Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless. E-Mail

Ask the Amateur Pediatrician
Acceptance is the Only Thing I Can't Seem To Reconcile Myself To Lettuce: Pray for help
The Beer Garden: Grow your own!
Change Your Life for $39!
Compost is vital to our gardens, our national security, and even our celebrities!
Cyclists Are Gearing Up for Bike to Work Day: Sorry, terrible headline

Dewey Defeats Saddam!
Everything I need to know about international relations I learned in my community garden
A frothy midsummer dream. Autumnal idyll comes up against sobering reality
Hu's on First!
Inch by Inch, Row by Row: When is this Stupid Plant Going to Grow?
Information Infestation? Call the Data Exterminators!
In our system of foodalism, I'm happy to be a peasant
Parenting Secrets of the Zen Masters
Those Pesky Celebrities are Ruining Everything!
Vegetable gardening is cool. Who knew?
Welcome to Fountainhead Campground
When in the Coors of human events...
Without Caffeine, Parenting Itself Would Be Impossible But don't overlook the many benefits of sleep deprivation!
You've got to fight for your right to garden

In our system of foodalism, I'm happy to be a peasant

I n increments of two or three minutes at bedtime each night, I’ve been reading A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman’s bestselling history of 14th century Europe. What better respite from the pressures of modern life, I thought, than to be carried back into the remote past and marvel at the currents of history in such a different place and time?

One of the illustrations in the book is Pietro Crescenzi’s calendar (shown) depicting the chores of medieval peasants throughout the year: preparing soil, sowing seeds, pruning fruit trees, tending animals, stomping grapes.

The image is iconically medieval, yet eerily familiar. I’ve spent these warm spring days starting seeds, turning soil, making compost, working on the chicken coop and doing other chores just like the ones in the picture. Looking into the pages of a history book, I saw myself. “Distant mirror” is right! Suddenly it struck me: I’m not a mild-mannered suburban homeowner. I’m a peasant!

How did this happen? The medieval peasantry spent centuries struggling to cast off the feudal yoke, and here I’ve gone and voluntarily yoked myself to my garden. What began a few years ago as a harmless hobby—growing a few tomatoes and salad greens in a small community garden plot—has spiraled out of control into a big suburban yard filled with garden beds, a fruit orchard, a beehive and a henhouse. I may not be bound to the land by serfdom, but I can’t take a vacation for more than a few days without finding someone to come by and water. And apart from my primary responsibilities of working, parenting and taking long bike rides, I spend most of my free time toiling in the garden.

Realizing that I’m a peasant came as a shock, because the word has such negative connotations in our culture. While real peasants were widely diverse in time, place and circumstances, the basic historical meaning of the term, according to reputable online dictionaries, is “an agricultural worker who owns or rents a small plot of ground” or “a member of a European class of persons tilling the soil as small landowners or as laborers.” That doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s taken on a figurative meaning too. Nowadays, “peasant” can refer to “a coarse, unsophisticated, boorish person of little financial means.”

Despite this stereotype, I have come to accept my peasanthood as a lifestyle choice that works for me. This is not to romanticize the life of a medieval peasant, which seems rather nasty, although the members of the class ranged from the abjectly poor to the fairly prosperous. I’m what you might call a cafeteria peasant, choosing the aspects of peasantry that sound like fun while keeping many benefits of modern city life. Let’s run through the menu. Own a small plot of land and grow much of my own food? Check. Miserably hard life, working mostly for the local lord, with only a little time to tend my own field, and sometimes, according to Tuchman, being “crucified, roasted, or dragged behind horses by brigands to extort money”? Pass. Boorish, uncultured, crude? I hope not, but I guess all you fartheads will be the judge of that.

Little financial means? OK, check. But all the garden produce takes a big chunk out of the grocery bill, so we peasants can get by on less. That’s why the term still describes those of us who forgo some of the luxuries of the consumer culture in favor of more simple pleasures like growing and eating fresh food and spending less time in offices and more time in gardens. I’m a suburban, part-time hobbyist peasant, but a proud peasant nonetheless.

Why would anyone willingly accept this pejorative label? Well, compare the images of peasants and aristocrats in old paintings. Who looks healthier and happier? The kings and nobles are decked out in fancy robes and jewels, but they don’t seem very pleased about it. Their tastes may be refined, along with their flour and sugar, but their luxurious lifestyle just makes them look cranky, bloated and gassy.

By contrast, peasants are often shown toiling in the fields, but in many paintings they look fit and happy, feasting and partying in simple homes at tables piled with food. They worked hard, but as Tuchman describes them, they produced their own eggs, cheese, onions, garlic, vegetables, rye bread, honey, beer and cider. All this, and they avoided the diseases of affluence that afflicted the rich cake-eaters.

I don’t mind being associated with peasantry, and not just because I’m in my own Middle Ages now. I also feel comfortable with the role because my favorite foods—root veggies, garlic, cabbage and dark leafy greens—are the staple ingredients of “peasant” dishes like hearty soups and stews. It’s not surprising that this wholesome diet has found its way into gourmet restaurants. Append the word “cuisine,” and the stigma mysteriously vanishes. Peasant cuisine has all the virtues that the foodies of today love. It’s local, whole, seasonal, healthy and delicious. “Peasant” is even the name of an upscale eatery in New York City. How odd that we disparage peasants while celebrating their food.

Logically, if we find peasant food healthful and enjoyable, shouldn’t we also embrace the lifestyle that produces it? If it’s good to eat like a peasant, I think it’s good to live like one too. Of course, there is some irony in voluntarily and selectively imitating the way of life that was forced upon the real peasants. I’m doing for leisure what they did instead of leisure.

My desire to create a significant amount of my family’s food may have tethered me to my little suburban virgate (the old English term for the amount of land needed to support one person). But aren’t we all dependent on the industrial food system, which might be called “foodalism”? We are like vassals in this system, working in exchange for the promise of inexpensive food. But the price of our fealty is that in the process of producing huge quantities of cheap food much of the flavor and nutrition is removed, not to mention the humanity. Something the peasants of yore knew all about.

So I’m staging my own little Peasants’ Revolt. The goal is to keep all the good progress that’s been made since the Black Death, while acknowledging the costs that our prosperity has for our health and the environment, and recovering some of the positive traditions that have been lost. Growing some veggies in a garden, however small or large, is not only a hobby that’s so much fun it can take over your life. Gardening is also a way to stake out a delicious measure of independence from our foodal overlords.

Compost is vital to our gardens, our national security, and even our celebrities!

Tonight, a cold winter night, I took a bag of kitchen scraps out to the backyard. When I plunged the pitchfork into the compost bin, a blast of steam, heat and pungent aroma hit me in the face. It was overwhelming and exciting. What a feeling of power! I made heat in the winter. I'm creating healthy soil for my garden. I provide a warm home for several local mice. For a gardener, composting is the most fun you can have in the wintertime.

A great thing about gardening is the direct connection between our efforts and the results. This is especially rewarding for those of us who work in large organizations, where our contribution to the end product is often less tangible. Can you honestly say you get the same sense of personal satisfaction from that latte you served, that deal you negotiated, or that heart you transplanted as you do from growing your own tomatoes?

But we miss this feeling in the winter, when the garden is dormant. A compost pile can fill this deep emotional void. The temperature is in the mid-30s tonight, but the center of my compost heap is a furnace purring along at 120 degrees. Not only do I have a sense of accomplishment, but I am also secure in the knowledge that if I accidentally locked myself out of the house, I could survive the winter night by immersing myself in the compost. I might not smell too good, and my wife might not unlock the door for me in the morning, but I would be alive.

Composting keeps us connected to our gardens through the cold months. But compost does so much more than that. I know this because the other way I pass the time before the last frost date is by searching the internet for unusual news stories about gardening and composting. In the past year, compost has played a crucial role in every important aspect of our lives, from technology to national security and even our obsession with celebrities.

Indisputably, the way to tell if something is truly significant is whether celebrities do it. We all want to emulate the celebrity lifestyle, whether by writing children's books or by not staying married to the same person for more than a few weeks. Well, it turns out that British music heartthrob Alex James' lifestyle includes composting. "I've come to love [compost] heaps!" he gushed in a recent interview. Wow, you know composting is becoming really trendy if a superstar like Alex James is into it. OK, I've never heard of him either. But apparently he's rather well known in parts of England. So maybe composting has not quite achieved Kaballah-level interest among celebrities, but it's a start.

Composting is not only making inroads into popular culture. Did you know that compost is also vital to our national security?

At Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, the U.S. Army is composting the organic waste generated at the base. This eliminates the toxic fumes from burning trash, and it also improves the soil in the area. If our troops did this everywhere, imagine the benefits their compost would spread around the world, especially to places with sandy soil like Iraq and Afghanistan. Our leaders talk about planting the seeds of democracy. Well, what better way to help them take root than to put down a nice layer of compost first?

Compost is not only useful in the war on terror. It can also play an important role in law enforcement.

Near London one evening, police were searching a neighborhood for two thieves. Thermal-imaging equipment on a police helicopter detected two heat sources apparently hiding in a garden behind a house where Mr. Piers Smith was reading a bedtime story to his children. Officers stormed through the house and into the garden. After a brief struggle, they discovered that the source of the heat was Mr. Smith's two compost heaps.

Because I hold the elite title of certified master composter, people often ask me how to tell if their compost system is working properly. "Well," I reply helpfully, "if the police barge into your garden and try to arrest your compost pile, you can be pretty sure you're doing it right."

Yes, from the garden to the battlefield and even the world of high technology, compost is truly the wave of the future. Combining biotech and nanotech, the billions of microscopic organisms in your bin are working to improve our way of life.

Scientists have developed plastics to use in automobiles that can be composted when the car is scrapped. And researchers recently created a cell phone cover made of biodegradable plastic containing a sunflower seed that grows when the plastic turns into compost. What a great idea! I think our world becomes a better place every time we have one less cell phone and one more sunflower.

