Sunday, December 31, 2006

Family games night

The plan was to have a family games night every week, though we haven't quite managed that. Maybe every second week. But I guess that makes it an even more special treat when we have a few days in a row to play intensively. Our Christmas Eve tradition is now that we open, and play, a new game. This year's game was Ticket to Ride Europe which you see the crew playing in the photo. We really enjoy the simplicity and length of play (60 - 90 minutes), which is somewhat shorter than our other favourite game Settlers of Catan.

We tend to play in non-competitive ways, or at least de-emphasizing the competitive element, because games involving people from age 3 to adult aren't exactly an even playing field for cut-throat play. Often this means not keeping score, playing with open hands, playing as a team, charitable trading and so on. While we all like to know the rules, we freely disregard those that increase competitiveness and decrease (for us) the enjoyment of the play.

We avoided competitive games for many years, sticking with Family Pasttimes games like The Secret Door or Harvest Time. Noah especially dislikes competitive environments intensely. But gradually we realized that we could play more conventional games if the object was fun rather than a win. Winning is always beside the point when we play.

We have a few other games we really enjoy, besides those I've mentioned and the obvious chess, crazy 8's and the like. Carcassonne, a medieval tile-laying game is fun, even just for making maps -- but also a good strategy game. Things... was a major hit last Christmas. Each player writes a response to a card like "things you shouldn't do at a funeral" or "things kids do better than adults", and the object of the game is to guess whose answer is whose when they're read aloud by a Reader. We always end up laughing very hard. Blokus doesn't get played as often as the others but is quick and fun.

We recently got Cranium which has been fun a few times but I don't think it will last. We've probably been through almost all of the cards, and it will get stale when we hit repeats.

Our favourite card game by far is Set Game. We take this with us everywhere. Sophie got the knack of this at age 5 and expect Fiona will be getting it pretty soon. It's one of those visual perception and pattern-recognition games that some people find much easier than others, and often it's children who triumph over adults.

A truly magical game we were given a few years ago by my UK-based brother and sister-in-law isWaldschattenspeil (Shadows in the Woods). It's played in the dark, with a tealight candle being the main gamepiece. Wooden trees cast shadows. Little gnomes lurk in the shadows as the candle moves around the board trying to find them. I can't recommend this game highly enough for its ability to cast a spell over a family huddled at the kitchen table.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Artist

Fiona loves painting. She's had exposure to tempera and acrylic paints, but what she loves are watercolours. She loves the intricacies of bleeding colours, washes, dry brush, dry and wet paint, blends and colour combinations. She plays around with these techniques endlessly, not aware of them as techniques per se, just experimenting and experiencing the different ways the paint responds and marries itself to the paper.

Erin went through a watercolour phase a year or so ago, and Fiona insisted on her own set of paints like Erin's. I found her one of the inexpensive Yarka sets that she really liked. They're a little gelatinous, but rich in pigment and they served her well. She wore them out, though, at a rate of about a set a month. Let's not even talk about paper. While I'd sometimes buy her the nice blocks for a treat, I settled on department store 9x12" sheets cut into quarters a lot of the time.

FeathersDry Wiggles
I thought I might buy her a block of good paper and another set of Yarkas for Christmas, but when I went to the local store, they had a sale on a Cotman portfolio & paint set ... 10 tubes of Cotman colours, two fine brushes, a palette, a small pad of good paper and a 12x18" zip-up portfolio. The whole thing was a great deal, around $40 Cdn, what I would pay for three or four monthly Yarka sets and a block of paper. So I bought it. Yup, for a 3-year-old.

Wet vs. Dry StudyColour Bleeding Study
She is thrilled. She has almost finished the new pad of paper, though the paints will last ages. She has been creating paintings for people, and when we've mailed them out as gifts, we've enclosed a recent photo, "a photo of the artist." So Fiona has taken to calling herself "the artist."

