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Posts Tagged ‘Home’

A beautiful home nourishes us — 10 ways to nurture yours

In antiques, art, beauty, business, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on November 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe
to be beautiful.”―
William Morris
Chinese Jade ornament with flower design, Jin ...

Chinese Jade ornament with flower design, Jin Dynasty (1115-1234 AD), Shanghai Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the few architecture blogs I read is from Alabama firm McAlpine Tankersley. I love their designs, even though the mega-mansions and second homes they are hired to create are far beyond my reach financially.

A recent post:

Architects and Interior Designers are in the business of affecting the physical plane of our world by producing a scape that can be seen and touched – lived in and on.  Integral to its success is the layering of texture, tones, and the reflection and refraction of shades of light and dark.  Depth and scale of shape in measured doses to elicit a calculated response…

Our sensual experiences have a physiological response by stilling our minds, calming our hearts and relieving stresses.

Great beauty has the power to relax and center our energy and emotions.  Lowering our internal pressures free us to see more clearly and calmly.  It is always a goal to create a meditative space that is restorative in nature, a space that you feel better in and are compelled to linger through.

…Beauty can be a retreat for healing.  Luxury is a tonic for the soul.

As someone who has seriously studied antiques, art and interior design, these words deeply resonate with me.

I spent much of my childhood at boarding school — brown metal beds, chenille bedspreads, weathered floral wallpaper, linoleum floors — and summer camp. Living with other people’s institutional aesthetic choices has left me with a fairly ferocious desire to make every place I live in lovely, welcoming and, as Susan writes here eloquently, a retreat for healing.

Journalism is also a business often conducted in atrocious working conditions: noisy, filthy, crowded and/or filled with stress, whether financial or professional. By the time my husband staggers in the door after a long day and a long train/taxi commute, he’s ready to be soothed!

I loved studying design seriously, understanding why some colors and proportions are inherently beautiful and others jarring and wearying. In our color class, we were taught the color scale and how to use shades and tones. In our materials class, we learned the relationships between textures and how to use them safely and elegantly.

It doesn’t matter if “home” is a small dorm room or a trailer or an apartment or a house. It’s what you make of it.

Here are some ways to create beauty in your home:

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The bouquet above cost $30 — a splurge, for sure — but provided enough material for bouquets in three rooms that will last for at least two weeks.

Fresh flowers, a plant or some branches

Unless I’m totally skint, every week includes a bouquet of fresh flowers or greenery from my local florist. No, it’s not a necessity, but what a lovely touch to have even one bright pink gerbera, the tart scent of eucalyptus or some branches of curly willow. I also stock up on Oasis (florists’ foam) which can turn any water-tight container into a vase and frogs (glass and metal holders that fit into a low or flat container), easily found in thrift shops and flea markets. Or — take your kitchen shears and find some bittersweet or holly growing wild.

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I found these pierced-metal lanterns for an unlikely $13 each in a cafe in Minneapolis.

Candles, votives and/or tea-lights

Not a day goes by that I don’t light a candle, or several, usually as we sit down to dinner. It creates a totally different mood from any other sort of illumination. Instead of leaping out of bed on a cold, dark winter’s morning, take five minutes to light a small bedside candle.

Fresh towels or linens

Even a new $5 dishtowel, in a fun pattern or color, can cheer up your kitchen. I find unusual shams, sheets, coverlets and pillowcases like this gorgeous floral duvet cover at Anthropologie and these super towels in a blue and white pattern from Zara Home.

Three or four sources of light per room — and overheads only in bathroom, hall and kitchen

Think about the most soothing and beautiful interiors you’ve been in. They may have been in a hotel or restaurant, where professionals have seriously considered how to create a mood using light and darkness. There are different kinds of lighting, (task, overhead, floor lamp, table lamp) as well as different colors of bulb. Three-way bulbs allow for different levels of brilliance. Overhead lighting — especially fluorescent — is often depressing, unflattering and too dim to be useful. If you can afford it, consider adding dimmers to every overhead light.

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On my desk, I’ve layered a 19th-century woven wool paisley shawl underneath a Peruvian manta.

This hand-embroidered vintage linen tablecloth perfectly covers our headboard.

This hand-embroidered vintage linen tablecloth perfectly covers our headboard.

Vintage textiles

My passion! Few items add as much character and warmth to an interior as an early hand-made quilt, gently worn vegetable-dye rug, embroidered linen napkins or pillowcases. You can easily find vintage fabrics on-line through EBay and Etsy, as well as flea markets and antique shows. If you know how to sew, whip up some throw pillows or a tablecloth.

Scent

It might be a scented candle or lavender sachets tucked between your linens or your sweaters. I love making sachets from vintage textile scraps. (Also great to toss into your suitcase!)

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Lovely flatware

You can find great old things for pennies. We use mis-matched silver plate I’ve found in flea markets everywhere I travel. A bottle of silver polish will restore them to a soft gleam.

A piece of pottery

It might be a spoon-rest or a teapot or a bowl. Having a useful object made by someone’s hands is a great reminder that not everything in our homes has to be made cheaply by overseas labor. I recently wrote to the Ontario potter who made this teapot, which Jose bought for me in Toronto years ago, just to thank him for adding such beauty to our lives.

