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Why Easter and Christmas matter. March 31, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was horrified to read an ad in yesterday’s local paper proudly trumpeting services being held at a “traditional” Christian church that celebrated neither of those “pagan” holidays, Christmas or Easter. To dismiss the two greatest holidays of the Christian church and call yourself Christian is akin to ripping out the engines of cars and calling yourself a mechanic.

I can certainly understand churches that want to remove the commercial and frivolous trappings that have accreted on the two holidays over the years—Santa Claus, the focus on presents and baskets of candy, the Easter bunny. As fun as these are, they tend to reduce the significance of these holy days to the level of the leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day and trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en.

But commercialism aside, there are essential reasons to celebrate Christmas and Easter, and some of their oldest symbols: the evergreen tree at Christmas, symbol of eternal life, the egg at Easter, symbolizing rebirth. If various churches choose to frown on the celebrations, the carols, the focus on food and good fellowship and partying that accompany these holidays, so be it. But to deny the holiness of the days themselves is to deny why Christianity is, to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

After all, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism to my knowledge all venerate Jesus as an enlightened prophet. Where they differ from Christians is in acknowledging Him as the Son of God. It sounds like this so-called “traditionilist church” in the paper is doing the same. Which is perfectly fine, but it isn’t Christian.

All of which ultimately led our friend Ben to a problem I have, and have always had, with genuinely traditional Christian interpretations of the significance of the life and events in the life of Jesus. Each year, we are given the season of Advent, of joyous anticipation, and Lent, of renunciation and sacrifice, to prepare for these great holy days of Christ’s birth and His death and resurrection. Anticipation builds, we are encouraged to explore and go deeper into our faith, and then, at last, the miracle happens: Jesus is born. Jesus is reborn from the dead.

To me, by far the greater miracle is that God Creator, who after all had the entire universe in His keeping, would so love the world that He would send His only-begotten Son to be born in this world in human guise and try to save it. To save us. To care about what happened to us. This is so unprecedented, so inconceivable, that it surely must be the greatest miracle of all. This is what Advent and Christmas celebrate.

That Jesus died for us and rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven to sit beside His Father is also a miracle. But to me, that God should have condescended to send His Son to begin with is the great miracle, the farthest reach. What a humbling thought!

This blessed Easter, let us rejoice and give thanks on both accounts: That Jesus was born, and that He went to the Cross for us. And if you want to go on an egg hunt or eat some Easter candy, that’s okay with our friend Ben!


Star Wars or Star Trek? March 30, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben read an article on the Yahoo! home page this morning about how a recent sci-fi convention pitted “Star Wars” against “Star Trek.” They had four psychologists analyze four key features of both franchises to see which one dealt with the issue better, then asked the attendees to vote for which was the better series. It appeared that, thanks to the films and subsequent series that supplemented the original TV series, at the end of the day “Star Trek” edged out “Star Wars.”

I myself would have voted for “Galaxy Quest,” the parody of “Star Trek,” as by far the best of either. But then, I didn’t grow up with “Star Trek,” so I have no iconic feelings about it and just think it looks hokey, like “Lost in Space,” which at least had the humorous villain, Dr. Smith, constantly screaming “Oh the pain! The Pain!” to riotous effect.

I did love Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” And of course I loved Darth Vader, Han Solo and Yoda in “Star Wars.” But was that really enough to offset all the holier-than-thou, wooden characters with their moral messages? In “Star Trek,” no. In “Star Wars,” yes. Darth Vader alone was enough to offset the sickening Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.

But I’d still vote for “Galaxy Quest.” You?

Who’s your favorite fantasy character? March 29, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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We’re not talking about vampires or zombies (sorry, Shaun of the Dead) or superheroes here (despite Silence Dogood’s crushes on Robert Downey Jr. and Hugh Jackman); not even many wizards. Since this is our blog, we get to pick the contestants. We’re limiting our choices to film representations. And here they are. Please vote for your favorite(s):

* Pippin (Peregrine Took), Lord of the Rings
* Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings
* Gimli, Lord of the Rings
* Boromir, Lord of the Rings
* Galadriel, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
* Arwen Evenstar, Lord of the Rings
* Saruman, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
* Gollum, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
* Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit
* Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit
* Darth Vader, Star Wars
* Han Solo, Star Wars
* Yoda, Star Wars
* Mr. Spock, Star Trek
* Data, Star Trek: The Next Generation
* Merlin
* Jeff Goldblum, Independence Day, The Fly, Jurassic Park
* Alan Rickman, Harry Potter films as Snape, Galaxy Quest
* Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games
* Dale Hawthorne, The Hunger Games
* Cinna, The Hunger Games
* Haymitch Abernathy, The Hunger Games
* Cato, The Hunger Games
* Rue, The Hunger Games
* Effie Trinket, The Hunger Games
* President Coriolanus Snow, The Hunger Games

