Friday, December 30, 2016

My Favourite Photos of 2016

Everybody knows that 2016 sucked.

Music icons died, America lost its soul. Syria fell deeper into war. France and Germany suffered unspeakable horrors in the hands of terrorists. A Russian diplomat was assassinated. In Alberta, Fort McMurray was devastated by a fire that is still affecting many residents.

As we put this crappy year behind us, let us cling to our loved ones and remember the things that truly made us happy in 2016.

I take joy in the family and friends that I have, and of the opportunities that live has shone upon me.

For The Brown Knowser, I look back on a year that, despite my short hiatus, readers continued to visit. I continued to take photos during this break, and when I decided it was time to return, I was only too happy to share my work. I've had a few projects—some formal and some by accident—and when I looked back at my favourites from 2016, I found it hard to pare them down to a select few.

Last year, I shared my favourite 28 photos for 2015; for 2014, I shared 17; the two years before that, 15. In the first year, only 12.

This year, I whittled it down to 24 pictures, which was difficult, considering my extended vacation to Arizona and California, the photo meetups, and my Bate Island Project.

I hope you enjoy this post as I look back on the photos that I shot to make 2016 just a bit more bearable. But I warn you: as with some past year-end posts, some of these photos may be considered unsafe for viewing at work.

Mother Nature was late in sending us snow in Ottawa, but when she eventually brought it, she added bonus, bone-chilling temperatures. Yet, that didn't stop me from taking a detour, one morning, on my way into the office. The temperature was –40°,which encouraged me to capture the Rideau Canal Skateway as quickly as possible.

Just before my family and I packed up and headed for Arizona, I took a walk along a nature trail that is close to home, that I have been aware of for years but had never visited. I wasn't sure if there was going to be a lot of snow when I returned from vacation, so I thought I'd capture it before I left. When I walked along the snow-deep Chapman Mills trail, I promised myself I'd return later in the year.

Arizona was a stark contrast to home. Blazingly hot and dry, it opened my eyes to a whole new world.

That new world came clear as we drove from Phoenix to Page, passing through several landscape changes and seeing some horizons that looked other-worldly. Page gave me a special photo opportunity, through a narrow canyon and above a vast, deep one.

Driving from Page to the Grand Canyon, there was one view that I had to pull over to appreciate. While I captured it, DW kept a lookout behind me, for oncoming traffic.

And, of course, the Grand Canyon itself was unforgettable.

Of course, Southern California was nothing to turn one's nose up at. Our first evening, we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean with the waves slamming the rocky coastline. It was the stuff of which paintings are made.

San Diego was a city that had lots of sights. One just has to look around. And look up.

Back home, spring brought a lot of foggy days. On one drive home, I couldn't resist to stop and capture it.

At home, an orchid was blooming for the third straight year. I used my flat-screen TV as a backdrop to capture it.

I attended more model photo shoots in 2016 than I had in any other year. That's not saying a lot: I only went to four, but that's twice as many as I usually attend. New venues were one draw, new photographic techniques were another. But for a couple of the shoots, working with the models that I have worked with before was the big draw. Knowing each other made us more comfortable around one another, as we knew what to expect.

For one shoot, we used a modern apartment in a new condo in Westboro. It poured rain outside and we used no studio lights: just natural light through rain-soaked windows.

Ottawa has lots of festivals, and this time, the family attended a new one (new to us). The Glow Fest on Bank Street was filled with bright colours and light; some, on people.

The biggest party in Ottawa is on July 1, on Canada Day, and the best place to be is Parliament Hill for the Snowbirds fly-by.

A special place for photographers and adventurers in Ottawa was blocked, this summer, but before the barricades went up, I ventured out on the Prince of Wales Bridge from the Ottawa River Parkway to Lemieux Island, and back. The colours on the iron superstructure, as you venture further out, is spectacular. I'm hoping I can access the bridge from the Québec side: I'm not done with this place.

