Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Which an Innocent Gardening Hobby Metamorphoses into an Herbal Mania

Key signs that your innocuous gardening hobby is becoming something else:

You start saving seeds from your own open-pollinated plants in the hopes of producing a new, unusual hybrid. Like, say, squarish tomatoes.

You EAT the sort-of-square tomatoes.

(I really should have taken a graft of that plant. Think of the packaging savings!)

You start thinking of your garden plans in terms of years, not months.

You start regularly Tweeting about things like crop rotation.

You build something vaguely resembling a small science lab in your basement, for the purpose of starting entire flats of seeds indoors:

You start a new blog about gardening.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's Wrong with the STLtoday Comment Section

I hate to knock my only hometown newspaper. Again.

Especially when, like the rest of the print media industry, it's probably about to go bankrupt.

But as a writer, as a sometime-editor, as an active social media user, as a blogger, as someone who has lived in the St. Louis metro area all of my life, hell, as a human being, I just can't hold this back any longer.

The comment section is hurting St. Louis.

I mean it. I mean it like Jon Stewart meant it when he went on Crossfire and told Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala that they were hurting America.

Any marginally sane, reasonably educated, and moderately moral St. Louisan who has visited (the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) and chanced to read the comments below an article more than a time or two will know what I mean.

The STLtoday commenting community is dominated by anti-social pessimists, belligerent misanthropists, racist ignoramuses, provincial neighborhood isolationists, one-note issue pushers who twist every discussion to fit their personal political agendas, and plain old attention-seeking trolls.

If a person dies accidentally in St. Louis, and the Post-Dispatch reports on it, you can count the minutes until someone will jump into the STLtoday comment thread on the story and make a comment about what an idiot the poor dead person was, and how much that person's death has improved the local gene pool.

If the newspaper website reports that home has been broken into, at least one comment will be sure to blame the homeowner for not owning a gun. (This axiom applies whether or not the homeowner was home at the time of the break-in, because apparently, in the minds of extreme gun ownership promoting STLtoday comment thread trolls, just owning a gun with a concealed carry permit magically protects one in perpetuity from every type of crime.)

If a crime occurs — anywhere in the St. Louis metro, any time, committed by any person of any race, under any circumstances — you can bet your bottom dollar that a chorus of obnoxious, barely-lettered white men who spend their apparently copious free time pretending to be righteous armchair race warriors will show up blaming the "creeping black menace." Never mind that African American people have lived and worked and owned businesses and raised families in St. Louis since, oh, how about since St. Louis was founded?

If a crime occurs where I live, in North County, expect a parade of comments (note that some of the worst and most racist ones I saw yesterday have actually been deleted) from people who have never lived in North County, or who fled North County's growing diversity a decade ago, talking about how the family-friendly, neighborly neighborhood where I live, where I leave my doors open to the sunshine during the day, where I'm not afraid to walk down my street alone in at night, is the rotten apple about to rot the whole barrel — the source of all St. Louis crime.

Riiiiiiiiiight. That's why I deliberately bought a house here. That's why I continue to live here. Because it's such a terrifying, decayed, crime-ridden hellhole.

(Incidentally, as a matter of anecdotal evidence concerning the terrible, terrible decline of my neighborhood, I have been a victim of street crime or theft in St. Louis City, University City, Maryland Heights, Brentwood and Creve Coeur. I have never been a victim of street crime or theft in Florissant or Hazelwood.)

Seriously, these comments are hurting St. Louis. I shudder to think what people not from the St. Louis region must conclude about people from the St. Louis region when they read comment threads like this on our newspaper's website. But the harm I see goes beyond besmirching our reputation with non-natives (I should say, further besmirching — we're already competing with Detroit for America's Most Dangerous City every year — do we really need trash our image some more?).

I can't help but think that comments like this are only worsening division and mistrust in a community that has long struggled with racial and social tensions, and has long acted, in many ways, more as a patchwork collection of competing small towns than as an urban+suburban metropolis of people facing common challenges and working toward common economic and social goals.

I don't know how things got this way in the Post-Dispatch comments threads. One might expect that a newspaper comment section would have a little more class than a YouTube thread.

Is it that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a latecomer to the local social / interactive media scene — late enough that most of the educated, thoughtful St. Louis area consumers of news had already found other places to discuss the stories that mattered most to them, and so by default the Post is left with the internet dregs?

