I’m pausing this blog…

… because I just have too much to do right now. Our house goes on the market Tuesday, and I’m hoping to downsize into a smaller house when it sells. I also have two courses to teach, plus writing to do, and possible freelance work on the horizon, not to mention a legal separation to accomplish (we’ve decided that it makes better sense than divorce for now, purely for financial reasons).

While I’ve enjoyed keeping the blog, and truly appreciate anyone who’s reading it, I need to go bone up on how to make it pay off before I invest a whole lot more time in it. It’s not exactly building a big following or translating into significant book sales. I also believe that right now getting the next book published should be a higher priority.

So this blog is going into hiatus, except for quick posts to let you know about any big book news, like promotions or a new release. For more day-to-day news, you might want to subscribe to my twitter feed or become friends with me at my Facebook profile or just like my author page (although I’m afraid just liking a page doesn’t do much to keep you getting news from it anymore).

Many thanks for your support — with special thanks to those of you who have commented or ‘liked’ or shared these posts beyond my little list of subscribers. That makes it seem a whole lot less like I’m talking to myself. Happy Spring!


Coping with the pathologically entitled

A couple of years ago I was reading a cookbook I had borrowed from the library and there was an interesting seafood recipe that referenced a “corn meal bath” on another page. I went to that page … or, rather, I tried to. The page was gone – expertly razored out.

Browsing further, I discover at least 10 more pages missing.

This was not the first time. Other cookbooks I’d borrowed from the library had been pilfered in this way too – sometimes even new books still on 14-day loan. The pages had always been removed very neatly. This particular thief must read with an X-acto knife sitting nearby.

I still wonder – was it so inconceivable for this person to make some twenty-five cent photocopies? Copy down a recipe? Buy a copy of a book? Why must this person steal from the public library, rendering the book incomplete for anybody else?

How did this person come to feel so entitled?

I sometimes also run into this at the thrift shop/food pantry where I volunteer once a week.  We sell donated items in order to fund the food pantry, which exists to provide food for the hungry in our community.

Most of our items cost a dollar or two. It may be the best deal in the entire Northeast. Yet there are certain customers who find it offensive to pay even that little.

They have their own little systems for obtaining what they want for free. One likes to dump the clothes she wants in the dressing room or the elsewhere in the store, buy one small item, then come back through another door and grab the rest.

Some brush things into their pockets or bags, or stuff them under their coats. They open their bags on their way out and add more to them. They do this in front of their own kids, sometimes. Heck, their kids do it, too. Sometimes they come in pairs – larcenous friends like to shoplift together, apparently.

One woman stalks quietly around the shop, her pretty face deformed by a permanently suspicious expression. She always seems to think that what we ask for an item is too much, on the occasions when she buys something instead of stealing it. But of course she thinks we’re out to cheat her – she probably assumes the rest of the world is just like her.

I also can’t get over the guy who used to use our dumpster as his free trash service. He’d come in and buy something small – a book, a gadget. He’d spend maybe fifty cents. And just about every time he came, there was suddenly a bag of kitchen garbage in our dumpster. I caught him in the act once and stopped him and explained to him how much the dumpster costs us (hundreds of dollars a month). He was extremely contrite. But he went right back to doing it.

This was a guy who owned two houses and a brand-new truck. But he felt entitled to steal trash-dumping from an operation that exists solely to feed the hungry.

But there’s another area where things can get dicey.

Most of our clients are truly in need. Most are very grateful. They may be temporarily disabled, or working low-wage jobs, or between jobs, recently divorced, or suddenly supporting grandchildren or elderly parents. They won’t show up until they really need it. Some volunteer themselves. Some struggle to find stuff they can donate to us.

Others seem less deserving. Some are clearly alcoholics. (Of course, even alcoholics and their kids need to eat.)

But some of our clients simply seem to feel we owe them. Their families get suspiciously large. They try to tell us they have guests, so they need more food. They never miss a month. When they call, they don’t ask, “Is it okay if I get some food today?” They say, “I’d like to pick up my food today.”

Sometimes they watch greedily while we pack their groceries and ask for this rather than that, do we have any coffee, what about pet food, what about toiletries, what about ______? They call up and say their friend got a ham, why didn’t they? They never miss signing up for anything they can get, from Thanksgiving dinners to Christmas presents.

They don’t say “Thank you.”

gimme gimme gimme NOW.

