Monday, March 31, 2008

Stealing the show times two

Yesterday was the first in our series of Summer School of the Arts fundraising concerts. It was a regional grand piano showcase, featuring as many senior piano students as possible from within a 2 to 3 hour radius, plus any local less advanced students who wanted to play. There were also a couple of vocalists and two students who played both violin and piano.

Erin has the performer's gift -- adrenalin that fires her up, focuses her, and gives her performances gusto. She understands performance anxiety at an intellectual level but has never experienced it. What she gets is performance excitement, and does it ever come through in her playing.

She was the most advanced student playing on both violin and piano. On violin she did her Kreisler piece and on piano she did the mighty Khatchaturian Toccata (which I'll have to video sometime). Both are showy pieces to start with ... and gosh did she turn it on! Both pieces were stunning.

While I was incredibly proud and blown away by her playing, I felt a little badly for the way she stole the show twice over. There were some very nice performances from the other students. In a concert like this we all know that someone will play the flashiest piece that will catch everyone's attention; that's just how it goes. But somehow doing that on two different instruments just feels a little over the top. I think in future I will try to dissuade concert organizers from having her perform on both instruments -- at least unless there are a few more advanced performers.

Oh, and the kids in the audience: not counting the performers, there were 7 homeschoolers and 2 schoolchildren in the audience. A better ratio than the day before at the garden workbee!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earth hour quartet practice

Saturday 8 pm (Earth Hour) found us at Noah's string quartet rehearsal. We had a gig light and three head lamps, and so rehearsal carried on just fine when the lights went out. Mozart would have been performed by candlelight back in his time anyway.

The kids are doing really well with their K.157 "Allegro" movement. They'll be performing at the music festival in a couple of weeks. It's a non-competitive festival, and we're glad that there's one other string quartet playing so they'll have some company. The other quartet players are a few years older and slightly more advanced. This is the main reason I see for participating in the festival -- it brings together students who otherwise wouldn't get a chance to hear each other so that they can realize that there's something bigger than their own little pool of music going on and learn from each other.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Community garden cleanup

Every spring and fall we participate in a big clean-up bee at the community Reflection Garden. This year's spring clean-up seems much earlier than in past years though that's really only an illusion resulting from our unusually long winter. It's snowing outside at our house as I type. But the garden is on the lakefront, where the huge volume of water in the deep mountain lake acts like a heat sink, moderating both winter and summer temperatures. The 18 inches of snow we have up at our house has been reduced to a few dirty heaps at the Garden.

The company was good. An eclectic cross-section of the population, many retirees, lots of passionate gardeners and wanna-be gardeners there to glean some wisdom. There were plenty of homeschoolers. Oddly enough, in a town where less than 10% of children are homeschooled, 100% of the nine children there today were homeschoolers. That's just what resulted from a little blurb in the community newsletter -- no planning or anything. Two teens rode down on their bikes in time for coffee and snacks, and stayed to do a bit of work and to chat and play with the younger kids. And the younger kids loved their company; there were a few spontaneous games and some good-natured teasing. The big boys don't feel it's beneath their dignity to be silly with 5-year-old girls ... and they don't talk down to them either.

We spent about 4 hours working hard -- raking, pruning, sweeping, loading wheelbarrows, filling compost bins, picking fallen leaves off shrubs, neatening up mulch, cutting back grasses, burning twigs, tying bundles of willow prunings up for the local artisan who makes baskets. We've taken part in this event for years and except for Fiona, my kids need little direction. They know what to cut back, where to rake, and they understand the co-operative routine of trucking wheelbarrows around the acre and a half of gardens.

Kids from five homeschooling families came, but there were no schoolchildren. What's up with that? One might postulate the schoolchildren's social needs are met, while homeschoolers have to work hard to fill their kids' social needs and therefore we have to take advantage of opportunities like this. But I don't think that's why any of us were there, really. We didn't go because our kids were craving social exposure. We were there because it is enjoyable and rewarding to work outdoors with a bunch of volunteers on a community project. The garden is a beautiful place to be and spring, however tentative, is worth welcoming with some good hard work in the dirt.

Tomorrow we will attend a community concert, a fundraiser for our local fine arts summer programs. I'd be willing to bet that more than half the local kids who will be there in the audience will be homeschoolers. This is another benefit of homeschooling -- having the time, interest and energy to take advantage of all our community has to offer.

Friday, March 28, 2008


It was a typical Friday night in our home. After dinner we headed to the gym, which we had to ourselves again. The kids did all sorts of obsessive tallying of calories expended, played tag in the gymnasium, and got very pink and healthy-looking. Their parents sort of did likewise. Except that we probably looked worn out more than healthy. Whatever.

Then we came home and watched a Connections episode on DVD because, as Sophie said "Connections after gym is perfect." We are loving these videos and are about half way through the first series. They're quirky amalgamations of history, science, dry humour, classical music and historical re-enactments. The first series was aired in 1972, so there's a certain datedness to it. Note the leisure suit. One priceless comment from tonight's episode: "Computers are not just complicated adding machines." Oh no?

