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A deck is a great cover-up. July 27, 2014

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When our friend Ben and Silence Dogood bought our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, there was a really nice deck off the back of the house. And a hideous, cracked, multilayered concrete “patio” to one side of the front of the house, several feet below our parking square and separated from it by a stone wall. We hated the so-called patio on sight, but lacked the funds to upgrade it. So we turned it into a storage space for our annual cord of wood. Needless to say, this didn’t exactly up its attractiveness, but at least it covered up some of the concrete and turned it into a useful space.

Year followed year, and Silence was constantly reminding me that it would be really nice if we could pave over the concrete and make a real, attractive patio. But buying palettes of slate or whatever was still beyond our modest budget, and we’ve both seen how easily slate cracks and breaks. Our friend Ben also has an aversion to brick patios, beautiful and durable as they can be, after having to try to pull weeds from between the bricks of the brick patios at not one but two childhood homes. Talk about backbreaking, frustrating, pointless labor! Ouch.

One day this summer, our friend and handyman Mark was here, and Silence broached the subject of the patio. What did Mark suggest? “Well, I know what I would do,” he replied. “I’d build a deck over that.” Genius! Silence and I immediately saw the point: We could have a usable, attractive space that covered a former eyesore, for a fraction of the cost of stone or brick paving and none of the maintenance. We power-wash and waterproof our back deck every few years and that’s all the maintenance it needs.

When Mark actually built the deck, however, Silence was horrified. “Look, Ben, it’s so much higher than I expected! Now everyone who passes on the road will be able to see us if we sit out there!” I explained that Mark was just trying to create a level deck on what had been a sloping concrete slab, but to no avail. Then, Silence had what one of her friends’ mothers deathlessly described as “a rush of brains to the head.” “Ben, what about lattice paneling at the back of the deck, the part closest to the parking square? That would mean that we wouldn’t have to look at our cars, and no one from the road could see us.”

Mark was totally on board with the idea, pointing out that there were actually wooden tracks to hold lattice in place. (Of course Silence wanted natural wood lattice, not plastic, and wanted it left in its natural wood color, just waterproofed, not painted.) Mark finished putting up the lattice yesterday, and Silence is ecstatic. “It pulls it all together, Ben: Privacy from the road, no view of our cars from the deck. It’s perfect! Now we just need to string little white twinkly lights on the lattice and throw a deckwarming party!”

Uh, right. But we agree that a deck in front and a deck in back means that we can sit in the cool shade whatever time of day, since the sun will create very different hotspots depending on the hour and we like our deck-time cool and comfortable.

So, if you’re like us, confronting an eyesore and wondering what to do about it on a budget, consider the deck option: reasonable cost, very low maintenance, conversion to a usable space. And if there’s a privacy issue, don’t forget the latticing!

Game of Thrones: Who are the dragonriders? July 26, 2014

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MAJOR SPOILERS potentially ahead. Did showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss tell us who the dragonriders are in Season 4 of “Game of Thrones”? Maybe the fansites have long since picked up on this, but if not, check out our friend Ben’s theory below. I know the identity of the three dragonriders has been a hot topic for “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts and fans of George RR Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.

Everyone assumes that all three of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons will need riders if Westeros will be retaken for the Targaryen dynasty. It’s not enough for Dany to show up on Drogon; it took Aegon the Conqueror three dragons and three dragonriders (the other two were his sister-wives) to take Westeros to begin with. Now we again have three dragons, but just one rider. Who are the other two?

In our friend Ben’s opinion, Season 4 was pretty heavy-handed about the reveal. And since the showrunners have talked with Martin about how the series ends, they probably have a pretty informed idea of how the whole dragon thing works out. Let’s look at how Season 4 played out in terms of dragonriding:

First, there’s Prince Oberyn of House Martell of Dorne. To intimidate a couple of Lannisters, he slowly passes his hand over a candle flame and obviously isn’t burned. We know that the Targaryens and the Martells have married in the past; Prince Oberyn has come to King’s Landing expressly to revenge himself for the death of his sister Elia, the wife of Crown Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. He had also offered to wed Princess Arianne Martell to Vicerys Targaryen. That Oberyn’s line has Targaryen blood is demonstrated by his imperviousness to fire. But, due to his gruesome death at the hands of the Mountain, he obviously won’t be a dragonrider.

Second, there’s an interminable and completely unnecessary scene between Daario Naharis and Daenarys Targaryen in the first episode of Season 4, where he offers her three flowers. The first is a blue rose (aka dusk rose), the symbol of Lyanna Stark, her favorite flower. Lyanna was the sister of the late lamented Eddard Stark and the mother of the son she pledged him to claim as his, to keep the vengeful Robert Baratheon, who was determined to wipe out every last child of the Targaryens, from killing this child, fathered by Rhaegar Targaryen, the heir to the Iron Throne. Eddard dutifully proclaimed the child his own and named him Jon Snow. Jon has the best claim to the Iron Throne of anyone, and as half Targaryen, a fine claim as a dragonrider.

