Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Favourite Photos of 2011

It's been a great year when all is said and done. And a busy one. With my book finished and at the publishers, my blog going full strong, and me finding my groove with my photography, I really can't complain.

In fact, I have a lot to be thankful for. And I want to say thank you to all of you who have followed me over the year, first with the Brownfoot Journal and then with The Brown Knowser. Since I started my second blog in June, I have had nearly 8600 visitors to my posts. That's more than 1200 visits per month, and that's not including the visits to my blog for Songsaengnim, the Brownfoot Journal, or Gyeosunim—all which were also steadily visited. So thank you.

Over the year, I've enjoyed getting more familiar with my camera, introducing my Where In Ottawa? contest, Wordless Wednesday, and Photo Friday. And so, for the last post of 2011, I'd like to share with you what I think were some of my favourite photos of this year. This week, between the celebrations, the visits, and the relaxation, I've sorted through the hundreds of pictures that I shot around Ottawa and on vacation, and I've been able to pare my collection down to an even dozen. One for every month of the year—though these photos don't represent each month.

So let's begin:

In my opinion, the best fireworks of the year aren't on Canada Day, and not even during the International Fireworks Festival in Gatineau. For me, the best fireworks to see in our city are on the opening night of Winterlude. Shot from the Alexandra Bridge, over the Ottawa River, the fireworks light the bridge, the river below, and Parliament Hill. The pyrotechnicians also create a curtain of fire that runs like a waterfall down to the river below. It's spectacular.

One of my first "investigative" posts dealt with an old sign above a pharmacy. I was sure that the letters had rotated on their posts; other readers and Twitter friends were sure they hadn't. And so I went looking. In the process, not only did I get the answer (they had), but I also attracted a lot of followers. This photo even made its way to another Ottawa blog, OttawaStart.

The more photos I took this year, the more I wanted to play with photo-editing software. And in the spring, I was invited to beta-test Corel PaintShop Pro X4. I went nuts, but I liked the results. The following photos also show how I played with the software.

On Canada Day, our city hosted the Royal newlyweds, Will and Kate. The family and I felt we had almost no chance of seeing the couple as they rode a carriage from the Governor General's estates to Parliament Hill, but we took a chance. We headed to a spot where, only a year before, we saw the Queen parade past. Even though we arrived at the spot later than last year, we were surprised to find the spot—a lamppost with a bit of a perch—vacant. And so we climbed the post and waited for the couple to arrive.

This summer, my family took an exciting vacation to Cape Cod and we got more than we bargained for. At the end of our week, we were faced with an impending hurricane and a dead alternator on our van. But before that excitement hit, we encountered another form of excitement off the coast of Provincetown: humpback whales.

We had a long autumn this year. Late September, October, and November were unseasonably warmer and—for the most part—drier. In October, I joined a group of other Ottawa photographers for the Worldwide Photo Walk, and despite the damp day, we all shot some great photos.

Later in the fall, I purchased a new lens for my camera: a 40-mm micro lens, which allowed me to get up close to my subjects. The inanimate ones didn't seem to mind.

Among my favourite posts this year were my Where In Ottawa? photo contests, and judging by the number of hits that my blog receives in the first week of each month, it was yours too. I love coming up with ideas for locations and then making up clues as the contest goes along. This month, the photo seemed to be the most challenging one. There were plenty of guesses, but no one came close. It wasn't until I posted a second photo that many of you figured out the location. But I really liked the photo that started that contest.

Next contest starts on Monday!
As the holidays rolled around, the downtown core came alive with Christmas lights. And what photographer could resist our famous landmarks lit up?

So these are my favourite photos of 2011. What do you think? Do you have any favourites? Please let me know by leaving a comment. I love comments.

I wish you all the best for 2012. Thanks again for following. You folks are awesome!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Photo Friday: My Old Is New Again

As an early Christmas present to myself, I bought a slide scanner, which Lori quickly confiscated, wrapped, and made me wait to Christmas Day to play with it.

Before the digital photography age, I was an avid photographer—especially in the years that I worked in a camera store. Back then, I would be able to purchase film at an unbelievable discount; the biggest discount was with slide film. And E-6 processing was free.

So I shot almost exclusively with slide film, and I went through it like a drunken sailor goes through his pay when he reaches port.

Every once and a while—usually no more than once or twice a year, I would host slideshow parties, but I would never trap my friends to showings of my holidays. We would have a regular party, with drinks and snacks, and folks would socialize. But at some point in the party, I would fire up the slide projector and I would show 100 of my personal favourite photos. These would be random shots, possibly of flowers, sunsets, nature, or architecture. I wouldn't stop and talk about the photos: I would simply bring a shot up onto the screen, let it rest for three seconds, and move on to the next one. In less than seven minutes, the show would be over and we would resume the party.


Over the years, I had shot thousands and thousands of photographs, and as my slide collection grew, I printed some of my favourites and then archived all of the slides into albums, which I have stored away. A few years ago, I pulled out a couple of my slides and scanned them with a flatbed scanner, but I then lost the files when our computer crashed and I hadn't backed them up.

With our new computer, our old scanner was missing some drivers and I couldn't find the disc, nor could I download the driver from the manufacturer. And so my slides remained in their albums, neglected.

Until this week.

I have scanned almost 300 of my slides so far, and I'm pretty happy with the results. Want to see some? It is Photo Friday, after all.

Don't worry: I'll only give you a few.

