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 bare-handed...it'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.