Soil Building (Part 1)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

Sometimes, we do things not in the best order. Better gardening books will tell you that soil building is important. But they don’t go into intensive detail about how, and why, and the overriding importance of starting soil improvements the day you move into your new home.

Before you open up your catalogs, draw the first garden layout on graph paper, figure out your solar orientation, and map out the high, dry spots, the low, soggy spots, and the prevailing winds, you should be working on your soil.

The backyard: 2001 (above); 2014 (below.

Building the soil in your yard can turn it from barren to lush.

Naturally, we did not do this. Fortress Peschel is my third house and Bill’s second in which we had enough yardage for an actual garden as opposed to just a few house plants. My soil in Virginia, long ago and far away, was pretty poor. The soil in South Carolina was equally bad, heavy with orangy clay. I grew up watching my mother garden in Delaware with its almost barren sandy dirt. In fact, none of these places had soil. It was dirt. Worn out, tired, beaten down, exhausted, and barely alive dirt. I did not learn from this — why I thought this was kind of normal.

Sadly, dirt is kind of normal, but it is not what you want. What you want is soil. Soil starts with clay, sand, or silt, and you add life to that base with rotting organic matter that feeds a zoo of insects, fungal networks, microbes, worms, arthropods and other multi-legged critters. Much of what makes soil alive can only be seen with a magnifying glass or a microscope. Your zoo of critters turns this rotting organic material into humus. Humus is what feeds your plants, making nutrients available to them and holding water without becoming soggy. The takeaway from this? Soil is alive and the more alive and healthy it is, the healthier your plants will be.

I started learning how to make soil in South Carolina by happenstance. We had a half-acre, planted with an irregular pattern of trees and shrubs. I wanted to minimize lawn mowing, and the easiest way to do this was to rake the leaves into big circles around the randomly placed trees. It was too heavily shaded to grow grass anyway. Over time, as the leaves decayed, built up, and decayed again, insect-eating birds like thrushes came to visit. I looked more closely and saw a thin layer of rich, humusy soil over the red clay. It was full of insects and life.

Bill had tried growing a small vegetable garden but had never worked on soil building. I didn’t learn from what nature was showing me and in nine years, the dirt in our raised beds didn’t improve very much over hard red clay. We had a small compost bin, but it just wasn’t enough.

In the meantime, in an effort to attract more birds, we had put down around the trees a few tractor-trailer loads of leaves that the city gave us for asking. We were letting these areas go a little wild and free leaves made a great mulch. By the time we moved, this soil was getting pretty decent compared to the hard red clay under the struggling grass. I was beginning to recognize what nature was telling me.

We moved up here to Fortress Peschel in central Pennsylvania. The property was a barren rectangle other than a green spruce and Japanese maple in the front yard, the neighbors’ privet hedges (on two sides), and a scraggly forsythia hedge. The dirt (I won’t call it soil) was dead. It was mostly clay and had been packed down into something like concrete. We not only had no worms, we didn’t even have slugs. I would have said the dirt had been Chemlawned to death except the grass was in too poor a condition.

We knew we wanted to grow a few herbs and a few vegetables. I wanted to grow a hedge to shield us from the neighbors and the highway. I also wanted to build a mini wildlife refuge as I like birds and squirrels and other little, furry animals. We had very few leaves available and darn little compost. I had to improve the soil if I wanted to grow anything at all. After a year or so, it dawned on me to find out if the township offered free leaves as they did in South Carolina.

They did not. They offered, instead, great mountains of compost and mulch from all the leaves and yard waste the township collected year round. As much as you could possibly want and all free for the hauling. Over the years, we laid out vegetable and flower beds, hedgerows, and thickets and covered each area with a thick layer of mulch or compost from the township.

Over time, I learned to salvage the leaves the neighbors were throwing out for township pickup. I would send a son with a rake and the lawn-cart to collect the big street piles of leaves and spread them where we needed them most. People rarely asked why a sullen teenager was raking up piles of leaves from the gutter and hauling them away. My sons have been instructed to say that their crazy mother uses them for mulch.

I also began to collect the big brown bags of leaves that people throw out in Elizabethtown. In the fall, whenever I drive by a big brown bag of yard waste, I stop and open it to see if it is leaves. If it is, I stuff the bag into my car and bring home all that soil fertility for my yard. I have a Ford Focus sedan and it is possible to stuff as many as ten bags into the passenger seat, back seat, and trunk. I have never had anyone stop and ask me what I was doing.

I am now in the happy position of having pick-up truck loads of leaves delivered to my driveway. I made an arrangement with a neighbor who has a small lawn-care business. It saves him time and gas money to drop off his seasonal mountain of raked leaves into my yard as opposed to hauling it to the recycling center. My sons spread out the leaves as they arrive, wherever they are needed. These are wonderful leaves, chopped and mixed with grass clippings, rich with fertility.

Getting leaves has greatly accelerated my soil-building program but I still collect every brown bag of leaves I drive by. I still send out my sons to collect the street leaves before the township gets them. We still get compost and mulch from the township. We compost all our food scraps, yard trimmings and shredded paper.

Why don’t we slow down at this? Because it is darn near impossible to add too much organic material to the soil. And, if you stop adding organic material, it gets used up by the critters and plants. If you have a wilderness area, the falling leaves and dying plants will slowly, slowly continue to build up. Nature might build up half an inch of soil every century this way. That may be ok in a meadow or forest, but not in a vegetable garden.

The plants in a vegetable garden are removed and eaten so they don’t rot in place. Vegetables are heavy feeders of soil fertility and will use up every bit of organic matter. Every carrot you pull takes with it the nutrients it absorbed from the soil. Those nutrients do not reappear by magic for the next crop. They have to be replenished, by you. If you don’t use a heavy hand with synthetic fertilizers (which are very damaging in a host of ways) your crop yields will drop and eventually, you won’t get any vegetables at all. So, we keep adding compost and leaves.

Over time, my dirt has changed to soil. It is most evident in the garden beds, hedgerows and the thicket. These are the locations where we have piled up leaves, compost, and mulch year after year. Younger son can layer on a foot of leaves in November and by June of the following year, it has all rotted into the soil. Turn over the soil in these areas and you will see a looser, more friable layer of humus full of worms and insects. The soil can now absorb rain water better, hold it longer and yet not become soggy. Looser soil means better aeration which leads to healthier root structures, that can grow down deeper.

Interestingly, the soil has improved in the grass areas too. We have not put in nearly as much effort into the lawn. We have spread compost over the grass twice in ten years (very thinly) and we now use a mulching lawn mower so the clippings fall back and rot in place. Older son keeps the mower set at the highest setting as taller grass has deeper roots. Younger son went over much of the lawn with the broad fork to punch holes into the soil allowing air and water to flow into it. We do not water or fertilize the grass, ever. What seems to have happened is that the exploding population of worms, ants, and other arthropods living in the beds, hedgerows, and the thicket are slowly colonizing the soil desert under the grass. As they move into this packed clay, their actions make it accept the grass clippings and rain better. Their waste adds fertilizer. Their movements through the dirt open up air channels. These areas are changing although very slowly.

Good soil building is the single best thing you can do to start and keep healthy plants. A wide mix of vigorously growing plants will be able to withstand diseases and pests better. Your produce will be more nutritious. It may even taste a little better. But because fruits and vegetables are removed and eaten, soil building needs to a regular part of your gardening routine. Feed the soil to feed the plants to feed your family.

Categories: Suburban Stockade | Leave a comment

Everyone Agrees You Need to Do This (Disaster Preparedness)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction
There is a lot of disagreement over how the world as we know it will end. Economic disaster, electro-magnetic pulse (natural or man-made), zombies, asteroids, super-volcanoes, foreign invasion, nuclear war, the next ice age, massive earthquakes, pandemics, the moon crashing into the earth, the opposite sex disappearing; whatever the disaster, someone somewhere has written a novel about it.

Every possible part of the political spectrum has its own fears about the future and the dreadful things that might happen if “they” take control.

And yet, there is a surprising amount of agreement on what every citizen should do to be ready for whatever comes down the pike. This is because there is a lot of overlap in disaster preparedness. That is, if you are ready for zombies you are ready for anything.

So what does everyone agree on?

1. Get In Shape!

If you are in poor physical condition, you just can’t cope as well with problems. If you never walk farther than your car to your chair, you will not be able to quickly evacuate a building when terrorists fly airplanes into it.

xxxx

Start slow, start small, walk a little farther each day.

Whatever shape you are in now (I am assuming you do not currently have the physique of an underwear model) you can improve your physical fitness. Start slow, start small, walk a little farther each day. Although I am still overweight, I am in much better shape. I started with five sit-ups a day and now I can do fifty everyday. (And I do!) I walk everyday with my dog. I alternate yoga, aerobics and strength training everyday for forty to fifty minutes. I use the Wii Fit Plus program as that is what I had and it is convenient. Gym rats may sneer but it works for me and I do it daily. The very best exercise program is the one you are willing to do everyday. Find the exercise program you are willing to do daily and start getting into better shape than you are now.

2. Get Out Of Debt!

It will be easier to cope with if you don't have to worry about bills and money.

It will be easier to cope with if you don’t have to worry about bills and money.

It doesn’t matter what dreadful event falls upon your household. It will be easier to cope with if you don’t have to worry about bills and money. Car fall apart? Daughter break both legs? House burn down? Get laid off? No debt and money in the bank make everything easier to cope with. Do not believe for one minute that the collapse of the world economy will make your debts evaporate. They won’t! If zombies appear, you can bet that debt collection agencies will hire them to collect on claims.

Start with “The Complete Tightwad Gazette” by Amy Dacyczyn and any of Dave Ramsey’s money books. Save dollars with Amy and then use Dave’s debt snowball program to pay off everything you owe. Cut back your expenses enough and you can work on food storage and weather-stripping your house and still move forward on paying off your debts.

3. Get Your Paperwork In Order!

Do you have a will? Where is the title to your car? The deed to your house? Birth certificates for yourself and your children? Marriage license, insurance policies, 401ks, Roth IRAs, pension plans, divorce papers, discharge forms from the military, websites and passwords, copies of all your account numbers, both for bills you pay and for places where you stow any form of money.

Keep the originals in a safety deposit box (above the flood line as victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy will attest), and copies in your go-box so you can prove identity and ownership if you have to evacuate. Make sure trusted family members know how to find these documents so if you die suddenly, they don’t have to go on a scavenger hunt through your estate. If you have gold, diamonds or big wads of cash hidden in the heating vents somewhere (it happens!) make sure the information and treasure map are in your safety deposit box as well.

4. Quit Your Addictions!

Folks with addictions are not necessarily going to be reliable, upstanding citizens who work hard to make things better.

Folks with addictions are not necessarily going to be reliable, upstanding citizens who work hard to make things better.

If you absolutely have to have something, whether it is coffee or cocaine; you need to do something about this issue. Whatever problem happens, your fix will be harder (maybe much harder) to get and it will certainly cost more. Alcohol, tobacco, gambling (including lottery tickets), drugs, pornography or whatever issue you have does not make you healthier and they are all costing you money. This is money you could be spending on debt repayment, insulation and food storage.

