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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jon Stewart vs. Donald Trump: You’ve forgotten Martha. May 6, 2013

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We may be Luddites here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, but we do read our daily Yahoo! news. So yesterday, we saw that Donald Trump had attacked Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” yet again, this time by announcing that Jon’s birth name wasn’t actually Stewart. This set off a viral reaction when Stewart responded by revealing that The Donald’s own birth name was F**kface von Clownstick.

Trump was apparently outraged and responded with a torrent of childish tweets. But the entire episode could have been easily avoided. If Trump had just done his homework, he’d have found out that Jon Stewart changed his surname to honor his mother after discovering that he was actually the love child of Martha Stewart. Then The Donald could have gotten back to more important things, like working on his hairdo and practicing to replace Albert Finney in the musical “Scrooge.”

A new twist on Cinco de Mayo. May 6, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I’ve written many posts about wonderful recipes for refried beans, guacamole, margaritas, and the like for Cinco de Mayo in the past; search Cinco de Mayo or refried beans, margaritas, burritos, salsa, fiesta, guacamole, palomas, etc., in our search bar at upper right to find a wealth of options. Yum!!! I’ll share a couple of quick, luscious options in a minute.

But for now, I’d like to talk about my latest Cinco de Mayo escapade. Our local library has an area outside the actual library where you can drop off books and pick up books for free. I wanted to drop off a book, and persuaded our friend Ben to let me run into the library yesterday while we were doing our usual weekend errands. Unfortunately, I saw that someone had dropped off their entire Spanish-language library, from Gulliver’s Travels and Ivanhoe to War and Peace to The Iliad to Love in the Time of Cholera. Let’s not even try to picture OFB’s horrified expression when I staggered back to our car with a dozen Spanish-language classics.

“Uh, Silence, what are you doing with all those books? What are they?!” a horrifed Ben asked.

“They’re classics in Spanish, Ben! Even The Iliad!” I replied with some false bravado, given that our books already overflowed from our wall-to-wall bookcases.

“Silence, can you even read Spanish?”

Well, no. I’d been making good practice with the Pimsleur Spanish CDs, until I got derailed by Pimsleur’s Japanese series. I’d studied French, Italian, even a little Latin, Spanish’s sister Romance languages. But, ahem, no, I couldn’t really read Spanish. I’d been hoping that having read these books in English might help me advance in Spanish, especially when I take up the Pimsleur Spanish language CDs again.

Can’t hurt, might help, right? Er, assuming OFB doesn’t consign this latest giant book pile to the burn pile.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to two simple and scrumptious treats for Cinco de Mayo: nachos and guacamole.

The best nachos I know how to make are also the simplest ever. Layer some Tostitos round tortilla chips in a 9-by-6 ovenproof pan. Spoon over lots of shredded white Cheddar, diced scallions (green onions, including the white part), and sliced jalapeno to taste. Repeat. Heat in the oven at 250 degrees F. until the cheese is thoroughly melted. Top with fresh cilantro and sour cream, if desired, before serving. Enjoy.

As for guacamole, here’s everything I’ve learned about making fast, fresh, amazing guac that can take on the best any restaurant has to offer. Best of all, it’s super-quick and easy! Get two ripe Hass avocados, a container of fresh hot salsa, half a sweet onion, a bunch of cilantro, a tomato, scallions, and some Key lemon juice, Key lime juice, or fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice.

Put half the container of fresh salsa in a bowl. Mince the sweet onion and add it. Chop the cilantro and add it. Chop the scallions and add them. Dice the tomato and add it. Add lots of lemon or lime juice. Mix all well, and add a spalsh of hot sauce (we like Tabasco’s Chipotle Hot Sauce for this) and a dash of salt (we like Trocomare or RealSalt). Stir all well.

Then take two avocados, split them in half lengthwise, and pop out the seeds. Next, cut each avocado half in half, so you have four sections. Now, using nothing more complicated than your fingers, peel off the avocado peel and add it to your compost bucket. Chop the flesh into coarse dice, then mash it with a potato masher until half is mashed and half is still chunky.

Add the avocado to the other ingredients and stir well to mix. It’s essential to make sure the avocado is coated with lemon or lime juice so it won’t brown, so mix well. Now you’re ready to break out the chips and enjoy Cinco de Mayo anytime! Spanish translations of classic works optional.

