Thursday, January 31, 2008

Sisterly practicing

Monday was nutty. The usual trip to Nelson for piano lesson, the grocery shopping, the grocery-unpacking, a quick meal, a trip to my mom's to look at digital proofs for the SVI 2008 brochure, then home for math-time with Noah, editing some desktop publishing, cooking dinner, making up and cutting appointment cards for my evening clinic, eating dinner and dashing off over snowy mountain roads to my evening adolescent sexual health clinic in a neighbouring community.

I did not manage to do my parently duty and help my 5-year-old practice her violin. I ran out the door calling "try to do some violin review without me, okay?" I got home at 10 pm, just in time for some math with the girls and reading aloud. It wasn't until the next day that I asked Fiona whether she'd managed to do any practising.

"Yes!" she told me with enthusiasm. "Sophie and me, we did it together!" And then she took me to the white board. (Where would my family be without our white boards?) "This is our list," she explained. Apparently Sophie had helped her practice, taking a lot of initiative, totally of her own volition, and very much welcomed in this role by Fiona. They had lit five tealight candles to set a special mood for their collaborative practice session. They had created a list of things to be practiced (I was extra-proud of the fact that "tone-warmup" topped the list). And then they had taken turns at various practising tasks, and finished up by playing different sight-reading exercises simultaneously, with hilarious results, according to Fiona.

Still patterning after all these years

It was many years ago that I stumbled on a good deal for a mega-bucket of wooden pattern blocks. It was, I believe, from a The Shopping Channel catalogue. I remember this only because TSC is about the furthest thing from my normal sphere of awareness, but someone had discarded a printed catalogue at the post office and there, amidst the zirconium necklaces and thigh-masters, was this amazing wooden pattern block set. Erin would have been maybe four.

Here we are ten years later. Those pattern blocks are still played with. Not every day all the time. Sometimes weeks and months go by when they're not touched. But then inevitably out they come again and are obsessed over for a couple of weeks at a stretch. They've been 3-dimensional building blocks, relief maps, snowflakes, Escher-type tesselations and figure-ground optical illusions, trains and trails and pictures, fractions and ratios. Paired up with two duct-tape-hinged unbreakable locker-mirrors, they've been reflected mandalas based on 60- and 120-degree angles. And sometimes they've been story-telling props. Lately they've been collaborative meditative diversions during read-aloud story-time.

Phone call from Ghana

Kitchen Club was celebrating the cuisine of Ghana on Wednesday. Due to our five-day internet outage, we had been unable to do our usual flurry of Google research for recipes. I have a couple of cookbooks that proved somewhat helpful in coming up with some examples of West African cuisine, but I really lucked out when I managed to find some plantains at the large grocery store in Nelson. We'd never tried them and this was the excuse we'd been looking for. We sliced them, deep-fried them at 350 F, and then garnished them with salt and tabasco. We managed to get them golden brown, crispy on the outside and still tender on the inside. They were delicious!

But the odd thing was that the other family we do Kitchen Club with got a phone call from Ghana that morning, just before they headed up to our place. It wasn't a total out-of-the-blue coincidence (we chose Ghana in part because their gift shop sells baskets imported from that country, and the fellow who does the importing was calling about business stuff), but it was still pretty neat. "What do you eat there?" D. asked him, doing some last-minute research. "A lot of starch and a lot of fat," he replied. "There are a lot of great reasons to visit Ghana, but food isn't usually one of them" he said with a sigh.

Ah well, we enjoyed our deep-fried plantains, peanut bread and ground-nut stew. And filled the rest of the afternoon with skating. Incongruously enough.

The face of rinky exhaustion

Hat-headed, sweaty, rosy-cheeked, exhausted to the point of giddy stupidity, with lips that are half-numb with cold resulting in dysarthric speech and a flaccid half-smile ... this is a boy who has had a thoroughly awesome day on the rink.

Next year's rink

Quick tally of the last couple of days. Wednesday: Two kids, 3 1/2 hours. Four kids, 2 hours. One kid, 1 hour. Thursday: four kids, 2 1/2 hours. That's 26 kid-hours of enjoyment in the past two days alone. Kind of puts my 12 to 15 hours of preparatory work in perspective.

Next year I will look back on these last few rink posts and I will remember why I do it.

But first I'll buy a new liner, one without holes all over the place. The last week and a half's skating has made it clear that the kids will get enough enjoyment, exercise and fresh air to justify the expense several times over.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Root cyclonic action

We've owned two mid-range vacuum cleaners over the past ten years or so. The motors on both died, leaving nasty guilt-provoking plastic skeletons behind to be disposed of. While I'm on a campaign to rid our house, at least the living area of it, of carpet, it's a slow campaign, and in the meantime there's no doubt that as a family we are extremely needful of a vacuum cleaner. Extremely needful indeed. And so when our Bissel died two days after Christmas, we started dreaming of purchasing a unit that would be the last vacuum cleaner we'd ever buy. One that would endure until we were hauled off to the nursing home. One that our children would quarrel over when dividing up their inheritance.

