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Eye on the sky. February 27, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Hey everybody, look up! There’s a wonderful astronomical configuration going on right now that even those of us who are seriously challenged skywatchers like yours truly can enjoy.

Our friend Ben has seen exactly one falling star. I’ve seen the Northern Lights just once (in Virginia, of all places). So I was especially thrilled to see the moon, Jupiter and Venus come together in the night sky on Saturday night, a crescent moon with the two bright planets to its left. It’s a beautiful, awesome sight, and you should be able to see it all week if your night skies are clear. I’m sure ancient astrologers would have attached all sorts of arcane significance to a spectacular configuration like this, but fortunately, we can just look up and enjoy the view.

If you’re looking for more thrills, I’ve read that Saturn is rising brilliantly in the night sky to the east (the moon, Jupiter and Venus are in the West), but I haven’t yet been lucky enough to see it. Maybe tonight…

The tears of the red cedar. February 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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If you live on the East Coast, you might recall the unseasonable snowstorm that swept over us all this past October, when the deciduous trees still had their leaves and were unprepared to bear the full weight of a heavy, wet snow, which lingered in the freakish subfreezing temperatures.

The result was fallen trees, snapped branches, and downed power lines, leaving tens of thousands—including our friend Ben and Silence Dogood—without power for a week or more. This would have been demoralizing enough without those subfreezing temps, which made the risk of frozen, and subsequently burst, pipes very real, along with the astronomical costs for replacing the pipes and dealing with the damage. Thank God we have a backup woodstove here at Hawk’s Haven that was able to keep the floors, and thus the pipes, above freezing.

People these days aren’t used to living in the dark and cold, without heat, stoves (if electric), or even running water or plumbing (if, like us, you’re on a well). And rather than blaming climate change or an act of God, they blamed their power companies. 

Our own power company apparently decided to do something about it: They came down our road this week, cutting off all tree branches that came anywhere near a road or power line.

Now, mind you, free tree-trimming is nothing to sneeze at in a time when arborists’ prices are so astronomical that few homeowners can afford them. (Who has thousands of dollars lying around to pay for a professional to take down a tree?) And the power company tried to be considerate, cutting downed branches into fireplace-sized logs and stacking them neatly on each homeowner’s lawn, providing mounds of free wood chips when homeowners requested them, and tidying up so there was virtually no debris left after their trucks had passed.  

Our friend Ben would have had nothing but praise for the power company were it not for our red cedar (Juniperus virginiana, aka Eastern red cedar). Silence Dogood and I have been in awe of this majestic specimen since we first came to Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. It towers over the front of our property, producing thousands of juniper berries each year, giving food and shelter to untold numbers of birds year-round, but especially when winter cuts off so many other sources of nourishment and would otherwise expose them to the cold and to hungry predators. It defines our entire front yard.

So you can imagine my horror when I saw what the tree-trimmers had done. While expressing sensitivity towards every other tree on the road, they had cut the entire street-facing part of our cedar tree back to the trunk, halving it and turning it into a parody of its former self, a two-dimensional, see-through object that even the smallest bird would have a hard time sheltering in. No matter that it actually didn’t extend over the road. No matter that evergreens, unlike deciduous trees, are equipped by nature to bear snow loads without breaking, even though they still have their leaves/needles. Not one single evergreen branch, much less tree, broke or toppled during that terrible freak October storm. 

Our friend Ben was in shock when I saw what the power company had done. I drove up and down the road to make sure, and yes, ours was the only tree that had been brutalized like this. I can’t imagine what would have caused the power company employees to do such a thing.

My eyes dry and burning, I walked up to our beloved tree and put my hand on an open wound from its severed branches. It was red like a wound, as its name implies, but dry to my touch, like my outraged eyes. And yet, when I returned indoors, I could feel its tears, sticky on my hand, like the ones I longed to shed on its behalf. No doubt I’ll feel their imprint ’til I die.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day. February 23, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Today’s guest post is written by our friend Ben’s and Silence Dogood’s beloved black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special.

Hello, everyone! My name’s Shiloh, and I’d like to point out that today is a major holiday, at least for those of the canine persuasion: International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day.

