Category: "Reduce"

I'm still here.

January 17th, 2014
I haven't forgotten about you. Although I've been silent for months, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth. I have, however, met up with a challenge that is consuming all of my time: cleaning up a new, old home.
The whole thing started with a sign on a lawn.

Now, with the move complete, the walls are changing colors as the sawdust is swept away...

...while wearing dust masks, of course.

Meanwhile, in the midst of moving, the holidays came and went and the new year began. There's a sense of a fresh start in the air for everyone I meet, whether or not they've recently made a big change. It's the way of winter: dormancy for renewal. Even if we are not spreading our leaves and bursting with color, we are improving, inside and out.
How do you like our living room decor?

It may feel as if we are neglecting other things in the process, but there is something very rewarding about focusing on a single goal. For instance, getting an entire house in order requires the completion of many, many small tasks. Today I will be moving boxes from one side of my office room to the other, making way for my husband to sand a cedar closet tomorrow. Sunday, we will be emptying our temporary storage locker. It's been this way since early December, tackling one goal at a time until our home is comfortable, the priority of which remains steadfastly at the top of the list. Holiday decorations? Not this year. Blog posts? Pushed aside for a while. Internet connection? Only when I really need it. A vacation with friends? I'm having enough fun setting up house. I'm relearning from this adventure the value of focus, prioritization, accomplishment, and old-fashioned hard work. But the key in all of this is that the goal -- uncovering the charm of this house -- is unequivocally something that I want. That's the part that makes it easy, worthwhile, and permissible. What will be the consequences of saying no to everything else? Only time will tell. I'm also learning the value of dramatic change. The mundane may be comfortable, but it sure is boring. Still, I haven't forgotten the value of you, my reader, my friend. As I spend hours scrubbing a single wall, my thoughts linger toward planning the tasks necessary to continue writing for you. I expect to reemerge, charm uncovered, something old made new again. Until then, enjoy this period of dormancy and take advantage of it while you can.

Did you do that yourself?

November 13th, 2013
The post is part of the latest SOS Signal, my bi-monthly newsletter which speaks to the career professional. The time is at hand to set goals for 2014. For each task we must decide if we want to hire someone or if it's something we'll handle ourselves. There are many reasons why a person takes on a job that would otherwise be done by an expert. For one thing, self-reliance is getting easier. The availability of resources and tools for Do it Yourself projects (DIY) have become so commonplace, I wonder if it won't be long before there are DIY lawsuits or DIY facelifts. Like a hungry person learning to garden, there's value in having DIY skills. But there are also valid reasons to get help. Some professional business services seem costly upfront, until you consider the impacts beyond the total on the invoice. DIY as a way to cut expenses can backfire, resulting in stained credibility, increased stress, and lost revenue.
So how do you decide? You take into consideration multiple angles.

The Case for DIY

People often ask me about my Website. It's a DIY. Here are the main reasons why I originally decided to build my own: 1.) I had more time than money. 2.) I had a good enough skill set to get it done. 3.) I wanted the ability to customize and to be the person responsible and in control. 4.) The knowledge gained helped my career/was a topic that interested me. 5.) I was confident the final product would serve its primary purpose. After it was done, I found future applications for what I had learned. I customized this Blog. I communicated more easily with professionals in the Web design field. And recently, I offered my knowledge to a fellow sole proprietor, Shannon Miller of Shannon Miller Photography, with whom I had teamed up on an unrelated project. As our business relationship progressed, it became apparent that her success would impact mine. We began to trade services. She took my headshot and other needed photos, and I helped her get an updated Website. The value of learning a new skill almost always has long-term benefits, ones that may not reveal themselves until farther on down the road.

The Case Against DIY

Meanwhile, let's look at another, less technical example. At home, I'd like to add a shelter for protecting my car from the weather. Four to six posts and roof would suffice. I don't want one of those metal, industrial-looking structures that have become popular around here, but I also don't want to pay more for a carport than I did the car. I found kits online that would give me the instructions (and possibly the materials) to build one myself. Admittedly it would be rewarding to say, "I built that," and I'd prefer to have control over the outcome. BUT, I do not have decent carpentry or power-tool skills. And the structure's purpose is to protect my vehicle, not collapse on top of it. So, in this case, just because I COULD build it myself, doesn't mean I SHOULD.

