Monday, November 20, 2017

Harris in a Chair

Harris took over my chair and gave me a little show:

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Windows 2.0: It's Curtains

You may have already read about the Great Lemon Chiffon Lace Curtain Debacle. If not, either check it out or don't bother.

Boy, those yellow lace curtains were evil. Fortunately, the customer service people in England turned out to be nice. But they needed some encouragement: photos, screen shots, and a few short, persuasion essays about how their "cream" curtains look deceptively "creamy" on their website when they are in in fact lemony-banana.

After my plaintive, despairing emails, they offered to exchange the curtains. We tried and failed to find non-banana substitutes, so they said they'd refund me if I'd pay return postage to England.

Accomplishing that simple task took me from early August to October, and the refund finally came through this month. My correspondence with Kate and Zoe, who work in a village in the New Forest, went on for more than 60 emails. Here's one:
Dear Kate, 
New developments, most surprising. . . .
The lowest price for shipping the box is $85 via the US postal service, which is known to be unreliable for international shipments. The other three carriers quoted me “lowest” prices in excess of $300!  Any USPS service that’s better tracked and insured is also $300+. It’s hard to believe.
Postage of $300 for an average-size box weighing less than 7 pounds. At least most of the reps were nearly as appalled as I was.  
I can fly to London, round trip, for $410. I’m half-tempted to throw the curtains in a carry-on and go see the New Forest.  
Best . . . 
I should have just gotten on a plane.

Listen and learn from me:

1: ALWAYS check the return policy before you buy anything overseas. Don't buy anything from a country that you aren't willing to fly to for a vacation, in case you need to return it in person.

2: NEVER trust the US Postal Service to send an untracked package to Europe via the cheapest service. Things get lost all the time. It's happened to me three times in recent years, and I don't shop overseas much at all. Even the postal workers will warn you that it's risky. It IS.

In the end, I was allowed to use the curtain company's own DHL account number in hopes that the cost would be less outrageous. It took me and the New Forest duo two tries to complete the byzantine paperwork correctly. The shipping still set me back about $140. But it was worth it to get those awful things out of here.

I still needed new curtains for the living room. Ours were too shredded to repair. And only Scottish lace would do, as it's 95% cotton and everything else is 100% synthetic, and looks it.

I just happen to have a colleague who imports Scottish lace curtains as part of his business. You'd think that would be remarkably convenient, wouldn't you? Well.

I'd started asking him last December to sell me curtains, but he was oddly silent on the matter. He never returned emails or calls on the subject although we corresponded and even met about other things. I'd finally given up and bought from the English company.

After that mess, I sent a last plea to my colleague, and then went online and found another American importer. They had what I wanted. Naturally, a day or two after I placed my order, my colleague contacted me with samples. He said he'd been forwarding all inquiries about curtains to his assistant to handle. But his assistant had not handled them.

As you can see, we have decent curtains now, as grown-ups should. They cost more than I'd budgeted but they're just like some in our local house museum that I'd always admired. They aren't covered in frilly floral designs as so many lace panels are. I think they are as masculine gender-neutral as lace could be:


They were exceedingly white when they arrived. I had been determined to get off-white panels, like my previous curtains, because our white woodwork has acquired "patina" after nearly 20 years. Some would call it "dingy," and anything bleach-bright would make it look worse. But the only two options these days are bright-white and yellow, so I had no choice.

We moved the curtain rods to cover more of the window frames so there'd be less contrast. And I felt better when I remembered that nothing stays very white in this apartment for long. The curtains are already blending in.

During my fall housecleaning (a chore I tackle religiously, every few years), I washed our other curtains four or fives times. Our little HE washer doesn't rinse out dust all that well. Then I mended the bedroom curtains in a few dozen spots, feeling alternately noble, like a Frugal New Englander, and embarrassed, like an incompetent Great Depression re-enactor. At least I didn't sew any of the curtains to myself. (I've done things like that more than once.) My clean, mended curtains looked good but they made the glass look even dirtier. And it was filthy to begin with.

