Fargo, Ontario 2017

December 17, 2017

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Remember the opening scene from the Coen Brothers’ movie? A beige 1987 Olds Cutlas appears through a whiteout with what appears to be another identical car reared up behind it. Turns out the clone rides on a U-Haul car dolly, and the camera reveals William H. Macey grimly fighting his way through a prairie storm to deliver it to a pair of hit men. It’s the stuff of legend for Coen buffs, if not for car lovers.

This morning I had scheduled myself to deliver Mom’s Scion to the Kingston Toyota dealership, so there I was on Hwy 15 amid the blowing salt dust as the sun came up, locked in a Hollywood fantasy. Couldn’t I have done better than William H. Macey? I squinted through Ruby’s frosted windshield and waited for my vision to clear.

Loading the Scion had proven quite easy. Though the dolly came without rental agreement or instructions, its operation seemed straightforward and my son Charlie was there to supervise. The only confusing part came when I tried to attach the safety chains which hold the car to the dolly. I couldn’t find any frame under a Scion onto which to hook anything.

A dozen or so U-Tube videos during the evening and early morning led me slowly to the realization that 1) the chains are essential; 2) they don’t have to be tight; and 3) just running each over its lower control arm and hooking back to itself will be fine. I finished tying them in place at 7:15, just before departure.

Some of those videos flat-out scared me. Half of them portrayed accidents in waiting, so this one time I decided not to cut any corners.

Generally I am loathe to leave Ruby out of doors on a cold night lest her engine frost up and her lubrication fail. But the car and dolly were already attached, so the garage was out of the question.

Ruby lit up at first touch, regardless of the cold, but then took her sweet time at warming up. Nonetheless we descended the driveway, a trim towing package, and turned onto #15 to face the rising sun.

On the highway with a two-ton load the Cayenne certainly does not lack power. Handling is unaffected. The car towed quietly, though the empty dolly creates quite a racket with loose metal plates interacting at every crease in the road.

After fifteen minutes I stopped for fuel, tightened the straps, and had largely recovered from frostbite by the time I turned onto the 401 to get to the west end of Kingston and the Toyota dealer. Chuckling at how clever I had been to make this run early on a Sunday morning to avoid the Christmas rush traffic, I found my entry blocked by security gates at every entrance to the Kingston Toyota lot.

OOOOPS! Hadn’t thought of that.

Surely the answering machine will have someone on call to open up. Ten minutes of phone tag during which I spoke to no human led me to realize that I had outwitted myself this time.

Across the street lay an almost-empty parking lot for a drugstore. We pulled in out of the growing traffic to unload. The chains came off the Scion’s control arms with a shake. Tire strap webbing was a little stiff in places, but the ratchet mechanisms worked as promised, with just a bit of brute force. By now the idling Scion was making progress on its windshield, so I lowered the ramps and prepared to back off the dolly.

Nothing happened but whining tires in reverse. With visions of last night’s videos (jeeps and mini-vans belly-hung over twisted car dollyies), we rocked ahead an inch, then reversed. More whirring of tires on metal. The Scion was stuck, on small squares of slick metal between thick angle irons ahead and behind. I left the running car in neutral, set the parking brake (on the rear wheels), fired up Ruby and shot forward. On the third try, it worked. I looked back to see the bemused Scion sitting on all fours, with one front wheel tentatively pressing down on a trailing tire strap, for security, I guess.

The drug store staff proved accommodating to my request to park my charge overnight for the mechanics to collect, so I sealed up the envelope with a key and a hypochondriac’s list of ailments which need diagnosis and repair as well as the air bag replacement, wrote the car’s number and location on the front, and marched it across to the service department. Every dealership has a hole in a door for car keys.

As I walked around the gate I didn’t notice. After I had dumped the key, on the return trip I realized that the gate was not locked. But there was another Scion key in Ruby, so I fired up the patient, scurried through the gate, and parked it in slot 12, right in front of the key drop.

And away Ruby and I went, home by 11:00 with the entire business of the delivery completed. A first-gen Porsche Cayenne is built for this sort of errand. The hand warmers on the steering wheel and the butt-and-back heaters in the seats take on their full relevance after sessions on frozen ground stringing chains through another car’s undercarriage.

