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.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Noise Pollution

Noise seems to be ever ubiquitous, inescapable, really.  In the great outdoors, we are assaulted by traffic noise, including those infuriating "boom cars" with their thudding bass, the sound of airplanes, construction, inconiderate noisy neighbours, yapping dogs, power tools, honking horns, and slamming car doors.  To name but a few.

Malls are among the most awful places.  Set aside the natural noises of the unwashed masses, and you're left with music blaring from stores.  Nearly all stores, all mingling in an incoherent bray of noise.
Even libraries, once havens of quiet are now dens of insanity, as I've written about before.  Even our homes betray us with furnaces and airconditioning switchin on and off, ditto the fridge, to say nothing of other kitchen appliances, the washing machine which sounds like a helicopter taking of when it is spinning and the clothes dryer.  And don't get me started on noise in the workplace.

Lest you think me just a complainer, please consider:
  • the World Health Organization (WHO) has found that noise adversely affects human health through sleep disturbance, cardiovascular impacts and impairs child development and cognitive functioning.  The WHO has also found work productivty losses from noise, learning impairment in children and hearing impairment;
  • the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has found that 42% of the population feels their private home life is adversely affected by noise;
  • the U.S. Centers for Disease Controls has produced a number of papers addressing health impacts of occupational and community noise.
Research in this area is currently not too abundant, but it is growing and there is a consensus is emerging that people face too much noise in their daily lives and that the health impacts and social conflict are growing as a result.  These impacts are expected to grow as population increases.  The question is what are the appropriate policy responses from all level of government?

Noise pollution does not seem to be a hot topic on anyone's policy agenda, despite a very high number of NGOs and community groups trying to raise its profile as an issue to be addressed.  Those of us who are sensitive to noise hope that meaningful policies are developed to curb the amount of community and occupational noise we are exposed to.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Milestones Restaurant

The family and I discovered a restaurant chain called Milestones a couple of years ago.  Normally, chain restaurants are boringly predictable nd mediocre at best, often reheating or cooking frozen pre-assembled food sent from the mothership.  I have to say, though, that this particular restaurant has a varied menu and everything appears to be made from scratch.  Their prime rib is usually excellent, as are the few fish dishes I've tried.

We normally go to the Ottawa location on Sussex Drive and the service there tends to be particularly smashing.  Once, the Bean and I showed up for dinner without a reservation and were told it would be an hour and a half wait.  We decided we couldn't wait and left.  A few seconds later, the manager called us back and said he would fit us in if we were willing to wait a couple of minutes later.  We were soon seated and perusing the menu when the manager reappeared and explained that he had two daughters and simply couldn't turn us away. 

Several months later, we tried to get a reservation but were told that they were booked solid, but that they did keep a number of tables for walk-ins and at that time of the day, the wait shouldn't be more than a half-hour.  The family and I decided the wait was worth it and we headed into to town only to find once we got there that the wait was an hour and a half again.  My wife mentioned that when we called 20 minutes earlier, we were told that iwe should only have to wait 30 minutes.  Again the manager came to our rescue and seated us within minutes.

The table service has similarly been uniformly excellent.  Friendly waiters and waitresses who know the dishes and provide good advice and generally quick service. This has become a family favourite.  If you live, or are travelling, in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario, search them out and give them a try.

Friday, 13 April 2012


I recently decided to learn how to play the guitar with my daughter, the Bean.  Long before that, though, I was interested in the art and craft of the luthier, defined loosely as a maker of stringed instruments.  In much the same way a master chef can assemble and prepare a set of ingredients for a sublime dining experience, a master luthier can assemble and prepare a collection of material and produce an instrument that grips the player and the listener with its sound. 

The quality of the sound is, of course, the primary concern of the luthier - selecting and shaping tonewoods, building a a resonant sustaining soundboard, bracing the instrument so the tension of the strings doesn't rip the instrument apart.  However, the skilled luthier also has plenty of opportunities to adorn their instruments with scrolls, inlays, bindings and purfling (to name but a few), elevating their instruments from sonic masterpieces into jewels of visual art.

To feed my interest in lutherie, I have over the years purchased a number of books on the subject:
The Violin Maker by John Marchese, 2007:  A book about Brooklyn, New York violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz, who has made violins for luminaries such as Isaac Stern and Eugene Emerson.  An interesting element of the book describes Zygmuntowicz's evolution from focussing on the traditional aspects of the craft to a greater interest in the science and use of technology in building violins.

Clapton's Guitar by Allen St. John, 2005:  Chronicles the work of Virginia luthier Wayne Henderson as he accepts and works on a commission for guitar playing legend Eric "Slow Hands" Clapton.

