Monday, April 30, 2007

Van chattiness

Second trip to Nelson in two days today. The middle two stayed home with dad & then grandma. Fiona came along with Erin and me. Erin was listening to her iPod and working on her piano bookwork most of the trip. Fiona slept most of the way home, but on the way there she was at her chatty best.

"Is everywhere on the earth that's not full of stuff full of air?"

"What chemicals is air made of? "

"I know that two plus half of four plus half of four is six."

"If there are seven billion people, are there about one billion houses?"

"When we're driving and there's something in the van that's on the seat not moving, is it still really moving?"

"I have six ponytail holders in my hair. Because I have three ponytails, and each one has two elastics. That's three plus three, or -- wait, it could be two plus two plus two."

It's enough to make my head spin. No wonder she slept all the way home.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Home alone

Truth be told we forgot about the rehearsal. Normally it's on Sunday evening, but this week a concert conflicts. So our Osprey Quartet rehearsal had been rescheduled and I forgot until the phone rang fifteen minutes after Erin and I were supposed to be there. Given enough time I would have taken the younger three, complete with quiet-time activities and snacks. But they were so happy at home, and it would have been a cruel and lengthy process to uproot them. So I left them home alone.

They've had lots of graduated practice. It started with "I'll be up checking the water supply -- look after each other and call on the 2-way radio if you need me." And as Erin got older it made sense to leave her home in charge of Sophie and Noah for short stints, since all three kids get along well, understood what "no risky activities" meant, and had proved themselves responsible and reliable. Gradually the stints got longer. And then they included Fiona for short periods of time too. The commonest situation was that I would be out at a meeting or rehearsal, Chuck would be home with the kids, but we'd make the calculated decision that if he got called in to the ER, the four kids could stay home alone while he was gone. And it happened now and then.

And then, once Noah turned ten, we started leaving him, or him and Sophie, home alone for very short periods. An hour or less. They have done beautifully well. Never ever a problem, never ever a concern.

Today was a bit of a jump, though. Noah and Sophie and Fiona stayed home alone for almost two hours while Erin and I barrelled down the hill to rehearsal at my mom's. It seemed like a good time for the leap. Fiona has become so much more grown up lately, and Sophie is a wonderful sister to her. And last week when I had to dash out to work in the evening, leaving Chuck and the kids home for the evening, and asked Noah to help Fiona practice her violin he cheerfully took on that role. So, while it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, the groundwork had been well-laid and really, Noah is 10-going-on-15 a lot of the time. And I mean that in a good way.

When I got home, Fiona came to the door with a big grin on her face and her arms loaded with folded paper.

"Look at all the paper airplanes we made!" Then she proceeded to show me that Noah and Sophie had taught her to fold them all by herself. (Fitting that she be using a quartet album as a folding surface.)

She's a paper-craft maniac lately, so this was a perfect activity for her. She was thrilled to have been taught this by her siblings while I was gone, and to surprise me with a demonstration. They'd had a lovely time and really appreciated the responsibility they'd been given in staying home alone.

Lately I'm reading "Too Safe for Their Own Good" by Michael Ungar, about the value of allowing teens to take on risk and responsibility. I know that I'm giving my kids more responsibility, and exposing them to more risk, than many parents would feel comfortable with. But Ungar points out that we either give it to our kids or they take it -- and at least if we give it we have some control over the level of risk and the safeguards in place. I'm really enjoying Ungar's book.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Our chicks have arrived! We ordered 16 but are playing host to another 21 for some friends of ours for a few weeks. Last night we got a phone call from the post office in Castlegar saying that our cheepers were there and would be arriving at our local post office this morning. This morning, true to form, the local post office called on the dot of 8 a.m. to say "your babies are here -- they're cute for about five minutes, but the noise starts to drive us nuts after that, so come and get 'em!" The kids, wonder of wonders, were awake and ready to go. So we drove down and picked them up, and dumpster-dived on the way home to get enough big pieces of cardboard to create a temporary indoor brooder in the basement.

Our new chicken shed is ready, attached as a lean-to to an existing shed that formerly served in part as the chicken shed. The "old chicken shed" has been claimed by the wanna-be blacksmith of the family as a smithy. The new chicken lean-to is awesome and will be great once our cheepers are ready for slightly cooler temperatures.

