Thursday, 10 July 2014

On Strike is NO FUN!!

If there is one thing that is predictable in our journey through time, it is that things will always be unpredictable. Which leads to why there was no blog post about a trip in the past month, why we have been strangely quiet around here lately, and the circumstances under which we sold our boat. It also leads to an ender where we try to make ourselves more able to adapt to the unexpected. But lets begin at the beginning and end at the ending.

SWMBO and I met at college where we were both studying Engineering. She was a direct entry from a University where she had earned a degree in history, which came with limited career prospects. I entered after 10 years in the workforce as a CNC machinist which came with shift-work, long hours, and some unfortunate employment experiences. We were both working towards a stable future in a career that came with respect, prestige, and a good pay rate.

We entered the field of traffic engineering recognizing it met our hopes and that there was a shortage of professionals in the field. We lived poor, carrying a mortgage and a child through school with us as we worked towards graduation. We took chances on jobs far away and in risky areas as we worked our way to a comfortable career. Now 12 years into those careers, we are employees in a municipal government and thought we had things figured out.

A month ago there were rumblings that the union we work in was at odds with our managers.

The rumblings became rumours. The rumours lead to meetings, the meetings to votes, and the votes to a strike. Suddenly our safe, secure income and lifestyle was gone, and we were staring down a situation where our expenses far outstripped our income. I think this is what is called living beyond your means.

In the first days of the strike, I wrapped up some projects around the house and we worried about how we would pay bills and whatnot. We thought the strike would be over within a few days, and this would be a gentle hiccup, but just in case it wasn't, I pout out feelers for other odd jobs and ways to make a buck or four before we got desperate.

Every day we would head out and walk the pickets and listen to stories from our coworkers of debt and kids and how they were faring. Everyone was bleeding.

After week one, the union paid us our strike pay (25% of our usual wages) and I started delivering fast food and newspapers to make ends meet. At this point we were also pleasantly surprised by a gift of cash from SWMBO's parents, and 2 weeks of groceries (and a box of beer) from my folks. At the same time, we sent a letter to the union explaining that since both of us work together, SWMBO and I weren't able to make ends meet on strike pay. The union stepped in with a cheque from its benevolent fund to cover our mortgage and daycare costs so we could keep our part time work going.

My days were grueling. I would start the day at 2:00 am and go deliver newspapers until 6:00 am. Then sleep until 8:00 am to be on the picket lines by 9:00 am. Picketing would run until 1:00 pm, when I would return home for 2 hours sleep, then go deliver pizzas until 10:00 pm. Four hours of sleep, and repeat. Of the three jobs, the newspapers was the most demanding and most difficult. It also turned out to be the most shady. I ended up quitting the newspapers and they will not be paying me, quoting breach of contract. I will never subscribe to those papers.

SWMBO picked up a job cleaning offices, working alongside recent immigrants. Between the two of us, we are making about 3/4 of our usual wage, but putting in about 200% of our usual hours. The mantra around the house was "On Strike is NO FUN!" the boys soon figured out that shopping, eating out, or just about anything that meant fun was off the schedule. It also meant cancelling our very exciting camping trip to Mississagi Provincial Park, way up north in Elliot Lake. That made me sad.

But a lot of good came out of being on strike too. I met a lot of people who work for the same government we do, but whose roles are very diverse. Nurses, health care aides, paramedics, income support (welfare) case workers, unemployment coaches, IT professionals, and all the rest of the army of workers who come together to make sure the community is cared for. And working my night job brought me into the lowest of low income neighbourhoods - places I never would have ventured, and some I didn't even know existed. I have never had such an appreciation for what I have.

In the middle of all this, I got a call from Montreal, a buyer was interested in our boat, but only at the lowest of rock bottom prices. We sold, seeing the opportunity to free up yacht club fees, and so I found myself towing the boat to Kingston, and cutting ties with the sport I have enjoyed for the past five years. The day the boat sold, the end of the strike was announced, and we started to have a glimmer of hope. Selling was one of our 2014 goals, but I hadn't expected it to go like this.

