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Off with his…feet?!! February 5, 2013

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The body of King Richard III, one of the most maligned rulers in British history, has finally been found, 527 years after he was slain in the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, a battle that ended the War of the Roses and the Plantagenet succession. The victor of Bosworth, Henry VII, spawned the Tudor dynasty that produced his son, the monster Henry VIII, and the great queen Elizabeth I. (Oddly, the victor, Henry Tudor, was a better accountant than a warrior, balancing England’s budget and building its treasury, as well as maintaining peace through the rest of his reign, gains that would all be lost during the reign of his son, Henry VIII.)

The excitement all started in a parking lot in the city of Leicester (in classic British fashion, pronounced “Lester”). Archaeologists at the University of Leicester were attempting to find the site of Greyfriars Priory, where the king had supposedly been interred after his death, and pinpointed the location to the parking lot. They began the dig, and, in September 2012, unearthed both the remains of the priory and a very unique skeleton. The skeleton had suffered trauma to the skull, consistent with death in battle, and had a steel arrow embedded in its spine.

Head trauma plus an arrow in the spine would have killed any warrior; why would this one have been special? For one thing, the spine was a classic case of scoliosis, an S-shaped curvature of the spine, leading to the descriptions of Richard III (most famously by Shakespeare) as a hunchback. Instead, he was probably wracked by pain from his spinal deformity and unable to stand fully upright, but scoliosis would not have caused an actual “hunchback.” And there was also the fact that the skeleton was alone, rather than in a common grave with other warriors killed in a common battle.

The injuries to the skeleton, consistent with descriptions of Richard’s wounds in battle, and the curved spine, along with history’s assertion that he was buried at Greyfriars’ in Leicester, made the archaeologist’s hearts beat faster. But it was a specialty of the University of Leicester, evolutionary genetics, that seems to have proved Richard III’s identity beyond doubt. Taking DNA from the skeleton and comparing it to the DNA from two direct descendants of Richard’s sister, Anne of York, produced a virtually perfect match. The king had been found at last.

Richard III has been portrayed as a deformed, murderous monster, willing to kill his own young nephews to gain access to England’s crown. But this is really due to a propaganda smear on the part of William Shakespeare, whose patron was the great Elizabeth I, the scion of the House of Tudor.

It strikes our friend Ben and Silence Dogood as highly likely that a playwright of that era—who was basically viewed by the nobility as a lackey, a performing monkey, however great his talent, and treated accordingly—however celebrated, would have had a keen awareness of the respect due his patrons and have written his plays accordingly. Doing otherwise could have cost him his livelihood and patronage at least and sent him to the rack for treason at worst.

For a different view of Richard, one espoused by the many members of the various Richard III societies in Britain and America, and one incidentally also espoused by our friend Ben and Silence, one has only to turn to the historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour. There Richard is portrayed as a noble and far-seeing ruler whose vision is ahead of his time.

Ms. Penman makes clear that it is only because he lost at Bosworth Field that he is not recognized as the great king and ruler he actually was, but rather vilified by his enemies as deformed (and thus, in his era, marked by the devil and unfit to rule), in an era in which any deformity or defect was marked as the sign of the devil rather than a sign of genetic flaw or inbreeding amongst the nobility. Science was light years away from Bosworth Field, and anyone who put forth the conclusions of science in Richard’s day, in his defense, would have been marched forth posthate to the stake.

In the wake of the skeleton’s excavation and identification, there has been much controversy as to where it should rest. The University of Leicester, which funded the excavation and has ultimate say, has announced that Richard III’s final resting place will be at the Cathedral Church in Leicester. Factions who oppose this move suggest York, Richard’s seat, or Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, traditional burial sites for British kings.

Wherever he lies, our friend Ben and Silence hope he lies in peace, finally given the reverence he deserves. He lived just 32 years and has been vilified for 527 more. Surely it’s time to give the king his due, especially in light of the horrors his usurper’s son, Henry VIII, perpetrated?

But one issue remains unresolved. Richard’s skeleton is missing its feet. They appear to have been cleanly cut off the bone. That all the other bones are in hearty good form—shockingly so, after 500-plus years—the missing feet are astonishing. Why would anyone want to take Richard’s feet, of all things? We’ve all heard the urban legends about modern corpses being cut down to fit in their coffins. But apparently poor Richard wasn’t even given the dignity of a coffin burial; instead, he was just put in the ground. So what happened to his feet?

If anyone has a theory about this, please let us know. The excellent state of preservation of the rest of the skeleton makes this even more bizarre.

Somehow, that a king should be buried in a parking lot says more about our modern state of society than pretty much anything else we can think of.


