Monday, December 21, 2009

Home Energy Assessment: Part Two

In Part One of my home energy assessment write-up, I mentioned that our 91-year-old house is very expensive to heat during cold weather –- it can cost us roughly $350 for gas alone in January and February each year. To locate the source(s) of the inefficiency, we had an energy audit in November, performed by home performance consultant Keith Williams.

Keith arrived at 9 a.m. on November 19. The inspection lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. When he was done with his inspection, I asked Keith several questions about my house, as well as about home energy efficiency in general.

First, I asked Keith to explain his work as energy auditor. He likened his role to that of a doctor. "We give houses physicals because they're energy sick," he said. After an inspection, he sends the homeowner his "prescription" for how to make a house "energy healthy." He also refers the homeowner to "specialists" (insulation contractors, etc.).

Unlike window, insulation, and HVAC contractors, who may inspect homes and write estimates for ways to make a home more energy efficient, a home energy consultant's inspections and recommendations are unbiased because a consultant does not sell products or services (other than the service of inspecting a home, of course).

Keith's inspection consisted primarily of air pressure and wall insulation tests, including an infrared scan and a blower door test. He told me that our house's air change rate per hour is 7.5. That means our house needs to be re-heated about seven and a half times every hour. The goal should be fewer than three.

The main problem with our home, he said, is a few uninsulated walls, particularly one he identified in our upstairs that opens into the attic. Conditioned air is flowing out of the top of our house, causing our home to be drafty, inefficient, and dry.

Incidentally, Keith said the 92% efficiency furnace we bought two years ago will only works at 92% if the house is properly sealed.

Keith has yet to send us his formal report, but in our informal conversation he said adding insulation to the uninsulated walls will be key to tightening up our home and improving our air change rate per hour.

As soon as I've received Keith's final report, I will begin getting estimates on insulation. Then, once we've made certain changes to our home, Keith will come for a follow-up visit to inspect work and verify safety (there are risks that go along with making a home more air-tight, e.g. carbon monoxide poisoning and mold/humidity problems). Keith's inspection fee of $375 covers both his first inspection and his follow-up visit.

With Keith's report he said he will send me a list of consultants who can make necessary changes to my home. In order to be on Keith's list, consultants must meet certain standards; underperforming or unethical companies don't make the cut. Keith said he receives no money from the contractors he refers.

FYI, if you're wondering about the efficiency of your lighting and appliances, home energy consultants don't typically assess these things. Their focus is on home heating and cooling, the most significant part of a home's energy bill.

Here are some other things I learned from Keith during his visit:

  • On saving money while making a home more energy efficient: Keith said that it's hard to pin down exactly how much money can be saved from making a home more energy efficient, mostly due to fluctuations in temperature, price of fuel, and resident lifestyle (how warm individual families keep their homes). While some changes may cause a homeowner to save money, those changes can be costly, so the ultimate goal of energy efficiency isn't to save money – it's to reduce energy consumption. Generally, though, consumers who make recommended changes to a home can expect approximately 20 percent savings in fuel/cost.

    That said, there are many tax incentives that can bring down the high price of retrofitting a home to make it more energy efficient, and having a formal energy audit can make a consumer eligible for some of these incentives.

  • On fireplaces as a manner of heating a home: Keith said that anything that uses a chimney to generate heat is not energy efficient, as the chimney will suck warm air from the house. Plus, radiant heat from a fireplace doesn't spread very far. A fireplace consumes 20 percent more energy than it produces. Bottom line: don't use a fireplace to heat a home. Use it for entertainment. And remember to keep the flue shut when the fireplace is not in use.

  • On replacement windows: replacing windows can make a home more energy efficient, but this improvement should be low on the list. Changing windows from an R-value of 1.5 to an R-value of 4 will cost $30 per square foot, whereas changing walls from R-4 to R-19 costs about $2 per square foot. You'll get much more bang for your buck by adding insulation.

    As soon as I hear back from Keith I hope to share his verdict and discuss our future plans. In the meantime, have a merry Christmas and a happy, blessed 2010!
  • Friday, December 11, 2009


    As you may know, I edited a handbook on social justice issues called The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World." I have a few extra copies of The Revolution sitting on a shelf in my living room, along with copies of my novel Basil's Search for Miracles, and I'd like to give some away. Respond to this post before the end of the day on Tuesday, December 15 with a practical suggestion for how folks can serve those in need this holiday season. When you comment, your name will be entered into a drawing for a package containing two of my books (if you win, you can choose which ones). I'll try to get the books in the mail to the winners in time for Christmas.

    Should you choose to participate, make sure you include some way for me to contact you in your response (i.e. yourname(at)email(dot)com). Thanks!

    Sunday, November 22, 2009

    Home Energy Assessment: Part One

    Four winters ago we lived in Urbana, Illinois, in a tri-level home built in 1964. Our gas bill circa January of 2006 was roughly $125 for the use of about 119 therms to run a gas furnace, water heater, and range (the biggest percentage of gas going toward home heating). The average daily temp that month in Urbana was about 33 degrees.

    When we moved to southeast Wisconsin in October of 2006, we were stunned by our first Jan/Feb 2007 power bill. The price to heat our 1918 bungalow with roughly the same square footage as our tri-level was nearly 2.5 times what it was in Urbana.

    Here's a comparison of our gas usage/cost in January, 2006 in Urbana and January, 2007 in Wauwatosa:

    House Size
    Urbana: approx. 2200 sq. ft.
    Wauwatosa: approx. 2200 sq. ft.

    Gas Cost
    Urbana: $1.06/therm
    Tosa: $1.14/therm

    Avg. Temp
    Urbana: 33 degrees F
    Tosa: 22 degrees F

    Urbana: 119
    Tosa: 270

    Total Cost
    Urbana: $125
    Tosa: $310

    Being further north and in a slightly colder climate we expected higher gas bills. Plus, gas prices were about 8 cents per therm higher between winter of 2006 and winter of 2007. Still, math isn't my strong suit, but I'm venturing a guess that the difference in temperature and the price of gas weren't significant enough to increase the use of therms from one house to the other by 250%.

    With only one income and three little mouths to feed (four if you count our beastly, all-consuming golden retriever), we were strapped for cash our first year in Wisconsin – and continue to be. After all, at about $500, our average January power bill rivals many folks' rent payments.

    To offset the huge cost of winter heating, we made a decision not to run our A/C in the summers. Suffering through some infernally hot summer days without air conditioning brought our monthly budget payment (the average of all 12 months' gas and electric usage) to about $280.

    That wasn't good enough for us. So we began cranking down our heat in the winter. Unfortunately, even keeping our thermostat set in the mid-60s didn't bring down our wintertime bill significantly. All it did was make our fingers and toes a lot colder.

    So two years ago we replaced our old heater with high efficiency (92%) gas furnace. Then, one year ago, All American Window & Door installed triple pane, argon filled replacement windows on the second story of our home. We programmed the thermostat with a conservative schedule and, on nobler days, sucked it up, put on sweaters and turned down the heat a few more degrees. We turned down the temperature on our water heater, too.

    While every little bit has helped, to our dismay the current gas payment continues to be about $310 to $387 during the coldest months. That's about of 270 to 340 therms at the current cost of $1.10 per therm.

    Colder weather aside, there's another factor that explains the huge difference in heating our Urbana home versus our Wauwatosa home: "house health." Our practical tri-level in Urbana was a solid, well-insulated construction with brand new windows added in roughly 2002. Conversely, our partially-insulated blue bungalow is drafty and inefficient.

    We love our impractical blue bungalow, so our goal is to help it use as little energy as possible. In that spirit we struggle onward, trying to determine what more energy savings we can squeeze from our house.

    Thankfully, this fall we were offered a special opportunity. The Wauwatosa Home Energy Efficiency group offered us a free energy assessment in exchange for us opening up our home for experimental purposes. At $300 to $400 a pop, home energy assessments are not cheap, but a good one can provide accurate, unbiased information on how to make a home more energy efficient.

    We learned the hard way the cost of the kind of biased "energy assessments" that are currently being offered by various enterprising contractors. Windows, siding, insulation, HVAC and other contractors are all vying for consumer and government dollars ear marked for "greening up" residences and businesses. We were wooed by window contractors' promises of energy efficiency into spending thousands for what amounted to nice windows that hardly saved much energy or money at all.

