Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Conversation With...Mike & Debbie Cameron

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, September 12, by Sara Mattinson.

Driving along the winding one-kilometre lane through the woods, you can imagine this drive is lovely in any season, even in winter. It’s not a lane you’d want to plow out after a snowstorm but the lack of power poles is a hint that perhaps that doesn’t matter to the people who live at the end of the lane. There is no power where I’m headed. Well, there is but it’s a different kind of power and I’m not talking about just solar.
When the woods open up, the view becomes panoramic as Debbie and Mike Cameron, plus their two Golden Retrievers, greet me at their small, picturesque home along the shores of the Northumberland Strait .
“We’d been coming back here since 1998 in a tent trailer, May to October, which they aren’t technically designed for,” Debbie says. “It was getting the crap kicked out of it so we were thinking of getting a serious 5th-wheel when Mike suggested we could put up a small cottage.”
Right from the start, the 600 square foot cottage was off the power grid. They never had any intention of hooking up with Nova Scotia Power.
“Even if there was a power pole right over there,” says Debbie, “we still wouldn’t hook up. We made a conscious choice to be off-grid.”
Looking back, that was the start of a journey they never expected to make but one riddled with road signs they could not ignore. 
In 2004, Debbie spent two weeks in Guatemala and it made her aware of how precious our water resources are. Here in Canada, we use fresh water to flush our toilets. 
“There are people in third world countries who would give anything to have this water to drink and wash with,” she says. “In Guatemala, I saw women who had one pot of water for the day.”
Then Mike started working at the salt mine in Pugwash in 2006; the cottage was only five minutes away compared to the 30 minute commute to their home on Tatamagouche Mountain. But the final sign, what Debbie calls her epiphany, came in 2008. 
“We were sailing with Mike’s relatives through the Gulf Islands off the BC coast,” explains Debbie. “They live on their boat and they were so happy and free and liberated and basically, I had a meltdown. ‘I don’t want my house, I don’t want my cottage’. Something had to go. I was so overwhelmed. I lived for the house. It was a log house that we’d built ourselves in the 70’s as newlyweds. It was unique and it became our identity. Our home and our lifestyle became our identity.”
Since they already had a cottage they enjoyed (they were able to weather out Hurricane Juan there comfortably when everyone else had no power), the decision to simplify their life was made easily. According to Debbie, the hardest part of it all wasn’t selling the house but the reaction of people when she told them what they were doing. 
“When you make an internal decision to make a change, you’ve processed it but when we blurted out to people that we were going to sell the house, people couldn’t get over what we were walking away from. But for us, the beach won.”
Expanding the existing solar system to take on the added appliances for living at the cottage year-round was Mike’s special challenge since he’s an electrician. Apparently, some people find it ironic that an electrician would not want power; yet he has power, he just sources it another way, being an electrician allowed him to do much of the work himself.
When Mike explains the whole system, it becomes apparent it’s not complicated, or expensive.
“We have four deep cycle batteries and those batteries are charged by solar panels and a small wind turbine. Off the batteries we have an inverter that changes DC voltage to AC voltage. That’s 12 volts to 120. That runs any 120 volt appliances that we have, satellite TV, washing machine, fridge and deep freeze. Everything else is 12 volt: our lights, the water pump. We have a back-up furnace that runs on propane. Our furnace and our hot water tank are RV-style. Our full-size range is propane. Our main source of heat is wood; we have a fireplace that heats the entire house in the winter time.”
Mike admits he prefers solar over wind power. 
“The turbine is more of a bonus to pick up wind at night,” he says. “But this summer we’ve had, the solar panels have worked great. We do have a generator for back-up, if we get too many cloudy days in a row. We’re probably good for four or five days if there is no sun. Solar panels still work when there is no sun, they’re just not as efficient.”
Their former house netted an annual power bill of about $3,000. Setting up the energy system at the cottage-turned-permanent residence was a one-time cost of $7,000 so their savings are considerable. 
“Of course, the bigger the home and the more you want to run, the price is going to go up,” Mike says, estimating the average home (running several 240 volt appliances) would cost about $20,000 to convert to solar power. 
“Everyone seems to think we’re doing without something,” Debbie says, the decorator of their cozy cottage, “so I say, tell me what it is that we’re going without. We have lights, satellite TV, refrigeration. We have everything we need, we just don’t have to pay Nova Scotia Power anything. There is a savings but even if there wasn’t, it’s still nice to outsmart a monopoly.”

