Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Favourite Photos of 2015

When all is said and done, I think 2015 will go down as a good year for me. Lots has happened and I've been challenged in so many ways, and if you want to know what I mean, just go back and read my posts from this year.

In March, I upgraded my well-used Nikon D80 for a newer, better model, and I carried it with me almost everywhere, from vacations to concerts, from jaunts to and from work to model photo shoots. There were some growing pains as I learned new features and different buttons, but overall, I'm loving my D7200.

So, without further ado, and as we say goodbye to 2015, here are the photos that I feel are among the best that I took this year.

And be warned: one of the photos may not be safe for work.

My Bate Island Project has been over for nearly two years, but every once and a while I like to return to this peaceful spot and point my lens eastward, toward the downtown core. On this frosty winter's day, in January, a fog shrouded the river. The lonely bench, close to the river's edge, where I stood for all of those photos, looked out onto nothing. This photo, which captured a colourless day, begged to be processed with a black-and-white effect.

In December of last year, as I walked from my office to my car, I noticed the light dusting of snow on the line of evergreen trees that provide shelter from one end of the parking lot. I captured an image on my smartphone, and over the weeks, I would repeat that shot as I took notice of the changing light.

One of my good friends liked one of those pictures so much that she painted that image and presented it to me for my birthday. That painting is prominently displayed at my desk.

I was determined to not make a photo project of these trees, but I still couldn't help myself from shooting them every time I was struck by the light. The following shot, captured with my D80, shows how the morning light played with the trees.

Winter in Ottawa isn't complete without a visit to the world's largest—and most scenic—skating rink. The following photo captures some stick-wielding skaters as they pass under the Bank Street Bridge.

One of the nicest parts of the Rideau Canal Skateway is the little side trek, under the Patterson Creek Bridge. Not a winter goes by where I don't stop along here. On a frosty night, I grabbed my camera and tripod, and took a long exposure. This shot ended up being shown on CBC News Ottawa, during Ian Black's weather report. It was one of many that were shown on television over the year.

For the first time in my life, my family and I attended Carnaval, in Québec City, on what was perhaps one of the coldest weekends of the winter. With the brisk winds, daytime temperatures dropped to nearly –40°.

Surprisingly, my D80 held up. Which is more than I can say for my mittens.

Where the Rideau River meets the Ottawa River, we have a beautiful waterfall—in any season. But when the water freezes, the effect is particularly striking.

One of the biggest milestones for me, this year, was turning 50. And the best way that I could celebrate my birthday was around family and good friends, and watch a performance by one of my all-time favourite musicians, Midge Ure.

This photo was also among the last that I shot with my D80: it's the last one from that trusty camera that I have for this blog post.

As I was getting used to my Nikon D7200, I found myself wandering the Glebe and Lansdowne Park. On a cool April afternoon, I explored the artwork that adorns the top of a hill at the far end of the football stadium. It's hard to believe that this photo was shot on a bright, cloudless day, but it was. The black is actually blue sky.

I was nervous going to my first model shoot with my new camera because I was still getting used to it. At the time, I couldn't understand why the ISO would automatically change on me, even when I had the camera in a manual mode. As a result, many of the photos that I shot came out overexposed because the camera didn't seem to understand that I had a flash trigger attached to it.

I did, however, get some shots that I was able to work with, after much post-processing.

When I got the hang of my camera, I started another photo project: 100 Strangers. I wandered the Glebe, Byward Market, Westboro, and even New York (more on that, later), approaching people I didn't know and asking if I could take their photo. It was a challenging project for a shy person like me, but I found it therapeutic and a lot of fun. I was disappointed when it came to an end.

I asked more than 120 people for their portrait: 102 people said yes but two of my shots didn't work. I have a lot of favourites but I thought I would share the two that I am most proud of, Number 1 and Number 27, because of the conversations that led to the pictures and because of the results.

