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Preview: Day of the Dead August 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the handmade pottery of Mata Ortiz, a small village in Northern Mexico that produces very thin-walled, beautifully ornamented ollas (pots). So we signed up to get e-mail from a gallery called Inside Mexico that gets some wonderful Mata Ortiz pottery for us to drool over, at least virtually. We were thrilled and delighted to receive an e-mail yesterday announcing that they’d opened up a new Day of the Dead Folk Art Gallery that we could also visit online (www.ddfolkart.com/). Wow.

The gallery offers ceramics, wood carvings, and papier mache figures of humorous, colorful, highly ornamented skulls and skeletons. Uh, say what?! Well, the Day—actually Days, since they fall on November 1st and 2nd of each year—of the Dead, Los Dias de Muertos, is the Mexican equivalent of Hallowe’en and All Saints Day combined. It’s a two-day celebration of one’s deceased ancestors, a feast with special Day of the Dead dishes, a costumed carnival, and an opportunity to acknowledge our mortality in a gently humorous way. It’s a joyous, childlike, imaginative way to defuse the fear of death and, at the same time, remind us of the value of life.

Our friend Ben decided to post about this now, since the gallery’s amazing offerings are going fast. We think you all should at least have a chance to check them out, especially if you’re Hallowe’en fanatics like our friend Edith Eddleman or Joy of GardenJoy4Me (http://gardenjoy4.blogspot.com/). Curmudgeon, of the redoubtable Weed Whackin’ Wenches, we think you might enjoy them, too (http://www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/). Our favorites are a fire skull by Day of the Dead master artist Alfonso Castillo and a papier-mache guitar-playing skeleton by the Linares family, but Senor Castillo’s monarch-butterfly-encrusted skull is quite amazing, too.

If you’d like to learn more about the Day(s) of the Dead, the site also offers some excellent free articles and two DVDs (also available as videos). Our friend Ben and Silence think it’s a sign of wisdom to celebrate being alive while acknowledging our ultimate demise, as opposed to pretending like we’ll never die and acting accordingly. And we think that every day should be a “Day of the Dead” in terms of offering prayers for and enjoying memories of our own beloved dead, be they pets or people. We’re thinking about adding that guitar-playing skeleton to our Mexican Night decor. And we’d love to hear from you if you have recipes or Day of the Dead traditions of your own to share!


Great bulbs of fire! August 31, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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It’s garlic harvest time here in Pennsylvania, and fresh garlic is everywhere. Each week, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been receiving a head of organic garlic from our CSA (that’s consumer-supported agriculture, aka subscription truck farming; see our post “Hip, hip hooray for the CSA!” for more on this great way to sign up for the freshest, best, most interesting veggies—and often fruits and more—in town). A farm down our road has a big, handwritten “GARLIC FOR SALE” sign at the head of their drive. Garlic is (mercifully, not literally) in the air.

So of course, our friend Ben and Silence jumped at the chance to head up to the Poconos to attend the Pocono Garlic Festival yesterday. The festival is held at Shawnee Mountain Ski Resort near East Stroudsburg and Marshall’s Creek the last weekend of August (continuing today, for anyone close enough to attend), from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once you find the general area, there are signs to help you on your way to the actual festival site.

Our friend Ben and Silence had not been to a garlic festival, so our only frame of reference was the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival (coming up next weekend, September 5th and 6th, in the tiny crossroads of Bowers, PA). We were (no surprise to those who know our friend Ben) arriving towards the end of the day, around 4, so we were pleased to see that the extensive parking area was still full. We were less pleased to be docked $10 each for the privilege of attending, more than a movie ticket in these parts, but then again, we hoped this would prove to be more entertaining than a movie, and it was supporting local farmers, so why not?

After paying up and being banded like a couple of colorful Amazon parrots (our friend Ben was attired in a tomato-red Hawai’ian shirt to complement Silence’s tomato-red top and flowing Indian paisley skirt), we were off like a herd of turtles. That’s because the bridge to the festival passes over a large, lovely lake with hardy native waterlilies as well as clamoring Canada geese, mallards, and turtles, which were being fed by a sizable crowd. Silence loves turtles, and somehow managed to part the crowd, park herself at the rail, and lean out over the water’s surface, oohing and ahhing as each turtle swam to the surface from the nearest mass of water lilies. Deaf to our friend Ben’s entreaties, she only recovered her hearing when the Canada geese, who clearly didn’t appreciate having to compete for treats, had apparently driven the turtles off.

Moving on, we were simultaneously assaulted by a riot of heavenly smells from a seemingly endless assortment of food and an assortment of live music, with people performing everything from Billy Joel (oh, no, not that) to country dance tunes (we noticed quite a few dancers in the crowd who’d edged up to that particular stage and were rocking out). Not that we don’t love music, but between Billy Joel and country dance classics, we felt the food was definitely the winner for our attention.