    I don't exactly regret replacing windows in our home – our upstairs is much more attractive and comfortable now – but was this the most effective energy saving technique? Not by a long shot.

    Our home energy assessment was conducted just before Thanksgiving. The inspector was Keith Williams of West Allis, a "home performance consultant" with nine years' experience. Keith was one of the first consultants in the state of Wisconsin. Prior to working as a consultant he ran his own insulation contracting business for 22 years. He's a certified building analyst, a certified energy rater, and is nationally recognized as a trainer.

    In part two, I'll talk about Keith's visit and what he told us about our house.

    Thursday, November 5, 2009

    Winter Composting

    The arrival of winter can render composting an unpleasant endeavor for folks in the northern reaches of the U.S. Here at the Blue Bungalow, we don't care much for trudging across our snow-covered, dog-dropping-strewn back yard with bowls of congealing kitchen scraps. Worse, those scraps are dumped atop a frozen, snow-capped pile that won't decompose until the spring and can't properly be turned. Winter composting outdoors is a task we at our house are likely to neglect once the blizzards start rolling in, as they did last December:

    I don't think I could even *find* my compost bin under all the snow that fell during that terrible onslaught of wintry weather!

    For me, the answer to the problem of winter composting is simple: we'll rely on our indoor worm bins. When and if the worms get overloaded, we'll add more bins. This way, we'll be able to continue composting our kitchen scraps through the winter, reducing the amount of garbage we send to the landfill and building up a beautiful supply of compost for the spring planting season.

    But vermicomposting isn't for everyone. To illustrate, allow me to share an e-mail I recently received from a fellow sustainer in Tosa. He asked the following:

    Good Morning Heather, Do you have any experience with winter composting without worms? My wife doesn’t like the worm idea indoors. I found one solution at that sounds pretty interesting. Just wondering your thoughts. Dave in Tosa

    I told Dave I've never tried indoor composting without the assistance of the amazing red wiggler. Of course, as a vermicompost enthusiast, I couldn't help but try to convince him to give vermicomposting a shot. I told him:

    You know, worms aren’t that bad – esp. if you are very careful to keep a tidy bin and follow vermicomposting rules. Do you have a basement, or some other out of the way area your wife doesn’t frequent? You could try keeping them tucked away in some place so she doesn’t have to see them regularly.

    Truth be told, my husband is not a big fan of the worms, but he tolerates them b/c he knows they are little wonderworkers. I used to keep them in my kitchen, which was fine, but at least a couple of times in warmer weather the fungus gnats got out of control. When that happened in the summers of ’08 and ’09, we moved the bins outdoors, where they remained just outside my kitchen door. When it got cold I moved them in again. Now they’re in my basement, which seems to work well. It’s cool down there, which keeps the gnats down, but not so cool that it kills the worms. ...

    Do you and/or your wife garden or grow any plants indoors? If so, the worms, I've found, are indispensible in organic gardening. And the "compost tea" that can be made from worm castings and compost keeps indoor plants very healthy and happy.

    I should make it clear that while I think every household should have at least one worm bin, the last thing I would want to do is encourage marital discord. IMHO a spouse (or roommate, or child) should never stress over sustainability techniques he or she is not ready for. Hopefully, my friend will find an alternative solution that appeases his spouse if she's still not ready for worms. And who could blame her? Worms aren't exactly the most appealing creatures on first glance.

    I asked Dave to let me know if the winter composting solution mentioned in the article above works for him (and his wife). I'll let you know what he reports. Who knows -- maybe I'll try this method myself.

    Finally, I'd like to add two comments about the gnat problem that has plagued my vermicomposting efforts since the get-go:

  • A friend of mine, who uses the same style of bins I do, told me she doesn't have gnats because she never feeds fruit to her worms -- she gives them only veggie scraps and coffee grounds. I imagine that a great number of microscopic pests arrive in our kitchens on the peels of bananas.

  • When I was at the 350 carnival a couple Saturdays ago in MKE, vermicomposting demonstrator Godsil of Sweet Water Organics told me that he doesn't have problems with gnats because he absolutely submerges all food waste with carbon-rich material. I've been using strips of newspaper to cover the nitrogen-rich materials added to my bins; Godsil uses finely shredded leaf mulch. This made me wonder if perhaps the hand-torn newspaper strips I'm using aren't fine enough to really bury the food waste. Perhaps gnats are still able to slip through the copious air pockets in the newspaper shreds to get to the food (or from the food, as the case may be) and do their breeding.

  • I think I'm going to gather a bagful of autumn leaves and keep it beside my worm bins this winter for composting. I wonder if the leaf mulch will be healthier for the worms and will do a better job of covering waste. Plus, it's probably better to send old newspaper to the recycling center, rather than into the earth. Aside from the dubious inks and other contaminants in the paper, reusing dead tree matter via recycling prevents further trees from being harvested.

    Saturday, October 24, 2009

    Trial and Error, Part II

    As promised, here's a more detailed report of my experience growing various fruits and vegetables this summer.

    Apples: Of my two apple trees, I got about five crisp, sweet-tart apples from the young Cortland and absolutely nothing, not even so much as a blossom, from the small tree I was attempting to grow using the espalier technique. I think I'm going to transplant the espaliered tree to a different area and give it a bit more room to grow. I'm sure it's too young to bear fruit.

    Berries: I harvested a trivial amount of blackberries and a handful of late-season raspberries. I also noticed several volunteer raspberries popping up around the yard, which may or may not be a good thing. Got no blueberries at all. Next year I'll focus on fertilizing the berry shrubs with vermicompost and pine needles. On a different note, I pulled a volunteer raspberry inside several days ago and I'm now trying to root it in a cup of water. We'll see what happens.

    Carrots: My big mistake with the carrots was planting them too close together. I wish I would have spread the seeds more sparingly. This error resulted in some very large carrots surrounded by a half dozen teeny tiny, useless carrots. A few of the big guys resembled hairy, multi-legged beasts more than vegetables. I'm storing most of the remaining carrots in my basement, in a 5-gallon bucket filled with loose, dry potting soil.

    Container fruit trees: My dwarf fruit trees and shrubs (pomegranate, fig, blueberry, orange, pictured to the left) did well. They quietly grew all summer long in containers on my front porch steps. Some of them doubled in size, and one of the pomegranates even grew a few tiny flowers.

    Cruciferous Vegetables: The cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage) mostly grew well, but they were attacked by slugs and cabbage worms, which rendered most of the crops inedible toward the end of the season. The three Brussels Sprouts took forever to get going, and the few sprouts that finally grew big enough to eat were riddled with holes.

    Grapes: My white and concord grapes grew by leaps and bounds along the chain link fence, but didn't flower or bear fruit, which leads me to wonder if I need more of them for pollination purposes.

    Herbs: This year I focused on growing the herbs I use most: basil, oregano and cilantro. The cilantro was useful in June, but by the time the tomatoes were ripe and ready for salsa-making, the cilantro had gone to seed and wasn't of much use at all. The oregano did very well, as did the basil. In fact, I was able to bring a few of my basil plants indoors and they are now growing in my mini-greenhouse in the kitchen. I also grew lemon balm, lavender, dill and chamomile. I dried the chamomile and some of the lavender. They are currently strung up with twine in my kitchen, along with a basil plant from the Lincoln Vegetable Patch that had gone to seed.

    Onions: The onions I planted on the side of my house (pictured at right, half-sliced and almost ready to go into a zucchini stew) were small things, barely bigger than the onion sets. That said, they were fresh, potent and delicious.

    Okra and Pole Beans: Both of these veggies (fruits?) yielded little -- hardly anything to cook with. I blame the cold, dry season. I'm wondering, also, if okra doesn't grow well this far north.

    Potatoes: I don't know what went wrong. Seems like ants might have gotten to a good many of them. I did manage to get a bowl full of red potatoes at one point, but by harvest time most of the golden potatoes had disappeared.

