Thursday, May 31, 2007

Got shotgun, shells?

I don’t know what this is, maybe it’s a heron or a crane, but I took about 30 pictures of it and only got one good one. It kept looking at me head on, and that’s not a photogenic look for most birds. Maybe it was purposefully not cooperating because it was sick of Spoleto Arts Festival tourists who descended upon Charleston last weekend. I didn’t attend Spoleto events, but I did hear some restaurant workers comment about the crowd it brought into area eateries. Sven, my friend Claudine’s husband, went on at length about an elderly customer who had a hairdo that was a beehive on top and a pompadour in front. He said it looked like she’d rubbed Aim toothpaste into her eyebrows, too.

I’ve had a few days off here lately. I looked forward to this and made elaborate plans for what I would do with my days, but so far I’ve just been wasting my time being hideously blue.

Yesterday I was surfing different online seed catalogs, and I ordered a bunch of seeds I don’t have space to plant anywhere. I’m still excited about it, though. I also printed out the plans for a solar greenhouse. I filed them away with the rest of my someday garden stuff. Damn, I’m getting on in years. By the time I get around to having a yard, I’ll be too arthritic to get around in it. Or I’ll be working two jobs to pay the mortgage and won’t have time to garden. Sigh. The negativity fairy is keeping me company today.

I wish that instead of going to graduate school, I had lived for a couple of years in an intentional community. I could have learned about a lot of the things I wish I knew more about now, like cooking, self-sufficiency, getting along with other people in decision making situations. On the other hand, if I hadn’t gone to graduate school, I’d never have met Claudine, who has been a great friend. Wyatt and I stayed with Claudine and her family in Charleston last weekend.

One night after a few beers and gin and gingers, (okay wait, here I need to endorse Blenheim’s “hot” ginger ale – it really ramps up the normal gin and ginger drink), we started talking about the fate of the world. Claudine said her dad has been nagging her because she doesn’t have a shotgun or enough ammo for the gun she does have. He’s retired military, and he’s convinced that a day is coming when people won’t be able to get things they want and need and the lawless looting and terrorizing will commence. He wants Claudine to have a better plan for how to deal with that day when it arrives.

So in my alcohol addled mind during this conversation, I was trying to sort some things out. Does the fact that Claudine’s dad is a former military man make him a more or less credible source on the subject of the fall of civilization? Hmm. Things have been pretty stable for a long time; it’s hard to imagine that changing. But then again, think about how hard 9/11 was on the country and the economy. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to destabilize society after all. An earthquake on the New Madrid fault happening at the same time as a big hurricane hitting shore could cripple the country for a while. Or what about that blackout in New York a few years ago? I bet that could happen again without anybody even trying.

I guess it’s impossible to tell what’s going to happen or gauge the best way to prepare for it. And it’s probably the case that a lot of people obsess about the coming fall because they’re just sick of the way things are and they’re hoping that their own fortunes might change if there were a shakeup. Others would just absolutely love having the excuse to shoot people under the pretense of protecting a stash of canned goods.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

City Corn

We came across this smart use of space on State Street in Charleston, SC, this past weekend. Here we have some young corn. You can barely make out the round leaves of the Eucalyptus growing underneath it, and there's a Rosemary bush planted on the other side of the Palmetto trunk there.

Evidence seems to indicate that the Permaculture Phantom may have struck here.

I think there may have been residences in the building at this address. Let me explain why this plot shows efficient energy planning. It uses space that would otherwise go unused, but the best thing about it is it's probably in the gardener's Zone 1. That means that the gardener isn't going to have to travel far to grab a handful of Rosemary if it's needed, so the chances that he/she will burn dinner while he/she is gone is minimal. This corn looks much less shriveled than its relatives in fields outside Charleston, so it's probably getting some water here and there, which is also easy because it's planted close to the house.

I suspect that the gardener planted the corn's companions intentionally, too. Eucalyptus and Rosemary oils are commonly found in organic insect repellents. They both have a strong, clean smell that bugs seem to hate, so they may be protecting the corn from those nasty worms that get in under the shuck sometimes.

