Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Resuming the Job Search, Or, Getting My Ego Tromped - Round Two

You may call it "Back-to-School" season; this year, I call it "Back-to-the-Job-Search" season. Or, if I'm may politely rant, the "Back-to-Being-Rejected" season.

Looking for a job last fall and winter was a fruitless and demoralizing exercise, so needless to say, I am not looking forward to JobSearch 2.0, which is actually already in progress.

I thought that I had an acceptable skillset, which, combined with my Holy Grail of attributes, the College Degree, made me a "catch" for anyone looking to hire a mature, reliable employee. I expected it would be difficult to get a good job, but I thought I was well-qualified to land an entry-level position doing something useful.

Reviewing the stats and outcome for JobSearch 2012, that did not end up being the case. Whether flooding cyberspace with my resume, performing a targeted application operation or just networking like crazy, the rejection notices piled up at an alarming rate. Other than offers to sell speculative products on commission or buying an expensive set-up kit to start my own business, none of my efforts panned out. The few interviews I managed to snag always felt so promising - I left feeling liked, respected and confident that I was in the running. Obviously, those jobs went to others. Follow-up efforts to discover what I could improve upon yielded only the confusing information that I was "fine," but the one who got the job was just "better." Qualified, that is.

I went back to square one several times in the waning months of 2012, but as the calendar got busier, I got more discouraged and suspended my search. Odd jobs and small writing opportunities led to a trickle of cash, making it easy to forget that I needed to be looking for something to produce a regular income.

So as back-to-school season is here, I find myself in back-to-job-search season as well. The daughter whose impending college costs were the motivation for the first serious gonzo job search is now just days from leaving to begin her freshman year. Her hard work and determination, in school and in our community, led to her receiving a large academic scholarship and some very, very generous graduation gifts, meaning Year One is costing us less than we'd originally expected. But, given the escalating cost of living, a second child to send to college in a few years, and the many other factors that strain our budget, I really need to land a steady job.

Therefore, I've re-entered the job-searching community, but this time I'm going to have to learn to leave my ego in the locker room. I need to learn to look at the competitive activity of applying for a job with a sports mentality, where "You win some, you lose some" is an acceptable and comforting answer to a long losing streak.

Why, just this morning, I received my first robo-rejection letter to kick off the new season. Six slow-moving tears and one drippy sniffle later and I was done with today's anguish over my prospects. I was judged by my online resume and a computerized sales personality assessment, and was found to be inadequate to work in a retail office products establishment.

I would aim lower if I only knew how.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Greetings From Planet Spam

As an intermittent blogger who can't seem to get on a regular publishing schedule, I sometimes go weeks (months) without looking at the "dashboard" of this blog. Sometimes I'll pop on the site just to jot down some note for an article I'd like to write, when time permits. Other times I may look through old drafts, trying to breathe new life into an idea which lost appeal, or lost out in the daily time lottery around here. Usually the effort of slogging through several hundred writing attempts that never made publishing grade is agonizing enough to make me close the tab in discouragement. Rarely do I look around behind the scenes and see what kind of traffic has been visiting here at Polite Ravings.

But for some reason, a few days ago, I decided to poke around the stats pages. It was nice to see that, whether I post new material or not, there are still a few people finding me and reading a bit. Of course, since some of those new readers are finding me on some Uzbekistan google channel, I have a feeling that my wit and charm are lost on them. And God love Lego fans. I posted just two articles mentioning Legos, but, perhaps due to the frequency with which I used popular search terms (Legos, ninjago), that post stills get lots of hits, and occasionally a total stranger (and Lego fan) will comment on the old article.

While reading the comments, I noticed a tab that I don't remember noticing before. It was more like a button and and said "Spam." I wasn't sure what to expect, since the only spam I know about is the crazy list of email messages I dump periodically, with subject lines that promise to share Kim Kardashian's diet secrets, Katy Perry's eyelash secrets, and an a variety of unnamed secrets involving the word "enlarge." I've never known where spam comes from, and I don't know how spam finds my email account. All I really know about spam is that it is to be avoided. It's bad, and I should never open anything that looks suspicious because that can lead to more spam. 

So, I wondered, should I click the "Spam" button on the comments page and see if my blog is getting enlargement offers?

I clicked. I looked. I laughed! This was a different kind of spam. Turns out, there are many bloggers out there who are even more desperate to find readers than I am. The techies who advise bloggers on increasing traffic have evidently designed a formula for "mutual admiration spam" (my invented term - can someone design a cute piece of clip art with that phrase on it? We can share the royalties.)  I'm guessing this process involves the ambitious blogger conducting searches for terms that relate to their blogs, and when they find another blog that uses similar terms, they send a "comment." I say "send a comment," which is probably pretty naive, since I imagine these are computer-generated comments of some kind. They must be, because they are so horribly worded, cobbling together some thin reference to a search term in my blog, paired with praise for my blog in general, then, (the big payoff to these spammers) a link back to their website.