    Pumpkins: I wasn't expecting much, because I hear growing pumpkins from seeds is rather hit-or-miss. I learned that this is somewhat true -- we did get some pumpkins from the garden at my parents' house in Illinois and I grew about nine little guys on the sunny side of my house. But vines we started from seed at the patch at the Lincoln Patch were fruitless. To the left is a photo of one of the pumpkins I grew at my house. It's sitting on my desk, next to my printer. Right now our pumpkins are being used for decoration, but we may carve them and bake the seeds for snacks.

    Sunflowers: Hands down, the sunflowers were my favorite plant of the season. I think the trick to getting a lovely crop of beautiful, elegant "Velvet Queen" sunflowers was starting them indoors and then transplanting them when they were old enough to no longer appeal to rabbits but not so old that they'd become spindly and floppy. I didn't harvest the seeds for consumption (not sure if this was the best variety for saving the nuts) but we enjoyed them tremendously -- it was especially fun watching the yellow finches and mason bees go at them.

    Tomatoes: My cherry, roma and beefsteak tomatoes did great on side of house and not so great in the backyard. The vertical growers in the square foot gardens didn't do as well as the near-wild tomatoes I let go crazy, without cages or stakes, on the sunny, dry side of my house. I barely watered them and they yielded tons. The upside down planters were highly disappointing. In fact, though I did see about two or three tiny tomatoes growing from each one, I didn't even bother harvesting the sad little fruits from either my homemade upside down planter or the real, patented "Topsy Turvy" planter. I'm not sure what went wrong: too much water, too little? Not enough sun? Either way, I'll likely not try this technique again.

    Watermelon, eggplant, bell peppers and pepperoncini: Got nothin'. Absolutely nothin'.

    Zucchini: Other than my many tomatoes, my zucchini plant was the biggest winner in terms of crop size, but it spread far beyond the confines of its allocated square foot and ruined the chances nearby peppers had of bearing fruit, covered as they were by the large and prickly zucchini leaves. The zucchini seemed relatively pest-resistant and drought tolerant, which meant huge zucchini fruits with which to make many-a-loaf of sweet zucchini bread. I also used it on pizza and in a couple of stews. I learned from the stews that if you let zucchini grow too large, the skin gets tough and the seeds grow so big they can be a little overwhelming. Next year I'll harvest them sooner, rather than later.

    So that's about it. Am I happy with the way things turned out? Yes and no. I was able to grow a fair amount of food, even if I didn't really bother with canning this year. And yet, I was disappointed with the failure of so many plants to produce edible fruits and vegetables. Overall, though, I'm not really depressed about the way the season ended, because I've learned so much. Thankfully, we still live in a time of relative abundance in America, so as many "transition movement" folks have said, if we're going to make mistakes, now is the time to make them. Looks like I made mistakes aplenty this year, but that only gave me a better education at the school of hard knocks.

    Monday, October 19, 2009

    The Trial and Error of Gardening: Part I

    The harvest is winding down and frosty weather is upon us. Now I'm reflecting on the growing season past and considering how I might change things next year.

    If you've been reading this blog since its inception in the spring, you know that I had ambitious garden plans that were derailed by concerns over my health that cropped up (pun not intended) mid-summer.

    Even though the year didn't turn out the way I hoped it would, my efforts weren't all for naught. I did get a tremendous yield of tomatoes as well as a good deal of basil, oregano, carrots, zucchini and a few other things. And most importantly, I learned many lessons throughout my second edible landscaping season.

    For example, I learned that while the four square foot garden beds I created in the back yard did bear fruit, they were not nearly as fruitful as I expected. The biggest problem with the SF beds was that larger veggies ended up exceeding the space of their squares and choking out nearby vegetables and herbs. Next year I'll probably focus on using the square foot gardens for onions, carrots and other smallish root vegetables and grow wider and taller plants elsewhere.

    I was also reminded this summer of a lesson I am apt to forget: the virtue of taking baby steps. Next year, instead of biting off more than I can chew, I hope to focus on fruits and vegetables I know I can grow successfully. I'll limit my experiments to one or two novelties and focus on the tried and true with most of my energy.

    I was also reminded of the importance of staying on top of watering. The summer of '09 was very dry. Between mid-June and mid-August we hardly received any rain at all. My rain barrels were empty almost all summer, and I hate moving around a hose, so I admit that things got a little, shall we say, parched. Thankfully many of my plants seemed to do OK in spite of this, but I wonder how much better things would have been if I had used my sprinklers more.

    I did nothing to deter pests this year, and while I didn't have a problem with rabbits or other mammals, slugs and cabbage worms did a fair amount of damage. Next summer I'll get serious about deterring pests using organic home remedies.

    One of the greatest of my discoveries this summer is that vermicompost rocks! Whenever and wherever I use it the plants seem happier, bigger, and more disease resistant. It's worth battling occasional outbreaks of fungus gnats and fruit flies to keep my bins going. I just moved my two vermicompost tubs to the basement and I'm back to the routine of fertilizing our indoor plants with a weekly dose of vermicompost tea. Depending on how much I want to trek out to the backyard compost bins this winter, I might just start another worm bin or two in my basement. It'll be much easier to compost kitchen scraps indoors in the winter, and I'll have more luscious vermicompost to use on my gardens next spring.

    For my next blog post, I'll share a more detailed report on the various plants I grew in my garden this summer and how they turned out. Stay tuned!

    Monday, September 28, 2009

    Cancer Consciousness

    After I shared my experience with thyroid cancer in August, I was approached by a Facebook acquaintance who is an editor for Creation Care, a sub-community of that brings together people of faith committed to stewardship of the earth's natural resources. She asked me to share the story of my experience with cancer and how it affected my views on sustainability with Creation Care's readers. Here's the piece I submitted.

    If you make your way over to the SustainLane site, you might consider perusing the other content and joining the social network. This "people powered sustainability guide" has the potential to be a great resource for folks interested in urban homesteading and green living.

    Sunday, September 27, 2009

    The fruits (and vegetables) of our labor

    We did it! After months of planning, we were able to successfully launch the Tosa Farmers Market this last Saturday, September 26.

    Our fledgling collective of Wauwatosa residents came together too late this season to launch a full-blown farmers market in 2009, so we decided in May to kick-off the 2010 season with a one-day event in 2009 that would offer a foretaste of what is to come. The Tosa Farmers Market "Kick-Off" was fantastic. The turn out was phenomenal -- it exceeded our expectations, especially given that our starting budget was humble, our lead time was short, and the morning of the event was dreary and overcast. Despite these things, we had a very special, wonderful day.

    Highlights included the jazz and strings musicians (mostly high school students who performed beautifully), the preschool story time in front of the charming Little Red Store provided by Molly Del Vecchio and Nancy Clarkin, Maxi's Southern Comfort's hot breakfast offerings, and the kettle corn guy, who might have sold his delicious honey-coated popcorn all day, the line was so long. The morning was exactly the kind of community outing we'd hoped it would be.

    Unfortunately, the handful of actual produce vendors at the market were so bombarded with customers that they were mostly sold out about half-way through the event. Latecomers seemed disappointed by the lack of fruits and vegetables available after 10 a.m. This is, I suppose, a good problem to have, and hopefully next year's vendors will know to expect large crowds at Tosa's weekly farmers market. Let's hope so, anyway!

    Now we have to wait until next June for the fun to begin again. My heart aches at the thought of waiting so long for Tosa's next market day!

    Saturday, September 12, 2009

    Bad Days Happen.

    This morning *so* did not turn out the way I wanted it to. I thought it was going to be great -- it's a beautiful sunny Saturday, and we had plans to spend it with family celebrating my two-year-old niece's birthday in Illinois.

    At 10 a.m., my niece's present was wrapped, I had a bag of tomatoes to share with family at the party, and I even thought to cut a big sunflower for my niece. We were ready to go.

    Steve asked me to drive to Illinois, because he had homework for his music theory class and wanted to get it done in the car. Fine. I love driving. So we left. I wanted to swing by Fondy Food Center beforehand to visit their "Eat Local Celebration." We drove east from Tosa, zig zagging around to avoid construction on North Avenue until we finally made it to 17th and North, the location (I thought) of Fondy.

    We couldn't find it! Since we were pressed for time on the way to the birthday party that began at 11:30 a.m. in Round Lake Beach, we decided to jump on 43 south and begin our journey to Illinois.