Desert Landscape
Whale Surfacing
I love watching her paint. She is variously intent, gentle, observant, contemplative, quizzical, bold -- and always fully engaged. Creativity at its finest.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

What We're Watching

I've got a "what we're reading" widget in the sidebar, so I thought I should complement it with an entry about what we're watching. From October to April we subscribe to, an on-line DVD rental service based in Canada. With thousands of documentary titles and tens of thousands of mainstream and oddball videos of other types, we get the kind of selection we could otherwise only dream of in our town with no public library and only corner store video rentals. For a monthly fee we can have four or sometimes five DVDs out at a time. There are no due-dates. They arrive through the post with prepaid return envelopes and we simply send them back when we're done. The quicker we make a return, the sooner we get the next choice off our request list.

We've really enjoyed two recent sets of videos. The first is Michael Palin's travelogues. So far only the four episodes of "Sahara" and the six episodes of "Himalaya" have been released in Canada. We would love to see "Pole to Pole", "Full Circle" (around the Pacific Rim) and "80 Days" (around the world) someday too. The videography is amazing, and Palin comes across as a very real, likeable traveller. The out-of-the-way places he visits don't come across as romanticized, sensationalized or patronized. We have the last four Himalaya episodes to watch yet and can't wait. Noah and Sophie in particular enjoy these. In fact Noah's choice for a Christmas Night activity was to watch a "Sahara" episode rather than play with new toys or games.

The other series we have found very compelling is the "Up Series". This set of seven documentaries introduces a bunch of English schoolchildren from an extremely wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, beginning at age 7 and following them every 7 years with updates and interviews and peeks into their lives as they grow into adulthood. The series begins in 1964. We took immediate likes and dislikes to different children and were fascinated to watch them change (and not change!) as they grew up. At ages 14 and 21 it seemed many of them had changed a lot from age 7. Many were not nearly as likeable. But by age 28 (as far as we've watched so far) most had come home to themselves in large part ... though with many of the raw edges rubbed off and a pretty well-grounded sense of themselves and their places in the world. It's a fascinating sociological and psychological journey. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the series, though with spoilers.

Other recent hits have been "The Parrots of Telegraph Hill" (about a self-described 'dharma bum' in LA who has become the de facto naturalist / keeper of a flock of non-native but 'wild' parrots), "Into the West" (a fable about two gypsy boys and a horse in Ireland) and "Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real" (a 'Walking With Dinosaurs' style CGI documentary paired with a fantasy story line).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Atomic Tree Ornaments

Another product of Science Club. Two marbles, a black one (proton) and a white one (neutron) were twisted together inside a small square of plastic wrap (in lieu of nuclear force) and tied off with a string. Around this we created an electron cloud of wool roving. Not particularly seasonal or aesthetically imbued, several of our elemental hydrogen atoms have nonetheless ended up gracing our Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Acids and Alkalis

Today was another challenging Science Club meeting. The kids were very unfocused and there were only a couple of activities that pulled even half of them in. My four were all at various stages of recovering from illnesses, as were several of the other kids, and that certainly didn't help. However, I wanted to share this photo of our indicator solution. We boiled purple cabbage and decanted off the water to use for testing the pH of various mystery solutions. I'd never really gone through the business of creating a range of indicator colours side by side -- but we did today and were thrilled with the striking colours. Shown above are solutions of pH ~ 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Beneath the Action

A week or two ago I posted an image of Where the Action Is, showing the kids together at the computer bench, where they spend far too much time clustered together playing games. Here's the dark side... the floor beneath the computer desk. I finally got around to doing more than a traffic-area vaccuuming of the family room and pulled out the toybox/bench. This is what typically accumulates in the space of a couple of weeks. Maximize the image in another window and play "I Spy."

  1. Sophie's yellow slip-ons.
  2. A decorative Christmas paper punch
  3. A matchbox car
  4. 87 shreds of black naugahyde from upholstery that formerly graced the toybox top
  5. two marbles
  6. embroidery hoop
  7. spool
  8. two and a half pairs of Noah's socks
  9. scrap of yarn from Fiona's finger-knitting
  10. empty Avery label packet
  11. pocket Japanese-English dictionary
  12. white piece from board game set
  13. detritus of Fiona's paper-cutting festival-cum-tantrum
  14. half a Sudoku puzzle
  15. half a styrofoam peanut, left over from static-electricity play
  16. At least three kleenex scraps
  17. Four pencils, and the bonus item....
  18. Small plastic rainbow trout

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Choir concert

Last night was the local Community Choir's holiday concert. Erin sang. I've watched her perform on violin and piano and in choirs, dozens and dozens of times but I've never been so proud. Not so much of what she did, but of whom she has become.

