26 January 2011

White Milk

My wife, my son, and I were returning, recently, from a day-trip to visit family in South Milwaukee. It’s a two hour drive from my Aunt’s house to our apartment on Madison’s far west side. We had left later than we meant to and our son was starting to scream in his car seat. We quickly realized we would not get home with enough time for both dinner and a bath before bed. The decision was clear: stopping to eat something would be better than waiting and arriving home with an exhausted and hungry toddler.

Upon exiting I-94, our best option was one of those chain restaurants with a hapless assortment of film-and-television memorabilia covering the walls. Definitely not our first choice. But, we thought, compared with drive-thru fast food, this was our best hope of finding something that resembled actual nourishment.

When you’re a nouveau-hippie food snob and your wife is one of those people who wants to place a copy The Omnivore’s Dilemma next to the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms across America, you tend to wring your hands over everything your child eats. Similarly, when you’re a student of educational theory, dinner time is just one more opportunity to worry about life-long habits of heart, mind, and body. As I pulled off the highway the air was heavy with sighs of guilt and I could feel the chilly breath of John Dewey’s ghost on my neck: To say that all genuine education is based in experience is not to say that all experience is genuinely educational….

It’s just one dinner!, I told myself. The kid needed food and I needed to finish the next sixty-five miles of driving without frantic wails from the backseat. The place was clean, the employees were friendly, and there were other little kids – reducing the risk that our toddler would be the only diner who might cry and make a scene. It wouldn’t be our proudest parenting moment or a meaningful culinary education, but we could do worse. Michael Pollan and John Dewey would have to suck it up.

21 January 2011

Consciousness and Righteous Rage

"Bullsh*t" is a popular card game among college students and high schoolers.

It’s a simple game of one-upmanship and bluffing. The first player announces she has a certain number of cards of a certain value. I have two fives. The next player, if he believes her, must best her with a claim of greater value. I have two sixes. This process continues until a player thinks he has encountered a bluff – I have four Queens – and declares, Bullsh*t!

After the tragic events in Tucson, there has been a similar one-uping game in the media. The cable news version, however, is a moralistic one. Who is to blame? Did talk-show hosts contribute to a hostile environment? Is the left grasping for a chance to discredit the right? Unfortunately, much of this particular outrage feels less than genuine if not outright hypocritical. But glass houses and thrown stones are nothing new in public debate. And I, like many others, accepted this fact a while ago.

Yet, somewhere between the finger-pointing and the cries of Don’t pick on me!, I have grown increasingly tired of the game in all its forms. The shooting in Arizona and the ensuing debate speak for themselves. I have no comment, right now, on either point. At the moment, I’m frustrated with the on-going pissing match in higher education.

17 January 2011

On Heroes

I am not a person given to hero worship. This is not to say that I don’t have role models or don’t deeply respect the accomplishments of men and women of good character. On a day dedicated to honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., I join all Americans as we stand in awe of the leadership and courage he demonstrated. He is a national Hero.

I must confess, though, that I have never thought of anyone as my personal Hero. Put simply, I have been holding out for someone who would affect something singularly amazing in my life – something beyond being kind and doing the right thing. I will never forget the people who have been my inspiration to be a better friend, to be a good father and husband, and to pursue education. But, taking on a Hero, per se, has never come naturally to me. It is just my hang up.

I met Tora in my first semester of graduate school but we didn’t become friends until a few years later when we were working in the same office. It was easy to consider her a friend. We share similar interests, are annoyed by the same people, have compatible senses of humor, and are both parents of small children. So, after several weeks of chatting over the noise of the photocopier, we set up a play date. In theory, it was a chance to bring our kids together. But the kids didn’t care. It was really a chance for me and my wife to meet Tora and her husband, Raj, outside of work and, hopefully, become friends with other parents.

07 January 2011

In Good Company

Last week, I posted the final (and long delayed) installment of a nine-part series on gardening, what it looks like, and why the heck we go to so much trouble. I’m a little disappointed because I hoped it would be a ten-parter. But… if I count this post… that makes ten! Done and Done.

I undertook this project as part of a fall 2010, agriculture-themed journalism class with the immensely talented and passionate Deborah Blum. She has been, and continues to be, a valued teacher and mentor. For those interested in a little science, real-life crime drama, and history, I recommend her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I finished it over the winter break and can assure you that it’s a – wait for it – killer read. What? Lighten up.

Lowest of Lows

If you read home and garden magazines, shop for mail-order seeds, or listen to programs like Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk, you are probably familiar with the “zone” system. If not, here are the basics:

Not all plants can survive in all climates. At a certain point a plant will freeze to death. Similarly, as the mercury rises, there is a point at which a plant or vine will simply bake and wither. Thus, a map of climatic zones was established to help gardeners and landscapers know (a) what zone they are working in and (b) which plants, trees, and flowers can survive there. The zones are labeled with low numbers for colder climates and high numbers for heat. The continental United States covers, roughly, zones 2 (in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota) through 10 (in southern Florida and California’s Death Valley).

It is a fairly simple concept and the resulting map looks something like this.

I’ve consulted zone maps many times. They are very helpful. But, being the inquisitive, ornery type, I wondered, Where does this information come from? Who determines these zones?

I had my theories. I thought, perhaps, it was a product of the gardening industry – something developed by retailers to help customers make informed choices and avoid refund requests when orchids start dying off in February in Fargo. Or, maybe it was compiled by an organization like the American Horticultural Society as a sort of public service announcement. I was curious.

But, with a little digging, I learned a lot more about the zone map than I expected.