Tomorrow we go back to work. That is a relief. We have emerged OK, but a little rattled. Today we made an appointment with the bank to set our affairs in order so that if this ever repeats, we will be more prepared. Some changes we have made:

  • We have been aggressively overpaying our mortgage in order to get ahead, but have not built up our savings equally. We will continue to overpay our mortgage, but...
  • We will divert the money that was going to the yacht club into a Tax Free Savings Account so that about $400 per month will begin to build a crisis fund (I like to call it a warchest), and
  • We will keep our 'fun jobs' we picked up in order to supplement our savings. With some discipline we should be able to generate enough savings to survive another strike or bout of sickness for close to a year. this security will be handy if we run into trouble again.
  • Once our war chest is up to our goal amount, we will continue to build it, but divert an annual lump-sum onto our mortgage on top of our current over-payment. This way our interest earnings on savings will further knock down our interest payments on the mortgage.
We did a few things right headed into this strike, which we were fortunate to have in our pocket. First, we destroyed our car payments and controlled our debt so that it was manageable on our income. If we were living at the brink on a week to week basis, this would have been a true crisis. Second, we were proactive and quick to find other income sources when the strike did start. Third, we put away our pride and accepted gifts from our parents and from the union in order to get by. Without any one of these three items, we would have truly been in trouble. Finally, and less significant, we were willing to sacrifice minor things for savings. This meant missing our camping trip, changing the way we ate, and being more conscious of our spending. Many other folks on the picket line had a hard time with small choices like these, but in the end, they do make a difference.

So it looks like we missed our monthly getaway goal for this month - sort of. Next weekend, I have the Warrior Dash to look forward to, so I'm counting that as the July getaway, and last month we attended a beautiful wedding in Hamilton, so I can count that as our June getaway. If we do things that way, then this post covers off 3 of our 14 for 2014 goals, and teaches a little about frugal living. Not to bad after all!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Backyard - An Update

Now that we have been in the Frosthaus for a couple summers, our changes are starting to take root. Its a slow process getting gardens to mature, especially when you remove everything and start from scratch. Even moreso when your spring has been chock-a-block with activities that prevent you from getting out and maintaining the gardens.

In any case, lets look back before we look ahead.

This picture was taken shortly before we moved into the house in 2012:

The backyard is struggling to grow grass, the wooden retaining wall is rotten and failing, and, well, its a sad place. 

Last year we spent a pile of time on landscaping and put in new retaining walls, pool deck, pool liner, coping, gardens, a playground for kids, and fence posts. We never got around to the fence. Its still on my to-do list.

So far this spring we haven't done much at all back there. We did spread some grass seed, and we may make the odd tour to weed gardens, but as things take hold, the gardens are starting to perform as intended. That makes me happy. In a couple more years we should see the gaps fill in. In the pics below, I just pointed and shooted. It was lunch and I had no time to tidy up back there. Also our pool steps have caused me much greif this spring, so they are still lyin gon the deck beside the pool. They have moved since the last photo though. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Trash Cabana

A while ago, I started to build a shed for our garbage cans to call home. I know this isn't a high profile project, but somehow it has eaten up gobs of time, and I have managed to procrastinate on it as much as I have pushed forward. In this post, I'll try to knock off design and build in one article, but if it gets long, I may decide to take a break.

The project started with the realization that I could never get into the front of the garage without tripping over two bikes, a garbage can, a blue bin, whatever crap had been removed from the cars most recently, and that the possibility of being knocked out by falling garden tools was a very real possibility as I skirted all the other hazards. I decided that this small project could eliminate the garden tools and garbage cans as obstacles, and open the path to remove further obstacles in the future.

The shed design is pretty simple. My plan is for something tiny - 30" X 85" and fit into the constrained space of a few patio pavers pushed up against the chimney in our back yard. Today that space is home to an outboard motor and a handful of empty planting pots, a couple anchors, and general detritus which should be stored elsewhere. Here is the site, pre-shed.

To begin, I built a base. A lot of folks would have foregone this step, but for me, having a floor attached to the bottom of walls adds structure and firmness that I am uncomfortable not having. The floor was simple. a handful of 2" X 4" pressure treated boards were formed into a rectangle, then every 16" or so I attached cross pieces to add strength to the floor. To the top of this I screwed a piece of OSB subfloor, and trimmed it to match. Making the floor took less than an evening, and allowed me time to tune in to Montreal Canadiens beating the Bruins. I saved the scrap pieces of OSB. I don't know what for.