But perhaps even partly because of its datedness, we love this series. Tonight we followed history from Ptolemy to Arab astronomy to astrolabes to gears and springs to watchmaking to telescopes to pendulums, through the Inquistion to glass furnaces to the steam engine, machine tools, factories, the steam engine, cannon-boring, the automobile and supersonic flight.

But even though the 1970's style is endearing, we'll be moving on to the two 1990's series that follow. Perhaps not until next winter (our DVD habit being a cold-weather affliction) but we'll get to the rest of these some day.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A painting, again

For six months around her fourth birthday, Fiona was passionate about watercolour painting. And then, as happens, she began growing in different ways. She had begun to work in a more representational style, and was struggling with finding the balance between expressiveness and realism that fit her tender years. She wanted things to look like things, but I think that the fussing over representationalism took away the pleasure of using brushes and colours and just painting.

And then she learned to ride a bike, and to multiply and subtract in her head, and the watercolours sat on the ledge by the dining table collecting dust. She had other fish to fry.

Out of the blue she got her paints out the other day. She painted "a colourful sunset, with snow on the ground, and someone walked in the snow." I'm glad she can still find pleasure in painting. And I'm thrilled that she painted the idea of something as well as the something itself.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

T-shirt colour quandary

Today I was trying to decide what colour of T-shirts to order for this summer's Suzuki Valhalla Institute. The decision-making has become a considerably more onerous task since we noticed a disturbing trend over the past two years.

In March of 2006 we chose a trendy and fetching chocolate brown colour for the shirts. In June the main septic system at the school where we hold the workshop stopped functioning, with replacement taking until late August. We were reduced to hauling water, restricting washroom use and our poor lunch caterer had to cart the dishes from 65 patrons and all the preparation down through two doorways to the tiny staff room sink to hand-wash them there.

In May of 2007 we chose this lovely forest green colour for the next year's shirts and put the logo on in a fiery orange and white. On August 1st, less than five days before the workshop began, forest fires closed the main highway from the south, threatened us with evacuation and blanketed the area in smoke.

So what colour do we choose for this year? Do we go with red and risk bloodshed? Do we choose a lovely royal blue, but bring in some sandbags to cope with the inevitable flooding? Perhaps we could go with black -- after all, stringed instruments are acoustic, and we could run our classes pretty easily during a power failure. Do you think deep purple is safe, or is there some sort of horrific disaster that is coloured purple that I'm just not aware of?

Perhaps we'll go with red. There will be at least one physician on site. I'll bring bandages.

FSA redux

A marked copy of the written portion of the FSA tests Sophie wrote came back today. The computer portion of the results isn't available to us yet. She scored 5/6 on the written portion of the Reading Comprehension, and got perfect scores on the Writing and Math sections. Where did she lose her mark in the Reading Comprehension? Well, she wrote a short paragraph suggesting that collecting roadside trash would be a personal action that would good for the environment. But she failed to explain exactly why less roadside trash is good for the earth. I assume she thought that was self-evident. I'd tend to agree, but a sentence explaining why her proposed environmental action was good for the environment was part of the marking criteria. Don't you just love standardized criteria?

This feedback, while marginally reassuring, has been rather a non-event in our family.

Two sinks or one?

When you travel a journey gradually, apart from others, sometimes you don't appreciate how far you've moved beyond what others see as normal, or at least comprehensible. Maybe my quest for simplicity is like that.

The following was posted, in all seriousness, on a parent-oriented message board I frequent, on the topic of "should we put two sinks or one in the kids' bathroom?"

"Once you've had the two sinks, it would be hard to go back to one. Not a necessity, but really nice for two people to be able to brush their teeth at the same time, or one to wash their face and another to brush their teeth...."

I am just floored by this. Words fail me. This person lives in a different universe from me.

We have two bathrooms, though we could manage with this one if it had room for a shower. This is the tiny one that was in our house when we moved in. It is the bathroom that is used 95% of the time by six of us, except when bathing or showering. It has one sink. Sometimes we brush our teeth at the same time and take turns spitting in the sink. What an onerous imposition it is to have to wait for a turn to spit in the sink!

Still shaking my head.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Vibrato surprise

Fiona has been playing "The Two Grenadiers" on her violin every day for a month or more, polishing it up to play at the Music Festival in April. It's very easy for her to play beautifully now, with lots of contrasts and energy.

A few weeks ago we had started some shifting and pre-vibrato exercises. Her left hand, which used to have a death grip on the neck of the violin, had softened up since she'd got her new violin. I figured it was a good time to start working with the left hand to get it even more relaxed. So we'd been doing "the wave" and "string polishing" and some motor patterning, where I guided her hand through an exaggerated vibrato movement.

Tonight as she played "The Two Grenadiers" I was marvelling at how much her hand had relaxed and opened up. As she came into the final, grand finale line of the piece I decided on something that I thought might give her a bit of a thrill. I waited until she played the open E-string right before the last note and then I shouted "vibrato!"

Well, she did it. She vibrated, after a fashion. It was wildly exaggerated (as a beginning vibrato should be) and it made her bow speed up (as is typical of a beginner's vibrato). But the mechanics were basically correct, and she heard the sound it made.

