Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Groton Schoolboy

One of the unexpected pleasures of researching the Sherlockian pastiches for the 223B Casebook is learning more about the authors. Not just by becoming more familiar with authors who were popular in their time — that’s a post for another day — but the amateur authors whose lives were no less important to the culture as a whole, but who left a mark nonetheless.

In some cases, the pleasure is akin to voyeurism. A combination of the Internet and access to databases have allowed nosy researchers to dig up, recover, unearth, resurrect lives that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Yesterday, for example, a story from a New England boarding school opened a window into a family’s history. Not just history; this is social history, a look into a world of moderate wealth (certainly compared to today), high aspirations, a community of boys who grew up and into the lives that carried a whiff of destiny with them.

“Sherlock Holmes at Groton” was published in 1903 in the school’s monthly newspaper “The Grotonian” (which was printed like a small magazine). It’s surprisingly grim for its time and place: a student is found dead, presumed a suicide, and Holmes investigates.

But what was more interesting was identifying the author, known only as “H.M.W.” Fortunately, The Grotonian published the student roster at the beginning of each year. It’s a small school. Only 26 boys in the senior class. With six grades, that’s less than 200 students in all. For many, this was their tribe.

Groton School class list, sixth form.
Groton School class list, sixth form.
Month by month, the magazine charted the changes in the school year with the regularity of the seasons: accounts of football games in the first half of the school year balanced by baseball games in the second; a kind review of the school play, the visits from alumni and brief accounts of where they went and what they’re doing (lots of mentions of Harvard and Yale here, as well as engagement and marriage announcements). The school news briefs announced the members of the Missionary Society, the arrival of new masters, who has left the school and who is studying abroad.

As for “H.M.W.,” the author of “Sherlock Holmes at Groton,” the only candidate on the student list that fit the initials was a chap named Woolsey. The initials stand for “Heathcote Muirson,” which explains why he went with “H.W.” the rest of his life. The Grotonian issues on Google Books made it possible to see the course of his career. Senior prefect. Captain of the football team. He acted in the School Play, a British farce from 1859 called “Our Domestics,” promoted to amateur dramatics as “An irresistibly facetious exposition of high life below stairs, and of the way in which servants treat employers during their absence.” Our H.M. Woolsey acquitted himself in his servant role “with a great deal of dry wit and carried off the part with considerable ability and intelligence.”

Woolsey also makes an amusing appearance in someone’s Christmas poem, published in “Groton School Verses”:

“Oh, have you heard the style of thing
That wily Woolsey wears?
How his binomial biceps are
Encased from winter airs?

I know that Linzee Woolsey is
A kind of fuzzy stuff,
But for the cruel winter term
‘T is surely not enough.

Oh, yes, his shapely person,
From collar down to toes,
From heels to head, is swathed in red
Tomato underclothes.

In fact, he makes several appearances.

After graduation, he pops up a few times in The Grotonian’s alumni notes. Yale for four years. He pops up in the Washington Post in a brief headlined “Seniors Engaged”

Members of the class of 1907 of Yale are out for a new college record. When they receive their diplomas next Wednesday they intend to have more men engaged to be married than any class has ever before boasted. They have also voted to offer an expensive cup to the member who first reports the birth of a son. Returns of engagements are coming in fast. H. M. Woolsey, the class secretary, footed up the totals to-night, and said that seventeen had been received. This is within two of the record held by the class of ’76. Samuel F.B. Morse, the football captain last fall, will probably be the first bridegroom. He will be married Saturday, in Staatsburg, N. J., to Miss Anne Thompson, of Virginia, Edgar Munson, of the law school, to-day gave his bachelor dinner.

This tells you something about the times and Washington Post’s readership.

After Yale, the Grotonian reported, Woolsey went on a trip around the world with a friend, which in 1907 must have been quite an adventure. Then it’s on to Columbia, where he studied architecture, then more studies at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. Oh, he didn’t help Yale set the engagement record, but he did marry Dorothy Bacon in 1909.

Once Google Books hits the copyright wall at 1923, the trail stops except for one hiccup. H.M. kept his initials professionally, so his self-designed home in Rye, N.Y., appears in an ad for Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles.

Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles ad, 1923.
Creo-Dipt Stained Shingles ad, 1923.

Sherlock Holmes Groton
Public library in Kent, Conn.
Further searches brought up hints of Woolsey’s career that others thought worthy of recording. The Kent, Conn., public library building, which stands today. His house in Rye seems to have been sold to someone named Yale Stevens, and was profiled in American Architecture magazine. There’s news about his wife (who wrote for Harper’s and The New Republic), children and grandchildren. Accomplishments and tragedies. By this time, it crossed the line into voyeurism; I had more than enough to write the introduction, so I stopped.

There’s one more item I wanted to mention. In 1942, Woolsey registered with the Selective Service. It was called the “Old Man’s Draft,” because it was required for men 45 to 64, to see if their work skills could be called on for the war effort. He was 58.

Woolsey's draft card.
Woolsey’s draft card.

He lived for three score and three years, dying in 1957. His headstone is beautiful.


The only thing I would have liked to have found was a photo of him to use in the book. But he left behind a name, his descendants, and buildings that have stood for nearly a century and will probably hang around for another, and now he’ll be connected in an unexpected and small way to Sherlock Holmes. That’s a pretty good legacy.

