Sunday, December 26, 2010

Companion cube

Fiona and I had a lot of fun making this for Noah. We made a five-sided box from mat board and cut a hole for the kleenex. Then we used foam sheets to make the shapes to cover it with.

If you aren't familiar with the Portal computer game, the term "companion cube" will mean nothing to you, but maybe you can appreciate our creativity anyway.

My blacksmith

Look what my personal blacksmith got me for Christmas! It's a special tool which attaches to the angled lip of my new baking sheets to allow me to insert and retrieve bread from the oven without further singeing the faux-fur on my winter jacket, or my eyebrows for that matter. He custom-made it for me, and it works perfectly.

It's particularly well-suited to making little foccaccia breads for Christmas-leftover sandwiches which he can grill on the panini press I gave him. Love that tidy convergence.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Slightly demented Christmas decorations

Christmas is a time of traditions, of course, and teenagers and pre-teens hold onto those traditions at least as tightly as the rest of us. I suppose it's partly nostalgia on their part, but also the alluring excuse to be completely childish. Still, some things change.

Case in point #1: the Playmobil advent calendar, used over and over for many years. This year, though, the girl-child is found hanging upside down from the garland. The boy-child has enacted a spell (or perhaps some violence) upon the kittens, overturning the cat basket on them in the process. The cat is roasting in the fire. The mom-person is partying at the top of the Christmas tree, holding a bottle of wine and taking a swig from a beer stein. For the record the wine and beer did not come from the advent calendar; they were misappropriated from the medieval castle set.

Case in point #2: The fetching gingerbread house, nicely decorated with all sorts of features and decorations, including a snowman of toffee bonbons, a tree covered in M&Ms and cola balls, translucent window glass, and a bonfire around back. But off to the left a doghouse for the family pet, a starfish named "Mu" with a penchant for exercise balls. Mu is lying in a pool of blood but seems quite content. What has happened here? "It's a mystery!" I'm told. A crime scene, perhaps? 

Saturday, December 18, 2010


I slept in this morning! We were up late last night, and today had absolutely nothing scheduled.

Last night was the community choir concert. Sophie is doing her first season with the ensemble. Unfortunately she was put in the middle riser so that her sense of pitch could help those in the first row. Which probably benefitted the auditory appeal of the concert, but meant that she alone amongst the choir was totally hidden. I could occasionally catch a glimpse of her shoulder but that was about all.

Erin accompanied. It's a paid gig for her -- a not-insubstantial sum for learning a dozen and a half pieces in time for the first rehearsal and then attending every rehearsal as the choir gradually learns its parts and polishes things up. She did fabulously! She's exquisitely sensitive, manages a kajillion page-turns totally on her own, plays musically and knows exactly when to take the bull by the horns and railroad the choir into melodic and rhythmic cohesion.

It was the choir's 25th Annual Christmas Concert. My dad sang with them for a few years before his death in 2003. Then Erin sang with it for two years, and Noah for one, before they both defected to Corazón. The choir director throughout those 25 years has been the wonderful woman who took Erin to S.E. Asia two years ago. So it's great that Sophie is now taking her turn with them, and that Erin has come back to support it as the accompanist. The choir  is a good one for a community so small and it has a lot of heart, and personality. It even inspired a funny and touching chapter in Caroline Woodward's latest novel. It was a lovely concert, and there was a fabulous community potluck dinner / party in the hall afterwards, with kids running around, people with canes and wheelchairs, old folk, young parents, lots of hugging and singing of carols around the piano.

And now there's almost nothing on the schedule for the next week. Chuck works, Erin has one shift at the café. I teach a few violin lessons and work a morning at the clinic. But no group classes, choir rehearsals, Summit String rehearsals, no trips out of town for lessons or orchestras, no violin lesson for my kids, no driving Erin to and from school.

Today I did some more work rehabilitating the rink from last week's thaw. There's a nasty four inches of crusty snow on top of an inch and a half of frozen slushy stuff that adhered to the rink surface. And the dog walked through it at some critical juncture, making nasty bumps and potholes. It's taken me hours to get it shovelled off, and it will require a few more floods to be back to its smooth state of glory from earlier in the month. Oh well, it will be worth it.

And we started in on the gingerbread house. We used to do some sort of gingerbread construction every year, but we let this habit lapse and I hadn't realized how long it had been: Fiona has no memory of ever decorating a gingerbread house! I know we've done this since she was born, but I guess the last time she was too young to really appreciate it. So it was high time. Sophie and Fiona were, as usual, workhorses in the kitchen, managing huge amounts of the work themselves.

Then to top it off, Noah cooked pasta dinner for us all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

This girl's a keeper

It was Erin & Noah's last Corazón rehearsal of the year, and I needed to do grocery shopping, buy dog food, help Fiona with her Christmas shopping and do my own last-minute gift-garnering. Roads were slushy, and nights come early these days. It was a Tuesday I wasn't looking forward to, especially since Chuck had a meeting and wouldn't be home to help with supper. I would arrive home at 7:30 pm with three tired and hungry kids, and a vanload food and stuff and no energy at all for pulling together a meal.