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Vary the shapes and sizes of your objects and furniture

Is everything you own shaped like a square or rectangle: (sofa, tables, rugs, bed)? Add some curves! A round or oval mirror, a round or demi-lune side or console table, even a long, narrow runner in the hallway will mix things up. An over-sized round lantern or bowl can change the look of a table or chest of drawers.

Pools of darkness, to add mystery

Obviously not in places that need to be very well-illuminated for your safety, like stairs, kitchen or bathroom. But the most alluring spaces have a feeling of discovery or mystery. I found my small, dimmable uplighter lamp at Home Depot for a big $13.05.  This once-dead corner of our living room now contains a round covered table, on it two marble garden ornaments, an antique planter and a pierced metal lantern found on sale at Pier One. The Victorian mirror was an antique store find in small-town Ontario.

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What do you remember of your childhood home(s)?

In aging, beauty, behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life on October 26, 2013 at 1:10 am

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood ho...

English: Carl Nielsen outside his childhood house at Nørre Lyndelse, Funen, Denmark in 1927 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This writer, a columnist for the weekend Financial Times, Harry Eyres, is one of my favorite writers. He recently wrote a poignant piece about emptying his childhood home and finally leaving it for the last time:

Strangely, I dreaded the loss of the house from a very early age. I had nightmares about it.

Leaving a
house you love is hard. Relinquishing a house where you grew up from
your earliest childhood, where you spent your first springs, summers,
autumns, winters, every one of whose corners, cupboards, creaking
staircases, floorboards and smells became almost like an extension of
your being, is harder still…

We bade farewell to the house on a perfect golden September day,
which started misty and hazy and rather mysterious before the sun broke
through. Some people had told me that it would be easier to leave the
house when it was empty, as it would have lost many of its most personal
connotations, pieces of furniture, even curtains. But I did not find it
so.

The house seemed just as beautiful as ever to me on the day of our
departure. In some ways even more beautiful, as being emptied of
furniture can restore a certain youthfulness and sense of possibility to
a dwelling. The upstairs spare room, which had become a sort of dump
before I cleared it out, hadn’t looked so inviting for decades.

We, three generations and a stalwart family friend, had a sunny
picnic on the raised terrace outside the front door, sitting on the low
wall rising up from the hydrangea beds, as there were no longer any
chairs.

I’ve only lived in a few houses with my parents, at least those I can recall.

There was one in London, when I was very small, then one in Toronto, a big brick house with a deep backyard and my bedroom at the very top, where I lay in bed and listened to the radio. I knew my mother was climbing the stairs when I heard her ankles popping. There were brilliant yellow forsythia bushes outside the kitchen window I used to call “for cynthia” — my mother’s name.

When my parents split up, and I was about seven, that was the end of that house. I miss it still.

I didn’t live in another house until eleventh grade, when I moved in with my father into a white brick house on a Toronto corner. There was a lilac tree just outside the kitchen door and a huge park behind our yard where our dog would get out and run in circles really fast, usually whenever I was having a party and it was the last thing I wanted to deal with.

Since then, after leaving that house when I was in university, I’ve never owned one nor have my parents stayed very long in any of theirs, usually only for a few years, scooping up a healthy profit, and moving into yet another. I watch the houses come and go, envious they’ve even owned a house, let alone several. I wonder if I ever will.

My father had a 200+ year-old house in Athenry, just outside Galway City, for a few years, that’s now a nursing home. I loved my few brief visits there, scything the lawn and staring out through its ancient, rippled glass panes.

When I return to visit Toronto, I often drive past that white brick house. It doesn’t look much different, even all these years later.

Jose’s childhood home was torn down and is now the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The only remainder of his life there is a tiny courtyard and the apricot tree from whose fruit his late mother once made jam.

Do you remember your childhood home?

Is it still there?

Re-visiting your past

In aging, behavior, cities, domestic life, History, immigration, life, travel, urban life, US, world on September 8, 2013 at 1:52 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.

I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job,  apartment.

Toronto viewed south from Bloor

Toronto viewed south from Bloor (Photo credit: Small)

It happens when you live far away, even across the country.

Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.

Bliss!

Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.

I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.

It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.

My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.

In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim...

English: view into Grand Canyon from South Rim, Arizona, USA Deutsch: Blick in den Grand Canyon vom Südrand, Arizona, USA Français : vue dans le Grand Canyon du bord sud, Arizona, États-Unis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.

For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.

In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.

I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.

I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”

My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.

Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.

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And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.

The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.

“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.

I didn’t know quite what to say.

How sad to never be able see your old haunts.

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico d...

English: A Areal map of Santa Fe, New Mexico during the Railroad era in 1882. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s blogger Dara Clear, eloquent as always — who traded his native Ireland for Australia:

Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.

We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.

Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.

From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?

And here is Chris Colin’s story from Afar, (a terrific American travel magazine), about going back to West Texas:

There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…

Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…

During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.

Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?

How does it feel when you go back?

Is working at home your Holy Grail?

In behavior, books, business, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, news, parenting, women, work on July 10, 2013 at 2:22 am

By Caitlin Kelly

For millions of weary workers, the notion of being able to work from home — in comfy clothes, saving the time, money and energy of a long commute to the office — remains a fever dream.

