Monday, July 30, 2007

Nocturnal heroics

The deed is done. Under cover of darkness, we managed the Stealth Wasp Manoeuvre suggested by Rebecca. First the bucket, then the blue plastic crazy carpet, then the piece of 3/8" plywood. Noah eagerly documented the whole affair with the camera. Chuck and I managed to walk without tripping up to the steep bank at the northeastern edge of the property and place the board on the ground. He stepped back and held the flashlight. I removed the bucket, then picked up the plywood and gave the whole nest a mighty heave down the bank. No swarming ensued.

Altogether I think the kids were disappointed by the lack of drama.

However, we'd just come from the lake, where we'd been watching the nearby forest fires flare in the dark. The drama there, under a dome of bright stars, definitely outdid the Wasp Stealth Manoeuvre. There are two fires visible down the lake, one near Enterprise Creek and the other further south at the head of the lake in the Springer Creek drainage. They're both pretty big and uncontained, but mostly burning upwards, away from homes and roads. Bright bursts of orange flames were visible on the ridges. Things are hot and dry here again, despite the almost two weeks of rain and cooler temperatures we had in mid-July.

High-rise tragedy

For the wasps, that is. They've calmed down and have stopped swarming, but they're not a very happy colony. Erin was able to leave the cabin easily after a couple of hours. We can now walk calmly by the nest without worry. We can squat a few feet away and watch them busily rebuilding their nursery.

I don't want to kill the poor guys with some noxious chemical or even with heat. I'm currently trying to come up with a safe way of relocating the nest.
Original Bug Shirt, gloves, shovel, bucket, garbage bag, smoking branches? Suggestions welcome!

Sunday, July 29, 2007


You'd think that if Erin were going to get trapped in the cabin by creatures of some sort, it would be by bears, or a cougar, or a pack of coyotes. But no, for almost two years, she regularly got trapped out there by our family dog. And now that we've re-homed the dog, she's still getting trapped out there due to the most unexpected types of wildlife.

Today a wind blew up and out of an overhanging birch tree fell a large wasps' nest. At least a hundred very angry wasps are currently swarming around her door.

At least she has the 7th Harry Potter book out there.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Simple Curve

We finally got a chance to see this movie. I missed the local screening, and while we had the DVD zip-listed for ages, it never quite percolated to the top of our queue. Friends kept offering to lend it to us, but we all kept forgetting.

It's a pretty enjoyable film. I think it's well-made. The casting is good, the story line is believable and, while not complex, there's a depth to it. It won a number of prestigious awards, and I think rightfully so.

What fun, though, for a family who knows every nook and cranny of the Slocan Lake area, and that knows most of the minor actors and extras. An independent film, it was filmed on a small budget without elaborate sets. It was filmed in the local hotel restaurant (we even knew which table they were sitting at), at the little bay a few minutes north, on main street across from our second-favourite café. And, since the film is set in contemporary New Denver, we didn't see our town blurred by the filter of history, like we did with The War Between Us, which was also set and filmed here.

I would swear we know most of the characters in the (fictional) plot. Nealon sure captured the spirit and personality of the area he grew up in. I'd highly recommend this film to anyone who is curious about the kind of place we live. Not for young children. There are some suggestive scenes and some discussion of sex and drug use.


Fiona spends most of the night in her own bed these days, but about half the time she shows up at first light either in my bed or in the little nest on the floor beside my bed. This morning she came for a cuddle and then sidled down onto her sleeping bag on the floor, leaving Chuck and me hoping for another half hour of sleep.

Silence descended. My eyes closed. Minutes passed.

Then suddenly an eager little face popped up over the side of the bed, mere inches from mine.

"I have baby tomatoes!" it whispered. "At home!"

I'm not sure what possessed her to shared the excitement of yesterday's discovery with me on the wrong side of 7 a.m., but what could I do but surrender to her wide-eyed excitement and that smile? We got up and as soon as I'd pried my eyelids up with a cup of coffee, we headed out to look at her little plot. It was true! Her garden at GRUBS has had baby tomatoes for a couple of weeks, but here at our higher elevation, it had taken longer. She was so excited -- not only to have the tomato babies, but to have been the first to discover them.

It wasn't only tomatoes. Miniature cucumbers were discovered, and two brilliant squash blossoms were trumpeting high on the trellis, heralding their own small squashy swellings.


It was the night the bear ate Skunk and more than half a dozen of his hatch-mates and I couldn't bring myself to post about anything else at that point. But I love the photo, so I'm posting it now. We were at a retirement potluck for two friends. Most of our friends in this particular social circle are older and their children are grown; the only couple who also had younger children moved away last year. But the adults all enjoy my children, and my children enjoy the doting interest the adults always express in their doings and goings. So it was without a single complaint that my kids allowed themselves to be herded off to the group area at the local park & campground for a potluck with a bunch of retirees and near-retirees. The food was great -- lots of salty munchies and freshly harvested Okanagan fruit to start, Judy's famous fruit punch and even meat, a rare treat for our two omnivores.

After dinner the adults played bocce on one of the pair of sandy courts and my kids acted as cheerleaders, photographers, referees and entertainment from their positions in the other court. Look at how much they enjoy making fun with mostly just each other for company. It's not that this is their only fun, or that they are their only social circle -- it's that when the situation presents itself, they enjoy each other immensely. The express genuine delight and energetic enjoyment of each other's company. This is so precious to me, one of the secret perks of homeschooling. At least when it's not 11:49 pm and happening in our living room.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Power llama

Some day I hope we'll have a couple of llamas to do this job, but in the meantime, we have a teenager who enjoys honing her driving skills on the Toro tractor.

Erin tends to disappear out of our lives at times. It waxes and wanes; sometimes she's quite involved in family life, but other times, she prefers her own space. She's very private, enjoys spending lots of time alone in her cabin, and keeps very different hours than the rest of us much of the time (she's either up until 5 a.m., or up for the day at 5 a.m., it seems). Sometimes I miss having her around. I feel like saying "hey there, stranger!" when she wanders into the house to pee or grab a bite to eat. She's funny and fun to be with when she spends time with us. We actually get along pretty well most of the time. I wish she were around to interact with a bit more. And I confess I miss her partly because she's actually capable of providing a lot of good help.

