Quality of Life: Chasing the Canadian Dream From the Middle

20140329-114555.jpgThe days when a good education and work experience could open doors across the country are long gone. The time when a house could be bought within the city of Toronto for less than $800,000 and two months of bidding wars seems fictional. When did we lose the value of our work, and how can anyone hope to build a meaningful life in the new paradigm of Ford Nation?
When did society allow the “common man” to lead us into box store hell, fast food purgatory and suburban paradise?

Direction and Planning: GTD Review, Career and An Engagement Ring

Life cannot be prepared for. Accidents will happen in ways we cannot hope to imagine. Success happens when we can transform the bad into good; the worst events can often transform us into better people.

20140319-110518.jpgOne week ago, during an afternoon raid on the compost bin, one of our dogs bit the littlest dog. The pressure of the bite completely dislocated her shoulder; she weighs 4 pounds. The sadness this event brought me is indescribable. My options for her care were amputation, a non-surgical procedure that might not work or a $4500 surgery that was invasive and would prove painful for the little monster. I cried. We cried. Moments such as these define us, and I knew I had to do the best for my whole family. Emotional decisions are not the same as logical decisions. I felt that I had to euthanize the little dog who had been with me through my toughest days and nights (even if she was to root of many such nights). I was shattered. However, we paused. We argued. We tried to justify an emotional decision, but could not. Perhaps like Abraham and Isaac, I had to commit to my decision only to find an angel stopping me from delivering the final blow. Dr. Sanderson and Dr. Teeger offered a middle solution that I could financially afford, would offer her as little pain as possible and would help with the immediate care she would need.
Would she have been saved unless I stood by my personal code of values? Was I a bad man for choosing to sacrifice her for the good of the rest of my tribe? What kind of man does not “man-up” with money to save his friend? For the past week I have wrestled with these moral questions, and I believe that the experience has made me a better man. Indy has improved greatly with each day; I hope to have her home again soon.

20140319-112404.jpgOn the eve of this catastrophe I had also planned on proposing to the love of my life: perfect timing. I had designed a ring, had a friend’s father procure a beautiful emerald to place in a platinum band, and we were visiting our great friends at their magical retreat in the forests near Arrowhead. I had pushed my finances a little to purchase the ring, but I wanted to create a piece of jewellery that was timeless and more than the typical engagement ring. Hence, when Indy was injured my plans made other decisions impossible. Her injury became the wrench in the works; the best laid plans of mice and men….

20140319-113123.jpgRobert Frost asks the question in his poem, “Ovenbird”: “what to make of a diminished thing?” These words have resonated within me since first hearing them 20 years ago in my American Literature class. Is that not we do every day of our lives? The time we have diminishes with each passing moment; we must demand of ourselves what to do with the time we have left. I chose to propose marriage in a forest by a lake, move ahead with our weekend plans, and trust that my dog would recover best without my over-compensating, nervous help. I did the best with what I was dealt, and that is what I consider to be what makes a good man. I may be wrong, but that is where I stand.

20140319-113839.jpgAfter confusing my dental appointment days, I find myself sitting at a local cafe, drinking a cafe Americano, eating an almond croissant and preparing to enter my first GTD review since I started using this system to “get things done” five years ago. Plans may not always work out, and we often lose life’s best opportunities when we cannot go off-script from our projected narratives, but David Allen’s system of actionable planning has allowed me to realize what I never could have dreamed of before. The hour I spend reflecting and planning will at least let me see where I want to go, know my first steps towards that place, and then when detours lead me astray I still know my bearings, can see land, when the storm passes.

