Monthly Archives: June 2013

Front yard greeting card

In The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the protagonist Victoria researches the meanings that Victorian lovers assigned to the flowers they sent. Victoria comes up with her own list of flowers and their meanings. After reading the book, I wondered what the flowers in my yard say to my friends and family. I decided to do a little catalog of the flowers that greet visitors when they come to my front door.

At the curb

Several years ago I set out to plant a garden between the sidewalk and the curb in front of my house. I started digging out sod laid several years earlier when the house was built. The process was difficult because of the green plastic mesh used to put the sod in place. I searched for what the heck that stuff is and found that it lives forever, tiny animals can get tangled in it, and if you plow it under to make a garden, your garden might yield produce laced with green mesh. Supposedly this stuff is biodegradable but I suspect it will not degrade in my lifetime.

Pulling that mesh out of the soil is very difficult, but I did it to the best of my ability, filled in with store-bought dirt, and planted. While I was digging in the Tennessee chert and plastic, my neighbor cautioned me to stop. “This is a utility easement!” she exclaimed, “The city or a utility company could dig it up any time! It will be ugly in the winter when your flowers die! You’ll have to water it all the time!” True. I planted anyway.

I planted what I knew after living 20 years in New Mexico: Russian sage, which is drought tolerant and hard to kill. I also put in some coreopsis because they were pretty. Lucky me – For a couple of years we had minimal rain, and sometimes my curbside flowers were the only sign of life around. The Victorian meaning of sage is “good health and long life.” Coreopsis is “always cheerful.” So my front curb is a wish for good health and good cheer. I hope the mail carrier approves.

Russian sage and coreopsis  in my curbside garden

Russian sage and coreopsis in my curbside garden

Here's what the mail carrier sees on a rainy spring day

Here’s what the mail carrier sees on a rainy spring day

Beside the front walk

On one side of the front walkway I had a little slice of grass that I quickly converted to a bed. In it are roses, a Christmas camellia that blooms red in winter, some spunky stella de oro day lilies, and creeping jenny ground cover. Also embedded in the creeping jenny by accident is setcreasea, commonly called purple heart wandering Jew.

Here’s where my visitors run into trouble, and I’m not necessarily talking about the slightly mental dog that lurks behind my front door waiting to defend me from anyone who is, well, not me. This front bed is a tangle of contradictions. The camellia means “my destiny is in your hands” – quite a burden for someone just ambling up the front walkway.

The coquettes

The coquettes

A day lily symbolizes “coquetry.” In some books lilies symbolize “majesty,” but I think the stubby stella de oros are more coquettish than majestic. The red rose symbolizes love, but the beautifully fragrant yellow rose means “infidelity”! I couldn’t find any symbolism in the ground cover, but I did discover that the wandering Jew is so named because it wanders from where you planted it and thrives despite little sustenance, just as the Jewish People have adapted to many different environments around the world.

On the porch

"That creepy head" with asparagus fern

“That creepy head” with asparagus fern

On the front porch are seasonal plants – begonias, red geraniums, and an asparagus fern in a pot that looks like a head. (My daughter calls it “that creepy head” but I love it.) I did a little research on the asparagus fern and it is, as it turns out, not fern but an herb in the lily family.

In the language of flowers begonias suggest “caution” – a message I try to heed by removing the dog from the house before visitors come in. At, horticulturist Elizabeth Ginsburg says: “In the language of flowers, scarlet geraniums have a meaning that relates to either comfort or stupidity. However, the meaning assigned to any geranium, without reference to color, is more promising. These geraniums reflect gentility and esteem.” I would really prefer to think of my front porch as genteel rather than stupid.

If I only had a plan

I really did not set out to give any meaning to my front yard – I just plopped in what I liked and hoped it would grow. They say you should plot out your garden on graph paper – you’ll be sorry when you plant tall things in front of short things or things that spread choke out things that don’t. Without a plan I have lost plants. Maybe I planted them in the wrong place, maybe I overwatered, or maybe I got them on the almost-dead aisle at Lowe’s and couldn’t revive them. Elephant ears disappeared for years at a time and then one spring after a warm winter they came back. Azaleas planted in full sun died a slow and painful death. Trumpet trees grew tall and stately year after year but almost never bothered to flower.

New peony, the future of my garden

New peony, the future of my garden

Recently I planted a new peony bush on one side of my front steps. A peony could mean “anger” or it could mean “good health.” Next spring I think it will be another fragrant reminder of the contradiction that is my front yard greeting card.

Flower power

Bud emerges into hostile world

I read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh because I was interested in gardening and the ways in which Victorian lovers communicated through gifts of flowers. But the novel gave me insight into more than the secret messages that a garden emits. It taught me what it must be like to parent oneself as an adult emerging from the foster care system – a system I am tangentially a part of.