    It was disappointing not finding Fondy, but I can always find it some other time. We cruised for about an hour on 94 south, got off at Grand Avenue in Gurnee, and were on the home stretch. Then, about a block and a half before we reached my sister's house, I heard a sound that always makes my blood run cold: a police siren. I Looked in the rear view mirror. Is that for me?

    Yes. I pulled over and the police vehicle pulled over right behind me.

    I really didn't have a clue as to why I was being pulled over. I didn't recall speeding. Was my license expired? Darn -- I must have forgotten to renew my license plate sticker.

    A female police officer approached my car, asked to see my driver's license and registration and said (or rather, barked), "did you know you were going 42 in a 25?" She looked inside my car. "And your daughter is unbuckled!"

    I looked behind me. Sure enough, my four-year-old was standing in front of her car seat, feet on the ground, seat belt swinging behind her, unclicked.

    Remember, I have no voice. It's still barely stronger than a whisper nearly three weeks after having two neck surgeries, and the surgeon told me it could take weeks or even months to return.

    We didn't argue with her. We just shuffled through our wallets looking for our new insurance cards, which we couldn't find. Must have forgotten to put them in our wallets this August when they came in the mail.

    I've been under a lot of stress lately, and although I'd managed to more or less keep it together until that point, I couldn't help myself. Tears started flowing.

    The officer went to her car and came back with TWO citations -- one for speeding and one for the seat belt. Adding insult to injury, I actually have to go back to Illinois on Oct. 20 for a court date because of the seat belt situation.

    After the officer drove away I continued to weep, mortified that I'd have to enter a birthday party red-faced and share with all the guests my shame. Without a voice. And with a big scar across my neck. Nice.

    But it got worse. We pulled into my sister's driveway and there were no cars in sight. The garage doors were shut. The house was dark. No one was home!

    No one is home? Did we get the location wrong? Is my mom hosting the party at her house nearby?

    Steve called my mom on my cell. "Oh, Heather, I'm so glad you're able to call me," Mom answered.

    "Uh, no, this is Steve." He told her about the tickets. She told him that the birthday party is actually NEXT Saturday. This morning the family was at Grandma's house, having a gay old time.

    I started crying harder.

    We backed out of my sister's driveway. Steve and I switched places so he could drive and I could cry my eyes out.

    At that point we were both dumbfounded at the police officer's accusation that our child was riding without a safety belt. After all, as Steve puts it, I'm the "Seat Belt Nazi." I'm always ADAMANT about my kids wearing seat belts.

    It occurred to us that our four-year-old might have popped out of her seat when we had stopped, because she often does that when she knows we've reached our destination, and we were in my sister's neighborhood.

    We grilled our kids. "Did Anya get out of her seat before or after the car stopped?" Various answers were shouted from the far back seat. Finally we asked the culprit herself. She must have heard me talking with her dad about whether I should plead innocent or guilty, because I swear I heard her mumble "guilty."

    "Speak up, honey. Did you get out of your chair when the car was still moving?"


    Great. Guess I'll be pleading guilty at that court date on October 20. And paying the great State of Illinois $130 in fees. Which totally sucks because money is so tight for us right now, what with all these doctor bills and the fact that I can't teach this semester because of my voice. Those two little traffic violations are going to hurt.

    I wish I could say something hopeful and inspirational, but today I'm just cranky. My eyes are sore and tired from crying and I'm feeling emotionally drained. I have taken solace in cooking this afternoon, and not only am I looking forward to trying my hand at making calzones, I also discovered large carrots in my garden, so we'll now have carrot cake for dessert. I'll be using the bounty of tomatoes throughout my yard to make sauce for the calzones, and found two more large zucchinis in my garden that I'll be able to use this week. So I guess I am thankful that even on a day like today, the fruits of the earth can lift my spirits.

    Tuesday, September 8, 2009

    Fourth Random Act of Publicity: My Mom

    It's the last day of the Week of Random Acts of Publicity and I'm breaking the rules again today, because my final random act, like my first, doesn't involve a book at all. Not yet, anyway.

    Dawn Wakefield Sullivan is a hair over 5 feet tall and 57 years old. She decorates her suburban home with crosses and icons, Americana kitsch, and pictures of her favorite actors playing vampires. She's my mom, and today I've decided to publicize her writings.

    My mom is the reason I write. When my three sisters and I were young, she taught us multisyllabic words and recited "d-i-c-t-i-o-n-a-r-y" when we asked her to spell something for us while doing our homework. She encouraged us to appreciate good music, movies, theater and literature and read voraciously, all the while drinking Tab Cola by the gallon and never missing her soaps or an afternoon episode of Jeopardy (for which she mysteriously knew EVERY "question").

    Decades later, she's still going strong. Last time I was in her car, she pulled out her iPod, blasted Nelly and sang her heart out. She even incorporated some upper body dance moves as she drove. Did I mention that she's 57 years old? Um, yeah.

    Having lost both her father and step-father as a child to untimely deaths, my mom desperately wanted to create her own traditional, two-parent family. She made it her goal to have one, so when my dad proposed, she dropped out of college after one year as an English major and got a day job to prepare for wedded bliss. Ever the devoted mother and wife, she decided years into her marriage to go back to school. This was no small task for a mother of four teen and pre-teen girls living in a remote suburb of Chicago, but she managed to get an Associate's Degree in English when I was in high school. She's had a few careers since, from working in the insurance industry to her most recent job as a cardiac technician in a hospital.

    She's a woman who accomplishes what she puts her mind to. Which is why I hope that decides, soon, to sit down and start pounding out some book manuscripts.

    Right now she's a bit obsessed with vampires, thanks to Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball. Yes, she's an absolute True Blood junkie. Do I find it odd that my mom spends her days searching the web for TB fan fare, reading and re-reading Harris's novels and watching and re-watching episodes of TB? A bit. But then, it's my mom's eccentricity that makes her so lovable.

    Until my mom releases her first novel, we'll have to enjoy her occasional piece of fan fiction and her blog.

    Below is a piece my mom wrote a few years back, then reposted to her blog several months ago. It's a personal essay about the death of her step-father, David "Roy" Nudell.

    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    I came of age in 1964. I was twelve. I can tell you the exact day – It was November third. My step-dad died that day.

    Let me back up though. The day I was born, my dad was in the hospital. He had collapsed at work and they did not know what was wrong with him. It turned out he had a brain aneurism and he died two and a half weeks before my third birthday. I actually remember some things about him. I am certain that, even as young as I was, I felt a crushing loss. But children are resilient, and I learned even then that if you block pain, you can function. You can survive.

    When I was five, my mom remarried. My step-dad became my dad. In every way. I didn’t think of him as a step-dad. He was just my dad. Life was simpler then. There were not a lot of families like mine. Not a lot of children suffered such a devastating loss as I had. There wasn’t a lot of divorce back then, and there weren’t as many blended families as there are now. This was the post-war era. Women were through helping with the war effort. They left the factories so that the men coming back had jobs. Women went back into the kitchens. Dads worked. Moms stayed home with the kids. Leave it to Beaver. Father Knows Best.

    I felt like a misfit. I was already the girl who had lost her ‘real’ daddy. I just wanted to be like everyone else. My new daddy was so sweet. He loved me; I WAS his little girl. I had a second chance. Then my brother came along, and we were – gosh – we WERE just like a real family. Dad worked. Mom was home. A girl and a boy. A house in the suburbs. WOW.

    But my step-dad was sick. I watched him with fear. Coughing. Slowing down. Eating a funny diet for a sick man. Coughing more. God, I used to listen to him cough and I would stiffen. He would go down to the basement – we had another bathroom down there. He would go down there when he wanted to be sick. I think he did this to be further from us so as to spare us, but we knew. We heard. Even now, today, more than forty years later, I can go down to that bathroom and look at the knotty pine paneling covering the wall, and if I look in just the right spot, I can see a tiny fleck of his blood. From the coughing. The blood remains a silent sentry. I want it to stay there. Does that seem crazy? It is a piece of him. Oddly, I find it comforting. He was there.

    I made some bargains with God.


    But God moves in mysterious ways.

