Friday, August 30, 2013

Photo Friday: Painting With Light

As loaded as our canoe was with food and camping supplies during my family's trek from Kingston to Ottawa, my vacation was also about capturing images with my camera. I had spent some time, in planning, on what lenses and equipment I would be bringing. Should I carry only a couple of lenses or only one? My 18-55mm or my 70-300mm?

In the end, I figured it was better to be safe than sorry, to make sure I wouldn't regret leaving something at home. So I brought all of my equipment, including my tripod.

There are many times when I carry my tripod but never use it, so why would I put in in the canoe, and why would I not even bother putting it in the dry bag with my camera bag? For one thing, I didn't care if it got wet: it's made of metal and plastic, both of which would dry if they got soaked. Also, it was small enough that I could slip it along the side of the canoe, keeping it out of the way.

The only real risk was if we were to tip and all of our contents fell out. That sucker would end up at the bottom of whatever lake or river we were in. It was a calculated risk, and considering the fact that I kept my camera out, sitting next to me in my seat in calm water, I had more valuable items to lose.

I made use of my tripod a couple of times during our trip, including our first evening, at Lower Brewer Lockstation. The locks, boats, and structures at the lower end of the locks were irresistible as the sun disappeared on the horizon.

I set my tripod on the solid ground near the mooring docks and shot lots of pictures of the art shop across the water and down the cut-through from which we had come, where a few boats were tied up for the night.

One of the boaters who was closest to where we set up camp stopped with his son to chat. His son had an entry-level Canon D-SLR and they were interested in learning about time exposures. I was taking a few 30-second exposures and told them how I experiment with the aperture and shutter speed until I get the desired effect. I let the son use my tripod and we tried a few exposure settings so he could become familiar with his camera.

I had taken a couple of photos that had his boat in the frame, and the man, Chris, liked the results. He gave me his business card and asked if I would forward the photo. I told him that if he wanted a shot of his boat, I could do better. I could paint it with light.

I took another 30-second exposure, but this time I took my flashlight and ran up to his boat, shining the light all over the front and length of the boat. The resulting image showed the twilight, but his boat was lit up with much detail.

That's the shot I sent him.

I wanted to experiment more with light painting, so I told him I would walk up to the top of the lock. When I was in position, I would signal him and all he would have to do was to push the button on my cable release (I said I brought everything; what's the point of bringing the tripod without a cable release?).

When I signalled Chris, I proceeded to run back and fourth across the lock gate, shining my flashlight downward on the huge doors. I also shone my light on the water, below. Because it was a long exposure, I would not appear in the shot. I was careful to keep the light pointed downwards so that the light wouldn't appear directly in the shot. The only evidence of my presence is the wobbly light along the railing at the top, which is reflected in the water. I could clean that up, but I like how it shows what I was up to.

Here's the shot.

What do you think?

Thanks to Chris for the company and conversation, and for pressing that button for me. There's no way that I could have done it and reached the top of the lock before the 30 seconds was up. I also want to give thanks to his son, Connor, for his interest in photography. I hope you play with your camera and get the shots you want.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Brownfoot Odyssey

Ten days and approximately 200 kilometers. Twelve lakes, and seven rivers and channels. Twenty-two sets of locks. One 17-foot canoe, four people, and approximately 200 pounds of equipment.

And only two shower facilities.

As the days approached for our family vacation, our canoe trip from Kingston to Ottawa, along the Rideau Canal Waterway, I was quite nervous. My only experience with canoeing was the times I've puttered around on lakes, primarily Lac Bernard. At most, Lori and I navigated the entire lake, keeping close to the shore, carrying nothing but ourselves and life jackets—personal floatation devices (PFDs)—which were not worn but were at our feet.

We were rank amateurs.

Only one week before our trip, we took a Paddle Canada tandem-lake-skills course, which taught us some great techniques and prepared us for situations when we tip out of the canoe (mind you, with an empty canoe). The course helped boost my confidence, but not enough to alleviate all fears of this journey.

My parents, who were worried that the four of us wouldn't fit into the single, ultra-light canoe with all of our equipment, came down with us to see us set out and to drive our van back to Ottawa. The maximum weight capacity was 750 lbs; we calculated that our combined weight was about 600 lbs, give or take 20. When we set off from Kingston Mills, my folks wouldn't leave until they were sure that the canoe's gunnels were high enough off the water and that we were balanced and had room for all.

They are wonderfully concerned that way.

Lori and I paddled for five or six hours each day, covering anywhere from 15 to 25 kilometres each day. We could not have planned a better trip, weather-wise: we had sunshine and warm temperatures, and the prevailing wind at our back for most of the journey. It rained only once, on our way from Poonamalie to Smiths Falls, and onward to Edmonds Lock. With our many dry bags, we had no trouble protecting our equipment. Only our tent was soaked, as the rain came before we had packed it; but it was fully dry before we bedded down, later that evening.

The journey wasn't without its challenges. Though the wind was mostly at our backs, it did create swells on the larger lakes, primarily Upper Rideau, Big Rideau, and Lower Rideau. The wind would try to turn our canoe sideways, and so we would fight the swells in trying to stay straight. When a boat would pass, its wake would often be perpendicular to the swell, making it a challenge to keep the canoe from flipping over.

I thank Mark and Karen, from our canoe course, on teaching us how to keep our paddles in the water, to draw and pry to turn the canoe quickly. We never swamped the canoe (only a little water breached the gunnels), never overturned. We worked like dogs, but we made it through the rough waters.

We met some interesting people on our journey. Chris, from Prescott, who took an interest in my night photography and even helped me achieve some effects. Heather, and her husband, who showed us navigation maps and helped us calculate the time needed to paddle from Murphy's Point to Poonamalie, and who generously donated snacks and drinks to help make the leg more bearable.

We experienced wildlife of all kinds: green and blue herons, deer, porcupines, jumping fish, and one stubborn raccoon who wouldn't stand down. But that's another story.

We lost our youngest daughter for a couple of days. At Poonamalie, a mosquito bite that had been scratched to pieces became infected, and she had to be sent home. Luckily, a family member from Smiths Falls happened to be heading to Ottawa that day and was able to pick our daughter up and drive her to my mother, who took her to a clinic. After a couple of days of rest and antibiotics, she was better and able to rejoin us for the last leg, a 25-kilometer stretch from the Long Island locks, in Manotick, to the final locks at the Chateau Laurier.

