Saturday, May 29, 2010

Xeriscape schmeriscape

I discovered the joy of gardening in 1993. We had rented a house that had a rather large perennial garden, and I fell in love.

When baby #4 came along and we had to move, I set about creating a beautiful gardenscape at the new house. In the process, I turned a house with almost no curb appeal into one of the nicest front yards on the block (if I do say so myself). I turned a parched "dead zone" at the south side of the house into something out of an English garden. In the backyard, I grew (among other things) a purple smoke bush that threatened to swallow any of the smaller children wandering near it.

Then we moved to a bigger house, just because, and there, with the help of Steve's sister, we created a true backyard oasis: a pool and patio surrounded by trees and perennials that invited you to take off your shoes, grab a beer and bliss out.

A shady corner in our Ottawa garden

Blue fescue in Ottawa
Then we came to Colorado Springs: high plains, semi-arid. Dry, dry, dry. Sun, sun, sun. And we were at the tail end of a 3-year drought.

Even before we moved to the Springs, I bought a book on local gardening, called "Xeriscape Colorado." Xeriscape gardening, (which many pooh-pooh as "zero-scape" gardening because it often uses large swaths of rocks and gravel as part of the landscape design - and some people have been known to take this to the extreme, razing their lawns and blanketing their yards with nothing but gravel) is actually a very responsible approach to landscaping. It espouses micro-climates and putting plants where they will naturally thrive with minimal additional water.

The book made it all sound so easy, and a visit to the local xeriscape demonstration garden made it look quite lush. Here's a picture of the xeriscape demonstration garden (in May 2005). Notice how green all the plants are? (That's Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak in the background.)

Xeriscape Demonstration Garden with view of
Garden of the Gods, Colorado
So I dug in with zeal. I enriched the soil, I bought sun-loving perennials and hardy ornamental grasses. I planted them, I fertilized them, and I covered them generously with mulch. I even cheated by allowing the built-in irrigation system to nurture them along.

You see it coming, don't you? Fail.

First, the irrigation system failed - but only in the garden areas, not on the lawns, which put my xeriscape approach to the test. Did I mention we were at the tail end of a drought?

Then winter came. A winter where record-breaking blizzards caused chaos at the Colorado airports and alternated with prolonged dry spells. (Our neighbours would actually water their gardens throughout the winter dry spells. I derided them and decided that was coddling.)

All of my shrubs died. Including three purple smoke bushes - specifically described as "quite drought-tolerant, so useful in xeriscaping" - that I had sagely planted along the west side the patio to give us afternoon shade in the summer. I'd had visions of 8-foot-high bushes. Instead I had lots of low-growing (and slow-growing) plants.

Eventually, we got the irrigation system repaired, but I think we were too late. Or we were too stingy with the water. The lawn began to encroach on the gardens - but the supposedly hardy ornamental grasses I'd planted died! This is NOT the way the xeriscapists proclaimed it would be. Kentucky bluegrass, which most lawns are made of, is supposed to be among the thirstiest of the thirsty plants.
Blue fescue, Colorado
This picture shows a section of one of our gardens: an ornamental blue fescue ("drought tolerant" my patootie!) on the left and the blasted Kentucky bluegrass on the right. Xeriscape fail.

Today, I put my last token effort into these gardens in this hostile environment. If we owned this house and were staying here, I have to say I'd be inclined to go for a zeroscape garden! Bring on the river stone! (Though, honestly, the lawn even encroaches there!)

In the not-too-distant future, I will be back in the land where planted things actually grow. I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Run away! Run away!

Confession: despite my sentimental (and genuinely heartfelt) post about the wonderful farewell party thrown by my colleagues at NORAD and USNORTHCOM and about how good the military is at saying goodbye, I myself am a wuss when it comes to saying goodbye.

It's shameful, really. And it's all because I just feel awkward. All my social skills (at least, as much as I do have) seem to vanish.

I never know whether to shake hands or hug (especially when it comes to the guys). And I feel bad if I want to hug some people, but don't want to hug others, so I just opt for no hugs, but then someone holds his or her arms out for a hug just as I put my hand out for a shake, and she or he pulls both arms back just as I change my proffered right hand for a two-arm hug ... Awkward.

And I feel really uncomfortable when people say nice things about me - it's like that feeling you get when you're walking past someone who you just KNOW is watching you, and suddenly, you can't walk smoothly - your feet are two inches too long, your hips are all stiff. You feel like you're a two-leg amputee using your body weight to fling each prosthetic leg forward in turn. THAT's how I feel when people speak well of me. Just profoundly self-conscious.