Grocery Shopping and the Pantry Principle (part 3)

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Suburban stockade introductionLast week, we talked about learning basic cooking skills and using simple recipes to get started on saving money and improving our health. Let’s go a little deeper this week on developing our shopping skills.

First, two simple rules: shop with a list and go once a week for your main trip. Go more than once a week only if you have to restock on a necessity (such as milk in our family), or if you’ve run out of a critical item (cat food!). You may be able to cut your grocery trips to every other week if you have a large refrigerator and pantry. This does mean that you don’t take advantage of each week’s loss leaders but that may not matter as much as avoiding the store altogether and spending even less.

If you are forced to make that emergency trip, then make yourself buy ONLY the item you need. Walk into the store and do NOT use a buggy, which would encourage you to fill that empty space with impulse buys. Don’t even take one of those carry baskets. Carry baskets, small carts, and large buggies: each one lets you put more stuff into it so you buy more stuff. If you hand-carry what you need, you’ll buy less.

Shopping with a list does require a bit of organization. You have to know what you use, keep track of what you use, know what you have hanging around the cupboards on its way to expiring, and match these items up with the sales in the grocery store. And then you have to bring the list with you to the store. Knowing what you have and what you routinely use will allow you to take better advantage of unexpected special buys.

Wait, didn’t we just say you shouldn’t make impulse purchases? We did, but with one major exception. If you come across something you already use that’s at a discounted price, then you should consider buying it. But that’s it.

tightwad gazette pantry principle

So how do you know what products and brands you use? And at what price that makes purchasing them a bargain? This leads to the price book. I learned this trick from Amy Dacyczyn of “The Complete Tightwad Gazette.” Take a small notebook and you write down the usual things you buy and the usual prices charged for them. Watch for sales on these items and write down the prices. Over time, you will get a feel for when something is really a good deal or not. If the price is as low as she’ll go, then buy lots more.

I used my price book for many years. It isn’t necessary to be hugely detailed. I didn’t spell out the price for each brand and size of cereal or canned fruit. I just marked down the highest price I was willing to pay. That is, if a large box of Raisin Bran can be purchased for less than $2, then I’ll buy it. Since I have a freezer (highly, highly recommended), I buy my preferred brand of bread only when it is buy-one-get-one-free. Then I buy a lot, enough to last for months. As my cooking skills improved and I learned how to make things like salad dressing and pasta sauce from scratch, I stopped buying them.

Now, I no longer had a need to keep track of those prices. So I no longer use a price book. But it took me more than ten years of regular use to get to this point.

Buying on price leads directly to the next major way to save money: the Pantry Principle. I learned this from a book called Cut Your Grocery Bills in Half: Supermarket Survival by Barbara Salsbury, published in 1982. The updated version is Beating the High Cost of Eating: The Essential Guide to Supermarket Survival (2005). Both are superb books, well worth your time reading and applying the information. The updated book (2005) is not exactly the same as the 1982 book; refunding was a lot bigger in 1982 so the 1982 book covers that area quite thoroughly. The worksheets are different, and the 1982 book has an index whereas the 2005 version, mysteriously, does not. Other areas vary too, so you may want to read both via the interlibrary loan before deciding if you want to purchase one.

What a happy day when I found the 1982 version in the library 18 years ago! The book teaches that when an item you use regularly goes on sale, buy enough to last you until the next super sale. If your brand of tuna goes on sale routinely at 99 cents a can, then you should never buy it when it is $1.19 a can. And, if you get a super sale on this tuna at 79 cents a can, you should buy way, way more.

If you are using a price book and paying attention to the weekly sales flier from your supermarket, you will learn that the food companies puts their products on sale on a fairly regular schedule. Some things go on sale every other week, some every other month, and some only two or three times a year. Some items get a super sale twice a year, other items never do. Becoming familiar with your store’s sales over the years will pay back big bucks if you follow them closely.

What the Pantry Principle leads to is eating and cooking only from your pantry and the weekly loss leaders at the supermarket. You only buy on sale and never, ever pay full price for anything. A well-stocked pantry means that if the car falls apart, you have money to make the problem go away. You don’t go grocery shopping that week and put the food dollars toward paying off the emergency. The Pantry Principle takes time to work up to this level, but it means that if you can’t get to the store for any reason, you don’t have to.

grocery shopping pantry principle
Eating food that came from cans with bulges can have unexpected side effects.
Let me talk about food expiration dates here. This is a relatively new development in the food marketing industry. In some ways, it is very nice to have them, but it can be misused to get you to throw out perfectly usable food. If you store your food items in a place that is cool, dry, dark, and pest-free, they will last far longer than the date indicates. Canned goods can last for decades past the expiration date. They remain perfectly safe to eat, with perhaps less vitamins and a poorer appearance than what they once had. But it is not unsafe. (The one exception is if the can exhibits a bulge. Then it has possibly developed botulism.)

This is also true of things in glass jars and paper boxes like pasta sauce and dried noodles. How you store your food matters far more than what the date says. Putting them where it is damp or in garages where the temperature swings wildly from day to day or where bugs and rodents can get to them, will make those boxes of spaghetti turn on you way earlier than the date on the label would indicate. Store them on ventilated shelves (for air flow), in the dark, at a consistent 60 degrees, and they will last years past the date stamp.

