March 2010


Ever since the ink dried on my first rent cheque I have always left my personal touch on the spaces I’ve inhabited.  I’ve surrounded myself with lovely, obscure or whimsical items that made me feel at home.  However, as our awareness of the things we consume (and throw away) evolves, it may be time to rethink how we adorn our dwellings.  I maintain that we can still create magnificent spaces without compromising nesting for future generations.  To this end, it is becoming increasingly clear that secondhand is not synonymous with second-rate.

My oldest and dearest friend recently hopped on the property ladder and bought a slick new condo at hip downtown Toronto address. Last week I was honoured to visit him during his first full day in his new place and was awed by the sleek kitchen, the exhilarating view and the happening neighbourhood.  Impressed by their spring catalog, we decided to venture uptown and check out some wares for his new pad at Restoration Hardware.  From studio lamps to Parisian cushions to factory cart coffee tables, surely we would be inspired by unique pieces to embellish his space.

When we arrived I was thoroughly disappointed to find myself in the midst of a soul-destroying shopping experience.  To my right was a selection of factory worn towel rings in a multitude of finishes.  To my left a couple with way too much disposable income debated the placement of scuffs on a “vintage” desk.  And all around “one-of-a-kind” pieces repeated themselves in a multitude of reconfigured arrangements.  It was clear I had been disillusioned by contrived authenticity within the catalog.  After a few moments of stunned silence my friend outed the elephant in the room: “You know, I would rather have a home that is ugly and filled with character than one that looks like it’s straight out of the box.”

As a former marketing guru for Herman Miller, I was certain that my friend would insist that his home be filled with the latest pieces from high-end retail chains.  Instead, I entered his condo to find charming, worn looking pieces that had been carefully collected or handed down from previous generations.  A pair of lovely beat up mid-century chairs.  An authentic chest gone missing from mother’s attic.  And my personal favourite: a picnic table dining room with carved signatures of visitors gone by.  His collection reinforced a growing suspicion of mine: paying full retail for furniture is passé.  And all this time I thought I was just being cheap.

I prefer that each piece in my home hold a rich history.  There is a gorgeous antique clawfoot mahogany table in our dining room that we eyed for months, strategizing on how best to talk the dealer down to a steal.  A pair of antique wingback chairs that we negotiated for $300 seats us by the wood stove.  We own a mid-century bedroom set passed down from the in-laws.  Tess’ nursery holds a beautiful used Pottery Barn Kids change table and sleigh crib that I scored from an ad on Kijiji for under $400.   With antique dealers, flea markets, and online tools like kijiji, craigslist and freecycle.org abound, sometimes I wonder why I engage in the unsustainable practice of retail furniture and decor shopping at all.

There are countless innovative and beautiful ideas emerging from designers who base their philosophy on readaptation.  Companies like Urban Tree Salvage in Toronto manufacture products using only local wood from trees that perished due to storm damage or insect infestation.  Similarly, Brooklyn’s Scrapile generates stunning designs based on discarded, recovered and repurposed wood.  A quick visit to Inhabitat reveals hundreds, if not thousands, of designs that contribute to sustainability.

Beyond purchasing furniture and decor, dealers and designers are increasingly capable of incorporating second-hand goods into a remodel.  Reclaimed wood or fixtures from old unused industrial buildings add a unique and impressive touch to residential spaces.  Looking to other people’s remodels may also generate some great finds and reuse centres like Habitat for Humanity’s Restore facilitate these choices while generating revenue for a great cause.  Where salvaged items aren’t an option, there are alternative products derived from renewable resources like cork and bamboo, and materials like VOC-free paints and recycled glass contribute to a much healthier indoor environment.  With the shift to reuse catching on, students of interior design would be well served to start sourcing, developing relationships and specializing in readaptive design.

Whenever I feel romanced by savvy marketers or designers on home and garden television I remind myself that I will not find happiness in an overpriced out-of-the-box ottoman.  As much as I admire page 56 of the catalog, the eclectic mix of pre-loved items make my place feel much more like home.

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There are several people in my local community who I find truly inspiring.  One such individual is Erin, the owner of our cloth diaper service.  Erin is a mother who decided to give up her job when she realized she could make a meaningful difference if parents in our community made the switch from disposable diapers to cloth.  There are times when I feel so inspired by her work that I want to switch career paths and join her in her crusade.  Then I remind myself that, however admirable her quest may be, bottom line is she spends much of her time dealing with baby crap (and, as us parents know, that isn’t pretty at the best of times).