Daario also offers Daenaerys a bunch of Lady’s lace, a flower with multiple strands of white flowers like Daenerys’s elaborate white braids. I don’t think we need to overthink this one.

Finally, Daario offers Daenarys a beautiful red flower with prominent yellow stamens in the center. He tells her this flower is called harpy’s gold, and even though it’s beautiful, she should beware of it because it’s poisonous. Red and yellow are the colors of House Martell. If we recall that Prince Oberyn was called the Red Viper, and that poison was his weapon of choice, this flower points to him and his offspring, the girls known as the Sand Snakes. Oberyn himself won’t be riding a dragon or anything else anytime soon, but one of his daughters might. My bet’s on Nymeria, who was born of a noblewoman, but it could be the fierce warrior Obara Sand. All the Sand Snakes bear Targaryen blood through their father.

So, there you have it: Three dragons, three riders. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow (aka Jon Stark Targaryen), and Nymeria Sand. What do you think?

Paleo, shmaleo. July 23, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Yesterday, our friend Ben and I were grocery shopping. I’m always interested in checking out what my fellow shoppers are buying while I’m waiting (and waiting) in the checkout line; it beats the hell out of staring at those magazine covers about the Kardashians or “guess who this fat actress is.” Ugh!

Most of the time, I’m demoralized to see that the entire order consists of bags of chips and pretzels, sodas, gallons of ice cream, doughnuts, sliced lunch meat, a loaf of white “balloon bread,” and the like, with some sugary cereals and a jug of milk added to up the “healthy” contingent and the requisite dozen cans of cat or dog food. Maybe a few bananas and some orange juice. Basically a recipe for diabetes, obesity and heart disease. I’d never give my own pets canned food, but it’s probably better for them than all that fatty, sugary, chemically laden, nutritionless glop is for their loving owners.

Yesterday, however, the woman in line behind me had a quite different shopping agenda. I stared wide-eyed as she pulled gigantic package after package of meat from her cart: the biggest package of salmon I’d ever seen, a huge pack of organic shrimp, and huge pack of organic ground meat (turkey? it looked a little pale for beef). On and on it went, until the conveyor belt behind me looked like a slaughterhouse. Yet she had obviously gone to great effort to pick only the healthiest meats, and to seek out organic meats at that. Then, she extracted the only non-meat item from her cart: a skimpy bag of frozen, steam-in-bag mixed vegetables.

Gack! This time of year, the produce aisles are overflowing with beautiful, seasonal fresh vegetables and fruits. Our own shopping bags were bursting with them. Why on earth would a person who’d taken so much care to buy healthy meats and avoid all processed foods, much less junk foods, get a tiny bag of frozen mixed veggies when all earth’s bounty lay before her?

I was mumbling about this to poor OFB all the way home from the store. I just couldn’t understand it. I kept thinking she must be planning a cookout. But why would someone serve up a tiny bag of disgusting steamed mixed frozen veggies to their guests when they could grill corn on the cob and endless other grill-friendly veggies, scoop up some homemade guacamole, salsa and tortilla chips, offer big sides of homemade coleslaw and/or Caprese salad?

Then, finally, the lightbulb went on. We weren’t talking about a party here. We were talking about a woman on the Paleo diet. If anyone still doesn’t know, the Paleo diet is supposed to reconstruct what our ancestors ate back in the hunter/gatherer days, which in essence was damned little. They trapped, hooked, and shot what they could; they foraged for wild grains, berries and fruits, honey, roots, herbs, nuts, and shoots, and doubtless worms and insects and anything else they could find. Our pre-agricultural ancestors were opportunists, foraging for what they could find, the perfect definition of omnivores.

And yes, they were thin, the reason people embrace the Paleo diet today. They weren’t thin because they wanted to be, of course; they were thin because it was so hard to find food and to consume enough calories to offset the time it took to find them. They were starving most of the time. This put their body in ketosis, kidney failure, the exact same method all the meat-based diets like Atkins use to cause their clients to start burning their own muscle to lose weight. (Yes, I said muscle; they only burn fat once the muscle is exhausted.)

If our Paleolithic ancestors could have been fat and happy, never worrying about where their next meal was coming from, getting all the delicious fat, sugar and alcohol they could manage, there’s no doubt that they would have enthusiastically supported grain-based agriculture as their descendents who managed to stumble upon grain-raising as a way to ensure a supply of beer and in the process discovered breadmaking and prosperity. “Thin” was not an attractive quality in a perpetually starving population that were lucky to make it to their 20s, much less 30s. It was agriculture, a stable food-producing system that allowed us to grow crops and livestock in place rather than hunt and gather them, that gave us longevity. Not to mention civilization.