Ultimately, compost makes us reflect that we ourselves are part of nature's great cycle of life and death, decay and renewal. Now we can take that literally. A town in England has approved a process by which freeze-dried human bodies can be turned into compost. That's the way I want to go. It would be enough of an afterlife for me. Just don't use me to grow eggplant for all eternity. I hate eggplant. That would be hell.

Vegetable gardening is cool. Who knew?

On Earth Day this year, Julia Roberts demonstrated composting on Oprah's TV show. Also recently, centenarian-tracking "Today Show" weather forecaster Willard Scott called on Americans to revive the victory gardens of the World War II era to enhance their food security. Finally, NASA has announced that astronauts on a future mission to Mars will grow their own vegetables in hydroponic gardens on board the spacecraft.

These seemingly unrelated events point to a trend that could have a tremendous impact on those of us in the gardening community: We have to prepare ourselves for the fact that we are about to become cool.

Because obviously, no one epitomizes cool like Willard Scott.

The new popularity of gardening may seem like a sudden development. But in fact, anyone who has been conscientious enough to monitor Google news alerts for funny gardening stories over the past few years, as I have, could see this trend coming.

Iggy Pop's green thumb

Last year, for example, punk legend Iggy Pop's garden won a medal at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in England. And here in America, gardening is even hipper and edgier, as this recent headline shows: "Rappers arrested for gun possession after Garden show." I don't condone carrying illegal firearms, but I was impressed that famous hip-hop artists were interested in attending a garden show in the first place.

Oh, wait, it turns out they were performing a show at Madison Square Garden. Never mind. I guess I should read more than just the headlines, because when I do, I learn that a wide range of celebrities, from rocker Tommy Lee to author Salman Rushdie, gush about their love of gardening in interviews. Even such megastars as NASCAR driver Jimmy Spencer and bombshell actress Kelly Brook are into gardening, according to news stories. OK, I've never heard of them either, but apparently they are rather well known among the young people of today.

This is the key point, because celebrities and young people are our society's supreme arbiters of coolness. So if they are growing food, the concept of cool-season gardening takes on a whole new meaning.

When I was a young adult, I liked plants and gardens. That sure didn't make me cool. Back then, the cool kids were wearing pink polo shirts with upturned collars and vying for jobs at investment banks. This was a time when Van Halen and Chuck Norris were considered cool, to give you an idea how far we've come.

A generation ago, growing vegetables wasn't even cool among gardeners, as I was shocked to discover while leafing through the 1968 edition of the "Better Homes and Gardens New Garden Book." Here's what this definitive guide had to say on the subject: "By the time you buy seeds, plants, fertilizers, fungicides, and insecticides - then pay yourself even a minimum wage - you aren't saving any money on groceries by growing your own vegetables. And unless you borrow a hoe and a rake from the neighbors, you'll need a further investment in tools and equipment. While you're handing out the cash, remember that overworked maxim - there are some things that money can't buy. We're certain the register still includes happiness and the taste of home-grown vegetables." Wow, you know something is uncool when even the most authoritative book promoting it basically says it's a waste of time.

But young people are flocking to the garden nowadays, perhaps as a way to channel their big-picture environmental concerns and their personal worries about soaring food prices into a tangible way to make a difference. And if you skip all the fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, which defeat the purpose anyway, organic gardening is certainly an economical way to produce a lot of good, healthy food.

Revenge of the nerds

What we are witnessing is the revenge of the horticultural nerds. When I was in college, growing tomatoes in a pot on my dorm room balcony made me the dweebiest of dorks. Now, hip young "guerrilla gardeners" sneak onto vacant city lots and surreptitiously plant lettuce and garlic. Somehow, gardening has become wild and dangerous, a radical way to rebel against authority and subvert the dominant industrial-food paradigm. Next thing you know, rappers really will be hanging out at garden shows.

We gardeners will still be hanging out in our gardens, tending our veggies and waiting to see if the recent buzz of interest in our hobby is a passing fad or part of a lasting effort to diversify our food system. And because it's a cool thing to do now, our kids just might want to be there with us, learning skills that will help them succeed in the modern world. Especially if they grow up to be astronauts.

Everything I need to know about international relations I learned in my community garden

In a recent interview with Time magazine, CIA director Porter Goss was asked a very important question. After dispensing with topics like catching Osama Bin Laden and dealing with the insurgency in Iraq, the reporter got down to business: "You're into organic gardening. How did that happen?"

Mr. Goss replied that gardening is relaxing and rewarding for him. He even composts. But he complained that animals always steal his crops.

I find it reassuring that our top intelligence official seeks solace in the garden. Although it makes me a little nervous that the man responsible for eradicating terrorist cells in our country can't keep squirrels out of his garden.

I was also surprised. I tend to think of powerful people spending their leisure time hunting rather than gardening. I can readily imagine type-A go-getters out on a big game hunt. But somehow it's hard to picture Theodore Roosevelt misting orchids or Ernest Hemingway weeding around his peas.

Perhaps this is an unfair stereotype. After all, hunting and gardening are popular for the same basic reason: they take us back to the primeval days when people lived in nature and had to provide for themselves. It was a simpler yet rougher time, without the complexities or soft comforts of modern life. Hunting and gardening make us feel truly alive by appealing to these primitive instincts in ways that some other hobbies, like collecting refrigerator magnets, may not.

But I wonder why some people gravitate to gardening, while hunting appeals to other personality types. For example, I prefer gardening. Time spent in the garden is fun and serene, and there are relatively few fatal gardening accidents. So it seems to suit my character. I have nothing against hunting for food, but let's face it: hunting can be rather adversarial. The hunter and the deer are not out there seeking to resolve their differences amicably. It's a bit of a zero-sum game when you think about it. Does this mean the aggressive, driven people who become leaders in their field are more likely to be space-age hunter-gatherers than to settle down and cultivate the land? If so, does hunting reinforce confrontational attitudes that carry over into our leaders' jobs, making them more inclined to deal with a crisis by reaching for their metaphorical thirty aught-six?

Of course, there's a time and place for strong action. But I think gardening, especially community gardening, could teach our leaders important lessons about foreign policy too.

Outsiders, perhaps laboring under some stereotypes of their own, may think of a community garden as an urban idyll of perfect harmony. But those of us who garden there know that the community garden is a microcosm of the world. We each have our own territory, with footpaths forming borders with our neighbors. And we have to deal with conflicts and threats just like world leaders do.

For example, has your community garden space ever been invaded by an aggressive pumpkin vine? When a plot's territorial integrity is threatened, the gardeners don't respond unilaterally with clippers. We use diplomacy to discourage expansionism without resorting to force.

Of course, you can't always blame the gardener when plants attack. Last season, I planted a special type of marigold around the perimeter of my plot, because I heard they would deter nematodes from attacking the roots of my tomato plants. This natural pest-control technique was effective in a sense. My tomato plants survived, although they didn't get very big or produce many tomatoes. They were crowded out and shaded by the marigolds! Each little seedling grew into a massive clump of dense foliage with hundreds of orange blooms. These yard-high shrubs encroached into the pathways, blockading several nearby plots. I tried to be a good citizen by trimming the bushes back, but that just seemed to encourage more growth. This year I'm looking for some special type of nematode to deter my marigolds.

The point is, we all try to get along in the garden. But as in the community of nations, conflicts can occur. Perhaps we will discover a rogue, non-organic gardener in our midst, who is stockpiling chemical fertilizers or even trying to develop pesticides of mass destruction. If so, we'll build alliances to uphold our rules and handle the problem.

Like the countries of the world, we community gardeners must learn to share scarce resources. We share the water and try not to drag the hose over our neighbors' spinach plants. We don't take more than our fair share of compost from the pile. And we happily share the extra food we grow. OK, that's a bad example. Zucchini is not a scarce resource.

It's more like a common enemy. But community gardeners learn to work together to deal with threats to our collective security. Whether it's a zucchini infestation, an attack by invasive weeds, or the occasional nighttime theft of broccoli or tomatoes by mean yet health-conscious neighborhood toughs, we know we are all in this together. That's an experience that might benefit the people who run our government.

Would the world be a safer place if our leaders were community gardeners? I don't know. But I do know one thing: I'd rather garden with Porter Goss than hunt with Dick Cheney.

You've got to fight for your right to garden

Gardening is popular pastime among families, retirees and evil dictators

Gardening is a pleasant, relaxing hobby that gives us moderate exercise, fresh air, and healthy food. It is especially popular among retired people, such as my parents, my elderly neighbors and Saddam Hussein.

According to a recent article about Hussein's life in prison, the deposed Iraqi dictator spends the hour he is allowed out of his cell each day tending a small garden in the prison yard.

Well that's just great. I suppose even a murderous tyrant needs a hobby. Maybe it helps him unwind. But this is more bad press that we gardeners don't need. In the current political climate, the last thing we want is for gardening to be associated with our country's arch enemy. The government already gets suspicious when people buy large amounts of fertilizer. Next thing you know they'll be trying to subpoena our seed purchase records under the Patriot Act.

Perhaps you're worried that this report of Hussein's love of gardening will set off an anti-gardening media frenzy that will sully the positive image of our respectable hobby. Well, I have news for you: Gardening's good name was besmirched long ago.

We think of gardening as the harmless activity of gentle people. What could be less threatening than a bunch of flowers and vegetable plants? But in fact, our culture, geography and even language promote negative images of gardens.

In the Bible, for example, if you go into a garden, you won't get carrots and spinach. You'll get tempted by a serpent or betrayed by your friends.

Gardens have not fared much better in more recent times. If you've seen "A Bridge Too Far," you may remember the code name of the disastrous Allied attempt to take bridges over the rivers of German-occupied Holland during World War II, which decimated the British 1st Airborne Division. That's right: Operation Garden.

Geographic names that refer to gardens often have negative connotations. Not just Eden and Gethsemane. Madison Square Garden certainly conjures unpleasant emotions, at least for Knicks fans. And of course: the Garden State.

Negative garden imagery permeates our very language. What do we call something that is average, mediocre, uninspiring? Garden variety.

In Britain, a person who is fired from a job is entitled to severance pay for a certain time. People whisper euphemistically that this poor loser has been placed on "gardening leave."

