That Time I Bought Ladybugs by Mail

Years ago, Daniel and I made friends with this guy named Vinnie who lived in one of the apartments over the garages behind the cluster of rowhouses where we were living at the time.  His apartment was small and shabby, but he’d chosen it because it had a large yard, and he loved gardening.  In the winter, he brought a lot of his plants indoors in pots.

Unfortunately, one winter his plants became infested with aphids and scale insects simultaneously.  Vinnie tried spraying them with various homemade concoctions, but nothing was working well enough, and the plants were dying.  Somehow a farm-supply catalog had made its way into his urban home, and he noticed that the catalog said ladybugs would eat these pests.  You could buy them by the pint.

Vinnie is a person who stubbornly resists The System: He likes to work informally as a landscaper rather than having a “real job,” he’s often lived without a telephone or a bank account, and he’s never had a credit card.  That’s why he asked me to order his ladybugs from the catalog.  I used my phone, my credit card, and my address, figuring I would take the bugs to Vinnie when they arrived.

A week or so later, I came home from work, and my housemate said, “You got a package.  Why is it labeled LIVESTOCK?  It’s not very big.”  The package was a small wooden crate containing a canvas sack.  When I held it up to my ear, I could hear tiny moving noises.  I explained to my housemate, and we speculated about how many ladybugs are in a pint–that crate might be small by human standards, but it was very much larger than a ladybug; there must be hundreds in there or thousands….

After dinner, I took the crate up to Vinnie’s place.  He was excited.  He immediately got some tools to pry open the crate.  Then he lifted out the bag, ignoring some folded papers that were underneath it in the crate.  One end of the bag was bunched together and secured with a twist-tie.

Naturally, Vinnie untwisted the twist-tie to take a look at his new beneficial insects. Read more of this post

Things Not to Do: Ingredient Chopping Edition

There will be no gory photos in this story.  Although many things went wrong, cutting myself was not one of them.

Don’t buy a cheap “as seen on TV” food chopper like the Vidalia Chop Wizard.  If you did, don’t try to use it to cut a bunch of different foods that might not work.  If you are doing that, don’t use the fine-dicing grid; use the bigger one that is less likely to get jammed up.  If you must do this sort of experimentation, don’t do it when you don’t really have time for dinner to go spectacularly wrong and be delayed more than an hour while the whole family gets mad at you.  Also, don’t do it when you already have a cut on your thumb from last week’s bagel-slicing mishap, because raw onion juice will sting, and the Band-aid will not protect you but will actually make it worse by holding the onion juice right there in the cut with that nice absorbent pad.

I made all of these mistakes on Sunday–except for buying the chopper in the first place, which I did a little over a year ago; it worked pretty well on onions, at first–and the whole mess resulted from one main Thing Not to Do: Don’t give up on using the kitchen tool that is really appropriate for the job because the baby is sleeping in the dining room.  Move the baby to another room, or take the risk that the baby will wake up and need to be held by Daddy for a while but will then go to sleep for the night at a reasonable hour.  If baby’s sleep is really so precious at this time that you can’t bear the possibility of disrupting this nap, change your dinner plan to something that doesn’t require chopping.  Just, please, don’t put yourself through what I did! Read more of this post

10 Lessons Learned from Rewiring an Old House

This is a guest post by Ben Stallings, my brother, who is a permaculture gardener, home energy efficiency auditor, and owner of a curbside recycling business in Kansas.

I spent most of my spare time in 2011 rewiring our 1920 house, replacing the old knob & tube wiring with modern nonmetallic cable that meets code.  Now I’ll take a look back at what I learned from the experience, in case any of you are thinking of attempting the same thing!

1. The electrician’s bid was reasonable.

When we first bought our house and tried to insure it, we found that the insurance company we wanted to use would not insure us because of the potential safety hazards of our knob & tube wiring.  I got a bid from an electrician to rewire the house, but it seemed laughably high: US$7,000.  (That’s almost 10% the cost of the house.)  It was clear from his attitude that he didn’t want the job, so I figured the bid was inflated. Not so, it turns out.  The materials don’t cost much, but the labor is very intensive.  I know I wouldn’t take on another job like this for $7,000.  At the time we didn’t have that kind of cash on hand, but now that we do, if I had to do it again, I’d pay the electrician to have it done. Read more…

How to Salvage Over-baked Brownies

This past Sunday, we brought the food for church coffee hour.  In addition to carrots, spinach dip, hummus, cheese, and crackers, my son wanted to bring brownies.

