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Teaching Children to Lie for TV


Larimer County, Colorado Sheriff Jim Alderden, announcing charges in the “balloon boy” caper. (Will Powers/Associated Press)

Give the “balloon boy” credit. He managed to spill the beans despite being coached by his parents to lie about the “flying saucer” incident on live TV. Speaking of his parents, six-year-old Falcon Heene told Wolf Blitzer on CNN Thursday night, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.”

We did this for the show.

Dad was so desperate to have his own reality TV show he taught Falcon and his two older brothers to lie to the entire nation.

And Mom went along with it. Donna Reed, you’re dead, honey. As a doornail.


I guess we should all be glad the kid’s alive and well. I feel sorry, though, for the sheriff and other emergency workers who tried to save a child who was never in danger. “We were very worried that the life of a small child, a 6-year-old child may indeed be in jeopardy,” said Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden.

It was all one big stunt for a TV show, complete with corrupting one’s own children.

The New York Times’ coverage includes these details:

Mr. Heene and his wife have been enmeshed for years in the culture of reality television and self-promotional Web postings. The family appeared twice on the ABC show “Wife Swap,” including as recently as last March. Mr. Heene wanted his own show about his family, and he worked with at least one production company on a proposal. On Friday the cable channel TLC said it had turned down the proposal months ago. He has posted YouTube videos claiming to show proof of life on Mars and asking whether Hillary Rodham Clinton was a “reptilian.”

Last month Mr. Heene signed up for an account on RealityWanted.com, a Web site that connects reality television casting agents and aspiring contestants, according to Mark Yawitz, a co-founder of the site. Mr. Heene had made his profile private, making it impossible to view whether he had submitted his information to agents.

I didn’t know there was a “culture of reality television.” I was unaware of websites that “connect reality television casting agents and aspiring contestants.” Heck, I didn’t even know there were casting agents that promote these people. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given what happened to Jamie Oliver recently.

Another Times article on a more serious subject, American obesity, followed Oliver, the young British TV chef, who’s gone to one of the fattest cities in the country, Huntington, West Virginia, to try to teach people that simple cooking for one’s family at home is more nutritious and healthful.

The local delicacies in Huntington include a 15-pound hamburger (10 pounds of meat, 5 pounds of bread) and a 1-pound hot dog called the Home Wrecker, at an eatery called Hillbilly Hot Dogs. Here’s what that burger looks like in the kitchen:

(Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

(Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

Oliver learned how to prepare these things, and also found out about infants nursing on Coca-Cola and toddlers with Kool-Aid in their sippy cups. The results of Huntington’s atrocious diet are, of course, epidemic rates of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. Oliver’s apparently a fairly serious food reformer who doesn’t judge people’s current habits, but tries to educate them in a fun way to expand their current repertoire so they can live longer and better. Of course, he needs TV to reach a mass audience with his “good news.”

Along the way he meets people in Huntington who don’t hear that his topic is food, but “reality TV.” The Times reports:

Oliver arrived at City Hall and disappeared backstage. The auditorium was less than half full, and the front rows were filled with local reporters. Mothers brought young children with an eye toward the camera. One even armed her daughter with an oversize school menu as a visual aid. Another woman seemed to have mistaken scratch cooking for “American Idol” — she raced back and forth, trying to persuade someone, anyone, to ask Oliver to listen to her daughter sing.

As a right-wing columnist used to say when I was growing up, “I fear for the future of the Republic.”

What has gotten into people, that the only thing they care about anymore is being on TV?

Do they lead such meaningless lives that the only solution they can fathom is being rich and famous?

We all know now that you don’t have to be accomplished or talented to be on TV; you can be famous just for being famous. But then what? How can Paris Hilton have a second act in life when she never had a first one? Or substitute Perez Hilton for Paris, it’s the same dif.

I once had a co-worker, a schoolteacher by day and (lazy) social worker by night, who spent most of her spare time reading gossip magazines and websites. She could tell all the latest doings by all these people I’d never heard of. I asked her why celebrity gossip matters to her. Her answer: “It’s fun.” She claimed she didn’t buy all the trashy magazines or devote every waking minute to them, anticipating what normal people would think of this, but the evidence was otherwise. She too is “enmeshed in the culture of reality TV.”

I suppose it’s better than heroin, but no less a waste of time and life. What sort of an education do you suppose she teaches her pupils? She’s not a stupid person, but ugliness like beauty is only skin-deep.

She reminded me of old women I’ve heard about who were so hooked on the Home Shopping Network that when they died, their survivors were faced with mountains of unopened merchandise that “Mom thought she wanted.” How many dozen Veg-a-Matics do you need, lady? I can see buying one Salad Spinner, but not 14 of them.

They were hooked on TV.

My spiritual director says, “We’re all addicted to something,” and I’m sure that’s right. She helps me with my addictions, including reminders not to judge others or myself. The cure really is spiritual, which is why God invented AA. (I maintain it was because God was sick of having another hundred thousand drunks bawling at him every day and night. God came up with AA and told Bill W. about it, because the angels were threatening to go on strike.)

I’m lucky; I haven’t watched television since 1986, when Jack got sick. Coping with major illness in the family means you don’t have time for what you used to do. TV was the easiest thing for me to dump, and I’ve never regretted it. I thank my lucky stars for it, including the $600 I save every year in cable bills. I still own a TV, but I’m thinking of putting it out on the curb.

