Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finally, it's that Plants & Submarines Story!

Question: When is a plant like a nuclear submarine?

Answer: When they're both school projects I have messed up.

Last week Friday, I took the day off from work, a move that will have profound implications on the scientific world for years to come, although I could hardly have guessed that when I first took the day off.

The day off had profound implications because it led to Middle asking me to "keep an eye" on her science project, which is "growing a plant."

That may not seem too scientific, but I guess by the watered-down standards Middle's school is now imposing, it's a pretty tough project. Granted, kindergartners also grow plants for science projects, but who am I to argue with education professionals? If they think not actively interfering with a natural process equates to learning something about science, then I should just go with the flow.

Besides, as it turns out, that whole not interfering thing is a lot harder than it looks.

Middle had been growing her Science Project Plant for about a week, periodically asking me questions about it, questions like "How much should I water it?" and "Does it need a lot of sunlight?" Those seemed to me to be the type of questions she was supposed to be answering -- and learning -- via her project, and I tried to get her to look them up and otherwise learn the answers, but only part of my motivation was that Middle should be learning stuff.

The other part of my motivation was this: I don't know. When it comes to plants, I'm a complete idiot. We have the One Surviving Plant in our house, a plant that I think is called a corn plant and that we have because my Mother-In-Law gave me a potted cutting from the corn plant we gave her one Christmas. The One Surviving Plant meets all of my criteria for a plant in our house:

1. It's big.
2. It's hardy.
3. It's probably not poisonous.

I learned that latter bit of information -- maybe -- about two years ago, when Sweetie left me with the Babies!, who were then in walkers and who I thought couldn't get into much trouble because they were in walkers. So while they toddled around in their walkers, I did what I usually do when left alone, which is download music onto my iPod. I took a break from that and checked on Mr F and Mr Bunches, who were in the living room with me and who were toddling around, still, in their walkers, only now they had bits of leaves from the corn plant on their hands and their faces and their walker-trays.

I looked first at the corn plant (if that's what it is) to see if those leaves had come from the corn plant, which was kind of a dumb thing to do because back then, we only had two plants in the house, the corn plant and a sad remnant of the flowers that had been sent by my office as a congratulations when the Babies! were born, and the sad remnant flowers were on top of the Piano That Almost Is Playable, out of reach of the Babies!

Then I dug my finger into Mr F's and Mr Bunches' mouths, ignoring their protests and their biting, to see if they had parts of the plant still in their mouth. They didn't, but that didn't mean anything, because they might have swallowed them.

(Mr F and Mr Bunches don't generally go in for eating anything and everything they find, unlike most babies. But they will eat some surprising stuff, like fossilized Froot Loops from under the couch, or, last night, the wrapper off a taco sauce bottle at the grocery store.) (They will not, though, eat bologna. Make of that what you will.)

I was at a loss for what to do about the maybe-eating of the maybe-corn plant, because I didn't know if it might harm them, and I very much didn't want the Babies! to get sick or die, and I also very much didn't want that to happen while I was in charge. So I took the next step in an emergency, which was to Google it and find out how bad things were. Only I didn't know, for sure, what kind of plant it was.

So I had to google "corn plant" and see if that looked like the plant, and other plants, to see if they looked like the plants, and then I had to compare pictures to try to find plants that looked like our plant, and then go read the entries on those plants to see if they were poisonous, and then I had to get distracted for a while reading about the aloe plant and how aloe really does come from that, and then I had to stop reading that and also stop reading an article about kudzu, and get back to researching.

In the end, I could never tell if our plant was a corn plant, and, if so, whether the corn plant was poisonous, but the Babies! are still alive, so things worked out for me. And kudzu can grow up to 7 feet per week, so there's that, too.

I discourage the Babies! from eating the One Surviving Plant, and that, plus watering it now and then, constitute my entire regimen of care for the One Surviving Plant. Plants in my care undergo a rapid imposition of Darwinian rules; only the fittest of plants can survive in my care. I begin by purchasing my plants, if I purchase them at all, only on clearance and only from department store garden centers. The last time I bought a plant from a a "real" garden store - -the hibiscus bush outside our front door-- it completely let me down by not even having leaves this year.

