In Which I Mumble Something About Appearing in Public This Weekend

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Self-promotion is not my forte. Like a lot of writers, I prefer to let my works do the talking. But I am excited about two events this weekend, and so let’s get to work, shall we?

At 2 p.m. today (3/28), I’ll be signing books — including “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes Victorian Parodies and Pastiches: 1888-1899″ — at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg. This is one of my favorite bookstores in the area, and not because they do a great job of selling books by local authors on consignment. They focus on nonfiction books, and right now, focusing on Mark Twain and the Victorian era, I’ve found some great books, including “Mark Twain Laughing” (a collection of humorous anecdotes you won’t find in the biographies), and a volume of his letters.

Plus, it’s a beautiful bookstore.

Midtown Scholar Harrisburg
The Midtown Scholar, Harrisburg

It was also here a few years back that I interviewed the store’s co-owner Eric Papenfuse. He had launched a publishing imprint and one of the books was “City Contented, City Discontented” by Patriot-News columnist Paul Beers, so naturally I interviewed him for the newspaper. Papenfuse has been an energetic civic activist for the city, and now he’s being given the chance to put his philosophy into action as mayor of Harrisburg.

Midtown Scholar 025

I’ll be signing books with Deb Lerew who has written a couple books on the paranoral: “Encounters with the Paranormal: Personal Tales of the Supernatural” and “The Newbie: A Kyrie Carter Ghost Hunting Adventure.”

On Sunday at 2 p.m., I’ll be hitting the road again, talking about Sherlock Holmes at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop. I had a great time here last year with my Agatha Christie presentation, and look forward to doing the same with Sherlock. If you come out, say hey!

Bill Peschel talking about Agatha Christie at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop
Talking about Agatha Christie at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop in 2014.

Finding Your Dream Home: Gardening (part 5)

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Suburban stockade introductionFor the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at the decision-making process while shopping for a home. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four).

Now, let’s turn to the yard, and its future role as a way of raising your own food.

The key to food production is planning and management. It is wasteful of time, energy, and resources to grow more food than your household will use. We keep running up against this problem here at Fortress Peschel. It is easy to grow 50 pounds (or more!) of tomatoes. But what do you do with them all? Especially if they all ripen at the same time? They can be given away to the neighbors, they can be dried, frozen, or canned, all of which take time, and they can rot in place (which at least puts organic material back into the soil!). The preserved tomatoes all have to be used up during the rest of the year. If you don’t use them up, prior to growing new ones the following year, you end up with still more preserved tomatoes in your pantry making you feel guilty.

Your vegetable garden doesn't have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.
Your vegetable garden doesn’t have to look as good as at Longwood to provide plenty of food for the family table.
There is an obvious solution, but one that isn’t that easy to implement. Grow less. Way, way, less. This requires being honest about how much home cooking from scratch you are going to do and are you growing things that your household will eat. It is really easy to grow twelve tomato plants: four slicers, four cherries, and four marinara style. They don’t take up very much space. It sounds like such a small amount Yet twelve plants give a huge amount of tomatoes that have to be dealt with. We may be better off with only six plants, two of each type.

Then we address the peppers (which freeze well and we do use up), the lettuces, which have to be eaten fresh as lettuces don’t preserve at all, the cucumbers which we always grow as supermarket cukes are terrible, the carrots which are cheaper and easier to buy, the swiss chard which no matter how we cooked it tasted like dirt and my God! The enthusiasm with which it grew! The tomatillos which were best used as a sort of lemony jam as any other way no one liked them. The sweet potatoes which grew with tremendous vigor but the weather was uncooperative so we couldn’t cure them well and we discovered that we don’t use them up at nearly the rate we should have so they will have to be dealt with, somehow. The peanuts which younger son wanted to try and the amount of work involved in harvesting and shelling them made supermarket ones so much easier and cheaper. Onions which turned out, after the first very good year, to be never worth the effort ever again. Onions from seed don’t grow that well for us and onion sets from the hardware store all came pre-inoculated with onion maggots so now we have to wait several years before even thinking about onions ever again. Egyptian walking onions grow with such joy that they take over the yard in no time but as they are mainly a substitute for leeks and green onions, how many do you need? Not nearly as many as we have. Kale which grew beautifully and then we didn’t use it up fast enough. Spinach which was excellent and grew sparsely and grudgingly. New Zealand Malabar spinach which was sold to us as being a heat proof spinach substitute. It grew fine, but bore very little relationship to actual, delicious spinach. Rhubarb which grows with vigor but how many rhubarb pies can you eat and back to that damn kitchen again to freeze it all for the winter.

Bleah. I do think that everyone should grow at least some of their own food. It makes you appreciate just how hard farmers work and how easy and cheap it is to buy decent produce at the grocery store. And some foods, like tomatoes, good lettuces, and cucumbers have to be grown at home in order for them to taste like they should. But, you have to learn to grow what your family likes to eat and you don’t want to grow more than what you will eat.

Preserving the harvest for the winter is an extremely worthwhile goal but it has had, for us, a steep learning curve both in the preservation skills and the using them up in the kitchen skills. We keep coming back to that pesky time management thing. If I am spending time cooking from scratch then I am not spending time sewing for me or my clients and I am certainly not spending time writing for you, dear reader.

The other reason for learning to grow some food is that eventually, you may have to do so, in order to supplement the rice and beans you can afford to buy at the store. Home grown produce gives variety, taste, and much needed trace vitamins and minerals to supplement that boring diet of grains and legumes. It takes time to get your soil up to par and it takes time to learn how to grow things successfully, cook them successfully, and preserve them successfully. We have had our share of failures and anyone who tells you that they can take a jar of preserved seeds and grow a successful garden after the zombie apocalypse is delusional. They’ll starve while waiting for those seeds to produce something edible.

If you have to grow some of your own food, a slightly larger parcel of land, say a quarter of an acre rather than 1/10th of an acre may, may be better simply because you can allow parts of the yard to lay fallow every year. That is, you don’t plant every square inch every year but let the soil rest instead under its life restoring layer of green manure. If you are going to let beds lie fallow, you need enough of them to rotate them in and out of usage and that means you need a little, just a little more space for the extra, empty beds.