For example, at the time of this writing (Feb. 2015), I made a batch of sugar cookies from a mix. I had been given this package from a friend, I think for composting, as the expiration date on the mix was May 2009. The package was sealed and the mix was inside another sealed foil bag. It looked fine, no mold or weevils, it smelled fine, it mixed up fine, it baked up fine, and the cookies tasted fine. It had the usual ever so slightly off chemical taste I notice in packaged cookie mixes as compared to making them from scratch. But otherwise no problems whatsoever.

The way to deal with food expiration dates is to rotate your stock. In the food business, whether restaurant or grocery, the slogan is FIFO: first in, first out. This is where being organized comes into play. When you make your purchase, label the products with a Sharpie on the front with the expiration date. This makes it much easier to read the date than trying to find that tiny print each time you put things away. Put the newest items to the back of the shelf and the oldest to the front. Use the oldest ones first.

grocery shopping pantry principle
Adjust your food buying according to how much your family eats.
The second part of using food expiration dates is learning how fast you use something up. If you use three cans of tuna a week, then you know how many cans of tuna you want to have on hand. If the tuna goes on sale routinely at 99 cents the first week of every month, then you buy 15 cans of tuna at that price. That gives you three cans a week for five weeks, tiding you over to the next sale date with a comfortable margin. When you buy more tuna when it goes on sale again, you move the newest tuna to the back and use up the oldest cans first.

When tuna goes on a super sale of 79 cents a can, which it does here every six months, then you need to decide how many cans you need to carry you over to the next super sale. This would be three cans times four weeks times six months or 72 cans of tuna plus a few extra to meet the next super sale date. When you buy 72 cans of tuna at once, it is worth going through the cans at the store looking for the furthest away expiration dates. Do not assume the store automatically put the oldest ones to the front and the newest ones to the back like they are supposed to. Grocery store stockers are quite likely to put the newest cans in front and keep pushing the older cans to the back. It is way easier to do this than moving around all the cans. You need to check the expiration dates on the cans to be sure.

In fact, if you are buying on the pantry principle you should ALWAYS check the expiration dates of what you buy. I sometimes run across items that are already expired on the store shelf. They aren’t bad but because I am going to store them at home for more time before they get used up, I want to be sure I get as much of a time window as I can. When I find already expired cans or jars on the shelf I pass them along to a store clerk; I do not leave them on the shelf for some other, more careless shopper.

I check the expiration dates on everything that I plan on storing for any length of time and ALWAYS on perishables like cheese, eggs, and dairy products. Cheese by the way, can have lengthy dates which can be useful for stocking up at a good sale. Shredded cheese will turn on you far faster than brick cheese, so watch out for it. For storage purchases, it is always better to buy bricks than already shredded. It lasts longer and is often cheaper per pound.

Since the grocery industry provides me with expiration dates, I take advantage of this information. It gives me an idea of how much shelf life is left, which I can maximize through my ideal storage facility. The grocery industry wants you to throw away expired food, not eat it. They make more money when you do this. They also have to err on the side of caution for storage dates as they don’t know if you are going to be storing your cans of corn in the trunk of your car or in the crawlspace under your house, or in that unheated, leaky, bug infested tool shed. They choose a worst case scenario to accommodate idiots. If you aren’t an idiot, and use the best food storage procedures, then don’t worry too much about the expiration dates.

So food storage, whether you store for a few weeks to get from sale to sale or whether you store for five years to meet the apocalypse has two components: first in, first out; and cool, dry, in the dark, and pest free. The Pantry Principle leads automatically towards storing extra food so you should set up your pantry to meet both components. Always having extra food on hand means more flexibility if you can’t make it to the grocery store. Bad weather, unpaid furloughs, transmission falling out of car, medical emergencies, job loss; all become less of a problem when using the Pantry Principle let you stockpile a month’s worth of groceries at discount prices. You and your family still eat and you spent less money to do so, leaving more money to go towards emergency funds and debt reduction.

Using a price book and the Pantry Principle both demand that you pay attention to what the grocery store does. No reputable supermarket tries to deliberately cheat its customers. Their policies are plain, their sales are promoted, the prices are marked on every shelf for every item. After that, it is up to you, the consumer, to make the most of it.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Hire Author Solutions

David Gaughran has marshalled the facts, lined them up, and had them open fire on the Author Solutions scam, and its enablers Penguin Random House, Publisher’s Weekly, The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Reader’s Digest and other publications, book festivals, and organizations, such as the AARP (which, you would think, would be reluctant to expose its membership to scammers).

Author Solutions' International Sales Staff, Christmas Party, 2013.
Author Solutions’ International Sales Staff, Christmas Party, 2013.
In short, Author Solutions makes its money off selling services to you. It has no stake in how many books you sell, it does not care about the quality of the work it gives you, since few authors ever use them twice.

It’s a long, detailed post. David and his allies have culled the testimony from the various class action suits and detailed how Author Solutions scams its customers, using high-pressure sales tactics, and at the same time underserving authors by not delivering what was promised, delivering shoddy products, delivering incomplete and inaccurate royalty reports, and reselling services at enormous markups from their partners.

For example, the cost of their “web optimized” press releases is $1,299. Do you know how much it costs to send a release through services such as PRWeb? FREE. At their high end, their premium service, will set you back only $369.