And so I was sure pleased to see what Sophie, home alone for the afternoon, had conjured up: two beautiful pizzas, made from scratch on freshly leavened dough, ready and waiting to be popped in the oven to feed us all. Very impressively, she even managed to touch some actual Meat and spread it on the omnivores' pizza!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Symphony of the Kootenays

What a difference for the kids, Erin especially. It has been years since she hasn't been if not the most advanced violinist in whatever orchestra she's playing in, at least one of the most advanced handful, patiently waiting for others to figure out where the E-flats and shifts and syncopations are. The last time I remember her being really challenged, in the mid-range or bottom half of an orchestra, was in 2003, when she was 9, at a summer Suzuki institute.

We drove for 5 hours and arrived with 40 minutes to spare before the first rehearsal, checked into our motel and made it to the theatre in time for a leisurely tune-up. We rehearsed that afternoon and evening, and again the next afternoon. Almost 8 hours of rehearsing packed into less than 24 hours, and then that was all. After that there were just the performances: one Saturday night and one Sunday afternoon.

Erin sat back of the 1st violins, I was sitting with my old quartet-mate at the front of the seconds, and Noah sat at the back of the violas. None of us had, er, gone overboard with preparing for this gig. I realized I hadn't performed on violin in almost ten years, much preferring viola, but the viola section was well-stocked especially with Noah there and they were in need of violins. Erin hadn't even done more than visually look over her parts, but found her groove and really warmed to the challenge of essentially sight-reading two hours of music. She did fabulously. Noah took a couple of rehearsals to get past his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to having to adjust, remember, mark in and learn scores of bowings on the fly. His note-reading is good these days but bowings? Not so much. But his confidence grew so that he was feeling quite accomplished by the time the performances took place.

We played part of a Mozart piano concerto, a Purcell Sinfonia, a Handel Aria with oboe solo and the better part of Handel's Messiah with a reasonably competent community choir. Pretty lightweight accessible stuff, nothing too challenging, which was a nice first gig with this group. The other orchestral musicians and the vocal soloists were mostly second- and third-string professionals or former professionals. Nice bunch of people, both on the performing and the administration side of things. And a very novel, very exciting and grown-up kind of experience for my kids.

Even though we already drive many more hours a month than we would like, we all felt that this experience was worth the ten extra hours of travel. Not only that, but unlike all the other musical activities we do this one was a black-ink fiscal proposition, rather than a red-ink one. And we found a very nifty café at which to pass the three hours between motel check-out and the last performance. We're hoping to do a couple of other weekends with the orchestra this year.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


I think I've been much better about not over-extending myself recently. But things are piling up a little now. Running has been put on hold. I've been able to squeeze rink maintenance in, but nothing else.

Tomorrow the giant wholesale dried fruit & nut order needs to be sorted and delivered. I spent all evening tonight working on the labels and accounting for that.

The next day Noah, Erin and I leave for Cranbrook to do a weekend gig with the Symphony of the Kootenays. Five hours of driving each way, with two overnights. Hopefully we'll get back late Sunday evening. It's mostly baroque stuff (Messiah, Purcell, more Handel) so should be manageable for Noah who has excellent baroque instincts and can sight-read extremely well with those instincts assisting him (otherwise ... not so much). I'm actually playing violin rather than viola. I hope I can play more or less in tune; it has been years since I've performed on violin!

The younger girls will be staying home with Chuck and enjoying Christmas by the Lake.

Next week is a mess of lessons, group class, choir rehearsals of various sorts, a trip to Calgary, a frantic trip back home in time for an Annual General Meeting of the VFA Society and a long complicated board meeting the next day.

Somewhere in the midst of it all I'm supposed to be conjuring up some sort of holiday season, including gifts for everyone. Virtually nothing has been started.


Fiona and Sophie just arrived in from skating announcing they'd invented gods as a result of playing some twisted game of Simon Says.

Sophie's god is Chaezploz, the god of beverages.

Fiona's god is Applodox, the god of paradoxes.

My kids are weird.

Neologism of the day:

Tireturd. n. A concretion of sand, dirt, salt and slush, sprayed up from the roadway while driving only to freeze into a disgusting icy brown chunk in the wheelwell of your vehicle. Prone to dropping off in carports and garages. Best kicked off if possible in roadside parking spaces rather than at home.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The big recital

It's been more than a week since Erin played her big local recital. It went very well. She was amazing.

The community hall was full: maybe 150 people? Not bad for a community of under a thousand! The concert was a fund-raiser for the Valhalla Fine Arts Society, the organization which among other things backs the Suzuki Valhalla Institute, so near and dear to Erin's heart. I still haven't heard back about the "take" in donations at the door but it looked very generous.

She played beautifully. Unbeknownst to either of us until the recital was underway, the organizer had done away with the intermission. We had asked that they do the three minutes of announcements about the Society between the Bach and the Saint-Saens, to give Erin a few moments to regroup after all the austere intensity playing unaccompanied for almost half an hour straight. I guess the organizer misinterpreted this as being instead of the intermission which was supposed to occur between the Saint-Saens and the Mendelssohn. The absence of the intermission was announced when Erin was about to walk back out for the Saint-Saens, too late to do anything about. So she ended up playing all this incredibly challenging music for about 78 minutes straight, with only a 3-minute break after the Bach.

The audience was incredibly enthusiastic and appreciative. Erin is very much a darling of the local arts and music scene and has so many amazing fans. In the audience were people who have sung in the local choir with her in the past or who sing in the choir now and enjoy her accompanying, folk who have been part of the Suzuki community over the years, people who have heard her play in the past at many recitals, orchestra concerts and summer chamber music performances, the teachers and the principal of the local school, artists, retirees and electricians who frequent the café where she works part-time, high school students, current and past members of the community orchestra, friends of the family ... lots of people. Many of them remembered her from her first years playing on a sixteenth or tenth-sized violin. Very few of them had heard her in violin solo performance within the past couple of years, so they were blown away by her technical and musical progress.

