Thursday, February 28, 2008

More Calgary trip photos

I'm always entranced by the tidbits of local colour that other people share on their blogs, and often wish that I had some local colour of my own to share. But then I remember that my local colour is commonplace to me, and probably I just don't appreciate how exotic it is because I'm steeped in it. The kids had the camera out while we were driving to Calgary last weekend and snapped a bunch of pretty ordinary pictures that, now that I think about it, illustrate a little of the uniqueness of our corner of the world.

Shortly after we leave home we take a ferry. We're nowhere near the ocean or any really big lakes, but there's so little traffic here, and the lakes are so darned deep, that a bridge is impractical. So instead the government runs these little ferries. They're considered part of the highway system and as such they're free. They run every hour from about 6 a.m. to almost midnight. The trip takes about 15 minutes. Most people just stay in their vehicles, though in summer sometimes they get out and stand on the deck and socialize. We often see people we know on the ferry. Here you can see typical Kootenay traffic in front of us: a logging truck is pulling forward and a heavy-duty pickup truck is next in line. "Chip trucks" are very common ferry traffic as well, bringing waste wood chips from sawmills north of us to the pulp mill to the south of us.

At this time of year, this scene is fairly inevitable. Traffic is stopped for "delays up to two hours" for avalanche control and snow-clearing. This is time for me to pull out my knitting, and the kids to get out snacks, change seats, dig around in the back of the van for a book, release their seatbelts and maybe stretch their legs. As it turned out we didn't have any delays over 20 minutes on this trip. And at one such line-up, in the dark, a nice guy was going up and down the row of vehicles with a can of spray cleaner and a cloth taking the dried mud-and-slush off everyone's headlights for them. People are pretty friendly.

Here's an alternative to avalanche and snow-clearing delays. This is an avalanche shed, a sort of above-ground tunnel of concrete set into the side of a steep, avalanche-prone slope. The roof of the shed provides a way for frequent avalanches to cross over the highway without obstructing it. There are eight of these on the Rogers Pass.

Here's what we do in each of the eight avalanche sheds. Do families all over the planet hold their breaths when passing through tunnels? This isn't something I did as a kid, but I heard about it somewhere after I became a parent and it became an instant tradition. The second-most-easterly tunnel is the one that sometimes defeats our breath-holding determination. It's very long, and when the weather is bad and big trucks are puttering along at a mere 40 km/hr it takes almost a minute to drive through. The driver has been given permission to start breathing again when she begins to get dizzy.

And signs like this are all over our corner of BC -- "Avalanche area, Zone D'avalanche, no stopping." I used to think "Huh? They're perfectly happy to let you spend three minutes driving through the avalanche zone, but they don't want you to spend the extra 1 minute it would take to snap a picture or wipe your kid's nose?" But now I know that it's not just the extra time they're concerned about -- it's the car-door-slamming. The sound can be the perfect trigger for a slide.

Every time we drive to Calgary we encounter some sort of significant highway accident. Usually it's a transport truck that has plowed into the ditch or missed a curve and dumped its load in the median strip. Twice these have occured within a minute or two of us rounding the curve in question -- thankfully going in the opposite direction both times. One trip there was a major accident and fire that closed the whole highway for several hours at a series of tight steep rocky curves. It's enough to keep the driver of our van on her toes. She'll be happy when winter driving is done for the year. Likely by the end of April the snow will no longer factor in the driving, so that means only one more winter trip across the Rockies this year.

When I was in my early 20's I dreamed and dreamed of seeing the Rocky Mountains, of travelling through them, of experiencing their size and beauty and stark aloofness. I'd never seen a mountain of any size, let alone the young raw peaks of the Rockies. I thought of the Rockies as pretty exotic. My kids have been raised in the mountains. They're spoiled by all the natural splendour they're surrounded by ... but at least they're still impressed enough to take occasional photos.

Outside lessons

Although I'm a musician, my kids all have outside teachers and regular lessons. On violin and viola I am certainly qualified to teach them during the first half dozen years or so, and in actual fact I do quite a lot of the actual teaching, probably the vast majority of it in the early years. But we've found it extremely helpful (perhaps even totally necessary) to have the structure of weekly lessons to keep us on track. The younger three kids have weekly lessons with their grandmother. It's still in the family, but we are able to make it a semi-formal occasion by having scheduled lessons at her studio just like all her other students.

It's not that my mom is more skilled at teaching (though she is!), nor is it that she's more controlling and demanding in terms of practicing. There's no 'good cop, bad cop' scenario at play. My kids and I just find it extremely helpful to have that weekly goal or benchmark. Learning to play an instrument is a big long job, a little like hiking a long trail up a mountain. Working at home without weekly lessons is like huffing and puffing up that hill in the woods where you know (because your legs are tired and your heart is pounding, and walking is such hard work) that you're climbing a hill, but you have hardly any visual cues to show you your progress. Having weekly lessons is a little like hiking that same mountain on an open trail of switchbacks where you can see the view and pause at each switchback to see where you've come from and where you're heading and enjoy the view. My kids enjoy their lessons 99% of the time, and also really enjoy the sense of community they get from being involved in a studio of students studying in more or less the same way.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Violists at work

Noah and I, the family's violists, have forged an amazing alliance. A couple of weeks ago, two years after I was excused (fired?) from my role as practising partner, he roped me in again. Things haven't gone as smoothly with Sophie, and she's chosen to continue to work independently. Noah has taken up the slack in my schedule, requesting that since I'm not working with Sophie, I can work with him "most days." So far we're practicing together every time there isn't something in the way (like my work, or a meeting).

It's amazing. He wants my help. He accepts my suggestions. He doesn't cry. He tries things, even when they're hard. He allows me to guide, direct his attention, suggest new ideas, encourage him to challenge himself a little more. His perfectionism is now a positive force rather than a handicap and source of anxiety.

The biggest difference this makes in his viola studies is in the efficiency with which he tackles and masters new repertoire. In the past three weeks he's learned the entire Bach Double 1st movement from the end of Book 6, most of the Seitz Concerto movement at the end of Book 5, and has polished up two other shorter pieces. Nine pages of music. Now I'm the first to point out that speed of transit through the repertoire is not necessarily an indicator of progress on the instrument, but in Noah's case new repertoire has always been a challenge. At first it was that his reading was lagging and he had trouble attending to details of bowing and fingering, hence learning the tune well by ear, but with technical inaccuracies that then had to be remediated. But even when his reading improved he was emotionally resistant to new pieces; he tended to procrastinate for days and weeks when it came to taking on something new in the repertoire ... just as he tends to resist new activities.

But now that his violist mom is there with him, and he is keen for my input, those new pieces are not intimidating. He is gobbling them up. Now he can take on the challenges he's been technically and musically ready for for some time. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the very same week I gave him a hearty push towards aikido was the week he asked me to come back and be his Suzuki parent.

He's the most advanced viola student in the region now and neither my mom nor I have any experience teaching the repertoire he's learning. He's nowhere close to the level Erin is at on violin, but he's in uncharted waters by virtue of being a violist. We know it's inevitable that the day will come when he will need another teacher. We could probably muddle along for another couple of years if we had to, but we're also looking at other possibilities. The obvious solution is to move him to our favourite viola teacher in Calgary. Even Erin, who is incredibly mature and driven in this respect, has struggled to maintain momentum between lessons that are 4 to 6 weeks apart. Noah will need my guidance in between lessons in a big way. It's great to know he's willing to avail himself of that.


