That Ol’ Marigold Magic

Beneath my veneer of civilized rationality, deep down in the ancient, primordial part of my consciousness, I admit that I am a believer in curses and jinxes. Being a Cleveland sports fan, how could it be otherwise?

So, I really hesitate to say this for fear that the fickle Gardening Gods will lash out and punish me for my heresy, but . . . the marigold approach to the deer problem seems to be working. Following up on local knowledge tips from local gardeners, I planted dozens of marigolds at strategic locations in the side yard and the down yard. They’ve all come in well and are pleasantly fragrant–which is supposed to be what keeps the sensitive deer, which purportedly don’t like the smell of marigolds, away from flower, plants, and shrubs. And, so far at least, the deer have avoided our yard.

The area in the crack between the two gigantic boulders in the down yard is a good example. It’s the spot that is farthest away from our house and close to a small creek, so it’s prime deer territory. Last year the deer repeatedly ravaged the plants in the crack and chewed the daisy in the foreground, just behind the marigolds, down to the ground. The other plants in the crack experienced similar depredations. But this year, the deer have stayed away, and the plants are looking much better.

Of course, it’s always difficult to determine cause and effect. Is it that old marigold magic, or is it the fact that the deer have found some other food source, or the fact that we’ve got a dog living in the house now, or the fact that the deer herd has migrated to a different part of the island, or something else? I don’t know for sure, obviously, but based on our experience this year marigolds are going to be a perennial (pun intended) part of the planting mix going forward. And they look nice, too.

The “Knowledge Check”

Our firm requires everyone to take data security training from time to time. A few days ago I began completing the modules that make up the training. When I finished the first module, I was invited to click on a link that said “knowledge check.”

“Knowledge check”? I hoped, forlornly, that that meant the data security company would be sending me a check for paying rapt attention during the training, but that hope was unfortunately in vain. When I clicked on the link it became clear that the “knowledge check” did not involve the transfer of funds, but instead was a test–more of a “pop quiz,” really–to see whether I’d paid attention during the training module I just completed.

So what’s up with calling it a “knowledge check’? Are they afraid that people would be overwhelmed by the prospect of taking a “test” to see whether they had assimilated the lessons from the training? “Test anxiety” is a real issue for some people, but if you could solve it by using “knowledge check” rather than “test,” “exam,” or “quiz” every school in the United States would long ago have made that change. Coming up with a new euphemism doesn’t change the fact that you have to answer questions and you get a grade at the end depending on how you’ve responded. Anyone with test anxiety is going to recognize the “knowledge check” as a test, no matter what you call it.

Somewhere, someone sits around and comes up with these innocuous, and often ridiculous, euphemisms to replace perfectly good, and typically much more clear, words. Whoever came up with “knowledge check” comes from the same school that decided “sanitation engineer” sounds better than “garbage man” and “downsizing” is more socially acceptable than “firing.”

And the process goes on. Yesterday I saw an article with a headline contending that people should stop “networking” and start “relationship marketing.” Leaving aside that “relationship marketing” is a pretty awkward phrase that sounds like how a gigolo might describe what he does for a living, now we’ve got someone seeking to replace one euphemism with another. When will it end?

Cane Fighting

For some reason–probably having to do with my birth date–I received a notice on Google, or Facebook, or some other on-line source about this book on Amazon: Cane Fighting: The Authoritative Guide to Using a Cane or Walking Stick for Self-Defense. I imagine that there is no surer sign of advancing age than being prompted to buy a book that schools you on how to ward off attackers with the cane that you are assumed to be using.

In Victorian times, using a cane for self-defense wasn’t limited to the elderly. Many British gents carried walking sticks as part of their regular high-class ensemble, and if you’ve read the Sherlock Holmes stories you’ll recall Holmes and Watson intentionally taking their “sticks” along on their adventures, so they could lay into any ruffians that might accost them as they rambled along on London’s foggy streets in search of clues. Alas, social affectations have changed, and healthy adults now typically don’t walk around with canes or walking sticks, ready to start thrashing away at any attackers.

Instead, these days canes and walking sticks seem to be limited to two categories of people: hikers who are out on a hike, and the elderly and infirm. You wouldn’t think that hikers in the wilderness would need to use Cane Fighting techniques against others they might encounter on the trails, although these days, I guess, you never know. Instead, the notion of using canes for self-defense seems to be reserved for people who actually need canes to help them stay upright as they are out and about. And the book I got the prompt about isn’t alone in this area–there is lots of information on the web about cane fighting. As the step-by-step illustration above about the “defensive two-handed jab” to an assailant’s chest indicates, there is even a “Cane Masters International Association” that has identified and catalogued specific cane fighting moves.

