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They say that advertisers should stick to the business of making money. They say that advertisers should never talk about their personal feelings. Well, I’m an advertiser, but I’m still human. And I have to get this off my chest.

 Every January for the past twenty years I’ve flown to India for my annual vacation. This year I can’t go, thanks to our friend COVID. I consider India to be my winter home and I feel heartsick about being grounded. I feel like I’m letting people down.

I promised Murugan, the caretaker at my usual bed and breakfast in Pondicherrry, that this year I’d help him block mice out of the pavilion they call the “Karma Room.” But I won’t be much help from 10,000 miles away.

The B&B is run by a Korean woman named Ahnjong and about once a week she invites all her guests to have dinner together. “Mike, a bunch of us are eating at Surguru tonight,” she always tells me at check-in. “You’re coming, right?” I know she picked that day for my benefit. This year, though, the tables at Surguru will see few world travelers.

I won’t be renting a motorcycle from Shiva. He always teaches me new words in the local language, Tamil, but my Tamil is set to get rusty. I hope his business, heavily dependent on tourists, weathers the storm.

My rickshaw driver, Raju, will also be suffering for lack of tourist money. On my last day in India, he drives me to the Chennai airport, usually at 5 a.m. I give him a healthy tip and I know he relies on that income. He has a wife and kids and they eke out a very marginal existence. I can just picture his pained face.

COVID is raging, I can’t get home and people I care about are suffering. My thoughts are with them, but thoughts don’t pay the bills. Those people are survivors, though, and survivors… survive. That’s what I hope, anyway. Have a good week, everybody… just surviving.

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>>Do you know what a (chimney) spark arrestor is? Did you know that animals can dislodge them and put a home at risk for fire? Do you know that tree branches should be cut at least fifteen feet away from chimneys?

>> Do you know the importance of going outside every few months and checking the dryer vent for blockage and/or rodent entry? Do you know how to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning by checking to see if the furnace and water heater vents are blocked? Do you know how often to change the furnace filter?

>> When looking at exterior decks, do you know the difference between composite (Trex/Fiberon), redwood and Douglas fir? Do you know the maintenance requirements for each of these? Are you aware that—excluding fire—water does the most damage to wood decks and siding?

>> Do you know the importance of checking eaves for small openings that allow bats/wasps/spiders/moths to enter? Do you know the difference between caulk and sealant? Do you know which local insects/animals are known to invade homes? Do you know if the home is prepared for the battle ahead?

>> Do you know how to shut the household water off from the street? Do you know how to stop water from flooding a home by turning off the angle stop valve under the sink? Do you know where the main gas turnoff valve is located? Do you have a wrench capable of shutting it off?

>> Do you know if the home is built on a concrete slab, or does it have a crawlspace/buildup? Do you know to have a trusted pest professional thoroughly check the crawlspace at least once a year for animal entry/termite infestation/plumbing leaks?

If you answered “no” to many of these questions, I strongly recommend you do some internet research on basic home maintenance. Owning a home is the most satisfying thing in the world… as long as you can master the art of turning a valve now and then.

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>> Are you in touch with what’s happening around you? Can you ride a motorcycle without getting run over? Do you know who owns that vacation house two doors down? Are you aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your co-workers?

>> Can you laugh at yourself? Can you ignore insults? Do you see revenge as a big waste of time and energy? Do you handle threats with poise? Can you go home at the end of the day and not worry?

>> Can you admit when you’re wrong? Can you make a list of your own faults? Can you look from the other person’s point of view? Have you ever said to yourself: “That’s not good enough. I can do better”? Can you change lifelong habits? 

>> Are you self-disciplined? Can you effortlessly say no to alcohol/drugs? Do you burn through money? Can you give up all types of fun—for years if necessary—to build your business?

>> Do you trust your gut instincts? Are you confident you can handle whatever challenges might come? Do you easily and naturally think for yourself? Are you an original?

  >> Are you aware that we all have blind spots? Do you see the value of bouncing ideas off others? Can you spend an hour asking questions and listening? Do you have the patience to let answers come to you?

>> Are you a natural born leader? Are you comfortable saying: “OK, everybody, let’s get back to work.” Will you tell your workers what they don’t want to hear?

If you answered “no” to most of these questions, you may not be ready to start your own business. But, if you still think you’re ready, welcome to the club—misery loves company. (Did you laugh at that joke? If not, I recommend you keep a fully stocked liquor cabinet… better yet, don’t quit your day job.)

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The Big Stink

It started out as a normal day in mountain pest control: The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and critters were invading homes. But, before the workday ended, I had an image in my head that would make some people lose their lunch. So, yeah, it was just a normal day in pest control.

As I was spraying along the baseboards in the house of one of my regular customers, I noticed a bad odor. Bad smells can have many causes—such as the homeowner’s cooking—so at first I didn’t think much of it. But, as I continued laying down bug juice, I knew this bad odor had nothing to do with Indian curry or cooked cabbage. (For the record, I love both.)