It's amazing how the body can continue to work in a continuous rhythmic motion for hours on end without fatiguing, and be able to repeat that action the next day and the next. Yet, a couple of days after the trip, my arms and shoulders are beginning to ache. We've been home for a couple of days, and I'm utterly exhausted.

My wife is keen to do another canoe trip, but I've told her no. Been there, done that. At best, I'll paddle to a remote spot for a day, set up camp, and paddle back the next day. But not this year, probably not next year.

Our family has completed an epic journey, one that a few months ago thought impossible to do. But we did it and survived. The whole family worked as a team, both in the canoe and at our camp sites. We covered a great distance over a respectable time using only our upper bodies. Of this, we can be proud.

Over the next few days and possibly weeks, I'll share photos and adventures that we experienced on our journey. I hope that you'll stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mind Flood, Part Two

I may be home from vacation or I may be missing. If there's no blog post tomorrow, you might want to start looking for me and my family. But I didn't want to leave you hanging from yesterday's blog post, so here's the conclusion to the post I wrote in June of 2011.

For Part One, go here.

A couple of years ago, after I left the office at the end of a long day at work, I walked down the block to the corner Esso station, where I bought another sheet of STO bus tickets. I was completely out, and without tickets I couldn't get home. And it had been a long day—I wanted to get home as quickly as possible.

The lineup at the counter in the station was unusually long. An elderly lady was buying lottery tickets and decided that she'd strike up a conversation with the clerk, despite the people lined up behind her. I grew nervous, fearful that I would miss the bus. Depending on when it came, and how quickly I could purchase my tickets, I could either catch the bus when it pulled up in front of the Esso or sprint to where I usually catch it, near my office, while it cut through the subdivision behind us.

While I stood in line, I noticed a man looking at me. He was a couple of years younger than me and was dressed in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts. I felt a little uncomfortable being stared at, but I could easily ignore him. There were magazine and newspaper covers that I could read from where I stood. But then he spoke.

"Excuse me," he said, "is your name Ross?"

"Yes," I said, looking him in the eyes. I had no idea who he was, but his eyes seemed friendly, they looked at me with widening recognition.

"Oh my God, I can't believe it's you. It's me, Rick: Rick..." he gave me his last name. "I dated Sue..." he gave me her last name.

Sue: Laura's sister.

Memories flooded back. Rick dated Sue when I was working at the camera shop. For a brief time, Sue and Laura both worked in the store. Rick's sister, Pia, also worked in the store. It was like a family-run business. I remembered Sue. She was pretty, and knew it. To me, she couldn't hold a candle to Laura, who was drop-dead gorgeous but didn't have a clue about that, wouldn't have believed it if you told her each and every day.

I remembered Rick. "How the Hell are you?" I laughed, the memories coming back. The last time I saw Rick, he was in his teens. He was an adult now, and now that I remembered him he hadn't changed much. A little grey in the hair. More filled out. He looked good.

My bus came and went, but I didn't care. I was being treated to a blast from the past. Rick, when he learned that I missed my bus, offered to drive me wherever I needed to be. Normally, I wouldn't have wanted to impose, but I wanted to know what had become of everyone, so I asked him to drive me to where I could catch my connecting bus to get home. It was only about ten minutes out of his way. Rick, still being a good guy, was happy to oblige.

Rick still kept in touch with Laura and Sue. Both were now living in St. Catherines. Laura had been married, but was now single, with four sons. Sue was doing well, but Rick spoke so quickly and I was remembering Laura that I missed some of the information. I think he said that Sue was now a lesbian, but he mentioned some other names that I didn't recognize that I could be mistaken.

Pia was ill. It didn't sound good. I told him to give her my love. I gave him my business card—the one with my mobile phone number, personal e-mail address, and blog address—and told him to pass my contact info on. That I'd love to hear from Pia and Laura. Especially Laura.

And so the memories of Laura came back in a flood. A mind flood.

DISCLAIMER: this post, in no way, shape, or form, should be interpreted as any expression of regret with the life I live. I love the way that my life has unfolded: I'm happy with my career path, I love my home, I adore my children and am thankful for them every day, and I worship my wife, without whom I would be hopelessly lost. I wouldn't change my life for the world.
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This post returns to a time before my life really started. It has nothing to do with the now. Think of it as fiction, even though it's
When I returned to the camera shop as a full-time employee, I learned that Laura was gone, and my heart sunk. She had left the store to focus on her studies. She had moved on. It was time that I did the same.

I threw myself into my job. I gave it 100 percent. I focused on developing my photography skills so that I could not only sell cameras with more confidence, I could pass my knowledge on to customers, when they were examining their prints, so that they could take a better picture next time. Photography surpassed my main passion, writing. I still wrote fiction—Roland Axam started coming to life during this time—but I never left my house without my camera.

I found my confidence waxing. I was losing my shyness—yes, I was shy once. Not with friends and family, nor with customers. My shyness came when I showed interest in women. I would never ask anyone out because I was afraid of being laughed at, afraid of rejection. I was convinced that I wasn't good enough to win the affections of anyone. But with my job at the camera store, working five days a week with the public, talking about a subject I loved, I gained lots of confidence. I wished that Laura was around to see this newly confident young man.

And then, one day, my wish came true.

The store had expanded, had moved into a new location in the mall. The photo lab, which was previously crammed into a corner of the old, drab store, was now in a bright, black-and-white-tiled, climate-controlled room. A large glass barrier separated the lab from the rest of the store, so that customers could see photo technicians working diligently, turning film cannisters into stacks of memories, printed in vibrant colours. Many people would come into the store and would stand at the glass, watching the pictures come out of the printer, viewing a disconnected story, in stills.

I finished up with a customer and noticed someone standing at the photo lab window. Even from behind, I knew who it was. It was Laura. She was looking at the new lab, trying to make eye contact with her former colleagues. She didn't see me step behind her, didn't notice me inching closer to her ear.

