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22,000 stinkbugs, 2 sheets of cardboard. May 31, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As longtime readers of Poor Richard’s Almanac know, I hate stinkbugs the way a vegan PETA member hates Sarah Palin. So you can imagine how my skin crawled after our friend Ben spoke with our friend Cole yesterday. They were chatting about two shared passions, marble collecting and plants, when the topic of stinkbugs came up. Cole told OFB that he’d encountered an entomologist in Maryland who’d monitored a house where there were 22,000 stinkbugs. Inside the house.

Cole then noted that the entomologist (that’s a scientist who studies insects) proclaimed that stinkbugs, and their relatives, bedbugs, both smelled like cilantro when they were crushed. I love cilantro. Or, at least, I loved cilantro before I heard this. Now I doubt I’ll ever be able to eat—or even smell—it again. I’m not sure whether to kill the entomologist, Cole, or OFB for passing this information along and ruining one of my favorite treats.

And little did I know that the topic of stinkbugs was just warming up (literally, as we’ll soon see). Our friend Rob dropped in for a few minutes in the afternoon on his way to nearby Bethlehem, PA. As I passed through the kitchen to get a beverage, I saw Rob and OFB bent over Rob’s smartphone.

“Silence! You have to see this!” Hmmm, had Rob taken an adorable photo of our black German shepherd, Shiloh? Wondering how three people could possibly stare at the screen of a smartphone at the same time, I wandered over and realized that they were watching a video.

Turns out, it wasn’t just any video. It was a YouTube video of a guy who’d built a super-ingenious stinkbug trap and was demonstrating how you could build one, too. And the Cro-Magnon-like skills required to build and operate this trap were so simplistic even Luddites like our friend Ben and yours truly could make one. All you need is two pieces of cardboard, about the size of half a standard double-hung window, three furring strips, and a staple gun.

Now, admittedly, the staple gun part is an issue for construction-challenged folks like me and OFB, who are always afraid of stapling our hands to the paper when we use a regular stapler, much less setting off an automated model that fires off staples like a Gatling gun. But I digress.

To make the stinkbug trap, you put down a piece of cardboard and line up three pieces of furring strip cut to fit the cardboard so one is on each outside edge and one is down the middle. Then you put the second piece of cardboard on top and use the staple gun to attach it to the furring strips. Once you’ve attached the strips to the cardboard, you flip the trap over and staple the other piece of cardboard to the furring strips. The end.

Well, maybe not quite the end. The inventor then hung the trap up on the outside wall of his home. Either he didn’t say how he attached it to the wall or I missed that part, but it had to be easy to detach. And please note the critical fact that it is on the outside of the house, so it traps the stinkbugs before they can migrate to the inside. This is an excellent feature, an outstanding improvement over other simple and effective traps like jars of soapy water that will drown stinkbugs inside the house. Eeeewwww. Far better to keep them from ever taking that fateful step indoors.

Okay, so how does the trap work? Simple. The inventor said he was able to trap 70 stinkbugs a day once they started heading indoors in the fall, late September in his area but whenever it starts to cool down where you live. Apparently the stinkbugs, who overwinter inside house walls, emerging into the house in spring after a long winter’s siesta, are tricked into thinking the trap is a really easy-access section of wall and crowd in there.

So, you’re probably thinking, I have 70 stinkbugs in this cardboard trap. Now what? The inventor takes a black plastic garbage bag, holds the trap over it, and shakes. Stinkbugs are genetically programmed to drop down if disturbed before blasting off to safety, so into the bag they go.

And then? The inventor said that yes, you could spray pesticide in the bag to kill the bugs. But his own solution was breathtaking in its simplicity: He seals the bag and dunks it in his hot tub. Safe, organic, and effective. (Though I have to wonder if a pervasive scent of cilantro hovers over his hot tub.) And of course the trap itself is endlessly reusable as long as it doesn’t get wet.

As noted, our friend Ben and I are technophobic Luddites; we don’t access YouTube here for fear it will spread viruses to our laptops, which are (along with our brains) the source of our income as writers and editors. So I’m ashamed to say I can’t even give the inventor of this brilliant stinkbug trap credit, not just for his breakthrough, low-tech solution, but for selflessly sharing it for free on YouTube rather than patenting it, cranking out a commercial version, and stamping it with “As Seen on TV!”

OFB says interested readers can go to YouTube and search for “stinkbug traps” and find the video. I, er, hope he’s right. And Mr. Inventor, whoever you are, you have now joined the pantheon of my Official Heroes. I just wonder if it’s too late to hang one inside the house to catch the bazillion that are buzzing around here?!

           ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

The invisible man. May 30, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Are you invisible? Silence Dogood here. If you happen to be a superhero, invisibility can be a very useful addition to your bag of tricks. It could also be quite convenient to be able to become invisible if you were, say, a Ninja, a magician, a CIA operator, or a robber hitting the local 7-11. But for the average person, invisibility tends to be viewed as a drawback rather than a weapon or survival tactic.

Prior to this week, I’d only seen or heard of invisibility in action in one context, that of people who are overweight. My girlfriends who pack on extra pounds—who are plush or plus-size or goddess-sized or whatever you’d like to call them—have told me through the years that they feel invisible. Men don’t see them; their bosses don’t see them; waiters and store clerks don’t see them.

Then, just this past week, I discovered that overweight wasn’t the only modern cause of invisibility. First, a friend e-mailed to say that she felt totally invisible, a victim of our ageist society. It’s true that every cited demographic seems to refer to people between ages 18 and 49, as if no one else exists or counts. But I’d always assumed this was a stupid mistake of the advertising industry, rather than an actual perception by the public. Certainly, I’ve never felt that way about older people, whom I’ve tended to find a lot more interesting than the general run of humanity, or seen this sort of invisibility-through-discrimination in action.

