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A different kind of card. July 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I had stopped at the nearest CVS the other day, since he needed poison ivy meds and I needed a birthday card for my soon-to-be 12-year-old niece. While OFB headed back to the pharmaceutical aisles, I went to check out the numerous card racks. And I got quite a shock.

Last time I’d looked, just weeks ago, there’d been the usual array of occasion cards (birthday, wedding, anniversary, graduation, confirmation, promotion, retirement, moving), holiday cards (Christmas, Hanukkah, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Assistant’s Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving), and general (sympathy, friendship, love, get well, pets, inspiration, religious, blank). True, these were divided into seemingly millions of categories, including age, price, and whether or not you wanted them to be tied to some celebrity and/or make noise. But though the formats changed, the categories remained pretty much the same.

This time, however, everything had changed. There was a whole new, prominently placed, area of cards from Hallmark’s Shoebox collection. There wasn’t a header over the section, no giant banner that said “Oh, God!” But that was my reaction when I looked at the new card categories: post-surgery, chemotherapy (“5 reasons why it’s great to lose your hair”), cancer survivor, even a Susan G. Komen breast cancer card.

As I looked at Hannah Montana, Barbie, and Pirates of the Caribbean birthday cards for my niece Mary, chuckled over Maxine cards, and tried to keep OFB from playing every Homer Simpson sound card on the racks, I couldn’t stop thinking about the “reality” cards on the opposite wall. Cancer, the terror of our time. Cancer treatment, even more terrifying for many.

What really disturbs me most about all this is that I can find no way to dismiss them. Hallmark is a very savvy company and does a ton of market research. If Hallmark has decided there’s a need for these cards, that customers are ready to come out in the open and buy cards that talk openly about cancer and chemotherapy rather than treating them as isolated hush-hush situations, then that says that cancer and chemotherapy have become so commonplace that there’s now a substantial market for cancer-themed cards.

Not that I’ve ever doubted it. Sometimes I feel like I’m waging a one-woman campaign to say that cancer is rampant in our society, is our #1 killer. No, no, it’s heart disease, the statisticians insist. I beg to differ. There are bazillion kinds of cancer, and many of them kill over a very, very long time. We’re not trying to compare cancer to a heart attack that fells its victim with one blow. Oh, no, no. If you added up all the victims of all the kinds of cancer, and then followed them until they eventually died of cancer, after however many remissions, you’d have statistics that would keep all Americans, not just me, lying awake at night.

I’ve long been convinced that cancer—such a rarity in the past, even in the early 20th century, that it was considered an event to even diagnose it—is the killer of our time. Not heart disease, not diabetes, not Alzheimer’s, not AIDS, frightening as they all are. Like a consummate actor who takes the stage in endless guises, cancer is the death star of our day. 

All the pink ribbons on cars, clothes, and return-address labels, the yellow “Live Strong” wrist bands, should be enough to convince us. But if not, here are the greeting cards, the ones that tell us to put our feet up after surgery or tell people we’re pirates because we’re wearing bandannas to cover our chemo-balded skulls or live every post-cancer-diagnosis day as a gift.

Mercy. Could America finally take these cards as a wake-up call and do real, comprehensive statistics analysis on the toll cancer is wreaking on our population? Tell us outright the number of annual diagnoses of all kinds of cancer, the number of annual deaths from all kinds of cancer—however long ago they were diagnosed—and the likelihood of an American getting some kind of cancer during the course of his or her life? These are the statistics I’d like—no, need—to hear.

And then, when the horrific tallies are finally done, I’d like to know when the farmers and factories and food manufacturers are going to stop poisoning our land, water, air, and food with cancer-causing chemicals.  And when the medical establishment is going to stop trying to tell us that we’re giving ourselves cancer by not eating right, losing weight, and exercising: It’s all our fault. Thanks, guys.

Obviously, we’ll be healthier overall if we’re fit, eat organic food, drink filtered water, avoid toxic habits like smoking, and live in an area with low levels of pollution, as opposed to breathing taxi exhaust and God knows what else every day in a large city. Doing all that, and skipping the fried chicken, onion rings, doughnuts, and the like might indeed be enough to prevent diabetes and heart disease. But not cancer.

Cancer is a cumulative disease: It takes a while for there to be enough damage to the cells, enough free radicals loose in the system, to get it going. And I’m convinced that all the healthy habits we can develop aren’t enough to offset the sea of chemical toxins we swim in all day, every day, wherever we live. Look at Lance Armstrong: Not your typical couch potato, yet being one of the world’s premier athletes didn’t protect him from cancer. We can run, but in an era of global pollution, we can’t hide: I’ll bet even Antarctica has measurable levels of chemical toxins. 

