Monday, 31 December 2012

Passions and Legacies

Lately, I seem to be reading or seeing on television stories about people with abiding and intense interests; one might even say passions.  I'm not talking about romantic interests but rather in subjects.  One book I read recently is the Night Villa by Carol Goodman, where the protagonist, a university professor of Classics, talks about one of her students having an unusual passion for the material she studies.  Okay, I don't get how anyone can have a passion for dry ancient texts, but I appreciate that people do.  Another, The Art of Detection by Laurie R. King is about an investigation into the death of Sherlockian - a person who lived and breathed Arthur Conan Doyle's most celebrated fictional character.  In the area of non-fiction, I have read books by Nicholas Basbanes who has written extensively about bibliophilia or the love of books, particularly in his A Gentle Madness and Among the Gently Mad.

Our local cable provider has been giving its subscribers a free preview of the HIFI Channel.  A number of shows on this channel deal with people's passions.  Collector Showdown is a low-budget game show that pits single-minded collectors of various things (e.g. shoes, breweryana, trains, quilts to name but a few) against each other in tests of knowledge and skill with the victor winning something related to his or her collecting field.  Without exception, the people on the shows spend most of their free time and disposable income on their hobbies.  Another show on the same channel is Style in Steel, a show that often features people who restore and collect cars.  Yet another show is Guitar Picks, a show that deals with various aspects of guitars, but often has stories on obsessive guitar collectors and luthiers.

I kind of envy the types of people portrayed in these books and shows - people who can lose themselves in a particular subject or activity, whose devotion is almost single-minded and who relentlessly seek to improve their knowledge and mastery of their field of interest.  Outside of my family, I have no true passion that occupies my time and attention.  I have myriad interests, some of which I have sustained over a longer period of time, and many more that are fleeting and transient.  I guess my interest in hand crafts, especially woodworking comes close, but even then, I spend more time reading about them than actually doing them.  Hockey is another that comes close, particularly my home team, the Ottawa Senators, but even then, I am not so enthralled that I study team statistics or the team's history.  I watch the games, follow the team and keep track of the standings in the paper and buy the occasional piece of merchandise, but that's about it.  Even that, though, has been tainted by the current NHL strike where a bunch of angry rich people are arguing over huge sums of money without a thought to the people that provide that money, namely us, the fans.

I'm not sure why I envy these people, but I do.  I guess I feel a little directionless, like I'm floundering.  Maybe my depression and anxiety account for part of it.  I've also found myself somewhat preoccupied over the last few years about leaving some kind of legacy - a body of work that will outlive me.  Make no mistake, I am proud of my little girl and am aware that I will be leaving a remarkable and good human being to the world.  In fact, she is my single greatest source of pride.  However, she's in school or with friends or asleep for a lot of time and it's what I do with that time that I want to mean something and something lasting.

So, I guess, the struggle continues.

Friday, 28 December 2012

American Opinion on Guns

The shootings in Newton, Connecticut have raised again the issue of gun control in the United States. I have grown somewhat tired of hashing this out in various on-line forums, so I am not going to restate what I have already said.  Instead, I am going to share a link to another blog.  Written by Arkansas woodworker and educator Doug Stowe, "Wisdom of the Hands" focuses on the importance of learning by doing, by working with your hands.  Mr. Stowe has written about the tragedy in Newton through this lens.  I encourage you to read both his blog and the published comments of his recent posts to get a flavour for the differing views of this debate.

I would also encourage you to read his pre-Newton posts - a really thought provoking commentary on the the direction of education (and work) in North America in the 20th century.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Christmas Season (a not entirely cheerful reflection, though it ends on a happier note than it starts on.)

I have to admit, I am a bit glum this Christmas season.  For reasons big and small, the weeks leading up to the big day have been fraught with more than the usual amount of pre-Yule stress and I don't cope well with stress these days.  I also find myself reflecting on the season in a not entirely happy way.  For some, the holiday season is tied to tragedy.  My own mother was admitted to the hospital during the first week of December, 1998, where she would die later that month on New Year's Eve.  My dad passed away almost three years ago and my siblings all live far away, so really, I haven't a Christmas with my side of the family in many, many years. I miss that.

Earlier this week, I learned that a teenager that lives a little further down the street died a couple of weeks ago.  A parent's worst nightmare is losing their child.  At any time the loss must just be crushing, but the tragedy just seems compounded because it happened during what is supposed to a happy time of year spent with family.  My sympathy for them is at times almost unbearable.

Still, I am managing to find some enjoyment amidst all of this.  Our nine-year-old daughter's excitement is so unbelievably sweet and infectious, I can't help but feel all that's good about the season bubbling up through the murk.  I can't wait to see what Santa brought her and for my wife to open her presents.  And, at the risk of sounding greedy, I really am looking forward to opening my own presents, too.

Also, after knowing my wife for 20 years and being married for 13 I certainly consider her family as my own.  My brother-in-law and his wife have two small beautiful girls - the eldest is three and the youngest 6 months - and they are here for Christmas and let's face it:  the more kids around at Christmastime, the better it is.

Though I miss my Burrows family, I also have a lot of good memories of Christmases past and, for the most part, I reflect on them fondly.  Plus, I like that Kate and Lena and I are building our own memories and traditions together.  The two of them, more than anything, keep Christmas special even during the odd year when maybe things haven't gone as well as hoped.  I love them both more than they can ever know.

Actually, I am feeling much better having written this.  I just hope that nobody feels worse for having read it.  I hope whatever your circumstances are this season that you manage to find at least a little, well, comfort and joy.

A Merry Christmas to all of you who stopped by and read this.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Parliamentary Budget Officer of Canada

So, Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer has come out with a report suggesting that the average cost of employing a federal public servant currently sits at $114,100 dollars.  This amount is comprised of salaries and wages, employer pension contributions, health benefits, employment insurance, disability claims, etc.

I am not saying the taxpaying public doesn't have a legitimate gripe, but I wonder how big the gripe should be.  I should say at the outset I haven't read the actual report (my powers of concentration and analysis being a shadow of what they once were), but am basing my comments on media reports, in particular the Ottawa Citizen's coverage, for what that's worth.  I should also say that I like oversight bodies in general - the public sector afterall uses the public's money to provide goods and services to the public, so scrutiny and the attendent transparency and accountability it provides is vital in a relatively democratic society (though as an aside, public expenditures are already monitored and reported on by the Auditor General and though I understand there are probably differences in mandate, the current study seems just the kind of thing the AG could look at - how much money is being wasted by duplicating efforts?)

The following are some random thoughts and questions that have bubbled in my mind (and to be fair, others, such as the Government itself and various public service union leader have raised similar questions):

What's so special about the private sector, anyway?  Invariably, comparisons with the private sector are what spark the most public outrage in these types of situations.  I really don't understand why this is the case.  Setting aside the fundamentally different nature and objectives of the two sectors, many seem to think the private sector is the standard that the public sector should aim to match, rather than the opposite.  Because public servants cost more to employ than the private sector, then the public sector should pay it's employees less, rather than holding the view that the private sector should compensate it's employees more equitably.

And speaking of equity...  One of the reasons critics of the Budget Officer's report have indicated that the average cost is greater in the federal public service is because the federal public service is further ahead than the private sector in pay equity.  The disparity between salaries for women and men doing the same type of job is far less than in the private sector.   Add in the admittedly byzantine "equal pay for work of equal value" where compensation is balanced between types of work and you get less disparity between different occupational groups that are nonetheless (in theorym at least) doing work of equal value.  And though the public service still has work to do, do we really want to set women back to bring the average cost down?

Remember that it is only recently that the federal public sector jumped ahead of the private sector in terms of the average cost to employ someone.  I believe prior to 2003-04, the trend was the opposite - employing someone in the private sector cost more on average than employing someone in the public sector.

How do the private and federal public sector workforces differ?  At least one union leader has pointed out that public sector recruitment has focussed on hiring high-skill and high-knowledge workers at the same time as it has been shedding support positions.  University and college graduates cost more.

The law of averages:  Of course, one of the problems that arises from using averages is that you don't get a sense of the variability within the data being studied both within and between groups.  For example, a political science graduate working in the public service may be better paid than her private sector counterpart on average, but I can guarantee that the Deputy Minister of Finance is paid way, way less than the president of, say, the Royal Bank.  I would further argue that a non-commissioned member of the Canadian forces is probably less well compensated than a comparably employed person in the private sector.  And don't even get me started on the plight of the Canadian soldier, especially when millionaire hockey players are arguing about how many millions they will make for playing a kid's game.