While I was off in Calgary, my mom came to my house and brought her vacuum cleaner. Do the math... it had been thirty long days of heavy-duty debris-generating living that had happened since the last time we vacuumed. I expect there was a good fifty pounds of stuff she sucked up. It was a mercy-cleaning, bless her.

But while in Calgary I had gulped, pulled out my credit card, and in one swift transaction, got us a Dyson. A lovely copper-coloured DC-14 with Root Cyclone Technology. I confess I was at first heartbroken to see the clean carpets that greeted me on my return. But then I came to my senses. This was a gift -- the clutter had all been picked up and put away to facilitate vacuuming, and now I could take the opportunity to engage in some smug Dyson-driven one-up-man-ship. I ran my new machine in a cursory way over the centre of the very floor my mom had painstakingly vacuumed the day before.

And look what it came up with. A good half pound of deep-down disgustingness. Now I get what annika fox was talking about ... the all-consuming thrill of subjecting accumulated disgustingness to patented cyclonic technology. In general I'm not much interested in cleanliness or home-making, but this ... there's an allure here, I confess.

Rinky kids

We are just so lucky to live in such a beautiful place. This is a shot of the rink from the up-hill side for a change, looking down towards what would be Slocan Lake if you could see it for the trees. From this side you can appreciate the way our yard really is nestled in the forest. Above the camera and out of view are the half dozen gigantic red cedars that grace the north side of the yard. The house is to the left, the garden off the frame to the right.

The rink survived in fine form while we were in Calgary. There's still that "high corner" (off beyond Noah's out-stretched arm) where the liner still isn't properly covered with ic yet, but that's a small area and the rest is terrific, and there's enough of it for four kids to skate at the same time without colliding with each other unnecessarily.

Here's the view from the kitchen. The rink is just a hop, skip and a jump from the house. We now have leftover strips of carpet across the concrete stoop and the kitchen floor, meaning that the kids can get their skates on and off in front of the wood stove and just walk to and from the rink in all their gear.

Not that the jackets and hats tend to stay on. Here you can see that Erin's just in a t-shirt, and Sophie has tossed her jacket aside as well.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

This is universal, isn't it?

I did this as a kid. Erin did it copiously. Noah did it too. And this is the array Sophie and Fiona worked on together the other day, and then photographed. Taking one's vast pencil crayon collection and sorting it into different parts of the spectrum and then creating the "best" order for the different shades in each part of the spectrum, agonizing over where to include the silver, the white, the black, the shades of taupe and terra cotta, experimenting with the different start- and end-points that allow one to best integrate the odd-ball colours .... it is something all children do, isn't it? Tell me it's not just something weird that runs in my family.

An uneventful trip

Sweet! We got to Calgary and home again without a single white-knuckle moment, set-back, mistake or stress. There were no prolonged waits to meet up with someone who didn't show. There were no wallets left behind three hours back. There were no closures of the TransCanada highway due to accidents or avalanches. There was no rainstorm, no blizzard, no unexpected night-driving, no mad dash for the inland ferry, no terrifying descent down the pass with the road-lines all obscured, no fog. Nothing.

We made the drive east during daylight and rolled in to the cheapo motel we like an hour this side of Calgary, and it was (as usual) virtually empty so we got the best room again. The next morning we had a leisurely ramble into the city for Erin's first lesson. We did some shopping, easily found what we wanted, skated on the lagoon in beautiful warm sunny winter weather, checked into our hotel, swam, enjoyed a healthy meal in our kitchenette room, headed back for Erin's other lesson, and had a nice early night of it.

The drive west started after breakfast and proceeded smoothly all the way. We beat the impending snowstorm on the pass by an hour or so, and rolled into the carport at home at dusk.

We're finally getting the details down pat on this operation. I've already reserved "The Room" at the hotel for next month.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I got to listen!

We're in Calgary again. This time Erin had two big blocks of lessons, one with T., her "regular Calgary teacher" and one with T's husband, whom Erin knows quite well from music summer school and from our relatively frequent visits. J. is solely a violinist and knows the advanced violin repertoire better than T., who is a violist by profession. So after a 2-hour marathon lesson with T. in the morning focused on technique, the Kreisler Praeludium & Allegro and the Haydn C Major concerto 1st movement and its cadenza, we went off and spent the afternoon engaged in fun stuff and then returned in the early evening for another long lesson, this time with J., with a bit of time spent on the Bach E+ Partita Preludio and a good hour on the Bloch Nigun. Erin was willing to let me sit in on her lesson (and Fiona wanted to stay), so I sat and listened.

I should point out that Erin is pretty private about her practicing. She practices in the basement, which is in the frame-constructed bedroom-y part of the house, rather than the living-area log-wall part of the house, an area that is quite far removed from an acoustic standpoint from where I typically am. She does whatever is required to make sure that when she's playing I can barely hear her. The only time she practices in the living-area part of the house is on Tuesday afternoons when I leave, taking all the other kids to their lessons. So I rarely hear her play. I had never heard the Haydn of the Bloch, for instance.

Well tonight I heard the Bloch. It's the most technically challenging thing she's ever played. Zowee! She's doing really well! It's not too much of a stretch for her, challenge-wise, that is clear. And even more impressive was her responsiveness to suggestions during the lesson. She was playing it twice as well, and twice as Hebraically (Mozilla tells me that's not a word, but I'm using it anyway) at the end of that hour as she was at the start.

