Monday, December 10, 2012

Are you ready for Christmas?

Are you ready for Christmas?

I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked that question, and Christmas is still 15 days away. The question seems to have replaced the weather as the opening (sometimes only) topic of conversation.

My mind kept going back to this seasonal question as I watched the Sunday afternoon football games yesterday. I was stuck on trying to figure out why the question is so popular and dominant at this time of year.

The quick answer is obvious - a lot of time and energy is focused on preparing for the Christmas celebration.   But my ruminations went deeper.

Are people asking me if I've finished spending my money? Are they asking me if I've finished decorating everything? Have I wrapped everything? Have I written seasonally appropriate cards to everyone I know, especially the people that I only communicate with at Christmas time? Have all the family gatherings been planned down to the last details? Have I got all my Christmas music playlists prepared? Has all the Christmas baking been done?

My answer to the above questions is no!

Have I gotten into the Christmas spirit?

What do they mean by that?

Are they asking if I've immersed myself in the Advent season, a time of anticipation and preparation for the celebration of Christ's birth?

Not enough.

I wonder, how often are we asking superficial questions like how are you; are you ready for Christmas; or is it cold enough for you? Are we looking for more than a fluffy, no-substance response?

How often do I do that? Why do I do that?

Maybe I need to pay more attention to what I'm saying and asking.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Random Stuff

A Headscratcher:

  • I spent a fair bit of  time preparing a birthday gift for Heidi -  a poster-sized collage of photos from our recent photo-shoot. I prepared it carefully, including putting in a border so that none of the images got cut off by the inside edge of the frame. I took it to be printed and when I unrolled the poster at home I found that the photo place reduced the border to a sliver resulting in a couple of heads  missing their tops. I went back to my computer, opened the file and widened the border, checked to make sure it was precisely even and went back to let the photo shop try again. This time the poster was so poorly cut that the top border is about a third of the width of the bottom border and the side borders were cut at an angle so that the images lean to the right. How can the staff person that did the work be so sloppy that they are unable to set up a paper cutter to cut a right angle? Do I go back and let them try a third time?
A Surprise Bonus:
  • Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a seminar titled, Blogging for Business. When I first received the invitation to attend I wasn't sure the content would be anything I could use since I don't have a business nor do I plan to. I was pleasantly surprised. The seminar was very interesting, extremely well presented and offered many practical suggestions that I might use in the future. At the end of the day the presenter gave away two door prizes. I had not expected that. I was even more surprised when my name was drawn for one of the prizes - 2 tickets to the musical Rock of Ages. Looks like Heidi and I are going on a date again.
A Busy Weekend Ahead:
  • Heidi has taken 3 days off at the beginning of next week so it'll be an extra long weekend.
  • My daughter and son-in-law are moving on Saturday. My job is easy - I get to drive the moving truck they've rented and supervise the loading, trying to ensure that the space on the truck is maximized and the load is secure. My back and my lungs should be able to handle that. 
  • In the evening we've been invited to attend a choral concert by some dear friends we haven't connected with for far too long. We are looking forward to a wonderful evening.
  • Sunday morning we're off to church - a time that always blesses us with a great time with God,  challenges, inspiration, encouragement, and the opportunity to see the many friends we've found in that community.
  • Sunday afternoon and evening are family time. The boys are coming over to watch football and rest of the family will show up later for a dinner to celebrate Heidi's birthday. I still have to figure out what the menu will be. I look forward to seeing Heidi's reaction to her gift. It's already hanging on the wall above the dining room table but covered with a towel that she's not allowed to remove until the birthday cake comes out. (She's not allowed to read this blog either or she'll spoil her surprise). 
  • On Monday we're meeting Heidi's parents for lunch followed by an afternoon of playing cards. We haven't done that for several months now (which is much too long) and I'm looking forward to it. My in-laws are wonderful people and we always have an enjoyable visit over several hours of playing cards.
  • Tuesday morning we're meeting a friend from church for coffee. In the evening we have guests coming for dinner and a visit. 
  • After that the schedule is open - I think. I can't remember the last time I've had such a structured schedule in front of me. How will I cope with so much structure?

