20 Nov

We were so poor

Sometimes a friend sends you an unintentional writing prompt (as part of a longer message). In this case, “We were so poor that we thought new clothes meant someone had died.”

I read his mail on the bus ride to work this morning. It left me with two choices: follow the links that trailed his opener or take the “we were so poor” challenge. But, I suck at one liners (a timeless crazy smart skill now making careers in social media), so I wrote something that ended with a silent “and…” (sorry kid, no drumbeat–you better explain yourself). So here you go, written on a phone while riding the 30 minute AM express from Beaverton to downtown PDX, with helpful suggestions from autocorrect fixed from the original:

We were so poor that when we learned someone had died the first thing we thought was new clothes. Depending on how closely the deceased was to our sizes, the limits of our mother’s tailoring, and if our father could sneak into the loved one’s home before most of the neighborhood went on alert. Especially Mrs. Mosby, who supplemented her income with a permanent table at the flea market. Where our parents often bought our clothes when we bought clothes. I once heard them whisper that the pockets in flea market clothing were always empty.

One year, when my father’s Local went on strike for all of October and no one had died locally for several months (busting the National Average, mom said) a wind storm took down a big fir tree in our back yard. My brother and I had just gone through one of those all knees and elbows growth spurts, and nothing fit except our briefs which mom could stretch three sizes before busting a seam. She went down to the library and found a book on Pacific Northwest Coast Indians, then showed us photos of natives in bark clothing and how they made it pliable by chewing it.

We were so poor I know what bark tastes like. But that wasn’t as bad as my best friend Lee who had to wear socks made from old cats.

Honestly, our town was so poor that year (almost everyone who had jobs worked through the Local) there were kids coming to school who shared clothes, taking turns huddling in the locker room while their sibs were in class. On the schoolbus everyone gave everyone else eyeball privacy.

Our town was so poor we had standards.

12 Nov


It’s funny how much we need to touch a thing, even through an electromechanical surrogate, to feel deeply about it. Most of space exploration involves travel out, in, and around, and the photos, sounds, and other data bring ooohs and aaaahs, but not till “we” land do we gather round the screen and feel like we’re part of something larger. Yes, it’s a huge technical challenge to land, especially on a hurtling chunk of whistling badlands, but that’s not why the swell of emotion. It’s the difference between we saw it and we made it.

06 Nov

A Day in the Background

I spent a good chunk of my day updating my netbook from Mint 16 to 17 (XFCE) –really a background task that took an hour of hands on time. The netbook with its limited resources wasn’t really happy with v16, so I gave 17 (Qiana) a shot. I didn’t have much hope–its only one version, right? It turns out that almost everything about it is better, including a performance bump. I also added a nice Google Drive sync client called Insync. (I’d make a joke but I can’t recall the names of which boy was precisely in which boy band. Unless you called the Clash a boy band–or perhaps a band of raucous lads.)

The upgrade would have taken less time if I hadn’t tried to cheat it first and just update without doing a clean install. The former didn’t work, the latter worked well, and the changes in the UI were often better than those I had configured previously. Good show, Mint.

06 Nov

WordPress Fatality

Today WordPress dished a fatal error message when I tried to hit the admin login screen, essentially a “class not found” error from a php script in a Google security plugin. The solution, after several other attempts: FTP into my WP install, browse into the plugins folder, and delete the Google folder. In other words, I used a hammer. I don’t recall exactly what the plugin does, but I do know that (based solely on my ability to reach my dashboard and type this entry) that things are back to normal. I’ll dig into it and determine if it’s a useful plugin.

If you are maintaining your own WP install, you’ll find that there are more error messages that solution search results, Horatio. I feel like I got lucky. It’s also another reason to do some plugin weeding.


04 Sep

Garden Report, 2014-09-03

It’s been a short long summer (short on days, long on heat). In short, the keyhole gardens have done well overall, with the kale, chard, and tomatoes highly productive (pounds upon pounds of healthy tasty maters from three plants), the single eggplant has delivered twice what we usually get, and the purple bush beans were reasonably but not overwhelmingly productive. (They would have produced more if had I layered organic materials closer to the surface).

Note: The keyhole gardens are too ugly now for photos. One must retain appearances. I’ll return later and add a few from their halcyon days of mid summer. I planted some late season carrots that almost took off–until the weather cooled, re-energizing Chloe, our young golden lab, who until that point kept out of the gardens. The carrot patch is now a DMZ. Straw hats on chests, we let it lie.