It might be worth remembering that next time you contemplate a Paleo diet, or raw food diet, or juice cleanse, or any extreme diet. Humans were never designed to be on diets, they were designed to enjoy a diverse diet of foods prepared in a diverse manner of ways, and to enjoy foods in moderation but not in deprivation. Anorexia was never considered to be attractive, just heartbreaking, the outward manifestation of an inner mental sickness. Eating whole rather than processed foods, prepared in delicious recipes and showcasing seasonal variety, will keep us fit, not fat. Let’s go for it.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The CSA conundrum. July 21, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Last night, my brother and sister-in-law stopped by en route to pick up our nephew from summer camp, and our friend Ben and I took them to a lovely old country inn for supper. Rather than talking about anything most people would talk about, we got into a discussion about the problem with CSAs (technically “consumer-supported agriculture,” typically organic vegetable operations that are supported by advance subscriptions and provide “shares” of vegetables each week during the growing season).

Here in scenic PA, we have a marvelous CSA just five minutes from our house. It not only provides a diverse selection of organic produce throughout the growing season, but it has a fantastic U-Pick garden where members can pick strawberries and raspberries, flowers, green and yellow wax beans, hot peppers, cherry and paste tomatoes, and a wide assortment of herbs. The farmers also partner with local organic farms to offer fruit shares, cheese shares, bread shares, pizza shares, mushroom shares, and free-range, grass-fed meat shares, as well as wild-caught salmon.

It sounds like a dream come true, and we enthusiastically joined up and belonged for several years before finally giving up on it. Why would we do such a thing, when it was so conveniently located and the produce was so well grown (and we really loved the U-Pick garden)?! We could get things at our CSA that we could find nowhere else: garlic scapes, tender Japanese turnips that were great sliced thin in salads, French breakfast radishes that we ate as the French do on buttered slices of baguette. And the fruit share was full of incredible varieties you’d never find in a store. I drool every time I read about the mushroom shares, which weren’t available in our day.

But we had to stop. It cost a great deal to sign up for a full share, and what you got depended on what the farmers planted and which crops flourished, not what you wanted or would actually eat. So, on a given week, you might get one ear of corn, one tomato, and what seemed like 50,000 pounds of Swiss chard or turnip greens or radish tops or the like. Now, I love radishes, beets, and those Japanese turnips, but I do NOT love bitter turnip greens, prickly radish greens, or Swiss chard and beet greens, which both taste like dirt. (And don’t dare tell me that sauteing radish greens makes them taste good, unless you’re also fond of stuffing fiberglass down your throat.) Plus, how are you supposed to feed two people with one ear of corn or one tomato?!! And sure, if we got a half-share, we’d only have gotten 25,000 pounds of Swiss chard and etc. But then we wouldn’t have even gotten our one tomato and ear of corn.

We wanted to support our CSA. We loved our CSA. But we really needed to buy food we would eat, in quantities we could use. So we finally gave up and now rely on the farmers’ markets near us and on our own veggie beds. (You can’t get any of the other shares, like fruit and mushroom, if you don’t belong to the CSA, sob.)

I felt like a total failure because we stopped supporting our CSA. I was too ashamed to mention it to anyone. So you can imagine how surprised I was to hear my brother and sister-in-law start talking about their CSA subscription and how challenging it was for them. Now mind you, they live in a city—Washington, DC—not farm country like me and our friend Ben. And they only subscribe for a quarter-share (not an option here, we’d get a handful of stuff, but apparently they’re still overrun, lucky them). But their experience was still like ours. Their kids don’t eat vegetables, unless you consider French fries vegetables, so they need to consume the CSA produce each week by themselves. And they too are overwhelmed by things like beet greens and, in my brother’s words, “vegetables we’ve never even heard of.”

Like us, they hate to waste food, and since they get so much in their week’s share, they end up eating whatever it is frantically every night of the week. Okay, so let’s hypothesize that you get a gargantuan bag of spinach in your share. (Would that we’d ever been so lucky.) You can add fresh spinach to your salad, cook some into an omelette or frittata, saute it with minced garlic and olive oil as a side, cook it down in a tiny bit of water and serve it up with salt and balsamic vinegar, or add it to saag or palaak paneer, lasagna, pasta, or you name it. But what if you’ve gotten a gargantuan bag of amaranth greens or Jerusalem artichokes or amaranth seed heads?

Oh, dear. There’s no question that supporting our local organic farmers via CSAs is the right thing to do. Perhaps OFB and I are just suffering from a breakdown of the imagination. But until further notice, we’ll be patronizing the local Mennonite farm stands, farmers’ markets, and growing our own.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Series that shouldn’t have stopped (plus). July 18, 2014

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As we all wait…and wait…for “Game of Thrones” Season Five (and for “The Hobbit” and “Mockingjay” and… ), our friend Ben is picking up the theme from yesterday’s Silence Dogood post “Feel-good films.” There are some film series and TV series that Silence and I loved and feel simply shouldn’t have stopped, or should have swapped out leading actors. Here are a few that ended before their time, starred the wrong guy, or passed on the chance to star the right girl:

* The Conan movies. We love “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer.” Rather than waiting until Ah-nold was too old for the role, then trying to revive the series with a younger man (Jason Momoa of Khal Drogo fame), they should have kept going while the going was good. (And kept Conan’s original sidekick rather than replacing him with that creepy little man.) Robert E. Howard wrote many Conan stories, so the filmmakers had plenty of material to work with. A missed opportunity for fun for all ages, more classic lines from Ah-nold, and campy entertainment for adults.