I've had just about enough of this month. The rink is soggy. The driveway is soggy. There is dirt on the snow everywhere, and the snow is still piled deep and high. It's wet and cold and it's not pretty. Even a Steller's Jay does little to cheer things up outside.

Inside we are bored and testy. We had a Nothing Day today, one of those normally precious days where we had nothing scheduled. And nobody much enjoyed it. There was no creativity, no initiative. We sat around killing time on the computer, reading, puttering, lying on the living room floor. There was no imaginary play amongst the kids. There was no energy.

I'm just about ready for April. Enough with February already. Too bad there's still March in the way.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Not in the front row anymore

Erin is now firmly part of the second row when it comes time to take a group photo at the end of her teacher's piano recital (she's the one in the plain white shirt in the middle of the middle row). For years she was front-row material, one of the "little kids", but now she's definitely not. Because she's always been very small for her age, she was a head-turner when she was little, looking more precocious than she probably was. But now she's moved into the mass of teens in the second and third rows. She's pretty much the most advanced student in the studio, and the other two students who are at a similar level will be graduating from high school and moving elsewhere in a few months.

Fortunately her teacher has some experience teaching at and beyond Erin's current level, so I don't anticipate her having to find a teacher further afield for some time yet. Still, there's been something very nice about Erin not being the most advanced student in the area on piano, and I'm sorry to see that situation coming to an end. It's got to be kind of lonely not knowing any other music student in your area who is as committed and capable as you are. I really wish I could somehow give Erin a community of fellow music students who share her passion and dedication. She has her aspirations set on a chamber music exchange program with other teens this summer; I hope that works out, and I hope she's not the most advanced student there. I'd love to see her develop a group of equally passionate musical peers ... because even long-distance friends are a big help.

One-bug slug game

The one-bug slug game is a short obstacle course travelled by a long train of young aikido students, each belly-to-floor and holding the ankles of the one in front. What a laughing, groaning hoot this was! They actually made it through the 'tunnel' erected for the purpose, though it took a lot of work. Fiona is thrilled to be part of her class and only wishes it were twice a week rather than just once.

She can't stop talking about aikido to everyone she meets. We spent three hours carpooling with some friends yesterday and I don't think we ever went more than ten minutes without an aikido comment popping out of Fiona's mouth.

In the older children's class, Noah's strength and agility have definitely been noticed. The sensei is tending to pair Noah up with the older orange belt boys for various skills and tasks. Both he and Sophie are working very hard and taking the whole thing very seriously. Each took possession of a dogi (uniform) after class this week and after a preshrinkage treatment (for which I was forced to use the electric dryer) they were able to model them and truly look the part. So next week they'll fit into the mass of white amongst their classmates. They're thrilled.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bus driving duties

I've put almost 2000 km on the minivan in the past 5 days. How crazy is that? I do a heck of a lot to try to reduce our carbon footprint, but I am going backwards in a big way when it comes to vehicle emissions. I put on well over a thousand kilometres just getting to Calgary and back. Then three trips to Nelson (a rescheduled piano lesson & duet rehearsal, piano recital, then the next regular piano lesson) at over 200 kms each round trip. And an Aikido trip (50 km). And the little bits of to-and-from driving in and about Calgary and Nelson. I win a few minor brownie points for being the carpool mom on two of the Nelson trips and saving another family the drive. But still. It's a ridiculous amount of driving.

We drive a Toyota Sienna. It's a great vehicle 7 months of the year -- quiet, spacious, comfortable and extremely fuel-efficient for a minivan. Back when we bought it and were still using three carseats, the space was a necessity. These days it feels big. And it's not so great in winter. Our long snowy steep driveway really requires an AWD vehicle -- but I couldn't stomach the drop in fuel efficiency that an AWD Sienna would have given us. The van has pretty minimal ground clearance too, so even when the tires grip, they can't always drag us up over the deep snow. For most of the past month we've been "parking at the top." That means we park the vehicle in a little cleared area we plow out beside the driveway entrance and walk to and from the house from there. Not bad during daylight, when relatively unencumbered, but no picnic in the deepest dark of a winter evening, with five instruments, a bundle of music and a couple of music stands in tow. And I continually underestimate the time it takes for everyone to hike up to the highway carrying all the stuff. I tend to add five minutes ... but it's closer to ten with all the loading up of the kid-mules, the huffing and puffing and the trudging of little legs up the steep hill through slush and snow.

I'm dreaming of a hybrid vehicle like this one, the first on the market that would actually hold our entire family. It has significantly better fuel economy than the Sienna, plus higher ground clearance and AWD. I'll probably lay my dreams to rest in a few weeks when the snow starts to recede and the driveway becomes reliably navigable again. But for now I dream.

While we were in Calgary, the main entertainment was a trip to an automated carwash. The kids were thrilled. This is a once-every-several-years event, and the younger ones had little to no memory of the last time. They hooted and shrieked and put their hands on the windows to feel the vibrations from the high-pressure jets. Cheaper than a movie, I guess.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Vehicular imaginations

Imaginations run wild in the van during long trips. With nothing more than a bit of food and a box of kleenex, the kids managed to amuse themselves for hours with wild stories and entertainment of various sorts. Here's a sample of the entertainment during today's 8-hour drive.

Photo (left): Moaning Myrtle in her kleenex wedding gown, with her fiancé the Water King, wearing his fetching toilet-paper tuxedo, dancing as finger-puppets. Costume assembly took quite some time, with the tuxedo proving the main challenge.

Noah tells me that in Euwy World, bedtime stories are dramatic readings of chicken DNA. Chicken DNA? I ask. Yes, he says, providing me with a sample quote, pronounced as if it were a single word: "CTAGATTCAGTGGATGATCCACTAGAAT."

Erin and Sophie spend an hour or more doing dramatic readings from the juice and milk cartons, inventing many vitamins in the process and explaining that good sources of Vitamin S are squids, snails and slugs, and that it's not a coincidence that these are all "S" animals, because before scientists name new species, they put the animal in a blender and then do a vitamin analysis of the liquefied remains, and name the animal with the letter of the most prominent vitamin.

It is explained that cows are actually birds, not mammals, and that the apparent presence of mammary glands is due to blocked oviducts. The eggs are massive and internal, and as they build up inside they inflate the poor bird to bovine proportions. Leaking eggwhite can be 'milked' from the oviducts. Sophie expresses disgust that cows are not in any of our bird-watching books.

At least two hours are devoted to the mastery and continued embellishment of a rhythmic chant of Harry Potter character names, in the style of this Potter Puppet Pals production. Rather than 6 characters, my kids' version has over two dozen, and they spend a long time notating them, discussing which beats are syncopated, which come after the beat, how many repetitions in each bar, and so on. More rehearsing ensues. I get recruited to help. They manage to keep four or five contrary changing rhythms going at a time, despite much giggling. They christen it the Potterbel Canon.