Probably something pathologically neurotic about that. I'll ask my psychoanalyst.

So, when it comes to the final act of Saying Goodbye, I behave like the knights from Monty Python and the Holy Grail when faced by the man-eating rabbit of Caer Bannog (sp?): I run away. (Can't you just hear whatshisname yelling, "Run away! Run away!" as they scramble over the rocks, leaving decapitated knights behind them?)

And that's what happened today. I worked my last day in the Public Affairs office. I gave hand-over briefings, I sent papers to be shredded, I cleared out my drawers and cabinets, I moved all my electronic files to a shared location, I burned a CD of my old e-mails. And then I was done.

Since I no longer had any badges or security identification, a colleague walked me to the exit. As we were leaving the office, she asked, "Did you want to say goodbye to anyone?"

GAAAH! Of COURSE that's the Right Thing To Do. The Right Thing To Do is to walk by each of the divisions in the office, pop my head in and call a cheerful, "Well, it's been great, guys. Take care. Don't forget to shred those papers." Exchange a final handshake or hug (you see where my problem is). Is that what I did? Nope. Here's what I did.

I stood near the exit to the office and called out a cheerful and loud, "Well, goodbye! I'm leaving!" I received a chorus of goodbyes in return. Phew. We escaped into the corridor.

But one brave soul scrambled after us and called, "Wait!" It was Kyle - a colleague who is possibly even more introverted than I am. It really was good to see her, and it was actually nice to have a sort of private hug goodbye with her. We've come through some challenges together.

So now I'm kind of wishing I'd taken the five minutes, made the rounds, suffered the hug/shake dilemmas, and done The Right Thing. But, ah well. They know I've really enjoyed my time there and that I'll miss them. Right? Hope so.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Curmudgeon - ranting again

Now that I've gotten the Uh-huh? issue off my chest, I feel compelled (that is, I have a certain obsessive-compulsive urge) to rant about another pet peeve: I versus me.

As in, "Me and Michael are going to rob a bank." Or, "The corporation presented my husband and I a beautiful portrait of the Queen of England."

Please, please tell me you can spot the error, and that it irritates you like an eyelash stuck on your eyeball. As the mother of teenagers, it is something I hear - and even read (Damn you, Facebook!) - on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

Somehow I have failed to instruct my children in the simple grammatical rule: me is the objective case; I is the subjective case of the first-person singular. Object = that which receives the action. Subject = that which carries out the action.

It is most often f*cked up in the compound structure (i.e., when using "and"). The easiest way to check if you've got it right is to remove the "and" bit. You would never (I hope) say, "Me am going to rob a bank," or "The corporation gave I a beautiful portrait of the Queen of England."

There. I feel all better now. I think me and hubby will go celebrate by perusing the office supplies at Staples.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fun & Games: how I know my husband loves me

It's NOT what you're thinking; get your minds out of the gutter!

Ever since Steve and I got our first personal computer (way back in 1988 - it was DOS-based, but did have a few games, including Tetris), we've been computer-game addicts. Occasionally, this has inspired some gentle competition where we take turns beating each other's high score. More often we each find a game that tickles our fancy and we obsessively play it until, well, honestly, there are still games we haven't stopped playing.

I've been a Sims addict since the first edition of Sims came out, and I sporadically become obsessed with online crossword games. Steve has gone through a prolonged Freecell addiction and is currently hooked on DiceWars.

At the height of his Freecell days, Steve concluded that every single Freecell puzzle is solvable. (I've since learned that all BUT ONE are solvable. Google it.) He came to this realization by replaying any game he lost until he finally solved it. He became a Freecell Deity. His challenge then became to win as many consecutive hands in a row as possible.

[Hang in there, I'm getting to the point of my story.]

For weeks on end, you could find him hunched over the keyboard, hand on mouse, pondering the cards as a chess master might gaze on a chess board. So engrossed was he that I swear I could've driven a spike through his wrist into the desk and he would barely have twitched. Each evening I got a recap on how many consecutive games he had won: 30, 49, 80...

Finally he reached 100 consecutive games won.

Then one fateful evening, I came downstairs, sat at his computer and cranked up the Freecell game on his user (too impatient to switch users), blithely oblivious to the fact that MY statistics would overwrite HIS. I lost my first game. Won the next. And so on. After a while I chirped over to Steve, who was innocently watching TV, "Hey, I've won five out of 10 games in Freecell!" (For me this was a record.)

"Good for you!" he cheerfully replied. (And not in a condescending way.)

And then it hit us both simultaneously: I had completely obliterated his record. Weeks and weeks of dedication down the tubes.