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Editing Workshop Next Weekend

I'm hosting a workshop for writers who want to learn how to be their own best critic.
September 29 from 1 to 4 pm.  Hit the Contact Me button if you're interested in attending.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Funeral For A Mouse

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, August 22 by Sara Mattinson.

It all began with the dead hummingbird.
The niece and nephews, here for their annual summer visit, came rushing up the deck stairs. George,  who is eight and the eldest boy, had something in his hand and his brothers and sister wanted to see it. 
When George held out his hand to me, there was a hummingbird lying in his palm.
“It died, Aunt Sa,” George said in his serious voice. “Can we bury it?”
We had to; otherwise, the kids’ jostling to hold the bird was going to tear the poor thing to pieces. Or else it would get dropped and the dog would run off with it. 
“Yes, let’s bury it under the phlox,” I said and fetched a small shovel from the garden shed. 
I also scooped up some rose petals to place over the body before pushing the dirt back in the hole while niece Mimi, 8, appeared with a stone to mark the grave. Five minutes later, George asked me, “Is it bones yet?”
Children ask the toughest questions. How to answer something like that? I hesitate because I worry about providing more details than a child can handle or perhaps more than their parents want them to know. Except that my sister is open and honest with her children so there’s little I can say, even swear, that they won’t have heard already. 
If we’re going to shield our children from bad things, death and dying shouldn’t be one of them. It’s unavoidable, for one thing, and for another, children are far more thoughtful and resilient when it comes to accepting reality than many adults. 
This is the argument for respecting the natural intelligence of children, for not putting our grownup, and grown into, neuroses on to them. Children are inquisitive, fearless, and capable of experiencing a full range of emotion. Sadness is a part of life and a healthy, compassionate emotion to possess at any age.
Later the same day, the kids found a mouse that the cat had killed. As my youngest nephew Vinny, who is four, waited for the hole to be dug, he held the red plastic shovel that was carrying the body. 
“I’m so-wee,” he murmured, bent over the mouse. “I wuv you.” 
When he went to kiss the mouse, however, I stepped in. Even Aunt Sa knows the limits to a child’s expression of feelings. 
Ever been to a funeral for a mouse? There is a eulogy (everyone talking at the same time), there is a headstone, and there are bubbles. It was all very heartfelt and felt more like a celebration of life. 
We ended up burying two more bodies that day.  I’m glad I’d warned the kids that sometimes the cat eats the head of a mouse because when  they found a headless mouse, they took it in stride and in ink; we now have several rocks scattered through the flower gardens with “RIP” and a mouse face drawn on them. 
“No more interments until next summer, okay?” I finally declared and went inside to pour myself a restorative glass of red wine. 
A couple of days later, a friend came over.
“Why is there is stone with RIP and a mouse face drawn on it sitting by the garage door?” she wanted to know. 
I didn’t really have an answer for that question. Just in case, I suppose. Just in case. 
By the way, when I die, I want bubbles blown over my grave, too, and by everyone, not just the children. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

All Hail the Bounty of the Garden

When my friend and colleague Jane turned around at her desk and asked me if I needed any tomatoes, I recoiled in horror.
"Oh, dear god, no," I said. "We have so many, we're letting the dogs eat them right off the plants."
Last year, there was a blight and it seemed that no one had any tomatoes. This year, no one can give any of them away.
Time to make homemade salsa. Or perhaps some serious canning: stewed tomatoes for winter. Imagine getting real tomato taste in February. Mmmmmm...
"We've been eating tomatoes with lunch and dinner for a month," I told her then it hit: That's why I'm getting pimples!
I've been wondering why I'm breaking out; the acid in tomatoes would do it. It's like how corn burns that little piece of skin between your top two teeth: for everything wonderful we experience, there has to be one little thing that keeps us from over-doing it.
Now off to the squash patch to see how many different kinds of soup I'm going to have to make.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

For All Artists of All Kinds and All Ages

From the bi-weekly e-newsletter, Shelf Awareness:
Peter H. Reynolds kicks off the third annual Dot Day with Mayor Thomas Menino at the Boston Children's Museum. Fittingly, the celebration began with a teacher, Terry Shay of Waterloo, Iowa, and his students on September 15, 2009. It was Vashti's teacher in The Dot who set the budding artist on her path with the suggestion, "Just make a mark and see where it takes you."