Warning: the next two shots are NSFW.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to work once more with one of my favourite models, Olivia Preston. We did our shoot in an abandoned factory in Carleton Place, where I discussed the basics of some ideas and then let Olivia do her thing. Most of the talk during the session involved casual conversation, joking around, and laughing.

Sunsets along the Ottawa River are always spectacular. There's not much more I can say.

Another project that I participated in was a levitation shoot, also at the factory in Carleton Place. My first attempt was surprisingly good, involving 10 shots combined into one. I've tried a couple of shots like this since, but this one is by far my favourite.

On a wet autumn morning, I explored the city, looking for a Where In Ottawa photo site, and my search led me to the Rideau Falls. I didn't take my challenge photo here, but I did see the waterfall from a new angle, one in which I could capture the cascading water and the fall colours.

I promised myself that I would return to the Chapman Mills Conservation trail, and as the water levels receded and the warm colours came out, I fulfilled that promise.

I couldn't complete this post without a nod to my year-long project. Over the course of the year, I have stood in the same spot through sunshine, rain, and fog, in mornings, afternoons, and evenings. My favourite capture was on an autumn evening, when it was so dark that I was glad I knew the way by heart: my eyes couldn't see very much.

I like the natural purple hue of the night sky, with the trees in the distance, their fall colours lit by cars that traversed the bridge.

Last week, I lucked into getting into the grounds of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was able to capture the festive lights and the former monastery without the obstruction of gates. Whether I was trespassing or not is a matter of interpretation.

Thank you to all of my readers. You've supported and encouraged me in my blog over the years: it's because of you that I keep my fingers moving on the keyboard, why I am happy to share my thoughts and photos.

Have a happy 2017!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hog's Back: A Year in Pictures

I've got to say: this project made the year go quickly.

Mornings, afternoons, evenings. All four seasons, from January to December. I only missed three weeks: two, because I was out of town; one, because I left it to the end of a week and then got sick.

This site, though a beautiful one, was not as eventful as my last year-long project. No creepy people approaching me, no crazy ones telling me that I was making the geese uneasy and that I should leave. I encountered no torrential rain, no high winds, no blizzards.

Only a couple of people approached me as I set up my tripod and took my shots. One man commented on what a beautiful day it was, and then kept moving. Another asked me if I had taken any good shots. "It's hard to take a bad one, here," I said. We exchanged smiles and enjoyed the view in silence.

Once, two young women were standing in my spot, as it were, taking a selfie with an iPhone. I stood a comfortable distance, but made my presence known. When they saw me with my equipment, they asked if I would use the smartphone to take a better picture. I did my best, they were pleased with the results, and they continued to chat with me as we exchanged places, so that I could set up my equipment.

They were curious, wanted to know what I was planning to do. I explained my project, showed them the results of the photos I captured as we chatted. I gave them my Brown Knowser business card, telling them where they could see the others, letting them know that when I was done I would create a video of the whole project.

I learned that they were students at the nearby Carleton University, in their first year. One had lived in Ottawa her whole life but was visiting Hog's Back for the first time. The other, from a Southern Ontario town, was new to all of Ottawa.

I wonder if they checked the progress of my project? I wonder if they're reading this post now?

I've finished this project, took my final photo on December 27. From winter, through the seasons, and back to winter.

I know what I'm doing for my next project. It's more labour-intensive, will take more thought. All will be revealed in the New Year. Until then, here's the compilation video of my Hog's Back Project.


Monday, December 26, 2016

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?

Saturday, December 24, 2016

It's Christmas Eve, Babe

This is sort of a tradition for my friend, Becca, and me: Karaoke night, before Christmas, singing the only song of the season that I truly like.

Happy Christmas, your arse!

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Secret Santa

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

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

And, usually, he didn't want to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second credit card was also declined.


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

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

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

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

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

He nodded. Smiled.

