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Shut up and drive. April 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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In our adopted home state of Pennsylvania, it is now illegal to text and drive. But an attempt in the nearby cities of Allentown and Bethlehem to make it illegal to talk on a cellphone and drive was struck down because it wasn’t a statewide law. Now there’s finally hard science about why it should be, even for hands-free conversations.

Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a story called, improbably, “What Cocktail Parties Can Teach Us.” (Well worth reading in its entirety at www.wsj.com.) Our friend Ben was breezing past it when I saw the subtitle, “The Brain Is Wired to Focus on Just One Thing.” Having seen too many times the shoddy results of multitasking, I strongly agree with this, so of course I read the article to get their take on it. Check this out:

“Drivers talking on cellphones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren’t. Many of those accidents are due to ‘inattentional blindness’, in which people can, in effect, turn a blind eye to things they aren’t focusing on… ‘It’s a push-pull relationship—the more we focus on one thing, the less we can focus on others,’ says Diane M. Beck, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois…. All the sensory inputs vie to become the mind’s top priority. That’s the real danger of distracted driving, experts say. ‘You regularly hear people say so long as your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road, you’re fine. But that’s not true,’ [University of Illinois professor of psychology] Mr. Simons says.” He should know, as we’ll see.

The article continues: “Studies over the past decade at the University of Utah show that drivers talking on hands-free cellphones are just as impaired as those on hands-held phones because it is the conversation, not the device, that is draining their attention. ‘Even though your eyes are looking right at something, when you are on the cellphone, you are not as likely to see it,’ says David Strayer, a psychology professor and lead researcher.”

If you don’t, uh, “see” how that could possibly be true, let’s get back to Professor Simons, who conducted a now-famous study at Harvard in the 1990s called the “Invisible Gorilla Experiment.” People were shown a short video of kids playing basketball and asked to count how many times the ball was passed by the team wearing white. During the course of the clip, a man in a gorilla suit walks across the court. Subsequent questioning revealed that half the people watching the video failed to see the ‘gorilla’, even though it was in plain sight, because they were concentrating on counting the passes.

This isn’t just about cellphones or texting, either. Our friend Ben enjoyed listening to interactive language CDs while driving, since it seemed like a great use of commuting time. But I had to stop after I realized that trying to recall Spanish and Japanese phrases was interfering with my driving, even though my eyes were definitely on the road and both hands were on the wheel. (Now I listen at home, which is pretty humiliating, since Silence Dogood can hear my frantic attempts at recall and correct pronunciation, and as you can imagine, is not at all shy about imitating them.)

And what about everything else? Our friend Rob listens to his beloved Penn State football games if they come on while he’s driving. We have many friends who listen to “talk radio” while driving, including everything from calamity-filled news broadcasts to intense and thought-provoking programs on NPR to the vicious invective of professional hate-mongers. Other friends are addicted to audiobooks during their commutes.

What about tense conversations with fellow passengers, screaming and/or fighting kids in the back seat, the innumerable people who try to eat and/or drink coffee while they’re driving (and often while also talking on the cellphone), or people like our neighbors whose dogs run around in the car? Our friend Ben develops a lead foot every time I’m listening and singing along to a fast-paced song, be it Mark Knopfler’s “Speedway at Nazareth” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and I have to make a conscious effort to slow down.

Our society prizes multitasking (even though studies show that only 2.5% of the population can actually succeed at it) and puts enormous pressure on everyone to scatter their focus like seed sown in a garden. No amount of studies, Wall Street Journal articles, or shoddy results are likely to change that. But we could at least focus our multitasking efforts where they’re less likely to harm us and our fellow beings. Please, let’s shut up and drive.


Please help us save our plants! April 23, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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The Genius of the Weather clearly has it in for us. After temps reaching the high 80s throughout late March and April, we’re predicted to hit 32-degree-F. lows at least twice this week here in scenic PA. Okay, so we’ve kept our tomatoes and other hot-weather transplants snugged up in our greenhouse. And we hope our greens, cole crops, and etc. are cold-hardy enough to survive these unseasonable dips.

So what’s our problem? It’s that we’ve hauled out the 50-odd container plants from our greenhouse to condition them before cleaning them up, potting them up if necessary, and bringing them onto our deck for the growing season. These include everything from amaryllis, walking iris, and clivia to cannas, citrus, figs, and bay trees.

Needless to say, we’ve rushed our most cold-sensitive plants back into the greenhouse. But oh God, we really, really don’t want to have to haul them all back in there! So we’d like to know what you think. Would throwing a tarp on top of them at night provide sufficient protection, or are we deluding ourselves? Please. Help. Us. Thanks!

Earth Day in the garden. April 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Every day really is Earth Day here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Between our chickens, greenhouse, veggie beds, fruits and berries, vast container and houseplant collection, and numerous ornamental beds—not to mention a heavily wooded yard with many trees and shrubs—we keep pretty busy tending our one-acre Eden. Especially this time of year! With our early spring, like many of you, we’ve really been kept trotting trying to play catch-up.

