Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Eternal 21st Century Question: To Blog or not to Blog?

I feel like I am at a bit of a crossroads with my blog.  My readership has been declining over the past year or so, which in and of itself isn't a problem, but the decline has got me thinking about the future of this space.  I never really got to do what I wanted to with the blog, which was to chronicle various DIY projects I had taken on.  With Kate's Stage IV breast cancer diagnosis and my ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety, I have had little time and even less energy to take on these kinds of projects.

So, when I decided to take the blog in another direction, I thought I'd write about "issues", whatever that may mean.  I figured with 15+ years of experience as a federal policy analyst and a Masters degree in Public Policy and Public Administration, this would be a natural fit.  Then I realized, that direction would be just as much a daunting task as retiling my shower stall and writing about it  My cognitive functioning just wasn't, and still isn't, up to the task.  The problem is compounded by not having the research resources I would have at work, or at school for that matter.

What I have ended up with is a blog full of not terribly interesting snippets from my life, and an airing of little brain farts.  I really like some of my posts, especially those about my family, but on the whole, they're a little fluffy and not terribly insightful.  Plus, I'm feeling like maybe I'm sharing a little too much about my family's life.  For all that I worry about how technology and social media is eroding our privacy, I have been perhaps too willing a participant.

On the other hand, I do enjoy the process of writing - which is definitely not to say that I am particularly good at it.  I am perhaps not the best verbal communicator, because my brain and mouth work at decidedly different speeds.  Writing, though, lets me slow things down, organize my thoughts, play with ideas a bit more.  Writing also appeals to the frustrated journalist in me.  After I completed my BA in Economics, I actually applied to a Masters of Journalism program, but wasn't accepted.  I find people endlessly interesting and the prospect of earning a living (a very modest one, some journalists inform me) telling parts of the human story was appealing.  But that's not what I do here, either.

All this to say that while I have enjoyed the process, I have not been terribly pleased with the product.  So, while I don't think this will be my last post, I do think that I may be winding it down over the coming weeks.  I hope that the Christmas holidays will give me time to think about whether to continue my blog in its current form, try changing its direction (or starting a new issue-specific blog), or just abandon it altogether.  We'll see,

Til then, thanks for reading.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

That Fetal Pig - What a Slice

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Lena's experience with ABC Ottawa Take-off.  This morning was Lena's last dissection class and parents were invited to sit in for the the dissection of a fetal pig, which had actually been started the week before with the removal of their brains.  As we walked into the class, the young women who were leading the session were pulling the de-brained ungulates from the pail of formadehyde.  A good thing I hadn't eaten breakfast, because the sight of their tiny empty craniums made my stomach lurch.  I wasn't sure I would be able to sit through this but I didn't want Lena to see my discomfort.

This initial visual tableau of brainless pigs descended into the bizarre as the instructors began to tie the little pickled piglets spread-eagled onto the little steel dissecting tray in a scene of "Fifty Shades of Bacon".  The instructors explained that this would make it easier to make the incisions and poke around inside in the abdominal cavity.  They reminded the students how to make the incisions, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, differed based on whether they had a male or female pig.

Then the kids got to work.  I stayed near the back of the class watching the kids dig into their specimens and gradually moved closer as the class went on, fascination quelling my initial queasiness.  The teachers circulated among the three groups explaining what they were seeing and how the various organs worked, as well as offering tips on how to excise the various pig parts (I couldn't believe how big the livers were compared to the other organs).

Once the dissection itself was done, the little fetal pigs were disposed of and the serious business of a trivia competition began.  Two teams of three vied for prizes and, more importantly, bragging rights.  The only two girls in the class were paired together along with one other boy.  The questions covered the whole five-week class.  In the end, all the kids got very thoughtful prizes, the instructors having listened to each and determined their interests and getting a relevant gift.

This class way exceeded my already high expectations.  The instructors were by far the best Lena has had in ABC, both young women doing degrees in Biochemistry - one at the undergrad level and the other in graduate school.  They kept the atmosphere light while packing in a lot of knowledge and managing to keep control of the class.  Indeed, watching the trivia contest I was surprised at how much information the kids retained from the very first class to the final one.  I was also glad to see two women teaching the class, not only to be good role models for the two girls in the class, but also as a good role models for the boys since I believe having boys understand that girls and women have as legitimate a role to play in science as boys and men.

This was an excellent class and I applaud ABC Ottawa Take-off again for offering it and the myriad other fascinating classes.  High value-for-money in all the courses Lena has taken so far.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Making Stuff at Lee Valley Tools

Some of my favourite time spent with my daughter, Lena, is making stuff with her, whether pyrohy for Christmas dinner, putting together K'nex, or working away in my shop.  This past year, Lee Valley Tools, purveyor of, among other things, fine woodworking and gardening tools, has put on a number of seminars that provide opportunities for children and their parents work on a project together.  The cost is nominal at around $35 and all the materials are supplied, as are two Lee Valley staff members to guide the participants.  I can't imagine the company makes much, if any, money off these seminars but they do build a lot of good will and generate a lot of enthusiasm for woodworking and gardening, ensuring a loyal current and future client base.

Lena and I attended our third parent/child workshop this past weekend where we (well, really she) made a Christmas stocking hanger.  This was a little less a woodworking project than a decorative painting project.  All the wood was pre-cut and the knobs for hanging the stockings were supplied as was the milk paint with which to decorate all the parts and all the parts were assembled after they were decorated.

The two staff members, Mick and Brian, were very efficient and helpful, especially after Lena and I realized right near the end that she had decorated her piece upside down.  Both the guys sprung into action, redrilled some holes. used a heat gun to dry some paint and we were back in action.  In the end, we ended up with a beautiful project that Lena will hopefully have to hang her kids' stockings on.

