Saturday, August 06, 2011

Mr Bunches' Victory Garden, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Yard. (Thinking The Lions)

Here are the things I do not understand about my parents and their attitude towards yardwork:

1. Why they had to make all chores so tedious.

2. Why they did chores at all.

Having made it almost all the way through another summer in which most of my "yardwork" consisted of "spraying Mr F and Mr Bunches with the hose but doing so in the front yard to avoid angering the Police Bees that are in the backyard," I am sort of an expert on not making chores tedious and/or not doing them at all.

Since I'm sort of an expert on that, I can teach you how to achieve Yardwork Nirvana so that you, too, can never ever have to suffer through a chore again -- doing so by showing you how Mr Bunches and I planted Mr Bunches' Victory Garden recently, a garden that, if I say so myself, is probably the single best and most successful garden that has ever existed in the history of gardens and/or the Universe (whichever came first.)

First, the list of the things you will need.

Or rather, the things you will not need, as I do not have any of these things, and if you have them, I recommend you get rid of them at once, as they can only lend themselves towards actually doing yard work, and that's the opposite of what you should be doing. So here are the things you should not have in your possession, under any circumstances.

A working weed-whacker:

A working lawn mower:

A working lawn sprinkler:

And, a working sense of responsibility towards others in your community who count on you to not destroy their property values:

Now, as I said, if you have any of those, get rid of them, and do so immediately. They'll only encourage you to go take care of your yard, and once you start taking care of your yard, you can never stop.

ACTUAL FACT OF SCIENCE: Plants, given a chance, never stop growing. The more you do to make it easy for them to grow, the more they will. And once you start them growing, you're facing years of trying to get them to stop growing -- mowing, weed whacking, probably sprinkling, too, although I'm not sure because we haven't had a working sprinkler in our yard for years -- which is just as well, because if you go searching for images of sprinklers, most of them look like that one up above, which makes me think that if you have a working sprinkler and do something crazy like use it to make it possible for plants to grow in your yard, you're pretty soon going to have scantily-clad women running through it and I'm not sure Sweetie would approve of bikini-clad wet college girls cavorting through our yard.


For the record: I also do not approve of that type of thing.

Also, since I know that Sweetie will be annoyed that I posted that picture and made that joke, I am now required to defuse her by posting this:

Please note: This is not a picture of me. But it IS a picture of how I imagine I look.


That silence you hear is Sweetie trying to work out how to still be mad at me about the sprinkler thing.

Having gotten rid of those things and having distracted Sweetie into ignoring what you do for the rest of the day, you are now ready to do yard work, Me-style. Which is to say, you're not going to do much of any yardwork at all. Why do you think I told you to get rid of those things?

Everything I know about yard work, I learned from my parents, whose religion was yard work. They worked hard to indoctrinate me into their cult, and I worked just as hard to forget everything they taught me, something that took years of hard effort, so don't say I'm lazy. You think it's easy to overcome nearly two decades of mind-control? No, way. You've got to really make an effort.

I'm still not done getting rid of their pernicious influence; there are still things my parents made me believe about yard work that reside in my mind and make me do things against my will. Take gardens. You might not know it to look at me, but I planted a garden this year, with Mr Bunches helping me. (Mr F did not want to come outside, probably because Mr F is smarter than Mr Bunches and I and knew that planting a garden wasn't anything he wanted any part of.)

I thought it might be nice to plant a garden as a sort of learning experience for Mr F and Mr Bunches -- the same way I once thought it was important to plant a garden as a sort of learning experience for The Boy and Middle and Oldest Daughters.

That's the only reason to plant a garden, after all: a learning experience, mostly to help learn how stupid it is to plant a garden. We don't need gardens anymore. There's no shortage of vegetables and fruits out there that can be easily picked up, prepared, put on my plate, and subsequently thrown out without ever having been eaten by me. I can't drive 10 feet without seeing a produce stand, farmer's market, gourmet grocery store where they have tubs of pineapple so fresh they must have been airlifted in from Guatemala that morning, or something similar. Plants are everywhere. They're doing just fine and don't need me to help them along.

So what's the point of planting a garden? If you want fresh fruits and vegetables, it's way easier to simply buy them. It's probably also healthier to buy your fruits in the store, and I'll get to why in a bit, but first, I have to point out that people who say that it's cheaper to grow fruits and vegetables are either of no use to society, or are delusional, or more likely are both, and here's why: It's not cheaper, no matter how you look at it.

First, in determining the cost of helping plants do what they'll do even without your intervention (grow), are you counting not just the cost of the seeds (in which case, yeah, it might be a little cheaper, if you do what I did: get the seeds for Mr Bunches' Victory Garden at a cost of $1 for 8 packets at the Dollar Store, which is rapidly becoming my favorite place in the universe*)

*Yes, even above the M-81 galaxy

but also the cost of your labor? Because when Mr Bunches and I put in Mr Bunches' Victory Garden, we didn't just go get some I'm-sure-they're-still-good-and-not-irradiated-Chernobyl-leftovers 8 for $1 seeds, and sprinkle them on the ground, and come to think of it, why didn't we do that?

Ever stop to think about that? I did, as we were putting in the garden. I thought this: Why is it so much work to plant a garden?

The seeds we bought -- and these were not your high-class, fancy-pants seeds that you get in some hoity-toity garden center, remember; these were seeds who had somehow ended up on a rack next to a set of tiny ceramic kittens that also could be purchased for a dollar, just down the aisle from bags of party favors -- the seeds we bought had directions.

Dig row three inches deep. Place seeds 2-4" apart, pressing firmly into the ground. Cover with 1" of soil. And so on.


For seeds.

Excuse me, but how did the seeds ever evolve in the first place? Were early lungfish and amoebas up on the beaches pressing seeds firmly into the soil with their pseudopods? Plants can't do that, right? Plants can't press their own seeds into the ground. When carrots grow in the wild...

... do carrots grow in the wild? You can't prove to me that they do...

...when carrots grow in the wild, is there a stage of their development where something comes along and gathers the seeds and goes through the process of carefully planting them again, pressing them into the soil 2-4" apart?

