Thursday, July 28, 2016

Queens of Tomatoes

One of our clients has a tennis court that's been converted into a raised-bed garden. I'm told the person who built it did so years ago. What I don't need to be told is that he had no idea how to design a raised-bed garden. The black ground cloth covering the entire court makes the place a furnace, and may of the beds are so huge you need to walk across them to plant, weed, and harvest.

You should not walk on raised beds; you compact the soil, which is a big no-no.

Compounding this, my boss, who is a beautiful landscape designer but not a food producer, had us plant things...well, sub-optimally. At the time she was really stressed, and when she gets stressed she gets dictatorial, so we shut our mouths and planted way too many plants in each bed.

Also, the garden needs regular and frequent tending, which is not happening, since we are fine gardeners, not vegetable gardeners, and our schedule is set accordingly.

The client uses the vegetables in her restaurant.

We have had a brutal drought and temperatures in the 90s, so watering has been an issue with watering bans, but that has at least been done enough to keep the plants going.

Today I stood with my usual colleague, Amy, looking at a dense forest of tomato plants.

"This is a mess," she said.

"Oh yeah."

"There are way too many plants here."

"And way too close together. Boss Lady admits now she planted too many."

"What are we supposed to do?"

"Fix it. And harvest what's ready."

"Did the client's chef say he wanted more stuff?"

"He has no choice, Look at this stuff. If we don't pick it today we'll lose it."

"I know; he was just such a jerk the last time I brought stuff."

"I'll handle him. Let's go."

We picked three big buckets of tomatoes, and had our other guy, a young pup, cut celery and put it into a cooler with some water. Amy explained end-blossom rot to him, and  why you need to remove rotten vegetables and cut leaves from the bed. Another colleague, a very nice middle-aged biker whom I suspect did way too much pot in the day, waters the garden, but just leaves rotten vegetables on the plants. He may be a bit lazy. Or clueless. (Last time, he and I cut lots of cabbage, and he was set to just dump them, loose, into the back of his pickup truck, to roll around in the bed on the way to the restaurant. I explained bruising and damage, and gave him a bin.)

Amy and I arrived at the restaurant, and carried the heavy cooler in first through the delivery entrance. The chef came over.

I put my hand on the cooler and opened my mouth.

Chef held up his hand.

"I have an event at Big Posh Place, and I have to have it ready by three, so I don't have time."

I waited until he was done, and continued.

"This is celery. It's getting woody but has a good flavor, and I thought you could use it for stock."

"Oh. Ha ha. 'stock.' I see what you did there."

"Yeah. and we'll bring in tomatoes and will leave them there."

On the way back to her truck, Amy said, "when he held up his hand, it was all I could do not to punch him. With his stupid hat."

"Yeah, I just ignore that crap and do what I set out to do. I don't accept his premise that his time is more important, because one, I don't work for him and two, we just spent an hour in 92-degree heat in a sea of plants so dense I thought I was in-country, picking tomatoes after spending an hour in 92-degree heat weeding and deadheading the property. Surprisingly, though, I'm not feeling the heat at all."

We headed for Dunkin' Donuts, which is our routine: after the first job of the day, we get our iced beverages, and Dunkies is everywhere.

We drive separate vehicles, and met in the parking lot.

"Is today 'Assholes Drive For Free' day?" I asked.

"Did you see me? I was all 'Thanks a lot, buddy! Thanks a lot!' to all the cars," Amy said.

"They were cutting me off mid-intersection! What the hell!!"

We looked at each other.

"Maybe I'm feeling the heat more than I realized," I suggested.

"Yeah. I need an iced coffee and a bathroom."

Still: better than any day in an office.

Music by the beach

In my city there's a free music concert by local musicians every week in a grassy park by the beach. My sister Jane and I like to walk, hear some music, and take in the cool of the evening. The bands are mostly local cover bands, and the crowd is a nice cross-section of the city, with a healthy dose of seniors and families with kids. And tattoos. It's a multicultural city, and not terribly wealthy. It all feels like the real world.

Tonight my sister and I scored a good spot on a bench, and were relaxing when the flies struck. Thanks to poison ivy looking like pretty much any other benign and generic ground cover, I'm covered in brutal oozing lesions. I have a steroid cream, and it works, but flies landing on my legs sets things to percolating, and I needed that dragon to stay asleep.

(Do NOT chime "leaves of three, let it be," to me. Do you know how many plants have leaves of three? And no it's not always shiny. It doesn't stand out AT all. Which is why every landscaper I've talked to has their poison ivy horror story. I freely confess I'd have no trouble taking a can of Roundup to the stuff. My legs look like tenderized meat.)

