Monday, June 30, 2014

I Want You

You know who you are.

Whether you already have your own blog post or whether you have been thinking of starting your own blog but aren't ready to commit, I want you.

I will be heading on vacation in August and I may or may not be able to blog over the three weeks that I'll be away. As with last year, when I was away for a couple of weeks, I will plan to re-publish some of my favourite posts over the past years. But I'd also like to host some guest writers.

If you would like to contribute a blog post to The Brown Knowser, send me an e-mail at Pitch me your idea or send me your entry. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I post a variety of thoughts, ideas, photos, creative writing, music, reviews, rants, and raves.

If you have a blog and wish to share something you've already posted, I welcome you.

Almost anything goes.

Contact me by July 31.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Neither Time Nor Space

There are many factors in life that can alter a friendship, but neither time nor space can do it.

There are some people who, no matter how far away they may live, no matter how much time has passed since you have seen him or her, stay relevant, stay cherished.

I have friends from my childhood, from when I was in elementary school and high school, who I haven't seen in decades. Some of these friends and I reconnected a couple of years ago, and it was like time hadn't elapsed. The friendship had endured that test.

Friends who have moved far from Ottawa were never far in my heart. Friends who remained in Ottawa but who had busied themselves with their life plans (just as I had) were ever present in my mind.

This post is dedicated to the friends who, no matter how long it's been since you last saw them, no matter how far they may live from you, will always be special in your life.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Living Vicariously in Chŏnju

In my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary, the main character meets another English teacher after his first week in the South-Korean city of Chŏnju, and they become fast friends.

That actually happened to me.

Roland Axam's friend is Brad McMillan, and my friend shares the same first name. The two of us met at an ex-pat bar, called SE (and pronounced "say"), and over much of 1997 we explored lots of the Korean countryside. Seventeen years later, we still keep in close contact and try to get together whenever we can, when we act as though time hasn't passed, and we can reminisce about our time in Chŏnju.

In the weeks leading up to my departure from Korea, I vowed that someday, I would return, but that it wouldn't happen for about 20 years. And while my wife and I seriously contemplate taking the kids for the 2018 Winter Olympics, my buddy Brad and his wife have returned this month.

Because Brad knows that I am curious to know what happened to Chŏnju over the years, I asked him to take lots of photos and share his views. With his permission, I am presenting his e-mail messages to me.

Think of it as a guest blog post...

We arrived on the express bus from Gyeongju to Chŏnju (sorry, but I don't like the new, "official" name* for the city!). Our hotel is a few miles from the train station, so after checking in we had lunch and then taxied over to the station. The outside looks the same but the interior is much more modern (and includes a Dunkin' Donuts).
We walked down the big boulevard that leads from the station to Chŏnbuk University, and I made the left onto the street that I was almost sure led to our old apartment. I was a bit uncertain until I spotted the phone booth we used to call family and friends a block away... then I saw the Buddha at the top of the hill, and I knew we were in the right place! The monastery is still there, as is our apartment building. I was actually shocked at how run-down the neighborhood had become: there was a lot of trash strewn around, and the stores had a low-rent aspect (indeed, the local yogwan is now a love motel!).

From there, we moved down the street to my old hakwon. Again, the neighborhood is not what it was, and none of the restaurants or stores I so often frequented are there anymore. As we approached the school, I had to rely entirely upon instinct to guide me: I couldn't draw a map, but as I spotted familiar corners and landmarks, I knew when to go left or right. I finally spotted the bank that had opened next to our school, and then the other older bank on the left of it where I used to get my machine coffee. And there, between them, was our building. The school, of course, is closed, replaced by a taekwondo academy; however, I wouldn't be surprised if our old bosses hadn't opened that after the English school went under! In fact, they used to live on the top floor, and I made sure to yell, "Yo, Jackie!" at the top of my lungs up the stairs (the echo was awesome!). Again, I was really shocked at how the neighborhood had deteriorated—in 1997, it was very well-to-do, and the parents of our students were rich lawyers, bankers and doctors. Now, I'm sure none of them would be caught dead in this 'hood (I assume they've actually moved out to better districts).

We're going to the university area tonight, and I'll see if SE Bar is still serving up debauchery to miserable foreign teachers (I'm sure Urban is long-gone, too). More photos to follow, and reports as well.


One of the things that is also making it difficult for me to recognize places is that the city is so much more "overgrown" than it was, mainly by multi-story apartment blocks like the ones they've always had in Seoul. These blot out the sky, and make everything rather claustrophobic, even outdoors. Oddly, Chŏnju has lost population in the last 10 years—they're now the 14th-largest city in Korea, whereas in the late 90s they were #7—so I don't know why they need all these new apartment buildings... .

On another note, regarding the country as a whole, the other amazing change we've noticed is that virtually nobody smokes anymore! There are almost no people smoking on the streets, and certainly none in the restaurants or clubs. In fact, at the highway rest stop this morning where we took our mid-trip break, there was an actual fenced coral for the smokers! Certainly not anything you'd have seen in our Korean day.


