Decorating Doors

With the weather turning cold and snowy, I found a silly project that ended up being a lot of fun to put together.  There’s a longstanding December tradition at Embassy Ottawa for the various agencies and sections to decorate their main entrance doors for the holidays. The various efforts, elaborate and simple, face a committee of judges after which the winners receive awards and, more importantly, bragging rights at the mission’s holiday party.

The Public Affairs department has consistently excelled in the competition and entered this year as the defending champions.  My beloved Consular group, while competitive, has not won the contest for years.  After tossing around a few ideas for theme, we came up with an idea that merged our strategic mission with the season.  What would happen if Kris Kringle applied for a visa?  The result: Santagate.  I put together a mock-up of the local newspaper, The Ottawa Citzen, and wrote a couple thousand words about how Kris Kringle came in for visa and faced some unexpected skepticism from our consular officers given his 60+ aliases, the lack of a proper passport, and some unexpected attitude.

Although, there are a lot of inside jokes that aren’t nearly as funny to those who don’t know our people, it provided the construct for the real star of the presentation — the photographs.  We stages a series of shots involving Santa working his way through the visa section, being fingerprinted, pleading his case to an officer, being refused, and finally, being physically removed by our intrepid security guards.  From a photographic standpoint, it was a fun lighting challenge shooting through the glass with remote lights hidden on the client side (lighting it directly would have resulted in massive reflection and glare).

Part of the story involved a massive protest and ensuing political pressure for Canada to offer Santa asylum and immediate citizenship.  As a Canadian citizen, Santa wouldn’t need a visa to travel over the border.  We thought maybe some pictures of crying kids might work, but over the week-end I found a couple of pics online that, with the help of Photoshop, fit the bill.

With Santa’s online visa application, letters from protesting children, and some ribbon trim, the door told a good story.

We had lots of visitors loitering outside the door and, at this afternoon’s embassy party, Ambassador Jacobson called out Consular for both Most Original and Overall Winner.

On to the next obsessive project…


One more win

Last year, I was covering the San Francisco Giants for a photo wire service. I’d never covered a minor league game before, but there were two highly touted prospects playing for the Giants’ A-ball team in San Jose.  After checking the pitching match-ups for an early season homestand that coincided with the big club playing on the road, I asked my editor to get me a credential for the game.

The minor league club, filled with 18- and 19-year-old kids playing in their first year of pro ball, clearly didn’t get much coverage as the team’s head of media relations met me at the gate and gave me a tour of the park.  It was a beautiful day and the rookies dominated the game.  I sold one of my photos of the catcher to Sports Illustrated, but nobody was interested in the pitcher or the shot of the two of them on the mound.

It was an effortless win and the two obviously had great chemistry.  After the game, I told everyone with any interest that I just saw the future of the Giants and it looked awfully promising. I never would have believed, however, that it’d be so soon and on such a big stage.

Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey just led the Giants to the brink of the team’s first World Series championship in 56 years.  Bumgarner shut out the most potent offense in the American League, scattering three hits over eight innings. Posey homered, threw out the only attempted stolen base, and called a perfect game behind the plate.

A long way from San Jose.

San Jose Giants catcher Buster Posey (7) talks things over with starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (17) during the Giants' 8-1 win over the Lake Elsinore Storm minor league baseball game at Municipal Stadium in San Jose, CA.

What a week-end

Baseball has been a part of my life for 35 years. More particularly, San Francisco Giants baseball.

My first memory of walking into San Francisco’s Candlestick Park is intertwined with my first memory of independence. In contrast to this age of over-protective helicopter parents, my best friend and I took in our first Giants game when we were 10 years old. Nobody to drive us there or pick us up. No pre-purchased tickets. Just two fifth graders taking the Greyhound bus from the suburbs an hour north to the big city, buying a couple cheap bleacher seats, and cheering on a forgettable, woefully mediocre team.

I remained a die hard fan despite not seeing a finish higher than third in the division for my first dozen seasons. As a kid, I’d end every spring and summer day by faithfully recording the day’s game score on a wall calendar. Days broke down into three categories, in descending order: wins, losses, and days when the team traveled and didn’t play. Willie “Stretch” McCovey, Jack “the Ripper” Clark, Jeff “Hack Man” Leonard, Will “the Thrill” Clark, John “the Count” Montefusco, and even Johnny “Disaster” Lemaster were my heroes growing up.

