Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Three Doofuskateers

The dogs escaped today, and very weirdly, out of the three, the two who are usually gone the longest are the ones who came home first (after making me sweat for about three hours or so.)  Brian the Poopyhead, Mr. Loves His Comfort, Sir "Too Far, Will Lie Down Now" is often, after an escape, not only the first to come home, but the one who comes home after less than an hour away.  So, I'm quite worried.  Beast is exhausted and muddy, having gone way past the fun and into the misery part of traveling cross-country.  Finn is in better shape, but looks very concerned and often lifts his head from being curled up (they both got soaked in various downpours, so curling up is the best way to conserve heat until he dries off) and searches for his brother as far as his line of sight allows.

It was awesome to see them, three dogs at the firepit--except one of the three was our neighbor's dog, Sammy.  Sammy's daddy was away so he didn't know Sammy had gone on a little excursion with his best buddies across the street.  I think the muddy coat will kinda give him away, but he has a little time to clean up first.

I'd like to think that the soreness and sadness will teach them a lesson, but I know better.  These dogs, given a chance, would roam the many hundreds of acres that comprise the hills we live in again tomorrow, and would return only for food and perhaps a game of don't catch.  Don't catch, btw, is where we throw an object and they all run to get it, one picks it up, drops it again, and they all run back to us.  Throw is fairly loosely interpreted, so recently when I dropped a can of tonic water, Brian grabbed it and carried it off, and when I asked him to come to me, he dropped it and came very obediently.  I told him to go get it, and he did, and picked it up, and I asked him to come, and of course, once again, he dropped it and came over.  Don't catch.  A way for humans to get as much exercise as the dogs.

Anyway, earlier in the evening we heard some rifle shots.  This happens around here.  People sight in their rifles for hunting and such, and sometimes even practice.  It's just the timing and location of the shots that leave me even more worried about Brian.  

He'll turn up, and he'll be wet, and he'll feel sad and worried because maybe mom and dad will be mad and not love him anymore.  Brian, wherever you are, as long as you come home, mommy will be happy.  Honest.  But, you might get a bath.  You have to admit, it's a fair price to pay.  And don't forget, after every bath, there's always the head/towel game.  Sweet!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Classy Way of Learning

Classes and seminars, like the master's class I'll begin next week, are an excellent way for writers to get educated, if they're taught by good people who get results.  Assuming you've done your research, you can expect results.  

Part of  the reason these things work is the focused time on learning.  Reading books on writing is all fine and good, but there's no guidance, feedback, nor deadlines associated with reading.  Receiving feedback from an instructor, or just knowing you'll be graded, will push writers to improve.  In away-from-home classes, you commit the commute time, and while you're in class (in theory, anyway) you'll have few or no distractions from the subject at hand.  Also, good instructors will carefully link reading assignments, writing assignments, and connect those to real world applications so that they align to prove a point.  Like a good story, good classes have themes.  If it's a long class, it'll have sub-plots with their own themes and counter-themes as well.  

Writing retreats can provide some of the same benefits as a class as far as the focused time, but they lack the academic element.  Some retreats do have evening lectures or debates over dinner.  These can be very beneficial, but lack the overall experience of having formal instruction.

Bad instruction is out there.  Be careful what you sign up for.  Also, even very good instruction can damage your writing.  (See Dean Smith's article about this very thing here.)  Among other things, if what's being taught doesn't fit the way that you work, it can undermine a system of writing that works for you.  

Most savvy instructors are aware that there are many different ways to write and do their best to support a given writer's process, but there are two pitfalls I can think of off the top of my head.  

When there are tight deadlines, a slow, deliberate writer will be forced to rush and perhaps fall on his/her face and decide that s/he is a terrible writer because all the feedback on the stories is bad.  

Also, the authority of an instructor can be dangerous to impressionable students.  For example, even when an instructor acknowledges that he outlines but that not everyone outlines, the student may decide that the real problem is that she outlines and everything will be better if she starts doing that.  But if she's a non-outliner like me, she'll find that it'll feel like she's already written the story, and there aren't any surprises left for her--she'll have killed her inspiration to write, and her prose will become as lackluster as her enthusiasm.  (BTW, it's not true that outlining means there aren't any surprises--even very careful and thorough outliners find the story escapes them and surprises them all the time.  They still have plenty of fun.)

Writers who want to please their peers and teachers are particularly vulnerable.  The ego-laden writer is in no danger (and will probably never learn a thing in a class except s/he may decide that everyone is an idiot.)  Writers who have no sense of the worth of their own work may totally ruin it trying to write it to answer everyone's comments.  Better to chuck the story and start again than create such a monster just like Dr. Frankenstein.  And writers who seek praise and hope that their darlings will be received with enthusiasm and demands that they be published immediately will be crushed.  (The evil part of me says rightfully so, but really, these kind of writers need to be educated, not destroyed, and a class is not where they'll learn what they need to know to avoid this particular pitfall.)

Cautionary tales abound about writers going through a class, seminar or workshop and they never write again.  Though part of me (the evil part) quietly rejoices that the slush pile will be that much smaller, honestly, I don't want a writer to stop writing because of a class.  I'd rather they stop writing because it's not as important as other things, or some other reason, like publishing sounds more like a recipe for heartache than an opportunity to share stories with the world.  Do not stop writing because of a class.  If you think you might, don't take the class.

Before you take a class, have a few things clearly in mind:

*If the work load is notoriously heavy, are you a fast enough writer to keep up?
*What are the stated goals for the class?  Is that what you really want to learn?
*What is the teacher's reputation?  Is s/he (or are they, if there are multiple instructors) published, and if so, do you respect their work?  Or are they editors or agents, and if so, are they teaching what they know?  (Not all editors or agents are qualified to teach writing (some are)--but experienced ones can certainly talk about what they're looking for and offer great advice on how to present yourself professionally.)
*What is the reputation for the class?  Do people often wash out?  Is there a reasonable number of people who come out as better writers for it?  (BTW, even a very good class won't have 100% excellent results, and there are always people who don't do well in a given environment so don't let that discourage you--just be aware.)
*Is the cost comparable to similar classes of similar length?  If not, is it worth the disparity in cost if it's more, or if it's less, are there additional costs (like finding your own lodging or buying expensive textbooks?)
*Can you get college credit or a certificate or does the class have some other tangible worth in the publishing community?

