, by the way!!).
This is just a subset of the total. 
And they're stacked two-deep.
This leads me into the "clearer vision" section of this post.  My refusal to adhere to conforming social norms in this regard (by rejecting the Gospel of Public School and substituting an individually-developed solution) did what it usually does - it aroused controversy.  One of the kinder responses I received was as follows: 

"I suppose that selfless mommyhood compels you to blind yourself on her behalf."  

This comment was rendered in a vein of wry humor, but all humor is firmly rooted in truth, and I do understand whence it derives. Eyesight Management Plan v. 1.0 gives the appearance of me having one-upped the collective footrace to the top of Mount Supermom (which is much higher than Everest, by the way), because what kind of professional working mother has the time, energy, and foresight (pun intended) to read TWO HUNDRED NOVELS, many of them lengthy classics (and with a preference for Newbery medalists), to her tweenager?!?!  And for most of that time, a mother who was heading a one-parent household to boot?!

Answer: the kind who is more interested in putting braces on teeth than on engaging in Supermom showmanship.  That's what this has been: the eyeball-equivalent of putting braces on teeth.  It looks like an acute attack of Supermomitis only superficially.  This is not some new proxy variant of my-kid-out-performs-your-kid.  Fact is, I have a bona fide medical disability.  I am miserable on an hourly basis because of my eyesight, which is beyond technology's ability to correct and which is still continuing to degrade.  I will go to considerable lengths to spare my daughter this fate.

But I understand fully how one might get a bit confused and react the way my commenter did, with an acid undertone suggesting that my reading efforts exceed what any responsible mother should be setting as a social precedent.  I didn't take any offense to that response because I understand fully the tendency to backlash against what appears to be Stepford-like conformance to increasingly-unrealistic Supermom ideals.  Believe me, I understand, because I'm a card-carrying, Superblog-contributing backlasher myself.

Now that I've broached the topic of Stepfordism, let me clarify it, because it relates to what I'm saying here.  Coincidentally, I was presented with great teaching opportunities on this subject immediately before Cayley received her glasses, so this discussion is timely.  Good eyesight is essential, but if you don't have clear vision to go with it, you haven't got much going for you. 

I tend to use the term "neo-Stepfordism" because, in its initial incarnation almost forty years ago, Stepfordism described the suppression of women by men, most notably their husbands (and yes, it was satirical, but remember - all humor is rooted in truth, and there was certainly truth in that).  But our social models and circumstances have changed dramatically in the intervening time, with women making significant gains in education and salary, and simultaneously there has been greater social awareness of gender inequality, so this male-driven tendency has abated significantly (TIME Magazine aptly notes that "the battle of the sexes [has become] a costume drama"). 

However, what I find has intensified in its place is the suppression of women by other women!  For sure, women in our society have always been guilty of playing games of one-upmanship: keeping up with the "Janeses".  But neo-Stepfordism way surpasses the age-old scourges of passive aggression, peacocking, and vindictive clothesline gossiping.  Perhaps it's precisely because women started climbing professional ladders in such numbers that they began to exhibit corresponding domination tendencies that were historically restricted to men?  I don't know - all I know is that I have witnessed a reversal within my lifetime:  I now encounter more women who try to keep me in my place than men.

I will exemplify this by relating a blog exchange I had recently.  Unfortunately, I can neither link to it nor replicate it exactly because, to my exasperation, the blogger deleted both the key comment and my appropriate response to it.  But the exchange went very much like this: 

Blogger"I think [that this is true]."

Alison: "[I disagree with that assessment.  I see it the opposite way.]"

Poster: "I've seen Alison post here before, and she must be a very bitter person.  She's always mean, never complimentary."

