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Take pride in your work. August 1, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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“Every calling is great when greatly pursued.”

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

This quote reminds our friend Ben of a scene from the wonderful series “John Adams.” John Adams, one of our Founding Fathers, was a gifted lawyer and a staunch supporter of Independence. He was also America’s first vice president and second president.

But the scene that made such an impression on me showed Adams back at his home, a working farm, composting manure to make fertilizer for his fields. He proudly bragged to his young son, the future president John Quincy Adams, about his skill in turning this particular black gold into perfectly composted fertilizer to spread on the fields and gardens. You’d have thought that composting manure was the greatest achievement of his life. Every calling is great when greatly pursued, indeed.


Why John Adams? September 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, our friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders, and his fiance Bridget were watching a DVD of the miniseries “John Adams” the other night. We’re all huge fans of Colonial and Revolutionary history, but we all also found ourselves asking, as we do every time we watch this excellent series, “What the bleep?”

This is perhaps the best series about Colonial America that was ever made. But instead of featuring the movers and shakers of the Revolution, the colorful characters—George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Gouverneur Morris, Lighthorse Harry Lee, Paul Revere—it stars the fat, bald, irritating, paranoid, unpopular John Adams. Why?!

John Adams was unloved in his day and is just as unlovable in the series. Even the flag that serves as the icon of the film, the severed snake of the 13 colonies with the motto “Join or Die,” was the creation of Benjamin Franklin, not Adams. Adams had no part in the shaping of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Treaty of Paris. What could have possessed the creators of this series to focus on the man his own contemporary legislators contemptuously dismissed as “His Rotundity”? 

Perhaps they were sentimentalists who focused on the lifelong love affair between John Adams and his wife Abigail. Like Martha Washington and Dolley Madison (and, for that matter, Deborah Franklin), Abigail Adams was a very strong woman, who supported her husband and bolstered his confidence no matter how his contemporaries viewed him.

Unlike Martha, Dolley, and Deborah, Abigail had her work cut out for her, with a pompous, unpopular husband. But she recognized her husband’s brilliance even as she also recognized how he needed to curb his ambition and arrogance to make that brilliance heard. (Thank God Ben Franklin inherently understood this and combined his gargantuan intellect with wit, humor, and compromise, or we’d have lost the Revolution.) Humor wasn’t John Adams’s strong suit, nor was an understanding of his fellow men. He stood for the law and for honor and justice, whatever the personal cost. And he paid a very high price for his noble ideals.

That the series (and the book by David McCullough that inspired it) is able to so brilliantly bring Colonial and Revolutionary America to life through the eyes of John Adams and his family is what our friend Ben would have called an impossible attainment. And yet it does attain it.

You may pity or despise John Adams at the series’ end, or feel terribly sad for a man with great gifts and great blindness about human nature. You will definitely feel desperately sad for his wife Abigail and his brave, tragic daughter. But you will also feel ennobled by the story of a people who collectively rose above themselves and above their station and achieved something no one had seen in over a thousand years: A republic where the citizens claimed the right to represent themselves and elect their officials.

Why John Adams? Our friend Ben still doesn’t have a clue.  A less appealing character could hardly have been found. It would be like making a movie about the Civil War era and focusing on Confederate General Marcus J. Wright rather than Generals Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest , William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Henry Sheridan, George Gordon Meade, Admiral Raphael Semmes, or, say, Presidents Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. It’s not that Wright was irrelevant, he just wasn’t compelling. Nor was John Adams.

But the series “John Adams” is compelling. Thanks to historian David McCullough’s deep knowledge of the era and the filmmakers’ ability to bring it to life, it’s a must-watch for anyone who enjoys American history or values American liberty. And thank you, John Adams, for being so unattractive and so unpopular and still showing us what one person’s passionate beliefs, backed by their heartfelt actions, whatever their personal drawbacks, can accomplish.

What would the Founders do? And what should we do? July 4, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Does this sound like any form of government you know?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Our friend Ben, a lifelong United States citizen, has never known a form of government that actually worked to safeguard the happiness and liberty of its citizens, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, from which the passage just quoted is taken. Instead, our government is a huge, bloated, impersonal entity, peopled by career politicians who are bought and paid for by special-interest groups and the corporations that can, thanks to our Supreme Court, have the rights of individuals and “contribute” to campaigns accordingly. I’m not even allowed to decide whether or not to wear a seatbelt in my own car.

I’m sure the Founders, from George Washington down, are spinning in their collective graves. This was not the government or so-called “republic” that they envisioned. I wish with all my heart that our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, were here to lend his perspective, and possible solutions, to the parody of democracy America has become.

