One person’s weed is another’s flower

28 09 2010

“I wish I never answered the phone that morning,” growled Mike, a planning colleague as a group of us enjoyed dinner at the annual conference of the American Planning Association. We were talking of PITA (pain in the ass) zoning regulations we had to enforce. He continued with our rapt attention, “We have an ordinance requiring people to properly maintain their landscaping. That phone call started a nightmare for me ultimately involving the Smithsonian Institution and National Botanical Garden.” We were hooked.

My colleague and acoustic consultant, Jim Brennan, always told me “noise is unwanted sound.” Mike learned the hard way that “weeds are unwanted flowers,” or in his case, “flowers are wanted weeds.” In planning, we all know that the vast majority of zoning complaints result from neighbor feuds. This call, Mike explained, was no exception; what’s worse, he grumbled, “I wasn’t even ‘up,’ it’s just that no one was available to take the call.” The complainant wanted the city to order the next-door neighbor to get rid of all the weeds in the front lawn, “it’s an eyesore to the neighborhood, and she won’t do anything about it. We’ve talked to her.” “We” was not further defined, just left as an implication several in the neighborhood had talked to the offending party.

Mike drove by the property with a camera that afternoon, and the complainant was right, the lawn was filled with weeds. Taking a picture, he sent the zoning violator a letter the next day ordering corrective action. The violation was logged and put in the tickler for later review and further action, if necessary. The morning after the letter would have reached the homeowner, Mike said his direct line was ringing right at 8:00.

“I do not have weeds in my front yard,” the woman’s voice slammed into his ear. “Jim Smith (fake name, obviously) complained, didn’t he?”

“Ma’am, when a violation is determined,” Mike explained in standard plannerese, “it’s between you and the city. Where we learned of it doesn’t matter.”

“Don’t I have a right to face my accuser?”

“Ma’am, the City is your ‘accuser’.”

“Whatever. There are no weeds in my front yard. I have nothing but wildflowers. My front lawn is ‘xeriscape’ natural landscaping to conserve water. Doesn’t the city want us to conserve water? It said so in the last water bill.”

“Ma’am, I was by your house the other day, the front lawn is filled with weeds.”

Indignantly she replied, “They are NOT weeds. I can prove it. You think they’re weeds because you don’t know anything about the native plants you expect everyone to plant, do you?”

Mike admitted to us that she was right, “We’re always demanding new landscaping include ‘native species’,” he looked at each of us in turn, “Right?” We all nodded. “Well, she had me there. I couldn’t identify half the plants on our native species list if I had to.” It turns out, he explained, that the plants had cycles in which they “went to seed,” and I viewed the property during this cycle. “I learned that she lets the dead plants stay in the ground until she harvests the seeds to add to the front yard. It’s all natural.”

He rambled on about the continuing complaints, his continuing efforts, and then one day he received a phone call from the “violator.” “Mike,” they were now on a first-name basis, “I have on the phone with me a botanist from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Botanical Garden in Washington, DC. She can fax you credentials if you need proof, or you can call her back at her number if you don’t believe me.” Mike said he stipulated acceptance.

The botanist came on and explained that she had reviewed the seed packets the “zoning violator” used on the front lawn, “I don’t understand the objective, Mike, these seeds are all from plants native to your area. None of them are classified as ‘noxious weeds’ or ‘invasive species.’ In fact, based on the photos of the neighborhood I reviewed, her house is the only one with native plants. Everyone else with lawns, shrubs, and trees are universally planted with non-native species.”

The moral we decided was not to enact any code we didn’t fully understand the implications…and definitely to remove the word “encourage” from the spell check dictionaries so it never showed its ugly face in a plan or ordinance every again.


Exit logic here

16 09 2010

“We require you to take three credits of Literacy and Humanities,” he explained looking at my transcript from Southern Illinois University. I am now taking classes online from Paradise Valley Community College to obtain certifications in Microsoft Networking, plus several other certificates. The number of courses I want to take started pushing the degree line, and so it was suggested I use prior college courses to walk out with the certificates and an AA in Information Technology.

“I have 18 units of humanities and 24 units of English, including upper division.”

“That’s not the same as humanities. It’s a broader variety of courses.” The advisor handed me a sheet of paper with a list of classes meeting the humanities and literacy requirement at the community college.

