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Serious salads. May 30, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I usually enjoy The Wall Street Journal’s articles on food, but today’s on making salads enraged me with its obviousness. Mix up some greens and add cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, nuts and/or seeds, then let guests add the dressing when you serve the salad. Gee, ya think?

Sheesh. There are salads, and then there are salads. To make one that appeals, even stuns, across a wide spectrum, follow the Seven Salad Rules:

Rule #1: Mix it up. I’m a firm believer in a mix of colorful, flavorful, crunchy greens. Admittedly, I can go for a crunchy wedge of Iceberg with blue cheese, tomato and onion (the revived classic “wedge salad”) if I’m dining out, but a limp plate of “spring greens” is just pitiful. Color is great, but not without texture! Go for Boston or butter lettuce for sweet creaminess, Romaine for crunch, arugula or watercress for peppery spice, radicchio or endive or frisee for depth and bitterness, spinach for nutrients, mustard greens for heat. And yes, with so much going for you, you can even add a few handfuls of spring mix.

Rule #2: Ramp it up. Once you’ve got your base of greens, it’s time to up the flavor ante. I’m big on adding fresh herbs right into the salad rather than mixing them in the dressing. I love adding plenty of chopped scallions (green onions), mint, basil, thyme, cilantro, or whatever you have on hand and are craving (parsley, dill, fennel tops, rosemary, lemon balm, lovage, borage, chives, garlic chives, cilantro, you name it). your guests will enjoy an explosion of flavor with each bite! My ultimate secret for ramping up the flavor is to add a good dollop of horseradish to spice up my salad. Sound weird? Think what horseradish and cocktail sauce do for the greens in shrimp cocktail, and you’ll be on to something.

Rule #3: Go for veggie goodness. When it comes to salads, there’s almost no such thing as a bad veggie. Whether you’re adding pickled beets, Chinese turnips, blanched asparagus, sliced fennel bulbs or yellow summer squash, corn cut fresh off the cob, or matchstick daikon radish or jicama, you’re adding more texture, color and flavor. Tried-and-true salad staples like carrots, bell peppers (red, orange, yellow and/or green), radishes, celery, cherry tomatoes (red, yellow, orange, pink and/or purple), cukes, red cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower florets, and red (Spanish) onion all add color, flavor, texture, and nutrients. My feeling is, you can’t go wrong with veggies! The more, the merrier.

Rule #4: Make fruit salads simple. Adding fresh and dried fruits to a salad can result in a really luscious dish. But if I’m adding fruit, I want to hold off on the veggies. You can create a gorgeous base of mixed greens (I especially like Boston and butter lettuces with fruit) and add herbs, scallions, red onion, and fennel. Then add your fresh fruit, in any combination that appeals: fresh strawberries, sour cherries, blueberries, red raspberries, mangoes, peaches or nectarines, grapes, tangerines, grapefruit, oranges, apples, pears. (I prefer to serve melons, bananas and black raspberries as stand-alone treats.) Add dried fruit to taste (dried cranberries, golden raisins, diced apricots, and cherries are all good choices), then some nuts (pecans and sliced almonds lend themselves especially well to fruit salads). A little cheese—crumbled blue, feta, or Gorgonzola, or shredded Swiss or sharp white Cheddar—and your salad is perfect.

Rule #5: Add some protein and fat. What ultimately makes a salad satisfying is the protein and fat component. That means eggs, cheese, beans, nuts and seeds, and oily treats. I’ve noticed that sliced hard-boiled eggs tend to be snapped up before the salad can even be served, so make sure you make plenty. Cheese is a no-brainer: Go for shredded cheese (my faves are shredded white super-sharp Cheddar, Swiss, or Parmesan, or crumbled feta, blue, or Gorgonzola. Canned beans, such as cannelini and kidney, add a protein and fiber punch and help fill you up, besides adding color and flavor. Nuts I love in salads are pecans, walnuts, black walnuts, hickory nuts, hazelnuts (filberts), pistachios, and almonds. (Much as I love cashews, I like them cooked or eaten out of hand, they’re too much for a salad. Crumbled peanuts are okay on an Asian-themed salad, otherwise no.) Seeds like pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) and sunflower seeds add crunch and nutrients. Artichoke hearts, avocadoes and olives add that rich, oily, satisfying touch to your salad. Go for it!

