The upside-down side of gardening

This story originally appeared in the April 28, 2011, issue of The Trussville Tribune…

So here we are at the beginning of The Upside-Down Gardening Experiment: Year Three.

As you may recall, the experiment began two years ago when I purchased one of those “As Seen On TV” upside-down tomato planters. Inspired by dreams of growing bushels of tomatoes and using them to create mouthwatering batches of homemade salsa, I eagerly stuffed a starter plant into the potting soil and commenced to watch it grow.

And grow it did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plant take off like that one did. Before long, it trailed down the side of the porch to the ground several feet below. Sadly, though, the impressive length of the vine had no relation whatsoever to the amount of fruit produced. It yielded a whopping two tomatoes.

The experiment continued with last spring’s purchase of an upside-down strawberry planter. Since the strawberry planter accommodates multiple plants as opposed to the tomato planter’s one, I figured I had a fair chance of harvesting more strawberries than tomatoes. And I was right. After four strawberries, my crop was all in, and the homemade preserves I’d planned to enjoy mid-winter never materialized.

Clearly my upside-down gardening successes, if you can call them that, have been only slightly more productive than not at all. In fact, after last year’s letdown, I vowed to stop wasting time and money on what for me had become a futile effort. But despite my best intentions to forever forsake anything touted with the words “upside-down” and “planter” in the same sentence, well, here we go again…

Two weeks ago, I bought an upside-down pepper planter at an auction from a seller looking to liquidate some overstock items. When several planters went on the block, and the bid per unit failed to rise above a couple of dollars, I broke down and bought one. So in my defense, I got a screaming deal, something no true bargain-hunter can be expected to pass up.

My latest upside-down purchase isn’t exactly a thing of beauty. There’s nothing terribly attractive about these type planters in the first place, but the vinyl bag that forms the main part of my newest one is a permanently crumpled mess, probably from languishing in a hot warehouse one summer too many. I’m hoping the dead weight of wet potting soil will eventually pull all the wrinkles out, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

A few days post-purchase, Jimmie and I stopped by the garden center of our local home improvement store and scanned the pepper plant selection. For some reason, I’m always attracted to plants with people names, so when I saw a pepper plant labeled “Yellow Bill,” I knew it was the plant for me.

Then I got home and put on my reading glasses, only to discover I’d purchased a yellow BELL plant, and my enthusiasm waned. I’ve never much cared for the taste of bell peppers, but if this plant produces, I might learn to like it.

At any rate, the pepper plant is planted, and the watching and waiting has begun. So by summer’s end, will I be up to my eyeballs in yellow bell peppers? Or will my yield amount to the same paltry harvest I’ve reaped the past two years? Only time will tell.

But until I see some shiny yellow vegetables on the vine, I won’t be making any plans for stuffed bell peppers, roasted bell peppers, sautéed bell peppers or any other kind of bell peppers. I suspect my previous pre-planning with regard to salsa and strawberry preserves may have somehow jinxed my upside-down gardening efforts, and I don’t want to be disappointed again.

And by the way, if you hear about any kinds of upside-down planters I haven’t tried, I’d rather not know, so please don’t tell me. Three years of experimenting with this stuff is about all I can stand.

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Powerful thirst

This story originally appeared in the April 14, 2011, issue of The Trussville Tribune…

I’m not much of a soft drink drinker. I don’t keep them around the house, and ever since kicking a mid-morning soft-drink-and-crackers habit I’d gotten into, I don’t drink them at the office anymore. The calories were catching up with me, and the carbonation kept me burping (excuse me) until lunchtime.

Sweet tea and coffee are my preferred poisons, and I can never seem to get enough of those. But soft drinks? I can take ‘em or leave ‘em, and I mostly leave ‘em. So imagine my surprise when a recent attempt to streamline the soft drink selection at the office caused an outcry akin to the ruckus caused by last year’s Gulf oil spill.

It started when the secretary designated “office grocery shopper” left the firm. With no immediate plans to hire a replacement, the bosses doled out her duties among other staff members, and stocking the break room refrigerator fell to me.

I had no problem with the arrangement. After all, what woman doesn’t like to shop – and with somebody else’s credit card, at that? Trips to the store would also allow me to escape the confines of the office on occasion, and as much as I like my work, a shopping break is never a bad thing.

So I happily launched into my new responsibility by taking inventory and making a list of things we needed. That’s when I realized the firm was not only providing a water cooler, several kinds of coffee, iced tea (sweet and artificially sweetened), hot chocolate and flavored vitamin water, but EIGHT kinds of soft drinks as well.