That's all I need ... a little snippet every once in a while ... so that I can see that she's thriving despite the less-than-ideal music study circumstances. It reminds me why I let her own the whole process, and uncomplainingly drive her 8 hours one way across the continental divide in the midst of a Canadian winter.

(Oh, if you're curious about the Bloch, here's a recording of Joshua Bell playing it.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mindful practicing

These days you'd never guess that I spent the better part of four years (from the point at which Erin began practising violin entirely independently) despairing that she would ever do more than hack sloppily through stuff. She was always very receptive and conscientious at her lessons, but once she left her teacher and came home, it would be back to the same mindless bashing through. It was a wonder that any progress ever happened. I think that 90% of her effective practising was actually occurring during her lessons. It was a good thing she's a quick learner!

Yesterday she changed her plans and didn't go back to the basement studio for the third hour of violin practising, and as a result left this practice plan on the whiteboard for me to discover when I arrived to teach a couple of students this morning. I have no idea what all of it means, but it's obviously carefully thought out and well-organized. She probably even used the metronome a few times. Wonders never cease.

We've had our struggles with violin since we began monthly trips to Calgary. At first she was incredibly highly motivated to work, and she blew her teacher away with the amount of progress she made from one month to the next. But by the November trip, the challenges of maintaining focus and motivation for those long weeks of no outside accountability, no external challenge, were starting to wear her down. And then came the busy holiday season, and there was a longer-than-hoped-for gap between lessons. And then with the lesson after New Year's, there didn't seem to be a re-ignition of passion. It began to look to me like she was mostly going through the motions. The spark was missing again.

We planned our next lesson trip for a mere three weeks later in an attempt to boost her motivation. But it didn't seem to be happening. There were more than a few missed days, and several where she presented the impression of diligent practicing, but there clearly wasn't much actual good stuff happening.

So I explained to her that she was trying to do something that I was nowhere near being able to do even by age 18 or 20 ... maintain self-motivation and drive without the structure of weekly lessons. I'm really in awe of what she has managed to do. She spends a lot of time on the violin, she keeps plugging away, even when she's struggling with notation she doesn't understand, technique that is new to her, difficult and confusing. She does this work without a peer group, without the sense of belonging to a studio of fellow students, without knowing any other teen who spends this kind of time and energy on music. And she keeps it going for weeks at a time, all on her own. Well, she more or less keeps it going.

So she is doing something quite amazing, and I told her that I know and fully appreciate this. But still, I said, how can I justify spending 10% of my life and several hundred dollars a trip getting her to a lesson if she hasn't squeezed every last bit of mileage out of the last one? It's a big expectation I have ... but given the family sacrifices this arrangement entails, I need to ask that of her. So I told her exactly how much heavy-duty practicing I felt she needed to cram into the five days before the next lesson to justify the trip. And darned if she didn't decide that the lesson was important enough to her that she just hunkered down and set uncomplainingly to work. With a big red plan on the whiteboard.

I really am very proud of her.

Another foliage hat

I made one a couple of weeks ago for Erin, and here is Fiona's. I did one fewer rows of leaves, and used slightly smaller needles to size it down for Fiona. I used a slightly heavier yarn, because that was what I had on hand. I'm lucky, I guess, since I didn't really know what I was doing and fits her just as nicely as Erin's full-sized one fits her. I think I'm addicted to this pattern. I can do a hat in a day or so and the lace is so gratifying as it magically takes shape.

This is five-year-old Fiona. She's seemed five for so long now, it's nice to have her chronological age catch up. She's such a sweet little girl. Sharp as a tack. Fun to be with, plucky, affectionate, chatty, funny, emotionally resilient and adaptable. What more could a parent ask for? What more could her siblings ask for? They love her and are so kind to her. And she repays their kindness with bubbly joy and adulation.

At her violin lesson today she was finally able to pick up and play the 1/10th-size violin that has been awaiting her for the better part of a year. She's not quite big enough, but she's moving up anyway. She was thrilled -- what a birthday present! My favourite part of her receiving the new violin was seeing her older brother watch her. He stood a metre or so away, watching her intently, excited by her excitement, and exuding pleasure at seeing her happiness.

Nocturnal rinky bliss

This is what it's all about. At 10 pm the kids are outside, whizzing around the rink in the dark, noses running, cheeks glowing, hair flying, voices shrieking and laughing. A backyard rink is indeed a magical thing.

It's Fiona's birthday, an auspicious day to inaugurate our night-skating tradition. Hot chocolate and story-time await.

Chuck has finished the rink rake. Tomorrow morning I'll try it out!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Sweater in progress

Sophie now has a sweater-vest, the armless portion of the sweater I've been knitting for her. It's knitted with Fleece Artist Bluefaced Leicester DK yarn, which is among the most luscious yarn I've ever knitted. Simply lovely elastic stuff, very like merino. It took me a while to figure out what a Bluefaced Leicester was.

After her sleeves, I will start Noah's navy blue merino sweater. I expect the process of knitting it will be a similar aesthetic experience to that of knitting Sophie's. I think I am permanently addicted to knitting. It sure helps that my kids look so nice in the stuff I make. Even without sleeves, and with dangling yarn-ends.