I’m a volunteer on my county court’s foster-care review board. Every month my panel reviews cases of children in foster care, talking with parents, caseworkers, attorneys, and children. Each month we report on these cases to the juvenile court judge. Many cases involve children who have grown up in the system. Never adopted, these children “age out” and become independent adults at 18.

Our panel often wonders about our children’s preparation for the adult world. Will they receive the training they need to get a job? Do they know how to parent the children they have or children yet to be? We are painfully aware that from an early age, many children in the system raise themselves and sometimes care for their own debilitated parents. Despite independent living training offered to teens in the system, the situation feels hopeless to me. I have a sense that the children who age out of the system can easily become homeless, criminal, or even mentally ill. And there is not a lot I can do about it.

Flower blooms despite setbacks

In the story, Victoria has grown up in the foster-care system, developing an adversarial relationship with the caseworker who has been her only constant in 18 years and with the many foster parents who have deprived her of nourishment in the figurative and sometimes literal sense. Only one foster parent, Elizabeth, loved Victoria, but at a crucial moment she failed as a parent, and the child was plunged back into the system. At 18 Victoria emerges from a group home stunted, guilt ridden, and unable to trust anyone, not even herself.

Victoria ages out of the foster care system with only the Dictionary of Flowers and Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers to guide her. Her only skill is knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers taught to her long ago by Elizabeth. She uses her skill to finagle a position with a florist and to communicate with those people she comes to love. By the end of the novel she is slowly learning how to love others and trust herself.

The author, herself a foster parent, gives us a glimpse into life for those who age out of the system. Having raised herself with not much help from adults, Victoria possesses an Artful Dodger’s sense of survival. She knows how to steal food and hide it on her person, on the presumption that she may not eat for a long time. She attempts to live in a San Francisco park but soon realizes the personal risk and finds a safe (not necessarily comfortable) place to live. A self-taught reader, she learns how to use what she knows to make a good living. Throughout the story, though, she shields herself from human interaction, finding solace only in flowers.

Bloom recovers from blight

Recently the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth issued a report on the peril that “toxic stress” puts on children who have experienced abuse, poverty, hunger, and abandonment in the foster care system. The report suggests that children who age out of the system experience life-long physical and mental problems. Older children in foster care sometimes have children of their own, and the cycle is perpetuated.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh, though, thinks that cycle can be broken, that abandoned children can make a successful transition into the adult world after emancipation. And she put her money where her beliefs lie, using earnings from The Language of Flowers to establish the Camellia Network (camellia This organization helps young people transition from foster care to the world of education and work. Camellia means “my destiny is in your hands.”
Diffenbaugh believes that if society stops thinking of recently emancipated foster children as “those kids” and starts thinking of them as “our kids,” such children can become viable members of society.

Flower power

Victoria learns that just as people are complex, so is the Victorian language of flowers – each flower can communicate multiple emotions. She creates a dictionary of flowers, poring over old books on the subject, determining what each flower means to her. Diffenbaugh says she did the same thing to come up with Victoria’s flower dictionary, which she prints at the end of the book.

This novel gives new meaning to the term “Flower Power.” No matter what their meaning, flowers give Victoria a way to emerge into adulthood, a way to connect with others in meaningful relationships, and a way to forgive herself and others.

In future blogs I will discuss the meaning of the flowers in my garden. I probably won’t experience significant self-discovery like Victoria does, but I will have a way of sharing the power of the flower.

Remembering Civil War Chattanooga

Our book club has read a few books about Chattanoogans. One such book was the memoir of Thomas Hooke McCallie, a Presbyterian minister and patriarch of a prominent Chattanooga family. Our club discussed the book with THM’s grandson, physician David McCallie, who edited and annotated the book. I wrote the following review for the Rivermont Presbyterian Church newsletter.

In THM: A Memoir, Thomas Hooke McCallie (THM) chronicles the McCallie family’s immigration from the lowlands of Scotland and move to Chattanooga, and her recounts his own experience of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

THM was anti-slavery and anti-secessionist, but he believed that secessionist states should not be forced to return to the Union. His unorthodox views on slavery were shaped in part by his religious experience. A player in a great religious awakening that swept across America before the Civil War, THM attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he heard in person such imminent speakers as Henry Ward Beecher and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He also gained a new perspective on slavery from his fellow seminarians, who sought out Southerners to “assault with argument” about slavery.

THM and his family stayed in Chattanooga during the war, witnessing battle and enduring the siege of Chattanooga. The memoir offers much comment on the war, including the character of each army (Confederates were polite but not inclined to hard work, Union soldiers rude and uncouth but disciplined and hard working). In the Presbyterian Church, he preached sermons to locals, Confederate officers, and Union officers—on different Sundays, of course.

The memoir reflects the role of the church in American society during the 19th century: Faith sustained family and community and helped people deal with the very real presence of death. In one moving passage THM describes his prayers for the recovery of his dying child and his uncertainty over whether those prayers were at odds with Christ’s calling the child home. Though THM emphasizes the joy of salvation, he never turns away from the internal questioning that is central to the Christian experience.

