Category Archives: My Old House

Winter Light

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Frost at Midnight

Guerrilla Art for Curious People

It took 18 years of rural living for Guerrilla Art for Curious People to appear.

The idea popped into my brain because I love nothing more than discovering public art in unexpected places. Every time I’m surprised by an installation – turning a corner or driving through a neighborhood – my body vibrates, my head alights and I am consumed by happiness. To quote Mr. Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric. Continue reading Guerrilla Art for Curious People

Unexpected Things You Find in Your Garden

I stand in my robe in the front yard at 7:15am staring at my newly-installed siding, admiring, critiquing, dreaming of spring plantings. The sky is a grim, Vancouver-grey, and every deciduous thing is naked and brown. We inhabit the season of ugliness which refuses to yield to the energetic vibrancy of indigo and goldenrod, my house colours. I don’t bother to snap photos of my work, because even Old Gal is unphotogenic today.

I assume that the flash of gold I catch in the corner of my eye is a leaf that has refused to conform to the season. But it is not a leaf.  Continue reading Unexpected Things You Find in Your Garden

Pocket Loot

If you’re planning on poppin’ some tags at your local thrift shop anytime soon you might want to consider this: A few years ago I was shopping for coats at the Coquitlam Value Village. On I tried one, then another, and another until I finally stuck my hands in the pockets. Out came a fiver, followed by a tenner which practically paid for my entire purchase! Feeling particularly golden, I resisted the urge to frisk the entire rack.

The moral of the story is two-fold: first, people put money into pockets and forget about it; and second, if you’re ever stuck somewhere without cash, look for a thrift shop and go for the scrounge. Winter wear seems to be particularly robust.

I tell this story because spring is on our doorstep and I’m inching towards the annual winter/summer clothes swap-out and closets tidy.  Lo and behold, squished in the back of the hall closet, I found my long-forgotten MEC vest (from Value Village, of course).  Hmmm, I thought, hmmm…..

And hmmmm was right. I recognized pocket loot from the very first squeeze: Out came $60 cash, a stack of business cards, my misplaced bank card, four packs of seeds and the usual wads of kleenex and receipts. Now I’m feeling motivated to clean the van…

What’s the best thing you’ve ever found in your pockets or other unexpected place around your house?

Perennial Splendour

This is it.

The day Bella and I cut the first bouquet is my hands-down, best-of-the-best, favourite day of the calendar year.

Peonies. Catmint. Lilac. Chives. Lemon balm. Siberian Iris. Roses.  False Blue Indigo. Spirea. So many perennials to choose from that decisions centre around what to leave out, rather than what to add in.

There will be many more seasonal bouquets between now and first frost, but none as sweet as this.

But I Digress

Digress: To deviate. Go off on a tangent. Get off the subject. Get sidetracked. Stray. Wander. 

That’s me.

Last week I caught myself apologizing for repeated digressions in a vivid conversation with some fascinating friends. Mid-sentence I stopped myself, realizing how ridiculous it is to apologize for an impulse that radiates from my heart and soul.

I am not linear. I do not wish to be linear. I don’t think life is meant to be lived in a straight line. Sure I have things I’m “supposed” to be doing, but the bulk of them are suggestions, really, which can be rearranged at will. Mainly I make the s&%t up as I go along.

So yesterday, instead of working on the installation of my trim and siding, I lifted a chunk of sad-looking grass, rearranged some plants and built this deck instead.

I promptly invited my yoga lovelies, Tricya and Susan, to christen the new space and to drop by and practice anytime the spirit moves them. For me, I’m thinking two adirondack chairs, a pot of tea and less grass to mow, although the actual sitting part is kind of a joke. Here’s the hammock, same spot, used as a dryer for cedar shingles. That’s the most action it saw all year.


I am grateful for stacks of reclaimed wood, the excuse to build anything, books that can’t be ignored, interesting school projects left ’til the last minute, friends who pop in, spontaneous adventures proposed, and conversation that leaps tangentially at will.

I’m not sorry whatsoever for this perpetual lack of focus.

I Want What I Want

I want what I want. This will be my epitaph when they lay me to rest.

This is both a boon and the bane of my existence. I argue it’s not about stubbornness or pride, it’s about a never-ending curiosity that expands daily, tugging in all directions. The more I look, the more I see. The more I see, the more I know.  I come to understand the possibilities, and what pleases me.

