Sunday, June 30, 2013

Help for the hot

Houston hit a record-smashing one hundred and seven degrees yesterday.  One of the main reasons why I like living in north Galveston County is that it's often cooler here than parts north, due to our proximity to the Gulf.  Our reported high in Centerpointe was a slightly more merciful 103 degrees.

Anyway, when I published this post about attracting birds to a birdbath, I forgot to mention that your wildlife watering device need not be as fancy as a navy blue ceramic birdbath carefully chosen to coordinate with blue planters and blue exterior light fixtures
My thirsty nemesis Mr. Mockingbird making a splash as well as making waves.  Like all mockingbirds, he is about three ounces of pure attitude.  He tends to peck apart my tomatoes, so he doesn't get as much sympathy from me as the resident doves do
As luck would have it, Friends of League City Animal Shelter re-posted a Facebook meme via Memorial Cat Hospital this morning that pretty much sums up the less-expensive alternatives. 
I'd give meme credit where meme credit is due, if I could find it. 
Once again today, we are in for another scorcher, and as I take breaks from housework to plop in front of my computer, I see a steady stream of critters making their way to my navy blue ceramic watering device.  Stay cool and stay watered. 

Modernizing with color, Part 2: Light fixture make-over

In Part 1 of this post, I described how to use color unconventionally to modernize a builder-grade fireplace mantle.  Targeted use of color has become a hot trend for updating a wide variety of household items that would otherwise be too costly to replace. 
This photograph of our TV set shows what would otherwise be an extremely traditional cabinet painted blue to give it new life. 

West End Salvage is one of my favorite shows because they've substantially raised the creative bar of home improvement - and by using reclaimed materials to boot. 
In my case, I haven't done this kind of color updating with furniture so much as with fixtures.  Newer neo-eclectic builder-grade tract homes are quite schizoid right now - by popular demand, they are leaning more toward modern or contemporary designs, but they still tend to get built with a large number of residual traditional elements.  For example...
The builder-grade faucets in our house look like this: extremely modern...
...but the builder-grade exterior light fixtures are so traditional that they look like they pre-date the invention of the electrical circuit!!
Good grief - they don't call it neo-eclectic architecture for nothing!  Those two fixtures don't even belong to the same century let alone the same style

The translation on "a wide array of decorative techniques taken from an assortment of different periods" basically boils down to it being a dog's breakfast from an artistic perspective.  And "not creatively experimental" is putting it mildly. 

Screengrab from Wikipedia
Those two fixtures don't even belong to the same century let alone the same style and, furthermore, there was absolutely nothing that cross-references them.   Which, of course, is exactly the kind of nonsense that grates on my artistic nerves.  So I decided to do something about it. 
I painted the ancient-looking things in a new way.  If you compare to the dreary grey gas lamp fixture above, this repainted one looks crisp and clean and well-defined and new, much in the same way as the white Victorian chair does in the CB2 ad I showed in Part 1, and the cabinet does in the West End Salvage make-over room shown above.

Why blue specifically?  See this post on complementary colors
It's a bit pronounced when you see that navy blue fixture closely-framed in a photo like that, but in this example it's important to remember two things:
  1. When you instead see it within a massive 60-foot-wide full-frontal view of a completely beige house, that one-foot pop of color does not overwhelm.  I don't think any of my neighbors even noticed that I made this change.  (And by the way, I'm not kidding about that width.  Our otherwise-abnormally-small 100% beige house is 60 feet wide for reasons I haven't blogged). 
  2. This is not the only pop of blue in our emerging front-yard design.  It is precisely coordinated with several other objects: 
(a) This stunning focal point planter (stacked stone make-over post here) and the smaller array of planters behind it. 
(b) This other large ceramic planter we have in the front yard, of which I've done this close-up to show the navy undertones.
My efforts were not limited to gas lamp style light fixtures.

(c) Here's the before-and-after on this atrocious-looking hose rack, which I painted and re-adorned with my current favorite model of garden hose.  I think it looks much more sophisticated in the "after" shot. 

Hose hangers aren't currently sold in modern or contemporary styles.  The paint pushes them toward the modernized end of the design spectrum. 
Now look at another of those same hose-hangers on the other side of the house: would you have even noticed the hanger was navy blue unless I had pointed it out?  Probably not.  How could you notice?? It's drowning in a vast sea of builder beige.  You probably would have just noticed that the photo on the right looks "cleaner". 