Rule #6: Top it off. Yes, of course, cheese, shredded carrots, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, chives or scallions, and even cherry tomatoes can be considered salad toppings. But don’t stop there. Sprouts, including super-healthful broccoli sprouts; chia, flax, and hemp seeds; thawed frozen or fresh garden peas; and whole spices, such as cumin seeds, fennel seeds, and mustard seeds, also add crunch and health benefits to your salad. I don’t like to add croutons, which strike me as a high-calorie, nutrient-deficient topping, so I add seeds or nuts instead: Lots of crunch for better nutrition.

Rule #7: Keep your dressing simple. There’s nothing I hate as much as a heavy, gloppy salad dressing that smothers all the ingredients I’ve taken so much time to put together. My favorite dressing is a simple oil and vinegar: Hojiblanca extra-virgin olive oil and 18-year aged balsamic vinegar. But if I want to add a citrus note instead of the balsamic or toss in some crumbled blue cheese, I’ll do so without guilt, knowing that my base is pure. No worries, I know the flavors of the salad will still shine through.

Enjoy your salad experiments!

‘Til next time,



The garden gnomes’ revenge. May 29, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As savvy gardeners know, gazing balls emerged from trailer-trash status to garden designers’ darlings a couple of decades ago. It suddenly occurred to the gardening cognoscenti that silver balls of various sizes could be tucked into garden beds and floated in water to create beautiful, affordable points of interest. And for those with a taste for bold colors, purple, red and gold gazing balls could be featured in beds with matching foliage or flowers or used as contrast (for example, red gazing balls nested in chartreuse foliage and orange or blue flowers).

Gnomes, on the other hand, have remained on the fringes, in the gardens of folks with 5,000 other tacky statues or adorning the properties of eccentric Brits. Small wonder in the U.S., where gonmes bring to mind Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” or the Travelocity gnome.

My own feeling about garden gnomes is sentimental, thanks to the film “The Full Monty.” I wouldn’t want a gnome in my own garden (or any statue, for that matter), but I loved the movie, and my favorite scenes involved gnomes. In one priceless scene, a central character is having a critical job interview. He looks up and sees his two beloved garden gnomes behind the interviewer, apparently jousting. Unable to focus on the interviewer’s questions, he’s horrified as one gnome smashes in the other’s head. (Fortunately, there’s a happy ending; he gets the job and his repaired gnomes back.)

Little did I know that garden gnomes were taking revenge for being slighted in gardening circles. Today I got an e-mail from Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery (www.plantdelights.com) that brought me up to date on gnome activities. According to Tony, Britain’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show had banned garden gnomes from its inception as a slap in the face to the hoi polloi. But it has relented this year in honor of its 100th anniversary. Gnome lovers, including Elton John, have responded appropriately, stepping up to support their favorites.

But finally being allowed into the sacred halls of Chelsea has not been enough to stem the gnomes’ wrath. Be afraid. Be very afraid! Author Chuck Sambuchino is ready with a book to help you fend off a gnome onslaught, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack. And the Utah State University has released a video, “Gnome Management in the Garden.” Zombies, step back. The gnomes are coming!

‘Til next time,


Where have all the amphibians gone?! May 28, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, with apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary and their poignant war protest song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” I read a very alarming article in our Sunday local paper about the dramatic disappearance of frogs, toads and salamanders in the U.S. (“Amphibians fading fast, national report says,” The Morning Call, http://www.themorningcall.com, originally in The Washington Post.)

The report said that scientists had noted dramatic declines in amphibian populations decades ago, but that the rate of decline has now reached a point where half the population of seven species of frogs and toads will vanish within seven years, and half the populations of at least 40 other species, including spring peepers, will vanish within 27 years.