So don’t be lured into thinking that you need to buy acres of land on which to grow a mountain of food. You don’t. You do need to have some space on which to learn and practice but it can be as small as a tenth of an acre. When I walk Muffy through the village of Hershey, we cruise the alleys looking at all the back yards. There are many tiny yards that are closely managed and they produce, clearly, plenty of produce. This is, by the way, yet another reason for a fence with a privacy enhancing hedge. You may not want to have your food production efforts on display for all the world to see. And touch. And take.

We have about a quarter of an acre (8/32), including the footprint of our house and driveway. Subtract out the house and driveway and you move down to 6/32 of an acre, maybe? Subtract out the wilderness-y screen across the front yard providing privacy from Google Street View and habitat for wildlife. The total acreage I can grow food on got smaller, maybe 5/32 of an acre? This space is our fenced in back yard lined with yews and thujas to act as more screening. There is a hedgerow of blackberries and other shrubs on the north side with hardy kiwi trellised along the fence, a tool shed and compost bin area, a climbing gym grown over with hops, clothesline space, a back forty to retreat to, a thicket dead center to provide wildlife habitat containing shagbark hickory trees, a row of persimmon trees and gooseberries, a rise of hazelnuts, a bed of three kinds of currents, a row of twelve columnar apple trees, and some grassy areas. This is a lot of potential food production right there.

Raised beds and pathways under construction.
Raised beds and pathways under construction.
Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.
Finished asparagus beds, planted and waiting for spring.
Then we come to the extensive raised beds, with built in trellises on some of them, their paved walkways, and the two permanent beds of perennial vegetables (rhubarb and asparagus). These beds, if I managed them better, harvested them better, cooked from them better, and preserved from them better have the potential to provide much of the vegetables and fruit we currently eat. I wouldn’t have to buy very much produce other than citrus and bananas. If I changed my cooking to reflect what I can grow in my climate (and trained the family to eat it) and gave up entirely on things I can’t grow in my area, did four-season gardening, and learned how to preserve it all for the winter, I wouldn’t have to buy any garden truck at all.

To do this my gardening would have to be much better thought out and accomplished. If I improved my container gardening skills, making better use of the natural winter light I have, I could grow citrus and peppercorns in my house. According to the Logee’s catalog, I could grow my own bananas, coffee beans, and a wealth of other tropical goodies. Their catalog is astonishing and shows how much you could do, if you wanted to spend the time, money and effort.

If I wanted to, I could transform the abandoned climbing gym into a chicken coop. That would net us eggs and manure for soil enrichment and if we were serious about this, meat for the pot. I would remove the hops as I don’t think we will brew our own beer and replace them with grape vines. The fruit would be more useful than the hops and I suppose we could make our own wine instead our own beer. That might be easier as wine can be made from grapes alone but beer needs barley to go along with the hops.

Convert a child's gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.
Convert a child’s gym into a usable chicken coop. Or a brother-in-law suite.
We have enough room that we could house rabbits for meat as well. The difficulty would be Muffy wanting to eat the rabbits before we get to them. The other hard part would be slaughtering and prepping the chickens and rabbits so we could eat them. But I could learn. Plenty of people do.

If I wanted more meat than what I could raise easily in my ¼-acre yard, I could take advantage of the fact that Pennsylvania is a big hunting state. There is a season on some kind of game animal virtually the entire year. Deer hunting is so big in Pennsylvania that the first day of deer-hunting season with a rifle (we have several deer seasons depending on how you kill them) is a day off from school! It is traditionally the first Monday following the Thanksgiving Break, so we get a five day weekend for the holiday. The Reese factory down the street has an empty parking lot on the first day of the season. Plenty of people here in Pennsylvania fill their freezer with meat for the year during our various hunting seasons. We could do that too, and thus have to purchase even less food than we do.

If I wanted to add more to the workload, I have the space for a bee hive or two. That means better pollination for the entire garden, honey, and beeswax for candles.

All these possibilities on a ¼-acre lot in town, surrounded by other ¼-acre lots. So yes, some land is vital but it doesn’t have to be acres and acres. I like living in town and a smaller lot is the usual trade off for services like a post office, drug store, bank, and grocery that I can walk too. I can get quicker emergency response too — police, fire, ambulance, and rescue — simply because I am closer to all those service providers. That is, they don’t have to travel for miles down sunny dirt roads deep in bear country to reach me when my house catches fire or the electricity fails due to winter storms.

Finding Your Dream Home (part 4)

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Making A Decision

Do you want the least expensive, smallest house? That leaves more money left over to pay off the mortgage and any other debt. You can achieve financial independence sooner without a mortgage or debt. But, will the house help you? Is there enough space for extensive food gardens and pantries? Does the house have any kind of supplemental heat like a wood burning stove? Is it heavily insulated? Will you have to do extensive renovations that will burn up the money you saved on the price? Is there a source of water nearby? Are you allowed to harvest rainwater? Do you have space for a home-based business? Will the zoning allow for small livestock like chickens or rabbits? How’s the commute? The schools? The walk ability? Local services? The neighborhood?

Do you want the biggest house? Bigger houses give more room for options like home offices, studio and workshop space for home based businesses, libraries, extensive food storage space, the renting out of rooms to bring in some money (is that legal in the neighborhood?), having relatives who can contribute to your domestic economy live with you, or taking care of elderly or challenged family members. Bigger houses also take more money to insure, to heat and cool, to furnish, to maintain, to reroof, and to pay taxes on. If you are concerned about always having money left over, the size of your house does matter.

Do you want the house that is furthest out in your twenty mile radius? That means more privacy, fewer intrusive neighbors, and usually, more land to go with the house. It also means that you have to be better organized in every way, when every single item you run out of means a trip into town to get it. You either learn to do without said item, you maintain extensive storage supplies of whatever you run out of, or you keep very careful shopping lists that you continually update. Further out means more commuting time and it’s associated costs of money and wear and tear on your body and your vehicle. More commuting time means less time spent at home doing other things. Further out means fewer neighbors who can watch over your house with you and possibly help you when you need it. Further out means that every single time you need something or you have an appointment, a school or church function or you meet someone for lunch, you have to drive to do it.