Opus:  The Making of Musical Instruments in Canada by Carmel B├ęgin, 1992:  A selective survey of Canadian instrument makers including luthiers specializing in a wide range of forms:  psalters, violes, hurdy-gurdies, violins and guitars.  Nicely illustrated with black and white photography.

Acoustic Guitars:  The Illustrated Encyclopedia by Dave Hunter, 2003:  As the title promises, this book is both encyclopedic in covering significant guitar makers, and richly illustrated.  For the guitar enthusiast, this more than any other book, is a must have.  It has a sister publication devoted to electric guitars, which I bought for my nephew as a graduation present but which I don't have myself, so please if anyone wants to buy me a gift...
 A comprehensive
With Strings Attached:  The Art and Beauty of Vintage Guitars by Jonathan Kellerman, 2008:  This is guitar nirvana.  The book features the author's collection of vintage - mostly acoustic - guitars.  His prose makes clear that he loves his guitar.  The book is lavishly illustrated with colour photographs.

Guitar Making:  Tradition and Technology by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Naterson, 1987:  A comprehensive and well-illustrated manual for would-be luthiers, detailing everything you need to know to build a steel-string or classical guitar from scratch.

Happy reading!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

the Kazukes?

My mother's Ukrainian maiden name was Kazuke.  This is what my siblings and I grew up thinking (much to the amusement of our childhood friends who gleefully called some of us the Great Gazoo of Flintstones fame).  A couple of years ago, though, my cousin Patricia, who was the custodian of various family documents, sent me copies of my maternal grandparents' Ukrainian passports from when their part of the Ukraine (Galicia in the South West part of the country) was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Much to my surprise the name on their passports was spelled Kaziuka.

Somehow between them leaving Ukraine and settling in Montreal their name got corrupted.  I don't know if it was an intentional corruption by my grandparents, or whether upon arriving in Canada immigration officials transcribed what they thought they heard and my grandparents just lived with the change - not an uncommon occurence.  I think this is the more likely scenario.  Many new Canadians changed their names to anglicize them and make their integration into mainstream society easier, but Kazuke versus Kaziuka would have a feeble change.

Anyway, this should be a lesson for would-be genealogists - names of immigrants often got changed, either by the family or over-worked immigration officials, so you should be vigilant for this when doing your family research.

For more information on genealogy, please check out my wife's family history blog.  She hasn't made an entry in a while, but her past posts are informative and interesting.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


I'm not sure why, but I love jewelry.  Maybe the penchant for shiny things is an artifact of a previous life as a cat.  Maybe I appreciate the jeweler's creativity of designing beautiful pieces and the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into making the creative vision a reality.

I should say that I really don't like wearing jewelry.  I seem to always feel it and I don't enjoy the feeling.  After being married for 13 years, I am still not even comfortable wearing my wedding band.  I will almost always wear it while out of the house (otherwise women would be pestering me), but seldom wear it in the house.

I do love buying jewelry for my wife and daughter, though.  I used to buy Kate a pair of earrings every year for Christmas until she made me stop.  Then for her first Mother's Day, I bought her a Swarovsky crystal pin (or brooch to be a little more old fashioned) and I have now assembled for her a pretty decent collection of those.  She has also gotten several bracelets and rings over the year.

Part of the challenge I enjoy in buying Kate jewelry lies in finding nice pieces that aren't overly pricey, for I am not a financially wealthy guy.  Tradeoffs have to be made:  stones that are less than perfect, or perfect stones that are smaller, lower carat gold, well designed pieces made of less expensive material (i.e. sterling silver and semi-precious stones).  I think, overall, I have made some really good choices.  I've never heard Kate complain (except for getting too many earrings).

Now I have a daughter that I can look forward to showering with jewels.  Because she's only eight, most of her jewelry is juvenile, so significantly less fun to buy.  This past Christmas, though, I bought her what I would consider her first "real" piece.  Lena has long been fascinated by opals, so I bought her a pair of opal earings set in silver.  She loves them.  As she gets older, I'll continue to seed her collection.  I hope she'll look on the jewelry I get for her to be something special, something to remind her of me when I am long gone from this earth.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012


A bit of an odd topic for me, since I generally enjoy hockey fights more than flowers, but in casting about for an "I" topic for the A-Z Challenge, I realized that I kind of like irises.  Fitting that I should be writing about them in April, because one thing I like about irises is that they are, to me, harbingers of Spring.

They are also reminders of my wife and our wedding.  When we got married on the Victoria Day weekend in 1999, we chose irises to adorn the tables at our reception in the Railway Committee room in Centre Block on Parliament Hill.  So, every time I see an iris I think back to that day and how much my wife, and our daughter, mean to me.  I really don't know what I would do without her.

