Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pinch me. I must be dreaming.

E-mail received today, follow-up to three long visits over the past four weeks:


We would like to come over on Sunday morning around 10.30 to pick up Freya. Would that work with your schedule?

J. & S.

They said they wanted her. Over and over. I haven't quite dared believe it. Maybe it'll happen.

Of quack grass and garden magic

Here is what we've built in the garden. In the bottom corner of the nearest raised bed are Edward, Joe and Mimi, who are Noah's tomato plants. Fiona's bed, with the green sign, was constructed first, and is showing the more growth than anyone else's right now. Sophie, our radish expert, has bits of green showing in her bed, the farthest one. My bed is lower right, and is the one without all the compost, sand and peat in it, so is a bit of a throwaway. Ditto for the bean beds. Due to Abominable Dog mayhem our gardening got set back a bit this year. But still, we're proud. Why? Well, here's the photo of the other half (okay, three quarters) of the garden...

Now you can see that I wasn't exaggerating when I mentioned "overgrown with weeds." Go ahead, click on the photo. Even enlarged, I dare you to find a square centimetre free of quack grass. This is what we started with before we put our raised beds in. There, aren't you proud of us?

This year's garden is teeny tiny compared to anything we've planted in the past, but it feels really good. It has an energy it's never had before, thanks to my kids' magic touch. I started the GRUBS club a couple of years ago in an effort to give my kids experience gardening, since they didn't seem into it at home, and they've been agreeable enough about it, but never really caught the bug. But now, when I least expected it (isn't that always the way?) there is interest taking root at home. Today when the chicks escaped from the chicken corral, the kids' first worry was that they might have got into the garden!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Chick corral

Right now we have 37 chicks that are 5 1/2 weeks old. Once our neighbours have built their coop and retrieved their part of the flock (19 birds) and once we've given our omnivorous friends all but one of our cockerels (~7 birds? ... still not totally sure on this), we'll have about 10-11 birds -- the perfect sized flock for us and for our new coop. Right now, though, there are a heck of a lot of half-grown poultry in our little coop. They're still small enough to be very very interesting to the cat, and definitely of a size to be a quick snack for the Abominable Dog, whose digging and unmentionables are currently monopolizing what used to be the outdoor chicken run. We wanted to get them out of the coop en masse, not in the groups of four or five that are about all the kids can manage to herd in a free-range setting.

So this morning we took four lengths of rebar and the remainder of the roll of garden fencing and created a temporary enclosure on the lawn. It keeps the chicks in and it keeps the cat out. What it has no chance of doing is keeping the A.D. out, so the dog is penned for part of the day until we laboriously return the chicks to the coop this afternoon. We'll move the chick corral around the lawn from day to day to give them some variety.

I am thrilled with our many-coloured flock, especially on the backdrop of a green lawn under a bright blue almost-June sky.


In this house we're trying to reduce our consumption of prepared breakfast cereals and milk. We found this food was taking over breakfast, lunch and often all the day's snacks, dominating the kids' caloric intake because of its convenience. Whether doctored up with refined sugars and chemicals or not, I just haven't been comfortable with this processed-food-from-afar filling my kids up day after day, either from a nutritional or environmental standpoint. The kids like rice, soy and nut milks, but I could not abide the tetrapak packaging, or the fuss involved in making them from scratch. We drink cow's milk, but again, all in moderation.

We discussed the issue and the main solution the kids came up with was more muffins. So I've been trying to get into a routine of morning muffin-baking. I have a few good recipes that the kids love, but I'd love to move in the direction of honey and whole grains, so I'm on the lookout for things that they enjoy as much that don't contain the processed sugars and flour.

The other solution we decided upon was to purchase a soymilk maker. We eventually settled on the Soyabella, since I quite sensibly realized that ease of cleanup was probably the number one determinant of how much use the unit would get. We're thrilled with it. Each night I set up some rice, soybeans, almonds or cashews to soak, and each morning I run the Soyabella. I flavour it up with a pinch of salt, some honey, and sometimes some vanilla, cocoa or decaf coffee. A week's supply of organic soybeans costs us about $1.50. (Our fall wholesale nut order cost us considerably more than that, but it was so long ago now that it doesn't count.)

So now my morning routine, before the kids get up, often comprises a batch of muffins and a batch of soy or rice milk. And my trusty pot of coffee, of course. I'm not so virtuous as to have given that up, though I am up to 2/3 decaf.

Shawna asked about my rhubarb muffin recipe. That's a rhubarb muffin in the photo and the recipe is transcribed below. I'm also including our cashew milk recipe, which is delicious and can be easily made just using a blender, without any fuss:

Rhubarb Muffins

2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 cup oil
1 cup yogourt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
1 cup fairly finely chopped fresh rhubarb

1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbsp. butter, melted

In large bowl, mix together flour, sugar, salt and baking soda. In a small bowl, mix together oil, yogourt, vanilla and egg. Mix wet ingredients with dry. Add rhubarb. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin tin. Mix together topping ingredients and sprinkle on top of muffin batter. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 350 F. Makes 12.