The Price of Bilingualism:  For better or for worse, a lot of positions in the federal public service require its employees to have a level of proficiency in both official languages, including its entry-level positions.  This puts a premium on already bilingual candidates.

The Rodney Dangerfield of Occupations:  This may sound a little whiny to some, and to a degree it is, but being a public servant is not without its drawbacks.  As a group, public servants are held in roughly the same esteem as lawyers, which is to say they are not well regarded at all.  The Government itself clearly has little regard for the public service.  In short, public servants get almost no respect from those they serve most directly, rightly or wrongly.  Also, I would argue that as a whole, the public service is a fairly toxic place to work, notwithstanding the decent pay and benefits.  My job is at least part of the reason I have such a hard time concentrating, formulating thoughts, planning things and generally making me feel stupid.  And no amount of compensation can help me with that.

I also wonder how the public sector compares to the private sector in terms of unpaid overtime.

Why does $100,000 set people off anyway?  People just seem to react badly to public sector compensation numbers that tread in six-figure territory.  But, really, accounting for cost of living increases, $100,000 is merely the new $60,000.  I guess the same psychology that explains why retailer sell their goo at $1.99 rather than $2.00 is at work.

As I say, some random thoughts that I hope try to add some balance to the debate.  I look forward to your views one way or the other.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

A Shop Reno

My shop is a little disorganized.  Too many tools and not enough places to put them so I end up tripping over a lot of them.  Another consequence is that I often have a hard time finding the tool that I need.  So I am undertaking a remodel of my shop.  Fine Woodworking magazine puts out an annual "Tools and Shops" issue around Christmastime devoted to - you guessed it - tools and shops.  A number of good ideas to consider. 

My first project will be putting up a tool wall.  I will fasten some horizontal battens to the wall and then hang a sheet of plywood off the battens and build custom tool hangars and racks to hold my tools.  Next I will build a workstation for my drill press with a cabinet underneath to hold my drilling-related paraphenalia.  Another quick project will be to build tool storage under my bench.  That will be a good start and hopefully I can achieve some results in the next few months.

Below are some pictures of my shop as it is now.  Stay tuned for some "after" shots as I complete some of the projects.


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pysanky, or Ukrainian Egg Decorating

The Christmas craft show season has started and I went to my first one this morning with my wife, Kate, and her mother, Vanda, at the Nepean SportsPlex.  The visit was well worth the time with a number of really interesting booths.  One in particular struck me, though - a woman who did paintings and decorated Ukranian eggs, or pysanky  My maternal grandparents emigrated from the Ukraine to Montreal around the time of the first world war and my mother was proud of her Ukrainian roots if not particularly immersed in the culture.  My cousin, Patricia Kaziuka Henry, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago, was a multi-talented artist and crafter who also did pysanky and indeed the pair of eggs she gave my mother many years ago were my first exposure to the art.  Intricate and beautiful, they can't help but fascinate.

I won't go into much detail about the process, except to say it is an iterative wax-resist process where designs are delineated by applying wax to the egg, dipping it in dye, adding more wax, dipping it in dye and so on until you achieve the final result.

Myrosia Humeniuk is the artist I met this morning.  I came across her booth and was very taken with her work.  Her pysanky designs ranged from the traditional to something decidedly more modern and geometric, all of them exceptional.  Myrosia herself was very knowledgeable of the traditions of pysanky and her enthusiasm for her art was infectious.  She was simply a joy to speak with and she rekindled my desire to try my hand at egg-decorating. 

I have included below a couple of pictures of the egg I bought.  Myrosia explained that although the pattern on this egg does not appear to be traditional, it is, in fact, influenced by the designs seen on some ancient archaeological artifacts found in the Ukraine.  I am very happy with my purchase.  If you live in the Ottawa area, I encourage you to visit her booth at the Nepean Sportsplex Annual Christmas Craft Sale, which runs until Sunday, November 11. You can also visit her website to learn more about her work and other shows she will be participating in this year.

I actually like the negative space on the picture below - looks like an arrow.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Project52: Week of November 5, 2012

I haven't written an update in quite a while.  We've been busy:  a hectic schedule of medical appointments, a vacation in Disney World, Lena starting back at school and is adapting to new challenges along with ferrying her to her various activities, namely soccer and guitar lessons.  I just haven't had much time to devote to tackling my list, or writing updates.  Nonetheless, I have managed to spread some mortar between the bricks of everyday life.

Lose 35 lbs.:  Through my ongoing exercise regimen, I have managed to lose in the neighbourhood of 20-25 lbs.  I still have trouble with my snacking otherwise I suspect I'd be a lot lighter.

Carve lovespoons for the Bean and Kate:  I have started on a new project.  This will be a gift for the Bean for Christmas.

Relearn how to draw:  I have begun reading a few books on drawing, but have yet to put pencil to paper.  This will happen soon.

I hope to make some progress on other items in the not too distant future, though Christmas is coming up quickly and we will be travelling to Calgary for a long weekend for our nephew's wedding, so my hopes are tempered by reality.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Pumpkin Carving

This year, my favourite retailer ever, Lee Valley Tools, had a special on a pumpkin carving kit.  I've bought several over the years, but they were of such poor quality they didn't survive their first cuts.  Knowing Lee Valley's commitment to quality, and their generous return policy, I couldn't go wrong.  So I picked up a multi-blade tool and a book entitled "Extreme Pumpkin Carving".

While the Bean and I were in the store picking up our purchase, they happened to have a pumpkin carving demonstration with their resident carver, John, presiding.  An affable and chatty guy, he picked up his pumpkin and in about 15 minutes and after several judicious cuts had transformed the squash into a really cool freaky face.  This, along with our new book, inspired the Bean and me.  Our pumpkins would not be the hackneyed triangle eyes and nose of years past.  No, this year we would be artistes and produce something a little more creative, a little more outré.

John at Lee Valley made it all look so easy.  No transferring patterns from paper to pumpkin for him.  Right from his mind straight to his carving tools - ad hoc carving.  More than thirty years of carving experience let him do this, he said as he deftly wielded his tools.  If John could do it this way, then the Bean and I would do it this way as well (though we did draw rough outlines of our designs on the pumpkin with marker).  For the novice, this way of carving is HARD.  Below are the results of our efforts.  Mine took me an hour, the Bean's, three.  I'm not altogether pleased with my result, though, in fairness, this was my first time.  I do like the Bean's though.  We have two more pumpkins to carve, and I think we will stick with the cliché of triangles for those.  Next year, I will plan ahead a bit more and tackle the project over a couple of days - do a more detailed drawing or work from a pattern transferred to the pumpkin.

Smiling Mad Man by Geoff Burrows
October 2012

Witchy Woman by Lena Burrows
October 2012

I am self critical by nature, but I have to say the pictures don't show the details very well and they do look better in-person.

May you and yours be haunted by many ghouls on All Hallows Eve, which for my American friends should be near certain with the upcoming election, but I digress.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

A Lost Blogging Month

I can't believe I haven't written a post in over a month.  Quite a bit has happened in that month though.  For one, my little girl started back at school and that has come with a bit of adjustment for all of us.  For the Bean, the new school year has brought new challenges.  In particular, her fourth year sees her starting a French immersion program, where half of her classes are taught in French.  Seems a little thin to me to be considered immersion, but that's the way they've structured the program and I guess it will have to do.

Also, the Bean is starting a one-day-a-week program for gifted learners.  She gets pulled out of her regular classes every Wednesday and has to commute to another school for her class.  Though I was excited this past summer when we learned that Lena would be attending the program, I have become a fair bit less enthusiastic.  For one thing, the Bean is having a hard time adjusting.  Tuesday nights and Wednesday mornings are anxious times for her has she contemplates her day at the program.  I'm not sure why this is case.  I know she hates being singled out for special treatment.  She fears her friends finding out that she has been identified as "gifted", a term I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with as well.  This explains some of her anxiety, but not all of it.  We'll see if she settles into the program a bit better as time goes on, but if not, I'm not averse to taking her out.

Also on the Bean front, we spent some time searching for a winter development soccer program for her.  Originally, she wanted to try out for the Ottawa South United FORCE Academy, which is probably the most respected program in the area.  Tryouts happened over three days and two weekends.  She went for the first day, but the girls were split into two groups - those who played for OSU and those who were from other clubs.  During the scrimmages, the Bean was frustrated by the lack of organized play among her teammates - she was playing a forward position and was often caught upfield alone with the ball with no support.  Plus, we were in a position where we couldn't make all the tryouts, so we ended up dropping out of the process.  We signed her up for the Nepean Hotspurs program instead.  I hope this is adequate to develop her skills and prepare her for competitive tryouts next year.

