Tariq’s Great Writing Experiment

I recently learned that a federal colleague started a creative writing experiment on his blog,  and was intrigued. I’ve begun developing some creative writing ideas on my own, and this struck me as a good idea to exercise my creative muscles, so to speak.

This challenge had the following constraints:

  • Theme: Fear
  • Genre: Dream sequence
  • Length: No more than 300 words
  • Lesson: Metaphors and similes. Use at least one of each

Here’s what I wrote:

Waking Up Alone Can Be a Nightmare

I didn’t remember waking up, but I sensed I was alone. As a teenager, sleeping late on weekends, I learned what it feels like to wake up in an empty house.

My mother might have told me they were going to the store, her words a calm breeze comforting me as I slumbered. Maybe I’d find a note they left, ‘Gone to the supermarket, back at noon’ it would read. I felt assured.

This time I felt only an overwhelming sense of abandonment. Something wasn’t right. A bad feeling in my stomach said so.

Then I heard my children. I had probably overslept and Jerry took the kids outside to play.

My old digital clock-radio showed garbled numbers, flickering like a scrambled television station. I shrugged into my robe and hurried to check the yard. Despite the blue sky, the world appeared hazy. Jerry was sprawled on the ground, unmoving. I ran to him, the morning dew soaking my slippers.

I couldn’t rouse him. His breath was slow, shallow. No sign of an accident, though. I dialed 911 on the mobile phone still in his pocket.

“We’re sorry, that number could not be completed.”  Instead of the neutral voice I would expect, its tone mocked me.

I heard the children again; I couldn’t help Jerry now. I followed their voices, their songs. They were laughing. I was terrified.

The gate hung open. Through it, I glimpsed spring jackets rounding the corner. I chased them to the front, seeing what I could only describe as a demon-truck screeching around the corner too fast, bearing down on my babies, and I heard the thump-thump.

I bolted upright. Sweat soaked my hair. Jerry was beside me. My clock-radio was blinking 12:13. Odd – the power went out. It was only a nightmare.

What I learned from this:

Writing with specific constraints is challenging – especially telling a story in 300 words. It was also a lot of fun to write this. I’m fairly new to creative writing – I primarily write professional communications, speeches, web copy, news releases, articles, blog posts, and other social media. Writing fiction is very different.

What inspired the story:

As a child I had a recurring nightmare in which I was chasing after my parents while they walked away from me, never able to catch them, and having a car hit me while I ran after them. I decided to flip it around to be from a parent’s perspective.

When You Win Bragging Rights, Don’t Forget to Brag

Ice Storm 2013I have recently discovered the fun of photography contests. It doesn’t matter what they are, or whether there’s a prize – it feels good to get the nod.

Two of my photographs have won the coveted bragging rights in two photography competitions this year.

This photo of mine was entered by my father in the monthly publication at the senior’s community he lives in. I consented to him entering a photo I took on Christmas Eve, just following the big ice storm. It doesn’t hurt that my father and I share a name.

Now, this is the more interesting of the two contests, and the one that more people have seen.

Dine Alone

My friend Richard Pietro (@richardpietro) called to suggest we do this thing. It was a Gizmodo photography challenge. They do these things basically bi-weekly, so they are frequent, and challenge photogs to submit a photo along a given theme.

Richard made arrangements for us to have free run of Joe Badali’s restaurant on Front Street, in Toronto, before they opened one morning.

We discussed, and met the next day to case the joint, so to speak.

I planned the shot list, and the gear. Richard stopped at Vistek to pick up a lens we decided to rent, dividing the cost between us. We both thought, we’d better win this thing after forking over $30 on a rental for a contest with no cash prize!

Lo and behold! We won!

Joe Badali’s social media coordinator asked my thoughts on how we won. I told her it was a combination that can be applied to so many other things beyond photography.

  1. Good planning. Richard picked an amazing venue to be the background, and provide excellent visuals. Then Richard and I discussed a clear vision of the kinds of shots we wanted to get in the time we had to work with.
  2. Good model and environment (the content). Richard got right into character and conveyed the intended moods brilliantly!
  3. Good photographer (the execution). I’ve been shooting photos as an enthusiast for about 8 years now. It takes time and experience to develop a photographic eye, and familiarity with one’s gear – both the camera, and the digital darkroom. Some people are naturals, for others it just takes a lot of work. I’d say I’m somewhere in between.

Now, I think I’ve exhausted my quota of bragging rights for this small victory. I should find another contest to enter!

How to Podcast for Fun

I almost titled this “How to Become a Lazy Podcaster” but I thought that would mislead current podcasters into thinking I’m telling them how to become lazy.

Not the case.

