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Adventures in Japan

Sunday, November 27, 2011
This is the first in a series of articles about my recent adventures in Japan.

Japan will be a trip of firsts.

It will be the first time leaving North America since a family trip to England when I was six years old.  In hindsight, due to youth, that trip almost feels like a dream that never happened.  In every way imaginable, going to Japan feels like the first continental adventure.

It will be the first time visiting a primarily non-English speaking country.  Curiosity begs an answer to the question of whether or not the power of body language can really overcome the crutch of linguistics.

At the apex of my thoughts is how the safety net will be truly absent for the first time.  Previous urban exploration adventures all had a fallback - readily available cell/web communications, similar languages and currencies, a group of travel companions to rely on - forms of control over the situations of "planned spontaneity" I would get myself (and fellow urban explorers) into.  But not this time.

The only real fallback will be Tong, who I’ll meet up with in Tokyo.  Tong is a well travelled, analytical thinker who can understand some characters of the Japanese language (I like to joke that he knows 18% Japanese due to his Asian heritage).  However, with our exact plans still somewhat undefined as we’re about to converge upon Japan, even he displays an air of uncertainty in our email exchanges leading up to the adventure.

The adventure will be simple, in theory: illegally land on an abandoned island 10km off the southwestern coast of Japan, evade being sighted by sea patrols and other vessels for (an unprecedented) eight continuous hours, then escape the island without being caught. theory?

Hashima Island was a coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi from 1887 to 1974 and sits in the East China Sea, approximately 15km off the coast from Nagasaki, Japan.  Due to the island’s shape, derelict high-rise structures and sea walls it often goes by the nickname Battleship Island.  By 1959, Hashima Island had the highest population density in the world, housing 5,259 people (an average of 139,100 people/km2) in a multitude of concrete buildings on 15 acres of land.  After the island’s operations closed 37 years ago, it became off limits to the public and the slow process of dereliction commenced.

Hashima Island photographed from the East China Sea

Very few people have had the opportunity to explore Hashima Island. After our urban exploration adventures at the abandoned Six Flags New Orleans in June, Tong proposed the idea of exploring Hashima Island in November (he will already be in southeast Asia for work). I mentioned having an urban explorer contact on Twitter (@ikumi_urbex) hailing from Japan who had previously served as a guide to the island for a limited number of other urban explorers. I offered to initiate communications with her via email and see what happens. Ikumi responded immediately, in broken translated English, with a very positive, upbeat reply. And so the journey began.

Ikumi, our guide on Hashima Island

Four months later, after numerous email exchanges (some through a small network of friends providing intermediary translations), we're on our way to meet up in Japan. Arrangements for Hashima Island have been made on our behalf, with guidance from Tong and I on some available options. We've been informed to meet in Nagasaki at a specific hotel and time and prepare for the urban exploration adventure of a lifetime. But first...

Flying can be an excellent source of focus. The constrained environment forces you to concentrate on tasks or emotions on your mind (especially if you aren't comfortable sleeping on planes). During the long flight to Tokyo (with a layover in the beautiful Vancouver airport) I'll do some writing, read large portions of the Steve Jobs biography, and mentally prepare for the pending Japanese adventure.

An iPhone 4 photo of Narita Airport's international visitor's greeting sign

After landing at Narita Airport and getting through customs (a surprisingly easy task), the bottom of the airport’s concourse escalator becomes a temporary homebase for myself and my large green suitcase. Immediately, expectations of having no cell signal and no way to call Tong are confirmed. The airport’s wifi becomes too weak in the concourse, so the time arrives to test my instincts and intuition(1). I have to figure out how to meet up with Tong without the assistance of digital technology or any understanding of the Japanese language.

To be continued...

1. I try to live a paperless life, so I have no printouts with me. Yes, I admit this tends to artificially enhance my adventures. ;)

Adoption, Reunions and a Mistake

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

For the first 21 years of my life, this was home.Mistakes. A good life is filled with them. A great life is built on them.

Like most people, I've made mistakes. Some of those mistakes were insignificant; others, not so much. I'm going to tell you about the biggest mistake I've made in my life to date. As with most stories, some historical context is required.