Booths offered an incredible assortment of food, from popcorn and pulled pork to, I quote, turkey on a stick, to baba ghannouj and hummus, to baklava and garlic ice cream. (Garlic ice cream?!!) No, we did not try any of this, much as we (especially) love baba ghannouj, the smoky Middle Eastern eggplant pate, since we’d had a huge lunch seemingly minutes before. Our friend Ben fears that Silence mortally offended at least one vendor by actually running away when she was offered a plastic cup of homemade garlic vinegar to drink. We limited our purchases to another Lebanese booth, where Silence, after some not-too-subtle hinting by our friend Ben, acquired a square of homemade halwah (a sesame candy, aka halvah, that’s not to everyone’s taste—in fact, most of our friend Ben’s friends hate halwah—but if it does happen to appeal to you, you can’t resist it) and some apricot paste for future curries and chutneys.

This particular booth also featured a large assortment of jewelry, including eyeball-themed jewelry that’s traditionally worn or carried throughout the Middle East and Greece to ward off the evil eye, and coin-encrusted scarves and the like, apparently intended for aspiring belly dancers. Silence bypassed these but couldn’t resist an eyeball keychain (mind you, these aren’t real representations of eyeballs, like glass eyes, but instead are blue beads with black central dots, stylized representations of blue eyes with pupils). Our friend Ben can only say, too bad they weren’t selling lottery-winning eyes.

Of course, there were plenty of other crafts, including garlic-themed jewelry, ceramics, and hand-carved boxes. Our friend Ben dragged Silence away from some lovely ceramic garlic keepers, and she pointed out to a mesmerized Ben that the handmade chess set I was drooling over was too much of an extravagance, given that we already had several sets and were, after all, just beginners. But we did see some wonderful crafts, including whimsical jewelry and hand-knitted footwear and mittens from one couple’s own alpacas.

The real highlight for us, though (besides smelling all that heavenly food), was the garlic itself. Lifetime organic gardeners ourselves, we were thrilled to see how many farmers proudly announced that their many varieties of garlic were organically grown. Beautiful garlic braids competed with abundant bins of fat bulbs and highly practical mesh “stockings” of bulbs, with a knot after each bulb so the cook could cut off a bulb without unleashing the whole thing. One patriotic farmer was selling these garlic stockings in your choice of red, white, or blue mesh. Our friend Ben and Silence enjoyed seeing all the types of garlic that were available, from ‘German Red’ and ‘German White’ to ‘Georgian Crystal’, ‘Siciliano’, ‘Inchelium Red’, ‘Asian Tempest’, ‘Russian Redstreak’, ‘Purple Cauldron’, ‘Creole Red’, ‘Persian Star’, ‘Music’, and many, many more, including, of course, the giant ‘Elephant’ garlic.

We also encountered numerous purveyors of garlic-themed culinary products, from garlic-infused oils and vinegars to a honey farmer who not only sold the most gorgeous honey we’ve ever seen, but had some special garlic and hot garlic honey on offer. (We could see it on baked, roasted, or barbecued chicken.) Even the handmade soap booth was offering garlic soap, doubtless essential if you live in vampire country. (We’ll pass, thanks.)

Too bad no one was offering a garlic-themed blindfold to help get Silence off the bridge and away from the turtles on the way out…

The One-Ben Awards August 30, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben loves awards. I love getting awards, like the Thinking Blogger Award our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders just received for our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac. I hope to win many more awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Nobel Prize or two, and the lottery. (Silence gives me endless grief for this, but our friend Ben remains an optimist. I say, why not? Somebody has to win, so why shouldn’t it be our friend Ben?) And I also love to give awards.

This is where the One-Ben Awards come into play. What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? They are simply acknowledgments by our friend Ben that something, or someone, is one of the best in its or their class. When I write my “Ben Picks Ten” posts, the top ten in any category, be they geniuses, Southern comfort foods, reggae artists, pirates, or inventions we need, automatically qualify for One-Ben Awards. But the awards can also be randomly handed out at our friend Ben’s discretion.

Admittedly, no monetary prize, press release, or blog award device for the winners is involved. But, since only our friend Ben can give out One-Ben Awards, at least recipients don’t have to agonize about passing them along, running three times around the room while tying their shoes and shouting “Huzzah!” backwards, or participating in a “meme,” whatever the hell that is. (And don’t think our friend Ben is about to hand out awards to people who use words like “meme” that nobody understands unless they happen to own a Scrabble dictionary.) Besides, it’s fun.