I’ve persuaded Silence Dogood into sharing a recipe for homemade dog biscuits at the end of this post, but meanwhile, I’d like to add a few tips of my own about what to look for and what to avoid when you’re buying biscuits for your dog:

* Think healthy and flavorful. We love fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, and peanut butter, just like you do. Please don’t give us bland, tasteless dog biscuits (would you eat that?) or biscuits that are laden with so many unhealthy fats, preservatives, colorings, chemicals, and the like that it’s contributing to a national epidemic of overweight dogs. (At least, that’s what our friend Ben told me after reading an article on the subject in The Wall Street Journal.)

* Remember that we’re colorblind. Lots of dog biscuits are dyed red or green, apparently to appeal to the people who buy them for us. But please bear in mind that, though we can see some colors, we’re colorblind just like some people when it comes to red and green. If you know anyone who’s colorblind, ask them what they see when they look at red or green and they’ll tell you a dirty yellow-grey that’s really revolting. So please skip the chemical dyes and just get us the stuff that tastes best.

* Make our treats work harder. Silence always looks for biscuits that contain glucosamine and chondroitin, since I’m a big girl and big dogs are at higher risk of developing hip displasia. Glucosamine and chondroitin work together to keep my joints lubricated and functioning well and to prevent degenerative joint disease. My favorites are the wild cherry bone-shaped biscuits that combine the delicious flavor of cherries with that biscuit crunch.

* Remember that not all dog biscuits have to really be dog biscuits. Um, I guess that’s a little obscure, but what I’m trying to say is that plenty of good-for-you people treats offer the same satisfying crunch and flavor as dog biscuits, so you don’t even have to go out of your way to buy us treats as long as your house is well stocked with healthy people treats! Shredded Wheat mini-biscuits with bran, Triscuits, homemade baked whole-grain croutons, plain popcorn, pretzels, cornbread “dogs” (ouch!) with shredded carrots, and whole wheat-sweet potato biscuits are a few examples. Ditto, of course, for nuts! Just please don’t overdo it on the nuts, since they’re yummy but fatty and not so easy to digest. Two or three are plenty at a time.

* Biscuits aren’t the only things that crunch. True, we dogs love that soul-satisfying crunch that a good biscuit makes when we bite into it. But plenty of raw fruits and veggies also carry a satisfying crunch as well as delicious flavor. Please don’t forget us when you’re cutting up carrots, green or yellow wax beans, snap peas, radishes, apples, even crunchy lettuce like Romaine or Iceberg, and bell peppers of all colors. Yum! We’re not likely to turn our snouts up at blueberries, banana slices, boiled new potatoes, and baked potato or sweet potato skins, either, despite the absence of the crunch factor. Just so you know. And the dried sweet potato slices they sell at some pet stores are the best things going (after the wild cherry bones), offering plenty of crunch, flavor, and vitamins A and C. 

* Focus on flavor and texture, not shape. Silence has a bone-shaped cookie cutter that she uses when she makes homemade dog biscuits for me. So don’t tell her, but any shape is fine as far as I’m concerned. She could make Christmas tree-shaped biscuits in July, or use her round biscuit cutter, or just use a knife to cut the rolled-out dough into squares. I know it cheers her up to make me bone-shaped dog biscuits, so I try to look appreciative, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s really all about the taste and texture.

* Did I mention cheese? Just checking.

Okay, I guess it’s time to turn it over to Silence and that recipe. Go, Silence, go!  

Silence Dogood here. I see that Shiloh’s made some good points here, though I still maintain that if I’m the one who has to make the stupid dog biscuits, I should at least be able to make them in shapes that entertain me. (I have several dinosaur-shaped cookie cutters just for dog biscuits, as well as the bone-shaped one.) But I digress.

Here’s a super-healthy recipe for homemade dog biscuits using all-natural, human-grade ingredients, modified from the original which I found on the Gourmet Sleuth website (www.gourmetsleuth.com). If you’re into making your own biscuits, try these for your dog and see what you (and he or she) think!

                      Cheesy Dog Biscuit Treats

1 cup rolled oats

1/3 cup butter, softened

1 cup boiling water

3/4 cup cornmeal

1 finely grated carrot

1 cube chicken- or beef-flavored instant bouillon

1/2 cup milk

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1 egg, beaten

2-3 cups whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a large bowl, pour boiling water over oats, bouillon cube, and butter; let stand 10 minutes. Then add cornmeal, grated carrot, milk, cheese, and egg; blend well. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition to form a stiff dough. On a floured surface, knead in the remaining flour until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky, 3 to 4 minutes. Roll or pat out dough to 1/2-inch thickness, then cut with cookie or biscuit cutters and place 1 inch apart on greased cookie sheets. Bake 35-45 minutes at 325 degrees F. Cool and store. Makes 3 1/2 dozen large dog biscuits or 8 dozen small dog treats. They can be refrigerated or frozen to prolong freshness.

