The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category


Geraldine was a friend whom I knew for more than twenty-five years.  We both enjoyed cooking and would have dinner at least once a week at each other’s apartments.  Geraldine was of Irish ancestry, and while she and I were both only children, her mom was the eldest of seven.

Geraldine’s mom, Moira found herself the head of the family at the young age of sixteen.  Her father owned a warehouse and Geraldine and her siblings all began working there after school when they were ten years old.  Her dad passed away when Moira was fourteen and her mother died two years later.  Suddenly, Moira had not only the responsibility of raising six brothers and sisters but had to run the family business.  Without either hesitation or choice she took on this unexpected responsibility.

Moira’s family and warehouse were on the south side of Chicago, an area that was, at that time, filled with first and second generation Irish immigrants.  In the 1920’s there were no large grocery stores but only little neighborhood food shops.  At that time, one of the conveniences that had been invented to help out the housewife was that fruits and vegetables were available in cans which could be stocked in a family’s pantry for use when needed.

This greatly simplified Moira’s life as she could turn to one of her brothers, hand him a grocery list and instruct him to pick up what the family would need for the coming week, thus eliminating her need to go grocery shopping herself and allowing more time to run the warehouse and to cook dinner for the large clan.  Naturally, when she got married, many of the habits which she had acquired as a child followed her and it was in that environment that Geraldine was born and raised.

It was a beautiful early summer Saturday when Geraldine and I decided to take an excursion to Wisconsin.  We were thinking about going to the Wisconsin Dells but there appeared to be quite a few others who had the same idea and we really didn’t want to find ourselves in a large group of people – so instead we just decided to take a drive through the Wisconsin countryside.

On our way back to Chicago we came across a large farm stand, filled with all kinds of in season fruits and vegetables.  They looked far fresher than what we found at our local stores and so we decided to stock up with some fresh from the field produce to enjoy back home.

I was delighted to find fresh peas in the pod.  I hadn’t seen them for years and they brought back one of my favorite childhood memories, helping Grandma shuck these into the large mixing bowl and then chewing on the pods to extract some of their sweetness.  I quickly filled a medium sized brown paper bag with these delectable goodies and put them with my other selections.

When we returned home we decided to make dinner together.  We unloaded our fruits and veggies and I asked Geraldine if she could give me a large bowl so that I could start shucking the peas.  She found one quickly and I emptied my bag of peas into the kitchen sink.  Geraldine looked at this harvest of sweet goodness and asked me, “What are those?”

That statement set me back just a bit.  I thought she was kidding me.  But I answered, “Those are peas.”

She looked at me, put her hands on her hips and with the air of an adult speaking in the tone of one admonishing a child for telling a fib said, “Don’t be ridiculous.  Peas are round and they come in a can.”

As I was turning my compost pile this morning, enjoying the fresh smell which had come into being because of food scraps, shredded paper, coffee grounds and garden waste, I thought of this story.  Geraldine and I grew up at a time when a person still could pick fresh produce from a roadside stand rather than buy it pre-packaged in styrofoam and wrapped with plastic.

We grew up at a time when the hanging scale, inaccurate as it probably was, served the purpose of allowing the grocer to compute the charge for an item and write the amount due on its brown paper bag with a black crayon.  We grew up at a time when there were no stickers applied to each peach or apple which can only be removed by those who have long finger nails.  We grew up at a time when you could tell the difference between a carrot and a stalk of celery by taste rather than appearance.

If, despite the availability of fresh produce when Geraldine grew up, she was surprised to find that peas actually grew in pods before they were processed, just imagine the confusion that younger generations must experience when confronted with fresh fruits and vegetables.  Perhaps that explains why so many think that the height of gourmet eating is a burger and fries.  I would not want to be the first to confront them with reality and dissuade them from their opinions.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to dispel them from their belief, if they have one at all, that “Peas are round and they come in a can.”


Mary was born, raised and lived her whole life in the big city.  She was industrious and held a good position and as she had never married, devoted herself to her work.

