29 September 2010

In Praise of Lazy Gardening

Over the years I have kept several gardens, which as we all know are spiritually and morally fortifying.

Few things enjoy such broad if not unanimous approval. What could be more humane and decent than kneeling in the soil, packing dirt gently around tender stalks, sprinkling water while standing in a nearly yogic pose, and seeing the abundance of flowers and fruits that come in due time.

While I have kept several gardens, I have never been really successful, though. My instinct for design is minimal. My commitment to weeding shrivels in the heat. As much as I find it rewarding, I find other things rewarding too, and thus my gardens tend to be seedy.

This year was no exception. Our sunflowers grew and then bent under the weight of their heads. Our string beans and peas were quickly gobbled by rabbits. My alpine strawberries should be thinned. I have no idea what to do with my asparagus to prepare it for next year when it should be ready to eat. My only success, and a doozy it is too, are my two tomato plants which went berserk alongside the fence, producing over 5 dozen tomatoes. I am thinking of naming it Audrey.

Now, do not tell me how to do better. I am not sure I want to. That's because I have concluded that gardening can become as unnatural as anything else. Those well organized rows are not natural. The tidy weed free beds are not natural. Watering and composting are done to human standards not the plants themselves.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that vegetable gardening can be more natural, and less work.

Take the rabbits. I thought about ways to prevent them from eating my lettuce and peas and beans and then thought, "why?" They were here before I was, even before we as a people were. The seeds cost me little, and if they eat them I can go to the store or farmers market and buy more. They cannot.

I should have staked my tomato plant to keep it from sprawling. But that's for me not the plant. Some fruit have fallen and rotted, but I toss them on the compost pile knowing I cannot eat all that I have.

Think of it as truly democratic gardening, where other species are taken into account - rabbits, bees, plants. I want to add to the life in my little patch by planting things. But once planted, they become part of the community around me. They are not there solely for my benefit, but for our mutual benefit.

I am not going off the deep end. I still flush the silverfish that crawls on my tub. The squirrels leave chestnuts and crab apples that I have to sweep up or track into the house. I do mow my lawn and weed my flower beds.

All I am saying is that we need not be devoted gardeners to be good gardeners. A little indolence and messiness may even be morally better than the charming plots arranged to our small human tastes and ends.

Or maybe I just need an excuse.

21 September 2010

Recovering Addicts

That's what we are, economically.

For a generation, the nation was pumped upon on the steroids of cheap money, all but printed by banks and other financial houses. Then, as the supply of cheap money depended more and more on Collateralized Debt Obligations and other substitutes for real money, somewhat like cocaine cut with sudafed, we began to feel weak and woozy. Our national high was crashing and we got a serious case of the financial DTs, and went through what every addict experiences when they go through withdrawal. It feels like you're gonna die, as bad as any real illness.

Eventually, though, the drug clears your system and you are on the mend. But for a very long time, you are weak. Recovery begins long before you actually feel better, and a long time before you feel good again.

We are told that the recession, the longest in modern history, ended in June of 2009. And people are asking, "Then why am I still unemployed?"

Because we fell so far that it will be a long time before recovery gets back to 'normal.' We've all had fevers and flus and remember when we felt the tide turn. We knew we were getting better, but you still stayed in bed and walked carefully and felt unsteady for a good while.

That's us. The longer the illness, the deeper you go, the further you have to come back. Worse, though as a nation we are recovering, for individual people the recession is all or none. You either have a good job or not.

For individuals or industries or even sections of the country the recovery is not certain at all. During the last big recession around 1981, I was a new clergyman in a small town in central Massachusetts. The closest city was ten miles away, with two large tool and die factories that dominated the local economy.

They never reopened. The companies cut their losses, closed the factories and focused on other places. A century before, other towns in New England shriveled up as the textile mills and shipyards and other industries of the mid 19th century died. During the dust bowl years of the 1930s the heartland towns in Nebraska and Kansas and South Dakota began their long and continuing death. Here in West Michigan the final chapter of the furniture industry coincided with the last downturn in 2000. It's not coming back. Neither will the juggernaut of automobiles.

