Thursday, October 31, 2013

Scarey Stuff, Eh Kiddies?

I love to scare people. Especially, at Hallowe'en.

I don't go after the wee ones: I'm not cruel. I don't want the parents in my neighbourhood putting me in their bad books. But the teenagers are fair game.

Over the past couple of years, I will don a black hooded robe and a skeleton mask. I'll sit, limp, in a Muskoka chair on my front steps, and make like I'm a stuffed dummy (no jokes, please). If I see a young kid approach my driveway, I'll pull off the mask, take the hood down, and pick up the bowl of treats.

For the rest, I wait, lifeless, until they approach the door. And then I abruptly come to life and let out a spooky moan.

And the screams are my reward.

One time, however, one of my Hallowe'en pranks didn't work out as planned. But it sure created a fright.

When I was in my teens, living with my folks, I would often hand out the treats. But I would always dress up, always as a ghoul or a monster. One year, I decided to do something different. Something creepy, but not particularly scary.

That was the intention.

I wore a jump suit. It was one that one of my friends had worn when he worked in a garage as a part-time job. The suit was a little big on me, but that didn't matter: I wasn't planning to move around in it very much. I messed up my hair, applied powder to my face to make it pale, and drew dark patches under my eyes.

I was going for the dead look.

In my parents' front entrance, a planter hung from a hook that was anchored to the ceiling. Not being a spooky decorative piece, I removed the planter and set it aside. On the floor, under the hook, I placed a step stool. Using a rope, I fashioned a noose, placed it around my neck, and put the other end around the hook in the ceiling.

You know where this is going, don't you?

I stood on the stool, ensured that I had enough slack in the rope to allow me to bend forward so that I could deliver treats to bags without it pulling on my neck. I was set.

As the trick or treaters came to the door, most were surprised to find a hanging victim giving out candy. While I scared no one, many cautioned me to be careful.

Until the tiniest child, dressed as a princess, arrived.

She was cute. All dressed in pink, with puffed shoulders, a sparkly tiara in her hair. She was less than five years old: this must have been her first Hallowe'en.

While I couldn't get out of my getup, I didn't try to act like I was dead, didn't waggle my tongue like I was being strangled. I put on my softest, gentlest voice, told her she looked great, and tried to lean forward to place the candies in her bag.

But she was just too tiny, too nervous, and wouldn't raise her bag higher. So I leaned further, trying to reach the bag, or at least get into a position where I could drop the candy into the bag.

Just a little further, I thought to myself, when I lost my balance, kicked the stool out from under my feet, and fell forward.

I hadn't tied the rope to the hook: I merely wrapped it once around so that it wouldn't slip off. For me, the whole thing happened in slow motion. I felt the rope grip firmly around my neck, felt the pressure in my head. For a second, it seemed that I actually hung from the rope. But I know that that wasn't the case.

But what did happen is that the hook came out of the ceiling, leaving a small hole as the anchor broke the drywall and sending me crashing to the floor.

I was unhurt, but I had succeeded in scaring the crap out of myself. And in making the little princess scream.

That was not the intention.

But one thing was certain: I had made it into the bad books of her parents.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

All Good Things

It's been a busy month, socially speaking.

Brewmaster dinners, Thursday pints, photo walks, beer sharing, and tweetups. Lori and the kids are starting to miss me.

But it all comes to an end today.

Today is my last social event of the month and the last one that I will be organizing this year. And you're invited, but you have to act fast.

Photo credit: D'Arcy McGee's
Starting at 5:00 pm, I will be hosting a tweetup at D'Arcy McGee's pub on Sparks Street. And Jeff O'Reilly, manager of the landmark establishment and beer columnist extraordinaire, is graciously offering samples from the pub's new fall menu, including tastings of some new beer.

And, of course, there is always great conversation and a chance to meet your fellow tweeps in real life.

Interested? You've got to act fast.

Seating is limited and the event is already more than half sold out. Go to my Eventbrite page and reserve your spot. On Twitter, follow the #BKtweetup hashtag.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Except for This One

I have a penchant for coming up with titles. Often, before I write a blog post, before I write any of my fiction, I come up with its title.

