On my 53rd birthday

On my 53rd birthday, I stood at a makeshift memorial of flowers and candles at the edge of the plaza outside my neighborhood library, thinking. Then I was interrupted.

“Was it a n-gg-r?” the older man in the captain’s hat asked me. I should have answered that question with a strong remark about how inappropriate, sadly backward, and racist it was. I didn’t. I tried to ignore the man as he tried a different tack. “They should have better security around the library,” he went on. “Too many crazy folks around here and not enough resources to handle situations.” I agreed with him on that. Then he continued with, “It’s breast milk, you know! Humans are not meant to drink it for too long. Wean kids at 5-6 months, or else they get violent when they’re older”. At that point, I shifted away from the scene.

It was a crime scene less than 48 hours previously. Last Saturday afternoon, in my small suburban village of North Vancouver, a relatively quiet family-centered community 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver, nestled in a beautiful tree-lined valley of the Coast Mountains, a homeless man had apparently gone berserk, taken out a large knife, and gone on a 15 minute rampage of slashing and killing. He started at an annex of our library where a book sale was being held. A young woman there was the first victim. Taken completely by surprise, with no chance of defending herself, she died of her injuries shortly thereafter, right at the scene. An alert bystander at the book sale, a local teacher, chased him off with her umbrella (very Vancouver), but was also stabbed in the process. He tore away and went on to slash five more hapless bystanders outside of the book sale and plaza area before being captured by police at an intersection just two blocks from my home.

My home. I live with my wife and teenage soon in a townhouse just down the road where all this happened. I was out hiking for the afternoon, but they heard the sirens; siren after siren, in fact, starting around 1.45 in the afternoon. We live by a firehall so we are used to sirens–but not twenty in the span of twenty minutes. Townhomes and apartments are getting smaller and smaller in Vancouver, so we rely on nearby parks, community centers, libraries, and local shops as extensions of our homes. Our library and its neighboring coffee shop is one of these extensions. They are the defacto library and front parlor of our home, albeit home extensions that exist three blocks down the street. On TV that Saturday evening, we saw all these familiar locations swarming with police and strewn in yellow tape; the umbrella-wielding teacher being treated for her wounds in an outside chair of our coffee shop, at a table where we ourselves would often be sitting on a Saturday afternoon at 1.45 pm. Our home.

That Saturday, I decided to go hiking in the afternoon. My wife delayed her shopping for some reason. And Covid-19 has changed our routines as well. We mostly go out for coffee only if the weather is relatively good and we can sit outside. The weather that day was rainy.

We learned on Monday, my birthday, the “Was it a n-gg-r?” day, that the assailant was a young black man running from outstanding warrants in other parts of Canada. In a picture of him in better times, he looked like a really nice guy. He has a great, friendly smile. He looks like someone you might strike up a conversation with at a coffee shop or at a book sale at your local library. What happened that Saturday to trigger him to take a knife to a book sale?

Our library, left to serve an unstated need of the community, accommodates a few homeless people during the day. There is a very nice, quiet black man who very conscientiously stays out of the way of patrons. He never spends too much time at any one PC workstation terminal or desk, but moves from place to place, reading and studying. When descriptions of the assailant were first announced, I was worried it might be him. It wasn’t. There are others too. One day about two years ago, a rough looking young man with all his belongings around him was slumped over an outside table at the coffee shop. A few folks checked on him, including me. Even before Covid-19 the times were tough. Many homeless people in BC and Canada migrate to Vancouver because the climate is warmer, a benefit when you need to sleep outside. Unfortunately, there is another terrible problem around Vancouver in the form of another pandemic: the Opioid drug crisis. So many people have died from that illness, and some of them are homeless too, or find themselves struggling with life and their place within it, but our governments seem to do very little about that, especially now when they have a bigger pandemic in the spotlight.

The outpouring of support shown by the kind words for the victims and the fellowship of our community is quite a sight to behold. But we are hurting. In a sense, we’ve all been hurting for some time, like so many communities everywhere. People have been hit by a lot in the last several years: an economic crisis brought on by big banks that are too greedy to fail, a US presidency based on self-serving conspiracy theories used for personal gain, a worldwide pandemic in which science takes a back-seat to politics in similar fashion to the climate crisis we have now left slowly simmering on the backburner. Overall, I think we as a society have a sense that things are finally out of control. Our leaders don’t have the answers, and we cannot even agree on a shared reality anymore: Trump couldn’t have lost the election because he had the most votes of any Republican candidate in history; climate change isn’t real because it was colder than usual in my locale last winter; Covid-19 is just an excuse for world government to roll out its plan to control us all.