But after pondering my friend’s e-mail, I had to wonder if I was simply being naive. She lives in an urban, cutthroat-competitive environment, an extreme remove from my own existence here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Perhaps in the major cities, when women reach midlife they just disappear, unless they happen to be, say, Courteney Cox or Oprah or Goldie Hawn or Debbie Harry.

So alrighty then. I was still pondering all this, and kicking it around with our friend Ben, when yesterday’s paper arrived with its Parade magazine featuring the stars of a TV show called “Men of a Certain Age” on its cover. We don’t get TV reception here at Hawk’s Haven, but even I had heard of a couple of the new series’ stars, Scott Bakula and Ray Romano (from “Everyone Loves Raymond”).  And the photos of Bakula, Romano, and costar Andre Braugher show that these guys aren’t hard to look at.

Having never seen any of them in their so-called prime and only seeing the photos in the issue of Parade, I’d say that Bakula is red-hot, Romano is sweet-and-lovable, and Braugher is a slow burn to be reckoned with. Yet sure enough, the topic of midlife invisibility came up.

Huh? Men can become invisible? Men who aren’t stereotypical cartoon characters like Dilbert or Dagwood or Charlie Brown or what’s-his-name who owns Garfield? Good-looking men can feel like they’re invisible?! What about all that stuff about silver foxes?!

But there it was in black-and-white, in Parade of all places. The interviewer asked how much of the show was drawn from the actors’ life experiences, and Andre Braugher brought it up, actually saying “Like being invisible.” Ray Romano quickly elaborated: “Yeah, we did a little run on the show about the fact that there’s an entire generation of women for whom guys like us don’t exist. I’ll be at a stoplight next to a woman in another car. In the old days, I might at least have gotten a slightly illicit glance back. But now it’s as if they’re seeing their grandpa. You’re completely invisible to them.”

As I was shrieking about this to OFB, who of course refuses to read Parade himself, he sang a snatch of a Jimmy Buffett song, “Nothin’ but a Breeze,” on growing older: “One day soon I’ll be a grandpa/All the pretty girls will call me sir/Now where they’re asking me how things are/Soon they’ll ask me how things were.” Buffett goes on to say that he won’t mind being a grandpa as long as his partner is willing to be his “awesome Grandma” and they can continue to live the Margaritaville life in the islands. But this cheerful, PC addition didn’t keep the light from going on.

“All the pretty girls will call me sir.” Looking back at Ray Romano’s comment, suddenly I saw the emphasis: “…there’s an entire generation of women for whom guys like us don’t exist.” Oh. Would that by any chance be women who’re your daughters’ ages rather than your own?!

In my experience, most women don’t expect kids their sons’ ages to look at them the way they would their female classmates. Of course there are high-profile exceptions, like Demi Moore or kids whose female high-school teachers find themselves on trial (and subsequently in jail) for seducing minors. But most women have better sense than to want to be romantically involved with kids their sons’ (or, gack, grandsons’) ages. Eeeewwww!!! Sure, these guys can be cute, or even gorgeous. But so what? Falcons are gorgeous. Flowers are gorgeous. Art is gorgeous, music is gorgeous. Most women have the good sense to appreciate gorgeous kids the way they’d appreciate any other art form: as an aesthetic treat, and nothing more than that. Period. The end. Lusting after someone decades younger than you, deluding yourself into thinking they’d lust after you, is just sick. 

Think about it: When you were in high school, you could easily identify other high school students at the mall, as opposed to those “old” college students. (Eeewwww!!!) And you could, in high school or college, easily identify people who were older than that. (Eeeeeeewwwwwwwwwww!!!) The first sign of advancing age, in my opinion, is no longer being able to distinguish high school from college students. And God help you when parents hauling babies around start to look like 16-year-olds to you, certainly not the parents you remember, those old people.

Not that it’s guys’ fault. Genetics has hardwired them to find fertile partners, to go forth and multiply. And if that means a luscious 18-year-old instead of your 48-year-old spouse—especially if that 18-year-old happens to resemble your spouse when she was 18—you might find yourself hoping to get lucky. But please, think about how she feels about you before you try to make your move. Eeeeewwww!!!

For those who are forced to experience it, from weight or other personal-appearance issues, from being wheelchair-bound, from age, or from whatever reason, invisibility in a society that exalts individuality as a means to public recognition must be the hardest cross to bear. The other day, I almost wept when I read a quote from Lady Gaga, “I only feel alive when I’m onstage.” Nooooo!!! What about the rest of your life? Where is the balance between public and private, between performance and personal growth?! Where is rest and regeneration? Oh, no, no.

Thinking through to the end, I had to conclude that invisibility equals freedom. If no one’s looking, no one’s judging. “Eeewww, look at that woman’s thighs!” “Gross, that guy’s going bald. And check the paunch and butt crack sticking out of his—eeewww—shorts!” “Oh geez, could you cover that up?!!” Dress and act age-appropriate, and suddenly you’re freed from competition with subsequent generations who are bound to win. At least in a Darwinian sense.

It all comes down to this: When you’re young, strut your physical, sexual stuff. At midlife, strut your intellectual, powerful stuff. Past midlife, strut your wisdom and shamanic/magical stuff. Revel in the stage you find yourself. It’s all good, as long as you don’t try to reverse gears.

Raymond, are you listening?

               ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

A pirate looks at… Virginia.* May 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, ready to share a fun event and some piratical trivia with you. Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we’re a little pirate-obsessed. We’re not even immune to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, though we give thanks to God for the long-overdue departure of Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom. Much as we love Bill Nighy, the series hasn’t been the same since the departure of the evil British overlords.