In a recent front-page New York Times story, one mid-western mother describes how terrified she was to ask to work from home — one day a week — which she was granted:

Ms. Uttech, like many working mothers, is a married college graduate, and her job running member communications for an agricultural association helps put her family near the middle of the nation’s income curve. And like dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives, she finds climbing a career ladder less of a concern than finding a position that offers paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours. The ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother.

“I never miss a baseball game,” said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide. (This attendance record is even more impressive when you realize that her children play in upward of six a week.)

Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiate for raises and promotions.

It’s a sad fact that many educated American workers are incredibly cowed. Few get more than two weeks’ vacation a year, if that. Many do not get paid sick days.

Image representing Sheryl Sandberg as depicted...

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Image via CrunchBase

Because the country is ruled by a corporate mindset, because most employers hire you, legally, “at will” and can fire you the next day with no warning or severance or even a reason, because unions are at their lowest membership — 11 percent — since the Depression, few workers dare ask their boss for much of anything.

I’ve been working alone at home, as a freelance writer, since 2006, when I lost my last job, at 3pm on  Wednesday, at the New York Daily News, the country’s sixth-largest newspaper.

I’d had the “wood” — the entire front page of the newspaper — only two weeks earlier with a national exclusive. No matter. I was out the door and into a recession — in 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, too.

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided, having worked freelance for many years at several points in my career, to just stay home and once more make my living that way. I would probably earn 30 to 50 percent more, possibly double, my income if I went to work for someone else. But we do not have children or other huge costs to manage, so this arrangement suits me and my husband.

I’d rather set my own hours and schedule, find my own work and do it without a manager or several breathing down my neck. I’ve had many full-time office jobs, some of which I enjoyed and several of which paid me close to six figures, which was indeed pleasant!

Working alone at home all day is, for many people, a dream come true. While it can get lonely and isolating, it is, in many ways. I play music if or when I wish. I wear shorts and a T-shirt when I’m not meeting someone. I set my own hours — not much different from those in an office — typically 9 or 10:00 a.m. to 4 or 5:00 p.m.

The two+ hours I save every day by not traveling to someone else’s office to do the same quality work at the same speed I produce alone at home? I can go to a movie or take a long walk or make soup at noon.

The Times piece — catnip for comments — quickly gathered 470 answers from readers, many of whom found the story’s focus on a woman and a mother misguided.

A few key issues are rarely addressed in these stories about the unabated lust for working at home:

1) We all — parents or not — juggle other people’s needs against those of our employer(s). Including our own needs, for rest, study, exercise. Endlessly focusing on parents’ needs wilfully ignores the industrial mindset that still rules many workplaces,

2) Others people’s needs are rarely neatly scheduled. The dog/baby/husband is projectile vomiting just as you’re expected to make a meeting or attend a conference. Your father/brother/son has a heart attack or stroke just when you’re gearing up for a new client meeting. So even if you get every Friday to work at home, shit will probably happen on every other day instead.

3) Given the insane amount of time we all waste spend every day on social media or communicating on-line, why can’t more employers allow more work to be done remotely, i.e. from home? Yes, some people are total slackers, but you know who they are already. Conference calls and Skype make meetings easy.

4) The Times story also gathered 439 comments within hours of publication, (many of them scathing), like:

a) mothers are not solely or exclusively responsible for their children’s care and house-chores; b) men are equally hungry for flex-time; c) children will not wither and die if their parents fail to attend and cheer every possible sports match or event.

In my case, I wondered why this woman is unable or unwilling to delegate at least some of the housework? She has sons 8 and 10 and a 15-year-old step-daughter. Teaching them to share responsibility seems a lot more essential to me than watching them play six baseball games a week.

5) If the United States (insert long loud bitter laugh) actually make it a legal requirement to offer subsidize/affordable daycare, flex-time, paid sick days or paid maternity leave, some of these concerns would abate.

Do you work from home right now?

Have you?

Do you wish you could?

Making your home lovely — on the cheap

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, design, domestic life, life, Money, Style on March 2, 2013 at 4:31 am

It’s an ongoing challenge for many of us — how to make your home attractive and affordably? Dorm room, shared flat or your very own first house, the basics remain the same: you need charm, color, texture, function and comfort.

The world is jammed with design blogs, like Design Sponge, so there’s no shortage of advice out there for the taking. I love this post — the Ten Commandments of Buying Used Furniture — from one of my absolute favorite blogs, Apartment Therapy.

For you Pinterest fans, here’s a post on using it for this purpose.

I’ve been making a pretty home since I left my parents’ house at 19. Few things are as nurturing and healing as a home that makes you smile every time you open the front door, and few as draining and depressing as hating your four walls, (and ceiling and floor.)

In the late 1990s, I also studied at the New York School of Interior Design, which I absolutely loved.

Here are some of my tricks, and some images from our home:

Consignment shops

You can find terrific deals in consignment shops, (places where people leave quality stuff and hope for a percentage of the sale price.) I snagged a glass pitcher for $12 and a reproduction wooden Pembroke table, at one of my favorite spots in Greenwich, CT, about a 30 minute drive from my home. Greenwich is one of the nation’s wealthiest towns, so their cast-offs are awesome! The table wasn’t super-cheap — $350 — but well worth it; light, versatile, classic and well-made.

