Bliss Notes Friday: Life's a Picnic

Seating themselves on the greensward, they eat while the corks fly and there is talk, laughter and merriment, and perfect freedom, for the universe is their drawing room and the sun their lamp.
                                      - Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

As children, we always seemed to be reading about picnics. We were thrilled by Nancy Drew's lakeside picnic lunches with Ned, replete with devilled eggs and a healthy dollop of adventure. And we were charmed by Laura Ingalls Wilder's prairie picnics of bread, butter, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and cookies. But it was Frances, the sassy badger, who truly won us over to picnics in Best Friends for Frances. We can still remember Frances's attempt to get even with lunch-box gourmand Albert by bragging about the contents of her picnic hamper:
Nothing much. Hard-boiled eggs and whole fresh tomatoes. Carrot and celery sticks. There are some cream cheese-and-chives sandwiches, I think, and cream cheese-and-jelly sandwiches too, and salami-and-egg and pepper-and-egg sandwiches. Cole slaw and potato chips, of course. Ice-cold root beer packed in ice, and watermelon and strawberries and cream for dessert. And there are things I forget, like black and green olives and pickles and Popsicles and probably some pretzels and things like that. And there are salt and pepper shakers and napkins and a checked tablecloth, which is the way girls do it.
Checked table cloths, tiny salt and pepper shakers: no wonder Herman Melville described picnics as "that faint semblance of Eden."

Aesthetically, we prefer our picnics to be packed in a wicker baskets. If one is picnicking outside on a hot day, however, insulation is a neccessity (food poisoning is never in fashion.) And while we love the idea of packing bone china, silver, and crystal, we realize that materials like melamine and enamelware are a lot more practical. We love the insulated Picnic & Beyond backpack that we've had for years to keep our devilled eggs on ice. It's both pretty and practical.

While picnic fare is a personal choice, we love tea sandwiches, pasta salad, fresh fruit, and a big thermos full of iced tea (Rishi Tea's Blueberry Hibiscus is always delish.) Remember to throw in a blanket to sit on (we have a plaid LL Bean number, but wouldn't kick this Hermès Avalon out of bed for eating crackers.)

Personally, we think that a picnic without chocolate chip cookies is simply uncivilized, so we wanted to share our recipe for Possibly the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever.

2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs (we use egg substitute)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugars together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
Blend in eggs (or egg substitute.)
Gradually add flour mix, beating until smooth.
Beat in vanilla extract.
Stir in chocolate chips.
Drop batter by tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet, 3 inches apart.
Bake 10-12 minutes until golden brown.
Makes four dozen (meaning three dozen for the picnic and a dozen for the cook!)

Toss them into a bag or a vintage cookie tin and you're good to go -- even if you only travel as far as your living room floor.

Happy picnicking,

xo Jen

Birthdays, Elephants and an Awesome Discount Code for Candy Shop Vintage

It's somebody's birthday today.

She asked me not to disclose her age.

She's younger than me, but she's a grandmother.

And recently became a great-grandmother.

She's not taking it well. At 10am, she was already getting into the Veuve.

Which did not make her a particularly useful assistant today.

I decided to cheer her up by giving her a birthday prezzie. She had been admiring my Elephants on Parade necklace from Candy Shop Vintage.

(I think she was jealous of all the compliments I receive when I wear it.)

And so...

The lovely little blue box arrived in the mail.

And voilà! 

Suddenly, she has a new lease on life.

In honour of Serena's 6th birthday (oops!), Candy Shop Vintage has generously arranged for all Dwell on These Things readers to receive 20% off new orders placed between now and Thursday, July 4, 2013. Enter the discount code SWEETTHINGS at the checkout.

Personally, I'm loving these made in the USA cuties at USD$38. (Loving NAFTA right about now.)

Happy Birthday, Serena!

xo Jen

Rule Britannia

It's Wimbledon time.

(Grass courts are so pretty!)

Which means it's time for this:

(I like Pimm's with ginger ale but the Original Cup features 1 part Pimm's No.1
mixed with 3 parts chilled lemonade; add some mint, cucumber, orange and strawberry for colour.)

It's also time for thinking about jolly old England in general. I love the UK. Love it. It's where my Godmum lives. It's where a number of my favourite designers are.

And it's home of Downton.

So, I was totally thrilled to find out that a new British shop opened in Oakville. Yes, British Life has been open for about 9 weeks now. It was started by a former accounting partner and his writer wife. (The owner and I got to talking. We both worked on the same media deal back in the day. Funny small world!) 

They have lots of Emma Bridgewater.

