Weed & Feed



One of the earliest posts on this blog was about how I once used a weed whacker to hack down all the poor grass in my yard instead of buying a lawn mower.

As I outlined in the post, that strategy was…ill-advised.

Though I do now mow my lawn properly, I’ve mostly stayed out of the war raging between the weeds and the grass.

The weeds are winning and it isn’t even close. 

But a few weeks ago Lowe’s had the entire Scott’s Four Step Lawn Care program on sale.  For those who aren’t familiar, the Scott’s program essentially consists of four bags of specially formulated weed and feed that you spread onto your lawn at eight-week intervals starting in early spring. 

Right then and there, I decided to enter the war on weeds.

I went a step further and drew up a complicated battle plan; the front yard is filled with bare patches, while the back yard is overrun with weeds.  I decided to first plant some additional grass seed in the front.

If you plant new grass seed, you aren’t supposed to use Step One of the program, as the powerful weed killer will also kill your new seedlings.  So in addition to Step One (which I would use on the back yard only), I bought a small bag of booster fertilizer for the front yard.

I planted the seeds, drew up a calendar for application, stacked the bags in the garage and went about my life for the next few weeks.

This past weekend, I implemented Step One.

How did it go?

Nearly five years after my weed whacking episode, my do-it-yourself lawn care skills have barely improved.

First off, I completely forgot about not putting Step One on the front yard.  I spread it everywhere, killing off the seedlings that were just beginning to sprout.

The special bag of booster fertilizer remains forgotten on the bottom of the stack of the four step program.

Next, my distribution of the granules was uneven at best.  Despite the package directions insisting that one not use a hand spreader, well, I used a hand spreader.

(By hand spreader I mean a small spreader that you carry and crank to spit out the granules, rather than the kind with wheels that you push.)

Some of the granules clumped together and jammed the tiny hole of the hand spreader.  Nothing would come out, and I would shake and bang the spreader until the clump broke free, suddenly releasing a wild stream of the granules onto the lawn.  As I made my way down the lawn, there were patches with no weed killer and then big orange piles of the stuff. 

This seemed…not good.

I adjusted the setting to the widest opening, so the granules poured out even faster, but the thing continued to jam.

I put on gloves and broke up all the clumps, but then when refilling the spreader, a huge pile of weed killer spilled out all over the grass. 

I used a rake and a broom to smooth out these piles as best I could.

Once I’d applied the whole bag, I put everything away and glanced again at the directions.

Oops.

According to the directions, one bag could cover a yard the size of two tennis courts.

My lawn is roughly the size of one quarter of one tennis court.  And I used the whole bag.

I’m no expert (obviously), but this seems like it will not turn out well for my lawn.

I swept and raked off as much as I could, and warned all the neighbors to keep their dogs off my lawn for…well, the decade or so.

In the end, this seems like your classic good news, bad news situation.

Good news:  Pretty sure all my weeds will be gone in a few weeks.

Bad news:  All the grass might be too.

Good news:  Probably won’t need to apply steps two through four this year.

Bad news:  Already paid for them.

As I said in last week’s blog on clichés, you win some, you lose some.

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

It was a dark and stormy night when I sat down to write this, the Great American blog.  It wasn’t going to be easy, but you know what they say—no pain, no gain. 

A few minutes into the writing, I began to think of all the other things I could be doing instead.  Instead of sweating away at my keyboard, I could take the path of least resistance.  Instead of dyeing eggs this Easter, perhaps I should dye my hair.

Everyone knows blondes have more fun.

But then again, the grass is always greener on the other side, so I put my nose to the grindstone.  Even if I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, at the end of the day, you can only succeed by grinding it out and putting your blood, sweat, and tears into your work.  Success takes the stairs.

I turned away from the window and got back on track.

I wracked my brain for a topic, one that could stand out amidst the crowd.  In these modern times, everyone is running so fast and is so busy being busy that they never stop to smell the roses or read the blogs.  I didn’t want my ideas to fall on deaf ears.  I wanted something that would revel a tried-and-true nugget of truth, that would speak to people of all walks of life, from the blue-collar workers of real America to the academics in their ivory towers.