But I digress. Our real obsession is real-life pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy. So we perked up when we saw that Hampton, Virginia, is holding a Blackbeard Pirate Festival from June 3-5, complete with street skirmishes and sea battles. Check it out for yourselves at www.blackbeardpiratefestival.com. We just wish we could attend! They claim that Blackbeard’s final battle took place at Hampton. (See our trivia below for a few thoughts about that.)

Blackbeard, aka Edward Teach, is perhaps the best-known (though hardly the most successful) real-life pirate of all time, unless you count Captain Morgan. (Fictional pirates like Long John Silver and Captain Hook don’t count.) He certainly knew everything about successful theater: He regularly put flares in his hair and beard and lit them during attacks, giving his enemies the impression that the Devil himself was attacking them as flames rose up around his head.

Blackbeard was a huge, burly man, fierce and fearless enough to set the standard for pirates for all time. His pirate flag would have put the fear of God into anyone: a horned skeleton held an houglass, to show that time had run out for his victims, and in the other hand held a spear pointed at a bleeding heart. In addition to his famous beard, tied in octopus-like sections with red ribbon, Captain Teach was literally armed to the teeth, bristling with cutlasses, pistols, daggers, and assorted other weapons. 

But what do we really know about the man who was known as Blackbeard, the man who called himself Edward Teach (often spelled in a most flexible manner, as was common at the time, including Thatch)? Let’s check out some Blackbeard trivia and find out:

* Blackbeard was British. Given that he’s the official state pirate of North Carolina, basing his operations out of Okracoke, and is also claimed by Virginia and even South Carolina (he once held the entire city of Charleston, South Carolina for ransom, which was duly paid), you’d be forgiven for assuming that he, like his fellow pirate captain and sometime-colleague Stede Bonnet, was American. But he was actually from Bristol.

* We don’t know his real name. Blackbeard sailed the seas as Captain Edward Teach (or, as noted, some rather creative spelling of his last name). But pirates typically adopted “stage names” to protect their families back home from their notoreity, and it’s believed that Blackbeard did this too, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment; it’s proved impossible to trace anyone’s ancestry with the name Edward Teach or its variants back to Bristol at the time. (Stede Bonnet was a rare exception, as was Captain—later Admiral—Sir Henry Morgan.) One contemporary gave Blackbeard’s real last name as Drummond.

* He came from a wealthy, educated family. Many people assume pirates took to the high seas in desperation, to raise money because they were poor, had trained as sailors, and, out of a job once the wars that powered the British Navy came to an end, turned their hard-won skills to illegal uses. But in some high-profile cases, boredom, the lust for adventure, or the excitement of battle and/or living on the edge seemed the greater draw. This was certainly true of privateers like Sir Francis Drake and wealthy planter-turned-pirate Stede Bonnet, as well as the educated dandy Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, aka The Great Pirate Roberts, the most successful pirate of all time. Apparently, it was also true of Blackbeard, who was well educated in a time when this was a rarity, and could read and write fluently. Certainly the Drummond family was prominent; its head was the Earl of Perth. And his actions as a pirate tend to support the theory of a gentlemanly upbringing (see below).

* His behavior belied his appearance. There is simply no question that Blackbeard, tall, broad-shouldered, bristling with weapons, with a long, black beard that covered his face to the eyes (according to eyewitness accounts) and was tied into multiple tails, was the most ferocious-looking pirate who ever lived. And he apparently used his theatrically terrifying appearance to good effect, spreading his legend far and wide to intimidate his opponents. But in practice, he was a very different man: He never harmed a single captive, and he led his crews by consensus rather than handing down orders like the higher-ups in the British Navy.  

* His weakness was women. Women certainly weren’t Blackbeard’s downfall, but he was clearly addicted to them, given his practice of having 12 to 14 wives simultaneously like some Caliph or Satrap. (Contrast this to a fellow pirate, “Calico Jack” Rackham, whose fidelity to his consort Anne Bonny, or Bonney, caused him to break with pirate tradition and sail with her onboard in defiance of the pirate code.) However, Blackbeard’s appetites didn’t turn him into a fool: He spread his wives out over many ports, presumably to avoid domestic disputes, thus launching the concept of “a wife in every port” that still dogs sailors to this day.

* His death can be claimed by both Virginia and North Carolina. North Carolina, because he died in a battle at his home base there at Okracoke Island; Virginia, because its governor, Alexander Spotswood, commissioned the man who brought him down, Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Blackbeard remained brave, bold, and defiant to the last, toasting the man who was ultimately to claim credit for his death and take the reward money (by hauling Blackbeard’s severed head back to Virginia as proof) and by destroying both Maynard’s sloops.

* Blackbeard’s ship had the best name. Yes, The Golden Hind is pretty impressive, but not as impressive as Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was actually found and excavated in 1997, and you can see the spoils for yourself at the North Carolina Maritime Museum.

So aaarrr, yaaarrr, me hearties!!! If you’re in range of Hampton, Virginia, the first weekend of June, haul yerselves over and take in the festival while toasting that great and mysterious figure, Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. It’s time to take a pirate stand. You savvy?!!

                 Warmly,

                         Richard Saunders  

* With apologies to Jimmy Buffett.

Creativity: The human condition? May 28, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Nature or nurture: It’s a question that’s probably as old as humankind. One of our friend Ben’s friends has written a couple of blog posts recently contending what I have long believed, that genetics, not medicine or lifestyle, determines the length of one’s life and the manner of one’s death. (Well, maybe he didn’t go quite that far, but I will; I’m convinced of it.) Mind you, I think medical care and lifestyle can have a great impact on one’s quality of life. But I digress.

Today’s post is brought to you courtesy of our blog host, WordPress, which highlights posts its arbiters deem worthy each day by posting them on its login home page. Today had one called “Can Creative Writing Be Taught?” by Gillian Holding of Life and Art (http://gilliansblog.wordpress.com/). Ms. Holding, a fine artist, had read an article in The Guardian that doubted it, and since she also works in a high-creative field, she had clearly given the matter of whether creativity in general could be taught a great deal of thought.