Author Solutions uses hundreds of “consultants” (read salespeople), most of them in the Philippines, who have to meet insane monthly quotas, from $20,000 a month if they’re working for AS’s “core imprints” to $60,000 and $75,000 if they’re selling on behalf of the partner imprints (those are the New York publishers).

Yes, Penguin Random House is scamming authors. So are Simon & Schuster, Lulu, Hay House, Barnes & Noble, HarperCollins, and Random House’s MeGusaLibros imprint.

Companies such as Writer’s Digest, Harlequin and Crossbooks terminated their partnerships in 2014.

authors solutions scam
Credit: John Allison’s excellent Scary Go Round comics.
Imagine a job where you’d have to sell crap like book review packages from Kirkus for $6,000, Publishers Weekly ad packages for $10,000, and Hollywood pitching services for $17,999. (If you want to see what you get, one of AS’s “core imprints” Trafford Publishing, lists four services: Hollywood Gatekeeper ($859), Hollywood Audition ($2,149), Hollywood Storyteller ($3,749), and Hollywood Topliner ($16,299, but you must buy the Storyteller package, so the cost is $20,048). What they don’t list is a single sale from anyone using these services.

That alone tells you how worthless Author Solutions’ “Hollywood” package is, because if someone had spent $20,000 to get a movie/TV deal, you’d bet they’d be crowing about it (yes, I Googled this first).

So, if you’re considering dealing with Author Solutions, its core imprints (iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, BookTango, WordClay, and Xlibris), or if you’re talking to a major publisher and they offer to sell you “services,” my advice is to take your money and run. There are plenty of resources out there, plenty of nice people and websites (such as The Passive Voice) to ask about how to get your book edited, how to write a cover letter, how to deal with agents. There are writers’ groups and organizations such as Pennwriters (I’m a member), who are happy to help. Heck, get in touch with me and I’ll try to help.

Anyone, in fact, but Author Solutions.

Sherlock Holmes review: ‘Dreaming Spies’ by Laurie R. King

Dreaming Spies. By Laurie R. King.

Laurie R. King has published “Dreaming Spies,” another Mary Russell book. Fans of her can commence buying it.

Are they gone? Good. They got the news they needed, so now we can have a little chat.

Laurie R. King Sherlock Holmes Review
Laurie R. King
Years ago, when my beard was not nearly as white and I had more time on my hands, I reviewed Laurie R. King’s “The Moor.” It was melancholy, historically accurate, and modestly paced, and I was probably not kind to it as a result.

Since I renewed my interest in Sherlock Holmes, I had decided to review her latest, “Dreaming Spies,” to see what would happen.

In brief, in this world Sherlock exists, but most people believe that he is a fictional character. It is 1924; he has long since retired from Baker Street, and settled down with Mary as “Robert Russell.” This time, Mary Russell and Robert are taking a slow boat to Japan. In India, the ship picks up Lord Darby, his new wife and his son. Darby has a reputation as a blackmailer, and Sherlock has decided to study him to see if there is a way of bringing him down.

In the meantime, Mary befriends Haruki Sato, a young Japanese woman, and convinces her to pass the days teaching them the language and customs of her country. Although she tells them that descended from a family of acrobatics, it becomes apparent that she has been trained in far more skillful arts.

This revelation occupies the first third of the book and involves many mini-lectures about how to speak Japanese, how to serve tea, the basic principles of Buddhism, even a discussion of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” In fact, much of “Dreaming Spies” is a leisurely journey into the heart of Japanese culture and thinking, as Sato is on a quest that involves Lord Darby and a dangerous gift to King George.

To say more would spoil the story. The title is a reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem about the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, which is where all the ribbons are tied up, for what it’s worth. The novel’s pleasures come not from the plot, but Mary and Sherlock’s journey. Their time in Japan is a fascinating exploration of a communal culture. Watching them dealing with money, train tickets and mixed-sex bathing — far more capably than I would — was the most involving part of the book.

And that’s what you must know about the series. This is not the Sherlock Holmes you would expect. In fact, I would not say that he’s Holmes at all. This is not meant as criticism but an observation. King has taken the character and made it her own, and if you want to enjoy her books, you have to keep that in mind (or else swear off them completely).

In short, if you can’t be with the Holmes you love, try loving the Holmes you’re with.

Grocery Shopping and Cooking (part 2)

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Suburban stockade introduction
The second part of better grocery shopping is deciding what you need to buy to make meals for the family. If most of the meals you eat are prepared by someone else (restaurants and take out), then buying brand-name frozen dinners, salad-in-a-bag, and a Sara Lee cheesecake will probably cost you less on a per-meal basis. Your time counts here, too, as it takes less time to put a frozen dinner in the microwave than it does to drive to Wendy’s and back.

grocery shopping and cooking
Plus, dessert is always ready.

So if you’re paying big bucks to let someone else do most of the cooking, then it’s time to learn some basic cooking skills. Almost without exception, anything you cook at home will cost less than the comparable item you buy from someone else. It is easy to fall into the trap that take-out food and restaurant dollars don’t count in your food budget. They do. If you are eating it, then it counts as part of your food budget.

While I’m talking about restaurant meals, here’s another bit of advice: if you have food left on your plate, take it home and eat it for lunch the next day! Anyone who works in a restaurant would agree. They see huge quantities of partially eaten meals are thrown out every day. You wanted this meal enough to go out of your home, order and pay for it. It isn’t shameful or poor to take home leftovers. And the waitstaff are happy to help you take food that they don’t have to throw away. So ask, and save a little money to pay off a little more debt and build up your emergency fund.