I would wait for an idea to come to me.  After all, good things come to those who wait.

I was definitely going to have to think outside the box for this one.

I just hoped my final blog wouldn’t be filled with clichés, which are so hard to avoid.  After all, clichés are clichés because they’re true.

Then the clouds parted and the sun came out.

Little did I know that right at that exact moment, my neighbors were preparing for an epic Easter Egg hunt.  Several kids were running around the yard looking for eggs, screaming like banshees and having the time of their lives.

Never a dull moment around here.

Perhaps I should throw aside my work and join them?  After all, all work and no play makes Melanie a dull girl.

In the nick of time, I was spared from making a terrible decision.  All of the sudden, there was a mass exodus from the yard into my neighbor’s bathroom.

Oh well, I thought, realizing my time to join the hunt had passed. 

When it’s all said and done, you win some, you lose some.

Easy come, easy go.

Yet every cloud has a silver lining—in the end, they hadn’t cooked the eggs long enough and they all ended up with salmonella poisoning.

Turns out that rose was full of thorns.

But don’t worry.  After an uncomfortable twenty-four hours or so…

They all lived happily ever after.

Back from the Dead

Who’s turning all these tables?

I’m talking about records.

Can you believe that vinyl sales are booming?

Neither can I.  But I read it on the internet.

Where truth reigns.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, in the first half of 2020, more vinyl records were sold than CDs.

This technology has been outdated since my birth, surpassed by cassettes (my preferred nostalgia machine), CDs, and now digital streaming.  You can’t make curated playlists.  You can’t download them onto your phone.

You can’t even play them in your car.

So who’s buying them?

Audiophiles, sure.  But audiophiles have always been around, and I can’t imagine there’s been a six-fold increase in the number of people who insist that records are the best way to “experience” music.

It’s not pandemic related.  This steady increase has been going on since 2010, and sales are at their highest levels since the 1980’s.

“It’s the hipsters,” my friend Scott suggested. 

That would seem right if all this vinyl was being bought in second hand shops, as hipsters dug through old classics.

But I’ve seen records at Barnes and Noble, and Target.

That’s right, Target.

Not exactly the epicenter of the counterculture.

And the selection at B&N and Target is downright bizarre—I could understand buying a vinyl version of stone cold classics like Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, the Beatles’ White Album, or Johnny Cash’s Live At Folsom Prison.

But are people really breaking down the door to get a vinyl copy of the Pretty Woman soundtrack? 

And the Frozen soundtrack is not exactly an exercise in nostalgia.

Are there ten-year-olds running around saying, “Hearing Let It Go on vinyl is just a much more immersive experience.  It takes me right back to when I was nine and first heard Idina Menzel’s voice.  There’s just no comparing the quality to an MP3, man.  Now can you pass me my goldfish crackers and sippy cup?”

Of course, vinyl and CDs combined are still just a drop in the bucket compared to streaming, the juggernaut that has devoured nearly all music sales.  Neither vinyl nor CDs can compete with having nearly every song ever recorded available with the tap of a button and a ten dollar a month subscription.

I don’t have any records, and I still haven’t fully embraced streaming.

Instead, I’m still growing my CD collection.  Forty years from now, when it returns from the dead, I’m gonna look like a genius.

At least, that’s the plan.

All Pandemics Do

If you ask me, I’d say I’m fine.  That no one I know has died, that no one I love has gotten horrifically ill.  I have a job that I can do from home, and a nature suited to long stretches alone.  I’ll say I’ve gotten used to things the way they are.

And I believe I mean it.

But then I started having the dream.

I’m with my friends Esra and Susan.  We’re having Sunday brunch at The Yard in Shadyside.  Our plates are piled high with eggs and bacon and we’re drinking from the bottomless Bloody Mary bar.  And we’re not just having brunch, we’re celebrating.

We’ve had dinner but never Sunday brunch at The Yard, and I hate Bloody Marys.  Yet there I am, living it up.

For months the dream at The Yard recurred.

