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Pretty enough to be a JABO. March 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Like most marble collectors, our friend Ben is an eBay addict. Yes, you might stumble on a nice jar of old marbles at a flea market or antiques mall, or, as I once did, a couple of bargain cigar boxes in a beatup old garage. But mostly, if you want marbles, you want to see what’s up on eBay.

Recently, our friend Ben scored what I thought was a huge coup on eBay, a group of hand-selected old marbles that looked just fantastic for basically pocket change. (Thank you, marble gods!) In due time, the marbles arrived and looked even better in person than they did on eBay.

I was thrilled. As I gently poured each bag out into my palm, I recognized that I was holding prime examples of the great creators of marble history: Akro Agate, MF Christensen, Christensen Agate, Alley, Peltier, Marble King, Vitro. Oh, wow, these were wonderful marbles. There were even some fantastic multicolored clays and Benningtons. I was beyond excited.

Then came the moment of truth. I had poured one of the bags into my hand and was admiring my latest treasure, when I found myself looking at one of the marbles and muttering, “Why, that’s almost pretty enough to be a JABO.” Whoa, what was I saying?!

JABOs are the newbies on the American marble scene. Disdained by serious marble collectors for years, in 2008 they finally came into their own. By the time of this writing, late March 2009, not only do the world’s great marble collectors recognize that JABOs rank at the forefront of machine-made marbles, most of these collectors have financed their own special runs of JABOs. Which is to say, they’ve put their money where they think the history of marbles will be.

On a much more modest scale, I’ve done this, too. My love affair with JABOs turned into a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in a JABO special run at the factory earlier this month, thanks to the generosity of official JABO historian Steve Sturtz, aka Dr. JABO, and the endless kindness of JABO marble-making genius Dave McCullough. (Steve even invited me to contribute an essay to his latest book, 2008 JABO Classics: The Experimentals.) Woo-hoo! Does this make me a JABO expert?!

Uh, no. Does it make me even more excited about the amazing marbles Dave and JABO have been putting out over the last couple of years, full of gold lutz, silver mica, green and blue aventurine, red, pink, blue, and purple oxblood, and designs and colors like you wouldn’t believe? You betcha.

I know, I know, that JABO’s marbles are as good or better than any machine-made marbles the world has ever seen. But even knowing, I was surprised to catch myself spilling this batch of primo marbles into my hand and thinking, “Why, this one’s almost pretty enough to be a JABO!”

Damn right. Time to shake myself and confront the truth: JABOs are beautiful. JABOs are more than beautiful. JABOs are the most beautiful. Any other machine-made marble can consider itself lucky to be compared to a JABO and be found almost worthy. Pretty enough to be a JABO? Not likely. But pretty enough to rate the comparison? Okay!


Save the chickens!!! March 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we feel strongly about chickens. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have kept a delightful flock of five or six heritage-breed chickens here at our rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, for at least a decade. Not only are the chickens easy-care, personable, and colorful, but they provide us with extraordinary organic eggs and high-nitrogen organic fertilizer for our gardens. We love our chickens and would recommend small-scale chicken-raising to anybody. 

So you can imagine how horrified we were to see today’s post on GardenRant (www.gardenrant.com), “Backyard chickens in jeopardy,” about how a couple in Buffalo, New York were being investigated for keeping chickens, even as they tried to make a sustainable stand in a drug-dealing downtown neighborhood. God forbid that anyone should try to keep a few hens when they could be dealing heroine in the streets instead! GRRRRRRRRRR. 

We suggest that you read the post itself, followed by the comments from readers who detail how many chickens their own urban governments deem that they may or may not own.

Yes, we understand that chickens make noise, especially after they’ve just laid an egg. All their noise, however, can’t compare to the sound of one barking dog or screaming siren. And if you don’t keep a crowing rooster (which you shouldn’t, unless you live on an isolated farm) that noise is under control.

Some people have heard that chicken coops smell bad. Well, no, that would be the factory farms where bazillion chickens are stuffed in the equivalent of a double-wide trailer. All you can smell in our chickens’ yard is fresh straw.

Hey, what about salmonella? Well hey, what about it?! In the crowded, horrific, malnourished conditions of factory farming, salmonella could be a real issue. In our Pullet Palace, where our hens roam freely and eat an abundance of fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, and dairy products along with their organic seed and pellet rations, we don’t even wash the eggs before we use them. Obviously, we’re alive, healthy, and happily writing this post.

So please, head on over to GardenRant and do your part to save our chickens. Let’s not put another self-sufficient freedom in the hands of Big Government.

What a guy. March 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.