My family never went. My mom would get free tickets once a year through work, but otherwise, it was just my thing. An obsession fed by the radio and the greyhound bus.

As a young adult, I was lucky enough to find a “gamer” for a spouse. We’ve celebrated countless birthdays, mother’s days, and father’s days at the ballpark. Four years ago, the scoreboard read during the seventh inning “Happy 20th Anniversary, E. I’m the luckiest man in the world. She’s beautiful and a GIANTS fan. I love you.  D.”

It’s no surprise that my kids came to know and love baseball and the Giants. I coached little league teams for years and throughout their formative years, we went to games as a family and in pairs. With the new PacBell (now AT&T) ballpark opening in 2000, we bought into our first season tickets. Two seats for 15-20 games a year. The kids and E alternated who went with me, each with their own set of game day traditions.

What we’d eat, whether we’d go two hours early for batting practice, and what we’d wear all depended on my seat mate.  No matter which of our three kids came with, or if it was me and E, some things never changed: we tried to be in our seats for the first pitch, we sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with gusto during the seventh inning stretch, we NEVER left early, and we always booed the Dodgers, former Dodgers, and Dodger fans.

Over the years, the Giants have given us a lifetime of memories. Not always good, but lasting memories. More game-winning homers than I can count.  More soul-crushing losses than I care to contemplate. Making the post-season, unfortunately, has been rare.

There was the run in 1987 when we lost in the National League Championship Series to St. Louis after being up three games to two. We made it to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime in 1989, only to lose a four-game sweep to the Oakland A’s after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2002, the Giants were six outs away from their first World Series Championship since 1954. 5-0 heading into the 8th inning, up three games to two over the Angels, only to watch it fall apart spectacularly.

My son, Z, and I attended game 5 of that Series. It was a miraculous night during which the Giants prevailed 16-4 over the Angels and first baseman JT Snow saved the Manager’s son from certain injury. Three-year-old Darren Baker, trying to fulfill his bat boy duties a little early, wandered to home plate just has JT and David Bell were heading home to score on a triple. Snow managed to both score the run and scoop up little Darren by the scruff of his XXXXXXS jersey right before Bell scored.  That was the last time the Giants won a post-season game.


JT Snow Saves Darren Baker in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series


My two seasons as a photographer covering the Giants was a dream come true. Walking into the park through the players’ entrance. Hanging out on field and in the dugout before the games. Chatting with legends McCovey and Mays in the press room elevator. Having my Giants photos tell stories in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and The Sporting News.  Amazing experience, but no post-season birth for the team.

It’s been eight years since that World Series game against the Angels and the Giants haven’t made a playoff run since. Until now.

Although I’ve been posted to Ottawa this whole season, we’ve maintained our season tickets. The kids and E were all home for various parts of the summer and they all took in a few games, each calling or texting me during or after the game. I continued to watch and listen to games through the internet.

After blowing two prior chances, the team clinched the division title on the last game of the regular season. The Giants, fueled by the best pitching staff in baseball, have no star hitter. Instead, we have a team of underdog cast offs and journeymen. Two of our starters, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, came to the team only after their old teams cut them.  Just like the teams I followed as a kid.

We don’t score many runs, winning more games by a one-run margin than any other team in baseball. The team motto for 2010 has been “Giants baseball: Torture”.  They lived up to the motto during the playoffs’ first round, winning three games out of four against Atlanta, all by one run.

With Z going to school in Philadelphia, and the Phillies looking unbeatable after sweeping Cincinnati, I couldn’t resist making the trip out for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Within minutes of the final out in Atlanta, I had our tickets for Game 1 secured.

It didn’t matter that I’d have to drive 8 hours each way in a week-end. It didn’t matter that the Giants were huge underdogs to win a game against the two-time defending National League champs. It didn’t matter that we were looking at having to face Roy Halladay, the game’s most dominant pitcher coming off only the second post-season no hitter in baseball history. I was going to watch my Giants in a post-season game with my son.