My depression has also kept me from the keyboard.  All my life, I've worked hard - in CEGEP, university, work.  I've seldom taken the path of least resistance, always preferring the greater challenge.  Now, though, I find even the most mundane tasks to be unbearably daunting.  I was awake at 5:30 yesterday morning worrying about getting the fall yard work done, and the laundry and shopping and all the other little things that maintaining a home entails.  Oddly, little ends up getting done as a result.  I don't often get those profound feelings of sadness that characterized my depression before, but they have been replaced with deeper anxiety and feelings of anger and frustration.  Oy!

On a happier note, another reason I haven't written in a while is because we spent a week at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  Disney is an amazing place for a number of reasons.  For the kids it's fun because it's Disney.  But for me, I was impressed with what a well-oiled machine the place is - everything from how you line up for attractions to the merchandising and marketing.  They are very good at what they do.

At the end of September, the family and I participated in the CIBC Run for the Cure in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.  The event has a real party atmosphere and I'm proud of the job my girls did in raising funds for the event and for completing the 5 KM route.  I am also extremely grateful for all the moral and financial support I got.  I hate singling anyone out for special praise because all the kind words and donations were equally appreciated, but I was especially touched that many of my donations came from old elementary and highschool friends who I really haven't seen in 25 years.  What a great bunch of people.  Throw in my university friends and colleagues and neighbours, and I was a very humbled Geoffy indeed.

Anyway, I've been feeling a little more inspired to write lately, so I hope I can back on top of my blog.  Although coming up with topics has been difficult, I hope to able to write about my search for quiet, my abiding interests of art and craft, the upcoming holidays. 

Til the next time.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A Wave of Relief

In an earlier blog post, I outlined some potential cardiac problems I was facing.  Well, last week, I saw my GP who had the results of the stress test I underwent and everything came back normal.  He said I could run a marathon.  Indeed, my doctor, who was on holiday when the initial EKG results came back was royally ticked off that such a big deal was made.

Needless to say I am relieved.  I hope that others who are being treated for depression recognize that many medications have the potential for scary side-effects.  You should ask your treating physician to have baseline testing done before you start your medication and have regular follow-up testing done once treatment begins.

I have long preferred not being on medication of any type unless absolutely necessary.  This experience has done nothing to improve my view of medication.  Now I am faced with a dilemma.  I have come off one of my medications, the mood stabilizing Zeldox, and have tapered down on my anti-depressant, desipramine.  A big part of me wants to come off my meds altogether.  I don't like the cardiac side-effects nor the other ongoing side-effects of dizziness and constipation.  My psychiatrist, however, is concerned that I will relapse back into a major depressive episode.  Further, if she is no longer actively treating me, I can no longer be kept in the mood disorder program and would have to be re-referred along with the attendant one year wait I faced last time if I do relapse.  This, of course, raises a whole slew of other issues about the nature of the mental health care system, which, really, is a subject for another post.

One silver lining about the scare I endured is that I am now really dedicated to improving my overall fitness and not taking my physical health for granted.  I can't foresee a circumstance where I will not have a regular exercise routine and try to manage my diet a bit better.  I want to be around for my family as long as possible.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The CIBC Run for the Cure

As many of my readers know, my wife Kate has been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She has decided that she wants to participate in Ottawa's edition of the CIBC Run for the Cure in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. which will take place on September 30th.  To support her and this cause, the Bean and I will be walking right beside her.  Please see Kate's blog for more information.

Normally, I'm not a fan of canvassing for funds.  I really don't like asking people to part with their hard earned dollars, especially when we are all bombarded daily with requests for donations from myriad charities.  Just because I may be a neighbour or friend, I don't want anyone to feel obligated.  Having said that, I have a vested interest in this one, and if anyone out there would like to make a donation, I would be deeply grateful and you can sponsor me with a donation online at this link.  Or you may want to consider participating in an event in your city.  Or not.  (My God, I'm the king of the soft-sell)

In any case, I appreciate you stopping by and giving this a read.  I hope you all take care.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

My Weeks from Hell

The past few weeks have been absolutely painful and have left me emotionally spent and quite low.  A week and a half ago I got the results of an ECG that showed abnormalities.  Indeed, they indicated that I had at some point in the past I had had a heart attack.  This test was ordered by my psychiatrist and the abnormal results then got referred to a cardiologist.  Word came back from the cardiologist that he had "concerns" and wanted me in for a consultation in week's time.

This was among the most stressful periods of my life.  I was confronted with possibly being sick at a time when my family needs me most and the thought was, and is, devastating to me.  Finally, I saw the cardiologist who assured me that I probably did not have a heart attack and that at least some of the results were likely side-effects from the medication I am on for my depression (i.e. Zeldox, a mood stabilizer and desipramine, an tricyclic anti-depressant).  He has ordered for me a stress test, which I took last week, and an echocardiogram which I have to wait until October for.  He has done this, he claims, to reassure me rather than him that I am alright.  Despite this, my imagination is running wild and my anxiety is great.  I have stopped taking the Zeldox and have cut back on the desipramine and am hoping this will help.  Indeed, I think I will ask to be weened off the desipramine altogether since I am not a fan of the other side-effects it causes (i.e. dizziness and constipation) in addition to the cardiac side effects.

This past year has been so bad for me and my family - Kate's cancer and a number of other problems in our families which I won't detail out of respect for their privacy - that I can't shake the feeling that something is wrong with me.  At the same time, I feel better physically than I have in months and can't imagine that I could feel this good and have a heart problem.  Nor am I a particular high-risk for early heart disease.  So, these conflicting views wage their battle in my brain and some days I am hopeful and other days am filled with dread.

So, I hope this is a story that ends well so that I can re-shift my focus from me back to my wife and daughter who don't deserve this extra stress.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Making Bread

A few years ago I took up  bread making as a bit of a hobby.  I didn't use a machine, I did it all by hand.  Mixing together the ingredients, kneading the dough and watching it rise are all very satisfying and the aroma of the bread baking touches a spot deep in the soul. 

Most importantly, you can control what goes into your bread.  I look at the label of the whole wheat bread I usually buy and it contains such things as calcium propionate, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, ammonium chlorate.  Plus, store-bought bread contains an alarming amount of sodium - in this case 250 mg or 10% of your recommended daily allowance.  When you make your own, you have a much shorter and more pronounceable list of ingredients:  flour, water, yeast and some kind of sugar with a pinch of salt.

Recently, the Bean and I decided to make a loaf of challa which is a braided egg bread.  It turned out okay, considering I left out an ingredient and baked it at too low a temperature.  And it was a wonderful thing to do with the Bean.

Whisking Together Ingredients

Letting the Sponge Do its Thing

Letting the Loaves Rise

The Finished Product

Monday, 23 July 2012

Project 52: Week of July 23

I continue to make some progress on a number of fronts:

Lose 35 lbs:  When I wrote this, I expect I weighed a good bit less than the maximum I reached at the beginning of April, so I will amend this to lose 40 lbs., or achieve a weight 190 lbs.  Through exercise and trying to being a little more disciplined about what I eat, I have lost 14 lbs since my birthday on April 10.

Get into shape to run 10K:  I have began running again and am taking it very slowly.  On a running day I probably cover in the nieghbourhood of 6 kms, of which I run about 2 kms and walk the rest.  So far, this is working well for me; I have very little of the shin pain I have gotten in previous attempts.

Resolve my depression:  I feel like I have made progress on this front, although I still have a long way to go.  I have felt better these last couple of weeks than I have in a long time.

Learn Calligraphy:  I have a good friend, Elizabeth, who came for a visit from Hong Kong yesterday and she and her family came bearing gifts.  She saw on my Project 52 blog posts that I am interested in calligraphy, so she brought my wife, daughter and me each a Chinese calligraphy workbook, a brush and a bottle of ink.  An incredibly thoughtful person is our Liz.  So the three of us have been trying our hand at it and thoroughly enjoying it.  I hope to do a separate blog post on this shortly.

Clean out gardens:  I have cleaned all the overgrowth out of one of our front garden.