Plus, it's pretty.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ambush French Kiss

I’ve visited Blaine’s place enough to know that when I go there, I need to clamp my teeth and seal my lips into an impregnable line just before I sit down. He has two dachshunds and dogsits another, and this breed has been genetically engineered to execute the ambush French Kiss.

Dachshund tongues can violate the mouths of the unwary with the precision of greased drill bits. I hate to spend valuable minutes of social time spitting, uttering curses, and making awful faces. They’re sweet dogs, and they’re cute, but I don’t want that kind of intimacy with them. This brown one in particular can make herself into a kissing missile by balancing on her hind legs and bouncing straight up with her tongue extended, so it's not even safe to pick something up off the floor or kneel to pet her.

Dog ownership in the city, and especially in a condo, is tricky. We have strict rules here against residents letting animals shit on the lawn. There are several dog owners in the building, and we have fined some for being chronic yard-shitter-uppers. Last summer I couldn’t sit on my balcony because of the smell coming from all of the accumulated crap under Blaine’s balcony – the owner of a German Shepherd encouraged her dog to go there I guess because it couldn’t be easily seen, but the stench was so strong it almost assumed corporeal form.

The situation that has come about as a result of the yard crap fines is that now Blaine picks up everybody’s doggie leavings, because he doesn’t want to face the potential hassle of being blamed for somebody else’s doo. All the other dogs in the building are much larger than Dachshunds, too, so it’s a particular nuisance for him.

Pretty much the only foot traffic you see in this neighborhood is related to efficient, non-social dog walking. I miss the old neighborhood because lots of people walked to get from place to place and there was a lot of socializing on the sidewalk. Dog walkers, I’ve noticed, are often in a hurry or seem half asleep. They don’t want to stop and shoot the bull. They do all seem to know each other though, but I don’t want to have to get a dog to break into the neighborhood clique.

In my last entry I mentioned reading a book about edible weeds by Susun Weed, so I’ve been casing the neighborhood for sources of free greens. There are plenty out there, but the trouble is, they’re all at high risk for having been pissed on in the past 24 hours. The dog density in this neighborhood means that no patch of ground is safe.

The doo in Fisher Park became such a problem that the city installed baggie dispensers to encourage people to pick up after their pets. I don’t know if they’re getting much use. People just don’t like picking up shit.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Can't have it all

Friday night here at the Eleanor Roosevelt building, several residents were supposed to meet around the table out back for a glass of wine and then head downtown for an art/antiques festival. But as is often the case with a large group of people, we never could reach consensus about when to leave and thus failed to achieve escape velocity. We simply drained bottles of wine here and invited friends from off-site to come over. Ned made a plate of quesadillas for everybody, and when I say made I mean he took them out of a box and baked them in the oven. We all gave him a hard time because he’s the only native Spanish speaker in the building and he gets his quesadillas from the frozen section at Wal-Mart. They were plenty good, though.

Check out this chard leaf pictured in the photo. I love the way the light shines through the leaves and makes a sort of low-tech stained glass window. I cut this leaf last night and we ate it in a salad. Today I’m setting out some jalapeno pepper plants in the same planter on our balcony.