    And I lost my step-dad on November 3, 1964. A couple of days before, he had gone back into the hospital for surgery that they thought would help him. The morning he was going back in, I was getting ready to leave for school. I was almost out the door and my mom said, “Hey, aren’t you going to kiss your dad goodbye?” I said, “Well, I’ll be seeing him again real soon”. Denial. It was the last time.

    So the fateful day, I came home from school. There were cars parked in front of our house. Strange. I came to the door and Aunt Sylvia was there to greet me. “Dawn, your mom wants you to go get a haircut. Walk over to Mr. Vito’s and get one, then walk home.” OK. No questions asked. It was 1964, remember? I went obediently. Sat there for an hour. There were no other customers at Mr. Vito’s, but they did not seem to be taking me. They did not walk me to the shampoo station. They did not walk me to the salon chair. They swept the hair off the floor. They chatted, ignoring me. I was patient. After all, this was 1964. Kids did not question adults. I guess they had been told to stall me. I sat there with a sick feeling. My brain was screaming SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT. THIS IS NOT RIGHT. But finally, I felt the pull to go home. I cleared my throat and asked them if I could get my haircut now. They did it and let me go.

    I walked home and saw my mom, and I knew. She took me into the back yard where we could be alone. She was shaking. She looked at me and said two words. “He died”. I had never, before or since, seen such pain on a person’s face. The sound of heartbreak in my mother’s voice was wrenching. I will carry this memory, fresh as that day, my whole life. When my first daddy died, I felt the loss. Immeasurable. When my second daddy died, I felt the grief.

    On this day, my childhood ended. On this day, I learned what children usually learn much later – that sometimes, things do NOT work out. That sometimes, terrible things happen to people. That you cannot protect those you love from heartbreak.

    The thing about grief is, that when you’re in it with someone else, it actually helps. Because you can focus on the other person – on getting them through it – and push the pain away a little. I was so worried about my mother it enabled me to bury my own suffering. She had to go back to work. I took on some more responsibilities – mostly around caring for my brother after school. I worried about money. Twelve years old and I worried about how we would manage. We had to pay for the blood. Blood cost a lot of money. There had been a lot of blood to pay for. My mom tried to give some, to offset the cost, but her veins kept collapsing. In time I was able to function because as I mentioned above, I just wanted to be normal. But now, I was REALLY different at school. I had lost TWO fathers. Who has ever lost two fathers? I felt their pity. I felt their curiosity. I felt their judgments about how I should be grieving. I tried to pretend it didn’t matter. I used to say about my first dad, it’s OK – I don’t remember him. I used to say about my second dad, it’s OK – he was my step-dad. Can you believe it? It was NOT OK.

    It wasn’t until I was married and had started having my own children that it all started coming back to me. It was always a huge milestone when each of my daughters turned three.

    From that point on, they would have more than I had.

    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    Third Random Act: Jane G. Meyer

    For my third Random Act of Publicity I've created a Facebook fan page.

    Remember how I said yesterday that I don't care much for pedantic religious children's books? Well today's Random Act is to honor a person who has worked in religious publishing and resists every impulse to edit and release "pretty tracts." She is someone who approaches publishing with the heart of a craftswoman and artist, and for that I think she is worthy of a little extra attention.

    Her name is Jane G. Meyer, and she is both an editor and an author of children's books. Lovely books. Good books. Books that inspire.

    Jane was my colleague at Conciliar Press, where she served as the children's books editor. She is also one of my mentors, having encouraged me and championed my work when I was just getting started with fiction writing. Jane's passion and enthusiasm for children's literature is contagious. She is so committed to the craft that she works tirelessly to improve the inspirational titles that we offer to our children. And she isnt' just a great professional. She's also a wonderful woman who brings light and joy to the often cranky world of publishing.

    I've decided to create a Facebook Fan page to celebrate Jane and her books. If you're on Facebook, I urge you to become a fan. Unfortunately, today Facebook seems to be massively malfunctioning, so you may have to try becoming a fan of Jane at a later date. In the meantime, you can check out her website at Or visit her Amazon page and buy some of her books, including the newly released picture book The Life of Saint Brigid: Abbess of Kildare.

    Second Random Act: 'From I-ville to You-ville'

    Today participants of the Week of Random Acts of Publicity were asked to write a book review. Here's mine.

    I don't like pedantic children's books all that much. Especially when they're religious. Yes, I know that probably sounds surprising, given that most people know me as someone who writes for religious publications and spent a year doing publicity for a religious press. Thing is, I much prefer the rare religious children's books that infuse spirituality with engaging stories to books that are glorified tracts with pretty pictures. I'll happily take a well-crafted secular story any day to a poorly-crafted religious tract. (Incidentally, I hate that I have to refer to any publication as "secular" or "religious," but that's a whole other blog post).

    I admit that when I first heard about the book From I-ville to You-ville by Mersine Vigopoulou (published in 2006 by Uncut Mountain Press), I assumed this children's title released by an Eastern Orthodox publisher was more "pretty tract" than "beautiful, spirituality-infused story." I'd heard of the book long ago, but assumed, quite unfairly, that it was yet another dull, preachy, morally "safe" book we'd have to force feed to kids who'd rather be reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

    Still, I'd heard good things about the novel from many folks I like, so out of curiosity I picked up a copy at a friend's house last weekend, sat down on the couch and started reading. Thirty-five pages later, I put it down only because I was at a party, and much as I wish this weren't true it is SO not cool to sit on a couch reading a book when you're at a social gathering. (Thankfully, my friend let me borrow the book).

    'From I-Ville' is part picture book, part novel. Its hard cover, larger trim size and bright illustrations make it look like it's targeted at preschoolers, but it is actually fairly text-heavy, which means it would work better as a family read-aloud. The story involves a boy named "Stubborn" from a "great kingdom called I-ville." I-ville is ruled by a goddess-queen named "Conceit" who lives in a crystal palace at the center of the kingdom. The people of I-ville love their home, but they've got problems. They fight a lot. Every person wants to do things his or her own way. And the children never play together, because when they do each one wants to be the leader, and they can never agree on who gets that coveted role.

    One day Stubborn happens to meet a stranger outside the walls of I-ville -- a girl named Serenity. She is traveling past I-ville with her father on her way home to a placed called You-ville. Stubborn immediately takes to Serenity because she is kind and sweet. He likes her even more after he challenges her to a race and beats her. After losing the race, Serenity lavishes Stubborn with praise, instead of complaining like the children of I-ville. "Well done!" she says, shaking his hand. "You run like the wind!"

    Stubborn is surprised to learn that there are other kingdoms beyond the walls of I-ville, and he likes Serenity so much that he asks Queen Conceit if he can journey to the distant land of You-ville. She grants him his wish to be a "great explorer of I-ville" and off he goes on his journey.

    Despite Stubborn's overwhelming self-confidence and the prideful notion that he'll have no trouble finding You-ville, he ends up wandering and can't figure out how to complete his journey. Then he stumbles upon a kindly "elder" (illustrated wearing the garb of an Athonite monk -- the one marker in the entire book that reveals the religious leanings of the author). The old man instructs him on the way to find You-ville. The entry to You-ville, he says, is a small, low passage, like a tunnel.

    "I'm small," Stubborn says, "so I should be able to pass through."

    "I don't think you'll fit," says the elder.

    "I'll bend down then."

    "The secret," the elder continues, "is this: in order to pass through, it's not enough just to bend down. You need to shrink your ego."

    You might think, based on the naming structure of the characters in 'From I-ville,' that they are as one-dimensional as Goofus and Gallant. Surprisingly, this is not the case. While the people of You-ville are innocent, thoughtful and Gallant-like, the people of I-ville, selfish as they may be, are redeemable, human, and capable of love. This makes the story all the more intriguing, as we wonder what will happen when Stubborn makes his journey back from You-Ville to I-ville to share the good news with his countrymen about loving one's neighbors as oneself.

    Yes, the book is simple and pedantic, in the same way that the great fables of Aesop or the Ancient Greek myths are pedantic, encapsulating critical life lessons in absorbing stories. 'From I-ville' speaks directly to readers living in a world where Ego is king, where selfishness is a virtue, and where "God" is a positive force whose sole reason for existing is to bring us the good things we wish for (think Disney godmother, except not as chubby).