(I only know its a hibiscus bush because my Mom told me that's what it is, and I only remember that because it's right outside our front door, so I like to walk out and say Hi, biscus!)

The hibiscus bush stands -- wilts -- in contrast to the three trees I bought at the end of the season last year for a couple of bucks, trees I found lying in a pile at the back of the Wal-Mart garden center, and which I planted at the very end of the growing season just before the first frost, prompting my dad to make dire predictions about their future. Those trees are doing great -- the pear tree has flowers.

(I only know it's a pear tree because I left the tag on it so that I could tell my dad what kind of tree it was when he came to visit.)

Step two of plants, for me, is never really caring for them. If a plant is going to be all needy, I don't want anything to do with it. Plants in my care need to be self-sufficient, go-getters, survivors. They need to survive wherever I set them, without regard to whether they need sun or CO2 or even soil. My favorite plants are the hostas that grow all over our flower gardens, including some in between bricks of the path. Those are plants a guy can love. They'd probably grow on the tires of my car if I put them there.

A plant that needs watering more than "whenever I happen to think of it and not be watching TV" is not going to last long in my house. But in that, I'm doing the world a favor, because eventually, I will be the cultivator of the hardiest plants imaginable, plants that will be capable of surviving with very little care, little to no sun, and little to no water. These will be plants that can spread across the continent, feed millions, explore space, host talk shows.

So that's all I know about plants: Buy them cheap, make them fend for themselves. (That's also all I know about kids.) And that's why I had to refer Middle to Google to answer her questions about her science project plant

After she did find answers, Middle decided that the science project plant needed more light than it was getting in her room. Which is why, last Friday, the day I took off from work, she brought the science project down and put it on the windowsill that faces East and pointed it out to me and said "Will you keep an eye on that today so that the boys don't wreck it?" I promised her I would, and that was her first mistake. My promises about the Babies! are worthless. I promise anyone anything about them: Yes, I will make sure they have bananas for breakfast. No, I won't let them jump on the bed. Sure, I'll watch them at the park. Then I let the Babies! do whatever they want, anyway, the result being that they generally end up throwing bananas at each other while jumping on the bed, or climbing up the tall slide at the park while other kids try to come down it.

It was a foregone conclusion that I wouldn't keep the Babies! from wrecking the science project, then, especially when you consider that I'll do anything to stop them from crying, if they cry. I lost a watch once because I gave it to Mr F to keep him from crying, and then forgot that I gave it to him until a half hour (or so; I didn't have a watch) later, at which point he no longer had the watch and we'd gone a substantial distance down the mall and through the parking lot. I also lost my library card because they wanted to play with that, so I let them. Now, when I go to the library, I have to always act as though I'm surprised to not have my library card, and then show them my driver's license and give my phone number, like I'm some kind of felon.

It was also a foregone conclusion that I'd somehow wreck the science project because my track record with science projects for school is horrible. That's how the riddle at the start of this comes up: the last science project I ever did for school was a nuclear submarine model. I did that model because I had to do a science project and display about "undersea exploration," and I didn't actually begin the project until the day before it was due.

I'd had big plans for the project. I was going to do a scale model of one of those remote-control undersea subs, the kind that are always on National Geographic specials going down into the Marianas Trench and taking pictures of those really scary, really cool way-down-deep fish that have all the teeth and no bodies, and I was going to put that model in front of a posterboard display showing all the fish and volcanoes and giant squid that were discovered using that remote control sub.

Then, the day before I had to have that ready to display in Mr. Karsten's seventh grade science class, I started the project, only to realize that we didn't have anything in our house with which to build a scale model of an undersea remote control submarine. Nor did we have anything from which to cut or copy pictures of marine life and cool fish with lots of teeth, or anything even remotely similar to that. We did have the boring yellow encyclopedias my Mom had bought a long time before, but those were no World Books and didn't have a lot of pictures.