“Oh, Journalism 234 is on the list. I’m already enrolled in that class.”

“I don’t see it on your schedule.”

“It’s English 235. It’s the same class.”

“English 235 is an elective.”

“No, you misunderstood me. There are 18 of us in the class, the same class, the same teacher, the same classroom, the same time. Nine of us are taking it as English 235, the remainder as Journalism 234. It’s the same course. Who can I see to get this accepted?”

“You’ll have to withdraw from English 235 and obtain instructor permission to enroll in Journalism 234. You’ll probably have to make up your missed work and tests.”

“Can’t the Registrar just transfer the course number?”

“No, you have to withdraw and re-enroll. You can however, get a withdraw passing on your record if the instructor approves.”

“It’s past the date from which I can withdraw and obtain a refund of the tuition I’ve already paid. Then I’ll have to pay tuition for the Journalism class, plus a late enrollment penalty. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s what has to be done.”

“OK, let me read this back to you to ensure I understand. In early August, I enrolled in English 235, Magazine Article Writing in a section taught by Dr. Judy Galbraith as a hybrid with classroom on Thursday night at 6:30 in Computer Commons 140. I paid tuition for three credits, roughly $210. Now I find out that English 235, Magazine Article Writing doesn’t count as a humanities and literacy requirement. However, Journalism 234, Magazine Article Writing, which I can take in a section taught by Dr. Judy Galbraith as a hybrid with classroom on Thursday night at 6:30 in Computer Commons 140, does count as a humanities and literacy requirement. So I have to lose my tuition of $210 and blemish my transcript with a Withdrawal from English 235. I can obtain a Withdrawal Passing if Dr. Galbraith approves it. Then I have to ask Dr. Galbraith for permission to enroll late in Journalism 234 and pay approximately $210 in tuition plus the late enrollment fee. Did I leave out any steps?”

“Well, when you put it that way, it doesn’t make any sense.”

“Right, can you put it another way so that it does make sense? What if I finish English 235 this semester and then enroll in Journalism 234 next semester and proficiency out of the class?”

“We can’t give you credit for the same course twice.”

“You just told me they are not the same course, which is why English 235 cannot count as a humanities and literacy class.”

“Why are you making this so difficult?”

“I was going to ask you the same question.”

In the Still of the Night

12 09 2010

The cold chill running down the spine is the last feeling desired camping on a dark, moonless night in the backcountry of the Arizona desert. It doesn’t matter that three of your close friends are by your side around a warm campfire in the chill air; doesn’t matter that your faithful dog is snoring away, curled on her pad next to you toasting by the fire. This campsite was picked for its isolation. Planning a camping trip, the group wanted to pitch tents on the far side of Picacho Peak in the middle of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

“Camping!” always ends with an exclamation mark when my camping group, the “Gang of Three,” plans a weekend under the desert sky. Once a month Steve, Kelli, and I, plus occasional friends, gather our gear, pack our vehicles and head out from Phoenix—to the desert in the winter in the mountains in the summer. Riding shotgun in mine is my six year old chocolate lab, Hershey, the official Gang of Three camping dog. Like most chocolate labs, once out of puppyhood there is mellowness to her demeanor.

Ironwood Forest National Monument is located between Phoenix and Tucson Arizona-Sonoran Desert. About 20 miles west of the interstate, the National Monument is not near anything. The Bureau of Land Management warns of no facilities, abandoned mines and primitive roads. “Be prepared to rescue yourself,” warns its Web site. Knowing this and undeterred, our caravan headed south from Phoenix on the two-hour journey to our preselected campsite. A dozen miles west of the interstate, we leave the pavement behind; a dozen more and we pass a sign warning “road maintenance ends.” Churning our way across the soft sand at the bottom of wash, we climb the far bank and pass a nondescript sign stating “Ironwood Forest National Monument.”

Staring into the breathtaking Arizona desert sunset, we slowly move down the rutted road with GPS receivers glowing in the growing darkness. We pass an abandoned mining town, mining equipment painted a mottled ghostly brown by the shadows. Slowly rounding a bend with the GPS showing our destination approaching, we see a bright and leering warning sign: “Warning. Drug and human smugglers may pass through this area.” That, we knew in advance and didn’t care.