Cashew Milk

1/2 cup millet
2/3 cup water
1 cup cashews, soaked in water for 4 hours
2 Tbsp. honey (to taste)
1/4 tsp. salt
Additional water as necessary

Place millet and water in a small saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low, cover and cook 20 minutes. Remove from heat to cool somewhat. Place cashews, millet and remaining ingredients in blender. Add a couple of cups of additional water, or as much as is required to allow the blender to run quickly and efficiently. Run blender on highest speed until mixture is very very smooth. Pour milk into a jug and store in fridge. To drink, dilute 1:1 with water and stir. Delicious warm or cold. Keeps in fridge for about 48 hours.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nightie night

As I see it, sleep should be as welcome and satisfying to a tired child as food is to a hungry child. And just as I've strived to avoid doing battle over food, I've done the same with bedtimes. My kids choose their own bedtimes. Who knows better than they do when they are tired? My job is to help them see patterns and connections between their sleep choices and their moods and energy and ability to take part in various activities, and to facilitate any problem-solving they might need to do.

Generally speaking the kids just happily head for bed when they feel tired, but they do tend to keep an eye on the clock too, since sometimes they get wrapped up in something, or the evening routine is unusual, and they're prone to losing track of time. Lately Sophie has been choosing to get her pyjamas on at 9:30 pm, because that serves as a useful landmark for her, marking the passing of the evening. Half an hour or so later she settles down to do some math and/or handwriting. Then she'll have a snack, spend a few minutes playing on the computer, and request that we start our readalouds. It's been working really well. Sophie's routine of pyjama-donning has become a landmark for the rest of us too. Noah knows that if he's going to do some math, he'd better get busy. Erin knows that if she hasn't done her piano practicing she has less than an hour before her dad goes to bed and the piano is off-limits.

Except that lately she's tired of pyjamas. What she wanted, she said, was a nightie. Her old ones are all too small. The "Le Corbeau" nightie, passed down first to Erin by her friend Leah, and then on to Sophie, is too small. It was time to pass it on to Fiona. "I want to make a new one," she said.

I confess she said it repeatedly over the course of a week or so. "Sure, good idea," I said. "We'll have to look for fabric." We talked a little about what type of fabric she wanted (a knit), but I didn't actually make the 15-foot trek to the closet where the fabric lives. "Maybe tomorrow," I said, probably more than once.

Yesterday she showed up with about 1.5 metres of lovely deep purple heavyweight interlock print looking hopeful. Not only that, but she carefully tidied everything off the sewing table. Everything. She didn't say a word. She knew she had me. I mobilized.

We found the right pattern book. We traced the pattern pieces. She picked out a ribknit (slim pickings, but she had a good eye and chose a light blue that picked up the middle of the flower motif). We laid out the pattern -- just enough fabric!

And today I set her to work, pinning and serging and pinning and sewing and trying on. She chose the sleeve and body lengths to allow for a couple of years' growth, and we checked these with fittings. She eagerly tried it on at every stage of assembly. Her other sewing projects (gift bags, beanbags, skirts) had been less complex from a construction standpoint, so she had fun experiencing the way the garment gradually came together.

I helped with setting in the cuffs and neckband, and setting up the machines, the serger especially. She's getting pretty slick with the sewing machine set-up, though, and may not be needing my help for long. She did the hem on the machine too, after serging the raw edge. And after we cut the last few thread ends and tucked in the serger thread tails, she tried it on. It fit! And the time? Nine twenty-nine p.m.. Perfect!

New beginnings in the garden

Since Fiona was born, the vegetable garden has really gone to weed. Really, really. I've half-heartedly thrown some seeds in a couple of springs, but most of my limited gardening time and energy has gone into the GRUBS garden. The soil is clayish and nutritionally depleted. The deer and crows and dog and bears were eating all our compost. My worm bin got destroyed by the dog. The garden fence got wrecked by a bear and then the dog made herself at home inside, digging and doing all the abominable things that Abominable Dogs do. The dog chewed up most of the low-flow irrigation system I'd been gradually investing in and installing. I really assumed that this year would be the same. Fiona wanted to plant a little garden and I figured I'd make up a little plot for her, do a little tending of the perennials, and leave it at that.

But against all odds some momentum is building. In tearing apart the old chicken shed I salvaged enough boards to build Fiona a Square Foot Garden style raised bed. Then Sophie wanted one. Then Noah. I found some side-cuts in the forest and built three more beds. I used the wood chips the hydro crew had dumped beside our driveway last year when clearing trees from near the hydro wires as mulch for the pathways. I reconstructed the main parts of our bean trellis.

In mucking out the old chicken shed, I came up with four wheelbarrow-fulls of half-rotted chicken manure. I mixed it in with what was left of the winter's compostable food scraps and a bunch of yard waste. Within three weeks the pile was rife with red wigglers. Things are really busy in there! We'll have tons more compost in another month or two. And the compost pile from two years previously proved fully composted, yielding about 10 cubic feet of black gold. I added sand, peat, greensand and bloodmeal and created some pretty awesome soil for the raised beds. I replaced the fence the Abominable Dog wrecked. I pieced together enough hose that the A.D. hadn't chewed to be able to water at least the raised bed area.

And now things are beginning to grow. That's Fiona's lettuce up above. So far we've planted onions, potatoes, carrots, two kinds of pole beans, peas, several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, luffa, morning glory, marigold, several lettuce varieties, eggplant, hubbard squash, cucumbers and radish. And probably a few things I don't know about that Fiona planted.

Even my much neglected perennials are doing encouraging things. I harvested only two lonely stalks from the overgrown asparagus bed this year, but look at the lovely ferny hedge they're about to leaf out for me. The raspberries' supports rotted through and fell over last winter, but they're growing everywhere and just need someone to make them toe the line. They'll then spend this year pouring out vegetative growth and next year we'll reap the bounty. The strawberries and the rhubarb persist despite my neglect. Batch 4 of rhubarb muffins is on the slate for tonight. And the herbs! They're taking over the lawn, much to my delight. Parsley, chives, lovage, peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, oregano and thyme are all giddily battling each other for supremacy in the little kitchen garden, eagerly sending brave colonial delegations out onto the lawn, where walking and mowing result in a heavenly scent.

