Friday, July 22, 2005

Puppy love

Since well before our old dog died we'd been talking about getting a puppy or young dog. After Stikine died the search had become more urgent. I feel so much more comfortable with a watchdog to warn us of wildlife intrusions -- bears and cougars especially concern me. The kids had been asking for a good two years for a puppy. The kitchen renovation and impending music summer school / Suzuki institute weeks made the timing less than ideal, but last week at the local open-air market a puppy fairly fell in our laps.

She's a golden retriever / akita / rottweiler / shepherd / collie mutt with a mother who is locally acknowledged to be an absolutely wonderful dog. We picked her out of the litter, reserved her, and spent a very long and at time impatient week waiting to pick her up. Yesterday she came home with us. She seems like another pea in the pod already. The kids took her to the market today while they were busking with their violins (proceeds: just $36.96 -- but it was looking like rain, so things weren't terribly busy) and she just lay there quietly and patiently listening, looking too cute for words. She was so much just like the kids I couldn't help but take note of the similar temperment -- and a few other people commented as well.
Good thing the rest of the carpet in the kitchen area is coming out in a couple of days as part of the renovation. Puppyish deposits join the years of various 'droppings'.
The new floor will be cork with a robust polyurethane coating. The kitchen is nearing completion. Functionally it's about 90% there. Flooring, new countertops and backsplash will take another couple of weeks. Or more, realistically speaking.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Harry Potter Day

Of course we made the trek to a bookstore for the new Harry Potter on release day. It was a good day for a trip to Nelson for grocery shopping, so we did that. I stalwartly resisted the lure of loss-leader Harry-Potter-racks at the big box stores and headed towards the independent bookstore in Winlaw and spent almost 50% more to support one of my favourite small businesses.

Erin read the entire book between 12:30 pm and 8:30 pm, with breaks for meals and to allow the rest of us an hour or so for a couple of chapters as a readaloud. She's listening to the readaloud too.

About six months ago, Erin began reading aloud to herself. She does this only in private, in a very disciplined way. After years of speed-of-light voracious reading, she's discovered that reading aloud slows her down, allows her to appreciate the writers' turns of phrases, increases her comprehension. So every night before Sophie comes to bed, Erin reads aloud to herself in her bedroom. She's read the Philip Pullman "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the J.R.R. Tolkein "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the five earlier Harry Potter books this way and is now starting in on Tove Jansson's "Moomintroll" books.

A year or so ago she seemed to lose interest in our family readalouds; shifting her bedtime so much earlier than everyone else's isolated her from that part of our family routine even more. Lately she's been listening in again, during the day at least. And she's listening to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with the rest of us. How could she miss that?

Friday, July 15, 2005

The New Deal - continued

The New Deal on practising was a dismal failure. Sophie managed to practice once, Noah did about 6 out of the 14 practices he should have during the week. I managed to keep my mouth shut, perhaps the one 'success' of the week. I was very proud of myself.

Erin practised every day. Somehow in the past 9 to 12 months she's become totally autonomous in motivating and executing her practising. In essence she'd been living by the New Deal for months already and was clearly ready for the responsibility. For the other two, though, the experiment was a failure. They readily admitted this.

Solutions were not immediately forthcoming at our next family meeting. We thought we'd try fixed times, attempt to limit computer use, try harder, resolve to do better. I explained that I felt the ultimate solution was not really a new system or set of rules, which would at best work temporarily, but for the kids to simply take responsibility for it themselves and decide to practice. Once they just decided to get on with the job, the problem would no longer be mine, or anyone's. Noah nodded with some satisfaction at this explanation.

A few days after the meeting, Noah said, out of the blue, "I'm still trying to figure out what it was that made me want to practice around last Christmas-time." I didn't remember whatever rip-roaring level of self-motivation he was recalling, but I didn't say so. I just told him that was a great way to attack the problem -- by looking at something that had been working well, and trying to figure out why. It reminded me of an organizational management paradigm called Appreciative Inquiry:

"The approach is based on the premise that ‘organisations change in the direction in which they inquire.’ So an organisation which inquires into problems will keep finding problems but an organisation which attempts to appreciate what is best in itself will discover more and more that is good. It can then to use these discoveries to build a new future where the best becomes more common."

So anyway, we shot some ideas about. I asked him whether it was the practising he was enjoying in and of itself, or the idea that it would get him somewhere he was dying to go. He thought it was maybe a bit of both. We talked about what goals, experiences and role-models he has found inspiring in the past. Again, we didn't really get at a clear solution, but I was gratified to hear that he was clearly thinking through the issue on his own and trying to find solutions for himself. While Erin sometimes does this, I certainly don't hear about it; I can only infer that something of this sort has gone on by seeing the results. It's such a treat having an introspective child who is at least partly communicative.

A few minutes later he said that he thought it would be helpful to limit his practising to half an hour per instrument. This struck me as an interesting comment, since lately his practices have been very short, often only 10 or 15 minutes. For whatever reason, though, he liked the idea of clear temporal expectations. A couple of weeks ago I'd been trying to encourage him to work through a tricky part in his new orchestra piece and I'd told him I'd leave him to do the work himself (he hates me hovering!) if he agreed to keep working until 5:40 pm, i.e. 5 minutes work. I reminded him of this episode and asked if he'd liked that system. And he said yes.