This linguistic bias against gardening is not even limited to English. The Russian word for garden is ... sad.

Gardening doesn't make us sad. It makes us happy! But our culture conveys the opposite impression. Let's face it: Gardening's reputation has been thoroughly, to use yet another example of the phenomenon, soiled.

Fortunately, Saddam Hussein is not the only currently incarcerated but formerly powerful and ruthless leader who enjoys gardening. Martha Stewart is also an avid gardener, of course.

A recent news story about her experience in the criminal justice system demonstrates just how much gardening means to her.

Last fall, after she was convicted of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction or whatever it was, Stewart could have stayed out of jail while her appeal made its way through the judicial process. If she did that and then prevailed on the appeal, she would have avoided prison altogether. But she showed up at the jail in October so she could complete her five-month sentence in time to begin her spring gardening.

I like to think I'm a pretty dedicated gardener. I dutifully go out to water and weed, even at times when I'd rather be dozing on the couch. But how many of us would voluntarily do half a year of hard time behind bars just so we would be back on the street in time for the average last frost date? This is the kind of sacrifice and devotion that can help us overcome the negative gardening stereotypes. With Stewart's inspiring example, perhaps gardening will finally get the respect our society accords to other hobbies like figurine collecting and Civil War re-enacting.

So instead of persecuting her, let's herald Martha Stewart as a true gardening hero.

Free Martha! No justice, no peas!

A frothy midsummer dream. Autumnal idyll comes up against sobering reality
Last September, as I do every September, I attended my town's Oktoberfest. This fun celebration of autumn and beer, held on two weekends every year during that month, is an annual ritual heralding the arrival of fall. To me, nothing says "September" like Oktoberfest.

Pondering the fact that Oktoberfest happens in September got my creative juices flowing, and I had a brilliant insight when I glanced up at a sign:

"Bier Garten," it said.

I don't speak German, but using my general knowledge of linguistics, I was able to deduce the meaning of this exotic phrase. That's when the great idea struck me. As an avid gardener, I had heard of people growing salsa gardens and lasagna gardens and even pizza gardens. Next season, I announced silently yet triumphantly to myself, I will grow a beer garden.

Great gardening brainstorms like this often occur in the autumn. In the spring and summer, gardeners are too busy planting and tending to think about the big picture. So we really enjoy the period of quiet contemplation that comes after the harvest. Seeds may germinate in the spring, but truly original and ingenious ideas -- like the beer garden -- tend to take root in the fall.

My mind raced forward to this summer, and I pictured the scene like this: Late one sunny afternoon, I come in after a long day of working in the garden. My wife greets me with a kiss and a glass of ice-cold lemonade. We retire to the patio to enjoy the sunset and some good conversation as our children play in a backyard bathed in warm golden light. It's a moment of perfect domestic bliss.

Wife (resting her head softly on my shoulder and gazing out toward the western horizon): What have you been up to all this time?

Me: Oh, just doing a little gardening.

Wife: You know, I think it's just wonderful that you devote so much of your free time to gardening.

Me: Really? Thanks!

Wife: You are such a dedicated husband and father to work so hard growing healthy vegetables for our family.

Me: Aw, it's nice of you to say so.

Wife: So many guys spend their weekends out on the golf course, and here you are in the backyard, spending quality time with the kids and providing us with fresh, nutritious food. I'm so lucky.

Me: There's no place I'd rather be. It's my pleasure.

Wife: What exactly are you growing in the garden, anyway?

Me: (Absentmindedly thumbing through the newspaper, pretending not to hear.)

Wife: Hon?

Me: Hmm?

Wife: I say, what are you growing out there?

Me: Oh, you know. The usual. Is there any more lemonade?

Wife: Like what?

Me: Isn't the sunset glorious tonight?

Wife: Tomatoes? Corn? Help me out here.

Me: Well, not those particular plants. But things that grow on stalks and vines. Have you seen the sports section?

Wife: Why do you keep changing the subject? I'm just interested in the delicious vegetables we'll be enjoying this summer. What stalks and vines?

Me: I don't see why you're getting so defensive. If you must know, I'm growing some grains. Grains are very healthy, you know.

Wife: Grains? What kind of grains?

Me: Barley, for one.

Wife: I've never heard of growing barley in a home garden. But I suppose I could make that vegetable barley soup you like.

Me: Mm-hmm.

Wife: What else? You mentioned vines. Pumpkins? Watermelon?

Me: No, not exactly. More like, you know, hops and stuff.

Wife: Hops?

Me: Yeah.

Wife: OK, what the hell's going on here?

Me: What do you mean?

Wife: Why are you spending hours a day tending a crop of barley and hops instead of things we can eat?

Me: It's a beer garden.

(Sound of screen door slamming.)

Me (following her into the house): Honey? Just listen. It's really a great idea. See, we'll save a lot of money by brewing our own fresh ...

(Sound of bathroom door slamming.)

Me (talking sweetly through the door): Sweetie?

Wife: What?

Me: Please don't scrape off that fungus growing on the shower curtain.

Wife: Why not?

Me: It's my yeast.

Acceptance is the Only Thing I Can't Seem To Reconcile Myself To Lettuce: Pray for help

"I eat what I kill" is a common expression among go-getters in the business world nowadays. It's a macho posture meant to evoke our ruggedly self-sufficient ancestors, who had to hunt for their food. Because obviously, killing a woolly mammoth with a spear is precisely analogous to the danger and challenge of cold-calling. Someday soon, the person sitting next to you on an airplane will be reading one of those popular books for executives, written in insufferable business jargon, called something like I Eat What I Kill: Management Strategies of the Cro-Magnon.

But let's not forget, as human civilization became more sophisticated, we moved away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle choice and started cultivating the land for food. I think I'll write a best-selling business book about this. This must-read deliverable will give key business leaders a value-added platform that innovates a pro-active gardening paradigm by leveraging core horticultural synergies to facilitate optimal business solutions on a going-forward basis. Confused? I'll bottom line it for you: You need to buy my book, which will be called I Eat What I Grow: Using Your Gardening Skills To Become Rich and Powerful in Business.

Well, maybe not rich. Or powerful. But gardening can teach us a lot about life. Just the other day, while sowing seeds with my kids, I learned a valuable lesson about another trendy concept: acceptance.

It all started while I was ordering seeds from a catalog. After I selected my lettuce variety, the time came to choose the package size. There's the standard packet, but for just a bit more I could upgrade to the full ounce, with approximately 25,000 seeds. Why, I wondered, do they always try to sell us more seeds than a home gardener could possibly use? We're under pressure to "supersize it" even in the garden! I started to write a snarky column making fun of the seed companies for forcing us to buy too much. Like the movie theaters, where your "small" popcorn comes in a tub big enough to grow sunflowers in.

But as we planted, I had a sudden realization: Not every seed is meant to become a plant. With lettuce, just tearing open the packet scatters about half the tiny black seeds irretrievably to the ground. The seed companies know that we need only a few plants to grow to maturity. So they calculate with scientific precision how many seeds will fail to germinate, succumb to damping off, or expire in a late-season frost. They add to each packet the exact number of seeds needed to compensate for these losses. Then, assuming that many of their customers will be gardening with young children, they throw in another big handful.

What is the lesson here? Be like the plant! Most plants produce a huge number of seeds. The dandelion and the orchid accept that not all of their seeds will grow. They're just happy for the few that do.

Can this garden-based acceptance model benefit us in business and life? As you'll learn from my book, acceptance is about positioning your success milestones from a realistic perspective.

For example, I recently decorated Easter eggs with my two sons, ages five and two. We started with a dozen, and at the end of the highly participatory process of transferring the eggs from carton to pan, removing them from the hot water, rinsing them in a colander, drying them on the counter, and dipping them into the bowls of dye, we had two beautiful Easter eggs.

But that's fine! What do you expect? The whole procedure involves moving extremely fragile objects repeatedly from one hard surface to another. If they made Nerf saucepans, it might be different. But to suppose that kids, who watch me and Mommy deliberately crack eggs regularly at breakfast time, will keep them all intact in those conditions is simply unrealistic.

The point is, we accepted the inherent risks, managed our expectations, and focused on the process rather than the result. Translation: We had fun. And we still ended up with one lovely egg per child. Perfect!

The acceptance strategy is viable not just during holidays. According to my forthcoming bestseller, once you have buy in from the stakeholders in your family, you can successfully implement its core functionalities to empower yourself in daily life. For example, when you place a beverage on the table for your child, say to yourself: "I know this drink is going to spill." When you accept this reality going in, you won't be frustrated when it happens. You will be well-positioned to respond with appropriate crisis management skills. And if the spill does not occur (hypothetically speaking, of course), you will enjoy the ramped-up perspective of exceeding your target matrix.

Of course, reacting this way is easier said than done. These situations must happen many times before you can fully internalize the acceptance paradigm. There's an old Russian saying about learning: Repetition is the ... something ... of something. I don't know. I've heard it a thousand times, but I can never remember it.

But it helps if you have good information in advance. For example, scientific studies show that, in a home where young children live, the probability that a given beverage will spill is approximately 100%.

Similarly, knowing the relevant gardening facts makes it easier to accept the inevitable losses. Even though it seems like many seedlings die, a fairly high percentage of the seeds we plant and nurture actually will grow into lush, productive plants.

And even if they don't, I can start over. I still have 24,975 lettuce seeds left.

The Beer Garden: Grow your own!

This past September, as I do every September, I attended my town's Oktoberfest. This fun celebration of autumn and beer, held on two weekends in September each year, is an annual ritual heralding the arrival of fall. To me, nothing says "September" like Oktoberfest.

Look, if you're going to get all hung up on the fact that Oktoberfest happens in September, then you're doing too much thinking and not enough drinking, my friend.

(Disclaimer: That was a joke. Please drink responsibly. And please think in moderation.)

Not that I wasn't thinking that night. As a matter of fact, the creative juices were flowing freely, and I had a brilliant insight when I glanced up at a sign:

"Bier Garten" it said.

