Sometimes, despite all my fretting and worrying about the future, it will still smack me on the back of the head and scream, “Gotcha!”
As late as six months ago, if someone had said, “Dude, you’re going to be far more concerned about where your son’s going to college than you were about your own,” I would have looked puzzled and replied, “My son’s going to college?”
Note: My son is a high school junior.
Yes, I am that obtuse.
Sometime last year, the Bun had taken the PSATs, which I guess was a practice SAT test. I knew he took it because a couple months ago he started getting mail.
Normally, he’d get letters from the grandparents. This time, he was getting big envelopes and booklets from universities. Big-name universities. Universities I’ve heard of whose sports teams make the police blotters as often as ESPN. Universities with reputations that made me stop and look at the address label, because there was no way in hell they meant to send it to our house. Tech schools that used to be featured in ’80s comedies starring Val Kilmer and the cast of “Revenge of the Nerds.”
I knew the Bun was smart. His grades are great, he’s hard-working, and he’ll ask me questions as if he thought I was intelligent (all right, maybe not that smart). His last question about the origins of “quad,” as in the field between buildings on campus, led to a discussion of quadrangles, and how they’re different from rectangles. Before that, it was about ways to create a parabolic mirror.
“Is this for school?”
“No, I just wanna make one.”
The notion that he could go to a school that did not have as part of its name the words “community college” in it was the father’s first sign that he should look into what it will take to get him there.
Which was why we spent last week touring two universities: Middle of the State University (MSU) and Eastern part of the State University (ESU). The names have been changed because, despite his dad’s inbred cynicism, the Bun wants to apply there.
Here’s what I learned:
You Could Play Admissions Bingo During Your Visit
After just two schools, I already have a good idea of what to expect on future visits, so I started filling in the cells on the board:
* PARTICIPATION: As in “we emphasize participation among our students.” They have 250 clubs and 30 club sports teams, and 3 orchestras. This can cause cognitive dissonance. We’re urged not to get our children involved in activities for the sake of building up his application, but those activities are exactly what they’re using to judge our children.
* EGO BOOSTS: Any statements that make it appear the child is more important than the university. MSU was blissfully free of this, but ESU gave us a big blast of it in the face. The students were reassured, in long, rolling cadences that would have had Martin Luther King taking notes, that “today is a celebration of you and your lives,” and that seeking admission into college was “not a process with a logical end, but a journey full of self-celebration and full of introspection.”
If I wanted to celebrate my child and give him introspection, I would give him a bill for 17 years of upkeep and an easy repayment plan.
* SKY’S THE LIMIT: One admissions counselor reassured the students that “your potential is limitless.” When we’ve heard that before, we would add, “I want to be a 6-foot-9 NBA player.”
* TUITION JOKE: “Under some of your chairs, you’ll find a coupon for a free year’s tuition!” Manners prevents me from repeating my response.
* CHILD’S BEST COMEBACK: So your children can play. The winner was Bun’s response to a long monologue about how to make the college search easier on the parents. When the admissions official concluded with “If I can tell you one thing to make it stress-free,” my son said softly, “You’re not getting into ESU.” The pupil is learning from the master.
* HOLISTIC: For the free space in the center, as in, “we take a holistic approach to denying your child admission.”
I got into sewing NotQuilts because I hate the cold about as much as I hate spending money I don’t need to.
One of the things we are concerned about at Chez Peschel is temperature control, but doing so without spending money or fossil fuels. Many, many problems can be solved by throwing money at them, this being one of them. How’s your heating and air-conditioning bills? Happy with them? I’m not.
This is a subject near and dear to my heart as I suffer badly from temperature swings. I’m always too hot or too cold. I’m always putting on layers and taking off layers.
Winter is far easier to deal with than the summer. Cooling off in the summer involves removing layers, but you can’t go past your skin. You can only drink so many glasses of iced tea. You do the Window Dance, opening and closing windows, raising and lowering shades. You plant large, deciduous trees in places that will cool your house, and 25 years later they will start to do their job. You reroof your house with white shingles, add ridge vents, and line the attic with reflective foil. These methods work, especially in concert, but it’s still damn hot in July and August. You just have to live with it.
But winter now, winter is easier. Insulate, insulate, insulate, block those drafts, put bread in the oven, and put on a hat, sweater, fingerless gloves, add a lap quilt and, why, it’s suddenly toasty warm.
Everything seems capable of generating or storing heat. We can take advantage of this fact and make our lives more comfortable.
One way I do this is by making quilts, although true quilters would not call them that.
Quilts are wonderful. Thick, soft, warm, they can be made of scraps so they demand only your time and not much money, and they let you set the thermostat lower on winter nights.
Quilts have a few problems, however.
They can be time-consuming to make.
They take time and some skill to cut out and sew together, such as the 10,000 little diamonds so your Blazing Star quilt lays flat. When you have recovered from sewing together all the little pieces of cloth back into a great big piece of cloth, you then have to sew the cloth to the fluffy quilt batting (which has to be purchased) to the backing cloth (which you probably also had to buy to get a big enough piece).
Sewing Quilts vs. Sewing NotQuilts
Quilts are named not for the piecing technique but for the quilting technique. That is, you quilt the three layers together with thousands of close-together hand stitches that keep the batting from coming apart. Many quilts are machine-quilted today, but you need a very expensive specialty machine to quilt designs that approximate traditional ones sewn by hand.
Quilts can be expensive.
Many years ago, I joined a quilting group in Norfolk, Va. The ladies were very nice and very skillful but they were, as a group, adamant that quilts had to be made of 100% cotton, with purchased batting and a 100% cotton backing. These ladies would not even think of reusing polyester/cotton scraps left over from dressmaking. Oh no! Poly/cotton blends were forbidden because our pioneer ancestors did not use these fabrics. They claimed that these fabrics did not work well.
These ladies did not recycle old sheets as the backing fabric. They bought new 100% cotton and sewed the fabric together to make a single sheet, with the seam running down the center of the quilt. The edges were then trimmed of a foot or more to keep the seam centered, leading to a lot of wasted fabric. They purchased the batting, 100% cotton of course, although polyester batting was acceptable. They used quilting thread, rather than all-purpose cotton/poly blends. Buying this stuff can run to some money.