Now you may be considering growing tobacco or brewing beer for after the apocalypse. If so, don’t get hooked on your product and also think about the desperate people who want it. People with addictions will let their children go cold, hungry, ragged, and barefoot rather than give up that bottle or needle. Folks with addictions are not necessarily going to be reliable, upstanding citizens who work hard to make things better. Is this behavior you want to encourage in your community? Think about this before you start growing poppies in your back garden to provide narcotics for the local addicts.

5. Keep Food On Hand At All Times!

Every time the blizzard or hurricane comes, the grocery stores are mobbed and stripped. A typical grocery store only carries a few days worth of food. They are resupplied from huge warehouses on a near daily basis. You don’t have to be that person standing in line, with your hungry children, waiting for the National Guard to throw you a bag of MREs.

You can give up on or cut back many things but eating isn't one of them.

Only store what you and your family will eat.

Keep on hand a week’s worth of food that you and your family actually eat at all times. Work up to this by buying a few extra cans every week of soup, beans or peanut butter and cereal. The key to doing this is rotating your stock and having some storage space. Every item you buy has a best buy date. Rewrite this date in big letters on the front of the jar and put the newest to the back and the oldest jars to the front on your shelves. Always use the oldest items first.

The mantra for food storage is cool, dry, and in the dark. Most shelf-stable packaged items last far longer than what the container says they do if you store them correctly.

Only store what you and your family will eat. If you insist on buckets of wheat, then you better have a grain mill to grind it and be ready to make and eat loads of whole wheat bread and porridge.

Once you regularly keep a week ahead on the groceries (other than perishables of which you also use the oldest first), then move up to keeping two weeks ahead. Then three. Then a month’s worth of groceries. If a family member gets laid off you can still put food on the table for a few weeks while you sort things out.

6. Reskill! Reskill! Reskill!

Being able to do more things yourself means having to lay out less money to other people to do it for you.

Being able to do more things yourself means having to lay out less money to other people to do it for you.

The more things you know how to do, the more easily you can cope with unexpected big problems. If your cooking skill is calling for takeout, then you need to learn to cook. If you throw away a garment because of a split seam, you need to learn to sew. If you hire someone to replace a doorknob, you need some home handyman skills. Can you check the fluids in your car? Put air in your tires? Change a tire? Use a handsaw, pliers, screwdrivers? Can you get up on the roof safely and put on a tarp and retar after a storm has ripped off all your shingles? You may not be able to reroof your house, but you should be able to keep some rain out long enough to get a roofer over.

Think about all the things that your grandparents knew how to do in their daily lives. Think about how you would manage if your income was cut in half. Being able to do more things yourself means having to lay out less money to other people to do it for you.

7. Improve Your Health!

Obesity, being sedentary, tobacco, alcohol abuse can all lead to poorer health.

Obesity, being sedentary, tobacco, alcohol abuse can all lead to poorer health.

This goes hand in hand with getting in shape (#1) and quitting your addictions (#4). Many health problems are directly due to lifestyle. Obesity, being sedentary, tobacco, alcohol abuse can all lead to poorer health. Eat a better diet with more fruit and veg and fewer Cheetos and soda and you will start to feel better. You know what you should be eating and it doesn’t come out of vending machines and it isn’t deep fried. If you don’t know what you should be eating, ask your doctor or do some research.

Get enough sleep! For most people this is about eight hours a night. Sleep is absolutely vital to your health, both physical and mental. Think about how every single living animal has to sleep, including juicy little animals at the bottom of the food chain. That is how important sleep is. Poor sleep or not enough sleep will make everything harder to cope with. Does depression lead to poor sleep? Or is it the other way around? You will feel better, think better, work better with enough sleep.

Ask your doctor what you could be doing to get healthier and then do it. If you take regular medication, ask what lifestyle changes you can make to reduce this need. Struggling with diabetes? Arthritis and joint pain? High blood pressure? Exercise and weight loss will help them all. Is this easy? Oh, God, no. But it will be easier now, than it may be later in times of trouble.

While you are at it, take care of your teeth. Your teeth (like your eyes and ears) never, ever get better. They only get worse. Dental pain can be never ending and even life threatening if you get a bad abscess. Get your teeth fixed now and commit to rinsing, flossing, rinsing, and brushing after every meal.

Have your eyes checked and get a spare pair of glasses for when the first pair breaks. If you like them (not everyone does), photogray lenses act like built in sunglasses. The sunglasses will protect your eyes from sun damage. Wear safety glasses when doing anything that might injure your eyes! You can’t get a replacement set down at the hospital.

8. Fix Your House!

Your house should be safe, secure, paid for, have space for food production, food storage space, and be well sealed against the weather. If you are a renter you need to think about where you want to live permanently and start saving money for a house (see item #2). If you live in an unsafe neighborhood far away from reliable family and friends, then you need to think carefully about why you are living there.

 If someone really wants in your house, they will drive a truck through the front windows

If someone really wants in your house, they will drive a truck through the front windows

Basic home security consists of getting casual burglars to go next door. If someone really wants in your house, they will drive a truck through the front windows. Burglars, like most people, don’t want to work that hard and will take the easier houses. So, unless you are actually using it, keep your front door locked at all times! Install deadbolt locks on all doors leading to the outside, including the one between the kitchen and the garage. Then use them. Fence off your property with the tallest fence you can afford; then line it with a thorny hedge. Get a dog and put up those beware of dog signs. Strangers see the signs but they won’t know your dog is best friends with everyone. Have fire extinguishers and smoke detectors. And for heaven’s sake, don’t leave your car unlocked. It can be stolen right out of your driveway.

Pay off your house. The bank will foreclose a lot faster for missed payments than the county will for back taxes. If your house is paid off, you still have to pay the property taxes but it is easier to scrape up the few thousand annually for this than the thousand or so monthly for the mortgage.

Look at your yard and think about your climate and what your family likes to eat. Start improving your soil with compost and mulch while you read up on basic gardening. A skillful gardener using intensive techniques and raised beds can grow a huge amount of food in not very much space at all. We have a quarter of an acre (including the footprint of the house and driveway); our raised beds equal about 700 square feet and we have space for another 100 square foot bed. This does not include the persimmon trees, hazelnut trees, blackberries, gooseberries or current bushes. We also have space (if we wanted to) to set up a chicken coop, rabbit hutches and bee hives.

Look your house over carefully and install a pantry. Food storage can be tucked in a lot of places. The keys to successful food storage are cool, dry, and in the dark. Basements work very well as long as you allow for air flow to keep things drier.

Insulate, caulk, and weather-strip your house. Have heavy drapes and window quilts for each window and use them. Get a programmable thermostat. Line your unfinished attic with heat reflective foil. Unless you live well to the north, reroof your house with white shingles and install ridge vents. White shingles repel the summer sun making it easier to cool your house in August. The goal is to keep your attic no warmer than the ambient air temperature. Everyone in your house should be dressing for the weather. Don’t expect your energy costs for heating and cooling to fall. Insulation will let you get more use out of the heat or AC you pay for.

9. Learn To Grow Your Food!

You can give up on or cut back many things but eating isn’t one of them. If you have a sunny window, you can grow something that you can eat. If you are very limited on space look for one of the many growing food in a container gardening books. A typical houseplant book won’t tell you what tomatoes or lemon trees will need to grow in a pot. These more specialized books will.

Many places have community gardens with plots available on a first come, first serve basis. They are not as convenient as your own backyard but you can learn a lot of hands on skills and information from the other gardeners.

If you have actual ground of your own, use it. You can make raised beds, sunken beds, grow at the original soil level, grow in straw bales or bags of potting soil set directly on your asphalt driveway. Improve your soil with as much compost and mulch as you can acquire. Develop those skills now while the grocery store is conveniently available.

If we had to live off of what we grow, we would have starved by now. It is very easy to grow supplemental greens, herbs, fresh beans, a few tomatoes and peppers, some berry bushes. These provide variety, and additional nutrients for whatever beans and rice you are buying at the store. It takes much more skill to grow half of what your family eats but it can be done.

Livestock such as chickens, pygmy goats and rabbits provide much needed proteins and fats as well as manure for your composting. They are considerably more work than growing carrots so get your food gardening well in hand before tackling small animal raising.

The other part of growing your own food is preserving the harvest for the winter. This also has a learning curve that is best learned when you are not dependent on eating only what you produce.

10. Store Water!

Even more important than food is water. The goal is to capture every drop of rainfall that lands on your property for use in your household. Don’t let rainwater escape you into the storm drains.

You store water in the ground via cisterns, ponds and improved top soil, in rain barrels and cubes, and in your house for drinking and cooking. The Red Cross says you need a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day. My household uses about 40 gallons per person per day and that covers everything: cooking, dishwashing, laundry, toilets, pets, showers, cleaning, drinking, everything.

Find a place in your basement to put those gallon jugs of water you get at the grocery store. Cool, dry, and in the dark! Squeeze out the space for a three day supply for each person in your household plus some extra for your animals. I have never had an undisturbed plastic gallon jug break on me. Some of my water jugs are years old. I might have to boil the water or treat it with a drop of chlorine bleach when I open them (for perfect safety) but I know the water was clean and pure when I stored it. If you have more space, store more water.

11. Pay Attention!

You have to know what is going on around you.

You have to know what is going on around you.

You have to know what is going on around you. Look at your surroundings and see what is happening. I walk my dog daily and I listen and watch for changes in my neighborhood. I find money on the ground and reusable items for my house. I interact with my neighbors. If I was plugged into an iPod, this wouldn’t happen. People have been hit by trains (!) because they were too focused on the tunes blasting into their ears. Don’t let this happen to you.

Pay attention to weather reports. Absolutely nobody should be surprised by a hurricane or a big winter storm. The National Weather Service gives several days notice when a big storm is on the way. This gives you time to board up your house, stock up on supplies, fill the fuel tank. This is much more important than paying attention to Kardashians.

Pay attention to the news. Trouble in the Middle East? Gas prices may jump up so you want to be prepared for the extra cost. Bank runs? Maybe you should keep a little cash on hand. Freezing weather in the coffee plantations? Store extra coffee now and ride out some of the price hikes.

The universe tends to punish people who drift along aimlessly, not paying attention to their surroundings. Car accidents, kitchen disasters, home improvement mishaps, industrial accidents; all kinds of things happen that you don’t want to happen because of someone’s inattention. Try not to let that someone be you.

12. Have A Community!

Everyone needs to be part of a group. Life is so much easier when you can call on reliable family and friends to help you out. Get to know your neighbors. They don’t have to know the size of your pantry or your arsenal but they should recognize you as belonging in your house on your street in your neighborhood.

 Life is so much easier when you can call on reliable family and friends to help you out.

Life is so much easier when you can call on reliable family and friends to help you out.

Encourage your family and friends to be better prepared for basic disasters. Even if all they do is follow the minimum Red Cross guidelines, they will be better able to cope. That makes it easier on your household. A very nice Christmas gift could be “Just in Case” to start the conversation.