In the past we've had homogenous flocks of either Isa-Browns or Barred Rocks. This year we've purchased a mixed flock. Six are Red Rock Cross hens, brown egg layers. Right now they're all black, but they'll end up black and with reddish chests. Six are Barred Rocks. These are unsexed, so some will no doubt grow into roosters. They will grow into lovely barred black and white birds and the hens are reliable brown egg layers as well. These chicks are black with white spots on their heads. We also splurged and bought three 'heritage breed' chicks, a breed called "Ameraucana." We may end up with three hens, or three roosters, but we're hoping for at least one of each sex, because we are considering keeping a rooster and hatching some eggs next spring. These birds lay very large eggs that are sky blue to turquoise in colour. Noah is holding one of the Ameraucanas in the photo above. We ordered from Rochester Hatchery in Alberta. Their on-line catalogue has pictures of all the breeds.

All the breeds we've ordered are what are called "dual-purpose birds" meaning that you can eat the meat of the cockerels, or get good egg production from the hens. While we don't eat meat, our friends are happy to take our cockerels and use them once, at 18 weeks or so, they've declared themselves visually as males. I like dual-purpose birds, rather than strictly layer breeds. They seem a little "closer to nature" to me, and are hardier, especially through the winter and a little more assertive with smallish predators like weasels. They also grow very quickly over the first 16-18 weeks of life. It is very fun to watch cute babies turn into gangly adolescents and then feather out as beautiful, substantial adults just in the course of a season.

The kids are excitedly checking the brooder temperature, feed and water levels about every half hour. I'm sure the novelty will wear off to some extent, but I hope they stay interested and intent on caring for the chickens over the weeks and months that follow. Gathering eggs should be much more interesting with the blue-green ones in the mix. Keep your fingers crossed for at least one Ameraucana hen.

I love having hens at home. It's one small project that helps connect us, and the food on our table, to its source. We can be fully in charge of how our eggs are produced, the conditions our hens live in, and the impact our egg production has on the earth. We've watched a lot of documentaries lately on environmental issues, the politics and economics of food, the organic and whole-foods movement. This new flock of birds fits in really well with all this interest and energy.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Intergenerational music

Here's the Slocan Community Intergenerational String Orchestra. Well, most of them. We're missing four members from the photo. I love the combination of grey hair and cherubic younger faces, teens and middle-aged folk. That's me on the lower left with Fiona's forehead showing in front of me. She enthusiastically attends all rehearsals and performances -- even on the rare occasions when she has any choice in the matter -- so it's only fitting that she be halfway in the picture. Behind me is Noah with his funky-shaped viola. To the right of Noah is Sophie. Beside Sophie is R., the elder stateswoman of the orchestra, who only took up violin in her mid-sixties, and didn't really take it seriously until a still-later decade. Behind and between Sophie and R. is Erin. Elsewhere in the cluster are Erin's closest friend since age 6, Noah's viola buddy / pseudo-big-brother, the cellist from Noah's quartet, the cellist from Erin's & my quartet, and a number of adults who have watched all these kids grow up -- from babies into beginning string students into competent members of the orchestra.

Last weekend we played two numbers on a potpourri "Celebration of the Arts" concert in nearby Nakusp. It was fun for me to see the group through the eyes of an audience that doesn't know us in the way our local audience does. They were stunned that we didn't sound like a beginning school orchestra -- that we played fast, and mostly in tune, and with some dynamics and phrasing and not a lot of wrong notes. They loved the intergenerational mix and the dedication and evident pleasure with which this motley group comes together.

Recently I've been fretting a lot over the lack of a violin teacher for Erin. Sure, she doesn't have a violin teacher right now, and yes, we'll likely have to do some serious travelling to make something happen. But who would have imagined, thirteen years ago when we moved to a community of 600 inhabitants, hours from a real city and without a single string teacher, that our kids would be able to grow up with the sorts of opportunities they are getting. Erin is soloing the Mozart G Major violin concerto 1st movement with this orchestra next month. Noah is soloing the first and second movements of the Telemann viola concerto in G at the same concert. Sophie is playing second violin in an orchestra that offers a level of challenge typical of a well-coached intermediate big-city youth orchestra. Erin has a string quartet of lapsed professionals to play in. Noah has an well-matched group of kids with which he has formed his own string quartet. My three elder kids are performing the original arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon in D with a darned decent-sounding ensemble of Suzuki violinists. In the summer, top Suzuki and traditional teachers from all over Canada come to our little village and teach at the Valhalla Fine Arts summer programs -- the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, the VSSM and the VIP Program.

