This is a Call for the Election of a Doge

My crush on Venice, Italy, began in a milquetoast Utah mall waiting for my sister to choose a prom dress. Bored, my brother-in-law and I were jawing about Europe. Three weeks later, twenty of us – parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews – were on a plane. None of us had been before.
For two and a half weeks we rented a villa on the coast, crossing over to Venice each day. Though we’d had plans for Rome and Florence, Milan and Pisa, we never got there.
This is Venice: Lido beach, capped by skeins of fog, its grey sands conjured from the Adriatic. Evening strolls for gelato. The gondola repair shop tucked along a cobbled pathway. The gloss rubbed into the white Istrian marble by millions of hands climbing Rialto Bridge. Geraniums cascading from four-story windows. A dirt path through hay fields on Burano leading to a thousand-year-old church. Jeweled rings in the naval museum the size of melons, made to fling into the lagoon as tribute.
And a bubbler blower.
This was before Sept. 11 2001 and the global reality terrorist attacks, when illegal immigrants from Senegal were still allowed to sell knock-off Gucci bags on the hot footbridges. I’d been through a dozen dusty churches to see Titians and Caravaggios, and toured the flourhouse-turned-museum to see Rape of Europa. I’d been to the morning fish market, eaten dried mango at the open-air bazaar, haggled with a gondolier. I’d been to Peggy Guggenhiem’s mansion to see the Calder mobiles and Constanin Brancusi’s Bird In Space -- and the tombstones in her backyard. I’d paused at her gondola, stuck sadly under glass because it was the last to ever operate here.
       Shoehorned on side-street was bearded man standing on the ancient marble well, in full masquerade costume, blowing bubbles for 50 gaping tourists. His bubbles were the size of a palazzo cupola, dipping just above the heads of the crowd before being gently lifted into the air column, bobbing over the city and floating out to sea. I watched for an hour, until he vanished into the crowd and the crowd evanesced too.
He was just a guy making bubbles, another street performer clogging narrow walkways for quick cash. And I was just another pale-legged tourist, cog of the maudlin mob that actual Venetians both lament for overrunning their city and bitterly need to keep their city alive. I had traveled from the arid American West, where there are no bubbles like this ode to Whitman’s The Body Electric. In Utah, we have red rock, salt-flats and timberline cities, but no humidity. Our thin and brittle air shatters bubbles.
From the Golden Book to pizza margherita, from Titian to the poetry of a bubble, Venice is revelatory. And hobbled.
No one disputes the problem is homemade. The birth of the world’s first capitalist republic came out of desperation. In the third and fourth centuries, common farmers and fishermen fled to these tiny islands for safety from the invading Goths, led by Alaric the Barbarian. Next to swoop in was the remorselessly cruel Attila the Hun, who had never learned to use a boat, thankfully. The salt-marsh islands saved the people, and the people made Venice.
Boats became the savior of the Venetian Empire -- the fountain of a river of money from trade and total military dominance. Though it is still the tiniest geographic secular country to ever have existed, it became an empire, flush with lurid wealth and the intoxication of dominating its neighbors for centuries. Popes bowed to Venice, as did potentates and patriarchs. Wars -- territorial and holy -- were financed here, industries birthed; stocks and bonds were invented here. The greatest families on earth vied to have their names added to The Golden Book, that short list of those who were born – or could buy their way – into the Venetian aristocracy.
Other empires flumed and faded with the lifespan of a clothing trend – ermine shoulder capes, say. And Venice circled vulture-like, ready to strip-mine the carcass. But Venice itself must have seemed to its citizens and enemies to live according to other natural laws, forever aloof to decline.
Today the city affectionately called Serenissima – Most Serene – is approaching her third millennium. The Italian government has planked down a billion euros for the controversial and untested under-sea gates, hoping to spare this sinking city from acqua alta, those storm-driven tides that have forced the evacuation of the ground floors of most palazzos.
If the sea-gates can do their job, perhaps Venice will live eternally.
For all her reinvention and narcissism, Venice did not escape her death, which descended as a Biblical plague in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. While his swift dismantling of her empire (it took three weeks) was a bitter blow, it is Napoleon’s disdain that stings. Not only did he swat down the venerable doyenne of the Adriatic as though dispatching a gnat, and force the abdication of the oligarchy on his whim, he did it with scorn and teasing. He did it not because it needed to be done, not because Venice could any longer threaten him. He did it because he could -- the archetypal schoolyard bully. On Friday, May 12, 1797, cowed Venetian patricians voted in their own demise. John Julius Norwich, in his riveting history of the empire, chronicles that day this way:
“From soon after sunrise the people of Venice had been congregating in the Piazza and Piazzetta... All were aware that the end had come. ...Among the working population there were many who, in contrast to their enfranchised superiors, believed that the Republic, doomed or not, could and should have fought for her survival; for them, there was anger mingled with their shame, and they were in no mood to conceal it. Bands of these rough loyalists were roaming the streets crying ‘Viva San Marco!’ and hurling abuse at any patrician they chanced to encounter on their path.”
After nearly two millennia of formidable high finance, under the weight of her own debauchery, led by the patricians of the greatest families grown languid with iniquity and a gout of unbroken ease, Venice’s empire was hewn away.
Two hundred years and many changes later, Venice struggles with identity. Cut off from governing, the bloodlines of Doges give tours. Foreign celebrities buy up the palazzos. Simpering international charities clash over the right to give tremulous galas in aide to rotting churches and masterwork art. Gondolas float obese lookee-loos. Cruise ships have replaced the Doge’s golden flotilla.
As a fallen city-state, Venezia has become the world’s first museum-state. I propose the Italian government return Venice to its independence, a defibrillative move to bring breath again to the corpse.
Independence would be honorary, of course, and that would be enough. This would allow Venice to become the world’s first municipal-dowager figurehead of empire, the way Queen Elizabeth is both a bloodline and interactive museum-piece. This would allow a grey-haired Doge in full traditional regalia, elected as is tradition to serve for life, to take up residence in the Doges’ Palace, take to the canals in his golden gondola, preside over Carnivale and the regatta races, open the Bienniale and the Film Festival, throw the jeweled ring into the lagoon to renew the city’s marriage to the sea, and hold command performances at La Fenice. A living Dogaressa -- why couldn’t she be a woman? -- would returning ceremony and purpose to the finery, reviving the old majesty, quickening the native blood for the next one thousand years.
In short, Venice could get dressed up and put on a show again -- the very thing Venice was always best at in all the world.
This is a call for revival of the Venetian Empire, for election of a Doge. Viva San Marco. Viva la Serenissima.

