Century Agave: Out with a bang

Pictured above and to the right is the Century plant at the front of our home here in Phoenix. You can see it is near the end of its life because it has sent up a 9-foot tall stalk, laden with flowers that have begun to blossom.

The Century Plant is one of the most misunderstood plants plentiful here in Arizona. Many people assume it is a cactus.  It is not.  It is an Agave Americana, in the family Asparagaceae and commonly found in Mexico, Texas, and other southwest US States.  It has been introduced to the West Indies, South America, Africa, India, China, Thailand, and even Australia.  Despite the common name of “American Aloe,” it is not a close relative of the genus Aloe.

Some people believe the “century” name means it lives for 100 years. It does not. It typically lives only 15 to 30 years.  Others believe it takes one hundred years for the plant to flower, when in fact, it flowers only once, at the end of its rather long life. This plant will die after flowering but will produce adventitious shoots, meaning at the base of the plant, versus the top.  These shoots nearly always result in a new baby Century starting within a few months.

Before shooting out its enormously high stalk, it will grow up to six feet high.  It has grayish/blue/green spiny leaves with sharp tips.  It has been a beautiful plant and we will be sorry to see it die.  One consolation, as the flowers bloom in their final act, the nectar attracts all sorts of birds and insects from far and wide.  The odor, unnoticed by humans, emanates from the plant creating an invitation to a free, non-stop, raucous going away party around the plant.

In Pre-Columbian Mexico, natives cut the flower stem before it blossomed, taking the sugary liquid from the inside and the sap from the leaves, fermenting it, and producing the milk-colored pulque, the predecessor of tequila. Initially, pulque was considered sacred and had limited use.  After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the drink became secular and consumption of it rose, reaching a peak in the late 19th century.  It eventually lost out to beer.  Mezcal and tequila (which is a variety of mescal) are made from cooking parts of various agave plants, mostly blue agave.

We’ll miss our plant, but only for a while.

Confessions of a Republican Political Operative

In Dubai last month I met the principals of an exciting Tempe, AZ start-up company, ZEV. The CEO, Carolyn Maury, and her co-founders were all at GITEX Global. ZEV converts fleets of gas-powered vans into electric vehicles quickly and at a low cost.  What they’re doing is brilliant.  As they have grown, they have sought and found political guidance and lobbying help from Barry Goldwater, Jr., son of the late Arizona senator who is now an energetic 83-year-old, who regularly visits Washington D.C. and provides politicians with his ideas.  When talking with Carolyn in Dubai, she showed me a photo of herself with the Jr. Barry Goldwater. He’s a spitting image of his father and it reminded me of my time as a Barry Goldwater (sr.), political operative.  I meant to tell Carolyn the story, but never found the time, so now I will tell you.

In 1964, my early teen years,  I found myself on the slippery slope where righteous intent slides into political chicanery.  My father, always a staunch Democrat in a family of Democrats, had sided with the republicans when J. F. Kennedy gained the party’s nomination in 1960. The church we attended believed if a Catholic were ever elected to the presidency, it would mean the Pope would be in charge of the USA. While my uncles stuck with the democrats, my dad—horribly distressed by Kennedy’s election—chose to side with the republicans into the 1964 election when Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater struggled for the nomination.  Rockefeller had divorced his wife and remarried. This was another major black mark on him from our church’s standpoint. Barry Goldwater was our man.  Goldwater expected to run against Kennedy, but when JFK was shot in 1963, his opponent became Lyndon Johnson.

During the final days before the election, my father brought my brother Leif (11) and me, (13), to a late-stage Barry Goldwater get-out-the-vote organizing event and rally at Lincoln Grade School about a mile from our home in Fairmont, Minnesota.  We quickly tired of the “what do we do next” discussions and found ourselves in a cloakroom in the back.  It was full of campaign literature, political tchotchkes, and bumper stickers — boxes of them – lots and lots of boxes of stickers. Staring longingly at the boxes, we asked one of the party faithful if we might help ourselves to a few bumper stickers.  “Of course, of course,” he said, “… take as many as you want.  We’ll never be able to use them all.”  We grabbed a box, not realizing it contained about 10,000 stickers, and headed out into the early November night.

