Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Best Houseplant.

I think that people who don't have plants in their house are weird, and that worries me because we're down to one plant in our house -- a giant plant of unknown genus and species. I am reasonably sure it's not poisonous, but beyond that, I don't know anything about the plant, which I got as a gift from my mother-in-law -- a gift I think I actually gave her, first.

That introduction seems as if it needs a bit of explanation, so I'll try to give that. A few years back, I was responsible for getting my mother-in-law a Christmas present, and I settled on "a plant" because that was what she'd asked for, and because "houseplant" seems to be a default kind of gift for certain people and certain situations -- including mothers-in-law on Christmas.

I then went to a couple of garden stores, trying to find a garden store that was open in Wisconsin in December (not an easy task) and located, in one of those garden stores, an area of houseplants, some of which were small potted flowers and some of which were larger, potted tree-type things.

"Bigger is better" is my motto, and that doesn't just apply to cookies. So I opted for a tree-looking plant that cost about $30, bought it, loaded it into the car, and we gave it to mother-in-law for Christmas. She professed to love it.

Not long thereafter, we visited, and the plant that I'd given her -- which had been about 4' tall when gifted -- was about 7' tall. "Is that our plant?" I asked her, and she affirmed that it was and that the plant was growing like crazy.

Instead of being afraid, which would be the normal response when told that a lifeform in your house is growing at a prodigious rate, I was enthralled, because here was a plant that might become one of those giant house-plants that only the really rich or really eccentric have in their house -- as shown by the super-rich, super-eccentric Oprah, who has a tree growing in her living room.

I'd show you a picture of that, because I swear I saw one once, but I can't find it on the Internet now, which can only mean one thing: Oprah knows I'm on to her, and I'm in a lot of trouble. If one day you don't hear from me, tell my family I loved them, and still don't eat the leftover pizza because I might escape from Oprah and come back and if I do, I'm going to want pizza.

Having always nursed a dream to become really rich, and really eccentric, but having moved no closer to that dream than to buy a pair of blue "Crocs" that I wear as often as possible, I decided that I'd have to try to re-find that garden center and get my own Superfast Growing Tree for our house.

I needed to do that not just to be rich/eccentric but also because our house at the time was dangerously low on house plants. I was raised in a plant-heavy house, and my mom and dad were very much into gardening and plants and lawn care, absolutely none of which passed on to me; I detest yardwork and gardening most of the time (except for when I decide to try to build character in the kids, or do some yardwork and claim that's my exercise for the day, like those housewives who keep track of how many calories they burn doing laundry and then go have giant ice-cream sundaes for breakfast.)

(There are housewives who do that, right? Because someday I also want to be not only rich and eccentric but also to be a househusband, and "ice cream sundaes for breakfast" is high on the list of reasons why I want to be a househusband.)

But the one part of my upbringing that did stick with me was a firm belief that any decent -- by which I mean "not entirely full of serial killers" -- household had to have plants in it. Since the entire world was already made up of serial killers anyway, so far as my parents were concerned -- they broke the world into three groups: (a) serial killers (b) people who would deliberately fail to properly assemble carnival rides so that anyone riding them would be killed instantly, which was why we could never go on carnival rides as a kid, and (c) the neighbors, who would always be thinking things about us [as in: "Quit your fighting! What will the neighbors think?" to which I wanted to respond "I hope they'll think that my brother should be punished and not me because I'm pretty clearly in the right here."],

Where was I? Oh, yeah, houseplants and how having them proves your not a deranged person hellbent on wrecking society, which is the lesson I learned from my parents: People who are worthy of society's respect, or at least people who do not have bodies stored in their walls, have houseplants.

I got that lesson by simple logic: My parents had houseplants, and no bodies in our walls. My parents also distrusted more or less every single person who did not live in our house (and 76% of the people who did live in our house), and many of those people had no discernible houseplants in their house. True, I never saw any bodies... but they would be in the walls.

Back to my own precarious plant situation: At the time, a few years ago, we had a couple of plants around the house, desultory little houseplants that were always on the verge of dying off, mostly because while I wanted houseplants around, I had no idea how to care for them, and no desire to really do so.

(I feel the same way about pets. That's why we have cats. You don't have to care for cats. They're kind of like almost-sentient pillows.)

My care for houseplants amounted to "Water them when I felt like they should be watered, if I wasn't busy or tired and if there was nothing good on TV." That led to the demise of almost every houseplant that ever entered our house, except for one notable plant that I didn't kill: Mr. Tree.

"Mr. Tree" was a potted sequoia plant that I'd bought on vacation in California back around the turn of the century.

That's fun to say: The turn of the century. Having lived through the calendar flipping from the 1900s to the 2000s, I am entitled to say things like "back around the turn of the century" and it was around the turn of the century that our family went to California, and as one of my souvenirs there I bought a tiny Sequoia sapling in a tiny plastic case.

