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Who you gonna call? Phonebusters! November 30, 2013

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Our friend Ben is a self-professed Luddite, aka a techno-idiot, so I may not know what I’m talking about here. But I was horrified to read an article yesterday that stated categorically that landline phones (the ones that attach to the wall with cords) were going to be phased out in the next three or so years. That would leave only cellphones and smartphones as means of communication.

On the surface, you might ask, so what? But the “what” comes in if there’s a power outage. Today, if that happens, your cellphone/smartphone goes out, but your landline phone stays on, so you can still call for help in a disaster or a medical emergency, or check in with your loved ones to make sure they’re okay. That’s why we’re advised to have both. If we only have mobile phones in the very near future, and the power goes out, we’ll be totally cut off from any way to communicate with anybody by phone.

Again, you might think, so what? But what if you’re caught in an ice storm and are trapped in your house, unable to drive to seek help, heat, medications, or supplies? What if the power’s down because of a Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina or a tornado, and you need to tell your family you’re alive, or see if they are?

If I’ve been misinformed about this, please let me know. I’d appreciate it! But if I’m correctly informed, I’d love to hear if there are any other communication options that will still work when the power goes out.

Catching Fire. November 29, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. As someone who’s actually written a book about Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, I was looking forward to the film version of the second novel, “Catching Fire.” But I was surprised to read the gushing praise most critics have lavished on the film in comparison to the original film, “The Hunger Games.” I really liked the first film. How much better could this be?

Last night, our friend Ben and I finally got to the theater to check it out. And I was underwhelmed. The star-studded cast certainly gave it their best shot. Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz were back in full form. New additions Sam Claflin as Finnick Adair and Patrick St. Esprit as Commander Thread were especially strong. And of course, Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, and Josh Hutcherson as the love triangle at the center of the story were all excellent.

There were some great touches, like making the so-called “Peacekeepers” (the Capitol’s Nazi-like enforcers) look more like the Storm Troopers in “Star Wars” and giving them codpieces. And making the Avoxes—anyone who had offended the Capitol by trying to defend the rights of the populace, and had been enslaved and silenced by having their tongues cut out as a result—dressed in mummylike costumes that all but obscured their faces. And having President Snow (Donald Sutherland) bleed into his champagne.

But overall, “Catching Fire” struck me as a slick production, nothing like the gritty portrayal of Panem and its manifest inequalities that was the defining feature of the first film. And they chose to omit the pivotal scene of the book, in which the new Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, shows his watch to Katniss—a watch that bears a mockingjay design, a watch that explains the setup of the arena, a watch that tells her he’s an ally. Why on earth they’d omit such a central scene is completely beyond me.

The film had two highlights for me, and both were due to the brilliant talent of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, and both involved nothing more than facial expression. The first was when her beloved stylist Cinna was brutally beaten and dragged away by the Peacekeepers before her eyes as she’s heading into the arena, and her face sets into a mask of fury and resolve. And the next was at the end, when Gale (Liam Hemsworth) tells her that her home district, District 12, has been obliterated by President Snow. Until that point, she’d just been a girl looking out for herself and those she cares about. But in that moment you see her, just through her expression, transform into a warrior. Kudos to Ms. Lawrence for an astonishing achievement. But two expressions aren’t enough to carry a film.

I’ll take the first film any day.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Happy Thanksgiving! November 28, 2013

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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders (Poor Richard), of Poor Richard’s Almanac, wish each and every one of you a joyous, blessed, and abundant Thanksgiving. Enjoy!

Get your chimney cleaned and your furnace checked. November 26, 2013

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Our friend Ben lives in a tiny wooden cottage, which, as you might think, is vulnerable to fire. Fortunately, Silence Dogood and I have never had an unplanned fire here, though we had a close call last winter when an infrared heater overloaded our ancient wiring and caused a wall to go red-hot. (Fortunately, Silence discovered this in time to save the day.)

We have a fuel-oil furnace that came with the house, which means it’s more than 20 years old. We hate to think what it would cost to replace it, so we’re grateful that our service contract with our oil provider includes annual furnace maintenance.

