Wherein I Enter my Luddite Years

circa 1988 Kenmore electric rangeLate last week we took delivery of our new stove—a circa 1988 coil-topped Kenmore electric range with analogue dials and a large capacity oven. Behold it in all its glory—brown-black back panel, wide coil burners, styled with a set of Merry Mushroom salt and pepper shakers, and an of-the-era apron to match.

The story of this stove is a bit involved, so you might want to stretch out on a Dacron upholstered colonial patterned chesterfield  with an acrylic crocheted afghan (in, say, brown and orange stripes) to read it.

Over the decades I have cooked on quite a few different stoves, including, for ten long years, an electric hot plate. My favourite stove, the one still standing in the secondary kitchen of our formerly apartmentized and then multigenerational family home, is a gas range that generates a lovely and responsive heat. But there is no gas line to the ground floor kitchen, and after 40 years of hard use, the rusted old electric stove with wonky burners and a malfunctioning oven element was overdue for replacement.

In 2020 my mother-in-law’s dementia had progressed to the point where she could no longer live on her own, so we sold her condo  and moved her into our home. We had hoped that inhabiting the ground floor unit would help her retain some sense of autonomy—but  shortly thereafter realized we needed to disable the stove for safety reasons. In August, after moving my mother-in-law into long term care, we plugged in the stove for the first time in three years and realized it was too far gone to fix.

That was when our difficulties began.

At Home Depot we learned that coil-top electric stoves are a species in decline. The coil-tops they do continue to carry include safety devices that limit cooking duration and temperature—a problem for a cook like me during preserving season, when water-bathed bottles of jams and jellies require a steady rolling boil be maintained under them for long enough to ensure a shelf-safe seal. Most of the ceramic-topped stoves now available are not designed for the weight, kettle diameter, or heat requirements of preserving. And buying an induction stove would mean replacing most of my cookware.

I considered buying an electric canner or portable hotplate so I could continue to make preserves—but it seemed ridiculous to buy a new stove and then still need to buy another device to use for canning.

Fellow preservers, including kind fellow members of the Culinary Historians of Canada, offered helpful advice—some people continue to make preserves just fine on their coil burner or ceramic-topped stoves; others have gone with high wattage portable cooktops—but it seemed that most of the people happily preserving using their ordinary stoves are using older models.

Of course they are.

In our household we take care to reduce our environmental impact. We are longtime thrift hounds, always brake for yard sales, and have picked up so many useful things at curbside over the years that we once published an essay about them. We walk, bike or rollerblade whenever it is possible to do so, and gas up our 14 year-old car about once a month. We limit our energy use, compost, make do and mend, and generally try to live as lightly on the earth as is practicable in  contemporary urban Canada.

When it comes to appliances, however, we’ve found our options increasingly limited. Not so many years ago there was an appliance repair place in every neighbourhood. Here in the Junction even a decade ago there used to be four or five storefronts selling second-hand appliances lined up along Dundas Street West.

It’s not just rising commercial rents that have priced these businesses out. It’s that contemporary appliances are simultaneously vastly more complex and much more fragile. Most appliances—even fridges—now have motherboards. When something goes wrong, it is often cheaper to just replace the whole appliance. In many cases the internal workings are simply not serviceable, no matter how skilled the repair person, meaning that many broken appliances are suitable only for the scrapyard. A salesperson at a midtown appliance showroom told us frankly that the ‘sunset’ on new midrange fixtures is about eight years.


By good fortune and Google, we found a small used appliance shop called Appliance Specialist located about 10 blocks from our house. We went in and sitting in the shop was the perfect stove—electric, coil-topped, large, white, made in Canada and, as a bonus, fully analogue in its operation. The owner, a gentleman originally from Guyana, knows a great deal about appliances, digital and analogue, new and old. He is also, it turns out, an ordained minister, a songwriter, and a gifted landscape photographer. Within the hour our new stove was nestled into our kitchen, where it has been put to daily use ever since.

In my local parent network someone posted a few days ago seeking advice about sourcing a new washer-drier set. In response, commenters extolled the virtues of analogue-only machines, and detailed the troubles they’ve had with the digital components even on expensive machines. Most of these commenters are thirty-somethings with young children, meaning they are what sociologists call ‘digital natives‘ who have likely transacted their entire lives in a post-analogue world.

