Home Decluttering Made Easy

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new-suburban-stockade-introLast week, we looked at reducing our mental clutter with the help of lists, a year-at-a-glance calendar, and other devices. This week, we’ll focus on organizing the material world.

“The one who dies with the most toys wins.” What’s easy to forget is the down side. Physical clutter has to be managed. It occupies brain space, and thus distract you from getting things done.

Very few of us have spacious, basements, accessible attics, and multiple outbuildings, including a barn. You can store far more stuff if you have plenty of space, but if you can’t find the item when you need it, then you might as well not have it.

As preppers, we want to store things that will be useful and hard to replace. How often do I use that OST planting bar and the bulb auger? Not very often, but when I do need them—like once a year or less—I want to know where to find them.

The road to reducing physical clutter starts by putting things away when you’re done with them. A place for everything and everything in its place. Dumb and basic, right? Ask yourself: How many scissors do you have? Do you know where they are? I’ve known people who have multiple pairs but can never find one because they never put them back in the designated drawer. You wouldn’t have your files in your office tossed into giant Rubbermaid storage bins, all mixed up, so why is your home paperwork of bills and receipts done this way? Your tools at work are organized, unlike the cardboard boxfuls at home.

So choose a place for things like bills, official paperwork, office and school supplies, then put things away when you’re done. If it helps, designate a paper tray to hold paperwork, and a shelf for the office supplies, and make sure nothing else gets mixed in.

Next, put a small trash can in every room and use it. Stand by it when you look through the mail. If you don’t need that catalog, toss it. Do not hesitate as they breed in corners. They also encourage you to spend money, another worthwhile reason to toss them at once.

As for everything else, the basic rule is to sort and store like with like. At Fortress Peschel, gardening tools go in two places in our house. The big stuff is all out in our small tool shed. It’s lined up along the walls, and yes, that space needs to have plenty of hooks and bins installed to make it easier to reach in and grab something. By the back door, I keep a bucket with the hand tools, trowel, pruners, forks, etc. so I can grab it easily for the nearby raised beds.

Tools that are not gardening-related are all in the workshop. They hang on hooks or are sorted, like with like, in clear plastic boxes and bins with labels. This is vital for small stuff like nails and screws.

Do this with everything. Car parts? In the garage. Paint, varnish, and primer? On a low shelf under the workbench. Dog food, canned and dry, dog treats, cat food, kitty litter? All together on dedicated shelves with a barrier to keep the cats away from it. School and office supplies? Shelves in the unfinished basement inside labeled clear plastic boxes. Pots and pans are kept together. My dishes are stacked neatly. My bedding for each bed is arranged on the top shelves of the closet.

Once you start sorting the piles, like with like, you’ll find out how much you have. Next, you make it easy to put things away. Basic, yeah? If you have to re-arrange your collection of margarine tubs and give-away plastic drinking glasses every time you finish the dishes, those dishes will never get put away.

To make it easy to put things away, get rid of the stuff you never use. I’ve seen plenty of kitchens with large collections, numbering in the dozens, of give—away plastic tumblers. They’re never used. They take up space, collect dust, and get in the way of the glasses that people use. They are not souvenirs; they’re junk. Get rid of them.

Sort food in the pantry by type. Canned soup with canned soup, baking supplies together, cooking oils, pasta, cereal. Like with like, so I can see what I have, use what I have. I label the food with the use by dates in Sharpie on the front of each box or can and use the oldest stuff first. If something is getting along in years, it gets eaten.

Same with health and beauty products and cleaning supplies. Cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink, bathroom stuff in the bathroom, overflow in the downstairs pantry. Periodic purges get rid of the really ancient stuff: if it’s usable we use it up at once. If it isn’t, out it goes.

I also don’t allow family members to dictate my choice of toothpaste and hair care products. We all use the same tube of toothpaste, and we have limited hair care products in the shower stall: Bill and Younger Son use the two in one stuff, daughter and I use the same shampoo and conditioner. A dear friend has 23 separate containers in her shower stall alone. I counted. Don’t do this. How should you address all these containers? Empty them out, over time, and don’t buy anymore until you’ve gone through what you have! I am not above pouring all the hand lotion odds and ends into one container, rinsing the bottles to get every last drop out. Then I use it up.

Your Writing Algorithm Needs a Wee Tweaking

While cruising Amazon looking for new thrillers, I came across a series of books by “Daniel Penwell” that suggest the coming robot overlords need to tweak their writing algorithm a tad.

Eight books were published by “Penwell” during the last week of January, with titles evocative (“The Flame’s Runelord”, “The Mayfair Cavern”) and odd (“Annal of School,” “Abyss of File,” which sounds like it came from the same list that gave us “Quantum of Solace”).

writing algorithm Amazon

My favorite indicates that a human hand was involved, if only for setting up the book page: “New Title 1Unmage of Bridge.”

The covers look like the product of Amazon’s cover design software, but inside, it’s pure cut-and-paste gibberish, such as the opening graf of “File.” The typos, BTW, are as [sic] as they made me.

All right, thus I’m striving my hand at creating… Expect by yourself’re gonna which include it! And through the course, this chapter is additional in direction of introduce the substitute figures then nearly anything else.

I also noticed two books by a “Joshua Bishop,” both published Jan. 31, that show the same attention to quality by “Daniel Penwell.”

In fact, the more I scroll down the list, I’m seeing a lot more books with the same covers. They’re by different authors, but the mix-and-match prose reveals it to be by the same, er, hand.

Hopefully, these books will fall under the hammer of the Zon’s new drive to root out these bad boys.

In the meantime, here’s a screenshot of one of the books for your reading displeasure.

Capture

Book Marketing as Watering Holes

career indie author

career indie author introduction

Words are important. Finding the right words to express your thoughts clearly is vital. But finding the right words that your audience gets is paramount.

