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The giant rat(s) of Sumatra. February 27, 2014

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Fans of Sherlock Holmes may recall that the tale of the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” was one of those stories for which, according to his biographer, Dr. John Watson, “the world was not yet prepared.” (If you’ve ever heard the profane, bawdy version created and performed by The Firesign Theatre, you’ll know that he was right.)

However, our friend Ben is not, alas, referring to the adventures of the Great Detective, but to the giant rats that recently took up residence in our mudroom here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Surrounded by farm fields as we are, Silence Dogood and I expect that a few mice will venture indoors once winter arrives, and that our cats will make short work of the poor things. But we never expected rats.

Our mudroom is adjacent to the furnace room but is unheated, so it provides us with much-needed cold storage in the winter, staying at least as cold as our fridge but never freezing. We keep everything from canned, jarred and bottled foods and beverages to fruit and storage veggies like winter squash, onions and potatoes in there. It’s like having a pantry, root cellar, and extra fridge.

So you can imagine Silence’s distress when she noticed that something had gotten into the parrot treats, knocked over various items on shelves, and gnawed on some of the potatoes. “Ben! There are mice in here! We’ve got to set some traps!” (The mudroom is off-limits to our cats and dog; too many things to knock over and break.)

I dutifully baited two snap-traps, using only the finest sticky stuff, Brie and egg salad, and positioned them strategically. (Which is to say, within easy reach of mice but out of reach of nosy cats or a dog who might try to barge in there.) Like clockwork, the traps were sprung and the treats removed, but there was no sign of the culprit and the demolition of the mudroom continued.

“Ben, look! The thing ate through the cartons of almond milk and silken tofu, as well as the packages of quinoa and millet! Eeewww, you should see this mess! It’s even eaten into two of the winter squash!” Silence regarded me darkly. “I don’t think this is a mouse. We need a rat trap!”

If you think of rats as residing only in subways and on docks, let our friend Ben tell you that farmers’ corncribs are a rat’s paradise. It was because cats kept rats from ransacking the granaries of ancient Egypt that they were deified by the grateful pharoahs and priests. But rats in our house?!! Why would rats be in our house? (And needless to say, no well-fed housecat in its right mind would take on a rat.)

Needless to say, our friend Ben soon found myself in our local Tractor Supply looking for a suitable trap. Silence had given me strict instructions: no glue traps, which were cruel, and no poison, both because of our pets and because the rat could eat it, then go off and die in some inaccessible place like inside a wall, where it would stink to high heaven for months to come. A sudden and relatively painless death was in order.

I found a great, reusable mechanical trap, the Tomcat Reusable Rat Trap. Made of plastic, it had plenty of built-in safety features (which are necessary, since a trap strong enough to kill a rat can break every finger in your hand if you inadvertently trip it on yourself). You could bait it before you set it, and set it with your hand or foot. I put peanut butter in the bait cup, set it up as directed, and waited to see what happened.

As it happens, I didn’t really think the creature was a rat, despite Silence’s having taken to referring to it as the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Rats? Here? Nonsense! How would one get in? And the mudroom adjoins our bedroom, and though I tried to keep an ear open all night, I never heard a trap snap, and neither did Silence.

But in the morning, I was greeted with “Ben! The trap worked! Please come get this rat out of here!” Sure enough, the trap had worked like magic, breaking the rat’s neck when it went for the peanut butter. Its large, heavy body (a good 10 inches long) and long naked tail lay still on the mudroom floor outside the trap.

After disposing of the rat, I was ready to call it a day, but Silence insisted that I reset the trap and replace it where it had been. A day passed with no further sign—no dead rat, no disturbed shelves, no new attacks on food or even organic fertilizer (the rat’s final foray). “See? What are you worried about?” I asked.

Well, plenty, as it turned out. On the third morning, Silence informed me that a second rat was in the trap. Then, this morning, it caught a mouse. The trap is once again reset and in place. We’re hoping that this has taken care of our rat population and will continue to control the mouse population. Better safe than sorry! And if you find yourself in similar circumstances, we highly recommend the Tomcat Reusable Rat Trap.