Thrift shops

People give away stuff all the time without a clue as to its real value, just to get rid of it easily. Visit often and you’ll score furniture, lamps, china, cookware and linens for pennies.

Auctions

Not every auction house is as pricy or scary as Sotheby’s! I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire, and attended a weekly auction nearby for almost 18 months. I learned a lot — like how to distinguish between the real thing and a reproduction or to know that a “marriage” means joining together two pieces that don’t belong together but look impressively old anyway. Read a few books on antiques, and you’ll pick up the basics of what a truly old, (often valuable but underpriced), object looks like. Keep your eye out for lower-priced treasures like quality rugs, serving pieces and candlesticks. This is a fantastic list of every antique term, from a comprehensive British website all about buying antiques.

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I found this flat-weave wool rug for $125 in a Toronto antique store. It had raggedy edges so I bought some black Ultrasuede and had our local dry cleaner add it to each end, for an additional $30.

The wooden box pictured here was about $10 at auction — perfect size for magazines.

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Curbside

Our bedroom door came from the curb, i.e. someone threw it out! It’s probably from the 1930s or so. I like its round brass knob.

Fabric stores

They always have remnants, cheap. Even a yard or two of gorgeous fabric, hand-stitched into a pillow cover, can add pizzazz to your chair, sofa or bed.

We’ve had this Crate and Barrel china cabinet for ages. I got tired of looking at dishes, so added this fun fabric, for about $40, inside the glass. It picks up the room’s theme, which is photos and engravings of Paris.

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Paint

The cheapest way to make everything look fresh and new. A quart of paint  — about $20 or so — can totally change the look of a small bookcase, a stiff cardboard lampshade, stool, chair, table or chest of drawers. Consider adding a hit of pure red, creamy white, glossy black, chartreuse or tangerine.

Save up for the good stuff!

I once waited for years, literally, until I could afford exactly the only lamp I wanted, the Tizio by Richard Sapper, a classic. It cost me a staggering $500 in the mid-1980s, (today, a small version is $300+), but I still use it every day and love it. I’ve never once regretted buying quality. I’m still (!) sitting on the sofa I bought in Toronto in the 1980s, slip-covered. It’s not cheap when you buy it — but if you amortize the cost over 10+ years, it is.

English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972)

English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shop everywhere

Garden stores, gourmet shops, sporting goods stores. You never know what you’ll find. I snagged a pair of fab pierced metal lamps at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis — for $13.50 apiece. I’d actually just gone there for lunch, but decided to poke around. I discovered sheets of soft, pliable, versatile copper at a local yacht supply store, a great material for lamps, votive liners, even covering a kitchen countertop. Jose was in Tucson teaching a workshop when he found some spectacular talavera planters and plates he shipped home. I hand-carried small framed prints home from Stockholm.

Including places you think you can’t afford

Everyone has sales sometime. Anthropologie has lovely homegoods, often on sale, as well as these sites I love, Mothology and Wisteria.

Use your imagination!

I found an old Chinese wooden frame ($75) and ordered up a custom-cut antiqued bit of mirror to put behind it from a glazier. It’s now our bathroom mirror; total cost $125.

Antique shows and flea markets

I scored a fantastic Moroccan metal lantern for $15 by arriving early at a local antiques fair. I had it sand-blasted smooth for $50 by my local auto body shop and painted it a delicious red from Farrow & Ball. (The coppery metal one beside it is a $12 on-sale find from Pier One.)

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Stock a tool box and know how to use it

Hammer, pliers, staple gun, screwdriver, small saw, wood glue, nails and screws. A small hand-held sander is a great help, easily stored. Keep a supply of plastic dropsheets and foam brushes. Be ready to sand, stain, re-size and re-paint your finds as needed. Or make your own stuff to fit difficult spaces; Jose created three fantastic planters for our balcony from sheets of plywood we cut and painted.

What cool things have you done to make your home lovely on a budget?

Ohhhhhhhh, Canada

In behavior, cities, culture, immigration, life, travel on September 21, 2012 at 12:12 am
Cover of "Hejira"

Cover of Hejira

Our home and native land/Terre de nos aieux…

Is how my national anthem begins. One of them. The Star-Spangled Banner is the other.

I left Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal) in 1988 to move to the U.S.

I’m back again for a few weeks, with no greater agenda than seeing old friends, attending a service at the island church where I was married last September, poking around antique stores.

Just being home.

I started my nine-hour drive by crossing the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline ghostly in the distance, but the spires of the Empire State Building and new Freedom Tower clearly visible. The trip is easy, but wearying as I covered pretty much the entire length of New York State, a 5.5 hour journey just to reach the Canadian border.

I spent the drive listening to some of my favorite tunes from college — Hejira by Joni Mitchell and Talking Heads — but soon switched to Radio-Canada to listen to the news and weather en francais. I love speaking French and hearing it and miss that piece of my native culture terribly. Americans are furious when others refuse to speak English; we grow up in a country founded by two nations, French and English, and much of what we read and touch (cereal boxes, government signs, toothpaste) is labeled in both tongues.

Hejira is a great choice for a woman traveling alone by car — as Mitchell wrote it while on road trip from Maine to L.A., and she says it’s suffused with “the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Is it ever!