Best Seeds For Planting In Jan/Feb in Any Climate

Hello all! I got a seed order yesterday which has prompted me to create a list of the best seeds for planting outdoors right now, in January, even if you live in a sub-freezing climate. I was so excited by the email below -- I think it is great that so many of you are starting winter gardening! Here is what this couple wrote to me:

“Hi Caleb. My wife and I have just finished reading your Forgotten Skills book and would really like to start our own winter garden. I have built some cold frames out of free wood I found on and we already have a system for starting seeds in the house. We are excited to use open-pollinating seeds and garden for more than just 3 months out of the year. I don't know if starting off in the middle of winter is the best idea but we really are too excited to wait until spring. So we would like to order some seeds from you:

One packet of America spinach
One packet of Grand Rapids lettuce
One packet of Buttercrunch lettuce
One packet of Scarlet Nantes carrots”

This is Caleb again. Some of these would not all be my first choice for beginners to plant in January, so I thought it would be helpful to share my experience with what works best from seed outdoors in winter. Here is what I would recommend to any of you itching to start winter gardening today! I have all of these seeds available for order now.

1. Cascadia Peas. Why? Because they are almost unbelievably frost hardy -- more hardy than all other peas I’ve tried. And they germinate in cold soil. And, best of all, you can eat the leaves and they taste just like peas -- just like them! -- in salads, so you can start harvesting something immediately. Of course, don’t overharvest the leaves or you won’t get actual peas!

2. Mizuna. This extraordinary Asian green grows unbelievably fast. It does not seem at all fazed by bitter cold, and it has a beautiful frisee leaf. The goal of planting from seed in January is to get food to eat self-sufficiently as fast as possible, which is why Mizuna is a great choice. I just planted a bunch of this seed and it is growing very well.