Bingo!  The operative word is complimentary, because that's what it's really all about!  It's not about the sharing of ideas, the expression of genuine opinions, the following of individual paths, or the initiation of lively debate.  For the neo-Stepfords, it's simply about applause
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what they think social interaction is all about!  And this is THE ONLY thing that they want YOU to do!
If you don't have any applause  to offer (i.e., always complimentary, never complementary!), you offend those whose value systems are underpinned by the domination goals that manifest in the expectation of applause.  Females of this ilk interpret free-range individualism as simple mean-ness, and they assume that all nonconformists have superiority complexes.  It is not within their mental scope to evaluate the objective validity of any other woman's individual motivations for not following The Herd (and there are cases where nonconformism provides objective, noncompetitive benefits, such as my reading aloud to Cayley, and my previous long-term breastfeeding of her, a topic too lengthy to discuss here). 

One of my favorite Herd pics, from
I like it because they're showing us their asses.  I also used this pic in Long Journey Chapter 2.  
In other words, this is Stepfordism with a decidedly-female twist: they've identified a compliant collective social ideal that works for THEM, and they want YOU to be that, regardless of how you may feel about it. 

Scene from The Stepford Wives (2004): they look pretty and perfect as they applaud, but what they are REALLY doing is showing us their asses in a different way.
Duh... is this ringing a bell for anyone?!?  Any pattern recognition happening??! Is anyone out there besides me old enough to remember the days when a woman was considered to be at her most virtuous when she pushed her own needs and viewpoints aside and simply cheered... not for her girlfriend, co-worker, or female relative, but for her MAN??!?!

If you're having a "holy shit" moment right about now, you're not alone. 

The blog exchange I described above was a superb example of that particular social phenomenon, and it's been relatively easy for me to get Cayley to focus her attention on the discourse I developed here based on that incident and based on other similar social media interactions into which I've blundered of late.  Cayley recently learned about the gender pay gap that penalizes American women, and was quite bothered by it, so the door was cracked open for me to broach the subject of some other ways in which women can get the short shrift in our society if they are not careful.

My message to her, and to the rest of you: the discrimination against women does not end with salary, and it's certainly not solely the dominion of men.  Beware of women whose goal it is to pressure you into either silence or the mindless groupthink of mutual applause and other forms of social subservience.  Be vigilant and recognize neo-Stepfordism when you see it.  Know that neo-Stepfordism can look pretty darned convincing from a distance, and that it was specifically engineered to masquerade as forms of "goodgirlness" or "sweetness".  You're going to encounter people (including women) in your life who will try, one way or another, to tell you that you are not allowed to develop and express your own opinions.  And those people are just plain wrong! 

All of the worst arguments that Cayley and I have had in the past year have centered on issues of conformism.  She grew up without siblings, so her social defense mechanisms are not well-honed.  She's in middle school, where peer pressure is at its absolute maximum.  I have watched other females attempt to dominate her, and I have not done a good job at handling my own reaction to that: I just get uncontrollably furious when I see it happen.  And Cayley has had many moments when she has been absolutely, tearfully flummoxed by it: she's shrewd enough not to applaud on command, but then she's stymied by the resulting condemnation (which, predictably, has mostly consisted of widespread proclamations that "Cayley is mean!" just as Alison was called "mean" in the example above).  I tell her that she has to jettison her suppressors, but she's afraid of losing her "real" friends in the process if she revolts.  Through gritted teeth, I then I tell her that no real friend will condemn her individuality, so she's not at risk of that.  Intellectually she knows this, but it's a scary thing to handle emotionally.  I struggle mightily to find the patience and wisdom to be of some use to her as she works her way through this crap

After discussing these things with her, I queued up "The Stepford Wives" so we could watch it together for context, but the 2004 re-make is not a great film, despite great acting from its all-star cast. 

I wish that the producers had deepened the story line a bit, but they sure as hell did a spectacular job of the applause part of it.
Furthermore, Cay is still so young that she tends to interpret certain depictions more literally than philosophically, and so she focused on the procedural details of reprogramming inconvenient women, as opposed to the broad (pun intended) issue that it parodies: systematic suppression of individualism and the imposition of robotic social expectations in its place.  If anyone knows of a movie in the same vein in which the women are the ones suppressing each other, please let me know.  I'd like to explore it with her for emphasis (actually, in the 2004 version of The Stepford Wives, it turns out that it was a woman who was engineering the suppression, but I'd still like more examples). 