In May, my wife and I joined some of our closest friends, Bee and Marc, in New York City. By this time, I was starting to get the hang of my new camera and I was able to figure out and fix the problem with the automatic ISO setting.

The sensor in the D7200 is much more sensitive than the one in my D80, and I was able to take lots of low-light photos. As the four of us waited for a train at the 23rd Street Station, I played with some shots across the tracks. When I got the lighting just right, I was about to take one more photo, when I saw a woman, walking hurriedly, into my frame. I was going to wait for her to walk past, out of my frame, when I realized that, no, she was the subject.

This is not only the best photo of my trip to NYC, but I also feel it may be one of the best photos I've ever taken. It tells a story: the woman is walking determinedly, though her eyes aren't looking at where she's going. She is preoccupied by whatever it is that she's reading on her smartphone. She is encumbered but not suffering in her movement. The position of her legs, with the wide stride, are perfectly positioned, her heel lifting off the back of her shoe. The pale pink of her bag and the colour of her scarf blend in with the surrounding.

It's like a modern Norman Rockwell image.

I have made two large canvas prints of this photo: one hangs over the fireplace in our family room; the other hung, for months, on the wall of Bicycle Craft Brewery.

It's for sale, if you're interested. Contact me: we'll talk.

This summer, I led a late-night photo walk through the Byward Market, Major's Hill Park, and Nepean Point. Five photographers, including myself, spent more than three hours taking in this part of town. As always, the National Gallery of Canada is a big draw, and with the Great Hall lit up in red light, it was hard to resist. This shot is taken from the far end of Major's Hill Park.

Of course, my favourite piece of art isn't in the gallery itself. And, at night, Maman looks especially ominous.

I've already shared a photo of the Rideau Falls in winter, but on a summer night, it looks great, too. Because of the sensors in my new camera, I found that I spent more time shooting photos at night.

The following photo is the result of an accident, of my hand slipping while I was playing with some post-processing manipulation of colour. I moved the mouse and clicked when I didn't want to, and the result took much of the blue from the image of the Prince of Wales Bridge, over the Ottawa River. A little blue shows on the graffiti, on the water, and in one corner of the sky.

I don't know what I did: that's what an accident does. I was going to undo the change, but I looked at the image for a minute and decided to keep it as is. I like how the colours have been muted and how the sky has become a black-and-white vision.

Sometimes, mistakes just work out for the best.

In September, Ottawa experienced a super-blood moon for the first time in decades. I don't know if I'll be around for the next one, but I was determined to be there for this one. I managed to capture the moon, as it rose, from the Arboretum, but for the blood portion, as the eclipse was to take place, I decided to move to a more scenic location, and so I headed to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, where I joined dozens of other photographers.

Sadly, clouds rolled in and made capturing a red moon a challenge. None of my photos turned out the way I wanted.

However, while the moon was hidden by cloud, I made use of my time by capturing the beauty of the city that I am proud to call home.

In October, I cycled from Ottawa to Vankleek Hill, for Beau's Oktoberfest. Only, the wind was so bad that I only made it halfway before I gave up the ride. I'm sure that carrying my D7200 and 24-70mm lens on my back didn't help. Luckily, where I decided to call it quits, I still had a way to get to the beer party.

On the Oktoberfest grounds, we were treated to live music and a wide range of beer, but we also got to take in some skateboarders showing their stuff. One of my favourite shots was a silhouette of a boarder, coming to the peak of his upward climb. Is he falling? No. But he is held in time.

Before the temperature drops, as the leaves change colour and start to fall, Ottawa marks Autumn by emptying the Rideau Canal of most of its water, in preparation for its transformation to a skating rink. I learned that this draining usually occurs after the Thanksgiving weekend, and so I got up before the sun and decided to take some photos.

I'm glad I went when I did: later that day, Parks Canada opened the locks at the Chateau Laurier, and the canal started to empty. By the next day, the water level was at half this height. This photo was the last time that the water under the Bank Street Bridge would look like this in 2015.

