Welcome to Blue Sky Country

Black River early September

The Black River in “downtown” Queensborough on a recent sunny September day.

I’ve started noticing something about the photos I take here in the Queensborough area. It’s that despite what the ostensible subject of my photo is, there’s very often a surprise guest star – to wit, the sky. We have great sky around here.

In some ways I’ve kind of recognized that ever since Raymond and I bought the Manse. I well remember the 4½-hour drive we’d make from our then-home in Montreal on a Friday night, and the awe I would feel when first stepping out of the car here in Queensborough and looking up to see a dark, clear sky – far from the bright lights of the city – absolutely sparkling with a universe-sized blanket of stars. It was awe-inducing then; it still is.

Another time, shortly after we moved here permanently, I did a little post (it’s here) specifically about the great big skies that you notice as you’re driving past the farms and fields around us. This is the photo I used in that post, which celebrated the gorgeous clouds as well as the huge blue sky:

McKinnon barn

The McKinnon barn (Queensborough Road just west of Queensborough) under a glorious late-afternoon sky.

But I got thinking more about our clear blue skies toward the end of this past spring, sparked by a comment from a friend and former Montreal Gazette colleague. I’d done a post about moving the very last of our stuff out of the Montreal house, which we’d finally sold, and in it had used some photos of scenes that greeted us at the Manse when we arrived here with the last truck- and carload. They included a few along the lines of this one, featuring the elm tree we planted a while back…

The Manse's elm tree, spring 2016

… and this one, featuring the clothesline that I love so much:

Laundry on the clothesline, 2016

In response, Charles (who is a science buff), commented:

“Look at that clear sky. If you and Ray haven’t at least thought about getting a good-size telescope, you aren’t doing the Manse site justice. If I lived there full time, I’d build a massive Dobsonian.”

In the months since then, I’ve been paying more and more attention to the beautiful clear skies here. I especially notice them when we visit, or drive through, Toronto; I am unfailingly astounded by the smog and haze that one encounters in the air even when you’re almost an hour out from the city. It makes me appreciate the fresh clear air of my Queensborough home that much more.

Anyway, let me show you a few photos I took recently that weren’t supposed to be about the sky at all, but in which the blueness and clearness made the surprise guest appearance that I mentioned at the start of this post. I should mention that no filters have been used on any of these photos; what you see is the real thing.

Sign over Hazzards Cemetery

This photo was intended to be about the attractive metal sign over the historic cemetery at Hazzards Church, which I am pleased and proud to say was made right here in Queensborough by master craftsman Jos Pronk at Pronk Canada Inc. Queensborough Machine Shop. But when I looked at the photo afterward – man, that is about as blue as ever a sky could be!

Skies over the Plowing Match

The skies over the parking area at the recent Hastings County Plowing Match at the McKinnon Farm just west of Queensborough.

Great trees and blue sky at Feast from Farm

The most beautiful of blue skies over the scene of the recent Feast From Farm local-food event beside Stoco Lake in the village of Tweed.

Blue sky and clouds over the millpond

I took this photo to show low water levels (caused by the ongoing drought in Eastern Ontario) at Queensborough’s popular swimming spot, the millpond on the Black River. But when I looked again – that’s a pretty nice skyscape. Not to mention its reflection.

From the front porch of the Manse

The view from the Manse’s front porch – where I’m writing this post – on any given summer day.

This one was intended to show the just-starting-to-wane Harvest Moon that shone brightly over the Manse this morning as I left for work, about 7:30 a.m. But it also shows the brilliant blue of the sky that the moon is in:

Morning moon over the Manse

Here, just in case you’re interested, is a closer look at that morning moon:

Morning moon closeup

Last but not least, here is some late-summer, late-day sun on the monumental red pine that’s across the way from us. Raymond and I adore that tree; we call it the Tree of Life.

Late-summer sun on the Tree of Life

I think the perfect clear blue of the sky makes the colour of the sunlight in the upper branches that much more glorious.

So I hope I’ve made my case about the beauty of the skies around this magical place that Raymond and I have chosen to live. Now: a little Willie Nelson, anyone?