20140319-114543.jpg

Kiriko Made: The Post-Industrial Bespoke Movement

Kiriko One

In a world where consumer goods are meant to be opiate for the masses, and shopping is a sport to numb the pain of daily life, a new movement has risen from the ash and garbage that fill the streets: Oregon Industrial. Perhaps it would sound better as Bespoke Industrial or Artisanal Industrial Mercantile? Regardless, there is a higher end, post-hipster movement that seems to have originated in Portland, of all places. The premise is that Gen Y and those whose talents are no longer appreciated have abandoned the lure of tech internships that may eventually lead to a low salary in ten years. Citizens have walked away from the idea that New York, Toronto, Washington and Los Angeles are the only places on earth to purchase property (or, rather, rent at suicidal monthly rates). Comrades have chosen Portland as a place to come together, take back the heavy-duty sewing machine, wipe off the grease from abandoned motors, and start crafting authentic, low-production goods for people who appreciate materials that were de rigeur before plastic became our mantra.

My past few purchases have not been inexpensive, nor have they been simple. Toronto is far from the Pacific West, which means that USPS has become a pusher for my material needs. First it was a key fob and Leica-style camera strap from Tanner Goods. Then came a straight razor strop from horse hide arrived from Bison,  a suit bag from Seattle-based Filson, and a mint green, leather knife roll from Butcher and Baker. Before I knew it I found myself surrounded by beautiful materials that made me feel more connected to the items I used. They key idea is that I use all of these items in an almost religious manner. I appreciate the feel of the strop; the look of the simple key fob as it rests in my hand or dangles from the ignition of my Ducati Monster.  My desire to use an item often means that I must take the time to pack my clothes for a trip in lieu of rolling them into a ball, and I need to spend ten minutes sharpening my straight razor on the strop before I even get to the bathroom sink for shaving. I have become mindful and present. I am in the moment as the material serves as a catalyst for an intellectual slowing down of my time. Time has become precious.

Kiriko Two

Yesterday’s post brought me two scarfs and a pocket square from Portland-based Kiriko. I came across a few of their pieces in a small shop in Nashville’s 12 South area. The deep indigo colours and Japanese fabrics caught my attention immediately. Since travelling to Japan a few years ago, I realize the unique tension in fabric and foreign colour palette that are signature to Japan. A week ago I came across a Boro-style scarf online and fell in love with the contrasting indigo/floral pattern. I ordered the scarf which is made from Japanese heirloom fabrics, a Kimono striped scarf and a deep indigo pocket square. Within a few days all arrived in uniquely gorgeous packaging, and I now had items that I know will be with me through a great many made adventures, adding points of style to what can be a bleak world.

20140220-073926.jpg

There may have also been an impulse need to purchase a NATO-style watchband from Worn&Wound, a purveyor and reviewer of watch ephemera. You see, Old Sport, I inherited more than my fair share of beat up, broken down watches from my father upon his death this past summer. I never wear a watch. I hate having things on my wrists. I care little what the time is. But…this black strap sang a siren song: rebuild the watch the Chinese restaurant owner gave your father when he was a young boy. Mystery surrounds this watch, and it is a relic of my father’s imagination that I remember since my own birth.

It has no intrinsic value in the metals or craftsmanship. The watch must be hand-wound on a daily basis. I am still unsure whether it will even keep time. The point is that I have chosen to take a piece back from the landfill, ignore that my iPhone keeps perfect time, and live within a different reality as the Horween-produced leather strap hugs a piece of metal tightly to my wrist that once belonged to men I  should have known better. Perhaps it serves as a talisman to make sure I know those who follow me better than those who came before.

20140220-073945.jpg

My day starts, and will end, with an espresso and slice of molten chocolate cake inspired by our dinner at Montreal’s Joe Beef this past weekend.  My version uses up the wide variety of aging chocolate that filled my cupboard, blooming and losing its sheen. I would like to think that the French pan adds more beauty to the cake, than the skillet ours was served in at the restaurant. The flavours are dead on, the texture is perfect…now if I only had a soft serve ice cream machine that could spit out perfect peppermint-infused dollops of ice milk, then I would be king.