‘Til next time,


Yes, it really IS funny. May 1, 2013

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Today’s Wall Street Journal featured a story about snide, sarcastic, ironic, and just generally funny reviews people leave on Amazon for books and products that strike them as ludicrous. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, who are wordsmiths to the core of our beings, were laughing our heads off at some of these comments.

Admittedly, we wonder who had the time to write them. We’ve never left even one comment on the Amazon reviews pages, whether we loved a given book, CD or movie, or hated it. We can’t imagine how these folks—sometimes thousands of them—find the time to do so. But we’re glad they do.

Why? Because they’re screamingly funny. Take the reviews of the (perfectly serious) tome How to Avoid Huge Ships by Captain John W. Trimmer. One reviewer’s comment: “I bought How to Avoid Huge Ships as a companion to Capt. Trimmer’s other excellent titles: How to Avoid a Train and How to Avoid the Empire State Building.” Another: “Saved My Life and My Sanity. For about 8 months now I have noticed that a huge ship has been stalking me…I was fearful because my parents were killed by a big ship when they went out one day 4 years ago to walk the dog, and I have nightmares about it to this day.” Explaining why he’d given the book four stars rather than five, this reviewer added, “I do have to deduct a star because the book did not come out in time to save my parents.”

OFB and Silence enthusiastically support the efforts of anyone who chooses to commit the time to brighten our Dilbertian days. Our favorite from the article, however, left even How to Avoid Huge Ships in its wake. It was for a product rather than a book, a product that’s apparently sold on Amazon. Unlikely as it seems, you can actually buy a uranium sample on Amazon. Of the Images Scientific Instruments Uranium Ore Sample, one reviewer complained, “I purchased this product 4.47 billion years ago and when I opened it today, it was half empty.”

To discover more along these lines for products such as Fresh Whole Rabbit (“It’s Dead!”) and the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, head to http://www.wsj.com and check out “Products Are No Joke, but Reviews Are.” We could all use a good laugh.

What God looks like. April 14, 2013

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This little story made us laugh, so we thought we’d share it with you.

A little girl is drawing in her class.

The teacher passes her desk and asks, “What are you drawing?”

“I’m drawing God,” the girl replies.

“But,” the dismayed teacher stammers, “but nobody knows what God looks like!”

Still busy drawing, the little girl says, “They will in a minute.”

Flying Spaghetti Monster, anyone?

The tee-shirt wars. April 1, 2013

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Aaauuugghhh!!! The most dreaded ritual of spring has finally arrived. I knew it the moment I walked into the bedroom my partner, Silence Dogood, and I share here in the precise middle of nowhere, PA and saw the piles of tee-shirts on the bed. The Tee-Shirt Wars had begun again.

Our friend Ben is extremely fond of tee-shirts, especially tie-dyes and colorful tee-shirts that commemorate places we’ve been and things we enjoy. Unfortunately, for some reason, Silence feels that by the time you can’t open a drawer because of all the tee–shirts crammed in it, and by the time you pry it open, they’re so compressed that they’re all too wrinkled to wear, then something has to go. In fact, as many things as possible. It always goes something like this:

Silence: Ben, look at this mess! I must have extracted 50 tee-shirts from that one drawer alone. Some of them have to go!

Our friend Ben, muttering: Not again.

Silence: Ben, don’t you have enough collections without insisting on hanging on to every ancient, hideous tee-shirt you’ve ever owned?

OFB: What do you mean, hideous?!

Silence: Well, just look at this one from the Albuquerque Rattlesnake Museum. Or this: “Black Death, European Tour 1347-1351,” with that loathesome orange rat on the front!

OFB: That tee-shirt has historical significance! And besides, it’s funny.

Silence: I doubt the victims would have thought so at the time. And how about this blinding orange-and-yellow tie-dye, “Swampstock 2009”? Unless you’re standing in for a street light in a power outage, I don’t see how you can bear to wear it.

OFB: That tie-dye is a piece of local history! It’s all we have left to commemorate Swampstock!

Silence: Ben, do you see the date on these two tee-shirts, 1992? And these are even older. I know you loved those cute little Belted Galloway cows, but do you really need three identical tee-shirts of them?