Here’s what I mean as it pertains to thinking of book marketing as watering holes. A common subject for writers and book marketers is the “don’t be afraid to market your book” blog post. It aims to overcome most writers’ reluctance to self-promote. They recommend changing your thinking, like “it’s not door-to-door selling, it’s meeting the needs of readers who will want your book if they know about it.” Or, “you’re not the one selling the book, it’s your book selling the book.”

In other words, these posts find different ways to reach the same end: To get you motivated to promote your book (or in the case of book marketers, to buy their products that they say will help you promote your book).

What they’re doing is recasting the negative thought (“selling is icky”) into a positive to change your thinking.

Once you understand Recasting, it shows up everywhere:

* Remember second mortgages? That was something you took out on your home to get money for a serious big-ticket project, such as starting a new business or sending your child to college. Now, it’s a home-equity line of credit and you use it to go to Disney World and forget that it means you’ll be working until you’re 70 because you didn’t pay off your home.

* If you saw “GalaxyQuest,” you saw the ideal Recasting. A member of the TV crew, played by the awesome Sam Rockwell, realizes as they’re about to land on a real, honest-to-god alien planet that he’s fated to die:

Guy Fleegman: I changed my mind. I wanna go back.

Sir Alexander Dane: After the fuss you made about getting left behind?

Guy Fleegman: Yeah, but that’s when I thought I was the crewman that stays on the ship, and something is up there, and it kills me. But now I’m thinking I’m the guy who gets killed by some monster five minutes after we land on the planet.

Jason Nesmith: You’re not gonna die on the planet, Guy.

Guy Fleegman: I’m not? Then what’s my last name?

Jason Nesmith: It’s, uh, uh – -I don’t know.

Guy Fleegman: Nobody knows. Do you know why? Because my character isn’t important enough for a last name, because I’m gonna die five minutes in.

Gwen DeMarco: Guy, you have a last name.

Guy Fleegman: DO I? DO I? For all you know, I’m “Crewman Number Six”! Mommy… mommy…

Sir Alexander Dane: Are we there yet?

Then, when shit got real, he’s saved by Recasting.

Guy Fleegman: I’m just a glorified extra, Fred. I’m a dead man anyway. If I’m gonna die, I’d rather go out a hero than a coward.

Fred Kwan: Guy, Guy, maybe you’re the plucky comic relief. You ever think about that?

Guy Fleegman: Plucky?

Quoting that wonderful, funny, heartfelt movie doesn’t quite convey the character’s arc (although YouTube can help).

Anyway, Recasting. How does this apply to book marketing as I see it?

It means finding the right word to teach an important lesson on how to find your audience.

It’s a difficult task, because it seems like some people get a handle on it. One group that hasn’t are book publishers. One group that has are the small percentage of indie authors who either acquire the knowledge or who are already experienced marketers (and then there are the mainstream writers like James Patterson, who came from an advertising background).

Some Words Don’t Help

A few years back, Seth Godin published a book called “Tribes” that used a tribal metaphor as a way to describe the best way to market your product. I didn’t particularly like the book. It may have described people who gather regularly somewhere, but there are people who like that thing but show up every once in awhile.

For example, I love “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock.” Love love love love them. But I don’t belong to any particular group. I don’t haunt their message boards. I don’t attend conventions. I don’t even buy the knickknacks.

It also seemed like it was better at marketing Seth Godin rather than anything I could use.

While talking this over with my wife, she drew on her military background to suggest targeted marketing. When you have a target, she explained, you can apply your firepower there. That was a little more accurate, but limited.

Then it occurred to me: a metaphor for marketing that is flexible enough to accommodate meatspace and the digital world.

Welcome to the Watering Hole

When I was a kid the family watched a nature show called “Wild Kingdom.” Marlon Perkins, a grey-haired authority figure with a pleasant voice, like the Mr. Rogers of the animal world, would narrate nature footage, usually set in Africa, and sometimes the drama revolved around a watering hole. All kinds of animals would gather there: birds, alligators, hippos, gazelles. They were all there for the same purpose. Well, except for the lions, cheetahs, and panthers; they were there to feed on the other animals, played out before the cameras, followed by a Mutual of Omaha insurance commercial.

I wouldn’t want readers to feel like they’re gazelles taking a drink and wondering if they’re going to be pounced on, but I do like the watering-hole metaphor. It can represent anyplace where like-minded people gather that you can visit. It can be a Doctor Who Tumblr, church groups, regional magazines, craft shows, Facebook.

If you think of those places as gathering spots, then you have a target for your marketing, which can take the form of ads, a table, posts, or simply visiting and being present (without obviously attending just because you want to sell them something).

This dovetails neatly with my previous post on Paul Bishop, the retired police officer who found a number of tribes that he could market his book to. His approach was limited to areas that he was personally interested in, such as police officers, cocktail music, and noir movies.

But it’s not just a question of finding watering holes to stop by, it’s also thinking about the best way to approach them. It’s a two-part question: finding them and reaching out to them.

Take the difference between Twitter and Facebook. Both are social media services. Both have huge numbers of people signed up. Which would be easier to market to.

I think Facebook. This is partly because I’ve heard more successful stories about authors reaching out to them. Secondly because Facebook encourages members to define themselves according to their interests. You’re asked to “Like” pages. You get to choose particular interests in movies, music, the arts, businesses. They know where I live. Facebook takes that information, plus whatever else they scrape from your posts and your visits to other websites, and presents them to advertisers who can target their ads to reach the people who might be interested in their products.

That’s the secret sauce. I don’t think Twitter knows as much about me as Facebook can.

book marketing and watering holes
When I think of book marketing on Twitter, this is what I see
So, for my upcoming comic space shuttle novel “Ride of My Life,” I can have Facebook target NASA geeks who read, people who liked “The Martian,” fans of science-fiction time travel books, or any combination of the above.

I don’t think I can do that with Twitter. At least I haven’t heard of anyone successfully doing so.

