Tavern Onions

27 01 2011

My first memories of vegetable gardening were those of my maternal grandfather and the garden he put out every year on a vacant city lot that he rented.  He would turn the garden by hand once a load of cured manure was brought in and basically grew enough produce to not only last from early spring through summer but on through the next winter by means of canning, freezing and storage in a root cellar.  I think the primary reason he put out the garden, spending hours of hard work early in the morning or late into the evening, was to save money but I think he also enjoyed the time away from my grandmother.  Their’s was a turbulent relationship.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s a large percentage of the population in towns and cities were the first generation not to live their adult lives based on an agrarian life-style. Of course, that generation was what would be called the WWI generation and definitely had a different value system than their children, the Greatest Generation, and their grandchildren, the Baby Boomers.  For my grandfather’s generation, gardening was simply another necessary task like painting the porch, mowing the grass or changing out the window screens for storm windows in Spring and reversing the process in Fall.  Still, I think above and beyond the utilitarian aspects of my grandfather’s garden it was the source of personal pride for him; I can identify with that.

I will freely admit that he was not an easy man to get to know and I think a lot of that was intentional.  Still, he could not hide his satisfaction when he produced the first ripe tomato of the season to the dismay of fellow gardeners in the neighborhood.  He definitely had a “green thumb.”  By training, he was a boilermaker for the Southern Railroad; a dirty, difficult and dangerous job that took both strength and skill.  Yet, he could pinch off a piece of nearly any plant he came across and get it to grow.  I always thought that was a paradox within him.

Besides the regular vegetables you would expect to find in any well-planned garden, he also grew what were called “tavern onions.”  Tavern onions can best be describe as a Vadalia or Walla Walla variety of sweet onion.  Most small towns with German heritage, including Princeton, had as many small taverns and there were churches. Both establishments were patronized by the same crowd.  Anyways, the taverns would serve customers these sweet onions at the bar as they consumed their drinks. I guess it is like peanuts or pretzels in a bar today.  Grandpa Arvin’s tavern onions were always in demand and brought a premium price.  This was the only thing grown in his garden that was not meant to be consumed by the family.  According to him, the onions paid for the rest of the garden.  Or, at least, that is what he told my grandmother who counted every penny and knew where every cent was spent and earned, usually.

I don’t remember how much he sold the onions for but I do know that the price per pound that the tavern owners paid and the amount of money turned over to my grandmother was not the same.  See, Grandpa Arvin loved to smoke and Grandma Arvin thought cigarettes were a waste of money.  The profits skimmed off the top of the tavern onion enterprise went to covering the cost of Grandpa Arvin’s smoking habit.  I often wondered how in the hell two people get to that point in a relationship–another topic for another essay.  The point is that vegetable gardening has been part of my life since my pre-school days.

One of the first tasks we undertook when we bought the land where our home is located was to plant fruit trees and to have a neighbor plow up a place for a vegetable garden.  Let’s face it; even if you put aside the financial savings and the health benefits of growing much of your own food, one of the main motivators is a romantic notion of a return to the land.  Having that vision during some of the dark days after my divorce was all that kept me going many times.  I am often reminded of just how strong this motivation is when I read our youngest daughter’s blog, Back To Her Roots, and she writes about her childhood memories of going out to the garden and eating sun-warmed tomatoes along with fresh green beans and raw sweet corn just pulled from the stalk.

I can tell she and her husband have the yearning to live a life and raise their yet-to-be-born children in the same type of environment that she grew up in.  Maybe, with the right planning, they will be able to make that dream come true just like we did. Every spring, that romantic scene complete with fruit tree blossoms, asparagus shoots and leaves sprouting on Concord grape vines renews my faith that raising your own food may only be second to raising your children as a satisfying long-term endeavor.

This weekend I will plant heirloom tomato seeds, sweet and hot pepper seeds along with many herbs in small starter trays in preparation for transplanting them into the garden sometime in the first part of May once the danger of frost has passed. Knowing what is not in my food is so reassuring.  Thinking about the rich, acidic taste of the Black Krim tomato or the fleeting access to freshly-cut asparagus grilled with sea salt, cracked pepper and a lemon juice-olive oil drizzle makes me realize that this January-February funk will only last a short time in relation to the lifelong rewards and pleasure derived from growing our own food.  Don’t get me started on thinking about a meal of fresh green onions and steamed baby spinach for supper in late spring–my mouth is watering already.

Where are those seeds, I may not wait until this weekend to get started.



A Difference?

24 01 2011

As I approach the fifth anniversary of my retirement from full-time traditional classroom teaching I seem to have a lot of former students making contact with me over the last few months.  I am not quite sure why so many have decided to touch base with me lately but it has been very satisfying to know that they think it’s worth the effort.

