Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fine. You Asked.

Well, no you didn't ask, but it's about that time again - time for a GameCube Portable update. Actually, quite a bit has happened since the last installment, all to get us back to where we used to be.

When last we last looked in on our plucky GameCube modders...

All indications were that the latest problem with The Goddamn Right Trigger (TGRT) was that we had repaired it using an electronic gizmo - a potentiometer or 'pots' - from a third-party, non-Nintendo controller. With nothing to lose but a few more dollars, I started making the rounds on eBay and Kijiji looking for a genuine Nintendo GameCube controller that we could harvest (rip apart) for parts.

eBay had tons of controllers, still new in their packaging, but nothing under $50. Kijiji, however, is the flea market of the Internet and we found a few complete GameCube systems for $40 or less. It was a no-brainer when we encountered one young lady selling a GameCube with 4(!!!) controllers for $40. Just to add a bit of icing, the GameCube just happened to be the same DOL-101 engineering version that we used for our project - a handy bonus in the unlikely(?) situation where we needed a new motherboard or somesuch.

Kijiji Lady and I exchanged about a dozen emails before JediBoy and I made the trek to her place on the other side of town - our $40 in hand. When we got to her front door, she greeted us with a smile and an apology. Apparently she had sent one last email that we had not seen. It turned out that her GameCube - after sitting in a box for almost a year - would not play games.

She had tested it for us and it refused to read a game disk. She also found that one of the controllers was not functional. Although annoyed that she didn't think to test it before she placed a Kijij ad, it didn't matter that much to us. We had money and she had product. We told her everything was alright and drove off into the rainy night with our parts.

As if this story has not gone on long enough, the new part - the genuine Nintendo part - did the trick. TGRT was made functional once more as we silently prayed. I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't surprised. Logically, it was supposed to work. Emotionally, well, I'm surprised when anything works.

Gently, we re-installed the TGRT back into the case, this time using epoxy putty for a cleaner, safer job versus using hot glue or liquid epoxy. At every stage of the process we tested and tested again. The results are below:

Now we are ready (again and again) to finish the rest of the assembly. JediBoy was hoping to have it wrapped up by Boxing Day, but I'm pretty sure we're going to find some way to screw this up by then.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lights for Baby Jesus - Part 2

The pause between Part 1 and Part 2 was solely for dramatic effect and in no way symptomatic of falling back into old too-lazy-to-post behaviours. Got that?

So! Wreath, ladder, painful injuries - that's where we left off. Before we continue our Christmas tale, here are some fun statistics:
  • 35 Canadians die each year from falling off a ladder
  • 1 Costa Rican dies each year from falling off a ladder
  • 62 Canadians die each year from falling out of bed
  • 1 Costa Rican dies each year from falling out of bed
  • Canadians often decorate their homes with Christmas lights hung from their roof
  • Costa Ricans often decorate their homes with flowers in pots and animal statues in the yard
Clearly, Christmas in Costa Rica is a safer, more fragrant experience. I also understand there's no snow there and the coffee grows on trees. We have a lot to learn from our friends in Central America.

I considered that a Costa Rican person would be a useful resource to help decorate my home for Christmas, given their emphasis on simplicity and safety (statistics don't lie!). But there aren't any such neighbours on our big happy cul-de-sac, and I'm pretty sure an ad on Kijiji would have taken too long to pay-off. I decided I had to tough it out myself using just my wits and my residential-grade extension ladder (aka The Widowmaker).

Unfortunately, there's not much to the story. I got my ladder out of the garage and extended it to the exact length where it will usually not flex like a bow against by body, the arrow. I was able to hang the wreath I almost made by myself. I hung a few smaller wreaths on either side of the garage door. And I finished off by replacing the outside lights with festive green bulbs (I would have used red bulbs, but I hear they attract the wrong sorts of new friends).

The only touch-and-go moments:
  • My neighbour shuffled up my driveway to have a chat just as I was leaning my ladder against the house, so I was obliged to use my valuable Christmas-decorating time to shoot the breeze with him.
  • Because I lost my valuable time chatting with my neighbour, it was darker and colder outside by the time my work got underway. I laugh at the Elements and I don't mind dermabrasion from cold ladder aluminum, however.
  • There was a moment of uncertainty when the brick clips I was using first took the weight of the wreath I almost made by myself. Fortunately, everything held (until the first windstorm, anyways).
True grit won the day, of course, and my house is now a Wonderland. The downside of this is that I think I did too good a job. No neighbour has come by to congratulate me, so I can only assume they are over-awed and cowered behind their curtains. Looking at the picture of my handiwork below, I think you'll understand:

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Lights for Baby Jesus - Part 1

I live in what passes for the suburbs in my town. Better yet, I live on a cul-de-sac in a great, big happy circle of neighbourly friendliness and holiday pride. The Christmas season here always starts in November with one of my neighbours dragging out a ladder and 5 miles of lights to hang on the house. This, and the fear of weather turning cold, has a domino effect on my other neighbours and, before you can sing the Hallelujah Chorus, our happy circle is awash in a Christmas glow that would put Las Vegas to shame.

I refuse to play nice, mostly because I'm lazy and not very creative about Christmas lighting. I eschew using the last warm days of November thinking about Christmas, telling all who'll listen that no tinsel shall set foot on my property until December 1. It also helps that, unlike many of my neighbours, I no longer have small kids in my house to cajole and whine about the lack of red-green-gaudiness in the front yard.

So December 1 has come and gone and, still, no Christmas lights illuminate my driveway. Having given up risking my health by hanging lights off the roof, I now put my lack of creativity to work on what I call 'the ground display' - various lighted and air-filled doodads that make the front yard look like a squatter's camp on the Island of Misfit Toys.

In my heart, I want to be good at this stuff. But what I would love to be able to do...

...is very much beyond what I'm capable of doing.

This year, however, I thought I'd try an upgrade.

I've always been underwhelmed by our lighted wire-frame wreath that hangs over the garage door. This year, I decided we should replace it with a very large artificial wreath. It would look good during the day and, once the Sun set, it would be lit with many white pin-lights woven into the wreath material. This was my simple dream.

It took a few days to find my wreath - a 4-footer that was the last one in the store. When I took it home I found out why it was an orphan. The wreath material had pulled away from the backing frame in spots. No problem, I could fix it with a handful of small zip-ties. But then I decided it looked pretty boring. It needed pizzazz. So I spent some time affixing plastic Christmas ornaments - a selection of gold-coloured balls - all around the wreath. After an of hour or so of effort, I was pretty impressed with myself, being all creative and stuff.

The plan was to hang my new wreath yesterday (and put out some other ground display doodads) to let my neighbours know that I'm no Scrooge. I imagined them making a point to knock on my door and complement my new wreath. I'd smile awkwardly and casually mention how I had just about made that wreath myself. And they'd be all impressed and basically consider me Christmas King of the Cul-de-sac.

Of course, it didn't work out.

True to form, my garage door broke a few evenings ago. With the door stuck in the 'closed' position, there was no way to get my ladder out to hang my wreath. Sure, I could have borrowed a ladder from a neighbour, but that would sort of jeopardize my plan to become Christmas King.

As of last night door is fixed - at least in a temporary fashion until new springs can be ordered and installed. So tonight it happens. Tonight the brand new wreath I almost made by myself will be hung over the garage door. I haven't quite worked out the details for how it will hang, but I'm pretty sure it'll get figured out. Right?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Vomit On The Finish Line

Leave to this guy to point out a sad truth:
So now you just stop? Now that you have me jonesing for a fix of daily blogging fun, you just turn off the faucet.