All that seemed excessive for an office of fifteen people, but I figured my tendency to squeeze a dollar, no matter whose dollar it is, might be driving my thoughts on the matter. So I contacted former co-workers and a couple of office managers at other firms for some outside opinions. As it turned out, every person I polled expressed astonishment at the generous amount and variety of liquid refreshment our firm provided, and several even offered to rush right over and assist with the overflow.

So I naively sent out an interoffice soft drink survey, trying to fairly determine what could be struck from the lineup. And that’s when the uproar began. You would have thought I was proposing to cut off the oxygen supply to the building instead of trying to trim the soft drink selection. Folks got downright hostile.

Some perceived the idea to be miserly on the bosses’ part. I quickly assured them I was the miserly one. Others whined, apparently believing the prospect of doing without his or her favorite soft drink while others got theirs was deprivation, not to mention employee discrimination, of the highest order.

Yet others complained because, well, they complain about everything and didn’t want to miss out on such a golden opportunity to carp. For a few days I huddled in my cubicle, unused to being cast in the role of office pariah, desperately trying to lay low until the dust settled. My people-pleasing nature had run slap up against what little business sense I possess, and the inner turmoil was upsetting, to say the least.

When all was said and done, we managed to limit the soft drink selection to a mere six kinds of soft drinks, which is still a lot, if you ask me. But the soft drink drinkers at the office obviously aren’t interested in my point of view.

And while I can now see the humor in the whole episode, I’m serious when I say I won’t be sharing my opinions on such matters in the future. Anyone who knows me knows I sometimes have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, but in this case, self-preservation is a powerful motivator. In fact, just to be on the safe side, if the subject of soft drinks ever comes up at the office again, I think I’ll just crawl under my desk and hide.

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‘Tis the season

This story originally appeared in the March 31, 2011, issue of The Trussville Tribune…

Heads up, ladies! It’s that time of year again. With spring and summer weddings in the offing, the 2011 Bridal Tea Season has begun. If you haven’t already received scads of invitations in the mail, look for them to arrive soon. And if they don’t, well, you must have licked your fingers or done something equally offensive at the last bridal tea you attended, and word got around.

A Southern female tradition of the highest order, the Sunday afternoon bridal tea is a chance to see and be seen by the cream of your social crop. It’s also prime time for catching up on local gossip, checking out the latest in crock pots and china patterns, and sharpening your motor skills by juggling a dessert plate, fork, punch cup and handbag while managing to carry on a conversation and remain upright in heels at the same time.

My initiation into the world of bridal teas came at age five, when my Aunt Bibby was about to marry my to-be Uncle Doug. Since I was the eldest niece – and because the only other niece at the time was two years old and lived in California – I was appointed to collect gifts at the door.

Well, that lasted about ten minutes. I found it the most boring job imaginable, especially since the gifts were for somebody else. And who wanted a vegetable slicer or set of bath towels, anyway? I cared neither for vegetables nor baths very much in those days, so those items seemed useless to me.

Relieved of duty, I happily spent the afternoon ducking around grown-ups’ legs and crawling under the dining room table to get to the petit four side. There’s no telling how many of those things I ate, but I clearly remember suffering a terrific stomachache on the way home.

As badly as that first attempt to draw me into the world of bridal teas went, matters eventually improved. When I was growing up, Mama was always serving as a hostess at one bridal tea or another, and on occasion, she still does. So with such an example, I couldn’t help but learn the ropes at a fairly early age.

The first tea I helped with took place at our house when I was about thirteen. Dressed at the height of early 1970s fashion in a pale pink knit dress with hair teased to kingdom come, I stood for two solid hours at the south end of the dining room table behind Mama’s silver tea service. As the guests, invariably clad in pastels and pearls, teetered past the nuts, mints and petit fours, I poured coffee for all I was worth.

Yes, coffee, not tea. Nobody ever served tea at a tea in those days because nobody in the South back then drank any kind of tea that wasn’t poured over ice into a former jelly jar. It just wasn’t right. In fact, I was half-grown before I knew there was such a thing as hot tea, and even older before I knew anybody who actually drank it.

But my, how bridal teas have changed! Not only do the liquid refreshments now frequently include tea (iced and hot), the array of food is far more extensive than the cake-nuts-mints menu of my era. At a recent affair, I chowed down on tiny chicken salad-filled pastries, mini heart-shaped brownies, chocolate-dipped strawberries and spicy cheese straws dipped in salsa. If I’d known an entire meal was going to be served, I would have skipped lunch.