Before you take an expensive class that requires you to be away from work a long time, try something smaller scale, like working with a critique group, a community college extension class that meets once or twice a week, or going to a convention (like OryCon!) where there will be writer-related activities and classes (hopefully for free.)  Willamette Writers often has writing-related activities.  If you're not local you may find similar groups, or online groups like Longridge Writers and RWA who can give you a taste of learning under the guidance of other writers before you take the plunge for bigger things like Viable Paradise, Clarion, or Kris and Dean's classes.  Don't take my word for it--check credentials before you sign up for any of these or other courses.  Writer beware: even the most reputable courses may not be for you.

Happy Writing!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Walk the Walk, then Talk the talk

More ways that writers educate themselves:

I called a writer friend of mine, S, the other day to discuss OryCon stuff, and of course we ended up talking about writing stuff.  For an hour.  (Or so.  Ahem.)  We talked SF, real life, bringing real life into fiction, what people don't want to deal with because it's too big in real life but can deal with in fiction, other cultures, pigs, tropical islands, garbage, sequels, and each other's work in general.  

It can kill a story to talk about it too much before it's all on the page.  In fact, for many short stories, it's a sure way to kill it.  But once it's on a page, feel free to analyze it from all sides, and if you can enlist good help, that's even better.  Just don't overwork it by going over it again and again and again unless you how to revise without smothering the fire and life from your writing.

Writers talk to each other and learn a lot about content, writing techniques, stuff that's come out that's similar to their work, and markets that open up, among other things.  I came away from my phone conversation with S inspired to write.  I wrote notes while we were on the phone.  There's still a chocolate wrapper upstairs that says chickens, pigs and ducks; trash collectors:  Mean Scars.  I wouldn't have included the details that sprang to my mind if we hadn't started talking about pigs.

Writers don't have to face years of writing in a vacuum unless they want to.  In fact, learning from other writers may help boost their writing skill and their careers far beyond where they would have gone writing on their own.

But there are some things to keep in mind.  

One of the most important is that you can't start writing to please your writing group or writing friends.  It's important to maintain your style and to be true to your muse.  If they 'get' it and are just as excited about your story as you are, great.  They may become your best allies, with late night emails telling you about a piece of art they found, or a song that reminded them of your story, or a news article that pertains to your work.  Even if they aren't into your story in particular, because they're your friends, they'll do their best to help you by pointing out writing technique books that have helped them, emailing you about workshops and writing retreats, or telling you about anthologies that have just opened up that your stories might fit into.  Your writing friends don't have to like your writing in order to be supportive.  If they aren't supportive of your writing, it might be best to keep the friendship on a non-writing-related basis.

Another factor to keep in mind is jealousy.  I have yet to meet a good writer who would undermine a friend's career out of jealousy.  I don't think that's a serious worry for most people unless they have crummy friends.  But if you have a big success, it might be an idea to think twice before talking about it on and on at every opportunity unless asked, and be sensitive before enlisting your writing friends for promotional stuff.  If they offer, great.  But bear in mind that they're working hard on their writing careers too, and much as they might try not to be jealous and feel horrible if they are jealous, it's harder not to be resentful when it feels like their successful friends are shoving a victory in their faces.  I've been fortunate in that my writer friends have been successful and haven't been self-absorbed or insensitive about it.  In fact they've been understated (and there's one I'd really like to hear more about her success from!) but it's a factor to be aware of, just in case.

Lastly, like talking about games that your friends aren't actually involved in, be careful about going on and on about your characters, plot, subplots, setting, etc.  Not only might it undermine your work-in-progress if you haven't finished it by making it less interesting through over-familiarity, but there's a good chance you'll bore your listeners out of their skulls.  If there's a healthy interchange of conversation, fine--better, if the other folks are doing most of the talking, it's fair to assume they're not bored at all and are eager to talk about your work.  But be sensitive to the fact that talking about your work takes time out of their day and time away from a chance for them to talk about their work too.  It's easy to get carried away.  Use good conversation skills and watch for signs of boredom or attempts to get a word in edgewise.

There are a number of writing communities that meet in person and on the internet.  Get involved!  It can hugely help your writing.  Just be sure you spend the bulk of your time at the keyboard, not flapping your gums.  A fave of mine:  Absolute Write Water Cooler.  Nanowrimo also has forums up for most of the year--they clear them out and start over every year starting October 1, coming up soon! 

Happy Writing everyone! 

Friday, September 25, 2009

Reading and Writing--It's good arithmetic

It's the final countdown to Kristine Kathryn Rusch's and Dean Wesley Smith's master's class.  It's starting to feel real.  

Serious writers constantly educate themselves.  I was talking to a veteran writer--over 60 books to his name, and countless short stories--and he told me that he was always looking for opportunities to improve.  

Reading is essential.  Not just reading how-to books, but reading books similar to the ones you're writing to remain familiar with the market, and master works and best sellers, interchanging pleasure reading with analysis.  A friend of mine with a good number of published books under his belt told me he spent about a year looking just at beginnings and endings of successful books.  That's the analysis part.  The pleasure reading part is important too, though.  

Reading as a reader removes a barrier to the writing and allows you to immerse yourself in the world.  When you emerge, then you can think about how you felt when you were reading, and how you feel now that you're done.  It may inspire you to try to get your readers to have similar feelings, or make you decide that the writing is ineffective and you won't pick up a book like that again.  Then you can take steps to make sure your book evokes the good stuff, or doesn't let down your readers in the same way.  