From Cheezburger.com

The great temptation of volunteering in an organization like this is to begin to suspect everybody of scamming you. And if that happens, you become pinched yourself – grudging with the food, hostile to well-meaning people who donate stuff that just isn’t salable, curt with customers. You burn out. If the organization is lucky, you take time off, or quit. If it isn’t, you make everybody else miserable.

The organization I volunteer for is a local ecumenical Christian organization, and I do happen to be a Christian, though nobody has asked to see proof of that. Jesus certainly promoted charity. If you have two coats, he said, give one to the poor. (My closet wouldn’t bear examination, that much is certain — I pick up too many bargains at the thrift store.)

Christian though I may be (multiple coats aside), what keeps me going best when I am tempted to give in to cynicism is a little scene in a trilogy of novels by Thalassa Ali that she set in Victorian India (future Pakistan).

In one of these novels, when an especially observant child in a Sufi family asks the family matriarch why they must give alms when many beggars don’t truly deserve help, she tells the child that God may also give her something she doesn’t deserve.

Think about that: God may also give us something we don’t deserve.

I find that very useful and sobering to reflect upon whenever I start getting snarky about some of the less grateful or deserving recipients of charity.

After all, we all need charity of one kind or another, even if it’s just the charity of being loved despite our faults.

So I thought I’d share it. Maybe it’s a concept that will help you, too.

When I first published The Awful Mess I maintained a fundraising page for Feeding America (which helps support the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, from which we get a great deal of our pantry’s food, as well as logistical support). I did this partly because the heroine of my first novel The Awful Mess depended on her neighbors for her survival — and embarrassed me by doing more for the hungry of her town than I was doing. I still volunteer, but I give my donations differently now, so they can be matched. You can do that, too (or find a food pantry, if you need one), at Feeding America.

The mother of all spring cleanings

This week we managed to get rid of a lot of stuff as we continued our preparations to list the house. I figured I’d continue sharing some of the nitty-gritty details of the process, including some projects that were not really worth the trouble. Maybe I’ll inspire some cleaning out there, or save you some wasted effort.


Jaime set aside the clothes he needs to finish out his career and move to Puerto Rico, which left everything else for disposal. The picture below is just part of that sorting in progress. Five whole bags went to some funky organization that has clothing bins around the area. Presumably this group has figured out how to profitably recycle fairly crappy clothing, since bins always attract the worst stuff. I had to surmount a snow bank nearly as high as the bin to get to the opening; luckily, the snow had solidified into a pretty good climbing surface.

stuff that we successfully gave away

Some of the stuff that we successfully gave away — including that really ugly dresser in the background.

That left the remaining bags (and more when the dresser was emptied), plus some hanging clothes not in this picture, plus some boxes of miscellaneous household stuff. Two were just bags of cotton (AKA my husband’s old t-shirts) that the thrift store sells to mechanics by the bag. The rest, which I considered salable from my vast experience as a volunteer there myself, I parceled out to the thrift store a few at a time over a period of days. Doors of Hope is pretty small and can’t cope with too much at once.

Most of it went in with me during my regular shift Friday morning. As always, it’s fun to see some stuff I brought in get sold while I’m there, which means someone actually wanted it and was willing to pay a buck or two. (It’s also for an excellent cause — Doors of Hope uses proceeds from our thrift shop to fund the food pantry in the back of the shop.)


A posting in freecycle.org managed to help us give away a fair amount of shelving and a small sofa and some other furniture I threw in at the last minute for the person who expressed interest, who turned out to be someone I knew. She brought us a dozen eggs from her chickens when she came for the second load. That was nice.

Freecycle.org is an organization devoted to keeping stuff out of landfills. You sign up online for your local county’s chapter. You have to start by giving something away, but after that you can also make requests. I’m still waiting to see if a guy who asked about the piano will follow through. That piano has me worried. Apparently quite a few end up in landfills these days.

One of my son’s friends who says he is hoarding furniture in preparation for his own apartment (and who actually likes to refinish it) took the horrible ugly chest that was in fine mechanical shape.

Gardening Stuff

An email to my local garden club helped me get rid of my fluorescent light set-up for seed-starting, pots and seed starting supplies, miscellaneous organic sprays, and a shelf, as well as some bulbs and plants. We made $50 by selling the water barrel and the shelf, so that was nice. I still have a nearly-new set of hydroponic Windowfarms I should probably get rid of, but if I land in the perfect house with the perfect window, I could set it up again and eat my own homegrown herbs and greens all winter. So… I’m still hoarding that.