Sophie is working on her own surprise project for Fiona's birthday. She can do a small project in less than a day now, and has completed two such projects without a single dropped stitch or other such 'knitting issue', which is more than I can say for her mother. (My excuse is that I'm multi-tasking when I knit, but still ... )

Rinky success

Tada! I knew it would work this week because the weather forecast. Today there was enough smooth stuff for Fiona to go out and have some fun. Only about 60% is really smooth and enjoyable to skate, so the other kids opted to wait until I did one more flood, which commenced just after Fiona's test skate.

I've put Chuck on notice that we need a rink rake like this one. It'll be quick and easy to build, but I'm off to Calgary again in a couple of days. Tomorrow is Fiona's birthday, a busy day, but I'm sure the evening will bring some night skating.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Winter happiness

Here's what winter looks like at our house. Skis and poles and sleds leaning against the house. Great heaps of firewood stacked to the eaves. The roof piled high with snow, and icicles oozing brittlely over the edge.

I don't know if I could live somewhere that didn't get a real winter. I'm not sure what would tide me through the colder, drearier months of the year if there wasn't the crispness and brightness of snow, if it weren't for ice to skate, mounds of snow to plough and shovel, a woodstove to stoke, children with ruddy cheeks and noses shrieking as they sled and ski down hills, the adventure of blizzards and power failures, and the excuse for hot and tasty milk steamers.

January is the depth of winter for us and a month of contrasts. Sharp and cold outside, cozy and warm inside. Squintingly bright outside during the day, but with nights that are long and dark.

My kids look forward to winter all summer and fall. Of course, once it's here, they start looking forward to spring and summer. Is this what it is to be young? You're always looking forward to what's next? I must be middle-aged, because I now revel in the seasons as they pass. I am in no hurry for spring.

Here's what was underneath the snow in our yard this morning. It's almost a rink. I am pretty sure that last night's small flooding sealed the last leak. The surface is not smooth yet but it is almost totally solid. I will wait until it has stopped snowing and probably do another flood tonight, but I feel no sense of urgency now. A cold snap is coming, and we are so close.

Rinky forecast

I have my suspicions that this is going to work. It's fairly warm tonight but look at the lows that are headed our way early next week!

Debbie and her kids have been enjoying their rink in northern Ontario for almost a week now. Ours still languishes about 50% skateable but with frustrating drain-holes deep under the surface crust of the ice in places. I patch with slush, I wait, I drag the hose out and hook it up, I flood, I pull the hose inside, I wait, I patch, I wait, I bring the hose out again, I flood, I wait. And gradually, day by day, there are fewer holes that are draining... but there's still at least one pretty darn big one in the middle of the "good end" that I haven't got plugged yet, and so we haven't been able to lace up our skates just yet.

But I'm still hopeful after looking at the weather forecast tonight. Maybe it will all turn out to be worth it after all!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Gym night

For the past year our community has had a little gymnasium. Last year we used it regularly. This year we just haven't got in the habit.

With the rink not quite ready, the gym seemed like a good place to run off some energy this evening. According to the kids (and me!) evening is the best time to use the gym. It's generally deserted, which means everyone feels comfortable and they can just being themselves and have fun and not worry about people noticing them. So the kids did their practicing during the afternoon in order to clear the evening for gym and down we went. We usually volley back and forth with badminton racquets and play a game of Four Squares. And a game of freeze tag is a requirement. Sophie and Fiona especially like it when Chuck comes along. He adds a certain good-humoured goofyness to the tag games.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


My kids are "home alone" fairly often these days. Often Fiona prefers to come along with an adult, though she's increasingly happy to be home. And I've never paid Erin to be responsible for her siblings when I'm away.

Recently I've heard it said that it's unfair to expect eldest siblings to be responsible for younger children without paying them as you would an adult or older teen from outside. I've heard adults talk about having cared for younger siblings and resented that it interfered with their after-school activities and down-time. They mentioned finding their siblings a huge burden.

I still don't pay Erin and while I'm sure she wouldn't give back the money if I started paying her (she does have a serious iTunes addiction, after all), she certainly would never expect to be paid.
For a bunch of reasons.

First, a few hours a week does not eat into Erin's down-time or extra-curricular activities. Homeschooling gives her loads of time. Her late evenings and weekends are not precious in the same way that they are to schoolchildren.

Second, homeschooling has helped create an inter-sibling dynamic that is comfortable and respectful and that works. Erin does not find being with her siblings a burden any more than being with her parents is a burden. (Let's not go explore that last scenario any further, okay?)

Thirdly, one of my expectations is that being part of a family means contributing to making that family work -- without pay. I don't get paid to do laundry or carry in the groceries, and neither do the other people in this family. The kids understand and they contribute too. Sometimes that means setting the table, or picking up dirty laundry or feeding the chickens. And sometimes it means preparing lunch for your littlest sister while your mom and dad are away.

