Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favourite Photos of 2014

Every year, I feel that I grow as a photographer. Be it from acquiring new equipment, from learning a new photographic technique, from shooting a new subject, or from learning new post-production editing features, I like to think my photography is getting better.

It's when I review the photos that I shot over the year that my growth as an amateur shows. I can look at a photograph that I took months ago, having forgotten all about it, and say, "Wow."

Sometimes, it's hard to whittle down a year's worth of photograph to a mere dozen or so images. For example, when my family and I travelled to France, in August, I took photos every day. It was really hard to pick a single favourite from that trip, and because I didn't want to repeat a lot of the photos I've already shown, I did my best to keep it to four. Or five.

(If you want to see more of the photos from my France vacation, check them out in my Flickr album.)

I spent a lot more time outdoors this year and a lot less time in the studio, though I'm still interested in learning about studio lighting and in photographing models. As a warning, some of the photos in this post may not be safe for viewing at work or around minors.

I played with long exposures and wide angles: a lot of times, my head was tilted skyward. I stood outdoors in the cold, in the pouring rain, and in the dark. But the results always made it totally worth it.

So, after months of scrutinizing over the thousands of photos I shot in 2014, here are the ones that I feel are my best efforts.

I also enjoyed converting my photos to black and white. In the past, I would post a photo without colour to mask the exposure errors or because the photo was otherwise dull. But I often made the decision to produce the photo in black and white before I even captured the subject. This shot of a stream in winter, taken behind the Mill in Wakefield, screamed black and white to me: dark water and trees, and snow. Shot at night, the exposure was just shy of 30 seconds. The result made it one of my faves of the year.

I held three photo walks in 2014: one for each season, less summer, over which I was too busy planning for my family vacation. This year will go down for the lowest attendance records for these walks. I had two photographers join me in winter, one in the spring, and none in the fall (my wife joined me but took no photos). I don't know if it was the early hours at which I held two of the photo walks or the fact that I scheduled one walk over the Thanksgiving long weekend; nevertheless, there were still those who took advantage of the light or of the quiet streets.

The photo above was shot during the winter photo walk, at Mer Bleu Bog, shortly after sunrise. I loved how the sun was diffused by the light cloud cover that almost seemed like fog. The dying tree gave the impression of loneliness, or isolation. It was a bit of a sad shot, and that's why I love it.

A lot of my photos this year were shot either early in the morning or late at night. This photo (above) was also shot just after sunrise, along the Rideau River, when the late thaw was causing flooding around the region. With the river meeting the roadway along which I was driving, there was a sense of calm in this spot.

Sometimes, I went crazy with colour. During the annual Tulip Festival, it's hard not to capture a cornucopia of vibrant colours, but for the above shot, I wanted to exaggerate the vibrancy. This photo was shot at sunrise, near Dow's Lake, during my spring photo walk.

About 10 minutes away from my home is a beautiful mill that is naturally photogenic. I have shot Watson's Mill, in Manotick, in the fog, in autumn, and at night. This image, shot over 30 seconds, shows the motion of the Rideau through the dam. I could have sworn I saw a ghostly woman looking out one of the windows.

Like I said, not all of my photos were shot outdoors. I did attend a couple of studio-photography shoots, though I found that I am becoming more picky with my shoots. I want to keep them simple, without any pre-conceived themes. I want to focus on getting the light right for the subject without having to worry about props.

One of the models that I met on one of my shoots, Fredau, was a treat to work with because she knew how to work with the light, needed little instruction, and had a great attitude and sense of humour. I've worked with her in a couple of shoots, including an outdoor shoot in the pouring rain (the shoot ended when my camera got soaked and finally stopped working) in Gatineau Park.

The following photo is a simple nude and is not safe for displaying at work. You've been duly advised.

Fredau, as you can see, has stunning blue eyes, and while I did enhance them in this shoot (along with the red nail polish) they were all I could look at when I composed my shots.