Lena painting the knobs for her stocking hanger.

Lena showing off the final product.

As I said, this was the third project we did at Lee Valley.  The first two, a tool box and a bird feeder, were actual woodworking projects.  All the components were ripped to the proper width and rough cut to the approximate length.  The kids had to do all the measuring, lay-out, hand-sawing and assembly according to the provided plan on their own (with the occasional assist from the seminar leaders or mom or dad).  The projects are useful and provide the kids with an opportunity to try their hand at a practical craft, develop manual skills and provide them with a real tangible sense of accomplishment when they finish the project while hopefully building a lifetime love of craft in these young people.

Lena's previous two projects from Lee Valley seminars - a toolbox and bird feeder.

As always, hats off to the folks at the Ottawa location of Lee Valley for a job well done.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Winter Doldrums

I have a confession to make.  I hate winter.  The season just sucks the life right out of me.  Every flake of snow I see falling from the sky fills me with dread.  As I write this on November 17, I am looking out my window watching it come down.  Snow, to me, makes everything more difficult - driving, running, shopping, walking.  And during the winter, the snow seems to come just about every day.  Thankfully, we pay someone to clear our driveway, but I still have to shovel our walkway, keep a path clear to the back yard, shovel the deck so we can get the dog in and out and when we get less than 5 cms, I still have to scrape down the driveway.

Throw into the mix the idiot that clears the snow next door and who sees absolutely no problem with blowing the snow into my driveway and the problem is even worse.  Last year, I went out to ask him not to and he flipped his lid, which caused me to flip mine.  So, this has just led to further stress at a time when our family has enough to deal with.  So, the prospect of having to deal with him is provoking no small amount of anxiety.

Many have suggested I take up skiing or snowshoeing.  But to me, that's like suggesting someone with a severe allergy to dogs to work as a pet groomer.  I seem to remember as a kid in suburban Montreal that we would be afflicted with some winters where a lot of snow fell, but I also seem to remember a lot of winters with sparse snowfall.  Since moving to Ottawa, though, we seem to get snow just about every day.

When the days start getting shorter, I also seem to suffer profoundly from a lack of energy.  As bad as it is with the depression, the problem seems much worse during the winter.  During my runs, I feel like stopping and just lying down in the middle of the street for a snooze.  My limbs feel like they're made of lead.  The expression "tired to the bone" resonates.

On the upside, Christmas comes in the winter and our little girl's enthusiasm for the season is very infectious.  She seemed to shift into Christmas mode last week and her mood is starting to rub off a little bit.  I hope I can hang onto that for another month and a half to keep things at least a little manageable.

Well, the snow is piling up, I better think about going out with the scraper and keep things neat.  Hope to see you all in the Spring.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Making Models and Knitting

My original purpose in starting my blog was to chronicle my attempts at trying a variety of handcraft and DIY projects in areas that were both new to me or where I had at least some experience.  From my very first post, though, my intent was subverted by other issues and events in my life and has taken a largely different direction.  That's fine with me but I do like to do the occasional post related to my original idea.  So, Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to tackle two projects:

A few years ago, my wife, Kate, and daughter, Lena, bought me a plastic scale model to do.  A couple of days ago, I dusted off the box and have since began gathering the tools I'll need to get started. I haven't done one since I was a kid, so I'm looking forward to getting going on this.

A scale model of the USS Hancock CV-19, an American WW II-era
aircraft carrier.

The other craft I will be trying my hand at will be knitting.  I know, not a very macho hobby to pick up, but I've long since passed the age where I cared what other people think about my interests and past-times.  I have to admit, though, that knitting isn't overly interesting to me but I partly feel an obligation to learn because my grandfather was reputed to have been handy with a pair of knitting needles - out of necessity.  Also, just this morning Kate was reading one of the cancer blogs she follows that cited and summarized a number of studies that show positive impacts of knitting on mood and health.  So, I am curious to see if a pair of needles and ball of yarn can accomplish what dozens of very expensive cocktails of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers, stimulants and sleeping pills have been unable to.  I have to be honest, though, that I tried to learn under Kate's tutelage, after I quit smoking more than 15 years ago.  Let's just say that experience was less than relaxing for all involved.  But I'll give it a better try this time around.

A knitted throw Kate has picked up again after it lying neglected for
more than 15 years.  Something for me to aim for.

So, stay tuned as I delve into these projects.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembrance Day, 2014

I try to honour Canada's veterans every year on November 11 - and on other days.  I think most reading this know why we take the time - many of us for the same reasons and many of us for our own personal reasons.  Many of us know people who have served, who are serving and who have given their lives while serving.  The following are past blog posts about my Grandfather who served as part of the Australian Imperial Force in WW I, and who served at home as part of the Veterans Guard of Canada.  Also one post about my Uncle Steve who was killed in action in 1945,  My mother's brothers, Bill, Mike and Peter Kazuke all also served in various Canadian regiments during WW II.

Alfred Burrows WW I

Alfred Burrows in The Veterans Guard of Canada

Stephen Kazuke

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Workshop Renovation

I have been slowly chipping away at my shop renovation (See my first post on my shop renovation), though a lot of what I have done is hard to see.  I started by going through everything in my shop and putting what I didn't think I would need into a couple of big boxes.  I had my fellow woodworking enthusiast and good friend, Darren, over so he could pick out some stuff, which he did.  My other buddy, Dave, came over and took the rest.  That's a lot of stuff gone.

The current state of my shop.  Still a long way to go, but I am making progress.