No. At least none that I ever learned in Mr. Gill's science class in 9th grade, although I didn't really learn anything in Mr. Gill's science class in 9th grade, other than that we were going to dissect a frog, leading me and my friend Mike to write a skit for Spanish class titled "El Medroso Sr. Gill y las ranas,*" which was well received.

* "The Feared Mr. Gill and The Frogs"

So why do I have to do so carefully press those seeds into the ground, making sure each has a little bit of elbow room and has just the right amount of top soil to cover it? When did our modern American seeds get so coddled? I walk around in nature all the time -- including in my yard -- and there are plenty of plants just growing away, and I'm pretty sure that none of them were carefully planted by a guy and his four-year-old son who by that time was no longer interested in planting carrot seeds by carefully pressing them down into the ground and had gone, instead, to look at the ants in the anthill at the back of the yard.

You can't, it seems, just go plant seeds by sprinkling them on the ground the way nature does it. And that's where the labor comes in, and why I figure that people who think gardens are healthier and cheaper and worth doing are so useless to society.

Also, that's where my lawnmower comes in, because, if you use it (im)properly, a lawnmower can be a valuable asset in planting a garden.

When Mr Bunches and I set out to plant our garden, we didn't really have a plot of land to put it in. Way back when, when The Boy and I did the same thing (planted a garden just for the heck of it, on a whim) we took care of the lack of a plot of land for gardening by simply digging up an 8x10 section of our backyard, being very careful to do that when Sweetie wasn't home so she couldn't object.

That wasn't an option this time, because (a) the backyard has since been [almost, sort of] transformed into a perennial garden, and (b) digging up a chunk of a backyard turns out to be very hard work, and I wasn't about to try that again.

The backyard-as-perennial-garden is part of my ongoing quest to completely avoid yardwork. It was a scheme...

That sounds kind of wrong. Try again.

... a plan I hatched years ago to take advantage of the fact that our backyard isn't really useful for anything except not being used. It's not very large, for one thing, and it sort of tapers to a point from the back of the house to the hedge that separates us from the private road full of rich snobs who I hate.

It also slants to the south, something that has gotten worse since -- no lie -- erosion began slowly eating away our backyard and slowly transferring it to our neighbors' yard.

Here's how that happened: We used to have a shed back there, a shed that quite charmingly had its own little gazebo and windows and shingles and was quite a nice addition to the yard if you ignored the fact that it was made of rotting wood and was chock full of hornets' nests and raccoons.

Whoever built the shed had ignored basic principles of building like "in some way covering the wood so it doesn't rot when it gets wet" and "replacing shingles when they fall off" so that the shed, which had seemed pretty neat when we bought the house (because we didn't inspect it but just said "oh, hey, there's a neat little storage shed out back") turned out to be a Hideous Zombie Shed of Death, which we would use only to store things that we didn't want in the house but couldn't convince the garbage man to take -- like old dressers and mattresses and the like.

We'd store them in the Hideous Zombie Shed Of Death by dragging them outside, and then, standing near the door to the shed, flipping open the entrance and jumping back to wait and see if any hornets or raccoons were going to assault us. When they didn't, we would then drag whatever it was we wanted to get rid of into the shed as quickly as possible, trying not to walk through the roughly one quintrillion spider webs (with associated spiders) and also not to fall through the rotting floorboards, shoving the dresser/mattress/thing past the other dresser/mattresses/things and getting the heck out before we were totally coated in spiders or raccoons.

Eventually, about three years ago, we tore down the shed, after which we learned that the shed had a purpose after all, and that purpose was to keep our yard from continental drifting into someone else's yard.

I learned the Shed's One True Purpose the hard way; after the shed was gone, we had a patch of dirt that required plants to be put into it, because a patch of dirt, while marginally more attractive than the Hideous Zombie Shed Of Death, was not something that even I, with my greatly lowered standards, could tolerate.

At the same time as I realized that the patch of dirt needed to be dealt with in some way, I also was reminded that my annual garden budget is $4.72, a budget I make the most of by getting my plants only at the end of the season, from places like the Wal-Mart garden center. As I've noted before, if you get your plants at the Wal-Mart Garden Center in August, you are getting plants that can survive anything. These are plants that have been standing on a parking lot all summer, being watered only in a desultory manner by a surly 17-year-old who's upset that he didn't get to work in electronics that day. These plants are likely to defeat the squirrels, ultimately, for world domination, they're so tough.

I have one tree, which I bought for $1.05 (tax included) at Wal-Mart three years ago. It was planted in late August, has never been watered except when it rains, was accidentally bumped by my lawnmower the time I mowed the lawn the next year, and was bit in half by the neighbor's dog... and it's thriving. Forget big-bucks landscaping. Go over to Wal-Mart around August 5 and get your plants, and you'll never have to lift a finger to take care of them. They may evolve legs and eat your children, but you won't have to fertilize them.

That budget problem has meant that filling in the dirt hole left by the absence of the Hideous Zombie Shed of Death has been a slow process, then, and that's left a lot of open topsoil that for some reason will not grow weeds, even, unlike 98% of the rest of the world and 103% of the rest of my backyard, specifically. I don't know why the weeds that threaten to choke out the various cheap plants I've put into the perennial garden don't spread to the ground where the Shed was, and I'm not sure I want to know, because when I think about it, there are only three conclusions I can come to:

1. The H.Z.S. of Death was actually built over an Indian burial ground or toxic waste dump or both, or

2. The weeds are sentient and hate me, refusing to cooperate in my plans, or

3. The former owner of this house built the shed to cover up the place where he buried all the bodies, which I actually was a little afraid of, when we tore down the shed, because Sweetie likes shows like Law & Order, and in shows like that, every innocent household chore ultimately turns up a body -- people can't walk down the street in those shows without a murder victim rolling out of the bushes, and so when we took down the shed the first time, I was 100% certain that at some point I would reach down to grab some debris and would pull up an arm.

Note: You think I'm joking about beliefs 1 and 3, but I'm not. I firmly believe that either or both are true -- which is part of why I distrust nature so much. I'll get to that in a bit, too.

All of which meant that there were and are still large areas of dirt that are slowly shifting to the neighbors' yard. I know that my backyard is slowly eroding away, because I can see the proof, in the form of the Sort of Great Wall, and also in the form of tilting.