Are you part of a church group? A fraternal order? A sewing circle? A civics group? A scout leader? An active part of your community? If disaster strikes (and sometimes it does), the people you know in your town are the most likely to help you.

As with family, friends, and co-workers, the topic of what to do in a disaster may come up during a conversation with your group. Use this teachable moment to talk about how to prepare for a big winter storm, an earthquake, a hurricane. Don’t mention zombies or economic collapse if you think your group will start visualizing you in a tin foil hat.

Preparedness flows out like a wave: you, your immediate family, your relatives, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, your community, your county. The more people who have some food storage, some skills, fewer addictions, more resilience, the easier it will be for your town to recover from a disaster.

13. Get Started!

You try and you try and you try and often, you fail. Then, you get back to work and try some more.

You try and you try and you try and often, you fail. Then, you get back to work and try some more.

You try and you try and you try and often, you fail. Then, you get back to work and try some more.[/caption]Eventually, you have to stop reading, studying, and thinking about what you are going to do. You have to get your hands dirty and start doing things. Recognize that you will fail sometimes. All skills have learning curves and they all require practice. Projects that work on paper don’t work in the real world. You try and you try and you try and often, you fail. Then, you get back to work and try some more.

So this is what everyone agrees on. It doesn’t matter what you think will happen (grain blight, alien invasion, resource depletion) or which groups of nuts you are most concerned about. Get started on your life changes with this list and you and your family will be better off.

Categories: Suburban Stockade | Comments Off

“From the Diary of Sherlock Holmes” (Holmes parody)

ad-Sherlock-Holmes-1904-safe-adToday’s example comes from Maurice Baring‘s “Lost Diaries,” published in 1913. Baring (1875-1945) was a novelist, poet and playwright and an associate of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

From the Diary of Sherlock Holmes

Baker Street, January 1. — Starting a diary in order to jot down a few useful incidents which will be of no use to Watson. Watson very often fails to see that an unsuccessful case is more interesting from a professional point of view than a successful case. He means well.

January 6. — Watson has gone to Brighton for a few days, for change of air. This morning quite an interesting little incident happened which I note as a useful example of how sometimes people who have no powers of deduction nevertheless stumble on the truth for the wrong reason. (This never happens to Watson, fortunately.) Lestrade called from Scotland Yard with reference to the theft of a diamond and ruby ring from Lady Dorothy Smith’s wedding presents. The facts of the case were briefly these: On Thursday evening such of the presents as were jewels had been brought down from Lady Dorothy’s bedroom to the drawing-room to be shown to an admiring group of friends. The ring was amongst them. After they had been shown, the jewels were taken upstairs once more and locked in the safe. The next morning the ring was missing. Lestrade, after investigating the matter, came to the conclusion that the ring had not been stolen, but had either been dropped in the drawing-room, or replaced in one of the other cases; but since he had searched the room and the remaining cases, his theory so far received no support. I accompanied him to Eaton Square to the residence of Lady Middlesex, Lady Dorothy’s mother.

While we were engaged in searching the drawing-room, Lestrade uttered a cry of triumph and produced the ring from the lining of the arm-chair. I told him he might enjoy the triumph, but that the matter was not quite so simple as he seemed to think. A glance at the ring had shown me not only that the stones were false, but that the false ring had been made in a hurry. To deduce the name of its maker was of course child’s play. Lestrade or any pupil of Scotland Yard would have taken for granted it was the same jeweller who had made the real ring. I asked for the bridegroom’s present, and in a short time I was interviewing the jeweller who had provided it. As I thought, he had made a ring, with imitation stones (made of the dust of real stones), a week ago, for a young lady. She had given no name and had fetched and paid for it herself. I deduced the obvious fact that Lady Dorothy had lost the real ring, her uncle’s gift, and, not daring to say so, had had an imitation ring made. I returned to the house, where I found Lestrade, who had called to make arrangements for watching the presents during their exhibition.

I asked for Lady Dorothy, who at once said to me:

“The ring was found yesterday by Mr Lestrade.”

“I know,” I answered, “but which ring?”

She could not repress a slight twitch of the eyelids as she said: “There was only one ring.”

I told her of my discovery and of my investigations.

“This is a very odd coincidence, Mr Holmes,” she said. “Some one else must have ordered an imitation. But you shall examine my ring for yourself.” Where-upon she fetched the ring, and I saw it was no imitation. She had of course in the meantime found the real ring.

But to my intense annoyance she took it to Lestrade and said to him:

“Isn’t this the ring you found yesterday, Mr Lestrade?”

Lestrade examined it and said, “Of course it is absolutely identical in every respect.”

“And do you think it is an imitation?” asked this most provoking young lady.

“Certainly not,” said Lestrade, and turning to me he added: “Ah! Holmes, that is where theory leads one. At the Yard we go in for facts.”

I could say nothing; but as I said good-bye to Lady Dorothy, I congratulated her on having found the real ring. The incident, although it proved the correctness of my reasoning, was vexing as it gave that ignorant blunderer an opportunity of crowing over me.

January 10. — A man called just as Watson and I were having breakfast. He didn’t give his name. He asked me if I knew who he was. I said, “Beyond seeing that you are unmarried, that you have travelled up this morning from Sussex, that you have served in the French Army, that you write for reviews, and are especially interested in the battles of the Middle Ages, that you give lectures, that you are a Roman Catholic, and that you have once been to Japan, I don’t know who you are.”

The man replied that he was unmarried, but that he lived in Manchester, that he had never been to Sussex or Japan, that he had never written a line in his life, that he had never served in any army save the English Territorial force, that so far from being a Roman Catholic he was a Freemason, and that he was by trade an electrical engineer—I suspected him of lying; and I asked him why his boots were covered with the clayey and chalk mixture peculiar to Horsham; why his boots were French Army service boots, elastic-sided, and bought probably at Valmy; why the second half of a return ticket from Southwater was emerging from his ticket-pocket; why he wore the medal of St Anthony on his watch-chain; why he smoked Caporal cigarettes; why the proofs of an article on the Battle of Eylau were protruding from his breast-pocket, together with a copy of the Tablet; why he carried in his hand a parcel which, owing to the untidy way in which it had been made (an untidiness which, in harmony with the rest of his clothes, showed that he could not be married) revealed the fact that it contained photographic magic lantern slides; and why he was tattooed on the left wrist with a Japanese fish.

“The reason I have come to consult you will explain some of these things,” he answered.

“I was staying last night at the Windsor Hotel, and this morning when I woke up I found an entirely different set of clothes from my own. I called the waiter and pointed this out, but neither the waiter nor any of the other servants, after making full enquiries, were able to account for the change. None of the other occupants of the hotel had complained of anything being wrong with their own clothes.

“Two gentlemen had gone out early from the hotel at 7.30. One of them had left for good, the other was expected to return.

“All the belongings I am wearing, including this parcel, which contains slides, belong to someone else.

“My own things contained nothing valuable, and consisted of clothes and boots very similar to these; my coat was also stuffed with papers. As to the tattoo, it was done at a Turkish bath by a shampooer, who learnt the trick in the Navy.”

The case did not present any features of the slightest interest. I merely advised the man to return to the hotel and await the real owner of the clothes, who was evidently the man who had gone out at 7.30.

This is a case of my reasoning being, with one partial exception, perfectly correct. Everything I had deduced would no doubt have fitted the real owner of the clothes.

Watson asked rather irrelevantly why I had not noticed that the clothes were not the man’s own clothes.

A stupid question, as the clothes were reach-me-downs which fitted him as well as such clothes ever do fit, and he was probably of the same build as their rightful owner.

January 12. — Found a carbuncle of unusual size in the plum-pudding. Suspected the makings of an interesting case. But luckily, before I had stated any hypothesis to Watson—who was greatly excited—Mrs Turner came in and noticed it and said her naughty nephew Bill had been at his tricks again, and that the red stone had come from a Christmas tree. Of course, I had not examined the stone with my lens.

Categories: Sherlockian Parodies and Pastiches | Tags: , | Comments Off

Fixing the Work-Life Balance

Suburban stockade introduction

Work has to be done, no question. The question, really, is how much work do you want to do? What kind of work do you want to do? What kind of a life do you want to live? Work and Life can be compatible but you have to make hard choices do make this happen.

The first thing to keep in mind is that your job does not love you. You may love it but the feeling is not returned. While many jobs are important, even vital, there are damn few jobs that cannot be done by someone else. The job may be done a little differently than you might have done, but it will still be done. Even pregnancy can be outsourced to axlotl tanks these days.

dt140708

Your Job Will Forget You

No matter what your supervisor may tell you (or you may tell yourself), everyone is replaceable. Graveyards are full of people who thought themselves indispensable. Every single one of them was replaced on their jobs by someone else. Maybe the work wasn’t done exactly the same way but it still got done.

Do you really believe that if you fell deathly ill and had to go home, permanently, to recover that your job and co-workers would sorrow over you? Or if you died and never came back that anyone would grieve? They would visit you in the hospital (maybe, who has the time?) and bitch about having to take up the slack. Your co-workers and boss would attend your funeral (possibly, depending on the workload), all the while wondering who is going to replace you or will they be assigned an even bigger workload so the company can save a few bucks on hiring a new person.

Your family — you know, those people you rarely see because you are always at work — will grieve. Your friends — you don’t see them either because who has the time? — will notice and care. Not your co-workers. Not your boss. Not your job. They have already moved on and filled your position, one way or another. Someone else is doing the work that you thought you were vitally needed for.

The second thing to understand is that every day has twenty-four hours. You never get less than twenty-four hours but you never get more either. Nobody, no matter how rich they are, gets more than twenty-four hours a day. The reason it appears that some people get so much more done is that they outsource much of the daily routine onto someone else. Your efficiency improves enormously when someone else cleans your house, cooks your meals, chauffeurs your car, runs your errands, tends your children, monitors your social obligations, performs civic duties, goes to school activities, walks your dog, washes your laundry, maintains your house and garden, stands in line for you at the DMV, shops for groceries, clothes, and everything else, ghost writes your memoir, nurses your aged relatives and performs any other chore that might take time away from your career.

This is quite expensive, by the way, but the richer the person, the bigger the staff to take care of any non-work related activity. The only things you can’t outsource are exercise, oral hygiene, sleep, eating, and body waste elimination. You can even have someone else wash your hair while other minions are giving you your manicure, pedicure, leg waxing, full body scrub, and reading aloud to you the daily news. Nothing like good time management to free up valuable hours for more work.

dt140709

Your Job Steals Your Life

So back to your twenty-four hours. You have to sleep. You are probably kidding yourself that you can squeak by with five or six hours a night for years on end. Maybe. More likely, not enough sleep means you spend every day in a haze of fatigue and fuzzy thinking. You need to spend some time on basic body maintenance: cleanliness, exercise, oral care, eating, bathroom. If we allow you seven hours a day for sleep and two more for body care, you are now up to nine hours lost per day. That leaves fifteen hours per day left. If you work an eight-hour day, plus one hour of lunch (which you work through of course) plus an hour of commuting each day, that is ten more hours per day. You have five hours left now to spend with the family you claim to love, the friends you say you want, the animals who need your care, the aged parents who need you too, household maintenance, and any recreation or hobbies you use to rejuvenate yourself with. If your commute is longer, subtract that time from your life. If your work hours are longer, subtract that from your remaining life. But wait! You have the weekend! Oh. The weekend is jam-packed with all the deferred grocery shopping, chores, maintenance, and errands you didn’t have time for during the week. And, any work that didn’t get done during the week, which simply MUST be done, on time, as no-one else can do it and you are vital to the job.