Sometimes, while I'm thinking of the topic, a song may come into my head. Or some intertextual connection. From it, my title springs.

When I was in journalism school, the same was true. I would cover a story, and while I put it together, the headline came to life.

Sometimes, those headlines were to the point; other times, they were downright twisted.

As part of the journalism course, our teacher would have us practice press conferences. The teacher would begin by giving us basic details of a story, and then we would have an opportunity to ask questions for a couple of minutes. When the conference was over, we were to take the information we gleaned and craft a news story.

The one I remember the most was a story about a farmer who was killed accidentally when he fell into his hay thresher. We learned that he lost his balance as he was hoisting the hay onto the conveyer belt, fell onto it, and was pulled into the mechanism. It was a gruesome but quick death.

We asked our questions, getting the man's name, age, where his farm was located, whether anyone was with him when the accident occurred, and more.

As soon as I learned the man's name, I had my headline. I typed it at the top of the page before I started telling the story.

Of course, because this was an exercise for class only, and our teacher was only interested in whether we captured all of the details of the event and had it accurate, and wrote it into a good story, he wasn't focused on the headline. That detail, for many papers, was left to the editor.

When my teacher read the paper I handed him, he read the first line and looked up to me, a smile on his face, his head shaking as though he was saying, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

The victim of the unfortunate farming accident was Harvey Grunch.

My headline: Harvey Grunch becomes Harvest Crunch.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Photo Friday: Coming Down

Autumn came on full force, this year, and seems to be leaving in a hurry.

Colours made themselves apparent on the leaves at the beginning of October, painting the Gatineau hills in bright reds, oranges, and yellows. A few, short weeks after, all that seemed left on the branches were a few yellow leaves, the reds long turned to brown, lying on the ground.

With this week's rain and cold wind, I fear fall will be over before the month ends. But I hope, and look up to enjoy what is left of my favourite season.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

I Fell Asleep

Last night, as I was watching TV and thinking that I should be writing a blog post, I fell asleep.

By the time I awoke, shortly after 11, it was too late and I was thinking only of bed, so that's where I went.

Instead of a post today, how about this morning's Bate Island Project photo?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Most-Expensive Free App

Because I visit Starbucks regularly, I take advantage of the free iTunes downloads that they offer. Because of my addiction to coffee, I have been rewarded with free music and app downloads for my iPhone and iPad. And it's been great.

However, there is one app that I downloaded for free that has become the most expensive app that I have on my phone.

It's called SoundHound.

Before the digital age, I can remember driving in my car, shopping or working in malls, riding in elevators, or partying at bars and restaurants, listening to music, hearing a song that I liked, and being unable to identify it. The only way to learn the title of a song or learn about the band performing it would be if you were listening to the radio and caught the DJ announcing the song.

But now, knowing the song takes only a few seconds.

SoundHound, like its competitor, Shazam, is an app that uses the device's microphone to listen to a song, access a vast database to match the song and present it on screen. With SoundHound, once the song is identified, lyrics are synchronized and you can follow the words in the song. You can even play back a snippet of the song to ensure you have the right version of it.

Over the last two years with my iPhone and SoundHound, I have identified dozens of songs, both new and old. And, once identified, I can purchase the song through iTunes.

Because I love music, I have downloaded a few hundred songs. My music collection on my device has ballooned. Sometimes, not only do I buy the song I've found but the entire album. At a cost of between 99 cents and $1.29.

On many occasions, I have heard a song on the radio, identified it through SoundHound, purchased it, and have it downloaded before the song has finished on the radio.

Because I'm a fan of CBC Radio's Vinyl Tap with Randy Bachman, I get to hear lots of oldies songs, and I am filling up my iPhone to the point where I have close to 1,000 songs, of which as many as a third of my collection has been attained through this app.

This free app.

I'm not complaining. I love music and have spent lots of money over the years, buying vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and now online downloads. I imagine I'll be buying music for the rest of my life, acquiring it in whatever manner delivers it to me quickly and efficiently.

What about you? Do you have an app on your smartphone that makes you spend more money?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn Photo Walk

I was worried that this was going to be a washout.