We are all confused and feel overtaken by local events interlinked with an ever-shifting roadmap of the global. I would imagine a black man with outstanding warrants from Quebec and Manitoba, living on the streets of Vancouver during a pandemic would be confused and scared too. I don’t agree with how he handled his confusion and fear, but I try to retain a sense of empathy. I’ve heard some remarks around our community about taking a baseball bat to the assailant. I shudder to hear such statements when these sorts of things happen. It seems sadly that the ancient, innate human programming to seek revenge comes to the fore in a crisis of loss. How I wish we could evolve from that behavior. We are never going to solve the problems that we face with anger, hatred and name-calling and making up lies. These are just the easy answers, simplistic reactions to unsettling fear and confusion.

“Was it a n-gg-r?” the words still roll around my head. I’m rattled and angered by an old man wearing a captain’s hat, but I guess he is pretty confused too. And scared. And lost. Just like me, who was too afraid to engage him in a real conversation to tell him that no one deserves to be called that and it does nothing to improve things. How I wish our human society can learn to live like a real community. How I wish we could use empathy and communicate with each other to understand our problems, a first step in solving them. When we rally from a terrible event, can we really grow and change? Can we evolve as a society? What if we don’t?

On my 53rd birthday, I stood at a makeshift memorial of flowers and candles at the edge of the plaza outside my neighborhood library, thinking.

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Unknown Connections

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve had difficulty in keeping up with this blog over the last couple of years, is that one of its underlying purposes has now been fulfilled. In my explorations of my family history, especially the Dutch Jewish family history, I have learned a lot about my past, and how much of this sad and troubled past affected my mother and, in turn, me. Also, something quite interesting happened a little over a year ago. Something happier, and in a sense, almost miraculous. A long-distant part of the Schaap family, which I didn’t even know existed, reached out to me after having read this blog. I had always hoped the blog might reach our lost relations in some way; however, I had expected a Dutch connection to the grandsons of my great-grandfather Emanuel Elias Schaap, the two boys of my mom’s Uncle Maurits (or Oom Mau), to find me. Instead, I was found by a Brit named Graham Sharpe, and his connection went a bit further back.

As I became more interested in genealogy a few years ago, I went onto Ancestry like everyone else and built a fairly substantial family tree. The tricky thing I find with Ancestry is that everyone and his dog treats genealogical research by typing names in the search and comes up with some hits that they often don’t look at very carefully. They then proceed in documenting all sorts of weird things into their trees that don’t make sense. I’ve been guilty of it to some extent myself. It is easy to acquire a long lost relation who upon further investigation was born 10 years after the birth of her youngest son and 60 years previous to her daughter’s!

In the winter of 2018-19, I started noticing an elder brother of my great-grandfather Emanuel Elias, one Levi Elias Schaap, flickering tantalizing here in there on various trees. But I found it confusing as I followed his trail to Leeds, England, where after a generation or two it seemed to flicker out. My Oma and mom had never mentioned any English Schaaps. The only English relations that I knew of were my father’s family. I imagined that this Levi must of tried his luck in England and either come back to Nederland or met some untimely end. Perhaps he wasn’t even Emanuel’s brother, given the reliability of some of the content on Ancestry, but some other Schaap.

A month or so later, I was thrilled to read a comment from the above-mentioned Graham on one of my blog posts about the demise of Emanuel’s widow Vrouwtje, Amsterdam Portuguese Synagogue.

I’ve spent the last hour reading your blogs. I don’t know the best way of contacting you, so i hope this is ok. My great grandfather was Levi Elias Schaap, elder brother of your great grandfather, Emanuel Elias Schaap. Levi Elias came to England from Holland in the 1860s and changed his name to Louis Edward. He died in 1897. In the first world war my grandfather changed the family surname to Sharpe, as German sounding names weren’t a good idea.

Goodness gracious me! Levi Elias was real, and I simultaneously had an explanation of why these English Schaaps disappeared after a generation or so, due to their name change! If you pronounce Schaap correctly in Dutch, but think of a British accent, you get something that sounds very Sharp (or Sharpe).