Recognize this church? This photo was shot in 1989,
 but I recently took a similar shot—in July of this year.
Also from 1989, this is the rail crossing on Fallowfield Road
when there were only two undivided lanes.
Berlin Wall, West Berlin, 1988
My first photo with my Minolta X-700, in the summer of 1986.
That's enough for now. I will be scanning all of my slides over the coming months (years?) and will pull more out for upcoming Photo Fridays.

And then we can party.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reprise: The Golden Age of Vinyl

Because it's the holidays, I'm having too much fun being lazy, and so once again I'm repeating a blog post. I will be retiring my other blog at the end of this month, so here's one of my popular posts from January. In case you haven't seen it, enjoy. If you've already read it, I'll have something new for you tomorrow.

I loved music on vinyl. I remember saving my allowance for that trip to the record store, buying that new release or that addition to my collection by a group or artist that I just couldn't live without. I remember getting that album home, tearing off the cellophane wrapper, pulling out the sleeve, opening up the cover (if it came in a book-like format). The smell of the new vinyl as you pulled it out of the sleeve, sometimes hearing the crackle of static electricity as the plastic and paper rubbed and made a mini charge. That static would get me charged as well.

In those days, I would make time for my new purchase. I would turn on the stereo, place the record on the turntable, and gently lower the needle on the edge of the spinning disk. I would have my headphones on: I always used headphones for the first play. I wanted to devote my full attention to the sound, undisturbed by other sounds from within the house. The last thing I wanted to hear was my mother, shouting: "Turn that music down. I can't hear myself think." The music, I thought, was all I wanted to think about. And with a new record, listening to the clean sound was important: you wanted to take in all nuances before the inevitable scratches would add that snap, crackle, and pop that isn't limited to Rice Krispies.

The music, though, was not the full experience. That jacket, the sleeve, the inside of the book, was part of it. Sometimes, albums came with posters or other surprises—Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies and Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door come to mind. While my ears were treated to the sounds that came from my headphones, I perused every part of that cover, that sleeve. If the album came with lyrics, I'd follow along with each song. During instrumental interludes or between tracks, I would read about the members of the band, about the instruments that were being used, about where the album was recorded. I'd enjoy the artwork and photographs, getting to know the faces associatied with the sounds flooding my ears. If I had to listen to the album two or three times to read and examine everything, then so be it. That was part of the experience too.

By the time I was finished with the material that came with the record, I would know the songs well enough. I could play the record through the speakers and know the title of the song, who played which instruments, and would know some—if not all—of the lyrics. I could sing along. When the music wasn't playing, I might just sing around the house, feeling confident that I knew whatever song I chose to sing.

To say I loved my music was an understatement. That music became a part of me. It has probably shaped the person that I have become. I wore the grooves out on some of that vinyl. There are a couple of albums that I had to replace two or three times. And each time I did, I would bring the replacement disk home, slap on my headset, and listen to the clean sound all over again.

I miss that.

Music, today, is different. We now live in the digital age, and music, though still good, isn't quite the same. It's like you've been making coffee all your life by buying the whole beans, roasting them yourself, grinding them, and preparing them for your cup. And then one day, you switch to instant.

When CDs became popular, I reluctantly made the switch. And, at first, I only bought CDs of the vinyl albums that I already owned. To me, I was just updating the format to the music I already knew through and through. My first CD, it's no surprise, was the first vinyl album that I ever bought. I was eight when my stepfather took me to the local Sam the Record Man. He was buying some music for the house—most likely, the latest Cat Stevens album. When we entered the store, he sent me to the kids' section and told me to pick out something for myself.

"Oh, no," I said, "I'm too old for those baby records. I want a real, grown-up record." Amused, Greg told me to knock myself out. He probably figured that I would have no clue what I wanted and would give up. He might recommend something; at the time, his tastes turned toward the aforementioned Stevens, but also Neil Diamond and ABBA. Hell, I still listen to those performers today*.

I went to the front of the store, where the new releases stand displayed a wall of colourful covers. My eyes scanned them all, but one jumped out at me. An orange sky with strangely shaped rocks stretching to the horizon. And crawling across the rocks: girls. Naked girls. Not women, but girls, about my age; perhaps a little younger. There was no writing on the cover, so I had no clue as to who the artist or artists were or the name of the album. All I knew was that I wanted it.

It was Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin: a classic rock album if ever there was one.

I didn't replace all of my vinyl with CD versions. Only the best ones, and only the best that I could actually find. And when I wanted to purchase new music, I didn't buy any more vinyl. I stuck to the compact disc. It was the sign of the times.

At first, I would treat the CD much the same way that I had handled vinyl. I would pop the disc into my player, put my headphones on, and read the miniature booklet that slipped out of the jewel case. Gone was the fresh smell of new vinyl. Gone was the crackle of static electricity. Gone were the added goodies—no more posters. But that was just the beginning.

Over the years, I have purchased hundreds of CDs. Thanks to iTunes and other online music centres, I have downloaded music. I even go to the library, check out a handfull of CDs at a time, and rip them onto my computer. Life has become busy with a home, wife, and kids, but even when I have free time, I don't spend that time getting to know the new music. I almost never read the booklet, if indeed there is one: some CDs come in a mini version of the vinyl jacket, without a booklet. I no longer keep the cases that hold a CD. I have a mega CD storage album, in which I store the lone CD, any accompanying booklet and the back paper if there's interesting artwork or a list of the songs. With the new sleeves, I cannibalize them, taking whatever I can and discarding the rest.

It's the instant coffee of music.