So how do we celebrate Earth Day? By sharing. Giving extra asparagus crowns, onion sets, and “walking onion” bulbs to friends and neighbors. Potting up the lush jade plants we started from broken branch tips in our in-ground greenhouse bed the previous year. (People who get them always exclaim about how big and healthy they are. They should see the parents!) Ditto for the partridge-breast aloes, the aloe vera/barbadensis offshoots, the spider plants, purple zebrinus, plectranthus, and other container plants that root in easily for us. Back in the garden, we pot up catnip for our cat-loving friends, along with peppermint and garlic chives. If people ask for horseradish, they get it. Of course, our chickens and the denizens of our earthworm composter receive special treats to mark the day, too.

We think spending Earth Day preparing our bounty to share with others is a great way to honor our beautiful home world. How do you celebrate Earth Day?

Death and taxes. April 17, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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“Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.”

                           —Benjamin Franklin

In honor of tax day, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac are offering up a baker’s dozen wise words from our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin. They may not keep away the taxman, but if you take Dr. Franklin’s advice to heart, you’ll definitely be on your way to becoming healthy, wealthy and wise. Thanks, Ben!

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

“Half a truth is often a great lie.”

“Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one.”

“A place for everything, everything in its place.”

“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.”

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”

“Necessity never made a good bargain.”

“To lengthen thy life lessen thy meals.”

“There are no gains without pains.”

“A good example is the best sermon.”

“If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some.” 

Happy tax day, everyone! May your refunds be prompt and no auditors ever darken your door!

A truly Titanic meal. April 14, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. You’d think that yesterday, Friday the 13th, would be a day of sufficient ill-omen to last most months. But this is April, and today, the 14th, is normally the drop-dead date to file income taxes, a spectre far more terrifying to most of us than the 13th could ever be. (This year, thank God, our taxes aren’t due until the 17th.) But this April 14 bears another shadow: It’s the date that the great oceanliner Titanic sank, exactly 100 years ago, April 14, 1912, after an unexpected collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Sea.

There are plenty of ways to commemorate the tragedy, including heading to the movie theater to watch the 3-D re-release of James Cameron’s monster hit “Titanic.” (I’ve never seen it, so I’ve added it to our friend Ben’s and my Netflix queue—“very long wait”—rather than anteing up big bucks to watch it in nausea-inducing 3-D. I’ve also added the famous 1950s take on the sinking, “A Night to Remember,” and Julian Fellowes’s 2012 documentary series to our queue. Both also, sadly, “very long wait.”)

If, like me, you love food history, there’s another way to commemorate the Titanic tragedy. I found a fascinating book at a used-book store when our friend Ben and I were vacationing in scenic Asheville, North Carolina a few years ago called Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner (Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley, Hyperion, 1997).

The book is packed with photos, illustrations, menus, recipes, history, and memorabilia from the Titanic (and its nearly-identical sister ship, the Olympic), recalling the style of the bygone Gilded Age and leading up to the final meals eaten in the various dining facilities on board the Titanic on the fateful evening of April 14, 1912. Mere hours later, the ship’s hull was breached by an iceberg, and what may have been the foremost symbol of an age of excess was lost.

Lost, but not forgotten, in this case. Though the film “Titanic” certainly has kept the story in the popular imagination in our own day, the illustrious passenger list (including John Jacob Astor, presumed to be the world’s wealthiest man at the time, Benjamin Guggenheim, and a host of other wealthy magnates, as well as the Unsinkable Molly Brown) assured the event immortality in its own day.

The privileged classes are rarely the ones that suffer, and the shock of so many doing so at once reverberated through every layer of society. The wealthy leaders of society in that day dominated the gossip columns and tabloids the way Lady Gaga, Brangelina, the Kardashians, and Kate Middleton do in our own day: People just couldn’t get enough of them. It would be as though every major movie star, rock star, celebrity, and member of the British Royal Family boarded a single plane that then was hit by an asteroid and went down. “Titanic” is just the most successful of a steady stream of books and movies that have commemorated the disaster.

But to get back to the food. Amazingly, a copy survives of the menu served that final night in the first-class dining saloon. (And no, Jesse James and Buffalo Bill weren’t invited; why a dining salon was called a saloon on the world’s most luxurious ocean liner is beyond me, but so it was.) You can therefore recreate for yourselves the ultimate luxury dining experience, especially if you have the book, which provides a preparation timeline, elaborate details about how to create invitations and place settings, the order in which the eleven-course meal should be presented, how many people you’ll need to help you, and how many days it will take (four, not counting shopping for ingredients or cleaning up afterwards) to prepare this feast in a modern home kitchen. Plus, of course, the book provides recipes.