I bought it on the first day I was in California, and carried it around throughout the weeklong trip, keeping it alive as we drove up and down the length of the state, almost, and then keeping it alive in my carry-on when we headed back home to Wisconsin. (This was back in the pre-9/11 days when nobody blinked an eye at somebody trying to fly with a sequoia sapling. Nowadays, I assume I'd be hauled aside and exposed to punishment faster than you can say "Helen Thomas Is Entitled To Express Her Views, Even If They're Controversial.")

I named the sapling "Mr Tree" and planted it in a pot that I had leftover from a previous houseplant, and looked after it with a level of care that I rarely before or since have bestowed on anything, including my own children, who I am encouraging to grow up Darwinian-style so that they'll be the fittest among their peers, and possibly turn into superheroes. Or at least star on a Disney TV show and make me rich. (Taking care of one-half my plans for the future. I'll have to then decide how to become eccentric.)

Mr Tree, to my surprise, thrived. And by "thrived" I mean "didn't die and appeared to grow a little," strengthening and branching out and generally doing well. (Mr Tree, also to my surprise, was a pine-tree-sort-of, which was surprising because I'd always pictured the redwoods and sequoias [which might be the same tree, I don't know, I'm no botanist] as "regular" trees, not pine trees -- pine trees are the shifty cousins of real trees, not to be trusted and generally not to be allowed in the house during family get-togethers; they've got to stay out on the patio because they'll otherwise root through the silverware drawer.)

Mr Tree in fact lived over a year, surviving quite well until one day I mentioned to the guy who takes care of the plants in our office that I had a redwood sapling growing in my house, and also that I was planning on eventually transplanting it to our yard, with others like it, to create the first redwood forest east of the Mississippi (I would then charge admission to see it and sell t-shirts. Anything worth doing is worth selling t-shirts about how I'm doing it.) The plant guy told me to put Mr Tree outside and let it get some sun, and I did that.

Mr Tree promptly died.

Well, not promptly. He got brown spots, and drooped a little, and then got more brown spots, and then lost his leaves, or needles, or whatever it is he had (conifers?) and then got more droopy and in general lingered for longer than I assume Orson Welles lingered in the movie Citizen Kane, which I've never seen and I'm not going to see and you can' t make me because I know that like many movies reputed to be "classics" it's not a classic at all, it's probably horribly dated and boring, like Animal House and The Godfather were.

That was the end of Mr Tree, and from then until I got the Giant Rapidly Growing Plant Of Unknown Origin, we had make-shift houseplants here and there, as gifts from people when I had back surgery, or when I'd give Sweetie live flowers instead of roses because "live flowers are better-- they stay around and you can enjoy them forever." (Women hate that, right? Because Sweetie does.)

Eventually, though, a few years after all these episodes, my mother-in-law gave me a plant in a big pot, one that looked like her Giant Growing Plant, and one which grew at a rapid pace, too, until a few years later it's in our living room and it's about 10 feet tall. This is the plant that I'm kind of sure is the plant I gave her, because when we got to her house it's suspiciously empty of giant plants, whereas we have a giant plant.

This is also the plant that I'm sure isn't poisonous, even though I don't know what it is, because one day when I was watching the Babies!, who were then about 9 months old and got around in walkers as opposed to getting around by walking, the Babies! got over to the Giant Plant, which was then Less Giant, and they ate some of it.

I think.

I wasn't really watching them. They were in walkers, after all. How much watching does a baby in a walker need? All they can do is kind of scoot, and play with those little toys on the front.

And, as it turns out, maybe eat houseplants, which then forced me to Google various images of plants trying to find out if the plant we had -- which I didn't know the name of [and still don't]-- was poisonous, which I had to determine before Sweetie got home, because if I had to take the Babies! to the emergency room I wanted to do that before Sweetie got home, so that by the time she returned the crisis would be over and nobody would be any the wiser about how little attention I paid to the Babies!

Eventually, I determined on the basis of googling, that the plant I had was probably not poisonous, and I turned out to be right; the Babies! are still alive.

That plant is still in our house, although it's rarely watered and the Babies! have tried to climb it, and it's sort of leaning against the piano. I suspect that it's dead but that because it's so big, the news of its death hasn't arrived at all portions of the plant yet, so technically speaking, some parts of the plant are still alive, and technically speaking, we still have a houseplant in our house, thereby proving we are not serial killers.

That part is important. Houseplants are necessary to prove that the people who own the houseplants are functioning, non-deranged members of society, and houseplants alone can serve that role. Kids, pets, nicely-painted shutters, cutesy mailboxes, oriental rugs: none of those necessarily say that the person or people who live in that house will not lock you into a tiny box and keep you under their bed for years (a fear I've had since I watched The Collector, a fear which replaced my earlier fear of being stalked through the woods by a multiple-personalitied French lesbian that had been brought on by the movie High Tension.)

