Category Archives: journal

Onward to the past


For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been very active in the genealogy community here in Toronto for the past year and a half. But things are calming down and I made it out to the local branch meeting last night, spurred on by the change to hear Carolyn Abraham speak. She’s the author of The Juggler’s Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us that was recommended to me by a friend who is also researching her family history. She spoke compellingly of the advantages of using DNA sequencing in researching one’s family history and I’m excited to start reading her book. Abraham is a freelance journalist and in her role as a science writer, came face to face with the potential of genetic research while writing about the Human Genome Project. Her book will hit my reading list very soon.

The second half of the meeting was a mini-presentation about researching your family history through books. With vast numbers of volumes being digitised, there are a lot of resources online for finding and ordering or downloading books of family histories. In particular she mentioned the following sources:

The Internet Archive and their Open Library
Google Books
Pickering-Ajax Digital Archive

One of the attendees also mentioned Our Roots / Nos Racines as being an excellent source of local histories, and another recommended the Books collection at Family Search. I have also used Early Canadiana Online and Peel’s Prairie Provinces with great success.

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My new old friend

Kath and I met in high school. We were both in the concert band; I was a budding percussionist and she handled the tympani. We played keyboards in the stage band and travelled together to Cuba, playing music and night and sleeping during (much of) the day. It was on this trip that I developed an aversion to rum. (I’m okay with it now, almost 40 years later.)

Kath and me in Glebe Music Room (1977ish)
Kath and me in Glebe Music Room (1977ish)
Kath - 1978ish
Kath – 1978ish

We went camping in my father’s green Mustang and I recall applying press-on nails while sitting in the tent and then having trouble zipping my jeans. I also remember stopping for supplies in some small town, having trouble starting the car, and then being reminded by a male passer-by, that the car had to be in Park to start. Kath taught me how to roll cigarettes from Drum tobacco and how an introvert could be an outstanding actor in a high school musical.

We lost touch as we went our separate ways on graduation. We reconnected when she popped up on Facebook just over three years ago in 2010, some 30+ years after high school; we finally reunited in person in the summer of 2011 when she was in Toronto to help out a cousin and her twin toddlers.

That first meeting was in a little hole-in-the wall Asian restaurant on Danforth. She walked in with a cane and as she sat down, I asked her if she’d hurt her ankle or something. That’s when she told me about her MS, the reason behind her retirement from the federal public service. I’m not sure whether I showed it or not, but I was stunned. I’d been her friend for a year on Facebook and had no idea. Her timeline had been full of home renovations, dock diving with her dog Jennie, a cruise to Alaska, horseback riding in Davos. This was clearly the same, determined woman I remembered from high school, who wouldn’t let something like a chronic, incurable disease prevent her from finding her bliss.

It was one of those (re-)connections that make you feel like no time has passed. We made a date to see the Abstract Expressionist Exhibit at the AGO later in the week (she is an artist, and Rothko is one of her faves.) When we met there, she decided that she’d be more comfortable and steady in a wheelchair so she requested one and bopped around the gallery, answering pretty much ALL my questions about the works we were seeing. It was like having my own personal docent.

Since then, she’s become involved in various horse rescue groups in the Ottawa area, and became the crazily doting human companion to a gorgeous quarter-horse named River and a chunky Shetland pony, Lord d’Appleby, both rescued from the “meat-man”. I’ve met been introduced to both of them on various trips to Ottawa (I now keep some barn boots in my car!) and she’s working hard to train these equines so that they can be ridden by her (River) and children (d’Appleby – for therapeutic riding.)

Fast forward two years to last fall and she contacted me when she was coming to Toronto for a funeral of a dear friend of her mother’s. The Royal Winter Fair was on and she wondered if I’d like to go with her if she came down a day early. I’d never been but had noticed the ads for it over the past few years and agreed with pleasure. We spent some time on the exhibition floor (and Kath spent some money), LOTS of time talking (and eating), and then watched the evenings events.  She stayed with me that night and we met another friend from high school that we’d reconnected with (also via Facebook) for breakfast near the University of Toronto. She stayed the rest of the weekend with her brother north of Toronto, and then the two of us drove up to Ottawa on Monday.  I had been planning to spend some time with my mom and I also got another visit with Kath today.