This may not sound interesting, but when I share some of the garbled messages you will understand why I had to bring this to the attention of my dedicated readers. These comments are some kind of human/computer hybrid-speak...a kind of new, helpless and witless language for peddling your product while reaching out to strangers. It's reminiscent of credit card offers for dogs or the deceased. Here is an example of what I'm talking about, in response to my post entitled To Your Health! 

"Asking questions are really pleasant thing if you aren't understanding something completely, except this post provides good understanding even. My homepage..."

I used this example first because it is the most recent and it fits the generic pattern. There are literally hundreds of variations on this theme - or there were until I deleted them. Many of the comments are in response to that particular blog post, which is tagged for aging and health, and therefore draws more general search traffic. Since a large number of spam comments read very similar to the one above, that suggests to me that there is some formula for creating this kind of fake response while sneaking in a link to another blog. I'm very glad that Blogger weeds these out, since there are hundreds more of these spam comments than there are real ones!

But let me share a few of the more humorous fake compliments for my blog. They are so touching in their utter lack of sincerity:

"You make running a blog look easy. The overall look of your web site is fantastic, let alone the content material!"

"Content material" will make a good addition to the Repetitive Redundancies file. And yes, dear reader, it is easy to run a blog when you forget about it for months on end! There are dead and expired gadgets everywhere...this joker never took a peek.

Here's another example of an extravagant compliment for my blog, written by someone/ something who/that clearly has not glanced at my bare-bones effort at design:

"Wow, amazing weblog structure! How lengthy have you been running a blog for?"

or this over-the-top analysis:

"Its an amazing post in favor of all the web visitors; they will get benefit from it I am sure. Feel free to surf my site..."

I know it is tempting to think the writer is just someone for whom English is not their main language. But after reading pages and pages of these, a pattern emerges that suggests the spam comment formula works something like this:
Compliment site feature
+ mention sharing blog post
+ state benefit to web audience
+ add link to own website

= instant anonymous comment

Here's one of many that fit that boring pattern but made me chuckle:

"Excellent post...I'll certainly digg it and ...reccommend it to my friend...I confident they'll be benefitted from this web site. Please check out my website..."

(Note that the writer chose two different spellings for the same term in this brief message.)

Several comments mention the importance of the issue I'm writing about and compliment my great research or excellent insight into this concern. If they didn't end with a pitch for their website, which is unrelated in any way to the post, I'd probably be fooled and touched by those comments. But here's an example of a comment attached to my fluffy, 95% content-free post called Say It With Flowers:

"Excellent research of your blog. This paragraph is genuinely a pleasant one it helps new internet viewers who are wishing in favor of blogging. See my site at..."

Since the post contained photos of flowers and plants around my house, I'm not sure how it helped "new internet viewers." But the research - there's no research, there is just a map and a fake calendar charting my interpretation of Gulf Coast weather! Could it be that a webcrawler service found this chart and identified it as weather research? That is rather chilling, isn't it? Someone could be quoting my "research" right now, in a speech or paper citing more definitive proof of global warming. Who knows?

Likewise, several of the comments to To Your Health! mentioned they would put a link on their website back to my post. I don't know if anyone remembers that blog, but it began with another of my lame charts designed to look like a pop-psych "test" to help the reader discover hidden signs of diseases. It is satire! I'm a housewife, not a doctor, but look at this sample comment:

"I think this is among the most important information for me. And I am glad reading your article. This will mean much better for the website viewer and reader. I show articles and sell the weight loss on..."

As I look at these comments, I'm very glad I didn't stumble on them sooner. When I began my blogging efforts, I was desperate for feedback, any feedback. I would have lapped up this eloquent but confusing comment for Am I a Hoarder? when I published it back in 2011:

"Ahaa, its fastidious dialogue concerning this article at this place at this website. I have read all that, so now me also commenting here. Visit my website at..."

I gather this writer missed the point about the fill-in-the-blank method of creating convincingly sincere spam. 

If you are wondering why I didn't just cut and paste these comments in their entirety, Blogger doesn't allow that. When I tried to highlight text, I was prevented from doing anything except deleting the entire post or converting it to "not spam." That meant I had to hand-write all the entries I wanted to quote, then type them into this post. Can you imagine how hard it was for me to write and type these errors and misspellings - twice? But I guess that policy protects all of us from being maliciously quoted or used as spam against others. And perhaps by quoting them I'm breaking some fine-print clause in the Terms and Agreements for Blogger use. But I love bad writing, I love the folly of people trying to pretend they like something they've never seen, and I am enjoying learning about how web traffic and back-linking really works. So I had to share these amusing comments, just as I always want to share bad writing, wherever I find it.

And I saved my favorite for last, because I am not entirely sure it is spam. The writer links to a website that is actually related to the post topic (health), and after the obligatory compliment for the layout and content, the writer makes an interesting point:

"I do have a couple of questions? for you if you tend not to mind. Is it only me or does it seem like a few of these responses come across like coming from brain dead folk: :-P"

Hey, keep them coming.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

From the Old, Old Scrap Paper File - Installment 1

I'm beginning to suspect that I'm not going to be able to compile the definitive compendium of spelling errors. Collecting the glaring flaws of others and exposing them to ridicule and derisive comments is extremely fun and rewarding, but not enough so that I can dedicate myself to the task full-time.