Many of these quilts were stunningly beautiful, but they had two problems. First, they were also not very washable. Batting, if it isn’t carefully sewed down, has a nasty tendency to shred and 100% cotton batting can be especially challenging. The batting comes as a flat sheet but that cotton wants to go back into bolls, and if you wash it, it will. Modern batting is resin finished and needle punched so it is more amiable, but it still doesn’t like repeated runs through the washer. Instead, you get to have the quilt dry cleaned and that means still more money spent on basic maintenance.
Second, they were not very repairable, especially if they have a specific pattern, such as Blazing Star or Double Wedding Ring. You can’t just sew a patch on over the worn spot. It looks wrong. Quilts need repair more often when they are used by cats as scratching posts. Quilts need repair much more often when they are used as workshop surfaces by younger son, spreading out his tools on the surface along with the radio he is disemboweling.
My opinions about quilts come from my father’s relatives. They live up in North Dakota, and my elderly aunts made quilts. These women were poor, and they used what they had. They did not make art quilts. They made utility quilts. They wanted those quilts to work hard, be warm, and still be as pretty as possible. My Aunt Gloria told me that she made polyester pantsuits for herself and other women, saved the scraps from the dressmaking, and made quilts out of that polyester double knit. A traditional quilter today would have the vapors at the concept of using polyester double knit, yet what is more traditional, more authentic, than using up the scrap fabric that you have laying around?
As a side note, a part-time missionary once told me that polyester was the best fabric ever as you could wash it on rocks in the stream and it still looked great! Polyester double knit wears like iron, the colors never, ever fade, and it’s also very warm.
The washability of quilts is an important point for me. My kids are older now. They no longer throw up or release any other body fluids onto the bedding. Younger son was allergic to dust mites. Every bit of his bedding had to be washed weekly in hot water so he didn’t cough all night long. I have high standards for bedding as a result, and I don’t like anything that won’t put up with a weekly run through the washer in scalding water. Many quilts won’t tolerate this. They wear out and they fade like crazy and all those little seams with tiny seam margins let go, shredding at the edges.
So how can this problem be solved? Remember that our solution must be cheap, stylish, doable with on-hand materials, cheap, reasonably quick, and not overly complex to construct.
Birth of the NotQuilt
So I came up with NotQuilts. This was a long, slow learning curve and I think I invented the process as I went along. Certainly, no-one I’ve talked to in my admittedly tiny circle has ever made a quilt this way.
I call them NotQuilts because, although they look and function like quilts and use up scraps like quilts, they are not sewn together like a quilt.
Technically, a quilt consists of three layers that have been assembled separately. The top or fashion side may or may not be pieced of tiny bits of fabric. Then comes the layer of batting which provides warmth without too much weight. The bottom layer is usually plain white muslin and it, like the top layer is used to enclose the batting. The three layers are stacked and then sewn together with about a million little stitches. The finished fabric sandwich then has the raw edges enclosed by a fabric binding.
A NotQuilt is also made of three separate layers. However, they are sewn together very differently.
As I said, I taught myself to do this. I started with a pair of old blankets that were given to me by my mother-in-law, Evelyn. We miss Evelyn every day, Bill and I. The blankets were the standard, cheap kind that you buy at Wal-de-mort. They had cigarette holes burned in them (which mortified Evelyn when I told her about them) and I had to do something about it.
So I sewed a piece of fabric over the hole, on both sides of the blanket. It looked funny, so I started sewing scrap fabric over all of the holes and thin spots. Over the years, I developed the technique of first covering the back of the blanket (an arbitrary decision at first, but now I don’t do it any other way) with whatever large pieces of fabric I had laying around, and sewing them into place around the edges. Then I covered the front with more pieces of fabric until the original blanket disappeared under the new scraps. Then I bound off the edges with still more scrap fabric.
The first few NotQuilts turned out pretty random in appearance. I didn’t pay much attention to the fabric colors or patterns that I used. I now lay out a framework of fabric and then sew all the pieces on inside the framing cloth.
A NotQuilt, then, is made of three layers of fabric, but the top layer is assembled and sewn into place as it is sewn to the batting and the backing. It is not assembled separately and then quilted down. Think of a NotQuilt as a patched blanket. That’s really all it is.
Tracking your work with the help of calendars, notebooks and lists is probably one of the most neglected aspects of being an author, and yet I don’t think we can live without them. We certainly can’t write effectively without them.
(I can hear the criticism in my head by now. Malcolm Lowry, for example, wrote “Under the Volcano,” one of the great novels of the 20th century, without the help of a year-at-a-glance calendar. Do I think William S. Burroughs carried a notebook with him and wrote down everything he ate and thought? Actually, yes he did. And so did Lowry.
In short, writers use whatever tools are available to them to preserve their ideas, keep track of their work, and get their books written.
When you’re in the middle of a big project, you may be thinking about weeks or months. It’s easy to lose track of the days. You may not have a problem with missing deadlines, losing track of your business, and solving a crisis at the last minute. But if a little foresight a planning can help avoid those traps, that leaves you enough energy to direct toward finishing your books. And isn’t that why were here?
That’s where calendars come in handy. They range from wall-sized models that display a year to individual pages that you can create with Microsoft Publisher in MS Office. I use the latter option when I want to print out only one or two months as part of a special project.
Calendars can be used to keep track of any important task, including public appearances, book deadlines, monthly writer’s club meetings, tasks that have to be performed at a certain time, such as entering contests, and tax deadlines. A 12-month wall calendar can let you plot your publishing schedule, starting with the manuscript deadline and including dates to have the manuscript edited, cover art created, and marketing efforts in place. You can even add tasks that you want to perform at the beginning of the month that are not tied to a particular date, such as checking your book inventory well ahead of public events so you can order new copies in plenty of time.
Plotting your activities on a 12-month calendar lets coordinate your activities so there are no conflicts. It lets you determine your productivity and estimate how much money you could earn. You can adjust your deadlines well ahead of time so you can stay on top of your work.
Outside the Box: Consider adding a multi-year calendar to your arsenal. Create a timeline, consisting of a single line, marked off by years and subdivided into months. Use it to keep track of notable events: book publications, public appearances, and any major signposts that you want to recall.
The one we use at Peschel Press covers the years 2010, when my first book “Writers Gone Wild” was published, and stretches to 2018. I have consulted it while writing promotional material and to remind me how far I’ve come in a few years, and what I needed to do to get better.