Old Records and CDs

We tried selling two boxes of LPs at a used record store in Albany and made five bucks on the ten they accepted, which probably didn’t cover the cost of the gas required to get there and back. I could have had $10 in store credit instead, but I’m trying to NOT buy anything.

A colleague who teaches Spanish has already taken a bunch of Spanish-language books she can share with her students, and now will be taking some the remaining Spanish LPs, too. Fortunately one of my brothers volunteered for anything that remains. (Unfortunately, I won’t be seeing him before the house goes on the market.)

The CD pile is huge at the moment, especially since Jaime decided he shouldn’t take any to Puerto Rico after all. Some will go to Doors of Hope or the library, but since they don’t take up much room I’ve postponed making a lot of decisions there until I can listen to them. I also have scores of CDs of my dad’s fake radio shows. I know there are a few I want to listen to again in there, so … that’s another box to store, at least for now. I did dump all the old ones from the cassette days, at least.


I already gave most of those in salable condition to the local library. (That means they are in good condition, with clean spines, and are not textbooks or condensed books or out of date or bestsellers that everyone already has — i.e. just about anything by Stephen King, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, or Mary Higgins Clark). The librarians pick through them for books they can use to replace worn shelf copies or to augment their collection. They then either sell the rest, or ship them off to an organization that sometimes makes a little money back for the library.

Old paperbacks with creased spines or yellowed pages won’t sell and should be recycled with regular paper. Spiral bound books and notebooks have to be taken apart first because only paper can go in the bin. Since local map books have been made obsolete by smart phones, this week I tore apart quite a few for the recycling bin, remembering how my husband and I used to spar over possession of them and wondering what the employees of map publishers were doing for a living these days.

Thankfully I never ordered a big supply of my own book, which sells much better as an e-book than a paperback. I have four paper copies to dispose of, two of which I need to donate to my college’s library (one copy to sit entombed in the collection of other stuff written by college employees; I’m hopeful they’ll accept the other to actually circulate). That leaves two so far unclaimed, so if you want to purchase a signed copy of The Awful Mess, now’s the time to ask. (Just remind me to actually sign it for you, since I sometimes forget!)

Miscellaneous metal

We filled Jaime’s car with our metal junk, including an entire heaping box of old cables and wires. Also included: old pots and pans, a dead toaster oven and garbage disposal, really old license plates, miscellaneous nails and screws, dead fluorescent light fixtures, metal pieces from a defunct office chair, orphaned grills and other stove parts, broken garden lights, old cookie tins I had hoarded in case I ever needed something to put something in,  and so on. Half of what we made was from the copper, bronze, and aluminum I managed to separate out. It all earned us about $40 and saved us dumping fees, so I’ll consider that a win.

Just plain trash

This is just stuff that had to go to the dump. This is the first year I’ve had a permit, since we pay for regular trash disposal and usually stay well within our limit, but that just won’t do the trick at this point. The town’s bin for paper recycling has been a godsend, but we’re also more than halfway through our supply of 10 large approved dumping bags at $4.00 a bag. The town also accepts TVs and computers and other electronics from residents for free, to prevent them from ending up in landfills. This is great, and has allowed us to dump a whole bunch of old stuff. We’ve also been able to get rid of paint cans (full or empty) for free.

And we’re not done yet

So what’s left? Some furniture, some rugs, and still way too much paper that still needs to be sorted and shredded. Also left: fluorescent bulbs, used and unused. The guy at our dump told me New York homeowners can legally dump bulbs from residential use instead of paying $2 each to dispose of them properly, but I’m feeling a little torn about that. (These bulbs contain minor amounts of mercury, a toxin.) I’m also wondering just how differently the town disposes of them if I do pay the $2.

I should probably rent a storage compartment off site for some of this stuff that’s left, but it’s down to a small enough pile that we might be able to just use a corner of the basement for it. Speaking as someone who is beginning to scan the internet for houses on sale, I think it might be reassuring for folks to see clear evidence that someone trusts their basement enough to leave furniture and framed art right on the floor.

Notice that I haven’t mentioned our son’s room yet. Alejandro is not happy about moving and is being about as passive-aggressive about it as a person who’s usually pretty nice can be. This pushes every button I have, so that’s been fun. I try to remember that at his age I’d become a pack rat myself. Not until I lived out of a backpack and a suitcase for my junior year in England did I realize that I didn’t need a whole lot of familiar stuff around me  – that it might even be rather freeing to give it all up.

Judging from what we’ve already packed of his and what remains, though, he won’t be learning that lesson himself anytime soon.