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Yesterday Parliament rose for the Christmas break and the Senate had already adjourned, so today seating in the Parliamentary Dining Room was up for grabs. Our son invited us to Canada’s most exclusive restaurant and we looked forward to the experience all through the security checks.

The half-mile walk to Parliament Hill from Charlie and Roz’s downtown apartment had reacquainted us with the bone-chilling cold of the Sparks Street Mall. Charlie explained that he was leading us up the Mall for shelter, “Because there’s a cold wind off the river on Wellington Street.”

He wasn’t kidding, but we had dressed for the walk and the wind’s lash. Charlie did mention that Tyler, an employee in their B.C. office, grew up on balmy Vancouver Island. His first experience with the cold in Ottawa yesterday “Nearly froze his forehead off.”

Our waiter showed us to a quiet table for four in the first nook nearest to the river. This would do. Charlie looked a little bemused, but didn’t say anything. The waiter suggested that we get right to the buffet as it wasn’t very busy yet.

On the way across the dining room we ran into our friend and Charlie’s employer, Terry Beech, MP for Burnaby, North Seymour, and Parliamentary Secretary for Oceans, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard. He’s also a regular on the maple syrup crew at the farm in Forfar. Following an exuberant greeting he ribbed, “I was wondering who would sit at the Prime Minister’s table.”

Charlie gave a bashful grin. “I didn’t want to say anything other diners would overhear.”

Terry was there with two other staff members, the before-mentioned Tyler who looked no worse for the wear, and Ryan, who had been on leave assisting in the B.C. by-election campaign which ended Monday. The team had every reason to celebrate a hard-won, narrow victory.

I was a bit distracted by the noise in the room. Mind you, it was filling up rapidly as we took our place in the buffet line. I guess it would hold 200 diners, with a centre area under a series of huge glass domes in the ceiling, and a number of nooks to each side for more private dining.

Apparently the spectacular ceiling design produced an unexpected consequence: the domes act like parabolic microphones, distributing conversations around the large room at random. It may be the ultimate place for eavesdroppers, but with my hearing aids all I heard was a lot of noise. Paradoxically, individual diners appeared polite, quiet, and simply pleased to enjoy their lunch at the boss’s table.

It looked like the usual sort of buffet, though with more dishes. I avoided anything green and made straight for the lobster salad. Then followed a tasty-looking purple stew of cabbage and wild rice. Some smoked cod found my plate, almost transparent in its gelatinous perfection. I sampled a couple of mysteries which smelled interesting, then allowed the chef to load my plate with turkey. I should have taken more cranberry sauce to go with the bird, but the main course in general went down very well.

As low-information buffet eaters we wolfed the food down more rapidly than we likely should have. Everything was quite pleasing to the palette. We resolved to slow down and savour the desert buffet. Away we went.

Standouts on the tray were these round, tall, two-tone mousse(s). One flavour was clearly raspberry. The other was some kind of nut, likely pistachio. After an initial glutton’s portion of bread pudding it took me a while for the sugar to burn its way through, but once my palette had adjusted to the more etherial treat, the subtle elegance of the pistachio-raspberry meld occupied my thoughts through the rest of the desert and coffee.

Back in the corridor by 1:00, we were among the last to leave. Parliamentary staff are fast eaters, apparently with a full afternoon of work to do.

As lunches go, it wasn’t cheap at $100 for three, with tip. No worries about eating on the taxpayer’s dime in this dining room. Would we return, even if we didn’t luck onto the PM’s personal table? Sure! When does Parliament rise for the summer recess?

Planting walnuts

December 3, 2017

It was a perfect day for it this afternoon, so after our walk I grabbed the “Nut Wizard” Tom Stutzman gave me a while ago and had at the matt of blackened hulls under the walnut tree in the orchard. In no time a five gallon pail was full of mostly-hulled black walnut seeds, perfect for planting.

Over the years I have observed that black walnuts grow best from seed planted in late fall, and they’ll grow tall and straight if they have to struggle to get to sunlight because of competition from overhanging trees. The shelter belt of white pines on the north side of the property has quite a few young walnuts fighting their way to the top of the canopy, giving the hope of long, clear, veneer logs in sixty years. The nearest mature walnut tree is a half-mile away. Never underestimate the ambition and the horticultural talent of a grey squirrel.