Back in the late 1980s when I first gave serious thought to changing the direction of my life and going into teaching I had a lot of back-and-forth conversations with myself.  When I finally decided to do more than just think about it I drove down to the IU campus in New Albany and made an appointment with people in the Education Department to see if my goal of teaching was even reasonable.  Oh, I knew it was possible but I had to consider the time lines, the finances and the obstacles I would have to overcome just to get certified.

I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1971 but only had one job offer–Guam.  As I look at it now that would have been a marvelous experience but at 22-years old I just couldn’t see it.  I went into business and put teaching in a compartment somewhere in the back of my psyche.  In 1973, I got an unsolicited offer to teach English in my hometown of Princeton.  I turned it down; taking a pay cut of nearly 40% was just not feasible at that point in my life.

Not until a few years ago did I realize that over the twenty years or so I was in the business world I did find outlets for my need to teach–coaching, being a Scout Master, etc. Still those activities did not completely satisfy my needs.

When I walked into the office of the Dean of Education in the summer of 1990 with my transcripts in my hand, she looked over them and smirked.  I had that “Oh,shit!” feeling and thought that I might be on some sort of a Don Quote-ish type of quest. She then said something that changed my life, although I did not understand how much of an impact it had on me until years later.

“I suppose you think you can make a difference, don’t you?”

How in the hell was I supposed to answer that question?  I just knew it pissed me off.

“Hell, yes, I think I can make a difference.” I thought to myself.  Why else would someone want to go into teaching.  That would be like asking someone who wanted to go into business if he thought he could make money.

The undeniably cynical tone in her voice solidified my resolve to the point that she was going to stand in my way. However, I had enough business experience to know that she was the troll who lived under and guarded the bridge I had to cross.  I had to answer her question in just the right way. I put a leash on my ego, kissed her butt and justified it as pragmatism.  I answered her in my most humble voice saying I hoped that I might make a small difference for at least a few kids.

A few years later, I was at a national education conference in New York when I heard a speaker say something that put much of that experience in perspective. The speaker stated that there were only two reasons people became teachers.  He said the first reason people become teachers is because that was all they could do in life. He said the second reason people became teachers is because that was all they could do in life.  That’s not a typo–let me explain.

The speaker went on to elaborate that there are people in education who are so inept at everything else, teaching is the only thing they can do to earn a living.  Then there are people who are so well-equipped to be teachers, it is the only thing they can pursue as a profession that is truly satisfying for them.  I understood that point so clearly it can only be described as an epiphany.

Twenty years removed from that conversation with the Dean of Education, I wish there was some way that the students I had the opportunity to work with could answer her question.

Every time a former student makes contact with me I get this warm, fuzzy feeling and confidently say to myself, “Damned right I made a difference.”  I got the opportunity to impact generations not yet born.  In my life that is about as good as it gets.

The good feeling a parent gets when he sees his own children grow to adulthood, succeed and be happy in life is similar to what I feel as a teacher when former students, now adults want to tell me about their children, their lives and recall memories of our times together back in high school complete with something I don’t remember saying that really stuck with them.  The big difference is that some times a student will surface and tell me how I impacted his or her life positively and I thought I was just talking to a wall and making no progress in “getting inside their heads.”  I suppose the students that I either had a negative impact on or had no impact on at all will probably never make the effort to contact me.  I regret not being good enough to make a difference in their lives.


The Wisdom of Goldilocks

21 01 2011

I just now ordered vegetable garden seed for this coming season.  I have found that working with daylily and vegetable seeds/seedlings is great therapy in January and February.  It takes about six weeks for the seeds to germinate and the tiny shoots get strong enough to put outside.  That is just about the time when, in Southern Indiana, we start to get the occasional spring-like day.  I would start the process in December if I thought it would change my perception of how slowly winter is dragging along.  I tried starting everything in December one year and it had the exact opposite effect I was looking for.

When seedlings get to a certain size, they need to be outside, temperature allowing, in order not to get spindly and to harden up.  As I said, that is about at the six week mark after planting.  By starting the process in December I had to put the whole operation on hold for what seemed like an eternity and generally ended up losing many seedlings because I either got impatient and convinced myself that I could put them outside for just a little time in the cold frame or had them wither for lack of enough natural light inside to facilitate photosynthesis once the nutrients of the seed pod were depleted.

Yep, timing is everything–especially with gardening.  I think most parallels to life are so obvious that they need not be articulated.  Like gardening though, learning about proper timing means a lot of false starts–starting to early or starting too late.  Maybe we all need to be a little more like Goldilocks, not the breaking-and-entering Goldilocks, but the moderation-seeking Goldilock.  We need to figure out what is “just right.”

