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The world is round. December 20, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Last night, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood watched a movie called “October Sky,” based on a true story of how a kid (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, possibly in his first film role, ca. 1999) from a West Virginia coal-mining town was so inspired by the launch of Sputnik in 1957 that he overcame all odds and became a rocket scientist for NASA rather than following his father into the mines. The movie was predictable, hokey, and Hallmarkish, sure, but the odds the real-life Homer Hickam had to overcome to get to college, much less to NASA, were about a zillion to one.

After seeing the movie, it occurred to our friend Ben that I’d lived my whole life knowing what the Earth looked like from space. The iconic round, blue-green-and-tan sphere, with white clouds and snow adding their highlights. Who can’t instantly call that image to mind?

Well, pretty much everybody who lived in the past. Think of the generations who thought the Earth was flat, extending out in every direction, supported in space by the great ash Yggdrasil or on the back of a turtle or tiger, with the sun rising and setting as it circled around that great flat plane every day. Our friend Ben, not being a geographer, would doubtless have also thought the world was flat.

What a great privilege to know our world as it is, as it always was. How wonderful to know that our world, like the moon and sun and other planets and stars, is actually round.

Our friend Ben is no rocket scientist. I have no desire to join a Star Trek or Star Wars or Avatar cast, real or imaginary, or sail out to explore or colonize distant galaxies. Until I saw “October Sky,” I didn’t even realize how much it meant to me to be able to instantly picture our world seen from space. I took it totally for granted. But watching this reenactment of early space exploration, I finally understood what a gift to all generations NASA’s research had been. Thank you, NASA. Thank you, Homer Hickam, and everyone like you. You have brought our world—and all the worlds beyond—to vivid life for all of us, forever. Our friend Ben just wishes our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, could have lived to see your work.

A place for fast food. December 19, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, I rushed home after a busy day of visits and errands. My mission, should I choose to accept it: to make a hot, delicious supper for six people in less than an hour. To say that this was stressful is an understatement, but I was undaunted: I knew I could do it, thanks to modern technology.

Armed with cans of black beans and crushed tomatoes, and several bags of various salad combinations, supper was a snap: Saute several diced onions and green peppers in olive oil with black mustardseed, cumin, oregano, lemon pepper, and Trocomare; toss in a huge can or two of black beans and a big can of crushed tomatoes; add some veggie stock and hot fresh salsa (two of my other favorite grocery convenience foods) and a big splash of lemon juice (I like bottled Key lemon juice); stir, mash, stir, and allow to mellow on low heat. Meanwhile, mix bags of Romaine lettuce and baby greens, add a chopped orange bell pepper, crumbled feta cheese, pepitas, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and scallions. Our friend Carolyn provided salad dressings and hot cornbread, and her brother Rudy brought wine. We brought sour cream and shredded cheese (yet another convenience food) for the soup, and before we knew it, the six of us were sitting down to a delicious dinner.

There are many arguments against prepared foods, and one of them is price. If you’re on a budget like us, spending big bucks for convenience is usually just plain stupid. We have friends who wouldn’t dream of buying canned beans when they could soak a bag of dried beans overnight and cook them for pennies a serving. We have friends we’ve never seen open a bag of prepared salad mix.

I say, keep your eyes open. I patronize a local grocery that often puts greens on sale for 99 cents a package (down from $3.99, and still perfectly fresh). Often, I’ve bought organic baby arugula, baby spinach, and many a salad mix for 99 cents when a head of chemically-grown iceberg lettuce was going for over two dollars. The same store has a “three for $5.99″ section where I’ve bought packages of locally-grown apples, pears, tomatoes, green beans, sweet onions, mushrooms, garlic, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and many another yummy veggie or fruit for a fraction of the price in other stores. They often have big discounts on canned beans, tomato products, and dried pasta, as does another local grocery, so I compare and stock up.

