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The alien phone. September 14, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Being a Luddite, I still use a land-line phone. (Our friend Ben was finally seduced by a smartphone.) But recently, my phone has malfunctioned, directing callers to voicemail on the first ring, buzzing rather than giving me a ringtone, not letting me answer incoming calls, make calls, or access voicemail. What’s the deal, was I late with a payment? (As the comedian Steven Wright said, “If you think nobody cares if you’re dead or alive, try missing a payment.”)

But this didn’t prepare me for last night’s drama. At 1 a.m., OFB and I were awakened by the unbearably loud barking of our giant black German shepherd, Shiloh, as she charged the front door. When OFB went to investigate (while I, of course, cowered in the bedroom), he found two police officers outside! They said my phone had been dialing 911, and they had come to see if anything was wrong.

The phone had been dialing 911 by itself. I quickly disconnected it so it wouldn’t continue to call officers to the scene, and wondered who else it had been calling. Rushing to my good friend Google, I found that this had happened to other people, and that the most frequent cause was a damaged outdoor cord that had allowed water to get in and short the phone out.

Believe that if you choose, but I have another theory: That an alien has entered our home, assumed the appearance of my old phone, and been trying to contact the Mother Ship. I’ll be pitching my story to The National Enquirer next week.

‘Til next time,

Silence

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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

“Sherlock” fans, beware! January 31, 2014

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In a report worthy of “The Onion,” we read that Tumblr’s new Terms of Service agreement specifically prohibited users from pretending to be Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the hit BBC series “Sherlock.” We don’t know if that’s because a majority of Tumblr users are pretending to be Benedict Cumberbatch, or because the Tumblr people pulled his name out of the hat as an example because he’s the male shooting-star equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence. (And why not use her?) Heck, Luddites that we are, we don’t even know what Tumblr is.

But whatever it is, if you use it, beware. Apparently it’s okay to pretend to be Martin Freeman (who plays Sherlock’s faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson), or Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, or, say, the actors who play Irene Adler, Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, or Professor Moriarty (“the Napoleon of Crime”). But Benedict Cumberbatch? Don’t even think about it! Unless, we suppose, you want to pretend to be Smaug…

Sherlock or Super Bowl? January 30, 2014

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Our friend Rob was asking our friend Ben how many people we planned to invite to our Super Bowl party this Sunday. “None,” I replied. “Silence Dogood and I will be watching the last episode of season 3 of ‘Sherlock’, the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The only super bowl we’re likely to be seeing will be filled with popcorn or nachos.”

At first, Rob, a rabid sports fan, looked completely taken aback. Then he began laughing. “I can picture it now: You invite 19 enthusiasts over to watch the Super Bowl. It’s the end of the fourth quarter, and the game is tied 21-21. Suddenly, it’s 10 o’clock, and Silence, grabbing the remote, announces, “It’s time for ‘Sherlock'” and presses the button. Do you know what would happen then?!”

“Of course I do.” Our friend Ben, having known Silence well for many years, is no fool. “Silence would boot all the football fanatics into the icy street and settle down in front of the TV. After, of course, making sure we had our popcorn or nachos and some wine, and asking me to make the fire up. To add insult to injury, while she was throwing the football fans into the street, she would probably tell them that they could catch the last few seconds on their smartphones and to have a nice night!”

“Oh. I guess I’ll plan on spending Sunday night with some guys I know,” Rob said. “We’ll have hot dogs, chili, wings and beer in front of the game, and maybe even pizza.”

“What, no guacamole? Silence makes great guac, and it goes really well with her nachos and fresh salsa.”

“Uh, maybe I can bring some storebought guac and chips to the Super Bowl gathering just in case.” Rob paused for thought. “Er, Ben, want to come with me? I’m sure Silence wouldn’t really mind.”

“Any other time, Rob,” I lied, a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fanatic who loves brilliantly solved mysteries (as opposed to murders) far more than sports. “Silence says the final episode shows Sherlock with a girlfriend. This I have to see!” I refrained from noting that Silence has already pre-ordered season 3 on Amazon, so we’ll presumably be able to see it as often as we want. But not as soon as Sunday, when the game—Sherlock’s, not the Super Bowl’s—is finally afoot.

Thank you, Mario Batali. January 15, 2014

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Wednesday mornings tend to be exciting times here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share with a variety of animals in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. That’s because on Wednesday, our local paper devotes a section to food, and Silence, a rabid foodie, devours it (so to speak) front to back.

She does not, however, do so in silence. Our friend Ben is greeted with an ever-varying accompaniment of remonstrances, curses, directions, and general commentary as Silence makes her way through the section: “Did somebody actually eat this before they wrote about it?!” “Eeewww, look at this photo!” “Why does everyone have to ruin perfectly good vegetarian recipes by adding beef, chicken or fish stock and/or bacon?!” “Want a side of carcinogens with that?” “Ugh, our dog can write better than this. Please stick to the recipe!”