So yes, the country is on the mend, very slowly. But for people and places in the country it will take much longer than the country at large, and for some there will never be a recovery. One might think, in lofty abstraction, that people will up and move. They did before and will again, but are we ready to slice off states like limbs, cut off cities like warts, slough off citizens like dead cells?

Yes, it may be inevitable - but should it be policy?

Just sayin'

11 September 2010

World War II Vets....

rarely talked about their experience. The closest I ever came was a man who landed at Normandy a day or two after the initial assault.

"You saw the movie, 'Saving Private Ryan?' he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"It was like that."

That was all. Saying more would say too little and too much. We sat for a long important moment. His silence said more than his words.

September 11 was not like that. While there was nobility and courage and death and destruction, it was nothing like war, or movies about war.

I can say that because it all happened less than a mile from my home and work. I saw it, heard it, felt it, smelled it, was covered by the falling dust of pulverized buildings and people, organized memorials, and performed funerals. One was a British fellow married to an Indonesian Muslim, whose family recited the Al Fatihah prayer in my church that October. I marched with other clergy in honor of the hook and ladder company from our neighborhood that was wiped out. Their truck was the one in the NY Daily News photo seen going over the Brooklyn Bridge toward the towers before they collapsed. My son visited their house on a school trip in first grade.

(You can read about my experience as a near bystander by clicking the link on the right, "The Days Grow Short." You will not find anything more honest or real than that, for those of us who were in NYC then and the days thereafter.)

September 11 was not like Normandy or even Pearl Harbor because it was not an act of war.

It was simply, horribly, cruelly, despicably, murder. Mass murder.

And that's how we should have treated it, and should now. Treating it as an act of war actually ennobles the criminals, making them into warriors for a cause.

I know why we called it a war. It makes the dead more than mere victims. No one wants to think their father or brother or son or daughter or wife or sister was 'just a victim.' We want them not to have 'died in vain,' that is, for no reason.

But they did die for no reason, meaning one they chose to serve. None of them were soldiers willingly putting their lives on the line for cause or country. In all honesty, brutal honesty, they died for no more reason than those caught in an earthquake or tsunami.

Unless we count the reason the criminals gave. By calling it a war instead of a crime, we paradoxically gave the criminals precisely what they wanted: importance. See how calling it war has done honor to the victims nine years later?

I have said too much.

Unlike the man who went to war.

09 September 2010

When Ignorance is Just

This morning the folks an CNN were talking about how awful it was that the media were giving so much attention to pastor Jones and his 'bonfire of depravity.'

You heard me right, they were reporting on how too many people were reporting on it.

Years and years ago, when we all had flowers in our hair and stuff, a popular anti-war phrase was "What if they gave a war, and nobody came?" Well, what if Jones gave a Koran burning and nobody came? What if the media just did not pay attention.

I know, the horse has left that barn, but the event is still to come and thus they can choose not to. Better, they can all agree not to. And I am sure local leaders and clergy would be delighted to set up a cordon at some distance that would prevent any media from observing it.

It could happen. The media could decide their role as public tribune trumped their role as private business. They could agree that sometimes their attention is oxygen that feeds the flames.

They could, they really could.

But they won't.

06 September 2010

Labor Day!

My son marched in the parade in Detroit. I went down to the Laborfest on our riverside. Thought about my short tenure as a member of the International Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Workers (railroad track hand) and my wife who walked the line in Chicago when she was part of the teacher's union thirty years ago.


Today, both unions and their respect have dwindled. My current home state of Michigan is among the most unionized in the country, 18%. In 1970, over 33% of the country was organized. Right now, we are debating a "right to work" law, which from what I can tell will make unions less powerful. These laws have been put in place over a number of years, following provisions of the Taft Hartley Act of 1947.


There are costs and benefits to be had one way or the other, but there is no doubt that "right to work laws" could also be accurately called "right not to join a union" laws. Since 'right to work' is a phrase much like 'right to life,' meaning it has a bias in the name, I suggest you ponder an overview from our friends at Wikipedia rather than let me explain it all.