From the start, the baseball gods rewarded my loyalty. The absurd last-minute $1500 airfare from Ottawa to Philly dropped to $350 a day before I was going to drive. Although most hotels were sold out, Priceline came through the day before departure with an amazing deal on two nights at a brand new four star place downtown.  The Nor’easter storm that delayed my flight cleared just in time for a sunny Saturday and clear game night.

Meeting up with Z Friday night for dinner, it was such a pleasure to share a meal as adults, splitting a bottle of wine, and talking the night away about school, work, the future, and, of course, Giants baseball. The next day, both decked out in Giants jackets and caps, we shared the day as kids.

Now, I’ve been to baseball games in a lot of places. New York, Boston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Toronto, Arizona. Nothing comes close to what we experienced in Philadelphia. We were booed. All day. Sometimes with a smile. Most of the time with a sneer.  Old women, young children, LOTS of overweight guys, and even a homeless guy after we gave him some spare change.

The guy at the burger joint initially wouldn’t let us in to be served. The doorman and valet to my hotel wouldn’t open the door and, instead, jeered. The entire lobby bar of the hotel, watching college football, booed as we headed out. As we walked down the street, one guy ran out of a store for the sole purpose of screaming at us before returning to finish his afternoon shopping.

The nice fans wished us luck. At least a half dozen in the exact same way. “Oh, don’t misunderstand. NOT for your team. I mean good luck for your safety.” We had many tell us we had chutzpah/balls/guts to even be walking around with a Giants cap on game day.

We ran into a handful of compatriot Giants fans along the journey. The closest experience I had to this was traveling for an extended period in Eastern Europe in ’84 during which I ran into one American. It didn’t matter that we had little in common otherwise — we shared the same identity. The same was true for those few wearing orange and black in a sea of red and white.

We took the subway to the ballpark, packed to the gills with rabid locals sneering at us for eight stops. We experienced the typical trash-talking from fans as we filed in to the front gate. We politely declined the white and red rally towel offered to every entrant. I asked if they had any in orange and black. I received a blank stare. No smile or ‘good luck’, just a menacing blank stare.

Out of 46,000 people packed into that stadium, I’d estimate there at most a few hundred Giants fans.  Most of us hung out by the visitors’ dugout watching batting practice. There’s safety in numbers.

As game time approached, we found our seats on the aisle, about 30 rows from the field. Some good-natured trash talking with our neighbors, but nothing too menacing. Yet.

Just before the first pitch, three guys staggered down the aisle and took the three seats right behind us. The guy behind me, whether intentionally or not, elbowed me in the head as he found his seat. It turned out that he was, by far, the most drunk of the lot.

He started by waving his white towel in my face. I probably didn’t help by suggesting it was too early for them to be surrendering. They then started in on the chanting and clapping. No problem — happy to have everyone screaming and cheering on their team.

It then got a little too personal and a little too close. When the clapping and chanting didn’t get a rise out us, my new friend started slapping the back of my chair. When that got no response, he started reaching over to clap next to my right ear.

That got my attention. I wheeled on him and got my finger in his face quickly. Cheer, clap, whatever, but back off, I not-so-subtlety plead. I realized I may have been a tad aggressive when Z reminded me that he didn’t have enough money to bail me out if I got arrested.

Things seemed to calm down a bit as the game unfolded. Halladay continued his no-hit streak. One of our neighbors was counting the number of hitters in the streak starting with the 27 straight outs recorded in Halladay’s last start. 28, 29, 30.  31, 32, 33, 34.  Cody Ross put a stop to this poor man’s Sesame Street lesson by depositing the next pitch into the left field bleachers. 1-0 Giants and the crowd got much quieter.

Unfortunately, it only lasted a 1/2 inning. A solo homer by the Phillies and it was a tie game. Welcome to Giants baseball: torture. With the tension rising, so too did the drunk voices behind us. We never did see who reported them or why, but security showed up to warn them to tone it down.

By the fourth inning, they were gone. As the security guard argued with them, and called in the police to help physically remove the drunks, two other guys started pointing at me and demanding that I be removed. I was honestly mystified what they were accusing me of having done. Perhaps they saw me react to drunk #3. Perhaps they saw me point at a small group of Giants fans behind us after Ross’s homer and misconstrued.

