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Cannas make a comeback. July 31, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Our friend Ben is thrilled to report that cannas are one tough group of plants. Here in scenic PA, Silence Dogood and I grow five different cannas in containers, including water cannas with yellow flowers, glorious white-variegated cannas, maroon-leaved cannas, and cannas with yellow-and-green and red-purple-and-green variegated leaves. They are very showy plants, adding lots of color to our deck and attracting hummingbirds when they come into bloom.

Unfortunately, like our other container plants, cannas are consigned to our greenhouse during the cold months. And I have to confess that we’re not the greatest at watering the greenhouse plants weekly through the winter, since the greenhouse is a long, snowy walk from our cottage home. And, given the cost of electricity, we keep the greenhouse at a warm and welcoming 55 degrees F. (as we keep our own house), which is not congenial to us or to our tropical plants.

As a result, when spring arrived and we could finally bring our plants from the greenhouse onto our deck, it appeared that five of our cannas had died. We reluctantly consigned them to our compost bins and chastised ourselves for bad stewardship.

But as the weather turned from warm to hot, we realized that we’d underestimated our cannas. All five of them revived and grew in our compost bins. As soon as we saw leaves, we potted them up and brought them onto the deck to join their compatriots. Not a single canna was lost!

The moral of this story is not to give up on your cannas, even if it looks like they’re dead. Those rhizomes store energy and food to fuel plant growth, even if it takes a while for them to show it. Keep watering, give them 6 to 8 hours of sun, and you’ll be rewarded with lush, decorative foliage and flowers, even if you thought your plants were dead. How thrilling to see their resurrection!


Finally! Cicada Sighting July 30, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Grrrrr. Our friend Ben has been anxious to enjoy a cicada sighting since we were promised an irruption of the 17-year cicadas this summer. These cicadas bear the wonderful generic epithet of Magicicada, presumably because they appeared out of nowhere every 17 years like magic.

This year was the date for the 17-year cicada to irrupt in massive numbers, as many as a million cicadas per acre. I was really looking forward to it. But then, it turned out that good old global warming had even affected cicada emergence. Our local paper informed us that the 17-year cicadas had confined their appearance to the Poconos and northward here in Pennsylvania, so our friend Ben and Silence Dogood didn’t see a single red-eyed bug. (I’m not sure Silence was as broken up about this as I was.)

However, the other night, Silence, our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh, and I were sitting out on our deck enjoying the sunset when I saw something strange beside one of the numerous potted plants on our deck. It looked like a cicada. It was a cicada. Unfortunately, it was a rather small, black-eyed annual cicada rather than a large red-eyed 17-year cicada. And even more unfortunately, it was dead. But at least it proved that some cicadas were still extant in our area, despite the ravages of global warming.

Reinventing the wedge. July 28, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Iceberg lettuce gets a bad rap. Silence Dogood here. Everyone’s always beating up on iceberg, trumpeting its lack of nutritive value, urging us to eat limp, faintly moldy-tasting “spring greens” and spongy, tasteless spinach instead.

Now, I’m all for spinach, sauteed in olive oil with garlic or washed and steamed in its own moisture and served with a splash of good balsamic vinegar. I’m all for nutritious greens in salads: arugula, Romaine, kale, mustard greens, watercress, endive, escarole, and radicchio are all favorites. But I’m not for bashing iceberg, a lettuce that provides tons of crunch and fiber.

To me, salads should be crunchy. Veggies are important not just for their nutritive value but for their all-important fiber content. Consuming plenty of fiber is every bit as important for our health as consuming nutrients, and iceberg lettuce is loaded with fiber. Far from being vilified, iceberg deserves a place in the salad rotation.

One of the most iconic uses of iceberg lettuce is in the wedge salad, a wedge of iceberg with blue cheese dressing, chopped tomato, and diced bacon, basically a blast from the indulgent past. But what say you decided to upgrade the wedge?

Here are some ways to take the basic wedge from good to great, starting, of course, with organic iceberg:

* Forget the gloppy storebought dressing. Try a wedge of iceberg covered with chopped tomato, sweet onion, crumbled blue cheese, a splash of olive oil, and Real Salt or sea salt and fresh-cracked pepper.

* Skip the blue cheese. Sub green goddess dressing on your wedge. We love this, but you can put any dressing you like on a wedge, from peppercorn parmesan to ranch to French or thousand island.

