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Got any red?


I visited Value Village yesterday – the mosaic artist’s best friend – shopping for raw materials for our next mosaic commission. When I saw the giant fire-engine red strawberry on the shelf waiting for me, I nearly jumped for joy. It has both amazing colour and great texture going for it. With the inventory of crockery and tiles we have on hand, I think we have plenty of material ready to go for the project.

Next step is to figure out the image and draw it up on the ground, which in this case will be Russian birch plywood. Once the image is drawn and cut to shape, the fun begins.

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These days I don’t eat a lot of fried foods, but when a neighbour brought us a perfect giant puffball, I had to make an exception. There are plenty of ways to prepare puffballs but this is far and away my fave.

I cut up some of the puffball into half-inch thick pieces. Then I prepared two containers, one with egg and the other with a combination of bread crumbs and crushed up bran flakes, with salt, pepper, cayenne and a spice mix I like. I bathed the puffball steaks in the egg, then got them nicely covered with the crumb mixture – then splashed some vegetable oil in a non-stick pan and fried them up for a couple minutes on each side.

Perfect drizzled with sriracha served with olives and tomatoes picked from the garden this morning.

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Black Jack Grove

Some fiddle music for a Thursday morning. Here’s Black Jack Grove performed by Art Stamper. Mr. Stamper, a player from Kentucky, played both Appalachian old time fiddle as well as bluegrass fiddle (he performed with the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe’s outfit). I read that as well as being a great fiddler, he was also a haircutter who owned a shop called The Way of Art.

I’ve been trying to learn this one on fiddle. I’ve got the tune down, and I’m working on getting my speed up and adding in drones. I’m finding fiddle to be pretty challenging to learn compared to banjo or accordion. Developing bowing control is an immediate obstacle and so is playing nice clean drones. On top of that, since there are no frets, you have to worry about getting the intonation right. I’m working hard at it though, and getting better a bit at a time.

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Jobs #2: The Waterbed Factory

I completed my university studies in 1983 with a Fine Art degree. I knew going in this wasn’t going to help me find my way financially but I didn’t care about that. I had a chance to study with painters I admired and focus on painting and that seemed a lot more important than training for a job.

All I wanted to do at the time was make paintings, really. I’d let the future take care of itself. Meanwhile, it was time to get out of my parents’ house and find some independence and I needed a job. My parents were supportive of my art habit but at the same time they didn’t want their kid to be in financial straights all the time. We were living in the suburbs, in Etobicoke, and while I loved my parents – they were awesome, really – I wanted to get out of that environment in the worst way and I could taste the city.

Some artists – well, many of the artists I knew – took advantage of Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council programs and chased grants, but I never did that. I figured at best a grant was a stop-gap measure to get through a project or a few months without having to work, but in the end it came down to having to get a job. Besides, I liked the idea of being independent, not needing government hand-outs to make artwork. As well, my experience in the working world also fed my painter’s imagination in some way or another.

That said, I had a really hard time finding a job. My art degree qualified me for pretty much nothing. Potential employers told me they figured I’d leave as soon as I had a little money in my pocket. I was over-qualified or under-qualified and many employers simply couldn’t cope with someone who gave a damn about making paintings. In fact, through an adulthood in the working world, supporting my compulsion to paint, I only worked with a handful of people who cared about art at all. Most never looked at art, professed to not understand it, or thought artists were charlatans.  Over the years I made far and away more paintings than I could find homes for, and it was expensive to store them. At one point perhaps a dozen years ago, we purged our storage and destroyed a lot of paintings. I mentioned this one day to a colleague at work and she became quite upset with me, as if I had some kind of responsibility to tow this ballast around with me for life. I asked her the conversation-ending question – when had she last bought a work of art by a living Canadian artist. Um, well, you know….. Still, you shouldn’t destroy your work. That’s just wrong.