Back when I thought I might produce such a reference, I attempted to collect examples of spelling mistakes. I employed the same rigorous data management system as my mother, which is a simple two-step plan for keeping track of anything:

1. Write it down on a scrap of paper
2. Put paper in the nearest stack

After years of following this system, I can honestly say that I've collected a mass of yellowing   scraps of paper in various piles. As I've mentioned before, the traditional way I deal with piles around here is following an avoidance-based strategy. When the pile gets too tall, I put in a recycled envelope or file folder, which I forget to label, and stick it in a drawer.

A couple of years ago, I created a file folder with pockets, so that I'd have a "central data storage facility" for my humorous misspellings collection. For example, I was sorting through an old box marked "Important Documents," and wondered why I saved a dentist's bill from 1992, only to discover the word "parapathetic" scrawled in the margin. Oh, goody - I have a file for that now!

Of course, that file has been moved from pile to pile until I was forced to deal with it. Like almost everything relating to my writing efforts, the file was part of a growing mound of paper on my desk.

But here - from the old paper archives that will soon become a digitized file whose name I'll promptly forget - here is the first installment in my collection of funny phrases, misspellings and word-mangling that I've "witnessed" first-hand.

This Saturday - be here early for our Eminent Garage Sale

The dresser draws are crocked and some of the pules are misssing.

She did a nosedive to the pavement, and landed feet-first.

All entrees come with two sides and a biscuit, accept pasta.

He was a nice boss and more or less precise in what he asked me to do.

Four times I paid that bill, and four times the check bounced.

I slept so bad I wish I'd just gotten drunk instead.

The stroller is desined for twins, but you could sqeeze a triplets in there.

All Eden ever wanted was the love of a good man that she never got from her father.

The players were all on the field...every last one of them...except the ones who were on the bench.

Bike for sale. No seat. Tire a little bent. Burgundy with white handelbars and petals. $50 or trade for a barbie makeup head.

Lowest prices of the season! Save up to 50% and more!

For sale: 2 tickets to the premere of "Cats" at the Mobile Municipal Aud. Opening night. Wife died and I didn't really want to go.

My heart is split in half. Part of me still loves you, part of me isn't sure, and part of me hates your guts.

If you can do math, you can do fractions. It's almost the same.

And with that, I'll leave you to proof this blog and point out my errors :)

I'm To Blame

(Author's Note: I began writing this on the morning after the 2012 Presidential election. Writer's block took over and I have not been able to find my voice until today, January 10, 2013. This is pieced together from two days that were only two months apart in time, but a world apart in mood and mindset.)

Over the years I've had many arguments about politics. It started at the dinner table, when I, an impressionable teen and my father, a close-minded  redneck (as I thought then) would come to blows over some new, radical idea I'd read, or heard about at school.

We would argue, and it often got unpleasant for the rest of the family, but I never thought it was wrong to argue about these matters. They seemed like important conversations, even though I usually left feeling young, stupid and thoroughly confused.

I remember reading an article in Reader's Digest in about 1977. It was about Ted Kennedy's son, who had his leg amputated because of cancer, I believe. The pictures showed a handsome teenage boy, a beautiful family, and told of young Edward's plucky courage and positive attitude. I came to the dinner table with the heartwarming story of this newest tragedy in the long list of family tragedies, and how Senator Kennedy seemed like such a good man. I was especially intrigued by his pet issue of socialized medicine.

All of my sisters probably remember that dinner and his reaction. It was explosive. My father ranted at my shallow, uninformed opinions and the abysmal state of education, when a reasonably bright girl could be fed a dose of pure Communism and not even be aware of it. I, knowing he was right about the shallow and uninformed part, continued to defend the principle of helping the poor and trying to prevent the future predicted by the senator, when people would be dying in the streets of treatable conditions, while doctors chose to only treat those with insurance.

I'm sure I had other heated discussions about politics and social issues in my youth, but this is the one that I remember best. I remember even better a few weeks later, at a larger family dinner at my grandmother's home, when I tried to broach the subject with my mother's parents and brothers present (I naively thought they would be sympathetic to my cause). I remember that my father wasn't present - another inducement to launch into my "new" idea.

I think I said something totally objective, as in: "I think the country's problems would be solved if we only had socialized medicine."

Was I in for a surprise when my beloved grandmother spoke first: "Michele, let's not discuss politics at the dinner table."

Pardon? If not at the dinner table, then when? I thought. Conversation moved on to other matters, like Auburn football and who had seen whom at church and other more important matters.

Dinner broke up, the women went into the kitchen and the men took over the dinner table. Eschewing the card games and dominoes on the living room floor, I boldly marched my 13 year-old self up to the table and started listening to my Uncle Howard telling a story about someone who left their truck gate open after filling the bed with watermelons. One of the most entertaining storytellers of all time, I waited until he was done, then jumped into the conversation.

"So, don't y'all think Ted Kennedy is right about socialized medicine?"