So now we have, at his direction, a list of 6 broad tasks for piano and 6 for viola. He sets the egg timer for 5 minutes and works on each task in succession for 5 minutes each. On balance he is practising on his own far more productively than he ever has. He still tends to play through the parts he knows over and over rather than trying to help himself tackle new challenges. For instance, he'll repeat the 42 bars of the orchestra piece that he knows three times rather than deal with learning the next 4 bars. Sometimes, listening nearby, I ache to nudge him forwards. But I know that in the grand scheme his autonomy and sense of mastery and re-assertion of control over his own daily habits of practising are more important than whether he can play the whole of the Cascade Suite by the time the summer school starts. And repetition is one of the hallmarks of the hard learning work -- not the only one, but it's a start.

I still think Noah lacks the maturity to motivate his painfully perfectionistic self through the emotional bumps of long-term daily practising at the level of musical ability he's attained. But he does seem to be developing more meta-cognition, more ability to think about his own thought processes. And this is like a light at the end of the tunnel for me.

Sophie ... well, she clearly just needs clearer expectations, more parental leadership and less wiggle room. I printed out a fancy new violin review chart, gave her a pile of mini-stickers to fill it in with as she saw fit, and told her "Here's the deal for this week. You practice because that's the rule. You practice now. Come on; it'll be fun." And she managed. And the next day there was less resistance. And the next day there was less.

Since we're in the habit of finding solutions co-operatively as a family, it's a delicate dance to help the kids to understand why rules and expectations need to be different for the three of them. Age alone is too simplistic an explanation for them; they have plenty of examples and experiences where age is clearly not a relevent criterion. Truth be told, age is too simplistic an explanation for me too. Yet it's hard to explain that the rules and expectations need to be different because of differing levels of maturity, different personalities and different psychological needs, without the kids wanting to compare themselves with each other. Noah needs to accept that he still needs his hand held through a responsibility, and Sophie needs to accept that she still needs to be carried, without either of them feeling like their maturity and capabilities have been found wanting. I'm wondering if the practising issue shouldn't be dealt with privately with each child, rather than in the public forum of family meetings. In essence that's what Noah and I did this week, and it worked beautifully.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Summer panic

It happens almost every year. I look forward to the slower, saner pace of summer. I put so much off that summer ends up being crammed full of "catching up" stuff; and if I don't have catching up to do, I come up with new projects that keep me overly busy. And then, a couple of weeks into summer, I begin to panic, because the lovely orderly productive family days I'd dreamed of aren't happening, and summer is slipping inexorably by.

At family meeting this week I apologized for being so grumpy and annoyed the previous night that I'd gone to bed without reading aloud. I'd complained about their lack of productivity and lack of help around the house. I'd told them how angry I was feeling about this stuff. And then I went to bed. I hate ending my kids' days like that.

I told the kids about my summer dreams ... of a sweet little homeschooling family reading together and doing projects together, and exploring and engaging in activities, all pulling their weight around the house, living a tidy co-operative existence with plenty of time for everything everyone wants to do and a comfortable rhythm to their days. Kids would say "hey mom, the laundry needed to come in off the line, so I did it." Mom would say "anyone want to help me make a batch of muffins?" and the kids would excitedly bounce up and down begging to be the one to read out the recipe or break the eggs. Everyone would eat the fresh wholesome meals, and at supper time the family would laugh and talk and recount their favourite part of the day.

And I told them that because our summer wasn't working out like that, I was dealing with my disappointment, and also my regret that my supposedly wide-open summer 'holidays' were feeling as busy and unproductive as those chaotic weeks in April and May.

The kids laughed and accepted my apology. And they understood where some of my frustration was coming from and promised to make an effort to help around the house a bit more. It's particularly hard for all of us right now with the renovation still proceeding full-tilt. The last couple of days have been better. Noah and Erin are making an effort, and Sophie at least managed to practice today.

We are still eating at the dining room table in the family room. The living room is still filled with a couple of dozen boxes of kitchen stuff so that there's barely a path to the bathroom and the piano. And we're still doing dishes on the deck with a garden hose. But things are coming along. We moved the range in a couple of days ago. Today we got enough cabinets installed to add a temporary countertop along one wall.

Here is a photo that really show how far things have come. This is looking down the small side of the "L" towards the pantry we've framed in at the end of the kitchen. This is where we started installing the cabinets, so things look pretty finished here. We still don't have a fridge or sink, and the whole other wall is still empty. But this photo is inspiring us to keep plugging away.

Monday, July 04, 2005


Today was a typical GRUBS meeting and I thought I'd write a little about how the sessions operate, since we've kind of evolved into an approach that works.

Donna (the other main organizer) and I both had things to bring and pick up on the way to the meeting. I stopped with the kids to pick up the first garbage can of donated compost from a lovely older lady who's moving later this month. We had to do some problem-solving to heave the garbage can, now weighing well over 100 lbs., into the van. Some 2x4's as a ramp did the trick.

