Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dinner time!

Chuck made us a dinner gong last weekend in the smithy. I am grateful to have a dinner gong, and even more grateful that we are living the kind of life that makes a dinner gong a useful accessory. We have the freedom to roam out our front door, and a safe natural environment to roam in.

Fiona was really hungry yesterday and wanted to ring the gong to summon supper. Nice try! It's a unidirectional message that summons family members to supper, not the other way around.

I did eventually feed her.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A simple walk

Fiona, as I have mentioned, starts her days by asking where she gets to go and who she gets to see. Today was apparently a little short on excitement for her liking ... only a trip to the post office, a visit to the medical clinic and a quick stop to pick up a friend of Sophie's for a playdate at our house.

I spent the better part of the afternoon helping my mom with scheduling for our summer music program. When I got home, Fiona decided to practice before supper so that she would have the evening to "go somewhere" with me. As soon as I was down to my second-last forkfull of supper she was excitedly bouncing up and down and spelling "G-O! G-O!"

So we went. We drove down to town (I wanted to get some juice for Noah who is ailing on the couch with a wicked sore throat and a fever). We bought the juice and then parked by the creek and began following whichever of the myriad trails through the forest appealed to us.

I let her curiosity and delight carry us along. To Fiona everything was amazing tonight, from the colour of a boulder to the curve of a dead branch over the trail to the scent of fresh spruce needles. We got ever so close to the edge or the raging glacier-fed creek and marvelled over the way hills had shrunk to islands of stranded trees up to their knees in water. We touched lichens, we examined animal tracks, we smelled blossoms.

It's not that this is really new to her. It's that it's still exciting every spring to meet it all again as if for the first time, a year older, a year wiser, a year chattier and more thoughtfully observant.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Good day at the dojo

Sometimes Noah loves Aikido, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he even harbours fleeting regrets that he ever started it. That's because most of the Aikido students he knows seem to be committed for the long term, and he feels like he needs to be similarly committed. I remind him that a number of students have dropped off the radar. But, well, he feels like he's started it, and he would not want to give up on this pursuit that he's obviously doing well at. He feels like he ought to keep going, and when he's there, he quite enjoys it. But sometimes when it comes time to go he can think of a few other things he'd rather do.

Today he really truly loved it. He paid really close attention to all the details of instructions and demonstrations and tried extra hard to apply all his observations. He felt good about himself because he did everything almost perfectly.

I wonder if he's feeling a little more comfortable about sticking with Aikido because of experiencing how belt tests are handled. A couple of weeks ago at the spring gasshuku (seminar), a whole lot of white, yellow and orange belt kids took part in the classes, activities and routines of the day. Finally at the end of the day it was time to do belt testing.

The sensei called forward all the white belts (there were six or eight of them). They performed a number of skills and moves, as a group, repetitively, based on verbal instructions in Japanese. After four or five minutes, they were dismissed and took their seats at the back of the dojo. The half dozen yellow belts were called forward. They went through a similar, though slightly more advanced, set of skills. Finally the orange belts did their skills. Some of the kids hadn't fully learned the skills they were being asked for, or weren't sure what they were being asked to do. They were encouraged to "watch the others ... and just try something, do your best." It was all quite low-key. The two senseis sat and observed the kids quietly without comment.

When it was all over the students were all called forward one by one to receive a special participation certificate for the all-day gasshuku. Finally one last yellow belt boy was called forward. He was the only student doing belt testing this time around. None of the students had been aware of this -- they only knew that they themselves weren't doing testing. He was awarded his orange belt and a special certificate.

So there was no harsh spotlight on the student doing the testing. No one but the senseis and the student himself knew he was actually being tested. And all the other students were gaining the experience of doing the testing, but without any of the stress or worry. A 'dry run' if you will. When they are offered the opportunity to test, they'll have been through the whole experience at least once already. The rule is that you are not eligible for belt advancement until you've done at least one gasshuku as a non-testing student. These senseis doesn't seem to advance students quickly. There is only one student under 17 in their two programs (in two different towns) who is more advanced than orange belt level. From glancing at the attendance cards of the students in Noah's class, it looks like only two of them have done any belt testing this year. Belt promotions mean a lot of work and a lot of committment. They mean something big. But the testing doesn't seem to be a big deal. If I had had to design a system of grade-promotions for a children's activity, I don't think I could have come up with anything more to my liking.

Noah is no longer saying he never wants to do belt testing -- which is a significant change in his stance. And he seems to be enjoying Aikido more consistently lately.

He especially loved it today. The other thing that was different today is that one of the boys with some behaviour / attitude issues was not there. Noah is extremely sensitive to negative attitudes amongst classmates. He finds poor behaviour by other kids stressful, because he gets emotionally wrapped up in what he assumes are the hurt feelings and frustration of the instructors. He finds that the whole atmosphere feels poisoned to him. I don't know if being in school for the past 7 years would have worn down that sensitivity in him, but even though it causes him stress sometimes I'm sure glad he still has it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Siggs are here

And still less nasty number-7 plastic. After many months of resisting the urge, I finally took the plunge and bought a Sigg metal water bottle for each of the kids. They love them. I think the bottles are beautiful and am now jealous. Who says that only children should be spared the risks of bisphenol-A? Perhaps the grown-peeps in this family should also have their own funky Siggs.

Since Health Canada has banned polycarbonate baby bottles and the Canadian government has listed bisphenol-A under Schedule 1 of the Environmental Protection Act, these bottles have been selling like hotcakes. They were hard for me to find. I finally ordered on-line (which I would not recommend due to very poor service from the company) and I could see the inventory steadily diminishing as I was clicking to view my shopping cart.