Travel kids

We have our ups and downs, but many more of the former than the latter. We've just returned from another trip to Calgary. This photo was taken while waiting for the inland ferry that takes us across Upper Arrow Lake towards Revelstoke where we can pick up the TransCanada Highway. Kids were out of their carseats and belts, and creating some sort of hilarious fun. These trips would not be do-able if we didn't actually enjoy being together, at least most of the time.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Toilet paper algebra

Fiona is working through the Miquon Blue book and was thrilled to hear that the pages which assign letters to numbers and manipulate them in code were exercising her pre-algebraic skills. She has older siblings whom she knows are doing algebra, and she thinks algebra must be pretty cool. I explained to her that algebra was a process of trying to figure out what a mystery number was in balanced equations. I said I was pretty sure that she'd be able to do some simple algebra if she wanted to. She was keen, so I got some wooden checkers, the pan balance and a piece of toilet paper labelled 'x'. We had great fun hiding unknown numbers of checkers under the toilet paper, setting up a balanced 'equation', and using our math skills to solve the mystery.

My other kids weren't intrigued by algebra this young, but Fiona seems to be -- likely because she's drawn magnetically to whatever the other kids are doing. Her eyes really lit up with this play. If she keeps asking and expressing an interest, she might be a candidate for Borenson's Hands-On Equations which I once looked over and really liked. We have an obscure manipulative-based program intended for high schoolers (Alge-Tiles) which I've used a bit with the older kids, but it gets into exponents and negative numbers right near the beginning. Borenson's program would be much more at Fiona's level and I've always wished for an excuse to purchase it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The big violin

It's still not big in the absolute sense. It's just a tenth, five sizes away from a full-sized instrument. But what a difference it's made to Fiona's playing!

The feature she was really looking forward to the most was the case with backpack straps. The day she got it, she strapped it to her back and kept it there for the hour and a half her siblings were having their lessons, while drawing, colouring and playing with blocks.

Another nifty feature is that it fits a red Mini-Kun shoulder rest. Neither her teacher nor I tend to use shoulder rests for little kids, but she had some posture adjustment issues that made us try it, and it's working well. She loves it. Actually the Kun is a little big (it's made to fit 1/8th and 1/4 instruments), but it doesn't fall off so that's okay.

The best feature, the one she's really learned to love, though, is the tone. This violin, unlike her old smaller one, gets a mature clear sound on all four strings. It's worth putting effort into getting rich clear tone, because this instrument does produce if you put the focus and energy in. Fiona has had the violin for about a month now and her tone has improved astronomically.

The new instrument has had a synergistic effect. Fiona's note reading ability has begun to click. She's moving ahead well in the repertoire, having wrapped up the two normally-quite-challenging minuets at the end of Book 2 in the space of a month, and greeting the first pieces in Book 3 with enthusiasm and confidence. The benefits of having three older Suzuki siblings -- the day she delved into Martini Gavotte she played the whole thing with all the right notes and bowings the first time through! And the pre-shifting and pre-vibrato games we're doing are giving her (and me!) the sense that she really is moving forward towards not being a beginner any more. She is practicing with great relish these days, working extremely hard and often persisting at exercises and repetitions beyond what I suggest. Today when her half-hour lesson was wrapping up, she wondered how it could possibly be over already -- there was so much else she'd hoped to do!

At home since diving into note-reading work her practicing has been lasting 45 minutes at a minimum, and not much of it is filler these days. We play few games -- though we still laugh a lot. An older unschooler I know once described learning to play the violin as "hard fun". I think Fiona would agree. Working hard is fun for her. She often wants to take her violin out again later in the day and would, if I had the energy, likely consent to two full practice sessions a day. But I need to remind myself that she just turned five. Even if she's the one doing the leading, I think I need to make an effort to create some balance, to keep things playful, easy-going, fun and imaginative.

Monday, February 18, 2008

De-emphasizing competition

"SI" asked how we handle competition at home, and how it is handled at the aikido dojo. By way of background I should say that I'm very similar to Noah in my attitude to competition. I don't like how it makes me feel. I get anxious about doing well, but if I do well, I feel guilty for out-performing others and unworthy of whatever recognition I get. If I do badly I feel like a failure. My preferred outcome, which I do my best to engineer, is to come in at about the 75th percentile. But I'd far rather just not compete. I have strong philosophical reasons for preferring to de-emphasize competition as well, but I'll not get into those here. This post is mostly about the "how," not the "why."

At home I've strongly de-emphasized all sorts of comparisons between children. Because my kids haven't been in school, with its age-levelling and lop-sided adult-child ratio, I've been remarkably successful. My kids don't try to bolster their own feelings of worth by comparing themselves favourably with siblings or others. They don't brag about being fastest or tallest or smartest or best. They are what they are, and they get satisfaction from, and brag about their own work and progress within themselves.

That's not to say that we never race, or compete, or compare. Games and challenges are fun. But it's always the game, and not the end result, that is the focus. To give an example, if I were to sit down and play Snakes & Ladders with Fiona, we'd start out rolling the dice and moving. If the game got lop-sided we'd laugh over how far ahead one of us was. I might quip "hey, this is no good ... look how far ahead I am! If my next roll is good, I'll give it to you." And I'd do that a couple of times. And then once one of us won a close race to the finish, I'd say "Aw, too bad, game's over. Hey, I know! How about we both play for me until my guy finishes too?" And then "yay, we did it!"

When we're at the gym playing badminton, we just rally. If there's not enough challenge for someone, we'll play two on one, or one of us will "play mean" for a bit which means trying to play so that the other person misses -- always resulting in big laughs. If we play two on two, we'll reshuffle the teams over and over, and if someone is clearly a much stronger player, we'll play two or three or four on one. Play can get really aggressive and exhausting, but we never keep score, because what would that add? We're having fun and working hard, improving our skills without it.

Violin group class is a place where competitiveness could very easily arise, since it's comprised of 14 students learning the same repertoire in the same order over the long-term (much like kids work through the same colour-belt levels in martial arts). But we consistently de-emphasize comparative language, and specifically encourage supportive feelings and comments. For instance, we never ask the students to share what their most advanced piece is. Instead they're encouraged to share what basic technique they're refining ("who has been working on bow direction in your lessons recently" will result in hands of kids from age 5 to 15, Books 1 to 10 going up). More advanced students are encouraged to learn from less advanced students, for instance by commenting positively on notable facets of a beginner's performance. Students are encouraged to focus not on speed of advancement through the repertoire, but on continually refining basic form and sound. Advancement through repertoire is the side benefit of refinement of technique, form and sound. In lessons students will often hear comments like "Remember, you're trying to learn to play the violin more and more beautifully, not to play 'Gavotte in g minor'. Learning this piece is just one of the steps that will help you develop your musical skills."

The approach at aikido seems very consistent with this. Students at various levels are in the same class and are learning from each other -- less advanced from more advanced, and vice versa. When a beginner is paired up with an orange belt for some technique, the children say to each other (in Japanese) "please help me learn." Of course the students are at different levels, and no one is pretending otherwise, but it's clear that everyone has things they can learn from everyone.

Some nuts and bolts examples. When they play tag as a warm-up, it's a cumulative freeze-tag version, with the frozen players helping the person who is "the shark" catch the remainder. When everyone is frozen, a new shark is chosen and play resumes. It very fun and a good challenge for all levels, but there's no winner and no score, and those who are tagged early still have a role to play in the game -- they're not "out."

When they do a race, they create relay teams, and the teams are totally arbitrary, and often unbalanced. The idea is to have fun by working together for a fast speed, and the kids are motivated and fast. They run their legs off! But if one team is clearly way ahead, the sensei will yell out "okay, Ryan's gotta do three laps instead of two -- one more lap Ryan!" And when the final runners come in, there's no victory dance, just a casual "okay that time Team 2 got it" followed by a quick reshuffling of the teams for another similar race with some slight variation.