And by the way, you can't really claim to be a real homeowner until you've broken out your builder's paint samples and painted your ugly utility boxes to match your house trim.  Blogger's Rules of Order
I didn't just stop with light fixtures and those attached hose hangers.  I extended this blue-ification effort with other similar objects in our outdoor space (William Moss likes to say that "repetition" is the key to any successful landscape design.  I tend to use the term "cross-referencing"). 
Another hose hanger, but it's the kind that sticks into the ground rather than bolting to the exterior wall of the house. 
And I had a bistro set that I was not willing to part with, despite the fact that it was many years old and no longer conforming to my taste.  So I updated it by taking it in the direction of non-traditional blue. 
For crying out loud, I even blue-ified the dog's dish pedestal.  Do you know what this thing is?  It's one of those kitschy wire fruit bowls.  I use it to hold the dog's bowl because fire ants are not good at navigating all those wires.  I don't leave food in the bowl, but fire ants have very good noses, and they'll come in search of the smallest food residue.  This wire is like a maze for them, and they tend not to mess with it. 

Here is my favorite weapon in the War on Beige:
Rustoleum gloss navy blue.  I've tried just about every shade on the market.  I've found other blues to be too, too blue. 

I usually do a slight overspray of everything with Rustoleum gloss black, to naturalize the appearance of the sprayed items. 
I'll close this post with the corresponding DIY sequence, because if I don't, someone will email me asking how to paint an exterior light fixture like I've shown here. 

As usual, these are the steps I did for my fixtures - yours might be quite different.  Some fixtures are not intended to be painted.  You should check with the manufacturer to see if it's OK in your case, yada yada. 

Happy painting, whatever your modernizing accent color may be. 
I disconnected the electrical breaker for the circuit that feeds our exterior fixtures.  This is a very important step for safety. 

Then, while they were still intact, I gently scrubbed oxidized powder coating off the top of them (with the bottom portion still in place so that water would not get into the bulb sockets). 
These fixtures had a bottom part that unscrewed. 
The top part appeared to be metal, but the bottom was some type of plastic.  It completely unscrewed into little pieces. 
Important not to lose any tiny pieces, including rubber washers. 
Good to set all the hardware aside in a secure location. 
Careful disassembly made for easier cleaning and painting. 
While you're doing this kind of work, don't forget to look around and enjoy your surroundings, because that's the most important part.  Coincidentally, I did this work on a day of rapidly-evolving weather that included a vibrant blue sky and this unusual cloud formation, which later morphed into a mackerel sky
Glass panes in a bucket ready for scrubbing. 
Bottom pieces laid out on a tarp and sprayed. 
We actually left the fixture itself on the side of the house for spraying, because the sealant was in really good shape and I didn't want to re-do it.  You can see the sealant / caulk near the bottom of this photo on the lower edge of the fixture.

Important to mask the bulb socket so that paint does not get into it. 
This wasn't just an exercise in style.  If you look at the upper edge of this fixture, the powder coat has flaked off, and the metal underneath is corroding (it appeared to be an aluminum blend and it was beginning to crumble).  If I hadn't re-painted them now, I would have had to spend hundreds of dollars to replace them in a year or two.  I don't like them, but I don't feel like spending hundreds of dollars would be a priority for me here. 

My teenager did the masking.  Perfect job for a teenager.  These days, teenagers aren't called upon nearly enough to contribute to the running of a household.  But they benefit from living in the household so they should contribute some of the maintenance effort. 
Mackerel magic.  Because I was painting hardware blue under a riveting blue sky, the song that got stuck involuntarily in my head was "Blue on Blue" by Bobby Vinton.  Nobody under the age of 50 has the slightest clue how frightening that is. 
The same masking technique works for anything else bolted to the house.  Here I used a hand-held shield to protect the top section of brick because I ran out of tape.
Remember that, if you engage in this type of design approach, the final result should contribute to the overall impression without calling attention to itself.  It's like eye shadow (especially blue eye shadow): if you look at a woman and visually register that she's wearing eye shadow, then she's wearing too much.  But if you look at a woman and your overall impression is that she's well put-together for no specific reason other than her entire appearance just seems to work, then she's wearing the right amount of eye shadow. 

As I mentioned above, with some pieces such as these light fixtures, I do a light overspray of black just to tone down and create some shade gradation in the blue, because otherwise it can look too plastic. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Assassin bug

If you see some of these in your garden or landscaping, do not squash, spray, or otherwise kill them.
It's one type of "assassin bug", which preys on other insects and which can help prevent landscape damage.  They patrol all day long, like an insect version of a police force. 
That particular species of beneficial insect is known as a "milkweed assassin bug", but I see them all over our yard, not just on the milkweed plants. 
Milkweed.  I wonder if the bugs attained their bright orange color for the purposes of camouflage. 
They eat stink bugs and aphids, among many other pests.  The Texas state insect is actually the Monarch butterfly, but anything that eats stink bugs (native or invasive) is a close runner up in my book. 