Shake your spoils of war. March 15, 2011

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Our friend Ben has been amused by the uproar caused by the Catholic Church’s latest English translation of the Bible. The Biblical scholars who crafted the latest edition of The New American Bible replaced words whose meanings had changed significantly in the popular understanding so that the original meaning would be clear. Words like “booty” (now “plunder,” reflecting the original meaning of the word, “spoils of war”), “holocaust” (now “burnt offering”), and “cereal” (now “grain”) bit the dust (now “croaked”—just kidding).

Our friend Ben doesn’t see what the big deal is. There are dozens of English translations of the Bible, and in all of them, scholars have tried to present the text as accurately and clearly as possible to their contemporary readers. This tradition goes back to the very first English translation of the Bible, by John Wycliffe (1384).

It was also the aim of the greatest of all translations, the King James version (1611). But because the King James Bible also happens to be one of the most beautiful expressions of the English language, it is rightly considered great literature as well as a sacred text, and our friend Ben would be appalled if anyone attempted to modernize it.* You might as well modernize Shakespeare to make him more accessible to a modern audience. Imagine it:

Romeo and Juliet

(old version)

Juliet: “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

(new version)

Juliet: “Talk about rotten luck! Of all the guys I could have fallen for, I had to pick you, Romeo, the son of my family’s mortal enemies!”


(old version)

Macbeth: “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon! Where got’st thou that goose look?… Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine Are counsellors to fear.”

(new version)

Macbeth: “What’s come over you, you stinkin’ coward?!”


(old version)

Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” 

(new version)

Polonius: “Just be yourself. If somebody doesn’t like it, tough. At least no one will call you a hypocrite.”

The Tempest

(old version)

Prospero: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life, is rounded with a sleep.”

(new version)

Prospero: “For a minute there, you feel like you have all the options: you can be anything, do anything, have anything. Then before you know it, you drop dead!”

But why pick on Shakespeare? Let’s move on to Wordsworth:

The World Is Too Much with Us

(old version)

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:”

(new version)

“Sheesh, why do we waste all our time working and shopping

When we could be eating in front of the TV?”

Gee. That was kinda fun. I’m starting to see a new career on the horizon… Publishers, editors, think of the possibilities! Our friend Ben is standing by for your call.

* Actually, Thomas Nelson Publishers (in our friend Ben’s native Nashville, adding injury to insult) tried this in 1982. Shame on them!

The blackbirds are back! February 21, 2011

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Ah, the joys of February. Just yesterday, for the first time in two months, the mountains of snow and ice that had blanketed our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, had finally retreated to the point where almost all of the ground was green or brown. Two 60-degree days last week had released us from winter’s icy grip at last. Our friend Ben almost wrecked the car on Saturday when Silence suddenly started screaming—turns out she’d seen a flock of snow geese, one of our favorite birds, for the first time since fall. Spring was clearly in the air.

This morning, the ground is white again. We became aware of this at about 6:40 a.m. when a passing car skidded into the field across from our house. Soon police and tow trucks had stopped traffic, lights were flashing, and the day had kicked off to a somewhat more lively start than is usual in our sleepy rural setting. (Fortunately, neither car nor driver was injured.) We found ourselves staring out at 3 inches of fresh snow, with more big flakes drifting down.

We weren’t the only ones who’d been tricked into thinking it was spring. One look at our feeders showed us that the blackbirds were back. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed, black-bodied cowbirds, starlings—there they all were, trying to convince themselves that they hadn’t made a huge mistake by showing up today.

We admire the bold, beautiful grackles, big, showy birds with iridescent black, purple, and green plumage. They aren’t the least bit afraid to snatch a piece of cat food from under the nose of our outdoor cat, Dixie, though they’ll also help themselves to seed from our feeders, standing their ground against any and all comers but not trying to drive them off and deprive them of their share.

We’re also fond of the red-winged blackbirds, so called not because their wings are red, but because mature males bear red-and-yellow epaulettes on their black shoulders. They can be found in our meadow garden during the growing season, helping us keep the bug population under control. We say, welcome back!

We feel considerable ambivalence about cowbirds, who evolved with the bison of the Plains and whose range was limited and controlled by bison populations and movements. Unfortunately, when pioneers exterminated the bison and started raising grain, the cowbirds’ range and population expanded exponentially. This is a problem because cowbirds are parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Species that become inadvertent hosts of cowbird eggs raise fewer if any of their own chicks. While we think cowbirds are beautiful and appreciate their original role, consuming the pests that plagued the bison and making life better for both species as a result, we’re appalled by their current status.

