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Rutgers Tape Shows the Violence, Homophobia & Moral Corruption of Bigtime Sports

UPDATE: Rutgers University fired Coach Mike Rice Wednesday morning; this post was written Tuesday night. The focus of public anger now turns to the athletic director, who was informed of the allegations back in July, took no action until the videos were handed over in November, and finally suspended the coach for three games without pay.

This is the same school where Tyler Clementi took his life after his roommate secretly live-streamed video of him kissing a man in their dorm room, provoking a national outcry about bullying.

I grew up Gay in a somewhat athletic family. I’m not very talented physically, but I’ve participated in most of the sports American boys are taught – and I kept playing for decades after my more athletic brothers quit, especially once I found something I was good at: distance running and other highly aerobic activities. One of the highlights of my life was rafting down the Arkansas River years ago from Salida, Colorado to Canon City. It’s dramatic, risky, exciting, a wonderful physical challenge (“Churn churn churn, paddle paddle, front, back, reverse reverse, look out for that hole! OMG we’re gonna slam into those rocks!”), all while surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery. It was like having fantastic sex for six hours straight!

white-water-rafting

I’ve been a sports fan all my life – until the last couple of years, because now I see how money has corrupted elite athletics.

The excitement of physical competition is completely real, for the athletes and the fans. Combine the physical genius of highly skilled players with the shrewd strategies of gifted coaches and you’ve got quite a show indeed. But what we don’t see is far more important than what we do.

Lance Armstrong confessing to Oprah. He was willing to win at all costs - including risking the health of his teammates.

Lance Armstrong confessing to Oprah. He was willing to win at all costs – including risking the health of his teammates.

It isn’t just Lance Armstrong doping, and coercing all his teammates to do the same; it isn’t just NBA and FISA officials throwing games so the most lucrative teams win. It’s more than just the politics of the Olympics, with all their bribes and intrigues; it isn’t just the NCAA’s exploitation of “student-athletes” at major colleges.

It’s us. The fans. We’re the people who fund these organized criminal enterprises owned by billionaires, often at taxpayers’ expense. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the “500,” just persuaded the Indiana Legislature to divert tens of millions of dollars in property taxes to their private business. “Look at all we do for the city,” they say. “Look at all the tourists we bring in. You did the same thing for the Pacers and the Colts.” Who can argue? Not local hack politicians who did indeed build new arenas for the football and basketball teams, both owned by billionaires.

Now comes Mike Rice, the head basketball coach at Rutgers University (which is soon to join my beloved Big Ten Conference) in a big new scandal. Videotapes of his practices show him systematically abusing his players, physically and verbally.

ESPN and the newspapers describe Rice as using “homophobic slurs” and “throwing basketballs at his players’ heads from point-blank range.” But it wasn’t their heads he usually aimed at. He gives new meaning to the term “crotch rocket,” as in “incoming.”

Who can be shocked that a coach calls his players fairy, cocksucker and faggot? Bobby Knight did that at Indiana for decades, where he’s still revered for two national championships despite his criminal record. Verbal abuse is the stock in trade of many coaches, including high schools, middle schools and Little League, so who’s kidding whom?

Rice’s misogyny, his contempt for women by calling his players cunts, bothers me more. No wonder so many players get in trouble for rape, domestic violence and other crimes.

As professional and Olympic sports (which are also professional) scandals mounted over the years, I turned my attention more and more away from the pros to the college level. I come from a long line of Purdue University graduates; it’s a school we’re very proud of. A century and more ago, the president of Purdue created the Big Ten Conference as the first successful attempt to police college sports, which were headed down the corrupt path. Purdue’s athletic teams have been largely scandal-free since then (unlike those at hated rival Indiana, among many other schools), and the kids who play at Purdue go to class, usually graduate and are successful. They don’t all take basket-weaving, either; I know several who took extremely challenging classes in engineering, pharmacy, math, history and other fields.

But it’s become increasingly clear that Purdue has sacrificed a good part of its educational mission, especially since the creation a few years ago of the Big Ten television network, which makes so much money that it’s caused conference realignment nationwide, as other leagues try to duplicate what BTN is doing.

Rutgers is now joining the Big Ten (which is growing to 14), mostly to get BTN into the New York market. The conference has always been prominent in Chicago and the Midwest; all but one school, Northwestern, are publicly-owned. Now instead of concentrating on its historic Great Lakes territory, the Big Ten extends from the Atlantic to Nebraska – and would go to the Pacific if the money were right.

But the conferences are now, and long have been, subordinate to the NCAA, which The New York Times columnist Joe Nocera calls a “cartel.” The NCAA has a Congressional exemption from monopoly laws while raking in billions of TV dollars.

Need a sports fix? The NCAA has an app for that.

Need a sports fix? The NCAA has an app for that.

Nocera and other journalists are dedicated to showing that the NCAA is completely ruthless at exploiting athletes. They’re essentially slave labor. They get scholarships – unless they get hurt, in which case they’re often on their own, with no way to pay the medical bills from all those concussions and broken bones. Schools just toss those kids away. If they’re poor and Black, they don’t stand a chance.

But because all this is done in the name of “education” and “not-for-profit,” most fans just look the other way and enjoy the show.

It’s maddening to me to go on Facebook and see all the Episcopal clergy I know touting their favorite teams, which they do constantly, without any acknowledgment of the labor issues, the health consequences, the sexism and racism and homophobia that are built into the Big Sports Machine. I mean, world-class football will kill ya – but they’re all glued to their TV screens and texting on Twitter and Facebook.

