This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book Review: The $64 Tomato: How One Man nearly Lost His Snity, Spent a Fortune, and endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden

The title takes up the allotted space that blogger allows for a title! But the book is by William Alexander, a man from New York's Hudson Valley, who's love for gardening turned him into, truly, a small-scale farmer.

I had this book on my library wish list for over two years. I decided it was finally time to read this sucker. And I'm so glad I did...

Although the author and setting is in New York, the publisher is Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. I was thrilled to see a local connection to it, especially after enjoying it so much.

The $64 tomato is the final spreadsheet number that Alexander comes up with, for his prized Brandywine tomatoes, after including all of his expenses over the past 20 and multiplied, then divided, and discovered how much growing these tomatoes actually cost him.

But that's just one side of the story...the rest is entertaining as hell and despite being a green thumb (but I do love gardening and have been successful at it), I could relate to his story to other aspects of what I consider as my own hobby.

But Alexander starts with a new, old house, in the Hudson Valley, which has about three acres of space for he and his wife to build their dream garden.

This account takes the reader through the entire process and Alexander is sarcastic, funny, and just blunt about pointing out his mania at building the ideal garden.

He continues through a twenty year journey of ups and downs, mostly accounting for the downs, but behind the lines of the negativity, I can read the love and passion this man has for the labor of growing, harvesting, and tending to the garden.

There is an underlying connection to life in general, with his gardening accounts. I compare it to the short and sweet book, Good Dog. Stay., but an account of the life span (that still continues today) of this garden vs. the lifespan of a loved pet.

It's mesmerizing and really gets one thinking about things...and some of the things he states I found comparable to my own life.

When he compares his wife's view on 'tending to the garden' vs. his own, I felt the same comparison between the way Tim looks at things and the way I do. When he gets upset with his wife, because she hadn't tended to the garden as he had expected. And by "expected", I mean she DID work on the garden, just not to what his expectations were.

Instead of weeding the overgrown vegetable garden, his wife had cleaned up the flower garden. And Alexander felt that this was ridiculous, as no one cares about the flower garden -- but the veggie garden is the one that is an unseemly mess!

He states:
I came to understand that Anne saw nothing at all incongruous about her morning in the garden. Her goal that morning was a few hours of relaxation -- deadheading, tying, cutting flowers for the house. My goal for the morning had nothing to do with the pleasures of gardening and everything to do with the often unrewarding but necessary work of gardening.

He continues with:
I am goal driven in the garden. I head out there with a job to do, and I don't leave until it's finished. Anne heads to garden when she feels like gardening, and unless I specifically direct her, she will spend the next few hours pursuing whatever activity brings her the most gratification.

Ding! Ding! This is exactly the same relationship that Tim and I have. Tim is a workaholic and sees everything as a job that must get done. This is GREAT because I have a house that is getting remodeled by this man, who takes pride in his work and gets the job done.

Where there is a problem is that I don't think that way. I want things to be fun - butterflies and song birds singing all around - as I tell him my fabulous ideas for HIM to work on to get things done.

And I'll gladly do my part...when I feel the "calling" of something. For example, I spent a day or so working on our guest bathroom: painting, changing the fixtures, repainting the cabinets and mirrors, hanging a blind, etc. I even put together a piece of bathroom furniture to add to it. All by myself, with just a little bit of help from Tim (I had no idea how to use a drill, screwdriver thingy...still don't). Tim was ecstatic and pleased and usually points to that project as something he'd like to see more often from me.

But that was my calling that day. Something I wanted to do and enjoyed doing. I don't get that everyday and Tim, well, he might not get that every day, but he looks at something as a job to be done *every day*.

I tried to bring this up last night but it almost turned into an either my view is totally skewed and I have been mistaken, or I didn't explain it right.

Back to the book...the existentialism to this novel, while interwoven throughout the novel, comes close to the end, as 20 years has past, Alexander is 50 years old and has been diagnosed with herniated disks. Age has caught up and he is no longer able to bend over, digging, hoeing, pushing barrels of mulch, manure, soil, etc. Things will have to change and by this time, he has a love-hate relationship with his "garden", which has now turned into a small-scale farm.

He ponders the question "If you were doomed to live the same life over and over again for eternity, would you choose the life you are living now?" Deep thoughts that continue into "If the answer is no, then why are you living the life you are living now? Stop making excuses, and do something about it."

I think we all tend to wonder these things. Sometimes it has to do with work and sometimes, more often than we like, it has to do with life in general.

So far, my answer is YES, with the caveat of changing some terrible decisions, which do not include my children, my husband, or my pets. :-)

A great book, stylized in a first-hand account of a hobby-turned-to-job. William Alexander is a great story teller, in the same vein of David Sedaris. You will laugh more than you'll realize, and I think, you will ponder your own life as you walk through Alexander's.

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