The work—life balance is only a problem if you want to have a life. Work can — and will! — fill every available hour. There will NEVER be enough time to get everything done. Even rich people with staffs have to pick and choose what they can get done. Every hour that you spend working is time away from what you claim you love. The constant, unending grind takes its toll on your body, your mind, your relationships. Is this what you want?

Very few people say, on their deathbed, that they wish they had spent more time at work. Most people regret all those lost opportunities to see their families and friends, to dance, to play, be true to themselves, to eat more ice cream and less rutabagas. There are those rare few who do wish they had spent more time at work. Isaac Asimov was asked what he would do if he knew he was going to die tomorrow. His answer was “I would type faster”. Not see his children. Not see his wife. Was he kidding? Hard to say.

dilbert-work-life-balance

If You Love Your Work, You’d Kill Your Family

Are you going to say, as you lay dying, “I wish I had spent more time at work”? If you are, then own up to this fact and get rid of those pesky impediments to working. Divorce the spouse, dump the kids, drop the animals off at the kill shelter, and estrange yourself from any remaining relatives and friends. Who needs them when you could be at your job? After that, move into a condo, hire a housekeeper, and eat every meal from a take out container or the freezer case. Stop exercising, don’t date (it might lead to a second family that would take time from work), and medicate as needed to avoid sleep. If this appeals to you, you will sure get a lot more accomplished at work. Think of the praise! the accolades! the warm fuzzy feelings and even, maybe, more money, more recognition, and more challenges! And more work to fill the time.

You will have achieved the goal of a perfect work-life balance. No life other than work means plenty of time for work. All the time in the world in fact. Until you can no longer work, for whatever reason. Hope you planned to fill that time as well, or you planned for your euthanasia as soon as you can no longer work or be productive.

So. Is this what you want? If you don’t, then you will have to make choices. Unless we are trust fund babies or hit big in the lottery, we all have to do some work for money. The difficulty lies in how much and how hard. This is where thrifty, clean living reappears again as you need to work less if you have smaller monthly expenditures. What are your goals? Your dreams? If you need piles of money to achieve them, then working flat-out and saving every penny may be needed. If you plan on working twelve hour days for years on end in order to be stunningly rich, then your family needs to be onboard in advance, or you should do this before acquiring one. Or you may want to revisit those goals and dreams. Are they yours or are they someone else’s? Stunningly rich and financially independent are not the same thing. Financially independence means you have enough money to meet your needs (not wants) with some leftover for savings and a few wants. If you live lower on the food chain, you don’t need as much income and savings to achieve financial independence.

Our culture seems to have made a fetish of working all the time every place you go. Electricity and central heating mean daylight and climate no longer matter. Humans evolved to sleep when the sun went down. Don’t need to do that anymore. Technological improvements mean that you can’t escape your job. When you needed a secretary to type your memos and opinions, you could only work when the secretaries were on duty. Now, everyone is their own secretary, their own receptionist, and their own janitor. Why pay for lower level staffers when the magic of technology can make those jobs go away? The work still remains of course. Your smart phone, your netbook, your Wi-Fi access wherever you go, your car fax; all act as permanent electronic dog leashes. Factory work gets sent off overseas or is automated so the factory no longer needs to deal with pesky, demanding workers. And, with factories overseas, the remaining office staff have to be on 24/7 schedule as the factory is in a different time zone!

You can’t be in two places at once. Trying to multi-task (i.e., play with your kids while taking a meeting via the speaker phone) just means you do both actions poorly. Can you really pay attention to your sons’ school concert and draft legal opinions via email? Why are you still at work at eight PM anyway, unless you are a shift worker? Sending emails when you are supposed to be with your spouse tells your spouse that work matters more than they do. If your spouse is checking email rather than spending time with you, then who does he value more? Why are you married to each other anyway?

When you have a stroke from overwork who is going to visit you in the physical therapy unit? How can you get your time back? Get your life back? The only way I can see is to choose to say no. No to the bigger house, the vacation home, the vacations to places other than the vacation home, the boat, the wardrobe of vehicles; No, in fact to all kinds of things that cost money and time. Less money spent means less money that has to be earned. And less money earned at a less demanding job can mean more time with the family you claim to love and doing the things you claim you care for. Look over your needs and wants (they are not the same) and see what can be cut back. If your wants and needs are so great that you have to work paid overtime in order to pay for everything, you are really out of balance. You will have to cut back and cut back hard to have any life at all. Sell that boat that you don’t have the time (or money!) to put in the water. It is just a huge, expensive paperweight.

876.strip

Working Hard? You’re Being Played

Cutting back on hours, refusing to be over-worked like a borrowed mule is not a popular choice these days. Workaholics sneer at this weakness. Companies won’t hire more people to spread out the load, relying on loopholes in the law by making you a “manager” even when you don’t have managerial authority, or even worse, creating “independent subcontractor” jobs to keep from paying benefits. In technology fields, companies favor hiring workers from overseas to pay them less (because as you know, in a country of 300 million people, there are not enough tech workers to go around).

Think about it: if you and a co-worker both work sixty hours a week, hiring another person means three people who each work forty hours a week. All three people would be employed and have some time for family, friends, church, and community. But no employer will do this as long as they don’t have to. Why pay three people for 120 hours of work when you can pay two people for eighty hours a week and get the other forty hours for free because the two employees are terrified of losing their jobs and are willing to work twenty hours a week extra for free? Or even better, they love their jobs and are thrilled to have the challenge of stuffing sixty hours in a forty-pound sack.

If you are a free-lancer or self-employed, the problem is even more acute. As your own boss, you set your own hours. If you aren’t working, you aren’t earning any money at all. How then, do you decide when to hide in the home office slaving away for hours and hours as opposed to going to your son’s band concerts? Thrift and a budget come to your rescue again. If you are in debt up to your eyeballs, and refuse to cut back on the lifestyle; then, well, back to work. If you have money in the bank to meet the bills, take two hours off to go to the recital.

We wear our clothes until they wear out or are outgrown. We don’t spend the several thousand dollars a year on clothing that is the national average. We don’t have our television hooked up to the outside world. It only plays DVDs (from the library for free) and games. This saves us hundreds to a few thousand dollars per year on cable TV costs. Premium channels cost more. Add up the annual costs of your TV and cable and all their costs. Is that dollar value worth it to you? Add up all the meals out, the travel, the alcohol and tobacco; how hard do you want to work to pay for them? Only you know. Is it worth it to you? Only you know.

dt140711

Beat the System by Not Playing

A very eye-opening book to look for (it changed my way of thinking) is “Your Money Or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Most libraries have it or you can get it through your library’s interlibrary loan program. This book is widely available on the second-hand market so you may get lucky at the thrift shop or library sale. The takeaway from “Your Money or Your Life?” Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for. Or, to be simpler: Money = Life Energy. Remember that financial independence (or financial freedom if you prefer) means having enough and a little left over. Deciding on what is enough is the tough part.

“Your Money or Your Life” helps with this part too. It moves on to calculating how much you actually earn per hour. This includes not just actual job time, but also job required clothing, dry cleaning costs, lunches out, convenience products and services, anything that you pay out to keep your job or that you can’t do yourself because of the job. Add up your salary (after taxes!); subtract all job related expenses; divide what is left by your total time spent working (including commuting time as that is a job cost). Roughly, what is left is your actual hourly wage. Lets say, after all the math (the book does a better job than I do) you figure out that you take home ten dollars an hour. You look at the Coach handbag on sale for only $150. So stylish. So long wearing. You will have to work fifteen solid hours to pay cash for it. Is that Coach bag worth fifteen hours of work? This calculation works for anything. An expensive meal out of thirty dollars? Three hours of your life. A motorcycle (to supplement your car) for five thousand dollars? Five hundred hours of your life. Plus more hours for insurance and maintenance. Use this idea to help you determine if something is a need or a want.

The more Bill and I used the concept of Money = Life Energy, the easier it became to say no to all kinds of wants. The fewer wants we had, the easier it became to meet our needs. This led to being able to say no to offered overtime and yes to taking holidays instead of working them for extra pay. Our life at home was more important to us than the extra dollars. We want a life of our choosing more than vacations, premium entertainment packages, meals out, boats, travel, second homes or all the other trappings of success. Work supports our life. It is not our life.

Think of it this way. You get twenty four hours a day. Never more and never less. Time passes, whatever you do. You will never get the time back that you spend at work or the life energy you expend there. If you had a choice, would you be at work or at home with your family? If you choose family, then be honest with yourself about what you really need to live on, what things are truly worth spending your life energy on and start jettisoning the rest. If the status toys are more important, then own that. Spend more time at work earning more money and stop complaining that you can’t afford to spend more time at home with your loved ones. We apply ourselves to what is important to us and ignore what doesn’t matter. This is how you can start finding that life-work balance.

Recommended Books

“Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink” by Katrina Alcorn

“Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity” by Emily Matcher

“Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” by Brigid Schulte

Recommended Articles

“I Accidentally Became a Housewife” by Kate Tuttle.

I never thought it would happen to me. After all, I grew up in the heyday of second-wave feminism, raised by parents who encouraged me to think of myself as equally entitled to anything boys got—I even received a Tonka truck for my fourth birthday (though when my father accidentally backed over it in our driveway it was never replaced). My earliest career ambition was to be an archeologist. Later, I decided I would be a doctor. No, a lawyer. No: a doctor AND a lawyer.

My mother’s own feminism, which she was working to pass along to me, was no defense against the other woman’s judgment. In 1970, housewife was a fighting word—women like my mother would find it an insult, while those in Nixon’s so-called silent majority would wear it like a badge of honor. Conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly proudly called themselves housewives even when they weren’t (Schlafly was a full-time writer and political activist who depended on a full staff for household work when her kids were small, after all, even as she exhorted all women to stay home and care for their families).

Like Schlafly, I write for a living. Unlike her, I’m a little bit ashamed to call myself a housewife. But increasingly I’ve come to realize that I am.


“In America, There’s No Such Thing as Work-Life Balance”
by Jessica Grose.

Writer Kate Tuttle became a housewife by accident. She earns a lot less than her husband does, and she’s the go-to parent when it comes to signing permission slips, carting children to and fro, and cooking and cleaning. In a new essay in Dame magazine, Tuttle says that she wants to reclaim the word housewife. “We accidental housewives need to own it,” she writes, arguing that “the work we do is valuable, difficult, and irreplaceable.”