The pleasure of simple comforts, especially at Christmas

Our table at the Tweed Christmas dinner

One of the Queensborough tables at this evening’s Christmas dinner for volunteers with the Municipality of Tweed: clockwise from left, Elaine, Betty, Barb, Wendy, Raymond and Joanie. There’s no gang I’d rather hang out with!

I was at an event at my workplace, Loyalist College in Belleville, yesterday, at which contributors to a large capital campaign at the college – individuals, families, businesses and municipalities from the area – were being honoured and thanked. There were lots of prominent people from the Belleville/Quinte/Hastings County community there, and it was interesting to watch and listen and get a sense of who the local movers and shakers are.

I found myself thinking what an odd feeling it was not to know these people, and here’s why: in my former job at deputy editor of the Montreal Gazette, I used to attend a ton of similar events – fundraisers and celebrations of fundraising work – at which the movers and shakers of Montreal, and Quebec generally, would be on hand. I’ve sat at head tables and rubbed shoulders with provincial cabinet ministers, premiers and former premiers, MPs, former prime ministers, university presidents, military generals and prominent businesspeople. When you attend enough such functions, you get to know the lay of the land and who’s who, though of course it doesn’t hurt that lots of them are in the news fairly often. By contrast, yesterday there I was in Belleville, all at sea. However, one reason I was attending was precisely to try to get to know some of these local folks who do a lot for the community.

Anyway, where am I going with this? Well, I guess it’s turning into a bit of a reflection on how pleasant the simple rural life in a place like Queensborough can be. Because despite how my former Montreal existence could be kind of fancy-schmancy, I tended to get stressed out at those events. In contrast, over the last couple of days Raymond and I have attended some simple and extremely pleasant local Christmas-themed events. And it has been so nice and unstressful to hang out with unpretentious and un-fancy people – because we are un-fancy and (I hope) unpretentious people ourselves. Basically I always felt wildly out of place at those dress-uppy Montreal things (though I have to say Raymond was brilliant at them). Here, I feel at home. Because I am home.

Last night Raymond and I were invited for dinner at the home of our nearby neighbours. It was a warm and convivial evening, filled with friendly chat and lots of laughs, and we enjoyed an absolutely excellent meal. It was exactly what I needed at the end of a long day at work: a great meal, friends and fun. Totally unpretentious. And all just a few steps from our home at the Manse.

And then this evening Raymond and I were among the invitees at an annual Christmas dinner that the Municipality of Tweed holds to thank its employees and the volunteers who do things in the community. (We get invited as members of the Queensborough Community Centre Committee, which is technically a municipal body.) It was a simple but jolly time, with a very nice turkey dinner cooked and served by Selena’s Country Catering, entertainment by two local singers, and a chance to rub shoulders with volunteers from throughout the Greater Tweed Area and the politicians who represent us. By contrast with those fancy Montreal events it was simpler than simple, but you know what? We had a really nice time.

Low-key is good, isn’t it? As is spending an evening with people from your own corner of the world, with whom you have lots in common. And celebrating the season with those folks, simply but happily.

And then heading home to your Manse afterward! Life is good.

“Are you building a museum?”

Manse telephone table

One of the best “museum”-style objects in the Manse: our vintage telephone table. It is comfortable and useful, and I love it. It’s one of those old-timey things that people who don’t like old-timey things are totally missing out on.

“Are you building a museum?” That’s the interesting question that Jim, who’s a friend and former Montreal Gazette colleague of Raymond and me, asked in response to my post of a couple of days ago – the one in which I announced that I felt I needed to acquire for the Manse one of those colourful 1950s-’60s metallic folding-step step stools that we all used to have.

Jim’s question is a good one. I expect there are others among you good people who read Meanwhile, at the Manse who have wondered the same thing, as I ramble on about cool and funky midcentury (mid-20th-century, as I always realize I need to explain) stuff that I’ve managed to acquire, or would like to acquire. I think it’s a polite way of saying, “Why the heck are you collecting this old junk?”

But let’s keep the question to “Are you building a museum?” Here is the answer: “No. But.”

