Monthly Archives: July 2021

Lizard in a lemon tree

When our tenant sent a text inquiring about a place to care for her small pets while she was out of town for a couple of weeks, I didn’t have any suggestions but thought maybe the kids would enjoy the experience of petsitting, particularly because we would only have to cross the yard and scale a flight of stairs to check in on them once a day. On our first trip to the apartment to care for the three rats, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the kids excitedly told our neighbor about them as we left the apartment. The neighbor mentioned that his only experience with rats was feeding them to a snake he used to own, and I replied, “Well, you know what they say: one man’s pet is another man’s pet food.” He laughed at that and said, “You know what’s really cool? Right before the pandemic, we got a lemon tree and found an anole living on it. This past year I’ve spent way too much time watching him and feeding him mealworms and things. I’ve actually gotten pretty invested in keeping him alive and observing his behavior. I swear he’s what got me through Covid.”

Those words just rang so true. Throughout the many months of pandemic life, we all had our own coping mechanisms, our own conduits through which we channeled so much energy and attention as a way to occupy our minds and bodies while we adjusted to and experienced such a different way of life, one that was constantly being oppressed by worry and distress and uncertainty and grief and sometimes desperation. It happened in phases as time passed and the pandemic dynamics progressed and shifted, but we all had our version of the lizard in a lemon tree.

All of these lemon tree lizards looked different, of course. Early on, lots of people adopted puppies. There were many job, even career, changes. I know several people who became newly interested in gardening, and several others who took up an exercise routine. Hobbyists were born by the million, I’d bet. My friend Morgan funneled her focus into the many house projects she’d had on hold. My mom filled her home with cockatiels and parakeets who fly around the house and syndicate the space with cheerful chirping. My friend Ellen invested in a beautiful mountain property and went about beautifying and readying it as a rental to welcome guests. My friend Becca experimented with different media in her impressive artworks. My pet-averse brother somehow ended up with a snake named Chandler living in his apartment. My friend Nate doubled down on his lacrosse stick-stringing skills and upped the ante with a hot glue and Rit dye resist technique to produce some serious masterpieces of sportsware. My grandmother added pigs and chickens to her farm and spent hours in the kitchen on creative projects like making gallons of kiwi purée from her bumper crop last fall. I made wild yeast from golden raisins, flour, and water, which I fed twice daily and used to make sourdough bread until the project had run its course after about ten months. I know a married couple in their late thirties who’d chosen to remain childless, but a few months into quarantine they decided to let nature make the decision. Their baby is due in November.

Would these things have happened anyway, in due course of time? Maybe. There’s no way to really know. But when my neighbor told us about his investment in the livelihood of the anole that had involuntarily taken up residence inside his home at the beginning of Covid, I knew how he felt. I imagined my neighbor, who’s a pretty intense dude as it is, peering into the lemon tree a few times every day, making sure the little guy was thriving, researching what to feed him and ordering insects online, worrying that he wasn’t getting enough water, wondering at the life he had led before, wondering at his welfare in his current state of life, wondering what the world has in store for his future. We’re all my neighbor, cultivating one devotion or another, practicing the survival strategies that propel us through each avenue dimly-lit by sconces of hope, one mealworm or cross-stitch or brushstroke or birdsong or tablespoon at a time, gathering grace from the process like an armful of fortune.

Helianthus, my hero

Disclaimer: I promise this will be the last discussion of “Plants vs. Zombies” (for a while, at least)!

Arlo’s deep dive into his “friend who doesn’t know he’s his friend”‘s YouTube channel led us to the purchase of a PvZ game for Playstation 4 (we already owned the console; don’t worry) called “Garden Warfare.” It turned out to be a wild success, and after the kids went to bed during this craze, there were nights that Brian spent some time playing the game, ostensibly to level up the characters for the kids, but also because he really enjoyed it. I have to say, even I grew rather fond of the righteously cute yet fierce flowers and the buffoonish, cartoonish zombies. Even the sound effects, which usually for me are a huge video-game turnoff, didn’t cause stress or annoyance. Plus it was springtime, during those months when the pandemic was finally hinting at its final phases, so it felt appropriate for energy and thought and time to be invested in cultivating plants, including those on screen whose purpose was the salvation of humanity.