Darkness upon us, we pitched our tents, started our camp fire, ate our dinner, and settled back in in our chairs with cold beers, chips, and salsa. As the temperature dropped, Hershey curled up next to me on her camping pad. First she lay with her paw pads facing the fire and as they warmed, she would turn over with her back facing the fire. Unlike many dogs camping, Hershey is quiet. To that very moment, I could never recall her barking while camping. All that changed in an instant.

As we talked, drank, and laughed, Hershey slept, snoring quietly. Outside the perimeter of the campfire light the night was pitch black, even the nearby mountains were merely a deeper black in the darkness. Suddenly, Hershey’s head popped up, her eyes brightly alert. From deep in her throat came a low warning growl unlike any noise I had ever heard from her. She stared across the road deep into the darkness to something we could not see, hear, or smell. Our conversation and laughter stopped instantly and we all stared at the dog. We could tell this was serious.

Hershey stood up and I grabbed her to hook up her leash. Steve, a gunsmith by trade, moved to his truck and took out a pair of handguns. Handing one to me, he moved deeper into the darkness saying “I’m going to sweep around behind whatever that is.” With the leashed growling dog, the rest of us moved away from the fire into the darkness behind one of the vehicles.

We knew about where Steve was located, but he was moving quietly, so we could not hear him at all. Time seemed to drag, and Hershey’s growls grew more ominous and louder. Kelli turned to me and said, “I’m getting a little nervous about this.” Her friend, Bill, just nodded. Hershey who dropped to a sitting position next to me while still growling suddenly leapt to her feet and increased the growl volume. From the darkness we heard Steve’s voice shouting, “Identify yourself! I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it!” He repeated the warning in Spanish. Only the quiet of the desert night answered him.

It was silent again and after waiting what seemed a lifetime, I shouted, “Steve, are you OK?” He responded by shouting, “I can see you! Stand and identify yourself! We just want to know who you are and you can go on your way!” He repeated it firmly in Spanish. Nothing but darkness and quiet. In the darkness, we could clearly hear Steve pull the action on his pistol. The three of us looked at each, other our faces showing something between concern and fear. Hershey continued her incessant growling.

From a new position, Steve shouted one more time, “I can see all of you well enough to aim; identify yourself, now!” This time we heard a rustling in the underbrush; braced for whatever would come next, we froze as the night’s quiet was slashed with a long, baleful, “Mooooo.”

Hershey immediately barked three times, wagged her tail against my leg, sat down, and looked at me with her, “Did I earn a treat?” expression. Our laughter echoed from both sides of the road against the nearby mountain. Tension relieved, it was back to the campfire, the beer, the chips and the salsa. For Hershey, it was back to the sleeping pad with a treat to chew.

Camping for the computer-inclined

6 09 2010

The quiet of the desert night wavers with the bay of a coyote at the rising moon. In the clear mountain air, the stars are sprinkled across the night sky. Every so often a shooting star creases the night. There’s quiet in the air with just a hint of breeze rustling through the pines. You could be sitting there toasting toes at the campfire, glass of wine or bottle of beer in hand, watching the night sky and just relaxing. Stretch a little, snuggle down in the chair, take your honey’s hand and gaze upon each other with affection. A perfect camping night, except you’re inside your tent, staring at the laptop screen plugged into the outlet located on your tent wall. Outlet in a tent might be the next thing, according to a report in PC World Online. This geek-oriented tent is just part of a slide show of camping gear for the computer nerd. The tent with built-in power—obviously from a generator—is big enough for a pair of gamers to set up shop with all their friends. It supposedly sleeps ten, which in real life terms means about seven.


As an avid camper, I believe the height of luxury is the solar shower. REI took it a step higher with the camp kitchen French coffee press, freshly made, of course with beans ground in a hand-powered grinder. For after dinner, a campfire espresso maker is also available. Now technology comes to the campsite with a Coleman high powered 18-LED light with high speed fan for cooling—and a hidden compartment with connections to fit all smart and mobile phones. Cool the tent, light up the night like day, and recharge the iPhone, all in one. The slide show depicts real and prototype high tech camping gear. Ah, for the days that high tech camping gear meant a lighter and stronger tent.