When they play one-on-one games, like a neat sumo-ish game that's popular with the kids, the pairings are often lop-sided and some players will be handicapped (via directions from the sensei that seem casual and arbitrary, but I suspect are far from it) for certain matches by being asked to use only one arm, or no arms. I think that the sensei is ensuring through these pairings that all kids win and lose with regularity. The players must thank each other for the match, and there is no chance to gloat over a victory because the focus will already have moved on to something else by the time the thank-you has occurred.

The values and principles that run throughout these different activities are similar. Comparative language is strongly discouraged. Game play is the focus, with the winning or losing being beside the point. Reshuffling of teams and opponents and the frequent use of handicaps, flexible/shifting rules and collaborative play prevents kids from getting attached to outcomes and keeps the focus on the fun of the game. Scores and ranks are not kept track of. Situations where one student is repeatedly left out or defeated are avoided -- games being engineered so that all children have regular experience with both winning and losing and come to understand that this sort of 'success' or 'failure' is pretty meaningless. And focus is instead put on respect, responsibility, dedicated effort and mutual support.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The gym mats

To me one facet of simplifying making do with reclaimed, recycled and jerry-rigged stuff rather than purchasing new things. But another facet is decluttering. Which creates a bit of a dilemma when I'm working at the local public school at the end of August cleaning up after the music school weeks and sitting in the lobby, waiting to be picked up to go to the landfill are two ratty-looking gym mats.

I knew that if I brought home two ratty-looking gym mats they were likely to be clutter 95% of the time. What to do?

I took them home. They filled the living room floor for about a week and then went up to the loft, our storage area, where they helped cushion knees as we crawled around under the low ceiling. Mostly they just sat there looking awful, but thankfully nobody saw them much. (The photo shows them upside-down, with their firm, but relatively un-ratty sides facing upwards. Trust me, the more cushiony right sides are UGLY.)

After aikido today, the mats came down from the loft. Since the living part of our house is concrete slab floors with just a thin layer of no-underlay grotty carpet, no one would want to go ka-thunk-flop on them as-is. All day the three younger kids have been busily practicing aikido on the mats. They are thrilled to have them. They've been working like crazy on their rolls, helping each other, coaching Fiona, refining their skills, and the mats have made all the difference.

It was a lucky break and a good call, freecycling those mats last summer.

The aikido trio

We went early to Aikido today, because Fiona had sussed out a little kids' class that happened on Sundays before the bigger kids' class. She was able to watch for about 4 and a half minutes and then she just wanted to be out there doing stuff. I went home with yet another registration form. She loved it.

Sophie and Noah both did very well and enjoyed themselves a lot. They were extremely focused, which is something the rest of the class is working on. Sophie commented afterwards that it's good to have at least two people in your family doing Aikido, so that you can practice the attack/defence movements at home with a partner. Noah said he likes how much thinking there is in Aikido. They both seem to be learning a lot about how they learn and where their strengths and comfort zones lie. I am particularly enamoured of how competitiveness is handled by the two sensei; it seems totally consistent with what we do at home.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sophie's sweater

Net production since November: two pairs of socks, three hats and now two sweaters.

I will cast Noah's sweater on tonight.

Re-tread Suzuki mom

To a certain extent the role of "Suzuki parent" is at odds with the role of "unschooling parent." These roles do have a lot in comment. Both are strewers of resources and opportunities, cheerleaders, models, trouble-shooters, resource-gatherers, observers and facilitators. But in the Suzuki paradigm, it's the adult two-thirds of the parent-teacher-child triangle that makes decisions about direction, pace and mode of learning. Always being sensitive to the child's preferences and inclinations, of course. And there's no option for the parent to just butt out. Being involved as the "home practice coach" is part of the package. In the unschooling paradigm it's the child who decides on the pace, direction and mode of learning. Unschooled children often choose to be totally independent, self-directed learners who chart their own courses. It's perfectly fine if they tell their parents to butt out.

My children are all pretty perfectionistic and have high autonomy needs. This makes unschooling a natural fit for them. Having a Suzuki parent coaching their instrument practice? Not so much.

I tried to walk a fine line as a non-coercive practice coach who honours my kids' autonomy as much as I could. But despite my most creative efforts, Erin told me to butt out of her practising for once and for all around age 10. Noah didn't explicitly tell me to get lost a year or two ago, but it was painfully obvious from his perfectionistic meltdowns that having me in the room was toxic. Sophie excused me from her practising when she was eight -- by setting her jaw, refusing to try anything, crying, whatever it took. And so I stepped back, knowing that their practising efficiency was liable to suffer in a big way for a couple of years. They were both into early concerto repertoire at this stage, and the complexity of the pieces required a lot more than just going through the motions of particular exercises they could be assigned at weekly lessons. They'd need their own inner critic and problem-solver in order to practice efficiently and productively, and I knew that neither of them had the maturity to carry that off at their playing levels. But I accepted the inevitable slowing of progress, hoping they'd eventually find their feet.

They knew they would benefit from my help, but though we tried occasionally and in many different ways, they just couldn't cope with having me in the room. It was as though having me in the room cranked their self-criticism up a hundred-fold. They suddenly felt terrible about what they were doing, about what they hadn't managed to accomplish. You'd think I wasn't cheerful, positive, playful, creative. I think I really am a pretty decent Suzuki parent. But I'd be invited to come and help at a practice session, walk in smiling, sit down and cheerfully suggest "why don't you play something you enjoy to warm up, and then if you want, you can play one of your 'working pieces' to see if there's anything I can help you with" and the child in question would play two bars of an old favourite review piece and then burst into tears and refuse to do anything else.

So eventually we just gave up trying. For the past year and a bit, they've both pretty much been on their own. I'd sit in on their lessons and take notes, and maybe put together some suggestions for goals for the week, or map out a practice plan if they wanted, but that was it. For a while Noah didn't even want me to sit in on his lessons.

This year Noah has not wanted to go to his viola lesson very often. Sometimes there would be full-on resistance and tears, and always there would be comments the day before expressing dread. I always gave him the option to not have a lesson -- but he always chose to propel himself over whatever emotional hurdle was in the way -- and always felt pretty good about himself afterwards. He's having a Good Viola Year, in fact, making lots of progress and really coming into himself as a performer. But still the resistance to lessons continued. For a long time I thought it was just transition issues. As time went on, though, it seemed there was more to it than that. This felt a little different, to both of us.

One day we had a productive discussion about the source of the resistance to lessons. He never felt adequately prepared. He always wished he'd got around to doing more of ___ and to really mastering ___, or whatever. He hadn't done that stuff because it seemed hard, so he'd put it off. And then when his next lesson loomed, he was filled with regret over not having tackled those things adequately.

I suggested that part way through the week, maybe I could come in and good over the lesson assignments with him and trouble-shoot with him -- and just remind him to get moving and tackle the things he was putting off. He thought this was a pretty good solution. I wasn't convinced it would work. I was pretty sure he'd melt down.

But we tried it, and it worked brilliantly. He had wandered a little off the path he'd been set on at his previous lesson, so I was able to guide him back, get him focused on the goals again, and get him moving. Well, he was the one that got moving; he just needed me to remind him to do so.

And then the following day, out of the blue, he said "I think once a week isn't enough for that practising-together thing. We should do it more often than that."

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I suggested that maybe every other day would be worth trying. He nodded. Yup, that was about right.