These days, I take my music in digital form, add it to my computer or to my iPod, and mix it with the rest. My music isn't pure anymore; it's blended. New songs will come up as random, individual tracks that are shuffled with the thousands—dare I say, tens of thousands?—of tracks in my digital collection. I have digitized music that sits, stored on an external hard drive, that I have never listened to. So sad. The only time that I will listen to a CD in its entirety is when I have the forethought to throw it on my portable boom-box or, even more rarely, take it with me in the van and listen to it as I drive (I prefer to listen to the CBC when I'm driving). But when I do either, I'm not focused on the content of the CD; instead, it's become background noise to whatever it is I'm doing. Like cleaning the house. Or trying to negotiate traffic.

At work, I listen to the music that I have downloaded onto my office laptop. It's a greatly abbreviated collection of old and new music. Shuffled randomly through iTunes and played through headphones, lest I have a co-worker shout: "Turn that music down. I can't hear myself think." I'm generally busy with my work, but on occasion, if I hear something with which I'm not overly familiar, or a classic tune, I'll stop, close my eyes, and enjoy the music.

And I'll lament over the loss of the golden age of music appreciation.

Great Albums That Deserve The Full Vinyl-Album Experience (in no particular order)
  • Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin
  • peter gabriel (the first, second, and third releases), by Peter Gabriel
  • Close to the Edge, by Yes
  • First Base, by Babe Ruth
  • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, by David Bowie
  • Vienna and Rage in Eden, by Ultravox
  • The Wall, by Pink Floyd
  • Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, by The Who
  • Louder Than Bombs, by The Smiths
  • Life's Rich Pageant, by R.E.M.
  • The Colour of Spring, by Talk Talk
  • War, by U2
  • Crime of the Century, by Supertramp

* Even today, my iPhone contains songs by Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and ABBA. They will always be a part of my music makeup.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Photo Friday: Christmas

With Christmas only two days away, I want to take this time to wish everyone the best of the season. May you find peace and happiness over this time. It's too soon to wish you peace and prosperity in the New Year, but thanks for following my blog and I wish you all a happy holiday.

Happy Friday, and have a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Operation: Christmas

At first, we did it out of excitement, unable to wait. Later, it became a game about how far we could go, how much risk we were willing to take.

In time, it became a ritual.

The first time we crept downstairs, anxious to see what Santa left us, my younger sister, Jen, and I faced an obstacle: each other. "Go to bed," I whispered, not wanting her to make any noise, thereby arousing the attention of our parents, who had only a half hour or less gone to bed after placing our wrapped gifts under the tree. Our older sister, Holly, was sound asleep, able to contain her excitement and curiosity.

The first time that Jen and I met on the stairs, we got our parents' attention: "In to bed," my mother called from her bedroom, "or Santa won't come." Reluctantly, Jen and I returned to our respective rooms, giving each other the stink eye for having spoiled the other's plans at checking out the cache of presents.

Later that night, after I had deemed that everyone was fast asleep, I slowly made my way downstairs. I would pause on the stairs every time a step creaked, waiting to hear if anyone had stirred at the soft noise. It took a couple of minutes to reach the ground floor and sneak to our living room, where our Christmas tree stood. I had reached my destination without arousing suspicion.

I was a stealth machine.

A faint light illuminated the living room through our sheer curtains from the outdoor street lights, casting a twinkling glow off the tinsel and glass balls on the tree. My eyes, already adjusted to the darkness from my bedroom, could easily make out the outline of the tree and the mound of boxes and parcels underneath it. I saw the stockings, filled to bursting, hanging off the edge of the shelf of our wall unit—having no fireplace or mantle. I slowly approached the tree, making my way towards the light switch underneath the tree, the one that would light up the tree and give me a clear view of the gifts.

I was so busy moving quietly, using my eyes to the best of their abilities, making sure that I didn't trip over a present, that I hadn't used my ears to detect another presence. Coming into the living room, equally quiet, was Jen.

"What are you doing here?" I whispered.

"The same thing as you," was the response.

"You're going to wake everyone up," I complained.

"Not if I keep quiet," she said. "You're making all of the noise."

I knew that by continuing to argue, we'd wake the rest of the household. We dropped our voices to a barely audible whisper. "What should we do?" I asked.

"Want to turn on the Christmas tree?" Jen suggested.

"I was just about to do that," I said, "but only for a second." I was afraid that somehow the light would make its way out of the living room, up the stairs and down the hall, and through my parent's closed door and up to their eyes. Such was the paranoid logic of a young kid who was not where he was supposed to be.

I reached for the switch and the tree sparkled in the warm glow of the lights. Jen and I let our eyes wander over the packages and the brightly patterned paper, trying to see through the wrap and trying to discern the gift by its shape. We kept the lights on for only a couple of seconds, and before we felt we ran further risk, we immersed ourselves once again in darkness.

We decided that it was too great a risk to remain downstairs any longer, so we agreed to return to our rooms. We further agreed that we shouldn't try ascending the stairs at the same time, so Jen went first, and when I knew that she was safely in her room, I made my way to my own.

Operation: Christmas was born.

The next morning, as Jen and I sat in our living room with Holly and our parents, we gave each other a smiling look, silently communicating that we shared a little secret, that we had gotten away with a reconnaissance of our haul of gifts. No one else knew what we had done. We had gotten cleanly away with this act.

Leading up to the following Christmas, Jen and I privately discussed going downstairs to take another sneak peek at the gifts under the tree. But this year, we would be more organized. We synchronize our clocks so that we would have our rendezvous better timed. Also, the mystery of Santa Claus had pretty much worn out on us, and our parents decided that they would put our stockings at the end of our beds before they went to bed themselves. they figured that if we woke up to our stockings in the morning, it would buy them a little more sleep by keeping us occupied.

