Behind the headline

April 14, 2014

Government buying 1,600 pieces of custom wood furniture for 70 MPs new offices

By Don Butler, Ottawa Citizen April 13, 2014

I sent an email to Don Butler and asked if he could give me access to the PDFs containing the sketches of the furniture in the order. He immediately sent the following link:

Once the graphics blew up enough that I could see them, I realized that the pieces of furniture in the illustrations are well designed and should be lasting and durable, but they are more utilitarian than extravagant.

A government spokesperson comments in Butler’s article: “Furnishings should be made of good quality materials so they are durable and they should make the most of the heritage spaces for which they are designed.”

From what I could see in the plans, the bookshelves, tables, desks and coat racks are well proportioned according to classical standards. The predominant motif on the pieces is a simple, ¼” bead cut into the bottoms of legs and added to trim to prevent splintering and resist wear. The ogees on the table edges fulfill a similar function. There is very little ornamentation on the furniture.

From the headline of the article I expected when I looked at a sketch of a large table to see a plan for a 10’ by 4’ slab of 3” black walnut cut from a single log in the manner of a corporate boardroom table, priced at about $50,000. What I found was something more like a nice ping pong table – two sections of walnut-veneer plywood sitting on three boxes underneath to hold A.V. equipment. Mind you, with good veneers, solid walnut for the edge trim and a good finish, the result could look very good. Moreover these pieces would likely remain in service for a long time. There’s no sense in buying something of poor materials and shoddy design which will need replacement when the next occupant of the office comes along. That’s where the waste comes in.

My wife looked at the illustration of the larger bookshelf in the “catalogue” and commented: “That’s just like the cherry one in our upstairs hall.” But I used solid wood throughout. The government plan calls for veneer, and rightly so: good veneer over plywood will outlast solid wood in wide, relatively thin panels where changes of humidity are to be expected, such as in Ottawa in winter.

Butler comments: “When the MPs settle into their new offices in 2016, they will be surrounded by furniture of the highest quality.” Based upon the tender requirements which Mr. Butler forwarded to me, I would disagree. The tender simply calls for an office-full of decently-designed plywood furniture covered in walnut veneer, with solid walnut used for the edge trim. There’s a lot of it in the order, but that is hardly the fault of the designers.

There remain a lot of myths about black walnut after the inflated prices of the 1970’s. In fact in 2007 Eastern Ontario hard maple was worth more than black walnut on the wholesale market. Home decorating guru Martha Stewart had declared that she preferred lighter woods, and that was the end of the demand for black walnut lumber. Even today black cherry, to my mind a much inferior furniture wood, is worth more than black walnut.

“The contract is conditionally limited to companies that can supply at least 80 per cent of the goods and services from Canadian sources. Other bids will only be considered if fewer than three bidders meet the Canadian content requirement.” It’s hard to see a bad side to this.

It’s interesting that prices for black walnut veneer logs recently shot up in Ontario. A veneer buyer told me a couple of months ago that 10,000 board feet of logs sold for $100,000 at an auction. This is a solid price in a chronically depressed market. It may not be enough to turn the hardwood market around in Ontario, but for this black walnut producer, it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

I am no admirer of the Harper Government and I am not at all sure Canada needs 70 more MP’s, but I can’t see anything wrong with this furniture order.

It was a placid Sunday drive to check out a new kennel where our spaniel could enjoy her vacation while we went on ours. The navigation system directed us to the Narrows Lock Road and away we went. Then we came to a stretch of asphalt which seemed to be below water level for about two hundred yards.

Orange cones denoted the entrance on both sides, but there was no ROAD CLOSED sign such as the one I encountered last week on my way home from Chaffey’s Locks.

Realizing that we both had our rubber boots on for the kennel visit, I stopped the car and waded out half-way. It was borderline. My feet weren’t in danger of getting wet, but there was quite a bit of water above the yellow line painted on the asphalt below.

So we started off, slowly wading the low sedan through the calm water. This went well enough. I watched the floor and nothing was leaking in. Then the pavement broke up. This was a surprise. It had looked smooth from the top, but the drive was becoming very lumpy. But there was no going back now, so with memories of that floating Ferrari on the Don Valley Parkway last summer, we headed slowly for the other side.

As we emerged, flashers flashing, a woman in a new Ford pickup ignored my warning and blasted through the whole thing, throwing a bow wake like a Quebec cabin cruiser on a holiday weekend.

Oh, well.

A low-speed chase:

April 4, 2014

Rod, I’ve noticed when reading your blog that you have a fascination for 4 wheeled machinery of all shapes and sizes with tractors high on your list. I draw to your attention the article in the Globe today page A3 by Carrie Tait which covers the RCMP — 5 members — chasing a robbery suspect during a prolonged chase with the suspect evading capture by snowmobile, then a Rhino and finally, and I suspect your favourite, a John Deere 6400 tractor. This story is just made for you!

