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!