Monday, July 16, 2012

Wacky Weed

When I first moved in to the rented house in which I live, I attracted the attention of my neighbors by weeding the garden. This, apparently, was enough of an oddity to cause them to ask, with bewilderment, why I did such a thing; after all, it was a rental. They said it in italics, like that. The implication (in addition to a quick glance at the neglected, overgrown gardens all around), was that it was a waste of time; that it was probably someone else’s job; that putting in all this backbreaking work for a few years only to pass it on to some other tenant when I left, was madness. I answered their question the only way I knew how: I said “I live here.”

It’s not simply that I want the place where I live to look groomed, beautiful, welcoming, and to be productive (I grow a lot of herbs and vegetables); I genuinely like gardening. Weeding is my Yoga, my garden my Gym. All the back yards where I live are sort of joined together, and all back onto a deceptively rural looking alley that is bordered by a wooded slope among which prowl deer. The entrance to the alley is framed by a hill covered in old growth ivy, which is periodically interspersed with flowers, according to the season; snowdrops, lily-of-the-valley, roses, peonies, lilies, and more. It’s a very pleasant place to turn one’s car into. The alley itself is not made impassable by overhanging branches or vines; underfoot it is not obscured by trash or debris.

This is because I weed it, too. I do this — which benefits all of my neighbors — simply because I want to, and unless they caught me doing it, they’d have no idea it was me. That suits me just fine. I don’t even tell my elderly landlord, who lives in the house at the alley entrance, that I keep his clematis in check, his lawn from becoming choked with dandelions, and his hedge trimmed. Because weeds tend to procreate with windborne seed, I weed my neighbor’s unruly gardens too. And when, in the middle of winter, and no weeding can be done, I shovel the paths and sprinkle salt on his steps. Hey — I’m out there already, right? Might as well.

But I’m not writing this to slap myself on my back. It’s to complain bitterly, about the cowboys he hires to take care of the garden. They purport (according to the sign on the side of their truck) to be horticultural experts. They are not. Once a year at this time (mid-July), when the grass isn’t growing fast enough to mow (and charge him for), they have a thorough once-over with the weed-whacker. In fact, they use the weed-whacker to perform every single one of their horticultural functions. The general idea seems to be to reduce everything in its path to three inches in height, as if they were giving the property a military haircut. No matter what lies in its path, down it comes. Flowers in full bloom? Down. Tomatoes bearing big, fat fruit? Down. Actually, they didn’t fall down so much as slump, then turn limp before I noticed that the stalks had all been cleanly sheared off at ground level. Last year, they also buzzed my herbs, all of which were growing in what I assumed to be fairly obvious borders. And how did I know that they had not simply been chewed down to nubs overnight? Because the plants themselves lay scattered all across the lawn where the weed-whacker had sprayed them.

I have asked my landlord why he employs these guys, given that they clearly don’t know their ass from their elbow. I didn’t use those exact words. He said that he’d always used them. And that was that.

A few days ago I noticed that the stalks of the recently flowered lilies in the alley had begun to turn dry, and were ready to be plucked from among the ivy. I did not act fast enough, however. Today I went out to find the entire hillside had been defoliated, the remains making a thick, clinging layer that was suffocating the ivy underneath. The whole thing looked a mess, like a hurricane had come through. A lovely shady laburnum tree near the garages had also been subjected to a “trim,” and looked as if it was weighing up whether losing 60% of its leaves was worth surviving or not. It was buried trunk-deep with its fallen slender branches, like some grotesque victim of an unspeakable war crime. “What have I ever done to anyone?” is asked me. OK, it didn’t. Plants can’t talk. It they couldn’t they’d be screaming.

I went out and pulled the straw-like crud from the ivy bank, and pulled the thistle stubs and lifted up the branches. I made three black contractors bags full. This should have been the cowboy’s job. Instead, they just walked through and left it all there. This is because it can’t be blown away, but requires actual climbing up the hillside, bending over and stuffing bags by hand. It’s hard work. I have not yet mentioned that it was 100 degrees. While I sweated away, a neighbor maneuvered past me and said absolutely nothing.

“You’re welcome,” I said under my breath. “Have a nice day.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Buttery Will Get You Everywhere

If you wanted to “butter someone up,” you would use words, not actual butter. Using actual butter would be inadvisable. Buttering up means paying someone a compliment in order to make them feel generous towards you. This is also known as flattery. It is not buttery. Buttery is a flavor reminiscent of the sweet, rich creaminess of high quality butter. To butter something up is a direct reference to making a dull slice of bread more edible with the application of dairy grease.

For flattery, a good approach is to remark on someone’s shoes — “I love those shoes, they do wonderful things for you,” you might say. You can’t go wrong with a shoe compliment. Male or female, doesn’t matter. The shoes could be hideous and do absolutely nothing for their wearer, but that’s beside the point. The point is to get what you want. It is an off-white lie with a tinge of gold. A lie the color of Lurpak.

People have been flattering one another for a very long time. “Those are a great pair of feet you’re sporting” was probably a pick-up line long before cobblers cobbled together shoes to hide them. “Why thank you,” the object of one’s affection probably replied, “your cave or mine?”

To flatter comes from the old French word flater, meaning to stroke with the hand or caress, from the Frankish word flat (palm; the flat of the hand). Humankind has no doubt been much advanced by such flattery, the good flatterers able to pass their suave genes on after a jolly night of buttering up and foot tickling.

But there is a downside to a diet of flattery: if you’re not careful, you could end up wanting both sides of your bread buttered, leaving you in a pickle. Or holding a pickle. (Or is it a hot potato?) On the one hand this; on the other, that. It would certainly make it hard to pick up your sandwich. While some social lubrication is good for making connections at a party (“excuse my greasy hands — oh! What lovely shoes you’re wearing!”), you can’t have too much of a good thing, or for the good thing to be spread too thin. We’re talking about butter here. Too cold and it’s reluctant; too warm and it wilts. Room temperature is just right.

While flattery is a handy tool to wield as part of your repartee repertoire, you must be sure not to overdo it and start fluffing it up. That is done to butter to accentuate its creaminess, but when done to people, simply makes things stiff. No-one likes to think you’re fluffing, or that they need you to do it. If you feel things start to get awkward, return your attention to the shoes. Cast your eyes down. “I’ve always wanted a pair of those,” you should confide. Then look back up. “Buttery will get you everywhere,” they’ll say. “Your place or mine?”