Love Emma Bridgewater.

A little of it might have made its way home.

(Hey, everybody needs a fox coffee mug.)

They also have lots of UK treats. So if you want to eat Hobnobs along with Ken and Deirdre, you totally can.

I may or may not have come away with some marmite and some Walkers Crisps.

If you are into all things British and live in the GTA, I'd recommend checking out this shop. This is in no way a sponsored post but I must disclose that the Roast Chicken crisps were on the house. I can't wait to eat them while I watch Dev bust Karl (please!) on Corrie.

Clearly, she has no idea that I polished off the bag before lunch. 

God Save the Queen!

Colour Theory, Angst and Lacroix

We stayed in town this weekend as there were some end-of-year activities planned. This meant I got to do a little of this:

(Yes, that's Tatler magazine. I was reading it for the piece on Alpha's Nicky Gumbel. Honest.)

And while the kids did this:

I did a whole lot of this:

Man, Strayed is a talented writer. Don't let the Oprah sticker put you off (it peels right off, thank heavens.) If you are an aspiring memoir writer, you must read Wild. And until you can gain the perspective Strayed has, don't even think of picking up a pen. (I'm very mindful of writing these days. I've been getting some preliminary feedback on my business book, Engage the Fox. I got the review of my life last week, along with the comment that the first thirty pages are among the suckiest first thirty pages ever written. We're talking Bulwer-Lytton territory here, people. After several years editing over at Literary Mama and writing lots of little pieces for publication, putting a book-length work into the world is humbling!)

Anyhow, Wild puts my existential crisis in perspective. (Existential is not really accurate: do-istential is the more accurate description: I simply cannot figure out what to do, career-wise.) I mentioned to a group of decorators the other day that I'd rather pull out my own teeth than manage someone's renovation and they were all, that's kind of the job. And I was all, oh crap! That, layered with the school's request that I take some kind of language competency test (perhaps they too have read the first 30 pages of ETF...) sent me into a bit of a tailspin. Luckily, I have some very good people in my life to talk me off the ledge. As it turns out, the test is for every student. It's assumed I'll do fine and the How to Communicate course will be waived. As for the hating to manage renovations thing, I assume I'm still screwed.)

There are parts of the decorating business I love. I was at this totally fantastic seminar last week with Jane Lockhart.

It was basically a Colour Theory 101 and it was so good. It was a crash course in the science of light (remember ROY G BIV?), the technical elements of lighting and paint, and the biology of seeing and how colour impacts mood.

Lockhart talked about how socio-economic forces impact our craving for certain colours and allow you to forecast colour trends, so it was a bit of what I loved about my day with CMG.

Note: these are workshop exercises. If I showed you the 2015 CMG palette, I'd have to hide out with  Edward Snowden. You do not antagonize the illuminati of colour.

So the workshop was not just about what we are all going to be wearing in the fall:

But why we are going to be wearing it. Really good stuff. Jonah Lehrer meets Charlotte Moss good. And then I think, H E double hockey sticks yeah! Because I love that integrative thinking thing where you smash together a bunch of diverging ideas. So I need to find out a way to marry my strategic thinking/finance business background with the elements of the design world I enjoy.

In other words, I need this Christian Lacroix Butterfly Parade sofa for Sofaworks:

Because it channels one of my favourite magazine spreads ever

Source: Town & Country, April 1988. Yes, 1988. Note the car...

And because it would make a great place to solve wicked problems.

Wicked problems. Now, I like the sound of that!

Easy peasy, right? Now if only I can find a way to monetize it all.

Bliss Notes Friday

"If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'Thank you,' that would suffice.' - Meister Eckhart

Thank You Note

No, we are not talking about the thank you notes we've been urged to write since we were knee high to a grasshopper (and which one of us, ahem, still owes a number of people who attended a birthday party back in January -- The Etiquette Grrls, and our mothers, would be horrified.) Instead, we are talking about the daily practice of writing in a gratitude journal.

The underlying message of popular books like The Secret, You Can Heal Your Life, and The Law of Attraction, is that we cannot bring more into our lives -- more happiness, more love, more money, more joy -- until we are thankful for what we already have. It is so easy to focus on what we don't have and a gratitude journal serves as a regular reminder of all of the people, things, and circumstances for which we are grateful. It's nice to have a record of what has made us happy over the years.