I don't speak German, but using my general knowledge of linguistics, I was able to deduce the meaning of this exotic phrase. That's when the great idea struck me. As an avid gardener, I had heard of people growing salsa gardens and lasagna gardens and even pizza gardens. Next season, I announced silently yet triumphantly to myself, I will grow a beer garden.

Great gardening brainstorms like this often occur in the autumn. In the spring and summer, gardeners are too busy planting and tending the garden to think about the big picture. So we really enjoy the period of quiet contemplation that comes after the harvest. Seeds may germinate in the spring, but truly original and ingenious ideas--like the beer garden--tend to take root in the fall.

My mind raced forward to next summer, and I pictured the scene like this:

Late one sunny afternoon, I come in after a long day of working in the garden. My wife greets me with a kiss and a glass of ice-cold lemonade. We retire to the patio to enjoy the sunset and some good conversation as our children play in a backyard bathed in warm golden light. It's a moment of perfect domestic bliss.

Wife (resting her head softly on my shoulder and gazing out toward the western horizon): What have you been up to all this time?

Me: Oh, just doing a little gardening.

Wife: You know, I think it's just wonderful that you devote so much of your free time to gardening.

Me: Really? Thanks!

Wife: You are such a dedicated husband and father to work so hard growing healthy vegetables for our family.

Me: Aw, it's nice of you to say so.

Wife: So many guys spend their weekends out on the golf course or doing things with their buddies, and here you are, right in the backyard, spending quality time with the kids and providing us with fresh, nutritious food. I'm so lucky.

Me: Oh, there's noplace I'd rather be. It's my pleasure.

Wife: What exactly are you growing in the garden, anyway?

Me (absentmindedly thumbing through the newspaper, pretending not to hear).

Wife: Hon?

Me: Hmm?

Wife: I say, what are you growing out there?

Me: Oh, you know. The usual. Is there any more lemonade?

Wife: Like what?

Me: Isn't the sunset glorious tonight?

Wife: Tomatoes? Corn? Help me out here.

Me: Well, not those particular plants. But, you know, things that grow on stalks and vines. Have you seen the sports section?

Wife: Why do you keep changing the subject? I'm just interested in the delicious vegetables we'll be enjoying this summer. What stalks and vines?

Me: I don't see why you're getting so defensive. If you must know, I'm growing some grains. Grains are very healthy, you know.

Wife: Grains? What kind of grains?

Me: Barley, for one.

Wife: I've never heard of growing barley in a home garden. But I suppose I could make that vegetable barley soup you like.

Me: Mm-hmm.

Wife: What else? You mentioned vines. Pumpkins? Watermelon?

Me: No, not exactly. More like, you know, hops and stuff.

Wife: Hops?

Me: Yeah.

Wife: OK, what the hell's going on here?

Me: What do you mean?

Wife: Why are you spending hours a day tending a crop of barley and hops instead of things we can eat?

Me: It's a beer garden.

(Sound of screen door slamming.)

Me (following her into the house): Honey? Just listen. It's really a great idea. See, we'll save a lot of money by brewing our own fresh...

(Sound of bathroom door slamming.)

Me (talking sweetly through the door): Sweetie?

Wife: What.

Me: Please don't scrape off that fungus growing on the shower curtain.

Wife: Why not?

Me: It's my yeast.

When in the Coors of human events...

As a concerned citizen, I feel it is my duty to alert you to a dangerous new trend in our state. If we fail to stop it, it may seriously diminish our quality of life from now until November and even beyond.

A few days ago, the Rocky Mountain News reported the latest news about the U.S. Senate race under this headline: "Coors on Tap". Another headline in the same paper asked: "Is the Coors name a silver bullet?" Even the normally principled columnist Mike Littwin stooped to this headline: "Coors brews up GOP bitterness with Senate bid". (I know he doesn't write his own headlines. But the very least he could do is resign in protest.)

Unless urgent action is taken, the use of bad beer puns in news reports of Coors' candidacy could spread to other newspapers and spiral out of control. Rather than sit idly by, I have decided to get involved and do something. Here's my bold plan:

Today I am asking all major print media outlets in the state to publish the following story. I fervently hope that if we can use up all the Coors cliches at the outset, perhaps we can contain the damage. This is not a real news story. It's more like a vaccine, which fights a virus using inactive strains. Printing deactivated beer puns may help prevent the spread of real ones, or at least boost our immunity to them.

Editors, feel free to supplement this draft as necessary to ensure that every possible annoying play on words is included. Together, we can make a difference. And the timing is crucial, so please don't wheat till the last minute. Thank you.

GOP leaders have high hops for Coors campaign: Schaffer, looking through beer goggles, remains optimistic

A major primary battle is brewing in the Republican race for the U.S. Senate, with brewer-patriot Pete Coors joining former congressman Bob Schaffer in the campaign. Schaffer's chances to win the nomination Zima lot worse now than before Coors' surprise announcement, and his candidacy is expected to come to a bitter finish.

Schaffer, a stout man who worked as a lager in Colorado's forests in his youth, was barley ale to contain his disappointment at the news. "I got mugged," Schaffer said in reaction to Coors' decision. "I'm sorry," he continued, fighting back tears, "but I can't keep these feelings bottled up inside anymore. I feel like the party leaders are really trying to flocculate me over." Schaffer's political ambitions, which have been fermenting ever since he left Congress two years ago, have now apparently been capped by Coors.

Schaffer announced his candidacy after more prominent Republicans, including Gov. Bill Owens, declined to run. He was initially endorsed by the GOP establishment, but many Republican activists secretly believed the party was scraping the bottom of the barrel.

In recent weeks, as the feeling spread among party regulars that the GOP was poised to run the dregs of the party against a popular Democrat, efforts to draft Coors began. Despite his late entry into the race, Coors was expected to beat Schaffer in the recent precinct caucuses. Final results are not yet available, but a campaign spokesman brashly predicted victory for Coors, describing the April 13 caucuses as a "pure Rocky Mountain spring slaughter".

Most analysts predict Coors will win the nomination, citing his deep pockets and his opponent's lack of charisma on the hustings. "Schaffer just never connected with Joe Sixpack," said political consultant Floyd Curili.

Gov. Owens has shifted his support to Coors, but some prominent Republicans who endorsed Schaffer when he was the only GOP candidate are standing by the ex-congressman now that he faces a tough primary opponent. "Schaffer's still the one to have when you have more than one" candidate, said one Republican state legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In brief remarks to reporters, Coors said that Schaffer "should stop wining" about the competition. Later, after being criticized for the comment, Coors apologized for departing from the beer theme of campaign cliches.

Asked about his views on controversial social issues, Coors said, "As your senator, I will work to ensure that the principles enshrined in our fundamental law are upheld to the full extent." In response to a follow-up question, Coors clarified that he was referring not to the U.S. Constitution, but to the German Beer Purity Law of 1516.

When Coors, a political newcomer, was asked to summarize his political philosophy, he paraphrased Thomas Jefferson: "That government is best which governs yeast." .

Cyclists Are Gearing Up for Bike to Work Day: Sorry, terrible headline

Do you know what June 23 is? National Yo-Yo Day? No, that's June 10. Insurance Awareness Day? Families everywhere gather to celebrate that on the 28th. National Chocolate Ice Cream Day? Officially that's the 7th, but as far as I'm concerned, every day is national chocolate ice cream day.

June 23 is Bike to Work Day! As your attorney I must advise you of an important fact pertaining to this event. Last year, the state legislature passed a resolution creating a permanent Bike to Work Day. Pursuant to this resolution, all residents of Colorado are required to ride bicycles to work on June 23. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW!

Wait a second. On closer reading, the resolution just encourages us to ride to work. But you should still consider biking in that day, even though you won't do any hard time if you refuse. Did you know that bicycle commuting is good for you, the state economy, and the environment? Don't just take my word for it. Let's look at some hard scientific facts:

  • Riding a bike is a great way to get your daily workout, and it reduces the stress of the morning rush hour. Studies show a significantly higher incidence of "road rage" on I-25 than on the Cherry Creek bike path.
  • Bicycle commuting boosts workplace productivity. After some fresh air and exercise, you'll arrive at work feeling alert and raring to go. Studies show that biking to work can improve your internet surfing efficiency by up to 16%.
  • Bicycling makes our city a better place to live. Studies show that taking a bike to work instead of a car reduces air pollution, traffic congestion, and Mike Rosen's ratings.

Still not sure you want to ride to work? The change from automobile to bicycle can be intimidating. If you are experiencing anxiety, this handy quiz will dispel some myths about bicycle commuting.

Q. If I ride my bike to work, I'll be sweaty and disgusting all day and I'll be shunned by my coworkers.

A. FALSE! Many experienced bicycle commuters maintain a leisurely pace in the morning to stay relatively cool and dry, then ride faster on the way home to get a good workout. That way you only get shunned by your spouse.

Q. Riding a bike on the street is illegal. Bicycles are toys to be used for recreational rides on designated bike paths.

A. FALSE! Bicycles are vehicles. Check out section 42-4-1412 (1) of the Colorado Revised Statutes: "Every person riding a bicycle shall have all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle." The law is on your side! You have the right to do anything on a bike that you can do in a car, but talking on cell phones, eating McMuffins, shaving, and applying makeup are not recommended. Let's just use some common sense out there, people.

Q. Biking to work would make me look silly and undermine my dignity as a responsible professional.

A. FALSE! Who looks sillier, a happy cyclist gliding along in the fresh air and sunshine, or an uptight driver hermetically sealed inside a Hummer, a vehicle designed to negotiate the dunes of Iraq, not the smooth streets of Denver? Who looks more responsible, the rider of an environmentally friendly, fuel efficient vehicle (I get 27 miles to the bagel city, 34 highway; your mileage may vary), or someone who wasted $50,000 to drive around town in a military personnel carrier?

Q. Bicycling is dangerous! In order to register for Bike to Work Day, I'll be required to submit a copy of my dental records.