Hi, I’m Bill Peschel, and I carry a notebook.
Hello. Thanks for helping me get this off my chest. I’ve been carrying a notebook for about ten years. I started small, a little 10-pager from a supply my dad saved from his job at the steel mill. That wasn’t enough, so I moved up to a 25-page spiral-bound job you can fit in a shirt pocket. But my need grew. I’m up to a 200-page spiral-bound with plasticized covers that could fit in a pants pocket if they’re big enough.
Oh, I resisted. Dorothy Parker sneered at a certain type of writer who carried a notebook around. It seemed so pretentious. Can’t you just write? It’s like Olivier telling Dustin Hoffman, who was immersed in the Method technique, “why don’t you try acting, dear boy?”
Now, I can’t live without my notebook. It’s attached to my hand like an appendage. I like notebooks, and I think you should use one as well. I’m a notebook pusher.
1. Portable. You can carry one everywhere. If the spiral holding the pages together is big enough, you can clip a pen to it so you’re never without one.
2. Requires no power, no software, no learning. Just grab and go.
3. Flexible. Start on page one (I start on page two, in case the first page gets damaged) and go straight through. Or keep a daily task list in the front section and use the back for recording speech, images, and ideas.
4. You can tear out notes for other purposes.
5. You can record anything and everything: to-do lists, story ideas, article drafts, bon mots and quotations from books and magazines. It’s a commonplace book, diary, self-help assistant, partner, and friend.
6. Nearly unlimited storage.
7. If you lose it, well, you lost a notebook. It’s not like you lost your smartphone.
Many authors use their notebooks to record their impressions during the day. Some of them, such as Mark Twain’s, have been published, so you can look over their shoulder and see their working habits. Other notebook-using authors include Agatha Christie (where she worked out her plots); Alexis de Tocqueville (he recorded by subject information used in “Democracy in America”; talk about writing by file folder!); Charles Darwin (scientific observations mixed with conversations and lists of books to read); Ernest Hemingway (experiences he would use in his stories, plus expenses, gifts and — for his first wife — her menstrual cycles); Jane Austen (dramatic sketches, verse, and moral observations); and Katherine Mansfield (everything, from shopping lists to story drafts).
3. Lists: I Hate Them / I Love Them
I love lists like I love diets. I’ve been on hundreds of weight-loss plans, and I’ve written out hundreds of to-do lists, yet I never seem to reach my goals with either of them.
That used to bum me out. I’d feel terrible when I go to the trouble to write down everything I have to do, only to get bored and irritated seeing that hectoring, nagging list, and I’d end up throwing it away. A few weeks later, there I am at the computer writing up another one.
I’m avoiding two lists right now. There’s a printed sheet of paper on my desk with these items:
* Seven ideas for posts
* Next actions for two books (one of them crossed off as finished)
* Six items for Peschel Press business (the January newsletter was done in February, the January report finished a week late, and I’ve added the rest of the year’s books to my spreadsheet but I haven’t crossed that off yet.
* Two handwritten tasks, unfinished.
* Two major projects born of recent ideas, also unfinished.
Does that make me a hate-lister? Probably. I’m not the very model of a Type A author. I’m as disciplined as Beetle Bailey, I am the despair of the writer I want to be.
Then I realized something: I was more productive with a list than without one. True, I never finished a single list I wrote out, but I still got things done. I didn’t lose track of my tasks, and some of the things on there it turned out I didn’t need to do now.
Writers get better by keeping their eyes, ears, and mind open to the truth: about life, about love, about people, and about themselves. Because we’re tool-users, we can learn how to get better.
In the case of calendars, notebooks, and lists, there’s a fourth element that we can use to make efficient use of them, and that is accountability.
Outside the Box: I found a powerful tool that helps me keep track of my work.
Here it is:
It’s a checkbox. Simple. Elegant. Begging to be filled in.
I use it in my notebook to identify tasks that I need to accomplish. It could be a question that needs answering, a book that needs ordering, or a plot idea that needs to be filed away. When I review the previous week’s work, I can spot instantly those tasks that I can check off.
I use checkboxes elsewhere. When I’m proofing a manuscript on paper, I place a check at the top of pages that don’t need fixing, and a checkbox on those that do. So when I’m flipping through the pages later, I can stop where I need to rather than scan each page for red marks. In a 500-page manuscript (double-spaced), those seconds saved can add up!
4. Private Accountant
What is accountability? It means having some way of evaluating what we’re doing, and holding ourselves responsible for what we do and don’t do.
This is a fuzzy concept, but what it boils down to is having someone looking over your shoulder who, at regular intervals, meets with you to see what’s going on, what needs to be done, and what you’re going to do next.
It could be your spouse. It could be a friend. It could be the Internet. It could be yourself.
Here’s how we do it at Peschel Press: Every Sunday night, my wife and I grab our favorite beverage and meet in the office. We go over the to-do list on the whiteboard. We cross off the finished tasks and go over what needs to be done. Do they still need to be there? Does it need to be modified? Then we add new tasks to the list, focusing on what the next action should be, that specific task that could be done in a day that would push that project forward. The list is prioritized so that the most important items are at the top.
Then we check the 12-month calendar, see what’s coming, and decide if there’s anything that needs to be done.
That’s it. There’s no recriminations over the tasks left undone. Even a Type A author would have a problem finishing the dozen items we usually have on the board.
Sunday is also the day I look through the previous week’s entries in my notebook and make sure nothing was missed.
That’s it. The Sunday business meeting is also a time for us to consider new ideas, reconsider the value of old ones, and make mid-course corrections.
Perhaps the funniest example of following a thread of logic to its inescapable conclusion was supplied by one of Canada’s most popular humorists. Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) was imported into Canada from Hampshire at the age of six, and there built a career as a political scientist, teacher, and humorist. From 1910 to 1925, he was considered the most widely-read author in the world, and an influence on Robert Benchley, Jack Benny, and even Groucho Marx. Although little read today, his name lives on in an annual award for the best humorous book by a Canadian writer.
Last week, we talked about the Omelas bargain, how we’re surrounded by the fruits of other people’s labor made under dreadful conditions but since they take place far, far away, we don’t see them. Faced with the knowledge that many of our possessions are made under sweatshop conditions or worse in Asia and Africa, should we embrace the bargain, or leave?
I think there’s a third way: to use less. Less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation.