She sang in a children's choir for two or three years when there was a wonderful choir director running a children's choir in Nelson on the day we happened to be there for piano lessons. That hasn't worked out for a couple of years, but she has eagerly sung in the choirs that same choir director leads during the Summer School of Music week. She chose to join the more challenging adult choir during the summers, an option for the most advanced teen and tween piano students. She got her feet wet that way with four-part choral arrangements, and with many of the local adults who, during the remainder of the year, make up the community choir. Several of them asked her during the 2005 summer school choir if she was going to join the community choir in the fall. She thought about it, but decided not.

They hinted around again in 2006 and she decided to jump aboard. I knew she'd do fine musically and I knew she'd cope socially, but I never expected that she would blossom into an independent, confident, competent member of an adult group. There are two really nice 15-year-olds in the choir; one is a Japanese exchange student who is Erin's equal on piano, the other a down-to-earth kid who moved to the area a year ago. Leaving aside these three, the average age of the choir is over 50.

But age aside, they all love their music and they love the hard work they do together to bring together a concert. Rehearsals were once a week for the first 8 weeks and then twice a week (sectionals alternating with full choir rehearsals) for the past month. Choir rehearsals have been the highlight of Erin's life this fall.

Over and over again over the past month or two, long-time members of the choir have been pulling me aside whenever they see me to tell me how thrilled they are to have Erin in the choir, what a wonderful voice she has, how she stunned them by having all nine pieces memorized at least a month before the memorization deadline, and how much she's come into her own since joining at the end of September.

I had glimpses of the transformation over the past month or two ... arriving to pick her up near the end of rehearsals I'd see choir members teasing her, giggling with her; I'd watch the banter and seeing the mutual enthusiasm for the work and the fun. They love her; she loves being with them.

But the concert clinched it for me. There she stood, all 4-foot-10 of her, in the midst of all those adults, positively exuding joy and confidence. She sang from her heart - her whole heart, every bit of it. She has grown into her true self. Choir is the first challenging thing she's taken on completely on her own, without my help or input or support, with no siblings along, driven solely by her passion. She defined it as hers, she took it on, created her own expectations unsullied by mine. She created her own social niche unhampered by the expectation of fitting into a group of supposed peers. There was nothing between her and what she wanted to be doing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ferocious Doctor

Ferocious Doctor is one of the hundred-plus characters who inhabit Euwy World, my kids' silly universe where mistakes and stupidity are sources of delight and entrenched as cultural icons. Fiona has adopted Euwy characters into her own story-telling and play.

On the way home from Nelson she told me "I'm writing Ferocious Doctor."

"Oh, that's nice," I replied.

A minute ago, on his way to bed, Noah brought me the scribble pad Fiona had been using during the drive to show me her printing. At the top is says


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Where the Action Is

I'm not sure why I took this picture. It's just so typical of the kids, all glued to the computer, but socially so ... I thought you might enjoy it.

1. Old kids' artwork done with hand-made rubber stamps.

2. Erin cuddling Fiona, who is draped in a quilt made for her by now-grown friend living in Kamloops.

3. Sophie, under-dressed for winter as usual.

4. The Guide to North American Birds, Western Edition.

5. Webcam, mostly for keeping in touch with now-grown friend living in Kamloops. Perhaps potentially useful for keeping in touch with cousins in England, but procrastinating uncle hasn't yet bought his webcam.

6. Three-seater computer bench which doubles as a dress-up clothes trunk, with recently-shredded naugahyde upholstery.

7. One of Erin's thirty-some-odd self-taught and self-executed braid styles. Where did she learn to do all this? On the internet, I think.

8. Noah, with his knees pulled up inside his T-shirt, his usual sitting posture. The only way to dissuade him from this style of repose is to quip "Noah, you have breasts."

9. "101 Project Ideas with Geometer's Sketchpad" booklet, placed on window ledge as a sun-shade.