On and on it goes, with all the muttering and sputtering reminding our friend Ben of a kettle boiling over. Generally, I make appropriate grunts of agreed outrage when necessary and try to keep my head down and my nose in whatever section I’m reading.

Today, however, I realized that Silence was actually on to something. Mario Batali had a column in the paper. Normally, Silence enjoys Mario’s columns, with the exception of the “meatifying” vegetarian recipes part. I can’t say that I’d ever heard her say a bad thing about Mario before.

But this morning, she was spitting fire. She explained that a reader had written Mario to ask if he had a light, healthy recipe that would counteract the endless holiday gorging that had just taken place. In response, Mario proposed a dish of linguine with butter, olive oil, Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, and lemons. “Who’s calling this healthy?!” Silence fumed.

For our friend Ben, by contrast, it was a revelation. Just think of putting your favorite foods together—say, pasta, butter, oil, and cheese—and then adding a single ingredient that would transform the dish into something healthy. (Actually, there were two in this dish, since besides the lemons, you have olive oil, which as everyone knows is good for you.)

Yowie kazowie! Let’s say you make fettucine Alfredo and toss in some broccoli. Voila, health food! Maybe this is the logic behind chicken wings served with blue cheese dressing and those healthful crudites, celery sticks. Or, say, a dip that’s dripping with calories but contains those healthful veggies, artichokes and spinach! Sweet potato fries? Bring ’em on! Apple slices deep-fried into luscious fritters? Hey, there’s fruit in there!

Thanks to Mario, our friend Ben has finally found a way to avoid the whole health-food trap. As I sit here, enjoying my lunch of Tostitos Cantina-Style Thin Chips covered with melted shredded white Cheddar cheese, I know that this is a healthful meal because it includes sliced jalapenos and green onions (scallions). And everyone knows that hot peppers and onions are good for your health, right?

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?

You know you don’t get out much when… August 20, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I recently returned from a trip to our native Nashville and to Bardstown, KY (in the heart of bourbon country). Naturally, we’d taken OFB’s larger and more road-worthy car, leaving my brave but battered little red VW Golf idle in our parking square.

Once we’d returned, we’ve been running errands together and recovering from our trip (along with our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, who’s always totally wiped out after being boarded). In other words, loafing. I haven’t seen the need to head out on my own, so the little red car has remained in place.

You can imagine my amusement when I went out to get the mail this afternoon and saw that a big, bold garden spider, the yellow-and-black orb weaver (Argiope aurantia), had woven its elaborate web from one tire to the daylily row alongside! I couldn’t wait until OFB returned so I could show him. We love these showy spiders, and it was the first one I’d seen so far this year.

I guess it’s time to move the spider to a safer location and fire up the old VW before the tires start to rot…

‘Til next time,

Silence

In bourbon country. August 16, 2013

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood just returned from a trip from scenic PA to our hometown, Nashville. We decided to return via Kentucky rather than our usual route, through the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Going through Kentucky would take us directly through the heart of Bluegrass Country, known for its beautiful horse farms and thoroughbreds, its caves, and its bourbon.

The heart of bourbon country is in Bardstown, also the site of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.” And our friend Ben’s Simms ancestors moved from Maryland to the Springfield area, just 18 miles from Bardstown, in the late 1700s, so my roots go down deep in this part of Kentucky. I made the trip up several times a year from my earliest childhood, stopping en route at Mammoth Cave, which remains the most magnificent thing, along with the ocean and a prehistoric Irish elk skull, that I have ever seen.

Travelling as they did with three small children, my parents made many stops along the route. And one of them was always Bardstown, where we would eat in the historic Talbott Tavern. We were in good company: Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, King Louis Philippe, John James Audubon, Abraham Lincoln, and many another luminary had stopped there on their travels. I remember the fabulous fragrance of Bardstown, unlike anything else I’d ever experienced, between the tobacco warehouses and the distilleries.

If the mention of tobacco fragrance brings to mind the unspeakably foul stench of cigarettes, our friend Ben would like to set the record straight. Unadulterated tobacco, just dried tobacco leaves, gives off one of the most heavenly perfumes there is. No wonder the Native Americans held tobacco sacred! No potpourri even comes close. To drive through Bardstown when the tobacco had been gathered into the great warehouses was like waking up in heaven. It was the addition of toxic chemicals to cigarettes, to enable them to stay lit, that killed the fragrance and made them carcinogenic.

Sadly, Silence and I didn’t smell tobacco in the air this trip, nor did we see any tobacco warehouses. I guess that industry has died out or moved elsewhere. But the air was still redolent of bourbon.