The third way is to question why I should be mindlessly buying. The third way is to stop wasting the resources I do use. The third way is to give of my time and my resources so others can share in the wealth of the good old US of A. The third way is to garden extensively so that I provide a habitat for as many of my fellow critters as I can, on my one-quarter acre city lot. The third way is to shop locally, so my money stays in my community. The third way is to try and buy locally produced items, so those jobs stay in my community.
Does it mean I buy less? Yes, it does. Do I avoid many of the aspects of our consumer culture? Yep, do that too. It helps not having a television hooked up to the outside world.
In my household, we get as much use out of our things as we can.
Does this contribute to our goal of financial independence? It surely does, as spending less of our income means more money can be earmarked to other, more important things.
Does using less make the environment around me just a touch better? I think it does. If my one car is sitting in my driveway rather than being used for random errands, I’m not polluting the air with its emissions, I’m not clogging the roads, and I’m not burning precious fossil fuels.
Does this help? I’d like to think so. It’s like that story about throwing starfish back into the ocean after the storm. You can’t save them all, but you can save the ones within reach. Certainly, I’ve provided habitat for the critters in my area, habitat that otherwise wouldn’t exist in the sea of mown grass around my property.
Does this moral stance make things worse for sweatshop workers in the third world? I don’t know. I know that huge demand for disposable fashion doesn’t translate into money for the seamstresses. I know it wastes huge amounts of resources. I’m sure it’s better to be chained to a sewing machine than to be chained to a bed in the sex trade.
Whenever you hold something in your hand that was made outside of the first world, you can bet the conditions under which it was made were horrendous. They are conditions no American citizens would tolerate.
Which is not to say we don’t have Third World conditions in the USA. They’re out in the fields, picking those strawberries, picking those tomatoes, harvesting that fresh spring mix. Agricultural work is hard, repetitive and doesn’t pay well. To get those amazingly cheap prices you see down at the Giant for fresh produce, you have to use plantation labor. If you’re old enough, you may remember Cesar Chavez and his grape boycotts. I don’t believe he would be impressed by the improvements in working conditions.
Your local farmer’s market is less likely to have those issues than the giant mega-farms that supply supermarkets. At least you can ask about it and when you buy from the farmer, you put more money in his pocket so he can pay his pickers a bit more.
That unending race to the bottom, to pay the least possible amount, drives wages down. Unending population growth drives wages down as more people compete for fewer jobs. Automation drives wages down as more people compete for still-fewer jobs. Off-shoring factories drive wages down as the jobs get still fewer for the people left behind who want and need them.
It’s not a good idea for a country to have a growing population at the same time that jobs get fewer and fewer. This fact is why I refuse to use self-checkouts. I go into the bank and use a teller. I use the call lines rather than the internet when I have a question or a problem with a company.
Every time you use a self-serve line, you are sending a message to corporate headquarters to get rid of another job.
I understand that things cost a lot. I understand, boy do I!, about pinching every penny. But if I need less, then I can spend that much more to buy my paint at the local paint store instead of at the big-box hardware store.
The Omelas bargain never ends. How much of your life has to be supported on the misery of unseen others? There is no good answer.
I suppose this is where we, as a culture, decide that we want what we use to be long-lasting and repairable. The problem with that decision is that less money changes hands. If I buy one toaster that lasts me for twenty years, then I’m not buying another and another and another.
But if everything is made to be long-lasting and repairable, even if it costs more up front, it saves money and resources downstream. If we choose to use less, to not replace our dishes on a regular basis, then we need to spend less money over the long haul.
If we rework our tax law to reward businesses for hiring people and punish them for automating jobs out of existence, then we would have more jobs. That would certainly be a good thing as people need to work and have a purpose in life.
Sitting on your ass on the dole doesn’t turn many of its recipients into musicians, artists, and poets. Some people do use it that way, but not many. Think about trust fund babies. You sure read about a lot of dissipation, drug use, and therapy among those heirs who never have to work a day in their lives. The scions of the rich don’t seem to turn out very many musicians, artists, and poets and these people get better educations and better opportunities.
Would all of us spending much less money on products because they last a long time and can be repaired change the economy? Oh, boy, would it.
As I mentioned earlier, our economy is built on dissatisfaction. Why else would you replace your dishes? A set of china should last barring breakage until the next ice age! Dishes don’t go bad. They don’t wear out. You make enough new sets of china to accommodate population growth. After that, why do you replace your dishes? Because you’re tired of your old ones.
I did replace my dishes many years ago, and I wrote about it in a section of Fortress Peschel about organization. I replaced my old miss-matched dishes with a single set. I took advantage of the fact that my dear husband had a set that his mother had given him. Do I like the pattern on these dishes? I do not. But we had them and so I got plenty more secondhand ones from Replacements Limited. They’re the biggest china match service in the world, or so they advertise, and having visited them once in Greensboro, N.C., I can believe it.
Notice that I did not go out and buy new dishes. I bought old ones. The pattern had stopped production in about 1969 or so. Secondhand was the only way to go, and so that’s what I did.
I do have a second set of china, that I bought when Bill and I got married. We use it on special occasions. I wouldn’t do this again. They just take up space.
I think that a sustainable economy would be very, very different. I think that we should employ people and not machines. Automation should be used just enough to make the job safer and less back-breaking, but after that, why are we using robots when people need jobs? Robots don’t need jobs. They don’t have to be built in the first place.
Robots and automation are a choice our corporate masters make so they don’t have to accommodate the needs of actual human beings.
And maybe, if we all did this, there would be more jobs for people to have, the things that got made would last longer, the wages would rise a bit higher, and those seamstresses in China getting 39 cents an hour would get 49 cents an hour, a 25 percent increase in pay. They might even be given cleaner factories and get a sick day now and then.
I can’t save the world, but I can make my little part of it better and greener, and I can try hard to use my share more sensibly without making it worse for someone else.
What I can’t do is pretend that my choices are consequence-free and cause no damage to someone else. I can’t pretend that my green life is green, when the pollution that is generated at the long-lasting battery factory is out of sight half a world away in China. That pollution is still there, and it will be there for a long, long time. The people who live and work there get to suffer for me, so I can have a nicer life.
All I can do is to use less and to use what I have more responsibly.
