The Blizzard of ’90…ish

The first snows of Winter 2019 hit us here today in the Niagara region. As usual, many drivers have forgotten how to drive. The news is filled with crash reports and warnings of imminent death at every turn. Ah, Winter. How you were missed. Not.

On the slow and steady drive home I had a couple of minor skids. Ease off the gas, steer out of them. Nothing to raise an eyebrow over. Correct the skid and drive on, that’s the way.

At one point as I drive the weary miles home over unlit back roads almost obscured by falling snow, with the darkness pierced only by my headlights, I had my annual flashback to a road trip three decades ago and three thousand miles away. It made me grin, as usual. I thought it might be fun to share the story. To my recollection, every word is true and accurate. So here we go.

I’m late twenties. Flat of stomach and strong of arm. Married to a different woman, with five dependent kids and a dog. In another country on another continent, and instead of a sleek modern Toyota I’m driving on the left behind the wheel of a beat up 1978 Ford Cortina that has seen better days. Don’t judge me, it was all we could afford. The suspension was shot and when I drove though puddles my feet got wet. Still, it was the family car and we loved it.

Southward Bound

My sister’s offspring asked me for a ride to a job interview. In London. Three hours away on a good day. On a Saturday. So of course, being a good uncle, we left the kids in the hands of a babysitter, and nephew and I set off with my then wife ‘down South’. No Google Maps or Siri, my friends. This was old school navigation. “I know that area, we’ll find it when we get there”. And find it we did.

The snow started about two hours into the journey. Light, but persistent. It got heavier as the day wore on. By the time the interview was over, the planned sightseeing drive around London was clearly going to be a non-starter. The snow was coming down thick and fast. Cars were already hitting ditches, trees, and each other. So were the drivers. Time to get out of there.

I affectionately call the drive back the world’s longest skid. With 180 miles (around 300 kilometers) of highway ahead of us, I turned onto the On ramp and hit the M1 highway heading back North. One hour in we were still making headway, but slowly. Traffic was light as drivers hopped on and off between exits on the way home. It thinned noticeably by the time the rush hour was over. And it was dark.

Northward Bound

With little traffic there were no tracks to follow and we slowed further because the road was no longer visible beneath a blanket of white. Two hours in, only us and the snow ploughs (this is an English story so that’s how I’m spelling it) were left. We tucked in behind one of these for the next hour, and followed it off the highway to a service station for warmth and a washroom.

Leicester Forest East service station is about half way home for us. We joined the huddled mass of misery for a cuppa tea and some chips. The stale and overcooked chips only added to the misery. Some people had decided to stay for the night, and I couldn’t blame them. It was not nice out there. But I was flat of stomach and strong of arm and feared nothing, so I led my intrepid band back to the car ready to face the rest of the journey. Remember, we had kids waiting for us. So… as it is my frequent want to say, onward.

The first challenge was finding the car. In the fifteen minutes or so we were inside getting warm the car had quite literally disappeared. Only snowy mounds occupied the parking lot and we had a few more minutes of fun wiping snow off random vehicles until we found the right one.

Once in the car, laughing at the excitement of it all, we faced the second challenge. Getting out of the lot. The snow was deep and undisturbed. I slapped a Queen cassette into the deck, cranked the volume, and our hardy band sang out loud as I played silly buggers fishtailing and wheel spinning our way back on to the highway. Off we went again. The snow was only up to the hub caps.

That was around the time that the heater stopped working. Bugger.

Without heat the car got very cold very quickly. Worse, the windscreen started to fog and then iced up. The wipers could not clear the windscreen and I was forced to manually wind the windows down (Ford Cortina) and stick my head out the window into the face of the oncoming blizzard if I wanted to have any chance of moving forward and eventually getting home.

It’s lonely up North

We were the only vehicle on the road for the next two hours. Not even a plough. My only guide was the metal central divide. I made my own tracks in the ever deepening snow and tried to stay somewhere in the middle. Being alone in this three lane highway really helped. We kept singing, me through frozen lips and icy eyeballs but still not giving in. She threatened me with divorce. I told her I was changing my will. My nephew said he didn’t want the job. We laughed. And sang. And drove on.