I’m going to share that menu for you just for fun. At first, it might look more upscale but not all that different from a modern menu. But there’s one little difference: Each diner was supposed to partake of every single super-rich dish on this menu. And bear in mind that each course was served separately, then removed before the arrival of the subsequent course, quite a series of ceremonial processions, rather like a banquet at the court of Henry VIII or Louis XIV.

Now, you might choose either the consomme or the cream soup, pass on the vegetable farcie or lamb, and decide that just one type of potato was adequate, maybe even skip the ice cream. But you would be presented with every dish, and most people indulged in quite a spread. Not to mention the different wine or wines that accompanied each course. There was no concept here of getting away with “I’ll have the oysters, filet mignon, green peas and Parmentier potatoes, asparagus salad, and peaches in Chartreuse jelly, please.” Oh, no. To eat like an Astor, you’d be expected to tackle this meal in its entirety:

         First Course: Hors d’Oeuvre

Hors d’OEuvre Varies


        Second Course: Soups

Consomme Olga

Cream of Barley

        Third Course: Fish

Salmon, Mousseline Sauce, Cucumber

         Fourth Course: Entrees

Filet Mignons Lili

Saute of Chicken, Lyonnaise

Vegetable Marrow Farcie

         Fifth Course: Removes

Lamb, Mint Sauce

Roast Duckling, Apple Sauce

Sirloin of Beef, Chateau Potatoes

Green Peas

Creamed Carrots

Boiled Rice

Parmentier & Boiled New Potatoes

         Sixth Course: Punch or Sorbet

Punch Romaine

          Seventh Course: Roast

Roast Squab & Cress

           Eighth Course: Salad

Cold Asparagus Vinaigrette

           Ninth Course: Cold Dish

Pate de Fois Gras


           Tenth Course: Sweets

Waldorf Pudding

Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly

Chocolate & Vanilla Eclairs

French Ice Cream

           Eleventh Course: Dessert

Assorted Fresh Fruits & Cheeses

            After Dinner


Port or Cordials


Feeling full yet? I’d assumed for years that the serving portions were considerably smaller than today’s “Supersize Me” versions. But after reading about the monstrous meals consumed by the French Victorian-era novelist Honore de Balzac, I have to wonder. No doubt the tightly corseted women of the Gibson Girl era could only manage a few bites, but it’s amazing that the men weren’t titanic themselves. The amount of food consumed was staggering, and after all the liquid refreshment generously poured with every course, I don’t understand why they all weren’t literally staggering, but I digress.

Getting back to the Astors, the book’s authors admit one defeat in the course of their researches: They were unable to find a recipe for Waldorf Pudding. (Think Waldorf-Astoria.) So they made one up using ingredients from today’s version of Waldorf Salad! Shame on them! I’m sure it was no such thing. The signature pudding of a famous contemporary hotel, San Francisco’s Hotel St. Francis, was Pink Pudding Victor (named for the hotel’s celebrated chef), a very sweet pink fruited rice pudding served with fruit sauce.

Looking this up made me wonder what was in the original Waldorf Salad, anyway. The recipe given in The Hotel St. Francis Cook Book (1919) reads as follows: “Waldorf salad. Half white celery and half apple, cut in small squares. Put both in salad bowl, but do not mix. Cover with mayonnaise and season to taste.” Season to taste with what?! And thank goodness I don’t have to cut celery in small squares! I’m sure blanched celery must still be available, like blanched (white) asparagus, though I’ve never seen any. And what’s the deal with “do not mix”? I guess it was a layered salad, with mayonnaise as the top layer. Oh well, at least the mayo would have been house-made.

Back to the Titanic. It may take us moderns four days to prepare an eleven-course meal. What I’m wondering is, how long must it take to eat one?!

             ‘Til next time,


Penny ante. April 12, 2012

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 for your two cents’ worth about the fate of the U.S. cent, informally known as the penny. Canada declared its penny obsolete this past March; in Europe, only the Brits keep them in circulation. Is it time the U.S. sent Abe packing?

As a two-bit coin collector, I love pennies. But even I must admit that making them no longer makes “cents.” That’s because, at this point, the metal in the pennies is worth more than their face value—2.4 cents for every penny, according to Fortune Tech blog contributor Dan Mitchell (“Don’t mess with the penny lobby,” http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/).

And, due to the increasing demand for metals like copper and zinc, that disparity is sure to get higher. I’ve already read about people hoarding pre-1982 pennies for their copper content. (From 1864 to 1982, U.S. pennies were 95% copper; thereafter, they’re 2.5% copper, used as a plating over a zinc core, with 1982’s pennies splitting the difference. The exception is 1943, the year of the zinc-coated steel wartime cent, aka the “silver penny.”) As for the hoarders, I think these folks would be smarter to save nickels (25% nickel, 75% copper) or, say, aluminum foil. But I digress.

Apart from coin collectors like yours truly, the zinc lobby, and the folks who produce those change-to-bills converter machines you see in grocery store entries, is there anybody else out there who’s in favor of saving the penny? I’d like to hear from you either way.