When it comes to possessions and finishing my house, it hasn’t a whit to do with outdoing the Joneses and everything to do with what turns my crank. It’s about the puzzle – the researching, the looking, the pondering, the imagining – and the ensuing adventure – the driving, the searching, the stories, the meetings with strangers, and the final decision: Do I take it home or walk away? Do I acquire the skills and make it myself? Just how much do I really love it?

The downside? When you want what you want you can’t always get what you want when you want it.

What I want isn’t available at the usual retail outlets. It mostly comes from hilltop villages, individual artisans, collectors, garage sales, flea markets, basements, pickers, reclamation shops, friends, my imagination and, occasionally, from a garbage pile by the side of the road.

This takes time.

I can wish for that magical coffee table, but I can’t really speed up the process to find it. I have no control over what appears out of the blue, at a random point in time, at a location I’ve lucked into passing, or talking to just the right person.  I think persistence is part of it, but it’s more a game of good fortune than one of straight numbers.

For example, I’ve stopped counting the months (years?) I’ve been wrapping my mind around the kitchen backsplash, to bring my vision to fruition on a budget that doesn’t cause me psychic pain.

It’s fair to say I’m invested in this project. I’ve searched the internet and read books and magazines until my eyes bled…

French design magazines run ragged
A clever friend nails the look of monochromatic tile mixing

…and taken thousands of photographs of some of the finest ceramic, stone, and design work in the western world for inspiration…

TilesPhotosItaly-1-2 TilesPhotosAssorted-1 TilesPhotosItaly-1-3 TilesPhotosItaly-1-4 TilesPhotosItaly-1-5 TilesPhotosItaly-1-7 TilesPhotosItaly-1-8 TilesPhotosItaly-1-9 TilesPhotosItaly-1-11 TilesPhotosItaly-1-14 TilesPhotosItaly-1-16 TilesPhotosItaly-1-17 TilesPhotosItaly-1-18 TilesPhotosItaly-1

…and hunted through a hundred antique shops and retail specialty vendors to search for what I want.

So wasn’t I just thrilled  to find a dozen Minton transferware tiles for sale on Balleycanoe & Co.’s delicious site?

“I’ll be down in the morning,” I wrote on John’s wall.

The tiles came out of someone’s basement, originally from a fireplace surround in Gananoque. They lived in John’s shop for less than a day before they followed me home.

Minton’s Ltd, was a major ceramics manufacturing company producing earthenware, established in Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England, in 1793. The founder’s son, Herbert Minton, took over the business upon the death of his father, and expanded the business into the production of encaustic tiles.

Minton entered into partnership with Michael Hollins in 1845 and formed the tile making firm of Minton Hollins & Co., which was at the forefront of a large newly developing market as suppliers of durable decorative finishes for walls and floors in churches, public buildings, grand palaces and simple domestic houses. The great Victorian tile boom lasted from the mid-1800’s until the turn of the century.

The building of the kitchen counter unit and tile installation will be an end-of-summer project, but having one piece of the puzzle – the backsplash tiles – settled means I can formulate a plan: a 9′ stand-alone wood frame open-faced cabinet with a concrete top, stained and polished to a creamy limestone finish.  Add a shelf, move the coffee machine and voila, we will have a perfectly functional and aesthetically pleasing coffee bar, all doable within a modest budget. (That is, if I don’t change my mind in the meantime…)

I want what I want because I want to be surrounded by people and things that feed my soul over the longterm.  I want to be inspired and delighted when I look around my house.

To this end, I am willing to live with unfinished projects. What probably looks a lot like lazy or disorganized is really an exercise in patience. You really want to hear how my projects are going?  How much time do you have? I always have a backstory (or ten) for you.

A Luddite Wife, Her Techie Husband and the Nest

Being the loving, thoughtful, sensitive, unselfish, supportive – not to mention smart and beautiful – wife that I am, I bought Husband a Nest programmable thermostat last Father’s Day. High on his list of wants, but non-existent on mine, I caved to the (arguably gratuitous) technology purchase because gift-giving is about the other person and marriage is all about compromise, right?

In our running joke, I am the technological Luddite in contrast to his tech savvy marvel. Truth is, it’s both his natural inclination and his business to be Mr. Smartypants about such things. I (generally) try to keep my mouth shut and appease his need for trinkets because his expertise serves me well. But I can’t resist trying to drag him over to the dark side. For Christmas I considered dressing up like a SmartPhone to get his undivided attention, but I gave him this weather app instead:

Weather Forecasting Stone-1

Want to know the weather? I ask him. Look out the window. Does this make me a Luddite or a comedienne?