There’s going to be a reckoning someday. I believe the entire sports edifice will come crashing down in a worldwide spasm of disgust, because the whole thing’s based on human exploitation. People who get outraged by sweatshops in China or sexual slavery in Thailand and Russia will not be able to escape knowing they provide the market for these products.

And no feel-good features on TV, like how that Notre Dame player kept going despite the death of his phony girlfriend (and Grandma on the same day!) will be able to overcome the revulsion, or the knowledge that we all participated in this.

So what if there’s an openly-Gay baseball player someday? That’s bound to happen. Reforms on the periphery are not going to cure what ails sports.

They’re violent. They kill people. They’re racist and sexist and homophobic. They use slave labor in college. They bribe their way to success.

It’s all just a TV show – but the fix is in and always has been.

You’re paying for it, sucker. Why worry about global warming when it’s baseball’s Opening Day?++

Jeter-3000-Poster-REV

Dog & I Prepare for Winter

My backyard maple tree in October 2007, as published in the Chicago Tribune.

The weather’s been a bit unstable here lately in Northwest Indiana; we’ve had some cold days and some warm ones, and the clash between them gave us a tornado watch last night. Indiana is #2 in auto manufacturing, corn production and tornadoes, but Luke and I got through the night okay.

Football is giving way to basketball; Purdue football is gone with the wind after season-ending injuries to the starting quarterback, the #1 wide receiver and the leading running back. I expect we’ll beat That Other School though and win the Old Oaken Bucket.

The men’s basketball team is doing great, even after the devastating loss of star forward Robbie Hummell, who blew out his right knee again in pre-season practice. Purdue was rated a Final Four team before Hummell went down for the year, and analysts everywhere downgraded the team’s stock to second-rate, despite the presence of NBA prospects JaJuan Johnson and Etwaun Moore. So what’s happened? The bench has stepped up mightily, led by John Hart, D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. Purdue has climbed in the polls to #8 in the nation; those kids are getting better and better at defense, and last year’s wildly inconsistent freshmen are turning into sophomores who can score.

Where I come from all this matters; you may not care for sports, but these are Indiana kids by and large, playing for and studying at the university our ancestors built.

On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, the Purdue “All-American” Marching Band will lead off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York; 9 a.m. Eastern on NBC.

Now the trees are showing off their nakedness and Turkey Day is almost here.

I’ve been raking and cleaning out the gardens on the warmer days, while my dog’s been taking advantage of what warmth there still is.

This year I have not been a diligent raker; I’ve maybe put out 10 huge bags of leaves, not 50. I deal with leaves the old-fashioned way, by hand; and yes, I do get tired of it and quit early. Maybe I should buy a $70 leaf-blower, but I just can’t bring myself to shell out even that modest amount of money for a power tool I’d use only two days a year. My neighbors have leaf-blowers and nice clean yards; I suppose I’m too rigid. But there’s something character-building about raking your own damn leaves, and I don’t mind doing it as long as it’s warm out.

The good gardeners on my block have long since cleaned out their gardens; I’m still working at it. The strawberries of course stay in the ground; I’ve cleaned out the peppers, broccoli and cabbages. The tomatoes are so gigantic and overgrown in this black loam that I’ll have to take clippers to the vines.

Tonight I indulged once again in a summer ritual. I saved several green tomatoes before the frost, and all have ripened now, so I ate one over the sink with a salt shaker in hand; delicious. I happen to think home-grown tomatoes are the world’s most perfect food; not milk, not bananas, Indiana tomatoes. Ones I grew!

But the wind does blow colder and it’s time for things to change. The biggest impact isn’t on me, but on my dog.

In warm weather I keep Luke outdoors on a lead for most of the day while I mostly work indoors. He loves sunshine and running around on his own, making his presence known to the neighborhood dogs and getting into whatever innocent mischief he can find. When it’s hot out I take him water or let him lick an ice cube in my hand; on the hottest days I bring him back indoors to the air conditioning. But today was cool enough that after two hours he wanted back inside.

He’s a little 11-pound rat/fox terrier mix, no fat on him, all energy, and I can’t tell that he grows more coat in the winter. I don’t want him too hot or too cold.

Now is that transitional time of year when he doesn’t want to be outside all day, so I decided it was time for us to go into winter mode as far as our routines. One thing I’ve learned from having this guy, he is all about the routines.

I got Luke a year ago last month, a rescue dog from the Humane Society of Indianapolis; he’d just turned 3, and we think he grew up on the streets until one day he got run over by a car, which led him to the vets and other kind people at HSI, who fixed him right up. He wasn’t house-trained and didn’t know much when I brought him home, though I could tell he was hugely affectionate. He still doesn’t know how to play ball or chew on a balled-up sock.

We’ve spent a year learning about each other; I think we’ve finally got the toilet-training thing down, as it’s been months since he had a so-called “accident.” He’s quite good at learning, as long as I can make him understand the rules. Indeed he’s so scrupulous about pleasing me that sometimes he misinterprets my confusing directions; in other words his guardian’s not that competent. My bad.

But he’s learned a trick or two and we’re doing just fine.

Since it was already cold weather when I got him, we established a winter routine last year; he spends his days in the office with me, except for mealtimes. After he gets food he spends 15-20 minutes outdoors on his lead for the poop-and-pee routine, then he comes back inside. Until this spring, that was what he knew. He learned to jump up in my office chair, where I’d pet him and spin him around. When he got tired he’d lie down in a sunbeam streaming through the windows.