Sophie did this facial expression that says "hey, um, what about me?"

"And then, on the in between days, I could do the same with Sophie, if she'd like that."

Yup. She would like that. She does.

And so I'm back on duty as a Suzuki parent to my middle kids. It is so unexpected, and so different from what it was like before. I'm there on their terms, as a resource. Because of the long hiatus we took with this facet of our relationship, they know that this is totally, truly, genuinely a choice they are making -- and that they are completely free to choose otherwise. There are no eggshells to walk upon. They want my input. They are eager for help. They feel the difference in their momentum when they get this kind of day-to-day assistance. And we're all feeling good about it.

It feels like the ultimate marriage of unschooling and Suzuki-dom ... children who are pro-actively and autonomously asking for the type of guidance in their home practising that the Suzuki approach sees as ideal. I'm not sure how long it will last, and I'm not saying it isn't a big time and energy committment for me (since I'm also trying to squeeze in my own practising, and help Fiona with hers, which is getting longer and longer) but it feels pretty good being a Suzuki parent again to my middle kids.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Aikido II

Last week's colds got in the way of another trip to observe Aikido classes. We finally made it today. Noah, Sophie and Fiona came along. One of the kids got Noah and Sophie involved in a game of tag before class started. Good start. There were only five kids in the class and the sensei came over and asked Noah and Sophie to help out, especially with the games, since they were missing a few bodies. They agreed.

They stayed in for the whole class, introduced themselves, counted aloud to five in Japanese during the warmup, participated all the way through and gave everything they had in the games and relays.

Fiona had a few sobs in the middle because I told her she was too young to be in the class. I promised to ask if there were classes for littler kids and she settled. I didn't have much hope but it turns out there is a young kids' class on Sundays, right before the regular kids' class. It has just three students, but it's going. I guess we'll take her in time to watch this week.

I brought home registration forms. Looks like we're in. The kids really enjoyed themselves. I'm so glad I pushed past the hump.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where have all the raincoats gone?

Last fall, before our canoe trip, I did my best to scrounge around and find everyone a rain jacket. I came up short. It was early September and we were heading into the cold wet months in our area, but there was nothing on the racks in the stores. They had windbreakers/warmup jackets and polyester fleece and cotton fleece. And in the high-end stores for $250 you could find parka shells made of waterproof-breathable fabrics, with taped seams, designed mostly for layering over fleece for waterproofness in the snow ... though there was nothing in kids' sizes in our neck of the woods. I didn't have time to mail-order; I'd just assumed that rain jackets were everywhere during the back-to-school season.

It was much to Sophie's detriment that we failed to find appropriate rain gear in the stores before our trip. I had given Erin an old waterproof jacket of mine, and Fiona was fine in a slightly-too-small yellow rainslicker that I had sewn up several years earlier for an older sister. Noah had a lovely Wetskins jacket that I'd managed to scoop up at a thrift store the previous spring. But when we got caught in a day of cool fall rain out on the lake, poor Sophie suffered. Upon our return I was determined to find her a good-quality waterproof jacket no matter the cost.

When I was young every kid had a rain jacket. You would have a winter jacket and snow pants, and winter boots for the coldest months, and the remainder of your core outdoors-wear wardrobe would consist of a rain coat, rain boots and maybe an umbrella too. Plus sweaters for warmth underneath. So why could I not find a single waterproof jacket for Sophie in any store in the area? (I must admit that we have very few shopping options. There are three thrift stores, a WalMart, a high-end outdoors store and a baby boutique that carries a few items for children as well. But still ... why was no one selling raincoats in September? I had expected to find two or three racks of choices, at least, at the WalMart, but there was nothing.)

I have a feeling it's because children aren't expected to spend time outside in the rain any more. Most don't walk to school on nice-weather days any more, but even those that do certainly wouldn't be expected to do so if it's pouring rain. Outside play is much less common in these days of wii's and million-channel TV, but would certainly not be expected if the weather is at all inclement. Children just do not spend the kind of time outdoors that they once did.

At any rate, I finally found a source for lovely Oko-tex standard imported Swedish rainwear right under my nose; some Scandinavian homeschooling acquaintances in Nelson were importing them, having been unable to find anything comparable in North America. I bought Sophie one right away. Last week they e-mailed to let me know that they were liquidating their remaining stock to make room in their lives for other things so I took the opportunity to grab Fiona one of their lovely jackets too at half price.

I now know how rare and precious a good child's rain jacket is. We're thrilled to have these two jackets in the family now, and will cherish them.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Chuck, at the dinner table, is in conversation with Fiona, concerning a rather challenging 3-year-old we know:

"So M. is a little helper?" asks Chuck.

"No, the opposite," explains Fiona.

"Oh, so M. is a big helper, then."

Fiona looks puzzled for a second, then bursts out laughing. "No! The other opposite!" She keeps laughing for quite a while. Something can have two different opposites. How nifty! Her brain has just been tickled by a new concept.

Today, Sophie says to Fiona, incredulous over something she thinks Fiona has just said:

"So you prefer my hair tangled?"

Fiona corrects her: "No, your hair oppositely tangled preferred." And giggles, knowing she's used some pretty neat words and ideas, but that she's totally mangled the sentence.

Language tickles Fiona's funny bone.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Grape stuff

After a week of colds, with appetites now returning, a fresh but somewhat decadent dessert seemed on order. This is one of our all-time favourites, though we don't have it very often, not being much in the habit of doing desserts. I used to work with a food service organization that did some catering, and this recipe is loosely modelled on something they made, though they tended to serve it in champagne-style dessert glasses, with an orange zest garnish, rather than as a blob in a stoneware bowl. Presentation aside, it's so simple and delicious that I have to share the recipe.

Grape Stuff

2 lbs. of seedless green grapes, washed and halved
3/4 cup of sour cream
3/4 cup of whipping cream
1/4 cup of sugar
1 Tbsp. of grated orange rind
2 Tbsp. of triple sec (optional)

Add the sugar to the sour cream and stir. Whip the whipping cream. Fold in the sweetened sour cream, then the orange rind and triple sec, if used. Fold in the grapes. Spoon into hoity-toity glassware or IKEA stoneware as desired. Serve.

Printing and folding

It's the time of year that I spend immense amounts of computer time doing desktop publishing and web publishing to get the information and registration materials out for the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, as well as the four other week-long Valhalla Fine Arts summer programs our community will host this summer. The websites for the two main music programs are now pretty much done, and the paper materials will hit the mail on Monday. High time, too, because a recent article in the American Suzuki Journal had several pages of colour photos and an absolutely glowing report on it from the past-president of the SAA, a woman who was part of our faculty for the past two years -- and phone calls are starting to come in from families all over North America wondering how to sign up!

The colour cover pictured above wasn't my doing. This year it was contracted out to a real professional graphic design person. So I've been able to concentrate on the website and the inner pages that tuck inside the colour page. Today I printed off the lion's share of the registration forms and, as is usual, the kids helped tackle the otherwise interminable folding. Sophie and Fiona are my usual helpers, and they have great stamina, as well as being good company. I've never minded repetitive tasks like this, but they often take more time than I can really spare, so the kids' help is much appreciated.

It's particularly fun for them because they're excited by the SVI planning. It's their favourite week of the whole year.

