Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Battle Hymn of the Health Conscious

At the end of this post, you’ll find new lyrics for a militant classic which I reinterpreted the other day after discovering to my delight that my yoga development, thus far predicated on the isolated teachings of a sole local instructor, is almost up to the level of the well-known P90X training module. 
Low-resolution video screengrab from this independent review site
I prefer a human interaction over whiz-bang mass-market DVDs, but my husband likes that fitness program and so I finally joined him in it.  I can’t do all of what’s in those 90 minutes of Yoga-X hell, but I’m most of the way there. 

For those of you who are like-minded, I invite you to customize your own chorus line to reflect personal gains within your specific fitness regime.  And good luck with those New Year's resolutions which, if you're like most Americans, will invoke improvements in diet, health, and fitness. 

Mine eyes have seen the horror of the coming of old age
It is trampling out my youthfulness and causing me some rage
But I have loosed my effort in this war that I will wage
My workout's marching on.
I can almost do the yoga
I can almost do the yoga
I can almost do the yoga
My health will not be gone!
I think my version represents an improvement, actually, because the author of this original lyric apparently never got that memo about God not being able to be for and against the same thing at the same time

Screengrabbed from Wikipedia

Monday, December 30, 2013

Home office cord control

Are you like 99% of all Americans in that you struggle with managing all of the electrical and data cords associated with your home office and/or home-based business computer systems?!
Oh my sweet God.  This photo wasn't staged - that's actually what the space behind my computers looked like yesterday before I got started on this rehab project. 
Let's expand my shame to encompass more than one photo, shall we?  Here's a more horizontal shot, illustrating the abject failure of an organizational device I'd placed on the wall behind my system. 
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you might wonder what mental madness beset me such that I let my space degenerate into that hot mess, given that I pay so much attention to organization and detail in other areas of my home.

My answer is simple:  If I had a static home office system, maintaining order might be easy to achieve.  But I run a microbusiness in which I work as an embedded contractor.  I'm constantly running back and forth to different client sites, taking much of my computer equipment with me each time.  So my typical machine management modis operandi looks like this:
  1. Take with.
  2. Return and toss everything back onto desk.
  3. Take with.
  4. Return and toss everything back onto desk.
  5. Repeat sequence about 98 more times each year.
So yes, my desk turns into an absolute nightmare on a regular basis because of this, as the photos above attest.  As I was going through my periodic attempt at clean-up yesterday, I thought I'd capture a few step-wise recommendations for you as you try valiantly to grapple with your own chronic mess.

Step #1:  Set aside a realistic period of time to complete this task, probably 1 to 2 unbroken hours.  Prepare yourself mentally for significant aggravation and boredom.  Put on some music, get a glass of wine, or whatever else you need to take your mind off the fact that you're engaged in an unfulfilling, low-quality chore which probably won't result in that much improvement in your status quo. 
Time either flies or drags, whichever you don't want it to do.  And during this task, it will surely drag. 

Low-resolution screengrab of Salvador Dali's famous melted clock artwork.  From Wikipedia, which isn't sure who should use this image. 
Step #2:  Assemble the right tools and equipment for the job. 
I'm partial to Velcro.  I don't like zip ties because they can't be readjusted. 
I decided to try some common cord conduit on this organizational go-round.  It's available for a very low price (this particular stuff is from IKEA). 
I think I was on the right track in including wall-based organization, but I didn't maximize its effectiveness.  If you go to the Container Store website and search for 'silver mesh', you'll see several of these products, but other products could also be used effectively. 

Step #3:  Gut your space.  Don't attempt to work around your existing mess because you'll just get bogged down and flummoxed.  Remove everything so that you can start afresh.  First label cables and cords if you're unsure of how to put it all back together.
Pull everything out of sockets, off the wall, etc. 
Step 4:  Examine critically what you're trying to accomplish and how, in order to determine whether there's a better way to structure your stuff.
My peripherals are partially supported on ELFA shelves above my main desk.  I noticed right away that I had run power cords for two printers and two spotlight lamps all the way down to the main UPS on the desk.  This is not efficient when those four devices could instead be fed by their own surge protector situated on the shelf above.  Therefore, I exchanged these four cords for one power strip that runs to the UPS. 
Furthermore I enclosed that power strip cord inside the conduit that also held the printer cables. 