Now here is this self-proclaimed scientist and inventor, this storm-chaser, so hooked on the idea of being on TV that he teaches his kids to lie for him. I mean, why shouldn’t they be famous? Everyone else is, it’s all anyone aspires to anymore.

O Jesus, come and help us!

Suppose the Heenes’ stunt had worked and they’d gotten a show, become rich and famous instead of infamous? I suppose they’d have laughed all the way to the bank; and yet I don’t like thinking about the pressure that would have put on little Falcon.

What’s on him right now is plenty. What happens when he goes to school tomorrow? What will the other kids say? How will he answer them? Will anyone play with him anymore?

How his teacher handles this will be pretty important; he’s six years old. I’m glad he’s not in the classroom of my former co-worker; she’d probably take his picture and try to sell it to People magazine.

We need to ask ourselves what fame is supposed to cure. It doesn’t seem to make movie stars happy; they simultaneously want to be publicly loved and want to be left alone. (“Oh, those dastardly paparazzi! Be sure to get me from my good side!”)

Serial killers want to be famous; if they can’t be famous for something good, then be famous for something bad. Politicians and pundits want to be famous, and they seem not to care whether they speak the truth or lie through their teeth. (Death panels, Chuck Grassley? You voted for them yourself five years ago!) Would Ann Coulter, Greta Van Susteren and Michelle Malkin be famous if they were ugly? A plain face doesn’t stop male gasbags, but it’s death on females.

If we can’t as a society see through these circuses, we’ll never create a just civilization.

I guess I’m losing my optimism, a year after we elected our Last Best Hope. American culture, though it’s still vibrant and diverse, is now dominated by lying, thieving corporations determined to melt the planet – and they all advertise on TV. The oligarchs are hoping they can make their money, then make their getaway before the whole place blows up. Did you hear, Goldman Sachs is giving out billions in bonuses again, thanks to your tax money?

I’m so glad I don’t have TV. As for Huntington, maybe Jamie Oliver can save a few people. If not, Big Pharma is waiting in the wings. Their lobbyists will be happy to hear your child sing for the cameras, as long as you agree to let them tell you why you can’t live without this nice purple pill.++

A diner at Hillbilly Hot Dog. (Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

A diner at Hillbilly Hot Dog. (Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

Baptized in the River


Peter and I are now on the second and final leg of our “Best Of” tour, and I’m posting this from Cherokee, North Carolina. Last week we saw some of the best of Indiana, my home state, on our “U.S. 41 Cruise,” and now we’re in my all-time favorite place, the Great Smoky Mountains.

I believe in traveling slow. I’m not one of these people who gets up at dawn, then drives all night to get to a distant destination, only to spend the next day exhausted. I’d rather take two days and arrive in style. Our first night we aimed for Berea, Kentucky via Cincinnati, just so I could take Peter to Camp Washington Chili.

Camp Washington Chili

Peter allowed me to order for him: one cheese coney, no onions, heavy mustard, and a 3-way. Cincinnati-style chili, which is Greek in origin, is a local delicacy, and there are chili parlors “on every corner,” hundreds of them in the city. Camp Washington is my sentimental favorite, because I remember its original location, an all-night place 24/6, perfect after a night at the bars. The “new” restaurant is now old enough to look slightly seedy, which makes it perfect even at 3 in the afternoon. The late Charles Kuralt of CBS News once proclaimed Camp Washington’s “the best chili in the world,” and it’s won the James Beard Award as an American Regional Classic.

Here’s the most wholesome picture of a 3-way you’ll ever see.


Peter’s always a good sport, and he pronounced it “a new experience. You saw how quickly the plate was empty.”

From The Camp we headed south via I-75 to Berea, a small town just south of Lexington, Ky., about two hours away. The town grew up around Berea College, which was founded by Christian abolitionists in 1853 to educate Blacks and Whites, men and women, according to the precept “Learning, Labor, Service.” It is world-renowned, the cultural capital of Appalachia, located in the foothills not far from the Cumberland Gap. The town is quite an arts colony; we both bought some pottery.

I mentioned Berea College in my novel “Andy’s Big Idea,” about the founding of the world’s first Gay and Lesbian university. Andy goes to Berea to find out how the college can avoid charging tuition; all the students work 10-12 hours a week, earning their keep. He ultimately decides against following that model, but leaves with great respect for the place. But I’d never visited, doing all my research online, so I was eager to see it.

We stayed at the historic (Daniel) Boone Tavern, which has previously hosted Eleanor Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. We loved it there. We both compared it favorably to the French Lick Resort Hotel, which cost $250 a night.

Boone Tavern

We ate a light supper in the dining room; I had a salad with homegrown butter lettuce from the college farm, green peas and bacon, the prettiest arrangement I’ve ever seen.

The next day we went to Union Church right across the street. It’s very Protestant (Communion once a month, we got a hymn sing instead) but it’s still liberal; we enjoyed the organist and the pastor, who mentioned Episcopal priest Carter Heyward, a Lesbian and member of the “Philadelphia 11,” in his sermon. When we said goodbye at the door, I told him, “I’m a friend of Carter’s.” (True.) He looked surprised, then said, “Well, Amen!”