I do tend to shoot photos with few or no people, but I do shoot people. I was going to start a daily photo project, whereby I photographed total strangers, but I have shyness issues and find it extremely intimidating to approach someone I don't know and ask for permission to take a picture.

Fortunately, I attended a portrait workshop in November, which showed the best approach to asking a stranger for a photograph. The workshop ended with a challenge, over the next year, to shoot 100 strangers. I have accepted that challenge and will start showing my photos over 2015.

If I am going to take a photo of someone, I tend to do it from a distance, just as I had with the next photo.

Of course, I wasn't going to ask Hawksley Workman to stand still and hold a pose while I photographed him. Instead, I listened to his wonderful music, uninterrupted, and shot from a safe distance.

No one can accuse me of not loving my city. I take photos all over Ottawa for my Where In Ottawa challenge and I have shot some of our unmistakable landmarks countless times. And I never get tired of doing so.

I especially love shooting photos around Parliament Hill, in the Byward Market, and the National Gallery.

The photo above was taken after the great hall of the National Gallery underwent renovations and repairs, but before all of the drapes where hung from the glass roof. Illuminated at night, the skeletal frame screamed for a long black-and-white exposure.

After the drapes returned, so did I: this time, with a super-wide-angle lens. Again, the shot called for black and white: in post processing, I also gave the shot a grainy texture.

As I said, my vacation to France lent itself to great photographs. There was the Arch de Triomphe...

... and the colusseum in Arles (which, with its colourless stones, called for black and white).

And though the rocky outcrops of les Alpilles was stunning...

... nothing made me gasp like the sunset in Paris, as seen from the Louvre.

What I love the most about this photo is that it was unplanned. It came down to me being in the right place at the right time. There is no exaggeration in the post processing. While I did have to balance the light and increase some of the colour, I believe that I have accurately captured what the sky looked like in this photo.

If you don't believe me, you can ask my youngest daughter and my friend, who were with me when I took this shot.

It was a magical hour to be there.

I purchased a super-wide-angle lens about halfway through the year. In France, this 10-20 mm lens was on my camera more than any other lens. It came in handy when I shot indoors but also was great at capturing landscapes. One of my favourite photos that I shot with this lens was taken inside the domed hall in Les Invalides. While I was able to capture both the dome and Napoleon's tomb in the frame, doing so created a less-than-appealing distortion. But I didn't mind the distortion when I pointed the lens upward, capturing just the dome.

While the sunset shot at the Louve was, without doubt, the best sunset that I captured in 2014, I did capture one sunset shot that I also like. And it's not so much the light from the sun that makes this photo, but it's the subject, the reflections, that do. For me, at least.

This sunset shot was actually taken just before my family and I left for France, and until the sunset at the Louvre, it was my favourite sunset shot of 2014.

When the long-overdue Strandherd Bridge was completed, in July, it brought the southern Ottawa communities on both sides of the Rideau River together. And when the bridge opened, I had to use it.

And shoot it.

This 10-second exposure shows the motion of the traffic in both directions. If you look carefully, you can see the shadow of me and my camera on its tripod. Ian Black, of CBC News Ottawa, showed this photo during his weather report.

I'm looking forward to 2015 and the photo opportunities that await me.

Thanks for following me, for your encouragement and inspiration. All the best to you for the new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It Started With 110 Film

I got my first camera for Christmas, in 1975. I was 11, and point-and-shoot pocket cameras were the rage. It was a Kodak Trimline Instamatic 18: a 110-format camera with clip-in, desposable flash—eight shots and it was done.

My camera came with stickers, which fit into a textured recess on the top, just above the viewfinder. I chose a stylized Canadian flag—a red maple leaf on a white background and a touch of red at one edge.

It was my first foray into photography.

With my Instamatic, I shot family events, like birthdays and holidays. I shot friends at school. In grade 6, I took my camera with me, when I participated in a bilingual exchange in Québec City. I shot up Chateau Frontenac, the Citadel, and Montmorency Falls.