Silence Dogood here. Okay, so I’ve been giving our friend Ben a little grief lately. (See our earlier post, “Ben Picks Ten: Signs That You’re Over the Edge” and guess which ones I contributed.) But I have to say, this morning I’m feeling really benevolently towards him, so I thought I’d write this post and give the guy his due.

Not only does OFB bring me coffee every morning, but this morning he was especially solicitous, knowing how crazed I was because of my looming deadline. He’s also been making a big fuss over our beloved golden retriever, Molly, who is dying of liver cancer. To hear his tenderhearted “conversations” with her makes my heart ache. He even puts up with the endless racket of our three new parakeets, Taco, Belle, and Laredo, as they screech cheerfully away by the kitchen table where he’s trying to get some work done so I can work in peace in our home office. 

But this morning, he really went above and beyond. After doing his share of our seemingly endless morning chores, he was rushing out the door to give a presentation (I’ll be taking my turn at this on Martha Stewart Radio later this week) when the trash truck came by. Knowing OFB, I assumed he’d roll the giant trashcan our township hands out back to the mudroom door so I wouldn’t have to grapple with it later today. (That 6’3″ versus 5’5″ advantage really makes a difference here; the trash bin is almost as tall as I am!) Then I heard the recycling truck pull up.

A bit later, as I went to the kitchen for a refill, I thought I’d better get that recycling bin. So I looked out the window and it was gone! Bless his heart, OFB had waited for the recycling truck and taken the bin around back before racing off so I wouldn’t have to go outside in the cold. (It was so cold here this morning that our chickens’ eggs were actually frozen.)

And best of all, he’s bringing my favorite pizza home for supper tonight! He thought I could use a break from cooking so I could get more done on my deadline. (I’ll make a great salad, of course, but hey, that’s not cooking.) What a guy!

Thanks, Ben. I’ll try not to give you any more grief about Dolley Madison and the damned ice cream. 

         ‘Til next time,


A good use for sycamores. March 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood may be the only people on earth who think sycamores are ugly. Their leprous trunks with weird bulges all over them make our friend Ben think that some mad scientist combined the genes of a silver maple and an Appaloosa, and the Appaloosa is still trying to get out.

But on Sunday, we finally found a great use for sycamores. We’d gone to a grocery that’s across the road from a huge corporation that has a line of enormous sycamores planted along the road in front of its corporate headquarters. Normally, we try not to look at them. (The rest of the landscape is actually lovely; lots of crabapples and other flowering trees.) But this time, as we waited for the light to change so we could head back home, our friend Ben spotted a Cooper’s hawk flying into the crown of one of the sycamores.

Sure enough, it flew to its nest and began feeding its nestlings. How exciting! Unfortunately, before we knew it, the light had changed and we had to move on. But as we passed the row of sycamores, we counted three more hawks’ nests. Hooray!!!

We’ve been hearing the young redtails screaming for food in the woods across from our rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven. But to actually see a hawk at its nest was a real treat. It was almost enough to make me forgive the sycamores for looking so revolting. At least they made sturdy platforms for the nests!

Ben Picks Ten: Signs That You’re Over the Edge March 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Deadline pressure has been known to drive normally sane people like our friend Ben and Silence Dogood a little, shall we say, into Far Side—or even Twilight Zone—territory. Both of us are on deadline as I write, so we collaborated to come up with ten warning signs for this post. If you’re feeling a bit pressured, maybe you can relate. And if you don’t realize you’re feeling pressured, maybe you’d better check these out:

1. The Chef Boyardee ravioli in your dog’s dish is starting to actually look good. 

2. You get one of those group e-mails that includes the phrase “Who lit the fuse on your tampon?” and really wish you had said that.

3. Your #1 fantasy is working in a factory making widgets, getting a regular paycheck, and never thinking about work, even when you’re working.

4. You start feeling really, really jealous of your cat, because every time you see him, he’s either eating or sleeping.

5. You stop answering phone calls. Those people are just out to get you, anyway.

6. You check the fridge; maybe you didn’t give the dog the whole can of ravioli after all.

7. You forgot why he calls himself Chef “Boyardee.” (You can’t believe you’re actually thinking about this.)

8. You get into an argument about whether Dolley Madison is a brand of cupcakes or ice cream. Several hours later, you discover that your partner was actually suggesting that the real Dolley Madison introduced ice cream to White House functions, not that Dolley Madison ice cream is a brand. At which point you get into another argument because you think Thomas Jefferson introduced ice cream to the White House.