We arrived at the garden at 10 am and for a while we were the only family there. I started working on adding mounting cross-pieces to the bat-house pole with the power drill, some 2x4 bits and some lag bolts. My kids drifted off the to the lakeshore. Noah had brought his rockhounding 'kit' (some equipment he's cobbled together himself) and so he began chipping away at rocks on the beach. Free play on the beach is wonderful, but we've decided to ban it during actual GRUBS meetings since we can't properly supervise the non-swimmers there and we can easily lose all the momentum of the meeting. So it's fair game to play there before and after, but not during meetings.

Finally the other families began to arrive. When we had what seemed to be a quorum, we summoned the beach-dwellers with the 'gong' (two pieces of scrap metal found on the beach). First we looked at the difference in growth in the veggies in the heavily-manured areas vs. the untreated beds. There was up to a five-fold difference in growth. We discussed the soil macronutrients and what was likely missing from the untreated soil and what we ought to do to improve the soil. Our solutions: side-dressing previously planted untreated beds with compost, and planting fallow areas with a green manure cover crop. We had about 7 jobs to get done, besides the standard weeding and watering of the kids' own individual garden plots, so I wrote them on the white board and we picked three to start with. We split into three groups. One weeded the corn 'field', one unloaded the compost and one cultivated and then planted alfalfa as a cover crop on a hitherto fallow area. Then we switched to the next three jobs on the list: levelling and mulching a new raised bed to encourage composting of the turned-over sod it's been made from, weeding the herb garden and starting work on the worm bin. I took two 6yo boys to the adjacent hospital for shredded paper for the worm bin; as there was little in the bag, we had the thrilling (to them) job of running a few hundred sheets of recyclables through the shredder.

Someone had brought a watermelon and was sharing slices out. D__, another GRUB, arrived, fresh from a family reunion weekend with three of her cousins. Her little plot had been growing like crazy while she was away last week, so we all had fun looking at the size of her peas and radishes and showing her cousins around. The kids got busy weeding and watering their individual plots. And the final job was a big cherry picking party. A number of nearby feral cherry trees were laden with fruit, so the kids picked and ate and we ended up with a couple of litres of surplus cherries to take home and throw in the freezer to be made into ice cream topping for this fall's Harvest Festival.

We noticed that the transplanted plum tree that we thought was completely dead had sprouted some lovely new green leaves around its trunk. There was general wonder and rejoicing.

Then we had a final circle time. The GRUBS had been invited to go on a garden tour this evening with the local adult-oriented garden society, so we discussed etiquette and appropriate behaviour for anyone who decided to come. We talked about plans for next week (solar oven cookies, a talk and demonstration from a local vermicomposting expert, and possibly raising the bat-house pole) and asked the kids if they had any other activity ideas for GRUBS. Noah mentioned his idea for a "museum," which is I think what in a classroom might be called a "nature table." He wants a place to display interesting specimens found around the site ... rocks, bones, shells, etc.. There seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm for this idea so we agreed to pursue it further in the weeks to come. The kids were encouraged to harvest their Romaine lettuce this week and take it home for big salads.

We cleared the white board and wrote down the date and time of our next meeting, leaving a space for anyone who shows up later this week to water or weed to mark down their visit. And then we packed up the tools we'd brought, put away the buckets and garden cart and other tools and headed home for lunch.

With D__'s cousins we had about 23 people there this morning. Normal total is about 18 or 19. It's a wonderful group of curious, respectful, motivated kids. It doesn't always seem like we've accomplished much (though today did feel productive) but I look at the garden and think about all the activities we've done and I realize it's all really adding up. There's a wealth of experience accumulating amongst those attending, and the garden is gradually transforming from a wasteland of rocks & roots into a vibrant, vital place.

This afternoon I did some more teacup birdfeeder glueing with Sophie. We're making a couple of dozen of these things to sell as GRUBS fundraisers. We epoxy a thrift shop cup to its matching saucer, then glue on an inexpensive stainless steel spoon. Once that's dry we turn the thing upside down and glue a copper pipe end cap onto the bottom. Then we cut a length of copper pipe, push it into the ground and friction-fit the teacup onto the top. The teacups will be labelled with instructions and some info about GRUBS and filled with a starter-baggie of wild bird seed. They look very sweet in amongst perennials in the garden. The spoon acts as a perch. I hope they'll sell quickly at the local outdoor market. They'll increase the club's visibility in the community too I think.

This evening we went on the garden tour. The local landscaper, who had created the garden, and who is president of the garden society, led us around. The place was amazing -- it had all been carved out of the forest within the last year. The boulders used to define the raised beds and retain soil on slopes were apparently about 50 truckloads worth (at $400/load, we were told) and that obviously wasn't where most of the money had gone either. This residential garden was estimated by those in the know to have cost somewhere around $80 - 100,000. There were two large natural-looking deep ponds fed by a waterfall forming almost a moat at the front of the house and expansive views of the lake and the wilderness park of mountain peaks on the far side. The property is off the electrical grid, but they have built their own power plant on the creek and don't seem to want for wattage. Quite the experience visiting it. The kids were wonderfully behaved and enjoyed themselves a lot.