Tastes Like Spring — A recipe for Scallion Pancakes

“What are they?” asked my son en passant.  “Scallion pancakes; they’re a kind of fry bread.” “Can’t go wrong with fry bread!” he replied, and snatched one to eat before mowing.

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Yes, Spring is here (again), and we’ve gone through our usual winter-spring-winter-summer-winter-spring nonsense. The daffodils are blooming, the grass needs mowing, and the scallions are up. Scallions are the same thing as green onions, meaning ordinary yellow or white onions harvested when young. I have some volunteer onions in the former vegetable patch (soon to be lawn again), and because they grew from rogue seeds last year, and as onions are biennials, this year they will in turn go to seed if not harvested before that point. I woke up the other morning thinking, “Boy, some Scallion Pancakes sound really good!” A dim sum from Shanghai, these fry breads are some of the simplest of the tea-house treats to make. If you don’t have any scallions on hand (or found them withered away in the back of the crisper drawer), you can use Chinese chives (AKA garlic chives or Chinese leeks).

PREPARING THE DOUGH AND SCALLIONS

In a large mixing bowl, blend together:

  • 1 1/2 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (125 mL) hot water —  plus a tablespoon more, if needed

Once the dough is rough and clumpy, liberally sprinkle flour on a clean counter, and knead the dough for a few minutes until it’s smooth and workable. Wrap the dough in a damp cloth or plastic bag and set it aside to rest for 30 minutes (set a timer). TIP: Set the mixing bowl in the sink, and fill with hot sudsy water to soak off the sticky bits. Then I go out to harvest my scallions. When pulling up scallions, knock off the extra soil from the roots, and also strip off the outermost leaf. When onions grow, each onion layer is formed from a leaf; stripping off the outermost leaf removes the thin, dried, dirty layer. In the kitchen, rinse off the scallions (including any soil hiding in-between the leaves), and trim off the roots and brown leaf tips. This recipe only calls for the green parts, so you can set aside the white stalks for a stir-fry or omelette. In a 2-cup (1/2 L) measure, blend together:

  • 1 1/2 cups (325 mL) scallions, chopped small
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) salt

TIP: I wear safety / laboratory goggles when chopping onions, as they keep the fumes from my eyes. Yes, it looks doofy, but it’s the best method I have yet to find to prevent the watering-eyes problem.

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A pair of safety goggles set atop a pile of scallions

The scallions need to macerate in the sugar and salt to get soft and tasty, so meanwhile we’re going to do some cleaning up. Remove any clumps of dough from the counter; I use the edge of my square-bladed metal spatula / turner, as I’m too cheap to spend money on an official dough scraper when something else works just fine. TIP: To remove gummy dough bits from the mixing bowl, pour out the suds and use a rubber spatula to scrape off the lumps. Wash the mixing bowl and rubber spatula, plus wash and dry your knife and cutting board, as you’ll need the latter again.

ASSEMBLING THE PANCAKES

Flour the counter, and cut the dough into two even lumps. Take one lump, and roll / squeeze it into a log 12 1/2″ (35 cm) long. Cut the log into five, 2 1/2″ (6.5 cm) long sections. Move four sections aside, and roll out the remaining piece very thin, into a rectangle 10″ x 4″ (25 x 10 cm).

(Yes, these conversions aren’t exact, and that’s okay as we’re going to be further mashing up the dough anyway.)

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Cut log of dough into five evenly-sized sections.

TIP: It’s hard to use a rolling pin to stretch the dough by just rolling it. So after the initial bout of rolling the dough flat, I use the rolling pin to anchor one end and gently pull, then without lifting the rolling pin, lay down the stretched dough and roll the pin over the dough to secure the stretching and flatten it more. Then I roll the other direction to broaden the piece.

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Hold down one end of the dough with a rolling pin and gently pull on the other end to stretch it out.

Now it’s time to fill that piece of dough! Take a tablespoon of scallions and distribute them along the center of the strip, but stop half an inch (1 cm) before each end. (Resist the urge to “supersize” your load; you’ll find out why.)

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A very thin rectangle of dough with a line of chopped scallions going down the middle.

Fold over each of the short ends, and then fold over the top to cover the scallions, and the bottom to cover the top. I’ve never seen any recipe source mention folding in the short ends, but I have found from making burritos and such that tucking in the short end first helps prevent the filling from falling out. Take one end and fold the whole thing over lengthwise (doubled).

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Filled dough showing one short end folded in first, and the bottom and top lengths folded over each other.

Lift from the counter and gently smuush it along its length to make it thinner and longer. Take the end with the original ends, and fold it over a bit.

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An inch of the open end of the doubled, filled dough has been folded over to begin the coiling process.

Then coil up the roll, tucking the outside end between adjoining parts of the ring.

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The filled roll coiled up, with the end tucked into the next loop.

TIP: Don’t even think of trying to use a rolling pin to flatten the coil into a pancake; even using your palm to flatten it onto the countertop doesn’t work well. Instead, dust it well with flour, and use your fingers to palpate the dough, pressing it as thin as possible, all over.

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Pressing the coil thin between fingers to flatten it. In real life, I generally use two hands; here I was taking the picture with the other hand.

Note that some scallions wil pop out of the dough and create a juicy mess here and there. That always happens. Tuck them in, or just use them in the next pancake. Don’t worry your early pancakes aren’t terribly round; they will still taste good.

Repeat the rolling, filling, coiling and flattening process with the other pancakes.

You might ask, “Wouldn’t it just be easier to flatten and fill one of those two big lumps of dough, and then cut it into five pieces, instead of doing each piece separately?” Being an efficient sort, I wondered that myself, and tested my dough with both methods. The fill-then-cut pancakes ended up much messier, with scallions popping out everywhere. You can see the results here, with the fill-then-cut on the left, and the make-five-individually on the right:

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Comparing two methods: five of the the messy fill-then-cut pancakes on the left, and five of the tidy make-five-individually on the right.

TIP: To easily remove the dough and scallion gunk off your hands, use warm running water and a rubber spatula to scrape off the dough; be sure any dough bits aren’t left stuck on the sink where they might harden.

Likewise, scrape off your counter, and put your utensils to soak in warm, soapy water. The washing up will be easy to do by the time you’ve cooked and eaten your scallion pancakes.