Our friend Ben is an enthusiastic but untalented watercolorist, but a lifelong creative writer from a family where writing has been a compulsion for at least four recorded generations. I composed my first poem at age two. I amused and/or horrified relatives at family gatherings by using words like “chandelier” and “elegant” (which I could also spell) by age four. (This ability put an abrupt end to my parents’ attempts to spell out inappropriate or provocative words at the dinner table, like “vacation.”) I have written poems, songs, essays, novels, children’s books, and nonfiction books all my life, and they have been effortless for me. Nature, or nurture?

I’m sure Homer’s contemporaries asked themselves if his creations of works like The Iliad and The Odyssey were the result of a gift from the gods, or whether his teacher had simply been that much better than theirs. No doubt Leonardo’s Renaissance associates, many of them sublimely talented in their own right, wondered why his paintings looked so very different—so much more alive—than anybody else’s. Maybe the fiesty, choleric John Adams stared at Ben Franklin and muttered, “Dammit! Why didn’t I invent the rocking chair, the Franklin stove, and the lightning rod?!” And Shakespeare’s fellow playwrites scratched their heads and asked each other, “How does he do that?!” And Ig looked at Og’s gorgeous pigment drawings on the cave walls and thought “Ow! Why can’t I do that?! My people look like bleeping stick-figures, and nobody even recognized that bison I drew last week.” 

Our friend Ben contends that nurture certainly helps. There is no question in my mind that it smoothes the way for every endeavor. Being read great poetry in the cradle, being forced to read great poetry aloud from the time I could first read, being taught to read so early, being exposed to the best writing from across time and cultures, being exposed to well-educated parents with huge vocabularies and picking up a vast and accurate vocabulary from voracious reading, and being exposed to and loving other languages: All this paved the way for advantages throughout life that I could never have imagined.

But could it really have made me a gifted poet, writer, and thinker? Or was it some impulse, some inherited ability, some inborn talent that made me what I am?

I’ve never known, and I always leave the door open for both, the combination that creates grey rather than black or white. What I can say is that one of my graduate degrees is in creative writing. I had some excellent teachers, but the greatest benefit I received from my classes—with the exception of poetry translation, which was unspeakably fun and really inspiring—was being forced to produce poetry and etc. on a much-more-frequent basis than might have been the case were I not confronted with constant assignments in class. What I did notice, however, was that the other students in all my classes began to write more and more like me as the semesters wore on. They had no voice, so they took on mine. I’ve also occasionally taught poetry workshops to people who couldn’t imagine themselves writing a poem, and it’s been hugely rewarding to see their surprise and delight at the end of the workshop.

Were any of these people natural writers, much less good writers? No. But they were clearly impelled by the passion, the need to create. Our friend Ben is convinced that this impulse—whether we’re talking about a novel, a painting, a beaded necklace, a knitted scarf, a haunting piece of music, a delicious new way to prepare food, a better oil filter, a new way to train dogs, or a perfectly fluted arrowhead—is somehow hardwired into us, and is what ultimately sets us apart from the rest of creation.

We share a form of aesthetic appreciation with all creation, for better or worse, and it tends towards extremes. (Think about the otherwise useless, astonishing tailfeathers of male peacocks or the giant, outsized eyes and lips, taking up far more space than is actually possible, and tiny bodies supporting the giant heads on cartoon idealizations of human beings.) But only humans seem hardwired to create outside the realm of reproduction, to create beauty, utility, or comfort for their own sake. 

Our friend Ben does, and does passionately, believe that creativity is the human condition. It is what ultimately sets us apart from the rest of creation. It is why books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain will always be bestsellers: We are all pulled to the creative, even if we have no inherent talent or our talent is modest in the extreme.

Can we learn to be artists? Well, there are certainly formulas you can follow to achieve success in genre fiction like murder, suspense, sci-fi, historical fiction, heroic fiction, and romance.  Will mastering these formulas make you the next Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Guy Gavriel Kay, Mary Stewart, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sharon Kay Penman, Mary Gentle, Sheri Tepper, Tony Hillerman, Joan Vinge, Alexander McCall Smith, even Georgette Heyer? Hardly. You can only boost yourself so far. But you can make a fabulous living, and see your works turned into bestselling movies and franchises, if you like. Just look at Harry Potter.

Our friend Ben rejoices in every expression of human creativity. However we’ve managed it, it has enriched our culture in every way that matters.

When Isaac Newton met Chicken Little. May 26, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, wit and wisdom.
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It’s once again wacky blog search time here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. Wild, weird, and wonderful search engine phrases have been pouring in over the virtual transom, so we decided to take a few moments to share the “best of the worst” with you. This batch was pretty chicken-intensive. As always, query in bold, our comments following. Enjoy!

did an apple fall on chicken littles head: We’ll admit it, we loved this one. Just picture it, the shortest story ever told: “An apple fell on Chicken Little’s head. The end.” That would have been an acorn. An apple fell on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, leading him to propose the existence of gravity. Or so the story goes.

lazy slob: Our friend Ben cannot imagine why this particular query ended up on our blog, but I resemble that remark.

reviving old popcorn: If CPR doesn’t do the trick, you’d better just give up and make the funeral arrangements.

untrue facts about pirates: We get versions of this one all the time. Could we just point out that “untrue” and “facts” are not words that go together!

poor fried rice: Awww. Let’s hope it didn’t feel a thing.

quinoa for chicken feed: At the going price for quinoa, might as well just feed ‘em steak and get it over with.