The biggest reason she's not paid, though, is that when we leave the kids home I am not asking Erin to assume an "in loco parentis" role. I am asking her and her siblings to behave in an appropriately responsible manner, to work together in ways that make the experience safe and enjoyable for all of them. Obviously if there is a serious safety issue or unresolvable conflict, she would need to exercise leadership commensurate with her age, ability and role in the family, but I am not asking her to be in a position of authority over her younger siblings -- I'm not putting her "in charge." Instead I'm saying "you guys need to work together so that this is safe and enjoyable for all of you."

And there's one final reason why I don't pay Erin to babysit her siblings when I work my clinic mornings is that, well, it's that she's usually asleep the whole time I'm gone. Hooboy, it's amazing how the teen shift in circadian rhythm has compounded her night-owl tendencies!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Learning plan review -- Fiona

In August I blogged the results of the Learning Plan brainstorming sessions I'd had with Fiona, Sophie, Noah and Erin. For our family, Learning Plans have been the single most valuable part of the SelfDesign independent virtual homeschool program the kids have been enrolled in. Even though this year only two of them are part of the SelfDesign program, we've done up Learning Plans for all of the kids. They truly enjoy the planning process, and the periodic informal and more formal revisiting of the plan. It's their chance to generate a wish-list for things they'd like to learn, and to think aloud (and be heard!) about how they want personal and family priorities to be set.

Now it's January, a good time to do an organized re-assessment of where we're at and revise the plans as appropriate. We look at what we've struggled with and neglected. We look at where energy and interest have gone instead. And we think anew about where we want to go from now. Here's Fiona's review.

Struggles / Oversights: Fiona hasn't got comfortable dunking her head underwater yet. We haven't been rock-climbing since July. We'd loaned out and then totally forgotten about the FlashMaster. Forgot about origami around about the beginning of November too. We haven't created any home-made books to inspire her reading and writing. We bailed on organizing the "World Tour" geography co-op because it seemed overly problematic and my kids were very lukewarm about it at best. She lost interest in music reading during the fall, and didn't really warm up to the keyboard improvisation program I hoped she'd enjoy.

Successes / New Developments: She has done a bit of ice-skating, which she enjoys, and she did mess around a lot with ropes and harnesses in September and October what with the treehouse and all. She had a lovely adventure with our canoeing/kayaking trip, camping in the wilderness and enduring long days and cold nights and experiencing first-hand the challenges of self-propelled self-sufficient wilderness travel. She has rollicked through both the Miquon Orange and the Miquon Red books, as well as playing reams of mathematical games. And we're doing a co-op ethnic cooking club with another family that is giving some interesting exposure to kitchen skills and different countries and cultures. And her violin learning has moved ahead far more quickly than I'd expected. She's got the knack of hoop-loom knitting and has begun to get traditional knitting figured out. Her reading is steadily improving and her confidence level is high. She's really enjoying the fact that I'm supplementing my reading aloud targeted at Noah and Sophie with some simpler novels more at her level. She continues to blog intermittently and to write notes, captions and lists with pencil and paper regularly.

Future directions: She wants to find some origami paper and the FlashMaster. She wants a pet rabbit. She wants her own garden plot. She'd like to move ahead into the Blue Miquon book. She wants to get back to note-reading practise on violin. She'd like me to work with her on piano two or three times a week. And she thinks that making her own books and booklets would be fun. Some of these things we can do for sure, easily. Some will take some effort. Some are topics for ongoing consideration. Can a little kid living where we do keep a bunny safe from bears, coyotes and weasels? We'll have to think about that one.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Lately there have been a lot of media articles, books and such that have begun to shed light on the societal over-protectiveness of children. There are books like The Dangerous Book for Boys, Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive and the video mini-lecture Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do. It's something I've always felt intuitively -- we don't do our children any favours when we protect them from every last bit of risk.

When we protect our kids from all danger, we impoverish their experience. A Dora the Explorer plastic toy is not going to enrich our kids' lives the same way playing with fire or climbing trees will. When we protect our kids we're telling them they can't be trusted. Who is to blame if they live down to our expectations? And besides, if we don't give them danger, and help them learn the skills they need to assess and manage risk, they'll find danger anyway -- without those skills.

The two really nasty children's knife-wounds I've sewed up in ERs were in children who had explicitly been told never to touch sharp knives. Not surprisingly, these kids' use of knives was sneaky and unskilled, and they had no idea how to keep themselves safe with a blade. They only knew they were doing something forbidden; they had no competence, no realistic confidence in their ability to manage the risks of what they were doing -- they were operating on a rush based on a childish sense of invincibility.

By giving our children approval, support and guidance as they encounter danger, we're really keeping them safe. We're giving them skills to assess risk, helping them learn techniques to minimize it, an providing an open trusting relationship that allows them to feel confident and powerful while exercising good sense.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Winter dusk

Who's complaining about the rink that won't hold water, the weather that won't make ice, the futzy faucet, the hose that's a mile long and has to be drained every time it's stored? Not I. Look at the startling blues of winter dusk ... the million shades of white that are blues too. How could a person mind?

Towards dusk I go out and shovel off the partly-formed rink in preparation for the dropping temperatures of night-time. Usually there are children around, romping in the snow, building forts or beds or benches or paths or tunnels. I shovel, I check on the chickens, collect the eggs, ready the hose, shovel the path to the rink and the longer path to the compost bin.