                       Richard Saunders

The BEST weight-loss trick. April 11, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Everyone who’s tried to lose weight and keep it off (or remain a healthy weight and keep the pounds from piling on) knows that simply adjusting your diet isn’t enough. Of course it will help. But to sustainably take and/or keep the weight off, you have to exercise.

The options seem obvious: You can go to a gym (if you can afford gym membership or your employer either has a corporate gym or provides free memberships to local gyms as employee perks). You can work out on your stationary bike or treadmill or use weights, dance videos, and etc. at home. You can bike, swim, run, or walk. Ideally, you’ll work several of these into your daily routine.

Of these, the most easily accessible is, obviously, walking. Most of us are able-bodied enough to walk, and you don’t need special equipment or a special location to walk in.

I’m sure you’ve heard many times that we should all aim for at least 10,000 steps a day for optimal health. Unless you wear a pedometer, those 10,000 steps are probably pretty much of an abstraction. Maybe the folks who devised that number didn’t want to intimidate people by converting those steps into their equivalent distance, which is five miles.

Five miles a day can seem overpowering. Where will you find the time and stamina? It’s easy, once you break it back down into those steps. But you also have to break down the habits of a lifetime. What you need to do is counterintuitive, going against not just your instincts but your societal training.

Efficiency is the hallmark of our culture. Saving effort, saving steps: It just makes sense. Through most of human history, food was scarce and survival depended on our conserving calories, being as efficient as possible. We moved only when necessary and made sure that all our movements carried the maximum payoff. Unfortunately, today, moving as little as possible will make us fat and kill us. What can we do?

I say again, it’s easy. Just think about what you’d typically do, then do the opposite. Let’s say you’re setting the table. You bring a stack of plates, forks, knives, napkins, etc., and then distribute them at each place around the table. What if you brought and placed each bowl, plate, fork, knife, spoon, napkin, etc. separately? What if, instead of gathering twigs on your tree-lined property to put in your firepit, you picked up each twig by itself and trotted it over to the firepit? What if you brought each piece of dirty clothing to your laundry room in a separate trip instead of collecting it and making one trip?

This sounds crazy, right? But it’s easy, once you start thinking that every extra step is a good step. And the way to do that is with a pedometer. Pedometers are cheap, and they record every single step. Seeing each step is incredibly motivating as you head toward that 10,000-a-day total. I stick mine on my bathrobe belt every morning, transfer it to my skirt’s waistline when I get dressed, and check it throughout the day. If I need more steps to get to 10,000, I just add the time to my treadmill walk. But I often get to 10,000 without even turning to the treadmill, especially if it’s a shopping day; the other day, I topped 15,500.

Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and I have three long-haired cats and a German shepherd. These four on the floor translate to lots of fur on the floor. Rather than reaching for the vacuum cleaner, I pick each tuft up and carry it to the farthest wastebasket (I figure all the bending isn’t hurting the exercise component of this particular chore, either). Rather than gathering up everything I need for a given task in one convenient swoop, I make it as inconvenient as possible, necessitating many separate trips to assemble all the ingredients or materials. With a large, heavily planted yard like ours, it’s easy to turn yardwork into a real workout.

There are plenty of other ways I add to my daily step total. I’ll add a few more circuits around the grocery or farmers’ market, enjoying the beautiful fruits, veggies and flowers before heading up and down the natural-foods and international aisles. It’s not going to kill me to visit the produce aisle several times, after all. And who knows, maybe I missed something! Another way to maximize grocery-store walking is to bring your list and, instead of getting everything you need from an aisle or department, get one thing, let’s say lettuce, then one from a distant aisle (maybe toilet paper), then back for the carrots, off again for some paper towels, and so on. You can obviously do this in any store.

Speaking of stores, I try to make a point of parking once, then walking to each store in that area that I need to go in, then walking back to the car to deposit my purchases before heading off to the next store. This can create a lot of round trips! Then I’ll drive to the next cluster of stores and repeat the process. If I’m out running errands that don’t involve shopping, I can pick a store or two I know I’d enjoy browsing in and just walk around for a while.

Another way I often add extra steps is by walking while waiting. I’ll do a kitchen circuit while waiting for the tea water to boil and again while waiting for the tea to finish steeping. Walking around (or walking in place if you’re on a land line) while on hold turns an everyday irritant into an opportunity to ratchet up your step total. 

You can see why I think a pedometer is vital to success, at least until you can retrain your brain to automatically think in terms of inconvenience and inefficiency. It lets you see for yourself that, despite all appearances to the contrary, you really are getting somewhere. And you’re getting there while doing things you’d have to do anyway, the best of all possible worlds.

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says “Boldly going nowhere.” I invite you to put on your pedometer and join me. You’ll soon find that, though you may appear to be going nowhere, those extra pounds are definitely going somewhere—somewhere far from you. And they won’t be back anytime soon! 