It was probably in the five hour car trip that we shared the things in our life that are most important and concerning. We both have the same attitude about life: we care deeply about our family and friends, but need to find a zen-like, drama-free zone where we can spend most of our time. That life is happening now, not in the future, and certainly not in the past. We can only move forward and in doing so, try to accept what is on our plate with grace and a positive attitude. We’ve lived very different lives, both personal and professional. But now in our mid-fifties, we’re both kind of nesting. She’s renovating her house, loving her dogs and other four-legged friends, and helping her mother as she downsizes and struggles with health issues. Replace the four-legged creatures with a husband and grown sons, and that’s pretty much my life too.

She’d had a rough summer, with a bad flu while on a cruise which may have led to the flare-up of another chronic illness, a broken foot (that didn’t set properly), and the hospitalization of her mother. She was housebound for a while, with friends bringing her groceries, and she wasn’t able to get out to see her horse and pony for weeks. Her Facebook posts sometimes sounded down, but never out.

I spent some time with her later in the fall. We did some sorting and organizing of books and linens, went to her favourite Vietnamese restaurant for a late lunch, and then took the dogs for a long walk along the Ottawa River. She gave me some good advice about planning my kitchen reno since she’s almost finished with her hers.

A week ago, we got together again for a short visit and  Lebanese lunch at The Garlic King. Due to some health issues, she’s been taking it easy the past few weeks, but I wanted to see her and meet her new kitty Stella. I’m heading to Ottawa again next week and she’s told me to bring my skates so that we can hit the Rideau Canal. She uses a walker to skate, and I’ll probably be hanging on to it too as it’s been a while.

Kath and Stella
Kath and Stella
Kath and me with the Garlic King,.
Kath and me with the Garlic King.

So when people gripe to me about the downsides of social media, I just smile and remember how many new friends I’ve made and how many I’ve reconnected with. We’re planning a camping trip (or two) this summer to Sandbanks, where she can bring her beautiful dogs Jennie and Mollie to the dog beach.

[Edited to correct name of Kath’s pony!]

Seven Quick Takes Friday – Alone but not lonesome edition

Seven Quick Takes Friday

How did I spend my week alone you ask?

    1. I finished a terrific book. My review (posted on Goodreads):Bee Season
      Bee Season
      by Myla Goldberg
      My rating: 5 of 5 stars
      An incredible feat of a first novel. Of a tenth novel for that matter.This is the story of a family and the secrets held by each of the members. Told over the arc of two seasons of spelling bees, the relationships between the various dyads are very finely drawn. Each family member is experiencing a kind of very personal suffering or angst, and the novel weaves their stories into a sort of coat of many colours.It is not a sad book per se, but we meet these characters as they struggle to be true to themselves with sometimes unexpected results.Highly recommended.  View all my reviews
    2. Many thanks to the Canadian Opera Company for sending out their usual pre-opera reminder with links to reading resources etc. Otherwise, I might not have realized that my second time round with Peter Grimes on Saturday starts at 4:30 pm and not 7:30. I saw it opening night when Ben Heppner was indisposed. This time, fingers crossed, he will be on stage. Seeing it with a friend who likes Heppner, but not so much Benjamin Britten. We’ll have a good discussion at dinner afterwards, regardless.
    3. It’s not all operas and orchestras around here. Sometimes what a gal needs is a few hours of concentrated lounging in front of the television. This week, as I struggled to kick this cold, I caught up on a few of my fave series and suddenly wondered “What is it that makes bad boys so attractive to women?” I mean, women who are otherwise not interested in the immoral or illicit. Even bad boys who (to me) are not that physically attractive? (Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, played by Steve Buscemi) Or those that are? (Fitz in Call Me Fitz, played by Jason Priestly.) Okay, maybe the latter is a bit easier to understand, but he’s really a nasty piece of work on the show.
    4. Carter’s Baby Gowns

      What is the matter with all these people staring (and commenting) in wonderment at Prince George in a christening gown (or “dress” as they are wont to call it?) Have they no clue? Have they never seen old photos or footage of a traditional christening? In fact, babies of both genders have been clothed in gowns for centuries. When they were newborns in the 1990s, my boys wore long gown-like sleepers that my mother had set aside from when my sibs and I were babies. They were very practical, cozy, and cute.

      Prince George in reproduction Victorian christening gown.
    5. This is why your band needs to have a tubist, not a bass player (with apologies to Michael’s flat-mate, a bass player.)