I wasn’t thrilled about drumming up extra work for myself—tracking down a mystery odor can take hours—but, the customer is king, so I asked the owner if she’d noticed a funny smell.

“Yes, I have,” she said. “But Mike, who do I call?”

“Don’t worry, Mrs Smith, I’ll get to the bottom of it.”

I suspected three common causes:

  1. Dead animal. From the strong smell I expected to find a raccoon.
  2. Sewer gases. Yes, toxic gas from sewers can enter your home due to plumbing issues.
  3. Natural gas leak. I know that smell and ruled it out early.

The smell was strongest downstairs, so I started my search on the dirt floor of the buildup. I scanned the ground for a dead animal, but saw none. Next, I slowly traced a toilet drain pipe until I saw it had a big crack. Near the pipe was—get ready—a pond of black sewage. Blecch!

When I told Mrs. Smith of my discovery, she was horrified, but, luckily, she knew a good plumber. And as that nasty image of bubbling raw sewage seeped out of my mind, I felt professional satisfaction that I had indeed kept my promise and gotten to the, ahem, bottom of the problem. Have a stink free week everybody.

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If your house could talk, what would it say? “Hey, homeowner,” it might say, “please don’t ignore the number one threat to my existence.” But what is that threat?

It could be fire—we’ve all seen what that does to homes. But fire is a show-off and when it strikes, muscle-bound men and women riding big red machines race to the rescue with sirens blaring. Our firefighting system is so efficient that I’d bet not a single mountain house is on fire as I write this. Why would a talking home waste its breath warning about the obvious?

No, if your home could speak, it would alert you to the dangers of a much more subtle menace—a threat so seemingly harmless you could drink and bathe in it. Yes, the biggest hazard to a home, drop by subtle drop, is the very substance we use to fight fire.

When water enters the walls of your home, it takes a bunch of cronies along for the ride, namely dry rot, fungus, termites, and carpenter ants. And boy, do they have a good time munching on floor joists, wall studs, and roof rafters. By the time you see there’s a problem, you’re stuck with a big repair bill. The crying shame is that, most times, that damage could have been prevented with a thorough inspection. A stitch in time saves thousands.

Do you want to know if your home has been invaded by a bunch of critters drunk on moist wood? Then call Home Defenders today for a free inspection. We’ll seek out those telltale signs of rot, and stop water intrusion from destroying your house. Working together, we can protect your house from the notorious “wood rot bunch.”

Your home will thank you for decades to come.

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Today I’m going to write about something that adds great spice to life. It lives in many articles I’ve written, but I’ve never written about it, because I’ve never thought about it. I don’t generally think about what I don’t know.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about that sense of mystery—the fact that you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s here now—will this article be about carpenter ants or the man on the moon or whatever I write about when I’m on a tangent? Has the mystery of it caught you, like a curious mouse, in the jaws of its snap trap?

Speaking of mysteries, years ago I got a call for a routine bat estimate. Arriving at the home, I heard a chorus of squeaking sounds coming from a wall, which is a sure sign that dozens of bats were living inside the wall void. To get them out, I needed to find the opening on the outside of the house that the bats use to come and go. Not finding one, I came back at sundown when bats fly outside to feed on mosquitoes… but I saw no bat fly outside. I returned the next few evenings, but never saw a bat. The mystery deepened.

On the third day, a funny thing happened. When the homeowners answered the door, they smiled and said, “Mike, we haven’t heard a peep.” I put my ear to the wall and listened intently. The silent verdict: the bats had vacated the wall void. And they never came back. Pest problems rarely solve themselves, but once in a blue moon, they do, and I don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. When the customer is happy, I’m happy. End of story.

Now, how will this article end? Will it have a witty punchline? An insightful thought? Who knows, let’s just enjoy the playful mystery of it. And when it’s all over, the allure of the unknown will keep us coming back for more. See you next week. Or not…

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Help Wanted: Job duties include typing pest reports, scheduling service calls, answering the phone… and telling the boss he’s wrong. Apply at your own risk.

Writing these weekly articles is fun, but it’s hard work too. I learned to write them the same way I learned to be a professional exterminator: being told I hadn’t gotten the job done, then starting over again. Customers will readily tell you when ants get back in their sugar bowl, but finding someone to critique my articles is difficult. My secretaries proofread them, but Alejandra and Nicole often play it safe with a mechanical, “It’s good.” I learn nothing from that. Luckily, I have a secret weapon secretary. Her name is Erika. 

Erika has worked for me for over fifteen years and she cuts me no slack. One time, she read a rough draft and quickly handed it back to me. “You can come up with a better punchline than that!” she declared. I was angry at her lack of diplomacy, but deep down, I knew she was right. I went back to the drawing board, wrote a new punchline, and Erika thought it was funny. Job done.