Feral herb garden and perennials discounted, we have only cultivated and planted a scant 100 square feet this year. And so I believe that we'll avoid the mistake we've made so many times, of getting ambitious beyond the realm of practicality. For the first time in many years, it feels as if the gardening is going to be sustainable and will move over months and years towards more productivity. Can you tell how excited I am about all those red wigglers?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Fantasia in d minor

Erin chose a 'safe' pick for piano recital this spring, a good policy any time. She was able to perform this afternoon with obvious affection and enjoyment, smiling her way through the tender parts, caring about the phrases and the silences. The whole thing is long, so I've included just the last couple of minutes here. I just figured out how to embed mp3 files in my blog. Here you go -- the Fantasia in d minor by W.A. Mozart.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Going for ice cream

Some friends of ours have a little gallery / coffee / gelato café in the little town down the highway. It's called Horsefeathers and is one of our favourite destinations. Staffed by unschooled teens for the most part -- and nice ones at that. We're there a couple of times a week at the height of summer. Today marked our first gelato outing of the year. After a busy morning of soccer games, we went to sample the new gelato flavour, the natural maple-walnut that we'd been hearing so much about.

We loaded ourselves into our canoe and kayak for the trip down the lake. How many people get to take this sort of trip to the local ice cream store?

It took us about 45 minutes to get to Silverton. We pulled up on the public beach and walked the few blocks to Horsefeathers. Along the way we passed what is rumoured to be the biggest-trunked birch tree in the world. It's three-and-a-half-outstretched-children around (we know -- we've checked). It was a beautiful day -- partly overcast but with snatches of sun, enough to inspire a run down the quiet village streets.

The maple-walnut definitely lived up to its reputation, though between the bunch of us and our double scoops we also reacquainted ourselves with lemon-mint, chocolate hazelnut, raspberry and our perennial favourite, coffee.

Erin and Noah are very strong these days. They easily outpaced Sophie and me in the canoe while paddling the kayak, and almost kept up to us on the return leg when we swapped boats.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Visual-spatial girl

Fiona is learning all about math and patterns and geometry and spatial relationships. Not from books or mom-contrived learning games, just through her leisure pursuits which have become incredibly creative and self-directed since her fourth birthday.

Her watercolour painting obsession finally abated after several months. She now sometimes skips a day or two of painting. Instead, she is into cutting and folding and arranging. And taping -- oh, the tape this kid goes through!

Today was typical. She took the padded foam-plastic bag that Noah's CD player had come in and cut one end off. The other end looked a little like a hood. So she sat down with scissors and cut the sides until they fit like a vest around her torso, and then cut arm holes. And then she cut slashes at the front of the 'hood' so that it would push back off her head. Next she used some of the cuttings to make a pocket which she safety-pinned and taped to the "jacket." She talked about wearing "my own-made jacket" to town if it was raining. Thankfully it was not, so she just wore it around home for a while.

Next she cut a cottage cheese container apart and made a visor which fit to her head. She wore this for a while as a sun-shade, and then decided it was a belt. Then she made a spring from some long strips of paper she taped together and folded. And another spring. And a little 3D house with peaked roof.

And then she built a 'box' out of three sheets of origami paper. First she diagonally half-folded two of the papers, then folded in the points. She taped these folded triangles together. Then she noticed that the gap between them needed a folded square to complete it, so she cut, folded and taped that on. (I highlighted the diagonal square in the image since it didn't photograph well.) And then she fussed around for a while with a scrap of red paper to make a slot for the coins to drop through.

And then there was plenty more taping involved to seal up the holes so the coins wouldn't drop out. Her adhesive medium and technique could probably use a little work, but the geometric sophistication of these things she invents out of her little brain just blows me away sometimes.

Pattern blocks were next. Sophie is the queen of complex pattern block creations in 3D but Fiona is doing some pretty neat things too. That's one of her snowflakes up top.

Fiona does pretty well with numerical and symbolic math too (she's the kid who will blurt out things like "half of six plus half of twelve is nine" for no particular reason). But even though she'd love a workbook program I don't want to hurry her into formal math study, as I see so much richness and value in the intuitive, creative, exploratory work she's doing on her own these days.

Noah was similarly intuitive with visual-spatial and numerical relationships at a young age. He didn't really delve into formal math until last fall around his tenth birthday. It's been necessary for him to do a certain amount of gap-filling in terms of arithmetical fluency, but I can now see what all that intuitive, informal mathematical experience has given him. He's almost ready to jump into a high school program after a mere 8 months of diligent work in the Singapore Primary Math curriculum.

I doubt Fiona will wait until 10 to start formal math study, but I'm hoping I can hold her off a while yet. This self-motivated, exploratory learning that is part of her play is a priceless part of her learning foundation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pass the weeds, please!

The lawn said it was time for dandelion muffins. We do a batch of these most springs. This year I couldn't find my recipe, so I made one up. I think they're at least as nice as the ones we usually make.

Dandelion Cornmeal Muffins

1 cup packed dandelion petals (yellow parts)
2 cups corn meal
2 cups white flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup honey
2 cups yogourt

Mix dry ingredients, including dandelion petals, together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, oil, honey and yogourt. Add wet ingredients to dry, mix until moistened. Spoon into greased* muffin pan. Bake for 25 minutes in a 375 degree oven. Allow to cool for five minutes and then remove from pan. Share with children especially, but neighbours and friends get a kick out of these too. There's a distinctive but not unpleasant dandelion flavour, and a lovely sunny colour, to these muffins. Makes 18-20 large ones.