The problem with the idea of cane fighting is that it basically presupposes two things: the person using the cane probably didn’t need it in the first place, and therefore isn’t going to topple over while they employ the “defensive two-handed jab” or another quick-moving maneuver, and the assailant will be standing still while the tottering grandpa makes his big move. I’m not sure how valid those assumptions actually are. And why worry about a specific move if you can just start whaling away at any attacker and clouting them about the head and shoulders until they go away or are disabled by laughter at your feeble efforts?

We’ve actually got a cane or two that we’ve inherited, and keep them in an umbrella stand in our front hallway. Maybe it’s time to get them out, buy this book, and work on a little cane fu, just in case.

The Beaver Pond

My destination on my jaunt down Indian Point Road this morning was the place the locals call the beaver pond. It probably has a different, official name, but nobody uses it. The beavers have exercised adverse possession—you can see their two ramshackle lodges that look like wood piles across the pond—and they have acquired de facto naming rights in the process.

The pond is a mile or so down the road, after it veers from the shoreline and meanders inland into some piney forest. Sometimes, if you’re lucky and your timing is right, you’ll see the beavers swimming in the pond, hauling wood to the lodge, or gnawing away at the wood at their lodge, and if you’re really lucky they might notice you and slap their flat tails on the surface of the water and then swim away in a huff. This morning, though, I didn’t see any of the critters. I expect they were keeping themselves warm in their lodges, probably enjoying a warming cup of coffee before getting to work.

The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid

Writers whose prose can reliably make me laugh out loud—really, audibly laugh, and not just smile and think “LOL”—are rarer than hen’s teeth. David Sedaris is one. Bill Bryson is definitely another.

I picked up Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid from the Stonington Public Library and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s hysterical. Bryson, who is the “Thunderbolt Kid” of the title, recounts his life growing up in Iowa during the ‘50s, and no detail is too small to mine for laughs. His Mom’s failed cooking and absent-mindedness, his Dad’s cheapness, the throngs of kids in the neighborhood, his weird relatives, what he ate, what he watched on TV, and disturbing incidents from his youth—like the time his Mom made him wear his sister’s Capri pants to school—all are recalled in hilarious fashion.

And Bryson also artfully weaves in humorous, and interesting, information about the America of the ‘50s, with its passion for cars, television, major appliances, atomic bombs, new products good and bad, and producing more babies to feed that Baby Boom. It was a time when Americans routinely accepted risks without a second glance, doctors advertised cigarettes, every town had its own stores, restaurants, and ways of doing things, and many of the devices and practices that we now take for granted didn’t exist. It’s fascinating stuff about an innocent America that is gone forever and will resonate with people, like me, who really grew up in the ‘60s.

If you think about it, many of us had childhoods that featured failed meals, oddball relatives, strange TV shows, and other topics that could be recounted in a funny way—if we only had the talents of Bill Bryson. Until that happens, I recommend reading this book and enjoying some hearty laughter.

Big Pot, Small Pot

We’ve had a bit of a coffee quandary in our household recently. The nagging question was about the size of our coffee pot.

We admit it: we like coffee and drinks quarts, if not gallons, of it each week. But that reality doesn’t really address the optimal pot size issue.

We had a small Mr. Coffee coffeemaker, shown above at right. The pot indicates it makes four cups of coffee, if you fill the pot to the brim, but that’s pretty misleading. Coffee pot “cups” are as arbitrarily undersized as the mysterious “servings” you see described on food packaging. This particular pot might hold four dainty cups that could be sipped by effete French elves, but it basically made enough for one steaming American mug of the black brew. It wasn’t wasteful, because we promptly drank every drop in the fresh pot, but we ended up making new pots constantly and walking around with partially filled cups so everyone could get their share of that precious caffeine. This clearly was not an ideal situation.

So we upped our game to the 12-cup Black and Decker model, which makes more than enough coffee to fill three cups—the kind with handles that you actually find in your cupboard—and more besides. We’re making fewer fresh pots of coffee, for sure, but estimating proper water intake to get the right pot size under the circumstances is more of a challenge. With the shrimpy model, you made a full pot every time, but the increased pot size requires careful consideration of your household’s likely coffee intake over the next hour or so. You’re aiming for the sweet spot that allows everyone to drink their fill of joe without leaving that remainder in the pot that boils down to an oil-like sludge that will curl your teeth if consumed. (Of course, on some days that oil-like sludge is precisely what you need to get that extra jolt.)

So, big honker, or elfin? All told, I’ll go for the bigger pot.