              ‘Til next time,


Beauty is truth. April 9, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s so hard being beautiful. All you homely-to-ugly women out there should feel really sorry for me, having to endlessly bear the burden of my gorgeousness. Poor, poor me! Nobody suffers as I suffer.

Silence Dogood here. No doubt all of you have, by now, heard about the furor stirred up by Samantha Brick’s article in the London Daily Mail (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/, “‘There are downsides to looking this pretty’: Why women hate me for being beautiful”), in which she complains about how she’s discriminated against by other women for her stunning looks. Two quotes from the article: “I have written in the Mail on how I have flirted [with male bosses] to get ahead at work, something I’m sure many women do.”  “If you’re a woman reading this, I’d hazard that you’ve already formed your own opinion about me—and it won’t be very flattering.”

I wonder why. Especially given the numerous photos of Ms. Brick included in the article and, subsequently, in the publicity after the response. Ms. Brick is a perfectly normal-looking woman who takes good care of herself, works hard to stay in shape, and tries to optimize her appearance. Few women could take exception to that, since most of us try to do the same and know just what it takes to pull it off. It’s the attitude that’s inconceivable.

It would be one thing if the speaker were Elizabeth Taylor, Halle Berry or Claudia Schiffer. Or Olivia De Havilland or Beyonce or Liv Tyler or, say, Nefertiti. But please do go online and check out Ms. Brick’s appearance for yourself. I very much doubt that, if you’re a woman, you’ll come away feeling any worse about your own appearance. Instead, you’ll probably be thinking, “God! What a fakey-looking dye job,” “She’ll never get those upper arms toned,” and “I look better than that, so what the hell’s she going on about?!” We should be grateful to her for making us feel good about ourselves.

If it hadn’t been for the backlash and her response to it, I’d have assumed the article was an Onion-style parody. Now I wonder if it was simply a way to catapult its author into a very lucrative series of appearances on late-night talk shows and (inevitably) a book deal. If so, I have to applaud her brilliant strategy if not her mundane looks. I hope she calls the book Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me.

Whatever the case, I have a little wake-up call for Ms. Brick: It’s your attitude and behavior, not your appearance, that turns other women off. In your article, you say “I can’t wait for the wrinkles and grey hair that will help me blend into the background.” Right. Please bear in mind that men also recognize a manipulator and mercenary flirt, and aren’t shy about turning that blatant behavior to their advantage. That airline pilot who gifted you with a “complimentary” bottle of champagne was doubtless hoping for a return on his investment, and thinking it likely that he’d get one.

Getting back to you readers, as you can see, Ms. Brick’s unwarranted self-promoting behavior really frosts my flakes, as our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders would say. But I’d have kept my response to it to an irate rant directed toward our friend Ben and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and out of the annals of Poor Richard’s Almanac were it not for another article on beauty—and the loss of it—that made the cover of Easter Sunday’s Parade magazine.

The cover showed a dreadfully disfigured woman sitting on a sofa with her husband. I thought, “Oh my God! Is this the woman whose face was torn off by the chimpanzee?” It was, instead, a woman who’d been burned over 80% of her body in a small-aircraft crash, with the worst damage on her face and neck. She was just 27, the mother of four children, all under 6, and her husband had also been badly burned and injured in the crash.

Photos of people who’ve been disfigured disturb and shock us. (In addition to the Parade cover, the Time cover of the beautiful, noseless Afghan girl who’d been mauled by the Taliban and the Esquire cover of Roger Ebert after disastrous surgery for esophageal cancer come to mind.)

The reason isn’t far to seek, either: This could be us. One minute, we’re driving home from an evening out; the next a tree has fallen on our car (as happened to a couple in a little town near us), completely crushing but not killing us. One minute, we’re happily hiking a trail in a national park; the next, we’re mauled by a grizzly or a mountain lion. One minute, we’re sleeping peacefully; the next, our house is on fire. One minute, we’re busy wheeling and dealing as usual; the next, a terrorist plane has hit our office building. One minute, we’re sightseeing in any major city; the next, we’ve been attacked by drug-crazed robbers and gunned down or repeatedly slashed. One minute, we’re enjoying a country drive; the next, we’ve been slammed by a drunk driver.

Life is tenuous, our bodies are fragile, and safety is an illusion we’re able to maintain because dreadful things, mercifully, don’t happen often. So visual reminders that they do and can happen to anyone, at any time, are profoundly disturbing.

It’s one thing if you dare disaster to take you, like climbers on Mount Everest who are lucky to escape with just a few fingers and toes lost to frostbite, and their less-fortunate peers whose frozen bodies litter the slopes like discarded water bottles. It’s another if you’re Natasha Richardson taking a beginner ski lesson and ending up dead, or someone who tries hard to avoid risks of any kind but is still caught up in a holdup or a car crash.

