Holding myself accountable (Petroleum junkie, part 3)

A view from the train on one of my recent commutes.

The deal with resolutions is that we tend to start off full speed, full of enthusiasm and, well, resolve. Before long, however, both enthusiasm and resolve tend to wane.

Last month, in large part in reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and my increasing awareness of abuses perpetuated by the petroleum industry, I resolved to decrease my own personal dependence on petroleum. I followed up with a list of specific actions, and specific goals. Among other things, I had committed to tracking much of our fuel consumption.

Part of why I am sharing these details here is to maintain my resolve. I will cut down on my fossil fuel consumption. But the will may need continued prodding.


Tracking electricity usage was painless, thanks to my electric company listing kilowatt hour usage by month for the past 12 months. Tracking was painless, but the results were painful. I thought we were more moderate electricity users, but we are on the high end for our region. Our usage for the last 12 months averaged 921 kwh per month. While the average US household uses 920 per month, our state only averages between 500 and 618 kwh. (The second number is from a spreadsheet available from this site with usage by state.)

While I haven’t yet measured the electricity usage of specific items, I have rounded up the following suspects: lights and fans left on unnecessarily, and electronics. I think our past tendency to leave our stereo/home theater receiver on was a drain. We also have a lot of computers, including one large one that has been acting as a server, for a while for John’s work, but mostly as our electronic media repository. We have now gotten into the habit of turning off stereo and video equipment when not listening/watching, and John has set the server to power down at night. We have become more vigilant about turning off lights, fans and air conditioners when we leave rooms, as well.

The good news is that our usage is showing a downward trend. Our July statement showed 854 kwh compared to last July’s 946, a decrease of over 9%. June showed a 20% decrease over last year. (I have no idea why our usage was particularly high last June. 1063 kwh. It wasn’t air conditioning, as that was a cold and rainy month. What on earth were we doing? Giving each other electric shocks?)

I finally got around to signing up for one of my electric company’s renewable energy options. I have yet to get a bill showing the new rates. The cost by wattage will increase, but I’m hoping that our efforts to reduce usage will offset this. We shall see…

Heating oil

Tracking heating oil was more annoying, as I had to go through my bills month by month. (There’s no summary of deliveries.) Deliveries are also somewhat irregular, in both timing and amount, so when I found that I was missing a statement, I couldn’t really guess how much oil was delivered that month, or be certain that oil was even delivered that month. I finally came across the missing bill (helpfully mixed in with phoebe’s art papers), so have added that to my spreadsheet.

While I haven’t found great sources it looks like the average US household using heating oil uses 730 gallons per year, and in the Northeast US is 822 gallons. It looks like we have had 785 gallons delivered to our home in the past 12 months, which puts us slightly lower than the average for our region.

I can’t tell yet how much our usage is changing, but I think I have reduced my hot water usage. The real chance to improve, though, will come in the winter. With that in mind, I have contacted a company that makes storm windows that may work for us, which should significantly reduce the winter draftiness of our house.


Gasoline was the hardest of the three to track, since we don’t tend to file our receipts. I did go through our credit card statements for the last year, and logged all gas station transactions. I only have dollar amounts, not gallon amounts, but this at least gives me a general sense of frequency of filling the tanks. My sense is that we have filled them frequently. I haven’t really worked out the estimates of how frequently yet.

I’m happy to say that I have taken the train to work much more often. This is easy to track, as I bought a 12-ride pass on June 8th, and have used all 12. Each of those saved me about 35 miles of driving. I’ve even gotten a second 12-ride pass. In fact, due to slower summer schedules, I’ve only needed to drive into work maybe 3 times in the last couple months. (Plus there have been a few trips for recreational reasons.)

Other stuff

I have been doing pretty well with buying local food. I found a place to buy eggs that is only a couple of miles from us, and finally found a farm stand within 10 miles of our house. (I just don’t understand how local produce can be so hard to find in such a rural area. Gah!) We also managed to go blueberry picking a few times at the place down the road…before they abruptly closed for the season. (No!)

I have been doing a good job with reducing our use of new plastic containers. I have used my stainless steel water bottle regularly, and (aside from when I was travelling) have only resorted to buying bottled water a couple of times.


There. That’s the skinny on my recent efforts to reduce my fossil fuel gluttony. If anyone has actually read this far, you deserve a prize. Like maybe a big, fat virtual hug from me.

Let it mold.

Oh the veggies in there are frightful,
And takeout’s so delightful
And since the leftover soup’s too old
Let it mold, let it mold, let it mold.

Since the fridge door last was closing
The food’s been decomposing.
That old tuna salad’s growing bold
Let it mold, let it mold, let it mold.

When we finally face the blight
How I’ll try very hard not to gag
But if we hold our noses night
We can load up a hazmat bag.

The eggs have all gone rotten
And the tofu’s best forgotten
But as long takeout’s still sold
Let it mold, let it mold, let it mold.

This was a Monday Mission, which called for re-written holiday songs. For potentially less toxic songs, pay a visit to Painted Maypole.

from behind closed doors

Dear Homeowner,

We regret to inform you that several individuals placed in our care are no longer eligible to continue residence in our facility.