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Can’t get that ring off? Try this. February 23, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. We’ve all done it: forced a ring we really wanted to wear onto our finger. And then, because it was hot and our fingers swelled or we were working and our fingers swelled or we’d gained a little weight or for whatever reason, when it came time to take the ring off, it either wouldn’t budge or wouldn’t go over the knuckle.

If this has happened to you, you know that if you just keep pushing and struggling to get the ring off, your finger will swell even more. Not to mention, it hurts.

I have generally managed to get stuck rings off by running cold water over my hand to reduce swelling, then lathering up with soap to help the ring slide off. I’ve also had success by slathering on hand lotion and slipping the ring off over the lotion.

But sometimes, it seems like nothing will get a ring off. (How on earth, we wonder in retrospect, did we ever get it on to begin with?!) This happened to me last summer, when I managed to get a favorite ring on, then couldn’t get it off no matter what I tried. Weeks went by. I was beginning to think I’d have to have a jeweler cut it off, and believe me, I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Fortunately, as it happened, before I resorted to this, I happened into a shop that sold both rocks and fossils and jewelry. I’d gone up to the counter with a few rocks I couldn’t resist (alas, passing up the $550 fossilzed turtle shell for some reason), when I had what a friend’s mother pricelessly referred to as “a rush of brains to the head.”

“Excuse me,” I said to the proprietor, “but do you know how to get stuck rings off?” I held out my hand to indicate the ring in question.

“Let me show you a little trade secret,” he replied. “It works every time.” Then, grabbing a bottle of Windex from under the counter, he sprayed my finger. Because the ring had been stuck on for so long, it took two sprays, but then, poof! The ring flew off painlessly. I was so relieved!

I’ve tried this at home when another ring got stuck and wouldn’t come off with my usual methods, and sure enough, one spray did the trick. I’m so grateful to know that a simple, inexpensive household product can work such a seeming miracle, saving both the ring and your sore finger. Try it and see for yourself!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Grab that lucky charm. February 20, 2014

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Katniss Everdeen was right. Fans of “The Hunger Games” may recall how Katniss held on to her lucky charm, a mockingjay pin, to help her get through the gladiatorial bloodbath she was forced to fight in. Well, brain science is backing her up.

Turns out, the secret to optimal brain function under stressful conditions—such as combat or, say, work deadlines—is a feeling of being in control. And the feeling is apparently as good as actually being in control of your circumstances, as far as your brain is concerned.

“Even a good luck charm can help—because good luck charms really do work,” says Eric Barker in “”The samurai secret to always being at your best.” He continues: “Good luck charms provide a feeling of control, and that feeling of control actually helps people perform better with them.”

He quotes The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

“…people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That’s right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer…and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games.”

So go ahead and grab that four-leaf clover or evil eye deflector or piece of eight or even a mockingjay pin. Even if you’re not heading for the Hunger Games arena, it might get you through your next performance review.

Sochi’s strays steal the spotlight. February 19, 2014

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have never understood why the Olympics, or any sports for that matter, exercise such a fascination for the general public. If you’re not playing, what’s the big deal? (Admittedly, we feel the same way about watching musicians sawing away for hours at a symphony performance; why not just listen to the CD, unless you play yourself and are trying to pick up technique?)

But we’ve been watching with bated breath ever since we learned of the 2,000 stray dogs in Sochi that were going to be killed before the Olympics to make everything nice and tidy. As dog lovers, we were horrified by their casual disposal—just another trash pickup—and were delighted to read of the international outrage once the news got out, and of the stray who joined the opening ceremony and became an immediate viral celebrity.

While not even Sochi’s strays could make us actually watch the Olympics, we’ve been following their plight closely: How the construction workers who spruced up the city for the Games fed them. How Olympians like Gus Kenworthy are trying to adopt them. How Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska funds and has expanded PovoDog, a Sochi pet shelter. How others are trying to import Sochi dogs to the U.S. to place in shelters here, believing that they’ll have a better chance at adoption.

