Monday, April 30, 2018

A Boy And His Dog

 This past weekend my family abandoned me (ironically to attend the church's Family Camp weekend), so I decided that the best thing for mental health was a good ol' fashion drive in the country.  So I rented a car (my wife had the minivan, our only vehicle), tossed Bailey The Wonder Puppy into the passenger seat, and hit the road.

Destination?  Mabry Mill via the Blue Ridge Parkway. ETA?  3 hours... but I bet we can make that longer.

In the mean time Bailey rarely gets to sit in the front seat with the window down, so she spent most of the trip with her nose out of the window.  She was one blissful dog.
If you've never been on the Blue Ridge Parkway you a) don't know what you are missing, and b) don't likely know it is run by the National Parks Service, runs though the Blue Ridge Mountains for 400+ miles, and has lots of pull offs for sight seeing and other such park-like activities. 

One of those pull offs has an old cabin, called Jesse's Cabin, mainly cause it was built by a guy named Jesse sometime before I was born (I should get a side job as a tour guide).  I decided it was a superb place to stop, so we did.

I spent a good hour around the cabin.  I took some shots of the hound, and then some shots of LEGO.  However this is a blog called "A Boy And His Dog", not "A Boy And His Toys", so I am only showing the shots of the hound.

After an hour or so we had a pow wow to discuss our next steps.  Bailey wanted to chew on a dead squirrel.  I wanted to drive some more.  So we compromised by getting back in the car (dogs have poor negotiation skills).

Off to the car!
An hour or so later we arrived at our destination: Mabry Mill.

Mabry Mill is an old mill, built some time ago by the Mabry's.  It is now a historic site, and a restaurant.  It was roughly now that I ate lunch, sitting on a bench, under a tree.

It was a nice tree.

Then we went site seeing.
After Bailey got a full education on the history of the Mabry's (they were millwrights, and moonshiners, among other things), we started heading back.

So with sunglasses on, windows down, Guns'n'Roses cranked, and two crazy inter-species friends driving in the fastest vehicle in the world (nothing is faster than a low budget rental car), we headed off into the great unknown.

And by great unknown, I mean retracing our steps.  3 hours, and one stop later, we arrived back home for a delicious meal of kibble, pizza, wings, and a hockey game on TV (Golden Knights gave the Sharks the beating they so richly deserved; I got heartburn from the buffalo sauce, and the dog fell asleep in her doggy bed).

And that concludes the tale of an adventure of a boy and his dog.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

How To Melt A LEGO Minifig

For the 22nd round of the Chrysta Rae Photography Scavenger Hunt over on Google Plus, I created the following image for the word "sizzle":
The following is a behind-the-scenes look at how I got the shot.

It is actually pretty simple.  Tho it took teamwork from the entire family.

So the setup is as follows.  I had an electric frying pan outside on my porch - this was to ensure any possible fumes from the melting plastic would vent safely.  I put a camera on a C-Stand, facing straight down.  I tethered the camera to my laptop, set on a chair safely away from the action.  A small LED light mounted on a GorillaPod provided some illumination.   I also had another camera standing by so I could take shots from different angles if the opportunity presented itself.

This image shows the basic setup during a test melt. I found it was surprisingly hard to get a minifig to melt.  LEGO is made from ABS plastic which has a melting point of 105C, which is not that hot in the grand scheme of things.  However I could barely get the minifig to melt even with the frying pan cranked to maximum.  It may be poor heat transfer, or maybe the knock-off LEGO I was using uses a different plastic.  I added some cooking oil to the mix which seemed to help. It was never as dramatic as I hoped, but with the help of a spatula, I was able to squish the soft plastic to look melty.
Once I got the minifigs to melt in a  satisfactory way, it was time to shoot the main image.  I had my kids man the laptop, and I worked the frying pan. My wife was standing by with the food. Once the minifig was hot enough and started to melt my wifey added in the bacon, and an egg.  After that it was just a matter of waiting for the cooking process to get to the right stage and snap the picture.
A couple people on social media commented about the smell.  There wasn't one, really.  The whole process smelt like overcooked bacon and eggs for the most part.  At one point in time we tried experimenting with adding alcohol to create some flames. That was dramatic, and created a nasty burnt rum smell, but no plastic fumes. 
For safety reasons we didn't eat the food, which was the only real tragedy of this shoot.  The sacrifices we make for our art, eh? In this case that sacrifice was wasted bacon.

