Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Carried Away by Excellence

This post, in no way, is intended to make light of the hard work by all of those who are involved in the Candance and American Dance Awards (ADA) competitions, from the dancers, the choreographers, the judges, to the administrators of the events. If any offense is taken, remember: most of the time, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

For the past three years, I've had the honour of taking my two kids to dance in competitions in our province, neighbouring American state, and in Florida. It's a treat to see them and their peers do what they love best, and to showcase what they have worked so hard to achieve.

It's also great to see kids from other schools in other parts of Canada and the U.S. do the same. There are some amazingly talented performers out there who, if they so choose to pursue this path further, will have wonderful and rewarding careers.

As a proud dance dad, I like to watch not only my kids perform on stage, but also watch the expressions on their faces as they win their awards. For myself, I don't care how they place; I only want them to have fun and be happy with the performances they give. But because we have such an excellent dance school with amazing instructors, the girls always do well at awards time.

The awards in themselves are something, in that it is sometimes hard to explain how well the kids actually did for their dance numbers. And it all comes down to deciphering the medals.

In the Olympics and other sporting events, the awards are clear: you receive a bronze medal for finishing in third place, a silver for second, and a gold for first place. Not so in dance, and not so for all dance competitions.

For Candance, the awards are distributed this way, on a percentage basis:
  • If your dance number achieves a score of 79% or less, you earn a bronze award.
  • If your dance number achieves a score of 80-84%, you earn a silver award.
  • If your dance number achieves a score of 85-89%, you earn a gold award.
  • If your dance number achieves a score of 90-94%, you earn a platinum award.
  • If your dance number achieves a score of 95% or higher, you earn a diamond award.
Earning a diamond award brings you back for the final evening, where you face other teams in a dance-off. To me, that means you stay longer for the competition, possibly for an extra night.

I encourage my girls to go for platinum.

Judges also award a first, second, and third place for the top dance numbers in a category.

For ADA, there is no dance-off. There is no diamond or platinum award. But there is also no easy bronze, silver, and gold. I don't remember how the points are distributed, but the medals are distributed as follows:
  • Bronze
  • Silver
  • High silver
  • Gold
  • Ultimate gold
With both dance organizations, I have to laugh to myself. For me, bronze, silver, and gold is like saying the contestants are good (bronze), better (silver), and best (gold). In splitting some of the awards, I feel it's like saying: "You were good" (bronze); "you were better" (silver); "you were a little better" (high silver); "you were the best" (gold); "you were the best of the best" (ultimate gold).

It's a little much, don't you think? I think it puts too much of a gap between those who earn medals on the extreme ends of the spectrum.

And all of the dancers, regardless of the piece of metal that is placed in their hands or around their necks, are exceptional.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Back From Buffalo: That's All I Have to Say for Now

I know: I almost always have a blog post for Monday, but today I came up empty.

Having spent this weekend at a dance competition in Buffalo, NY, I filled my days with helping other dads with props and ensuring my girls (the three of them) had food to sustain them. At the end of each long day, I only had energy to put myself to bed.

And because we drove home last night, I didn't pull into the driveway until 1:30 this morning. So, again, I had no time or energy to write.

I did, however, take an hour or so yesterday morning to rush downtown and shoot a few photos of the city. Here's one:

I'll have something better for you tomorrow.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Photo Friday: In Defense of HDR

I once read that the high-dynamic range (HDR) feature in photo-editing software was designed for photographers who know nothing about photography.

I wish I could find where I read that. Perhaps it was only on Twitter.

I've seen lots of photographs that have involved HDR. The idea is that this feature allows you to modify a photo to appear more like what is seen with the human eye. For example, if you want to take a picture of a person who is standing before a sunset, while the eye will see features on the person and the colours of the setting sun, a camera will try to balance the amount of light it reads, and you are left with a silhouette of the person.

HDR will correct for that light balancing.

Some cameras have a pseudo-HDR feature built into them. The iPhone camera, for example, has that setting, whereby it takes a "normal" shot and an "HDR" shot at the same time. Some photo-editing applications can take your photo and apply that HDR look to the photo.

True HDR effects, however, are achieve through blending two or more images that are shot at different exposure settings. When I want to achieve an HDR effect with my D-SLR, I will perform a bracketing procedure, where I set my camera to take three consecutive shots: one, at a normally balanced exposure, one that is over-exposed (typically, between one and two stops), and one that is under-exposed by the same number of f-stops as the over-exposed shot.

I then take all three of those photos and blend them with an HDR tool in my photo-editing software. For me, I use Corel PaintShop Pro.

While it may be arguable that HDR is used by those who know nothing about photography, I say that may be true about the pseudo-HDR tools, like the built-in effect in the iPhone and the applications like Camera Plus. They clarify an otherwise plain shot. But if you think about the shot that you want before you take it, bracket some shots, and then blend them, you still need to know something about photography in the first place.

On Tuesday, I took a few shots of the Mill Street Brew Pub, bracketing each of them. I wanted to capture the background exposure while compensating for shadowed areas. Using PaintShop's HDR tool, I created the following pictures.