9. Your partner has brought a rubber duck home from his travels and introduced it into your bathroom. The two of you previously acquired a rubber duck at the same motel and have set it up in the shower as an emblem of a happy vacation. Suddenly, the usurper duck is in the shower and the original duck is exiled to the back of the toilet. You restore the original duck to the shower and take a photo of the usurper duck as it circles the toilet en route to being flushed into the septic tank. You then tuck the photo into the dossier in your partner’s briefcase that he’s taking to show to his committee.

10. After talking things over, you and your partner decide that it’s high time you went out for supper. Booking a table at a high-end restaurant, you proceed to order ravioli, then place a somewhat battered rubber duck beside your plate.

New and, uh, improved?! March 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. We try to keep our posts here at Poor Richard’s Almanac out of the bathroom. But really. I was just installing a new roll of toilet paper when I noticed that it now had a flower design imprinted in the paper. Designs on toilet-paper rolls aren’t, I admit, my first consideration when buying toilet paper. In fact, when I picked up this particular package, I was just thrilled to find that my favorite brand was on sale at the exact moment we needed it.

But seeing the discreet floral motif made me stop and consider the implications. First, a new design would give the company the opportunity to market the tp as “new and improved,” and as we all know, these are consumers’ favorite words after “free” and, possibly, “for a limited time only!” And then it hit me: Someone was being paid a salary to create flower-punch patterns to put on toilet paper, and that salary was being passed along to me, the consumer, even though I’d been perfectly happy with the old toilet paper (and the endless versions before that, going all the way back to my childhood when it was called White Cloud and had no punched patterns of any kind, but came in many colors and was delightfully scented).

Two thoughts about this: First, in a recession, every job is precious, so I suppose I sholdn’t begrudge the job of the poor soul whose work it is to create designs on toilet paper. But really, I’d rather not pay for it. And second, I have no problem with actual product improvements. It’s change for the sake of change that I deplore. (I still remember some high muckety-muck at the corporation I once worked for saying “Change is good, especially when it is for the better.” Then and now, all I wanted to do was say, “No, moron, change is good only when it’s for the better. Change for its own sake is wasteful, superficial busyness. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”)

So, toilet-paper industry, here are some changes for the better that I, Silence Dogood, would like to suggest: Include a how-to brochure with every package of toilet paper that tells buyers how to use the cardboard tubes at the center of their toilet-paper rolls to make cutworm collars for their transplants or honeycomb planters for their seedlings, or note that they can be composted or used as firestarters. Recommend that people make an effort to use the minimum amount necessary, rather than flooding sewers and septic tanks with toilet paper because they just don’t think about it. Suggest interesting alternative uses for toilet paper rolls, such as one I saw just this morning on Emma’s Fluffius Muppetus blog (don’t ask me, I’ve been waiting for years now for her to explain that name), which was using toilet paper rolls to grow mushrooms from spawn.

Readers, please feel free to add your own! And marketers, please: If we like your product, we’ll use it without the “new and improved” shtick. And if we don’t like it, how about making some real improvements? Thanks.

            ‘Til next time,


Frugal living tip #13. March 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for another frugal living tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. This one’s all about using the sense God gave you. And a little dishwashing soap.

I was astounded the other day to read an article from the Associated Press about how the residents of Spokane, Washington, were crossing the border into Idaho to smuggle in, not cheaper liquor or cigarettes, but dishwashing detergent. The author explained that Spokane County had banned the use of phosphate-laden detergents, which contaminate lakes and rivers, causing an algae bloom that kills fish, in favor of eco-friendly phosphate-free detergents. Spokane residents weren’t buying it, or I should say, them.

Why? Because—and here’s the telling part—the “green” detergents don’t work as well in a dishwasher. As the article explained, “Many people were shocked to find that products… left their dishes encrusted with food, smeared with grease and too gross to use without rewashing them by hand.” [emphasis mine]

I don’t for a minute blame anyone for not wanting to eat from food-encrusted, greasy dishware. Eeeeewwww!!!! But I have to wonder why it doesn’t seem to occur to any of the outraged citizens quoted in the article to wash their dishes by hand to begin with. They’d save water, save electricity, save themselves from noise pollution, save our waterways from chemical pollution, and get a little exercise in the bargain. And, of course, save money.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, we have no dishwasher and have always washed dishes by hand. We use “green” dishwashing liquid. Our dishes come out clean. But we also don’t use dishes the way most Americans do. From what I’ve seen in people’s houses, it’s like filling the dishwasher fastest was an Olympic sport. Some people I know use their dishwashers several times a day; others have more than one dishwasher to keep up with the overflow.