Watering holes can take any shape or form. Last year, Otto Penzler at the Mysterious Bookshop reached out to me when he heard I am publishing collections of Sherlockian parodies and pastiches. His bookstore carries signed copies of the line, and the result has been gratifying to my bottom line last year. This year, I’m reaching out to Powell’s Books in Portland because I heard they have a Sherlockian section as well.

Last year, I’ve found watering holes at my website by offering Sherlockian parodies and a page annotating “Murder on the Orient Express,” not to mention the Wimsey Annotations. I’ve done talks on television, at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, and before a group of Agatha Christie fans. Peschel Press has appeared at the Winter Arts and Crafts Festival in Hershey and the York Book Expo.

Each of them required a different approach, and all of them reached fans who wanted to buy my books, or at least accept a flyer.

That’s the nuts and bolts of the business last year, and this year we’ll be looking for more watering holes. Because like Marlon Perkins, you have to go into the jungle to bag the trophies.

Building the Organized Home

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We do a lot to keep the Fortress Peschel going. It sounds like when you read my posts (over 140,000 words written!) that I never stop working, that I never sleep, that I never do anything other than what I need to do to meet my goals.

This isn’t true. I waste my fair share of time. You can’t stay focused every second; it’s not possible and anyway, all work and no play makes Jack a management consultant.

But if I do more than most people, it’s probably because I’ve been good at setting goals. Visualizing what I need to do gives me a direction, and if what I’m doing isn’t moving me towards one goal or another, I ask yourself why am I you doing this?

I say that frequently after yet another game of Spider solitaire. I just love that game, and I’m really good at it too.

solitaire
I’m aces at Klondike, too
Goals help us divide tasks into categories that we can attack at the best time. Some of them have an end-date, some never end, and some are kind of in the middle. They require work now and then, but not all of the time. Gardening is a good example.

Some jobs require a lot of work upfront, and then they take care of themselves forever after. Insulation and paying off consumer debt fall into this category. So does painting rooms and redoing kitchen cabinets. Once I’ve got a room painted, I don’t go back and redecorate. I’ve got better things to do.

Other jobs never end. Laundry, cooking, sleeping, and exercising fall into this category. No matter how much laundry you wash, a few days later, there’s more. No matter how much you exercise today, you’ve got to do it again tomorrow to stay in shape. I sleep eight or nine hours a night, but every night I’ve got to do it again. meals have to be made, consumed, and cleaned up afterwards.

Good organization makes it easier to get all the routine stuff done, allowing time for doing the tasks that actually move you forward. An awful lot of life consists of performing boring and mundane maintenance, but it has to be planned for and done otherwise you look around and see not piles of laundry but tottering, reeking mountains.

Think of organization as the structure, the skeleton of your life, that lets you get through the routine stuff and leave time to accomplish the bigger stuff, the fun, creative stuff, the stuff that moves you ahead.

Being organized does not come naturally to most of us. On the other hand, this is an easy excuse. “I’m just not organized!” is a comment often heard, but is that true, or is it that you’re not motivated enough? Think of how you perform your job. How often can you say “I’m just not organized!” to your boss. I’ll bet only once. You have to be organized on the job, you have to accomplish your assignments or you get fired!

If you can do it at work, maybe, just maybe, you can do it at home.

The problem is that we are very poor managers of ourselves. We’re not bad employees, we’re bad bosses because we accept excuses from ourselves that no real boss would accept. No matter what kind of aimless life people live at home—messy, chaotic and never getting the house insulated or the garden beds dug—they don’t do the same thing at work!

At your job, you can draw on structure and routine to get your tasks done. You need this at home, too. I can’t tell you exactically how to organize your home and time as I’m not riding along inside your skin. The library is full of countless get-organized books; I’ve read many of them and some have useful tips.

What I can say is: Review your goals, then ask yourself as you’re playing Angry Birds on your cellie again, is that getting you there? Or are you just wasting time?

Building a Structure @ Home

Organization consists largely of structuring your home life like your work life. Know what you have to do, allot the time for it, and then make it easier to get it done.

I do this in various ways. I have a year-at-a-glance calendar on the wall in our dining area. All appointments, meetings, trips, school events and everything else goes on this calendar so I can see what is coming up next.

organized home
Wall by Martha Stewart, calendar by At-A-Glance

The year-at-a-glance calendar is hung on a wall Bill constructed using a design from Martha Stewart Living. We have a shelf for cookbooks, several bulletin boards, even space for wall pockets for school paperwork, bills, and anything else we need at hand.

The Martha Wall was worth every second of its cost and aggravation to build. All family business is tracked on the calendar. The bulletin boards (made of yellow painted Homasote, a miracle product) let me pin up notices, ads for upcoming events, and lists of things to do. The wall pockets are for short-term storage, like one school year for one kid or the current set of bills (which if you look carefully hasn’t been emptied in a year … ohhh, Biiillllll!).

I have a desk calendar that duplicates the wall calendar events but it has room for phone numbers and notes. I don’t use it as much as the wall calendar but I’ve found that I need it too.

Several years ago, I also started keeping a daily logbook. I use a composition notebook, the kind that has 80 pages that they sell at Staples for 50 cents when the school year starts. I use a page a day and since each page is double-sided, (160 days worth) it lasts a long time.

organized home notebook

suburban stockade 021I list all my usual daily events, appointments, things that have to be done by family members, memorandums and notes. The logbook also gets things written in it as they happen and the events of the day that don’t fit into the routine schedule. The logbook lets me open my Visa bill, notice a purchase at Kmart, go to that date in the logbook, and recall why I went to Kmart that day and what I bought.

The logbook remembers upcoming events and past happenings for me. I would be lost without it and I highly recommend using one. Is it work to keep up with? Of course it is, but far less work than trying to remember everything that I have to do. Since it is non-electronic I don’t have to worry about batteries or mechanical failure or upgrades. I can write in it in the dark with a flashlight and a pencil if I had to. It’s cheap too, 50 cents for the book and a pen.

organized home
“Who needs to know what we did on November 3, 2007?”