Once we were done and I had the shot I wanted,  I melted a couple more minifigs for the kids,cause thats the type of father I am: nothing but the best Chinese knock-off melted toys for my kids!

These are the results:
After that it was just a matter of processing the photo, which was just basic brightness/contrast adjusting, and some sharpening.

And that is now one melts a LEGO minifig.

Friday, April 27, 2018

NHL Playoffs! My New Fascination With Hockey

I have been really getting into hockey this year.

"But Dave," you may wonder to yourself in your inner voice (which I always imagine has a Scottish accent, even if you're not Scottish), "You are Canadian.  Aren't you culturally obligated to watch hockey?"

"No!" I would retort. "Don't be silly." (also that's racist).

While I watched hockey as a kid, and attended a few hockey games over the past few years, I haven't really followed hockey since high school.   This is mainly due to a lack of cable TV, and a general dislike for sports bars.

However this year due to fortuitous events (namely vast improvements in Internet bandwidth allowing for streaming video content, my wifey strongly suggesting my father in-law would appreciate it if I got a  subscription to, and my deciding paying for the year made more financial sense than paying for the month).  So back in November I started watching hockey again.

During the year I split my time watching several teams, The Edmonton Oilers (my team when I was a kid), the Ottawa Senators (my team in high school), and the Toronto Maple Leafs (you have to grow up in Ontario to understand the complex love/hate relationship one develops with the beloved Leafs).
The Oilers and Senators neglected to make the playoffs. So, I've begun following other teams: the Tampa Bay Lightening (cause they are amazing puck handlers) Pittsburgh Penguins (defending champions), and the Toronto Maple Leafs (see previous paragraph).

The second round just started and I have two teams left in contention (The Leafs went to game 7, but then folded in the third period in classic Leaf fashion).

My one issue is that playoff games are under a blackout until the game is over.  This isn't really a problem in practice, except I am constantly trying to avoid spoilers on news sites and social media - the struggle is real.

So that is my current status as a hockey fan.  The Penguins just one game one of the second round, so things are looking up!

Go Sports Puck Team!

I Got A Bonus... And It's Gone

This is an actual conversation I had with my wife via chat from work yesterday:

Me:  Hey, good news! I got a bonus at work today!
Wifey:  Ooh, for what?
Me:  I did some grungy work and was recognized for it.

~ 2 minute pause ~

Me:  I just spent it.
Wifey:  ?!? That was fast!
Wifey:  Spent it on what?
Me:  Action figures!
Wifey: LOL

In my defense the email that informed me of the bonus also mentioned that people get more enjoyment out of such things if they spend in on a special meal, or getting something one normally wouldn't buy for themselves. Challenge accepted.

So now I have an awesome action figure coming my way, all to support my toy photography habit.  True story.  Don't blame me, blame psychology.

If such news of action figure acquisition by Yours Truly alarms you and are wondering if I am going to stop shooting LEGO, fear not.  I have some large LEGO projects still in the works, and don't plan on stopping any time soon.  I'm just branching out into new areas of awesomeness and joy.

Oh, in case you were wondering which action figure I bought...its a surprise. No Spoilers!
No Spoilers!
(Not my photo, stolen from free download site here).

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Handy Lighting For LEGO Shots

One of the fun things I enjoy with photography is finding creative uses for  cheap objects for use in making my images.  So as you can imagine I was thrilled when I was walking past the "free stuff" shelf at work and came across a pair of these:

This is a desktop microphone stand.  Handy for holding ones microphone.  However I immediately saw something else - it would be handy to hold a tactical flashlight, and make a miniature light stand for my LEGO photography.

I use tactical flashlights all the time in my work, but it is challenging and sometimes annoying to have to find ways to hold the lights in the perfect angle.  This seemed like the perfect solution. So I grabbed the stands, and when I arrived home I tried to fit one of my flashlights into them:

Perfect fit!

Now, to see if they work as light stands:

Fantastic! These will work out well.