* Head South of the Border. Try a wedge slathered in homemade guacamole. It’s so easy! Get a ripe avocado, a sweet onion (like Vidalia or Walla Walla), a bunch of cilantro and a tub of fresh hot salsa from your grocery’s produce section. (You want fresh salsa, not cooked; look for visible chunks of tomato, onion, green pepper, hot pepper, etc., no sauce.) Dice half the onion in a bowl, add about a quarter cup of the salsa (or more to taste), at least a quarter-cup of chopped cilantro, and a good splash of hot sauce. (We like Tabasco Chipotle for this.) Now, halve your avocado and pop out the seed, then quarter the avocado. Starting at the stem end, peel each avocado quarter with your fingers—the skin comes right off—and set it on a plate. With a knife, dice the avocado quarters, sprinkle the diced avocado with lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and mash it with a fork, leaving about half the dice intact and the rest pulped smooth. Mix the mashed avocado into the onion-salsa-cilantro mixture and you’re good to go. Yum!

* Try a shrimpless shrimp cocktail. What makes a shrimp cocktail really isn’t the shrimp, it’s the sauce. Mix the hot chili sauce you’d normally pour on your shrimp cocktail with as much horseradish as you can take, add a splash of lemon juice and some finely minced sweet onion, and pour some on your iceberg wedge. Ooh la la!

* Take a Mediterranean cruise. Maybe a trip to Greece or Sicily is beyond your budget, but a Mediterraean-inspired wedge salad is well within reach. Use crumbled feta instead of blue cheese on your wedge, add some fresh thyme, chop green and kalamata olives very fine and add them, and top each wedge with extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

There are plenty of other options; these are just meant to get you started. And hey, if you love a wedge salad just as it was originally intended, keep that high-fiber benefit in mind and ignore the snooty critics who demand mushy spring greens. To each his own!

‘Til next time,


The breakfast thing. July 24, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Do you eat breakfast? Silence Dogood here. The Powers That Be have been very heavy-handed on the breakfast front, assuring us that we can’t lose weight or even stay alive (and avoid major diseases like diabetes and heart disease, as well as obesity) if we don’t regularly consume a hefty breakfast, whether we’re hungry or not.

Then today I read a study that concluded that people who skip breakfast tend to be slimmer than those who make a point of dutifully eating it. What’s the takeaway here?

I say, let’s go with our common sense. If you’re hungry in the early morning, eat breakfast then. If you don’t get hungry until 10 a.m., eat breakfast then. Eat when you get hungry, not when you’re “supposed to,” whether that means you eat at at 10, 3, and 8 or 7, 12, and 6. And eat not only when your body tells you, but what your body tells you, whether it’s a salad and cheese for breakfast or an omelette and toast for supper. Trust it, it knows what it’s doing, which is trying to keep you healthy and alive.

‘Til next time,


Does cottage cheese contain probiotics? July 23, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Most people know that yogurt (depending on the brand) can be a great source of probiotics, live, beneficial bacterial cultures that promote digestive health and boost our immune systems and overall physical functioning. Probiotics are also abundant in unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, kombucha, kefir, and other fermented foods. But I was stunned to read yesterday that cottage cheese is also an excellent source of probiotics.

Cottage cheese? You could have fooled me. I love cottage cheese, especially in summer, when cottage cheese and ripe tomatoes makes a light, delicious, cooling lunch. (In winter, cottage cheese and unsweetened apple butter is a surprisingly decadent breakfast treat.) But I’ve never seen a word about probiotics on a cottage cheese carton. And given what a hot button it is, especially now that digestive health is being increasingly viewed as the key to health, period, you’d think if a product contained probiotics, it would be touted all over the packaging.

I grabbed my store-brand carton of cottage cheese out of the fridge and read the ingredients label just to make sure: no probiotics. So I turned to my good friend Google to see where all this probiotics-in-cottage-cheese stuff had come from to begin with.

Turns out, some brands of cottage cheese do contain probiotics: Breakstone, Horizon organic, Trader Joe’s, a few brands found (supposedly) in health food stores. Sadly, there’s no Trader Joe’s near me, and our health food stores, while carrying all kinds of cheese, yogurt, and the like, have no cottage cheese. Local groceries do carry Breakstone and Horizon products, just not their cottage cheese. What’s a cottage-cheese lover who’d appreciate a probiotic boost to do?

Well, the answer seems simple enough to me: Buy a carton of plain Greek yogurt with live cultures and mix some into your cottage cheese before you eat it. Experiment with the amount, starting with a tablespoon per serving and working up. Your goal is to add probiotics without ruining the curdy texture of the cottage cheese. (Otherwise, you could just eat yogurt.)