That's because, as you might have detected, I am somewhat biased myself toward Labor. I grew up in a management household, you should know. Dad was a suit at the old B&O railroad for nine years, and for the Grand Trunk for five more, and then a consultant for railroad management for thirteen. But he grew up in the Depression, and mom was a telephone operator for a while, and in our house Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis and Samuel Gompers and A. Philip Randolf were admirable. We may have been management, but we respected Labor.


That respect is gone, tarnished by corruption yes, but mostly by our current entrepreneurial, Ayn Rand saturated, neo-Gilded Age climate. Yes, it shot itself in the foot in many ways, but corporate power has grown while Labor has shrunk. And as corporate power has grown and their influence has grown with it, so has our respect for corporate power, almost fawning. When the banks that fund them boiled over we ran to resupply them with money and called them "too big to fail," but as unions have shrunk with outsourcing and downsizing we have not run to sustain them, though the well being of thousands of average citizens, people more like you and me than those in the mahogany paneled penthouses of the banks, climbed down the ladder. In a sense they were the rungs on which the entrepreneurs climbed up.


Sorry for the rant. But there is an aroma of injustice in all this that I cannot wave away. If we believe the market is like gravity, implacable and amoral, then why hobble unions, which after all are only organizing one of the raw materials of business? If regulating business is bad, why is regulating unions OK? Aren't they part of the market as much as any MBA?


The basic principle from which I operate is that power=money. One is a form of the other. Corporations are in business to make money. Fine. And they use that money to obtain power, be it political or personal. Unions are in the business of using power to get money. By organizing workers in workplaces they use power to get more money in the form of wages and health benefits and so on. That too should be fine.

But it's not. No doubt, unions over reached in their demands. But it is more urban legend than truth that union demands put the auto industry out of business. Everyone agrees that high demands by unions drove companies to outsourcing, right? Why do we not think that the enormous salaries paid to the favored few in Wall Street, their over reaching confidence in their knowledge and skill, drove us to the edge of another Depression.

Maybe we do, but the laws proposed to weaken them have themselves been weakened. Screams from the cashmere crowd sent legislators scurrying to salve their wounds. But when it came time to extending unemployment to those who cannot eat, we hesitated because it cost too much. And to help the unemployed we now want to weaken unions with 'right to work' laws.

This all sounds a little unfair to me. What's good for the boss is good for the worker, I say. Democracy and freedom need fairness. This recession is not being fair at all. And dealing with that, in my pink little head, is what government should be about.

01 September 2010

I Wanted to Kill It

but I didn't. The silverfish was crawling around the edge of the bathtub as I was shaving. Out of the corner of my eye I watched it; they move quickly you know and it could start crawling up my leg in no time.

Yuck yuck yuck.

Crawly things creep me out. Not all bugs, but those with rippling legs like silverfish and centipedes.

Yuck yuck yuck.

I wanted to kill it, but stopped this time. My gut was disgusted, but my brain said, "Hold on Fred, is your disgust reason to kill?"

Disgust apparently is, according to research into 'disgust studies,' (I am not making this up, as Dave Barry would say) our idea of what iks disgusting may not be as natural as we think. Read this intriguing article from the Boston Globe. It's long, but very worth it.

Long ago, when my mother-in-law was alive, I saw the danger of rationalizing our disgusts. She was a child of the south, for whom so called 'race mixing' was taboo. When it turned out a couple we knew were 'mixed' she opined that the thought of it made her sick. She was disgusted.

Disgust is a human reaction apparently born long ago when we had to be able to tell the difference between healthy food and dangerous food. Things bad for us made us recoil, shiver, stick out our tongues. It was a visceral reaction that evolution found useful.

But beyond recognizing things physically bad for us there is no scientific validity to disgust. All the other things we find naturally disgusting are learned. My mother-in-law was not exaggerating or lying, her disgust was real. But it was not natural. I feel not disgust at seeing 'mixed couples,' or 'gay couples' (also frequently said to inspire disgust). Am I clueless, or is it possible it simply is not naturally disgusting.

Like silverfish!