At the same time as he was gasping, "What user were you on?" I was clamouring, "Oh no! I'm so sorry!" I looked in vain for a "Super Undo" button, my eyes bugging out in disbelief.

It could have gone SO badly from there. He could have yelled, "What were you thinking?!" He could have given me the cold shoulder. He could have banned me from ever using "his" computer. But he did none of those things.

Instead, we both burst out laughing, gut-busting laughing, until tears were coming down my face. And he laughed as hard as I did. Half an hour later, one of us would suddenly start chuckling. We still laugh about it.

And that is how I know he loves me.

P.S. He subsequently attained a new high Freecell score on his laptop, though I don't know if he ever beat his 100-game record. But then he decided that his obsession with the game was excessive, so he deleted the game.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Souvenirs from NORAD and USNORTHCOM

What do the following items have in common with each other?
A really cute little-girl carry-on bag with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it

A hand-crafted necklace with the words NORAD and USNORTHCOM discreetly worked in

A proof copy of the NORAD Jubilee book, Guarding What You Value Most
A supersized paper "coin" to commemorate NORAD and USNORTHCOM

 Answer: they were just some of the gag gifts given to me at the farewell party thrown for me today. There is a story to go with each item.

[Aside: The layout function for pictures in Blogger is seriously frustrating!]

The luggage is symbolic of the several Civic Leader Tours I carried out with my colleagues. These trips are killers from a logistical perspective. First, they are hosted by a four-star general officer. That means: high-profile, no-fail. Second, the guests are very senior community leaders. Think CEOs, directors. That means: high expectations, accustomed to having an admin assistant taking care of their every need. Third, they last five days and visit 10-12 military destinations across the United States (and sometimes Canada, but none did during my tenure). That means: coordination of a kazillion moving parts - with no allowance for a missed hand-off. These trips were exhilarating and exhausting, and helped me build real relationships with my colleagues: there was laughter and tears, panic and passing out. And occasionally a glass of wine.

The necklace is, in my opinion, the most artful way one could incorporate those command names into a piece of jewelry. Click on the picture to enlarge it and check out how she incorporated the letters! (Apology: I took the picture in a mirror so the letters are all inverse.) Kathleen created the necklace as a joke (because I'm always so well put together, or so they say), but I quite like it. Though I might remove the Mona Lisa pendant, I think, and the non sequitur turtle that doesn't show in the picture. :-)

The NORAD Jubilee Book was one of the key products to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the NORAD agreement. The year-long celebration was a huge project, and the book was just one small part of it. Most of my role on the book was just keeping the project moving. But I did have one critical part: I alphabetized the list of contributors to the Jubilee celebration. In so doing I accidentally deleted the name of one of the key contributors - he's the one who presented me with this gift. [I tried to insert a picture of the offending page here, but Blogger insisted on placing it perpendicular to the text. Grrr. I give up.]

The supersized paper coin represents the prestigious command coins, usually given to recognize a significant contribution or effort. The coins are usually small enough to slip into the palm of the hand and given as part of a handshake. (The real coins were out of stock, but the sentiment is still delivered.)

These were just a few of the humorous and meaningful gifts given to me today by a group of people who work hard together, respect each other and find fun every day in some goodhearted ribbing.

I once wrote that the military, by virtue of its transient lifestyle and its constant awareness of the sacrifice of human life, excels at saying goodbye. People don't just fade into the woodwork, they are celebrated and their contributions are honoured. Sometimes, as with the change of command at NORAD and USNORTHCOM this week, the pomp and ceremony are truly impressive. Other times, like today, the ritual is very personal and well considered, but it is part of the culture nevertheless. One of many, many things I will miss when I leave here.

P.S. I still have four more working days before I leave the job but, since my last day is the day before a 4-day weekend, we opted to do my send-off today. Otherwise no one would've shown up!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dawning realization

I just realized that when my niece has her baby (sometime in the next 30 days or so), I will be a great-aunt. Good grief. This will be the first grandchild amongst all my six siblings. My first great-niece or great-nephew.

I'm kind of stunned because "great-aunt" is a term reserved for, well, for my aunts, in relation to my children. Not to ME. And great-aunts are, frankly, old. Always have been. I've loved my aunts (my kids' great-aunts) to bits, but they've always been the older generation.

To make things worse, as hubby pointed out, my brother will be a GRANDFATHER. An old man, I tell you.

As I was lamenting all of this out loud, my 13-year-old chimed in, "But Mom, you've always been great!"

I think he should get an increase in his allowance, just for that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Or, "What ever happened to, 'You're welcome.'?"