When we took down the shed, it turned out not to have been actually built on the ground, but instead to have been perched rather precariously on stacks of cement blocks. (Seriously, we didn't really inspect anything when we bought this house. I would not be at all surprised if this house turned out to be made entirely of matchbooks hot-glued together, given how little inspecting Sweetie and I did before signing off on the purchase.)

There were about 30 cement blocks holding up the shed, and they were the last things we'd have to haul to the Dumpster in the front yard. It had been a long week, and I was tired, and so we made the decision to NOT haul the bricks, but instead to stack them, wall-style, along the lot line, something I justified because I was, as I said, tired, and also because my neighbor had not shown a lot of respect for my lot line. At various times in the past, my neighbor has either decided to dump his leaves and yard waste in my yard, or to cut down some of the lilac bushes that used to separate our lots... and only after that was done, to ask if it was okay. What are you supposed to say when a neighbor chops down a tree in your yard and says "Hope you didn't mind that!"? "I did mind, please duct-tape it back together?" I've got no training for this sort of thing.

Good fences make good neighbors, and so I built a fence that would've been good, only it wasn't; it was just a stack of cement blocks about twenty feet long, doubled up, that marked the lot line and which, in the future, would be (I intended) lined with, say, trees. Or maybe replacement lilac bushes. Or whatever was on clearance at Wal-Mart in August.

Those blocks were initially placed on top of the Earth, which is where I place things almost everytime I place them somewhere; I'm not a digger. They were just stacked there, serving as a visual reminder to my neighbor not only that they should respect the lot lines, but also that they were living next door to the kind of person who thought the Sorta Great Wall was acceptable.

That was almost three years ago. Now, though, the blocks are no longer atop the dirt; they are almost-half-buried below the ground, as our yard, no longer held back by Hideous Zombie Shed, has begun to slide downhill in the direction of the neighbor's yard, and the lake. I can't decide if that's poetic justice, and, further, if it is, just who's being poeticized.*

*I also can't decide just who decided that such a thing would be poetic justice, as I do not recall many poems in which someone was hoist by their own petard, which is typically how the phrase "poetic justice" is used. Although, perhaps ironically, the only poem I can remember off the top of my head as I write this is William Carlos Williams' The Red Wheelbarrow, which in this context, certainly seems symbolic of something or other.

I also independently verified that my yard is slowly becoming my neighbors' yard through the scientific method of looking out the window, a few months back, and noticing that our yard, which used to be a very mild slope towards the south, now appears to be a pronounced slope to the south, and which resulted in this conversation:

Me: Do you think our backyard looks a lot more slanted than it used to?

Sweetie: I hate our backyard.

So that settled that.

The garden that Mr Bunches and I were planting had nothing to do with helping prevent erosion, as the site we chose is what technically would be a flower bed just behind the house if it had any flowers in it. Which it doesn't. It might once have had flowers in it, but that was before I was put in charge of those flowers.

Now, what grows in that area are several evergreen bushes, which I am defiantly not trimming into pleasant geometrical shapes the way you're supposed to with evergreen bushes (and the way my parents told me to do, in the High Gospel of Yard Work) because I don't want to and because I want them to grow "naturally" to fit in with my perennial garden/eroding yard, and also because when I use the electric trimmer I'm always afraid I'll electrocute myself from the spot on the cord where I once nicked it with the electric trimmer, cutting the insulation and almost electrocuting myself that first time. I've never replaced the cord, and it's still got open wires on it, making using the electric trimmer even more frightening than it already was.

Beyond the naturally-shaped Evergren Bushes of Laziness, also what grows in that area is a large mass of undifferentiated plants that never seem to flower and don't look like much of anything except, well, plants. I don't think they were there when we bought the house, but they're there now, and I didn't plant them. I also don't think someone else deliberately put them there, because they don't seem to be the type of plants that people deliberately put places, although to be fair the people that lived here before us did make some unusual choices, such as putting all the electrical outlets in upside down for some reason we can't understand -- possibly as protection against the Shed, who knows? -- so maybe they planted a bland garden, too.

Mr Bunches and I chose that area for our garden because it didn't require me trying to figure out which plants in our yard are plants intended to be there and which plants are plants that just ended up there through nature. I've been very successful in putting together a perennial garden*

* provided you don't use "success" as synonymous with "having a nice yard"

in that there are lots of plants, but the plants are scattered around the yard in a style that landscaping experts would likely call "deranged" but which I like to think of "accidental." My method of selecting a spot for a plant is:

1. Look at the plant.

2. Look at the yard.

3. Try to figure out where to put the plant so it's not all that near the other plants because the point is to take up as much space as possible so that eventually this thing looks like a garden and not a haphazard collection of Discount Plants.

4. Dig a small hole somewhere and put the plant in.

The result of that system is that about two years ago, I became almost completely unable to mow the yard because there were so many plants placed around the yard that I couldn't figure out where it was safe to mow without taking out a plant that I'd purchased and put in, so: mission accomplished!, and or so I thought, but my victory over mowing was short-lived, as I had to eventually put in a path, using all the patio bricks that came with the house (they were in the garage) when we bought it, in order to make the yard look at least a little yard-like.

It's not much of a path -- more a hint of a path than an actual path at this point, but I created a path, and even a spot in the middle of the yard for a birdbath or sculpture to go, but it turns out that birdbaths and sculptures are very expensive, as measured by my scale, which ranks prices from not very expensive, let's get it ($0-$10) to we can't afford that because of all the trips to the Dollar Store I made this week (anything over $10), so while we have a spot for a birdbath, we don't have a birdbath. The birds, when they come, just have to stand around on this little patio and hope that it rains.

The path caused me to maybe sacrifice some plants that had been actual plants, and I wasn't about to do that again to put in a garden, plus digging in our yard is a bad idea because there's also always a chance I'll find that nest of bees that nearly killed me last year, and one brush with them in a lifetime is more than enough, thank you very much.

So we chose the flower bed to grow our garden, and we had to get rid of all the undifferentiated plants, which is where my almost-working lawnmower comes in.