So  last night we went to Chŏnbuk University for dinner and to wander around. I surprised myself by remembering to tell the taxi driver, "Chŏnbuk-dae," and as soon as he pulled up to the old gate, I had him stop. We wandered down the street where SE Bar used to be (now a big coffee shop!) and—diagonal from it—where Sunny's Internet Cafe used to be. In fact, we had dinner at a fried-chicken place in that same building, and there's now a big PC bang where Sunny's was that's called Tony's PC Bang. So maybe Sunny became Tony? At least he's not trying to teach English anymore!

We strolled down the street towards where Urban used to be, and I explained to Randi and the girls how Mr. Shin would play Stan Getz bossa nova whenever I came in. Then, suddenly, I saw an eerie sign (see photo, below). Closed last night (Sunday), but maybe open tonight?

Again, my memory steered me the right way each time. It's such a bizarre feeling!

Today, Nambu Market, the Hanok Village, the Gaeksa area, then a nice bibimbap dinner.


So I went back to the bar with a sign that said Urban again, but it was closed. There was a coffee shop across the street, and I asked the young man who worked there if Urban was still in business. He said they had closed for good a couple of months ago. I asked him if the owner was still Mr. Shin, and he said he did not know; but he also said that the owner was a young man, so maybe he just bought the name?

Pity... .

* The spelling of Chŏnju was changed to Jeonju some time before the 2002 FIFA World Cup. When I lived in Korea, I only knew of one place that was spelling the city's name this way—Jeonju University.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Encouraging Hookie

One of the benefits/curses of working in Québec is that I receive every June 24 off for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. It's nice to have an extra day off at the beginning of summer: it's especially nice when the holiday falls on a Friday or a Monday, because it makes a long weekend.

Because Saint-Jean-Baptiste falls exactly a week before our national holiday, Canada Day, I get two holidays in quick successions: again, especially when the holiday makes a long weekend.

But, because I work in Québec and my family and I live in Ontario, Saint-Jean-Baptiste tends to be a lonely day for me. The kids are in school, Lori is at work. I have no one to share this day with.

Except for this year.

For today, I have convinced Lori to take a day off work. We have pulled the kids from class. And we've headed out on the road, off to an amusement park for the day. We packed our bags on Sunday evening and loaded up the car mid-afternoon yesterday. We picked up the kids directly from school and headed for the Toronto area.

Playing hookie for the day and back home tonight.

Tomorrow, we're back to normal.

Merci, la Fête Nationale du Québec!

Monday, June 23, 2014

For the Love of the Beautiful Game

I wasn't a mean teacher. I played by the rules.

I had to: I had 644 students.

As an English language teacher at Jeonju University, I was responsible for giving my students two exams over the course of the year: a written exam, which I gave at the end of the school year, and an oral exam, conducted at the middle of the term.

Because I had 644 students and only one week in which to complete the mid-term exams, I had to test two students at a time in 10-minute intervals. In five days, I worked almost 70 hours.

In the week leading up to exam week, I prepared sign-up sheets for my students: all they had to do was find a time that worked for them and then show up. Depending on the level of the student—be he or she a beginner or advanced—I would have some prepared conversations to follow or we would simply chat.

Because I had to deal with so many students, once the sign-up sheet was full, I had no room for anyone to make up if he or she couldn't make the allotted time. If you missed your time slot, you failed, unless you had a doctor's note.

It went like clockwork: two students would enter my office, take a seat, and go through the exercises. Or we would chat about any topic they chose (a lot of times, they would just chat about me—what I thought about Korea, what I liked to do in my spare time, and the like). I worked in about a five-minute buffer to the 15-minute slot, to allow for those students who were late and to allow me to catch my breath, go to the washroom, or have something to eat or drink.

Some students did come late. They would come running, out of breath, apologizing for their tardiness, sometimes offering valid excuses, like they had a meeting with another teacher and it ran late, to lame excuses, such as they forgot until the last minute.

One student, who missed his time slot entirely, came to me the next day with a note, written in Hangul, telling me it was a doctor's note. A quick consultation with the Korean secretary revealed it was, in fact, a parking ticket.

He received a failing grade.

The best excuse came from a student who arrived four hours late for his appointed time. He was apologetic, speaking to me in good English, being one of my better students. Had he actually shown up for his time slot, he would have earned an easy A.

It was June, 1998, and the FIFA World Cup championship was being held in France. In the week of the mid-term exams, South Korea was still playing. In 1998, Korea itself was vying to host the next World Cup. In the city in which I lived, posters were displayed all over, reading World Cup 2002 Must Be Held in Chŏnju!

"So sorry," my student said, "I overslept. I was up late, watching World Cup."

"Nice to see you have your priorities," I said. I didn't have much time to talk to him: two students had just wrapped up their exam and I was expecting the next two any minute. "So, you like soccer?" The Koreans followed the North American naming of the game.

"I love it!" he said, excited that I wasn't scolding him for missing his exam, for not telling him he failed the class. He would learn that later, when the grades would be posted.

"Why did you stay up late last night? Korea wasn't playing last night."

"I know. I love the game. It doesn't matter which team is playing."