*I grease my pans these days with the soy-lecithin-and-oil mixture favoured in the Laurel's Bread Book. Take 1/2 cup of soy lecithin and blend with 1 cup of vegetable oil. Process several minutes until well emulsified and fairly smooth. Store in fridge. A little goes a long way with this stuff, and it works really really well for all kinds of quick and yeasted breads.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Two violas

Noah skipped two movements in the Telemann Concerto for 2 Violas at the end of Suzuki Book 4. He had worked hard on the four movements of the Telemann Concerto for Solo Viola, and polished up the first movement of the Duo work, performing it several times with his buddy P.. But the last two movements just seemed like a lot of notes to learn, and without a viola group class to play the piece in, Book 5 beckoned more strongly. So, with his teacher's permission, he moved on into Book 5. But now, with the SVI looming and four Book 4+ violists attending, he's been assigned the last two movements.

I haven't learned much of the Suzuki viola repertoire myself yet. Noah was noodling around with the fourth movement of the Telemann Double after group class and I tried to jump in and play the other part. I had to bail out after about two bars, having not heard the piece much and not having the sheet music for reference. But Noah uncharacteristically quipped "you should learn it."

This is the boy who has refused to practice with me for almost two years, who has even banned me from attending his lessons this year. The boy who even during his early years of violin/viola learning would tend to burst into tears and refuse to do any work if attempted to guide his practicing in any way. And it's not like I'm a demanding tyrant or anything, honest. He's just been so incredibly perfectionistic and sensitive to being observed.

But he mentioned the Telemann Duo to me again a day or so later. "Are you going to learn it?" I asked which part he was learning for each movement so that I could be sure to learn the complementary part. I'd need to do 2nd viola on the 3rd movement and 1st viola on the last. Okay. I got my viola out that night and borrowed his music, giving it a whirl. The next night I offered to play it with him. He said "sure" and shrugged.

We got through it with just a few stumbles. It was fun. We sounded good. So we've kept doing it each of the past four nights. Two nights ago we managed to get through the fourth movement without the written music. Last night we got through the third movement memorized. Tonight we did both movements in succession without the written music. We've been able to talk a little about bow division and dynamics and to repeat our stumbly spots. We manage to laugh together and try things over a few times. There has not been a single moment where Noah has felt stressed or frustrated or annoyed. He has not got sullen and teary once. Because I'm learning my part alongside him, rather than coaching from a situation of implied mastery, he is happy to take suggestions from me. It's just been wonderful fun.

Tomorrow I'll bring my viola to his lesson and we'll show off what we've accomplished. We both feel very proud of what we can do. But mostly we've enjoyed the process of working together.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

64 Million Shades of Green

This is my favourite time of year. The snow on the mountain tops is still white and plentiful. The air is warm. The sun graces us with its presence more days than not. The songbirds are back.

And the greens -- there are so many! Every tree has its own palette of shades. The "green and gallant spring" indeed.

This is our yard. From a different angle you can see across the lake to the New Denver Glacier, but this is my favourite view in May, down into the rich greens of lawn, lily-of-the-valley, our pear, apple and cherry trees, with the forest of hazel, maple, aspen, larch, fir, pine, birch and western red cedar in the background, and the ridge on the other side of the deep Denver Canyon a darker, hazier green still.

It's no wonder the children seem to come to life anew in spring too.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Three-generation Osprey

We took some photos this morning at our Osprey String Quartet rehearsal. We're doing our main recital of the year next month -- Mozart Quartet in B-flat, K. 458, and Mendelssohn Op. 44 No. 1 in D-Major. The first violinist is my mom. The second violinist is my daughter. I play viola and a family friend plays cello. We meet as colleagues and we have a blast. We laugh ourselves silly, we tease H. for apologizing about everything, we giggle over the fumbled entries, roll our eyes when someone changes a bowing, pretend to be affronted when someone suggests a change of articulation. We know each other very well and this allows us to tease and use sarcasm and laugh at each other, and it all fleshes out as positive work on the music that makes us feel pretty good about ourselves and our music.

I am still stunned that Erin can do this -- that she is such a fine a sensitive chamber music player, and that she fits in so well in this enjoyable collegial atmosphere. In many ways it is very very good for her; she is getting challenge and experience playing high-level string quartet repertoire with pretty capable hard-working players, and she clearly enjoys it a lot. String quartet playing is the most wonderful musical collaboration ever invented.

On the other hand, it's "all in the family." And I wonder if this fact is preventing her from having the opportunity to define a musical identity that is her very own. She plays in our quartet because we need a second violinist, because it's a sensible, convenient, useful opportunity for her to gain musical experience, and because it's fun. But it's not something she had to consciously go out and choose to do. It's what was obvious and expected.

In some ways the limbo she's in right now with respect to having / not having a violin teacher may be a blessing. She's going to have to consciously choose to pursue whatever option she settles on. She doesn't like choices, and will probably need some help shrugging her way into a decision, but if she participates in that decision-making I hope she'll be a little closer to internalizing her own, autonomous identity as a musician.

Evening at the Shark Hole

Chuck has blacksmithing dreams. He has drooled over forges and forge plans for a few years, took at beginners' course last year, has begun renovating a shed and mail-ordered himself an anvil. Without a retail source of coal anywhere near, he settled on charcoal as a fuel source for his forge-to-be. Charcoal can be made easily, by cooking it in an oxygen-depleted environment.