Do you want the oldest house? The one with the solid red oak floors, the extensive woodwork and moldings, the solid wood doors, the slate roof and mature landscaping that cools the house in the summer, the pre-air conditioning house that has decent ventilation. This may be the house that needs to have insulation blown into all the walls, a new roof, re-wiring, and termite removal.

Do you want the newest house? It has decent insulation and up to code wiring. It may also be made of chipboard and staples and glue, with the very cheapest of everything from kitchen cabinets to carpeting. Since it is new, the assumption is that you will run either the air conditioner or the furnace to cool and heat the place. Opening all the windows won’t naturally vent the building as they weren’t lined up by the builder on opposite walls to do this. Some rooms, like bathrooms, may not even have windows. Hope you have alternative lighting for these rooms for when the power goes out.

Do you want the house with the largest yard? A larger yard means space for extensive food production areas, fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, tool sheds, bicycle storage, chicken coops and rabbit hutches and bee hives, clotheslines, compost bins, rain water storage, patios and outdoor kitchens. A larger yard means you can spare the space to run a yew hedge all around the perimeter for privacy. You have space for wilderness areas to provide habitat for predatory insects and birds. If you need to build in an outhouse, you have the room. A larger yard may have a well and a septic system, which can free you from those kinds of utility bills. Your well and septic system will give you another layer of complexity that you have to maintain. A larger yard will cost more to install a six foot chain link fence all around the perimeter, and more to buy the yews and cedars that you plant as a screening hedge just inside the fence, all around the perimeter. A larger yard takes more time to mow as it tends to have more grass areas.

Do you want the house with the smaller yard? A careful layout of almost any yard will allow space for raised beds for vegetables, some clothesline space, some compost bin space, some outdoor living space, even some space for ornamental and wilderness areas. A smaller yard is much easier to maintain and keep track off as you can see it all and walk through it quickly. But, you need to plan out the layout carefully as it isn’t that easy to change the locations of raised beds, compost bins, and patios once they are in place. Smaller yards mean saying no to some of the things you may want such as chicken coops. Smaller yards mean choosing semi dwarf fruit and nut trees. Smaller yards mean that every plant in them should be doing double duty in terms of food production, attracting pollinators, screening out the neighbors, providing wildlife habitat, and being beautiful to look at. This double or even triple duty need for each plant you choose means that you can’t just go down to the nursery and buy what looks pretty. You will have to do a lot of research, in advance, to get the best usage of your space and money with your plant selection.

Do you want a yard at all? In this case, the answer is absolutely yes. Even if you end up with some kind of duplex or row house, you need some yard space. Yard space gives some room of your own for your kids, your dogs, your laundry, your outdoor living, and your gardening. You can’t harvest rainwater or make compost without some outside space. Yes, you can sign up for a slot in the community garden and this may be your only alternative. But it is far easier to grow and use tomatoes and lettuces when they are steps away from your kitchen door, rather than when they are a fifteen minute drive away. Even a 100 square foot walled patio (ten feet by ten feet) will give you some room for vegetables, flowers, a lawn chair, and a bird bath.

You don’t have to have acres of ground for food production. A smaller set of raised beds, managed closely, can be extremely productive. A larger, traditional garden of long rows that gets away from you with its unending labor needs of weeding, watering, harvesting and preserving can produce a whole lot less usable produce. Look for books such as “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew and “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Though Possible” on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons.

Which brings us to the next part of our series: making the best of the land that you buy.

How Much For That Sherlock In The Window?

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The organizers of the Sherlocked event have emailed us the price list for having your photo taken with the actors, giving us a reliable gauge for how much they think they’re valued by fans.

At the top of the list, of course, is Benedict Cumberbatch. Standing by Sherlock will cost you 45 quid, or about $66.

sherlock holmes selfie
Or about twice as much as having it taken at Madame Tussauds.

It’s a rare moment in pop culture where the villain does not outshine the hero (actors know it’s always better to be the bad guy). In this case, one Moriarty is worth three-quarters of a Sherlock.

Since Martin Freeman won’t be attending, we won’t know how he matches up. A little less than Sherlock? I couldn’t think so. Depending on your flavor of slash fiction, he should certainly stand alongside his particular friend. And what about Amanda Abbington, his partner both in real life and as Mary? How would you value their brief presence beside you? That could make for an interesting discussion among Sherlockians.

The only wild card on the list is Lara Pulver, this generation’s Irene Adler. She has a “TBC” by her name. They could treat her as iconic, certainly to the female fans, and charge as much as Moriarty.

Personally, if I was going to spring for a professional selfie, I would buy a moment with Mark Gatiss, who at £20 is clearly undervalued. He not only portrays Sherlock’s brother but is one of the major forces in putting the show on its legs in the first place (but as a writer of course I would value him much more).

But Gatiss must console himself — as if he needed to — with the thought that, if Conan Doyle came back and agreed to a Sherlocked-style convention, he would probably be priced just the same next to his creation.

"Humph. They would have charged more if I got my kit off."
“Humph. They would have charged more if I got my kit off like Irene.”
But perhaps they priced Gatiss for his on-screen qualities alone. Comparing him to the actors on the rest of the list, he is matched with Rupert Graves (Lestrade) and Lars Mikkelsen (Milverton), and five pounds higher than Louise Brealey (Molly! — heavens! another underpriced actor) and Jonathan Aris (Anderson).

Rounding out the list at £10 is Clive Mantle (the doc in the “Hounds” episode), Alistair Petrie (Sholto), Elizabeth Coyle (Miss Sutherland), and Louise Breckon-Richards (victim in “A Study in Pink”). One hopes they don’t take their valuation personally (at one-fifth of a Sherlock).

Finding Your Dream Home (part 3)

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When you zero in on a potential dream house, drive out to it from your job at your normal time. I did not buy a townhouse in Virginia Beach for this very reason. When I went out with the realtor to look at it, we went at 11AM. It was lovely and such a nice, empty, quiet drive. When I drove out a few days later at five PM, that 20-minute drive took me 50 minutes. I didn’t buy the townhouse.

When you zero in on a house, ask about any damages to the house from radon, mold, asbestos removal, flooding, murder, meth labs, anything you can think off. Not every state requires full disclosure of any past problems so you have to ask. Find out about the school district. Ask about the crime rate at the local police station. Are any new developments or shopping centers being planned for nearby? Is the road in back of the house being turned into a limited-access freeway? You may not get answers, but you certainly won’t find out if you don’t ask.