Like when she becomes our power llama. She just gets out there and whizzes around on our acre of lawn. And before I think to check on her, the mowing is done, and I haven't had to lift a finger.

Harry Potter Week

It started with a trip to see the fifth movie. We see a movie in a theatre approximately once every 12-16 months, since it entails a big drive. But HP5 was the opening night in our family Harry Potter Fest, a two-week-long gala in our home. We continued the Film Festival component at home with a revisiting of the first four videos in the privacy of our living room. And Sophie and Erin began re-reading the first six books as we awaited the 7th's release.

We've been JKR fans since way back. I bought the first book in January 1999 for Erin, then almost-5. There was no hoopla back then that we were aware of. It was just one intriguing pick off the shelves of the tiny independent bookstore that was in New Denver back then. I asked Jeff, one of the owners, about it. He highly recommended it, and mentioned a couple of other kids who had loved it too. In a very small town, you know whether your kid shares the book tastes of other local kids, and we knew that if I. had liked it, Erin would too. It was an instant hit. Over the next year, she read, or we read together (for the scary parts) the next two as well. And I don't think a year has gone by since that she hasn't read all the HP books available. We've waited impatiently for each release since then. The younger kids have had all the books read aloud to them and independent re-reads have been frequent. Noah isn't much of a novel-reader, but seems to have the best mind for detail of all of us and soaks everything in in the course of a single readaloud.

Erin is now on her second read through the 7th book. The rest of us are savouring our first go through it at a slower pace, as a readaloud. We're close to the end now and will be sorry to be done.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

World's cutest blog

Okay, I'm biased. But Fiona's new blog has got to be one of the cutest blogs in the world. I set it up for her. Noah helped her choose a template and configure a few things. He also taught her how to upload photos. But the ideas, the inspiration, the writing are all 100% Fiona.

Click on the screenshot to link to the blog itself.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

GRUBS jackpot

When we arrived at the GRUBS* garden today, this is what we saw tucked off in a nearby corner of the health centre property. The maintenance guys have been busy building something, and taking apart other things, and they used the Bobcat to dump a huge pile of debris in an out-of-the-way corner of the facility property, as has been done for decades. We were thrilled. Right away we retrieved four strong wooden pallets to build a compost bin. We'll nail and tie the pallets together next week and then transfer our new compost pile into it.

Also in the heap of debris, though, is a fair bit of decent cedar fence-board. Combined with salvaged bits of cedar 2x4's from our deck, we figure we might have a shot at building a small shed, something we've been dreaming of for a couple of years. Who knows?

We have an absolutely amazing compost pile cooking at GRUBS. We built it a few weeks ago from goat manure & bedding, grass clippings and assorted weeds and stuff. A local composting guru came and gave a bit of a talk to us all, and then helped us set the pile up the right size (1 x 1 x 1 metres), properly layered and aerated. Within a few days the interior of the pile was far too hot to touch. Those of us wearing glasses would immediately get fogged up when we peeked under the plastic. The middle of the pile is almost finished, but bits of it got dried out during our recent heat wave, so today we set to work doing another major mixing / turning / dampening-down. While forking over some dry stuff near the bottom of the pile, I suddenly heard a tiny series of squeaks. The kids were entranced to discover a nest of baby mice.
Their bodies were about 3 x 1 cm and hairless. We replaced them as gently as possible and covered them up again. I hope mama finds her way back to them.

* GRUBS, for those who need some background info, is a club I started, together with another mom, about 2 and a half years ago. It's a club for families, focused on the triple mandate of organic gardening, community service and environmental education. The core members are mostly unschooling, but anyone is welcome. We applied for and were granted a parcel of land on the corner of the primary health care facility property, where a community-based Primary [health] Care Steering Committee had pencilled in a "community greenhouse" that had never materialized. We began developing a children's community garden and GRUBS meeting area on the site.

The site is perfect for our needs, in that it is adjacent to the lake (with its moderating influence on temperatures, giving us a somewhat longer growing season) and right in town. It has a partly-shaded lawn on one side, a swimming beach in front, and a lovely wooded area on the other side. There's a nursing home on the far side of the lawn, meaning that residents and their visitors often drop by to visit with the children. And the view, my goodness! Straight down to lake with nothing but mountainous wilderness to be seen. We are so lucky. It's a million-dollar parcel of gravel.

The gravel, pierced by beech and birch roots, has been our nemesis, though. The front half of the area in particular was bereft of any topsoil. So building the garden has been a big, long-term job. We stripped off the sod and composted it, then returned it to create a couple of raised beds. We created more raised beds at the back of the area using nutritionally depleted topsoil and great piles of manure we were generously given. And we continue to add almost anything organic we can find to the site in an attempt to create more growing substrate and nutrients.

In the meantime, we work here and there at community service endeavours. We're involved in harvesting and processing surplus fruit for people who are unable to manage their own. We bought a wonderful fruit press to help us towards that end. We volunteer with gardening and environmental work bees that occur around town. And we've had guest speakers come to talk to us about wildlife, wildcrafting, wildlife habitats and various other environmental issues.

This year we're all exceptionally busy with the rest of our chaotic lives. We try to meet once a week for a two-hour meeting and work party at the garden, but it's hit and miss. With visits to the garden haphazardly during the week, the kids maintain their own plots, and we manage to weed and water regularly. But it's been a bit of a challenge to keep the social energy and enthusiasm going from week to week. Still, when we get there on a Saturday morning and run into a couple of other GRUBS families and a couple of interested visitors, and see the riotous growth that has occurred since we were last together, it's clear that we're doing something long-term and important and exciting.

Straddle climb

When I was a kid we did this too, but only between doorjambs and hallway walls, so we were limited by the ceiling. Outside, between western red cedars, the sky's the limit. Or one's sense of good judgement, whichever comes first. The fortunate feature of this particular pair of trees is that they're too far apart for Fiona to straddle.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Creating explosives

Noah has been creating explosive compounds during readaloud time. Not real ones -- just the models. We're reading from "Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History" and are into the chapter on nitro compounds. Schonbein's wife's exploding apron ('guncotton') was a great segué into this chapter.

There are lots of chemical structures drawn in the book, so while I'm reading the text, we'll be building the molecules in questions out of our MolyMod kit. It was fun to look at glucose transforming itself from a linear to a cyclic arrangement, and to imagine how big 100 million such rings would be in a cellulose molecule.