Remember, I mentioned that I don't have a working weedwhacker, even though I have owned many of them in my life. No matter which ones I buy or how I use them, they always break. Typically, the little line that trims the weeds will stop extending, forcing me to keep stopping and extend it manually, during which I inevitably do something to tangle the line and have to go to the hardware store to get more line, only to learn that the particular model I bought was only produced in the Ukraine in 1993 and that therefore I'm going to have to jury-rig a line together from whatever was on the clearance shelf at the hardware store.

That's how all but one of my weedwhackers died. But on one memorable occasion, the motor burnt out, and I'm pretty sure nearly exploded. I was innocently trimming around the backyard edges by the lilac bushes, and the motor started making a higher- and higher-pitched sound, which, admittedly, took me a while to notice because I had my iPod on, but eventually I did notice it, although my attention was more drawn by the smell of smoke, which made me look more closely at the weedwhacker and realize that the engine was smoking and when I took out my headphones, I could clearly hear the engine giving out, so I did what any normal person would do and tried to finish up trimming the backyard before it blew up -- while keeping a hand poised up near my face to protect me from shrapnel; I'm not completely unsafe, after all. I never bought another one, although I might take another chance on that model if juries start handing out larger products liability verdicts in our county.

With no weedwhacker, Mr Bunches and I had to do something about the undergrowth in our garden site, because I knew from experience that you cannot have plants growing already in the area where you want to grow new plants. That was one thing I definitely remembered from when I was a kid and we had to prepare our garden each year for whatever it was my parents grew. I can't remember what actually grew in our garden, other than rhubarb, and I only remember the rhubarb because it scared me so much that we grew it.

I've never understood the point of rhubarb -- a plant that looks like celery, only has (somehow) a worse taste, and to top it off has poisonous leaves. My mom had a gigantic rhubarb plant growing in the corner of our garden when I was a kid, and that plant probably is responsible for the psychological issues I have with gardening now. We were constantly warned not to touch the leaves of the rhubarb plant, every time we were near the garden.

"Don't touch the leaves," my mom would holler out through the kitchen window as we pretended we were doing whatever it was she'd wanted us to do in the garden.

"Don't touch the leaves" she'd add when she sent us out there to pick stalks of rhubarb so that she could make rhubarb cake, a dessert which was a trick -- the rhubarb cake she made was one of those terrible things that parents do to kids to get back at the kids for having a kids' life full of summer breaks and nothing more serious to do than to try to slap together a science-fair project starting at 8:00 p.m. on the night before the science fair, leading to science fair projects like "A Model of a Submarine I got at the Drew's Store at the Mall, But Be Careful because the Glue is not Dry."

Because kids in the 1970s and 1980s had no real problems -- child molesters hadn't been invented yet, forcing parents to rely on potentially poisonous Halloween candy to teach kids not to talk to strangers -- parents back then were much more insistent on doing things to show kids just how sucky life was when you grew up. That's the only reason I can think of for my parents to insist that we garden, and the only reason I can think of for why my parents would make us eat things like liver, or Brussels' sprouts or boiled cabbage, and that's the only reason I can think of for why rhubarb cake existed.

My mom would make rhubarb cake with her graham cracker crust, and with some kind of cake-like filling that was partially combined with the ingredients for cherry pie. She would prepare all of those ingredients -- which would have made a perfectly good, in fact, really good, cherry pie or cake -- and then she would send us outside to harvest some deadly rhubarb, warning us not to touch the leaves. We'd bring them in and she'd have us cut off the leaves and haul them to the garbage (after which I would wash my hands furiously lest any trace of rhubarb poison be left on them) while she would chop the rhubarb up into little crescent-shaped pieces, mix them in with the real cake, and bake it all, leaving us with a 'dessert' that had, nestled among the crust and filling, tiny little pieces of bitter-tasting celery-like bits -- and so many of them that it was impossible to pick out the rhubarb.

The effect was far worse than simply making a dessert and then not letting you have any of it. Had Mom made a delicious cake and then simply grounded me off of it, I could have resented her for not giving me some. But Mom would give me as much rhubarb cake as I wanted -- only it was chock full of disgusting bits of rhubarb, so I had to make the decision on my own not to eat the dessert.

I had to deny myself dessert.

That's messed up, as you kids like to say.

Although it probably would make me a billion dollars if I were to take that single episode and spin it into a fake-parenting book like that Tiger Lady or whoever she was that made up all those stories about tough parenting to sell books. I could call it Rhubarb Parenting and have all the lessons be how parents can be mean to their kids in the name of building character while secretly pretending that what they're doing is fun or good when it's not that at all, it's just parents getting back at their kids for being able to watch 4 hours of cartoons on a Saturday morning while the parents have to try to find the cracks in the house where that bat got it. Chapter 2 of Rhubarb Parenting will be all about parents who actually make their kids get the apple slices with a Happy Meal. Those parents deserve to be pinched.*

*Pinching is the most acceptable violence I can tolerate in a hypothetical attack. If you suggest someone be attacked violently, and suggest that the attack be more than pinching, you're probably a psychopath or Republican.

When we were kids, we'd have to prepare the garden every year, and that preparation consisted of moving dirt and plants around using things like an "Action Hoe," which was almost certainly something Mom got off an informercial, and also a big metal rake, and a spade, and other garden tools almost all of which I don't own and can't really remember because I am actively rebelling against those memories. I remember just enough of that part of my childhood to know that it was necessary to take all the plants in the garden and dig them up or pull them out, then to remove the roots, then to mix up the dirt using a variety of tools, all to get it ready to carefully plant the delicate tiny seeds that never seemed to grow into anything but that rhubarb plant.

So with Mr Bunches, I had a basic idea of what to do -- get rid of those plants, stir up the dirt -- but no real tools to do it with, which is where almost-working lawnmower came in. Our lawnmower has a working engine, and a working blade, and a working grass catcher, but not a working handle. The handle, which is supposed to be held together in the middle by a screw on each side, halfway up the two parts of the handle, was only held together on one side. I don't know what happened to the screw from the broken side of the handle. It hasn't been there for several years. I suspect that The Boy took the screw out one year when I'd had him mow what back then was a still-largely-mowable lawn instead of an almost-perennial-garden. That kind of seems like something he would do -- remove the screw and then later he wouldn't have to mow the lawn anymore because if I asked him to mow it, he'd be able to say the handle is broken.