They're lovely. This family needs two more. I'll keep looking.

Quoth the homeschoolers, again

"You should try shooting my friend while I go poo."
Noah, encouraging Sophie to take a turn at a new robotics game while he takes a bathroom break.

"You're going to have to make a choosement about coming to Noah's quartet rehearsal."
Fiona, demonstrating an endearing over-generalization of language rules.

"I don't see why they even need drivers licenses. I think they should just let it be a Darwinian thing."
Sophie, musing tongue in cheek about survival of the fittest on the roadways.

"At least there's only one of me."
Erin, responding to my complaint-in-jest about the cut surface of the loaf of bread being turned to the left on the cutting board due to her left-handedness. Taken out of context I have to say that truer words were never spoke!

Monday, May 26, 2008

This makes me happy

A lawn free of chemicals, and full of chickens.

Left: Minnie (Barred Rock)

Right: Beluga (Ameraucana)

Behind: Bloomie (Red Rock Cross)

A little less plastic

All these months of gradually deplasticking our daily lives. I wonder why it took me so long to get around to this obvious subtitution. Sure, the water still contacts the solid plastic in the delivery/refrigeration system, but at least it isn't sitting for days and days in a number-7 bottle. I think the home-brewing 5 gallon glass carboy looks a lot nicer too. I thought it might not fit, or would wobble too much to be safe, but it's a fine fit and seems stable enough for a low-traffic corner location. Full to the brim, and lacking a handle, the glass bottle would be unwieldy, but filled half way it's easy enough to install.

It would probably be a little awkward to refill one of these with purchased water, but we don't. We refill our bottles from the tap. The water cooler is just a way of having water available cold, at little kid level, and without waiting a minute for a glass as is necessary with our double-filtered drinking water tap.

Fiona announced our new water rig excitedly: "Bigger! Heavier! Less toxic!"

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Learning to swim

When I grew up we spent summers in a warm lake at the cottage owned by my grandparents. We also had a few months of swim lessons at the local Y around age 8 or 10. My kids have been a little more disadvantaged at the learn-to-swim thing. Our lake is glacier-fed, meaning it's freezing cold 10 months of the year and very cold for the other two. Locally there are no swimming lessons, and there's no pool. There's a remote possibility that swim lessons might be offered in Nelson at a time that we're travelling there anyway, but it hasn't happened the past few years.

Still, the kids have learned to swim. Mostly in hotel pools, with occasional refresher courses in the hot springs pools an hour north of us. Somehow a couple of hours of swimming a handful of times a year has made swimmers out of most of them. (Fiona is close, but not quite there yet.)

It's probably just as well that my kids are "immersion learners" who prefer to let things lie fallow for a time and then delve deeply into learning, making great strides in short periods of time. I remember the fall Noah turned 7, staying at a motel with the kids while Chuck attended a CME conference. In the course of a single day Noah went from being a barely-swimmer who could dog-paddle a few strokes so long as he didn't get his face wet, to confidently diving head-first into the deep and of the pool and challenging himself to swim down and touch bottom. We were all raisins that day. I think we spent more than 8 hours in the water.

These days Sophie is our most passionate swimmer. The monthly trips to Calgary have given her plenty of opportunity to hone her fishy skills. Alas her immense mop of fine blond hair does not like the water at all. She pays for her trips to the pool with 20 minutes of shampooing and conditioning afterwards to get the barbieness1 out. I think I must look for one of those specialty shampoos for swimmers.

1barbieness - [bahr bee nes] noun
The noxious texture of squeaky plastic Barbie-doll hair.

barbieish - [barh bee ish] adj.
Pink and girly, as marketed specifically to young girls.

The Crowsnest

We came home from Calgary a different way this month, via the Crowsnest Pass. It's not really much of a pass, as it climbs gradually and imperceptibly for the most part, without exposed steep grades or a lot of crazy switchbacking, and it doesn't get as high as the Rogers or Kicking Horse. The mountains aren't as stark and rocky as those farther north. But it has its own attractions, especially to a family that has travelled the more northerly route many times this year.

We took secondary highways through the foothills leaving Alberta, through the most beautiful rolling and crinkling ranchland. Due to the early start my photographers were asleep, so you'll have to imagine the creeks, dells and sloughs, the rocky hills and mountains in the distance. It was pouring rain but so beautiful.

The kids awoke in time for a snack, a view of the giant wind turbines at the intersection with the main highly and to ogle the Frank Slide, which still looks devastating and inspires awe 105 years after it happened. We ended up at the very front of the queue at a level crossing as an immense CPR train snaked past. As we live far from a railway line, the kids were entranced. Due to the grade, the train was travelling very slowly. We fantasized about jumping on. It was a lovely place to spend 15 minutes. The river was in full spring flush, the deciduous trees finally leafing out in their fresh yellow-greens, the mountains and the clouds and mist drifting and shifting.

In Cranbrook we picked up a new Ameraucana chicken for our flock. Sophie and Fiona insisted on carrying it on their laps for much of the trip home.

We headed for the M.V. Osprey, a large free car ferry, across Kootenay Lake. I had assumed that the ferry was on summer schedule as of the May long weekend, but it isn't for another couple of weeks. So we had a long wait and I had to use the trusty cellphone to let Erin's piano teacher know that we would be late for piano recital. She knew we were hurrying in from Calgary and was very understanding.