Last summer he was beginning work on a charcoal burner, using an old oil drum, digging a hole in the ground in which to situate it. Fiona asked what he was doing. "I want to be able to make my own charcoal." Fiona looked again with big eyes at the hole he was digging. She reported to the rest of us "Daddy's building a shark hole!"

Now she's four, and savvy and sophisticated, and she knows that we are not going to be keeping cartilaginous fish in a hole in the forest floor. But we still call the charcoal burner the Shark Hole.
And when it's a cool spring evening and there's a really hot burn going, with the thermometer on the drum is pushing 700 degrees, the Shark Hole is a nice place to be. There are sticks to dig with, pine cone collections to build, all sorts of things to discover under the canopy of the woods, and the fire keeps you warm.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Being eight

Life is good when you're eight. You can do lots of things. You can be dropped off to try new activities, like clay class, or at a birthday party. You don't need your mom and your siblings along to keep you comfortable anymore. You can play soccer. Who knew you, the tiniest member of the team, would be such a powerhouse in goal? You can be a surrogate parent to your 4yo sister. You know how to be a good friend. You can hang out comfortably with your older siblings, and you mostly get their sense of humour. You can entertain adults with your own weird meld of storytelling and partly-informed political satire. You can ride your bike anywhere. You can becalm even the Dog from Hell on a good day, and you are really good with the chicks. You can check their food, water and temperature, take an armload out for some free-range time and are clever and responsible enough to ensure they all end up back in the coop.

You can read music well enough to teach yourself the heinous sixteenth-note section in the Vivaldi a minor Presto without your mom's help. You can join the big kids to perform the Pachelbel Canon. You can learn all the community orchestra pieces. You can build yourself a webSpace without any help. You like math, because it's interesting. Even converting decimals and fractions is kind of neat, and well within your grasp because you genuinely like numbers. You can read anything you want to and sometimes disappear for a day or two because you're deep in some thick novel. You can finish a Sudoko and play a pretty decent game of chess. You can learn Japanese kana and kanji faster than almost anyone in the family -- and retain them better than all of us put together. You can sew and cook and swim. You laugh and play and enjoy imaginary games.

Being eight is lots of fun. And being your mom is pretty great too.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hypnomonkey Brand

Yesterday we met a new unschooling family, potential new residents in our area. They have three older, now-grown kids, and one almost exactly Fiona's age. Conversation strayed into the lack of age-prejudice amongst homeschooled kids, and the strength of sibling relationships. Obviously there are a lot of kids who buck the trend. My kids have some pretty cool non-agemate public-schooled friends who get along great with their siblings. And although it's rare, I've seen homeschooled kids occasionally engage in subtle ageism. But overall, it seems fair to me to say that homeschooled kids on average display much less age prejudice than schooled kids.

Sibling relationships are also strong in our family. I know this isn't a hard and fast rule in homeschooling families, but it does seem to be pretty common. Our friends recalled people commenting "When I first met your kids, I thought there was something weird about them. Now I've figured out what it is -- they like each other!" As we discussed this, my three older kids were clustered at the other end of the same table laughing hysterically with each other over the Hypnomonkey Brand catalogues they were creating. Case in point. Three siblings, ages 8 through 13, having a hysterically good time engaged in a silly common pursuit together for no good reason.

I'd never heard of Hypnomonkey Brand. It turns out it's their most recent anti-consumeristic social satire foray. They had taken the latest Sears sale catalogues out of the recycling bin and gone at them with pens. They'd created a brand logo of a goofy monkey head with swirly hypnotized eyes, dubbed it the Hypnomonkey Brand, and had merrily plastered all the clothing with their new designer logo. They speculated that they could double the prices on the clothing now that it was "a cool new brand" and discussion later turned to marketing strategies designed to get people talking about the brand, hankering for it to fill needs they didn't know they had. Looks like my country bumpkin kids have a pretty sophisticated, and jaded, understanding of branding and consumer manipulation.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A free-ranging day

For the first time in ages we had the luxury of a day at home, all of us, no soccer practices, no rehearsals, no meetings, no lessons, no errands to run. We decided to forego the evening's Film Festival offerings to keep it that way. I asked no favours or chores of the kids, I just let them free-range.

We were all outside for much of the day. We penned the dog and first the kids biked. Noah and Sophie have created a circuit that goes up the driveway, and back down the big long hill along wooded trails, log-hopping required, and ends with a transit of the deck (two steps up, then five down). They ran that a few times.

We checked on the chicks and decided that they needed to free-range for a while in the beautiful weather. We brought them out of the coop onto the lawn where they delightedly scratched for grubs and fought over interesting cedar buds and pebbles. That's one of our Ameraucanas above, the one named Skunk. We're trying to figure out who's going to be roosters. One of the barred rocks was doing some baby-rooster crowing that was quite distinctive -- we think we've got him pegged.

We fixed the garden fence where the bears and the dog had wrecked it, replacing the wire fencing with the beginnings of a new 120 ft. roll I bought on Monday. Money well spent, I think.

We mowed, we pulled weeds from around the strawberries, raspberries and asparagus. We sifted the soil the dog had dug out of the new beds back in as best we could, set up square-foot grids and started planting lettuces and onions. I dug through the quack-grass and clover and created a place for a bean tunnel, reconstructing most of the trellis. Tomorrow I hope we get carrots, peas and beans planted. Now that the grunt work has been done, that will be easy.

