Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Mariann Domonkos - Canadian Table Tennis Superstar

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Terry Fox Run

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 September 2014

Genetic Genealogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 September 2014


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

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

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


Some other little snippets about my running regimen:

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

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

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Lost Summer

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

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

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

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

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