Belated Eco-Saturday: DIY rain barrel

Sorry I’m late with this. We had to wait for the weather to warm up so we could finish this project.

One quick way to reduce your water consumption is to collect rainwater for the garden. You can buy prefabbed rain barrels, but most of them are ridiculously expensive, and it’s easy to make your own for less than $50 worth of materials. Here’s how to do it:

Large plastic trash can with a lid
3/4-inch hose bibb (a.k.a. spigot)
3/4-inch metal washer
Two 3/4-inch female-threaded unions
Three-inch-long, 3/4-inch male-threaded nipple
Teflon tape
Small tube of silicone caulk
Bungee cord(s) long enough to stretch around the top of the trash can
Cheap mulch cloth*
Three 18-inch square pavers
Flexible downspout extender

3/4-inch hole saw bit
Tinsnips or utility knife

Start by using your hole saw bit to drill a hole about 4″ from the bottom of the trash can.

Wrap the threads on the barrel end of the spigot with Teflon tape. Slip the washer over the threads, put a bead of caulk on the washer, and push the threads through the hole as far as possible.

Reach into the trash can and screw one of the unions onto the threads from the inside.

When you’re done, caulk around the washer just to make sure you’ve got a good seal. I’d have used clear caulk instead of white, except I’d already screwed up and tried to seal it with pipe dope a week earlier after I discovered all my old caulk had dried up. I forgot that pipe dope never dries. Oops.

Caulking around the outside is probably overkill, but I wanted to make sure it wouldn't leak.
Yours will look better, because you won’t have pipe dope residue smeared everywhere.

Drill another 3/4″ hole about 2″-3″ from the top on either the left or right side of the barrel, depending on where you want your overflow pipe.

Teflon tape helps make a tighter seal.
Teflon tape helps make a tighter seal.

Wrap one end of the nipple with Teflon tape, insert it into the hole, and screw on the other union from the inside. Use caulk on both sides to make a watertight seal.

Once the caulk cures, cut a piece of cheap mulch cloth big enough to cover the top of the trash can, with about 4″-5″ draping over the sides, and secure it with bungee cords. (You may need to cut a small hole in the cloth to accommodate your overflow pipe.)

An extra pair of hands helps with this part.
An extra pair of hands helps with this part.

Drill a 3/4″ hole in the trash-can lid. Using the tinsnips or utility knife, enlarge the hole until it’s big enough to accommodate the downspout extender.

Put the lid on the barrel. Stack your pavers next to the downspout, set the barrel on top, and cut the downspout off about a foot above the top of the barrel. Install the downspout extender and direct it into the hole.

This lid was a pain in the arse, because it was convex. If you can catch a sale on one of those huge contractor trash cans with the flat lid, I'd recommend getting one. It will save you a lot of hassle.
Fact: Convex lids are a pain in the arse to work with.

Finish by attaching a hose to the overflow pipe and directing it away from the house or into another barrel.


Vegan Friday: Buffalo cauliflower monstrosity

I don’t have a recipe for you this week, because I don’t want to subject you to the horror that was yesterday evening’s dinner.

I had some good ideas for dinner last night, but I didn’t have the ingredients on hand for any of them, so I went rifling through the PETA website and came up with a monstrosity called “Spicy Buffalo Cauliflower Wings.”

Trust me: They look way better than they taste.
These look OK, but trust me: They’re as awful as they sound. Kind of like chocolate-chip hummus or black-bean brownies.

I’d seen that recipe several times on Pinterest, and I kept passing it up on the grounds that it sounded like something you’d take to an office potluck. If you wanted to make sure your office never, ever had a potluck again.

I tried it last night.

I am not posting a recipe.

Because it tastes like something you’d take to an office potluck. If you wanted to make sure your office never, ever had a potluck again.


Living the dream

Y’all. Y’ALL. I just fulfilled a dream 17 years in the making.

Once upon a time in 1997, I drove past a parking lot in northern Illinois. On the parking lot was a man selling velvet paintings from the back of a truck. At the time, I owned a fiberoptic lamp and a bean-bag chair, both of which were displayed prominently in my living room, so when I spotted a velvet painting of dogs playing poker, I was certain I’d found the Holy Grail of Bad Taste.* If I’d had $60 on me at the time, I’d have bought it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t proceed directly to the nearest ATM to secure the funds for this masterpiece, because it stands as one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.

I was thinking about the Grail tonight. And then as I got on eBay to search for the Grail again, I thought of that painting.

I didn’t find the Grail. But I found some guy named Jorge who lives in northern Mexico and creates hand-painted replicas of that painting I passed up.

I knew I should have bought it when it was only $60. A thing like that can only appreciate in value, which is obviously why a velvet art dealer is charging $100 for Jorge’s work.

Painting ships Monday. I’m still trying to decide whether it’s worth another $25 for an ugly pine frame similar to the one on my velvet Elvis.