I got the water running to the garden, and this gave the kids a working hose which reached to the lawn. Lots of spraying ensued, and eventually bathing suits came out. It was a hot May day.

The kids got out the top from the old wheelbarrow and filled it with water, moss, grass clippings, cedar fronds and various other stuff, creating floating islands and deceptive landscapes that are actually waterscapes. They love doing this; it's a pastime they developed years ago and has kept them amused for dozens of hours over the years.

The poor dog of course remained penned for most of the day. We let her out when we came inside for meals, and at mid-evening for a couple of hours.

Erin practiced piano for quite a while. She's working on her first Beethoven Sonata (Op. 10 No. 1), polishing up the Mozart Fantasie in d minor for a recital later this month, and continuing with a couple of other pieces. What's caught her fancy this week, though, is Aaron Copeland's "The Cat and the Mouse: a scherzo humoristique" from the Royal Conservatory Grade 10 album. She started work on it yesterday and seems to be really enjoying it.

Noah spent some good time on the computer working on 3D graphics and scripting for Clonk Rage. I've done some programming and scripting but his ability is getting way beyond mine. The scripts in Clonk are based on C++ and he would love a beginners' guide to C++ that would be suitable for a dabbling 10-year-old. I haven't found one yet.

Sophie tidied her room. She has a friend coming over for a sleepover tomorrow and I guess decided she wanted to be able to see the floor.

Fiona painted with watercolours. She filled one page with dry-brush strokes of various colours, and then filled another with stripes made with various washes, bleeding beautifully into each other. She's certainly developing an understanding of watercolour technique through all her experimentation.

After supper there was much more biking, and then the violin and viola practicing that needed doing. Erin went off to read. Sophie and Noah will probably do a little "Clonk" play together, and later this evening the kids will probably all do some math. Sophie will probably do some cursive practice as she's enjoying that right now. I'll read aloud from our current books.

It feels really nice to have a free-range day like this. It's been so long. We need more.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Math renaissance

I think Erin actually likes the new math program I bought for her. She finished Singapore Primary Math at the age of not-quite-ten and then took a break. A long break. Two years and a bit, I think. About a year ago she finally delved into "New Math Counts 1", the first in Singapore's secondary program. She wrapped it up in about three months, but it clearly didn't thrill her. I talked to her about finding something new but she wasn't enthused about switching programs. She was convinced she liked Singapore and that it was just her motivation that was the problem. So I picked up NMC 2. She touched on it a couple of times last fall but time wore on and despite insisting in January that she didn't want to scale back her goal, previously stated on her SelfDesign Learning Plan, of completing it this academic year, nothing happened.

A few weeks ago I started looking seriously at the Teaching Textbooks curriculum. I liked what I saw and the recommendations I read. It's pricey, but I figured it was flexible and appealing enough that it would likely get used by at least a couple of my kids over the years, and possibly all four. I decided I would buy Algebra I, ostenibly for Erin, but mostly to check it out as a potential replacement for Singapore's New Math Counts with my younger kids. I told Erin about it; her enthusiasm could have been measured with a micrometer, but she did agree to at least give the first chapter a whirl and let me know what she thought of it.

She was underwhelmed when it arrived. The textbook is intimidatingly thick and has almost two hundred lessons. She thought the CD-based whiteboard lectures were likely to be gimmicky and annoying. After a few nudges she read through the first three lessons in the textbook and did the problem sets that followed. Ho hum. It was kind of okay. Not bad, actually. Algebra is kinda cool, after all. It was probably her favourite part in New Math Counts.

The next day she tried a lecture on the computer. Hmm, cool. And then the next day too. And the next day she did two or three.

She hunkers down in the tub chair with the laptop, in a hoodie and baseball hat, and works away. She actually almost seems to enjoy them. She's asking for help enforcing a little structure on herself in continuing to use the program. And she's cheerful and communicative while doing the computer-based work, as the picture above shows. She laughs at the humour in the word problems, she cracks her own jokes and even asks occasional questions that show she's thinking creatively about what she's learning.

The algebra is very easy for her, but her arithmetical skills are rusty through lack of use. For now she's doing most of the practice problems -- and not feeling frustrated by the review and remediation because she finds the format pleasant. I expect that as time goes on she'll browse and graze and not work quite so systematically. I think the program will serve her just as well in that manner.

Noah and Sophie are very much looking forward to moving into Teaching Textbooks. They like Singapore Primary Math and it is serving them well (Noah is doing 6A, Sophie 4B). I expect even Sophie will be done with that program within the year, though, and it's nice to have something that we all feel positive about waiting in the wings.

Do not disturb

Here is where Erin lives, and has for the last 16 months or so. Except for the (soon-to-be-remedied) fact that the dog often holds her prisoner here, it has been a wonderful move for her and, by extension, for all of us. It's inconvenient to have to dress up in boots and jacket to go to bed, or run to the bathroom, but the privacy, independence and responsibility are so worth it. Despite the fact that we haven't actually got around to properly winterizing it, despite the fact that it is a pigsty inside, despite the fact that going to bed when the rest of the household is asleep and there is wildlife lurking in the forest must be a bit scary, she loves it.

Here she can lie awake listening to music, singing, writing, talking to herself or reading aloud until 3 or 4 a.m.. And she can sleep in as late as she likes without being disturbed, except when some sort of personal or family responsibility requires her to get up. I have tacet permission to use saracastiquotes to ask if she would like me to get her up "early" at, say, 10:30 a.m., so that she can have a shower before going to piano lesson.

