Blackthumb’s Annual Garden Report

 

I recently noticed that among my blogging homies – the reciprocal ones – there are a lot of avid and competent gardeners. This probably has something to do with Ly. It certainly doesn’t come from the content of my blog or my own interests. Over the years, my gardening activity has slowly been reduced to about once every 365 days. In fact, I now recognize the official beginning of spring as that one day in April or May when I suddenly get the urge to venture out into the mysterious world of green things and take a few whacks at stuff. For the year 2017, today was that day.

Here’s the blow-by-blow.

I set out shortly after noon with trowel in hand and the best of intentions. First task: sumac removal from my flower beds. Unfortunately, one of the sprouts – now tree-sized and requiring the use of a saw – was growing up in the middle of thorny and uncooperative rosebush. Before going at it, I donned a jacket, put the hood up and tied it tight around my hair. For some reason, doing this always makes me want to bop my head around and sing “It’s raisins that make Post Raisin Bran so wonderful . . .” – so I did that for a while first. I then crawled into the rosebush and got sawed by thorns as I sawed the sumac. After it toppled, I got my revenge on the bush by whacking off one dead branch after another from the bottom up. About halfway through on one side, I realized I probably should have done that first – before tackling the sumac. I surveyed the bush, which was now sort of lopsided, but somehow, viewed from a certain angle, reminded me of a 1960s hairstyle. The theme song of “The Brady Bunch” started playing in my head. I decided to leave the rest of the pruning for later. It was time for a break and some regrouping.

 

 

I joined Cat Five on the screen porch and we watched the husband and Hayez working on the dream coop. I yelled down that it looked slanted, prompting my affronted husband to immediately prove me wrong with the level and then gesture his superiority in Usain Bolt style. Then I headed back to the flower bed for more sumac removal, getting sidetracked along the way by some moth porn going on right outside my front door:

After the second sumac was toppled and second rose half-pruned, it suddenly seemed like a good time to inspect our cherry tree. I wanted to see if it had suffered the same fate as our walnuts in the early April freeze. But first I needed my camera because, firstly, a new blog post was starting to take form in my mind which I would need some graphics for and secondly, because my husband refuses to believe that a single cherry has ever grown on this tree which is why he refuses to help me hang old CDs on the tree to scare away the birds who are obviously eating all of our cherries. It has been a two decade long debate and after the level incident earlier, I wanted to win an argument. I needed photographic proof. So I went inside to get the camera. While I was at it, I checked MSNBC to see if anything had been happening while I was away.

 

About a half hour later, I found a total of about 10 cherries on the entire tree.  Here is a challenge for you – can you find three of them in this picture?

 

 

Seeing as how I had my camera in hand, I also decided to document the progress of my husband’s other new garden project – a straw bale vegetable patch. He had heard about this somewhere and promptly decided to try it out. Supposedly, the straw starts to ferment, creating heat which makes the plants grow better.

“Doesn’t that stink?” I asked.

“We’ll find out,” he answered.

I suddenly wished he had set it up a bit farther away from the house and not right below my sacred screen porch where I spend half my time in summer.

By the time I reached the flower bed for the third time, I could feel that my enthusiasm for gardening was waning. I halfheartedly raked some dead leaves out of it here and there and pulled up a few green things which I hope were weeds. My stomach started grumbling and I remembered that there was a package of chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen cabinet. I dropped my garden tools and went back inside only to discover that SOMEONE had gotten to them before me. I wandered out onto the porch and saw my husband just standing down there in the garden, contemplating his coop. He was dreaming of the poodle chickens in his future, I assumed.

 

If only that were true.

I called down to him, asking where the fencing would go once he was done with the coop. He pointed to various dead-blossomed trees as the general boundary markers of our future free range. It was only about a third of the area he was tired of mowing (the original impetus for the whole keeping of chickens idea). I pointed that fact out to him.

“What we really need,” he said, “is a sheep.”

 

And thus ended my gardening fervor for 2017.

I’ll go out sometime next week and pick up the gardening tools. The rosebushes can spend the year in Florence Henderson style. Any flowers too wimpy to push their way up through those remaining dead leaves and weeds don’t deserve any special attention. And who likes cherries anyway?