This list is limited, we know. But that’s because most of our favorite fantasy novels have never been made into films. If any film makers paid attention to us, we’d see The Snow Queen, Golden Witchbreed, A Song for Arbonne, Grass, and many another great fantasy novel brought to screen life. Plus the fun fantasies like the Vlad Taltos novels. What’s wrong with those producers and directors and screenwriters?! Sheesh.

We left out some of our favorite movies, like “The Running Man” and “Gattaca,” or even our hero, Sherlock Holmes, because they seemed (scarily, we admit) too close to home, not sufficiently fantastical. And others because, though they were certainly fantastical, they bored us. (“The Matrix,” anyone?)

But that’s just us. Please feel free to vote for those who are or aren’t on the list, we’d be happy to hear who your favorites are. We’re fond of all those we’ve listed so we don’t dare take sides. Let’s hear who you’d vote for!

Why aren’t bathrooms better? March 28, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our local professional baseball team is called the Iron Pigs, a reference to the pig iron produced by Bethlehem Steel, the major industry in the area for decades if not centuries. I mention this simply because an article in our local paper this week mentioned that their stadium had installed new urinals in the men’s bathrooms that contained video games, games which, I gathered, were activated by directing the contents of one’s bladder at various items on the screen. I thought, “Gee, they’ve finally found a way to make as long lines for the men’s room as for the women’s!”

But this development made me think about how little plumbing has advanced, at least for the general public, since Thomas Crapper popularized the flush toilet in the Victorian era and added a new four-letter word to the English language in the process. Yes, there are those horrible auto-flushing toilets in airports and other places that, if you’re lucky, only spray the toilet seat and not your derriere. Yes, there are composting toilets, but if you’ve ever used one, you know that they come with their own set of issues.

Part of the problem with bathrooms is how cold they are. If I could design my dream bathroom, it would have a heated floor. It would have a heated toilet seat. It would have unlimited hot water in the shower and instantly hot water in the sink. And it would warm the shampoo, soap, towels, lotions, and everything else involved in the process before you had to touch them. It would also manage to suck the inevitable humidity and moisture out of the air without having to resort to a noisy, distracting fan. There would be really good lighting, lit magnifying mirrors, tons of cabinet and drawer space for necessities, and comfortable seating, so you didn’t have to balance on one leg with the other on the toilet lid while you put (warm, of course) lotion on your other leg.

No doubt, there are bathrooms where all these features exist. I have been in a house where the bathroom floors were heated, in all seven bathrooms, and I have seen racks for heating towels (though alas, we don’t have room for one in our tiny bathroom, or even room for more than one towel, a real problem when two people are trying to shower). But wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were all standard-issue and everyone could enjoy them, not just those with unlimited budgets? Sigh. And piped-in music and chilled wine and maybe a platter of fresh fruit and cheeses… Every bathroom should be a spa!

‘Til next time,


The upside to a cold spring. March 27, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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Yuck, it’s almost April, and the temperatures here in our part of scenic PA are still dropping into the 20s every night. Brrr!!! What happened to global warming?!

However, as all gardeners know, there’s one great thing about cold spring weather, even if it makes you want to hide indoors: It makes the blooms of spring bulbs and flowers last longer. Our snowdrops and crocuses are still in bloom; our hellebore flowers are still pristine. We’re hoping to see a long daffodil, tulip, and grape hyacinth season, as well as a fabulous year for our chionodoxas (glories-of-the-snow), Spanish squill, and windflowers (Grecian anemones).

Bulb blooms can wither in a day if the temperatures are unusually hot, and seldom last more than a week in normal weather. But cold, for whatever reason, keeps them vibrant, and we appreciate that.

The cold has also kept our winter birds here. We still have juncos, chickadees, and titmice, along with our year-round residents, the woodpeckers, wrens, goldfinches, cardinals, mockingbirds, and the like. (Sadly, I think our bluejays have left us.) And we also have the spring arrivals, robins, starlings, and grackles. I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen juncos and robins together on the ground!