This is dismaying to amateur herpetologists like me and our friend Ben, who love studying and observing amphibians and reptiles. (As a child, OFB kept a pet toad that hopped along after him wherever he went, as well as anoles, native chameleon-like lizards that change color from brown to green when they’re excited. We’ve also had aquatic frogs in our aquariums.) But we realize that most people view amphibians with about the same degree of enthusiasm reserved for mice and tarantulas. Who cares if they become extinct?

Well, we all should. That’s because amphibians are early warners, like the canaries that miners took into the coal mines to warn them if the air was becoming toxic. If the canary died, it signalled the miners to get out of the tunnels and up into fresh air ASAP if they valued their lives. With their thin, fragile skins and dependence on water, amphibians are vulnerable to chemical pollution, and serve as an early warning that our water sources are becoming toxic.

Runoff from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides makes its way into our creeks, streams, and rivers, the sources that provide us with drinking and bathing water. (No, water doesn’t magically appear from your tap or a plastic bottle, just as hamburger doesn’t magically appear shrink-wrapped at the meat counter, as opposed to coming from butchered cows.) And when these chemicals interact with the delicate skins of amphibians, they die. As we will die, more slowly, if this toxic pollution isn’t stopped.

Amphibians, like that other unloved creature, the bat, are harmless to us and consume millions of insects a year, protecting our crops. Ironically, the overuse of toxic herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup deprives these creatures of both habitat and food, causing them to die out and the pest insect population (can you say “mosquito”?!) to multiply out of control. But no worries, folks, Monsanto will produce an even more toxic pesticide to wipe out the mosquitos, until they find a way around it and return, and meanwhile we and our children and pets can all get cancer from Monsanto’s chemical toxins.

My point is this: Rejoice if you find a toad, frog, or salamander in your yard. Try to set up a small water garden where they can enjoy a good soak. And, please God, don’t dump chemicals on your property. Your life, your family’s life, your pets’ life, all depend on it.

‘Til next time,


Google and morality. May 27, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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This morning, our friend Ben read an article on Yahoo! News about how Google was planning to manipulate its search function. I have to admit, I don’t know how Google ordered its search function before: I’d type in a subject, and scan Google’s links, then choose the most relevant, usually ending up at Wikipedia. I’d also check my own blogs every month or so to see where we came up. I’d always assumed that the links were based on the closest matches to my search.

Well, no more, no longer, according to this article. Google now plans to prioritize its listings based on what it calls “Authorship.” And what that means, as I discovered when I followed a link in the article, is people who sign up for Google+ and put mugshots of themselves and profiles, including their e-mail address and every link to every other website and social media site they participate in, on their Google+ account.

Hmmm. I don’t know about you, but our friend Ben doesn’t like to be forced to participate in anything. I’d been an enthusiastic marble collector on eBay until eBay insisted that everyone use PayPal. I refused to sign on to Facebook to swell its revenue numbers and was outraged when you had to be a member in order to access a Facebook page. I know that Google+ has been doing everything in its power to force people to sign up so it can take on Faceboook.

But really, to dangle this bribe in front of everyone, join Google+ in order to get your websites, blogs, etc. listed first when someone searches for a topic?! Of course, Google isn’t the only search engine out there, but it still controls 70% of search-engine traffic. It’s certainly the one I turn to many times a day when I try to look up something. I guess that now I’ll have to remind myself that the top search links have all been bought, that I really need to dig deeper to find something that isn’t a cheap piece of trash, a glorified ad. Ouch!!!

I spoke to a longtime journalist and journalism professor to see if he thought this was immoral and illegal on Google’s part. He said no: It’s their search engine, they can do what they want with it. Well, alrighty then. But damned if I’m signing up for Google+ or falling into their trap. Filthy, greedy bastards! And you, my fellow bloggers, if you wonder why you’ve suddenly vanished from your Google searches, there you have it. Sign up for “Authorship” or die.

