Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Where have all the Flowers for Algernon Gone?

The earwig battle rages on, although the casualties are decreasing on both sides of the front. But you know what I have now? Spiders. Spiders the size of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons. Spiders the size of the rainforest in the Amazon basin.* I don’t mind them, however. I just keep my distance. Which means there is a one square-foot patch in the middle of my kitchen that is safe. You’ll find me huddled there most days.

The thing I really want to discuss today is Image. The Image of “Famous Author,” more specifically. The other night I caught the Golden Girls episode where Dorothy befriends famous Miami author Barbara Thorndike. She’s intellectual. She’s statuesque. She’s famous and well-connected with “The Literati.” She’s an asshole.

A self-centered, bigoted, snooty asshole. And with a name like “Barbara Thorndike,” how could she not be?

When I was a kid, this was sort of the stereotype I had of famous authors and their jet-setting, smart ways. I’m sure there are a few authors that MAY fit this arrogant bill. But most authors I know are hard-working, generous, and clad in pajamas longer than recommended by the Surgeon General. They may be a bit neurotic. They bicker with loved ones on occasion. They juggle laundry, email, carpool duties, grocery shopping, and car insurance bills. They sometimes get diarrhea. And they’re watching you, waiting for you to say or do something that perfectly encapsulates the human condition, which they will immediately scribble on the back of a receipt in their purse only to find weeks later, completely devoid of context or meaning.

Or is that just me?

Sure, the more famous a writer gets the less likely he or she will be to respond to the dozens of requests (a blurb, review of a manuscript, publishing connections, a map to the Holy Grail) that zip into his or her inbox daily. But hey, sometimes getting clients and coworkers to respond to email requests can also be a Sisyphusian exercise in frustration.

Anyway, IS there a Literati today, where the Barbara Thorndikes of the world trade insider secrets and indulge in well-mannered poetry … nudges? Where is today’s version of the Algonquin Round Table? Are they at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop? Are they all hanging out at The New Yorker, as Garrison Keillor’s Love Me surmises? (Which, since you asked, has one of the best covers I’ve ever seen on a novel.)

I know, today’s Literati is probably online. Everything is.

But I digress. It’s getting late, and this jet-setting writer is off to battle some earwigs in her pajamas.

Movies seen in the past week: Reno 911. Oh, did I laugh. If you’re a nursing mother with a warped sense of humor, rent this movie. A recent study found that women who laughed more while nursing had breastmilk with higher nutritional value. If you’re not nursing, and perhaps in a somber mood, check out The Painted Veil, starring Ed Norton and Naomi Watts.

Books on deck: Jonathan Tropper’s next outing (How to Talk to a Widower) and Jennifer Belle’s latest: Little Stalker. I’ve only been awaiting Ms. Belle’s third novel since 2002…I'll probably devour it in a day and then be depressed that it's finished.

Happy last week of June!

*What’s that you say? The rainforest is shrinking daily by 200,000 acres? Okay then, spiders the size of the clear-cut, slash & burn soybean fields that used to be the rainforest. Biofuels ahoy!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Freaks Come Out At Night

I have been engaged in fierce battle this week with the Taliban of bugs. They are crafty. They are nocturnal. They will stop at nothing to achieve their evil exoskeleton ends. I’m talking about earwigs. If you have never seen an earwig, you have the luck of the Irish, who, if you think about it, really weren’t all that lucky (historically speaking). You are also blissfully unaware of what is living behind your toilet tank.

I first noticed something was wrong when I saw that the leaves of my freshly-planted bee balm were skeletonized down to the stems. However, a quick survey of the area turned up no bug-like culprits. I decided to sneak out that night with a flashlight to identify the source of the leaf-mangling.

I collected my flashlight and tromped across the yard, which took me less than three seconds since my yard is the size of a Chiclet. I aimed the beam of light at the bee balm, and the pizza I’d eaten earlier for dinner did a little kick-ball-change in my stomach.

The plant was barely visible beneath the squirming, shiny brown mass of insects, chomping away like they were at Golden Corral after a week-long fast. “Oh my god,” I said, my voice soft but tinged with terror at the Stephen King novel that had taken up residence in my new flowerbeds. Horrified, I aimed the light elsewhere. There they were, teeming on my sunflower seedlings! And here too, skittering over the purple coneflowers! And glistening in the delphinium buds, appraising me with their cold bug eyes, antennae twitching! And infesting the Joe Pye Weed, eating ragged holes through 85% of the leaves! The next thing I said out loud was this: “Oh my god, I can hear them!” Because I could. They sounded crispy. My entire garden was snapping, crackling, and popping like a cement mixer chock-full of Rice Krispies and milk.