LAST STEPS: COOK AND ENJOY!

Get a large iron or non-stick skillet and heat up a thin layer of oil for frying your pancakes. (On my electric stove, the ideal setting is somewhere between Medium and Medium-hot, but stoves vary.) Do not crowd the pan with too many. The pancakes are ready to turn over for frying on the second side when lightly browned, and the dough looks mostly white instead of translucent. Once fried on both sides, remove to blotting paper.

TIP: I drape a couple of paper napkins over the pages of an old phone book; the napkins keep the ink off, and the phone book pages provide plenty of blotting ability. Once the cooking is over, I rip those pages from the book and toss them.

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No sauce is needed for this dim sum; just let the Scallion Pancakes cool enough to eat!

Howdy, Nandi!

Let me introduce you to a new friend of mine, Nandi the garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Unlike most of the snakes whom I have encountered in my gardens, this one was much more amenable to being held, and didn’t thrash about, pee, or exude stink from its postanal gland. We decided to adopt him. (I think it’s a him; the tail after the vent is slender and shortish. Also, males emerge from hibernation first.)

Isn’t he just the cutest thing?

3/4 profile portrait shot of a Garter snake

Despite what pet stores may tell you (or told me), garter snakes are not insectivorous. So In his roomy terrarium/herpetarium, I ended up with a bunch of crickets (and some cricket feed cubes). The crickets will end up as chow for Rosie, my tarantula. Meanwhile though, the male crickets serenade the females, as well as Nandi and Rosie and me. Chirp, chirp, chirp! It’s the cricket equivalent of, “Hey, ba-by! Ooh, sexy!”

A pile of randy crickets hanging out atop the rock under the heat lamp

And as you can tell from this picture, Nandi is not a threat to them. In fact, he seems a trifle annoyed at times, and a few days ago after I fed him a hyuge earthworm, he burrowed into the soft plant substrate to digest, unmolested by the jumping jiminies.

At about 22 in. / 56 cm., Long Snake Is Long. Well, not really; that’s about an average size for an adult, although he could grow longer. Read the rest of this entry »

Speak More Kale

This was a major WTF moment when listening to the news today [transcript this link]: the Chick-fil-A chain is suing a Vermont tee shirt maker for copyright infringement. Their slogan is, “Eat Mor Chikin” and his is “Eat More Kale”.

Now, Bo Muller-Moore’s design uses:

  • a different font,
  • correct spelling,
  • a vegetable instead of an animal,
  • and no cows in his design.

Obviously, the design on his tees is nearly identical to the fast food chain’s! </snark>

The Vermont state Governor, Peter Shumlin, formed “Team Kale” as a fundraiser for legal fees to fight this absurd suit. After all, the Vermonter has been making these (and other) tee shirts for ten years, and this is how he makes a chunk of his living.  (Progress on the individually hand silk-screened tees is apparently getting a bit behind due to sudden demand, but there are also big green stickers for a 50-cent donation.)

The phrase “Eat More ____” sounded vaguely familiar, and some googling around quickly showed that it has been used throughout history!

vintage "EAT MORE MILK" advert for Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolate

WWI Canada Food Board poster, "Eat more Vegetables! SAVE Meat and Wheat for our SOLDIERS and ALLIES"

"Eat MORE FRUIT" poster, Victorian Railways, Australia

WWI poster, U.S. Dept. Agriculture: "Eat More Cottage Cheese...You'll Need Less Meat...A Postal Card Will Bring Recipes...Cottage Cheese or Meat? Ask Your Pocketbook!"

There are other current usages of the phrasing, such as”Stay Healthy. Eat More Bacteria” for a dietary supplement. (After all, one shouldn’t discriminate between biological Kingdoms!)

If you do a visual google search, you can find an antique billboard on Route 66 that says, “Watch Your Curves. Eat More Beef.” from the Beef Industry Council. Apparently, in an earlier incarnation it was the Texas Beef Council, which also offered up quite an absurd pin-up girl (she’s ostensibly changing a tire, but without any cattle in the picture whatsoever). I mention these simply because they are the humorous antithesis of the “Eat Mor Chikin” cows.

BTW, kale is really tasty lightly braised (PLEASE, don’t cook the hell out of it — that just makes it bitter and stringy). Take your gently-wilted kale and sprinkle with some balsamic vinaigrette, or chop and mix into mashed potatoes (with bacon and onions, if you like), or add bite-size pieces in soups (miso soup with udon and kale sounds REALLY good this time of year).

What makes kale so great is that not only will it over-winter (meaning, you can get it from local farmer’s markets or CSA just about year-round, or else grow your own), but also that it has lots of iron, Vitamins A & C, calcium, and fiber.

Tasty Kale 'Curly Leaf'

Many kales are also quite ornamental as well — not just the frilly pink sort (grown for pretty more than nutrition), but also the tall green or purple-tinged sorts, which are often used for cold-weather plants in outdoor container arrangements.

The ornamental Kale 'Redbor Hybrid'

V1brat0rs for Ensuring All Your Cucumber Needs

Bug G. Membracid recently had a radio show appearance!  (Is it called an “appearance” when you’re on a wireless programme and no one can see you?  Nevermind.)

But it featured her line about honeybees being ‎”little flying phalluses” – which is really funny when you remember that worker honeybees are girls!

That in turn reminded me of a story during a horticultural study tour to a Dutch production greenhouse …

Tomatoes and peppers do not need insects to transfer pollen between flowers, as the flowers are “perfect” (have both male & female parts). But for the pollen to get moved/bumped from the pistils to the stigma there still needs to be some kind of wind or other vibration.

There’s not enough wind for this to naturally happen (or rather, efficiently happen) in a greenhouse, especially when the panes are shut to the weather. So it used to be that the operators would equip their greenhouse workers with *little vibrating wands* (oh yes), which they used to buzz-pollinate Every. Single. Fresh. Flower. (Insert inevitable sniggers from the undergrads.) Of course, that’s a lot of paid worker hours.

Nowadays the thrifty Dutch use bumblebees, who work for much cheaper wages of cardboard nesting boxes and some supplemental nectar. The big, gentle bees still visit all the flowers for the pollen, and resultant heavy buzzing results in flower fertilization for good crops.