"Hello, Gorgeous," I said in a near-whisper, so that only she could hear. Laura turned, looked at me with those laughing eyes. Her face lit up and she did something I never expected, not in a thousand years. She wrapped her arms around me, held me in a tight embrace. I held onto her just as tightly, as though I was never going to let her go. Though it was only for a brief moment, the hug seemed to last an eternity. Everything else came to a standstill.

"You're back," she exclaimed, pulling away, "what happened?"

"The newspaper didn't work out," I told her. "And Cesar took me back."

"I wonder if he'll do the same for me," Laura said, "I'm looking for work."

"I'm sure he will," I said, "he's always looking for experienced help, especially in the lab."

"I'd like to work out on the floor," said Laura. "I could work both, if he needs the help."

Me and Laura, working side by side. The non-existent entity was smiling upon me. This time, I wouldn't shy away. I would find the right moment and ask her out: maybe for a drink at the end of a shift. Baby steps.

Laura, of course, had a boyfriend. Laura's boyfriend, of course, was perfect for her: tall, dark, and handsome. My below-average height, light-skinned, and goofy-looking appearance were no match. No amount of confidence could rival a match like Laura and her boyfriend.

I gave up, resigning myself that Laura and I would be, in the best-case scenario, friends.

And as we worked more and more together, we did become friends. We shared what was going on in our lives outside of the camera store. As things turned out, we did go out for drinks after work. We both joined the company baseball team and would see each other on the weekends and evenings, at the games. Laura would even turn to me, asking me for advice when she and her boyfriend seemed to be on the rocks. And when they eventually broke up, Laura turned to my shoulder to cry on.

But while Laura was now single, I was dating someone who worked in the mall. It wasn't a great relationship, but the young woman from the clothing store and I enjoyed each other's company. Translation: we were having good sex.

When the sex wasn't enough to keep the relationship going, we broke up. I was single again. Laura, however, was not. She was in a new relationship.

And so, over the years, it went that way. Either Laura was dating and I was single, or Laura was single and I was seeing somebody. Laura and I were always in a relationship; just not with each other. We were cater-cousins: no matter who we were with, we always found time for each other, were always there for one another.

Once, while we were sitting in a bar, having drinks, Laura asked me: "We always seem to be dating people. How come you and I never got together?"

Was she frickin' kidding me?? "Timing," I answered, trying to keep my cool. "Bad timing."

"I think that if we ever find ourselves single at the same time, we should give it a try."

"Deal." We shook on it. I casually sipped at my beer, trying to supress my enthusiasm. I was single; she was not. But that could change.

Laura's interest in photography grew, and she and I would often take time together to go out and shoot photos. We'd always have a theme: churches around town; timed exposures (usually at night, with stars moving around stationary backgrounds); flowers; foggy days. We went out countless times. Sometimes, our respective partners accused us of having an affair on the side. We never seemed to care what our boyfriend or girlfriend thought.

Once, when we were thinking up a theme for our next photo "date," I joked that we should do nude photography. "Would you model for me?" I asked Laura. I expected either a punch in the arm or to see those laughing eyes roll back in her head. Instead, she paused, and said, "Maybe. It would have to be tasteful."

My heart skipped a beat. "Of course," I said. "We could drive up to the Gatineaus, hike up into the woods. Have you, au naturel, in nature." Let what happens happen, I thought, but didn't say. I was single at the time; she was not.

Sadly, it never happened. Maybe she was joking when we talked about it. We never locked down a time to do it. On the weekends, when it could have happened, either the weather was bad, we were too busy to go out, or we were playing baseball. We talked about it a couple of times, but when I started seeing someone new, Laura thought it wouldn't be a good idea. She had no problem, despite having a boyfriend, but she didn't think my new girlfriend would be as open to the idea.

And then there was a time when I was dating one woman who I thought could be the one. We talked marriage. We talked children. I told my girlfriend that if we had a little girl, I'd want to name her Laura. At first, my girlfriend seemed uncomfortable with that, but she knew that Laura and I were close friends—my girlfriend even liked Laura herself—and so she agreed to the name: our daughter, if we had one, would be Laura Elizabeth (see how long I've been carrying that name?).

This girlfriend lasted for a whole year. We eventually broke up over differences in fundamental beliefs, which arose when we started seriously talking about getting married. It was a bad breakup, though in time we did and still do remain friends. But when we broke up, I jumped straight to another woman, one with whom I worked.

And no, it wasn't Laura. She was in a serious relationship. No, I started seeing a woman from Hell... that's another story: it's somewhere in my archives, but I can't find it. Perhaps I even deleted it, not really wanting to remember that girl. Laura knew that this girl was bad for me. All my friends knew she was bad for me. She was the rebound chick. But we lasted almost five months. I broke up and had to fire her only a few days later. Again, another story.

A week after that breakup, Lori and I started seeing each other.

Lori and Laura hit it off the first time they met, and Lori wasn't worried, concerned, or jealous of the special relationship that Laura and I shared. But things between Laura and I started changing too. Laura and her boyfriend were getting serious. Lori and I were getting serious. Laura and I didn't see each other as often; when we did, our significant others were usually with us. Not always, but often. And Laura left the camera store again, to start a new career.

Laura was leaving town. I was sad to be losing one of my best friends, but we promised to keep in touch. On her last night, she and I got together, alone. We pretended it was just another outing, that it wasn't the last one. We got teary at times, but we remained cheerful. She told me that she was happy to embrace her future but was sad at what she was leaving behind. I said I was sad to lose her, but was happy for her. And I told her I was happy with Lori, that she might be the one.

At the end of the evening, Laura and I went for a drive. We didn't talk much. We passed my new apartment, where I had just moved in that day, and I invited her in, just to show her where she could find me if she ever returned to Ottawa for a visit. Boxes were stacked everywhere. The bed was not made—I was going to be staying at my folks' place that night. There wasn't much to show: just the view from the balcony, which looked down at Hog's Back. We stayed for a few minutes, still not saying much, and then I drove her home.

I got out of the car with her when we reached her place. This was it. I looked into her eyes; they were glistening, not laughing so much. We embraced, arms tightly around each other. We kissed. "I love you, Laura," I told her. "I love you too, Ross," she said. We held on a few moments more, and then she pulled away, turned, and walked towards her home. I got in my car and pulled away, never looking back.