This Ring Lardner Sherlock Holmes parody appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s “In the Wake of the News” column. Although primarily devoted to sports, the column allows writers to ruminate on anything, as Lardner (1885-1933) did in the March 19, 1915, issue. Perhaps inspired by an actual letter, Ring used this opportunity to poke a little fun at his own expense. Quin Hall (1884-1968) had a long career as a newspaper illustrator and cartoonist (Punkin’ Head Pete and The Doolittles).
“I cannot rejoice over the ever-increasing popularity of the typewriter,” said Sherlock Holmes, as he lounged in the most comfortable chair provided by our Baker Street landlady, and refilled, for the sixth time within an hour, a particularly malodorous pipe. “It is spoiling one of the most absorbing ways of studying the human race. One can judge from a typewritten letter very little concerning its author; merely whether or not he is an expert with the machine. But a man’s handwriting will tell the careful student the writer’s likes and dislikes as plainly as he could state them himself, to say nothing of his occupation, his characteristics, his immense thoughts, his—”
“Do you mean to state,” I interrupted, “that you can accurately describe a man’s vocation, his traits, his opinions, by a study of his handwriting?”
“Just so,” returned my companion with a smile, “and if you would look into it, I am sure you would find it as interesting a study as your medicine and surgery.”
“I am sure I would find it all bosh,” I returned shortly.
“Try it and see,” said Holmes, and thrusting his long, tapering fingers into the inside pocket of his lounging coat, he drew forth a letter. “Glance at this,” handing it to me, “and tell me what you learn of the writer.”
I spread the missive on my knee and looked at it for perhaps five minutes. It was written on hotel stationery in a graceful, legible hand, and read:
“EDITOR CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Of all the silly tommy rot and cheap Barrel House wit ever seen or heard that contained under the heading ‘In the Wake of the News’ has them all beaten to a frazzle.
“It appears to me that R.W. L———would make a good wit at a real wake and were he the corpse I’d say thank God.
“I’ve decided to switch to another paper, and talking the matter over with other fellow drummers the general opinion seems to be the same. Namely L———is a ‘dead one.’
“Yours very truly,———.”
“Well,” said Holmes at length, “what do you make of him?”
“Nothing,” I returned, “except that he writes clearly and legibly.”
“O, Watson, Watson!” exclaimed my companion, and threw up his hands in mock horror. “Where are your brains?”
“In my head, I hope,” I said with asperity. “But I did not make any ridiculous assertion as to my clairvoyant powers. It was you, I believe, who started the discussion. And it is surely your duty to make good your claim or admit that you were talking nonsense, as I believe to be the case.”
Holmes smiled quietly and, reaching over, took back the letter he had given me. He pondered it in silence for some moments before he spoke.
“Watson,” he said, “it is as far from nonsense as anything could be. This power or knack or whatever you choose to call it has served me in good stead in some of my most important cases. But I see that you are still a skeptic and it is therefore my part to convert you. I have already made my study of this particular letter and will state my conclusions to you as briefly as I can.
“To begin with, I see that the writer is or recently has been in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He has a bit of spare time on his hands, either while stopping at the Grand hotel, which is centrally located and homelike, owned by R.J. Warner and protected by the electric fire alarm system, or right afterwards. He is not a personal friend of the editor of The Tribune called ‘In the Wake of the News.’ He is hard-hearted. He is religious. He makes his decisions only after careful thought and discussion. He is democratic. He is interested in the opinion of his fellows and not above talking with them. He is a salesman who travels. He is inconsiderate. I think that is about all. Do you follow me?”
“Holmes, you are wonderful!” I exclaimed. “But surely you will tell me how you reached some of your conclusions. For instance, how do you deduce that the writer is inconsiderate?”
“From his handwriting, of course,” returned my companion. “Study the formation of the letters in this sentence: ‘I’ve decided to switch to another paper.’ If he were considerate of the feelings of others, would he be so blunt with the person addressed? Wouldn’t he rather allow the editor to find out gradually that he was no longer a subscriber?”
“It is as clear as day,” I admitted. “And how long did it take you to master this trick?”
“Trick!” said Holmes, disgustedly scratching the bridge of his aquiline nose with a gold-handled toothpick.
[Return] Barrel House wit: In Chicago, a barrelhouse or juke joint was a neighborhood corner bar that primarily catered to blacks. In the South, they were buildings outside of town (where blacks were not welcome, particularly in the bars) and the owner would operate it as a combination bar, grocery store, and nightclub where musicians would perform on a cramped stage.
[Return] Drummers: Travelling salesmen, nicknamed drummers for their ability to “drum up” business.
This is going to be a dreadfully dull post, a diary of what I’ve been up to the past few days, including visits to 221B Baker Street and Hershey Gardens. But first, a rant.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more interested in keeping the outside world away, because most of it is trying to sell me something I don’t want nor need.
I don’t need high-speed Internet service bundled with hundreds of cable channels I wouldn’t watch. Comcast and Verizon have been bombarding us with sales come-ons combined with mobster-style threats to get our service “upgraded” (e.g., rip out our copper wires) in favor of voice-over-Internet service that’s not as good but more expensive.
Being of a certain age, we’re also invited to “free” dinners and airline tickets in return for listening to a spiel for investment services and final destination homes.
Then there’s the phone come-ons of a kind that should have been blocked by joining Pennsylvania’s Do-Not-Call program, but which as proven to be a toothless waste of taxpayer money due to the phone system’s inability to electroshock callers. If Verizon offered that upgrade I would gladly pay for it.
Which is why, after getting the mail and trashing the majority if it, I went outside to look at the ferns, those most ancient and graceful of plants.
It was more out of hope than anything else that we planted them. I understood ferns loved to get their feet wet, and although this particular patch near the driveway receives a good deal of rain from the downspout, I didn’t expect them to take. But they did.
The area is mostly bare, but within a month it will be full of ferns, gracefully unrolling themselves and spreading their leaves to catch the sun. To watch them is to enter a time machine. They’re ancient plants, first appearing 360 million years ago. The ones I’m watching haven’t changed in 145 million years. In terms of human lifespans, the traditional three score and ten, that’s more than 2 million lifetimes ago.
They’re conservative plants. They don’t hold with that flowering, seed-bearing nonsense. Spores were good enough for their ancestors, so it’s good enough for them today.
Standing outside in the first burst of warmth, thinking about ferns, was far more entertaining than anything the outside world could have given me at that moment.