A conference amongst the security guys ensued. One was saying he knew one of my accusers and believed that I had “instigated” things. The other, more senior guard, overruled him and talked to me one-on-one. He said he knew what was happening — that the provocation was the fact that we had the temerity to root for our team.

Although I would never wish anyone to be kicked out of a game, it did make the rest of the night a bit more relaxed. We still had the two guys who wanted me booted, but they were not close to us and avoiding eye contact with them resolved that conflict (at least as far as I was concerned).

In the meantime, the Giants pushed ahead 4-1. We can’t seem to win unless it is a one-run game, however, so the score promptly shifted to 4-3.  Halladay left the game after seven innings, on the hook for the loss. Our ace, Tim Lincecum, held the lead through seven despite several tense moments.

The home crowd were heckling Timmy with catcalls. The guy next to me explained their collective thought process. You see, because Timmy has long hair, he “looks like a girl so we’ll treat him like a girl.” Apparently, everyone in the ballpark waving a white towel works at a construction site. In the 1950s. Others apparently live in the mid- 1960s and think anyone with long hair is “hippy trash”.

As the ninth inning approached, the security guard came down again. He said there were two of them on our aisle, but that there may be a LOT of unhappy fans around us. He asked if we had a plan. A plan? Really?

Our plan was to watch the final three outs from the top of aisle and then take off for the subway. When we got to the top of the stairs, however, we couldn’t see the field. Have to see the final three outs, so back to our seats we went. Each hitter was a tight-rope, but with two outs, and two strikes on Shane Victorino, our closer finished the Phillies off with a 95 MPH fastball.  As the umpire called strike three, we took off.

We hit the top of the aisle before the shock of the game’s end hit the crowd.  As 46,000 groped with their disappointment, we ran.

Not quite like the Warriors in this scene (and nobody speaking Italian), but it felt a bit like that when we were sprinting four blocks to the subway.  We heard more then once, “hey, Giants fans, get ’em”.  Once we made it to the subway, we were fine, although we did take off our jackets and caps — no reason to tempt fate.

We texted each other when we got behind our respective doors, satisfied with witnessing a monumental win unscathed. More memories. If we win the National League pennant and meet the Yankees in the World Series, I might have to make the pilgrimage to New York, once again proudly wearing my orange and black.

35 years is a long time to wait… I never stop believing.

Hiking in Gatineau, Take 1

Fall seems to have come to Canada.  Temperatures have dropped and the leaves are just starting to change color.  I’ve been wanting to get out to Gatineau Park in Quebec for awhile and this morning I finally got my act together.  Just a short 20 minute drive away, Gatineau Park boasts 140 square miles of preserved land, including over 120 miles of hiking trails.  I picked the right time of year to get hooked: no bugs, cool temps, and very few people.  Not sure these photos do it justice, but it was a beautiful morning.

I’m going to try to get out there for a couple of hours each week-end.  Once the snow starts falling, I’ll have to start investigating my first pair of snow shoes.

I hate quitting

With less than six months left in my Ottawa tour, I confess to be spending a lot of my time thinking about what’s next.  That little piece of obsessive-compulsiveness has limited my reading list to only Pakistan-related titles, both fiction and non.  I get my daily news feeds, follow the internal communications, and have my Google Alerts set to let me know when something of import happens in that part of the world.

I have my Ottawa departure date and follow-on training schedule set.  Although I still have my regular Canadian-focused full-time consular duties, there are not many additional extra projects on the near-term schedule.  In search of a project, I saw that State offers a distance learning program for Urdu.  My one-year post in Lahore does not require any language training as English is also an official language of Pakistan, but learning Urdu sounded like a good idea.

I should have realized what I was getting into when my first reaction mimicked John Candy in Stripes:

Instead of Ox’s 6-8 week training program, the Urdu distance learning program is 14 weeks.  I’d agree to spend 8-10 hours a week working on my own and then do an hour a week on the phone with the tutor.  That sounded perfect for me.  I’d dutifully work the software program as the evenings grow cold, review a few flash cards, chat on the phone, and hit my formal training with a working knowledge of Urdu.

I then received the software and started working on the alphabet.  It’s difficult.  Really difficult.