This pandemic will end, my subconscious tells me.  All pandemics do.

The dreams expanded.  My best friend’s husband making us all chicken wings in his new Ninja fryer.  We’re eating them around their patio fireplace while the kids show off their soccer moves.

Sitting in a cool, dark movie theater with a bucket of popcorn.  I’m always watching the second Twilight movie. (Don’t ask me, ask my subconscious.)

It’s the first cold day after a hot summer, and I reach into a coat pocket and find a crumpled-up mask.

“Remember these?” I ask a blurry companion.  In the dream they were a memory.

This pandemic will end.  All pandemics do.

I’m in a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd at PNC Park, watching the Pirates win a Wild Card game.  Rowing down a stretch of the Allegheny river.  Hot dogs at Carnivores.  Fourth of July picnics.  Coffee dates, late-night real-life conversations, and rainy days reading at the library.

I wake up and it’s all the same, but every day the dreams get closer.

Except for the one about the Pirates winning a Wild Card Game.

We’ve got a vaccine, but not a miracle.

This pandemic will end.  All pandemics do.

It won’t be long now.

The Week I Lived Like A Man

This past week I threw caution to the wind and lived like a man.

What do I mean?

Let’s back up a minute.

I’m tired of winter.  We’re all tired of winter, I know.  But I’m especially tired of pulling on boots, a big puffy coat, and gloves every time I leave the house.  And with the big, puffy coat, slinging your purse over your arm is that much more difficult.

I had a big day out covid-style, which meant Target and Giant Eagle.  Every time I reached for something, my purse fell off my arm.  Over time I’ve crammed more and more things into it, so it’s grown heavy and unwieldy.

It was time to clean out my purse.

My wallet was the problem—a huge beast of a thing that holds all my change, credit cards, cash, and receipts, but is so large that it takes up ninety percent of any normal-sized purse.  With some trepidation, I decided to downsize my wallet.

A few days later a new one arrived from Amazon, and fully loaded it was small enough to fit in my pocket. 

The next time I had to leave the house, I had a crazy idea.  Could I do it? 

No, yes, no, yes.

Reader, I went for it.

I left the house without my purse.

With my wallet in one pocket and my phone in the other, I traveled through the world like a man.

It was glorious.  I had both my hands free all the time.  I strutted through the store like a pop star in a music video, hands free without a care in the world.  No Chapstick, no notebook, no pen, no headphones, no extra phone charger, no umbrella, no….

You get the idea.

Confession time—I didn’t pull the rip cord fully the first time out.  I packed everything I normally keep in my purse into a backpack that stayed in the car.  If I panicked, I could always run back to the mothership.

But the truth is, I didn’t need that backpack at all.

There are a few downsides, the primary one being that after a lifetime of carrying a purse, I am occasionally hit by a lightning bolt of panic thinking I’d lost it.  I have to pat myself down, verifying I have my wallet, phone, and keys.

And also, I have a habit of running into stores without my coat, even in the coldest weather.  (This was partially because of the purse, but old habits die hard.)  People keep asking me where things are stocked.  Apparently a pursless and coatless woman can only be an employee.

Can I keep this up when life goes back to normal and I can’t wear jeans with nice big pockets all the time?

Only time will tell.

Trailblazer

My maternal grandmother was born the year when Black Friday didn’t mean getting up early for half off sweaters and televisions.  In a time when family was paramount, she was raised by a feisty single mother. 

They didn’t have it easy.  My grandmother didn’t spend her childhood playing video games.  She carried coal up dozens of steep steps into their South Hills home.

But it wasn’t all bad—she was pretty, and made time to go dancing.  She loved to dance.

By 1963, she was married to my grandfather and a full-time working mother with four children.  No staying at home to raise the kids like a quintessential fifties housewife.  She didn’t have podcasts or magazines or stacks of parenting books to teach her how to balance motherhood and self-care, and I don’t think she agonized all that much about how the kids would turn out.  She got on with the business of life and work and did it all in nylons and heels. 

When I was a kid, she tried hypnosis to stop smoking.  We thought she was nuts—nobody did anything like that—but she hasn’t smoked in decades.