Now, tastes vary wildly.  There's room for all kinds of books in the world.  But I would not want to write a book that I wouldn't want to read myself just because one just like it sold millions, or the market for paranormal romances is better than it is for epic fantasies.  It's taking a big chance to write a book that you wouldn't read.  Why?  Lots of reasons, but the main one is, if you don't like that kind of book, how could you possibly know what it is about, for example, a romance book, that keeps readers coming back for more if you don't appreciate romances?  It's not going to be some element you can guess about and then slap on the page, like sex, or a melodramatic confrontation that leads to a kiss.  The entire work has to evoke a feeling that the reader wants, and readers are sensitive to disdain, false intention and insincerity. 

My blog entries have been really long lately, so I'll talk about more ways that writers educate themselves in the future.  In the meantime, if you're a writer, don't forget to read! 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rock and roll gardens

Snap, crackle and pop goes my neck as I turn and tip my head side to side and tilt my chin around.  It's been a busy past few days at the computer.

I'm building a new rock garden.  This is another one of those 'what have I gotten myself into?' moments.

I've got two basic techniques that I use to build rock gardens on slopes.  I'll start with a picture of the second kind taken shortly after I finished half of it.  Notice the stepping stones and stairs that come across the lower part of the photo and up the right side already have grass growing around them.  If you're willing to dig a path, edge it, and fill gravel around the steps and stairs of your project, you'll be able to fend off the grass better.  I don't have that kind of landscape.  Ours is a rough and tumble kind of place, more appropriate to weedwacking than real weeding.  Formality here would not only be a little out of place, but difficult to maintain without a lot of money.  The paths might look nice, but would look weird with the weedy, unruly beds that lack mulch because I can't afford to buy 10-15 yards or more of mulch each year.  

Notice how the rocks fit together like puzzle pieces in some places, and have larger gaps in others.  You can plan where plants go by deliberately arranging spaces for them, or you can see what happens when you play around with color and form focused entirely on the rocks.  BTW, those steps may look wobbly, but they are incredibly solid.  That takes practice, patience, strength and skill.  Don't leave exposed overhanging rock unless you have either knowledge or good instincts in terms of stone masonry, engineering, or other applicable stuff.  I used a combination of broken rock (you heard right, I actually broke up rock) tamped under the stones, plus I made sure the vast majority of the weight of those stones were set on solid ground, plus I used very large stones (all heavier than I am) and for the largest overhanging stones, I made sure the next big stone up was resting on it.  It usually took about an hour to set a single overhanging stair.  Dig, test fit, dig, test fit again, dig, test for wobble if the fit looks good, get at least a dozen fist-sized rocks, ram them under the overhang until they break up against each other, test that the rock remains solid when I stand on the very edge.  Repeat with next rock.  (For a rock resting on another rock, you ram the smaller support stones in from the side, not the front.)

Free terrace:  I get big rocks (80-100 pound or bigger if you can get them,) dig holes for them that hold about 20-25% of their bulk, and weed out as many weeds and their roots as I can as I dig.  You don't want to overdig--undisturbed earth that supports topsoil is usually nicely compacted, and you want that solidity to prevent your garden from settling.  If the rocks have a large, irregular feature like a point that's going down, I make sure I dig the hole to accommodate that.  As I dig the holes I often bust up the slope, usually with a mattock, behind where the rock goes so that I have plenty of room, and so that I know there aren't going to be grass roots or blackberry roots back there--they'll be much harder to get rid of later.  Then I place the rocks so that they fit against each other well.  Sometimes I set the smaller rocks so that they're a bit behind the big ones.  

I push dirt into any gaps under the rocks I might find.  I also try to rock the rocks (rock and roll!) to see if there's an attitude that's sturdier than the others, and press dirt around them with my knuckles when I'm satisfied with the position.  When the dirt is level with the surrounding soil on the face and back of the rock, I start tamping with a tamping bar all the way around the base of the rock (except the side where it's against another rock, of course.)  This uses a surprising amount of dirt, and I can often cram dirt under the rock with the tamping bar by going in at an angle.  I also tamp in small stones, fist-sized or smaller, when available for added stability.  Don't overdo the tamping, though.  You can actually tamp the rock out of alignment.  And alternate front and back sides.  When the rock is secure, I start pulling dirt off the slope above it to create a level area.  Sometimes I vary the height of this flat-ish, terraced area, and prevent watering and rain runoff/erosion by inserting rocks at soil level changes.   Then, I start the next row up with the same process, making sure to cut into the slope for the holes for the base rocks, rather than setting them in the soft dirt I just pulled forward to form the terrace.  The idea is to set the next layer so that their weight doesn't add to the load on the lower level--they are going to simply hold back the slope for the next terrace, and will be supported by compacted dirt directly below them (plus whatever you tamp around them.)  This kind of rock garden forms a stair step terrace and can be hard to keep weeded.  If you have the patience, leave it unplanted for a season, and then spray all the weeds that come up.  After planting, maintain with Preen.  Or just do what I do and curse and weed and plant big shrubs in there so that they crowd and shade the weeds out (and mulch.)  This kind of rock garden does best with plants that will drape a bit over the rocks, and it's good to alternate small trees and shrubs with ground covers like snow-in-summer.
Pocket slope (pictured here, year three, with a pile of new stones to extend the garden on the left side):  I call it a pocket slope rock garden because there aren't terraces--the garden follows the existing slope--and I use very little if any local soil.  The soil I add in goes into pockets between the rocks. 