Angelina Jolie, meet Chris Christie. May 15, 2013

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Our friend Ben was struck by the marked contrast with which the revelations of Angelina Jolie’s and Chris Christie’s surgeries were greeted this week. For those who aren’t following celebrity surgeries, here’s a recap:

Angelina Jolie, movie star, humanitarian, and mega-mom (as well as the partner of Brad Pitt), revealed in The New York Times that she’d elected to have a double mastectomy in February after testing positive for a gene that predicted an 87% chance of her getting breast cancer. Her chance is now just 5%, far less than the 50% the general female population must face.

Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey and potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, had lap-band surgery, a weight-loss surgery that involves restricting the capacity of the stomach without actually cutting it out as gastric bypass, which cuts down the size of the stomach to about a walnut, does. Those who have seen photos of the morbidly obese Gov. Christie and heard the testimony of the former head of Health and Human Services that she feared his life would be cut short because of his weight no doubt realize, as he has, that his excessive avoirdupois had become a life-and-death issue.

I think both these public figures deserve a huge round of applause for coming clean about their health concerns. My sister-in-law also underwent a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, like Angelina Jolie, after her sister contracted breast cancer due to the same dreadful gene. My sister-in-law and her other sister both tested positive for the gene and both elected to have both the mastectomy and ovariohysterectomies to make sure that they’d remain alive for their families. (Fortunately, their younger sister has survived her round of breast cancer as well.)

I will never forget my brother discussing the pain and mental, emotional and physical stress involved in my sister-in-law’s decision. As Brad Pitt said, choosing to go under the knife when you’re healthy, for the sake of your family, is nothing less than heroic. And the press and breast-cancer and breast-health and cancer organizations have all been quick to agree, lauding Angelina Jolie’s decision to step forward and openly discuss what’s apparently a taboo subject, breast cancer, even though half the women in America can expect to suffer from it during their lives.

Chris Christie also came forward to discuss what he did to bring his weight under control. But far from being lauded for his candor, he’s been uniformly ridiculed by the press. Why didn’t he tell us all about his procedure while he was undergoing it? Why didn’t he just go on Weight Watchers, hit the gym and run a few marathons instead? Isn’t this just an obvious ploy in his bid for the presidency in 2016? Maybe he should have signed up as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser.”

Excuse me, but both Angelina Jolie and Chris Christie waited until after their procedures were completed to reveal that they’d had them. Both underwent painful ordeals for the sake of their health and their families. It’s so easy to mock fat people—as far as our friend Ben can tell, only old people make equally easy targets, and there seems to be at least a tiny bit of societal shame over mocking them—but God forbid that we should fail to recognize a glamourous, young, thin star’s dreadful sacrifice.

Damn straight. Because of my own family, I know what Angelina Jolie endured, and why she endured it. She deserves every kudo there is. But Governor Christie doesn’t deserve the ridicule and abuse he’s taken for also choosing to be proactive about his health. There’s nothing funny about being fat, there’s nothing wrong with taking whatever steps are necessary to safeguard your health and well-being in a society that wouldn’t ever imagine electing a fat president.

Today, a Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t stand a chance at the presidency: You’d damned well better be tall and thin and young and look good, like the movie stars we all emulate. Damn our superficiality! It will bring us all to ruin.

The centrality of salad. May 14, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Being on the road this past weekend reminded me of exactly how important salads are to my overall well-being. For some, a salad might be consigned to the category of pointless “rabbit food.” But for me, they’re the staff of life. Even as a vegetarian, I’m happy to eat in a steak house if I can have a crunchy salad and a baked potato. Yum!

This road trip, our friend Ben and I had excellent food: an Indian feast at my brother’s house and wonderful Asian (Thai, Japanese, and Chinese) for supper on Mother’s Day. But something was missing, and that something, I realized, was salad. No big bowl of fresh, raw, crispy-crunchy lettuce, veggies, and toppings. By the time we got home, I was feeling seriously deprived.