Jen and I decided that when our folks came into our rooms to put the stockings at the end of our beds, we would feign sleep. We would listen for them to quiet down, and then we'd wait a half hour. We would then give each other an additional 15 minutes to go through our stockings and check out our haul.

And then it was showtime.

We would quietly step out of our rooms and wait for the other to show up in the hall. We would then head down the stairs together. In the weeks leading up to the big day, or night, we would make a note of the squeaks in the stairs, and either avoid the step to a side of the step that didn't creak, or failing to find a safe spot, overstep that stair altogether. We memorised the walking pattern, going up and down the stairs. We wouldn't make a sound.

In the second year, I brought a flashlight. Not so much to see our way to the tree but to look at the presents without fumbling for the light switch. We would turn the tree on, marvel at the packages underneath, and then turn the lights off, but would use the flashlight to find which gifts belonged to us.

On the way back up, we heard a stirring from my folks' room. We froze. We didn't know if one of our parents had simply moved or was on their way to us. So we stood, halfway up the staircase, and remained silent and motionless until we deemed it was safe to proceed.

That was year two.

In the years that followed, we continued the tradition. Jen and I got more sophisticated. We drew maps of the upper and ground floors, marked out a plan of where who should be at what time. We ran drills when we were home alone. Operation: Christmas became a finely choreographed exercise.

We became emboldened: we'd turn the lights on the Christmas tree and leave it on for as long as we were downstairs. We'd stay longer, counting up our presents and figuring out what each one was, based on what we had asked for and the size that the package would be. We would get ourselves a snack and eat it, surrounded by wrapped boxes.

In our teens, we would unwrap the gifts, confirming what we suspected the package to be. If we could further remove the gift from it's casing or box, we'd do it. We'd play with our stuff. And then we would carefully re-wrap the present and put it back where our parents had arranged it. Some Christmases, we'd return to our bedrooms, knowing exactly what we were getting in a few hours.

The thrill of Christmas morning came in feigning surprise, in keeping from laughing out loud. Some mornings, Jen and I couldn't make eye contact for fear of bursting out in hysterics.

We also enjoyed the surprise of seeing what our sister, Holly, had received under the tree. Unwrapping her gifts wasn't even a consideration.

Operation: Christmas went on for years, until Jen finally moved out of the house. Even though she was younger than me, she flew the coup first. Our game was up. I never went to check on the presents by myself. Operation: Christmas wouldn't have been the same without a partner in crime.

When we became adults, Jen and I confessed our crime. My parents wouldn't believe us. They couldn't accept that we would have the capability of pulling off such a caper, that we'd be able to unwrap gifts, play with the toys, and put them back together. Not without our parents detecting anything was amiss. Jen and I just looked at each other, smiled, and shared our memories in silence.

For us, the magic of Christmas includes our scheme. For me, remembering Operation: Christmas was a ritual that brought me closer to my sister than any other game we played as kids, in daylight hours. It was our special time together.

And isn't that what Christmas is all about?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Don't Panic

Lori made me call my doctor on Monday morning for an appointment. When I described my symptoms to the receptionist, she made room for me that same afternoon.

Typically, I have to wait a couple of weeks or more to see him.

Here are the symptoms I described:
  • Shortness of breath
  • Numbness in my arms, fingers, and feet
  • Constantly tired
  • Constantly cold
  • A general weakness
  • Sometimes, something in my chest flutters like it's doing the opening drum roll to It's The End of The World As We Know It (and I don't feel so shit-hot)
I thought it was my heart. So did Lori.

Heart disease runs rampant in my family; so does cancer. I figure that eventually one will get me. But these days, I'm hedging my bets on the former. And I have aunts, uncles, and cousins who went at a fairly early age because of heart failure. One of my cousins dropped dead at 42; his brother, a couple of years older, joined him a few years later, at 50.

My dad died of a massive heart attack 10 years ago; he was 62.

That said, I take much better care of myself than my dad did of himself. My cousins were seriously overweight; I think that one, or both, smoked.

Apart from brisk walks on the days that I take the bus to work, I haven't really exercised since I hung up my bike, about six weeks ago. I've also told you about the sleep deprivation that I've subjected myself to over that past couple of months. And I'm currently in crunch this week, at work, trying to put a project to bed. I wrote this post after a 12-hour work day.

So I didn't fight Lori when she told me to call my doctor. Even though the stress of contemplating what could be wrong with me didn't help.

The first thing my doctor did when I met with him was to listen to my heart and lungs: they were fine, both strong. For good measure, he listened to my thyroid. Nothing was wrong.

He took my blood pressure. Often, when I visit my doctor for regular checkups, I take the bus, which means a brisk 1-kilometre walk to my stop and another 1-km or so to his office. I've never been out of breath when I've arrived, and my blood pressure has been great: usually, about 118/60. This visit was the same.

I described the numbness in my arms and hands, suggesting I might have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. My doctor was doubtful: he said that CTS doesn't typically affect the pinky fingers. Both of mine constantly tingle from the tip, up the sides of the hands and to the wrist. And my numbness seems symmetrical.

My skin colour appears normal. I'm not cold to the touch. My doctor said that my circulation seems normal. He asked me questions about my life, my work, my home life. My finances. My overall satisfaction with how my life is going. I answered truthfully, adding that my sleep patterns are awful, but even when I have a decent amount of time to find sleep, I toss and turn.

It's your nerves, he told me. You're stressed out.

Indeed, I've felt a lot of pressure on me lately. At work, I find I bust my ass to meet my deadlines. There always seem to be at least two projects on the go at once. At home, there's the balance of taking care of the kids (school and extra-curricular activities—which suck our weekends dry), the finances, and the housework. And then there's my writing—my blogs and my book (proofs are back but I need time to sit down and go through them). There's my photography—I'm supposed to be beta-testing some software but that has gone by the wayside.