And once the hose is on and I'm waiting for puddles to form and for the development of slush to pack into holes, I can stand still and take in the million bluish shades of white on the trees, the mountains, the ground, in the sky, on the flakes in the air.

Do I mind my rinky frustrations? No, not at all.

Bashana Haba'ah

I was erasing a Minidisc and discovered a track of the first rehearsal of our little community orchestra together with the student pianist who played with us for "Bashana Haba'ah." The whole piece is about four minutes long, so I edited it down to get it under 2 MB. Living in a communications backwater off the beaten track I'm sensitive to bandwidth issues, so I've linked to the file here, which you can pull up in a separate window if you like.

That's Erin playing the violin solos at the beginning and end. We needed her on violin, which is why we pulled R. into the orchestra for the piano part. R. is a senior in high school who is one of two Japanese exchange students living in our community; both have become friends of Erin's, S. through choir and R. through the Schubert Fantasie in f-minor four-hands piano duet they're working on. I think R. did very well for never having played with an ensemble before! This was Erin's first go at playing music with Hebrew folk influences; she's now working on the "Nigun" from the Baal Shem suite by Bloch with her teacher in Calgary, so she'll be getting plenty of experience with that style -- and lots of technical challenge.

So anyway, I listened to the Bashana rehearsal this morning and thought "wow, that's a nice sound we're getting out of a motley collection of twenty string players in a tiny rural community!" And I'm proud of them all over again.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A knitting genius

I first taught Sophie to knit around her 7th birthday. Shortly after her 9th birthday I finally taught her to purl. She also learned to cast on and off around that time. She made a bunch of lovely korknisse. And then just before Christmas she wanted to knit mittens, so I introduced her to four double-pointed needles and knitting in the round. She struggled mightily with the mittens. One is close to done now, but it was a long haul just getting through the cuff, and as the almost-finished mitten sat on the coffee table for more than a week, untouched, I wasn't sure if that had done her in for knitting for good.

But look at what she did this morning with some purple yarn! She cast on a few dozen stitches in the round on double-pointed needles and knit a little sampler, with a purled diamond in relief. How did she figure out how to do that? How to build the pattern, how to keep track of which stitches were which? Now, admittedly, I'm knitting something with similar pattern, and she's been curious about it, watching over my shoulder a bit.

But then she showed up with this. It's similar in that it's a diamond pattern, but here she's done an 'intarsia' style alternate colour thing for the motif. She has never seen this done. The last time I did intarsia or fair-isle knitting she was still in utero. She just knits up these little things while watching Noah script computer game mods, or while humming away, chatting to Fiona.

This is typical of Sophie. She is not worried about not knowing how to do something. Just as she will wing it and improvise in the kitchen with baking recipes, she enjoys trying to figure out how to execute different patterns and techniques with needles and yarn.

Rinky progress

Freshly shovelled free of a four-inch blanket of sticky dense snow, this is what our rink looks like tonight. When we left for Calgary last week, there were still big leaks in the liner that were draining most of the flooding we'd done, leaving many places with just a thin and brittle crust of ice over a layer of air. While we were gone, it snowed and then rained. I came home expecting the worst, but Chuck had shovelled the snow off before the rain, and unexpectedly the rain and warm weather had actually improved the rink. The slushy mess of unevenness had melted and experienced the magical levelling effect of gravity, then refrozen with some improvement in the crusting effect. It had snowed again, and I didn't get out to shovel the rink off for a couple of days. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised -- there was the better part of a rink underneath!

There's been more snow and warm-ish weather, and there is still some leaking, so I'm hesitant to do a major flooding just yet. But with the kids' help I packed snow and slush into the crust-over-hole spots and seem to be making gradual progress plugging things. About 50% of the rink is smooth and skate-able right now. Not that we'd skate yet, because the holes and slush-pockets are all over the place, and there are significant areas at the far end and the left side that are not ice at all but just the plastic liner. But I am hopeful. The weather looks balmy, around or just below the freezing point, for the next few days but it looks like there should be a cold snap arriving in about 5 days. That's when we may finally get a good solid flood done. We shall see!

In a hundred words or less

Reposting this here, because I was surprised by my own succinctness. Seventy-one words:

(1) If you could name just one major reason for choosing to homeschool, what is it?

Life without school was suiting my children just great prior to age 5, and we didn't want to give up what was working so well on a gamble that a school might be able to accommodate their asynchronous academic / social-emotional needs.

(2) What is one thing you dislike most about school for your child/ren?

The way it removes children from the richness of real life and community, placing them in an artificial pseudo-community made up mainly of age-peers and authority figures.

Sustainable knitting

I seem to have discovered the secret to sustaining my interest in knitting -- melding knitting with the computer. On the left is a screen shot of my Ravelry homepage. As of a couple of days ago, the first page is full -- eight projects, six completed and two in progress. From someone who normally takes years to complete a singe project, this is a real break from tradition.

Ravelry is such a bizarre phenomenon. Tens of thousands of avid knitters, each taking delight in photographing and cataloguing their stashes of yarn, logging per cent progress through their current projects, tallying up huge charts of every needle they own, tagging favourite yarns, projects or designers and keeping track of all their knitting books.