It occurs to me that there must be a huge potential market for well-built, lasting analogue equipment. At a time when the environmental consequences of human consumption are deeply evident, when the mined materials that go into computer components are increasingly short supply, and when international conflicts have disrupted global supply chains, it seems more than a bit risky to rely on an appliance that will likely require replacing in a few years, and whose cheapness may come at the cost of labour and environmental protections. Economists and policy makers have begun talking about ‘nearshoring’ and ‘reshoring’ manufacturing to reduce some of these risks—what a boon it could be if well-built, truly durable goods came back into vogue.

And don’t even get me started on furniture.

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exquisite milkweed pod

This morning a sense of turning. The sunlight slightly muted, the clouds luminous but shadowed underneath. A cool undercurrent on the breeze. Two days ago robins massed in the cedars, and today they have gone. Birdcast (a wonderful resource powered in part by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) reports a peak of bird migration is expected tonight, with 337 million birds expected to cross the night sky, navigating by the signals (cues in the quality of light, currents in the air and soil) that send them south.

Those of us who are earthbound prepare in our own way. I gather my preserving equipment and assess the ripening crabapples. It is time to pick sumac. On some bright, breezy day next week I will harvest my herbs and hang them to dry. In the coming weeks it will be time to make preserves.

I need to stain the front porch, and do some tuck-pointing of the bricks.

squash plant losing its gourdOne of my major projects this year has been establishing a natural garden at the circle park down the street. This work has been supported by the efforts of many community members as well as the City of Toronto, which provided us with a starter set of native plants. The park, long a desolate and derelict space, has been transformed into a living landscape of native plants and shrubs that has hosted many native species of bees, butterflies and other insets. Early in the summer I brought over all my not-quite-finished compost, figuring it would continue to break down in the soil, adding much-needed nutrients to support the new plants. As a bonus, a surprising number of garden plants have self-seeded, including tomatoes, dill, and several kinds of vines. This morning the melons and squash look ready for harvest; the pumpkin, still green, is nearly the size of a soccer ball; and the tomatoes (possibly Black Krims or, more likely, Green Zebra) are developing their distinctive stripes.

Soon, though, the garden will start to go dormant, and I am looking forward to ensuring it has a good cover of mulch to protect tender roots throughout the winter. But until then the asters, just beginning to flower, will bloom all wild and wooly, feeding wasps and bees right up until frost.

flowering aster with bumblebee

Turning Read More »

September 11

Nobody sees it happening, but the architecture of our time
Is becoming the architecture of the next time. And the dazzle
Of light on the waters is as nothing beside the changes
Wrought therein, just as our waywardness means
Nothing against the steady pull of things over the edge.
Nobody can stop the flow, but nobody can start it either.
Time slips by; our sorrows do not turn into poems,
And what is invisible stays that way. Desire has fled,
Leaving only a trace of perfume in its wake,
And so many people we loved have gone,
And no voice comes from outer space, from the folds
Of dust and carpets of wind to tell us that this
Is the way it was meant to happen, that if only we knew
How long the ruins would last we would never complain.”
Mark Strand, from “The Next Time” [Blizzard of One; Knopf, 1998.]


[The picture posted here, an image showing the New York city skyline, with the absent towers reflected in the ocean, originally appeared on the excellent but long ago deleted blog of a New York literary agent pseudonymously named Miss Snark. The original may have appeared in a New York-local magazine—I will happily credit its creator if pointed in the right direction.]

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Image showing vintage Mactac brand bathtub decals in Harvest Gold colour.

Vintage Finds | Flower Power Bathtub Decals

Image showing vintage Rubbermaid brand bathtub decals in green daisy shapes.
Deluxe! Two-tone! Appliques de baignoire!

Whatever happened to bathtub decals? You know, those Mod peel-and-stick shapes that were a feature of many North American bathrooms in the 1970s, as ubiquitous as decorator toilet paper and avocado-coloured fixtures? Where did they go? When did they fall out of fashion? And why, nearly 50 years later, do they still sometimes show up at thrift stores?