It shows how routine my day is, but a routine-oriented day lets me be more efficient. A written routine also can show you what you do versus what you think you should do. I exercise nearly every day, and my logbook lists this as the first line item. I get it done, check it off, and I move on throughout my day.

I use a logbook for my bills. My records for bills, taxes, and other expenditures goes back to when Bill and I got married. I learned how to do this from his mother. The money logbook remembers for me, and I can go back in time and track my spending easily for taxes, insurance, energy costs, and the like. Since I record every bill, its due date, its paid date, and how much, I don’t make very many mistakes in getting things paid. And on those rare occasions when a company claims I haven’t paid something, I can easily find the information to prove that I’m right.

I keep lists of all kinds: writing projects, home improvement projects (huge!), sewing projects, whatever I think I need to do. As things get done, they get checked off. Some projects or ideas never get done but I don’t have that many things that slip through the cracks anymore. The lists, they can be multi-page, get pinned onto the Martha Wall bulletin board or by my sewing area as appropriate.

As things change, lists evolve, grow, or go away altogether.

My lists, the Martha Wall and its year-at-a-glance calendar and bulletin boards and the logbooks let me track mental clutter and control it.

Next Week: Home decluttering made easy

A Golden Book Credit

Sometimes it best not to know the context of everything, because you miss the good kind of weirdness.

The wife brought home a new book from the library, and for some reason I looked at the author’s name first. I’m glad I did, because seeing this below his name made me laugh:

As odd as seeing "Oscar Winning Actor Gerard Butler."
As odd as seeing “Oscar Winning Actor Gerard Butler.”

Of course, The New York Times keeps rigorous control over its best-sellers lists and would never bestow its brand on something advocating golden showers, even if Kent Brockman talks about it on the air.

You'll have to look up the episode yourself, since Fox yanks Simpsons' stuff off YouTube. Idiots.
You’ll have to look up the episode yourself, since Fox yanks Simpsons’ stuff off YouTube. Damn you Rupert!

Anyway, to pull our minds out of the gutter, the book containing the line is actually a humorous advice book from cats by “Sally Forth” writer Francesco Marciuliano.

It’s adorable. And so is “I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats.” And by way of rewarding you, let me read one of my favorite poems from this work of great art:

Busy, Busy

It’s 8 am and time to rest
It’s 10 am and time to relax
It’s noon and time for repose
It’s 3 pm and time for shut-eye
It’s 6 pm and time for siesta
It’s 9 pm and time to slumber
It’s midnight and time to snooze
It’s 4 am and time to hang upside down from your bedroom ceiling, screaming

Fortunately, I get along with my cats very well, so that never happens.

Yeah, I didn't believe it either.
Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.

Energy Efficient Appliances

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The last step with energy efficiency comes from choosing the most energy-efficient appliances. You normally do this when you have to replace something, but not always.

How about your lighting needs? I wrote a lengthy post on bringing more light into your home so I won’t repeat what I wrote. There’s plenty you can do.

When you replace your roof, get the lightest-color shingles you can. Unless you live in Canada, a white or light-colored roof will cut your electricity costs for AC by as much as ten percent. How does a white roof do this? By reflecting sunlight instead of absorbing it, it makes the attic cooler so your AC doesn’t have to work as hard to compensate for the 150 degree (or more!) mass of hot air overhead.

Cooling Your Head Space

Next, make sure your attic is properly ventilated with gable vents, soffit vents, and ridge vents. All this venting will keep the attic dryer too, by allowing moist air to escape rather than get trapped in multiple layers of fiberglass bats.

energy efficient appliances ceiling fan
One-bladed ceiling fans are cool. I would add an extender to lower the blade slowly, “Pit and the Pendulum” style.
Another improvement involves your ceiling lights. When it comes time to replace them, consider one that comes with a ceiling fan. Moving the air around makes the room feel cooler so you don’t have to set the AC as low. This is also more energy efficient than whole-house air conditioners, because you only run the fan in the room you’re in.

When you replace appliances, look for that Energy Star logo and get the most energy-efficient unit. You may pay a little more upfront, but the energy savings will compensate for this over time.

When to Replace Big-Ticket Appliances?

Does this mean you should replace your freezer or furnace or whole-house AC? Probably not. No matter how energy efficient a new stove may be, you still have to pay back the purchase price over several years. An existing stove, like an existing house, is already paid for. A more energy efficient stove may save you a $100 a year. Since the new stove costs you hundreds of dollars up front, it will take years to pay that cost back.

In the meantime, keep up the maintenance on these big-ticket appliances. Vacuum those refrigerator coils, wipe down the gaskets, have the furnace checked every year, and so on. It isn’t energy efficient to replace an appliance that would still be working if you had taken better care of it.

When you’re looking over your appliances, think about whether or not you need them. Do you have to have that second fridge in the garage? Do you need a TV set in every bedroom, plus the family room and the kitchen (when considering the price, don’t forget that these are vampires in disguise)? The most energy-efficient alternative is to get rid of stuff.

Clotheslines are a stellar example of this. A clothesline does what a dryer does; it dries clothes. It takes more time to do this (a few hours to a full day), it requires some advance planning (you can’t dry clothes as well at night), and you’re on the weather’s schedule and not your own. Dryers are very very nice, very convenient, but you pay for this convenience on the wear and tear on your clothes and with money you send to the electric company.

Cutting Back on Appliances

I don’t have a houseful of appliances. I have a stove, a dishwasher, a fridge, a freezer, a washing machine, hot water heater, oil burning furnace, air conditioner, lamps, a sewing machine, a microwave, a coffee-pot, a TV set with its accessories (but no cable), some computers, and a few other small appliances. I don’t have a lot of kitchen gadgets like bread makers, pasta machines, or counter-top ovens. I don’t use them, I don’t have the storage space for them, and I don’t have the money to buy them.