There are a number of gratitude journals available to help get one started but all one needs is a notebook and a pen. At Bliss Notes, we love the spiral bound notebooks from Cath Kidston (spiral bound books open fully and make writing easy). And while we adore the aesthetics of the Montblanc Le Grand Traveller, for journal writing we like the Pilot Hi-tecpoint rollerball (this type of pen works best on standard writing paper -- glossy paper requires a ballpoint or it will smear). One can also journal online, but we believe that there is something magical in the act of writing itself.

We prefer to write in the evening and reflect on the day. Others swear by writing first thing in the morning to set the tone for the next 24 hours. There is no correct (or incorrect) way to journal.

Once we are at the page, pen in hand, we try to focus on specifics:

Today, I am grateful for those paper-thin ginger cookies they sell at Ikea.

Today, I am grateful that our sofa is so comfortable to lounge on.

Today, I am grateful for how my son looks when he first wakes up, with his hair sticking up on one side and slightly smooshed cheeks.

Some days the writing flows and other days we are hard-pressed to find anything for which we feel grateful (one can only write "Today, I am grateful for chocolate-covered almonds" so many times before it starts to feel phoned in). And that's OK.

Our gratitude journals act as a bit of a litmus test for our psyches. If we are feeling ungrateful, we know that we need to find ways to work more joy into our lives going forward. In this case, we give thanks for the process of journal writing itself:

Thank you for helping me realize that I need to build more joy into my life. I am thankful today has passed and look forward to a more joyful tomorrow.

Buddha (yes, I'm a Christian and no, I don't get freaked out by the Buddha) reminds us that there is always something for which we can be thankful:

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful.

We're not sure if he was trying to be funny, but on the gloomiest of days, the thought of him speaking to what appears to have been a rather belligerent group of doubters makes us laugh. And we like to laugh.

Something else for which to be grateful.

Colour me content

At a fabulous colour workshop with Jane Lockhart today. Very exciting stuff in my world. Will share some of the highlights next week. In the interim, stay tuned for Bliss Notes Friday.

My apologies

Currently, I am having my behind kicked by art class.

And Serena refuses to blog even though some frenchies are fully capable of blogging every day. (Cough Martha cough.)

My nails are still drying.

Write more soon.

Xo Jen

CDECA, The New AD, and Blender Power

So, my assistant has been leaving work for lots of meetings. She claims she's helping the local Shriners do some philanthropic work, but somehow I have my doubts. I'm guessing she's tweeting me pictures of herself wearing a fake fez to hide the fact she's looking for alternate employment. Good luck with that. She's of the "you will be lucky to get her to work for you" reference letter variety.

I resent that.

Today, I went to my first CDECA Greater Toronto Area West event. It was their summer luncheon. What a delightful group. This is one of the more active CDECA groups so I consider myself lucky to be getting into the interior decorating business in Oakville. Plus, I had the chance to stuff myself at Il Fornello, which is not a bad way to spend a Monday afternoon.

I also added a new member to my ever-growing staff.  He is quite tall, quieter than expected, and a whiz in the kitchen.

Yes, I've joined the Vitamix crowd. On the weekend, I was talking to one of these born sales types who was extolling the virtues of his blender. He must have performed some kind of psychological sales voodoo on me because next thing you know, I'm at Bed, Bath and Beyond slapping down my Mastercard and 20% off coupon. (My research shows that if you get an eligible 20% off coupon, BB&B is the cheapest place to get a new model. Costco is next lowest in price and the refurbished ones occasionally offered on the Vitamix site are a bargain if you can get your hands on one). I used to make smoothies every day and I'd been missing them since I'd burned out the last in a long line of blenders. The best thing about this sucker is you can also make hot soup in it (the vibration heats it up.) In the winter, I love soup like cat ladies love their cats and now I can make the cream-free pureed squash and mushroom soups I adore. Fabulous!

For the rest of the day, I had committee meetings at the school and the club. Apparently, I've become a joiner. They really ought to test this Oakville water: they must be putting something strange in it.

Still lots of work on the class and freelancing front but I also have some fun, designy things lined up this week. So that makes me happy. Plus, all the new shelter mags are out.

The new AD is amazing. The Krakoff house! Seriously, have you ever seen a better screening room?

And this pool by Kris Ruhs? Gorgeous. Apparently, the editor of Vogue Italia lives quite well

So many creative people and pretty things out there. No excuse for being bored.

PS: If you are looking for something fun to do next week, Crossroads is hosting some special live 100 Huntley Street tapings. Guests include Don Amero, Don Meredith, Hamilton Children's Choir, Paul Henderson, Ron Ellis, Michael Bull Roberts, and Will Graham. You can buy your (practically free) tickets here.

Weekend Wrap Up

I hope y'all had a great weekend. We had (mostly) lovely weather here, which always feels like a gift.