Then last spring I changed things on him and put him outside all day.

Now it’s November, and today I decided to remind him about coming upstairs to the office so we can hang out together. He happily remembered, and I happily spun him around clockwise, then counter-clockwise, and when we came to rest he licked my hand.

So we’re back to winter mode, and I’m glad. I still shut my office door on us because I want to keep an eye on him, don’t entirely trust him in the P&P department, but he’s doing good.

The great thing about him is how much he makes me laugh. That’s sure worth a 59¢ can of dog food that lasts three days.

I like that he remembers “winter mode” from last year. He knows that summer mode has come to an end. As the days grow darker earlier, he tries to manipulate me into feeding him earlier, but I don’t do it. He’s a fascinating study in human relations.

I hate winter, but I love going into winter mode with my dog. He’s glad for his chow on a regular schedule, for being indoors when it’s cold, for hanging out with me and whirling around in my swivel chair. He licks my hand more in the wintertime, and when he’s sleepy he finds a sunbeam to snooze in.

I love my dog; taking care of him is just like posting tomorrow’s Daily Office, a spiritual discipline which I do whether I feel like it or not. Often (the work is mostly formatting, and ever-changing) I do not feel like keeping my promises.

But I have an audience, I have a dog, so I do what I said I’d do.

That’s how to get closer to God, by adopting a routine. When we have someone else we’re responsible for, we learn to conform our habits, no matter what our transient emotions. Most people don’t want to say the same “Magnificat” every day of their lives, but when we go ahead and do it, life becomes magnificent.++

Beta dog. Ice cube lover. Prettyboy. Sweet as cotton candy.

Vassily Primakov, Anne Harrigan at the Symphony Tonight!

The coverboy from June 2009.

(Update below: Dick Jaeger’s review in the local paper.)

I’m just back from another outstanding concert by the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra tonight, “All Tchaikovsky” starring the brilliant young pianist Vassily Primakov performing Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor. What a wonderful night!

I’ve looked forward to it for days, the way excitement starts to build up for important events. All week I’ve reminded myself, “It’s Saturday, don’t be late.” This morning when I woke up I thought, “It’s symphony day. Buy gas.” This on the same day the Purdue Boilermakers had a football date with the Michigan State Spartans. Usually on Saturdays in autumn I think, “This is game day.” But no, this was music night.

I carefully calculated the two hours it takes for me to get from home to the Long Center, an hour for driving and an hour for the time zone change. I made it just fine, an aisle seat on the main floor, a near-capacity crowd. Then I remembered the other thing that excited me and made me wonder about tonight, the return of Anne Harrigan, the former LSO conductor who’s now music director of the Billings Symphony in Montana and Battle Creek in Michigan. She was well-liked here, and though I never heard her concerts, I thought there might be an extra buzz in the air, and there was.

She was the LSO’s maestro from 1994-2005, nationally known for her innovative, multi-disciplinary programming – but I had a humbler reason for wanting to see her; the first time I’ve ever seen a woman conductor in person.

Of course I know that women are becoming more prominent in this formerly “man’s field,” with the likes of Sarah Caldwell and others – and since my mother was a bit of a pioneer in her previously-male profession, I’m all for women breaking every ceiling there is. Women priests? Yes, ma’am – which isn’t to say I didn’t experience a minute of shock a few years ago the first time I heard a woman chanting the Mass on Christmas Eve in my home parish. (She sang better than Fr. Ed does, clear and on pitch, but ohmygod she’s a soprano! I was plucked there for a minute, despite all my high-falutin’ principles.)

So what would it be like to see a woman with the baton? Ms. Harrigan was only slated to lead the opening “Cossack Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s 1883 opera “Mazzepa,” four minutes at the most; then the current music director Dr. Nicholas Palmer would take over for the rest of the program, including the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and the later piano concerto. So I was really curious, not only about how Ms. Harrigan would do, but how the players and audience would react to her, and how I would. I mean, how did they even get her to come back for such a brief appearance?

The “Cossack Dance” is a lovely little piece, pure Tchaikovsky, and on she came. I watched her; the musicians stood for her, but they do for every conductor, and what was going through their minds? She’d been on this stage many times before. What were longtime subscribers in the audience thinking?

She lifted her baton and free hand; gave the downbeat with authority; and a half-minute later I thought, “Women belong on the podium!”

I loved every second of it.

She probably knows the piece like the back of her hand, and of course she knows most of these musicians. But I found it delightful to see her in charge of the whole shebang. Her cues are clear, she’s very expressive with her body without drawing attention to herself – she just fits in that role. So I sat back and let Pyotr T. take care of me, paint me a perfect picture.

A few minutes later, end of cameo appearance; she received a bouquet and left the stage. I found myself wishing I could hear a whole concert she conducted. The company sounded great, crisp and clear and balanced. I’m no music critic but these people are well-prepared professionals.

Anne Harrigan, music director of Battle Creek and Billings.

The appetizer was great; I could have noshed all night just on that. Then Nick Palmer arrived to serve the entrée.

I suppose I watched him a bit, comparing the woman and the man, but I soon lost interest in that; he controls and directs his band more or less the same as she did, and after a minute I stopped watching him and started listening more deeply. There are skills involved in conducting, and both he and she are careful to do it well. Gender doesn’t matter, musicianship does; management of 100 egotistical/insecure people does, so they all work together as a team.