I have also over the years dabbled in learning how to draw.  One exercise I have tried is drawing a flower.  The first time out, I chose an iris.  It turned out okay, but Vincent Van Gogh can rest easy in his grave, even if I had eternity to match his ability, I still couldn't come even close to his brilliance.  Indeed this another reason I like irises.  My daughter and I share a love of Vincent Van Gogh's work.  We live in Ottawa, Ontario, home of Canada's National Gallery.  One of the Van Goghs in the collection is his 1889 Iris, seen below.

For the last couple of years, I have been clearing out our excessively large backyard garden so I can sod it over.  In the corner, though, grow some irises and I will be sure to keep those for all the memories they invoke in me.



Vincent van Gogh


62.2 x 48.3 cm
oil on thinned cardboard, mounted on canvas
Purchased 1954
National Gallery of Canada (no. 6294)

Monday, 9 April 2012

Hockey Haiku

I was originally going to post a simple picture of my mother, Helen, but technical difficulties that excede my technical abilities arose and this was the best alternative I could come up with on the spur of the moment.  So, with my sincerest apologies to poets and hockey fans everywhere:

The puck drops in spring.
Sixteen battle with sweat and blood.
One drinks from the Cup.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Forty Three

I will be turning 43 on April 10.  Please save your well-wishing.  Within a week of turning 40 everything started going down hill.  My already grey hair turned greyer; I would physically injure myself doing the most trivial of tasks, like stepping off a curb, and I take much longer to heal.  I started having more "senior moments" where I would forget what I just did more "senior moments" where I would forget what I just did just did (a joke - not sloppy editing).  I seemed to have aged dramatically over night.

Now, I am on the threshold of 43 and things aren't getting any easier:

  • I'm at the age where I have to start worrying about my prostate, which reminds me that I have to find a doctor with smaller fingers;
  • I have cholesterol issues that my doctor has given me until the beginning of June to address through lifestyle changes;
  • Speaking of doctors, when did they all become so young?
  • When I get up from sitting, my bones crack like someone's letting loose with automatic gun fire. 
  • People are calling me "Mister" and, worse, "Sir"; 
  • I need bifocals, maybe even trifocals; 
  • I now drive a minivan, or as I now like to call it, a swagger wagon; 
  • I ache all the time;
  • Tweed is suddenly an appealing fashion choice;
  • Elderly widows look at me like so much fresh meat.
Whoever said 40 is the new 30 must be tripping out on acid.  Anyway, I guess I'll skate through middle age with my head up. 

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Well, Easter is coming up again.  Sadly, I am not particularly Christian, so it's religious significance is lost on me.  But, like a lot of Christian holidays, the day has been secularized and commercialized out of all recognition.  I am okay with that, though, since a lot of Christian holidays are themselves merely co-opted from ancient pagan celebrations. 

I have to admit, though, that worshipping a bunny that delivers chocolate to children seems to be a step or two down from even pagan religions that celebrated whatever it was at this time of the year - Spring, renewal, the cycle of life and death - let alone the death and resurrection of humanity's saviour.

In any case, whatever your beliefs, be they commercial, secular, pagan or Christian, I wish you all a happy and safe Easter.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


I am currently in the grips of my second major depressive episode in ten years, which really bothers me because after the last time I swore I would be more vigilant and nip it in the bud with all the useful cognitive behaviour therapy techniques I had learned.  Nonetheless, here I am.

Depression is an insidious disease because you can't see it.  It can't be imaged with x-rays or CAT scans.  It is insidious because it screws up your thinking.  I love when people say "What do you have to be depressed about?"  On one level they are right:  I have a wonderful wife and daughter, am gainfully employed, am reasonably healthy, but depression doesn't care.  My depression makes me feel like I am missing something in my life.  My depression makes me think my next door neighbours are the devil incarnate - way out of proportion to their actual offences.  My depression robs me of pleasure in various aspects of my life.  My depression makes concentrating on tasks very difficult, so that I can only manage 15 or 20 minutes at a time.  My head feels like it is in a near constant fog.  My depression saps all energy from my body; if I'm lucky I have maybe four hours of relative alertness in the morning where I can hope to get things done, the rest of the time is spent on the couch or in bed.  I sleep 10 to 13 hours a day and could probably sleep a good bit more than that.

I am one of the lucky few who does not seem to respond to medication.  I've tried them all:  Mannerix, Celexa, Cipralex, Mytazapine, Abilify, Zoloft, Effexor, Wellbutrin.  None have had more than a fleeting effect.  I also do behavioural and mindfulness therapy with my psychologist, which I believe help me from falling further than I already have.

My last depression eventually resolved itself, after three years.  That's a long time to feel like crap, though that experience is reassuring in that I just have to ride it out and I'll come out the other end of this very dark tunnel feeling like myself.