I’ll say it again: Life is uncertain, and we are much more fragile than we think. I’ve often had to point out to the overconfident, 6’2″ our friend Ben that a gun is a big leveller, even in the hands of someone who’s 5’1″. So is a fire, or a famine, or an epidemic, or a plane crash. 

I read the Parade cover story with admiration for the brave woman who fought the pain and the disfigurement and the alienation and the losses with love, faith, family support, and courage. But I didn’t cry until I saw the photo that had been taken of her just four months before the crash, and saw the extent of her loss. Not many people are blessed with looks like hers. The “before” must have made the “after” that much harder. 

She sums up her feelings, revealingly, in an excerpt from the article: “I knew the world didn’t accept people like me. People were relentlessly critical and rude, or sickeningly condescending. I never wanted to be seen again.”

Perhaps that had indeed been her pre-accident attitude. But I can’t imagine anyone being critical of, or rude to, or condescending towards a disfigured person. I can, however, easily imagine them being sickened, sickened with fear (This could be me), and shocked into letting it show.

It takes real guts to face a world that flinches away from you, that averts its eyes, that turns away. It takes wisdom to recognize that it is fear, the fear of our own fragility and mortality, that sparks that reaction, rather than crassness and personal distaste. It takes real greatness of soul to show love and compassion in the face of such hurtful reactions.

I’ll never forget reading a story some years ago about a woman who’d been shot point-blank in the face with a shotgun, resulting in horrific disfigurement. She was grocery shopping one day when she heard a little boy, catching sight of her, blurt out something to the effect of “Mommy! You said that monsters weren’t real. But there’s one over there!” Pointing, of course, to her. Rather than heaping abuse on the child or simply turning away, the woman came up and said, “I’m not a monster. See? I used to look like this.” (Pulling out a photo of her very attractive former self.) “I just had a terrible accident.”

God bless that woman, and the woman in Parade, and that beautiful, noseless Afghan girl, and all the rest who lose limbs to accident or disease or are born without them or suffer other forms of disfigurement but continue to soldier on, to bear witness in a world that doesn’t even want to see them, to say that life—and a rich, full life—is possible, even when you look like they do or suffer as they do. They at least have found what true beauty is. I honor them.

           ‘Til next time,


Note: This post’s title is taken from a line from the poet John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty: That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”   


Keep off the grass. April 5, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Planning an Easter-egg hunt this weekend? You might want to do it indoors. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been horrified to read articles in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, and The Wall Street Journal within the past week about the predicted massive tick outbreak heading our way this year.

Ticks, those vampires of the insect (actualy mite) world, are gross enough as it is, putting the “creepy” into creepy crawlers. Unlike mosquitoes, which you can see, hear, and feel, you seldom know a tick is sucking your blood until you just happen to see it. And where you’re likely to see it is every bit as gross as the fact that you now have to get this bloodsucker off yourself by extracting it with tweezers. Ticks favor warm, humid areas, including armpits, the groin, bra and underwear bands, the scalp, etc. Eeeewwww!

But (trust us) they’ve been known to attach themselves pretty much anywhere, including earlobes. (Talk about the ultimate pierced ears!) Silence starts screaming every time she sees one on herself, yours truly, or our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh. Of course, we give Shiloh monthly applications of Frontline to try to keep ticks and fleas off her (and out of the house). But what about keeping them off us?

Not to mention that the grossness of having this sneaky bloodsucker attaching itself to your body is actually the least of your troubles. Ticks on the East Coast and the North Atlantic area, where we live, are carriers of Lyme disease. Lyme disease in dogs can cause paralysis—talk about terrifying!—but fortunately, a shot can reverse this within half an hour.

Humans who come down with Lyme aren’t that lucky. Silence and I know two people who contracted Lyme disease, and it pretty much wrecked their lives, and the lives of their spouses in consequence. The list of symptoms (typically but not always preceded by a telltale reddish bull’s-eye rash around the bite) include chills, fever, headaches, Bell’s palsy, arthritis, shooting pains, numbness in hands and feet, memory loss, swollen lymph nodes, heart palpitations, and on and on. One friend’s husband suffered deep depression and a complete personality change; our very artistic colleague had a total setback in terms of his work. And years of conventional and alternative, cutting-edge treatments have relieved but not resolved the symptoms. This is not a disease you want to contract.

We don’t like it, but we give Shiloh a dose of Frontline every month, and she’s also had her series of Lyme vaccinations. We know there’s a Lyme vaccine for people, too, but nobody’s talking about it in the media. You hear a lot about flu and shingles vaccines; why not Lyme vaccine?

Dog ticks are comparatively big (roughly the size of a sunflower seed, but swelling exponentially when engorged with your blood or your dog’s), gross, and just as likely to get on you as on your dog. But it’s the teensy-tinesy deer ticks (more correctly, black-legged ticks) that are the transmitters of Lyme disease.