You'd have thought it was Christmas morning -- she was so excited! She ran around the house shrieking and telling her dad and her siblings what had just happened. When we picked Erin up from choir an hour later it was the first thing out of her mouth. She bounced, she giggled. She relished the feeling of pride she felt at having "vibrato'd my first time ever!"

It may be months before it happens again as beautifully. But tonight's moment was priceless.

Gym time and moderation

Shh, don't tell. Sometimes, late in the evening, when no one else is about, I let the kids use the fitness machines at the community gym. Erin is old enough to be officially allowed, and Noah is almost old enough. But we sometimes stretch the rules a little, especially on the lovely Concept2 Rower which I know has a Kids' Club section on their website for rower users 6 and under, so I know it's safe.

The kids are very much enjoying the gym lately. We've spent 8 hours there this week and they're keen to keep up the pace, at least until the snow and ice are gone and they can get out running and biking. We're between the winter and spring Aikido terms and they are missing the sessions there. Physical activity is something we've sorely lacked for much of the past few winters; it is wonderful that they kids are now recognizing the fun and value of regular physical activity.

The electronic monitors on the machines are the source of much interest. We can adjust time, difficulty, speed, ergs per stroke or stride, monitor heart rate and set various challenges for ourselves. What has interested the kids the most is the tracking of calories. The machines generally display work in watts or energy in ergs or calories, but the kids prefer calories because they learned somewhere that an M&M contains about 4 1/2 calories of energy. Since we're eating easter eggs every evening before heading to the gym, describing the in and out balance of energy in terms of chocolate has been a tangible way of understanding the issue!

Fiona is really too little to make use of the machines other than the C2, but she likes hanging out, chatting, meandering around, stretching and doing little exercises of her own. The attached gymnasium is a good place to try to teach yourself how to skip rope (progress is being made) or to chase balls or whack a badminton birdie about. It's especially fun to play in the gym when your brother, Air Noah, is around shooting hoops:

Since the place is empty in the late evenings, we can pick and choose and make full use of everything the centre has to offer. There are some small dumbbells that suit our small people. Erin and I use the weight machines. There's a pull-up bar that Noah loves -- and boy is he strong! We can use the gymnasium to our heart's content and have our choice of the four high-end fitness machines. This community resource is just over a year old and we feel so fortunate to have it!

My kids are pretty full-on when it comes to delving into things and the fitness centre is no exception. Erin has been doing 400 to 600 calories of work on the fitness machines, plus two or three sets of reps on the weight machines, every time we go. The younger kids have been delightedly tallying their energy expenditure on the bikes and rower and challenging themselves with high calories counts. Last night I felt compelled to make the point that the most efficient way to improve general fitness is by doing 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity three times a week, and that 120 minutes five times a week is not several times better than the more moderate approach! Being barely able to drag yourself off the elliptical trainer after burning off 400 calories is not really what we should be shooting for. Moderation. It's a family work in progress.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Spring academia

Over the years I've observed that our natural learning year follows the seasons, not the "school year." Spring gets us outdoors and stimulates new growth in the children, not just the garden. They get interested in new things and in old things afresh, and the momentum builds through the sunny days of May and June. By early July we're all in high gear preparing for intense summer music experiences. August is full to the brim with music. September is often holiday time, and that's prime time for learning through travel, museum trips, family readalouds, field trips and time together. In October the regular music lessons kick back in and there's a bit of a novelty effect from that, but as we head into November and December our focus shifts to holiday preparations ... and then on the far side of the New Year, it's mostly about coping with cabin fever. I now recognize that January through March are the nadir of our cycle of inspiration and initiative and I don't sweat it much. And then towards the end of March, things begin to wake up again.

Last year the spring rebirth in learning energy wasn't nearly as obvious and I wondered if our annual waxing and waning was settling into a more even pattern. But no. This year the Spring Thing is back with a vengeance. Or so it seems this week.

Children want rabbits and plan to build a hutch. They want to garden. They want the snow on the driveway circle to melt so that they can ride their bikes. They are devising outdoor fitness routines that will involve daily mountain-biking along the creekside trail. They are spending two or three hours at the gym every second night, huffing and puffing and getting strong and fit. They want to start canoeing at least once a week.

Noah is working busily away on his blog, his message board and his website. Stop-motion animation is being produced; audio soundtracks are being edited. Music practicing has entered a new realm of efficiency for at least one child. Rosetta Stone language learning software is being used every day. So is the typing tutor. One child has done 15 math lessons in the past two days. Another has been heard to say "I like doing math every day. It's more fun this way." Another, most shockingly of all, has decided to return to formal math work after yet another ten-month break.

Ahh, yes. This is spring!

Wishful thinking

It has been warm and spring-like for at least a couple of weeks here. Our friends down the hill are already thinking about gardening. Their garden has been bare of snow for a while already, and there are signs of crocuses, garlic and green grass at their place. I figured I'd head out to our garden and see if I could brush the last little bit of snow off the raised beds and look for signs of life.

Fat luck. That 'last little bit of snow' is still two feet deep -- and wet and dense. What a difference a couple hundred metres of elevation makes.