    The truth is, we live in a world full of fleeting joys that disappear like vapor almost as soon as they come. The happiness that lasts is the joy that comes from loving and serving our neighbors. Sure, it's important to take care of oneself to a certain degree, but if we spend all our lives making ourselves the gods and goddesses of our own personal "I-villes," we'll never really know true joy.

    Imagine, for a second, if our world was You-ville -- a place where EVERYONE put the interests of others before their own. What ecstasy would we all experience if all humans were motivated primarily by the desire to bring joy to the lives of others?

    First Random Act: Tuesdays at Ten

    It's my first day participating in Darcy Pattison's Random Acts of Publicity Week and I'm already cheating.

    Because Tuesdays at Ten, my first 'random act', isn't a book. Rather, it's several books. It's also rhymes and songs and finger plays. And it's a talented singer/guitarist, a Spanish teacher with word cards, a creative photographer snapping shots, a cast of adoring fans and one adorable storyteller named Molly Del Vecchio.

    Del Vecchio's concept is simple -- once a week, she offers a structured 30-minute story time that brings families out of their homes and into a local cafe for fun and friendship.

    A former elementary school teacher and mother of a 5-year-old, Del Vecchio begins and ends her weekly story time with hugs for the many friends -- big and little -- who wouldn't miss their weekly pick-me-up. In between the hugs are songs, finger plays and books: Molly reads a few different picture books related to the theme of the day, which can be anything from feet to friendship to firefighters. She not only reads the books to her audience, she carries along a crate full of picture books from the local library. When story time is over, moms and dads mingle while children romp around, often finding a cozy spot to flip through one of the library books they've dug out of Del Vecchio's crate of books.

    Del Vecchio is already a local celebrity adored by the Tosa toddler set, so hopefully it won't be long before she'll be able to share her stories with a wider audience. She's already expanded her storytelling efforts: she recently started doing birthday parties and special events under the moniker Happy Hour and was hired this summer to teach part-time at the Milwaukee Zoo. Let's hope this is just the beginning of a fabulous storytelling career.

    Let's also hope that other creative moms and dads around the world will follow Del Vecchio's lead and start their own story hours in coffee shops around the globe. The beauty of Del Vecchio's simple idea is that it promotes literacy among our children and helps families engage with the community. Kudos, Molly!

    Monday, September 7, 2009

    Random Acts of Publicity

    You may know that I write stories, and as such I'm a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. This morning I learned from an SCBWI e-mail about an intriguing concept dreamed up by another children's writer named Darcy Pattison. It's called Random Acts of Publicity Week. Darcy's idea is for book loving folks to spend a bit of time each day for one week promoting the books they love out of the goodness of their hearts.

    I *love* this idea. As a former book publicist and as someone who is disillusioned with American mongering-I-mean-marketing, I find this concept refreshing. I am coming to believe that books truly succeed not because of the scheming of corporate marketeers, but because they are GOOD, and because the average consumer is intelligent enough to recognize a book's quality and then share the good news with their communities.

    Or at least, that's the way things should be, and the Week of Random Acts is just the kind of concept that supports this publicity model.

    Starting tomorrow morning I'll unveil my four random acts of publicity, one each day. I'm not going to say much right now, but I'll give you a hint: I'm promoting books/authors because they're GOOD but also because they're flying under the radar right now. Sure, I'd love to publicize Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, or Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but I don't really think they need the publicity.

    One more thing: I might cheat a little. Pattison recommends we follow a regiment that involves a different kind of act each day, and that we promote *books*. I might promote an author, instead of a book, or I might promote something related to books, but that isn't a book. And because Tuesday's action is to promote something by word of mouth and I *still* don't have my voice back after two thyroid surgeries, I'm going to have to take a different tack.

    Now I just have to narrow my choices down to only four days' worth of book-related things to publicize. Yikes!

    Till tomorrow, friends.

    Thursday, August 27, 2009

    The Trials of Life

    The summer has gotten away from me, I'm afraid, and as I was preparing a post about what I've learned this season about gardening through trial and error, a much bigger life lesson was pitched my way.

    I found out on Monday, August 24 that I have thyroid cancer. This is the note I shared on Facebook announcing the news to friends and family:


    Dear Friends,

    I know several of you have asked me to give you an update on my thyroid situation.

    To give some background, about four years ago I was told I was "pre-hypo thyroid." Thyroid troubles were on my radar, so this summer when I noticed a very slight swelling in my neck I went to the doctor. He knew I was pre-hypo and also that I had been diagnosed as fairly anemic in the winter of 2009 (which can, for women, be a symptom of thyroid troubles). So he ordered a thyroid sonogram the following day, then called me the morning after with the news that I had a small (1/2 inch) nodule on the right lobe of my thyroid gland.

    The next step was a FNA (Fine Needle Aspiration), the results of which that came two days later indicating not that the nodule was benign or malignant, but rather that it was a suspicious "follicular neoplasm" that would have to be surgically removed to be biopsied.

    On August 20 I had the one-hour, out patient surgery on my thyroid gland. The surgeon removed half of my thyroid and the suspicious nodule. The surgery was the easy part -- the recovery was no picnic, but thankfully, it went rather quickly: it is now day five and my 3" neck wound is stiff and itchy, but otherwise I feel pretty good.

    When I went in for my post-surgery consult on Monday morning, my doctor had not yet received the news from pathology. My mom was with me, so she took me out to lunch and to a movie to settle my nerves as I awaited the news. It was about 1/3 of the way through Julie & Julia that my cell phone started buzzing. I answered and it was Dr. Bowman with the news: the nodule contained malignant cells, meaning I have the horrid "C-word": Cancer. I'd have to return to surgery immediately to remove the remainder of my thyroid.

    My voice was still weak from the first surgery, so I mostly just cried as he told me the news, and then pulled my mom out of the movie and we went home. Steve left work early and joined us. I cried on and off for a few hours, but Steve and my mom were a positive, calming force. After my mom left, Steve and I decided to do something relaxing, as much as that was possible. It was a beautiful evening, thank God, so we started walking. We decided to walk all the way to the mall 2.5 miles away, taking the path along the Menomonee River, and I think it was the best thing I could have ever done. The walking was so empowering and wonderful that by the time I made it to the mall I felt 100 times better, then and for the rest of the night, and until today. We had salads and smoothies at Panera and then hung around at the bookstore for a while before walking home.

    This morning, pre-surgery #2, I'm trying to keep busy and stay positive. I'm cleaning the house, weeding and watering my gardens, organizing my office. I go in for surgery at 11:45 a.m., then they operate at 1:30. I will stay over at the hospital one night and then go to my parents' house to recover for a few days.

    I think this will be a critical turning point in my life. I am learning so much from this experience, life lessons I have mostly regarded as cliches until now. Like how to not take things for granted, how to let myself be taken care of by the people I love, what true friendship means, how to not let anxiety get a grip on my soul, how to stay positive, how to treat my body as a temple, and how to live in the moment.

    Obviously I'm not through this storm just yet. But I am hopeful that, as they say, "this too shall pass." And I ask you for your thoughts and prayers as I make it through this trial, and I thank you for your thoughts and prayers to this point, and for your love and support.


    As I was sitting in that movie with my mom on Monday, I could barely concentrate. I'm a pretty high strung person, extremely neurotic, and I sat there in the dark theater turning over and over in my mind the possibility that I might have cancer. I imagined the doctor's voice as he said the word "malignant" and hoped I wouldn't panic. I thought about that scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, when Woody Allen's extremely neurotic character Mickey is sitting at the doctor's office waiting for the M.D. to return with results of a cancer test. He first imagines in horror the doctor coming in telling him he has the c-word. A moment later, the doctor enters and tells him he's fine. When Mickey learns he's OK, he runs through the streets, kicking up his heels.

    I was hoping that my experience would be like Mickey's; I fantasized about how great it would be when I, too, could possibly run through the streets kicking up my own heels.

    Surely the news would be good, I told myself. I had already suffered enough through the first surgery and the terror alone of possibly having cancer. God would let me off the hook. I am a relatively healthy 33-year-old with virtually no family history of cancer; surely I was one of the 90 percent of folks who find out their thyroid nodules are benign. And anyway, hypochondriacs like me are never *really* sick, right? Being a hypochondriac offers a sort of superstitious consolation: we who worry about problems we don't have are safe from actually having those problems. "If I fake it, I don't have it," said the character Bob Wiley in the film What about Bob. To date, this has always been my way of coping with rampant fears.

