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Why does pepper make you sneeze? July 31, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I just made a nice batch of hot, buttered popcorn for our friend Ben, and sprinkled it with black pepper and Trocomare (hot herbed salt). I handed him a huge bowl and departed to return to my computer and my writing deadline. Then I started sneezing. And sneezing, and sneezing, and sneezing.

Mind you, it wasn’t like I’d been snorting pepper or pouring hot sauce up my nose. I couldn’t feel any irritation at all. And yet, there I was, turned in an instant from civilized writer to sneeze-o-matic. Once I was able to sit upright and breathe again, I wondered why. Why would a little finely ground black pepper, nowhere near your face, make you sneeze?

The obvious answer is that it irritates the nasal passages, and the nerves in the nose send the brain a message to get rid of the irritant as quickly as possible. Achoo! But what if the pepper hasn’t actually even gotten into your nose, and you’re still sneezing like crazy? Power of suggestion? I think not. Trust me, I’d have far rather been sitting peacefully here at the computer working on the next chapter. Suggestion in my case would be “get back to writing, your next deadline is coming due and you’ll probably be murdered if you don’t meet it.”

If anyone out there has any insights into this phenomenon, please let me know. And meanwhile, I’ll be happy to accept donations of boxes of Kleenex.

                   ‘Til next time,



A little treat for Tolkien fans. July 29, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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This Sunday’s “Cul de Sac” cartoon featured a little boy picking out a book in the library, when a second boy told him it was “derivative and thin, like watered-down Tolkien.” When the first boy’s mother asked him where the book was, he replied “I put it back. It’s derivative, watered-down tolking.” He thought “tolking” was some kind of obscure water sport! As all Tolkien lovers know, there’s a lot of “watered-down tolking” taking up shelf space out there.

Still, it’s hard to get enough Tolkien for the die-hard fan. Our friend Ben is really looking forward to the film version of “The Hobbit,” especially now that I know that the wonderful Martin Freeman, who plays Dr. Watson in “Sherlock,” will be starring as Bilbo, and that Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock himself, will have dual roles as the voices of the dragon Smaug and “the Necromancer” (can you say “Sauron”?). Of course, I’m also looking forward to the return of the priceless Andy Serkis as Gollum and my hero, the (apparently) immortal Christopher Lee, as Saruman. Rumor has it that director Peter Jackson is now planning to turn “The Hobbit” into a trilogy; I hope he’s able to pull it off, since The Hobbit is by far my favorite of Tolkien’s books.

But there’s still quite a stretch of time before even the first part is released in December, so if you’re hungry for more, here’s a little gem our friend Ben discovered that has delighted me at least as much as—and possibly more than—the actual “Lord of the Rings” films. It’s called “Ringers,” and it’s a documentary of Tolkien fans, but it’s a lot more than that. It has lots of background information on Tolkien and his world, numerous interviews with the actors of the movies, behind-the scenes shots on location in New Zealand, insights from Peter Jackson and others involved in the film, as well as Discworld author Terry Pratchett, David Carradine, Lemmy of Motorhead, and a curious assortment of others. 

If you’re like our friend Ben, you’ll love the interviews with some of the more colorful Ringers (“Call me Grimlock!”), and with favorite actors like John Rhys-Davies. There’s a wonderful surprise appearance by Andy Serkis (in his own form but still Gollum through and through; one Ringer remarks “You’re looking a lot better these days!” to which he replies “Thanks, preciousssss!”). And you’ll be amazed—or perhaps not—at the lengths some Ringers will go to to get their Tolkien fix. (One woman sold her house so she could go to New Zealand for the premier.) Fans of Pippin will enjoy getting to hear more of Billy Boyd’s delightful Scottish accent.