I did shovel the beginnings of a path to the lower beds, figuring I might be able to bring a few wheelbarrows of chicken manure in before too long. But who am I kidding? We need some serious melting first. It feels like spring, but we're not really there yet.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Easter eggs

Today's baking frenzy seems to have killed my KitchenAid Classic mixer, the one that I've used an average of twice a day for grain-grinding, dough-kneading, cookie-making, muffin-dough mixing and various unmentionable warranty-voiding activities for probably 15 times as long as the warranty lasted anyway. But maybe it was worth it. One of the tasks we set it to, before it died, was this one:

Easter Eggs

1 cup butter
1 14-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1 - 3 tsp. almond extract, to taste
2 tsp. salt
10 - 12 cups of icing sugar
1 tsp. yellow food colouring
16 oz. semisweet chocolate
4 oz. food-grade paraffin (optional)

Cream butter. Mix in sweetened condensed milk. Add salt and extracts. Gradually mix in 10 of the cups of icing sugar. Mix thoroughly. Your stand mixer, if not broken, will come in very handy with this.

Separate out a third of the nougat and add yellow food colouring to it, kneading it in a little at a time, and adding more icing sugar as needed to keep it from sticking.

Divide yellow nougat into 48 pieces. Roll each into a sphere.

Turn out white nougat and knead for a couple of minutes, adding more icing sugar as necessary to minimize sticking. Divide this nougat into 48 pieces. Press each piece flat and place a "yolk" on top.

Wrap the "yolk" in the "white".

Roll the egg in your hands until it is smooth and roughly egg-shaped. Leave to dry for a few hours, turning occasionally.

Next day:

Melt 1 lb. of semisweet chocolate over simmering water. Add a 4 oz. of paraffin if you can stomach the idea. Or not. If used the paraffin gives a nice glossy firm chocolate finish. We won't bother with it.

Using a fork, dip the eggs in the chocolate. Place on cookie sheet to cool and harden.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

March 19, 2008

It's been a long time since I've posted a "Day in the Life" entry. Here was today.

Erin was up first. This is exceptional. She enjoys being a night-owl extroardinaire, but she has an incredible ability to move her sleep time around as she sees fit and for whatever reason wanted to be up early today. She was working on the computer when I finished my shower and came downstairs to make coffee.

I made a bunch of phone calls cancelling our trip to Calgary that we'd planned for tomorrow. Alas an unexpected death and out-of-town funeral had taken our violin/viola teachers out of town on the one day this month that would have worked for Erin's and Noah's lessons. They'll have to wait another month and Erin will have to go into the music festival without a March lesson.

Fiona was up by this point, and Sophie wandered out shortly after. Everyone got their own breakfast while I packed two boxes of food and kitchen tools. Eventually we awoke the family's current reigning night-owl, Noah, in order to get to Kitchen Club.

Kitchen Club went to Italy this week. My older two kids are pretty lukewarm about kitchen club these days, but they warmed up a bit after we got to the other family's place and the actual work got underway. Fiona, M. (age 3) and I started work right away on the tiramisu, since it needed to sit and soften for a couple of hours. Other groups worked on different courses. Noah worked mostly on the Tuscan Bean Soup, Sophie was in charge of dough-making for pasta and pasqualina and Erin chopped veggies for the ravioli filling and the pasqualina. Lots of organic parmesan cheese was grated, lots of olives and artichokes and garlic were chopped. There was great delight as we took turns working the manual pasta maker and its ravioli attachment. Somehow a lovely five-course meal was ready at 1 pm and we all sat down and enjoyed it together.

After dessert and dishes, we went outside to enjoy the sunshine and check on the animals. A year ago our friends' animals consisted of a neighbour's cat that would sometimes drop by for a visit. Now they have a pregnant dairy cow, a nanny goat and new kid, seven ewes (three pregnant) and a ram, three dogs, seven hens, two roosters and seven rabbits (one pregnant). The rabbits are the newest additions, and there was much adoring, petting and playing with rabbits.

When we finally got home I did a bit of work with our own chickens while the kids gravitated to the computer for a while. Noah made a folding umbrella using RigidChips. Fiona had a bath. I washed the kitchen floor. Erin and Sophie did their violin practicing. Fiona, Sophie and I made supper.

We ate supper. Noah practiced, mostly on his own, but he and I worked together a little. Fiona did about half her practicing alone and then she and I worked together for fifteen minutes or so.

Then we went off the the gym. We had the place to ourselves and when that's the case we quietly break the rules and the under-twelves are able to use the fitness machines. The kids got very pink and happy. They love counting calories on the machines to keep track of how much work they've done. Erin logged 400 calories, Sophie and Noah probably around 150-250. I showed Erin some simple exercises on two of the weight machines. The younger kids played a bit of informal badminton and basketball in the gymnasium. We spent almost 2 hours there.

When we came home we watched an episode of James Burke's original "Connections" BBC series. We love these shows, which we've only recently discovered via Noah commonly exclaims "I love Connections!" out of the blue in the middle of an episode. This program is right up his alley.

Afterwards there was a little more computer play. Noah and Sophie have been doing a lot of audio- and video-editing lately, trying to figure out how best to use the software they have at their disposal. Lots of silly creativity happening. But last night I think they were just playing Roblox.