For each appliance, decide if you want to spend the money, up-front and over the long term, day after day after day of cost. If the answer is no, don’t buy it. If you aren’t using something, get rid of it.

If my energy costs rise, the dishwasher would go first. It’s damn difficult to run a kitchen without a stove and a fridge. Dishes can be hand-washed. I like my dishwasher. It’s a huge time-saver. But I can live without it in a way that I can’t live without the washing machine. I like my freezer a lot. It allows me to stock up on grocery store bargains as well as freeze garden produce.

If I had to, I’d get rid of the dishwasher and the dryer before I’d lose the freezer. I rarely use the dryer as I prefer the clothesline and the racks. The dryer would go, forcing recalcitrant family members to work around winter weather more than they already do. I could live without the microwave. It’s convenient and it doesn’t use that much power. But I could live without it.

Every appliance in your home should be thought about in this manner. Do you use it? Do you need it? Is it worth the space, mental, financial, and physical?

Every appliance should be evaluated for complexity. Do you need a fridge that makes ice and has a cold water tap in the door? Fridges that have these things cost more up front, cost more to run, take up more space, and have more things to break. I’ve had bad experiences with ice-makers and now I never buy a fridge that does fancy stuff. Less to break, less money to buy, and less money to run. I keep a Rubbermaid pitcher in the fridge for cold water and I have ice trays in the freezer compartment with a bin for ice. They work fine and take far less space than the alternative.

This is true of all kinds of appliances. The more they do, the harder they are to repair and the more prone to breakage they seem to be. And do you have to have a clock in every single appliance?

Energy-efficient vehicles

Cars fall into the same category as appliances. When you have to buy one (don’t lease them!), get the most fuel-efficient one that will suit your needs. If you do the craft circuit, you’ll end up having to buy a panel van or a truck to haul all your goods. If all you do is drive to the office, then why do you need a big pickup truck? Ranchers need big pickup trucks. Contractors need big trucks. They both have tons of stuff to haul on a daily basis. Do you?

Evaluate your fleet of vehicles. I have friends, a household of 3 licensed drivers. They have a big truck (his), a motorcycle (his), a car (hers), a car (oldest son’s), and a spare car. Five vehicles for 3 drivers that have to be insured, maintained, stored, and paid for. Do you need your car collection? Maybe you do. Think about every vehicle you pay for and make the conscious decision to keep them, know why you are keeping them all, rather than just saying, well, it might be useful.

My dear husband and I both work from home, we live in a small, walkable town, and when I do drive, I do all my errands at once. We have one car, a small sedan. I won’t deny that a van or a truck is very useful to haul sheets of plywood home, but we don’t need to do that much anymore.

Do not assume that gas prices will continue to drop. Yeah, as of this writing, gas is just over $2 a gallon. But 15 years ago, it used to be less than a buck a gallon! Gas has gone up and down in price but it has never gotten as low as it was. An fuel-efficient car will never stop saving you cash at the pump, cash you can put towards something else. When prices drop, you won’t save as much money, but you’ll still spend less than you would with a big truck. When prices climb, you’ll spend more, just like everyone else, but it won’t be as much more.

There aren’t many households that can’t cut back on their energy usage. We’ve cut back a lot, and we don’t have to break the ice on the buckets of water in the winter. We have appliances, we have a furnace and an air conditioner, we have a TV, we have a car. We also have much lower costs than most of the people I know.

Like your shopping and eating habits, your energy habits benefit from paying attention to what you do and then deciding if what you are doing is helping you to meet your goals. If they are not, then you need to change something.

Next Week: Building the Organized Home

Anatomy of a Book Idea: “At What Age”

While digging through the swarm of boxes in the unfinished basement, I came across one simply labeled “Projects.” It had been set up during one of my periods of organization, where I set up folders and charts and illustrations and didn’t learn that putting them out of my sight was a great way to forget they ever existed. My mind tends to latch on the next new thing, which I would pursue until I had squeezed all the enthusiasm out of them, and immediately drop in favor of the next new idea to catch my eye.

CD case library cabinet
Now available from Target for $265.
Which is why it took me 16 years to write “Writers Gone Wild.” But that’s another story.

In this box were a number of folders, neatly labeled. Some were book ideas, including one simply titled “Story Ideas” that I’ll have to look into later. Some were projects that were actually finished, no thanks to the materials in the folder: a CD case torn from a catalog that resembled those drawers you’d see in old-fashioned offices or library card catalogs, back when libraries had them. Instead, I built a simple bookcase in which the shelves were spaced to hold DVD cases. Much simpler and it holds more media.

Then I came across this folder, which I had filed and forgotten. A book project that I must have spent a couple hours on, organized the notes neatly, filed them away, and instantly forgot about it. I certainly don’t remember anything about it, and if you presented this too me in an interrogation room, I would have sworn I didn’t do it, except that I recognize my handwriting.

So before I throw it away, I think I’ll preserve it. It’s an interesting idea, and if anyone else wants to run with it, you may (or, forgive me, if you already wrote a book like this). If nothing else, you’ll get to see what it’s like to get an idea, and work it out on paper. Or at least how I do it.

book idea at what age

“At What Age” was meant to be a biography/pop culture book. I have no idea when I wrote this. It was probably an outgrowth of the “Writers Gone Wild” idea of collecting a bunch of stories and presenting the good bits (gossipy, scandalous, affecting) from people’s lives, only boiled down.

book idea at what age

This was a simple idea. Names, categories, and at what age they did something. I even estimated the number of bios per page, the page count, and how many people I needed.

Then I listed potential candidates, probably through word association.

book idea at what age

book idea at what age
The note at the top lists 180 names, or little more than a third of the book. I can only guess at my thinking at that point, but right now, I’m wondering if I would have enough stamina to stroll through 180 lives to find their highlights. It seems pretty daunting even now.

But I was curious to test the idea, so I created a prototype with one of my favorite writers, Hemingway. I knew enough of his life story so all I needed to do was confirm his age when they occurred and lay it out (using the Yousuf Karsh photo of Hem, which would have to be paid for to use in a real book).