The photos weren't great: the colours were muted, the images weren't sharp, and you could never enlarge a shot to anything bigger than a 4 x 6, lest the grain show. But it was easy to use: insert the cartridge, crank, shoot, crank, shoot... when you were done you opened the back and took the cartrige out. It was foolproof.

But my family had a collection of Time-Life books on photography, and I wanted to take pictures that looked like the ones on those pages. My father had a real camera, a Minolta SR T-101, and I wanted to learn how to use it.

I loved that camera. It had a 55mm f/1.2 lens that produced super-clear images. The split-circle in the viewfinder made for quick focusing. All you had to do was line up the image in the top-half of the circle with the bottom half, and you had a sharp image. For the exposure meter, you had a bar that would move up and down with the amount of light that passed through the lens. An arm with a loop at its end moved up and down when you turned the aperture ring or the shutter-speed dial. When the light bar was inside the loop, the exposure was balanced.

There were no program modes on this camera. It was completely manual.

My father let me borrow it from time to time, when I was in high school. My best friend, Stuart, was also into photography, as was his dad, and we would shoot black-and-white film, and develop it in a makeshift dark room in his family's basement. In the last few years of high school, Stu and I joined the yearbook team as photographers, and we would use the school dark room as well. Many of our senior yearbook photos were shot by us or by another photog, Sandy.

My father's SR T-101 got a lot more use in those years than it had in all the years that he had owned it (he still owns it but I doubt it's seen action in decades).

When I went to college and took the journalism program, my father thought it was time for me to have an SLR of my own, and so we went shopping at our local Black's Cameras. The manager knew me, because I worked in the same shopping mall, and he sold me a great package: it was a Minolta X-700 with a 28-75mm zoom lens. I could still attach my father's lens to it, but this camera was far more advanced than his old body.

My X-700 still had the same focus screen, was still a manual-focus camera, but it also had an aperture-priority setting and a fully automatic exposure mode. Instead of the arm-loop exposure meter, this metering used lights. I didn't find the lights faster than the metering system on the SR T-101, but there were lots more features than the fully manual camera I had used to learn the basics of photography.

My X-700 travelled many places with me. It has been to the United States, Mexico, the UK, Holland, Germany, Italy, South and North Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. It has shot weddings, countless birthdays and parties; it has shot the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China.

I used that camera from 1985 to 2008, and pulled it out a couple of times since (it was on my lap as I wrote this post). I loved that camera. I still do.

For Christmas in 2008, I joined the D-SLR club with my D80. Minolta was gone, having lost out on the digital photography market and being swallowed up by Sony. With Canon and Nikon as the top D-SLR manufacturers, it took me many months of reading reviews, comparing specs, and price hunting before I finally went with Nikon. I came so close to going with Canon.

And now, as we finish 2014, I am finding that digital photography, while it has many advantages over 35mm photography, there is one major setback. In the digital age, nothing lasts forever. My camera has had its motherboard replaced, its card reader replaced, and now its sensor seems to be wearing. Night shots produce lots of digital noise. In 2015, I will be looking at replacing my camera, upgrading to a better model.

Or perhaps I'll return to the simpler days, to my X-700, or even further back, looking to borrow my father's SR T-101.

The days of the Kodak Instamatic are long gone, thank goodness, but 35mm lives on.

For now.

Thanks to Scott Oakley for giving me the idea for this blog post.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Music Monday: Vienna

In February of this year, Midge Ure performed one of Ultravox's classic songs, "Vienna," on Ireland's RTÉ Late Late Show. It was just him and an acoustic guitar, and it was powerful.

On Tuesday, March 3, Midge will be performing at the Black Sheep Inn, in Wakefield, and I expect this acoustic show to be no less impressive. I plan to be sitting up front and centre, and I want all of you to join me. Buy yourself a ticket and help me celebrate my 50th birthday in the best way I can imagine.

Here is Midge, performing "Vienna" on The Late Late Show.