I have been a lifelong fan of mysteries, ever since my parents introduced me to Sherlock Holmes one Christmas. I still have those books. They were not what you’d call readers, although they did have books around. They had subscribed to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, and even got me the children’s edition (which I confess I barely read).
I had dipped into Sherlock since then in an irregular fashion. I saw “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” in the theater, as well as the two Sherlock movies. I fell in love with the BBC version, and observed the explosion in fandom that led me to the podcasts by the Babes, the fanficcers, and the two guys in the Midwest, all of whom bring unique perspectives, from traditional to contemporary, in their approach to the characters.
That compulsion in me to collect and explain led to the 223B Casebook Series, and it was only a short jump from there to visiting Scion meetings (Watson’s Tin Box and White Rose Irregulars), and from there to spending two hours driving to Reading to look at a guy’s basement.
We only spent a couple hours there. I wish it had been longer. I wish I had been alone, to listen to the clopping of horses’ hooves on the street outside and sit by the coal fire reading The Sporting Times (“the Pink ‘Un”) could and imagine the sound of someone opening the front door and climbing the 17 steps to my door, and what would happen in that room.
Jack Finney’s Time And Again has a wonderful method of time travel. The traveler must surround oneself with all the trappings of the era they want to visit. They must wear the clothes, eat the food, amuse themselves like someone from that time, and *hey presto!* you suddenly awake from your bed, open the window, and find yourself in Victorian New York City.
Barring that, the 221B we visited provided the next best thing, thanks to the power of Conan Doyle’s imagination. Because how many other rooms are there in the whole of fiction that fans would want to recreate? Bilbo’s hobbit hole comes to mind. The bridges of the Enterprise from the original series and the next generation. Nero Wolfe’s office is clearly described, but it’s not so evocative that anyone has built one in their home.
Except for that, Mrs. Hudson’s sitting room stands at the top of the list, a character in itself. Considering the millions of books out there, that’s a pretty amazing achievement.
A visit to Hershey Gardens
The day before, Hershey Gardens held its annual event where local groups were invited to set up tables. It was the perfect day for it. The weekend before, temperatures were near freezing and a storm dumped several inches of wet snow. Saturday, it was sunny, no breeze, and inviting to linger.
The gardens are on a hillside below the Hotel Hershey. Look in one direction, and you see Hersheypark, looking like a Sim amusement park with the roller-coasters rolling along and the Ferris wheel spinning. In the other direction is the Hotel Hershey looking down like an aristocratic mansion.
In between, families and photographers wandered about. It was as peaceful a scene you could want, an invitation to live in the moment, even captured on film.
Late at night, as I was drifting off to sleep, I was thinking about the Career Indie Author and wondering ‘Who the hell is going to buy this book? Why would they?”
Admittedly, it’s not the best question to ask when you’ve already written 43,000 words, but better then than when it’s published, right?
So this essay was born: An attempt to categorize the indie authors’ I’ve seen, and the ones who haven’t been discovered yet, and why I think my book would be of use to them. I got a bit silly as I was writing this — I blame Troegs Chocolate Stout — but I don’t think I was too far afield in breaking down the types of writers and why they do what they do.
The Career Indie Author is intended to be a sourcebook. It is not promising a proven path to the best-sellers list. It doesn’t guarantee anything, in fact.
Instead, it is a collection of best practices in many aspects of the publishing and online world. It is impossible to do everything in this book. Indeed, there may be advice here that, if followed, will not work for you, or may even be counter-productive. There are authors who write in one genre and those to write in many. There are people who are naturally gregarious and those who are more comfortable hiding behind a penname. Authors do not fall into one category.
Perhaps the best way to show how best to use this book is by describing several hypothetical authors and the strategies they might find the most useful.
I. The Money-Spinner
Basic attributes: You’re a reader who likes a particular genre who read one bad book too many and decided you could darn well write a better one than that. You’re energetic and outgoing and capable of writing quickly.
Strategies: Basically two-pronged: writing and publishing quickly and marketing through pay-per-click ads and email blasts. In addition, establishing a web home that keeps track of your books, provide a landing page for your ads, and directing readers to online bookstores.
Strategies not necessarily needed: Any publicity beyond the website and mailing list; organizing a business beyond sole proprietorship; building good habits (chances are if you can think you’ll publish 6-8 books a year without growing dizzy you already have them).
Other comments: Maintaining your health should be paramount, as any interruptions will delay your publishing schedule and reduce your income.
II. The Professional
Basic attributes: You already have a career — company CEO, consultant, media personality — and your books demonstrate your in-depth knowledge of a particular area and give readers the illusion of intimacy.
Goal: To spread the word about your story, to sell at speaking engagements, and grab the attention of decision-makers in the media.
Strategies: Write — or have ghost-written — a strong book. Engage a good editor and cover artist. Build a website that defines your brand, celebrates your accomplishments, and solicits speaking engagements, public appearances, media interviews, and business for your company; the onion theory of publicity.
Strategies not necessarily needed: Good working habits (although you could consider how to take it to the next level through a system such as Getting Things Done); wills and literary estates; design and editing (you’re going to hire people to do that).
III. The Artist
Basic attributes: You don’t know what you want, but you hunger to get there. You’re looking for the cutting-edge in short stories, novellas, poetry, spoken word, Burroughs cut-ups, found prose, and sonnets. Best exemplified in The Who’s song “Guitar and Pen”: You’re alone above the street somewhere / Wondering how you’ll ever count out there / You can walk, you can talk, you can fight / But inside you’ve got something to write / In your hand you hold your only friend / Never spend your guitar or your pen.”
Goal: Goals? That’s so proletariat, man. Get outta here!
Strategies: A lot of the personal stuff: Taking care of your health and money and keeping productive. Also, read “Writers Gone Wild” for lessons on how not to live your life if you want to remain a functioning artist. A blog, to share your wild visions and list your books.
Strategies not necessarily needed: Wills and copyright; publicity; mailing lists; and business organization.
Other comments: I’m having fun here, but if you’re a writer who’s interested in art first and making money second, you want to focus on writing first, establishing your online home second, and marketing third. Then, when your dad cuts off your allowance, you’ll be ready to return to learn about selling out.
IV. The Influencer
Basic attributes: You’re writing to change the world, either through the force of your personality or the power of your arguments. You want to engage with current events, tangle in the public sphere, raise hell, and kick ass and take names.