101 uses for kudzu: Well, you can eat it, you can make baskets out of it, and you can turn it into paper. That’s three. Your turn to come up with the remaining 98.

free range house chickens with diapers: Again, we’re faced with colliding concepts: “free range” and “house chickens.” As for the diapers, we’d recommend litterbox-training them instead, a tidier option for all concerned. If bunnies can be litterbox-trained (which they can), it should be doable for chickens. But we’re ignoring the proverbial elephant here: Why are chickens running all over your house?! 

what do elderly people teach us: That plastic surgery can only take you so far? God preserve Grandpa and Grandma from people who find it necessary to ask questions like this!

do chickens get poison ivy: Um, we don’t think so. But we’re not planning to feed ours any just in case.

good luck charms for your yard: For some reason, diaperless, poison-ivy-free chickens spring to mind. Or maybe a talisman to ward off kudzu and poison ivy. We’ve heard for an untrue fact that pieces of eight touched by pirates will work all sorts of landscape miracles if you bury them on your property. Just be sure to make a treasure map and send us a copy.

obscure plants: This one’s so classic, we’ve bruised our brains trying to come up with the line of reasoning that would have caused someone to pose such a totally vague (not to say obscure) query. Kudzu and poison ivy clearly don’t qualify, but after reviewing every plant we know, we’ve decided that the winner is Paphiopedilum ‘Dragon Bronze Elly’. To our knowledge, only one specimen exists, and that’s assuming it’s still alive. Happy now?

The high price of travel. May 25, 2011

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Silence Dogood here. I almost fell off my chair the other day when I read a laudatory article praising a family for its newfound frugal habits. One of said habits involved sacrificing their annual $5,000 vacation for a stay somewhat closer to home. Uh, $5,000 a year for one vacation?! $50,000 in ten years, $100,000 in twenty?!!!

I’d also read two articles that cited a statistic that the average American carries a credit-card balance of just under $5,000. Hmmmm…

Here at Hawk’s Haven, our annual vacation costs more like $500, and we pay off our credit card balance every month. But reading about that seemingly astronomical $5,000 vacation made me wonder what it would actually cost me and our friend Ben to go on one of our dream vacations.

Mind you, we’ve never really looked into this before because it’s certainly a case of if you have to ask, you can’t afford it, and we know we can’t afford it, so we didn’t ask. And let’s leave out the trips abroad, to Greece and Crete, Morocco, Toulouse, Normandy, the Scottish Highlands, and the like. Instead, what about the presumably doable trips to Key West or Williamsburg? What about a train trip across Canada or a vacation in Mexico?

Uh. Checking a flight to Key West as a starting point, I see that a week’s vacation there would cost us $1554 for economy-class airfare, plus additional fees for airport parking. Add in the cost of a petsitter while we’re away, the cost to board our black German shepherd, Shiloh, the cost of a rental car while we’re in Key West, the cost of a hotel or B&B, and the cost of meals. Maybe it wouldn’t add up to $5,000, but I’ll bet it would be at least $3,000, and that’s just for us, not for us and, say, two kids. And it doesn’t include any additional costs, like an ocean excursion or entry fees for museums and the like, or the inevitable haul of seashells, or…

Zowie. What about that cross-Canada train ride? The economy fare starts at $4,269 a person (for double occupancy), not of course counting the cost to get to the starting point or any other expenses. Sound high? For deluxe service, you’ll pay $11,058 a person, again for double occupancy and not counting any additional expenses. Is food included in these fees? I have no idea, but at those prices, I really don’t care. I guess OFB and I will have to content ourselves with watching the cross-Canada train DVD ($14, deluxe meal and wine provided by yours truly). When you’re looking at this sort of expenditure, armchair travel has a lot to recommend it.

Why would it cost as much for two people to take a two-week rail trip across Canada as it would take two people to live for a year? Why would it cost as much to go to Key West for a week as it costs to pay your property taxes for a year? When did travel become unaffordable?!

Our friend Ben and I are often stung by the depiction of Americans as insular rubes who never go anywhere except to Las Vegas and Disney World. But please, people, it’s not that we wouldn’t like to travel, across our continent and across our world. We simply can’t begin to afford it.

               ‘Til next time,

                           Silence

Hounding the helpless hedgehog. May 24, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was astounded to open our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, and find a column by Bill White called “Kids target Pa. ban on hedgehogs.” Now, mind you, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed it, bizarre as it was, if Silence Dogood and I didn’t have a dear friend who is absolutely hedgehog-obsessed. But under the circumstances, the word “hedgehog” leapt off the page. What did Bill mean, “Pa. ban on hedgehogs”?!

Apparently, a fifth-grade class wanted to keep one of the cute little animals as a class pet, but on checking things out, their teacher discovered that it’s illegal to own a hedgehog here in Pennsylvania. I’ve only seen one live hedgehog in my life, a half-drowned specimen that managed to drag itself to my tent when I was doing archaeology in England years ago. But soggy as it was, it was endearing, so I could see why the students had decided they’d like to have one around.

The teacher and her class decided to enlist Bill White in the battle to have the anti-hedgehog law repealed (it’s apparently perfectly legal to own pet hedgehogs in 44 states), and his research revealed a Hedgehog Underground Railroad and a Facebook page called “The Cruel Injustice of Hedgehog Genocide in PA.” Who knew?!!

Digging deeper, Bill found that the anti-hedgehog law had come about because the state Game Commission was worried that some hedgehogs might escape into the wild, creating havoc and displacing native species. As a passionate gardener and nature lover, our friend Ben takes their point. With the exception of poison ivy, practically every major pest in our country has been introduced from abroad, either deliberately (kudzu, starlings, multiflora roses, purple loosestrife, house sparrows) or accidentally (Japanese beetles, brown marmorated stink bugs, innumerable weeds). The examples are legion.