The shredded remains of my bee balm. That white stuff is diatomaceous earth, one of the weapons in my arsenal. Note the untouched Tropical Milkweed at left. Those earwigs are pretty fuckin' selective.

What to do, what to do. Well, dance around all freaked-out saying, “ohmygodohmygodohmygodgrossgrossgrossgrossgrossgross.” That was the first thing I did. My next course of action was to spray the teeming masses with a blast of insecticidal soap, which I just happened to find in the garage. Step three: manually knock visible leaf-chomping earwigs into a bowl of soapy water. Yes ladies and gentlemen, I actually HAND-PICKED many of them. Step four: sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the base of my plants. Step five: leave earwig traps (shallow containers half-filled with vegetable oil and soy sauce) in strategic locations around the yard. Step six: wash hands until they are raw. Lie in bed paranoid that there are earwigs tunneling through your hair.

Repeat nightly because you spent a lot of money on these plants and are too cheap to replace them. Also because you are a tenacious bastard, and when you go to war, you’re in it to win it.

I’m making a dent in the population, but it’s an extremely unpleasant routine. See, these are the kinds of things they don’t tell you when they say, “Garden organically! It’s neat! It’s safe! Wheeee!” If I didn’t have such an aversion to killing bees and butterflies and contracting a horrible form of cancer, I’d spray my yard with a cloud of pesticide that you could see from space.

Mexican Sunflower, started from seed indoors in March.

One view of one of the new flowerbeds. Brand-spankin' new, folks. Before this, there existed only mega-weeds and a sorry excuse for a lawn.

Another view, same bed. The windowboxes are new, too. That black tarp in the background is covering the bodies I mean TOPSOIL.

One of the many squirrels that frequent our backyard. We also have a tailless squirrel with impaired motor skills and a terrible skin disease. He tips over constantly while nibbling sunflower seeds. The other day I saw him twitching on the sidewalk; I thought he was having a seizure. As I came closer he got up and scampered away. Turned out he was just lying on his side, munching an old bit of crabapple.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Do Tell

Seven more days to finish my final edits, so this is going to be another hodge-podge of a post. But I like to think of it as in keeping with the randomness of life.

1) Last night during a walk I found a baggie of oregano on a neighbor’s lawn. J opined that a kid bought the bag of “pot” at South Park, discovered it was better suited on a pizza than in a bong, and hurled it onto the nearest lawn in disgust. Wow. This neighborhood is really going to fake pot. Could a vial of baking powder on the curb be far behind?

2) There is a lonely-hearts male house wren building a nest and singing passionately for a girlfriend in our backyard. Sadly, no wrens of the female persuasion seem to be in the neighborhood.

3) I have planted the final raised bed this season. Pictures to come soon. All of this front yard gardening has put me in the line of fire from passing pedestrians. I’d like to thank the individual who helpfully pointed out yesterday that I have four cubic yards of topsoil heaped in my driveway. Thank you so much! Boy, do I have egg on my face! How could I have missed that? Sheesh! And to the incredibly helpful sales associate at a certain garden center on Sunday? I loved your joke about Jason having all the credit cards while I, the high roller spendthrift wife, jacked up the balance! What comedy stylings. Why can’t more men make jokes like these? I also enjoyed your hostile jest about your wife weeding some of your favorite perennials and being subsequently barred from your garden. Silly, stupid woman! Mr. Nurseryman, you are a beacon for gender equality and happy marriage.

Still, the nursery had the two items I haven’t found anywhere else locally: liatris ligulistylis (meadow blazing star; You want Monarch butterflies later this summer? Plant a few of these lovelies.) and rudbeckia nitida, a green-eyed susan that gets six feet tall. Despite my purchase of these plants, Jason was mildly disappointed because “We never get any weird stuff.”

4) My life is currently driving a flat, straight stretch of highway between Dullsville and Tedium Town (not that I mind much), and I need to hear something interesting. So I want to hear what YOU’RE up to. What movies have you seen? What books are you reading? What did you think of the Sopranos’ finale? Where are you going on vacation this summer? Where should Jason and I go on vacation this summer? What do you think of the price of tea in China? Why is the sky blue? Why do I continue to use the dijon mustard that expired two years ago?

I'll be eagerly awaiting your input. In the meantime, I'm off to kill a few more of my darlings.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

On Being Taken Advanage of

Wow. I had a nice little blog about weird foodstuffs all ready to roll, and then this afternoon I heard a knock at the front door. Usually I hide beneath the computer desk until the knocking subsides, since I dislike confrontation and still cringe when I remember how I attempted to dismiss two young Mormon men with an awkward waving of the arms and a high-pitched, “Uhhmmm, no no no, I’m sorry, no thank you, no, sorry, no soliciting, sorry!” segueing into a graceless closing of the front door in their faces…cue the guilt, AAAANNNND … SCENE!