A. FALSE! If you follow the rules of the road and know the proper techniques for riding in traffic, bicycling is quite safe. And have you considered the dangers of not getting some exercise on your bike? According to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, you have a 1 in 397 chance of death from heart disease, but only a 1 in 376,165 chance of becoming a human crayon while bicycling. I'll take my chances out on the road, thank you. The bicycle is a lot safer than the couch.

Q. I don't feel comfortable about riding my bike on I-25.

A. TRUE! If you bike to work, your usual automobile route might not be the best choice. But our city has an excellent system of bikeways and on-street bike routes to get you there safely. And maybe faster. At the point where the Platte River Trail runs alongside I-25, I'm often moving faster than the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Caution: Don't get too distracted while gloating at motorists.

Q. If I ride to work, I would be unable to get home quickly in the event of an emergency.

A. FALSE! Let's say you're sitting at your desk when suddenly you receive a frantic phone call informing you of an emergency at home--your house is on fire, you forgot to take out the recycling, your favorite Andy Griffith Show episode is on, something of that nature. You have to get home fast! In such dire circumstances, you may qualify for a free taxi ride courtesy of your friends at the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

For additional, more reliable information, go to Ask your DRCOG about Bike to Work Day. Maybe you'll decide to make every day bike to work day. Not a bad idea, especially if every day is also national chocolate ice cream day

Welcome to Fountainhead Campground

One of the most important things I've learned since becoming a parent is that you don't have to give up the things you love to do when you have kids. You just might have to do them in a slightly different way. For instance, did you and your spouse used to go out on dates, maybe to see a play? Well, you can still go on play dates. See? It's just a bit different!

Camping is another good example. My wife and I used to do a lot of backpacking. We loved to trek several miles out into the wilderness and set up camp. But now that we have two young sons, we have been doing more car camping. I suppose we could still pack into the backcountry, but we would have to carry our own gear, the kids' gear, and, at this point, the kids themselves. For now it's easier just to pull into a campground.

We psyched ourselves up for this new approach to camping. We'll still be out in the woods, gazing at the stars, listening to the crickets, and generally getting in touch with nature, particularly the sharp pointy nature directly under our sleeping bags. Thoreau would be proud, right?

So here we are, in a picturesque campground by a lovely reservoir, nestled under a spectacular mountain range. I'd rather not mention the name, because to me, it will always be the Fountainhead Campground.

We assumed that other people who like to go camping would share our Thoreau-like love of wilderness and solitude. As we found out last night, they don't. We are surrounded here by disciples of Ayn Rand.

Before I launch into my detailed analysis of Ayn Rand's work, I should note that my knowledge of her philosophy is based on a close reading, not of The Fountainhead itself, but of a blurb on the back cover of a copy I ran across in the bathroom at my sister-in-law's house. According to this summary, Rand's world view boils down to the notion that the ego is the engine of human progress. It took her 800-odd pages to say it, but judging from the paragraph I read, it's basically about looking out for number one. And though I doubt many of our fellow campers last night have read the manifesto of modern conservatism, they certainly have assimilated its message.

For example, several families were camped together at the other end of the campground. How reassuring: parents like us enjoying the out of doors with their children. At dusk, we crawled into the tent, pleasantly tired from a day of hiking and playing. We assumed our campground neighbors would do likewise. But they didn't go to bed. They cranked up the lantern and the country music.

Not just a regular lantern, which I don't mind so much. They apparently had the new Fusion 3000 model, guaranteed to turn the sky a uniform shade of yellowish gray within a one mile radius. So much for stargazing.

And not just regular country music, which I also don't mind so much. This was a spoken-word variation, a horribly unsuccessful fusion of rap and country. It was as if Eminem had been born not in the slums of Detroit but in the backwoods of Tennessee. And if he had been born without any talent.

So we warned the boys not to look directly at the lantern and tried to get back to sleep. It was no use, but at least they had the courtesy to turn the "music" up loud enough that we could hear the words distinctly from 300 yards away. Finally, at about ten o'clock, the noise and light pollution abated and we drifted off to sleep.

Until midnight, when a couple arrived in their giant RV. This is high season, so they were fortunate to find a campsite this late at night, even if they had to endure the inconvenience of parking about 10 feet from a family sleeping quietly in a tent. But they didn't seem to mind. Or notice, for that matter. They repeatedly fired up the diesel engine to move the RV back and forth, bellowing instructions to each other until the massive chassis was exactly level. Now, I admit my ignorance of the RV lifestyle. I'm sure there was some perfectly legitimate reason why the vehicle had to be precisely even, like the heater won't work or the satellite dish can't pick up ESPN if it's tilted. And God forbid that my sleep should interfere with this gentleman's ability to watch the late edition of Sports Center. But you know, sometimes it's fun to rough it a bit. I'm on the hard ground in a tent, and I'd be having a great time if it weren't for him and all the other noisy Objectivists out here.

It's morning now, and although we're a bit tired, we're looking forward to a fun day. Perhaps we'll stay right here with our fellow nature worshipers, who are doing laps around the campground on their ATVs. Or maybe we'll drive back to the city for some solitude.

What have I learned from this experience? We can still go camping. It's just different now. Last night was probably an anomaly. I'm sure most car campers are very considerate of those around them. I just hope they never happen upon a copy of The Fountainhead.

Many parents are intimidated by the thought of camping with children. They think it will be hard or the kids might be scared and unable to sleep. This was not a problem for us. Our boys love sleeping in the tent. And as for me, well, I slept like a baby, by which I mean, of course, that I woke up screaming and crying every 2 or 3 hours.

I like car camping, but I look forward to more backpacking when the boys are older. By that time, they will be big enough to carry their own gear. And my gear. And me.

Ask the Amateur Pediatrician

Welcome to another informative edition of "Ask the Amateur Pediatrician"!

Q. What is that?

A. "Ask the Amateur Pediatrician" is a safe, comfortable environment where you can get plain, commonsense answers to all your parenting questions without all the medical mumbo jumbo you might get from a so-called professional doctor.

Q. Great! I have a question: My daughter sneezes and has watery eyes in the springtime. What can I do to help her?

A. Your child may have allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

Q. Oh my goodness! What's that?

A. As any good parent knows, allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is a symptomatic ocular and nasal disorder caused by an IgE-mediated immunological reaction to allergen exposure.

Q. Come again?

A. Needless to say, the human conjunctiva consists of a nonkeratinized, stratified squamous cell epithelium. Of course, goblet cells within the epithelium overlay connective tissue with various cellular elements, including the mast cells, lymphocytes, macrophages, and fibroblasts.

Q. The what now?

A. Obviously, the allergic inflammation occurs when the allergens bind to the cell-attached IgE molecules. Clearly, therefore, most ocular allergic reactions can be mediated by the action of histamine on the H1 receptors located on the conjunctiva, cornea, and ophthalmic arteries. You must follow this advice exactly in order to protect your child from grave danger. Next question?

Q. But...

A. I'm kidding! See, that's just the sort of thing you don't get here. You can ask me anything about parenting or your child's health, and I'll give you a straightforward, simple answer.

Q. What if my question is not about pediatrics?

A. Not to worry! "Ask the Amateur Pediatrician" is only one in a series of helpful medical rubrics featured periodically in this column, including "Ask the Amateur Obstetrician" and "Ask the Amateur Endocrinologist". (Due to reader complaints, we have discontinued "Ask the Amateur Proctologist".)

Q. Oh, I have a question about parenting. Do any of the people who manufacture "sippy cups" for kids actually have children themselves?

A. No. Any parent knows that if something can be taken apart, it will be taken apart, and the various pieces will never all be in the same room of your house again.

Q. Then who makes these sippy cups?

A. Most of them are developed by engineers who were fired from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory because their designs were always unnecessarily complex. I just bought a new sippy cup for my baby. It looked so nice and simple in the package. Then I get it home and open it up, and it has more moving parts than the space shuttle.

Q. Isn't all that advanced sippy cup technology necessary to meet the rigorous demands of today's active toddler on the go?

A. Apparently.

Q. You can't just use a regular cup nowadays. With the busy schedule of the modern youngster, that beverage wouldn't last five seconds in a conventional drinking vessel. You'd have liquid all over everything.

A. OK, I get it.

Q. So, are you satisfied with the performance of your new sippy cup?

A. Well, after reading the owner's manual and filling in the warranty card, I carefully disassembled the cup and washed the parts, which are made from titanium and colorful space-age polymers. Then, with only a couple of calls to the sippy cup tech support hotline, I got the thing put together and filled with cool, refreshing milk for my child.

Q. And?

A. It leaks.

Q. What's the problem?

A. I don't know. I think I might have installed the second auxiliary valve backwards in the rotating retention flange. Long story short, the drink is now in the upholstery of my car, which seems to be holding it much better than the cup did.

Q. So much for "new car smell".

A. I never cared for "new car smell" anyway. It's just the yucky chemicals leaching out of your seats and dashboard. I prefer "old milk smell" any day, blended with the subtle aroma of disintegrated fig newton. Gives the car that homey, lived-in feel. But I digress! I hope this has been helpful for you.

Q. Helpful! This column wasn't about pediatrics at all!

A. Well...

Q. And you're not even a real amateur pediatrician, are you?

A. No. But don't forget to mediate your macrophages and fibroblasts.

Q. Oh, shut up

Have a question for "Ask the Amateur Pediatrician"? Just e-mail it to For more bogus medical advice and humor columns, please visit John's website:

Inch by Inch, Row by Row: When is this Stupid Plant Going to Grow?

For us gardeners, the approach of spring is a most exciting time. It's not that we don't enjoy the winter, with its time away from the garden to rest and recharge. After a busy autumn of harvesting the garden's bounty, winter offers time for quiet contemplation. Perhaps, come to think of it, a bit too much time to reflect on the happy thoughts the garden brings to mind as the plants turn brown and fall turns to winter: The change of seasons. The inexorable passage of time. Decay. Death.

But just when you're ready to toss yourself into the compost pile, springtime arrives and your spirits soar as you look forward to a new season of gardening with your children.

Last year was my first experience gardening with my children. As a parent and a gardener, I knew that raising children and raising vegetables involved many of the same joys, challenges, rewards, and laundry expenses. But, I wondered, are parenting skills transferable to the garden? And what could I learn from gardening that would help me cultivate happy, thriving kids?