The joke's on him, though, because we only have to mow the lawn about once a year now, and that's mostly just out of societal duty; I feel like if I don't mow at least once, I'm not really doing my part for America or something, so I go mow a part of our lawn in hopes that the neighbors will see me doing it and think "Oh, so he does do yardwork" and then the rest of the year will assume I'm doing yardwork but they just didn't see me do it this week.

(Another valid tactic: last year, when I had a heart attack, I tried to mention it to the two neighbors I occasionally have to talk to, so that they would maybe then assume, when I don't do yardwork, that I can't because of my heart, and also so that maybe they would try to do it for me, which wouldn't be that bad, if you ask me. Isn't that what being a neighbor is all about? Doing my yardwork for me?)

When I have mowed the lawn since The Boy's sabotage, I've simply propped the handle in there with a longer screw, and made the best of a bad situation. Since I wasn't really trying to mow, it didn't matter much. I figured that kind of half-hearted effort (for America! or society!) would work just fine with Mr Bunches' Victory Garden, so I went and got out our lawnmower, and pulled it into the to-be-garden, started it up, and mowed the plants that were there.

Worked like a charm. In mere minutes, there were no plants there.

With that done, we just had to stir the dirt a little, and we'd be ready to plant our delicate seeds. So I got our two shovels...

... that's right. I have two shovels. I have no other yard tools, but I have two shovels. Now you know why digging factors so heavily into every garden plan I make...

... and Mr Bunches and I set out to turn that dirt over. I showed him how to stick the shovel in, pick up some dirt, and turn it over. I then gave him one end of the garden, and we started.

Or, at least, I started. Mr Bunches did two shovelfuls, and then started just picking up the chunks of dirt I turned over, and throwing them into the yard, because he likes to throw things. That began a race: I had to quickly turn over the dirt and break it up and otherwise make it nice and soft and plush and welcoming for the delicate seeds, and do so before Mr Bunches succeeded in transferring all of the newly-stirred dirt into the rest of the yard.

(I made it, but only because Mr Bunches took a break from throwing the dirt to go gather up all the little decorative lights we had in the yard and sprinkle them around the garden; that's what's going on in that picture above where it looks like we planted brass railroad spikes.)

Once that was done and we had the dirt stirred up and the yard lights sprinkled around haphazardly, we were ready to start planting the seeds, and I had all the garden tools anyone would need for that: Hands, plus the seeds, plus some little popsicle sticks to put the seed packets on to mark where the seeds were so that I would know what kind of crops we'd be harvesting.

We had these seeds to plant: sunflowers, radishes, carrots, pumpkins, cucumbers, more pumpkins because I kind of think they might be the kind of plant that grows back year after year, and then two packets of flowers because the seeds were 8 for $1 but they only had the five kinds of garden plants and I didn't want to double up on radishes.

I didn't want to double up on anything, frankly, because I had no intention of eating these things once they grew. I would never eat anything that grew in my yard because I don't trust nature.

I really don't. Nature is gross, and probably poisonous. That's the message I have gathered over the years from environmentalists and commercials. That kid who hopes they never find his secret place? Warnings not to dump your oil from your oil changes into the street because it goes into the rivers? People talking about PCBs or PCP or PBS or whatever in the water killing eagles that eat salmon? Blue green algae in the lakes? Toxic waste dumping? Three Mile Island? ALl those things have been rolled together in my mind and have resulted in my having the firm belief that anything that grows or lives in nature is inevitably going to kill me.

I'm serious about that. I don't trust nature as far as I could pinch it. Here is an example: There is a series of small rivers and streams that flow through a nature preserve that isn't even a half-mile from us, and the twins like to go walking through that preserve and go to the spots where you can walk right into the river, which they do happily, wading in with or without shoes, throwing rocks in and digging their toes into the mud, and splashing, and all I can think about while they do that is they will probably be dead before I get them home, and also I will have to carry their toxic corpses back home, probably dying myself and then I'll be dead and Sweetie will be mad at me for not stopping them, which are equally bad things, and I can't help thinking that because that stream is in nature, which means that it's probably full of one of those chemicals that we're not supposed to ingest but which also make up 90% of a Pop Tart.

Here's another example: We have strawberries growing in our yard, the result of my offhanded planting of a strawberry plant 10 years ago. I bought the strawberry plant because it was on sale for ninety cents at the Wal-Mart garden center, and I thought "you can't go wrong for ninety cents," which is as good a motto as any, and so I bought the plant and put it in the rock wall in the front yard and forgot about it until the next year, when it grew strawberries, which I saw were growing there and picked and brought in to Sweetie.

We both agreed it was amazing that we had fresh strawberries -- fresh organic strawberries, mind you, of the kind we used to make a special trip to Whole Foods to get and paid a price for them that made it seem as though they were not strawberries but were gold-plated filet mignon -- and then we rinsed those strawberries we grew and put them into a bowl and then a few days later we threw them away uneaten.

That's been the fate of every strawberry crop each year since then. This year, Mr Bunches and Mr F and I went out and picked twenty-two strawberries in just a few minutes, a bountiful harvest of just one day, and we rinsed those, too, and put them in a bowl to be thrown away a few days later.

We don't eat the strawberries because food does not come from a yard. Food comes from packages in a store, just as swimming is done in a pool that smells like chlorine and beverages are carbonated. Those are just the rules of how things should be done, and you do them that way unless you are insane.

I don't want to know where my food comes from -- especially if it's from my own yard, which is full of nature and Zombie Sheds and once a weird moth that landed on my driveway and stayed there for three days, day and night, alive but never moving, and other things that either got into the food or touched it or something, and why would I want to eat a strawberry that a moth might have been sitting on?

I know what you're going to say: don't you think that the food you eat was in nature at some point, too? And the answer is no. The food I eat has generally been heavily processed and/or prepared by a teenager making minimum wage and handed to me through a drive-through window, and that's true even though I nearly died twice a year ago and have made an effort to eat healthier foods: I still don't eat nature-based healthy foods. I eat things like baby carrots, which are like real carrots but they come in a plastic bag and don't have all that green stuff attached to them and aren't bumpy and ridged and don't have that weird carrot-hair on them and are small and cute; they're like carrots if carrots were made by General Mills, and I can eat them.