3. Rutabaga. These wonderful root vegetables only sprout in cool weather, and right now they are thriving at my house, planted this month from seed. These make the very best mashed potatoes. You probably haven’t tried a rutabaga. They are like a cross between a carrot and a sugar beet in flavor. You’ll love them!

4. Red Orach. This is a relative of spinach and you eat it used just like it. It produces beautiful red-purple leaves that can be eaten raw or sauteed. I love it in an omelet! This vegetable just loves to sprout in winter. And it’s great to have a fresh winter “green” that isn’t green!

5. Basil. We can never get enough of this herb at our house. Can you even eat pasta without basil? And if you are not putting basil on your beef roasts, you are missing out! Yet basil can be finicky to sprout if the weather is not cool. It will sprout in January, and do even better in February.

6. Amsterdam Forcing Carrot. I have never been able to start carrots in January until I found this very old European winter carrot. I am one of only two seller of this seed in the U.S. -- it is extremely difficult to come by. The great thing about planting carrots in January is that it really starts you on your way to being self-sufficient year-round in carrots, like we are at our house. And it’s fun!

7. America Spinach. This is traditional spinach, and it will sprout in January, but it can be slow to grow, especially in the beginning. But once it is up and going, you’ll have spinach all spring!

8. Grand Rapids Lettuce. This is by far the fastest growing lettuce out of more than 100 varieties I have trialed -- it is just amazing. If you want self-sufficient fresh lettuce fast, this is the place to start. In a hot bed it grows an astonishing four inches A WEEK! It is cut and come again -- so to harvest, just cut it off at the soil level. It will grow right back, over and over again. 

9. Extra Dwarf Pak Choi. A fun miniature Chinese cabbage that grows very fast and loves cold weather. Tender and succulent to eat, great in salad, steam, raw, or stir-fry!

10. Osaka Purple Mustard Greens. Purple and green leaves with a spicy kick. Put a little in a salad for a burst of taste.
I’ve chosen all of these for the winter garden beginner. They are the easiest to sprout, and the most durable in bitter weather. Now a couple of quick notes on planting seed outdoors in January and February. You must at least have a cold frame made of greenhouse plastic or glass. You must place the cold frame in the garden where you want to plant for at least a few days with sun before you plant. All snow has to be melted, and the ground has to be unfrozen (which is what the cold frame will do for you). Everything on the list above will sprout faster, and grow three times faster, if you put it in a natural hot bed covered by a cold frame. Everything you need to know about hot beds and cold frames will be in my new Backyard Winter Gardening book which comes out in February. In the meantime, you can email me and I’ll try get to you, but remember I get hundreds of emails every single day, so be patient with me :) Here is the link again for buying my seeds -- and remember, all of the advice above is not from books, it from my garden. We believe we are the last family in the U.S. to grow an extensive winter garden. Join us! You won’t regret eating fresh and free in winter! -Caleb

14 Years Ago, I Tried to Kill Myself

Fourteen years ago, during a difficult divorce, I tried to kill myself. Over three weeks I had lost 52 pounds because I could not eat. My hair had begun falling out in chunks. Narcolepsy, insomnia, and night terrors took over. Panic attacks would force me to the floor. I had no money and was about to be homeless. I felt like I was sinking in hopelessness. I thought the only way out was to kill myself. I had chosen the method, time,  and place. I was ready and eager. It is hard to explain how desperately I wanted out.

The experiences that saved my life are sacred to me. Acting on an inner prompting, my cousin, Suzanne, bought me a plane ticket to her home in Washington D.C. That ticket convinced me to put my suicide aside temporarily. In D.C. I was given a gift by a stranger which convinced me that I might have something to contribute. When I got home, my cousin, Joy, tearfully told me that her children needed me, and that if I killed myself, they would suffer. My friends Branden and Lance took me on five-mile sledding runs in the mountains -- and for the first time in weeks I felt a thrill, a thread of living. Seeing light in my eyes, they took me sledding over and over. Branden made me come to dinner, and I began to eat. Their kids took no notice of my gloom -- they just wanted to play with “Uncle Caleb”. They were a bright light to me.