Is it that the STLtoday comment moderation team is not staffed well enough to catch offensive comments quickly, and therefore those who might engage in a more tolerant, intelligent discussion are driven away by the sheer bulk of ignorant and inappropriate dreck?

Should STLtoday use comment moderation and banning with a heavier hand?

I don't know.

As a writer myself, I respect free speech. For years, in fact, I didn't even bother to prescreen comments on my own blog. It was only after a persistent troll kept leaving sexist and racist remarks that served no productive purpose in my comment threads that I threw up my hands and turned on comment approval.

I am sure that the STLtoday staff struggle similarly to balance their respect for freedom of expression with their need to promote civil and constructive community discourse.

I am not sure how the Post-Dispatch can solve this problem. I imagine those who work there would prefer that people such as myself who are dismayed at the lack of constructive intellectual discussion on STLtoday, rather than skipping the comments entirely in preemptive disgust, or, say complaining about the state of the comments on their own blogs, would show up more often in the comment threads, leave thoughtful comments, and try to bring a little dignity to the conversation.

But frankly, whenever I do leave a thoughtful comment on STLtoday, I feel like I'm tossing a shiny pebble into a polluted swamp.

Perhaps if I really want to see things improved there, I should organize my own cleanup crew.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Forest Fire

Once, there were two wise women who lived as neighbors in a village near a dark forest.

The land near the forest was fertile, and the village prospered. But every few years, a drought would sweep across the land, and fires would break out in the forest. For this reason, for generations, the people of that village had built their modest homes at a distance from the forest, and had taken care to keep the field between the forest and their village free of brush, so that the fire would not spread. And whenever the fires did come, the villages would work together, digging trenches in the field, and bringing pails of water from the river nearby to douse errant sparks and soak the ground around their homes.

But then a more than a decade passed without a drought, and as the prosperous village grew more prosperous, and crowded, young families began to build homes in the open, empty field near the forest.

The two wise women considered it folly to take such a chance, and both shook their heads. They both advised their neighbors not to move into the field. But, enticed by the space and beauty the rich, open field afforded, the villagers continued to build there despite the advice of their elders.

Before long, the baron who controlled the realm around the village noticed this trend, and he began to encourage it. Because every time a new farmstead was created in the baron's jurisdiction, he could tax the family that lived there for the use of the newly cultivated land. "Build near the forest," the baron urged. "The climate has changed. We may never see a drought again. You are safe from the fires. Build larger homes and farms! Take all the space you want!"

And the loggers selling wood to those building new homes, and the merchants selling furniture, and the roadbuilders who were hired to build new roads into the new part of the village also found reason to encourage this trend. And some villagers even began to borrow money to build new, empty homes, in the hopes that they might encourage people from other villages to move there, and sell the homes at a profit. And so, people began to build houses right into the forest.

And still, both the wise women protested. Hadn't the village prospered for centuries by living prudently, and taking precautions against fire? But the villagers did not listen. The wise women stayed in their homes, far from the forest. But the village continued to move.

And then one year a drought did come, and with it came the fires.

At first only the homes built directly in the forest were destroyed. And the first wise woman said to the second wise woman, "I told my neighbors, again and again, not to build their homes in the forest! I told them the drought would return! And so did you! And yet, they did not listen. Now they reap what they sowed."

The second wise woman replied, "Indeed, we did tell our neighbors not to move. I am sorry they did not listen."

And the first wise woman sat in her house, content that she had given the right counsel.

The second wise woman went down to the village to console the families that had lost their homes, and offer them what extra food and clothing she had.

Now a second round of fires came, and this time many of the homes in the field were damaged or destroyed. And the two wise women spoke with one another, and the first wise woman said, "Such fools! If only they had listened to our advice, or even taken a moment to think with their own heads, they would have known not to build their homes there. Look at us, safe and sound. We did the right thing. That is why our homes are still standing."

And the second wise woman said, "I tried many times to convince our neighbors to listen to reason, as you know. But so many others, respectable-seeming folk, too, were giving our neighbors poor counsel. How were they to know whose advice to take, not being as experienced as you and I are in these matters?"

The first wise woman replied, "Well, next time they will know to listen to me, and follow my example!" and went back into her well-protected house to work on her knitting.