The snow was by this time drifting and the car was close to being beached. And still it came down. But you know, we were happy. Everyone was comfortable and felt safe because I was flat of stomach and strong of arm, and even though the heater wasn’t working and the wipers were jammed and things were starting to fall off the car, we knew we would get home safe through the dark and the snow.

And we did. Eight and a half hours after setting off back on the three hour 180 mile (300 kilometer) journey we dropped off the majestic M1 and drove the remaining mile to our house with snow-softened smiles. Albeit smiles that were frozen to our faces. At least in my case.

More tea, followed by tales of our adventure around a roaring coal fire as we laughed and sang and farted and curled up, seven of us to a couch. And then the dog jumped up, too. Happy days.

The End

The next day the TV news was full of warnings of death and destruction and hypothermia along with advisories not to leave the house unless you absolutely had to.

The country came to a standstill and was snowbound for the next seven days until this winter storm started to pass. Some people actually took snow days, which aren’t real things in the North of England. Ask me some time about the twins first day at school. But that’s another story.

It would be weeks until things finally returned to normal. I got the heater replaced as a priority. Returned to work. Nephew didn’t get that job because of the weekly commute, but he did get another one based on that interview. So the trip was a success. And an adventure. And a memory.

A memory that the snow I drive through on my way home tonight made me smile about. And laugh. Perhaps I’ll load my iPhone with Queen songs to sing on the way in tomorrow. Because I know I won’t be taking a snow day.

Even though I now have fully functional power windows, I may even wind them down and stick my head out as I sing, just for old times sake.

Memories of 2019

Three Years and Many Miles Later…

I survived a stroke, three years ago this week. Recovery has been a bumpy road, but one I happily (if a little unsteadily) walk. Or jog. No complaints. Not one. That is not this story.

This is a story of Adventure. With a capital ‘A’. Even before the stroke I tried to live each day as though it were my last. Even more so since. I drag my long suffering wife around with me to enjoy all kinds of new adventures. Mile after mile after mile… hiking trails, driving around Manhattan, swimming in waterfalls. In one case leaping out of a perfectly good plane at 13,000 feet. We’ve done a lot.

When a text box notification popped up on Facebook this week telling me it was three years since my stroke, I thought ‘This isn’t enough. There should be… more.’ I went to work.

As a thanks to my beautiful wife for her support, love, and patience; and as a memory to keep us warm in our dotages, I made the video montage below. It is a labour of love, with some of my favourite photos from this year cut to a song close to my heart. Each photo tells a story, each gives a smile.

Technically

Technically, the workflow was quite a mini project. From Camera to Lightroom, Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere Pro, I created something special, personal, for us. From scratch. No templates. This was all developed by hand, created from a fully grown idea I threw onto an empty canvas.

As a sidebar, 3D spacial calculations are not easy things to juggle around in your head. Worth it. I learned some tricks and overcame some hurdles, and now I have my own flexible template I can adjust to any length song and any number of photos – that makes me very happy. Let’s talk Future.

Future

It’s been a busy Summer. Next year’s will be too. And the one after that. For as long as we go.

As we wind our way slowly closer to decrepitude, senility, and eventual death, I declare once more that I will not go without a smile, and a laugh into the stormy face of life’s challenges. I will fight every step until death takes me, and then I will grin, look him in the eye and say “Hey, boney. Double or quits?”

And why not? None of us will get out of this alive. Let’s face it: Life is fatal. It’s what we do on the journey, and how we face those challenges, that define us.

Future Legend

This video is a nice bookend to our yearly adventures, with enough memories to bring back the highlights. As age takes it’s toll and memory and physical abilities fade, we can look back with smiles.

I plan to keep making one of these each year, for as long as I am able, and for as long as this fine and wonderful woman will walk that path with me. I figure we have another ten or twenty years if I can get her to put up with me. By then we will have quite the library of adventures to look back upon.