I do consider myself a from-scratch cook. I use basic ingredients, not mixes. I don’t buy fast-food meals from drive-by stores like Mickey D’s or KFC. But I feel no shame about using canned, frozen, and dried whole foods when they’re reasonably priced and save me time.

All this came to mind when I received an e-mail with an attachment for an article called “In Praise of Fast Food” by Rachel Laudan in The Gastronomica Reader, excerpted by The Utne Reader (http://www.utne.com/). Ms. Laudan’s reasons for supporting fast food are different from mine—I suggest you read her article and draw your own conclusions—but the article strongly brought to light the dichotomy between today’s slow-food locavores and the rest of us.

I mention this simply because I often think of the past in terms of creating convenience without guilt. Which is to say, everyone viewed time-saving and shelf life as untarnished positive developments before modern storage, shipping, and globalization made fresh food universally available year-round.

Think back with me to this era of seasonal abundance and seasonal scarcity for a moment. Imagine the thrill of canning or freezing food so it would keep until you needed it! Imagine pickling or preserving food so you could eat it out of season! Imagine making luscious white bread and using white sugar without even a clue about calories or health issues! Imagine buying butter from the store instead of having to churn your own! Imagine  the joy of welcoming new developments without ever once thinking, “Is this bad for me?”

To me, this period—roughly from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s—was The Age of Innocence. The age where we could enjoy food without worrying about its consequences on our health, simply because, with the sole exceptions of gout and obesity, no one had a clue that food was other than healthful. If it tasted good, it was good, end of story.

I can see housewives rejoicing over white flour that didn’t quickly go rancid like whole-grain flours (in the pre-refrigeration era), eggs and dairy products delivered fresh to your door or sitting chilled and conveniently packaged in the refrigerated section of the grocery, canned and frozen foods that stayed good practically forever so you could stock your pantry and freezer and just grab what you needed. I can see them celebrating cake mixes, tea bags, bagged bread, sugar and salt that stayed granular rather than clumping, dried herbs and spices. I can see it all.

Ms. Laudan points out in “In Praise of Fast Food” that the glory days of fresh, seasonal, from-scratch eating were only glorious for the wealthy, who could afford to buy all the food that the peasants produced, leaving them to try to get by on scraps and shavings. She didn’t add, but I will, that in bad years, even the wealthy went hungry as a result of crop failures, and everyone else pretty much starved.

And we’re not just talking about the Middle Ages here. Much as I loved Little Women as a girl—it was probably my favorite book—I was shocked and haunted by the March family’s obvious hunger and lack of even common necessities during the brutal winter that opens the book. Pre-convenience foods, the larder often was empty.

To me, eating locally produced produce and foods that support our neighbors and our local economy seems an appropriate and moral thing to do from every perspective. After all, if someone in my area wanted an expert editing job, I’d certainly appreciate it if they came to me rather than outsourcing their work to New York or L.A. In turn, I could put the money they paid me into other local enterprises, and with everyone’s cooperation, our little community might become more self-sustaining.

But I agree with Ms. Laudan that it’s a luxury, just as my being a vegetarian is a luxury, made possible by an abundance of delicious produce, dairy products, and grains provided daily to our grocery stores by modern technology. I can take the moral high road only because my choice is supported by an abundance of resources, from farmers’ markets and organic CSAs to health-food stores and groceries that stock local products.

Were it not for them, I would be forced to resort to the full range of my omnivore inheritance or starve: eating the squirrels in our trees as well as the nuts that fall from them, raising chickens to butcher instead of coddling them through their long lives and gratefully enjoying their eggs, roaming the countryside in search of edible roots, herbs, shoots, berries, mushrooms, and greens to supplement what I could raise at home. Trying to barter eggs, preserves, salsa, or spaghetti sauce for enough of local farmers’ wheat and corn to provide our friend Ben and me with bread and the chickens with feed. Praying that someone nearby would grow dried beans to take the rest of us through the year, and that the dairy farmers could give us milk, butter, and cheese in return for money or barter.