Another uncle, one of my mother's younger brothers, made a pained face and looked down at his hands. Yet another uncle, who had gone through a brief hippie phase and seemed at the time a potential ally, stared at me blankly. Uncle Howard cleared his throat and adjusted uncomfortably in his chair. And the first response to my question came from the unlikeliest person, my granddaddy. With me he was always kind and  encouraging, although I knew he had a bit of a temper. With no sign of irritation, however, he looked right at me and said, mildly:

"My-chele, it's considered rude to discuss politics and religion in company."

Being called "rude" in my grandmother's house was the stuff of nightmares. He didn't say I was rude, but he implied that my desire to discuss politics was, and the effect was the same. I was horribly ashamed and spent   the rest of the afternoon quietly (probably a first) pouting.

By the time I reached college I'd decided that the rule of polite society - the one that dictated that arguing about politics and religion was bad form - was just a bad rule. Debating with friend and classmates led to some of the most exciting and satisfying conversations of my early adulthood.

But in recent years, I've become reluctant to engage in those satisfying arguments with other adults. Too many times in the past few years, I've had friends and acquaintances react to my statements of opinion with derisive statements indicating that, since they disagreed, it would be rude for me to continue. In the interest of "live and let live" and "don't make waves," I saved my choicest statements for the captive audience at home - my children.

Many people are unable to tolerate opposing views being aired too close to their own safe space. I was given the cold-shoulder treatment at a neighborhood gathering by answering a direct question about who I was supporting in the presidential primaries. When I asked the man later why he drifted away, if he was uncomfortable discussing the election, he remarked something to the effect that politics had no place at happy hour. I defended myself by reminding him that I'd answered a question, not solicited his vote, but he said that it was all the same to him. Parties are supposed to be about fun, he said.

If that is true, then I hereby announce that I am not qualified to go to a party. If adults cannot listen to one another's opinions - on a wide range of matters, not just an election or a piece of legislation - then, in my book, they are not truly adults.I marvel that people who can have extensive, restrained discussion and disagreements about the relative strengths and weaknesses of their favorite or their least-favorite sports team, reject the idea that people can also have extensive, restrained discussions and disagreements about matters of policy or philosophy. But I digress, as usual.

Ultimately, in the name of getting along with a wide range of people, I have often bit my tongue rather than pick up the thread of a discussion and try to take it to the next level of analysis. Few people who know me well are unaware of my opinions and the thought processes I employ to arrive at them, but I don't always say what I'm thinking or try to convince another to think differently. This blog was, at one time, a place where I spoke freely, but even this platform was not safe from the slings and arrows and social consequences.

So keeping my mouth shut hasn't helped me, and it clearly didn't help advance my views in the last election. Like a coward, after being de-friended, literally and figuratively, I piped down for a while. Let the politicians, journalists and opinion-makers reach the confused masses and help Joe and Jan Q Public see what should be done to reverse the terrifying course sown which our government is taking our country. The politicians, journalists and opinion-makers are probably better insulated from the ill-will of their critics. I found I was too cowardly to become a true social pariah.

That was a mistake. My silence, my "keep your own counsel" attitude that so many others adopted as well, was one of many reasons why President Obama was re-elected. In my effort to protect my children from having a mother with enemies for neighbors set the worst kind of example for the very ones I thought to protect.

If all I cared about was social standing, this would already be a tragedy. But new friends appear, new books re-inspire, and children often tell you the truth about yourself when you least expect it.

The real tragedy is not fighting to save this country, my country and yours, for our children. I didn't campaign for or against issues that matter to me and will greatly impact their future. I didn't use my God-given talents or resources to try to reach others and perhaps give them something new to think about. I truly feel responsible for the outcome of the election. I have to answer to my children for my silence and passivity, while they look forward to a future that practically promises them a lifetime of uncertainty and insecurity.

The election amounted to nothing. We have the same president, committed to spending our way out of certain disaster, and a split congress intent on protecting their own hides while they dodge their responsibilities with more energy than they ever spend doing their jobs. As the "fiscal cliff" approached, leaders proposed turns and detours, but no meaningful, permanent changes of any sort that would help to avoid very bad economic policies from  bearing toxic fruit.

I may suffer, you may suffer, but we voted for this. Or by not voting, we let it happen
But it is our kids will pay. They will pay when our federal debt becomes unserviceable. They will pay when the safety net programs, like Social Security and Medicare, go broke, and their generation has to support a huge, aging population by some means we can't even guess at now. They will pay with lost opportunities, as America continues to lose it's hold on global economic leadership. They will pay by never knowing the value of the capitalist principles that once made us a great nation of creators who were also workers, and workers who were encouraged to be more. The will pay by coming of age in a world where their capabilities are never tested, because government has told them that they will take care of them; government will educate them, give them a computer and a cell phone, underwrite their housing, pay for their health care, and if they still fail, government will give them more aid, and foot the bill for their inevitable mistakes. No need to learn how to work hard or take care of themselves - that's a useless, old-school way of thinking.