The weather had threatened to be miserable, with rain and winds, and cool temperatures. And while there was a coolness in the air, the exertion kept us warm. And while the wind was blowing, we felt sheltered from it, for the most part.

But there was no rain. Only glorious sunshine.

The difference between walking the trail to the Tawadina Lookout three weeks or so was incredible. Where once stood colourful, leaf-laden trees now was bare and exposed much of the woods that were previously hidden. A relatively clear path was now carpeted in brown and yellow leaves: the red was all but gone. But it was still spectacular.

My thanks goes out to Andy, Christophe, Deb, and Krista for making this autumn photo walk a blast. Our steady climb was rewarded with an awesome view; our trek back down rewarded with some drinks and food.

Until the next walk, sometime in January.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Photo Friday: Fairy Flight

She flew on wings like angels. Above the clouds, she was free to frolic with the birds.

To head wherever the wind took her.

Unfettered by the toils that burdened those below. The envy of the mortals, who could only look up to her.

That's all I've got. Happy Friday!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Please Hold Your Bets

Now that the Thanksgiving dinner is over and done, and the weekend of gluttony is behind us, Lori and I have noticed that the lean bodies we had at the end of our canoe trip are a distant memory.

Not that we're fat or anything. And I, for one, haven't noticed any weight gain on my wife. When she told me that she's started packing it on, I denied it with a "Honey, you look great to me."

That's me, the brown-noser.

She recently told me what our bathroom scale read to her when she stepped on it, and I told her that it must be broken. And then I stepped on the scale, and I feared that I may have been right, that the scale was, indeed, broken.

But the scale isn't broken. We're seeing numbers that, while not astronomical, are higher than either of us would like to see.

And so we've started a challenge.

In the next eight weeks, I have to lose about 15 pounds; Lori, 10. We've started using our calorie-counting and fitness apps on our iPhones. We're avoiding the chip aisles at the stores and have started going for walks.

I'll be hitting the gym this weekend and will start cycling again, something I haven't done in more than a month. Because not only have we made this a challenge, we've made this a competition. The person who comes closest to his or her goal (percentage-wise) by mid December wins $200, which he or she can spend on whatever.

Game on.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When an Audience is Not Okay

I like to think I'm invisible.

When I'm out on the streets, I like to think that I just blend in with the crowd, and, thankfully, most of the time, I do. I'm not saying that I have any kind of celebrity status or any kind of fame, whereby people come up to me and ask, "Are you Ross Brown? That writer and blogger, and photo guy?" Cos, believe me, I have no such illusions.

But Ottawa is a small town and I know a lot of people. It's amazing how I can find myself downtown, or in the Byward Market, or in Westboro, and I'll run into people that I haven't seen in years. Or people who I haven't seen in weeks. Or months.

But inevitably, wherever I go in this city, there's a decent chance that I'm going to run into a familiar face. Back me up, Ottawans: am I right?

And yet, there are times when I want to go about my business or get to where I'm going without stopping to say hello. Without interruption.

I'm shy, after all.

But there is one place in particular where I truly wish I were invisible: Bate Island.

For the most part, I am. I will drive onto the island and pull into the same parking space, hop out of my car with my camera in hand, walk to my spot, take my picture, and then haul out of there. I don't tend to linger, unless the lighting is particularly nice in other spots, and I take a couple more shots.

But me doing so is rare, and I almost never do it in the morning.

These days, the sun is rising later, and so I arrive on the island in the waxing glow of daylight and I have to take my shots with a tripod. If the weather is overcast, it can be dark. And, last Friday, it was so foggy that I could see very little. My Bate Island Project photo, a one-minute exposure, showed nothing but the bush at the end of the island. It was a little creepy.

If I truly were invisible, I'd have no problem. I would set up my shot, take it, and leave, totally unnoticed. But for a couple of weeks, now, I've had an audience for my morning shots.

The first time I noticed him, it wasn't until I had set my camera on my tripod and had taken a series of shots, exposures from about 30 to 50 seconds. On my last, longest exposure, I happened to look around while counting out the time, when I saw him. A man, in shadow, sitting on a nearby picnic table.