I have no regular schedule. I get up whenever I can. 
~~~ Jimmy Wales 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Big Secret

Two months ago I received a telephone call from one of my daughters.

"We're going to give Mama a new family photo as a birthday and Christmas gift. We've arranged to have pictures taken on November 17. It's to be a surprise. There's only one thing you need to do - take Mama shopping for a new dress."

Heidi  and I have been married for almost 11 1/2 years, and in that time we have never had photos taken of us and our family by a professional photographer. In fact, we haven't had a family picture taken in the past two years. Heidi has been telling me we should get a family picture taken again on more than one occasion in the past few months so a family photo-shoot was a very timely idea.

Getting Heidi to agree to spend a significant amount of money on clothes was going to be tricky..Heidi needs new clothes. She has lost more than 80 lbs since the beginning of February and her clothes are all much too big. She has been sitting at her sewing machine quite often, taking in her clothes so they didn't look like sacks on her. She is very reluctant to spend money on new clothes because she's still losing weight and as she says, her body is going to continue to change shape.

How I was going to get her cooperation in completing my assignment?  My solution? I picked a date (first weekend of November) and told her I was going to take her shopping to buy her a new dress as a birthday gift. (Her birthday is early in December). Heidi agreed - she even told our girls about it. I figured all was set.

Somewhere in there I also told Heidi that we were going out on November 17th and she shouldn't book anything else that day. Heidi wanted to know where we were going and I told her she'd find out on November 17.

I thought  the secret plans were safe but it didn't take long for the conspiracy to be in danger of being exposed. On the first weekend of October we, along with my son Neil and daughter Lora, went to my youngest brother's home to celebrate my nephew's 4th birthday. Afterward, we had all our kids to come to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. We gave Neil a ride and when we got out of the car Neil turned to me and said, "I thought we're getting pictures taken today?"

Heidi, who had gone ahead of us a bit overheard me shush Neil and asked, "What are you whispering about?"


Heidi persisted. "What's going on?"

I told her that I had to address something with Neil that she didn't need to concern herself about. The questions stopped but I knew Heidi' suspicions had been raised. When Heidi was out of earshot I told Neil that the family picture was supposed to be a surprise and reminded him of the correct date.

The day to go dress shopping came closer and Heidi repeatedly said she didn't need a new dress. Then on the day I had planned to take her shopping an urgent matter came up and the shopping never happened. Several days later we got a call from friends who invited us to their home on November 17. I had to remind Heidi that we already had plans for that day.

When I raised the subject of dress shopping again I got the same result. When my daughter called to give me the details of time and place I told her that Heidi was uncooperative as far as dress shopping was concerned.
Two days before the pictures were to be taken my daughter called back and suggested that the girls take Heidi out shopping.

When Heidi got home from work I told her the girls were taking her shopping the next evening, and it was not optional. A new dress was purchased, but now Heidi really began to raise questions. "Where are we going?"  "Are we getting a family picture done?" "Why are we getting dressed up to go out on a Saturday afternoon?" "Are we going to meet the kids somewhere?" "We must be getting pictures done - I thought I heard Neil say something about pictures." I was as evasive as I possibly could be, deflecting the questions as best I could be. Heidi had even tried worming the story out while on the shopping trip, but the secret stayed safe.

The surprise worked. Heidi had no idea what was happening until we walked around the corner of a building  at the University of Manitoba and she saw the kids. The secret was revealed!

We had a wonderful, fun afternoon with the kids and we got some great pictures!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Value of Memories

Time and memory are true artists; 
they remould reality nearer to the heart's desire.
~~~ John Dewey

Memories; stories about remembered times, people, places, and events have a prominent place in the material I'm collecting and organizing as I prepare to write my family history. But how much weight do I give to these remembered stories as accurate information. This is an important question for me.

Am I writing a history book - accurately documented and thoroughly researched, or am I writing a collection of family memories - memories shaped by personal interpretations and perceptions? 