So rather than blaming us for falling ill, I’d like to see those responsible take the blame for killing us off, not by being punished, but by being made responsible for cleaning up their mess. If the major thrust of modern research was to find truly viable alternatives to the toxic chemicals that are still considered essential in every aspect of our lives, from making plumbing pipes and buildings to the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the batteries we use in all our “essential” electronic devices, I am confident that human ingenuity would prevail. If the government, or the Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts of the world, created a prestigious and valuable prize awarded annually, like the Nobel Prizes, to those who had come up with the most viable ways to clean up our poor planet, I’m sure our brightest and best would devote their minds and energies towards our world’s salvation and our own. If the medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies were given a mandate to find ways to actually prevent and actually cure cancer, perhaps we’d see breakthroughs that didn’t involve poisoning people in order to give them a few more years of dubious quality.

I would really like to see this happen. Because if it doesn’t, I can’t believe that some day, people won’t be heading to CVS to buy those cards for me.

                  ‘Til next time,



Attila the Hun and other quandaries. July 29, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Yes, it’s once again wacky blog search time here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. The search engine phrases that have brought searchers here to us have included some real gems since our last posting on the topic, and of course we’d like to share them with you. As always, original query in bold, our response following:

nobody doubted his genius: Our friend Ben thanks this perceptive person. Shut up, Silence.

do Africans tend to have flat feet: Sorry, we don’t deal in generalizations, unless we’re making them ourselves. We have no idea if Africans have flat feet, but we can say with confidence that our friend Ben has flat feet, and thinks flat feet are great. So what’s your point?!

how not to multiply Amish friendship bread: Hoo, higher math! We’d suggest dividing it, but suspect that simply subtracting it would probably work better.

making fertilization talismans: Please Google Biodynamics; they do it all the time. Otherwise, you might check out “fertility talismans” instead.

poor ben franklin blog: Harrumph! There was nothing poor about Ben Franklin.

how much fun are parakeets? Hey, they put that barrel of monkeys to shame.

see through sliding glasses: Do they come with a secret decoder ring?  

is poison ivy in your throat bad: There’s another Darwin Awards candidate born every minute.

do poinsettia leaves have glitter on them: Of course, and they grow in those delightful silver, white and ice-blue colors, too. We suggest that you buy yours at the Dollar Store; they’ll last a lot longer, too.

why are Irish men considered lucky: Why not ask some Irish women?

full recher almanac: Say what?

was attila the hun a monarch: This one sort of threw us for a loop. Attila has traditionally been known as King of the Scythian Hordes, not to mention Scourge of God (a title bestowed on him by his Roman enemies). But what’s the difference between a king and a monarch, anyway? We’d sort of assumed they were the same, until we were reading a definition that said “a king may or may not have monarchical powers.” Er. We don’t know what monarchical powers are, but given Attila’s long and successful reign of conquest and terror, we suspect that he had them.

That’s it for this batch! But we’re sure we’ll be back with more soon…

Weldon Eaton: A Tribute July 28, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our marble buddy, aka Paul Revere, recently gave our friend Ben and Silence Dogood some sad and shocking news. Fellow marble enthusiast and pillar of the marble community Weldon Eaton was killed by a freak auto accident in Moab, Utah last week, when his vehicle blew a tire and rolled down a 15-foot embankment. (By God’s grace, Weldon’s wife Edna and grandson Joseph emerged from the wreck with cuts and bruises.) Our friend Rob, who has been to Moab many times, told us when we conveyed the news that roads in the area followed steep ravines and were definitely not for the faint of heart.

But our friend Ben is writing this post not as an obituary but as a tribute, because Weldon Eaton inspired countless people throughout his life, and I’m convinced that he’ll inspire you even in death, whoever you are, whatever your interests and passions. Read on and you’ll see why.

Our friend Ben met Weldon because Paul Revere had invited me to attend one of the exclusive JABO Tribute marble runs down in Reno, Ohio. (A marble run is the actual marble production process, which is fascinating to watch, and JABO is the premier machine-made marble producer in the world, thanks to its presiding genius, David McCullough.) It was such a thrill to get a behind-the-scenes look at marbles in the making and to meet the marble community’s cognoscenti. Thanks, Paul!

The first time our friend Ben saw Weldon, everyone had gathered for dinner at a local restaurant. As I took my seat at the table and introductions were made, I was immediately struck by his intensely blue eyes. Our friend Ben has blue eyes, but they paled by comparison to Weldon’s.

But it wasn’t just the color of Weldon’s eyes that impressed me: It was the look of wisdom, patience, humor, and kindness that they held. They seemed to say, “I’ve been around a lot of people, and I’ve spent time studying them, and I know them, their strivings and failings, their strengths and weaknesses, their greatness and their quirks. And I still get a kick out of them.” Meeting those kind eyes was like encountering a rock in the midst of a swiftly flowing stream, a place of strength, a place of safety in the turbulent waters of ordinary life. It was so unexpected in the chaos of the restaurant and the excited marble talk, it took my breath away.