Saturday I was reading about the nutritional value of chickweed and dandelion in a book by Susun Weed, and it set off a familiar grind of conflicting feelings I have about my living situation. I’d given up on the idea of our selling Wyatt’s place and getting a house with a yard, partly because I’m no longer employed full-time and mostly because I’m so happy with the social situation here in the condo building. I’d really love to farm a yard, but where else could I find a community like I have here? Plus, any kind of yard of mine would piss my neighbors off. My cultivation of dandelions and chickweed would fuel the use of herbicides in the lots around me, so I don’t know that it would be good for the environment overall.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time, and I’m frustrated because I haven’t come to any conclusions, other than the fact that a strong sense of community takes precedence over just about all my other living criteria. Sure, I’d love to live off the grid in a mud and straw house with solar panels on the roof, but you can’t do that when you live downtown in a mid-sized city. Living near where you work, hang out, and shop is essential in my mind. And I like having access to a variety of social options and types of people. We’ve thought about moving to a small town, but we’d likely have a long drive to work and no access to Indian food (India Palace on Tate Street) or Vietnamese food (Pho Hien Vuong on Spring Garden Street). Not to mention the fact that people who live in those small towns tend to be old, white, and horrified by diversity. About 25 percent of the crowd collected at Friday night’s gathering was homosexual, and there was a Columbian-born belly dance instructor there as well. There were also some church goers there, but they weren’t handing out tracts and pontificating. While I have a knack for meeting interesting people wherever I go, I think I would feel bored and isolated in a small town. Floyd, Va., is a small town with a very cool scene, but I get the sense that newcomers there have to crack the local clique to belong. And drive to Roanoke to work.

I like Greensboro because it still feels genuine, like it hasn’t learned to put on airs yet. Raliegh, Durham, and Chapel Hill are nice to visit, but there’s an icky film on those places for me – they’re too slick, smart, successful. In fact, Greensboro is getting to be more like that. The ostentatiouness of the new shopping development at Friendly Center makes me nauseous when I drive by it, and downtown has begun to cater more to those with money to spend than it does to the truly artsy.

What dismays me most is that it seems businesses can be too cool to succeed in this town. The Zauber Schloss, a bar on Bellemeade which featured magicians and customers in costume - I really hated to see that go, and it’s been gone several years. I miss the Blue Hour bar, too. And the Paisley Pineapple’s sofa bar. The things that replaced them just aren’t as cool because they target an Applebee’s audience. I can’t understand why we have such a robust community of topless bars, but music night clubs like The Anvil just can’t seem to make it here despite the number of universities and colleges we have.

On the other hand, if a place gets too cool, there’s a stampede of people moving in, property prices soar, and the cool folks can no longer afford to live there.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Al-Qaeda Box

Hmm. Today I had cause to rethink my urge to move out of the condo and into a house. I had such a fabulously entertaining day that I may want to stay here in the Eleanor Roosevelt building for the rest of my life.

Today was designated as “Basement Cleanout Day.” We had a lot of old air conditioners, some skis, old pipes, random stuff that didn’t seem to belong to anyone anymore and was cluttering up the place. But I had to go to work for a few hours and didn’t get back here until after 11 a.m. When I pulled up, piles of junk were already on the sidewalk out back and three of the other HOA board members were standing around looking into an odie-green box.

I got out of my car. Roja, a B-section resident, was sitting nearby. “Take a look at that,” she said with a note of gravity in her voice.

It appeared to be an army footlocker. There was a copy of the Koran on top of the items inside. “Cool. I’ve never seen one of these before,” I said and picked it up to leaf through it.
“Don’t touch it. We’re going to call the police,” said Octavia. That’s when I noticed the metal canisters that had “explosive” printed on them nestled into layers of rough green fabric in the box. Then Jasper pulled out a flag. “Does anybody know which country this is for?” he asked. I didn’t know but I thought it looked Middle Eastern, and so did everybody else.

Then I got distracted because Wyatt started telling me about some drama he’d initiated – he’d removed some bikes from the basement assuming they were junk, and he’d torn them apart because they were all chained together, and then when Dean and Demetri came down to help, they were very upset because those were their bicycles.

I started picking through the rest of what was stacked out on the sidewalk to see if there was anything striking, and Roja and Wyatt started to complain of hunger pangs. Then I wandered back over to the box, which Octavia had dubbed “The Al Qaida Box.” Jasper had disappeared. “Are we sure nobody in the building was in the Army or something?” I asked.
“Well,” said Octavia, “Ben Hendricks was in the Reserves.”
That’s when I noticed that a piece of masking tape stuck to the side of the box read “Hendricks,” and then when I pointed it out someone said Jasper had already gone up to call the cops.