On a beautiful autumn day in Stratford, during my 19th year, I anxiously walked up some steps with my then current girlfriend. Those steps belonged to the Children's Aid Society building, where I was about to begin the process of searching for my biological mother. My girlfriend had some dealings with the case workers there and, after getting to know my adoption story and the deep yearning I had to learn about my origins, she offered to accompany me to their offices to start my journey. In a way, it was actually a continuation of the journey my parents started two decades earlier with the Children's Aid Society when they decided to adopt a second child.

My parents were always completely open with my brother and I (and everyone else) about our adoptions. My father actively encouraged us to seek out our biological origins; my mother hesitantly so. Years prior to my adoption, my father played a small part in helping a man find his own biological parents. He fondly recounted this story to people when describing why he informed us of everything he could about our own adoptions. (To date, my brother has shown no interest in learning about his separate biological origins.)

I knew a few scant details about my own origins - my biological mother was from Newfoundland and was a teenager when she had me. She had already given birth to a girl before I entered the picture. Minimal information was available about my biological father. (I have never had an interest in searching for him.) Once she signed the papers to give me up for adoption, I was placed in foster care for 3 months with a family in a nearby Newfoundland town. I was then adopted and raised on a farm a short drive away from Stratford, Ontario. My parents were great and provided me with the best childhood I could have imagined.

A short time after submitting the adoption registry search forms, a database connection was made and a reunion was set up. I met my biological mother and her husband, my older (full biological) sister, my two younger (half biological) sisters, and a few other people associated with their family at the time.

A key detail of the story is that two months before the reunion, my Mom had died (after a 3 month battle) from "an unknown cancer". (Yes, she was aware of my pending reunion.)

Shortly after the reunion, the topic of what to call my biological mother came up. I remember that moment vividly. I was in her kitchen and she was standing at the sink, preparing dinner. I said I wanted to call her "Mom". She hadn't asked to be called that, but that's what we agreed on.

That moment was my biggest mistake.

The title of "Mom" holds an infinite amount of meaning. In its simplest form, that title should only be reserved for the woman who earned it by fulfilling that role in your life. As I've learned, when used incorrectly, the noun "Mom" can create an open playing field for games that shouldn't exist. It can raise false expectations, cause jealousy, create confusion and wreak unintentional havoc on people's perceptions of reality. I believe my choice of noun and all the significance that surrounds it allowed those things to happen when they could have been averted.

I'm still trying to understand why I wanted to call her "Mom"; the reasons are not always as obvious as they may seem. The natural assumption is that it was due to losing my real Mom shortly before the first reunion. However, I can say with ultimate clarity that this is untrue. After I became aware of what adoption meant (sometime in grade 3), I always saw myself as having two Moms, except one raised me. If my Mom was alive when I met my biological mother, I can't deny that things probably would have been different.

The details aren't important to rehash at this time, but shortly after the reunion, relations with my biological mother and sisters (apart from one sister) declined to the point where I received a phone message from my oldest biological sister telling me I was no longer welcome in all of their lives. The reunion lasted 3 years. I was devastated, but accepted their choice and tried to move on.

I had a conversation with my Dad, who was still alive at the time, about everything that had happened. He was with me the day I met everyone and subsequently saw them a few times after that. As usual, he summarized the situation simply and succinctly and gave me space to clear my mind.

Fast forward a few years to 2009.

I lead a very active personal and professional life online, with very public profiles on several social media websites, including, of course, Facebook. On June 5th, 2009, after years of silence, the inevitable and expected happened - I received a Facebook request from my oldest sister. After the initial shock wore off, I chose to ignore it. A few days later, I received a Facebook message from the sister I had been able to make a connection with years earlier. After days of considerable thought, I decided to respond to her.

A second reunion was eventually set up, though only with my biological mother and two youngest sisters. Within months, relations deteriorated and ended again with my youngest sister. In the past two and a half years, relations with my biological mother deteriorated to the point where I finally reached my limits and removed her from my life. I've accepted that those relationships are now over.

Fortunately, I have become very close with my next youngest sister, which I'll discuss in a bit.

After months of intense personal debate and meticulous review of all available information, I believe the root cause of the years of situational chaos with my biological family can be traced back to that simple conversation about the title of "Mom". Had I not made that choice years ago during our first reunion, I believe the decay and decline of our relationships may not have happened…twice.