Cleaning cloth diapers may not be for all of us.  When we were expecting Tess we considered buying cloth diapers.  Upon further research, I discovered that heat and high-powered cleaning agents would be required to eradicate bacteria.  I was warned by other parents of the massive amounts of laundry I would be undertaking with children.  Plus my husband wasn’t exactly thrilled with throwing a load of work shirts in the wash after a loads of dirty diapers. Luckily, cloth diaper services present an option for parents who cringe at the scale of waste involved in disposable diapering yet are too overwhelmed to wash cloth themselves.

There are advocates of disposable diapers who claim the energy and chemicals involved in cleaning cloth diapers negate any environmental benefits associated with reduced waste.  When I inquired with our service on the merits of these arguments I was impressed that they had done their homework.  Reputable diaper services special order environmentally sound cleaning agents that are powerful enough to eradicate bacteria, then they test the pH of outgoing diapers to ensure they are safe for use on our children.  They are constantly researching and implementing the most efficient way to wash diapers using as little energy as possible.  And they pool their deliveries to reduce gas consumption and GHGs (though I will be even more impressed the day our delivery shows up in a hybrid or electric van).

Our cloth diaper model

Another argument against cloth is the hassle involved, but I counter that hassle is eliminated for those who opt to go with a diaper service.  We leave our dirty diapers out on our porch once per week and these are taken away and a fresh batch delivered right to our door.  Our service offers cloth wipes and all natural diaper ointments, which means I satisfy all of my diapering needs without even leaving my home.  We are not required to rinse the diapers but are asked to dump any solid stool down the toilet (a practice I would follow even if we did use disposables).  The diapers in our delivery are fitted and there are no pins or folding involved.  The only extra step involved in cloth diapering involves diaper covers, which is a waterproof membrane that prevents a soaked cloth diaper from leaking onto clothes (taking only an extra couple of seconds to secure).  Unless Tess exited the womb with an innate capacity to use the toilet, diapering could not be much easier.

Using a diaper service is not cost prohibitive when compared to disposables.  The cost of our service is roughly $20 per week, about the equivalent of buying disposable diapers at a big box store.  Granted buying and washing cloth diapers is a much cheaper option, but the work involved is daunting to many parents (this author included).

Cloth diaper services are an example of solutions that bridge the gap between sustainability and convenience for parents.  If we all resolve to do a little research before we open our wallets, we can find many more new designs and services that reject the unsustainable status quo of baby products.  Luckily, as a society we are rethinking our consumption habits in a way that will facilitate a less daunting climate challenge for our children.  I maintain that eliminating disposable diapers from the weekly garbage pick up is a great place to start.

Is there a more sustainable option than cloth diapering? In Green Baby, Susannah Marriott explains that, in some cultures, parents do not use diapers at all but continually monitor their babies expressions for signs they have to go.  When the signs present themselves, parents rush the infants to a designated latrine.  While I applaud these parents for their conscientious child rearing, I am one of those parents who likes to leave the house from time to time.  I’ll stick with my cloth diaper service for now.

So to Erin and all of the other parents and business owners who are dedicated to making cloth diapering easier for the rest of us, matriarcade salutes you.

Our new bike seat arrived today... here we are on our first spin around the block.

It’s been a while since I had the sensation of wind blowing on my cheeks as I pedal down our street.  Tess was quite young last summer, and demanding feeding schedules meant that I only had a chance to hop on my beautiful road bike once or twice.  And I spent the year prior to that pregnant and, on doctor’s advice, far away from cycling.

So as warmer weather approaches and Tess’ first birthday draws near I have been pondering how I might take Tess along for the ride.  After carefully considering the pros and cons associated with trailers and bike mounted seats, I’ve decided on front mounted bike seat.  Though I understand that many advocate the safety and stability of trailers, I feel more comfortable having Tess up front with me and away from exhaust fumes.  Plus having Tess up front seems more fun: she can see what’s going on and we can chat all the way home.  After a little research on front mounted seats I’ve decided to go with the iBert safe T seat.

As I wait for the seat to arrive in the mail I figured I’d better get to work on finding a helmet that is small enough for Tess.  After a few trips to Canadian Tire and other big box stores I’ve decided to shell out the extra money and play it safe by having her properly fitted at our local bike shop.  We’re headed there this afternoon and I’m hoping a solid nap, some fun finger foods and her favourite toys will help her endure thirty minutes of helmet fittings.

Once the seat arrives and Tess has a helmet I’ll go for a pre-season tune up and we should be ready to hit the road.  But despite my diligence and careful attention to safety, I am dismayed by judgment from those who feel young children are better off traveling in cars.  When I read reviews about seats and helmets, the sites are laced with opinions from scornful parents who have gone out of their way to share their disapproval of a lifestyle based on cycling with your kids.

