Category Archives: Home and garden

The lost art of convalescence: 6 things I did while I had pneumonia

con·va·les·cence /känvəˈlesəns/ noun: time spent recovering from an illness or medical treatment

Glass Beach 2


Every January in Austin, I and thousands of others wage war against the cedar pollen that explodes across central Texas. This year I armed myself against these nasty nostril and lung invaders with a regimen of Claritin and Flonase that began in early December. But the medicines were no match for the record-breaking spewing of pollen these vile trees perpetrated against my fair city and her citizens. By January 9, the mild spring-like weather had generated a yellow-orange cloud over Austin that had me choking and wishing someone would set fire to every single Juniperus ashei in sight.

A few days later, I found myself in urgent care getting a chest x-ray and confirmation that I had pneumonia. I now understand what the big deal is about the illness. I thought the flu was bad, but pneumonia is in a league all its own. The fever, chest pain, cough, and weakness are unlike any illness I’ve ever had, and I can’t even talk about the strange grunting sounds one makes while trying to sleep. Antibiotics came to the rescue, and a week later I was on the road to recovery. And that is one of the biggest problems of our modern world.

Antibiotics are amazing because they cure the infection, but they also make us feel like we are better and can return to our normal lives. The doctor warned me that a bout with pneumonia is different, and it can take weeks for the lungs to heal and the immune system to recover after the initial infection has cleared. I took this to heart and lay low for two weeks before resuming my normal schedule. It wasn’t enough. I relapsed, and this time, the doctor put me on bed rest. I prefer the old-fashion term: convalescence. She insisted I needed the time and space to rest, to treat myself gently, to avoid people with germs, and to recover thoroughly long after the antibiotics had done their part. My boss was 100% supportive, so I let go of the guilt of taking the time off and hit pause to honor what my body and my doctor were asking me to do.

Being still, letting go, listening to my body – convalescing – was healing and restorative. It wasn’t boring; in fact, the time flew by. I feel like I’m more immune now than before, stronger than before even though I’m still quite weak, and more in tune with my body than before. Convalescing properly was an important lesson I learned, so I’d like to share my top tips for being great at it if you, heaven forbid, fall ill, or just need a respite.

  1. Sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry. I would go into a deep sleep early, around 8:30 pm – sometimes earlier – until the sun came up, and I would also take long afternoon naps.This benefited me more than anything. I didn’t even get up to let the dog out at her normal 6 am time. I ate a lot of oranges, broccoli, carrots, pears, raspberries, tomatoes, and soup. My body hungered for green, orange, and red fresh foods. It also wanted lots of yogurts, to keep the good bacteria from being annihilated by the antibiotics.
  2. Weather permitting, get your vitamin D. The sunny spring-like weather continued in Austin in February, so I would wrap myself in a blanket and sit outside on the deck of my backyard, my face toward the sun, sipping tea. It made me feel like I was living in an earlier time when illnesses like pneumonia were treated with the respect they deserve. I would stroll around my yard feeling very 19th century-ish.
  3. Let others do things for you. This one is hard for me because I’m so independent, but I had to accept the role reversal and let others help me. Loved ones did my grocery shopping and errands, my daughter took care of all the dog’s needs and learned to do some light cooking, and friends drove my daughter to and from school and theater workshop rehearsals. It was liberating to be relieved of so many responsibilities.
  4. Watch lots of good movies. I watched many movies I had saved to my iTunes wish list. From 2003’s tragic and haunting House of Sand and Fog with Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly to all three of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s latest films (About Elly, A Separation, The Past – who knew Iranian cinema was so good?) to finally seeing Al Pacino return to being the great actor he is for Danny Collins to weeping at the predictable triumphant ending of Disney’s sports drama McFarland USA. But I was really disappointed in French film Amelie, a movie about which I had heard great things but that I found trite and ridiculous. Amelie is a stalker and she’s creepy, not cute and charming.
  5. Read. I read business books (Deep Work by Cal Newport was my favorite), my prayer book, a mystery (Sue Grafton’s X), a delicious bestseller (Lianne Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret), Laura Hillenbrand’s historical and biographical Seabiscuit, and articles on Content Marketing Institute, 99u, Houzz, and Harvard Business Review. I wasn’t able to read until the worst part of the illness was over as it was too tiring to concentrate, but once I felt a little better, I was grateful for the time to enjoy my reading list.
  6.  Thank your dog. They know you’re sick. My dog wouldn’t leave my side during the day, watching over me like a mother whose child is in the hospital. She happily let my daughter take her on her daily walk, asked to go outside only when she really needed to, and kept vigil downstairs at night.