I do realize that fancy manners and civility are going the way of the pogo stick. No one knows how to set a table properly or which side plate to use anymore. No one writes thank-you notes anymore. (Which raises a question I'd love to ask Miss Manners: When are e-mail thank-yous sufficient?)

But in my prematurely curmudgeonly way, I have to speak out. Or blog out, as it were. I am annoyed when, after I thank someone for a service he or she has rendered, I get an, "Uh-huh?" as a response. I hear this most often in stores, after I thank the cashier for ringing up my sale. (What can I say? I'm Canadian; we either apologize or thank everyone we meet.) The salesperson absentmindedly grunts, "Uh-huh?" with an upward inflection that makes it a question.

It feels so dismissive. It's just a small step better than, "Whatever." (An admittedly huge step better than, "Whatevs.")

And here's the worst part: I've actually caught myself doing the uh-huh grunt. I know! It's shameful. I know better, and yet I'm absorbing the vernacular. It just ... happens.

So I'm consciously trying to force myself to pause that millisecond so I can remember to say, "You're welcome," instead of grunting dismissively and questioningly. I don't expect to stem the uh-huh tide, but I look forward one day to being that sweet, little, old curmudgeon who still says, "You're welcome," perhaps with a "dearie" appended.

Thanks for letting me vent.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

GAAAAAH! Trying not to panic.

And failing miserably.

While our house-hunting trip in April was a success - we did find a house, after all - it was all so down-to-the-wire that there was no time left over to do anything about lining up services at the new house prior to our move. So now I'm trying to do them from here, and I'm finding it rather daunting.

There are SO MANY options! Too many. And so many opportunities to feel ripped off.

Home phone - Do we want to switch to something like Vonage? (Although we had a truly horrific experience with them here in Colorado Springs, I hope it would be better if we went with Vonage right from the get-go.) Should we all just have individual cell phones? But then, how would we send/receive faxes? (You'd be surprised how often we use our fax machine. I know I am.)

Internet - there are now something like six different service options - and that's if we go the phone-provider route! If I choose one of the cheaper options, will the family rebel against me and lament about dial-up speed? "I have to go to my friend's house, Mom. Our internet is too slow, and I have homework to do."

TV as well... cable vs. digital vs. satellite. And don't even get me started on cell phones. And school registration. And university registration. Oh, yeah, and finding a job - which I will need if we're going to pay for all those services.

I remember the good old days, way back in 1984. All we had to do was contact the utilities (and there was only one service provider) and Bell Canada (another monopoly). The biggest stress then was facing all the astronomical hook-up charges. And all that was stressful enough.

Reflecting on all this, I'm glad I've quit my job early. It's going to take me several weeks, I think, to sort it out. In the meantime, I think I'll just curl up into a little ball here.


Or I'll make a table. Yeah. Spreadsheets and tables are always reassuring as they break things down into manageable parts. So clean, so organized, so discrete. Each element with its own line. All the information in one place. This SO appeals to the OCD in me. There. Even just thinking about organizing the information has calmed me. Sigh.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poor me.

[Update: I think I managed to get the picture where I wanted it...]

Yesterday I was in a black mood all day. Why? Because I don't love the house we're moving into in Ottawa.

All day long, all I could think about was what's wrong with it: it's significantly smaller than what we're used to; the master ensuite is dinky; the dining room is too small for a table AND a hutch; the living room is too small for our big comfy chairs; the windows are all small (except in the living room and sun room); and the kitchen won't have enough cupboards, even after we add more.

Actually, my whine list went even longer than that, but I'll spare you.

Why, you may rightly ask, did we buy the house then? That's what I tried to keep reminding myself. Location was the biggy - biking distance for Steve to get to work. We saw much more beautiful houses (some downright huge) but they were further out or in neighbourhoods where bicycling would be taking your life into your hands. So it was a compromise. It was as much house as we could afford in the location we wanted. And it IS in really excellent condition, and has beautiful hardwood floors in the living room, dining room and bedrooms. And there's a tiny forest right across the street.

And we can make it beautiful, as Steve keeps promising me.

So all this has been going through my mind. Then this morning, I read my cousin's blog.

My cousin, Steve Bramer, is on a mission trip to Hungary and Romania, through his church. He posted some pictures, including this one of "a typical house out here in the rural areas" of Romania.

And it hit me like a brick in the head: we are SO blessed. I am so spoiled. So caught up in Western consumerism and materialism. And I don't like that about myself.

So, I will recover from this well-timed concussion and begin to be grateful for the very cushy life I have. And I'll stop whining.

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