Here are some examples of categories and One-Ben Award recipients:

Places I’ve never been (but want to go). So many places, so little travel money. Currently at the top of our friend Ben’s “someday” list, the following places are conditional One-Ben Award winners. (If I ever do manage to actually go, and a place falls short of expectations, it will be ruthlessly culled from the list and stripped of its award.) Normandy: Our friend Ben’s ancestors lived in Normandy until they went Channel-hopping with Duke William and ended up in England. I’ve always felt an affinity for the old home place. Key West: Everyone from Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett and our friend Norman has loved Key West. Our friend Ben would like to go there and see why. Morocco: Our friend Ben would go for the food alone. Nova Scotia: It just sounds so beautiful. A summer getaway with the ocean but without heat and humidity. Aaaahhh!

Customer-conscious companies. Our friend Ben hates those horrible white tags that clothing and houseware companies feel compelled to affix to every piece of clothing, towel, washrag, bathmat, and etc.etc. to drive us all insane. It’s impossible to walk into the bathroom without being confronted with a white tag sticking out of the bath mat (no matter how many times you tuck it back in) or towel, making all of us look like the Minnie Pearls of home decor. Tags digging into your neck, side, or backside from shirts, underwear, and the like (Silence points out that bras are special offenders here) are ongoing miseries. And if you try to cut them off, unless you want to slice open the actual garment or towel along with them, you inevitably leave an inexplicably razor-sharp stub that slices your skin at every move. Yowch!!! Companies like Faded Glory and Victoria’s Secret that print their info inside their garments rather than tagging them get a One-Ben Award for (finally) putting the customer’s comfort first.

Fun festivals. Our friend Ben and Silence love to go to small, colorful theme festivals, especially when they’re relatively local. If the weather’s good, we can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend afternoon. Our favorites get One-Ben Awards for giving us so much pleasure. The Bowers Chile Pepper Festival: Coming up next weekend in tiny Bowers, PA, this festival is big in terms of flavor and fun. You can enjoy one-stop shopping for every kind of hot fresh and dried pepper and hot pepper mix on earth, salsas, hot sauces, hot pickles and relish, and pepper-themed foods of all sorts, as well as pepper-themed crafts, ristras and wreaths, and high-quality clothing, jewelry, crafts and exotica that transcend the pepper theme. Small but mighty! A can’t-miss. Celtic Festivals: Silence and our friend Ben love our local Celtic festivals, especially the Scottish-Irish Festival in Green Lane, PA, coming next weekend (Sept. 5-7) and the Celtic Classic in Bethlehem, PA, at the end of September (Sept. 26-28). Maybe it’s our Scottish and Irish blood, but we love the Highland games (especially the caber toss), pipe band competitions, glorious Celtic music, crafts, and Border collie trials. (Silence says that men in kilts are also a big draw. Go away, Silence.) The Kutztown Folk Festival: A celebration of the old Pennsylvania Dutch (aka Deitsch, German) life, food, and crafts in early June every year. Silence and I are heading up to the Poconos later today for the Pocono Garlic Festival. This will be our first time at the festival, being held at Shawnee just outside of East Stroudsburg, PA, today and Sunday, so we’ll see if it deserves a One-Ben Award. We’ll keep you posted!

See, it’s fun, isn’t it? If you’re of one mind with our friend Ben, I suggest that you set up your own awards. Or wait ’til you get one of mine! Like the MacArthur nominators, our friend Ben is out there, watching and evaluating. You just never know when your name will appear in lights (or, it would appear in lights if our friend Ben weren’t too much of a Luddite to work out the illumination). Meanwhile, if you have people, places, things, or categories that merit our friend Ben’s attention for One-Ben Awards, please let me know. I’ll be happy to check ’em out!

Glories of the garden. August 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has always loved morning glories, though they have not always loved us here in Pennsylvania. From the huge, stunning azure blooms of ‘Heavenly Blue’ to the numerous small, endearing purple-and-red flowers of the heirloom variety ‘Grandpa Otts’, our friend Ben has almost never seen a morning glory I couldn’t love. (Until, that is, I went online and discovered a couple of varieties with flowers that looked like they’d been run through a paper shredder. Yikes!)

But morning glories bloom late here at Hawk’s Haven, our little cottage in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. And the vines aren’t exactly what you’d call scintillating, while you’re waiting and waiting (and watering and watering while you’re waiting and waiting) for bloom. This is not what our friend Ben calls a win-win situation.

So you can imagine how thrilled Silence Dogood and I were when we went to one of our favorite places, Jim Weaver’s Meadow View Farm near Bowers, PA, and saw that he had transplants of two morning glories with variegated foliage. We bought one of each and planted them on one (wood, not glass) side of our greenhouse. And we have been absolutely thrilled.