And what if you didn’t live in farm country like we do? What if you didn’t own a grain mill, yogurt-maker, butter churn, or canning equipment? What if you didn’t have the time to use them if you did own them, because you had a family and (at least one) full-time job? 

No, you’ll never see me in a Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, or Taco Bell, or spot our little red VW Golf in the drive-up line. But yes, I am grateful every day for the fresh, pre-bagged, canned, frozen, juiced, and ground products that make it possible to cook delicious, healthy meals every time without spending all day, every day, trying to make it happen.

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

A Tasha Tudor teacup giveaway. December 18, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As an admirer of the children’s book author and illustrator Tasha Tudor and her authentic 1830s lifestyle, I was thrilled to discover that the Tudor family is giving away an antique pink lustreware teacup to six lucky recipients. Tasha drank her custom-blended Welsh breakfast tea from an antique pink lustreware cup every day. Winners will be able to do the same—or proudly display this memento of a remarkable woman.

To see the cups (each has a different pattern) and register to possibly win your favorite, go the the Rookery Ramblings blog (http://rookeryramblings.blogspot.com/) and leave a comment for Natalie, who works with the Tudor family. Tell her which cup(s) you like best, and make sure you include your e-mail address in the message so she can contact you if you win.

The deadline is December 22, and the competition is piling up! When I left my comment, 65 people had beaten me to it. When I checked the link this morning, there were 378 comments! So if you’re a Tasha fan, I suggest that you take a minute now to click the link and join the fun. Think how thrilling it would be if you won!

             ‘Til next time,

                      Silence 

Disclaimer: These cups were not owned by Tasha Tudor, but have been specially collected in the spirit of Tasha by the family for this giveaway.

How sweet. December 16, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Alert readers will have noticed that I have a thing about Anthony Bourdain, the bad boy chef-turned-TV-travel-adventurer. Our friend Ben has certainly noticed. And far from pitching a fit, OFB recently asked if I’d like for him to get us tickets for a February appearance by Tony Bourdain at the Easton, PA State Theater as a Christmas present for me. He was genuinely shocked when I said no.

But “no” seemed the only sane answer. If Tony Bourdain suddenly showed up here at Hawk’s Haven, I’d be delighted to cook for him and see what he thought. I’d love to chat with him about his life in and out of cooking. But pay for the privilege of sitting in his presence? No way. Or sure, if OFB and I had unlimited resources. I’m sure it would be fun.

But right now, we’re struggling to pay for our Christmas presents on top of our usual bills. Adding a frivolous large expense right now would simply put us farther underwater. Instead, I can always order the next season of Tony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” series on Netflix. I’ll enjoy it, and we won’t be incurring an insane amount of debt for a transient pleasure. Maybe OFB can get me some lovely high-end olive oils and balsamic vinegars instead, something we’ll both enjoy for months and months as I prepare salads and meals. Or put that money towards occasional dinner nights out.

Tony, if you’re reading this, I really would love to host you. Otherwise, Ben, I can only say, how sweet. Thanks for surprising me with an offer of an expensive treat you knew only I would enjoy. That makes it even easier to say no, let’s save our money for something both of us can love.

             ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Tell Me Why: People Named for Plants December 15, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, I found myself thinking about people who are (intentionally or otherwise) named for plants. Given the importance of plants in our lives, I was surprised by how few names I could think of that plants and people share. Here’s my list: Rose, Rosa, Lily, Violet, Poppy, Fern, Holly, Ivy, Ash, Willow, Laurel, Linden, Olive, Olivia, Rosemary, Basil, and, as a surname, Bush, Flower, Birch, Berry, and Hawthorn(e).

That’s a pretty skinny list. Why aren’t girls named Forsythia, Peony, Goldenrod, or Daffodil? If people are named Holly and Ivy, why aren’t they named Mistletoe and Pine? If you can be named for an ash or a willow, why aren’t people named Maple, Oak, or Walnut?