Ultimately, the fate of Sochi’s dogs remains unclear, and for most, as for most shelter dogs, not too bright. But their presence at the Winter Olympics has done more to showcase the plight of homeless animals, and the lovable nature and attractive appearance of mixed-breed dogs (“mutts”), than any campaign launched by the Humane Society, PETA, and all other animal-welfare organizations combined. Let’s hope more people start visiting their local shelters and really seeing the dogs instead of dismissing them if they’re not purebred. And let’s hope adoptions skyrocket.

This year’s Winter Olympics produced 2,000 stars.

Don’t put Boomers in a box. February 18, 2014

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“We reap what we sow” is never truer than in how we treat the previous generation. Back in the distant day, people stayed in the place they were born, creating extended families of multiple generations. Parents never raised their kids alone: There were a host of others, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles and cousins and second cousins and on and on, not perhaps the village Hillary Clinton had in mind but a solid, stable place to be a child nonetheless.

This was true of the elders of the clan as well: As they became less able to care for themselves, others in the family would undertake their care, from love and duty and a sense of reciprocity: They cared for us, we care for them. People were allowed to live and die at home, surrounded by the generations they knew and loved, the people who loved them.

For a sense of what this was like, our friend Ben recommends Wendell Berry’s excellent Port William novels, set in rural Kentucky; The Memory of Old Jack is the first of them. The Amish in our area still practice this tradition, with their “Dawdi Haus” (“Grandfather House”) attached to the main house so the grandparents, now retired from farming, can still live on their farm surrounded by the children and grandchildren, the fields and the animals, surrounded by life and close to all their old friends and neighbors.

How different this is from the nursing homes and, more recently, assisted-care facilities that now seem like the inevitable end of the elderly unless they’re wealthy enough, and still sharp enough, to defeat this end! In my mind, it all started after World War II, when soldiers who’d seen the world came home but didn’t want to stay in the small rural towns they’d grown up in. So they moved to the cities, often states away from their families, and married girls their families had never seen, girls who had no knowledge of or interest in them, but rather in the “nuclear family” idealized at the time: husband, wife, kids, the end. Maybe they’d pile in the car to see Grandma and Grandpa at Christmas, maybe Aunt Betty and Uncle Jim and their kids would stop by every few years for a quick visit on their way to Disneyland, but that was about it.

Their children, the Boomers, faced dual alienation: Older Boomers became Hippies, rebelling against everything their parents represented (and thus their actual parents), and younger Boomers were sucked into the tar pit of corporate culture, where moving constantly for your job was a requirement for keeping it. This meant that not only were you nowhere near your parents, grandparents, siblings, and other relatives, but that your own kids were never able to settle down, have the security of home, family, and community, or make lasting friends. Like priests, like soldiers, you were shipped out every few years, and your family shipped with you, in pursuit of that promotion, that job, that salary. And the cost to all concerned was never considered.

The result was mass incarceration of elderly and ailing parents who’d become strangers to their children, who’d been isolated and abandoned by their communities as those they knew, those who cared about them, left or died and were replaced by strangers. Their children were busy, they couldn’t be bothered with caring for the old folks, but they’d made plenty of money and could slap them in a home, or toss them in and then sell their house and use that and their parents’ other assets to pay for their imprisonment.

Far from their families, often tied into wheelchairs, forced to share rooms with strangers, eat the equivalent of cat food, and watch relentless, tormenting 24-hour TV (think of the Louisiana jailer torturing Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs”), this was the end so many parents of busy Boomers, ambitious Yuppies, faced. No wonder so many tried to kill themselves, to do anything to avoid such a dismal, horrific fate.

And yet, it seems that the Boomers who farmed their parents out to die in Orwellian isolation and diminishment, denying their individuality, their talents, their interests, reducing them to a TV dinner in front of an endless cycle of soap operas and reality TV, failed to understand the lesson they were teaching their own children: the lesson of disposability.