To trim the OSB floor to size, I drew a cutline, then clamped a 2"x3" to the OSB to act as a guide for the saw. I propped up the saw on some lumber to prevent the blade from hitting the driveway. This allowed me to get good accuracy and a straight cut.

I checked to be sure the base fit the site, it looked just about perfect!

Next I built the frame for the back wall of the shed. I used 2" X 3" boards for the framing since it will be a small auxiliary structure. I also used regular SPF stud grade lumber rather than pressure treated wood. I don't see a need for the extra chemical treatment where the wood will be inside the shed, not exposed to the elements. I covered the back wall of the shed with T-111 siding - an OSB pressboard product designed to look like siding, but not to really offer much in the way of style or protection from the elements.

Since I want to store shovels, rakes, and hoes in here, I made the roof of the shed tall enough that long handled tools should be able to be stored in it or on the shed walls. Looking at plans online, I found that a lot of garbage sheds have a 30° roof line on them, so I used that as my angle for the roof. Only after I had framed up the whole shed did I realize what an 8 ft high shed, 30" deep looks like with a 30° roof angle. In case you are wondering, the best word I have is "imposing."  Realizing my mistake, the neighbours let me know just how ugly the shed looked from their side of the fence. I appreciated their design taste, and agreed with them, so let the shed sit a few days while I mulled over ways to fix the problem.

Although it is an expensive material, I managed to keep costs down by using cedar as an exterior finish. I had about 5 bundles of cedar tongue and groove wainscot that we bought for a house long since sold, and have never found a home for. Here I installed it horizontally (wrong direction) as an exterior finish (it is meant as an interior material). I am hoping that I can seal it up with stain and that it will last. If it doesn't last, I can replace it easily, so I'm not too worried about the material. My biggest concern is whether racoons will chew through it to get at the garbage cans.

Eventually I came up with a solution to the height issue. Using my Skil saw, I cut down the front of the shed by nearly a foot, and recalculated the angle of the roof to close to 60°. This looks much better and will allow me to use a single 4' X 8' sheet as a roof deck. Some quick hammering, and I had a top plate on the front of the shed. On the sides, I will tie in the framing to the rafters for now, but likely add in strapping later on to make sure the framing stays strong and doesn't move.

For the roof, I cut birdsmouths to make rafters. The cuts went surprisingly well using my compound mitre saw to cut boards to length and angle the ends, then cut the birdsmouths in my band saw. Although this could be done using a jigsaw, the short rafters, and availability of the tool made the bandsaw a great candidate for the job, and I was surprised with how well it went.

Cutting rafters is a challenging but rewarding job, and I feel good knowing how to stick frame a shed roof.

Using a scrap piece of lumber, I cut the ends of a test rafter to 30° on the mitre saw to match the roof angle.

With the tops and tails cut, I could make the birdsmouths. A birdsmouth cut allows the rafter to sit flat on the top of the wall framing (the sill) and makes the roof far more stable. The challenge is laying out the first rafter to sit properly. In order to do this, I set the rafter on the shed, and using a square, mark the vertical extension of the inside of the ridge board. Similarly, I mark the extension of the outside of the wall sill. Since this is a shed roof, the back wall framing will act as the ridge. I set the cut to go about an inch and a half deep, then mark a line perpendicular to it. These two small triangles will form the birdsmouth cuts.

At the Ridge

At the rafter tail

Rafter ready to go!
With the test rafter cut, I could go to the test and see how the fit is. In a perfect world, all the geometry would line up, but rough framing is usually not perfect, so the rafter may need tweaking. Once it looks good, I test it in a half dozen spots along the roof in case the walls are out of plumb or aren't parallel. I tweak the test rafter until I am satisfied it is the best fit I can get, then set it aside to use as a template. Ill trace its cuts on to the good 2X4's and use the test rafter as a fill-in someplace in the middle since it is so marked up and beat up.

With all the rafters in place, things are starting to take shape!