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

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

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

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

And that was good enough for him.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Me, The Grinch

*On some level, I'm not a fan of Christmas. Not of the decorating, nor of the card giving (actually, the Brownfoots have pretty much given up on that front), nor, especially, of the shopping. I hate going near the malls and department stores at this time of year: fighting crowds, standing in lines, searching for that ever-elusive parking space.

Not being religious, the spiritual side of Christmas is lost on a cynic like me. Our family doesn't go to church, participates in no rituals that have long ago been stolen from the Pagans. We have no manger on display, no angel on high.

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

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

To understand how my view of Christmas has, over the decades, eroded, I have to go back to when I was in my mid to late teens, and then into my early twenties that really changed my views on Christmas.

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

I worked in the Merivale Mall off-and-on for more than thirteen years, working at the paint and wallpaper store, a camera shop, and at a bank. And what I learned from my experience there is that I hate—absolutely HATE—the retail side of Christmas. I hated that on the very day after Hallowe'en—before Thanksgiving**, for cryin' out loud—the Christmas decorations went up in the mall, Santa's village began construction, carolers strolled up and down the promenade. Christmas sales began. In the camera store, Christmas season officially ran from November 1st to December 24th. Mercifully, I never worked anywhere that held Boxing Week specials. But the weeks following Christmas were just as busy, as customers returned unwanted items (I probably hated that time of year more than the pre-Christmas rushes).

Working in retail over the holiday season was an exercise in patience to the nth degree. In the early weeks of the Christmas sales, people were generally in good spirits, though I honestly believe that these people were generally happy, well-organized individuals—they were, after all, getting their shopping done early. They were beating the crowds. They probably found parking in less than thirty minutes. And they were in and out before the Jolly Old Elf made his appearance (the Santa at the Merivale Mall was a bald, cigar-smoking dude who always had dark, sagging bags under his eyes. I'd run into him, out of costume, in the corridors behind the shops; he creeped me out). But as the big day arrived, people grew grumpy, stressed, and quick to anger. On one Christmas Eve at the camera shop, in the last hour before we closed our doors, I had one guy tear a strip off me because the camera he wanted to buy was sold out. Not surprising, as it was the hottest camera of the year—we had sold out days earlier. And he expected to find it waiting for him?

The experience left me with an emotional scar. But it wasn't just the angry last-minute shopper in the camera store that ruined Christmas for me. Not on his own. He was just the catalyst for that day. As I left the mall at the end of my shift, walking through the parking lot, I heard two men screaming at each other over a parking spot, both standing outside their cars, whose front ends where nosed up to the vacant space. As they prepared to come to blows, I piped up with a heart-felt rendition of Silent Night, which was met with an aggressive "Fuck off" and a "Mind your own business."

On the way home (I walked, by the way: at that time of year, walking was faster than trying to drive on Merivale Road), I decided to stop at a drug store to pick up some snacks and extra tape in anticipation of a night of wrapping gifts and visiting friends. When I lined up at the cash register, a man was screaming at the poor clerk, a young lady who was obviously not the manager or owner. I had, in fact, seen her behind the counter many times before. She was always cheerful and polite, and was a good employee. Any retailer would want her on his staff. But now, she was almost in tears. I don't know what the man was screaming about, but it was obvious that this nice clerk had failed in helping him in one way or another. All I saw was a mean-spirited man handing out his rage on a tarnished platter.

And I got angry. This was no way to talk to anyone, especially on Christmas Eve. "Peace on Earth, good will to men," I said in a loud but cheery voice, trying to dispel the anger.

"Peace on Earth, my ass," the man said. Nice. "I bought the wrong batteries and this girl won't take them back." He waved a package of Duracell AAs, the cardboard torn, the package opened. Perhaps, even, the batteries tried? I understood: the clerk couldn't take the batteries back because he had opened the package. The batteries could not be returned to the shelf; no one would buy a pack of opened batteries. At the camera shop, we had the same policy.

"But you opened the package," I said. "Of course, you can't return them."