One night while I was doing something surely nonessential in the kitchen, Brian was playing “Garden Warfare” with the audio off, and I was paying approximately zero attention to anything going on outside of my headspace and the countertop I was probably cleaning. At one point, he started talking, and when I tuned in I heard him say, “She’s really great! She can heal herself AND she can heal others! She’s kind of powerful. And she’s pretty! She’s sunny, and that’s awesome! I really like her!”

Sunflower, I want to be just like you someday.

Its own reward

Our lives have truly been the landscape of a zombie invasion. It turns out that the zombie craze is no passing fancy; sure, in the scheme of things it’s merely a phase, but it’s proving to be one with some real staying power. Things got more serious when Arlo discovered a YouTube channel featured by the “Plants vs. Zombies” iPad game in which he’d been engrossed for weeks. The channel belongs to a boy named Ryan Phillips, a.k.a. Tewtiy (he’s actually 22, I think, but Arlo calls him a boy, so that’s how he’s known around here). His platform is livestream gaming, where followers can watch him engage in gameplay while sending in messages, and these recordings are uploaded to his channel for asynchronous viewership. The kid is actually rather adorable, with his signature red shirt, blue bow tie, and gravity-defying blonde bangs culminating in a kind of a cartoon version of himself as his online persona, and his videos are pretty great. He only offers family-friendly content, and his gregarious personality paired with a healthy approach both to the material and to the process of playing video games themselves provides entertaining substance and refreshing perspective. I vetted his videos and gave Arlo the green light to enjoy them.

And enjoy them he did. It was his version of watching a spectator sport, and he talked to Ryan while he watched him on screen, encouraging him, congratulating him on successes, sharing disappointment at setbacks, and celebrating euphorically when hard-won victories against the waves of zombies were achieved. The videos were truly a source of delight, and Arlo fell head over heels in brotherly love with him. Naturally, he wanted to communicate with his newfound matinée idol, and he asked countless times if “the boy” could come over for a play date. He wrote him a card saying that he wanted to start a club with him, complete with illustrated plants and zombies, and begged me to send it, so told him I’d look the kid up and see if I could get in contact.

Guys, I did my best. I trawled the internet (not to be confused with the verb phrase “troll the internet”) and found his Instagram account. I wrote him a private message, explaining the situation and asking if he would mind sharing an address where I could send this very important piece of fan mail. I told him that Arlo adores him and thinks he’s a superstar, and I shared the idea that Arlo had for us for Halloween: he would dress up like the Snow Pea plant from the game, and I would be a Conehead Zombie (I’d need a pylon to wear on my head for this). We would buy some jumbo marshmallows, paint them blue, and he would throw them at me. “That would be efic!” said Arlo, when we landed on this plan (he thinks the word “epic” is pronounced “efic”, and no one is correcting him).

A week passed with no response. Arlo was adamant that we try again, so this time I found his email address and wrote a similar message conveying my son’s worshipful opinion of him and thanking him for keeping his channel family-friendly and ultimately fun. Crickets. I searched again, using clues from his videos (his father’s name is Stephen, for instance), trying to unearth a mailing address or any other outreach method, but failed to turn up any leads. Still, Arlo persisted in his desire to make contact, so we thought about creating Arlo’s own YouTube channel and trying to link Ryan’s channel somehow–anything to get his attention. Brian said, “We could structure it as a spin-off paying homage to “the boy’s” channel, and in the description we could say you’re his #1 fan.” Arlo said, “No, I don’t want to say that, because I wouldn’t want all of his other fans to feel bad.”

One thing’s for certain: Ryan is really missing out. I know a great friend when I know one and, as evinced by his response to his dad about fandom, I can’t think of a person more well suited to the act of friendship than Arlo. We no longer refer to Ryan as “the boy” because Arlo started calling him “my friend who doesn’t know he’s my friend”. If we’re to believe Emerson, who said in his “Friendship” essay that “the only way to have a friend is to be one,” then Arlo sure got that right.