Use your eyes and look around. Visit the house at various times of day and night. Does it seem what you want? Quiet, safe, low-key neighbors? Screams, sirens and gunshots? Vegetable gardens? People on the street who seem to know each other? Maintained properties? Broken glass and litter?

Does the house belong to a homeowner association? Some people really like being in one. But if you are serious about food gardening, chickens, compost bins, wilderness gardening, landscaping other than grass, small scale power generation via solar panels or windmills, clotheslines, running a home business, even putting up an American Flag on a flagpole, then don’t buy in an HOA.

An HOA is a private organization and when you buy into one, you give up many of your rights to do with your property as you wish. The Supreme Court has said so by ruling that HOAs are private groups not regulated by the government. Most HOAs take extremely dim views of anything that, in their eyes, looks messy (such as vegetable gardens), reduces property values (a sculpture made from spare engine parts and swingsets), or lets the home owner show any individuality whatsoever (such as painting your front door in any color but the approved beige).

In exchange for the dubious advantage of having curtain-tuggers monitoring your life, you’re subjected to annual maintenance fees and a laundry list of dos and don’ts. Read the HOA manual very, very carefully before buying into a planned community. If you don’t like the rules, don’t inflict them on yourself or your family.

Why so much emphasis on taking care when buying the house? Because nothing can cost you more than poorly chosen houses and spouses, and they’re the kinds of decisions that we can make on impulse. Both can bankrupt you or lead your household to financial independence, safety, and security.

So take your time and go slow, when shopping for a house or a long-term rental. It is so much trouble and expense to buy a house. All of this time and care and work up front is to spare you endless problems down the road, problems you could have avoided if you hadn’t been in such a hurry. Since this house will be your permanent home, the one you get carried out of feet first, it is worth taking the time to do it right. Just as when selecting your spouse, you don’t choose the very first likely looking person you meet. Get to know them first and meet their family and friends, too. Pay attention to those red flags, whether it is the boyfriend being abusive to waiters or the house having cracks in the foundation. These problems don’t get better on their own.

Know, in advance, just how much you can afford. Realtors make their money by selling more expensive houses. They have to do just as much work for a cheaper house where the paycheck is smaller. If you don’t insist, in advance, on your price range, then you will be shown whatever the realtor thinks you can afford. Being able to afford a house means not just the monthly mortgage payment. It means the escrow to pay the taxes and the insurance as well. Frequently, ads imply only the actual mortgage, not all the other added costs.

Affording a house means being able to pay for the insurance, taxes, heating, cooling, lighting, landscaping, furnishing and decorating costs. Some of these are ongoing, such as the heat. Other costs are one time only like installing a four foot chain link fence all around the perimeter. Can you afford a new roof? A new kitchen? Repaint all the walls currently done in various shades of mustard and dirt? All that takes cash and it is cash you can’t spend on the mortgage or anything else.

Estimate what you can actually pay and then shop for houses that come in well under that cost. That allows for money left over to meet maintenance costs. It also means that if your income is cut for some reason, you have a better chance of still being able to stay in the house. Realtors love telling you that a house is a stretch now, but it won’t be in years to come as you get those pay raises. Pay raises may not come. You can never count on future income. You can only count on what you have now.

The bigger the down payment you save up, the smaller the mortgage payments will be. Smaller payments are easier to make and they are also easier to double up on. When you get your mortgage written up, make sure you can make extra payments towards the principal. Some contracts will penalize you for doing this so read those documents carefully and don’t sign the contract if you don’t like it. There is always another house. You lose all your negotiating power when you sign the contract. Up until that point, you can walk away. If the contract isn’t what you want, then be willing to walk away. There is always another house. Repeat this mantra to yourself. There is always another house.

A 30- year loan is set up to pay for the house two, three, or even four times over, depending on the interest you pay. Each payment is divided into principal (what you borrowed) and interest (what the bank earns). The payments are divided on a sliding scale so the first few years on a $500 monthly mortgage payment mean a principal payment of ten bucks and an interest payment of $490. That’s right: for the first year or so, you may pay less than $200 towards the truck load of money you borrowed.

Get an amortization schedule and read it carefully. In the first year of the mortgage, every single extra dollar you pay towards the mortgage will chop months off the life of the loan. An extra hundred dollars a month in principal during the first year may chop three or four years off of the total life of the loan. Put extra dollars towards the mortgage faithfully and you can turn a 30-year loan into a 20 or even a 15-year loan. Does this take self-discipline? Oh, God, yes. But the payoff is well worth it.

I know that plenty of financial planning people tell you that you should be putting your extra cash into the stock market via your 401K plan. After all, you don’t know if you are going to be living in that house for very long. However, only you know if you want to homestead in an area. If you are in an area for the long haul, all your relatives nearby, with the services and amenities that you like, then why would you rent? Unless you live under a bridge or you permanently couch surf, you have to live somewhere. Make it your own place, paid for in full, instead of paying rent on the same property for 50 years to a landlord. I had relatives who did this in North Dakota. They were forced to move when their long-term rental was sold out from under them.

What To Look For In A Property

So what else do we look for when buying a property?

Some people say they won’t buy anything old as they don’t want someone else’s problem. Other people figure that an older house will be better built. Certainly, a home designed and built before 1960 will be far more likely to have windows all around and in every room. No air conditioning meant that every single room had to have natural ventilation. Windows might be lined up to provide a through breeze, allowing the house to better cool itself.

oriented strand boardOlder houses are more likely to be built with nails and solid wood as opposed to glue, staples, and oriented strand board, a wood-like panel made of shredded wood glued together. Older houses may be built of real brick or concrete block. They tend to be in older areas, more walkable and closer to the center of town, with mature trees that shade in the summer and allow the winter sun to warm the house. Hardwood floors and solid wood windows are other pluses.

Newer houses tend to have better insulation. It isn’t that easy to add insulation to an existing house. It can be done and the insulation contractor will be happy to work with you on improving your house. If you do this, study up before you sign any contracts. Make sure you are sitting down when he tells you how much it will cost.