Hot chocolates and the view from the upper lounge were enjoyed. In one way it was fortunate that we were late for the piano recital -- after weeks of attending too many concerts for their own liking, the younger three kids were thrilled to attend a 15-minute recital. Erin was the very last performer. I felt guilty -- it felt almost as rude as leaving after your child plays -- but there was nothing I could do about it. Erin played her Khatchaturian with thrilling aplomb (I think she plays it almost as well as this guy, but I have yet to videotape her doing it).

And then we headed for home. It was a nice change of scenery coming the south route. Factoring in the piano recital, it was not a longer drive for us this time, although most of the time, not needing to get to Nelson, it would add about 90 minutes to the overall drive.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Piano girls

Piano, yes. We have a lovely piano. Erin plays it like a maniac. Noah took piano lessons for a couple of years but I encouraged him to bow out almost three years ago when, due to a teacher mismatch and a lag in reading skills, he was at an early Grade 3 level but suffering worse perfectionistic paralysis than ever. He's never developed any interest in returning to his studies. Sophie has had no interest in piano, thank you very much. Fiona has been rather interested, but I put her off until next fall when she'll be a little closer to six, since she won't have a Suzuki teacher.

Today, though, Fiona and Sophie took to the piano of their own volition. Fiona told me she wanted to learn to play something "hands together." I showed her how to put the tonic or the dominant note in the left hand to play along with the melody to "London Bridge." She took that idea and ran with it for a long sustained period of figuring-out. Within half an hour she was playing the melody easily and had figured out the correct left hand note for each bar. Sophie came over to the piano and imitated her easily. I showed Sophie how she could create a tonic triad and a simple V7 chord. Within a few minutes she had that mastered and had turned her new skill loose with "Mary Had a Little Lamb", harmonizing quite capably with her I and V7 chords.

Back and forth the two girls went from the piano. I showed Sophie the IV6/4 chord so that she'd have the whole basic menu for harmonizing most simple folk songs. That was neat. More possibilities opened up. She was quickly doing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."

And then, while I was prepping dinner, Sophie came down to the kitchen and remarked "she's a sponge." That's when I realized that it wasn't Sophie playing the chords to accompany "Mary" but Fiona. I asked Sophie if she'd taught Fiona that. Nope, she said, Fiona had just picked it up.

After supper, I heard Fiona creating a melodic variation of "Twinkle" with a little motif (C-D-C-B-C, G-A-G-F#-G, A-B-A-G#-A, G-A-G-F#-G, etc.). All sorts of interesting creativity happening.

Harmonizing, or choosing appropriate chords to go with a melody, isn't actually all that hard if you have a good musical ear, which these girls do. But what amazes me is that they accomplished all this with absolutely no pre-existing piano skills. They had to figure out today how to play different rhythms with the two different hands, how to shift their hands so that the fingerings made sense and lay easily under their hands, how to utilize thumb and pinky in 'five finger position', how to find C and G in different octaves. And they did most of this learning, plus figuring out how to harmonize, in the space of about two hours today.

Sophie now says "I wouldn't mind learning piano .... .... ... if I didn't have to have a teacher." I suppose she would be a good candidate for an adult beginner teach-yourself book, since she already has good music-reading skills in the treble clef and lots of musical training.

Fiona is bound and determined to have her own teacher by next fall at the latest.

Who knows where this will lead, if anywhere.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Clavicle girl

She's looking pretty cheerful, my kid with the busted collarbone. With the bandage on it doesn't hurt much unless she forgets herself and does something she shouldn't. She needs help getting dressed and undressed, and putting her carseat straps on, and climbing up to places, but mostly she's her same old self.

Aikido and soccer will not be on the slate for two or three weeks I expect, meaning she'll miss pretty much the entire remainder of the season of both. Too sad. We thought violin would be the same, but she can actually do a fair bit, since it's the right side that's injured and the violin sits on the left. She had a lesson scheduled for today, and yesterday had said she'd probably skip it, but when it came time to get her siblings there she said she wanted a lesson too.

She did pitch sight-reading with her teacher bowing, tapped some rhythmic reading and then showed off her vibrato. The vibrato is clicking big-time for her. The motion is lovely and relaxed and she has a stable if wide and slow vibrato in first position now, having started in third and worked back.

What's surprised me is how self-conscious she is about her injury. She's my least introverted least perfectionistic child, yet she doesn't seem to want anyone to know that she hurt herself. She wears her bandage inside her clothes so that people can't see it, and doesn't like it when I tell anyone what happened, not even her favourite adults.

Today's internet wisdom

Random bits of wisdom encountered today on the internet:

1. "Homeschooling doesn't make you weird .... it lets you be weird!" (see photo, left)

2. In response to "when I grew up all kids were exposed to all those images and activities and we're fine'...
"The 'we're all fine' argument kinda makes me laugh, I was just discussing this with friends the other day: we're not all fine! Seriously, look around you, is this society 'fine', are people really all fine???"

3. "[Disney is] a gateway drug for preschoolers into rampant mass-market consumerism."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Kids driving

Driving is all the rage around here these days. A month ago I had to renew my drivers license and while at the government office I picked up a copy of the rules of the road manual that all almost-sixteen-year-olds eagerly pore over to prepare for the written test to get their learners permit. I tossed it to Erin in the back seat. Heck, it was free -- and she'd probably get a kick out of it. I expect she read it cover to cover, actually. A week or so later I got Erin to move the minivan back from where we'd washed it, by the shop, to the carport. She was thrilled with her little tour de property. Then we found a larger area where she could practice, away from people, vehicles and public roadways and tried that out this week. The other kids think this is extremely fun, and funny. They can't wait until they're old enough. Maybe this is a fourteen thing... we'll see. I know that Sophie will need to outgrow her booster seat first!!