They will pay by never knowing the meaning of American exceptionalism. The concept has been deemed offensive, not taking into account the feelings of people who didn't succeed. They will pay because the social justice activists succeeded in appealing to our Christian charity and sense of right and wrong, and declared that the innovators and builders and creators and risk-takers were evil and just as dependent on the government as the welfare recipient.

Our kids will pay by growing up in an America that is not about hard work, or achieving difficult goals, or defending individual liberty, or respect for privacy on personal matters, or working through tough times by changing the behavior that got you there, or honoring the Constitution as the best instrument of social justice ever created.

My kids will pay because I chose to be silent. I let a little social disapproval stop me from speaking from my brain and my heart. I have helped deliver them into a future that is very, very different from the one I would have chose for them. My desire not to offend friends or cross swords with people I care about has not served me well. No friendship is worth the sense of guilt I feel toward my children. Any argument, no matter how unpleasant, is better than the shame I feel today for not working harder to prevent this outcome.

I held my tongue and silenced my blog because I didn't think it mattered. I didn't think the country would vote to continue the policies and actions that have sent us speeding toward this social and financial precipice. I didn't think you needed me to tell you what is patently obvious about the state of the world - that the change we needed isn't the change we got. I figured everyone knew that, and would vote in accordance with that knowledge. It also hurt to be called a racist for opposing the president's policies. I don't think that opposing the bad policies of the president makes me racist. But being called one hurt me, showing how thin-skinned I really am. I know I'm not racist, but if I offend like one, then I'm better off just keeping quiet.
My fear was stronger than my commitment. The fear of being called a tea-bagger and a right-wing Christian extremist for my views on the second amendment and the sanctity of life were stronger than my commitment to those views. Even though I never took part in any tea party activities and don't deserve the title of Christian or extremist, the brush is very broad in the name-calling business, and I feared being labeled and having that label reflect badly on my kids.

Well, I'm still not sure if I am strong enough to handle the criticism, but I will blog again, and I'll blog honestly. That means that Polite Ravings will be about what I want it to be. If I want to write about housework and stupid dogs, I will. If I want to write about news and politics, I will. If I start out writing as the Domestic Diva and end up sounding like Chicken Little, it's my blog and I don't have to be the ditzy, disorganized housewife every time I take it in my head to write. If freeze-dried journalists and Kardashians can broadcast their opinions, so can ditzy housewives.

To the friends and family who don't like Polite Ravings with my strong opinions and critical judgments of current events, do yourself a favor and don't read me anymore. I won't be trying to spare your feelings or apologize for mine. I welcome your comments of disagreement, and would enjoy them even more in person, perhaps around a dinner table with a good bottle of wine at the ready. I don't mind being called wrong. Just don't tell me what to write, or not to put it on Facebook, or suggest that you would read my writing, if only I would just remain light and humorous all the time. Here's your PSA: I won't.

And to the children, mine and yours, who are inheriting this mess, and the future we gambled and lost with a check written on their future earnings, I can only say Mea culpa and I'm very, very sorry.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Say It With Flowers

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, summer arrived a week or two after spring, which generally started a few days after Valentine's Day (although you could often get a tan while it was officially winter, if you had some "sick" days saved up).

In case that explanation makes no sense, what I'm trying to say is that, by early June, it's blasted hot and wicked humid in my hometown. The high temperatures start hitting the 90s in April and don't drop back to the 80s until September or later. The humidity is suffocating for most of the year, even in winter (Jan 1 - Feb 15), when 50% humidity makes a 45 degree day feel like a bone-chilling weather emergency.

Departing from the real topic of today's discussion, allow me to show you the calendar I developed during a recent bout of ADD, which clearly describes the type of climate I'm describing, in simple yet technical terms:
















That's south Alabama weather. I enjoyed it for 34 years before moving to central Indiana to discover why we were taught about four season in grade school. There really are four seasons, and we get to experience them all in Indiana.

In my hometown, spring is a beautiful explosion of color, as the azaleas, camellias and dogwoods put on a spectacular show. I've never seen anything to rival Fairhope, Alabama in full bloom. Between the trees lining the streets that lead in and out of town, and the hanging flower baskets on all the downtown corners, it's one of the prettiest places you'll see in spring. But owing to the sub-tropical latitude, this profusion of flora is rather short-lived, quickly followed by heat and humidity so stifling, only a masochist would voluntarily go outdoors to see the flowers after Memorial Day.

Emerging crocus - the first bloomer in my yard
But my adopted home knows how to do spring. Our winters are pretty harsh, but that just makes the arrival of spring more momentous. First, the bulbs start sprouting - crocuses, daffodils, tulips, followed soon after by shoots from hyacinth and irises. Early and late bloomers stagger the color over the course of a few weeks, while we await the end of snow, the last freeze and the greening of the grass.

Early spring view of the backyard, just starting to go green

Some people have huge clumps of spring flowers in bloom, enough to cut for big bouquets indoors and still have great color outdoors. I never seem to get that volume of blooms, and have to decide whether to leave them out or cut and bring them in to enjoy. I usually cut all my blooms, unable to stand the knowledge that they are in the yard where passersby can enjoy them, but I can't. I ascribe to the selfish gratification school of thought - they are my flowers, so I should get to enjoy them.
Spring flowers in a special vase set crafted by Lynne Tan

Summer blooms in my yard begin with the prolific daylilies. I have several colors and varieties, and their aggressive spreading helps fill in the inevitable voids after the spring bulbs are nothing but droopy green and brown leaves.