Not us. I always set the table with the full complement of silverware. But if we don’t use, say, our spoons at a meal, I put those clean, unused spoons back in the drawer rather than tossing them into the sink. If our friend Ben has several cups of coffee in the morning, he drinks them from the same mug rather than hauling down a new mug every time. If we’re eating chips and cheese and think we might want a few more later, we’ll leave our plate on the counter until we’ve either refilled it or thought better of having seconds. And so on. You’d be surprised at how this approach cuts down on washing.

Mind you, this does not mean that we leave filthy, food-smeared plates lying around. I can’t abide filth, and not only do I not want to look at it, I don’t want dirty dishes to pile up. Our trick for keeping hand-washing manageable is to wash up immediately after each meal. It keeps the chore down to a just a few minutes, and almost anyone can face the prospect of that.

Okay, you’re asking, but what if you have kids? Guess what? Kids have minds and arms. You can teach them not to use more dishware than is needed, and to wash their dishes and put them on the drying rack (yes, you’ll need one of those) afterwards. Obviously, you don’t want a three-year-old washing dishes. But for older kids, it can be a rotating chore like making their beds, setting and clearing the table, feeding the dog, and taking out the trash. Kids get delightfully excited about being green and helping their world thrive. Put it in that context, and you may be pleasantly surprised at their willingness to pitch in, as long, of course, as you lead the way.

Which reminds me: I hope you’ve already gotten in the habit of using an under-sink compost bucket for your kitchen scraps rather than tossing them down the garbage disposal (more noise pollution and wasted resources!). Keep vermin-attracting stuff like meat scraps, bones, and grease out of the bucket, but everything else can go in. Look at it as free food for your garden!

Oh, and here’s another frugal fun fact for you: If you invest a few dollars in a dishwashing pan, you get a great freebie when you hand-wash dishes. That dirty, soapy wash water may not look too appealing to you, but plants love it. Use it in your garden to feed and water your plants, and the soap will help keep pests off, too!

          ‘Til next time,


Ben’s catheter. March 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were stunned to see that not one but two people had come onto our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, searching for “Ben’s catheter.” In fact, poor OFB was practically apoplectic. What on earth were they thinking?! Then we had a collective rush of brains to the head (in the immortal words of a friend’s mother) and recalled that our blog mentor and hero, Benjamin Franklin, had invented the catheter. We thought there was a certain irony here, so we checked in with our friend, fellow blog contributor, and historian-in-chief Richard Saunders.

Sure enough. The irony is that old Ben’s invention could have saved his friend and fellow patriot Gouverneur Morris’s life. So many of the Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, just to name four—were extraordinary people. But Dr. Franklin and Gouverneur Morris may have topped the list in the extraordinary category.

A number of the Founders also suffered premature and unnecessary deaths, from bad medicine or bad judgment. (Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr and George Washington’s death from complications from a cold and treatment for same spring to mind.) But no death was as unnecessary and as embarrassing as Morris’s.

[Warning: Graphic, explicit content from here on out. Feel free to stop reading now. We totally understand.]

Let’s talk about cats for a minute first. If you’re a cat owner, you probably know that one of the potential hazards for male cats is urinary tract blockage. They can’t get the urine out, so it backs up and becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and the resulting infection, which can be fatal if untreated and is horrifically painful besides. Today’s vets have all kinds of treatments for this condition, from diet to surgery. Apparently, male humans can suffer from this problem as well, and Morris was one of the sufferers.

Now, Gouverneur Morris was a physically brave man. When he was sixteen, a precocious young man bound for college, a servant at his family home inadvertently poured a vat of boiling water on his arm. As you probably know, few things in life are as painful as burns, and imagine a horrific burn in an era where there wasn’t even pain medication, much less skin grafts and all the other treatments we have now. The teenaged Morris endured the burn, which apparently took off pretty much everything on his arm, leaving him with little more than bone and scar tissue. Then, as a young man, he was caught in the wheel of a carriage and lost a leg as a result. Not only did this not slow him down in his career as a patriot and diplomat—it was Morris, not Madison, who actually wrote our Constitution—but he was well known for his enjoyment of dancing on his wooden peg as well as participating in physical activities of all kinds.

Perhaps it was his physical intrepidity that caused him to take matters into his own hands when, in middle age, he began to experience urinary tract blockage. Or perhaps it was his already extensive knowledge of the ineptitude—or worse—of the doctors of his day, whose primary treatment was bleeding their patients to death (as in Washington’s case) in an attempt to release “vile humours.”

Whatever the case, when Morris began experiencing the symptoms of urinary tract blockage, he basically took the equivalent of an awl and attempted to reopen his urinary passage on his own. We can’t imagine the courage this took or the pain it caused, but incredibly, it apparently worked, at least the first time. Unfortunately, as is also the case with cats, the condition tends to recur, and it did in Morris’s case too. This time, when he tried the awl trick, he developed a fatal infection and died as a result. Of course, if he hadn’t attempted some form of treatment, he would have died from the infection caused by the blockage. And if he’d called in medical help, they’d probably have killed him off even faster.