And on and on it goes.

I don't think I'm different from anyone else. I'm sure that some of you are reading this post and thinking, big deal—suck it up!

That's what I tell myself too. And yet, I'm stressed out. And my doctor could see it.

He ordered me a slew of tests, including an ECG and one for CTS. He set up a referral for a neurologist. He was going to write me a note for work, to say that I needed a week's rest, but I said no. I have this deadline this week, and then I'm off until January 3rd.

And I plan to do as little as possible in that time.

So don't panic. I'll be fine. Leave the worrying to me, until I find out what's wrong.

Thanks to my Twitter friends who put up with my whining on Monday, for offering me support.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Not (Really) A Grinch

It's come to this: I'm rehashing old blog posts. This post comes from my other blog, Brownfoot Journal, before The Brown Knowser. I thought I'd dig this one up because it was well-received and is timeless for the holidays. If you haven't read this post before, enjoy. If you have, suck it up I hope you enjoy reading it again.

Last year, my kids called me a "Christmas-hater" and the name stung.

But only a little.

* On some level, I'm not a fan of Christmas. Not of the decorating, nor of the card giving (actually, the Brownfoots have pretty much given up on that front), nor, especially, of the shopping. I hate going near the malls and department stores at this time of year: fighting crowds, standing in lines, searching for that ever-elusive parking space. Not being religious, the spiritual side of Christmas is lost on a cynic like me. My participation in the festivities this year included some shopping, getting our tree, standing it in the house, and helping my wife with the lights and flashy gold garland. I actually left the room and let the three girls hang the ornaments. Even as a kid, that tradition didn't interest me much.

It was my mid to late teens and into my early twenties that really changed my views on Christmas.

For many years, I worked in retail. In late 1991, at the age of 16, my folks decided that it was time to wean me from my allowance, telling me that I was old enough to earn my own income. And so I got a job in a paint and wallpaper store in our local shopping mall. I worked there—and at a couple of our other franchise shops in two other Ottawa shopping malls—for four years, helping customers choose colours and patterns to spread over their walls. In some cases, I even offered my services in applying the paint or wallpaper, or both, for them. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, however,I witnessed my customers, who were generally easy to please, grow stressed as they frantically tried to get their houses in order in time for the holidays. Many left things to the last minute ("What do you mean? Latex paint needs thirty days to cure before I can hang wallpaper on it??").

I worked in the Merivale Mall off-and-on for more than thirteen years, working at the paint and wallpaper store, a camera shop, and at a bank. And what I learned from my experience there is that I hate—absolutely HATE—the retail side of Christmas. I hated that on the very day after Hallowe'en—before Thanksgiving**, for cryin' out loud—the Christmas decorations went up in the mall, Santa's village began construction, carollers stolled up and down the promenade. Christmas sales began. In the camera store, Christmas season officially ran from November 1st to December 24th. Mercifully, I never worked anywhere that held Boxing Week specials. But the weeks following Christmas were just as busy, as customers returned unwanted items (I probably hated that time of year more than the pre-Christmas rushes).

Working in retail over the holiday season was an exercise in patience to the nth degree. In the early weeks of the Christmas sales, people were generally in good spirits, though I honestly believe that these people were generally happy, well-organized individuals—they were, after all, getting their shopping done early. They were beating the crowds. They probably found parking in less than thirty minutes. And they were in and out before the Jolly Old Elf made his appearence (the Santa at the Merivale Mall was a bald, cigar-smoking dude who always had dark, sagging bags under his eyes. I'd run into him, out of costume, in the corridors behind the shops; he creeped me out). But as the big day arrived, people grew grumpy, stressed, and quick to anger. On one Christmas Eve at the camera shop, in the last hour before we closed our doors, I had one guy tear a strip off me because the camera he wanted to buy was sold out. Not surprising, as it was the hottest camera of the year—we had sold out days earlier. And he expected to find it waiting for him?

The experience left me with an emotional scar. But it wasn't just the angry last-minute shopper in the camera store that ruined Christmas for me. Not on his own. He was just the catalyst for that day. As I left the mall at the end of my shift, walking through the parking lot, I heard two men screaming at each other over a parking spot, both standing outside their cars, whose front ends where nosed up to the vacant space. As they prepared to come to blows, I piped up with a heart-felt rendition of Silent Night, which was met with an aggressive "Fuck off" and a "Mind your own business."

On the way home (I walked, by the way: at that time of year, walking was faster than trying to drive on Merivale Road), I decided to stop at a drug store to pick up some snacks and extra tape in anticipation of a night of wrapping gifts and visiting friends. When I lined up at the cash register, a man was screaming at the poor clerk, a young lady who was obviously not the manager or owner. I had, in fact, seen her behind the counter many times before. She was always cheerful and polite, and was a good employee. Any retailer would want her on his staff. But now, she was almost in tears. I don't know what the man was screaming about, but it was obvious that this nice clerk had failed in helping him in one way or another. All I saw was a mean-spirited man handing out his rage on a tarnished platter.

And I got angry. This was no way to talk to anyone, especially on Christmas Eve. "Peace on Earth, good will to men," I said in a loud but cheery voice, trying to dispell the anger.

"Peace on Earth, my ass," the man said. Nice. "I bought the wrong batteries and this girl won't take them back." He waved a package of Duracell AAs, the cardboard torn, the package opened. Perhaps, even, the batteries tried? I understood: the clerk couldn't take the batteries back because he had opened the package. The batteries could not be returned to the shelf; no one would buy a pack of opened batteries. At the camera shop, we had the same policy.