This video is my Labour of Love. But she was there every step of the way. I would have it no other way.
Together, we will go hand in hand into the future. Whatever it may hold, we will enjoy the adventure.

Onward.

Just take the photo, already

I know a lot of people, many of them photographers. I’ve lost count of the times a conversation went along the lines of “I couldn’t take the photo because <insert perfectly valid reason here>”.

I understand the frustration. Been there. Done that. There is always a reason to not take the photo. But on the other hand, there is always a reason to take it. It may be the only chance to get that particular memory. You, or circumstance, may never pass that way again.

“Someone was always in the way”

To me, better an imperfect photo than no photo at all. First day at school. Elderly parents. Military postings. Pets. Photo albums are as full of bad photos as they are of empty pages stared at wistfully where a photo should be. Take the photo. Missed memories, never captured, fade or are forgotten.

“Those pylons and power lines killed that sunrise for me”

Purists and perfectionists are driven to ‘get it right in camera’, and I respect that. They can wait for hours to press the shutter button on a landscape. I’ve heard tales of a return home without a single image. They drove, hiked, carried gear and… nothing. They didn’t take the photo. I think that’s nuts.

“Beautiful setting, except for that dumpster”

Beyond that, it isn’t always possible to get it right in camera. It just isn’t. See Tin Man. Also, I want to say that photography is as much art as science. Even the legendary Ansel Adams (look him up if you need to) acknowledged that. In the darkroom he would dodge and burn and create multiple exposure composites until he got the image he wanted. He pushed the boundaries of the art using the technology of his time. He experimented. He always took the shot. Not all of them came out as intended, but he always took the shot. His secret? He only released the good stuff.

“Beautiful couple, but he had a lamp post growing out of his head”.

Good or bad, I plan all my shots. Not just for composition, balance, light, etc., but edits. If I see something I want to shoot and it’s clear this will be my best (or only) chance, I scan the scene to work out what edits will be needed. And I take the shot.

This lets me shoot for the image I see in my head, not what is in front of me. That allows a lot of freedom. In this scenario, there are no dumpsters. I see no power lines or extraneous people. Just a clean, final image I can be happy with.

In short: For gathering an imperfect memory, there are cameras.
For everything else, there is Photoshop.

Tin Man

I’m going to cite a couple of actual, real-world examples, starting with Tin Man here.

My wife is a big fan of the Wizard of Oz. On one of our regular exploration trips around the region we passed a unique photo opportunity as we drove by a farm. They had lovingly recreated the woodcutter complete with axe, standing guard just behind a chicken wire fence. The operative word here is ‘fence’. No amount of waiting was going to remove that fence. Photoshop was.

Tin Man was on my wife’s side. I backed up, pulled alongside, and told her to take the photo on her cell. She did. Never even left the car. And on we drove. Memory stored. It’s that simple.

Back home, I spent 15 minutes in Photoshop with the Clone Stamp, Patch, Healing Brush and a couple other tools to remove the fence. Done. An image that couldn’t ever have been ‘get it right in camera’ was made. The original looked good. It looks better now. We think so, and hey, it’s our memory.

As I type this I’m thinking “Hmm. With that fence gone he would look good on a Yellow Brick Road in front of a castle…”

The Bridge

Here is another example that shows that you don’t always have to wait for a perfect moment.

I loved the time of day and framing of this shot. This, I thought, is ideal for a stock photo. So I walked over to check it out. When I got in position, another photographer was already there. We exchanged pleasantries and he told me he had been waiting for the man on the bridge to leave for over ten minutes. That man showed no signs of leaving. He was clearly taking a moment to enjoy the view. This was beginning to frustrate my temporary companion, who kindly pointed out with a poorly-concealed smirk that I was casting a shadow across the water; clearly, I was new at this.

Man on a bridge

I smiled politely, framed my shot, and took the photo. Smiling again, I left. Ten seconds.

