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Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: How to Buy, Slaughter and Spit-Roast a Sheep

When my friend Sam told me he'd be spending a year in Kabul, Afghanistan to make documentary films, I thought, boy's gone crayzay! But now that he's there, and seems to be not only surviving but thriving, the reality of his situation has become clear to me: it's blog gold. Thus, I present what I hope will become a regular or at least a once-in-awhile feature here, in which Sam (at left, not wearing hat) will talk about not only the Flossier side of life in a war zone, but some of the trials and triumphs he's experienced while there. We'd also love to give our readers a chance to ask Sam some questions, so if there's anything you want to know, or you'd like him to discuss, speak up! He's our man in Afghanistan.

For this installment, I wanted to keep it light and practical, so Sam cooked up this handy step-by-step guide on how to buy, slaughter and spit-roast a sheep (for your girlfriend's thirtieth birthday) in Afghanistan. Enjoy -- and bon appetit!

This is a tale of love, sheep, and the perfect birthday present.

I arrived only recently in Kabul, and shortly after I got here, my girlfriend had the pleasure of turning 30. The charity she works for has its offices in a large fort here in Kabul, and they had already planned a party for her in their spacious courtyard. But with her birthday rapidly approaching, and her 20s rapidly receding, I still hadn't gotten her a present. I didn't want to buy her another head scarf, and I seem to have atrocious taste in jewelry, so I had very few options, considering the absence of Nordstroms and Bergdorm Goodmans here in Kabul. So I hopped in a taxi and decided to roam the streets, my eyes peeled.

In addition to hosting thirty years of war, Kabul is also host to some of the world's worst traffic. Cars and trucks and hand drawn carts fight for position on the dusty streets, seemingly unaware of any traffic laws. [Ed. note: Kabul has only one set of working traffic lights for more than 600,000 cars; its roads were built 50 years ago to accommodate just 50,000 cars, and haven't been updated since. Here's a video of nightmare traffic in Kabul.]

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The situation is complicated by herds of sheep, which wander at will through the city from one trash pile to the next. These herds supply Kabul with its main supply of meat, and you can wander down streets with rows of butcher shops with fresh carcasses in the windows. Just then, as I was mulling the situation, stuck in traffic, my cab driver furiously honking at one of these herds of sheep crossing the road, wondering if I was perhaps the worst birthday present buyer in history, it hit me. In a flash of insight, I astounded myself by coming up with the perfect gift (or at least it seemed that way at the time).

Here, then, are my 10 easy steps for slaughtering and spit-roasting a sheep for someone's 30th birthday.

1) Purchase sheep.

This is not that hard. Walk up to a sheep-herder (usually found near large piles of trash), and hand him $100. He will eagerly show you the best of his flock, although actually selecting one can be more challenging. I would avoid the one munching on discarded diapers.

2) Transport sheep to the fort.

Or wherever you plan to boil and spit-roast the sucker. This is not easy, and entails a fair amount of sheep wrangling skills (which I learned on the job; not recommended). And a truck.

3) Hang out with sheep

... while you wait for the butcher to arrive. (No, I didn't kill it myself). Try to avoid looking into its eyes as it follows you around, looking for more diapers to munch on.

4) Slaughter sheep.

sheep_pot.jpgHave you ever heard the expression, "like a sheep to the slaughter?" Well, I now know where it comes from. It is both comforting and horrifying to realize that your newly purchased sheep has no idea what awaits it as the butcher holds his cleaver over its throat. Thankfully, it's over soon. And after the butcher deftly skins and guts it, you are now the proud owner of a sheep carcass.

5) Boil sheep.

This step can probably be skipped in other countries, but here in Afghanistan the sheep are notoriously tough, which I assume comes from their exclusive trash diet. If this is the case, boiling the carcass before roasting it will soften it up. First, build a fire. Then, if you're like me, realize that the pot you have is nowhere near large enough to fit a whole sheep in. Frantically hunt for a larger pot. Rebuild fire. Fill pot with water. Stuff sheep in pot. Realize that you can't lift it. Empty pot. Put pot on fire. Fill with water. Stuff with sheep. Wait for it to boil. Stoke fire. Wait some more while relishing in your accomplishments thus far:
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6) Marinate sheep.