    6. My (church) choir is putting on a concert to raise funds for the restoration of the organ. It’s Friday November 1st at 8 pm at Blessed Sacrament Parish (Yonge and Lawrence W, Toronto) and we’ll be joined by the marvellous Victoria Scholars and some special guest instrumentalists. More details to follow early next week after I actually make it to a rehearsal (*sniffle). Free to attend. Donations gratefully accepted.
    7. A big happy birthday to my sister Frances who turns 15 months younger than me today!  Here we are with our parents before the baby brother arrived.

      Berkman Family, early 60s.
      Berkman Family, lets just call it the 60s.

All by myself….. just wanna be…


Really. I have the luxury (for an introvert) of eight days in my own house by myself.

Susan Cain posted a question on Facebook about what sad songs make you happy. I responded with this, my favourite teenage pick on the jukebox at the Calabria restaurant in Ottawa, that high school hangout that made great pizza and may or may not have served alcohol to minors skipping their afternoon classes (OMG – it closed!):

The only thing I’m sad about now is this cold that has been hanging around in my chest for a week now. I had to miss choir today and have been lazing around watching too much television and eating too many carbs. I had spent last week at the cottage for the long weekend and then in Montreal visiting Michael (more about that in a future post.) I had to take the drive home slowly and get lots of walking around time en route (that may or may not have involved shopping). But I love driving alone, with an audiobook or whatever classic rock station I can find on the dial. My next car will definitely have satellite radio.

I have a lot of plans for this week, to get a whack of stuff chopped off my to-do list and to put some order in the household, now that things will stay put when I move them. Both my men get home next Sunday (I think) and the week is stretching out before me like a gift.

Books, books, books.

I’m just coming down off of a 3 month reading challenge at Goodreads, and am pretty happy with how it went. I read 19 books, all of at least 250 pages and a couple over 600.

As I’ve described before, the challenge proscribes a set of tasks for which you much read books to fulfill. Example:

20.5 Let Freedom Ring!
Multiple countries celebrate their independence during the months of July, August and September. Choose one book about a country’s struggle for independence or which is set during a revolution (Les Miserables, Madame Trousseau).

These challenges take place twice a year and they get me out of my reading rut, and to try new genres and topics. I read some non-fiction (e.g., arctic explorer Andree, astronomical measurement in the 18th century), old classics (The Grapes of Wrath, Tender is the Night), and I managed to fit my real-life book club books into a couple of tasks (Wolf Hall, The Dinner). These tasks also take me out of my comfort zone as they’re often not easy reads, and so once the challenge is over I’m back to going through my carefully curated to-read lists of things that I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy.

The same Goodreads group has a variety of monthly activities, one of which is “Short Stuff”. This month, they are reading and discussing the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and I’ve decided to read one story per day for the month. I managed to grab Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe from the library (in ebook format) so I can read these in bed before I go to sleep. I need to take Poe in short doses because I find the writing quite intense, requiring dictionary (regular and translation) lookups and the old “parse the sentence after reading it three times” exercise. I think it may get easier as I get used to his style.  So far, I’ve read Mezengerstein (Oct 1) and Loss of Breath (Oct 2).

While searching for an epistolary novel for one of the tasks last month, I came across e Squared by Matt Beaumont, a humorous tale that takes place in a new-age ad agency, told in a series of emails, texts, and blog posts. I didn’t have time to read it for the challenge but it arrived from the library a few days ago so I’m halfway through that. I’m currently listening to Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, a sort of fictionalized biography-mystery about, well, Gustave Flaubert’s parrot.

Later this month, I’ll be re-reading The Dinner by Herman Koch as it’s our October book club read. I saw the film based on the novel at TIFF 2013 and wanted to read the book prior to the screening. Sadly, my aging brain tends to forget what I read, so I’ll need to go through this one again. I’m also moderating the club meeting this month so I’ll be doing a little research about the author and the book.

What’s up next? Just loaded an audiobook of Nassim Taleb‘s  Anti-Fragile: Things that Gain from Disorder onto my iPhone after Alex recommended this author. Taleb is a controversial writer and academic in the area of statistics and risk management and takes a number of contrarian stances on standard statistical practice. I’ll also be getting back to clearing my bookshelves by reading and passing on from my collection.

So, what are you reading these days? I love comments. Click and post.