She has spent much of this year turned very tightly inward. Figuring out who she is as an almost-adult, I suppose. I see signs that she's emerging lately. Having the cabin this year has given her a place to retreat and chrysalate without needing to come across as surly, rude or avoidant. When we do get the chance to interact with her, which I admit has been infrequent during much of the past year, she's mostly fun, witty and easy to get along with. Not much more I can ask for, I guess.

Chicken Condo

Today the chicks moved out to their new condo. Here's what Chuck built on the back of the shed. It's about 12 feet long and 4 1/2 feet high. The brown door on the end is the "people door." It lets us get in to change the water or refill the food. Beside it is a small peek-in window. We've added a small step-stool below to make it the right height for Fiona. The dark-coloured piece of wood on the front hinges up, revealing a slot too small for a full-grown hen but the right size for a hand to reach into the four nest boxes and gather eggs.

Also on the front, just this side of the larger window, is a small chicken door. Once the dog is gone, the birds will come out here to free-range. For now they need to be kept inside where the heat lamp is and the dog is not.

Today was moving day. We put down one square bale's worth of straw. Those bales explode into immense amounts of straw, but we know from experience that it compacts down pretty quickly. We got the big fount, and the big feeder, and filled them and set them in place. We added a small space heater, our max/min thermometer and the heat lamp.

So here they are, checking out the new pad. It looks pretty crowded, but the heat lamp is only half way to the end of the coop, so there's a lot of unused space in the distance. They're just huddling together getting used to things, checking out the big feeder and all the yummy food. A little more than half these babies actually belong to our friends, who haven't yet built their coop. We'll end up with 10-15 birds (depending on how many are cockerels and end up in our friends' freezer) and this coop will be about the right size for the ones that remain.

The bonus is that now that the chicks are out of the basement, the dog can again be crated there at night rather than gated in the kitchen. Thus the kitchen remains available to the kids for late-night or early-morning snacks and drinks of water.

The kids are still really taken with the chicks. Over the next three weeks, while they stay inside the coop for warmth and protection from canine forces of terror, it'll be tougher to commune with them. We'll have to do the best we can. Perhaps the kids can play right inside the coop. It's not where I'd choose to spend an afternoon, but I can see the kids having a differing opinion on the matter.

Monday, May 07, 2007


We've been working seriously, with energy and determination (rather than just wishful thinking), for about two months to re-home our dog. Here is her poster-dog photo. Pretty cute, eh? Doesn't she just tug at your heartstrings? "Adopt me! Please? I'll be good. I promise."

We've had two serious nibbles since we placed her on the regional Homes4Animals website, and the family who came to see her on Saturday morning took a day to think things over and called back yesterday to say yes, they want to take her, but could we keep her until June 3rd, because they're hosting a huge outdoor wedding reception on the 2nd and won't have the time to devote to her until after that. Sounds reasonable. Sounds like they're going to follow through.

They know what they're getting. The first thing she did when they arrived was snap at them, twice. The next thing she did was jump up and head-butt their 6-year-old, which resulted in lots of tears. We had said very clearly "needs a home without small children" in the blurb -- and we did warn them on the phone that she jumps up and knocks children over. They were interested anyway. You'd think there was some sort of critical dog shortage in the Kootenays or something. Anyway, they spent an hour with her despite the rocky start, and she must have turned on some sort of charm, because they still wanted her. I'm not sure if they're going to use her in some sort of sadistic child-discipline strategy or what, but they have a 6-year-old and they still want our sweet but misguided ill-mannered brute of a dog.

My kids are already planning what we're going to do to celebrate once she's gone. Today I bought just enough food to last a month. There's a light at the end of the tunnel. It's like parole day is approaching or something. We'll no longer be prisoners in our own home. We'll no longer need to make calculated dashes across the 6 feet of no-man's land to the van. We won't have to ask our friends to phone first so we can capture the beast before they show up for a visit.

Soccer season

Sophie and Erin have been back at soccer for a couple of weeks now. Sophie is so tiny that last year, when she was playing at the 4 1/2 to 7-year-old level, she always got put with the 4 & 5-year-olds for scrimmage and game play. Generally speaking she scored half a dozen goals per game because she was one of the only kids who could keep track of the point of the game.

This year she's the youngest and smallest kid on playing at the 8 1/2-10 1/2-year-old level -- and she's had no experience even playing with agemates, let alone with these kids who are mostly much older and bigger than her. But she's doing pretty well, and enjoying it a lot. She's not intimidated and is working hard.

Erin's in her last year in Community Soccer and is the oldest kid on the Grade 6-7 team which is, with two exceptions, actually a Grade 5-6 team. That means that although she's very small for her age, she actually fits in size- and strength-wise with her team-mates and is a very capable player. She's quite aggressive on the field and loves games no matter whether they result in a win or a thrashing loss.

Noah is probably the family's most talented soccer player but he isn't playing this year. Yet. As he has the past two years, he balked at the thought of joining a new team with new coaches and doing something at least initially outside his comfort zone. But this year he articulated his discomfort with score-keeping and competitiveness far more convincingly, and I just didn't feel like I should be pushing him to do something that so clearly causes him emotional distress. But I think he'll jump aboard yet -- because every time he gets a little nudge from one of his team-mates from last year, or a former coach or spectator-parent, he seems almost ready to take the leap. He went so far as to get himself some new cleats this weekend. Methinks he'll go to practice on Thursday with Erin and will probably decide to join the team. We shall see. His favourite type of soccer is scrimmage during practice where everyone plays for both "teams" depending on when they sub in. If only there was a league like that for kids like Noah.