Today, it is hard to connect that crippled life to the happiness I know now. I’m grateful I didn’t kill myself.

As I began to find my feet in a new life, I saw the world differently. I realized there was nothing and no one who could hurt me more than I had already hurt. So I had nothing to fear. Without fear, I felt free. I could try anything. There could be no meaningful failure. I vowed never again to work a job that did not make me happy. I vowed never to think about money. I knew what had real value, and it sure wasn’t money. I lost the fear of saying no, and the fear of being told no.

With my new ambition, I called the local university and asked to teach a writing class for their adult continuing education program -- my dream. I’ve been teaching ever since. And in that first class, I met the love of my life, my wife Charmayne. She had pixie hair, black leather boots, and a force of presence. She was a tiny sexy little thing, sauntering into class late on the first day,  mysterious and beautiful. She had the confidence and ease of someone who had lost her fear.

Turns out, she had also suffered. Her story is not mine to tell here, but I’ll give you one sentence. She had been left unconscious in a pool of her own blood on her kitchen floor as her children watched. She had suffered more than me.

Today, she has chosen to free herself and her daughters by forgiving the man who did this. She had seen anger cripple other people. She wanted to show the kids that, as she puts it, “you don’t have to sit in your own garbage.” This created space in her life for me. Her decision to let help everyone let go of the past humbles me.

Charmayne had six daughters. I had no kids. We had both vowed never to marry again, considering what we had been through. For the first time, fear was part of my life again. But this time was different. I married Charmayne because, while praying out loud while driving alone on the freeway one day, a voice said “This deserves a chance.”

That answer to my prayer was powerful. I obeyed. But I was scared, and so was she. A few days ago we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. We are not scared anymore.

Every good thing in my life has come with Charmayne. Six step-daughters who welcomed and embraced me. Two weeks ago, they gave me and Charmayne our sixth grandchild, a girl. Today is my fortieth birthday, and I have six grandchildren. There is no step between me and them. This love is a new experience for me. Our oldest grandson lived with us for the first five and a half years of his life. This changed me.

Over the past decade, I have lived every dream I ever conjured. I have become a bestselling author. I love my work. I am a full-time journalist with a voice. I am a writer, a teacher, a renaissance gardener. I have made it my goal to be a useful person. What if I had killed myself?

For my fortieth birthday, I have given myself two gifts I thought I could never achieve. For thirteen months my wife and I have been doing yoga at the local gym. If you know anything about me, you know the words “Caleb” and “gym” go together like the words “righteous” and “Monsanto”. (I couldn’t resist). Yet, 13 months later, yoga has changed my life. Because of yoga, I was able to learn to ski. Every person in our family skis. When my oldest grandson learned at age five, I saw opportunity slipping away -- I’m not getting any younger. This fall I graduated from Brighton Ski School.

My fortieth birthday in particular is a moment to take inventory. I’m a big guy at six-foot-four. People my height statistically don’t see age 70 very often. I am two-thirds done with the useful portion of my life -- if I’m lucky. My clock is ticking. All our clocks are. Fourteen years ago, I didn’t see the joy ahead. I’m grateful for the people who helped me see a future.

At least one person kills him- or herself every day in the state where I live. My family has suffered a loss in recent years. Our town has suffered what seems to be an unfair share. If you are thinking of killing yourself, don’t do it. You are needed. There are people you have not met who will need you. You will change their lives. Your decisions will have influence in the future beyond your understanding.

That whispering voice that encourages suicide is not the voice of love, nor the voice of God. Be careful who you listen to.

There is life after this world. But emotional pain is solved more easily here -- where you can make changes. Don’t give away your liberty to choose and change.

If you hurt, ask for help. “And God shall wipe away all tears from [your] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

This is what happened to me. I’m grateful I lived to find out. -Caleb

A Video Tour of My Backyard Winter Garden -- Jan. 16 2013

The goal of having a winter garden is fresh eating and self-sufficiency.Winter gardening is the easiest gardening you'll every do. All you have to do is harvest -- no weeds, no bugs, not watering. Just eating!