You can fix all kinds of things on any house. Roofs can be rebuilt, insulation and storm windows added, kitchens improved, storage of every kind added in. Gardens planted, fences erected, trees and hedges grown to provide sun and wind control. It is damn difficult to fix the location.

Realtors say the three most important things about any house are location, location, location and they are absolutely right. Number four would be buying more house than you can honestly afford on your salary. That can be just as damaging to your long term goals as buying a house that floods every other year.

Take your time shopping for a house. Go to every open house in your target area, including the ones for houses you don’t want and can’t afford. You are training your eye so you can recognize that great deal when you run across it. In the meantime, save up as much money as you can for the biggest down payment. Make lists of what you want your house to do. Need a home office? A sewing studio? A greenhouse? Room for a swimming pool? Extensive food gardens? Clotheslines? Chicken coops? Garage and workshop space? Storage space for a years’ worth of groceries? Space for a home based business? Every house you look at should be evaluated with the things that you want in mind. Take notes and photos as you go, so if you see a great idea like a Solatube, you can add it to your personal list of things to add in your own home.

If you end up in the lovely position of being able to choose between several equally good houses that you can easily afford, then you really have to make decisions.

And we’ll cover that next week.

Did I Find Two “Lost” Sherlock Holmes Poems?

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From illustrator Ian Schoenherr:

Did I just find two “lost” Sherlock Holmes poems? I don’t know. Maybe…

I should say that I’m going through yet another Sherlockian phase right now, so while painting the illustrations for Maile Meloy’s next novel (out this fall!), I listen to audiobooks of the Canon, and in between brush strokes I browse books and blogs about Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Yesterday, I finally looked up one of the earliest – if not the earliest – parodies of the great detective, “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes”, which was published anonymously in The Speaker for November 28, 1891. Its author turned out to be Conan Doyle’s soon-to-be friend, J. M. Barrie, who later created Peter Pan (another early obsession of mine).

Inspired by this – and also by the recent ruckus over “The Book o’ the Brig” – I started poking around for other early, possibly “lost” Sherlock Holmes parodies or pastiches. Soon, I found these poems:

Best I can tell, these poems haven’t appeared anywhere else since Charles Joseph Colton published them in his 1899 book “Volume of Various Verse.” A check of Colton on the Library of America’s Chronicling America site (where many newspapers have been digitized) didn’t return any results for Colton, making him one of the more obscure contributors to the genre.

If you’re interested at all, take a look at Schoenherr’s post. They’re lively, fun poems.

Zeroing In On Your Dream Home (part 2)

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Last week, we looked at why most of the time it’s preferable to buy a home rather than rent. This week, I’ll go into our experiences house shopping and share what we learned.

House Shopping for Beginners

The house you choose, like the spouse you choose, can help you reach financial independence, or it can ensure you will remain a wage and debt slave your entire life. If your job situation is uncertain and you know you must rent, then you should still draw your circles and look for rentals in the magic area. The goal, always, is to reduce your costs and make your life better. This applies to renters just as much as it does to buyers. Eventually, you won’t be a renter anymore, so plan ahead.

Amy Dacyczyn in her Complete Tightwad Gazette talked about looking for her dream house. She and her husband chose their area. They then looked at 176 houses before settling on the one they bought, #177. What they found was that the more properties they looked at, the more they educated their eyes. They started to recognize whether or not they even wanted to go into the house, they began seeing potential problems that took houses off of their list, and that taught them to spot a great bargain when they found it.

This takes time, clearly. You may end up having to rent while you house hunt. Yet is that bad? You learn the area, where the services you want are, which neighborhoods meet your needs. You can’t learn this by buying a house sight unseen and in a hurry. My sister in Florida sold a house to out-of-town buyers. Only out-of-town buyers would have bought this place as everyone local knew that, even though the house was charming, the street it was on turned into a 55 mph motorway twice a day. Only local buyers knew that the neighborhood was becoming progressively unsafer, year by year. The out-of-towners did not know this either.

I remember quite clearly some of the houses I’ve looked at over the years. A house I saw in Norfolk had a view of the Elizabeth River from two different spots. You could see the river if you stood on the roof with a pair of binoculars and you could see it flowing in the unfinished basement under the wooden pallets. I also didn’t buy the house in the obviously skeevy neighborhood where you clearly needed two husbands and a big dog to feel safe in your kitchen.

A house we looked at here in Hershey showed the importance of being your own building inspector. At first, it appeared to be a charming house on a charming street. A closer inspection revealed suspicious stains on the ceiling and walls below the second floor bathroom. The second-floor bathtub had caulk all around it swirled and layered on like cake frosting. The basement had been subdivided into a warren of tiny cells. The addition on the back of the house clearly sagged. Floors seemed uneven. The kitchen needed a lot of work. How much of a hurry were we in? We could wait, so we made a lowball offer due to the obviously needed renovation costs and were refused. I have been grateful ever since that Mrs. Grenada (named after the street the house was on) wouldn’t make a deal. We walked away. She saved us tens of thousands of dollars in aggravation. How do I know this? Years later, I met the new owners of the house, and they described the amount of money they were pouring into it.

We only looked at houses in our price range and in our target area. We saw, both me and Bill, separately and together, many, many houses. We didn’t buy the house that had the shaking floors and bedrooms that also acted as hallways into the next room. We didn’t buy the house that was surrounded by freeways on three sides. We didn’t buy the house where sewage and water lines had to be installed by the homeowners. We didn’t buy the houses in the boondocks where you had to drive ten miles to pick up a gallon of milk. We didn’t buy the house that was right next door to an all night Kwicky-Mart or the no-tell motel.

This may seem like the perfect house, but don't be deceived by its curb appeal.
This may seem like the perfect house, but don’t be deceived by its curb appeal.
We didn’t buy the house in a flood zone in Harrisburg. That’s the one I most regret, because it was a gorgeous house, with original tile, parquet floors, high ceilings. Everything a house junkie could want and the price was well below what our top amount was. But, it was on a one-way street that became a four-lane 55-mph speedway every day at rush hour. Harrisburg also has some of the worst school districts in the state. And we knew the city had flooded during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Most of Harrisburg did! Would this property flood again? We don’t know personally, but Hurricane Isabel blew through in 2003, followed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 which flooded much of Harrisburg. Then Tropical Storm Lee in 2011 flooded much of the midstate again.