 

[N.B.  Derf; “cucumbers in the title is incorrect – they DO need to be insect pollinated! Except of course for the parthenogenetic cukes, which basically set fruit by a sort of “virgin birth” process…]

Singing teh Brain-Dead Workin-Hard Blues: Remodeling

Had a migraine this morning
Cancelled on my shrink.
Need to clean and organise
But I can’t even think.

Moved bedrooms three days ago
O where is my daily pill box?
Boxes and piles everywhere
O where are my clean socks?

I need to go out and garden
Weeds have eaten the side yard.
I need to finish planting
Heat’n’humidity too damn hard.

I need more hours at my job
Stocking groceries at the store;
717 pounds of charcoal
Added bruises to the score.

Need to hammer and hang things
But grandchildren are asleep.
Need to paint and put away stuff
Always more work and I just keep–

Charging for hardware I gotta buy
Like a frequent flier down at Lowe’s.
Wish everything was at the Restore*
Spending too much goodness knows.

Had a migraine this morning
Cancelled on my shrink.
Need to clean and organise
But I can’t even think.

Moved bedrooms three days ago
O where is my daily pill box?
Boxes and piles everywhere
O where are my clean socks?

* Restores are where Habitat for Humanity sells new/gently used building materials; they are a great way to reduce-reuse-recycle and save lots of money on building supplies!  The hitch of course is that the items vary daily at stores.

Bread and beauty

“If, of thy mortal goods, thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves
alone to thee are left,
Sell one & from the dole,
Buy Hyacinths to feed the soul”

– Muslihuddin Sadi,
13th Century Persian Poet

Web buzzing

Just wanted to share some cool things I found recently!

INSECT-RELATED FUN

Amazonian ants apparently adore Tetris – ’tis a tee from Threadless Tees.

Cartoon with a green background, the upper half with five army ants on a branch, carrying pieces of leaves cut into various Tetris shapes. Below, the crowned queen ant awaits by a Tetris-shaped stack of pieces. (Unfortunately, she's about to get a square and won't have a place to set it!)

and,

NPR has a short episode with guest comments by the inimitable entolomogist and highly entertaining author, May Berenbaum,

There has been a worldwide proliferation of urinal flies, observed May Berenbaum, head of the department of entomology at the University of Illinois in her new book The Earwig’s Tail.

You can listen to the episode and/or read the transcript, “There’s A Fly In My Urinal”.

realistic black and white fly decal

and,

Jessica (the painter) and James (the author) of Project InSECT have a couple of books out, How Mildred Became Famous (book I and book II).  Mildred is a mantis, and one of the many gorgeous, large paintings that Jessica has done.

Detailed painting of Mildred, the praying mantis, plain chiaroscuro background

GARDENING / NATURE

A brief video:  One year in 40 seconds. Eirik Solheim’s gorgeous time-lapse of Norweigian woods.  Suitably short for the ADHD brain or a coffee break.  (Alas, I’ve tried several ways to get this URL embedded so it will display from this post, but WordPress is being funky.  So you’ll just have to copy-paste it to get to the YouTube page directly.)

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmIFXIXQQ_E

and of course, a bit of geeky

ACCESSIBILITY


A dismotivational poster with the image of a Dalek (robot from Dr Who show) stuck in a concrete room with only stairs as a means of exit; its word balloon says, "FUCK". The poster caption is, "LIMITATIONS everyone has them"

News Bees

Our carpenter bees are happy, but the short-haired bumble became extinct in its native country several years ago.  Fortunately, immigrant populations survived in New Zealand, and are being re-introduced.  The value of native pollinators is being rediscovered as honeybee populations have dwindled. Find out how to prevent jet-lag in bees and more here in the Guardian.

Elephants are also endangered, and Kenyan populations are pushed to resources where farmers are also trying to survive.  Fortunately, researchers are working with the elephants’ (and bees’) natural behaviors.  A report on BBC News describes how hollow-log style beehives have been used on the continent for centuries, and are used as part of the fences. (Of course, the honeybees also give the farmers good crop pollination, and some honey and wax harvests, too.)

Insect news from my own garden to come soon!

B is for Bob, C is for –

“Eek, a bee!” yelped the little girl as her mother paid for some flowers at the nursery register.

“Oh, that’s just Bob; he can’t sting you.  He’s a carpenter bee.” I explained, holding an open hand up toward where Bob was doing loop-de-loops.  But my repeated explanations aside, most people were not buying Bob’s reported status as a gentlebee-ing.  Let’s face it, an inch-long bee flying around you is hardly subtle.

Not but a couple days later, I came in to work and found a patio-style citronella candle lit near the entrance. Our manager had lit it in hopes of deterring Bob, who had been joined by another male.  Like two World War 1 flying aces, they were staging aerial dogfights.  “They’re not out to get anyone,” I told the other employees, “it’s territorial.”  That didn’t mollify anyone, but fortunately Bob prevailed and his rival left the scene.

“Wow, that’s a BIG bumblebee!” exclaimed a customer.

“It’s a carpenter bee.  They have the shiny, dark abdomens, like a brand-new pair of carpenter jeans.  Bumbles are furry all over.  See the white on his face?  That means he’s a male.  The males can’t sting.”  I’ve never been stung by carpenter bees or bumbless, and have even petted them.

My current computer wallpaper is my photo of a female — isn’t she just adorable?! (more story below):

A large bee with a black head and abdomen, and a gold, furry thorax nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

A large bee with a black head & abdomen and a gold, furry thorax, nectaring on Queen Anne's Lace

Carpenter bees (Hymenoptera, Family Apidae: Xylocopa virginica) get their name because they dig tunnels in dead wood.  They use these for rearing offspring, and for overwintering.  Painting wood is the easiest deterrent for preventing structures from being bored into.  I couldn’t see anything in the garden center “tent” that would be a great place for setting up housekeeping (the only wooden structures nearby were thin shipping pallets), so I figured that Bob had decided that the garden center was the ne plus ultra of food resources, with its thousands of blossoms.