While convalescence may seem like a bygone concept, it shouldn’t be. While it would have been nice to do my convalescence the 19th century way in a cottage by the sea, strolling along a glass beach, I am grateful for the time I had to recover at home, with so much support and encouragement from my family and friends, doctor, employer, and colleagues. I’ve had to cut back from my normal routine, and I will say “no” to a lot of things for the next couple of months, but it’s great to be breathing again and letting go of self-imposed “shoulds” and feeling like a slacker for taking the time to properly recover.

What about you? Have you ever had a period of convalescence? What did you do and what did you learn?

7 ways to enjoy your finer things

Once a year I pull out my “finer things” for the festivities that lie ahead.  From the linens and flatware that adorn the table, to the menus I plan and the food I cook, to the clothing I wear and the care I take to look my best, I put in the extra time and effort to enjoy my finer things and do unique things for my family and me.  And by “finer” I don’t necessarily mean “expensive.”  I mean special. As the holidays came to end and I was putting everything away, it hit me that, aside from the Christmas decorations, I could continue to use and enjoy my special things and keep some of the pleasurable acts in place.

Over the last few days, I have done exactly that, and my middle school-aged daughter has told me that these changes make her feel special.  One of her friends came over to visit recently and said, “Your house smells like roses and fanciness.”  I think that’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  Some small changes have brought us so many distinct moments of pleasure that I wanted to share my list of ways to enjoy your finer things. Here’s to making 2014 a little more special and interesting than 2013!

  1. Use a teacup and saucer for coffee.  Men might find this a little harder, but ladies, I feel more elegant using my vintage teacup and saucer set for my morning coffee.  This is one of the “finer” things that is not expensive, as I bought the set at a garage sale years ago for $5 from a lady who either didn’t realize what she had or didn’t care. Another perk (no pun intended) is that vintage teacups are smaller, so two cups of coffee is really just two cups, not four if you’re using a Texas-sized mug.
  2. Use cloth napkins and your best silverware every day.  I don’t think I will ever use paper napkins again.  Meals feel more special now and the extra effort to launder is nothing compared to the feel of a nice cloth napkin in your lap and the environment-friendly act.  Using my good silverware has been easy (dishwasher safe) and has elevated every single meal.
  3. Use serving platters.  On weeknights I would serve dinner directly from the stove, oven, or grill onto the plates.  I’m now taking the time to put everything on platters or in serving bowls and lay the food out on the table.  This simple act has resulted in more conversation about the food we’re eating and each person has more control over the amount of food they serve themselves.
  4. Use the nicest parts of your home.  Many American homes have a beautiful formal living/dining room that goes unused 90% of the year.  Guilty.  All the rooms in my home are used daily except that one, and it’s the largest room in the house. There should be a fine for that. I’m now using the formal dining room for weekend meals, and the adjacent formal living room for reading.  I’m writing this blog from there right now, without the distraction of the TV in the family room.
  5. Use candles and arrange flowers.  I have a drawer-full of candles that have never been lit, and every time I go grocery shopping I longingly eye the flower arrangements in the floral department but continue to make my way to the next aisle without stopping to smell and buy the roses.  While this isn’t something I can or want to do every day,  I am going to start pulling out the candles more often and buying flowers to mark special occasions.
  6. Use the pretty soap.  With more time on my hands over the holiday, I was able to indulge in longer baths and showers and use the pretty soaps, salts, and scrubs that dear friends have given me over the last year or so and that I was saving and displaying rather than using.  It’s been a true pleasure to use these gifts, something I’m sure my friends will love to hear when they read this. 
  7. Eat dark chocolate. Every day. Just because.   

This was a fun post to write to start off the year, so I hope you’ll share your ideas for how to make 2014 more special than last year.  I’ve got a finished painting to share, another one close to completion, some great insights from an art book I’m reading, the second professional seminar in the UT Human Dimensions of Organizations Smarter Thinking series coming up, lots of exciting things happening at work, and much more to share with you over the coming weeks.  Thank you so much for reading my blog, and I wish all my readers a happy and prosperous 2014!

The lost art of sewing

Before the wonderful TV show Mad Men made us conscious of how we have exchanged sophistication and “dressing up” for casual comfort in our clothing in the last forty years, I had felt for some time that something was “off” with clothing design and quality.  Buying modern, unique, quality clothing at mid-range prices has been a struggle.  In her excellent book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth Cline goes as far as to say that compared to decades ago, middle class Americans are walking around in what then would have been considered rags.