After I rendered the HDR tool on these images, I further applied other post-production effects to balance the colour and to add colour to the black-and-white image.

I agree that the HDR effect should be used sparingly, that you shouldn't use it as a crutch to clean up your drab photos. but if you give it some thought before you press your camera's shutter release, you can end up with some creative images.

BTW: the first two photos in this week's Wordless Wednesday were created with my software's HDR tool. I think my first shot is the best of the series.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Destined to Speak Like a Scot

Long before I decided to pretend to be Roland Axam, before I went to Scotland for the first time, I was drawn to the Scottish brogue. I loved the rough sound and the way the R's would roll off the tongue. I particularly liked the Scottish accent coming from a woman's mouth.

That was, and still is, a big turn on for me.

I used to be a customer at a bank where one of the tellers was a Scot. Her voice was soft but the accent was clear, to be sure. And later, I worked in a camera shop with a Scottish lass who put a smile on my face when she would offer a promotion to our customers: "With that, you can have three free rolls of film or three free photo albums."

Imagine that said with a brogue, the R's rolling on and on.

But my first encounter with a loud, guttural, Scottish brogue came in the summer of '87, when some friends and I were enjoying a gorgeous evening in the back patio of the long-gone, Byward Market bar, Stoney Mondays.

On their patio, you felt like you were in someone's over-sized back yard, with the picnic tables and the high, wooden fence. You would often find yourself sitting on top of the tables, where you could get a better look of what went on: namely, watching the ladies. The waitresses would carry opened cases with an assortment of beers in cans. You would catch her attention, pay her, and then pull a can from the case. Quick and easy.

On this one occasion, I caught up with a waitress who was standing with a man who was maybe one or two years older than me. He was bald, had a pointed nose and squinting eyes, and very much reminded me of a rat. Hard as it may seem, he was several inches shorter than me, but he was lean and seemed fit, wearing a navy rugby shirt. He seemed more interested in talking up the pretty young server than in making a purchase, so when I approached, and she saw me, she turned the case in my direction (she had already served me a couple of times that evening, and on previous occasions, so she was familiar with me).

I handed her the cash and drew a tall can from within (I won't say what it was because my taste in beer has radically changed in the ensuing decades).

As I was turning to return to my friends, this loud voice boomed from this man, his Scottish heritage clear as a bell: "Hey, you. That's me beer yeh took. Ya gi'it back of I'll punch yer fuckin' lights oot!"

I turned to him, surprised that what had been a quiet transaction had now turned into a confrontation. Was he really willing to fight me for the can in my hand or was he just trying to impress the waitress?

My eyes met his, his squinting in anger, or in sensitivity to the light. I then looked into the case, where many more cans awaited. I reached in, retrieved an identical can, and put it in his hand. It was my turn to speak: "Sorry, mate. I di'n't know it had your name on it." My attempt at a Scottish accent was poor, but effective. I nodded at the waitress, turned, and walked to my friends.

I didn't know if the guy was going to follow me or escalate the incident. But I walked straight to my friends, who were looking at me, having seen the exchange, wanting to know what that was all about.

I explained what happened, mirroring the guy's voice and accent, which drew plenty of laughter from my friends. For the rest of the evening, when we would fetch another beer, we would take turns saying, "Hey, you, that's me beer yeh took. Ya gi'it back or I'll punch yer fuckin' lights oot!"

It was the start to what would later be my perfected Scottish tongue. One that would fool many, including actual Scots. The accent that I still miss using.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Just a Reminder

This post is nothing short of self-promotion. If you don't want to read it, check out yesterday's post or go to my Beer O'Clock blog.

Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that I did publish a novel and that I'd very much like for you to read it. Because, when I look at my royalty cheques, I realize that every so often I earn enough to buy a copy of my own book.

And nothing more.

So please buy my book. Buy one for yourself; buy one for a friend; buy one for a loved one.

Because, some day, I'd like to say I can afford to buy two of my books. Maybe, I'd give some away (wait... I already do that: what kind of idiot am I???).

If you're not sure whether you want to plunk down a lot of cash, go to my Songsaengnim blog. Read the first chapter, for free. If you want to read more, there are lots of ways to get your hands on a copy (or two, or eight).
  • Through Chapters-Indigo (paperback, hard cover, or Kobo); some stores may actually have the printed versions in stock
  • Through Amazon in Canada or in the U.S. (paperback, hard cover, or e-reader)
  • Through Kobo (e-reader)
  • Through Barnes & Noble (paperback, hard cover, or Nook)
  • Directly from the publisher (paperback, hard cover, or e-reader)
As far as I know, only two people in the world own hard-cover editions: me, and a buddy in Germany.

If you live in the Ottawa area and purchase a printed version of my book, I'd be happy to meet you in person and sign your copy. That's how appreciative I'd be.

To those of you who have already purchased a copy, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

A sequel is in the works. No promise of any completion date.

This ends my shameless, self-promoting post. Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 22, 2013

New Music (for me, anyway)

Last night, like many Canadians, I watched the Juno Awards. I'm not normally into watching any type of award show, but I thought I would see which performers I knew and which were new to me.