The kids, especially the middle two, took to watching the grass grow, waiting for the day they'd be allowed to hop on the lawn tractor and mow. Finally it came this weekend, in the midst of the power failure. Erin started mowing. Noah and Sophie were hoping for a turn. But Noah had been working on two fronts. He'd not only been angling to drive the mower tractor -- he'd been campaigning his dad for a chance to learn to drive the quad. It's a "working vehicle" that gets used for hauling bucked firewood out of the woods and for transporting Chuck and his digging and felling tools up the mountainside to where our creek emerges. Noah had managed to convince the aforementioned keeper of the ATV that he should begin to learn to drive it. Before I knew it, everyone was in on the act. We had a kid on the lawn tractor and kids taking turns on the quad. Even the little one with the newly broken collarbone got in on it -- though she at least had an adult drive her about under relatively safe conditions.
What a bunch of yahoos.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Quite a weekend

Yesterday morning Chuck did a run up the mountain to our first-stage water intake and discovered that there's still about six feet of snow and debris over top of our little dam. Definitive repair will have to wait for a while -- maybe a couple of weeks or more. For now we're getting enough seepage to keep the reservoir full so long as we don't use too much water. We even let the younger kids play in the sprinkler for a while yesterday.

In the evening a string trio was performing as a fund-raiser for our summer arts programs. I managed to be there two hours early to set up the multimedia stuff for our open house (PowerPoints, DVDs, etc.) and get all the kids and Chuck there in time for the performance. We're definitely all concert'ed out. Enough concerts for a while, thank you very much. Counting the two filmfest nights I think we've done seven concerts in the past 3 weeks, most in the last week and a half. We went home tired.

On the way to the concert we'd heard that a mud and rock slide had closed the highway south of us. Since the next morning involved an early start to an all-day Aikido seminar 5 km south of the slide, this was rather disturbing news. I checked the internet before bed; it said one lane was now open to alternating traffic. Thank goodness! The closure would have turned a half-hour drive into a three-hour drive.

Shortly after we got home, the power went out. Fiona, who was asleep by then, awoke in the middle of the night without her reassuring nightlight and came upstairs to her parents' bedroom for comfort. She fell on the way up the pitch-dark stairs. Middle of the night tears ensued. She settled.

This morning I roasted coffee and boiled water on the BBQ. Coffee first. We arranged to loan our generator to a group running a story-telling event (with multimedia) in the evening as part of our community's May Days celebration. Then the younger three and I headed out to the Aikido seminar on the assumption that the single lane was still open. It was. Fiona was to be part of the first hour and a half, then I would bring her home and Sophie and Noah would stay for the rest of the day.

Fiona, in an effort to keep up with all the big kid stuff going on, did a flying roll and landed wrong, fracturing her collarbone. Not a nasty fracture as these things go, but she's sore and it was very sad. Especially since it happened about 2 minutes after I left the dojo to go fill my gas tank at a nearby gas station with electrical power. For three months I have waited at the dojo through every minute of aikido classes. I leave for 14 minutes and my kid immediately snaps her collarbone! She was comforted by her sensei (thankfully both sensei were there and one was able to take time out with her). I took her home sobbing. I should mention that dogi belts make perfect figure-of-eight bandages, and she got a lot of comfort from that. The car seat restraint harness also felt pretty good on her shoulder, and she fell asleep for most of the trip.

Back home through the road-clearing at the mud-slide site, we got the generator hooked up to the sound system at the community hall in preparation for the story-telling night. Erin headed off to the home of her Asia-trip compatriots for a BBQ, planning session and get-together including her two adult friends, the third adult on the trip and her 13yo daughter. The girls had never met, but seemed to enjoy each other, which is great, since they'll be sharing each others' lives fairly intimately for three months next winter.

Fiona and I came home and cozied up for some readaloud time in the hammock. It was the sort of time you'd like to buy a kid an ice cream, but there was nothing available, power being out, the stores and their freezers being closed up. Alternatively it was a good time for lying on the couch watching a favourite video. Alas, that wouldn't work either. But we read, and chatted, and she gradually felt better.

We went back and picked up Noah and Sophie. We were in time to watch the belt testing. Noah and/or Sophie may be eligible for this at the fall seminar, so they were curious and also apprehensive. It was handled beautifully by the sensei. They'd had a lovely day, though Sophie had injured her foot about halfway through and Noah had given his nose quite a scrape during the massive game of hide-and-seek the group had played after lunch in the forest. Between Sophie's limp, Noah's nose and Fiona's broken bone, and miscellaneous stiffness, scrapes and bruises, they were a pretty poor sight. Two lanes of traffic were open on the way home, so that at least was easy.

We made a quick supper on the campstove. Headed out the story-telling event, which was lots of fun. When we were driving back from retrieving the generator we realized there was traffic redirection happening again at the main intersection in town. They'd had to close the highway again. We may have to take the other "long" way around to Nelson tomorrow morning to get Erin to piano lesson. It's not much longer, but a bit.

The kids practiced by candlelight. I washed dishes by hand for ages, as we'd been ignoring the kitchen all day. We read by the light of a lantern. I cinched Fiona's splint up tight for the night and put her to bed.

Now I'm up late at the computer because our power has finally come on. It was out for about 23 hours. They had been predicting "up to two days" so I guess we should be thankful it was just one. Our water is flowing enough for the necessaries. Perhaps the highway will be open by tomorrow.