About an hour after I shot a photo of the Bank Street Bridge, I found myself at the Rideau Canoe Club, looking out toward Mooney's Bay, in time for sunrise. The water was still and the orange glow lit the red leaves of the tree near the Hogs Back Falls. It was a serene morning that was hard to ignore

My timing for the next shot was perfect. The rain had just let up and the sun was starting to break below the cloud, just before it set. This lone tree on Fallowfield is a favourite of mine, and I've taken lots of pictures of it in all kinds of weather.

The next photo is part of a series that I shot with model, Olivia Preston. I wrote about this shoot a couple of weeks ago, for a Photo Friday post. Not much needs to be said: some friends have told me that they liked my series of photos, while others wondered how my wife felt about them. I don't know: she's never said, which makes me wonder if she even saw them.

On my way home from the photo shoot with Olivia, I passed a farm that caught my eye. And while my camera was filled with lots of beautiful photos, I thought the way that the late-afternoon light hit the glowing trees and barn called for me to shoot more beautiful images.

It dawned on me that I approach this kind of photography in much the same way that I do with a model: I keep my distance and take the same kind of care in composing my shot. It's the end result that I'm looking for: a photo that is well planned and ultimately pleasing to the eye as a work of art.

November, in Toronto, was mild and dry. My family was in the city to say goodbye to a friend, but we decided that we wouldn't let a sad occasion stop us from getting out the day before the celebration of a life that was cut too short.

I had an idea for post-processing before I took the following photos. I wanted to mute the colours and cut out the shadows. Both of the following photos were processed with an HDR effect and with the saturation settings pulled back.

I did a similar effect for the next shot, of the Alexander Bridge, at sunset, from Nepean Point. This time, though, after I applied the HDR effect, I isolated the reds and yellows, and applied more luminescence.

By mid-December, Ottawa still hadn't seen more than a dusting of snow and the temperature was mostly above freezing, almost reaching double digits. At my office holiday party, the Ottawa-Gatineau region was shrouded in dense fog. One of my colleages, who knows I'm into photography, noted, as we were looking outside at the fog over Lac Leamy, "It's too bad you don't have your camera."

I did. It was in my car, with my tripod. Before I lost too much light, I went out and took a series of photos of the lake and the Hilton, near the casino, on the other side. As I packed up and started heading back to the party, I passed a lone, small tree. As I walked by, I saw a street light that was illuminating a bike path, behind. From a particular angle, I could hide the light behind the tree and it cast an eeiry glow through the fog.

I set up my tripod again and took a few more shots.

After the party wrapped up, and I headed back to my car, I could see that the look across Lac Leamy was even more dramatic. Once more, I set up my tripod and shot again. The following photo was shared by Ian Black on CBC.

I hope you enjoyed seeing the photos as much as I did taking them. Sometimes, the moment of capturing the photos adds to the excitement of the end result, so I never know if I can present the photos to you as I saw the moments that I experienced in shooting them.

If you're interested in seeing more of my photos, I have them posted on Flickr and on 500px (many of the photos on this site, however, are NSFW).

This is also the last regular post for The Brown Knowser until I finish work on my novel. That's not to say I won't post anything on my blog. If anything, I will probably continue to share photos, but I won't be writing unless I'm particularly moved to do so, when I have time. Thank you for reading, for playing my photo challenge, and for your support.

Have a Happy New Year! I wish you much prosperity in 2016.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Call Me Ross

I wrote my first name in small print, trapped between two parentheses. My middle name, written in large capital letters, was underlined three times.

"Greg?" she called out, in a friendly tone, with a smile. "The doctor will see you now. Follow me please."

While I don't like being called by my first name, I cringe when I hear the shortened version. Not that there's anything wrong with that name: my step father's name is Greg. It's a good, strong name that suits him perfectly. I've been calling him by his name since before my parents separated, before he and my mom started dating. I continued addressing him by his first name after he and my mother married, even though my sisters called him "Papa."