Some years I plant lots of annuals, like vinca, impatience, geraniums, begonias, petunias, celosia and other splashes of color and texture. I always use hanging baskets on the front and screened porches, plus I usually have some potted herbs each year for my culinary requirements. I enjoy dirt and digging, so I almost always feel compelled to put in some kind of bedding plants. But my real joy is perennials. I love knowing that a plant that appeared to die away in the fall or with the first frost, was actually just biding its time beneath the surface, waiting for sunny days, rain and warmth to signal the time to re-emerge. 

In my early years of gardening, trial and error was my greatest teacher. If you've ever gone to a garden center with some money and ideas, but no experience or facts, you probably know what I mean. Some plants I learned early on to avoid: mint, pampas grass, trumpet vine, butterfly bush and English ivy, just to name a few.

I also had a lovely neighbor who was always giving me cuttings and transplants to "try." She had a way of making her backyard jungle look like a deliberately whimsical garden paradise, but I couldn't pull off that look. I just became an expert at the slash-and-burn method of mistake-management.

One plant I learned about in my old home in Columbus, IN was roses. The previous owner of our house had a gorgeous selection of roses planted in a bed along the back of the house. As I recall, there were ten or fifteen shrubs when we moved in, all with gorgeous leaves, enormous blooms and devoid of visible pests. A few short years later, I knew I was doing everything wrong, because the plants looked awful, except for the blooms. Despite extensive research, natural, organic and toxic solutions and even an attempt at hand-washing each individual leaf of the affected bushes, I decided that God intended my roses to be ugly, diseased producers of gorgeous blooms. It seemed that roses, while beautiful and unparalleled in the fragrance department, were not meant for the likes of gardeners like me.

More than a decade has passed since I first accepted that I would never be immortalized on canvas, wandering through my rose garden with a basket in the crook of my arm, looking like Elizabeth Bennet pondering her unceremonious rejection of Mr. Darcy's proposal. I would have to make do with less romantic, but more carefree blooms if I wanted to be a flower-gathering waif.
Coreopsis - in May and June I could gather a new bouquet every day

Azaleas in a flattened bottle vase over the kitchen sink

Among my floral successes I can count coreopsis, shasta daisy, azalea, columbine, snapdragon and clematis. With a couple of new beds in the works, I'm planning to add some aster and sedum for more fall color, and hope that the heirloom peonies start to give us some blooms next spring. After six years in this house, I feel I've begun to make some progress getting the flowers I love to bloom where they belong. 

A couple of years ago, in the fall, Eric and I ripped out some landscaping plants that had taken over the garden in front of our house. We planted some shrubs and an evergreen with an eye toward height, texture, camouflage and balance. We were immensely proud of our planning, budgeting and the immediate results. In a moment of weakness, I asked if we could try one of the knockout rose bushes that the nursery owner assured me was fool-proof, fail-proof and fun to grow. Eric got a look on his face that I normally associate with my bad perms of yesteryear, but he can't say no to me in public, so we got one.

Knockout roses growing up right next to the front porch

Carpet rose bunches are perfect for little vases in odd places,
like the powder room

I was disappointed by the anemic performance of the plant last year, and figured that I just had a black thumb where roses, even "Roses for Dummies" roses, are concerned. But this Dummy is also an optimist, which is why I asked for, and received, another rose for Mother's Day. It's still small, but it is already a pretty strong bloomer, which gave me the courage to grab another rosebush, this time in coral, from a end-of-season sale at a local greenhouse last month.

I thought I killed that plant by not getting it in the ground before we went on vacation. The week we were gone was the hottest of the summer and bone-dry, so the rose was a brown, crunchy, shriveled mess when we returned. I babied it, pruned it hard, watered it excessively and put it in some heavily-improved soil; it is recovering nicely so far.

Maybe next summer I'll have a picture
of this coral rose in bloom

But the "never give up on roses" thrill came this morning. In the driving rain, I walked onto the front porch, leaned over the railing without getting the least bit wet, and clipped this small, fragrant bouquet:

So far, 2012 has brought a mild winter and a warm spring, while late summer has felt, at times, like fall. Unseasonable weather can make me confused, but at least the plants in the garden are behaving nicely, reminding me that we are still in the season of sunshine and flowers.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Blog Olympics: Legos Beat Kardashians

I haven't been blogging much lately, for reasons that wouldn't interest anyone but the terminally bored. I've been involved in the normal range of activities that most people find manageable, but I, for some reason, don't. I've got the usual number of piles and projects deposited around the house in varying states of incompleteness, attesting to the fact that blogging hasn't lost out to productivity just yet.