"But it matters to me," I said. "You see, if you had slept in because Korea had been playing, I would have been more forgiving. I would have understood. I would have said, 'It's okay. You can make up the exam another time.'"

"Really?" he said, sounding both surprised and regretful that his country hadn't played.

"No, not really!" I said, probably louder than I should have. "Your exam was more important than a game. If you had shown up on time, we could have had a conversation just like this one, talking about FIFA and how the teams have been playing so far. And you would have received an A because I know your English is excellent. But that's okay, now you can stay up late as long as you want, without worrying about being in my class. Goodbye." And with that, I showed him the door.

Maybe I was a little mean, sometimes.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Photo Friday: Vive la France

It was a little more than 23 years ago that Lori and I first travelled overseas together. We had only been dating for two years but had already been to New York City and Montreal. We didn't even live together—that would come a few months later. So, late spring of 1991 was our first major undertaking as a couple.

We flew to London with our buddy, Joel, who was meeting up with his girlfriend (and Lori's best friend), Katheleen. The four of us spent a couple of days in England's capital, visiting Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Hyde Park, among other touristy sites. But Lori and I wanted to travel the countryside, and explore some of Wales' history, so we rented a car and drove to Stratford-Upon-Avon, and up into the norther regions of Wales, and then downwards, through Snowdonia and all the way to Cardiff, before turning back into England, past Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford, and back into London to catch up with our friends.

The four of us continued on to Paris, where Lori and I stayed with her sister, Brenda, and Joel and Kat found a small pension near the Montmartre district. For a week, we enjoyed all that Paris had to offer: the cafés, the sites—Père Lachaise Cemetery, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur, Shakespeare & Co., les Champs-Elysées, and, of course, la Tour Eiffel.

One of the things I loved the most about Paris was that Lori and I would leave Brenda's apartment each morning and walk to the corner, where we would find a bakery and purchase a fresh, whole-wheat baguette. We would then walk next door, which was a cheese shop, and pick up a small wheel of Camembert. At the following shop, we would buy a half-bottle of red wine.

All of these items would fit in Lori's nap sack, and we were set to explore, knowing we had our lunch taken care of. 

We survived our first overseas adventure and have been travelling ever since. This year marks our 20th wedding anniversary. For our 10th, we celebrated with a trip to Tuscany. This year, we're returning to the country that solidified the travel-worthiness of our relationship.

For Photo Friday, I wanted to share some images from that first trip to Paris. One is a view of Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur, from atop the Notre Dame Cathedral. The other is of me, at 26, on the top of the Arc de Triomphe. (Please don't laugh at the haircut.)

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cold Shoulder

Because of my shyness, eye contact is not something that comes easily or naturally to me. If I know you, I will engage you with my eyes. If our relationship is close, if I feel that you and I have an open rapport, one of trust and intimacy, I won't take my eyes off you.

Hopefully, not in a creepy way.

At work, I have been perceived as cold, as dismissive. I will walk through the halls, passing coworkers, with little more than a brief nod of the head, a minimal acknowledgement that says, yes, I see you, I know you exist. Excuse me while I negotiate the obstacle you have made of yourself. If that coworker is someone from either my team or is on a team with which I interact, I will make brief eye contact, nod or say a muttered "hello," and move on.

No, I may not seem warm and fuzzy when I move from point A to point B at work, but it doesn't mean I'm cold and prickly.

I have been like this for a long time. I think it's because while I'm moving from point A to point B, that's all I want to do: get to where I'm going. While I walk, my head is also full of thoughts: about what I need to do when I reach point B; about a project in which I'm involved; about expectations that must be met. I also think about people, about relationships. About things I need to do at home. About my book, and Roland Axam. About politics. About beer. About current events. About women. About the next blog post I'm going to write.

My head gets full sometimes. I don't like to further clutter it with unplanned interactions.

Hmm... that did sound cold and prickly. Somebody, please, back me up, here!

I may have behaved this way at Blog Out Loud. In the time before the event started, I did try to mingle. I did approach people I recognized and said "hello." I waved to some from across the hall. But I probably seemed aloof to some, and for that I apologize. That's not me. I blame my shyness.

I also walked with this one-minded ignorance in high school. Between classes, I would concern myself only with getting to my locker, getting the books for my next class, and getting to the right room, on time. If I passed a friend, I'd nod a hello but keep moving. With others, I walked past without acknowledgement. I was deep in my own headspace, dealing with being an awkward teen who just wanted to get through the day. I didn't want to be distracted by other teens who were trying to figure themselves out, too.

Her name was Linda.

I knew her as a clarinet player in our school band, where I also played trumpet. She was a year behind me, so we shared no classes. At lunch, I sat with my friends in a student lounge, away from the cafetorium and the throngs of the other grades. I didn't even know if she shared the same lunch period.

We would pass one another in the halls, I would later learn, but I never even noticed. "It's because I was looking straight ahead, and never down," I playfully joked, later, remarking on the fact that she was easily a foot shorter than me. She was cute, but was not a person who would make me look twice.