Friday was art class. I feel like I'm starting to make some progress:

It's just so time consuming for me to draw things. My instructor assures me that I'll be thankful when one day I find sketching out a quick concept for a client to be easy. Perhaps. But do you know what's even easier? Pinterest. Perhaps I can brand myself as The Lazy Decorator and just give clients tear sheets from magazines.

After my class, I finally went to see Iron Man 3. As with the other two movies, it's all about the clothes:

Seriously, look at the shoulder line on La Gwynnie's suit jacket. Also, slightly rethinking last week's declaration that I'll never go red...

Another busy weekend with some excellent eating. Had dinner at Michaels' Back Door in Mississauga: Lobster ravioli with tiger shrimp. Fantastic. I also ordered the perfect peach martini and it was pretty darned perfect. And the sticky toffee pudding? Divine.

Had brunch at the Hart House Gallery Grill. Gosh, I love that place. It's so darned pretty.

Plus, the food: Wow! I had the crispy shiitake turnip cake with edamame and hot & sour sauce, which was completely fantastic. I love creative chefs.

Sunday was a BBQ at my place for my papa. I had to replace the BBQ starter last week and I did so myself and felt like a total rock star so it was sweet victory to cook on the grill.

We ate in the summer house. Dining in there is so very civilized.

Every time I start to get cold feet about doing this whole switch over to design, I'm reminded of things like the summer house, which has brought daily joy to my life.

Have to dash. Lots on the go this week. Good luck, have fun and play safe...

Bliss Notes Friday

From 2008 to 2010, I wrote an online newsletter called Bliss Notes, a weekly column that focused on the lovely side of life. Although I did not reveal it at the time, it was something I wrote in order to keep sane during the very early stages of my divorce. I needed to focus on the positive and needed the discipline of writing to help me along. I thought it might be fun to revisit things now that I'm in a completely different head space. I'll run some of the old pieces and write some new ones too. Consider this reprint of the June12, 2008 issue the kick-off of Bliss Notes Fridays.

Graduation is only a concept. In real life every day you graduate. Graduation is a process that goes on until the last day of your life. If you can grasp that, you'll make a difference.     - Arie Pencovici

Sometimes the keynote speech at graduation is every bit as educational as the years it took in class to merit the cap and the gown. A good speech has more staying power than the Black-Scholes model or the battle formations used in the Peloponnesian War ever will. 

Sadly, not every institution attracts A-list speakers for commencement. We can't even remember who spoke at the various ceremonies we've attended, but they were decidedly C-list individuals (we have only a slight recollection of a former politician with an odd, lingering handshake.) And even if we had been given a powerhouse speaker like a former Prime Minister, a captain of industry or a celebrity, we still might not have been receptive to their advice. More likely we'd be worrying about tripping when we crossed the stage to get our degree, or wondering if the rented polyester gowns and hats had been laundered between wearings (given the back-to-back convocation sessions and the less-than-sparkling condition of the white faux fur stoles, our guess was that hotel bedspreads see the inside of a washing machine more frequently). Besides, we were 21. We knew everything. 

Now that we are older, we are actively seeking out advice. We realize that we do not, in fact, know all the answers and that, "yes, we would like to hear about 5 steps to a guaranteed happy life, thank-you-very-much." Thanks to the power of the internet, we are able to enjoy the best commencement speeches from the comfort of our own homes, free from the hard metal folding chairs, itchy gowns, and having to go on job interviews with no skills under our belt. 

We can venture back in time to 1983 and Margaret Atwood's deliciously dark speech at the University of Toronto:

. . . when faced with the inevitable, you always have a choice. You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it. As I learned during my liberal arts education, any symbol can have, in the imaginative context, two versions, a positive and a negative. Blood can either be the gift of life or what comes out of you when you cut your wrists in the bathtub. Or, somewhat less drastically, if you spill your milk you're left with a glass which is either half empty or half full. . . .You may not be able to alter reality, but you can alter your attitude towards it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality. Try it and see.