These are just some of the profound and intriguing questions that I did not ponder while gardening with my children last summer. I was too busy trying to keep them from walking on the spinach.

I doubt there's really that much overlap between parenting and gardening techniques anyway. A time out is unlikely to have much effect on an uncooperative tomato plant, for instance. And any attempt to pinch back an unruly child can lead only to a visit from social services.

Still, working in the garden with kids is lots of fun. You're outside. You're playing in the dirt. Sharp bladed tools are flying around. It's pure quality time.

And it's educational! Gardening teaches kids important lessons about the "cycle of life". But parents, be ready to answer some tough questions about why your child's pumpkin plant died.

Besides the metaphysical stuff, the kids learn practical horticultural skills that might stay with them their whole lives. Even after they've grown up and moved away, they may still use the gardening knowledge that you gave them to grow their own plants in a garden, window box, or dorm room closet. These valuable skills include fine motor control (handling tiny seeds), sorting (distinguishing good plants from weeds), adjusting water pressure ("JET" isn't the best setting for lettuce plants), and perhaps most importantly, pest control.

As every gardener knows, if you do not control pests, they can quickly destroy your entire crop. It's important to know which pests are present in your particular ecosystem and take appropriate, safe measures to protect your plants. Can you identify the most harmful pests that attack garden vegetables in your area? Slugs? Root weevils? European earwigs? No. The primary pests that threaten your garden are, of course, the children themselves.

I'm kidding! Children are a joy to have in the garden. Still, bringing kids into the garden involves walking a fine line. Literally: Between the tomatoes and the beets. And figuratively: The goal is to introduce the children to the fun of gardening without destroying the garden in the process. I know it's not easy to cultivate their spirit of exploration while constantly yelling "Don't walk there!" But try to inculcate a love for the tranquility of nature with a minimum of screaming. It's the standard parental high-wire act of teaching your kids to do some fun new activity: One false move and you've turned them off of gardening for life.

Many small children are just not yet equipped to care meticulously for fragile vegetable plants. These are people who take the name "squash" literally. The key is to focus on the aspects of gardening that come naturally to young kids, such as touching really dirty things and then immediately putting their fingers into their mouths. Or playing in the mud. Give a 3-year-old a shovel and turn him loose in a large area of dirt, and you're set for a whole day of fun.

But then comes the tedious part. Carefully plant the seeds, one in each little hole, in nice straight rows. Boring! My son has his own highly efficient cultivation method: Dig large hole. Empty contents of seed packet into hole. Cover and keep digging elsewhere. Fun!

Finally, the seeds somehow get planted and the ground is nicely patted all flat and smooth. Then you say to the child, "OK, you see this big patch of dirt, where we've been having a great time all day, digging and jumping and rolling around and making mud pies? Well, you must now stop digging and never dig here again. You can't even walk in here anymore! As your toddler's lip begins to quiver, you hasten to explain: Because if we wait very patiently, our seeds will sprout and grow into big plants that, if we take good care of them, will eventually produce . . . vegetables!

Wow, every child's favorite things: waiting patiently, not touching, and vegetables!

No wonder gardening is such a popular family activity! I'm telling a 3-year-old boy, whose attention span is frankly somewhat shorter than the growing season, that he must immediately cease doing something really fun in order to receive the delayed gratification of growing his own brussels sprouts.

Yet amazingly, it works! Kids do like to watch the plants grow. They are able to stop shoveling where you planted, as long as you give them an alternative outlet for their natural digging instinct (I set aside a small area in our garden with nothing planted as the designated digging zone). They will help take care of the garden. They will eagerly pull up weeds, along with a few innocent bystanders like carrots and beets and radishes (helpful hint: when gardening with kids, plant a few extra seeds to compensate for the approximately 90% mortality rate of your plants). They will have fun watering the garden (and even more fun watering Daddy). They will help you harvest the crop (but forget about gathering just enough vegetables for each day's meal; once a child picks a pepper, it's awfully hard to stop until he's picked a peck, whatever that is, or at least until all the plants are completely denuded).

They might even start to like vegetables. The other night in a restaurant, my son Henry asked for broccoli on his pizza. The stunned waiter, after recovering from the shock of hearing a child order broccoli for the first time in his career, explained that it was unfortunately not available as a topping. Henry happily settled for red and green peppers.

Just like the ones he picked—all at once—in our garden last fall.

Change Your Life for $39!

My recent experiences in the job market have left me with the feeling that my interviewing skills could use a little brushing up. This morning the solution to my problem jumped out at me from a box on the street corner: the Learning Annex catalog!

I was looking for some quick improvement in my ability to interact with other humans, and I found a couple of offerings directly on point: "Power Interviewing" and "How to Have Employers Begging to Hire You".

But soon I realized my focus was too narrow. The Learning Annex doesn't just tinker with your interviewing style; it offers a holistic approach to changing your entire life. My first clue to this was when I started noticing eerie parallels between the "Business/Careers" section and the "Relationships/Intimacy" department:

  • Power Interviewing — Power Dating
  • How to Land Your Dream Job — How to Get What You Want in Bed
  • Marketing Secrets — Lesbian Sex Secrets for Men

Now, I'm lucky enough not to need to do any Power Dating, but the point is how easy it is to improve any aspect of your life! It's all about getting what you want with minimal effort. Finding satisfaction at work and at home is only $39 away at the Learning Annex!

We all know people who are slackers and spent the first 35 years of their lives partying and goofing off. When these people realize that they are probably not all going to become president, they start looking for ways to make up lost ground. The courses at the Learning Annex are designed just for them.

These are classes for people who aren't into delayed gratification. Why waste years acquiring skills when you can take these easy shortcuts:

"Speak Spanish Fluently in Just 1-3 Weeks"

Well, I can't see frittering away three weeks just to learn a language. I think I'll go on down the hall to: "Speak French in Only 3 Hours!"

Here's a good way to jump-start your career: "How to Write a Book on ANYTHING in 3 Weeks...or Less". I love how they add that extra tag line "or less" for people who are thinking, "Well, I'd like to write a book, but I'm not sure I can free up three whole weeks for it."

Or if all that seems too troublesome and time-consuming, try this one-stop shop:

"How to Get All the Money, Success, Confidence and Love You'd Ever Want–IMMEDIATELY!"

I'm not sure I'm ready for all that at once. Maybe I should start with some basics:

  • "The Art of Becoming Conscious". Staying awake throughout the job interview makes a good impression on your potential employer!
  • "Stop Being Nice". So that's my problem!

Maybe I need a total personality makeover:

  • "How to Change Your Identity". This is the actual course description: "Have you ever thought of disappearing, just vanishing and starting life over as somebody else? What if there were a simple way to make it happen?" You'll learn how with easy-to-follow steps including "How to plan your disappearance," "Tips for effectively transforming your physical appearance" and "How to concoct a reasonable 'history' for your new persona". Perfect! I've always wanted a second chance to try out for the high school football team.

Perhaps instead of learning how to interview for a job in my current field, I should think about a career change. These opportunities sound quite lucrative:

  • "How to Become a Notary Public"
  • "How to Make Your Own Soaps"
  • "Learn Balloon Twisting for Fun and Profit"

And of course this one, which is part of the core curriculum at places like this:

  • "How to Become a $1000+ per day Seminar Leader". Presumably by leading seminars on how to become a $1000+ per day seminar leader.

Wait a minute! I've finally found the perfect course for me:

  • "Making a Living Without a Job"

I'm glad I've shared these insights with you. If I can save just one person from a life of unprofitable balloon twisting, it will be worth it.

Parenting Secrets of the Zen Masters

Like nature, I abhor a vacuum. Especially when it's time to clean the house.

But when you have children crawling around, it's very important to keep the house free of harmful dirt, dust, and Barney videos. I don't mind a little clutter--having a few hundred smiling anthropomorphic train engines strewn about is the natural result of creative play. But I also know that every particle of grime that I sweep up is one that would otherwise probably end up in my kids' mouths. I'm motivated, but after completing all the other essential daily tasks, like making dinner, playing with the kids, putting them to bed, reading the paper, playing the guitar, surfing the internet, and watching Conan O'Brien, it seems like there's just no time to clean. Not enough hours in the day, am I right?

And cleaning a house where children live is like the old saying about painting the Golden Gate Bridge: as soon as you're done, you feel like jumping over the rail. Wait, that's not it. It's time to start all over again. You pick up the clutter, sweep, dust, mop, and vacuum. Then you go to the kitchen for two seconds to get a glass of water, and when you come back, it's like you were never there. You're ankle-deep in Cheerios, applesauce is dripping from the ceiling, and you start again. I just wanted to tidy up a bit, and all of a sudden I'm starring in the Myth of Sisyphus.

Remember Sisyphus? He's the guy in Greek mythology who had to spend eternity pushing a big rock up a steep hill. Then, when he finally got it to the top, he went to answer the phone and one of his kids ran in and pushed it back down to the bottom.

Are our children punishing us like the gods punished Sisyphus? Is a messy house, as Camus described pushing the rock, the "price that must be paid for the passions of this earth"? We all feel that way sometimes.

But don't let these frustrations drive you to negative behaviors like getting angry at the kids or reading French existentialists. Let's look at the bright side. You know how you try to make everything into a learning experience for your children? Well, did you know that your kids are graciously doing the same thing for you? It may seem like they are wreaking random havoc in the house, but actually your children are teaching you important lessons in subjects like science and philosophy every single day! Here's just a sample of the curriculum:


To the untrained eye, your children are simply running around trashing your house. But in fact they are giving you a highly educational demonstration of the important scientific concept known as entropy. Entropy is nature's tendency toward chaos and disorder. My older son Henry is such a pioneer in this field that scientists have coined a special term--hentropy--to describe the mysterious force that continually moves every object in my house to a different, randomly selected location. To give just one example, the other night, while I was sitting on the bed playing with baby Daniel, Henry came running up the stairs and into the room. He handed me the plastic latch that is supposed to keep him from opening the kitchen cabinet where we keep the toxic cleaning substances. He said "Here, Dad", turned, and ran back out of the room. What a useful lesson in the futility of trying to impose order on my environment! There I was getting annoyed about the messy house, when I should be grateful to my children for such valuable learning experiences.