We finally talked at a party at a Christmas party, hosted for the band by one of our fellow musicians. Normally, at such a gathering, I wouldn't mingle, wouldn't talk to people I didn't know. I was much more shy then, was much more prone to stay close to my friends.

But my best friend, Stu, was with me, and he had struck up a conversation with his neighbour, Helen, who was also in the band, and she and Linda were as inseparable as I was with Stu. And we all became involved in the discussion.

At some point, I mentioned a New Year's Eve party that I would be attending, at another friend's house. Linda, who largely spoke to me while Helen and Stuart chatted, voiced that the party sounded like fun (though, I don't know why: the party was with a few friends in a basement, listening to music. There would be alcohol, but my friend's parents would be home, so we never got out of control).

Without thinking, I said, "You should come."

"I'd love to," was her response.

What had I done? I didn't know this girl outside of the band, had not ever spoken to her, hadn't even noticed her in the halls, and now she was coming with me to a party. As a... date? I hoped that after this evening—the Christmas party—that she would forget about the New Year's party. We had a week before school ended for the holidays, so if I didn't see her, I might be able to dodge that bullet.

Not so.

In the last days of class, Linda spoke to me as we passed in the halls, breaking my train of thought. "Hi, Ross!" she said, waving to me, drawing my attention. "When is the party? Where did you want to meet?" Arrangements were made. Our date was solidified. I would be arriving at Donald's house with a guest.

The party was exactly as I imagined: main lights out, low lights and black lights, a lava lamp, and 70s music. Friends mellowing, drinking wine and beer. Donald's mom checking in on us, making sure we were behaved, bringing a tray of flaming Sambucas in shot glasses as a mid-evening treat.

Linda was quiet, nervous, shy. I sympathized: if placed in the same situation, where I didn't know anybody (most of my friends at this party attended a different school), I would crawl into a shell. To her credit, she did try to engage in conversation, and we didn't leave her out of any discussions. As the evening drew on, she seemed to grow more comfortable. Sitting beside one another on the sofa, I put an arm around her shoulder, for comfort, and she leaned into me.

At midnight, we all raised a glass of wine. Hugs and kisses went around. Linda and I kissed, but when our lips touched, it was the kind of kiss that you give to a family member. At least, for me, that's how it seemed. Which was good: I hadn't planned to have a date, hadn't ever considered Linda as anyone other than a fellow band member. But I did enjoy her company, had no regrets of bringing her. If anything, she would be more than someone I would pass in the school halls without noticing.

I walked her home, eventually holding her hand as our evening was coming to a close. I kissed her good night, said I'd make sure to notice her in the halls, and went home.

I noticed her on the first day back at school. We were walking toward each other. Our eyes met. I smiled. But just as I was about to say "hi," her eye contact broke and she made a deliberate turn of the head, to look away. As I had been slowing down to talk, she continued past without a word.

I had been snubbed.

I turned to watch her walk but she never looked back.

I encountered her in the hall, later that day, and again she turned her head and looked away as she approached. I called out, "Linda," but she ignored me, walked on. At band practice, she ignored me. She sat in the front row, with the other woodwinds; I was at the back, in the brass section. We had no opportunity to talk, and when we wrapped up, she left before I could break free of my friends in my section.

What had I done? I asked myself. A couple of weeks ago, I didn't know this person. Then, we were at a party together. And then, she was treating me as though I had acted inappropriately with her.

It was easy enough to get over her treatment of me. We hadn't known each other long enough to form a relationship—I didn't even think I wanted one. For a few days after her snub, I would deliberately turn my own head away as soon as I saw her, to mock her.

Childish, I know.

Although there had been no emotional investment with Linda, it bothered me to not know what I had done to warrant such a deliberate rejection. The rejection didn't upset me: the reason for the rejection, and not knowing its cause, did.

When I pass somebody and don't acknowledge them, it's not personal. I'm not ignoring them: my mind is simply somewhere else. I'm not for purposely giving someone a cold shoulder.

Because I know how it feels to be ignored, and I don't like it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Learning a Lesson the Hard Way

Over this past weekend, I take away two bits of knowledge: it can happen to all of us; white-water canoeing is not my sport.

The first lesson came from the mistake where I thought I was smarter than I am. I thought I knew how to read and listen to my body, but that the body can sometimes trick you and you really have to do what you know is right: not what you think you're all right with.

Water is essential, especially when you're engaged in intense physical activity. I know this from cycling: whether you think you need it or not, you should drink every 10 minutes, at minimum, when you're on your bike. The water must go in you: it's not enough that you're surrounded by it or in it. You must ingest the liquid.

I didn't think. I felt. When I returned to my canoe, after lunch, without my water bottle, I told myself that I felt fine. I had consumed lots of water with my meal. The weather was cool, and I was going back out on the river. I didn't need to go back for my bottle, I could drink when we returned to camp for dinner.

The spray from the rapids, either coming at me as a mist after slapping against the side of the canoe, or flowing over the gunnels we approached them from a less-than-optimal angle, would cool me. When my partner and I swamped our canoe, after plowing through two substantial haystacks—large, boiling, mogul-like obstacles of whitewater—and ended up floating downstream on our backs, only to be rescued hundreds of metres away from the pack, I felt tired, and chilled, but was otherwise fine.