Referring to my biological mother as "Mom" removed boundaries for everyone involved that should have been carefully defined by me. I believe choosing the title of "Mom" for my biological mother made things difficult for my sisters in direct and indirect ways.

I take full responsibility for how things turned out with my biological family. It didn't have to be this way, but I can accept things for how they turned out and understand that life isn't always perfect.

There is, however, a positive contradiction in all of this. I mentioned a sister that I was able to connect with in the first and second reunions. Her name is Arlene and I've written about her elsewhere, so I won't rehash those thoughts again. I'm fortunate to have salvaged something good in these reunions despite all of the problems that have occurred.

Upon reading Steve Jobs's recent biography, I noticed several striking parallels between his adoption and reunion story and my own. Of note is how he was able to forge a strong, warm relationship with his biological sister Mona Simpson and eschew relations with some of his biological origins. I hope to achieve the same outcome with Arlene.

Incidentally, since coming to these conclusions, I've entered what has become the most creative, productive and healthiest era of my entire adult life. I'm sure it's all linked together somehow.

So there it is, my adoption and reunion(s) story. I decided to finally tell this story in the hopes that other adoptees may read it and gain some kind of insight from it. Hopefully it will help or inspire them to make positive decisions based on my experiences and mistakes.

The page has been turned and it's time to return to trying to build a great life.

Tokyo, Japan
November 14, 2011

Updated on May 2013: The above paragraphs I've crossed out relate to the final chapter of this story. I will write the long overdue follow-up soon.


Challenging Digital Media: The Performing Arts

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Challenging Digital Media: The Performing Arts is a conference taking place in (my home town) Stratford, Ontario, Canada. The conference is billed as "an international community of artists, creators, producers, developers and visionaries as we explore how the performing arts are pushing the boundaries of digital technologies and shaping innovative artistic experiences."

The first day featured some fascinating presentations including: the intersection of technology and the arts, the concept of the missing half-second, the Hexagon Project and a telementoring session between a teacher in Stratford and a musician (trumpet) in New York City.

Here are a few quick photos from the event.

17-55mm, 1/50 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600

17-55mm, 1/15 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600

17-55mm, 1/30 second, f/2.8, ISO 1600


VisualDNA: New York Times Personality Test

Monday, September 26, 2011

Like many people, I get a kick out of taking online tests. They usually serve as a nice momentary break from doing work. I suppose some people would call that procrastination. ;)

I recently took the New York Times Personality Test, powered by VisualDNA. Here was the result:

You're a Tech Guru

You are open-minded and always on the lookout for new ideas. Your modernist point of view means that you are often fascinated in evolving ideas whether it be in the form of the latest piece of gadgetry or an avant-guard piece of artwork. When all is said and done, you are a bit of an intellect with a tendency to do a spot of soul searching from time to time.

You have an inquisitive mind and possess an irresistible urge to experiment with everything around you. You're a real get-up-and-go kind of person who likes to keep at least one finger on the pulse of everything that's hot and happening from the latest movies and sport to the coolest technologies and gadgets. A true entertainment junkie, there's no chance of you ever getting bored and you're always the first to get your hands on some shiny new gizmo that's going to revolutionize your life. You have a realistic outlook on what you can achieve and enjoy attention to detail in most aspects of your life.

Try it out for yourself:


TEDxToronto 2011 After Party Photo Booth

Monday, September 26, 2011

Toronto recently held it's version of the TED conference, otherwise known as TEDx. Christened TEDxToronto, the conference "is designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level."

I was asked by TEDxToronto volunteer Eric Portelance to run the conference's Official After Party photo booth.  These events are always fun to photograph, so I jumped at the chance to do it!

I brought my Elinchrom studio lights and a backdrop rig while the organizers supplied the backdrop and some fun props for people to use when getting their photo taken. Props always seem to break the ice for even the most camera shy individuals.

Special thanks to Eric for the invitation and organizers Andrea Liew, Lisa Pozhke and Satish Kanwar for their awesome assistance during the event!

The full set of photos can be seen on the TEDxToronto Facebook Page. A few samples can be seen below.



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