When learning to cook at home, the best advice is to start simple. Take for example Hamburger Helper and its vast array of minimal-cooking-skill cousins and salad-in-a-bag or a frozen vegetable. Follow the directions on the box and get familiar with a pan, the stove, and a knife and cutting board. As you get better at it, you can try enhancing it with onions and peppers, more spices, more whatever you think it needs. This is not a bad way to begin.

Grocery shopping simple cooking
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities.
Learn to cook with a mind open to possibilities. Cooking is always mucky work. It is going to involve some messiness so don’t be shy or dainty. What you see in restaurants and on TV shows have very little to do with putting food on the table, day after day after day. You will be your own prep cook and your own cleaning staff, topics that cookbooks rarely address and cooking shows never talk about at all.

If you want formal training in cooking, then ask a family member who cooks regularly for lessons or look into one of the many books on “how to cook.” Your library has dozens of titles available. A very good, older book is “Cooking for Absolute Beginners” by Muriel and Cortland Fitzsimmons. This is a Dover Publications reprint of a 1946 title. It is extremely basic, detailed, and doesn’t assume you want to do anything fancy.

Look at cookbooks aimed at kids as well. They are very basic and simple recipes. Or try the Betty Crocker beginner cookbooks, too. Use your library and try the books out before you buy them for your home library.

It is absolutely worth learning basic cooking skills as you will never be able to minimize your food budget if you don’t cook. Look at potatoes as an example. Regular, whole potatoes on sale in the produce department can cost as little as 40 cents a pound, sometimes much less. If you crave microwave-ready baking potatoes that someone else washed and wrapped in plastic wrap you’ll pay triple the price. Instead, scrub a potato, prick the skin with a fork and microwave it for five minutes. If it isn’t done to your liking, nuke it a few minutes more. There. You just saved money.

Cheaper and Better

The difference in price can get even more extreme, and you can avoid paying it with minimal cooking skills. Take Betty Crocker’s boxed Scalloped Potatoes. It isn’t that difficult to peel and slice raw potatoes and layer them in a dish with cream, butter, and seasonings and bake until done. Your version will not only be cheaper, it will taste better. You have no way of knowing how old those dried potato slices are that Betty uses. You also avoid the amazing list of chemicals that Betty adds to make her product shelf-stable.

Frozen potato products leap upward in price per pound as well. Ore-Ida might like you to think so, but it isn’t that hard to peel and cut up potatoes, season them well, and roast them in the oven. Is it worth paying $2 a pound for TaterTots versus 40 cents a pound for regular potatoes and doing the work yourself? If you want to save some money, the choice is obvious.

There is one tradeoff you’ll make when home cooking, and that is it takes more time to cook from scratch. When I’m fainting with fatigue and out of time, I turn to our version of fast food: canned soup and buttered crackers. But still, plain unfancy cooking can take less time than going out through the drive-through and coming back home. You have a much better idea of what you are eating and how much salt and grease is in your food when you make it yourself.

Over time, your cooking skills will improve, you will learn to cook a wider variety of things and you will get faster at it. Unless you go to the CIA — I mean the Culinary Institute of America — you will probably never get as fast as a professional chef, but you will get better with practice. The better you can cook, the more you can get out of what is hanging around in your kitchen waiting to be used. This saves you money, using what you already paid for. More skill means you can take better advantage of the sales at the grocery store. You can use what is the best price versus what is the only thing you know how to cook.

Basic Shopping Skills

Whether you do most of your own cooking or not, you can still save significant money at the grocery store over what you are spending now. It all comes down to awareness and paying attention. Grocery stores are in business to make money, and they depend on you not paying attention, shopping with your stomach, and shopping on autopilot, except when you see something shiny and new.

Over the decades, they’ve developed ways to separate you from as much of your money as possible. Retail experts design and lay out supermarkets, and every choice they make is to encourage you to spend more than you want. This is why you have to walk to the back of the store to get a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk; the more food you pass by, the greater the chance you’ll pick up something on impulse. This is why the floral department (pretty and colorful!), the bakery (smells so good!), and the produce department (nutritious and colorful!) are usually located near the front doors, forcing you to walk through them on your way to other stuff. They prime you to want to spend money. This is why the checkout lanes are narrow and lined with the most expensive-per-item stuff in the store: it is the last chance the grocer has to siphon out more money while you wait for the shopper in front of you to finish up. Mmm, celebrity magazines and candy bars.

So grocery shopping is a skill, pitting you against a mighty industrial behemoth. If you are a poor shopper you may be able to cut your grocery bill in half! If you are better than average, you’ll still spend way less. Cutting your grocery cost is tax-free, too. You already paid your taxes on your income and spending less at the supermarket doesn’t increase your tax bill. It is pure profit for your wallet.

So how do you hone your skills?

grocery shopping and cooking impulse control
Learn to curb impulse shopping.
First, learn to curb impulse shopping. Don’t walk through a grocery store and throw random things into your cart. Oh, that looks good. That might be fun to try. I’ll bet everyone will eat that. This method can also encourage food waste, if you buy products that don’t get used up and they rot or that no one will eat so it gets thrown out. Throwing food out is the same as throwing money out. If you compost your food waste or feed it to animals it isn’t as much of a waste, but still, why put expensive fancy produce in then compost bin when it is just as happy with carrot peelings?