I’m sure the lesson is coming home now, though, as every day, there are articles about how Social Security—a program Boomers paid into their whole lives in order to provide retirement security—is something the government gives at its discretion, not something Boomers have earned themselves. As article after article trumpets the horror of the aging global population. As Obamacare is blasted because it will have to shoulder the burden of all those “old people.” As everyone tries to push the retirement age back further, further, further—how about 75?—while the corporations that promised prosperity to the Boomers throw them out wholesale, leaving them to pick up minimum-wage jobs as Wal-Mart greeters, store clerks, and fast-food servers, assuming they’re able to stand on their feet long enough to do the job.

And where are their children and families while all this is going on? They’re off all over the place, pursuing their own lives, disconnected from their parents, their siblings, their extended family. They’ve seen what the Boomers did to their own parents. No wonder the Boomers are now terrified about their own fate and are trying as hard as they can to come up with alternate families, alternate solutions to save them from the fate they allotted their own parents, the lesson they inadvertently gave their own children.

I obviously have little sympathy for those who gave their parents to the home. Though I have the greatest sympathy for those who couldn’t afford in-home care when their parents needed it and were forced to let them go, but who visited them daily and tried to make their last days or years as happy and normal as possible. I thank God I was spared from that, but I honor it.

Anyway. The point of this post is a lesson Boomers may yet learn and pass on to their own children before it’s too late, before our disposable culture makes victims of us all. It’s perfectly expressed by one of my favorite stories, a lesson from Chinese folklore. If you’re a Boomer, tell it to your kids. If you’re a Boomer’s kid, think about this before you believe the press’s claims that your parents are or are about to be a horrific burden to society. Here’s the story:

A farmer toiled in his fields all day, trying to harvest enough food to feed his family. Meanwhile, his old father, who lived with him, sat on his porch peacefully, smiling and drowsing all day. This aggravated the farmer no end. There was his father, sitting in the sun while he worked his ass off trying to feed the family! Forgetting that his father had worked just as hard when he was a child to support him, his mother, siblings, and extended family, the farmer let his resentment grow and grow. Finally, he couldn’t stand supporting that lazy do-nothing another minute.

The exasperated farmer pulled up a cart with a coffin-shaped box in it and demanded that his father get in the box and lie down. Then he hauled the box, with his father inside, to a cliff and prepared to throw it off. Suddenly, he heard a knocking from inside the box. Cracking the lid, he demanded, “What is it?!” His father replied, “Why are you throwing this box over the cliff? Wouldn’t it make more sense to throw me over and keep the box?” “Why keep the box?” the bemused son replied. His father answered, “Because your children will need it for you some day.”

We reap what we sow. Boomers, keep this in mind. Try to teach your children before it’s too late. If your parents still live, try to lead by example. Public sentiment is already against you, positioning you as social vampires sucking the blood out of government programs. Programs you built, programs you led. Programs that are now considered government capital, not rights. Certainly not your rights. Try to climb out of the box before the lid gets nailed on.

The marbles of my dreams. February 17, 2014

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Our friend Ben and my fellow marble collectors are fortunate to be living in a renaissance of glorious machine-made marbles.

Unfortunately, when the first flowering of machine-made marbles, with the glorious slags, brilliant colors, and intricate designs of the M.F. Christensen Company, Christensen Agate, Akro Agate, and the rest, occurred in the early part of the 20th century, marbles were considered children’s toys. The equivalent of penny candy, they were played with, damaged, and discarded without a thought. (The same fate had befallen their predecessors, the fabulously ornate handmade marbles of the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

As a result, finding undamaged examples of early marbles, hand- or machine-made, is next to impossible, since the few that remain intact are mostly already in the hands of collectors, and are rare enough to be featured in books like fine antiques. The rest of us are lucky to find “lightly-played” examples without noticeable chips and cracks. Sob! It seems impossible to believe that such beautiful marbles were treated with such casual disregard, or that, alternatively, marble-makers put such time and talent into toys that they knew would be destroyed.