This works because, unlike regular plain yogurt, which can be a bit tangy, Greek yogurt is mild and creamy, just like cottage cheese. Its thick texture won’t dilute the cottage cheese and make it watery. Add your tomatoes, berries, pineapple, cantaloupe, apple or pumpkin butter, or whatever you enjoy, and bask in the thought that you’ll be getting those good-guy probiotics in every luscious bite!

‘Til next time,


The most dangerous professions. July 22, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Think you know the most dangerous professions? Soldiers, policemen, firefighters? Construction workers, people who work on electric lines, daredevils, racecar drivers, miners, people who do dangerous factory work like making acid-based batteries? How about NATO workers, nuns, Peace Corps and Red Cross volunteers and the like who venture into unsettled areas to try to help the poor and downtrodden?

Sure, these are the obvious choices. Farmers, exterminators, lawn and landscape maintenance crews (including golf-course maintenance), janitors and other cleaning personnel, and everyone else who exposes themselves to toxic chemicals on a regular basis also qualify. But let’s look at another group, the people who have no clue that their jobs are killing them, the average American Joes.

Our friend Ben has long been convinced that auto mechanics and salon stylists (for both hair and nails) are involved in dangerous professions because of all the toxic chemicals they’re exposed to all day, every day, in the course of their work. But now there’s another. Apparently cashiers also qualify.

We all know that standing on your feet all day without moving much can lead to varicose veins and other health horrors. But what catapults cashiers into the front lines is the composition of the receipt tape in every cash register. The tape is, for reasons unclear to our friend Ben, packed with BPA (bisphenol-A), an endocrine disruptor typically found in plastics and the linings of cans.

Endocrine disruptors interfere with the body’s normal hormone function and can lead to everything from weight gain to thyroid disorders, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer, and a host of other horrors. “Cash register receipts contain extremely high levels of BPA, which can transfer into the body through the skin. Tell the cashier you don’t need a receipt for minor purchases, and handle receipts as little as possible,” writes Lisa Turner in Better Nutrition.

Gee. Here our friend Ben thought register receipts were made from paper, and now we’re being told that they’re so toxic we should try not to handle them at all. (Sounds like an excellent reason to pay for purchases with cash, check or credit card, since if you use your debit card you’ll need the receipt to record the amount in your account transaction register to keep your bank records up to date.)

Think about it: If you’re like me, you probably handle a couple to a handful of register receipts a week. Cashiers handle them all day, every day. Given a choice, it would be safer and healthier all-round to stick to stocking shelves. You’d get plenty of aerobic exercise and weight-lifting on the job and avoid those toxic register receipts!

Checking in on Shiloh. July 15, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I have been blessed to have our beloved black German shepherd, Pioneer Hawk’s Haven Shiloh von Shiloh Special (that’s just Shiloh to you), for four years now. Shiloh’s name is “von Shiloh Special” because she’s the granddaughter of Lucas von Shiloh Special, so who could resist? But she is very special to us: beautiful, funny, smart, loving, big, bad (in a comical way), and above all, happy. Seeing her huge smile and lolling tongue is enough to bring someone back from the dead.

Our friend Ben and I had lost two beloved golden retrievers to cancer when I started the search for Shiloh. Just this morning, I read that one in three goldens now loses their life to cancer, and the numbers are expected to rise. OFB has been hoping that one day, we’ll have another of these beautiful, laid-back, joyful dogs. But having seen our two beloved friends suffer, I told him that there’s no way we’re getting another golden unless researchers can break the cancer conundrum; I can’t face that heartbreak again.

Of course, we got Shiloh four years previous to this morning’s revelation. OFB wanted another golden retriever pup then, too. But I was on a mission from God. I loved my goldens, but I’d always wanted a German shepherd. I’d tried to rescue one from a shelter as my first on-my-own dog, but the shelter refused to give her to me because I was single and worked. Better to euthanize the dog than send her to a home where she’d be cherished, apparently! I was and remain incensed about this, but I never forgot my dream of owning a German shepherd.

After our beloved golden Mollycule (that would be the gigantic Hawk’s Haven Molly, aka “the little Mollycule”) died, I went online and searched “German shepherds PA.” I knew the time had come for a female German shepherd; I knew her name would be Shiloh. The question was, where was she?

A few clicks later, I found her. Pioneer German Shepherds, a small family operation near Gettysburg, offered large, calm, family dogs. “Calm” was, of course, a necessary trait, and “family” implied that they would get along with everybody, including our cats and birds. But “large” was also important to me. I like big dogs and, despite their fearsome reputation, most German shepherds are medium-sized dogs. They were originally bred to herd sheep, not cattle, after all. They’re bigger than spaniels, but most are way smaller than rottweilers, sort of the size of Lassie.