Then there’s Rosemary. What happened to Parsley, Sage, and Thyme? And what about our fruits and vegetables? Where are Carrot, Lettuce, and Radish, or Plum, Apple, and Quince? (Well, maybe Quincy counts, but somehow I doubt it. If memory serves, that’s from the French and refers to a place, not a plant.)

What am I leaving out? I’m sure I’ve forgotten some obvious names, so please remind me. And any theories on why there aren’t more?

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Ben Picks Ten: Christmas Carols December 14, 2010

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What are your favorite Christmas carols? If you could only pick ten, what would they be? Our friend Ben was pondering this last night as Silence Dogood and I listened to some of our large assortment of beloved Christmas CDs. Deciding to rise to the challenge, I’ve compiled my top ten here, in no particular order. Feel free to take me to task for leaving out your favorites!

1. Gabriel’s Message. Perhaps Silence and our friend Ben fell so hard for this because, not being English, we’d never heard it until we heard Sting perform it on a CD of unfortunately dubious origin. But what a stunning account of the Annunciation! You can hear an older Sting sing it on his “If on a Winter’s Night…” CD (missing an octave or so, but still compelling), or Charlotte Church’s gorgeous version on her “Dream a Dream” CD.

2. The Little Drummer Boy. Call us sentimentalists, but we never tire of listening to our many versions of this. Our friend Ben suspects that Silence has never yet heard it without shedding a few tears.

3. Silent Night. The first song Silence ever performed solo before a group. Even lovelier in French. We once attended a performance where the audience was invited to sing along in any language they chose, and we heard many a voice raised in the original German as well as English and our French. We know of no other Christmas song that succeeds so well in capturing the Gospel of Luke’s account. 

4. Adeste Fidelis (O Come All Ye Faithful). Squeak and squawk though one might on the high passages, who can resist lifting up their voices when this majestic hymn is sung? 

5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. We love this hearty injunction to ‘let nothing us dismay.’ It seems to bring Scrooge and company, blazing fireplaces, and opulent Victorian Christmas scenes into our living room, warming us with its Christmas cheer. 

6. Joy to the World. In the season of joy, this glorious call to proclaim the birth of Christ is irresistible. Another hymn that’s not easy to sing, but we always sing it, anyway. 

7. The Cherry Tree Carol. We love this simple early English carol about Joseph’s all-too-human reaction when he discovers that his fiancee is carrying someone else’s child, and how he discovers Whose child it is.

8. The Huron Carol (‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime). We were enchanted by this Native American version of the Nativity the first time we heard Rob Yoder, who has a magnificent voice, sing it on the “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends” CD. Ellen Reid of the Crash Test Dummies also sings a lovely version on their “Jingle All the Way…” CD. We trust our Canadian friends won’t be surprised by its inclusion.

9. Once in Royal David’s City. Our friend Ben has always loved this traditional British carol, set in “a lowly cattle shed.” And Silence and I also love Ian Anderson’s modernization of it on “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album” CD.

10. Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel. Okay, technically, this is an Advent rather than a Christmas hymn. But it’s so stirring, such a perfect prelude to the Christmas season, I can’t imagine making a list without it.

And the bonus:

11. Angels We Have Heard on High. Musicians through the ages have given their very best to Christmas music, which is why a list like this is so hard to narrow down. And here is yet another breathtaking paean to the birth of Christ that makes the heart soar, even as we falter when trying to hit the high notes on the “Glorias.” But of course it doesn’t stop us.

Obviously, this list omits many of our favorite hymns and carols, such as the lovely “Coventry Carol (Lully Lullay),” “Carol of the Bells,” “O Holy Night,” “What Child Is This,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “The First Noel,” “Good King Wenceslaus,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and, of course, the gorgeous “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and beloved “Ave Maria.” But our friend Ben could only pick ten (plus one)! Maybe I’ll post about those next Christmas, since there happen to be ten of them.