In many ways it had the feel of a graduation event. In our small town, where high school graduation classes range in size from four to a dozen or so at most, every graduate is celebrated by the community. Even at the big combined ceremony there are speeches and reminiscences and childhood photos shared for each student. Grad here is a way for the community to mark a rite of passage into adulthood, to perhaps say goodbye for now to the students, to remember the role each of them played in the community as they grew up, and the role the community played in shaping each of them as they grew up. Erin's recital had that kind of feel for me.

Of course she's not graduating. She's not moving on. She's not leaving. Not yet. Which begs the question: what next? Montreal beckons but even if that happens a year early it's still a long way off. The time since the recital has felt pretty aimless and empty. I guess we knew it would feel like this. Some other stuff is on the horizon, but it does all feel like a bit of a let-down. Not surprisingly. The recital was a big high after months of hard work.

You can reconstruct the recital for yourself via YouTube. I didn't record the Bach again, so for that you're stuck with the lovely exerpts from the Kelowna recital. But the rest is here:

Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto 1st movement, 2nd movement, 3rd movement
The encore!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Outside at our place

From daylight to dusk and through into the night. Ridiculous games, obstacle courses, conversation and laughter. Friends over, various combinations of siblings. And the smell of baking bread, to boot.

Early Math Nostalgia

A week or so Fiona started Singapore Primary Math Grade 5 work and I realized that our "early math" days are gone forever in this family. These days the kids are busy with obtuse angles, polynomials and  repeating decimals. Gone are the days of "different ways to make 7" and "constructing and deconstructing tens." Today I pulled together our K-3 math materials in preparation for adding them to the library of local home-learning resources that is being amassed this year courtesy of the local public school. It was a bittersweet moment for me. I have loved watching my kids' early mathematical thinking grow through great leaps and fallow plateaus as they discover, integrate and apply all those basic concepts. But at the same time I am proud and amazed at how far they've all come.

In the hand-me-down pile I've amassed:

Cuisenaire rods. My favourite manipulative ever. My kids weren't big on actually using manipulatives, especially Erin and Noah, but having familiarity with the cuisenaires, even if they didn't actually shuffle them around on the table to solve problems, gave them a visual-spatial reference for thinking about numbers and relationships.

A base-ten set to match the cuisenaire rods. We bought a few extra 10-rods, a dozen hundred flats and a single thousand cube. We didn't use these much, but they were invaluable at times for giving the kids a visual model of place value relationships. We augmented these last spring when introducing Fiona to decimals.

Miquon Math. The first "curriculum" I introduced the kids to. They all ended up in Singapore Primary Math by Grade 3, but I think the early time spent with Miquon was the best possible curricular foundation for them. The First Grade Diary, while I never followed anything in there as outlined, gave me a great sense of what "discovery-oriented learning" meant in the context of a cuisenaire-rod math lab. The Lab Annotations book was essential. The heart of the program is in the activities more than the actual workbooks, but we also used the workbooks.

Pattern blocks. A lovely large wooden set. For free play with shapes, patterns, symmetry, angles, pictures. Two unbreakable locker mirrors, hinged together with duct tape, allowed for nifty mandala-like reflections.

The Cuisenaire Discovery Book and cards. I made this years ago for Sophie. Fiona loved it too as a pre-Miquon playful approach to getting familiar with the cuisenaire rods and many of the concepts and relationships they illustrate. You can print and download your own via the links in this post.

A Touch 'n Tell Me depression board for multiplication facts. We just lucked into this as a freebie on an eBay purchase of used kids' clothes I made once, but it turned out to be a wonderful low-tech tool for my older kids. You push down the button of the multiplication fact you're interested in and through the translucent plastic of the depressed button you can see (or almost see, anyway ... perhaps opacity of the buttons is increasing as this unit ages into its fourth decade of use) the answer. My older kids did not memorize their facts naturally in concert with their precocious conceptual mastery, so there was a period of time when it was handy to have this as a reference tool. As they gradually learned the facts, we put little Avery dot stickers on the buttons they no longer needed to use. It was fun to watch the dots gradually take over the board as they mastered more and more.

And so there it is. Sniff, sniff. I'll never again witness a kid delightedly notice that 9x6 and 6x9 are the same thing! Or that 7+9 is the same as the in-between number doubled! Sure, I am still witness to nifty epiphanies, like discovering that the repeating digits in the decimal equivalent of 11ths correspond to the numbers from the nine timestable. But it's not quite the same. It's more abstract, and less likely to be accompanied by shrieks and giggles. Ah, passages...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Backyard Skating

I got three floods in before dusk and then had to deal with dinner and group class. When I got home it had started to snow a bit. Sophie and I went to check the rink out and decided that with it already pretty smooth in most places we didn't want to flood and ruin the surface by having snow stick to it as it froze.

We got ready to go back inside and try again later. But then I took a look at what we already had: most of a rink, and pretty solid and smooth in the middle. So I called it: "Let's skate!" What the heck. The surface wasn't perfect but why wait another day?

So there was a mad scrambling for skates. Fiona had already skated at the arena in Nakusp with some friends once this year, so she was good to go. Sophie had tried on a pair of Erin's hand-me-downs earlier in the day. Erin had a good dig around for her skates and Noah found some that seemed to fit (probably an old pair of his dad's). Mine showed up. Then it was onto the gloves, snow pants, hats and such.