The coat I’m wearing in this photo was my mother’s.  It was constructed in the 1970’s in Spain in a beautiful, heavy wool that still looks new.  The hems are finished with blind stitching and the buttons were personalized by the tailor.  Forty years later, the coat still looks and fits like new, despite years of wear by my mother and then me.  The coat cost $200 in today’s dollars, about what you would expect a middle-class wife and mother living on two teachers’ salaries would invest in a winter coat.  Today, this coat would be prohibitively expensive and probably available only at a high-end department store or boutique because of its construction quality and details.  

Why?  And why can’t we find high-quality clothing at middle-class prices?

Source: Huffington Post, “7 Ways Your Grandmother Dressed Better than You,” 8/28/13

This is a tough one, and I want to be careful to not come across as a clothing snob, because the answer lies in the democratization of fashion, something that sounds good and noble. Fashion should be available and affordable to all. After all, it used to be.  Sears was a middle-class clothing retailer that offered high-quality clothes at affordable prices in the 1950’s.  What changed?

Cheap manufacturing overseas and technology have enabled  the rapid creation and replenishment of small batches of trendy clothing at retailers.  The goal is to lure consumers into the stores often (every two weeks versus once each season) to make more frequent purchases, with the guarantee they’ll find something new and on trend in limited quantities for very little. These so-called “fast fashion” retailers (Forever 21, H&M, and Target are examples) create consumer craving for newness by copying designer fashions and making them available at very low prices. Buying into styles cheaply and quickly has made clothing disposable, either because it falls apart after a few washes or is so trendy that the look is outdated within six months.

Mid-range retailers, such as J Crew, Banana Republic, and Nordstrom, are struggling to compete, so we’re starting to see downgraded quality there also.  When I compare my J Crew day coat, whose quality seems just fine, to my mother’s coat, I start to see firsthand how the new paradigm has altered our perception of good design, quality, and presentation in our clothing. Our clothes don’t quite fit right, the fabrics aren’t great, and high-quality clothing seems more expensive than it should be.  Sometimes, a high price tag doesn’t guarantee high quality:  picking on J Crew again, see their “Collection” line, which is overpriced for what you get and is marketing run amok.

I believe a backlash is looming. Americans’ closets, both men’s and women’s, are bulging, yet there’s a constant “I have nothing to wear” lamentation.  The ethical and economic sides of this dilemma are incredibly important but would require a much longer post, so I’ll recommend Cline’s book for those who want a deep dive into the topic and will focus my thoughts on the creative aspect.

Fashion is an art form, and it’s really the only art form I can think of that is experiencing a decline in creativity and quality construction.  Designers today don’t have to know how to sew.  A designer can draw a picture and email it to a factory with specs.  Real, good design considers not just the drawing, but the construction and appearance of the final product.  In other words, how a garment is made is just as important as the design on paper.  Isn’t this true of all art forms? The creative process becomes compromised when corners are cut in the construction of the design.  If I start with a great sketch, but then sloppily apply paint to a hastily assembled canvas, my final painting won’t be that great. Because most of us don’t know how to sew, we don’t know what workmanship to look for in well-made clothing, elements such as blind hems, French seams, and linings. 

So, what is the solution? It’s hard to know if we can overcome the economics (the race to the bottom on price and disposability) and questionable ethics (the loss of the US textile industry and the exploitation of overseas cheap resources) of the fashion and clothing industry at the individual level, but we could take some cues from how we’re overcoming the influence of the food industry: think Supersize Me and the move away from fast food and genetically modified food to organic and local sources.  

The lack of mid-range quality alternatives has sent me to three places:  

  1.  The sewing machine.  My daughter went to sewing camp this summer and learned the basics.  We bought a sewing machine and together we are learning.  Yes, it is an art. It is painstakingly slow when you’re learning, but we’re on our way.  This weekend she (and YouTube) will teach me to sew a pouch and an apron with pockets.  From there, we’ll tackle the first big project, pillows for the benches on our deck.  With practice, we’ll work our way up.  I see the trend, too.  I casually mentioned this in a meeting at work the other day, and a gentleman proudly proclaimed he was learning to sew and loves it. I have a fantasy where I am wearing something simple in a beautiful fabric, someone asks me where I bought it, and I say I made it. Added benefits are the quality time I’m spending with my daughter, branching out of my comfort zone, and feeling like I’m doing something ethical and worthwhile.
  2. eBay and consignment stores.  I was late to this wonderful party, but thanks to a dear friend, I am now a big believer and thrilled to have discovered both.  I have found mid-range designer clothes from seasons past by Elie Tahari, Diane von Furstenberg, and Milly (all American designers, most of their lines made in USA!) on eBay – most with the tags still on – for a fraction of the retail cost.  Recently I bid on and won/bought a NWT (new-with-tags) beautifully crafted Elie Tahari dress from the 2008 collection for work, retail priced at $398 for just $73. The key here is to pick designers who you know fit you well and to choose classic cuts that don’t go out of style. Know your measurements so you can compare to those listed to ensure a good fit.  Buy up a size if in doubt so you can have garments tailored.  Older vintage is still available but wise shoppers are gobbling up what little is left, so speed will be essential if you want a garment from the 50’s or 60’s.
  3. My own closet and tailor.  A friend recently said “cheap shouts, quality whispers.”  My closet now whispers.  Go through your closet and be ruthless about what fits and feels great.  It’s better to have a few pieces that look great on you and make you feel great than a bulging closet full of clothes that don’t.  Have things tailored to fit you better and change out simple things like buttons to make clothes unique.  Raid your mom and dad’s stash of vintage clothing.