Cleaning our windows ourselves is out of the question: our crappy windows don't cooperate and it requires standing outside on ledges two or three stories above the ground. The most I can do is clean  cute little nose prints off the inside glass. So I hired pros, fully expecting at least one cat to jump outside and the world to end. It didn't happen. Instead we can see the world. It's amazing. I'd have our windows cleaned every few months from now on if it didn't cost $300. I need to see if I can get a better price. It's life-changing.

And that's more than enough about windows. You will hear nothing further from me on the subject unless I think of something else to say. But how would ever happen?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Windows 1.0: Shades

Our seven windows had been bothering me for some time. They are 138 years old and they look it, with their messy, chipped paint, rotting sills, and broken mechanisms. Filthy glass. Screens and storms are in poor condition. Lace curtains in tatters. And somebody likes nibbling on vinyl shades.

Some of these issues could be addressed for reasonable effort and cost, while some could not.

We'd love to replace or restore the windows, which are six feet high, and their paint-glopped frames and sills, but it would easily cost five figures to get historically appropriate new windows, as required by the neighborhood's architectural commission (and I'm with them on that all the way).

Shades, however, can hide a lot the ugliness and they don't cost much if you are smart enough to stay out of the custom shade stores and go to Home Depot.

You may remember that I got fed up about the tooth marks a little over a year ago. The shade in the bathroom had become the Breakfast of Champions, mainly for Possum, who would snack on it every morning while my husband took a shower. Harris and Lion probably enjoyed ingesting it, too.

Here's Harris looking innocent: "Golly, this window shade has self-destructed!"

I should thank Possum and his band of merry munchers. This embarrassing mess of a window shade was the final straw that forced me to stop neglecting this apartment. I had been feeling helpless, clueless, and lethargic. For more than six years, we'd been planning to buy another place and move, and THEN fix this place up when it was empty, in ways that would appeal to buyers rather than to us. You know the drill: gray paint everywhere, super-shiny floors, and contemporary staging furniture with shiny metal and gray upholstery.

Well, we'd still need new shades. So we bought some. But it took me a long time to figure out how to keep the toothmarks off the new shade. It came to me one day as if in a dream:

Plastic shade grips ($1.48 each) are wide enough to deter cat jaws. This shade has 22 of them. Fourteen months later, my shades are still toothlessly pristine. And I only needed to do this for the one in the bathroom. The cats have left the two in the bedroom alone, perhaps because those fit so closely that they can't get their little mouths near the edges. 

Stay tuned for Windows 2.0.

🐈 🐈 🐈 🐈 🐈

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fun with Upholstery

But "fun" is a relative term. Upholstery is only fun for humans to look at and lounge upon. I can't pretend that choosing new fabric is a good time, certainly not for me. Only cats can really have a ball with upholstery and while I love mine and try to encourage their spiritual, physical, and mental development, I'm not enthusiastic about their creative activities upon my chairs.

In the summer, I sent off our sofa slipcover and a couple of our bentwood chairs for repairs by a Chilean upholster. (Chilean upholsterers are said to be the best; any Chilean upholsterer will tell you so.) I had wisely bought extra fabric when we got our sofa in 2005, so we had enough to recover the seat cushions. Now that the shredded areas on the corners (handiwork by dear Bunnelina, mostly) are fixed, too, the sofa looks almost new.

The great thing about a slipcover is that you can easily swap it for another and a completely different look. I love this concept in theory, but the thought of hunting for a second fabric always filled me with dread. We looked from time to time and found nothing we liked nearly as much as this, which is Ralph Lauren's Lakota Paisley. It was a big splurge at the time and well worth it. There's nothing else like it. It's soft but sturdy cotton, the colors are pretty, the pattern hides fur, and it's easy to clean and brush. It's perfect for us and it needs to last the rest of my life. It's still an active fabric, sometimes offered on sale for about $80/yard. I should put 30 yards on my Christmas list.

The crazy paisley chair in my husband's office had transition to a scratching post. Note the fuzzy areas along the top of the arms and back. The fronts of the arms almost have fringe:

We bought this chair on impulse, on clearance, and it was a bad choice — you can't really see that it's purple along with the orange, red, and and gold. I soon tired of it and when the cats started clawing it, I didn't always stop them. They loved its texture and made it even more richer.