Lately, my kids have started listening to the radio and tuning to stations that play the pop songs they like. I now understand my parents: I hate the music that my kids like.

When I was in my teens, my brother was just a pre-schooler. But I would crank my tunes and he would love it. He would always ask me to play some Peter Gabriel, U2, Ultravox, The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Yes, among others. When he reached his teens, his taste in music was good. He would still listen to the songs I played, but he also branched out into other contemporary artists, like The Stones, and his new music was pretty good (he actually got me into The Cranberries and Coldplay).

I like to think I have a firm hand in guiding his taste in music.

When my kids were starting to appreciate music, I had them craving newer bands that I have discovered over the years (I mean, I didn't discover the artists, I just discovered their music over the airwaves). Artists like Sam Roberts, Hawksley Workman, Metric, Cake, Dave Matthews, and, of course, Sarah Slean.

The girls have been to Bluesfest over the years and have loved hearing many of these artists live. And I thought to myself, my job is done.

So why are they now listening to people like Pitbull, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Marianas Trench? And squealing when these folks come on the radio?

I gave it my best shot.

For more than a year now, I've actually been learning of new artists not by the radio, but by getting free iTunes downloads through Starbucks. I enjoy getting downloads of artists that I've never heard of before and am pleased when I find that I really like the song.

Here's a list of some of my favourite free downloads:
  • Half of Something Else, by The Airborne Toxic Event
  • Truth, by Alexander
  • Live and Die, by The Avett Brothers
  • The Roller, by Beady Eye
  • Teardrop Windows, by Benjamin Gibbard
  • Guttersnipe, by Bhi Bhiman
  • Skip the Charades, by Cold War Kids
  • Thrones, by The Dears
  • My Mistakes, by Eleanor Friedberger
  • Hold You, by Elliott Brood
  • Hummingbird, by Imaginary Cities
  • Beautiful Trash, by Lanu
  • Bloodbuzz Ohio, by The National
  • Major & Minor, by The Procession
  • Wax Museum, by The Red Thread
  • Under the Knife, by The Rural Alberta Advantage
  • Thin Ocean, by The Soft Province
  • We Have Everything, by Young Galaxy
I would have to say that at least 95 percent of the songs that I've blindly downloaded onto my iPhone are still on my device and I continue to enjoy. So I can't say that I live in the past with my music tastes.

I just don't get my girls.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Photo Friday: Empty Spaces

This was a last-minute-decision shot, one that I hadn't planned to take but thought to myself, "if you don't take it, you'll regret not having it later."

When in doubt, take the shot. Nine times out of 10, you won't use it. But at least you'll never beat yourself up over having not taken it.

Last Sunday, just before my family and I left Mississauga for home, we made a stop at the Square One Mall. My wife wanted to shop for the girls at the H&M and at some other shops that are either not in Ottawa or are not convenient for us.

Because I hate to shop, I dropped my wife and kids at one of the mall's entrances, and then decided that I would take some photos of the area. I had been looking at The Absolute Towers since we arrived (they were nearly completed two years ago, when we first came to Mississauga for a dance competition, but I didn't have time to shoot them then) and figured it was now or never (or not until we returned for the next Candance).

I drove to the top of the parking garage for The Bay, where I shot my first couple of photos. On my way up, I noticed that the garage was deserted: not a single vehicle on the second, third, and top levels. It seemed a little eerie driving up and down these concrete platforms, so I decided to capture the loneliness of this urban setting.

I took four shots: the first, at a normal setting; the second through fourth shots were bracketed because I wanted to play with some HDR effects.

I'm arranging them in this blog in no particular order. Can you tell which is the "normal" shot and which is the combined three (the HDR shot)?

Okay, it may be an easier challenge than I thought.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Worst Date Ever

I often think of this date as one of the first we ever had, but then Lori reminds me that we had been dating for about nine months. When I think of the circumstances of the date, I know that she's right.

But I treated it like a first date. I was excited. Maybe too excited.

It was planned out perfectly: dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, a romantic soak in a hot tub, a light-hearted movie, and then a long evening of passion. No wonder I was excited.

The restaurant was as old as I was, having opened its doors in 1965. I was about eight years old when I first went to it, and I loved it from that first time. Peter's Pantry, on Richmond Road, near Lincoln Heights, was the best Italian restaurant in the city. It was famous for its pizzas but made a killer lasagna too.

When I was a kid, the dimly lit dining room with its Tiffany lamps and ornate brass railings was pretty swanky. The waitresses were pretty, adorned in what now seemed like ballet body suits with tassels that hung from slender waists. In my teens, the owner married one of the waitresses, and the uniform changed to more-conservative skirts.

Shortly after Lori and I started dating, I learned that Peter's Pantry was her favourite pizza restaurant. She had been going there for years and would often go there after work, with her then coworkers. The bar in the basement of the restaurant, Sneaky Pete's, served fishbowl-sized goblets of Long Island Iced Teas and Zombies.

On the night of this date, we chose Peter's Pantry because it was across the street from a strip mall that held our second destination, Water Works, a pseudo-spa that housed hot tubs in private rooms. A friend of mine assured me that the facilities were clean, that he had gone on several romantic dates there.