In my sorting process, I also started putting like things together, and began emptying the old dresser I use for tool storage (and which will eventually makes its way out of the house) and consolidating in my father's old tool chest.  I have also started putting stuff up on my "tool wall", beginning with my carving and shaping tools and my chisels.  I particularly enjoyed making my little holders for my spokeshaves.  Next up, a rack for my not unsubstantial collection of handsaws and my egg beater-style hand drills.

Organizng stuff into my Dad's old tool chest.

My "Tool Wall" with carving and shaping tools up, as well as all my chisels.

Cute little racks for holding my pair of spokeshaves.

Though the overall focus of my efforts is thinning the amount of stuff in my shop and organizing what's left, I couldn't resist a little garbage-diving a couple of months ago when I came across a very nice table with cast iron legs sitting at the curb in front of a neighbour's house.  This will come in handy for a variety of shop tasks - assembly and finishing, tool sharpening, clamping portable power tools (scroll saw, planer, spindle sander) among others.

An incredible work table I scavenged from a neighbour's garbage.  The cast iron legs
retail new for about $240 at Lee Valley Tools.

So, while progress has been slower than I had originally thought I have nonetheless made some progress.  Once I get my hand drills and hand saws up on my wall, I will start some more significant (and fun) construction projects.  In particular I will build a rack to hold sheet goods and two or three tool chests to sit under my bench and another to sit under the tool table my drill press is attached to,  I think once these project are done, I'll be close to done the shop reno and I'll be able to move onto actually tackling real projects.

That's about it for now.  I'll try to post about more progress in three or four weeks.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Ottawa-area journalist and blogger, Sonia Mendes, recently posted on her blog a recipe for a delicious-sounding spaghetti squash casserole.  So, I have been inspired to post a very simple recipe of mine for a curried butternut squash and apple soup.

As the weather begins getting colder in the fall, few meals take the chill off like soups and stews.  Plus, both the squash and apples used in the recipe are in season.  I came up with this very simple recipe a few years ago and it has quickly become a family favourite.  Serve with a loaf of crusty whole-grain bread for a hearty meal.

1 large butternut squash
5 large cooking apples (e.g. MacIntosh, Courtland, Granny Smith)
3 tbsp. canola oil
3 tbsp. butter
2-3 litres sodium-reduced chicken broth
1 cup apple cider (optional)
Curry powder (optional and to taste)

Sour cream to garnish.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

While the oven is heating, cut squash in half lengthwise, removing seeds and stringy flesh around the seed cavity.  Place the squash halves on a baking sheet and roast in oven until a fork goes easily into the flesh, about one hour.  When done, remove from the oven to cool, about a half hour.  With a large spoon, scoop the flesh out of the skins into a separate bowl and set aside.

Peel, core and slice apples.

Heat oil and melt butter together in a large pot over medium-high heat.  When butter foams add apples, stirring occasionally until the apples are soft and golden brown.

Add squash to the apples cooking in the pot.  Add the chicken broth making sure that the broth covers the squash and apples.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, double checking to make sure all the squash and apples are soft. 

Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to speed cooling. 

Use an immersion blender right in the pot until the soup is smooth, or blend the mixture in batches in a regular blender.  Return the pot the stove over medium heat until the smooth soup is simmering. Taste the soup - if you want it to boost the apple flavor, add apple cider and add curry to taste, simmering for about five minutes until curry powder is fully dissolved in the soup.

Place soup in bowls to serve, add a dollop of sour cream and garnish with apple slices or roasted squash or pumpkin seeds.

The recipe can be altered in many ways.  Sometimes I want the soup to be little more fruity tasting, so I add more apples, or more apple cider.  You can adjust the thickness of the soup by either adding more or less liquid.  Even after the fact, if you find the soup too thin, you can simmer it for a while until it reaches the desired consistency.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Dissecting Animals at ABC Ottawa Take-Off

Last Saturday morning, our daughter, Lena, was looking every bit the pre-teen fashion plate:  a green and blue tartan shirt over a pair of grey leggings; a mod pair of glasses perched on her nose, her long golden hair pulled tight into a ponytail at the back of her head.  Incongruously, one of her latex-gloved hands was wielding a razor sharp scalpel, poised ready to reveal the inner anatomy of the perch lying on the desk in front of her.  Welcome to ABC Ottawa Take-Off, an organization devoted to advocating for the needs of bright and gifted children, including providing a range of extra-curricular classes on a diverse range of subjects in the arts, sciences and engineering fields.

This is Lena's second experience with the ABC program.  A few years ago, she signed up for a music appreciation course and an art and poetry course.  This year, she decided she really wanted to take "Discovery through Dissection".  Over the five weeks that  the class runs, the seven or eight children in the class will dissect an earthworm, a fish (the perch mentioned above), a frog, a fetal pig, and a group project on the last day - a shark!  I was a little surprised that our little girl, who runs screaming at the sight of a little spider, could be so enthusiastic about slicing open little dead animals, but there you go.

Her reasoning for doing the class was twofold:  she has a genuine interest in biology in general and animal biology in particular, and she, at least for now, aspires to be a veterinarian and figures this would be an opportunity to test her tolerance for the icky-squishyness she may need to pursue that profession.  So far so good - she has enjoyed the earthworm and perch dissection, though while working on the perch, one of the instructors noticed her fish had a much larger stomach than the other specimens.  So, everyone gathered around as Lena cut into the distended sac and two smaller, partially digested fish oozed out.  She had no problem excising all the various fish organs, but this, for some reason, freaked her out a bit.  She is also concerned about the fetal pig - apparently eviscerating cute animals may require steelier stuff.  We'll see how it goes.