Harsh, dude. Harsh.
As this lone, brave Reader suggests, I fell a little short of 30 Days of Awesome. I took 'er right up to the finish line and, just 2 days away from the end-zone, I fell down on all fours and heaved up way too much Gatorade.

Seriously, could this end any other way? Constantly a few days behind in posting, I think we all knew the 30-day experiment was headed for the ditch on Day 1. It's not like the well ran (too) dry on ideas, however. I just procrastinated until there was no reasonable chance of saving face by finishing the job.

Something else will show up in this spot. That's a promise.

There have been some developments on the GameCube project. We're (surprise!) about 3 weeks away from sailing the ocean with these guys, provided we can get past some drama involving our cat. I continue to be delighted at the wide variety of ass-kickings that are mine for the asking in Skyrim. And my Christmas readiness is pretty much focused on the viability of finding and securing a very large wreath onto the front of my house - 'cause that's what the baby Jesus would expect, right?

So, yes, there's stuff to talk about here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nov 28 - Be Careful What You Wish For

Our local rag recently ran the following article - Go train: Are we next? You can read the it for yourself, but the upshot of the article is that residents of Kitchener-Waterloo will soon be able to use the GO Transit rail service into Toronto. The story then goes on to provide some sad analysis on what this means for London's chances of getting similar GO commuter service someday. I use the word 'sad' because it's a painful intellectual stretch to bring a local connection to this story. It's very unlikely that London will ever justify or need the slow-moving GO rail service.

The paper solicited the Usual Suspects for their opinions on the matter. The following quote from Gerry Macartney, manager of the London District Chamber of Commerce, caught my eye:
"Should we be making a pitch for it? If there is a business case for it, the answer is yes. Anything we can do to improve our economic plight, make our workforce more mobile and have more access to Toronto."
While Gerry knows a lot more about business stuff that I, it seems to me there are a couple of errors in his perspective. First off, there will never be a proper business case for Go rail service in London. The service is heavily subsidized by provincial taxpayers - aimed at providing lower-cost fares to commuters in the GTA. In financial terms, it's a money-loser that is basically a subsidy to GTA businesses who need access to workers (who live in outlying communities because economics make it necessary).

So if the balance sheet doesn't provide a business case, you need to look at the potential user-base and impacts on commuter traffic between London and the GTA. Again, the numbers are not there. There just isn't the mass of London residents who need to commute into the GTA on a regular basis. And for those London workers who do need to travel into Toronto from time to time, my guess is that a 3-hour commute (one-way) is not going to be very compelling (the Kitchener-Waterloo commute time into Toronto is estimated to be 2 hours).

My second problem with Macartney's quote is the idea that we need access to Toronto for our mobile workforce. A Toronto-centric workforce is exactly what London does not need right now (I know because I live that dream). Let's go back a decade or so when London was home to two local giants: Canada Trust and London Life. These corporations were bought out by larger giants in other places. The fact that these companies still have some corporate presence in London is due, in part, to a local, skilled workforce who could keep these operations running.

Over the years, both operations have been subsumed to some degree by their masters in other places. They do not have the local presence they once did. Their more skilled local workers are more and more forced to work part-time in other cities, providing business for Via and WestJet on a regular basis. In some cases, those local workers have simply given up and relocated closer to head office. I'm convinced, however, that easy and cheap commuter service to Toronto - be it GO Transit or the forever-mythical high-speed rail link - would all-but-eliminate the need for some companies to have a local presence. Instead, they would get access to local skilled workers without the nuisance of local bricks-and-mortar (and likely a healthy chunk of taxpayer subsidy to keep the commuter lines viable).

Maybe I'm living in the past. Maybe the days of big companies with a local presence are past us. But I think any manner of GTA-centric commuter service will only add to the hollowing-out of London, and further cement a service-based economy as the norm. We do have a skilled workforce in London. We do have the educational institutions to refresh and replenish our skilled workforce. In my mind, it's a far better business case to make the jobs come to Us, rather than sending Us to the jobs.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nov 27 - Enough Already

Today I tackled the GameCube Portable problems once more. While JediBoy was off doing other things, I spent a few quality hours with a soldering iron trying to sort out the mess that we call The Goddamn Right Trigger (TGRT).

In the last episode, we suspected the problem with TGRT was either the controller board or the potentiometer ('pots' for short). So, I spent some time de-soldering the old controller board and installing our spare in its place. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it can cause more problems than it solves.

I got to the point where the spare board was in place and the Left Trigger was attached. It all worked, so I was at least back to where we were 90 minutes before. I then wired up TGRT and.... failure - as in: no change from before.

This points to a pots problem since it's unlikely that 2 controller boards would have the same issue with Right Trigger support. This also confirmed something I thought I saw a few days before. Just for fun, I attached a multimeter to the Left Trigger pots and tried to measure the range of resistance. I then did the same with TGRT pots. I didn't really know what I was doing, of course, but the ranges I saw were quite different between the 2 triggers.

This difference could be explained by the fact that the Left Trigger pots came from a Nintendo controller while TGRT pots came from an OEM controller. Same style of pots components, different resistance ranges, different controller boards.

As the dust settles around me and that vein in my forehead throbs, it seems like the best course of action is to get another Nintendo controller and rebuild TGRT using genuine Nintendo parts. In hindsight, this all seems commonsense, even if we took a few weeks' detour to get here. So, to Kijiji and eBay we go!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nov 26 - A Fish, A Barrel, A Smoking Gun

I did 2 bad things recently, but Saturday morning wiped the slate clean. That means I win.

Bad Thing #1 - Our subscription to the London Free Press lapsed and I did nothing to stop it. My wife and I have debated this for years. I always opt to keep paying for the Freeps so that I have some amount of local news to read every morning. My wife has wanted to kill it because it's generally a pretty crappy paper anymore. She's right, of course, so I just never bothered to pay the bill. Sure enough, we got a final warning and then one day there was no morning paper.

Bad Thing #2 - After missing just one day of Freeps delivery, I called their offices and re-activated my account. The Globe and Mail was the first choice, but I'm too cheap to pay their subscription rates and I still wanted some amount of crappy local news. I felt dirty, but there you go.

Now for wiping the slate clean: Today's edition of the Freeps brought glorious opportunities for mockery, which means I can fill up some space here without too much effort. Observe the following letter to the editor:
Don't use taxes for porn
Regarding the article Porn filters up for review (Nov. 24).
What is the London Public Library board’s problem?
What makes them think it’s OK for taxpayer money to be wasted on public access to pornography? Am I wrong in thinking libraries were born of the need for an inexpensive access to books, so children and adults could be exposed to literature (not porn) they otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to have?
As a taxpayer, I am appalled a portion of my money is being used for free access to porn. I do not want my money being spent on access to porn for anyone. Period. No freedom of this or that. If a person has the desire to access porn, then let it be on their own dime in the privacy of their own home — not in a publicy funded public space.
What if the libraries were told all public money would be withheld until the free access to porn is halted? Would that make them sit up and take notice? And who exactly on the library board is supporting this? They must be out of touch with the average family.
Carol Vincent 
Carol really makes me wish there was someone down at the Freeps newsroom who could answer these letters in print. I'd even volunteer to do it. It would be fun to point out to Carol that, in fact, the library is not providing free access to porn. They're simply saying that information should be freely available. That's kind of an ethical foundation for a good library.

I'd also point out that one simply cannot withhold dollars from the library system until they cry 'Uncle'. At the very least, it's bad governance - and one reason why the library board is arms-length from City Hall.