The Gray Area in Between

Back to my Website; I have what I paid for. Although it successfully casts my name and information out into Cyberspace, it doesn't have quality bait on its hook. Ideally, to get more from it, I should hire an expert. Foremost in my decision on how to go forward is the answer to the perpetual question, "Does it serve its purpose?" Like a carport in shambles, if the site turns off visitors or never succeeds in catching new business, then it doesn't matter who built it, it's not worth the lumber or labor consumed. Additionally, when my book hits the New York Times bestseller list, and I have to travel the world to give readings and book signings, I won't have the time to keep my site functioning, and thus, I will need to pay someone who can. Because the process is rarely easy. Plus, few DIY projects turn out to run as smoothly as intended. The history of how my site came into existence is so long and complicated, I could have written 18 best sellers in the amount of time I've invested in it. My first site was created more than a decade ago using an online template service called SiteStudio. Like with any templated program, I took a risk that mine would look like someone else's, which I tried to reduce by pushing the software to its customization brink. Although clumsy and time consuming, the process did at least give me an online business card as well as a basic understanding of how to talk in computer code. I revamped the site three times over the years, adding new services and making use of new HTML knowledge. Then, out of nowhere one day, my site's host lost the connection to the SiteStudio files. There was no way to restore them from a backup. All I got was, "Sorry, you'll have to rebuild it." They were fired. While the crickets were chirping at my URL, I found a new hosting service. They also offered SiteStudio, which I immediately declined. I tried instead an inexpensive, off-the-shelf Mac software program that ran on my desktop. I managed to create something, but my throat still hurts from screaming at the computer. After about a year of trying to maintain files that were impossible to work with, I made the investment in the well known, tried-and-true, Website creation software called Dreamweaver. I passed over the templates and dug in to learn the fundamentals, granting me the knowledge of exactly how my site was structured, etc. I took advantage of DIY books on HTML and CSS, read a lot about best practices, and invested hours...days...weeks into building a site that I can update quickly and if anything happens to the server, I can reload in minutes. Beyond the software, hosting, and domain registration fees, the site was built for free. Sounds great, right? Not really. Here's why: 1.) If I had spent that time making money, my profit would have far exceeded the expense of hiring a professional. 2.) My skill set lacks knowledge. I do not speak fluent HTML, a language that is still evolving. I do not have a grasp of the code that mobile devices need to properly display a given Website. I cannot add interactivity. My site is not search engine optimized. And it lacks the graphic punch needed to keep a reader's attention. 3.) Although I may be in charge, I only get what I envision. There are no brainstorming sessions. I'm not able to tap into advice from talented peers and other individuals. All my shortcomings follow me to my online presence. This is the drawback of total control. 4.) While I'm interested in the the trade, I'm not interested in becoming a Webmaster. Having a little bit of knowledge about something so extensive can be a hindrance if you fail to acknowledge all that you do not know. Additionally, software upgrades are becoming increasingly more expensive in the design world, and for this job, you can't use your grandfather's tools. 5.) The primary purpose has changed. Where before my site was designed as a for-more-information followup to a face-to-face meeting or word-of-mouth referral, my career has evolved into one in which strangers must be able to stumble upon it. I must begin to catch some unknown fish floating in the online stream.

The Final Evaluation

There is nothing wrong with DIY. If there were, stores such as Lowes or Home Depot wouldn't be so darn successful. But we must all be careful not to let the DIY craze rob us of the potential that exists in a job professionally done or cripple us with the drawbacks of having one done wrong. There is a reason why someone is called an expert, and hiring the right one almost always pays for itself in time saved, profit gained, and effectiveness achieved. For my plan in 2014, I expect to keep my DIY Website. But if anyone asks for advice on how they should proceed with theirs, I'll tell them, "It depends." Because decisions such as this really do depend. There are nuances to every task and angles to every project, ones that can only be evaluated by the decision maker. No matter what, the first step starts with setting the goal. ---
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Killing ourselves with stress