I loved “Refuge of the Road”, which I think might be my theme song.

Here’s the final verse:

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads

It’s a measure of the independence we both value in our marriage that two days after our anniversary, I left for a two-week trip by myself. I feel such a hunger to travel. Sometimes I really need to travel alone. And I always need to come back to Canada.

It’s such a different place from the U.S., even though both speak English and, to many eyes, look so alike.

Even basics like:

Metric measurements, a $2 coin and colored paper money. A wicked HST adding serious tax to everything — my $2 newspaper cost $2.26.

And the sort of rock-ribbed political liberalism that’s exceptionally rare in the U.S., certainly in the mass media, like this story in the Toronto Star, about an AWOL American female soldier living with her five kids (two born in Canada) in a one-bedroom apartment. Kimberly Rivera, the first female war resister here, was to be deported today.

I’m a little desperate right now to flee the ugliness and in(s)anity of the American Presidential election campaign, and the class warfare that is only getting worse and worse — the latest issue of Fortune magazine asking us not to hate the 1% but emulate them instead.

I miss my personal history, and re-visiting the places and light and landscape that shaped me; Jose deeply misses his New Mexico skies and mountains. He gets it.

And I always miss my oldest friends, people I’ve known since I was 16 or 22. I’ve found it very hard to make good friends in New York.

I like going to the drugstore and the grocery store and seeing brands and magazines only sold here, like Shreddies cereal and butter tarts.

This is a butter tart. Yum!

In the small town where I’m staying lives a man, Farley Mowat, whose adventure stories I read growing up. For me, that’s like knowing Shakespeare is around the corner.

I miss knowing people who know who he is. So I’m glad, for a while, to be back in my (second/first?) home.

People tend to be more relaxed when they know (as they do here) they will never be bankrupted by a medical emergency, a pretty standard nightmare in the States.

I also like being reminded of the stiff-upper-lip thing and the we-hate-Americans thing and the no-we-can’t-do that thing, which remind me why I do not weep with longing for Canada but see it with more distant critical eyes as a longtime ex-pat.

If you haven’t seen this amazing video, check out it. It makes me laugh and it makes me hum.

Canadian, Please

And here’s a BBC video explaining why Canada should simply run for U.S. President.

Do you ever feel homesick?

Twenty reasons I (still) love my home, 23 years later

In beauty, behavior, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on August 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

I’ve never lived in one home this long. Ever.

Growing up in Toronto, between the ages of 3 and 30, when I left, I lived in three houses and four apartments, none of which I owned.

Between September 1982 and June 1989, I moved from Toronto-Paris-Toronto (different apartment)-Montreal-rural New Hampshire-New York.

Enough!

I moved into this one-bedroom suburban New York apartment in June 1989. It was the absolute most we could afford to buy, assuming we’d be moving into a house within a few years as my first husband’s income improved.

Not quite. Finally solvent after years of medical training, he left the apartment and the marriage within two years of our wedding. Sweet!

I stayed, damn glad I’d insisted on the pre-nuptial agreement that made sure I could.

I’m writing this on our balcony. The wind is blowing. A helicopter just buzzed straight overhead, low. I can hear crickets, and the low hum of traffic on the bridge a mile away.

Here’s why I’m still (surprisedly) happy to be here:

It’s been my emotional anchor. Since we moved in, ripping out all the ugly cat-pee-stinky carpeting, I’ve been married and divorced and remarried. I’ve had four surgeries, won and lost well-paid jobs, sold two books. Put my dog to sleep. This familiar space has comforted me with unchanging stability through it all.

The view. A tree is finally growing into our terrific view of the Hudson River. My next door neighbor and I are plotting how to trim it without having to plead hopelessly with the co-op board.

The breeze. On all but the hottest days, a delicious breeze blows through our windows, atop a high hill.

Top floor! 

The pool. I see its turquoise glimmer beckoning me through the trees. It makes me feel wealthy indeed to have access to a pool — and not have to take care of it.

Can you see it?

Wildlife. The other night a very large coyote stood barely 20 feet from me in our parking lot. Deer routinely graze on our lawn, and we hear raccoons often. We even have enormous wild turkeys on our street. All this so close to New York we can see the Empire State Building from our street.

Good neighbors. When you stay a long, long time in one spot, you get to know, like and trust — you hope! — a few of your neighbors. Here’s an essay I wrote in 2008 about my building for The New York Times.

A sense of history. I’ve seen tiny babies, once held football style in the hallways here, go off to college. I still remember, well, many of our older residents who’ve left, a few for nursing homes and far too many to the cemetery.

It’s my ever-evolving design lab. I studied interior design in the 1990s, and have changed the wall colors here many times. The front hallway began a brilliant lemon yellow, paled to a softer version, was coral for a few years and is now, best of all, a Farrow & Ball color, Gervase Yellow. My bedroom walls have gone from sponge-painted Greek taverna-wall blue to aqua to a soft gray. (If you want to make a serious, fantastic investment in your home, try F & B paint. It’s costly, but worth every penny.)

Our bathroom. Love it. I designed every inch of it — all 5 x 7 feet — from the curved wall-mounted wooden vanity to the mirror I had made by re-purposing an antique Chinese frame. Our new tub is 21 inches deep. Heaven!