Thanks, Silence! It’s Shiloh back with you again to add that there’s no point in freezing or even refrigerating dog biscuits when you should be giving them to you dog instead! Mind you, Silence is the dog-biscuit Nazi when it comes to keeping me restricted to just a few treats a day; she says one cherry bone treat, one homemade biscuit, a dried sweet potato slice, and a sweet potato “fry” (specially dehydrated for dogs) are plenty, unless OFB wants to see me balloon up into a poster dog for some weight-loss program. But even she’ll give me as many fruit and veggie treats as I want, and will look the other way (at least for a minute or two) when OFB slips me a piece of cheese or a Triscuit.

So please! Make every day International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day at your house. I know your dog would appreciate it!

           Your friend,

                        Shiloh

Forget about the cherry tree. February 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. Today, February 22, is George Washington’s birthday, and I’m here to help you celebrate with a little quiz. What do you really know about the Father of Our Country?

If you find you could use a little help with these answers, I highly recommend a little book I found a few years ago called Don’t Know Much About George Washington by Kenneth C. Davis. This little $4.99 paperback packs a lot of information about our first president into a fun-to-read format that the whole family will enjoy. (The cartoon illustrations reinforce the publisher’s intentions of directing the book to 8- to 12-year-old kids. But like so many references aimed at kids, it’s a lot more entertaining way to get top-notch historical information than plowing through a long, serious tome, even for history buffs like me.)

Back to the quiz: As always, you’ll find the answers at the end. But no cheating, now!

1. George Washington was:

a. a surveyor

b. a Freemason

c. a general

d. a president

e. a farmer

f. all of the above

2. George Washington visited which of the following countries?

a. England

b. France

c. Barbados

d. Canada

e. none of the above

f. all of the above

3. Where did George Washington go to college?

a. Harvard

b. Yale

c. William and Mary

d. Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey)

e. Washington and Lee

f. The University of Virginia

4. George Washington’s true love was:

a. Martha Custis

b. Dolley Madison

c. Sally Fairfax

d. Betsy Ross

e. Molly Pitcher

5. George Washington’s false teeth were made of:

a. wood

b. cow’s teeth

c. ivory

d. glass

e. gold

f. porcelain

6. Which of the following are true:

a. As a boy, George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree.

b. To show his immense strength, as a young man, Washington tossed a coin clear across the Rappahannock River.

c. Despite seeing military action hundreds of times and having several horses shot out from under him, Washington was never even wounded.

d. Washington signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

e. Washington’s children were named Martha (known as Patsy) and George Jr. 

f. Washington chose to be buried in his Masonic regalia.

7. George Washington was born and lived in:

a. Washington, D.C.

b. Philadelphia

c. New York

d. Virginia

e. Maryland

f. Boston

8. True or false? George Washington:

a. Said “I cannot tell a lie.”

b. Never smiled.

c. Owned slaves.

d. Powdered his hair.

e. Designed his own uniforms.

f. Died from politeness.

9. George Washington was happiest:

a. At his plantation, Mount Vernon.

b. With his family.

c. Experimenting with the latest horticultural and agricultural advances.

d. On horseback.

e. Entertaining guests at home.

f. In the company of his military attaches.

10. George Washington’s greatest achievement was:

a. Marrying the wealthiest widow in Virginia.

b. Winning the Revolutionary War.

c. Becoming our first president.

d. Freeing his slaves.

e. Walking away from a lifetime presidency.

f. Dying a wealthy man.

And now, the answers:

1. F, all of the above. Like many men of his day, George Washington did many things, and did many things well. The concept of specializing, becoming, say, a computer technician or an MBA and never doing anything else, was virtually unknown in Colonial times. The sparse population meant that almost everyone had to be something of a jack of all trades.

2.  C, Barbados. As a young man, Washington accompanied his older brother and mentor, Lawrence Washington, to Barbados, hoping the balmy climate would cure Lawrence’s consumption (tuberculosis). Sadly, the cure didn’t work. After Lawrence’s death, George ultimately inherited his brother’s plantation, Mount Vernon. Unlike Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and many of the other Founding Fathers, Washington never went to England or France. And though he made a name for himself in the French and Indian Wars, he never made it as far north as Canada.   

