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Renovating: the new national pastime?

Like most Canadians, we couldn't afford to move. So we picked up a sledgehammer, Catelyn Thornton writes

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

In most major Canadian cities, housing prices have skyrocketed to record-breaking heights where the air is a little too thin for most of us. And so we are reduced to buying the infamous "fixer upper." We have been deluded by a media onslaught into thinking that we will magically transform these homes into magazine-worthy gems.

Home decor is giving the fashion industry a run for its money. Nowadays, fashion mavens are willing to wear last year's couture (or the mall's clearance items) in order to buy their Eames chair and honed limestone floors. Renovation has become the Great New Canadian Pastime.

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The fervour for renos is almost equal to Canada's reverence for hockey and it has the same cast of participants. You have your pros who play for the big league – HGTV. You have the keen enthusiasts, dreaming of one day making it to the big leagues, who, for now, just play for house leagues (pun intended). You have your weekend warriors; broken amateurs who have been living for the past two years with wallpaper half peeled away and their shower surround taped with plastic waiting for that box of shiny new tiles to be installed when they get a free moment. Of course, for many, renovations are just a spectator sport fed by the likes of, gleeful Wayfair ads, hospital lottery catalogues, the massive home decor section in the magazine racks and last, but not least, the TV channel with its stable of reno rockstars.

In my youth, I idolized Sting, Bruce Springsteen and the boys of Duran Duran, but now, what woman in her right mind doesn't dream of contractor and media darling Bryan Baeumler being her man? Yes, he is cute and funny, but more importantly, he can build you anything you want!

As a child, no one I knew renovated. The "ladies who lunch" set would indulge in redecorating, but that would entail nothing more than new flocked wallpaper, a reupholstered chair or the laying of fresh broadloom shag.

Nobody was yipping like a toy poodle about demo day, taking out load-bearing walls, worrying about the porous qualities of Carrara marble and filling landfills with white appliances (our generation's "harvest gold" or "avocado green") to make way for stainless steel.

I do not have disdain for these renovation junkies, nor do I mock them. Well, maybe I do a bit, but it is all in the spirit of sincere hypocrisy. Yes, I have become one of them. I may not be young enough to rock the latest fashions, but my house can.

HGTV is my porn, but just as porn does not represent real sex, half-hour reno shows are a far cry from real-life renovations. Our household has been enjoying the glacial-paced joys of renovation for the past 12 months now. Of course, we decided to commit the cardinal sin of living in our house during the reno because we are hard-core and house poor. So right now, a tour of our home is more likely to be featured on an episode of Hoarders than a design show hosted by Sarah Richardson.

Still, I believe in the magic to come – the big reveal, the transformation, the "I can't believe I'm crying" moment, despite the niggling feeling that we're trapped in a production of Beckett's Waiting For Godot. A cast of characters move through our renovation play: Bill, Tony, Steve, Chris, Leroy, Clive, the other Steve, Dave, the other Dave, Michael, Emilio and Stalin (a reggae-loving Jamaican, not a Russian). I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of the names associated with each of the trades. My husband knows them by how each takes his coffee, as he has done numerous runs to Tim Hortons. In his youth, he worked in construction and landscaping and he remembers the appreciation he felt toward a customer's kind gesture of gratitude. I think he also feels twinges of guilt that he should be mucking about alongside them in the sea of plaster and sawdust, as opposed to driving off to work each day.

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If anyone should feel guilty, it's me. It is my house-porn addiction that embroiled us in this chaos. My husband would be just as happy sitting in a ratty Barcalounger, surrounded by his books on a listing, old Ikea bookcase and watching the game on a 500-pound tube TV encased in fake walnut wood.

For the past year, he has indulged me in my fanatic joy for renovating, but drew little thrill from it himself. Finally, last week, he shared my ecstasy for the first time. Was it the perfect kitchen pendant lights I had sourced? No. The tiles that I had found a two-hour drive away? No. My husband walked onto our new deck, oblivious to the Antique Burnished Bronze outdoor lights that were newly hung and he leaned against the railing. His eyes lit up and he ran back into the house and returned with a beer. With beer in hand, he hung his arm on the rail top again and exclaimed, "Look at how perfect the height of this railing is! It's like I'm standing at my own backyard bar."

He called our electricians, Leroy and Clive, out to the deck as they were packing up for the day and offered them a beer and a spot to lean on his new bar rail. They clinked bottles and sighed out the end of the workday.

The sight reminded me of the cherished, simple pleasure of one of the original Canadian pastimes – drinking a cold beer in your own backyard, as you watch the sun go down through the branches of a sugar maple tree. Ah, renovation of the spirit!

Catelyn Thornton lives in Toronto.

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