What was the point of this story? Are you disappointed that the guy didn't get the girl? Don't be. I'm not. You see, Laura and I knew each other longer than any of the people we dated in the years that we worked in the camera store. And while girlfriends and boyfriends came and went, our friendship held fast, endured emotional ups and downs. If Laura and I had started a romantic relationship, I doubt it would have lasted. In those years, we weren't into long-term relationships. Not during that time in our lives. Sure, we didn't get into each other's pants, and believe me, I wanted to. Instead, I think that what we shared was special, beyond sexual gratification. We were getting that from other people. The important stuff, up in the head and the heart, was there.

On that level, I got the girl. Not forever, but for long enough.

Last week's meeting with Rick brought back these memories. My brain was inundated with good times, of the friend I loved, of the laughing eyes.

I hope they're still laughing.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Revisiting a Popular Post

If this post actually appears on The Brown Knowser, I'm either still on vacation, making my way home, or I'm lost, or I am home but was too tired to write something new. Whatever the case may be, I decided to re-post something I wrote a couple of years ago and received positive feedback. If you haven't read it before, I hope you enjoy it. If you have read it, I hope you enjoy it again.

DISCLAIMER: this post, in no way, shape, or form, should be interpreted as any expression of regret with the life I live. I love the way that my life has unfolded: I'm happy with my career path, I love my home, I adore my children and am thankful for them every day, and I worship my wife, without whom I would be hopelessly lost. I wouldn't change my life for the world.
This post returns to a time before my life really started. It has nothing to do with the now. Think of it as fiction, even though it's not.


I fell in love with Laura the moment I saw her. It was something about her eyes, the way they laughed. She had laughing eyes. They were always happy. When she actually laughed, her joy was infectious. And I will always remember the smile on her face, the electric-red lipstick on olive skin, and the glowing white teeth.

To say that Laura was gorgeous was a gross understatement. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Any woman that would come close to matching Laura's beauty did so by way of airbrushing, the final editing in a glossy fashion magazine. Those women weren't real. Laura was real. Pure and natural beauty.

I watched Laura, in wonder, from the far end of the camera store where I worked. Laura was visiting the shop, not to process a roll of 35mm film or purchase any camera equipment. There was no picture frame on the far shelves that was worthy of holding her image. But Laura was in the shop for a specific purpose: a job interview. I, myself, had only been hired recently by the store's manager, Cesar. Cesar was on a hiring spree. He had stolen me from a paint and wallpaper store in the shopping mall—he had been shopping and stopped to watch me serve another customer, and when I was finished and asked him if there was anything I could help him with, he said that he liked my salesmanship, liked the way I treated customers as though they were special, and he wanted me to come and work for him. And now he needed a lab assistant—someone to process film—and it looked like Laura was his prime candidate.

Laura and I were hired so closely together (the camera store was nation-wide), that our employee numbers were only five numbers apart. I was employee 5513; she was 5518.

Though I fell in love with her the moment I saw her, I never acted on my feelings. I was a dopey, somewhat geeky kid in his early twenties. I was skinny, not athletically built, with pale skin and hair that never cooperated. She was a year or two younger, had a shapely, feminine figure that also looked like she worked out; her shapely Portugese heritage shone through; her long, wavy brown hair hung seductively. You would look at me and look at her, and then think to yourself, these two do not hang out together. I would have to be contented with admiring Laura from afar.

For a couple of years, we worked together: Laura in the photo lab; me, behind the front counter. We would talk when I brought her processing orders. We would share laughs with the rest of the staff. But we never talked to each other as friends, though we did respect one another. It was clear to me that she liked me, but only on a professional level.

I left the camera store in a very unprofessional manner. While I was working there, I was attending journalism school, and upon graduation I started seeking a newspaper job. The camera store was only a part-time position. Cesar knew that I wouldn't stay forever. But when I found a job, working for The Low Down to Hull and Back News in Wakefield, Quebec, the publisher and owner asked if I could start right away. His previous reporter left without notice and he was in a bit of a lurch. It would mean a lot if I could start the next day. I agreed, thinking that when I went into the camera store later that day, I would talk to Cesar, give my notice, and negotiate some hours that didn't conflict with my new job and yet wouldn't leave Cesar in the lurch that the reporter had done with my new employer. I was starting a new career, after all: the camera store offered me a meager income while I attended my studies, which were now over.

Later that day, I arrived at the camera store, only to find that Cesar wasn't in. To make matters worse, he had already posted the new staff schedule, and the hours given to me were in direct conflict with my new job. The assistant manager was working the shift with me, and I explained my situation to him. And this is where I erred: I listened to him. The assistant manager told me to just leave Cesar a note, saying I quit. To not bother working out a schedule; he and Cesar would work it out. And so that's what I did.

Cesar was not happy. In his eyes, I betrayed him and quit without notice. He had been good to me—he really had—and this is how I returned his kindness. For a long time afterwards, Cesar had nothing nice to say about me. I know this because I ran into Laura one day, a few months later. She looked as beautiful as always, and her eyes laughed as she told me that she missed me, but Cesar did not. I missed Laura immensely, but didn't tell her so. I wanted to say that she and I should get together some time, have a drink, but I never did. I didn't have the right, was my thinking.

I lasted about four months at the paper. To me, the paper was more interested in filling ad space, more interested in pleasing readers, more focused on collecting revenue from classified ads, than in reporting news, implementing cost-cutting ideas, and in streamlining production. My boss saw me as undisciplined—I refused to answer the phone with the full name of the paper, followed by "Ross speaking" (I simply said "newsroom"), and it drove him nuts to see me reclining in my seat, with my feet on the desk and the keyboard on my lap, even when I was busily hammering out a story and was at my most productive when I was this comfortable. We met once, trying to meet some concessions, but when it was apparent that my employer wasn't going to change, I walked out (but not before demanding that he pay me in full).

I quit the paper without another job to go to, so my aunt helped me get a job cleaning carpets. For those of you who don't know what that job involves, let me tell you: I drove from location to location in an industrial, mobile shop vac. I cleaned office carpets, household carpets, and restaurant carpets. The worst assignments I had were cleaning the vomit, spilled drinks and trampled gum off of a pub floor and cleaning an abandoned house that had its own dog room, where the carpet was covered in thick hair and feces. I kid you not!