When we had cruddy carpet in our living room and dining room it was easy to get dressed with skates on in the living room and then walk to the front door and outside to the rink. But with cork in the dining area and hardwood in the living room we can't do that any more. Today we crawled across the floor, all five of us, out the front door, across the deck and down the ramp, across the patch of concrete next to the deck. There has got to be a better way! Perhaps we'll invest in some skate guards. Or brave the nasty cold on fingers and toes and lace up rinkside.

But we made it to the rink. And it was bliss. Cold wild bliss with shrieks and giggles. Noah traded skates with me; he got the better part of that deal! The dog did the Bambi thing on the ice, freaked out and ran away scared, satisfying herself for the rest of the evening by gnawing on chunks of ice on the lawn. Fiona got more confidence. Sophie got crazy. Erin lost the feeling in her fingers.

And now it's hot drink time. London Fogs and Coco Chai Rooibos.

It's stopped snowing, so I suppose I'll have to go out and flood again. After my tea.

The unprecedented November rink

We're not skating quite yet. There are still a few wrinkles and bumps in the corners and along the edges at the far end of the lawn where the ground is a bit higher. But I think another three or four floods will give us a passable surface on which to start skating.

With the temperature remaining below -9ºC (sometimes well below!) we can spend 45 minutes flooding, wait a mere hour for it to freeze hard, and go out with the hose again. We may be skating by tomorrow.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The gazinta bar

Ah, the family lexicon. Ours is bizarre and extensive, including such neologisms as "threehead," "agilitous," "wobbits" and "clape." We come by it honestly. My dad referred to the white residue left on one's toothbrush as "spinge." We carry that one forward in homage.

For the most part we remember where the words came from and we're all careful to keep these words within the privacy of our weird family conversation at home. But occasionally a word becomes so much a part of our lives that one or another of us is no longer aware that it's not universally understood. Such was the case with the gazinta bar.

Fiona knows that there are two ways to think about division. You can think of it according to the fractionalization model: you are splitting a larger number into so many equal smaller pieces. Or you can think of it according to the measurement model: you are figuring out how many pieces of a particular size fit into the larger number. Twenty divided by four is a quarter of twenty (i.e. 5) or else it is the fact that five fours fit into twenty.

And when it comes to long division, we use the measurement model. We draw this symbol: it's a right parenthesis with a horizontal bar attached to the top of it, extending to the right. It's a gazinta bar, because we use it when we're figuring out how many times 9 gazinta 28.9. I coined the word back when Erin was working in Singapore 4B I think. I thought it was pretty clever. It was a reminder of which conceptual model of division we needed to use when doing larger problems or those involving remainders or decimals.

Except that I realized today, after months of working with Fiona on various forms of division, that I had never explained to her the derivation of the word, nor that it was a family neologism. She was just matter-of-fact calling it a gazinta bar, as easily as she might have called it a widget or a scuzzlewhit. When I explained that our liaison teacher wouldn't have a clue what we were talking about if we used the term, and in fact that no one in the world outside our family would have any idea, she started laughing her head off. We googled it to be sure. Indeed, no relevent hits. This term is ours and ours alone.

Except that now we've both gone and blogged about it. So now all of you know.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Seasons turning on a dime

A week ago I put the snow tires on only because I was driving a bunch of kids up and over the Monashee Pass, where I thought there might be snow. It's been a warm wet fall and if we hadn't been going over the pass I would have left the all-season tires on for another while yet: snow did not seem imminent.

But it finally did snow a couple of days ago, just a dusting, really. A little more up at our house, since we're 250 metres above the village. But nothing to get too excited about. We figured it was the normal sputtering start to wintry weather: a few days of flakes, then a couple of weeks of mud and more rain, then some more flakes and back and forth for a while. Typically by mid-December the snow settles on the ground for good. Sometimes a bit earlier, sometimes a bit later.

But Sophie alerted me to the 14-day extended weather forecast this morning:

The yellow line denotes zero, the freezing point. The normal daily highs and lows for the next two weeks are shown as two white horizontal lines at the top of the graph. You can see that they normally straddle the freezing point. The predicted daily highs and lows for the next two weeks are shown as the meandering pink and blue lines at the bottom of the graph. Way, way, way below normal over the next five days, and then remaining below normal for the full two weeks, not straying above the freezing point at all.

So we put the trampoline away today and got out the rink liner. We've never started on a rink until late December with skating following sometime in January, but this spate of arctic weather seems just too good to miss. We have a new tarp, purchased last fall but never used due to the spuriously warm winter we got in 2009-10. It's more than large enough, so we set up the contours of the rink to take advantage of the most level part of the yard. We'll see if we can actually manage a few days of skating in November.

The down side: I'm not at all sure about running barefoot at minus 22!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Piggies play in the snow

I recently joined the Barefoot Runner's Society's Canadian chapter. There are a handful of us there, most of us recent converts to this "less is more" approach to running, most of us trying to figure out how we're going to get through the winter without losing what conditioning our feet and legs have acquired.

The few more experienced runners have suggested that it is more than possible to run barefoot in below-freezing temperatures. Cleared dry pavement or asphalt, they say, is possible down to -10ºC or a little below. With slush and snow on the ground it can be tougher, but with a proper warmup still possible to a few degrees below freezing. And so today, with the first snowfall of the year on the ground and temperatures hovering just below the freezing point, I gave it a try.