Or I eat applesauce, but not apple-flavored applesauce: You may not be aware that applesauce is almost never apple-flavored anymore, but it's true. You can get applesauce flavored like almost anything. Cherry, banana, strawberry, even pear applesauce, which I've bought and liked, and that's a huge victory for society because pears are gross but pear applesauce is delicious.

(Pears have a weird consistency, don't you think? Sort of fabric-y. Like they weren't grown but instead were crocheted.)

I didn't, then, want to grow double anything in Mr Bunches' Victory Garden*

*Bonus points for you if you know why I call it that.

but that turned out not to be a problem; really, I shouldn't have worried about how many seed packets we bought because there were tons of seeds in each of those packets. You really get a lot of seeds for 1/8 of a dollar, and the limited area that we had tilled -- note the technical farming term -- was pretty soon packed with seeds and we'd covered over the seeds with a limited amount of dirt, just as instructed to do. We'd taken the popsicle sticks and put the packets on them and taped them to the sticks because unlike all you other gardeners I'm not dumb and I realized that the packets would easily blow off the sticks (or be picked off them by raccoons or bats, both of which still live in our yard,) so I taped my packets onto the sticks, thereby improving on that method the way I once improved on the way people sew by tying the thread to the needle, so that it couldn't possibly slip out and I was free to sew a button back on my shirt.

(Really, I'm amazed that it took me to come up with that. Humans have been sewing things to other things -- buttons to shirts, belt loops to pants, parts of Frankenstein to other parts of Frankenstein -- for 30 billion years or something like that, and nobody but me ever thought "Hey, if I just tie this thread to the needle, then it won't slip out and I'll get done faster?" Come on, people: do I have to do everything?)

By that time, we'd been working for about 1 and 1/2 hours, not counting time outs during which we went to look at the ant hill and point out that there were ants, and not counting one time when Mr Bunches said "bee" and made me temporarily nervous because although the doctors have said I'm not allergic to bees, who can believe what a doctor says? If doctors want to be believed, they should make sure that their scales aren't so clearly out-of-whack and start admitting that it's okay to drink 17 cups of coffee a day, and not counting the delay when I had to have Mr Bunches come with me to put the lawnmower back in the garage because he kept trying to use it instead of working with the shovel, and while it's very hard to start I couldn't ignore the possibility that he might just get it started anyway, and mow me, or him, or someone, and that would not look good in front of Sweetie.

That's what I mean about the cost of gardens. People who say it's healthier to grow your own food have been clearly disabused of that notion by my irrefutable proof that nature is gross and full of weird moths that just hang around spookily. And people who say it's cheaper are inevitably discounting the labor that goes into just getting the stupid seeds into the ground.

Here we were, 1 1/2 hours into the job, and we had nothing to show for it other than a cut on my hand and a pathway full of dirt chunks Mr Bunches had thrown there, and the hope that some of these seeds might have been planted the exact distance below the soil with the exact distance between them and the other seeds to grow into...

... a radish.

That being what we got the last time I planted a garden: one radish. By my estimate, that radish cost us over $200, and considering that all I did with it was put it in a bowl to hold for a few days until we threw it away, I can safely say that wasn't money well spent.

You can improve your odds of getting more than one radish, I know, if you were to do things the right way, but doing things the right way isn't exactly my bag, you know? And also, that costs money, too. If I were to do things the right way, I'd have gone and bought a weed whacker and probably a hoe or action hoe or something, and I'd have gotten seeds from someplace other than the Dollar Store, and that would have meant that this little garden would have already cost us more than fifty or sixty bucks, just to get to the point where we had a patch of dirt with tiny specks buried in it.

You can also improve your odds, I know, by actually gardening once you plant your garden, and I know all too well what that means: It means weeding, which my parents were always trying to get us to do as part of their religion when we were kids and which we were always trying desperately not to do.

The problem with weeding the garden
isn't just my general reluctance to do yardwork, although that's a factor: kneeling in the dirt in the hot sun pulling plants out of the ground isn't in the top 33 zillion ways I want to spend even a second of my day. No, the problem with weeding is that I have no idea what a weed looks like. And neither do you, so don't try to fake it.

All plants -- all plants -- look the same as they grow. There is no way to tell if a little sprouty thing in the dirt is a blade of grass, a dandelion, a oak tree, or that radish -- until it turns into that thing. But it doesn't do that until the end of growing, at which point it's too late to try to protect it from weeds, because it's already grown.

In the first couple weeks of a garden, any garden, what you've got is a bunch of tiny little sprouty things that may be your cucumbers, but they may also be milkweeds, milkweeds being a kind of plant that grew in the woods behind my house when we were growing up. They were great: they were weeds that had a gross sticky milky kind of sap in them and if you were good enough you could get some of them to burst on your friends and they'd have gunk on them and you could laugh at them. They don't have milkweeds, anymore, that I know of. I haven't seen any in years. That's progress for you.

Which means that when you go ou
t to weed in those first couple weeks of the garden, you're just guessing and you know it. You gardeners are just going out there and pulling things that seem to be a little out of order or maybe just at random, and pretending that it's all a science, but you're not fooling me.

The problem is even worse for someone like me, who got 98% of his scientific knowledge from Cracked magazine. (The other 2% came from my 11th grade chemistry teacher, Mr Hassemer, who taught us that the greatest invention mankind had ever come up with was the "blood groove" on an arrow, because it let the animal primitive man was shooting bleed while it ran, so that the primitive man could track the animal and it would die without a second shot.)

(Yes. We learned that in chemistry.

Cracked magazine and Mr Hassemer were not especially helpful on subjects that might be useful if you want to be a gardener and/or be able to rebuild civilization after an apocalypse, like "the difference between a pumpkin vine and a dandelion", and while my mom tried desperately to teach me about weeds so that I would quit pulling up her rose bushes in an attempt to get out of weeding and go back to reading Cracked, even she gave up, eventually settling on this piece of wisdom:

A weed is just a plant growing where you don't want it to grow.

Mom, bless her soul, probably had no idea how liberating that idea would be for me: If I want plants to grow everywhere, then nothing is a weed!