Incidentally, of those two hundred novels that I have read to Cayley thus far, her hands-down favorite was To Kill A Mockingbird, the quintessential literary proving ground for all things anti-Stepford (in the most general sense of the term) and counter to mindless conformism.
Atticus couldn't get HIS glasses to work properly for him, either!  I know how he felt!!!
This one is for you, sweetie. 

"There's so much detail in everything!" she exclaimed, upon recapturing visual acuity.
I'll read it aloud to you, but I also give you permission to read it for yourself (as long as you wear your glasses).


P.S., As for the rest of you, if anyone decides to applaud this post in the Comments section (or via email as you more typically do), I reserve the right to puke in response.

Seriously, just as I don't want your mindless condemnation, I also don't want your mindless applause.  Both are a waste of your breath and my time.  But I'm always interested in hearing your mindful ideas. 


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The D word

I'm posting on this subject because I asked the question below of both Cayley and Lawrence during supper last night, and I was surprised to discover that neither knew the answer. 

This is an unusual result, because most of the teaching that happens in this house flows from Lawrence to me and Cayley, not the other way around.  Cayley's lack of knowledge naturally and understandably derives from her youth.  And I may have had a decade worth of head start on Lawrence, but I didn't grow up in this country, and that leaves me with holes (chasms, actually) in my comprehension of its social and political substructure.

The question is this: 
What is the goal of discipline?

In other words, when I'm disciplining my child, why am I bothering to do this?  What is the ultimate point of it? 

I'll give you a clue: when I search the word "discipline" in Microsoft's clip art library, this is one of only two images I retrieve (the other is a cartoon of a guy yelling at his dog).  But this is NOT discipline - this is punishment, which is a very different thing.
The question came to mind because I read a news story about my home town that greatly saddened me: two more high schools have eliminated school-sponsored dances because the volunteers and staff chaperones are unable to control the kids

Thinking to myself, "This would never happen at MY high school" I checked, and found that my high school actually doesn't have dances any more!  They were cancelled some time ago for the same reason. 

I feel so bad for those kids!  Looking back on it, about 80% of my memories of high school revolve around the dances, which were held at least monthly (I'm remembering every other Friday), and which everyone attended.  Much of the rest of high school was mindless nose-to-the-grindstone stuff not worthy of reflection.  The dances were where we truly got to live and got to know both the other kids and ourselves. 

So we add dances to the growing list of social functions we've done away with, to the vast detriment of society.  What are youth going to do if they don't dance?  Play more computer games and increase their after-dark street swarmings?   

I blame the parents of those kids and note with a chill that I probably went to high school with a lot of those very same individuals, which leads me to ask the question, "What the hell went wrong??"  Sure, there were misbehaviors during our high school years, but they were minor - for the most part, THEY didn't act out of control during our dances, so why do THEIR KIDS act that way now??

I think a lot of it traces back to pop psychologists, flaming assholes who foisted the notion that you should NOT discipline your child using conventional methods that involve the use of force - you should instead REASON with him or her.

What a crock of shit that is!  Trying to reason with a young child is like trying to reason with our dog - it just ain't happenin' because the organism isn't set up to parse that kind of input. True, there is a place for intellectual reason and explanation - but ONLY AFTER control has been achieved over the emotional impulses that are causing the undisciplined behavioral issues. 

A day doesn't go by when I don't see some child pitching a fit in a store while the clueless parent stands there saying gently, "Now, Junior, you KNOW it's not a good idea to do that..."  Does anyone ever see a positive outcome from that effort?  EVER?!?  Of course not! 

So the Microsoft clip art library lacks any representation whatsoever of actual discipline, but one doesn't have to work hard to find a picture of the type of tantrum that occurs in its absence.  This is an indication of where we are as a society.
So what is the goal of discipline? 

Answer the question by following the thread of logic present within the situational example given above: why did the high school dances get cancelled?  Because a large fraction of kids couldn't be controlled.  And why couldn't they be controlled?  Because they had no behavioral inhibitions - they couldn't control themselves.  And why couldn't they control themselves?  Because they lacked self-discipline.  And why did they lack self-discipline?  Because they were never taught its principles by being disciplined as children: you can't impose upon yourself that of which you have no knowledge. 