    But there in the dark, after consoling myself with these mostly irrational thoughts, my mind would swing to the dark side. I would tell myself I had to accept the real possibility that the news wouldn't be good. And I'd try to brace myself for the worst, and hope that I wouldn't crumble if and when the doctor said the word "malignant."

    Back and forth I'd swing, every minute, every second, as I waited for The Fateful Phone Call.

    "Calm down, Heather," my mom said to me in the Theater, putting her hand on my arm. "Whatever the news is, we'll get through it."

    "Yes," I replied, "but the thing is, I'm scared. Tomorrow could either be the best day or the worst day of my life."

    I realize now, in retrospect, that what I should have said was not that tomorrow would be the best or the worst day of my life. The day I found out I had cancer was merely another "first day" of my life, just like the day I went off to college, or the day I got married, or the day I gave birth to my first child. It was a day for a new beginning, a day to open my mind to a new way of thinking and living, and a day to face my fears of death and dying and acknowledge that no matter how hard I run from suffering, no matter how arduously I work toward distracting myself from these frights, suffering and death are real, and each and every one of us encounters them. So it isn't so much the fact that I will encounter trials that I should anticipate, but rather how I will deal with them when they inevitably come. This is the beginning of healing and growth.

    Of course, I have spent some time wondering why or how I could have gotten cancer when none of my parents and siblings and very few of my relatives have had this experience. NO ONE in my family, to my knowledge, has thyroid cancer.

    I could speculate on causes. Tainted water. A high-carb diet. Too many convenience foods. Radiation exposure through my cell phone or through climbing a local radio tower when I was a rebellious teenager. Irradiated food. Standing too close to microwaves. Pesticides. There are all sorts of ideas floating in my mind about how cancer cells could grow in my body, and if I wanted, I could cling to blame of any one or multiple causes, of my own behaviors or of someone else's, and cling to the hope that if I just do X, Y and Z I'll be able to beat this problem and never suffer again.

    The truth is, it doesn't matter. My mom said something very striking to me that day at the mall. I was telling her that, like all people who experience something painful or dreaded, I briefly went through the "why me" period. I cried, whimpered, and felt lost and alone. I asked God, "Why did this have to happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?" My mom, a woman who, before the age of 13, lost both her biological father and her beloved step-father to untimely deaths, responded in this way: "why NOT me?" We all have to suffer. There is no avoiding it. And if not us, it will be someone else who suffers. The good thing about suffering is that we can experience what so many others have experienced, and share in the trials that are a part of the human condition. And, God willing, when we suffer we are offered an opportunity grow in leaps and bounds.

    And it is a tremendous blessing to be able to really grow, to learn from suffering. It is life affirming and healing to suffer. Because in between periods of despair, of anxiety, of feeling more alone than you ever have before, of feeling like the pain and fear will never subside, there is a light that comes when you acknowledge that a power bigger than yourself is Good, and that power will bring you safely to the other side if only you hold on with all your might.

    I'd like to say one more thing about that power -- about God. If you know me, you know that I am a pretty "religious" person, although I hate to use the term. It's almost my claim to fame. Heather Zydek, she's "really religious." Churchy. She's an "Orthodox Christian," whatever that means. It's true that I am a church-going sort, that I take the Christian tradition as seriously as this anger-prone, foul-mouthed, gluttonous, passionate woman can. So when I prayed for a miracle prior to my surgery, I in my fragile, weak faith did genuinely hope for something miraculous to happen. And when the news was bad, instead of good, and I had to endure not just one but two surgeries to my throat within five days, some folks, even religious, might have become angry with God. God didn't heal me, so therefore God does not exist. And if He does exist, either He doesn't like me or He's a big jerk.

    I admit I was tempted to play this game. But I clung then, and continue to cling, to one idea that overrides all my doubts. After the first surgery, I was filled with despair and panic. And what I repeated most during those days were two prayers: the words of Psalm 23 ("the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want") and "Please, God, do not forsake me. Do not abandon me." These prayers, and, I believe, the prayers of many loved ones, helped me to realize that God is not far away from us, ever. He is right there, on the other side of a mysterious veil, and if we reach out, he will invisibly but powerfully give us the strength to go on. There is so much comfort in this. God may not have made my cancerous nodule disappear before surgery, but He held me close when I felt Despair pulling me with all its might into a pit from which I might have never returned. And He gave me hope and wisdom to see that He can use all things for Good.

    And aside from this, I now believe that one should not discount the miracle of modern medicine. Sure, Western medicine is wrought with problems, and I'll be the first to admit it. Still, the fact that a 69-year-old surgeon could gracefully remove my cancerous thyroid gland and bring great comfort and healing to me is a gift from God. Miraculous, in its own sense. Every day I wake up, and with every breath I breathe, I have a new chance to live my life better, to truly experience the good around me, and to truly love all the people I meet.

    Now my mission, my beliefs in sustainability and a clean earth and in real communities are clearer, but more personal. Because I feel all the more passionately about wholesome food and clean air and water, but also about living a life in the moment, not rushing to bigger, better illusions, and not ever taking God's many gifts for granted. That starts with appreciation for the fruits of the earth that sustain us, and it starts with good, loving stewardship of these gifts, and with loving compassion toward one's neighbors. And it ends with trust in God, and a willingness to hang on to Him during this sometimes wild ride called life.

    Monday, July 20, 2009

    Good Moths and Bad Butterflies

    Moths and butterflies are popularly believed to sit on opposite ends of the good-evil spectrum. Moths are often listed among the ranks of the villains of the insect world, and butterflies generally likened to angels, fairies, and other sweet, precious things.

    In reality, there are "good" moths, and there are "bad" butterflies. Or rather, there are butterflies that can be quite a nuisance.

    First, the good moths. I have Luna eggs -- lots of them. And I'd love to give some away. If you have any interest in trying to raise them, either as an ongoing hobby or as a one-time educational opportunity for yourself and/or your kids, please e-mail me. Lunas relatively easy pets, especially if you have easy access to their food supply: black walnut, white birch or sweet gum trees.

    Speaking of good moths, I found someone in West Allis, another Giant Silk Moth hobbyist, who wants to trade eggs with me. He is raising Cecropias, Polyphemus and Monarch butterflies. I've always wanted to raise both Cecropias and Monarchs, and he doesn't currently have any Lunas. So today I'm supposed to drive out to his place, where he raises his moths in a large outdoor cage he uses to allow the mating females to "call" any males in the area with their scent hormones. Should be interesting.

    Oh, and in my geekiest move yet, I started a Facebook fan page for Saturniinae. If you are on Facebook and like these amazing creatures as much as I do, please become a fan by searching on the name of the group: Giant Silk Moths.

    Re: the bad butterflies. I harvested my first two brocoli florets late last week. Just took a kitchen knife and sawed off the biggest pieces. They were green and flawless, but for one thing -- caterpillars, small ones, hiding beneath each floret. And of course, I didn't discover this until *after* I blanched the brocoli for a pasta salad I was going to bring to a dinner with friends.

    Had I bought this brocoli from the store and found it covered with worms, I might have tossed it right into the garbage, or perhaps the compost bin. But I painstakingly grew this brocoli myself. I wasn't going to give up on it that easily. So I very slowly examined each and every tiny bit to remove the half-boiled caterpillars. Needless to say, my children did not want to touch my "worm salad." My friends and Steve politely ate the salad, as did I. It tasted fine, and I'm fairly certain I got all the worms out, but I still ate every bite in terror that a forgotten worm would be revealed on someone's fork.

    The pale green caterpillars are the offspring of a creature one might mistake as beneficial pollinator, a charming white butterfly that flits happily over one's vegetable garden before laying eggs all over the place.

    I'm not sure how to handle something like this in the future. My understanding is that the best remedy for these or any "cabbage worms" is to remove the caterpillars as you find them and then squash them underfoot. I don't want to spray them with anything toxic -- that's surely far worse than finding unappetizing but probably healthy caterpillars on your food.