Not so for Pioneer’s shepherds. Shiloh’s father weighed in at 135 pounds and looked like a lion; her mother was a respectable 90-something. (And in both cases, this was size, not fat. These are big dogs.) As it happened, Pioneer had two pups left from their latest litter, and had posted photos. I saw the photo of the adorable little black female pup and was lost. I knew she was my Shiloh.

But there was a problem: We couldn’t go down to get her right away, and another couple was coming to look at the two pups first. What if they chose my Shiloh over the other pup? Fortunately, they took the other pup. Shiloh was ours.

I still remember how quiet and calm she was in her carrier all the way back from the Gettysburg area to the Lehigh Valley, a two-hour trip. Her breeder called her a “thinking” pup, enjoying life while discovering everything she could about it. She instantly took to us, to the cats, to the birds, to her toys, to everything. She has given us four years of unmitigated joy.

Shiloh is the greatest. But so are her breeders. Just this morning, Shiloh’s breeders e-mailed to ask how she was. They remembered everything about her while she was with them, the way she loved to swing on the puppy gate, how smart she was. They asked if we could send an update and some photos. And this is four years after we brought her home! How often do you think that happens?!

I’d have said never, and I’d have been wrong. Dog lovers, if you choose a breeder rather than adoption, please choose responsibly. Do your research, trust your instincts, and don’t patronize puppy mills. How wonderful to find a breeder who loves—and continues to love—your dog as much as you do.

‘Til next time,


What are YOU afraid of? July 14, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Fear of loss. Fear of failure. Fear of pain. Generalized fears. Specific fears. Fears we acknowledge. Fears we suppress. Socially acceptable fears, and fears that make us the object of social ridicule.

In many ways, our lives are defined by our fears, and how we react to them. So our friend Ben was fascinated, but not at all surprised, to read the findings of a 2010 British study by Cancer Research UK that asked more than 2,000 adults to pick their greatest fear from the following list:

* Being in debt
* Developing Alzheimer’s
* Old age
* Being the victim of a knife attack
* Cancer
* Being in a plane crash
* Having a heart attack
* Being in a car accident
* Losing your job
* Losing your home
* Motor neurone [er, neuron?] disease

Unsurprisingly, as reported online in today’s Motley Fool column “What’s Your Biggest Fear? The Answer Might Scare You,” cancer ranked first, followed by Alzheimer’s. After all, nobody wants to be slowly eaten alive, while being tortured with a barrage of toxic chemicals and radiation, and nobody wants to lose their mind, memory, and personality.

Obviously, nobody wants to be the victim of violent crime or die in a crash, either. Our friend Ben thinks these didn’t make the top two because we feel that we have more control over our circumstances in those regards: We can avoid dangerous areas and late-night outings, we can drive defensively and soberly or take public transport, we can learn self-defense, we can refrain from flying in small private planes. Disaster may still overtake us, but not for want of trying.

Cancer and Alzheimer’s seem more a roll of the dice. While it’s been shown that a healthy lifestyle can prevent the onset of type II diabetes and heart disease, and even reverse them, a healthy lifestyle, though our best defense against both cancer and Alzheimer’s, is no guarantee. And feeling helpless is the very root cause of fear.

There are, obviously, a lot of options the researchers failed to put on their list. For example:

* Fear of losing a beloved spouse or partner
* Fear of losing a child
* Fear of never finding a life partner
* Fear of being thought ugly
* Fear of being thought stupid
* Fear of loneliness and isolation
* Fear of not living up to parents’/spouse’s/children’s/peers’/colleagues’/the public’s/you-name-it’s expectations

For anyone who truly loves, be it a spouse, partner, or child, the thought of losing that person to a car wreck, disease, suicide, freak accident, or whatever must surely be the greatest fear of all. We have a friend who has to drive long distances at night on major highways and becomes very drowsy. His partner lies awake until his return at one, two, three in the morning, praying that he returns unhurt, praying that he doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel and hurt someone else.

The survey also didn’t take into account compulsive fears: fear of abandonment, fear of crowds, fear of heights, claustrophobia, fear of spiders, fear of snakes, fear of mice, and on and on. For those of us who suffer from these compulsive fears, they are the most crippling of all. (Our friend Ben should know, fear of heights is my bane.)