After a feast like that, I was tempted to lick my fingers, but the thought of what could happen helped me resist. Being struck from The Official Bridal Tea Invitation List, never to be served another heart-shaped brownie or spicy cheese straw… I’m not sure I could bear it. On the other hand, if it meant spending springtime Sunday afternoons in shorts and t-shirts as opposed to dresses and high heels, I might not mind at all.

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Bad words

This story originally appeared in the March 17, 2011, issue of The Trussville Tribune…

Confession, they say, is good for the soul, so in an effort to nurture my inner being, here goes: On occasion, my mouth gets away from me, and a bad word slips out.

Yes, I realize the preacher might read this and deem me unfit to ever again serve in a church-related capacity. But I hope he’ll take into consideration that I’m at least semi-repentant before he condemns me to the ranks of the Baptist benchwarmers.

I have to say, though, for some situations only a bad word will do. Like the time the edge of my thumb slipped under the thrumming needle of a sewing machine. Or the time my computer deleted an eight-page paper I’d failed to save. Or the time I was experiencing a beyond-bad hair day and gave my boss an unvarnished opinion of my Muppet-like ‘do.

“Now, June,” he deadpanned in reply. “Do you really know what Hell looks like?”

I had to admit I didn’t.

Mama says I inherited any potty mouth tendencies I might possess from Daddy’s side of the family, but that’s not entirely true. Certain individuals on her side of the family have been known to utter choice words, too.

MeeMaw Flowers, for instance, could string naughty words together with admirable ease, figuratively handing various nursing home personnel their heads on a platter every few days.

And at around age two, one of my young cousins on Mama’s side, now a minister’s wife and mother of two, plainly blurted out a cuss word while I was babysitting her one day. When I laughed, she said it again – and a couple more times for good measure. Her mother was not similarly amused.

As I recall, Mama herself even let a zinger or two fly my way when I was a teenager. (She’ll deny it, of course, so don’t even bother to ask her about it.) But parents of teenagers will quickly tell you an occasional bad word is allowed.

“You’ve got to let off steam somehow,” said a friend whose progeny were 14 and 16 when I broached the subject with her, “and letting loose with a cuss word now and then beats a murder rap.”

For weeks afterward, I prayed for the safety of her children.

As far as Daddy’s side of the family, well, I’ve heard plenty of stories about his relatives’ colorful turns of phrase. But none could quite compare to MeeMaw Harper’s style. She spelled her bad words, apparently thinking if she didn’t meld the letters into a single sound, it didn’t count as cussing. I doubt, however, that anyone ever mistook her for a spelling bee champ.

She once referred to a person who frequently got on her nerves as “that d-a-m woman,” never realizing she’d done nothing more than call the object of her wrath a water-barricading female. So I guess you could say MeeMaw Harper never really cussed; she only meant to.

But my all-time favorite family bad word tale concerns my oldest nephew, Ryan, at age six. Upon arriving home from school one day, he reported that a kid in his first grade class had been sent to the principal’s office for saying not only the D-word, but the S-word, too, and the elementary school grapevine was abuzz with the news.

Horrified, my sister-in-law nevertheless maintained the presence of mind to delve a little further into the matter before jumping to any conclusions as to what her baby’s innocent ears had heard.

“Ryan, you know those are bad words, and you’re not supposed to say them,” she said slowly. “But just this once, I want you to whisper in Mommy’s ear what you think the D-word and the S-word are.”

Dreading his response, she leaned down to hear his reply.

“I don’t know,” he whispered. “Will you tell me?”

Now in his mid-twenties, Ryan has likely since learned what those words are. But just in case he hasn’t, I certainly won’t be the one to tell him. Talk about a murder rap. His mother would kill me.

Either that, or she’d tell the preacher, and I’m probably in enough trouble with him as it is.

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The nature of yardwork

This story originally appeared in the March 3 issue of The Trussville Tribune…

As I write this, I’m propped up in bed with the laptop, and my two Chihuahua sidekicks are huddled under the covers at my feet. It’s early Saturday, and even though the temperature is still cool outside, the sun is shining in all its glory.

A beautiful morning like this is perfect for pulling on a light jacket and going for a walk, which I’m just liable to do before the day is over. I might even pull a couple of leashes out of the household critters’ storage cabinet and take the sidekicks along.

In the meantime, though, I’m staying put. Hiding, actually. Laying low.