In the front yard garden, the long peppahs have been minimally productive (but also sunburn resistant and sweet fresh and cooked); the zukes overwhelmed then, thankfully, died fast; the sneaker pumpkin produced three little sugar babies and then sunk back with the zukes; and the corn tried real hard. Two to three bicolor cobs per plant, for a total of about 32, but disappointingly bland. We grew it in our “experimental bed”–our “grow it for fun” bed. Next year we’re going to try turmeric and ginger there–I’ve heard there are varieties that are possible to grow in the PNW. And the bed is in direct sun all day.

Nice surprises: The basil (about 14 plants) rallied for a strong second showing–we’ve had fresh basil in salads all summer. And we grew stevia for the first time–just one plant. I know many people don’t care for it–it’s easy to go from sweet to bitter with stevia. But it’s like growing a sugar plant. Leaves are nice to chew on my way out the door and they also work in tea without leaving an extra herby taste. I’ll grow it again.

Related to the garden, our mason bees filled all their tubes with larva and packed them with mud, so next Spring we’ll have another set of little pollinators ready for work.

27 Jun

Garden Report, 2014-06-26

Keyholes West and EastWe’re starting to get good canopy coverage in the keyholes, mostly watering from the center, the leaf crops (kale and chard) are surprisingly sweet–the best luck we’ve had with them. Snowpeas are ripening, purple bush beans are blooming, eggplant is doing what it’s supposed to do, and the tomatoes are dense, healthy, and not too tall, with blossoms–now to get them to set. Right now it’s just a pretty good garden, with the roots firmly established and drilling down. I won’t know how successful my keyhole construction is until July/August, when the rain more or less stops.

Keyhole Two, with ales, beans, peas, tomatoI finally watched Deb Tolman’s video and learned that many of the sites I used as reference are a bit sloppy or simplistic–I made a layer of carbon, a layer of nitrogen (3:1) and a layer of dirt (fairly deep). There should have been multiple alternating layers of each–at least two. My guess is the plants with deep roots like the tomatoes will dig down and go nuts. The others will get less fertilizer, some from the dirt, most from the compost bin. At the end of the year, I’ll likely dig out some soil and repeat a set of layers. I’ll watch the video again first, take notes, and make sure I’m following a slightly more scientific model (although it’s a model that makes a lot of intuitive sense). 


Front Beds, Most of ThemIn the front, the three zukes and, I think, a pumpkin are throwing their arms out, with the frontmost of the zukes (a yellow) ready to pick in a week or so and the back two successively less mature. In spite of soap spray, the caterpillars are still eating basil salad, although I’ve slowed them down (mixing a weak solution of dish soap and water)–I think the next round of basil will be in pots. Peppers (you can just see the top of a Gypsy lower center, left of the lilies) are, meh, a little slow, but I expect them to boom in the next few weeks. And the corn, well, we’re not in the sun belt, it looks very healthy, but it’s not much more than knee high. Perhaps in a month. I’ve given it some nitrogen snacks for encouragement (in spite of what Debby says, I’m sure they won’t ruin the corn’s appetite later this summer). 

Thanks to my friend Steve who started me down the keyhole path and set the example with his own garden reports.

27 May

Brief Garden Report, 2014-05-26

The keyhole gardens are planted for the spring. Here’s what we’ve done so far. Next steps include mulching, probably with newspaper. Weather’s been just about perfect–high 60’s to low 70’s, sun and light shade, mildly humid, spots of easy rain. It looks like the trend will continue for another week or so, at least.

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

The front gardens have 4 zukes (3 bought–two Gypsy yellow, one green Noche, and one mystery volunteer), 12 corn (bi-color sweet), two sweet peppers (Carmen and Palladio), and a bunch of herbs, some new, some returnees (basil, leaf parsley (italian, cilantro), stevia, thyme, sage, tarragon).

08 May

Shiv Muse

Shiv Pen

It was nice to cross paths this morning. I hope the hell I’m so healthy in 150 years. It’s been a morning of chance meetings with old friends–not two blocks on I ran into Tim from my  three year stretch in the Washington County lockup. We shared the same cell block and often worked together on the publishing crew (we produced the original quarterly “The Sentence’ along with our reprint work). Like I said, his name’s Tim, though we called him “The Shiv” on account of his sideline. (I was “The Editor, Motherfucker”.) The Shiv’s shivs were deadly works of art camouflaged as normal everyday devices. He made them from silverware smuggled from the cafeteria (this was before they all switched to compostible utensils). His cellmate Tiny (who ran our mechanical press) would lay on them until they got good and hot, then Tim would work them into the night. He asked me if I still had mine. I do (see the attached photo). You don’t give away art that saves your life. Multiple x.