 

Fritz the Sheep

My elder daughter broached the subject of when she should start her Driver’s Ed course. Boy, was that a mistake. Not only did it bring back my own memories of Austrian Driving School, but she was really jumping the gun here!

“You know I am going to be 18 next summer,” she said.

“No you’re not.”

Moooomm!

“You are NOT! At least not if I have anything to say about it!”

We quickly agreed that this license thing was a topic she should take up with her Papa.

 

18! My first baby is going to be 18 next year! And the way time has sped up since we’ve had her – this is going to feel like . . . next month!

I suddenly remembered a box of little treasures I kept upstairs in my closet, because I’d had a vague plan of giving it to her on her 18th birthday. I dragged it out and found the blanket she was wrapped in when I first held her, the first baby bottle we used, her baptism presents and dress, her first stuffed animal . . .

And then I found these:

During the adoption process, I was teaching the third of a four year course and had developed a close relationship with a lot of my students. They were aware of my situation and even a little emotionally involved. When we came home with Mitzi, a lot of them visited us with presents in hand.  That is how this little stuffed sheep – whom we named Fritz – became Mitzi’s Velveteen Rabbit for a while. Two other students later presented me with the book “Fritz the Sheep”. They had drawn all the pictures and written the text themselves. Some people are so incredibly thoughtful and good at gift-giving! (I’m not one of them.) I adored this book from the start and displayed it prominently in my house. Unfortunately, it suffered a little water damage once when a wild thunderstorm blew open the porch door and caused some minor flooding. And Fritz himself is also looking a bit forlorn. But both still qualify as priceless. So I’ve decided to share them.

Here’s the (translated summary of the) story:

Fritz the Sheep lives in a nice place outside a small village, but for some reason, he is a little sad and a little lonely. He decides to take a walkabout.

 

He meets Lisa the Cow and tells her about his travels. Lisa doesn’t really understand why he isn’t satisfied.

 

Fritz meets Pino the Woodpecker. (Let it be known here that “Pino” was the nickname of one of the authors.) Pino tells Fritz that what he is really looking for is happiness and tries to teach him to fly. It doesn’t work out well.

 

As Fritz wanders away, Pino decides he could still help. He brings Fritz to a birdhouse where they meet Gina the Cat. (Let it be known that our Cat One was named Gina.) Gina is nasty and makes fun of Fritz at first, but after Pino flatters her, she decides to help. And, deep down, she is wise and has a good heart.

 

Gina leads them to a house, telling Fritz that she spends a lot of time there.  (Just like our house at the time, there is a rocking chair on the front porch, a basketball stand and a blue car.) Fritz asks why they are there. Gina tells him to figure it out for himself and takes off.

 

Fritz is greeted by a barking gray woolly sheepdog named Whitney. (Long-time blog readers will know her as “Dog Two” – and if they look closely down the hallway, they will see “The Nemesis”.) Whitney makes it clear to Fritz that no one can come in here – unless, of course, they have a reason to . . . then it’s okay.

 

Fritz saunters into the house and then goes out to the terrace where he finds me reading to Mitzi – who doesn’t look at all sleepy. He has an idea.

 

Fritz starts jumping over the fence again and again until Maria gets tired and falls asleep. This makes Fritz happy and he decides to stay with this family till the end of his days.

 

(The End)

 

So, the plan was to give these things to Mitzi on her 18th birthday – that is what a thoughtful and great gift-giver would do. (Did I mention I am not one of them?) But I suddenly find myself having a little trouble with the thought of letting precious things go. Maybe she will just have to wait a bit longer – like . . . say . . . until she has her own first child (assuming that happens).

Serves her right for growing up so fast.

 

No Poodle Chickens Please

When it comes to people, I am eternally vigilant about racism and especially my own subconscious biases. But when it comes to other species – in particular, dogs – I’m a self-proclaimed bigot. Big friendly mutts from the animal shelter are superior. Plain and simple. Pure breeds are either wimps or hypochondriacs and hardly worth the expense of the brand name. Anything smaller than a breadbox is not a dog at all, but a barking rat. And don’t get me started on poodles.