Reynolds believes, like his heroine Marisol in Sky Color, that each of us has a powerful innate impulse to create. He admits that sometimes while sipping a cup of tea he's so inspired that rather than get water, he's used his tea as his watercolor base. That contributes to the sepia tones in what he calls his "creatrilogy": The Dot, Ish and Sky Color (all published by Candlewick).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Conversation With...Charlotte Fresia

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, August 15, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

“When I was really little, before I was going to school, before I could even write things down, when my writing was scribbles, I would sit at the piano and bang away, playing whatever sounded cool,” Charlotte Fresia says, describing her earliest memory of creating music. 
 “I didn’t even know any chords,” she admits. “I was making up my own thing at the piano. I had this little notebook, I don’t know where it is, it was full of scribbles. They looked like little mountain tops. It was all my songs. My parents thought it was so cute and when they had friends over, they’d get me to play one of my songs. I could flip to one of the pages and I would start playing it. I would always play it the same way. I don’t know how I understood it but I knew that was how I played it.”
Everyone is good at one thing; some people are so good at one thing that even when they describe how they do it, no other person could imagine it happening so naturally. That’s how it is with Charlotte Fresia: she is simply blessed with an incredible, instinctive musical talent. 
This is an exciting time for the 15-year-old Beckwith girl.
I’m sorry: Did I not mention that she’s only a teenager, going into Grade 10 at Oxford Regional Education Centre? At the age of 15, Charlotte is releasing her first solo album, along with her third album as part of the band, Fresia (a band comprised of Charlotte on keyboards and vocals, her father, Eric, on guitar and vocals, while brother Sam provides percussions.
This double album is called Night and Day, the second album named after one of the songs Charlotte has recorded. A poem inspired her to create a drawing called “Night and Day,” which she dedicated to her parents. Since her art and her music often connect, she then inspired wrote a song.
“It was a really good name for the album because our albums are so different,” she says says of Night and Day. “My dad’s songs are more happy, while mine are deeper, sometimes moody. Mine are night time, his are day time.”
Charlotte explains that her songs aren’t autobiographical. 
“My songs never have anything to do with me. They are just stories that I write,” she says. “My dad and I went through one of his songwriting books from when he was 17 and there were a couple of lines in there. There was one line, ‘It’s a long cold road I’m walking on, It’s a long, cold straight steel rail’. I love that. He told me if there’s anything in there that I wanted, I could take it.” 
She did take the line, added another line and it all became the chorus. In her own notebook, she found chord progressions she liked but hadn’t used in a song yet. Her dad loved what she’d done with his line and eventually she wrote the rest of the song, “Long Cold Road”. 
Like her father, Charlotte is a self-taught musician.
“Dad taught me the notes, showed me where everything is on the piano,” she says. “He taught me the basic blues and the basic chord progressions. After that, I kept playing with it and built up my own knowledge of music.”
When she was five, six and seven, the family lived in Halifax while Eric pursued his music career. 
“Dad had his own band and in the evenings when they’d have band practice, I remember falling asleep to the music,” she says of those years. “We hung out in the recording studio with him so we were singing really young. We were always surrounded by music.”
Knowing the music so well, it was inevitable that Charlotte and Sam would become their father’s band. 
“Dad needed some backup for a song he was working on so Sam played drums and I was playing with him and a friend who used to play with Dad pointed out that he had his band right there. He didn’t think about it much then but when we went to Mexico [2006], he got Sam some hand precussions and Mom found me a marimba. I really loved it.  Dad got a gig at a cafe in St. Cristobel for a month and we went with him.”
A few years later, the entire family of five (oldest brother Isaac is a graphic artist and sculptor while mom Catherine is a photographer) did a massive road trip across the US and Canada, with Fresia and the Offsprings (as they were called then) playing gigs and festivals along the way. 
A good student, Charlotte has no plans to quit school; she wants to graduate and she is thinking about attending university to become a music teacher (her back-up plan in case she doesn’t make it big with her own music.) But first, after graduation, she wants to go on tour through Europe.
Of course she does. Why not? 
With the kind of travel and music experiences Charlotte has experienced already, she’s keen to develop her own sense of the world and hopefully make her mark on it.  
“We’ve been taken out of school for long periods of time but we’ve learned more,” she believes. “Isaac, Sam and I, we learned at an early age how to interact with people. The news says it’s scary and dangerous in Mexico, that we should stay at resorts but we learned by avoiding the tourist places that it’s not a bad place. We met so many amazing people. We saw so much more. It brought out our creativity.”
She admits school can be a drag.
“Last year was tough for me. It was the same old boring dramas. School was representing sports and science, no art. Some of my songs are all about leaving because I want to get out of here.”  