As you might expect, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn and is himself a deeply literate author and poet, has considerable insight into Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. But for our friend Ben, the best surprise of the film was the tremendously moving commentary of Sean Astin, who plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo Baggins’s gardener and companion. In the films, his dialogue is mostly limited to “Mr. Frodo!”, “I’m coming, Mr. Frodo!” and “Don’t leave me, Mr. Frodo!” So it was wonderful and impressive to hear him expound on The Lord of the Rings in his interviews; his insights were the best of them all. Sadly, neither Christopher Lee nor another of our friend Ben’s favorites, Sean Bean (Boromir) were interviewed, but pretty much everyone else is there, with, of course, the exception of the Dark Lord Sauron himself. 

All this would make “Ringers” an exceptional documentary. But its creators have also added plenty of humor and cleverness in the way they treat the information. The scene in which they take down the early critics of The Lord of the Rings is worthy of Monty Python. If you’re used to documentary films being deadly serious, straight-ahead reporting, “Ringers” is a delightful, and delightfully funny, and ultimately delightfully human surprise. It’s one no Tolkien fan would want to miss.

It’s time for a rain dance. July 28, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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It’s finally been raining in our friend Ben’s part of scenic PA. The corn has come back to life in the farmers’ fields; Silence Dogood and I are less worried about our well running dry. But in much of the rest of the country, the drought continues unabated, threatening widespread crop failures and Dustbowl-like conditions. Our heart goes out to everyone who’s anxiously watching the unforgiving skies.

If you have Native American healers in your area, it might be time to call them in to perform a rain dance. Otherwise, you can always try it yourself. Here’s part of a beautiful chant from the Navajo, who know what it is to live in arid conditions:

“Happily may I walk

Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk

Happily, with abundant showers, may I walk

Happily, with abundant plants, may I walk

Happily, on a trail of pollen, may I walk

Happily may I walk

Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk


May it be beautiful before me

May it be beautiful behind me

May it be beautiful below me

May it be beautiful above me.

May it be beautiful all around me.

In beauty it is finished.

In beauty it is finished.”

See? You don’t even have to dance; you can just walk around your property. Whether you carry a white-sage smudge stick is up to you.


Too many summer squash? July 27, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. This time of year, we’re absolutely inundated with summer squash. We boil them up with onions. We slice them into salads. We roast them with olive oil and herbs. But there are still more than we can eat or give away. (Frankly, I think the neighbors have started locking their doors if they see me coming with a bag.)

If you’re in the same boat, try this decadent recipe for summer squash casserole. It will have your family loving summer squash again in no time!    

        Silence’s Super Squash Casserole

5-6 yellow zucchini or crookneck squash

1 package frozen white corn, or kernels sliced from 6 ears

1 8-ounce carton sour cream

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia or WallaWalla type)

4 garlic scapes, if available

1 small carton mushrooms (button, baby bella, crimini, shiitake, mixed, if possible)

1 package stuffing/dressing (as Pepperidge Farm) or coarsely crushed crackers (oyster, Saltine, Ritz)

2 eggs

1 stick salted butter

1 teaspoon salt

8-10 fresh basil leaves

Grease 9 x 13″ baking dish. Chop onion and sautee in butter until clarified. Slice mushrooms and add. Chop garlic scapes and add. Tear basil leaves and add. (Dried oregano and thyme may also be added, to taste.) Add salt. When mushrooms have cooked down, add corn and cook on low until liquid has mostly evaporated. Meanwhile, slice yellow squash, then quarter slices, and boil until tender. Beat eggs. Drain squash and stir in sauteed veggies, eggs, and sour cream to blend. Melt remaining butter in saute pan. Pour squash mixture into baking dish. Top with stuffing/dressing or crackers. Pour melted butter on top. Bake at 350 degrees F. for an hour. Enjoy!

               ‘Til next time,


How not to make a vegan pizza. July 25, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Let’s say you’ve become a vegan and are desperately craving pizza, but you’re not up for pseudo-cheese. Here’s what you shouldn’t do: Send our friend Ben out to a local pizza place to get a takeout pizza where half has no cheese and is topped with mushrooms and onions. As my college roommate, Ellen Rogers, would have said, “Grahdoo, honey!!!”