In Photoshop, over a coffee, I used the same tools used on Tin Man to remove two lampposts, the man, their reflections, my own shadow, and (in case you missed it) the overhead moon.

The resulting final image is cleaner, more pleasing to the eye, and served my needs perfectly. It’s on the Adobe Stock web site now, earning money. I smile once more when I imagine my camera companion still waiting impatiently by the bridge, in rapidly fading light, for that man on the bridge to move, long after I had returned home and finished my edits. I got some Photoshop practice today and had fun doing it. I don’t smirk at others. But I am still smiling.

Shot for stock, this could be a book cover or the backdrop for a magazine article.

The Photo Finish

What does this all mean? Some think editing photos at all is cheating. That it is impure, degrades photography and the creative arts. I respect their views. I do not fully share them.

Creativity goes beyond the click of the camera. If you shoot JPG the camera makes it’s own image optimizations to every shot you take. You can’t turn that off. RAW shooters like myself get images into the computer and heavily edit to taste: White balance. Exposure. Contrast. Saturation. Dodge and Burn. Light leaks, vignettes, Instagram looks… Nothing. Nothing, is ‘straight out of camera’.

Photoshop or any other editing tool are simply practical creative ways to get the results you need, without having to hang around a bridge for several hours having a thoroughly miserable time. You can take out (or add) whatever you don’t want. Fix things, if they need to be fixed. Get the shot.

How deep you go down that rabbit hole is limited only by patience and available time, and at least for me, the satisfaction when it is done often far exceeds the joy of getting even a great photo. I didn’t just point and click. I made this. The world is now as it should be. I made that happen.

Photos are tricky. Some are great. Some terrible. Not every shot can be saved, nor should they be. You can’t always shoot to a plan. Sometimes, a quick snap will always stay a quick snap. That’s fine.

Whatever the situation at the very least you will have have that memory to share. Even if you can’t fix it, whether it’s blurry, or someone jumped into the photograph thinking it was funny… don’t let perfection get in the way.

An image doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be.

The important thing to remember, in every circumstance, is this: Take the shot, already.

Love Survives

In 2013, Pierrette died. Each year a few of us get together for a celebration of life. This year, we did something special. We went and said hi.

As the event photographer I captured the whole day in images. Link below. Being a fully licensed drone pilot, I multi-tasked, putting my piloting skills, experience, and equipment to use to capture the emotion of this special private moment with friends and family.

It’s under three minutes long. I cut to a backing track that I’ve been wanting to use for years. Multiple shots, single takes. This was a live event with a lot of moving parts (that’s funny, you’ll see why when you watch), so there was zero chance of ‘do-overs’. One chance to get each shot.

Side note: A surprising amount of work goes into making difficult things look easy. As the sporting quote goes, ‘You say I’m lucky. It’s funny, the more I practice, the luckier I get’.

As with any event, planning is everything. Not knowing the route until we started, I scouted possible approaches and locations ahead of time for safety, legality, and suitable filming angles. Accordingly, I was able to be in the right places at the right times to get the shots I needed to pull this off.

I brought the footage in to Adobe Premiere Pro for assembly and editing. I had far more than I needed, intentionally. That gives freedom to make editing choices. I added some stills I took down on the ground. No fancy effects. Fade to black. Simple, effective. I am very happy with the result. I hope the video speaks for itself: Love survives.

Originally released in 1080P for a fast turn around for the attendees, last night I finally got around to re-cutting it for release in the 4K goodness it was originally filmed in. I wanted to make a few tweaks, which I made. And I think it looks great. I like to think Pierrette would have approved.


Photo Album

As mentioned above, when not piloting my drone to create this short film, I was also the photographer for this event. I captured the far less sombre spirit of the day in this album HERE. Please check it out.

A related article…

This is not the first post I have written about this year’s event. Ahead of it, I created a collage poster, proceeds from which went to charity. That is another story, and an inspiring one.
You may like to read it. It’s HERE.

Life. Funny thing, life.