So, here's to the rest of the ride - may it be shorter than the last.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Courage and Cancer

My mother had breast cancer when she was in her 40s.  A life-long smoker, whe ended up getting lung cancer, which, after a long battle, claimed her life on New Years Eve of 1998.  Her father, sister and brother also died of lung cancer and another brother survived lung cancer.  A friend died of liver cancer.  Now my wife, Kate, is battling Stage IV breast cancer.

I recall not too long ago a series of letters to the editor being published in the Ottawa Citizen (which I can't seem to find in their online archive) about whether the term "battle" is the right word with respect to coping with illness.  In my book, anyone who is touched by cancer has earned the right to call it a battle or a cakewalk or whatever else they want to call it.

Whatever one chooses to call how they deal with the disease, I can assure you that many face it with courage.  Kate is an ideal example.  She remains in relatively good spirits despite being in either constant pain or asleep because of the pain medication.  She continues to be a loving and supportive wife and an amazing mother.  Even though her family, friends, medical staff and I are with her and helping and supporting her in any way we can, the disease is in her body alone.  I imagine that could be a lonely feeling and dealing with it requires courage and strength.  I love Kate, but I also admire her resolve in this battle.

Monday, 2 April 2012


Through the magic of Facebook, I recently got back in touch with an old childhood friend of mine, Shaun.  We discovered that we both ended up in Ottawa.  Shaun lives on the outskirts of town on a big tract of land and very generously holds a bonfire on the first Friday of every month.  All comers are welcome.

I recently took advantage of his hospitality, going with my 8-year-old daughter and her friend.  A good time was had by all.  I thought this was a very nice tradition - an opportunity to catch up with what's going on in friends' lives and given that new people are always showing up, a great way to meet new people. 

So, I raise a cup of hot chocolate to bonfires.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Alfred Burrows

I was fortunate growing up to have known my paternal grandfather, Alfred Burrows - the only blood grandparent I knew, the others having passed away before I was born.  He passed away in 1982 when I was 13 and he was 92.  My middle name is in his honour.  Looking back, I wish I had been more interested in his very long life. 

I knew some of his back story - born in Victorian England, farm labourer who moved to Australia in his twenties to be near his sister who married and Australian lad, served in WW I with the Australian cavalry (the 12th Light Horse Regiment) serving mostly in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  Back to the U.K. where he worked for a spell in the mines in Wales and presumably met his Welsh wife.  Then he emigrated to Canada in the 1930's with some of his brothers and where he worked as a farm labourer.  During the second world war, he served in an outfit called the Veterans Guards of Canada as a guard at prisoner of war camps and, he said, as a horse riding instructor.

He talked a little about his war experience, but not a lot.  I remember one particularly amusing story of him being on a ship in the Dead Sea and his mates jumping of the deck into the water.  Not knowing how to swim, he didn't want to join the fun, but his friends cajoled and teased him into finally taking the plunge.  So, in he went, and amazingly he kicked his way to the surface and began swimming like he'd been doing it all his life, not realizing that the concentration of salt in the Dead Sea is so high that it increases buoyancy by a lot.  Several months later they were again shipping out to a new area and again weighed anchor in a somewhat less salty ocean.  Emboldened by his experience in the Dead Sea, he did not even hesitate to jump in with his comrades.  This time he sunk like a stone and was saved by a vigilant friend.

I wish I had asked my grandfather more questions about his life, but being a kid, I was more interested in other things - my beloved Montreal Expos, playing sports, girls (eventually), television and many other things that seem trivial in comparison.

My wife is an avid genealogist, and for a brief couple of weeks, I became infected by the disease.  I was amazed by how many on-line resources were available for researching family history.  In just a couple of hours surfing on the Australian and Canadian archives sites I was able to find all kinds of interesting documents, including Alfred's enlistment papers with the Australian armed forces and the ship manifest for when he and his family emigrated to Canada.  This in turn led me to his mother's name and other records that allowed me to go back a couple of generations earlier than him.

Amazingly, I went back to the Australian national archives again recently and found that Alfred's entire service record was now available on line.  This was a revelation.and it helped fill in a lot of information about his service.  A particularly cool item in his file was a letter written in his own hand to the army after he had come to Canada in the 1930s asking if he could claim his war medals since his children, seeing other veterans wearing their at Remebrance Day festivities, asked him about his.  I know his request was granted because those medals now hang proudly in my family room.

My next task is to try to track down his service record for WW II.  I'll b,log about this enterprise in the future.

I am moved by how important our family history is in shaping who we are today.  I am amazed how my family moved from poverty and years of servitude to a relatively well off middle class family.  I would encourage those of you who are interested to do a little research into you family history.  You'll be amazed at how quickly you can down through the generation.

My wife has a great blog on genealogy that I encourage you to read.  Because she is currently battling cancer, she hasn't been posting a lot lately, but her past posts are informative and are infectious in their enthusiasm for the field.