The “real” Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery that threatened to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, putting them out of work.1  Raging against the machine due to unemployment, poverty and starvation seems reasonable to me.

The word evolved into a pejorative, a cheap counter-argument, and a name-calling extravaganza. It has come to describe someone resistant to change, someone being left behind in the old ways. Redundant. Useless. Uncool. It plays perfectly to our most profound fears. Engineer James Miccolis has this to say:

But is opposing change and preferring older technology really a bad thing? Is newer always better – or is that just a sales pitch and a way of avoiding a real discussion of the issues?

Should those who do pencil drawing, watercolors, oil painting, etc., be derided as Luddites because they don’t use a computer application or a digital camera? [Or]…those who have fireplaces in their homes…because they don’t use the latest in heating technology?

Should those who oppose changes in things like zoning laws, building codes, etc., be derided as Luddites because they’re trying to avoid change in their neighborhoods?

What does one have to do to not be a Luddite in some way2

To keep it simple let’s skip the labels and just say that my interests are less techno-centric. I expect technology to serve me, and not the other way around, and I prefer to spend my finite resources in ways that maximize my pleasure, like travel, building materials, art, learning and books. These are my ideas of fun, however uncool they may be.

So what exactly is this kind of home automation and is it good, bad or neutral? Screen shots from the Nest website expound on the product benefits: simplicity, flexibility, connectivity and saving money: Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.46.07 AM Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.47.34 AM Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.47.14 AM Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.47.03 AMScreen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.46.46 AM

Nest knows you, they say. Sounds creepily like the jolly fat man that slips down your chimney unseen every year. I asked Husband why he’s so excited about it. He says it reflects a natural (and obvious) product evolution and business opportunity:

How can something that controls the temperature in the house – something that controls a single, isolated factor by telling a large appliance to turn on or off – remain so incredibly stupid in the programming for so many years? Now, with all of the advances in computing – we can simulate a mission to the stars, fight as multiple characters against endless hordes of zombies, replicate the intricate physics in any professional sport, and create vast worlds where we interact online – yet we are still limited to controlling home temperature by 4 settings a day for weekdays and weekends separately.

It’s revolutionary, I get that. But why is it a need and not a fancy want?

I can change the temperature from anywhere in the house (I always have a WiFi device nearby) and all that data, like when the furnace turns on and off, what the temperature setting was, what it should be and how long, based on the outside temperature and heating qualities (as learned by the unit) of the house, it can take to reach a target temperature based on the current one.  All of that is useful information. Would we set the temperature to 20 Celsius if the thermostat thinks it will take 2 hours of non-stop cooling because our house is older and the outside temperature is 43 and inside we are at 28?  Maybe we’ll stop at 25, or 24.  It will tell us how long it should take.

Useful information.  Husband isn’t alone in identifying data mining as a key benefit. On 13 January, 2014 Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion dollars. Who would have imagined, just a few years ago, that thermostats, and C02 monitors, could be that valuable?

The paramount value of the devices, in a sense, lies not in the hardware itself but the interconnectedness of that hardware. As the devices talk to each other, by building an aggregate picture of human behavior, they anticipate what we want before even we know. ~ Marcus Wohlsen

Marcus Wohlsen at  (“What Google Really Gets Out of Buying Nest for $3.2 Billion”) offers insight on what both parties are getting out of the deal. Google is already king of big data, monetizing the traces we leave behind when we use connected devices. But, he states, they have been unable to capture the ‘data’ of human behaviours when we engage in activities apart from our screens. “That,” he says, “In theory changes with Nest.”

The future of hardware isn’t better versions of the same standalone tech. It’s what you can create when you take all the smarts of the smartphone and build them into everything else…The paramount value of the devices, in a sense, lies not in the hardware itself but the interconnectedness of that hardware. As the devices talk to each other, by building an aggregate picture of human behavior, they anticipate what we want before even we know.

Nest plans to expand it’s product offerings beyond the programmable thermostat and its Nest Protect C02 detector, focussing on the creation of “conscious homes.” It is the Internet of Things.


I write this post and leave another trace.  The web has been supremely helpful and it’s difficult to imagine living without it.  But I think there is plenty of technology that we can live without. Nest is one of them.