Pickup Parley

Stonington is a town of big pickup trucks. I’d estimate that at least two-thirds of the vehicles on the streets are the gigantic Rams, Fords, and Chevys with the colossal engines and gleaming grillwork—because you never know when you might need to tow a boat down to the dock or lug around a flatbed trailer piled high with lobster traps.

The pickup drivers have an interesting way of meeting for a chat. Instead of exiting their rigs to talk face-to-face, they choose a remote spot with plenty of maneuvering room—not a difficult thing to find in Stonington—and have their trucks approach each other from opposite directions, like wary beasts. Then they settle in and stop at a position with the driver’s side windows inches apart from each other. At that point they leave their trucks running and settle in for a good chat, each driver talking from the comfort of their cab and each getting to be, literally, in the driver’s seat during their discussion.

The pick-up world is a different world, one in which the drivers really love their trucks, are proud of them, and don’t want to leave them unless they absolutely have to do so. The side-by-side pickup parley allows them to enjoy those trucks, and their power positions in the cabs, for a little bit longer. It’s just one more way the pickup world is different from the world inhabited by the rest of us.

A Comedy-Free Fall

NBC has announced its fall lineup, and for the first time in 50 years, there will be no situation comedies on its broadcast schedule. The network that brought use some of the greatest sitcoms in American TV history–Get Smart, Family Ties, Seinfeld, The Office, 30 Rock, my personal favorite, Cheers, and countless others–isn’t going to broadcast even one comedy when autumn rolls around.

NBC says its comedies recently haven’t performed well in the fall, so they are saving some of their sitcom shows until winter. Instead of comedies, NBC’s fall viewers will see lots of dramas and various permutations of Law and Order shows.

Why are comedies struggling on a network that used to be loaded with them? Maybe it’s that people don’t feel much like laughing these days, or maybe it’s just that it is very tough to write a comedy in the current environment. Much of the TV comedy we remember from days gone by involved plots and storylines that pushed the envelope, with humor that often was based on making fun of someone or some thing. Modern sensitivities would find many of the shows that we laughed at a decade or three ago very offensive. How many episodes of Seinfeld or The Office, for example, would provoke howls of outrage if they were aired today? Asking a sitcom writer to be consistently funny while steering clear of any possible controversy or humor that might hurt someone’s feelings is tough duty.

You have to wonder about the future of comedy, given current views, and whether NBC’s comedy-free fall is a precursor of the future. Maybe we should change that phrase to read “comedy freefall” instead.

Keeping To Tree Speed

Yesterday we drove over to Crockett Cove for a tulip show. It’s one of the more remote, less populated parts of the island, covered with what looks like a primeval forest. To get to our destination we followed a narrow gravel road — just wide enough for our car, without much wiggle room to either side — that wound through the trees for miles. At one point we passed this sign, which gave us a chuckle. I found myself wondering if the red car displayed at the bottom of the tree trunk, where bark had been knocked or scraped off, was a testimonial to an actual fender bender in the past.

Who needs a posted speed limit when trees are going to be effective enforcers of careful driving?

Sunday School

This morning’s walk took us past the intersection of Church and School Streets— two more examples of the factually literal street-naming conventions followed by the Stonington town founders. The sign reminded me of the other confluence of church and school from my childhood: Sunday school.

Right about now we’d be washing our faces, donning our “Sunday best” clothes, and heading off to church and our Sunday school class. There we would get brightly colored pamphlets, squirm uncomfortably in our clothes, and try to learn about the Old Testament. And, frankly, in some respects the Old Testament wasn’t too bad from a kid interest standpoint, with lots of fire and brimstone, golden calves, pillars of salt, burning bushes, general human wickedness, world-ending floods, wars, treachery, and David versus Goliath battles. You never knew when God was going to pop up and test somebody or punish the evil in some cool way. In fact, it’s almost as if the Old Testament was written in a desperate effort to hold the attention of an easily distracted ten-year-old boy. Alas, the interesting stuff was inevitably buried by rote lessons that required you to remember the names of Abraham’s kids or who Ezekiel was.

My favorite Sunday school moment is found in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Indy tells the two bureaucrats from Washington about the powers of the Ark of the Covenant. When they look surprised to learn about it, Indy says something like: “Didn’t you guys pay attention in Sunday school?” The two bureaucrats exchange guilty glances in response. Every kid who went to Sunday school knows exactly how they felt.

The Color — Purple?

I’ve been tested and determined to be mildly color-blind on some parts of the color spectrum, so I never know whether I’m seeing colors in their true, natural glory. When I look at these pretty little flowers growing from a crack in the granite slab by our front door, for example, I see purple blooms. Kish, on the other hands, described them as pink.

