There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
Actually, Jane, there was. It was a nice day, not being November and all. There was weeding to be done (there’s always weeding to be done) but I didn’t feel like doing it. Which probably just means I was lazy but I might have been a little worried about violent backyard confrontations that might lead to exsanguination. And besides, there were some frogs at the church down the street that certainly weren’t going to stomp themselves.
An excursion seemed called for.
The church with the frogs (I’m moderately sure it’s not really about frogs. It might be about notaries, but that seems unlikely too. But let’s face it — all I know about organized religion is that it involves big hats, heavy books and people that knock on your door when you’re in the bathroom.) is about two blocks down; I walked out the door, past the spiders that guard the house (and offend passing accountants), past where one of the geophysicists used to live (at one time we had two — alas, no longer), past where the member of parliament used to live until I drove him away (I’m just that annoying), past the school named after a tank (not the park named after a tank — that is, of course, completely different and besides, it’s in the opposite direction).
From there it was left, left again at the store that used to be named after a horse, past another church that I know nothing about and left again just as the Rock of Butt-Bows came into view. (It’s one of the places people take wedding snaps — there’s another spot not far away but this year that one sports a porta-potty which is inexplicably not something wedding parties want in the background when they document their Special Day. Go figure.) After the turn it was past the house where the parents of the famous guy used to live, past the place where people hurl heavy objects at one another, past the neighborhood gynecologist’s house…
Hm. The neighborhood gynecologist.
He’s one of those people that, at some level, everyone knows. (Even me, although I’ve never dealt with him professionally for perhaps obvious reasons). He’s active in various charities, he has an extremely nice (a place for everything and everything in its place) garden and he used to have a spoiled rotten dog. The available evidence is that he’s a good man, although I hear he got in trouble selling greeting cards for charity without a permit. (Or something like that — I don’t always pay attention.)
Anyway, a few weeks back there was a knock at the door and since I wasn’t in the bathroom it wasn’t likely to be a door-to-door evangelist trying to convince me that the German tank commander was the messiah. It was, of course, Dr. NG.
“Is it that time of year already?” I asked, because he always comes by during nondenominational gift-giving season. (Because people are more charitable then? Maybe.) He’s come by at other times of the year but never — IIRC — in July. I mean, people are often not home in July and I personally would find it tricky to talk to them if they weren’t there.
He was fundraising for a project in, I think, Pakistan. (I say ‘I think’ because I confess I wasn’t paying as much attention as perhaps I should have. But he’s a good man and besides, sometimes details make my head hurt. It was about helping with an infrastructure project in some place with terrifying poverty and that was enough for me.)
The next question was about, for lack of a better word, process. Was he collecting donations? I’m okay with that but depending on when I last visited a bank machine I may not actually have any cash. This is not uncommon — last week I visited the supermarket to buy a baguette and when asked by the cashier if I wanted to make a two dollar donation to the local children’s hospital or something I had to say no — I didn’t have enough pocket change for both social responsibility and dinner.
But I was talking about Dr NG. (He probably never has to count pocket change to buy a loaf of bread.) Or was he selling something? Normally I have a problem with that because I don’t want any grotesquely overpriced items of extremely dubious quality but Dr NG tends to avoid that sort of thing. But after the ‘Christmas cards without a permit’ episode I wasn’t sure what to expect. Besides, it was July.
But it turns out he was. Not cards but…
“Dahlias” he said.
Cool. Flowers? He had never done that before. But he wasn’t carrying anything. “Where are the flowers?” I asked, looking behind him, wondering if he had an underscrogsman or something. He explained. Patiently. It was almost as if I was, I don’t know, a patient — one disoriented due to too much medication or maybe just colourful footwear.
“Not flowers. Plants. For your garden. Dahlias.”
I didn’t really know anything about dahlias. I had space for a tallish something out back in a corner that gets sun a little less than half the day for about half the year. Was that enough? I didn’t know. It’s also in the killing-and-maiming radius of at least two monsters. Are dahlias afraid of ravening beasts? Most flora seems pretty much indifferent to fauna that doesn’t want to eat it but you never really know. And what about soil acidity? Some things are pretty fussy about pH. The space out back is near some hemerocallis, monarda and aster. They’re all pretty happy but also not terribly picky. And what about the Tree of Doom? About twenty feet away is a tree that’s slightly more anti-social than I am. (I say ‘slightly more’ because I haven’t actually killed any of my neighbours. Not deliberately, anyway. That I remember. (I like to think that driving them off doesnt count.))