 I get a bunch of landscape fabric, enough to cover the entire slope plus some extra, since it will go into depressions under the rock, which takes extra fabric.  Again, I start at the bottom, using my largest rocks.  I dig a hole for each rock.  Then I take my first rock and I carefully set in and remove that rock repeatedly to make sure it's an excellent fit for the first hole.  I pack dirt firmly around it so that it leaves a good impression, and then lift it out very carefully.  (Sound painful?  It is.)  I put down landscape fabric for the run, with the length running down the holes for the other rocks, and the edge of the fabric set so that most of it won't show on the ground in front of the rocks (some peeking through is okay, even good, as it'll keep down weeds.)  I put in the rock as carefully as I can, in the same position, and start tamping under the landscape fabric under the rock (carefully, as not to tear the fabric,) adding soil underneath the landscape fabric as needed.  If you have a short slope, tamping isn't that important, but for a long, steep slope, this first line is critical and you have to have those rocks in solid--they will be holding a lot of weight.  You might even consider having half the weight of the rock underground for this first course.  For the next rock, you have to lift aside the landscape fabric, and fit the rock to the hole again.  When you've got a reasonable fit, lift the rock out, put down the fabric, set the rock in, and tamp.  Keep going until you run to the end of the line.  For the next row, you want to fold the landscape fabric over to expose the soil above your base rocks.  Make impressions for the next set of rocks, but don't be as worried about getting them in perfect or deep, except for the biggest of them--those will be your foundation stones.  

This kind of rock garden looks best if you vary the size of rock.  Even if you set most of the rocks in pretty shallow and don't bother to tamp much, make sure none of them move if you walk on them.  I usually make cursory impressions for a whole row, lay down the landscape fabric, and then set them in their places, rocking them and adjusting them as needed. Keep an eye on that landscape fabric--you'll want to add the next course of fabric when it looks like the highest rocks on your course will start to overlap onto dirt.  

When you've got the slope covered with rocks, get some clean, weed-seed free dirt.  I prefer a very sandy mixture--it's much easier to weed it, and rock garden plants prefer it.  Fill the gaps between rocks, paying special attention to larger gaps where you can put larger plants--you may even want to lift the stones and get a little soil underneath them, so that your new inhabitants' roots have somewhere to run under for support and still have organic and mineral matter to hold nutrients for the roots.  It may appear at first that you've created a kind of sloping rock wall, and it may even look bland and somewhat ugly.  Don't worry.  Get yourself a bunch of succulents from friends and neighbors (or if you must, the nursery but they really multiply quickly so avoid buying them unless you really have to.)  
Add rock cress, lewisia, compact ornamental grasses, penstemon, super tiny dwarf evergreens (make sure they can handle full sun!) or even bonsai-style trees, and other rock garden faves.  Tight crevasses are great for sedums.   When weeds inevitably appear, they tend to lift right out of that sandy soil, which never compacts.  When grasses take root their roots can't get through the landscape fabric, so even if they get under the rocks, you can lift the rock slightly and yank them out (except for the base rocks--there you've got some work with a weeding fork ahead of you.)  This last photo shows the rock garden after about two years.  These days it's quite overgrown, with the rocks peeking through here and there.

I'm working on a free terrace this time.  My very first rock garden was the pocket kind, though.  It's inundated with strawberries, but only because I'm reluctant to yank them.  When I get around to it, it'll be a cinch to weed.  When doing this stuff, don't work alone--a big rock can roll onto you and leave you injured and pinned, where you'd be vulnerable to all kinds of nasty medical ailments like shock.  Wear latex-dipped gloves--they're clingy, and you'd be surprised how many squished fingers I've avoided because I was able to slip my fingers out of the glove just as the rock started to pinch.  When tamping, wear safety glasses--it's very easy to hit the rock by mistake, and a chip could fly back at you.  

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mabon, and more about roses

If you're not a plant geek, you can scroll down to the end of the following geeking out.

Kai offered some excellent advice in comments and I wanted to respond here because there's so much wealth behind the words. She'd been told "waist high at Thanksgiving, knee high on President's Day." I couldn't have said it any better. That's perfect, better than my suggestions, which are low limits. I did give those low limits for a reason, though.  I just foolishly didn't explain, so I'm really glad Kai said something!

Waist high is too tall for most young roses (4 years or younger) and some of the modern 3' garden roses developed for today's smaller gardens. And waist high may be too low for some of those mature climbers that are practically trees now. So take a good look at the rose in question. Is it mature or is it young? Does it have long canes that could easily snap or develop severe cold damage in winter's strong storms (more on this second item later)? How is the root system? Err on the side of being conservative, while bearing the conditions of your rose and the local winter in mind.

Three cases in my garden:

'Greetings'--This is a very dense shrub rose that rapidly gained height in just a couple of years. (I highly recommend this rose, btw.) Keeping it relatively open so that air can get into the interior (which helps prevent diseases, something this rose is not prone to so it's not a big deal) can be a challenge. But more challenging is to reduce its sail area for winter. Big young rose=underdeveloped roots with lots of plant above ground to catch the wind. I thought I'd pruned it hard enough the first year, and I was wrong. It rocked back and forth so hard that it created open funnel-shaped space all the way around the stem quite far into the ground--a screwdriver could go in several inches and not touch dirt or plant. To prevent this I should have cut as many of the smallest stems as I dared, and counterintuitively, cut the stems down much lower than I would on such a large rose, and then staked the plant. Now its root system is developed enough that its highest roots won't tear and allow the rose to rock. I'll probably still stake it, though.

'Lagerfeld'--This is a lovely, very long-stemmed lavender rose. It also has relatively thin stems. Just about any length on this rose, which is five years of age now, seems to be too long. I thought I cut it back far enough last autumn and it still had lots and lots of damage on it. It recovered, but it put on a poor show this winter. This year I plan on keeping the stems pretty long--perhaps hip high--and I'm going to try to tie them together and then place some sort of insulating material around the crown. Hip high probably sounds weird--isn't that shorter than waist high and therefore not 'pretty long'? Not in this case. At waist height most roses have lots of branches. This one does not. In fact, it almost looks like it wants to be a climber. It's fragile and doesn't hold heat well at all, making it iffy for up here on the hill. Normally if a rose can't make it in our climate, I just let it go, but I love this rose so I'm willing to go the extra mile for it. Sadly, I can't recommend it in the Pac NW, because it is such a princess even in a sheltered area.