Thrifty frogging

Sophie, Fiona and I frogged a thrift-store sweater yesterday. There were moth-holes in it, but it was lovely soft fingering-weight lambswool, so we deemed it well worthwhile. We picked seams, untangled selvages, did the rip-it, rip-it thing that gives frogging its name, wound the reclaimed yarn and weighed it. It was a great activity for a quiet Saturday with mushy snow outside and head-colds inside. We ended up with 135 grams of wool that we'll do something nice with.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Unaccompanied coffee house Bach

Here's part of Erin's violin contribution to the coffee house. We were all sick and tired, including the family's three performers and our two ever-patient observers. I left Fiona at a table with the other kids and her grandma to squat in the front row and shoot the video. Half-asleep, I think she sort of lost track of where I was. She started crying, with great choking sobs part way through, just before the cut I made to abridge the four minutes to 1 1/2. You can see Erin notice -- her eyes flick off the the left and then back to me, and then she smiles as Fiona's grandma picks her up to comfort her. Fiona recovered, poor mite. And Erin didn't miss a note. The audience chuckle/sigh at the end is from the warm understanding crowd that was following the whole drama -- and appreciated what Erin had managed to pull off in spite of her little sister's meltdown.

Yesterday at the coffee house

Noah's quartet played a really nice Mozart string quartet movement at the coffee house, but I hit the wrong button on the camcorder and only captured a few seconds to the SmartCard. I did manage to correct the mistake in time for "Yesterday", which was a little rough in the middle but finished up nicely. Can you tell that it was the violist's mother who penned this arrangement? This is a melody that was made for the viola, if I do say so.

FSA Day 3 - numeracy and snot

The final day of the FSA testing went off without a hitch. The girls from the other family, who have not done much formal math, did a fair bit of guessing on the multiple choice part of the test, and had to be repeatedly told that this was okay, that they just needed to think it through as best they could and then make a choice. Sophie took quite a while with the multiple choice portion -- I think she went 10 minutes over the suggestion time of 60 minutes. But she clearly wanted to be right on everything and said there were just 2 out of the 40 questions that she wasn't totally sure of.

The more conceptual pencil-and-paper part of the numeracy test was a little too much for all three girls. It was a little more open-ended, and while they made a stab at it, their heart wasn't in it. They could smell the end of the testing -- the skating and movie we'd planned for the afternoon was so alluring. Sophie managed to soldier through and complete it; the other two got part way through and then wrote "I've had enough of this" on the bottom of their papers. As they're perfectly within their rights to do!

Sophie was quite sick with a nasty head cold and if she'd been a school student there's no way she would have been at school today. But since we had arranged two families' lives around this testing session, and since she was writing at her own kitchen table, we went ahead. I'm sure the virus and all the concomitant snot interfered with her efficiency and stamina. I'm impressed that she was the one of the three who finished. Then again, she's had a fair bit in the way of a background in formal math, so the questions didn't require much of her.

Her overall comment on the FSA testing was that it wasn't much fun with all that snot, but otherwise it was okay.

Her second instrument

Erin started violin about two years before she began taking piano lessons. For years it looked like despite the later start, piano was truly her instrument. It appealed to her sense of order, to her visual learning style, to her introverted personality. Violin bubbled to the top periodically, because of its innately social nature and the ease of participating in ensemble experiences on a stringed instrument. But piano seemed to grab her on a day-to-day basis in a way that violin didn't. In the last six months, though, piano has moved onto the back burner, and violin has become the passion.
While she noodles about on piano a fair bit and is still taking weekly lessons, I think she only practices two or three times a week. Still, she is a pretty amazing pianist, one who can pull a bit of Chopin out to contribute to a friend's coffee house and play it like this...

Coffee house Nina

A friend of the kids was putting on a coffee house as a fund-raiser in aid of her trip to Boston to a Youth Leaders conference and asked if they would be willing to play. This year Noah has come into his own as a performer and he was more than happy to contribute. He chose to play the "Nina" by Pergolesi, an old chestnut of his which he's known for some time and really enjoys playing. Erin accompanied. The room was cold, and his G-string slipped out of tune as the piece wore on, but I think he still did marvelously. He clearly loves this piece.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Swamped by simplicity

Simplicity is a real catch-word in my life these days, and also in several of the on-line communities I'm part of. This morning I awoke with a cold and ended up feeling particularly grumpy.

I was never truly part of a rat-race, discounting the 75-hour weeks I worked as an intern and occasional ER-shift-heavy locums during my first couple of years in practice. So even pre-simplicity I did my best to find balance. And back in the old, pre-simplicity days I used to get up, make some coffee and sit down and enjoy it before heading out for a ski or to visit friends.

These days my simplicity is More Evolved, and my morning routine consists of many or all of the following. I get up, split some kindling, light a fire in the wood stove, check the yogourt culture, empty the laundry airer and refill it with damp clothes, hand-wash some dishes, start the sponge for the bread, bake muffins, run the nut-milk maker, rinse some sprouts, feed and water the chickens, collect the eggs, roast some coffee, do some cursory snow-clearing on the driveway before it gets too warm and the snow gets too heavy ... and then maybe I can sit down and drink a cuppa coffee. Probably not, though, because my morning routine takes so long that something else usually needs to be done by the time I'm finished it.

When we moved to the Slocan Valley and began our slide towards simplicity, I thought quite fondly of our shift to a slower paced life. I still do, most of the time -- I really do love it. But from the wrong side of a snotty nose a slower paced life really looks like "everything takes such a damn long time."

FSA Day 2 - writing to task

Today was the writing portion of the test. None of these girls have ever had to "write to task." For the 9-year-old girls it went fine. Both have excellent writing skills and the two writing topics given were ones that 'worked' for them. The first was about an environmental topic of their choice, something they're both passionate about and experienced with, and the second was an open-ended fantasy story-starter that they enjoyed.

The poor 12-year-old, though, was given an essay topic that went something like this:
"Grade 7 is a time of changes and new responsibilities -- lockers, class schedules, more homework and longer assignments. What advice would you give to a Grade 6 student about having a successful grade 7 experience?"

This 12-year-old girl in particular is not terribly imaginative, and struggles a bit with written expression. The topic above totally shut her down. She was so angry. "How can I write about that? It's horrid!" Knowing that the tests are being marked by teachers affiliated with the SelfDesign program, we re-framed it a little for her. "Write advice to your littlest sister on creating a meaningful year of learning for herself when she's 12." That helped a bit, but she was already angry and started that session in a pretty rotten frame of mind. She was a good sport and did it anyway. But talk about cultural bias!

I'm glad there are only three sessions. I think the kids will get through to the end of tomorrow's work without appreciable resistance. Another day would be a hard sell. They are free to refuse to do the test, and they know that. As homeschooling parents with children in a Distributed Learning program we cannot refuse on their behalfs, though we can ask that they be exempted if we have reasonable grounds to believe that the testing will be particularly traumatic for them. In the case of these kids, anxiety and trauma seemed unlikely, and none has chosen to refuse to do the testing.