I have been a host of a show called The Zero Check for going on three years. The goal of this podcast is to have fun conversations with my co-hosts, talk about music we enjoy, learn in the process, and maybe connect with like-minded listeners.

What I’m saying is we’re lazy podcasters. We aren’t lazy people – we all have busy personal and professional lives, and we appreciate not being tied to a strict recording, editing and publishing schedule. We manage 12+ episodes a year, which we’re satisfied with.

Are there downsides to a lazy recording/publishing schedule? Maybe… The top two drawbacks are:

  • We’ll never have a large dedicated following
  • There isn’t a lot of consistent engagement from listeners

But we have fun, and it doesn’t become an added point of stress in our lives. We do it for ourselves, to enjoy and learn about our favorite musicians and bands. We produce the podcast to share our passion with others who are interested.

Technologically, we make it as easy for ourselves as possible. Our gear consists of:

  • Zoom H2 handy recorder
  • Pair of headphones for on-site audio monitoring
  • Pocket tripod to hold the Zoom H2
  • Basic audio editing software – Audacity or Garageband
  • We run the audio through Levelator a free application
  • Audio hosting is through Libsyn at minimal cost per month
  • Blog hosting is free through Tumblr
  • Domain registration is inexpensive
  • Nameserver hosting is free through Zerigo
  • Shared file management is free through Dropbox
Image courtesy of cogdogblog on Flickr under Creative Commons license

You Don’t Vote For King! (or A Cabinet of Ice and Fire)

I had a conversation the other day, with my friend (and Zero Check co-host) Steven Joncas. We’re both big fans of the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones series.

If you watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail, you undoubtedly remember the scene with 37-year-old Dennis, resident of an anarcho-syndicalyst communte, whom King Arthur mistook for an old woman? Classic scene! I’ll paraphrase an exchange, slightly…

“I am your King!”

“Well, I didn’t vote for you!”

“You don’t vote for Kings!”

Well, imagine if we did, and we lived in Westeros, the 7 kingdoms that are the centre of George R.R. Martin’s novels.

Better yet, lets forget about Kings altogether, and pretend the continent is run by a Canadian-style democratic government, and you were just elected Prime Minister.

Which character from the series are you? Who do you think would make a suitable Mr. or Ms. Prime Minister?

After deciding who you are, your first task as Prime Minister is to compile a list of recommendations to give the Head of State to assemble your cabinet ministers.

Prime Minister – It was a tough choice, but I really think Brynden Tully, The Blackfish, would be my first choice. He’s depicted as a natural leader, with strong morals, a clever pragmatist.

Minister of Finance – This is an obvious choice. There is no better option than Lord Petyr Baelish, a.k.a. Littlefinger. The man can budget better than the best Lannisters.

Minister of Human Resources – Tywin Lannister has a keen sense for how people of Westeros can best serve their nation, and how the nation can serve its citizens. He’s too spiteful to trust as PM, otherwise, he would be a shoe-in for the top seat.

Minister of Defense – Who else than the great Barristan the Bold would be fit to lead the defenses of Westeros? So long as he doesn’t cross the floor to the opposition!

Minister of Justice / Attorney General – Who else other than Eddard Stark would be fit for this job? His sense of right and wrong is infallible, while remaining more practical than a stern man like Stannis Baratheon.

Minister of Industry – Obviously Tyrion Lannister is best fit to handle this important position. Tyrion understands the importance of industry to the nations economy, and would work to strengthen ties between the nations business owners. Granted, Tyrion would likely be frequently shuffled around the cabinet, cleaning up whichever portfolio needed his particular attention. Hopefully his binge drinking and frequent dalliances with prostitutes don’t surface in the media.

Are you a fan of the series, either in book or television format? Who would you recommend to form your Cabinet of Ice and Fire?

Would you recommend Cersei Lannister, or Lady Olena Tyrell for any spots? Varys is another talented fellow, deserving of a large portfolio. Would you make 16-year-old Robb Stark a member of the Cabinet or wait until he grew older?

And what would you do with the young (and blatantly psychopathic) Joffrey Baratheon? Oh really? You’d appoint him to the Senate?!

Boston Pizza’s Recent “Foodie” Ad

I got into a discussion on Twitter today about Boston Pizza’s recent ad that claims their pasta might turn people into Foodies. It was prompted by @ClickFlickCa’s question about the ad.

Here’s the commercial – Joallore linked to it in a subsequent tweet.

I think the commercial is well made. It targets Boston Pizza’s audience; down to the distain you hear in the final declaration “Just be careful you don’t become a foodie.” Boston Pizza doesn’t do anything special or original.