Tuttle’s essay comes at a time when more and more people seem to be finally acknowledging reality: that in our current system, it’s really difficult to have two working parents with full-time jobs, because home life requires a lot of necessary man-hours and a huge emotional investment, too.

One of those people who is being radically honest is PepsiCo CEO Indra K. Nooyi. At last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Nooyi spoke to Atlantic owner David Bradley about work-life balance. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf called it “as frank a discussion of work-life balance as I’ve seen from a U.S. CEO.” Nooyi talked about working until midnight regularly—none of the “you can be CEO and home for dinner every night at 6” fantasy that we hear from Sheryl Sandberg. Nooyi also talked about how her parents and her husband’s parents were intimately involved in the raising of her two children.

“Thoughts on Law Prof Work-Life Imbalance From Those Left Behind” by Patricia Sun (introduced by Paul Caron at TaxProf Blog).

Patricia Sun, the widow of Law Prof Andy Taslitz (American) who died of cancer on February 9 at age 57, wrote a gripping Facebook post on Thoughts on Work-Life ImBalance From Those Left Behind (excerpted here with a photo of Andy and Patricia, with Patricia’s permission):

I’ll post this on Andy’s FB page because I’m not sure anyone reads mine anymore, and while this can apply to anyone, it’s really addressed to law professors.

In the past 4 months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy’s amazing productivity – the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps.

But that’s not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn’t balanced. Yes, I know he genuinely loved his work and yes, I know he had a brilliant and unusual mind, and yes, I know he was cut down in his prime when he still had so much more to give. But all of that came with a price. Not the teaching or the mentoring, but all that scholarship. …

So what was the price in the end? In the entire time we were married we only took a two-week vacation once, and just about every vacation we did take was wrapped around one of his conferences or presentations. The furthest he went on each of his two sabbaticals was his front bedroom, because he spent every single day on his manuscripts. He turned down trips to China, to South Africa, to Japan, and most impressively to me, he twice turned down a chance to be an observer at Guantanamo. Of course he always had different reasons — S. Africa wasn’t safe, the timing of the China trip was bad, etc., but I knew the real reason was he didn’t want to take time away from work. …

Categories: Suburban Stockade | Comments Off

At the Snickers Factory

At the Snickers factory, the Nutcrackers dream of leaving splinters in the candy bars. It’s their only hope of getting word to Amnesty International.

… the Nutcrackers dream of leaving splinters from their broken teeth in the candy bars to tell the world of their plight. It’s their only hope!

Categories: Humor | Comments Off

What I’ve Been Reading: Ryan North, William Palmer, Adelle Waldman

I read. A lot. I always have. So here’s what has passed under the eyes lately.

B^F: The Novelization Of The Feature Film

What I'm Reading: B^F by Ryan NorthLast year, Ryan North, did the awesome “To Be Or Not To Be” that turned “Hamlet” into a comic and weird choose-your-own-adventure. For the past year, he’s also been deconstructing on his Tumblr the novelization of the first “Back to the Future” movie by George Gipe, a hack writer who was burdened by not much talent, a first-draft of the script, and what North calls “old-man-itis” by his insistence on making teenagers talk like someone born in 1930.

B^F: The Novelization Of The Feature Film is a collection of those posts. According to the Tumblr site, it’s available in all ebook formats (you can also save three bucks by going there and reading the book, too.

Page by page, North quotes weird passages, muses on the Marty in the book (dumb as a bag of hammers) versus the Marty in the movies, points out the differences between the first-draft script and the movie, indulges in his love for Mr. Strickland, counts the number of times Marty yells “Doc!” and even finds a couple places where Gipe improves on the script. Think of this as an episode of “MST3K” but for fiction.

Warning: This book was not edited or spell-checked. It probably wasn’t even read a second time by North. It is filled with spelling errors, missing words, weak sentence structures and jokes that could have been sharpened. But there’s so much here at a reasonable price that it’s forgivable. Besides, if the novelization’s publisher didn’t read the manuscript, and neither did Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, or anyone else, so Ryan North is simply following in their shoes. Besides, his “To Be Or Not To Be” gives him epic amounts of slack in my book that he hasn’t touched yet.

The Poisoner

the-poisonerFor the past year, one of the projects I’ve been working on is the republishing of annotated versions of three books about the William Palmer poisoning case. In 1856, Palmer was hanged in Stafford for killing his partner in horse racing, John Parsons Cook, with strychnine. He was also suspected of doing this before, to his wife, mother-in-law, brother, four of his five children, a couple illegitimate children, and other gamblers to whom he owed money. Because he was indicted soon after a newspaper tax was repealed, allowing them to be sold for pennies, reporters leaped onto the story. Newspapers published special editions that sold in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Palmer became known throughout the British Empire and in the U.S. And after he was hung, quickie books appeared to capitalize on the case.

As soon as I was about to publish George Fletcher’s 1925 biography of Palmer, this appears: The Poisoner: The Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor by Stephen Bates.

I’m happy to say that Bates did an excellent job retelling Palmer’s story. He managed not only to create a fresh narrative that ties together Palmer and his times, the shady world of horse racing, the legal system that was slowly changing into what we see today, the challenges scientists faced trying to detect newly synthesized poisons such as strychnine, but he dug up new information from the Kew Archives that no one’s seen in 150 years, and added details from recently digitized newspaper archives.

If you’re a true crime buff with an interest in murderous Victorian doctors, I highly recommend “The Poisoner.”

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

love-affair-of-nathaniel-pI admit that I got this book after reading Ed Champion’s epic takedown of Emily Gould that resulted in a major twitter backlash from her friends and concern trolls. (My take: He became a target because amid his invective he also quoted her accurately and that is indefensible.)

Anyway, he held up “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” by Adelle Waldman as an example of an excellent book, compared with Gould’s “Friendship: A Novel,” so it made me curious.

This is not intended as a review. After reading the first chapter, I dipped into it here and there, and found it to be more of the same: Nathaniel’s encounters with women who he’s dating or have dated, and their attempts to understand him and why he’s a dick.

Well, dick is not the right word. A dick is someone who’s active. Nate’s pretty passive. He doesn’t understand what he wants. Doesn’t understand what women want, and so drifts through the book like an iceberg, causing damage and not understanding why.

This seems to be a novel squarely aimed at its demographic: single woman under 30, living in a big city, with an interest in literature. It seems to make men and relationships far more complicated than it is. From my point of view — well over 30 and happily married, but with clear memories of my single days — Nate’s attitude boils down to this: he just isn’t into you.

Today’s Links

What’s come across my eyes this morning:

The president’s schedule that’s given to the press? Total bullshit.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule of “deliberate practice”? Total bullshit.

People buying Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” to read? Total bullshit.

Ice-T talking about raising a kid? No bullshit but really really unnerving:

Ice-T on raising his son

At what age did you let him play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas?

He started playing fucking Mortal Kombat when he was five years old. He was watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre before he could talk!

Did it affect him?

Nah. He used to sleep in the bed with a Nerf gun in case the boogie man came. But it didn’t affect him. What affects them is when you don’t explain shit early enough, when they think that shit’s real. I told him that shit was fake.

Categories: Rough Draft | Comments Off

Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (part 3)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

Read Part One of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

Read Part Two of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

7. Interior Windows

Many older houses had real transom windows. These are the windows that are over top of a doorway, especially interior doors. They let light fall deeper into a house, and if operable, allow air flow without compromising privacy. Retrofitting transom windows is not a job for amateurs. You must be very, very sure it isn’t a load-bearing wall and you have to be a pretty good carpenter. What you can do is clean and strip off the layers of paint from any transoms that you do have.

You can also replace doors with ones with frosted glass inserts to give light with privacy. It is possible to get second hand doors with glass inserts: the difficulty is finding one that fits your door opening. Our bathroom in our finished basement (formerly a dungeon and now bright yellow) gets no natural light whatsoever. A frosted glass door would permit the space to be used without having to have the light on during the day. My sister offered us one left over from a home renovation project; alas, it was the wrong size. If you can get a door that fits, but it has clear glass, don’t despair. According to Martha Stewart, you can etch the glass yourself — in place! — into frosty privacy. We haven’t tried this one ourselves. Eventually, I broke down and bought a beautiful door with a full size glass insert for the bathroom. The glass is heavily patterned to allow light and privacy. Nine on a one to ten scale of glass transparency, I think. The cost for this varies wildly — do you have a standard door opening? or is it an odd, custom made only size? Do you need to have it professionally installed or can you do it yourself? Shop around before replacing doors. Habitat for Humanity runs thrift shops for building material and you may get lucky.

We have installed one interior window. We have a real window in the exterior wall near the partition wall for the finished basement. The interior window lets light fall from that window into the bathroom alcove. We used frost patterned glass; it cut down a little light and obscured the view of the washer and laundry table. The plan is to add one more interior window in the same area when that portion of the basement is rehabbed. This one window turned a pitch dark corner into one that looks dimly lit most days. The glass door on the bathroom means that you can now see well enough that you don’t have to turn on the light during the day. I can see that adding the second window will make for a brighter bathroom AND pour more light into our finished living space. The installed window is two panes of frost patterned glass, fixed and non-operable, and separated by an airspace the thickness of the wall. It is set between the studs so little woodworking was needed. All exposed wood and trim is painted ultra high gloss white. Careful caulking, inside and out, has ensured no air leakage or dust.

When the bathroom door was replaced, I had the door into the unfinished basement done too. It has a frost glass pattern that conceals the laundry area while letting a lot more light pass through than the bathroom door does. Depending on time of day, sunlight pours down the basement staircase and into the unfinished basement OR light filters through from the unfinished side into the finished living space. The door makes it much easier to walk around without having to turn on lights just to walk through the space.

8. Shrubbery

I routinely see homes that have shrubbery growing in front of every window, right up to the roof line and beyond. We had that situation here with a row of cedars completely blocking two bedroom windows. Even at high noon, those rooms were pitch black. We cut the cedars down to the ground and were instantly rewarded with light and air.

With overgrown shrubs you have two choices: cut them back hard to below the window sill and prune faithfully every year for the rest of your life or remove the shrubs entirely. The difficulty is that many, many shrubs naturally want to grow ten feet tall and wide; but the person who planted them either didn’t know this or expected to prune them faithfully every year. For example, a great many people plant privet because everyone else does. Privet grows like an invasive weed but it is traditional and it prunes exceptionally well. But privet is very tall and wide at maturity: you can maintain it as a thirty foot tall hedge!

If you want to prune faithfully for the rest of your life, you will need to identify what is blocking your windows. A good, local nursery may be able to help you — don’t expect this kind of assistance at a big box store. The staff is unlikely to know the difference between thuja and taxus. Why does this matter? Taxus (yew) loves regular pruning and can recover from the aggressive haircut you are going to give it. Thuja (cedar) hates pruning and will likely die from the operation. If you prune back hard without knowing the plant, it may die and then you will have to dig it out anyway.