The next time I saw Weldon, he was walking. If you could call it that. The steel braces that confined his legs helped him move them forward as his arms bore his weight, their steel poles inching forward step by agonizing step. What on earth had happened, I wondered: Was he wounded in a war? Had he suffered a crippling accident? Was it childhood polio? No wonder he had mastered patience, that hardest skill for us frantic moderns to learn. No wonder he had been able to slow down, to take the time to actually see rather than simply looking.

Much later, Paul told me the back-story: Weldon had been born disabled, his legs twisted on top of his abdomen. The doctors told his parents he would die. Many excruciating surgeries later, his legs were straight enough for the braces he would wear throughout his life. A lot of children who’d been through what Weldon endured would have taken to a wheelchair and expected their parents to see to their needs for the rest of their lives. They had, after all, already been through enough.

Not Weldon Eaton. As a child, he helped his family pick cotton, carried on a tarp down the rows. As he grew up, he participated in the recreational activities his friends and family enjoyed; he was a lifelong hunter and fisherman. He went to college and on to get his master’s degree. Along the way, he met and married his college’s fiesty beauty queen, Edna, who saw the man and not his legs; they were married 49 years at the time of the tragedy. He and Edna raised a son. Weldon was on the board of his church and was a member of the volunteer fire department, along with many other memberships. He was a very active member of his community.

But the most amazing thing to our friend Ben was Weldon’s choice of profession: He became a school teacher and athletic trainer in his home state of Texas. Think about the courage this took! Everybody knows how cruel and mocking kids can be over the least little thing: a wart, nerdy glasses, the wrong shoes, bad hair, a pimple. Weldon could have gone to work in a lab or somewhere where he’d be working with other adults. But he followed his vocation, and he followed his heart, and he faced his classrooms and his athletes every day. And our friend Ben is certain that he inspired generations to rise above their perceived limitations and follow their dreams.

Marble-lovers who knew Weldon well have many wonderful stories to tell of his generosity: How he always carried marbles in the pocket of his bibb overalls so he could give them to kids; how he and Edna created a “marble tree” outside their home in Waller, Texas, placing hundreds of marbles around the large roots of a tree at the street so anyone passing by could take one. What a good friend and supporter he was to the marble community, and how he never lost his sense of wonder and enthusiasm for those colorful little balls of glass.

Our friend Ben’s life was enriched, changed for the better, by meeting Weldon once. I can imagine how richly blessed those who knew him well must feel, and what a hole his passing has left in their world. I can only hope that all of us whose lives Weldon touched will carry something of his spirit—his kindness, his patience, his humor, his generosity, his courage, his wisdom, his tolerance, his enthusiasm, his endurance, his sense of community, his faith—so that others may see and be touched and inspired in their turn. It would be a fitting tribute to a wonderful man.

A falafel frenzy. July 27, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Forget Waffle House. Our friend Ben and I want to see a chain of Falafel House restaurants spring up across the U.S.* We simply love falafel—the crunchy little patties or balls of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, and spices  that are served across the Middle East—and I can’t make them at home. Falafel Houses would give me and OFB a chance to indulge regularly, both close to home and when we go on road trips.

Falafels don’t seem too hard to make: You grind cooked chickpeas (and sometimes fava beans), add tahini, olive oil, garlic, ground cumin, coriander, cayenne or other hot pepper, salt, onion, parsley, and cilantro to make a thick dough. Then you shape the dough into balls or patties and deep-fry it in vegetable oil until it’s heated through and crunchy outside.

Little did I know. While on a recent trip, OFB and I were staying at a hotel that actually had television reception, unlike our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven. I began shrieking that I wanted to watch the Food Network. Poor OFB abandoned hope of  seeing a baseball game or movie and dutifully obliged, bless his heart. And so it was that I happened to catch two episodes of Bobby Flay’s “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” where he attempts to outdo a chef who specializes in a certain signature dish, beating them at their own game. And incredibly, the second show was on falafel. (Google “falafel recipes” and you’ll not only find Bobby Flay’s falafel recipe, but a video of the episode. Not to mention falafel recipes by Emeril, Guy Fieri, and other celebrity chefs.)

Whoa! Turns out that cooking falfel is anything but easy. Getting the outside appropriately crunchy while the inside is hot and creamy takes the skill of a master. Bobby Flay interviewed two experts on the show, then tried making his own with his test kitchen team and still admitted that his didn’t measure up. (He compensated with an assortment of interesting sauces.) This reminded me of similarly challenging dishes from my own Southern upbringing, including fried chicken, corncakes, fried grits, and fried okra. Even French fries and onion rings. It may seem simple, but getting the outside of fried foods perfectly crunchy and the inside perfectly tender is anything but. Deep-frying is an art all its own.