These cord conduits are useful because you can split off individual cords at different points of emergence...
...and also because you can bundle excess cord lengths inside of them.  Why do computer sound system components have cords that stretch from here to eternity??  I don't know, but thank goodness that they are thin enough to wind up and stuff inside of conduit. 
What did I say about frustration??  Get ready for it.  I accidentally chopped a 12 volt DC line during this tedious process. 
Step 5:  Celebrate the light at the end of your tedious tunnel!!  Here's my finished product (minus the severed DC cord which I had to replace):
After almost two hours of effort, it looks only marginally improved relative to the starting condition.  How unsatisfying.

But looks can be deceiving.  It actually functions much better now. 
There are probably a few of you out there scratching your heads wondering why on earth I'd maintain such a Noah's Ark of connectivity on my desktop:  Two power cords, two VGA cables, two cable locks, two printer USBs, two Ethernet lines.  The obvious question is, why don't I instead buy [wireless this] and [docking that]...  I'm not going to get into the details of my business model, but suffice it to say that I need all this crap.  As ridiculous as it looks, my little business model runs smoothly via this approach. 

Anyway, here's the proverbial before and after photo.  Good luck with you own organizational efforts.  And for goodness sake, don't forget your glass of wine!!
The grey plastic conduit is not used so much for making things look prettier as it is for keeping the cords from getting tangled on a desktop where items are constantly being removed and replaced.  I tried to conduit components by function: 
-- The two Ethernet lines are in their own conduit. 
-- The two printer lines are bundled with the sound system cord into their own conduit.

Similarly, I tried to separate each wall component by function. 
-- The scoop-shaped hanging device on the far left holds two computer power adapters (and only those, because they move in and out of the office on almost a daily basis). 
-- The central rack holds smaller peripherals grouped in baskets by function (USB cords and other peripherals).
-- The right rack holds an external HD. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

How to update an old reclining chair

It's an epic family battle cry heard throughout America:  "NO, you may NOT get rid of my old recliner!  You may think it's ugly, but it's the most comfortable chair in the house!"
Got one of these??  Keep reading!!

Image screengrabbed from this interesting blog.
In most cases, it's the husband who issues this edict in response to a wife who is trying desperately to bring their home décor into the 21st century.  But in our case, it was me, the wife, who wanted to keep a chair over the protests of my husband. 

It looks like I stole it out of a mid-90's RV - the style just doesn't go with anything else in our house.  But I wanted to keep it because it had been my nursing chair and therefore it has sentimental value (and I breast-fed my little one for more than two years, so that's a lot of sentimental value).  Unlike many new mothers, I opted for a rocking recliner rather than one of those glide rockers you see in many baby nurseries (the glide rockers which are now even more out-of-style than rocking recliners).    
I chose as generic a fabric texture and color as I could back in 1998 when I special-ordered this chair for myself, generic so that it would stand the test of time.  But now it's almost 16 years later and this pinkish-brown tour bus upholstery just wasn't cutting it. 

"I hate to break this to you, honey," my husband argued as we were deciding what to do with the recliner, "But your nursing days are over!" 

"All the more reason for me to keep my chair as a memento!" I shot back humorously. 

And thus began my epic search for a solution by which this chair could be sufficiently modernized. 