Just this morning, I read an op-ed piece advocating the use of the internet to level the political playing field. The article suggested doing away with the Electoral College and instead allowing the President and VP to be elected directly by popular vote, which I entirely approve. It’s an outrage that our leaders are still chosen by a clunky, archaic proxy system when the people themselves should cast the deciding votes, and we finally have the technology needed to tally them accurately.

The author of the op-ed piece went on to suggest that people should be allowed to vote on legislation themselves via the internet as well, which is an intriguing thought. That would certainly be true democracy in action, if anyone could tear themselves away from texting and Facebook long enough to actually read the proposed legislation.

Our friend Ben was on board so far, but the writer’s third suggestion threw me: That citizens be allowed to nominate candidates themselves online, and that those who garnered the most votes would run. In our celebrity-driven culture, this brought an immediate “American Idol”-like vision to my mind: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you our new Chief Executive, Justin Bieber, and VP, Lady Gaga!” (Oh, wait: Justin Bieber’s Canadian, isn’t he? But my point still stands.) I think those who believe themselves prepared to lead our country should stand and declare their willingness to serve, and then people should decide who among them is most fit to do so.

In the absence of Ben Franklin’s wise guidance, our friend Ben would like to propose three additional ideas for returning power to the people, in addition to doing away with the Electoral College and electing the President and VP by actual popular vote (as in the vote of the populace, as opposed to a popularity contest). They are:

* Limit terms of office. Like the President, no member of the House or Senate should be allowed to serve more than two terms. Not a single Founder envisioned a political position as a career. It was, instead, a duty, a time to step up and serve your country, after which you returned to your plantation like George Washington or your lawyer’s practice like John Adams. This was an excellent counter to corruption, and should certainly be applied to the Supreme Court as well.

* Mandate free campaigns. Having to raise money—lots of money—for a campaign guarantees that even the most idealistic candidate will be beholden to—bought by—his or her contributors long before the election results are tallied. If you win, you owe us. Instead, I think we should implement a system where every candidate is given the same amount of free air time to present themselves and their platforms, leveling the field and freeing politicians from the Godfather grip of “the offer they can’t refuse.” 

* Do away with political parties. George Washington himself strenuously opposed the formation of political parties, presciently seeing how damaging they could be to the idea of a “united” States. Our current poisonous political separation and the rise of hate politics proves our greatest President right. Forget parties, and let every candidate stand on his or her own convictions and plans for governing the country. In the age of the internet, the concept of parties is outdated and not just divisive but destructive. Let each speak for him- or herself!

On this July Fourth, let’s set down the picnic fare long enough to contemplate what a government “by the people, for the people, of the people” might actually be.

Good news for history-loving gardeners. March 29, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a real treat for gardeners who also happen to be fans of Early American history, such as yours truly, our friend Ben, and Silence Dogood. A new book, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Andrea Wulf, Knopf, $30) was released just today, March 29. I was happy to see that Amazon already has it in stock, and you can buy it there for $17.64 (with free shipping, if you add a second item to your order to bring it to at least $25). It’s also available on the Barnes & Noble website (www.barnesandnoble.com).

This is far from the first book about America’s Founders and their passion for agriculture and gardening, as we’ll soon see. But Ms. Wulf, a British garden design historian, has done us all a service by bringing all the “Founding Gardeners”—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, even our own hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin—together in a single volume. And she adds a new spin by focusing on how their travels abroad and exchanges with fellow plant-lovers across Europe enriched their own views of America’s gardening and agricultural potential. (Of the Founders, only the frail, sickly Madison never traveled abroad; Washington didn’t get as far as Europe, but did venture off to Jamaica with his brother Lawrence as a young man.)

We think of today’s internet access, services like Skype, and the Global economy as making today’s world a lot smaller and more accessible than the world of the Founders. But in some ways, this is a fallacy. In their day, everyone who was anyone knew everyone, or at least everyone who shared their interests and passions. True, it may have taken longer to get a letter or package, or to get from place to place. But if you were a well-connected plant enthusiast, you’d be in constant correspondence with everyone from John Bartram, America’s first nurseryman, to the great botanists, plant explorers, nurserymen, and garden enthusiasts across Europe, exchanging plants, seeds, techniques, successes and failures, plant gossip, and, of course, the latest styles.

Let’s say you’d barely made it through elementary school when your father, who’d planned to send you to college but was furious at your refusal to become a minister, instead forces you to go to work as a gopher at the local newspaper. Fed up, at 17 you move to a distant state and end up running a paper of your own, along with creating a number of useful societies and institutions and displaying a passion for experiment and invention that causes you to create a lifesaving device used by everyone, which you decline to patent or trademark and allow to pass into the public domain, profiting not a cent or a sou from your work.