Things Not To Do When Baking Brownies:

  • Don’t agree to do it in between two hours-long shopping expeditions, on a day when you are still recovering from a back injury–or in any similarly stressful, painful, and/or tired condition.  Choosing to do this is likely to lead you into doing other Things Not To Do because you are not thinking clearly.
  • Don’t top the brownies with pieces of candy (in our case, peppermints and Tootsie Rolls left over from Halloween).  At least, don’t do this if you are making relatively shallow brownies.  Maybe it would work if you added the candy later.  But don’t set it on top of raw batter 3/4″ deep.  The candies will sink to the bottom and melt and stick onto the pan.
  • If you are making Honey Bear Brownies (a recipe which I highly recommend when made as written) and discover that you don’t have enough honey, don’t just substitute sorghum syrup and expect that it will work.
  • If you failed to follow my advice above and you did make brownies with Tootsie Rolls on them, don’t forget about that when you are looking at the brownies to see if they are done yet.  Those puddles of boiling dark-brown liquid are molten Tootsie Rolls, not pockets of brownie batter that’s mysteriously still not solidified.
  • Don’t test brownies for done-ness by poking with a chopstick until it comes out clean, as you would a cake.  Brownies are supposed to be gooey.  The way to tell that brownies are done is that the edges pull away from the pan a bit.  Don’t put away the cookbook without reading that fact, clearly stated in the recipe which you have made many times.
  • Don’t forget to set the timer.  Even when you have decided to turn off the oven and let the brownies sit in there a moment longer, set a timer.  Otherwise you may realize 15 minutes have gone by and they are now very dry-looking.
  • Don’t leave the suspiciously dry-looking brownies sitting out uncovered for 17 hours.  As soon as they have cooled, put the lid on the pan or cover it with foil.  Better yet, cut the brownies at this point and store them in another container.  That way, if you’ve made brownies you are physically unable to cut, you will find out about it sooner, instead of when you are trying to serve them.

If you have failed to follow all of this good advice–like I did myself–you may find that what you thought was a pan of brownies is actually a 9″x14″ sheet of rock-hard stuff welded to the bottom of the pan.  Read more…

Things Not To Do: Song in Your Head Edition


Hey, it’s really great how I am focusing on my work, not like last Friday when I got “Total Eclipse of the Heart” stuck in my head and couldn’t get rid of it and it was driving me nuts.

Forever’s gonna start tonight! has taken on a whole new meaning.

If you are plagued by a song in your head, do not allow it to trigger a Sneaky Hate Spiral.

Do not sing the song to your seven-year-old child by way of explaining why you keep smacking your head and scratching your ears.  Your child may be pleased by your melodramatic singing (you will find it’s impossible to sing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” recognizably without sounding melodramatic) and demand that you sing it again and/or start singing it himself.  Now you will never escape.

Things Not To Do: Temporary Shoplifting Edition

By “temporary shoplifting” I mean “walking out of a store with merchandise you have not paid for, then realizing and voluntarily returning to the store to pay for it.”  Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but here are some Things Not To Do if you want to avoid the risk that this almost-crime will get the police’s attention before it gets yours:

  • When you have decided to buy a shoulder bag, do not hang it on your shoulder while you continue to walk around the store.  Especially, do not hang it on the same shoulder as your purse or any other bag you are legitimately carrying.  Doing this vastly increases the odds that you will forget about the new bag when you are leaving the store.
  • Do not allow your seven-year-old child, even if he is for some reason behaving like a bizarre cross between a self-appointed Office Max tour guide and an over-caffeinated Lady Elaine Fairchilde, to lure you 30 feet away from the checkout desk to look at a bunch of random items and develop iron-clad 17-point arguments explaining why you will not buy them for him, while the other parent pays for all the stuff.  Especially if you not only are still carrying an item of merchandise but also never told the other parent that you had decided to buy it. Read more…

Things Not To Do: Electronic Fund Transfer Edition

First, here is a good thing to do if you use credit cards: Arrange for an automatic payment, equal to the minimum amount you charge to that card in a typical month, to be electronically transferred from your bank account on a day before the payment is due.  That way, if the e-mail reminding you to check your paperless billing gets into your spam folder, or if your paper bill gets lost behind the couch, at least part of your bill will be paid and you won’t get the full late fee.  Write the automatic payment in your bank account register in advance so you’ll remember to keep at least that much in your account.  Ideally, you’ll also remember to check your bill and pay any additional charges before the due date, and then you won’t pay any interest at all!  (If your charges for the month are less than the automatic payment amount, your credit card company should take only the amount you owe–check to make sure this is the policy.)