Joe Beef: A Philosophy of Quebec Cuisine

20140217-134628.jpg

Montreal remains the place where I feel most at home. It is a city with simple aspirations; it is a city focused on quality, local food prepared in an avante garde culinary style. People in Quebec appreciate wine, soft lighting, conversation at dinner, laughter and sensuality. It is a city that has changed my life purpose three times and influenced how I live with more with every visit. The past two nights were no exception, yet exceptional nonetheless.

20140217-141735.jpg

My usual destination in Montreal is Martin Picard’s Au Pied Du Cochon on Duluth Street, but for this visit we chose to try our luck with Joe Beef, the brainchild of David MacMillan and Frederic Morin. A favourite with superstar chefs like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain, Joe Beef has the street cred to make it worth a three month ahead reservation.

What was it like? Nothing like we expected, but beautiful in its darkness and lush food. First, I hope you read French. The ever-changing chalkboard menu is wholly francophonic, and difficult to see in the evening lights. Secondly, one needs a sense of adventure, a trust in your waiter, and a willingness to try new flavours. Our dinner consisted of 8 maritime oysters in the raw, two sea urchin, a pork and chicken tender terrine served next to a slab of perfectly chilled foie gras, a New Brunswick lake trout in a salty mortadella sauce, a large filet of cheval, and a side of Parmesan frites. I was also shamed into a whimsical peppermint soft serve ice cream on molten chocolate cake. Two bottles of Bourgogne wine and two of the better cafe Americano I have had in a long time. Final bill: $350.

20140217-143704.jpg

A visit to Joe Beef is not just about the food. A visit to this minor Mecca is about coming to understand a food philosophy and flavour palette that one cannot find in Toronto, New York or Chicago. The fact that horse meat was on the menu and lauded by the waiter as the best food in the house, would never be supported in a town where people are disconnected from their food and its sources. How many places serve chicken, beef and fish from parts unknown? Joe Beef knows the horse is from Pennsylvania, and the arguments for its consumption in recent Globe and Mail articles are compelling. The flavour falls between beef for texture and pork for flavour complexity. I will not crave cheval in my dreams, but it was a transformational dish in terms of how I interpret flavours for my own cooking style.

In relation to that, the reason for a food photographer and home cook to visit a restaurant like Joe Beef is to experience how food can be prepared honestly and simply. The terrine chaude was my favourite dish. I had never thought to warm a terrine, and this one was perfect in its composition. In contrast to the heavenly foie gras in a cool, classic sauce, the terrine made me want to prepare my own version this week; to build a family recipe for posterity and years of expectant enjoyment.

20140217-145500.jpg

We drank Burgundy region wines, as they were suggested in the Joe Beef restaurant book, and I could certainly see how their simple, clean flavours work with the rich, salty, complex flavours in the food. In the end, Joe Beef is a one time visit for me. I get it, I loved it, and it was worth the money; I simply prefer the gluttony and Gargantuan nature of Au Pied du Cochon more. Life is short; eat what you dream of in the darkest of Winter nights.

20140217-150407.jpg

From a different perspective, and after a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s Deli, we decided to stay at The Fairmont’s Les Voyageurs Bar for dinner on the second night. Partly due to getting a slight chill while trekking up Mont Royal, and partly due to a $100 credit from hitting Platinum status on 2013′s trips out West and Ottawa, we stayed inside this classic hotel from the train era. After a dozen oysters from the PEI bay where I bought property next to this year we went with a cheese plate of Quebec cheeses accompanied by an absolutely perfect bottle of Quebec white wine. The price was a reasonable $150, and the experience was matched with our expectations: good hotel food from the locality.

20140217-151606.jpg

Our final moments this morning were spent lingering over coffee, cheap Bordeaux and a wickedly rich collection of French pastry, baguettes filled with smoked salmon and a feuillete containing a bechamel and ham centre. Perhaps that is what Montreal offers: multiple, magnificent moments unlike anywhere else. These were moments welcome and stolen from a cold winter season.