It has been quite a weekend so far. Power outages are pretty common here, but this was a longer-than-usual one and the coincidence with water troubles and highway closures made it seem like someone was really out to get us. Kind of reminds me of the week leading up to and including the August long weekend last summer. Perhaps tomorrow will bring a bit more normality.

Friday, May 16, 2008

So much for a new washer

My seemingly terminal case of LG Tromm envy has gone into remission. Today we had enough water flow into the reservoir to allow me to do some much-needed laundry. My research on Canada's EnerGuide site had suggested that a circa 1993 extra-capacity Kenmore top-loading washer used about 740 kWh/year. An appalling figure, considering new 'green' front-loaders use as little at 150 of those precious kWh of electricity per year.

However, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was using a fair bit less than the estimated 740 kWh. We don't actually do a lot of laundry for a family of six. We subscribe to the "don't wash it unless it's got obvious dirt or obvious smell" laundry philosophy. We wash linens infrequently, jeans when they're ready to walk away on their own, shirts after one to three days of wear depending on the armpits and sloppiness of the wearer, and sweaters, hoodies, and other over-garments rarely. Socks and undies usually make it to the hamper daily, but they're the only thing. We do a maximum of five loads of laundry a week. Which is fortunate, because we can't line-dry more than that indoors in the winter. We also use cold water exclusively for washing. What I wanted was not an estimate based on an average washer like ours being used with average frequency according to standard practices, but an accurate profile of our laundry energy use.

That's when I remembered our little energy meter. I bought it years ago from a specialty electronics outfit, but they're now available at your average Crappy Tire store. I plugged it in to my washer and ran my standard cold-water wash. Results as above. A single laundry load uses a mere 0.23 kWh. At 260 loads per year (likely a significant over-estimate) that means we're only using 60 kWh/year with our clothes-washing. A far cry from the Energuide estimate of 740. Sixty measly kWh/year rather than 740.

Why the difference? The main factor is that we're not consuming electricity to heat the water.
Also, from what I can tell, EnerGuide assumes 392 loads a year, so we're also doing a third less laundry. And it looks like we'll keep doing that laundry in our ageing top-loader until it expires.

Nothing Day

Wow, a Nothing Day! We haven't had one of these in a long long time. The kind of day with no scheduled activities either at home or away. We cooked, cleaned, did laundry, planted the garden, free-ranged the hens and played Speedminton.

We made a special trip to town at Fiona's request to weigh her on the scale at the clinic and see if she was getting close to booster-seat weight. Alas she's 34 lbs. and has another 6 lbs. to go before we can start thinking about moving her out of her five-point harness carseat. At the rate she's going she'll be a pre-teen before she outgrows her toddler seat. Oh well, she wasn't too disappointed. I pointed out that I can still carry her around on my hip because she's a mere 34 pounds, and she likes that I can do that, so there's a silver lining to being a teeny waif.

On the way home we stopped at the little gift shop on main street that sells hemp clothing, books and art supplies. Right there on the main display shelf was a book that's been on my Amazon wish-list since I first spotted it as a pending release, the 100th anniversary Palazzo edition of The Wind in the Willows lushly illustrated by Robert Ingpen. The illustrations are everything I thought they would be and more. The cloth binding is nice and the paper quality is exceptional. And the vocabulary and turn of phrase are every bit as poetic as I'd remembered. It was the perfect hot spring day to lie in the hammock and read aloud first chapter, about a perfect hot spring day, to my children who were too young to have clear memories of the last time TWITW was read aloud in this family.

More Speedminton was played. The garden was watered. Supper was eaten. (Sophie has laryngitis, so it was a quieter meal than usual.) Instruments were practiced. More laundry was hung. The chickens were chased back into their coop.

Speedminton

Speedminton is a new game for us. I bought a couple of two-racquet sets recently. The rackets are stronger than badminton rackets, though still lightweight. A net is not required. And the birdies are a bit heavier and more stable in breezes outdoors. It is a great family lawn game.

The kids are really enjoying it now that the weather has turned. It's unusual to hear Noah instigating outdoor play after a period of computer time, but lately I'm hearing "hey, that's enough computer ... let's go play outside." I would easily pay the price of a speedminton set several times over to hear things like that come out of his mouth.

Last night Noah and Sophie spent quite a while coaching Fiona on serve technique. Lately they are hyper-critical of her, something that is being duly noted and worked on. It was nice to see them working supportively with her, with much patience and creativity. Her serve now connects with the birdie with some regularity.

She takes the input seriously, and is a fine student, both committed and resilient, often laughing hysterically at her own gaffs but then heading off to do some serious work to overcome her mistakes.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Set game

I'm not actually much of a family game player myself. I make an effort, and sometimes I enjoy the conversation and the kid-watching, but it's a rare family game that I enjoy for the game itself. Set is the exception. It's a visual-spatial pattern-recognition game that taps into mathematical intuitiveness. There's no strategy. It's difficult to explain what constitutes a Set to people who are language-based learners. Often the people who are Set whizzes are people who can't for the life of them explain in words what a set is.

(My succinct but oblique verbal explanation: Every card has four attributes. A set is a group of three cards about which it cannot be said that there are precisely two cards with some particular attribute. You can check it out at the game's website.)

Anyway, tonight Fiona wanted to play a big family game in the worst way. No one else really wanted to play. As she's been 'cryish'1 lately, I offered to play a game with her. I was delighted when she chose Set. Then I remembered that she's only five and she probably wouldn't understand what defines a set. Oh well, we gave it a whirl anyway.