This may have been because it was obscenely hot and humid when we arrived, so the bourbon scent of the distilleries may have been held close to the ground. But whatever the case, aaaahhh!!! The air smelled so, so sweet. Much as Silence and I hate heat and humidity, we could both have stood outside the Talbott Tavern and just breathed in the night air for hours.

Unfortunately, it was getting late, and serving hours were coming to a close. So Silence and I went in to the venerable tavern to enjoy their famous fried green tomatoes and (in my case) even more famous “hot brown” and some chess pie. Not to mention some bourbon from their extensive selection.

Coming from the area, our friend Ben is related to many of the famous bourbon families: the Beams, Mattinglys, Haydens, Dants, and Wathens, just to name a few. So when I saw a Wathen’s single barrel bourbon on the menu, I had to try it. And my, was it good!

Now I was on a mission from God. Here in our adoptive home state of PA, liquor stores are run by the state. Think 1950s communism: exhorbitant prices, limited hours, extremely limited selection. In the South, by contrast, every grocery store has an excellent wine and beer selection; even gas stations have wine and beer. And the selection in actual liquor stores is simply amazing. I was determined to find a bottle of Wathen’s bourbon before I returned to PA.

What I actually found, along with my bottle, was so classic I can’t stop thinking about it. Seeing a tiny box store selling liquor on the outskirts of Bardstown, I pulled in over Silence’s objections (“Ben! This looks like a dive! Let’s try to find a real liquor store!”). I could hardly blame her; it looked like a tiny, run-down filling station that was lucky to even have ice. But we were getting our usual late start and had many hours to travel, and I wasn’t eager to waste time trying to find something better unless it proved necessary.

I went into the tiny store, which had more varieties and sizes of bourbon (and everything else) than I could conceive of. I still don’t know how they managed to cram them all into such a minuscule space. And yes, my Wathen’s was there. But while I waited to pay for it, I noticed a feature I had never seen in a liquor store: a drive-through window. Sure enough, some patrons had pulled up in a pickup and were ordering a pint of something. And they were also ordering mixers and three cups of ice, all conveniently provided by the proprietors (“Do you want orange juice or orange soda?”).

Oh, oh, oh. Our friend Ben wishes Pennsylvania had liquor stores with a more extensive selection, better hours, and cheaper prices. I wish we were civilized enough to carry wine and beer in our grocery stores. But I think I’ll leave the drive-through option to the other 49 states.

Where are the cicadas?! July 4, 2013

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Our friend Ben, like everyone in the East, was warned to be poised for the eruption of the 17-year cicadas this summer. When these large, stout, bug-eyed insects emerged from their long stay underground, we were told, there could be a million of them an acre.

While I certainly wouldn’t want to welcome a million cicadas here at Hawk’s Haven, I would like to see at least one. Or rather, one of the carapaces left behind as the immature cicadas molt for the last time to become adults, leaving their shed skins behind, clinging tenaciously to tree trunks.

I have fond memories of those empty carapaces from my childhood. You see, not only would they cling to tree bark, they would cling to anything. Such as my younger sister’s and brother’s clothes. Sneaking up and attaching a few to said clothes was always entertaining, since neither sibling shared my love for natural history and hysteria always resulted. It’s not that I was a sadistic child; generally, I was off reading and enjoying nature and playing with our dogs and singing and thinking and generally minding my own business. But those carapaces were irresistible.

Now, I’m not suggesting that, if I did find some carapaces, I’d try to attach them to Silence Dogood’s clothes. It would probably be as much as my life was worth. But I’d still enjoy seeing them.

Have you seen any cicadas this summer?

Smashing custards. June 8, 2013

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Do you remember when spam used to be fun? Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—your faithful bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac—used to look forward to reading the day’s spam allotment and laughing hysterically. This is because, as writers, editors, and teachers, we found the comments, mangled as they were into anguished English by inept auto-translating services, hilarious. No one could invent such unintentionally, sublimely funny combinations of words. Ha!!!

Then, a year or so ago, this type of spam disappeared. It was replaced by perfectly straightforward, intelligible remarks that had absolutely nothing to do with the post in question. They were boring. We missed the old spam.

So you can imagine how our friend Ben’s day was brightened to discover this gem in our spam folder:

“When can the week day suffix not work ahead of a praise? A nine environment dons the need lure. A present sings powering the sigh! Before custard smashes a sustained bad luck. The fear requests the orientating hypocrisy.”

I have no idea what this poor person was trying to say, and I defy even Lewis Carroll or James Joyce to decipher it. But I hope it wasn’t a comment on my latest batch of lottery tickets, or a dire warning that I’ll soon be hit in the face by a custard-pie-throwing maniac. If the latter, though, please make a note: coconut custard is my favorite.