October 18th, 2013
It's enough to eat you alive, from the inside out. Stress can kill. And if you've ever gone through a particularly stressful event, you understand just how true that can be. The human body responds to stress in harmful ways. I'm not entirely sure why. The addition of corrosive acid to the stomach is just one effect. There are plenty more that come when danger strikes. Short bursts are not a problem. Remedies, such as drinking peppermint tea, can soothe those rough spots. But when stress is prolonged for days, weeks, months, or years, no medicine in the world can cure it. And when you're pacing the floor, wringing your hands, or banging your head against the wall, the knowledge that the stress you're experiencing is harmful to your health -- that it might even take years off your life -- only makes the stress more stressful. “I've got to calm down,” you tell yourself. “Don't pressure me now, I've got enough to worry about,“ you respond. It's vicious and self destructive, and all the advice in the world can't make it stop. The only method to ensure it truly goes away is to resolve whatever is causing it.
In the last two weeks, I experienced what I believe was the most stressful period in my life so far. It wasn't a matter of life and death. It was just stressful. Now that the worst is over, I can see why I was bothered so much. What it came down to in this instance, in a single word, was uncertainty. Horror writers know all about the human tendency to dwell on "what's going to happen?" Suspense is big business. People get profoundly frightened by the unknown, that some thing which may or may not be around the next corner.
You can try to breathe deeply. You can exercise, sip wine, be in the moment, or visualize something beautiful. But the real cure doesn't come until the shadows are lifted and the uncertainty is banished. The best example is the medical test. Doctors are now questioning the hyper preventative state of mind that today's technology has driven. It feels as if it won't be long before a scientist will be able to run a test to tell a mother how long her infant will live, whether it be ten months or ten decades. Wouldn't you like to know? Really? Would you survive the stress of waiting to find out the results? There are a lot of diseases and defects in the human condition. At what point does our need to know result in so much stress that we become unable to enjoy the life we've got? My uncertainty was related to the current task of selling our house to buy another. Were we going to move or not? Either answer would have been fine. We love our house now and the neighbors who surround it. But the house we hoped to buy held a key to a lifelong dream. Which one was it going to be? I just wanted to know. It appears now that we will be moving, although we won't know for sure until December. With each passing day, with each hurdle cleared, with each test result reported, I knocked down the cause of my stress. The relief that came from resolving the problem -- the uncertainty -- was far more beneficial to my state of mind than any temporary remedy could offer.
Of course, we must take the doctor's advice and do the things that help us cope, but to truly tackle stress, we must identify its cause and then find an end to it. ---
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Uncloaking the Invisible Sorrow

September 27th, 2013
The Eastern Phoebe is not a particularly beautiful bird. Gray on top, white on bottom, its markings are rather bland. With a lack of melody in its song, I can't image the Phoebe inspiring any classical symphonies. Still, one had become my favorite backyard resident, and it wasn't because of its looks or its voice. I loved it because of what it did. As a member of the flycatcher family, it caught flying insects. And now it's gone, and I'm sad. I first began seeing what appeared to be a single Eastern Phoebe every spring, hunting from the empty wash line where it would perch in search of insects. It would dive into the air or down to the grass in order to grab a morsel, which it would quickly eat upon returning to its post. © Russ Campbell* For three years in a row, it came back every spring, but then it would disappear as the weather warmed. This year was different, though. It didn't leave. To my amateur birdwatching eyes, it seemed as if it was going to stick around and call my yard home. I watched its aerial antics almost every afternoon as I sat outside to drink my coffee or eat my lunch. And whether or not that one bird was to blame, I was not plagued by insects this year, a fact for which I would thank the quiet hunter when I would say to it out loud, "I love having you here." But yesterday, while mowing the lawn, I found an Eastern Phoebe laying dead in the yard. Sudden sadness was made worse from two assumptions:. 1.) It was the exact same bird; 2.) It died because of my sliding glass door's window. You see, I know window glass kills because of a professor who has been studying the issue for years. His name is Dr. Daniel Klem, Jr., and he works in the Department of Biology at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Nearly every article written about the topic of birds vs. windows will reference his name, because his research and dedication is extensive. Together with his assistant Peter Saenger--who is president of my local Audubon chapter--Klem has enough field data to prove that birds cannot see glass. (Click here to see my article of 2010, written for a commercial audience.) Thankfully, there are measures you can take to prevent the loss. Klem is working with manufacturers to develop and test window-film products that can be applied to expose the surface to flyers without blocking a beautiful view. I've seen parachute chord or ribbons hanging vertically in front of a window at regular intervals to keep birds away. Image courtesy of the Fatal Light Awareness Program I also try: •Window decals. Klem and other experts will warn you that they don't work, but I have found some success with them by using multiple decals on one window, and the one time I took them down, I heard a crash within hours, proving to me that they at least make a difference. •I keep a curtain pulled across one-half of my sliding glass door at all times. • I got rid of my bird feeders. I miss watching the birds, but I don't miss the fatal collisions that once occurred. And I certainly don't miss finding cats hunting underneath. I leave the seed heads on the plants in my yard, allow wildflowers to grow, and try to provide as much ungroomed, natural habitat as possible, so the birds can forage for seeds and insects the old-fashioned way.
• I keep my screens on the windows all year long. This is the most effective since my screens cover 100% (top to bottom) of the house's windows (with the exception of a bay window and the sliding glass door). Still, with two windows unprotected, collisions happen. And rarely does a bird survive one even if it temporarily flies away. After yesterday's experience, I will keep trying to illuminate the danger that window glass clearly is. (Click here for additional suggestions.) --- If you walk outside at dawn on a spring morning, you'll hear an orchestra that will lead you to believe we have birds aplenty. But consider the impacts of car windshields, energy generation turbines, and roaming house cats, and you begin to get a glimpse of the extensiveness of man's impact on the songbird population. Then, add in the odds that every building with an uncovered window kills at least one bird a year--more than all other threats combined after habitat loss--and it becomes hard to imagine just how many there really should be. And even if you have no interest in birds, you cannot ignore the possibility that this decline may have helped the spread of the mosquito-born and tick-born disease. If I sent the bird's body to Saenger, he could dissect it to determine the cause of its death. Hemorrhage probably. I had heard the crash, actually. It was the night before. It woke me at 3am. I don't know for sure that the noise was the Phoebe . . . why would it be flying after dark? But I examined the door closely and found a small smudge of yellowish gray downy flakes, like the color on top of the adult Phoebe's head. So I am sad. It is likely that my house was the culprit. Now I can only hope that the bird successfully raised a family nearby, one you can bet I'll be watching out for next spring.
The wash line.