I have a thing for colour. Not in the artistic sense -- in the symbolic sense. I love cuisenaire rods because the association of colour, length and mathematical value works so well for me. And I love how striking the two-reds-and-a-blue nitro group combination is in the MolyMod kit. We'd made lots of molecules in the past, but focusing on the nitro group through our reading and its distinctive colourful representation in the kit has really made this information stick for the kids.

Chemistry is poking it's many-faceted face out of a variety of corners around here lately. For some strange reason some of my children have decided to memorize as much of the periodic table
as they can. Erin, who is a visual/textual learner, decided to write the elements out in order. From memory for the first 50 or 70, and then cribbing off the table.

There's something funny about a four-year-old coming up to you with a big grin and saying "Magnesium is 12 and Aluminum is 13."

As with everything, even the apparently mundane task of memorizing the periodic table turns into hilarity and storytelling with my kids. Elements quickly become associated with people whose ages match their atomic number. Jokes and stories evolve. Grandma E. is radon! People hate her because she lurks in their basements and does unhealthy things.

Life's never dull.

If you're planning a visit

If you're planning to visit us, take this warning to heart: use the back door. The front door, which enters off the used-to-be-a-deck, is not only missing much of its decking -- what is there has been carefully and deceptively laid out to give the illusion of stability. The inner circle within our family knows the secret route across, but it's not clear to a casual visitor, and the remainder is booby-trapped in multiple ways.

The kids spent hours rigging up these booby-traps today. Shown in the photo is an early stage in construction. I can't reveal too much here. The evil enemy might be reading this blog.

It's not that we don't love visitors. If you're not the evil enemy, don't be deterred. Just come to the back door.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Poster children on duty

I almost posted on Tuesday about the state of our house.

The weather has been very very hot recently. Dry. Scorchingly dry. The smell of forest fires in the air, the haze of far-away fires hanging over the lake. Inside the house, the lights have mostly stayed off to keep the heat down and it has been hard to see the accumulating dirt and mess. I had been working myself silly on the UPPCC. The kids had been working themselves silly destroying the deck. (Pry-bars are physics, right?) Where meal-prep had occurred it had been slap-dash, and clean-up had only been partial.

In the evenings, when it cooled down, do you think we wanted to spend our last hours of exhaustion tidying? No. We were off to the lake for a dip, or throwing our weary bodies on the floor in front of a Harry Potter DVD, or playing music, or sitting under the turbo-ceiling-fan reading. So the house was a hot dark mess. We didn't care. We were mostly either outside or asleep.

And then the phone rang Tuesday evening. Chuck's sister B. had tried calling a few times earlier, but of course we'd been outside working. She and her husband, who normally live in Ontario, were in the middle of a road trip west. They were two hours north of us. Would we welcome a quick visit?

Well, of course! The kids have only met B. a handful of times, and she'd only visited us one here, and we've all only met G. once. All the way from Ontario? How could we resist? So I enthusiastically invited them to spend a day or two.

I hung up the phone. We had two hours. Normally, intensive cleaning and tidying drives me bonkers because it all falls to me. But the need was so acute and so time-limited that everyone pitched in, full-on. No one slunk their way through one assigned job and faded into the background. Every child showed initiative. Chuck came in from the shop and set to work. I'd wipe down the kitchen counters and turn around to discover that yet another room had miraculously tidied and vacuumed itself. What would have taken me 8 hours took the bunch of us about an hour and a half. By the time B. & G. arrived, I was making bread in my sparkling clean & tidy kitchen. My family had outdone itself!

But it didn't stop there. My children somehow transmogrified themselves into the poster children for unschooling that are their angelic alter-egos. Both B. and G. are high school teachers, and I'm always a little sensitive to impressions around the countless members of Chuck's family who are current or former teachers. It was as if my kids were performing from the script of my dreams. They talked, they smiled, they answered questions. They were polite and well-mannered. They kept it real by exercising their copious powers of creative play and their dry senses of humour. They played card games, they played weird hilarious games quizzing each other on chemical elements, they played chess, they bantered back and forth. They played together, with obvious caring and affection for each other.

They got up early in the morning. They were bright and full of energy. They helped themselves to healthy breakfasts. They went outside and biked and swung and twirled and tumbled. They tended the chickens. They talked about books they enjoyed. By request they each played some music for our guests. Fiona did a lovely job of "Musette", beaming all the while at Erin. Noah threw his heart into the "Nina" by Pergolesi. Sophie's Vivaldi fingers flew. Erin played "The Cat and the Mouse" by Aaron Copeland on piano, a brilliant, funny piece that showcases all her technical ability and sense of humour. The kids applauded for each other with enthusiasm. They played some more logic games. They set to work on the deck-wrecking. They were eager, pleasant, well-behaved, interesting and polite.

I write this all down not to brag, but because sometimes I need to be reminded that my children are these wonderful people. They are not just slovenly layabouts who do nothing but consume bandwidth and breakfast cereal. They may act like slovenly layabouts much of the time, but inside them are these wonderful, capable, helpful, compassionate, erudite young people. Later this week, or next month or next year, when I am despairing over their lack of empathy or gumption or moral fibre, I can read this and remind myself that they can behave just beautifully.

Then again, as I write this I realize that perhaps it wasn't entirely that they were behaving differently. Maybe it was also that I was looking at them through the eyes of our visitors and seeing them in a different light.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Jelly with blisters

Yesterday after a couple of hours of hard digging at GRUBS, I came home and set about building the Ultimate Predator-Proof Chicken Corral, henceforth known as the UPPCC. I sledge-hammered the rest of the ancient concrete slab and made a pile of busted-up concrete that I don't know what to do with. You can see it in the picture below, on the far side of the corral. I dug the better part of 9 post holes, 7 of them through clay. It takes about 10 times longer (no exaggeration!) to dig a post hole through clay than through porous soil. In the interest of expediency I sent Chuck off this morning to buy some posts. Falling, limbing and peeling small cedars for the same purpose would have taken ages. Finished the post holes this morning. Sunk the posts. Children were very helpful at holding them vertical while backfilling. Salvaged a gate (our property used to house some dog kennels -- chain-link gates are everywhere). Whacked apart some more concrete to get gate-hanging hardware. Re-dug the post hole that was in the wrong place for the gate. "Measure twice, dig once," right? Oops.