So yesterday’s lunch was one of my typical “Silence’s Kitchen Sink” salads: A base of Romaine, arugula, watercress and kale, with yellow cherry tomatoes, chopped scallions (green onions) and red bell pepper, sliced cukes and radishes, green and black olives, pepitas (roasted pumpkinseeds) for crunch (I also often use walnuts), organic celery (make sure it and the bell pepper are organic, otherwise they’re very heavily sprayed), diced avocado, sliced hard-boiled eggs, broccoli florets, sprouts, and, of course, cheese (feta, blue or gorgonzola, and extra-sharp white Cheddar are favorites).

OFB is not a fan, but on my own salad I often add pickled beets (yum) and horseradish (for extra bite). I’ll also add fresh herbs if I have them on hand, then top the whole thing off with extra-virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, fresh-cracked pepper, and salt (we like RealSalt, sea salt, or Himalayan pink salt). If we really want to splurge, we’ll splash on Chef Tim’s delicious balsamic vinaigrette, locally available at farmers’ markets here but available everywhere online at http://www.cheftim.com.

A favorite variation is the sweet-and-savory salad, with Boston or butter lettuce, diced apples (such as Braeburn and/or Granny Smith), diced sweet onion (such as Vidalia, WallaWalla or Candy), dried cranberries (craisins) and diced dried apricots or mandarin oranges or grapefruit sections, diced avocado, and sliced almonds, topped with shredded Swiss cheese and fresh mint leaves and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and a citrus-infused balsamic vinegar. I know about the huge fad for “green juices” for breakfast, but I can’t face them. As far as I’m concerned, this salad, topped with an herbed yogurt “Green Goddess”-style dressing, would make a great breakfast, without having to confront a glass of green slime.

I have yet to try to recreate the sumptuous wedge salad available at the Texas Steakhouse chain (not to be confused with the Texas Roadhouse chain), a huge wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with blue cheese, onion and diced tomato. (Mind you, it’s also typically topped with crumbled bacon, but of course I make them leave that off.) It is SO good, but it seems so decadent that I save that for road trips.

Anyway, I had salad for lunch yesterday—you can see why it could easily make a meal—and we had side salads with supper. I had salad for lunch today, and we’ll have salad as a first course again tonight. Whew! I’m finally starting to feel normal again. For me, most comfort foods are hot: pasta, potatoes, pizza, grits, sweet potato fries, corn on the cob, warm Brie and a crusty baguette to dip into it or hot dinner rolls and butter or corn cakes. But salad is the great exception: It’s comfort and comforting, all by itself.

‘Til next time,


Think he’ll friend me back? May 13, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood went to Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, yesterday. It was the first time I’d been back since I was a child.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the architecture, the majestic setting, the fact that it was the home of our first and greatest President, or even that it was the seat of my own relative Martha Dandridge (Custis Washington), that impressed the youthful Ben. Yes, I loved Colonial history and architecture even then. But no amount of history or achitecture could compete with the stench rising up from the (then) foully polluted Potomac River. It was basically the only memory I took away from my childhood visit to this historic site.

Mercifully, it’s been decades since the Potomac has been cleaned up. Now joggers, cyclists, walkers, and picnicers enjoy trails along its banks, often with their families and dogs. Not a whiff of foulness and rot rises from the river. Instead, the whirr of power boats, the honk of towboats, and the majestic sight of yachts and cruise ships brings your attention to the great expanse of water that, legend has it, as a young man George Washington hurled a silver dollar across to show his strength.

Looking across what seems like miles of water, this story seems as much a legend as Washington cutting down the cherry tree as a child. (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Yet it was supposedly witnessed. And certainly the young, athletic, 6’4″ Washington (he had shrunk to “just” 6’2″ in his 60s) prided himself on his prodigious strength.

If you think this feat unlikely, consider that the young athlete Benjamin Franklin regularly swam across the mighty Delaware River in Philadelphia for exercise, something few Olympic swimmers would consider doing today (and not one, to my knowledge, has ever attempted).