After messing around for a while with Legos and Star Wars figures and the spare lumber that had been left over from the time my dad was going to build a work room, I finally gave up and told my mom that I needed to go to Drew's -- a nearby variety store-- and get stuff for the project. She took me there and I got some money from her and went inside and looked at the models, which were mostly airplanes and cars. There was exactly one naval model, a nuclear submarine. I bought that and came outside, prompting Mom to ask:

"What does a nuclear submarine have to do with undersea exploration?"

I didn't have an explanation for that; all I could say was "It's the only one they have left." Then I went home and had to put that together, using that old-fashioned airplane glue that stuck to everything but never dried, quite, and skipping steps that were too hard, and also not waiting for some parts to dry before gluing the rest on, with the result being that my nuclear submarine sagged in the middle and had part of the engine glued to what would probably be the bridge. It also had a little sailor who was stuck, lying on his back as though overcome by carbon monoxide fumes, down near the engine room. Whatever they had been exploring, it had gone badly.

That project was not much worse than any of the other projects I'd ever had to do in school. I could never find the kidneys in the sharks we dissected. I didn't get my water rocket to launch and, when I had to build a model of a Roman building for the big 8th grade exhibition of "Ancient Rome as Built From Household Materials by 8th Graders," I got assigned something that looked like a storage shed, and built that out of sugar cubes that I then painted gray, a history project that ended up with my "Roman Detached Sugar Cube Garages" being dwarfed by Derrick Van Orton's "Giant Colosseum Made Out of Construction Paper, Cardboard, Nicely-Done Drawings, and Probably Actual Pieces of the Real Colosseum."
Leaving me in charge of the Science Project Plant made it 100% likely that something bad was going to happen, and something bad did happen. I was getting ready to go make the Babies! lunch, and paused to check on Mr F's "tickle bugs"...

("Tickle Bugs" are what I tell him I'm looking for when I tickle him. I tickle him and say where are the tickle bugs today and then when he laughs I say I found them!)

...which left Mr Bunches unsupervised and a little jealous of the attention Mr F was getting, so he responded by grabbing Middle's Science Project plant and throwing it down on the floor, spilling it out and detaching the plant, which had one leaf at that point, from its roots.

I scuttled the boys away from that area, got Sweetie to come begin vacuuming up the dirt, and I scraped what I could of the plant into its pot, then packed dirt around it, then realized I'd left the roots out, so I had to take the plant and the dirt out and then put the roots in, after which I tried to touch the plant to its roots while packing dirt around it.

When that was done, I put the pot into a bowl and watered the whole thing until it was waterlogged, to cement the plant into the dirt and maybe help it absorb nutrients -- I thought to myself Plants grow hydroponically, and "hydro" in science means water, so plants could grow with lots of water, and went with that as valid scientific reasoning.

Then, I put that whole shebang onto the kitchen table to absorb some healthy sunlight, and made the boys' lunch. Mr F and Mr Bunches didn't eat their lunch, though -- they spent their time throwing bits of their lunch into the plant bowl, something I didn't realize, so that when Middle came home, she was greeted by a plant that was wilting, and droopy, and kind of brownish-gray, and in a bowl full of water, Ramen noodles, and banana chunks. It looked like this:

And that is the point where Middle told me that her entire semester grade depends on that plant surviving.

I told her I would explain to her teacher, and tell him what happened, and that I'm sure that he would give her a new plant or maybe let her do something else for "science." Before I could do that, though, she went and talked to him herself and explained what had happened and got him to give her a different plant to start over on her project with, so she might still be able to graduate from high school after all.

She and Sweetie wanted to throw out the old plant, but I wouldn't let them. I told them I'm going to take care of that plant and make sure that it grows and thrives. And I'm serious about that. I'll show them. I'm going to grow that plant and rescue it and have it stand as a monument to my scientific endeavors. Probably next to Derrick Van Orton's Colosseum.

1 comment:

lisapepin said...

This had me laughing from beginning to end, even though I could sort of tell where it was heading. The Googling part of the story reminded me of something my friend Cindy said when we were at the national park in Aruba together. "Hey, I know this plant! I saw it on Survivorman! It's either really good for you or it will kill you..."