Sunsets. They’re simply amazing, every one more beautiful than the rest.

An ever-changing weather movie. We see snow, hail, rain and even occasional tornados as they move south or east towards us across the Hudson River. Some mornings the fog is so thick we can’t even see our own parking lot. It’s a New York version of the classic 1857 woodblock by Hiroshige of a yudachi, a sudden summer downpour.

See what I mean?!

Low-maintenance. In the summer, our balcony plants need watering. But rarely do we need to spend for the plumber, electrician or a professional plaster and paint touch-up. I prefer having the additional time, physical energy and cash this allows.

Light! I thrive on natural light, and with large windows facing northwest, no tall buildings nearby and none ever likely to be erected, this is never an issue. Especially working at home, even the gloomiest days are not oppressive.

Less money needed for furniture/curtains/electronics/art. I’d rather own fewer, better things than inhabit a huge space that’s half-empty or jammed with junk. Living in a smaller space forces us to edit carefully, choosing only what we value, use and that truly delights our eye.

Seasonal decor. Our living room looks very different in summer than winter, as we switch out colors, designs and materials, (like a scarlet kilim rug for a white catalogne; red and yellow paisley pillow covers for white and emerald green.) It saves wear and tear on our things and gives us a fresh look to enjoy. We also move our art — photos, drawings, prints, lithos, paintings and posters — from room to room, sometimes (gallery style) putting some away for a few years so we can appreciate them anew.

A good layout. I should be sick of the same four walls. But with six discrete areas in 1,000 square feet — seven in summer with the 72 square foot balcony — I very rarely feel cramped.

We’re not “underwater.” We’re not making out like bandits, but we have equity in our home and a fixed mortgage rate that’s decent. It’s deeply un-American to stay put, and not keep moving up into larger, costlier housing.  I do sometimes long to inhabit a house again. But knowing we can weather almost every financial storm and not lose our home to some toxic mortgage or sudden jump in property taxes offers comfort in these times of such financial insecurity.

Our stone walls. The property once belonged to a wealthy land-owner who built deep, thick stone walls with jagged edges facing the street. When covered with a layer of snow, they look exactly like a row of teeth!

It’s affordable. While our monthly costs, of mortgage and co-op fees combined, might seem high to some people, they’re crazy low for New York, where $5,000 a month or more is fairly normal for a mortgage, even some rents. I was single and freelance from 1996 to 2001, and could still handle the cost, with the added benefit  of never facing a sudden rent increase or forced sale.

How do you feel about your home?

Your life looks so much better than mine

In behavior, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, women, work on July 8, 2012 at 1:01 am
Portrait of John Jennings Esq., his Brother an...

Portrait of John Jennings Esq., his Brother and Sister-in-Law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a great essay from Salon:

“We bought a new house,” my older sister said a few months ago, in one of our rare phone conversations.

“I’m so happy for you,” I said, though I’m sure the octaves and intonation were off. “You deserve it.” And she does. My sister has worked tirelessly ever since I can remember. Unlike me, she’s always been responsible, never leaving a job before accepting another, and certainly never leaving a job and then, instead of finding new employment, flying to Southeast Asia and staying for three months.

“We’re finally going to live in a grown-up house,” she continued. (By “we” she meant her two girls, ages 4 and 7, and my photogenic, equally successful brother-in-law.)

I loved this piece because it unpacks what we sometimes feel but rarely say out loud: I’m jealous, dammit! I want your life(style)/income/husband/wife/house/country house/cottage/car(s)/job/body/wardrobe/kids.

I want to feel like I’ve made it!

And I don’t.

Do I?

House-sitting for a friend was an eye-opening experience: a lovely, huge rear garden shaded by towering pines; a large swimming pool; multiple bedrooms; a home office; enormous closets; a washer and dryer unshared with others. I’ve never lived in a house with so many accoutrements.

She makes more money than I do, and I’m certain her husband significantly out-earns mine.

So, it’s comparing apples and oranges, right?

I’m hardly lazy, but I don’t work nights and weekends and really don’t want to, even if (which it could) it doubled my income. I take as much time off every year, and travel as far away, as I can afford.

I also chose the wrong industry for big wages — journalism — which pays, at the very top, in print, what 24-year-olds earn in their first year in corporate law or their Wall St. annual bonus. If you make it as a writer, you can make some very big bucks.

But if you don’t, you wonder what you did so wrong…

I avoided sibling rivalry by not having any, then, as the only child of my parents’ 13-year marriage. But I also have two younger half-brothers, one 10 years my junior, the other 23 years younger than I.

My 10-years-younger brother drives a very sexy shiny new car and owns a large house. He also lives in an airplane, traveling the world selling the arcane-but-popular software solution his company created.

Jealous? Moi? Well, yes, actually.

But my brother has a totally different skill set and works in a burgeoning field. He’s also been willing to risk his savings  to build his business and has also won a ton of VC cash.

My much-younger brother also travels the world, doing policy work so sensitive he needs a security clearance from the American government.

My father’s partner, a woman I really like and admire, has super-accomplished adult kids a bit younger than I am. One is married to a gazillionaire and speaks fluent Chinese. Oy.