Guaranteed to put you in the mood, he promised me.

Crossing Richmond Road at that time of night presented its own problems. There was an intersection with a crosswalk on the far side of the restaurant, but for us that would mean walking about 100 metres in the opposite direction from the strip mall before we could cross. Another set of lights was in the direction we had to go, but it was on the far end of the mall, which would add another 200 to 300 metres to get to our destination. So we decided to wait for a gap in the traffic and travel directly across the street.

I was anxious. I wanted to have Lori to myself in the hot tub. Though we brought bathing suits, they were optional.

I looked down the street to my left. A taxi was coming, after which there would be about a five-second gap. Looking to my right, the traffic light had just turned green, and it would be only a few seconds of empty space before a long line of cars would have us waiting longer than I cared to wait.

I decided it was time to go. So I said to Lori, "Let's do it," and started out across the street.

I was anxious. I was excited. I wanted Lori in that hot tub. There would be no swim suits.

I was also forgetful. There was, of course, that taxi to wait for, and I didn't wait.

It seemed to happen in slow motion, both for Lori and for myself. For Lori, she saw this person that she loved be transformed from a person to a rag doll. To see a body in flight with no control over his movements.

For me, I first felt a massive, solid object hit me just below my hips, lifting my feet off the ground. Instinctively, my hands went out to either side as I tried, in vain, to maintain balance. As I moved sideways, my legs moving upward as my head and torso swung downward, my left arm struck the A-pillar of the car, softening the blow that would be my head, bouncing off my involuntarily flexed bicep.

My body, still airborne, was sent into a new spin as I rolled along the passenger side of the taxi and came down on my chest on the gravel shoulder of the road. I thought I would slide back toward Lori, but when my legs came down, one was still out on the street. I remember the pressure in my boot as the rear tire of the taxi rolled over my right foot. I could see stars across my eyes, I was winded, and just wanted to embrace the coolness of the ground.

That's when the sound came.

I could hear Lori, a scream emanating from her at a volume that would put any victim in a horror movie to shame. It made my heart stop. It scared the life from me. And, as much as I just wanted to close my eyes and rest, I knew that I needed to calm Lori down.

"I'm all right," I shouted, pushing myself from the ground, shakily getting to my feet. "I'm all right."

In the darkness of the evening, illuminated by an amber street light, I could see the fear in Lori's eyes. She was looking down at my legs. In a sobbing, panicked voice, she shouted, "Where is your foot?"

It was my turn to panic. I didn't want to look down. I knew that the taxi had driven over my foot. Being December, I was wearing my high, black, leather boots; the ones, at the time, I called my Nazi shit-kicker boots. They went up almost to my knees and looked like they were built for marching in. Inside, they were fur-lined and had thick, durable soles.

I had stood up, but I hadn't thought much about it. "Where's your foot?" Lori repeated. Taking in a deep breath, I looked down.

Both feet were exactly where they were supposed to be. The leather on my right foot was dirty, no doubt had the pattern of the tire tread, and the leather had slightly separated where it met the edge of the sole, but it looked like the boot had protected my foot. Which was a good thing, though I was scheduled for some reconstructive surgery on it on the following week anyway.

"My foot's right here," I explained lifting it toward her to inspect.

"I mean, how is your foot?" Only then did she realize what she had been screaming.

By then, the taxi driver had emerged from his cab and came to see how I was. I apologized to him, but on the dimly lit stretch of road, he thought he hadn't seen me and had clipped me. I told him it was my fault. Inspecting his car, we could see a dent on his hood and on the front passenger door, paint scraped down the side. But he didn't care. He was concerned that I was all right.

I took several steps. My foot hurt but not badly. I was limping only a little and could feel that nothing was broken. My left elbow hurt where it struck the A-pillar. I had a slight headache. My left side was tender: it would be bruised by morning.

But I felt that nothing was broken. I was incredibly lucky.

I got the cabbie's business card and Lori and I continued on our way.

At the hot tub, the mood was shot. We figured that the hot water would soothe my muscles and help me relax. I still insisted that Lori forgo her bikini. Seeing her naked in the tub would distract me from any pain I felt, and the pain was steadily increasing.

We didn't go to a movie. We went back to my place. We didn't have a night of passion; instead, I fell asleep almost immediately. Lori woke every so often to see if I was okay.

The next day, as I suspected, I woke up to a bruised arm, chest, and hip, the three parts that took the brunt of the collision. My foot was stiff and sore, but it always was, which was why I was having surgery the next week.

I was going to be fine.

And I'm still here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sometimes, Hate Gets the Upper Hand

I took a break from the terrible news to get away from it. But my thoughts kept returning, so I turned to my keyboard.

On days like today (yesterday, or later, for you who are reading this post), we are sadly reminded that all is not well with the world. Just as with 9/11 and the London attacks of 2005, we are reminded that our everyday lives can be turned upside down, that the people who are full of hate can unleash that negativity with such life-altering results.

It's hard not to be affected, even when we're far away from the devastation. And my heart goes out to the families, friends, and loved ones of those affected by the tragedy in Boston.