When Sophie was 6 she gradually got the knack of Set by playing with the purple cards only. That was one less attribute to fuss about, and the patterns became more apparent. With Fiona I tried a different tactic. Once I found a set amongst twelve face-up cards, I'd pull two out of three of the set out and show them to Fiona. Then I'd challenge her to find the third member of that set. She did amazingly well. Before long she was eagerly seeking to find her own sets, and managed to successfully identify a couple.

1cryish [krahy-ish] adj. Of a fragile emotional state characterized by episodes of sobbing initiated by trivial triggers, particularly when due to as-yet-undeclared developmental reorganization of psyche or intellect.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

First crumble

It's hard to believe, from looking at this, that there was 8 inches of snow on the ground a scant 3 weeks ago. Temperatures are still cool here, but the rhubarb is loving the weather. Fiona's peas, chard and spinach are all sprouting. Our tomatoes and peppers are growing lanky in a friend's greenhouse.

Today we picked the season's first rhubarb. I had stocked up on brown sugar and butter in anticipation of twice- or thrice-weekly rhubarb crumble for the next month or so. We have four of these vigorous plants, all growing in clayish soil that shouldn't be resulting in such vigour, but we're not complaining at all.

How long does it take for rhubarb crumble to bake? One violin practicing (i.e. 40 minutes). How perfect! Now we just have to wait for it to cool a little and a spring rite of passage will have been completed.

With the May long weekend a scant two days away, temperatures ought to be a lot warmer than they are. Today hovered around 10 degrees C (50 F) at our place until well into the afternoon. Pretty chilly for mid-May. But tomorrow promises to be up into the 20's, and Friday and Saturday should be in the high 20's (around 80 F). It's about time!

Super Quick Rhubarb Crumble

1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups oatmeal
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt

1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. tapioca flour (or corn starch)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

5 cups chopped rhubarb

Place first 5 ingredients in a microwaveable bowl and heat gently until butter is softened. Mix together until well blended. Press a scant half of this mixture into the bottom of a 9x9" baking dish.

Mix water, granulated sugar and tapioca flour in a small saucepan. Heat and simmer until clear. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.

Dump chopped rhubarb over first oatmeal mixture in pan. Drizzle the sugar/water sauce over the rhubarb. Sprinkle on the remainder of the oatmeal mixture. Bake at 350 F for 40 minutes. Serve warm or cool. Warm with vanilla ice cream is especially yummy!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Embodied energy

Colin over at No Impact Man wrote a post yesterday examining decisions about when to turf old appliances and replace them with newer energy-efficient models. I know our washing machine sucks kilowatts like candy and have been hoping for a couple of years that I'd find a way to justify purchasing a new one.

No Impact Man's fairly crude calculations are based on the idea of "embodied energy" -- the energy put into an object during its manufacturing. His calculations simplify things a lot, using the embodied energy stats for 100% steel. He applies this, by weight, to common major appliances. An laundry washer would have embodied energy thus calculated of about 825 kWh.

Well, that's good news for me, I guess. Because I happen to know, based on research at Energuide Canada, that our circa 1993 extra capacity top-loader is an energy pig. Its energy consumption is in the range of 750 kwH/year. A swanky candy apple red LG front-loader uses a piddly 167 kwH/year. So its embodied energy will be repaid easily within a year and a half.

But the two grand purchase price? That would take about forty years to repay through savings at today's electricity prices. So maybe we'll need to settle for a much less expensive unit, in something boring like, oh, white.

However, the reality is that we'll probably keep using our energy pig until something goes wrong. And in the meantime, in my dreams my front loader will be red.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Film Festival

The fine arts society that I'm a board member and webmaster for oversees the running of three weeks of music summer school programming, two weeks of drama offerings in July and a week of Animation & Film in May. The FilmFest was this week. We attended both nights as a family. That meant yet another nutty Thursday that had us scrambling from Aikido through dinner in the van straight on to an evening event, but it was worth it.

The nearest movie theatre to our little town is 90 minutes away. We make the trek about once a year ... for first run showings of film versions of books we can't wait for the DVD version of. Narnia, Harry Potter, Golden Compass. But otherwise we are movie-theatre bereft.

Except during the first week of May. The community hall adopts a popcorn machine, the chairs are all unstacked and placed in rows, a large screen is brought in and a projector rented. And we make space in our harried week for two evenings of great animated films. We had just finished reading Persepolis and were thrilled to see that. And we saw some absolutely amazing animated shorts. It was so much fun to have two professional animators there to host the evening of shorts, talking about the techniques and artistic influences of the various film-makers.

The last 24 hours

We are through! Within the last 24 hours the kids had the last two in their set of three big year-end ensemble concerts. Last night the Summit Suzuki Strings (newly named and newly costumed in their fetching red polo shirts) performed the following:
  • Sakura Sakura
  • Bach Concerto for 2 violins in d minor - Largo ma non tanto & Vivace
  • Concerto Grosso in F Major by Corelli - Largo & Gavotta-Allegro
  • Londonderry Air
Except for the Bach, these were three- or four-part arrangements for violin-viola ensemble.
Some from memory, some not. The ensemble was brilliant. They comprised the first third of the community choir concert. Erin is also a first soprano in the community choir and she sang a brilliantly beautiful solo in a choral arrangement of "Nella Fantasie" (there's a version here if you're interested). I cried.