    If anyone has a good organic worm removal method, please share. It's an icky sort of problem to have, to say the least. And I have yet to see what is revealed when I harvest the cabbages and cauliflower florets that are growing in the same square foot garden those charming white butterflies seem to love desecrating with their eggs.

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009

    My New Promethea Moths

    This afternoon a friend tagged me on a Facebook photo of two large moths. The photo was taken by her relative in Menomonee Falls. My friend, who knows of my moth-fixation, was hoping I'd be able to help ID her cousin's find. I knew right away from the photos that the moths were either Cecropia, Polyphemus, or Promethea. I asked for more wing shots and then determined that they are Promethea moths -- a kind of Giant Silk Moth that is a relative of Actias luna.

    I mentioned that my friend's cousin should try to save the eggs of the female moth (in the picture, the two were mating). She said raising moths wasn't really her cup of tea, but mentioned that I could claim the eggs -- and the moths -- if I so desired. It took me about ten minutes to decide whether it would be worth it to drive out to Menomonee Falls from Tosa to retrieve the moths. The decision was made when my friend's cousin told me that to prevent them from flying off while I was en route to her house, she coaxed them onto a stick and then put them in a five-gallon bucket with a screen top. "I'll be over right after dinner," I said.

    I am now delighted to have in my brief possession a beautiful mating pair of Promethea moths. The male has wings that are a rich, dark brown (almost black) with waves of lighter browns on the back and more reddish colors underneath. Sadly, his wings are now tattered from all the time spent in flight, searching for a mate. The female's wings are in better shape at this point; they're a beautiful reddish-brown, with dots and waves of white and brown and other lovely accents. The wingspan is between three and four inches.

    Naturally, I turned to the Canadian moth guru Bill Oehlke for information on how to rear Promethea offspring. I'm hoping the female will lay her eggs on a paper towel I placed in the five gallon bucket.

    Here are two photos. The first is the best shot I could get of the active-but-worn-out male and the impregnated female; the second is a close-up of the female.

    These two Promethea join the nine-plus Lunas that have eclosed over the last couple of days inside my moth terrarium. I already have eggs from one mating pair of Lunas and look forward to raising a new generation of caterpillars -- hopefully two kinds!

    Saturday, July 11, 2009

    A Bright Moon in a Dark Sky

    I realize it's been a while since I last posted to the blog, and frankly, it's probably because I've been a bit depressed since the caterpillars pupated. It's that time of year when so many people are out of town, the Fourth of July is over, and summer vacation gets into a kind of lull. Beyond that, though, there've been a few little upsets that got me down. For example, it looks like a creature of some sort snatched my baby pomegranates, because they're gone. My yard is starved for rain, the rain barrels are empty. Worst of all, I have *another* raging case of compost gnats in my vermicompost bins, an embarrassing problem for someone folks think of as a "go to person" on the subject of vermicomposting. I'm not sure whether to bring in the heavy artillary (beneficial nematodes) or perhaps dump the bins in my outdoor composter and start over with new worms. There is nothing worse than having to examine every beverage before taking a sip to make sure there aren't any gnats floating in the top. Major nasty.

    So then today I got to spent a few hours with my mother-in-law and a friend at eight private gardens for the annual Secret Gardens of Wauwatosa Tour, which was great. I saw so many lovely things today that it inspired me to keep plugging away at my own gardens. At the same time, though, when I got home my own yard suddenly looked rather pathetic and messy, which again has me feeling glum. There's still so much work to do, and it's time consuming, potentially expensive work. Ugh.

    Yes, fanatic growers do have their rough spells.

    Thankfully, amid all this self-pitying I was given a special gift. When I sat down at my computer this afternoon, I looked over at the bankers box in which all my cocoons are sitting and saw one pale Luna moth resting inside. With the help of my two older daughters we gently lifted him out of the box and put him inside my screened butterfly terrarium.

    Here are two photos of my new moth:

    Isn't he sweet?

    Tuesday, June 30, 2009


    This morning I sifted through the cardboard bankers box that currently houses my luna moth caterpillars to separate cocoons/pupae from larvae, as well as to remove dead leaves, stripped tree branches and caterpillar droppings.

    In the sorting process I snapped some photos. Here's a late bloomer, getting ready to pupate. The little guy lifted his head off the branch he was hugging when he noticed my flash:

    And here's an arrangement of pupae on the bankers box lid. Looks like some of the caterpillars spun pupated and then fell from the silken cocoons they'd spun. I'm not sure what this means for these "homeless" pupae. Should be interesting.

    A very rough head count amounted to at least 40 cocoons and perhaps as many lazy caterpillars ready to pupate. I'm still willing to share. Any takers?

    On a related note, in the process of removing the skeletons of devoured White birch branches I was able to save several White birch seeds. I put them in a one gallon zip lock bag and refridgerated them in the hopes that stratifying will ready them for planting, maybe in a few months. I'd love to be able to grow these beautiful trees; the parent birch in my neighbor's yard is gorgeous.

    Monday, June 29, 2009

    June Color

    Here are some photos from around the yard this morning of June 29, 2009:

    Purple Petunias, lovingly deadheaded daily:

    Baby Cortland Apples:

    Veggies doing their thing:

    Carrots and okra, started from seed:

    Mara's Morning Glory:



    Yellow Lilly:

    A little June color:

    Chillin' in the new hammock:

    Saturday, June 27, 2009

    Three Sisters Update

    No, not my three sisters (if you weren't aware, I'm the firstborn of four girls). This blog post is in reference to the Three Sisters garden I planted at my parents' home in Northern Illinois. The Three Sisters method is a Native American gardening technique that involves the mutually beneficial combined planting of corn, beans and squash.

    I started my plants from seed, and now, a little over a month later, everything looks pretty good. Below are a few pictures of the progress.

    As you may recall, I started with four mounds of clay-heavy soil ammended with mushroom compost and peat moss, planting corn seeds in the center (some with pole beans, some without) and then either squash or melons in outer rings.

    Here's a front view of the whole garden:

    The following photo is of a bed that includes corn, pole beans, and watermelon. The watermelons are slower growers -- they're much smaller than the squash plants at this point. The same is true of the watermelon plant I'm growing in my own backyard. I'm not sure if this is typical or if I've done something wrong. We shall see, in time.

    Below is a photo of the rectangular bed, which includes two mounds. The mound on the left has very large zucchini in the outer ring -- so large, in fact, that it's crowding the slower-growing corn. Today I adjusted the zucchini leaves, pushing them outward to give the corn a bit more room to breathe. The mound on the right includes a mix of honeydew and cantaloupe surrounding the corn. The melons, again, aren't growing at nearly the same rate as the squash.

    Below is a picture of my fantastic pumpkins -- this is probably the most successful mound of the four. Still no flowers or fruits, though.

    It'll be fascinating to watch how this experimental garden continues to develop. I'll keep you posted!

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009


    When I bought my first home (another blue bungalow in a different city) I became, at the age of 23, an instant garden enthusiast. I wanted to take the weedy, densely shaded backyard I had in my hands and turn it into a sanctuary. Beauty was my number one objective, and I spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars over the course of five years on perennials, mulch, ponding gear, and all sorts of other things to make the yard beautiful.

    Several years and three children later, with a sunnier yard at my disposal, and with an energy crisis and global climate change upon us, I have focused almost exclusively on growing edibles. Beauty is still an objective, but it has been knocked down a few pegs on my gardening priority list as I hyper focus on growing things that are practical and useful.

    Having said that, today I was able to visit the lovely Monches Farm in Colgate, WI, where my mother-in-law bought me an early birthday present: ornamental perennials to fill some empty spaces in my front yard. The very helpful horticulturalist at Monches introduced me to a new (to me) kind of perennial that I think I'm going to love: Coral Bells.

    I came home with six new baby plants: two variegated purple and silver coral bells, two bright, lime green and yellow coral bells, and two containers of "blood grass," a shorter ornamental grass with blades of burgundy and green. The blood grass ties the other two plants together nicely. Here are some pictures, taken after sunset with my flash:

    There is something so important about creating a beautiful space in which to live. Having a lovely yard should motivate a family to stay home and play, rather than look elsewhere for entertainment and fulfillment, wasting fuel in the process. I'd say that makes ornamentals pretty practical!