Spoiler alert: I've actually been using this pair for over 9 months now.  I was reminded of them when someone put a third stand in the "free stuff" shelf, which I immediately grabbed.  So I decided to share the idea with you fine folk.

To give an idea of how useful an overhead flashlight can be, I used these stands + flashlight combo to make the following shots:

As you can see they can be the foundation for some excellent and dramatic lighting.

I found the stands I use on amazon, and they cost $8 new on Amazon. If you are curious, these are the flashlights I use (4 for $16).

So thats my handy lighting system that has been powering my work for a while now.  One system of  many actually, but it has proven effective for me.  If you have any lighting strategies for your own toy work, I'd love to hear about em.  Drop them in the comments below.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

My Struggle With Mental Illness

Let's cut to the chase. About 8 weeks ago I was medically diagnosed with a mental illness known as moderate to severe depression.

Mental illness has a negative stigma in our society. So in order to help reduce this stigma, and perhaps to help anyone reading this who may be in a similar situation, I want to share some details about my own illness.

In The Beginning

Looking back on my life I think I've had bouts of depression all my life.  I can recall having strong and prolonged feelings of despair and not being good enough at several points in my life,   These waves of feeling down would come and go, but the most recent bout of depression started a couple years ago.

It is important for this story to understand what was going on in my world.  What was going on was the status quo.  I had two kids that were, aside from normal kid things, pretty easy to deal with.  The relationship with my wife has remained as it always have - strong and drama free.  My job, which I have been doing for 10 years at that point, pays well, is relatively low stress, mentally interesting, has a flexible schedule, excellent management, and in general a wonderful way to spend a career.  In short, there have been no major life changes, and no real reasons to be unhappy with my life.

Despite all that about two years ago I started becoming disgruntled.  I'd have days where I didn't want to go to work, and when I got there I didn't really want to do anything.  Of course every one has these feelings now and then. However they were starting to get more and more frequent.

Slowly over time I wasn't enjoying any of the activities I used to enjoy, or they would be more stressful then they used to be.  Road trips, which I love, would not be as enjoyable, and exhaust me.  I would get more irritable at minor inconveniences. I'd have trouble finishing projects, and picking up my camera.

However it was easy to explain away.  I have allergies (I live in a high allergy area), which are affecting my energy levels.  My project at work is not as interesting as others.  I am an immigrant in Trumps America.  Lots of easily explainable little things were not going as smoothly as they should have been, and were bringing me down.  Little things that were masking the demon lurking deep down inside.

The Downward Spiral

About 6 months ago it really started to intensify.  I really started to lose ambition, and it became harder to get motivated to be creative, especially at work.

I was also getting increasingly cranky.  I mean I've always had a cranky side, but it was starting to kick in at the most minor of things. I was more sensitive to the slightest inconvenience, criticism, or change in direction. I'd have a short temper with the kids, and get easily annoyed with my wife.

The rare moments I could get deep in thought and be creative were wonderful, but if anyone interrupted me, it made me incredibly and irrationally irritable.   More than once my wife was met with what must have seemed absurdly angry and bitter response to a simple announcement like "supper is ready, dear."

I  mean, how dare she feed me now... doesn't she see I'm creating something over here?

I did have a series of sinus infections, which served as a handy excuse. "My sinuses are messed up which makes it hard to think. Thats why I'm not motivated, and cranky. Obviously!" was my thought process.   When I went to see the doctor about those issues, my wife, wise to the fact that something was off in the behaviour of her oblivious husband, encouraged me to talk to the doctor about it.

To be fair I was diagnosed with sinus infections and did go thru several rounds of antibiotics, so thinking it was the cause wasn't entirely unwarranted.

I did bring my crankiness up to the good doctor, but it was mixed in with my other symptoms, and could be explained away as other things. "If you stop exercising you can feel down." was one excuse I hung on to.  I had stopped biking to work every day - mainly because the local bike shop closed and my bike needed repairs.  It fit tho, so I went with it. Another excuse was "You don't go hiking alone like you used to, perhaps you just need some alone time."  Also true.. also held on to.

It is just bad sinuses, and not getting enough exercise and alone time, I was satisfied with that explanation, and started treating those issues.  I was a victim of circumstance,  so just leave me the fuck alone, OK?