My inclination at this point is to write a collection of family stories, stories I heard from my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, liberally sprinkled with references to recorded historical events that intersect with these family stories.

I've had to come to grips with this because I did some research on a story my mother told me and the information I found was different (in some minor details) than what my mother had related to me. 

It is no secret that our memories are not the most reliable source of information. Our law enforcement and justice systems cope with inconsistent and conflicting eye-witness accounts every day. Years ago I witnessed a traffic accident and gave my contact information to the driver that had been hit by another vehicle running a red light. Several years later I got a telephone call asking for my testimony. My initial response placed the responsibility for the accident on the wrong driver. It wasn't until I simply related what I remember seeing without identifying make, model, and colour of the vehicles that my information was of any use.

My former wife had a great-uncle (Dietriech Toews) who had been a translator with the intelligence branch of the Canadian Armed Forces in the Second World War. One of his friends had been at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp after it had been liberated and he sent Dietrich some pictures of what was found at the Camp. Dietrich shared the story to friends when he got home, including showing the pictures, but his story was dismissed as incorrect - a fraudulent effort using manufactured photos and documents to demonize the German people. Dietrich hid the pictures away and never said a word about it for many years. My former mother-in-law told me that Dietrich had these pictures so on my next visit to him I began asking questions. Dietrich opened up and told me the story. Several years later I overheard my former mother-in-law telling the story but she placed Dietrich at Bergen-Belsen. I interjected and corrected the story, but it was a reminder to me of how quickly and easily memories can distort facts. 

Given this reality, I know that I will write the family stories including acknowledging the quirkiness of memory. Memories are coloured by our perceptions, beliefs, personal values, and the decay of time. We no longer have the strong oral tradition that was present many centuries ago but that does not diminish the value of these memories.

These imperfect memories still allow us to paint a picture of what things were like, what the people were like, and how we have been shaped by the heritage and legacies passed down to us by our ancestors.

The reality of life is that your perceptions 
-- right or wrong -- influence everything else you do. 
When you get a proper perspective of your perceptions, 
you may be surprised how many other things fall into place. 
 - Roger Birkman 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Strange; The Things We Remember

The sorting of files, examination of photos, documents, and stories continues.

I have come across a few interesting and confusing details that have captured my attention and curiosity. I noticed that my aunt's Ahnenpaβ  had  two entries of the same couple 6 generations removed from me. My initial reaction was that my aunt had made a mistake. Then I checked the family tree documents that my father's cousin, Willi Janβen, had put together. Willi had collected more details than my aunt but his records showed the same information as my aunt's. I decided to go with the assumption that this information was correct.

After a rather cursory review, I thought this couple (Nikolaus Janzen and ? Schmidt) showed up in both of my paternal grandparents' ancestral lines. I was wrong. Upon closer examination I realized that this couple showed up twice in my paternal grandmother's ancestors. Furthermore, this couple's son, Johann Janzen and his wife Catharina (nee Lammert) also showed up twice (5 generations removed from me). Two of Johann and Catharina's grandchildren married and these two were my paternal grandmother's parents. I'm a little surprised that the marriage of first cousins was condoned in what I had always assumed was a religiously strict Mennonite community.

Confused? So am I. I'm still wondering if I've got this correctly sorted.

As I organized these details of my father's line in my head and on paper, I remembered a story my mother had told me about some of her mother's family that also involved the marriage of first cousins. It seems my maternal grandmother had an uncle who had married his first cousin. This was a family where there had been a multi-generational history of  inbreeding (an effort to keep the family estate from passing outside the family). One of this uncle's granddaughters named Grete Meemken spent much of her life in a psychiatric institution.

Related to this, I have a vague recollection of a comment my grandfather made when my sister and I were in Germany  in 1969. My grandfather and a great-uncle were touring us around the area my mother's family comes from, stopping in various villages and towns and introducing us to relatives and friends of my grandparents. (It actually felt like we were being displayed to all these people - strangers to my sister and me.) Late in the day, my grandfather pointed to house in a village we were passing through and said something to the effect of, " We have relatives that live in that house but we don't go there. They have a crazy person in their back room." I didn't remember this incident until years later when I personally had to deal with the stigma of having a mental illness.