I saw a middle-aged woman on a blanket spraying herself and a young girl.

"Let's go," I said to my sister, and approached the woman.

"Is that bug spray?" I asked.


"Do you want to go to heaven for rescuing strangers in need?"

"Oh, help yourself! They say the bug [Zika] is only in Florida, but I'm not taking any chances, even though I'm not going to get pregnant!"

We thanked her profusely and sprayed ourselves.

Back on our bench, my sister commented on how she hadn't seen anyone she knew. My sister has worked at the same supermarket for 20+ years, so she's constantly bumping into people she knows. We make a game of it, with five people being the target number.

Three older women walked by.

"HI!" they said to Jane.

"Hi, how are you? We have to stop meeting like this," Jane replied. "This is my sister." It touches me that she loves to show me off.

They walked away, and Jane said, "The one in the floral shirt? The woman in white is her daughter. The other woman is another shopper."

"That's nice. They seem like very nice people."

 "She loves me. She thinks I'm adorable." Totally deadpan, statement of fact. She kills me.

We listened to music, I danced in my seat, we waved to passing babies and dogs, and had a lovely evening. And decided that next week it would be a picnic dinner on the grass.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Carpal Diem

The landscaper has been on vacation, and before that has used me maybe 4 hours a week, so I thought now would be a good time to have the carpal-tunnel surgery on my left hand. It was a basic repeat performance of the first one, including the anesthesiologist, a Chinese woman who had, the first time, woken me from a pre-surgical nap by grabbing and shaking my foot while calling out "MS C! MS C! WAKE UP!"in that voice that only Chinese women seem to be able to project, a hair-raising screech reserved for life-threatening emergencies and talking to friends sitting a foot away on the bus.

"Isn't that backwards?" I'd asked.

Can I just say: I'm one of those people who love hospitals. I love the clean sheets, warm blankets, the socks with rubber treads on them. I love being looked after. I love being wheeled into a bright clean white room and surrendering to the drugs and the oblivion.

My doctor, who is awesome, came by, marked the hand, and bim-bam-boom, I was out, then awake, my hand was numb and bandaged, and I was eating the most delicious saltines and cranberry juice of my life. Then home to lie on the couch, binge on Netflix, and doze for three hours at a time. It's the poor student's version of a day spa.

So of course the landscaper texted me to say she could use me all next week, and tomorrow.

"Sure! Great!" I'd texted back with my one un-bandaged hand. The bandage came off today, and I'll be working alone on the first job, so I won't have to worry about hiding any issues that come up.

Also, this time around I'm keeping the ibuprofen going, and the difference is remarkable.

Today I interviewed at a bakery cafe in Salem. They need part-time counter help, and with the assurance of someone I know who'd worked there that they are good people, I broke my 25+-year oath to never work in food service again, and met with them. I liked them enough, and I think they liked me.

"I can do math in my head," I offered.

"You won't have to, but OK," they said. They like that I keep bees, which I'm finding makes me somehow accessible and cool.

The plan is to have this as income when I go back to school. It's close, it's flexible, and I get free food on the job. I can work it along with the landscape work for now, so voila. I may have to give up most of my farm work, but I'm not being paid there. I'll do my best to help out, mostly because I really like them, especially the 84-year old mother-in-law who wears nylons on even the hottest days,and of course, the chickens.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Manual Labor summer

This summer was planned as the summer I did my internship hours as required by my class. As with many things in my life, I would have done it differently had I known better. The thing is, why is it that when I don't know better, my ignorance never benefits me? Why can't that coin toss be in my favor?

The landscaper I agreed to work for now has no work for me. I made $60 this week. I'd approached a farm to volunteer in exchange for exposure to how food is grown, and that's fine, because well, I only go when I want to, and it counts towards the internship. There are landscapers posting for openings, but thanks to raging Carpal Tunnel Syndrome that requires surgery, I won't be applying. I've had one hand done and need to have the other taken care of, and starting with a landscaper just before becoming useless is not good strategy.

The landscaping work has been fine, and I've learned a bit. And for all that it's hard, it's not stressful.  Our job sites are usually very large homes on extensive pieces of land. There is always some part of the land that serves as the place where we dump our clippings, pulled weeds, etc.

One particular property sits on its own hill. This means that when we are weeding along the extensive driveway and street frontage, we have to carry our full buckets up and over the hill, using rudimentary stone steps designed to lend atmosphere. At the top we then must cross to the back of the property, then down to a ledge where the barrels are emptied.