* The Tony Hillerman PBS “series.” Tony Hillerman wrote a shelf or two of Navajo murder mysteries featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, with a slew of great recurring characters, lots of Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni rituals and beliefs, and the breathtaking backdrop of the Four Corners as his setting. Robert Redford saw the books’ rich visual potential and filmed three PBS “specials” starring Wes Studi as Leaphorn, Adam Beach as Chee, and the marvelous Native American character actors Graham Greene as Slick Nakai, Gary Farmer as Captain Largo, and Sheila Tousey as Leaphorn’s wife Emma. But rather than making a regular series, Redford made one episode a year, stopping after just three. He should have filmed all the books while the cast was together, rather than letting them drift and losing momentum.

* The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Alexander McCall Smith’s series of novels that follow the adventures of the beloved Botswana detective, Precious Ramotswe, her assistant, Grace Makutsi, and a cast of gently humorous and unforgettable characters (shout out to you and your famous fruitcake, Mma Potokwane), calls out for a series. And it looked like it was finally getting one, with Anika Noni Rose giving a true star turn as Grace Makutsi, but it fizzled and died after just three episodes. No fault of the series or the actors—the director suddenly died. I’d have thought another director would have been brought in, but instead, the series ended just like the Tony Hillerman specials. We are hoping, hoping, hoping that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tony Hillerman novels both get a second chance.

* Master and Commander. Russell Crowe and the ensemble cast gave such a strong showing in the film version of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic seafaring novel, showcasing everything from warfare at sea to natural history and Regency-era espionage, that it seemed a natural for followups based on O’Brian’s subsequent novels. Instead, no more were ever made. Silence and I are still waiting.

Moving on to casting:

* Sean Connery in “Shogun.” James Clavell wrote the lead character in his blockbuster novel Shogun with Sean Connery in mind, and Connery would have been perfect for the role. (He proved his range beyond Bond once and for all in “The Man Who Would Be King,” and gave his greatest performance, in our opinion, in “Rising Sun.”) Watching the series, if you picture Connery in Richard Chamberlain’s place, everything suddenly makes sense. What a wasted opportunity, since everyone else in the series was so good, and Sean Connery would have made it perfect. But in this case, it wasn’t the producers’, director’s, or casting team’s fault. Whoever played Pilot-Major Blackthorne would have had to commit to filming in Japan for two years, and Connery wasn’t willing to do that. Chamberlain was.

* George Lazenby as James Bond. Speaking of Sean Connery, there have been a lot of Bonds over the years, but none were so perfect in our opinion as Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, who was chosen to succeed Connery. In “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Lazenby proved virile, resourceful, intelligent, educated, and—in the only instance known to Bond—capable of actually falling in love. (Well, it was Diana Rigg.) You could totally believe both his 007 and human sides. This is a depth of character missing from most Bond portrayals, and, as Silence is constantly pointing out, he was very easy on the eyes, too. Yet he just played Bond in the one film. Why? Because his agent told him that being typecast as Bond would hamper his career. No doubt that great advice is why we all know him as an A-list actor. (Sarcasm.) I hope that agent is now supporting himself as a Wal*Mart greeter. We think Sean Bean, who played villain Alec Trevelyan in another Bond film, “GoldenEye,” would have made a fantastic Bond, too, so much stronger than Pierce Brosnan.

* Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar. Peter Jackson brought back Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, but passed on the opportunity to bring the gorgeous Liv Tyler back to Middle Earth in his film trilogy “The Hobbit.” She was, in our opinion, the strongest character in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (sorry, Sean Bean and Andy Serkis, we loved you, too), and since they decided to simply stuff Orlando Bloom’s Legolas into “The Hobbit,” not to mention Galadriel, we don’t see why Liv Tyler’s Arwen couldn’t be there, too. We do applaud the choice of Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, though.

Speaking of “The Hobbit,” which stars Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Benedict Cumberbatch as the dragon Smaug, we are very concerned that the series “Sherlock,” starring Cumberbatch as Holmes and Freeman as Watson, might go the way of the Tony Hillerman specials. As it is, you’re lucky to get three episodes of “Sherlock” every two years, and its stars, and even its co-creator Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft in the series and now the Banker of Braavos on “Game of Thrones,” are becoming increasingly busy with other projects. They’re promising a “Sherlock Christmas special” in December 2015 and three more episodes in 2016, but gee, that’s a long way off, and a lot of inertia and dispersion can happen between now and then. Hey, guys, show some pity! We could be hit by a bus between now and then and miss the next installment… if there even is one.