After a frustrating time trying to find any kind of job at all, I finally found one working in a waterbed factory. We didn’t make the actual beds you fill up with water. We made the frames and and combination book-case headboards. There was a chain of waterbed places which carried our stuff and advertised heavily next to the stereo ads in the Sun, and they sold a lot of these ugly-assed bookcase headboards before the waterbed market ran its course.

My job was break-out cutting. I operated a beast called a chop-saw. Each day I would be given a cutting list and I’d take a forklift out to the yard and bring in a lift of 3rd grade Ponderosa Pine from Mount St. Helens and from Susanville California. This was very knotty pine, and some of the knots would pop out leaving gaping holes in the wood. I had to cut around the worst of the boards to extract the list from the lift of lumber.

Each 16 foot lift of lumber had 2 or 3 metal bands strapping the load together. It was then wrapped with a kind of fibre-laced plastic material. Much of the time you couldn’t see the strapping for the wrap, but I never gave that a second thought. Every lift was strapped and wrapped. It turned out this was not true. One day I took the fork out and targeted my lift, the third up in a stack of 3. As usual, I raised the forks just a bit, elevating the lift, then angled the forks back before backing out and lowering the lift. This time there was no strapping securing the load and the top half of the lift of lumber came crashing down toward me.

I was on a heavy-duty forklift with good strong roll bars and the planks smashed against the roll bars with vengeance. I was perfectly safe inches below, but when many hundreds of pounds of wood comes crashing toward your head, you think you’re done. The planks fell on either side of me and I sat there shaking like a leaf in the forklift seat.

There were all kinds of injuries at this place. One guy nailed two fingers together with a pneumatic nail gun. With the same tool, another guy shattered his knee-cap. The worst was the fellow who ground his fingers off to the knuckle using a dado set-up on the table saw. There was no union, no health and safety committee, no nothing. The stoners who worked the spray-booth lacquered all day with no masks on. Between the lacquer and the weed they smoked at lunch, I’m sure those characters murdered a lot of brain cells.

Then there was Hank. At least I’m going to call him Hank.  Hank looked like maybe in better days he was a biker. He was tall and lanky and hard and grizzled and he had LOVE/HATE tattoos on his knuckles like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter and the kind of sideburns known as mutton chops. Hank was an alcoholic at least, and maybe he had more demons as well. I know he would have to have a few beers before work to steady his hands. At lunch, some of the guys went out to a local strip bar (I never once went along – the idea of drinking then operating machinery scared me silly). They liked to take Hank with them and see how many beers he could down during lunch break.


One day Hank disappeared and stayed disappeared until just before I left the job.  He showed up one morning looking weak and tired and sick and horrible and he asked for his job back. He was not rehired. Stories floated around. In one of them, Hank got home from work and his girlfriend, not impressed with Hank’s womanizing, was waiting for him with a cast iron frying pan, which she used to pummel Hank until he wound up hospitalized. I have no idea if the story was true, but no doubt he had stories which would curl your toes.

The chop saw scared me at first. It had a pedal, and when that was depressed, the heavy guard above slammed down and the blade came up from below, cutting a pine 2 X 10 like it was butter. After a while I became comfortable with it, perhaps a bit too comfortable. One day I stopped and looked at how close I kept my hand to the blade to pull away offcuts. Too close, I realized, and backed right off.

When you work with Ponderosa Pine, you get slivers, lots of them. I learned the best thing to do was dig them out right way because the longer you waited, the more painful it was going to be. I kept a couple big safety pins on my apron, which I used to pull out pine slivers, several each day. I wouldn’t wear gloves working the chop saw. I was scared some bit of loose material would get caught up in the guard or the blade and pull my hand in. Slivers seemed the safer way to go.

After my shift, I’d head home stinking of Ponderosa Pine. I could shower 4 times and still smell like a pine tree. I kept at this job for over a year, until something better came along. In the meantime, I found a painting studio in an old storefront, a place I could live and work. Toward the end, I hated Ponderosa Pine, and waterbeds too. I was painting though, and living on my own, and getting by.