After it has boiled for two hours or so, the sheep is ready for marinating. I recommend a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and dried herbs. Remember to keep the lemon halves to stuff in the cavity.

7) Spit sheep.

Assuming you had the foresight to actually purchase a spit (or the good sense to know somebody who owns one), this part is surprisingly easy. Just take a 3" diameter metal spit and maneuver it in through the neck and out the anus. (Gross, I know, but important nonetheless. You don't want the thing you spent all day wrangling and butchering to fall into the fire you're trying to cook it over.) Just remember to screw a bolt through the ribs so that it will turn with the spit.

8) Cook sheep.

I recommend opening a beer at this stage, and enlisting helpers. For some reason, people get really excited about turning a spitted sheep over a fire. Just remember to keep basting it with the marinade as it cooks, or it'll dry out.
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9) Remove sheep from spit and carve.

Carving a sheep is nothing like carving a Thanksgiving turkey, and if you're doing it in Afghanistan you probably won't have the benefit of an electric carving knife. Find a clean surface and lay the sheep down. Get a buddy to help you, and remove the legs from the body with a sharp knife. This will make carving the body meat a lot easier. By this time, though, friends and gawkers nearby have usually had a few drinks and have been salivating over the roasting sheep for a few hours already, and because the previous eight steps took a little longer than they anticipated, it's hard to stop a ravenous, slightly tipsy crowd from carving the sheep while it's still on the spit. (If that's the case, I recommend giving up control at this point.)

10) Pass out.

After selecting, purchasing, slaughtering, spitting, and roasting the sheep, and having a few beers, I fell asleep somewhere during step 9 and never got to eat it. Apparently it was good -- at least according to my girlfriend, which was all that mattered.

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15 Heartwarming Facts About Mister Rogers
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Though Mister Rogers' Neighborhood premiered 50 years ago, Fred Rogers remains an icon of kindness for the ages. An innovator of children’s television, his salt-of-the-earth demeanor and genuinely gentle nature taught a generation of kids the value of kindness. In celebration of the groundbreaking children's series' 50th anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about everyone’s favorite “neighbor.”

1. HE WAS BULLIED AS A CHILD.

According to Benjamin Wagner, who directed the 2010 documentary Mister Rogers & Me—and was, in fact, Rogers’s neighbor on Nantucket—Rogers was overweight and shy as a child, and often taunted by his classmates when he walked home from school. “I used to cry to myself when I was alone,” Rogers said. “And I would cry through my fingers and make up songs on the piano.” It was this experience that led Rogers to want to look below the surface of everyone he met to what he called the “essential invisible” within them.

2. HE WAS AN ORDAINED MINISTER.

Rogers was an ordained minister and, as such, a man of tremendous faith who preached tolerance wherever he went. When Amy Melder, a six-year-old Christian viewer, sent Rogers a drawing she made for him with a letter that promised “he was going to heaven,” Rogers wrote back to his young fan:

“You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. And, I appreciated the scripture verse that you sent. I am an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I want you to know that Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

3. HE RESPONDED TO ALL HIS FAN MAIL.

Responding to fan mail was part of Rogers’s very regimented daily routine, which began at 5 a.m. with a prayer and included time for studying, writing, making phone calls, swimming, weighing himself, and responding to every fan who had taken the time to reach out to him.

“He respected the kids who wrote [those letters],” Heather Arnet, an assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “He never thought about throwing out a drawing or letter. They were sacred."

According to Arnet, the fan mail he received wasn’t just a bunch of young kids gushing to their idol. Kids would tell Rogers about a pet or family member who died, or other issues with which they were grappling. “No child ever received a form letter from Mister Rogers," Arnet said, noting that he received between 50 and 100 letters per day.