Fortunately, aside from my super crankiness, my reaction to all this stress was not to cause harm to be or anyone else, but to run away.  I started to day dream about quitting my job, packing up the family, and moving back to Canada.  Problem was I didn't have anything lined up job-wise back home, and I didn't want my wife and kids to suffer without a regular paycheque, so I soldiered on.

Rock Bottom

So after a very trying Christmas break spent with family back in Canada, I returned to work in January.  I got no real joy out of that vacation - in fact I had a bit of a nutty overreacting to a New Years Eve party (which I crazily tried to sleep thru despite a party, planned well in advance, happening in the living room).  My incredibly understanding wife talked me thru it, but still something had to change. I knew it did.  I just didn't know what, and I was grasping at the straws I had previously clung to, desperately seeking solace.

Back in the US in January, going thru the motions in the new year, I was getting lost in my head.  At work I had a project assigned to me - nothing super complicated and nothing I hadn't done a dozen times before.  However I couldn't seem to make any progress on it. I could do some small tasks here and there, but digging into the creative problem solving of software engineering took a force of will.  A force of will I was rapidly losing.

I did get my bike fixed, and I was biking every day again... which helped for a day or so, but the effect didn't last.   It seemed harder than before as well.  A lot harder.

By the end of January I was just stewing in my own fog.  I actively hated going to work.  I had to force myself every day to leave the house.  I was being cranky to my co-workers - nothing they did.  I actually have really friendly and cooperative team mates.  We've been working together for 10+ years, and we have a great rapport. Still, I was reacting with anger and annoyance to things that didn't come close to deserving negative reactions.

My personal live was suffering too.  Especially my photography.  I still had a flood of ideas for shots I wanted to take, and special effects I wanted to try, but I simply couldn't get the energy to get out of my easy chair and go to my studio in the basement.  That was true mental pain - the spirit was willing, but the flesh wouldn't cooperate.  Creatively I felt trapped in my head - it was the closest I ever came to a personal hell.

The first week of February I hit my wall.  I simply couldn't go on with things as they were going.  My project at the time was writing software code.  However I had to force myself to simply open up the editor - actually writing the simplest line of code was beyond me.  All I wanted to do was leave, pack up the family and run away.  However I was in no position to hunt for a job, and I still didn't want to leave the family without support, so I felt trapped.  I felt incredibly trapped.  There was nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.  I was miserable beyond all reason - crying inside every day. Sometimes crying outside in the middle of the night.

I also felt like I was about to be fired for poor performance, and really I couldn't blame them.  I was sucking at my job. I'd have wanted to fire me, too.

Fighting back physical tears (I didn't  want to attract attention and try to explain myself to my team mates), while sitting at my desk, for the 4th day in a row of having accomplished absolutely nothing - not even being able to open a text editor, I finally typed in "signs of depression" into my browser.

The first hit was a questionnaire about depression, which I filled out.  It came back with the result  of "Moderate to Severe Depression".


Light In The Darkness

The moment I saw "Moderate to Severe Depression" on the screen, I actually felt a little better. Just a little.  Instead of having no idea what was wrong with me, I had a possible diagnosis.  Perhaps there was a reason for my insanity.  It was something to focus on. Something specific to fight.

The first thing I did was text my wife: "I just took this online quiz and I think I have depression".  She responded "Yep, most likely.".  I suggested I should get help, and she agreed.

As an aside, you may wonder why my wife wouldn't bring up her suspicions that I had depression before.  I think this was a smart thing for her to do.  If she had suggested it before I was ready to hear it, I would have likely raised my defenses against it, and made it much harder to come to the realization myself.  I think thats the key - I needed to face it myself. Now that I was facing it, she was behind me 100%.  Bless her for that.

The second thing I did was write my manager an email, and tell him I was having issues.  I did this simply because I figured I'd need some time off, and there may very well be a medical reason why my performance and attitude at work was crap lately. Fortunately he was amazingly supportive. Another monkey off my back, at least for now.

Finally I made an appointment with my family doctor.  It was going to be a week before I could see him.  So I kept showing up to work, and not being productive.