"Why don't you mind your own business?" the man spat at me. Other customers came to the line and, to my relief, they seemed to take the clerk's side. "Why don't you give the girl a break?" said one. The disgruntled customer screamed some more obscenities at the poor girl behind the counter, promised to never shop there again (much to the clerk's relief, I'm sure), and stormed out.

It was probably at this moment that I came to the decision that I hated Christmas. That is to say, I hated the consumerism side of it (insert the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas here). In the evolution of the holiday, we have placed the material above the ideal—the spirit, if you will. In my remaining years in the Merivale Mall, I learned to dread the Christmas season because it always stirred memories of this day. Of the hostility and rage from the last-minute shopper, the parking foes, and the disguntled idiot who didn't know which batteries he needed.

I hate Christmas shopping. I try to avoid it. But with a family, that's hard to do. And so I try to get it out of the way as painlessly as possible. I'm not an early shopper, but I have most of my purchases before the last minute. I leave little things to the last minute—things that, should I be unable to find, I really don't care. And I'm always polite with the retail workers. I always have a smile, I always have something nice to say. If a retailer cannot help me find what I'm looking for, I don't hold it against him or her. I never complain.

I think everyone should work a mandatory year in retail so that he or she can empathize with the clerks that do this day in and day out. It's not easy dealing with a public that hasn't walked in a retailer's shoes.

So what does Christmas mean to me? From the day that I walked home from the drug store, Christmas has meant only one thing: time. Time with family and friends. Time to appreciate what I have. Time to be the best that you can be to others.

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fools Seldom Differ

I don't know what drew him to the same illuminated spot on the same frigid night at precisely the same time. But I knew it was him the moment that I saw him standing there, looking at his camera, mounted on his lightweight, sturdy tripod.

It's not the first time we encountered each other like this. Earlier this year, at the beginning of my Hog's Back Project, on another frosty winter's evening, I saw a familiar Mini Cooper pull into the parking lot, next to my own car, as I was heading to my spot. I thought, at the time, it could be James' car, but I wanted to get to my spot quickly, get to my position, get my shot, and get out. If it was my photo and social-media friend, I would know soon enough.

It was.

Last night, as I drove along Echo Drive, where it comes to a dead end at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, I told myself, "Good God, that's James." I pulled up to him and asked him where he parked his car: there were No Parking signs along both sides of the narrow road. He had parked further away, along one of the side streets on the Lansdowne side of the Rideau Canal. 

Too far for my purposes, I thought. I just wanted to get in, take my shots, and get out. I decided to risk it, chose to park in one of the two spaces that were reserved for Bell vehicles. What were the chances that two such trucks would come at this time of day? And besides, I would be close enough to run to my car and move it if that ever came to pass.

The iron gates that, in the past, have blocked me from approaching this former monastery, were open, and James and I decided to cross the line to get a closer vantage. It was only a few minutes later, while both of us were engaged in long exposures, that those automatic doors closed, keeping us inside the borders that posted No Trespassing signs. 

The second sign that I was to disobey that evening.

We were trapped, so we decided that we may as well continue with what we had set out to do, to keep working until our fingers and toes told us it was time to go. Which, in this unseasonably frigid weather, wasn't long.

As luck would have it, around the same time that we started to complain about the cold, a vehicle from within the grounds moved toward the gates. We gathered our equipment and followed. Only our footprints and the three, triangular holes of our tripod legs would reveal our presence.

If you haven't seen the photography of James Peltzer, check out his Flickr album.

On second thought, don't: he's a much better photographer than I am.

I'll show my work tomorrow, for Wordless Wednesday.

Monday, December 19, 2016

This Time

This time, it's going to be different. This time, I'll be ahead of the game.

This time, all of my shopping will be finished before December 24, not started on that day. I've shopped for all but a very few individuals, braved the crowded shopping malls, and this week, I'll have them all covered. By the end of the work week, there'll be nothing more for me to do.