And it’s an art I stay well away from. I love fried food done right, unhealthy as it is. But I hate grease. I don’t want to touch grease, clean dishes that have held grease, dispose of grease, have grease spatter on my clothes or my hands. Grease is gross. Period.

So I’m dependent on restaurants and Middle Eastern stands at farmers’ markets for my falafel fix, and they’re few and far between in our part of scenic PA. Which brings us at last to the point of this post.

The other day, I was shopping at our local Giant when I saw cartons of falafel next to the endless tubs of hummus. FALAFEL!!!! They were produced by a company called The Falafel Republic, based in Needham, Massachusetts. Check ’em out at www.falafelrepublic.com.  Of course, I had to try out both the Traditional Falafel and the Spicy Garlic Falafel. Oh, yum. But would they be suitably crunchy and delicious?

Once home, I put some Spicy Garlic falafel balls in the toaster oven with a couple of  pitas on top and heated them up. Traditionally, falafel is served in pitas (my current favorite is Toufayan Bakeries Multigrain Pita) with tahini sauce, shredded lettuce, and sliced or chopped tomatoes (and sometimes chopped cucumber).

I didn’t have tahini sauce, but I did have yogurt “cheese” (the thick yogurt I make by draining plain yogurt until it’s as rich and creamy as cream cheese) and crumbled feta cheese. So I stirred the feta into the yogurt cheese, sprinkled on some Trocamare (a hot seasoned salt with herbs), and created a kind of minimalist tzatziki sauce to put on my falafel. Then I made a bed of mixed chopped Romaine lettuce and arugula, added sliced tomatoes, chopped scallions (green onions), and the falafel balls, and topped it all with the yogurt-feta “tzatziki” sauce. And scooped it all up on hot pita wedges and ate it.

How was it? Yummy. True, the falafels weren’t as crunchy as they’d have been served straight from hot oil. But the pitas crisped up beautifully, which made up for it. And the combination of flavors was fantastic.

Next time, I’ll add some minced crushed garlic to the “tzatziki” sauce. And maybe some pickled Moroccan lemon to the lettuce and tomatoes.

I’ll also make one of my favorite Greek salads by crumbling hot falafel patties onto a salad of crunchy Romaine lettuce, red, yellow, and orange cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, diced red onion, sliced scallions (green onion), diced red bell pepper, and crumbled feta, and topping it all with balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, salt (we like RealSalt) and fresh-ground black pepper or lemon pepper.

Looks like it’s time to head back to the store for more Falafel Republic falafels! And hey, out there: If you want to start a Falafel House franchise, please let us know when it’s up and running. We’ll be there!

           ‘Til next time,


* Oops, did my research after I posted: Apparently there are a few Falafel House takeout places in the U.S., but sadly the online reviewer didn’t think much of their falafel! House of Falafel restaurants also exist on the West Coast (sigh) and got better reviews. Er, Falafel Hut, anyone? Kentucky Fried Falafel? Dunkin’ Falafels? Um…

The death of the middle class. July 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben saw  an article on Yahoo!’s finance updates the other day proclaiming the imminent demise of the middle class. Check it out for yourselves: “The Middle Class in America Is Radically Shrinking. Here Are the Stats to Prove It” by Michael Snyder at http://finance.yahoo.com/tech-ticker/, posted July 15, 2010. It’s not cheerful reading, but it certainly makes sense.

Historically, the middle class is a comparatively recent phenomenon, at least in the West. For much of European history, there were nobles and serfs, or nobles and slaves, a rigid two-level social order neatly split between the haves and the have nots. Yes, there were scribes, heralds, pages, monks, scholars, lawyers, and others who perhaps could have been considered a middle class, but there were never many, and they were never recognized as such.

It was not until the rise of the Industrial Revolution, when merchants attained status in their own right, amassing wealth and power as the nobility dwindled in significance and wealth and the serfs became smallholders, that the concept of the middle class came into its own. Suddenly, the all-powerful nobles no longer had a vital purpose—defending their lands and people—and the prosperous merchants and innovators finally came into their own. Their purpose was obvious and always current: producing goods, creating prosperity. Practicality and productivity were the orders of the day: Capitalism was born, and feudalism finally died.

In America, the middle class existed from the beginning, but reached its peak after World War II. Suddenly, everyone could own his own home, buy his own car, live his own life. Those of us who have come along since that time of great prosperity may look back, open-mouthed, at our parents’ or grandparents’ seemingly effortless prosperity. And perhaps we finally might begin to wonder if this was a one-generation phenomenon.