Often, these plants, birds, fish, animals and insects aren’t pests in their native habitat, either because the climate limits their spread or because predators have evolved along with them and keep their population in check. Unfortunately, when they’re brought to a new area, the natural checks and balances are left behind. Anyone who’s ever seen a landscape buried under kudzu or a house inundated with stink bugs will appreciate the serious nightmare potential of this situation. Even in less dramatic situations, an unopposed invader can displace and even eliminate the native plants, animals, birds, insects, etc. that have evolved to populate an area, reducing diversity.

Our friend Ben can see the logic behind the law. What I can’t see is why it’s only aimed at hedgehogs. As enthusiastic pet owners, Silence and I have a dog, cats, parakeets, a parrot, and tropical fish. We also raise chickens. None of these are native to North America. Heading to local Pennsylvania pet stores, we see many other non-native birds, not to mention hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, geckos, tropical snakes, goldfish, tropical frogs, etc.etc. Iguanas, guinea pigs, tarantulas, and other creatures native to the Americas—but not the U.S.—are also widely available. Why single out the poor hedgehog for this sort of abuse?! Surely it’s no more likely to escape into the wild than, say, a guinea pig or python.

Perhaps the real key is screening potential pet owners as carefully as shelters screen potential pet adopters, making sure that they’re educated about their pet’s needs and willing to provide them before sending a single pet out of the store. After reading Bill’s column, I’m sure that fifth-grade class would qualify. (Check out the column at www.themorningcall.com and look for additional commentary on Bill’s blog, which you can access at the same address.)

I guess it’s lucky for our friend that her hedgehog is a stuffed toy, or she’d probably be in jail.

Papers going to the dogs (and ‘hogs). May 23, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I start our mornings with two newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. Today, both had front-page stories related to animals.

The Wall Street Journal decided to feature an obscure and disquieting dog-related phenomenon that stubbornly refuses to die: knitting with dog hair. I’ve been aware of this activity, which sounds like a sick joke but is perfectly serious, since being sent a review copy of the seminal book on the subject, Knitting with Dog Hair, back in 1994. According to the WSJ, seventeen years later, there’s still an enthusiastic band of spinners and knitters trying to take dog-fur yarn mainstream. But now they’re calling it “chiengora” (chien being the French word for dog).

Okay, so I screamed at OFB (“Eeeewwww!!! Knitting with dog hair!!!”) when I saw the article, but then I read it. And it appears that many chiengora enthusiasts are saving fur from grooming sessions with their own beloved pets and sending it off to be spun into yarn so they can knit or crochet a wearable memento of a cherished companion, sort of a proactive memento mori. There’s certainly a precedent for this in the Victorian passion for making brooches and rings from the beloved deceased’s braided hair, though in their case, it was humans, not dogs, who were being commemorated.

OFB and I were just brushing our own beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, yesterday, and it’s true, there couldn’t be a more lustrous black coat on the face of the earth. (That’s the reason black shepherds are called “lacquer blacks” in their native Germany.) A glossy black Shiloh sweater, tank top, or skirt would make any fashionista proud.  But frankly, even with as much fur as we brush off Shiloh, I can’t imagine collecting enough for a scarf, much less a piece of clothing. And, according to the WSJ, dog-fur yarn is very pricey for that exact reason (not to mention that it has to be hand-spun).

Now, I’m an enthusiastic knitter who loves knitting scarves form beautiful yarns as mindless relaxation and for gifts. And when I saw a reference in the article to a golden retriever scarf, I’ll confess, my attitude towards knitting with dog fur abruptly shifted. As noted, I still wouldn’t collect fur from my own dogs to send to a spinner. But were someone to present me with some skeins of lustrous black German shepherd fur or golden retriever fur (which brings to mind our beloved goldens Molly and Annie) or mahogany-and-white Springer spaniel fur (recalling my childhood Springers), it’s true, I would not only knit them into scarves but wear those scarves with pride and pleasure.

Call me a chiengora convert. (And head over to www.WSJ.com to read the article, “In This Yarn With [sic] a Tail, Our Heroes Thirst for Hair of the Dog” by Stephanie Simon, May 23, 2011.)

Meanwhile, our local paper also featured a creature on its front page. But this wild thing wouldn’t make anybody’s heart sing. It was a groundhog that managed to sneak into somebody’s car, chew its way through the passenger seat, and then become stuck underneath the seat.

If you ask me, this doesn’t speak well for the IQ of Pennsylvania’s own Punxsutawney Phil and his prognostications about the duration of winter or arrival of an early spring. But, like the famous Phil, this groundhog became an instant celebrity, attracting the neighbors, the local police, a Deputy Wildlife Control Officer, and the local mayor, not to mention the screaming owners of the vehicle in question.

The article, “New Tripoli driver doesn’t dig his hitchhiking critter,” by Kevin Amerman, is hysterical, and shows photos of the groundhog in flagrante delicto, stuck under the passenger seat, as well as in a live trap on his way to being released back to the wild. Check it out at www.themorningcall.com.

Fortunately, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a groundhog here at Hawk’s Haven, so I’m hoping our veggie gardens are safe for another season. But I wonder what those dog-fur knitting enthusiasts would make of groundhog fur?!

               ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

A big day on the deck. May 22, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Miracles happen, even here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, where our friend Ben and Silence Dogood live in our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven. How do I know? Because, for the second day running, it hasn’t rained. So far.

Two rainless days in a row after rain every single day for what seems like a month is a real gift for passionate gardeners like Silence and yours truly. It means that we were able to do yard chores, like mowing, pruning, and weeding, yesterday, then head off yesterday afternoon to that mecca of heirloom veggie transplants, James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm in nearby scenic Bowers, PA to buy herb, hot pepper, and tomato transplants. Today, we planted the new acquisitions in our veggie beds (Silence is still on the lookout for yellow crookneck squash and tomatillo transplants), then finished the transitioning of plants from our greenhouse to the deck, their summer home.