That's why, for example, people bring plants as a housewarming gift. It's not that plants, per se, make such a great gift. It's our way, instead, of saying "I hope that by inviting me over, you are saying that you want to serve me some snacks and make small talk, instead of saying that you plan on feeding members of my family to me, or vice versa." We go to people's new houses with a plant, holding it out in front of us as we enter, and say "Here, I got you this," implicitly adding "Now please don't drug me and use me to make fetish videos."

And when you enter someone's house, don't you look around for plants? If you don't see them, aren't you a little creeped out? A house without plants can have either one of two images: Either it's a coldly antiseptic sterile environment that resembles a genetics lab (or Julia Louis-Dreyfus' house next door to the Griswolds in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation), or it's an overstuffed nightmare of needlepoint pillows and walls festooned with pictures of ugly people wearing funny clothes.

Neither of those is a comforting image. In the former, you're obviously moments away from being injected with something that's going to make you become a lizard. In the latter, is there any doubt that behind the pillows and pictures and ribbon candy in crystal dishes lies a closet full of corpses with their mouths sewn shut? Grandma's House: Come For The Candy, Stay For Eternity!

But put a simple little houseplant in either of those scenes, and everything's okay with the world. Even a little bean growing in a styrofoam cup can do the trick.

I think that the magic of a houseplant, in terms of redefining the owner of the plant (and the house) from sociopath to just good neighbor is that it shows you're trying to take care of something living, and particularly that you're trying to take care of something living that's obviously no good to you or anyone.

Kids don't convey that message: Not only do you have to take care of kids (Yes, yes, I understand that, now, Department of Child Protection. I've got it) but you don't always voluntarily get kids. Sometimes they just show up, but you've still got to take care of them even if you don't recall ordering them. And, kids can be useful.

At least, your kids can. Mine still claim that they're not quite clear on just how they're supposed to shovel snow, and can I come and show them just one more time?

Pets, too, don't say I'm doing this solely for the benefit of another living thing. Pets serve important purposes, like guarding the house, or helping pick up women when you walk them near the outdoor beer garden (both dogs), or repeating funny phrases that you taught them so that you can shock your mom when she comes to visit (parrots) or decorations in which some of the things entertainingly eat others of the things (fish.)(Note: I'm exempting cats from the pets category, because of the whole almost-sentient-pillow thing.)

Yard plants, and gardens, can generate something: resale value or work for the kids or zucchini to give to your neighbors so that they'll avoid talking to you because everytime they talk to you, you give them more zucchini, in order to get them to stop talking to you so you can get some peace and quiet when you're at home on the weekends, for God's sake.

But houseplants: If you take care of a houseplant, that gets you nothing. You can't even use those little herbs that they'll sell you at stores as a window garden. House plants produce no fruit or medicines, they do not provide reassuring scents, you can't cash crop them at all, and, as I've mentioned in passing, they are totally useless in terms of "counting as flowers on a romantic holiday such as Valentine's Day." Houseplants take what you've got and give nothing back; they are the Republicans of the plant world.

That's why, if you can take care of a houseplant, you prove that you're not likely at any second to put on a mask made out of the skin of your last visitor and create a new suit out of your present visitor: You've proven that you're capable of caring for something that can in no way pay you back for that care, and in doing so, have proven something essentially human exists in you. (But human in the good, as opposed to Republican, way.)

Which brings us to Chia Pets, and why their lapse in popularity has led directly to our civilization being so crummy today.

Chia Pets were first introduced in the 1980s, which anyone with any sense will realize was the pinnacle of Western Civilization: We had our collars up, our Duran Duran LPs, and we had, at last, after 1,982 years of trying, Chia Pets: Houseplants that would grow in only days, with very very little effort required. Smear some mud, smear some seeds, water, and in days, you'd have a plant -- proof that you were part of the human race and did not need to be tazed. (In the 1980s, we didn't yet have tasers, but we instinctively understood that someday we would, and that Chia Pets would help us avoid getting tazed.)

From 1982 to the present, Chia Pets have been around -- with new versions introduced constantly. But you wouldn't know it from the television I watch, or the television I'm led to believe other people watch, or the blogs that people think I read, or the blogs I write when people think I'm working. Chia Pets have virtually disappeared from the limelight. Where once you could barely watch a TV show without hearing the trademark song Ch ch ch Chia! and see people happily growing their Chia Pet (through the magic of stop-motion cameras), now we live in a land where if you mentioned a Chia Pet to most people, you'd get a glassy look, followed by "Aren't you supposed to be working?"