In an ironic turn, Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf in all the Peter Jackson movies, is also playing Sherlock Holmes (at 93) in the upcoming movie “Mr. Holmes.” We look forward to seeing it!

Now it’s your turn: Tell us some we missed, or what you miss.

Feel-good films. July 17, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were talking just last night about favorite films, and OFB pointed out that many of my favorites were films that made me feel good. I agreed; I love films that cheer me up, that make me feel good, that give me hope, that make me laugh. So OFB challenged me to come up with my “Top Ten Feel-Good Films” list. I accepted the challenge, even though I was sure that I’d forget some of my favorites, and that there were so many more than ten that the list would necessarily be incomplete. But given those limitations, here are the ones that sprang to mind:

Bride and Prejudice. The Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice.” I love many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” Ciaran Hinds’s magnificent performance in “Persuasion,” and Alicia Silverstone’s adorable “Clueless,” but the high energy, hijinks, and general color, lightheartedness, and mayhem of “Bride and Prejudice”—not to mention the gorgeous Naveen Andrews as Balraj (Mr. Bingley)—takes it over the top.

Young Sherlock Holmes. I love all things Sherlock, but for the ultimate feel-good Holmes film, I’ll take “Young Sherlock Holmes” any day. Alan Cox as Watson would be enough to make the film a classic, but the marvelous Anthony Higgins as Moriarty and the hysterical, campy Egyptian stuff really make it priceless. After seeing it, just thinking of the line “My name is Lester Cragwitch!” will make you roar with laughter.

Flashdance. This isn’t the most cheerful of films, but its ultimate message is so uplifting: Go for your dreams and never give up. The heroine, played sensitively by a very young Jennifer Beals, faces a lot of hardship and heartbreak on the way to reaching her dreams, but she succeeds (and her friends don’t) because her inherent optimism, kindness, generosity and drive attract allies that won’t let her down, no matter what. And there’s tons of energy in the music and dancing.

Blow Dry. Like “Flashdance,” “Blow Dry” takes us through the full range of emotions, especially since Natasha Richardson plays a woman dying before her time and we all know what happened to her. But this film is so full of humor as well as sorrow, so full of great actors (like Alan Rickman), so full of hysterical moments (Bill Nighy is priceless, as is his film partner, Louie, and the mayor of the small town in Yorkshire where the hair competition is held). Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of love, but it reaches its end with plenty of humor along the way. Best line: “He looks like bloody Sid Vicious!” Wait ’til you see who it is.

The Full Monty. This riotous film is also overflowing with humor, but the underlying message is uplifting, about the power that comes from sticking together. A bunch of very unlikely, unemployed men from the former booming steel town of Sheffield, England, decide to improve their fortunes—and love lives—by staging a Chippendales-style act of their own. After many misadventures, including being thrown into jail, losing their homes, losing a son through custody issues, a botched suicide attempt, grocery-store burglary, and so on, the guys get it together. And the attack of the garden gnomes during a job interview still makes me laugh so hard I cry.

Julie and Julia. Who doesn’t love Julia Child? Who doesn’t love Dan Aykroyd’s parody of Julia Child? Who wouldn’t love Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul Child? Not me. Seeing any of the above onscreen makes me feel good, especially the onion scene. Seeing Julia’s modern-day follower, Julie Powell, trying to make lobster thermidore while her totally adorable husband dances around singing “Lobsta killah, lobsta killah” is the greatest thing ever.

Smoke Signals. Based on Sherman Alexie’s novels of life on the Rez, this film brims over with laugh-out-loud humor and dry wit. The ultimate coming-of-age story and road trip rolled into one, it’s filled with great characters like Lester Fallsapart and the great Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph, father of one of the protagonists, who ironically really does fall apart. But the true hero of the movie is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a happy-go-lucky visionary who helps Arnold’s son Victor reconcile his relationship with his father, and with life, over the course of the road trip. As the Rez’s DJ says, “It’s a good day to be Indigenous.”

The Commitments. This movie about some kids in Dublin who form a soul band, “The Commitments,” is hilarious. Many of the best lines are provided by the Elvis-worshipping father of the protagonist, played just brilliantly by Colm Meaney, who has a portrait of Elvis hanging just under his portrait of the Pope. The adorable (and bizarrely named) Outspan Foster, played by Irish musician Glen Hansard, will win your heart, and Maria Doyle (now Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Tudors” fame) is marvelous. Not to mention that the music is great.

