Monthly Archives: June 2005


I took this photo two years ago in the Mid-Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve.

This week, the campground — and more importantly, the lush pinyon-juniper forest that surrounded it — was damaged by fire. I don’t yet know the extent of the damage.

The book demands I head down there in a few weeks, to see what there is to report. Local anti-environmentalists are already complaining that the Park Service is to blame, for removing cattle from the park. As if cattle weren’t to large degree responsible for the influx of invasive grasses that fed this fire. As if the Park Service was responsible for the hundred-year rain this winter, that fed the grasses.

I console myself that the Joshua trees at Cima Dome, the centerpiece of my book, weren’t hit. But fire season isn’t over yet.

Fire season hasn’t even started yet. This could get ugly.

The boys at home, alone

Becky left for a week away today. She’s heading for Las Vegas for a friend’s wedding.

I got home, did a few chores, posted an incendiary blog entry, walked Zeke down to the park. It was a lovely, leisurely walk. We stood while toddlers ran up to pet him clumsily, their tolerant parents looking on. Zeke couldn’t wait to get away from the two-legged terrors. We walked slowly up the hill again.

Zeke was poky — he’s tired at the end of the day — and I stood, watching the wind in the tops of the eucalyptus trees. Zeke sniffed around the base of a retaining wall. I watched the trees some more.

It occurred to me that this walk felt different from the last few. I’d felt a mild hurry to get back to the house before. Nothing there to hurry back to tonight.

Sixteen years with her, and my step still quickens when I’m walking toward her.

Not that the fascists are ramping up their rhetoric or anything

Sasha at Left in SF took the photo at left — of a sticker affixed to a parked SUV —  in Crissy Field. Which is in San Francisco. Photo taken on Gay Pride Weekend.

But of course we need to be circumspect and polite and obsequious when we talk about politics. How horrible it was that Dick Durbin compared torturers to Nazis. We really owe the conservatives an apology for that one. Let’s just keep apologizing right up until they load us onto the cattle cars.

I wonder how one could find out who belongs to a black Nissan XTerra, California license plate 4VYX168?

Via Orcinus, whose post on this you simply must read.

Letting things go

A year ago this weekend my grandmother died.

(Imagine a little virtual yahrzeit candle here. Thanks. I miss her.)

A year ago this weekend I also bought a new computer, a Macintosh G5, and I spent the rest of the day setting it up (which took oh, maybe ten minutes ) and then playing with it. I was in the habit of having a drink or two when doing long computer projects, and I poured myself a wee dram of Lagavulin. By the time night rolled around I was stinking drunk.

It was not the Lagavulin’s fault. I blame the two or three martinis and the two three four fingers of 151-proof handmade bourbon that landed on top of it. Becky was furious. The hangover lasted until mid-week. I haven’t had any alcohol since.

My decision to stop drinking had been building for a while. During much of the 1990s, especially when I was working at Terrain and struggling with QuarkXpress and Photoshop on a Quadra 610 until two each morning, I would drink four or six beers in a typical night to take the edge off the six cups of coffee I’d needed to drink to wake me after having four or six beers while working the night before. I cut back on the drinking quite a number of times.

Am I an alcoholic? I honestly don’t know. Someone close to me once said that if I could go into a bar, have one beer, and leave, that I wasn’t. She’s in AA, and is for that and other reasons unlikely to mince words to protect my feelings on the subject. But I wonder. If I’d been a hopeless drunk, the kind where one drink inevitably leads to a binge, I’d have quit a long time ago. But I’m that high-functioning kind of problem drinker. I can go weeks without drinking, and months nursing a nightly shot of scotch for an hour watching the West Wing, and then every so often after several months of moderation, I act out my own little After-School Special. 

