Tuesday, September 6, 2011


            As a nation, we are as enamored with the opinions of experts as with the bad behavior of people celebrated mostly for behaving badly. Of the former group, economists are the most egregious example. The Labor Day op-eds pointed out that the actual number of unemployed and underemployed Americans comes closer to 17% of the population than the nine percent the statistic crunchers spewed out earlier this month. What do they care? No doubt they all have cushy jobs with super-duper benefits.

Here's the guy who started
all the nonsense
            Held in a 250-seat auditorium, the introductory economics class I took as a first-year student at UVa several hundred autumns ago cemented my disdain for “the dismal science,” a moniker that seems only half right: “dismal” hits the bulls-eye, but the “science” part is extremely iffy. In his initial lecture, rising-star professor and author of the $60 required textbook (that’s 60 1970s dollars, almost a full week’s wages for a seasonally employed teen—how economical is that?) Dr. Kenneth Elzinga made clear in a subtextual way that the foundation of economics is to assume away reality, posit the factors that best fit the outcome you want to “prove,” and go from there. Guns and butter, supply and demand, we learned as the semester wore on, are just so much smoke and mirrors. Because I’m good at on-demand regurgitation of factoids, I came out of the course with a B+, three credit hours toward a degree, and an abiding mistrust for anything any economist has to say on any subject.

            (In retrospect, the best part of ECON 101 was sitting next to Tony McReynolds, a bearded bearish guy from Boca Raton, Florida, who was scary-smart and had a wicked sense of humor embellished by a dreamy baritone speaking voice. If it hadn’t been for him, I probably would have skipped most lectures and cadged my roommate’s notes. I haven’t thought of Tony Mac in years. Wonder what he’s doing today? Whatever it is, I bet it’s not economics.)

Why economists are worthless:
all talk, no action
            Economists may be the worst at dispensing “expert" sound-bites, but they’re far from alone. The advent of 24-hour on-air yakking (thanks bunches, CNN) has given rise to a culture of expertise. Turn on any TV or radio and you can get horse’s-mouth opinions on dealing with your physical health (Dr. Oz), your mental health (Dr. Phil), your love-life and children (any afternoon talk show), your house and garden (HGTV, Martha Stewart), your pet (Animal Planet), your politics (FOX News), the weather (TWC), your cuisine (Emeril, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, the Iron Chef, those nutcase Swedes on PBS, etc., etc., etc.), your religion (TCN), your drugs (The People’s Pharmacy), your money (CNBC), your sports fixation (ESPN), you name it. Experts also expound in print: just check out the how-to and self-help sections of any library or bookstore (Deepak Chopra, Dr. Whatshisname Dobson, Malcolm Gladwell).

            We’re adrift in a vast sea of information, completely free of ever having to think for ourselves. Doesn’t seem to make us any happier, though. Or more efficient, or proficient, or functional as human beings. “Where is the wisdom in information?” worried T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets decades ago.

            Yesterday afternoon, while pulling out failed bush beans with a view to an experimental fall planting of potatoes, it occurred to me that not much I’ve ever read about vegetable gardening has been all that helpful. Take potatoes, for example. This was my third season working in the genre (as we writer-types say): it was the best ever, harvest-wise, but that’s not saying much. I am embarrassed to report that we dug a whole 28 ounces of golf-ball-sized spuds; which, I hasten to add, is 11 ounces better than last year, and 23 ounces more than 2009’s dismal harvest. The Adirondack Blues, new to us this year, beat the odds in this distinctly non-Adirondack climate by producing the largest and the most.

The remarkable
Adirondack Blue potato
             (I would like to take this opportunity to point out that the Adirondack Blues also surprised by being the only non-regulation-colored vegetable I’ve ever seen Tim eat without coercion. Seriously. The man won’t touch orange, yellow, pink or green tomatoes. He regards sweet peppers of any hue but green as suspect. He doesn’t even like to be in the same room as a white eggplant—not that he’d allow one of those of any color to pass his lips.)

Some seed catalogs
I consult
            Back to the point. As is my wont, I conducted extensive research into raising potatoes before planting the first batch—Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening, Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte (see Good Reads at right), seed catalogs and gardening websites galore. I also quizzed the guy at Farmers Supply in Wilmington where we bought our seed stock. (He told me I was a bit behind the curve for planting time.) I prepared the soil and the eyes, placed them at the prescribed depth and distance apart, and hilled the damn things repeatedly that first season. Turned out most of the advice must have been geared to places like Maine and Idaho, not the nutrient-poor sand and steamy nights of southeastern North Carolina. A week before time to dig, bacterial soft rot set in. Who knew potatoes could dissolve into sacks of noxious goo while still in the ground?

            This year, I decided the experts could go pound sand and followed the dictates of intuition and sad experience instead. I planted in mid-February rather than late March, didn’t bother hilling at all, didn’t wait anxiously for flowers that never came. The results, as mentioned above, showed improvement. I learned respectable harvests depend in part on the amount of acreage sown. I learned that you don’t have to space plants with mathematical precision: cramming works as well as not. I learned cool soil temperatures are critical to successful potato farming, which is why Idaho and Maine get such spectacular results when I don’t. Tim pointed out that the only type of spud widely grown in our neck of the woods is the sweet potato, which is botanically closer to morning-glories than Solanums. All these vital clues to growing potatoes in coastal southeastern North Carolina came from on-the-job training and personal observation, not from what somebody else told me or from something I read. These are the lessons I will remember, and apply.

Books such as these
have their limitations
            So, disregarding the experts’ warnings against non-certified-virus-free stock, I’m sowing a small fall crop of eyes from sustainably raised potatoes I bought at farmers markets and let sprout under the kitchen sink. Maybe they’ll have time to produce before killing frost sets in, maybe not. But either way, it’ll be a lesson I learned on my own about works for me, in the place I live.

            Not all expert advice is worthless. I’m forever grateful to the trophoblastic disease unit at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for giving me the opportunity to be alive these past 30 years. I’m really glad I never bought that Yugo. Momma was right about the Sims boy. Tim is very seldom mistaken when he expresses an opinion about anything. But the best lessons—in gardening as in life—are those we stumble into on our own.

            My expert advice? Turn off the outside noise and go figure out something for yourself. I guarantee you’ll feel better for the exercise.

            Thanks for dropping by.


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