Monday, May 23, 2016

In praise of dandelions!

Why would I be praising dandelions?  Aren't they the bane of every homeowner with a lawn?  Yes, if you want to maintain a total monoculture in your yard.  But nature abhors monocultures, and will do everything she can to diversify them. Perhaps it is time for us to rethink the way we use the land around our homes.

Early-blooming flowers like dandelions are a major source of spring food for bees, butterflies, and other pollenators.  With the current bee shortage in many parts of the world, these insects need all the help they can get.  So I let the dandelions alone until they are done blooming, then mow them down. Sure, that spreads the seeds around -- but since I want dandelions, that's no problem for me.  After all, a "weed" is by definition simply a plant growing where you don't want it.

Our street number in spring
Granted, I live out in the country, where the philosophy pretty much is "if it's green, its a lawn."  In more controlled suburban neighborhoods you might have a hard time convincing your neighbors to let you have a lawn full of dandelions -- but then again, that's why I don't live there.  Nature is more important to me than social status.  If you visit me in the spring, you will likely be greeted with hundreds of these bright yellow flowers dotting the landscape.

Dandelions are also nutritious. In fact, they were brought to the USA as a vegetable by the French. ("Dandelion" comes from the French dent de leon, "Lion's Tooth," named or the jagged edges of the leaves.)  Old herbals prescribe them as a cure for scurvy, and recommend eating as many leaves as you can find in the spring.  Good advice at a time when people didn't understand about Vitamin C deficiency.  But they did know that the plants leafed out very early and the cure worked.

You need to pick dandelion greens before the plants flower, however.  Once the blooms appear, the whole plant gets very bitter -- so bitter, in fact, that I've known nature-oriented Jews to use them for the "bitter herbs" at the Passover Seder instead of the usual horseradish. (Which is perfectly kosher -- the Torah says "bitter herbs" but does not name a species.)

My chickens and geese also know the value of dandelions as food, and will choose them over other greens. Here you see two geese gobbling down fresh dandelion leaves, while ignoring the grain feed they've been eating all winter.  They know good nutrition when they see it!

Dandelions can also be used to make dandelion wine.  There are a lot of good recipes online, but one thing they may not tell you is to use the yellow petals only!!! The first time I tried it, I used whole dandelion heads and ended up with a bitter brew that only a masochist would care to drink.  That's because the green base of the flower (called the calyx) has the same bitter taste as the stems.  Having learned my lesson, I now use only petals.  The easiest way to prepare these is to hold the flower head in one hand and cut off the yellow ends of the petals with a scissors. A bit tedious, but you'll have a far better wine.

If nothing else, I find dandelions to be a welcome, happy greeting in spring after a long Minnesota winter.  Like little yellow smiley faces, telling me to come out of hibernation -- spring is here!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On heroes and political correctness: Nobody's perfect!

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about removing the names of political figures from various monuments, schools, and buildings, because the people so honored are not politically correct by 21st century standards.  For example, there was the recent demand by some students at Princeton University to rename the Woodrrow Wilson public policy school because of Wilson's "racist" attitudes.  Students claimed that the very presence of Wilson's name was offensive and made them feel "unsafe." In the end, the board of regents at Princeton decided to keep the name but also do more education and discussion about Wilson's mixed legacy.

In my opinion, this was the right choice.  Wilson, like everyone else on earth, was not perfect.  He is best known as the 38th U.S. President, who helped found the League of Nations, and also received a Nobel Prize.  But it is also true that he supported and encouraged segregation.  However, nobody would argue that Wilson is being honored at Princeton for his racism.  That was a flaw in his personality that we can justly criticize.  But to allow this flaw to overwrite and erase all the good he did is, in my opinion, taking things too far.  If we start doing that, where will it end?

Charles Lindbergh & his plane, 1927
In Minnesota, where I live, Charles Lindbergh's name probably crops up as often as Wilson's at Princeton.   He is fondly remembered as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in his little single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.  In 1957, a film by that name was released, with James Stuart playing the role of Lindbergh.  There's a Charles A. Lindbergh State Park and a Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site, both in Little Falls, MN, where he spent his childhood.  Then there's the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where a terminal is named after him, and a reproduction of his plane (one used in the film) is on display.  The original plane is at the Smithsonian's Aeronautics and Space Museum.  Clearly, this daring flight is why we remember and honor Lindbergh.