Getting younger every day

24 07 2010

“If you start adventure, and you are absolutely certain you will succeed; why bother starting?” This question was asked by Sir Edmund Hillary in Washington DC about ten years ago. Somehow, as life goes on this question seems to take on more mother was visiting two weeks ago, and we took a trip from Phoenix to Tucson to have lunch with a woman who had been a neighbor when I was growing up in Illinois. I won’t disclose either of their ages, but I am 59 and our former neighbor’s oldest daughter… for whom I used to babysit…is now 54. At lunch we started talking about aging.

This is a topic, but I and many of my friends also discuss. And everyone seems to be in agreement on one point: we are getting younger every day. Today’s seniors are very different than the seniors when my mother and her friend were my age. Even my mother has gotten younger. When my daughter was born in 1976, she was the first granddaughter, and the first child of the next generation. My mother, who will probably deny this, started letting her hair go gray, because grandmothers have gray hair. Both of my grandmothers have gray hair as far back as I can remember them.

Our former neighbor has her hair the same color that I remember she had when I was babysitting, and it looks great. My mother has beautiful silver hair, and so does nothing to its color. Mine is going to be the same silver. No bluing, please.

This article, however is not about graying hair. It’s about the fact that today’s seniors are a lot more active than last generation’s seniors. My mom goes to the gym three days a week and works out. I ride my bike 12 to 30 miles every other day, and on the alternate days. I am lifting heavier weights more times than I did when I was in my 40s. I have a friend, 55, who climb a 1500 foot mountain every morning. The neighbor down the street, 52 years old, rides his road bike 65 miles every morning. Three acquaintances from a meet up group over 60 years old, hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day.

Even in terms of clothing, style, hair color, and general lifestyle, today’s seniors aren’t.

Skipping the blueberries

23 07 2010

Blueberries? I'd rather eat fish.

Sprawled on the floor between the char and the overhang on the counter, my chocolate lab, Hershey, patiently awaits the cereal bowl she knows placed in front of her when I’ve finished. I’m full, and there’s maybe a half-dozen Wheat Chex left with a puddle of milk. Interspersed among the Chex are five blueberries.

Tail wagging, Hershey gets up, circles the chair once and then snout into chow she goes. Within seconds, the pre-rinse cycle complete, the bowl licked clean–except for the blueberries. Even the milk cleaned from the blueberries, but the five plump pieces of fruit remain (let’s not get into why they were left by me in the bowl).

Since three cups of coffee were already working through my system, I immediately saw a business metaphor in the bowl. Sometimes we leave some plump fruit behind when we’ve finished prospecting. It made me add “re-call old prospects” to the ToodleDo list. Always makes sense to make a second sweep through the market. I did not, however, eat the blueberries Hershey left in the bowl.

Do it now

20 07 2010

Grand Canyon National Park. It’s been there since time memorial, but chances to visit the Park don’t always come easy. I look around at many of my friends and realize how lucky I am to still have a living parent; a healthy, active, unconstrained parent. Early in the visit, she mentioned a desire to come for a longer stay next time in order to see the Grand Canyon. “I’ve always wanted to see it.”

A couple of days later, we were driving to Tucson to see a former neighbor from back in Park Forest, Illinois, where I grew up. During the two hour drive, we were talking about others from the neighborhood. There was Mildred, who has serious hearing and memory challenges and is rehabbing from a broken femur. She may never live independently again, and she is younger than my mom. There’s Nan, who seems to be in early stages of Alzheimer. Another friend has a debilitating illness, a second is in early stages of dementia. My aunt is bedridden and may never be able to get out of bed again. Even our former neighbor has her issues. All of these women are anywhere from a couple of years to more than ten years younger than my mom. This doesn’t count the deaths among my mother’s friends.

After listening to this litany, I looked at my mom and said, “Can you handle a long day in the car?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Want to go see the Grand Canyon tomorrow?”

“Isn’t that a long day driving for you?”

“I can manage.”

And so, Friday morning we set off early towards the Grand Canyon (and a 25-degree drop in temperature from Scottsdale). I took her in through the east entrance, Desert View, and working our way towards Grand Canyon Village, we stopped at every other overlook. My mom was just thrilled with the views. Nature cooperated and gave us a couple of thunderstorms on the North Rim and a downpour while we were ensconced in a restaurant for lunch. The monsoon ended just as we finished lunch, and we drove back to the Valley of the Sun.

My mom got to see the Canyon, and I will never have the regret that “I wish I had taken mom to the Canyon when it was possible.”