Simplifying online help

Dear Style Master: How can I reorganize my thousand-topic online help system supporting a business software application? Customers are having trouble navigating the system to find out how to use the software to do their jobs!

– Everything but the Kitchen Sink

Dear Sink: It’s great that you know what customers think about your system. Often we labor over product documentation, release it, and never know the value of our work to customers. As far as reorganizing, I suggest taking a cue from Thoreau: Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Start by creating workflow diagrams for each task customers will perform. In each diagram, list topics in the order in which you would use them to accomplish a task. Be sure that every topic in the system is listed in at least one workflow diagram. Hint: If a topic doesn’t fit into one of the workflow diagrams, maybe you can delete it from the system.

Next, look at the diagrams and see if there are topics you can eliminate, being careful not to eliminate a topic critical to multiple tasks. For example, identify background, reference, and detailed instructional material that you can move to another document, like a user guide. You can always link to the user guide from the help system so that the reader can find additional information easily. You might also be able to delete unnecessary graphics and confusing cross-references. If you are in doubt about cutting specific topics, ask an editor, reviewer, or peer to weigh in on whether or not to remove the items from the system.

Finally, review the existing system topic by topic. Edit wordy text and eliminate the obvious – phrases like “Respond to the ‘Are you sure?’ prompt” may not really be necessary.

After you revise and release your help system, continue your quest to know how customers view your system, through usability testing, standard customer feedback tools, or maybe a friendly phone call.

The joy of outlining

Whether you’re writing a white paper, a set of instructions, help for a mobile app, or a simple blog post, your first step is planning. And planning means analyzing your audience, defining a purpose, gathering information, and developing a preliminary outline.

Why create an outline

Why bother with an outline when you have all the information you need tucked safely away in your head? An outline ensures that some of that extensive information in your head isn’t inadvertently left there, never to make its way onto the page or screen. It helps you keep on point, so that you don’t distract readers with nonessential information. It helps you stay on task despite disruptions and distractions.

An outline is a map you can use as you to develop, revise, and test your ideas with reviewers. It can make the writing experience straightforward. And if you take pleasure in efficiency, an outline can help make the writing experience downright fun.

Choose your outline type

To prepare a detailed outline, sort the information you have gathered into topics of relatively equal importance, then identify subtopics. For short documents like quick references or online help topics, you might choose an informal outline, which can be a simple numbered list of topics. For example, if your task is to write a quick reference card on preparing for a laboratory procedure, you might use the following informal outline:

1. Draw blood.

2. Store blood.

3. Dilute samples.

4. Purify samples.

5. Clean prep station.

For more complex documents, choose a formal topic or sentence outline. A topic outline uses key words, and it includes subtopics. A sentence outline develops topics using complete sentences. For most documents, a topic outline provides an adequate guide. But if you are writing a lengthy document – say a chapter or section in a book – consider writing a sentence outline that provides specific details.

Example topic outline on outlining

I.    Why an outline is important

A. Provides a map to follow as you write

B. Makes sure relevant information not dropped

C. Keeps extraneous information out

II.    Types of outlines

A. Informal numbered

B. Topic

C. Sentence

D. When to use each type

III.   Drafting a document using an outline

Note: Headings and subheadings stand for divisions of information, and a division means that there are at least two parts. So, a single subhead – “A” for example – cannot exist without a second subhead, “B.”

Draft the document

Expect to change the document’s structure as you write, even if you’re using a detailed outline. What looked simple in the outline may be convoluted in the first draft, so you create some new topics as you’re writing. Or, what you planned as a major section may contain very little information, so you opt to subordinate that information in another section.

The outline is a guideline, not a rule, and you’re allowed to change your mind as you write. In my example topic outline on outlining, the final subtopic under “Types of outline” is “When to use each type.” But when I wrote the blog post, I found it easier to incorporate a discussion of when to use each type of outline when I defined the type. Also, I thought of a new topic on how to use an outline when you are preparing a revision for publication, so I added it as a tip at the end of the post.

Evaluate document structure

After you have completed a good draft, reevaluate the document’s structure. Is the flow of ideas logical? Is the text coherent and complete? If you have a table of contents, you have a quick way to evaluate overall logic before you revise and edit what you have written. Any initial headings you have used in the document provide another sort of map to your document’s structure. You’re looking at general structure, not specific text. Reorganize any parts of the text necessary before you refine the document in the next draft.

A tip on revisions

If you’re writing product documentation, you probably have to update print and online documents to accommodate product updates. Sometimes there is a need to restructure before you add new content. Try outlining the original to see if you can find logical flaws, and revise the outline to correct the flaws. Then, reorganize the old text and add new content using your new outline. Using an outline to correct flaws in the original can be a source of joy not only to the writer but also to the reader who no longer has to endure a difficult-to-follow document.