You start with a list. What items do you need and what have you run out of? What do you regularly use and what do you cook on a routine basis? Even if you never do another thing, making a shopping list that reflects what you really cook with and what you have used up. Sticking to the list will save you some money.

It may help to keep a running list on the refrigerator so as things run out; they can be added to the list. You may be able to train family members to do this; I never could, but some people, I am told, have been able to do so. Having a list means that you don’t go to the supermarket on a daily basis. Unless you are extremely disciplined, daily exposure to all the come-ons in the grocery store is just asking to have your wallet vacuumed clean of cash.

So the list leads us directly to making fewer trips to the store. Damn few of us don’t have enough storage space in our kitchens for a week or two of food. I shop twice a week. I do my big shopping trip on Tuesday, followed by a run on Saturday for milk and half & half and fruit for Sunday breakfast. The second trip is because my family drinks a lot of milk and I can’t store enough gallons for the week. The list for second trip is kept as small as possible. If I could dispense with this second visit I would, as even with all my practice it is darn difficult to avoid spending extra bucks over what I budgeted. Those supermarket lures are really effective.

If I needed too, I could train the family to drink reconstituted dry milk instead of fresh and use more dry milk in our coffee instead of half & half. Then I could store a year’s worth of dry milk and never run out. There are people who do this quite successfully and they save money, too. We aren’t that dedicated now, but I do know that we could do this if we had too.

So tune in next week, and we’ll talk more about grocery shopping.

Agatha Christie a fictional character in ’20s-set Thriller

With talk about a screenwriter creating a TV series with Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, I shouldn’t be surprised that someone thought about turning making Agatha Christie a fictional character as well.

Agatha Christie fictional character“Silence and Circumstance,” by Roy Dimond, could be the meta-mashup of the year. According to a Florida newspaper, Dimond has stuffed this thriller with every boldfaced name of the 1920s:

The witty Dorothy Parker from America joins Sayers, Sir Arthur, a young John Steinbeck and baseball player Mo Berg in puzzling the clues left by Christie as to the whereabouts of her diary. The trail leads them to Berlin where Adolf Hitler is already stirring up hate. Sir Arthur and a young Ian Fleming (prior to his fame as the James Bond novelist) travel on the Orient Express together, stopping in Monaco to meet Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

The story is set in 1926, the day that Agatha’s first husband, Archie, announced that he wanted a divorce. In real-life, while Archie left to spend the weekend with his mistress (and future wife), Agatha drove off into the night. Her abandoned car was found the next day, launching an 11-days wonder as everyone asked: Where Was Agatha?

The answer was that she was hiding in a hotel in the north of England, but Dimond decided to send her on a more thrilling adventure.

The book was published by Untreed Reads, a small press. I’m not sure about the quality of the book, but reading the first chapter using Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature showed me that it wasn’t bad. The story is told from the viewpoint of Carlotta, Christie’s assistant, and it moved along smartly and there was nothing that made me wince except for the occasional typo. I wish they had found a better title, however, but that’s just me.

I suspect that how much you’ll enjoy this book depends on how you feel about seeing famous artists and writers placed in entirely different roles and situations. Give Dimond credit: It’s a high-concept “what if” that I’ve never seen before.

Literary Puns Too Painful for Words

Researching the Sherlockian parodies and pastiches for the next volume in the 223B Casebook project should be a sedate, calm affair. Not as upsetting as, say, debating the Hugo nominations or going on Twitter.

And it hadn’t been, until I got to the Catesby’s Cork Lino ad. I’ve read a lot of parodies (and published some of them on this site), but none like this landmine of humor.

Running in The Strand magazine in 1904, it’s your typical Sherlock ad, in which the great detective appears to solve the case while at the same time praising the advertiser’s product. Here it is:

Catesby's Cork lino ad with bad literary puns
Click to enlarge, but be wary of the landmine.

Here’s the sentences that, until I did my research, set me off:

“I called on Herlock to get his opinion about the colour of some Catesbys’ Cork Lino I had chosen for my floors. The extraordinary man was breakfasting, and his fare was, you will hardly believe me, a Plato’ Lamb and Bacon.”

Searching “a Plato’ Lamb and Bacon” led me to “The Comic Song Book,” edited by J.E. Carpenter and published in the 1860s. The line comes from the clumsily titled “Household Words” — “All the Year Round” — a reference to the two magazines edited by Charles Dickens.

Sung to the tune of “Oh, Susanna,” it tells the story of a happily married man and his literary wife. She’s a “Cyclopaedia on two legs” and “a fount of wisdom” but she keeps him up all night.

At first, the jokes are innocuous: “I’m sure she’s quite the sage, and I am quite the goose! (Yes, of course they dig you in the ribs with the italics.) “And if she’s not ‘a learned pig” she is a learned bore.” (Ouch).

Then I came across this verse, which left me shattered. Take it a line at a time, perhaps one a day, and stop if you feel dizzy or are operating heavy machinery:

When I sit down to take a meal all learnedly she’ll jaw, sir;
For all the time she sees me chaw, her conversation’s Chaucer;
And when she feeds herself, she reads, and never seems mistaken—
“At dinner, I admire,” says she, “my Plato, Lamb, and Bacon.”