No, I am not building a museum. (And neither is Raymond.) But: the more time we spend on this Manse adventure, and the more time I spend remembering and reflecting on the years when I was growing up here, the 1960s and ’70s – well, the more interested I get in vernacular mid-20th-century design, in things that we all had and used back in those days and thought nothing of, but that we realize in retrospect were beautifully designed and are kind of worth retrieving now, in the 21st century, when so much of what is made is disposable and (not to put too fine a point on it) crappy.

Things like a red dial phone (you can find it in the photo at the top of this post), the receiver of which feels comfortable and beautifully ergonomic in your hand when you are making a call. Especially if you are making that call from the comfort of a 1960s-era telephone table!

And a made-in-Peterborough (Ont.) Westclox clock that is easy to read and brilliantly precise, and beautiful to boot:

Westclox clock

And timeless children’s toys, like the Fisher-Price garage:

Fisher-Price Garage

And, yes, a useful and space-saving folding-steps step stool:

Gorgeous step stool

Which I have now absolutely determined I must have, sooner or later.

Is the Manse a museum? No. It’s a place where the ever-patient Raymond and I like to have, and use, and appreciate, thoughtfully designed stuff, no matter what era it’s from. It is, I hope, an interesting place. A little on the eclectic side.

A place where every object has a story.

An almost-lost Canadian whisky, and the Madoc man behind it

Quite a few nice people (or maybe they’re just bears for punishment) subscribe to Meanwhile, at the Manse, so that they get an email alert whenever I hit “Publish” on a new post. There is also an option to subscribe to the comments that come in from readers (and my replies to them), but since not everybody takes up that option (What? They might actually have more important things to do?) I thought that tonight I’d draw the general readership’s attention to a most interesting conversation that’s been developing over the past little while in the comments section of a post I did quite a while ago. It is further proof of the amazing things that can come to light when people with knowledge of some of the vintage (i.e. mid-20th-century) things that I often celebrate in this blog find my posts and share that knowledge. As you can surely imagine, I just love it when that happens!

Now, the main subject of this discussion – at least at the point where it’s at now – is a Canadian whisky called Jack Baker’s Top Secret, made once upon a time by the great Canadian distilling corporation Seagram’s. And before I go any further with this, I should explain that I tried and utterly failed to find a photo of that apparently legendary whisky on the internet, so I was at sixes and sevens as to what to use to illustrate this post. Suddenly I thought of a pretty song by Tom Russell called Canadian Whiskey (with “whiskey” spelled the non-Canadian way; several internet sources, like this one, tell me that the preferred Canadian spelling is without the “e”), and I hope you will enjoy hearing Russell and the great Nanci Griffith singing it in the video I’m using as my illustration. Feel free to hum along as you read.

V.O. ad featuring Madoc

The 1964 advertisement that reader Steve found and shared. Why Madoc? Read on.

Now, my original post, from back in March of this year – you can read it in full, complete with comments, here – showed an interesting advertisement for Seagram’s V.O. Whisky that appeared in the Ottawa Journal back in 1964, and that I was able to feature thanks to reader Steve having found and shared it. The thing that made that ad interesting, for me here in little Queensborough, Ont., was that it told the world that V.O. was the whisky of choice for the people of Madoc – Madoc being the small village that is “town” for us here in Queensborough. I wondered why the Canadian-whisky drinkers of Madoc might have been chosen by Seagram’s to be spotlighted in that ad. But reader Grant answered the question by sharing the knowledge that a very high-ranking executive with Seagram’s in those years was Mr. Jack Baker of – you guessed it: Madoc. And Grant also told me that Jack Baker’s name was on a high-end brand of Seagram’s whisky. And I kind of thought that was that.

But then more information came to light. This past September, two readers (unknown to each other before that time), Glenn and Matt, found my post and shared stories of their own connections with Seagram’s and, more importantly for the local link, with Jack Baker. Glenn’s father was marketing manager at Seagram’s for many years and was a good friend of Baker. And Matt worked at Seagram’s in the 1970s and early 1980s, and shared the information that there were actually two whiskies with Jack Baker’s name on them: Jack Baker’s Secret and Jack Baker’s Top Secret.