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Jobs #1 – The Motel

I drove along Lake Shore Blvd this afternoon, past Mimico, past the long line of condos along the lakefront, and I found myself thinking about the beginning of my university days, the beginning of a new decade – the 80s – when I held a part time and summer job in one of the many old motels west of Humber Bay.


The Universal from an old postcard – before the horses out front

I worked at the Universal, the U-shaped outfit with the two fibreglass horses up front, the one next door to a pub no longer standing either, called John Ducks Tavern. I worked for a family business during a time when developers were buying up properties to eventually build the condos which dominate today.

Historically, the strip of motels catered to tourists, often from the United States. When I worked there, the businesses were no longer spending much money on updating the properties. I think the motels still running were holding out for the best possible deal when they sold. Still, the place I worked at was clean, if basic, and while it was not without its problems, it was reputable. There were times in the season, especially around weekends when we had plenty of reservations and the place would fill up early, but there were some slow nights as well.

My job was evening desk clerk. I don’t remember my exact hours – maybe it was 3-11 or 4-midnight. After the family who owned the place and the housekeeping staff had left for the day, I was often the only one on site and my job was to fill the place if I could. I recall that as the evening wore on, if I still had lots of rooms to rent, I had a little latitude to cut someone a bit of deal to rent some rooms. I also had to know when to not rent a room. We were always suspicious of people who lived in the city renting a room. Sometimes people would rent a room then have a party and that could mean a huge mess at best and damage at worst. I could usually weed out the potential party animals, although I recall one time I got it wrong and I rented a room to someone who turned it into Party Central and caused some damage overnight.

The office was a time machine. Stepping through the doors transported one right back to the 50s. There was a sparkly gold sofa that had a thick layer of clear plastic over the sparkles. It had a futuristic look about it, like it came right out of the Jetsons. The rooms all had phones but customers could not dial out directly. All calls went through the office where we had a 50s-style switchboard with the old plugs and sockets.

More often than not, the guest calls were for pizza. The best pizza around the area at that time (I recall there was hardly any competition in terms of quality) was a joint called Romi’s which I think was on Berry Road or thereabouts – north of The Queensway, but still within delivery distance of the motel. Unless the guest had a particular place in mind (usually they were from out of town and didn’t know where to get their pie), I always connected them to Romi’s for their za. From time to time the delivery guy would comp me a pizza when they were delivering to one room or another. As much as I enjoyed some free pizza, I also always enjoyed chatting with the delivery guy for a few minutes when he stopped in. I don’t remember too much about him except that he was really likeable and at some point during my tenure at the motel he got engaged to be married. Some nights if I filled the place early, I would have a quiet few hours sitting around the office, and was happy for a bit of friendly conversation.

There was also a chicken joint along the Lake Shore at that time, called Pick’n Chick’n. It opened in 1953 where the “Marina del Rey” condos now stand. This place delivered, and the chicken, at least in my memory, was very tasty. Are there any chicken delivery places around Toronto these days? Maybe that’s ancient Canadian history.

There was quite a bit of land in behind the motel that stretched right back to the lake, and there was a pool back there as well. I recall at some point in the summertime, the yard in the back became mysteriously over-run with garter snakes. Garter snakes everywhere. More garter snakes than you could imagine possible. And then as quickly as they appeared they were gone, as if in a dream.

Most evenings, I had to do everything. Show rooms to potential guests. Rent rooms. Deal with issues. Give directions to attractions. Recommend restaurants. The one part of the job I disliked was balancing my cash at the end of my shift. I don’t know how many times I was off, and I don’t even remember what could have caused the occasional problems I would have with the nightly accounting.  I recall that even failing to balance by a little bit was a concern for the family that ran the place. I always did my best to be diligent and accurate, but no doubt I made a few mistakes along the way.