AsukaBook: Building the Perfect Wedding Book

AsukaBook I

I am not a wedding photographer. I do not enjoy weddings, funerals or birthday parties featuring magicians and clowns. However, in my line of work one needs to try anything one, so when my brother requested that we shoot his wedding last July as their gift, I decided to bite the bullet. Personal goal: make my family happy by capturing a key event in their lives, especially after the loss of my father the previous week. Professional goal: produce a perfect wedding book with neither cost nor profit being the object.

Since I began working as a photographer, AsukaBook, a publisher who prints in Japan but is based out of Oregon, has appealed to me as an option for my first big portfolio book. They have a special opening offer to all professional photographers (you need a website, I think), to print the first book for 50% of regular cost. Fifty percent is significant when you consider that the cost of this book was going to be $525 for 40 pages originally; this is not small peanuts for a book, but fair when one considers that a quality, single print edition of anything has to be expensive to make it worth the time spent in production. In the end, after shipping, taxes and currency exchange, I will have spent a bit over $400 for the book. Worth it?

A1235923

I chose a large format of 12×12 inches for the book. I feel that this is a perfect print size for archival prints, and when you consider that this book lays flat for a full spread of 24×12 inches, it is quite impressive. I also went with matte finish, even though I prefer glossy metallics for my personal work. I was aiming for a Martha Stewart wedding look and her books from the 1990s often featured a matte finish to bring out an emotional feeling of polish.

As you can see from these few simple shots of the book, the colours are rich and the package is about as high quality as could be conceived. I would caution any would be professionals to be aware that their small point and shoot or Unlce Louis’ dslr are not going to cut it, at least not straight from the camera. A large portion of what I do relates to post-production of the images, colour syncing to a particular palette, retouching and layout. I was unable to use AsukaBook’s proprietary software, so I had to lay out the book in Adobe’s InDesign CS6. If you are not regularly working on large publications, which I do for my school, then this might kill you. For me, it worked fairly smoothly and I was happy to have tech support question a few of my bleed choices in final production.

A1235924

The pages a almost a foam core style of thickness, and this makes for a seriously heavy book that feels akin to a Bible of coffee table masterpiece. I have seen nothing like this in small print production before, and it screams of quality in design. The wraparound cover and hard case allow for custom design – I went for two different photos on the actual book, and a full wrap of the case that shows a field shot: unique and compelling.

So it only took me 6 months to scan the Kodak Porta film, process the photos, lay the book out and get it back in the post. Would I do it again? Nope. Never. Doubt it. The book was gorgeous and flawless, but I would never make any money unless I charged about $5000 to shoot a wedding, and the only take away would be the digital negatives and this book. The time it took, and the behind the scenes work make weddings tough to work for profit unless you are constantly working through the exact same workflow, and you outsource the tedious work to others, which I just refuse to do.

A1235928

The real question will be whether the couple like it, love it or hate it. I just put the dvds and the book into the shipping box to be mailed tomorrow back to Prince Edward Island. If you want to see this masterpiece for yourself, then I am certain they will be inviting friends and family over to relive their happiest of happy days.

Coming to Terms With Gatsby: The Poor Boy Done Good, or What Have I Become?

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired.” ~ The Great Gatsby

IMG_0159-Edit

The world we live in is constantly moving; we are expected to keep up, to push harder, and remain on top of change. As celebrities like Philip Seymour-Hoffman kill themselves, Justin Bieber gets arrested for childish stunts and drinking cough syrup, and Bob Dylan lip-syncs a bad Chrysler commercial, I have to ask myself just what our lives are about in 2014. What can anyone hope to accomplish in an era when an overnight war can occur in EVE Online that costs the loss of virtual starships worth $500,000 in real-world money? What is the real anymore, anyways, anywhere?