When I was a kid, almost everyone’s house, even ours, had peel-and-stick decals in the bathtub. Marketed as a safety device meant to reduce the risk of slips and falls, the decals had the added benefit of upping the decor quotient in an otherwise prosaic room. After the Second World War, woolen mills marketed matching towel sets (under brand names like Fieldcrest and Royal Cannon) to newlyweds setting up households in smart suburban ranch houses, and by the 1960s every department store carried entire lines of bathroom accessories — towels, washcloths, bathmats, even toothbrush holders in coordinating colours. By the later 1960s and especially in the decadent seventies, bathrooms received what in retrospect was completely over-the-top decorating attention, complete with wall-to-wall carpet and heavy drapes. Bathtub decals offered a way for budget-conscious householders to participate in these maximalist decorating trends.

[P.S. In 1981 my parents bought an otherwise modest bungalow in a Toronto-area suburb that had received the full 1970s treatment in the same way a junker car might have a thousand dollar stereo, complete with stuccoed walls (painful!), garish purple wallpaper in loud Mod designs, and wall-to-wall carpet in the everything-Harvest-Gold main floor bathroom. My mother’s solution to the sanitary challenge of shag carpet around the toilet was to cut it into sections that could fit into the washing machine for semi-regular cleaning. The bungalow and its hideous wallpaper are long gone, and it’s a real pity there’s no photographic evidence of its colourful if rather chaotic heyday.]

Bathtub decals continued to be marketed into the 1980s, albeit in relatively subdued colours and patterns, and seem never quite to have disappeared, but never since have they regained their primacy as a standard decor element in North American bathrooms. I am guessing an eighties-era rejection of everything the seventies represented was part of this, followed by shifts in bathroom design in which stand-alone showers and clean lines have dominated ever since. There is also the challenge of keeping the decals from accumulating disgusting bathtub crud, which may be why there are more online instructions for removing old bathtub decals than for choosing them.

Image showing vintage Mactac brand bathtub decals in Harvest Gold colour.
Harvest Gold!

With renewed interest in the more kitschy elements of late midcentury design, it seems that bathtub decals deserve a revival. Maybe not on the bottom of the tub, although they might be cute on the outside of a glass shower door or on a tiled wall. They could even be great mounted on a kitchen backsplash, or on a laptop computer. It’s not out of the question that a few colourful decals could have softened the public response to this recent bathroom-related controversy.

I have two new-in-package sets of vintage bathtub decals, both of 1970s vintage. The green hued (one might say … avocado) ones were made by Rubbermaid (manufactured at Rubbermaid Canada’s Mississauga plant) and appear to date to 1975. I picked these up at Value Village the other day. The harvest gold ones (thrifted a few years ago) are also daisy-patterned and were part of the Mactac line of products made by Morgan Adhesives of Canada Limited in Brampton, Ontario. Both sets of decals were manufactured here in Canada, at plants whose parent companies, unusually, appear to continue operating manufacturing operations in this country. Increasingly long gone, however, are the days when a high school education could still get you a decently paid factory job with benefits — possibly including an employee discount on decorator bathtub decals.

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First edition hardcover copy of Canadian writer Margaret Laurence's 1974 novel The Diviners.

Currently Reading: The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (1974)

[Note: as social media as we’ve known it goes through its prolonged and probably overdue death throes — Cory Doctorow aptly calls this the inevitable result of the ‘enshittification‘ of online platforms — I’m trying out posting things here I might ordinarily have consigned to social media, including provisional and fully-formed thoughts, reviews, recommendations, image galleries and editorialized links. The decline of the relatively open internet ‘out here’ is a real problem, compounded by secretive and coercive algorithms, ossified social networks, the active throttling of news and information, and the manifest decline of social discourse. One of the things I miss most about the open internet (that is, online environments accessible to anyone online, not closed within subscription-based social media platforms designed to hold users hostage to their social networks and keep them scrolling and clicking material they didn’t choose and may not even want to see) is the joy of discovery and the opportunity to pause over something — a ‘long read’ essay, an arresting set of images — and actually think. As a researcher I have a deep love for discovery, but it’s increasingly hard to remember a time when I regularly learned new things or had my mind changed on social media — other than developing an increasingly clear conviction that the social media platforms where many of us interact ‘in public’ have become bad places — and here I am reminded of the excellent work of moral geographer Robert Sack, about whom I will write more soon — that do real harm to their users and to public discourse more generally.]