She was careful to make sure that she saved something out of each paycheck and had invested her savings wisely.  She felt certain that her savings, together with her retirement benefits, would enable her to enjoy a comfortable if not luxurious retirement.

One day she received a call at her office from an attorney, informing her that her favorite uncle, Steve had passed away suddenly and had named her executrix of his estate.  This news floored her as she had spoken with her uncle just a few days previously and he seemed to be in excellent health.  She wept bitterly at the news of his death as she and he had shared many pleasant evenings together at his beautiful and historic cottage about an hour’s drive from the city.

Mary made an appointment to meet with her uncle’s attorney the following day.  Much to her surprise, not only was he her favorite uncle but she was his favorite niece.  Uncle Steve had left Mary the cottage in which he lived as her inheritance.

Mary loved going to visit her late uncle at his home.  The cottage had been built in the early 19th century out of brick and flagstone.  It was small but beautifully picturesque, almost as though out of a Thomas Kinkade painting.  After the affairs of his estate were settled, Mary began driving to the cottage as frequently as she could, usually every other weekend.

Uncle Steve was a gentle and kind man and at his funeral his neighbors attested to his good nature by fully filling the church at which his services were held.  All of them had the kindest words to offer Mary and his other relatives who had attended his funeral.

Like Mary, Uncle Steve had never married nor did he have any children.  He was from an older generation when getting married normally preceded having offspring.  But he was a very nurturing man and, perhaps because he didn’t have children of his own he turned his attention to gardening, raising some of the most wonderful vegetables in his community.  He always had an oversupply of this vegetable or that and frequently brought bags of them that he had freshly harvested from his garden to neighbors who greatly appreciated them.

Mary was an excellent cook and she noticed how much tastier the meals Uncle Steve prepared were using his own garden’s vegetables, than when Mary made the same thing using store bought produce.  She particularly noticed this taste difference in Uncle Steve’s carrots which were Mary’s favorite vegetable.

Mary loved carrots in whatever form they were prepared.  She loved the sweet taste and beautiful color of freshly squeezed carrot juice.  She loved making carrot salad with some golden raisins and slivered almonds.  Her neighbors in the city always were delighted when Mary would make a carrot cake and come by to offer them a few large pieces of it.  Whether they were steamed or raw, pureed or in a soufflé, there was no way that carrots could be prepared that Mary did not enjoy them.

Well, a year went by and Mary retired.   Her co-workers took her out for a very festive evening at a fancy restaurant and, to Mary’s delight, the restaurant had carrots on the menu that night.  After the many years they had worked together, Mary felt bittersweet about leaving her many friends at her company.  But she invited them all to come and visit her at her new cottage in the country.

So in mid-winter Mary packed up the remaining things from her apartment that she would need in her new home and moved to the cottage.  She looked forward to the spring when, keeping alive the tradition her Uncle Steve had started, she would plant her new garden.

As I said, Mary was a city girl and the specifics of gardening were new to her.  But she bought a few books on the subject and attended a class at one of the local nurseries to get a better idea of all that was involved in vegetable gardening.  Although she was inexperienced, she was bright and felt that she was up to the challenge.

Spring finally arrived and Mary, following the instructions she had received, had readied her garden to receive the plants she had bought.  She had purchased tomato plants, Bibb lettuce, a variety of herbs, several different kinds of beans and chili plants and had allocated space to each of them.  And she had, of course, bought an ample supply of carrot seed – the only thing that she was going to start from scratch.

The weather report suggested that the possibility of frost had ended and so Mary took her plants from the nursery and began placing them in the garden.  She had done a good job adding compost to the already rich soil and stood back to admire her work as she saw these little plants all nestled in their new beds.

Of course, Mary had reserved half the garden to her favorites, her carrots and, according to the instructions on the seed packet and the advice she had received from the nursery, had created three rows of furrow into which she placed her carrot seed and then covered them gently with earth.