Now, the best part about this information is that if people didn’t share it, it probably wouldn’t be long before no one would know about or remember those classic Canadian whiskies. Just try finding some reference to them on the internet, people – if you can, you’re a better searcher than I am. My digging turned up one brief reference to Jack Baker (from, of all places, the Montreal Gazette, where Raymond and I worked for many years; Montreal is of course where Seagram’s was based, and where Jack Baker would have worked for much of his career). It’s from the edition of Nov. 18, 1968, and you’ll need to scroll about halfway down this column of local-people-in-the-news tidbits:

Jack Baker in The Gazette

And I also found an interesting document that you can see at this link, some sort of Canadian trademark paperwork that I don’t begin to understand about the rights to the name “Jack Baker’s Secret.” And that’s pretty much it. How can this legendary beverage have disappeared from memory?

Anyway. In my response to one of those comments coming in from Glenn and Matt, I rather flippantly said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to find a bottle of that stuff now! An ideal thing for a future Madoc musuem/archives!”

But of course, given how long ago all this whisky history transpired, I assumed that would be impossible.

Well! The Meanwhile, at the Manse readers have come through again.

Two days ago, a reader writing under the name The County shared this amazing information:

I have a 40 ouncer (1.14 litre) bottle of Jack Baker’s Top Secret from probably the late 70’s or early 80’s. It still has about 4 or 5 oz. in it that I just can’t bring myself to drink until I can find a replacement that tastes as good. I know that sounds ridiculous. Back then I could smell the difference if someone tried to give me something other than Top Secret. I think I could even tell the difference between Secret and Top Secret. Does anyone know of a whiskey today that has that same distinct smell and flavour? If so, pleeeaaassse tell me what it is.

If that don’t beat all! (As we used to say back in the day when Jack Baker was doing his thing.) There’s still at least a dram or three of Jack Baker’s Top Secret in existence! Perhaps it’s just as well for The County that he/she didn’t use his/her real name (I’m inclined to think it’s “he”), or all the Canadian-whisky lovers of Hastings County (and lord knows there are lots) might be beating down his door.

Meanwhile: does anyone else still have some of the stuff set aside? I promise I won’t ask for a taste. I’d just like to get a photo of the bottle for the internet and thus posterity.

Because, you know. It’s fine whisky. It’s Madoc. And it’s local history at its most interesting. And tasty!

A sad day for Canada, but an exciting one for new journalists

Newsroom headlines

The developing top story on QNet News (the student-produced news website at Loyalist College) on display on the overhead monitors, on a very busy day in our newsroom today.

A brilliant former Montreal Gazette colleague of mine who is now, as of the start of this academic year, a professor of journalism at a university, posted something rather poignant on Facebook at midday today: “It is so weird not to be in a buzzing newsroom right now.”

She was referring, of course, to the shocking (and as of the time of her posting, still very much unfolding) events in Ottawa, when shots were fired in the halls of Parliament and a young reserve soldier with his whole life in front of him was shot and killed at the National War Memorial. As I write this, several hours later, I think the whole country is still trying to wrap its collective head around the very un-Canadian events of the day. And mourning the death of that soldier, whose smile is so dazzling in all the photos.

My former colleague’s post referred to the fact that she is in academe now, as opposed to a professional newsroom. Both she and I have been in newsrooms on so many days like today, when shocking events catch everyone by surprise and it is necessary to dispatch a vast team of reporters to cover them, to co-ordinate and manage the coverage, and to ensure that the news as it develops is posted as quickly and as accurately as possible online and, eventually, in our newspaper. While the events of such days are, unfortunately, almost always tragic, the adrenaline rush you get from working through them and helping bring the news to the world is like nothing I can describe.

So I could certainly relate when I saw my former colleague’s post, right after I had emerged from the cocoon of teaching a class of first-year journalism students at Loyalist College about writing leads for news stories. And I came this close to adding a comment to her post, along the lines of “Me too.”