I have friends with the name Greg. They are good, intelligent, kind people. And, when I address them, I never associate the name with myself, not like when I address another Ross.

I have no problem with the name Greg. It's just not my name.

My mother named me after the Academy Award-winning actor, with whom she was infatuated at the time. She preferred calling me by my other name, but Ross Gregory didn't roll off the tongue quite as well as the other way around. And so, my birth certificate and all other government identification gave me a name that I do not use.

"You can call me Amy*," the young woman said as she led me into the doctor's office."

"You can call me Ross," was my reply.

When I fill out my tax forms, I never write my first name, though I fill in the First Name box. I always write Ross, as though I have only one surname. On any government form, for that matter, I write my middle name as my main name or I simply write a G in the First Name box, with Ross written out where a Middle Initial box appears.

"Only computers call me Gregory," I explain. "Humans can call me Ross."

It's computers, I think, that screw up humans. Once the data is entered, there is no more thinking that is required of the human. When I worked for a bank, if someone wanted to open an account, we required sufficient identification to establish that the person opening the account was who he or she claimed to be. That information was typed into required fields, but there was another field that we filled out:

Known As.

If we were told that that person was known as another name, be it her or his middle name, nickname, or alias, we would enter that name in the appropriate field, and any time that we entered the account number into the computer, that was the name that showed up, so that we could address our client correctly. Even if we had to conduct a search to find the account number, entering the known-as name would lead us to the correct person.

Those were smart computer programs.

I have a new doctor. My last one was a pain in the ass, with a wise-cracking attitude, who was always late for an appointment or was hard to reach when I wanted to make an appointment. He said "bullshit" to me too many times when I explained side effects of medication, or I argued with him that I had really taken my meds.

And so, I left him and have a new doctor.

I visited the medical centre that was close to my house, where the doctors were looking for new patients. I filled out the forms, providing the information on my health card. I wrote my first name in small print, encasing it in parentheses. My middle name, written in large, capital letters, was underlined three times.

Never before have I had an issue with a doctor not taking this information and, moving forward, addressing me by my preferred name. Until this time, during my first visit.

The woman leading me down the corridor to the doctor's examination room looked puzzled as I corrected her on my name. Another nurse, sitting at a computer, overheard the discussion as we approached.

"Did you call him 'Gregory'?" she asked the assistant.

"I thought that was his name."

"Do you see this name in brackets?" the nurse asked, pointing to a line on the computer monitor. "Names in brackets are the preferred names." She looked at me, apologetically, "Sorry, trainee."

There was no harm done. She didn't know me, was learning the medical centre's system. When the doctor came to see me, a couple of minutes later, he addressed me by my correct name. All was well. We would get to know one another, would not have the same struggle that I have when I go to a clinic for blood testing or other work. I fear that I'll never be free of the systems where the computers do the thinking for the humans.

But when solicitors call me at home, I'm glad for that system. I can tell when a legitimate company, one that knows me, is calling, and when a cold call comes in.

"Hello, may I speak to Mr. G. Brown?" the voice will say.

"Sure," I reply, "if you can tell me what the G stands for."

It stands for Go Away

* Amy was not her name.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Secret Santa

He never cared for Secret Santas in the office, or anywhere, for that matter. He didn't feel the need to pick a random name from a hat and then try to figure out something about that practical stranger (he just knew that, as luck would have it, he would pick the name of someone that worked in a distant part of the office, someone that he didn't know well), and he would then spend money and time choosing a gift that would not enrich the life of that individual, would not be something that would give that individual anything that he or she would truly want.

He used to participate in Secret Santa at work, feeling compelled by peer pressure. But over the years, he had become immune to peer pressure, would only participate in an office social activity if he truly wanted to.

And, usually, he didn't want to.