When I was in high school, Margaret Laurence was required reading in upper-year English classes, usually alternating between The Stone Angel (1964) and The Diviners (19974). Oddly enough, I am not sure either book was assigned reading in any of the classes I took, although I did read The Stone Angel (and the linked stories in A Bird in the House, 1970) and thought for many years that I’d also read The Diviners. It turns out I had not, although I would have preferred it vastly to Susanna Moodie’s tedious, complaint-filled memoir Roughing it in the Bush.

The other night, while casting about for something to read on my shelves of Canadian literature, The Diviners practically leapt into my hands. I have meant to dig into Laurence for a while, but have so little time for purely leisure reading that I’ve put it off. I settled in with the book, and very soon felt a poignant sort of sorrow that I hadn’t read this book when I was still young enough to get completely lost in Laurence’s story (and oh, wow: it would have been an excellent accompaniment to the months I spent binge-reading Alice Munro in my early twenties). The Diviners is written in Laurence’s inimitable voice, which is plain-spoken (even crude, some would say) and irascible. A characteristic line:

I WAS born bloody-minded. It’s cost me. I’ve paid through the nose. As they say. Also, one might add, through the head, heart and cunt.

At the moment I’m just under 100 pages in, and the thing that strikes me most strongly about this novel is Laurence’s keen and forgiving sense of humanity. Some of the characters in The Diviners are short-sighted and self-destructive; others strain against the bounds of their ‘place’ in their families and communities. Still, Laurence emphasizes their vulnerable humanity, and their struggles to function and relate to one another despite the environments into which they have been thrown. I find this refreshing and, these days, increasingly rare. It’s hard to think of other books I’ve read recently whose protagonists are handled with such care. Barbara Kingsolver definitely does this: I’ve just finished reading Kingsolver’s remarkable 2012 novel Flight Behaviour, in which backwoods Tennessee sheep farmers are treated with as much sensitivity and depth as the Harvard-educated scientist who might at first glimpse seem brought in to serve as their as their narrative contrast.

I also love Laurence’s vivid descriptions of her characters’ activities, whether they are scavenging in the local dump, daydreaming, worrying or dowsing. I have, as always while reading an especially excellent book, gotten out the Post-It Notes and started marking passages. Here’s one great example. Morag’s adoptive father Christie, a war veteran with shell shock, frequents the local Nuisance Grounds regularly enough to have developed what he calls “the gift of the garbage-telling.” Pointing at a spill of waste steaming in the afternoon heat, he tells her:

Now you see these bones here, and you know what they mean? They mean Simon Pearl the lawyer’s got the money for steak. Yep, not so often, maybe, but one day a week. So although he’s letting on he’s as hard up as the next —he ain’t, though it’s troubling to him, too. By their christly bloody garbage shall ye know them in their glory, is what I’m saying to you, every saintly mother’s son. [….] Now the paint tins from the Connors’ means the old man’s on the rampage and he’s painting like a devil all the kitchen chairs and suchlike, showing all of them around him that they’re lazy worthless sinners, but he’s painting out his anger, for he thinks his life is shit.

Christie goes on to tell Morag about having once found a dead baby wrapped in newspaper, which he buried in the Nuisance Grounds, retorting, “To hell with their consecrated ground.”

I’ll post more about The Diviners as I work through it. In the meantime, I am enjoying the novel tremendously. It’s no wonder the book won the Governor General’s Award (her second, after winning the GG for A Jest of God in 1966).

One more note: in the 1970s multiple efforts were made to ban The Diviners from some schools in Ontario; the organizer of one such campaign claimed the book “reeked of sordidness.” These efforts, led mainly by Christian fundamentalists, did not succeed greatly but caused harm to Laurence and were forerunners, in some ways, of contemporary censorship campaigns organized by ideologues on both the right and left. By the late 1980s it was still considered a tiny bit boundary-pushing to assign The Diviners; which is, I am sure, one of the main reasons it was required reading most years at the high schools I attended. In my  parents’ home,  Laurence’s writing was viewed with distaste, although I have little doubt that, were my mother to have revisited The Diviners later in her life, she would have appreciated the author’s realism and perhaps especially Morag’s hope-tinged cynicism.

Over and out for now. Summer grows a little long in the tooth, but it’s a gorgeous sultry afternoon and I will shortly go out to bask in the light and warmth.

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