I ran in shoes for the first kilometer, trying to get properly warmed up, increasing the circulation to my feet. I was doing an out-and-back route, so I kicked my shoes off at the side of the highway at the 1.0 km mark and carried on. I figured I'd run another kilometre (less if it was truly too awful to endure), turn around and head back to my shoes.

It was certainly a challenge to run that kilometre. I wasn't running in actual snow. I was on the highway which was wet with occasional bits of slush and slushy puddles. I worried about how much the return kilometre would hurt. But I made it through the full outbound kilometer, and right as it was ending things got a fair bit easier. I decided to carry on another 500 metres to my normal turnaround, which would bring my barefoot distance to a full 3 km by the time I got back to my shoes. After the turnaround the numbness on the bottoms of my feet disappeared. The water began to feel almost pleasantly cold on my now-fairly-warm feet.

By the time I reached my shoes the only thing that was bothering me was the gravel that the highway maintenance crew had spread on the curves in the road. It had an annoying habit of hiding in the slush. But I ran slower through those patches. And it just didn't seem worth stopping to put my shoes on, so I picked them up and carried on home.

Right now my feet feel like they've just enjoyed some sort of Finnish sauna and snow spa treatment with a bonus exfoliation treatment. They're happy and tingly. I never would have thought this was possible!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First recital

Erin went to Kelowna last weekend and performed her recital for a small appreciative audience in the wonderful century-old Anglican cathedral there. The acoustics were so live and lovely for the unaccompanied Bach I just had to record it.

I am in awe of this girl's playing. She has come so far in the past few months. And just look at her -- how much she loves what she is doing, how much she plays right into the music, clearly caring deeply about both the music and what she is giving to the audience.

The local recital takes place later this week. I think there might be a lot of people there.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Washer TV

It's taken several long years to rationalize this purchase. I wanted an energy-efficient front-loader, but I just couldn't make my peace with the extravagance. We have an exceptionally low pressure low flow water supply. We can barely have a shower -- the flow through even the "pulse" setting on the showerhead is scarcely more than a dribble at the best of times. And this meant that when the old top-load washer was running, just about all other water-related activities in the house had to stop. And since it took up to half an hour to fill the tub in the top-loader for each wash or rinse, that was a lot of time not to wash dishes, hair or bodies, especially with more pre-teen and teen showering going on here.

In addition since we hang-dry almost all our laundry, the idea of having wet clothes go onto the drying rack much less wet than usual was very appealing. That would mean they would be dry in less than a day, maybe even in as little as 12 hours if the wood stove was beneath them.

And so when this unit came on sale recently we decided to finally taken the plunge. We squeaked it into the tiny laundry room this afternoon, set it to run a first load, and then hunkered down in front of the viewing window to watch the show. It was fabulous! Unfortunately I missed the final spin, because I had a meeting, so I'm running another load (of dog bedding, no less) in order to catch the finale.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The magic oven

The new thermometer is making easy work of the bread oven. In the past I have over-fired the oven. I've burned it too long and with too much wood, so that is has got too hot. This has meant that pizzas are done in 5 minutes and over-done in 5 minutes and 28 seconds. Which is a fairly critical difference since it takes at least 28 seconds for me to get the door off and fish out the pan.

Today I tried out the thermometer for the first time. I fired the oven with some kindling, a few two-inch diameter small logs and two average sized pieces of birch firewood, burning for a total of about an hour and three-quarters. Then I raked out any of the bigger coals and pushed the small ones to the edge of the oven (thanks for the tip, Jacinda!) and threw in the first pizza.

The first pizza went in at 350ºC (650ºF) and took about 8 minutes.
The next pizza went in at 270ºC (520ºF) and took about 11 minutes.
The bread went in at around 230ºC (450ºF) and took about 25 minutes.
The lentil dal bake went in at around 180ºC (350ºF) and I'll leave it for three or four hours.

Today's breads are a whole wheat and khorasan blended yogourt bread on the right and a honey-garlic wheat bread on the left. I'm getting very adventurous with my bread-making recipes these days, just winging things with a rough formula of:

1 cup liquid
1 Tbsp. oil or butter
1 Tbsp. sugary stuff
1 tsp. salt, and
1 tsp. yeast

per loaf of bread, plus some combination of flours to make a dough that feels right when kneaded. I supplement with a bit of gluten flour if I'm using predominantly low-gluten flours (i.e. spelt, corn meal, oats or khorasan). And I make other adjustments, too, sometimes adding an egg or two, or using cottage cheese as a liquid and bumping up the volume, or increasing the sweetener, or adding seeds or herbs or nuts or dried fruit. I'm either developing some skill at this, or have been lucky recently, or else (more than likely) the oven enacts some sort of magic, because my loaves have been turning out beautifully almost no matter what oddities I throw into the mixing bowl.

We've just received the first half of our grain CSA order, so I am inspired on all fronts these days. The khorasan (a.k.a. Kamut®) is new to the CSA this year, our bin of hard spring wheat has been replenished, and I'm looking forward to getting more spelt and some heritage Canadian Red Fife wheat when the second half of our share rolls in in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cursive in a day

I've gotten used to "graphomotor delays" in my kids. Erin was 8 when she first managed more than a kindergarten-style scrawl. She had been reading proper novels for four years and was playing the Bach Double on the violin but still printed in mostly upper-case tilted, squashed letters. I remember Noah agonizing for an hour over signing his name on his passport application at age 11. Even Sophie, who was considerably less asynchronous, has only developed a legible cursive script in the past couple of years.