Union Church Berea

Then we headed down to visit The People in the most beautiful mountains on earth. Yes, there are taller ones, but the Smokies are close together, covered in trees and flowers, a temperate rain forest.

Our first day we immersed ourselves in Cherokee culture as best we could, visiting the Cherokee Museum, the Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual, Inc., Oconoluftee Indian Village, run by the tribe, and “Unto These Hills,” the most successful outdoor drama (59 years, 6 million visitors) in the United States.

Officially this reservation is the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; last year I visited the Western Band in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Both have casinos, which have greatly enhanced the tribal income and allowed for expanded community development. The People are doing well in both places and enjoy active cultural, historical, economic and social lives.

The Eastern Band, which kept a small portion of its ancient homeland in the mountains, has traditionally been more isolated, exploited by outsiders and ambivalent about White people. The Western Band, which suffered the quasi-genocidal Trail of Tears, is perhaps the stronger of the two by some measures. Certainly they have the better museum; the one here in North Carolina is cramped and dark, so they’re adding onto it. But both are worth seeing, especially if all you know about Indians comes from a John Wayne movie.

The Cherokees have always been a highly advanced culture, the leading member of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” and you can get a good feel for their history, religion and folkways in either place. For visitors, the comparison between East and West comes in part from how one is treated. The Western Band is friendly and optimistic for the most part, while the race-based resentment is more obvious here in the mountains.

The rap against Cherokee, NC has always been that it’s a tourist trap selling moccasins made in China, completely inauthentic. More recently, the Harrah’s-run casino has enabled the tribal government to take more control of its namesake town. The outsider-owned junk shops are still abundant, but the art scene is real, as visits to the Qualla Mutual and a private gallery called Great Smokies Fine Arts Gallery reveal. The Cherokees have always been magnificent weavers and potters, and you can find some fabulous works at Qualla. But I found myself most attracted to the woodworking, because the artists bring such unusual visions to the animal-spirits they depict. I wish I had a spare $800 to take home just one piece from Qualla; the art is worth every penny.

Oconaluftee Village features local enrolled members demonstrating the various crafts of everyday life in a beautiful wooded setting next to the outdoor amphitheater. We saw women weaving and asked about their methods. A man worked to craft projectile points (arrowheads), and I had to stop and watch for several minutes. My backyard in Indiana is filled with arrowheads – as kids we used to hunt them, because they’re all over my homeplace – but here I saw a guy chipping away at one using the old tools. A few days before Peter arrived in Indiana, I ran across an arrowhead while gardening and saved it to give him as a gift; now I’ve seen the patient work involved in shaping the stone. I was fascinated; the process is very logical, detail-oriented, peaceful. A good arrowhead could pull down a family’s dinner, and over time The People learned how to appreciate both the weapon and the prey. The demonstrator was pretty shy and close-lipped, but not hostile.

My best interaction at Oconoluftee was with a young man demonstrating canoe-making; the ancient Cherokees felled or found a tree trunk, hopefully close to the water’s edge so they didn’t have to drag it, then hollowed it out using controlled fire. The kid was friendly, eager to talk, a great ambassador. Imagine my surprise when later that night he turned out to be the Lead Dancer at the play. In a loincloth!!

“Unto These Hills,” like most historical plays, is both less and more than a good night at the theater; Peter and I saw the same problem last week at the world premiere of “Lincoln” at Honest Abe’s Boyhood Home in Indiana. You’re amazed that semi-professionals can pull them off at all. Both plays tried to tell an epic story in two hours, and as a writer I know that’s nearly impossible. The Cherokee play has to condense centuries, while the Lincoln play focused on the most famous American’s least known period. So “Unto These Hills” spends too much time on dancing and political arguing; it’s uplifting nevertheless, and that is why you go.

Today we headed for Great Smokies National Park, the nation’s second-oldest and by far its most popular.

Peter has some health problems and hiking the mountains is not an option, so we decided on a motor tour instead. Mountain driving definitely takes some getting used to, but by the end of the day I was feeling experienced.

We chose the Roaring Fork tour, which starts 40 miles from here on the other side of the park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a god-awful city which should be bulldozed and forgotten. (You cannot underestimate the taste of the American people.) But our drive through the park revealed many stop-worthy vistas, hundreds of wows; Roaring Fork was outstanding. It’s a one-lane paved loop up the mountain and down again, following a quintessential mountain stream; lots of whitewater rapids and gorgeous scenery, plus a well-preserved hardscrabble farm with a log cabin and numerous outbuildings, circa 1890, right on the raging creek. The land is so rocky you wonder how anyone could farm there, much less raise ten kids, but somehow they did it, till FDR bought them out to create the national park.

Rushing water; what the Cherokees call “living water,” which they incorporated in all their important religious festivals. To be alive, water has to move; static water in a plastic bottle or out of a pipe obviously is dead. At their major festivals, like the Cementation Ceremony, the People “went to water” seven times, bathing and changing into clean clothes in a ritual of purification and renewal.

(I believe, based on Mooney and Mails, that the Cementation Ceremony was a Gay wedding that united the whole Nation, but that’s the subject of an unpublished novel I may never bring to print. Today’s Cherokees are so Baptist they rewrite their history, no Gay people ever.)