It became hideous. We considered replacing the whole chair but it's hard to find armchairs as small as this one, which fits in a tight corner of my husband's tiny office. So we decided to slipcover it, but even that was going to cost as much as a new chair. In August we went to the Fabric Corner in Arlington Center and found a roll of tan velvet that was on clearance. The color was exactly what I wanted and the fabric was tightly woven to discourage claws, and the roll was so cheap that I didn't care if there was a flaw here or there. Nothing in our house is perfect (except Harris, who sats so) so why start now? They sent a lady named Georgette here to measure for the slipcover. She arrived with  her tools and I kept the cats away and fed her parking meter while she measured, cut, and pinned. She came back for a fitting the following week and we discussed Downton Abbey as she worked. We had a slipcover in the space of two weeks. The cost was just a few hundred dollars — chicken feed in the furniture business.

Here's Harris enjoying a final nap upon paisley. No one sleeps better than Harris:

To reinforce the clawed areas, Georgette told me to cover them with duct tape so I bought a roll in bright green. The chair looked so awful before she transformed it with the slipcover. I asked her to make loose covers for the back and arms so that they would move around if the cats scratched them, which they wouldn't enjoy. I'm not sure how well that will work but, so far, so good. The fabric is a winner: it's pretty, it's tough, the color hides fur, and a lint brush works nicely on  it.

Here's the slipcover with its messy protectors. And Possum, looking foiled but not defeated.

We've always had this old chair from my husband's family, possibly a relic from a long-lost dining room set:

Some of us have enjoyed pulling the decorative nails out of its back and shredding the ribbon trim underneath, while others of us would rather attack the corners of the seat. It needed medical attention.

We went Zimman's in Lynn to choose fabric. I first went there in 2009, when Possum was a new arrival eight years ago. It's a legendary store, mainly for its mind-boggling quantity and chaotic disorganization. By all means go there — but not if you are looking for fabric. Go when you aren't looking and you might actually find something. Go when you won't mind feeling dazed, mentally exhausted, and starving, because you will. The top floor is the best part: a loft-like expanse filled with odd furniture, antiques, and accessories in the style of ABC Home in Manhattan, my favorite store.

The books of velvet fabrics are kept behind the counter where a couple of women help many customers and ring up all the sales and orders. They could only find two books to show us but I spotted a third one in a pile and that one had a swatch of teal "Kryptonite" velvet. Kryptonite is supposed to be indestructible; we'll see. 

The fabric was lost in transit, then found, and when it finally arrived, on a very hot day in mid-August, we managed to stuff me, the giant roll, and the chair into our little sports car and headed to an upholsterer in Medford. We'd used him before and thought he was nice. (Not Chilean, but nice, and less expensive.) He promised to have the chair finished the following week. We told him we'd be in Maine that week. He promised it the day after we returned. 

I started inquiring about delivery several days after we returned. We were afraid it might be damaged in our car. 

The upholsterer's life had become complicated since that day in August: over several weeks, I heard stories of a truck breakdown, a family funeral, shoulder surgery, a lengthy recovery, emergency dentistry, moving from the family home, and I forget what all. He was always charming and apologetic. He finally brought us the chair two months later, in late October. Here it is: 

Those two balsam-filled cats are supposed to be guarding it but I can't say how effective they are because they were also there while the nails were disappearing. They were adopted together in Stonington, Maine, in August 2012, shortly after we'd lost our wonderful Snalbert and a few months before we adopted Harris and Toffee. At the time we only had two moving cats, Wendy and Possum, and our apartment seemed too empty. So these guys cheered me up for a while and now they get to sit on the fancy chair.

After all that, it is very nice not to see shabbiness and destruction wherever I look.

What I learned:

1. Chilean upholsterer: good, expensive, fast. Medford upholsterer: good, inexpensive, takes forever. Choose Georgette and a slipcover if you can: good, inexpensive, fast, fun. If you want more info, let me know.