Urdu is Pakistan’s national language.  The word Urdu means ‘foreign’ in Turkish and traces its origins to the combination of foreign influences in South Asia.  The grammar is very similar to Hindi, but it merges various elements of Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit.  Urdu is typically written in the Nastaliq calligraphy style of script but the characters are not entirely uniform, depending on who is writing and for what audience.  Needless to say, I’ve been struggling.

Read right to left, Urdu has a mix of characters from the Arabic and Persian alphabets.  As a result, there are multiple letters for most sounds.  There are, for example, three different letters for the sound of an S, five Z’s, 3 H’s, etc.  Each of the sound family letters sound identical but look completely different.  Oh, and just to make it more interesting, each letter has four different looks:  the independent character (when you want to make a list of the letters but not actually make a word), the Initial (when the character is the first letter in a word), the Medial (when the letter is somewhere in the middle of a word), and the Final (when the letter ends a word).  Some letters connect together and some don’t.

I took Russian in college and learning Cyrillic was challenging, but I didn’t find it that difficult.  The characters are easy to distinguish and, once I learned what character makes what sound, I found it easy to sound out words and start reading.  Russian grammar is a whole different story, but that came later.  The first year moved quickly and, although languages are not my academic strength, it felt like I made great progress.  Urdu, not so much.

Last Friday was the final day to drop the course without penalty.  By Tuesday, I was beyond frustrated.  I just could not imagine getting to the point of reading a paragraph in Urdu out loud — forget about understanding it.  I just want to be able to recognize the characters and voice them correctly.  I’m ashamed to report that I gave up.  I wrote an email to the language department with some lame excuse that I just wasn’t going to have time to do it justice.

It didn’t sit well.  I’ve certainly quit things before, but usually on my terms for good reasons.  Not because it was too hard.  With some prodding from the department and lots of encouragement from my tutor on Wednesday, I started really drilling.  I still have no clue how one gets to the point of reading fluidly.  Words still look like an amalgam of beautiful lines and dots, but specific letters and sounds are not jumping out at me.

It’s clear to me that I’m going to have to double the 8-10 hours a week they recommend just to keep up.  Despite my better judgment, I retracted my drop notice on Friday, installed a software-based Urdu keyboard on my mac, and started memorizing numbers (which also have different characters), colors, and greetings.  My next tutorial is on Wednesday and its already weighing on me.

On the bright side, Ox made it through basic training.

TV Shows

I spend a fair bit of my copious free time exploring Ottawa, making photographs, using Skype to talk to the family, and studying Urdu for the next post.  The fact is, however, I’ve got a lot of free time these days.  Even with volunteering for non-consular duties, my work days are pretty much limited to eight hours.  This will certainly change in Lahore, but until March, I’ve got a lot hours during the evening and week-ends with no pressing responsibilities.  I read some, but I also watch TV.

I’ve got just about as many channels to watch in Ottawa as I had back home, including both East Coast and West Coast US network feeds.  I find myself, however, spending most of my TV time catching up on old series that I completely missed when they were first broadcast.  This appears to be a common pastime for foreign service folks living abroad, particularly those living without the plethora of other options.  For me, it’s a way to turn the brain on neutral after the day’s stress (yes, doing visa interviews can be very stressful).  It also provides a welcome distraction from missing the family.

Watching a series has been much more fun than a movie.  I’m particularly drawn to a series if: (a) there’s a running plot, (b) it’s character driven, and (c) I haven’t seen it before.  I’ve also found that it’s actually better if the show ended up being canceled after a couple of seasons.  It’s far better to be left wanting more than to experience the “Jumping the Shark” moment which forever spoils the positive impression (I was 12 years old when the Fonz donned water skis to signal the beginning of the end for “Happy Days,” a TV moment forever responsible for the now ubiquitous phrase).

The key to determining whether the show works is that moment when an episode ends and I find myself doing the math to figure out if I can watch one more and still get enough sleep to be cogent the next morning.  There is also the engrossing factor.  I am a compulsive multi-tasker, particularly living alone for the first time in 25 years.  It is not uncommon to find me with the TV on, the Giants game on (either a small window on the computer, streaming radio, or the GameCast silently updating), editing photographs, surfing the Internet, and playing Words With Friends on the iPad.  A good show precludes most of that activity and requires me to watch (ok, maybe with the iPad on the couch).