When they retired, my grandfather had this crazy idea to sell the house and travel the country in an R.V.  This was before the internet, which made it exponentially harder.  There weren’t a million blogs about how to live in a Tiny House or travel the world.  There was no on-line banking, no e-mail, no GPS, no cell phones.

And yet they made it work with paper maps, post cards, and a sense of adventure.  It was more my grandfather’s thing than hers, but he wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t gotten on board.

She’s ninety-two now, and the most computer savvy nonagenarian you’re likely to meet.  She checks e-mail on her desktop computer, reads novels on her iPad. 

When most people were wondering why anyone would possibly need a dial-up modem and this thing called “AOL,” she met an Australian woman in a chat room.  Over the years they became e-mail pen pals and such good friends that the Australian woman and her husband flew to America and spent a week at my grandparent’s house. 

This was way before people were meeting on Match.com and Tinder.

That was the one and only time they met in person, and yet they’ve maintained their weekly e-mail friendship for twenty-five years now.

I know most of these stories.  But I didn’t know about the coal carrying and the dancing.

She told me about it on Friday, the first time I had seen her in a year.  We were taking an unintentional trip down memory lane as we drove through the South Hills, passing a house like the one she grew up in (and carried coal in), one she actually lived in for a time with my grandfather, and the hall where she used to dance in high school.

The trip ended at the Castle Shannon Fire Department, where my grandmother received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

While getting an appointment was nearly impossible (I had to give grandma an assist with the computer work here), once we had it the process couldn’t have gone smoother.  The folks at the Castle Shannon Fire Department were prepared, organized, and treated us with care and respect.  From door to door, the process took twenty minutes, and that included fifteen minutes of mandatory waiting after the vaccine.

On the drive home, I pulled up the New York Times vaccine statistics on my phone. 

“Grandma,” I told her.  “You’re one of only fifteen percent of people in the country who’ve received the first dose.  You’re a trailblazer.”

She was grateful for the vaccine, but mostly matter-of-fact about the whole thing.  It was my mom and I caught up the history of the moment.

But my grandma has lived through a lot of history, and being one of the first is nothing new.

She might not have a Facebook account, but my grandma is a trailblazer in every way.

Things I’ve Learned from Novels

People used to think reading novels was a waste of time.  Many people still think that, but today video games and smartphones are the poster children for how to waste your time and rot your brain.

When people say they learn a lot from books, they’re usually talking about nonfiction.  These are often serious books with a capital “S.”  Thick biographies of dead presidents or the raft of time management, diet, and self-help books out there.

I’ve got nothing against these books.  I’ve read plenty of them myself.

But I’m talking about what you learn from novels.  And I don’t mean vague, high school English class stuff like empathy, critical thinking, and language. 

Let’s get practical here.

I’ve learned from novels that any good homicide detective or private investigator drinks their coffee black.  It’s a matter of toughness.  In fact, if you ever need to hire a PI to track down your cheating spouse, run the other way if they are soft enough to add cream or sugar to their coffee.

I starting rowing because of Tess Monaghan, the report-turned-private investigator in Laura Lippman’s long-running series.  In the first novel, Tess gets up early every morning and rows alone down the Patapsco river.  While good rowing is a beautiful sight, Tess described herself as moving up the river like a sprawled out beetle.

I didn’t think I could row with grace and efficiency.  But I figured I could row like a beetle.

It goes without saying that Tess Monaghan drinks her coffee black.

Speaking of coffee, the main character in Marisa de los Santos’ novel The Precious One drinks her coffee in the shower.

Have you ever heard of such a thing?

I don’t know anyone who does this in real life but I decided to try it.  I set my coffee on the top of the toilet tank just outside the shower.  After I’d shampooed my hair, I reached out from the behind the shower curtain, brought the mug in and took a sip.

Trust me, there is nothing more luxurious than drinking hot coffee with hot water running down your back.  Kings and queens and movie stars and even Beyonce never had it as good as I do every morning drinking coffee in the shower.

Reader, try it tomorrow. Actually, try it now.  I’ll wait.