Turns out, pretty much everything we thought we knew about deer ticks is wrong. And what’s right isn’t reassuring. First, the main hosts of the tiny ticks aren’t deer, but white-footed mice, which share the deer’s woodland habitat. And a major source of food for white-footed mice is acorns. (Mice? Acorns? Who knew?) 2010 saw one of the most enormous acorn crops recorded in PA. Coupled with a mild winter, it gave the mice plenty of food and ideal conditions to reproduce. And reproduce they did. As did the ticks that were along for the free ride.

Then, in 2011, the acorn crop took a nosedive, reaching record-low levels. The white-footed mouse population crashed. But ticks are far more resilient than mice. They can wait three years to attach themselves to a food source.  (Three years?! OMG.) So they lurk there, on shrubs and branches, waiting to sense a warm-blooded host. And once they do, they drop down, crawl, undetected, to a warm, moist area, and start sucking blood.

Worse still, deer tick nymphs—primary carriers of Lyme disease—are even more invisible than the pinhead-sized adults. They tend to lurk in the grass and other low-lying vegetation and attach themselves to your feet and ankles, where you’re really unlikely to see them.

It takes 3 to 4 days for an infected tick to transmit Lyme disease, so you have a window of opportunity to remove them before they do their worst. And at this point, “their worst” is almost a certainty if you don’t get them off in time—it’s estimated that 9 out of 10 deer ticks in PA now carry Lyme disease.

For those who don’t know, our friend Ben should back up at this point and mention that the name “Lyme disease” has nothing to do with limes, or even Royall Lyme men’s cologne. (To my knowledge, no studies have been done to see if ticks choose their victims based on their cologne.) It’s named for Lyme, Connecticut, where the disease was first diagnosed.

Returning to more practical matters, those who should be most concerned about Lyme disease are folks who live in rural and/or forested areas, people with oak trees on or near their properties, and people whose work and/or recreation takes them outdoors, such as farmers, gardeners, birdwatchers, hikers, hunters, fly fishers, park personnel, landscapers, yard-maintenance crews, and the like.

As children growing up in the tick-ridden South, Silence and I learned the habit of the “tick check”—looking over your feet and legs every time you came indoors in the summer—from the time we could walk. This visual check is highly effective at catching and removing ticks before they have a chance to attach themselves. But it’s not always effective, for one reason: Small and awkward-looking as they are, ticks move really fast. It’s astonishing to see how quickly a tick can move up or across a given space, such as, say, your leg. Yikes! 

So what do the experts recommend? Everything from a bunker mentality—basically annihilating your entire landscape and paving, I mean, hardscaping it, then never leaving your house and deck—to wearing white socks so you’ll have a better chance of seeing any ticks before they attach. Washing the clothes you wear outdoors in super-hot water to kill any ticks on them is another recommendation. So is dousing yourself  with the insect repellant DEET, dousing your clothes and shoes with the pesticide Permethrin, and buying pesticide-laden outdoor clothing and socks (available through Insect Shield). Spraying or wearing pesticides on your shoes and socks is especially recommended to combat the insidious deer tick nymphs.

Well, I don’t know about you, but Silence and I aren’t about to turn our yard and gardens into a post-nuclear zone. We’re not about to give up gardening and cower in the house. And we’re not about to douse ourselves and our clothes with pesticides.

That leaves visual inspection and that elusive vaccine as the most viable options. True, most people might take a dim view of your hauling your skirt or pants legs up every time you come indoors, but it’s a small price to pay for the relief of knowing you’re tick-free. And what about the Lyme vaccine?

Oh. A chat with my good friend Google revealed to our friend Ben that it was introduced in 1998 and showed a preventive response in 80% of recipients, but was withdrawn from the market in 2002. The Centers for Disease Control and physicians and scientists who specialize in vector-borne infectious diseases (such as Lyme) have lobbied to have the vaccine, or a second-generation version, produced, to no avail. “In my opinion, this is a public health fiasco,” one article quoted Stanley A. Plotkin, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, as saying. “When else do you have a disease with that incidence [at least 30,000 reported cases in 2009 and many undiagnosed] where you know you can prevent it with a vaccine, but you don’t make it?”

Our friend Ben agrees. But lacking the vaccine, it’s wise to be especially wary after this year’s unnaturally warm winter. Experts warn that the tick invasion could begin this month. So stay alert, and please do your tick checks regularly!

For more, see “This Season’s Ticking Bomb,” www.wsj.com, and “Be on lookout for ticks this spring,” www.themorningcall.com.

Natural Easter egg dyes. April 3, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, homesteading, recipes.
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In the runup to Easter, we’re reprising some Easter-egg-related posts from previous years to make sure you don’t miss them. We hope you love Easter eggs as much as we do!

Silence Dogood here. Have you dyed your Easter eggs yet? If not, you might want to skip the food coloring and try these natural dyes, instead.

