Thursday, July 31, 2008

HNT - A Really Useful Day Trip

Last Friday we took a day trip out to St. Thomas (about half an hour outside of London, ON), to visit Thomas in the "Day Out with Thomas" event. It's basically a day where you get to meet Thomas the Tank Engine and go for a ride on him.

Of course, when I mentioned that we'd be riding on Thomas, Alexander immediately corrected me. "No, Daddio," he said. "We're riding on Annie and Clarabel, not on Thomas" (Annie and Clarabel, of course, being the two coaches he often lugs around) As often happens, I stood corrected.

This week's HNT post is, simply enough, a shot I took of myself standing in front of Thomas.

Beauty, eh?

And just for fun, here are some other shots taken that day.

Thomas rolls into the station as Alexander and I cheer

And below is a family shot of us during the 20 minute train ride. I loved the fact that the conductors (two of them standing behind us) were dressed perfectly for the part they played. Interestingly enough the two gentleman standing behind us in the picture spent a good part of the journey arguing about whether or not global warming was actually occurring.

I thought that on a Thomas ride they should be arguing over who the most useful engine was that day. (My vote would have been for Thomas. After all, he made all the children -- particularly me -- very happy that day)

And it really is a good thing that Sir Topham Hatt didn't find out that these two guys were arguing so insistently during the train ride instead of playing their roles. If he found out, there certainly would have been hell to pay.

No, seriously, has anyone besides me ever wondered about the anal retentive tendencies about the head of the railroad Sir Topham Hatt? Doing a tiny bit of research, I found out that he was originally known as The Fat Controller.

It's a bit more fitting of a name for this Type A personality who really pushes those engines to work harder and is very much a big controller. Sure, you have to work hard and give it your best, but there's got to be room for balance. I mean, he rarely gives anyone a break and is all work, no play. He's definitely the kind of boss that most people would want to avoid and is likely responsible for the need for unions to develop.

I think that my own nickname for this this guy -- Sir Crackem' Whip -- is an even more fitting name.

But then again, I spend too much time analyzing kid's television programs.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Da Count - When in Baltimore, I Drank A Really Fine Beer

Recently, on a trip to and from Storrs, Connecticut, my traveling companion Rick and I drove to Buffalo where we caught a flight to Baltimore, MD, had a layover for about an hour and a half, then caught a flight to Hartford, CT. From there it was another 40 or so minutes to drive to Storrs.

Each layover was near or pretty close to dinner time, and our connecting gate was close to a terminal restaurant/bar called Obrycki's (well known for their crab cakes).

It was there that we sat at the bar, chatted with the bartender and enjoyed a glass of Baltimore's own Obrycki's amber lager. As many readers of my blog will know, one of my favourite things to do when traveling is to sample as many local beers as possible.

And Obrycki's beer is one worth returning to. We stopped in again on our return layover, chatted with the same friendly and fun bartender, ate and enjoyed another Obrycki's lager.

The next time I get a chance to visit Baltimore, I'm hoping it's for longer than an hour and a half and that I get an opportunity to visit the original Obrycki's, order a larger meal (yes, I forgot to mention their food was good, though I didn't try their signature crab cakes) and a pitcher of their beer. Of course, it would only be right if I at least visited the airport location and had a beer and chatted with the cool bartender there while I was in town.

See, even when a trip is a lot of fun, sometimes those side trips and side-effect experiences (like having to wait at an airport for your connecting flight) can be a great thing. And that's what I'm counting this week.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

HNT - I Only Regret That I Have But Five Bucks To Give This Casino

This past week (and weekend) I traveled to Connecticut for the annual Ratex Users Group (or RUG) Conference, which was hosted by the good folks at the UCONN bookstore. The RUG conference is always both a good time and a great way to learn more about the system that we use to manage our businesses -- there are workshop sessions, discussion sessions and presentations on upcoming features that will be included in the new releases.

One of the best things about these conferences, though, is the information sharing that often occurs during breaks and lunches -- when you can simply sit down with a user of the same system from another store and talk about different strategies and approaches for your business.