Another time, Erika argued that the whole premise of an article was weak. This time I felt I had her, though, and explained in detail why she was wrong. She sat at her desk with a smug smile that declared, “You’re wrong, Mike.“ The next morning I reread the article with fresh eyes and realized that she had been right all along. That’s humbling, but better late than never.

As a small business owner, I make my living getting things right, which means I have to admit it when I’m wrong. Thanks, Erika, for having the guts to tell the man who signs your check he’s wrong. Success is just failure, defeated. (Hi everyone, this is Erika and I approve this article… but Mike could have made this punchline a little better.)

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Those of us who put out sunflower seeds for squirrels have noticed that the critters rip through a pile of black oil sunflower seeds like a kindergarten class through a bowl of M&M’s. Have you ever wondered how squirrels eat so fast. Think about it. They pick up a seed, chew off the hull, let it fall to the side, grab the meaty treat, then eat it. And they do all that in about a second. Before long, the seeds are gone, and I usually give the squirrels a second helping. I’m a sucker for cute animals.

When squirrels—which are rodents—get in attics, they gnaw on the worst thing they can gnaw on: electrical wires. (Rodent damage to electrical wires reportedly accounts for 20 percent of home fires—a shocking statistic, pardon the pun.) And anyone who has been treated to the stench of a dead squirrel in their attic, especially in the summer heat, knows the awful side of a squirrel invasion. If the homeowner is lucky, the critter died in an accessible part of the attic. Otherwise, it’s time to get out the tools and start cutting.

If squirrels get in your attic, call us and we’ll give you a free estimate on escorting them out, then blocking them out for good. And don’t worry, animal lovers, we don’t harm them. Our furry friends have a right to live… outside in the forest.

Back at my house—which is well sealed against rodent entry—I’ll continue to brave the morning cold in my pajamas, a scoop of sunflower seeds in hand, as the squirrels run and fuss and jump for joy in a lively scene that plays out on rear decks all over the San Bernardino Mountains.

Now that’s the best part of waking up!

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It was one of my first pest management lessons and it had nothing to do with pest management. It had to do with people management, and that’s more important.

I was a rookie and my manager Bill and I were inspecting the exterior of a vacation cabin that had hundreds of bats in the attic. The infestation was so bad we could smell the pungent bat guano from outside the home. Suddenly, the next door neighbor appeared and asked what we were doing. “The attic’s chock full of bats,” Bill said sarcastically, “but, don’t worry, they only suck the blood of virgins.” The woman turned on her heel and stormed into her house. Bill just shrugged and continued the inspection.

At the office the next morning, I answered the phone and it was the homeowner with the bat problem. “My neighbor called me,” he bellowed, “and said if I don’t get those blood-sucking bats out of my attic she’s calling her lawyer.” My boss grabbed the phone, apologized profusely and offered him a discounted bat job. A week later I had gotten the bats out of the attic, and, more importantly, learned a valuable lesson in customer service. 

Nowadays, whenever I’m treating a home and a neighbor starts asking questions, I go on and on about how great the weather is. If they keep asking, I use my go-to response: “Oh, I’m just doing routine maintenance, nothing special.” I keep repeating that phrase until the neighbor gets bored with asking questions. Once bitten, twice shy.

Finally, sometimes I’m at the supermarket and some wise guy will quip: “My neighbor’s a pest—can you get rid of him?” Sorry, but that question calls for an expert in the genteel world of the social graces. Try asking Miss Manners. Back in my world, next week I’ll discuss the proper way to clean up mouse poop. That’s about as genteel as I get.

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Hello again, readers, this is Home Defenders secretary Alejandra presenting another interview with my boss Mike. Enjoy!

Question: What pest do you most fear invading your own home? Answer: Well, I would say powderpost beetles—they’re tiny wood-eating beetles that can only be eliminated by a very expensive fumigation—but they rarely infest mountain homes. So my answer is carpet beetles. They feed on spices, bird seed, dog and cat food, dead rodents, just about anything except for, well, modern synthetic carpets. Once the critters get inside a home, the homeowner has to dig through every drawer, cabinet, pantry and closet and throw out the infested food. Blah!

Q: What’s your best winter advice for homeowner? A: Beware of firewood. Rats and mice nest in woodpiles, and the wood itself is loaded with all kinds of pests, like termites, carpenter ants, and wood-destroying beetles, as well as those Goldspotted Oak Borers that kill oak trees. Wood is food for so many critters you might as well pile logs of beef jerky against your home. 

Q: What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever done? A: One time a woman called and begged me to get her cat down from a tree. I told her I had no experience at saving cats, but I drove to her home, climbed twenty feet up a cedar tree, and the cat jumped right into my arms. Piece of cake.

Q: If a magic genie gave you one pest control wish, what would it be? A: I’d wish that homeowners would go outside and dig away all the dirt that washes against their home. That would save mountain homeowners millions of dollars in dry rot repair bills. But, I’d probably have to go into hiding from those unemployed repair contractors’ own magic genies so, on second thought… everybody just crack a beer and watch a ballgame this weekend. No magic genie needed.