Netflix provides a seemingly endless number of these shows.  As a long-time TV addict, there were a number of shows that I followed when they first ran, but if you haven’t seen them, must see candidates in my book include The Wire, The Sopranos, and Friday Night Lights.  That’s over a year’s worth of TV right there.  The following list are those nuggets I’ve found and enjoyed since last October:

Jericho.  Two seasons.  Skeet Ulrich and Gerald McRaney provide strong characters and an unfolding plot that is far from predictable.  Starting with the nuclear detonation of 23 U.S. cities, the show is focused on the fictional town of Jericho, Kansas, one of the few places far enough from the blast radius to still function.  Definitely a show that made me want to watch just one more before ending the day.

Kings.  One season.  I’ll now watch anything with Ian McShane (Deadwood is on the short list for the future).  He’s amazing in this short-lived but well-written one-season wonder.  The production costs must have been too high for the low ratings as each episode looks like a well-done movie.  The premise centers on the internal machinations of a modern-day absolute monarchy, the Kingdom of Gelboa.  Using a long series of clever modern parallels, the unfolding plot is very loosely based on the biblical story of King David.  The central character, David, for example, gains initial notoriety in the opening episode by single-handedly facing down the enemy’s indestructible “Goliath” tank.  When this one ended, I couldn’t believe they didn’t make a second season.

Veronica Mars.  Three Seasons.  Very stylized father/daughter detective show set in the fictional upscale town of Neptune, California.  Each season has a big plot (e.g., who killed Veronica’s best friend or who’s responsible for the bus-load of students flying off a cliff) and many smaller complex cases that resolve each episode.  Once again, the common themes of good writing and solid acting make for an easy-to-watch distraction.  Not sure why we haven’t seen more of Kristin Bell.  Unlike most shows, they make the transition from high school to college without completely losing the show’s focus (as they did in two of my favorite guilty pleasure shows, the original Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  They were smart to pull the plug after Season 3.

Prison Break.  Four Seasons.  Watching the first episode, I was thinking this would not be a keeper.  It really sucks you in, however, to a core story involving two brothers: one on death row and the other a structural engineer.  The engineer spends six months creating an intricate plan to break his innocent brother out, tattoos the encoded plan over his entire upper body, and holds up a bank to get get thrown into the same prison.  It’s not quite Oz, but the mix of sadistic inmates and guards throws wrench after wrench into the well-oiled escape plan.  I’m currently on Season 4 which I’m still watching mostly because of the strength of the characters, but this one might have been better served by shutting down after the third season.

So what’s next after Prison Break?  I haven’t decided yet.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.


When I first arrived here, my first reaction as I navigated through a snowy downtown Ottawa was how clean the city appeared.  Over the past six months, my initial impress has not changed.  Part of it is the weather and the way the city deals with it.  Snow gets plowed almost immediately after hitting the ground and there’s enough of it that the fresh white top-cover gets a regular renewal.  The city also invests in services that keep streets and sidewalks swept, steam cleaned, and cleared of debris.  As the nation’s capitol, Ottawa serves as huge tourist destination for Canadians so there also seems to be a strong interest in keeping the monument areas pristine.

Mostly, however, I believe it’s a Canadian thing.  Forbes Magazine in 2007 published a list of the world’s top 25 cleanest cities.  Canada ended up with an impressive five cities on the list, including the top spot (Calgary) and four in the top ten.  Ottawa was a respectable No. 4.  There doesn’t seem to have been much change in the last three years.

Although there are exceptions, there doesn’t seem to be nearly the degree of miscellaneous graffiti tagging in the downtown area as I’ve come to expect in urban centers.  The City has designated a few spots, urban walls and a skate parks, as exempt from the anti-graffiti laws.  I took a road trip out to one of these sites and found a series of “Jersey barriers” set up predominantly as open graffiti canvases.  Some are detailed works of art while others provide a spot for taggers to mark their spot.

There’s quite the debate about whether the legal graffiti zones curb or incite more illegal graffiti in the surrounding areas.  Compared to San Francisco and Boston (forget about New York or Chicago), however, Ottawa seems to be way ahead of the game.