So today I'm counting our blessings, feeling very proud of this wonderful, big-hearted, diverse group of community string musicians, and grateful that they have helped provide a musical family for my children to grow up in.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Two-wheeled shades of pink

Here she goes. Four different shades of pink under the green-grey canopy of a drizzly spring day. Life is good when you can wear all your pinks and ride a two-wheeler by yourself.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fiona's "Really great" day

Today Fiona learned to ride a bike and to read music. Well, almost, anyway.

Yesterday she wanted help learning to ride a two-wheeler, so I took her around the driveway circle for a while on the tiny little 12"-wheeled bike that has been the learning bike of at least six kids now. Last fall she'd insisted on having a pink bike, so I had taken it apart and spray-painted and varathaned it black and pink. But she wasn't really interested in learning to ride last fall. This spring, though -- different story. She's been talking about learning to ride a two-wheeler, and Noah and Sophie's bicycling over the past few days of nice weather got her stoked. Yesterday I got the feeling that I wasn't going to be hunched over holding her up all summer ... some sense of balance seemed to be coming. And then today it started to fall into place. She still can't get herself started, but if I support her so that she can get both feet on the pedals, she can then get all the way around the driveway circle, slopes and bumps and rocks and all, on her own. "I'm really great at bike-riding!" she said.

Sophie said "Well, I guess you'll be a late shoelace-tyer, Fiona," recalling our "study" of friends and acquaintances last year which demonstrated a clear negative correlation between age of shoelace-tying and age of two-wheeler-riding. (Noah wins the negative correlation award in our family with a bicycle age of 3 and a shoelace age of 9.) That may be, but I wouldn't count on Fiona not bucking that trend too. Perhaps we'll keep her in velcro shoes and slip-ons until age 8 so as not to wreck our study results.

Then tonight while practicing, we once again broke up her on-instrument work with a couple of games with the music theory manipulatives I have, and one thing led to another, and she wanted to try reading pitch. We'd tried it a couple of months ago and she'd clearly not been developmentally ready. But she was insistent we try again, and so I made a large staff on the whiteboard the size for fridge-magnet note-heads.

I introduced her to the "second space" for A and had her practice placing a magnet there. She's so much fun to work with. I could get her to repeat the task over and over by saying "Oh yeah? Well, I bet you can't get this magnet on A!" And then "Surely this magnet will be trickier." And time after time she'd giggle and prove me wrong.

After she could do that easily, I showed her how we make notes go up a scale on the staff (space - line - space - line) and she practiced making scales. Not so easy, but she got it. Then we went back to positioning A's but started associating them with sound and playing the violin. She would place three in a row and I'd sing them and play them. She'd place four in a row and I'd do the same. Then she wanted a turn being the singer & player. Easy peasy -- she'd watched me and evaluated my accuracy a dozen times already. Then I introduced her to B and she practiced placing B's on the staff. I'd ask for "3 B's" or "4 A's" and she'd place them, then I'd play them. We went back and forth, trading jobs. She could do this too.

I've never ever introduced pitch notation in increments this tiny or to a child so young, but she was really really enjoying it. Each step was so very small, but she didn't tire of the repetition, because she was feeling successful.

Then we started mixing the A's and B's. By the end of our first pitch reading session, she was sight-singing and sight-reading various and sundry combinations of B's and A's in any order flawlessly. And she was so pleased! "I'm really great at sight-reading!" she said.