So then Josephine got on her cell phone and called Hendricks to make sure this really was his box. He was sitting in the bleachers at an N.C. State graduation ceremony having to explain that no, there’s not any explosives in the canisters anymore.

I guess he brought the box back from his stint in Desert Storm.

A cop showed up a few minutes later. He wanted to evacuate the building, but Octavia told him she didn’t see why that was necessary because the box wasn’t in the building anymore. The cop was like, “You MOVED it?” Octavia said, “Well yes, it’s basement clean out day,” and he told us to clear the area and go wait in the front yard.

Once we settled in out front, Wyatt and Roja were really getting hungry. Two more cop cars joined the one parked in the turn lane in the street out front. Motorists slowed down to scrutinize the action. Jasper laid out face down, spread-eagle, and with his arms behind his back on the grass near the street to make it look like he's been cuffed.

My bag, money, and keys wereout back where the Al-Qaida box was, so even though Wyatt and Roja were starving we couldn’t order pizza. Demetri was stranded too – he didn’t have keys to get in his front door, but his back door, which was now off limits, was open. First I thought about sneaking around the other side of the building to go retrieve my stuff, but I found the vegetation there too thick. When I came back I saw Demetri discreetly exit the B-section doors and wave me over. The foyer door into the basement was unlocked, he said.

That door leads into the scariest, dirt-floor section of a basement that’s the creepiest this side of Silence of the Lambs. We climbed through a hole in the wall and out into the section near the laundry room, then sneaked out the door that leads to the back lot. We cut our eyes back and forth looking for cops. I grabbed my bag and we tried to tiptoe up the fire escape to his place, but our feet still rang on the metal steps.

I cut through Demetri’s place and went back out via the front stairs, feeling like I’d just made a journey worthy of Jeffy from the Family Circus comic strip. Roja used her cell phone to order pizza and another cop car joined the three already in the street.

Jasper told us that he’d had a hard time convincing the lady who answered the phone at 911 that we had what might be a real emergency. When he described to her the contents of the box, she asked, “What’s a Koran?”

After about 10-15 minutes, the cops declared the area safe and left, and we started dragging junk to the curb. The pizza arrived and we demolished it.

By that evening all of the hard feelings over the bikes had been resolved and we had a potluck dinner outside. Jasper clipped roses from a bush near the corner of the parking lot and arranged them beautifully in a clear vase, and he lit a candelabra. The setting sun outlined the dark northwestern clouds in gold and we drank wine. Josephine brought strawberries and powdered sugar for desert.

I asked Ned, who’s from Puerto Rico, if he dreams in English or Spanish. He said it depends on the context of the dream. Dean, who majored in Spanish in college but is a native English speaker, said he never dreams in Spanish.

“You mean when you dream of me you don’t dream in Spanish?” asked Ned.

I thought that was a pretty sassy question but then Dean said “No, when I dream of you there’s no talking at all,” and Demetri looked like he wasn’t comfortable with the turn the conversation had taken.

And almost all of the basement junk had been taken from the curb by passersby who wanted to give it a home.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Fergus the Permaculture Prince

Wyatt and I are looking for a house. But we don’t want to pay a whole lot for it because we want to pay it off quickly, and we need it to be in a safe neighborhood because we like to walk a lot, and it would be great if there were some cool restaurants or a coffee shop we could walk to from our home, and it needs to be on a fairly large lot so we can grow some of our own food, and IT’S JUST FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE!

But I have hope.

We’re trying to reevaluate our methods of managing life in an effort to make said life more stable and satisfying. As a general guideline, we’re using Permaculture philosophies to streamline our use of time, space, and wealth.

Both Wyatt and I have college educations. I have a Master’s degree I haven’t finished paying for yet. Both of us have always driven at least 20 minutes to get to work, and much of the time we’ve had jobs we didn’t like. We’ve spent a lot of time fretting about auto repair and gas expenses. We’re frequently overextended, temporally and financially. We don’t feel like we have enough time/money/whatever to do the things we love, and we wonder what we’ve been working so hard for since college.