Goal: To kick ass and chew bubble gum, and you’re already out of bubble gum.
Strategies: Strong editing chops, strong cover chops, strong website that combines promotion for your books and your media presence, a good lawyer on your side to handle libel and slander lawsuits; a business shell to protect you from libel and slander suits; the onion theory of publicity.
Strategies not necessarily needed: Building good habits (chances are you’re already pissed-off enough to be motivated to write); social media; the life cycle of a story (you already know what you’re going to write next, it’s whatever’s pissing you off most at the moment); the blog part of your website.
Other comments: Not for the faint-hearted, because as the Japanese say, “the tallest nail gets hammered first.”
I don’t go into a lot of detail about the philosophical underpinnings of our mindset here at Fortress Peschel. I don’t discuss my religious beliefs; my feelings about the world being greater than what we see around us, that unseen world just around the corner that you can never quite reach. The world, that is, on the other side of the mirror, here and yet not here, a world that has to be taken on faith.
More and more, as I get older, I want less and less. I don’t feel the need to backpack across the Himalayas. I don’t want to own multiple houses. I don’t want to jet across the country. I don’t want to see quaint, indigenous native peoples displayed for my entertainment like zoo animals. They have their lives to lead and they don’t need to be stared at, any more than I want to be stared at.
I like a simpler life, one with less aggravation. I want less, I use less, I need less.
In the immortal words of John Michael Greer, otherwise known as the Archdruid: LESS. Less energy, less stuff, and less stimulation.
Having LESS means I can pay more attention to what matters around me, to enjoy what I already have rather than wanting desperately to have more than I need.
Supposedly, one of the secrets of happiness is to learn to be happy with what you already have and what you can conceivably achieve.
That is to say, if I can’t be happy unless I’m batting clean-up for the Yankees, then I will never be happy. Batting clean-up for the Yankees, like being a prima ballerina, an astronaut, or an opera star, will never happen for me. Those things aren’t physically possible. If I insist on having things that I can’t have or do, as being vital for my happiness, then I am going to be very unhappy, and I’ll be doing it to myself. I won’t make the people around me very happy either, as I pine and carry on, wishing for the moon.
On the other hand, if I can be happy with my quiet life of gardening, sewing, writing, and living in my small town with my family, then I have a very good shot at being happy.
A great deal of our economy is based on us, as citizens and consumers, being unhappy with what we have so that we buy more stuff, consume more services, and throw away perfectly good items. Our system of growth is predicated on dissatisfaction, because if you’re satisfied with what you have, you won’t go out and buy replacements.
Before you send me nasty notes, I’m talking about most of us, with our comfortable lives. Yes, if you’re living underneath the overpass, self-medicating your mental illnesses, this is easy, facile advice. Most of us aren’t like that. Most of us have a roof over our heads and a house jammed full of stuff, stuff that overwhelms us in an ongoing tsunami flooding our homes and our lives.
All of that stuff takes energy. It takes energy to make, energy to ship, energy to buy, energy to work to earn the money to buy that stuff, energy to use it, store it, maintain it, and finally, the energy to say, on holding up that old fashioned out-dated cell phone (the one that doesn’t allow you to talk to people on Mars), “I need a new one but what will I do with this one?”
The old cell phone, which still works by the way, gets tossed in a drawer, where it occupies physical and psychic space. It still works. What do you do with this object? No-one around here wants it, as it is no longer cutting-edge. Recycle it? Sure, why not. Drop it off at the recycling center when they do electronics day and forget about it.
But where does it go? This object that was once so new, that is made of dozens if not hundreds of tiny parts, can’t be repaired, and can’t be easily disassembled.
This object, like so many other objects in our lives, was made by slave labor in China, under the filthiest of conditions, polluting the local area in a way that would never be acceptable in the good old US of A. It’s made of complex materials, many of them rare earths that were mined with pick and shovel and heavily laced with the blood of the miners, devastating the environment where they live for generations to come.
Garments are the same. If I talk about sewing a lot, it’s because it’s something I do and am very familiar with. Clothing used to be valuable, expensive, carefully repaired and passed along. Now, we throw it away, unworn, with the tags still on it.
Why is clothing so cheap? Because it’s made essentially by slave labor. I know damn well how long it takes to make a button-up, long-sleeved, collared shirt. Hours, that’s how long. Sewing six or seven buttons on the placket, plus the collar and the cuffs takes me a good half hour all by itself.
How can a shirt like this cost less than $25? I just looked them up on Amazon and the price range is all over the place. Some of that is better quality fabric and thread and buttons and construction. Some of that is a name brand. Some of that difference is just random.
If I were to make that shirt, including the time to cut out the pattern pieces from fabric, it would take me four or five hours. If I did this on a regular basis, I’d get faster at piecing the sections together and attaching the collar, cuffs, and placket, but not that much faster.
In garment factories, there are specialized cutters and machine operators who each do one part and only one part. They’re very fast. They get paid about 39 cents an hour. Here in the US of A, we like to make at least minimum wage, say seven or eight bucks an hour. More is better.
We like to get bathroom breaks. We like to get a lunch break. We like to work on a factory floor that isn’t a dangerous health hazard. We like to get a sick day or two, even a vacation day. We like to have a clean factory area, one that doesn’t poison the surrounding area.
But we’ve decided that it’s too expensive to manufacture clothing under those conditions in the good old US of A, to pay people a living wage and offer reasonably safe working conditions, so we export those jobs overseas and we get back clothing, electronics, and all kinds of other stuff, for way, way less than it would cost to make here.
Isn’t that just wonderful for all of us! We spend so little that we can fill our houses and our lives with stuff and never count the cost. After all, nobody wants to ever pay more than the rock-bottom minimum.
I learned this thirty years ago when I worked in the drapery department at Boscov’s department store. We had gorgeous embroidered panels at two price ranges. One was very expensive. One was astonishingly cheap for the labor involved. This was back in the early 1980s. I would routinely have customers ask me about the embroidered panels. They would balk at the price. They would ask for cheaper ones. Then they would ask which ones were made in the USA.
It was the more expensive ones, of course, the ones where the workers had clean, safe working conditions and were paid a living wage. The other ones, just as pretty and one third the cost, were made by Chinese prison labor. I and the other sales staff always told the customers this.