During one of the social evenings, our hosts took us on a bus trip to Foxwoods Resort Casino. Not ever having been really interested in casinos, neither Francine nor I had ever been in one. So, after a great buffet dinner, I expored the casino with the cool dudes from the Waterloo University Bookstore, Randy and Lauri.

We sat down at the 25 cent machines and each put in our small bills and gave the machines a shot. It wasn't all that exciting pressing a button and watching to see if you lined up 3 symbols, so while we found it interesting, we were happy to move on after exhausting our luck. Sure, every 8 or 9 pushes of the button we'd win some small amount of coin to our pot, but mostly we slowly pissed our money away. Not really my idea of a great time -- I can think of much better ways of pissing my money away -- beer comes to mind. (Think about it this way - go into a large office or hotel building and press the call button for the elevator and see if all 3 elevator doors open at the same time -- there are your odds for winning something big)

There was a fun moment when, having deposited $5.00 into a machine, my pot was up to $9.50. I printed my ticket out so Randy could take my picture as a winner. What I don't have a picture of, of course, is a few minutes later when I moved over to the One Armed Bandit $1.00 machines and lost all of that money in about 2 minutes.

We then wandered around, discovering there were 5 cent and 2 cent and 1 cent machines. Damn, and here we were, the big high rollers, spending 25 cents per game. Randy made a comment that perhaps there were people looking at us and saying: "Damn rich Canadians, coming in here and throwing their quarters around like big shots."

At that point, we didn't bother sticking around much longer -- we came, we ate, we checked out the tons of $$ put into the building and facilities, watched even more tons of $$ being pumped into machines and at card tables, we left. I'm sad to say that a lot of the $$ being sucked out of folks was likely from many people who couldn't afford to rub two pennies together, but who sat tethered to these machines for hours, slowly dwindling away what little money they had in the hopes of walking out of there millionaires. Very sad to see -- I found that aspect of it rather depressing, which kind of takes that excitement out of a visit to the casino for me.

But, to each his own, n'est pas?

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the title of this post is in reference to CT's Nathan Hale who uttered the famous line: "I only regret that I have but one life to give my country" or perhaps " . . . that I have but one life to lose for my country" (depending on which historic document you read) before being hanged following the battle of Long Island in 1776. We stayed at the Nathan Hale Inn & Conference Center on the UCONN campus, and while there learned a bit more about this fascinating American hero.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Da Count - No Wings For You!

Last night, after weeks of yearning to place an order from the newly established Five Alarm Wings in Hamilton, I was told that there were no wings left -- that just prior to my call another customer had called and ordered every single wing they had left.

Basically: "No wings for you!"

But instead of being disappointed, I was pleased for this small business.

Let me explain.

I first learned about Five Alarm Wings during the first annual Hamilton wing fest earlier this summer (or was it late spring? I've never been good with the seasons except for being able to distinguish summer from winter) -- a week or so after wing fest, my neighbour Chad and I took a trip over to Five Alarm Wings where we ordered some wings and learned more about the business from the owners.

They make their sauces and dry rubs fresh from imported and locally grown ingredients (ie, their spices, etc aren't bought in jars or cans but are created right in house and prepared to perfection by the wing masters themselves. We talked about killer wing sauces and the guys let me sample one of their more deadly hot sauces while waiting for our order. It was among the best I've tasted. Chad and I immediately decided that these guys offered the wings of choice in Hamilton and would definitely be our "go to" place for great wings from here on in.

Unfortunately, I'd ordered one of their hotter dry rub wings the last time so Francine didn't get a chance to try them out. That's one of the reasons we were excited to be ordering from them.

But then I found out they'd run out of wings last night -- sigh.

I suppose the reason I'm not frustrated is that I'm happy to see a new small business get that kind of word of mouth about the quality of their wings that they'd sell out. A great problem for a small business to have (and hey, it also speaks to the fact that their wings are fresh -- fresh orders, high turn-over, etc which means better quality)

So, in a nutshell, I'm counting the fact that I wasn't able to get wings last night as a good thing, nah, a great thing pointing to the well deserved success of a great local business. :)


The Ultimate Book Chair

I found this through one of the many "book lover" RSS feeds that I try desperately to keep up on daily (but fail miserably on). I think this one came via BookNinja.

Book Chair photo from Rag & Bone Blog

There's a bookstore in Providence Rhode Island called Myopic Books that has the coolest chair designed by Rhode Island artist David Karoff and made completely from recycled materials -- including mass market paperbacks.

I'd love to have one of these chairs -- but my biggest fear would be sitting there and becoming inspired to want to read one of the many fine titles I was sitting on without being able to crack the book open. (Part of the design involves drilling a hold through the middle of the books)

Check out the Rag & Bone blog post (Rag & Bone Bindery creates Photo Albums, Journals, Guest Books, Baby Books, and other fine bindings distinguished by their craftsmanship and enduring beauty) for more information about it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

HNT - Can't Blog, Sorting

This week I'm back in the warehouse for a second round of sorting Hurt Penguins (see last week's post for details)

While fun, there comes a point in the 50 + skids of sifting through these books where you think you're going to be swallowed up in the madness that sorting hurt Penguins can become . . .

. . . let's hope I can navigate my way back out of the madness.

Happy HNT!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Aunt Mary

My Aunt Mary passed away on Monday.

Well, in reality, Mary Emblin wasn't actually an aunt, but a dear friend of my family. And Mary and her husband Ernie, that wonderful example of how a married couple can be sole mates and best friends, have always been Aunt Mary and Uncle Ernie to me.

Aunt Mary was a very special lady -- a classy and refined woman who was kind and gentle and loving, but above all, loved to laugh. She had a wonderful sense of humour and I'll never forget her penchant for telling a good story, usually one that would inspire laughter.

Among the stories I loved to listen to her tell (and I never tired of hearing her tell them over the years, not with the particular style she delivered stories -- they always had a way of seeming fresh or offering something new with each retelling) were when I spent several days with Aunt Mary and Uncle Ernie while still very young and my parents were in Toronto for a funeral of another dear friend.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Ernie had two girls -- Wendy and Patty -- and all of the grandchildren they loved and talked about so much are also girls, so looking after me for a week was the closest they came to raising a boy. But what fun we had.

I'm sad to say I have virtually no memory of this time except perhaps for fleeting moments that I can capture in my mind, so it was always fun to listen to Aunt Mary and Uncle Ernie tell stories about the time I spent with them and how . . .

. . . they taught me to throw stones (The goal was to pitch the stones at the garage door -- it took me a while to get the hang of it because I ended up spinning around on my first few attempts and winging Uncle Ernie in the process)

. . . they taught me how to splash in the tub. (Until Aunt Mary taught me the joys of splashing in the water I just sat in the bathtub like a stone -- of course, once she instructed me in the fine art of bath water manipulation she never enjoyed another dry moment during bath time when I was supposed to be the only one getting wet)

. . . they taught me how to drink out of a straw (and gained such a fascination for it that I wanted every drink in that manner for quite a while)

. . . they never stopped loving me like like the son they never had (and of course, that feeling has been mutual all these years)

So, goodbye Aunt Mary. I'll always cherish the special memories, the fun stories and the special love you shared.

Aunt Mary holding Alexander when he was about 3 months old

Thursday, July 10, 2008

HNT - Da Count - Hurts So Good

I spent the entire day in our warehouse sorting through 50+ skids of "Hurt Penguins" with ten other booksellers -- "Hurt Penguins" is an industry term for books that are slightly worn, bent, scratched or damaged in some way. Bookstores can purchase a skid of these "hurt" books for a significant discount and use them on discount tables, etc selling them at fantastic bargins for customers. (We buy these hurt books from Penguin Canada and thus the term "Hurt Penguins")

One of my roles in the CCRA (Canadian Campus Retail Association) the past two years has been organizing the group buy for hurt penguins -- I collect each of about a dozen or store order requests from stores across Canada, then do a single large buy of the skids, ship them to our warehouse space, then unpack and sort them so that everyone gets the best possible mix.

It makes for a really long day in a hot, dirty warehouse, but it's always great fun.

You get to see tons of great titles, experience lots of nostalgia (many of the titles were hot or popular books from the past 3 or 4 years) and do lots of "talk" about books with a group of other similarly-minded book folks.

We finished about 26 or so of the skids today and are back again next week to to the remaining half.

So this week, for both Half-Nekkid Thursday as well as for Da Count, I'm posting a picture of myself as one type of Hurt Penguin and counting yet another benefit I have of working in a fantastic industry.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sovereign Summer

Want to be part of something big, something cool and end up with a book that you're going to love?

Be there on Sunday July 13th for the Swarm Press release of Matthew Wayne Selznick's novel Brave Men Run.

I listened to the podcast of this novel and then immediately went out and bought myself a copy of the first print version of it because it was simply THAT GOOD!

Book Description: April 18, 1985-Into a world already wound tight with the desperate tensions of the Cold War comes Dr. William Donner with a startling declaration: superhumans exist, they demand autonomy, and he has the reality-bending power to enforce their status. The traditional balance of power is thrown askew by the addition of not one super-powered human, but six thousand.

Before the Donner Declaration, high school sophomore Nate Charters was just an outsider and self-proclaimed freak. His unusual appearance, hair-trigger reflexes, and overactive metabolism should have made him something special, but his differences and low self-esteem have long since marked him as a target for the jocks and popular kids. Now, just as his unique nature brings him the attention of a self-assured older girl, Nate must find his place in the world.

Why is he the way he is? What really happened to his long dead father? Why is his biggest rival suddenly interested in a private meeting? Is he part of a remarkable, powerful new minority... or just a misfit among misfits? Nate must discover the answers to these questions quickly, because those in power know more about him than he could ever imagine. And they're closing in...

If you don't believe me, go check it out - you can listen to the entire novel for free via a podcast feed.

And as part of the celebration of the Swarm Press release of this fantastic novel that I like to describe as "The Breakfast Club meets The X-Men" or "John Hughes meets Stan Lee" Selznick will be live via streaming video all day in a web-a-thon as a way to show solidarity for everyone who buys the book from that day. Matt will be giving updates all day long and every hour for eight hours he will be presenting a BRAND NEW story set in the Sovereign Era universe written by the following authors:
Matt will be reading every story aloud on camera live and in random order.

Click here to go to the BOOK RELEASE WEB-A-THON site.

If you ever enjoyed the teen angst movies of John Hughes or enjoyed any of the great superhero stories that have been made into movies over the past ten years, you're sure to love Selznick's novel. And consider being part of the Soverign Summer campaign and purchasing Brave Men Run - A Novel of the Sovereign Era on on July 13th.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Best Birthday Ever

Four years ago today my life altered dramatically for the better. A tough thing too, because I've been very fortunate my entire life -- I've been very lucky to have great friends, a loving family and a fantastic wife and best friend. But things got even better for me when Alexander was born.

Today is my son's fourth birthday.

I still can't believe how wonderful fatherhood has been, how completely fulfilling and exciting and fun this ride has been. And I can't believe the little baby that changed so much for me is now four years old. He has certainly taught me a lot these past four years.

We had a party for him yesterday. Two parties, in fact. One celebration in the early afternoon with a small group of his friends involving playing in the backyard at the sand table and in the bouncy castle and pool. Then, later in the afternoon we had the "family" party with aunts and uncles and cousins. Two parties, two "Happy Birthday" songs song to him; two cakes.

Alexander had an absolute blast throughout the whole day.

The best part of the day was at the end of the day when Alexander was having his pre-bedtime snack and with a giant grin on his face he said: "This was the best birthday ever!"

Thursday, July 03, 2008

HNT - Molson Canadian: Taste That'll Stop You Cold

Given that this week included Canada's Birthday, I thought I'd do an HNT post with a bit of patriotism. I mean, beer IS a very Canadian thing, isn't it?

Another reason that I'm posting this picture is that it was taken at my friend Jim Turcott's house back in 1988. The world lost this fine man on June 30th of this year, making it an extremely difficult week for the countless people whose lives Jim touched.

Jim was hosting the grade 13 class at his place for a post graduation celebration -- we were listening to music, playing pool and sharing lots of laughs. This photo was snapped that evening -- I was horsing around, purposely trying for a goofy face (yes, goofier than my normal face) with the intent of coming up with the perfect "match" for a series of Molson Canadian commercials that were popular back in the 80's - "Molson Canadian - Taste That Will Stop You Cold!"

I can't remember who took the picture, but it's entirely possible it was Jim. Lord knows he inspired tons of laughs and silly behaviour.

Happy HNT, Happy belated Canada Day and to my buddies in the US, Happy Independence Day!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Live Long And Prosper, Jim

I'm still in shock, still can't believe it.

Jim Turcott passed away Monday evening. He was 57.

To say that Jim was my teacher would be an incredible understatement of fact.

Sure, Jim taught at Levack District High School (physics and math) and he was my teacher. He was also the Student Advisor to the Student Council where I played a role as President in 1988. And as virtually any student who had Jim as a teacher would tell you, he was one of those unique teachers that you'll always remember, a gem of an instructor who cared and gave it his all in the classroom to ensure his students got as much as possible out of it. He gave the very same to the extracurricular activities he participated in from faculty adviser to coach.
Though I was never all that good at nor much interested in math, Jim transformed it for me into something I could be interested in. His mere passion for math and physics was contagious. I'll never forget during one of our many long conversations, when I was going on about the critical importance of creativity (you must remember that as a teenager I knew EVERYTHING and spent a lot of time trying to impress the world with my vast and unlimited knowledge -- I'm sure I often bored Jim to tears with long-winded babble-thons about stories I was working on and my attempts at being philosophical. He never once fell asleep during my ramblings though, which I always appreciated) how Jim explained to me that solving complex math problems was a perfect exercise in creativity and discovery.

He made me look at math the way that I looked at the writing process. He brought it home for me. He did that in so many different ways.

Because, as I said, Jim was a fantastic teacher -- but he was so much more.

Through school and related projects I had the pleasure of working with Jim on various stage shows. LDHS didn't have a drama program while I was there, but there were often assemblies (like the Christmas Assembly, which was basically a variety show) and other stage-related activities that Jim was always a central part of.

Sitting in Jim's basement, a veritable paradise of large screen TV, state of the art stereo system, satellite feed, pool table and bar (the man absolutely LOVED entertaining people), Jim and a group of others often work-shopped various skits and stage shows together. Those countless times writing skits with Jim reminded me of what I thought it might be like to work as one of the actors/writers for Saturday Night Live. Quickly slapping skits together at the last minute for a show that was going to have perhaps only one or two rehearsals (if any) and then be performed live in just a few days.

Jim in his "captain's chair" and some of the Grade 13 class of 88 - at a post-graduation celebration

Some of the jokes Jim came up with during those sessions still sit at the top of my consciousness -- even the stuff that never made it into a properly written skit or onto any stage, but instead only existed in a hilarious brainstorming session -- like his "Bingo for War Vets" concept. And it wasn't just his skill at finding the perfect laugh in a situation, it was his passion for delivery, his eagerness to share the laugh and spread the joy. That, to me, defines a good deal about the personal side of this man I have always looked up to.

I also had the distinct pleasure of being Jim's assistant in his DJ business for a number of years. He toured the Sudbury region as "Dr. T!" doing high school and teen dances, graduations, weddings and company parties. I was one of a long line of assistants over the years and will always cherish the times I spent with Jim -- particularly the long-distance shows that we did that were an hour drive or more away. (I still regularly use his classic joke when driving on long trips, waiting for a quiet moment then shouting out: "HAY!" and pointing at a bale of hay in an adjascent field)

Jim taught me a passion for DJing, and this was back in the time of actual LPs -- remember vinyl albums? Jim would record songs onto cassette tapes then keep a database of them in a booklet. The songlist booklet was printed in alphabetic order by artist and also by song title.