At the old homestead, the waters rushed like mad through the forest in a place of incredible beauty; Peter took pictures from as close as he felt comfortable with, but I went down to the stream, climbed a few rocks and had to feel the water move over my fingers. It was suitably cold, and it just kept roaring down over the boulders, so clear and clean, I had to taste it.

Then I had to throw some over myself. And that reminded me of baptism. So I crouched down, dipped my hand in again, and made the sign of the cross on my forehead three times, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit of these mountains and rocks, birds and trees, butterflies and lizards. And bears!

Episcopalians talk a lot about their Baptismal Covenant from the new (1979) Prayer Book, and we renew our baptismal vows several times a year; for me the most recent time was Easter Eve, when my parish had several baptisms. I’ve always found this very nice, but in fact I was baptized as a toddler under the old 1928 regime, and I don’t consider these newer vows binding in quite the same way. Yes, I believe in them and subscribe to them (in fact, they’re a theological improvement over the 1928 Prayer Book), but indeed my soul was first pledged, and still remains, under the old formula; a person gets baptized just once. But still, there I was in my beloved mountains, as close to God as a human being can get, renewing my baptism, because the water was alive.

Nobody gets Christianity quite as right as Episcopalians; and nobody understands our place in the cosmos like the Cherokees.++

Roaring Fork Falls

The Exhilaration of Putting In Some Flowers


I planted flowers all last weekend, but Monday the weather turned rainy and a bit colder, so I stayed indoors. One generally doesn’t want to plant in the rain, although it depends on what you’re planting and the equipment you’re using. A farmer driving a tractor hauling a 20-row planter may end up stuck in the mud, while a gardener setting out a few seedlings is free to get as wet and dirty as he likes.

My excuse is, I don’t do cold. Dirty is fine and wet is okay if it’s warm enough, but I don’t do cold, which is anything less than 70º.

But what this meant was that I was stuck indoors for three straight days when I had dozens of seedlings waiting for me out on the patio. So I woke up this morning determined that I’d make some progress outdoors.

The morning was wet; I checked the weather radar. I sniffed the air, I looked at the sky, I read the forecasts. I prioritized my tasks, depending on how much time Mother Nature gave me outside. And I went to work.

The first thing was getting the marigold terrace finished; I’d had to quit Sunday evening about 2/3 of the way through. This terrace is just a little landscape feature, maybe 25 feet long, that levels out a slope in my backyard. Any kind of flower would grow well there, but when I first bought this house (five years ago tomorrow!) I planted marigolds, and was so pleased with the results the terrace acquired a name. In previous years I planted several varieties, colors and sizes of marigolds, but this year I decided to cut back to fewer, bigger flowers. Marigolds have to be dead-headed and I’m trying to get away from having to do constant maintenance all summer. Spending less on marigolds allows me to diversify elsewhere. Now the terrace is done and I even had a few plants left over, which I put in a couple of planter boxes on the deck. I hadn’t planned on getting started on the deck but they’ll be happy there.

I cleaned up the last of the leaves and twigs around my old maple tree, which has such a huge canopy that grass won’t grow underneath it. I’d previously planted a dozen lily of the valley bulbs, and today I added a few leftover impatiens. Had to extend the little plastic fence so they don’t get run over by the lawnboy. That was fun; I’ve never put impatiens in the ground before, but they’ll be well-shaded there, extending the color from my side porch with its planters and hanging baskets into the yard itself.

These are my first attempts to fill in that area under the tree, which has the potential for being a real beauty spot in coming years. I once drew up an elaborate plan using dozens of bulbs and bushes, but it was more ambitious and expensive than I was prepared for at the time. Now I’ve established a precedent; I’m not just growing weeds under that tree anymore, it’s going to be landscaped. Start small and go on from there.

It’s hard to describe how exhilarating it is to sit on the ground and dig those little holes, taking care with the earthworms so I don’t hurt them, drop in the little starters and pat them in solidly, generally making a huge mess and yet putting everything back where it belongs; it’s the soil that’s so exciting. It’s some of the most fertile earth on the planet, rich and black, like having a yard full of potting soil, except better. It’s river muck really, carried here by a great flood eons ago. Living here is like farming on the Nile Delta back in the days of the Pharoahs.


This area was once part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, a swamp as big as the Florida Everglades and teeming with life. Then the White man came, drained the swamp for farming and the Army Corps of Engineers finished it off—environmental rape of the first magnitude, an international scandal. You’ve heard of the deforestation of the Amazon? Hoosiers beat ’em to it, and I live on the results.

I grew up on this land, a hundred years after the devastation was done, and all we were told as kids was, “Look what was underneath the water, all this beautiful black loam!” But so it is, better than a yard full of potting soil.

When I moved back here five years ago I put in four tomato plants. I bought cages for them but they still spread five feet wide, producing fruit the size of softballs. I knew it was great dirt but that opened my eyes. I’ve been trying to take advantage of what I have ever since. It’s so much fun to work it between my fingers.