One day, while I was on a lunch break at a McDonalds, lamenting this god-awful job, I was waiting in line when I heard someone next to me call my name. It was Cesar. I remembered Laura's words from several months before, of how Cesar was so mad at me for leaving with a pathetic note taped to the cash register. In the line up, Cesar spoke to me with a soft, friendly voice. He asked me how I was, looking me up and down in my dirty jeans and t-shirt. I told him that the reporter job didn't work out and that I was working as a carpet cleaner until I got back on my feet.

I'll never forget his words. I get a lump in my throat just remembering those kind words that Cesar spoke: "Come back to me." How could he forgive me for leaving him the way I had? He told me he understood, that he knew that writing was my passion. I told him photography came a close second. He said that he was currently looking for a full-time salesperson. He knew that I was a good salesman. He remembered that I was good with customers.

Later that day, when I finished my shift with the cleaning company, I told them that I wouldn't be back. I had no qualms about walking away from that job. By far, it was the worst job I had ever undertaken. The next day, dressed in a suit and tie, I visited the regional manager for the camera company. It was a short interview: Cesar told him that I was wanted. The regional manager knew me. It was a formality.

When I returned the next week, to start my first shift, I learned that Laura had left the company. She had gone to study. She had moved on. My heart sunk. I would never see the world's most beautiful woman again.

I would never gaze into those laughing eyes again.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Photo Friday: Assisi

Every so often, I look at some of the shots I've taken in the past, wondering if I can improve them.

One of my favourite photos that I took on my family's 2009 vacation in Italy was in the vaults of the cathedral in Assisi.

I was a little cheeky at the time, because photography was prohibited in various locations, including the spot where I shot this favourite photo of mine.

Perhaps I took a little pleasure in sin?

I've always been happy with the way it came out naturally, even though it was a little dark. I liked the faint stream of light that fell on the hanging object (sorry, I'm not religious so I have no idea what it's called).

Here is the shot, run through the HDR exposure merge (as a single image), and then tweaked a little.

I still prefer the original, but this one isn't bad either. What do you think?

Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 22, 2013


We all make choices, each of which determines the outcome of who we are today.

Sometimes, we reflect on the choices we've made and we think, am I on the right path? Did I make the right decision?

Every so often, I think about the options I've had over my lifetime and I imagine where I would be now if I hadn't made the choices I've made, if I had made other choices, selected the other option.

Would I have been happy taking that other path?

In my first year in journalism school, I learned a lot about reporting, I had honed my writing skills, and to one of my teachers, I had showed a lot of promise as an up-and-coming journalist. My core-course teacher told me that I approached stories from fresh angles and would write the news in a way that was not only informative, it was enjoyable to read.

I came up with some twisted titles to my stories, but that's another blog post.

When he approached me, towards the end of my first year, and told me about a job opportunity as a reporter with the Edmonton Journal, I was taken aback.

"But I still have a year and a half before I graduate," I told him, "I'm not ready."

"You're ready," he said. He asked me to think about it, to give him an answer in a couple of days.

I signed up for journalism school, not to become a reporter but to improve my writing and storytelling skills. I wanted to be a novelist, preferred fiction to the tales of the real world, though I now know that sometimes truth is far stranger.

Sometimes, I'm not as fearful of failure as I am of success. I can often be crippled by the anxiety of doing well, only to wonder if I can be better the next time around. As a reporter, if I were to write a really good piece for the paper, would my editors expect the next story to top it?

I've been a technical writer for 14 years, and I'm never expected to make my documentation more spectacular the next time. I must write with the same voice and with as little creativity as possible.

And it bores the hell out of me.

Ultimately, I told my teacher that I wanted to stay with the journalism program. I had many reasons for my decision: I felt that I still had so much to learn; I wasn't ready to leave Ottawa; I wasn't interested in living in Edmonton. I had hopes of writing for The Ottawa Citizen or, if that didn't pan out, of working somewhere more exciting than a western-Canadian town: maybe New York, or Toronto, or Washington, or Montreal.

But what would have happened to me if I had taken that job at the Edmonton Journal? What if I moved out west, had done well, and lived as a successful reporter?

Perhaps I would have liked Edmonton (I had never been there before, still haven't been there to this day), would have met someone and settled down.

Maybe, I would have done well and would have moved onward and upward, would have become a foreign correspondent. I might have been sent to parts of the world where I could witness the hardships of war, famine, disasters, and unrest first-hand, only to bring these stories to Canadians.

I wonder, sometimes: would I have married and had kids, or would I have been a lone creature?

Would I have been happier?

There is no telling where I would be and what I would be doing. If life has taught me one thing, it is that things can change so quickly.

When I was in my first year of journalism school, I was a borderline alcoholic. I drank almost everyday and would drink until I was either drunk or until I had a healthy (unhealthy, really) buzz. I would wake up hungover almost every morning. The culture of the reporter, in my day, was one of alcohol.

If I had followed the journalism path, would I be a full-fledged alcoholic by now? Would I be in rehab? Would I even be alive?

No, there's no point in trying to imagine where I would be. There are too many variables, too many unknown factors. But I do know what wouldn't have happened, had I taken up the offer and had moved to Edmonton in 1986.

I would have never taken my internship at The Ottawa Citizen, where I wrote for the Entertainment department and met some Canadian celebrities and icons. Though my editor was an asshole who treated me like garbage, it was a valuable experience and helped me develop my creative style of journalism.

I never would have worked at The Low Down to Hull and Back News, my first paying gig as a journalist. While it paid little and I was constantly butting heads with the owner (who passed away just recently), working at that weekly paper did teach me that I had to go out and find my stories, that one wouldn't always land on my lap.

That paper also afforded me the opportunity to grab my camera and explore the Wakefield area, or, as the title of the newspaper suggested, from Low, down to Hull, and back. I'm pretty sure that working for a larger paper, I would not be responsible for the photos, and so my camera would not always be with me.

Although I may have met Lori at some point, there's a good chance that we would have never dated, simply because our circle of friends would not have had as many opportunities to intersect.

Without Lori, I wouldn't have the wonderful kids that I have. I may have had other kids, and I would not doubt love them as much as my girls. This goes without saying, but I'm incredibly grateful for those girls. I couldn't imagine a world without them.