When we returned to camp for dinner, the first thing that I thought about was that I was tired, but I had worked hard and I deserved one of the cans of beer that I brought.

But first, I had to change out of my wetsuit and into some warm, dry clothes.

I sat with the others and chatted about the day, sipping my IPA, and I realized that while I had fun on some of the rapids, this sport wasn't for me. I knew that I couldn't see myself strapping a canoe onto my car, driving for hours, running some rapids, packing up, and driving home. I really don't like camping—I never sleep well—and so doing an overnight trip was out of the question.

The people at the course were amazing and the instructors were absolute experts, but this, for me, was just a one-time adventure. Much like when my family and I paddled from Kingston to Ottawa: been there, done that.

During dinner, with my second can of beer, my head started feeling heavy and my energy was waning. Anybody who knows me knows that I'm not a featherweight when it comes to drinking beer. I don't drink to excess, and two cans of beer aren't going to get me drunk anyway. But the beer, for me, was clearly affecting my ability to stay conscious.

With dinner out of the way, I quietly snuck away from the group and went into my tent. It was only about 7 o'clock, but I needed a nap. Dressed in fleece pants, a fleece sweater, and a fleece hoodie, with the hood up and the zipper up to my chin, I crawled into my sleeping bag, zipped it closed, and shut my eyes.

My day was done.

Lori tried to get me to join the group, but I muttered that I needed to recharge my batteries.

At about midnight, I rolled over onto my side, and my intercostals were on fire. The pain was so intense that I could not breathe. Nothing is more frightening than the prospect of running out of air. My head was throbbing, and my body was overheating.

I sat up and was able to take a gulp of air. The pain in my sides subsided, but I couldn't find a position to sit in which the pain went away. I pulled of my hoodie and sweater, but not even the night air could cool me. I was dizzy and felt nauseated, and though I was reluctant to wake Lori, I knew I was in distress and needed her help.

Though I was sure the words that exited my mouth were "heat stroke," Lori heard only the second word. It was enough to get her wide awake.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"I know my name."

"Where do you live?"

I gave her our address.

"How old are you?"

"Fourty nine."

"Extend your left arm and then touch your nose."

"I'm not drunk," I said as my left index finger reached my nose.

"Now the other side."

"I've overheated and I've pulled muscles," I said with a wince, bringing my right hand in front of me and landing my finger on my left cheek."

"What's your phone number?" she asked, failing to notice that I missed my nose.

"Water. I need water. Please get me some water." She exited the tent, returning in a short moment with a large aluminum mug. "I need something for my head. Do we have Advil?"

"Let me check. Do you want some baby Aspirin?"

"I'm not having a heart attack. I've overheated." I washed two Advil with a long gulp of water. "I need to get to the toilets: I think I'm going to be sick."

In retrospect, I should have waited before taking the Advil. I don't know how fast they break down and enter the bloodstream, but I don't think five minutes is long enough. I threw up in the outhouse.

With my inability to lie down and breathe, we decided it might be best for me to sleep in the van, to get the driver's seat in a position that would allow me to be comfortable and enable me to rest. But as comfortable as the seats are in the van, I couldn't find a position that was comfortable for long, and as it turned out, I was awake for most of the rest of the evening.

When morning came and the rest of the campers arose, Lori had to break the news that I had become sick overnight, and I was not going to join them on the water. I rested as much as I could, and by mid-morning I was up, dressed, drank more water, ate a little food, and watched the group handle the canoes along the Madawaska.

After lunch, one of our group members was kind enough to lend me his DSLR, and I moved to a rock, where I could watch them negotiate rapids and shoot photos: an activity with which I'm much more comfortable.

It happens to us all at some point. We are exercising and feel fine, and we don't drink enough water. Adding to the mix was that fact that I've never worn a wetsuit before, something that makes you sweat even more. I had totally dehydrated.

Lesson learned: drink, drink, and drink some more.

I also learned that while I had some fun, learned some new skills, and met some incredible people, white-water canoeing is not my sport. Before Sunday was done, I knew I wasn't going to earn my certification. I had only completed one of the two days. But that's okay. I wasn't really there to achieve the certification. Had I done so, I still don't think I would be enticed into doing this activity again.

And that's okay with me.

The one thing about this weekend that bothers me is that, once again, my body failed me. My leg failed me on the second day of cycling, last weekend. And it failed me again on Saturday night, into Sunday.

But did my body fail me, or did I fail my body? Clearly, the latter is true of this weekend. I didn't keep myself hydrated. And even for the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, I failed to train enough, to prepare my body for that journey.

Hopefully, I can learn from these weekends to be better to myself, to take care, to treat my body more responsibly.

That would be the biggest lesson.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Music Monday: In A World Called Catastrophe

This has been the second weekend in a row that has not ended the way I had hoped. Before I go to bed on one of the longest days in a long time, and in recognition of how I'm feeling at the moment, I'm dedicating Music Monday to how I feel at the time of this post.