[Disclaimer: Links to books go to amazon.ca. I am an amazon affiliate and get a tiny commission (pennies) if you buy a book. No pressure. At all.]

TIFF – Opening Day

logo_tiff_top_largestTIFF opens today, and for the first time I’m entering the Festival with 8 vouchers out of the 30 tickets I purchased, which means I’ll be adding some films as I go out of those that are still on sale.

Today I’m picking up my tickets and hoping to make use of a few of the vouchers over the next few days.

I’m scheduled to see Blue is the Warmest Colour tonight, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes and panned by a number of columnists in the paper today. It’s a long one, coming in at just under 3 hours. Tomorrow evening, I looking forward to seeing the Jason Reitman live read of Boogie NIghts.

Films I’m hoping to pick up:

Friday: either Southcliffe, a four part series made for television in the UK, or Tim’s Veneer, a Penn & Teller doc looking into the methods of Vermeer.

Saturday: either Therese, an adaptation of the novel by Zola, or Ilo Ilo, the story of a Singaporean family during the Asian financial crisis.

On Sunday morning,  I’m seeing a members-only screening of Philomena, courtesty of TIFF. It stars Judi Dench as an Irish-Catholic woman who is looking for the child she was forced to give up. Later in the day I’m seeing September and Le Week-End.

I’m going stag for most of the Festival, so if you’ll be at a screening I’m at, let me know and we can meet up!

Finally, a special shout-out to Mike Rudolph, TIFF customer service, who assisted me when there were difficulties with the online ticket fulfillment process. He’s the son of a friend, and saw my pleas for assistance on the TIFF twitter feed. He gave me a call and did my ticketing over the phone.

Bookish Istanbul

Took a little break from blogging. On Friday, I spent a few hours with a friend, discussing our nascent business opportunity and touring the Alderwood/Mimico landscape of her childhood (and first novel.) On Saturday, Zouheir and I kinda lazed around, attempting to get over the jetlag and digestive disruption that are still present after our return from Istanbul. We also took a trip out to the consignment fabulousness that is The Singing Lady to look at a couple of round tables for our study.

Today, I spent most of the morning organizing my outstanding TIFF schedule, namely, queueing online for tickets to the Jason Reitman Live Reading of Boogie Nights, and preparing my list for placing my Daytime Ticket Package order tomorrow morning.

But back to Istanbul.

In most European cities where English is not the first language, you can get by with basic English and some hand-waving. I was a little surprised to find that, in Istanbul, very few service workers seemed to speak any English.  I ascertained from Turkish friends that students learn English in school, but typically not from particularly well-qualified teachers. So in was lovely to run across some English bookstores.

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At Galeri Kayseri, the charming young shopkeepers were excellent salesmen. One noted me browsing a series of mysteries set in Istanbul (Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Ikmen Mysteries) and quickly pulled out the first of the set, Belshazzar’s Daughter. The other fellow grabbed a copy of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, saying that I might enjoy a historical mystery. Finally, as I was at the cash, the first guy hands me a copy of Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga, exclaiming that customers had emailed them to rave about this autobiography. It had been blurbed by Harold Nicolson and Sir John Betjeman, so I kind of HAD to buy it. As I finally protested that I could not possibly buy a large coffee table book on Istanbul, he took my credit card and while it was processing, asked me “Are you a teacher?” I replied, “No, I just like to read.” He grinned back at me.

The other bookish outing was a trip to the Book Bazaar. Adjacent to the Grand Bazaar near the Beyazit metro station, vendors have new and used books, antique and reproduction prints, and other paper items.

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I picked up a novella by Orhan Pamuk (The White Castle) and a print that humoured me.

The one other bookish purchase I made was after the visit to the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans for more than 400 years up to the time of the move to Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856. In particular, I was rather intrigued by the harem (family living quarters) and picked up the exhibition catalogue which had been reduced from 100 TL to 25 TL ($13) at the museum shop.


In preparation for my trip, I picked up a couple of novels set in Turkey. Before we left, I read The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael Lukas. Set during the tenure of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (late 19th century), it’s the story of a young Jewish girl from Constantia (on the Black Sea in what is now Romania) who travels to Istanbul with her father and discovers that she has a special gift. A charming novel of magical realism, it served as an excellent introduction to the period.