A single, post-war generation that was given the wherewithal to buy their own homes and cars. To have ample time off. To live well, better than their parents could have dreamed of, and live debt-free. To afford the then-reasonably priced medical care. To enjoy a leisurely retirement without wondering when, or even if, their money would run out.

That generation gave birth to the Boomers, who coasted along on their parents’ prosperity, going to college in record numbers, becoming professionals, creating the corporate class. Their “life is good” philosophy has proven to be an illusion based on their parents’ financial security, modest though it was in most cases. Now that they’re reaching retirement age, they find themselves woefully unprepared. (According the the article, 43% of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.) Retirement is pretty much a thing of the past; once the Boomers leave their jobs, they’ll be looking at working at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s at minimum wage for the rest of their lives. 

Which brings us to the phenomenon of the Yuppies, which ushered in the ’80s. They seemed on paper to be wildly prosperous. They bought huge McMansions, vacation homes, SUVs and sports cars, all the latest gadgets and designer fashions. They ate at all the trendy places, went to all the trendy travel destinations. Price was no object. Or you could say that price was the object: the pricier, the better.

There was just one little problem with the Yuppies’ seemingly endless wealth: It wasn’t real. Unlike their parents or grandparents, who paid for what they owned and therefore owned it debt-free, the Yuppies took out loans, not ever thinking through to the fact that it was actually the bank that owned their porperty, not them. Floating debt while living beyond even their opulent means was the norm. “Everybody” did it. And when the market crashed in the late ’80s, “everybody” was caught with their collective pants down.

You’d have thought this little economic lesson would have taken hold, but it didn’t. The children of the Yuppies also believed that wealth and an extravagant lifestyle were theirs by divine right. Immoral credit card companies that handed out cards like candy to college students produced graduates with staggering student-loan debts and tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debts, at enormous interest rates, on top of them.

Thank God our latest recession/depression seems to finally be sinking in. Cheap is chic, vintage is fashionable, people are discovering the Goodwill, Salvation Army, and flea markets as viable alternatives to buying ever more new stuff. “Frugal” now equates to smart rather than to Scrooge.

But the new frugality is taking a toll on our old economic warhorse, capitalism. When capitalism replaced feudalism as the economic standard, the rise of the middle class was (in retrospect at any rate) guaranteed. But, as we’re now discovering, capitalism works best in an area where there’s a lot still to gain, a lot that still needs to be bought, such as India or China. In the West, we have more goods than we could ever use, want, or need, no matter how many ad dollars are spent trying to convince us otherwise. (This isn’t true of our poor, of course, but since they can’t afford the goods they need, they don’t grease the capitalist wheels.)

So we have a big problem: Capitalism isn’t working anymore, and we haven’t come up with a viable economic model to replace it. Sure, everybody’s looking at the internet and intellectual property, but nobody’s managed to figure out how to make it pay off, at least for the “average guy.”

Meanwhile, there are the rich, who own the stock markets. And there are the poor, who own pretty much nothing. And the middle class, that thriving segment of society that gave the Boomers its name, is disappearing even faster than the capitalism that gave it life.

Oh joy! July 25, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s always a joy to discover a blog that’s beautifully done, and Joylicious is a perfect example. Our blog host is WordPress, and it has a page of featured blog posts, which I enjoy scanning when we’re logging in each morning. I never know what I’ll find, but I do know I’d never have found it without that page.

One of Joylicious’s posts is featured this week, and it looked intriguing so I clicked on it. What I found was a fabulously photographed foodie blog by Joy Zhang of Dallas, Texas. She covers an extremely wide range of recipes, and each recipe is given in such detail that a beginner could create it creditably. But it’s the photographs that really shine—they’re as beautiful as any food photography I’ve seen, and considerably more beautiful than most. Joylicious is delightfully whimsical, as well; Joy talks to her ingredients, and they often talk back.

If you love cooking and beautiful food photography, you simply have to check Joylicious out (http://joylicious.net/). You’ll be so glad you did!

If you’re a hummus fan, look up Joy’s post “Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas.” It’s not easy to take an entire series of photos on making hummus and come out with a montage that’s beautiful, even mesmerizing—chickpeas and tahini turning into brown paste, not exactly photogenic, right?—but Joy manages to pull it off. She even uses fresh green chickpeas in the pod, which I’d never seen before, as an accent. So I learned something new and got a great recipe! I can’t wait to check out her Indian, Chinese and Thai recipes.

Thanks, WordPress! And thanks, Joy! Let’s hope a book deal (at the very least) is winging your way soon.

              ‘Til next time,


When lightning strikes. July 24, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have a thing about lightning, and it’s not a good thing. When your small clapboard cottage home sits in a hollow with huge trees looming over it, as ours does, you don’t want lightning striking anywhere near you. But we’re also attuned to lightning (if you’ll pardon the pun) because of the large role it played in the life of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin.