It was a twenty-minute diversion. Practicing ended up taking almost an hour. But gosh, she was flying high. Suddenly this notational system which has surrounded her since birth began to convey meaning. She marked "music theory games" off on her practice task list not with the usual black tickmark, but with a huge green blob, "to show how proud I am."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Violin teacher woes

Erin, who hasn't been willing to work with me on violin since she was about 8, has outgrown my level of teaching experience anyway. And, over the past couple of years she's outgrown my mom's level of experience. My mom is over 70 and probably ready to cut back her teaching in any event. There is an excellent violin teacher in Nelson, and we'd always planned that the kids would move on to her when they got to the Grade 9-10 level. We finally got Erin talked into making the switch last fall. She was a little reluctant to make the move into what she felt to be "the big[ger] time", but she was pretty sure the time had come. It took her two or three months to warm up to W., but eventually she did and by January things were starting to click. She dived into the Grade 10 repertoire and had made a pile of progress with her intonation and bowing technique.

In February W's husband was diagnosed with cancer. And today she told us that because of this she's decided to retire early. Effective next week. Chemotherapy and all those unknowns ....

Now what? There's a teacher 4 hours from here who has experience at this level, but having worked with him and watched him teach during the summers, we don't really get the right vibes from him, socially or musically. Beyond that, we're looking at an 8-hour drive. Calgary or Vancouver. Video-conferencing is not an option. The internet just isn't up to the task, and unless we can afford a $20,000 video-conference setup and a dedicated fibre-optic line, we're out of luck. I've taught video-tape-through-the-mail lessons, and they stink. There's no real-time feedback, and it's really hard to get good-enough quality audio for the details of high-level instruction.

I honestly can't see sacrificing the well-being of the younger members of this family in order to do a biweekly or monthly drive to Calgary. At least not based on what I see of Erin's drive and maturity at this point. I've asked Erin to have a serious think about whether she would be willing to just focus on piano and keep violin on the side as a hobby. She's playing in my quartet, she plays in our community orchestra, she plays at group classes. She's never been one to do more than the bare minimum of violin work required to go to a lesson without totally disgracing herself. She does think carefully and musically about her playing in a lesson situation, and this compensates to some extent for the lack of actual woodshedding, but these days it doesn't compensate as much as it used to. Maybe she just isn't driven enough to take the violin to the next level, under what will be less-than-ideal circumstances (inexperienced teacher, or infrequent lessons). Maybe she is driven enough -- in which case she needs to come to terms with her personal committment to violin. Does she really want to actively and seriously pursue it? If so we'll figure out what we can do, and perhaps we can find some manageable sacrifices.

Truth be told, we'll be facing similar issues with Noah in three years or so. Even though he's less advanced than Erin was at his age, because he's a violist rather than a violinist he will exhaust the local expertise sooner.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The dog from hell

Some of you have asked for visuals. This photo shows exactly what Fiona sees if she steps outdoors while the dog is not penned or chained. I took this from Fiona height. I discovered when taking photos that the instant I squat to Fiona-height, I become the target of one of these charges. You'll need to click on the photo and view the larger image for the full effect. Imagine the image moving towards you faster than you can run away. Imagine that the image weighs 85 pounds.

If you are a child who is taller than the dog, which two of the children in this family are (though one only barely), this is what you see next. Plus muck smears all over your shirt.

If you are one of the unfortunate family members who is not taller than the dog, what you see next is the ground rushing up at you very quickly, and then a hurricane of fur, slobber, claws and teeth "wrestling" with you on the ground.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Protect my dog from me

Over the past three days, I have devoted hours and hours, and sweat and sore muscles and motivation and committment, not to mention $20 of soil additives and my most precious gardening commodity, ~ 8 cu. ft. of finished compost, to creating four raised beds. They are "Square Foot Style," 4x4'. I can't remember who it was on the TP board who gave me the umpteenth recommendation for Mel Bartholomew's book "Square Foot Gardening," but I finally went out and bought it. I decided that with our busy busy intense summers, this approach was the answer. Every year I ambitiously till and plant three or four 4'x18' beds of vegetables. And I cut corners on soil preparation, because I'm short on sand and compost and I'm too cheap to buy stuff to dump in. And I end up with dried out beds of evil weeds and dwarf ("alpinized") vegetables of pathetic yield.

So this year I decided to be sensible. Inspired by the Square-foot book, I would plant only a small area, preparing it obsessively and tending it diligently for maximum efficiency. I went out in the woods with the kids and found the edge-cuts of cedar logs that dh had milled last summer. I hand-sawed them to length, and the kids and I hauled them up to the driveway. We loaded the truck and hauled them back to the house/garden area. We got the drill and the T-square and together we braced, drilled and screwed some raised beds together out of this waste wood.