Diagnosis: Depression

When I saw my family doctor, we talked about my issues, and he asked a lot of probing questions. I live in a small town, and my doctor is also an elder in my church and teaches my adult Sunday School class, so it got a little awkward when the questions became personal.  However the one thing I really knew about mental illness is that locking things inside is not helpful, so I threw caution to the wind - if I needed to talk about how things are with my wife, damn it I'm gonna talk about how things are with my wife (fine, BTW, she's remains amazing).

At this point the good Doctor agreed with the online test - I did have moderate to severe depression, and I needed treatment.  However that is not always as easy as it sounds.  Brain chemistry is not well understood at all, and a lot of it is still guess work, and anecdotal evidence. My doctor said that medical science can explain down to the molecular level how the heart works, but the brain is still largely a mystery.

However there were many things to try, and some likely causes. The most common cause is a deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin.  Serotonin is thought to regulate, among other things, behaviour and mood.  So it is not a stretch of logic to realize an imbalance there can cause depression.  So it would be an experiment. We would try a drug - if it didn't work, we'd try another, and another, until we came across the right combination that worked for me.

I was put on an SSRI - Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors - which is a fancy way of saying I was given a drug that slows the bodies absorption of serotonin, leaving more in the brain to do its thing.  (fun fact:  Learning the brain drugs work is my favourite part of this process).

Luckily the first drug we tried, which works for the majority of people apparently, seems to have done the trick (spoiler alert). Luckily I'm not that special, and the more common solution worked for me.

Side Effects

So I started taking an SSRI pill every day - something I call my brain candy (cause a sense of humour is important when one is suffering depression).  Not much of a burden really.  However the side effects are intense.  It takes 3-4 weeks for the body to get used to the effects of the medication.  The side effects basically made me alternately tired, and energetic.  It really threw me for a loop. I felt mentally fuzzy for weeks. (I feel physically fuzzy all the time, so maybe I just achieved some sort of symmetry?)

Interestingly enough the only day of work I missed due to depression (at least directly) was the day I started taking my brain candy.  The side effects were that severe.  After that I went to work every day.  I felt staying in a routine was important.  However I gave myself permission to not be productive for a few weeks.  I'd attend meetings, and try to do some work, but if I didn't have it in me that day, that was OK. If I needed to take off in the middle of the day to decompress, then I took off.  My boss was OK with it, so I was free to adjust to the meds relatively stress free - which is another true blessing.

Eventually the side effects became less and less intense, and my energy levels increased.  By March I was able to start doing hours of productive work at a time.  By the end of April I was able to finish that software coding project that previously I couldn't even open the editor for.

I no longer hated work. I didn't feel dread every time I left the house.  I was less irritable, and even downright happy.  In fact there have been several times where I remarked to my wife that "I feel frustrated. I want to be cranky, but I'm not!".

My photography seems to have been helped, too.   I've since managed to get a lot of shots done that I've been sitting on for moths.  That feels amazing to have accomplished.

As a side effect I noticed that I take less pain killers than I used to.   I don't think I had a real problem here, but because I bike to work I sometimes get muscle pain in my legs, so I'd take some Tylenol or Advil.  I was taking them before bed 3-4 times a week.  Now I may take em once a week (normally on a Friday after 5 straight days of pedaling).  One of the effects of depression is that it saps energy from the body, so it is harder to deal with things like mild muscle pain.  Everything seems amplified.  That is also what makes it harder to deal with people, and cause crankiness - social graces take work, and I was being drained of energy.

Status Quo

For the time being I am taking daily medication for my depression, which seems to be working.  I need to take it for at least 6 months.  Apparently my brain is being trained to deal with higher levels of serotonin.  After 6 months they may try to ween me off of the meds, or I may end up taking them every day for the rest of my life.  However thats a small price to pay for not having to feel the way I felt.

So that is my story so far. I really don't mind talking about these things, so if you have questions, please feel free to ask me.  Also don't be surprised if I talk about my depression in person.  I don't feel the need to share all the details (I suspect most people don't need/care to know anyway), but I am not above using it as a reason why I need to take some alone time, or avoid a social engagement to get some rest.  I really feel that being open about this is important both for my own health, and to reduce the social stigma of mental illness.  I mean, if I had a bad leg and I said "Sorry, my leg is acting up, I can't go with you, I need to rest", no one would bat an eye.  There is no reason why "Sorry, my depression is acting up" shouldn't be equally acceptable.  So I am making it so.  Deal with it.