When most people think of Ben Franklin and lightning, they think of Franklin, his kite and key held aloft as lightning crashes around him and he discovers how to channel electricity. But in his own day, Dr. Franklin was far more renowned for inventing the lightning rod.

Before the lightning rod, if a house was struck by lightning, it was viewed as divine punishment upon the luckless inhabitants and left to burn to the ground. This was unfortunate—to say the least—for the families involved, and often for entire cities or city blocks as well, since houses tended to be old, wood, and terribly close together. People did make haphazard efforts to throw water on neighoring houses, but that often wasn’t enough if sparks flew from the burning house onto the wood-shingled or thatched roofs of their neighbors.

But the clear-eyed Ben Franklin put an end to all that. Not only did his lightning rod show that lightning was simply another natural phenomenon rather than the wrath of God, assuring both safety and continued standing in the community for families whose homes were hit by lightning. Ben went further, establishing the first volunteer fire departments as backup. Thanks to him, rather than the previous chaotic, often ineffectual efforts to deal with fires, if lightning did start a fire, a group of trained and organized men would quickly rush to the rescue. Just another reason old Ben Franklin was so highly regarded!

Returning to the present, our friend Ben’s attention was caught yesterday afternoon by a feature article on Yahoo! called “Nine myths and facts about lightning” by Lori Bongiorno (read it at http://green.yahoo.com/blog/the_conscious_consumer/143/nine-myths-and-facts-about-lightning.html). Still more interesting were the links in the story to NOAA—that’s the National Weather Service–articles about indoor and outdoor safety when lightning strikes.

Our friend Ben will summarize what they said here in case you’re disinclined to click on the links. You still need to know the basics of lightning safety, especially in high summer when thunderstorms are most common. So please, listen up!

Here are 10 (plus one) easy ways to keep from getting fried:

1. Disconnect. This is commonsense safety for your appliances, not you. Apparently, surge suppressors aren’t enough to protect electronics during a thunderstorm. So when you see or hear a storm approaching, turn off and disconnect your computers, TVs, appliances, etc. Do this before the storm hits, since otherwise you could be shocked or worse if you try to do it while lightning is crashing around you. 

2. Get off. If lightning hits your house, it’s usually channeled through electric wiring or plumbing into the ground. This is not the time to be on your computer or land-line phone (cells are okay), or opening the fridge or using the stove, dishwasher, washing machine, or other electrical appliance. This is also definitely not the time to be taking a bath or shower, washing your hands or dishes in the sink, or enjoying the pool or hot tub. Nothing our friend Ben has read mentions toilets, but be advised.

3. Keep away from metal and concrete. We all know that iron and steel conduct lightning—hence the lightning rod—but our friend Ben had no idea that concrete was also hazardous because of its iron reinforcing rods. (Duh!) NOAA warns us to keep away from concrete floors and walls during thunderstorms. I guess heading to the basement is a bad idea!

4. Get into a safe place. NOAA warns over and over that there is no way to be safe from lightning outdoors. Your best bets are to get indoors, into a vehicle, or (if you’re out in the water and can’t get back to shore) into a boat. But not just any of these will do, as we’re about to see.

5. Go (or stay) indoors. But again, not any shelter will do. You need to go someplace with a roof, walls, and a floor, and preferably with wiring and plumbing (both of which can conduct lightning into the ground and away from you). Homes, office buildings, shopping malls, even public restrooms such as you often find at parks qualify; tents, dugouts, picnic shelters, garages, carports and the like do not.

6. Get (or stay) in your car. Today’s cars, SUVs, RVs, and trucks are aluminum, not steel, and are very safe places to be during a lightning storm. If the vehicle has a metal roof and all the windows are rolled up. And if you refrain from getting on your CB radio (or any radio or cell phone attached to a charger, for that matter) during the storm. Convertibles, golf carts, ATVs, tractors, bikes, and motorcycles don’t count, unfortunately. NOAA said again and again that if you were camping, picnicking, hiking, playing baseball or any team sport, golfing, fishing, etc.etc., and saw a storm coming up, your best bet was to run for the car.

7. Get in your boat’s cabin. A boat with no cabin, like a canoe, kayak, or small sailboat, is apparently a very bad bet when a thunderstorm blows up. But if a storm blows up before you can return to land and get in your car or indoors, and your boat does have a cabin, get in there and stay there, keeping away from metal, wiring, and radios.

8. Don’t worry about airplanes. According to the Yahoo! article, all airplanes are struck by lightning at least once a year, but they’re protected against lightning strikes. Lightning won’t take your airplane down, at least, not if you’re flying commercial instead of on your own.