I thought about typing the lyrics in, but I don’t think I can take that right now. When I come out of the hospital, perhaps I may. In the meantime, here are the screenshots.

And please, don’t share this. Think of the children.




Grocery Shopping (part 1)

Suburban Stockade Banner

Suburban stockade introductionI am a firm believer in shopping locally as much as possible. So as a dedicated energy saver, conservationist, and locavore, I source all our food from with a 10-radius. I shop at the local supermarket (Giant) which is 1.5 miles away from my house. I know this because I measured the distance on my car’s odometer to check AND I used maps of the local area to draw out 1/2 mile, 1 mile, and 1 & 1/2 mile radii circles centered on my house. This exercise showed me how many businesses there are within walking distance of my house, should I be so inclined to drag groceries or other items home in a wagon versus using a car. When I can, I walk to my local bank, drug store, office supply store, the post office, etc. It saves me money, it gets me out and about in my community, and I need (I always need!) the exercise.

Now there are people who will claim that you can’t be a locavore — a person who gets all their food from within a 100-mile radius — if you are buying from a supermarket. To meet the standard (this is yet another purity test and way of showing your status to lesser mortals) you should grow your own food and/or get everything from properly documented sources via Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the local farmer’s market.

If you are serious about being a true locavore, you better start food gardening right now. You should also join that CSA; there are thousands across the country. Ask at the farmer’s market or look online for one in your area. A big part of eating locally and seasonally is eating locally and seasonally. In January, you eat stuff you preserved back in August; you eat from your root cellar rutabagas, potatoes, and turnips; cabbages that have been fermented into kimchi and sauerkraut; dried beans, winter squashes, and whatever leafy greens you can coax out of your cold frame.

In the winter, chickens don’t lay as much, so you can’t depend on quantities of eggs you got used to over the summer.

Early spring is known in many cultures as the starving time, the thin time. This is true for wildlife as well as people. There isn’t much left to eat by late March. You already ate it all or it is going bad so eating those moldy apples might be risky. There are ways around this involving more cold frames, hot caps, and using food-storage techniques to use up food in order of rottenness, and good planning in the previous summer of what you grow, preserve and how much.

Prior to the industrial revolution (1840s-1870s), everybody used to live this way. You had to be rich to not be hungry in late winter. Everybody used to eat within a 100-mile radius because transportation cost so much and food rotted before it got anywhere. Traditionally, the foods that got transported long distances were unlikely to decay and had high value such as tea leaves, spices, and coffee beans, or were unlikely to decay and there were huge quantities making it cost-effective to move them such as grains and dried legumes. You notice that there are no strawberries in January on this list.

This is a limited diet and by the time spring rolled around, the typical peasant was desperate for greens to keep their teeth in. Hence the popularity of traditional spring tonics made up of dandelion leaves. This would give you much-needed vitamin C, and ward off scurvy for another year.

grocery shopping kings
In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did.

We don’t have this problem anymore. In the first world, we eat better than kings of old ever did. Strawberries in January! Raspberries in February! Delicate spring greens in August! Apples in May! Today’s supermarkets are divorced from the seasons for growing fresh produce, and raising livestock for meat, dairy, and eggs. Animals had seasons, too. They were born in the spring and slaughtered in the fall so you had a) meat all winter when the cold helped preserve it and b) you didn’t have to feed those animals and try to keep them alive all winter. Eggs started showing up again in the spring. You preserved your milk by making it into hard cheese.

This is all a lot of work and I am so happy that I can choose to do only what I want to do: growing some supplemental vegetables and fruit, and buying and cooking with the seasons. I love having a refrigerator and a freezer. I don’t have to worry about spoilage. I love having a fully stocked pantry without having to prepare it all myself and spend hours canning, drying, fermenting and pickling so I can feed my family in the winter. These are great privileges and I enjoy them. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t utilize the wonderful resource of an American grocery store better.

First is your choice of grocery store. I make a joke of shopping at the Giant as a locavore choice but in a way, it is. There are two Giants within a five-mile radius of my home. The larger, newer, fancier one is further away. It also has the gas pumps there that allow me to purchase discounted gas.

I only go to the fancy Giant when I need to buy gas and redeem my gas points. That extra 3.5 miles one way translates into 7 extra miles per trip plus the additional time. On a single-trip basis that isn’t very much at all. But over the course of a year, two trips per week, that is 728 miles that I don’t put on my car and 728 miles worth of gasoline I don’t burn to avoid going to the slightly older, slightly less fancy supermarket. Remember to add in the extra bit of time per trip that I don’t spend driving: hours of my life energy that I put to other uses.

There are several grocery stores within five miles of my house. I like the Giant for its prices, selection, convenience, and the gas points. If I wanted to splurge, I could go across the Susquehanna to the Wegmans. This is a really fancy, high-end grocery store and when they opened, several of my neighbors regularly made the 20-mile pilgrimage to shop there. When the Wegmans opened, I wasn’t nearly as enlightened (and cheap) as I am now, and I made the trip once too. It was a very nice supermarket but the prices seemed a little higher, and it was certainly farther away. A lot farther. I never returned as it was not worth my effort. If the Wegmans has some magical product that no one else in the area carries, then I live without it. This is made easier by not knowing what that magical product is so I won’t want it anyway.