I’m currently finishing up The Flea Palace by contemporary Turkish author Elif Shafak. Each chapter, some of the very short, are all titled with the flat number and names of a family living at the Bonbon Palace, a rather run-down apartment building in modern Istanbul. Their stories intertwine as they seek a solution to a common problem: people dumping garbage in their garden. We learn their stories, what has brought them to Istanbul and to their current circumstances. She is an important voice in modern Turkey and I will certainly read more of her oeuvre.

Seven Quick Takes Friday – High and Dry.

Seven Quick Takes Friday

  1. We were one of the lucky ones in Toronto this week: no water damage and no power outages. Didn’t even get affected by what I presume were rolling blackouts that hit my hair salon (and their tankless water heater) just as I arrived for my appointment. Luckily it was short and I didn’t need to have a cold-water shampoo. That being said, Zouheir had to walk down twenty floors to leave his building on Monday night as they had no power, and his commutes home were miserably long for a couple of days. But the humidity has broken and the city is drying out.
  2. My “nephew” Feras arrived from the LA last Saturday. I put nephew in quotation marks as he’s actually Zouheir’s first-cousin-once removed, but he calles us Amo and Tante as is the custom in the middle east (calling older family members uncle and aunt.) He’s originally from Syria, just finished high school there, and needs to learn English. Life in LA is pretty much constrained to arabic in his social circle so a summer in Toronto with a few weeks at a language school will be just the ticket to get him ready for college. Needless to say, the rain storm was somewhat alarming for him, but we assured him that this was atypical and he shouldn’t expect that kind of rain again during his stay. He’s heading up to the cottage with Alex and a passel of Alex’s friends this weekend, which should make for a grand introduction to the way young people in Canada spend their free time when there’s no internet. (I believe it may involve beer, barbecuing, and a hookah. And Alex just mentioned something about teaching Feras beer pong.)
    Feras and Zouheir whiling away some time during the big rainstorm.
    Feras and Zouheir whiling away some time during the big rainstorm.
  3. I am very excited about our upcoming trip to Istanbul in August. All signs are go for the voyage, and I’ve decided to craft a funky travel journal like this. I’ve picked up some fabric and have been collecting papers to incorporate into it. As soon as I finish up some framing projects, I’ll get started. (Pro-tip: scour thrift stores for ugly art in nice frames, make/buy new mats if necessary, and then frame the cheap but attractive art you buy when travelling. Have saved mucho dinero over buying new/pro framing.)
  4. Went to my first Fringe Festival performance yesterday, and it was fab. It was down at Theatre Passe Muraille Backstage, a one-man show called The Nature of a Bullet. Actor Nick Dipchand has been mentored by a friend of mine who encouraged me to see the show and she joined me there. Nick is a marvel, taking on a number of characters in his 50 minute performance. I’d met him a couple of times before and we had a little chat afterwards. If you’re in Toronto and don’t mind mature language, check it out.
    the_nature_of_a_bullet-250x251
    Nick Dipchand in The Nature of a Bullet.
  5. New books this week! For my birthday, my boys gave me a couple off my wish list: Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow by Anders Nilsen, a gorgeous story stitched together with emails, postcards, letters, etc., and My Canada Includes Foie Gras: A Culinary Life
    by Jacob Richler, all about his life experiences with Canadian food, starting out from his childhood at home with his father, Mordecai.
    In my ongoing fascination with the life and works of Dominick Dunne, my browsing at Value Village produced The Way We Lived
    Cover of "The Way We Lived Then : Recolle...
    Cover via Amazon

    Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper by Dunne, a gorgeous memoir containing many black and while photographs, mostly by the author. I also found a book of fashion photography and closeups of fabric designs from the 60s called Flower Power. It also came with a CD containing the designs. The clerk, thinking it was a magazine, charged me 99 cents. The fabric design pages will make great wrapping/book-making paper.

  6. It was in one of Dunne’s books that I first heard the term “walker” to designate younger men hired to accompany aging socialites around town, sort of a good-looking personal assistant/escort. In yesterday’s National Post column by Shinan Govani, he prints a help-wanted ad, purportedly placed by one Alison Eastwood (who looks too young to need one, but who am I to judge?). Check it out here.
  7. From my Facebook feed today. This dog has been trained to detect American foulbrood, some kind of disease that wipes out bees. I just love working dogs, and if you do too, go and read the whole piece here.
    bazz-beekeeper-dog
    Bazz the beekeeping dog.