Our first stop was the school parking lot, where every car got at least two new “GOLDWATER 64” bumper stickers.  Heading around George Lake towards home, every parked car we passed got Goldwater stickers, whether it was on the street or in a driveway.   About a third of the way home, we realized that unless we prodigiously upped our rate of sticker application, we would arrive home with a mostly full box. Although only junior operatives, we knew stickers in boxes could not help the cause, and we got to work.  Stop signs soon had 4 or 5 Goldwater Stickers.  The sign to the boat landing was covered with them.  A homebuilder’s billboard advertising lakeside lots for sale was soon coated with at least a hundred stickers or more.  We crawled up street signs at every crossing and placed stickers over street names.  A block or two from home, it occurred to us that mailboxes should also get stickers, and from that point on, both sides of every mailbox on all sides of the street were adorned with Goldwater 64 stickers.  But even with all that hard work and creativity, we arrived home with nearly half a box of stickers left.

When my father got home he acted less than pleased. The stickers, which shined in the dark, had reflected in his headlights, illuminating his drive all the way home.  He explained we shouldn’t have put stickers on public property and as to people’s cars and mailboxes, we should have asked first.  He acted mad, but I suspect there was some internally smirking – as no one would know who’d done it.  He made us give him the remaining stickers and he locked them in his car trunk.  He told us the next day we needed to go out and remove the ones we’d put up.  Good idea, but the glue used back in those days was meant to last, and remnants of those stickers remained well into the following summer, long after the election was over.  I don’t recall voting for many republican candidates, but I had one exhilarating hour as a volunteer operative!

TV Top Picks #13: Engineering the Future: 3 Episode Series

The first of these 3 one-hour films is on wind power. I was instantly hooked.  In just over 50 minutes, you get amazing views into the interior workings of massively large wind turbines; learn extraordinary details on how they are made and what it takes to locate them.   At first I was a bit put off on having to join a new streaming service, this one called “CuriosityStream” to watch it, but that turned out to be an unexpected bonus.  If nothing else, watch this first episode on the engineering revolution going on in wind power and let me know what you think.

Before I tell you a tad more about these documentaries, let me explain CuriositySteam.  It was new to me, but apparently over 13 million subscribers have already discovered and signed up since it began in 2015, founded by the guy who created the Discovery Channel.  You need to subscribe, and it’s $2.99 a month or $19.99 annually for an HD subscription, although right now they have special $11.99/yr. offer.  Having cut the cable on our COX programming, I’m saving about $90 a month.  Being able to spend my subscription dollar on precisely the content I value and want to watch versus paying for massive amounts of programming I had no interest in is a no-brainer.  The way I figure it, I can sign up for another 25-30 monthly streaming services (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.) and I am still getting better value for my subscription dollar.  CuriosityStream offers thousands of documentary films across a variety of categories like science, history, mathematics, technology, robotics and nature. Think of it like the online version of The Great Courses, much more entertaining and less academic, but still authentic and accurate.

The 3 episodes in the Engineering the Future series are Wind, Aviation and Fusion, each one just under an hour.  Production quality is some of the best you will find.  Narration is done by David Attenborough and Patrick Stewart.  Interviews are conducted with scientists and engineers at the leading edge of research and production in each of these three areas, and scripted in a way that is easily understood for non-engineers like me. This is all new, cutting-edge stuff: one of the wind farms was just completed and brought onto the electric grid in the fall of 2020.

Top Tier TV Pick #2 – My Octopus Teacher

official Netflix trailer

Craig Foster filmed and narrates the underwater adventure “My Octopus Teacher,” focused on a single subject, an amazing little creature. Naturalist photographers normally stay in the background.  Not in this film and it makes a wonderful difference. You’ll come away uplifted and knowing far more about lives much more connected to us than you might at first think. You can watch it on Netflix.

Not all recommendations are going to be nature shows, but this one and the first (Our Planet) just happened. Trust me, they’re both wonderful.  My own underwater experiences involved more than just SCUBA.  Before becoming a certified diver, I spent my youth and early twenties free diving using only a snorkel and good swim fins, no oxygen tank or wetsuit.  After years of using oxygen tanks at various storied dive locations around the world, I tired of the bulk and re-certification needs for SCUBA, and went back to free diving.  While it took a while for my lung capacity to return, I fell back in love with the glorious feeling of freedom when free diving.  Foster’s dependence on this approach makes a considerable impact on the film. My Octopus Teacher will take you to an exciting new world, full of beauty and glorious surprises.