Graham and I have kept in contact over the months, and we do think of each other as long-lost family! We’ve learned a lot about each other’s stories. More of his family has since contacted me to help with their genealogical research. Graham’s father had tried to research the (to-them lost) branch of the Dutch Schaaps. He had written the Nijmegen City Archives in the late 1980s hoping to find information about the Schaap family but been somewhat rebuffed…

Dear Mr. Sharpe,

In response to your letter we can inform you that we have been able to trace some of your Dutch relatives until the Second World War. The cause that we have stopped our investigations at that date is due to a rather sensitive circumstance in post-war Holland. Your relatives were Jews.

The good folks at Nijmegen pointed out that the most family members were likely victims or that they may be wishing to remain anonymous and private due to the “rather sensitive circumstance in post-war Holland.” They did provide a list of Emanuel’s children, however, including my grandmother, who the very year Graham’s family started their Dutch investigation. Upon reflection, even if my grandmother was contacted about this, I doubt she would have responded. She wouldn’t even talk to us, her grandchildren, about our Jewish “relatives”.

And yet Graham slowly pursued what he could, and was disappointed to find that Emanuel had died in 1916, his daughters had emigrated to Indonesia or were silent, and his son and other relations had indeed died in the Holocaust. Until Graham found my blog, of course.

One of the amazing things that came to light for me was one of Graham’s family myths. After Louis Edward died in Leeds in 1897, he sent his younger son Sydney back to Nijmegen to live with his little brother! Sydney returned with the story of living in a house of an impressively uniformed Station Master and Agent of the Dutch Railway. Unfortunately he seemed to have had no photos of the family, and the story fell into family legend, so Graham was pretty “chuffed” to come across my posts of Emanuel Elias and even a picture of him in fully uniformed glory.

After some further research, I have come across a real find (On Ancestry of all places!) that truly links our two stories together. I have an image of the Nijmegen street registry for the house where Emanuel Elias Schaap lived with his family from 1893 through to 1910. Now this is not like a typical census, which gives you a snapshot of who lived in a place on a certain specific day in history. No. This registry let’s you know who lived in that residence for any appreciable length of time over the entire span of the tenant’s residency there! And in this registry is recorded the presence of one Sydney Emile Schaap from October 1897 to March 1900!

Click to open in new tab
The registry entry for EE Schaap’s home address ca. 1900

Interestingly Sydney’s name appears directly below my grandmother’s, Klara, and he must have been living with the family at the time she was a newborn in 1899! (You may need to click on the above image and open it in a new tab to see it better.)

In yet another weird coincidence, I realized after looking up the street address in Google Maps that my family and I had walked right by that address when we were last in Nijmegen in 2018! We had heard of the Balthazaar Cat Cafe, and being huge feline fans, thought it would be a great stop for an afternoon coffee, and it was!

Little did we know at the time, that my great-grandfather’s address was a mere few doors down on the same side of the street as the cafe, at the corner. And little did we know that Graham would contact us 6 months later, unveiling a connection that had been hidden for decades! And little did we know that we had more British relatives than we could guess.

Here’s to uncovering unknown connections!

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New Reflections

When I was a student at the University of British Columbia in the late 1980s, springtime came as a blessing and a curse. It was a hard time of year as final exams were upon us and then the search for a summer job. The weather turned warmer and brighter in April, after the long dull, rainy dreariness of winter, and those of us in engineering were jealous of the arts students who would write just a couple of finals and then spend the days lounging in the sun and playing ball, while we studied to the bitter end. Our exams were always sadistically arranged so that we had two or three the first week, one the week after, and then nothing the third week, and then one last exam at the very end of the month exam period.

Trying to study while the spring blossoms lay heavy on every branch, and the flower buds are exploding in vivid, lush color all around you in synch with your roomates’ new romances, was indeed a tough slog. I lived on campus, so after breakfast and before buckling down for a day of tedious study of second-order partial differential equations, microwave telecommunications, or some such madness, I would walk over to a rose garden that looked out over the sea.

UBC is picturesquely located on the Point Grey peninsula of Vancouver, which juts out into the Strait of Georgia that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland, and this rose garden faced to the northwest across the opening of English Bay towards Bowen Island, a small suburban gulf-island a short ferry ride away from Vancouver. Looming behind was the coastal Tantalus Mountain range, their peaks still wearing their snowy caps in the spring sunshine.