My view of the term foodie doesn’t much matter. I said earlier that I think there’s a lot of pretentiousness behind the term. Not that I think everyone who self-identifies as a foodie is pretentious.

Foodie culture has done a lot of great things for the restaurant and food supply industry. Niche markets have expanded and the number of premium prepared foods has increased.

Chefs have more opportunities to practice their art, and are allowed greater creative freedoms as people’s pallets have become more adventurous. Restaurants have diversified and raised the bar in many markets.

How do I define the term “foodie”? They are a food geek, someone whose passions include food and the food industry. Sharing a great restaurant or ingredient discovery, or a special recipe is truly rewarding. I enjoy food quite a bit, and I find the experience of sharing an excellent meal with friends a fantastic pursuit. However, I have too many interests that I geek out over already, and can’t give food the necessary attention to cross into foodie territory!

So where does the pretentiousness come in? When one attaches social status to the list of restaurants they have visited, or number of syllables in the name of the cheese they used in their latest recipe.  The enjoyment of food is deeply personal and subjective, not something to connect to status.

This is how Boston Pizza is positioning their menu – tasty but unpretentious.

Did Boston Pizza put the last nail in the coffin of the word “Foodie”, or did they just nail their objective?

Is The Brochure Dead?

Who still writes brochures? I mean, I do on occasion. Grudgingly.

Surely this time-honoured communications medium still has its place in marketing and communications. But do they still work, when nearly everyone has ubiquitous web access from connected smartphones?

Sometimes an organization’s clients like to receive brochures, even request them. They’re easy to file, they’re portable, and can be passed between hands.

Not everyone is immersed in the world of the social web, where links are shared like words at the water cooler. For those who operate outside of this space a brochure might be the equivalent to these hyper-sharable links.

But if your brochure is going to be effective, it has to resonate with the reader in some way. Think about the things people share online. They elicit a reaction; they make the reader laugh, or cry, or they inform and teach something interesting or useful. They connect with us on some level.

Does your brochure do that? If not, it’s inert. Maybe even dead and likely to wind up in someone’s recycling bin. My title wasn’t really asking if THE brochure is dead, but whether YOURS is.

I’m not suggesting that brochures are websites, photos or videos. I’m suggesting that a brochure is like a short story. Maybe it could be the 4-pane comic adaptation of your company or organization’s novel. Those 4-pane comics get stuck to refrigerators and bulletin boards all the time.

Maybe your story needs to be told with some slick photos or graphics, and words you could fit into speech bubbles.

A More Thoughtful Photograph

I read an article a few weeks ago asking photographers to please stop camping.

The writer didn’t mean stop striking out with your tent and camera bag. But to stop forming “camps” that claim their way of photography is the right way. There are film purists and digital believers; those who swear by Photoshop and others who cry blasphemy at anything beyond basic touch-ups. And the list goes on.

Digital photography is what got me into the art of creating pictures out of light. However, I’ve begun taking pictures with film, and find it a more thoughtful photographic experience, and a different aesthetic. I would never say it’s better – but different. And I would recommend any photographer who joined the art post-digital revolution to shoot with some film now and then.

How’d I come to this?

My first good cameras were digital. Before that, I had some cheap cameras that used the diminutive 110 format film. It was horrible, and the cameras I used it in were even worse.

I had two early fixed focus digital cameras – an AGFA 1MP digital camera, and a 2MP Fuji. Neither were very expensive and I used both to take photos that I could put on the web pages I was learning to design in my late teens and early twenties.

But it was the Canon SD400 that I won while working at Futureshop that gave me the creative capability to work in some composition. A few years later, I’d saved some money and bought a Rebel XSi. Then I was hooked.

Then I rediscovered 35mm film

First with my father’s 1970s-ish Canon FTb, and then with a EOS 650 circa 1987 that was given to me. Using film has a certain level of scarcity that makes a photo opportunity feel more precious. I find I’m much more thoughtful when I’m using my film camera, than I am with digital. With a 16GB CF card, I can take hundreds of RAW or thousands of Jpeg images in a single outing.

I do love my new Canon 7D, but when I pick up my EOS 650 (really, the 7D’s closest early relative) I feel like I’m holding a piece of magic, rather than the incredibly advanced technological marvel of the digital SLR. Granted, the 650 was a marvel in its own right when it was new.

I find the colour representation of Kodak Gold, and the grain of Ilford give a photo a personality. Sure, you can achieve similar styles with post-processing of digital. But then you can achieve beauty through plastic surgery too. It’s different.

If you haven’t used film for a long time, or if you’ve never used it, I encourage you to get yourself a camera and bring some with you on your next photo outing. Grab a few different types! It is a satisfying experience.

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