(Nothing is a weed is also as good a motto as any.)

With that one sentence, Mom freed me from ever weeding again, because my perennial garden-yard and Mr Bunches' V
ictory Garden were both supposed to be entirely filled with plants, and so whatever plants grow there, that's all right with me.

is how I was able to justify not ever taking care of Mr Bunches' Victory Garden after that first night: Not only was it not economical to put any effort into it (given that we would never eat the plants anyway) but also I wanted plants to grow there, and so weeding would simply be counterproductive -- it would be the opposite of gardening, to go out there and pull plants from where I wanted them.

And I am happy to report that Mr Bunches' Victory Garden is growing swell, thank you. It wasn't two days before plants started cropping up in that area. Granted, most of them looked a lot like the plants that we'd spent all that time mowing down and turning over and removing, but some of them looked like maybe they were newcomers to the area. There is a little line of plants that probably are sunflowers, althoug
h I can't be sure because after I placed all the little sticks with all the little packets carefully taped on to them, Mr Bunches then went through and pulled up all the little sticks with little packets carefully taped on to them and threw them on the path where he'd thrown the dirt, so I had to replace them going by memory, and that was hard because I hadn't been really paying attention the first time around.

That uncertainty didn't stop me from making Sweetie look out our window -- she tries not to actually go into the backyard; I
think it depresses her -- to see what I declared was a row of sunflowers, which I said would eventually be almost as tall as me and would highlight the backyard with their bright, cheery demeanor.

Sweetie acted dutifully impressed by my and Mr Bunches' gardening ability, although honestly, she could have been a little more excited about it. In retrospect, instead of painting her a mental image of a row of sunflowers outside our back window, I probably could've gotten her attention more by pretending that what would soon be growing in our yard would be this:

Still not actually me.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

This almost NEVER happens on a Date In Public. (The Great Ranking Of Problems.)

The other night, Sweetie and I had a "Date At Home," which is where we do all the stuff we'd do on a date only we never leave the house; Date At Home's are great if you have hyper 4-year-olds and difficulty tracking down your older kids to arrange for a babysitter on short notice, which this was, as I'd only proposed the Date At Home on Wednesday or Thursday.

So our Date At Home was this: We'd order in pizza, which we hadn't done in a while (and which would constitute the second, or maybe third, time we'd have pizza for dinner that week) and watch the movie Battle Los Angeles, which we'd both decided we wanted to see when it came up repeatedly on previews for other movies we'd recently watched.

We'd also, we decided, put Mr F and Mr Bunches to bed early, so that we weren't eating pizza at 9 p.m.

At 7:30 on Saturday night, then, the twins were secured in their bedroom watching, I don't know, some movie or other. I can't keep track of them all. We had our pizza, and I was preparing to take all the fixin's and the movie upstairs to watch in our bedroom when Sweetie surprised me:

"Let's watch the movie downstairs," she suggested.

That surprised me because Sweetie never wants to watch TV downstairs. I assumed that Sweetie hated the downstairs, something that always made me sad because downstairs is where we have the Big TV, and I do mean Big; it's a projection TV that has something like a 65" screen, a TV that we only own because in the Year We Had Money (which was a long time ago) we found a huge sale on this TV at Circuit City, which has subsequently gone out of business, and so we got this TV for something like 15% of its real cost.

That doesn't stop people who see it -- the rare person who gets past our defenses and enters our house -- from commenting on how big the TV is and how rich we must be to own it. Those people ignore the fact that the TV is surrounded by furniture which was obviously bought secondhand or on clearance, furniture like "Frankencouch," the existence of which clearly shows that (a) I have no taste and (b) we only buy furniture when it's extremely on sale.

We almost never watch TV downstairs, though, because Sweetie got accustomed to watching TV in our bedroom when she was pregnant with the Twins, and also because there's no air conditioning downstairs, and also because for most of the past two years, The Boy watched TV downstairs and so going down there meant you might accidentally expose a motherload of surliness that would detonate into complaints about having to take out the garbage.

I don't think that Sweetie and I had watched TV together downstairs on the big/good TV in probably two years, except when I duressed her into it by suggesting that if she was part of the family, she'd come watch Wipeout with me and Mr Bunches while Mr F jumped on his trampoline, and except the time we all risked surliness and watched the Super Bowl together.

So I was surprised by her offer to watch the movie downstairs, but after ascertaining that she was serious and not under duress -- duress being bad for Dates -- I went downstairs to hook up the DVD player.

That was necessary because one of the 23 billion cords that our house contains had stopped working the other day, and this is where the Problem comes in, and that requires a little more explanation.

We have a DVD player, and a satellite receiver, hooked up to the Big TV downstairs. Each attaches to the TV with a cord and the cords are, more or less, identical.

On Tuesday, Sweetie had said the receiver wasn't working, and so I went down to look at it. Sweetie frequently dispatches me to look at things, as husbands are the first line of defense in any household for any problem, with problems ranging from

-- "Ewww, what's that thing?" (a situation where I must identify the thing. This week's things have included "an old stuffed mouse toy that the cats left behind and which was under the stove" and "a cicada on the screen door" and "a potato that I found in the cupboard and put in a glass of water so that I could plant it in the garden")


-- The toilet is plugged (wherein I try to stick a coat hanger down to fish out whatever toy has been flushed down it, until we break down and call a plumber)


-- Various electrical/electronic devices aren't working, which was the Tuesday Problem.

Using my full liberal arts education, I unplugged and re-plugged the cords several times, because what else can I do? I don't know anything about electronics. If I opened up the DVD player and saw either that little Flintstones bird in there, or a tiny wizard, or nothing, it would all be the same to me -- and probably make more sense than the actual inner workings of that player.

Unplugging and replugging the cords did nothing, and I was about to call it a day, when I had a stroke of genius: check and see if it was the cords, and not the devices, which were the problem.

So, leaving each cord plugged into the back of the TV, I simply switched where they went. Cord A, which had been plugged into the DVD player, got plugged into the receiver, while Cord B switched places, too.

With that, the receiver worked, and the DVD player did not -- so my experiment had worked and decades of college had not been wasted. I told Sweetie we'd have to get a new cord and that I'd do that that weekend, but until then, I said, "Just switch the cords depending on what you want to use" and I showed her how to do that, switching the good cord back and forth.