3. This is a trick question. The answer is “none of the above.” Like Bill Gates, George Washington never went to college. But there’s no question that he regretted it all his life. His pet project was to have a university established in the capital that would be open to all American citizens, so that none would be denied a college education as he had been. Though Washington himself didn’t live to see his dream realized, eventually American University was established in Washington, D.C. as a direct result of his efforts.

4. The correct answer is C, Sally Fairfax. The young George Washington had the misfortune to fall passionately in love with his best friend’s wife. Though nothing ever came of his infatuation, it lasted through his entire life. Washington eventually married Martha Custis, the extremely wealthy widow of another Virginia planter, Daniel Parke Custis, in what would today be called “the marriage of the century.” Martha’s vast wealth enabled George to set himself up in style. And she and George enjoyed a happy, devoted marriage, despite its essential nature as a marriage of convenience. But it was never the passionate attachment that George fantasized about with Sally, with whom he remained in touch until his death. However, if I had to try my hand at matchmaking, I’d have hooked George up with the tall, attractive, dynamic Dolley Madison. I think they’d have been an amazing pair! 

5. Lack of understanding of dental hygeine caused plenty of upper-class people throughout Europe and the Colonies to lose their teeth at an early age. Unlike the lower classes, who ate whole-grain bread and never got a taste of sugar, the wealthy classes enjoyed the novelties of white bread and sugar without understanding the need to brush their tooth-rotting residue off after eating them. Additionally, the complete oblivion to the concept of nutrition meant that many people of the time were vitamin- and mineral-deficient, which contributed to gum disease and loosening of teeth. By the time he was president, poor George had exactly one tooth left in his head. Over his lifetime, he had many sets of dentures made, including sets from cow’s teeth and hippopotamus ivory. (Yikes! No wonder he never smiled.) But he never had a set made from wood, despite legends to the contrary.

6. The correct answers are  C and F. Washington’s ability to emerge unscathed time and again from a hail of bullets conferred invulnerable status on him and made him an icon to his men. He was never so much as scratched, despite putting himself in the forefront of the action and having several horses shot out from under him. And like many surveyors (and, for that matter, Colonial and European intellectuals of the day), Washington was a devout Freemason, who chose to be buried in the attire of his Masonic rank.  But even the wrong answers have some basis in truth. Though the stories about the cherry tree and the coin toss were invented by a man called Parson Weems in an early biography of Washington, in an attempt to fill in the blanks of his early life, there is no question that he was both incredibly honorable and incredibly strong. He spent his whole life trying to do what was noble and right, and even as an old man, he could defeat any younger opponent in feats of strength and skill. But what about  D and E? Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention, but was unable to be present to sign the Declaration of Independence because he was already in the field engaging the British. And though Washington was a devoted family man, he had no children of his own. Instead, he became a father to the widowed Martha Washington’s two children by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Martha (known as Patsy) and John Parke (known as Jack).

7. Though the adult Washington spent time in New York, Philadelphia, and the new capital city (then known as the Federal City, only later as Washington, D.C.), he was born and raised in Virginia, and his home, Mount Vernon, as well as his heart, were there. The correct answer is D.

8. The correct answers are C through F, though the others have merit even though they’re not literally true. Washington is not actually recorded by any contemporary as saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and, as we’ve seen, the whole cherry-tree incident was invented by an early biographer. But Washington held himself to such a high standard that he in fact probably never did tell a lie. He wore painful and unsightly dentures that, with his inherent formality, caused him to appear reserved and unsmiling in public. But the private Washington—when alone with his family or his trusted aides—was a different person, laughing, joking, even telling bawdy jokes to his friends and laughing uproariously. Though not exactly a dandy, the tall, admired Washington was always conscious of the need to appear at his best. He did design his own (and his regiments’) uniforms, and he wore his thick, abundant hair long and powdered it rather than resorting to a wig like most of his contemporaries. (We’ll talk about why people felt the need to powder their wigs—or hair—another time.) Okay, you may be wondering about the plausibility of F: How could someone die from politeness? Well, here’s how: Washington loved to entertain guests at Mount Vernon. One day, he’d been riding over the plantation as he loved to do and had gotten soaked in a cold rain. Arriving home to find guests for dinner, rather than changing into dry clothes and making them wait on him, George insisted on sitting down to supper in his cold, wet clothes. He came down with pneumonia and died as a result.