Now that I know what angle my roof and eaves will be, I forged ahead with wrapping up siding the shed, and trimming out the soffits and fascia. I thought that rough hewn western red cedar would make a nice contrast to the eastern white cedar I had used as siding. The next few pics show the siding completion, rough cedar trim, and the roofing going on.

Siding up to the roof!

Working alone, its easier to attach the end rafter by having a clamp hold it in place while I screw. I used clamps a lot to hold things square or temporarily position stuff while I got tools and fasteners ready. This rafter would later be hidden behind rough cedar fascia and soffits. The trimmed 2X4 at the front of the shed was a temporary board to hold the rafters in place while I attached the roof deck. It was later replaced with  Rough Hewn Western red cedar

Trimmed out, and shingles going on!!
By now the Canadiens are playing the New York Rangers, which means this project is taking waaaay tooooo lonnnnng. The roof is now complete, and its time to trim the front door. I am hoping to get eth door jambs and trim up tonight, so I can start building the doors. Door building can go late into the night since it is all done inside the garage, with just final fitment outside.

Hopefully my next update will have the doors going up!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

May 2-4 escape to Darlington Provincial Park

"The 24th of May is the Queen's Birthday,
If we don't have a break, we shall all run away!"

Well, we almost got blown away. This year we decided to forego the usual grind up Highway 400 from Toronto to "Cottage Country or Algonquin, and instead opt to go camping as close to home as was practical, and so on an overcast, fiercely windy day, we found ourselves struggling to set up tents on a lakeside campsite in Darlington Provincial Park, while waves crashed on a pebble beach some 30 feet below us.

Actually, the weather conspired against us long before we loaded the cars to go camping. Wednesday night, the night of the first races of the season at the Yacht club, I was out sailing when a storm front rolled and writhed its way northbound across Lake Ontario. The cold rain fell in a sheet, with piercing ferocity, soaking me through in an instant, and utterly swamping the boat, sails, and sailors. We turned tail, and returned to our slip. The weather; however, continued through the evening such that my shoes were completely underwater on the walk across the parking lot to the car. The sheer volume of water was enough to back up the gutters and drains in the streets, and to wreak havoc on our yard work plans for the rest of the week.

Of course the weeds and grass thrived on the spring rains, and jumped up suddenly and without warning.

Which leads us to Friday afternoon which was when I cut the lawn, packed the truck, and consulted Google Maps to see just how bad the holiday weekend traffic was to get out of town and to the provincial park. Google cheerily replied that he drive would be 30 minutes in current traffic. All things considered, I figured that was acceptable for travel to a nearby park on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

Ten minutes later we pulled into the park, with Chuck and one of her friends in the back seat.

I had booked our site very early, and so got what appeared to be a prime site on Darlington's website. Our site was perched atop a 30 foot sand bluff, overlooking Lake Ontario. We only had one neighbour, and although it was a bit of a hike from the site to the nearest washrooms and water spigot, I figured the views and privacy were a fair trade for the lack of amenities the spot offered.

When we arrived at dinner time on Friday we wondered if the site was a wise choice. It was a mudpit. Standing water surrounded the fire pit. wet gooey mud covered most of the living area. Two islands were just big enough to set the tents on. I was worried that the truck would settle into the mud and we would have trouble getting out the next day. But being of hardy stock, we decided to soldier on, and we got camp set up before noshing on a dinner procured at SubWay.

Just prior to this trip, we noticed a "Beginner Camping Set" at Wal-Mart for a very reasonable price. For $100 the kit included a tent, sun shelter, 2 chairs, and carry bag. We scooped it up and decided that it would be our car camping kit. It worked nicely alongside our older gear, and we were actually quite surprised by the ease of setup and quality of the kit. In these pics, all the Wal-Mart stuff is lime green.

It quickly became obvious that quietude is a relative term. Not long after we got the tents up and fire started, our neighbours moved in. They faced similar issues with their site, and it was wide open to see them struggling to find dry land and get tents up. They were travelling with an older lady and younger kids, so we offered for the kids and Grandma to come and share our fire while their camp got set up. They declined and kept their distance. Night set in quickly, and after dinner and smores, we settled into bed.