In the chats I've had with my mother about our family history she's often remarked, "Komisch, was man an sich errinert" (strange; the things one remembers).

I regard memory not as a phenomenon preserving one thing 
and losing another merely by chance, but as a power 
that deliberately places events in order or wisely omits them. 
Everything we forget about our own lives 
was really condemned to oblivion by an inner instinct long ago.
~~~ STEFAN ZWEIG, The World of Yesterday

Friday, November 16, 2012

Anxiety and Panic Clean-up

I can't seem to get past the residue of so many years of living with a mental illness.

As I continue to work on my family history project, in particular wading through 100 years of photographs, I've become increasingly aware of how quickly my computer and external storage devices are filling up with scans of photos and documents. I decided it was time to sift through my files and organize them better as well as deleting stuff I no longer need or want.

In addition to the memory on the hard disk of my computer I also have 3 external storage devices and at least 6 flash drives. Looking through all these devices I found an incredible, poorly organized mess and a daunting number of duplicate files. These are the result of the years of anxiety and OCD tendencies I lived with. Since the change in my diagnosis to Bi-Polar disorder and accompanying change in medications the anxiety has been greatly reduced to a level where I hardly notice it.

Now I have to clean up years of backing up files and backing up backups which then also got backed up. (Electronic hoarding?) Over the years I've scanned a lot of photos; a lot of them for two PowerPoint shows - one for my parents' Golden Wedding Anniversary nine years ago and another for my mom's 80th birthday two years ago. The PowerPoint shows each had hundreds of slides (1 photo per slide) - the first one had just under 400 photos and the second had around 600 photos.

My anxiety about losing data files resulted in up to 4 or 5 duplications of these files, often in 2 or 3 different image sizes. I would scan the images at high resolutions so I had the flexibility to do whatever I wanted with them and then I would save smaller versions for specific purposes.

Now I'm finding hundreds of these photos in huge data files; mostly in a format that uses a ridiculous amount of space on the computer drives. Going through these files, eliminating duplication while insuring I keep one smaller, more workable copy of each is a task that is going to take me several days, if not more.

My biggest challenge is not giving in to the old messages that I need to make sure I have a least one backup copy of each file, and then ending up with multiple copies again.

I wonder how many GB of storage space I'll free up in this exercise.

“All living things contain a measure of madness 
that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways.”
― Yann Martel, Life of Pi


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fun with Photos

Working with old photos is fun, at least for me.

But it does come with some challenges.

Some of the photos are bent and torn; some are stained and discoloured; on some the images have faded so badly that the original shades can only be guessed at and even content can be hard to make out. Sometimes the colours on the old photopaper run and puddle into uneven patches leaving images covered with dark spots and blotches. I have found many photos that were printed so small they almost resemble postage stamps. The images are often not square; some of them have writing on their backs that has begun to leak through the image on the front. Occasionally the photos have been mounted on cardboard or glued into albums where the glue or chemicals damage the pictures, and having to scan pictures in heavy, bulky albums can be troublesome too.

I'm glad I have Photoshop.

Using Photoshop, I have been able to scan the small photos at a very high resolution thereby allowing me to enlarge them to a size where I can identify details of the subject without pixelating the image. I've been pleasantly surprised by some of the useful and enlightening images I have found this way.

Photoshop also allows me to restore the damaged and faded images.

Below is a before and after of a picture taken of my maternal grandmother in 1919 when she was 13 years old. The picture was mounted on stiff cardboard and was only lightly damaged; a little faded, some scratches and other little defects, and the edges were not even and square.

Using the magic of Photoshop and several hours of time I now have a photo that, while not perfect, is certainly a much improved portrait of my teenaged grandmother.

Today, I found a very faded picture in another album; an album that I put together of photos that I had collected and scavenged when I was in Germany in 1984. I have no idea who the woman in the photo is, but I'm hoping that my mother might be able to recognize the person;  if not I'll paste the image into a letter and send it to my aunt (my father's youngest sister). Maybe she can identify this mystery person.

But first of all, I have do do some restoration work. It'll be a much bigger challenge than the above photo.

Check it out; it's small, discoloured, and when I enlarged it I found it to be very spotted and blotchy.

This will keep me busy for a while.

“So-called art restoration is at least as tricky as brain surgery. 
Most pictures expire under scalpel and sponge.”
~~~ Alexander Eliot

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Look what I found!