He wasn't a Grinch, nor a Scrooge, but especially, he wasn't a Secret Santa.

It was Christmas Eve and, as with every year, he did the bulk of his Christmas shopping at the last minute. He usually had an idea of what he needed to buy—his wife did most of the shopping for the kids and extended family members, and he needed only to focus on finding something for his wife, plus a few little things for the kids and some stocking stuffers for everyone in the family.

But one of the main reasons that he liked to shop in the stores on Christmas Eve was because he had worked retail in his youth, and he knew that there could be lots of stressed shoppers, lots of folks out there who treated store employees like crap, and so he liked to go in and be extra-nice to those workers, to try and make them feel appreciated.

He jokingly referred to the city's oldest shopping mall as the geriatric centre, as there was an abundance of grey-haired folks with walkers and canes, moving slowly through the corridors and spending extra time in the shops, looking to strike up conversations with the employees, form some sort of connection with a friendly face. For a short time, he had even worked in the bank branch in that mall, where he would spend more time just chatting with the seniors who paid a visit than actually conducting business.

That was fine: most of them were friendly, kind, courteous. The only time when he didn't like encountering seniors was a time when he wasn't working in the mall—it was when his kids were infants, and he and his wife would navigate the hallways and department-store aisles with a wee one in a stroller. He and his wife would constantly be held up, as the elderly would faun over the children, would reach out to stroke a smooth cheek.

"Please don't touch my baby," he would say, his voice flat, unemotional, but authoritative, before any contact could be made between old and new skin.

But still, he liked going to that mall. It had plenty of good shops that catered to a wide variety of needs and it was in a convenient part of town. And so, on Christmas Eve, as he was making his final purchases before heading home, he found himself in one of these stores, waiting in line behind a silver-haired lady who was using a wheeled walker for support as she tried to purchase a few items for her grandsons (as he understood from the conversation with the person who was trying to ring up the sale).

The senior moved slowly, her shoulders slumped from a busy day of shopping or perhaps from a lifetime of hard work. She seemed to be in no rush to finish her purchases, was content to idly chat with the saleswoman. The cashier, in turn, was friendly but purposeful: there were others waiting to tally their items, to move on to more shopping or to head home.

When the elderly lady's items were summed up, she opened her oversized purse, retrieved her wallet, and selected a credit card.

It didn't take long to learn that the credit card had been declined, as the point-of-sale terminal sounded a low beep and the saleslady grimaced. The elderly woman asked in a meager voice if the salesperson could try it again, and again, the card was declined.

"I don't understand," the woman said, "I've been using it all day." Indeed, an assortment of parcels and bags rested on her walker. She reached into her wallet and selected another credit card. "Try this one," she said, handing it to the cashier.

The second credit card was also declined.


The woman dropped her head, her eyes moving back and forth in their sockets as she made mental calculations, tried to figure where she went wrong. Those shoulders, which already sagged, seemed to slump further in her perturbation. Her face denoted sadness, as though she might cry, as she came to terms with the possibility that her grandsons would not be receiving the gifts she had finally found for them.

The salesperson, meanwhile, looked at the man, patiently waiting, with an apologetic smile, unsure about how to deal with the woman who could not pay but who had not determined her next course of action.

The man was neither a Grinch nor a Scrooge, and though he wanted only to make his purchase and leave the mall, he also didn't want to see this frail lady leave empty-handed. It was Christmas Eve, after all.

He looked the salesperson in the eyes and mouthed, "It's okay, let her go. I'll pay for her." He held cash in hand to show that he was good for the amount owed.

"Really?" the salesperson whispered back, her eyes wide, finding it hard to believe that a total stranger would show such a level of sympathy and compassionate generosity.

He nodded. Smiled.

"Oh, it looks like we're good," the salesperson said to the woman after pretending to check the register again. "I guess our machine slowed down." She placed the goods in a bag and handed it over, the cancelled transaction slips in the bag. The senior loaded up her walker and began wheeling it towards the mall.