BTW, Tim (The Shiv no longer, Just Tim) has done well since his release, with exhibits in Detroit, New Orleans, and Synecdoche, NY. He was headed over to a breakfast meeting (at Fullers, no less) with the owner of Galerie du Couteau in The Pearl. He recognized me before I made him. I think it was the new hip joint that threw me off–he walks straight now instead of semicircles, wears his hair long, and dies his soul patch. (I asked about Tiny. Tim said he didn’t know–last he heard Tiny had become a Vegan and then more or less fell through the cracks.)

15 Apr

Keyhole Garden Batteries #’s 1 and 2 Complete

Over the weekend I finished building the second keyhole garden (KHG), then moved a couple yards of dirt to top off #1 and fill #2. The lawn grew enough in the past two weeks to provide substantial green layers for both (I dug it into the #1 before topping it off and laid a healthy layer in #2).

Stats: 6 feet in diameter, 2 feet deep (including a few inches into the earth), with a good layer of brown compost (accumulated cardboard and other paper-based recycling), shrub trimmings, bark, and leaves; followed by a layer of lawn clippings, quickly covered by dirt. The ratio is about 3:1 (brown:green|carbon:nitrogen). Compost cage in the center, 1 foot in diameter, for long term feeding.

KHG-done-2 KHG-done-1

What’s that pink thing in the center of each compost cage (shown in #1)? Why, it’s a pygmy sarlacc, a natural squirrel and cat deterrent. Here’s a closeup:


The tomato cages posted around the borders are my attempt at keeping the dogs off until the vegetables have taken over. It doesn’t take much to deter Sasha–he has one lazy eye and unless he can easily detect a wide opening, he’ll steer clear (otherwise, he’s a natural hill climber). Chloe, if she doesn’t think she can use the elevation to reach the squirrels that race along the fence, will also probably be deterred.

People who don’t garden don’t quite understand why we built these. They aren’t along the fence and they stick up. Two people have asked, So you’re going to plant a garden in these this year? (After I gave them my pat summary description–although I was so tired I might have been speaking word salad.) Aside from being practical, I also think of the KHG as terrain or backyard architecture. Sure, they require less maintenance, water, and backache. But, fundamentally, they’re cool. The dogs think of them as the center of a figure 8 racetrack.

Next up: let the beds cook for a month, till mid-May, then start planting. In the meantime, order Deb Tolman’s KHG DVD–and learn what I haven’t learned yet (in prep for next year–when I’ll also probably add another layer of stones), plan the garden plantings, and shape a dog-friendly mound in the back corner of the yard from all the relocated sod. At some point, plow up the surrounding sod and plant nose and eye-friendly ground cover.

26 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Filling It In

It turns out a garden two feet deep and 6 feet in diameter takes more material than you’d think (yes, the math is easy, but so is convincing yourself that you have plenty of materials on hand that fill the required volume). For the brown layer, I used quite a few  very large cardboard boxes (saved and snagged from local retailers), a few 2013 phone books, and all the paper-based recycling we could scrounge. For the green, clippings from the first mowing, and bark and sticks from the tree I felled last year (from the pile waiting for the chipper), then random dead cuttings from the herbs and flowers. Normally our lawn produces a recycle bin of cut grass–this year, I raised the mower deck to its tippy toes to accommodate the wet lawn and encourage even growth. The result: a relative tablespoon of cuttings. Maybe there’ll be more for the next bed.

The results, before adding dirt:


Note: the funnel cake-shaped roll of paper in the compost cage was added to retain the contents initially, just in case the grid was too large. It rained the next day, crumpling the paper. I dumped compost on top–the cage held it just fine.

Day before yesterday, I started liberating the nice black dirt from our big raised bed next to the fence (and associated tree roots). Plenty of dirt to top off the keyhole bed, my optimistic lobe said. Not quite. 3/4 of it moved and still a good ten inches (x 6 feet) to go. I’ll scrounge dirt from other sources around the yard, then see what it costs to buy a trailer load from our local landscaping supply yard.  I’ll probably pay their suburb-jacked prices to go easy on our minivan versus driving significantly further out. (We need the van–a 2005 Caravan with 130k–to last a few more years. It shows my age to think that anything made after the magical year 2000 AD–like my daughter–still sounds new.)

So bed #1 has become our learning (or teaching) garden, providing a realistic estimate of work and materials needed  to build a keyhole bed: a template that we can plug into our garden budget and calendar. Having that info on hand has freed us to think about other garden-related dependencies to address before or while the second bed goes up.

And when it’s all done, then we shall bask in the admiration of our neighbors…


Or, more likely…

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