You’ll note that many of our all-time sentimental favorites are missing, for the same reason. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are especially partial to “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (especially Josh Groban’s interpretation on his “Noel” CD), and “Silver Bells.”

Honorable mention must also go to some original modern songs of surpassing loveliness, including Ian Anderson’s “Ring Out Solstice Bells” from “The Jethro Tull Christmas Album,”  Amy Grant’s “Breath of Heaven/Mary’s Song” from her “Home for Christmas” CD, and Emily Cole’s “Sound of the Tambourine” from “An Evening of Christmas Music with Daybreak and Friends.”  And of course the raucous and wonderful “Soul Cake” on Sting’s “If on a Winter’s Night…” CD.

So, there’s our friend Ben’s list. (And yes, I cheated by sticking all that other stuff on at the end. But watcha gonna do?! There are just too many good ones.) Your turn to share your lists!

Where are the cardinals?!! December 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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We’ve been having an unusually cold winter so far here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Nights have been in the teens for weeks, causing both of us to shudder as we hear the furnace running all night, despite the thermostat being turned down to a warm and welcoming 50 degrees F. (It’s supposedly burning fuel oil, but it might as well be burning money as far as we’re concerned.) Given the extreme early cold, you’d expect—at least, we’d expect—an unusually large number of birds at our feeders.

So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. We have a nice flock of chickadees and titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a large flock of sparrows, our resident goldfinches in their drab winter disguise, a few house finches, a pair of juncos, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, a bluejay, and a lone pair of cardinals. Normally, we’d have a large flock of juncos (one of our favorite birds), maybe four bluejays, more house and purple finches, and about ten cardinals. Where are they?!

Not that the feeders aren’t emptying quickly enough, mostly thanks to a large contingent of the fattest squirrels in Pennsylvania. Our friend Ben read in today’s paper that squirrel season starts today, and God knows, ours would make some mighty fine eating. (Burgoo, anyone?)

Their appetites would be aggravating enough, but the miserable marauders are trying to eat our feeders along with our birdseed. I wonder if spraying the outsides of the feeders with the “Phooey!” spray we use to keep our black German shepherd, Shiloh, from consuming our rugs and woodwork would prove to be a squirrel deterrent? Hmmm. 

But I digress. Has anyone else noticed a dearth of birds at the feeders, or the absence or scarcity of some regular visitors? If so, please tell us what’s happening at your feeders!

The quiet life. December 12, 2010

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been avidly watching the HBO series, “The Tudors,” via Netflix. I guess we’re mildly obsessed. We’ve watched pretty much every movie on the turbulent Tudor era ever made (our friend Ben’s father keeps telling us there’s a marvelous early film starring Charles Laughton as Henry VIII, but so far, we’ve missed that one). Silence even reads all the Tudor-related histories and historical fiction.

Most of our friends miss the point—“Who cares if it’s the eight wives of Henry VI or the six wives of Henry VIII?” as our friend Rob says—but we find the chaos created by an unstable, selfish English king to be unequaled by anything since the days of the Roman Empire. In many ways, Henry VIII inadvertently created the modern world, and it was birthed in a flood of torment and blood. (For more, see our earlier posts “The late, irate Henry VIII” and “Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn” by searching our search bar at upper right.) Thank heavens he made at least some amends by giving England Elizabeth I.

But I digress. Silence and I are finally watching the final season of “The Tudors,” and we’ve been particularly struck by the depiction of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and heir to the great dukedom of Norfolk.

The Howards, if you recall, not only gave Henry two of his six wives—the ill-fated Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard—but also two of his mistresses and a wife for his oldest acknowledged son, Henry FitzRoy. They were an immensely powerful family, descended from royal blood on both sides, with at least as great a claim to the throne as the parvenue Tudors. Henry’s father, Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was married to the only daughter of King Edward VI, presumably in recognition of this fact.