I read a chapter from "Steel Across the Prairie" by Pierre Berton aloud to the kids. Then a chapter of Abarat by Clive Barker. We like the former but are finding the latter "too random" as the kids put it. But we'll finish it. It's entertaining enough to keep going, but not really our style.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A five-year-old's workload

A couple of weeks ago it dawned on me that Fiona was doing an awful lot of violin practicing. She has three pieces she's polishing for the music festival (where she's registered in the Junior Recital Group, meaning she's in the same under-14 class as Erin ... which is funny and sweet, but doesn't matter in the slightest as it's a non-competitive festival). She has an ensemble piece she's learning and memorizing. And two Book 2 pieces still in the polishing phase, and her two recently-learned Book 3 pieces. And her sight-reading work, plus early shifting and vibrato exercises. And scales. And supposedly some review in there too. Her practicing was taking a good 45 - 60 minutes -- with lots of giggles and hugs mixed in, but the better part of an hour nonetheless.

So much of this is goal-oriented work -- aiming to master new skills, to move ahead in the reading book, to polish old pieces to a higher level of mastery for specific performances. If a lot of it was just review and delight-driven playing, that would have been fine. But this was hard work she was doing the whole time. I just couldn't shake it out of my head that this simply must be too much for such a little tyke.

We talked about ways to nip and tuck on her practicing. We cut back on technique work and have put reading almost on hold, and have begun an alternating rota with her most recent pieces so that she doesn't need to work on them all every day. We can get everything done in only 30-40 minutes now, and she's doing more playing through and less picky detail work. I feel better about the balance we're achieving. Another idea we talked about is having two shorter practices a day. This is something I'd find hard to pull off, organizationally speaking, but maybe we'll try it at some point.

Oddly she doesn't seem to care whether we spend 30 minutes or 75 minutes at the practicing. She really cherishes the one-on-one time she gets with me and practicing is just part of that. Now that we're doing less, she's determined that we should spend the surplus time working on piano. I've suggested that this should wait until next fall when she'll likely start lessons, but she is intrigued by the prospect of figuring out note-reading on the piano, now that it's working well for her on violin. So she managed to drag me to the piano this afternoon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Erin's Kreisler

This is the piece Erin taught herself in the space of a couple of weeks last fall -- the Praeludium and Allegro by Fritz Kreisler. She's kept it in her repertoire and has used it to work on refining some of her advanced bowing techniques. Last week she finally got the chance to play the piece with an accompanist. Uncharacteristically she controlled her tempo in the Allegro and went for clean playing rather than speed (oh, she does like to play fast, this kid!) But this recording is to serve as an audition selection for a chamber music program where she's been told they're looking for clarity of rhythm and intonation, not technical brilliance. I think she did a good job of taking that into account.

When we arrived for the session, Erin and her accompanist didn't even play through the whole piece once to rehearse it -- they just tried it out on camera and it worked fine straight up. It was the easiest recording session I've ever done for a student!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

1-1-1-1-1-enough bread

Noah wanted to make some bread all by himself today. The kids have helped with bread-baking a lot over the years, turning the mixer on and off, dumping in ingredients, kneading, shaping and so on. But they've never really taken the trouble to figure out how all the bits fit together as a total process from start to finish. That was what Noah wanted to do. Soon he had two hangers-on who also wanted to do the same.

I usually bake with whole grains, but for this endeavour I gave them my most forgiving, straightforward recipe, done with white flour. They love French bread, which is a rare treat, and this dough will work equally well for dinner rolls, pizza crust or French bread. Each of the kids mixed up their own dough and made their own loaf.

1-1-1-1-1-Enough Bread

1 cup of warm water

1 Tbsp. oil
1 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. instant yeast

... and enough white flour to make a lively kneadable dough

Add ingredients to mixer in order. Use dough hook to mix well. Knead by hand for a few minutes. Form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover and leave in a warm place until dough is well risen. When it's ready a damp finger poked quickly into the dough will leave a depression that will not fill in, or will sag slightly. At this point punch dough down and re-form into a ball. Leave to rise again. Second rise will take approximately half the time of the first. Punch down again, then roll out to a flat rectangle and roll up to form loaf. Leave to rise for about as long as the second rise, until the loaves look about right.

Preheat oven to 350F. Brush top of loaf with a mixture of a little egg white and an equal amount of water. Slash top of loaf with a sharp knife to a depth of up to about a centimetre if desired. Bake at 350F for 45 minutes.

Noah had never imagined that so much bread could come from such a small amount of ingredients. When I explained the recipe to him and he got his measly cup of water to start out with, he was pretty sure he'd end up with a bun. He was pleased to see that he ended up with a whole lovely loaf!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Power failure

Last week I left the middle kids home alone while Erin, Fiona and I went to Nelson. Erin had a piano lesson, and then had a session scheduled with an accompanist to record a piece for a video audition. She did a dynamite job, nailing it on the first try through -- no rehearsal. I'll post it sometime. We talked to the accompanist whom, wonder of wonders, seems willing to be persuaded to take Fiona on as a piano student in the fall. Fiona is thrilled!