I want to see, feel, reason and process life as much as I can for myself without technological and corporate intervention. I’ll put on a sweater when I’m cold, open a window when I’m hot, and adjust the thermostat when I leave. I don’t find using my brain in this way “complicated or irritating.”

But I’m not the only decision-maker in the household, am I? 



What the Cat Saw


The cat didn’t see the dust particles in the air or the untrimmed doorways.

The cat didn’t see the laundry to be folded or last night’s dishes.

The cat saw the intensely low winter sun streaming through the windows, strewing deep velvet shadows in its wake. She saw it slowly radiate across her favourite tables and chairs, a gift.

The cat didn’t think about tomorrow or next year or an hour from now. She chose a favoured spot on an upstairs chair and fell asleep.

Winter Sun



A Reasonable Expectation of Undisturbed Rest

I am awake, but ’tis not time to rise, neither have I slept enough…I am awake, yet not in paine, anguish or feare, as thousands are.  ~ 17th Century religious meditation for the dead of night

With winter darkness falling at 5:00pm, I’m lucky to remain vertically upright until nine. After a hard day’s labour, a hot bath and two fingers of wine, I struggle to make it to eight.

I don’t mind the pseudo-narcolepsy as much as the psychological loss I feel for the interrupted sleep that follows. Two a.m. is my new six, and I lie awake for a couple of anxious hours. I try to remain still so as not to disturb Husband.  But at some point I muddle in the pile of clothes on the floor, trolling the gloom for familiar textures – fleece, flannel, wool – then laptop, charging cord, and slippers. I squeak my way downstairs to the couch, fighting the anxiety of unintentional wakefulness. Some reading, some writing, some panic and, at some point, I doze off for a couple of more hours. I’ve coined it my Two Sleeps and feel a modicum of gratitude that the cat has ceased trampling my head for the trifecta.

Eight hours of restful sleep, we are repeatedly told, is optimal for health and performance. But the sleep pattern that is so new – and startling – to me is hardly new to human history.  E. Roger Ekirch argues in his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, that segmented, or bifurcated, sleep was the norm for pre-industrialized society, “that awakening naturally was routine, not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber.”

Segmented sleep is described as two major intervals of sleep, of similar duration, bridged by a prolonged period of quiet wakefulness. Historically, the First Sleep generally ended around midnight and was considered the superior sleep cycle, one’s “beauty rest.” Second Sleep followed the prolonged period of “watch,” ending with morning light. Ekirch discovered more than 700 references to First and Second Sleep in literature and oral history, extending back to Plutarch, Virgil and Homer, through St. Benedict and John Locke, to The Tiv of modern Nigeria.

Western Europeans, and later North American settlers, below the “middling orders” took to their beds soon after nightfall for a variety of reasons: lack of central lighting; to conserve costly fuel and light; concerns for personal safety; winter cold; fatigue from manual labour; illness; and crowded housing conditions with little personal space or furniture. They always had bedmates, sometimes multiples, of family or strangers. The wealthy also shared their beds, but by the late 17th century, artificial lighting and the growth of “nightlife” extended their days into the small hours of the morning, permanently shifting their sleep habits. All of the first world eventually followed suit.

Just after midnight, the common people awoke to urinate, begin domestic duties, meditate, interpret dreams, converse with their bedmates and make love.  Falling into bed exhausted, couples would wake after first sleep refreshed, “when they have more enjoyment” and “do it better.”  16th Century physician Laurent Joubert advised those wishing to conceive to “get back to sleep again if possible. If not, at least to remain in bed and relax while talking together joyfully.” Students studied, poets wrote, thieves committed petty crimes, monks prayed, witches practiced magic and tribal members communed with one another.  Mid-night wakefulness offered a surprising variety of rewards, including staving off loneliness and anxiety.

I can think of more than a few seasonal things I’ve always wanted to do in the middle of the night (happily, petty thieving and witchery aren’t amongst them). Swim in the river on a hot summer’s night. Fire up the sauna. Snowshoe under a star-filled sky. Wander the village in pajamas and drink tea on the park benches. Skate on the frozen river by lamplight. Paddle by the light of the moon. I joke with friends about flashing a Bat-Signal in the sky to alert others to my wakefulness, but I know there are simpler – if not as cool – technological solutions to making contact.

So why, I wonder, must this sleep disruption be a solitary, anxious endeavour? Why must it be a curse and not a creative, soulful blessing?

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past