We drove out to a sandy creek and loaded four bins with sand. I bought a big bale of sphagnum peat. I opened up my bags of organic fertilizer. Our soil has virtually no Nitrogen and no Potassium, so a couple of years ago I bought a bag of greensand (for K) and blood meal (for N). Yeah, the bloodmeal was before I was totally vegetarian. Blood meal is a reasonable use for animal products that would otherwise go to waste, right?

I mixed my sand, peat, greensand, bloodmeal, precious compost and soil together lovingly. I fondled it. I cherished it. I wheelbarrowed it to the brand-new raised beds. I dumped it in. I smoothed it into the beds. I went and retrieved five wheelbarrow-loads of wood chips from the pile the hydro guys had left us last summer after falling and chipping trees from underneath power lines. I dumped the chips in the pathways between the raised beds. Everything looked so tidy! Fiona and Sophie chose one bed each as 'theirs'. We congratulated ourselves on a good day's work and went inside to dream of vegetables. Two beds were done, two more were almost done.

Our evil dog jumped the garden fence and dug up our raised beds. I can only think that the bloodmeal attracted her. She is a digger extroardinaire. Soil got sprayed everywhere, thoroughly mixed in with the wood chips on the paths. The fence had been pushed down in a couple of locations by bears last fall and was only about 2 1/2 feet high where it had got torn away from the gate-post. I just hadn't quite got around to repairing it. "Before we plant..." I had resolved.

Tonight Fiona (4) suggested "I will cut up Freya with a knife until she is in two pieces and then we can eat her meat and burn her and then we will attach her to a jet with a bungee and the jet will go to Africa and so will she." I felt somewhat better.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Playground physics

Science Club will be wrapping up for the year soon, as we're moving into GRUBS and soccer season. This week we decided to head to the playground and have a low-key time doing some exploratory physics with the playground equipment, our bodies and a few simple props. First we rolled a damp tennis ball against a wall and traced its soggy path on the pavement with chalk. Lo and behold, the angle of incidence equalled the angle of reflection. Next we topped a basketball with a tennis ball, courtesy of a little collar of masking tape, and dropped the two together. The basketball bounced and transfered much of its kinetic energy to the tennis ball in the midst of its bounce and wow, did it ever fly!

Next we explored the 15-second swing. We used a stopwatch to time how long it took Fiona to do five gentle swings. Fifteen seconds. How about someone heavier? Some of the kids thought heavier kids would complete five swings faster. Nope, fifteen seconds. How about someone lighter? Fifteen seconds. How about someone doing really energetic swings in a large arc? Fifteen seconds. No matter what we did, it was a fifteen-second swing. Amazing, no? You'd almost think that the constancy of that swing would be a good way to keep time. Hey! A grandfather clock... This made sense to all the kids.

Finally we shortened the chains with a couple of spring clips. VoilĂ , thirteen-second swing.

After that we went to the merry-go-round. Are these contraptions a thing of the past in most places? They sure seem delightfully dangerous compared to most of the stuff that is in kids' playgrounds these days. We built an accelerometer (white board, thumb tack, string, key and an arbitrary scale) and tried to see how much acceleration we could produce. We maxed out at 2 3/4, until we got all the kids to move into the centre. Now we were able to generate almost 4 acceleros. We talked about inertia, and the way the distance of a mass from the axis of rotation affects its rotational inertia. We got the merry-go-round spinning as fast as we could with the children near its edges. On command they all moved to the centre. Wow, it sure sped up. Unfortunately the kids who sort of forgot to hold on firmly were thrown (literally) by the sudden increase in acceleration. Two Barker kids were flung off, neatly (though somewhat traumatically) demonstrating linear momentum.

Finally, we tried the waiter-on-a-merry-go-round trick. Hold a cup of water on a tray (or in our case, a plastic IKEA plate), balancing it while the merry-go-round is spinning very quickly. You can't see it clearly in the photo above, but the surface of the water in Noah's cup really is parallel to the plate. Very cool!

Monday, April 02, 2007


What happened last night? It's April, for goodness sake! Even the varied thrushes and robins are noisily protesting. Not to mention the humans.