I installed the gate. Fiona was good company and was suitably impressed with my gate. I don't think she'd had much faith... Then I installed some fascia underneath the coop to prevent the chickens from escaping from the corral via that crawl-space. Dug a trench around the perimeter so that the bottom 6-8" of fence could be buried in the ground to deter coyotes, weasels and the like from digging their way in. Attached the first piece of fencing.

At this point a feeling of satisfaction began to take root. I admit I opened the gate and walked into my UPPCC (which was only about 1/4 fenced at this point) several times, just for the pleasure of entering and exiting a structure which was beginning to feel like an enclosure.

When Chuck got home from work he helped me lift the rooflet into place. It fit! It's a salvaged bit of tin roof attached to a log frame, and I had hoped to just lay it on the fence stringers. It worked. That was definite consolation for the misplaced gatepost hole.

I finished the first run of fencing. It's 48" fencing, buried 6" in the ground, so not much over 3 feet high. Not exactly bear-proof, but a start. I was able to let the chickens out into the enclosure while I kept working. I decided it was time to have something to eat (I'd subsisted on fluids thus far) and realized it was 5 p.m.. Definitely time for breakfast!

I realized that the best source of stringers for the top of the fenceposts would be the deck, which is falling apart and needs to be dismantled (I think that was supposed to be last year's renovation project). So I set the kids to work busting up the deck. Lots of noise is good when you're in bear country, and they certain made lots of noise. They did a great job of being meticulous with nail removal; I was very impressed, since they were totally unsupervised, and, as you'll see above, Noah was not exactly wearing steel-toed work boots. I got three or four stringers installed thanks to the kids' salvage efforts.

The next step was to start fencing up and over the top. A couple of bears showed up to remind me why. They just skirted the lawn and we just ignored them and kept on working. The kids are getting pretty matter-of-fact about the bears and so am I. The kids were in the UPPCC with me, and eventually asked if they could go back to the house. The bears didn't seem anywhere nearby. "Yeah," I said. "Just go together, and make noise. And keep your eyes peeled. Scream if you need to." It's only about 25 metres to the house, and the bears usually don't come close to the house. I kept working, though I did listen for the reassuring clunk of the door shutting behind them. Maybe I'm getting too complacent. Note to self: watch children to make sure they don't get eaten by bears.

It was getting late and the chickens were happily heading into the coop on their own. I shooed them in and locked everything up tight. Tomorrow I'll keep working on stringers and upper and top fencing. But the sledge-hammering and digging are done, thank goodness! I haven't worked this hard physically in a long long time. I felt like jelly playing my viola. Jelly with blisters. Lots of 'em.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Manic robins

What is this robin thinking? What kind of nest is this? It is almost a metre long, attached to one of the milled logs that makes up the front wall of our house. Most of the immense nest-beard is a piece of the 20-foot long Big Rope that hangs from between some trees in our yard. The Abominable Dog used to love to chase and chew on that rope, pulling off occasional strands and wadding them up into tangles. Fortunately the rope is perfectly functional still, but one of the wadded-up tangles was discovered by a robin. I would love to know how it got it up there.

The nest itself is just beginning to take shape, with the robins eagerly flying back and forth this evening. "It's not really a nest yet," I said after dinner. "It's more a stockpile of materials for a potential nest." Chuck quipped "reminds me of some people we know."

I don't think they read this blog, but if they do, I think they'll see the humour (and the truth) in that remark. And they'll know who they are. ;-)


Aren't cherries fun? With their paired stems and lovely red fruit, they make delightful over-the-ear pendants. Harvest jewelry, if you will. And let's not even get started on pit-spitting, which has been elevated to an art form by Fiona and her adult friend Katrina.

But when it comes right down to it, cherries are for eating. And the more the better.

But maybe not all in your mouth at once.... ??

RIP Skunk

Yesterday we went to the park to meet some friends for a potluck dinner. While we were there, we talked (as we always do) about who has had bear problems. "The Big Cinnamon Bear" that's been a problem around various properties east of town came up for discussion. No, we'd had a smallish black bear, and a larger black one, but not the BCB.

But when we came home, there he was. He had trashed the fencing around our chicken corral and was sitting inside it, merrily feasting on 9 of our hens, including our beloved Skunk. The carnage was awful.

Several other favourites survived -- Toy, Brownie, Minnie and Beluga. But Skunk, the greatest rooster-to-be I ever met, the Pinball Clemens of chickens, with his falcon-like head and brick-red and iridescent black-green plumage, our one-of-a-kind heritage breed Ameraucana cockerel, is no more.

Today the bear was back a couple of times. Chuck gave him one good sting with the air rifle and he took off somewhat reluctantly. The chickens have to have almost arms-length supervision at this point. I had them out for three hours of free-ranging, (which was when the bear showed up) but they are back inside the coop now under lock and key.

Time is of the essence now. I had gradually been smashing up the bits of concrete and digging up the metal posts that riddle the area where the fully-enclosed outdoor chicken run needs to go. Today I spent hours smashing, throwing and digging post holes. Between Chuck and me we got seven of the nine done. Tomorrow we begin construction.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Still lovin' it

Fiona started learning violin on a box almost two years ago. A little over 18 months ago, she became very eager to be included in the regular Tuesday routine of violin lessons that her siblings were part of. Her grandma began giving her little five-minute 'lessons,' just to fulfil her need to feel included. But, though we had no such expectations, she began to progress. And she loved it!

She has an unusual combination of two traits that keep it fun month after month. The first is her emotional resilience and ability to cope with mistake-making, to see the learning opportunities in mistakes rather than simply getting angry about them. Today she was working on polishing the infamous last section of Gossec Gavotte. In the midst of one of the sixteenth-note slurs, an extra finger went down and she played a sextuplet instead of a quadruplet of sixteenths. It was like her finger had played a joke on her, and it was a very funny joke indeed. "Where did that come from?" she shrieked and launched into a hysterical giggling fit. Then she had to try to replicate it, and that led to more hilarity. I was thrilled that I had the camera handy, and that she's so un-self-conscious around it.