Like other bees, carpenters are valuable as pollinators, and like orchardists, you can buy (or make) bee blocks in hopes of attracting some.  Once in a while the bees will take a short-cut and “rob” a flower by chewing through the base to get directly to the nectar. (‘nother pix, still more story)

White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from Columbine flower

White-faced male carpenter bee stealing necar from pink Columbine flower

While the males are hanging around being territorial, the females are busy stocking their offsprings’ larder with pollen & nectar balls.  Each of their several eggs gets its own foodball and wood-pulp partition.  Once the larva have hatched, eaten up their food, and metamorphosed into adults, they then chew through the wee shoji-screens, crawling over their siblings to go out and start the process over again.

Recently, Bob was nowhere to be seen.  Our manager explained that when he was cleaning up the other night, he realized that the broom made a great fly-swatter.  Apparently I looked dismayed, because he went on to explain that something unexpected happened the next day.  “Bob’s brother or cousin or friend or who-ever moved in, several of them!”

This made me laugh.  ” ‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ There was an opening in the territory!”

But our story has a serendipitous ending.  As the days have grown hotter, our manager brought out a standing fan to help keep everyone cool as they stand by the register.  Apparently carpenter bees are befuddled — or bothered — by the steady stream of air, and they left to hang around elsewhere.

“Oh, that’s fabulous! You worked with their behavior, not against it.  You always get better results that way, whether it’s insects, students, or employees.  That was really clever.”

Mulch Ado About Nothing

I was schlepping plants around at the garden center when my mobile buzzed.  It was M calling to ask my opinion regarding an interaction he’d had over in the garden center at his store.

“There was a customer just in who was raising a big fuss because we’re selling cocoa mulch, and how it’s poisonous to dogs, and how we’re criminals for selling it, and I just wondered what you knew about it.”

“Cocoa-bean hull mulch?” I verified, as phone conversations can trip me up, “Poisonous to dogs?”  I’d heard right.  “Well hell, most anything can be kill you, even water.  ‘The poison’s in the dosage.’  It depends upon the dog, how much they eat and so on.  Some dogs’ll eat ANYTHING.   Sure, chocolate’s not good for dogs, but I can’t imagine there’d be that much Theobromine in the hulls.  It’s in the nibs.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.  I asked him where he’d heard this, and he said, ‘On the Internet,’ and I had to bite my thumb — hard — to keep from laughing at him.”  M doesn’t tolerate fools, but a lot of forbearance must be exercised when one works retail.  “He was really raising a big fuss about it; saying the he’s going to call the Action News Teams and so on.”

Fft! We sell lots of stuff that dogs shouldn’t eat; chocolate bars, cleaning products, even plants like Foxgloves and Euphorbias.  But we’re not recommending that anyone let dogs EAT them.  No one’s even suggesting that customers use cocoa mulch for dog pens!  Holy cows.”

We nattered a couple minutes more about the dangers of pseudoscience on Teh Internets and the intransigencies of customers before returning to our jobs, and then I mentioned the issue (and my analysis) to our manager, just in case.

Of course, when we got home from our jobs, we just had to check things out.  I noodled around on the university extension sites for plants poisonous to dogs, and found this good list from Cornell University Department of Animal Science.  There was a good piece on the whole dogs+cocoa mulch story in the online Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. And for the non-technical audience, the thing that our earnest-but-irresponsible citizen-crusader should have checked, an article on Snopes about the whole foofaraw.

M (a former Army nurse) was unimpressed about the story of a dog named Calypso dying after eating cocoa mulch.  “Did anyone do an autotopsy to determine that it was the mulch that actually caused the dog’s death?!”

“Correlation doesn’t equal causality,” I recited, pulling out a handy script while I mentally digested the JAVMA article.  “Really, most people — and animals — have eaten something before they die.  But that doesn’t mean their stomach contents were what caused the death!”

I clicked through some more pages.  “Oh look, the way it’s processed nowadays removes most of the Theobromine and such, anyway.”  As an aside, I added, “I tried the stuff a few years ago.  It smells GREAT when you open the bag (we had to make brownies afterwards), but it’s so light it blows away, and it tended to get moldy when it rained a lot.  It’s also really expensive.  I wasn’t impressed; I like pine-bark mulch better.”

“I wish people would check things out that they read on the Internet before they go around threatening stores,” grumbled M.

I harrumped, thinking of the dozens of flavors of bunk associated with horticulture, autism, and other topics.

“Well,” he added, “If that guy comes in again, I’ll let him know that a horticulturalist, a scientist, said it’s not highly toxic.  We’re not being irresponsible for selling mulch.”

“Indeed.”

Cartfuls of Spoons

They’re out.  Or, Out.  We have the exquisite “Privilege of Being Clouted By Cabbage” and are navigating the hazards of the supermarket.  When things are done the way they’re supposed to be, going to pick up a few groceries is just as boring, or as Dave discovered, lonely, for disabled people as much as it is for everyone else.  But sometimes it isn’t, such as when Wheelchair Dancer finds herself navigating the hazards of anonymous donors that leave awkward brochures under her windshield wiper, and then dealing with the even more awkward social fallout with the clerk who’s assisting her.

People with a variety of disabilities come to the store to get groceries, movies, dry cleaning, take-out food, postage stamps, floral arrangements, and because it’s this time of year, garden plants, which is why I am working there.  I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am bemused to report that I realised that people with physical ailments are shopping at the store alla time!  After all, that is why we have some of those electric carts, in addition to automatic doors, ramped paving, lower check-writing stands, supposedly-accessible bathrooms*, et cetera.

Most of the time I just interact with the public as a “normal” garden center employee, but sometimes we are also interacting with that subtle overlay of disability, which entertains the social scientist part of my brain.

Being the token horticulturalist, I answer questions, help customers plan flower beds and suggest suitable plants for locations.  In addition to working the register, watering, deadheading and “facing” the stock (moving pots towards the fronts of the benches to fill in holes left by customers), I work with the others to come up with æsthetically-pleasing displays of the plants.  (Although there is no way of hiding the fact that the corporate HQ plagued us with a plethora of Pelargonium, a visual red tide of geraniums.)