The classes offered by ABC are really quite varied and challenging.   Topics include fiction writing, a variety of crafts, juggling, model rocketry, forensics, chess, programming MineCraft plug-ins and guitar to name but a few.  Don't be put off by the "bright and gifted" labels - all comers are welcome.  The classes tend to be fairly small in size and are taught by very enthusiastic volunteers.  Be warned, though, that many  of the offerings are very popular and to have a decent chance of registering for the course your kids want you have to arrive early - VERY early - on the evening of registration at a local community centre.  Lena and I went two and half hours early and we were the 16th in line.  We had no trouble getting the course she wanted, but as soon as we stepped into the line to pay, they already announced that the MineCraft plug-in class was full.

The courses are given at St. Paul's Catholic High School in Ottawa's west end, conveniently located a couple of blocks from Lee Valley Tools and the Pinecrest shopping centre for parents who are looking for something to do for the hour and a half their kids are engaging in pretty cool stuff.  While the fall courses are already underway, there are usually offerings in the new year as well.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A Long Lost High School Friend

I had a bit of an odd dream a couple of nights ago.  An old friend from high school made an appearance - just bumped into her, exchanged a few pleasantries and we each went on our way.  We had, as I said, met in high school.  If I'm being truthful, she was probably my first adolescent crush, but once I realized nothing romantic was going to happen, we fell into an easy friendship.  She was just a great person - very caring and always happy and a smile that just made you feel better.  We spent a lot of time together - in person and on the phone.  Then, I think in our final year, we drifted apart.  In part, if memory serves, because she started dating someone outside of our mutual circle of friends and acquaintances.

I remember seeing her once a few years after graduating from high school.  I was in a local drinking establishment with some university friends in my home town of Chateauguay and I saw her alone at a table.  We nodded to each other, but her body language said "stay away".  She looked sad and tired and somehow hardened.  That was probably 25 years ago and that was the last time that I saw her.

I wonder why she decided to pop up in my sub-conscious after all these years.  I'm glad that she did.  She was a definite bright spot in my teens.  I've been thinking a bit about her these past couple of days since my dream.  I searched for her unsuccessfully on Facebook and Google.  Anyway, I hope that she's somewhere good and happy.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Ongoing Service Frustrations

Earlier in the week, I wrote about some problems we have had with some local retailers and our frustrations carried over to this week.  As Fall settles in in the capital, we are accustomed to seeing our fair share of rain and this week hasn't disappointed.  So, imagine my frustration when every day we've seen rain this week, my newspaper has been soaking wet because the carrier doesn't see the need to close the lid on the mailbox.  Now, I'm sure carriers work hard for meagre pay but, all the same, I doubt anyone would mistake the job as being high-knowledge and high-skill.  If it looks like it may rain, close the damn lid.  In fact, close the damn lid regardless.  I called to complain and get a dry paper each time and the guy who manages delivery in our region told me the problem would be fixed, but this morning the lid was, as always, left open, though the rain had not started falling yet.  Gadzooks!

The other frustration this week has been Lena's school bus.  Pretty much since school started, the bus has been varying degrees of late.  Rarely were the kids getting to school before class started.  Two days in the past two weeks, the bus came 30-60 minutes late.  This is highly disruptive to the teachers who have to stop what they're doing as kids file in late to say nothing of the safety issues when parents are leaving their kids at a bus stop for what they think will only be a  few minutes only to have them stand there unattended for up to an hour.  Earlier this week the Catholic school board had a cross country running race for which Lena has been training since school started five weeks ago.  She takes these events very seriously.  This was the day the bus was nearly an hour late.  Fortunately, I got home from the gym early enough to get her to school in time to catch the bus to the event.  She would have been devastated if she had missed it (she finished 27th in a field of over 100 kids, by the way).  Numerous phone calls to the bus company over the past few weeks yielded little improvement.  Finally, after this last one hour wait, I e-mailed the school board, the school and the bus company to complain and I gather I wasn't the only one.  This seemed to do the trick.  The bus has been on time since.

Anyway, I feel better having got that off my chest.  Thanks for reading.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Retail Blues - the Sequel

I continue to be amazed by the poor service offered by so many retailers in our little part of the world (See my earlier post).  I understand that many in the retail sector may not be very well paid, but if you agree to do a job, then try to do it well and if your company makes a promise, fulfil it.  This all brings me to two recent negative experiences.

Back in August, I somehow managed to break one of the rear wheels on my Craftsman lawn mower.  So, I went to the Ottawa location of the Sears Parts and Service centre only to find that it has closed.  So, we're off to a bad start.  I came back home and after spending a half an hour on the Sears website trying to find a number I could call to order the part (I imagine this is a pretty significant part of their business, you would think they would make the number easier to find) I managed to reach someone at what is clearly an offshore call centre.  This always makes me laugh because the guy with the thick, nearly incomprehensible Indian accent on the other end inevitably says his name is some plain vanilla-flavoured English name like "Bob".  After telling "Bob" what part I needed, he told me it is on back-order and will take a month to ship.  So, here we are, a month and a half later and still no part.  I have just fired off an e-mail to Sears and I will see if I get a reply.  Stay tuned.

The second incident is far worse.  A little background:  Our daughter, Lena, wears glasses.  Her eyesight has reached a level where she now has to wear them to play soccer.  This past season, she wore her regular glasses on the pitch, but Kate and I were not entirely comfortable with this because if she got a ball to the face, or was otherwise struck, her glasses could shatter, possibly causing serious injury and, less important, significant expense.  So, we started suggesting that we buy her a pair of sport glasses, which are impact resistant.