Yes, as always with us, the blooms are just starting to appear in late August, when we can already taste fall in the air, and the demise of all our annual plants, including these. But for once we don’t care. The white-and-green variegated foliage of these vines is so handsome, we’d love it if it never, ever produced a single bloom. Blooms are a bonus. The foliage is the thing. We have a vine of ‘Chocolate Rose Silk’, which bears interesting morning-glory blooms that are indeed a dusky rose with a white rim (aka a ‘picotee edge’ in horticultural lingo), and ‘Minibar Rose’, a very odd name for a plant with lovely bright pink flowers. (We’re still wondering where the bar is, mini or otherwise.) Both have to-die-for foliage.

Next year, we’ll grow some of these variegated morning glories in hanging baskets (assuming Mr. Weaver offers them again). And we’ll grow them on the greenhouse wall, too. We simply can’t resist them. If you haven’t yet encountered them, our friend Ben urges you to check them out for next season! And if you live in Pennsylvania, don’t forget the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival next weekend, where Jim Weaver’s amazing collection of hot peppers will be for sale. We hope to see you there!

Bloggers who think. August 29, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders have been hugely honored to receive a Thinking Blogger Award from one of our very favorite thinking bloggers, CeeCee of My Little Bit of Heaven (http://undertexasskies.blogspot.com/); see her post “A Very Nice Award” for more on this, and please hang around and check out her other posts while you’re over there. You’ll be so glad you did! Thank you, CeeCee! We’d also like to thank another of our favorite thinking bloggers, Nancy Ondra (her wonderful blog is Hayefield, http://hayefieldhouse.com/), who was kind enough to rescue us Luddites from our dismal swamp of techno-ignorance and put the award up on our site.

As far as we can determine, there are no “rules” attached to the Thinking Blogger Award. This is both a blessing (no limitations) and a curse (no limitations). We had a lively discussion about how to proceed. Here’s how it went:

Richard Saunders: Wow, I can’t believe we got a Thinking Blogger Award. What an honor! Old Ben Franklin would be proud.

Silence: Except for the part about us not being able to figure out how to put the award up on our site. You know if Ben were alive today he’d have invented the internet. He wouldn’t be sitting around wondering how to put stuff on his blog! 

Our friend Ben: Thank God techno-ignorance doesn’t translate to stupidity, or we’d never have gotten a Thinking Blogger Award to begin with. Now, if we could just get a MacArthur Award…

Silence (groaning): Don’t start on that again. Talk about a one-track mind!

RS: As if. No doubt the nominators are all reading our blog and just trying to think of some way to contact you.

OFB, hastily changing the subject: So, who are we going to nominate for the award?

Silence: How many people can we nominate, anyway? CeeCee only nominated us.

RS: I don’t recall reading about any rules associated with the award, like “You must post this and award that.”

OFB: I don’t, either. What a relief! But [thinking] then what are we going to do? All our favorite blogs are written by people who think, and who typically have a great sense of humor about the stuff they’re thinking about. But we can’t just put down bazillion blogs as award winners.

Silence: Well, we definitely need to nominate Sean (aka Mad Man Bamboo). His blogs, Bamboo Geek (http://bamboogeek.blogspot.com/) and TrashWatch (http://trashwatch.blogspot.com/), keep an eye on environmental abuses and help alert the rest of us to what’s going on. If Sean doesn’t deserve a Thinking Blogger Award, I don’t know who does!

OFB, RS: Agreed.

OFB: And we need to pass the award to sjones71 (whatever his actual name is) at Compostings (note the clever pun in his blog’s title), http://compostings.wordpress.com/. His blog is amazing, and so are his comments on our blog. 

RS: I’d say the same about Alan at Roberts Roost, “The story of a small scale eco-farm” (http://robertsroostecofarm.com/). Definitely a thinking blogger!

Silence: You’re right. And so is Kate of Kate smudges in earth, paint, and life (http://katesmudges.typepad.com/), and Curmudgeon and Wing Nut of Weed Whackin’ Wenches (www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/).

RS: And Benjamin of The Deep Middle (http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/). And…

OFB: Hang on, hang on! What if there was some arcane reason why CeeCee only nominated one blog?

Silence, RS: Uh…

OFB: I think we’d better just stop here.

Silence: But what about—

OFB, interrupting: Maybe we should just open up the award.

RS: How?

OFB: Well, we have to just ask the folks we’ve already nominated to try to pick up the award from our site anyway, since we don’t have a clue how to actually put it up on their sites, right?

Silence, RS: Right.

OFB: And if some of our other favorite bloggers would like a Thinking Blogger Award, we figure they deserve it, since otherwise we wouldn’t be reading them, right?

Silence, RS: Right.

OFB: So why don’t we just say that those folks know who they are, and if they’d like to put the Thinking Blogger Award up on their sites, they’re welcome to?

RS: Well, okay.