If you can’t identify the plant or have no taste for hard annual pruning the better solution is to remove the offending bushes right down to the roots. This is not a fun job. While you are recovering, rebuild the soil in the foundation beds. Then replant with something that has a mature height just below that of your window sills. Your nursery staff can help you find something or use mail-order catalogs like Musser Forests. A well chosen bush will never need to be pruned; it will naturally grow to fit the space. Yew, a very common foundation shrub, actually comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes from little green meatballs to columns fifteen feet tall to monsters thirty or forty feet tall with corresponding width. Choose correctly and save yourself endless work and get fresh air and light into your home. When you replant, you should also put the shrub the right distance away from the house — one half the mature size plus another foot of clearance to do maintenance on the house.

You should think too, do you want the foundation shrubs to do double duty? Many shrubs have showy flowers, fall color, or winter berries. Some provide bird and native insect habitat. Some provide edible berries or nuts. If you are concerned about security, choose a shrub with vicious thorns and a dense growth habit. Shrub roses look very nice under bedroom windows and discourage prowlers. Make sure your roses are scented! Mysteriously, the gene for scent and the gene for thorns are closely related in roses. No thorns, no perfume. There are many shrubs that can add a security aspect to your foundation planting, so take advantage of what is available. Do your research and spend the time upfront and it will save you time later on.

9. Basement Lighting

Basements demand multiple techniques to improve their lighting. First and foremost is cleaning any windows (including their screens) that you are fortunate enough to have. Walls are the next step. White paint is the best choice for color by far. Anything past the palest pastels simply cannot compensate for the miniscule amount of natural light you are receiving. Off white and creams just look like dirty white. Which paint you use, regular latex, cement, or Drylock, is dependent on the wall. Walls that are finished with sheetrock or ugly paneling can be painted like any other wall; i.e. latex. Concrete block walls must be painted with specialty paint; their location and function decides what paint to use. Interior walls or support pillars can be painted with cement paint. Foundation walls that are RAW, unpainted block should be painted only with Drylock. If your foundation walls are painted block, then their condition decides the paint.

Drylock is formulated especially to seal the concrete and keep out moisture. Drylock won’t hold back a river but it will drastically cut back any seepage and small leaks. Drylock CANNOT be applied over painted block walls. It is designed to soak into the concrete and it can’t do that if there is paint in the way. If your paint is peeling and chipping off of the walls due to moisture, then you need to finish stripping off the paint (horrible job) and put on Drylock. If the paint is in good shape and you have no water issues, then the local paint store can advise you as to which white cement paint to use.

I cannot recommend Drylock highly enough. Our basement routinely flooded with an inch or so of water after every heavy rain. I don’t know how the previous owners tolerated this, but I certainly wasn’t going to. Adding concrete water splashes to the downspouts solved 75% of the problem. Drylock took us to the 95% mark. We then reroofed and reguttered, corrected sloping sidewalks, built dry creeks, patched holes, and improved the soil. All that work kept water away from the foundation but the Drylock sealed the damaged walls well enough to keep out the seepage and cut down the humidity.

If you possibly can, paint the basement walls before you move all your stuff in. Drylock every exterior wall if it is raw concrete block, even if you don’t have a moisture problem. It will save you wetness and humidity problems down the road. It is expensive to use, partly because it is a more costly product and partly because it spreads on like pudding. If a can of regular cement paint covers 200 square feet, the same size can of Drylock will cover less than half that. Fortunately, it comes in five gallon buckets. You will need that much or more to paint one long wall with two coats. Get white Drylock of course. Follow all the directions for preparation and painting on the can to the letter and the Drylock should last forever.

Next, paint any interior block walls and pillars with regular cement paint. They don’t hold back wet soil and so don’t need the investment of Drylock. Cement floors can and should be painted as well. Pick a light gray or tan as the best compromise between dirt hiding and lightness. Use paints made just for floors: it is harder and will wear a lot better. There a lot of choices in floor paints so be sure you ask plenty of questions about ease of application and durability. This is not a job to do twice. If your exposed foundations are brick, you will need to ask at the paint store. Choose a local store that has been around a long time where the staff really do know their paint. And please, after the staff has been so helpful, buy your paint from them.

Your window wells are the next step. The windows and screens (if any) should have already been cleaned. Next, dig out all the dirt and rocks from the well down to at least six inches below the bottom of the foundation window sill. Try not to go below the bottom of the metal well. Sweep out all the cobwebs and dust. Scrub clean the exposed foundation wall framing the window inside and outside the house. Paint every part you can reach of the concrete inside the metal window well with, you guessed it, more Drylock. Meanwhile, wash all the dirt off of the rocks and remove any nails, trash, broken glass, etc from them. After the foundation is painted (two coats of white), put the clean, dry rocks back into the well but don’t fill it up. Instead, top the salvaged rock layer with two or three inches of white marble chips. The marble chips will reflect far more light than the dingy gray and brown rocks you removed and washed. If you feel up to it, rinse the marble dust off of the marble chips for extra shine before you add them. The new rock layer should be one inch or more below the bottom of the foundation window sill: this is so that if rain water were to get into the well, it won’t immediately flood in through the window. The rocks allow for drainage and help keep everything dry. Now for the last step. Clean the metal well wall and paint it with gloss white Rustoleum paint. This will probably take three coats for good coverage. The finishing touch is a clear plastic bubble or salvaged storm window to keep out the rain.

Yes, I have actually done this with all four of my basement window wells and my three foot deep light shaft in our Florida room. The difference was amazing. The gloss white paint bounces light into the basement and on sunny days, the wells glow. The job was tedious, messy, dirty, and hard on the back and took over a week per well, much of which was spent waiting for paint and rocks to dry. Cleaning out the wells was the worst part. It was completely worth the work. Our basement (finished and unfinished) was so dark, even on the sunniest of days, that you could not safely walk through it without turning on a light. Now, depending on weather and time of day, you almost get enough light to read by. Painting the walls helped as did painting the ceiling tiles. But, the window wells are the most important element as they are the most direct link with the sun. After the wells have been redone, you will need to sweep out the cobwebs and dust every year or so. Do it when you clean the windows and screens and the light will pour in.

The basement ceiling is next. If you are lucky enough to have a drywall ceiling, paint it over with ceiling white paint. My finished basement ceiling is a suspended ceiling: a metal grid that holds insulated two foot by two foot ceiling tile panel kinds of things. This setup cannot be painted in place with brushes and rollers; I’ve tried! The panels shift and move so you can’t get an even coat. The panels get glued to the suspension grid with paint ensuring that you cannot remove them to get access to the wiring or plumbing hidden above. The solution, a tedious one, is to paint the grid very carefully with either a narrow slant brush or a foam one in a coat of primer and two coats of ceiling white. Try not to get any paint on the panels as they are then harder to remove for painting. I used regular latex house paint on the family room metal grid. I did use Rustoleum on the grid in my basement bathroom. Years of moisture had made the grid rust in places and Rustoleum was the only cure.

When you have recovered from painting the grid, it is time to tackle the panels. Set up a pair of sawhorses with an old door on top. Carefully remove two or three panels and put them insulation side down on the door. Then prime and paint with a brush. A roller didn’t work well — it was too large and tore apart the ceiling panel. The panels will suck up a huge amount of primer. Let them dry and then paint with ceiling white. Since you are painting sort of white panels with white paint, you may need only one coat of ceiling white. My panels did this. Let the panels dry completely before putting them back. Prime and paint a given set of panels as it is easy to loose your place. If you have fifty or sixty ceiling panels, this may take weeks to months to finish them all. Why not replace the panels with new ones? Because that will cost ten times as much as the paint will and the new panels still won’t be as white as possible. We priced replacement panels and even the cheapest ones would have cost hundreds of dollars. The paint cost about sixty dollars.

If your basement ceiling is unfinished; i.e. bare rafters, exposed subfloor, and cobwebs galore, the best choice is to insulate it. There is no good way to paint the underside of your house so save yourself the aggravation and don’t bother. Insulating now; that is well worth the bother as you will be far more comfortable and save energy dollars. I have insulated the undersides of three houses now (crawl spaces and basements) and it made a big difference in comfort and cost. Worth every penny. A library book on insulation is the ideal place to start.

After you have installed lots of pink fiberglass insulation overhead, you may want to take a further step. Our pink insulation (installed vapor barrier to the heated house) was exposed to dust, cobwebs, and bad cats. I would find wisps of fiberglass here and there, some quite large. It looked messy and it didn’t do anything to lighten up the unfinished basement. After much discussion, I decided to try installing white styrofoam insulating panels between the joists. Second son and I bought a package as a trial. They are about 15 inches wide and four feet long and fit perfectly between the joists. Second son has been slowly installing them across the entire ceiling. They are held in place by pressure and slightly wider pieces of heavy wire dug into the joists on both sides. Cut up wire coat hangers work very nicely for this. He cuts and fits to avoid light fixtures, outlets, wires, or other impediments. It cleans up the ceiling remarkably, and it bounces light around far more than the fiberglass ever did. It does seem to be keeping the house a little warmer and bad cats can no longer pull down the fiberglass. If necessary, individual foam panels can be easily removed if we need access to any part of the floor above.

Don’t hesitate to make every single flat surface in your basement white. As each area gets painted or finished in turn, the overall ambiance will become lighter, brighter, and easier to maintain. You won’t have to turn on lights at noon just to walk through the space anymore.

10. Windows, Solar Tubes and Skylights

There comes a time when mirrors, cleanliness, and white paint simply aren’t enough. You have just got to get more natural light into the house. If you are willing to write out those whopping big checks to contractors or you are a skilled handyman, you can get virtually anything you want.

Check all your existing windows first. If your house is older and has been renovated before, it is possible that some heathen replaced big old windows with smaller ones and filled in the gaps with wood or brick. Look at your walls, inside and out, for shadow markings, irregularities in siding, changes in style, anything that indicates that the current windows aren’t the original ones. Look for transoms that have been nailed shut and sidelights that have been replaced with wood. Old pictures of your house can be helpful. Get several estimates and see if reopening to the old window size and installing a new one is worth the cost.

The next option is to add new windows where none ever existed before. You can have a hole cut into the wall and a window installed just about anywhere. Before you do this, consider the cost, the view, changes in privacy, the added light, the change in airflow, the added cost of new window treatments and how this new hole in the wall will affect your home heating and cooling system. Get the most energy efficient windows you can.

Skylights can sometimes be retrofitted into a house. Nothing will let in as much light as a big skylight. They have to be seen to be believed. Friends have a skylight in their bathroom. When the door is open, the space looks like it has enough lights to run an operating room and light spills out into the hallway, lighting it as well. If you are having extensive work done on your roof a skylight might be a very good solution. They must be installed and flashed correctly or you will have a big, leaky, drafty hole in your roof and a permanent problem.

Easier and cheaper than new windows or skylights are solar tubes. These are tubes, ten inches in diameter or larger that connect from a bubble on your roof to a flat glass plate in your ceiling. They can be installed just about anywhere you have open attic space between the roof and the room you want new light in. Solar tubes come in two basic models. The easier to install and less costly one has a tube that looks like a giant metal dryer vent. It is very flexible and lets in quite a lot of light. The harder to install and more pricy one has solid sides of super highly polished aluminum. There isn’t that much difference in light output on a sunny day. the difference comes in on a cloudy or marginal day. The mirror interior actually magnifies the captures light and then gives you, in the room below, way more sunshine than the dryer vent style.