The portrayal of Henry Howard in “The Tudors” was of a brutal, almost bestial man, a brave but brain-dead warrior who risked and often lost the lives of his men in incredibly ill-conceived and foolhardy maneuvers, and finally was butchered in his turn by an irate Henry for aspiring to the throne.

This struck us as off on several fronts. First, throughout the series, the distinction of rank was emphasized during Henry’s endless executions. Those of low descent could be hanged, drawn and quartered, burned alive, tortured—whatever the king preferred. Those of high descent could only be beheaded. None in the land was of higher descent than the Howards, yet the court slapped the Earl with the full monty. Dramatic license?

Then too, the Earl was quoted going on about the quiet life, and his words were repeated as he was led away to his fate. What quiet life?! (Not that anyone who came to court could expect to lead a quiet life during the Tudor era, but the Earl of Surrey, as depicted by “The Tudors,” would have been the last man in England capable of being quiet, much less leading a quiet life.)

Our friend Ben and Silence were so intrigued that we looked him up on Wikipedia, and found quite a different story. The Earl was actually a highly gifted general, not the blockhead whose judgment-impaired moves we repeatedly saw in the series. He was imprisoned and beheaded, as befit his rank, because of the deranged Henry’s endless paranoia, not because of wrongdoing on his part. (His father, the Duke of Norfolk, would have joined him had Henry VIII not fortuitously died a few days before the execution was to have taken place.)

We also learned that the Earl of Surrey had been the best friend of Henry’s son, Henry Fitzroy, and was his friend’s brother-in-law as well. But the most astonishing thing we learned was that Henry Howard was an accomplished poet, the creator of the sonnet as we know it and of blank verse. Hardly the bestial braggart we’d seen in the series! The lines about the quiet life were taken from one of his poems, and they contain so much good sense that our friend Ben will share the entire poem with you here:

                The Things That Cause a Quiet Life*

My friend, the things that do attain

The happy life, be these I find:

The riches left, not got with pain,

The fruitful ground; the quiet mind;

The equal friend; no grudge, no strife;

No charge of rule nor governance;

Without disease the healthy life;

The household of continuance;

The mean diet, no dainty fare;

True wisdom joined with simpleness;

The night discharged of all care,

Where wine the wit may not impress;

The faithful wife, without debate;

Such sleeps as may beguile the night:

Content thyself with thy estate,

Neither wish death, nor fear his might.

So there you have it: A man who loved good husbandry (“the fruitful ground”), good health (“the mean diet,” i.e., plain wholesome food), moderation, simplicity coupled with profundity, acceptance of one’s lot (“Neither wish death, nor fear his might”), and the quiet life. A fine recipe for happiness, indeed! And written by a man who was executed by that bloody butcher, Henry VIII, at just 29 or 30. Would that Henry had died before the sentence could be carried out! Would that he had died before coming to the throne. But then, we’d have missed all this excitement, wouldn’t we? And the glorious Elizabethan Era would never have been. 

 Give us the wisdom to follow the advice Henry Howard left us in his poem, to be content whatever our circumstances, that we may also find the blissful rest of a “night discharged of all care.” The quiet life for us!

* For some bizarre reason, WordPress, which won’t allow us to close up lines in poetry, also isn’t allowing us to break this poem into the four-line stanzas in which it was written. We apologize!

Christmas cards: Relics of Christmas past? December 11, 2010

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Our friend Ben was unsurprised to read a headline in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, yesterday: “Bad tidings for Christmas Cards.” The subhead, “Technology puts its stamp on season’s greetings,” implied to me that e-cards, which I believe are free, and certainly almost effortless to send, have annihilated the market for beautiful or whimsical but often pricey honest-to-God, hold-in-your hands paper cards.

Who wants to spend $60 for three boxes of cards, buy stamps, and then laboriously hand-address each card and write a personal message, maybe enclose some photos or a newsletter, when you can push a button instead? The cost factor alone is significant at a time when most of us are already busting our budgets buying and mailing presents.