So, despite the cold, this spring has its own gifts for those who have eyes to see. Now, if we could just persuade the juncos to stay year-round…

On a sunny isle. March 26, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was just reading an article on the Yahoo! home page about ten beautiful island getaways that were relatively close to the U.S. and offered fabulous beaches. The photos that accompanied the article showed breathtaking ocean views. And the descriptions of the hotels where you should stay if you go made it crystal clear that a vacation at any of these islands would cost thousands, or possibly tens of thousands, of dollars.

As always, I was stunned by this. Maybe I’m just a naive fool, but I always wonder about the wisdom of a mass medium like Yahoo! writing for the financial elite, the doctors, lawyers, celebrities, and Wall Street brokers who can actually afford to take these vacations. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing the articles, but why not say upfront that they’re for the rich and others need not apply? It was actually rather heartbreaking to see so much beauty and know that I could never afford to go there.

Silence Dogood and I stared at each dazzling photo, read the descriptions of every luxury hotel, and knew that this was the closest we would ever get to Hawai’i’s Big Island or to St. Martin or the coastal beauties of the Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman, or even Puerto Rico. We can’t afford to go to Miami or Key West, much less offshore. We fantasize about going to Williamsburg for Christmas or to Asheville in spring or to the Southwest in summer. And sadly, those fantasies aren’t realized, as even car trips are prohibitively expensive. Do other “normal” people ever go on these fabulous trips to the sunny isles? And if so, how do they afford them?

Needless to say, we’re hardly alone in our enforced mental vacations. You have only to look at the writers of past ages to see how they made the best of their reduced circumstances, living broadly in their minds. The Brontes and Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austen and Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all spring to mind, envisioning worlds outside their own. Not to mention J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Sheri Tepper and Suzanne Collins and Guy Gavriel Kay and Mary Gentle and Sharon Kay Penman, and all those who have been able to transcend their own circumstances to envision others’.

Clearly, physical restraints, financial restraints, have never been able to curtail or curb the human imagination, our inherent need to see, to envision, to create. But oh God, to truly be able to see, with our own eyes, the wonders of this gorgeous planet! How sad that prohibitive pricing restricts this privilege to those who can afford it as a mark of status rather than allowing those who would most appreciate it for its own sake to participate. Shame on those of us who submit, and those who perpetuate such a shameful system.

Gay marriage: What’s the big deal? March 25, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Sheesh. The gay marriage issue has even knocked Pope Francis’s election out of the news. Tuesday and Wednesday, the issue of whether gay people can be allowed to marry will come before the Supreme Court. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of people marched on Paris to denounce the French President’s bill to allow gay marriage.

What’s the big deal? If you’re not gay, what business is it of yours? That’s certainly the way we feel here. Marriage is a very serious commitment. Huge numbers of young people are choosing to avoid it, having children out of wedlock; over a million Baby Boomers are “living in sin,” choosing to cohabit outside marriage, typically (and rightly) to avoid compromising their childrens’ inheritance.

For gay people to wish to make the serious choice to marry, to make marriage vows to each other, is to us an honorable decision and should be respected. Who are the rest of us to refuse them their rights as human beings? How would we feel if someone told us we couldn’t marry, or live together, or have children as we wished?

Please, let’s stop passing judgement on gays and let them do as they please. The God who created them knows it’s no business of ours.

Right to death. March 22, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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The news here in our part of Pennsylvania has been dominated lately by an 80-something man who went to a hospice where his terminally ill wife of 68 years, in unbearable and unrelievable agony, was being kept alive against her will and against all human decency. Her loving husband killed her with a handgun, and then killed himself.

I applaud his act of mercy while reviling modern medicine’s insistence on maintaining human life at all costs, and that the cost in this case was his own life. We would never let a dog suffer if we could instantly and painlessly put them out of their own misery, yet we allow human beings, our own kind, to suffer endless agonies without even offering them the choice to end their suffering. Shame, shame on us! How dare we inflict such agony on our own kind?!

It’s one thing if someone chooses to try to hang on no matter what. That choice should be respected. But for those who would like to be released once pain becomes unbearable, we should offer them the dignity of a swift, painless death. The alternative is torture, and I have seen its effects, seen brilliant, marvelous people reduced to begging that some officious nurse please not try to force them to choke down ice cream when they were dying. I have been scarred terribly by the witnessing of this, and yet my own suffering was nothing compared to the suffering of the one who was dying but was being kept alive, against her will, against her humanity, against her dignity.