Here's a design hint for those of you who are faced with a similar predicament:  As a first step, go to your manufacturer's web site and search for your own model of recliner, because chances are they still sell the exact model or something almost identical to it, no matter how old it is!!  These chairs are as enduringly popular as they are unstylish, and a lot of them haven't changed significantly in fifty years!!   And the benefit of going back to the manufacturer's site is that you can use their internet widget to "try on" different updated upholsteries before you go shopping for your own, and by that method, you can at least narrow down your design direction.
Screengrabbed from the manufacturer's website:  Oh my gosh, look!!  That's my very same 16-year-old chair still being sold today!!  I'm not going to name the manufacturer for fear of attracting the wrong kind of blog attention, but it's one of the major American retailers.  From messing around with their website, I was able to determine that I probably wanted a visually-disruptive geometric pattern which draws your attention away from the fact that the macro-lines of the chair are very dated (in my opinion).  This upholstery pictured above, which was one of over seven hundred!! offered by the manufacturer, was not "it", but it gave me a sense of what to look for. 
As I mentioned in this prelude post where I described my upholstery-shopping process, there's an unwritten design rule which says that you are allowed to have one outrageous piece of furniture per room, for the sake of not taking your design too seriously.  I had already decided on an artistic approach of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" with respect to my recliner.  There was no way for me to pull off a trompe l'oeil that would disguise what this chair really is, so I decided that I might as well just run with it and make it as quirky-fun as I could.

This was the upholstery I chose through the process described in this post
My husband was skeptical and wanted for me to first return to the upholsterer, which was Perfect Windows on Fondren Road in Houston, and buy one full yard of this so that we could wrap the chair and get a better sense of what it would look like.  But it's a bloody 72-mile round trip to that store and it's an arduous drive through Houston traffic to boot, so what I did instead is scan my swatch and cobble together this color print-out.  The colors never came through the scan properly, but it was good enough to get a feel for a larger piece of fabric. 
Trying it on.  There was one thing I noticed right off the bat: 
The circle motif was working well with other elements in the room, especially the floor poufs (this pair came from Target and they have apparently been discontinued, but they are reproductions of this extraordinary design classic).  Floor poufs can be used as foot stools or extra seating and they generally look cool even when they're not performing a specific function.  The polka-dots in the upholstery coordinated well with them, repeating the same circular design element convincingly. 
And here is the money shot!!  The finished product!! 
You'll notice that, in showing you this updated recliner, I placed it firmly within the context of its specific room.  If I had showed you just a standalone polka-dot chair outside of a finished setting, you would not have gotten a realistic sense of its potential. 

You'll also notice that, as eccentric as this upholstery choice is, I have strictly abided by the primary unbreakable rule of interior design:  Cross-referencing, which HGTV designers tend to call "repetition". 

The circles appear everywhere: 
  • In the recliner polka-dots.
  • In the shape of the Bolga basket.
  • In the little slate sofa table holding the entertainment system remote controls.
  • In the floor pouf.
  • In the lamp base and lamp shade.
  • In the tall wooden bowl hand-carved by local artist Dale Hooks, the bowl sitting on the TV console. 
The colors also repeat everywhere:
  • The yellow in the background of the recliner is repeated in the foreground couch cushion and in the basket.
  • The turquoise is repeated in the two small pillows in the basket and in the lamp base and in other elements not visible in the photo above.
  • The forest green is present in the cushion placed on the recliner and it is also the base upholstery of the couch.
  • The drapery, pouf, slate sofa table, and couch cushion are all the identical shade of charcoal.
  • The TV console, the weaving in the basket, and the small buffalo figurine are all the same vivid rust color. 
Not only did I abide by those rules, I actually tweaked the balance of our great room to better speak to the new recliner.
I changed the upholstery on one pair of couch cushions to exactly match the creamy yellow background of the recliner, in order to tie it into the rest of the design.  This also serves to improve the relationship between the couch and my collection of Bolga market baskets which are hand-made in the African nation of Ghana.  Can you believe that I actually found this Bolga basket that has both turquoise and forest green in it??  And I didn't find that one on the internet - I bought it at Erma's Nutrition Center in nearby Nassau Bay!
I got a basket-weave-ish upholstery pattern for the updated couch cushions, to match the Bolga baskets, because the details really count, especially in more eclectic designs.  This material came from Hancock Fabrics in Clear Lake
Anyway, here's the before-and-after comparison:
Is it a runaway smash hit?  Nope - it can't be by definition because the chair is an old recliner - but I think the new look works much better in the space. 

I dedicate this post to the designers of HGTV whom I've heard say (tactfully, out of respect for their advertisers) that an old recliner cannot be successfully integrated into an updated design because these chairs are just too far off the modern-day mark in terms of style. 