I like feeling I’m doing OK. But, by many conventional measures, I’m not. People my age own and run major corporations or universities. They boast about their kids and grandkids; we have neither. They look like grown-ups while I often feel (and am, happily, mistaken for) a decade or so younger.

So — which is it?

Life is cool? Life sucks?

It’s too easy to look at other lives and find the flaws in our own.

My 10-years-younger brother, when I was once — as I often do — flagellating myself for my relative lack of success, pointed out that my generation had a hell of a lot more competition for jobs and a lot worse economy within which to get one, or several.

It’s all relative…given that millions of people in this world survive on less than $1 a day in income. The challenge is to remember this, not to focus on the in(s)anity of the material wealth flaunted before our eyes, by friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, let alone the mass media.

Times are tough, and with growing income inequality — with American CEOs typically pulling in 475 times the pay of their least-paid workers — it’s getting even uglier.

Do you find yourself feeling envious of others’ success?

Do you compare yourself to more successful/settled siblings?

Twenty reasons I love where I live

In beauty, cities, culture, design, domestic life, immigration, life, urban life, US on July 4, 2012 at 12:03 am
Looking Down Main Street Tarrytown (cropped)

Looking Down Main Street Tarrytown (cropped) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Home again, after a month away.

Feels good!

I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved at the age of two to London, England for three years; grew up in Toronto and also lived twice in Montreal, in rural New Hampshire, Cuernavaca, Mexico and — since 1989 — in Tarrytown, NY, a town of about 10,000, founded in 1648, that’s 25 miles north of Manhattan, whose lights we can see from our street.

As an ambitious writer, I wanted to be close to New York City and have ready access to its publishers, agents, editors and fellow writers.

I could never have afforded an apartment like the one I bought, with a stunning and unobstructed tree-top view of the Hudson River, with a pool and tennis court, in the city.

So here I am, all these years later. Before this, I typically moved every few years. Between 1982 and 1989, I changed cities three times and countries (Canada, France, U.S.) as well. Enough!

Forbes, a major American business magazine, recently named my adopted town one of the 10 prettiest in the U.S.

Here are 20 reasons this feels like home:

The Hudson River

This is the view from our apartment balcony. Tarrytown sits on the river’s eastern bank, and the river is easily accessible, for boating, or a picnic, bike ride or walk by the water. Sunsets are spectacular and the ever-changing skies mesmerizing.

The reservoir

A ten-minute drive from my home is a large reservoir with otters, ducks, swans, cormorants, egrets and turtles basking in the sun. You can lounge on a bench, skate there in winter and safely walk around it in all seasons.

Mint

This great gourmet store and cafe is a treasure, filled with delicious treats offered by owner Hassan Jarane, who I also profiled in “Malled”, my book about retail. (You can see our funky street lamps in the window reflection.)

The Tarrytown Music Hall

Built in 1885 as a vaudeville hall, this 843-seat  theatre hosts a wide range of concerts, mostly rock and folk. I saw British singer Richard Thompson there last year playing a two-hour solo set, and my fellow Canadian Bruce Cockburn. I can bop down on a Friday afternoon and snag a ticket for $25.

Phelps Hospital

Yes, seriously. Having had four surgeries there and having been too many times to their emergency department, (broken finger, my husband’s concussion, a bad fall), I know it well. Small, friendly, well-run. It’s a little weird to like a hospital, but I’m really glad it’s a 10-minute drive from our door to theirs.

Bellas

Our local diner, and one of three. Big booths, perfect for spreading out my newspaper and settling in for a while.

Horsefeathers

Great burgers and the best Caesar salad I’ve eaten anywhere.

The Warner Library

Its magnificent carved bronze doors come from an estate in Florence. Built of Vermont limestone with tall ceilings, enormous windows and a lovely quiet elegance, its reading rooms are airy and filled with light. It opened in 1929, a gift to the community from a local businessman, Mr. Warner.

Easy access to Manhattan

It’s a 38-minute train ride or 30 to 40 minute drive by car. I love being able to spend a day in the city — as we all refer to it — and come home broke, weary and happy. I can be at the Met Museum or see a Broadway show or just stroll Soho without stressing over the cost of airfare or hotel. Living in Manhattan is terrifyingly expensive and the air here is always about 10 to 15 degrees cooler and fresher.

The Rockefeller State Park Preserve

Yes, those Rockefellers, one of the wealthiest founding families of the nation. They donated this  750-acre piece of land, open to everyone, whose gently rolling hills, forests and lake feel like you’ve escaped to Devon or Vermont but only a 10-minute drive from my home. The lake is 22 acres and 180 species of birds have been seen there.

They shoot movies here!

Thanks to its small, low-scale downtown with a well-preserved set of Victorian or earlier buildings, Tarrytown offers a perfect streetscape for period films, often set in the 1940s or 1950s. I missed seeing Keanu Reeves and Julia Roberts when they were here, (“Mona Lisa Smile” was partly filmed here), but almost saw Matt Damon when they were shooting “The Good Shepherd”, one of my favorite movies. If you watch it, a scene where he is to meet his sweetie outside a theater — that’s really the Tarrytown Music Hall!

Goldberg Hardware

Greg’s great-grandfather founded the place and he lives upstairs. It’s extremely rare now to find a third or fourth-generation merchant still doing business and thriving, even with a Home Depot not far away. Also mentioned in “Malled.”