That's important to keep in mind: I switched the good cord back and forth. Remember that as we go back to Saturday night, when I've now got my pizza and my movie and my Date/Wife, and I'm also excited because we're going to watch it on the big TV and that never happens, and I go downstairs to switch the cords...

... and I can't.

The good cord-- which, mind you, was connected to the DVD player all its life up until Tuesday night -- would not plug into the DVD player.

I'm not even kidding.

I could not get it to plug in.

Did you ever pull out a pair of pants that you hadn't worn for a while and they used to fit but now they just won't button and you're mystified why that is? Me, too -- I can't figure that out.

That's what happened with this cord. All its life, it had been plugged into the DVD player. But in the four days that it had been plugged into the receiver, it had somehow changed its dimensions subtly, and now would not plug back into the DVD player.

I tried for 20 minutes, saying all kinds of magical incantations like "But I took it off of here on Tuesday!" and getting Sweetie to agree with me that I'd done so -- in case the cord was listening, so it would know we were on to it and it might as well give up its little trick and plug into the DVD player.

But in the end, I could not convince the cord to change its mind and go back with its previous BFF; and in the end, we had to watch the movie upstairs after all, although I dealt with the disappointment gracefully, and still managed to eat about half a pizza.

But that is the latest addition to the Great Ranking Of Problems:


Who needs 'em? Am I right?

I'm going to rank cords very high up. Even above shower spiders, which previously held the highest-rank on this as-yet-unfinished list. So,

Cords, you are ranked at number 17.

Prior entries on The Great Ranking Of Problems:

17. Cords.

20. Shower spiders.

72. The pen ran dry midway through my signature (legal documents)

Family members imposing their diets on me

99: Spousal PB&J Incompatibility.

100. Sweetie's advice to wear a sports bra while running.

103. Mail being delivered at the wrong time of the day.

173: Preshoveling & reshoveling snow.

What to do about stuff I was going to buy but then it broke in the store and now I still want to buy the stuff but I don't want to buy something that was broken?

413: Guilt Over Meanness To Sentient Paperclips
. . .
502: Having to wait forever, seemingly, for Italian food to cool down.
. . .

721: Printer not holding a lot of paper at once.
2,624: Unidentifiable Mystery Song Stuck In Head.
5,000: Lopsided Nail Clipping.
7,399: Potato(E?)s?

. . .

8.766: Uncertainty over how long my magazine subscriptions last.

13,334: The pen ran dry midway through my signature (signing stuff that doesn't really matter at all, so why am I signing it?)

14,452: Worrying that there's too much peanut brittle leftover to eat before it goes bad.
15,451: Almost napping.
22,372: Having hair which isn't quite a definable color.
22,373: Having too many songs on an iPod

22,374: My iPod won't let me skip songs while running.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


I have a little bit of a confession to make, in the interests of SCIENCE. The pictures for day 49 of TWINKIE WATCH -- pictures like this one:

Were actually taken on Day 42 -- last Sunday. I took them that day when Mr F and Mr Bunches and I went to the office, as we always do, and I was going to post them last Sunday, but then one thing led to another, as one things tend to do when left to their own devices, and suddenly here it was, not last Sunday anymore, but this Sunday, and I hadn't posted those pictures, all week (or the pictures I took on the rest of the days, which I didn't post because I hadn't posted these yet, and so I didn't want to do this all out of order and make everyone confused.

But I can post Day 42 pictures and call them Day 49 pictures because, trust me on this, the Twinkie is unchanged from last week; when the twins and I went into the office today, there had been no change in the Twinkie from last week (0r control group), and so I took pictures but then I thought "Hey, I took pictures last week, and they were better," which they were, because last week, Mr Bunches was interested in playing with the Twinkie -- as shown by that above picture and by this close-up, where you can clearly see he's holding it while he plays trains:

And he did play with it -- he flew it like a jet plane and crashed it at one point.

Whereas this week, Mr Bunches was interested only in playing with his train set, which we brought with us in a special clear backpack that I'd set up just for that exact purpose, making that a great plan -- he enjoyed bringing the train in, and it kept him busy and he had a great time, which made that perhaps the pinnacle of my parenting thus far, and I'd have enjoyed that except that Mr F was in a rambunctious mood today and spent most of his time trying to dump my coffee.

He eventually succeeded in doing that, spilling my coffee onto the chair I keep in my office for when coworkers or clients or clerks are in there (I work with an alliterative set of people), and then sitting in it and getting his butt wet, which then caused him to take off his pants and be naked from the waist down while his shorts dried, and how could I argue with that?

So with all the pantslessness and trains, I opted to post last week's pictures and call them this week's pictures, because that's SCIENCE.

Also SCIENCE? This:

That's the other picture I took in my office today. It's a heart sticker -- the pointy bottom of the heart is pointing left in that picture.

On Friday night, Mr Bunches was playing with valentines left over from the school year, because why not*

* Because why not is more or less my parenting motto. Try it yourself. It's amazing how freeing it is.

And he took the heart stickers and put them all over me and Sweetie. One, he put on my arm and I just left it there.

Then, I noticed yesterday in the shower that it was still there, and so I tried to avoid scrubbing it, and it lasted all through the day yesterday, including through my going jogging and showering again and including my date-at-home with Sweetie**

** a date-at-home is when you put the kids to bed early and order a pizza and watch a movie while you eat that pizza and the kids hopefully stay asleep and calm, only our kids never do that but it was still pretty fun.

and then it stayed on while we went to the office and then it stayed on through the water fight outside with the hose and even lasted through our trip to McDonald's to get Mr F some french fries and Mr Bunches an ice cream cone he wouldn't eat and a large Coke he would:

And it's still there now and I'll miss it a little when it's gone.

So what does all this tell us about SCIENCE?

1. That Twinkies really do have a remarkable staying power.

2. That I likely have the power to make things last forever if I care enough about them, kind of like how people kept Tink alive by clapping, only without the clapping.

And, most amazingly and SCIENCE-y:

3. At the end of this experiment, I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to take a bite of that Twinkie.

I mean, don't you think that's the next step?

Day 38 here.