So, as I say, I was saddened but not really surprised to see the story… until I actually read it. (For the full story, go to www.themorningcall.com.) Sure enough, there were the experts pronouncing that Facebook and Twitter, smart phones and iPads were rapidly putting Christmas cards in the quill-and-parchment category, quaint collectibles to purchase at your local antiques mall and display with your retro Christmas decorations.

But the article also included a chart with actual sales figures, and one showing percentage of Christmas-card buyers by age. Last year (2009), Christmas cards were a $3.8 billion dollar business. That would be almost $4 billion dollars Americans spent on Christmas cards during a deep recession. The next chart showed that 46% of Americans bought Christmas cards last year, including 38% of the age group (25-34) cited by one expert as being incapable of sending a thank-you note, much less a card.

Four billion dollars and 46 percent of the population does not sound like a dying franchise to our friend Ben. Instead, it sounds like an economic miracle in the electronic age, or any age, for that matter. Four billion dollars for Christmas cards! 

Silence Dogood and I love Christmas cards. We love getting them, seeing the family photos and reading the newsletters. We cherish the handwritten notes. We carefully select our own cards every year and write lengthy messages to everyone on our list. And no, we don’t enjoy getting e-cards. But neither do we enjoy getting a knee-jerk mailed card that’s obviously been chosen in haste and simply signed, without a message.

But that $3.8 billion is giving our friend Ben pause. Imagine what that amount of money could do if it were spent feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, and comforting the miserable? Surely that would be a fitter expression of the Christmas spirit. Perhaps those sickening e-cards aren’t so bad, after all.

Colonial adventure books for kids. December 9, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. Wondering what to give your kids for Christmas? How about a book that brings the Colonial and Revolutionary period to life? Your three Poor Richard’s Almanac bloggers, our friend Ben, Richard Saunders, and yours truly, all share a passion for early American history. And we owe it to a book each of us read as children, Ben and Me. It’s a biography of our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin, as told by his pet mouse.

To this day, OFB and I plan vacations to places like Williamsburg, Annapolis, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville (where both Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Montpelier, home of James Madison, are located), and Richard is always hopping up to New England to visit his girlfriend Bridget’s family in Boston and take in historic New England sites. OFB and I dream of spending Christmas at Williamsburg, and one day we hope to vacation with Richard and Bridget in the Washington, D.C. area and go to Mount Vernon, which none of us has seen since childhood.

And of course, everybody’s Christmas and birthday lists include the latest publications on the Founding Fathers and the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. We each have a wish list of rare books we’d love to acquire on the period, as well, and sometimes we even get one!

Each of us focuses on particular Founders and aspects of the period, too. Of course, we all love Ben Franklin, but our friend Ben, who’s related to Martha Custis Washington, has a particular fondness for George Washington, as well as the great and overlooked Founder Gouverneur Morris, and he’s made a special study of botany and agriculture of the period. Richard Saunders enjoys the other great thinkers among the Founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as another overlooked Founder, George Mason, and being a historian, he’s absorbed by the growth, development, and history of the Colonies. As for me, I like the rowdy boys, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and Thomas Paine. And I love reading about and exploring the everyday life of the time, including, of course, cooking!

To think all of this grew out of a children’s book! (Except in the case of OFB, who loved the book but also grew up in a Colonial-era home with period furnishings, and has ties to a number of Revolutionary War figures, and thus would probably have been obsessed by the era anyway.) I’ve continued to collect children’s books about the era, and I confess, OFB and I really enjoy reading them, even though we ostensibly keep them on hand for when our nieces and nephews visit. Here are some of our favorites, highly recommended for your own kids or grandkids:

Ben and Me: An Astonishing Life of Benjamin Franklin by His Good Mouse Amos (Robert Lawson, Little, Brown, 1988). The book that started it all. Amos takes credit for most of Ben’s discoveries, but the enduring humor of this book makes it easy to forgive him.