Since we'd stayed in Nelson a little longer than usual, I called home to check in with the middle kids. They were fine. But a little glum, because the power had gone out. No computer, no TV, no transportation, no creative inspiring mother at home (not!) to put them to work or at least join them in a board game or read aloud to them.

"It's okay, though," Sophie said. "We made a fire to keep warm, and we've lit a bunch of candles. Noah's napping and I'm reading. I'll probably go split some kindling for a while."

Righto, I thought. Sounded fine to me. "Okay, just remember no crazy flips and rolls on the gym mats while you've got open flames around, right?" This earned some sort of "duh!" response from Sophie. Obviously this safety consideration was self-evident to her. "We'll be home in an hour and a half. You know who to call if you need anything?"

It was only after I hung up that I realized that to a lot of people living outside our rural subculture of self-reliance, it would probably seem just a little bit dangerous for a 9-year-old to be home alone manning a woodstove, lighting candles and using a hatchet, all with her mother's blessing.

All was of course well when I arrived home. The kids had the house cozy and warm.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Signs of spring

1. The roadside snowbanks, though still large, are getting very dirty as they melt down and the mixed-in sand and dirt concentrates itself on the surface. Uggh. It sure isn't pretty!

2. Four kids, still wearing snow boots, enjoy playing on the snow-free rocky beach down by the lake. The temperature can get up to a balmy 10 degrees C on an exceptional day like today.

3. The laundry can now be hung out on the line outside. Sure, it hangs above the huge mounds of snow still present on the lawn, but when the sun is out, it actually gets about 75% dry over the course of a day.

4. Fiona decides that the time has come to retire the string mittens for the year. Tired of worrying about them when using public toilets, feeling all warm and springy, she extracts them from her jacket sleeves, poses for a photo to celebrate this seasonal ritual, and stuffs them in her mom's pocket so they can be taken home and stored for next year.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another use for gym mats

On a day that starts with other kids arriving in the morning for their violin lessons and playdates, and continues with three violin lessons for yourself and your siblings, and heads directly into a senior Suzuki ensemble rehearsal, then rushes home to make supper for friends who are coming over, says hello and goodbye to the piano tuner, dashes out to community orchestra rehearsal in the evening and then finishes with a DVD documentary, the gym mats are welcome on the living room floor in front of the TV. Not for aikido rolls (though many of those were done earlier in the day). This time the gym mats serve as a place for exhaustion to catch up with overtired girls in pyjamas.

Unusual signage

Tidying up this morning I discovered this odd sign beneath some papers. Made of a disposable wooden chopstick, two pieces of green construction paper, some glue and a marker, it declares boldly "pooey for you". Mis-spelled of course.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

That ubiquitous Canadian history

Today the community string orchestra performed at the annual Celebration of the Arts concert in one of the nearby communities where several of our members reside. The concert is a sort of moderately pathetic, though intermittently entertaining, community talent show. This year's program was a bigger deal, because it coincided with BC's 150th birthday, and the Arts Council's 30th anniversary, so there was a bigger venue, a sound system, a colour parade and an emcee. The orchestra did really well, and the acoustics were not as awful as they'd seemed at first, the auditorium being a new venue for us.

Fiona was our photographer (instructed to use the flash only during rehearsal, like any good audience member). She also took photos of the BC birthday cake, which she spent much time admiring and the whole three hours looking forward to.

Three weeks ago Noah said, almost out of the blue, "We need to learn more about Canadian history. We know a lot about world history, but not as much about Canada." He's right. The last time we did a big Canadian history jag he was five or six and most of it blew right by him. Coincidentally I'd just bought a set of trivia cards of Canadian history, so I popped those in the van for use on long drives. And I reached for a set of short books we've owned for years by Pierre Berton, intended for middle- and high-schoolers. "These are good," I said. "I read some to Erin a few years ago. We could try a couple of them."

I asked Noah and Sophie if any of the topics covered in Berton's books appealed to them: arctic exploration, westward expansion, the War of 1812 or the Klondike gold rush. To my surprise they chose westward expansion. Not exactly what would have jumped out at me around age 10 as being the most interesting. It seemed like a fairly arbitrary choice and I wasn't sure if the kids would connect what they were listening to to anything else in their lives. But we set off to Calgary with "The Railway Pathfinders" in our suitcase.

Suddenly, though, connections were everywhere. We read about Walter Moberly, the renegade surveyor for the CPR, the very day we had driven past Mt. Moberly and the Blaeberry River near his route choice, the Howse Pass. That night as we closed our eyes to go to sleep, we listened to train after train chugging by on the very CPR line we'd been reading about. On the way home we picked out more place names and landmarks we'd noticed in the book.

As I gathered a few more resources, we headed into the next of Berton's slim volumes (now published in compilation form), about eastern European immigration to Manitoba. And the last two chapters were all about the Doukhobors, the Russian religious sect who eventually, after their Manitoba misadventures, ended up right here in our neck of the woods. Our community is full of Plotnikoffs, Chernoffs and Pereversoffs. The hospital where Chuck works was once a reform school for Doukhobor children whose families refused to send them to public schools, preferring communal home-based education instead. Connections were popping up everywhere!