I realize that this is a matter of taste, and it's certainly not an easy process, but I think it can be done, and I think my example proves that. 

And this is actually an important issue because many people have imperfect health or suffer from disabilities, and they have a genuine physical need to keep a reclining chair in their homes.  If you are partially or wholly house-bound because of a physical limitation or family circumstances such as intensive care-taking duties, it's often even more important to you that you have cheery and updated décor because you are forced to look at the interior of your home for so many hours each day (I speak from historical experience - that's what got me interested in interior design in the first place).  Don't assume that you have to live with a recliner that you find to be ugly or hopelessly outdated.  From the superior comfort of your recliner, jump on the internet and start pecking away at the available websites to see what you could potentially achieve by updating your upholstery.  Stick rigorously to your own design palette, but have fun with it.  The results might pleasantly surprise you, as they did me.

And oh, as for my husband?  He's not thrilled with the result because he's not thrilled with the chair itself, but he admits that this re-upholstery job is an improvement. 
Home sweet home.  I ordered it 16 years ago to fit my smaller body, because most recliners are so large that they swallow me up.  It still fits like a glove.  It's a glove with a quirky face-lift now. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best upholstery and drapery shop in Houston

My opinionPerfect Windows at 3035 Fondren Road in Houston. 
It apparently has no website, but if you Google the name, you'll find yellow pages-style business listings on the internet. 

Curiously, it also has no real name on the storefront - just this distinctive symbol combination which is apparently meant to signify the letters "PW" for "Perfect Windows", but the "W" looks more to me like an old-style mustache than a stylized drapery swag.  As I was evaluating shops up and down Fondren, I came to think of this one as "that store wearing the mustache". 

Screengrabbed from Google Street View. 
One of these classics.  "Old West Mustache" screengrabbed from this Gentleman's Emporium offering where, sadly, it is currently listed as "sold out". 
Let me explain the reasons for my choice of Perfect Windows.  (And as always, I accept no compensation for recommending any given business or venue.  This post reflects my personal opinions and experiences only, and yours may differ.) 

Every consummate greater-Houstonian knows that, if you want to maximize the quality of your time in this place, you must step out of your comfort zone.  Like a seventeen-year cicada crawling from the bowels of the Earth, you need to emerge from your suburban community and actually head downtown once in a while. 
Come into urban enlightenment.  Trust me - it never fails to be a revealing experience. 

Cicada screengrabbed from this site
This is particularly true if you are looking for unique items that do not fit narrowly-defined suburban stereotypes, which was the case with me as I was searching for new upholstery for a chair.  We do have fabric and upholstery shops in the Houston 'burbs, places such as Hancock Fabrics and JoAnn Fabrics, and for many projects, sources like those will meet your needs.  But here's the limitation, in my opinion:  The chains are very formulaic and very traditional.  They sell the same-old-same-old.   If you're looking for something new and unique, you might not find it at any of those common retail outlets.

Hence Fondren Road.  The best of what Houston offers in the way of home furnishings diversity is arguably found on Fondren Road and in the encompassing Harwin wholesale district.  I find Fondren itself to be the best for unique furniture and furniture-related services.  Despite the no-frills appearance to the neighborhood, a lot of high-end retailers can actually be found there.  But the bargain places are also there.  So whenever I need something that I can't find anywhere else, my "Fondren Footwork" begins:  I cruise along the street previewing shop after shop until I finally hit pay dirt. 

For my current upholstery project, I was searching for fabrics that were transitional to mid-century modern or contemporary in style, rather than the traditional offerings that tend to dominate suburban retail outlets. 

Furthermore, I was searching for a retailer who actually had product in stock so that I could take good-sized swatches home with me (which is not possible when you are forced to order based solely on samples), and also so that I wouldn't have to wait weeks and weeks for material to be shipped in from some far-off location before the craftspeople could even begin my re-upholstery job.
Um, no.  It's too difficult to get any sense of the overall effect if you can't unroll a bolt of it and view it on a furniture-sized scale.  And of course you can't cut swatches from samples like these.