Dr. Nick introduced the 1st Symphony before they began to play, and I got the sense that this is a warm and personable guy with a winning personality, which is doubtless important in a small market like this one, where even after 60 seasons the conductor’s extra job is to make friends. Indeed, one of the attractions of a small-city orchestra is the close connection between the audience, the donors, the players and the staff. There’s no pretension or grandeur anywhere; we’re all there to love the music and the people who make it.

The Long Center seats 1500, and we all think we own a piece of these folks. We’re never surprised if we find a gaggle of cellists at the brewpub around the corner after the concert; where else would they go, the Hyatt? There isn’t one. Come, rub shoulders, it’s time to relax.

Again, I’m no musicologist, but I found the performance crisp and clear, well-controlled, with excellent balance. In short, these people are an ensemble. They know what they’re doing, they have an identity and a sound. That’s surely a tribute to all the musicians and conductors who’ve come before; the Guild and board members and administrators who have, for six decades, molded an organization that dedicates itself to excellence, even if most people have barely heard of their hometown.

How often is this replicated across the United States and across the world? They may not be Lenny’s Philharmonic, but they’re damn good, committed to their craft and their art.

Which is what I came to see and hear, people committed to their art. Because people like that, who practice and strive to improve every day, to take on new challenges, to learn new work, provide the rest of us who can’t do what they do with an example that applies directly to our own lives.

Me, I write; I try to do it as well as I possibly can. My friend Leonardo makes incredibly decorated pieces of furniture among his many media. My spiritual director Marcia had an amazing and versatile gallery opening last week. My friend Peter found his niche in the fashion world, where craftsmanship, daring ideas and practicality come together so our bodies are pleasingly presented. Some compose, some sew, some sketch, some paint, others perform, but we’re all in the business of lifting ourselves and our neighbors to a higher plane of existence. For heaven’s sake that’s worth a $35 ticket.

Dr. Nicholas Palmer, music director of the Lafayette Symphony.

After intermission came one of the highlights of the night, the dedication of a newly-acquired Bechstein concert grand piano. The last time Mr. Primakov, the pianist, appeared with the Lafayette Symphony, he played this instrument, rented from a fine piano dealer in suburban Indianapolis. One of the LSO musicians, Everett Klontz, who just retired after 50 years as a violinist with the orchestra, heard him and thought, “We ought to buy that piano.” But Bechsteins are costly, and small orchestras don’t have 80 G’s lying around gathering dust.

That retired musician, Dr. Klontz, is also a retired professor of physics at Purdue University; this is where the story really gets good, in that now-elderly man who is both scientist and musician. He heard Primakov playing it three years ago and said, “We have to.”

So, it took three years. Then on came Primakov, who’s all of 30, to dedicate the piano to the aged professor-musician by playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The audience broke out in applause four times for that professor as he appeared onstage, the one who made it happen.

(The LSO doesn’t always do a great job of introducing its insiders to the audience; some board chairman type who never did give his name handled this segment. I guess we’re all supposed to know who he is already. But that’s how it happens in a small town. He gave the professor’s name and I will fill it in as soon as Dick Jaeger’s concert review is published in the Journal and Courier. I have no doubt it will be a rave; if it isn’t, I’ll call the editor and complain that it ought to be a rave.)

Here was this stooped old man, who dedicated decades of his life to physics, to his students and to fine music, now walking with a cane onstage to celebrate the arrival of a fine instrument, and to listen to it put to roof-rattling use by one of the most passionate interpreters of his generation.

Then Prof. Klontz walked off to take his seat in the audience, to listen to the exciting Vassily Primakov.

Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano concerto is one of the most famous compositions in the world; even if you’ve never set foot in a concert hall you’d recognize its opening notes. I sat back in my seat, shut my eyes and let the beauty wash over me.

That’s another reason we buy tickets; to experience sheer beauty. There are artists and philosophers who denigrate beauty these days as if it’s somehow banal (because they can’t reproduce or outdo it themselves, so they’d rather sell you conflict and clash, it’s more modern). But you have to take Tchaikovsky on his own terms, in his own era and place. He wrote lots of musical/mathematical conflict, as one section of the band takes up arms against the other, but plenty of harmony too in the broadest sense. He was moved by beauty (he was Russian!), and created as much as he could.

Concertos tend to be showpieces, and Primakov was entirely ready for his thousand arpeggios, hunched over his piano like a character from Victor Hugo; but he is subtle too. I sat there, watched and listened as this young man tried to show me how to hear the cries and joys of Russia and of art. When the third movement started I had to face the pain, realizing this live experience would soon come to an end.

And it did, with a big bombastic ending that follows, but changes, the conventional form of classical music; no one’s ever been able to improve on the basic idea of ending on a “high note.” Nearly every composer and performer has sought to send the audience out riding clouds. The finale should be a climax; give the paying public a climax.

Then occurred something I’m coming to recognize as unique to smalltown audience reaction; people feeling free to yell and scream as if this were a rock concert.

They don’t necessarily do that in big cities where a symphony concert is a high-society affair you’re supposed to show up at whether you like music or not. In big cities with high-prestige orchestras, audience members act with decorum, not enthusiasm, because half the time they’re more concerned with each other than the musicians onstage.

Not in Lafayette. When they hear great music – and we did tonight – they stomp and shout.

They’re grateful; Vassily Primakov came to Lafayette, because he knows Nick Palmer and had a good time here before.

We want him to come back! So we let loose and show our appreciation for all the musicians. That orchestra played so well tonight. Ms. Harrigan and Dr. Palmer could make me eat out of their hands.