9. Get down, but don’t lie down. If you’re outdoors and a storm takes you by surprise, so you can’t make it to the car or indoors before lightning starts crashing around you, you’re at high risk. You want to find a low area, but not be the highest thing on, say, a flat expanse of golf course. Head down from a mountain hike and away from tall, isolated trees; aim for dips or valleys and shorter stands of trees. Do not lie down on the ground; lightning can snake across the ground for miles from where it strikes. Spooky!

10. Stay where you are. NOAA says to stay in your car, home, office, or wherever for 30 minutes after hearing the last thunderclap before venturing out, since lightning may still be lurking long after it seems the storm has ended.

And the bonus:

11. Stay informed. NOAA recommends that you carry a NOAA weather radio with you and check in frequently if you’re planning to attend a picnic or game or go hiking, to the beach, fishing, and so on. We have a pocket-sized NOAA weather radio we bought at Radio Shack for less than $20, and it’s been a lifesaver for us on many occasions, since we can get up-to-the-minute weather updates before hitting the road for any reason. But going online to weather.com or Weather Underground can also be helpful, especially since it’s so easy to check the weather at your destination as well as at home. (Often, it’s the weather where you’re going that matters, after all.) 

Thanks, Yahoo!, NOAA, and Dr. Franklin! We don’t want to be turned into human lightning rods.

Purple martins pass through. July 23, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Our friend Ben has been hearing for years that purple martin populations have been declining in the East due to the conversion of their favored habitat, large expanses of open fields and ponds, to tree-laden suburban plots. Silence Dogood and I live out in Pennsylvania farm country, and on our country rambles we see many martin houses on Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania Dutch farms, both the martin “apartment houses” made famous by the one Harrison Ford crashed into in “Witness” and our favorites, the white-painted gourds hung in clusters. But until yesterday, we had never seen a purple martin.

Our friend Ben had gone to the back of our property, Hawk’s Haven, at about 7:30 a.m. to putter in the greenhouse and veggie beds before it got too hot and humid. Our land is bordered in back (and front) by farm fields, and the farmers had followed their wheat crop with hairy vetch, a nitrogen-fixing cover crop, which was now covered in purple blooms. Presumably, those blooms were attracting plenty of insects, because our friend Ben was suddenly in the center of an aerial show.

Past my head the birds swooped, completely oblivious to (or at least unconcerned by) my presence as they pursued their prey. Their path took them over the field, then back onto Hawk’s Haven land and past my head again and again. I had never seen a purple martin, but there was no doubt in my mind that was what I was seeing now. Racing for the house, I grabbed Silence and we rushed back to our property line.

Our mouths hung open almost as wide as the martins’ beaks as they combed the air for bugs (martins catch their prey on the wing by flying open-beaked). We stood there, awestruck, for half an hour as the martins swept past us, often close enough to stir our hair. A martin’s flight is elegant, the wings pumping once to send them skyward, then folding back as they arc back down in the classic swallow flight pattern. (Purple martins are the largest North American swallows.)

Eventually, we shook ourselves and got back to the morning chores: watering the greenhouse, harvesting tomatoes and blueberries, checking the progress of the fruits on the squash, tomatillo, and pepper plants, culling buggy peaches, and enjoying the spectacle of the bumblebees and honeybees jostling to pollinate the many gorgeous squash blossoms. When our friend Ben returned to the site an hour later, the martins were gone.

Luckily for us, we were heading out for a gathering of our beloved Supper Club that very night, and our friend and local birdmeister Rudy was attending. (For more on this, see our earlier post, “The Friday Night Supper Club.” A supper club is great fun and easy to organize!)

Rudy confirmed that we had indeed seen purple martins, a flock of immature martins with their bluish-purple backs and brownish-white bellies. (Adult males are entirely blue-black.) Then he gave the hopeful Ben the bad news: No, I couldn’t put up some white gourds and establish my own martin colony; Hawk’s Haven has too many trees to make it attractive to martins as a nest site. Aaaarrgghhh!!! He also revealed that martins spend their winters in Brazil, a very long trip for a comparatively small bird.

This morning, our friend Ben headed to my favorite birding site, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, to find out more about purple martins. (Check out the site on our blogroll at right.) I discovered that purple martins are 7.5 to almost 8 inches long, with wingspans of 15.4 to 16-plus inches. This seems like a pretty hefty wingspan, but you don’t see ever see the wings stretched straight out, airplane-style, like a hawk in flight. Instead, the wings curve, scimitar-style, as the martins slice the air in what the website endearingly described as their “buoyant” flight pattern.