First of all, you need a whole-wheat crust to give the pizza some depth of flavor. And next, in the absence of cheese, you need a lot of really rich, luscious tomato sauce, not just a dab of jarred stuff smeared over the pizza so it’s barely even visible. I’ll give the restaurant credit for adding plenty of both mushrooms and onions. But the slices would have been far better with some oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt (or seasoned herb salt) to kick them up a notch, as Emeril would say.

I think the crust and sauce are the keys here, and I’m still convinced despite last night’s disaster that a hearty, satisfying vegan pizza is possible. Suggestions?

           ‘Til next time,




Take a health quiz. July 24, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Thanks to our friend Rob, our friend Ben was recently clued in to a website, Organized Wisdom, that features advice from professionals across the health spectrum. It also has a whole bunch of quizzes that you can take to assess your health in everything from diet and bathroom habits to depression and bipolar disorder.

Our friend Ben headed to the site (www.organizedwisdom.com/Quiz/) and took the “How Healthy Are My Eating Habits?” quiz. Thanks not to my own inclinations but to Silence Dogood’s insistence on healthy eating here at Hawk’s Haven, I ended up with a “healthy” rating. But what was far more useful was the discussion at the end that explained why various choices were healthy. It offered a real nutritional education on a single screen. 

So, next time you have a health-related concern, head on over to Organized Wisdom’s quiz section and check it out. You won’t be sorry!

Let’s just say no. July 23, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, as across the nation, we’ve been in shock over the senseless murders of 12 and injuries of 58 moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado. Like everyone else, we’re waiting for the murderer, Mr. Holmes, to explain his reasoning, since, Unabomber-like, he obviously did this to get attention so the world would hear his message: Otherwise he’d surely have killed himself along with his innocent victims. That he instead chose to be taken alive says volumes about his motivation.

What your faithful bloggers, our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders, hope the nation takes away from this tragedy is very simple: Stop using violence as a form of entertainment. It was surely no coincidence that Mr. Holmes chose a showing of the horrifically violent “Dark Knight Rises” to unleash his arsenal.

It appalls and astounds us that, while sex and nudity are considered sufficiently taboo to raise movie restrictions to R, violence is not. Consider the graphic torture of James Bond in “Casino Royale,” the cannibalism of Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs,” the endless murder and terror that fuel horror films, the gore that splatters all over action and suspense films. Why is this considered acceptable? And far more disturbing, why is it considered entertainment?

Here at PRA, we hope and pray that studios will pause the next time they’re considering filming a gore-fest. We hope that mystery writers will consider using an actual mystery, rather than murder, to fuel their plots, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so often did with Sherlock Holmes. We hope that the writers of horror stories will think through the implications of their plots and put their talents to better use.

But most of all, we hope that audiences will finally just say no to violence. If nobody went, the studios would stop. If nobody bought the books, the authors would find something else to write about. If people focused their time and money on something constructive, rather than destructive, it would change the world. We’re not saying that it could keep someone like Mr. Holmes from launching an attack. But at least it would make sure the rest of us weren’t deadened to the horror.

Why bother to blog? July 21, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was blindsided this morning to receive my weekly e-mail newsletter from a normally rational source and discover that he was recommending that everyone create their own blog on WordPress, whether they actually had anything to say for themselves or not. Mind you, Poor Richard’s Almanac is hosted by WordPress, and we love WordPress. My reaction wasn’t triggered by WordPress, but by the concept of filling cyberspace with yet more pointless verbiage. He suggested that, if you couldn’t think of anything else to say, you should write book reviews. 