I guess that is the challenge we all face–knowing when it is time to stop sitting around looking out the window, thinking about the future and knowing when it is time to start preparing for the future.


Back Away from the Hoop and No One Will Get Hurt

13 01 2011

I will be the first one to admit that as much as I admire and attempt to embrace moderation in my life, I struggle to avoid going over the edge on everything from buying fly fishing equipment that I may never use to ordering too many varieties of garden seed to persuading myself that I need a Les Paul to eating sweets–I don’t want just a piece of cherry pie, I want the whole damned pie.  I can look back at my life and see a pattern of over-extension, over-indulgence and pushing things to and quite often beyond the limit.  I suspect I could have very easily become an addict on many different levels if not for the influence of some good people in my life.

It wasn’t until about twenty years ago that I even considered my perspective on life may not be one based in moderation.  I was like the woman who looked at the size 10 dress hanging on the mannequin in the department store window and thought it would look twice as pretty in a size 20.  As the 12-steppers know, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  And, before you can admit you have a problem you must be aware of it on a conscious level.

That awareness was, in one way or another, either the cause or the effect of my midlife crisis.  Unlike some guys I know, my midlife crisis did not manifest itself in the form of a red sports car and a flat-bellied 22 year old.  I sold my businesses and became a high school teacher.  No moderation in that decision either; talk about an extreme life change.

Anyways, as I have evolved/matured/slowed down/mellowed over the last couple of decades, I have learned to manage my compulsion to go over the top.  I don’t always succeed but the number of times I have lost it in recent years has greatly diminished. Some of the advantages to that new-found self control are fewer hangovers, fewer upset stomachs, fewer injuries from playing sports with reckless abandon and fewer obligatory and embarrassing apologies for something said or done that was totally inappropriate to me only in hindsight.  I am fairly sure I can identity the cause of this personality flaw but I think it is a subject more appropriate for another essay a little further in the future.

The one area of my life that has still evaded my attempts to moderate my over-the-top behavior and reactions is Indiana University basketball.  For those who are reading this and did not grow up in the state of Indiana this may seem odd.  For those of you born-and-bred Hoosiers, you understand that basketball, in general, is closer to religion than sport in this state.  Attending a high school basketball in Indiana is truly a spiritual experience for native Hoosiers.  And, depending on a fan’s loyalty, having a ticket to attend a game at Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena or Hinkle Fieldhouse is as close to Nirvana as can be found on earth.

Back in 1987, Linda and I, along with two other couples went to the Final Four in New Orleans to support the Bob Knight-coached Hoosiers who eventually won the National Championship.  An incident happened on that trip to emphasis the point that basketball in Indiana is on a totally different level than anywhere else.  I’m not necessarily referring to the wins and losses but rather the fervor for and understanding of the game.

On Friday night before the Saturday semi-final games, our group was walking down Bourbon Street taking in all the atmosphere that makes New Orleans what it is. During our trek, two couples approached us and asked what all of us considered an odd question.  The movie, Hoosiers, was released just a couple of months earlier and the people we met asked if the movie was realistic.  I am sure that the question perplexed my friends as much as it did me.  Realistic? What were they asking?  After admitting that I didn’t understand their question, they clarified it by asking if the movie accurately depicted how the people, the fans, were consumed with the high school basketball team.  All I could do was laugh.  If anything, I believe the movie downplays the fanaticism of a large number of Indiana high school basketball fans. We assured our Bourbon Street questioners that, yes, the movie was accurate in that aspect.  To tell them the truth would have totally discredited our assessment of the film.

On cold Friday nights, in small towns and neighborhoods across the state, people of all ages will pack into high school gyms and cheer for and/or against 14-17 year olds with dreams of playing at the next level.  Some members of that rabid rabble exhibit behavior that you would expect to see on The Jerry Springer Show. However, as I mentioned earlier, basketball fans in Indiana are arguably the most knowledgeable fans collectively in the nation.  Most fans know enough about the game to not watch the ball but to keep an eye on what’s going on with the players away from the ball; there is where the true essence of the game takes place.  That requires a lot of focus and leaves little room for distractions. Though very demonstrative, most basketball fans in Indiana are enthralled in the game and the strategies unfolding–keep in mind that it is called Hoosier Hysteria and there is a reason for that.

Dr. James Naismeth, the inventor of basketball, once said, “Basketball was born in Massachusetts but it grew up in Indiana.”

All of this rambling brings me to the point of this essay and that is the reality of being a fan of Indiana University basketball nowadays can be dangerous for a person’s health, or at least my health.  I admit to getting so excited in the past while cheering at big rivalry games like Purdue or Kentucky that I hyperventilated and thought I was having a heart attack–on more than one occasion.  That is not the kind of thing I’m referring to.  Most true and honest fans of college basketball know that IU basketball was on a downhill slide since the mid-1990s.  Without going into all the details of that decline, it was like the second coming (remember, basketball is religion in Indiana) when Tom Crean was announced as the new head coach in April of 2008.