Today was the orchestra concert. Noah's quartet played the following:
  • Mozart Quartet in C Major, K. 157, Allegro
  • Yesterday by Lennon & McCartney
  • Eleanor Rigby by Lennon & McCartney
Erin's quartet played:
  • Haydn Quartet No. 35 "The Lark", Allegro
The Suzuki strings played a 4-part arrangement of:
  • Handel BourrĂ©e
The orchestra played:
  • Concerto in g minor for 2 celli, Allgro by Vivaldi
  • "A Pirate's Legend" by S.H. Newbold
  • Scenes from the Emerald Isle by C. Gruselle
  • Mantras by R. Meyer
  • Deerpath Suite "Open Lands" by W. Hofeldt
  • Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart
  • El Toro by D. Brubaker
It was a heck of a lot of different repertoire for the kids. And a heck of a lot of organizing, taxiing, coaching, music-stand moving, poster-nailing, floor-sweeping, program-typing and announcing for me. The audiences were great, very appreicative.

The other night we happened to be searching through old video tapes for something else and stumbled across a tape of the community orchestra concert from 1998. That was the orchestra's third season and it was about four years before our local Suzuki students began trickling into the orchestra. It was amazing to see how far we've come. That first crop of students is now the backbone of the orchestra. And the improvement in intonation, ensemble and musicality is astronomical. I feel happy. Happy that we're done with the major concerts of this spring's season, but happy for what seems to be building here in our little town.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Slide

It happens maybe one spring out of four ... a big slide of melting snow comes down the mountain, snapping off trees, loosening boulders, collecting debris, and lands on our water supply intake. Typically we limp along on almost no water, just a bit of seepage, for a few days or a week or two until a combination of melting and digging allows Chuck to get in an repair the intake.

Of course it happens today, after Saturday morning soccer games, before a Saturday afternoon of rehearsals and Saturday evening concert, before Sunday morning aikido and Sunday afternoon rehearsals and concert. Just when we have no time, and are wanting clean laundry and warm showers for our stinky bodies. Typical.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Place value in bed

Fiona joined me for a cuddle in bed this morning. I'm not sure how (it happens a lot with this kid) but talk turned to math. Recently she's been using "the stacking trick" to add multidigit numbers, stacking them vertically and adding the different place value columns. After doing this sort of math mentally or with manipulatives for a couple of months, she thinks that doing it on paper like this is a sneaky fun shortcut and has been loving it. No regrouping, though -- just straightforward addition in columns. She was first introduced to it a couple of days ago and it's at the front of her mind. She started talking about it in bed.

"What do you suppose would happen if you added up your ones sometime and got ten?" I asked.

"Whoa!" She giggled at the thought of something so interesting.

"Do you think you'd have to squeeze a ten into the answer place?" I asked. I figured I'd get a clue from her answer as to whether she was ready to go further with this.

"I'd probably just put a zero," she said. Aha, I thought. I think she's ready.

"Cool!" I replied. "I think that makes a lot of sense. But somehow you'd have to fit that ten into the answer, right? You're on the right track. What we do is to take that extra ten and combine it with the other tens in the tens column. I'll show you when we go downstairs."

And so I did, right after breakfast. With coins and a whiteboard. And she got it. And extended the concept on her own into other scenarios, eventually ditching the manipulatives and merrily inventing her own problems to solve on the whiteboard.

I've paid careful attention to Fiona's evolving concept of place value over the past year or so. Her growth in understanding has been steady and uncomplicated ... and impressive for one so young. The cuisenaire rods (with the addition of a few ten-rods and hundred-flats from a base ten set) have been extremely helpful for her. Over the past few months she's gone from using them to imagining using them to merely thinking in place-value categories while performing mental math.

This week's progress feels more like a leap, though. She's now working easily with abstract symbols rather than tangible manipulatives or pictorial symbols. And she's applying those abstract symbols to more and more complex tasks -- yet without losing the mathematical understanding of what those symbols and their manipulation mean.

I wonder if it is just a coincidence that this week she also began reading dotted rhythms and compound time easily and with accuracy in music? Sometimes you can almost hear the synapses forming in this kid's head.

Graphic novels and non-fiction

Noah is not a passionate reader of books like the other members of our family. He reads lots and lots in the course of a day ... mostly on the computer. And he communicates well in writing, with spelling that has improved astronomically in the past year and a half for no other reason than that he was ready and motivated to notice spelling and incorporate it into his memory banks. He reads books from time to time, but he has never been one of those kids who blasts through novels two at a time or is frequently discovered in bed reading or out on the hammock with a big book.

But the graphic novel format appeals to him a lot. I have my suspicions that it was Garfield the cat who actually taught Noah to read. As a new reader he loved Garfield and Asterix. But since I didn't grow up with the comic strip / graphic novel genre, it took me a while to start finding the good stuff. Manga, my first lead, did not really appeal to him. But recently we've been finding more and more stuff that is right up his alley. And stuff with a little more literary merit and brain food.

Some recent winners:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Schoolboy humour but ever so engaging. Sequel now out.
Clan Apis by Jay Hosler. Natural science (bees), humour and a good story line.
The Sandwalk Tales: An Adventure in Evolution Told in Five Chapters also by Jay Hosler. More natural science. Very funny.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. A semi-autobiographical novel about a young girl coming of age during and after the Islamic Revolution in Persia/Iran. There's a sequel too.
Anything by Larry Gonick. History encylopedias, guides to chemistry, physics, environmental science, sex, whatever you want.
As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial by Derrick Jensen. Hilarious premise, this is satire of governmental environmental policy at its finest.
Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman. This is a holocaust tale, retold with Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. It's on our wish list so I can't give it a first-hand recommendation, but it looks fabulous.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Aikido laundry

Here are the kids' aikido dogis. Jackets, size 2, 1 and 00. Pants, ditto. Belts, the same.