But I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve been negligent about our woodstove. After the power failed in an ice storm the year after we bought our cottage home, we had a woodstove installed in the fireplace. We’ve used it to keep ourselves reasonably warm and the pipes from freezing in power outages, and of course we’ve enjoyed the occasional blazing fire as a luxury rather than a necessity. But we’ve never had the chimney pipe cleaned.

Our woodstove has a catalytic converter. But even so, creosote buildup in the pipe could be a potential fire hazard. Given how extraordinarily cold it’s been this fall, Silence and I finally broke down and asked the man who installed the stove to please come clean the chimney. (He actually remembered us, and where we lived, after all these years.) He’s supposed to come today, weather permitting, and Silence and I will have a much happier holiday season knowing that our chimney won’t set the house on fire.

If, like us, you’ve been putting this chore off, or you don’t have your furnace serviced every year, winter is coming. To our mind, it’s already here. Make maintenance a priority so you can go into the worst weather with the confidence that, whatever happens, your chimney won’t catch fire and your furnace will keep working.

The white ribbon. November 25, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. When I went on Google this morning, I was surprised to find a white ribbon—like the pink breast cancer ribbon or the jigsaw autism ribbon—at the bottom of the screen. I’d never seen a white ribbon before, so I scrolled over it to see if its meaning would come up. Sure enough, the awkward name of the ribbon appeared: “The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.”

My first thought, of course, was “just ONE day?!!” And then, as an editor and writer, I thought that surely they could have come up with a more compelling name. But whatever the case, the point remains: Violence is unacceptable, be it directed towards women, children, men, or animals.

I have mercifully been spared first-hand witness of violence, with the exception of a cashier at one of my local groceries who often appeared at work with a black eye. And occasionally witnessing that other horrific violence against women, anorexia. Just two days ago I saw two anorexic women while out running errands, one young, one in her fifties. Our society’s unrealistic expectations of female appearance has created unspeakable suffering among the weak and vulnerable: Anorexia leads to death, just as being beaten and tortured can lead to death.

Today, if you’re a woman who, like me, has never suffered abuse, give thanks. Pray for those who have, like that poor, gorgeous Afghan girl on the cover of Time whose nose and ears had been cut off by the Taliban, and the women who’ve been kidnapped and held in slavery, or murdered for their dowries, or sold into prostitution. Or a cashier who gets whacked by her husband when she’s not fast enough with the next beer. Or high-profile celebrities like Madonna and Kelly McGillis who’ve been attacked and raped.

The lesson here is that no woman, and no child, and no man, and no animal, is ever completely safe. I’ve endured having a gun slammed against my head and being robbed, though that was just a crime, not a crime against me because I was a woman. Maybe you’ve had your identity stolen or your car “jacked” or your wallet lifted or your computer invaded. Abuse is rampant in a society as huge, as sophisticated, as diverse, and as superficial as our world is today.

In this week running up to Thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for our own safety, if we have it. And let’s pray for those who don’t. Let’s keep the white ribbon in our hearts and minds and pray for every single victim of violence, down to the last abused or abandoned pet, not just for one day, but for every day of the year.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Thanksgiving gets no respect. November 23, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Who doesn’t love Christmas, of course, but what makes Thanksgiving so special to me is that it combines the aspects of an old-time Harvest Home festival, celebrating the abundance and bounty of another harvest season, with the only holiday that is all about gratitude.

Gratitude. Giving thanks. Not about stuffing ourselves fuller than the iconic turkey and then collapsing in a stupor in front of the TV to watch football. Yes, Thanksgiving is about coming together with friends, family and neighbors for a joyous feast. But it’s also about giving thanks for the year’s many blessings, as well as for good companionship and good food.

So it distresses me to see Thanksgiving being obliterated between the ever-earlier “Black Friday” sales extravaganza and Christmas. Frantic shopping sprees, trying to grab the newest Xbox or latest iPhone before anyone else can get it, shoving people out of the way to get a discounted shirt or dress, a celebration of greed and materialism, strikes me as in direct opposition to the spirit of Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving holiday should be leisurely, giving everyone plenty of time to reflect on the many gifts that they’ve received during the past year and every year—and I’m not talking about Christmas, Hanukkah, and birthday presents here—and to enjoy time spent with those who mean most to us. It should be sacred.

