Friday, December 29, 2017

My 2017 in Photos

To say I took a lot of photos in 2017 is a huge understatement. With my Photo of the Day (POTD) project, my camera rarely left my side. And if I didn't have my D-SLR, my Android phone, which I replaced in March, was always on me.

Even if I didn't look for a specific subject for POTD, I attended enough events and travelled enough to capture lots of images.

Obviously, not every picture I took was great, or even good. Naturally, however, having taken more than 365 distinct photos, I have more favourites than I usually do.

But there are more photos that I shot, that I never showed, that weren't used for my POTD project, that I also really liked, and those tended to be overlooked.

If you want to see my POTD project, you can see them in my Flickr album. This year, instead of sharing my favourite photos of 2017, I'm going to share the other photos that made up this year. The ones that, for the most part, didn't see the light of day, this year.

There are, however, a few that made it into blog posts or were featured in my Flickr album, but not as a POTD post.

I sorted through 360 days of photos. The final five days were not yet taken or were used as a POTD. From those 360 days, I narrowed it down to 78 photos. And from those 78 photos, I picked the 20 that you see in this post.

Let's take a look at the photos that weren't used as my POTD but made an impression of my year.

Warning: one is not safe for work.

When I headed out for my first POTD shot, on January 1, I had one objective: to find a school bus that was parked in a farmer's field. DW and I had seen it many times on our bike rides out to Richmond, and I had always wanted to photograph this lonely vehicle. I hoped it was surrounded by an untouched blanket of fresh snow and when I found it, I wasn't disappointed.

The afternoon sun, coming low on the horizon, cast an orange glow that saturated the bus. I wished that I could have gotten closer, but the side of the road, with my long zoom lens, would have to do.

On my return to my end of town, I passed a farm where I could see hundreds of crows flying eastward, away from the setting sun. I've noticed this trend and have wondered what caused such a mass-murder of crows to make such flights. I pulled over and photographed the birds in flight, but what took my attention even more were the crows that had stopped to rest and had filled a tree by the farmhouse.

If anyone knows why crows behave this way, I'd love to hear about it.

Over the winter, my family tried to get outdoors whenever the weather permitted. In previous winters, DW and I would take the kids skiing but because we were anxiously waiting for me to meet with a surgeon to investigate problems with my feet, I decided that I would skip the slopes for the season.

But that didn't stop us from going to Mont Tremblant.

While DW and DD14 skied, DD16 (who didn't want to ski) and I explored the village and took the gondola to the peak, where I saw the trees and poles that were encrusted in snow and ice.

My camera, of course, was there to capture it.

One of my favourite spots in Ottawa, for photography, is where the Rideau River meets the Ottawa River, at Rideau Falls. It was easy to stop along Sussex Drive on my way home from work, and I did so several times over the year.

But on one day, as I made my way to one of the lookouts, I saw the Canadian flag reflected off a window by one of the facilities nearby. The wind would periodically unfurl the flag, which would reflect off the glass. When I saw one glimpse of a perfectly flying flag reflected, I had to take a shot.

Unfortunately, as I waited and shot until my arms grew tired, I never caught a perfect reflection. But I came close.

The blue of the sky, at least, contrasted with the red in the flag, made for an interesting composition.

For those who have followed my blog over the years, you know that I take lots of pictures of another Ottawa waterfall, at Hog's Back. My previous photo project was a year-long, weekly visit to the falls. For my POTD, I knew that I would be back over the year.

I did include various angles of the falls for my POTD project, but one shot that I didn't use was a wide angle at a far corner, looking down the falls. The shot gives a unique perspective of the attraction, and makes me look at the falls in a new way.

My next shot is one of the most colourful of the year. It hardly needs an introduction. If you've never been to Ottawa in the spring, you have to come to the annual Tulip Festival.

Enough said.

Other colours that I saw, this year, were those that were painted on the walls of Morón, in Cuba. While this small town is economically poor, it is rich in life.

I shot a lot of sunsets over the years but surprisingly, this year, not a single one that I captured made me go "Wow!" Instead, I tried to place subjects in my photos, with the sunset only as a background. While my best sunset shots became my POTD, there was one shot of the foot bridge at the Britannia Yacht Club that also made me reflect on how it's hard to take a bad sunset photo along the Ottawa River.

In searching for a worthwhile POTD, I drove around a lot of neighbourhoods in the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau. For years, I wanted to stop at a small park along the Ruisseau de la Brasserie (Brewer's River) and my project gave me that opportunity. Not only is the park lovely, with flowers and artwork, but the river itself is full of little treasures.

Several times through the year, I tried nabbing a good sunset photo at the Champlain Lookout, in Gatineau Park, without success. I would have even settled for a sky with interesting clouds, but every time I made my way up this winding and rolling parkway, the sky gave me nothing that I felt was POTD-worthy.

So, instead, I resorted to selfies. Just so that my time wasn't completely wasted.

If you're Canadian, you know that 2017 was our nation's 150th anniversary. Across the country, celebrations took place that brought people together. Being in the nation's capital, we had our fair share of events, and I tried to get to as many of them as I could.

I visited the Byward Market countless times, and on several occations I tried to capture the giant Ottawa letters in the York Street square, which had been converted into an inspiration exhibit. Naturally, other visitors flocked to the letters for group pictures. It became a challenge to capture the Ottawa display without including a random passer-by, but it wasn't impossible.