In the uppermost level of the facility, several bagged items have greatly exceeded recommended levels of frost. In particular, the contents of the bag of store-brand Mixed Vegetables have become inextricably melded together.

In the Lower Level, in the departments known as “Vegetable Crisper,” we have become concerned about the rapid degeneration of one Bunch of Celery and several Zucchinis (aka “Courgettes”).

On the Main Level, a large container of Plain Yogurt has only recently expired, yet it is only the most recent such instance. There are several partially used jars of Salsa, Spaghetti Sauce and Various Condiments which should no longer be considered Viable for Consumption. While many are not yet visibly spoiled, our records indicate that these items have been in long-term care far beyond recommended time limits. We have been notified that the opening of the jar of Sweet Pickles, in particular, most certainly pre-dated the birth of your first child.

Additionally, there are many other items whose earthly remains may no longer be identifiable by visual means. There is a glass container which houses, according to our records, what had once been a portion of Canned Black Beans. We consider it advisable that these remains be removed from our premises and disposed of posthaste. Failure to do so may result in additional spoilage and potential generation of new life-forms.

Please remember that while we strive to provided the utmost in Low-Temperature Care, our ability to maintain levels of ick-free storage depends on your upholding your portion of the contract. Should these matters not be resolved in a timely matter, we may consider closing our facilities to further new items.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.


Your Refrigerator and Freezer

This week’s Monday Mission was to post in the form of a letter of regret. I have done so. Perhaps regrettably. To find more regrettable letters, check your mailbox. Or stop by Painted Maypole.

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

How are you this year? I hope this holiday season finds you well. I know it can be a stressful time of year, especially when you have a lot of people to shop for, and elves to supervise. I’ve heard how those reindeer can get out of hand, too.

Anyhow, as you probably guessed, I’m writing to ask you for what I want for Christmas.

I really have enough stuff, thanks, so I don’t need any trinkets or doodads. I’ve got more books than I have time to read, more DVDs than I have time to watch, more cooking equipment than I have time to use. We have far too much stuff.

So, please, no more stuff.

Actually, what I’d love would be for you to take away some stuff. So, when you come to our house, please arrive with your big bag empty. It might be helpful if you come when your sleigh has been unloaded, too. I mean, we have so much stuff it might take more than one trip. Is there any chance you could also rent a van? You might want to bring a few of the elves along, too.

I’m hoping you can leave us with the things that we really use, and those items that have true sentimental value. You’re supposed to know these things, right? I mean, you know if I’ve been bad or good, so for goodness sake, you must know which pants are too tight. Not to mention that I haven’t worn that pair of shoes in about 5 years or that I have never once used the double boiler.

I also trust that you can find good homes for all our excess stuff, so it can be put to good use, or at least recycled.

Gratefully yours,


p.s. While you and the deer are up on the roof, would you mind giving a good scare to the squirrels that have found their way into the attic? Or perhaps you could offer them a ride on your sleigh. A one-way trip, if you know what I mean.

This was brought to you by this week’s Monday Mission, which called for a post in the form of a letter to Santa. Hosted by Painted Maypole (who is usually quite nice, but is on occasion naughty).

Preparing the Home for Baby (Tips from American Hovel Magazine)

As someone in the final throes of the third trimester, I have spent a lot of time recently sitting in an ob/gyn waiting room. Usually I go equipped with some sort of reading material.

On occasion, though, I have felt compelled to pick up one of the various maternity magazines that litter the waiting area. These magazines give all sorts of largely redundant advice about how not to kill your baby, and what host of $80 products you will absolutely need to give your baby a bath.

Since it’s been a while since I have contributed to American Hovel Magazine (The Magazine dedicated to lowering acceptable neatness standards in the home), I felt inspired to submit a few tips of my own for getting ready for baby.

AHM’s tips for Preparing the Home for Baby

Decorating the Nursery:
Other magazines will advise you about sets of exquisite crib bedding, with coordinating sheets, bumpers, window valences and diaper pail cozies. Not only are these items expensive, but they will lead to your child setting high expectations for style and organization in the future. It is best, then, to make sure the nursery fits in with the decor of the rest of your home. As it is, the room you intend to use as nursery is probably already functioning as a storage area for various piles of clothing and dirty dishes, boxes of bills and junkmail, as well as broken electronics and half-completed craft projects. Many of these items are quite colorful, and will be attractive additions to the baby’s room.

Be advised, though, that it is best to keep power tools, sharp knives, and hazardous materials out of reach of baby, and these should not be stored in the crib or sleeping area itself.

Where the baby will sleep:
While you may opt for a piece of furniture, such as a crib or cradle, it is also possible place your baby in a mobile storage container for temporary storage. Such an item is often called a Moses basket, befrilled versions of which can cost upwards of $200. A laundry basket works just fine. Don’t worry if the laundry basket has dirty laundry in it: the baby would get it dirty soon anyhow. Those buggers spit up like crazy, and diapers leak all the freakin’ time.

