Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Learning By Trowel and Error

Finally, and with about three weeks advance planning, this past three-day Memorial Day weekend provided a  great opportunity for relaxation and recreation. Or it would have, if I hadn't had a backyard makeover project that's been in a state of partial completion for about three years. The yard had not been touched since the end of the last growing season, so that alone tells you something about what kind of shape it was in as we entered the weekend.

Some background to clarify. About three years ago my all-concrete back yard had deteriorated to the point at which anyone going back there risked serious bodily injury. More importantly, they might sue me. Even in those cheap-oil days, the cost of concrete had skyrocketed to where the cost of repaving the entire yard was far beyond the budget, assuming (incorrectly) that there was a budget. Since I'd been gardening for years in planters, we decided to save on concrete - and, for that matter, planters - by repaving only about half the yard and keeping the rest exposed so I could remake it into an in-ground garden in all that spare time I have. In the ensuing three years, I learned some valuable lessons:

Lesson 1. Hand-digging the heavy clay soil found in this part of New Jersey is a bear.

Lesson 2. Lesson 1 is not helped by the presence of large, heavy rocks and construction debris left behind by the guys who built the house about 60 years ago. (They've probably gone on to that great construction project in the sky by now. My heartfelt wish is that they spend eternity laying in heavy clay soil with large rocks and construction debris.)

Lesson 3. Placing, one-by-one, a pallet and a half of stone pavers so they form a level network of walking paths throughout the garden is a really big bear.

Lesson 4. After said pavers have been placed, sweep sand into the cracks immediately. If you wait, oh, say, 3 years, weeds and grass grow between them with roots that extend down to around the earth's molten center. Pulling them out is an absolutely enormous bear.

Lesson 5. Hauling half a pallet of 80 pound bags of soil (or, as we call it in Jersey, "dirt") is no big deal for a tall strong guy who over the years has made sure he kept himself in shape.

Lesson 6: Hauling half a pallet of 80 pounds bags of soil is quite a big deal for a short, skinny middle-aged technocrat whose main form of exercise is pushing a pencil.

After far too long of tellingmyself I was sure going to finish this project "someday," my biological clock had had enough. (Yes, men have those too. Ours have us feeling we have to earn large sums of money or complete manly projects by a certain age.) I entered the three-day weekend with but one goal: finish the yard. A doctor friend I shared my three-day plan with advised me to get the Advil ready. I consider it a sign of prophetic cosmic approval that as I left to go home for the weekend after work on Friday, the Advil folks decided to hold a promotion and hand out free samples on the street. I got four or five packets, and was ready.

Having been neglected for more than half a year, a good bit of the yard was so overgrown with weeds you might have thought it an abandoned lot. The lawn, or rather the 10' x 18' patch of grass that passes for one, symbolized how the yard looked like an unkempt vagrant badly in need of a haircut. Introducing my two teenagers to the idea that manual labor is not a guy in their Spanish class, we got off to a good start that had the yard looking like a semi-kempt vagrant with a bad haircut in no time.

My boys took immediately to the task of weeding the areas that hadn't been planted last year and that had the most weed growth. Mostly they were enormously entertained by the variety of insect life forms one encounters while digging up old soil. By the time we got to developing the last planting sector I was unable to bear the thought of hauling one more bag of soil or laying one more stone paver. Solution: put up a steel arch-type trellis from a kit, put a hanging basket of something-or-other (petunias I think, but who was paying attention by that point), and mulch the living daylights out of that heavy clay soil.

By the time we ran out of daylight, the only remaining work was the weeding of a portion of the pavers, and some normal-maintenance weeding that actually has nothing to do with the makeover. And oh yeah, I have to find some way of getting rid of all those old planters. With only enough energy left at the end to run a hot bath and open a cold beer, I couldn't help feeling that life was a pretty good place.

Should you be interested, dear readers, here's the progress. The photo on the left is the old planter garden, arranged with great artistry in a 4 x 4 grid that may not seem like much to normal people but that engineers think is beautiful. On the right is the 2008 version. (The grass area is where the planters were in the photo on the left.) Please disregard my neighbor's Mesozoic-era fence that we hope to cover with one of our own some time soon.


Sunday, May 11, 2008


Back in high school, a good friend (who went on to write professionally) wrote a column called "Graffiti" in the school newspaper. It was a collection of short, odds-and-ends items, and I was reminded of that title while gathering the mini-rants below.

Britney's mom must be feeling kind of slighted right now

A mothers organization in Long Island, NY has given Lindsay Lohan's mother a "Top Mom" award. No, really, I'm serious, and so, apparently, are the members of the mothers organization. I'm cheering Lindsay on in her recovery efforts, but let's face it, folks: giving Dina Lohan a mothering award would be as ridiculous as, say, George Bush offering his administration's expertise on responding to a natural disaster. And how dumb would THAT be?

Heck of a job, George

The hearts of any civilized human being have to go out to the people of Myanmar, and everything humanly possible that can be done to help them should be done. That said, am I the only one who finds a cruel irony in our current president offering his administration's expertise for responding to a natural disaster?

Do they still have to attack if he calls it "nucular?"

This past Tuesday morning, the Today Show had a piece where Al Roker got to go into one of the top-secret underground silos from which nuclear attacks would be launched. Roker asked some interesting questions of the dedicated soldiers who - quite literally - have their fingers on the buttons, exploring how they'd feel if a strike were ordered, but forgot to ask this one: are they concerned that the person who could order a nuclear attack is a self-absorbed, morally bankrupt, short-sighted, self-righteous, self-deluding fool who can't handle the complexities of putting a subject and a predicate together to form a sentence?

While on the subject of the president, please join me, dear readers, in offering heartfelt congratulations to his daughter Jenna for her wedding day. And in praying, really hard, that they don't procreate.

Here's looking at you, kid...

Want to know what's wrong with the world? I'll tell you what's wrong with the world. The current issue of Vanity Fair has a cover story about how Robert Kennedy's evolving thoughts on the Viet Nam war influenced his decision to run for president. It's hugely powerful stuff that has enormous relevance today. And does anyone even know the article is there? No, because the same issue has two photos of entertainer Miley Cyrus that are much more important for us to talk and write about.We do it to ourselves, folks.

Iron Chef Freedonia

A couple of weeks ago I had the great experience of seeing Duck Soup, my favorite Marx Brothers movie, on a 50 foot screen at the beautiful old Loews theater here I've written about previously. I couldn't have been the only person there who thought Zeppo had an eerie resemblance to Bobby Flay.

(A semi-unrelated item I couldn't resist sharing: Around the time Duck Soup (which takes place in "Freedonia") first came out, the upstate NY city of Fredonia complained about the use of so similar a name. From Groucho came this response: "Change the name of your town. It's hurting our picture.") 

Gratuitous American Idol Item

So now we learn that a good bit of the the "live" comments given by the judges for each performance are prepared before the show based on rehearsals. Who could have guessed the judging process on that show wasn't completely proper? I certainly don't see anything wrong with people being judged on their ability to stand at a microphone and sing by a panel of people, not one of whom - and I'm including Paula in this - could themselves stand a microphone and sing. Nor is there anything wrong with contests being decided by an uninformed general public voting multiple times in the same election. It's done all the time here in New Jersey.