The endlessly repetitive process of maintaining a clean and safe environment for our children despite their determined efforts to the contrary can bring about negative emotions like frustration, anger, and carpal-tunnel. But recently I had an experience that put it all in perspective. I watched two Zen Buddhist monks create a "mandala" sand painting. Over several days, they meticulously placed grains of sand on a table to form a beautiful geometric pattern. When the painstaking work was finally done, everybody admired it for a little while, and then the sand was swept up and dumped into a nearby stream.

As I watched, it occurred to me that being a parent is like being a Zen monk. What, you may ask, does living in a house with small children have in common with the teachings of Buddhism? The realization that life is suffering? Au contraire! The long periods of quiet contemplation? Yeah, right. I am referring to the joy of creating something beautiful--a representation of the divine in their case, a nice tidy home in mine--that is destined to be destroyed almost immediately.

The monks don't mind this, and neither should we. In fact, they believe the mandala is beautiful because it is temporary. It is so precious precisely because it must end, just like life itself, or, even more poignantly, like the pure joy of walking across a room without twisting your ankle on a power ranger.

So try to think of housework as a form of meditation. And check this out: the monks believe everyone who participates in the mandala process is purified and blessed. The very act of picking up that lego piece for the millionth time can take you one step closer to enlightenment!

Yeah, just keep telling yourself that. But if you ever visit the Bay Area, you should probably stay off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Without Caffeine, Parenting Itself Would Be Impossible But don't overlook the many benefits of sleep deprivation!

Becoming a parent is like being on an airplane when the cabin suddenly depressurizes. You can't quite catch your breath. The dishes and glasses fly around and get broken. People get sucked out through little holes. OK, that doesn't happen very often, except to the baby. What I really have in mind is something the uniformed crew members tell us in their preflight speech. In the unlikely event that you don't pay attention to this speech, I'll remind you: "In the unlikely event that the oxygen masks deploy, put your mask on first and then assist your children."

This is a good rule for parents to follow generally, not just onboard the aircraft. You have to take care of yourself so you will be able to take good care of your kids. This means making time for the basic human activities that are necessary to sustain you: exercise, eating right, watching The Simpsons, and most importantly, sleep.

With a new baby in the house, you need more sleep than ever. Yet you're probably getting less sleep now than any time since that night in 1982 when you camped on the sidewalk to be first in line for J. Geils Band tickets.

To find out if you suffer from sleep deprivation, take this simple test:

  • Do you find yourself nodding off during normally stimulating events such as church services, golf telecasts, or Gray Davis speeches?
  • Have you ever gone to an important meeting at work and then suddenly awoken in the conference room, face down in a puddle of your own drool, long after everyone else has left for the day?
  • Have you ever driven the wrong way on a one-way street for three blocks before noticing that there was a problem?
  • Have you experienced difficulty recalling minor details, like a friend's phone number, the precise location of your car in the parking lot, or your children's names?
  • Have you ever been sitting at your computer, trying to work, when you feel your head involuntarily falling forwgggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg gggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg

(Note to department of social services: The above question about going the wrong way on a one-way street with the kids in the car is a purely hypothetical example and is NOT based on the personal experience of either my wife or myself. I don't care what the police report says.)

If you answered "Yes", "I don't recall", or "I refuse to answer on the grounds that my answer may tend to incriminate me" to zero or more of these questions, you may have Chronic Acute Brain-dysfunction Insomnia-related Neo-parental fever.

My wife and I have a severe case. We have a 3-year-old boy and a teething 7-month-old baby. They sleep in shifts, as if they feel one has to be on guard duty at all times.

Lack of sleep is not just annoying. It can be dangerous. In extreme cases, sleep deprivation can lead to fatigue-induced delusional behavior. Watch for these warning signs: Do you or your spouse find yourselves talking about irrational subjects, like fear of alien abduction, the Denver Nuggets' playoff chances, or having another baby?

But enough doom and gloom. What's the point of telling parents they need sleep, when there is no chance of them getting much of it in the foreseeable future? Let's try to be optimistic. Have you considered the many benefits of sleep deprivation? For instance, my mother-in-law recently told me that lack of sleep magnifies the effect of alcohol by five times. I think she meant it as a warning, but at the time I took it as a money-saving tip.

Still, if you choose to ignore the upside of sleep deprivation, there is something you can do. By making the proper lifestyle choices, you can have all the energy you need even with insufficient sleep. I am referring, of course, to caffeine.

Unfortunately, only dads–and moms who have weaned their babies–can successfully organize their lives around this particular chemical. Nursing mothers, I'm afraid you're on your own. Experts recommend that you eschew caffeine while breastfeeding. Besides, these babies are energetic enough without turning the breast milk into a double café au lait.

But remember, dads: when you go out for a venti intravenous latte, you're just following the parenting tip we discussed above. You're taking care of yourself so you can be there for your partner. But it's still a good idea to order a decaf mocha for her, too.

Sadly, however, even caffeine sometimes isn't enough. And at $3 plus for a simple cup of grande double espresso caramel skinny vanilla soy no-foam frappuccino, coffee alone may not be an economical long-term solution. But there is hope. Just when you think you're going to completely lose it, something happens that reminds you why you love being a parent and gives you the strength to carry on. The other night, about 4:30 am, our 7-month-old woke up and started crying. Before my wife or I could get out of bed, our 3-year-old son Henry, who shares a bedroom with the baby, started singing to his little brother to comfort him. Daniel stopped crying and went right back to sleep. I can't describe the joy I felt as I drifted back into a deep slumber.

The next 20 minutes were the most restful sleep I've had in a long time.

Information Infestation? Call the Data Exterminators!

As the parent of two young boys, I don't seem to have quite enough time to keep up with all the current events. Perhaps you feel the same way. That's why I want to tell you about an article I remember from the last time I read a newspaper. It was several years ago, just before the birth of my first child.

Remember back then, when all those hijinks were happening down at Enron? I was reminded of it recently because, as a major shareholder in the defunct energy giant, I received a settlement offer in the bankruptcy case. I was very excited about recouping some of my losses until I realized that my share of the settlement would amount to less than the cost of the postage stamp to send in my form.

But I digress!

Anyway, during all that controversy about the company and its auditors shredding the phony accounting records, I came across a personal management tool so valuable that I remember it to this day. In my articles I generally avoid providing useful and relevant parenting information, but this could be such a valuable resource for parents that I simply must share it with you. It's a website––brought to you by your friends at the National Association for Information Destruction.

(Mr. Orwell, Mr. George Orwell, please come to a white courtesy telephone.)

Here's how the website describes this group:

"NAID is the international trade association for companies providing information destruction services. NAID's mission is to promote the information destruction industry and the standards and ethics of its member companies."

With all the negative publicity about Enron and Arthur Andersen shredding documents, NAID is out there taking the lead in reminding us of all the benefits of destroying information. Check out the press release on their website entitled "Shredding is Good!"

It tells us all about how shredding helps responsible businesses fulfill their patriotic duty to keep information away from "dumpster diving" competitors and identity thieves. Not to mention, I might add, nosy auditors (unless, of course, your auditors are the ones shredding your documents for you!).

But the more you think about it, you realize that the folks at NAID are being modest. Getting rid of sensitive documents is only one benefit of "information destruction." Don't you often feel overwhelmed by too much information? The constant barrage of information on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and cereal boxes is sometimes more than we can cope with.

And the internet is a totally unmanageable torrent of information. How can we know which information is important? We can't—there's just too much of it and not enough time to sort it out. To demonstrate this, I asked an internet search engine to find information on several topics, chosen at random from a recently published list of words that make 12-year-olds giggle:

titular archbishopric (225 hits)
pu-pu platter (1,400 hits)
ball-peen hammer (5,970 hits)
mastication (17,900 hits)
Lake Titicaca (24,300 hits)
penal system (236,000 hits)
moist (a whopping 1,090,000 hits!)


Information is proliferating out of control. It is like a noxious weed, the leafy spurge (22,200 hits) of the 21st century. Let's face it: information is ruining our lives.

What can save us from drowning in a sea of knowledge? Only the dogged efforts of the 600-odd member companies of the National Association for Information Destruction.

Please support these visionaries. With your help, we can move toward the ultimate goal: to eradicate information from the face of the earth.

I know change can be scary. It's hard to imagine life without information. But trust me: people who are not burdened by information can live happily and become quite successful. How do I know? Two words: Rush Limbaugh.

You'll be amazed at how easy it is to live your daily life, have conversations, form opinions, and make decisions when you're not constantly distracted by information.

I know what you're thinking: there's so much information around, it would take forever to destroy it all. Not to worry! Just call your friendly neighborhood NAID member company. My personal favorite from the website is Shredco. That's really its name! "Shredco mobile shredding units can destroy up to 8,000 pounds of material per hour. ... There is no need to sort or prepare files; our shredder will easily grind file folders, paper clips and metal fasteners. We can also shred computer disks and tapes, CDs, video tapes, film, ribbons, X-rays and mylar."

Other items that can be shredded at no extra charge include: employees' retirement plans, the value of the company's stock, and the public's faith in de-regulation.

Call today!

Those Pesky Celebrities are Ruining Everything!

We've been hearing a lot lately about how the cult of celebrity has taken over politics in California, but that's old news. The trend from Reagan to Eastwood to Bono to Schwarzenegger is only gaining momentum. Can a "Hasselhoff for Insurance Commissioner" campaign be far off?

And it's not just happening in California. From Jesse "The Body" Ventura in Minnesota, to Fred "Gopher" Grandy in Iowa, to Ben "Cooter from Dukes of Hazzard" Jones in Georgia, celebrities are leveraging their fame as athletes or actors to win high public office. What, you don't think of bad '70s TV shows as natural springboards into governance? Well, we keep voting for these people! Grandy, for example, was elected to Congress from Iowa with no qualification other than playing the dimwitted yeoman purser on The Love Boat. Oh, and he also graduated magna cum laude from Harvard.