I worried at first that all this obsessive organization would simply be a procrastination tool for me, but it hasn't worked out that way. I've found the site to be an invaluable resource for finding free patterns and learning some of the zillions of things I was clueless about, like whether the yarn I'd picked up at a LYS (local yarn shop in Ravelry lingo) was aran or DK weight, and what the heck a yarn-over is. A few clicks and links at Ravelry and I'm off and running with new things. The only truly frightening thing about Ravelry is that it's helped me discover how easy it is to buy beautiful yarn on-line. My self-restraint crumbles a little more every time I experience the satisfaction of completing another project.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Who says they can't sight-read?

Who says Suzuki students can't sight read? Like so much that's true of unschooling, in the Suzuki world children may not learn sight-reading on some tidy adult-determined schedule, but they learn it when they are ready and they learn it well. No, they don't learn at age 4 when they first pick up a violin or sit down at the piano, but they learn when they are developmentally ready and when the fundamental musical skills they've learned give context and meaning to that learning.

Erin started violin at 4 and piano a couple of years later. Despite being a fluent and precocious reader of language, she was clearly not ready to grapple with the written notation of music during those early years. She moved easily into Suzuki Book 3 having had only off-instrument instruction in note-reading until that point. Note reading began to fall into place for her in Book 3. She was almost 7.

On piano she had a traditional teacher who was sensitive to the Suzuki way and who understood that Erin's ability to play music very well for her age didn't necessarily mean she ought to have precocious sight-reading skills. She was allowed to learn ahead mostly by ear and her auditory-musical ability was valued and supported, rather than held hostage to her virtually non-existent reading skills. When she changed teachers a little over two years later, her new teacher (whom she's still with) was rather appalled at her reading skills. She was playing RCM Grade 4 repertoire, but couldn't name any note outside the middle of the treble staff. Fortunately Erin's sight-reading on violin had just begun to take off and her piano reading soon started to kick in.

Nevertheless it was an ongoing concern for her piano teacher. Her reading skills clearly "lagged behind expectations." Being a Suzuki teacher, I was unconcerned. Erin and I went through the motions to some extent, but there certainly wasn't a lot of "buckling down to remediate deficits." Her apparent deficits were much smaller within a year or so, because she was clearly ready to start reading, but I know that her piano teacher had pegged her as "one of those kids who plays wonderfully by ear but will never be a good sight-reader." But then over the past two or three years both her violin and piano sight-reading skills have taken off, just in a natural way. No slogging through sight-reading exercises. Just playing for enjoyment, and learning music for ensembles and orchestras. The roots of good sight-reading skills had been growing for a long time, and it just took a few years before we saw the shoots and leaves and fruits.

Last spring, after a long period of neglecting sight-reading in the lesson, Erin's piano teacher decided to test her skills with some graded exercises. She was playing at an RCM Grade 9 level at the time, and knowing she was a weak sight-reader her teacher started her off with some Grade 7 exercises. She did flawlessly. Gradually the teacher upped the challenge, and upped it again, and again ... and finally stopped when Erin aced a Grade 10 exercise. Excuse my self-satisfied smirk. Amazing what happens when you support children in developing their strengths rather than focusing on their apparent weaknesses, and when you re-frame their weaknesses as nothing more than asynchronicities in learning readiness.

The audio clip is of Erin's first play-through the Katchaturian Toccata. She'd never seen these notes before playing the sounds you hear -- it's all just on the fly, with lots of bumps and gibbles and retakes. But she's way beyond me in piano reading ability and I'm just in awe.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


And she likes the hat I knit for her!

A low-key celebratory day, as she prefers. A nice supper with grandma over, a decadent chocolate torte baked by Sophie. The afternoon had us at the local nursing home playing music for the residents and staff, and all the Suzuki kids sang a quick "Happy Birthday" to her in the room where we were tuning up. The evening brought three simple gifts, popcorn and a video.

When we were in Calgary she had her first violin lesson in 7 weeks. That's far too long an interval, but all the holiday performances got in the way of a December lesson trip. At her previous lesson she'd given four possibilities (Vitali, Bruch, Bloch or Lalo) from which to choose her next repertoire challenge. She went home and listened to recordings a few times. After a lot of waffling she settled on the Bloch Nigun, but it is by far the most technically challenging piece she's taken on, and without even a minimum of preparatory guidance she was in a bit over her head. She managed to learn the notes, but in an ideal world would have had a lesson before delving in, and then another one within a couple of weeks. But she soldiered on as best she could ... and her lesson 7 weeks later was very much needed and very helpful, I think. They spent almost 90 minutes on that piece alone. Despite working full-on through a 2-hour lesson, they didn't even touch on two of the other major pieces she's working on (unaccompanied Bach and a Hadyn concerto with a cadenza that's never had a teacher's ears put to it). We've decided to go back in under a month, in an attempt to make up for the long gap and give her a little more of what she needs.