June will find me in Bangalore, India. I will be participating in a Leader’s Quest workshop wherein participants will explore what it means to live in one of this planet’s most poverty-stricken, yet forward moving countries. We will examine not only the business relationships between corporations and people on the ground, but also attempt to gain an understanding of that that all means to an increasingly global world; a world where corporations are empire, governments are filled with clowns like Rob Ford, and people are left to either climb the ladder or fall off into the abyss. We can join forces with the corporation that best suits our personal aspirations, so that we may rise more quickly and reach the 1% before we are too old, too tired, too dead.

Which brings me to Gatsby….

IMG_2073

F. Scott’s Fizgerald’s literary character, Jay Gatsby, is one of my favourite examples of how we can strive to become a person different from the rest while keeping our eyes on what we are really in the game for. Perhaps you are in it for $100 bills (like Jay-Z asserts in his rap on the recent movie soundtrack) or just maybe you seek a love like Daisy. Regardless of the reason for cloaking your intentions, selling your soul, pandering your time to the gods of business, we each make a decision to become someone else. The best of us know when to either walk away or go all in; the rest of us are left on the highway strewn with the bodies of forgotten singers, politicians and actors.

So when you read about poor Justin Bieber or question Miley’s tongue to twist movements, or even reflect on why Indian call-centre workers leave the countryside to sit in cramped rooms for 17 hour shifts only to spend their money on Cristal and shiny objects at the nearby dance club, think about yourself. What have you sold? What have you done lately that meant more than the consumption of things you do not need?

For my own part…I still love Gatsby. I can always imagine myself one day owning a lavish mansion like the one I am standing in front of in New Orlean’s Garden District (Anne Rice’s former home). I can imagine owning a closet full of beautiful shirts on perfect hangers with space to breathe. I can hear the roar of my Porsche 911′s engine as I sink into the leather seats. I taste the finest Californian Cabernet Sauvignon next to my Kansas City porterhouse in New York City. I feel the weight of my silver rings as I strum the perfect G chord in Madison Square Garden where I play a few covers with Jack White the Third to close the show. I may only ever imagine such luxuries, but then, as Lorde asserts, I will always be “driving Cadillacs in my dreams.” Dreams are what keep us human, and make us better than greedy animals at the trough. Gatbsy had dreams, and so do I.

The imagination is what gets us through the mindless meetings, the drive-thru waits, the subway car that never comes and the random salesperson chatter when you just want to see what is new and now. What does Gatsby teach us? Why to never surrender your imagination, Old Sport. Never give in, never give up, never, ever give way.

Eating Deeply in the Deep South: Memphis and Nashville

Food is foundational to everything else a traveller will experience in the southern United States of America. After food, music fills in the cracks to build three unique cities that I love. At the end of December we set out to Nashville on a flight from Toronto; our purpose was to experience as much music, food and fun that we could fit into the span of eight days. The journey would require a rental car, $600 in cash, a sense of humour, the acceptance that weight would be gained, beer would probably be consumed in an even ratio to the music heard, and a spirit of adventure to guide us along the path to enlightenment. Plans were few, experiences were open-ended.

20140115-144703.jpg

The first place we hit: Loretta Lynn’s Kitchen in Hurricane Mills. Why? The billboards just led us here – to a dive diner that seemed like countless others I had grown to love as a child in the 70s. The Kitchen was certainly from the 70s and had seen better days cosmetically. However, like Lynn herself, what is served up is a heaping plate of southern comfort. We clearly needed to go with the lunch buffet option, if only for the fried chicken and turnip greens.  The food was typically classic, southern homestyle cooking, and unlike the hundreds of fast food joints, this place felt real. Not for the faint of heart, but perhaps for those with a large appetite. We were off to a stellar start.