Lafayette, Indiana is a “small town with big city entertainment.” I’m thinking of selling my house and moving back. I don’t want to miss nights like this; I don’t want fog or time zones getting in my way.

This band is just too good not to listen to every chance I get. Bravo!++

UPDATE: “LSO Shines in Tchaikovsky Show on Saturday,” by Dick Jaeger, Lafayette Journal and Courier

The large audience at Long Center for the Performing Arts saw a near phenomenon on Saturday evening when the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra and guest piano soloist Vassily Primakov mesmerized the audience in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor.”

The word I believe fits best is transfixion. The deep silence that permeated those gathered to hear this remarkable young pianist was immediately followed by cheers, shouts of “bravo” and prolonged applause.

Once She Started, She Couldn’t Stop

Purple echinacea stand tall in the backyard garden of Janice Becker. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Every now and then the Chicago Tribune reminds me that it’s still a great newspaper. It doesn’t happen often anymore — the talent level has dropped dramatically from the glory days — but occasionally I’ll run across an article so well written, so thoughtful, so obviously made of love for the languages of communication, that I think, “Well, the Trib’s still got it a little.” Today is one of those times; read the whole thing by Barbara Mahany here.

It’s about gardening. Years ago a woman and her husband went looking to buy a townhouse so they wouldn’t have any yard to deal with. They ended up with a house in the suburbs instead, with a yard that was a mess. She ignored it until one day, after her children were born, she took a notion to try and straighten up a little. Once she got started, she couldn’t stop. Now she’s a master gardener.

I do want you to read the whole piece, but I’m going to quote and comment on some of her tips. I found them helpful; maybe you will too.

Here are her sure-fire suggestions for the finest garden you can fit in any size plot:

Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Becker has 5 cubic yards of organic leaf mulch dumped on her driveway every spring. She hauls it by the wheelbarrow to every breathing inch of her garden. It’s all about amending.

Who says Chicago’s growing season is too short?: Extend your season, says Becker, whose beds are in bloom from March to November, beginning with thousands of bulbs in early spring. (“Pick any area you can see from the house, not next to house,” she advises, to provide an emotional pickup after the long dark winter.) Then wind up with the last of the asters, fall-blooming crocus and a host of colorful berries.

There are two ideas here really, and I want to separate out the one that struck me the hardest: Don’t just make beds next to the house; plant in the yard so you can see your flowers from inside.

When I bought my house, one of the things I liked best was that the entire perimeter of the building had already been made into beds. There were bushes in front and along the sides, most of them planted decades ago, perhaps by the original owner. But there weren’t many flowers, just a few crocuses here and there. Aha, I thought; I will put in flowers, and over the years I have, tulips from Amsterdam as well as Holland, Michigan; irises, mums, petunias, marigolds, pansies, peonies, whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have a plan; I didn’t know what I was doing, but I enjoyed myself. Spring planting is my favorite time of year.

I screwed in hooks on the ceiling of my covered side porch and hung baskets of impatiens; I learned over time not to buy plastic pots. I turned my porch into an outdoor room, with a tree and plant stands, table and chairs, lights and a charcoal grill. Everyone who’s ever visited knows I love that porch.

But when I look out my front windows I don’t see flowers, except for my cherry trees when they blossom; otherwise it’s just green trees and green grass. I have to go outside to see my flowers, and I don’t do that often.

What Ms. Becker is teaching me is to plant colors I can see when I wake up in the morning. My first thought is to dig up some of the grass along the sidewalk leading to my front door and plant tulips and daffodils there; when they start to fade, I can put in begonias. (I have begonias in planters on the back deck, and oh, are they gorgeous this year.)

Then I thought, however nice that idea might be, why not create a similar path along the public right of way, the sidewalk that crosses my lot? What would a person walking up the street feel if she suddenly encountered flowers at her feet? Wouldn’t that be a joy?

My dog Luke and I take walks every night, and one of the things I get out of it is seeing my neighbors’ landscaping. Last night we took a new route on less-familiar blocks and I saw the most amazing stand of zinnias (I think); multiple colors planted in bunches, 50 yellows, then 50 reds, a whole rainbow, 20 feet or more. When Luke and I walk and I find beautiful flowers in yards, I always want to get closer to see and maybe smell; but I respect the homeowner’s private property, so I have to enjoy from a distance. Last night at this particular house on 2nd Street, a woman was watching TV in her living room, with the windows open; I wanted to call out, “Your flowers are beautiful!” But I turned shy instead.

People in my hometown are pretty good gardeners and landscapers. I’m envious, in awe; I wish I encountered people in their yards more often so I could tell them how much I love what they’ve done. But alas, Luke and I take our walks in the cool of the evening, and by that time most people are indoors watching the boob tube.

It’s fashionable lately when pseudo-sophisticates write about landscape gardening to decry the “airport runway” look with outdoor lights; but they’re just snobs with deadlines and 750 words overdue. These are the same kinds of people as those who write about food trends, invariably nasty, stuff you’d never want to eat — because they have to write about something and they’re totally completely bored. The New York Times is full of that crap, because New Yorkers can’t stop competing long enough to have a good meal. Here’s my point: anything you do, including landscape lights down the sidewalk, that you can see from indoors, is good. A flowered walk is a great idea, especially one built with the neighbors in mind.