Jimmie, you see, is outside, cleaning up the most recent round of debris dropped on our front yard by Mother Nature and five oak trees. I, quite frankly, had rather be writing than raking, and I know if I so much as set foot on the front porch, Jimmie will stick some kind of gardening implement in my hand and expect me to use it.

When he cheerfully bounded out of bed and announced his plans to spend the morning raking out flowerbeds and bagging leaves, I suspected those plans somehow included me. So I quickly pulled the laptop onto the bed, mumbled something about a Monday deadline and fell into my “busy writer” routine.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m anti-yard work. I like a clean yard as much as the next person. I just like it better when somebody else is doing the cleaning. Lawnmowers are noisy, and in my hands, hedge clippers spell trouble for the boxwoods. And if you’ve ever stepped on an upturned rake and bonked yourself in the face or slashed an ankle with the business end of a weed eater, you understand me when I say yard work is a pain.

Rest assured, however, I’m more than willing to get involved on the supervising end. I can tell Jimmie what grass needs cutting, what tree needs trimming or what weed needs eating all day long. I’m sure he appreciates my help in that regard (about as much as I appreciate him telling me his mother made better meatloaf than I do). But for the most part, I avoid the actual doing of yard work – except, that is, when it comes to planting flowers. Then it’s a different game altogether.

First of all, the tools for planting flowers are much smaller, more manageable and, therefore, less dangerous than those sharp-edged, gas-powered or battery-operated gadgets required for doing yard work these days. Secondly, flowers are pretty. And thirdly, I get a huge kick out of watching something I poked in the ground a few weeks earlier – or in the case of bulbs, maybe years earlier – thrive and grow.

And harking back to my childhood days, when I could sling together the meanest mud pie on the block in a chicken potpie tin saved from supper the evening before, I love getting my hands dirty. Gardening gloves be hanged. There’s nothing like digging in the dirt barehanded and squishing the mud between my fingers. I’m sure the earthworms don’t like it, but that’s the risk they take when they choose to settle in my territory.

Of course that explains the usual state of my manicure – or rather, I guess, the lack thereof. I always manage to scrape the dirt out from under my fingernails so I’ll at least look presentable, but that’s about as good as it gets throughout the spring and early summer.

But until it’s time to put in some springtime bedding plants, I’ll continue to make my lame excuses and hunker in the house whenever Jimmie is working in the yard. After all, it’s for his own good. I wouldn’t want to pose a threat to him or any of the neighbors with those dangerous yard tools. And if he needs me to supervise, well, I’ll cross that bridge if it happens. But I’d probably I’d come out of hiding for that.

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A “Star-Spangled” senior moment

This story originally appeared in the February 17 issue of The Trussville Tribune.

Along with every other patriotic football fan in the country, I cringed when Christina Aguilera botched the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the Super Bowl earlier this month. As soon as it happened, I knew she was in for some unwelcome media attention. You don’t goof up like that in a packed stadium, not to mention in front of millions of TV viewers, without paying some kind of price.

But in my opinion, she got what she deserved. With a little forethought, the whole mangled mess could have easily been avoided. I mean, good grief, if you’re going to sing for a crowd that size, at least have the good sense to use a teleprompter or write the words on your hand. Didn’t the girl learn how to cheat on a test like everybody else who ever went to grammar school?

On the other hand, I’ve got to admit that Christina was in a tough spot. No matter how seasoned a performer may be, the Super Bowl would have to rank right up there with a starving lion’s den at suppertime as one of the most intimidating venues ever. So I’ll give her that much. But that’s even more reason to spend a little time and effort preparing not to fail. Just sayin’.

But I was no more horrified with Christina’s faux pas than I was when I tried to recall the correct order of the phrases in the national anthem and encountered a memory lapse of my own. So what’s up with that? I’ve known and cherished those words since second grade, and to suddenly forget how they all fit together was a little unnerving.

I hate to say this out loud, so I’m going to whisper it very quietly: Could this and other periodic brain glitches I’ve been experiencing lately be (gasp!) senior moments?

I fear it may be true. The signs are all there. I’ve begun hunting reading glasses perched on my head and car keys I’m holding in my hand. I’ll put important things away in special places and can never find them again. I’ll wash a load of clothes and forget to throw them in the dryer before mildew sets in, and I have to wash them again.

The short-term memory is fading fast, which doesn’t explain why I’d forget the lyrics to a song I’ve known since I was a kid. So it looks like the long-term memory isn’t in such good shape, either. But I can remember the name of a substitute teacher in my first-grade class, while I can’t remember the date of a hair appointment I made yesterday.