This week I had a woman our real estate agent recommended come in to help with the cleaning. She gets $20 an hour, which helpfully clarifies exactly how much money I’m losing if I do other stuff instead of that. She showed me that most of our windows tip in for cleaning, something I’ve conveniently failed to notice for the last 11 years — despite the handy diagram that (she pointed out) is sitting at the top of every window.

She also got the downstairs shower door clean. This I take as a kind of miracle since I didn’t manage that even when I used oven cleaner on it (yes, oven cleaner). If you want to try her technique, she used Barkeeper’s Friend and a plastic scrubby, and followed it up with a regular window cleaner. I’m writing it here at least partly so I can find it again when I need it!

She didn’t get the kitchen cabinets much cleaner than I’ve managed myself, so she says she’ll try getting something a little more powerful. I fear it may take mineral oil to really do the job. I tried a magic eraser on one of the greasy spots around the door handles and will now need to polish it with paste wax to get the shine back. Do not use magic erasers on a fine wood finish!

The carpets are supposed to get cleaned Thursday. I had to explain to my son that this was why he couldn’t leave a pile of stuff I wasn’t supposed to look at under his bed.

Then, after I sneak off for a short visit with a friend where I do not plan to clean or organize ANYTHING, it’s listing time.

Here’s hoping that you won’t have to hear me whining about keeping a house tidy while it’s being shown. Maybe it will sell ON THE VERY FIRST DAY, or perhaps after an intense three-day bidding war in which we get to choose the passionate gardener who can’t wait to have me come back and divide plants with her. (This is also the one who won’t say a single unkind word about the shower doors, and would like nothing better than to keep the piano right where it is.)

Hey, a seller can dream!

P.S. Re some spelling up above: I think the American spelling of “salable” is strange. It looks too much like someone meant to say “syllable” but got a bug in his mouth. The UK has it right with “saleable.” But I’m an American, and not one who writes dictionaries, so I’m reluctantly bowing to my countrymen and their (weird-ass) spelling on this one.

Cleaning out: the slightly traumatic upside of moving

Usually at this time of year I’m starting veggies and dreaming about the next garden. But this year I’m getting rid of stuff and reorganizing what’s left as we prepare to put the house on the market later this month.

It’s all bringing back memories of putting our starter home in New Jersey on the market back in the summer of 2002. We had done a lot of painting and carpeting and such when we first purchased it, especially to the former smoker’s apartment upstairs. We also covered up ugly old asbestos shingles with new siding, and I landscaped with a passion.

But we didn’t really do anything with the cranky little kitchen. We didn’t take out the moldy carpet in the basement or even dump all the junk that had come with the house, like the cabinets from the one-time upstairs kitchen — not until the real estate agent told us we should.

Then when it was done and everything looked better, we wondered why we hadn’t done it earlier. We could have done a great deal to make life in that little bungalow more pleasant while we were still living there, and not all of it would have required big bucks.

The truth is that I’m just not HGTV material. Once things become so much of a part of everyday life that I am no longer actively annoyed by them – even clearly unacceptable  things like the white poster board we used to cover gaping holes from a burst pipe in the kitchen ceiling — I can live with them for just about forever.

I think of this as I check Zillow periodically to see what’s selling in our area. I can often guess just how old the sellers are (or were, in the case of estate sales), by the decor in their homes. A lot of the houses in my price range clearly haven’t been touched since the 70’s or 80’s.

And I can relate.

(This is also something I have in common with Mary in The Awful Mess, obviously. She  fails to redecorate her tiny little house. Later, Winslow shows what a sweetheart he is by taking charge. In real life, I suspect I’d be totally annoyed by that.)

In late 2002 when we moved into this lovely house, it had just been freshly painted almost wall-to-wall in Baltic White. And until last month, it still was. I finally bought paint with some personality back in 2006, but I never got around to doing anything except the downstairs bathroom, which had suffered from a leak from the upstairs toilet and therefore had to be done. I told myself I’d get the rest of the house painted every summer. I never did.

Now we’ve been forced to paint by the necessity of moving, and it’s amazing what clean, freshly painted walls can do for a room. (We hired a guy – it would never have gotten done otherwise.) The paint I’d bought in 2006 was still good (here’s a shout-out for Sherwin Williams Duration paint in plastic cans), but few of the colors were safely neutral enough for a house about to be put on the market.