I think I'd also want to ask Carol if she'd like to apply her finely-tuned sense of propriety to, perhaps, the books in the library's collection. I'll bet Carol could free up tons of space on the shelves for the Carol-approved literature that an average family so desperately craves to fight the good fight against all this taxpayer porn.

But my favourite Carol QuoteTM is "No freedom of this or that". That's gold, man. Pure gold. No freedom for anyone, except for half-wits like Carol who would decide on which freedoms are okay. She must be fun to hang around with. 

So, indeed, my two wrongs turned out alright (at least for today).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Nov 25 - Rinse, Repeat

Okay, let's go back to the GameCube Portable. I know you're tired of this, but it'll just take a sec, okay? Picking up from a few days ago, JediBoy rebuilt the trigger today. We tested as best as we could using a multimeter, and the everything looked good. The next step was to test the trigger with an actual game (Link, come on down!) and see if the repairs fixed the problem.

I actually wasn't very hopeful it would work. When everything went wrong (again), it seemed to me that there were multiple problems. The trigger mechanism, itself, was definitely a bit buggered. But I strongly suspected the controller daughterboard was screwed up somehow.

Today's test confirmed my fears, I think. The repaired trigger should have worked, but failed to make Link smash things with his shield. There's a slight possibility that the trigger's potentiometer is malfunctioning - and we'll check that out first - but my suspicion is that the controller daugghtboard is no longer processing any input from the right trigger.

We have the necessary spare parts for either problem. I'm hoping that we find the potiometer at fault since it's the easiest fix. But we'll leave it alone for now and, instead, go out for dinner and think of something else. I'm lying, of course. We will dwell on these problems until we fix them.

Nov 24 - Thursday Needs a Song, Too

 I don't know why it is, but Thursday has become my new Friday. There is a certain ebb-and-flo, a certain zeitgeist, to the daily pace where I work. From Monday to Thursday, things feel unrelenting, unstoppable. When you think you've found some equilibrium between what's urgent and what's not, you can be sure that something new will emerge from the ether, demanding that you pay attention.

And then Friday rolls in, wearing faded jeans and having no particular plan for the day, and you can feel a palpable 'sigh' whispering down hallways, floating the week's worries from your shoulders. Friday frowns on working lunches. Friday insists on actual coffee breaks.

So while the calendar said Thursday today, my inner-compass said otherwise. I just needed to get to the end of the day in one piece and I knew the Sun would be shining on the other side. Now we just need to do something about that crabby bastard Wednesday.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Nov 23 - What Would Oscar Wilde Say?

The 'cultures' found in the Facebook and Twitter communities fascinate me, but I don't feel like I fit in very well in either place. Wittier humans that I have tread this ground, of course, and the differences between these communities have, themselves, become their own memes. It seems to break down like this:

Your Mom uses Facebook. Your Friends use Twitter.

That's not true, of course. But it's the rule-of-thumb I keep in mind when I pass through those places - and I suspect I'm not alone here. To consider the evidence, I made a graph:

Science and Math prove that my main purposes for these popular social media tools are to share pictures of my cat and lure people to this very site (under the pretense of entertainment). So let's just wrap this up by giving people what they want:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Nov 22 - Crash Course

Let's switch things up today and not talk about the GameCube Portable project. We can do that because we didn't work on it today. Well, maybe it got worked on a bit - mostly JediBoy staring at the disassembled trigger, heaving heavy sighs.

The highlight of the day, I suppose, was JediBoy's commitment to take his written driver's test on December 16 - a completely arbitrary date, by the way. He turned 16 back in October and, really, we expected him to be all over the driver's license thing. This is the kid who broke down in tears at the age of 6 because he had to wait 10 more YEARS before he could drive. This is the kid who, for most of his childhood, has looked forward to driving something, anything.

By the time he turned 16, the itch seemed to have healed. Getting his license became one of those things that would happen 'someday' (in the same list as 'comfortable retirement' and 'climbing Machu Pichu'). So we had a talk this evening and agreed he should at least take the written test and get his G1 class - which is basically a license to learn to drive. Come Springtime, he could take some driver training, get his G2 class license, and get some independence *cough*drive-to-a-part-time-job*cough*

In related news, my Insurance Agent was reportedly seen chuckling and rubbing his hands together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Nov 21 - Sometimes We Feel Like This

My lord but we're all sick and tired of hearing about the GameCube Portable project! It's become a sort of Foreign Legion Deathmarch with a climb up Mt. Everest as a cool-down. It is taking forever to make progress, and it doesn't help that we keeping taking 9 steps back every time we take 1 step forward.

But we are in too deep to stop. We've stopped counting the money we've spent on parts and supplies. We've never counted the hours we've spent on false starts and mistakes. Quite simply, we've come too far to quit.

After refreshing my memory about how to calculate resistance on a circuit, I tried wiring up a new LED and the required resistors (I never did visit the store for new supplies, but just used stuff we had lying around the workshop). Obviously I was screwing things up because I couldn't seem to make it work. Either an LED would blow out from too much voltage or it would not glow at all because there was too much resistance. I quickly came to realize I was getting too confused to make this work.

Luck came calling (likely She was on her somewhere else and took a shortcut through our workshop) when I magically found the original (broken) LED and resistor sitting on the workbench - in exactly the placed we looked yesterday. While the LED was still viable, I had no idea if the resistor would work. It was a tad scorched and the lead wire on one end had broken off.

With a strong magnifying glass and a shaky right hand, I soldered a new wire onto the end of the resistor. I expected nothing and had nothing to lose, but the multimeter show that (1) the part still worked and (2) my calculations for a replacement resistor were way off! Afterwards I was able to solder in the LED and add the whole mess back into the motherboard. As expected, everything was back to normal and we had solve one problem!

It was good progress and I was happy to call JediBoy to come have a look. Flushed with success, we decided to have a look-see at the broken trigger. Step 1 would be to somehow remove the mechanism from its epoxy tomb inside the case. This proved easier than we thought. Using a Dremel and some dental picks, we removed enough epoxy to gingerly pull the trigger free and open its mechanism.

We decided that was enough progress for one evening. There would be plenty of time in the coming days to screw things up again. For now, we would feel good about the project.

Nov 20 - Death Spirals

Sunday was all about ends and beginnings, I guess. Our game of brinksmanship with November came to a head as we resigned ourselves that cold wind and snow will come sooner rather than later. With a familiar sadness, we closed down the pond for the season, silencing the waterfall until Spring. The deck and patio furniture was stored Teris-like in the shed and the last bits of garden pruning were brought to the curb. Like the man said, Winter is coming.

JediBoy and I dragged ourselves into the workshop to assess the GameCube Portable's state of affairs. We highlighted 3 areas that needed focus:
  1. An LED and accompanying resistor needed to be repaired or replaced. This was not a major functional problem (we assumed) - more of a cosmetic issue in that the LED only serves as a 'power on' indicator. Since the case already had a hole drilled out for an LED, so we wanted to make this work again.
  2. The right-hand trigger mechanism (already epoxied into the case) needed repairs. At first blush, the 'tact' switch seemed to have slipped out of place, so that would need to be corrected. There might also be an issue with the potentiometer, but further testing would be needed.
  3. The board containing the battery recharge circuitry might not be working properly based on a potential short-circuit. We'd either need to install a spare (not sure if the spare works) or source a replacement.
We decided to tackle the LED problem first since it was the simplest. Avoiding the gory details, we somehow misplaced the broken parts and we found we were lacking the necessary replacement parts. After a few hours of looking at all this carnage, we put off any action until I could visit The Source for some new resistors and LEDs.