It's one of my favourite songs from the Matthew Good Band, from back in 2003: In A World Called Catastrophe.

I hope your weekend was better.

Happy Monday.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Photo Friday: Coming Out of a Fog

Well, it was a hell of an election campaign, and though I wasn't particularly happy with any of the parties, I'm glad the voters didn't react out of anger and swing to the opposite end of the spectrum.

I seriously considered declining my ballot, but in the end I voted with my head and not my heart.

The Ontario Liberals have a lot to answer for, from the gas-plant scandal to overpaid executives at provincially regulated corporations. But I hope that Ms. Wynne straightens out her party and works hard for the people who voted for a more-positive future.

So, we're coming out of a fog, moving out of the mist.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

No Time for Apathy

Today, Ontarians get the opportunity to show their politicians how they feel. This is their opportunity to determine the direction in which their province will go.

It is no time to be apathetic.

Political analysts, columnists, and watchdogs have speculated that this election isn't a sure thing for any of the party leaders. The Liberals are embroiled in nasty scandals, the Conservatives have a far-right idealist whose math seems terribly skewed, and the NDP, whose leader seems likable enough, just doesn't seem to draw enough confidence to lead the province.

But if we don't get enough people out to vote, we will end up with a government that the majority doesn't want anyway.

I've said it many times before (and I'm not the first to say it): if you don't vote, you forfeit your right to complain. But I'd like to go one step further. If you don't vote, you're working against your province. You're stunting the growth of good governance.

Not voting is not apathetic. It's simply pathetic. Staying at home doesn't send a message to the politicians. It sends a message to all Ontarians, and that message is: you're too lazy to care.

If you have a leaning toward a particular party, show it. Get out and vote. If you have no leaning toward a party or leader, show it. Get out and vote by scratching your ballot or, better yet, declining it. Your ballot still gets counted, but in essence you have formally voted for none of the candidates. And that's a message that gets heard.

However you vote, get out there.

It's better to say you went out there and made a difference than to say you did nothing at all. And made no difference.

Be the change.


Don't know where to go to vote? Check out the Elections Ontario site.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Leg Goes "Pop:" That Means Stop

This has become my Everest. I can see the summit: I just can't reach it.

Saturday was beautiful. Sunshine and warm temperatures, but not blistering. A gentle breeze to keep bugs at bay yet not hinder my journey.

I was nervous as I prepared to leave my house, aware of the journey ahead, of the steep climbs and occasional rough roads. I knew how long I could expect to be on the road, to be sitting in my firm saddle. I would be sore as I crossed the finish line, and very tired.

Saturday was a great day for a 171K ride.

I had a plan this time, had learned from last year's mistakes of not eating or drinking enough, of not resting. This time, I had a schedule that I was going to keep: at each hour, I would stop, get off my bike, and stretch. I would eat—a Clif bar at one stop, fruit bars and dried mangoes at others. I would have one bottle of plain water, another one with a sweet drink: lemonade, iced tea, or a power drink. I would alternate sips, and drink a good amount every five kilometres or so.

In Perth, I was met by Lori, who had signed up for the Century Tour, 100 kilometres to Kingston and back. She checked in and dropped off her suitcase, but her true starting point would be further down the road, in Westport. But she waited for me to arrive, had a healthy sandwich and bottle of orange juice waiting for me.

After a 20-minute stop, with more stretching, I continued on my ride. Lori packed up and drove to Westport, where she would find a safe place to park our van and wait for me.

The hills that I found daunting last year were a challenge, but I climbed them with steady determination. Where last year, I was forced off my bike and walked it uphill, I stayed in the saddle or stood and pedalled. The only times I got off my bike were at the scheduled times where I ate and stretched.

The route.
At Westport, I was 55K from Kingston. I stopped for 15 minutes to eat a banana that Lori had for me, refill my bottles, and stretch. I felt good. I was riding a high. I knew I could make it. Last year, when I reached Westport, I hit a wall, was ready to give up, had asked myself what the hell I had got myself into.

Lori was fresh, ready to get going. But she was determined to stick with me and so was forced to move at my pace. Although I was feeling good and knew I would make it, I was moving slower than I had for my first 55K. Lori was also forced to stop each hour while I stretched and ate. Even when we both knew that we were less than a half hour from the finish, we stopped. My plan worked and I was not about to hold off, to risk undoing what I had accomplished.

I finished my ride in the same time that I did last year. But I had stopped more often. And I felt a million times better. And both Lori and I knew we could cycle back the next day.

Of course, Lori had planned to cycle as far as Westport, where she would put her bike in the van and continue to Perth, where she would collect her baggage and wait to feed me and see how I felt. If I felt good, she would wish me well and cheer me as I crossed the finish line in Ottawa.

The hills that I found challenging on Saturday were not as bad on Sunday. I had feared the hill leaving Kingston, just north of Highway 401. I had come down it at such a fast speed that I thought I would crawl up it on the way back. Not so. It was slow going, but not taxing. And the county road was full of ups and downs, but they were gentle. I was feeling good about my return journey.