I’ve seen plenty of plant displays at a variety of other stores, and have found their long lines of benches to be annoying.  It’s not just that endless tracts of pink & purple Petunias, orange & yellow Marigolds, and red Geraniums are mind-numbingly dull to the point of dampening any sort of inspiration for coming up with container or bedding combinations.  It’s that the long lines of “benches” block traffic flow.  You feel like you’re trudging up and down the maze of a ticket queue, unable to grab some pots of more-interesting Corkscrew Rush or Calibrachoa tha are hidden over there two aisles over.  It’s hard to break out of the march to exit stage left to the register (till), or even quit to go over to the entrance into the store.  The long lines of benches are especially boring for children, who have little more than a view of the edges of the benches and the pots, with little respite in sight.  (I’ve taken to offering children cups of the cold water from our water cooler barrel, as hot, thirsty children are cranky children.)

Worst, when at these other stores run out of available bench space, a lot of the pallets of potted plants just end up dropped by the pallet jack where-ever there’s room on the ground.  This means that the aisles are not really planned, so sometimes there are narrow dead-ends, or aisles blocked by broken bags of mulch, or the plants are simply hard to reach because they are way down on the ground or are way deep in the center of the pallet.  They are not accessible.

For a few days, we too of a dozen pallets lined up at the edge of our lot, albeit with sufficient aisle space.  It really “made my brain hurt”, because the plants had been shipped all higgedy-piggedy, with shrubs, grasses, annuals and perennials all mixed together.  There were Daylilies in four different places around our lot!  The flats of shade-loving Wax Begonias and Impatiens and sun-loving Verbena and Vinca were all jumbled by species and color!  (And OMG, still more Geraniums.  And Creeping Phlox, which only looks nice when it’s blooming, and now we have enough to landscape a highway interchange.)

But thankfully, I’m not the only one who has a strong interest in making the endless flats of plants look more interesting, and be more accessible. We’ve been stacking pallets or propping them up on cinderblocks to put the plants into easier view and reach.  (Plus, they’re also easier for us to clean and water — ergonomics, w00t!)  We’ve been making sure that the aisles are frequently broken up into side-paths, and we try to keep the aisles 3-4 feet wide so carts, strollers and wheelchairs can get through.  It seems to be working well; every day we get compliments about how good the plants look.

But what makes this place pleasant to work for is the concern for helping our customers.  Sure, it’s store policy to be helpful (doesn’t every business flog that slogan?), but we are glad to break from running the register or watering to carry things out to the car, or load up bags of mulch and rock, or show you where the Verbena is, or explain the differences between the four varieties of white Petunias.  When someone has their hands full, we grab some empty flats, and pull carts (buggies, trolleys) over to make things easier.

It’s this “serve everyone” approach that makes helping people with various disabilities so much easier.  One of the other clerks knows American Sign Language, so Deaf customers are sure to look for her (my ASL is rather limited).  When the gentleman in the power chair thanked a coworker for carrying stuff out to his van, I was tickled to overhear him say, “No problem!  We do that for everyone.”  Because we do.

Sometimes the “disabled community” moments are colored in large brush strokes.  An older man in a wheelchair came by in search of some herb seeds, accompanied by two women who were of the “care-taker” rather than “personal assistant” mentality.  Although neither said anything obviously untoward, there was still a patronizing aura, that his desire to go shopping was being honored but that they were still “humoring” him.  It made me uncomfortable, and I kept trying to scan the interactions in the triad to figure out what was going on.

But the women were intent on asking me questions of their own, even as they were simultaneously going through the motions of helping him.  “Here’s someone who can help you.  He’s looking for some seeds.  Tell her what you’re looking for.  Do you have any seeds?  Do you remember what it was he wanted?  Ooh, don’t you just love those pink flowers?  Isn’t that what you got on your desk?”

“Well I dunno, but it’s not flowering any more.  Was you looking for parsley?  He was wanting to grow some stuff from seed.  You sure gots a lot of plants out here.”

Trying to track all this verbiage flying by was making me dizzy, and I just wanted to focus on finding out what the man came to get.  The customer himself was having some expressive difficulties. (Who wouldn’t have, being around those two all day!)  I knelt down on a knee so I could speak with him face to face.  I had to.  I had to disengage myself from the chatty care-takers who were now trying to ask me random questions unrelated to the needs of my primary customer.  I had to be able to focus on what he was asking for, which meant watching him speak.  And I had to honor him personally as the customer, not as some second-class accessory.

My knees cracked noisily, and I knelt down on one knee, and we conversed, just the garden center clerk and the customer who wanted parsley seeds, and who considered and then decided against the Doubled-Curled or Flat Italian Parsley seedlings.

After that moment, I stood back up and we were sucked back into the vortex of the chatty care-givers, who asked me some confused questions about houseplants, and then led/followed him over to the main store entrance.  I hoped he would be getting the things that he wanted this evening.

Sometimes the community moments come by quietly.  I was checking out a couple flats of annuals and several perennials for a woman, cleaning off some old leaves and blossoms and chatting as the register processed her credit card in its own slow time.

“This is going to take me several days to get it all planted,” she offered.

“Well, that’s always a good thing to do anyway,” I offered, affirming her wisdom.  “It’s those marathon gardening sessions that break our backs.”  The register finally finished hiccoughing through the electronic transmission and spat out her receipt.  I picked up her potted rose bush, rested it on a hip, and then deftly tipped up the flat of annuals to balance them on my other hand.  (It only sounds tricky; in reality the flats are just boxy grates, and I can curl my fingers into them.)  “Here, I’ll carry these out for you,” I said, leaving her to handle her purse and a couple quart pots of perennials, then added,  “I can’t garden for ten hours solid since I got arthritis.”

“Thanks.  I have RA and can only do so much at a time.”

“Ah, yeah,” I commiserated.  “You have to make dinners ahead, because the next day you’re too exhausted from gardening.”  She nodded, already tired from just the idea of the ordeal ahead.  “It’s fun, but you just run out of ‘spoons’!”   And then I loaded things into her car and we swapped the mutual thanks.  My attention turned to the gardening work of my own, left uncompleted or never even started.  Oh, and errands.  Here I was at the market nearly every day, but I kept forgetting to get my arthritis medicationn refilled!

“Hey Andrea,”  piped up one of my coworkers, “it’s nearly time for you to go on break.”  This clerk is a good guy; he’ll remind me when something is coming up, he’ll remind me when it’s time to start, and even after I’ve forgotten it.  He asks me if I remembered to clock in, and reminds me (several times) to copy down the next week’s schedule before leaving.  It sure is wonderful to have garden center clerks who are so helpful, especially when you when you’re having seriously distracted & forgetful AD/HD days!