4. ANIMALS LOVED HIM AS MUCH AS PEOPLE DID.

It wasn’t just kids and their parents who loved Mister Rogers. Koko, the Stanford-educated gorilla who understands 2000 English words and can also converse in American Sign Language, was an avid Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watcher, too. When Rogers visited her, she immediately gave him a hug—and took his shoes off.

5. HE WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN.

Though Rogers began his education in the Ivy League, at Dartmouth, he transferred to Rollins College following his freshman year in order to pursue a degree in music (he graduated Magna cum laude). In addition to being a talented piano player, he was also a wonderful songwriter and wrote all the songs for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—plus hundreds more.

6. HIS INTEREST IN TELEVISION WAS BORN OUT OF A DISDAIN FOR THE MEDIUM.

Rogers’s decision to enter into the television world wasn’t out of a passion for the medium—far from it. "When I first saw children's television, I thought it was perfectly horrible," Rogers told Pittsburgh Magazine. "And I thought there was some way of using this fabulous medium to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen."

7. KIDS WHO WATCHED MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD RETAINED MORE THAN THOSE WHO WATCHED SESAME STREET.

A Yale study pitted fans of Sesame Street against Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood watchers and found that kids who watched Mister Rogers tended to remember more of the story lines, and had a much higher “tolerance of delay,” meaning they were more patient.

8. ROGERS’S MOM KNIT ALL OF HIS SWEATERS.

If watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gives you sweater envy, we’ve got bad news: You’d never be able to find his sweaters in a store. All of those comfy-looking cardigans were knitted by Fred’s mom, Nancy. In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Rogers explained how his mother would knit sweaters for all of her loved ones every year as Christmas gifts. “And so until she died, those zippered sweaters I wear on the Neighborhood were all made by my mother,” he explained.

9. HE WAS COLORBLIND.

Those brightly colored sweaters were a trademark of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, but the colorblind host might not have always noticed. In a 2003 article, just a few days after his passing, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that:

Among the forgotten details about Fred Rogers is that he was so colorblind he could not distinguish between tomato soup and pea soup.

He liked both, but at lunch one day 50 years ago, he asked his television partner Josie Carey to taste it for him and tell him which it was.

Why did he need her to do this, Carey asked him. Rogers liked both, so why not just dip in?

"If it's tomato soup, I'll put sugar in it," he told her.

10. HE WORE SNEAKERS AS A PRODUCTION CONSIDERATION.

According to Wagner, Rogers’s decision to change into sneakers for each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was about production, not comfort. “His trademark sneakers were born when he found them to be quieter than his dress shoes as he moved about the set,” wrote Wagner.

11. MICHAEL KEATON GOT HIS START ON THE SHOW.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton's first job was as a stagehand on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, manning Picture, Picture, and appearing as Purple Panda.

12. ROGERS GAVE GEORGE ROMERO HIS FIRST PAYING GIG, TOO.

It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead, but it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness. He checked out the horror flick to show his support for then-up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.

“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king, who passed away in 2017, considered the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”

13. ROGERS HELPED SAVE PUBLIC TELEVISION.

In 1969, Rogers—who was relatively unknown at the time—went before the Senate to plead for a $20 million grant for public broadcasting, which had been proposed by President Johnson but was in danger of being sliced in half by Richard Nixon. His passionate plea about how television had the potential to turn kids into productive citizens worked; instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV increased from $9 million to $22 million.

14. HE ALSO SAVED THE VCR.

Years later, Rogers also managed to convince the Supreme Court that using VCRs to record TV shows at home shouldn’t be considered a form of copyright infringement (which was the argument of some in this contentious debate). Rogers argued that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Again, he was convincing.

15. ONE OF HIS SWEATERS WAS DONATED TO THE SMITHSONIAN.

In 1984, Rogers donated one of his iconic sweaters to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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