The second trait is her intense focus. At the beginning of her practicing today I suggested she play slow piece as a warm-up, and that she could choose to think either about her tone, or about her left thumb. These are longstanding focus-points, so I left it up to her which to choose and didn't give any other guidance. "See if I can tell which you're thinking about," I challenged her. So she launched into the piece. And suddenly I realized that she was thinking very intensely, and very productively, about two new skills that are far more complex than the ones I suggested -- "walking independent fingers" in the left hand, and the subtle left elbow swing that helps position the fingers at their best mechanical advantage over each string as appropriate. "Chorus," which she was playing, is one of her more recent pieces, and rather than doing simply what I'd asked, she chose to do an exceptional job of not one but two pretty complicated new tasks, simultaneously. This is typical. She is always trying to "go farther" with things. She never takes the simplest choice. She chooses to challenge herself, far beyond my expectations. And with such pleasure!

I know other kids with a lot of focused intensity (a few of them in my family, actually). And I know other kids with emotional resilience. But to get both happening to such a degree in the same pint-sized body is something special.

We have our not-so-great days too. In the past six months there have actually been a few days when she didn't want to practice (and so we didn't). And for the past two or three months, many of her practice sessions have been brief and cursory, under 30 minutes. But she's now got past the 'hump' at the end of Book 1, and she's still lovin' it. What am I doing right with this kid? Nothing special, I think. Mostly I'm just lucky.

First crack

One of my friendly-but-anonymous blog visitors left me a comment a few weeks ago that turned me on to the idea of home-roasted coffee. This great how-to page at coffeegeek has comprehensive instructions on home-roasting in a popcorn popper. Thanks to eBay (ready source of used hot-air poppers) and a nearby coffee roastery that sells organic / fairly traded / co-op managed / shade-grown green beans from various sources, we were able to try this out for the first time today. We worked outside because of the heat from the popper and the messy chaff that blows out of the popper and only mostly into a bowl.

It worked beautifully. We were able to hear "first crack" (a harsher sound of cracking beans) and then later recognize the subtler "second crack" as the beans headed into the dark-roast phase. When the beans come out of the popper, they need to be cooled quickly to halt the roasting process, and gosh, they are really hot. Our over-the-sink colander/strainer worked really well and Fiona and Sophie were both eager to "shake the beans." What we ended up with was full-city-plus dark roasted beans that look luscious. They're a blend of Sumatran, Salvadoran and Guatamalan. We'll wait a couple of days for the off-gassing of the beans to be complete before grinding and brewing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Creative play

I can always count on my kids to come up with new ways of playing. The other day I had the overhead projector down from the loft. I was using it to enlarge the SVI logo onto painted wooden signs to help new registrants find their way to the school. As usual it took me a while to get around to packing the projector away again. Before I knew it, my kids were using it in all sorts of bizarre ways. Almost anything with light and shadow got tried. Shadow puppets made with hands or found objects, beam-splitting tricks using mirrors, colour mixing. Sophie spent an hour cutting out the whole alphabet from paper and the kids had fun projecting weird scrambly messages on the ceiling.

An invention the other evening was "Death Object Duel." It was a game that got played somewhat surreptitiously over the course of time spent also doing other things. Noah and Sophie each picked an object to be their Death Object. Say, the wall-mounted pencil sharpener, or the wastebasket. The idea behind the game is to trick your unwary opponent into touching something that is in some indirect way physically in contact with their Death Object. (Walls, floor and fixed furniture don't count.) Sophie set up a casual-looking pile of mess on the floor, with a beach towel at one end, that she hoped Noah would walk by and accidentally touch with his foot. On closer examination, the mess pile was somewhat linear, and at one end was a piece of yarn ... that looked like it was heading towards the wall with the pencil sharpener!

Today I came home from a meeting with two very worn but still very functional thick school gym mats that had been heading for the dump. What a score! The kids have been asking for real gym mats for ages. I wonder what they'll dream up to do with them.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Out of the dirt

The really nice thing about the Gatto quote I used in my recent post is that it acts as a segué into any of a number of gardening-themed educational metaphors.

This is part of the GRUBS garden. Along this fence run a set of seven beds, each comprised of two 1x1 metre plots. These are the children's individual beds. When we started the GRUBS club we were thrilled to get a huge donation of well-composted horse manure. We put most of that manure into these beds; the soil in them is probably 50% manure.

Each child plants what he wants in his bed and is responsible for tending the bed through the spring and summer. What a variety of beds there are! One is a spare, careful arrangement of a small number of different veggies. Another is a riot of voluntary nasturtiums, radishes going to seed, dill and basil. Some kids have huge lettuces, while others are going for height with the beans, peas and sunflowers. One child planted mostly turnips. Another bed is full of poppies and a massive gladiola. Other kids have planted a little bit of everything. Some kids have a lot of weeds; in some plots the radishes, cress and lettuces are way past their prime and are bolting to seed.

If the point of the GRUBS individual plots was to grow the maximum amount of marketable produce over the growing season, some kids would definitely be far in the lead. But for the children, and by extension for the adults who mentor them here, it's not all about the product -- it's about the experience of having a garden. Every plot is fertile and productive in its own way. Some kids produce lots of attractive and useful vegetables, some produce beautiful flowers, and some produce some of each. But some kids don't grow any of that. Last year Sophie grew almost nothing but radishes, which she doesn't even particularly enjoy eating, and so she let most go to seed. It seemed a bit of a waste -- until the end of the season, when we pulled out the dried-up plants. It turned out that what she excelled at was generating seed, and at planting time this spring, and at this year's seed exchange, she was a hero with her large quantity of easter egg radish seed. The next generation of radishes has had a fabulous year, thanks to her. And then, there are the weeds. This spring one neglected plot became almost completely overgrown with weeds. One day as a favour Fiona and I sat down and weeded it out ... and suddenly realized that around his handful of dwarfed tomato and pepper plants this boy had grown us a bumper crop of sumptuous chicken feed. Our chickens were thrilled.

Do you see where this is going? Classically Gifted Kids are like plots of dirt that produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. But every plot of fertile dirt, like every child's mind, does a fantastic job of growing something. Maybe lowly but lovely turnips. Maybe radish seeds that will enliven countless other gardens in due course. Maybe just weeds, the purslane and lamb's quarters that chickens will enjoy. But incredible, miraculous growth nonetheless.