I have been to Boston, have stayed within a block or so from where the explosions occurred. When I saw the images on television, I knew exactly where the attacks took place because my family and I have been on that street, on those sidewalks.

The view from our hotel room in 2011, looking toward the finish line for the Boston marathon.

As the only non-running member of my family, I have stood near the finish line, watching and cheering on my wife and daughters as they wrapped up their races.

And so this particular attack hits close to home. It saddens and sickens me far more than the other acts of violence and terror (and those touched me, as it touched so many others around the world).

On days such as these, on days where hate gets the upper hand, we need to stand firm, move forward, and not shrink away. The people of Boston have shown just that.

And so hatred won't have the upper hand for long.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Time to Step Up

As far as dance school, we dads have it pretty easy.

Sure, we'll cart our wee ones to and from lessons and practice, will watch rehearsals, recitals, and competitions, but for the most part, that's pretty much it.

That's not enough.

Dance moms make sure that the kids have the right outfits, the right tights. They'll ensure that our girls' hair is just right. And that's just for everyday classes. For competition, they make sure that the dancers are properly equipped with the right body suits, tights, and shoes. They'll make sure they have the correct jewelry and the proper-coloured makeup. They will help make the costumes, they will spend countless hours gluing sparkles on dresses, they will create fascinators, they will accessorize and make sure everything goes together for when the curtain goes up and the music starts.

Yup, we dads have it easy.

But not all dads. There are a few who help build the props. These dads will bang wood together, slap on paint, and bolt ends onto ends. Usually, under the direction, supervision, and aid of the dance moms (and choreographers/designers). There are a few dads who will help pack the props into the trailers, those special dads who haul the trailers to the venue, and unpack the props backstage.

A few extra dads will help assemble those props and get them on stage in time for the dancers. But not enough.

As a dad with dancers, I like to help when needed. I don't do a ton of work, I don't lead the charge. I'm not one of those superdads, not by a long shot. But when called upon before a competition, I answer. And when I'm at the competition, I go up to those superdads and ask, "How can I help? What do you need?"

I'm not a big guy. I'm not tall. I'm not particularly strong. I have a back that sometimes fails me. I have arthritic feet—one that has been reconstructed with parts of my hip bone, and on which I can only stand for a short time before they throb.

But I'm there for my girls. I'm there for the school. I'm there with the other prop dads.

I'm not one to judge or to point fingers. I really don't want to get preachy. But there are some dads who are there to cheer on their kids, who I see in the audience. I never see them backstage and never see them offer to help.

Some of our props are feather-light. Some can be put on dollies. Given the amount of time our kids devote to their numbers, given the amount of time our wives put into practically everything (lots of moms help us move props when not enough men step up), given that we have one of the best dance schools in our city (if not the province) with some outstanding teachers, don't we dads owe it to be there whenever we're needed, no matter how big or small the task?

Our next competition is in Buffalo in less than two weeks. Let's step up, dads.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rewind: April 8-12, 2013

This will be brief, because I'm out of town and time for blogging is limited. So here's this week's roundup of The Brown Knowser and Beer O'Clock:

I didn't get many chances to review beer this week, but there was one Beer O'Clock post:

Enjoy your weekend!

Photo Friday: In The Wings

Early yesterday, I started thinking about today's blog post and pondered what I could shoot that would be worthwhile. Being in Mississauga for a dance competition, I'm not in familiar territory.

Sure, I've been here before and stayed at the same place just two years ago. But being here primarily for a dance competition, one in which photography is strictly forbidden, I had to think outside the box... er, venue.

Very close to where we're staying are unique twin towers that beg to be photographed. The Absolute Towers seem to twist skyward, almost in a dance of their own. What better structures to photograph? And I found a good spot to stand to take the shot, so it seemed like a done deal.

Except, the weather didn't cooperate.

With the snow storm warning through Southern and Eastern Ontario (and with up to 25 cm of snow expected in Ottawa, it's a good time to be away from home!), I was met with rain, fierce, cold winds, and ice pellets. Not the kind of weather I choose in which to photograph. So I pondered some more.
About mid afternoon, as I helped with props backstage, I enjoyed the way the stage lights played off the kids who waited in the wings for their dance numbers to start. And it hit me.

Photography was prohibited in the theatre. Technically, I wasn't in the theatre: I was backstage. The rule is established to prevent anyone from photographing the performances. From where I was positioned, I could only see a fraction of the stage and couldn't see any of the performance. Besides, my subjects weren't part of the ongoing performance.

To be even more discreet, I didn't hold the camera to my eye. I merely sat it on my lap (by this point, I was sitting, waiting to move the next props), aimed in the general direction, guessed at my settings, and fired.

What do you think?

I still hope that the weather improves and I get a chance to shoot the Absolute Towers before we go. They really are eye-catching.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Road Trips of Days Gone By

I love to drive. I love to get behind the wheel and hit that open road, becoming one with my vehicle.

When I'm alone in the car, I can travel for great distances without stopping. I would make sure I had used the washroom before I set out, sip whatever liquid I packed and whatever snack I had prepared, and stop only for fuel.