Screengrabbed from an eBay listing
Here are the things that convinced me to choose Perfect Windows:
  • They had product in stock - LOTS of it - it's a huge store.  And a good subset of that product was transitional to modern in style. 
  • The yardage prices were really good compared to other outlets I had visited. 
  • They were not stingy with their swatches.  They handed me a pair of scissors and invited me to go to town taking what I needed.  I'll show my swatches at the end of this post.  You can tell from looking at the selvage edges and threads that I was able to take large enough pieces to get a good idea of what each upholstery would look like in my own home. 
  • I got a good vibe.  Everyone in the store was working hard.  They were obviously racking up a lot of orders which meant that they had a customer base who trusted them. 
  • They were organized.  Every order was explicitly described on paper with a swatch of the customer's chosen upholstery or drapery fabric stapled to the page so that there would be no miscommunication. 
  • The labor quote I received was certainly not cheap, but it was lower than what I had been offered elsewhere. 
  • They quoted me just a 2-week turnaround and then delivered within 10 days, in contrast to the weeks and weeks of waiting that characterize some other retailers.  The work appeared to be done in-house rather than farmed out to subcontractors. 
  • The quality of the work I received was really good.  I'll describe that in a separate post. 
Anyway, here are my swatches, so that you can get a feel for some of the more transitional stock that they had, at least as of the day of my order in December 2013.  For this project, I was re-upholstering a standalone family room chair.  Given that the workpiece was smaller, I was at liberty to consider bolder and less conventional fabrics, which would not have been the case if it had been a huge couch, for instance.  There's an unwritten rule in interior design that says you're allowed to have one outrageous piece per room, for the fun of it.  I was intentionally trying to make this particular chair un-boring, which is why I narrowed down my initial contenders to these:
Rather guttural and reminiscent of an algal mat, but I describe my style as 'organic industrial', so this was a possibility.
Oooooh!!!  Jetsons style!!  Love this!!!  But unfortunately, the hue and saturation were so similar to our family room floor rug that this fabric wouldn't have allowed the chair to stand out. 
Look at the wool rug beneath the doggie blanket.  See what I mean??  The chair would have ended up being camouflaged if I had used that wonderful upholstery above.  It would blend right into the rug. 

Screengrabbed from this post
Similarly with this swatch, I loved the style of it, but the tones and pattern would have been too similar to the existing rug.  As my order was being processed, another buyer picked this material for their custom drapery order.  Nice choice. 
This was really too traditional but I brought a swatch of it just in case. 
This was really too contemporary but I brought a swatch of it just in case. 
My husband and daughter both loved this one, but it was too similar to our existing couch, which you can also see in the doggie photo above. 
If you know anything about Shipibo tribal art, this one ought to resonate with you. 
It's certainly consistent with an organic industrial theme, but again, not much of a stand-out from the area rug and not ideal for a dark corner with a north-facing window (i.e., cold light). 
Circles are one of my design themes, so I had to see how this one looked. 
Of course there's my whole gardening vibe as well, so some metallic leaves were worth considering...
Definitely different, but I was afraid it would look a little too 80's retro and wouldn't coordinate with the couch. 
Industrial similar to the other geometric above, with the same problems. 

And guess what??  This became my winner. 
Yes, I did, in fact, reupholster a chair in a very non-traditional discontinuous oddly-geometric-polka-dot-slash-Lego hybrid design.  For a description of those results, you'll have to wait for a near-future post.  In the meantime, I offer you my fondest wishes for your own emerging Fondren adventures.
"Here" being outside of the suburban security headspace.

One result of the search string 'annoying cicada meme'.  Screengrabbed from www.quickmemes.com

Friday, December 27, 2013

Extreme mystery solved

Ask and ye shall receive.  On December 18, I raised the issue of the now-for-sale local Extreme Makeover house, a question which seemed pertinent given that League City is once again poised to embark on another "free house" promotional event, one that is not without ongoing controversy (link paywalled).
Screengrab from that post
Eight days after I asked, Chron has answered:
Screengrabbed from this article, which explains that the family was done in by a number of factors, chief among them high carrying costs, especially the five-figure annual property taxes triggered by a dream home built on this vast scale. 
Chron also linked to this article which explains how and why so many "free house" winners ultimately lose their windfalls.  Hopefully as these cases accumulate, they will serve as a lesson for groups trying to balance public relations and private practicality:  Is their primary goal to actually help these families, or are they just trying to make a big splash for TV?  Because packing up and moving is Extreme-ly disruptive, especially for children who need more situational stability than adults do.  If high carrying costs force many winners to quickly sell their "free" houses, the purely-human benefits of this practice certainly become debatable. 