And thank you Dr. Klem and Peter Saenger for a lifetime of work on this issue. We will never know how many birds you've saved, but we are grateful for the knowledge and the chance to make an informed difference in the lives of our feathered friends, ones that are truly missed when they're gone. --- *http://www.birds.cornell.edu/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=1636
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Tapped out or tuned in?

September 20th, 2013
When John Rogers of Keystone Conservation Trust asked me to join another planning committee, I groaned silently. I needed more paid opportunities, not volunteer ones. Tempted to say no, I decided instead to see what it was all about first. I'm glad I did. Don't get me wrong; there is a lot to be said for saying no. Many of us scramble to do everything for everyone but ourselves. However, there are times when saying yes is right, too. When I got to my first committee meeting, I found that the individuals involved were dedicated to their task. This wasn't just some well-intentioned-but-ineffective group; these people had a goal, one that was directly in the line with the mission of their work as well as my own: to inspire people to take part in the good health of the environment in which they live. Now, more than a year later, I and my fellow committee members are once again ready to see the results of our work. On Saturday, September 28, the The Green Lane Park Bird and Wildlife Festival will take place for the third time. We have reached the moment when we begin praying for good weather, checking lists twice, and packing up materials for hauling to the site. Come 12 noon, people will arrive to find games for both kids and adults, hayrides, artwork, music, demonstrations, and even a bird calling contest.
The event will take place alongside Deep Creek Lake, near the amphitheater.
A scene from the start of the 2012 festival.

It couldn't happen without the committee any more than without the support from sponsors, vendors, volunteers, and most importantly, Pennsylvania Audubon and Montgomery County's parks department. For me, a communicator, the best part is and will be the spread of information and the conversations that get started. For instance, last year, representatives from three local municipalities (Marlborough, Lower Frederick, and Upper Salford Townships) were there to promote and explain their participation in PA Audubon's Bird Town program. (Related article). Better than any newsletter or blog post, residents and leaders were able to stand face-to-face and talk about why they believe a healthy, natural wildlife habitat is good for people, too.
Lower Frederick Township's display included a place where kids could make a peanut-butter-pine-cone bird feeder. I created a video slideshow to give those who missed last year's event a glimpse of what went on. Looking back, I remember my initial, reluctant response. It's easy to feel maxed out and unable to take advantage of opportunities when they come around. It's wise to limit the number of volunteer activities when there are bills to be paid. Meanwhile, it's also important to engage in the things that energize you. It helps to ask yourself a few questions before responding to invitations such as John's: • Is this something I need to do? • Is this something I like to do? • Is this something I aught to do? When you can say yes to all three, you should say yes to the opportunity at hand. More often than not, the results will be positive ones. ---
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