Literacy down, numeracy awaits tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

FSA Day 1 -- reading comprehension

FSA is Foundation Skills Assessment, a set of standardized tests all students in our province in Grades 4 and 7 are required to write. By virtue of being enrolled in the Wondertree Self-Design homeschool program, rather than simply registered as a homeschooler, Sophie is considered a Grade 4 student. We get some perks from the SelfDesign program, and in weighing the pros and cons of keeping her enrolled there this year we looked at the standardized testing issue. She's a pretty easy-going kid who has no overwhelming anxieties about reading, writing or math. She's got excellent academic skills. I figured it wouldn't cause her any appreciable stress to write these tests. Yes, I'm philosophically opposed to standardized testing, but I'm philosophically supportive of what the Wondertree SelfDesign program is doing -- creating a community of support and some financial help through the government to offset educational expenses for unschoolers. This radical program walks a fine line with the government; what they're doing is pushing boundaries, questioning assumptions, and yet playing the game to the extent that the government will work with them and provide the funding. And part of 'playing the game' means creating the expectation that their 9- and 12-year-old learners will write these FSA exams.

It could be worse. The results do not go on the student's record, only on the school's. The tests are relatively brief and relatively basic... reading, writing and math, an hour and a half a day for three days. For our learners, they are administered at home, supervised by family friends or even (if necessary) by parents. Almost half the testing is computer-based. The writing portions can be done by hand or on the computer.

And so we agreed to do this in order to support the SelfDesign program in its relationship with the governmental Ministry of Education. We've kept it very low-key. I didn't go through any test prep at all with Sophie. She didn't do any practice tests, all we did was briefly talk about the format and intent of the tests to demystify the process.

Today we did the reading comprehension portion of the FSA testing with Sophie and two other girls, unschooling friends enrolled in the same program. Overall it went fine. I think it really helped that they were all in it together. They felt like they were all doing this slightly weird experiment with what school is like. We made it into a somewhat special occasion by allowing for some social time and some junky snack food. On Friday when they're all done we'll invite the rest of the siblings and have a movie and popcorn party.

This is the first time Sophie has ever written a test. She thought it was sorta stupid but mostly painless. She disliked the written tidbit but gritted her teeth and did it in good spirits. We are all secretly dreading the writing portion which they'll do tomorrow. All three write reasonably well but intensely dislike "writing to task" like this. We shall see.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Happy Surprise Half-practising Day

We have an interesting dance in our family when it comes to music practicing. I do not require the kids to practice every day. I expect daily practice since I believe it is part of a respectful relationship with a teacher who is teaching with the expectation of regular work at home. My kids know that I would never make them practise, or punish them for not doing so. But they also know that if they weren't to practise, I'd sit down with them to try to figure out what we could change to make it work better for them. I'd treat not-practising as a problem to be solved collaboratively. And if we tried to solve it repeatedly and couldn't, I'd suggest that maybe they should at least take a break from lessons.

The bottom line is that they love taking lessons, and their musical instrument study is such a fundamental part of who they are and of many of the relationships they have with others that I don't think they'd ever want to give it up. They really need to practise not because I expect it, or because their teachers expect it, but because they expect it of themselves. They begin to feel awful about their lessons if they haven't done what they think they should have to prepare. And they don't like to feel awful about their lessons.

The net result of all this is that they like me to prod them into practising if they're having trouble getting started. They expect these prods and while they like to moan and complain a bit, their protests don't amount to more than some transition-resistance that they need to express verbally before buckling down to work.

Tonight came after a long day and a late supper and all four kids were putting off starting their practising. I could hear them chatting in the living room, enjoying each other's company while they all procrastinated. I imagined myself walking into the room and giving them the prod they expected. I knew they really didn't feel like practising, none of them. Even Fiona, riding high from yesterday's note-reading break-through, was feeling lousy with a head cold and suffering the effects of an unusually early start to the day. I knew that if I went in and prodded them they would all moan and complain and then practise, but that tonight their heart wasn't really going to be in it. They'd merely go through the motions. I thought about it for a while, listening to the four of them chatting together happily. There they were, all in the same boat together, procrastinating, waiting for me to show up and play the heavy.

I got up and went into the living room.

"Guess what day it is?" I asked.

"I dunno. What?" they replied.

"It's Surprise Half-Practising Day!" I announced. The idea had just popped into my head.

"Yay!" they all exclaimed, and ran off to practise half as long as usual.

Sometimes as a parent I manage to pull off something that strikes just the right balance. I lucked into one of those instances tonight.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Clickety click!

Last spring Fiona was very interested in musical note reading. We played a few music theory games and did a little work on pitch and rhythm reading. She enjoyed it but progress was slow. Some things she got easily (like rhythmic reading) but the pitch stuff was a bit of a struggle. As it has been with all my kids at first. The others started reading work later, and the pitch stuff only clicked with them around age 8. I had absolutely no expectations with Fiona. She was interested, so we did note-reading semi-regularly for a while, and then it sort of fell off the radar and neither of us missed it.

Last month, though, she mentioned wanting to get back to note-reading. She knows it's part of the path to joining the community orchestra, which she'd like to do when she's seven, if not before. And when her grandma mentioned at her lesson that it might be time to look at note-reading, as she's almost ready to start Suzuki Book 3, we decided that it was time to give it another whirl.

Within a couple of days her rhythmic reading skills had all come back. She was easily playing basic combinations of various note values in a variety of simple time signatures on open strings. Motored her way half way through the first "I Can Read Music" book in the space of less than a week. Pitch was another matter, though. She couldn't seem to get close enough to the music to see what she needed to make it work for her. Her studious concentration was almost painful to watch, but not terribly effective. She understood the concept, but hadn't formed the link between her excellent aural pitch skills and the rising and falling of the black blobs on the paper. She had to read and think through every note separately. It was hard work. Within a few days she was on Lesson 26 for rhythm, but stuck on Lesson 3 for pitch. Still, she was cheerful in her hard work, and not unduly frustrated. She could memorize the exercises with repeated use and give herself the illusion of mastery, and that was enough to keep her plugging away.

But between last night and tonight, something clicked. When I put up the same example tonight, she played through it easily. I figured she'd just memorized it. We moved to a fresh exercise in Lesson 4. Same result. Then Lesson 5. Finally I stopped her after two perfectly executed exercises from Lesson 6. It's good to stop when you're riding high on your success and wanting more.

Now, we're still talking very very basic note-reading. Four different pitches on the A-string, with no rhythm attached, just straight quarter-notes, up and down with occasional skips of a third or a fourth. But something significant has clicked now. That intuitive connection between the up and down march of the blobs on the page and the sounds they're associated with has formed. She can sight-sing, and sight-play those simplest exercises with no help and with total accuracy. And that's something she was nowhere near (or so it seemed) being able to do twenty-four hours ago. How amazing it is to be such an immediate witness to cognitive shifts like this. Learning is a fascinating thing.

Push-me pull-you

For a long time I've been muttering to Noah that I thought he'd be a great candidate for a martial arts program. He has such physical intuitiveness, such an amazing sense of his own body, yet doesn't enjoy team or competitive sports. He's also easily intimidated by the physical energy of fellow human beings when he doesn't trust their impulse control and social skills. He's not physically fearful in the least (as witnessed by his tree-climbing, rope-wrangling adventurousness) but he's easily intimidated by the physical assertiveness of other people. Children especially. So sports have been a hard sell with him. While we try to stay active through unstructured pursuits, there are long stretches of the spring and fall where the kind of exercise that lends a healthy balance to our lives is hard to come by.

Noah does have a bit of an interest in things Japanese, and in martial arts, by way of his contact with computer-gaming. And he would benefit from a physical outlet -- especially something scheduled into his week -- since the computer tends to suck all his time and energy otherwise.

So I dropped a few teasers over the months and years. "You'd be great at martial arts, Noah. We should try to find you something." These were wistful teasers. It seemed unlikely there would be a suitable program anywhere near us. I knew there was an amazing aikido dojo in Nelson, but Noah hates travelling to Nelson no matter the reason. That was out, for sure.