But wrap.

This time, it's going to be different. This time, I'll be ahead of the game.

This time, all of the wrapping will be done during the day, on Christmas Eve, not after dinner. This time, perhaps, I'll start on Friday night, on the eve of Christmas Eve. I won't be up until 2AM on Christmas morning, fussing with wrapping paper and tape, affixing tags and then placing the parcels under the tree.

This time, before the kids go to bed, they'll see the gifts already under the tree.

But for the one from Santa.

They know he's not real. They know their parents are that magical elf. But they want the spirit to remain, for a package that is not wrapped like the rest, that have that unique tag with the overly specialized handwriting: From Santa.

This time, it's going to be different. This time, I'll be ahead of the game.

This time, instead of locking myself in my room after dinner, watching It's a Wonderful Life and Scrooge by myself while I wrap those gifts, I'll sit in our family room, with everybody, relaxing in front of the TV. Drinking hot chocolate and tasting Christmas baking. Perhaps, we'll have the fireplace aglow. My eyes will be on the screen, instead of focused on the folds of wrapping paper. We'll have a new holiday tradition.

My hopes are high.

That this time, it's going to be different.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Photo Friday: On a Slow Night

Immediately after lamenting my lack of picture taking over the past few weeks, I found myself taking pictures of everything.

The Where In Ottawa location. The snowfall at work and at Hog's back. A foggy sunrise. Bottles and cans of beer. Cars that parked too close to mine, in case they left a mark.

Just before the snow came, I made a stop along Queen Elizabeth Drive to shoot the crescent moon and the hundreds of ducks and geese that have flocked to the Rideau Canal.

By the time I was parked and set up, it was too dark to see the fowl creatures and wisps of cloud were obscuring the moon. I could see cars lazily cruising Colonel By Drive, across the drained Dow's Lake, with Carleton University in the background.

I was there, anyway: I may as well take the shot. And, besides, the light from the distant buildings was reflecting nicely off what little water remained in the lake.

It wasn't going to be a slow night, after all.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Making the Holidays Happy

I say "Merry Christmas" on December 25, to people who I know celebrate that holiday.

I say "Happy Hanukah" on that date to my Jewish friends.

When I had next-door neighbours who celebrated Eid al-Fitr, I wished them all the best as they celebrated the breaking of their fast.

When I don't know what someone celebrates, I wish them the best of the season, most often with a "Happy Holidays."

When I worked in retail, that was the greeting I gave the most. Sometimes, it was easy to say "Merry Christmas" when that salutation was obvious. For example, when someone would come into the camera store and say, "I'm buying a camera for my child, for Christmas." I would utter those two words, along with "Thank you."

Working in a bank, I learned a lot about my customers, so I'd often try to give them a wish for a happy holiday season that I thought applied. Sometimes, I didn't get it right, but they would simply respond with a smile and wish me a season's greeting.

No one ever showed that he or she was offended, nor did they complain. Their reply would convey a sense of good will.

No, no one ever seemed outraged that I tried to spread good cheer over the holidays.

On social media, I do see signs of intolerance. Not for incorrectly wishing a Merry Christmas to somebody outside the Christian faith, but for wishing someone a Happy Holiday instead of Merry Christmas:

I say Merry Christmas and I don't care who it offends. 

Share if you believe in saying Merry Christmas.

To me, there rings a note of intolerance in these messages, as though the people who post them are ready for a fight. As though, they're expecting some sort of pushback from the non-Christian crowd.

To me, posts like these on social media defy the spirit of the season: peace on Earth, good will towards all. Posts like these have got to be the least Christian messages of the season.

I'm not offended when someone says "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" to me. I'm just glad that they're saying something nice, are exhibiting the joy of the season, no matter what religion I celebrate. Or don't celebrate.

This year, Christmas and Hanukah fall on the same day. What are you going to say if you see a stranger on December 25?

This year, I'll say "Happy Holidays."