The longest that I've gone without a break, while driving solo, was eight hours (and only one fuel pit stop).

With others in the car—especially, my family—stops are more frequent but are also, mercifully, short. For washroom breaks and fresh air for cabin-fevered kids. Because we have a minivan, we pack coolers with refreshments; we also keep the kids entertained with video games, a DVD player, and their iPods/iPads.

Some of our best vacations have included lengthy periods on the roads. With yesterday's road trip to Mississauga, I was reminded of some of our memorable trips on the highways.

Prince Edward Island:

For three summers, from 2006 to 2008, we packed up the vehicle and pulled out of the driveway at about 8:00 in the evening. Because the drive to PEI is 15 hours, our thought was to let the kids sleep for a good portion of the trip. They were fed, in their pajamas, and tucked into their car seats with pillows and blankets.

They were asleep before we were halfway to Montréal.

I would try to drive non-stop through the evening, stopping only for gas. The first stop would be between 1 and 2 in the morning, not long after we passed Québec City. I appreciated the fresh air and would grab a coffee.

By about 6:00 in the morning, we would make our second stop, in Hartland, NB, where we would take our breakfast in the small park, next to the world's longest covered bridge. Once, we saw a golden eagle fly low along the river. It was spectacular.

The kids would be fed and in good moods, and we would continue, making a stop in Fredericton and Moncton before crossing the Confederation Bridge into PEI.

Me, having not slept for more than 24 hours by the time we checked into our cottage or camp ground, would crash once everything was unpacked. The real vacation would start the next day.

Cape Cod:

Only two years ago and that road trip will go down as one of our more adventurous, not on the way down, but on the way back.

You see, we were there for the week that led up to Hurricane Irene battering the eastern seaboard.

On the Friday before our departure, the day before Irene was set to hit the region, our van's alternator decided to die. What made things worse was that when we took the van into a nearby garage, the shop owner tried, in vain, to find us a replacement part. There was no alternator for a 2003 Odyssey anywhere on the cape. He would have to order us a part and install it on the following Monday or Tuesday.

I ended up renting a car and driving nearly to Boston to get the part. I dropped it off with the van on Saturday morning and waited, all the while the governor of Massachusetts was talking about closing the bridges to and from the cape if wind speeds exceeded 70 mph.

Thanks to the hard work of the garage owner, we had our van back on the road and were off Cape Cod just before the heavy rains came. Our family back in Ottawa was frantically calling us to see if we were safe and they were tracking the storm, offering us suggestions of where we should drive to avoid the worst of the hurricane.

Drive northwest, they urged, try to make it to Vermont.

Vermont was hit pretty hard when the storm made landfall.

Luckily, we trusted our instincts and took shelter in Boston, at a hotel that connected with a couple of shopping malls and kept us inside during Irene's visit. The kids were nervous at first, but because Lori and I kept our heads we had nothing to fear.

I documented parts of our trip on this blog.

Tuscany, Italy:

This has been my favourite family vacation. It is also the trip that the kids continue talking about the most.

One of our best friends was living in Rome at the time, so we enjoyed a few glorious days with her before we headed north. And because of the generosity of our friend, we didn't have to rent a car. She had a small SUV that she didn't use often in her city, so she gave us the keys.

Driving the winding Tuscan roads is one of the greatest experiences of my driving life. The scenery is breathtaking, especially when you round a curve and a Medieval hill town pops out in front of you. Several times, I would have to pull over so that I could take the time to take in the majesty of the landscape, to snap a photo or two.

We rented a villa in the Chianti region, where the view offered spectacular vistas of vineyards, olive groves, and San Gimignano on the next hill. Each day, we would venture to another town: Florence, Siena, Volterra, Pisa, and more.

Driving trips, for the most part are great. As our competitive dance season has officially started, we can expect some time on the road.

And hopefully, the journey will be part of the adventure.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Brushes With Celebs

The Internet Age has not only made the world a smaller place, but it has also brought people closer with the advent of social media.

These days, you can keep in touch with far-away friends through e-mail, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter, to name a few methods (or, at least, the methods that I use). But you can also reach out to people who, before social media, where only accessible through the big screen, television, and radio: public figures and celebrities. And, in those forms, contact was only one way.

Because of Twitter, you can follow your favourite celebs and read what they are doing at that particular moment, but you can also reach out to them, responding to their tweets or just contacting them directly. If you're lucky, they will respond to you.

Recently, I remembered that, for a short period, I was able to interact with famous folks without the Internet, without social media.

When I was a journalism student at Algonquin College, I spent six weeks in an internship at The Ottawa Citizen. And, as luck would have it, I was assigned to the Entertainment department, where I would follow stories about local celebrities, artists, and musicians, and would occasionally get to see famous people that were known across the country, even world-wide.

For my 500th post on The Brown Knowser (already!), I thought I would share some of my brushes with celebrities and what made these encounters so memorable.

Former members of The Guess Who: on my first day at The Citizen, I was sent downtown to cover a press conference, where some musicians where announcing that there was going to be an increase in the royalty amounts that they would earn for their songs. For decades, Canadian artists were earning far less than their American and European counterparts, which made many of them head south of the border. The increase was an effort to keep our Canadian singers and songwriters in Canada.

Among those speaking at the press conference were none other than Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman. For me, it was great to be sitting in the press gallery, able to ask questions. I still remember the question that I asked, addressed to Cummings: had he considered leaving Canada before this increase? His answer was an emphatic "no," that he loved his country and had helped lead the charge to this increase.

When the conference broke up, I made sure to move up and shake Cummings' and Bachman's  hands, letting them know that I appreciated their part in Canada's music scene.

Will Millar, of The Irish Rovers: long after The Unicorn and Wasn't That a Party were big hits, the Rovers had a huge following. So when they were coming to Ottawa to perform at the NAC, I was asked to interview one of the members, Will Millar.

The interview was conducted over the phone, as it was held the day before The Irish Rovers were to play in town. They were currently in Toronto and we wanted the story to run for the next morning.

One of the problems was that when I called Millar's hotel room at the appointed time, his manager answered the phone and said that Millar was taking a bath, and I should call back in a half hour. Thirty minutes later, when I called, Millar was still in the bath: maybe I should try again in another half hour, his agent suggested.

I waited for 40 minutes, just to make sure. When his manager answered, I was informed that Millar had just exited his bathroom, in a robe, and could I call back in 10 minutes. I said, "if he's decent, put him on now. I can't see him, and he's probably comfortable in that robe."

Millar took the call.

My first question to him: "How was your bath?"

Wonderful, was his answer (or something like that). He laughed, and I knew this was going to be a good interview. It was. It was also the first full story of mine to appear with a byline.

Alanis Morissette: because she lived in Ottawa, my interview with Morissette took place at her home (actually, it was her parents' home: she was only 13). We sat in her kitchen while her mother prepared dinner. This interview took place long before her angry Jagged Little Pill, before she was known outside a tiny circle of fans. Back then, Morissette wanted to be a pop star; as she told me, she wanted to be the next Olivia Newton-John.

After the interview, I was given a single of hers to take with me. I promised that I would listen to it while I wrote up my piece for the paper. When I got home, I put the 45-rpm vinyl on and played the song once. I wrote a simple, fluffy piece about a young kid wanting to make it big in the music industry. When I gave the written piece to my editor, I told him about the music and the song I heard. My exact words to him: "She'll never amount to anything."

The story was never published.

Lee Aaron: people may not remember her, but in the 80s she was a queen of heavy metal. She was also a hottie. Like The Irish Rovers, Aaron was interviewed over the phone in advance of a performance in Ottawa.

I knew very little about her music other than a bio I was sent before our conversation. I knew that she had done a ballad with Canadian icon Dan (Sometimes When We Touch) Hill. Known for his sentimental, saccharine-drenched love songs, I asked Aaron, "Is he a wuss in real life?" She laughed and said, "Not at all!"

During the chat, Aaron let me know that her first band was called Lee Aaron. When I guessed that it was named after her, she said no, that no one in the band was named either Lee or Aaron. Naturally, my next question was, "So, what is your real name?"

She hesitated, saying she wasn't sure that she wanted to say her real name. She asked me if I'd use it. I said that I might, unless she told me not to before giving me her name. She then said that she didn't know if she'd get in trouble with her agent if she disclosed her name, and I then said that she didn't have to give it.

"It's Karen Greening," she said. "Are you going to use it?"

"I might," I repeated. I did.

When we ended the interview, I told her to drop by the newspaper when she came to Ottawa and that I'd buy her lunch. She never came.

Later the next day, when Aaron/Greening was in town (after my story ran), she conducted an in-studio interview with rock-radio station, CHEZ 106. A friend of mine, who was driving home from work, told me about the interview.

When the interviewer brought up her real name, Aaron growled, "some <expletive> reporter, whose name I won't mention, leaked that."

I was famous for an instant, though only those who read The Citizen story would know who she was talking about.

Adrian Smith, guitarist for Iron Maiden: the day before my phone interview (again, they were coming to town), I received a press release that included their latest album. That evening, I listened to the first side of the album while I prepared my questions for a person from a band I didn't know. At the end of side one, I took the record off my turntable and returned it to the sleeve. I never listened to it again.

My first question to Smith: "Do you actually like the music you perform?" I wasn't laughing.

Bob Rock, of the Payola$ and Rock & Hyde: Rock came into The Citizen to meet with me face to face. It was the scariest interview with a musician, because he could see my face. He wasn't performing in Ottawa, even though his latest album, Under the Volcano, had just been released. He was in Ottawa to receive an award and to attend a show-business gala, hosted by CHEZ 106.

The interview went very well: Rock was lively, animated, and understanding at the fact that I was a rookie intern. I only knew his famous song Eyes of a Stranger and had heard only a bit of one song from his new album (Dirty Water).

As we wrapped up the interview, Rock said, "Now that we're done, can I ask you a question?"

"Yes," I said.

"Have you heard my latest album?" I told him I hadn't, that I received no bio kit before our interview (as was usually the case). "If you walk me to my car, I'll give you a copy."

During our walk, he also asked me if I was going to the gala. I told him that I wanted to, but the tickets were pricey and by now, was sold out.

He reached into his pocket and gave me two. "Take mine," he said, kindly.

"But aren't you going?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied, "but I'm Bob Rock. I don't need tickets to get in."

I took one of my best friends, who also was in the journalism program and was interning at the Citizen's city desk. Shortly after we arrived, I saw Bob Rock with an entourage of followers, a pretty woman on each arm. From a distance, I waved, and when he recognized me, he called my friend and me over.

He introduced me to his entourage and then got all of their attention: "This is Ross Brown, from The Citizen. We had a lovely chat this afternoon." He bought us drinks, spent a few minutes chatting with us. I don't remember any of the conversation at that point because I was in awe that such a well-known celebrity would take the time with a relatively unknown person and make me and my friend feel so special.

He was a true gentleman.

Of all the famous people that I met during that internship and since, my experience with Bob Rock will live with me the longest.

Unless, of course, any of my top five want to meet me.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Neverending Project

I am not a handyman.

Sure, I can paint walls and wallpaper. In my late teens and early 20s, I worked in a paint and wallpaper store, and part of my duties was to redecorate the display cases and to teach customers how to spruce up their homes. Towards the end of that part-time job, I was hiring myself out to customers, offering to do the work for them, once they purchased all of the tools needed to get the job done.

Until recently, the biggest job I did in my house was to replace the awful dining-room chandelier that came with our home. In it's place, I hung a modern lamp with four halogen bulbs. I also added a dimmer switch so that we could create mood lighting when entertaining guests.

I was surprised that in the rewiring of the light fixture and switch that I didn't electrocute myself or set the house on fire.

From the day that we moved into our home, my wife and I haven't been thrilled with the vanity that came in our ensuite bathroom. Sure, it has a huge soaker tub and a separate shower stall, but the cabinets under the sink lacked on important feature: drawers.

This oversight has caused our counterspace to become cluttered to the point of sometimes not being usable. We've talked about replacing the vanity, but we were going to wait until we could afford to have someone come in and do the work.

Like my old customers who knew they weren't experienced enough to paint or wallpaper their homes, I knew I was a novice at plumbing and carpentry.

Leading up to the Easter long weekend, some friends were redoing their bathroom (having professionals do the work) and asked my wife if we were interested in their old vanity. It was in excellent shape, but they were moving to a two-sink vanity and they knew of Lori's disdain for the absence of drawer space. This vanity had his-and-hers drawers.

Lori agreed. And then she told me.

We loaded the vanity into our van (the counter top, being of marble, weighed a ton) and took it home. And then Lori expected me to dismantle our old vanity and install this newer one.

Which meant that I had to learn about plumbing. About taking apart a bathroom cabinet. About drywall repair.

At the end of day one, Lori decided that the mirror also had to go. So I had to learn how to safely take down a wall-mounted mirror without giving myself seven years of bad luck.

Oh, and by the way, the light fixture had to go. That was to be expected, since we had both agreed we hated the old one and over the years had let the bulbs burn out, without replacing them. We expected that when the last bulb blew, the lights would get changed.

And since I was going to have to paint where I pulled off the mirror, lights, and backsplash on the vanity, a new paint colour was in order (we were getting bored of the green anyway).

Just over one week later, the bathroom is still not finished ("it's just a long-weekend project," Lori optimistically said). The water feeds to the faucet are hooked up, but we've run into a drain problem. We haven't found the right mirror or light fixture. Just after I painted the bathroom (we couldn't agree on a colour so we went for a boring off-white), Lori decided she wanted to replace the towel bar. I yanked it off, repaired the drywall, and repainted, but we haven't chosen a new rack.

The bathroom is not fully functional, and I can see this project running a couple more weeks.

After (but before I hooked the water up)
 I'm not a handyman. But we'll see how this project goes. I've been documenting it with photos and video, and when it's done, I'll put something together that I hope is entertaining and educational.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rewind: April 1-5, 2013

Well, it's April. The cruellest month. Sure, we're in spring, but the snow and winter-like weather is not yet done with us. Two days ago, we saw sunshine and temeratures near the double digits. And then, yesterday morning, Ottawa awoke to a light coating of snow.

A friend of mine, who celebrates his birthday on April 6 (all the best, Don!), once told me that it snowed more often on his special day than it didn't. Since then, I've made a mental note, and while I'm not 100-percent sure that he was right, it does seem to snow on a lot of April 6ths. We came close: yesterday.

I never take the winter tires off my vehicles until the second week in April because I know that if I do, Murphy's Law will kick in and I'll end up with my car in a ditch. I plan to swap the tires on my car tomorrow and on my van next week.

This weekend promises to be a decent one, to be truer to our ideal image of spring. But before you enjoy the weather, why not start your weekend off with a roundup of this week's posts on The Brown Knowser and Beer O'Clock?
At Beer O'Clock:
  • Girly Beer—I still maintain my opinion. I just watered it down a bit.
  • Breakfast Beer—this morning, I'm proving that claim.
 Enjoy your weekend.