History affirms Ben’s wholesome swims, quite a slap in the face to the picture of the portly elder statesman. And Ben in his youth was not only a vegetarian but a teetotaler, denouncing the consumption of alcohol and advocating drinking water instead, a radical (and probably misguided) idea in an era when raw sewage was dumped in the streets and polluted the wells, rivers, and other water sources.

The general populace may have been ignorant as to why, but they were right that drinking water could kill you. No wonder they drank massive quantities of alcohol—beer, small beer, hard cider, grog, ale, wine, fortified wine like Port and Madeira, sparkling wine, wine punches, rum, gin, and so on—from morning to night. God forbid that you should drink a drop of that sickening, polluted water!

But I digress. As a Colonial history buff, I was probably a bit more aware of George Washington the man than many visitors to Mount Vernon the day Silence and I came. I knew how tall he was, and that only that other great Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, was as tall; I knew he had numerous sets of false teeth made, but they were made of ivory and human teeth, not wood. I knew he was a great gardener, farmer, and botanist, as well as a statesman, and I was aware not just of his keen interest in agriculture but of all the innovations he implemented on the Mount Vernon estate.

I knew he had the foresight to abandon growing tobacco, a nutrient-greedy and labor-intensive crop, on his land and turn it to more sustainable crops two hundred years before the idea caught hold with other American farmers. And I knew that he freed his slaves on his death, something Ben Franklin had done well before his death, but that Thomas Jefferson never did, his will requiring them to all be sold off to settle his massive debts, along with his home Monticello and all its furnishings, leaving his heirs with nothing. Washington by contrast not only left his widow and heirs well provided for, but also provided funds for the education and fortune of his freed slaves.

What I didn’t know, and what the tour of Mount Vernon told me, was that the house at Mount Vernon was made of wood, and that George Washington had had the planks planed, varnished, painted, and then covered with sand so that they resembled set stone. He also had the roofing shaped from wood to resemble Italian ceramic tiles, and painted red to match them. I can’t imagine the upkeep this would have required, but as trompe d’oeil (fool the eye), it was brilliant.

But there was something else I didn’t know, and it came as quite a shock. I knew that George Washington’s inherent courtesy caused his death. On a cold December day, he’d gone riding as usual over the lands of Mount Vernon to see how the plantation was faring. Rain, sleet and snow drenched his garments and soaked him to the skin. But Washington, who never regarded the weather or his own typically robust health, never thought to turn back. After a long day in this bitter weather, he returned to Mount Vernon.

Upon arriving home, Washington saw that his guests had already assembled for dinner. As punctilious a host as he was a commander, he refused to consider detaining them by changing into dry clothing. So he sat there, chilled to the bone, in wet, frigid clothes, for hours, entertaining his guests. By the next morning, he felt that he’d caught a chill. But colds and the like meant nothing to a man who’d never been sick and had emerged unscathed from barrages of bullets that had riddled his uniform and killed the horses he was riding. What was a little cold compared to that?!

Unfortunately, today’s doctors think that he caught a rare but horrendous bacterial throat infection. I’d always assumed it must have been a high fever that killed him so quickly in his prime, but the evidence says otherwise. Apparently a bacterial infection of the epiglottis caused the first President’s throat to swell shut and killed him by suffocation. (Contemporary accounts of doctors and slaves attempting to give him liquids and his being unable to swallow them tend to bear this diagnosis out.)

This would have been a horrific way to die, but comparatively quick, given the so-called medical treatments of most of the doctors of the day. (And of course they did bleed George Washington four times between the onset of his illness and his death, weakening him further. No doubt it was only his robust constitution that allowed him to hold on through the bleedings rather than dying like most people who were bled.)

But the real sorrow was that the account pointed out that, had antibiotics been known in Washington’s time, he could have been quickly cured and might have lived at least 20 years longer, like his contemporaries Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. The Father of Our Country died too soon, and pointlessly.