What we discovered was that no matter what people said they wanted, about preserving jobs in the USA and buying American-made, when they stood at the cash register, they bought the Chinese prison labor panels. They chose the short-term goal of lower cost for themselves over the potential health, job security, and happiness of workers who they did not know. They made their Omelas bargain.
Don’t get me wrong. I like nice things. I like having clean clothes, living in a house that keeps the winter winds outside and summer heat at bay. I like being able to drive someplace in twenty minutes that would take hours to walk. I like being able to eat food that other people have grown, with sweat and effort, then shipped across the country, whether in refrigerated trucks or in cans.
Those are all very, very nice things. I’m currently reading Ruth Goodman’s book “How to be a Tudor” and the amount of work those people did just to eat on a daily basis is astounding. I don’t want to live like that. I like many, many things about our modern lives.
But I try very hard to not ignore the underpinnings that support our lives of comfort and plenty.
This is where the Omelas bargain comes in. I had never heard of this Ursula K. LeGuin story until a few weeks back when it got mentioned in the Archdruid’s Report. I like the Archdruid’s site very much. It’s challenging to read as he is a historian of the first water. He can be very, very conservative; conservative in the old sense of the word when you need to have a good, clear reason for changing what you’re doing since something new and shiny and untested may have bad consequences that come along with it.
Traditionally, peasant cultures were very conservative. When you have very little margin for error, and every year brings with it the risk of famine over and above the routine starving in early spring, you want to be careful about changing things that you know work pretty well. If you guess wrong, you starve.
I spent some time looking for Omelas in his columns and it turns out that it has been mentioned in the past in the comments, but it never caught my attention. This time, it did.
“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” has a nice summary on Wikipedia. Essentially, the narrative is about the citizens of the shining, perfect, beautiful city on the hill and the bargain they make to keep their wonderful, easy lives. In exchange for this perfection, one chosen child is tormented almost to death on a daily basis, a child that begs for release, cries out for mercy from its captors and receives none.
All the citizens of Omelas know about this and they, most of them, are okay with one child’s misery paying for the happiness of everyone else. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, right? Not everyone can swallow this bargain and those are the people who walk away, to someplace else.
The interesting part about this is the citizens who walk away, to someplace else, don’t actually do anything to change the situation of the miserable child, not even a little bit. They just walk away.
You could say they fly away in their little blue box, like Doctor Who so often does, thus allowing other people to clean up the mess, and in fact, there is a Doctor Who episode that parallels the Omelas story. It is ‘The Beast Below’, episode 2 of season five, with Matt Smith as the good Doctor. The Doctor, however, comes up with a solution to the problem which the residents of Omelas never do.
What do you do when your two choices are to embrace the bargain wholeheartedly or leave to someplace else?
There is no way out of the Omelas bargain in our culture. We’re surrounded by the fruits of other people’s labor made under dreadful conditions but since they take place far, far away, we don’t see them.
I think there might be a third way, and we’ll talk about that next week.
Back in 1980s, Amy Dacyczyn began fulfilling her dream of having a large family and living in a pre-1900 New England farmhouse with an attached barn. She married a man who was in the Navy and who shared her dream, learned to scrimp and save, cut corners where she could, and succeeded. Then she started a newsletter to share the news that you didn’t have to have two incomes to raise a family, that you could pay off the mortgage early, that you could live a good life by ignoring the culture that demanded you get into debt and buy a lot of things we don’t really need to be happy.
As a result, we live in a society that is largely debt-free, that saves for retirement, where advertising is ignored, and people who are very good a saving money are looked up to, while those who ostentatiously flaunt their wealth are rejected.
Can you still hear me? I might have my tongue too far into my check.
Because the truth is that frugality is looked down on. A 2015 survey found that 47% of people could not come up with $400 to meet an unexpected bill without borrowing it. Recently, a personal finance writer at Slate lambasted a thrifty Canadian, Sean Cooper, who paid off a $255,000 mortgage in little more than three years.
Helaine Olen, the author of “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry,” had decided that Cooper represented a threat to her livelihood. If people could learn self-discipline and self-education and not buy her advice, she’d be out of a job.
Recognizing a threat, she claimed that “he didn’t have much of a life at all” for those three years he worked on cutting his debt. She said that he deserves our pity, not our scorn, for diverting potentially as much as a $100K away from the banks and into his own pocket. Successfully fighting the culture of spend spend spend? Only an idiot would do that, she implied.
Well, she’s wrong. The culture is focused on enslaving you in debt in order to make a profit. The culture wants you to mortgage your future — and thanks to college loans — your children’s future, to fatten the coming quarter’s bottom line. You can fight back, and The Complete Tightwad Gazette will show you how.
This collection of articles, tips, and essays cover every possible way to reduce your spending. There are articles analyzing the cost of various tightwad tactics, and most importantly, Amy’s essays on the philosophy behind the tightwad life.
Far from the extreme self-denial Olen claims is behind tightwaddery, Amy’s philosophy emphasizes choosing what helps you enjoy life. She encourages thoughtful spending, understanding that that daily Starbucks $5 latte might taste good at first, but after two weeks the pleasure degrades. You may decide to bring your coffee from home and bank the $25 in your 401(k), realizing thousands of dollars in your future.
Amy doesn’t advocate saving for its own sake. She’s not a Puritan or a killjoy. Instead, she emphasizes making yourself aware of what you enjoy and focusing your purchases in that area and eliminate the rest. In Amy’s case, she had a jones for real-wood furniture. While following the old New England motto of “wear it out, use it up, make it do” elsewhere, she was able to buy the furniture that really means something to her. When you realize how little you enjoy eating out at restaurants, or subscribe to The New Yorker, or collect a fleet of vehicles (all of which need insurance and licensing and maintenance), you discover that clearing away that kind of clutter frees up your life for the pleasures that you do find meaningful.
Successful career authors have to be good at managing their money; most importantly in the beginning, when the author doesn’t have a long tail of books to profit from. Even best-selling authors have learned this lesson. Crime novelist Lawrence Block wrote that travel and good food are his pleasures. When the money’s there, he indulges in both. When they weren’t, he didn’t. (I also suspect that also motivated his writing; he wanted the money to do those things.) It’s that kind of thinking that helped him and his partner visit more than 150 countries over a long and fruitful writing career.