Somewhere, the dragons of Skyrim were calling, but I could not answer. Not today.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nov 19 - A Rebuttal

In his comments on a recent post, friend of Cruelty and all-round Red Lantern, Jim Dandy, lobbed the following incendiary over the wall:
I assume you posted this bit of "feel goodishness" to distract us from the unveiling of the Gamecube Portable, which was, I assume, supposed to be unveiled in celebration of the 10th birthday of the Gamecube.
Mr. Dandy trucks in language, so it's hard to tell whether he's anxious to see the unveiling of the GameCube Portable or if he's skeptical that it will amount to anything more than a series of skillful Photoshopped forgeries. To his credit, Jim Dandy pulls back on the joystick with some further commentary:
I sarcastically offer the European launch date (May 3) as your next target as I couldn't meet any date for a project of this kind no matter how far in advance.
So now I think he's actually suggesting that the GameCube portable is entirely feasible, but it's going to take many more months of effort before he can hold it in his hands. In this, as in all things that matter, Mr. Dandy is right on the money.

In hindsight, I have no clear picture in my head of what happened. At Noon today, all signs pointed to making some major progress in getting the GameCube Portable assembled. We dry-fitted the motherboard, batteries, and fan, all to get a sense of where things needed to be. Out of that exercise, we decided that a number of wires could be made much shorter, just to keep the guts of the device as clean as possible.

It should have been simple. Simply clip a middle section out of some wires, twist the ends together, and finish off with a little solder and protective tubing. But everything went to Hell, somehow. A resistor and LED broke away from too much handing. A trigger (yea, that trigger) suddenly stopped working. While triaging those problems, some wires came into contact in a bad way and we may (or may not) have fried the power-recharging circuit-board.

By dinner-time, the project was in dire straits despite my best efforts at cursing it into obedience. JediBoy kept a cool head, of course, and talked me down off the ledge.

"Leave it alone, Dad", he said. "Let's sleep on this and see how it looks in the morning.".

Damn his voice of reason! But he's right. It's time to step away for a few hours.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Nov 18 - Perseverance

For all the moaning and moping I do on this blog, I'm a pretty lucky guy in the grand scheme of things. I'm reasonably healthy, as are my wife and kids. I don't worry too much about the basics - a roof over my head and food on my table. I get to take vacations to nice places. No two ways about it - I'm a lucky guy.

Others are not as lucky as me. They have to work harder for less. They don't get to take things for granted the way I do. This was driven home tonight (in spades) in an unlikely place - my local gym.

I go to the gym about 3 times a week. I may not look it, but that's the honest truth. It's hard and it hurts and I sweat a lot. I'm not even sure I could keep it up if not for the gentle prodding from my family and the long list of podcasts that keep me distracted while I lift, squat, and lunge. I don't always like going to the gym, but I like what it does for my health.

There's another fellow I see at the gym from time to time. I don't know his name or anything much about him. All I can tell you is that he's younger than me, and he lives his life in a wheelchair. And if that weren't enough, he has some manner of motor impairment - a severe palsy shake that reminds me of an serious stage of Parkinson's or the like.

Whenever I see him there, he's hoisted himself from his chair onto a treadmill, where he wills his legs to walk in their herky-jerky fashion while the rest of his shuddering body wants to do otherwise. His face is always the first thing I notice - lips pulled back over gritted teeth, eyes just fixed on something I can't see. He is pure effort and concentration, all to keep his muscles from the atrophy that his condition seems to prefer.

Back to last night. I was mid-way through my workout when I noticed him on his treadmill. As usual, his presence was a gentle nudge to my conscience that I could, indeed, finish my weight routine even if I was tired and sore. As is my habit after finishing my circuit, I went to the reclining bikes to do 10 or 15 minutes of cool-down pedalling before hitting the showers.

Immersed in in my podcast, I paid little attention at first to the movement beside me. Then I noticed it was That Guy, still sweating from the treadmill and now trying to pull himself from wheelchair to bike. I tried not to notice him and yet I was fascinated by his efforts. Blind willpower seemed to be the only thing propelling him onto the bike seat. All the while, every part of his body, every limb, trying like hell to launch into random orbits around him.

Somehow he made it onto the seat, with his next goal to aim his toes under the straps on the bike pedals. Again, severe palsied shudders tried to make the task impossible and, again, somehow he did it with almost infinite patience. I remember thinking that he must perceive time differenly than me, just because every movement was such a deliberate, lengthy negotiation with his muscles.

His right foot in place, his left foot defied the straps at first, but after a few tries he seemed to have it. And then the left strap gave way. The fellow lost concentration as his left leg shot forward, then backward, again and again. He uttered a cry of frustration that I could hear even through the drone of my iPod.

I noticed the problem and paused a second as I wondered if I should help, or maybe that would be taken as a patronizing gesture. The split-second argument in my brain ended the moment I realized I wouldn't think twice about helping someone without a disability. To keep the idiocy momentum in my brain, I quickly pulled out my earbuds and started gesturing to the fellow that I could help - like somehow he was foreign and wouldn't understand me speaking English.

He knew exactly what I was asking him. Even though he had trouble speaking himself, of course he could understand me. So I asked him again, one guy to another, if he wanted me to help. He nodded wildly and gestured towards his left leg. So I knelt and helped him put his foot on the pedal as I snapped the strap back into place. Once he let me know that it was tightened enough, I got back on my bike and finished my ride.

I watched him some more while the remaining minutes of my routine ticked towards zero. He willed his legs to pedal while his hands, fingers tense and twisted, pawed at the controls so that he could set the time and speed of his ride. He talked some more as he tried to hit the correct series of buttons. Truth be told, I couldn't understand his words, but I imagined he was just barking orders at his unruly hands as they negotiated the control panel before him.

A few minutes later I was done and getting off my bike. I silently cursed myself for not introducing myself, getting his name. Would I have done any differently for someone else? (Probably not). I thought about him for the rest of the evening. I imaginied every small task requring Herculean effort. I imagined the grim reality of knowing that, for all the hours spent sweating on a treadmill, it might never make a difference.

I will wave at him next time I see him. Or maybe just nod my head the way guys do. But he'll probably never know that he inspires me a little bit every time I walk into the gym. And that's kind of a shame.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nov 17 - Windmill Tilting

Nothing happened today. I went to work, closed the door, got stuff done with the requisite levels of stress and anger, and then emerged for the mad dash home. It's more and more like that everyday - just a brain in a bottle.

But already I've lied. Something almost happened today. Our local chapter of the Occupy movement had planned a protest march for this afternoon, and the building in which I which I toil for money was going to be one of their targets. Rather than face their wrath, I left the office early and finished my work at home.

I wasn't really nervous about some kind of face-off. It was just a good excuse to work from home, where the coffee is free and the clothing is optional. But I was pretty curious about the outcome of thw Occupy march. I won't opine too much about the movement, but our local version is rather small and the inevitable splintering into factions has already begun. It was a good bet that the march would only involve a couple of dozen disenfranchised souls. Then again, maybe they could muster a couple of hundred people to brave the cold wind blowing the first snowflurries of Winter down the main drag.

The evening news confirmed the probable. The protest started much later than planned and only managed to draw 30 or so die-hard Occupiers. By the time they made their way to my office building, darkness had fallen and most workers had gone home for the day. It was a sad picture in my mind - poor, sad souls chanting their anger at nothing and everything, and no one around to see their desperate faces in the half-light.

Like I say, something almost happened today.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nov 16 - Getting Sticky

Wednesday should have involved going to the gym, but my ass was lazy and I had promised JediBoy that we'd work on the dreaded GameCube Portable. With the triggers rebuilt and seemingly functional, the next step was to finally glue them into place within the case. And when I say 'glue them into place' you know I really mean 'glue them into place only to find a problem afterwards'.