I have a friend Chris who used to walk her little dog past my house all the time. Her husband’s since had a privacy fence built, and Chris and her dog have stopped coming by; I miss them. But if they had a sidewalk landscaped just for them to enjoy, I bet they’d always come this way; wouldn’t you?

My next-door neighbor Debbie has built an amazing garden spot on the corner; it’s got a boulder or two, figurines and wonderful plants. But there’s no reason I can’t do more with my space, even though I’m not on the corner. Some homeowners in town have built flowered areas under their hardwood trees, full of hostas or impatiens or other beauties. It takes time and money, but I think I’d like to do something similar.

And all this is suggested by Janice Becker’s little comment. Here’s more of what she told the Trib.

Sun, yes, but water moreso. Sure, you need to pay attention to shade versus sun, but drainage is too often overlooked. Becker contends it’s more important than sun, and she urges you to pay attention to what the label says — and take it to heart. “The label might say, ‘Will survive dry conditions,’ but what they really are saying is ‘We won’t tolerate standing in water.’ And with so much clay in the soil around here, that’s key.”

I don’t have clay in my yard; that’s Chicago, this is Northwest Indiana, a long-drained swamp. I’ve got 99% black loam from the last time the Iroquois River flooded five miles away. This is the richest soil on earth, according to Purdue University. We’re even the home of the high school soil-judging National Champions 2005!

Shop nonstop.”Don’t stop shopping for plants or planting just because it is July and abysmally hot. If succession of bloom is the objective (and it is), you will miss some great late summer and fall blooming perennials if you don’t frequent the nurseries. For example, chelone (also known as turtlehead) is an absolutely great late summer bloomer that you will never see unless you shop later in the season. And everything is usually on sale then.”

Be ever on the lookout. “Visit gardens all the time. There is practically nothing in my garden that I did not see someplace else and copy. Take notes; take pictures; and ask questions, particularly why that plant is growing successfully here when you haven’t had any success with it.”

That’s good advice too. Don’t get so enthusiastic with spring planting that you fail to keep at it when the weather gets hot, or much of your work will go for nothing. I weed and tend my gardens every day, pick tomatoes and peppers, strawberries and leeks. As Jamie says in The Centurion’s Boy, my novel in progress, “Every day is a new opportunity to excel.”

That’s true whatever your occupation, pastimes and pursuits. Every day is new; no matter how much you screwed up yesterday, today is a new opportunity. Maybe you don’t like digging in the dirt; maybe music or art or furniture-making is your thing. Do it better than ever, because it’s today. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or a CEO, a monk in Mississippi or a gardener in Deerfield, today is a new chance. Build something; touch your loved ones gently; take your dog on an outing. Write, cook, plan, build, take a risk, pull out the deadwood, get dirty so you can get clean; let yourself be fully alive.

And who knows, maybe once you get started, you won’t be able to stop.++

Asters, from gardenersnet.com.

Purdue Wins National Championship!

Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, of Purdue's National Championship team in women's golf. (Brent Dinkut/Journal and Courier)

The Purdue Boilermakers won the NCAA National Championship in women’s golf today, the first Northern school in history to take the title.

They beat the Trojans of Southern California by a single stroke on the 18th hole. The finish was dramatic.

My mother would have been jumping out of her skin about now. Oh, how I wish she’d lived to see the day.

She learned the game of golf at Purdue, where she graduated with a B.S. in Pharmacy in 1961, the year the Purdue men’s team won the National Championship.

Physical education was a required course for undergraduates back then; they’d teach any student whatever sport they were interested in. She chose golf, and got pretty good at it, though nothing like these girls today.

My mother played the game for the rest of her life, which is what “lifelong learning” is all about.

In fact, the grade she got in golf class changed her life, and not in a good way; she missed graduating with honors because she got a B in that 1-credit-hour class. But still, she got the last laugh a few years later, when she won the 1st Flight tournament in the Lafayette City Championships.

I got to host her at the Memorial Championship in Dublin, Ohio, Jack Nicklaus’s ode to his golf heroes and heroines at the Muirfield Golf Club. We saw some amazing performances, including Paul Azinger’s unbelievable win when he came back from cancer. Golf was good to my Mom; she had a lot of fun playing. (And Nicklaus is the son of a pharmacist.)

This year’s Purdue team is coached by Devon Brouse; the team star is Maude-Aimee LeBlanc. The team is slightly controversial around here because none of the players are Americans. But girls come from all over the world to play college golf in the United States; the individual champion this year is a gal from Sweden who plays for Oklahoma State.

Purdue’s Maria Hernandez was the individual medalist last year. Brouse has had this program shooting for the top for some years now, and in 2010 they hit the jackpot.

College golf (high school too) is team play, not the individual sport you see on TV. It makes for an interesting dynamic. For one thing, all the players wear their school colors; Purdue wore black shorts and black golf shirts with a “P” on the chest. Black is considered an aggressive color. Maybe next year they’ll wear Old Gold.

As a team sport, the scoring is different too, and that changes the strategy. The highest score on a team is dropped, so only the five best players’ results matter. If one gal’s having a bad day, it doesn’t count. But the pressure is on for her teammates. The performance of a single star doesn’t cut it; what matters is what her teammates shoot.

Purdue finished 1 over par for the tournament, hosted by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. USC finished 2 over par. A Purdue player tied for third as an individual, but the consistent low scores of her teammates carried the day. The last two shots of the day won it.