My description of the blooms as purple may be due to a limited knowledge of the names of the various shades on the color palette. The different hues blur into each other, and to my eye, at least, there is no clear line between darker shades of pink and lighter shades of purple. Magenta is somewhere on that ill-defined border, and so are hot pink, jam and mulberry. So maybe those flowers really aren’t purple, per se.

This is why I play no role in picking out wall paint colors in our household. But least we can all agree on the green lobster boat in the background.

Library Stress Advice

The Stonington Public Library is a great small town library, with a friendly attitude—no library card needed!—and a great selection of old and new books. It’s also got a dash of whimsy.

The second floor of the library clearly started out as living space and features a small area that once was a kitchen and now is used for storage. That’s where you can find this sign with its helpful guidance about dealing with stress. And if you’re so inclined, you can follow the advice by heading to the Harbor Cafe down the street, where the dessert menu is extensive and ever-tempting.

The Great Marigold Experiment Begins

In our little neighborhood on the Greenhead peninsula, talk of the marauding deer population dominates the conversation. Everyone is trying to come up with ways to protect their flower and vegetable gardens from the pesky, voracious herd of Bambis that is roaming the local woods and yards, eating everything in its path.

This weekend we opened up our front in the Stonington Deer Wars by going to Mainescapes, a great garden store in Blue Hill, to get multiple flats of marigolds, which the locals believe are among the most effective non-spray, non-fence deer repellants. Then, on Saturday and Sunday I planted all of the marigolds at strategic locations in the side yard (above) and the down yard (below), hoping to create smell barriers that cause the odor-sensitive deer to steer clear of our yards and go out to eat somewhere else.

Whether any of this will work is anybody’s guess. But at least we’ll have a riotous collection of yellow and orange marigolds to add some color to the yards–if the deer don’t eat them first, that is.

“You Owe Me A Coke”

The other day a much younger colleague and I were discussing something. We each sent the other an email expressing the same thought that crossed in the internet ether.

Her reaction was to say “jinx.” Mine was to say “you owe me a Coke,” which I’m sure baffled her. And as I thought about my reflexive response, I realized that “you owe me a Coke” even baffled me. That’s been my standard response to two people saying the same thing at the same time for as long as I can remember, but I have no idea why that’s the correct phrase to say at that moment, or even when I learned to say “you owe me a Coke” under those circumstances. I’m guessing it happened when I was a kid and some older and more worldly kid used that phrase and explained that it was what you do when that happens, and you need to say it before the other person does. I promptly incorporated that notion into my understanding of how the world works, as kids do, and there it remains. I’ve forgotten the incident, but definitely remember the phrase.

Internet searches don’t really shed any light on why anyone–me included–would say “you owe me a Coke” in this scenario. It’s recognized as one of the things you do when people say the same thing at the same time. (According to some websites, another thing that you can do is punch the other person in the arm, and now that I think of it, I seem to remember getting slugged in the arm a few times, too.) But the origins of “you owe me a Coke” seem to be lost in the mists of time. Who came up with that notion? Why would one person need to buy the other a soda, and why a Coke, specifically? And for that matter, has anyone ever really lived up to the obligation and actually bought the person who said it first a Coke?

It’s just destined to be one of life’s enduring mysteries, I suppose.

Garlic Power And Marigold Magic

We’re getting close to the spring planting season in Stonington, and I’m working on a strategy to try to deal with the marauding deer population that decimated the flowers in the lower, unfenced part of our yard last year.

On a walk over the weekend, I ran into a fellow gardener who was out working in her yard and asked if she had any recommendations for non-chemical, non-fenced—yet effective—ways of keeping deer away from those tasty flowers. She recommended garlic, and lots of it. She said you crush the cloves to increase the smell and place them around the perimeter of the area you want to protect. The deer apparently hate the odor and supposedly avoid the garlic aroma area.

Garlic: it’s not just for vampires any more!

I don’t want to use any kind of chemical spray, which will just wash down into the harbor, and I don’t want to put up any wires or fencing, which would ruin the rustic look of the down yard. I’m therefore going to try the garlic approach this year, and combine it with another tip I got from a gardening neighbor. He said that when he planted marigolds last year he was surprised to see that the deer not only didn’t eat the marigold flowers, they avoided the marigold area of his garden entirely because they find that smell unpleasant, too. Some other locals also endorse the marigold approach.

So, this year I’ll be crushing and placing garlic cloves around the down yard, and planting marigolds as a kind of protective barrier for other flowers. If garlic and marigolds work alone, imagine their impact in combination! And I hope this technique works, because this morning I saw a huge herd of deer at the end of our road—and they looked hungry.