Cherry picking

Noah is showing some interest in the camera. He notices colours especially, and several times in the past week has gone to grab the camera when he's noticed some interesting colours outside. He liked the red and green together in this photo. It's worth enlarging a bit by clicking to really appreciate the cloud of cherries that are surrounding Fiona.

The GRUBS club volunteers to help pick fruit trees to reduce bear issues in town. We either give the fruit to the tree owner or, if (as is usually the case) the owner has a bumper crop and just wants the fruit gone, we save it to use in our Harvest Festival and/or to give away. This weekend we had a go at this Queen Anne cherry tree. As usual it was the youngest children who were the ones who wanted to spend all their time at the very top of the available ladders.

Whiteboard art

After an initial burst of interest in her Teaching Textbooks Algebra 1 program, Erin's progress has slowed substantially. She's finished Lesson 56, so is almost halfway done the program, and I guess the novelty has worn off a bit. She's still doing a lesson every day or two, but her appetite has definitely diminished. She likes to use the whiteboard for her equations, because easy (cancelling out) simplifications can be done with just a swipe of the finger. The other day she sat down to do a lesson and ended up doing this endless whiteboard doodle instead. (Photo by Fiona)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Common as Dirt

"After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves. "

That quote is obviously a bit of an unschooling manifesto. My goodness, Gatto turns a nice phrase. But it also touches on something I've been thinking of again in the past week or two. It began when an on-line friend e-mailed me a couple of links and suggestions from the TAGMAX e-mail list, and asked if she should continue forwarding such things, because maybe I was on TAGMAX. Was I? Would I consider joining? She recommended it. Good list -- busy, but lots of great info.

Well, I was on that e-mail list, once, for a while. See, the "TAG" in TAGMAX is "Talented and Gifted." The "MAX" I suppose has something to do with maximizing potential through an individualized, home-based learning approach. TAGMAX is for parents homeschooling Gifted Kids. Upper-case G Gifted. Members of that special club of the intellectual elite.

There was a time, many years ago, when I looked at the things my eldest was doing and felt proud, amazed, special, awed. I realized that there was some pretty unusual stuff going on there -- especially in its manner, depth and intensity. I joined TAGMAX and couple of on-line message board for parents of gifted kids. I admit it felt nice to be part of a 'club' of parents of, well, special-in-THAT-particular-way kids. It was helpful to hear from others who had grappled with barely-five-year-old fluent readers of Young Adult level fiction. It felt comfortable to be in a place where asking a question about explaining negative numbers to a curious five-year-old didn't get you accused of academic hothousing. And I especially enjoyed the stimulating discussion among outside-the-box, creative parents about all facets of parenting and education.

But the good stuff came at a price for me. I found that hearing about early achievements made me want my kids to meet or surpass those achievements. When I heard of kids being fast-tracked academically, of parents advocating long and hard for academic challenge and enrichment, I felt competitive stirrings inside me. I found I was trying to reassure myself that my kids could do this or that, at least if they wanted to. I didn't act on those feelings, but I didn't like having them and it cost me emotional energy to beat them back.

I unsubscribed from TAGMAX pretty quickly. I was pretty sure that in a school situation my kids would meet the criteria for giftedness, but I lost all interest in the label. Gradually I felt much better. I just relaxed into what was working with my kids, and things seemed to flow pretty well without the need for specialized approaches and resources. What I discovered is that it just doesn't matter whether an unschooled child is intellectually gifted or not. There is no poorness of fit with the curriculum, or with the classroom of age-peers. There are no problematic asynchronicities when you step outside the box of a conventional educational approach. There is no need for a label, for testing, for Identification in an unschooling environment. If your child is reading and comprehending at a high school level but doesn't yet print lower case letters, it doesn't matter one whit. If your child relates best to older children or adults with similar interests and is a fish out of water with agemates, that's perfectly fine.

That was the first realization: giftedness is a non-issue in an unschooling environment. That was the easy one. The not-so-easy one came later, more gradually, and it has to do with Gatto's "common as dirt" comment.

First I should say that I know, and understand why, comments like "all children have gifts" raise the dander of parents of highly gifted kids in the school system. That phrase often epitomizes the perspective of a person who seeks to remove individualized educational resources and services from children who are intellectually precocious. It can be a way of saying "everyone's special, so we should just treat everyone the same." Personally I believe if everyone's special, that means we should treat everyone uniquely, including the most intellectually precocious kids.

But I tend to agree with Gatto: genius is as common as dirt. See, I teach Suzuki violin, and over the past decade of part-time teaching I've taught probably twenty or thirty children. And while I haven't seen that spark of genius inside them all, I've seen it in so many of them that I'm pretty certain that when I haven't seen it, the deficiency is in the observer, not the child. It's not always academic-style genius, of course. But neither is it the platitude type of pseudo-genius, the sort of thing you make a point to publicly recognize in people who haven't really done anything exceptional but do have strengths in one area that occasionally let them shine. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about real brilliance. So many children have it!

Some children are like shiny coins you can hold in your hand and you see their brilliance staring you in the face. Other children are like shiny coins dropped on the lawn -- every bit as brilliant, but you won't see that brilliance unless the sun is shining, and you're standing in just the right place and looking in just the right direction.

My children are more like shiny coins you can hold in your hand and admire. They have clear intellectual precocity that people notice easily. Erin and Fiona especially. Sophie is sometimes like that, but at other times is a shiny coin left in the change pot on the kitchen counter, merrily shining away but not attracting as much attention. And Noah is sometimes the shiny coin you put in one of your inumerable jacket pockets and have to search for for a couple of minutes to find. My children are incredibly special and incredibly brilliant. I'm thrilled that I've had as easy a time as I have discovering and nurturing their gifts, and that unschooling has allowed them to soar by, as Gatto suggests, managing themselves. They're exceptional, perhaps, in that their gifts are easy to see and show up seemingly magically in neat and tangible ways. But I don't think they're exceptional in having gifts. Just common as dirt.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Wrong day in the lake

Yesterday Chuck took the kids down to the lake for a quick swim before supper. I stayed home, ostensibly to work on SVI administrative stuff and start dinner, though I didn't quite get to the latter. It was a scorcher of a day and though our un-air-conditioned house with its log walls and deep roof overhang stays pretty cool, things were getting pretty hot and sticky even chez nous. A swim was a welcome bit of refreshment for them all.