And then it went badly.

About 20 kilometres into my ride, I started to feel a stiffening in my left calf. A slight pain felt centralized in one spot, like a knot had formed. Because we were close to the first hour, where I planned to stop, I told Lori that I would massage the spot when we pulled over.

The knot felt like a stone in my leg and it was tender. I rubbed for about five minutes, ate a banana, chugged some water, and continued. The pain had lessened but was still there, especially when my leg was fully extended in my downstroke.

When we reached Perth Road Village, the pain was back. Lori asked me if I wanted to stop at the general store, where some cycle-tour vans were parked, but I told her I felt I could make it at least as far as Westport, where I would assess the pain and decide if I could continue.

At the top of the second hour, the knot had grown to the size of a plum and the pain was worse. I massaged the spot, but it was apparent that my ride was going to end in Westport. I was frustrated because the rest of me felt great, felt like I could go the full distance. Once again, I thought to myself, I was going to end this trek without completing it.

I didn't even make it to Westport.

Four kilometres outside of the town limits, something in my leg snapped, like a broken spring or an elastic band that had been stretched beyond its limits. The pain in my calf was incredible. I shouted to Lori, who was only 10 feet in front of me. I hit the brakes, unclipped myself from my pedals, and came to a full halt.

"My leg is shot," I said, "I can go no further."

Lori said that she would fetch the van and come back for me. I limped to a shady spot on the shoulder and waited. Cyclists asked me if I was okay. To some, I said yes; to others, I said no but that help was on the way. One of the support vehicles pulled over, and after feeling reassured that I was fine, that Lori and I had talked by phone and she was a couple of minutes away, they moved on.

This was supposed to be my ride. This was supposed to show me that I could make the 352K journey. But it wasn't to be. According to my cycle app, my total distance over the two days only came to 221.5 km.

It's the farthest I've ever cycled in two days, but for me it wasn't far enough.

"Next year," others have said to me, but at this point, I don't know if I want to try again. I don't think I could handle another defeat. That said, the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour and I still have some unfinished business. So maybe, just maybe, I'll be back.

In the meantime, I have a leg to heal. I don't think the damage is too bad. When we arrived in Westport, we stopped at a pub for lunch, and I assessed my calf. The giant knot had shrunk a bit: perhaps the snap I felt was the knot suddenly loosening. The muscle was sore and I limped for most of the day, but after a long soak in a hot tub, and some Advil, the pain was bearable.

On Monday, the calf was stiff but it didn't prevent me from moving about at work. Several times during the day, I kneaded the muscles and rested. And took more Advil.

Later this week, I'll get on my bike and ride around the neighbourhood, see how I feel. Maybe, I'll even try cycling to North Gower and back.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll start training for next year.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Brewer Beach Pavilion

It could be said that this is one of the ugliest buildings in the city.

A cinder-block building with only a few small windows, this characterless club house looks as though it should have sunk into the swamp in which it's surrounded decades ago.

But the Brewer Beach Pavilion lives on and is the thirty-seventh location in the Where In Ottawa photo challenge.

Congratulations to Marc, who came up with the correct location. He also solved last month's challenge, so only bragging rights are bestowed upon him.

Here are the clues, explained:
  1. No beer found here—though this pavilion is located in Brewer Park, there has never been a brewery at this site. Broken beer bottles, maybe, but I certainly found no beer.
  2. No sandy shores—Brewer Pond, to which the pavilion serviced, used to be a popular swimming hole, complete with a beach, for which sand was brought every year. When city regulations changed concerning still-water swimming in public places, the beach disappeared and a natural, swampy shore now lines the pond.
  3. Stilted—the main parts of the pavilion are raised to withstand annual spring flooding, and each end is supported by concrete stilts.
  4. Still pond-ering this place?—perhaps the tell-tale clue, Brewer Pond is still used for canoe courses. I was there just a couple of weekends ago, refreshing my canoe-handling skills in preparation for a white-water course.
The next Where In Ottawa challenge will be on Monday, July 7.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Photo Friday: Under the Blooming Trees

With a late spring came a late blossom. Though the tulips and daffodils are gone, trees are still in bloom. But not for long.

This weekend is going to be spectacular: get out and enjoy it!

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

My Marathon

It's almost upon me.

I'm not athletic. I don't run—I can't run: I have severe osteoarthritis in my feet that makes it difficult to walk for any great distance. Even standing still for more than a few minutes causes me pain. So I don't do a lot of activity that puts any kind of strain on my feet.

I won't run to catch the bus.

But I can ride a bike. I'm not competitive, so I don't race. I don't have to be the fastest on wheels. I don't look for techniques to apply power in order to pass someone and cross a line first.

I ride to stay fit, to keep from getting any fatter than I already am. I enjoyed the exercise of commuting by bike to work. It was a beautiful ride, through the Gatineau Hills, along the Ottawa River Parkway. I love the 50-kilometre loop that I take around the city (I promise, I won't describe it again) and, recently, county roads that have taken me to North Gower, Merrickville, and other villages in my part of Eastern Ontario.