I can't blame "not blogging" on the Olympics, either. I'm apparently a lousy American, because I barely watched 10 minutes total. And I followed the preparations in London like the sad Anglophile I am, thinking I'd finally watch "The Games" this year. I always think that, but then the coverage actually commences and I find I'm not interested. I watch highlights and recaps with the sound off, but beyond that, I'm content to look at Wheaties boxes to find out who won.

The competitive activity I've been glued to is the statistical analysis of my neglected blog. I have been trying to look at what I'm writing that "works," and what I post that falls flat. Blogger, the Google blogging platform I publish through, makes it very easy to analyze the impact of my writing. Studying my statistics, sparse as they are, is usually a pretty dull experience. As regular readers know, some months ago I attempted to build my readership by invoking the most trendy word I could think of: Kardashian. I used the name multiple times in a blog to see if the Google search insects would calculate that, based on the frequent appearance of such an important word (Kardashian), my article must be important and should therefore be featured high on any keyword search.

At least this is how savvy bloggers claim to get more traffic - choose trending keywords and execute careful keyword placement. So I gave it a go a few months back, writing not one, but two articles about the Kardashian phenomenon and how it has personally affected my family. If you missed them, the one about Eric's notorious extramarital affair with one or more Kardashians is here, while the recap of my blog's influence on the Kardashian's endorsement deal with Sears is covered here. Feel free to go back and read them, since you are really not missing much here.

Aaaaanyway, it was fun, and I'm sure a few random teenage girls stumbled on my blog before hurriedly clicking the "back" button, but other than a brief spike in hits on the day I published those two, I detected no lasting increase in traffic. I decided to let the Kardashians to go find another housewife to do their publicity. I was clearly not cut out for such a glamorous assignment.

So I went back to the tried-and-true philosophy of "Write What You Know," cranked out a few articles that were probably examples of better writing, but still my same predictable housewife schtick. Google Analytics showed very steady, undramatic charts and graphs to indicate a small dedicated readership, with only the occasional "Kardashian" search.

Real life continued to get in the way of meaningful writing, spring turned to summer, and one day I decided to look at my stats again, to see who or what was going on behind the scenes at "Polite Ravings" while I was ignoring it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a different Registered Trademark had overtaken the Kardashians in keyword search frequency in my traffic analytics? I'd always hoped the gushing odes to my Keurig or Dyson would finally draw in some random readers (or advertisers), but the magic product that attracted so much attention was one I don't even own:


I wrote about my introduction to today's microscopic building sets in a fun blog you can find rat-cheer. The post was really about how much I enjoyed the job of babysitting a charming 5 year old, owner of enough Legos to construct a mid-sized strip mall. Looking back, I'd have to say I was writing about how Legos brought this little boy and I closer. The catalyst could have been confusing baseball cards or a violent video game, but fortunately, we bonded over wholesome building blocks.

Legos, and their ninja subsidiary, Ninjagos, have propelled me to the highest number of search hits in my 2.5 year blogging history. If you include my favorite Ninjago character, Kai, in the keyword search data, the collective impact of Legos on my blog traffic is a staggering three times the total of the Kardashians!

I now see which side my bread is buttered on.

Oh, the Kardashians haven't heard the last of me - I'm sure they are shaking in their stilettoes as they read that promise. I browsed their trashy, poorly-made Klearance racks while at Sears yesterday. Not surprisingly, there were more Kardashian Kollection fashions on Klearance than there were new product. I could have left that store with four complete slutty outfits and a scarf for under $100, which is not a bad bit of shopping by my standards. But the stuff is hideous. That's just an opinion, but the racks echo my sentiment. It warms my heart to think that there are more sleazy clothes than sleazy people to buy them. I'm sure I'll be forced to bring up the Kardashians from time to time, just to keep them on their toes.

But what does it mean, that more people search "Legos" than "Kardashians?" What does it portend for hopeless, imitative bloggers? Do I have a future in toy reviewing or babysitting? How can I capitalize on my unintended success with Lego shoppers? Is there some way to combine the concepts of chin hairs and toys for profit?

Yes, these questions provide ample opportunity to think more and do less, which may have become my personal motto by default. In the medal count, I may not get any gold for blogging, but I'm clearly a world-class procrastinator.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Evil Chin Hairs and Other Signs of the Coming Apocolypse

It's been a while since I had a good rant about the ravages of age.

Don't pretend you hadn't noticed. You were secretly wondering why I've haven't been on my whiny soapbox for awhile. Your long wait is finally coming to an end. I need sympathy and attention, so I'm wound up for a good whine that will earn me an online pity-party.