Winter gardening is only possible with winter garden seed, the varieties used to feed the world for hundreds of years before the invention of hybrid seed and the modern grocery store. I grow and sell some of the rarest seed in the world, including winter garden seed that you can get nowhere else. You can find it here. No one spends more time and money working to save them from extinction than I do. Thank you for viewing my winter garden tour. Please take a moment to share it with your friends. And check out my new Backyard Winter Gardening book on the Amazon link to the right. -Caleb

Finished Being Fat

Learning to finish is a rare talent. The world is full of people who start -- especially at this time of year. My friend Betsy Schow has written a book about her own journey cutting her weight in half by learning how to finish. What I love about this book is the humor and voice. She never lectures. She doesn't take herself too seriously. But she is serious about learning to be a finisher.

Finished being Fat takes us on Betsy's accidental adventure that started out as yet another attempt to get rid of the weight around her middle, but snowballed into a year of changing her life, marriage and the way she raises her kids. While achieving a bucket list of impossible dreams on the side.

Whether your goal is losing weight, running a marathon, cleaning out the basement, or all of the above, this book will teach you how to achieve more than you ever thought possible without sacrificing your sanity or sense of humor.

Now let's hear from Betsy herself: 

"Let’s dispense with the shameless plugs at the start shall we? Buy my book, change your life, and learn to finish. Visit me at to get your own free calorie budget and link to a beginner’s yoga routine. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Deseret Book and Seagull Book.

"Now onto the good stuff. During my adventure I learned my big fat problem had a whole lot less to do with being, well, big and fat, and more to do with the incredibly loud voice that screamed in the back of my head. As I was losing weight it would say, “Give up. You know you’re going to get fat again.” As I would write it would say, “Give up. You know no one is ever going to pay to read anything you’ve written.” After hearing that little voice for years, I believed it without question. I trusted that voice to be absolutely correct, so I did what it said and I gave up. On everything.

"Yes, that voice was just me, and it kept me from everything I truly wanted in life. I could, and had battled the pudge countless times in the past. But it was never permanent because of that nagging little demon that sat on my shoulder telling me what a loser I was. Some people, like Caleb, are born with a little cheerleader in their head that screams, “Look out, get the heck out of my way” the rest of us get the heckler that says, “You suck”. If I wanted to move beyond the ghosts of past failures, I had to kill off the voice and learn to finish what I started.

"Whether you are trying to write and publish your first book, working on losing weight for good, or just want to do something that seems impossible in your life - here are a few methods to get rid of the negative nagger in your brain.

Murder most foul
Use all of your creative juices and kill off the boogeyman in your head. Drown it, clobber it, attack it with a horde of demonic geese - just visualize you conquering your worst enemy ... you.

Tune it out
If it dares pop up again while you’re writing or running, or doing some other equally important thing to get get to your dream, then start singing showtunes. Okay, not really. But I’ve found if I’m listening to music or actively speaking or singing then I can’t listen to the little voice and all it’s yuckiness.

Change the conversation
If you hear something enough, you start to believe it. So start hearing good stuff instead of bad. Don’t go fishing for compliments to all our friends, do it yourself. Self affirmations, though cheesy and somewhat dorky, actually work. Some people go to the mirror and say, “Hey good looking”. I personally would say to myself, whenever I as doing something hard or scary, “You can do it, you’re awesome and you never give up”. After a while, I started to believe it.

Put up or shut up
This is the be all end all. Prove the stupid voice wrong. Everyday. Commit yourself to a life of finishing and give up being a quitter. Each thing you finish will build into a little mountain of proof you can show yourself. When the little voice says, “You can’t” point to the finishes you’re piling up and say, “I can. I did.” Every deadline you make, every race you finish, every day you survive - count them up and give yourself credit.

Shutting out the voice was just one of the things I learned on my journey. But now that I have, I’ve kept the 75 pounds off for almost 2 years now. Within a year I managed to run 2 marathons, 5 halfs, write 3 books (and sign contracts for them), and come to find a peace with who I am.  I can do anything I set out to do as long as I keep moving forward and never give up again.

I am a finisher.
Are you?