* I’ve never navigated the women’s restroom in a wheelchair, but there are still the stupid doors to wrangle …

A Luxury

Being bored is a luxury I do not have.

Not the boredom that is the enforced tedium from being exhausted by illness, or from waiting and waiting for indeterminate periods of time without diversions. But rather, the boredom that comes from choosing to be disinterested at work.

Sure, some jobs are seriously duller than others, such as data entry or assembly.  But retail is considerably more interesting than such rote perfectionism.

And yet, the other week one of my coworkers was complaining that he found the work at the garden center to be so BORING.  It wasn’t related to his chosen degree program or career.

Certainly, I don’t expect everyone else to be as entertained as I am by “facing” the plant stock, meaning filling more pots into the gaps shoppers have left in the flats.  I really like lining up four-packs or pots, or bringing forwards pots from the back of the benches up to the front so they are more accessible to the buyers.  The quick detail makes everything neat and tidy and complete.  Even shuffling pots from a nearly-empty flat (tray) to fill another is satisfying, because then we have that flat available for a shopper to use as they are selecting their plants.  (Not only does handing out flats free up people’s over-burdened hands, but there’s also a bit of sales psychology, where buyers are more likely to buy a few extra pots to complete the flat.)

And to be sure, there are a number of people who find “grooming” the plants (removing old flowers and dying leaves) to be just too utterly nit-picky and grubby a past-time.  But I enjoy this because I know that removing the dead material will help ensure that the plants keep blooming, will lesson the chance of disease and insect problems, and simply makes everything look better.  (A lot of novice gardeners will mistake the natural “senescence” or shedding of yellowing old leaves as a symptom of disease.)

And of course, most of the garden center cashiers are not horticulturalists; they are cashiers with some basic training in how to water and what the difference is between annuals and perennials.  But that’s what I’m there for, to provide the expertise in answering questions, and helping customers select plants for different sites.

So despite the varying levels of intrinsic reward in some of the activities, and the vast differences in personal expertise, all of the cashiers can still gain the same kinds of satisfaction in their work.  There’s still the basic premise of serving others, even if we’re just loading bags of mulch into someone’s car.

Because that’s what we’re there for.

So when my coworker complains of being bored, and spends most of his time hidden behind the cash register (checking something on his mobile phone) or wandering around aimlessly listening to his music or chatting with a girlfriend, well, I am mystified.  And a bit annoyed.

Because like, dude, “fun” is something you make, not something that happens to you.

If you’re bored, then get involved.  Help me come up with better ways of displaying the new stock that is more aesthetically appealling and more accessible, like the other evening cashier does.  Go out and actively assist the customers, like the other cashiers do.

If the custom is slow during that lull before people get off work, then make a point to do some of the things that are on the To Do list.  That’s why I’m not bored — I not only do when I have been asked to do as an employee, but I also look for other things to do.

If I’m knee-deep in cleaning the spent blossoms from the hanging baskets and watering the stock, then don’t hide out behind the register.  I shouldn’t have to mention, “Hey, that lady over there has her hands full — go get her a shopping cart.” [buggy, trolley]

It’s awkward when your coworker is slacking off, but you’re not a supervisor.  I’ve tried stating, “X, Y and Z need doing,” but that cue was apparently too subtle.  I’ve tried offering, “I’ll do W and X if you don’t mind doing Y and Z,” but that produced nothing more than a half-hearted attempt at Y and Z disappeared somewhere along the way.

There’s no reason to be bored at a job like this.  There are too many different things to do, whether it’s tending the plant stock or chit-chatting with the customers while you ring up their purchases.

And you know what?  Working in a half-assed way and complaining of being “bored” does not help ensure employability, especially in these economic times.

I’m not working two jobs just for the fun of it; I work because I need the income.  But despite that, despite that some days I’m cold and wet and stiff and sore due to the exertion and the weather and my health issues, despite that, I still find ways of enjoying my work.

I can’t afford to be bored.

Brief bits of bliss

craggy pines on a foggy day

craggy pines on a foggy day

“To Serve Man”

Holy Crap.

So why am I taking Crap’s name in vain?  This bang-head-here piece of news:

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, has filed Senate Bill 115 on behalf of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Conference lobbyist Danny Loar said the bill is designed to be a “pre-emptive strike” against scientists who might want to mix “human and animal cells in a Petri dish for scientific research purposes”

(Shouldn’t that be human and other animal cells?  What am I, a petunia?)

So, if this mosquito sucks my blood, and I squish her and drop her (with my blood cells inside her) onto a Petri dish, would that be illegal?

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

Yeah, they’re trying to prevent stem-cell research; but come on, no one is going to make centaurs or Fly-Human monsters or Playboy bunnies.  And I don’t believe that theoretical smear of biological mush I’ve just rubbed onto the agar contains crumbs of my soul in the red white blood cells, nor did any of my eggs (fertilized or otherwise) that were shed over my lifetime.

When I teach a class on seed-starting and we are talking about how to take cuttings of coleus, geraniums, Swedish ivy, or rosemary, I describe how we stick them in rooting hormone (if needed), and then in media to grow more of the same kind of plant. I tell my students, “You’ve just cloned a plant.  It’s genetically identical to the parent plant.”

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

I then go on to explain in brief (as this is a non-credit class), that there are dormant cells in those plant stems that can grow into any kind of cell, such as a root cell.  Because plants have these “totipotent” cells that can become any other kind of cell, we can take cuttings and roots will grow where there were no roots before.

We can also cut the very tip of the stem off, place it into culture medium with tiny amounts of plant hormones, and encourage those cells to grow into lots more cells — and that’s another way how plants are cloned, by using tissue culture to produce hundreds and thousands of the same plant, and they’re even free of diseases and pests.

Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Gee, if we could take a few cells from people, we could grow you new skin for burn victims, new livers for people with liver cancer, and so on. Best of all, those pieces of tissue or organs would not be rejected by the body because they would not be foreign cells, the would be your own. (Nor would you need heavy doses of drugs to suppress your immune system to keep it from reacting to the foreign donor organs.)