Build a crystal radio with the Bean:  While vacationing in Oakville recently, we went to a great little toy store called Mastermind Toys, where we bought an electronics kit for building an FM radio.  I'm not sure it qualifies as a crystal radio, but it's in the right neighbourhood.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Poor Behaviour in Children and their Parents

So, last night Kate, the Bean and I were trying to relax in our hotel room in Oakville but unfortunately, kids were running and yelling through the halls making relaxation difficult.  I mused on my Facebook page about what kind of parent allows their children to disrupt every other paying guests' peace.  The answer came about an hour later when the adults decided the hall was the perfect place to drink their beer and have a loud conversation.  Kate went out and asked them tersely if they could take the conversation back to their room.

When I was a kid, if I behaved like that I would earn a threat to have my ear cuffed if not actually getting a cuff from one of my parents.  I just seem to remember kids of my generation were held to a higher standard of behaviour than kids seem to be today.  My childhood was one long lesson in honesty and respect for others.

Permissiveness, though, seems to be a popular parenting model these days.  An old high school friend of mine often posts on Facebook about bratty behaviour from kids and more importantly on the lack of concern about that behaviour on behalf of their parents.  I wonder about the reasons for this.  I have gone so far as to blame Canada's adoption of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which I find instills in many a sense of entitlement, that they can do whatever they like without concerning themselves how their behaviour may affect others.  The notion that their freedom ends where another person's begins is an alien concept. 

Certainly many parents seem to be distracted a lot of the time - too busy being plugged in via their "smart" phones or tablets so they may not even be aware of the bratty behaviour.  Maybe they are even oblivious to the fact that their kids may be annoying other people.

I'm not saying the Bean is perfect, or that we are perfect parents, but we would certainly have halted similar behaviour and pointed out to her that she needs to consider what impact her actions have on the other people around her.  We expect her to be a considerate and polite person.  When she strays from our expectations, we use it as a teaching moment and point out how her behaviour may or may not have been appropriate and what she could have done differently.

Even as write this now, I hear the kids again out in the hall being loud.  Despite our complaints last night, the parents continue to find this acceptable.  My god, talk about the unbearable burden of being.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Summer Vacation: Part I

I am writing this post from my 19th floor hotel room overlooking Niagara Falls, Ontario.  Yes, it is summer vacation time - that time of year when we delve into the dark folds of our brains to come up with activities and trips to entertain our child.  I remember my youth when day camps didn't exist and we were left to fend for ourselves.  Somehow we muddled through and managed to keep ourselves mostly entertained.  Something changed along the way from childhood to parenthood and we all now seem to be invested with the responsibility of finding something interesting for our kids.  So what do we have lined up for our little Bean this summer?

Well, we started our vacation by going to see the RCMP Musical Ride with a neighbour and her kids.  This is something that everyone should do once in their lives, but only once.  The choreographed horse riding is okay, but probably not worth the crowds and the hour long wait to get out of the parking lot.  I tried to make it more interesting for the kids by suggesting that we might get lucky and see the Mounties shoot some terrorists, but alas, we were thwarted.

Next up on the agenda was preparing for a trip to Southern Ontario to visit my brother-in-law, his wife and their brand new baby girl.  We arrived two days ago and our new niece is, as advertised, a beautiful little giblet.  Our first visit with them was short-lived and the next day we headed to Niagara Falls - the town that kitsch built:  wax museums, museums dedicated to the creepy, weird and unusual, haunted houses and I could go on and on.  And of course we saw the falls.  And they are majestic and magnificent.  We took a Maid of the Mist cruise which brought us surprisingly close to the falls.   You could really feel their power.

Today, we visited Marine Land.  I found it so-so.  The attractions are scattered over a very large piece of land, which meant a lot of walking and with Kate being a little handicapped these days.  At least she was able to rent a wheelchair, so when she got tired the Bean and I could push her.  Largely, the rides were what I like to call vomitrons - rides that spin you around in different ways at the same time and make you want to, well, vomit.  Not my favourite kind of ride.  The Bean and Kate went on a couple of them together and the Bean was quite happy to go on some by herself.  The only ride I really enjoyed was the roller coaster.  This was the Bean's first time on a coaster that had loops and she had a blast, although she bruised her back the second trip around.  I was very proud of her.

The other good thing about the visit to Marine Land was the show featuring sea lions, dolphins and beluga whales.  I have to admit to some ambivalence about keeping these beautiful and graceful animals in captivity and in the service of man.  Keeping them so confined and essentially working seems inhumane.  On the other hand, I feel privileged to be able to see them so close.  Another moral tussle for me to have with my conscience.

Anyway, I hope to file another vacation report later in the summer.  Hope everyone in the Northern hemisphere is having a good summer and those in the South a good winter.  Til next time.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Canada Day and Independence Day

I just want to wish my Canadian readers a very happy Canada day.  Kate, the Bean and I are lucky to be living in Ottawa and to be able to celebrate with what is unquestionably the largest Canada Day Party in the world, although we won't be partaking this year.  We hope to catch a sight of Canada's aerobatic team, the Snowbirds, though, since we live quite close to the airport.  I hope wherever you are, you take a moment to reflect on what a great country we live in.

I also want to wish our American friends a very happy Independence Day.  The U.S. will be celebrating its 236th birthday this year, an older cousin to Canada's 145 years old.  We had the pleasure of being in Boston last year for the Fourth of July celebrations and it was something to behold.

A toast to both countries.  Cheers.


Saturday, 30 June 2012

The First Eight Months of Living with Kate's Cancer

I have noticed that many of the hits this blog page gets are from searches for information about breast cancer.  I'm not an oncologist, nor am I particular informed about the various types and stages of breast cancer, but I have been by my wife, Kate's, side for the past eight months as she's faced her particular brand of stage IV breast cancer.  So, I am writing this blog post for those who have been diagnosed with, or have a loved one who has, breast cancer and happen to come across my blog.

First a little background:  Kate was diagnosed in October with Stage IV breast cancer, which means the cancer had spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes to other parts of her body, her liver and bones, to be exact.  A biopsy revealed that her cancer was "triple positive", meaning that the cancer cells had three receptors, one each for:  Her2, progesterone and estrogen.  This is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it makes the cancer very aggressive and on the other it presents more treatment options.  She has been treated since last October.

Okay, that's the background, now the main message of this post is HOPE.  My wife's experience shows that breast cancer, even late stage breast cancer, is not necessarily a death sentence.  Treatments have come a long way since my mother had it in the 1970's (and she lived for another 25 years and her death was unrelated to her breast cancer).  Kate, who was so very sick in the first few months, has come a long way and her oncologist says he's confident that the disease can be managed for decades.  Undoubtedly, cancer is not a cakewalk - there are good days and bad days physically and emotionally for Kate and for me, but if you can get through the hard times, you have good reason to be hopeful.

Every breast cancer patient is different and unfortunately some will not be able to beat the disease, but the state of treatment options today are broad and I am amazed by the resilience of the people I have met.  I don't want to be trite, but if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with breast cancer, please know that all is not lost.  Yes, your life is about to get harder, but know that the hope I am trying to convey is not empty but real.  Hang in there and you and your families can get through this together.  Please.

I also want to encourage women to examine their breasts monthly because the sooner the disease is caught, the better the prognosis usually is and the less impact it will have on your day-to-day life.  Also, if you have a family history of the disease, speak with your doctor about getting regular mammograms.

My wife has been blogging about her experience and her site contains a lot of useful information and links to other blogs and resources for patients.  Please check it out:

Also, I have written some posts about the disease from my perspective:

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Praising Lee Valley Tools

I am lucky, for many reasons, to live Ottawa, Ontario but the biggest reason is because Ottawa is the birthplace of Lee Valley Tools a purveyor of high quality woodworking and gardening tools.  I  have to confess that I'm not much of a gardener, but I am a novice woodworker and an ardent follower of the craft, having amassed a not immodest library devoted ot the subject (food lovers are called "foodies", are people who are similarly enagaged in woodworking called "woodies"?  But I digress).

Lee Valley (and Veritas, it's manufacturing arm) are not the only makers of premium woodworking tools - Lie-Nielsen, Clifton and Bridge City Tools are other names you may be familiar with.  What sets Lee Valley and Veritas apart from the rest of the field is the bang you get for the buck.   Like the other makers I mention, Veritas tools are ready to use right out of the box, all machined to tight tolerances and all the blades and cutting irons arrive honed and ready to go, but they can be purchased for a fraction of the price of a comparable Lie-Nielsen or Bridge City tool.  I will grant that Lie-Nielsen produces prettier tools, but you can't go wrong with Veritas.