*This was obviously before I met Ron, who enlightened me as to the nature of the REAL Holy Grail of Bad Taste.

Folk Thursday: The Blizzard

Did I post this last winter? Probably. It’s still gorgeous.

I wish I could say the same for that dress. Ma’am. I realize you are tiny enough to wear things you found in the children’s department, but that does not mean you should.

Ah, well. The ’80s were a time of questionable fashion choices for all of us. And some of us are going to take a little time this evening to thank God ours weren’t videotaped for posterity, because I am pretty sure that while this concert was being recorded, I was in my best friend’s basement, playing Epyx Winter Games and eating Schwan pops in acid-washed bluejeans and a T-shirt at least four sizes too big for me … so, y’know, glass houses, I guess.


I’m tired.

I don’t have anything terribly inspirational or exciting to share today. I had an idea I might make some Christmas candy and finish up a sewing project when I got home, but I ended up staying at the office until after 10, working on a story and graphic for Friday, and by the time I finished, I was too wiped out to make anything more complicated than a grilled-cheese sandwich, which I had with a bowl of tomato soup I warmed up.

In unrelated news, I need to find a better feeder for the quail. The one they have gets water in it every time it rains, despite the fact that their coop has a roof that’s caulked and everything. I have no idea what they’re doing in there. I’m thinking a standard birdfeeder like you use for wild songbirds might work, assuming I can find one short enough to fit in there. Outdoor birdfeeders are designed to be pretty water-resistant. We’ll see what I can rustle up next time I’m at the feed store.


Merry Christmas. Blink and you’re dead.

We have a Christmas tree at our office.

Our office Christmas tree does not have a topper.

I do not have any act-right.

The dollar store near our office is selling treetop angels for $3.

So, obviously, this had to happen:

Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels. The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.
Fascinating race, the Weeping Angels. The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.

A weeping angel is the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life form evolution has ever produced, and right now one of them is about to be trapped inside my office.
A weeping angel is the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life form evolution has ever produced, and right now one of them is about to be trapped inside my office.

I couldn’t help myself. Really, I couldn’t. The reporter who sits behind me is a Whovian, as are two copy editors, all the IT guys and at least one person in advertising. And that empty spot at the top of the tree is just begging for a worthy decoration.

Besides, somebody already brought in one of those Elf on a Shelf things, and they’re at least as terrifying as the Weeping Angels. If you don’t mind a voyeuristic elfin ratfink carrying out covert espionage operations all over the office from Thanksgiving until Christmas, you shouldn’t be fazed by a quantum-locked assassin masquerading as a divine emissary.

I suspect the Elf on a Shelf of being a Weeping Angel in disguise anyway. I mean, it does seem to be quantum-locked, and we are advised not to touch it.

Come to think of it, that’s a little unnerving. The prevailing theory among Whovians is that Santa is a Time Lord, because he doesn’t age, he doesn’t die, his bag is obviously bigger on the inside, and the only thing that could manipulate time and space efficiently enough to allow for several billion deliveries in a single night is a TARDIS. (Evidently his doesn’t have a functioning chameleon circuit, either, since it always looks like a flying sleigh, which is almost as inconspicuous as a flying British phone booth.)

I can think of only one Time Lord whose ethical standards would be so dubious as to allow him to infiltrate children’s homes with poorly dressed Weeping Angels.

Don’t pull on Santa’s beard, kids. You’re liable to find John Simm hiding back there.


Update nearly done

I’m basically three phone calls away from having all the old entries updated for the 2015 edition of Route 66 for Kids, which I hope to have available on Kindle by January. Still playing with the idea of a print edition. I may run the idea by the Route 66 Yahoo! group and see how much enthusiasm I get.

Somewhere along the line, I must have miscounted my entries, because I could have sworn there were 166, but after removing a half-dozen that closed since the last update, I still have 175. Odd.

In addition to wrapping up the text updates, I spent a little time making Christmas candy today. I didn’t get a whole lot done, but I made a batch of fudge that was a riff on a recipe I’ve used before. Not sure how well it turned out, but we’ll see. I also made a batch of Reese cup bars, which were very quick and easy to throw together, and the caramel for the turtles should be juuuuust about finished, so I can work on that project and the peppermint bark tomorrow. I bought ingredients for coconut candy, too, which I’ll probably make tomorrow night.

When I finish the book update, I need to look into redesigning some websites. has never been updated (and looks like it), and I think the last redesign I did for was in 2007 or something. I distinctly remember using GoLive! and my old Mac, so it’s obviously been a while.


Project update

W00t! Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I’ve updated seven states’ worth of entries in Route 66 for Kids since Wednesday, and I fully expect to get through the California entries tomorrow. So far, I’ve only found five places I’ll have to call to confirm hours. That’s a huge change since I wrote the first edition in 2003, when very few businesses were online, and I found myself sitting on the floor of our office in Belleville, making more than 100 phone calls to places all the way from Wilmington, Illinois, to Pasadena, California.