But we can’t, because although plants have totipotent cells, we don’t.  After a certain stage in development, we don’t have these stem cells.  (I pause for a couple of seconds, and it’s great to see the “light bulb effect” pass through the room as people get the concept.)

Ooh, human cells with other cells, scary.  Do the bishops not realise that each human is an entire ecosystem, with millions of bacteria in our guts and on our skin, and an astonishing number of infinitesimal mites living on our eyelashes and brows?  Do they not realise that their mitochondria has its own DNA, different than the nuclear DNA?  Do they not realise that we already use genetic recombinant technology to make insulin for diabetics?

Um by the way, isn’t this piece of legislation mixing government and religion in a Petri dish?

Nicely Non-verbal

One of the things I like about garden center work is being able to help people select plants for their different needs, and discuss how to care for them.  There are few things more pleasant than being able to share information about one of your special interests with other enthused people.

But the other day there was a storm heading in, and customers at the garden center were few and far between.  Until it was time to put things away for the night, there wasn’t a whole lot of sales work to do.  So the other clerk and I contentedly tended the plants.

Free from the heavy cognitive demands of dealing with fractious students, or of trying to make chit-chat while running a cash register, I peacefully filled in the gaps on the benches with fresh stock, and groomed the plants by removing the old flowers and leaves.

My coworker was in another area watering the the endless flats of geraniums.  When I came by to empty my debris bucket, she commented that it was a nice break from the intensity of her other job as an interpreter.  “I like being able to just ‘veg out’ with the plants,” she sighed happily.

After a few seconds’ delay to shift back into conversational gear, I replied, “Yes!  It is nice to be non-verbal for a while.”  And then I went back to silently puttering around with plants.

The absurd list

So, it’s the Last Big Push before the end of the semester — this “holiday” weekend I have to write 4 exams, make up three teaching presentations, and grade the latest set of exams and various assignments. (Oh, and send out a couple of job apps, soon as I can squeeze them in.  They’re really long shots, but “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”.)

In another 10 days or so I’ll be done with teaching classes this semester, and can focus on other things in life, like finishing my family cookbook, finish a quilt, a dozen home repairs, sorting out the basement storage area, tidying up the gardening stuff around the patio, organising my seed-starting and cleaning up my gardening tools, removing rampant garden volunteers, yadda-yadda-yadda.  Basically, everything in life that has been put on “hold” since I started working 60-50 hours per week in September.

But I thought it would fun to post the Absurd List.  You know, those things you would love to have, but would never be able to get short of a weird twist of fate.

A retired London Underground subway car recycled as an office.

Or maybe the ultimate treehouse, the “free spirit sphere”.  Of course, we don’t have the trees for such, but details, details…

What with the severe ice storms and extremes of hot and cold, few structures are quite so problematic in my climate as a fancy glasshouse. But as we know, plant-lust is an incurable condition that leaves us fondling seed-packets during the dark, short days of the year.  Our kitchen window by the table is the sunniest place in the house, so it’s hosting a small jungle of plants for the next half a year.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to be selfish, so I’d get a hot tub to put in a sunroom or somewhere.  All of us love a good soak in hot water, especially in the winter.

Ah well … back to my preps.

What’s on your Absurd List?

Odd One Out

Getting permission

The last time I taught one of my gardening classes, I ran into an interesting intersection of personal change, horticulture, and pedagogy.

At the end of the sessions, the students have (optional) evaluation forms to fill out about the class and instructor. On the front is a ranking various qualities of the facility, the topic, the instructor and so on, and the back has open-ended questions about what you liked best, suggestions for improvement, other courses and what-not. These review forms are very helpful to both myself and the college.

During the last class, under the “what you liked best” section, I got a comment that I’ve never had in 15 years. Usually the positive remarks are about the handouts, the photographs, my sense of humor, and willingness to answer questions. But today one of the evaluations had minimal responses, aside from this comment: Read the rest of this entry »

Repelled from the Garden

Triocereus candicans

Trichocereus candicans

There are few better times to visit a garden than when everything is unfolding in the fresh new flowers of the season. If you’re visiting a desert garden, spring is nice because it is not as hot as summer.*

I’m a serious “garden-geek” and visit gardens where-ever I travel. Hubby has perforce acquired a taste for gardens, albeit at strictly the tourist level. He has even taken pictures of me squatted or perched in awkward positions as I strain to take pictures of plants, because well, that’s what some of our vacation consisted of. He will (most thankfully) exercise patience as I take pictures of giant compost heaps as well as rare blue poppies or blooming agaves. We have also found that when you’re jetlagged and desperately trying to stay awake to adjust to a distant time zone, a tour of a garden is a perfect way to get the necessary daylight exposure for the inner clock, and is a good opportunity to stretch and exercise airplane-cramped muscles. Even better, it is an attraction that does not place heavy cognitive demands on the visitor just to enjoy it (which is important for those of us who cannot sleep on plane flights).

So when hubby is looking for things to do with his papa, he thinks that a trip through a garden would be a great way to spend time together, and also get a change of scenery. But is the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix accessible? Hubby is hard of hearing, so pulling up their Web page on his Blackberry is his first route of information. But he can’t find the information he seeks, and then tries phoning. Unfortunately that just yielded the annoying automated system. When you cannot understand the recorded message, having to go through the entire phone tree again to listen to it a second time is not only frustrating and laborious — the message is also not likely to be any more intelligible the second time around!

Well, this lack of accessible information about site accessibility is really vexing. It’s also really surprising — Phoenix and the surrounding cities are full of seniors, due to the climate. One would hope that large portions of the garden would be accessible for wheelchairs and walkers, but gardens aren’t always. In fact, many botanic gardens have gravel or wood chip pathways, or even put flower beds way out between expansive lawns, which turns garden tourism into wheelie triathalon events.

Meanwhile, I’m hanging around bored in an automotive waiting room as I get a dead headlamp replaced. Receiving his frustrated text message, I then start my own search. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy [ahem] Equinox!