Book Idea Hemingway at what age

I still like the layout. I would revise it to correct some of the errors. I don’t have his wives’ names except for Hadley, and I don’t have any of the incidents for which he was known: His fights, his drinking bouts, his betrayal of friends.

In fact, now that I think about it, it’s a pretty dry recitation of the basic facts of his life. Sort of interesting, but I don’t think it would be salable. Or, maybe with Wikipedia and the whole of the Internet so readily available, “At What Age” (which sounds like a reference work) would have been to thin for a reference work and not meaty enough for a gossipy quick read like one of the “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader” books.

But now that I’m looking at it, I feel the pull of the idea, like being attracted to the party girl who might show you a good time, but leave you broke, busted, and with a police record.

No. This would not end well. Best to file and forget it. Give it the send-off it deserves, and move on.

Why I’ll Learn To Love Gmail

(First, if y’all have been following Suburban Stockade, my apologies. I put up an old post before my morning coffee, and I didn’t check my work. The correct post is now up, and those responsible have had their Ovaltine denied them.)

I had to spend time rooting around my website. I had received an email from HostGator telling me that they couldn’t back up PlanetPeschel because of “inode,” which was about as unhelpful a message as one could get.

Fortunately, HostGator had a page explaining what the heck inode means. In plain English, I have too many files on my shared hosting. More than a 100,000 of them. They don’t mind my having them, they said, they’re just not going to back up all of them. And if you get to 250,000, they warned me, I’ll have to pay them and make some changes.

(Shared hosting, if I remember right, means my website’s on a server with a bunch of other sites.)

Anyway, this surprised me. I’ve got a lot of files on Planetpeschel, but 100K?

This is where Bill the Author has to turn to Bill the Tech Guy. I visited the backroom via cPanel, and fortunately, there was an easy pathway for me to follow to find out where my files were distributed.

The answer came back quickly: I have a plug-in on WordPress called AutoOptimize, which saves bits and pieces of the site to call them up quickly. Turns out my settings told it to save a lot of files. Like, 65,000 of them.

Once I got rid of them, Host Gator thanked me and said they’ll back up my site next week. Everyone’s happy (except me; I had to put a note down on my calendar a week from now to check my inode’s and see if they’re swelling again).

That has nothing to do with WordPress. This does: As I was rooting around, I noticed that there were a couple hundred emails that had been sent to the contact address for Peschelpress.com.

Turns out most of them looked like this:

gmail spam

This is why I route all my email to Gmail, where their spam filters take out 98% of them.

As you may know, I’m in the process of writing a book called “Career Indie Author” that deals with the nuts and bolts of managing the business side of your career. Unfortunately, it’ll mean having yourself (or someone you trust) act as your IT in situations like this.

The best advice I can give to avoid a situation like this is to keep your website simple. If you use WordPress, only add the plug-ins you need. It’s easy to tinker and try new things, but if you’re planning to run your career like a business, you won’t have time to do what I’m doing. Trust me.

Hacks to Stop Wasting Electricity

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new-suburban-stockade-intro

The next set of changes address wasting electricity. Why are you pouring electricity onto the ground or heating the outdoors? The library is full of helpful books on how to weatherstrip and insulate your home. Do them. We’ve done them all and what a difference! We save money every day that we otherwise would have spent on heating, cooling, and electricity.

Electrical waste starts with leaving lights burning in empty rooms, but it doesn’t end there. Every single electrical device in your home that has a light, a digital clock, or a remote control is permanently on. It uses power 24/7, even if it’s not very much and you think the device is turned off.

Staking Vampire Loads

Suppose at the beginning of every year you had to sit down and write a check to the power company for each device that’s left on during the year.

A radio that displays the time? That’ll be $1.44 please.

Your cordless phone? $3.18. An LCD monitor that pops on as soon as you hit the switch? $2.51. The laser printer. $12.43.

The list goes on and on. The plasma TV ($159.77), VCR ($10.12), DVD player ($8.67), a single game console ($25.73), and rechargable toothbrush ($1.35).

Add them up, and you’ve spent $225.50 for the privilege of having your servants attend to your immediate needs at the flip of a finger. (This assumes you’re paying 11 cents per watt.)

Is that what you wanted to do with two centuries and spare change? This power drain on your electrical utility and your wallet is called your vampire load or phantom load. It is the standby power a device uses to stay awake so it can spring into action at the touch of a button or the lighted display that is on at all times for your convenience. Every device such as a TV, a microwave, a coffee pot with a built-in clock uses very little electricity. Add up all the devices in the country, and those standby vampire loads add up to a powerplant or two.

The way to counteract vampire loads is to first, try not to buy them! This can be a challenge these days to buy a coffee maker that doesn’t have a built-in clock. Do I need a clock in my coffee-maker? No, I do not, nor do I want to pay both for the extra cost to add a clock, the added complexity a clock brings to a coffee maker and most especially I don’t want to pay the extra few dollars a year in electricity that the clock uses.

So instead we ensure that they really are turned off. You can do this by unplugging them. If a device has an easy-to-reach outlet, remember to plug and unplug it and ignore that annoying clock.

If you have a group of devices, such as your TV set, the DVD player, and the Wii game platform all in one place, plug them ALL into a power-strip and turn them on and off at the power strip switch. They look like this:

wasting electricity power strip

This is what we do for sets of things that work together. It did require purchasing power-strips (which you should have any way for many electrical devices as they come with surge protectors that keep power fluxes from frying your computer), plugging all the group of appliances, and then training the family to use the power-strip. Depending on how much of a power hog your appliances are (and how many you have), this can actually add up to tens of dollars over the years. No, it isn’t that much electricity on a house-by-house basis. Society wide? Let me put it this way: Is it worth two powerplants, so we can have digital clock readouts on our coffee-makers?