I learned about the epic British victory at Dunkirk not from a textbook, but in Suzanne’s Brockmann’s deliciously sexy romantic suspense novels featuring Navy seals.

This is the opposite of homework.

So put down the latest diet book and pick up a novel.  You might learn something as wonderful as drinking coffee in the shower.

Even if, like me, you still can’t bear to drink it black.

From, Your Valentine

The origins of Valentine’s Day are murky.  Best I can gather, it began in ancient Rome (as so many things do) as a fertility festival honoring Romulus and Remus, the raised-by-wolves founders of Rome.

Then Christianity came along and hijacked the festival (as it so often does) into the early version of the rose industry’s favorite holiday.

So who was Saint Valentine?  Again, it’s murky.  There are about a dozen recognized Catholic Saint Valentines.  The most popular is probably St. Valentine of Terni, who was beheaded for secretly marrying young Christian couples in defiance of Emperor Claudius II.  Old Claudius thought that young single men made more dedicated soldiers, and didn’t want those pesky wives interfering with his plan for world domination.

But my favorite story is that of Valentine, an imprisoned man who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter.  (On second thought, this might be the plot of a romance novel I read in the early nineties, but either way, let’s continue.)  So the doomed man wrote one final letter to his love and signed it, “From, your Valentine.”

Are you swooning?

Men have been trying to live up to Valentine’s romantically tragic gesture ever since.

Why February?

Well, in addition to the Christians merging the celebration of St. Valentine with the pagan fertility festival, mid-February is the beginning of the mating season for birds, at least according to Geoffrey Chaucer (he of Canterbury Tales fame) who wrote about fowls choosing their mates in February.

And somehow, we got from beheaded priests, doomed lovers, and lusty birds to one of the world’s most reviled holidays.

Couples hate it because it is an opportunity for dramatically different expectations.  One party wants to basically forget the whole thing, the other wants wine, roses, and dinner in a packed Italian restaurant.

And it’s even worse for the uncoupled.  It’s one of the most well-tread movie tropes—the lonely single girl drowning her sorrows in red wine and systematically destroying a box of chocolate and a pint of ice cream in pajamas and fuzzy slippers.  Or maniacally celebrating Galentiene’s Day, a Valentine’s Day alternative where women celebrate their female friendships.  Galentine’s Day has its heart in the right place but just comes across as trying too hard.

So if you want to hate on Valentine’s Day, a Hallmark holiday if there ever was one, I won’t try to talk to you out of it.

But if you strip away the cliched roses, cards, and chocolates, there really is something quite lovely about a day dedicated to romantic love.

So this Valentine’s Day, boot Hallmark out of your holiday.  If, like Chaucer’s birds, you’ve chosen your mate, let them know you love them, no fancy cards, chocolates, or roses required.

And if you’re ever on the way to the gallows, don’t forget to send them one final Valentine.

First into the Tank

I have so much television to catch up on. 

People keep giving me wonderful recommendations.  My friend Susan has been telling me for years to watch Vikings and Game of Thrones.  Nina, who never watches anything (and thus her recommendations carry triple weight) swears by Virgin River.  There’s The Crown, Emily In Paris, and Jack Ryan.

I’m obsessed with Outlander and haven’t yet made time for Season Five.

I know I would love most or all of these shows.  But lately, every time I’m not watching a movie I find myself turning to a little old Friday night network show I have always loved.

Move over Bridgerton, I’m watching Shark Tank.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the premise is simple.  Fledgling entrepreneurs pitch their products to a panel of investors (the most famous is Mark Cuban) and if interested, the investors will make them an offer and (ideally) fight one another for a deal.

Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve heard of at least a few of the products.  There’s the Scrub Daddy, the tough kitchen sponge you’ve probably got on your sink.  There’s the Squatty Potty, Bombas Socks, and Cousins Main Lobster Food Trucks.

In a time of exceptional cynicism, Shark Tank is a breath of optimistic air.

The show celebrates hustle, ingenuity, and hard work.  The contestants are full of—what’s the word for it?

I know:  Moxie.