9. This too is a trick question, because the correct answer is “all of the above.” Washington loved his family and his plantation, and was never happier than when puttering around the place, trying out the latest agricultural and horticultural developments, and spending time with his beloved family and close friends. He loved entertaining guests, even if they were what we’d call hangers-on or groupies, folks who showed up unannounced at Mount Vernon just to see the great Washington with their own eyes. As noted, his feelings for his guests ultimately led to his untimely death. And Washington, who grew up on horseback, loved nothing better than to spend a day riding over his land.

10. The correct answer is really “all of the above.” Though his contemporaries—including King George III of England—and historians would tell you the answer was E, giving America an unprecedented example by walking away from a crown and/or a president-for-life appointment, every answer has merit. Martha’s wealth enabled George to set himself up among Virginia’s first families, which helped him achieve prominence.  Winning the Revolutionary War and becoming the young America’s first president need no additional commentary from me. But freeing his slaves and dying out of debt do. Pretty much all the Founders realized that slavery was insupportable, an abomination, and a gross hypocrisy as they ranted on about freedom. But only two of them did anything about it: Old Ben Franklin and George Washington. Ben freed his few slaves during his lifetime, and founded the first abolitionist society in the Colonies. But Washington had a more complex situation. Not only did he, like all Southern planters of his day, own many slaves, but they actually belonged to his wife, Martha. So in a sense, his achievement was greater. He spent many years weaning Mount Vernon off  labor-intensive crops like tobacco so it wouldn’t be reliant on slave labor to produce income. And he made it an article of his will that all the Mount Vernon slaves would be freed (and educated, so they could establish themselves in the trade of their choice) upon Martha’s death. (Rising to the occasion, she actually freed them immediately after his death.) By comparison, that so-called beacon of freedom Thomas Jefferson not only fathered innumerable children on one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, but left them all, including his own children (one was lucky enough to secure his freedom during Jefferson’s life), to be sold into perpetual slavery to strangers after his death. Which brings me to the last point: Jefferson died in massive debt, which he dumped on his heirs, who actually had to sell his beloved Monticello as well as his slaves. This was not at all unusual in an age when it was important to live expensively while completely ignoring the sources of one’s income, such as a tobacco-depleted land. George Washington, by contrast, worked hard to diversify agriculture at Mount Vernon, reduce the need for labor, and get rid of greedy, soil-depleting crops like tobacco. He was also a shrewd speculator, and bought properties with potential as they came on the market. As a result, he left his widow and heirs with a comfortable fortune as opposed to a pile of debt.

So happy birthday, George! There was only one George Washington. But we can all be inspired by his example to make both the most and the best of who we are.

A vegan who eats meat. February 19, 2012

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“I’m a vegan who eats meat.”

Silence Dogood here. Browsing some cookbook reviews on Amazon yesterday, I came on one that began with the sentence I quote above. What the bleep?! Was the person being sarcastic? Had they given up dairy and eggs, and thus considered themselves to be “vegan” while still chowing down on burgers and steak? Or were they just, like most of us, confused?

I decided to take a stab at clarifying the dietary definitions bombarding us these days, with new ones seemingly cropping up daily. Here’s my list:

Omnivores. Humanity’s natural state—a state we share with bears, dogs, monkeys and apes, pigs, chickens, rats, and many others—in which we’ll eat anything as long as we can get our hands on it and it’s edible. 

Locavores. Those who eat foods they can source locally or regionally. Locavores can be omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, or any of the other categories that follow. 

Flexitarians. People who are vegetarian, except when they want to eat meat. (“I’m a vegetarian who eats meat.”) In other words, omnivores who eat less meat than other omnivores.

Piscatarians. People who eat fish and seafood but not meat. From the Latin pisces, fish.

Vegetarians. People who don’t eat meat, fish, seafood, or derivatives that involve taking life, including meat stocks and broths, gelatin products, products made from animal rennet, fertile eggs, caviar, and etc. Vegetarians will eat dairy and/or infertile hens’ eggs.

Vegans. In addition to the prohibitions followed by vegetarians, vegans don’t eat dairy, eggs, honey, and anything made with yeast. They also won’t wear leather, fur, and, I assume, silk. Needless to say, there is no such thing as “a vegan who eats meat.” 

Raw foodists. As the name implies, these folks won’t eat anything that’s been cooked. I assume they’re vegans, but for all I know, they may be wolfing down sashimi, steak tartare and wichitti grubs with the best of them.