We were doing this a few days ago. It was hot. Very hot. When you work in landscaping, you have to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts (I was already sporting a couple of patches where I'd hit some poison ivy). So it was hot, I was fully clothed,  and I was toiling up an almost vertical path with a full barrel on my shoulder. When I got to the dumping spot, I decided to make a "nitrogen donation," my clever private term for taking a pee (we can't use client bathrooms, nor would I want to), so I stepped carefully down the steep incline until I was below sight line of the house.

While doing my biz, I stumbled and managed to pee on myself. I righted myself, put myself back together, and went back to work. I thought about it. I was hot, sweaty, covered in dirt, my own urine drying on my leg, and at least two more trips waiting for me and the heavy barrel.

Still better than working in an office any day.

Friday, May 20, 2016


One of the reasons for moving back was to spend more time with my sister, who is somewhat special needs but mostly in need of social involvement. We have a good time together; movies, walking the beach and then breakfast at a local eaterie.

And fashion advice: I'm  still working on ways to explain why my 70+ mother's clothing choices for her might need to be re-examined. Once I picked her up to find her sporting a bright blue eyelash-yarn knit hat that looked like nothing so much as a Muppet massacre on her head, the kind of that that 80-year-olds think makes them look like Nora Desmond, but really screams "Don't stand in line behind me at the bank unless you have an hour to kill."

I tried beating around the bush:

"I know you like the hat, and you know I'm all about individual expression, but trust me that that hat does you no favors."

"I like it."

"I know you do, but trust believe me, it doesn't look groovy; it looks really goofy. Old-lady goofy."

"I wear it all the time."

"I know, but you might want to try something else."

"It's cute."

Time to cut to the chase.

"It makes you look retarded."




I still haven't won the battle of the Big White Sneakers. She loves them, and my mother keeps buying them for her. I got her to buy some cute Keds and some fun Champion kicks, but when I go to pick her up, there they are: big, white, horrible.

It's an ongoing internal struggle: I don't want her to be self-conscious, but on the other hand, I do. I want her to develop a fashion sense that doesn't make her look like she lives in a group home. My mother doesn't help, because she shares the same style. So I pick my battles, and try not to substitute one overbearing woman in my sister's life for another. But isn't it the job of a big sister to guide her little sister?

I let my sister be my sister. She can have poor table manners. When she's hungry, she's like a Springer Spaniel in a Purina commercial. In closely-seated restaurants, I have to remind her gently not to concuss nearby diners with her elbows when she uses her knife. I pick my battles, and figure: if she doesn't care about it after I've suggested she try not to be so coarse, why should I care? So I eat, avoid her elbows, and try not to get too bent out of shape by the sound of open-mouth chewing.

Although one time I called her on it, and later explained.

"I'm not trying to make you feel bad," I said.

"I know. It's gross," she said.

"It is gross. And it makes you look slow. You're not slow. I'm on your side, trust me."

"I know."

So I feel like a tyrant when I see her studiously chew with her mouth closed, but at the same time, she likes it when we hang out, so I can't be scarring her too much.

We went to a local arcade to play Skee Ball . Everyone in my family has at one point been a serious contender in a bowling league, my sister included, and we racked up some tickets. We decided to save our tickets through the summer and combine them for a serious prize. We cased the prize counter and dreamed big.

"Maybe we can get that plastic clock with the mermaids and dolphins on it."

My sister pointed to some emoji pillows. "Those are cute, too."

We agreed to shoot for the stars, and figured that if we spent a total of about $40 we could earn enough tickets to get us something that costs about $3.00 at a crap store. But buying it isn't as fun as standing, side, by side, whiffing Skee Balls up the ramp.

Sisters on a mission.

Walking the plank

The school play was a success, and so pleased was the director with my performance that he asked me whether I'd be in a 3-person 10-minute play he was directing for the Boston Theater Marathon.

The BTM is an annual fundraiser; 50 10-min plays are performed, represented by various area theater companies. I was honored to be asked.

Then I arrived at rehearsal and it was explained to me and my two co-performers that the entire scene was to be acted out on a plank about 10 feet long and a foot wide.

The premise is that two warm-blooded "tiny, insect-eating tree dwellers" discuss evolving, which conversation intensifies when a predatory cold-blooded creature comes along.

We had to "explore" how to move around, on, and under one another on this plank (the director has a thing for movement).  At first, I was all "are you kidding me?" but by production was all about the physicality.