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Beautiful Words Are Meant To Be Shared

As a member of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia, I receive a weekly email of events and workshops and contests and markets. The best part of it, as I'm sure all members would agree, is the long opening, written by theWFNS communications guru, award-winning and very talented (also very funny) Sue Goyette.
Quite often, I save her paragraph to read over and over and sometimes I email it to friends because what she writes is so unique and lovely and interesting that it must be shared. So this time, I'm sharing it with the world.

From the September 7 WFNS newsletter:

Because this is my second day back to work after having the summer off to write, there is a lake where my brain should be and a row of birches around everything I say. This doesn’t make ordering coffee easy. I’m not typing but examining the small rocks my fingers find, the glint of their dash and my hope for gold. You see what I mean? The telephone rings and I think it’s a punctuation mark ending the last thought I had with a syncopation that disturbs the birds from my trees and then silence is filled with their flying. Maybe we’re all in the same boat: early September and all of its entrances. There’s school and work (and traffic!) and the thin light of the approaching autumn shadowed with its secret and spiral staircase to winter. Even the clouds look like new notebooks and we’re all walking around like pens, signing our names to the sidewalks like we own them (!!).

~ by Sue Goyette

Saturday, September 08, 2012

On Meeting My Kind of Celebrity

After buying some peaches and blueberries and yellow beans this morning at the Pugwash Farmers' Market, my husband promised me a mug of the "best coffee in town". When we walked into the cafe, it was blessedly quiet after a very busy summer. I recognized everyone except for one woman who looked familiar; she was talking to Norene, cafe co-owner, but my eye was caught by a painting in the PopUp Art Space next door and I took off to get a closer look.
We chose the art work we liked best then purchased what we could afford: two cups of coffee. Norene was talking to this woman and her husband by the cream and sugar so she introduced us to Sheree and Gilles.
It hit me.
"You're Sheree Fitch!" I crowed. "I've read your novel."
She writes for both children and adults; if you have a young child, likely you've read "Kisses Kisses Baby-O" and I've read her adult novel, Kiss The Joy As It Flies. By any standard, she is a successful Nova Scotia writer.
In fact, I almost asked for her autograph. For a writer like me, Sheree is a celebrity. And an awfully nice one. Turns out that after years in Halifax and Washington, she and Gilles are building a home in River John and she's eager to connect with other writers in the area.
So I'll say it again: Only in the Maritimes can you meet someone, anyone, even Sheree Fitch! and sit right down for a cup of coffee and a long, entertaining conversation.
(And for Fitch fans, I want to be the first to break the news: Sheree is ready to start her next novel.)

Friday, September 07, 2012

Time To Leave

September is a difficult month for us. Like parents sending their oldest child to school for the first time, we have to watch ours leave the nest behind as well.
It's the time when the ospreys fly south for the winter. 
The anticipation and tension we experience in mid-April, waiting for their return to the nest next to our home, wondering how they fared over the winter and through the migration, fearing this might be the year they don't return, is nothing compared to the worry that consumes us in the first few weeks of September.
Because all that is left in the nest is one lone osprey.