For the last two years in November a pine-boughs merchant has sent a crew in to trim the lower branches of my white pines as they mature. The foliage ends up in a variety of Christmas decorations resold by vendors in the Toronto area. This activity enables the businessman to keep his construction crew working for an additional month in fall. They’re pretty good guys and they care about the trees. Ministry of Natural Resources personnel approve of this trimming procedure as it encourages the growth of higher-quality logs.

These five guys had spent a month walking around the stand of pine, so the grass was well packed for easy planting between existing stems. I kept a careful eye out for the shagbark hickory, yellow birch, and various oaks planted in clumps along with the pine. I left them to grow on their own, but I interplanted walnuts between the pines, every second row.

On an earlier planting project MNR Forester Gary Nielson told me that the black walnuts will eventually kill the pines and we’ll end up with a hardwood forest. That’s the theory: the pines are a nurse crop.

So on this lovely afternoon in late fall I picked my way down the long rows of healthy, seven-year-old pine saplings, pushing walnuts into the soft ground with my custom black-walnut planting stick. I put one in about every twenty feet. After I’d stomped 137 nuts into the turf the stained pockets of my oldest coat were empty and I decided to leave the remainder of the seeds for another day.

Should anyone care to try this pleasant task, I’d be happy to show you where to gather nuts. Be sure to wear gloves. While there is zero risk of infection from the walnuts because the rotting hulls are a powerful antibiotic, the dye contained in the dark mush will stain your hands so as to give you the once-in-a-lifetime experience of “seal flipper.” Donna O’Connor told me that high test gasoline will remove the stain, but I have yet to try it.

Neil Young concert

December 1, 2017

“Hometown” was a one man acoustic show streamed on CTV.ca on Friday evening. Neil ran through my favourites, most of which come from an album I played incessantly in 1973. “Helpless” now has an address. It’s Omemee, Ontario. But I don’t remember one stanza from the anthem he sang. It may be new, but I missed “Big birds flying upon the sky, yellow moon on the rise…”

The Red-Green atmosphere charmed me, as did the many old guitars and pianos, and even a pump organ. I didn’t expect to see Neil with a banjo, but it had its place in the program.

The quirky staging of the show required that a handful of attendees in parkas sit in a cold parking lot after a Christmas tree sale, watching assorted ancient televisions. It was clever, but I would have preferred a seat in the small auditorium. The set went smoothly with Neil permitting himself moments of an old guy’s indecision between songs, and occasional brief comments such as an explanation for why he drowns his harmonicas in a water glass before playing them (twice the volume).

Neil’s clearly not a fan of pipelines, though that may be Darryl Hannah’s influence. He chose to understate his environmental opinions this evening and kept his politics to a general world-weariness which sought relief in his roots.

His encore “Sugar Mountain” spoke to the ache of “You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain” any more, but it’s a gentle ache, not the rage of a defeated man. His voice was in fine tune, and the guitars wept their accompaniment. The stage was anything but minimalist, but the simple show charmed me to my toes.

My 1995 TAFE 35DI came with a very good bucket and a cab fabricated in the dealer’s shop. Clearly the tractor had been used primarily for winter snow removal, as it had only 340 hours on it when I bought it in 2004.

The door is a little narrow for my girth, so I decided to remove the entire cab for summer as I had a lot of mowing to do around my trees. Peter Myers made a replica of the top part of the roll bar and we lifted the cab right off the tractor and stored it. Peter’s replica bolted neatly into place and the roll bar was again intact.

Next I ordered a vinyl roof. $700 later it arrived with a sticker “For the prevention of skin cancer.”

Fall involves switching the cap and the cab by lifting each in turn into place by a chain block attached to the top beam of the car hoist and maneuvering the tractor into position beneath.

But the limitation of this cab, or “half a cab” as Lloyd calls it, is that it consists of laminated glass sheets fastened with caulking to the outside of a 1 1/4″ square tube frame. Vibration and sudden wrenches on the cab frame tend to stress the glass panels. One particularly energetic session this spring had broken one small pane outright and stressed a couple of others.

We removed the broken pane and I took it to Kingston Plate and Window glass. No problem, they would make a copy of the broken part at $18 per square foot, rounded corners included. When I picked it up I asked for a tube of caulking to fasten the glass to the frame. That’s when the trouble began.