Today, however, high-end marbles have largely passed into the realm of collectibles. Some collectors value them as historical artifacts, others because they remember playing with them as children, and still others, like our friend Ben, simply because they’re beautiful. And those of us who collect because we simply love gorgeous marbles are in luck, since for the past decade and more, David McCullough, arguably the greatest maker of machine-made marbles who has ever lived, has been making special runs for us.

First at JABO, with famous runs like the JOKER series, and now with gifted marble-maker Sammy Hogue at Sammy’s Mountain Marbles, Dave has been producing marbles to rival anything the early greats produced: marbles with gold lutz, green and blue aventurine, oxblood, and innumerable flames and color combinations. Awesome!!!

Our friend Ben was thinking about what Dave, Sammy, and the teams at JABO and Sammy’s Mountain Marbles have achieved, and of course I couldn’t help fantasizing about my own perfect marbles. Could they make them? Could anyone? Could anyone ever? I don’t know. But I wish!

My dream marbles would be transparent/translucent, in jewel tones: rich ruby, deep sapphire, emerald, azure, purple, topaz, carnelian orange, amber, pink, jade green. Through them would run gold, silver, copper lutz; vaseline glass; blue, green and black aventurine; strands of glistening silk-white and garnet. (Not all in the same marble, obviously!) Picture a glowing red marble, looking slick and luscious like a candy apple, with strands of silver or gold or copper lutz and endless depth, maybe with ribbons of vaseline glass. Wow! Imagine some glistening version in emerald or sapphire or azure. Yow!

Will we ever see marbles like these, with the clear, brilliant colors of the very best slags combined with the bells and whistles of lutz, aventurine, fluorescent glass, and so on? Who’s to know? Maybe this is just my personal marble fantasy and nobody else would even be interested. But wow, to see a glistening candy-apple red marble, much less one with embellishments: Bring it on!!!

Dave, Sammy, are you listening?

What are your dream marbles?

Sherlock fans, watch this! February 16, 2014

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Fans of “the great detective,” Sherlock Holmes, and his many film and television interpretations, including Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock,” you’re in for a treat. No, not yet another version of Holmes. Or, not exactly.

Holmes fanatics who know their history know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, got his inspiration for the character from one of his med school professors, Dr. Joseph Bell. You can now watch a fictionalized version of Doyle’s apprenticeship with Bell, including an encounter with a young Jack the Ripper, and how Doyle learned Bell’s deductive methods.

The BBC production, “Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes,” stars Ian Richardson, who played Holmes himself in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Sign of Four,” as Dr. Bell. It also features strong supporting performances, especially from Sean McGinley as the Lestrade-like Inspector Beecher and Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones” fame as an arrogant, hypocritical aristocrat. (We could expect no less from Lord Tywin Lannister!)

If you’ve missed this, we strongly suggest that you check it out—it’s at least as good as and more interesting than most Holmes interpretations we’ve seen. We first saw it on Netflix, and it’s available through Amazon. We enjoyed it every bit as much on second viewing, and plan to add it to our regular (extensive) rotation of Holmes DVDs. Great background, great plot, great acting, plus Holmes! What more could a Sherlock fan ask?!

What’s your favorite romantic movie? February 14, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. With Valentine’s Day upon us, I can’t help but think of all the great romantic films—films that celebrate love, be it love lost (“Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Gladiator,” “Titanic”), love lost and regained (Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” “Jane Eyre,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “The Return of Martin Guerre”), love unexpectedly discovered (“Pride and Prejudice,” “The Crying Game,” “Stage Beauty,” “Avatar,” “Somewhere in Time”), or simply love enduring (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Tony Hillerman triad, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency films).

But, much as I love these films, my favorite is none of them. It’s an incredibly obscure film, set, like Jane Austen’s work, in the Regency Period in England, after King George III was deemed too mad to rule and before he died so that his son, the Prince Regent, could take the throne as king.But unlike Jane Austen’s novels, this film was based on a true story, about a housemaid with a wonderful, exotic imagination who created a new life for herself and in the process even met and danced with the Prince himself, bowled over upper-class British society, and ultimately got away with it.