But then I stopped and looked out the door of my office, toward the centrepiece of the journalism program at the college: our own newsroom. And it was a scene of non-stop activity, full of students monitoring social media and websites and TV screens, taking notes, making phone calls, preparing to head out to nearby Canadian Forces Base Trenton to report on what impact the day’s events might be having there, prepping radio newscasts, and producing a constantly-updated running report for QNet News, the website made up entirely of our students’ journalistic work. And I thought: “Wait a minute! I am in a ‘buzzing newsroom’!”

Newsroom in action

All hands were on deck in our newsroom today as everyone worked on local angles to the huge story of the shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

As I hastened into that newsroom to offer to help (providing a brief break for a colleague, Robert Washburn, who had been in the hot seat directing operations through the morning), I thought: “I’m right at home here. This is what I do.” And in the midst of all the activity, I offered up a brief thanks that my own transition from professional journalist to journalism teacher had landed me in a place where the focus is on practical learning – on teaching students to become multiplatform journalists by working with them as they actually produce multiplatform journalism. Or (to quote a slogan I knew well in my Queensborough youth – the slogan of 4-H clubs, of which I, as a young rural person, was a member more than once): as they “learn to do by doing.”

The other thing I took away from today is how exciting it is to see young journalists experience and work on a huge breaking story for the first time. Our team worked so hard, and did such a good job. The adrenaline in the room was palpable, and it fired up the reporters and editors. At the end of the day they were excited and proud of the work they’d done, and justifiably so.

My heart broke late this afternoon when we got word that the soldier who had been killed had been identified as 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Not just because it was just such a damn stupid waste; it was really because of the reaction of one of my students, who was preparing to do the 5 p.m. radio newscast. “He was 24,” he said softly, shock and sadness in his voice. “Twenty-four. That’s just a year older than I am.” Suddenly it was very, very real. For him. And for me.

This evening, my heart was again touched, by another one of my students. It was warmed to the core by his post in our program’s Facebook group: “Wanted to say it was great working with everyone involved with the Ottawa Situation. Was a nice taste of the real job.”

For a veteran journalist like me, there’s probably not a thing in the world better than to see these brand-new journalists find out about the thrill, the scariness, the realness, the rawness, the demands, the stress, the fun and – perhaps most of all – the teamwork of covering news.

These young people will go far. I am very, very proud of them.

For Raymond, a little less time for pacing the acreage

Keep Calm and Let Raymond Handle It

This is my dear husband, Raymond, while we were on a family vacation at the seaside in Maine this past summer – trying on a new hoodie bearing a motto that I think is perfect for his brand-new National Newspaper Awards gig. I am very proud!

A good friend of Raymond’s and mine likes to describe what one does when one lives in the country as “pacing the acreage.” In other words, putting on your sandals, or rubber boots, or galoshes, as the season dictates, and surveying what’s doing – what’s growing, what trees need to be thinned out, what fences need mending – out there on your property in the wilds. I know that Raymond likes that idea.

But because the Manse is not situated on a very large parcel of land, there’s really not all that much acreage to pace. You can pretty much cover our yard here at the Manse in less than five minutes, unless the condition of the lilac bush or the day lilies requires some particularly close examination.

One of the consequences of that lack of acreage is that, whenever we drive around rural Hastings County, Raymond eyes with interest any large parcel of woodland that has a For Sale sign on it. “What would you do with 100 (or 200, or 500) acres of woodland?” I ask him. To which he generally responds with something along the lines of, “Well, there would be the acreage to pace!”

And someday, I am sure, he will acquire a nice little (or not-so-little) local acreage to pace to his heart’s content. Hey, maybe he could purchase a sugar bush and start making maple syrup!

But for now, that country-gentleman routine will totally have to wait. Because Raymond has just taken on a position that puts him right smack back into the middle of the Canadian news-media milieu, the one he left behind not very long ago when he retired after a long and universally respected career as executive editor (and before that, managing editor, and before that, city editor, and so on) of the Montreal Gazette.

Here is the text of the announcement made today on the website of Canada’s National Newspaper Awards:

New Editorial Consultant for National Newspaper Awards

Raymond Brassard has joined the NNA administrative team as Editorial Consultant. He replaces Paul Woods, who has joined the Toronto Star.