Silence: But—


Silence: Oh, all right.

OFB: So, all nominees, and those who should be nominees, feel free to put the Thinking Blogger Award up on your sites if you wish. And if not, know that we think you deserve it anyway! Thanks to all of you for making us think. And if any of you happen to be MacArthur Award nominators…

Silence, RS: Shut up, Ben!!!

Denise’s UnRollatini August 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized.
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Silence Dogood here. I was working out at my local Curves yesterday, chatting with the owner, Denise Rivera, about food. (What do women talk about when they’re working out? Food, men, kids, and losing weight, of course, not necessarily in that order.) Anyway, we were talking about Italian food, and Denise mentioned one of my all-time faves, rollatini.

Do you know rollatini? It’s like the absolute ultimate eggplant parm. Each thin, delicious slice of eggplant is wrapped around a ricotta filling (thus the name “rollatini”) before the sauce and cheese are added. Yum! If I’m in a restaurant that offers this dish, I’m in heaven. Just give me a big, fresh salad to eat with it and leave me in peace.

Rollatini is one of the dishes I’ve never tried to make at home, though—it just looks too complicated. So I was thrilled when Denise said that she makes a version that you don’t have to roll up. You still get every bit of the goodness without nearly as much work. I persuaded her to share the recipe with all of us, so without more ado, here’s Denise’s UnRollatini:

                    Denise’s UnRollatini

To make this dish, you’ll need 2 large or 3 medium eggplants, garlic breadcrumbs, 1/2 cup milk, 3 eggs, olive oil, large container of ricotta cheese, jar tomato sauce or two pint jars of homemade sauce or equivalent fresh-made, fresh mozzarella, garlic salt, garlic powder, onion salt, onion powder, and a small bunch fresh parsley or to taste. [Note from Silence: If you want to try to make your own from-scratch sauce, see my earlier post, “What to do with all those ripe tomatoes, part three.”]

Beat one of the eggs and milk together. Slice the eggplants into rounds about 1/2 inch thick. Dip the eggplant slices into the egg/milk mixture, then into the breadcrumbs so both sides are coated. Fry the eggplant slices in hot olive oil, then set them on paper towels to drain.

Mince the parsley. Mix the remaining eggs and seasonings, including parsley, into the ricotta cheese, using as much of the garlic and onion seasonings as you like.

In a baking dish, layer the sauce, eggplant slices, ricotta mix, mozzarella, and sauce, and repeat, continuing to add layers until all ingredients are used. Make sure the final layers are sauce and (on top) mozzarella. Put the dish in a 350-degree oven and bake for about half an hour, until it starts to bubble and the cheese is melted.

Eat and enjoy, or as Denise says, “Mangia!”

Of course, Denise offers more than good conversation and good recipes at the Kutztown, PA Curves. I can’t believe that you haven’t seen signs for Curves in your area, but if you’re not familiar with Curves—or if you’ve never ventured inside a Curves—let me tell you a little bit about it.

Each Curves offers its members an exercise circuit—a group of exercise machines that work all your muscle groups—plus exercise stations between each machine where you can jog, walk, do step exercises, or whatever you’d like. The combination of resistance training (the machines) and aerobics (the exercise stations) gives you a full-body workout, and the machines have resistance built in, you you don’t have to set them to your chosen level of resistance, you just work out on each one at the level you want and the machine does the rest. You can make two rounds of the circuit in half an hour, with peppy music to help you keep up the pace and a voice-over letting you know when it’s time to switch to the next machine or exercise station.

Doing the two rounds of the Curves circuit three times a week will keep you healthy, especially when combined with a half-hour walk on the off days. But if you want to get fit or lose weight, you can up the ante with extra rounds and/or daily visits, as I do. It’s painless, fun, and unintimidating—since it’s women-only, you don’t have to worry about what you look like, what you weigh, how fit you are, or your age. (I routinely see women in their 70s who are more coordinated than I’ll ever be, and I love it when mothers bring their young daughters to work out with them. Talk about setting a good example!) It’s also a great way to meet other women in your area and to learn about great restaurants, movies, and other activities you might otherwise miss. Not to mention recipes!

I encourage you to check Curves out. (You can find out more about it and see which locations are closest to you at their website, www.Curves.com.) And if you’re in the Kutztown vicinity, stop in and say hi to Denise. Tell her Silence sent you!

              ‘Til next time,


The right bite. August 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just finished reading French Women Don’t Get Fat, the 2005 bestselling entry in the weight-loss wars. (I know I’m behind the trend here, but it was on a dollar sale rack benefiting my local library, and I was curious.) The book basically preaches a commonsense approach to weight loss: Eat as small a portion as you can bear and lead as active a lifestyle as you can manage. 