I’m reminded of the Sunday afternoons Mama and I used to visit Meemaw Flowers in the nursing home. Well into her eighties, my grandmother could readily spin tales of her childhood, once describing in great detail and with perfect clarity a tulip tree in her parents’ backyard. But she couldn’t remember our visit two weeks before – or that she’d told the same story and described the same tree to us then.

Thankfully, though, my “Star-Spangled” moment was brief. I managed to remember the song by singing it through a couple of times, causing the parrot to set up an ear-splitting ruckus and the Chihuahuas to perk up their ears and tilt their heads as if to say, “What’s all that racket you’re making? And can you please make it stop?” At least Christina has a decent singing voice, even if she has to make up the lyrics as she goes along. (I could make a mean crack about blondes here, but I won’t. This time.)

The backlash from my memory lapse was minimal, nothing compared to the media frenzy Christina suffered through. In my case, once the parrot stopped squawking and the dogs settled down, the incident was pretty much forgotten.

But alas, in Christina’s case, the bungled words won’t be forgotten until the next time somebody famous botches “The Star-Spangled Banner” on national TV. Given the difficulty of the tune and the phrasing that nobody truly understands, I predict that won’t be very long at all.

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Coloring my world

This story first appeared in the February 3, 2011, issue of The Trussville Tribune…

Wow, who knew? All these years I thought I was a brunette, and come to find out, I’m a blonde. At least that’s what the hair color people say, and they ought to know.

One evening last week, I washed some of the gray highlights out of my hair with the contents of a bottle labeled “Dark Blonde.” I was pleased with the result and later commented to Jimmie that the color came as close to my natural color as I’d ever been able to find.

“The funny thing is,” I said, “I’ve never considered my natural color to be anywhere near blonde.”

“Huh,” he said, giving my refurbished tresses barely a glance before turning his attention back to the TV. He’s evidently so accustomed to the color of my hair changing from time to time that yet another shade is barely worth noting.

I once longed to be a blonde bombshell but never had enough nerve to go the bleaching route. I frankly doubted light-colored hair would do much for my complexion, plus I feared winding up with a head full of over-processed straw.

There was that one summer, though – I must have been sixteen or so – when I spent a lot of time poolside with friends Sonja and Melanie at Sonja’s daddy’s country club. Between the chlorine in the pool and spritzes of lemon juice on our hair, we were summer blondes as long as the season lasted. And I think the lighter color probably suited me just fine. But then, all those hours in the sun guaranteed I had enough of a tan to carry it off.

I again experimented with a somewhat lighter color the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. Mama and Daddy left my younger brother and me home alone one weekend while they went on a trip with Daddy’s boss and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Craving some excitement but low on funds, I ran to the drugstore and plopped down my last few bucks for a bottle of hair color labeled “Golden Halo,” or something like that.

The writing on the box promised the magic formula inside would render my hair a shiny brown with golden highlights and body to spare. Furthermore, my hair would be thicker, more manageable and infinitely attractive to every handsome and well-to-do college-age male for miles around. Okay, so maybe I read a little more into the advertising copy than was actually there…

In reality, the stuff turned my hair a horrible brassy red, and I had no sooner finished drying it when Mr. Martin’s Cadillac turned into the driveway. The parents were home, and there I was, looking for all the world like an Irish Setter on a bad hair day.

Worse, I had never met Mrs. Martin before, and her first impression of me was bound to be less than favorable. But I figured I might as well get it over with. So I bravely stepped outside to help Mama and Daddy with their bags.

The look on my parents’ faces was priceless.

“Your daughter is lovely,” Mrs. Martin sweetly gushed to my mother, trying really hard to sound sincere. “But where did she get that red hair?”

“I’m guessing from a bottle,” Mama deadpanned, giving me the maternal evil eye.

“Oh…” Mrs. Martin giggled nervously, sensing she’d stuck her foot in the middle of what was about to become a family issue. She hastily retreated to the car and urged her husband to do likewise.

My current hairstylist, Cindy, recently advised me that any hair color with “golden” in its name would turn brown hair red. No kidding. Too bad somebody didn’t share that little tidbit with me thirty-five years ago. It might have saved me some trouble.

But now learning that I’m actually a blonde, and that I apparently have been all along, gives me a whole new perspective on life. Remember the old commercial that posed the question, “Is it true blondes have more fun?” Well, I intend to find out. And if that’s indeed the case, I’ll be spending the next few years catching up on all those good times I’ve been missing.

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