It's been sitting there, only rarely flying off, for the past two weeks; obviously the others are gone. There has been one other osprey bringing in fish but it seems that even that one has now departed for its winter home (Texas?). This one is all by itself now, and we don't even know if it's eating.
Osprey eggs are born about a week apart so three eggs means a two week difference between the first born and the last; is it enough to account for one osprey, the youngest, the baby, remaining here for so long? Does it get so used to mother and father bringing in food that it is slower to learn to fish for itself? Does it need another two weeks to mature even though it is living alone, crying out for the constant companionship that has now deserted it?
This causes my husband much anxiety so I posited a  new theory last week: perhaps one osprey always remain in the nest to protect it from eagles looking for new real estate. This might not even be the youngest; there is always one osprey who arrives first and alone so perhaps this is the same one, staking its claim until the very last moment. Maybe this is how they keep returning, as we believe, to the same nest year after year. 
The first time we witnessed this lingering was in 2010, the first summer the osprey pair had three offspring. They've hatched out three eggs ever since so every fall, my husband worries about the remaining osprey flying south in time (in 2010, I think he was considering driving the bird to South Carolina...). But I know from this summer cycle, from the laws of nature, that sometime next week, this bird will, literally, fly off into the sunset and we will wake up the next morning to the sound of silence.

That's the hardest part about saying good-bye to these birds. They are such a part of our daily lives for six months. Every morning, we hear two sounds: the rooster crowing and the osprey chirping. Some day soon, when my husband takes his coffee out to the deck with its view of the osprey nest, it will be empty, the air will smell faintly of frost, and there will be slightly bitter taste to the coffee that morning.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

All About Weather

If ever I were to write a novel with Weather as a character, this past week would be a good one to use as a base. Lots of quirks, interesting highs and lows.
After weeks months of hot temperatures and warm nights, it's been cooling off quite a bit in the evenings for the past two weeks. Very nice for sleeping. But when I got up on Saturday morning to take the dogs for a walk, I had to return to the house to get a toque. September 1st and I was wearing a hat at six o'clock in the morning! I won't go as far as to say there was frost but the clover bordering our walking path through the field was white; not frozen, but definitely dusted with white. Blame the north wind of the strait. There must have been a few fleece sweaters and knitted slippers passed out at the cottages that morning. 
"It's a rather sudden transition to fall, isn't it?" I asked the other household dwellers who were huddled around the coffee maker. All I received for an answer was a hot mug of coffee shoved between my two cold hands.
But as people say about Nova Scotia weather, wait an hour and it will change. 
So yesterday, it was hot and sunny and today it's raining. Summer is back.
Who wouldn't want a character like that around? 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Music Nova Scotia announced its music and industry awards nominees today and two local musicians are nominated in several categories.
The husband and wife team of Dale Murray and Christina Martin, who record albums as separate artists but often perform together, live and work in Beckwith, near Port Howe. Murray operates s recording studio from home.
Murray released his latest album, Dream Mountain Dream, last March and is also nominated for Country/Bluegrass Recording of the Year, Male Artist Recording of the Year, Musician of the Year, and SOCAN Songwriter of the Year.
There will be peace in the country, too. He's not competing against his wife in any of the same categories. 
Martin, who released her latest album Sleeping With A Stranger in July, is nominated for Digital Artist of the Year, Female Artist Recording of the Year, Folk Recording of the Year, and Recording of the Year.  Her independent record label, Come Undone Records, is nominated for Company of the Year.
The awards will be given out Sunday, November 11.
(I have both albums, they are well-listened to, and more than deserving of not only nominations but awards as well.)
Congratulations, neighbours, and good luck. 

Dale and Christina in their home & studio.

Saturday, September 01, 2012


Taking a bit of a break from the weekly columns in the newspaper because I have to do some work on the manuscript for a book I've written. My brain can't work on several writing projects at once -- I need to be one zone at a time or else they bleed into each other -- so while the Cumberland County Exhibition is on and filling our pages with photos and results, I can work on something else.
The next In Conversation With... will be posted on September 12.