It had only been a thirty-dollar purchase. The man wasn't going to miss the extra amount that he paid. The old lady would likely discover what had happened after she was safe at homeif she bothered to look at the voided receipts, that is. Perhaps, she might not ever know.

If she had other shopping to do and tried to use those credit cards, she would discover that they couldn't be used. That would be a problem for her and the next salesperson to sort out. But at least she could bring her grandsons some joy.

Only the salesperson and the man would know what truly happened. On this Christmas Eve, for the first time ever, he could claim to be a true Secret Santa, anonymous and giving something truly desired.

And that was good enough for him.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Operation: Christmas

I first posted this story in 2011 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?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Me, The Grinch

*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. Our family doesn't go to church, participates in no rituals that have long ago been stolen from the Pagans. We have no manger on display, no angel on high.

My participation in these year-end, winter festivities usually includes some shopping, taking the family to a farm to search for and cut down our tree, and then driving it home, standing it in the house, and helping my wife with the lights and flashy, gold garland. Once that's done, I leave the room and let the three girls hang the ornaments while they blast music from the annual traditional Christmas CD.

Even as a kid, that tradition didn't interest me much. And, as my children grow older, as they now know that there is no Santa Clause, Christmas seems to weigh heavier and heavier on me.

To understand how my view of Christmas has, over the decades, eroded, I have to go back to when I was in my mid to late teens, and then 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, carolers strolled 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 appearance (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 dispel 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 painlessly 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? From 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 the best that you can be to others.

* Image of The Grinch © 1966 Warner Home Video. All rights reserved.
** Thanksgiving, in Canada is the third Monday in October—more than two months before Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2015

It's That Time of the Year

TV stations do it: why can't a blog?

For years—possibly, for as long as I've been writing The Brown Knowser—I have reserved the days that lead up to Christmas for holiday-themed posts. Most of the posts are repeats from Christmases gone by, though each year I tend to add a new one. This year, however, I have revised some of my traditional tales so that they can, hopefully, become more timeless and will require fewer revisions as the years go on.

If you're new to my blog, I hope that you enjoy the posts that are to follow in the next couple of days. If you're a regular reader, I hope that you enjoy reading these stories again.

Thank you for reading and I want to wish you and your loved ones peace, happiness, and warm thoughts over the holidays.

Be safe, raise a glass of good cheer, and be merry.

TV stations replay holiday classics: starting tomorrow, so will a blog.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Photo Friday: May the Hos Be With You

It seems that you can't get away from Star Wars.

I have to give it to my neighbours, though: they pulled out all the stops, went to great lengths—kind of when Darth Vader spared no expense, person, or ships, to search for Luke Skywalker.

On the day that The Force Awakens hits cities across North America, I thought I would share how some folks on my street really got into the spirit... or is that the Force?

There's the Millennium Falcon, making the jump to hyperspace; there are stormtroopers on skis; there's R2D2, with a Santa cap, and lightsaber-wielding Yoda and Vader. The soundtrack to the movies plays through speakers.

There's even the Death Star, firing its weapon at an exploding bush.

All in the season of peace and joy.

And Star Wars.

Happy Friday! May the Force be with you, and Season's Greetings.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What's It Worth?

My wife was poking around in the basement, the other night, looking for things to throw out. For more than 15 years, we've accumulated all sorts of junk, and when something outlived its usefulness, instead of being taken out to the curb, it went downstairs, to our black hole of stuff.

This summer, we made a great effort to throw a lot of that crap out, making room for a place for our youngest daughter to practice on her drum set and for us to finally have that home gym we've been talking about for almost as long as we've lived here.

"Take a look at this," she said, as she held up an old magazine. It was a copy of Tribute Magazine, from spring of 1983. It bore an orange border, and in the centre, an iconic image from arguably the best of the Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi.