And I got to the point where the benefit wasn’t worth the cost. It was an easy decision to make. I haven’t regretted it for a minute, other than during a hike with Matthew when he mentioned drinking Scotch and I had a sudden fond memory of the taste of Islay. Oh, and the stray wistful thoughts of India Pale Ale. I suppose that’s a victory of sorts: I miss the taste, but I can’t imagine that taste without the deadening effects of alcohol, which memory kills the desire but quick.

I gave up smoking pot at age 17: any drug that accentuated feelings of hunger and paranoia was, in those days, not precisely what I needed. (My brother and I reminisced a couple years ago about using beer as a source of survival calories back then.) On my twentieth birthday, as I stood outside a nice vegetarian restaurant letting my food get cold so that I could stand in the snow and suck on a Marlboro, I decided I was being stupid. I don’t remember the next week at all clearly, but that was the last cigarette I ever smoked.

Wait a minute. Why was I eating alone on my birthday? No wonder I left Buffalo. Stinking unfriendly rat trap of a city.

Anyway, I kicked the smoking monkey off my back at 20, off and the alcohol monkey at 44, and now the next monkey looms.

There is a drug I have been taking since I was 13, consuming unhealthy doses of it almost every single day. I have spent more money on this drug than on any other, even with ten years of a six-pack-a-day habit under my belt, or more properly hanging over it.

This next drug has affected my health, my work life, my writing productivity, and my relationships. It’s the strongest addiction I’ve ever faced, and I’m saying that as someone who’s been through morphine withdrawal. I’ve set aside some time in my life to go through what will likely be rather intense discomfort as I go through withdrawal.

On July 15, I will be giving up coffee.

I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks now. Made a decision last week. And yesterday clinched it. I had the temerity to sleep in until 7:30 in the morning. The coffee monkey expects to have drunk two double espressos by then. I could not shake the headache for the rest of the day.

On July 15, the coffee monkey gets the spanking of its life.

Blue’s clueless

Accuracy and fairness are important tenets of journalism, so let me start by saying that not all rosarians are insane.

This assertion may be hard for the non-rosarian to believe. Given the thousands of available plants with which a gardener might become obsessed, cacti or begonias or natives or heirloom peppers, why would anyone in his or her right mind choose the hybrid tea rose? This most disease-prone of plants is a pesticide salesman’s dream come true.

That’s not hyperbole. You can trust me: I used to sell pesticides. Were it not for hybrid tea roses, my employers might have gone bankrupt. There were regular applications of systemic insecticides. There were fungicides to control the ubiquitous fungal diseases: black spot, powdery mildew and rust. Occasionally, I’d sell soil fumigants to people replacing their old, ailing hybrid teas with newer, not yet ailing hybrid teas. Our repeat customers would develop whitefly infestations after insecticides had killed all the predatory insects in the garden. We’d sell them stuff to kill the whiteflies, which — as whiteflies only go away if you stop spraying — constituted a job security measure on our part.

And all for what? Rows of thorn-covered sticks poking oddly out of the ground. Sometimes a few leaves adorn the sticks, generally with unsightly spots on them. Why one wouldn’t just plant ocotillos and be done with it is hard to fathom.

“Why, the blooms, of course!” will cry the defensive rosarians in the crowd. And while hybrid tea blossoms pale before the brilliant red trumpets of an ocotillo, they’re lovely flowers. Mostly. If botrytis doesn’t get them, that is, and if black spot hasn’t sapped the plant’s vigor, and if rose decline hasn’t sent the entire garden into a downward spiral. And if you don’t insist all of them smell like roses. Some hybrid teas do carry a faint scent vaguely resembling the heady aroma characteristic of the genus from which they were whelped. There are trade-offs to consider here. With hybrid teas, one must, generally, choose between fragrance and what rosarians refer to as “disease resistance,” which means the variety being discussed will actually have some green leaf surface showing through the black spot.