It's spring. The outdoor laundry line is in use again. I think the kids' dogis look almost as nice on the line as their cloth diapers once did. The outdoor laundry line has a certain aesthetic to it.

I am thrilled to hear that local ordinances against such lines have been outlawed by Ontario courts. I hope all governments follow suit soon.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Unschooling

Over the years I've tried to define unschooling to the curious on various message boards dozens of times. I never do it the same way twice. Here is today's response, copied & pasted.

In essence unschooling is child-directed education. Some unschooling looks nothing at all like traditional education or structured homeschooling. It might look like a string of Saturdays, for years on end. On the other hand, if the child likes daily structure, enjoys using structured resources, or enjoys being "taught" by a parent or mentor, it might not look all that different from parent-led or curriculum-centred homeschooling. What is important is not whether the child uses curriculum or not, but why the child is doing what he's doing. In unschooling the answer is never "because that's what he's expected to do" or "because his parents make him" or "because that's on the ___th grade curriculum program." The reason why is "because he wants to."

Unschooling ends up being very much a way of life for most families. Typically learning becomes indistinguishable from life. Parents and children often learn together, by doing, by following their passions or getting caught up in some worthy pursuit. Subject-area distinctions are of limited use in unschooling. Evaluation of learning is rarely a part of unschooling.

At the centre of unschooling is a basic philosophy of trust -- trust that a child, driven by curiosity and the desire to understand his world and become a competent individual capable of contributing meaningfully to that world, will learn what is necessary. That if a child lives a life meaningfully involved in family and community, with adults and other role models and resources available, competence and interest in all that is necessary (and likely much much more) will come in good time. Also at the centre of unschooling is a belief that children who are not coerced to learn will retain their curiosity and intrinsic motivation at high levels.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

First soccer game

Due to the snow a couple of weeks ago, and then last week's trip to Calgary, today was Fiona's first soccer game. She's the second youngest, a pre-K kid on a team that supposedly covers kids from KG to Grade 2 but is actually mostly KG/G1. And she's the tiniest. It doesn't matter.

Unlike my older kids, Fiona's introvert/extrovert compass swings somewhere in the middle, rather than way off to the left. While the other kids wake up in the morning and ask "do we have to go anywhere today?" Fiona asks "where can we go today?" When she was invited to her first birthday party, she asked if I could please drop her off so that she could be there by herself. And when we went to soccer practice for the first time she enthusiastically ran into the huddle with a bunch of bigger kids she'd never met and a coach she didn't know from Adam.

So it was game day today. The chaos of games with 5 to 7-year-olds is always fun. Parental expectations are mostly very realistic. No one keeps score, and we cheer for the other team too and we laugh at the muddled play of our own kids. It's very much a fun league at this age. Few of the kids understand much more than that the idea is to get the ball through those pylons down there. Some don't quite get that. Whatever.

Fiona's soccer skills are pretty average for a newly-5yo kid. But miraculously, though she's brand new to all this, she's unafraid of all those strapping six and seven-year-olds. She gets the idea of going after the ball and digging it away from another player (but only when the opposition has it!). She is a wonder to watch -- tiny and scrappy and grinning and having the time of her life.

She also takes her coach's instructions very seriously. He thinks she is amazing -- so enthusiastic yet also attentive to guidance. Sometimes to a fault. Today part way through the game she misunderstood his instruction that "you play down this line" to mean she needed to stand on the right line. It was only after the coach (not myself, not another mom) encouraged her to "go after the ball, Fiona!" that she became unglued from the sideline.

She was jubilant about today's game. This is exactly as it should be.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The dojo floor

I read a fascinating book years ago about the Japanese school system. Having grown up a Suzuki kid I knew a bit about Japanese cultural influences on education, and about some of the educational rituals. Another great source of cultural tidbits, presented especially for children, is Here and There Japan, a blog which covers many of these little school rituals and trappings. I've always been entranced by the way a sense of community responsibility is built through the expectation that students work together to clean and care for their learning space.

I'm watching this expectation being built at the kids' aikido dojo. It's a new dojo, and the sensei is fairly new to instructing children. And I think he's gradually working out how many of aikido's Japanese cultural influences can be introduced to these hippie valley kids.

There is the standard ritual of bowing to the shomen (scroll) upon entering the room, and before leaving. They all get it now, about respecting the space and the scroll and the tradition it represents. There are rules of respectful interaction that kick in inside the dojo. There's a sense that passing between the curtains means adopting a different set of social mores. For the most part the kids get that. Higher standards of behaviour apply inside the dojo.

In past weeks we've sometimes arrived early for the Thursday class and so we've helped Sensei wash down the mats. The other kids have been encouraged to join as they arrived. But this week the bucket of warm soapy water and wiping cloths was waiting for everyone and Sensei was not already hard at work washing the mats down.

"This is what you guys are responsible for from now on," explained Sensei. "This dojo is for all of you -- it's not just my dojo. If you're part of this club, you help keep it clean."

And then followed a brief but exacting lesson on proper floor washing. And the kids washed the entire immense floor in the space of about five minutes. Without a single complaint, and with an affirming sense of their own efficiency and accomplishment. And, I would wager, a stronger sense of the value of contributing simple work to one's community.

Is it really this easy? Even with our independent-minded far-from-Japanese kids? There is a lesson to be learned here for sure.