I remembered the first time I saw that film, in an Ottawa theatre that is now gone—it was either the Elgin cinema or the one on Somerset: it doesn't matter, now, as both are long closed and transformed into another business or torn down, replaced by a downtown condo.

I knew I had had one of those magazines, had picked it up in the lobby and read through it before the previews started. Usually, I didn't hang onto them, but Star Wars was pretty big and I did collect a few things over the years.

"What do you think it's worth?" my wife asked, carefully flipping through the pages.

"Nothing," I said. "If it was in mint condition, unread, it might be worth a little bit, but there are crinkles near the spine, some creases on the cover." I pointed to a smudge, possibly left by a buttered popcorn finger, on a white space of the photo. Time had turned the smudge a light blueish-purple. "I don't think something that was free would suddenly be worth money."

"I think you're wrong," she said. "Maybe, someone would pay $100 for it."

I laughed. "You wouldn't get that even if it was untouched, like new."

We looked through the pages. A promotion for Superman III; an ad for a Mercury Cougar, for audio cassettes, for rye and cigarettes; Spacehunter in 3-D, Psycho II, Porky's II, The Terry Fox Story, The Man With Two Brains. The latest in technology, a Commodore VIC-20, was listed at the incredible price of $395.95.

The coverage of Return of the Jedi was extensive, with plenty of interesting facts.

The back of the magazine revealed a beer ad, for Labatt's Blue, back when it came in stubby bottles.

"It's in great shape, for it's age," my wife said. "Surely, with the new film coming out this week, it would be desirable for somebody." She flipped through the pages again, and settled on page 34, at the back. "Oh," her tone dropped.

"What is it?"

"This was my magazine," she said, turning the page towards me. The Show-Stopper Crossword filled the page. Barely visible, some of the puzzle was filled in, in light pencil. "This is my handwriting," she admitted.

"Now, it's worth even less," I said. "If it was even worth anything in the first place."

"We'll never know unless we see if anyone's interested."

So, here we are. What do you think? What's it worth?

Monday, December 14, 2015


At work, coffee costs me a mere 25 cents a cup. It's not a lot, but then again, it's not great coffee.

But because it's only 25 cents, I don't mind buying a cup for somebody who finds himself or herself without a quarter. I don't mind paying it forward: that person is sure to do the same for me or someone else in the same situation.

I think it's nice to do that for people that I don't know, too. On rare occasions, I have paid for coffees, up front, for strangers, at Starbucks. And last week, I found that there are participating cafés that let you buy coffee for those who are not fortunate enough to indulge in a good cup of java.

There's a worldwide movement, called Suspended Coffee, where participating stores will let you buy a coffee, in advance. Anyone can redeem that coffee; as the site says, "the homeless man you pass every day on the street, a stressed student in the middle of exams, or a mom who needs a five minute break."

I like that.

In the Ottawa-Gatineau region, there are three cafés that are participating in the Suspended Coffee movement: Café Eddy, in Hull, The West End Well, in Westboro, and Francesco's Coffee Company, in the Glebe.

But the pay-it-forward idea isn't limited to this movement. Bread By Us, a bakery and coffee house in Westboro, also has a suspended plan, and it doesn't extend just to coffee. This local establishment also makes some fantastic artisan bread, and you can suspend a loaf or two for someone less fortunate.

I was at Bread By Us, yesterday, listening to a Sunday Serenade show, featuring the musical talent of my friend, Amanda Cottreau, and other wonderful, local musicians, and I learned that this shop participated in a suspended program.

While I enjoyed the show, I ordered a smoked-meat sandwich and an Americano coffee for myself, and 10 loaves of whole-wheat bread, suspended. I think I enjoyed that sandwich all the more, knowing that I was helping someone less fortunate than myself.

This time of year can be harder on those who struggle to make ends meet. If you can, find a store that participates in such a program and make a difference for others. If you own a café or a sandwich shop, consider enrolling in this worthwhile program. You've got nothing to lose.