It was fussy work. Being commitment-phobic men, we seemed to spend forever finding the exact spot to place the trigger mechanism. The triggers, themselves, needed to poke out the appropriate openings in the case to be reachable by vidya-gaming geek fingers. They also needed enough travel space to be fully depressed.

On the inside of the case, the underlying trigger mechanisms needed to lay as flat and as low in the case as possible. This to keep them out of the way of other components and give us lots of surface area for the epoxy that would fix the triggers to their sticking places.

With a wee bit of trimming here and there, we found our spots. First came a few dabs of hot glue, just to hold the mechanisms in their places. Next, we hooked up some wires and gingerly tested the triggers (Link's shield did all the proper trigger tricks). The final step was to slather on the epoxy to ensure the triggers stayed put.

With all the stress and screwing around, getting the triggers installed was major step forward in getting to 'Done' on the project. It was also a major relief to JediBoy and I - a bit of a mental respite until the next hangnail is discovered.

Nov 15 - There Be Dragons

Tuesday, Tuesday... lemme see, what can I say about Tuesday?

Work was, once and always, something I do in lieu of being wealthy. The evening was spent playing some Skyrim with JediBoy, all the while arguing over the definition of 'back-seat driver'. The late evening was spent playing pickup hockey with a beer/Tylenol chaser.

I did my best to avoid it, but I know my subconscious was churning over the GameCube Portable - imagining all of the other scenarios that could go very, very wrong.

So, the usual.

Nov 14 - Wanna Shoot The Whole Day Down

Kee-riste I'm sucking at keeping up with a daily dose of ennui here.

So today was a Monday and, like the girl said, I don't like Mondays. I had a full day of meetings, which is not cool. After dinner was a trip to the gym where I discovered the podcast I wanted to hear was not loaded on my iPod, which is definitely not cool. The highlight of the evening may or may not have involved watching an imported British television show, which actually was cool.

Since the 'not cool' outnumber the 'cool' by a 2:1 margin, here's this:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nov 13 - Two Days Time-Travel

Sunday did not get any better. Yesterday's issue with the GameCube Portable project was still staring us in the face (no Shoemaker's Elves appeared overnight to fix our problems). So I did what I always do when I'm trying to ignore a difficult problem, I looked for easier problems to solve. Freud might suggest this approach gives me an artificial sense of accomplishment while I avoid the real issues in my life. And he'd be right.

But what Freud doesn't understand is that avoiding the GameCube Portable problems means that a squeaky light-switch is no longer annoying the laundry room, cold air is no longer blowing under the front door, and the lights in the upstairs bathroom are no longer humming. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, right Sigmund?

But it wasn't all about shirking on a Sunday. I did try to fix the GameCube's offending potentiometer thingamajig. While I got it working a little better, it was definitely not going to do the job. So on my trip to Lowes for weatherstripping and light-switches, I stopped in at EB Games on the off chance they might have some old GameCube controllers gathering dust with the rest of Nintendo's current product line.

Luckily, they had a couple of cheap-ass third-party controllers on the shelf. Not really knowing if these knockoffs would have the right kind of parts, I bought one anyways. The clerk behind the cash register was only mildly interested in the fact that I needed the controller for parts. While he thought the GameCube Portable project sounded cool, there was no huzzah from the surprisingly large Sunday-shopping crowd in the store. This disappointed my Ego.

At home, we ripped open the controller and found that we got lucky - the controller had the exact type of potentiometer we needed. From there it was simply an exercise in being very, very careful in rebuilding the broken trigger. Once the solder and glue was dry, we tested everything with the help of our buddy Link.


And after two days of worrying and rebuilding, we were back to where we thought we were two days ago.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nov 12 - What Did I Say About Saturdays?

Oh, that's right, I said Saturdays made sense. You may as well know that I was high (or worse) when I said that, because this particular Saturday made no sense. If I were to make a list of everything that went right, it would look like this:
  1. I went to the gym and worked out for an hour
Now, if I were to make a list of everything that went wrong, it would look something like this:
  1. I broke one of the triggers we built for the GameCube Portable
To the naked eye, these lists look to be equal equal length. But in reality, the Gone Wrong list is much, much longer. The trigger was sort of already broken, and when we actually noticed the problem, I took the lead and broke it some more while try to fix it.

In itself, this is bad enough. Context is everything, however - we noticed the problem at the exact moment we started to (finally) assemble the finished GameCube Portable. Our assembly step was over before it even began. And just to pile on the pain, we have no spares for the part that broke. Know why? We broke our 2 spares while trying to build the original trigger mechanism.

So, we need to repair the trigger somehow before we can proceed with assembly. And to repair the trigger, we'll need to find a new/used GameCube controller that we can rip apart - all to find a potentiometer thingamajig about the size of a fingernail:

Can't wait for tomorrow!

Nov 11 - And There You Go

The planets aligned so nicely for an enjoyable Nov 11: Skyrim goes g/a and the kids have school. My wife would normally be at work, but she opted to take a vacation day - all the while acknowledging that, you know, Skyrim does go g/a.

I joined a small gaggle of geeks as the doors to Future Shop opened at 10am, and we formed an orderly mob all looking for their copy of Skyrim. I paid for my purchase and went straight home to pop it in the Xbox.


All the time in the world to goof off with my new video game, but such dreams were dashed on the rocky shores of Responsibility. We needed groceries, we needed cat food, my wife needed some help with other errands - from these tasks I could not shirk.

Don't get me wrong, I did get a few hours of slack-jawed goofiness running my Dark Elf through the mountains of Tamriel. But a family needs to eat, right?

Nov 10 - One More Day

Even though it was only Thursday, I treated the day like it was a Friday - complete with blue jeans for office attire and the attitude that anything requiring effort can bloody well wait for Monday. Truth is, I have Friday (Nov 11) off work, so Nov 10 was the end of the work week.

I have plans. They're very simple plans. I'm going to buy a new video game - Skyrim - first thing in the morning and then I'm going to spend a lot of time playing that game. There'll be no kids around with whom I have to share. My wife will be home, but she understands my simple plans.

Are these selfish plans? Yessiree they are, because Nov 11 is always my selfish day.

Somehow, of course, these plans will not work out.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nov 9 - Pity The Cat

With my lovely wife on the road this week, I've been in full Mr. Mom mode on the homefront. This, of course, meant my kids and I ordered junk food for dinner this evening and then watched cartoons as we ate our way into early, plus-sized graves.

It's a funny thing being a sometimes-single parent. This has been our norm, off and on, for about 10 years or so. My wife takes regular-ish work trips out of town and I hold down the fort. Back when this all first began, my brats' ages spanned 5-ish to 8-ish. With kids that young, it took effort to be the single Dad: getting up early to get myself and my kids ready for the day, dropoffs/pickups at the sitter's place, planning dinner, playing with the kids until bedtime, etc. etc. etc. By the end of the day, I was be too exhausted to do much more than stare at the television before falling asleep.

I always imagined that as the kids got older and could do more for themselves, the parenting effort would get more manageable. But I was wrong - the effort simply changes. Where there used to be 'doing things' for small people, there is now getting less-small people to 'do things' for themselves (through effective nagging). Where evenings were spent simply hanging out with the toys, now there is pretending to be helpful with homework that is often incomprehensible. In all this, the end of my day still trends towards staring at the television and praying for sleep.

I'm just struck at how quickly the world changes in a few short years. While my wife and I would mostly prefer that she didn't have to travel for her job, I love - and always have loved - the time I get to spend with my kids during her absences. It gives me the opportunity to be better parent, even if I don't always seize the chance. Trite as it may sound, it keeps me grounded. But the hard reality is this phase of parenthood is coming to an end fairly quickly. In the next couple of years, it's quite likely that the kids will be out of the house, hopefully pursuing whatever education they think they need for whatever it is they want to do with their lives.

And when that time comes, I'll be able to focus my parental attention on the cat with laser intensity. Her fur will never be so well brushed, I fear.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nov 8 - Stumped!

Eight days into 30 Days of Awesome, two days behind in posting, and I'm already feeling stumped. Well, maybe not so much stumped, but vaguely repetitive. Nevertheless, these were the highlights of the day:

JediBoy and I worked a little bit more on the GameCube Portable project. Basically, we needed to settle on the exact placement of the optical drive on the back of case. This was important because there's only so much real estate back there, and the drive needs to be well clear of the trigger controls while still allowing for a removeable drive cover to be installed at some point. Long short short, it took almost an hour to figure out where to drill 4 bolt-holes and trim away some plastic to let the drive motor move freely. Baby steps, every one 'em.

Tuesday night is my pickup hockey night, and I got injured. I wish I had a great story involving heroic goal-scoring with a breathtaking disregard for my personal safety. But the fact is I cut my finger pretty good while taking off my helmet between shifts. My finger got pinched in the face-cage. I did manage a little bravado using my bloodied finger to stain a few spots on my (white) hockey jersey . Alas, no one noticed.

So, how many more days do I have to do this?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nov 7 - This Exists

There are a handful of websites I mean to check out more often. In the Non-Porn category, the Internet Archive (home of the legendary Wayback Machine) is one of those places I mean to spend time but never really do. The reason, perhaps subconsciously, is that it's the epitome of 'time suck'. Here's why.

Founded in 1996, the Archive has a very simple mission: universal access to all knowledge. It's a lofty goal that takes its inspiration from the ancient Library of Alexandria, and these guys aren't screwing around. If something can be digitized (and, really, what can't?), then it's fair game for the Archive.

Divided into roughly 9 major collections, the Archive includes Internet history, moving images, still images, text, audio - a whole world to fill up your days with endless clicking. Poking down obscure hallways of the Archive often leads to vast and unexpected warehouses of history.

Looking for old newsreels or classic cartoons? You're in luck. Need to dig up a Microsoft manual from 1998? It might be there! Maybe you need 10 reviews of a classic video game. There's a great chance it's there. Say! What did the Canadian Tire website look like in 1998? They got that, too.

So in case you have yet to be infected by curiosity, here's a piece of history from a dusty drawer found in the Archive. It's yours to enjoy, before you do click away.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Nov 6 - How To Ruin a Perfectly Reasonable Day

I had to go to a benefit concert tonight. It's a yearly event to raise money in aid of a particular African country. I'm not sure if each person in said country gets a cut, but I like to think they do. The cause is worthwhile but, truthfully, we probably wouldn't go (or even know about the event) if it weren't for the fact that at least one of my kids is always in a choir that participates in the concert.

The way it works is this: there are musical performances and speeches all leading toward the passing of the collection plate. But it's all above-board. We know the organizers will try and tug at our heartstrings and they know that we'll all donate a few bucks. And in between, we get to hear some pretty great choir performances and listen to some well-known Canadian say a few words on some subject related to the evening.

But every year, part of me dreads the event because of one particular musical performer. I won't use her name here and I've resisted a link to YouTube, but she's kind of a local celebrity - a professional singer - and has been deeply involved in this particular charity for as a long as I can remember. I'm sure she's a perfectly nice person and I'm sure we'd get along just grand. But I cannot stand her singing voice. In my head, she's a terrible singer and the idea of spending an entire evening listening to her particular song stylings is a lot to bear. This year was no different, other than she sang a lot more than previous years and I had to dig just a little deeper inside myself to find my Happy Place.

Like I say, it's a lot bear. But bear it I do - for Africa.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Nov 5 - Saturdays Make Sense

Saturday is the perfect day of the week - safely tucked between the work week just ended and the next one just ahead. While Friday is all about reaching the shore and Sunday is spent dreading the on-coming storm, Saturday is a safe harbour where one can remain warm and dry for the moment.

I make the most of my Saturdays. A morning that started with errands gave way to an early afternoon respite with coffee, friends, and conversation. This was all just prelude to an afternoon spent on nudging the GameCube Portable project just a little closer to 'done'.

The electronic guts complete, recent weeks have been focused on the case design (for which we've had many false starts and deadends). But now the case is all-but-complete. The pieces have been glued together and holes have been cut drilled - after which there were alternating phases of Bondo and sanding. Three coats of black paint have been applied to, in part, hide any imperfections in our bodywork.

Before the case can be clear-coated for a protective shine, there is one last detail to tackle: labels. There are signs and letters that need to be added to the case to denote which sockets will accept headphones and power cords. The 'Z' button needs to be set apart from the 'brightness' and 'volume' controls. But how to do this?

A first step was to create the various symbols and labels so that they could be printed out somehow. My son, JediBoy selected the font (Amiga!) and determined the sizing. With a little help from the Internet, Photoshop, and Gimp, we created the needed symbols and logo. Now that we had the right content, the next step would be figuring out how to add them to the outside of the case.

Our idea was to (InkJet) print everything onto thin plastic sheets. Everything would be carefully cut out and affixed to the case. It would be held into place with a few coats of clear acrylic sealer. In principle, it should have worked. But in practise, it did not. The fundamental issue stemed from the choice of a black case. We just could not print anything bright enough on plastic that show up well against the black paint. Yellow, the lightest colour possible (one cannot print 'white' on an Inkjet), was simply too washed out when printed on plastic.

Instead, we would need to print our labels onto something with white backing to get enough contrast against the black case. This is where we entered the wonderful world of water-slide decals. Anyone who has ever built a plastic model kit will know all about these kinds of decals. You cut them out, soak them in water, and then slide the thin film images onto the model where they dry into place.

After a lot of time spent in Internet forums for model-makers, we learned that we could make your own custom decals! At a local hobby shop we were able to purchase blank decal paper suitable for running through an Inkjet printer. We opted to use 'white backed' decal paper to get the right contrast. After some trial and error (and some label re-design), it all worked. Add a could sprays of clearcoat, and the results look pretty good!

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, eh?

Nov 4 - Always With the Cat Food

After a week spent drinking Irish Whiskey in the evening and taking long lunches in the afternoon, Friday was a bloody let-down. Here are the highlights:
  • I got a spare key made for the new car because....well, just because...
  • I bought a cargo net for the back of the new car because it seemed like we should have a cargo net
  • I went to the pet store and bought cat food. This got the cat excited and I felt validated as a human.
  • I looked at old photos with my wife, during which time we went Full Fogey and wondered how the kids grew up so fast (while we did not)
  • I experimented with making decals for The Boy's portable GameCube project (more to come)
  • I watched TV with The Boy when I really should have been putting in the effort to read my book
Maybe it was a result of the old photos, or maybe it was just the beer and codeine, but the evening hours brought on a the unmistakable melancholy of time passing too quickly - connections to friends and family stranded in the wake of cat food and cargo nets. Thankfully, The Boy and I had an episode of Parks and Rec waiting for us on the PVR, and all perception of passing time was obliterated in the TV's LCD glow.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Nov 3 - No More Constant

I dreaded this day. It had been coming for months - ample time to prepare. But I still still dreaded this day because things were going to change and the change was going to remind me that Time can be a right old bastard.

This story really starts in June 1988 when I began my employment at the place where I toil to this very day (forgive my Dickensian flourishes). While I was somewhat experienced in my craft, I was still young with plenty of space between my ears to fill up with experience and knowledge. There I met Charles, already a veteran of the Firm and one of the smartest computer geeks I had ever met (or ever would meet, as it turns out). Charles needed a programmer to work with him on a bit of a research project and I was the kid assigned to write the code for him.

What was supposed to be a 3-week engagement turned into a 23-year partnership of sorts. Inside the office: he was often my mentor, we worked together on countless projects, we travelled the continent on behalf of the Firm, and we somehow survived the brutality that is life inside a mega-corp. Outside the office: we played in the same D&D group, knew each other's families well enough, shared similar hobbies, and considered ourselves friends.

Through the years, I think we always just assumed we'd always be at our desks, always a shout away. No matter what changes Time would impose on the Firm, at least we'd still be around to chat about how great things used to be. But in the back of my mind, I knew Charles - 15 years my senior - would not be at desk someday.

And so I dreaded November 3, 2011, because that was the day Charles was leaving the desk just across the hall from mine. It had happened gradually, I suppose. We seldom worked together on the same projects anymore. Charles' work took him out of the city more and more, and while we kept in touch almost daily, his desk was often abandoned. I got used to it.

I had expected Charles to retire. He kept promising he would, but it was always 'just a couple more years'. So we were surprised when he announced that, rather than retire, he was moving (reluctantly) to another city to be closer to his current work assignment and closer to where his grown children (and grandson) now live. Again, retirement was going to be 'just a couple more years' away.

Houses were bought and sold, and Charles set a date to leave the local office for good. We couldn't let the day pass uncelebrated, so myself and another co-worker spent the afternoon with Charles taking a long, expensive lunch break and then retiring to a lounge with comfortable chairs where we could talk about the old days while a waitress kept our glasses full.

At the end of the day, I helped Charles carry the last of his office possessions to his car. A sunny day turned grey with clouds and the wind grew cooler. We stood there, just the two of us, by his car.

"Well, buddy. This is it, I guess", he said, extending his hand. His voice cracked.

I shook his hand and mumbled something about keeping in touch. And then we hugged in that awkward way men hug. Both remarked at how surreal it all was, and then I wandered off into the darkening afternoon.

We will keep in touch, of course. Our work lives will intersect from time to time. And Charles will likely need to visit the local office now and then. I'm guessing we'll even get to take one of our usual lunchtime walks on some of those occasions.

But everything has changed. Time has seen to that. What has been constant for 23 years has disappeared, simply because it must make way for new constants. But that doesn't make Time any less a right old bastard.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Nov 2 - Big Whiskey

Seeing as how it's Wednesday, I don't remember much. If you cast your mind back to the beginning of 30 Days of Awesome, you'll recall that I play hockey on Tuesday nights as an excuse to drink beer and pass out in my bed, under the bluish glow of my TV-come-nightlight. If there's a moral in any of this nonsense, it's this: do not fuck with me on Wednesday mornings. Just don't. I'm tired. I'm sore. I have a heachache. I do not want to be your friend.

So this is why November 2 is more-or-less blurry, except for a few hazy highlights that shone through my codeine haze.

My new vehicle (3 months old) went into the garage to have something fixed. It was a small item, covered by warranty, but it was a nuisance all the same. There's something about the inside of a car dealership that just makes me feel.... dirty.

Work sucked in that special way that makes me truly ponder whether I need to earn money to survive. People were calling me - on the phone! - and asking me for things. They were doing this on a Wednesday.

But I had a lunch date with a group of co-workers and that was pretty okay by me. While it was a sad occasion - saying farewell to a colleague moving on to less-brown pastures - I at least got a nice meal, a bottle of beer, some reasonable conversation, and the afternoon mellowness that only a full belly can provide.

The evening was dinner and conversation with my visiting In-laws. They're nice people (even for a Wednesday). As is the evening tradition when visiting with my father-in-law, there were beverages. And on this particular evening it was 2 rather large glasses of Irish Whiskey - a souvenir gift from my In-laws' recent vacation in Ireland. This provided sufficient lubrication for watching the late-evening news on TV, which is another tradition under these circumstances.

So that's November 2nd - yet another Wednesday where I resisted the urge to kill.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

30 Days of Bland

Sometimes blogging can be a little like flossing your teeth - we all have the best intentions, but it doesn't take much to let things slide once in awhile. Rest assured that I have, indeed, done some flossing in the last couple of months, which is more than I can say about posting anything in this sad, dusty corner of the Interwebs.

So here's what I'm thinking: I'll force myself to post something everyday for the month of November - 30 days, 30 posts. The highlight may well be some horrific, gonzo reportage of a particularly bloody engagement with dental floss, but there will be content.

Now you're probably noticing the date here is November 2. And you're also thinking you've been ripped off - that I've tripped right out of the 30 Day starting gate. Fact is, I thought of this idea on October 31 just before the Witching Hour. So, it counts. And you'll get your November 2 post, too.

So what is the premiere post for this 30 Days of Awesome? It must be something compelling, something to grab you and keep you coming back day after empty day, right?

Not really. November 1 was nothing much special. I got up at 6am and drove my son to band practise. Then I went to work and dreamed of lottery wins that never will be. I went home again where my visiting In-laws were waiting (they're nice people, so no story there). We had dinner and I remember why I kind of dislike crockpots. I Googled a particular brand of shoes for my father-in-law. I helped my son a little bit with his physics project (assembling a model rocket). I went to play pickup hockey and drink beer. And then finally closed my eyes again about 1:30am.

See? It's kind of boring and yet jam-packed. But you're wondering if we're going to build on something. You're wondering what could possibly top November 1. And you'll back. You may even hate yourself for admitting it, but you'll be back.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Not Another 9/11 Story

I thought about posting this yesterday, September 11, 2011, but it felt a little 'Me Too' for a day that probably doesn't need more stories to tell. This is not so much a story about 9/11, but more a recollection of that day - how personal connections manifest in the most unexpected ways.

At 9am on September 11, 2001 I was sitting at my kitchen table scanning the 'want ads' and wondering why I had voluntarily left a job just a few days before (another story). The TV in the next room was tuned to 'Regis and Kelly' just for the background noise (I swear!). As I sat there feeling a little bit worried for myself, the first reports started to trickle in as Regis announced that a small plane may have flown into one of the WTC towers.

Obviously, the rest is history.

For the remainder of that day and the days after, I was sucking up every bit of news like everyone else - trying to make sense of things that made little sense. We started to learn the names of the victims and that's where the story got a little more personal. For when the Canadian victims became known, I recognized one of the names.

I'll just call him Ken (and Google can provide the rest of the details if you need them). Ken was not my close friend and it had been a few years since I'd even thought about him. He was, at one time, a professional associate of mine. I was working for a large company looking to buy some technology and Ken was working for a smaller company looking to sell some technology.

I spent many months working on a project to implement the technology that Ken was providing to us. He was 'the sales guy' and we saw Ken a lot during those months. When we had a problem, when we needed something, Ken was the go-to guy. Like I say, we only had a professional relationship, although we did socialize from time-to-time over an expense-account steak dinner or maybe a round of golf (something at which Ken excelled while most of us IT guys did not).