Starlings are even worse. It’s not that we have anything against these birds individually. Right now, before their plumage dulls to black, it’s an attractive spangled glossy brown with gold highlights. Rather, it’s the number of starlings we object to. Huge flocks cover the bare trees, screaming and shrieking. These starving masses make our squirrels look like polite diners who only go back for one refill at the all-you-can-eat buffet. If there were five or even ten starlings in the yard, we wouldn’t mind. But 500 starlings! No, thanks.

One reason we have a problem with starlings is that they’re alien invaders, like stinkbugs and Japanese beetles, who have multiplied out of control in their new, predator-free environment. And we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

Not that Shakespeare meant to unleash starlings on the unsuspecting citizens of America. In fact, we suspect he’d had a few pints too many when he had Harry “Hotspur” Percy announce in Henry IV, Part I that he would teach a starling to speak to the king. He was doubtless confusing them with magpies, whose renowned talent for mimicry has caused many to be taught speech.

Unfortunately for us all, Shakespeare’s starling reference was responsible for the starling invasion here on U.S. soil, thanks to an idiot named Ernest Schieffelin, a wealthy drug manufacturer in the Bronx, and his American Acclimatization Society. Though it sounds like a group dedicated to helping immigrants acclimatize to American customs and ways, its real purpose was to import every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works—all 600 species—and release them in New York’s Central Park.

The European starling took its turn in 1890 and 1891, and spread like contagion across the U.S., growing from an initial flock of 100 to today’s 200-million-plus, and displacing native birds like our beloved bluebird along the way. (Shieffelin’s Society was also responsible for introducing that other menace, the house sparrow, which has displaced innumerable native species of small songbird and threatened their existence.) 

We can only say that, in today’s culinary climate, in which two top trends are all things meat and all things local, it’s a shame that consuming starlings hasn’t caught on. Where are chefs and hunters when you really need them?! And incidentally, we have at least six fat squirrels here at Hawk’s Haven if anyone’s in the mood for burgoo…

Diff’rent strokes. August 9, 2010

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Silence Dogood here. Sunday afternoon, I abandoned our friend Ben in his massive rocking chair with a huge bowl of popcorn and the complete “Horatio Hornblower” series, not to mention our black German shepherd Shiloh lying worshipfully at his feet, and went off for a “girls’ night out” with my friend Amy. We were heading to a showing of “Letters to Juliet,” which my father had highly recommended, and then to a wonderful Indian restaurant, Sawaii*, near The Grand movie theater in scenic Pennsburg, PA.

Funny about that. The movie’s plot was basically that a couple goes to Italy for a romantic vacation. The girl wants to go to Verona and soak up the romantic ambience that spawned “Romeo and Juliet.” The guy, a chef about to open his own restaurant in New York City, is totally jazzed because his suppliers want to take him to dig for white truffles, participate in a wine auction in Bordeaux, visit incredible artisanal cheesemakers, and learn the cooking secrets of some of the great but unknown village chefs of Tuscany.

Generally speaking, I found the plot sappy, predictable, and banal. But more to the point, I found myself thinking, what on earth was the heroine thinking?! Yes, the city of Verona was beautiful. But why on earth would you want to waste time mooning over an imaginary heroine’s imaginary balcony** when you could be having the culinary vacation of a lifetime?

True, I can’t imagine the horrors of being married to a totally passionate chef, who ultimately only comes alive in his professional capacity and spends his waking and sleeping thoughts staffing and stocking his kitchen. And if the plot had been set up so that the heroine wanted to visit the great cultural and architectural masterpieces of Italy and France, the museums, the cathedrals, the archaeological sites, and her fiance point-blank refused on the grounds that he couldn’t care less about culture and only was interested in artisanal olive oil, fine.

That’s an entirely different story. Yes, I love olive oil, but I love culture more. If my guy didn’t share my breadth of interests, he’d be heading home—or I would—toute de suite. But why wouldn’t there be room for both? Surely an appreciation for good food and a good life, including the intellectual and cultural components, go hand in hand.

Cheesy sentiment opposed to cheese, on the other hand: Forget it. Just give me the cheese, preferably a marvelous artisanal cheese with a crusty baguette, homemade butter, wine, and a really good salad. And some of that olive oil to dress the salad, thanks.

                  ‘Til next time,


* No worries, OFB got pretty much all of my delicious palak paneer (spiced spinach with Indian cheese) and basmati rice with cumin seeds when I got home. It was even still warm. 