John, Paul, George & Ben (Lane Smith, Hyperion, 2006). An adorable look at the four—make that five, Mr. Smith had to add Tom Jefferson—patriots in their imaginary youth. (On John Hancock: “At the start of every school year the students were asked to write their names on the chalkboard, and every year it was the same story. ‘John,’ his teacher would say, ‘you have lovely penmanship. John, your confidence is refreshing. But, John, c’mon… we don’t need to read it from space!'”) Priceless, and as funny for adults as for kids. 

The Amazing Life of Benjamin Franklin (James Cross Giblin, Scholastic, 2000). A marvelous and marvelously illustrated account of the life of Ben Franklin. People who only know Franklin from his grim portrait on the “Benjamin,” the $100 bill, will find this account of the youthful Ben and his adventures a revelation. 

Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (Jean Fritz, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987). You might think a book about a bunch of guys sitting in a stuffy room writing the Constitution would have little appeal for children, but Jean Fritz weaves lots of fun trivia about the Founders into the narrative to liven it up, as well as providing a highly factual account. And Tomie dePaola’s delightful illustrations will endear the book to adults and kids alike. The complete text of the Constitution is included at the back of the book, for kids who want to know more or adults in need of a refresher.  

Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington (Anne Rockwell, Harcourt, 2009). If you’d like to inspire a diffident child with the story of how a big, gawky, shy, bad-tempered child overcame his flaws to become America’s first and greatest President, this is the book for you.  

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008). Gardeners, and especially organic gardeners, will want to add this account of the First Composter to their libraries. The author shows how the lessons Washington learned from his passion for farming translated to his experience leading men and ultimately shaping a nation. But those of us who are as fascinated by gardening as by history will find it a riveting account of Washington’s gardening experiments, the benefits of which we still feel to this day.

Hanukkah at Valley Forge (Srephen Krensky, Dutton Children’s Books, 2006). Admittedly, Judaism isn’t something that springs to our minds in conjunction with the Founders and the Revolution, except in the case of Alexander Hamilton, whose mother’s first husband was Jewish. But this book tells the true story of George Washington’s attending a soldier’s Hanukkah celebration during the bitter winter at Valley Forge. And it’s as beautifully illustrated (by Greg Harlin) as any children’s book we’ve ever seen. 

George Washington’s Socks: A Time Travel Adventure (Elvira Woodruff, Scholastic, 1993). Four modern-day friends and one’s younger sister, Katie, are transported to the banks of the Delaware just in time for General Washington’s famous crossing.

George Washington’s Spy: A Time Travel Adventure (Elvira Woodruff, Scholastic, 2010). This sequel to George Washington’s Socks stands just fine on its own. When a bunch of ten-year-old friends are transported back to 1776-era Boston, they learn that the Revolutionary War was a bit more complicated than they’d been taught in school.

18th Century Clothing (Bobbie Halman, Crabtree Publishing Company, 1993). Bobbie Halman has created a wonderful series of books on the Colonial period, including this one and Colonial Home, Colonial Life, Colonial Crafts, A Colonial Town: Williamsburg, and many others. I’m listing this one only because I’ve already passed all the others along to children in OFB’s and my extended families. They are marvelous, with wonderfully detailed (but short and easy-to-understand) descriptions and photos of real people wearing the clothes, living the life, etc. 

“1776.” This is a movie of a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence, not a book (the book 1776 by David McCullough is wonderful, but is a serious history for adults). Will kids love the fiesty John and Abigail Adams, the sentimental Tom and Martha Jefferson, and the bawdy Ben Franklin depicted in this movie, or will they simply be bored to tears? Frankly, OFB and I have no idea. We have many adult friends, including Richard and Bridget and Cole and Bruce, who simply love the movie, but we think kids might love it more. In any case, it certainly won’t hurt them! We suggest that you watch it together as a family and let us know what you think.

Please, please, if you know of other books about this period that you love, share them with us. We’re all happy to expand our collections!

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

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