But the sound of that knock…it sounded like a—could it be—a BLOG ENTRY on my porch?!?! Why yes it was!

Daisy was going ballistic, barking and jumping at the door, tail-wagging, eager to accidentally-on-purpose pee on the new visitor in her enthusiasm. When I scooped her up, I discovered my mystery solicitor was a young African-American man in a white cowboy hat and a South Park tie. His smile was wide and disarming, and he had a duffle bag full of some kind of portable consumer product. He had brochures. He had hustling skills that PT Barnum would have wept in envy of.

He was peddling a multipurpose concentrated household cleaner called “Advanage.” No, there is no ‘T.’ He called it a wonder cleaner and proceeded to elaborate on the many surfaces and substances Advantage could clean. He scribbled on a white towel with a black marker, whipped out a small spray bottle of Advanage, and—Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, with just a few scrubs the mark disappeared before my very eyes! He even cleaned the glass on my front door, and then attempted to scuff it up again with his bare hand—yet the amazing Advanage repelled his fingerprints with some sort of magical force field!

Floors, kitchens, bathrooms, cars, carpets, walls, even the garden ... no place was safe from the sanitizing tentacles of Advanage.

Still, despite the product's Manifest Destiny flexibility, I was reluctant to buy.

He tried humor…jokes about Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, and ham hocks. All of which are, of course, the first three things I think of when I wish to scour my bathroom sink.

Yet my inner cheapskate balked at the price: $35 (not including tax) for a liter of what probably amounted to diluted shampoo.

He tried sweet-talkin’ flattery. (“I didn’t know there were supermodels in this neighborhood!” and “You got the best roses here. Everybody talking about these flowers.”)

While my inner Ralph Furley was blushing and Aw-shucksing it up, my inner skeptic was loath to part with a check containing pertinent personal and financial information.

He tried the bandwagon approach, going so far as to show me the receipt from my neighbor’s purchase. Still, despite how much I enjoy emulating my neighbors in every way (especially fighting in public and filling the yard with plastic lawn d├ęcor), I hesitated.

He even tried evidence, quoting statistics about laboratory tests that pit this “non-toxic, environmentally-friendly” product against other brands, yet Advanage the Wonder Cleaner won every race.

I studied the Velveetaesque brochure, trying to buy time and weigh my options, panic stretching and doing warm-up sprints behind my ears.

How to get out of this with everyone leaving happy? Curse you, Midwestern people-pleasing upbringing!

Jess’s Brain? Yes, I have a collect call from the Rest of Jess. She’s looking for an exit strategy from the Prince O’ Pitch.

But my mind was lounging by a pool somewhere, reading Entertainment Weekly and slamming Kamikaze shooters. It sent the cabana boy over with a scribbled note: “Tell him money’s tight, and how about he leaves you a brochure and you think about it.”

Lame! This wasn’t the heavy artillery I needed to fight the Tsunami of Tsales.

Plus, as soon as I said, “I’m kinda broke right now,” I realized what an asshole I looked like. Because clearly, only broke people have enough expensive flowers gaudying up their porch to stock a funeral home for the summer accident season.

Despite myself, I was beginning to enjoy the show. There are hustlers, and then there are hustlers. This guy? He could convince Rush Limbaugh to make a sizeable donation to PETA. He could talk Phil Spector into a hairstyle that doesn't make me want to smother a live grenade with my general eye region.

Then, he pulled out his trump card. “It’s for a good cause, too. Because it benefits inner city youth, providing positive career paths and building job skills.” I can’t remember his exact words, because at the time I was feeling more overwhelmed than Tom Sizemore’s rehab caseworker. He told me a little about his troubled past in Detroit, and how the Advanage sales opportunity has benefited him.

I heard myself slowly begin to speak: “Tell me more about this youth program.”

Damn you, white liberal guilt! DAMN YOU!!!

Thirty-seven dollars later, I have squeaky clean windows that smell of fake green apples and are probably off-gassing fumes that will melt my liver in my sleep tonight. “Your husband’s a lucky man,” my Favorite Salesman said before he left. “Many blessings upon you, and thank you so much.” He also said a bunch of other stuff, but I’m too exhausted to remember any of it.

Two minutes later I saw our neighbor’s surly teenage kids laughing at his jokes and writing him a check, their new bottle of Advanage gleaming on the roof of their car in the late afternoon sunlight.