** To this day, many people misinterpret Shakespeare’s famous “balcony line” as “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” In other words, “Where the hell are you, Romeo?! What’s the holdup here? I’ve been standing on this stupid balcony for over half an hour. Are you such a deadbeat you’re always gonna be late, or worse, stand me up for our dates? Sheesh! I’m getting really ticked off now.” But the actual line is “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Which is to say, “Why, oh why did I have to fall in love with you, Romeo Montague, of all people, one of the Montagues, my family’s historic enemies, the one guy my parents would forbid me to marry, and not, say, Moe Snyder? Damn the rotten luck!”

Should we beware the Ides of March? March 15, 2010

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Today’s post kicks off a week of “lucky posts” here at Poor Richard’s Almanac in honor of the Ides of March, an unlucky day for both Julius Caesar and the Roman Republic, and St. Patrick’s Day, traditionally associated with shamrocks, lucky charms, rainbows, pots of gold, and “the luck of the Irish.” As the week goes on, you’ll find posts about symbols of good and bad luck, amulets and talismans to ward off bad luck, actions that are considered to attract good or bad luck around the world, even foods that are considered lucky and unlucky. Today we’ll kick off with PRA’s official historian, Richard Saunders, posting on a couple of singularly unlucky days.

It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about the Ides of March. If you remember nothing else from being forced to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at some point during your educational career, you probably recall the Soothsayer shouting “Beware the Ides of March!” at Caesar about a hundred times. (At least it seemed like that.) But what are the Ides of March, and is there any reason for us to be wary of them?

Actually, the Ides of March is not a them but an it: March 15th. “Ides” comes from the Latin Idus, and refers, according to Wikipedia, to a festival celebrating the Roman god of war, Mars, from whom the month of March and the planet Mars take their names. You’d think this would have been a lucky day for Caesar, one of history’s greatest generals and empire-builders. But his luck ran out on March 15, 44 B.C., when he was assassinated by a group of outraged Senators, including his trusted friend Brutus, leading to that other famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” (That’s, ahem, brootay, not brute, should you ever have the misfortune of being in Caesar’s position and needing to say the line yourself.) 

Why were the Senators up in (literal) arms against Caesar, you ask? In a nutshell, because before the Roman Empire, there was the Roman Republic, a supposed bastion of virtue and honor with a governing Senate. (And yes, this was the ideal upon which our Founding Fathers here in America based their own government.) The Senators feared that Julius Caesar* had too much power and was planning to declare himself emperor, putting and end to the Republic. So they took a direct route to make sure that didn’t happen. Unfortunately (for them), their efforts backfired. They succeeded in killing off Caesar, but set off a series of power plays that ultimately saw Caesar’s heir Augustus crowned emperor. The Roman Empire was born, and the rest is history.

But what does Caesar’s bad luck have to do with us? Why should we beware the Ides of March? Well, unless you live, as we do, in an area that often gets its worst snowstorm of the year about that time, there’s really no reason. But the same could be said of Friday the Thirteenth.

Friday the Thirteenth became identified as a date of ill-luck and misfortune back on Friday, October 13, 1307, when the immoral and rapacious King Phillipe IV of France demolished the powerful Order of the Knights Templar in a single day. (Admittedly, it took a while longer to completely destroy the Templars and seize all their assets for the Crown, but in effect the entire Order toppled on that single day.) At the time, the Templars were immensely wealthy and powerful, known as “the bankers of Europe” because they controlled so much of its wealth, and they operated with the blessings of the Pope. To annihilate them required a combination of factors, including a very weak Pope of French extraction—as it happened, a boyhood friend of the King—who was also more or less under house arrest in Avignon, France, as opposed to entrenched in Rome, and a series of very devious maneuvers including luring the Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, into the King’s hands by asking him to be a pallbearer at his, Philippe’s, own sister’s funeral, then arresting him the following day (the 13th).

Now again, you may wonder what the fall of the Templars has to do with us, and again, the answer is nothing. Yes, it was dramatic and doubtless spread terror and feelings of vulnerability across Europe. But Caesar’s assassination was all that and more, since at the time, Rome was pretty much the center of the world.

So why do we still consider Friday the Thirteenth unlucky, and ignore the Ides of March? You tell me.

* If you think pronouncing Ides “EE-days” and Brute “BROO-tay” is bad, check out how the Romans of Caesar’s day pronounced his name: YOO-lee-OOS KY-sar. But then, poor Leonardo da Vinci’s name was pronounced by his contemporaries as “da Winky.”

To thine own self be true. May 4, 2008

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It’s Sunday, and our friend Ben is going to give you a little sermon. But I’ll leave the sacred in the hands of God, and instead focus on a secular subject, one of God’s creations—namely, us.