I also learned that martins drink on the wing, skimming pond surfaces with their open beaks, as well as eating on the wing. Talk about fast food! But the most interesting tidbit our friend Ben discovered was about martin nesting habits. The site said that Native Americans had been setting out gourd houses for purple martins since before the first Europeans arrived here, and that farmers had been putting up martin houses for well over 100 years. As a result, Eastern martin populations were now almost entirely dependent on human-provided nesting structures, unlike Midwestern and Western populations, which still nest in natural cavities (including nest-holes in saguaro cacti).

Our friend Ben loves the idea of carrying on an ancient tradition of setting out gourds for the purple martins, so now I’m even more demoralized that I can’t do it here. But maybe you can!

For those who might be wondering why the Native Americans and early American farmers went to such pains to attract martins to their fields, when early America was literally teeming with other bird species, the answer is simple: natural pest control.

Like bats, martins are insect-eating machines, tirelessly sweeping the fields in search of their prey. Before the advent of chemical pesticides that killed beneficial and destructive insects alike (and the birds and other creatures that depended on them), everyone was an organic gardener. It’s heartening to think that people saw the good sense in partnering with nature hundreds and perhaps thousands of years before today’s organic renaissance.

Go martins go!!! But don’t eat our bees, please.

Have you ever seen a fresh turmeric root? July 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
Tags: , , ,

Silence Dogood here. And actually, it’s a rhizome (think of its relative, ginger, or a bearded iris). My friend Huma recently brought me one from Patel’s in New York City, and it was the most amazing-looking thing, like a big, brilliant dayglo-orange caterpillar with tan rings along its back. Of course, I wanted to cook with it in the worst way, but instead, I controlled myself, rushed to the greenhouse, and planted it in our in-ground greenhouse bed where we also grow lemongrass, cardamom, and ginger.

I’ve been watering religiously, but there still is no sign of sprouts. But I’m not discouraged: It must have taken two months for the ginger to start sending up shoots. While watering this morning, however, I noticed another cool thing: A new shoot is pushing up from my cardamom, and its base is the most amazing brilliant scarlet. I could picture the intense orange of the turmeric rhizome with the scarlet of the cardamom shoot, the forest-green of the cardamom foliage, and the chartreuse of the lemongrass leaves: What a great color combination for a quilt!

But I digress. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) can apparently grow 6 feet tall and forms dense stands. It blooms for a couple of weeks in late summer/early fall. Like cardamom and culinary ginger, the plants aren’t the most decorative, but who cares when your goal is to grow a crop of rhizomes to harvest? You can also use the leaves in Indonesian dishes.

But what about using the fresh rhizome rather than the powder in dishes? I simply refuse to use powdered ginger in anything, since the dusty flavor can’t compare to fresh. Would fresh turmeric have an equally strong advantage over dried?

Heading to my good friend Google, I was directed to the website Cooking with Kurma (http://www.kurma.net/). Kurma is an Australian cooking celebrity, and apparently when pronounced with an Australian accent, “Kurma” is some sort of pun, but I’m afraid it’s lost on me. However, I do have three of Kurma’s excellent Indian vegetarian cookbooks in my cookbook collection, so when Google led with his website, I felt a considerable level of trust. Here’s what he said:

“It [turmeric] is a delight to use fresh, but must be handled with great care because as soon as the rhizomes are cut, they can seriously stain fingers, aprons, even cutting boards and knives. [And here I thought powdered turmeric was bad!—Silence] I usually grate them while wearing disposable kitchen gloves. I love to use fresh turmeric in long-cooking dishes like dals and moist vegetables to give the fresh product time to do its magic.

“I also fry fresh turmeric with grated fresh ginger in any recipes that ask for powdered turmeric, and I use it in double quantities. In other words, if a recipe calls for 1/2 teaspoon powdered turmeric, I will use 1 teaspoon of the fresh. Used fresh, its slightly bitter and pungent flavour is unsurpassable.”

Thanks, Kurma. Now I’m even more inspired!

What about you? Ready to grow a big pot of turmeric on your deck? Even though I’d never seen a fresh turmeric rhizome until Huma brought mine here, you don’t have to head to New York City to find one. Reading other growers’ comments, some found theirs in Asian markets, at Whole Foods, even on Amazon. So if you’re feeling adventurous, Google “fresh turmeric sources” and see what you find. Then go for it! When you’re ready to harvest, just take what you need and replant the rest, and you should have fresh turmeric forever.

               ‘Til next time,



Cat lovers, listen up. July 21, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in pets.
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Silence Dogood here. I just received a comment on an earlier post (“What do you feed your dog?”) that directed me to an excellent website on cat diet- and health-related topics, CatInfo.org, written and maintained by Lisa A. Pierson, DVM. Check it out for yourselves at http://www.catinfo.org/ and let me know what you think of it!

And give your cats a big hello from Linus, Layla and Athena.

                    ‘Til next time,