The second wise woman went down to homes near the forest that were still standing, and told her neighbors, "If we are going to save our village, we must work together. Let me show you how to build a firebreak, and soak the ground, the way we all once used to." And the villagers, grateful for her offer of help, listened and began to work to protect their homes.

As the drought continued, more fires came, and though by working together to fight fires, the villagers did manage to save many homes, many homes were lost. Without an open field to protect them, even many homes in parts of the village that had been safe from fires for centuries were burned to the ground. The second wise woman began letting displaced villagers camp out in her wheat field.

The village elders petitioned the baron for help, but he responded with a letter stating that the royal tax coffers had been depleted in an effort to save the Roadbuilders' Guild, the Furniture Merchants' Association and the Forest Home Promotion Service from collapse.

When the first wise woman heard that the villagers had petitioned the government for help and been denied, she snorted and said, "Losers. My tax gold shouldn't bet spent to fix their folly. I built my house in the safe part of the village." She looked out her window at the second wise woman's yard, which had turned into a tent city. "She's our of her mind," said the first wise woman to herself (for there was no one else around for her to talk to). "Wasting her time helping a bunch of fools. Well, a friend to fools is a fool herself, I say."

As the fires raged, flames finally engulfed much of the old part of the village. Unable to beat back the flames on her own, the first wise woman was forced to flee as her home burned to the ground.

The second wise woman, with an army of fellow villagers defending her home and field from the flames, saved much of her property. The next day, it rained, and the fires were doused, and the day after that, the second wise woman was elected to lead the village's effort to rebuild.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Conversations with a Four-Year-Old: Matricide



CHILD: Did I scare you?

MOTHER: Oh, yes. You scared me. You were very scary.

CHILD: But did I give you a heart attack?

MOTHER: Well, no. You didn't give me a heart attack.

CHILD: Okay, let me try it again. Louder next time.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Object Permanence

Today, to make room for a new, lighted shelf I'm building to sprout seedlings for my garden, I took on a task I've been postponing for a long time— reorganizing my basement storage shelves.

I've been telling myself to do it for almost a year now. And for almost a year now, I've been telling myself I didn't want to do it because it would be tedious, because it would be time-consuming, because there could be spiders lurking, because I'm allergic to dust.

Because I needed to rake the sweetgum balls out of yard, or clean the oven, or paint the bathroom, or dig a new garden plot in the front yard instead.

But today, as I broke down old appliance boxes to recycle, and rearranged storage bins, and vacuumed up dust, and cobwebs, and even a spider or two, I remembered the real reasons why I didn't want to do it.

I didn't want to do it because I didn't want to see that big bin of fabric, full of sewing projects I started but never finished, silent monument to a habit of failing to finish things.

I didn't want to do it because I didn't want to see the moving boxes from our move to this house two years ago— every single box saved, folded neatly, stacked in organized by size and shape, ready and waiting to be used again. Because in 28 years, I've lived in 22 different houses and apartments, and the boxes stand testament to the fact that I am incapable of not expecting to have to move. Because who knows when the airport will seize my family's home or my parents will divorce or my mother will lose her job or the landlord will sell out from under us or my Dad's girlfriend will find out he's cheating or the ceiling will cave in or my bi-polar roommate will stop paying rent and start having loud sex with my ex-boyfriend in the next room or my (now very EX) fiance will fail pre-med the same year I graduate and slowly turn into an angry, controlling binge drinker, or my husband's employer will suddenly go bankrupt and his last check will bounce and four weeks later, we'll find out that I'm pregnant?

How can a happily married, stable, working adult like me possibly believe that she owns a home that will not somehow disappear when she looks in the other direction?

I didn't want to reorganize that basement storage space, because I didn't want to see the folded high chair, the covered bouncy seat, the infant car seat carefully wrapped in plastic to keep out the dust, the bins full of baby clothes, all washed, neatly folded, and sorted by size, waiting for the next baby. The next baby. Waiting for four years, now, for a next baby we haven't chosen yet. A next baby that may never come.

I didn't want to see the box of handwritten letters from friends I now never speak to.

I didn't want to see the telescope two adults who both wanted to be astronauts as kids never, ever take out of its box to look at the stars.

But I did want to start seedlings for my garden.

So I cleaned my basement anyway.