When his name popped up in those 9/11 news reports, it stopped me cold. This was a connection, a human connection, to a tragedy so far removed from my everyday world. In the following days I would talk to my network of colleagues and get a little more context for this sad story. Ken had moved into a new job at a new company. He was having a breakfast meeting with his new management team - a meeting being held on the 106th floor of the North Tower of the WTC. It was the first tower to be hit by an aircraft that day, an aircraft travelling hundred of miles per hour when it struck the building just 10 stories below Ken. We learned that he managed to make at least one phone call while the smoke engulfed the top of the tower, and Ken knew he likely wouldn't be finding a way out.

Again, the rest is history.

So when the topic of 9/11 arises, as it has on this 10th anniversary of that destruction, I think about where I was when it happened and I think about Ken. I think about the man I once knew and I think about what his last minutes must have been like. I try to put myself in his place and imagine the terror and sorrow of knowing true inevitability. And I think about his family - his wife, his son, his daughter - and the grief they must carry every day.

In the end, I think about the connections we make in life and how they can surprise us in so many ways. And I remind myself that life really is too unpredictable and too short to be simply taken for granted, so we better make the very best of it while we're here.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Haunting in Ottawa

Ed. Note: I warned you all there would be more.

If anyone ever tells you that Ottawa, Ontario, Canada - our Nation's Capital - has a night life, they are either liars or their idea of 'night life' is vomiting outside the faux-Irish pubs in the Byward Market. Rest assured, Ottawa's sidewalks really do roll up once the Peace Tower clock strikes 6pm.

So there we were - myself, my wife, and my youngest kid - in Ottawa on a July evening wondering what we could do to pass the time once the Sun disappeared. By chance, I spied a brochure in our hotel's lobby that provided the answer: Ghost Walk!

For the timid and the uninitiated, a Ghost Walk is a basically an escorted night-time walking tour through an old neighbourhood. Along the way, your escort (typically clad in a black cape and carrying a candle-lantern) will stop from time to time to act out a spooky tale ripped from the pages of the town's history. I've noticed these things popping up in many old Canadian cities: Ottawa, Quebec City, Halifax, Kingston - even here in my sleepy London, Ontario environs.

I'd actually done one of these Walks several years ago in Quebec City with my oldest kid in tow. It was a foggy night in one Canada's oldest towns and we had a blast (that's another story), so I figured that shuffling down the dark alleys of our Nation's Capital should be good for a fright or two (beyond seeing one of those Byward Market dandies hurling up their Guinness).

I made the necessary reservations for our chosen evening with Haunted Walks. It turned out they were offering 2 different tours: one that was a standard walking tour and one called 'Ghosts and the Gallows' that would concentrate more on Death Row in the historical Old Carleton County Jail. The decision to take the Gallows tour was easy - it had a disclaimer that it was not suitable for young children. That said to us that the joint would be full of ghosts!

Because luck is always on our side, the horrific rainstorm that swept through Ottawa that day blew itself out early enough that our Gallows tour was still a go. We met our guide, Maura, at the appointed place shortly before 9pm. While there were literally dozens of people who'd shown up for their Ghost Walk, it turned out that they were all there for the 'standard' Walk - creampuffs all. In contrast, the Gallows tour would only include 7 brave souls, including ourselves. Luckier yet, 4 of those souls (another family) ended up cancelling at the last minute (creampuffs perhaps?), so Maura would be giving the Crazylegs-Clan-Minus-One a private tour!

During our short jouney from the shadow of the Parliament Buildings to the Carleton Jail, Maura stopped a few times to spin a spooky story. While she gave it her all, it was a little bit of an odd experience. Number one, she was performing for an audience of 3, and I felt the weight of responsibility to 'ooh' and 'ahh' with a little extra gusto. Number 2, for all of its age and significance, Ottawa has a lot of modern buildings and they just don't provide the right atmosphere (compared to someplace like Quebec City).

Maura leads the way to the Other Side.

Awkwardness aside, walking up to the big doors of the Carleton Jail provided ample atmosphere and the promise of spooks inside. By reputation, the Jail is supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in North America. I'm guessing there are many old buildings with the same designation, however. While the Jail actually serves as a youth hostel these days, the upper floor containing the jails has been preserved as-is and is off-limits to guests according to some rather impressive padlocks.

Up the stairs we went, where Maura produced a ring of keys to let us into the off-limits jails. Our first stop was the jail cells, where Maura would relay a number of ghost stories - many of them involving Hostel guests attempting to spend the night in the cells and losing their nerve before dawn. The best story - and I hope it's true - involves a few German guests who, upon complaining to Hostel attendant about the lack of ghostly goings-on, were treated to a coin mysteriously levitating in front of their eyes for a solid 5 minutes before falling to the floor.

Inside the Carleton Jail front doors...

...and up the dimly-lit back stairs.

The first thing that struck me about the jails, besides the obvious fact that they are extremely cramped, was the silence. With the 4 of us standing at the end of the cell block, the silence seemed like it should be anything but silent. It was the kind of hissing silence that played tricks on your ears and made you think you heard the whispers of the poor bastards that might have called the place 'home' for awhile. 

Maura left us alone for a moment while she went to unlock the doors that would later take us to Death Row. We tried to take a few touristy pictures inside the cells, but the lighting was too dim for the camera to properly focus. After a few nervous giggles about our photographic skills, Maura called us to come through the door. I lingered behind for a few moments longer, running my camcorder with an embarrassed hope that maybe I'd capture something from the Other Side - just like on the ridiculous 'ghost hunting' shows that populate the 3-digit channels on my TV. I will admit that the hairs on the back of my neck did stand on end and I was quick to re-join our little band of ghostbusters down the hall.

Alone in the cells awaiting my Casper encounter.

Death Row is a handful of cells apart from the main cellblock and separated at one time by a set of 2 heavy iron doors. I say 'at one time' because the doors have since been removed by Hostel staff. The story goes that the doors were notorious for slamming shut on their own, often with people dangerously close to being hurt. The final straw came when a Ghost Walk escort had her finger crushed in the doors, which prompted the doors to be removed. Adjacent to Death Row is a plain wooden door that hides what is today a storage room but, back in the day, was where the executioner would emerge when the Gallows were in use. Maura told stories of mysterious noises - talking, thudding, etc. - eminating from the behind the doors. We heard nothing, of course.

Death Row!

The executioner's door.

Having seen the cells, we made our way to the Gallows. I'm not sure what I expected, but the Gallows are easy to miss. It is basically a closet-sized room tacked onto the side of the building. There is a noose, a lever, and a trapdoor that opens 3 stories above terra firma. Maura's story at this stop involved the hanging of a fellow who protested his innosence and spoke a curse to the ground below his noose. According to Maura, there are dozens of instances of Walk guests who, when standing on the ground below the Gallows, have endured spontaneous nose-bleeds - not quite a pox on their houses, but a curse nonetheless. In case anyone is wondering, we had no such affliction. 

As a post-script to the Gallows, Maura pointed out a more informal gallows in the same stairwell, where it is thought (but not proven) that the old-time jail guards may have carried out their own sentences out of sight of the offical Gallows. We were told that, sometimes, Walk guests get an irrationally uneasy feeling when passing this way.

The Gallows awaits another deserving crimnal.

A more informal place to string a rope.

By 10:30pm we had seen what Maura wanted us to see and followed her back to the Byward Market, which Haunted Walks' office calls home. Predictably, they have a small gift shop and, predictably, my son bought a book. We bid our good-byes and thanks, and picked our way through the street people and the tipsy revellers that populated the streets between Maura and our hotel.

As a post-script to the story, I was quick to inspect my video footage on our return home to London a few days later. While my rational brain knew there would be no extraordinary audio whispers or unexplained balls of light chasing through the cells, my more imaginative grey matter hoped otherwise. Alas, there was nothing, not even a technicolour puddle of Guinness for shock value.