Princess Caraboo. The movie that presumably introduced Phoebe Cates to her husband, Kevin Kline, is simply marvelous all-round. Catesby plays a servant girl in Regency England (the Jane Austen era) who runs away and pretends to be an exotic princess, named Caraboo. She is taken up as a novelty by high society and eventually even meets the Prince Regent himself before being unmasked by an investigative reporter, Gutch. But the film has a happy ending, as Gutch has fallen in love with the girl and arranges for her to make a fresh start in America rather than being hanged, and then joins her. Kline as Frixos, the Greek butler of the house that takes her in, is simply priceless, and a strong supporting cast, including Jim Broadbent, John Lithgow, John Sessions as the Prince Regent, and the marvelous Stephen Rea as the reporter, make this a total feel-good hit. Wait for Kevin Kline’s “Unfortunately.”

Last Holiday. Queen Latifah at her finest, playing Georgia Bird, a gifted cook who worships Emeril and longs to open a restaurant but instead is working in the cookware department of a department store run by a greedy, horrific monster who embodies every moronic, “hot” management trend, much like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. When Ms. Bird is misdiagnosed with a terminal illness and told she only has two weeks to live, she decides to chuck it in and spend those two weeks at a super-elite hotel and spa in Switzerland, enjoying the delicious dishes prepared by their outrageously eccentric chef, played marvelously by Gerard Depardieu. When her horrid uber-boss shows up at the same resort, hilarity follows on a grand scale, and Georgia eventually triumphs. Don’t ever forget Depardieu’s secret to happiness: butter. (But he forgot salt.)

Independence Day. What red-blooded Earthling wouldn’t love this movie, where, as star Will Smith says, we “whup ET’s ass”?! Jeff Goldblum is simply priceless as the nerdy genius who saves the day, but it’s his onscreen father, played to perfection by Judd Hirsch, who steals all the scenes. At Hawk’s Haven, we watch “Independence Day” every Fourth of July. But I could probably watch it every week.

Honorable mention:

Scrooge. The musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Albert Finney, is hilarious, and the music is fantastic. David Collings as Bob Cratchit, Karen Scargill as his adorable daughter Kathy, and one of Scrooge’s debtors, Tom Jenkins (Anton Rogers), a soup seller, are so great, and we’re treated to guest appearances by Sir Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost, Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Sir Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it’s really David Collings who steals the show as Cratchit. My other fave is “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which also has really memorable music. The reason these fall in the “Honorable Mention” category is simply because they’re seasonal.

Conan the Barbarian. Ah, gotta love the two Conan movies, “Conan the Barbarian” and its sequel, “Conan the Destroyer.” These films introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world beyond weightlifting and made him a household name, mainly because they were filled with great Arnold one-liners that came to define his subsequent film roles, such as another favorite feel-good film, “The Running Man.” (“See you at the 25th prison reunion.”) It was “The Running Man” that first gave us Ah-nold’s deathless line, “I’ll be back.” But it was the Conan films that gave him the opening to inject humor and laughs into what could have been just another pair of tedious muscle/fantasy films that took themselves way too seriously.

Bend It Like Beckham. I suppose I’d appreciate any film that allowed an ordinary girl to triumph over the bizarre-looking, anorexic Keira Knightley. The parents of both the heroine and her best friend (played by Ms. Knightley) are marvelous. And like all Jane Austen romances—of which I think this was a modernization—there are plenty of twists and turns before the star-crossed lovers are finally united with a kiss.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A gentle, delightful film about a bunch of British seniors who are, for a variety of reasons, forced to retire to India to spend their “golden years” in an affordable hotel. Plunged into an exotic culture and less-than-ideal accommodations, they discover who they truly are and even find late-life love and new careers. Meanwhile, the adorable proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel faces romantic and financial crises of his own, but amid considerable hilarity, all turns out for the best. Super ensemble performances, with standout turns from Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel (as the proprietor). Impossible not to feel good by the end of this!

Cinema Paradiso. Some sad things happen in this Italian tale of a small town cinema’s rise and fall, but there’s such delightful interplay between a little boy, the man who operates the film equipment, and the village priest that it more than compensates. Lots of laughs and smiles along the way. And, in the end, two delightful surprises for the boy, now grown to become a famous director. Beautifully acted, great music, and totally heartwarming.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. This hysterical film pits a timeless, gentle, primitive culture against modern society, all because a pilot tossed an empty Coke bottle out of his plane. The Kalahari people on whose land the bottle falls at first believe it to be a gift from the Gods, but realize when it stirs up envy and enmity among the people for the first time ever that it is “the evil thing.” One man volunteers to take it away, and in the process has many misadventures as he meets more “advanced” cultures. At the same time, a hapless ranger has ludicrous, hilarious disaster after disaster, especially after he meets the woman of his dreams. Fortunately, all turns out well for the tribesman and the star-crossed lovers.

Sister Act. Okay, okay, I know it’s hokey, but it still cheers me up. Whoopi Goldberg may not be convincing as a casino act, but she’s simply great as a pseudo-nun in the Witness Protection Program. Dame Maggie Smith does a great job as her Mother Superior, and Whoopi’s fellow nuns are priceless, as she turns a hopeless choir into an irresistible act. I dare you not to sing along!