Basically, silicone caulking won’t do the job. They suggested I talk to an auto glass expert, so today in Smiths Falls I stopped in at Dave’s Independent Auto Glass to inquire. The two guys about my age were very helpful.

The key part of the process is the sanding of the frame down to bare metal and the application of a special primer to both the frame and the area of the glass to contact the frame. One guy exhorted me to mask the area of the window I didn’t want painted black, as everyone gets wobbly with the little brush which comes with the primer — a small furry ball on a metal stick like a shoe polish brush back when they had such things.

Finding a warm room came first, as this is not a cold-weather job. I parked the TAFE in Ruby’s garage and lit a fire in the box stove. Then I had at the offended frame with an angle grinder, finishing up with my random orbital sander and 40 grit.

An hour and a half later the shop was warm, so I gingerly brushed the primer onto both frame and glass. Heady fumes there, almost recreational, but nothing exploded.

Then came the polyurethane caulk which holds modern windshields in place. They had warned me that it takes 72 hours to cure fully. I vowed to give up the shop for that interval, though I noticed on the tube that it claims a 2-hour drive-away rating. The nozzle with the caulking tube had an unusual slit in one side. Dave explained that the nozzle leaves a triangular bead on the frame which the glass then squashes into place.

I broke open the seal on the caulking and tried a couple of squirts with the caulking gun. The stuff had the viscosity of frozen tar.

Not to be defeated by arthritic hands, I went to the wood shop and collected my pneumatic caulking gun and hooked it to Charlie’s big-ass air compressor. Bet turned it on and I signalled her to shut the motor off as soon as the black goo began to flow. Too much pressure would empty the expensive tube in a couple of seconds. The large air supply meant that I could caulk the entire window with only a moderate reduction in pressure. With my smaller compressor I set the pressure to around 30 lb. to produce the same effect.

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This tool cost a bit over $60. at Princess Auto. Its advantage is that it releases pressure instantly when the trigger is released. Cheaper models do not.

The bead went on nicely and held very well to the steel. At the last moment Bet placed a metal C-clamp on the bottom rail in what we hoped was the correct position to hold the weight of the window in case the caulk did not.

I set the glass on the clamp, tried to line it up, and pushed it up against the frame. It held. Bet placed a restraining hand upon it while I scampered up the step ladder to attach three strips of wide masking tape which I had previously set on the roof. They tightened up nicely and removed the risk of a crash. More bands of masking tape went everywhere, just to be sure.

The following morning everything had firmed up nicely, so I backed the TAFE out. If this window holds, I’ll replace two others.

After they released me from hospital Bet took the mower and cut three trails to the woods through the long grass.  Then she made us walk them a couple of times per day.  Last week I added to the cumulative distance by mowing around another eight-acre field. The roads through the woodlot make fine walking as well at this time of year.  I look forward to the trails now, though Bet and Taffy don’t always come along.

By the time we visited the chief heart specialist at the Kingston Heart Unit last week, my numbers were all very good.  He wheeled out a new diabetes pill which protects against heart attacks and kidney failure with only the occasional amputated foot if you don’t drink enough water.

There’s a sort of all-or-nothing culture in this department and none of them seem to have met a diuretic they didn’t like.

Then came the stress test. I’d never tried a treadmill before and found the nurse’s cheerleader attitude confusing.  

For months everyone had programmed me: “We call your heart condition the widow-maker. Do nothing strenuous or you may die without warning, or at the very least tear your chest apart.”  The entire staff of Kingston General Hospital was on about this.  Family, friends and the homework reading material sang the same hymns.  

Then this young heretic wanted me to knock myself out to impress her.

There was no upper limit on her demands.

I hadn’t seen yearning like this since I told the Liberal Party I would only send them money if they did NOT call me to ask for it.  

That works, by the way.

So I left some room for improvement on the next stress test, but the lungs, legs and refurbished heart worked fine for almost six minutes, flat out, as the nurse increased the treadmill’s speed and slope.  This is a non-athelete speaking here, remember.

My offer to take any cancellation at all got the physiotherapy moved from late February to early November. I argued there isn’t much one can do around a farm tractor to prepare it for winter snow removal if one can only lift 15 pounds. 

The first session is Thursday at Hotel Dieu.

In summary, I’m far from back to normal in strength and flexibility, but I don’t need pain killers any more, the healing’s going well, and blood sugar and hemoglobin are good. 