Take my word for it: I just tried that out on my boss, and got exactly that result. (Then he said "What is it we pay you for, again?" and I left. I'm sure it was a rhetorical question.)

Unlike most products introduced on late night TV -- the Clapper and the Obama Health Plan, to name two -- Chia Pets served the valid societal purpose that I've already outlined to death in this post, and their introduction in 1982 helped cement the 1980s as the greatest possible era to ever live in, an era when people lived in such peace and harmony that we didn't even care when the President sold arms to our enemies and then lied about it, and era when The Clash could include video-game sound effects in their songs and we still let them be considered "kind of rebellious" instead of "kind of ridiculous." We could do those things-- love our neighbors, let our politicians sow the seeds of future destruction, dance to awful music-- because we all had houseplants available, houseplants we could order over the phone and pay for COD and grow right away, giving us a ready-made way to separate the good guys from the bad.

Then, the bottom fell out of the Chia market; they faded in popularity, leading to such terrible ideas to recapture their popularity as "Chia Scooby Doo" and "Chia Shaggy." Such blatant pandering in the years before "blatant pandering" stopped being called "blatant pandering" and instead got called "nostalgia" and "genius marketing," doomed Chia Pets to further slide out of the zeitgeist, to be replaced by things like "Grunge music" and "The War On Terror."

Even the eventual reintroduction of the original Chia Pet, the Chia Ram, in 2006, couldn't turn back the clock to the glory days when there was a Chia Pet in every home (or at least in every home where the parents did not keep close tabs on what their kids were doing with the phone after 9 p.m.) Chia Pets are still around today, but you never hear about them. It's like they've gone into seclusion -- much as Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane, I'm going to always assume.

That's too bad for our society, because running a society demands free and easy access to houseplants, or things fall apart. There is a direct correlation between declining interest in and access to Chia Pets, and the crumbling of Western Civilization -- a Civilization I previously heralded as the greatest civilization in the greatest hemisphere ever -- and that correlation can be proven through the scientific method of "logic."

Here's logic for you:

1. Chia Pets have been declining in popularity since the 1980s.

2. Everything has gotten worse since the 1980s: Music, clothes, my children's attitudes towards picking up their rooms, my likelihood of ever quarterbacking the Buffalo Bills to a Super Bowl victory... everything.

Put those together and you can see the cause and effect pattern that I'm told science requires me to mention.

What can you, as a person, do?

Probably nothing, so it's pointless to try.

But if you insist on trying to help, let's do this: Let's insist that Chia Pet get back on top of the market, become the societal force it once was, and reverse the trend of us sliding towards oblivion to a Kanye West soundtrack. Let's make Chia Pets relevant again. I've got some ideas that will help get the ball started:

1. Buy some Chia Pets and give them as gifts to people. (It's important to do this in an unironic fashion. Can we please stop doing things ironically? Doing stuff ironically just keeps stupid things, like those zombies books with Jane Austen, alive for no reason.)

2. Write numerous letters and emails to Chia Pets and insist that they make more Chia Pets-- and that they don't just limit them to certain models. Insist that they have political Chia Pets. Or have pop culture Chia Pets. Tell them they can even have abstract Chia Pets inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. Better yet, tell them to have Chia Pets made to order. We must have the technology to do that by now, mustn't we? How can we not have the ability for someone to order a Chia Pet in any shape they might desire?

And if we don't have that technology, insist that Chia Pet create it. Make them hire NASA if they must -- NASA needs a mission and "creating a machine that will make Chia Pet shapes to order" can be that mission.

That way, we can all have not only a houseplant, but a houseplant growing from a terra cotta pot shaped like whatever we want it to be shaped like: Bronco Nagurski. The couple that's getting married and we need a present, quick. Abraham Lincoln. A flower pot -- because that's like a metaChiaPet planter-- or anything else you can want it shaped like.

We could have a Chia Pet shaped like our dreams. Literally: You could have a Chia Pet shaped like that dream you had where you went to med school like your mom suggested only once you got there, the med school was in a mall food court and they wanted you to work at Orange Julius, and you were, like, "I didn't even know Orange Julius was still around," but then those walruses started singing. You could have a Chia Pet shaped like that.

The ability to have the Chia Pet we want would resurrect the Chia Pet industry -- the industry that once put America over the top and into an era of enlightenment -- a real era of enlightenment, not like that earlier era that claimed to be enlightened but which never showered and hadn't invented deodorant -- because in that time, we all had houseplants.

So I am calling on you, America, to do what we must to get back to that time. You can use my suggestions, or get your own suggestions. Or have your wife do it, like I do most of the time. However you achieve it, though, let's bring back the America we all love: One in which every single house has a leafy terra-cotta sculpture perched in a kitchen window.

No comments: