Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Favourite Photos of 2013

I took a lot of photos this year.

From photo walks to photo studios, from special events to getaways. And, of course, there has been my Bate Island Project, which will continue until March 10, for as long as I cross the Champlain Bridge.

As we say goodbye to 2013, I thought I'd share what I feel are the best photos that I took over the year.

I started 2013 with a New Year's drive around Wakefield and its environs. And I couldn't stop in Wakefield without checking out the town's covered bridge.



 A couple of months after joining a photography group, I signed up for a nude model shoot. Besides the challenge of working in low lighting, I was also challenged with overcoming working with a person with no clothes on. And, after the shoot, I debated whether I would ever share any of my work on my blog. In the end, I decided to post this one photo.

Of all the nude shots I took on that day and since, this one is my favourite.



In March, I decided that I wanted to start a 365 photo project. Originally, I was going to use the theme of the selfie, but because I don't like photographing myself, I decided against it (although, I will be doing that project, after all, starting on my 49th birthday).

In search for a new theme for a year-long project, I decided to stop on Bate Island because of the mist that came off the river and hung, as frost, on the trees. It was when I took the following photo that I came up with my Bate Island Project.




During Winterlude, I organized a winter photo walk. Sadly, that evening brought a blizzard with high winds, lots of snow, and frigid temperatures. But the brave folks who showed up persevered and we managed to walk through the Korean art and ice sculptures. This tunnel of lanterns was the highlight of the exhibit.



But Winterlude also brought a beer festival, and I was hired to be the official photographer. The centrepiece of the festival was a giant ice bar from Beaus. It was so cold on that weekend, that there was no fear of the bar melting. My challenge, however, was keeping my camera battery from freezing.



One of my favourite parts of the city is the Byward Market, including Major's Hill Park and the National Gallery. And, when I think of the gallery, I can't help but think of Maman, the large spider sculpture out front. The challenge for me is finding new ways to capture this incredible piece of art.



Another favourite is a photo I took that looks like I applied effects in post processing, but did not. The closeup of the eternal flame on Parliament Hill made the background look like a painting, but it was the heat from the fire that did that.



One effect that I did play with over the year was applying the HDR look to a single photo. And then playing with the photo afterward. 



In the spring, the family and I went down to Mississauga for a dance competition. While I find that this giant bedroom community is largely dull from a photographic perspective, there is one place that draws my eyes: the Absolute Towers near the Square One Mall. Standing under the twin towers, it's easy to get dizzy from the twisted forms. They just scream, "shoot me."



In my photo club, I don't just shoot female models.



One of my highlights of 2013 was getting away for a weekend with my best friend, to one of my favourite cities. Our objective was simple: find great coffee, find great beer, and shoot as many photos as we could in the process.



The photo that I shot in DUMBO, Brooklyn, was later touched up with the HDR effect. And while I tried to avoid using that technique as much as possible, I did use it every now and then. For example, in the following photo, shot at the Britannia Yacht Club, just after sunset.



For vacation, the family and I canoed from Kingston to Ottawa, along the Rideau Canal system. On our second morning, at Jones Falls, I captured what I think is the best photo of the trip.



But when I posted it with other photos from the trip on my Flickr album, others found another shot to be better. The following photo is the most-liked photo by others (I like it, too).



Finally, one of my favourite photos of 2013 started off by being a photo I didn't like at all and almost deleted. But the more I played with it, the more it grew on me, and it ended up being used as the wallpaper for my office computer.




So, these are my favourite photos that I shot in 2013. I hope that 2014 pushes me to my limit. I hope you enjoy what I come up with.

Thanks for following my blog, and have a Happy New Year. I wish you much success and happiness.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Photo Friday: The Beauty in Front of You

Sometimes, you are faced with beauty every day, and yet, you don't see it.

Until you stop and notice.

I hate the location of my office: it's in the middle of nowhere, with few buildings in site. At the far end of a dead-end road, it seems remote. Isolated.

But on certain days, I see that it is surrounded by beauty. It takes a beautiful autumn day, when the leaves seem to explode in vivid colour. Or, on a winter's day, when the snow settles on the evergreen boughs, when frost paints the branches of the distant, bare trees.


Stop and notice the beauty in front of you. What do you see?

Happy Friday!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Taking a Day

I'm not really here.

With Christmas out of the way (did you even see yesterday's post?), I'm putting my feet up and relaxing, because I figure that most of you are relaxing, too.

Or searching madly for Boxing Day sales.

There will be another post for Photo Friday, tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Operation: Christmas

I first posted this story two years ago and have now made it my holiday tradition. If you haven't read it before, I hope you enjoy it. If you have read it before, I'm hoping that you make it your holiday tradition in reading it again.

Merry Christmas, and all the best over the holiday season!

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?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Music Monday: Shapeshifters

The very first time I heard Brother Down, by Sam Roberts Band, I loved it. The song was played on CBC Radio, the day before Sam and his band were to perform at Bluesfest for the first time (it was either in 2005 or 2006).

As luck would have it, I was volunteering for the Ottawa Blues Society tent that night, and my shift was ending just before the band was set to play.

The Sam Roberts Band puts on a great live performance. Despite the pouring rain, I watched the concert, which was held on the main stage, outside City Hall (this was before Bluesfest moved to the grounds of the Canadian War Museum).

Sam Roberts thanked the crowd for their enthusiasm, and promised to return every year for as long as Bluesfest would invite him.

I saw him perform at Bluesfest four or five times. And on Parliament Hill, for Canada Day.

And I've bought every album that he's put out.

His latest album, Lo-Fantasy, isn't set for release until February 11, 2014. But Sam and the boys have released a single, Shapeshifters. It's a new sound for the band—a shift from the hard-beat, driving tunes of Chemical City and Love at the End of the World. The song, like the title implies, shows that the band can shift gears and shape itself into something new, something fresh.

Enjoy the tune: it's a sign of things to come.

 
Happy Monday!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Photo Friday: Goodbye, Autumn

Despite the snow, despite the frigid temperatures, it's still autumn.

For one more day.

I love the fall. It's my favourite time of year. It starts out dry, with mild days and cool nights. Colours pop, and when the wind picks up, the air is alive with fluttering leaves. It's a perfect time of year for walks in the woods.

The days grow shorter, the darkness starts to take over. In late October and early December, the rains come, and if it's cold enough, we are greeted by snow.

The rivers seem to slow as ice starts to form. The sunset, seemingly brief, tries to give us one last ounce of warmth, but the cold wins at the end of the day.

Today is the last day of autumn. Tomorrow, winter officially takes hold of the land for three months. Tomorrow, we have the least amount of daylight.

And then it starts to get better.

Goodbye, autumn.


Monday, December 16: the last visible autumn sunset in Ottawa for 2013.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Not a Grinch

This blog post is a repeat but 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.

I'll have another traditional holiday post on Monday.


When they were little, 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.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

No Rush

Tempers flare. Voices rise.

In the weeks that lead to Christmas, humanity is lost. People fail to be courteous: a four-way stop? That's for others to obey, not me. If I can squeeze through, right behind the person ahead of me, the others can wait.

Why is that person doing the posted speed limit? Don't they know how to drive in the snow? Let me lean on my horn, to prod them along. And, as soon as I can, I'm going to race around them. Show them who's boss!

Wait behind that long line of cars that is waiting to make that turn? Not me: I'll just pull out and pass them all, only to cut back in line, closer to the intersection. I'm more important, after all.

I've seen these drivers on the road, lately. They aren't in as great a number when the weather is fine and road conditions are favourable. They seem to come out of the woodwork at this time of year, this silly season.

It must be the last-minute shoppers, or the ones who fret that their holiday isn't going to be perfect, just the way they want it.

And so they take their frustration and impatience out on the road.

It would be nice to ignore them, to pretend they aren't there, but you do so at your peril.

Getting angry is pointless. It solves nothing. Instead, take a deep breath, stay on guard.

Drive safely this season. What's your rush?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Music Monday: Almost Christmas

I don't like to think about Christmas until about 10 days before December 25. It's not because I'm a Grinch—I'm not (I'll be blogging about that later this week): it's just that, for me, it's just another holiday. It doesn't warrant any more attention than Thanksgiving, or Easter, or Canada Day.

The stores just want us to place importance on it until our wallets are lighter and their shops are emptied.

And so, I don't tend to give the last holiday of the year much attention until it's quite close.


Last week, my friend Amanda Cottreau released a new song, Almost Christmas. She contacted her friends and folks on social media to announce the song and to get it the attention it deserves. In a small way, I helped her spread the word by retweeting the news she broke.

I also told her that I would listen to the song when we got closer to the holiday, but she encouraged me to listen to it sooner, saying that it was "an aid to get you through the holiday hoopla." So I listened to it right away, and it put a smile on my face.

It's not your usual Christmas song.

Almost Christmas tells us that Amanda prefers spring, hates waiting in line: "Who needs this stuff anyway?" she sings.

My thoughts, exactly.

Here is her song and video:

 

Amanda's music is also available through CBC Music or through her Reverbnation site, where you can listen to other titles and download them, too.

Let the Christmas season begin!

Happy Monday!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Photo Friday: Shadows and Light

I've been doing this for as long as I've had a camera.

Every December, I head downtown and capture the lights on Parliament Hill, Sparks Street, and the War Memorial. No matter how many times I do it, how I always freeze my finger tips, there are some photo opportunities that I can't resist.

My favourite spot is the War Memorial. Not only does it have the great colours of blue and purple, but you have the harsh spotlights on the ice-cold granite and drab bronze. I love how the lights cast shadows, making the mass of weathered soldiers grow and seemingly come to life.


Happy Friday!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Essential

When I was in my teens, I used to tell people, "I'm the best friend money can buy."

(I still say that.)

But now, I'm also essential. According to OttawaStart, that is.



The Ottawa information and events blog named it's top 40 picks for Ottawa blogs in its Essential Ottawa Blogs list, and The Brown Knowser made the list.

I'm honoured.

I remember reading the list when it last came out, in 2011, when my blog was fairly new (I ended Brownfoot Journal that same year). I saw the blogs that were listed and I thought to myself, I hope I get as good as these blogs, I hope I get a lot of readers, and I hope they like what I do.

I'm not worthy.

I see the blogs that are on this list and I've read many of them. I'm in very good company. Many of the blogs in this list were also in the 2011 list. And they're still great, if not better.

I have to pull up my socks.

Thank you to Glen Gower for adding me to this list. Thank you for recognizing me for what I do (though my blog is more than photos and beer).

And thank you to my readers who continue to visit my site. You keep me going.

Which reminds me: this month's Where In Ottawa saw a readership, which continued even after the location of the photo was solved, that returned to regular numbers. Apparently, you still like the post.

And because you made me see that it is an essential part of my blog, I'm keeping it going.

Check out the list of essential Ottawa blogs, and follow these folks if you aren't already doing so.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Shameless

When Steve Jobs died, in 2011, Apple, understandably, displayed a photo of the man on their corporate Web site, showing the man that co-founded the company and the years that represented his lifespan.

One would expect no less with the passing of their iconic figure, who seemed as large as the products he created.

This weekend, when my wife and I wanted to do some online shopping at the Apple Store, we saw this when we went to the store's Web site.


And I was sad.

Sad, not just for the passing of a man who eclipsed not only Jobs, but every other world leader that comes to mind, but I was sad for the fact that Apple would display this man on an online store's site.

Like he was a spokesperson for Apple.

It was, to me, as though Apple was saying, "We're all sad about the passing of Nelson Mandela. And, while you're shopping online, remember that Apple proudly produces the iPod Touch in black and white. In harmony: just like Nelson wanted."

I decided not to shop at the Apple Store. Not this weekend. Not this holiday.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Music Monday: The Wanderlust

I was first introduced to the Canadian Indie-rock band, Metric, by a friend who only knew me as Roland Axam. Naomi and I were discussing music when she told me her favourite band had just released a new album, Fantasies. She e-mailed me MP3 files of some of their earlier songs, Poster of a Girl, Wet Blanket, Monster Hospital, The Police and the Private, and my favourite, Too Little Too Late.

A week later, I had a copy of Fantasies and had my family loving the band.


When Metric came to Ottawa for the 2010 Bluesfest, the Brownfoots were there, in the crush, as close as we could get. Emily Haines was electric on stage: she moved non-stop, bouncing from her keyboards to guitar, dancing end-to-end across stage, and literally bending over backwards to please the crowd (I have the photos to prove it).

And, of course, she's smokin' hot.

When the band announced the release of Synthetica, I ordered it immediately. (It's the last CD I purchased—everything's been downloaded from iTunes ever since.) Before I had the album in my possession, CBC Radio played a track, The Wanderlust, which features the accompanying vocals of the late, great, Lou Reed, who only passed away in October.

You can read Emily's thoughts on Lou Reed here.

So, here's Metric's The Wanderlust to carry us on a Monday.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Photo Friday: My Loneliest Place

In May of 1988, I boarded a train in Glasgow, Scotland, and headed to Berlin, Germany. It was the first time that I had travelled abroad, my first time in Europe.

And I travelled alone.

I was doing research work for a story I was writing about Roland Axam, and for that I spent some time in Edinburgh, in North Berwick, and finally, East and West Berlin.

Because I spoke no German at the time, and I found that not many of the locals spoke English, I spent most of my three days in that Cold War-torn country without speaking more than a couple of words. To eat, I pointed to pictures of food on menus. I knew how to say "ein bier, bitte" and "danke," but otherwise kept my mouth shut.

I stayed in a pension off the Kurfurstendamm, the Kima, and spoke to no one. Not the hotel staff, not to the other guests. When I cleared my breakfast dishes from the table in the dining room, I received laughs from everyone for my efforts.

My only solace was that I wandered the greater part of the city, on foot, taking hundreds of photographs. I made lots of notes on being an outsider, on your own, in a city divided by a tall wall and landmines.

My favourite place to sit and collect my thoughts was Europacenter, with its shopping centre and memorial to WWII, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. This large plaza was a common meeting place for all walks of life. It was the one place where I didn't feel lonely.

For the rest of the city, for me, seemed the loneliest place on Earth.



Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sassy Spot

Where In Ottawa has been solved.



And the contest itself may have been saved. Thanks to the encouraging comments I received through Facebook, Twitter, and other means, it's apparent that there is still enough interest to keep it going.

Congratulations to Andrea, who correctly identified The Sassy Bead Company, in the Byward Market.

Here is the only clue she needed:
  1. Cornering the Market since the early 90s—when Ottawans think of beads, I'm sure the majority think of this shop, which has been in the Byward Market since the 1990s. It's not exactly on a street corner, but it's darn close.
While the jury is out on whether I should shut down this contest, which has been running for almost two-and-a-half years, I think I'm going to take a break. When, and if, it returns, I may end the giveaway or come up with something different.

Thanks for playing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Writing Inspiration

I have been writing since I was in elementary school.

In the fifth grade, a couple of friends and I wrote a kids' book, The Hiccupy Monster, about a pseudo-dino/dragon who had a case of the hiccups and how his friends helped him get rid of them (a shout out to a social-media friend of mine, Maureen Turner, who helped me last week, when I couldn't shake my hiccups). One of my friends drew the pictures while my other friend and I wrote the story.

In grade six, we spent time, each week, working on creative writing. I would write mini-mysteries, adventures, and an ongoing saga called Biff the Bionic Bullfrog. My teacher, Mr. Townsend, encouraged my writing and had me read my creations to the class every week.

While I enjoyed writing, I didn't actually decide that I wanted to be an author until I was in my mid teens, when I began reading the spy stories of Len Deighton. I loved the imagery that Deighton crafted, how his main, nameless hero was real, made mistakes, and led a life far removed from the glamour of James Bond. Sometimes, the agent actually failed his mission.

Len Deighton inspired me to take writing seriously, and when I created Roland Axam, at the age of 19 or 20, I wanted him to be a spy and I tried to mimic the style of Deighton's characters. Roland was gritty and always terrified when things got tense.

In most of my writing, I don't have happy endings. (The same holds true for my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary.)

While Len Deighton was my inspiration to start writing, there's another author who has been my inspiration for about 10 years to continue writing.

Ian, reading with Laura Smith, who was
made a character in his latest novel,
Saints of the Shadow Bible.
Ian Rankin.

Like Deighton, Rankin's protagonist for more than 20 years has been his Edinburgh police detective, John Rebus. Rankin makes his home city come alive: I first read one of his books more than 10 years after I first visited Edinburgh (when I was researching Roland) and Rankin made it seem like I had only been there days before. I love how there is no glamour in his stories: he writes about real life, which is difficult and dirty most of the time.

As I was writing Songsaengnim, I spent much of my time reading about Rebus. When I was pretending to be Roland, as I was trying to make my own character real, I would draw on Rankin to capture the essence of being Scottish. And when I was once, unprepared, asked the name of Roland's sister, I came up with the first name that came to mind: Siobhan. (My Siobhan is nothing like Rankin's character.)

I also credit Ian Rankin with introducing me to single-malt whisky. Reading about Rebus, who loves whisky, I decided to try a brand that came up regularly in Rankin's books: Laphroaig. It was the first single-malt scotch that I actually liked and I always keep it in my liquor cabinet.

The first time I met Ian Rankin, I told him, "if not for John Rebus, I would have never discovered the wonders of Laphroaig." Ian then asked me if I had ever tried Lagavulin: I hadn't. He told me that I should, though I should take it with a drop of water.

We meet again. And discuss whisky.

Two days later, I tried it and was in love. (Though, I prefer it neat, no water.)

This weekend, as Mr. Rankin visited Ottawa, I had the privilege of meeting with him again. Once again, I thanked him for introducing me to whisky; this time, Lagavulin. I was tempted to tell him that he is an inspiration to me and my writing, but somehow I didn't want to. Maybe, the next time he comes to town.

Who is your inspiration?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Where In Ottawa: The End?

I'm feeling the end is at hand.

Over the past few months, looking at my stats, I see that the interest in my monthly contest, Where In Ottawa, is waning. Fewer people have visited this post than I used to see, and very few people actually leave a guess. It's as if you only want to leave a guess if you're certain of the location.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, but this month's challenge will be a barometer to whether there is still an interest in the contest. If you play the game, leave a guess, no matter how outlandish it may be. And who knows? You might actually be right!

 If I see that there is a significant interest in this post, it will live on. If the stats show me that the interest is at the current level or lower, this will be the last time I run it.

So, are you ready to show you like this contest and want to keep it going? Let's get the rules out of the way first:
  • If you were with me when I took the photo, you cannot play.
  • If you have won Where In Ottawa in the past, you only win bragging rights. No other award will be presented.
  • If you have a guess, you must leave it in the Comments section of this post only. Tweets, Facebook messages, e-mails, texts, or smoke signals will neither be accepted nor will be responded to.
  • You can leave as many guesses as you like.
  • The first person to correctly identify the location of the photo and leave a response in the Comments section will win the challenge and will be awarded bragging rights and a PDF copy of my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary.
  • The winner can claim his or her prize by sending me an e-mail by December 31, 2013. If I am not contacted by that date, the PDF will not be sent.
 Here's the photo:


Think you know Ottawa? Want to keep this contest going?

Prove it!

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