But imagine my surprise to hear a couple of years ago that there was an offshoot of the Nelson dojo being built outside a little village of 700 half an hour south of us. I filed that little tidbit away for future reference.

A couple of months ago I watched Noah having fun with Sophie on the far side of midnight one night playing an invented bizarre combat art he termed Yoga Boxing, leaping around on one leg in the "Tree" yoga position attacking Sophie and having an absolute hoot. His balance, strength and precision were amazing. I thought to myself this kid has to get involved in a martial art. I decided to start investigating that new aikido dojo.

I was sold, but with Noah it was quite a different matter. He hates trying new things; expectations he doesn't fully understand make him anxious, as does the possibility that he won't excel at something the first time out. Normally when I nudge Noah into something, I have to do it in a way that is calculated to help him over the hump of his initial resistance. I thought that he and I were getting much better at reading and understanding each other's signals. But my goodness, I've been totally confused this time around.

A few weeks ago I got in touch with the people at the nearby dojo and found out that they were running youth classes. I was told we were welcome to drop in to observe. I planted a seed with Noah (and Sophie who is also in the age-group for the youth classes). I told them we'd go and check it out sometime. Noah's response was somewhat resistant, but I knew that was coming from his anxiety over trying new things. There was a glimmer of interest too. The mixed signals were starting.

I'm used to his ambivalent signals, though, so I let things go until after the Calgary trip and then told him one morning that we'd be going to check it out in three days' time. No argument, but no enthusiasm. Just the mute signs of anxiety over something new. Then, that morning, I reminded him that this was the day, and that there were no expectations, we'd just go and watch. When it was time to leave, I gave him his marching orders. "Time to go. Come on. We're going to check it out. You don't have to do anything, but you do have to come."

He came along uncomplainingly, though it was clear he wasn't exactly joyfully looking forward to it. Silent dread might have been one way of describing it. But dread and curious excitement at the same time. On the way down we chatted about what it might be like, and it was apparent he knew a fair bit about martial arts -- certainly more than I did, though I shared what I'd learned about aikido by my reading and research. I also explained that I was pushing him into checking things out because I recognized that he often enjoyed things after he'd got over the hump of his initial resistance -- and that as his mom I wasn't always sure when I should push and when I should back off, but I'd decided a small push was likely worthwhile with this activity. We went, we found the place, we felt a bit awkward introducing ourselves, but were able to watch in a low-key way. When the class was over, Noah told the sensei that he thought he might like to join, and he asked to stay to watch a bit of the adult class that followed. When we left the dojo half an hour later he told me "yeah, I think I might go for it." He mentioned finding the behaviour of one or two of the boys a little intimidating, but thought he still might like to join the class. That sounded pretty positive. I felt vindicated in my pushing. We'd both loved the facility and found the sensei very likeable and competent. We came home with a good feeling about it.

However a day later he I asked him how he felt about it and he said he didn't think he'd join. Over the next two days he became even more negative and resistant. Now what? He'd been initially interested, though anxious, yet when I'd got him there he'd decided he'd liked it. But now he'd flip-flopped and was pulling against my pushing.

As the next class loomed, I spent a lot of time and energy reflecting on what to do. In the depths of last night I decided to push him to come to class today and once again see how he felt when it was over. It seemed like anticipatory anxiety was the problem and once he'd worked through it things were good. I figured that he'd need a smaller push the second time and so I decided I was willing to push.

But when it came time to go today, he notched his resistance up an order of magnitude. I felt awful, but I played the parental authority figure. "I think this is good for you, and I don't care what you're saying right now -- you seem to have yes feelings and no feelings all at the same time, and I'm telling you we're going to watch another class to give you a chance to sort those feelings out." It was a pretty dramatic scene; he definitely didn't want to go. He finally got into the van, overflowing with tears and protests. I felt terrible. It was a very silent minivan that headed south towards the dojo.

About half way there he let out a big sigh and then started to join in on conversation with Sophie, Fiona and me. He'd resigned himself to going, finally. When we got there the place felt familiar to us and he was welcomed with a cheerful "Hey, Noah!" by the sensei. We settled in to watch. And as I watched him observe the class it became apparent that he was enjoying himself. Wonder of wonders.

This time when we left, I asked him if he felt any better about things, if his feelings about aikido had changed from before the class. He nodded, smiled, and said "I think I'll come next time and when he asks if I'll join in for tag I will, and the next time after that I'll probably really join."

Sheesh. I hope the sense of vindication I now feel is more than temporary this time. We as good as shook on it today -- we'll go and watch next Thursday's class, and then he'll probably join. Agreed.

Did I do the right thing? I don't know. Noah has a habit of teetering on the brink of decisions that somewhere deep inside himself he really wants to make, working himself up to such a state of anxiety and resistance and eventually paralysis that he's less and less able to take the plunge. An early push reduces the duration of his anxiety and prevents him sliding into a state of paralysis. After being told in no uncertain terms that he must take the leap, he usually feels good about himself. It's just getting him over the hump at the start that's so tough. And really, it's been years since he's tried anything new; I suppose my patience at letting him find his own readiness was wearing thin. I've seen patience become counter-productive (and pushes result in big payoff!) with Noah before. I've never ever pushed as hard as I did today, though. It felt awful even though my instincts were telling me it was the right thing to do.

Breakfast guest

We see deer almost every day where we live, but they're getting hungrier as the winter wears on, and bolder. Even rhododendron leaves are worth eating when you're this hungry, and so this morning two deer were munching away within a metre or two of our kitchen/dining area windows. They were particularly bold today and didn't seem to mind me roasting coffee, clanking about putting dishes away, chopping apples or taking their picture.

One curious fellow moved around to the side window and looked straight inside at me for some time, curious what I was doing with the black thing I held up to my face. Since we live in the woods, well away from town and neighbours, these are wild animals, not habitutated to human presence. But they seem to have got used to our house, and the moving objects within it, and are not only not afraid, but are mildly interested. Perhaps they wanted to be part of breakfast club, apple crumble being more palatable than astringent rhodo leaves. Later today I'll take the apple cores to the compost pile in the corner of the property and they'll enjoy them greatly.

Last week Erin and I spotted a bobcat. Now that was a rare sighting. Deer are a dime a dozen for us, but I always enjoy their quiet gentle faces outside my kitchen windows.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Breakfast Club

One of the things we've been talking about lately is being a little more intentional in making use of our time at home. We all have good if vague intentions, though they often don't amount to much, and sometimes at the end of the day or the end of the week we end up with guilt or regrets about what we didn't get around to. This has been a chronic, serious problem for all of us.

During one of our informal family meetings at a local café, the kids and I talked about a shockingly novel experiment. The idea was that I would prepare a nutritious breakfast for the family, and they'd get out of bed at the appointed time and come to the table where we actually sit down together and eat it. And furthermore we'd take the opportunity to plan out our day, if we wanted, discussing any fixed activities, deciding on optional out-of-home plans, and putting in dibs on parental time and energy.

So we've been trying it. They're calling it Breakfast Club, a harkening back to the days when they were younger and had Clubs for everything. We've only been at it a few days and so far we've managed to complete an elusive haircut, make adjustments to story time, get to the gym, check out an Aikido class, and fit in more math than we've managed for a long time. And I think we're eating better too!