Mary dutifully tended her garden, watering it in the morning and evening.  She could see the growth in all the other vegetables and herbs, but her rows of carrots showed no evidence that they were germinating – until two weeks went by.  Mary came out one morning and saw the smallest little green growths popping their heads along the three rows where she had planted the carrots.  She was overjoyed.

Pleased with herself, she continued her twice daily watering and could see how well her tomatoes and chili plants were doing, but the carrots showed a much slower growth than they.  Yes, she thought, the growth is now a bit taller, but I wonder how the carrots underneath are doing.  So she gently dug around one of her carrots to inspect it.

When she pulled up this carrot, she was delighted.  Although the carrot was very slender, perhaps only an eighth of an inch in width and an inch and a half long, it was truly a carrot.  So Mary gently replaced it in its little spot, tamped soil around it and went into the cottage do so some cleaning and washing.

A week went by and Mary noticed, when she watered the garden, that the carrot she had inspected did not seem to be doing as well as its neighbor carrots.  There had been no growth in its green top – in fact, it looked as though it was beginning to wither.  So she pulled that carrot out again and saw that the carrot had, in fact, died.

She wondered, “Did I not fertilize and prepare the soil properly?  What did I do wrong?  Are my other carrots going to have the same unfortunate end?”

So Mary pulled up the carrot next to the one that had died.  To her relief, this carrot seemed to be doing just fine.  While it was far from mature, it had grown to three times the size of the one she had dug up the previous week.  Mary breathed a sigh of relief and put this second carrot back in it’s place.

But as another week of dutifully tending to her garden went by, Mary noticed something disturbing.  The green top of this second carrot, like its neighbor, seemed to be withering.  So she pulled it out from the bed and looked at it.  Despite being larger than the first one, it too had died.

Mary suddenly realized why these two carrots had not matured.  By pulling them up, she had interrupted their growth and so she left the rest of them alone until they were ready to be harvested.  She had an abundant crop of her favorite vegetable and used them in all her finest carrot recipes.

Mary had learned an important lesson about carrots and about life.

Moral:  Whether it’s butterflies or blue whales or babies or carrots, most things, if left alone, will become what Nature intended them to be.  Whether or not that happens is up to us because we have the ability to make the choice.


Sometimes I put up a post that I think is one of the best things that I have written only to find the response from you, my audience, is about as deafening as the silence of a tomb.  Other times I put up a post that I like but don’t think will get much response, only to find it is exceptionally popular.

The latter is the case for the post, “My Tomato Plant.”  As it garnered a lot of interest I thought I would give you an update to let you know how things are going.  Of course, if you have been following along for any period of time, getting directly to the point is not my style.  But bear with me – we will make it there.

One of dad’s avocations was handicapping thoroughbred racing.  He enjoyed the excitement of watching these magnificent animals challenge each other and introduced me to the sport when I was around ten years old.  But beyond the thrill of watching them race I learned that he utilized this as a way to supplement his income.  Dad had developed a system – and that system generally worked.

When he was not out of town on business and the horses were racing either at Aqueduct or Belmont Park, on many a Saturday he would take me to enjoy a day at the races.  There was a ritual involved with the day.

First stop – White Castle to pick up a few sliders each.  (Of course, we never told mom about that as she considered it junk food).  And then when we got to the track we would each have a bowl of Chicken Gumbo Soup served with a large roll and a couple pats of butter (fifty cents) or if dad had a few winners we might upgrade to the Manhattan Style Clam Chowder (sixty cents).

Dad was very disciplined in his wagering.  He would only risk a small percentage of the bankroll he had accumulated on the races he had decided to bet.  And he adhered strictly to his mathematical formula – not feeling compelled to bet every race but only those in which he felt he had a mathematical advantage.

The net result was that a typical day might involve an outlay of around one hundred dollars and a net profit (even after White Castle, soup and the gas he had burned getting us to and back from the track) of around thirty dollars.  Dad kept rigorous account of his expenses and deducted them as a “cost of doing business” when he analyzed the results of his system.