'Happy Chappy'--This is a ground cover rose, which y'all will probably say aha, rules go out the window. Well, yes and no. Think horizontal length when pruning, rather than height on the body. Distance from the crown is what you're looking at (which brings us to another thing later.) Mine is brand new, and the profile was low enough and the young branches bendy enough that I wasn't too concerned. It could hide below the worst winds in the flower bed and be squished almost flat and probably not break, even with its branches being more brittle in cold. But an exposed specimen or older specimen would need pruning just like any other rose. Also, you suddenly have a new consideration. Snow weight. Beware heavy weight on thick, old wood that's a few inches off the ground but otherwise following the ground. Snow building up along the length might cause the rose to snap in a bad place. So it might be an idea to take off more of those little branches than you normally would, or just make sure that heavy limbs are supported against the ground at enough points that you're not too worried about too much lever arm.

What's the harm, you might think, of just leaving a rose as it is and then pruning off cold damaged or broken branches later? Well, even well-pruned roses sometimes succumb to winds and cold by snapping off underground or well below the crown. I lost three roses this last winter due to snow weight--sad, but I could have lost them all if I hadn't pruned them. And cold damage isn't like frostbite on a person. I believe (I don't know for certain--I'm not a botanist) that plants have mechanisms to stay warm in winter that have to do with their sap system in the bark--the core of the plant is not like a human body keeping things warm, if that makes sense. The more stem it tries to keep warm, the less chance it'll do a good job. What I've seen is patches, seemingly at random, all over the stem from top to bottom, and there may not be a good place to trim off the cold damage. It's all damaged, though sometimes I'll see slightly less damage very near the crown. If the damage goes all the way around a stem, everything from that point up is partially girdled and the stem will die, slowly, over the course of the next few months as warm weather sets in. (Yeah, the rose gives you plenty of time to think it'll be okay--it'll even put out leaves.) If the stem is cut short, then it appears that it can use its resources over a smaller area. That's my theory, anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

Now, about those crowns--different areas plant their roses at different depths. Some very cold areas have to have that crown at or slightly below ground level. Here in the Pac NW, the crown can be quite high and we can even grow that extreme case, the tree rose, where the crown can be as high as shoulder high. (I bet there are even taller ones.) But the rule Kai mentioned still works. Adjust height for crown. I plant my crowns a little lower than folks down in the valley. Some are only a couple of inches above the ground, and some are at ground level due to storm damage (sometimes they come back after they break, and sometimes even as the same rose if you are fortunate and have a self-rooted rather than a grafted rose.) Adjust for height of crown. I'm guessing Kai's Nana is from the valley area, and that some of her crowns may have been as high as mid-calf.

If you want a serious education on rose pruning, wander Portland's Rose Garden later this year. You'll begin to see the rhyme and reason of rose pruning--how each rose is pruned basically the same, but with respect to its individual form. Those guys really know what they're doing. Or, at least they used to. Anyway, the roses come out looking great every year, so it's close enough for government work.

End of Plant Geeking.

It's Mabon. From now on the nights will grow longer. The weather will remain warm a for a few more weeks, but now that the heat's been turned down on Earth's stove, we'll start to gradually cool down. Around here, the first frost hits pretty close to All Hallow's Eve, so it's easy to pretend it's still summer for our purposes. But the wind is moaning tonight. Soon the Wandering will grab hold of me, just in time for a trip to the coast. We feasted quietly. This is a subdued holiday for me, one that highlights mortality and shadows, but also stars and the moon and reflection. We don't have to start enduring yet, but we have to prepare, and accept that the season of plenty will end. For those of us who've lived through the cycle many times before, we know spring will come, but we don't take for granted that we will personally see it.  

If you're one of those people like me who like to have emergency stores, now is the time to inventory and replace old stuff with new if you haven't been using it and turning it over. I don't worry too much about having enough food for the zombie apocalypse, but I'm happy to have it just in case, and besides--when we get snowed in, it really, really comes in handy.  

Blessed be.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cleaning up around here

Programming Hell for OryCon 31 is done.  The work isn't done by a long shot, but there's enough schedule down that if OryCon happened tomorrow, things would be okay.

This time of year is clean up in the garden time.  We've had some rain, so the ground is relatively soft, but not so much that things are muddy.  The thing about fall clean up is that if we don't do it, the following spring is unmanageable.  We had some of that going on this year.  Not only is the grass impossibly high and weeds fill every bed, but the blackberries (enemy number one around here) build on themselves, making a tough problem even tougher.  And last, because it's not work, but does detract from quality of life, if I don't do adequate clean up, I won't be able to enjoy the hundreds of daffodils that come up in the spring.  

Winters in the Pac NW aren't terrifically long, but they're very gray, and except for that spot in February when we get nice weather off and on for a couple of weeks, the only color we might see before June are daffodils and forsythia.  Some people get crocuses and tulips, but not us.  Deer and bunnies love crocuses and tulips, and if they don't get them, the slugs will.

Speaking of slugs, if you garden and you're looking for some gardening tips for fall clean up, here's my list:

Lightly fertilize fruit trees
Last mowing
Last weeding
Plant new bulbs (not every year)
Rake leaves from under trees into flower beds, paths, and onto compost pile. *
Put down slug bait to reduce the overwintering population
Prune roses**
Remove weak or crossed branches on trees (very important in our high wind area)
Cut back blackberries as much as possible
Mulch if possible

Some people have quite extensive lists.  Google fall garden cleanup.  Mine is short because of the area I have to deal with, and because some of the finer tuning you can do to a garden is wasted on my wild landscape.  Happy gardening!

*Most people with well-sculpted gardens should not rake leaves into their flower beds.  This will help overwinter pests right where you least want them.  It's better to bag your leaves or compost them.  If composting, make sure the leaves aren't the last thing to go on the pile.  They'll just blow away.  No matter what you do, shred the leaves if possible.
**Around here it gets cold enough that it's a very bad idea to prune back roses as hard as the experts suggest.  Those extra branches help the plant shelter itself by collecting leaves and snow.  I prune down to no lower than 12", and leave a few small branches.  This helps my survival rate immensely.  Then, come the last of the really cold weather before first bud (or Valentine's Day, if I'm impatient) I'll finish pruning the roses, with main limbs cut down to the lowest strong bud at least 6" off the ground, and I remove most or all of the minor branches.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I'm an arachnophobe.  I've gotten better over the years through desensitization, but there are some things that still make me freak out.  I don't know why!  I know spiders are small and easily managed.  This doesn't help me.