Researching my family history - digging through documents, paging through old photo albums, surfing the 'Net, and recording my mother's stories is a long, sometimes tedious process. But it has its rewards.

I have found new information, clarified and expanded old stories, found photos that I knew existed somewhere but hadn't seen in many years, and have learned details related to many photos that I was unaware of prior to beginning this process.

Some of the information describes circumstances and activities that my children and I only know of through museum displays and history books. It describes a way of living that we can no longer relate to; and yet it was lived by my parents.

My mother has photos of every house that she lived in except for where she was born. Her father was moved around many times because of his work, which took his family from East Frisia to Upper Silesia to Bohemia, back to Upper Silesia then to Austria and then back to East Frisia. They lived in 3 different houses in one village in East Frisia. As I scanned these photos my mother would reminisce, relating details faster than I could record them. (I've now taken my mom's photo album to my desk where I'm scanning the photos I want and when I'm done I'll go back to her  and get the related stories).

The other day I was sitting at her dining room table, scanning more photos when I came across a picture of my sister and I playing a duet at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in 1965. We were playing at an annual recital of music students from the music school where we were taking violin lessons. My sister was 9 and I was 11 at the time. It was the first public performance for either of us - one of countless more. I never knew this picture existed until I saw it in my paternal grandmother's photo album when I was in Hanover, Germany in 1984. Apparently the only two copies of this photo were sent to each set of my grandparents in Germany. Now I found it in an album my maternal grandmother had put together for my mother.

After scanning the photo I emailed it to my sister, but when I talked to her about it several days later I had to explain to her when and where the photo was taken, and an unforgettable (for me) incident at the recital.

The Music School had invited the very young band The Guess Who to appear as guest performers, which enraged my extremely anti-rock n' roll father. He went storming backstage and had he found my sister and me, he would have pulled us out of there before we even had a chance to play. At our next violin lesson my dad pulled us out of that music school and signed us up with a different violin teacher. (When I think about it now, the whole thing was so ridiculous that I can only shake my head and laugh. At the time is was embarrassing.)

My sister usually remembers more people, details and events than I do so I was surprised she didn't remember anything of this event. Interesting what we remember and what we forget.

I like to put together photo collages so I sifted through my image files and found 2 other pictures; 1 of me playing at a friend's wedding in 1977 and a fragment of a picture of me playing at a family Christmas gathering in 1991. We always sang a lot when we got together as a family and here we were singing Christmas carols. My son was about 13 months old at the time and he climbed up onto my lap and sat there while I played. He did that whenever I played my violin or viola. When I played in the worship band at church he would toddle up to the front of the gathering, climb on my lap, put his hand on the bow, and quietly sit there while the music went on. I enjoyed this activity with my son and only stopped doing it when he decided he wanted to operate the bow himself.

 I wonder what other memorable gems I'll find as I dig through these old family photos.