There is a part of Harrisburg called Shipoke that is so low-lying that it floods with every heavy rain. People buy houses here regularly and are then surprised when they get the flood insurance premium and complain that the basement is full of water. What did they expect? If the potential house is built in a flood zone, you will get flooding! Regularly! Don’t do this to yourself and quickly walk away onto the next property.

I didn’t even get out of the realtor’s car at one house. We drove up to the edge of a cliff. All you could see was the plunging driveway with its mailbox and newspaper tube alongside it. You could not see the house; God knows where the photographer stood to take the picture in the real estate brochure. I thought about that driveway in a Pennsylvania winter, covered in ice and snow. I stayed in the car, and we moved onto the next house.

The moral is to take as much time as you can while house-hunting. Look at school districts, walkable services, the size of the yard, is the house in an HOA? Run away, run away, run away if you don’t like what you see. Look at road maps: is the house on what looks like a road in the country? Is that the only road between two larger areas? Is it a state or federal numbered highway? Expect that road to be widened in the future, giving you less front yard and more and faster traffic. How isolated is the house if you need fire, police, ambulance, snow-plow services? Does the house have access to gas lines, electrical hook-ups, newspaper delivery, cable, telephone, water and sewage hook-ups? If you want these things and the house doesn’t have them, you will have problems and major expenses.

Plenty of people around here get their new water from a well and have their used household water flow into a septic tank. These two things need to be spaced far apart or your well might pull in water that passed through your septic tank. Make sure you ask where the two are, in relationship to each other. Get the well tested for bacteria to be sure.

What can happen next, is that the sewage lines are extended as the area grows and the homeowner is required by the government to pay to install water and sewage lines. Never mind the preexisting well and septic tank. Did you know that septic tanks need to be regularly pumped out? Did you know that even if the septic tank is regularly pumped out, the leach field eventually fills up and the septic tank and its accompanying pipes needs to be moved to somewhere else in the yard? At the homeowner’s expense? A contractor told me that one. He wondered what people would do when there was no location left in the yard to move the septic tank to, particularly if the water came from a well. Install a new, more expensive system, no doubt.

Visit houses with a pair of binoculars, a flashlight, and a heavy marble. Use the binoculars to look at the roof for uneven ridge lines, leaning chimneys, and missing shingles. Use the marble to see how uneven the floors are. Use the flashlight to look into every single dark corner, cabinet, attic, and basement. Look for water damage, mold, missing insulation, suspicious stains. If you don’t like what you see, move on to the next house and save the cost of a home inspection. Start training your eye to see damage and potential problems.

A thought to keep in mind is that if the homeowner who is trying to sell the house can’t be bothered to clean up for you, the prospective buyer ready to hand over a bag full of money, then why would this person have done any of the routine maintenance? This is similar to going into a restaurant and facing dirty bathrooms. If the part they let you see is unsanitary, do you really think the food preparation areas are kept any cleaner?

Next week, we’ll look at what to do when you think you’ve found the house for you.

Attending Maria V. Snyder’s Book Launch

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On Saturday, the wife and I abandoned the kids and crossed the river on an afternoon of chores. There was the annual visit with the accountant to finish up the taxes, which was a good excuse to hold the meeting at the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill. That went well. Questions were answered; to-dos were established before we (electronically) sign on the line that is No Longer Dotted. I had forgotten to bring the paperwork, but since Amazon had decided to twice send my year-end records that wasn’t a problem.

Then we looked in at the Pennsylvania Fabric Outlet in Lemoyne. The place was going out of business. Pity. It’s one of those businesses dedicated to one particular subject, the kind where if it hit your sweet spot, you wouldn’t think to go anywhere else and you’d recommend it to your friends.

The wife had been a regular customer for years, until she got so much fabric and trim that she realized she needed to use up what she already acquired before coming back for more. This time, she was hoping for small items like trim, but the wait to be checked out was two hours, minimum.

She decided she didn’t need the trim that much.

Bookending those two tasks were visits to Cupboard Maker Books for Maria V. Snyder’s book launch. I had intended to drop in, get “Shadow Study” signed (her fourth book in the Poison Study trilogy; like Douglas Adams, her fans had wanted more, and who was she to say no?), then move on.

Silly me. This was a full-blown launch. The bookstore had laid out a festive spread of snacks, including delicious cheezy dough from the pizza restaurant down the street. Snacks and cookies. A sheet cake with the cover photo on it. And the place was jammed.

Maria V. Snyder book signing cupboard maker books
Not seen to the left: 30 people ahead of me, some with multiple books.

I had zoomed in, so you’re not seeing the crowded jammed at the front of the store. We got there at 1, the accountant meeting was at 2, buying the book took time and I had to factor in the time to get to the cafe. It was easy to see that nothing else was going to happen.

If we had stopped there, we would have chalked the day up as a wash. But when we were done at the fabric outlet, we decided to drop by again, at least to chat with Michelle, one of the owners.

Maria was not only there, but conducting a radio-show-style reading.

Maria V. Snyder bookstore reading from Shadow Study

There were a few people left, so I got the book signed and chatted briefly with her.

I intend to get started on the book, as soon as Ivan’s done with it.

Ivan the cat posing on "Shadow Study"
I asked him what he thought. I think “rowl”! means a rave.

Then we went shopping. The wife had noticed that the bookstore had made some changes in their stocking, and Michelle confirmed this. They moved a lot of their nonfiction into another room. For the next hour or so, we prowled the stacks, pulling up whatever we could find.

Tucked in there: Herbert Asbury's "The French Quarter"
Tucked in there: Herbert Asbury’s “The French Quarter”

The most amusing find was “Bitch! The Autobiography of Lady Lawford.” Peter’s mother, about whom this Amazon review probably sums her up nicely:

The transcripts give an effortless insight into the mind – if we can so dignify it – of Lady Lawford, snob, socialite, and mother of Rat Packer Peter Lawford. Lady L has one genuinely interesting trait, which is that she is entirely disgusted by sex, and hit on the brilliant trick of wiping bloody meat on her nightie so she could pretend to be having her period.