The goal of discipline is self-discipline.

WHY ELSE would I discipline my child?  To look good in front of my friends?  As a social performance measure?  To get my own selfish way?  To enjoy a power trip?  In response to some rote regulatory framework?

No.  To teach her how to discipline herself.  No other goal is existentially valid. 

Many members of society seem to think that they are giving their kids a "break" from the demands of society by not disciplining them.  It is viewed by many as some sort of loving indulgence, but all it does in the long run is marginalize kids by promoting antisocial behavior.  The sum result of the effort is to make the kids isolated and frustrated. 

My advice: discipline your kids with the appropriate use of force.  Beat the shit out of them if that's what it takes to get the message across.  Follow up by instilling the reasoning behind it, but don't leave out that crucial first step which is the ONLY action that will hijack their immature lack of emotional control.  Ignore the tide of clueless assholes who would judge you for being strict with them - their ilk are among those sitting in Nova Scotia today wondering in abject confusion, "NOW where are my kids supposed to go this Friday?   What am I supposed to do with them now that one more door of childhood opportunity has closed?"

Incidentally, I've never had to use physical force against Cayley; my control was strictly psychological.  She has known since the age of 2 that I stand 100% ready to apply physical force if the situation warrants it, and that knowledge alone was enough to set a boundary that she has never crossed. 

And we are starting to see real dividends emerge in the self-discipline department: she is doing really well in her challenging GT middle school while some of her equally-intelligent but undisciplined peers founder painfully.  The saddest part is, some of those kids don't even know what's wrong with their lives - they just know that they are upset and inexplicably (they think) unable to do well.  Lets hope that those unfortunate children can at least manage to keep control of themselves at this Friday's dance.

Monday, October 18, 2010


I have written before about my desire to have us escape the industrial food complex to the extent possible.  Well, with the help of Urban Harvest, Houston's main farmer's market (formerly known as Bayou City Farmer's Market), we got to take another step: I bought beef directly from the rancher who raised it.  Grass-fed beef, from Olde World Farms in Montgomery County, 86 miles from here. 

Sign for the market, complete with gang graffiti.  The market is held every Saturday morning in a parking lot north of Richmond Drive.  It's worth the trip!!
In other words, the Saturday before last, I actually got to shake hands with a small business entrepreneur who is defying the massive pressures of industrialization and raising his own animals for slaughter.  This is virtually unheard of in America today.  Grass-feeding is equally rare: not even Whole Foods carries grass-fed beef (not in Houston, anyway).  Everything is corn fed, but cattle didn't evolve to eat corn.  They evolved to graze.

As it was my first purchase for us, I chose a couple of ribeye steaks and some ground beef:
As I was preparing it, I caught a scent that registered with me, but I knew I had not smelled it in decades.

The ground beef was so lean that I had to use an egg as a binder in making it into burgers.
Was it good, you wonder???  Worth the price differential?

G O D ! !

It was out of this world, and almost out of my memory.  The last time I tasted meat that good was... 1972?  Or 1975 at the latest.  My paternal grandfather had grown up extremely poor and, when he finally attained a measure of financial security in his later years, he enjoyed splurging on good steaks.  Occasionally he and my grandmother would have enough to treat us as well.  That which we ate tonight was equivalent to the best beef money could buy almost forty years ago.  And I bet that was the difference then, eh?  I bet that, thirty-five or forty years ago, the farmers had not yet migrated to industrial practices that involved chronic corn-fattening.  And now I've been lucky enough to have some more beef of that type, after all these years.  This is cool.