But it seems to have now been totally lost. Yesterday, I went with a friend to a charming little town in Amish country for an open house by an artist we both know and admire. But even here, in the heartland of farms and agriculture, Thanksgiving was nowhere in sight. Instead, Christmas wreaths and Christmas trees and Christmas ornaments adorned every storefront and street corner. Christmas music played in every shop. Christmas stockings, ornaments, cards, and gifts were front-and-center everywhere.

I love Christmas. I love to celebrate Christmas. And I love to stretch the Christmas season from Advent to Sixth Night, playing beloved Christmas music, watching beloved Christmas DVDs, reading beloved Christmas books, enjoying treasured Christmas ornaments throughout the house, and eating favorite Christmas treats. (Our friend Ben is even worse. If I didn’t put my foot down by February, I hate to think when all the Christmas stuff would stop.)

But I don’t want Christmas to start before December. I want to have my Thanksgiving, and I don’t want it to be obliterated between the bizarre frenzy of Halloween, Black Friday, and too-early Christmas commercialism. I want to be able to take some calm, leisurely, unpressured time to simply feel grateful, to celebrate the opportunity to give thanks. To enjoy time spent with loved ones and friends. To avoid the pressure to do anything else, such as engage in manic shopping.

Please, people, let’s give Thanksgiving the respect, and space, it deserves. Of course, every day should be an opportunity for thanksgiving. But on our special holiday, let’s not give that precious opportunity up.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Pumpkin’s biggest booster. November 21, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. If you’re a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, you know that the agency’s founder, Precious Ramotswe, loves her pumpkin. Apparently pumpkin is a staple dish in Mma Ramotswe’s native Botswana, and she turns to it as a comfort food, and to preparing it as a way to calm herself when thinking about a perplexing case.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, we might turn to Mma Ramotswe for tips on new ways to serve up pumpkin. And fortunately, we have some clues from Stuart Brown, who wrote Mma Ramostwe’s Cookbook (Polygon, 2009). Problem being, most of us Americans (including yours truly), measure things in numbers and cups and the like—3 large butternut squash, 4 cups vegetable broth, 2 tablespoons olive oil—and Mma Ramotswe’s cookbook is British, which means that everything is measured by weight, and oven temperatures in degrees C rather than F. Ow!

Fortunately, one of the pumpkin recipes the book offers is so straightforward, even I could make it. Apparently, Mma Ramotswe favors pumpkins with greenish rinds; over here, we might consider them to look more grey. Consider this alternative to sweet potatoes as you plan your Thanksgiving menu:

Steamed Pumpkin Slices
Serves 6

Ingredients:
Pumpkin
Water
Salt
Sugar (optional)
Butter

Method:
To steam, place slices of pumpkin in a pan with a little water, salt (and sugar, if you love your sugar as Mma Ramotswe does). Cover with a lid, ensuring that the water does not all evaporate. Cook for 30-40 minutes until the outer skin is soft (the greenish pumpkin has a thicker skin). Serve with butter.

“It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems in life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That gave you a reason for going on.”
—Precious Ramotswe, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Act like an astronomer. November 17, 2013

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My brother has a good friend who’s a celestial physicist. I always thought this had to be the best job title in the world, to have “celestial” as an official part of your job description. Today, however, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the potential of those who studied the heavens to come up with descriptions of their endeavors that were so grandiose as to be worthy of The Onion.

I saw a headline on Yahoo’s homepage that astronomers have used photos from the Hubble Space Telescope to reconstruct what the Milky Way must have looked like 11 billion years ago, when it was first forming, versus what it looks like now. This is no mean achievement, and as our friend Ben is a fan of all the natural sciences, I headed to the article to check things out.