After all, most people don’t go through their day thinking “Oh my God! I’m going to get cancer, I’m going to get cancer!” or “At any moment, my [perfectly healthy] partner is going to die!” They may worry about it, they may fear it, but it doesn’t creep up on them and ambush them at odd moments throughout the day, such as when they come upon an open stairwell or a precipice or a curve in the road that shows them a drop and a long view out.

This is the difference between crippling, compulsive fear, the “I’m going to be propelled over the edge to my death and there’s nothing I can do about it!” kind of fear, and fears that may never be realized but are certainly possible, even if unlikely. The compulsive fears give you acute adrenaline poisoning, the others are concerns—serious concerns—but aren’t life-controlling.

There are other kinds of fears, too: The fear of doing something so heinous that one lives on in infamy long after death. The fear of not accomplishing anything to help change the world, or humanity, or your community, or your chosen field, for the better. In past ages, certainly the fear of hellfire and damnation would have ranked first on the list for most people. Our friend Ben wonders how many, even today, fear an eternity in Hell. And how many fear simple personal extinction, not death per se, but the death of our personality, our awareness.

There are so many kinds of fear, and so many possible responses. What are you most afraid of?

Salt lovers, rejoice. July 13, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released a research report that confirmed that eating 1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of salt a day had no detrimental effect on health, and that eating less than 3000 milligrams of sodium a day could be injurious to health, causing insulin resistance and heart disease.

“The committee found no consistent evidence to support an association between sodium intake and either a beneficial or adverse effect on most health outcomes,” according to the report. It didn’t, apparently, address the fact that iodine-enriched salt is most people’s major source of this nutrient, which is necessary to prevent thyroid disease. Our friend Ben would call that a beneficial effect.

Folks with high blood pressure and/or heart disease should still make sure they don’t dump on or consume more than 7000 milligrams of sodium a day. (One teaspoon of salt equals 2400 mg of sodium. And remember that prepared foods and restaurant meals, including fast food, contain plenty of salt, since it improves the flavor of all foods, so don’t rely on your salt shaker to determine your intake.)

For the rest of us salt lovers, this is great news. Many of us (including yours truly) have been abused for years—often by total strangers!—for our “excessive” salt intake. Now we don’t have to take it, we can just shake it!

Plus, our friend Ben read this fascinating fact for those who enjoy alcoholic beverages: Apparently hangovers are caused by a combination of dehydration and sodium depletion. So if you’re drinking, bring on the salt, and make sure you alternate your beverage of choice with water or iced tea. (Maybe a margarita on the rocks with a salt rim is the ultimate solution, as long as you drink all the melted ice and lick off all the salt…)

Dumb science. July 11, 2013

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It looks like the baboons are running the show. Our friend Ben read a report in yesterday’s paper about how researchers had devised an experiment in which participants drew four foods from life: a pizza, a cupcake, a strawberry, and a pepper. The researchers monitored how much drawing each food affected the pleasure centers in the brains of the participants. The food that turned on the pleasure centers most was pizza, followed by the cupcake, then the strawberry. The poor pepper barely registered.

The researchers were at a loss to understand these findings. Maybe people just didn’t like peppers?! Why would pizza outrank a cupcake?

Duh. Our sense of smell is our strongest memory trigger, and of course it follows that a scent that brings back pleasant memories would trigger our pleasure centers. The four test foods have very different strengths of scent, with a cooked pizza being the strongest, followed by a cupcake, then a strawberry. An uncut pepper has virtually no scent. Are the rankings any surprise? Hardly.

You’d think a monkey could figure this out, and they probably would manage it a lot better than these moronic researchers. Which wouldn’t bother our friend Ben except for two things: The gravity with which each and every research project, however stupid and worthless, is reported in national news; and the fact that ultimately, we taxpayers are paying for these experiments, however stupid, repetitive, and obvious they are, however many wrong, illogical, or clueless “results” are drawn from them.

I couldn’t care less if researchers spent their time sticking their hands on hot burners to see if they hurt themselves, as long as I didn’t have to pay for it. Or read the inevitably blaring headline, “Research shows hot burners pose hazard to skin.” Followed in a week or a month or a year with “Researchers find that burning hands on stove is good for weight loss,” or whatever inevitable reversal of the initial research reveals. “Use safflower oil to prevent heart disease.” “Safflower oil promotes heart disease. Use olive oil instead.” Ugh.

Obviously, we need research to discover breakthroughs, make connections, and move ahead as a society. But couldn’t we be a bit more selective about the projects we take on, and more discriminating and logical about drawing a conclusion, if there even is one? I’d prefer not to fund experiments that “discover” what is already common knowledge, or worse, as in this case, fail to even perceive it.

Pizza, anyone?