Four years ago today, our good friends Juice and Sweets (Brad and Kim) were married in a beautiful, noisy, and brief biker ceremony on a fantastic, sunny day. Surrounded by those they loved. It was a beautiful day. Here is the video I made for them. It raised a smile.

It was a good day.

While this was happening, Nikki and I were waiting to hear if our offer had been accepted on the house we now live in. I got that call as they spoke their vows. Three quiet buzzes while I fumbled my silenced phone from my pocket, a few whispered sentences, and the deal was done! The house was ours! High five and a quiet happy dance on a table, while our friends sealed their own deal with a kiss.

Five minutes after that, while we were still happy dancing, I got another call. Literally, five minutes.

I smiled when I saw it was my daughter calling from the UK. I stopped smiling when she told me why she was calling. My 15 year old grandson, Kyle, had just died in a tragically avoidable accident: Electrocuted while climbing around on freight trains.

I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say, it wasn’t quick. Cousin Liam ran for help while cousin Cameron performed CPR. Liam soon returned at a run with Kayleigh, Kyle’s sister. Together they kept CPR going and fought on until the ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. Never give in. Never surrender. They didn’t.

They did everything right. Couldn’t have done more. But sadly, some fights just cannot be won.

Four Years On

In a twist of fate, this tragedy struck on Cameron’s 16th birthday. Today is Cameron’s 20th birthday. I’m wishing you a Happy Birthday, Cam, even though I know you don’t really celebrate it any more.

On the first anniversary of Kyle’s death, Cam’s birthday, Cam arranged to meet friends and family at a local park to release balloons in remembrance of Kyle. They do that each year. That says a lot about Cameron. I can’t imagine what he and the rest of the family, particularly Liam and Kayleigh, went through that day, and during the years since. Or how they and the rest of the family have coped. One fractured day at a time.

Honestly, I can’t claim to have known Kyle, and I won’t. I left the UK a long, long time ago when he was only a boy. I have not seen any of the family in person since then, though we stay in touch online. As well, of course, as the occasional – now dreaded – phone call. But I will say this. Kyle left a huge hole. The entire family was rocked by his untimely death. And no parent should ever have to bury a child. That’s not the way it is supposed to be.

A wedding. A new beginning. A life lost. All in five minutes. Five. Minutes.

On that same day, around the world, there were thousands of births and deaths and marriages. Millions of happy and unhappy events. That day, and every day since. The world keeps turning.

Live life

What is the point of all this reflection? The point is this: Life is neither all good, nor all bad. In the midst of life we are in death, it’s true. But in the midst of death we are also in life. Enjoy the good, and smile through the tears. Live life to the full. Never give in. Never surrender.

There is much pain in this world, balanced, usually, by much joy. Love and live while you can. Live and love like there is no tomorrow. Because one day, there won’t be. And, when you are nearing the end of your own journey, those good memories will help get you through. You will need them.

So, make some. Go and hug someone. For no reason. Just do it. Put a smile on another person’s face. It feels good. Really. Give yourself, and someone else, a happy memory. Do it. Right now.

Or, maybe, at least within the next. Five. Minutes.

Pershing Square

New York, New York.

Two years ago I was alone in New York shooting a conference in Times Square. I promised Nikki that one day we would go back together, and visit the top of the Empire State Building.
Sleepless In Seattle style. She smiled.

Some day has come. We’re heading out.

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US cash

Cross border shopping, and fun with gas

Being the proud possessor of a freshly minted Canadian passport opens the door to a lot of possibilities. Not least of which is the chance to hop over and take advantage of the cross border differences between New York State and Ontario fuel pricing.

As I type, one litre of fuel costs CAD $1.23 at my local outlets. Across the border, it’s USD $2.50 per US gallon. My tank holds 18.5 US gallons, or 70 litres. Napkin conversion math says I could fill my tank for $86, or nip over and fill it for $67. Saving $21. That’s almost a third off. A free lunch. A no-brainer.

Or so you would think. Read more