But there was something else our friend Ben didn’t know about Mount Vernon: That it was and remains the graveyard of George and Martha Washington and generations of other Washingtons. You can visit the crypt and pay your respects to the Washingtons. I had no idea. Thank goodness the site was preserved and not turned into townhouses or an industrial complex! Good grief. To think that a tour of Mount Vernon also includes a visit to George Washington’s actual grave! Yow. You can look into the crypt and see two plain marble sarcophogi. One bears the seal of office, carved into the marble, and says simply: “Washington.” The other is completely plain. It says: “Martha: Wife of Washington.”

Clearly, for a generation for whom George Washington was peerless, that was enough.

I’d love to end this post here, but I have to add one poignant and one humorous comment picked up during our trip. First, when I asked the hotel clerk, a pleasant, competent young man, how to get to Mount Vernon from our hotel in nearby Falls Church, VA (for those who think Washington and environs are somehow offshore, they’re actually in Virginia, George Washington’s home state), he seemed a bit bemused. As with all check-in desk clerks, he was very used to recommending restaurants and directing travelers. But this time, he was stumped. “Ah, ahem, is that a city in Maryland?”

Well, no. It happens to be the home of the Father of our Country. But of course, who wants to be rude? I thanked the desk clerk and turned to our maps.

Now for the humorous part. When Silence and I were lining up for our tour of the mansion, we overheard a woman saying to her son, “They want me to friend George Washington on Facebook. Do you think he’ll friend me back?” Oh, oh, oh. Classic! But if George were here, I wonder…

Carpenter bees are here. May 11, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Shriek! Silence Dogood here. I was having lunch at a nice restaurant yesterday with a dear friend who insisted that we enjoy the warm spring weather by eating outside on the terrace. Unfortunately, we were dive-bombed by so many carpenter bees that I ultimately insisted that we eat in the indoor section of the restaurant.

Carpenter bees are harmless to people: They’re not going to sting you. But they’re as big as bumblebees (you can tell the difference because bumblebees are furry and nest in the ground while carpenter bees are smooth and prefer wooden structures), and they’ll definitely buzz you incessantly as they go about their business. They’ll also chew through your wooden walls to nest inside. If you don’t want your wooden walls and other structures to be destroyed by them, you have to stop them.

Sure, you could call a pest-control company and have them blitz them with toxic pesticides. But I wouldn’t recommend it, since you and your family will be blitzed with the pesticides, too.

Instead, as the University of Kentucky’s website notes, carpenter bees tend to be drawn to wood that is bare, weathered and unpainted. To protect your wood siding from invasion, make sure it is regularly painted. If anyone out there in the blogosphere has discovered your own method of nontoxic treatment, please let us know!

‘Til next time,


Splitting the estate. May 10, 2013

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Families. Say what you will about how adult siblings get along in general, if things are going to really break down, the time they do is typically when it’s time to settle a parent’s estate. Unfortunately, our friend Ben will soon be heading down to Nashville to do just that, and meeting my brother and sister there.

It sounds so straightforward: We’ll head to our family’s Colonial home, hear how an appraiser values the antiques, then say which, if any, we want. But the reality is anything but simple. First, there’s the heartbreak of the beautiful house, sitting on three gorgeous acres of boxwoods, magnolias, and dry-laid stone walls. My parents loved that house and spent endless time adding period furnishings and making it a lovely, gracious place to live.

Sadly, I’m the only one of the three children who wants it, and I can’t afford to maintain it, so it will be going to the block. To know that this is the last time I’ll be in it is like going in for major surgery and knowing you’ll wake up without some vital part of yourself, something that defined you, something you thought would always be there. From now on, all I’ll have of my family home is some faded photographs.

On top of that, there’ll be the issue of the contents of the house. I of course know what I want, but I have no clue what my brother and sister want. If I’m lucky, our choices won’t overlap. But I fear that’s magical thinking. So I proposed a system that may strike you as totally bizarre: Post-It Notes.