Also, because Lori and I never would have married, Korea would never have happened. It was because she had studied teaching English as a second language and had worked as an ESL teacher in Ottawa that the opportunity to teach in South Korea had arisen.

No Korea, no Songsaengnim. Goodbye, too, to the wonderful people I met there, especially the ones I still hold dear.

I'm sure that I would have discovered blogging: I did that without Lori. But there would not have been a Brownfoot Journal, may never have been The Brown Knowser (another blog, perhaps, but Lori suggested the title).

I would not have many of the fabulous friends that I have, either by being with Lori or by remaining in Ottawa. I might have discovered some of the long-distance folks that I have encountered through LinkedIn or Twitter, but contemplating all of the scenarios for them would be kind of crazy.

But this is, however, one of those "what-if" posts. It's silly.

Still, it gets me thinking about the choices I've made in life. And I have no regrets.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's Okay, I'm a Professional

Kids: don't try this at home.

I've been driving for a long time.

When I was eight years old, my father would take me to an empty parking lot (remember when stores were closed on Sundays?), sit me on his lap and let me handle the steering wheel while he controlled the accelerator and brake pedals.

As soon as I was old enough to reach the pedals and see over the dash board, I was allowed to drive the car with my father next to me, in the passenger seat.

My father was and remains a driving enthusiast, and in my youth I think he was subtly training me to be a race-car driver. As I became proficient with the car, he would have me drive faster, would teach me to anticipate changes in road conditions and traffic. He taught me how to take the apex of a curve, to brake, release, and accelerate so that little or no momentum was lost, that you could almost slingshot yourself around a corner.

As I got older, he taught me how to drive a manual transmission and perform all of those fast-paced manoeuvres while changing gears.

My father also taught me some tricks, like how to drive in reverse at high speeds, spin the nose around, shift into drive, and continue forward, in the same direction, in one fluid motion.

I've always had good hand-eye coordination, have always possessed quick reflexes. I think that has always come in handy when I've been behind the wheel.

Because my father sells cars for a living, I have had the opportunity to drive countless vehicles: literally, countless. I have no idea how many cars he brought home, whether they were demos from the dealership or cars that came onto the lot as trade-ins, only for him to buy them for himself.

We went through many cars and I was able to drive many, many of them.

And, because I have had so much experience behind the wheel of everything from a small, two-seater sports car to a large moving truck with manual transmission and no synchromesh, I feel confident about my driving skills.

Like, the time when I participated in a high-speed handoff with another car on a Quebec highway.

I used to own a 1985 Pontiac Sunbird, two-door hatchback. It was my first "fun" car, as it had a five-speed manual transmission and beefed-up suspension. It wasn't a particularly powerful car, but it really handled well.

My car had a cigarette lighter that had an image of a cigarette, with smoke pluming upwards. Because I liked to keep my car looking as pristine as possible, the image on the lighter was always positioned so that the smoke travelled upwards.

Except when Lori was in the car with me.

Lori enjoyed twisting the lighter so that the "smoke" fell downwards. She would be stealthy in her action, making her move when I was busy performing a shoulder check or while I was refuelling the car.

But I would always notice and would immediately correct the atrocity. And she would give the knob a twist at her next opportunity.

And so it would go.

One crisp winter weekend, Lori and I joined some friends for a ski weekend at Mont Tremblant, in the Laurentians. A half-dozen or so of us had rented a chalet in Ste-Jovite, a short drive from the slopes, and we each packed up our cars for the three-hour drive.

As we headed out, in a mini convoy, Lori started our trip with a twist of the cigarette lighter, knowing that it would drive me nuts. But what happened shortly after we headed out, one of the drivers indicated that he needed to stop for fuel. We all pulled in to wait.

I took the opportunity to remove the cigarette lighter from my car, and trade it with another driver, Steve, who had no icon on his lighter.

Problem solved. Lori could twist that knob to her heart's content: it made no difference to me.

I was almost willing to leave the lighters swapped forever, but Steve wanted his back at the end of the trip. You see, my lighter was grey with a white illustration; his was a solid black. And, while the black knob looked fine on my car's console, my grey knob stood out when surrounded by the black finish of my friend's dashboard.

He wanted to swap back on the return trip.

As we sped along Highway 50, Steve in the lead, he leaned his arm out of his window and motioned for me to pull up next to him. We were travelling at about 120 kph at the time.

Lori rolled her window down as we came alongside Steve's black Golf GTI.

"Swap," Steve yelled, holding up my lighter.

"Now?" I shouted back. I knew that as soon as we reached Ottawa, Steve would go off in his direction, towards his own home, and we might forget about swapping at a later time. It was best to do it while it was in our minds.

Lori was thinking that Steve would throw the lighter to her, and she would then throw his lighter through his open window, but I told her that that wouldn't work: the lighter would never make it across and would be lost down the highway.

She had to take my lighter from his hand and place his lighter in his hand.

I slowly moved my car toward his, keeping my eyes on the nose of his car. Steve kept his car in a straight line, his arm fully extended. His eyes on the road ahead.

Lori couldn't quite reach Steve's hand, seated in her position, so she removed her seatbelt and leaned partway out the window. In one swift motion, she plucked the lighter from Steve and sat back down.


Next, she took Steve's lighter and leaned out the window. Steve's hand was still outstretched, but this manoeuvre was going to take slightly more time. It is one thing to snatch something from someone's hand; it is something entirely different to put something in someone's hand and ensure they are holding it before you let go.

At 120 kph, Lori stretched between two moving vehicles and touched the lighter to Steve's hand, and held it until he had gripped it. To ensure he had it, Steve turned his head to look at his lighter in his hand.

And that's when his car moved towards mine.

Steve's right hand, which was gripping his steering wheel, moved in the direction toward where his eyes were looking. It wasn't a drastic turn, but it was a turn nonetheless.

But it was okay: I'm a professional.

My father taught me well. He taught me to never panic behind the wheel. He taught me to always anticipate, to think about the "what ifs" of driving.

What if Steve's car didn't stay straight? That thought occurred to me the moment we started putting our plan into motion. Throughout the exchange, my eyes stayed firmly locked on the nose of the GTI. When it moved, I moved.