They came back raving about how warm the lake was in the little bay where they swim, in front of the GRUBS garden. "Almost like bathwater" they said. Now, in the context of a glacier-fed lake, "almost like bathwater" just means "cold, but not painfully so." It means it's tough to get wet, but after a few minutes it feels not so bad, at least not until you start to turn blue. My kids, born and raised on this lake, don't mind cold water. At Halcyon Hot Springs they will willingly play in the "cold plunge" pool, which is a mere 50 degrees F. But Chuck concurred -- the lake was incredibly warm in the bay. Actually enjoyable for someone raised in Ontario to swim in.

Today was another scorcher and the kids were eager for a post-supper dip, so I volunteered to take them down. I'm not much of one for ice cold water, having also been raised in Ontario. I'd heard the "bathwater" word the day before, and I was looking forward to a nice dip.

Erin, as always, was the first to hit the water. "Argghhh! It's freezing!!!" she said. At first I thought she was kidding. She's the one who never minds cold water; she normally says "naw, it's not cold," and waltzes right in, even when it is cold. But she wasn't kidding. Even after she stood there, half in, for a few minutes, her legs kept aching from the cold. The rest of us ventured slowly in. Partly.

I grabbed the thermometer from the GRUBS garden to test the water -- a mere 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Yikes!

Slocan Lake is deep, very deep -- as deep as 1700 feet at one point. And so it holds incredible amounts of water. The top few feet will warm up in summer (and cool down in winter) but the bottom 95% of the water in the lake stays at pretty much the same temperature year-round.

Even with winter cold snaps of minus twenty for days on end, the lake doesn't freeze, except maybe just a foot or two around the edges. Except back in '54 (or was it '57? they still talk about it...) it was so calm and so cold for so long that there was ice from New Denver to Silverton.

Calm is what's needed for the air to affect the surface water temperature, and I guess that's what there wasn't between last night and tonight. We live up a side canyon, and we certainly didn't experience any appreciable wind, but clearly something stirred up the water enough to stir the icy depths up to the surface.

We all eventually got in. Only Erin (on purpose) and Fiona (by way of an accident) dunked their heads. No one but Erin stayed in for more than a couple of minutes. Sheesh, did I ever pick the wrong day to be the designated parent at the lake.

Afterwards we ate lots of cherries off the nearby trees for dessert. It's our civic duty to eat as many cherries as we can off town trees to reduce the bear risk. Consider it community service.

FMS Syndrome

In response to the following homeschooling message board query:

"Does anyone feel sad about the good school things your child misses?"

My friend S., a wise unschooling mom of a fully-fledged adult daughter, calls this "FMS Syndrome" -- 'Fraid of Missing Something Syndrome. Then she points out that any time you make a choice, you're missing something. Have Cheerios for breakfast and you miss out on Froot Loops. Marry Bob and you miss out on marrying Bill. Homeschool and you miss out on school. That's how life works. You can't live your life regretting not having the things you didn't choose.

When I was on the threshold of declaring myself a homeschooling parent, I had similar concerns. At that point my only frame of reference was schooling, because I was schooled. So when I envisioned a homeschooled childhood, I envisioned something vague and intangible devoid of those school experiences. But I didn't really appreciate what would go into that void instead.

Now that I'm almost a decade into homeschooling, I can say with assurance that the instead stuff rocks, that schoolkids miss out on a heck of a lot. I can point to zillions of moments, experiences, connections, warm-fuzzies, relationships and adventures that my kids have had that school children could not possibly experience. Every once in a while I pull myself up short, look at what my kids are doing at a particular moment, and think "this is fantastic -- and there's no way this would be happening if they went to school"

To those who wax nostalgic about that sense of belonging to a grad year ... I wanted to say that I think that for all the sentimentality we formerly-schooled adults feel, it's pretty shallow stuff. It was the best we could do, to draw our sense of community identity from our grade-year. It was a contrived institutional pseudo-community, but it was all we had, and we made the best of it. In fact, we were so desperate for a sense of community that we elevated the 'grad class' identity and values to ridiculous and pretty meaningless heights. Sometimes, fortunately, real meaningful human connections formed that transcended the institutional pseudo-community. Not often, but fortunately sometimes.

My kids draw their sense of identity from deep within themselves, from the real community they live in and from the real work and real connections they form over the long term with other children, adult friends and mentors. They don't need the arbitrary and contrived pseudo-community of agemates / grad year. What they have is very rich indeed. Instead.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Not a skunk, the Skunk. Skunk, the chicken, that we've had a soft spot for since he popped out of the post office box as a day-old chick with striking black and blond striped markings. As a youngster he had personality and markings that made me grab the camera. Even as he grew into that lanky adolescent phase we knew there was something special about him. We'd decided quite early on that we would keep a rooster in this flock, and that it would be one of our four Ameracaunas, since we want to hatch more of this breed. So we were thrilled to peg Skunk as a cockerel. He's our keeper.

Skunk has a reputation as the Pinball Clemens of chickens. He rarely uses his wings, but oh my, his legs! He is quick and incredibly agile. He swerves and dekes and is impossible to outrun, though the kids try frequently. The only way to get him from the coop to the corral is to let him think it's his idea. Herding him does not work in the slightest, not even with three or four children, one of whom is operating a remote-control Hummer in an attempt to cut him off as he comes around the corner. Picture the roadrunner of cartoon fame. He's quite something.

It's not just me, either. Noah was the one wandering around with the camera today, and he chose Skunk as his subject. Skunk is now well into adolescence and his black tail-feathers are starting to grow out with a gorgeous green iridescence. His pea comb is the chicken equivalent of a teenage boy's first hint of facial hair. While the photo above shows his philosophical side, the one on the right is quintessential Skunk. His legs are bluish-grey, but you can't see them. They're a Looney Tunes blur and nothing more.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Up she goes

We took the kids climbing today for the first time. Fiona, who had patiently watched the 'big kids' through all their rappelling at Homeschoolers Family Camp without complaint, got it into her head that she would be climbing today. We set up a top-rope on a short easy face, and up she went. The photo takes it all delightfully out of context -- she could be three hundred feet up Half Dome for all you can tell, but in actual fact she's only about 5 feet off the ground. The gear, though, it's all about the gear. The kids' harness, cinched as tight as it can go and still not small enough, but heck, she wasn't going much beyond where we could actually reach her. The regulation rock-climbing helmet. The purple top-rope with its double figure-of-eight knot and two carabiners. The jerry-rigged (pink!) chest harness. Oh yeah, she was thrilled. And when we lowered her off the rock face, she sat back in her harness in that wonderful relaxed rappel position that the older kids had learned at camp. "I knew, because I watched the other kids at the camp," she said. "So I sat down in my harness, and you didn't even have to tell me."