But now I'm going further and it's changing me. I have to train. I have to build muscle and teach myself how to handle endurance: how to eat and drink at regular intervals so that I don't run out of steam.

I'm no athlete.

But the distance for which I'm preparing calls for me to push myself, to overcome both mental and physical barriers. My body hurts after more than 100 kilometres, but I have to press on because I have another 75 to go. And then, I have to tell myself, you will do it all over again the next day.

I don't run, but the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour is like a marathon. It is a test to show myself that I am stronger than I give myself credit for. Last year, I proved that I can make it to Kingston. And, last year, I did it with very little training.

I checked the amount of cycling I did in preparation for last year's ride: it was barely 150K. And for almost three weeks before the ride, I did no training.

This year, in this month alone, I've logged more than 380 kilometres: 116 kilometres was covered in one ride. I'm not in great shape for this ride, but I'm way ahead of last year's training.

One boost of confidence came on Tuesday evening, though it was mixed with a bit of worry. My plan was to cycle to North Gower and back, via Richmond, as I had done the previous week. Though the wind was as blustery as I've ever encountered, I believed it was good preparation, in case this weekend brought unfavourable headwinds.

As I neared North Gower, I felt a bit of pain in my left knee. I figured that it was due to the extra effort at fighting the strong breeze. But as I crossed the sign that indicated the town limits, the pain became definite, and I considered turning around and heading home by the same route from where I came, which would shorten my ride by about seven kilometres or so.

At the Marlborough Pub and Eatery, I realized that if I turned around and peddled home, I would run a serious risk of injuring my knee, which would mean that my Kingston ride would not happen. I pulled over, called my wife, and asked her to rescue me.

I'm not an athlete.

But this ride to Kingston is my marathon, and I want to do it. And finish it.

Both ways.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


When my youngest daughter is displeased with me, she refers to me by my name, rather than by "Dad."

"I'm upset with you, Ross," she said while we were shopping in Costco the other day.

"It's 'Dad' to you, and why are you upset?"

"Because, Ross, you're making me carry this piece of cardboard," she said, waving the Cineplex voucher card that would be scanned at the checkout to purchase movie passes for her and her sister. A treat, from her dad.

"Don't you want to want to go to see that movie you've been waiting for?"

"Yes, Ross, but if you're going to buy it for me, you should carry it, too."

That's gratitude for you.

Yesterday, Lori and I were talking about the white-water canoe course that we're taking, and how we were going to need wetsuits for our next class. An online company currently has a sale on the wetsuits, so we looked into ordering ourselves one.

"It looks like they only have extra-small and extra-large sizes left, for men," said Lori, looking at her iPad as she, the girls, and I ate lunch.

"When we were in MEC the other day, I held one up," I said. "It looks like I would fit a men's medium."

"I wonder if a women's large would fit you."

"I'm sure a women's wetsuit would be cut differently," I replied, "or else they wouldn't distinguish the suits by gender. I think the hips would be different."

"Probably the chest area, too," she said, "though your boobs are only a little smaller than mine."

"Mom!" our youngest protested. I thought she was going to defend me, but she simply added, "I'm trying to eat."

"My man-boobs aren't that big," I said, wounded, having just cycled 116 kilometres, to Merrickville and back. "Your boobs are much bigger than mine."

"Ross!" said our daughter.

"They aren't great big," I continued, "but they're great."

"Ross Hamlington Brown!" shouted my daughter.

"Hamlington?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "When I'm very angry at you, your name is Ross Hamlington Brown."

"But Ross is my middle name."

"Not when I'm angry with you, and I'm very upset with you. You shouldn't talk about Mom's boobs, especially around your kids. And never at the kitchen table."

"Why don't you call out your mom? She started it by pointing out my man-boobs."

"That's because you have boobs."

"Not as big as hers, thankfully."

Here's a lesson for you dads out there: it's okay to talk about your chest, but not about anyone else's in the house.

Especially, at the lunch table.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Where In Ottawa XXXVII

It's that time of the month, and this month marks a special occasion.

This weekend marked the third anniversary of The Brown Knowser. Thank you for following over the years.

To mark three years of this blog and 781 posts, I am presenting the thirty-seventh Where In Ottawa photo challenge.

For those of you who are new to my blog (welcome!), here is how the game is played: below is a photo from somewhere in the city. If you think you know the location of the photo, leave an answer in the Comment section of this post. The first person who correctly identifies the location wins the challenge and will receive a copy of my novel, Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary.

But there are rules.
  • If you were with me when I took the photo (I was alone this time), you cannot play.
  • If you have won the challenge in the past, you can still play but I will not award a giveaway: you will have to settle for bragging rights only.
  • Only answers submitted to the Comment section will be accepted. Tweets, Facebook messages, e-mail, and any other form of communication will not receive a response.
Beginning tomorrow, if the location hasn't been found, I will leave a clue each day on my blog until the challenge is solved.

So, are you ready? Here's the image:

Think you know Ottawa? Prove it! 

Update, June 6: Where In Ottawa has been solved. Tune in on Monday, June 9, to see the location.