"But you opened the package," I said. "Of course, you can't return them."

"Why don't you mind your own business?" the man spat at me. Other customers came to the line and, to my relief, they seemed to take the clerk's side. "Why don't you give the girl a break?" said one. The disgruntled customer screamed some more obscenities at the poor girl behind the counter, promised to never shop there again (much to the clerk's relief, I'm sure), and stormed out.

It was probably at this moment that I came to the decision that I hated Christmas. That is to say, I hated the consumerism side of it (insert the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas here). In the evolution of the holiday, we have placed the material above the ideal—the spirit, if you will. In my remaining years in the Merivale Mall, I learned to dread the Christmas season because it always stirred memories of this day. Of the hostility and rage from the last-minute shopper, the parking foes, and the disguntled idiot who didn't know which batteries he needed.

I hate Christmas shopping. I try to avoid it. But with a family, that's hard to do. And so I try to get it out of the way as painfully as possible. I'm not an early shopper, but I have most of my purchases before the last minute. I leave little things to the last minute—things that, should I be unable to find, I really don't care. And I'm always polite with the retail workers. I always have a smile, I always have something nice to say. If a retailer cannot help me find what I'm looking for, I don't hold it against him or her. I never complain.

I think everyone should work a mandatory year in retail so that he or she can empathize with the clerks that do this day in and day out. It's not easy dealing with a public that hasn't walked in a retailer's shoes.

So what does Christmas mean to me? Since the day that I walked home from the drug store, Christmas has meant only one thing: time. Time with family and friends. Time to appreciate what I have. Time to be good to others.

My girls called me a Christmas-hater. This Christmas, and every Christmas from now on, I plan to show them what I love about the season. Them. Family. Friends.

* Image of The Grinch © 1966 Warner Home Video. All rights reserved.

** For my non-Canadian readers, Thanksgiving is the third Monday in October—more than two months before Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Here's Mud in Your Eye!

A few years ago, I remember visiting the Canadian Museum of Civilization and seeing an exhibit that showed some well-preserved Stone-Age artifacts, including a perfectly preserved person. Lori and I, at the time, exclaimed that if you wanted something to be kept intact, you simply threw it in the bog.

Well, the folks at Beau's All Natural Brewing Company in Vankleek Hill—just east of Ottawa—pride themselves on crafting organic, all-natural suds, so it would be unthinkable to add any preservatives to their creations. But then again, a bog is all-natural, isn't it?

This week's tasting is Beau's seasonal beer, Bog Water. The name comes from a bog in Alfred, Ontario (not far from Vankleek Hill), which is some 10,000 years old and is home to many endangered and rare wildlife. Instead of using hops in this beer, Beau's uses sweet gale, a wild bog myrtle, to create a unique style of beer, which they've named Eastern Ontario Gruit.

Here is the skinny on this unique brew:
Beau's All Natural Bog Water
Vankleek Hill, ON
LCBO: $4.35; 600 ml
6.6% alc/vol

Pouring this beer from the bottle to my glass, I couldn't help but notice the murkiness of this gruit. Holding my glass to the light, I found the colour a rich, deep, caramel amber (see photo, below). My glass held right against the light, it was obvious that no filtering is performed before bottling. And that's just fine. The appearance can be compared to bog water. Appropriate.

On the nose is a distinct yeasty aroma with traces of citrus-like fruit. This fruit carries through on the palate and intensifies with a plumy sweetness and a caramel finish, plus a bit of heat from the alcohol. Though the alcohol level is not as high as some beers I've tasted lately, I found it most distinctive in the Bog Water.

This is an earthy beer with a bit of a wild side. From its name to its appearance, to its unique style, and finally to its unique taste, this is a seasonal beer that must be preserved.

And by preserved, I mean kept in my repertoire of beers, while it lasts. This is not a beer that you'd want to throw in the bog.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Photo Friday: Mirror Mirror

This location is one I could never use for Where In Ottawa, so let's just appreciate it for what it is, shall we? And also look at it in another way.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

In A Fog

I hit the wall early, last night, and didn't get around to writing a blog post until this morning. I've been very tired, lately, my head in a fog.

Lori has downloaded an app onto her iPhone that monitors our sleep, and the results aren't good. On average, we are taking in about five hours each night. Often, less for me, as I get up more than an hour and a half earlier than Lori on Tuesdays and Fridays. On those nights, I'm lucky if I get four-and-a-half hours of sleep.

Not good.

So today's blog is written in a fog. To accompany my loss for words and account for my lack of concentration and short attention span, here are some photos that were shot the other night, as I was heading home in a real fog.

It's hard to believe it's mid-December. Where is the snow? Today, a mere 10 days before Christmas, we're expecting a high of 9°C. Perhaps winter is sleeping in.

The lucky bastard.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Little Taste of Muskoka

I love seasonal beers. They pop up on the shelves of our local beer or liquor stores, arouse our curiosity, make us want to take them home. We do, and we either fall in love with them or we don't. If we don't, no problem: they won't be cluttering valuable shelf space for long.

But if we find a real treat, something we love, we only have a short time in which we can enjoy them. And so we make the most of them. Cherish them, because they won't be around for long.

So far this season, I haven't met a beer I didn't like. Lucky me!

My latest find, which I love, is one of those beers that I will cherish until I can no longer find it.

Winter Beard
Bracebridge, ON
LCBO: $10.95, 750 ml; 8% alc/vol

What first drew my attention to this beer was the size of the bottle. You've gotta love a beer that comes in a vessel the size of a wine bottle. At 750 ml and eight-percent alcohol, you know that one bottle should do you. For now. Moderation, folks: please drink responsibly.