Mind you, not all our plants leave the greenhouse for the summer. Cacti and succulents, all the orchids except the hardy cymbidiums, and any plants in the in-ground greenhouse bed (including the cardamom, aloes, jade plants, Cuban oregano, and lemongrass) remain in place. But many, many plants, including our figs, citrus, olive, bay, rosemaries, lemon verbena, geraniums (pelargoniums), amaryllis, cymbidiums, cannas, ferns, clivia, and the like make the annual trek from the greenhouse to the deck. And all our hanging plants make the transition from the greenhouse to hooks in our tree branches.

Some of our water-garden plants that have shivered through the winter in the greenhouse water garden also make the journey to the half-barrel on the deck, along with oxygenating anacharis that grows like a weed in our indoor aquariums but could never survive a Pennsylvania winter in the great outdoors. Next weekend, we’ll reintroduce goldfish and snails.

Because we have so many plants to move, we try to reserve several weekends to accomplish the task. Then, as Silence, the Deckorator, says, once I’ve hauled them over and she’s put them in place, she can look at the deck as a garden in containers and see what we need to add to unite the various areas. (“We should put some chartreuse coleus over there to connect that side with the chartreuse Boston fern on this side and the golden creeping Jenny and chartreuse sweet potato vine in our planter.”) Then, it’s back to the nurseries next weekend to complete her vision.  

But at least the deck looks lush now. Sitting out there with the drinks of our choice and our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, listening to the birds singing and the creek burbling, we agreed that life was good. At least, until it starts raining again.

Pizza perfect. May 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. My computer opens to the Yahoo! homepage, and the other day they had a highlighted feature called “World’s Best Pizza.” It featured six pizza styles—rather than individual pizzas—that the U.S. News & World Report team, who provided the article, considered to be tops. Their #1-rated pizza was Neapolitan, a soft-crust pizza topped with bufalo mozzarella, raw San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil, then cooked in a super-hot wood-burning oven for a minute and a half.

If a trip to Naples isn’t in your travel budget, the article provides some other options:  New York pizza (rated #2), characterized by its puffy outer crust and thinner, crispier inner crust and by being baked on a pizza stone rather than in a pan. Pizzas from Sao Paulo, Brazil (#3), a town so crazy about pizza that it celebrates Pizza Day every July 10th. (I heartily approve.) Sao Paulo pizzas apparently include a minimal-to-vanishing amount of tomato sauce but tons of mozzarella. We are warned not to dump ketchup on our Sao Paulo pizzas, a practice apparently endorsed throughout the rest of Brazil, perhaps to make up for the lack of tomato sauce.

Chicago deep-dish pizza appears at #5 on the list. I’ve long heard of the fabled deep-dish Chicago pizzas, but never had one, and was taken aback by the description: a thick, crunchy layer of crust covered with mozzarella, then the toppings, and then chunky tomato sauce before hitting the oven in its deep-dish pan. Er, you mean the cheese is on the bottom and the tomato sauce is on the top?!! The accompanying photo seems to confirm my fears.

The #6 place to eat pizza is in Rome, according to the article, where thin-crust pizzas are baked on rectangular trays in wood-fired ovens, then sold by the slice and served folded over like a sandwich. (You can choose both your toppings and the size of your slice, which is priced by weight.)

In case you’re wondering what happened to pizza #4, in my view, the article cheated and included a frittata from Osaka and Hiroshima instead. Called the Japanese pancake or Japanese omelette, this popular egg-based dish is stirred, poured, flipped to cook both sides, then drizzled with sweet brown sauce, mayo, and bonito and seaweed flakes. It certainly sounds intriguing, but what it has to do with pizza I can’t imagine. 

Thinking about the styles of pizza favored by the article’s panel and by everyone I know, I was struck again by how individual people’s taste in pizza really is. I feel really strongly about what makes a good pizza and what makes a bad one, and so do all my friends. And no two of us agree about what makes the perfect pizza. I tried to think about some other popular food that brings out this much passion and inflexible opinion in people, and drew a blank. Chili, maybe? Barbecue? Turkey stuffing/dressing? Chocolate bars? Help me out here, please. There has to be something!

Contemplating what, in my view, makes a perfect pizza was, I confess, a blissful experience. I’d have said an ecstatic experience, except for the fact that I’ve read many times that tests have shown that imagining eating food somehow magically packs on as many calories as if you’d actually eaten it. How this could possibly be, I can’t begin to imagine, but if it turns out to be true, it’s the most cruel joke ever played on our weight-conscious society. I guess now I’ll have to imagine running 50 miles to burn those imaginary calories off. But I digress.

Before I reveal my own favorite pizza styles, let’s talk about what I really hate in a pizza, and the description of that Neapolitan pizza so beloved by the U.S. News & World Report team (and iconized in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love”) has it all. Soft, undercooked crust. Raw tomatoes rather than tomato sauce. Inadequate gobbets of cheese. Eeeewwww!!! I love San Marzano tomatoes.  I love bufalo mozzarella. I love fresh basil. But please, could I have them in a Caprese salad, rather than on a so-called pizza?!

The other pizzas beloved by the team fared little better on the Silence Dogood Yummy Pizza Scale. Pizza crust soft enough to fold over, a la Roma? Spare me. Almost no tomato sauce, a la Sao Paolo? Yuck. Puffy crust, courtesy of NYC? Ugh. Tomato sauce on top? No thanks, Windy City. As for the “Sicilian style” deep-dish pizza prevalent pretty much everywhere around here, and featuring a thick slab of doughy so-called crust, please. I’d like to get my calories on top of the crust, thanks very much.