It’s the best rendering of the American Dream—the version we haven’t heard much about lately on the evening news.  It reminds us that in America, with a little of that moxie, you can build a better mousetrap in your basement and change your life.

And maybe make someone’s else life—and the world—a little better.

Already this season I watched a teenage boy and his dad pitch a plastic cup that holds leftover paint.  They built the prototype in their basement and already have it on the shelves in some stores.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants designed a cap that allows parents to easily apply diaper cream to their babies.  The woman—whose native language is not English—read a book on how to apply for a patent for her invention.  A man pitched meatless jerky made from mushrooms that I would never have tried if not for the enthusiastic reaction of the sharks.

I went to buy some on Amazon—sold out.

The products are fun, but the real charm of the show is the interaction of the sharks (the investors) with the contestants and one another.

The sharks are brutally honest—it is their own money they’re putting on the line when they invest—but never mean-spirited. 

When someone comes in asking for half-a-million bucks for two percent of their company that’s barely sold a thing, head shark Kevin O’Leary (a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful) brings them right back down to earth.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and QVC Queen Lori Greiner have an almost sibling rivalry.  Cuban rarely loses a deal when he really wants the product, and exasperates Lori when she can’t lure a contestant away from his fame with a better deal.  Yet they often go in on deals together and poke fun at one another.

All the sharks rib and joke, but get down to business when there’s a potential moneymaker on the carpet.

The motto of the sharks—and the show—could be:   Work Hard, Play Hard, and Good Things Will Happen.

Words we all can live by.

So Virgin River and Game of Thrones are just going to have to wait.  Right now I’ve got to find out if this guy with a huge mustache is going to get a deal for his eco-friendly ski wax….

My Clothes Are Turning to Rags

When is the moment? 

You know, the moment when a piece of cloth goes from being a beloved t-shirt to something you use to dry off the car?

When do clothes becomes rags?

Is it when jeans are essentially worn away in the thighs?  When you can hold a t-shirt up to the light and see through it?  When a sweatshirt is coming apart at the cuffs?  When heels are worn away from socks, and the elastic in running shorts is stretched to hell?

By any reasonable definition, my 2020 wardrobe is in tatters.

I can’t blame the clothes.  Five-dollar Target t-shirts and Old Navy jeans were never designed for the gauntlet I put them through this past year.

No one would ever accuse me of being a slave to fashion or variety.  Back when I went into the office, I’d rotate through a stable of trousers and blouses suitable for a professional.  Outside the office I wore shorts and jeans.  Cute matching workout clothes have never been my priority—just ask my rowing club.

But left completely to my own devices for the past year, I wake up every morning and pull on my favorite pair of jeans, socks, t-shirt, and/or sweater.  I’m not one to spend the day in my pajamas.

Your mileage may vary, but my first rule of pandemic life is to always get dressed.

The second rule is that the clothes be clean.  I wear jeans for three days max, t-shirts one or two.  Socks get changed every day.  Sweatshirts and sweaters can be worn all week if the t-shirt underneath changes.  And since I’m always home, I can throw a load of laundry in anytime.

So what happens when you’re constantly washing clothes and your instinct is to always put on your favorite clean outfit?

You wear the same two pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, one sweater and five pairs of socks.

And you wash the same two pairs of jeans, five t-shirts, one sweater and five pairs of socks.

EVERY WEEK FOR A YEAR.

I know, I know….this one for sure has got to go….but it’s just so soft…..

And in the end, you have the ugliest but most comfortable wardrobe you can imagine—ripped and faded shirts so soft they’re like wearing blankets, threadbare jeans that fit like they were custom made.  Socks that mold to the shape of your foot, except for the heel, which has worn away.

And with no one around to tell you you’re turning into a modern-day Miss Havisham, you live in clothing bliss.

Until your perfect wardrobe disintegrates under the grind of fifty-two washings and your bubble bursts.

I know I need to order some new jeans from Old Navy and wear the other socks and t-shirts in my drawer.

Then again, do my thighs and heels really need to be fully covered if I’m not leaving the house? I think not.