But there is a dark side to this story.  Lindbergh was also a Nazi sympathizer and an antisemite -- a fact that was recently well-documented in the PBS American Experience segment, Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s.  In 1936, Lindbergh visited Nazi Germany and was so impressed with the country's industry and revitalized economy that by 1938 he and his family were making plans to move to Berlin.  Also in 1938, Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation -- presented by Hermann Goering on behalf of the Fuehrer.  Lindbergh became so convinced that Hitler would inevitably win the war, he advocated for America to follow an isolationist policy and stay out of it.  And he blamed the Jews for getting us into it.

As a Jew myself, I most certainly do find this side of Lindbergh offensive.  But I do not feel "unsafe" in the Lindbergh Terminal because of it.  Nor do I advocate erasing his name from our history or renaming the terminal.*  As with Wilson, Lindbergh is not being honored for his racism.  I see him as a genius in one area, and a flawed human being in other areas.  

Insisting that historical figures of the past must stand up to the scrutiny of 21st-century values is a very slippery slope.  For that matter, a lot of modern heroes don't measure up in every way, either. If we insist that all of our heroes be absolutely perfect, then we shall soon have no role models at all.  Sometimes it is necessary, as Rabbi Akiva once said, to keep the kernel and throw away the chaff.

*  * *

*Although in a way it was renamed, as Terminal 1, because apparently out-of-state people could not distinguish between the Lindbergh Terminal and the Humphrey Terminal and got lost.  But apparently they can tell the difference between 1 and 2.  As of this writing, there is currently a movement to rename Lindbergh Terminal-1 after Prince: see

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why I just shut down my eBay store

For over eight years I had a listing running on eBay called "Buy a cruelty-free feather to help feed a colony of cats on my hobby farm in Minnesota USA!" Customers got a feather and an autographed thank you card for $2 -- and yes, it did help feed, spay/neuter, and vaccinate all the cats that people dumped here over the years. (The current kitty count is 10.)

The description very clearly said that we are not a charity and not tax deductible, that it is a private sale by a private person wanting to help some cats. My customers understood that, and many came back again and again.  Some simply paid the money and requested  I send nothing, because their real motive was to help animals.

And for eight years that was OK with eBay.  Then, once again, eBay changed the rules and, without warning, pulled the listing last week.  There were still seven "feed cats" sales waiting to be shipped (which I did) but I could not leave feedback, nor could I mark them shipped.  I can't even delete them from the list.

That was the last straw for me. As I have written before on this blog, I have become more and more disgruntled with eBay over the years.  Used to be, eBay was fun.  For me it no longer is. They did away with downloads, giving sellers only ONE WEEK to take them down and requiring us to go back into the Stone Age and ship files on disks.  So much for selling downloads of my books.

Next they closed the eBay blogs, probably under pressure from Google so they could link with them and their blogs. Lately eBay started requiring one-day shipping (impossible in rural areas) and tracking numbers (not available for First Class envelopes) in order to be a Top Seller. There went my Power Seller status even though I have excellent feedback.  But that doesn't count anymore.  It's not what the customers like or need anymore, it's what eBay demands.  And now they push sellers to offer free shipping.

In short, they want their sellers to compete with Big Box stores. Sorry, folks, I'm just one guy with some cats on a hobby farm.  I don't have a fleet of trucks planes and drones like Amazon or Walmart.

Each time eBay updates their service agreement, it becomes more and more draconian, as they punish everyone for the offenses of a few bad sellers.  Canceling the ""help feed cats" listing was the last straw.  It was time for me to pick up my business and go elsewhere.

As of today, my store domain name,, points to my eBay profile page.  (Which is also very anemic compared to what we used to have.  Gone is the ability to write more than a couple sentences, instead of the nice HTML page we used to be able to customize with graphics, colors, etc.)  The store is now empty of listings, and the homepage will vanish as of April 1.  Most fitting, I think, to be done with it on April Fools Day. I may still list things occasionally, but I'm not paying them for a store page anymore.

[Updated 3/25/16]

For those who would still like to help the cats, you can donate on GoFundMe at:

The graphic I used for years on eBay.  These kittens are,
of course, long ago adopted out to forever homes,
after which their mother, Chayah Cat, was spayed.