Okay, enough from me for now. That’s 18 movies that make me happy. Which films make you happy?

‘Til nex,t time,

Silence

Addictive, easy, produce-rich pasta. July 16, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, produce season is in full swing. Green and yellow wax beans are ripening faster than we can pick them; our basil, thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, and oregano are exploding. The farmers’ markets are full of fresh corn. Our own hot and bell peppers and tomatoes are coming on strong, and we have high hopes for our tomatillos and sweet potatoes. Snap peas, garden peas, and lima beans are available at every grocery, along with yellow summer squash, broccoli, kale, and spinach.

And that’s just scratching the surface. But it’s plenty to start with when planning a luscious summer pasta dish. Here are some tips for taking your summer pastas over the top:

* Use long pasta. I like spaghetti or fettucine, rather than the penne, shells, or elbows I enjoy with other dishes. The longer pasta just seems to go better with the veggies and sauce. And skip the flavored pasta to let the delicate flavor of the fresh veggies and herbs shine. The exception is artichoke pasta (such as DeBole’s), which adds protein thanks to its Jerusalem artichoke component without distorting the flavor.

* Blanch these veggies. Rather than tossing some veggies raw into your pasta, blanch them to get the perfect degree of tenderness. Dunk broccoli florets, chopped green and yellow wax beans, yellow summer squash slices or dice, and shredded carrots in boiling water briefly to soften them before adding them to a pasta dish.

* Saute the savories (plus). Saute diced sweet onion, minced garlic, mushrooms, and frozen white shoepeg corn kernels or fresh corn cut off the cob in butter, extra-virgin olive oil, or a mix of the two before adding them to the pasta. Ditto for the fresh herbs and greens like chopped kale or baby spinach. In fact, it’s far better to stir the pasta into them immediately before serving.

* Chop the fresh and canned stuff. Dice fresh red, orange, and/or yellow bell pepper. Don’t cook it at all, just spoon it in before serving. There’s no need to cook olives, pickles, or artichoke hearts if you’re planning to add them, or fragile herbs like cilantro or green onions (scallions). Just chop everything up and add at the last moment. But don’t forget that the oil from canned or jarred treats like artichoke hearts can enrich the pasta.

* Now for the sauce. When the pasta’s al dente and the veggies, herbs and etc. are ready, it’s time to make sauce. Drain the pasta; if you’ve sauteed veggies, you already have the base for a sauce. If you haven’t, it’s time to add olive oil, butter, or a mix, folding in the pasta and steamed veggies, with fresh-cracked pepper, salt (we like RealSalt, sea salt, Himalayan salt, or Trocomare), and the finish.

* Finishing touches. To make the sauce that you want, you’ll need to add something to your base. For a sauce that lets you see all the ingredients and tastes light and luscious, add dry white wine. For a rich sauce, add cream. For a creamy sauce that’s not quite as rich, add plain Greek yogurt. For a sauce that adds a surprising depth of flavor, add your favorite salad dressing: vinaigrette (not balsamic in this case), ranch, blue cheese, Caesar, green goddess. (Just make sure the dressing isn’t sweetened.) If you need a touch of heat, the finest-shredded jalapeno or a dash or two of chipotle pepper sauce would do the trick, but remember, this is pasta, so use a very light hand.

* Don’t forget cheese. Adding fresh bufalo mozzarella, or the shredded cheese of your choice (mozzarella, white Cheddar, Italian mix, Mexican mix, Parmesan, whatever), is a great way to bump up your pasta’s flavor and oomph.

This is pasta, not salad, so I would say no citrus, no fruit, no nuts, no seeds, much as I love them on salad. In fact, they’d be great on a salad that accompanied one of these pasta dishes. And again, let me just note that citrus and melon make luscious, low-cal desserts that are perfect after a summer pasta dish.

Yum! Now I’m hungry.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Hurry up and invent it. July 15, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Inventions are different from discoveries, as several astute readers recently pointed out on our friend Ben’s post about two brilliant men and bitter rivals, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Discoveries are abstract; inventions are their practical applications.

One of the great inventions of our day—at least for people who hate heat and humidity, like myself and Silence Dogood—is air conditioning. Air conditioning allows us to survive indoors in the summer and to ride in our cars in cooking-hot conditions. Without air conditioning, we would be packing up and moving to the Arctic Circle.

So, we ask ourselves, why hasn’t someone invented the personal portable air conditioner, a wearable device that allows us to walk around outside in sickening heat and humidity without passing out and expiring? About the best options we have are wringing out a bandanna in ice water and putting it around our necks, or taking a spray bottle of water and ice and spraying our exposed body parts whenever we’re feeling too hot. Both of these techniques rely on evaporative cooling, a very short-term solution.