This year, I visited my home city of Montreal on several occasions, to find where I lived as a young child and to reacquaint myself with family. In my explorations of this fabulous, world-class metropolis, I discovered some fascinating neighbourhoods, including Griffintown and the redevelopment around the Peel Basin.

If you've ever taken the train from Ottawa to Montreal, you could only miss this view if you weren't looking out the window.

We've now passed the halfway point of this post, and have now reached the spot where my NSFW photo appears. Consider this to be fair warning.

Because I spent every day thinking about places to explore for my daily photo, I didn't put a lot of time into my photo club: specifically, my model-meetup group. But I did attend one shoot.

One of our group's models, Sienna Hayes, announced that she was moving to San Francisco and would be attending one final shoot in Ottawa, before she left. She said that she was not planning to return to Ottawa for some time, so I signed up for the shoot.

I've worked with Sienna at a couple of shoots in the past, and she's great to work with. All of her photos display grace and elegance, regardless of the setting.

This final shoot was at an abandoned farmhouse, south of Ottawa, and included a run-down barn. We set up in the farmhouse kitchen and what might have been a living room. We also took photos outside, in the overgrown bushes, as well as in the barn loft. It was a beautifully hot and humid day, and I have to give Sienna credit for maintaining poise despite the onslaught of mosquitoes.

My favourite shots of her were in the empty living room, where we swept the dust and dirt from the floor and used natural light through a window to illuminate her. I used both Snapseed for some filter effects and PaintShop Pro for others, including one of my favourites.

If you want to see more of my photos from this shoot, you can visit my 500px gallery. But, again, I warn you: these photos are definitely not safe for viewing at work.

Over the year, I made mental notes of subjects that I wanted to include for my POTD project, and one of those subjects was sunflowers.

I found a few in a garden, just off Prince of Wales Drive, near the Experimental Farm. This garden was another Canada 150 exhibit, and it took wandering the course that was mowed through the field to find the sunflowers.

I overexposed this shot to create the white background, where there was originally blue sky.

Earlier in the year, I had passed the Canadensis garden and had observed a series of wooden posts, emerging from the snow-covered field. Not knowing what it was, I strudged through the knee-deep snow and captured these posts, with their tops each painted in a different colour, and used that for a POTD.

I wish I had waited until the summer to get the proper effect.

I don't usually attend auto shows. I do like to attend the Italian Festival, on Preston Street, and I always drool over the Ferraris. But when a bunch of classic cars showed up at my father-in-law's residence, I couldn't resist checking out these pristine machines with him.

One of the old beauties that was on display was a 1941 Chrysler. With its contours and curves, it was screaming for some closeups with a very wide-angle lens.

Andrew Hayden Park is a popular destination for photo buffs, and I visited many times in 2017. I went on both cloudy and sunny days, in the afternoons and at sunset.

On of my favourite spots is the pond, where you can get stunning silhouettes and reflections, particularly if the sunset is just right.

I've already mentioned Montreal. On my most-recent visit, at the end of October, my mother joined me and DW as we revisited her old home, and she led us on a beautiful drive along the river, where she lived in many places before I was born. We capped that wonderful day off with a visit from her youngest sister, her husband, and one of their daughters and her family.

We wandered the streets of Old Montreal, and it was on this day that I was tempted to leave Ottawa and return to where I was born.

It didn't happen.

I had already taken my POTD and was heading downtown to meet a friend for a pint and to catch up, when I saw the sun, setting on the horizon, fighting to show itself through heavy cloud cover. I had already included the Museum of Nature in an earlier POTD, but just because I had my shot for the day didn't mean I couldn't keep capturing images.

In December, I began to think about the end of my POTD project, and how it seemed to make the year pass quickly. I had a limited number of days to capture the images that I had envisioned. And as I knocked each location or subject off my list, I started feeling more and more of a sense of accomplishment. I had given myself a challenge and I seemed to have been able to meet the challenge without it seeming like work. I was able to explore my city and find new discoveries and appreciate what I had already become familiar with.

While I did stay in areas that I knew very well, I also went to places that were new to me. Some, I didn't know existed until I stumbled upon them. And when I decided on capturing a particular image for my POTD, I still captured other subjects around me. The shooting didn't stop.

The processing of the photos could also be a challenge, as sometimes my inspiration came late in the day, when I was pressed for time, and had to get the appearance of the image just right, and I had to publish the photo on social media. Sometimes, I failed, but in doing so, I learned a great deal.

I don't know what I'm going to do for a new photo challenge, but when I do, I'm going to make sure that I continue to turn my camera to other things around me, to capture as much as I can to represent my life, in the year, in photos.

Thanks for following my blog. I wish you and your loved ones peace and prosperity in 2018.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Say It With Pretzels

Our parents taught us to never play with our food.

Alphaghetti changed that.

When DW and I were first dating, we would often snack on a bag of hard pretzels that President's Choice packaged. They were shaped in letters.

DW had been snacking on the floor. She had grabbed a handful of those alphabetic snacks and lay them on a towel, to keep crumbs off the carpet. At one point, she got up and left the room, heading toward the bedroom.

After a few minutes, I noticed her absence and immediately saw the pretzels that she had left on the towel.

Good ol' days.

Monday, December 25, 2017

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?

Friday, December 22, 2017

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.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Me, The Grinch

This blog post was originally posted on December 20, 2011, and has become a traditional Brown Knowser holiday tale. If you have read it before, I hope you enjoy it again. If this is your first read, I hope it won't be your last.

*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 how, 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.