Let’s just say I can bear smaller portions of some dishes than others, but it’s hard to argue with that message. However. In one chapter, the author insists that you chew each mouthful of food to pulp before swallowing. This advice always ticks me off, and it was especially outrageous coming from a woman who spent almost the entire rest of the book proclaiming what sensualists French women are.

I, Silence Dogood, am here to tell you that no one can be sensual who chews their cud like a cow. Sensualists want to enjoy food at the perfect temperature, texture, and aroma, and it quickly loses appeal if it’s too warm, too cold, or starting to congeal, get mushy or hard, lose its scent or become overpowering, and so on. I cannot think of anything less sensual than putting a bite of food in your mouth and then sitting there, masticating away, thinking “I need to chew this 100 times before I swallow. 44… 45… oh, wait, I’ve lost track!” Unless, of course, it’s looking at someone else while they’re earnestly chewing their own cud.

There is one thing to say about this sort of eating, and it is “Yuck!!!!” But as a weight-loss tactic, it would work for me: I can’t think of a more effective appetite suppressant. Not only would a single endlessly-chewed bite be enough to kill my appetite, but by the time I’d managed to swallow it, the rest of the meal would be cold, congealed… gross. Might as well just stick a wad of gum on your plate and get it over with.

Lest this post leave you with a bad taste in your mouth (I really did try not to say that, at least for five seconds), let me leave you instead with a truly great and insightful quote from the end of the book: “The great Provencal writer Marcel Pagnol believed that God gave laughter to human beings as consolation for being intelligent.” Better to chew on a thought like that than a single interminable bite, say I.

             ‘Til next time,


Tell Me Why: Braille August 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to ask a simple question: Why are the blind taught to read braille? I found myself wondering about this after reading yesterday’s post by our friend Ben, “Ben Picks Ten: Geniuses,” and a comment on that post suggesting that perhaps Helen Keller should have made Ben’s list.

Pondering the weirdness of braille, it seemed to me that it would be far easier to just read the raised letters of the language one spoke, and that it would be more grounding as far as relating to your native culture, where others read those same letters. Why learn a binary system if you’re not a computer programmer?!

A visit with Wikipedia gave me some fascinating background on braille, which, it turns out, developed from a system created for Napoleon. Napoleon had asked for a form of writing that his soldiers could use to communicate both in complete silence and in darkness. Someone named Charles Barbier had created a proto-braille to satisfy Napoleon’s request.

Not surprisingly, it was rejected as too complex for soldiers to learn. But having gone to the trouble to develop it, Barbier was apparently determined to find someone who’d buy it. In 1821, he hit upon the idea of taking his sales spiel and system to the National Institute for the Blind in Paris, where he finally found a taker in the form of Louis Braille. Braille revised the system into its current form, and the rest is history.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like political influence at its worst to me. Or maybe it’s just that, in 1821, printers couldn’t produce books, newspapers, and the like with raised lettering. So almost two centuries of the visually impaired have been forced to learn a complex, completely artificial system as a result, even though it’s been easy enough to create raised lettering for many a long decade. It’s as though a group of us were cordoned off and forced to speak only Esperanto, that artifical conglomeration of languages created by L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 in a failed attempt at world unification, even though our own languages were easily accessible and used by everyone around us.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, braille is finally falling into disuse, thanks, ironically, to computers, which of course also use a binary system as their modus operandi. I can only say, about time!

Ben Picks Ten: Geniuses August 26, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben has always beeen fascinated by genius, or rather, by that kind of genius whose mind embraces everything, whose curiosity leads him or her to explore many avenues, to excel in many things. It is our friend Ben’s view that these are the happiest, luckiest people on earth, people who live in a perpetual ecstasy of thought, delighted by the world around them, thrilled by its possibilities, fully alive. “Boredom” is not a word these people would understand. “Limitations” is not a word that could apply to them.

So who are, or were, these people? Who were the greatest of them all?

Obviously, our friend Ben had to set some limitations in order to bring the number down to 10 (plus, of course, one). Here are the categories that didn’t make the cut:

High IQ. The intelligence quotient (IQ) may measure genius potential, but IQ alone doesn’t cut it as far as our friend Ben is concerned. Marilyn vos Savant is supposed to have the highest IQ of anyone living today; her IQ is 218, when 200-210 is generally regarded as the upper limit and only 1% of the population have IQs over 135 (“normal” is 85-115). So what has Marilyn done with her phenomenal gift? Written columns for Parade magazine? Use it (for the betterment of mankind and/or the world) or lose it, lady.