Fast forward to the present day and the program has been turned around, finally heading in the right direction.  Academics and high levels of personal character are once again becoming synonymous with IU basketball.  What has not been linked with Tom Crean’s IU teams, thus far, is winning.  And that is where the rub comes in. Winning the right way is what I want and what nearly all IU fans want but it gets very frustrating and demoralizing to watch a team make the same mistakes, game after game, and do the two-steps-forward-and-one-step-backwards dance.  Some would argue that I have the sequence reversed but I will give the team and coaching staff the benefit of the doubt.

For fifty years I have, like lots of basketball fans in Indiana, both high school and college, defined at least a part of my public persona by the team that I support.  That becomes an emotional issue, one of self-definition.  This season, I have had to reassess my emotional commitment to IU Basketball.  The relatively long-term, day-to-day stress of caring for my mother and the toll that is taking on me physically and psychological has surely exacerbated the frustration I have experienced as a loyal fan in the last month or so and has caused me to actually get physically ill.  Oh, sure–it’s only a game; unless it is basketball and it’s in Indiana.

Trying to reinvent myself as an interested, casual fan is a effort to reprogram over fifty years of seeing the game as more than just a game.  Drive down any street or country road in any part of the state of Indiana and count the basketball goals in the yards, on the garages and sides of barns.  Some of the greatest conversations I have ever had with friends or with my children took place while we played H-O-R-S-E in the driveway.  Some of the greatest memories I have are of neighborhood pick up games or “my” team winning the Sectional, when it snows.  It always snows in Southern Indiana at Sectional time.

I know that IU basketball will be back to its traditional spot as one of the five or six elite college programs in the nation.  In fact, I am so confident that along with a couple of my buddies–also IU alums–I am making initial plans to attend the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta and the 2014 Final Four in Dallas.  However, until the team begins to play with sustained intensity and swagger that comes from repeated success and a culture of expecting to win, I am going to have to back off a bit or I may not make it until 2013.

Just like basketball, life is more than a game.


My Take on New Year’s Resolutions

1 01 2011

Everywhere I look today I see something about New Year’s Resolutions (NYR).  I read somewhere that the number one NYR is to lose weight.  In no particular order the other top NYR are changing jobs, getting out of debt and getting a divorce/breaking up.  I think I see a common theme here.  It seems to me that most NYR have to do with correcting a self-induced negative condition or dealing with the results of a bad decision.  There’s nothing wrong with that but what about making resolutions to continue or increase some sort of positive behavior?  I guess that suggestion makes an assumption that people are already engaged in at least some sort of positive or selfless behavior.

On a personal level, I have contemplated making NYR over the years but quickly talked myself out of them.  It seems to me that classifying something as a NYR is putting unnecessary pressure on myself and a case of hyper-guilt if sometime in January or February I fall off the wagon.

What makes more sense to me at this time of year is to assess my life in as objective a manner as possible, I realize that introspection is not objective at all, but what are you going to do? Lord Polonius’ advice to Laertes is one of the most difficult challenges that a person can undertake.  Regardless, it does make sense to make a list, either mentally or physically, of all the things you do in your life that bring about positive results and all the things you do in your life that bring about negative results.  I think a person should resolve to improve on his or her strengths and attempt to diminish the weaknesses.

For me specifically, I plan to continue exercising and to increase the amount of exercise I do now.  I also want to continue thinking before I eat.  Not only do I want to consider the quantity of food I take in but also the quality of food I consume.  I want to continue and to increase raising much of our own food and continue to seek out new sources for non-processed food and grass-fed/free range meat.

I resolve to spend more time with my wife doing things that we can enjoy and building lifelong memories.  Traveling and taking classes in everything from Tai Chi to Cajun Cooking in New Orleans to sailing classes on Lake Michigan are but a few of the specifics I want us to experience together over the next year. Probably watching the sunset in Key West as we drink our gin-and-tonics is also in the 2011 forecast.

Speaking of my wife, I want to do more in the way of my actions to let her know how much I value and love her; nothing special or dramatic, just little everyday things.

I plan to continue working towards being a valuable source of advice, wisdom and support for my kids and their families.

Finally, I intend to get involved in some sort of child advocacy program as a volunteer.  I realize that my experience and talents might really make a difference in my community.

I hope by focusing of doing more positive things in my life that it will, in turn, help to balance the ledger against some of my weaknesses and relatively make them less of a factor in my life.

A while back a buddy of mine sent me this little ditty and I think it demonstrates just how important focusing on doing positive things in one’s life can be.