Anyhoo, If you feel you may be suffering from depression, please take this free online questionnaire (which is a standard medical assessment form actual doctors use): (PHQ-9) and contact your doctor if you need it. 

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Family Outing

Tuesday nights in my town are photography club nights. 

Sometimes the meetings are show-and-tell in a local studio, other meetings we take field trips to shoot things in the real world.

I don't always go to the meetings - sometimes I'm too exhausted from work, and lately we're in the middle of the NHL playoffs (go Leafs!). However this weeks field trip was to a local walking park, and the weather was an amazing North Carolina spring day, so I decided to make the trip.

Because it was such a nice day I brought along the family, and we spent an hour exploring the park and shooting some photos.

I, as you may suspect, brought some toys along to shoot.  The evening light was amazing, and I was able to get some good shots. The kids started taking an interest in shooting the toys as well once I set up a dinosaur and a sasquatch in a pile of rocks.

A couple of my shots look like this:

...and this:
The kids jumped right in, climbed up on the rocks, and started shooting like mad-children. 

I am not totally sure why but I love the look of my kids when they are in deep concentration mode.
They were having so much fun it was hard to get them to stop - but alas it was a school night so we had to eventually call it quits and head back to the ol'house for bedtime (and the Penguins/Flyers game on

I haven't yet spelunked thru their cameras to see what sort of shots they got, but they had a whole lot of fun, and isn't that really the point of taking pictures of toys?

Monday, April 16, 2018

The First Steps In Organizational Bliss

So my studio, which is a small 8x8(-ish) space in my basement, is always cluttered.  I keep in there a lot of things - all my photography gear, the vast majority of my LEGO collection, my workstation with two monitors, and enough desk space to shoot my shots.

As you can imagine, space is at a premium.  So I made some space. I had a 3ftx3ft corner with a very small wire shelf in it.  Recently I added two shelves, which fills that corner, and increases my storage space by roughly 10x.  This should allow me to find homes for all my gear and toys, and stop fighting my cramped space.  Thereby I can concentrate more on the art.

It is gonna take a while to get everything sorted - it is a boring job so I am doing it a little bit of a time, but I'm making progress, and already seeing dividends.

This is what that corner looks like now. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Art Vs Artist

Apparently it is the annual #artvsartist day where artists pull back the curtain and reveal themselves along with their work so you can see the person behind the work.

I do a lot of things, but primarily I've been creating images with LEGO, because its never too late to never grow up.

This collage contains some of my favourite pieces, and my ugly mug in the center, so you can see the artist behind my art.

If you like what you see, you can check out all my stuff at my website

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Six Image Narrative: Superhero Edition

The last two posts have been showing a series of six-image narratives of life on the same street corner in small town America.  The first was about normal life, the second had a surprising twist.

12 images wasn't enough so I kept shooting and ended up with a third series.  This one explores the juxtaposition of comic book fans, and comic book heroes.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Six Image Narrative - Creativity Gone Wild

It is funny how creativity takes hold of me sometimes and doesn't let go until I create a large amount of work.

In the last post I showed a six-image narrative of scenes from the same street corner in small town America.  I had a lot of fun shooting those, but I wasn't done yet.  I actually shot and processed 20 shots, that explored the events on that street corner in 3 different ways.

This is the second story.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Six Image Narrative

Over on the Toy Photographers blog they have a feature called the six-image narrative.  The idea is to come up with 6 images that are tied together in some way - tell a story, processed in the same style, etc.

I got a new LEGO set, so I decided to use it to create a six image narrative of my own.  The set was an old 60s style diner, with a sidewalk outside.  I got to thinking that in any town a street corner sees a lot of people, but most are heading somewhere, and don't stick around.  So I wanted to capture vignettes of various scenes that I imagine may occur on the same street corner during a random day.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Easter: The Third Day

Third in a 3 part series of art based on the Easter story.  Resurrection
I hope you have a good Easter weekend, regardless of your world view.  Cheers!