I filled up two more planter boxes of wax begonias for the deck, then I was done for the day. The only thing left, and a huge project it is, is carving out a new vegetable garden in the back by the alley. It will involve a lot of manual labor, digging and moving rocks. That’s where the broccoli and cabbages, strawberries, peppers and tomatoes will go, along with tons of sage to keep out critters, and gladiolus bulbs. I’m not expecting perfection this first year, it will be enough just to get the area dug out. I can expand it next year and have a more coherent plan. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that. Maybe all I’ll get done this year is a space big enough to accomodate the plants I’ve already bought and the seeds I’ve started; next year I can go bigger.

I came inside the house with wet, dirty pants, filthy hands, my hair a mess, and I’ve never felt better in my life. Does gardening fire off endorphins? I don’t have anyone else to grow this stuff for, no visitors yet, only a handful of blog-readers, so I can’t even sublimate and say “I’m doing this for other people.” I’m not, I’m doing this for myself.

It is incredible fun to dig in the dirt and start something new.++

Snow on My Radishes


The weather’s been bad this week over much of the U.S. from Fargo to Savannah, so I don’t have any right to complain. When did that ever stop me?

I’m a little plucked to see snow on my radishes. Of course, they don’t mind cold weather, which proves that radishes aren’t very bright. But still, I don’t like snow around my garden.

Just yesterday I was thrilled and delighted to find a row of little green leaves outside my back door, the radishes’ first sprouts. My attempt last year to sow radishes and scallions in that bed went for nought, and I didn’t know why; not enough sun, or old seeds? Now I know it was the seeds, not the location. The sprouts this year took awhile, so I’d brushed away the pine bark mulch in case it was too heavy for them; no signs of life on Friday, but by Saturday I had a little row of green. Sound the trumpets! The scallions are lollygagging, but who knows, maybe they’re right on time. If the snow doesn’t get ’em.

Mostly this is a lesson in gardener anxiety; there’s so much to learn in the first few years, so many things that can go wrong, it’s as bad as cooking. One little mistake and your masterpiece turns into an embarassment. It’s a good thing God made me Gay because I could never manage parenthood. Does Johnny have the colic, does he not like bananas or is he just mad at me? Do I call the doctor or jump off a bridge?

And forget it when people say there’s so much gardening advice on the internet. Most of it’s generic bullshit, not nearly specific enough.

But Johnny and radishes have a way of surviving our best attempts to screw them up, and Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. A little snow on the radishes is no big deal.

But gardening really is like parenting, except the scallions never talk back. You wait and wait and wait for the kids to grow up, you try and protect them from every predator you can think of; you build fences, you get them shots, you feed and water, but as soon as you turn your back here comes another thing to worry about.

This weekend I started bell peppers from seeds sent by my friend Peter in Amsterdam. If these things survive they’ll become red and yellow, purple and orange; no common green ones for the Dutch, no sir, not sophisticated enough for ’em. The Dutch think they’re highly advanced in all conceivable ways, which is why they invented wooden shoes and went manic over tulips awhile ago. As a Hoosier I’m highly skeptical of Dutchery; they send “farmers” over here to build animal concentration camps and ruin the environment, because they haven’t enough land over there to ruin their own. At any rate, I planted Peter’s pepper seeds in little plastic containers saved from last year. They’re now in a flat pan next to the kitchen window. This morning I lifted up the pan to show them the snow and told them they’d better be happy they’re indoors; peppers like warmth the way radishes like cold. Peppers are smarter than radishes.

But I planted the pepper seeds in potting soil because that’s all I had; not the right thing to do according to the online advicers. I should have used soilless dirt (?) made of Canadian peat moss and vermiculite and… if I bought a $10 bag of that stuff, how exactly do I save money growing my own peppers? What did gardeners do before there was an internet and university extension service?

I’ll tell ya, somehow they muddled through. So fuck my Dutch pepper seeds if they can’t take a joke.

The other thing I don’t get is planting seeds close to each other, then thinning them out once they sprout. Why not just plant them farther apart? I’m starting to think that gardening advice is one giant conspiracy to drive me crazy. (Or maybe I’m just inclined on my own.)

This I know: I love pulling up a radish, washing it off and slicing it into a salad. I don’t even like radishes that much (my Grandma grew these white icicles that would burn your tongue off), but when you grow your own, by God you love ’em.

I suspect it’s the same way with parents and kids. Forget the parenting instinct, there’s no such thing; kids are work, but after you’ve invested that much time, money and effort into ’em, you want ’em to grow big and strong, if only so they don’t make a fool out of you.

Now tomatoes, they’re a whole different story. Spare no expense with tomatoes; if they want soilless dirt, run to Wally World and buy it for ’em. Run speakers out to the garden so they can hear Mozart. Read ’em poetry, tell them they’re gorgeous; put off your vacation in case there’s a drought. Enroll them in Montessori school, buy them tutoring, save up for Harvard, it’ll all be worth it.

And once they’re finally ready to graduate, take your shirt off, get out the garden hose, grab a salt shaker and march straight for the garden with a gleam in your eye. Bite into that sucker till the juice runs off your chin.

Then you know you’ve been a good parent, your child has fulfilled its destiny. It’s food—and children exist for parents, not the other way around. Yumbo!++

Oregano & Rosemary Too!


Today’s jaunt to my garden has left me stunned. Not only do the chives thrive, the oregano has burst forth like a bowl of green cereal, tiny leaves in a round bush, and the rosemary has started singing “Come On-A My House” like one of the Clooney Sisters.