I am struck by the controversy surrounding an issue as seemingly harmless as sharing a bike ride with your child.  Granted, I understand that children should be old enough to sit up and strong enough to support a helmet (which is why I have waited this long to introduce Tess to cycling) but beyond that the issue boils down to an argument that cyclists have been struggling with since the advent of the Model T Ford: bikes don’t belong because roads are built exclusively for cars.

Unless you are fortunate enough to live in bike-friendly communities like Copenhagen or Seattle, you may identify with tell-tale signs of bike hostility.  A motorist honking at a cyclist despite his strict adherence to the rules of the road.  Lack of suitable bicycle parking at markets, recreational venues and other hot spots.  Families packing up their cars and driving 30 minutes so they can go for a safe bike ride together in a designated area alienated from their local community.

Cyclists everywhere are starting to take a stand.  Campaigns like Share the Road and Car Free Days are raising awareness that cycling is a viable form of transportation that needs to be accommodated within our communities.  Many employers are recognizing the economic and environmental benefits of alternative commuting by participating in programs like the Commuter Challenge.  Cyclists are asserting the right to bike without ostracism.  And because cyclists have families, this stance necessarily includes the right to bike with your kids.

I am well aware of the risks involved in taking Tess on a bike ride and will do everything within my power to prepare for and avoid dangerous situations.  However, I am also aware of the risks involved in confining her to a car seat when we could be enjoying fresh air and outdoor adventures together.  Childhood obesity, juvenile diabetes and other consequences of sedentary lifestyles are dangers that seem far more prevalent in our society than serious spills on bikes.  And by teaching Tess the rules of the road at an early age I will be far more comfortable when the time comes for her to venture out on two wheels on her own.

Maybe our neighbourhoods aren’t the best places for bikes.  But unless we get out and start pedaling cars will never learn to move aside.

I thought I would share a video I found on Totcycle produced by the folks at peopleforbikes.org.  It is sure to inspire you to drag your old wheels out of storage, dust off that helmet and pump those tires.  Enjoy!

This week I thought I would take Tess and our beagle, Watson, over to our local library branch to exchange some children’s titles.  No sooner had I tied up Watson and stepped inside the library than the neighbourhood was overpowered by a series of cries and howls the likes of which had never been heard.  The seniors in the community centre next door came pouring out to see what travesty had fallen upon this poor animal.  Was it being brutally beaten or attacked by a rottweiler?  Had there been an unthinkable encounter with oncoming traffic?  Nope: it’s just an irate beagle that suffers from terminal separation anxiety.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Sometimes I wonder why we subject ourselves to dog ownership.  The vet bills.  The muddy paws and dirty floors.  The endless bits of fur deposited on every square inch of our home.  The destroyed furniture.  The inability to jet off for a quick week end away on a whim.  Oh yeah, and my personal favourite: picking up crap in public.

Watson screams uncontrollably when a car pulls into our driveway, a behaviour that seriously disrupts our sleeping baby.  He refuses to slumber anywhere except the choice spot on our undersized master bed.  Then there was the time last summer when we let him out for one more washroom break before bedtime and, after a brief skirmish in the raspberry bushes, a foul stench filled our home.  We spent the next two hours covering Watson with toothpaste in futile attempts to eradicate the unmistakable odour of a skunked K-9.

Such an inconvenience, and yet I couldn’t imagine life without him.  He is the first to greet you after a difficult day.  He could care less if you’ve gained ten pounds or haven’t showered.  And his unconditional love for our family never ceases to amaze me.  He happily trots beside my husband on his morning stroll, proudly displaying the unbreakable bond with his master to all in our neighbourhood.  His antics are the shortest route to a smile reappearing on Tess’ face after she’s fallen into a fit of hysterics.

From the day we moved in together, my husband and I had always known we wanted a dog.  We crept around our local parks, stalking the neighbourhood dogs and praying for the opportunity to pet a happy pup and gaze into a pair of big loving eyes.  We truly believed that adding a dog to our family would transform our house into a home.  And as soon as we had some semblance of a backyard we rushed out as soon as we saw an ad for beagle puppies.  When we arrived he looked up at us and it was love at first sight: he had picked us as his new family.