Clothing has always been a reflection of our personalities, so it’s sad to see what has happened in the fashion and textile industry. What do you think?  Do you think mid-range quality clothing is on the decline and that the art of fashion and sewing has declined with it?

Lessons from a fire

Last Thursday I watched in horror as my neighbor’s house, which belonged to an elderly couple, burned down. I was even more horrified and saddened to learn later that evening that one person, the wife, was killed. Her name was Patsy. I did not know Patsy, but I saw her working in her beautiful garden often. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

Patsy and her husband lived across the street from their daughter and her family. I watched helplessly as the granddaughter sobbed while the firemen worked hard to extinguish the blaze. We did not know at the time that she may have known her grandmother was still inside.

We haven’t been strangers to fires in Austin. The prolonged drought has meant that a burn ban has been in effect for almost two years, and we witnessed the 2011 devastation caused by fires in Bastrop (where half of the Lost Pines ecosystem may never recover) and Steiner Ranch. The community rallied then, and my neighborhood did the same in a big way during the last few days to support this family during this traumatic event. Last night there was a memorial service for Patsy at our park.

Over the weekend I started the process of becoming better prepared in the event of a fire, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you. First, I sat down with my daughter and we talked through the evacuation plan on the first floor and the second floor and where to meet outside should we get separated. A lamp post is a great place we decided, since we would find each other easily at night. It also turns out I need a couple of escape ladders in the bedrooms. They are now on the list for my next Home Depot run. I then devised the plan for getting our dog out and made it clear to my daughter that’s not her responsibility. I checked the smoke detectors and replaced the batteries. I taught my daughter how to use the emergency buttons on the alarm system. I moved the outdoor gas grill further away from the house. And we vowed to not allow my brother-in-law to ever make toast or my sister to ever boil water at our house again. Inside joke, but I’m serious.

Then I started thinking about all the ‘stuff’. First came the list of things that would be heartbreaking to lose: my art, my daughter’s art, original works of art I have purchased or been gifted, old family documents, handwritten letters from my childhood through around 1995 when email became prevalent, yearbooks, older non-digital photographs and videos, my daughter’s baby keepsakes, some treasured books, my Latin American “fachadas” that I collected over the course of a twelve-year career working in the region, and some sentimental jewelry.

I am going to prioritize photographing and cataloging all of these first and ensure I save the files in the cloud and on a USB stick that I will ask my sister to keep for me. Then I’ll catalog and photograph everything else: electronics, furniture, clothing, kitchen gadgets, etc. I also started thinking about grouping some of the more emotionally valuable items together (they are currently stored lovingly in boxes in various places in the home) and keeping them in a place close to the likely evacuation point.

What does your list look like? Maybe a beloved instrument makes your list. Or an old record collection. Or a one-of-a-kind family heirloom.

This is a tedious task, but as I started the process this weekend, I found great joy in the task also. I read some of the letters my grandmother in Spain had written me when I was a child, telling me what was happening to my favorite Spanish TV show character, Marco. I thumbed through some funny college photographs, and got to hear my daughter tell me my hair was “too big and fluffy.” I had to explain to her again how the 80’s was the best decade EVER. I found my 5th grade project on painter Diego Velazquez, and I remembered how at such a young age I was captivated by oil painting.

And as I was reliving these memories, sparked by the objects, it dawned on me that not only did a man lose his wife on Thursday, but he also probably lost so many of the objects that would remind him of her and comfort him moving forward: photographs, letters, jewelry, her gardening tools…

This scene I imagined was heartbreaking and has put an even healthier perspective on this combination of wood, limestone, and metal that I have spent so much time and effort decorating and maintaining the last 19 years.