It gets worse. So monomaniacal are hard-line rosarians that they permit no other plant to contaminate their gardens: not a sprig of alyssum, no turf, no spring crocus or narcissus may defile their rows of thorn sticks, all identical except during that fleeting season of sterile scentless bloom. Such rose gardens seem less garden than farmer’s field, like rows of brussels sprouts with plowed soil between them — except that brussels sprouts farmers plant cover crops, come to think of it.

Still, not all rosarians are insane. Maybe even most of them aren’t. Most that I’ve met lately, for instance, are rethinking that whole sterile soil between the rows thing, interplanting their roses with herbs, or spring bulbs, or even tomatoes. Old rose species are continuing the comeback they started about two decades ago, with vigorous, brilliantly-scented gallicas and dog roses gaining favor as tough, droughty hedges with tasty hips. The Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksiae) has become nearly ubiquitous in the Bay Area, and rightly so: a tough climber covered with long-lasting flowers, which — in the white form — even smells like a rose. In many nurseries, hybrid teas are now outnumbered by floribundas, which bear smaller, generally more fragrant blossoms on “disease-resistant” plants that actually seem to resist disease.

And promising new rose selections are hitting the nurseries as well. A dozen varieties of ground cover rose are for sale nowadays (“Red Ribbons” is a nice one, almost overplanted lately), and then there are such specialties as the deep-shade-tolerant native Rosa californica: light on bloom, but an interesting form in a traditionally hard spot to garden. As rosarians tend toward diversity in their plantings, and a sense of perspective in their garden plans — with even hybrid tea fanciers making room for other living things on their properties — the truly insane rosarian is getting harder and harder to find.

Which is why I was surprised to read an item in the paper describing rosarians working with genetic engineers to create something never before seen in nature: a blue-flowered rose. Vanderbilt University researchers are splicing human liver enzyme genes into roses, hoping that the enzyme will turn the flowers blue. Apparently, black spot isn’t enough: these guys want roses to get liver spots as well.

In the story, San Francisco rosarian James Armstrong was quoted as saying “It would be nice to see a blue rose, and the only way that’s going to happen is through genetic engineering.”

I too think it would be nice to see a blue rose, assuming that blue is the variable kind of color naturally produced by most plants, a result of a complex interplay of genetics and cellular chemistry, benign viruses and sun and soil and temperature. (If the white coats succeed in breeding a rose that looks as if it has been dipped in blue dye, then I can suggest an easier way to get there.)

But let’s look at the larger picture. I also think it would be nice to have salad vegetables that fertilize themselves, but I’m not about to ask Burpee to splice horse genes into my tomatoes so that I can plant “Manure Girls.” Part of growing plants — indeed, part of growing up — is recognizing the limits within which one has to work.

True, gardeners do fight these limits as much as anyone, what with our tarps, mulches and anti-transpirant sprays, our lath houses and protected south-facing walls.

But it’s one thing to try to get your radishes to weather a cold snap. It’s another thing to try to get your radishes to grow peacock plumage.

Despite my radical environmentalism, I am not a knee-jerk “anti” when it comes to genetic engineering. I was excited when I heard of the new Vitamin-A-precursor-enhanced “Golden Rice,” intended to help alleviate nutritional deficiencies in developing countries. (Of course, it turned out you’d need to eat a hundred pounds of the stuff a day to get the beta carotene contained in a medium-sized carrot, but that’s beside the point.) I’m intrigued by thoughts of splicing malaria immunity into Anopheles mosquitos, which might save hundreds of thousands of lives a year. Where a world problem exists that could reasonably be alleviated by genetic research, I’m all for at least considering it.

That said, what, exactly, is wrong with a world that lacks blue roses? There are plenty of blue-flowering plants that do just fine in the same conditions as hybrid tea roses: right off the top of my head there’s ceanothus, bearded irises, lobelia, delphinium. Alyogyne flowers even look more or less like single roses.

The only reason I can think of for having any interest at all in a blue rose is really wanting blue flowers in your garden, but for some reason being utterly, pathologically unwilling to plant anything other than roses. But that would be . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?