To plan a dance, we'd write out a song list and then cue them up on the tapes (with a note that once the song finished to either "run to" or "cue up to" another song on that tape for play later in the dance) -- it was a complex structure, not unlike a complicated math equation.

Jim had about 4 hardback briefcases of cassettes that fit perhaps 22 songs on each side with names like JIM01 or OLDJIM12 and the directory would reference a song in the following way:

JIM01A16 (This would mean cassette JIM01, Side A, Track 16)

Before I left town for university Jim made me a mixed tape of some of my favourite songs and as a tip of the hat to Jim's categorization system I called it JTFML88 (AKA: Jim Turcott for Mark Lefebvre, 1988)

I learned a ton about DJing from Jim -- how to set up dances, how to interview people before their wedding and get a taste not only for the personal favourites of the couple, but also favourites from their parents and friends; how to read a crowd and play off their non-verbal feedback; how to take requests in such a way that everyone who left the stage was satisfied regardless of whether or not you ended up playing the exact song they originally requested (ie, finding them an even better substitute to a request that wouldn't detract from the natural flow of the dance yet still made them happy)

My buddy Steve and I actually had our own DJ operation in Ottawa for a few years, modelled very much on Jim's operation. We called ourselves Stark Entertainment and had a blast doing dances and weddings and company parties. Steve, like Jim, was the acoustic expert who handled the balancing, etc -- and I was the tape runner, madly cueing up tapes on the two machines we had. Like the Dr. T. operation, we had two tape decks -- one for cueing songs and the other for live to floor.

That mad and exciting rush of having just a couple of minutes to make changes to the scheduled song list and incorporate a series of requests on the fly was a satisfying charge, right up there with doing an ad lib skit on stage and feeding off the immediate feedback of the audience.

Jim was also a huge fan of movies, particularly classic SF and Star Trek (the original series). I spent plenty of time in his basement enjoying watching those classic episodes and gaining an appreciation for Star Trek and science fiction. I often thought of the big comfy armchair in the centre of his basement paradise as Jim's "captain's chair" for the Starship Turcott.

Of course, on top of all of these activities he was involved in, Jim was a true family man. He loved his girls and talked of them often. He also spent a good deal of time with the loves of his life. While he loved entertaining and he loved DJing and teaching and interacting with people I think one of the reasons he had people over to his house so often was so that he could be sharing good times with many people yet still be close to the people who meant the most to him: his wife Cora and his two daughters, Vicki and Lisa.

Jim, daughter Vicki, wife Cora. 1988 (Baby daughter Lisa was sleeping upstairs)

Though we weren't often in touch over the years, we did occasionally correspond by email after he retired (a little more than 3 years ago) -- and one of the true highlights from my book launch for One Hand Screaming at the Sudbury Chapters in 2004 was when Jim showed up.

He was lined up behind a stream of people I was signing books for (yes, there was actually a short line-up of people who wanted to buy my book -- a good lot of them actual strangers), and when the person in front of him stepped away, there was Jim with that smile I knew so well.

I think I embarrassed him, because the moment I saw him I couldn't stop myself from jumping out from behind the table and giving him a giant hug.

I'm glad I did so, because regardless of all the fun times we spent together and the laughs we had, it was the closest I ever came to telling him how much he meant to me and that I loved him.

Yeah, I know, guys are supposed to be masculine and tough and subdued and reserved with their emotions. But if you don't tell the people in your life just how much they mean to you or how important they are to you, what are you saving it for?

Goodbye Jim. You were a fantastic teacher, an incredible mentor and a dear friend. I will always cherish the times we spent together, the many things you taught me, and particularly your love for life and for sharing laughs. When I was a young man I wanted to be like you when I grew up. And if I ever do grow up, you can trust that I will. Goodbye, old friend. Though I will miss you, the music of your friendship and laughter will always play in my heart.