My family is too preoccupied to give me the audience I crave. Between the London Olympics, the Presidential election, "Sherlock," college searches, violent blockbuster movies, summer school, budget concerns, and "the weather," no one at my house seems to have time for my semi-annual mid-life crisis. So I'm bringing my whinypants self to the blogosphere where people truly care about my issues.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my personal characteristic that are getting worse with age:

chin hairs - My chin hairs have developed subcategories and supercategories. In fact, the category has to be broadened to include hairs of all colors and textures that appear at random on almost any part of the face. I currently have to play "search and destroy" on practically every inch of the bottom two-thirds, from the brows to the neck folds. I guess this is nature's way of compensating for my lack of a mustache. Because of the fact that I have droopy, fleshy eyelids (see separate rant below), I often have to pluck stray brows from just above my lashes. I mistakenly thought long nosehairs were the province of the males of the species, but a new glasses prescription corrected that notion in short order (retroactive embarrassment). I also have one hair that randomly appears near my jawline, growing 3-4" overnight for no apparent reason; I pluck it and it doesn't come back for months or years. When it shows up again, it is as if it literally pops up full-grown. I keep expecting to grow some nice green warts to showcase these lovely chin-sprouts, which come in black and silver and feel as if they are connected at the bone. I've had to get a tug-of-war team to help yank them out. I'm not sure what the evolutionary purpose of sparse stubble on an otherwise smooth face is, but clearly, God wants me to grow a beard.

eyelids - Although I've never had deep-set eyes or a prominent brow bone, but for most of my life I liked my big blue eyes. Only nowadays they couldn't be described as big. My eyelids have "gained weight" in recent years, and seem to cover too much of my eyeball.  They droop so far down that they fold over themselves to make a little hood over my 12 transparent eyelashes. My worsening vision seems to be due (in part) to the obstructive effect of "double-eyelids," which are like double-chins, but may eventually qualify for me corrective surgery. A mini-facelift covered by insurance - what a concept! Except that I can't countenance the thought of someone, even a skilled surgeon, slicing at my eyelids. Looks like I'll have to live out my days with puffy, droopy, raccoon-ringed eyes. Try to control your sympathy.

short-term memory - I like calling my curmudgeonly husband "Al." This derisive nickname is short for the Alzheimer's which seems to strike whenever he is called upon to remember important facts about anyone but himself and Peyton Manning. But lately the girls have whispered "Allie" behind my back (bet you thought I didn't hear you, treasonous children). I seem to be forgetting things with greater frequency of late. The fact is, I forgot something extremely important the other day, something I really needed to tell someone else, and I've already forgotten what it was. The effect of age on my memory function appears to have changed from linear to exponential around the time the girls hit the teen years. The details and minutiae of their busy lives started to crowd out the few available brain cells that remained after I ushered them over the threshold of puberty. I've been warned by people in-the-know that this condition only gets worse. I could offer countless examples of this problem, in the form of embarrassing stories where I get lost on the way to the grocery store, or call an old friend by their sister's name, or asked for a restaurant check after I've already paid it, but I've conveniently forgotten most of them.

varicose veins - I didn't have this condition, at least as far as I knew. Then a friend started discussing her upcoming surgery, which led me to take a closer look, and I got a shock. With my new, improved reading glasses trained on my inner ankles, I discovered intricate roadmaps of red, blue and purple. Later, using a hand mirror, I inspected the back of my thighs and calves. (I don't recommend this if you have a weak stomach or are prone to fits of uncontrolled hysteria.) Not many visible veins on my thighs, because they are protected by a thick layer of cellulite. But my calves - oh, dear - why didn't someone warn me? Delicately framed between shiny stretch marks there were several oddly-shaped purple bulges. I guess we'll have to add this indignity to the growing list.

Creaking/cracking joints - Before I can creep, sloth-like, out of bed each morning, I must first rotate one foot for several seconds until my ankle cracks. I've found that, if I don't,  the whole leg mysteriously gives out while I'm trying to get to the bathroom. I don't know why this is or what it portends, but it can't be good. A few minutes later, my first trip of the day down the stairs sounds like a bag of microwave popcorn just warming up - a noisy cadence of pressure-relieving pops. Friends who've heard me crack my neck know that I can produce a blood-curdling sound that could be dubbed into a horror movie where the killer breaks someone's neck's pretty gruesome. I wasn't expecting to have such noisy joints at my age. It seems only fair that I should  be "officially beyond childbearing capability" before I have to sound this old.

Forgetting - Not to be confused with short-term memory problems, I'm talking about forgetting names, birthdays, directions - facts I've known all my life which now routinely escape my grasp. Sometimes there's someone on hand who can fill in the blank ("Mom, why don't you just get our phone number tattooed on your wrist?"), but often I've lost an entire afternoon researching some mundane factoid (July 4, 1776) that I would have thought impossible to forget. This may be the inevitable fallout of a lifetime of collecting and storing trivia in order to impress people with my Jeopardy skills. It would be nice to do some selective defragging and purging of overcrowded or malfunctioning areas of my brain. Does anyone know how to achieve this kind of de-cluttering? I read a self-help article about it once, but I guess I forgot what it said.

I had planned to "rave on" about this until I reached ten unpleasant aspects of age, but I'm already somewhat demoralized at the ones I've discussed here today. As I've often said, I'm very lucky to be healthy, well-fed and sheltered and surrounded by people I love, so I realized that these are rather minor concerns. Compared to most of the folks I share this planet with, I have nothing to whine about. But that never stopped me before.

So I'll stop with the rants above for the time being. Unless someone is desperate to hear about bladder issues, hearing difficulties, thick toenails, lactose intolerance and my new fascination with Lawrence Welk reruns, I think I'll stop and grab a nap or something.