Prodigies. Folks like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Bobby Fischer, and the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinavasa Ramunajan may have gone to the top of their class in music, chess, math, or what-have-you from the day one, and their genius may still create awe in their respective fields to this day. (And/or continue, as in Mozart’s case, to bring pleasure and joy to us all.) But these people were not what you’d call well-rounded, and their lives outside their sphere of genius have often been pathetic or (as in Fischer’s case) worse. No one could doubt their genius, but no way are they making my top ten. (Though if I were ranking great composers, Mozart would be #2 behind Bach.)

Writers. Yo, our friend Ben is a lifelong writer and poet, and I’m not about to put down folks like Homer, Shakespeare, Yeats, and the Greek tragedians, who often understood human nature and the human condition better than anyone else alive. And, of course, put them into a form that allowed the rest of us to understand them as well. Writers and poets have given our friend Ben more pleasure than anyone, with the possible exception of musicians and composers. So why am I ignoring them? Easy: There are simply too many contenders. And again, getting back to my ultimate criterion, their achievements tend to be one-dimensional. But God knows, I love them anyway.

Religious figures. Our friend Ben has no doubt that great religious leaders like Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammad, and their great followers, people like St. Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa, were geniuses. But our friend Ben has no interest in ranking the Divine and the divinely inspired. Let others determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; our friend Ben is sticking with mere mortals in this list.

One-dimensional genius. As noted, what interests me is the type of genius that is engaged with everything. One- or even two-dimensional genius is therefore outside the scope of this list. Justly revered geniuses like Nikola Tesla, the Croatian-born inventor described as “the genius who ushered in the age of electrical power,” and Stephen Hawking, the great British physicist and cosmologist, fall into this category. So does Bill Gates, who has probably done more to change the parameters of our world than any person living. Sorry, Bill.

So who does that leave for our top ten list? Still too many contenders, and that’s not even including the many geniuses our friend Ben is too ignorant to be aware of! As you look through the list, you may be outraged to find favorites like Michaelangelo, Bacon, Goethe, Liebniz, Pascal, Descartes, Darwin, and Copernicus absent. It killed our friend Ben to omit some personal heroes, like the great linguist and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the two-time Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling. And what of the great architects, like Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright? Where are the great philosophers and psychologists like Confucius, Voltaire, and Karl Jung, the great anthropologists and archaeologists like Louis Leakey and Heinrich Schliemann?

So many geniuses, so short a list. That’s why our friend Ben invites you all to submit your own lists. It’s open season on geniuses! I’m sure we’d all be fascinated to see who you choose, preferably with the rationales behind your choices. So don’t be shy! If I can stick my neck out, so can you! Which reminds me, I’d better get to that list. So without more ado, here are the top ten (plus one) that qualify for my One-Ben Awards in the “universal genius” category:

1. Leonardo da Vinci. This guy had it all. His inventions dominated every field, and on top of that, he was the greatest artist who ever lived. It doesn’t get more impressive than this.

2. Benjamin Franklin. My personal hero, Ben Franklin, has been acclaimed in our time as the greatest diplomat who ever lived. In his own time, he was the greatest and most famous scientist of his day, and he was, incidentally, also the greatest inventor, possibly of all time. He put his enormous genius to use for the good of all mankind, and to this day, the institutions he developed continue to benefit humanity and his practical, homespun maxims remain words to live by.

3. Sir Isaac Newton. It’s hard for us today to imagine the influence Newton had on his peers, especially given the old apple-on-the-head story that’s about all we’re ever told about him. We’re more likely to think of Fig Newtons than Sir Isaac. But back in the day, he towered over everyone, laying the foundations for modern science, making huge strides in physics, mathematics and optics (besides discovering gravity, he invented the telescope), and, like Einstein after him, continually searching for something more, for the Ultimate. Even now, it is stated unequivocally that Newton was “clearly the most influential scientist who ever lived.” That’s good enough for our friend Ben.

4. Aristotle. We can all thank Aristotle for bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages (his rediscovery by Aquinas and the mediaevals paved the way for modern science). Aristotle was the best kind of genius, interested in everything, determined to investigate everything. Aristotle is said to be “the last person to know everything there was to be known in his own time.” Our friend Ben would add that he was almost certainly also the first. Aristotle was a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great; the first to codify logic, and one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. His studies and discoveries extended into the realms of physics, biology, and medicine as well. It was he who discovered the circulation of the blood, 2,000 years before Sir Joseph Priestley was credited with the achievement. No wonder his name lives on. Thanks, Aristotle!

5. Avicenna. Avicenna, aka Abu Ali Sina, was a Persian scientist and philosopher. Though remembered today principally for his medical treatises, which formed the basis for modern medicine, Avicenna was what’s known as a polymath—someone who excels in many fields—and his achievements included being an (our friend Ben is quoting Wikipedia here) “astronomer, chemist, geologist, Hafiz, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, physicist, poet, psychologist, scientist, Sheikh, soldier, statesman, and Islamic theologian.” He was also a great admirer of Aristotle. ‘Nuff said!