Now, imagine that, your eighth-grade education and lack of social standing—not to mention your irregular domestic situation and acknowledged illegitimate child—notwithstanding, you regularly corresponded with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, President Obama, the Dalai Lama, and pretty much every major figure in science, medicine, technology, literature, music, and philosophy around the world. Possible? Maybe. Likely? Not very. Yet that was Benjamin Franklin, and his contemporaries also had access to the global network of fellow enthusiasts, generalists, and specialists.

I can’t quite see myself—or, say, our friend Ben, with his advanced education, eager mind, and broad-ranging interests—engaging the attention of a Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, or Ekhart Tolle to discuss ideas. Despite our “small world,” there are simply too many of us, and specialization is the order of our day, preventing those who are interested in everything (or even many things) from even finding each other. In today’s world, generalists like Dr. Franklin who were good at many things would be ridiculed rather than revered like folks who kept their interests confined not merely to, say, medicine, but to the most specialized forms of same, such as bariatric surgery.

But I’m straying from the point here. Fortunately, back in the Founders’ day, it was viewed as perfectly reasonable to be, say, a surveyor, soldier, Freemason, landowner, politician, avid plantsman and agricultural innovator, and Father of Our Country, like our first and greatest President, George Washington. Nobody thought it peculiar that someone with Ben Franklin’s stature would take the time to introduce plants like rhubarb to America while off on diplomatic missions.

Anyway, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have added Founding Gardeners to our must-have lists. If you’re a gardener who’s also a follower of the Founders, we suggest that you do likewise, or that you suggest that your local library purchase a copy for its collection.  But let’s get back to the other books on the topic. A quick scan of our collective libraries produced some other books you might be interested in checking out*:

Early American Gardens “For Meate or Medicine” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970, $10)

American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century “For Use or For Delight” (Ann Leighton, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, $17.50)

Thomas Jefferson: The Garden and Farm Books (Robert C. Baron, ed., Fulcrum, 1987, $20)

Everyday Life in Early America (David Freeman Hawke, Harper & Rowe, 1989, $9.95)

Colonial Gardens (Rudy F. Favretti and Gordon P. DeWolf, Barre Publishers, 1972, no price)

For Every House a Garden: A guide for reproducing period gardens (Rudy and Joy Favretti, The Pequot Press, 1977, $4.95)

Eighteenth Century Life: British and American Gardens (Robert P. Maccubbin and Peter Martin, eds., Special Issue, College of William & Mary and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Volume VIII, n.s., 2, January 1983, $10)

Herbs and Herb Lore of Colonial America (Colonial Dames of America, Dover Publications Inc., 1995, $3.95)

Gentle Conquest: The Botanical Discovery of North America (James L Reveal, Starwood Publishing, Inc., 1992, no price)

The Art of Colonial Flower Arranging (Jean C. Clark, The Pyne Press, 1974, $8.95)

Farmer George Plants a Nation (Peggy Thomas, Calkins Creek, 2008, $17.95, a wonderful children’s book about, who else, George Washington)

We know we have others, too, but—how embarrassing!—all of us have so many books, we’re just not putting our hands on them right now.

Here are other books I found on Amazon that we need to add to our collections*:

Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man (Mac Griswold, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999, $40)

Colonial Gardens: The Landscape Architecture of George Washington’s Time (American Society of Landscape Architects, United States Bicentennial Commission, 1932, from $52)

Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Gardens at Monticello (Peter J. Hatch, Edwin Morris Betts, and Hazelhurst Bolton Perkins, University of Virginia Press, 3rd ed., 1971, $12.95)

Jefferson’s Garden (Peter Loewer, Stackpole Books, 2004, $21.95)

Thomas Jefferson: Landscape Architect (Frederick Doveton Nichols and Frank E. Griswold, Univeristy of Virginia Press, 2003, $14.95)

Plants of Colonial Days (Raymond L. Taylor, Dover Publications Inc., 2nd. ed., 1996, $5.95) 

Flowers and Herbs of Early America (Lawrence D. Griffith, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Yale University Press, 2010, $24)

Plants of Colonial Williamsburg: How to Identify 200 of Colonial America’s Flowers, Herbs, and Trees (Joan Parry Dutton, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1979, $12.95)

The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg (M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1995, $29.95)

Williamsburg’s Glorious Gardens (Roger Foley, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1996, $19,95)

From a Colonial Garden: Ideas, Decorations, Recipes (Susan Hight Rountree, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004, $19.95)

Whew, that’s quite a wish list. And we’re sure we’re still missing plenty! Please let us know if you have favorite books on Colonial, Revolutionary, and Federal gardening in our Colonies/States that I’ve overlooked!