To say the sports glasses sold in retail outlets are not fashionable would be understating the point.  So, for an 11 year-old girl trying to fit in with her peers, wearing these things would rank up there with getting her arm hacked of with a butter knife.  After weeks of resistance (and many shed tears) we relented a little and reluctantly let her play the remainder of her season with her regular glasses, figuring she was due for an eye exam in the fall, and her enthusiasm for the sport seemed to wane a bit, so we would see how things played out.  Finally, she decided she wanted to do the winter development program, so now we insisted she get a pair of sports glasses, or try contact lenses.  She agreed.

So, one day we were walking past the New Look Optical store in the St. Laurent Shopping Centre and I suggested to Lena that we go in to try on a couple of pairs just to get her used to the idea of wearing them.  As I've said, she is extremely insecure about wearing them,  The woman who served us got Lena to try on a pair.  Lena turned her back to us so she could watch in a mirror as she tried them on and when she turned around, the woman burst out laughing.  Indeed, she had a hard time controlling herself.  Lena hung her head but seemed to take it okay.  I didn't make a big deal of it at the time, but the more I thought about it on the way home, the more it bothered me.  This was the worst possible reaction for a girl who already had serious trouble bringing herself to wear these things.

By the time I got home, I had worked myself up pretty good.  When I told my wife, Kate, about the incident, she was similarly offended.  So, I left a comment on New Look's Facebook page.  To their credit, they responded quickly and within two business days the woman who served us called to apologize.  But, I'm afraid that's too little.  I can't see myself going back to that location and I may even boycott the chain altogether.

I should say that we have been to this location several times in the past and have had very good service from our favourite optician, Kaylee, but she doesn't seem to work there any more and so we have less than no incentive to return.

The upside is that just two days ago we got Lena her sports glasses at the St. Laurent location of Lens Crafters and we got very good service.  So, New Look's loss is Lens Crafters' gain, I guess.

Would love to hear about your own retail experiences - good and bad.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Mariann Domonkos - Canadian Table Tennis Superstar

One evening the girls and I were lounging and our daughter, Lena, asked me tell her a story from my childhood and, really, I had a hard time coming up with one on the spot, but we had been talking about Lena's soccer a bit earlier and that got me thinking about my own illustrious youth sports career.  What popped into my consciousness was a ping-pong (ahem, table tennis) program I took when I was either a tween or early teen (late 1970's or early 1980's).  It took place over the course of several weeks and our instructor was a woman named Mariann Domonkos.

Table tennis is overshadowed by, well, an awful lot of sports in Canada, so the name of my then instructor may not ring any bells.  But she was a very big deal in the sport here in Canada.  She won a raft of medals at the 1979 Pan-Am games as well as at various Commonwealth Games and represented Canada at the 1988 Seoul Olympics where she finished 25th in the competition.  She later went on to coach the Canadian Women's national team,  She seems to have stayed involved in the sport as a photographer of, among other things, table tennis events.  She is also an alumna of my high school, Howard S. Billings, in Chateauguay, Quebec, which, I guess, is how she came to be teaching table tennis to a bunch of teens and pre-teens in this suburb of Montreal.

The program was a revelation to me.  I had, of course, played table tennis before, but in that slow tentative way - pushing the paddle towards the ball and watching it float over the net.  Very slo-mo.  So, when Mariann, along with the woman who was helping her teach the course, demonstrated how the game was played at the professional level, I couldn't believe it.  The ball was a blur.  Instead of the tentative little pushes of the paddle, these women were hitting the ball and putting the force of their whole bodies behind their shots.

My game improved a lot, though I would never become a superstar.  I remember we played a couple of tournaments and while I don't think I lost all my games, nor do I recall ever advancing very far.  I'm not sure I fully appreciated then the opportunity I was given to learn from such a master of the game, but today I think I'm pretty lucky to have had the chance.

Incidentally, Mariann, like me, seems to live in Ottawa now and she was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Terry Fox Run

Lena's School, St. Bernard, held its annual Terry Fox Run today.  I have volunteered most years to herd the kids around the course and I really enjoy it.  For those who don't know, Terry Fox was a young Canadian diagnosed with osteosarcoma and who lost his leg to the disease.  To raise money and awareness, he undertook to run all the way across Canada, starting in Newfoundland in April 1980.  Unfortunately, he had to abandon his quest about halfway through in Thunder Bay, Ontario when the disease spread to his lungs.  He had covered over 5,000 kms (over 3,000 miles).  He passed away in June 1981.

The Terry Fox Run, held in his memory every year, raises money for cancer research.  Lena's school has been participating for at least the eight years she's been going there.  I get a kick out of watching the kids both seeking donations in support of the cause and making their ways around the course.  I especially love watching the younger grades - they have an air of seriousness and earnestness about them.  They clearly feel that what they are doing is very important and they are doing their best to fulfil their obligation.  I can't believe I've volunteered for the event so often and haven't yet grabbed armloads of them and smooched them silly.

The event, for me, Kate and Lena has become even more poignant since Kate's diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer.  She was diagnosed in October of 2011.  St. Bernard held its next Terry Fox Run the following September.  Kate was feeling much better by then and volunteered, while I decided to stay home.  Participants wear stickers on the shirts that say "I am running for..." and the kids write in the name of someone who has been touched by cancer.  When Kate got home, she told me that so many of Lena's friends and classmates had filled in "Kate Moynihan" or "Helena's Mom".  I'm getting all teary just writing this.  Even two years later many of these wonderful people still show this support for our family. I just can't say in words how much this gesture means to us.  I really, really can't.  What a great bunch of kids.

Lena moves on to high school next year and I hope they hold and annual run to support this great cause and if they need volunteers, I'll be there.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Genetic Genealogy

For my birthday this past April, my girls got me a genealogical DNA test.  A number of companies offer an array of tests that offer higher or lower degrees of precision or which test different aspects of your DNA that give you information about your paternal or maternal line or some combination of both.  The results then get entered into the company's database with the goal of matching you with long-lost relatives.