He didn't seem to be doing anything. He was just sitting there, looking in my direction. In the dim light, I couldn't make out his face. He was wearing a dark baseball cap and was wearing a striped sweater. He didn't say anything; he didn't move. He just sat there.

I finished counting to 50, packed up my equipment, and headed straight for my car. This is the photo I was taking when I noticed him: you can also see it better here, on Flickr.

That was on a Tuesday morning. I don't always arrive at the same time for my morning shots, and I only arrive really early, before sunrise, a couple of times each week. It wasn't until that Friday when I returned for another pre-dawn shot.

This time, as I walked past the picnic table, I saw that it was vacant. In fact, nothing stirred that unseasonably mild morning. I set up my equipment and started taking shots. It was another overcast sky, with only a slight clearing in the east, which shed a slight purple glow to the sky over the downtown core. Here is the shot, on Flickr:

Just as I finished snapping this shot, I heard footsteps from behind me. I turned around and, only 10 to 15 feet from me, and closing, was the guy I had seen on Tuesday. He was heading straight for me.

Startled, I unclipped my camera from the tripod, threw it onto my shoulder, and picked up the tripod, holding it diagonally in front of me, like it was a weapon. I snapped the legs together so that it looked like a heavy staff.

"Good morning," I said in a firm (and probably unfriendly) voice. I had a good look at the man. He was an older man, somewhere in his mid to late sixties, with grey hair under his ball cap and a weathered face, as though he had spent most of his years working outside. He wore a dark blue windbreaker, which was unzipped, and his round belly extended beyond the confines of the jacket.

As soon as I spoke, he made a sharp 90-degree turn to my left and headed straight for a posted plaque (I've seen the plaque hundreds of times but have never actually looked at it; no doubt, it describes the trees on the island or how the island has been used in the past). Keeping my eyes on him while I retracted the tripod legs, but ready to wield it if the need arose, I watched the man make to read the plaque, in near darkness, before wandering toward the parking lot, where his car was parked a few spaces from mine.

My equipment packed, I made my way to my own car. The man was sitting in his own, with the engine off, when I jumped in my car, locked the doors, and sped off to work.

I saw the man, who I now call Creepy Guy, on the following Tuesday, wandering around the park but keeping a safe distance from me while I took my photos. Two mornings later, his car (a deep red Toyota Corolla, maybe five or six years old, with Québec plates) was pulling into the lot as I was pulling out. And last Friday, he was sitting in his car when I pulled into the parking lot. While I was setting up my camera and tripod, he got out of his car and stood by it, just watching me from a distance.

Folks, today is the third Tuesday since I had first seen Creepy Guy. Depending on when you read this post, I am either a few hours away from taking my Bate Island Project shot or have already taken it. I don't like audiences when I'm alone in a dimly lit setting. I don't like an audience that has already tried to approach me, who didn't explain his reason for coming up to me, or has attempted any communication.

But the project will continue. If I see Creepy Guy again, I'm taking his picture. I'm getting his license-plate number. And I'm posting them.

Because if I should become invisible, I want you to know where to start looking.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Billings Estate

Sometimes, it's hard to believe that I have lived in Ottawa for 43 out of my 48 years on this planet, and not visited all of the museums and historic sites and attractions of our fair city.

Like the Billings Estate Museum, the location of this month's Where In Ottawa.

This national historic site is Ottawa's oldest surviving house, and is the oldest wooden-framed house in Ottawa, dating back to 1827-29. It opened to the public as a museum in 1975, and I didn't even lay eyes upon it until early to mid September.

And I thought I knew Ottawa!

Here are the clues, explained:
  1. Have you seen the bridge? Where's that confounded bridge?—yes, I was quoting lines from a Led Zeppelin song, but the clue had nothing to do with the iconic rock band. I was, of course referring to the bridge that Braddish Billings built over the Rideau River, in the area that is now called Billings Bridge, near where this house is situated.
  2. That's some old wood—one guess alluded to the Ottawa Rowing Club boathouse, saying that the boathouse is the oldest wooden structure. While that may be true, the Billings Estate is the oldest wooden-framed house. Almost 200 years old.
  3. You can't shop here—not far from the estate is a large shopping mall, named for the neighbourhood. The Billings Bridge Shopping Centre.
  4. Massachusetts-born builder—Braddish Billings, though he moved to Ottawa in 1812, was born in Ware, Massachusetts, in 1783.
Congratulations to my dear friend, Barbara Greenwood-Dufour, who correctly guessed the location. She receives a copy of Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary for her troubles (and Bee, while you won the contest fair and square, I would have gladly given you a copy of my book, had you only asked—though, I'm glad to hear you enjoy playing the game).