It hasn't mattered much. We don't need to use written work as a form of evaluation of the kids' learning. It is always clear, from their enthusiasm, their questions, their conversation, their observations and their honest self-assessment, what they have learned. For the most part it's been fine to wait. Erin now writes easily and well. Noah can write neatly but his dysgraphic tendencies make it a heck of a lot of hard work for him, so he much prefers to type. Sophie does fine and while writing is still a bit slower for her than it would be for most 12-year-olds, I'm sure that whenever she starts doing lots of writing her speed and fluidity will quickly catch up.

Then there's Fiona, the surprise at the end. She hasn't inherited her siblings' lags in the realm of written text.  She hasn't done much printing compared to schoolchildren her age, but what little she does is neat and easy for her. And so last evening when she said "I want to learn to write my name in cursive" I figured why not? The Portland (Getty-Dubay) Italic font we've tended to use around her makes for a pretty quick transition from printed to cursive.

It took about 30 minutes of practice for her to learn the "joins" necessary to write her name in cursive. Not bad, I think! Now that she can do it neatly, she plans to work on a messy version, so that she has an artistic grown-up looking signature.

She's using a nifty notebook and pen set we found a few weeks ago. The paper is treated with invisible dyes which are revealed by the oxidizing ink in the pen. Naturally this led to all sorts of experiments to figure out the patterns and the processes of the chemicals. And it has also led to more interest in handwriting.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The drive to learn

"Help me understand about unschooling. I know kids learn to talk and walk with no overt teaching but they learn by example, I think these are more of a biological drive in the human being. I am not sure learning Pi falls under the same category."

If you want to look at it from a "biological imperative" standpoint, I think you can definitely lump learning about pi into it. I think human beings are programmed to learn to walk and talk, but I think another thing that sets us apart from most of the rest of the animal kingdom is that we are programmed to learn from others. Humans have memes as well as genes: bodies of knowledge that are passed along by the culture that surrounds us. And I'm not talking about school-ish learning here. I'm talking about the sort of learning that in the distant past let hunter-gatherer kids know which plants near where they lived were safe to eat, how to fashion a weapon, how to build a shelter. We are hard-wired for learning. These days the things children are driven to learn are less of the "building a shelter" type and more of the "swapping graphics cards" or "calculating interest charges on a loan" type. We are hard-wired to learn whatever is necessary in our particular environment for becoming a productive, capable member of our society.

Unschooling doesn't mean no formal learning: it just means no uninvited teaching. Much of an unschooler's learning may be informal, but if they want formal structure to their learning that's totally cool. My unschooled 11-year-old is currently getting up every morning to sit down with a high school math textbook and do work with pencil and paper to master it. She has decided that higher math is likely to be useful to her, so she wants to learn it. My 14-year-old son who until recently had nothing you could call handwriting gradually discovered that there were a few occasions in real life when it was helpful to be able to write neatly and efficiently with a pen. Since real life wasn't giving him enough practice to get good at it, he set to work making himself practice on a daily basis, and now has a neat legible written script.

Proving learning to an overseeing body hasn't been a problem for us. My kids are learning like crazy, and progress is well-nigh inevitable. It isn't necessarily linear and steady, but over the long term, like a school term or two, there's always stuff I can point to as evidence.

I've also not found that my kids need much if any prodding to challenge themselves. Occasionally (rarely) they have needed some substantial support from me in following through on their desire to challenge themselves. But for the most part when they know that they are fully in charge of their own learning their ambition and motivation rises up and propel them forward. In fact they often challenge themselves far more than I would ever have thought of expecting of them. 

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


Sophie got a set of Buckyballs for her birthday. She had seen them on-line and fallen in love with them. I didn't understand what she saw in them. They're just a bunch of rare earth magnets, 216 of them to be precise. They look like small ball bearings, but each one has a magnetic north and a south pole.

I'm a convert now. They're addictive. They're lovely to handle and they're pretty. A string three balls wide makes a lovely choker. They'll align themselves in particular shapes happily. A random amoeba of buckyballs will peel away from itself in a lovely string of metal pearls. They don't like to lie in two-dimensional arrays unless they're coaxed, but once coaxed they achieve a tenuous stability.

The magnets are strong: strong enough to function as jewelry, strong enough to scare each other off when like poles approach, strong enough to feel like they have a life of their own.

Sophie is quickly mastering the various techniques: using chains of 18 to make hex units by wrapping a dozen around a circle of six, pinching 9-ball circles to create reluctant but stable triangles, turning curved shapes inside-out if they don't want to connect with complementary shapes to reverse the poles, doing all that nifty coaxing to form flat perfectly aligned rectangles and squares.

I think these will continue to be enjoyed over the long term. They're cute. They have personality. They have tactile appeal. They're unpredictable, but less so as you get to know them.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Creativity and writing

We're part of a new program at the local school, a Distributed Learning (i.e. government-funded home-based education) program. It's a bunch of well-meaning people within the school system trying to figure out not only the government regulations and expectations but also what homeschooling is actually like.

So far it feels considerably more intrusive than the SelfDesign program we left. But for us this year the intrusiveness is tolerable. Why? Because Fiona loves sharing her learning with a "teacher," and is proud and excited to provide evidence of learning to an interested adult outside the family. And because Noah and Sophie are both looking for more accountability and structure than we've been able to consistently create at home. Even if they don't relish every bit of work, they're interested in accomplishing some course-like work and projects in math, science, infotech and digital media.