My veterinarian has a doggie hairdresser who shares space in her practice. I once had to sit for quite a while in the waiting room several times over a period of two days. I watched perfectly respectable looking dogs (collies, retrievers, labradors, etc.) being dragged into the hairdresser’s room and, one by one, emerging as poodles. With puffy heads and tuft balls around their paws. People claim dogs don’t have feelings, but these animals were clearly mortified. After the fourth time, I had to get up and leave the waiting room to hide my laughter.

I tried googling for pictures to give a sense of what I am talking about here. I tried different search terms but found nothing. And then I tried something that ended with me laughing hysterically for about 20 minutes. Try it if you need some comic relief. Search google images for “dogs with bad haircuts”. Here’s a little taste:

 

How did I get on this subject? Well, it is my husband’s birthday. He’s been hinting a lot that he wants to jump on the chicken bandwagon. It has become fashionable in our circle of acquaintances to keep one’s own chickens and brag about how many eggs one gets each week. Now that his brother is doing it, the argument has come to a head. Right up to yesterday, my stance was “Read my lips. No chickens.” But then his birthday rolled around and I had no idea what to get him. I panicked.

Today he got a chicken feeder, water contraption, fake eggs,  a soft-boiled egg cooker, and the implicit permission to start building his dream coop.

There was one condition, though. He’s not allowed to have any Silkies – a particularly popular breed right now that lays pastel colored eggs. I think this picture will make it clear where this objection comes from:

 

The Lemonade Stand

Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.

Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance?  What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?

In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.

One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.

 

 

      

Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.

 

The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”

 

They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.

“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.

“Sure,” I answered.

And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS.  We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.

 

Bureaucratic Baby Steps

So. The deed is done. My application for US citizenship for my adopted daughters is in the mail. My nearly yearlong odyssey to make this happen is nearing its conclusion. Now it is Wait and See time.

I can’t believe how convoluted this process has been from the very onset. And, of course, there were a few more stumbling blocks set in our path through the second to last stretch. Like the fact that permission from the Austrian government for dual citizenship took over six (!) months, meaning that the time window is now very small. (Although, when I picked up the documents, I saw that they were dated October 10th 2016. Seems like we could have had them five months ago, but no one got around to notifying us . . .)

Then, there was a new version of the application form – now 13 pages long instead of the 8-page one I filled out last summer. If I had sent that one in, it would have been immediately rejected. I only stumbled across the new form through sheer dumb luck.

And then came the dilemma of how to pay the (discouragingly hefty) filing fee from abroad? After reading every square inch of the website and consulting its Avatar “Emma”, who answered each of my questions by directing me back to a webpage, I took the desperate step of trying to call our – in this case, frigging useless  – embassy.

Unfortunately, there are only two telephone numbers listed on the embassy website – one for visa questions and one for dire emergencies. I dialed the visa number and went through an endless series of “Press 1 for lahdeedah. Press 2 for weebeejeebee . . . Press 269 for zippowingo. Hold the line to talk to a human being.”  I held. After what seemed like two days – finally! – a voice of a real person. To keep a short story short, here’s what he told me. He doesn’t know anything about my situation except that he knows that I can’t pay the fee through the embassy and, no, he can’t connect me to anyone else there who might know, and, no, it won’t help to come in person.

So how do I pay this stupid fee? The website makes clear that the application will be rejected if the cash is not forked over upfront and that the money has to come from a US bank.

I was without options.

Time to call Sister Ambassador.

We hatched a plan. I filled out the form for credit card payment that is used for different type of application and then wrote a cover letter saying that if it was the wrong one, my sister would write a check. Here’s all her contact information. Please work it out with her!  And then, in a blind leap of faith, I stacked it all up – my cover letter, my G-1450 form, my G-1145 form, my N-600K application form, my thick folders full of supporting documents (with certified translations!) – and I stuffed it all into a bubble envelope and addressed it to the USCIS. I drove to the post office.

May the fates be merciful.

Best case scenario: The payment is accepted. The application is accepted. We are notified. No more documents are requested. No specialized visa is necessary which would require me to visit the US embassy. We get an interview appointment in the Milwaukee Field Office during the time period I suggested. The interviews go well. My daughters are handed their Certificates of Citizenship. We celebrate.