10. Metronome. Always handy. Seldom used.

11. Fiona, always in the middle of everything the older kids are doing.

12. A Hilroy exercise booklet, the medium of choice for Euwy stories and Euwy Cartoons.

13. Steering wheel, once used for noxious street-racing game introduced to children by bad-influence father who insists he really believed that he could download the game for himself and not have the kids find out about it. Steering wheel is currently serving an invaluable role as anchor for desktop clutter.

14. Cardboard box purchased in a futile attempt by Miranda to minimize desktop clutter.

15. "Interesting paper"... ready to fall off the despised open-ended shelving, as soon as Noah leans the wrong way and bumps it. Cardstock of various colours, laminating plastic, avery adhesive paper, CD labels, etc. etc., all poised for an avalanche.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Owl visit

Today, on my way to put up the Christmas lights, I discovered this guy perching outside on a beam about 18" from one of our windows. He's a saw-whet. The kids were able to get soooooo close and were completely entranced. This picture was actually taken from inside the house, through the aforementioned window.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pushing snow

We have a fairly long driveway. Three hundred metres or so, downhill and fairly straight from the highway, taking a little dip, then leveling out and diverging into a short lane heading for the carport and a turnaround circle. Since we don't have a 4WD family vehicle, we depend on conscientious snow removal -- otherwise we don't go anywhere (and despite our conscientiousness, that does happen once or twice a winter when weather conditions conspire against us -- and we just have to stay home).

In the past Chuck has done most of the snow removal. I tended to do it when he was too busy at the hospital, but he actually enjoys the solitude and physical nature of the job, so he did most of it even when he was on call. When I did the snow removal I usually had to leave the older kids looking after the youngest one and dash out to do it as quickly as I could. But this year, Fiona's old enough to come outside without being intimidated by the snow-clearing machines. We have a nice cat-traction 2-stage snowblower and a nifty Toro tractor with a plough blade. I've been doing more of the snow-clearing, especially when Chuck is on call.

Because Fiona can come out, the other kids no longer need to stay inside to look after her. So they come out too. And suddenly they're really interested in snow removal. I'm gradually getting them trained. All three are quite good with basic ploughing on the tractor. Erin's an ace backing it up and doing three-point turns. Noah loves the snowblower with all its levers and buttons. (Trust the boy of the family to quip "Oh, so I can aim it at people like a weapon?!!!") In the past few days they've eagerly taken over almost all the snow-clearing. They can talk chokes and shear bolts and throttles and chutes. They're thrilled with this new important role they can fulfill.

I think this is one of the big differences between my parenting style and Chuck's. It never occurred to him, in all those years of snow-pushing, to work to involve the kids in the job. Haha! Well, there will be no keeping them inside now. If he's out to plough, they'll be eagerly traipsing after him asking for a turn.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Here is where Noah worked tonight on Rosetta Stone Japanese. For years my workspace has been a 2 sq.ft. space at the end of the kids' communal desk. First I had a laptop there. Then I upgraded to a desktop computer, but tucked the CPU and keyboard underneath my little single-place-setting of desk space. Then, with the re-assignment of room roles necessitated by the arrival of our new piano, the old Niklas IKEA shelves that were once the 'entertainment centre' got vacated in the family room. For a couple of months they were cluttered with plastic bins. This week I did some serious re-organizing and moved my computer over onto the Niklas shelves. I'm now up to a good 4.5 sq.ft. of desk space, and I have two open shelves above which I'll hopefully be able to turn into storage / organizational space for me.

The kids use my computer from time to time, with permission. Permission is more likely to be granted when they're doing something specifically educational. In the past two weeks, family interest in Japanese language study has taken root. Noah had expressed interest months ago, but hadn't done much about it. But then we found the Slime Forest Adventure RPG which teaches Japanese kana and kanji and everyone's into Japanese. Noah had balked at the introduction to Rosetta Stone Japanese because he was self-conscious about the audio feedback and the right vs. wrong scoring. Especially now that his sisters are keen on the language and likely to peer over his shoulder watching his mistakes, he wanted total privacy. My little computer nook turned out to be the perfect place for him to work. We clothespinned a baby quilt over it and plugged in the headphones and he happily, on his own initiative, worked away diligently for quite a while tonight.