I didn't panic. I stayed in control. I knew that Steve hadn't made a sharp turn. His car had just moved closer. But there was a real danger: if I had continued in a straight line, our cars would have touched. If I had jerked suddenly, there was the risk that Lori might have fallen out of the car (not a huge risk, as she was mostly inside the car).

I moved my car just as Lori let go of Steve's lighter. Steve corrected himself and moved back into his lane, on his original course. Lori fell back into her seat and quickly buckled up. I reduced my speed and fell back into line, behind Steve's car.

Back in Ottawa, one of our other friends who was in the convoy, who was driving behind Steve and me for the trip, later commented: "Holy shit, that was a ballsy move! Do you know how fast you were going? I thought you guys were going to hit each other. You are quick. What a save."

"It's okay," I said, "I'm a professional."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Beer O'Clock: Unparalleled 6 Pack

It's not often that I explore ales that come from outside my own province, with the exception of Québec. Every so often, I come across a beer from Nova Scotia (but not that Alexander Keith stuff), and of course I try lots of beer from the U.S., but I seldom check out beer from other parts of Canada.

Recently, one of my Twitter buddies suggested a couple of breweries from the western coast, in British Columbia. Of the three breweries he mentioned, two of them were available at the LCBO; thankfully, they were both at my nearest store.

Of the two breweries, I absolutely loved one of them, and I'll provide a review of the three beers that I tried from them in the near future.

But the other brewery proved to be a good one too, and that's where I'm focusing this review.

And because I haven't written a review in a while, I'm giving you three beers.

Parallel 49 is a brewery in Vancouver that was the dream child of three friends (why do brewers hang out in threes?) who first started a restaurant in 2008 and then hired brewers to make their brewery dreams come true.

The brewery produces four year-round styles and more than a half-dozen seasonals, but they package three of their regular brews in a six-pack sampler, which is what I picked up and tried.

Let's take a look at them:
Hoparazzi India Pale Lager (5.5% ABV)
Parallel 49 Brewing Company
Vancouver BC
Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5
Appearance: bright amber with a foamy whitish head.

Nose: citrus—lime and orange.

Palate: orange rind, gentle hops, and light caramel that culminate to a light, refreshing finish that lingers.

Overall impression: though I was unsure about drinking this lager first from the Unparalleled 6 Pack because I wouldn't do that with a traditional IPA, with its bitter hops, I have no regrets. This is a gentle lager that is flavourful but not overpowering. It's an easy-drinking beer.
Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale (6% ABV)
Beer O'Clock rating: 3
Appearance: auburn, with a beige head that dissipates quickly to a fine cap.

Nose: there's a tawdry sweetness of toffee, mild coffee, and faint hops. The nose is enticing.

Palate: a bold, burnt toffee and sour hops.

Overall impression: this is a sassy red ale with a delicate side. It seems to grab you and then push you away, but it wants you and you can't resist. But is this a keeper ale, or merely a fling?

I'd have it again, gladly.

On a side note, when my youngest daughter first saw the label on Gypsy Tears, she said, "Look a the size of her boobs! They must be fake."

"It's a drawing, sweetheart," I said, "everything about her is fake."

Except the taste.
Old Boy Classic Brown Ale (5% ABV)
Beer O'Clock rating: 3
Appearance: deep, clear, walnut brown with red highlights and a taupe head that vanishes almost immediately, leaving a faint lace.

Nose: coffee, licorice, and traces of chocolate.

Palate: coffee and chocolate right off the start but that end in a watery finish.

Overall impression: this ale was a bit of a disappointment in that it built itself up with its good looks, inviting aromas, and assertive taste. But then it fell off in the finish, its taste vanishing as quickly as the head faded. I wanted more in the finish.

That said, it was a good, easy-drinking ale. In fact, all three of the samples in the six pack were enjoyable enough for me to want to try more. I'm glad that this brewery was brought to my attention.

With any luck, the LCBO will bring in some of the seasonals (that chocolate pumpkin porter sounds good to me).


Friday, August 16, 2013

Photo Friday: The Throwaway

Every photographer knows that when you're shooting a subject, you take as many shots as you can, hoping that there is one good photo in the lot.

The rest are discarded, never used.

I call those shots the throwaways.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was driving home, along Fallowfield Road, the sun was close to setting and the high cirrus clouds where whisping above, lazily taking in the beautiful summer evening. I noticed that the clouds that were closest to the waning sun were dark, full of shadow. They reminded me of smoke, and I imagined a smouldering sky, the sun burning itself out as it fell from the sky.

I pulled over when it was safe to do so, grabbed my camera, and started snapping away.

At home, I played with the photos, enhancing the vibrancy, bringing out more contrast, and reducing the brightness.

I liked the resulting photo so much that I submitted the shot to CBC News Ottawa, where the weather folk post shots each night. Teri Loretto showed that photo that very night.

When I took the photo, I also shot three bracketed photos but did nothing about them until after I had sent the above photo to CBC and had finished playing with the "keeper" photo, having also run it through Corel Paint It. The other photos, in my mind, were throwaways.

But a couple of days later, I decided to look at my bracketed shots, so I ran the three images through the HDR exposure merge feature. When it was done, I didn't like the outcome, and so I was ready to delete the image and forget about the bracketed shots. To leave the throwaways as throwaways.

I don't know what made me decide to play with the HDR image after I was done with it, but I continued puttering around, changing highlights, adding more to the midtones, decreasing the shadow correction, and decreasing the vibrancy.

I still didn't like the shot, but there was something telling me that I shouldn't get rid of the shot. So it hung around for a day in a folder on my computer.

And then I decided to add it to my Flickr page and to 500px, thinking that at any time I could get bored with it and take it down.

On 500px, I almost immediately received notifications that people were liking the shot. Some added it as a favourite, and in less than a half hour, I was notified that the shot was classified as "Upcoming."

I don't know how the rating scale works on 500px, but none of my other shots had been deemed "Upcoming."

Less than an hour later, the photo was upgraded to "Popular." My throwaway photo was popular on 500px. Comments were coming in from people I didn't know, congratulating me on the shot. On Flickr, a friend asked me how I got the shot.

Here it is:

It just goes to show: one photographer's junk is another's treasure. Which one do you prefer?