If you look closely, you'll see a long proboscis tucked under the front of its body.  That's the deadly apparatus that siphons the guts out of other bugs.  Yummy. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How to attract birds to a birdbath

To attract a bird, all you have to do is think like a bird.  Attracting birds to a birdbath is very easy if you follow a few simple rules.
What chance does this birdbath have of attracting birds?  It's a tiny isolated element in a sea of brick and rock and it's right up against a tract home window to boot - why would that be even remotely appealing to birds?  Isn't it just for decoration?
No - the primary function of the birdbath shown above is not for decoration, although it certainly does enhance our new stacked stone garden by providing a focal point.   But here are the reasons why some of our local birds have come to prefer it and depend on it:
  1. It's the only water source for quite some distance, which is particularly consequential now that we're into the full heat of the Texas summer when all animals need to drink frequently.  You have to remember that, when modern subdivisions are engineered, drainage is a priority, so there's little or no standing water anywhere near our house.  Birds who did not get their morning and evening drinking water from this bath would need to fly some distance away to find another source, and they don't like that idea. 
  2. I'm very careful to re-fill it daily, flushing out the old water each time.  Therefore it has the added appeal of freshness to the birds.  They may have to come right up against a scary suburban window to get it, but the cost-benefit analysis works for them regardless.  And it's easy for me to remember to re-fill it because this is my home office window so the birdbath is frequently in my peripheral view. 
  3. I keep the surroundings consistent.  Birds are acutely attentive to changes in their environment, as I will illustrate further down in this post.
  4. Birds in our area (perhaps all areas) prefer to nest within eyeshot of water.  If they can see a water source and there's a suitable spot available, they will nest, which further strengthens the patterns of birdbath-visiting.  Other birds observe both the nesting and the visiting, and will also be drawn in. 
A brand new nester in one of our front yard live oaks.  She's been there about a week now after discovering her near-ideal new water source just fifteen feet away. 

You might wonder how I know that it's the same much older dove nesting in our back yard, which I described most recently in this post.  Easy - she's tame.  By this time, she has raised so many successive broods on our back patio that she does not flush when we are in proximity.  We can literally stand two feet from her and she doesn't move.  That's not "normal" dove behavior - that's learned behavior.  Which means that it's almost certainly the same dove each time. 

In contrast, this new lady is still steeped in bird neuroticism and fear.  She flushes if anyone even steps into the front yard.  Getting this photo was really difficult and required a long lens, whereas our back-yard dove will simply stand there and allow herself to be photographed.   
Unfortunately, I'm stuck with undesirable builder-grade windows which have fake mullions embedded between the double panes of glass.  This makes birdbath photography a bit challenging.
Nice action shot as she examines the interior of my office for potential predators, but those danged plastic window mullions sure wreak havoc with the artistic potential. 
Now a word about consistency of the environment.  I noticed that some of the smaller birds were having trouble with the slippery ceramic edge of this birdbath, so yesterday evening, I placed a few "grippy" rocks in the center as an alternate perch.
A leg to stand on, and a more secure base for the legs. 
But look at what happened when this little girl came to visit this morning:
Do you see the way her head is cocked such that her eyeball is pointing straight at the center rocks?  The center rocks represent a change in the environment, and birds are highly suspicious of such things.  It will take all of them a few days before they habituate to this new element such that they can fully accept its presence and start to make use of it.  Meanwhile, visits to the birdbath will be reduced and the birds who do come won't be as comfortable. 
In sum, it's pretty easy - the general rules for a successful birdbath are fresh water always present (never let it run dry or the birds will "un-learn" that it is a reliable source) and strict consistency in the immediate environment. 

Happy birding.
This was a curious sparrow social faux pas, because for some reason she had a tiny flower stuck to her tail feathers.  It didn't seem to fall off as she was flitting around, and she didn't seem to care about it.  Odd. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Educational access, Part 1: CCISD Parental Advisory Committee

Within the past couple of months, I've had fresh concerns with the depth and breadth of access that CCISD students currently have to educational content for which the taxpayers have already footed the bill. 