Best of all, I found out my compost system really works. I dug around in it today, uncovering the prettiest black organic matter I’ve ever seen. And this after my mulch expert, a friend named Peggy, was so skeptical: “Let me know if it works!”

I wanted to learn how to mulch for several reasons. One, I have an area in my backyard, next to the alley, that was covered by a previous owner with a ton of small gravel; he was making a parking lot, I’m told, next to the garage with his home office. Then his wife left him and he abandoned both projects. I want that space for my vegetable garden.

Grass and weeds grow there, so other stuff will too. I’m removing the gravel as best I can to get to the rich loam underneath, but it’s obvious that the area could use some fill and replenishment: thus the mulch. The soil is so fertile it ordinarily doesn’t need any help.

Secondly, mulch is part of a good recycling plan. There’s no need to send dead greenery, eggshells or coffee grounds to the landfill when I can use it myself. Third, I did a story for my local paper about schoolkids’ getting awards from the solid waste district, and met the director, who is full of enthusiasm for all things recycling. She gave me brochures and educational tools and I decided to try it.

I spend a lot of time in warm weather on my covered side porch; that’s where I grill food for my friends, while we gab and watch the cars go by – twice an hour on average. (That’s life in a small town.) I want my yard to look nice, so I did not want to build an outdoor mulch pile like Peg’s got. I mean, a pile of garbage is still a pile of garbage no matter how you market it. I wanted a system that was easy on the eye.

I shopped the internet for mulching containers, but even the simplest ones cost a hundred bucks for a piece of plastic, and that didn’t seem consistent with my goal of shrinking my carbon footprint; plastic comes from petroleum, and all those prefab boxes would do was shrink my wallet. So I looked for a cheaper way and came up with something.

You know those plastic storage containers they sell at discount stores? They come in many sizes to hold things like photos, clothes, sports gear, whatever purpose you want. I bought four, two big ones and two little ones, for about twenty bucks. I keep the little ones under the sink for potato peels and lemon rinds; they have lids, so they’re much better than the open pail the brochure advocated. When they’re filled up, I dump them in the big boxes, which I set outside in the sun.

But, of course, they must have drainage; so being the butch guy I am, I whipped out my handy power drill and cut dozens of quarter-inch holes in the top, bottom and sides of my boxes. I didn’t want holes so big the scraps would run out, or so small the water couldn’t escape. When I told Peg about it, she scoffed, the nasty wench.

Now I know it works just fine.

Unfortunately, I don’t produce enough garbage in a year to fill up the box! It’s even got the remains from last fall’s Advent wreath in there, and the box is only 3/4 full. So this is a longterm project; I haven’t even started to use the second big box yet.

But it’s a good thing I bought two of them; when one is full I can churn it and let it do its thing instead of dumping the latest garbage on top of it, like Peg does with her 4-posts-and-some-chicken-wire contraption. Mother Nature can take as long as she likes to break down my old lettuce leaves and moldy bread; I bet next year at this time I’ll have a compost pile that’s the envy of all my friends.

I must say it’s a bit shocking that even here in farm country, so few residents take care of the earth as well as they should. Every house on my block puts out four or five big garbage cans a week for trash day, full of plastic shopping bags, paper, 2-liter bottles, glass, aluminum and steel cans and the ever-present styrofoam. Some people do a great job of recycling what they can, but others are oblivious. I wonder if they’re too self-centered or if they just don’t care. My two best friends recycle when they’re at my house but throw everything away at their own.

This is not how previous generations lived – or how future generations will. My Grandmother used to toss her vegetable scraps over the fence for the chickens, who came running to get ’em. Leftover meat and fish went to the cats and dogs.

I’m apparently the only person in town who carries canvas shopping bags to the store. Worldwide, the EPA says, consumers use 500,000,000,000 plastic bags a year – 500 billion! Where do we think those things go?

They blow around, they end up in rivers and oceans, where they kill 200 species of marine life and often wind up (toxic petro-polymers) in our food chain.

If just 20% of Americans quit using plastic bags, we’d save over 1.3 TRILLION in our lifetimes.

They’re illegal in Bangladesh and China; Ireland taxes them at 33¢ apiece and has reduced consumption by 90%, according to the BBC. San Francisco has banned them and Mayor Bloomberg of New York wants to charge for them. Apparently if government doesn’t curb their use, people do whatever’s easiest for themselves, heedless of the consequences.

Do my little efforts cost me much in time or money? No; it’s as easy to toss my plastic Coke bottle in the recycling bin as it is to toss it in the garbage can next to it. I don’t even have to sort it.

Driving to the recycling station on my way to the grocery store takes me all of one block out of my way. It takes me two minutes to unload my trunk and dump everything. And the net result? I go 4-6 weeks before I have to put out even one garbage can on trash day. Thanks to my cheap mulching system, I’m going to have 30 gallons of rich black organic matter in a year or less, and more on its way.

I suppose President Obama’s too busy right now to think about banning plastic bags – but I bet Michelle and the girls would love to get free mulch for their new garden. The soil in D.C. can’t be that rich given all the carbon dioxide pollution (hot air) Congress emits every day.