(originally titled “Happy Solstice!” in a stupid moment. I blame the lack of caffeine; that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

Spring has sprung, at least in my part of the northern hemisphere. To celebrate the vernal equinox yesterday, I was out in the garden. I’ve been doing bits of garden cleanup on days when there have not been showers. Or hasn’t been snowing. Or drizzling. Or sleeting. Or sprinkling. Or frozen solid. Or pouring rain. Or thundersnowing …

No arthropods found yet, aside from some pillbugs, also called sowbugs, woodlice, roly-polys or ballbugs. People call them pillbugs because when bothered, they roll up into little pill-size balls. But they aren’t really bugs, nor even insects. Insects have 3 pairs of legs, and these have 7; with this many legs and flattened dorsal-ventrally (back to front) they are Isopods, a few of which are terrestrial crustaceans. (I think these are probably Cylisticus convexus.)

These weren’t even out and about; I uncovered them when I slipped and skidded on a rock that rolled over in the heavily-saturated ground. As crustaceans go, they are small; the largest is about 1 centimeter long. They look a bit like beans in plate armor, and are generally detritivores or eat the fungi that grow on wood. Once in a while they can get out of hand and bother garden plants.

Lots of school children (myself included) make temporary pets of them because they’re fairly hardy critters. You can hide a few in your pocket during recess, and then play with them at your desk instead of doing boring worksheets.

several small pillbugs (roly-polys) on a piece of limestone

And did I mention it’s been raining? I did find another Minuscule vid I hadn’t seen before, with our hapless friend the little fuzzy black spider. It’s been raining there, too…

The Dreaded Betweens

I’ve never found an official name for this. A small, very informal survey indicates that it happens to AD/HD people and autistics, if not others as well. Maybe it will sound familiar to you, too. Let me know.

I’ve always just thought of this distinctive funk as The Betweens once I had been through enough cycles to see the overall trend. But The Betweens is more than just your “get-up-and-go done got-up-and-went”.

It’s somewhat analogous to the manic ups and depressive downs of bipolar, but doesn’t really function the same way. The Betweens is much more inwardly focused. I would expect that having The Betweens premenstrually or in combination with some other cyclic physiological thing could definitely make it worse.

The Betweens are evidenced when the intense GoGoGo from having a new perseveration (or a new slant on a favorite old one) has worn off. Sometimes it’s the body and sometimes it’s the mind. Or maybe it’s both, and you feel about as useful as a beached jellyfish and as brainy as a slug.

You can’t keep your train of thought on track. You can’t remember squat, which is frustrating as hell for a mind that’s used to going brilliantly full-tilt. The ennui is horrible, and like a junkie searching for old dribs and drabs of xir favorite fix, you schlump from staring at the dregs of one old obsession to another, staring dumbly at piles of hobby materials or over-loaded bookshelves, and not even sure why you have these things sitting around, or possibly even what you did with them.

It’s not just problem of, “I had a brain; I miss my brain”. The pang of nostalgia that seeps across the heart is neither for a particular time nor a place, but is for the feeling of having been in some manner intensely connected with the universe, and then someone has cruelly cut the umbilicus. (And if this is what “normal” feels like, I don’t want it!)

You ooze out of bed, and once up, seem to be crashing into wall corners and tripping on shoelaces and all those other entertaining tricks, but even more so than usual.

You’re disoriented and distractible, and staying focused on a complex task like driving a vehicle requires much more concentration than it ought to. Your adept has turned into un-dept, or some such thing.

Even worse is being in graduate school and having a bad case of the Research Betweens, ugh! Academia is rife with stories of students who achieved all their coursework and finished collecting and analysing all the data, and then got started on their theses but never finished the writing, thence never finishing their degrees. One doesn’t have to have been in such circumstances to have done this, but it sure is easy to understand. This is the sort of situation that makes up aspie nightmares, right up there with job interviews and cocktail parties!

In a way, The Betweens is like a craving. There probably is some kind of positive-feedback (dopamine?) loop when one is in a long perseveration “zone”. Once you crash out, there’s the withdrawal. It’s kind of a rebound depression from a sustained high. C’est normal, but the trick is recognising it, “Oh yeah, this is just the cool down / recharging stage”.

In a charitable moment, I suppose I could say that the Betweens are an opportunity for recharging one’s batteries. Then again, in real life I need to be spot-on, day after day, and therein lies the problem. Thankfully, The Betweens does go away. But never, never soon enough! ::shudder::

I probably would have written some Blues lyrics about, “Being in The Betweens” except that when you have them — you can’t ! (Oy, the irony)

The closest thing I have found that works to tripping the Restart button is to do some heavy, simple exercise that takes several hours to complete.

Alas, it usually takes me a few days of seeping down into The Betweens before enough stray thoughts coalesce to generate the realisation that, “Er, I am once again suffering from the Betweens!” And then of course, I have to retain that realisation and lurch myself into doing something about it. (Because part of The Betweens is the Nomothetic Fallacy, which explains that merely naming a problem is not the same thing as actually solving it.)
::sigh::

Normally this is when I would go outdoors and do a couple days of heavy-duty gardening.

Woe is me if the world outside is covered in ice. There is no indoor work that is analogous. Cleaning out closets is much too mentally taxing, and I have learned the hard way that I would be way too likely to do something terribly foolish, like throw away boxes full of materials that are highly necessary when in another frame of mind. Painting walls might run close, except for all the blasted furniture-moving and hole-spackling and sanding and careful brushing-in the edges.  I don’t have the mental energy for this prep-work when I’m in The Betweens.

But when I can, shovelling, or raking up thousands of leaves, or turning over the compost heap only requires a few stray neurons for the task, and are such gross motor skills that I am not a threat, even to myself. (Despite that, I bought a leaf rake with plastic tines, just to be sure — one does get wiser with age).

With all this therapeutic manual labor, the brain mushes along lazily for a couple hours, and eventually the rhythm of the labour asserts itself. For some reason, all of my re-set activities end up being those that require me to rock back and forth, but unlike rocking in my chair, this is whole-body rocking. The fact that I am equipped with a rake to collect a pile of leaves, or a pitchfork to manœuvre a heap of dead plant materials into a more aerated mass, is mere camouflage.

By the time I am into the soaking-off-the-dirt-in-the-tub stage, the endorphins begin to kick in and my brain is mellowed out from the intellectual vacation. Trickles of concepts begin to flow again. Give me another day, and I will have reached critical mass once more, and be lit afire!