The point is this: Just because you're a celebrity, you're considered qualified to run the government. Or do just about anything else. Even important things, like write the books our kids read!

As the parent of two young boys, I have rediscovered the joys of children's literature. At its best, this genre takes a simple yet profound idea, like love or friendship or bulldozers, and presents it with originality in a way that entertains and stimulates young minds. Of course, this is a very difficult task, and it takes a special kind of person to create a truly good book for kids. What's that you say? A talented writer with the gift of communicating with children? No, no, no. To be a successful children's book author, you have to be -- a celebrity!

I myself have an idea for a children's book. It's about a dinosaur firefighter who travels to outer space on a rocket-powered train driven by a friendly rabbit conductor to rescue knights and cowboys from fires at construction sites on the moon. While learning the alphabet.

I'm still working on it, but here's a tantalizing sample: In one scene, the rabbit conductor, whose name is Rabbit, finishes his shift and goes home. All the other members of his family, being rabbits, are also named Rabbit. Hilarity ensues as they try to figure out who's talking to whom. And then they all learn an important lesson.

I haven't fleshed out all the details yet, but as you can tell it's a great idea. But do you think I'll be able to get it published? Not a chance. Why? Because unlike the great geniuses of contemporary children's literature, I never starred in any teen horror movies. And I'm not a Kennedy. And I'm not a perky morning TV host. And I wasn't a member of the British royal family until being photographed with a commoner sucking on my toes. And I didn't make a career of playing second banana to Burt Reynolds, for heaven's sake!

That's right, the people responsible for providing beneficial reading material for our children have seen fit to publish books by Jamie Lee Curtis, Maria Shriver, Katie Couric, Sarah Ferguson and Dom Deluise. Think that's no big deal? Then why not introduce your kids to the beauty of the written word as set down by Larry King, Ally Sheedy, Jimmy Buffet, or John Travolta? Still not convinced of the magnitude of this problem? This ought to do it: Deborah Norville, Naomi Judd, Whoopi Goldberg, Fred Gwynne. And, of course, Madonna. Recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported breaking news under the following banner headline: "Billy Crystal To Write Children's Book."

Stop the presses!

Now don't get me wrong. I'm always up for a Cheeseburger in Paradise. And Fred Gwynne was awesome as the wacky and lovable Herman Munster. But are these really the best-qualified people to enlighten my children? (OK, Gwynne also graduated from Harvard. But let's not get too bogged down in the details.)

I'm sure all of these "authors" are very talented entertainers, or at least very good-looking. I've even heard that some of their books are pretty good. But it just doesn't seem fair that celebrity opens doors to them that are closed to other people whose talent is actually in the area of writing good books for kids.

All this raises some very disturbing questions, such as:

1. How will that Madonna reinvent herself next? I just can't wait to find out!

2. In the Berenstain Bears books, the oldest cub is named "Brother Bear," but when he was born he was an only child. He wasn't anybody's brother until Sister Bear was born several years later!

3. If this trend of celebrity-trumping-actual-qualifications continues, what areas of human endeavor might fall victim to it next? Watch for news headlines like these in the near future:

"Janus Hires Kato Kaelin to Manage Mutual Fund"

"Paris and Nikki Hilton Open Dental Practice"

"Stallone vs. Kasparov in Final"

"Cameron Diaz: 'I want to draft some legislation!'"

OK, maybe it's not such a big problem after all.

Hu's on First!

Nightline had an interesting discussion the other night about the new leadership in China. It's quite fascinating, because this is the first orderly transition of power in China since the Communists took over in 1949. With tension over Taiwan and China's links to the Iraqi regime, I think it's important for all of us to understand what's happening in China today. For those of you who missed it, here's a portion of the transcript. ABC News Nightline. Broadcast date: November 14, 2002

TED KOPPEL: Joining me now to discuss the transition of power in China is Yang Lu, a professor of Chinese history at Princeton University. Mr. Yang, thank you for joining us.

YANG LU: Good evening.

TED KOPPEL: Let me start by asking you about the results of the closed-door elections at China's Communist Party congress yesterday. Who will be China's next leader?



YANG LU: That's right.

TED KOPPEL: Yes, my question is: who was elected China's top leader?

YANG LU: Yes, Hu.

TED KOPPEL: That's what I'm trying to ask you. What's the new leader's name?


TED KOPPEL: The new president! The man who will lead the world's most populous nation into the 21st century. What's his name?

YANG LU: Hu is the new president!

TED KOPPEL: Why are you asking me? You're supposed to be the expert.

YANG LU: Hu Jintao!

TED KOPPEL: I don't know who Jintao is! Well, let's move on to a discussion of some of the other senior leaders in China as a result of the party congress in Beijing. Who will be vice premier in China?

YANG LU: No, Hu will be president.

TED KOPPEL: I'll ask the questions if you don't mind. We've talked about the president, and so I'd like to know about the vice premier.


TED KOPPEL: Now, after the voting at the big party congress. Who is vice premier?

YANG LU: No, Wen.

TED KOPPEL: At the present time. Who?

YANG LU: He is President.

TED KOPPEL: Who is president?

YANG LU: That is correct.

TED KOPPEL: I don't care anymore. Just tell me the vice premier's name!


TED KOPPEL: Right now! We don't have all night here!

YANG LU: Wen Jiabao!

TED KOPPEL: Well, we seem to be having difficulty with the language barrier. When we come back, I'd like to find out if there are any women in China's top leadership today.


TED KOPPEL: Well, I'll just ask you the question and you give me a straight answer for once in your life. Do you think there's any way you could do that?

YANG LU: Hao Jianxiu.

TED KOPPEL: Oh, forget it.

Dewey Defeats Saddam!

It's time once again for our regular feature, "Amateur Media Criticism for Beginners".

Today we examine the unique challenges that face the foreign correspondent. When covering international news, the reporter must not only give us the particular facts, but also provide the cultural background we need to grasp the significance of daily events. To take one example, America is a diverse and divided culture. We never agree on anything. Our last presidential election was a tie! In many countries, though, the people are apparently much more united, as demonstrated by the recent trend of unanimous presidential elections.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and we need good media coverage to help us cope with it. Even in the old Soviet Union, the winners of the "elections" rarely received 100% of the vote, nor do the leaders of those ex-Soviet countries where the form of the political system has changed more than the substance. In Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenka was "reelected" in 2001 with only 75% of the vote.

But apparently the thought of anyone voting against them makes some leaders feel insecure. They just can't take the rejection. In North Korea, for instance, Kim Jong Il was recently reelected to the official post of "dear leader" by a 100% vote of the Supreme People's Assembly. What are the long-range implications for North Korea and its nuclear standoff with the West? We need the media's help to answer such questions.

We're off to a good start in our understanding of the North Korean leader. While reading a joke about the election off a cue card, late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel pronounced his name "Kim Jong the Second". Hey, at least he knew it's a dynasty!

Perhaps some historical perspective would help. Let's analyze the media coverage of a previous unanimous election: Saddam Hussein in Iraq. What analytical tools does a good reporter need to cover news events like this adequately? To illustrate, let me tell you a little story.

As a graduate student in Russian Studies during the waning years of the Soviet Union, I was trained in "Kremlinology," the science of parsing official propaganda for clues to the real intentions and power politics of a secretive autocratic elite. Like the stock market analysts who specialized in Enron, Sovietologists are in the odd position that the thing they studied no longer exists. But this old skill comes in handy when observing regimes like Saddam Hussein's or Kim Jong Il's. In the Iraqi election held not long before the regime was toppled, the incumbent squeaked by with 100% of the vote. (It ain't the chads that were hanging over there!) Despite the official triumph, a trained eye like mine could detect subtle clues in the Iraqi leader's behavior that undermined his confident facade.

For example, just before the election, NPR's "All Things Considered" broadcast a report on the election campaign in Iraq. Whether the phrase "election campaign" accurately describes a process in which citizens, who were required to vote, were asked on a non-secret ballot to vote Yes or No to re-elect a murderous dictator, is a separate issue. Why the regime even bothered to have any semblance of a campaign and then to trumpet the unanimous result as "visual and tangible" evidence of "the road of free expression" in Iraq, I have no idea. Why a leader who totally rejects Western values would engage in an outrageously farcical attempt to imitate them might be an interesting area for Saddam to explore in therapy now that he has more free time, but I just don't get it.

But I digress!

The really interesting thing for me was a part of the story that was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The brutal thug Saddam Hussein chose as his campaign theme song Whitney Houston's teary ballad "I Will Always Love You"!

This is true! If you don't believe me I'll quote the transcript:

All Things Considered: October 15, 2002

Host John Ydstie: Of course, we can't let you go without talking a little bit about the campaign theme song that Saddam Hussein apparently chose.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, reporting from Bagdad: Well, it's Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," and it's all over the television, all over the radio. The theme here is "Everybody loves Saddam." And his campaign posters feature big hearts. One of the English-language newspapers here had a front-page editorial today calling Saddam "a leader for a heart-shaped land." And so the music is there all the time.

Now here comes the key question: when Saddam chose this particular song, did he have access to an Arabic translation of its lyrics? Surely he wouldn't identify himself with a song if he didn't even know the words, right? Presuming that Saddam knew exactly what Whitney was crooning, let's analyze the text of the song.

The first verse goes like this:

If I should stay
I would only be in your way
So I'll go, but I know
I'll think of you every step of the way

What message was the Iraqi leader sending to his people? Was it a subtle admission that he was standing in the way of his people's progress into modernity? If there was any doubt, we have the second verse:

Bitter sweet memories
That is all I'm taking with m
So goodbye, please don't cry
We both know I'm not what you need

Why wasn't this a banner headline in the New York Times? "Iraqi Leader Agrees to Step Down" Subhead: "Emotional Saddam Begs Nation Not to Weep About Regime Change".

Thank goodness for NPR. Yet again the mainstream media dropped the ball on the big story.

© 2011 John Hershey

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