If you want to join me, here are more details about my birthday celebration

Happy Monday!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Secret Santa

I've never cared for Secret Santas in the office, or anywhere, for that matter. I don't feel the need to pick a random name from a hat and then try to figure out something about him or her (you just know you're going to pick the name of someone you don't know well), and then spend money and time choosing a gift that will not enrich the life of that individual. That won't give them anything that they truly want.

I used to participate in Secret Santa at work, feeling compelled by peer pressure. These days, I have become immune to peer pressure: I only participate in any office social activities if I truly want to.

And I usually don't.

I'm not a Grinch, nor am I a Scrooge, but especially, I'm not a Secret Santa.

Two days ago, on Christmas Eve, as with every year, I did the bulk of my Christmas shopping at the last minute. I usually have an idea of what I need to buy—Lori does most of the shopping for the kids and extended family members, while I get something for Lori, a few little things for the kids, and some stocking stuffers.

I also like to shop in the stores on Christmas Eve because I have worked retail and I know that there can be lots of stressed shoppers. There are lots of folks out there who treat store employees like crap, and so I like to go in and be extra-nice to those workers, to try and make them feel appreciated.

I jokingly refer to the Carlingwood Mall as the geriatric shopping centre, as there is 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. For a short time, I worked in the CIBC at Carlingwood, and I spent more time just chatting with the seniors who paid a visit than actually conducting business.

It's fine. Most of them are friendly, kind, courteous. The only time I didn't like encountering seniors when I was in Carlingwood Mall was when my kids were infants, and we would navigate the hallways and department-store aisles with a stroller. We would constantly be held up, as the elderly would faun over our wee ones, would reach out to touch a smooth cheek.

"Please don't touch my baby," I would say before any contact could be made.

But I like Carlingwood Mall. It has lots of good shops and is in a convenient part of town. And so, on Christmas Eve, as I was making my final purchases before heading home, I found myself in one of these stores, waiting in line behind a silver-haired lady, who used a wheeled walker for support, trying to purchase a few items for her grandsons.

She 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 chat with the salesperson at the cash register. 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.

When the credit card was declined, the 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," she said, handing it to the cashier.

The second credit card was declined.


The woman dropped her head, her eyes showing the calculations she was trying to make. Those shoulders, that already sagged, seemed to slump further. 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 found for them.

The salesperson, meanwhile, looked at me with an apologetic smile, unsure about how to deal with the woman who could not pay but had not determined her next step.

I'm neither a Grinch nor a Scrooge, and though I wanted to make my purchase and leave the mall, I didn't want to see this frail lady leave empty handed. I looked the salesperson in the eyes and mouthed, "It's okay, let her go. I'll pay for her."

"Really?" the salesperson whispered back, her eyes wide.

I nodded. Smiled.

"Oh, it looks like we're good," the salesperson said to the woman after making a show of checking 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 was only about thirty dollars. I wasn't going to miss it. The lady might discover what happened when she got home, if she bothered to look at the voided receipts. Or 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. But at least she could bring her grandsons some joy.

Only the salesperson and I would know what truly happened. On this Christmas Eve, for the first time ever, I could claim to be a true Secret Santa, anonymous and giving something truly desired. And that was good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Operation: Christmas

I first posted this story in 2011 and have now made it my holiday tradition. If you haven't read it before, I hope you enjoy it. If you have read it before, I'm hoping that you make it your holiday tradition in reading it again.

Merry Christmas, and all the best over the holiday season!

At first, we did it out of excitement, unable to wait. Later, it became a game about how far we could go, how much risk we were willing to take.

In time, it became a ritual.

The first time we crept downstairs, anxious to see what Santa left us, my younger sister, Jen, and I faced an obstacle: each other. "Go to bed," I whispered, not wanting her to make any noise, thereby arousing the attention of our parents, who had only a half hour or less gone to bed after placing our wrapped gifts under the tree. Our older sister, Holly, was sound asleep, able to contain her excitement and curiosity.