I know most of them don't have painful bites, but it's not the bite that freaks me out anyway, though I don't consider their bites trivial either.  I don't know if an arachnophobe can adequately describe how a spider's movements send a shudder of alarm through the system, though it's not all that different from the movements of a beetle, a bug I'll willingly (and in the case of a ladybug, eagerly) pick up.  The sizes and textures that spiders come in, again, aren't that radically different from many insects.  There are lots of hairy, spikey, long and short legged insects of various dispositions that have spider-like qualities.  It's not the webs per se either.  I have a fascination for webs.  Yeah, they're unpleasant to get across the face (bleh!!!!!) but they're not radically different from tent caterpillars or spider mites or any number of silk-producing critters.  In fact, in a side-by-side comparison, tent caterpillar nests are weirder, nastier, dirtier, and more extensive in most cases.  But what freaks me out?  The spider web.  The spider crawling on the wall (or on me!)  Teh yarg factor when it comes to spiders has no comparison in Kami's little world of fears.

Last night, little baby spiders hatched.  I think more than one nest has hatched at the same time, because we have them both in the kitchen and in my office.  Normally I get all weird about killing spiders.  There's something just as unpleasant, if not more unpleasant, about killing them or having them killed as there is having them running around in my space.  Whereas a squished fly fills me with satisfaction, a squished spider sends shudders of horror through my system.  I know this makes no sense!  

Anyway, I'll make an exception for massive spider slaughter when it comes to baby spiders.  There's nothing for it but vacuuming.  Because they get everywhere.  They drip from the ceiling, and make little spider highways that dangle and loop and bridge from light fixtures to corner nooks and across doorways.  At least with baby spiders, my arachnophobia doesn't go into full heebie jeebie panic dance mode.  Even my twisted, pitifully insecure, irrational brain won't respond with a full adrenaline dump to a pale dot drifting through the air.  But I still find it really, really unpleasant, and now I itch all over.

Oh, oh!  Maybe I can make a comparison that non-arachnophobes can relate to.  Lice.  My reaction to spiders is like most people's reaction to lice.  You don't care if they're not on you personally, right?  The horror--and nothing feels clean for a long time, and there's the obsessive laundry washing and bagging of toys and going to the store for shampoos, combs, anything ...  except with spiders, I don't have to poison myself.  They're much easier to get rid of.  My emotional reaction to them, however, is just about the same.  Close enough to get a feel for it.  And just like parents of middle school students that have to deal when the inevitable time comes when the child comes home with a note from the teacher, I have to deal with spiders, especially when I garden.  Unlike lice, however, spiders often just drop right in front of your face with a happy "Surprise!"  And they're everywhere.  All the time.

Some spiders are just so cool, I can appreciate them.  Preferably at a distance.  Tarantulas are one group I can tolerate pretty well.  And the common yellow and black garden spiders argiope aurantia (which around here are actually uncommon) are full of awesome.  (My local ones tend to be yellow and brown, but they're the same species.)  Maybe because they're polite and remain outside at all times.  Anyway, though I wouldn't be thrilled to have one crawling on my arm, the fact that this is unlikely to happen fills me with admiration and relief.  Most large orb weavers drop to the ground as quickly as possible when their webs are disturbed, and leave us poor humans alone.  Now that's a spider I can like.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Soil Toil

People who've never had acreage sometimes think they really want acreage more than anything in the whole world.  I love my acreage, but ...

I worked outside from about noon until dark, with a couple of breaks for food and water.  At one point I was working hard enough that sweat dripped off my nose, my usual signal that I've hit that stage in exercise where I'm actually changing my physique instead of maintaining what shape (or lack thereof) I've got.  What did I accomplish for all this effort?  The individual pieces, clearing about 80 feet of paths, cutting the blackberries from around a bench, and weeding about 500 square feet of garden, sounds like a lot.  When you look at the acreage, though, it's hard to tell the difference between what it looked like yesterday and what it'll look like first thing tomorrow morning.  In fact, I'd have to guide you to the area so you could see it and compare it to the unweeded, uncleared areas.  And when I mean I weeded, I mean I took out the noxious and unsightly stuff.  I left behind heaps of what people would consider weeds, including seedlings that will later need to be pulled, and what I call benign weeds that will stay--various varieties of daisies, native thistles, goldenrod and stuff that either feeds birds or is somewhat ornamental.  If I tried making this all look like something out of a landscaping magazine, I'd be very, very unhappy with what I have.

That's life with acreage.  If I put in a hard day's work every day the weather allowed for a year, and I had enough money or other resources (like donated plants,) this place could be well-groomed, with wild areas that lacked invasive weeds, and little hiding places with seating made from our local rock and downed trees, and there'd be multiple paths down to the woods, and all the veggie and flower beds would be edged so that the grass doesn't grow into them quite so fast.  

But I'd be neglecting everything else to do this.  So I make a little progress every year.  Sometimes for several weeks I'm out there putting in 8-14 hour days so that things look reasonably decent.  Sometimes I have to let it go for a few months, and then I have to make up the lost ground.  Spring is the usual time I lose lots of ground.  It's too wet to mow most days and the grass grows like crazy, and the ground is often too soggy to work in any way, including weeding.  

Strategies that people can use in small gardens are often out of reach here.  Like mulching.  About 5 yards of mulch will put a dent in things.  I'd need twice or three times that to lay down a properly thick bed of mulch that will reliably keep weeds down (and help make the ones that pop up really easy to pull.)  That's just the ornamental part of the garden.  Add in the veggie part and I'd need another 10 yards of mulch to do that right.  Around here (buying a yard at a time) that's over $500 worth of mulch.