And then, sometime next fall, my daughters and I go to the embassy and we watch with gratification as they hand over the US passports. A small part of the world has been righted: adopted children DO have all the same rights as biological ones. It just requires some extra paperwork. And a flight or two across an ocean.

 

Keep Calm and Panic Later

 

Occasional accusations of being cool-headed in a crisis have been directed at me over the years. I guess it is the one small advantage that comes with not really feeling my life experiences in the moment, but rather in dribs and drabs sometime after the fact.

This aspect of my mental make-up came in handy the time I started blacking out while barreling down the Autobahn at about 90 mph. With only two tiny pinholes of sight left, I instinctively pinched myself in the leg so hard and painfully that it brought me back and I could make it to the next exit. I parked the car and immediately my whole body started shaking.

Cool-headedness also helped in an English class once when a young student of mine tripped and hit his head on the edge of a low table. The kids started yelling and I ran over to him. He was lying face down. A pool of blood was spreading out from under his head.

“Tommy! Can you hear me??” There was a low, mumbled groan in reply.

The other kids were all standing around staring at us. I started barking orders. “Lea! Go get Sandra! (my fellow teacher). She zipped out of the room just as I had an afterthought. “Amy! Follow Lea! Tell Sandra to bring her cell phone.” (I was pretty sure we would have to call for an ambulance.) Amy ran off and I turned back to Tommy.

“Does your neck hurt? Or anything besides your head?” He groaned out a “no”.

“Do you think you could roll over on your back? Carefully! I’ll help you.”

As he rolled over, I saw a fairly deep gash in his forehead with blood spilling out of it. A lot of blood. I looked around for something, anything I could use to press against it. I looked at my own clothes and was about to take off my sweater to use, when I spotted a crumpled up napkin on one of the desks. “Niles! Give me that napkin!” He handed it to me and I said “Now go down to the kitchen and get some clean towels – make one of them wet!” He and another boy ran off.

“Tommy? Can you talk to me? It’s important,” I said as used the napkin to put pressure on his wound. “Tell me where you live.” He answered. “Do you know where you are?”  He did. “What is your mother’s name?” For some reason that made him smile a little and he answered again. Sandra rushed in and then went out again to make the phone call. The towels arrived and while replacing the napkin, I could see that the bleeding was slowing. I thought it would be good to get his head elevated.

“Tommy, do you think you can sit up? Do it slowly. I’ll help.”

We got him into a seated position and then I just kept talking to him. I got him to slowly turn his head to the left and right. Eventually he could stand up and we started our slow walk to the kitchen. The bleeding had stopped, so we cleaned him up a bit, sprayed some disinfectant of his gash and held a moist cloth on it. We talked till the ambulance arrived. They took over and asked basically all the same questions and then carted him off to the hospital for stitches.

As soon as they had left, I sat down and, once again, got those full body trembles.

 

So what made me remember these events?

Because yesterday, while blogging, I heard a loud scream coming from the basement, then a crash, and then the sound of my daughter tearing up the stairs.

“THERE’S A SNAKE DOWN THERE!!” she shrieked.

“Really?” I asked in a mildly interested tone. “Let’s go see.”

She cowered behind me on our way back down the stairs. I was already 99% sure we wouldn’t find a snake, but a harmless blindworm – which is actually a type of lizard and really common around here. An “anguis fragilis,” as Wikipedia tells me. And sure enough, that’s what I found.

I took the nearest object and used it to poke the worm. It slid an inch, keeping its form. It was not only dead, but dried stiff.

“It’s dead,” I said as I picked it up and waved it in the air. My daughter wasn’t convinced. “Look!” I said as I hit the floor with it a few times. It made a little knocking sound. I confess I found it sort of neat. “Here – do you want to look at it?” I asked. I held it out toward her and she backed away and signaled her disgust. Alas, my enthusiasm was not contagious.

Her anguish over the anguis fragilis was not fragile. She has since declared herself officially ophidiophobic.

And she’s not buying the “it’s a lizard, not a snake” line either.