Sun Studio.jpg

Next up was Memphis, which was about four hours drive from the Nashville Airport. Memphis is not what you might expect from the birthplace of Blues, the home of Elvis Presley, and where Beale Street has you walking on a mythical strip of Americana. Memphis is a city in decline. Sun Studios, Graceland, The Lorraine Motel, and Beale Street are all great reasons for Memphis to be alive and kicking, but frankly the downtown core is empty, Beale Street is a parody of itself, and Elvis’s spirit has left every building in this town. Still, I loved it there. I loved it for the farmer’s market where we bought bread, milk, arugula and green beans (note: I also had to tell a man that his uncle, Dave Nichol, was now dead). I loved the Madison Hotel where we stayed. I loved the time we spent talking with people and listening to the Plantation All-Stars play an afternoon set that leaked into the night at Mr. Handy’s Blues Hall. Memphis has soul, but you can tell why it also owns the blues.

Memphis Farmer's Market.jpg

We ate barbecue at Central BBQ, a popular greasy place where locals and tourists head in droves. We went with a combo plate that we shared – American portion sizes will kill a witless Canadian – and it worked out well. How did it compare to the restaurant we live across from, Electric Mud? Nope, not even close to being as good, but still, well worth the eating and time spent. Overall, Memphis was a lot of fun. I even enjoyed playing some Gibson guitars made at the local factory. B.B. King and Elvis would have been critical, but some things cannot be helped.

20140115-144723.jpg

Driving back to Nashville was another four hours, but we took our time to stop for dinner at a Texas Roadhouse chain restaurant (white gravy on my fried chicken), and to visit a lookout where migratory birds congregate. One thing I noticed was how little one sees when hurtling down various interstate highways. If we had had more time, then I would have taken the smaller routes so as to experience a bit more of Alabama and Mississippi. As it was, our eight hour trek from Nashville to New Orleans and back would tax my driving skills and ability to focus; in another life I would have preferred to split the drive by spending a night in Birmingham, Alabama.

Texas Roadhouse.jpg

If there is one place to eat in Nashville, then it would have to be Edley’s BBQ in the 12 South district of the city. We randomly came across this place on our four mile walk past The Gulch. After playing a few sweet vintage guitars, being too scared to visit Third Man Records due to the adjacent homeless shelter, and realizing the hipster profile finds its way everywhere, we were turned onto the 12 South area by a clerk who sold us rings at my favourite silversmith: King Baby Studios. What is great about Edley’s? Cool atmosphere, laid back counter service, and a truly amazing beef brisket taco and Nashville’s trademark “hot chicken”. We loved it here, and were tempted to stop in on the way to the airport, but resisted with all of our might.

Ederly's BBQ.jpg

20140115-144800.jpg

Nashville is a different place in comparison to Memphis. It is a big city, with a big city feel. We were here to hear Old Crow Medicine Show perform at Ryman Auditorium, to sample the country music along the strip of bars on Broadway Avenue and to spend two nights at the luxurious Hutton Hotel. On all fronts, Nashville is a good city. Not my favourite by a long shot, but the music we heard at Ryman and Robert’s Western World was truly world-class. We had a great time in Nashville…except for The Slider House. I have to say this was the worst place I have attempted to eat at in a long time. We arrived, sat at a table for 10 minutes before being spoken to, waited another 15 minutes for our drinks to come only to be told that the waitress “lost our order, and now the kitchen was probably closed”. No apology, no drinks, no nothing. I walked out in a way that would have made my grandmother proud. Avoid this place. We did better at the Checker’s Drive Thru and Take-out.

Cracker Barrell.jpg

On the road again, and tired from our travels; we stopped at one of the restaurants in the Cracker Barrel chain. What a pleasant experience. A nice roaring fire, the most polite service, giant portions of southern cooking and the feeling like you were back in the “good old days” before the I-65 killed all of little towns and diners along America’s great roads. As I said, eight hours is a long drive to do in an afternoon, but at the end of the road was New Orleans. New Orleans: the reward for all of the time we give to other things just to get back here as often as possible. God, I love that town. Why? That is a whole entry onto itself…