The film, “Princess Caraboo,” stars Phoebe Cates as the maid/princess, her real-life husband, Kevin Kline, in a marvelous role as the supercilious Greek butler to a wealthy family, and Stephen Rea (whose moving performance lit up “The Crying Game”) as the dogged journalist who falls in love, not with the princess, but with the maid who created her. Strong supporting performances, including Jim Broadbent and John Lithgow, incredible sets and costuming, and the richness of the story weave a magic spell that I find completely captivating.

If you enjoy nuanced romance, Jane Austen, the Regency Period, or simply fine acting, I hope you’re able to find “Princess Caraboo.” I was able to get it on DVD, so I haven’t checked to see if it’s on Netflix and etc. Good luck! It’s worth looking for.

What are your favorite romance films?

Happy Valentine’s Day,

Silence

Vegetarians understand. February 13, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. This morning, my Yahoo homepage featured an article from Cosmopolitan.com called “23 Problems Only Gluten-Free People Understand.” A number of the problems were related to the fact that wheat (and thus gluten) is hidden in so many products, from beer and soy sauce to peppermint Altoids, and that people on gluten-free diets have to be constantly on their guard, reading labels, asking questions. Eating salad for supper when they go out in case the soup or gravy has been thickened with flour. Generally being a pain at parties and family gatherings.

Trust me, as a vegetarian, I understand. Long before there was gluten-free eating, even before there were vegans, there were vegetarians. And yes, we too had to resort to constant label-reading (and to this day), to make sure insidious ingredients like gelatin (made from calves’ hooves) and lard hadn’t snuck into seemingly innocuous products like crackers, yogurt (!!! damn you, Yoplait), spreadable better-than-butter alternatives, vitamin capsules, and yes, Altoids. (Gelatin in mints? Please.) Not to mention fish oil in such unlikely places as milk and eggs that have been omega-3 enhanced.

We’ve had to ask if the soup at a given restaurant was made with beef, chicken, or fish stock, if the miso soup in a Japanese restaurant was made with dashi (bonito tuna flakes), if desserts were made with gelatin. We’ve had to patiently explain to our server, after ordering a club sandwich with no meat and receiving one without the chicken or whatever but with bacon, that in fact, bacon was meat. We’ve had to decline the gazpacho that our hostess made “just for us” with beef stock. (Gazpacho with beef stock?!!) We’ve passed up endless slices of pie with “authentic” lard-based crusts, and had to ask every time we go to a Mexican restaurant or buy a can of refried beans if they’re made with lard.

In short, we’ve had to get used to making a pain of ourselves. In the most polite, apologetic way, but still. So we know what you gluten-free folks are going through. Hang in there, do your homework, and above all, be considerate. Just as it’s not other people’s fault that we choose to be vegetarian or vegan, it’s not other people’s fault you can’t tolerate gluten. Be kind, be patient, and you’ll find that people will be happy to help you. Except, apparently, the Altoid company.

‘Til next time,

Silence

The Conqueror Diet. February 11, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. We’ve all heard about crash diets, even if we’ve never been stupid enough to try them: The grapefruit diet. The cabbage soup diet. Any diet that restricts you to a single food at every meal for a week or so, promising fast weight loss, so you can squash yourself into that too-small bikini, too-tight jeans, or sized-down wedding dress.

Well, today I was entertained to read about the very first crash diet, going all the way back to 1066. Apparently, William the Conqueror had feasted and gorged until he’d gotten too fat to ride his horse, not a good thing for a warrior, or anyone else in an age when horses were the only means of transportation.

William realized that desperate measures were called for: a crash diet. So he abandoned food and went on an all-liquor diet until he lost enough weight to once again mount and ride his horse into battle.

Today, a lot of cleanses and fasts rely on liquids to stand in place of solid food. (Think green juices.) And we all know about the various drink-this-can-as-a-food-replacement diets. Eeeewwww!!!!

I don’t know about you, but in the world of crash diets, I think the Conqueror Diet could be the next big thing.

‘Til next time,

Silence