                             Richard Saunders

* Note that prices are list prices, not Amazon prices, typically considerably lower, unless noted.

Ben Picks Ten: Films for the Fourth July 3, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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At our house, watching “Independence Day” on the Fourth of July is a family tradition. So our friend Ben decided to present my Top Ten list of great films to watch on the Fourth, in case you’re planning a little July Fourth Film Festival of your own. Maybe your family will pick a favorite and start their own tradition!

Here are my top picks:

Independence Day. The unlikely but lovable team of Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith save the world from evil aliens on the Fourth of July. Lots of good humor and camaraderie as well as epic battles. A must-see for us every July 4th.

1776. The beloved musical presents the Founding Fathers as they wrangle over the Declaration of Independence, face the prospect of war and a split from the Mother Country, and generally rub each other the wrong way. Highlights include (of course) our hero and blog mentor Benjamin Franklin and a classic role for Richard Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee.

John Adams. Okay, I’m cheating, since this is a series rather than a single movie. But if you want to really experience what it was like to live in Colonial times and post-Revolution America, don’t miss this marvelous series. Its realism is just riveting, down to the tiniest details. John Adams is an unlikely and unlikable hero, but strong appearances by Abigail Adams, George Washington, and Ben Franklin (who steals the show yet again) make this a series we want to own and watch again and again. Our friend Ben thinks every American should watch it at least once. 

Glory. This stirring Civil War movie documents another revolution: the fight to free America from the abomination of slavery. It portrays the true story of the first Black U.S. battalion. This brutal but brilliant movie pulls no punches: There is no happy ending, so if this one’s your July 4th pick, consider yourself forewarned. But if you’re looking for bravery and valor, this movie would be hard if not impossible to beat. 

The Long, Hot Summer. Don Johnson and Cybill Shepherd sizzle in the fantastic 1985 remake of the 1958 classic starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Based on a novel by famed author William Faulkner, this pre-air-conditioning look at Mississippi life during an unforgettable, sweltering summer will have you sweating as much as its characters. But you’ll love every steamy minute.  

The Empire Strikes Back. Jedi knights strike a blow for galactic freedom as they take on the Evil Empire in my favorite of the Star Wars movies. May the Force be with you!

The Fellowship of the Ring. Humble hobbits battle the evil overlord Sauron for the freedom of their world in the first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings.”

Jimmy Buffett Live in Anguilla. It’s 5 o’clock somewhere! Chill out with a margarita or bottle of Land Shark Lager and enjoy the beautiful beaches of Anguilla and the antics of the colorful and wacky Parrotheads on this live concert DVD. There are two CDs for the car, too, the best recording of Jimmy Buffett’s music our friend Ben has ever heard. So kick back, wiggle your toes in the sand, pig out on cheeseburgers and Junior Mints… but watch out for those land sharks!

Avatar. This time, the movie’s about struggling for planetary freedom and environmental wholeness as Good battles Greed. The computer-generated planet is light years beyond anything created before; it really has to be seen to be believed. And like the other movies here, there’s so much going on that every viewing shows you something new. Enjoy!

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music. The revolution of the Hippies, the late-’60s/early ’70s Peace and Love generation, vegetarianism, the Back to the Land Movement, the Flower Children, and their flowering of clothing, art, ornamentation, and above all, music, is always worth revisiting. The Summer of Love may not have coincided with the Woodstock Festival in 1969, Joni Mitchell may have composed “Woodstock,” with the immortal line “We are stardust, we are golden,” having never been there, but this 1970 documentary captured the music, and the feeling, that sparked a genuine revolution in search of a better world. Hungry for more? Try Across the Universe and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same for a real Sixties flashback.

And some very close runners up:

James Bond. When it comes to Bond, our friend Ben goes for the gold: Goldfinger, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Goldeneye. But all the James Bond movies make for entertaining summer fare, so pick your faves and settle down with a martini (shaken, not stirred).

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe is on the case in these episodes set in her beloved Botswana. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love Alexander McCall Smith’s novels and the subsequent film series. The action is low-key, but the temperature is hot!

Pirates of the Caribbean. Aaarrrrr! What’s summer without a good swashbuckler or two? Who could resist Cap’n Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbossa, Davy Jones, Tia Dalma and the crew? My favorite is the first of the series, The Curse of the Black Pearl, but I think Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End are almost as much fun. Grab a bucket o’grog and plenty of pirattitude and enjoy ’em, you savvy?!  

That’s it for us. What are your favorite summer movies?!