Onionskins: Traditional to my part of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Dutch country, are Easter eggs dyed with onionskins. Either red or brown skins can be used. (Red can yield a purplish or reddish color, brown typically yields a more orange color, a combination will give you a rich red-brown.) This practice remains so popular that you can find bags of mixed red and brown onionskins for sale at farmers’ markets and other area stores in the weeks leading up to Easter. Or of course, you can simply save your own in a special bag so you’ll have plenty on hand.

To make the dye, fill a large pot with onionskins and water and boil until the skins release their color. When the water is dark, remove the onionskins, add 1 to 2 teaspoons vinegar to fix the color, and put in the eggs in a single layer. Keep the eggs submerged with a large spoon as needed so they’re evenly dyed. When the eggs are a rich red-brown to reddish-purple color, remove them to a plate to cool.

You can use this dye on both white and brown eggs; of course, the brown eggs will take on a darker mahogany color. The result in either case is a rich, beautiful antique color that looks exquisite in a natural (undyed) basket.

Another Pennsylvania tradition is to etch beautiful designs on these eggs with a straight pin. I have some gorgeous etched eggs in my collection that are covered with flowers, birds, and etc. But if you want to etch your eggs, make sure you blow them before you dye them! These are keepsakes; it’s much too much effort to etch hardboiled eggs that you plan to eat later.

Red beet eggs. Another beloved tradition in Pennsylvania Dutch country is to make red beet eggs. These are shelled hardboiled eggs that are pickled in pickled beet juice, which turns them a brilliant pink to bright rose. I see no reason why you can’t dye the eggshells using this technique as easily as the eggs themselves.

To dye the shells, add the liquid from a large can (or two, if needed) of beets to a large pot along with 1 to 2 teaspoons of vinegar to set the dye. Bring to a low boil and add eggs in a single layer. (You’ll want to stick to white-shelled eggs for this dye.) Again, use a large spoon to keep eggs submerged and evenly dyed as needed. When the eggs have become adequately pink for you, remove them to a plate to cool.

Want to enjoy the traditional red beet eggs themselves? (Despite the color, they’re actually good.) You could make a pickling solution, but I’ve found that local cooks prefer to simply start with a pint jar of pickled beets. Shell 6-8 hardboiled eggs and put them in a widemouthed quart jar. Pour the liquid from the pint of pickled beets over the eggs, then pour the beets on top of them to keep the eggs submerged in the liquid. Screw on the top and refrigerate for 24 hours before eating. Slice on a salad like any other hardboiled egg and enjoy the extra color and tang, or be bold and try making an egg salad or deviled eggs with red beet eggs!

Turmeric. As my yellow-orange hands are reminding me, every time I make Indian food I seem to end up getting some turmeric on myself. And talk about a durable stain! Instead of lamenting the turmeric on your hands, clothes, and counters, why not turn that staying power to your advantage by using some turmeric powder to dye your Easter eggs?

Again, go with white-shelled eggs for this. Add 1-2 tablespoons of powdered turmeric and 1 to 2 teaspoons of vinegar (to set the dye) to water in a large pot and heat to a low boil, stirring, until the turmeric powder has dissolved. Add eggs in a single layer and cook until the shells have taken on a bright marigold yellow-orange color. Remove to a plate and allow to cool, watching your hands, clothes, etc. to keep the liquid from dyeing you along with the eggs!

I think the sunny color of turmeric-dyed eggs makes a perfect background for decoupaged dried flowers, ferns, and so on. But again, if you decide to take this extra step, blow the eggs before you dye them so you can preserve them as treasured keepsakes to bring out at Easter for years to come. And don’t forget to use the contents of those blown eggs to make scrambled eggs, omelettes, frittatas, or French toast!

Spinach. As anyone who’s ever cooked spinach knows, spinach water turns the most amazing emerald green. In my part of the South, I grew up eating boiled spinach topped with vinegar and salt, so it makes perfect sense to me to add vinegar to the spinach water after removing the cooked spinach so you’ll set the dye on the eggs.

To make green eggs, simply boil up a box or bag of frozen spinach or a bag of fresh spinach, reserving the cooking liquid. Either eat the spinach right away or refrigerate it and reheat it when you’re ready to slice those hard-boiled Easter eggs and serve them on top! Meanwhile, reheat the liquid, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons of vinegar to set the dye and water as needed to cover a single layer of eggs. As always, use a big spoon to keep any recalcitrant eggs submerged until they turn a lovely green. Then transfer them to a plate to cool.

Once again, use white eggs with the spinach dye. And a pale green egg would also make a gorgeous backdrop for a dried flower design, but as with the turmeric-dyed eggs, blow them first if you want to decoupage your eggs as keepsakes.

Try not to cook the eggs in any of these dyes for more than 15 minutes if you plan to eat them. And please, don’t forget your pets when you’re ready to serve up the eggs! I can say with confidence that dogs, cats, parrots, and (gulp) chickens will enjoy a slice or two of hardboiled egg every bit as much as you do!

           ‘Til next time,