After the concerts

On Saturday Erin, my mom and I and our cellist and pianist friends went up to Nakusp to play a repeat performance of some English music to accompany slides and poetry readings from the British Isles. We had a dress rehearsal before, playing in various duo, trio and quartet combinations, then dinner and an evening performance. It was well-received as always.

Then on Sunday it was the community orchestra dress rehearsal and performance. The orchestra really came through. Among other things, we had been rehearsing three movements from a contemporary suite by Donald Coakley called "Directions North," based on Canadian folk tunes. The first movement was easy -- just a fast fiddle tune with lots of repetition and a simple fugal element. The second movement is a lovely adagio with interesting harmonies and a few contrary rhythms and 5/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 time signature changes. This movement was at about the right difficulty level for the orchestra. The third movement, entitled "Old Grandma", is in a composite 7/8 time, divided out 3/8+2/4, except that just when you get used to this it goes into 2/4, then throws in a few 3/8 bars in a row, and then into 3/4. Heinous to conduct, and as recently as a week and a half ago it seemed well beyond the orchestra's ability to play. At our second last rehearsal we'd discussed what a good learning piece it had been -- because I was about to cut it from the programme. But then in our last-ditch effort we almost made it through without falling apart -- so we decided what the heck, we'd play on the concert. And what do you know -- at the dress rehearsal we got through without any major glitches. Amazingly enough we repeated the feat at the performance. What a crew!

The orchestra did a not-very-good job of accompanying Erin on the Mozart G Major 1st violin part, but at least she had the long Franko cadenza in which to strut her stuff unimpeded by the faltering section violins. She did a great job. Her recently-retired teacher came all the way up from Nelson for the performance with her husband, and brought Erin flowers and gave them to her after her Mozart. How sweet!

Noah and his quartet did a pretty nice job of their four quartet selections. They looked very professional and carried themselves well. If they stay together they'll go far, these kids. The New Denver Suzuki String Ensemble did a pretty nice job of the (original version of the) Pachelbel Canon in D.

Noah played the first two movements of the Telemann viola concerto in G as soloist with the orchestra (his buddy P. played the other two). Both boys did wonderfully and the whole Telemann sounded great; the orchestra really likes playing this music too.

After the performance we came home and had a really nice time. I had invited Erin's violin teacher and husband, and my mom, over for dinner. The kids were crazy-happy, giggly and incredibly talkative. W. and V. seemed to really enjoy themselves, and I think really liked getting to know the kids a bit better and seeing them in their home environment. I pulled Sophie up short when she was about to launch into one of her goofy Stephen Harper diatribes with a stage-whispered "perhaps our guests are Harper supporters" and this resulted in much hilarity. Truth be told, despite the fact that the wine was mostly "kids' wine" (sparkling fruit juice), there was an awful lot of hilarity.

We ate lots of curry, dal and samosas, pigged out on mocha semifreddo and sipped decaf, and the kids showed off the chicks. And we had a really nice visit.

Then W. once again encouraged Erin to consider calling to arrange some lessons if she felt like doing some good work on the violin. She had mentioned this back in early April when she 'retired', but we hadn't, I think, really caught the tone of the offer. At the time it sounded like come fall, she'd be willing to give Erin a lesson every month or two if it worked out. But it was pretty clear last night that while W. has "given up teaching" in the sense of no longer maintaining a rented studio in Nelson and no longer committing to be available every single week of the academic term, she is more than happy to continue to work regularly with a committed advanced student who could come to her home for lessons and who would understand if she's simply not available for a week or two or three from time to time.

I am leaving this decision up to Erin, but it feels like we've got a good option for the short-to-medium-term. Heck, her piano lessons have been a little spotty for years, much in the same way, and that's fine. So long as the longer-term consistency of teacher is there, occasional months without lessons are not a big deal. We'll see if Erin expresses interest in continuing with W.. I think she probably will.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Planet Earth

I was looking for ways to spend the Learning Allowance the kids are afforded by the homeschooling program they're enrolled in. Because we don't live in a TV universe, I hadn't heard of BBC's Planet Earth series until I stumbled onto it at We love all the David Attenborough nature documentaries and have watched lots of them over the years thanks to our subscription. But we'd just given up our Zip subscription for the year (we re-register every October, through until April), and Planet Earth looked like something we'd enjoy owning and watching repeatedly. So I ordered it.

What a phenomenal series! Even Erin, who doesn't take much interest in nature documentaries as a rule, is interested in this one. Each of the eleven segments examines a different biome -- caves, shallow seas, jungles, grasslands, mountains, polar regions and so on. The photography is stunning. For many of the most spectacular sequences they've used a camera affixed to the bottom of a helicopter, one with immense telescopic capacity, so that the helicopter can fly 1000 metres above an individual animal, outside the animal's awareness, and the camera can make you feel like you're looking over its shoulder. There are wonderful panoramic and satellite images, clever use of pans and zooms and time-lapse sequences -- even in combination. What this series does with unsurpassed skill is to put magnificent animals in the context of magnificent landscapes.

I was sad to see that Sigourney Weaver had done the narration for the American release of this series and tried to over-ride the region settings on our DVD player in the hope that we could get it to play UK DVDs, and then order the Attenborough version. I couldn't hack the regional settings though, and resigned myself to Sigourney Weaver. So I was delighted to discover, when our discs arrived, that it's only the Discovery Channel release that uses Weaver -- the standard release, including our copy, has Attenborough.