Beautiful footage depicting the scene much as I saw it 30 years ago, by Veetravels of Youtube

And there I would sit on a bench looking out at this magnificent view, with the spring roses just start to come on in the garden just below me and swallows darting and dancing like playful lovers above me. It was a quiet time, since regular classes were over and exams were winding down for the term. I had time to think and get focused for the day. It was also somewhat calming, which was good for the stress of exams. On a non-exam day, I may also have let my mind wander to my future, wondering what it might hold….

Recently, I have started a similar habit on weekday mornings, in which I find myself temporarily unemployed, as the company I work for has put us on furlough for a short period during the Covid Crisis. I have tried to take better care of my health during this time (amongst other things) and have been going on short bike rides to a nearby park. The park has a view from a bench, a view which is different yet somewhat reminiscent of the UBC rose garden of 30 years ago.

Perhaps because of the time of year and the context of a morning routine, but sitting out on these mornings and feeling the world wake up around me, seems eerily similar to those days when I had so much ahead of me. It must have something to do with the calm of a bright spring morning, which seems full of promise and potential. It probably has something to do with pondering my future. As I did in engineering school, wondering about career opportunities and life goals, I again find myself wondering about what my future holds, on what seems like the dawn of a new era.

Ray Perrault Park in North Vancouver, looking towards downtown

My employer, once a large, proud Fortune 500 company, is a mere shell of its former self, and perhaps on the brink of extinction. Every year I become more certain that it will be my last there, and yet, a year later I am still there somehow. Many times I have thought to leave, but perhaps comfort and familiarity, not to mention the fantastic quality of the people I work with, keeps me there.

Nonetheless, with the world’s economic situation threatened now by a worldwide health pandemic, it is hard to see the road ahead…What should I do next, simply find another job as a technical writer and instructional designer? That would probably work to keep myself out of the fire, but I worry that I’ll just end up in a slightly different frying pan, perhaps with contents that are not so tasty.

I must admit to fantasies of becoming a popular writer, but how do I get there from here? The last year has shown that I cannot even sustain a blog with monthly post while working full time, let alone ramp up my efforts to something larger. And everyone knows that writers always earn more than enough money to pay all the bills, right?! Haha.

I have, however, promised myself to rededicate myself to writing at least this blog once again. I’ve forgotten how therapeutic it can be.

With my interests in family history and technical expertise in document scanning, archiving, and Photoshop, I’ve also been exploring the possibility of starting a small home business in my spare time. I would help families sort, scan and archive their photos and documents. Perhaps if modestly successful, it could become something larger in my retirement, which I hope to achieve in ten years.

Ten years! When I was 21 and sitting in that rose garden, ten years seemed like a lifetime. Ten years would take me back into the mists of time to the mythology of my childhood, in which everything was possible for the golden-haired boy growing up in a sunny lakeside town in quiet middle-class North America of the bygone 1970s. Has anyone else noticed how much more innocent and simple life even in the 1970s now seems? At age 21, ten years forward would take me, at least in my imagination, to a successful, yet still young engineer buying his first home and starting a family. I always imagined engineers to have successful financial futures, but I did not know how much the world would change in the thirty years since then. I also did not know how much I would change in those thirty years. In fact, I quickly realized in the non-imaginary ten years after graduating that a typical engineering career and the life I thought I wanted to live, actually wasn’t…

Again, I seem to come to the conclusion that life is full of surprises and changes. I had naive thoughts of how the world worked back when I was young. I was always certain that hard work and honesty and persistence always brings you to success. I found that this is somewhat true, but you need to be careful what you think of as your definition of success, that what you think at age 21 is not necessarily what you think or believe at 31, 41, or 51.

It is indeed hard in such times as these to know what comes next in one’s life journey. However, upon this time of reflection, I can look at the good things that I’ve experienced so far in life. I have never gone hungry or not had some sort of work or school to occupy my mind. I have learned many things and been to many interesting places. I have had good friends, and I have a loving family that I’ve had extra time to cherish of late.

Who among us knows exactly what will come next? Do we ever really know? The world has shown us lately that what we think is fixed in stone, patterns and routines that are etched in time itself, can change in the blink of an eye. Things can and do change. Therefore, I am thankful for at least having the luxury to reflect and think about the question. And to dream. It’s important.

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