I’m looking forward to this one.

Buying A Home (part 1)

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Suburban stockade introduction

An awful lot of people concerned about the upcoming difficult future think that you should have a large property somewhere way out in the rural areas of the country. This can certainly be a worthwhile goal: after you have dug yourself out of debt, built up your emergency food storage, learned a lot of skills, got in shape, and did everything else you should be doing and if you can pay all the bills for the place you live in now and for the place way out in the woods that you only visit from time to time.

buying a home
Having a second property that you don’t actually live in? Who is going to be minding the store when you aren’t there?
For most of us, this is unlikely. Having a second property that you are paying for that you don’t actually live in? Pretty damn expensive and who is going to be minding the store when you aren’t there? I have friends with a beach house and that second property, while a very nice getaway, also eats money and life energy. A second property has its own set of bills just like your main home does. Taxes, utilities, HOA or other residency fees, and, until you pay it off, a mortgage. Plus you have to wonder what is happening to the property while you aren’t there. Burglars? Vandals? Storm damage? Fire? Burst water pipes in the winter? Everything that can happen to your main home can happen to your second property and you may not be there to keep a small problem (missing shingles on the roof) from becoming a big problem in a hurry (wind storm tears off remaining roof, house is flooded by rain, contents of house ruined).

The other problem with a second getaway property is how do you get there? If the city you live in is being evacuated in a panic because of, because of, well! the mind boggles! Fire, terrorists, riots, pandemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, make up your own list. If you’ve ever tried to leave town when every one else does, like say Friday afternoon on a three-day weekend, then you know how much time you’re going to spend sitting in traffic with the rest of the sheep.

Buying a second property to run to, hundreds of miles away, demands very careful thought. Can you afford it? Can you handle the additional work? Can you trust the caretakers or neighbors (whom you barely know) to take care of the place and call you if there is trouble? Can you get there, with your family in a hurry? If you do manage to get there, escaping the burning city, will the neighbors who don’t know you from Adam welcome you with open arms? All points to consider.

But if you live on your 500 acres in the wilderness and take an active role in your community, then this doesn’t apply to you. You already made it. You make enough money at whatever job you do to pay for everything. Hopefully, you are not commuting three hours a day to said job as that is time that could be better spent. Commuting time also increases drastically when everyone else is fleeing the city, so you are back to the problem of how do you get to your property way out yonder.

I believe, very strongly, that you should own your home and that it should come with land. The ideal situation is one where you have a single-family house, i.e. with no shared walls, and a tenth of an acre or more of land, on up to whatever you can afford, in a small town, and a commute to your job of less than half an hour one way. This is an achievable goal, with the benefits of a bit of land, some security, and without being isolated from family and friends. Since you have to live someplace, why not focus on making it the best it can be?

As an aside, one of the benefits of owning your home free and clear is that it is harder to lose your house. If you are having significant cash-flow issues and you own your house, you can risk dropping your house insurance. You can delay paying your property taxes. The state doesn’t foreclose nearly as fast over unpaid property taxes as a bank will over an unpaid mortgage. I don’t recommend either of these options; they can make other problems down the road even bigger.

My father firmly believes that you should go into retirement with a paid-for house, no debt of any kind, a paid-for late model car, decent health and money in the bank. This way, you have a margin for error when bad things happen to you. The house you choose can strongly determine whether or not you can pay it off early and meet this goal. Select too much house and you will never be able to pay off the mortgage ahead of time and still meet the taxes, insurance, and utilities, and pay for all the maintenance, and pay off all your debt and have money left over in savings. A house you can afford means, eventually, a place to live that you don’t pay for, other than the usual things: taxes, insurance, and utilities; all of which you have to pay for a rental as well as the place you own.

When you share walls and roofs with other people, their problems quickly become your problems.
When you share walls and roofs with other people, their problems quickly become your problems.
Of all the housing types, a single-family home is the best choice. I’m not keen on townhouses and row houses and duplexes and other arrangements where you share walls and roofs with other people. If the neighbors have roaches, you have roaches. If the neighbors have wild parties, you get to share every single minute of them, whether you were invited or not. If the neighbor above you teaches tap dancing classes or the one alongside gives tuba lessons, you get to practice right along with the students. Their neglected portion of the roof means you can get water damage. Their mold is your mold. Their termites are your termites. Their rodents, pets, and children become your varmints, critters, and annoyances. If the neighbor neglects to clean their dryer vent and their house catches fire, so does yours. In the last four years, a building in the apartment complex across the street caught fire, destroying not only the apartment it originated in, but at least a dozen others.

I understand the benefits of townhouses. They make good use of land. They promote density, meaning more services within a walking distance. Townhouses mean you still get a little land for food growing and privacy. Sharing party walls means sharing heat in the winter. They tend to be more affordable than single-family residences. You have close (very close!) neighbors who might be willing to keep an eye on things in the neighborhood, neighbors ready to help you when you need it.

I’ve shared walls and hallways and other communal spaces and I really like a single-family house better. Townhouses and other communal-style houses can be much more affordable, but careful house hunting can compensate for this. As with single-family housing, there is a lot of variation in townhouses in terms of age, quality of the building, tenor of the neighborhood, rules and regulations; all the usual things. A townhouse may be your best compromise in terms of housing costs, commuting time, and some yard space, while being located in the ideal small town that you can’t afford to live in otherwise. So shop carefully.

The ideal place: Small-town living

The ideal small town has services like a hospital, decent schools, grocery stores, some retail shopping for essentials, library, churches, banks, all the things you need for daily living. You know your neighbors, they know you. You participate in the community via church, school activities, local government, scouting, whatever you and your family like to do. You can walk or bike to a lot of what you need to do, locally. You spend your money locally, keeping the community more economically healthy. A healthy community, of which you and your family are a known and valued part, goes a long way to being stronger and more resilient in an uncertain future.

Having a short commute means that you have more time to spend on the things you need and want to do, and more money left over. A short commute also means that you have a prayer of getting home if you are forced to do it on foot. Very few of us are up to walking more than ten or fifteen miles in a day. If your job is much further than that from your home, you may want to think about how you would get home if you couldn’t use your car. So closer is better.