Over the years, I’ve noticed an enormous uptick in not only the number of websites, but also the quality. A few still lack critical information such as hours or admission prices, and a handful are too clever and cumbersome for their own good (Grand Canyon Railway, I’m lookin’ at you), but I’ve gone through 146 entries, and so far, only seven have lacked functional websites with all the information I needed. Of those, two had websites that were just missing information but included valid email addresses I was able to use to secure information quickly; one was a drive-in movie theater and amusement park that had replaced its usual website with a single page announcing it was closed for the season and would reopen in April; one had lost its domain name; one had everything except its hours posted online; and only two lacked an online presence altogether.

It really amazes me to see how far we’ve come in 11 years.


Eco-Saturday: Christmas shopping

I’ve never quite understood why Madison Avenue expects us to celebrate the birth of Jesus with an orgy of gluttony and avarice. It runs completely counter to Christ’s mission, and buying boatloads of excess junk — most of it packed in plastic and cardboard — and then wrapping it in paper we’re just going to throw away is spectacularly awful for the environment.

I’m not going to pretend I don’t participate in holiday gift-giving. It’s tradition, and my friends and family would be hurt if I didn’t. But I try to be responsible about it.

Here are a few ways to minimize the ecological impact of your holiday shopping:

1. Keep it local. Locally produced goods save fuel, and they’re better for your local economy, because more of the money you spend stays in town.

2. Keep it practical. I live in a 730-square-foot bungalow. Anything that comes in this house has to be small, useful or both, because we don’t have room to store a lot of random shiny objects. We’re particularly fond of consumables. I’m always glad to get cookie or cocoa mix in a jar, handmade soap, hand lotion, candles and the like. Gifts for the garden — such as this grow-your-own morels kit — also go over well. (Yeah, that was a shameless hint.) And some gifts truly “keep on giving”; for instance, LED lightbulbs, power strips to help eliminate phantom loads, shrinkwrap window insulation kits, draft stoppers and so forth may not be traditional presents, but they all save the recipient boatloads of money over time. Know a runner who drinks a lot of bottled water? Give him a faucet-mounted water filter and several reusable bottles. Does someone on your Christmas list love microbreweries? Buy her a home-brewing kit. Is a friend spending half his paycheck on K-cups that go straight into the landfill? Get him a reusable filter and a pound of locally roasted fair-trade coffee.

3. Recycle. Antiques, vintage clothing, vinyl records and used books all make great gifts for people whose tastes you know well. As for wrapping: Packages look cute wrapped in newspaper and tied with colorful bows, and sturdy gift bags can be reused year after year.

4. Give your time. The coupon books I made last year for the children in my life were a big hit, and I’m betting the memories of the time we’ve spent together this year will last far longer than any toy. For adults, consider offering to do chores such as mowing the yard, babysitting, steaming the carpets, weeding the garden, etc.

5. Make your own gifts. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Homemade seasoning mixes.
Herbal tea in a jar. (Instructions for drying your own herbs are here; when giving loose tea, be sure to include an infuser. I use this $3 model, but I’m considering an upgrade.)
The aforementioned coupon books.
Sock monkeys. (Pattern here.)
Draft stoppers.
Home-canned treats such as salsa, pickles or hot sauce.
Homemade soap.
Collections of heirloom seeds saved from your own garden.
Beekeepers, you know what to do.

6. Make a donation. We’re big fans of Heifer International, which allows you to donate sustainable gifts — such as farm animals, irrigation pumps or biogas stoves — to people in developing countries. (I bet you can guess our favorite item in that catalog.)


Vegan Friday: Stuffed peppers


This recipe takes a few extra minutes because of the baking time, but it’s easy to assemble in advance and keep in the fridge or freezer for later. I’d initially planned to make these with red beans and Cajun seasoning, but I grabbed the wrong can of beans and didn’t realize it until I’d opened it, so I just switched to Mexican spices and called it good.

Four bell peppers
Small onion, chopped
2 tbsp. olive oil
Can of tomatoes
Can of pinto beans, drained and rinsed
Taco seasoning (I use homemade)
About 1/2 c. whole-wheat couscous

Preheat oven to 350.


Cut tops off peppers and remove cores.


Chop up tops and saute with onion in olive oil until onion is clear. Add tomatoes, pinto beans and seasoning and bring to a boil.

Stir in couscous, turn off heat, and let couscous absorb liquid.


Fill peppers with couscous-bean-tomato mixture and bake in a covered dish for about 20 minutes until pepper starts to soften.

Serve with hot sauce and salt. (Non-vegans can add a handful of shredded cheese to the top of each pepper halfway through the baking time if desired.)

Makes 4 servings, obviously.