Let’s look at Fergus McFaydden. Fergus is a resident of my former neighborhood, an author and artist with probably the best movie collection on the east coast. I haven’t talked to him much in a while, and I’ll bet he’s spent zero minutes studying Permaculture principles. But in my mind, Fergus is the king of sustainability.

I met Fergus in the late 1980s when I was a punkass kid hanging out and trying to make friends with people old enough to buy me alcohol. At 19, I got thrown out of an MD 20/20 party at his apartment. I remember thinking he was really cool because he knew Harlan Ellison. At that time he walked to work at the Kinko’s copy place a couple of blocks away. Did he need his MFA in creative writing to have that job at Kinko’s? No. But he did need to be enrolled in school for as long as possible to have access to the nearby campus fitness facilities, and of course since he’s a writer it didn’t exactly waste his time. All of the elements of Fergus’s life seem to support each other – that’s the key.

Fergus still walks to work at Kinko’s, still lives in the neighborhood, and does not own a car. I don’t think he drives at all. That’s okay because there are convenience stores nearby and he has plenty of friends who will give him the occasional trip to the grocery store or to the movies. He’s quirky and interesting and cultivates relationships with others like himself, so parties at Fergus’s are really outstanding and everyone goes home with stories to tell. Except for Fergus. He stays home with stories to tell. It all comes to him, and he doesn’t have a car payment or the insurance and other (speeding and parking tickets) expenses involved with car ownership.

Another way Fergus saves his own energy by drawing social contacts to himself is with his reptiles, and this is also another example of multiple elements supporting each other within his life. Fergus loves the lizards, and it just so happens others do too. Many’s the time I’ve seen Fergus out for a stroll with one of his gargantuan iguanas. Fergus is not an extrovert, but a big lizard on your back will make people come up and start talking to you. Especially if you’ve put a funny custom-made hat on it. Even though he’s not an extrovert, Fergus knows a shitload of people. People with stories to tell, people who like to hear his stories, people he can tell stories about.

According to Permaculture principles, the things you rely on most need to be closest to you in what’s called Zone 1. A Permaculture practitioner will plant the plants which need the most care and are often needed in the kitchen close to the house, like right outside the door. Having the things you need most in a handy spot saves you a lot of travel and frustration. Fergus has work, a coffee shop, several good restaurants, and a broad social circle in what I consider an urban Zone 1.

Fergus has always had his priorities straight, so he’s been able to focus on what’s important to him and obtain a yield from it. He’s published two novels and some short fiction, and a scandalous magazine cover he did the art for got banned in Canada. I never did anything I wanted to like that because I lacked focus – I was always too busy fretting about some crisis or other related to being spread too thin and dedicated to things that weren’t going to give back to me in the long run.

I never would have left that neighborhood, but I couldn’t afford to buy property there, and I was tired of renting. I figured that if I owned my own place and the ceiling started leaking, at least I would know why it’s not getting fixed. I had to look a long time to find a place I could afford in a neighborhood I could walk in, or leave home without worrying that the back door would be kicked in while I was gone. And I love it here – I met Wyatt in the laundry room. I have great friends in this building. I can walk to Fisher’s Grille or bike downtown.

But I am absolutely going nuts to harvest rainwater and grow perennials. You can’t do that with a condo.

The picture posted up top is what I’ve managed to do on my balcony. The bigger leaves of the chard you see were pretty good in a salad we had for dinner Sunday.

I’ve got big ambitions to sow Austrian Winter Pea and greens this fall in a yard somewhere in a neighborhood where I can walk to work and socialize with cool neighbors. My fingers are crossed! Wish me luck!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Unexpected Information

Over the past few days I’ve had some stunning opportunities to watch my mind reel following the effects of unexpected information.

On Saturday I was talking to Franco, a friend from my current neighborhood. We were drinking beer and conversating and I forget what we were talking about, but he made a joke about priests molesting kids.