So let’s conquer the world one person at a time. If you care to, leave a comment and tell me what you’re doing to limit the damage to God’s green earth. I’m growing my own salad fixings instead of paying for them to be trucked in from California, and growing oregano to make the whole world smell sweeter.++


1st Spring Flowers & Planting


The crocuses are in bloom today, two purples and two yellows so far. What a happy day at my house!

It got up to 60º this afternoon, and my goal for the day was to get half my onions and radishes planted. I have a little bed just off my back door where I tried to raise onions and radishes last year, but I planted old seeds and got only one little radish. So my goal this year is to find out whether the spot isn’t sunny enough for them, or it’s okay if I use new seeds. I saved the rest to put in another spot that I know is sunny enough.


From producepedia.com

Before I got started there was some cleaning up to do. I got a trunkload of recycling ready to take to the dropoff place, and worked on my still-experimental compost system to get it ready for spring. I keep it in big plastic bins with holes drilled in them. Compost is inactive during cold weather, so I brought the bins inside the garage; they froze anyway. Now it’s warm enough to haul them back to the garden and see if I can get some usable product this year. Then I went on yard patrol.

I live just south of Chicago, where it’s really windy, and other people’s garbage is always blowing into my yard. One of my cherry trees had a plastic bag wrapped around a branch, so I untangled that, then picked up all the branches that had blown off this winter. The town hauls away tree limbs piled at the curb for free, and we had a lot of dead wood this year after an ice storm. Thus I spotted the crocuses, which have just popped. The previous owner planted just a few of them in an odd little spot that I used last year for my herb garden. In addition to the joy of the first flowers, I noticed something else: the chives have already started coming back! I knew most of my herbs were perennials, but I really didn’t expect that. The other herbs haven’t even stirred yet, but the chives are ready for a first snip and it isn’t even St. Patrick’s Day yet.


I am still getting used to the idea of planting anything this early. The highlights of my garden are always the tomatoes and peppers, and I live far enough north that I have to wait till Mother’s Day before setting them out. I don’t have a basement grow-lamp system yet for starting them early, so I wait until all danger of frost is past before setting out seedlings. Tomatoes are my favorite food and I’d be sick at heart if I planted them too early and lost them to a freeze.

A few years ago my friend Peter in Amsterdam sent me bunches of real Dutch tulip bulbs, which are much more varied than the ones for sale in the U.S. I have tulips that have the coloring of parrots and others that mimic roses, as well as the conventional kind. I noticed a few days ago that the tulips are 4-6 inches tall already, so most of them have survived another winter.

Soon the grocery store will start getting in the first cool weather annuals, and I will set out some pansies in the planter boxes on my front porch. Once it gets hot out and the pansies start to fade, I’ll pull them out and stick begonias or petunias out there. I tried saving some of my begonias from last year by bringing them indoors and keeping them in the basement; I’ve done a fairly good job of watering them this winter and they’ve all survived, so I’ll have free flowers to greet my visitors. At $2.50 a plant, begonias are fairly expensive. Now that I know I can save them over the winter, I may not have to buy many in the future, which means I’ll have money enough to buy other things.

One thing about gardening is that there’s an enormous amount to learn, and you can get only so much info online or in books. Success or failure is as dependent on soil type, drainage and location (sun or shade) as on the quality of the stock that you buy. Put healthy plants in the wrong space and it’s wasted money and effort—as I discovered when I tried growing a few of Peter’s tulips in my concrete planters on the front porch. They got too cold and wet over the winter and rotted out—expensive Dutch bulbs! It would be better to ruin cheap domestic varieties instead. So every gardener lives and learns.

Given the Great Recession we’re going through, I hear that more people will be growing their own fruits and vegetables this year. That might explain why my onion and radish seeds were up 50-80% in price this year. Growing your own is still cheaper but not by that much unless you know what you’re doing. Still, nothing compares to the delight of picking produce from your own garden and eating it for supper—if you make it back to the house, that is.

Everyone around here knows the ideal way to eat a homegrown tomato: out in the garden with the garden hose and a salt shaker. You’re not a real Hoosier till the juice runs down your chin. And if a thief comes along and steals your First Tomato, you’re entirely within your rights to shoot ’em dead. No jury will convict you, so the prosecutor doesn’t even file charges. Survivors might call the sheriff, but he’ll just give ’em a talking-to, and the body will have to be cremated, because even an undertaker won’t bother picking it up, it’s bad for bidness.++


Materialism Goes Bankrupt


Bargain hunters at Saks Fifth Avenue (Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)

Like everyone else I’m concerned about the recession—or worldwide depression, which I think is more likely, even if it’s not as bad as the Great one.

But unlike others, I haven’t changed my spending habits much. It’s never cost that much to sustain me, and I’m not sure where I’d cut back if I had to.

For dinner I had Steak Diane Flambé. That’s unusual, but it only cost me $6, which is about what I’d spend on a Big Mac, fries and a drink. Miss Diane was a whole lot better than Mickey D’s.

I do my own cooking and gardening. I seldom buy new clothes; I wear what I’ve got until it gets ragged. I’ve got a lot of clothes I only wear around the house, but a lot of designer duds too, bought at the outlet mall, marked down from $150 to $30. I look nice when I need to and ordinary when I don’t. Right now I’ve got on blue jeans, a corduroy shirt that my mother gave me (she died 14 years ago) that I don’t like that much, but it keeps me warm, and a Cincinnati Charter Committee T-shirt no later than 1991. I’m happy as a clam.