And then yesterday her weekly piano lessons started again after a two-month gap. (Her piano teacher travels a fair bit.) She came home with a whole lot of new music -- Liszt, Katchaturian, Scarlatti, and a bunch of other stuff, as well as orders to sight-read like crazy and polish up her Chopin Nocturne, and to look at the Schubert Four-Hands Fantasie with a view to a performance in early April. There will be a piano recital next month, music festival performances on both instruments in April, and a violin video audition in late March.

So both piano and violin study are in high gear right now. This simultaneity is a first. We'll see how she copes.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Girls at the hotel

When all the diversions that exist at home fall away, and we're together in the small but comfy space of a hotel, and are all by necessity on the same kind of daily rhythm, some pretty nice things happen. Here's one of them. Just back from the pool, Sophie has jumped into the shower to rinse the chlorine out of her hair. Fiona has been waiting patiently outside the door for a chance with the hair dryer. Drying hair electrically is a bit of a novelty for all of us. When Sophie comes out and finds Fiona waiting, she naturally pulls the hair dryer down and sets to work on Fiona's mop. No one asks for my help. Sophie doesn't assume it's someone else's job, nor does she give the dryer to Fiona and walk away. Nor does Fiona even really ask for help. Sophie just sets to work helping.

Fiona had a bit of a cry about having to leave Calgary. Little episodes like this lovely sibling-facilitated hair-drying are probably part of the reason. We really do get along remarkably well when we're forced together in the same room and the same minivan 24/7. It's nice. Really nice. I love being with my kids. All the more so because they love being with each other.

Home away from home

Making the Calgary trip comfortable and tolerable for all the affected family members is a work in progress. We go because Erin needs violin lessons. Somehow we need to make it work for the rest of us. Not just the for three siblings but for their mother too. This past week's trip felt good. We splurged and rented a hotel room with this extra space. I think it was an extra $25. What a difference!

Two burners and a few pots and dishes meant that we could have real meals without all the fuss, bother and expense of going to a restaurant. Our solution in the past had been to eat out of bags and boxes and from grocery-store veggie platters. But real meals are possible in this room -- soup and pasta and the like.

Five of us in a room dominated by two queen-sized beds was manageable but very cramped. In this room we could spread out. One kid on the couch, one at the desk, one on each bed and still space left for me to perch on. There was even enough floor and closet space that we weren't constantly tripping over our suitcase, innumerable stringed instruments and doubly-innumerable winter boots. (Okay, only ten winter boots. They just seem innumerable.)

Oddly enough the TV, which is usually a hotel-room tradition with the kids, barely got turned on this trip. Probably because there was enough space to spread out and do one's own thing. Oh, and the mega-bookstore shopping trip helped, no doubt. And the pool downstairs. And the social visits with our SelfDesign Learning Consultant and Erin's teacher's family. And the outdoor skating we did.

If it hadn't been for the fact that the 7 1/2-hour trip home turned into 12 hours with the poor driving conditions and the three-hour detour, we'd have all felt truly happy about the trip.

Cellular decay

Well, we've joined the 21st century. This week we bought a cellphone. Probably doesn't seem like a momentous purchase, but we live in a community without cell service, and one that is soundly resisting all efforts by communications companies to bring it into the cellular era. So we feel guilty and traitorous. But our trips to Calgary have shifted the balance for us. After realizing how many delays and extra stops and inconveniences for both ourselves and the people we're trying to meet up with the lack of a cellphone has caused, I finally bit the bullet.

In homage to my Ludditish community roots (and in keeping with my basically frugal nature, as well as my desire for simplicity) I bought one that doesn't have a radio, a camera, an MP3 player, internet access or any other bells and whistles. It's a phone, and just a phone. Okay, I lie. It has a couple of lame games, and also a ring-tone composer, which the kids gravitated to immediately, setting me up with a ringtone that is the first phrase of the 2nd movement of the Telemann Violin Concerto in G major. That I can live with. It has about 100 minutes of time on it, and that won't expire until January 2009 if we don't use it up -- which we may not, since we'll only be able to use it 2-3 days a month, when we're in the city.

We took calls from four different people in Calgary. Yes, we could have phoned them or e-mailed them our hotel number, but that will change every trip, and our cell number will stay the same and that makes it simpler for others. The cellphone also works even before we've checked in to the hotel, which we don't do until after we've had our first day in the city. On the way home we were stopped and re-routed (a 3-hour detour) around an accident on the TransCanada highway that had closed both lanes. I used a payphone to let Chuck know about the delay, because one was handy, but later Noah delightedly used the cellphone to call home again and update him on our slower-than-expected detour, letting him know we'd be on the 7 pm ferry and likely not home until almost 9.

So far so good. Assuming cell service doesn't come to our community, I think it will be a very helpful addition to our travels. If we do get cell service "at home" at some point, I think it will be as if the ground has tilted, and we probably will start sliding down a slippery slope.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Inside her bubble

Erin likes spending time doing her own thing. In the winter, when the rest of the house is cold, she likes to do it in our common space, but she would happily lie undisturbed on the couch in the corner of the living room reading and computering for hours and hours. If I try to draw her out, I'm not welcome. She will shut Noah and Sophie down just as quickly. But this little one, Fiona, can get right into Erin's private bubble. And pretty soon what might otherwise be a surly withdrawn teen becomes a giggling tickling manic sister to a four-year-old.