We went with the company Family Tree DNA and we opted for the Y-DNA test, which looks at your paternal line back to ancient times, and the "Family Finder" (autosomal) DNA test, which looks at the DNA you share with relatives on both the paternal and maternal sides up to your fourth or fifth cousins.  The Y-DNA test can be particularly interesting because it can also tell you where in the world your ancient ancestors came from.

Before getting into my results, I want to provide a little background.  My father's family, which we have been able to trace back four generations, come from Somerset and Devon in England with my grandfather, Alfred Burrows, emigrating to Canada in the 1920's.  My mother's family comes from western Ukraine (Galicia) near the city of L'viv with my maternal grandparents coming to Canada in 1913 and 1914.

So, now my results.  The Y-DNA test determines what "haplogroup" you belong to.  I'm afraid I'm a little sketchy on the science behind this, so I can't explain very well what this means, except that one piece of information that it can reveal is from what part of the world your ancient paternal forebears came.  This was, for me, a very surprising result.  I ended up in the J1 (J-M267) haplogroup, which is very uncommon in the British Isles, and indeed in continental Europe.  Where this haplogroup shows up most often in the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), Northern Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt) and parts of the Caucuses (Avars, Dargins, Kubachi, Kaitak, Lezhgins).

Not what I was expecting. The question is, how did my ancient relatives get to England?  Clearly, they were not a part of a mass migration of people otherwise this haplogroup would be much more common in Great Britain.  About the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that because the Roman empire encompassed at least parts of the areas where this haplogroup is common, that my ancestors were somehow a part of the Roman invasion of Britain.

Based on my Y-DNA test, and having a fairly common English surname, I was hoping and expecting to get a number of matches with other Burrows relatives in the database, but because my haplogroup is so uncommon in England, I have got none.

Similarly, my autosomal DNA test, which seeks to make potential matches on both side of the family, has yielded one possible third cousin with the other potential marches being more distant.  Even the possible third cousin match may prove difficult to link to through various genealogical records making it difficult to determine precisely how we are related in the family tree.

So, I have a mix of emotions about this exercise in genetic genealogy.  On the one hand, I am pretty disappointed about the lack of matches.  On the other hand, I find the information about my paternal ancestral origins fascinating, especially since I was not expecting to be so genetically different from other parts of the English population.  How my ancestors ended up there is a bit of an enigma that really can never be resolved.

Monday, 15 September 2014


At least three days a week and more often, I hope, four days a week, I tie up my shoe laces and head out for a 7-8 km run around our neighbourhood.  I run for a variety reasons, including the obvious - I like the health benefits.  I think I am pretty heart healthy.  I have gone from being borderline hypertensive to having blood pressure that my doctor raves about and that he says he would kill for, My resting heart rate is in the neighbourhood of 55.  I think I have more physical energy and stamina.  All good stuff.

I also run for other reasons.  I'm tired of talking about my depression and anxiety but man, when I run, I just don't feel it at all.  That rock in the pit of my stomach just disappears.  If I don't feel exactly good, neither do I feel bad.  I'm not sure if this is because of the neurochemicals that some say flood your brain during aerobic effort, or if it's because the physical discomfort of the activity is so psychologically grounding or, more likely some combination of both.  In either case, I run for relief.

As important as anything else, though, I run as a model for our daughter Lena.  Exercise is as close to a panacea as we have today, drastically reducing our risk for  a variety of diseases such as cancer and cardio-vascular disease, as well as diabetes and kidney disease.  Reasearch is also showing that the single most important thing we can do to delay age-related dementia is exercise.  I have also read recently that a number of school districts across North America have been experimenting with mandatory cardio workouts during school hours.  Evidence indicates very significant positive impacts on academic performance.  I want all of those things for our little girl and I hope that by her seeing me workout she'll want to as well.


Some other little snippets about my running regimen:

  • Even when I was running in my youth, I suffered from crippling shin pain.  This past summer I read about a running technique that is variously called Skill-Based Running, the Starrett Method or Chi Running.  I experimented with it and overnight my shin pain disappeared and I have been running fairly injury free since.  I encourage anyone who suffers to look into this.  I'm not one to fall for gimmicks and indeed the academic literature on the approach is, at best, inconclusive and at worst shows no benefit from the approach, but for me it works (though inexplicably I have been suffering from some leg pain this past week)

  • for the past couple of years I have suffered egregiously from insomnia.  Exercise is supposed to help but it really hasn't for me.  However, this past summer, rather than tossing and turning all night or, maybe worse, surrendering to the wasteland that is late night television, I have gotten up to run anywhere from 2:00 to 5:00 in the morning.  This is a great time to do it.  The air is cool, the neighbourhood is quiet and there is almost no traffic and you get see all kinds of nocturnal wildlife (raccoons, skunks, and a lot of rabbits for some reason).  I almost always finished my 8K without stopping.  My daytime runs are much less successful.  I finish maybe a quarter of my runs without interruption.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Lost Summer

I can't believe that I haven't written a post in over five months.  Have I done a Rip Van Winkle and slept away the summer?  No.  In fact, I'm more the anti-Rip.  Ripless, even.  I have spent the last two years struggling to cobble together more than four or five hours of sleep a night.  No, I guess my hiatus has more to do with coping with family stuff, being tired and glum, the ubiquitous competing priorities and myriad other commitments linked with our daughter's summer activities including a stint as an assistant coach for her soccer team, which, on the whole, I really enjoyed.