Lee Valley is also a tremendous innovator in tool design.  Any tool nut by now would have seen Veritas' line of back saws that use an amalgam of steel dust, fiberglass and resin to provide rigidity across the back of the saw.  I own several of these saws and the are a pleasure to use - by far the lightest and nicest cutting western saws I have ever used.  They also make a variety of tools and jigs that are aimed directly at the amateur including sharpening jigs, jigs for handcutting dovetails, centering set screws in its bench planes and on and on.  Plus, Popular Woodworking is reporting that Veritas has developed a new type of steel that combines ease of sharpening with the needed hardness to maintain a keen edge through repeated use.

As good as their tools are, what keeps me coming back to them time and again is their customer service.  Lee Valley's philosophy is that you should never regret buying from them.  To this end they offer a 3-month return policy, no questions asked.  This alone is great, but a neighbour told me a story of how she bought a weeding tool from their store.  The tool attached to your hose which you then stuck in beside the weed and released a jet of water that loosened the root and made it easy to pull up.  Well, the first time she used it, the ground was so hard the tool bent and was rendered useless.    She figured since she shouldn't have used it during a drought, they wouldn't refund her money, so she didn't return it.  A year or two later, she happened to be back in the store and mentioned the incident to a sales associate who told her to bring it in and her money would be refunded.

Similarly, one year my wife and I bought a hammock for my dad and his wife.  They loved it, but what amazed me was a few months later I got a letter in the mail explaining that the price of the hammock had gone down since I bought it and would I please find enclosed a cheque for the difference - two dollars and change.  Who the hell does that?  Add into the mix a very knowledgeable staff and you get a sublime shopping experience.

I had the pleasure of working at Lee Valley filling mail and internet orders in their warehouse.  The work wasn't all that pleasurable, though fondling tools all day isn't too bad a gig, but what was a pleasure was the 30 percent discount employees got.  Sadly most of may pay went into buying tools. 

By the way, if Leonard or Robin Lee happen to read this, I wouldn't mind back in, though maybe not in the warehouse this time.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Police

Not the rock band but the men and women who dress up in cool uniforms and carry a variety of weapons and restraints on their belts.  I've had a few encounters over the years (I won't talk about my road rage incident again, since I covered that in an earlier blog), almost entirely for traffic violations.  Like any profession, policing has its good people and its not-so-good people.  Of course the criterion I apply is whether or not they give me a ticket or arrest me.  Here are some things I remember:

The Ugly Highschool Graduation Incident:  A tradition at my highschool (Howard S. Billings in Chateauguay Quebec) back in the 1980s was to go to a beer hall in Montreal called the Old Munich  and get liquored up, returning to a hotel room for a night of vomitting.  So, I was doing my part by getting well lubricated when the police decided to raid the joint.  I stumbled out onto the sidewalk where I was confronted by one of Montreal's finest.  I'm not sure what he said to me, but I reached into my jacket pocket to make sure I still had the key to my hotel room and the next thing I knew I was pushed up against the wall with my arm wrenched behind my back.  After a slurred explanation I was let go.  Ah, good times.  Goooood times.

It's a Parkway, not a Speedway:  I was driving down the Ottawa River Parkway with my then girlfriend, and current wife, when I saw in my rearview mirror the flashing lights of an RCMP car behind me.  After I pulled over, I tell Kate that if he gives me a ticket, I will refuse to say "Thank you." to him when he hands it over.  The speed limit is (ridiculously) 60 km/hr on the Parkway and the cop, after asking me how fast I thought I was going, informs me that he clocked me doing 90 km/hr.  So, he goes back to his car to write me up and comes back and hands me the ticket telling me that although he clocked me going 90, he's only fining me for going 80, saving me hundreds of dollars.  Me, through gritted teeth:  "Thank you, Officer."  Bastard.

Over Hill, Over Dale:  My in-laws used to live in rural Ontario.  Once, while leaving their place after a visit, I was barrelling along a long straight country road and as I crested a hill, I saw a police car at the bottom of the hill.  Despite hitting the brakes, I knew they had me dead to rights.  Sure enough I got pulled over.  The officer, a cute petite blonde woman (sexist I know, but she was) came to my window and asked for my papers.  In typical cop fashion, she asked me if I knew what the speed limit was.  I told her it was 80 km/hr.  She congratulated me and asked if I knew how fast I was going.  I said disengenuously  "Um, 90?"  She replies "Nnnnooooo."  "Um, 95?" I try again.  "Nnnnooooo," looking at me encouragingly.  "Um, 110?" deciding it's time for the truth.  "Yyyyesssss!"  I thought she might hand me a big fluffy stuffed elephant for finally winning something at the carny.  She kindly let me off with a warning.  Sweet.  She can pull me over any time.

Is that Another Dead Moose?:  When driving out to Calgary in 2000, we stopped for a snooze in Wawa, Ontario (no kidding there really is town called Wawa).  After our little respite, we hit the road again.  I was amazed by how many moose seemed to be lying dead on the side of the road in that neck of the woods.  Anyway, we had already driven a long way and had a lot further to go, so I was givin' her a bit and I rounded a corner and right there is another Mountie.  I didn't even wait for him to hit the lights and come after me, I just stop right on the side of the road.  I think he appreciated the gesture, because he too let me off with a warning.  Just to make up for my previous sexism, I'll say he was cute, too.  A real prince.

Would love to hear about any experiences you may have had with the thin blue line, or red serge line.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Doing Some of it Over Again

My wife and daughter now roll their eyes when I say "If I had it to do all over again, I'd...[INSERT ANY OL' OCCUPATION]" with my daughter adding, "'d do anything but be a public servant!"   This sounds like unhealthy regret on my part and it sort of is, but not completely. 

I mostly enjoyed my B.A. and really had fun doing my M.A., and I made some great friends in both.  Most importantly, I met my wife and we had our beautiful little Bean and I couldn't imagine life without them.  I wouldn't change any of that.  Plus, I did like the first few years of my public service career, but then, something changed, either in the public service or in me, and I became miserable.

The work seemed futile:

  • toiling away for what seemed like little effect; 
  • working to meet bureaucratic requirements that served only the bureaucratic machine, not the public;
  • internecine turf wars;
  • managers for whom every request, every demand were equally urgent (not to say important, very little of the work is that);
  • working with, for and against a critical mass of, if you'll forgive the vulgarity, assholes  (not -everyone, a lot of fine people in the public service, but there just enough of the former around to make it unpleasant);
  • the public thinking all public servants are overpaid and underworked;
  • no respect from the politicians we serve;
  • a corporate culture that abhors creativity and stamps out personal initiative;
I could go on, but suffice to say that going to work every day began to wear me down.  Then one day, after months in one particular job where we lost several senior analysts and had a boss that couldn't say no to more work, who gave inconsistent attention to the various files, micromanaging some and demanding we be more proactive on others, I finally closed my office door and broke down crying.  Later that day, I was on extended sick leave and wouldn't return to work for six years.

Finally, I returned to a new job in a department I had worked at years before.  I thought I was ready having finally overcome my depression a couple of years before.  I swore to myself I would never fall victim to depression again.  Alas, two and half months in, I sat in my cubicle weeping again, unable to think or do anything.  I am still a trembling mess.  I still have a hard time with what may be called my "executive functioning".  I have hard time organizing my day if I have more than two things to do.  Writing this blog has become a bit easier over the months, but I wanted to write about a number of issues, researching and analysing them, but I have a hard time organizing myself to do anything, so I'm stuck writing about trivialities.

All of this is very frustrating.  I have always been a moderate to high achiever at school and at work, and now I feel, well, not very high achieving.  I know work has been only a part of the problem, but it has been a significant part.  And that leaves me wishing that I could keep the good things I have, but have chosen a different field of study - or a different career path.

Stay tuned and I will share what I might choose if I had to do it all over again.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Project 52: Week of June 18

I've been a naughty blogger.  I haven't written anything in over a week and the daily grind of the A-Z Challenge and the subsequent writing hangover prevented me from keeping up with my Project 52 obligations.  But, here I am and here we go.

Host a party when we get news that Kate's cancer is in remission: Alas, remission, we are told by Kate's oncologist, is not a realistic goal.  Rather, the aim is to reach an uneasy truce with the disease - where it no longer impinges on the functioning of her critical organs.  Kate continues to make progress, thankfully, and the doctor is optimistic that the cancer can be brought to heel for decades.

Buy and learn how to play guitar with my daughter, the Bean - learn to play, wait for it, Stairway to Heaven (remember the scene in Wayne's World?)  We, and especially the Bean, continue to make progress.  The Bean practices most day.  I don't, but I get enough in that my skills haven't slipped considerably, but progress is as a result slow.

Lose 35 lbs  With the nicer weather, I have been getting out and exercising more, and watching what I eat.  My annual physical revealed that my cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure are all high (can anyone say ticking time bomb), so this objective has taken on more meaning.  So far, so good, though.  Last time I weighed myself I had lost 8 lbs. in about the last two months.

Get into shape to run 10K:  I have started running again.  I hope I can build up to a shade over 5 kms by the time September rolls around.

Resolve my depression:  This has been an ongoing struggle.  My psychiatrist has been diligently trying to find a combination of medications that will work.  Most recently, she has me on an older generation of medications, called tricyclics, which shows up in the bloodstream and allows them to determine how well my body absorbs the medication.  We found that I am among the 3-8% of the population who metabolize the drugs so fast that they don't have a chance to work.  Knowing this helps here raise my dosage to within therapeutic range.

Research my grandfather's WW II service record with the Veterans Guards of Canada:  I have requested my grandfather's records from the Library and Archives Canada.  I should get them in the winter sometime.  See my post about my grandfather, Alfred Burrows.

Blog the A-Z Challenge:  Done! And what a ride it was.  See my A-Z Challenge post-mortem.

That's it for this week.  I'll try to be more disciplined about this.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Annoying Language Foibles

I'm sure I'm not the only person who gets irritated by what I perceive to be improper use of language, mostly English, but also in one case Italian.  And this is beyond the kiddie speak in the hood:  "Yo, yo, 'sup?"  No, I'm talking mainstream grown-up talk that is like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.  The following is but a small sample of irritating language usage.

I got my first nigglings as a Canadian public servant.  The bureaucracy is a great producer of inane jargon and annoying word usage.  Public servants are often concerned about getting the "messaging" right for an initiative, instead of just plain old "message", and there seems to a lot of "disconnects" between stakeholders.  I remember finding other word usage bizarre, like for example when a senior public servant takes on leadership of an issue, he is sometimes referred to as a Sherpa, which is a Tibetan and Nepalese ethnic group noted for its general mountaineering expertise.  Examples abound, but suffice to say any government institution is an incubator for linguistic silliness.

I have also been noticing a trend on DIY television show.  I like to call it the tyranny of the preposition.  My wife's renovation shows have contractors forever "painting out" objects and structures or "switching out" one lighting fixture for another, when simple "painting" or "switching" will do.  Cooking shows are also guilty and are always "baking off" cookies and "reducing down" sauces.  I have actually had to stop watching one of my favourite television chef's, Michael Smith, because of his liberal use of the preposition.

My final pet peeve relates to the new found food fashion for grilled sandwiches known as panini.  Panini is the Italian word for sandwiches.  Note that I use the plural.  Panini is the plural and panino is the singular.  Therefore, I am driven crazy by signs advertizing paninis.  This is pluralizing the plural.  Like saying bananases.  Aaargh.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but I will spare you.  I'm interested in hearing about your linguistic pet peeves.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Spiffing Up My Blog Page

The A-Z Challenge and Project 52 have given me the opportunity to visit a lot of different blogs that I may not otherwise have visited.  What has amazed me is how visually appealing they all are.  I feel like a laggard, using only the most basic and boring template offered by Blogger.  To be fair to myself, I am by profession a federal public servant and thus thoroughly trained to be staid, boring and unappealing.  The institutional culture is anxious to stamp out any attempts at creativity or individuality - think the Borg Collective from the Star Trek:  Next Generation, only nowhere near as cool or dangerous.

I am also a bit of a technophobe and not really comfortable with technology.  I don't know if I am inherently inept, or if I just don't have the interest or patience in all things technological, or if I harbour a sometimes not-so-subconscious animus towards new technologies.  Whatever the reason, I just don't get a lot of it.

All this to say I am shamed when compared to others in the blogosphere and am committing here to spruce up my blog page over the next few weeks - add some content, and make it more visually appealing and less public-servicey.

So stay tuned, faithful reader(s).

Sunday, 3 June 2012


Of all the skills a woodworker needs to learn, none is more coveted and elusive than hand cutting dovetails.  As the name suggests, these joints look like a row of bird tails joining two boards at right angles to each other.  They are often used to make drawers and boxes, but also to join the sides and tops on casework.  They are usually a hallmark of quality construction and a sign that a cabinet maker has achieved a reasonable degree of proficiency in her or his craft.  Dovetails are mechanically a very strong joint.  Add a kiss of glue and the joint becomes indestructible.

Like many novice woodworkers, I have struggled to cut an acceptable row of dovetails.  The results, at their best, have been ill-fitting travesties.  As I've said, hand-cut dovetails are the holy grail of woodworking skills and the pursuit of perfection is a cash cow for producers of how-to books and videos.  I remember watching a DIY video, Dovetail a Drawer, by Frank Klausz - a German craftsman who learned his trade in the strict apprenticeship tradition of Europe.  One of the tricks of cutting dovetails is laying them out properly, but Klausz blithely eschews this approach, encouraging the would-be woodworker to lay them out by eye.  Easy for a guy who has probably cuts tens of thousands of dovetails, but probably disastrous for a neophyte.  Like many other joints, dovetails can be machined using a router and a specialized jig, which is relatively low-skill.  But Klausz, a seasoned pro, can hand cut a drawer in minutes, probably way faster than it would take me to set up a jig and router.

Every year my adopted hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, hosts a woodworking trade show where manufacturers of woodworking products showcase their wares and where experts give workshops to the unwashed masses.  I remember one year noted cabinet maker and popular producer of videos and books, Rob Cosman, gave a workshop on cutting dovetails.  The talk was somewhat useful, but again, the attitude of the expert who has cut many years worth of the joint, is somewhat blithe.  He proclaimed, "Dovetails only fit properly once, " meaning that you have to achieve perfection on your first shot.  Woodworkers, especially novices, need to "dry fit" their projects to make sure everything fits together snugly and squarely before adding glue, which is generally the point of no return.  This gives them the opportunity to fine-tune the fit and get everything right.  But, according to Cosman, you ultimately ruin the fit of dovetails by dry fitting.  Cutting dovetails is hard enough.  Adding the pressure of achieving a perfect fit right out of the gate is enough to give novices heart palpitations and commit them to a lifetime of butt joints.

Anyway, this is a bit of a meandering post on dovetails, which actually seems appropriate since many woodworker follow a meandering path in learning how to cut them.  The body of DIY products all advocate different approaches to making dovetails:  careful layout with ruler and t-bevel or by eye; cut the dovetails first or the mating pins first; cut the waste out with a coping saw, or with a chisel, or band saw, or scroll saw, or table saw;  dry fit or don't dry fit; and on-and-on.  I guess the student is best to commit to an approach that makes the most sense to her and practice, practice, practice.

And so, down to the shop I go to find some scrap and try, again, to cut something that resembles a competently produced set of dovetails.  Happy cutting!

Saturday, 26 May 2012


A short list of some iffy things:

  • drinking milk five days after its best before date;
  • the Canadian Government's decision to procure the F-35 Strike Fighter;
  • Sidney Crosby;
  • "Watch me put this hankie in my left nostril and pull it out my right one!"
  • Gas prices;
  • Being convinced to switch gas companies by some guy that showed up at your door with a clipboard;
  • Frying eggs on a George Foreman Grill;
  • Car salesmen;
  • Insurance companies;
  • Your doctor telling you this procedure will just feel like a mosquitoe bite;
  • "Do these pants make my butt look big?"
  • Texting while driving;
  • "My wife/husband and I are seperated."
  • "This will hurt me more than it will hurt you."

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Ear Infections

At 43 I'm a bit old to be getting ear infections, but that's exactly what I ended up with last week.  Again.  I don't remember ever having one as a child, but then in my 20s, I was suddenly getting several every year.  Eventually I got referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who placed some tubes in my ears to ensure pressure between my ears was equalized and to provide drainage for fluids that would have otherwise accumulated behind my ear drum.  This helped, though I still suffer from the occasional ear infection, or just simple fluid build-up.

So, last Wednesday I awoke with the familiar pressure in my left ear, and it hurt.  My wife, Kate, had a couple of appointments at the hospital that day, so I couldn't go to a clinic until later that afternoon.  I was prescribed some anti-biotic pills and drops, but alas, they came too late.  Later that evening I felt the pain of my eardrum bursting along with the tell-tale bleeding from the ear.  Good thing I'm married, because I doubt the look would be very attractive to the opposite sex.  My left eardrum has "perforated" several time, with a concomitant decline in my hearing each time.  I'll probably be deaf in that ear by the time I'm 60.

So, for several days afterwards I was oozing some gelatinous goop.  I told my nine year-old that it looked like custard but that it sure didn't taste like custard.  That's one uptight little kid we have.  She found it no funnier later in the day when she asked if she could have a snack and I suggested a spot of ear custard.

Well, post-A-Z Challenge has left me scurrying about for topics.  I've read that when faced with writer's block, the best approach is to just write about any old thing at all.  Hopefully this will knock some more substantive topics loose for my next post.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A-Z Challenge Wrap-Up

This was indeed a challenge in many ways.  I planned and wrote many of my posts well in advance of April and I would recommend this approach to anyone thinking of signing up next year.  The last week and a bit was the hardest for me.  I began the week not having written any of the posts, largely because I struggled to come up with topics for "w", "x", "y" amd "z", and on the whole, I would say they were my weakest posts.  I'm also finding that the challenge has used up my store of ideas for posts and now I am scrambling around for something to write.  So, what can I do now?

Overall, though, the experience was positive.  Aside from some statistical benefits like getting more followers and a ton of page hits from A-Zers, I got to meet a lot of interesting people who left comments and I similarly visited many other interesting blogs of those who participated.

I cannot say enough about the people who co-hosted the challengs this year.  I appreciate all the hard work they did, with a special shout-out to Jenny of the Pearson Report, who visited several times and left encouraging words.

Will I do it again next year?  I'll have to see where I'm at when the time comes, but I think I would.  The challenge was, on the whole, fun.

Monday, 30 April 2012

Zebras not Getting Ulcers

This is a simple book recommendation for people who are interested in the physiological effects of stress.  Robert M. Sapolsky wrote the highly readable and accessible Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers in 1994, which is the edition I read, but Sapolsky has apparently issued two more updated versions, the latest in 2004.

The central argument of the book is that wild animals do not generally suffer chronic stress (except due to illness or famine) in the way humans do.  Rather, animals suffer stress only when faced with an immediate danger to life and limb, as in when a predator is near.  Then, the fight or flight instinct cuts in with all that entails physiologically - all bodily systems not directly involved in fighting or fleeing largely shut down and all energy is pumped into those parts of the body needed for survival.

Where animals experience the effects in the narrow area of threats from predators, humans experience stress in a much wider range of situations.  Blessed, or burdened, with an intellect, humans can trick the body into thinking that non-physically threatening situations - paying the bills, demanding jobs, school exams - are in fact the same as being faced with a fight-or-flight situation.  Only instead of being over once the physical threat has passed, humans can turn the endless stream of worry into chronic stress on the body.  Physiologically, the body can be in near constant fight-or-flight mode.  Sapolsky then describes the impacts of this chronic stress on each system of the body, concluding with a chapter on managing stress.

A wonderful read aimed at the layman.  Alarming, but Sapolsky also manages to weave humour throughout the book.  I can highly recommend this book.

Saturday, 28 April 2012


I don't really understand genetics very well, but I know that among the key genetic building blocks for humans are the chromosomes contributed by our parents and that they determine the sex of the child.  Two X chromosomes and you're a female, one Y chromosome and one X chromosome and you are a male.  So, Y chromosomes only get passed from father to son.

My wife, Kate, has got me interested in genealogy.  A growing aspect of the field is genetic genealogy.  Companies will sell you a kit containing a swab that you run around the inside of your mouth that you then return to the company for analysis.  I find it all mind boggling, but essentially you can determine your maternal lineage with mitochondrial DNA and paternal lineage through your Y chromosome.  So, any male or female can determine their maternal lineage, but because only men carry the Y chromosome, a female wanting to determine their paternal lineage would need a male member of a close male relative (e.g. father or brother) to contribute a sample.

This type of testing will allow you to determine your ethnic lineage, which I find quite interesting.  More importantly, though, many companies and groups have databases of DNA results that allow you to match up with others who have contributed their results to the database, giving you potential leads for growing your family tree.

How cool is that?  This another item I look forward to pursuing in the not-to-distant future.

(I will close with my apologies to biologists and geneticists everywhere for any botching I may have done in my explanations of this topic.)

Friday, 27 April 2012

X Marks the Spot

My wife, Kate, is an avid genealogist (see her family history blog, which has been dormant for a while since she took up her fight against cancer, about which she is also blogging).  A great resource for Canadians interested in tracing their family history is the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC).  Late last week Kate brought me there to show me around.  LAC's resources are vast, as one may hope from a national archive.  One of the most fundamental and cool references they have, though, are city directories dating back to the turn of the 20th century and even earlier for the larger cities.  The earlier volumes contain some basic yet wonderful information on any city's residents:  name, occupation and address.

Kate and I didn't have a long time to spend at LAC this time around, but she suggested I look up my maternal grandfather in the 1933 Montreal city directory - the year my mother was born.  So I did.  And I found him:

N. Kazurka (Sic), Labourer, 207 6th Avenue, Lachine, Quebec.

Mis-spellings are, apparently pretty common in these directories, so you may have to be a little creative in looking for your ancestors.  At the time, I believe my mother's family was going by the name Kaziuka and somewhere along the line some branches of the family went by Kazuke.  So, now I know what house my mother lived in when she was born.  My family and I travel fairly often to Montreal, so now I am keen to visit the house.

While I had the directory out, I thought I would look up my paternal grandfather.  I know when he first emigrated to Canada from Great Britain, he settled in rural Quebec and worked as a farm labourer, but I was fairly sure that by the 1930's he was on the Island of Montreal and sure enough:

Alfred Burrows, Milk Driver, 67 Rolland Avenue, Ville St. Pierre, Quebec.

So, now I have another house to try to find.  Working forwards and backwards from 1933 I can track where my maternal and paternal ancestors lived and what they did for a living, at least if they stayed in Montreal or some other city large enough to have a city directory.  Hopefully, I will have many X's marking many spots.

I look forward to visiting all these places, but until I manage to get there, I am going to try to see them on Google Street View.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Where You Are.

This isn't so much a blog post as it is an invitation to you to leave a little comment telling me a little bit where you all live.  I have noticed in my blog stats that there are people visiting my site from all over the world.  Whenever I meet someone new, I like to hear about their lives and where they come from.  If they are from somewhere outside Ottawa or Canada, I will often do a little research on their homeland. It's an excuse to learn a little about the world outside my areas of familiarity.

Hope you take the time to leave something in my comment section.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

the Veteran Guards of Canada

As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, my paternal grandfather, Alfred Burrows, fought in the Australian Armed Forces during World War I.  Shortly after World War II began, Canada began creating units across the country of mostly WW I veterans who assumed responsibility initially for guarding prisoner of war (POW) camps but a little later also guarded important potential military targets such as dams, power plants and government facilities.  These units were collectively know as the Veteran Guards of Canada (VGC).

I know my grandfather volunteered for the VGC - I have his service pin, but I know little of what his duties were.  Family lore has him guarding POW camps in Canada.  An accomplished horseman, I have heard he also taught Canadian troops how to ride, though I have exchanged e-mails some time ago with a VGC expert who had never heard of VGC members performing anything other than guard duties.

So, I have some research to do.  Last week on a visit to Library and Archives Canada, I submitted a request for his WW II records.  I will have to wait five to six months for the package, but I hope it provides greater detail on his role in the war.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012


Today is cold and rainy here in Ottawa.  After an unseasonably warm March, winter has decided to flirt with us once again in April.  Yesterday we had a couple of centimeters of snow on the ground.  I am unprepared for the wet weather because I seem to have run out of umbrellas.  I had a couple of London Fog umbrellas that were of reasonable quality, but eventually even they fell victim to a few stiff breezes.

This brings me to the main point of my post today:  why are good umbrellas so hard to find?  Most fold up like a house of cards in anything stronger than the mildest wind, because, really, rain often comes with heavier than usual winds.  I know solid wind resistant umbrellas exist, but I can't seem to find them anywhere here in Canada's capital.

Okay, so this post shows you how desperate I am for topics this week....

Monday, 23 April 2012

This Week in the A-Z Challenge

Almost all of my A-Z posts up to today have been carefully planned and written months in advance.  I had a hard time coming up with this week's topics.  I am a little intimidated, because writing is a trial for me these days.  I am a little afraid my topics will be a little bit lame and not particularly well written, so I want to apologize in advance (I welcome topic suggestions.)