The answers, my friends

You asked the questions, I have the answers.

Fox’s Vixen asked: “So, genius that you are, are you content with the direction your life has taken?”

Not if people are going to call me a genius in public.
I have to say I have it pretty good. A fulfilling job, a wife who adores me, legions of fans of my blog who lay in wait until I give the coded passphrase and who will then rise up and smite my enemies in a rain of… um, yeah.

tost: “If it was in your power to understand the world as it actually exists, but such understanding required that you give up your comfortable assumptions on the nature of things and move in a new and perhaps painful direction, would you choose to hold onto the life you know, or would you opt for knowledge you might later regret?”


But why do I get the feeling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are on their way?

Lauren: “You’re on death row and about to be executed for a completely unforgivable crime (voting Republican, jay walking, whatever).  What do you request for your last meal?”

Well, assuming that trick answers like “the meat of a mammal species that has not yet evolved” or “a hamburger and a nice 2057-vintage Cabernet” are ruled out, I’m thinking the French Laundry.

Hungry Hyaena: “What song do you most often find entering your mind?  It doesn’t necessarily have to be of the annoying variety, just the one that you most often find yourself ‘tuning into.’”

I’m a little surprised that anyone who’‘s read my blog more than once would need to ask that. Obviously, it’s this one.

Kathy: “Why do fools fall in love?”

The blood concentration of oxytocin, a neuropeptide which is secreted in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, has been shown to increase in response to strong positive emotion and/or physical pleasure. The oxytocin’s physical structure matches certain sites in the brains of both men and women; these “oxytocin receptors,” when stimulated by the presence of the neuropeptide, mediate a number of emotional responses related to pair-bonding and parenting.

Also, the rain falls from up above because moisture condenses around a dust particle until the weight of the drop is too high for the drop to continue to be suspended on air currents, and the birds sing so gay because it’s Pride Week.

KathyF: “What burning question do you wish you could answer?”


Allison: “Can I have a pony?”


limesalttequila:  “Why don’t you post a pic of yourself?  (or have I wasted a completely good opportunity with a question for which you’ve already addressed?-That’s 2 questions, I now realize.  Disregard the 2nd.) Oh, now I have another one…but I know I’ve reached my max, so disregard the other 2 questions and answer this one: You post a lot about your family (mom specifically), yet I notice they frequent your blog. Does this ever present a problem at family functions and in your relationship with them?  (it’s still only one question with 2 parts…)”

I can answer all those in one word: decaf.
OK, because I like you: I haven’t had any difficulty with the family stuff, for a few reasons. First, becauuse I try to be fair and accurate in what I write. Second, because I don’t see my family members all that much. Third, because even if they were upset with me, I probably wouldn’t notice.

Oh, and as for that photo: Here you go.

Hank Fox: “Well, since the pony question is taken … There are some parallels in your life story and mine. I want to meet you at some point in the next year and compare notes on life. How can that be managed?”

Party at Carl’s House! Woohoo!
Let’s pursue a serious answer to that in other channels, Hank. And: me too.

dale: “Oh.  I only get one?  Well then, you can pick between a) What do you think of the institution of marriage?” 

Well, I do understand the freight with which marriage is laden in this patriarchal society, the connotations of ownership of women and wedding rings like livestock ear tags, the arguments in favor of polyamory and so forth. But I’m married to Becky, not marriage.

“b) where the hell did you learn to write so beautifully?”

From reading your blog.

murky:  “My question: Was it intentional on your part that my recent attempted post to “Hating women” failed to post?” 


the_bone:  “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”

I told you, they were gone when I got here.

susurra: “Tell me the most unusual place you’ve ever made love.”

Oh, what the hell. OK.
It was in Aaron Wildavsky’s hot tub. Wildavsky wasn’t there — I was dog-sitting for his wife, who was a gardening pal of mine. The person I was with was a long-term platonic friend with whom I suddenly got closer. That was on Gay Pride Weekend, 1989.