Fruitarians. These gentle, super-vegan souls refuse to eat anything that is still growing, including leaves, stems and roots. They’ll only eat seeds, nuts and fruits that would have dropped from the plant anyway. This means that tomatoes, corn, grapes, apples, peanuts and sunflower seeds are fair game, but carrots, onions, potatoes, spinach, asparagus, rhubarb, lettuce and the like are strictly verboten. 

Macrobiotics. I’ve saved this one for last because it’s so much more complicated than the others. In some ways, it’s closest to a healthy vegan diet, but it appears to be like that solely for health rather than moral reasons, since, though it bans meat and shellfish, white-fleshed fish is allowed.

A vegan, after all, could subsist on peanut butter and jelly, potato chips, and chocolate, and be perfectly entitled to call themselves vegan, as long as it wasn’t milk chocolate and the chips hadn’t been fried in lard. People who follow macrobiotics are on a different path, one based in pre-industrial Japanese eating habits.

To be macrobiotic, you must embrace a truly health-conscious diet, including whole grains, beans, green leafy vegetables, winter squash, sea vegetables, and traditionally made soy foods like miso and tofu. The emphasis is on eating seasonally and moderately, eating fresh, whole foods, and choosing organic, local food sources.

All this makes sense. Where macrobiotics differs from other diets is its focus on matching food to climate. It divides the world into temperate (four-season) and tropical (two-season) climates, and advises its adherents to eat the foods produced in the climate where they live. Here in our part of scenic PA, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, eggplant, bananas, cashews, coconut, pistachios, mangos, figs, citrus, pineapple, artichokes, zucchini, and asparagus, not to mention most herbs and spices, coffee, black and green tea, herb teas, chocolate, and frozen foods, among many others, are banned. Which means that even though your garden here in PA is bursting with asparagus, tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, you’re not supposed to eat them. The reverse would be true if you lived in a tropical climate. What you should eat if you’re a native of India, Guatemala or Mississippi who moves to Vermont, I have no idea. 

Has this helped, or simply confused the issue even further? If I’m missing any categories, please fill me in!

                      ‘Til next time,

                                    Silence

Spring has jumped the gun. February 18, 2012

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Our friend Ben was taking our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, for a walk in our backyard Monday when I saw that the snowdrops in our shrub border were up and in bud. Then I realized that our winter aconites were actually blooming, a bright yellow blaze among the clumps of snowdrops. Heading around the yard, I saw that the grape hyacinths and daffodils were also emerging through the soil.

Mind you, Silence Dogood and I live in scenic PA, not, say, Tennessee. We have never had a winter here like this one, where our little creek, Hawk Run, was seldom iced over, much less frozen to the bottom: where it rained rather than snowing except on three occasions, two of which were pretty insignificant; and where the ground never really froze.   

Doing a quick blog search, I saw that our aconites and snowdrops had reached this stage last year on March 2, and on March 7 in 2010. February 13 is three weeks earlier than last year and almost a month earlier than 2010. Needless to say, this makes us feel like spring really is here, so I’m hoping that winter doesn’t suddenly decide to put in a very tardy arrival at this point!

Random acts of kindness. February 17, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. The expression “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” has always aggravated me, since, in my opinion, beauty is never senseless, but a great gift and cause for rejoicing whenever and wherever it occurs. Cut that part off, though, and “practice random acts of kindness” definitely works for me. 

Admittedly, the “random” part has never really played a role. I make a point of being kind to cashiers, bank tellers, wait staff, store clerks, people around me in line, the elderly, anybody I encounter. I’ve always felt that I lose nothing by being cheerful and nice, and in fact gain a great deal, not just by improving someone else’s day but by enriching my own. Seeing someone’s face transformed by an unexpected, unaccustomed smile is a real gift.

But I do believe entirely in kindness, a truly underrated virtue. So I was thrilled to read in our local paper, the Allentown PA Morning Call, that there is an organization called The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (www.randomactsofkindness.org), and that it recognizes people who have excelled in its Extreme Kindness Challenge, which they hold annually to promote Random Acts of Kindness Week, February 13-19. 

This year, they recognized a 20-year-old girl, who lives in a cramped bedroom in her family home but churns out custom-painted sneakers (more than 150 pairs so far) for kids with long-term illnesses and disabilities; an 84-year-old man who transforms scrap wood into toy trains for kids who can’t afford toys (1,000 so far); and a 53-year-old woman who advises kids in the local high school’s Random Acts of Kindness Club. (You can read all about it at www.themorningcall.com, “Foundation rewards kindness.”) 