Then came a bit of pageantry before the awarding of the trophies. A gaggle of bagpipers marched onto the course, because golf was invented by the Scots. These weren’t college boys, but a professional bagpipe outfit in kilts. For the climax of a women’s golf tournament, let’s get guys in skirts! They had a drum major in spats, and drummers twirling their sticks ceremonially. It was a show—and no matter how much one might get sentimental over Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne, there’s no way to make bagpipes sound like musical instruments. They make a glaring, awful noise—but Scotland gave us golf, which made my mother happy, and gave us a championship Purdue won today.

So why this post? I will never miss an opportunity to proclaim “Purdue Wins National Championship” in a sport, because great athletes provide an excuse to cheer for the whole school’s students, including those in pharmacy. This is my excuse for cheering on my Mom.

She was a far better pharmacist than she was a golfer—not that she didn’t crow about that city championship when she was in her 40s. I’ve still got her little hole-in-one trophy from later years, though it’s engraved for “Betty Arnold” as if she was married to her boyfriend, not living in sin. Oh, the scandal!

She would cheer these Purdue girls, and be the first to point out that you can’t have a world-class university unless you attract the best students from all over the world. Purdue has more foreign students than any other state university in America, and I for one am proud of them.

Go Mom! GO PURDUE! Go Mom.++

National Champions 2010, the Purdue Boilermakers. (Jason Barnette)

Birthday Week Begins!

The clock is just past midnight as I begin this; it’s Monday, May 17. Today would have been my late brother Steve’s 62nd birthday.

Mine is tomorrow. Either he was born early or (more likely) I was born late; we were anniversary babies. I will be 59, gasp cough cough.

He and I went 20 years without speaking after I came out; he didn’t want a Gay brother. I was never allowed to see his kids, in case I would touch them and give them AIDS. (I’m HIV-negative, but that doesn’t matter to the paranoid. If a person could get HIV from touching, the whole world would have long since been infected.) He was a jerk; then slowly, he began to change.

Our mother got sick with cancer in 1994. He loved his mother, and the three of us debated over who would take care of her. He invited her to come and live with him in southern Indiana; but she wanted to die at home in West Lafayette, and I was an experienced caregiver, available to move in with her, so that’s what happened.

She didn’t last very long; January 9, 1995. Steve and I didn’t see that much of each other during her illness, but he did come north to spell me for a weekend so I could go to Indianapolis to watch Purdue men’s and women’s basketball. Her illness was hard on me, she was demanding, so I was very grateful he gave me that weekend. I know he took the best possible care of her.

After she died I stayed in her house, and he often invited me down south to his house for a visit. We became very close friends, although he never stopped giving me a hard time for being Gay.

On every other topic we were brothers. I miss him very much.

Because of the timing of our birthdays, we quickly developed a shared ritual we called Birthday Week; I commend it to everyone. Mom used to say, “My birthday is My Day.” Steve and I decided, why not a whole week!

Episcopalians and Catholics observe octaves of major feast days, an 8-day celebration. Birthday Week fit right into the calendar. Sometimes we’d start a few days before, sometimes a few days after, this was a moveable feast, whatever our whims decided, eight freakin’ days.

I loved him; he loved me. He was a very fine man with a prejudice. And he was a bit sadistic with it, but I always fought back.

He so loved his mother that he honored me for taking care of her, and that mattered more than our turnons.

I relied on him for certain kinds of advice; I have no mechanical ability whatsoever, while he always knew what to do when the water heater stops putting out, or the car won’t start, or moles invade the yard.

I miss him terribly, but I’m very grateful that we were close those last few years. He died shortly after the millennium turned.

But I still have the legacy of Birthday Week, and I’m going to take advantage of it. I’ve been waiting for this; Birthday Week starts now. I imagine him smiling up in heaven, right next to Mom.

Sunday I drove to West Lafayette and bought more landscape lumber, 8-foot-long border planks for my Proper Garden; I have reclaimed a wasteland in my back yard and made it beautiful. I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, geraniums, cabbage and broccoli, and put in a strawberry patch; tossed out gravel, replaced it with topsoil, weeded and weeded and weeded, dug and raked till my back hurt, killed off these terrible trees that grow 10 feet tall in six weeks, sawed off the tree stumps, thoroughly knocked myself out. It’s taken a couple of years, but now I have a real garden, planted and marked off. The area’s still a little rough, the ground is uneven, but within those 8-foot planks, there’s a garden. Will the muskmelon seeds I dried and saved from last year do anything? I don’t know, but it will be exciting to find out.

Steve was a big fan of Vincennes muskmelons. In the gravel walkway on the north edge of the garden, I’ll plant gladiolus bulbs, some of my mother’s favorite flowers.

In the front yard with a northern exposure, Steve’s favorite azaleas are giving way to our brother Dick’s prize peonies. The Indiana state flower, y’know?

My garden is done, and I’m ecstastic. It isn’t even my birthday yet and everything’s done!

I also bought a little garden figurine, a foot-tall angel made in China with green and white mosaic wings, ten or twelve dollars; she now stands under the giant maple in the back yard, Our Lady of the Big Tree once featured in the Chicago Sunday Tribune.

The marigolds are happy, the begonias, three varieties of lilies; pansies, oregano, yuccas, impatiens; the hostas are doing okay, and so far I’ve been able to control the freakin’ ivy and the would-be kudzu. I worry about some gifts, though, that date to my buying this house six years ago; Peter gave me some excellent tulips, but they didn’t produce well this year, and a woman I used to work with at Southlake Mental gave me irises, which aren’t doing well either. I can picture her but I do not remember her name! It’s awful, she was very competent and good with clients, we worked so well together, but now, when irises are blooming all over town, mine aren’t. She deserves better, y’know? She deserves to be remembered by name.