2. If you find a fabric you love, buy a lifetime supply.

3. Never go to Zimman's on an empty stomach. Or just go to the Fabric Corner in Arlington instead.

4. Spend the money. And then trim everyone's claws religiously.

5. Purple, gold, and orange paisley: only for a necktie.

I promise not to discuss upholstery again here for a long, long, time.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Fixed Up

Possum finds it much easier to relax now that our apartment is less of a mess.

I seem to have taken an unplanned blogging break. I hope you enjoyed spending your time on more interesting and productive things during that time, because I'm back.

Our condo has always needed work, When we bought it 19 years ago, we sponge-painted the living room walls (for a "Venetian plaster" effect) to camouflage their poor condition because we couldn't afford a plasterer. (I reently confirmed that there are at least two layers of interesting wallpaper under the many layers of paint, and I plan to do more discreet excavating to our poor walls.) The sponged look is dated now, but we still like it. If we keep it long enough, it may even come back into fashion.

We couldn't afford to give the top-nailed floors the special sanding and refinishing they needed, either. Our windows date from 1879 and need replacing. Our rooms are drafty in winter because we also have cracks where the floors meet the outer walls. I've tried weatherstripping tape and putty but some of us like to pull it off and eat it, or just carry it around, so I gave up.

My Dad, who is 103, tells me at least once each winter that I should buy those plastic insulating kits that you attach to the whole window with a hairdryer or something. And I remind him that I have five cats with claws. (And, besides, I'd rather freeze than live in cellophane packaging.) He's practical, so he also tells me that I should lower my ceilings with acoustic tile. I make a mental note not to complain about how cold I am on the phone and remind myself how he is not a New Englander. He kept his thermostat at 78 degrees all winter until he had to move to a nursing home at 102. He has clearly done something right to make it to 103, but I don't think it was dry-roasting himself. I bet it's his amazingly sugary diet.

But I digress.

Several years ago, a gut renovation downstairs required lifting this house's foundation to replace a missing structural post in the basement, which affected just about every wall in our place. Our ceilings cracked, and woodwork and doors went off kilter. For more than a week, our front door refused to close, so every afternoon a carpenter would come upstairs to sand, saw, and bang on it until we could lock it. He did it again the next day as the building kept settling. After the renovation was finished, the owner grudgingly sent up a workman to fix some of the worst damage on one wall. As for all the other cracks and crooked things, like the cleverly fitted cherry paneling that covers our bathroom walls and ceiling like a jigsaw puzzle . . . well, we stopped staring at the problems and got used to them.

Early telephone wires — perhaps relics from the Sabine family's decades here — still snake around our doors and baseboards, all covered with layers of old paint. I'm starting to like them. Very few Back Bay apartments have them anymore.

Our kitchen is nearly 20 years old and if our dishwasher or refrigerator (age unknown) should fail we will have to renovate the whole thing because no one makes new appliances that are even close to their sizes anymore. I think our built-in oven is a rare bird, too. But, after 18 years, we still somehow keep turning it off when it's baking, or set its timer for hours when we want minutes. I won't miss it one bit.

In the past year all this began weighing on me. Everywhere I looked I'd see something that needed help: chipped paint, scuffed walls, tired floors, worn clawed upholstery, dinged-up woodwork, shredded lace curtains (not the cats' fault), and messy piles of books, magazines, and papers. And let's not forget the grime and dirt.

So I made a list and over the past few months we took care of many of the easier projects — we can't plaster walls or redo floors while we're living here — and also gave the place a good cleaning.

I've written about how we finally painted the white repair patches on our bedroom wall and ceiling to match the older paint. What a relief that was.

I could have taken "before" photos of various projects, but couldn't bring myself to do it. Too embarrassing; nothing I'd ever want to remember. I could take "after" photos now but no one but me would find them thrilling. Things just look normal now: nothing around here will ever be perfect (except Harris, says Harris). But at least most things aren't a mess anymore.

It already looks and feels so much better but there will always be more we can do.

In my next posts I'll try to tell you succinctly about all the little things we did around here. This post is already too long for that. I'm just exhausted from typing. You must be exhausted from reading. I need a peanut-butter cup and a long walk. What do you need?

Maybe I'll give you an idea or two for your own place. At minimum, I know you want a peanut-butter cup now, too.