Apart from occasional trouble dragging the appropriate noun out of memory while speaking, my brain functions reasonably well.  I heard Bet tell someone one day that my disposition is good.

The lazy nouns may not be a bad tradeoff for a 20 lb. weight loss.

It’s a relief to drive again.

And I still can’t play the piano. 

UPDATE: December 3, 2017

Yesterday I helped Les Parrott cut dead ash trees on his lot. I felled most of them with his saw while he ran the winch on my tractor to add a reasonable margin of accuracy and safety to the operation. Today, after our walk in the woods, I decided to plant walnuts. I gathered a five gallon pail of nuts from the orchard and spent a pleasant two hours interplanting the seeds among pines in the shelter belt along the north border of the property.

Both jobs were moderately strenuous and it felt great to work again.

Rehabilitation is ongoing at the Hotel Dieu Heart Clinic. This organization has my unequivocal approval. The staff are very professional (blood pressure checked five times per session, blood sugar checked before and after, medications carefully supervised, pulse rates monitored electronically throughout), but they are also immensely likeable. Bet goes shopping for the two hours after she drops me off, and she continues to remark at what a happy group — staff and patients — she encounters when she comes in at the end of a session.

It’s a four-month program with two sessions per week plus homework. The moderated floor exercises and stretches provide the discipline I couldn’t manage on my own (I’m lazy and hate to stretch) and the exercise machines enable us to train our hearts to handle heavier workloads.

I leave each session feeling lucky to have first-rate, free health care like this, especially with this group of very nice physiotherapists and nurses.

Ruby’s air conditioning

October 25, 2017

Over the course of the summer it seemed that Ruby’s air conditioning system was becoming less vigorous.  Then I rode in the passenger seat on a return from Kingston one warm afternoon.  The passenger vent doesn’t work.  I cooked.  My wife is a lot more tolerant of the heat in a vehicle than I am.

For the rest of the summer we drove Bet’s Lexus to my many medical appointments.  Its excellent climate control and electronically cooled front seats won out.

As I recovered from the heart operation I put my scattered thoughts to the problem.  Leaving an elderly Porsche parked for weeks at a time wouldn’t do.  I recalled that Ruby’s longtime mechanic had recharged the system in B.C. just before Charlie delivered it to the railroad yard in Vancouver back in July of 2016.  I’d go to the local air conditioning shop and have it done again.

Google suggested Olgivie’s on Kilmarnok Island.  I made an appointment and turned up to find a clean facility with a lot of expensive cars, high-end pickups, and heavy trucks around.  The tech came out to listen to my request for a diagnosis, then returned with a printed statement that claimed one a.c. solenoid for the passenger side wasn’t working, but the cooling system works fine with less output on the right.  I gave them the requested $100 and left, more impressed with the car wash than the diagnosis.

Air conditioning performance steadily decreased until I feared for the compressor if it ran out of lubricant.

The next closest shop is Pat’s Radiator in Kingston.  After an initial talk with the counter guy I dropped Ruby off there for service between appointments at the hospital.  They vacuumed the system and recharged it with oil and refrigerant. Because the tech could find no leak, he added a green dye and suggested I have a look after a week or two of driving.  The counter guy told me small leaks often occur in this climate because of extremes of temperature and then can’t be located when it warms up.  Out of the blue he commented:  “You haven’t driven it very much, have you?”  I think he was referring to Ruby’s mileage and condition in comparison to its year. Generally techs in Ontario don’t expect much of a car built in 2003, but Vancouver cars have it easy.

My $238 was well spent, as the a/c now seems to work quite well.  No leaks are evident so far.  I’d take Ruby back to “Pat’s” for other repairs.

UPDATE, 16 DECEMBER, 2017

I should mention that I did take Ruby back to Pat’s for a checkup of the coolant refill. A drop-in, I figured someone would take a quick look under the car and give me the nod and be done with it.

No. A tech put Ruby into the shop and I sat down for a half hour before he re-appeared. I approached the counter. He began to operate the bill machine. Out came the invoice, documenting the cooling system check, declaring that there were no leaks. Amount owing: $ 0.00.

Apparently it is important to document the inspections, and they figure the cost into the original invoice.

Ruby’s HVAC system continues to function well. Pat’s Radiators in Kingston, Ontario rates pretty high in my book.