Philipsburg Manor

It’s fairly astonishing, in a relatively very young country like the United States, to drive past 18th. century history. A beautiful white stone house, mill and mill pond remain in town from this era. Here’s a bit of the history.

The Old Dutch Church

Built in 1697, it’s the second-oldest church — and still in use — in New York State. It’s technically in Sleepy Hollow (which is the old North Tarrytown.)

The EF Language School

Young students come from all over the world to this Swedish school’s Tarrytown campus to study English. It adds a seriously cosmopolitan flavor to our small town to overhear French, German, Italian, Swedish and Japanese spoken on our main street.

My accountant, Zambelletti, and my dentist Zegarelli

They keep me financially and dentally healthy. I love that both start and end with the same initials. Great guys, too!

Coffee Labs

Our local coffee shop, with live music and great cappuccinos.

Silver Tips

Americans are not the world’s biggest tea drinkers, but this lovely tea room does a booming business.

A diverse population

With a median income of $80,000, we’ve got both enormous Victorian mansions and three-family apartment houses. (Westchester county has towns nearby so wealthy their median income is more than $200,000. People like Martha Stewart and Glenn Close live out here.) But Tarrytown has remained blessedly down-to-earth, even as its Mini-Cooper count and yummy-mummy numbers have risen rapidly in recent years. We have Korean nail salons, Hispanic grocers, two Greek-owned restaurants, two Brazilian restaurants, a Greek-owned florist and a car wash owned and run by an immigrant from Colombia. Hassan, who runs Mint, is from Morocco.

The Castle

Yup, we even have a real castle, on the hill right beside our apartment building. Built between 1897 and 1910 by a former Civil War general, it’s now a Relais and Chateaux hotel with a gorgeously intimate bar, a lovely garden and great restaurant. And it does have stone walls and turrets! We nestle into its curved window seat at the bar on a winter’s afternoon and feel like we’ve jetted to Normandy.

Here’s a blog post from Mathurini, an artist in England, with three reasons why she loves her home.

What do you most appreciate about the town, city or area where you live?

A whole house to myself

In behavior, cities, culture, design, domestic life, life, urban life on June 30, 2012 at 1:35 am
Herbert Storey Cottage, Westfield War Memorial...

Herbert Storey Cottage, Westfield War Memorial Village, Lancaster (after 1924) (Photo credit: pellethepoet)

I haven’t lived in a house since 1988.

Even then it wasn’t a whole house, just our ground-floor apartment in a house at 42 Green Street in Lebanon, NH. I grew up in a few houses (interspersed with apartments) in Toronto and Montreal, but have never owned or rented one myself.

In NH, I loved the 1930s-era pull-out wooden cutting board in the kitchen. I liked having a lawn and a lot of room between us and the neighbors. I liked that our dog, a small terrier named Petra, could safely roam the quiet street for hours.

For the month of June, first at my Dad’s, then house-sitting, I’ve been living in a whole house. I’m now at a hotel for three nights — then back home to 1,000 square feet, no stairs, one door to enter and one to the balcony.

Houses are complicated!

Multiple doors, and stairs and a back yard and a front yard and a garden and garage and a driveway. (My Dad, typically, turned his garage into a painting studio and most of his gravel driveway into a garden. Kellys are like that.)

I’ve lived in the same one-bedroom apartment, (with such crappy closet space that I need a garage and storage lockers for things like skis, luggage, old paint, out-of-season clothing), since 1989 when I bought it, thinking, up and out to a house within a few years.

As if.

The doctor husband bailed just as he stopped being broke — and I started to. I’ve been there ever since. My second husband, then beau, moved in with me in the fall of 2001. His official moving day — seriously — was 9/11. He told the movers to come back in a week; his quick thinking on that day of terror helped The New York Times win their Pulitzer prize for news photography.

Our home isn’t large, and I also work there. But we have a great river view from the top floor, a balcony, pool, tennis court and a garage. It’s light and quiet and our monthly costs still low enough we save decently for retirement and travel. There are times I feel trapped and claustrophobic, but I value the freedom if offers me to write for a living without panicking over the monthly mortgage.

A house anywhere nearby, (in the northern suburbs of New York City), would cost $300,000+ (plus at least $12,000 a year in property taxes) — usually for an un-renovated 1,200 square foot 1950s box with a postage stamp lot. No thanks!

We could afford something battered 90 to 120 minutes’ train or car ride further north, in a much more rural area, or the decades-long burden of a huge mortgage payment. I prefer quick and easy access to Manhattan — I can be parked near the Metropolitan Museum within 40 minutes.

For the past month, I’ve enjoyed the temporary luxury of multiple bathrooms on every floor, a kitchen big enough to swing a cat in, (good thing there’s only a dog here), not to mention a walk-in closet bigger than my only (5 by 7 foot) bathroom at home. Room to keep an ironing board permanently set up.

But the responsibility!

The one I house-sat has huge gardens that needed a lot of watering in a heat wave, and a pool requiring daily attention — which paid staff do at our apartment building.

I prefer sitting very still, with a frosty G & T and a glossy magazine.

Do you live in a house?

Do you enjoy it?

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