I remembered that he went to a Catholic school. I also remembered about how at my elementary school, all the students knew that the traffic cop on the corner who helped kids cross was too touchy-feely. I think kids frequently know who the molesters are, but they don’t tell adults because they don’t want to deal with the fuss or they don’t know how to explain it, so they just talk about it amongst themselves. So I asked Franco if there were any similar situations at his school.

“No. If there were, nobody ever talked about it. But”

The word “but” clued me in that he was going to say something else about child molestation, and I became vaguely uneasy. As I feared, the next word was “I”, which let me guess that he was getting ready to disclose information of a personal nature. Sure enough, the next word was “was,” oh no, “molested” was next, so it was a given that the following word would be “by,” then “my,” and I was almost certain that the last part of the sentence would be “neighbor,” “Scout Master,” “friend’s older brother,” or something of that nature.

But he said “dermatologist,” and I blinked a couple of times, unable to process what he’d said because it so completely confounded my expectations. Dermatologist? My confusion about what he said overwhelmed my horror.

It made me realize how much we rely on prediction for smooth communication. When you think about it, we speak quickly, so how do we understand each other so quickly? It’s because listeners guess about what speakers’ next words will be and plan how to react ahead of time. Every word out of a person’s mouth limits the possibilities of what the rest of the sentence can be about. Most of our conversations are pretty mundane and predictable. But as illustrated above, the predicting you do can derail your brain.

As I would learn anew on Wednesday.

Mornings when I go to work, I usually hang out on the sidewalk and talk to Langston for a few minutes before the shift starts. I’ve been working this temp assignment for less than two months, so I haven’t known him long, but he’s a pleasant acquaintance who can discuss many different subjects. He’s been in the military, raised kids, and read good books.

So I forgot how it came up – I guess I must have been talking about my old neighborhood. And he said, “Oh, I bet you knew my wife. She ran a store down the street from you, ” and I asked who his wife was. “Antonia,” he said.

“Oh! I love Antonia!” I said. Back in my days of the old neighborhood, I used to stop in to jaw with Antonia at least once a week. She knew all of the gossip and, like Langston, could talk about anything.

So here’s what Langston had to say about her:

“Oh, well she’s dead now. She died in February.”

Me: Mouth hanging agape. Internal state of shock, with a turmoil of sad discomfort beginning to stir itself.

I knew Antonia had been struggling with breast cancer, but the last time I saw her she looked great, wasn’t taking chemo anymore, and appeared to be in the clear. I am ashamed to say I don’t even remember when that was – it must have been sometime last year. Langston said the cancer came back last November, and she spent the last month of her life in the hospital.

My brain was struggling to process this information, and my feelings were trying to figure out what to do. What I became fixated with right away was the memory of Antonia referring to her husband as “Bear.” I pictured “Bear” as a grizzly-sized man, almost freakishly large – maybe 6’6 or 6’7. Antonia was about my height and size, and I knew when she sprained her ankle at work, she drove home and Bear met her at the driveway and carried her inside. That seems like it would take a big guy. But Langston isn’t all that big.

“When were you married to her?”

“I was married to her for 33 years.”

“So you’re Bear?”

He nodded.

I guess he’s more of an Eastern Black Bear than a Grizzly Bear.

The doors opened and people began going inside.

I got some coffee and milled around in the break room doing the good mornings with everybody, but the corners of my eyes were damp and I felt really strange. I went into the work room, where Anne, the lady who sits to my right, was already settling in. We haven’t been desk neighbors for long, so I don’t know her well, but I needed to talk to somebody.

“I’ve had a really weird morning,” I said, and told her what happened.

“So it turns out he’s the husband of your friend?” Anne asked. I nodded. “When did she die?” I told her. And with an (almost) straight face she asked, “So, did he ask you out?”

That was sure as hell not what I expected. I howled with laughter and told her she was awful.

I had no idea that woman was so funny. Thank God she is, and thank God she chose to handle it that way. If I had been unlucky enough to sit next to somebody who wanted to get all gooey and comfort me, I might have been a distracted emotional wreck all day. But I was able to put it aside until I got home, and I will get my full-scale sadness wallow on as soon as I finish this.