My concern was motivated by our family's individual plan for our child's education, although it comes coincidentally on the heels of the $367 million bond referendum that passed last month.  Part of the resulting mandate involves increasing computerized access to educational content, and CCISD has associated the statement "We believe learning can occur any time, any place, and at any pace" with the new initiatives. 
Screengrabbed from this CCISD site
It would appear that I'm not the only parent with concerns, or at least extremely-motivated interest in this issue.  Last Monday, CCISD announced a summer volunteer opportunity to help flesh out what this initiative actually means in practical terms.
I'm screengrabbing only because internet pages like this tend to decay and disappear with time, and I want to be able to refer back to this announcement in future blog posts. 
I received this new volunteer opportunity announcement just this morning via a PTSA email blast.  I immediately clicked the link to volunteer, but this is the response I got:
According to CCISD communications coordinator Elaina Polsen (CCISD Office of Public Information) who responded to my inquiry via email, CCISD quickly received 120 applications and had to select 35 volunteer positions via lottery. 
There was such a large amount of interest that the application basically closed right after it opened.  For me, the lament "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" came to mind, except in my case, it's "always a commentator, never a contributor"!   Continuing in the idiom groove, I'm a day late and a dollar short with this one, but I do plan to continue monitoring and evaluating this issue, so stay tuned for future posts if this topic is of interest to you and your family. 

A seller's market

If you go to the "single family" search page on the Houston Association of Realtors website and type "Centerpointe" in the subdivision box, you'll see something remarkable: only 2 active listings out of 438 homes (HAR pegs us at 436 but I had written down 438 during a POA meeting so I'm not sure which is the exact figure). 

That's an availability rate of less than half a percent at the height of the summer selling season, and quite a reversal from about a year ago when spec sales in Section 9 were wrapping up.  A few listings that had been on the market for quite some time have now either sold or gone under contract.  The situation seems to bode well for property values. 
From Wikipedia

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The pink lollipop car

You'll never see another one quite like it.
IH-45 service road northbound at League City Parkway, about a week ago. 
I did a major double-take upon pulling up behind it at a red light.  The internet being what it is, a quick Googling of the search string 'Texas pink loli pop car' (using the license plate's abbreviated spelling) revealed this October 2012 blog entry, where the car was identified as a Nash Metropolitan, and where its owner self-identified as Tina Keeling who, in turn, was readily identifiable through Galveston County Appraisal District as a League City resident living literally a stone's throw from Centerpointe. 

You'll notice one difference in the car as it appeared last week relative to its 2012 portraiture

If clothes make the man, then eyelashes make the woman. 

IH-45 service road at Link Road.  
Yes, Loli Pop gained eyelashes at some point in the intervening months, and I do believe they complete the overall package.  Artistically speaking, they were sorely needed to counterbalance the pink fuzzy dice.

That statement might sound a bit flippant, but I don't mean it that way.  Well all have our hobby preferences and it's fascinating to see what other people choose as their artistic focus.  With me, it tends to be suburban tract home re-interpretation (and blogging thereof).  With other folks, it's cars or sports or kite-making or worm-farming or one of an innumerable collection of other endeavors.  Women in all their forms, including stereotypical personifications, are profoundly underrepresented in just about everything having to do with the design and general manifestation of cars, so it's neat to see this cute little automotive ambassador cruising around and so vividly representing a rarely-seen example of femininity.  You go, girl.  All 1,200 cc's of you. 

And yes, I know it's a Metropolitan, not an Ambassador.  I was using the term descriptively.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dove is in the air...

...everywhere I look around....
After two successive sterile clutches of eggs earlier this spring, the ol' battle ax finally managed to punch out a young 'un.  Just one though - not the usual set of twins.  The ovaries obviously ain't what they used to be.  Neither are mine.    
She looks like an old bird, doesn't she??  Her eyes have more crow's feet than mine do, if that's even physically possible.  Which is what brings the song "Love is in the Air" to mind in a punny sort of way, because it, too, is older than dirt (1977, to be exact). 

Well, she's certainly had a good run at life, successfully fledging at least six and soon to be seven chicks from her perch under our patio.  I doubt if she'll make it to number eight, but she's probably done better than the majority of her species.

By the way, if doves get crow's feet, does that mean that crows get dove's feet?? 

The drought-resistant landscaping bill: What it means for us

Did I mention that I think the commercial news media sucks?!  Texas legislative bill SB 198 potentially affects about 8 million single family homes in this state (estimated using 2010 Census data) and yet, as of this morning, I can't find a single commercial news reference to the fact that it was finally signed into law last Friday. 
Excerpt from the 83(R) tracking site.  For crying out loud, I now get much of my news from Facebook, of all places.  In this case, it was the Harris County Master Gardeners who announced the bill passage by linking to this special interests site
This is the bill that clears the way for Texas homeowners to install drought-resistant landscaping irrespective of whatever is written in their Homeowner Association documents or municipal ordinances, including restrictive covenants / deed restrictions.  It doesn't require any homeowner to take such steps, but it allows them. 