But old Ben and his catheter could probably have saved him. True to form, Morris remained calm and collected to the last, giving us all a moving example of how to bear suffering and death with dignity and grace. But we wish he’d known about Ben’s catheter. After everything he’d been through, we’d have loved it if he could have enjoyed a ripe old age.

            ‘Til next time,


About organic milk. March 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As a lifelong organic gardener and devotee, I try to buy organic whenever I can. And milk is one of those products that falls into the “not only should but better buy it” categories. After reading for years that conventionally produced milk is laden with antibiotics and estrogen-rich Bovine Growth Hormone in addition to the usual pesticides, herbicides, bacteriacides, and fungicides, I have anted up the extra bucks every time we buy milk.

But what a pain. And I’m not talking about a pain in the wallet here, but about the fact that nobody seems to sell organic milk products in less than half-gallon sizes. If you’re like us and use milk principally in coffee and tea, it would be nice to be able to buy quarts of it so it didn’t hog so much refrigerator space. At least it doesn’t go bad, no matter how long it takes to use up one of those half-gallons, because it’s ultra-pasteurized.

Now, imagine my dismay the other day when I was doing a little background research for a book I’m currently editing on healthy foods for pregnancy and saw that ultra-pasteurization destroys pretty much any health benefits in food. Well, great. The authors recommended raw milk, which is full of healthy digestion-boosting bacteria, vitamins, and other nutrients. And living in Pennsylvania as we do, we’re lucky enough to have farms that sell raw milk within easy driving distance. I have bought it a number of times, and yes, it’s delicious. But.

But what? But, it’s only sold in gallons where I live. Now, it takes me and our friend Ben a long time to work our way through a half-gallon, and a bit of effort to make room for it in our always-packed fridge. Imagine trying to make room for a gallon of natural, unpasteurized milk, then using it all before it sours? For the two of us, that’s not terribly practical, to say the least. Fortunately, we have chickens and outdoor cats who are very happy to drink sour milk, but still. I suppose the ideal solution would be to find other people who’d be willing to split a (ridiculously inexpensive) gallon of farm-fresh raw milk with us every week. I’d be happy to drive over and pick it up. But we don’t know any people like this. So what’s the best answer?

Frankly, I don’t know. I’d welcome reader input on this! And yes, yes, of course I could make yogurt and yogurt cheese with the extra milk. Assuming I had time to do that every week. Assuming we could eat all that yogurt and cheese every week. Assuming… sigh. So please, give me your best thoughts on this. I love the idea of supporting local farms. I’d love to be able to find quarts of organic milk. I wonder about the real detriments of ultra-pasteurization. And I hate wasting good milk!

         ‘Til next time,


Got a penny, Penny? March 29, 2009

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 talk once again about dollars and cents, or at least, cents, popularly known as pennies. In a post last month (“A new look for Lincoln”), I wrote about how, to recognize the 50th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, first released in 1909 to mark the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, the U.S. Mint was releasing four new designs for the back of the cent, starting in February on Lincoln’s birthday, then appearing every three months through 2009. So, where is it?!

I’m a pocket-change collector from way back. I’ve pulled nice examples of the state quarters and the new Jefferson nickels out of pocket change, and have been known to stop by the bank to see if the latest presidential dollar had arrived. (“I’d like five, please.”) Last time I stopped by the bank, I asked if they had the new pennies. The answer dismayed me: “No, and we’re not likely to get them.” What?!! Well, apparently the bank already has plenty of pennies, and the place (unspecified) that supplies them with pennies has plenty of pennies, and there’s just no need to order any of the new pennies.

What’s a poor collector to do?! Well, there’s always the U.S. Mint. I headed over to their website (www.usmint.gov) and clicked on their online catalog. Trying to find any pennies took a nearly Herculean effort, but I finally spotted them under the “Bags and Rolls” listing. Now, I wasn’t really in the market for a whole roll of pennies, but I figured hey, if that’s the only way I can get some, at least they’re only pennies, so they won’t cost bazillion dollars. I clicked the link. Guess what? “SOLD OUT.” Aaaarrrgh!!!

Has anybody out there actually gotten any of the new pennies in pocket change? If so, lucky you. Maybe you’d better hang onto them!

And by the way, in case you’re wondering, this post’s title is the first line of a Depression-era jazz song, “Got a Penny,” that’s performed by The Nat King Cole Trio in one of my classic jazz collections. It seemed appropriate!