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Stephen Kazuke

Private Stephen Kazuke
Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment
Killed in Action, January 2, 1945

My uncle Steve Kazuke is a bit of an enigma.  He is my mother's older brother, but I don't know how much older.  What I do know about him is that when Canada declared war against Germany in September of 1939, his big brothers, Mike, Bill and Peter enlisted with various Canadian regiments and all saw action in Europe.  Apparently, Steve, who was not old enough to enlist, was eaten up that his brothers were off fighting a war and he was stuck back home in Lachine, Quebec.

So, he did what a lot of teenagers at the time did:  He lied about his age and signed up with the Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment.  My grandfather was, acoording to my mother, heartbroken.  Again, I don't know the details - when he enlisted, how long he served and where he saw action.  Sadly, what I do know is that on January 2, 1945, he was struck down by a sniper's bullet somewhere in Italy.  My other uncles all came home alive.

My mother remembers her father getting the telegram informing him of my uncle's death.  The whole family was devestated by the loss.  My uncle now lies in the Villanova Canadian War Cemetary in North-Eastern Italy in the Province of Ravenna.  Sadly, nobody from the family that I know of has visited the grave.  I hope one day to be the guy.  I know my mother, who passed away in 1998, would be happy that somebody made the pilgrimage.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Raising a Gifted Child

As my faithful readers know, my wife and I have a wonderful 8-year-old girl that we affectionately call the Bean.  Two years ago, for a variety of reasons which I won't cite, we had her cognitive abilities tested.  We knew she had above average smarts and my wife, Kate, bandied about the "G" word ("gifted").  I was much more hesitant to use the term.  But the test proved Kate right.  We were blown away by her score of being in the 99.8th percentile for kids her age on the particular test she took.

I realize putting in the decimal point seems like guilding the lily but believe it or not, the difference between 99.8 and 99.7 and 99.9 can actually be profound.  So, the Bean is very smart, with a particular aptitude for math, but she's not what one would call profoundly gifted - she's not writing orchestral music in her spare time or solving Fermat's theorom or building particle accelerators in our basement.  She is though, working well above her grade level in a number of areas.

Raising a gifted child has its upsides:  she's very curious and loves science and math, she doesn't require a lot of instruction in many areas because she seems to grasp many things intuitively and talking with her is interesting because she has surprising insights one wouldn't expect from a kid her age.

All is not sweet honey and fargrant roses, though.  Raising a gifted child has its challenges.  Chief among them is making sure she is adequately stimulated at school because she operates well above the curriculum for her grade.  This is one thing that led us to having her tested - from her very first months in school, she was complaining of being bored and how easy everything was.  Indeed, I can count on the finger of both hands how many minstakes she's made in 4 and half years of school, and nearly all of those from inattention rather than "not getting it."

So, we have worked with the school to develop a personalized learning plan that outlines how the school is going to address her particular learning needs.  Last year, Grade 2,  was her first year with this plan and her teacher made efforts to enrich the curriculum for the Bean.  Similarly this year, the teacher has been going out of her way to provide more stimulation, including teaching her some grade 6 math.  The Bean isn't complaining about how easy things are quite as much.  Nonetheless, Kate and I communicate often with her teacher to ensure her needs continue to be met.

Paradoxically, another challenge is getting the Bean motivated to stretch her abilities.  Often, though not always, she chooses the path of least resistance and does the minimum work necessary.  We constantly battle with her to do the little bit extra.

Another challenge is dealing with an almost unmanageable reservoir of energy.  The Bean seldom sits still or shuts up.  One thing that drives me to distraction is when she says she has nothing to do.  We have invested a lot in books, courses, musical instruments, art instruction, craft supplies, games and toys.  How can she possibly claim that she has nothing to do?  Her inclination is to watch television, which I hate, though because of my depression and Kate's cancer, we've been letting her do more than usual.

A number of other challenges can arise from giftedness such as other "over-exceptionalities", which in part includes higher than usual sensitivity to things in the environment - clothing sentitivies, sensitivities to smell and noise, sensitivity to other's emotions to name but a few.  These over-exceptionalities often lead to anxiety.  The Bean has suffered from a number of these, but has managed to work through  them really well with the help of a child psychologist.

So, rasing a gifted child has its upsides, but also its challenges.  On the whole, though, I wouldn't change a single thing.  My daughter's gifts and challenges are what make her uniquely her and we LOVE her more than anything.

Thursday, 19 April 2012


I know it has been just a couple of days since I wrote about noise pollution, and now I'm writing a little bit about quiet.  The whole issue has become a bit of a hobby horse for me.  I am amazed how difficult escaping the din of humanity is.  Sometimes, I don't want to even hear anything of the natural world.  I would like to be able escape to absolute quiet.  But I'm not convinced many such places exist.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Playing Guitar

In the weeks before Christmas, the Bean begged us for a guitar.  So, being the best parents EVER, we got her one.  Her enthusiasm to learn to play the instrument was infectious, so I went out to buy one myself so that we could leasrn together.  That's waht we've been doing.

I am amzed by how the Bean is getting parts of playing the guitar so much easier than me.  She's better at reading the music and, more importantly, knowing where the notes she's reading are on the fretboard.  She just gets things quicker than me.  Some may think this is frustrating for me, and sometimes it is, but on the whole I marvel at the process.  I love watching her fingers dance across the fingerboard as she playes her favourite songs.

As for myself, I really enjoy playing, even though I find learning the instrument to be quite a challenge.  I find the guitar completely engrossing with the time flying by while I play.  The Bean and I are taking weekly lessons and when we learn something new, I think we'll never get it.  I am always amazed, though, that by the end of a week of practicing we improve substantially.

In addition to the playing and practicing I also love the guitars themselves.  I went shopping for mine (a Simon and Patrick dreadnaught) with my friend Maestro Joe, who plays in a band here in Ottawa.  He provided invaluable advice and played the guitars in my price range so I could determine which sounded the best to my ear.  I was amazed how, even to my untrained ear, each instrument had its own "voice".  For this reason, I can see how people can slide down the slippery slope of collecting guitars - you want to own them all for their unique sounds.  Mine can best be described as woody sounding and, as is befitting a dreadnaught, loud.  It also has plenty of sustain, with each note I play sounding like it will go on forever.  My daughter's guitar, by comparison is a half-size and has a much more crisp sound and, despite its size, is also plenty loud.

But guitars don't just make music, they also have a tactile and visual appeal.  Exotic and domestic tonewoods with figured grain and all smoothly finished.  Some are adorned with inlay on the body of the guitar as well as on the fretboard and headstock.  The rosette around the soundhole and the purfling and bindings can be works of art unto themselves.  Mine is fairly plain, but I love fondling it and looking at it and even smelling its woodiness.

Owning and playing guitar is one of the most relaxing activities I can think of - a perfect way to unwind.  I love guitars and

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


A few weeks ago, Kate and I went for dim sum with some friends.  One of our friends is of Chinese descent and remnisced about when her white Canadian husband first met her somewhat traditional Chinese parents and he was served gelatinized pig trotters and chicken feet.  Much hilarity ensued as the guy bravely tucked into his meal.

Offal, sometimes euphemistically referred to as variety meats, are the bits and pieces of animals that today you don't see much of in the meat counter of your local supermarket.  They harken back to a day when people were frugal and every part of the animal was used to feed the family.  They include such things as tripe, liver, kidneys, brain, sweetbreads, testicles and on and on.  As a kid, I remember my mother used to make steak and kidney pie, which I really liked, until I found out what kidneys were.  Then not so much.  Liver was then, and remains today, a form of torture.  Even turkey giblets, which I used to really like when doused liberally with salt, I cannot bear to look at let alone eat.

About the only offal I care for today is foie gras, which I recognize is very politically incorrect of me, but which I just can't resist when I see it on a menu.  It is the crack cocaine of organ meats - irrestible in its rich lusciousness.

Author and one time chef Anthony Bourdian often writes rhapsodically about offal.  Celebrity chef Mario Batali is apparently also an officianado of animal entrails.  I consider people who cook and eat these meats on the same level as I consider those who choose to go over the Niagara Falls just for the funof it.  That is to say, brave with a perhaps a dash of insanity mixed in for good measure.

I would love to hear from all of you about your experiences with offal, what you like and dislike, and your thoughts on food taboos in general.