I set up an automatic payment for my Visa card a few years ago, when my son was in preschool and his tuition was charged to that card, so I set it at $400 transferred on the 11th of each month.  It had always worked out well for me . . . until last month. Read more…

7 More Product Recommendations

Here are the previous 7.  These are things I really like.  I am not affiliated with any of the companies, and I was not asked to write these reviews or compensated in any way.

1. Pentel Clic Eraser This handy desk accessory, which I use every day both at home and at work, solves the problem of pencil erasers getting used up or hardening into uselessness before the pencil’s writing ability is exhausted.  Read more…

Why my child is not allowed to watch Teletubbies

Attention, readers: The tone of this article is exaggerated for humor value.  Although it does describe a potentially serious side-effect of watching a program that I personally find unbearably irritating, not every detail is intended literally.  If you feel angry after reading it, please take a deep breath and step away from the screen. Comments are closed now that I have given the Teletubbies fans a more than fair chance to demonstrate their social skills and intelligence.

Nicholas is six-and-a-half now, far older than the target audience for Teletubbies, but this morning he was teasing me again about this rule, and I realized that the story behind it should be explained on the Internet so that other parents can benefit from my traumatic experience instead of experiencing it themselves.

The Teletubbies are an evil force that corrupts children!!!  No, this is not about Tinky-Winky being gay.  It’s about the unique mind-altering, discipline-perverting, common-sense-shattering power of those plastic-faced demons. Read more…

The Magic Bullet does NOT work for me!

That’s strange; I thought Works-for-Me Wednesday this week was supposed to be a “What’s not working for you?” edition, but the hostess has explained how to make a burlap wreath that apparently works for her, and now that I think about it, last week she explained why online calendars don’t work for her.  I must have gotten the dates confused.  Well, anyway, here is something that’s not working for me:

The Magic Bullet is a blender/chopper system that supposedly “does ANY job in 10 seconds or less.”  Seriously, any job?  Really, they mean only food-cutting jobs, like making smoothies, dicing vegetables, grating cheese, chopping nuts, crushing ice, pureeing beans, etc.  Still, that sounds good!  We bought one on special at Costco almost two years ago.

Our conclusion, after trying hard to learn its ways, is that the Magic Bullet does a few kinds of jobs in 10 minutes or less and is annoying, if not incompetent, at all the other things it claims it can do. Read more…

Things Not To Do: Cooked Fruit Edition

Don’t cook cantaloupe.

Most other kinds of fruit can be cooked and will still taste good, maybe even better.  Cooking is an ideal way to use scraps or fruit that’s too old to eat fresh. But not if it’s cantaloupe.

Cooking makes cantaloupe fragrant in a bad way.  It doesn’t smell like food anymore.  It’s like some kind of cloying perfume or big show-offy flower.

In addition, cooking makes the texture of cantaloupe soft, icky, almost slimy.  The mouth-feel combined with the overripe smell is guaranteed to set off primitive reflexes deep in the brain that scream, “This food is no longer safe to eat!!”

Even if you mix it with other fruits, cooked cantaloupe is hard to gag down.  I can believe that it might be possible to take it in an edible direction by cooking it with a lot of spices and onions and things, but I am not willing to experiment.  Unless you have a really promising-sounding recipe from someone you trust not to be a practical joker, I repeat, do not cook cantaloupe.  Ewww.


UPDATE: Maybe this recipe for Sunshine Bread will work!  I haven’t yet tried it myself, but the author and some commenters say it’s delicious!

Things Not To Do: Credit Card Edition

There is a piece of advice missing from my article on credit card sanity.  That’s because, at the time I wrote it, I had never allowed myself to be talked into applying for a store’s credit card at the cash register.  I have now had this experience and learned why it is a Thing Not To Do. Read more…

Things Not To Do: Home Organizing Edition

Don’t start a To Be Filed pile.

I mean, you can make such a pile temporarily, when you’re opening the mail and paying bills and such, and then get up and file everything in that pile as soon as you’re done–that’s a fine strategy.  What you must avoid is making a pile of things you are going to file away in their proper places Someday when you Have Time.  That day may not come until the pile is very big, and then it will look so daunting that you will do everything in your power to avoid Having Time to sort and file all those boring papers.  Meanwhile, the pile will take up space and serve as a constant reminder of how busy you are now and how stupid you were then.