Now this might not sound like a lot of money to you but let me put thirty dollars into the perspective of the time.  Thirty dollars would buy three hundred comic books or six hundred candy bars.  Thirty dollars would pay for dad’s carfare on the subway to and back from work for twenty weeks.  A high quality premium lipstick cost one dollar.  And thirty dollars would pay nearly one quarter of our month’s rent on the apartment.

I remember going with him one Saturday and everything that could go wrong did go wrong.  Two of the horses on which dad had wagered had won their races and then been disqualified by the Stewards for jostling other horses.  We hadn’t had a winner all day and I could tell that dad was questioning his handicapping abilities and feeling frustrated.  We weren’t going to bet the eighth race and that left us only the ninth to try to recover from what had been a very disappointing day financially.

The eighth race had finished and dad turned to me.  He folded  up his racing form and put it in his pocket and said, “Things aren’t working out today.  There are days like that.  So why don’t you pick our horse for the ninth race?”

I wasn’t sure I wanted that responsibility.  In fact, I was sure that I didn’t.  But I thought if dad had enough confidence in me to try to pick a winner I was going to do that.  (Of course, my “system” was picking the prettiest horse in the race who wore the nicest colors).

Ten minutes before the race the horses came out on the track for the post parade.  The number four horse was a beautiful grey.  He was wearing colors of emerald green and white and held his head high as he pranced in front of us.  “Number four, Daddy,” I said.

“OK.  Number four it is.”

Dad went off to place our bet and it was at that point that I looked up at the tote board.  The horse I had selected was the longest shot in the race – ultimately going off at 32-1.  My heart sank as I realized that I had sealed our fate of having a losing day.

The race began and our horse got off to a good start but was being challenged by  the favorite which was a beautiful chestnut mare.  The two horses dominated the race and it was obvious that, barring anything unusual, one of these two would be the winner.  The announcer, Fred Capacella did his usual superb job of calling the race and heightening the excitement of the audience.

It came down to the stretch, the two horses battling each other, gaining and losing advantage, and then they crossed the finish line – a photo finish.

“Ladies and gentlemen, hold all tickets,” Mr. Capacella said over the loud speaker system.  My heart was pounding.  I thought the other horse had won – but I couldn’t tell from where we were sitting, a little before the finish line.

When the Stewards finished their review, they put up the four horse as the winner.  We had won – and despite a terrible day took home a net profit of $3.25 after deducting all expenses.

Getting back to my tomato plant, there are still fifteen fruit on it and she is doing her best given the weather we’ve had.  These tomatoes are smaller than the first crop which I attribute to the 110 degree plus weather we endured for a week which coincided with the formation of the fruit.  One is beginning to ripen and is only twice the size of a cherry tomato.  Others on the vine are still green and appear to be growing and are much larger.  So I am sticking to my discipline of giving her filtered water morning and evening and offering her a few kind words at each feeding.  We’re both trying to do our part.

By the way, the reason that I devoted most of this post to our day at the races was that it taught me an important lesson both about life and tomato growing.

The name of the horse I selected in the ninth race was, “Keep Pitching.”


Often have I admitted in these posts that my nickname might well be “The Brown Thumb of Death” when it comes to horticulture.  I even made some plastic flowers wilt once, as I recall.  And this frustrates me because it seems that all of us are called in our lives to be nurturing and productive.

Last year I planted two tomatoes, sweet bell peppers in several colors and a few different chilies.  Since I really don’t have a garden, I’m confined to using pots and window boxes for these experiments.  Sadly, despite my constant attention and care and watering, the entire crop failed.

I thought about this as I viewed the shriveled stalks of these fruits and vegetables and tried to figure out what I had done wrong – yet again.  So I thought, perhaps a 24” pot is not of sufficient size to accommodate two tomato plants.  Next year I’ll try again with only one and see what happens.  And I’ll follow the advice I received to plant it on March 1st and not wait until the middle of the month.