My Winter Garden, Jan. 3 2013

Happy winter, everyone :)

Two nights ago we had our lowest nighttime temperature so far this winter, hitting minus-four degrees below zero! Yet I'm happy to report that we still have loads of fresh winter vegetables, both in the backyard garden in cold frames (under a foot of snow!) and in the geothermal greenhouse, which is heated only by the heat of the earth, without any artificial heat or electricity. I recorded several videos today of me in the backyard garden opening cold frames for you to see inside, but this darn blog won't accept the videos for some reason. I'll try again in another post. In the meantime, here's a January tour of my winter garden, both in the greenhouse and outside in the cold frames. My new book is called "Backyard Winter Gardening: Vegetables Fresh and Simple, in Any Climate, Without Artificial Heat or Electricity, the Way Its Been Done for 2,000 Years." This book is the first vegetable-by-vegetable guide to winter gardening to be published in the U.S. to my knowledge. And it is now available for pre-order through Amazon :)

Above is a cluster of tomatoes in my geothermal greenhouse. I'm testing different varieties of tomatoes this year, and though they are getting larger faster, they are not ripening as fast as some of the varieties I used last year. Within the next week I will plant seeds from more than 20 different tomato varieties to test for winter germination. You will notice in the photo that the leaves of this tomato plant have suffered damage. This is because two nights ago our low was minus-four degrees, and last night it was zero. The geothermal greenhouse has no artificial heat, and the bitter cold damaged some leaves. But the plants are alive and will grow new leaves. The tomatoes are unharmed, though the cold does wrinkle some of them.

I have planted about 120 varieties of seed in my greenhouse to test for winter germination. I'm testing everything from peas to beans to squash to exotics, onions, carrots -- everything. I've learned the hard way that you cannot guess with varieties might be winter tolerate. Seeds from some countries that have never had a frost show excellent winter sturdiness, and seeds with names that would hint they would do well in winter don't even sprout. So I've made it my mission in life to test every known open-pollinated variety for winter germination. I've spent several thousand dollars just for seed in the past couple of years. Shhhh - don't tell my wife.

Above is a picture of one of my great frustrations this winter -- I believe I have a vole in the greenhouse. It's dug at least 20 feet of tunnels, which I have collapsed and flooded over and over, trying to hint to this creature that it is not welcome. But its very cold outside and I guess this vole thinks my wrath is better than Mother Nature's. The vole has been eating tomatoes like nobody's business, so I finally went and bought these stupid traps, hoping to catch it. But try as I might, I only snap my own fingers. I can't get these dumb things to stay set. Erg. I'm going go buy some glue traps next. The vole has also been eating my pea plants down to the root. So far the damage has mostly been tomatoes, and I have lots of tomatoes, but still...

Above is a picture of one of my backyard cold frames. We have a foot of snow outside right now, and these cold frames were literally frozen to the ground and have not been opened in two weeks. In this frame I planted three kinds of lettuce that I've never winter tested before. The variety in the middle failed, but the lettuce on each side is doing well -- not the best winter lettuce in the garden so far, but not bad.

This, above, is a shot of part of my geothermal greenhouse. In the foreground is a pineapple plant, in the background is peas and a bunch of containers where I'm testing seed varieties for winter germination.

This, above, is a picture of baby cabbages and mature lentils in a cold frame in the backyard garden, surrounded by deep snow. 

This is the fig tree in my greenhouse. It as only now begun to lose its leaves.

For five or six days last week, the temperature in my greenhouse was 34 degrees, and I had just planted more than 50 varieties of seeds -- and despite the cold and lack of sunlight (it was very stormy) I've had several plants begin to grow. An excellent test! When my tests are complete, I'll reveal the winners, probably in a book or maybe in a limited-time blogpost. Stay tuned :)

Above is the winner of 18 different kinds of lettuces I'm testing for winter germination. 

I'm especially hopeful about this picture, which is a cucumber seed putting out a root. Cucumbers have been grown in cold frames overwinter for more than 2,000 years, yet I have not been able to find a variety that will germinate in winter. This is the first cucumber I've tried which has developed a root. But I've learned from hard experience that just because a seed develops a root in winter does not mean it will grow leaves. So I'm watching. We'll see what happens. 

Another germination winner!

I'm testing more than a dozen kinds of peas for winter germination. You can see in this picture that two different kinds of peas are popping out of the ground -- so far, so good!

An over-view of a part of the greenhouse, with peas and containers of seeds planted for germination testing.