I will never lose the sense of helplessness in this case until I die. I will never stop wishing that the nurse who forced my mother, pleading desperately to be left alone, to choke down ice cream, and that the nurse who turned down the morphine pump so my mother would be forced to continue to live in agony, will be treated to the same “mercy” when their own time comes.

God curse them, for anyone who truly believes in God and the hereafter would not attempt to maintain them in their suffering but to hasten them on to Heaven. And those who do not believe should surely profess compassion and give them relief from their suffering. May their misguided, horrifying, Inquisition-like behavior be stopped! Please stop torturing our elders; let them choose for themselves a merciful, painless death as we choose it for our animals. No one should choose it for them, it should be their choice alone, so that no abuses can happen. But they should not be denied, and we should not in our turn be denied, the option of a dignified, painless death.

Cold weather, hot lunch. March 21, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. It’s still in the 30s here, and is, according to the weather forecasters, going to remain in the 30s into mid-April. I don’t know about you, but I really hate the cold. I hate sitting in my 55-degree house (and mind you, paying almost $800 a month for fuel oil to keep the house at 55 degrees). I hate the icy-cold water when I turn on a tap. I hate having to go outside. I’d give anything to be warm.

This goes for food as well. I don’t eat breakfast, so by lunchtime I’m starving, but even then, I can’t eat more than a few mouthfuls. But I want them to be hot and succulent, to make every forkful count. What to do?

I’ve found that the best solution is leftovers. If you’re a soup-lover, that would be the easy answer, but I’m not. However, a little reheated pasta (mac’n’cheese, lasagna, spaghetti, or the like) or refried beans, or curry and rice, or some fried rice or a reconstructed falafel sandwich would be warm and comforting. Making sure you make plenty of whatever you favor for supper, so you have leftovers to heat up for lunch, is an excellent idea to carry you through the cold days. What are your favorites?

‘Til next time,


Nairobi Nights. March 20, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“Nairobi Nights,” a blog post from a trip to Kenya, popped up on our friend Ben’s e-mail this morning. As always, seeing something like this raises a single question in my mind: How can these people afford to travel? It’s one thing if you’re Michael Palin or Tony Bourdain and some television producer is paying you to travel around the globe. But what if you’re Tony Palin, average working schmo, , and no one has heard of, much less bankrolled, you?

There are plenty of places Silence Dogood and I would love to travel: Australia and New Zealand, Japan, the Scottish Highlands, Tuscany, Normandy, Provence, the British Lake Country and York, a rail trip across Canada and across the U.S. We would love to go to Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, the Caribbean, Egypt, and Morocco. We would love to see the chateaus of the Loire and wander through beautiful Wales. We have long dreamed of a leisurely trip to Key West, a Christmas in Williamsburg, a visit (the first since childhood) to Mount Vernon. We long to go to the Southwest, to Arizona and New Mexico, and to Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas, and to Vermont and New Hampshire and Prince Edward Isle. And no wish list is complete without a trip to Hawai’i.

But we never go to any of these places, for the simple reason that we can’t afford to. Every cent we make goes into paying our bills, into simply living (and living very simply at that). We have no debt, our house and cars are paid off, we have no children or parents to support. So how, I always wonder, are people who are struggling under some or all of these financial burdens able to travel when we aren’t? If by some miracle we suddenly won the lottery, before we could even contemplate travel, we’d have to get the house painted, the studio re-roofed, the deck renovated, the trees pruned, the greenhouse upgraded. It would be kind of nice to have some clothes that weren’t ten-plu-years old, too. So how are other people managing these trips abroad, or even at home?

A “working vacation” would obviously be one answer, where you get a job in the country you’re visiting for six months or a year so your expenses are covered by your salary. But we have our beloved dog, two cats, four birds, fish, and plants, and could never leave them for such an extended length of time. (Not to mention that our skills, freelance writing and editing, probably aren’t at the top of other countries’ lists of must-have talents. Unlike, say, a doctor or engineer, but then, they could afford vacations without working for them.)

I understand that in parts of the world such as Europe, traveling between countries is taken for granted, since countries are no bigger than one or two of our states so it’s easy to get around and vacation time is generous. But there are plenty of others whose countries are isolated or vast who still manage to travel as a matter of course. And most of them aren’t movie stars or magnates. The advantages of seeing other countries and other cultures cannot be overstated; it is “broadening” in the best sense of that word. I can’t believe that anyone could return from a trip abroad unchanged, untouched.

So how do ordinary people manage this without going into debt? If you have a clue, please let our friend Ben know. Silence is waiting by the door with bags packed!