Brassard worked as an editor at the Montreal Gazette for 30 years, including stints as news editor, life editor and city editor. He was appointed managing editor in 1995 and executive editor in 2010, before retiring in 2013.

He will be responsible for the recruitment and assignment of judges to the 22 categories, rule compliance for entries, external communications and the creation of materials for the annual awards gala.

So there you go! Something to keep Raymond from pining for that large acreage he does not yet have to pace, as he renews ties with all the good and interesting people from the Canadian media world with whom he’s worked and rubbed shoulders for so many years. I know I am wildly biased, but: there is no better person for this job, which is all about recognizing excellence in journalism. That is something to which Raymond has dedicated a large part of his life.

Now, this new role is obviously going to take away from his time for checking out auctions and making dump runs and, yes, pacing the acreage. But personally, I think Raymond is going to thrive on the mix of fast-paced, big-city-based journalism stuff and his country-gentleman existence (pining for the acreage to pace) in Queensborough.

So – would you like to join me in congratulating my husband on his cool new gig? Oh yes, and also – if you happen to know of an interesting woodlot for sale…

Do you like your asparagus fat or thin? Well-done or rare?


Lovely fresh – and fat – asparagus from Willow Creek Farms, enjoyed at the Manse this evening. Do you like your asparagus fat or thin?

Raymond and I have been having more fun than anything these past couple of days, as our old friend and former colleague Lynn has been visiting us here at the Manse. (I’ve shared stories about Lynn before; here is the lovely story she told me about the house she grew up in; and here is one about her gift of Kitty the Lion, who now holds court on the front porch of the Manse.) Back in our Montreal Gazette days together, Lynn (best photo editor ever) and I managed to keep each other in stitches much of the time, even as we worked closely to drum up the best news stories and photos we possibly could.

Anyway, tonight’s fun has been based on two main themes:

1. The Canadiens against the Bruins in tonight’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup quarter-finals:

Raymond and Kitty

Raymond, a native of Lowell, Mass., is a Bruins fan, while Lynn cheers heartily and long for the Habs (and in this photo I took of them this afternoon on the Manse’s front porch models not only her Canadiens toque but also Raymond’s newly acquired blackfly jacket. More on that anon). Me, I really don’t care about hockey, so I just sit back and watch and laugh. (As of this writing, it’s 3-1 Canadiens near the end of the third period. Much tension in front of our TV.)

2. Asparagus: what tastes better, fat spears or thin spears? Now that, people, is a question. When I was a kid growing up here at the Manse, and we had an asparagus bush on the south side of our yard, we tended to like the fat ones, thoroughly cooked so as to bring out all the sweetness. In my young-adult years, not long after the introduction of the dreaded nouvelle cuisine, I suffered through (and pretended to like) trendy undercooked thin asparagus spears, which to me tasted bitter at best and like nothing at worst, and were unpleasantly crunchy to boot. Apparently some people (i.e. Raymond and Lynn right here at the Manse tonight) still have a fondness for the thin and crunchy ones, because when I brought home two gorgeous freshly picked bunches of asparagus from Willow Creek Farms in the hamlet of Wallbridge (which is near my workplace), I was mercilessly mocked for the fatness of said spears. Willow Creek’s farm stand offers thin spears and thick ones, but as I told the very pleasant proprietors, since I was buying I figured I’d get what I like. Raymond can get his own thin asparagus!

But such mocking I got! My lovely fat asparagus spears were compared to bamboo sticks and cabers to be tossed, and there were recurring jokes about how many hours it would take to cook them. “I’ve got a train to catch tomorrow!” said Lynn.

But you know what? The asparagus was delicious. I just dare Raymond to do better when he picks up some of those scrawny ones.

Meanwhile, readers, which do you prefer? Did you, like me, grow up in the era when vegetables were cooked almost to death? And do you, like me, harbour a secret fondness for some – not all, I must emphasize; overcooked green beans are pretty awful – vegetables still cooked that way? Have you, like me, overcome the propaganda about how undercooked veg taste better? Come on out and tell!