So what, exactly, does make a pizza good, or even great? I’m so glad you asked. A delicious pizza depends on a combination of four things: crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings. Let’s look at them one by one.

First, and most critical, is the crust. The best sauce, cheese, and toppings in the world can’t redeem an awful crust. A bad crust = a bad pizza, period. And yet the crust is, in my opinion, the most neglected element of pizza-making.

Mind you, my idea of the ideal crust horrifies literally everyone I know, without exception. I hate a thick doughy crust, a thin soft crust, a thick or thin hard crust, a chewy, stretchy crust. My ideal is a crunchy crust, exemplified by a just-made Pizza Hut pan pizza. To me this luscious crunch perfectly complements the sauce, cheese, and toppings on a pizza.

Unfortunately, I’ve read more times than I care to remember that this type of crust is only achieved by saturating the crust in oil. This brings to mind French fries, fried onion rings, and fried chicken, other foods that are utterly delicious and also on the proscribed list. I don’t see a huge amount of upside in encouraging heart disease, overweight, and diabetes, so my trips to Pizza Hut have been drastically curtailed in recent years.

However. I refuse to let the health Nazis have the last word when it comes to pizza crust. When I make pizza here at Hawk’s Haven, I add the crunch factor by brushing the crust with extra-virgin olive oil and baking it on a pizza stone before proceeding with the other stages of pizza composition. Works like a charm. If I have to purchase pizza and can’t get that crunchy crust, a light, thin, crispy-crackly crust is definitely next-best. No soggy, doughy, heavy, underbaked crusts, please God. Those all rate an instant “Give this to the chickens!” from me.

Moving on to the sauce. Balance is all at this crucial step. I can’t abide a pizza without a good, flavorful tomato-based sauce. Whatever anyone may say, that is not pizza, it’s a topped flatbread. But I also hate a pizza drowning in wet, flavorless sauce without enough cheese to balance it (and inevitably with a limp, doughy crust).

When making pizza at home, I like to spread a layer of pesto over the crust for added flavor before spreading on the tomato sauce. And that sauce should be thick and flavorful, making its presence known in every delicious bite without overwhelming the other ingredients or sogging down the crust. (The layer of pesto really helps in this regard, providing a barrier that separates crust and sauce.) My favorite is my own homemade spaghetti sauce, thick and rich with flavor to spare. If I want to add a little freshness, crunch, and heat, I’ll press some fresh salsa into the sauce before adding the cheese. On a restaurant pizza, the richer, thicker, garlicky flavor of marinara sauce wins my vote over plain old tomato sauce any day.

Now let’s tackle the cheese. Nothing offends me (and our friend Ben) like a sprinkling of cheese on a pizza. So when I first started making my own, I dumped on the shredded mozzarella, and how. Huge mistake. I’ve learned to use a much lighter hand with the cheese, making sure there’s enough to coat the sauce evenly but not an iota more than that. Using whole-milk shredded mozzarella makes up in quality and richness for the lack of quantity. And using a lighter hand gives you the option of adding additional cheeses like blue, Gorgonzola, shredded or grated Parmesan, and/or feta as toppings if you choose to do so, but again, don’t get carried away. I don’t know why adding too much cheese destroys the texture of a pizza, but trust me, it does. Better to eat an extra slice done right than shovel down a gloppy, overloaded couple.

The toppings are the final, and frankly, least relevant part to making great pizza. What?! Blasphemy!

I’d have agreed with you until I started making my own. Then I realized that if you’d nailed the crust, sauce, and cheese, the toppings would take care of themselves.

Whatever I ultimately add to a pizza, I always top it with a generous sprinkling of “Italian herbs” (oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram) and a little Trocomare (hot herbed salt). I’ll usually add a sprinkling of lemon pepper and a dash of red pepper flakes as well, since our friend Ben is a sucker for the hot stuff. (Not too much of the red pepper flakes, though, or they catch in my throat. OFB gets the shaker when we eat to add as much as he chooses.)

I like to add diced roasted sweet onions, minced roasted garlic, sliced roasted mushrooms, sliced kalamata or canned black olives, and diced fresh or roasted red, yellow, or orange bell peppers on my pizzas. Sometimes, for a special treat, I’ll add chopped marinated artichoke hearts, roasted yellow summer squash slices, and/or roasted white corn kernels scraped from the cob. Fresh chopped arugula, scallions (green onions), garlic scapes, basil, and sliced hot radishes can also add punch to a pizza.

And yes, I admit it, I do occasionally go all-out (or far out, depending on your point of view) and make special-occasion pizzas, such as my Mexican Night pizza, with mild salsa mixed with fresh salsa and cilantro subbing for the standard tomato sauce and a mix of shredded 4-cheese “Mexican” cheese blend and sliced black olives, sliced jalapenos, and chopped green and Spanish (purple or red) onions. Dabbing on a bit of sour cream and adding a little more cilantro before eating a slice is absolutely okay. And don’t forget the margaritas!

Let’s not leave the topic of pizza without discussing the final, essential element, and that’s the perfect temperature. Obviously, your goal is to cook the pizza until it’s hot, the cheese has melted, and the sauce and toppings have heated through. But if you try to eat it at that point, you’ll be confronted with a runny, gooey mess. I like to cook the pizza to this stage, then force myself to wait until it cools to the point where it’s still hot but the cheese is no longer gooey and it’s comfortable enough to pick up with your bare hands (though, gasp, I admit I eat mine with a knife and fork, since I hate touching grease, and oil qualifies). Yes, it’s hard to control myself when I can see and smell that delicious pizza-in-waiting. But I find that marrying the perfect temperature and texture is well worth the extra five or ten minutes of self-restraint, and it gives me time to make a salad OFB and I can enjoy with our pizza. 

Fellow pizza lovers, now it’s your turn: What do you think of when you think of the perfect pizza?

             ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

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