The bottle has a pop stopper (I think that's the technical term), so you can pour yourself an ample glass, replace the top, and preserve the fizz. And trust me: you're going to want to have this in a glass so that you can marvel at the rich, deep brown and red colours. Pouring this beer into a glass, you can sense the richness.

The folks at Muskoka Brewery are clever. On their Web site, they recommend that you serve this beer at 9°C. Having made the mistake in the past of drinking my beer when it was too cold, I took the bottle out of the refrigerator and let it sit for almost an hour before I opened it: still cool, but not chilled. At this temperature, I was able to appreciate the bouquet and smell the rich, dark chocolate. Made with roasted dark chocolate malts and 70% dark chocolate, this beer truly lives up to its name.

The chocolate carries through boldly on the palate, where you also feel the roasted malt. There is a faint burnt oak flavour that warms the mouth, most likely the higher alcohol. But the alcohol is tempered with the added cranberries, and so the alcohol on its own is not distinct; it blends well, leaving a nice, long finish with a hint of tart fruit.

This is a stout to enjoy with a hearty stew or a mild chili. This is also a winter beer to savour in front of a warm fire on a cold winter's night.

I'll be sure to do that, if I ever see one of those. Winter hasn't yet taken hold in Ottawa.

This is a wonderful seasonal beer, one that will be available until mid-February. Cherish it while you can.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Please, Sir, Give Me More! Much More!

December 6–24, 2011
NAC English Theatre Company
Directed by Dayna Tekatch
Musical direction by Allen Cole
Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart

You know, if I had been at home, watching this production on the television, sitting cozily in my big, green chair, I would have turned it off after the first 10 minutes.

But I would have missed out on so much.

Such was the opening night of the NAC's production of the musical version of Charles Dickens' classic tale of Oliver Twist. For me, it started off in such a weak way that it made me want to walk out. Instead, I sank low into my seat, folded my arms, and tried, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep.

Let me start off by saying that I'm not a fan of musicals. I love theatre. I love music. But for some reason I don't like the two together. I want a story, or I want a music performance with an artist or band. I don't want a play where the story is presented by singing and dancing.

That said, I have watched musicals and have been able to appreciate them for what they are. And I have seen Oliver! performed on stage before; I've seen the 1968 film many times. I've seen some fabulous musicals on stage—the 1994 Pirates of Penzance at the Stratford Festival was amazing, as was the 1995 Shaw Festival production of Cavalcade.

But musicals aren't really my thing. So, if I go to see one, it had better knock my socks off.

On Friday, my socks didn't even feel a draft.

The first problem that I had to overcome, besides my dislike for musicals, was that there were no children used in the production. The entire cast was composed of adults. I should sue the company for false advertising. There's a child on the poster for the play, but no child could be found on the set. I know that I should have suspended my disbelief, but in the opening scene, where the "children" were singing and dancing in the orphanage, waiting for their food, I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that adults, not children, were banging their metal bowls. If I was unfamiliar with the story, I would have thought that this was a play about prison inmates. There was no indication that the characters were not grownups.

The singing and dancing was fine, but I was confused at what I was watching. Adults shouldn't play children when an orphanage can be mistaken for a prison, and maybe in Dickens' time, there was a fine line between the two. Victorian England was a tough place to be when you were poor.

That said, the choreography for the opening number, "Food, Glorious Food," was well presented and well sung, even if I had to get my head around the adults.

The role of Oliver is played by Thomas Olajide, who, with his opening line—"please, sir, I want some more"—sounded to me less like a small boy and more like a nervous man.

But more on Olajide later.

In to the next scene, we are introduced to Mr. Bumble (Jeremiah Sparks) and Widow Corney (Randi Helmers), the corrupt administrators of the orphanage. The chemistry between the two characters was lacking. It was awkward. It wasn't well played. But I do give credit to Sparks for his wonderful voice and solid performance later in the second half.

Despite my dislike of musicals, I did enjoy some of the numbers, including the large performance by the cast as chimney sweeps, merchants, and residents, through "Consider Yourself," led by the Artful Dodger, wonderfully played by Jennifer Waiser. Waiser was absolutely stellar as the boy who recruited pickpockets for the criminal, Fagin.

Fagin, played by Joey Tremblay, stole the show. Fagin was larger than life, made us loathe the seedy side of London while making us love his softer side. Fagin is the scoundrel we love to hate, and Tremblay's performance was truly lovable. The highlight of his performance was his rendition of "Reviewing the Situation," where Fagin considers and reconsiders leaving his life in the underworld and going legit. His casual interaction with the audience was priceless.

Recognition goes to Julie Tamiko Manning for her portrayal of Nancy, the girlfriend of villain Bill Sykes (Shawn Wright). Manning is convincing as the fearless motherly friend to Oliver, despite the abuse at the hands of Sykes. Her singing, for the most part, was tolerable.

This is the first time that the NAC Theatre Company has performed a musical, and it is a very bold move for them. They gave it their all. But in my opinion, it didn't always work. Like Oliver, I wanted more. Much more.

Apart from the songs I mentioned, I found it hard to sit through the numbers (keeping in mind, I don't like musicals but I appreciate music). And to return to Olajide, while his performance was fine but a little weak, his singing was atrocious.

As I said at the start of this review, if I had been watching this performance on television, I would have turned the set off in the first few minutes. The confusion with associating adults with children, the weak scene with Bumble and Corney (especially through the "I Shall Scream" number), and the seemingly weak performance from Olajide, what really lost me was when Olajide sang "Where Is Love?"