Stripping to Save Money

Weather-stripping is easy and cheap and even renters can do this. Close your front door up and lock it. This sounds obvious, but now that winter’s here in Hershey, we walk our dog at night through the neighborhood. Inevitably, we’ll see one or two houses with their front door open with only a glass storm door between them and the 40-degree night. While we appreciate seeing how our neighbors decorate their living room and what they’re watching on TV, but I wonder if they’re aware how much money they’re tossing into the cold night air.

There’s a test you can use to determine if you need weather-stripping. Turn off the lights, inside and out. Stand outside, and have a friend shine a flashlight all around the edges of the door. If you see light leaking through, then your heat (and AC) is leaking out as well. Simple weather-stripping kits are available at every hardware store. Get some and install them at every door and stop losing heat through your front door.

Something Nasty in the Attic

If you have an attic, at the interior walls for cracks and light leaks. We discovered a light leakage in the inside corner of our stairwell. From the stairwell, nothing was visible, but inside the attic, you could see a line of light 1/8-inch wide and 7 feet high. This line added up to a fist-sized hole that poured heat and AC into the attic year-round.

Insulate, insulate, insulate. Insulation isn’t hard to do, but it is persnickety, detail-oriented work. Every gap you leave is an opening for heat loss. We’ve insulated basement ceilings, stuffed in pink fiberglass and then covered it with pressure-fitted Styrofoam panels. We’ve laid down and then overlaid more fiberglass batts into our attics.

The previous owners claimed they had insulated the attic. They hadn’t. There was batting there, it’s true. The batting was thrown about, leaving huge gaps. It was also squashed flat by heaps of junk. This destroys the insulating qualities of the batts as they have to be dry and fluffed to work. Don’t pile anything on your insulation if you want it to work.

Working with fiberglass batts is tiring, itchy, meticulous work but you can do it yourself if you’re handy (and be sure to wear as dust mask!). Blowing insulation into wall cavities is a job for a professional. Get references before you hire someone.

Our upstairs was added onto the house years after it was built. We have a partially finished basement, also done years after the house was built. In each case, the walls had batting in the studs, but left open on the exterior unheated sides. Bill nailed heavy 1½-thick foam insulating panels over the exposed walls in both the attic and the basement. Hard, messy, dirty work but what a difference! The rooms were warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, and quieter all year-round. These panels were heavy, thick, and made just for this purpose. You can get them at hardware stores, and they come in several thicknesses and with a reflective side. If you have exposed walls facing into an unheated space, they’re ideal for covering up the batting and the studs. The work load of installing them is the same whatever the thickness, the cost is greater for thicker ones, but the added insulation and quiet make it worthwhile to use the thickest ones available.

The other job Bill did in the attic was installing perforated foil, nailing it to the rafters leaving an air gap at the top and the bottom. This reflected heat away from the attic. Attics are not supposed to be heated space. The goal is to keep the attic as close as you can to the outside temperature, i.e., cold in the winter and no hotter than the air in the summer. The heavy insulation in the ceiling keeps the heat (or AC) in the house. Venting and reflective foil keep the attic from overheating in the summer. A cooler attic in the summer makes your AC run less as you don’t have that hot mass of air sucking away your cool air all the time.

We also wrapped all the exposed pipes with pipe-wrap. These are heavy foam sleeves that you slide over all your pipes, both hot and cold water. Insulating the hot water lines from the hot water heater to the sink keeps the water hotter, requiring less time to run the water before it warms up. Insulating the cold water lines helps keep the lines from freezing when it gets really cold.

After we did all this work to insulate the attic, we discovered how much heat the attic had been receiving from the house below. The pipes leading to the upstairs bathroom froze. They were, we discovered, open and unsealed, fully exposed to winter. This is in Pennsylvania! It isn’t unheard of for us to have below-freezing weather! These pipes are now wrapped in the thickest pipe-wrap available, with more fiberglass wrapped around them, and in a box built of leftover foam panels. We don’t have a problem anymore.

We’ve wrapped every bit of the pipes that we can reach, hot and cold. Hot water always gets the thickest wrap, cold lines the thinner ones. Doing this made hot water arrive quicker and last longer to the upstairs bathroom, to the kitchen sink, and to the basement bathroom. These spaces always had a problem with getting the water hot enough and then keeping it that way. No more. Was this a pain in the ass? You bet it was. As part of the job we also tagged out all the plumbing so anyone working on the lines now has a fighting chance of knowing what line goes where and what it does. If you don’t feel that thicker and thinner wrappings identify the hot and cold water lines enough, you can mark the pipes by wrapping them with colored tape here and there, red for hot and blue for cold. A future plumber or home owner may thank you for that.

There are other insulating things you can do as well, such as storm doors and heavy drapes. You can insulate your beds with down comforters, allowing you to lower the thermostat another notch or two.

headboard wasting electricityOne of my more recent purchases was a headboard for our bed. It came with a wicker insert which I didn’t like. I replaced the wicker insert with foam padding and a fashion-fabric covering. The headboard separates our bed from the cold north wall. It did make a comfort difference and when you put your hand between the headboard and the wall in January, it is cold, cold, cold in that space. The bed side? Room temperature.

All the insulating and weather stripping cuts down on drafts as well, and this, too, lets you turn down the thermostat a notch. It’s worth checking to see why you feel a constant draft in a corner. You may discover a hole, or a break in a window. Improperly closed storm windows can give you cold drafts. Broken panes of glass should be replaced, with new putty and glaziers points. Cold outside air will seep in through every single crack so it can make a difference. If nothing else, replacing broken glass will cut down on the rattles when the wind blows.

Insulation also means putting blankets and throws on chairs and couches so when you’re sitting down and watching TV, you can cover up with a blanket rather than heating up the entire house a few more degrees. This is a lifestyle change as well as an insulation one: The blanket is insulation but it doesn’t work if you don’t use it.