OFB, sullenly: I was afraid they might wear out and then I wouldn’t have any left.

Silence: What about this Lynyrd Skynyrd tee-shirt?

OFB, horrified: Hey, give me that! That’s Lynyrd Skynyrd!

Silence: How long have you had this Hawk Mountain tee-shirt? I’ve never seen you wear that!

OFB: Hawk Mountain is our greatest natural landmark! I’m keeping it pristine for, uh, ah…

Silence, brandishing the wrinkled, crumpled tee-shirt: You call this pristine? And Ben, look at these! They’re covered with stains. Eeewww!!!

OFB, chagrined: I’m keeping them in case I need to paint the house again.

Silence: When did you paint the house before?

OFB, hastily: I mean, for when I need to paint something in the house.

And so it goes, until the inevitable moment I’ve been dreading above all others, when Silence looks at me and says innocently, “What about this Dr. Smith tee-shirt?”

Dr. Smith, the cowardly villain of the otherwise tedious “Lost in Space” series, was our friend Ben’s childhood hero. I rolled on the floor every time he would whine dramatically, “Oh the pain! The pain!!!” over every least little thing. (Admittedly, I was very young and was, and remain, very easily amused.) So when I actually found a tee-shirt picturing my erstwhile hero and his famous phrase, I was completely ecstatic. That tee-shirt is one of my most treasured possessions. So when Silence comes to it at last, I know I have to surrender. But she’s not getting the Lynyrd Skynyrd tee-shirt.

A weighty issue. January 7, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. I’ll bet you’re as sick as I am of reading and hearing constantly about our obesity crisis, where it appears that just by breathing we’re magically packing on pounds, and the only sure way to keep weight off is to opt for the terminal solution. (It’s hard to gain weight when you’re dead.)

So today I was astonished to see two sides of the weight-gain spectrum on the Yahoo! home page. Our friend Ben and I don’t get the cable stations and don’t watch the few stations we do get, so I’ve been bemused by the Honey Boo Boo phenomenon. What’s that, a teddy bear? The next (shudder) Barney? And why would anyone care?

I was astounded to see a photo of Honey Boo Boo, a fat little girl, with her enormously fat mother. It turned out to be yet another reality TV show. I’m still not sure what it’s about, or how it came to be to begin with, but I have to assume people watch Honey and her Mama because they’re so grotesquely fat. It’s a form of fat rubbernecking. Yikes!

In the science headlines lurked the other weight-related headline: Even the kilogram is gaining weight. Say what?! If an abstract unit of measure is packing on the pounds, what hope is there for us poor flesh-and-blood mortals? The article explained that 40 platinum and platinum-iridium cylinders, each weighing precisely a kilogram (2.2 pounds), were distributed to the countries that embraced the metric standard in the 1880s so there would be a gold (or in this case, platinum) weight standard across the scientific community.

Unfortunately, over the years, the cylinders, despite being enclosed in glass, have apparently put on weight. Now not only does no single cylinder weigh exactly a kilogram, but each weighs a slightly different amount due to carbon and mercury contamination. These plus-sized cylinders may not really have gained enough weight to be visible to the human eye, but the scale doesn’t lie, and the point is that, in science, precision determines results. Fortunately, the cylinders can be stripped of their excess flab with a simple UV treatment. Unlike us, they don’t have to enroll in boot camp, go on crash diets, endure bariatric surgery, or compete on “The Biggest Loser.”

So, scientists, the million-dollar question: When will you devise a UV treatment that strips off our excess pounds?! The world is waiting…

‘Til next time,


American graffiti. January 3, 2013

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were on one of our road-trip vacations over the holidays, and had spent the night outside of Radford, Virginia. While OFB filled the tank at a local Sunoco station, I took advantage of the opportunity to head for the ladies’ room. (One of many priceless euphemisms for the bathroom, itself a euphemism, as is toilet, believe it or not. My favorite is the concept of the “rest area;” in Virginia, they even have “pet rest areas.” But I digress.)