The first time that Jen and I met on the stairs, we got our parents' attention: "In to bed," my mother called from her bedroom, "or Santa won't come." Reluctantly, Jen and I returned to our respective rooms, giving each other the stink eye for having spoiled the other's plans at checking out the cache of presents.

Later that night, after I had deemed that everyone was fast asleep, I slowly made my way downstairs. I would pause on the stairs every time a step creaked, waiting to hear if anyone had stirred at the soft noise. It took a couple of minutes to reach the ground floor and sneak to our living room, where our Christmas tree stood. I had reached my destination without arousing suspicion.

I was a stealth machine.

A faint light illuminated the living room through our sheer curtains from the outdoor street lights, casting a twinkling glow off the tinsel and glass balls on the tree. My eyes, already adjusted to the darkness from my bedroom, could easily make out the outline of the tree and the mound of boxes and parcels underneath it. I saw the stockings, filled to bursting, hanging off the edge of the shelf of our wall unit—having no fireplace or mantle. I slowly approached the tree, making my way towards the light switch underneath the tree, the one that would light up the tree and give me a clear view of the gifts.

I was so busy moving quietly, using my eyes to the best of their abilities, making sure that I didn't trip over a present, that I hadn't used my ears to detect another presence. Coming into the living room, equally quiet, was Jen.

"What are you doing here?" I whispered.

"The same thing as you," was the response.

"You're going to wake everyone up," I complained.

"Not if I keep quiet," she said. "You're making all of the noise."

I knew that by continuing to argue, we'd wake the rest of the household. We dropped our voices to a barely audible whisper. "What should we do?" I asked.

"Want to turn on the Christmas tree?" Jen suggested.

"I was just about to do that," I said, "but only for a second." I was afraid that somehow the light would make its way out of the living room, up the stairs and down the hall, and through my parent's closed door and up to their eyes. Such was the paranoid logic of a young kid who was not where he was supposed to be.

I reached for the switch and the tree sparkled in the warm glow of the lights. Jen and I let our eyes wander over the packages and the brightly patterned paper, trying to see through the wrap and trying to discern the gift by its shape. We kept the lights on for only a couple of seconds, and before we felt we ran further risk, we immersed ourselves once again in darkness.

We decided that it was too great a risk to remain downstairs any longer, so we agreed to return to our rooms. We further agreed that we shouldn't try ascending the stairs at the same time, so Jen went first, and when I knew that she was safely in her room, I made my way to my own.

Operation: Christmas was born.

The next morning, as Jen and I sat in our living room with Holly and our parents, we gave each other a smiling look, silently communicating that we shared a little secret, that we had gotten away with a reconnaissance of our haul of gifts. No one else knew what we had done. We had gotten cleanly away with this act.

Leading up to the following Christmas, Jen and I privately discussed going downstairs to take another sneak peek at the gifts under the tree. But this year, we would be more organized. We synchronize our clocks so that we would have our rendezvous better timed. Also, the mystery of Santa Claus had pretty much worn out on us, and our parents decided that they would put our stockings at the end of our beds before they went to bed themselves. they figured that if we woke up to our stockings in the morning, it would buy them a little more sleep by keeping us occupied.

Jen and I decided that when our folks came into our rooms to put the stockings at the end of our beds, we would feign sleep. We would listen for them to quiet down, and then we'd wait a half hour. We would then give each other an additional 15 minutes to go through our stockings and check out our haul.

And then it was showtime.

We would quietly step out of our rooms and wait for the other to show up in the hall. We would then head down the stairs together. In the weeks leading up to the big day, or night, we would make a note of the squeaks in the stairs, and either avoid the step to a side of the step that didn't creak, or failing to find a safe spot, overstep that stair altogether. We memorised the walking pattern, going up and down the stairs. We wouldn't make a sound.

In the second year, I brought a flashlight. Not so much to see our way to the tree but to look at the presents without fumbling for the light switch. We would turn the tree on, marvel at the packages underneath, and then turn the lights off, but would use the flashlight to find which gifts belonged to us.