We installed four SolaTubes (their brand name). They are the solid side style and are just amazing. Each bathroom got a ten inch tube and the kitchen got two fourteen inch tubes. SolaTube has optional light and vent kits so you can ventilate your windowless bathroom. Get the biggest tube you can fit through your rafters without cutting them. Our kitchen was permanently dingy and dark due to small, poorly placed windows. We always had the lights on, even at high noon. Courtesy of the tubes, this is no longer true. When I finish repainting my dark cabinets, the currently marginal days (should I turn on the light?) will become no electricity days.

It is true that I could buy a lot of electricity for the cost of the four tubes. But they are wonderful. Even the dreariest day here in central Pennsylvania is brighter since the tubes were installed. The natural sunlight makes me feel better in a way that the fluorescent ceiling fixture never did. We even get changes in the sun through the tubes as clouds move across the sky. At night, moonlight makes the tubes glow, softly lighting the space. Lightning makes them flash.

Figure on spending several hundred dollars per tube. Light and vent kits make the cost go up a lot; enough so that a bigger plain tube may cost the same or less than a fully accessorized smaller one. Installing solar tubes is not a do it yourself project unless you are already skilled in the building trades. Keep in mind that it is a hole in your roof, just like a skylight would be, only smaller. The dryer vent type is much easier to install and if you have a tricky location with lots of joists to work around, you may not have a choice between it and the less flexible, more brilliantly sunny solid side style. Either one will put natural light where you never thought you could get it before.

You can bring more free, natural sunlight into your house. The initial work is hard and dirty but the reward is light. Clean your new, shiny surfaces once in a while and they will continue to work for you by lowering your electric bill. Even if you accomplish only a few of the suggestions given here, you will see more light for your money. Look around and see what other possibilities suggest themselves. Something as simple as replacing that dark solid color shower curtain with a clear one will brighten up a bathroom (wash it now and then to keep it crystal clear). Remember that lighter, shiny, clearer and cleaner will promote light. Darker colors, dirt, dull finishes, and opaqueness will keep that wonderful, free, natural sunlight outside of your house and interfere with whatever lighting system you are using inside your home. Get to work and maximize those lighting dollars.

Categories: Suburban Stockade | Comments Off

Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (part 2)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

Part One of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

3) PAINT AND COLOR MAGIC

Paint, correctly chosen, really can work wonders. The lighter the color, the brighter and lighter the room. This is also true of wallpaper and paneling. Ninety percent of a quality paint job is proper prior preparation. Libraries are fill of helpful books on how to paint a room. Get one and follow the directions about cleaning, spackling, sanding, priming, etc. Don’t skip priming; primer is NOT the same as paint. And don’t use cheap paint! Check out Consumer Reports for details on paint brands or ask at your local independent paint store. The vast majority of painting cost isn’t the money spent on paint and primer. It is the time it takes to do the job. Latex paint works very well and is easier to cleanup afterwards than oil paint. Your paint brushes will last for years if you are meticulous in cleaning them. Rollers take so much water to thoroughly clean them that I buy cheap ones and throw them out after each painting job.

Have you every wondered why some rooms feel like caves, even at high noon? The answer is color choice. Begin at the top with your ceilings — the only correct color for a ceiling is white. Forget the decorating magazines if you want more lighting bank for your buck. Most rooms should be painted with “ceiling white”. This is a standard, low gloss thicker white paint made for ceilings. It is easier to work with overhead than regular white paint. Bathrooms and kitchens should be painted with a glossier white because the glossier the paint, the more washable it is. I use Ultra High Gloss white latex enamel, normally only used for trim. It is super washable, super reflective, and demands lots of surface preparation. Bathrooms get lots of moisture and kitchens get lots of greasy moisture so make it easier to maintain by having cleanable paint. Ceilings painted with “ceiling white” usually have to be repainted to clean them. If you have smokers in your house, your ceilings will end up a dirty yellow and you will have to repaint them more frequently to get them white again.

Walls are the largest surface in a room. Lighter colors will make the room feel a little larger as well as brighter. Careful surface preparation will give a better, smoother, longer lasting paint job. No matter what the can says, flat paint cannot be washed. It has a lovely, velvety, glare-free texture that will be instantly destroyed by a tot with a crayon. The glossier the finish (a range from eggshell to ultra high gloss) the easier it is to wash. Each uptick in shine means more surface preparations as every spot you miss spackling and sanding will show. Careful surface prep and several coats of ultra high gloss paint will look almost like a lacquer finish as the walls become shiny and mirror-like. I have painted every wall in my house with ultra high gloss enamel and my walls reflect every bit of light there is. They are so shiny, they look can look wet, and I have had people touch the wall to see if it was dry. That shinier finish can let you choose a slightly darker color, but to maximize light, stick with paler tones.

Closets should be painted from top to bottom — trim, ceiling, walls, inside of closet doors — with ultra-high gloss white and nothing else. No matter how pretty those jewel tones look in a magazine photo, in real life the closet turns into a dark hole. Stop putting your things into caves! Gut the space, prep and paint, install wire shelving (doesn’t block light or air flow) and see how bright your closets can be. Once done this way, closets need never be repainted, even if you change the color of the room. At most, you may need to touch up scrapes and wash the baseboards and walls.

Kitchen and bathroom cabinets should always be painted bright white on the inside. The inside shelves can be lined with light colored sheet vinyl cut to fit and glued down with floor adhesive. This makes a permanent, wipe clean, water and bug resistant surface. We use scrap flooring left over from other jobs. Thick, cushioned flooring makes it quieter to use the cabinets too. The exterior of your cabinets: well. If your cabinets are some beautiful wood like real, solid cherry, it would be a sin to paint them. If they are made of some dull, nondescript wood, then paint away. Remove the doors, clean everything thoroughly, sand lightly, prime and paint. It is disruptive and takes a while to get an entire kitchen done, but you can also do the work in stages. Just do one set of cabinets at a time and in a few years, they will all be done.

All my wood trim and window frames are painted the same ultra high gloss white. They present a uniform appearance throughout the house and can be easily washed. The interior doors are, very slowly, changing over from dingy, dull tan luan mahogany to the same white. The finished doors bounce light down the hallway into dark corners.

Painting your entire house takes quite a while and some money but it lasts a long, long time if done right. Assume it will take a week to prepare a room and paint it (one coat primer, two coats paint, plus ceiling and trim); much of that time will be spent doing something else while the paint dries. It is tremendously helpful if you can send your toddlers to spend a week at Grandma’s while you paint. It sure made the job easier for me when I could do this. If you can’t enlist grandparents, double the time you think you will need.

Look around and see how much of your house can be painted. With the right primer, almost ANY surface can be painted. Good, careful surface preparation ensures that the paint sticks well to less traditional surfaces. I painted the drop ceiling panels in my finished basement. It was slow, tedious work as each panel had to be moved to saw horses. They could not be painted in place. I also painted the metal grid that holds the panels. I painted all our dingy, fake wood paneling. Some had been painted over previously, some not. Very dark paneling may need more than two coats of paint over the primer. Our basement bathroom had fake wood paneling that was almost black. It took five coats of yellow paint plus the primer to keep the paneling from showing through. I painted the vinyl siding in our Florida Room. The paint is now in its second winter and is holding up fine. A fancy faux finish over the bright white turned that vinyl siding into an interior wall and gave us more living space. I have not painted over wallpaper: I suppose you can, IF the paper is adhering tightly to the walls with no rips, tears, bubbles, etc. If you have those problems, you will have to strip off the paper before doing anything else. Again, reference books from the library will tell you what to do.

4) FLOOR COVERINGS

Floors reflect light up to your newly white ceilings. As you might expect, paler or shinier floors mean a lighter space. When we had the hardwood floors sanded, I went with a high gloss finish. I knew regular usage would turn it into a matte finish but until then, how it bounced light around. A few years later, I got lucky in the clearance corner at Ollie’s Discount House and found a huge, cream wool rug. I knew it would make the living room instantly warmer and quieter. I knew it would not stay cream for long with three kids, three cats, and a dog but the price was so low that it was worth the risk. I did not know that the living room would become instantly brighter but it did. And at night, with the drapes closed and the lights on, the magic worked even better! The pale rug bounced the light off of the white ceiling and back around again. It was like adding another light fixture compared to just the plain hardwood floor. Unfortunately, light colored floors do need more maintenance. Without regular vacuuming and occasional cleanings, little kids turn white carpet into dirt colored carpet. If you change your floors, consider the color and reflectivity of the surface: carpet, hardwood, rugs, sheet vinyl, tile. Each one has its advantages. Your choice will affect your lighting and maintenance budget, so choose carefully.

5) LIGHT FIXTURES. Your choice of light fixtures and their shades will determine how much light you get from the bulb. You start, of course, by thoroughly cleaning the fixture. Just like the windows, the first washing is going to be the hardest. Lampshades (fabric or paper) should be vacuumed inside and out with the dusting attachment on your vacuum. A feather duster won’t help much when the shades haven’t been cleaned for years. The light bulbs build up a layer of dirt too. Take the cold bulb out of its socket and gently wipe it clean with a damp bar mop. Dry it off completely and put it back. Compact fluorescents get especially dirty since they are so long lasting and have all those swirly dust trapping tubes. Take the bulb out of the fixture and carefully dust all over. I use a feather duster and then a dry bar mop to get in between the tubes. I don’t like using damp clothes on this type of bulb so they have to get dusted more often. Glass shades (called fitters) have to be removed and hand washed in the sink with warm water and dishwashing liquid just like any other dish. Dry them off completely before putting them back. Bill was sure that the glass fitters on the ceiling fan light were yellow. They weren’t: after washing the glass was clear. Wash or dust every single fixture in your house. Even the ones that appear to be closed will still collect dust and dead bugs inside them. After this first go around, you will have to do this every year or so to maintain them. If you need to change a bulb, take the time and clean the fixture.

If you have a fixture with crystal prisms, you will have to remove and hand wash all the prisms in the sink. They cannot be cleaned or dusted effectively in place. Each prism is held in place by a tiny wire with a pin head at one end. Twist open the loop and remove the wire before you wash the prism. Replacement wires and prisms are available at any good lighting store so you can replace missing parts on your chandelier. Faithful, devoted dusting of chandeliers will postpone this tedious job but not for very long. Vacuum the fixture itself while the prisms are drying and get all those cobwebs.