With the girl back in school and summer soccer season over, and my getting much more sleep (a blog post on its own), I have a bit more time to maybe write more regularly.  I'm looking at my last post and realizing that despite everything, I made some progress on a number of the projects I identified in the spring.  Let me first say that planting a garden and the bedroom remodel didn't happen.  Other than that, though, I have made some modest progress on the other fronts.  I am building momentum on the shop renovation, mostly in the past two weeks.  I have gotten rid of a ton of unneeded stuff and have begun getting everything organized.  A lot still to do, but hopefully by the Spring at the very latest, I'll be mostly done to the point where I can start doing some actual woodworking projects (a.k.a. blog fodder).

I also made very modest progress on the lawn.  In the Spring, I de-thatched, fertilized and over-seeded.  Thanks to a fairly wet summer, a lot of the seed has germinated and matured and it looks a little more filled in.  The casual observer may not notice, but I do.  Again, the progress is modest, but there.

Finally, the never-ending quest to rid ourselves of a lot of junk has been moving forward.  We have thrown out, donated and otherwise disposed of lots of stuff.  I try to make sure that in any given period of time, more stuff leaves the house than comes in and we have been largely successful.  Lena, our beautiful little girl, has been contributing.  She's so sweet.  A few months ago, she had identified a number of toys and games she was (FINALLY) willing to part with so Kate and I thought we would bring the stuff into the local consignment store, sell it and give the proceeds to Lena.  Lena takes such good care of her stuff that it sold quite quickly and we recently cashed in what was owed to us and gave the money to Lena.  She was appropriately grateful for the cash, but she said she would rather donate her stuff to a local women's shelter and help out some kids who are going through a tough time and this more than money would make getting rid of some of her stuff easier.  When we found out we were expecting a child more than a decade ago, my modest goal as a father was to try to raise someone who would not grow into a psychopath.  So far, so good.

Well, that's about it.  Though the past few months have been a struggle for my family and me, I feel like we've muddled through.  In addition to the hardships a number of neat and cool things have happened that I hope I can write about in the coming days and months.  I'll try to be a little more diligent.  Til the next time.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Sprung Spring

I apparently haven't written a post in over two months.  The inter-related factors of poor mood, writer's block, having all 18 of our windows replaced, an almost endless winter and a deflating season for my much-loved Ottawa Senators have all conspired to keep me from writing anything more than the tersest (though admittedly witty) Facebook posts.  With the melting snow, though, comes, well, more liquid water - for whatever that's worth.

Oh, alright,  I guess Spring does often lead to a list of potential projects to pursue.  So, I am going to try to:

  • Finish my shop renovation:  a few months ago, I began this project by taking down the shelves that served as storage for my tools and supplies.  Now they all lie piled on my bench and the floor.  Time to get to work.

  • Resuscitate our lawn:  after years of being ravaged by drought and pestilence our lawn looks like something out of a Armageddon B-movie.  I have tried helping it along for the past couple of years without success.  Here's hoping that three's a charm.

  • Plant a garden:  our front garden has lain pretty much fallow for the past couple of years.  One of the attractions that led us to buy our house was that it was beautifully landscaped.  We thought we would enjoy gardening.  We were wrong,  Nonetheless, pride of ownership will drive us, me really, to try harder this year.

  • Remodel our bedroom a bit:  It's pink.  Do I need to say more?

  • Declutter the house:  Our family is the King of Keep.  We're looking to be demoted to the Duke of Dispose (lame beyond words - forgive me).

I better stop writing and get started on these.  See y'all in a bit.

Friday, 31 January 2014

A Nice Trip to Get Groceries

Yesterday was, for me, a kind of busy day:  Drive Kate to the hospital, go work out at the gym, pick Kate up at the hospital, rush home for Kate's home nurse, meet with our financial advisor.  All of that on four hours sleep.  So, when our finance guy left, I was not in the mood to go out and get groceries but we had nothing for dinner and Kate, the cancer patient, wasn't up to it.  Grumbling, I went off in search of vittles.

My first stop was Produce Depot - they have the large grapefruit Lena and I like and some pretty good oranges.  So I loaded up the cart and as I was walking to the cash I was stopped by a delightful 67 year old woman (you are a good looking 67, I said.  I know, she said, I take care of myself) asking where I got my oranges.  The conversation turned to the weather then to the fact she came to Canada from the south of France over 40 years ago and that once her old dog dies (I'm hoping she meant her pet and not her husband) she'll be moving back the 400 year old ancestral home to escape the increasingly difficult Canadian winters.  "You have a very good day." she said as we parted.

When I got to the cash, an elderly woman with a walker was paying and the young cashier helped her load her walker with her purchases and insisted on getting someone to help her to her car.  When it was my turn, I complimented the young woman for helping the lady, explaining that my wife had mobility issues and when she asked for help at other stores (i.e. Loblaws), help was given only grudgingly.  She was a little embarrassed, but admitted she likes to make sure that the people who seemed to need help got it.

Then I went down to Farm Boy to get some samosas and a few other things for dinner and another nice young woman greeted me at the cash.  She noticed my Senators cap and asked if I would be watching the game later that evening.  This led to a thoroughly nice discussion about fandom and how great we Sens fans were and how awful Leafs fans were.