And then today's arts council concert turned into a trip through BC history, with the emcee sharing colourful stories from BC's past as the performers and stagehands shuffled their way on and off stage. Howse Pass came up yet again. Many of the facts we'd puzzled over (and then memorized) on the trivia cards were mentioned. We felt smug and well-educated. To think that I had feared that this new foray into Canadian history would suffer from disconnectedness. I think Noah and Sophie chose exactly the right topic to begin with.

Toy austerity

You'd think that with four creative unschooled kids and a parental penchant for buying educational resources we'd be overrun with toys, but we've actually done pretty well at keeping things to a minimum. I've culled and freecycled things that didn't seem to appeal to the kids long-term, and been careful not to bring more into our home. Most of what we have are open-ended toys that have staying power. Basically we have the following:

Pattern blocks, the blocks and marbles set Fiona's using in the photo, K'nex, Playmobil castle, SnapCircuits electronics kit, Brio train stuff and dress-up things. I confess there are a few stuffies around as well, though not many. And some SpeedStacks stacking cups. We have a fair number of family games and a few little things I haven't mentioned, but considering that we've been at this parenting racket for over fourteen years and have both genders and a variety of personalities represented, our toy selection is actually pretty small.

I discovered early on that my kids were easily overwhelmed by too many choices. Once, before Fiona was born, we went on a family retreat to a tiny cabin in the snow. We were there for two days with no electronic entertainment and very limited space, and the only "toys" we took with us were some balloons and a few crayons. The kids have never played so well. They turned the stairs into a pirate ship. Balloons were treasures, and pets, and people, and balls. They enacted an hour-long story with a small strip of green paper and a crayon, one that had the three of them in hysterics. It was a very clear demonstration to me that less is more. With all sorts of toys and external amusements at their disposal, my kids are easily overwhelmed by the possibilities. They expect fun to happen to them, but often nothing feels quite right for them in the moment. With limited possibilities available, they dive in and make their own fun. The serious toy cull kicked in after that weekend.

I love the way these few toys we have come back and back to amuse and stimulate the kids in different ways over the years. The blocks and marbles set, for instance, is a balancing game and fine-motor exercise when the kids are very young. Later it becomes an exercise in logic and design, a physics playground that requires little tweaks depending on the momentum of the marbles, and, although it's a large set, provides an exercise in the allocation of scarce resources to maximize height and length of the run. In between it has also served many other purposes. It's been especially enjoyed as a violin-practicing counter-of-repetitions -- build a run, and drop a marble in every time you nail the trill-and-turn at the end of the first Boccherini Minuet section.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


The time has come to revisit the moomintroll books, this time with Fiona. She is a demanding and voracious read-aloud listener these days, and Tove Jansson's moomin books will give us plenty of fodder for the weeks and months to come. This is my third time through these books and I love them more every time. Like "Winnie the Pooh" there's so much in these that speaks to adults in a light-hearted, multi-layered social commentary kind of way, atop some pretty delightful tales perfectly suited for young children.

Moomintroll is boisterous, curious, likeable and adventurous. Moominpappa is so oddly and endearingly eccentric. But I think Moominmamma is the real hero. She rolls with things, she makes do, she doesn't sweat the small stuff, or even the big stuff most of the time, though she's deeply caring and deeply trusting. She loves and supports her odd family, and even when things are very terrible indeed, she just carries on with her enduring optimism. The kids get up to grand adventures not because she's absent from the stories as a parent, but because she loves and trusts them and allows them the freedom they need to make mistakes.

I own a little Moominmamma figurine. There she is patiently whipping up some cream while Little My is making off with the cake for some sort of mischief. If the cake goes missing, no matter -- Moominamma will find some creative way for the family to enjoy the whipped cream. It will likely involve some sort of mess. That's okay.

Some time about ten years ago I gave up reading parenting books. I decided that I had instincts and principles and that I didn't need theories and advice getting in the way. The moomin books are about as close as I get to reading parenting wisdom now.

Wooden sword

It was a collaborative effort between myself and the three Aikido kids, that started with a not-quite-straight branch that had been pruned off a feral cherry tree on our property a couple of years ago. With various knives we carved away most of the excess wood, fighting with the tiny knots to create a flattish "blade" and a smoothly rounded hilt free of bark. Then we sanded and stained it.

Shown is the detail where the blade joins the hilt. The sword is strong and pretty light, and about a metre long, just right for practising shomen cuts at home.

The best part is that the kids helped with a grand tidying and vacuuming afterwards, and our living room carpet is now once again a wood-shaving and sandpaper-dust free zone.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Dogi girl

Look what arrived this week! Fiona's dogi! She sure was excited. Sophie wears a size 1, and when we ordered Fiona's she asked if she would be "size negative two." Apparently gi manufacturers don't use negative numbers for teeny sizes, though, so she got the smallest size, a double-zero.

I got a good bit of shrinkage out of a hot-water wash and dry, hemmed almost six inches up at the bottom of the pants, and then turned up 3 inches, and they just about fit. The jacket isn't quite so bad. Does she care? No way. She's just thrilled to have the uniform, especially after having to miss class last weekend due to illness.