But then there's the other stuff. Like history. And of course writing. Our liaison teacher has not been pressuring us to provide evidence of Noah's and Sophie's writing ability, but it's clear that his job, which he's muddling through for the first time ever, would be made considerably easier if they would produce even just a couple of little scraps of written work.

So last week I explained to the middle two kids that reporting would be easier, both for him and for me, if they could write something this term. And I put together a list of writing prompts of various sorts and asked if they would pick a couple and create something. Then I went away for the weekend.

Sophie's creative side rose to the challenge, but not exactly in the way I had intended. She took the page of writing prompts and scrumpled it up in a ball. I don't think she did this in anger or frustration -- perhaps just to be silly, just to prove that she didn't need to respect this "assignment" and that if she did it she would do it by choice? For whatever reason she wadded it up to wrinkle it, flattened it out, put it through the laser printer as a blank page to "iron" it out, folded it repeatedly, soaked it in black tea and dried it, then put it through the laser-printer iron again and finished up by tearing and burning the edges. Beautiful, isn't it? Can we count that a history project?

(She did eventually write a lovely poem and a short research report which I duly submitted as Evidence of Learning. But I think the assignment page treatment was even more creative.)

The cheese, at last

Finally the Day of the Unwaxing of the Cheese arrived. Sophie suggested that her birthday would be an auspicious occasion, marking about three months of aging. We missed her birthday. I had spent the weekend driving Erin first west for a rehearsal and then all the way east to Calgary for a lesson and arrived home at 10 pm after 21 hours of driving over the previous couple of days. We had decided to hold the natal celebration a day late.

And so The Unwaxing proceeded. The cheese was a lovely texture: just slightly on the dry side for farmer's cheese, but holding together nicely in slender slices. I would have liked it a little sweeter, but it had a nice aged bite to it and goes very nicely with crackers.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Recommended for geeks

Noah is a serious PC gamer. For a while I resisted the FPS (first-person shooter) games and the stuff with violent content. But my resolve got worn down over time. Lugaru (now Overgrowth) was probably the turning point. It was a game using anthropromorphized bunnies with combat skills. He loved it and it engaged him deeply at so many levels. He got to know the development team, recorded trailers, created a fan-site, learning HTML in the process. He was getting a lot out of it, and yet it gradually became clear to me that it was not categorically different than many of the other combat games out there except that the warriors had fur, long ears and snouts rather than human faces. Lugaru seemed to sit right on the line between acceptable fantasy gaming and violent gaming suitable only for "mature gamers." And in time I realized that the line was blurry, grey and meandering, or maybe not really there at all.

Noah is a gentle soul who has always been horrified by real-life aggression. His gaming wasn't changing that. So I just gave up and let him at the mature games. He now owns a ton of them; it's where most of his allowance and lawn-mowing earnings have gone over the past three or four years. Left 4 Dead, Half Life 2, Bioshock, Assassin's Creed, Crysis, Team Fortress 2, Portal, Fallout 3, you name it. Many are incredible in their realism; he plays on-line with others and on his own with amazing intensity and prowess. He attends the bi-monthly LAN gaming nights at the community hall and plays until midnight with the adults.

But interestingly, his long-term passions at home are for a handful of less realistic games that allow him to really get inside the game programming -- either because they have "sandbox editors" that allow him to modify elements of the game (creating new objects, scenarios or maps to play with), because they have a development community and allow "modding" of game elements using scripting, or because they allow him to follow along and/or participate as games are built from scratch.

Noah highly recommends Minecraft. It's a game still in development, not even in beta testing, but you can buy an account and be privy to weekly upgrade releases. It's being written by one guy, Notch, who is one of Noah's heroes, and it's both brilliant and simple. You can watch the programming take shape, see the complexity grow. It's a lot like peering over the shoulder of a game developer as he works away at a type of programming that's rarely visible these days due to canned game engines and modules. There's a development blog and a set of user forums to encourage even more engagement of the masses in the development process. The graphics are blocky and look like something circa 1990, but the appeal is in the logic and design process, not the graphical presentation. Our pumpkin this year was carved in the shape of a Minecraft creeper face. Creepers are the little villianous creatures that look sort of like boxy green tombstones with vague pixelly faces. Easiest jack'o'lantern art we've ever done, I have to say.

An old stand-by which keeps resurfacing here is Clonk. Noah first got Clonk Endeavor, which is now freeware, but now owns and plays Clonk Rage. It's a funky open-source German 2D game which allows multiple players to play split-screen or over a LAN or the internet, and also works for solo play. It's part action game, part real-time strategy, part platform game and can be played out in seige scenarios or on collaborative missions. You control little humanoids called clonks, who can build, mine, use machines, explore, attack each other and engage in survival missions. There are many game extensions that create an amazing range of themes and scenarios from wild west to futuristic technology to knights to extreme environments. The social element of this game results in lots of hilarity around here. And every time Noah pulls this out again he delves deeper. He has gone from downloading and installing mods to adding objects to creating his own scenarios to writing scripts from scratch using code, which allow the game to actually function differently.