When you buy a light fixture, look it over carefully before you spend any money. Opaque glass lets less light through than frosted; frosted less light than clear glass. Colored glass blocks and distorts light. Dark, heavy, or thick lampshades (paper or fabric) will block most of the light coming from the light bulb. Giant drum shades give a circle of light on the ceiling and one on the table and no light anywhere else. Wooden or metal trim won’t let any light escape at all. Ask yourself why you want to use a 100 watt light bulb and only get 25 watts worth of light out of it. Paper or fabric lampshades can be replaced or refurbished. I have remade shades to get more light, reusing the existing form and wrapping it in lace. Heavy paper shades can be perforated to let more light through. Before you replace a glass fitter, wash it to see what it really looks like. I have gotten lampshades and fitters at yard sales, thrift shops and of course Lowes and electrical supply houses. Many, many lamps are made for ambiance and looks and style. They are certainly not designed for functionality. An electrical showroom will let you turn on the lamp so you can see how much light it releases. You will just have to guess with a yard sale one. Dimmer switches are another word for sitting in the dark.

While you are washing all your fixtures, get all the glass on your hurricane lamps, oil lamps, kerosene lamps, and candle holders. They get dirty even faster because of soot buildup.

6) MIRRORS

Mirrors are incredibly useful for reflecting and bouncing light. I really like mirrors and have a LOT of them. Every room in the house, in fact. With the exception of the mirror backsplash behind the stove, all my mirrors came from yard sales, thrift shops, family, or trash picking. If the silvering is still good, the mirror is worth picking up. I have several very large mirrors that used to be attached to dressers. I am guessing this from the construction of the mirror as the dressers were nowhere to be seen when I pulled the mirrors out of trash piles. Many of my mirrors had those awful fake wood plastic frames. Lightly sand the frame, prime it, and paint the frame with leftover paint from other projects. The previous owners will never recognize their junked dresser mirror with its snazzy new flamingo pink frame trimmed in black and white and hanging on a wall.

For best results, place mirrors opposite windows and behind lamps to reflect and double your light. Wall mounted candle sconces really benefit from this treatment. You get twice the light from each candle and you have a heatproof, washable surface. The extra light and added fire safety is why so many traditional designs for candle sconces have that shiny metal wall mounting. If your wall mounted sconces don’t come with a mirror backing, hang a mirror directly behind the sconce or over top of the flat part that holds the sconce to the wall.

You can install mirrors in unexpected places. A mirror tile can be mounted in the far back of an awkwardly shaped kitchen cabinet so you can more easily see what is inside (after you paint the interior ultra high gloss white). We built a fake transom window in our last house with mirror tiles left over from our wedding reception. Twelve inch tiles fit perfectly between the ceiling molding and the trim of the extra wide doorway. Each mirror tile was separated from the next by a strip of screen bead trim (cheap and easy to work with) painted to match the molding. Eight mirror tiles and screen beading made a transom almost nine feet long. It really did make the space brighter and even fooled a few people as we put it on both sides.

As mentioned earlier, I have a mirror backsplash behind my stove. I wanted a wipe clean surface that would double the light from the range hood. A mirror fit the bill nicely. I actually bought this mirror as it had to be a very specific size to fit. It is mounted permanently with mirror tape, mirror mastic, and plastic clips. We also have large mirrors hung on opposite walls so they reflect each other endlessly, bouncing ambient light into infinity.

I have two upcoming mirror projects. I want to make over the drab luan mahogany door in the hallway into a faux French door. Ultra high gloss white paint, screen bead, and eight twelve inch mirror tiles should work. If it does, Dear Daughter’s bedroom door will get the same treatment. Her door lines up with the hallway so when closed, it will reflect any ambient light back. When open, it should bounce light from her windows into the hallway. The kitchen counter behind the toaster is like a small cave; that entire corner would benefit from being mirrored. I have some salvaged mirror. It can be professionally cut and fire polished. The hard, expensive part is cutting out openings for the outlets.

So look around. Make your mirrors work for you. Keep them dusted and cleaned and they too, will give you more lighting for your money.

Categories: Suburban Stockade | Comments Off

Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (part 1)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introduction

Reducing the use of electricity for lighting is a terrific goal: stop sending money to the power company and be greener. However, substituting candles, oil lamps, propane fixtures or active solar still requires plenty of fossil fuels and money to make and run them.

home dirty windows

If you can draw dogs playing cards on your windows, they might need a cleaning. From Scott Wade.

Candles (other than true beeswax or solid bayberry) are made from petroleum derivatives and are expensive if you use a lot of them. Oil lamps and propane lanterns need continuous sources of fuel ($$$) and, like candles, produce soot and are a fire hazard. Do you want to be your own technical engineer? Active solar is costly, and when you need it the most — those dark days in January — you get the least sun.

Electricity is very, very nice. Very cheap, too, for the amount and quality of light you can get compared to the alternatives. The object then, is to get the largest possible return on your lighting dollars, however you generate light. There are a lot of things that you can do, ranging from quick and cheap to harder and more expensive. Best of all, these ideas, once implemented, tend to be permanent improvements requiring only routine maintenance.

1) CLEANLINESS

Don’t laugh! Natural sunlight cannot penetrate dirt very well. Wash every window inside and out, and vacuum the screens. Do not attempt to wash windows, particularly ones that haven’t been cleaned in years, with Windex and newspapers. This method just doesn’t work that well.

This is what I do. You will need a vacuum cleaner, two buckets, lots of hot and cold water, a little dish detergent, a razor blade, stepstool, and a stack of terrycloth cleaning cloths. Many years ago, I bought several packages of bar mops. These are ribbed terrycloth towels, almost square, and a little smaller than a hand towel. I use them for everything cleaning-related and wash them with the regular laundry. Get some or make your own with cut up old bath towels.

The first bucket is for the cleaning water with a squirt of dishwashing liquid. Use the hottest water you can stand to put your hands in. The second bucket is for rinsing (cold water). Use the bar mops to scrub, rinse, and dry. The rinse bucket keeps your detergent bucket clean. When the rinse water gets dirty, dump it and refill with fresh water. You will do this a lot.

Now, let’s get cleaning. Do one window at a time and finish it before going onto the next. This way, any removable parts like storm windows and screens don’t get mixed up. Your window type determines just how easy cleaning will be. Old-fashioned double-hung windows with true divided lights, combined with storm windows on the second floor, are not going to be easy.

Begin by vacuuming the window, including the frame, to remove loose dirt, dust, cobwebs, cat hair, etc. On the outside of the house, use a broom to knock off the loose stuff. Get every surface and corner.

Remove the window screen (if you can) and vacuum both sides, top to bottom and side to side. The screen may actually change color.

Take down the storm windows and set them on a towel in the bathtub. Scrub both sides of the storm windows, rinse them, and dry.

While the storms are in the tub, vacuum the tracks. Wash, rinse and dry the window. Hopefully, you can get both sides from inside the house. If not, close the window, and go outside with stepstool and buckets.

While washing the window, get the frames and sills as well. If there are paint spatters, decals, or stickers on the glass, wet the razor blade and scrape them off. The first cleaning is the most involved as you will undoubtedly be removing years and years of grime. The second time around is much easier. If the window glass and screens are as dirty as mine were, you may discover that the light coming into the house has doubled.

Clean all the windows in your house including attics, basements, garages, and patio sliders. You may be able to clean only the removable parts and the insides of second-story windows. This will still greatly improve your light-gathering.

After this first, mammoth effort, wash the windows and vacuum the screens every year or two to maintain them. Cleaning the windows will allow you to inspect for any needed repairs such as broken glass or missing putty, caulk, or mullions. Do the repair work before winter comes to stop drafts and trap your heat.

If you discover painted over sidelights (those narrow windows that flank doors), painted over transoms (windows on top of doors), or painted over basement windows, you will have to make a decision. A previous owner probably painted over these windows for privacy. The original builder installed these windows because they did not have easy, cheap electricity. Scraping off the paint will let in free sunlight. People can then, maybe, peek inside.

If this really bothers you, there are ways around this. You can install very narrow curtain rods and sheers in sidelights. Transoms should be too high for anyone without a stepladder to look in so scrape away. Basement and bathroom windows can be covered with frosted Contac paper or etched in place. You can get frosted Contac paper at Walmart; Martha Stewart will tell you how to etch glass. Both techniques result in translucent panels that let light pass through while blocking prying eyes. If the glass panes are broken or missing, you can get fancy patterned glass replacements and give yourself privacy and light.

2) WINDOW TREATMENTS

Windows let in the light and any views. The curtains and drapes you choose and how you hang them will enhance or minimize that light. Closed draperies occupy a huge amount of wall space so their color matters. Pastel fabric will reflect lamplight back into the room whereas a darker fabric will absorb the light and darken the room.

When you hang your drapes or curtains, you want to expose as much glass as possible without showing the wood trim. The space your curtains occupy when fully open is called the stackback. Mount your curtain rods so that the stackback barely covers the glass when the drapes are completely open. The valance of your drapes should cover the trim and an inch or less of glass. You will most likely have to put the hanging hardware on the walls instead of on the window trim to accomplish this. You may have to reinforce the wall to support the weight of the drapes and their hardware. If so, mount 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick squares of plywood with glue and screws on your wall where the drapery hardware will go. Make the squares three or four inches across to have plenty of room for the hardware. Paint them to match the walls and they will disappear when the rods and drapes are in place. Insulating drapes that are lined and interlined are so heavy that their weight will pull the mounting hardware right out of the wall. Mounting the hardware on the walls with the drapes covering the trim has the added advantage of making your windows look larger than they really are.

If you are going for added insulation as well as maximum light, extending the drapes over the walls and the windows will help cut down on drafts. A valance mounted to the ceiling will block more drafts and so will drapes that just brush the floor. Don’t puddle your drapes on the floor (like a magazine photo) if you have kids or animals unless you really, really like extra work. If privacy is a concern, add a layer of sheer curtains like lace or net closest to the glass. This will block some light but will obscure the view into your house from the street. Add properly fitted room darkening window shades to the sheers and lined drapes and your windows will be much more energy efficient both when opened (solar gain) and closed (insulation and draft control).

Next week: Using paint and flooring to enhance your home’s natural light.

Categories: Suburban Stockade | Comments Off

Clueless Book Marketers #1: California Times Publishing

Think of the culture as an ecosystem. Any new changes injected into it spurs a response.

The Sarah Morgan Squint of Doubtfulness is appropriate for California Times Publishing.

The Sarah Morgan Squint of Doubtfulness is appropriate here.

So, with the growth of self-publishing (or indy publishing, or artisanal publishing), comes a host of businesses catering to them. For example, the major New York publishing houses have gotten into bed with Author Solutions (now the subject of a lawsuit for breach of contract and other sins).

Not surprisingly, everybody’s getting into the actions, such as this email I received yesterday.

Hi Billy,

I noticed your book, The Complete, Annotated Mysterious Affair at Styles. It looks like a genre we might be interested in. Do you have a copy we can read? Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Julie Vo
Author Talent Scout
California Times Publishing, Los Angeles
1818 Platinum Triangle Suite 121, Anaheim, CA 92806

You know, there’s nothing like being addressed as “Billy” by a total stranger to make me feel the love. Then there’s the request that I send them a copy of my book before they can sell me their marketing and publishing services, for a book that I already have published.

The discussion-board threads at Amazon KDP and Absolute Write shows that California Times Publishing is blindly spamming authors in the hopes of finding customers.

I think I’ll pass.

Categories: Clueless Book Marketers | Comments Off