Happy anniversary, Becky.

A thought on Rove, O’Reilly, Et Al

OK. Maybe I’ll leave Al out of this one.

Rove says that any person to the left of the right wing of the Republican Party is a person who gives aid and comfort to terrorists. Bill O’Reilly calls for the tepid liberals at Air America to be locked up as “traitors.” And the eliminationist rhetoric from the right grows, gaining acceptance and credibility.

I think every leftist goes through a period of thinking the fascist clampdown is just around the corner. I did. I was 14 years old. After I grew out of it, I derided people who thought that way.

Watching Dick Durbin go down in mild flames this week, I decided the over-under for the arrival of the crisis is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of October 2005. (I’ll leave comments open on this until then so that you can all come back and mock me when I’m wrong.) There is a kind of ugliness gathering on the right that I have not seen in US politics before.

Then again, I have never seen as energized an opposition to the ruling party either.

I am no huge fan of the government of the United States of America. I love my country, but the government could vanish or be radically transformed and it would likely leave what I love about my country essentially intact. The culture, the landscape, the more-or-less good nature of the the average resident.

The people in power are pushing to eliminate all those things, however, and they thus compel my reluctant support for the US government as it was before they seized power. It was an evil, lying, murderous institution with a legacy of slavery and genocide, but it was my evil, lying, murderous institution with a legacy of slavery and genocide. And it had a Constitution that enabled people like me to work to ameliorate the worst of the evil, to correct the worst of the lies.

Here is my source of hope. The right is going after the targets of opportunity. It is a Darwinian process. One by one, they attack the opponents who will cave. Who will be left?

Those of us who will not cave.

It occurs to me that the endless infighting on the left may well serve to make us stronger after all. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond opines that one of the reasons Europe conquered the world is that Europeans had spent the previous two millennia in warfare between adjoining towns. They were just damned good at it by the sixteenth century. All that time we leftists have spent in circular firing squads has certainly sharpened our aim.

I won’t go so far as to say that I look forward to the right taking on an actual fighting left activist, rather than labeling moderates as “leftists” and dogpiling them. But I will say that when they do, I suspect they are in for a rather spectacular bloody nose.


Don’t ever let anyone tell you I haven’t done my bit for public health. If you click on the thumbnail here and spend a few seconds gazing at the pop-up photo of the Echinacea pallida blooming in my backyard this morning, it will boost your immune system exactly seven times more than most commonly available homeopathic Echinacea products!

I especially love this species and its threadlike petals ray flowers. I planted its close cousin E. tennesseensis last weekend: it’s happily rooting out into the soil. I do like to drink the occasional cup of Echinacea tea, though studies increasingly relegate any healthful effect of drinking Echinacea (other than hydration, and the relaxation that comes from drinking a nice cup of non-caffeinated tea) to the realm of folklore. It tastes good, and that’s what matters to me.

Unfortunately, demand for the species — propped up by the folklore that the plant is a miracle cure — has accelerated depletion in the wild. Many Echinacea species are endangered as a result, including the one I planted last weekend. (My plant was propagated in a nursery from seed collected legally, of course.) There are places in the remaining tall-grass prairie where collectors have completely wiped out wild Echinacea populations.

There are those who promote the ethical production of medicinal herbs, and I’m glad they’re there. In the meantime, as long as I drink the stuff, I might as well grow my own. And the solace of lovely wildflowers — seeing them in my garden, knowing that a few still remain out in the wild — is infinitely more healing than a cup of tea.

Get to Know Your Blogger

It’s high time for something non-atrocity-related! So I’m stealing this little game from Lauren.

Ask anything.

Two rules:
1) Please ask only one question. It can be serious or silly.
2) Leave your burning question in the comments by end of day Thursday.

I’ll answer by Saturday.