As with energy-saving lifestyle changes, the library is full of thrift and energy saving books detailing every step possible to cut down on your energy footprint. Go down to your library and start reading and then get to work. The great thing about insulating and weather-stripping is that once it’s done, your insulation will keep working for you, day and night and you don’t have to think about it anymore. This frees up time and money to do something else.

The Mystery of the Five Empty Peanut Shells

To celebrate the completion of “Sherlock Holmes Edwardian Parodies and Pastiches II: 1905-1909,” I’ve been running stories that for one reason or another–mostly because the book reached 125,000 words–didn’t make it in.

There are several stories from various schools in the 223B Casebook series, including three from Groton, the elite boarding school. This story came from the files of The Troubadour, the student newspaper of The Portland Academy, a private high school in Portland, Ore. Before it closed in 1916, the school’s most illustrious alumni was John Reed, the Communist writer whose book on the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World, earned him a crypt in the Kremlin.

Sherlock Holmes at Portland Academy: The Mystery of the Five Empty Peanut Shells

“Not by A. Conan Doyle”

sherlock holmes portland parodyIt was in the winter Sherlock Holmes spent in Portland that the case of the five empty peanut shells occurred. In looking over my papers I find it followed shortly after the mystery of the lost class pin, the peculiar circumstances surrounding the incident of the duplicate topic papers, the disastrous results following the research into the numerals on the roof, and several other interesting episodes connected with the same school.

But this case presents several unique points such that it may be of some interest to the public.

One rainy Wednesday, as we were passing by Portland Academy, we decided to take refuge there from the coming storm. It chanced to be the day of the Rhetoricals, so we went up to the chapel and took a seat near the back. Just as the exercises were about to begin, a small girl with red hair announced that two of her rings had been stolen and that she could not speak without them. As she was the first one on the program, this, of course, put a stop to the exercises.

One of the principals turned to us and said: “Perhaps you will help to solve this mystery, Mr. Holmes.”

Holmes said he would do all in his power, and required an interview with the girl, in order to ask her some questions.

“When did you first miss these rings?” asked my friend.

“Just before chapel,” said the girl nervously.

“Are you sure you put them on this morning?”

“Oh yes, I am sure I had them when school began.”

Then she gave a description of the rings, and told us where she had been each hour that morning, saying, however, that she had no idea where she was robbed.

Holmes paced up and down the room in deep thought for a short time, then asked suddenly, “Do you like peanuts?”

“No,” said the girl, deeply startled. “I can’t bear them. They make me sick.”

“That will do. You may go.”

It was evident that Holmes was somewhat puzzled, but I had no doubt that he was on the track. He wore that alert look, always his, when he is deeply interested.

He turned to me and said: “You see, no doubt, the importance of that last remark in the case? No? I may be mistaken, of course, but it seems to me to throw a great deal of light on the case. Come, Watson, let us take a walk down the hall.”

He led the way slowly, looking about him keenly in the now-deserted hall.

“Ah, what is this?” he said, suddenly, stooping down and picking half the inside of a peanut off the floor. Not one only, but as many as four or five did he find nearby. Then he searched the floor narrowly for footprints, rising soon with a smile of satisfaction.

“We are beginning to see the light, hey Watson?”

“I confess I do not see the bearing these nuts have upon the case,” I answered.

“Oh, Watson, you are hopeless. But, no doubt all will be revealed shortly.”

Holmes would say nothing more. Then, his curiosity seemed to be aroused by the sight of a small black box, similar to a mailbox fastened to the wall. A boy passing that way informed us that it was a box for contributions to the school paper.

“Oh, I see, and who has the key, may I ask?”

“I have,” and smiling at our surprise the boy explained he was editor of the paper.

“But no one ever opens it any more. There is never anything in it but old transfers and stamp-pictures and chalk. Certainly I will open it if you wish.”

He drew a much-rusted key from his pocket and applied it to the dusty lock. After some difficulty, the door swung suddenly open. As was foretold, there were no contributions in the box, but numerous other things. Holmes gathered them all carefully in his handkerchief, much to the boy’s amazement, and my own as well, he then left us, and I saw no more of him for an hour.

At two we went into the office, and requested that the girl be summoned.

Soon she came eagerly in and asked, “Have you discovered who has my rings, Mr. Holmes?”
“I have.”

“Who? Who?” we all asked, much surprised that the mystery was solved.

“You, yourself, my young lady,” was the grave answer.

“I? Absurd!” she said turning white.

“Say no more. I know all. This morning, fearing to speak in chapel, you conceived the idea of hiding your rings and having the exercises stopped on account of a supposed robbery. While considering a hiding place for them, you thought of the Troubadour Box as the last place one would look, so hid them there.”

“It is true! I confess,” cried the now-hysterical girl, eyeing Holmes with looks of fear.

We returned the rings to the unfortunate owner, and slipped quietly out, leaving the repentant girl to the mercies of the kind-hearted principals.

“A very simple case, Watson, but with some points of interest,” Holmes said on the way down to the car. “It all hinged upon the peanuts. When the girl first came into the room with me, I noticed morsels of peanuts on her dress, and as I knew that girls with that particular shade of red hair rarely ate peanuts, I was puzzled, I admit. When I found out by asking her that she never ate peanuts, the only thing to do was to trace the peanuts.

“As you remember, I saw the insides of several peanuts in the hall. Then I understood that her object was the shell. By examining the floor with a magnifying glass, I discovered the print of a pointed-toe shoe like the one she wore. What more simple piece of reasoning than that she wished the peanut shells to conceal something in, and that something was the lost rings? The most conspicuous place is the best hiding place, and the Troubadour box was seldom disturbed. As I expected, among the buttons, advertisements, scrap paper, transfers, and other similar articles, I found five peanut shells, in two of which were the lost rings in place of kernels.

“A little observation, Watson, is all that is necessary to solve the most bewildering of mysteries.”

Author, Editor, Anthologist, and Owner of Peschel Press, the Publisher of Histories Behind the Mysteries