I started a To Be Filed pile when I was pregnant and exhausted.  My child is now six years old, and I still have not cleared out that pile!  I succeeded in stopping myself from adding to the pile quite some time ago, and several times I have worked on it for a while and filed some of it (much of it can now be filed in the recycling bin, since it is outdated), but I have never yet reached the bottom.

Don’t do this.  File those papers now, or just recycle them.  Your future self will thank you.

Things Not To Do: Dessert Edition, Volume II

from storyteller Fran Stallings (Becca’s mom), a story horrifyingly similar to the tale of the Fruity Whip

While our kitchen is being renovated, we’ve set up camp in the main bathroom, which we have equipped with electric skillet, small microwave, and toaster oven. Electric kettle and toaster are on the dinette table, which is camping in the family room. The dish drainer monopolizes the bathtub. Gordon enjoys using the telephone shower to rinse the dishes! All this leaves me about one square foot of counter space to work in. I can either use the cutting board to prep ingredients, or replace it with the skillet to cook them. I’m realizing that once the kitchen is remodeled and I return to having No More counter space than I had before (we have not changed the “footprint” of the kitchen), I will be deliriously grateful for all the room!

Invited to bring a dessert to tonight’s pot-luck, I figured I could get away with not having any kitchen by whomping up a no-bake pie using a purchased cookie crust, instant pudding, whipped topping, etc. Read more…

What’s the grossest thing you’ve done to help the environment?

A while back, I got into an online discussion on the topic, “What’s the grossest thing you’ve done to help the environment?” started by someone who thought it was really, really gross that she had swished her smelly dish towels in a mixture of hot water, vinegar, and tea tree oil with her bare hands, rather than throw them away and buy new ones.

The poor dear.

Here is what I posted: Read more…

Important tip for Liquid Paper users

If you need to use a lot of Liquid Paper (or other brand of white-out or correction fluid) in a short time, particularly if it is the variety that says FAST DRY on the label, you will soon find that it is all gummy and impossible to spread and it seems like there isn’t any more in the bottle.

This does not mean your bottle is empty.

It does not mean that the remaining white-out in your bottle is ruined. Read more…

Things Not To Do, Oven Safety Edition

  1. If you are going to be leaning into the oven to check whether the Honey Baked Lentils and Raisin Bran Bread are done yet, don’t wear a metal necklace.
  2. If you already did it once and experienced a disturbing burning sensation everywhere the front portion of the necklace was touching your skin, don’t try it again!  What are you thinking?!

Read more…

Things Not To Do, Hair Care Edition

Do not wash your hair with coffee grounds.

I don’t care if you read on the Internet that doing this will give your brunette hair beautiful softness and luster, in addition to making use of something that otherwise would be garbage.  This is not a good idea. Read more…

Things Not To Do, Dessert Edition

When I was in college, I belonged to a very silly geek social organization called KGB.  We did a lot of weird things, including some which were worked into the structure of our weekly meetings.  One of these was Things Not To Do: You’d get the floor, say, “Things Not To Do,” and share an experience that hadn’t turned out so well.  I have a collection of TNTD from my time as recording secretary, which I’ve always thought would make a cute little book, kind of the opposite of Chicken Soup for the Soul.  I’ve also mulled the idea of making TNTD a regular feature here in The Earthling’s Handbook . . . and now I am inspired.  This Works-for-Me Wednesday, I’ll tell you about something that spectacularly didn’t work for me! Read more…

The Horror of the Porch!

One of the people to whom I e-mailed this story in 1998 requested that I post it.  At the time this was written, Daniel and I were sharing a house with two friends, Bill and Steph.

Lest any of you may be feeling that your housekeeping skills are deficient, here’s a story to demonstrate that you are not alone and things could be worse!

Because our kitchen is so small and lacking in storage space, we have a lot of canned/packaged food stored in the enclosed back porch, along with the tools and cleaning supplies.  We have two sets of shelves and a wheeled cabinet out there.  The broom and mop and rake and snow shovel generally lean in the space between the cabinet and one set of shelves.  The general tendency of everyone in the household has been to put things on/in the appropriate storage unit but not necessarily in any particular place thereon/in, and recently a lot of surplus groceries got stacked on the floor Read more…