Olajide cannot sing. Not even a bit. And for me, one who doesn't like musicals, if you're going to sing, you had better be good. And so I had a tough time enjoying any song that involved Oliver chiming in.

The second act was much better than the first. The "Oom-Pah-Pah" number roused me from the grumpy mood I was in after my wife wouldn't let me leave during intermission. "Who Will Buy" was well done, despite Olajide's singing (the rest of the actors carried the number). And I laughed during the scene with Dr. Grimwig (Dennis Fitzgerald).

Had I walked out during intermission, I would have missed an entertaining second act.

And this is what I found so shameful about this production: I wasn't grabbed at the start. In fact, I was pushed away. By the time "Where Is Love?" was finished, I too was done. I didn't want to watch any more. But I stayed. I took a deep breath. And I slowly started to come back. And I was rewarded for my perseverance. Because it got better.

I hope that the weak opening was due to the fact that it was opening night and that the crew was still working out kinks in the performance. I hope that the company improves. And maybe, just maybe, I might return for another musical.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

One For The Archives

It seems that yesterday's post was just what everyone needed. Within an hour of my first announcement of clue #5 for Where In Ottawa, many of you flocked to my blog and several of you tweeted me with guesses.

But three of you left the correct answer to the location of the contest. However, there can only be one winner. and this time it is Mike Bulthuis. Congratulations!

The location to Where In Ottawa is the central branch of the City of Ottawa Archives, on Tallwood Avenue in Nepean.

Here is a breakdown of the clues:
  1.  Ottawa's main store—this is the central (main) branch of the Ottawa archives (which stores documents and photos of our city)
  2. So new, but so much history—this building opened earlier this year: it's brand-spanking new
  3. The writing's on the wall... er, window—on all of the windows around the building, a document excerpt is etched in the glass (see below)
  4. Not Charlotte's web—the building was going to be named after Ottawa's first female mayor, Charlotte Whitton, but because of the controversy surrounding her racist views, our current mayor thought better of the idea
  5. A colourful place for our colourful past—the new building, as yesterday's photo showed, is colourful: bright yellow and burnt orange, as a matter of fact
The writing's on the wall... er, window

I think what stumped most of you was the fact that the front statue—a box with glowing letters that seems to be floating away but is held down by steel cables—was shot from directly below. It's not an angle that many people see. Because the archives building is set back from Woodroffe Avenue, many may have recognized it from a more-familiar angle, like this one:

Again, thanks to everyone for playing. Let's do this again in January!

And now I have a book to award. Congratulations once again, Mike.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Different View

So, my Where In Ottawa challenge has you stumped, does it? Well, fear not, my friends, I'm here to help.

I've had a couple of good guesses so far, but they're not even close (that's a hint, too). So I'm going to post the following photo of the actual building.

And clue #5 goes with this photo: A colourful place for our colourful past.

So, do you think you know Ottawa? Prove it! The contest remains open until someone correctly identifies the location (or maybe until I run out of clever clues).

Leave your answer in the Comments location of the original post (click this link). That way, we can all track the submissions in one place and we can all see the timestamp of the answer. I like to keep this contest transparent, you know!

Good luck!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Photo Friday: #amwriting

Now that Songsaengnim is in final production, I am starting to turn toward the sequel, Gyeosunim. I've been reviewing old notes, sketching out the story line, and preparing to actually sit down and write it.

For the first book, I often chose pubs as the place to sit and write. They were noisy, crowded, and full of life. And they supplied me with a pint or two, or a glass of whisky, or a bit of both, as fuel. These days, however, I've chosen a different venue to get my creative juices flowing.

The Ottawa Public Library.

Yes, it's a total contrast to my previous writing environment. But so far, I'm enjoying it. There are no distractions. It's quiet. I have space to stretch out.

I've been sitting in the same area, often in the same seat, for more than a month now, on Tuesday evenings. And as soon as I sit down and unpack my laptop, I look up and admire the artwork on the ceiling. And this week, I shot it.

As with Songsaengnim, I'll be posting rough drafts of the chapters of Gyeosunim as I finish them. Start looking sometime in January.

Together, we'll see how this setting inspires me.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Notes From My Kids: Dear Tooth Fairy

My kids are now at the age where they are starting to doubt the existence of mythical figures, such as Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Michelin Man, and God.

And the Tooth Fairy.

This week, my youngest lost yet another tooth, and she was doubting whether a little winged pixy was really toting coins and exchanging them for discarded human parts. She asked me if her mom ever put the money under her pillow. I truthfully told her: "I've never seen her do it."

I do it.

So last night, when I went to make the tooth-coin exchange, I found the following note.

It's not the first note she's left for the Tooth Fairy. But usually, she just asks for an autograph, which I have forged, using a pink marker that I usually find with the rest of L's colouring instruments. My colour preference, for the Tooth Fairy, is pink. Seems fairy-like to me. But on the day that L lost her tooth, she left a note asking the Tooth Fairy to not take her tooth, because she wanted to show it to her friend at school. She left a spot for the Tooth Fairy to initial, so that L knew that the Tooth Fairy had stopped by.

I initialled it, but in the dark I grabbed an orange marker, not the pink one. Which got L thinking that the initials were forged, not signed by the Tooth Fairy. The Tooth Fairy always signs in pink, she said.

And so, when I found last night's note, I had to be careful. And, using a pink pen, I wrote the following.

I wrote in my best cursive, which really sucks. I never use cursive when I write. This way, the handwriting matches nothing that my girls are familiar with. And so, we keep the charade.

Thankfully, she never reads my blog.