We have outlined some of the more pithy quotes coming from commencement addresses:
It's not the honours and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It's the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our lives from which we make our choices is very good stuff. - Mr. Rogers, Dartmouth, 2002.
Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. - Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005
Take my word for it, happiness is temporary and fleeting. Joy, by contrast, is unpredictable. It comes from pursuing interests and passions that do not obviously result in happiness.  - Guy Kawasaki, Palo Alto, 1995
Nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations. The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.  - Anna Quindlen, Mount Holyoke College, 1999
There's No THERE, THERE. That's from the writer Gertrude Stein. She's right. There's not there. That elusive "there" with the job, the beach house, the dream, it's not out there. There is here. It's in you... right now. That real happiness, real contentment has to be IN you regardless of professional achievement and amount of wealth.  - Brian Kenny, Ohio Northern University, 2007
You could invent a new kind of Success that includes children's poetry, butterfly migrations, butterfly kisses, the Grand Canyon, eternity. If somebody says "Your money or your life," you could say: Life. And mean it. You'll see things collapse in your time, the big houses, the empires of glass. The new green things that sprout up through the wreck -- those will be yours. - Barbara Kingsolver, Duke, 2008
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. - J.K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008
Now go out into the world and make us proud. 

A very short complaint

OK, so I'm flipping through a copy of Tatler and I see this:

First, the lady steals my name. Now she's stealing my Miss Dior bag with the Cannage stitching.

Seriously unfair.

Tennis, cobistyle and Saved by Pillows

Today I did the ladies tennis drop-in at the club.

This was a big thing for me.

I'm big on lessons or playing with friends, but when it comes time to join anything more formal that annoying high school voice that says things like "you're not athletic" starts to whisper in my ear. But today, I showed up. And that's 85% of life, right? And it was fun. Like, really fun. As it turns out, people actually like to be better at stuff than you and so they are happy to help and instruct. It was good, the weather was stellar, and I even got in a few good shots.

And as I was marvelling at the idea that I was playing sports with strangers, I was thinking that in life you get endless opportunities. In certain circles, you are trained from a young age that you have one shot: get the grades, get into the school, get the guy, get the job, get the house. It's a linear and upward trajectory and if you fall off the path, you're done.

This is a lie.

You can decide tomorrow - oh, why not make it today - to be different. You can decide that you now play tennis, that you are going back to school, that you are a redhead*, that you like camping*. This is the reward for being an adult. It won't be easy. It might not be pretty. You might have to downsize your home about 8000 square feet. And some people might no longer want to hang with your new self. But that's ok. There will be new people, new places, new opportunities. But the only person who can make it happen is you.

* Note: this will never happen


OK, so yesterday was busy busy. In the morning, I went out to my beloved SOFA to see Cobi Ladner give a talk about branding.

We sat in the Canadel space. The chairs are sooo much nicer than folding ones:

Cobi was editor of House and Home for 18 years. Her cobistyle line, including furniture, fabric, drapes, lighting, and accessories, is now carried in over 1000 stores across Canada. Her look is relaxed, playful, fun, and channels the good life. It's prep and chinoiserie and colour and the kind of well-bred bohemian elegance that would actually fly in the more daring parts of Oakville. Love!

I had to leave early to get to a meeting at the school, but I did manage to capture a few takeaway points to share.

Cobi started her talk by defining what she means by brand. She referred to a quote from marketer extraordinaire, Seth Godin:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.
I love this definition. It's so very relevant to the world of design. Cobi pointed out that the feeling you create is more important than what you sell. Building a successful brand - especially a successful home decor brand - is really about telling a story for your clients. If you are Ralph Lauren, you are tapping into a customer's desire to feel established and surrounded by luxury. If you are Kate Spade, you know that your client likes her life to feel playful and fun. Martha Stewart is all about bringing order and calm to a chaotic universe (that she was able to maintain this story while in the hoosegow is more proof of her team's business genius.)

On the fashion front, I can see a consistent branding message from Milly.  The collaboration line for Banana Republic channels a relaxed summer-in-the-Hamptons vibe that is very appealing to me in light of my desire to enjoy the new summer house space.

Cobi is the first person to admit that the world does not need another pillow or a vase. What the world needs, she's concluded, is more stories. I was reminded of my beloved Scalamandre Zebra pillows.

She's obsessed.

I love them not just because they look interesting, but because the pattern conjures up memories of the The Royal Tenenbaums set and the feeling of eccentric, faded luxury the film implies.

I love House of Hackney for the same reason. Reversal of Fortune Chic.

With fabric and furniture and lighting, we can create a backdrop against which we can live our ideal lives. As a decor company, having a strong brand identity means that people know who you are and what you represent and if they buy your goods or services, it's because they want to tap into that vision. Not only does this help move product, but it  also elevates the profession. We are not selling pillows or lamps or curtains: we are providing a better life for our clients. Saved by pillows.

I like that Cobi gets that too.

Christmas Traditions: The Nutcracker Ballet

Every year, I take my daughter to see the Nutcracker. (I took my youngest son once, but he loudly complained that there was too much dancing...