Anyway, best of luck to the Kemah family as they move into the next less-grandiose, more human-scale phase of their lives. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The memory tree

Here's a creative and potentially meaningful idea for those of you, especially you younger people just starting out in your lives, who would like to develop a Christmas tree tradition that's a little deeper than the typical practice of simply buying a chopped-down tree and tossing a bunch of generic plastic and glass ornaments on it. 
It looks pretty and it's very traditional, but does a thing like this have any personal significance whatsoever??  Christmas is supposed to be a time of reflection, humble gratitude, and goodwill.  What do these brand new $2.99 fabric bows have to do with that? 

Screengrabbed from Wikimedia Commons
When I was a young woman beginning my post-graduate-school adult life in the early 1990's, I decided that my Christmas tree would be a memory tree, and that I would build it incrementally, year by year, just as I was building my life. 

There would be no cheap garlands and made-in-China shiny tinsel.  There would only be symbols of important rites of passage.  I myself would acquire only one new ornament each year, plus I would add gifts from other people that held personal significance. 

Once I settled on this idea, the obvious thought hit me:  Maybe I would live long enough to see my tree achieve decorative completion, or maybe I would not.  There was only one way to find out. 

A carved cat ornament, hand-made folk art from the deep American rural south, which I received as a gift.  This was my very first Christmas ornament. 

The other decision I made was that I would not kill a tree each year.  I bought a small Norfolk Island Pine, so that it could grow with me and the family I created.  By this time, we have cycled through a few of them, as they outgrew our house!!  One of those is now planted just outside our front window. 
That first Christmas, only that cat hung on my tree.  He was all alone there with his wide-eyed stare.  How could there be anything else on the tree??  I had not built my life yet.  To have a fleshed-out Christmas tree at that point would have felt false to me. 

But then came the relentless passage of time, with all of its extraordinary events.  Here's a small sample from the years that followed. 
From a year when Enron passed out hundred-dollar Swarovski ornaments as if they were candy canes.  And I went to one of those legendary Enron Christmas parties and I wandered around feeling completely helpless, wondering how on earth I would ever be capable of comprehending the essential mechanics of business, because money seemed to be raining down from the sky, and I couldn't for the life of me identify the source of it. 

And the rest, as they say, is history - not just mine, but every Houstonian's.  I stare at this ornament today and I am transported back to those moments of helplessness in the face of hollow grandeur.  And even now, I become as breathless as the now-lifeless corporation whence this expensive bit of glitter derived.     
A sterling silver ornament that was attached with a bow to the outside of one of the many baby shower gifts I received.  It is now tarnished, but to remove the tarnish would be to strip away some of the authenticity, because it's been a long time since I gave birth to that baby. 
A gift from a family member in 1999, because elephants never forget, and I am known for having a very good memory. 
More gifted folk art:  Santa on the half shell.  My extended family likes to support local microbusinesses just as I do. 
As my baby grew, so did the collection of ornamental art projects that she produced. 
A S'mores ornament which we selected to commemorate 2005, because we did a heck of a lot of camping that year!
From more than a decade ago, a twin ornament commemorating the last Christmas visit we had with a close friend's family before she died of cancer.  There's an inscription in the center (redacted here) and the other family has an identical ornament with the same inscription. 
Our chosen ornament for 2010, the year we brought our dog home!!  We had a heck of a time finding this one, and then we had to take a fine-point Sharpie marker to it in order to simulate her brindle coat.  But it's a pretty good resemblance, wouldn't you say? 
The answer for me was yes, I did, in fact, live long enough to see my tree completed - and completed with a richness that exceeded my wildest early-90's dreams. 

May your holiday be deeply meaningful to you according to whatever your personal traditions comprise.