The same sort of time/volume things come up for everything--planting annuals, seeding, deadheading, fertilizer, border plantings, edging paths, pruning roses (I have lots, though you can't really tell,) mowing (we have about 2 acres that need mowing,) putting up and maintaing fences, and all that other stuff that helps maintain a property.  Our goats help with keeping the brush and grass down on about an acre and a half, though we still have to pull tansy out of their field.  The rest is all us.
If this sounds like something you want to devote a significant portion of your life to, then owning acreage is probably a great idea.  If you want low maintenance, forget it.  Seriously.  You're better off with a tiny yard with no lawn, just a bunch of shrubs and a thick layer of bark dust (our local term for bark chips.)  Sometimes when I come in, arms scratched and sunburned from wrist (where my gloves end) to shoulder, yanking out thorns from blackberries and roses, a rash below both knees down to my ankles from grass, hands aching, exhausted and thirsty, I long for a tiny yard with no lawn and a thick layer of bark dust.  But then I get a tall glass of cold water and stand out on the deck, surveying my garden, and it all seems worth it.  Even when it's a mess.  Even when it's overwhelming and seems like it'll never be right and beautiful.  
It's the journey, not the destination.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Art of Not Working

I had a fabulous dinner last night with my DH and my friend R.  Good times at Ya Hala (in Portland, OR at SE 80th and Stark--highly recommended.)  One of those meals where I spent most of my time laughing about something.  We were the last people to leave.  I get to relive a bit of the flavors, if not the companionship, today when I dip into leftovers: wonderful bread they baked on the spot last night, homous (Lebanese spelling) and the cabernet sauvignon we had with out meal (we bought a bottle but didn't finish it.)  A meal like we had is a celebration of life.  The whole brain is engaged.  I'm sure my DH would have enjoyed a little danger with the meal, but I thought it was perfect.    

R is on her way to Glacier National Park today--have a great road trip, R, and take lots of pics!

R is the one that keeps me honest about my art, reminding me about the difference between an amateur (hey, it's a love thing and therefore not bad!) and a professional artist.  I simply don't put the effort into art that I put into writing.  I would like to!  But there wouldn't be hours left in the day to do that.  Well, I guess I could not sleep.  Volunteering for stuff does eat into my time, but only during certain times of the year.  That doesn't explain away my lack of focus on things of color and mind-hand-brush.  I think painting is what I do to relax and think, and I think and relax so that I can write, if that makes sense.  Gardening is the same way.  I don't think and plan and schedule my time around gardening.  I garden so that I have time to relax, think and plan my work.  The fact that I'm accomplishing stuff and sweating is purely secondary.  If I wanted to nudge myself into professional art, I would have two full time jobs instead of one (or two--however many I have right now) and the relax/think time would vanish, which would impact my creativity.  Hard to create when your creativity is compromised.

Big working weekend this weekend.  All kinds of stuff to do inside the house and out on the acreage.  Lots of time to think and plan and work on those projects that might keep us afloat over the next few months.  The weather is perfect.  It's non-stop happy happy around here.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Colors of a Day

I'm on a new schedule.  I like it, but it's bugging me.  

I didn't realize how much I wrote in casual bursts.  I had no awareness of how often I'd sit at my computer during lunch, check blogs and then write out a few paragraphs or pages on a project before moving on to do laundry or whatever.  It's not like I blacked it out.  I just didn't comprehend the total volume I'd produce on a daily basis this way.  

Well, the kids are back in school and I share the computer now, plus I've fallen way behind on a bunch of stuff.  I sat down with my DH and wrote a list.  My gawds it was long, and later I realized I'd forgotten a couple of things.  

The driveway gate, for one.  Weirdly, a few times now people have pulled into our driveway at odd hours and 'got lost.'  Why they pick our driveway, I don't know.  Those of you who've been here know our driveway is narrow and not easy to get into, and there's no obvious (at first blush, anyway) place to turn around.  The worst was a pickup full of drunk guys who about took out the corner post on the pasture.  At o'dark thirty, no less.  Needless to say I had a gun in one hand and the phone in the other, because for all I knew they were going to eventually park, get out, and start some mischief.  I was home alone with the kids.  I wasn't in the mood to play, or go out and ask questions.   They eventually went away, but since then I've wanted a gate.  I don't mind people pulling in to stop and turn around, and there will be (barely) enough room to pull in off the road if someone has to.  But they will not have the ability to casually pull all the way up to the house anymore.  

The other project I forgot about is also neighborhood related.  Kids (if it's not kids, that's another notch against the human race) around here entertain themselves with bashing mailboxes.  After replacing ours twice, I'm done.  The next will be encased in brick.  I have the bricks.  I have a new, non-dented mailbox that still has its flag waiting in the laundry closet.  I just have to pour a footing and build the darned thing.  I figure it'll take a few days.  Naturally, I haven't even dug out the footing yet.

The contents of the list aren't really important, though.  The important thing was that they weren't getting done, and needed to get done.  I needed a system to get myself to work on them daily.  Waking up and deciding what to do today wasn't working.  I needed a mindless schedule to follow.  So I set one up and took it for a test drive today.

The new schedule is, with some room to change order some days:  Email early, workout in the morning, deal with something off my long list morning to lunch, business hour biz after lunch, more work on something on the list or housework, lavish some attention on the kids, make dinner and eat, email and write at night.

I have meetings, and most evenings I want to go for a walk with my DH and the dogs, and the kids have fencing--this isn't a ritual.  But it did seem to work today.  I just miss my writing.  I think one thing I can do is allow for the fact that I'll need breaks from my list items, and during those breaks I can have my water or tea or whatever and write for a while.  I'll just need to watch the time.  Sadly, though, early morning writing is some of my most productive time, and these days I'm staying up late to take care of all things online and writing too.  So I'll think about this arrangement.  I may have to switch it around and get up very early, before the kids, and try working on writing and my online biz then.  That work will get interrupted when the morning school routine kicks in, but I don't think that's a bad thing.  And I'd like to see the kids off to school.  I miss that.  (My DH has been getting up with them, which is awesome and I think the kids love it.)