I was rather startled to see that, at its putative birth, the Milky Way looked like a beautiful blue, star-studded cloud, but the (presumably actual) photo of the real-time Milky Way looked like a dead crocodile that had been covered loosely by a sheet of Bubble Wrap with slightly rumpled edges. Somehow, it had not occurred to me to think of our beloved galaxy in this manner before seeing the photo.

It was then, while still reeling from the Bubble Wrap experience, that I read that the data used to reconstruct our nascent galaxy came from the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey. Yowie kazowie!

It struck me at once that the rest of us were really missing out here. Why call everything we do such humdrum names when we could be calling them something that would stupefy even the likes of Sir Isaac Newton? Let’s say, for example, that we decide to have a bowl of cereal with milk and a sliced banana for breakfast. Sound banal? Not when you call it the Cosmic Multi-Continental Tropical/Temperate Agronomic Matitudinal Bovine (ga)Lactic-Musa Interface! (Matitudinal, morning, bovine, cow, lactic, milk, musa, banana, just in case you’re wondering.)

Just think how our lives would be transformed if we just thought in astronomical terms. Even as I write, our friend Ben is hard at work trying to think how to make “impoverished freelance writer, blogger, and editor” sound a little more impressive. Great Near-destitute Deep Extragalactic Original Verbose Celestial Body, anyone?

The looming threat of lung cancer. November 16, 2013

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November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Our friend Ben takes note because my mother smoked 2 1/2 packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day from the time she was 17 until the day she died. And yet, she didn’t die from lung cancer, or even emphysema. Instead, it was my father who was diagnosed with lung cancer from all those years of breathing in the passive smoke.

My father was lucky. His lung cancer was caught very early, by accident, while he was being screened for heart disease. The surgeon was able to excise the tumor, and Father didn’t even need any followup treatment, like chemo or radiation. He remained healthy and active for the next 20 years, and the lung cancer never returned.

Most people aren’t that lucky. That’s because lung cancer doesn’t present especially distinctive symptoms, and isn’t painful until in its very late stages. (Only 15% of victims are diagnosed early.) Maybe you have a persistent cough, but who’d connect a cough to cancer?

As it turns out, lung cancer is the deadliest of all cancers, attacking 1 in 14 people and killing 160,340 people in the U.S. alone each year, almost twice as many as breast, prostate, and colon cancer combined. And don’t think you’re safe if you’re not a smoker: 17.9% of lung cancer victims have never smoked, and 59.1% had quit smoking, for a total of 80% not being active smokers. More worrisome still, new studies have shown a marked increase in lung cancer in young women who are nonsmokers, and nobody yet knows why.

The Lung Cancer Alliance suggests annual screenings if you feel that you might be at risk. Wouldn’t it be great if your cancer was caught early enough to give you an outcome like my father’s rather than condemning you to join the 160,340?

The rarest marble in the world? November 13, 2013

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Our friend Ben isn’t talking about the marble that is used to make kitchen countertops, palaces, and sculptures here, but about the round glass marbles, the so-called “toy” marbles, revered and collected by folks like me.

On my computer desk is a “Dr. Franklin” marble, named after our hero and blog mentor here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, the great Benjamin Franklin. It was created in a marble run sponsored by Steve Sturtz, “Dr. JABO,” produced at the JABO plant in Marietta, Ohio, one of the last marble producers in the U.S. (with the iconic Marble King), and created by the preeminent machine marble-maker of all time, the legendary Dave McCullough. (Check out Sammy’s Mountain Marbles for his latest amazing creations.)

“Dr. Franklin” is a beautiful, complex creation, with brilliant opaque orange, opaque pink, and glittery black aventurine suspended in a clear matrix. It’s spectacular. But it’s also rare. There are probably fewer than 50 Dr. Franklin marbles in existence, certainly fewer than 100. They are one of the most beautiful marbles our friend Ben, a rabid marble collector, has ever seen. I love marbles, I have many jars and boxes of marbles, but the Dr. Franklin is the only marble I showcase.

Thank you Dr. Franklin, thank you Steve, thank you Dave, and thank you to the crew at JABO that made these marvelous marbles. As the Marines’ motto goes, the few, the proud. The rarest marble in the world?