What the bleep?!! Those of us, like myself and Silence Dogood, who are actual authors would prefer to think that people are reviewing our books because they find them interesting, engrossing or relevant, not because they’ve been told they must have a blog and come up with some kind of content to post on it. Why should anybody bother to blog in the age of YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram, anyway? You can just slap up some photos or a video and get thousands of likes within seconds. Book reviews? Please.

Of course, wordsmiths like us were born to blog. Blogging may have begun as a way for people to reach out to their families and friends, a function that Facebook now fills. But for folks who actually have something to say for themselves, blogging remains a vital, relevant means of communication. You put it out there, and people react, and you learn and grow as a result. And for professional writers like me and Silence, the discipline of daily blogging is invaluable. It’s a wonderful way to start the day, warming us up for the bread-and-butter writing we do for a living the way a warmup session preps professional athletes for the field or court.

We love blogging, we love hearing from our readers and interacting with them, and we love WordPress. We think blogging has made us stronger writers, more creative, more able to rise to the challenge of our profession. Having to come up with something to say every day that you hope someone else will want to read is an ongoing challenge to us to keep on top of our game. Every morning, we try to rise to that challenge. We try to give Poor Richard’s Almanac readers something thought-provoking or practical to take away in thanks for their taking the time to read our posts, though sometimes we just can’t resist posting about something we think is fun or funny.

Our friend Ben just doesn’t get blogging because you “ought” to be blogging, not because you have something to say. Why? What’s the point? Fellow bloggers, why do you blog?

From the seen it all now dept. July 20, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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A Wall Street Journal article yesterday alerted our friend Ben to a new craze in New York City. A specialty shop had opened that sold NYC residents… NYC tap water. Of course, this wasn’t any old tap water. It had been run through a $25,000 purifier before going on sale at a premium price. And the kicker: Discriminating palates could tell a huge difference in the taste of the before-and-after tapwater.

Well, what New Yorker doesn’t want to be discriminating? Who cares that Smirnoff vodka has come out ahead of every mega-expensive brand in every taste test ever done, even when vodka experts were involved? Surely if your palate was discriminating, you’d immediately taste the difference in this fabulous water. Otherwise, you’re just some poor slob who can’t tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. You might as well slink home and drink your water straight from the tap.

Admittedly, our friend Ben can taste a huge difference between Coke and Pepsi: Pepsi is a lot sweeter and a lot less carbonated than Coke. Maybe I’d be able to tell that the chlorine and other chemicals had been filtered out of the NYC tapwater supply by that $25,000 machine, too. But sheesh. Paying for tapwater? Only in New York. I hope.

Spam, spam, spam, spam. July 19, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Poor Richard’s Almanac has been absolutely inundated with spam lately. Fortunately, our blog host, WordPress, has an excellent spam filter, Akismet, which catches the spammers’ comments. But they still have to be checked and deleted. Just yesterday, our friend Ben inadvertently deleted a legitimate comment that had found its way into the spam register, so we really do have to read every !@$#$%!! spam comment to make sure. Between last night and this morning, we’d managed to accumulate 35 spam comments; heaven knows how many more will pile up during the course of the day. This really isn’t the best use of my time.

These latter-day spammers all have the same agenda: self-promotion. They come up with a plausible comment that would be appropriate for most situations, such as “I love the depth of information in your posts. I’ve become a regular follower” or “My brother turned me on to your excellent blog and I can’t wait to read more.” Then they add a link to their website, which in every case appears to sell something. (Not that I’d know, I’d be afraid to open the link in case it was a porn site or virus or some other foul thing.) This is a pretty clever evolution of spam from just general worthlessness to a marketing tool. I guess it was inevitable that someone would think of it, and then it would spread like, well, spam.

Thank God for WordPress. Not only does it filter out spam, it doesn’t automatically put cheap, disgusting ads on people’s blogs that have nothing to do with the content and would cause any self-respecting blogger to die of shame. We can still hold our heads up here at PRA, even if it’s taking us more and more time to remove the spam deluge from its file.

Have you been getting much more spam recently on your blogs?