By the time I got home, I was feeling a good bit better.  Who knew a trip to get groceries could be so therapeutic?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Ten Things People do to Piss Me Off

I am trying to be a more tolerant and happy person.  Nevertheless, people insist on doing things that piss me off.  Here is a top ten of sorts:

  1. Texting while driving.
  2. Parking in a handicap spot without a permit just because someone is too damn lazy to walk an extra 20 yards.
  3. Leaving a grocery cart in a parking spot because someone is just too damn lazy to walk an extra 20 yards to put it where it's supposed to go (I do make exceptions for the aged and infirm).
  4. Writing in library books.
  5. Playing your music too loud, speaking too loud too late at night (repeat offenders mostly) - you don't live on an island.
  6. Blowing YOUR snow into MY driveway.
  7. Not saying "thank you" when I hold the door open for you and not getting "The Wave" when I let you in in traffic when I didn't have to.
  8. L'office de la langue francaise (and yes - I omitted the squiggly little accent under the "c" just to piss YOU off).
  9. Cashiers yapping to each other instead of paying attention to ME, the paying customer, and making sure they're not scanning things twice and putting my four litres of pop on top of my loaf of bread and carton of eggs.
  10. Big oil, big finance, big insurance and big telecom.
As explanation for this venom, I can only say I didn't sleep well at all last night.


Geoffy Bubbles

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Concordia BA in Economics (Co-Op Program) Classes of 1992-93

Lying awake at three in the morning a few weeks ago I was reflecting on my university days and realizing that this coming summer will mark the 25th anniversary that I met all my undergraduate friends.  We were in a bit of a special program - a Co-op program in Economics at Concordia University in Montreal.  The premise of co-op programs is to give students the dual benefits of a university education and practical work experience.  So, we would have one semester at school and the next would be a hopefully relevant job placement.

The application process for the program was a little more rigourous than for the general program:  as I recall, we had to write a letter of intent and had to interview with the program director and, of course, you had to have decent grades coming out of the Quebec CEGEP system or high school elsewhere.  Somehow, I made the cut and was admitted into the program.

I remember, with some clarity, a meet-and-greet being held in the summer of 1989 before the start of the semester.  That's when we all met each other for the first time.  About fifteen of us started out in the program.  We all took our classes together, studied together, would go to Ottawa together and live together and go to Co-op functions together.  On the whole we became a pretty tight knit group with some clusters of us becoming closer than others.  I cannot believe how smart these people were as a group.  Academically, I was so outclassed by these guys that I can only guess that a clerical error was responsible for me getting accepted.

As Dickens wrote about other circumstances, my undergrad days were the best of times and the worst of times.  What I appreciate most about those days, though, are the people I met.  Those I was closest to in those days were far better friends to me than I was to them and I was, and still am, grateful for their friendship.  Though I've lost touch with many of my former classmates, I am still in touch with several. 

After graduation, we all scattered all over Canada and the world, so I hardly ever see anyone any more and I quite miss them.  If any of you are reading this and are ever in Ottawa, please be sure to look me up and an early happy 15th anniversary. 

Man, cue Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days."  I hope I haven't embarrassed anyone with this uncharacteristic sentimentality.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

A Depressed Person's Social Life

This morning I got together with a friend and former colleague for a coffee.  Most people take this kind of get-together for granted, but for a person with serious depression, the prospect can be daunting  in a number of respects.  Just working up the energy to get ready for such a meeting can be an effort.  Almost by definition, I am miserable and I figure I don't want to inflict myself on other people, and why would they want to spend any time with me anyway?  Partly in response to this, I feel a need to turn myself "on", that is, fight to appear at least minimally social, if not exactly chipper, which can be thoroughly exhausting.

Collectively, these things pose a burden that on most days I am unwilling to bear.  Indeed, this particular friend and I had not seen each other in years, though we have kept in touch via Facebook and e-mail.  We have made plans to meet several times, but inevitably I would cancel because the effort seemed too much.  This happens often and so I have, to a significant degree, isolated myself from some truly great friends, which in turn exacerbates the depression, which makes it more difficult to get together with people, and so on, and so on.  Ironically, though, on those rare times I make the effort, I hardly ever regret it.  Indeed, as was the case this morning, I even feel at least a bit better having spent the time with a friend.

So, late last year I promised myself I would seek out more opportunities to socialize and make fewer excuses to cancel.  This is a first step and I hope to take a few more in the weeks ahead.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

One Example of Discrimination Against Girls in School

Being a father to a smart, funny and beautiful daughter has opened my eyes to many issues, good and bad, about how girls and women are treated by institutions and society in general.  Before Lena came along I thought girls and women had achieved a respectable level of equality with the males of our species.  I don't want this post to be a laundry list of issues but rather I want to focus on one matter that affects some 9 to 11 year-old girls here in Ottawa.

I've written in previous posts that, for a variety of reasons, we had Lena's cognitive abilities formally tested some time ago and that her scores revealed a degree of giftedness.  This led to her being invited to participate in the Ottawa Catholic School Board's "Program for Gifted Learners", or PGL for short.  This is a one day a week pull-out program where kids from across the school board who have scored beyond a certain threshold on a recognized cognitive test are brought together at one of two satellite schools for "enriched" learning.  Each satellite has one class every day of the week or ten classes of what I assume are of similar size to Lena's - twenty to thirty kids per class.  So, maybe a total of 200-300 kids.  I admit this is a bit anecdotal, that maybe some of the other classes are mainly girls.  Somehow I doubt it, but it is possible.

In Lena's class of about 20, she is one of five girls.  She tells me that the Wednesday class at the other satellite has no girls at all.  I'm not sure what the reasons are.  We had Lena tested at our own expense and on the basis of the results contact her school and that set things in motion.  I don't know if a mechanism is in place to identify possibly gifted students, have them tested and get them the resources they need in the schools, or if parents are always responsible for those initial steps.  If parents have to take that initial action to identify their children, why aren't they getting their daughters tested?  If the schools have a duty to identify giftedness why aren't more girls being identified?  Are the tests somehow biased against girls?  Are parents and teachers just socialized into not recognizing that girls can be smart, too?

This bothers me enough that I will be contacting the school board.  I suspect the effort will be a bit Quixotic, but I feel I have to try.  I'll keep you all posted.