In the era of Google Glass, surely the PPAC should be doable. Somebody, get on Kickstarter and start raising money! Our friend Ben read just this morning that somebody has raised $3 million and counting for an updated version of the classic picnic cooler. How about a people cooler?!!! We’ll be happy to test the trial version(s). If we can air condition a house and car, we should be able to air condition ourselves. Hurry up, please!

The best summer desserts. July 14, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It always astounds me that people waste so much time obsessing about desserts, especially in summer when there’s such an abundance of delicious produce to choose from. However, my own home, Hawk’s Haven, isn’t immune from this dessert mania. Our friend Ben is a sherbet fanatic, and his favorite sherbet is one that combines several flavors and colors in a single carton.

Yesterday, we were at the grocery and, as usual, OFB began ranting about sherbet when we got to the dairy aisle. We began to think the search was hopeless: ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, but no sherbet. Then, I saw a tricolored, three-flavored sherbet called “Twisted Cactus.” It was pink, orange and yellow, made from prickly pear, blood orange, and marula fruit.

Okay, this doesn’t sound like the sherbet we grew up with, or the tricolored orange, pineapple and raspberry sherbet we all knew and loved. But I love the red-orange blood orange and deep red prickly pear fruit (called tuna, but no relation to the fish), which makes the best margarita going. I didn’t know marula fruit, but was willing to take a chance. OFB gamely agreed: anything for some sherbet. I got some red raspberries to put on top, and we were off.

Once we’d had supper and were home, I made OFB a big bowl of sherbet and raspberries and had a spoonful myself, and whoa! It was sensational. So why didn’t I make myself a bowl? Well, because I had an even better, more refreshing dessert in mind: salted watermelon slices. They were so refreshing, so delightful, so salty/sweet, and so low-cal, the perfect summer dessert. Tomorrow, I’ll have some salted cantaloupe chunks with a few of those raspberries and maybe a few blueberries.

Yes, I did love the sherbet, it was really amazing. But I won’t be having more when I can have ripe fruit instead. (Even OFB has been grazing on our cache of grapes, cantaloupe, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, and I can’t wait to add cherries and peaches—along with more watermelon—to the mix.) A ripe, sliced peach topped with red or black raspberries and blueberries: What could be better than that? Unless it’s, maybe, a bowl of ripe cherries or some ripe (but not mealy) watermelon or mango or…

Don’t get me wrong, I love grapefruit and oranges and tangerines and bananas and apples and pears. I love stewed rhubarb, especially over Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream. I love homemade jam made with ripe apricots. I love cranberry sauce. I love pretty much all dried fruits, especially dates. I love shredded coconut. About the only fruit I can think of that I don’t love, fresh or dried, is papaya. (I think it’s a texture thing, again, that mealy texture, but then why don’t I like it dried? Maybe it’s texture and flavor.) But in summer, I want fresh, ripe summer fruit. It’s the perfect summer dessert.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Tesla or Edison? July 13, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben read an article yesterday wondering about who was the greater genius, Thomas Edison (inventor of DC current) or Nikola Tesla (inventor of AC current). The two were bitter rivals back in the day, and while Edison died a wealthy man, Tesla died poor, alone and obscure. Fortunately, thanks to Elon Musk and his ilk, Tesla is enjoying a revival in our time, a fitting renaissance for the man who said “The present is theirs; the future, for which I have really worked, is mine.”

I meant to ask my brilliant godson Rashu which inventor he preferred when he was here with his family yesterday, but unfortunately became so obsessed with eating and visiting that I forgot. I cast my vote with Tesla, and here’s why:

Tesla was a true genius, a great inventor who gave us the inventions on which modern communications (he invented the cell phone) and entertainment (radio, TV) were based, in addition to AC electricity. Tesla’s 300 patents were all his own inventions. Tesla’s memory was eidetic, enabling him to envision objects in 3D in his mind and then create them. He famously said, “We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.” He was also a pleasant and witty person who practiced good hygiene and was generally a joy to be around.

Edison, by contrast, was a mean, filthy slob. He held more than a thousand patents, but most were invented by his employees. He developed his theories by tinkering with various parts until something worked out, like the incandescent lightbulb and motion pictures (an idea he got from the famed freeze-frame photographer Eadweard Muybridge).

He was, in short, the Henry Ford of the electric industry: a practical man who saw what people needed and mass-produced those goods affordably via factories, hiring smart men and milking them for their inventions. It can easily, and correctly, be argued that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison did more to transform life for the average U.S. citizen in the 20th Century than anyone else.* The only other thing that comes close is advances in the food industry: pasteurization, canning, freezing, refrigeration.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison died rich, successful men, Tesla broke and forgotten. But that begs the question: Was Edison or Tesla the greater genius? Let me leave you with another prescient Tesla quote before you draw your own conclusions: “The scientists of today think deeply but not clearly.”

* Oops, I forgot Alexander Graham Bell. The telephone also transformed everyday life in much the same way as the internet has for us.

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