But I’m getting older, and this s— happens, and it’s Birthday Week.

I got a dog last October, name of Luke; he hasn’t figured out flowers yet, and has made it his business to topple every planter in sight. He doesn’t mean to, but he’s a fox terrier, and they jump and run and boom, sorry begonias. And geraniums. And everything else he can accidentally knock over. I keep moving his stake-out chain, but I haven’t yet found the perfect spot where he can do no damage, and “Yowzah, Daddy, Arf Arf Arf! (Oops, bad dog, you don’t gotta tell me, I know.)”

He gets bacon anyway. I tell him that come August, when the tomatoes are ripe, I am eating all the bacon myself, BLTs, no matter how much he jumps and yaps and knocks things over.

It’s Birthday Week; my gardening is done. I have an 8×24 space marked off for flowers and food. I have a gravel walkway; the invasive trees are gone. Our Lady of the Maple happily presides in the shade. Maybe I’ll get a couple of jars of strawberry jam according to my mother’s recipe.

As for my homophobic brother: it was good to find someone who knew me all my life, loved me 90% and hated me just 10. It was mutual, after all, I never let him off the hook; attack me and I fight back.

I planted those azaleas for him, and they did better this year than ever before. Ninety/ten’s pretty good when you think about it. So Birthday Week starts now, on His Day. Mine is Tuesday, Jayne’s graduation party is Saturday, and Sunday is Pentecost, the Church’s Birthday with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I finally have a Proper Garden, and an Angel of the Maple Tree. Life is good.++

Cabbages, Broccoli & Eek, Leeks!

I got most of my gardening done today; the last of the lilies-of-the-valley transplanted under the maple tree, broccoli and cabbages, the last two peppers. They took up most of the space in my newly-expanded vegetable garden, now twice the size it was last year and marked off by new landscape lumber like a proper garden.

Then there were the leeks; of them I’m clueless.

Most of the vegetables I buy at Murphy’s are little starter plants, which come in plastic containers, three or four to a box. It’s very easy to know what one cabbage looks like. But when I pulled the leek starters out of their box, there were no little segments, just 40 or 60 seedlings all thrown together with their roots intertwined. I didn’t know how to handle them.

They’re cousins of onions, and when you plant onions from seed, you drop 2-3 seeds into a little hole, then thin them later. I suppose it will be the same with these things, because a single leek is an inch in diameter at harvesting. But I planted them in clumps of 10-12. I hope that’s right.

But the leeks are a reminder that I’m mostly looking this year just to learn how to grow these things, not for some fantastic yield. I’ve never even cooked with a leek, much less grown one, so this is all an experiment.

In previous years I’ve learned I can grow tomatoes, peppers, radishes and herbs, as well as flowers. Those experiments brought me where I am today, just seeing what happens with cabbage, broccoli and leeks. I’ve already found out this spring that the onion sets I bought at Murphy’s do very nicely; I’ve eaten one already as a scallion, and it was sweet, but they say that if I leave the others in the ground they’ll turn into big onions for cooking. I hope so, because I use onions all the time in the kitchen, to me they’re a miracle food in soups, stews, stir-frys and when they get to star on their own, as in my mother’s patented Onion Dip with cream cheese. (I don’t know why people buy “French onion dip” in the stores, with all the preservatives. Besides, there’s nothing French about it, that’s just marketing based on French Onion Soup, which Americans love.)

Tonight I’m eating the last of the lamb chops I bought at the farmers’ market last Wednesday. I agree with the farmer, the Brook Locker Plant didn’t trim them at all. Last night I broiled a couple of chops and they were good, but tonight, even though it’s getting dark, I will grill them outside. With my great marinade they deserve a charcoal fire.

Now suppose I actually get cabbages, broccoli and leeks out of this year’s garden; whatever will I do with them? One average cabbage would last me a week; I’ll have to check out Recipezaar and Search by Ingredient.

My mother cooked cabbage once and stunk up the house for a week; not a good idea. What do people do besides make cole slaw? Cabbage rolls, I suppose.

From purdue.edu (Go Boilers!)

Next year at this time, because I’ve got that new landscape lumber and the right mindset, I will plan a proper garden, with all the vegetables I really want to grow: radishes, onions, carrots, tomatoes and peppers of course; maybe some corn. This is Indiana, after all, it’s like a patriotic duty to grow corn here. And maybe I’ll even do cabbage, broccoli and leeks if I figure out how.

Hoosiers trying not to fall off the muskmelon truck.

IN THE MEANTIME, I want to start a strawberry patch, and I’ve got a whole flat of 18 ever-bearing plants; some even have green berries on them already. But there isn’t room. However, if I bought two more landscape boards, I could extend the garden another eight feet east… And I’ve got muskmelon seeds I saved last year from a big juicy fruit grown in Knox County (Vincennes). Melons don’t go in until after all danger of frost is past, which is another couple of weeks. I can’t see myself doing well at all with a viney plant like a melon, but hey, you don’t know what you’ve got till you try. Maybe someday I’ll be going door to door trying to give away zucchini in August, you never know.

Gardening is like theology; endlessly fascinating if you’re into that sort of thing, always more to learn, then one thing leads to another and before you know it you’re frying up a mess of Swiss chard in bacon grease and thanking God for your little patch of ground.

I bought this house six years ago this week and I’m still full of gratitude.++