On the way back up, we heard a stirring from my folks' room. We froze. We didn't know if one of our parents had simply moved or was on their way to us. So we stood, halfway up the staircase, and remained silent and motionless until we deemed it was safe to proceed.

That was year two.

In the years that followed, we continued the tradition. Jen and I got more sophisticated. We drew maps of the upper and ground floors, marked out a plan of where who should be at what time. We ran drills when we were home alone. Operation: Christmas became a finely choreographed exercise.

We became emboldened: we'd turn the lights on the Christmas tree and leave it on for as long as we were downstairs. We'd stay longer, counting up our presents and figuring out what each one was, based on what we had asked for and the size that the package would be. We would get ourselves a snack and eat it, surrounded by wrapped boxes.

In our teens, we would unwrap the gifts, confirming what we suspected the package to be. If we could further remove the gift from it's casing or box, we'd do it. We'd play with our stuff. And then we would carefully re-wrap the present and put it back where our parents had arranged it. Some Christmases, we'd return to our bedrooms, knowing exactly what we were getting in a few hours.

The thrill of Christmas morning came in feigning surprise, in keeping from laughing out loud. Some mornings, Jen and I couldn't make eye contact for fear of bursting out in hysterics.

We also enjoyed the surprise of seeing what our sister, Holly, had received under the tree. Unwrapping her gifts wasn't even a consideration.

Operation: Christmas went on for years, until Jen finally moved out of the house. Even though she was younger than me, she flew the coup first. Our game was up. I never went to check on the presents by myself. Operation: Christmas wouldn't have been the same without a partner in crime.

When we became adults, Jen and I confessed our crime. My parents wouldn't believe us. They couldn't accept that we would have the capability of pulling off such a caper, that we'd be able to unwrap gifts, play with the toys, and put them back together. Not without our parents detecting anything was amiss. Jen and I just looked at each other, smiled, and shared our memories in silence.

For us, the magic of Christmas includes our scheme. For me, remembering Operation: Christmas was a ritual that brought me closer to my sister than any other game we played as kids, in daylight hours. It was our special time together.

And isn't that what Christmas is all about?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Not a Grinch

This blog post is a repeat but is timeless for the holidays. If you haven't read this post before, enjoy. If you have, suck it up I hope you enjoy reading it again.

I'll have another traditional holiday post on tomorrow.

When they were little, my kids called me a "Christmas-hater" and the name stung.

But only a little.

* 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. My participation in the festivities this year included some shopping, getting our tree, standing it in the house, and helping my wife with the lights and flashy gold garland. I actually left the room and let the three girls hang the ornaments. Even as a kid, that tradition didn't interest me much.

It was my mid to late teens and into my early twenties that really changed my views on Christmas.

For many years, I worked in retail. In late 1991, at the age of 16, my folks decided that it was time to wean me from my allowance, telling me that I was old enough to earn my own income. And so I got a job in a paint and wallpaper store in our local shopping mall. I worked there—and at a couple of our other franchise shops in two other Ottawa shopping malls—for four years, helping customers choose colours and patterns to spread over their walls. In some cases, I even offered my services in applying the paint or wallpaper, or both, for them. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, however,I witnessed my customers, who were generally easy to please, grow stressed as they frantically tried to get their houses in order in time for the holidays. Many left things to the last minute ("What do you mean? Latex paint needs thirty days to cure before I can hang wallpaper on it??").

I worked in the Merivale Mall off-and-on for more than thirteen years, working at the paint and wallpaper store, a camera shop, and at a bank. And what I learned from my experience there is that I hate—absolutely HATE—the retail side of Christmas. I hated that on the very day after Hallowe'en—before Thanksgiving**, for cryin' out loud—the Christmas decorations went up in the mall, Santa's village began construction, carollers stolled 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 appearence (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 dispell 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 painfully 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? Since 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 good to others.