I enjoyed meeting all the people and talking to them about our city, showing them how to get around by transit and so on. That was the best part of the job. I’d send people over to the old Humber Loop, which was just down the street. Walking through the tunnel to the loop to catch as streetcar downtown seemed like another time machine to me. The old red rocket streetcars were still running, wobbling and clanking down the tracks.

At some point, I don’t know how many years after I left, it got rougher along the motel strip and I understand there was a lot of street prostitution going on before the last of the motels disappeared and all the condos went up. It wasn’t like that when I worked there, although I recall once in a while, a guest who would gave me a number to dial – then receive an attractive visitor an hour or so later. A couple hours later, a call to Romi’s would inevitably follow.

I don’t know what year the Universal came down. I believe The Beach was the last of the motels to finally close. When I worked down there, people told me The Beach was the nicest of the motels on the strip, but I had only passed it and the others on the street so I didn’t really know. Driving down Lake Shore Blvd today, there is no evidence among the condos of the history of the area. Even the lakefront looks different today, with bike and walking paths where years before there was only lake.

For the most part, I enjoyed the motel job, especially meeting the guests. I particularly enjoyed the talkative guests who would stop by the office and tell me about their lives and their adventures.


Next installment of Jobs: The Waterbed Factory


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Coneflowers for giants


A few years ago we planted some giant yellow coneflowers which grow madly each season. They grow so madly in fact, they can’t handle the burden of their own weight. These flowers grow up initially as a big clump. This season, when they reached about 4 feet high, I wrapped some twine around them to keep them from splaying outward.

They’re 7 or 8 feet tall now. My initial twine-job kept them upright until the thunderstorm yesterday afternoon, when gravity took over and the plants began sagging toward ground with abandon. This morning I went out with more twine and wrapped them again. Getting them all back together was a bit of a comedy show, but I managed it. I think next season I’m going to put a couple big stakes firmly in the ground while the plants are young, so I can tie various branches to the stakes in the centre of the clump.

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Dried tomatoes part II


My tomato drying test has been very successful. They take a long time to dry in my dehydrator – 2 nights – maybe if I were using Roma-type tomatoes it would be quicker. On the other hand, they are substantial and very tasty. They retain their colour nicely. Overall, I’m totally pleased with the results and will dry more batches  of these as I have a tomato surplus.

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Our big boy George turns 5 today.


This morning I loaded The Partners into the car and headed for the leash-free area on Etobicoke Creek. A birthday swim was in order.



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Dehydrating Tomatoes

We have several tomato plants growing here at 27th Street and they’re doing very well. We love homegrown tomatoes and we’ve been keeping up with them, but the last few days they’ve started ripening faster than we can consume them. Tuffy P suggested we dry some.


We have an electric dehydrator, which I bought many years ago for those seasons when we gather more wild mushrooms than we can eat. Mushrooms can sometimes be feast of famine and when they are fruiting well, it’s possible to gather quite a lot. That hasn’t happened this year – it hasn’t been a great season for mushrooms around our area.

I pulled the dehydrator out of the basement and washed the plastic layers in preparation for a test. I sliced up enough ripe tomatoes to fill two layers of the dehydrator and it’s doing its thing now. I have no idea how long it will take to dry them. Time will tell.


The dehydrator provides a constant circulation of warm air which slowly dries whatever you put in it. If we like the results from this test, I may dry a larger batch. I’ll also look at other ways of preserving our tomatoes too – possibly freezing some or canning them or making sauce.

We have 2 or 3 varieties of hot chilies growing in the yard as well and they are just starting to ripen. When we get overwhelmed with them, I’ll likely dry a batch of these too. In the past I’ve dehydrated chilies, then used a coffee grinder to grind them into a coarse powder to use as a condiment or for cooking. This year I may keep them intact rather than ground. If I get really ambitious, I might smoke some on the bbq before dehydrating.

Here’s a nice cover of Guy Clark’s Homegrown Tomatoes by Guy Venable…