Performance night came, and the other two actors and I were in "costume" backstage, "costume" being crocheted animal hats with ears for the mammals and dragon spikes for the reptile. Oh, and foam noses for the mammals. We walked the hallways backstage to curious stares ("It's very high concept" I told one gawker.)

Finally, in the green room with some other teams, one of them said, "So what are you guys anyway?"

The room got quiet as people listened.

"No idea, really" we said.

The stage manager came in. "MAMMALS!" he called out, and we took our places.

The one time I'd been to the BTM was well over a decade ago, and it was held in a small black-box space on a local university campus. Since then, it had grown and was now performed in a very large performance venue.

"Cripes, there's a balcony," I'd whispered, rattled but excited, at our brief tech rehearsal.

So we went on, and that magical thing happened: The audience filled in the missing piece.  We had to hold for laughs; I had a monologue that got applause, and we gave each other telepathic "really? huh!" looks onstage.

At the party afterward, we were told over and over how much people enjoyed the piece.

Go foam noses, kids' hats, and a plank. Cirque du Soleil, eat your heart out.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Art Downtown

I got a gig showing some of my paintings at a local cafe. It's a nice downtown place, very supportive of community. The owner is Russian, about twelve feet tall, head of bushy salt-and pepper hair, and terrible business sense. Although it is nice to come by on a weekend and see his friends/relatives sitting around a table with Russian orthodox priests, who, with their tall, slender builds in black cassocks, and their long silver hair and beards look like a gaggle of sexy Santas.

The manager is a nice young man who knows how to bring business in, and it was through him that I got my gig - he understands integrating a small business with the local community. I explained how to get a picture rail to save the walls, and on a Saturday I was there wiring and hanging my pieces.

Because my pieces were not of a uniform size, it took some time. It was a slowish morning, and an older gentleman sat at the coffee bar. From his manner and the ID hanging around his neck, I gathered that he was a regular, liked the social aspect of the place, and lived under some form of supervision.

He took a great interest in my pictures, and came closer to watch me hang them.

"I like this one!"


"You should call it 'After the Rain.'"

"Well, it has a name already, but that's a good name. I'll keep it in mind for the next one."

A man came into the cafe and began watching me. My new partner came over to him and they stood next to each other, observing. Conferring gravely with one another.

"You should put those in a different order," New Man said. "The levels are too much the same."

"Yeah, they need to be different," my partner agreed.

"I'm just hanging them up, guys. Once they're up, I'll arrange them, I promise."

My partner was squatting in front of  a painting waiting on the floor that featured a stylized pink tree (it looks better than it sounds).

"I see a donkey. In the tree."

"Well, you have a great imagination."

"And an alligator."

"Uh-huh." I was wrestling with a stuborn piece of hanging wire and trying to not let exasperation creep into my voice.

"I really can see that donkey."

"That's swell."

I stepped off the ladder to head to the restroom. As I passed the man, he said, "See? Look. A Donkey."

I looked. Damn.

"Wow. Yeah."

"And here's the alligator."

And there it was.

The paintings took four hours to hang (from now on I will paint on uniform-sized canvas). During that time, the other artist, a photographer, hung his. He was Russian. Of course.

"I have never done this before."

"Well, your stuff is very nice. If you need any tools, let me know."

"I am fine, I have brought things."

"OK, but if you need anything, I have lots of things in that bag there."

"I am fine, but thank you very much; you are very courteous."

"Did you bring a level?"

"No." He looked like he was about to rail to the heavens in a Dostoevskyan fit of despair, drink a quart of vodka, and throw himself under a large, allegorical locomotive.

"It's OK; It's easy to forget until you've done it a few times. Feel free to use mine."

"Than you. You are clearly a professional; I am new to these things and clearly I still have much to learn."

"I've just done this a few times, is all. I've already made my mistakes. I usually forget something. It's not a reflection on you."  Please don't strip and walk off into a Siberian winter sunset to the howling accompaniment of wolves.

So, the paintings and photos are hung, people love them, and nobody has yet bought anything. It's the way it is: sometimes you sell; sometimes you don't. I try not to think about the young man whose stuff hung before mine, who decided to try his hand at painting and sold a fairly average piece for one thousand dollars. Unframed.

It's a low-budget thrill, but it is nice to be at a music event at the cafe, listening to a guy with an electronic piano massacre a top-40 tune, and have people say, "THOSE are your paintings? I love them!"

I still pay for my hot chocolate. I'm not that big-time yet.