Tuesday, August 9, 2011


            A couple of newspaper articles caught my eye this week. One featured our neighbor, Billy; the other was about a group of women who are learning to read.

            Oak Island doesn’t have any covenanted areas, except maybe Kings Lynn at the far west end. Our street subscribes to the anything-goes school of design, from cinderblock to modular to stick-built on slabs, crawlspaces and pilings. Down the street from us is a cinderblock model surrounded by a chain-link fence with various vehicles in various stages of repair in the yard. We call it “The Compound,” and Billy lives there. He’s a neighborhood character, famous for scavenging anything usable from curb-side deposits. Once Tim and I dug up three hopelessly scaled Burford hollies and tossed them on the lot next door, near the road: Billy salvaged them, and two still live in his yard. When the lady across the street moved, she put some wicker furniture on the curb free for the taking, as is the local custom. Later that day, Tim saw Billy on his moped, balancing the loveseat on his head with the cushions secured to his person.

Our neighbor Billy
            Billy’s middle-aged, and his face reflects his hardscrabble life. The moped transport indicates loss of his driver’s license, in turn indicating a problem with alcohol and/or drugs, and frequent brushes with the law. He’s also friendly, a fount of local knowledge, and quite taken with our garden. (He calls us “the flower people.”) Last week, we were pleased and proud to see him on the front page of the weekly paper upon the occasion of his graduation from drug court, a program for habitual offenders.

            “[T]hat’s my goal [now], to help others,” he’s quoted as saying. “That’s what I want out of this. I’m 50 years old and riding a moped; I’m living with my parents. Thank God for my mama or I might be living under the bridge somewhere. Don’t be like me.” He goes on to give some excellent advice for all of us: “[T]ake the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth.”

            Billy’s an old dog who’s learned a new trick. Way to go, Billy!

Miss Bobby rehearses
with the Reader's Theatre
(photo by Jeff Janowski)
           On Sunday, Wilmington’s StarNews ran an article on a group of folks who, as part of a  literacy program, have written a screenplay for one of the books they read, and will perform it at a Literacy Council luncheon for 300 people. The program is called Readers’ Theatre; its purpose is to build confidence while improving comprehension and increasing vocabulary. The group inspired one member, Bobby Woods, to work toward earning her high school diploma. When asked what keeps adults from seeking help with reading, she replied, “Pride. Shame. Fear. A lot of people want to read," she went on, “but it’s not in [their] comfort zone. Come out of your comfort zone. Get a new comfort zone.”

            Miss Bobby’s an old dog who learned a new trick. Way to go, Miss Bobby!

One of Momma's quilt tops
as completed by Betty's church group
            Reinventing yourself runs in my family, for good or ill. My dad retired from 35 years as a mechanical engineer for the Navy—he designed ventilation systems for submarines—and, to the amazement of his entire family, started nursing school. A few years ago, my mom’s friend Betty asked her (Momma) for help with piecing together a quilt top for her (Betty’s) church group. Momma had so much fun with the first one that she’s been churning them out ever since, mailing pieced tops from Williamsburg, Virginia, to Houston several times a year. At 84, she’s revitalized.

Three generations of reinventors,
circa 1995: from left,
me, sister Donna, Momma,
niece Abbey, sister Karen, niece Beth
            As a kid, all my sister Karen ever wanted was to be a mom. Thirty seconds after taking her degree in Home Economics from Virginia Tech, she married Rob and had Abbey. Beth and Robbie arrived in due course.  She home-schooled all three kids and helped her husband with his tax preparation business for over two decades. When the youngest child finished college, Karen shocked us all by going back to school herself, to study engineering. The birth of Abbey’s first set of twins (the second set followed 18 months later, a reinvention in itself for a girl with her masters degree in teaching English as a second language) put a temporary halt to Karen’s science education; but I have no doubt she’ll finish what she started.

            (In case you’re wondering what the “ill” part is, my older sister reinvented herself homeless five or six years back. She’s better now.)

            Old dogs, new tricks.

            When we started in the business, neither Tim nor I had any formal horticulture credentials. (Thirteen years on, we still only have one, certification as North Carolina Professional Plantsmen.) He quit his job with the State Department, and I quit mine as a housewife, to run away to North Carolina from New York. (How we ended up on Oak Island is a lovely, romantic story. Details available upon request.)

The first time we went to a wholesale nursery to buy plants for a job, I broke down in the conifer section and started to cry. “They’ll know we’re not really landscapers,” I blubbered. Tim picked me up off the ground (I’d tripped over the cart hitch) and looked me in the eye. “We have cards that say we’re landscapers, so we’re landscapers. We can be anything we want to be. The only school that really matters in the end is the on-the-job one.”

That was the day this old dog learned a new trick. I’ve never looked back.

In the wild, humans don’t have much going for them. We’re weak, furless, clawless, poor diggers, sad swimmers, pitiful runners and worse climbers—not a great recipe for success in nature. But we are fantastic adaptors, and the ability to turn disadvantage into something we can use for our own ends is what we’re best at. Just look at any friggin’ politician.

I know, I know. Thanks for the sermon, Reverend Weird, you’re thinking. But what have dogs doing tricks got to do with gardening?  

Miss Frizzle
            This: last Thursday, after three seasons of disappointments and dashed hopes, Tim and I shared our first-ever home-grown, picklewormless cantaloupe. I’m saying that if I can do it—successfully thwart pickleworm moths—you can do it—gardening, or anything else—if you really want to. I’m saying it’s freeing to learn something new, to do something new, to be something new. The course of your garden or your life isn’t graven in stone. Miss Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame said it best: “Make mistakes! Get dirty!”

Consider joining old dogs Billy, Miss Bobby, my family and me: teach yourself a new trick. I can testify, it feels great.

Thanks for dropping by, you old dog, you.


P.S.-- If you missed the wonderful Magic School Bus books, do peek at the website linked above.

Scholastic's Magic School Bus gang