Watson turned five this past January and has been with us through some important family milestones.  He was there when we got engaged and we joked that he was no longer our bastard son.  He curled up beside me on the night I found out my parents were separating, with occasional kisses and nudges to let me know he was there for me if I needed a shoulder to cry on.  He helped us pack up our first home and move across the province for a fresh beginning.  And most importantly, he patiently and affectionately observed as we became freaked out new parents of his baby sister.

As annoyed and humiliated as I was during the library incident last week, I emerged with Tess to see a beagle overjoyed that his family had returned.  As I bent down to untie him I was showered with sloppy kisses. Here was this furry, four-legged member of our family, so filled with love for Tess and I that his pure, unadulterated affection could not be contained.  He pushed me to the ground and I submitted to his slurps while Tess giggled at the sight and onlookers watched with judgmental bemusement.

What can I say?  I’m a dog person.

how I get around:

laughing while taking in the

view from my bucket

Imagine a world where gas prices have only a marginal impact on your family budget, fresh air and exercise are intrinsic to your daily routine and the morning traffic report does not apply to you.

A lifestyle based on alternative transportation requires certain preconditions.  Sidewalks are integral to walking, especially with young children.  Accessible public transit routes are certainly useful.  And, unless you are training for a descent down the champs d’elysees, a certain geographic proximity to where you need to go is a must.  While I used to dream of a two acre property on the outskirts of town, complete with a 4000 square foot home, riding lawn mowers and inground swimming pool, I now realize that this arrangement leaves one trapped in a never-ending abyss of mortgage payments, rising gas prices, and chained to life as a chauffeur mom.  Instead, I hope to instill in my children the importance of an active lifestyle and empower them with means to travel even before they obtain their drivers licenses.

Tess' jogging stroller is our favourite set of wheels

One of the most popular posts on matriarcade to date has been The Quality Time Commute (January 2010) and I am thankful that parents are sharing their stories related to alternative transportation.  I have heard tales about parents opting to walk or wear their young children to visit friends and family.  Others have acquainted themselves with their local transit system and carted their kids along for the ride.  And one crusader – my inspiration – gets his son to daycare on snowy days by strapping skis to his Chariot and gliding across snow-covered bike paths.  These stories have been truly inspiring, and I feel compelled to continue this discussion by sharing my own commuting plans once I return to work this spring.

Going carless has required some careful planning, particularly in selecting a daycare for Tess.  While safety and comfort with our daycare provider topped our selection criteria, being without a car made location of central importance in our search.  I traced the most direct route to my workplace at city hall and began the search to find daycares along this path.  I interviewed several providers noting (along with their menus, program and facilities) proximity to my preferred work route and access to local bus routes.  As luck would have it, I found a wonderful woman to care for Tess a half a block off my route, 5km from our home and less than 2km from city hall.

The scenario has opened a world of commuting options.  The first option makes good use of my jogging stroller: the 15 minute walk from work to daycare provides a great warm up for the 5km trek from daycare to our home.  Or, if I’m feeling less ambitious, I can put Tess in her baby carrier and take public transit since our daycare is located on two bus routes including our own.

I also want to make the foray into cycling with kids and buy a bike seat for Tess this spring.  Granted, I am apprehensive about traffic and may reluctantly stick to the sidewalk on the busy stretch of the route.  I am also mindful that cycling won’t be an option if and when I become pregnant again.  Though I know other women who have done it with no problems, I am clumsy at the best of times, never mind when I’m pregnant and off-balance.  Particularly if I’m with Tess, I’ll have to rely on other ways to get around.  But I hope that cycling will be a mainstay in our transportation repertoire as long as I’m not pregnant and my kids are old enough to sit on their own.

My newest obsession is the Madsen cargo bike (pictured under Minivan Redefined).  Once we have our second child I am adamant that this will be our new family vehicle and my primary mode of transportation to daycare and work.  Imagine how this invention – or any other form of ‘kid friendly’ cargo bike – could change a family’s life from a traffic obsessed, drive thru bound crew of malcontents to freewheeling members of the cycle nation, just like the chic carefree woman pictured pedaling her daughter across town.  If the image horrifies you, rest assured that the bucket comes equipped with seat belts and helmets are mandatory for my family.

This is my draft transportation master plan and, truth be told, devising this scheme has helped me cope with the thought of returning to work.  As excited as I am about returning to my job, I know that there will be days when I miss Tess so much that I will lock myself in my office and sob hysterically.  I find solace in our mode of travel: I can get to Tess quickly regardless of traffic or car trouble, expose her to the benefits of being outside and make the most of every minute we have together.

Who knew that rethinking how we get from A to B would have such a profound impact on our quality of life?

How do you get around?  Join the discussion and share your transportation master plan….

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