Once the schedule settles I think I'll end up with a very productive system.  I think it'll become habit just in time for winter.  Hopefully that'll offset my tendency to laze around during the cold weather and just write all day.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Many Blessings

I'm at our favorite Wifi coffee shop counting the things that make me so happy I could burst:

I can reach across the table and hold hands with my DH.  After months of coming here to Skype with him, this is beyond awesome.

Right behind him, the girl is watching something on YouTube and she's laughing and smiling.  Seeing my child happy is amazing.  I love that.

Chocolate.  No explanation required.

I know what I want to do and how to do it.  I think even in this tough marketplace, I'll be able to help my family stay afloat.

Our family is tough, smart, clever, hard-working, and we have a lot of assets.  Our future may be uncertain, but it's not dire.  

 I'm completely, totally in love with my DH and cherish and love my children.  We have such a good life, and we stick together.  My extended family is wonderful too--I need to take more time to see them, because they're people I want to spend time with.  

The weather is incredible.  Sunshine, thunderstorms, and the scent of autumn perfumes the air, but it's warm and working outside is a real pleasure.  The earth is soft and yields up weeds easily without being mushy, and the breezes are so silky they're sensuous.

We have food--food in the refrigerator, a full freezer, and food out in the garden.  We also have emergency stores in the pantry.  We'd be okay for some time if something happened.

We have transportation and back-up transportation.  I admit this doesn't make me so happy I could burst, but I'm trying to appreciate that.  Yes, we lost the Corolla.  But we can still get around.  We're not stuck trying to get around on bicycles on dangerous roads.

I have the most fun working vacation ever coming up!  Three days at the coast with my DH and kids, and over two weeks on the coast where I'll be taking a master's writing class.  The writing class will be tough, but I'm already enjoying the heck out of it.  The reading assignments were good for me, and the writing assignments made me think (and I haven't even seen those through to the end yet.)  Did I mention three days at the coast with my DH and kids?  I love being at the coast with them.  I like swimming and hot tubbing in October with my DH, and clam chowder, and drinking tea and walking on the beach and chasing games and playing with bokken and beachcombing and did I already say chasing games? and tasting salt in the wind and looking at silly pirate stuff while window shopping and our favorite book stores and taking pictures and icky kissing stuff and chasing games.  And stuff.

Life is great.  I have to remember this for those times when life is tough.  Life gets tough at unexpected times, and some of my strength comes from these many good times and good things that build up reserves.  

I'm going to touch my DH from across the table some more.  I think I'll kick his foot under the table, just because I can.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

All about bottoms and/or hinds

We've been doing housework, the crazy kind where you get into back corners and discover things are living there.  Brings to mind Tolkien's dwarves in the mines of Moria.  They delved too deep and awoke Durin's Bane, the balrog.  The things at the bottom are downright scary.

Rory has taken on the bedroom.  There the ancient tombs hold precious cloth, now rotted by time, and treasures long forgotten.  I think he's mostly, if not all done in there.  I'm glad he took care of some of those ... things ... he found.  I'm afraid!

I'm working in my office, which has been gone over before a few times, but I'm getting rid of paperwork and that means a time-consuming slog through boxes and bags of to-be-done-later stuff, which has transformed to to-be-done-now boxes and bags.  Among the tomes and dusty parchment she searches for mention of the One Ring ...  and I've barely gotten started.  I've already sent up several boxes and bags of paperwork to burn, but the office doesn't look much changed.  It just goes on and on.  And there are spiders.  Lots and lots of spiders.  Well, not that many, but for me more than two is a lot.

Beast, at one point during a short break, managed to open the front door and came in.  He ran around happily until we caught him and decided it would be a good time for a brushing.  Rory wrestled him to the ground and showed him who was boss while the girl and I scrubbed him all over with a brush.  Then he got to run around some more as a reward before we booted his freshly-groomed hind outside.  Two dogs down (Brian got a good brushing the other day,) Finn to go.  But first, back to the quest.

Mixed in with all this domestic duty is the never-ending programming thing and writing deadlines.  They're coming at me from all sides!  If it weren't for the clean up project around here, I'd have a flat hind and wrists swollen to twice their normal size.  I hope I'll have time to go for a walk or something tonight.  Yesterday we went shopping, but that isn't the same kind of walking around.  That's the kind that makes you grumpy, rather than the kind where you feel easy and pleasantly sore and your lungs feel clean down to their bottoms.  Or hinds.  It's all about hinds today, I guess.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The first board

The Sea of Unconditional Love (aka the barbarians, our outside dogs) had dug out a corner post for our porch at one point, so that the front porch sank about a foot on one side.  Normally this would cause blue flames to shoot out of my eyes, etc. but as the porch had been in iffy shape when we bought the house eight years ago and time hasn't improved on it, I expected we'd just take the thing apart, salvage what we could for various projects, and eventually build a new, smaller one on whatever bones remained (after jacking and resetting that corner, or possibly building from stone, our original plan waaaay back when we first saw it would need to be replaced sooner rather than later.)

Procrastination being what it is, I've been working on other things.  I cringed every time I stepped out to water my plants, because this set my weight on some particularly soft boards, and I knew eventually I would just fall right through.  

Well, never fear no more, because about 12:45 am today, Beast decided to get stuck under there.  I'm not sure how he managed it.  I suspect, judging by the hair, he got stuck by an exposed nail (this porch was never put together particularly well in the first place) and couldn't get out.  So I grabbed a crowbar and rescued him.  The first board I lifted did the trick and he escaped.

So now the first board has been moved.  I'm not replacing it.  Nope, we'll just keep on a'goin'.  

We may end up building this SOB from stone anyway.  We can gather stone for free.  Wood is expensive.  We'll still need to buy mortar, but hopefully that won't be as bad as decking materials.

If it's not one thing it's another.  I don't know why.  As we all know, there's never anything to do around here!