Wowie zowie. Nothing like seeing what people can do for others when they really try! Maybe reading the article will inspire you to do something amazing, or pass it along to someone else you think might have that urge for kindness in their hearts.

But I think we can all carry kindness in our hearts and spread it out so people we see casually will get a little, be it an older person you don’t impatiently push in line or on the road, even if they’re crawling, or a harried cashier who could use a little good cheer and patience, or a couple whose frantic behavior in a restaurant is clearly due to the unfortunate fact that their toddlers and baby have clearly driven them to the edge. 

Just for today, be kind. It’s the human thing to do.

               ‘Til next time,

                                 Silence

Fortune smiles. February 16, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Something so amazing happened to me today that I had to share it with all of you. First, a little background: I love walking. I love walking outside, and I love walking on a treadmill. But since I’ve been working from home, where there’s no safe place to walk, and I can no longer afford a gym membership, walking has become one of those things I think about more often than do. Owning a treadmill has become a years-long-now fantasy.

Obviously, if I can’t afford a gym membership, I can’t afford a treadmill. Not even a used one. And as our friend Ben is constantly reminding me, our little cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, has no room for a treadmill anyway. But the day never passes that I don’t look around and think, “But what if… ?”

Today, I went out to run errands in the quaint little town of Kutztown, where a new thrift store has recently opened. I stopped by to drop off a few items, and figured that, as long as I was there, I might as well look around. And looking around, I saw it: a treadmill. A small treadmill. A small electric treadmill whose incline cylinder needed to be replaced, but was otherwise working perfectly. A small electric treadmill that cost $35.

I stared at the treadmill. I sidled closer. I stepped up onto the platform, held onto the handlebars to make sure they were sturdy and comfortable, took a close look at the controls to make sure there was a manual-adjust feature. I may be the only person on earth who never, ever used the incline feature on a treadmill, not even on the high-end treadmills at the gym. I’d just get on, set the speed for 4 miles an hour, and walk the 4 miles. That’s all I want any treadmill to do for me, let me walk those 4 miles an hour every day.

Shock surprise, I bought it. I came home and called in a favor from our friend Rudy, the only person I know who both lives reasonably close by and owns a truck. He also, like OFB, is strong and well over 6 feet tall. I was not looking forward to the concept of trying to drag the treadmill from the car into our house with my end supported by my mighty 5’5″ frame while OFB’s was hoisted at 6’4″. Instead, I figured I’d dragoon the guys into doing the heavy lifting while I made a delicious dinner as a reward. 

Mind you, poor Ben is still completely unaware of this acquisition, and there’s bound to be a lot of moaning and gnashing of teeth when he gets home tonight and finds out about it. But in a few months, when he sees what it’s done for my figure and how many lovely but forgotten outfits I can now bring out of the closet and put on, I have a feeling that the criticisms will cease.

And meanwhile, today and every day, I’ll be so grateful to the generosity of a world that could drop a small, perfect-for-me treadmill at my feet when I’d so desperately longed for one, and ask for $35 in return.

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence

Oatmeal cookies! February 15, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

Did someone say “oatmeal cookies”? Why yes.

Silence Dogood here. I wrote a post about oatmeal last week (“Eat your oatmeal (this means you)”), and a reader mentioned that his favorite way to enjoy oatmeal was in oatmeal cookies. Our friend Ben and I also happen to love oatmeal cookies, so I thought I’d share my two favorite recipes for them today. They’re quite different, but both are yummy and easy to make (and, needless to say, eat). Try them and let me know what you think!

                Silence’s Chocolate Chip Toffee Oatmeal Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 cup granulated sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups unbleached flour

2 cups oats

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

10 ounces Skor English toffee bits

Cream butter with sugars, add eggs and vanilla. Put in dry ingredients, stirring vigorously to blend. Add oats, chocolate chips and toffee. Mix well. (Add a bit of milk if needed for thinning; the dough should be stiff but not unworkable.) Round out into tablespoon size and bake 15 minutes (or less) at 350 degrees F. Makes 4 dozen.