So if you are starting out or thinking about relocating, this is what you want to look for: a single-family house in a decent school district (if you have children) with some land and services nearby that is within 20 miles of the main jobholder’s job.

This is what you want to look for: a single-family house in a decent school district with some land and services nearby.
This is what you want to look for: a single-family house in a decent school district with some land and services nearby.

How do you find such a dream property? You start with a map. Purchase or print one out that has a small scale, i.e., local or county level versus the entire state.

Take your map and put a pin into it where the main job is located. Now using a compass, draw a 20-mile radius circle around the job’s address. Use the distance scale on your map to get the circle size correct. Start looking for property inside this area. A 20-mile radius circle is 40 miles across, giving you potentially hundreds of square miles of houses to choose from.

If you must have two jobs to bring in enough income, then draw a 20-mile radius circle centered on each job location. Your target area is where the circles intersect. If they don’t intersect, then either draw bigger circles until you get a joint area or one of the two job holders should consider changing jobs so as to spend less time commuting and more time living. If you are in this position, you should also seriously consider your living expenses and what can you cut back on.

Your long-range goal should always be Financial Independence. Cut back, cut back, cut back and use the second job to pay off all the debt. Then, when your household is debt-free, use the second job to build a fat cash stash. When you reach this position, it’s time to think about ditching the most-hated job.

Rough Draft 5: ‘Crazy for You’, Mystery Bookstores & Nerdist Mom

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The family saw “Crazy for You” at the high school last night. It was a treat for the kids, who helped build the sets, and it was fun to hear George and Ira performed live.

Crazy for You at Hershey High School 2015This is the second high school musical we’ve seen, and I always have to struggle to enjoy the effort the students are putting into their roles, admire the ones who nail their parts, while telling the inner critic with his advice and fault-finding to piss off.

The shows also bring out the vivid memories from my high school days on the boards. I had absolutely no confidence in my abilities, yet somehow I played Jonathan Brewster in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (the Boris Karloff role) and the Father in “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” If there were rave reviews I didn’t hear it; it’s only now, decades later, that a glimmer of a suspicion arises that I might have been at least acceptable.

More kids should try theater in high school, whether it’s in front of the audience or backstage. It’s one of the few times you work with a group to create something that will be seen by people other than your parents/fellow students. It gives you a chance to try something new, to stretch, to think about how you project your personality and carry yourself. Occupying another skin for a couple hours is probably the closest you can get into someone else’s head. The problem with many actors comes when they prefer to stay there.

At the high school level, it’s also interesting to see the actors that make you think they might have a future in the business. The girl who played Irene, for example. She plays the hero’s longtime fiancé who he doesn’t want to marry and eventually gets dumped (don’t worry, she marries the hotel/saloon owner in South Dakota; it’s that kind of musical). She seduces him by singing “Naughty Baby” in a smoky voice that’s perfect for the role. It’s a show-stopping song and she played it for all it was worth, and you could hear echoes of Mae West in the way she sold the lyrics. Some actors deliver their lines like messenger boys. Seeing someone embody their part gives you a hint of how the theater can be magical.

• • • • •

My wife handed me the program and asked me “what font did they use?”

1980s-font-harlow

And I blanked out. I knew it was used a lot in the ‘80s, and that I used to know it, but the mind tucked it back in the crevices along with my knowledge of ‘80s bands and last week’s lunch menu.

Today I googled ‘1980s fonts’ and there it was. Harlow. Taken from the 1930s, hopped up and modified for the ‘80s. Good choice.

• • • • •

It’s nearly the beginning of March; time for book reviewer Alan Caruba to release his list of book picks for the coming month. I was thrilled when he placed “Writers Gone Wild” on the list a few years ago and I’ve been following him and occasionally picking up on his recommendations for non-fiction, fiction and children’s books ever since. Among the books that caught my eye were “Nazi Oaks: The Green Sacrifice of the Judeo-Christian Worldview in the Holocaust” by R. Mark Musser, “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government” by Philip K. Howard, and the mystery “The Dead Key” by D.M. Pulley. Check the list out.

• • • • •

Mechanicsburg mystery bookstore March is also reminding me that I have two appearances coming up this month: a book-signing 2 p.m. March 28 at the Midtown Scholar, and a talk on Sherlock Holmes and Victorian murder at 2 p.m. March 29 at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookstore. The line of Peschel Press books will be available for signing and selling, including “The Early Punch Parodies of Sherlock Holmes,” and the collected parodies from the Victorian era (title still up in the air, right now it’s “Sherlock Holmes Victorian Parodies & Pastiches: 1888-1899.”

• • • • •

Speaking of mystery bookstores, Susan Elia MacNeal wrote about visiting Murder by the Book in Houston, Texas, and the publicity manager added what happens during a day in the life of the bookstore.

• • • • •

I’ve been meaning to get this in for awhile but it kept slipping off my plate. The Nerdist podcast celebrated its 5th anniversary with a special live show, including an appearance from host Chris Hardwick’s mother. She was a pistol, sharing unvarnished opinions about sports and people, and proved capable of returning volleys from the comedians on the show. It’s clear where Chris got his comedy chops from, and to give you a taste, here’s a few minutes from her appearance (probably NSFW for the cursing).

• • • • •

From the Quotebook: Two comments on culture:

Cultural memory is not bestowed upon us from above. The story of how we live, love, hate and laugh is passed down and across the generations. We have the choice of having our view be as unrestricted as the gaze across the Kansas prairie, or as narrow as the white dot, all that’s left when the television set is turned off, before it darkens into oblivion.
Zora Neale Hurston

We [Maori] like to say that our ancestors are not behind us, they are in front of us. So every time I engage in a book, I am engaging with the ancestor in front of me, the ancestor who interrogates me on who I am, where I come from. The very essence of who Maori are and where we come from is under threat. And I don’t like it. I see my writing as drawing a line in the sand.
Witi Ihimaera

• • • • •

Today’s Panel Without Context

From John Allison's "Scary Go Round"
From John Allison’s “Scary Go Round”

• • • • •

Before I closed this window, I just saw that Spock has moved on. Leonard Nimoy was noted for only one role, but what a role!

Live long and prosper he did.

Leonard Nimoy

Update: That most excellent Sherlockian website I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere explores Nimoy’s detective roles.