I suggested that each of us get a pack of Post-It Notes in a different color. Then, after the appraiser leaves, each of us can roam through the house, putting our own distinctive Post-It Notes on whatever we want. If, at the end of this, there’s just one Post-It Note on something, whoever wanted it gets it. If, however, there are two or three Post-Its on something, we’ll have to negotiate. This strikes me as the best way to assess how much each of us wants, as opposed to simply taking one thing at a time and haggling as if we were at an auction. (“What am I bid for this?!”) Obviously, if one of us gave something to our parents, that person gets it if they want it.

This doesn’t even address the things we want but know we can’t have. I, for example, love my mother’s everyday china, goblets, and silverware; I grew up eating every meal on them every day until I left for college. But Silence Dogood and I have no room for more china and goblets, and I know my brother would like to have the silverware. I love our antique sideboard and dining-room table and sofas and so on, but Silence and I live in a tiny cottage where such furniture would be completely inappropriate. We don’t even have a dining room.

Again, leaving such beloved possessions behind is a grief, but unless Silence and I win the lottery before I head to Nashville and can buy a fabulous Colonial stone home complex here in scenic PA that’s just begging to be furnished with antiques, it’s no way, no how. And let’s just say I’m not holding my breath for the winning ticket, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” notwithstanding.

There’s a scene in the first installment of the film version of “The Hobbit” where Gandalf rounds on poor Bilbo Baggins and demands to know when Bilbo’s mother’s china and crocheted doilies became so important to him. If I had been Bilbo, I’d have answered, “After she died,” which I think would have shut Gandalf up. It is after our beloved dead are gone and we can no longer enjoy their company that the things they chose to define their home life take on most meaning.

The home Silence and I share, Hawk’s Haven, holds some rather strange things as a result. In a kitchen cabinet with all our very carefully chosen china is a rather homely bowl, which matches the everyday china in my beloved grandparents’ home. In my wallet to this day is my grandfather’s Sacred Heart Auto League card. Silence has some of her maternal grandmother’s clothes hanging in a closet, even though her grandmother wore them long before she was born and she knows she herself will never wear them, and a collection of antique buttons from her paternal grandfather that she played with for hours as a child.

So what will I try to bring back from my family home? Some paintings, maybe an oriental carpet. A Pilgrim chest, a brass-studded chest, a brass chandelier. A blue-and-white Chinese bowl. A 15th-century wooden statue (but I’m sure my brother will want that, too). Will I get any of them? Who knows. Will sentiment swamp good sense and make me ask for things that I love but that are inappropriate for my circumstances? I hope not. (Silence would kill me.)

But there’s one thing that, ironically, my brother and I both want that we can both have, if only we can figure out how to transport it from Nashville to our respective residences. We both love gardening, and we both have a great attachment to a lush growth of a spectacularly variegated form of Italian arum that grows under the trees of our family home. There’s plenty for all, if only we can get it back alive. And frankly, if that’s the only thing I can bring back, it will be enough.

Words of wisdom. May 9, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Apparently, our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, had a 19th-century imitator. But this man, a British Baptist minister, didn’t simply crib Ben’s sayings, as our friend Ben discovered this morning while reading a piece from The Week called “15 less-than-inspirational quotes from a book of moral advice” (read them all on TheWeek.com).

I was intrigued by the title of the article and assumed it would be poking fun at some outdated moralist’s misguided ideas. Instead, the Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon had a wealth of commonsense wisdom of his own to impart, in Dr. Franklin’s famous homespun style. Here are my favorites:

“Eggs are aggs, but some are rotten; and so hopes are hopes, but many of them are delusions.”

“Expect to get half of what you earn, a quarter of what is your due, and none of what you have lent, and you will be near the mark.”

“Make as few changes as you can; trees often transplanted bear little fruit.”

“It is far better to work with an old-fashioned spade that suits your hand than with a new-fangled invention that you don’t understand.” [Yeah! Go, Luddites, go!!!]

“It is true you must bake with the flour you have, but if the sack is empty it might be just as well not to set up for a baker.”

“Every minnow wants to be a whale, but it is prudent to be a little fish while you have but little water.”

Wow. I think Ben Franklin would agree.