                      Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter, softened

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour [I use unbleached---Silence]

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups quick-cooking oats

1 cup raisins [I think golden raisins are especially pretty in these cookies---Silence]

1 cup dried cranberries (craisins) or coarsely chopped fresh or frozen cranberries [I use dried---Silence]

1 12-ounce package vanilla chips [I've only found white chocolate chips, which are just fine in this recipe---Silence]

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda; add to the creamed mixture. Stir in oats, raisins and cranberries. Stir in vanilla chips. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 inches apart onto greased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Cool on wire racks. Yield: 6 dozen.

The first recipe is obviously my own and is my go-to recipe for oatmeal cookies; the other came from a Christmas festival at historic Stahl’s Pottery in the nearby Powder Valley of scenic PA. Both are really, really good. Enjoy!

             ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

 

My funny valentine. February 14, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I exchanged Valentine’s gifts and cards this morning: for him, a board game, German Shepherdopoly (our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, also signed his card); for me, a copy of Tony Bourdain’s latest collection of kitchen-themed essays, Medium Raw. We were both not just pleased with our own gifts but eager to read/play the other’s, so I’d rank this as a successful Valentine’s Day.

All was not bliss, however, and not just because OFB forgot to clean the litterbox (as I recently discovered). We’d decided to postpone our Valentine dinner until Thursday, when we’ll go to Wild Rice, a favorite Japanese/Chinese/Thai restaurant. Tonight we’re going to celebrate with our Friday Night Supper Club friends.

I’d made a batch of my luscious spaghetti sauce this weekend (you can search for the recipe by typing “spaghetti sauce” in our search bar at upper right) and had plenty left over, so I volunteered to make and bring lasagna* and a yummy loaf of bread; our friends would provide salad and wine.

Not exactly stress-inducing, right? Wrong. Suddenly two extra guests were added to the list, bringing the total to seven. And unlike so many dishes—soups, sauces, chili, stir-fries, you name it—lasagna won’t expand to feed additional mouths.

In a normal home, this wouldn’t be a problem: You’d just make either a bigger pan of lasagna or two pans. But ours is not a normal home. We have a vintage Caloric (yes, that really is its unfortunate name) gas stove, and its oven stopped working several years ago. I’m convinced that all it needs is a good cleaning, but finding someone who can still work on Caloric stoves is difficult and finding the money to pay them, or replace the venerable and much-loved stove with even a used model (it’s extra-wide), is impossible. As a stop-gap, we bought a countertop convection/toaster oven, which is usually ample for me and OFB. It is not ample enough, however, for either a large pan or two pans of lasagna. I’ve had to restrict my baking, roasting, broiling and etc. to pans, trays and the like that would fit into the toaster oven.

Big deal, you might think, just make two pans. But I only have one pan that would work for lasagna. It would be a huge pain to have to cook two pans one at a time anyway. And then there’s the issue of the ingredients. My homemade spaghetti sauce is rich, thick, chunky, incredible. But what if I don’t have enough for two pans? Will some diners get a luscious piece of lasagna made of premium sauce, and others get a boring serving made with store-bought? Aaaarrgghhh!!!

So of course I was roaming the house screaming and wringing my hands over this, much to poor OFB’s dismay. (I’m sure he would have loved to say “And happy Valentine’s Day to you, too!” but fortunately he resisted.) And I need to buy birthday presents for a good friend I’m seeing tomorrow and for our neighbor, whose birthday happens to fall on Valentine’s Day. Pressure!!! The day already seems far too short, and of course, the money far too tight.

I decided to focus instead—for a minute or two, anyway—on the pleasant, stress-free prospect of our Thursday supper at Wild Rice. OFB has a bag of clothes to give to Goodwill, which is just down from the restaurant, so I wanted to remind him to be sure to bring it.

Wait—Goodwill! Last time we went over there, I’d found a square Corning casserole dish and top that I knew would fit in our toaster oven, yet be big enough to make a good-size lasagna. I’d snapped it up, but hadn’t yet used it and had forgotten about it. Whoa, problem solved! Surely I can get eight squares of lasagna out of that dish without having to even try to make a second one. And one lucky person can have seconds!

What a relief. Looks like Valentine’s Day is going to be a success after all.

Wishing each and every one of you lots of love and joy today and every day!

               ‘Til next time,

                             Silence 

* I’ve been struggling with the lasagna/lasagne issue for several years, but have finally come up with a solution that satisfies me. In Italian, in this case, “a” indicates singular and “e” indicates plural. There are several pieces of lasagna pasta used to make the dish, so the pasta would be lasagne. But there is only one dish: lasagna.

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