Once in the bathroom, I saw that the inside of the stall door and part of one wall were covered with graffiti. No surprise there: I’ve seen many a stall door inscribed with sentiments of undying love, hate, and sarcasm. And indeed, there was one “Sue hearts Tony” on this particular door. But there was exactly one. Otherwise, all the way down the door on the left side were pro- and anti-Obama comments. These ranged from “Vote Obama OUT” (with the OUT scratched out, leaving “Vote Obama”) to rather more graphic comments (“[Bleep] Obama!” “I agree! What a hottie! I’d [bleep] him in a minute, bitch!”)

Political graffiti in a gas station bathroom stall is not something I’d have expected. But it paled beside the comments down the right-hand side of the door and on the adjacent wall. Here, an ongoing philosophical debate was occurring. It involved the nature of love and hate. Comments ranged from “The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s ignorance” to quotations from the Gospel of St. John and St. Paul’s 1 Corinthians to excerpts from A Course in Miracles. Subsequent readers had noted which comments and quotes they agreed or disagreed with (“It’s not ignorance, it’s indifference” “Correct” [arrow drawn to indifference comment]).

Generally, when I go to the bathroom in a service station, I just hope there’s toilet paper and nobody’s sprayed the seat. To see that previous occupants have been engaging in political and philosophical, even theological, debate, is beyond anything I’d have previously imagined. Go, ladies, go.

‘Til next time,


Where’s my MacArthur award?! October 2, 2012

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Our friend Ben was crushed to see that, for yet another year, I failed to win a MacArthur fellowship (better known as “genius awards”). Silence Dogood gleefully showed me the list of winners in today’s paper. (She’s always giving me grief about my not-so-secret hopes of an award.)

The good thing about the awards is that each winner receives $500,000 with no strings attached. The bad thing is that you can’t simply apply for a fellowship; you must be nominated by a secret panel, and nobody knows who or where these people are. For all you know, the pizza delivery boy could be a nominator; so could the engineer in the next cubicle or the dentist who’s cleaning your teeth. This makes it rather challenging to get yourself nominated, but at least it’s an excellent incentive to be really nice to everyone you interact with.

Winners are chosen from all walks of life; this year was pretty heavy on musicians. But one winner specialized in something that really caught our friend Ben’s attention: the study of how fluids move in the human body, and how that movement could affect disease.

Our friend Ben has been pondering this ever since I was told that in a given day, the kidneys could move up and down by as much as six inches. We tend to think of our bodies as solid, but we’re more like a sack of fluid with organs suspended in it. And of course, fluid by its definition moves. We all know our blood circulates, but I think it would be fascinating to know how fluid moves through the rest of us. This was one MacArthur Fellow whose award I didn’t envy!

But please, nominators, wherever you are, let’s try to prove Silence wrong in 2013 and give our friend Ben an award! I don’t know how much more of her sarcasm I can take.

Rotten tomatoes. September 26, 2012

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Why are people so bizarre? Our friend Ben was staggered to read in this morning’s Wall Street Journal that adults by the thousands are now lining up in parking lots across America and paying $50 for the privilege of hurling rotten (the article euphemistically refers to them as “overripe”) tomatoes at each other. (Find the article, “Messy Business: Now You Can Pay to Get Hit by a Tomato,” at www.wsj.com.)

These are adults, mind you, people in theirĀ 20s and 30s. Several who were interviewed for the article were schoolteachers, who presumably wouldn’t find it amusing if they were pelted with rotten tomatoes by their students. Yet there they were, many of the participants in wild costumes, in a parking lot with a semi truckload worth of rotten tomatoes, hurling and mashing them onto each other. What on earth were they thinking?!

Mind you, we Americans aren’t the only ones who’ve lost our minds. The entrepreneur who came up with the idea of our Tomato Battles was inspired by an annual festival of tomato-tossing in Spain that draws an estimated 10,000 participants. I guess it beats running with the bulls.

In case you’re wondering why they use rotten rather than ripe tomatoes, they’re softer and squishier, not to mention cheaper. Getting hit in the head with a firm tomato (or a few dozen) could do some serious damage. Having a rotten tomato mashed into your face is apparently hilariously entertaining.

There’s one useful lesson we can all take from the insanity: People are willing to pay for this. The entrepreneur who launched these events is raking in something like $100,000 per event. Perhaps you, our friend Ben, and other enterprising types could start our own series of events where people toss grapes, rotten eggs, popcorn, or raw bacon at each other. No doubt we’d have crowds of idiots lining up.