What might it mean for those of us in Centerpointe? 

Well, it means a number of things, and I'm speaking here as a resident who is personally interpreting what I'm reading.  I am not speaking as a representative of the POA with which I am not affiliated, and neither am I speaking in the capacity of a legal advisor or attorney. 

First of all,  this new law does not mean you can simply let your existing St. Augustine lawn go to hell in a hand basket.  It does not relieve you of your duty to keep your subdivision property in an appropriately-maintained condition - it just curtails the restrictions that the POA can legally impose upon your choice of landscaping styles. You'll still have to have landscaping plans approved by the architectural control committee, but you'll have significantly more choice in what your front yard looks like.   
Grass be gone:  an example of full xeriscaping, where all turf grass has been removed and replaced with drought-tolerant plants plus mulch and rock to prevent soil erosion. 

Screengrabbed from the website of the Colorado business known as Blooming Idiot Lawn Care (love the name!). 

Partial xeriscaping where a drought-tolerant area has been incorporated into turf grass.

Screengrabbed from Keep Abilene Beautiful
Second of all, the new law will probably require a re-write or at least careful interpretation of certain sections of our deed restrictions. 
I'm not an attorney, but the new law appears to mean bye-bye to the "completely sodded with St. Augustine grass" part.  This is fairly standard boilerplate language which appears to have been adopted by the POA rather than originating with them or with our developer.  I've seen the same type of language in the deed restriction documents of other subdivisions. 

Screengrabbed from our deed restrictions as they are presently uploaded to the community website. 
Our architectural control committee will have to remain creative and well-versed on the issue of xeriscaping (as a subdivision resident who knows about landscaping and gardening, it is not difficult for me to foresee questions landing in my inbox). 

Here's one of the biggest challenges I see for Centerpointe residents who would aspire to reduce their front yard turf grass:

The problem is what to do with this danged tree requirement, which is also boilerplate.  This thing was already threatening to become a thorn in the side of the POA because many Centerpointe front yards are simply not large enough to accommodate two mature trees.  Some of them, especially the pie-shaped cul-de-sac lots, can't even accommodate one mature tree.  A small ornamental tree, yes, but each and every one of us got sprigged with live oak saplings by our builders, and live oaks grow to be massive. 

Screengrabbed from our deed restrictions.
As well as being a space issue, front-yard trees can be problematic for xeriscaping because most low-water species are adapted to grow in full sunlight.  Low-water landscapes tend to be treeless by definition... think Big Bend
I meant the ranch, not the national park.  Here is a photo of nature's most fabulous xeriscape, screengrabbed from the TPWD park website. 
Therefore, if you attempt to develop a low-water landscaping plan while maintaining your builder-installed live oaks, you could end up with a hot mess in your front yard if you're not careful.  That's the kind of mis-step that no decent professional landscaper would make, of course, but many homeowners are DIYers who don't hire expensive outside services. 
From the angle of the photo, it's difficult for me to tell whether this intrepid soul left his trees in place as he was building his personal cactus empire. 

Screengrabbed from The Dallas Morning News
In the face of the new law, enforcement of the tree requirement seems a bit questionable to me.  But personally, I think most tract homes don't look complete without trees in the front yard because they become too stark and barren.  Xeriscaping can be achieved with trees still in place, if done properly.  I'm planning to address the potentially-excessive shade issue by eventually pruning our front-yard live oaks in the style frequently seen in Austin. 
In a previous post, I mentioned moving to Austin for a few years a long time ago.  After I bought my house, my new neighbors asked me (paraphrased), "Are you planning to trim your trees?  Because people who move here from Houston never trim their trees, and we don't understand this."

In this screengrab from an active Austin Home Search listing, you can see what is often meant in Austin by "trimming trees".  The "skirt" is raised to an extent that only a small amount of canopy remains and it barely casts a shadow.  This magnitude of trimming allows unobstructed views of the house and it creates better conditions for healthy plant growth underneath the trees. 

Another example, but with no xeriscaping or bed installation surrounding the trees.  The canopy has been thinned out to such a degree that it doesn't impede full-sun growth of the lawn.  Rather than serving as dense shade umbrellas, these trees are trained to be more like sculptural elements in the landscaping. 

And another example showing partial xeriscaping around the base of the trees, while an area of turf grass lawn is retained in front of it. 

All screengrabs from
Anyway, I'm sure there'll be additional guidance developed by the various property management companies and consortia.  I'll link to those as they become available here in our brave new suburban landscaping world.