This post came about because of two things that came together last night in one of the synchronicities that we humans are uniquely equipped to recognize and appreciate. First, our friend Ben was having an e-mail conversation with a friend, and the last sentence he sent ended with “but that’s me.” Then, after supper, Silence Dogood and I settled in to watch Queen Latifah in “Last Holiday.” (We’ve been Queen Latifah fans since seeing her wonderful performance in “Chicago.”)

In the movie, Queen Latifah is a sales clerk who dreams of greater things. When told she has three weeks to live, she cashes in her savings and heads off to make some of those dreams come true. Of course, not only is the diagnosis false, but as the film ends we see Queen Latifah’s character at the grand opening of her own restaurant, with Emeril on one side and the love of her life on the other. The moral of the movie is that she always knew who she was, but it took the scare of a lifetime to make her be true to herself.

This is a topic that is dear to our friend Ben’s heart. After a lifetime of watching real-life people’s triumphs and disappointments, of seeing them be happy or miserable, engaged or bored, directing their lives or being directed by them, I have come to a conclusion: Just as Jesus reduced all the sacred commandments to the great two, all the secular wisdom in the world can be summed up in two “commandments.”

The first, from the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself.

The second, from the Bard of Avon: To thine own self be true.

If you can do just these two things, you will be at peace. You will be content. More, you will be happy. You will be generous. And you will be wise.

Why? To know yourself is not just to understand who you are and what you want. It also shines the bright light of understanding on why you act and react the way you do. Rather than feeling like a victim of life, an actor forced onto stage without having had a chance to even see the script, never knowing why events are unfolding as they do, you move from a core of certainty. You are not a puppet being manipulated by an unseen hand, you are a person behaving as you do and making the choices you do because of who you are. No one can control the externals of their life, try as they may. But if you know yourself, the internals are entirely at your command. You are the captain of your ship, and self-knowledge is your anchor, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

Knowing yourself is the key, but being true to yourself is what turns it, opening the door to reveal a world of joy and delight. Being true to yourself is integrating: It integrates your internal self with your external actions. And remember, the opposite of “integration” is “disintegration.” The further your behavior strays from your core self, the tighter you’re stretched, and the more tension you’re under. Eventually, cracks will form, and if you don’t make changes to move back towards integration, those cracks will widen into chasms.

Remember, too, that “integration” and “integrity” share the same root: By being true to yourself, you become a person of integrity. Your actions and choices are authentic. They are expanding. But unlike the horrific, diminishing stretching that occurs when you are false to yourself, in this case, the expansion is like a pool of light that effortlessly grows and shines upon all it touches. You are not the only one that benefits. As Shakespeare has Polonius add, “thou canst not then be false to any man.”

This is because, when you know yourself and are true to yourself, you are at peace with your life, your place in the world, and whatever the future holds. You can rejoice in the accomplishments of others rather than feeling threatened. You realize that life is not a competition; you are already a winner, and happiness and contentment are the prizes. You can love other people for who they are, independent of what they can do for you. You can look out at the beauty and wonder of the world and really see it, give thanks for it, because there is room in you for delight. There is room in you for all good things, because self-knowledge and self-acceptance drive out chaos and turmoil, and chaos and turmoil will expand to fill all space.

So if you’re Mr. Charles Moran, senior account analyst, who dreams of being Charlie Moran, landscaper; a Wal-Mart cashier who longs to be a pastry chef; a monk who wants to be a rapper, or a rapper who wants to be a monk, don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis to think of ways to turn your life around. Your CAT scan machine is unlikely to be as faulty as Queen Latifah’s.

No need to reach for the stars, either, because when you know and are true to yourself, the stars are inside you. Love to cook and invent your own recipes, like Silence? So you’re not the next Emeril or Rachael Ray. Maybe you’ll end up giving the occasional lecture on garden-fresh cooking, as Silence does, to small but enthusiastic audiences. Maybe you’ll end up publishing a cookbook. Maybe you’ll just continue to delight family and friends with your creations. Whatever the end result, it’s the joy of cooking and creating the dishes that’s the real deal. Anything else is extra. As our friend Ben’s mother so wisely pointed out when the youthful Ben was fretting over the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, “A poet is someone who writes poems.” Not, in other words, someone who wins competitions. The ecstacy of creation should be reward enough. Or, as some wise and unknown soul once put it, the secret of happiness is knowing that whatever you have is just enough.  

Who are you? What can you do to be true to yourself?

Next time you find yourself saying “that’s me,” slow down a moment. Give yourself a little time to understand and appreciate who “me” is. Thou canst not then be false to any man. And our friend Ben says “amen” to that!