Cheers, George Kitching

My mentor, Don Warren

March 31, 2014

Chaffey’s Locks this week mourns the passing of one of its foremost citizens, Don Warren. The educator who single-handedly routed a major Hydro line away from his beloved community also found time over a decade to teach me how to teach and find my way through the educational bureaucracy. He also, and this he took most seriously, taught me how to fish.

During the 1972-73 academic year while I was enrolled in teacher training at McArthur College in Kingston, Don offered to allow me to “do his work for him” in the English Department at Rideau District High School every Friday that I wasn’t out on another placement. At the time I didn’t quite understand what was involved in this clinical and field studies project, but I wanted a teaching job in the area and this looked like a good break.

So I showed up and taught his Friday classes and marked the assignments. For each class Don wrote in elegant longhand two sheets of foolscap, one consisting of “goods” that he had observed and the other of “not so goods.” Over the course of the school year this stack of “goods” and “not so goods” from Don were by a wide margin the best feedback I received during my teacher training.

At the time at Queen’s our instructors encouraged us to experiment and find our own way to a teaching methodology which worked. Don didn’t have much use for Teaching as a Subversive Activity and insisted that in his classroom I teach his way. He laid down the basic strategies, and I learned to follow them. They worked because they were simple and well-thought-out.

On my part I tried hard to lessen the number of comments on the “not so goods” page, but the only time I came in for a serious reprimand was the day I let it out that I had never traveled through the entire Rideau Waterway. I think I made some snarky anti-Elgin comment such as, “I was born in Westport. I haven’t gone past Newboro on the Rideau.” After class at considerable volume Don made it clear to me that if I wanted to teach in this community I had to understand and participate in its culture, and that culture derived from the Rideau Waterway, and I had jolly well better learn it and learn to love it.

That summer I rented a canoe from Don just about every evening while I explored Opinicon Lake and learned the mysteries of the largemouth bass. Don was always waiting when I came in to offer advice and congratulations as I became a better fisherman.

He even guided me to a bass derby win the one day in 1975 that I brought in a good one. Apparently fish lose a lot of moisture when caught, so it’s standard procedure to stick a garden hose down the gullet of a trophy fish and fill its stomach. Any frogs or minnows lying around dead in the canoe were also welcome to join the party in the bass’s belly. But no stones. “The judges will catch lead weights and stones every time,” Don assured me.

To get back to Don as my mentor, I should mention that when a job had come up in a new senior elementary school in Smiths Falls the spring of my graduation, Don encouraged me to grab it because with declining enrollment he thought things would be tough for a few years for new teachers. Turns out I was fifteenth hired out of 500 that year. Don had taught me well.

Many student teachers “did my work for me” over a thirty-year period once I had gotten my feet under me in the classroom. I took pleasure in passing Don’s legacy down to yet another generation of educators.

A couple of years ago I was privileged to review Don’s memoir, The House on the Hill: Recollections of a Rideau Canal Lockmaster’s son. (Trafford, 2008).

It was -10C this morning with an icy north wind. The snow crunched like midwinter’s when I stepped on it. O.K., I was bored. I had fired up Tony’s 4WD Polaris Ranger to take out the garbage and it made sense to warm it up a bit before putting it back in the shed. And there was that huge expanse of untraveled snow…

The Ranger booted over the snowbank at the edge of the driveway and dove down behind the house. No problem. If it can do this, I can haul the sugar-making equipment up to the shack. How do I get back up? Last year I ran on down the hill, crossed to the barnyard and climbed back up the hill there.

Off I went at full speed. The snow felt like concrete under the freshly-tuned Ranger’s wheels. I carved a wide turn in the 20-acre field below the house and headed west. This was too much fun. Why not carry on to the other end, another quarter-mile away, and come back the next field over?

At cruising speed I ducked through the gap between fields. A straight shot to the 50 acres beyond beckoned, so I headed north.

All of the sudden the left front wheel of the Ranger dove into deep snow, quickly followed by the rest of the 1500 pounds of vehicle, cargo and driver.

Why is it always the left side which falls through the crust? Tony has a real stability problem with that machine.

Mind you, my slightly lighter Ranger TM did the same thing in January. In fact the only way three of us could keep the 1100 pound vehicle on the crust after lifting it up and rolling it ahead was to drive it from outside, manipulating the gas pedal with an old canoe paddle found in the box. Maybe it’s the driver’s weight that’s the problem. Oh, well.

So there Tony’s Ranger sits, front corner down in two feet of snow, next to a quiet farm lane. It’s comfortable. There’s no point abusing it in a frantic attempt to back out. A crew will either lift it back up onto the snow or spring will free it, whichever comes first.

UPDATE: 6:50 p.m.