We have a Sam’s Club within seven miles plus the Wal-Mart. I used to have a Sam’s Club card but over time, I found that careful shopping and the pantry principle (more on that later) worked just as well and meant that I spent less money, less gas, and less time. Sam’s Club lures you into spending far more money than you planned on. Yes, it can have wonderful deals, but if you spend more money than you budgeted and you purchase wonderful items not on your list, you still lose. There is a Costco but it is much farther away (20 mile radius) so it is even less worth my time or gas money.

A save money grocery book that I read almost twenty years ago had the best story. I don’t remember the title or author but I sure remember her anecdote. The author broke her leg. She had to order her groceries from the most expensive grocer in town, the only one that delivered. It was the type of store that wrapped each piece of fruit in tissue paper. Despite the higher prices, she discovered that, after a few weeks, she spent less money than she did at the cheaper supermarket. How could this be? The fancy grocer only sent what she ordered. The fancy grocer did not add onto her purchase all those wonderful, must-have deals that called to her as she cruised the aisles.

This is the experience I have in Sam’s Club and any other fancier grocery store. I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

grocery shopping warehouse stores
I see things that I don’t have and I want them, even when I don’t really need them and they aren’t on the list.

I do not buy groceries at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart can be cheaper than Giant to pay for the extra gas and time. I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local communities, I don’t like what Wal-Mart does to local businesses, I don’t like how Wal-Mart treats its employees, and I don’t like how they handle perishable foods. Since I have better options, I always choose not to give my money to Wal-Mart whenever I have a choice. You may not have this option. If Wal-Mart is your only choice, you can still maximize your food dollar with careful shopping, price books and the pantry principle.

If I had to routinely walk to buy groceries, I would probably use the Karns or Pronios as they are closer, within a mile or less radius. That extra half-mile (one way) to the Giant can add up when you are pulling a wagon full of groceries in August. Both stores are smaller than Giant. Pronios is a standalone store, locally owned and operated. Karns is a small local chain in midstate PA. Giant is a regional chain, headquartered within 20 miles of my house so for a midsize chain, it is sort of locally owned and operated.

The deciding issue for which grocery store to choose, IF I HAD TO WALK EACH TIME, would be the gas points. You can’t grow gasoline and biofuel has its own sets of problems and learning curve. If we HAD to have the gas for a regular commute, then Giant would win for the gas points and I would make the hike pulling a wagon or shop almost daily using a bike with panniers. If we were car-free, then I would probably shop Karns or Pronios because of the distance and occasionally cherry-pick at the Giant for things I couldn’t get otherwise.

There is also a Weis grocery store within the 1-mile radius. It doesn’t strike me as being kept clean or well-maintained and that makes me suspicious of their handling of perishable items. Every time I go there, I see that the floor needs to be mopped and the shelves need to be straightened. This is not to say that Weis couldn’t be a good choice; only that the local Weis isn’t the choice for me. The store manager makes an enormous difference in how individual stores are maintained. If the manager is an annoying martinet who insists that the floors get cleaned, the shelves get straightened and restocked, the windows washed and does some of this work himself, being constantly visible and available to the customers, then the store overall will be cleaner and better run. The employees may be worked like borrowed mules to maintain higher standards but the customers are the better for it.

So this is the first part of better grocery shopping. Decide on the store that most meets your daily needs AND is the closest to you to cut down on gas and time expenditures.

Next time, we’ll talk about deciding what you need to buy to make your family meals.

The Return of Lisa Scottoline

Well, at least her return on my radar, at least. I’m sure Lisa Scottoline never went away, but I remember reading a few of her books back in the day, so I was happy to see her pop up on Caroline Leavitt’s website with a new book “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

Lisa Scottoline Every Fifteen Minutes interview
Lisa Scottoline

Authors promoting their novels are encouraged to find an angle that makes for a compelling interview. In her case, it’s easy to assume that she wouldn’t have chosen the one where she grew close to a man she suspects was a sociopath.

All I can say is that I really do believe that I was very close with a sociopath. This was not a murderous person, but rather a person who just merely used people, without any personal feelings for them. Like everybody else, I look back on my life and think about the mistakes I’ve made and why I made them, and my relationship with this unnamed person gave me the idea for “Every Fifteen Minutes.”

It’s a powerful concept for Scottoline to explore. Sociopaths can be very good at keeping secrets from those close to them. You only have to ask Elizabeth Kendall, who was the girlfriend of (unknowingly to her) a serial killer, and later wrote a book about him called “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” The book’s out of print and the few copies available will set you back about $150, but someone posted pages from it on Facebook.

I guess I better set aside my copy for my heirs to sell of.

Mining Story Ideas from Humans of New York

This is a fun thing to do if you feel creatively empty: Visit the Humans of New York website to remind yourself of the boundless variety of human experiences.

Even if you don’t believe these people, even if you think the idea is too far-fetched, it can provide a starting point for a memorable character or story.

These two caught my eye the other day. I’ll print the first line; you’ll have to click on the photo to see the rest story.

humans of new york story ideas finding god in banking
“Believe it or not, I actually found God through becoming an investment banker.”
Humans of New York story ideas cocaine '80s
“I used to transport coke between Miami and Cuba back in the 80’s.”

They’re like the first line of a short story; how can you not want to find out what happened next?

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