6. Galileo. Galileo Galilei may be best known today for his ultimate triumph over the Inquisition, which claimed that the sun circled around the earth and that the earth was flat. Galileo championed the Copernican view that the earth circled the sun, but his genius and vision extended farther, to the extent that he has been called “the father of modern science.” Physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, Galileo spearheaded the scientific revolution that has enabled us to reach the scientific achievements of our own day.

7. Pythagoras. The first philosopher, Pythagoras is better known to us as the father of mathematics. Though our friend Ben still struggles with geometry, I can appreciate Pythagoras’s contributions to music theory and the philosophy of Plato, and thus to Western civilization.

8. Queen Elizabeth I. Let’s get a woman on the list, shall we? Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, was no slouch mentally, but it was through her mother, Anne Boleyn, that Elizabeth inherited her genius. Like Anne, Elizabeth had an effortless aptitude for languages, music, and academic subjects, but unlike her brilliant but ill-fated mother, she had a far better grasp of human nature. It allowed her to hold the reins of the English Renaissance, becoming the greatest ruler England—and perhaps the world—has ever known. Not too shabby!

9. Al-Biruni. Abu Rayham Biruni, aka Al-Biruni, is extolled as “one of the great scientific minds in all history” and “the father of anthropology.” This Persian polymath first popularized the experimental (as opposed to theoretical) scientific method, bringing science into the modern age over 1,000 years ago. And, as “polymath” implies, he was also a physicist, astronomer, mathematician, chemist, sociologist, historian, pharmacist, geographer, geologist, linguist, psychologist, theologian, and Islamic philosopher. Among other things. If you live in the West, as our friend Ben does, the name of Al-Biruni may be unknown to you. But East or West, we all owe this great genius a huge debt for his discoveries and scientific legacy.        

10. Albert Einstein. Einstein defines “genius” for our time, and deservedly so. Despite our friend Ben’s high-school struggles with his equation, E =mc2, and his theory of relativity, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize Albert Einstein as the father of modern physics. Einstein was honored with a Nobel Prize in 1921, and Time magazine named him “Person of the Century” in 1999.

And the bonus:

11. Sherlock Holmes. Yes, of course he’s not real, but Holmes is our friend Ben’s favorite fictional genius, so I’m including him in my list. So there!   

That’s it for me. Now it’s your turn! If you have a favorite our friend Ben has overlooked, let us all know your selection. Convince me. We could all use a few more role models!

A foretaste of fall. August 25, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,

It’s a typically hot, humid late August day here at our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s rural cottage, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania. Hardly the sort of day to bring cool, crisp weather and colorful foliage to mind. But our friend Ben is thinking of autumn nonetheless. It seems that suddenly, everything is speaking of fall.

First are the incidentals. Our friend Rob, a professor, and his son both started back to school today. Our friend Rudy began his volunteer season at Hawk Mountain today, indicating the start of autumn migration for the raptors which will appear there in ever-increasing numbers as fall turns to winter. Two of our favorite bloggers, Joy of GardenJoy4Me (http://gardenjoy4.blogspot.com/) and Aunt Debbi of the Aunt Debbi’s Garden (http://auntdebbisgarden.blogspot.com/), posted today about autumn themes, respectively shopping for Hallowe’en accoutrements and seeing her three boys off to school. Not to mention the smell of woodsmoke that has replaced the smell and sizzle of grilling. Fall is clearly in the air.

Then there are the signs closer to home. Our Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) are so loaded with berries that they’re almost as powder-blue as blue spruces. (Gin drinkers, eat your hearts out.) Today, our friend Ben saw green berries on our privets (we grow them here as handsome, rounded shrubs, not hedges, and they’re a favorite bird refuge), a preview of the blue-black berries that will remain on the shrubs ’til spring. Though ruby-throated hummingbirds and goldfinches currently share space at our rose-of-Sharon shrubs (the hummingbirds visiting the flowers, the goldfinches, the black-oil sunflower seed feeders we hang from the branches), our friend Ben knows that soon enough, the flowering season will end, the hummingbirds will be on their long flight south, and the male goldfinches will have exchanged their brilliant yellow plumage for the olive drab costume they wear when trying to blend in during the cold feeder months. It’s now as dark at 6:30 a.m. as it was at 5:30 seemingly seconds ago. And where are the lightning bugs?!

But the kicker is this: Last evening, our friend Ben saw the first Canada geese of the season flying low over the cornfields near Hawk’s Haven, their honks sounding the primal call of summer’s end. It doesn’t feel like fall. But it looks, sounds, and smells like fall. Fortunately, this season of breathtaking beauty and color, of Harvest Home, is my favorite. If only it could be fall all year long!