Caution should be used when adding dirty laundry to the laundry basket: covering the baby in piles of clothing may cause the little tyke to struggle for air, and may also make it harder for you to find the baby when relatives come to visit.

Laundry hints:
AHM typically advises you to avoid doing laundry. However, with a baby in the house, you may need to do a load of laundry or two over the course the first month.

You may remember the advice to separate light from dark clothing. Also make sure to separate the baby from the clothing. While running the baby through the washing machine may be tempting as a time-saving shortcut, this method is not recommended. Even on delicate cycle.

Home Safety:
With a newborn in the house, safety is always of the highest priority. Make sure that your smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are functional, and that your home is moderately free of the squirrels, raccoons, and other potentially plague-bearing animals that typically inhabit your living area and furnishings.

Congratulations, and best of luck to you as you prepare for the arrival of your little one!

juggling acts

It’s been one of those weeks. Nothing major has happened, just a lot of little things that make me realize I can’t quite keep all of my balls up in the air.

I’ve had a lot of demands from work this week that I wasn’t expecting. There’s another deadline at the end of the month, and seeing as I don’t expect to be terribly available then, I feel particularly compelled to contribute as much as I can now. It turned out that a lot of the new data we were adding to the pool for this particular study needed a lot of cleaning up (as well as some of the old data), and I was the one in the best position to clean it up. So I’ve been putting in a lot of hours, including late night hours, this week. I’ve been quite productive, and yet since it was work I hadn’t anticipated, I don’t get the satisfaction of feeling that I’ve made progress. (Especially since this has left me virtually no time to work on my own research projects, and every time I have a pause in the progress there, it takes me a while to get my momentum back.)

Then Phoebe came down with a stomach bug that had been looming at daycare. I had toyed with the idea of keeping Phoebe home, but for one thing, I needed the work time. And for another, it was probable that Phoebe had already been exposed to the bug by the time we learned of the menace. So keeping her home wouldn’t have likely made much difference.

Phoebe is largely okay, though there have been some rough stretches. (This was actually the first time she’d ever vomited, aside from one flukey time when she was a very young baby. She was pretty freaked out by it. And can I just say that I’m lucky I didn’t lose my laptop to the inaugural event, which happened on the couch?) She was pretty chipper by this evening, so hopefully we can put this behind us. (And can I also say that I really, really don’t want to catch a stomach bug right now?)

I am so, so not ready for the new kid to arrive. The guest room still needs to be readied for my mother’s arrival (or for the contingency plan), the infant carseat installed, and there’s some form I’m supposed to send to the hospital that I haven’t even looked at. I haven’t even visited the hospital to find out where to go, where to park, etc., when the time comes. I’m told I’m supposed to have packed a bag by now, but that feels too much like admitting that I may need to use such a bag soon.

When people ask about “decorating the nursery,” I can only laugh. As far as nesting goes, I’ll be lucky if I can find the time and energy to clear out whatever lifeforms are currently nesting in my fridge.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a few balls to chase around.

decoding real estate listings: a helpful glossary

If you’ve ever spent any time house-hunting, you’ve probably noticed that real estate listings have a certain lingo of their own. Often, this involves descriptions of properties that have been somewhat embellished to make even flaws quirky characteristics sound like selling points. Some of these euphemisms have become standardized, such as the “handyman’s special,” a term for a home that is falling apart in every imaginable way in minor need of repairs.

In order to help you read between the lines in an MLS listing, I offer to you this helpful example and glossary.

Example: a typical MLS listing

Charming and cozy 2 bedroom house. Enjoy summer breezes in this lovingly decorated perfect starter home, with sunny, low-maintenance yard. Modern kitchen, 1 and a half baths, partially finished basement. Homey, and ready to move in!
Location features:
• easy access to freeway
• excellent cell phone reception
• close to amenities
• friendly, mature neighborhood

Glossary of Terms:
charming: run-down
cozy: cramped
summer breezes: house is drafty, may have windows missing or holes in roof
lovingly decorated: all the carpets are magenta, and there is loud wallpaper in every room
perfect starter home: you’ll want to move out as soon as you can afford better
sunny: no trees or shade of any kind
low-maintenance yard: lawn is paved over
modern kitchen: kitchen done in the Modern style, circa 1960
1 and a half baths: the second bathroom has partially-installed fixtures, or there may be a toilet in the basement
partially finished basement: basement features water-stained shag carpet
homey: house has funky smells, possible from cat urine
Ready to move in!: home has been abandoned
easy access to freeway: next to an on-ramp
excellent cell phone reception: under a cell phone tower
close to amenities: across from a liquor and/or convenience store
friendly, mature neighborhood: may be near a strip club or adult bookstore

I hope that this information will be helpful to you in your house-hunting endeavors. If you have more terms to add to the glossary, I welcome your contributions!

This week’s Monday Mission, which I’ve chosen to accept in a roundabout way, was to write a post in the style of a real estate listing. For more listings, stop by Painted Maypole.

Thanks to maja for teaching me “low-maintenance yard” and “easy freeway access,” terms that she may have actually seen in use.