Today my three aikido kids and I carved a wooden sword. Tomorrow they hope to finish sanding it and then apply a finish. It's a nice, if slightly wonky, piece of wood off our feral cherry tree and they are quite pleased with how it is turning out. It's strong and light and about the right size.

Also new on the aikido front this week: a book the sensei loaned us called "Aikido for Kids", well-thumbed already, and Noah's insistence that we queue up every DVD about aikido available from our DVD rental service. When the kids were unsure about joining aikido, I mentioned to the sensei "they take a while to get comfortable, but they tend to end up highly committed when they do join." I'll say!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gentle stories

When Fiona was sick I went looking through our bookshelves for books to read to her. She still enjoys picture books, but often, and especially when she's sick, she prefers longer stories. The other day we rediscovered Catwings, and I was reminded about how difficult it was for me to find lovely books like these when Erin was little. Books that are suitable for very young children (maybe 3 through 6) who happen to enjoy longer stories but prefer gentle uncomplicated books. Books that don't talk down to children, with simple plots but a richness of language. Books that are happy and fun. Here are some of our favourites.
  • Catwings books by Ursula LeGuin. There are four slender 'chapter books' in this series about kittens born with wings. Magical and appealing.
  • The Lighthouse Family books by Cynthia Rylant. There are four or five of these, about a 'family' of animals who are gradually brought together by serendipity and care for each other and for a lighthouse.
  • The Children of Noisy Village and Happy Times in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren. Lovely stories about likeable though sometimes mischievous children growing up in rural Sweden a couple of generations ago.
  • The Sophie stories (Sophie's Snail, Sophie's Tom, and others) by Dick King-Smith. Sophie is a bright, feisty girl with a mind of her own who is wonderfully outside-the-box in her interests and perspectives. She grows up in these books, from age 4 on up year by year, pursuing her dream of being a 'lady farmer'. She begins by caring for a snail, then a stray cat...
  • All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. Daily life amongst a family of five Jewish girls growing up in turn-of-the-last-century New York City.
  • Three Tales of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. My favourite first chapter book for young children. Funny, ever so gently suspenseful and truly lovely. Stories of a young boy who befriends a baby dragon.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Noah's sweater

It'll probably be another two or three weeks at least before it's finished, but Noah's sweater is well on its way now. I'm getting close to half way. The knit-purl patterns in this one are drop dead simple, so I can knit anywhere without referring to the pattern.

A five-hour Valhalla Fine Arts board meeting provided the impetus to get started, and got me through all the waistband ribbing (top of photo). Since then I've been puttering along slowly, but I've recently picked up the pace. After all, winter is almost over (right? it is, right?!). Spring is prime sweater weather, even more than winter. That's because some days it's not quite cold enough to light the wood stove, but it's not quite warm enough for shirtsleeves inside. And outside the winter gear is overkill, but the wide world beckons. For active kids a sweater is just right on a lot of cool early spring days.

Here's the first (and last, to date) sweater I knit for Noah, in 1998. What a handsome little guy he was, eh? He seems to be really proud of the sweater. He liked it and wore it a lot. I believe it was size 2T. My, I hope Erin doesn't drop that baby -- there are some pretty clever brains inside that little head!

Welcome back, winter

After three or four weeks of rain and thaw, such that the snow on the way to the composter was no longer up to my hips, but only my mid-thighs, we awoke to a good five or six inches of the stuff this morning. The world is pretty again. It was still coming down by mid-day, so that the mountain beyond the far end of the yard was almost obscured by falling snow.

But the driving is awful. There's ice beneath the deep fluffy stuff on the driveway. With Fiona still uncharacteristically cranky and out of sorts, I couldn't risk not getting back from Nelson in time for Chuck to go to work, so we bailed on Erin's piano lesson. I think that's the first time this year we've had to miss it due to weather. It happens.

Fiona spent much of the day whimpering and cuddling. But she's kept everything down today and has had moments when the old sparkle has flashed in her eyes.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Net result of weekend

That's Fiona's carseat, freshly disassembled, laundered, wiped down, soaked, scrubbed and reassembled, hanging to dry from the laundry airer in front of the wood stove.

Original plans had been for a family retreat to a condo a couple of hours away for a couple of days of XC skiing, hot-tubbing and relaxing. When that fell through, we decided to go to the hot springs an hour north, have a soak and treat ourselves to a nice supper at the restaurant. Fiona had been more tired than usual all day, and had inexplicably vomited just before bedtime a couple of days earlier, but had seemed fine afterwards.

About half way to the hot springs she threw up. Maybe it was carsickness? She seemed to be feeling much better, so we decided to try for a swim and dinner. No such luck. She and I had to beat a hasty retreat. We sat in the van talking while she barfed and the others had dinner. It was not exactly a happy time, though she was a trooper and remained in pretty good spirits despite it all.

We drove home and did as much laundry as I could handle doing. Today while she alternately slept and puked, I dealt with steam-cleaning the van and cleaning the car seat. Poor little mite even had to miss aikido. And she won't get to come to Noah's quartet tonight, or to Erin's piano lesson tomorrow.

But let me tell you, that carseat is clean, cleaner than it's been in years. It smells fresh and nice and there is no longer a paper-maché-like layer of cracker crumbs and dried juice in the nether regions of the plastic base.