The tree of doom is a very nice tree, you understand. It’s just that, like an ill-behaved pet, relative or undergraduate you have to be careful what you introduce to it. (“TOD, this is a tomato.” TOD replies “DEATH.” “How about this nice hybrid named after a squirrel?” TOD says “yeah, whatever.” TOD is tricky.)
The internet helps with all of this, of course, but (a) it takes time, more time than I have when there’s a gynecologist on my front porch and (b) a lot of what’s there is anecdotal which, while useful, is farther from ‘definitive’ than I really like. (It’s sort of like a contentious page on Wikipedia — there’s information there but it’s not clear if it’s entirely trustworthy. Perhaps a second opinion (or a third or a fourth) would be prudent.)
Anyway. Dahlias. I didn’t (and still don’t, I hasten to add) know much about them. I told Dr. NG I might be interested but I’d need to do some research before saying yea or nay. And being a significantly better gardener than I am, he understood the issues and didn’t take it as a pathetic attempt to brush him off.
So I did some research. It seemed to be that soil that wouldn’t kill the stuff already there probably wouldn’t kill a dahlia either. Check. It also seemed that the Tree of Doom would probably leave it alone. Another check. The sun, well… several sources said it was absolutely, positively Not Enough. Others said that, while not really optimal, it would almost certainly be fine. Call that half a check but, more importantly, it wasn’t a big fat X. Okay. So when Dr. NG came back I gave him the thumbs up and we walked to his house (on the street named after a dead mathematician) and there in the garage was a large, healthy (one big difference between him and me) array of several different species of plant. He indicated that I should pick my dahlia. There was only one problem — in my research I had looked up a variety of things: things like soil requirements, juglone sensitivity, shade tolerance, acidity limitations and winter hardiness — just not what the damned things actually looked like.
So I stood and drooled for a while and eventually he took pity on me and identified one; to ensure I didn’t look too much like a moron I took that one, paid him, took it home and planted it in the back yard. So far it seems happy and I thought the story was over.
But no. It turns out that it hadn’t even started.
Shortly after I had planted my plant and surrounded it with a protective circle of elephants, Ms. Rose talked to a friendly mathematician from South Porcupine who lives down the street. It turns out that she had a similar story.
Well, sort of similar. Heck, if you forget the bits about the frogs, tanks, spiders and butt bows it was exactly the same story as mine.
Except there was no dahlia.
When Dr. NG came calling she received the same story that I did (and probably paid more attention to it) and was told that to support the project Dr. NG was selling, not dahlias, but azaleas.
I was confused. I mean, this not-really-a-revelation answered the question of why there had been so many different species of plant in Dr. NG’s garage but asked another: what were the criteria that determined the type of plant you would be offered? In particular, why was the mathematician from South Porcupine offered an azalea when I got a dahlia? I mean, we’re practically the same. I mean, she’s a mathematician and I’m not, she sat at the front of math 373 and I sat at the back, she’s a girl and I’m not, she doesn’t live on a street sort of named after a two hundred and seventy-six year old Mohawk woman and I do. But we both have gardens, we both have doorbells that may or may not work at any given time and we both usually know how old we are. See? Practically interchangeable. So why the difference in plant recommendations? What is it that gynecologists Know?
After thinking about it for a few days and applying the vast analytic skills I learned in a decade of graduate school, I formulated a theory. I decided there must be some sort of non-obvious connection between mathematicians and azaleas and physicists and dahlias. I’ve never suspected this connection so it must be subtle and the available evidence suggests it may possibly only be obvious to members of the medical profession — perhaps only gynecologists.
I even found some indirect evidence for this theory: a google search for ‘mathematician azalea’ yields about 50% more hits than one for ‘mathematician dahlia’ while the reverse is true for physicists. There’s something there and I can’t find a correlation as strong with street names, classroom seating position or even gender. It’s university education — it has to be.
(This doesn’t explain how Dr. NG knew that I’m a physicist or the mathematician from South Porcupine was a mathematician. It is, of course, obvious. (Well, mostly.) For the first part, all physicists are arrogant bastards and since I’m an arrogant bastard it’s a reasonable connection to make. For the second, the mathematician from South Porcupine has the same name as a mathematician from Kent, so, again, it’s a conclusion anyone could make.)
Anyway, I was moderately satisfied — the dahlia appears happy, the elephants seem to like it, my theory might be shaky but explains some of the observed phenomena and provides an interesting insight into the workings of the medical mind. Good deal.
I was talking (I was hardly smug at all) to the mathematician from South Porcupine about the gynecological affinity of dahlias with physicists and its meaning and implications when she pointed out that her neighbour — also a mathematician — was sold a dahlia by Dr. NG.