It seems that CP Rail (maybe CN, or Via, or GO, or all of them - I'm not sure) has timed their schedule to wake campers in this park. Trains pass nearby throughout the day, but as night sets in, their whistles and the thunder of their wheels on the tracks become more frequent, and travel further. The sleepier you are, the more intense the noise of trains. This can't be overstated. Don't come to this park if you hate train noise. They are both constant and loud, but you get fair warning - you have to cross the tracks at the park entrance. We slept, but restlessly.

On Saturday morning, we awoke to the winds off Lake Ontario gaining intensity. I figured they were either blowing in sunshine or blowing in rain. Either way, with the camp already set, there was no point in complaining - and if things really went downhill, we were only 10 minutes from home. I started rigging our Ultralight ripstop nylon tarp - the good one that has seen us through canoe country and severe weather in strange places. My idea was that I would anchor the windward side of the tarp close to the ground, and the leeward side up high. That way we could shear off some of the wind. I would use the centre tie to go up to a tree limb in order to provide more headroom, and the whole thing would be a tarping work of beauty.

In the end, I couldn't get the centre up to a good branch, and had to use a pole - but the tarp still worked beautifully. Our neighbours enjoyed the show while I engineered the tarping solution. In the end the tarp did shear the wind, and adults stayed protected from the shoulders up while children suffered below. Ahhhh. camping.

We settled in under our tarp to a breakfast of Pancakes, and watched as the same hilarity began to unfold next door.

By now we had established a relationship with our neighbours, and we got to watch as they rigged their equally impressive windbreak. Their solution was to use the fence along the edge of the campsite as a frame on which to build a wall with a tarp. A small peak allowed them to tuck a picnic table in under the tarp, and before long they were snug in a little alcove, protected on three sides. As a piece-de-resistance, they incorporated a beach sun-shade into the design to allow for an expanded wind-free area. We quickly stole the idea, and now had a great system going. The kids became friends and before long we were sharing food and stories at both campsites.

The great challenge in the 'urban plan' was that we had sacrificed the views from the site for better livability. It was a shame since the views really were fantastic - but if you angled yourself just so, you could still see down the shoreline to the lake below...

On Saturday night, the boys, Mom, and I went to a party at some friends house in town, leaving Chuck and her friend to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the friend didn't feel well and called her Mom for a ride home. We had a great time at the party, eating and drinking, and drinking, and drinking, and that meant I didn't feel well in the morning. After voiding my stomach of its contents, I returned to bed while Mom and the kids went to the beach or on hikes, or something and finally around 1:00 PM on Sunday, I crawled out of the tent to a cheery 'Good Morning!!' from our neighbours.

About 5 minutes later Mom and the boys returned and we got on with our day... which mostly consisted of lazing around the fire and trading jokes with the neighbours. It was a beautiful day of sunshine and light breezes. A perfect camp day. Buddy found a log, and under it he caught worms and bugs, which he lovingly nursed to death.

As dinner time approached, we made a trip to the camp store where we got a resupply of firewood ($7 per bag, $5 for kindling) and picked up a "Pizza Grill" which was immediately re-purposed as a general 'over the fire cooking device' and was used to prepare baked potatoes and chicken drums, while I made a salad on the picnic table. The chicken turned out amazing - 35% smoked, 65% grilled, 100% delicious.

After dinner we joined the folks next door and told ghost stories around the campfire. They shared tales of the Banshee and haunted castles while I told of Camp X just down the beach, and the legend of La Chasse Gallerie from old Quebec. (If you don't know La Chasse gallerie - look it up, its a fun story.) Once the spooky stories were done, we headed to bed.

Monday Morning came in bright and beautiful. After a breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs, we broke camp, then went for a walk along the waterfront trail and visited a bunch of the campground's beaches and picnic areas. We all agreed it would be a great place to visit again in the future! The picnic areas are huge and offer BBQ's and picnic tables, open grass and trees, shelters and playgrounds. Really a great spot for lunch with a crowd, a birthday party, or an event for a Scout Troop or Guide Unit.

With Darlington so very close to home, we will likely be back - maybe even just for a day trip. Its fantastic when you find these little gems and can remember them for future outings!