And then there’s all the clutter we’ve been living with, like…

  • The kitchen cabinets I somehow managed to over-stuff even in a dream kitchen that has more cabinet space than I will ever have again for the rest of my life. I’m talking dishes used twice a year, uni-purpose kitchen appliances, enough wine glasses for a wedding reception, and bulk-buy pantry goods that not only filled the cabinets but spilled over into the dining room and the basement.
  • That basket of menus and phone books. Who even uses phone books anymore?.
  • Binders and binders of gardening articles and notes from lectures and such that I spent hours neatly tearing out of magazines and organizing and then never looked at again because googling that stuff is way easier.
  • The workbench in the basement so piled with miscellaneous tools and junk that no one can ever actually work on it.
  • At least three large boxes of electrical supplies, cables, chargers, extension cords and power strips – enough to electrify a village. And at least half of these were probably purchased only because we couldn’t find the ones we already had.
  • Boxes and drawers and shelves of gardening crap. Yes, I did use a lot of it — but did I really need ALL those recycled yogurt containers, newspapers for mulch, panty hose to tie up tomatoes, blankets to cover plants, old milk cartons for winter seed sowing, plastic produce containers and pie pans for drip trays, and old feed bags once used to haul horse manure? (No, clearly I did not.)
  • Scores of Tidy Cats yellow plastic kitty litter buckets, enough to fill multiple station wagons with free wood mulch from the town. A dozen of these buckets: Handy. Thirty: Obsessive-compulsive.
  • Bathroom detritus: I thought I was keeping things pretty neat, until I tallied up all those old toothpaste and dental floss samples from the dentist, make-up I’d never wear again (never even wore twice, in many cases), expired medicine, band-aids that fell out of their ancient wrappers when I touched them, weird medical devices I hope none of us will ever require again, and enough ivory soap bars to last a decade.
  • The chest freezer that I’m still too afraid to empty out. Yes, it allows me to save my tomatoes for winter cooking, and put away meat when it’s on sale. But the good buy I got on Price Chopper butter did not turn out to be very cost-effective two years later when it happened to taste just like freezer.
  • Clothing. My husband hoards clothes. Our basement is full of them. It doesn’t help that my friends at the thrift store save ugly Hawaiian shirts for him for the sheer joy of hearing my reaction later.
  • Art, photos, and photo albums. I still have old negatives and slides from when I first started using my dad’s old Miranda SLR at the age of ten. Jaime and I managed to take apart a few old albums that needed to be divided between us, but that still leaves three boxes of neatly organized albums for me to lug around, plus two more boxes of loose photographs. It’s ridiculous, really. Let’s not even discuss all the framed and unframed art.
  • CDs and DVDs. At least changing formats made it easy to decide to dump ALL the old VCR tapes and record albums. Yes, I could probably scan all of what’s left into digital files that I could carry around in a purse. I’m sure it would only take a year or two of my life to get it done. (I did at least get rid of a ton of old books because they are now free for downloading off the Internet.)
  • Writing stuff. In a way, foreseeing this day helped me make the decision to publish. I figured it was a way to not have to lug around piles of manuscripts anymore. But I still have the urge to lug them around, if only because I know that famous authors sometimes make big bucks selling their papers. Of course, my chances of ever being famous are probably right up there with pigs flying, but a girl can dream. When I’m in a more practical mood I use old drafts to mulch the garden.
  • Other files. Ugh. I still have six file cabinet drawers to go through, and that’s AFTER weeding through my teaching materials and office supplies. Then there are the boxes of records in the basement…
  • Baskets. They are everywhere. What is it with me and baskets? I’ve managed to let go of about half of them at this point. That still leaves at least twenty, only half of which are actually in use. And I’m still tempted when I see new ones at the thrift store.

As we clear each room of excess furniture and stuff, it becomes so much more pleasant. Check out the difference in just one room:


 photo Originalroom_zpsc5bb2c9e.jpg


 photo 9843e977-f652-4f6d-abf4-b43694ecf53a_zps0377e8af.jpg

Probably we should do more. I’d hang the art over the sofa back up, but it’s heavy and I don’t want to make a hole in the new paint. And that tall shelf perhaps should go, too. But I hope this shows how clearing stuff out of a room can help make it more appealing. Which is why moving is very useful, really. Even if I manage to stay put in the next house, I think it would be a good idea to pretend I’m moving every five years or so, just to keep the place in good condition.

Jaime is doing even better at divesting than I am, since he’s moving to an island. Anything he takes either has to fit in his luggage or has to be mailed over, and then he has to find a place to put it on the other end. Sometimes I think I should pretend I’m moving to an island, too.

Are you in control of your clutter? If so, what are your secrets?