My girls called me a Christmas-hater. This Christmas, and every Christmas from now on, I plan to show them what I love about the season. Them. Family. Friends.

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

Monday, December 22, 2014

Music Monday: Fairytale of New York

Yes, earlier this month, I crapped all over Christmas, including its music.

I still maintain that The Pogues have the best Christmas song of all time. It's a love song, actually, set over the holidays.

This song needs no further introduction, other than to say I can no longer listen to this tune without lamenting Kristy McColl, who died in an accident while vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico, on December 18, 2000.

Happy Monday.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Photo Friday: Photos With Phones

I used to hate taking pictures with the camera on my cell phone. The first flip-phone I had came with a measly 1-megapixel camera. I barely used the feature: back then, I only wanted a device so that if I needed to contact my wife for an emergency or call for help, I wouldn't be stuck. I didn't want to record video, or access the Internet, or play games. I wasn't on Facebook and Twitter was years away: my blog was the only form of social media, and even to this day I have to be pretty desperate to want to write a post on a smartphone.

When my flip-phone died, I upgraded to a phone with an actual QWERTY keyboard that slid out from the back of the device. I had graduated to using a phone to send text messages, and a dial pad wasn't cutting it for me. As a writer, I don't like to abbreviate words if I don't have to. I like full, grammatically correct sentence structure. On my flip-phone, that took forever.

The camera on this newer phone was much better than my old phone: I had 2 megapixels at my disposal. Still, I rarely took pictures with it, would do so only if I needed to illustrate a text message with an actual image.

Only once, when I had absolutely no other camera, I took a photo and used it in a blog post. And I kept the image small.

When I decided that I wanted a smartphone (notice how I don't say "needed"), I was awed by the quality of photographs that I was able to come up with. In previous end-of-year blog posts, where I shared my favourite photos of that year*, I would include some iPhone photos. Sometimes, I shot an image with both my smartphone and my D-SLR, and I'd actually prefer the outcome with the smartphone's 5-megapixel camera.

For a couple of months, I misplaced my battery charger for my Nikon. Because it is the only charger that I have that is dedicated to my D-SLR's batteries, I was beginning to panic: without the charger, once the two battery packs were dead, I wouldn't be able to shoot with this camera. So I've been sparing with this camera, using it only when I needed something more than what my Android camera could offer.

My Android has a 13.5-megapixel camera, but I wasn't about to use it for a model shoot, or night shots of the lights on Parliament Hill.

Still, it's handy to have and does let me get a little creative, as this Friday's photo shows. On my walk, Wednesday, from the office to my car, it was nice to pull my phone from my pocket and take this shot.

I found my Nikon charger. I can now resume carrying my camera bag around.

But it's nice to know that I'm covered.

Happy Friday!

* No photos in this year's best-of photo picks were shot with a smartphone camera.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Office Parties

It's been years since I've been to an office party. Though I like to think of myself as a sociable individual, I can be antisocial in certain groups.

I will sit back, the quiet one, speaking only when spoken to, not initiating conversations. In large rooms with few seats, I will wander the room, alone, looking for a few small clusters of people I know. I'll approach the group but not fully join it, unless I'm addressed, invited in. I offer little input, unless called upon to do so.

I last attended an office Christmas party (a Holiday party, it was called, but the artificial Christmas trees and the gift wrap with Santa was a dead giveaway) five years ago. Having arrived a bit late, my wife and I were assigned a seat at a table, and so we sat with people I barely knew and people, who, if given the choice, I would not have sat with. But we were coming from another Christmas party (and that's exactly what it was called), with good friends, and we were loathe to leave it for a corporate event.

I had already consumed enough wine to make my wife the Designated Driver from the first party, and I was eager to continue drinking wine at the large ballroom in the Westin Hotel. With a few drinks in me, I am more likely to engage in conversations with people I barely know.