Subsequent to shopping at the Urban Harvest market, I discovered a producer who is even closer to us, the Law Ranch Cattle Company in east Harris County (it's very hard to ferret out these little guys above the din of commercialization... it takes time to search for them).  I like their authentic website style, and they also appear to be fans of Polyface Farms and the sustainability practices advocated by its famous owner Joel Salatin.  I'm going to try them next, but one thing is perfectly clear to me at this point: unless I'm starving and/or broke, there's no way I'm going back to corn-fed beef.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Goin' & growin'

Lawrence started off the day by apologizing for going to four football games in the past six weekends.  But I don't care if he goes to TWELVE football games in six weekends!!  This is OUR time now, time to do what we WANT to do, rather than what we HAVE to do.  We partially renovated two houses and built a third, which we then partially renovated after we took possession of it.  This process has paid handsome dividends, but it ate up much of our free time for the better part of two years!  Now is playtime!

Myself, I'd rather die than sit and watch the Houston Texans play ball, but I've finally, finally got time to indulge an interest that has been on the back burner for years now: growing things. 

It's actually not a development of  a new interest so much as a return to roots, pun intended.  I grew up in large part on my maternal family's extensive acreages.  Gardening and living off the land to the extent possible were ways of life.  There was no such term as "eco" this, that, or the other thing in those years - what is considered "eco" now was "normal" then.

Of course, that was one country, forty years, and eight climate zones ago, so I've got a hell of a learning curve to climb if I want to re-establish any part of that lifestyle!  I began the ascent yesterday by picking up both a composter and a rain barrel at an outreach event orchestrated by the City of Houston, in which they sold the devices to citizens below retail cost.

Y'all line up now for those barrels and composters.  I got there early and there were still at least a hundred people ahead of me in the line.  Downtown Houston skyline and a gorgeous fall sky in the background.

The Earth Machine (made in Canada, eh?) was designed to sit directly on the ground, for maximum involvement of insects and worms in the composting process.  However, sitting anything the slightest bit edible on the ground in greater Houston usually attracts an organism that could never be described as beneficial:

One of at least a dozen rats I've killed in my Texas houses over the years, this one from 2005.  Heh heh... I used to post this photo on internet dating sites.  Cleared out the squeamish guys really fast.  Joking aside, we have an intense rat problem here. 

I lined the bottom of the Earth Machine with hardware cloth. That way the worms and bugs can get in, but hopefully rodents will be excluded.
I don't yet know what conditions will result in the optimal composting in Galveston County Texas, but here's how the learning process is beginning.

After getting the composter leveled and staked down, one is supposed to add a "carbon" layer.  Because we have few leaves or straw here in brand-new suburbia, I'm crossing my fingers and using hardwood mulch.
OK, here's the pre-mixing addition of all the scraps that have been stinking up my kitchen counter for a week while they waited for me to acquire this thing.  All scrap foodstuffs can be added except anything that contains meat, fat, or oil.  You're supposed to shoot for an approximate ratio of 1:1 "nitrogen" components (rotting food) and "carbon" components.
Once the scraps are added, the top goes back on until the next load needs to be added.  It was only at this point that I realized my greatest adversary might not be rats - it might instead be our dog, for whom a rotten banana constitutes culinary nirvana.  I attempted to weight down the hardware cloth and sides of the Earth Machine using my "carbon" buckets to deter her from scratching around the base. 

The earth will not be saved through the use of 55-gallon Systerns or anything remotely resembling them, but one has to start somewhere when one is fiddling with conservation-minded endeavors.  At prevailing costs, this thing could be made to pay for itself in potable water savings over its lifetime, but just barely.

I raised it up about eight inches to give it a little more head, and to make connecting the hose easier.

You just hacksaw off your downspout and reposition the elbow above the top of the Systern.  Aesthetically, the thing almost looks like it was installed here when the house was built. The color is exactly the same as our house trim.

Because I put this on a house corner, I angled the overflow hose toward the existing splash pad for the twin downspout, but I will block the twin so that the run-off from both roof sections goes into the Systern.
After we installed this baby-step, The Engineer got a wild hair and started considering what would be involved if we were to install a REAL cistern.  We calculated that, because our sprawling one-story has such a huge footprint, just the rear two-thirds of our roof sheds three times as much rainwater as we consume annually via municipal supply!  So he's now investigating the costs and benefits of actually installing an underground tank.  We'll see how that goes. 

We finished the day with happy sunburns similar in color to the western sky: