Robin Williams’ Suicide Chat with Marc Maron

Like the rest of the world, I am sad over Robin Williams’ suicide. Like him, I’ve been caught in a depressive spiral, and I think I understand the wall that is built between you and the world. You think that … no, scratch that. You don’t really think. There’s only that loop playing in your head, giving you what you think of as the answer in the back of the book.

Robin Williams' suicide

Robin Williams and Marc Maron, 2010

Because Robin Williams understood. He knew, that suicide doesn’t just hurt you. It hurts your family. It brings down an enormous load of pain on people that you love. For the rest of their lives, it remains the dominant fact they’ll know about you. Every time they hear your voice. Every time they see a picture of you. The fact that you were in so much pain that you would take on that burden of cutting your wrists, of hanging the belt from the door and slowly choking the life out of yourself.

I can’t imagine Williams consciously inflicting so much pain on his worst enemy. I certainly can’t believe that he would do that to his family. That he did should demonstrate how well the mind can wall off counter-thoughts.

That becomes even more apparent after listening to Marc Maron’s 2010 interview with Williams for his “WTF” podcast. In the hour-long interview, Williams opens up about his alcoholism, his comedy, and his life. It’s a chat with a thoughtful, humorous, empathetic man, and these two minutes near the end in which he talks about suicide should show you just how horrible he must have felt in his final hours.

UPDATE: Thanks to my friend Meg, who posted Zelda Williams’ thanks to the people sending messages of condolence to the family. Her especially graceful observations about the trolls and haters who see nothing wrong with hurting the family when they’ve been slammed shows grace, and love, and good humor. Clearly, her father still lives in her.

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Soil-Building (Part 3)

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Read Part One and Part Two of Soil Building.

Traditionally, fields were allowed to lie fallow every few years to let the soil recover from being plowed and all the nutrients stripped out. Whatever wanted to grow up would be left alone; the field, as it recovered might have been used for pasture. The cows or sheep would fertilize the soil with their manure. After a few years, the pasture would be plowed under again and sown with a grain crop.

When you do this — let a bed lie fallow for a year or two — you do not have to let Nature decide what plants will grow. You can buy cover crop seed mixtures. Catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds have a wide range of choices depending on your geographic area and soil needs. A dedicated cover crop will have a mix of plants that will fix nitrogen, and have deep roots to break up hard packed soil. Deep rooted plants can also bring up nutrients from deep in the earth. Let the plants grow, chop them up before the first frost, turn them into the soil and they will die, rot in place, and return all their fertility back to the bed for next year’s tomatoes. Real farmers do this to improve their soil and so can you.

Plants need many, many kinds of nutrients to grow and produce vegetables. If one element is lacking, then no matter how rich your soil is otherwise, that one missing element will determine how well your crop grows. You can have your soil tested to see what you have and what you are missing.

The first, basic test you can do yourself with a glass jar and some water. Fill the jar about one quarter full with soil. Fill the jar almost all the way with water. Shake vigorously until soil and water are fully mixed. Let the jar sit, undisturbed, for a few days to settle out. The contents should settle out in layers, with heavier rocks and sand in the bottom, topped with clay particles, then silt, and finally, any organic matter at the top. If you see a lot of sand, you have sandy soil. If you see a lot of clay, well, you know. You hope to see a thick layer of organic humus on the top. There probably won’t be much at all. Do this test in several locations in your yard, as it is very unlikely the soil will be the same everywhere. You want to dig down an inch or two to get your sample as this is where the plant roots will grow.

To get more in-depth information, you will need to purchase a soil-testing kit. Every garden center has them. Follow the directions carefully and you will have a better idea of what you are missing, what you have, and how acidic the soil is. You can also get your soil tested by a laboratory. The local county agricultural extension agent will be able to tell you who to contact in your area. Some states do this for free, other states charge a fee depending on how much you want to know.

The information you get will tell you if you are low on any of the big three elements: potassium, phosphorus, or nitrogen. You will then get a long discussion of micro-elements and suggested changes and amendments. Missing micronutrients, like the big three, can be added to your soil by spreading various amendments. The lab report will tell you which ones to buy at the garden center. We were low on calcium which is easy to supply. Save all your egg shells, crush them fine, and sprinkle them everywhere. They disappear fast and the worms incorporate them into the soil.

The testing will also tell you the pH level of your soil; that is, how acidic or alkaline it is. The pH level determines what plants will grow joyfully, which will die a lingering resentful death, and which will struggle along but not quite die. As an example, blueberries insist on a very acid soil. It is really hard to permanently adjust the pH of soil so your blueberries may have to be grown in containers if your soil is more alkaline. Grass likes a more alkaline soil; spreading lime is a way of increasing the alkalinity of your soil to make the grass happier. Acid liking plants won’t appreciate the lime from your lawn leaching over into their beds every time it rains.

You can add all the soil amendments you want and you can fertilize all you want, but your soil will not come to life without decaying organic material. Compost, decayed leaves, grass clippings and any other rotting organic materials you can scrape up are what feed the microscopic zoo. You will keep coming back to having to add more organic matter to your soil.

A heavy clay drains poorly and can get waterlogged, drowning the plant roots. That is, if it accepts rainwater in the first place. Clay can harden and bake into a bricklike consistency. Water rolls off of it without soaking in. Sand drains and drains and holds no moisture at all. Roots get plenty of air but they die from dryness. The cure for both conditions is compost, leaves, mulches, and any other organic material you can layer onto the soil. Of the two, I like clay better. It is harder to amend at first but it retains moisture better and has more available minerals. Sandy soils burn through compost at a much higher rate than clay. The drainage is better but plants dry out quicker because of that.

This is where knowing what your soil is like will help you garden better. If you know your soil is sandy, then you want plants that like it drier. A heavier clay soil shouldn’t be planted with things that demand perfect drainage. Clay does tend to have more minerals available naturally in it and it will hold moisture better when heavily amended with humus. If you don’t add loads of leaves and compost to clay, it turns into concrete and repels water like a brick would. Sand will always drain beautifully. In fact, it drains so well that your plants will be gasping for water and starved for nutrients as everything you want to help them grow will leach down, down, down into the subsoil where much of the root systems won’t reach. Compost, compost, and more compost will fix sand AND clay problems.

The beauty of a raised bed is that you can completely change the soil from what is in the surrounding areas. Think of raised beds as giant pots that are open at the bottom. If you want to grow something like blueberries and you do not have very acid soil, a raised bed with custom mixed soil is the only way to succeed. I tried to grow blueberries and despite regular applications of pine straw, coffee grounds, and Holly-tone (a fertilizer for acid loving plants like azaleas, hollies, and blueberries) I could not change the overall pH of the soil. The blueberries are gone, replaced with hazelnut bushes.

Don’t use inorganic mulches like gravel or shredded rubber. They do nothing to improve your soil so what is the point of having them? Any mulch that was once alive will rot down and improve your soil. I think the difference between mulches and compost is mulches tend to be woodier and heavier. Think chunks of twigs and wood chips as opposed to something that is as fine as potting soil. Leaves are free and readily available every fall. Grass clippings are free, readily available but should be dried out or composted prior to use. Branches, whole shrubs, old Christmas trees can all be broken up, by hand or with a chipper and spread out as mulch. It will take longer to rot down than leaves but it will do so, eventually. Pine needles rot down. Newspaper rots down. Big bags of shredded documents will rot down but are better mixed into your compost bin so they don’t blow all around. Wood ashes can be composted and so can sawdust. Nutshells, cocoa pods, Halloween hay bales, straw, seaweed, spent mushroom compost, anything that was once alive. If a landscaper or the power company is working in your area trimming trees, stop and ask for the chopped up leaves and branches. Chances are they will be happy to drop it off in your driveway so they don’t have to deal with the stuff themselves.

Look around at the possibilities for soil building. The sooner you begin adding rotting plant matter to your garden soil, the better it will become. Make soil building a regular part of your garden routine and your improved soil will reward you with healthier plants, both in the growing and in the eating. Don’t ever stop adding leaves and compost. You can never have too much humus in your soil. The better your soil, the less dependent you will be on expensive artificial fertilizers to feed yourself and your family. You don’t want to use them anyway as they are very damaging to the soil communities and eventually, they kill many of your soil critters. Feed your soil and it will feed you.

Read About Soil Building

Let it Rot!: The Gardener’s Guide to Composting; Stu Campbell; Storey Communications, Inc.; 1975

Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost; Mike McGrath; Sterling Publishing, 2006

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth; Judith D. Schwartz; Chelsea Green Publishing; 2013

Feed the Soil: Rodale’s Complete Guide to Soil Improvement; the Editors at Rodale Press; Rodale Press, 1992

Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil; Gene Logsdon; Rodale Press, 1975

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet; Kristin Ohlson; Rodale Press, 2014

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Soil-Building (Part 2)

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Part One of Soil-Building Can Be Read Here

Many of my plant die-offs have been related to not improving the soil prior to planting my expensive baby shrubs and perennials. The hedgerow is certainly a case in point. This is the area along the north side of the property. It had a straggly forsythia hedge hiding a steep downslope. We installed the 4-foot chain-link fence almost as soon as we moved in to contain our toddlers and dog. A few years later, Bill and Older Son dug out the forsythia bushes. I wanted to have a mixed-shrub border of assorted natives to block the north wind, screen the yard, and provide plenty of habitat for native songbirds.

To slow down water run-off, I lined the bottom of the chain-link fence with composite decking. The decking is rot- and insect-proof, about six inches tall and should last forever. I threw a few leaves on in the fall and planted my expensive native shrubs in the spring. Six years or so later, almost everything I originally planted has died. The soil was too heavy, too much like a brick, would not accept rainwater and had very little organic matter in it. It was dirt, actually, and not soil. I have been adding piles of leaves for the last few years but this was not soon enough to save the shrubs. The survivors are doing better now as the soil is finally improving, but it has been a struggle.

I should have waited two or three more years after pulling out the forsythias, using each year to lay down thick layers of compost, mulch, and scavenged leaves. I could have let whatever vegetation grow that wanted to grow, and cut it down every fall to rot in place. Several years of this treatment would have vastly improved the soil. My shrubs would have had a much better chance at life and I would have learned how badly I needed a serious wind barrier along the fence. Knowing this, I would have changed the plan and grown a wall of yews (taxus) or cedars (thuja) right along the fence to protect my more delicate native bushes.

soil building in a raised garden bed

Once raised beds are built and in place, it is really hard to double-dig them and spade in loads of leaves and compost.

The raised vegetable beds have had some similar issues. Once raised beds are built and in place, it is really hard to double-dig them and spade in loads of leaves and compost. I would lay on compost whenever we had made some or I could get Bill to go to the township to get some, but again, it was never enough to compensate for what the lettuces and tomatoes took from the soil.

Now, soil building has become a routine part of my annual gardening schedule. Fall comes, I collect every leaf possible. Younger son lays them down thickly on every bed. In the spring, any remaining, broken down leaves are turned under into each bed. More compost (homemade or from the township) is spread over the bed. Only then, do we plant our seeds and seedlings. Younger son and I have started experimenting with green manure and letting beds lay fallow for a season or two.

We have only seriously concentrated on soil building for the last two or three years. My soil is noticeably better, darker, more crumbly and able to hold rain water. My vegetable plants seem to be doing better. In addition to adding all this organic material to my soil, I sometimes use bone meal (for phosphorus) and greensand (for potassium and trace minerals) and crushed eggshells (for calcium). I make iron water (by allowing nails to rust in a bucket of water) and apply it very, very sparingly. We don’t use any other fertilizers. If I had chickens or rabbits, I would compost their manure and add that to the soil as well. Maybe in the future.

Don’t let fertility go to waste

As we move deeper into a more uncertain future, compost and leaves may be the only fertilizer you can get at a price you can afford. Wars were fought over the great deposits of guano in caves (bat poo) and on small ocean islands (seagull poo) waiting to be mined and spread on farmer’s fields. Those deposits have, for the most part, long since been mined out and used up. Most inorganic fertilizers these days are made from natural gas. Don’t expect them to get cheaper. It is cheap enough, now, to buy a bottle of fish emulsion for your house-plants but very few of us can afford to use that on a large vegetable garden.

So stop throwing away your fertility! Every leaf that falls on your property should stay on it as should every blade of grass and every carrot top and potato peeling. When your wasteful, profligate neighbors throw away their fertility, collect it at once. If they ask what you are doing, explain that you garden intensively and need the leaves to feed your soil and mulch your beds. This may inspire them to start gardening themselves which is a good thing, even if it means fewer leaves for you. The more self-sufficient your neighbors are, the more resilient your community becomes.

Leaves are so easy to handle. They are usually dry and rot very nicely in compost bins or spread out as mulch. We pile leaves on every raised bed in the fall to a height of twelve inches or so. By the time it is warm enough to plant, most of the leaves have broken down through weather, time, and insect activity. It is easy to spade under the remaining few inches in the spring. My leaves are pretty mixed up and I rarely have a problem with them matting and clumping. If it looks like they are matting down, I (or Younger Son) fluff them with a rake.

The asparagus and rhubarb beds get their foot of leaves as well, but because these plants are perennials, we don’t spade in the leaves. Any unrotted leaves in the spring are pulled away from the new growth and left in place as a weed barrier. Any compost I can get is spread on the beds prior to layering on the leaves in the fall.

The flower beds, hedgerows (where the berry bushes are), and the thicket get as many leaves as we can salvage after the raised vegetable beds are done. These plants don’t require as much compost as the vegetables do and, unlike the vegetables, they tend to feed themselves in the fall with their own leaf drop. These leaves are never spaded in. They are left to rot in place and act as a weed barrier until the next load in the fall. Normally by late August, all the leaves have vanished into the soil under the bushes and these areas are ready for their next load.

Sometimes my leaves, especially the giant brown bagfuls I collect in Lancaster County are full of pine needles, acorns, sweet gum balls, twigs, and other bits. All of this rots down just fine, if a little slower. If I am not desperate for leaves to cover the vegetable beds, I use the twiggier stuff on the hedgerows and under the berry bushes. Branches and twigs can be turned into mulch by breaking them up into smaller pieces. You can do this with a chipper if you have one, or you can do it by hand just by breaking them all in half repeatedly. This is another reason to have a wilderness area in your yard as it gives you a place to toss branches and old Christmas trees where they can rot down slowly and out of the way.

Let it rot

Grass clippings are more problematic. The best way we found to handle clippings is to use a mulching lawn-mower and let the clippings fall and rot in place. Great piles of grass clippings don’t rot into compost very well unless they are turned over and over completely every few days. They get nasty, ferment, and pack down in a slimy mass with little or no air to keep the composting action going. A sullen teenager with a pitchfork is the best way to handle piles of grass clippings, lifting, turning, and fluffing. We experimented with using a pick-up truck load of clippings from Denny in the spring as mulch. The clippings matted, got slimy, and putrefied. It may have been better to lay on the clippings a few inches deep and spade them in. We will have to see how that works.

If you can collect enough leaves in the fall, and can plan ahead, and can store the leaves in bags, you can layer spring grass clippings with stored leaves with each layer a few inches thick in your compost bins. This will rot down beautifully into compost. We have never planned ahead this well.

When laying out your garden, decide where you want to put vegetable beds, permanent beds for perennials like asparagus and rhubarb, flower borders, hedgerows for berries or fruit trees, hedges, and your wilderness areas. As soon as you know what a stretch of grass will become, put the mower to its lowest setting and mow the area down to grass nubbins. Soak that area with water. Layer on ten to fifteen sheets of old newspapers, completely covering the new bed. Punch holes in the newspaper layer with a spading fork. Water again. Cover the newspaper layer with a foot or more of leaves and water them well. A year later, turn over the layers and be amazed. This is what soil building does. The newspaper layer is to help kill the grass and any perennial weeds.

If you want raised beds, i.e., planting areas encased in a four sided box of composite decking, open to the sky and the soil below, follow almost exactly the above procedure. Mow your grass down to a crew cut, build the raised bed box, water well, lay down newspaper, water and perforate the paper, and lay on the leaves. If you have any soil handy from recycled house plants or other building projects, spread that in too. Wait a year, spade it all over, and be amazed by the change in what you see.

If your soil is really dreadful, and you have a few sturdy teenagers to do the work, you can double-dig your vegetable garden. Don’t do this work for anything else as only annual crops of vegetables really benefit from this exhausting, laborious job. You should only have to do this once per bed. Lay on the newspaper and leaves as listed above. Wait a year while time and soil critters work. Mark off the bed area. Dig out a trench about a foot deep and two feet wide and remove all that soil, leaves, and newspaper shreds to waiting wheelbarrows. With a spading fork, loosen and turn the soil in the trench. Work in more leaves, grass clippings, compost, mulch, whatever organic material you have on hand. Move over to the next strip of bed alongside the trench. Dig out about a foot of soil, leaves, etc, and layer them into the trench you just emptied. Spade over the bottom of the new trench. Repeat this process until you reach the end of the bed. You will end up with an empty trench that has been spaded and turned and loosened. Take the waiting wheelbarrows of soil from the beginning of the project and lay them into the empty trench. If you can, cover the newly double dug bed with another foot of leaves and compost. Wait another year. The soil will be beautiful, healthy, loose and friable and full of life. It will be ready to grow food for you.

In addition to spreading leaves in the fall, and compost whenever you can get it, you can also improve your soil with cover crops. These are the plants you grow in a bed with the express purpose of chopping them up in place and spading them under to die and rot. We’ll cover the use of cover crops next week.

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Soil Building (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everyone Agrees You Need to Do This (Disaster Preparedness)

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

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

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

So what does everyone agree on?

1. Get In Shape!

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


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

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

2. Get Out Of Debt!

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

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

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

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

3. Get Your Paperwork In Order!

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

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

4. Quit Your Addictions!

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

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

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

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

5. Keep Food On Hand At All Times!

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

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

Only store what you and your family will eat.

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

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

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

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

6. Reskill! Reskill! Reskill!

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

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

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

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

7. Improve Your Health!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Fix Your House!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Learn To Grow Your Food!

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Store Water!

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

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

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

11. Pay Attention!

You have to know what is going on around you.

You have to know what is going on around you.

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

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

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

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

12. Have A Community!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. Get Started!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Diary of Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

“The ring was found yesterday by Mr Lestrade.”

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

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

I told her of my discovery and of my investigations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fixing the Work-Life Balance

Suburban stockade introduction

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

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


Your Job Will Forget You

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

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

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

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

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


Your Job Steals Your Life

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Working Hard? You’re Being Played

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

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

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

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


Beat the System by Not Playing

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

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

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

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

Recommended Books

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

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

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

Recommended Articles

“I Accidentally Became a Housewife” by Kate Tuttle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the Snickers Factory

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

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

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

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

B^F: The Novelization Of The Feature Film

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

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

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

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

The Poisoner

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

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

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

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

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Links

What’s come across my eyes this morning:

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

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

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

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

Ice-T on raising his son

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

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

Did it affect him?

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

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Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light (part 3)

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Suburban stockade introduction

Read Part One of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

Read Part Two of Enhancing Your Home’s Natural Light

7. Interior Windows

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

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

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

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

8. Shrubbery

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

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

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

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

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

9. Basement Lighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Windows, Solar Tubes and Skylights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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