I'm going to have to re-evaluate my other throwaways.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Comfort Levels

When I was a kid, I loved to camp. I loved sleeping outdoors, the sound of the wind whispering through the leaves of the overhead trees, sometimes fooling me into thinking it was raining but making me question why there was no pattering on the tent itself.

I loved wrapping myself in my sleeping bag, cocooned like a warm hug and feeling secure. I loved eating with a gentle, fresh breeze and the songs of birds around me, and feeling like I was truly one with nature.

In the summer, when we weren't camping, I would often ask my parents to set up the tent in our back yard, where I would sleep outside, near the comfort of modern plumbing.

When Lori and I started dating, she shared that love of the great outdoors. We would often take vacations that involved setting up a tent, cooking our meals by Coleman stove, and hiking in the wilderness. Together, we amassed all the modern gadgets of camping, both for travelling with a car (we had a pump that plugged into a cigarette lighter and inflated a thick mattress in seconds) or the small, light-weight, and simple tools for interior camping.

Lori and I camped along the Saint Lawrence seaway, out to Gaspé, all over New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI, and would take annual trips to the Niagara peninsula, tent in tow.

We've hiked from Frontenac Provincial Park to Kingston, setting up our tent in remote woods and farmers' fields. We camped throughout England and Wales, and even in Korea.

When we had kids, we didn't let wee ones slow us down. We packed the kids and their diapers just as confidently as we packed our sleeping bags and mattresses, and took the kids all over the northern shores of Lake Erie and through southern Ontario. When our second child was only five months old, our eldest just two and a half, we spent a week in Algonquin Park. I hiked with one child strapped to a backpack carrier on my shoulders, the infant secured with a Baby Bjorn to my chest.

I was, in essence, a pack horse for children.

A couple of years ago, with the kids a little older (old enough to start helping out), we purchased a large, 9' x 18' tent and headed to PEI, choosing to camp, rather than rent a cottage, as we had done for the previous two years. We thought that we could save money and keep the kids interest in the outdoors going.

As per the other years that we trekked out to The Gentle Island, we packed up the kids after dinner, they in their car seats, in pajamas and with their blankets and pillows, and drove non-stop, through the night and next morning, to PEI. Because I did all the driving (I can't sleep in a moving car), by the time I reached our destination, I had only enough energy to unpack our vehicle, set up, and then sleep.

We set up our camp and I was in my sleeping bag by mid afternoon. But because I wasn't tucked away in a bedroom, the outdoor noises of the day were carried through the thin walls of the tent and the heat of the sun turned the inside into a sauna. I struggled through the rest of the day, thinking that I would sleep like a log once the sun went down.

Sleeping with young ones, who were restless after being couped in a car for more than 15 hours, was not easy. They tossed and turned, and talked, and even though we had ample sleeping space, it was difficult for me to fall asleep. And with excess fatigue, even though I was lying on a comfortable mattress, I felt every imperfection of the ground underneath the tent.

I had the worst sleep in a tent ever.

I can be a bear when I'm tired. Our first full day near Brackley Beach was tough. The kids were excited about hitting the beach and I was highly irritable. It was not one of my best moments as a parent. And by "moment," I mean "day."

I went to bed grumpy and slightly sun-burnt. And, because I was sun-burnt, sleeping in a cocoon was uncomfortable and sleeping without one was too cold.

I had the second-worst sleep in a tent ever.

After my third night in the tent, I awoke from another uncomfortable night and said, "That's it: I'm finding a B and B. Or a hotel. Anything with a proper bed. My camping days are over." We found a lovely bed-and-breakfast place just outside Summerside for that evening and an old inn in Victoria-by-the-Sea on the next night, both of which provided me with restful evenings and turned me from a bear, back to fun-loving dad. It made the rest of our vacation, whale-watching in Saint Andrews, NB, and the 400th anniversary celebrations in Québec City, quite pleasant.

Apart from the time we lost a child, but that story is for another blog post.

I never before realized that a person's love for something can be turned off like a switch. But, for as much as I always enjoyed camping in the past, both with just Lori and me or with the kids in tow, I discovered that I no longer had any inkling to pitch a tent and be one with nature. There was no resentment or bitterness in coming to this conclusion: I simply never wanted to camp again. I told myself and my family that I was in my 40s, and when I went on vacation I demanded the comfort of a bed, the quiet and security of four walls.

In the five years since I made that declaration, Lori has packed up the children and taken them camping without me. She has asked me to come along, has pleaded at times, but I calmly and firmly reply, "No, thanks, my camping days are over."

For years, long before we were married or had kids, Lori and I talked about canoeing from Kingston to Ottawa. We both loved camping and canoeing but had never combined the two. We had no idea about how long it would take and where we would stay, but those were mere details that would be worked out when we actually made a firm decision to do it.

We never did go. Never figured out a plan.

Last year, Lori reminded me of our dream of canoeing the Rideau canal system and I reminded her that my camping days, like that dream, were behind me. But Lori wouldn't give up. She said she wanted to do it and would take the girls, without me, if I remained adamant. For months, I was firm in my decision and Lori continued to research the possibility, letting me know of the details and plans.

As I wrote last month, I finally agreed to join the trek and we started training, started preparing. Last weekend, we participated in a canoe course to hone our paddling skills and learn new techniques and survival skills.

And we camped for two nights during the course.

I didn't sleep particularly well: on the first night, I was too hot and ended up abandoning my sleeping bag, only to struggle with a pillow that slid all over my mattress. On the second night, I was too cold and awoke before 5 to the sound of noisy birds.

But I will persevere, will try to regain my love for camping. I have no choice: we aren't checking into any B and Bs or inns along the waterway.

I did make one condition in my joining the trip: when we reach Ottawa, transverse the final set of locks by the Chateau Laurier, and touch our paddles in the Ottawa River, when we load our things into our van and return the canoe to the rental company, when we get home and unpack, putting all of our gear back into storage, I have the right to live the rest of my life without having to pitch a tent again. Lori and the kids are never to ask me to go camping again.

That isn't to say I'll never camp again. If the girls want to go camping and I decide I want to go along, I will ask if I can join them.

But for now, I know what I'm willing and not willing to do. I'm not far from 50 and I know what I like, know my preferred comfort levels. I still need a comfortable bed and solid walls, a proper roof over my head.

I'll no doubt have more to say after our trip. Stay tuned.