The bigger kids were happy too. The sun was blisteringly hot, and we were climbing with the sun shining full force on the west-facing rock -- next time we'll go earlier. But they still hung in patiently waiting for their turns and were enthusiastic about the experience. Due to unfamiliarity with the area, we settled on a small, conservative climb right beside the main trail. But everyone got at least a couple of climbs in, amidst lots of trading of harnesses, shoes and helmets.

Afterwards, a sandy beach and the refreshing glacier-fed lake was just a few short blocks away. Ahhh!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Arpeggione

Yesterday I started work on the 1st movement of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata. It's the top-level audition piece in the Suzuki viola teacher training system. For a few years I've been thinking I ought to document and formalize my Suzuki teacher training, and I got it into my head that I ought to do a video audition of the Mozart A Major Violin Concerto. I did a few trial video runs on my own over the past year or two and was fairly happy, but kept thinking I'd like to polish the last few glitches out and do a better job. It never really crystallized. Timing was the issue. I don't actually play violin a whole lot any more; in ensembles I'm usually a violist. So I kept trying to find a month or two where I could really focus on violin and notch the Mozart up that last little bit to the standard I was aspiring to. It didn't happen.

So then, a month or two ago, I thought to myself "I should do the audition on viola." This made perfect sense except for a few little details. First, I've never formally studied viola. It's similar to violin, so I just kind of learned the alto clef and picked the instrument up on my own -- I've never had a lesson. Second, I don't know the repertoire. The Arpeggione Sonata is a case in point. I'd heard this in its cello arrangement, but I'd never even heard it on viola, let alone played it. Thirdly, I've played almost no solo repertoire on viola. It's very different playing the middle harmonies in a string quartet or orchestra than playing a concerto or sonata solo line. I'm honestly not sure I'm up to the challenge. I know I could pass the violin audition, but I'm a little, er, untested in the viola solo department.

But I ordered the music, and found myself an iTunes recording. And yesterday I set to work. I puzzled over some of the octave leaps in my edition of the sheet music. They didn't match what was in the recording. I checked the cello score -- and that didn't match either version. So then I went onto the internet to try to figure out what was happening with these various edits.

That was when I got reminded of what I had once known but long forgotten. "Arpeggione" is not the name or description of the sonata. The arpeggione was an instrument -- fretted and tuned like a guitar, but played much like a cello. It was invented during Schubert's time, but just didn't quite make the grade. It was essentially extinct within about 10 years. Schubert's gorgeous sonata was one of the few works of any importance written for it. So the strange edits and odd octave leaps are the result of transcribing the work from an instrument with a wide range and six strings onto one with a smaller range and only four strings.

I love this piece. I've made some decisions about where to jump octaves, and where to head up up up into the rafters of 10th position, and I love how it's starting to sound. I've spoken to my pianist friend about playing the accompaniment. Erin could easily handle the accompaniment, but I think J. would be more eager to undertake this as a project; Erin has copious ensemble and performance opportunities and would likely take it on as an obligation, rather than an opportunity.

This feels like the first time in a long time that I've set aside significant time to do something that's just for me. I love practicing this piece, and I am enjoying working towards the goal of performing it (probably on recital next season, as well as for the Suzuki teacher training video audition). Just for me. Ha!

Maybe that was what triggered my rant last night ... that while the rest of my family had done pretty much exactly what they wanted all day, I had been unable to carve out the little bit of time I wanted to practice my beloved Arpeggione Sonata. I got a good couple of hours in today, by way of payback. I've almost got it memorized, at which point I can start really polishing.

Happy Canada Day

Noah's quartet played five numbers today at the Canada Day celebrations, and then the Suzuki violins & violas did an impromptu performance. It was hot, the audience was small, but it was worth doing.

Afterwards we all had gelato at our favourite café and hung out with our friends. Erin sat down at the café piano and played some lovely stuff -- a jazzy "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Piazzola's haunting "Milongo del Angel", and a couple of sentimental impressionistic things. People love her playing. Then home for supper, practicing, and chasing the chickens into the coop.

Then it was time to head out to the Day Park for fireworks. There's always Canada's birthday cake to eat, live entertainment, crazy kids and hot chocolate to sip while visiting with scores of friends. Fiona definitely caught the "crazy kids" bug, and was having lots of fun running around and tumbling here and there. Erin happily gave her airplane rides for ages, giving worrywort adults palpitations as Fiona swung faster and faster, higher and higher.

Finally the fireworks began, over the lake, with the booming echoes back from the mountainous shores of the lake. For the first time, Fiona was able to sit smiling, blinking at the flashing sky, without cringing and covering her ears. She loved the show. She was asleep by the time we finished the five-minute drive home.

Small real-life rant

I heard myself say this after supper this evening, in carefully clipped speech:

"You know, there's no rule that says the oldest female in a family is responsible for all the housekeeping and cooking and has to do everything all the time for everyone, unless someone should deign to do her a rare favour by helping out with something."

Alas, while the children were all witness to my rant, the spousal unit was asleep. The total extent of the effect of my rant was that a 10-year-old boy consented to finish sweeping the kitchen floor without mentioning the "slave" word again.

It felt like a very long day and, Erin's lovely performance aside, I am feeling really sick of holding the ball for everything and everyone in this family. All I wanted was half an hour to practice my viola, without things going from bad to worse in the rest of the house. Is it too much to ask that just for once they might even go from bad to less bad? That someone around her might just for once wash a mixing bowl, fold a piece of laundry, wipe their oogy stuff out of the sink, pour Fiona a bit of cashew milk, cook a meal? Apparently.

I need sleep.