I don't enjoy myself at staff parties nearly as much as I used to. Maybe it has something to do with age. Maybe it has something to do with the size of the company. Too many familiar faces but few names attached to them, and fewer apparent things in common. You see a person, you may know what department he or she works in, but you're not likely to know what it is that he or she does. And even if you know what he or she may do on company time, you have no idea  what interests he or she holds after hours.

When I was younger, I worked for smaller companies or larger companies that held separate parties for individual locations. While I worked for one of the countries largest financial institutions, the Christmas party was for my branch only, and I knew everyone.

When I worked for a cross-Canada camera and photo-processing store, our party included all of the shops in our district, but we tended to know a lot of each other because we would call each other often, checking on stock. We would sometimes move around to help when another store was short on staff. We attended workshops and sales seminars together. And we all had one interest in common: photography.

Working in high tech, I have my team, I know some of the people from other departments, with whom I interact to obtain the information I need in order to complete my projects. I have a good rapport with these people, but my interaction with them outside of the scope of work is limited. I know some of them have new families. I may know that someone has taken a vacation and travelled. Some, like me, enjoy cycling and photography, or beer. Some know that I write outside of my job. Some have even read my book.

But we don't hang out. We don't socialize. And when we have an office party, I find myself with little to say. Being a shy person, I'm reluctant to approach someone and strike up a casual conversation.

And so, after the last office party, some five years ago, I stopped attending office social gatherings. Maybe it's because, on that last holiday party, I drank too much wine, smoked a little weed (I followed a familiar colleague outside to get some fresh air, and he shared—it was the time for giving, after all), and I lost some memory of events that night.

I don't think I behaved inappropriately, that night, but I never wanted to put myself in a position of being out of control in front of colleagues.

Last night, I attended my first office party in five years. It was an afternoon affair: no sit-down dinner, no dressing up, no dancing. The majority of us stood in the open area of the bistro, where tables had been cleared away. I wandered the room, alone, occasionally stopping near clusters of people I knew, would share a word or a laugh, and move on. My teammates congregated at one point, and I joined them. In this familiar crowd, I'm at my most comfortable.

I had a couple of pints of beer, kept sober. A pint or two keeps me well in control of myself, but allows me to be more gregarious than I often am in such crowds.

I enjoyed myself. I like to think I would attend the next office social gathering, but one step at a time.

I'm shy, and that can make me an antisocial socialite.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Darling Clementines

They're fleshy, they're juicy, they feel so good in our hands, better in our mouths.

They open up with the slightest of pressure: wouldn't want to squeeze too hard. Wouldn't want those sweet juices to flow too soon.

I like to peel mine, to separate each perfect, bite-sized wedges at once. But I don't devour them right away. I like to savour the moment, to give them time to breathe. I love their fragile membranes to dry, just a little, so that when I pop them in my mouth, let my teeth crack them open with a gentle pop, what lays inside is so much more succulent.

I love clementines.

I love the early days, when the boxes are first stacked in a prominent display in the grocery store's produce section. The first boxes are the best: you have to get them right away.

Because you know, the first box is the best. Clementines don't stay fresh for long. After a week or two, the miniature oranges begin to dry out. Their juices aren't as sweet.

Later, there's always one, at the bottom of the case that has already gone bad, has turned green, fuzzy, and soft. The others around it follow suit, and before you know it the whole case is spoiled.

My love for clementines is immense, but the love fades quickly. After Christmas Day, I've lost interest.

I yearn for next year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Music Monday: Breathe

Midge Ure is coming to the Black Sheep Inn on Tuesday, March 3. To celebrate my 50th birthday, I'd like to see one of my all-time favourite artists perform, and I want all of you to join me. Let's pack this great venue and enjoy a great show.

> To get you as excited about this show as I am, I thought I would give you another taste of what you're in for. This is going to be an acoustic show, so I thought I would share an acoustic video of Midge's 1996 song, "Breathe."

Between now and March (with the exception of next week), I will feature more of his songs for Music Monday.

Tickets for the show are on sale NOW!

Happy Monday!