Of all of our inventions for mass communication, 
pictures still speak the most universally understood language.
~~~ Walt Disney

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ahnenpaβ II

"What's the point of studying history?"

Many people I went to school with had absolutely no use for it. They thought it was a boring, tedious subject that had no practical application. Even today I encounter people who find it boring and useless.

I have always found history to be fascinating; no need for a practical application. Perhaps it stemmed from when I was a child and my mother spent many hours going through family photo albums, telling me about the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins pictured there who lived an ocean away from us. Or maybe I was just interested and entertained by the stories; stories that ignited my imagination.

When I did my apprenticeship as a piano technician, I found a book about pianos that included the history (including the technical & structural development) of the instrument. As I read the book I realized the connection between the advancements of technology and the evolution of musical forms and instruments. I discovered the complexity of history - it was far more than entertaining stories. History is the weaving together of the threads of culture, politics, power, technology, the arts, religion, social constructs and more culminating in a tapestry that continues to grow.
The description of how the story of the piano fit into the larger historical picture gave me more than the details  of "how";  it painted an illuminating picture of "why".

Working through my collection of family documents, photos, and anecdotal stories is adding a new dimension of understanding and awareness of historical events that whirled around my family and how those events shaped a lot of who I am today.

The study of history, the complex interaction of political, religious, social, technical and scientific developments has been a very interesting intellectual exercise for me. But I was personally detached from these stories.

Reading through my aunt's Ahnenpaβ has added an increased awareness, perception and understanding of how world events (from local to global) impacted on my parents and grandparents lives. Those impacts also shaped me and I imagine they have been part of the moulding of my children.

What new revelations will I find as I continue to research these stories?

The intrigue and anticipation keeps my interest from flagging but the growing body of information is making my task of writing increasingly daunting.

I have some ideas of how to manage that; I'll see how it all works out.

We have more information now than we can use, 
and less knowledge and understanding than we need. 
Indeed, we seem to collect information because we have the ability 
to do so, but we are so busy collecting it 
that we haven't devised a means of using it. 
 ~~~ Warren G. Benni)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing?

It's Autumn. Winter is approaching. With that comes shorter days and less daylight - not a good thing for someone like myself that lives with a mood disorder. On top of that it seems like the weather has been wet, dark and dreary for too many days to suit me. Sunshine helps the mood. Gloomy dark cloudy days do not!

We own a lamp to address that  issue. I can give myself my own light therapy treatment. Yesterday I had the lamp sitting on a table beside my desk and I had it on while I worked at the computer. Four hours of full spectrum light!

Did I ever get energized.

When Heidi got home she commented on my exuberant mood, speeding thoughts, and rapid speech. Apparently I overdosed on light. Seems I should only use it for 20 to 30 minutes a day.

That is unfortunate. The extra light gave me energy to offset the exhaustion I'm experiencing due to the lack of sleep thanks to the bronchitis/asthma thing I have going on. I was more productive yesterday than I had been in a long time. I was able to stay focussed as I continued to work on the Ahnenpaβ.

I wonder if I can get away with a whole hour of light therapy. Maybe 2?

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.” 
~~~ Mae West

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


The coughing and hacking continues. It had eased up a fair bit and a week ago I went to the gym and worked out for an hour. Since then the coughing has gotten progressively worse again.

Asthma? Bronchitis?

I don't know. At this point I don't think the doctors have figured it out either. So I continue to hack and cough, lose sleep, and get increasingly tired and frustrated. I'm going to ask my doc to refer me to a lung specialist when I see him next.

In the meantime, I continue to work through the stack of family history documents that I have. It's slow going because I find myself going down side trails, researching the backgrounds and significance of various papers, circumstances, and situations that I find while scanning the documents and photos into my computer.

Over the past several months I have predominantly been working on a document (it's actually a booklet) that had belonged to one of my aunts. It's called an Ahnenpaβ. 

Ahnenpaβ literally translates as Ancestral Passport and it was an official genealogical record to be researched and recorded by individuals in Nazi Germany. I went on-line to see if I could learn more about it and found a variety of these booklets in different formats and covers. The booklet covers varied in colour, construction and Font and Images. All the material I found on-line described the Ahnenpaβ as a 48 page booklet. My aunt`s Ahnenpaβ has 80 pages. More on the purpose and content in a future blog post.

Because of the age of the document the colour of the cover has faded and the pages have yellowed. The handwritten entries and the seals stamped on the various pages have also faded. I`ve been using Photoshopto revive the faded colour and sharpness as much as possible. As well as improving the appearance of the booklet, the Photoshopping results t help me to read the contents of the booklet.

Booklet Cover

Title Page

 First Page of Genealogical Record

 This packrat has learned that what the next generation will 
value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were 
and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it's the family stories 
that are worth the storage.
~ Ellen Goodman,
The Boston Globe