So this year I went to the local nursery and resisted my temptation to buy two Early Girl plants and walked out with only one as well as two cents change from my dollar bill.  It was a struggle getting out with only the one plant.  There were any number of others I would have liked to tried in the window boxes – but I decided they would probably have a better chance of survival with someone else.  So I came home with my lone tomato plant which held its place of honor on the passenger’s seat in the front of the car.

A few days later came March 1st.  I had already prepared the soil in my Early Girl’s intended pot – a fine mixture of good soil and the rich compost I cultivate and early in the morning I put her in her new home.  I was proud of myself.  I had actually centered her and she was standing straight and tall.  I gave her the first bath with the Brita-filtered water that has been her exclusive drink since she came home with me.  And I sat back and admired my handiwork – and prayed that I had not condemned this poor fragile plant to death.

Then came a cold spell and I worried that she might have caught frostbite.  Should I have put a plastic cover on her overnight?  Maybe I should have waited until the middle of the month and this all could have been avoided.  But my Early Girl survived and I continued her morning and evening showers with filtered water.  And in a few weeks I could see that she had grown and was beginning to flower.

I counted the flowers each morning and night realizing that each one might become a tomato.  Six, nine, fourteen.  And then one morning there were only eight – but in their place the beginnings of fruit were being born.  There were six little tomatoes on the plant.  I held my breath thinking that perhaps I finally had found the right path.

And as the days and weeks went by, my plant produced beautiful vine-ripened tomatoes – a total of twelve of them.  While they wouldn’t have taken a prize for their size they were respectable and, most importantly, they were delicious.  The flavor was much more delicate and yet intense than anything I had purchased in a grocery store in the last ten years.  I had done it.  Or more correctly, my tomato plant, with a modicum of assistance from me, had done it.

As I had picked the last of this crop I was surprised to notice that there were several new tomatoes that had formed.  I hadn’t noticed any flowers as with the first crop, so I continued my filtered-water regimen, day and night.  There were only four of them and then one morning there were only two.  I couldn’t find the fallen victims and still don’t know what happened to them.  But I continued the plant’s care hoping that the two survivors might make it to maturity.

After another week, the crop had increased in size and there are now sixteen tomatoes in various stages of development growing on this hardy plant.  And then we leapt in temperature to around 110 degrees and have stayed there for several days.  A respite has been a high of only 105.  I’m pretty sure that this is hardly the ideal weather in which tomatoes flourish.

But I have been tending to my plant day and night and her fruit seems to be growing both in size and number.  How can she withstand this heat wave?  I don’t know but she apparently is putting her best root forward to do what she knows is her job – to give the world tomatoes to enjoy.

While I am hopeful that these tomatoes will ripen and be as delicious as the first crop, I don’t know whether that will happen if we have extended periods of extreme heat.  All  I can do is my part which is to provide her with water morning and evening and a little pep talk at each meal.  Beyond that, what shall be shall be.

But what I learned from my previous years’ attempts at horticulture and from this year’s experience are the following:

Greed impelled me to plant twice as many tomato plants as I should have so that I would have twice as many to eat.  But the result of my greed was that I wound up with nothing.

The second lesson came from seeing how my plant survived and bore new fruit despite poor growing conditions.  My plant didn’t give up.  If I had said, well, there is no way this plant is going to survive this heat and bear any more fruit and had stopped watering her, she would now be part of the compost heap and the fruits which she has produced would never have come about.

But despite the fact that I doubted anything productive would come of it, I continued my regimen of watering.  And I proved myself wrong.  And that was my biggest takeaway.

If we try something we might fail or we might succeed.  But if we decide not to try, we have written our own history of failure.  And we deserve to fail because that is the path we have chosen.

My tomato plant didn’t give up even though she was confronted with horribly adverse conditions.  And if we follow that example, we might all achieve great things, despite the seemingly overwhelming odds set against us.

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