I seldom go anywhere, though I’ve been with friends to the nearby college town for concerts and plays this season; we carpool. My mortgage is $600 a month, fixed rate, all-inclusive, PITI. I’ve got equity if I ever have to cash out.

In fact I live in one of the cheapest places in America, the rural Midwest. We didn’t have a housing bubble; no one who isn’t a native wants to live here, so there wasn’t any surplus demand to make prices rise—or fall when the credit dried up.

I burn a lot of natural gas in the wintertime because I’m cold-natured, but I do without AC in the summer, maybe just a day or two.

But you know what really saves me money? Not having TV. I quit that 20-some years ago; at first I didn’t have time for it, and then I didn’t miss it. Thus I’m not exposed to constant advertising designed to trick me into thinking a Big Mac, fries and drink are just as good as Steak Diane.

I stopped allowing the materialist impulse generator into my house. I’m the freest person I know.

There aren’t any movies I want to see, though I might buy the DVD of “Milk.” I don’t need new furniture or diamond rings; my car, a top of the line Honda Accord, is a model year 2005. I don’t expect to replace it till I’m on Medicare, if then.

I am a child of the 1960’s, a Baby Boomer, one of those reviled “Me Generation” people, which is really a laugh because it’s my generation that made me anti-materialistic. There really is something wrong with thinking that happiness results from buying things, in a world where most people get by on a dollar a day. We first confronted reality in the ’60s, it was called Vietnam and Civil Rights.

An article in Monday’s New York Times concerned the end of conspicuous consumption. It includes this quote, from a member of my generation who didn’t get the memo I got at 15:

“I think this economy was a good way to cure my compulsive shopping habit,” Maxine Frankel, 59, a high school teacher from Skokie, Ill., said as she longingly stroked a diaphanous black shawl at a shop in the nearby Chicago suburb of Glenview. “It’s kind of funny, but I feel much more satisfied with the things money can’t buy, like the well being of my family. I’m just not seeking happiness from material things anymore.”

Puh-lease, lady, keep your hands off the diaphanous black shawl. You don’t need it. (At least she’s a schoolteacher, not a stockbroker.)

My spending and saving habits are so ingrained in me now that it’s hard for me to understand people like her. But I’m very clear about the Christian morality of money: God wants you to prosper, and God wants you to give your prosperity away, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, nursing the sick, setting the captives free.

Material things are not God. God is God; accept no substitutes.

Currently The Times and other papers are full of speculative articles wondering whether this recession will permanently alter Americans’ spending habits, or whether we’ll go right back to gobbling up everything in sight as soon as it’s over. There’s no way to know, but the speculation helps fill up the newsprint.

However, there’s a little bit of evidence that more people are starting to ask a different kind of question than spend vs. save or materialism vs. spirituality: Even if we want to spend, is our former lifestyle sustainable?

That answer would appear to be no, environmentally as well as financially.

Between global warming and the price of oil, we’re not going to be able to afford all the crap we already have, much less buy more.

I think of all the foreign foods we import into this country; what happens when a carbon tax gets added to everything? Airplanes, trucks, ships, they all operate on oil, and we’re running out. I’ve heard of hydrogen-powered cars, but not planes and ships.

Do I need to spend $17 for a pint of Italian extra-virgin olive oil, when I can buy a gallon of locally-produced soybean oil for $5?

But that price too will soon go up, because of all the petroleum domestic agriculture burns, both in fuel and fertilizer. At some point we all may have to decide, “If it isn’t local, I can’t afford it.”

I hope more people see the opportunity the current crisis presents to remake our lifestyles and worship the God who created this place, not the devil who’s trying to destroy it. He just loves to advertise!

For the price of a pint of Italian extra-virgin, I can see a play in the college town. Live theater, imagine that!

For a quart of extra-virgin I can see and hear Joshua Bell play the violin.

I can grow my own lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, herbs, onions, peppers, cherries, flowers, and run out to my friend’s grandparents’ farm to pick sweet corn in July. I can buy eggs and chicken and meat from local farmers who let their animals graze on bugs and grass like God intended.

I don’t have to eat oranges from Brazil or beef from Argentina (although there’s no substitute for French and Italian wines).

We all need to ask ourselves, what in my current lifestyle is unsustainable? At what point will I get priced out of the market?

What’s in my best interest as a human being? What’s my ethical responsibility to others and to the planet?

I’ll tell you this, of all the fun things I’ve ever done, few compare to having a couple of friends over for a home-cooked meal. In the winter we eat indoors and in the summer I’m out on the grill. We eat good, we really do; and the value of having company is priceless.

If it takes a depression to convince Ms. Frankel to pay attention to what’s real and get rid of what isn’t, then thank you, God, for this depression. Please feed and clothe and house all who are hurt by it, and soften the hearts of those who are not.

We can’t go on like this, and I have hopes for the current generation. I also hope that President Obama will be so wise and so skilled that eventually the depression will end, and Americans will be building things again, not running Ponzi schemes Wall Street calls “the banking system.”++