Did I mention I buried the winch tractor on the way back to rescue the Ranger? I explained to Bet that I had needed some space in the buildings for sugar-making equipment. This barely earned the derisive grunt it received.

After supper I walked back to the Ranger with a round-point shovel. Anything I dug just buried it deeper.

On the other hand the Massey Ferguson 35, though apparently stuck in the snow, wasn’t quite done yet. After rocking a bit of a gap, I discovered that while high speeds were useless against the crumbling snow, if I eased the old tractor forward very slowly it would in fact climb back up onto the crust and creep the final 150 yards to where I could turn it downhill and run the cable 150′ to the Ranger. That was 5800 pounds + driver riding on the crust at least a foot above the field.

The buried Ranger offered no resistance whatever to the 8800 lb winch. In no time it was back up on the crust and after a couple of spins around the fields to celebrate and allow the battery to charge up, I put it away. The MF35′s as comfortable there as anywhere.

UPDATE: 27 March, 2014, 5:30 p.m.

It only gets worse. I need spring to get here.


UPDATE: 30 March, 7:30 p.m.

After a day of thaw I was able to drive the winch tractor from where I had abandoned it to a road a half-mile away. With the winch I then rescued the Bolens by dragging it through three feet or more of snow to a path I had blown out with another tractor.

We still can’t get to the sugar bush with wheeled implements, snowshoeing has become an agonizing way to travel now with the uncertain footing, but the thaw is gaining momentum.

UPDATE, 3 April, 2014:

Rod vs Snow

So far it’s Snow 6, Rod 0.

The path back to the woods remains stubbornly impassable for wheeled vehicles. There’s just too much snow and with mud underneath. The task overwhelms even my larger tractors. The situation improves each day, but only by a little.

Four days ago on snowshoes I sank to the bottom so drastically that I could barely travel. In one area in the middle of the walnut field I dropped into snow above my knees. Sore muscles leave me disinclined to try that again soon.

But waiting for spring is a difficult concept even for a not-so-young fellow hardly brimming with energy, not to mention a son whose travel agenda allows only a short time in which to expose all of his friends to the joys of sugar making.

Of course the trees in the lane (now 33 buckets) have stopped running. Yesterday I tried to use the new Kubota with its large turf tires to smooth the ruts in the driveway. Nearly got the thing stuck. With a trailer attached it’s useless in mud.

Today is another day. It’s frozen quite hard outside this morning, so the sap may run. The tractor may even make it from the big walnut tree (a quarter-mile back the lane) across the 450′ of walnut seedlings to the woodlot, where more deep snow awaits. Then at least the Ranger will be able to haul people and materials back and forth to the house.

Saturday, 5 April, 2010

We’re still far from our goal of free passage to the woodlot, though it rained heavily overnight. At 6:00 a.m. on Charlie’s last weekend before he returns to Vancouver, who knows how today will unfold?

Re: 2014 Ice-Out Contest

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Please note a suggestion from 2012 winner George Kitching:

Rod, perhaps you might consider a cut off date to ensure fairness – what do you think of 1st April?

Do I have a second for this motion?


Please offer comments on this post but continue to post your contest entries on the original page to your right.

The Supreme Court’s rejection of Harper nominee Marc Nadon to fill an upcoming vacancy must come as a major slap in the face to a prime minister who does basic math: he has appointed five of the eight judges, and they just won’t stay bought. They voted six-to-one against his man. One recent Harper appointment recused himself. Another voted for Nadon. But the other three voted the appointment down because Nadon was not qualified according to the rules laid down in the Constitution.

Harper can’t very well cut the budget of the Supreme Court of Canada and expect Beverley McLachlin and her colleagues to fold their tents and go home. He can’t remove their charitable status, nor pack their board of directors. He can’t even change the law to qualify his personal candidates for the high court. He tried that by adding a page to the last omnibus bill. They quashed the change along with Nadon’s nomination. Damned Constitution.

Now McLachlin and the five others who voted against Nadon specified in their report that they did not judge whether Nadon could still qualify for the post if he were again to join the Quebec Bar. That was not the question they had been asked. This leaves Harper, the man who gave new life to the word “prorogation” in the Canadian lexicon, another out: all he has to do is hop through the court’s hoops and then send Nadon, hat in hand, again to attempt to gain admission to the vacant Supreme Court seat.

Under the circumstances I would do exactly that. But Stephen Harper has had eight years of power, and his growing pride in his authoritarian rule may not allow him to bend to the Court’s will.

Expect Harper to fire a blast at constitutional lawyer Rocco Galati, the Supreme Court, the Constitution, and pretty well everyone else from his favourite perch: the lectern of a press conference in Europe. This may leave the Ukrainians within earshot slack-jawed in bewilderment, but it’s not about your country’s problems, guys. When Harper speaks on the world stage, it’s about Stephen Harper.


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