Have you been playing Where In Ottawa for months, without success, but still want my book? You can purchase it, online, from Chapters-Indigo, Barnes & Noble,, and other fine book stores.

Where In Ottawa returns Monday, November 4.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Photo Friday: Two Be One

When I lived in South Korea, I used to join my ex-pat buddies every Friday night at a pub called ToBeOne. It was a bit of a dive, but the music was good and the beer was cheap, and every once and a while, there was local live music, including some of the talented ex-pats.

One night, one of my friends even let me sing with his band (I think it was a sympathy gesture because I helped come up with the name of the band, which, if you want to know about, you'll have to wait for the sequel to my novel).

But I digress. Actually, I haven't even really gotten to the point of this post, so here we go...

Last weekend, I took part in the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photo Walk, which took a large gang of photogs through the Byward Market, up Wellington Street to Parliament Hill, along Wellington to and across the Portage Bridge, along the Voyageur path to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and across the Alexandra Bridge, back to the Byward Market. It was a perfect autumn day, and I took scads of photos (which I'm still going through: you might have seen some for Wordless Wednesday).

I took lots of pictures of people, including some of the folks who live on the streets and others who perform. Most of the pictures were candid, but some people saw that I was focused on them and rolled with it.

One street performer saw me shooting, and smiled as I took the shot. It wasn't a bad shot, but unfortunately, someone had just entered my frame as I shot, and I thought I would have to discard the photo.

As shot: someone walked into my frame.

And then I thought, why don't I just take the unwanted person out of the shot?

I've never done this before, so the result still isn't great. For those of you who don't know how to do it, here's what I did: using a photo-merge feature in my photo-editing software, I took two photos that looked like they aligned and let the software line them up.

Second shot: not bad, but the first one was better.

I then painted over the unwanted person in the "keeper" shot and the performer in the other photo, and processed the two. This is what I got:

I did some further adjustments, but didn't quite blend the background. It looks like there's a shadow to the left of the shot. But at least I got rid of the major distraction.

What do you think?

I hope to practice this technique with other photos and maybe come up with some special effects.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

With a Bullet

On Tuesday, as the day wore on and afternoon rush hour loomed, options were explored and a decision was made to end the problem.

With a bullet.

Twitter traffic was abuzz in Ottawa with news of the elk near Lebreton Flats, close to the City Centre building. Pictures were snapped and shared across social media. Jokes were made about why the elk was there and how it made its way to that part of the city.

Even I chimed in.

Someone even created a Twitter account for the elk: @ElkPatry.

By all accounts, it was a gorgeous specimen of a male elk. Majestic. But it was cornered, skittish, and after about six hours of being surrounded, became agitated.

Photo credit: Vince Kicknosway, via OttawaStart

If I was lost and surrounded by armed police officers for six hours, I'd be agitated too.

I'm not questioning the police's decision to take down the elk. I don't expect the police to have the expertise or competence to deal with wildlife. If there was imminent danger to the public, I suppose it would have been the last resort.

But where I have a problem with the way things went down on Tuesday afternoon is how Ottawa, which is surrounded in parkland, forests, and wetland, with the National Capital Commission, which has a history of being visited by anything from deer, to moose, to bears, to elk, has no contingency plan for containing and capturing these creatures who encroach on our streets.

Especially, since over the years we've been encroaching on their natural habitats.

In six hours, I can't see how we can't bring in a wildlife team with enough tranquilizing guns to surround the elk and safely deal with the animal.

I hope that the city officials, in the wake of this tragedy and public outcry, take a look and see what it can do to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again.

Because the solution isn't a bullet.

Photo credit: Stu Mills, via OttawaStart