And then there's Garry's Mod (GMod). It's a virtual physics sandbox which allows players to manipulate virtual objects. It works with the Source Game Engine, so in order to use GMod you need to own at least one game (through Steam, an on-line game delivery source) which uses that game engine. But then it becomes really a game of its own. And there are mods for GMod, and mods for mods for GMod. There's a very robust community of tinkerers out there who have a blast sharing content and ideas. Noah particularly loves WireMod, which sits atop GMod, which sits atop the Source Engine. He's used it to build hologram generators, locators, beacons and, most recently, a mathematical calculator which works out products, square roots and the like.

So although Noah is a gamer, he's also a game-tinkerer, who is gradually developing a robust understanding of the incredible complexity of game programming. He is completely self-led and self-taught, and I'm in awe.


I mentioned in one of my recent posts about the cob oven that an infrared thermometer would be very helpful in learning how to bake reliably in it.

Yesterday I found one. I was in Kelowna getting Erin to a rehearsal with her accompanist there in preparation for a recital at the Anglican catherdral there in a couple of weeks. On the way home I stopped at an auto parts and surplus store to pick up AV cables for my mom's new TV, and darned if I didn't stumble on this little gizmo.

Okay, I didn't stumble. I spent 25 minutes scouring the store for it, and finding all sorts of other nifty things in the process. But the fact remains that I walked out of the store with this awesome thermometer. It has a nice range: 0 to 500 ºC, so plenty high enough to read the oven at its peak heat.

Friday was baking day, so I haven't had the chance to use it on the oven yet. But it's come in handy, and been great fun, in many other ways. Kids comparing their hand and face temperatures. Judging the temperature of the tepid bath I ran to soothe Fiona's itchy rash last night. Observing the electric kettle nearing the boil. Judging when the boiled water has cooled sufficiently for white tea brewing. Comparing the insulating capacity of two different brands of stainless steel go-mugs. Calibrating the outdoor thermometer (yes, it's accurate!). Seeing how hot the top of the wood stove gets (217ºC or 422ºF in the photo). It'll be great for instant accurate mess-free measurements of the liquids in my bread recipes before adding yeast, or the milk mixture when making yoghurt. And for measuring the temperature of pans and cooktop surfaces.

And of course the laser is great for tormenting the cat with. That's just a bonus.

Once I have a pH meter and a digital kitchen scale my life will be complete.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Spooky run

It's the Friday night before Hallowe'en. Noah has gone to Gaming Night at the community hall. Sophie is at the Hallowe'en Dance at the school. Erin is the basement practicing Saint-Sëans. Chuck is on call. I have spent the afternoon grinding wheat and khorasan, kneading dough, making pizzas, then baking the pizzas, a few loaves of bread, a dozen buns and a huge pot of bean burrito filling.

Fiona has practiced, and now wants to do "something special."

We go back and forth a bit about what constitutes something special. Eventually we decide that it would be fun to dress in our black running tights and our black SufferFest hoodies, strap on headlamps and run the forested trail below our house. A spooky Hallowe'en weekend trail run in the dark.

We drive the van to the trail head. On the way Fiona comments that it's easy to under-estimate the power of  dark. Which I take to mean she's feeling a little apprehensive about the run. It'll be fine, I reassure her. We'll be together, we'll have our head lamps, we'll get warm after a while, we'll hold hands and talk.

It is spooky. Just enough spooky to be memorable. Silent and thoroughly, completely dark. I don't mind running the highway in the dark alone, but I would not have been pleased to be running the forested trail by myself. I am glad to be running with Fiona. She is a reassuring companion to have along. She is just brave enough to do this with me, and I tell her that I too feel braver having her along -- after all, if a spooky monster attacked me, I could toss her at it and run for my life. She laughs, I laugh. We finish the trail happy and exhilarated. We'll remember this run for a long time.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


She has to come home after all, I guess, since the posters are being printed, large and glossy.

Montreal chat

Erin is in Montreal, checking out the McGill music faculty and falling in love with the city all over again. She was there for a week in 2008 on an exchange trip and loved it then. This time her perspective is different. She's not there for a visit; she's looking to live there, and soon.

Last night we managed to chat for a while on-line. She's had two lessons. Liked both teachers a lot, but loved one of them, and thought she was "adorable." The French accent probably didn't hurt. It sounds like they connected really really well. Both teachers basically told her she'd have no trouble getting into the performance program and that she should focus on trying to win scholarships. She got some input on her recital performance pieces and on general posture and technique and tone stuff. She has one more lesson with another teacher today, as well as the McGill open house to attend. It was lucky good timing for this trip that the open house happens this weekend. Hopefully she'll get some helpful information and impressions from that. Though the real money for her is in the personal and artistic connection she thinks she might be able to forge with a teacher there. So far things are looking very good on that count.

She's dreaming of an apartment. A small funky somewhat scuzzy one in a run-down building within a few miles of the university, near a metro station, that she can paint "blue and purple and chalkboard," and fill with IKEA furniture, tea, an espresso machine and strings of LED lights. She's using whiney "pleeeeeeases" with far to many e's to ask if she can possibly live in Montréal next year, during her last pre-university year, as soon as she finishes her high school coursework. Did I mention she's fallen in love with the city? I was already entertaining thoughts of an arrangement of some sort in Calgary, but Montreal is so darned far away. Soooooooo darned far. (This issue just cries out for strings of repeated vowels.)

Four years ago I wrote about how, in raising our kids, we've tended to compress or entirely skip many of the intermediate stages. We've let the kids stay little and dependent for as long as they'd like, and then let them be independent and autonomous as soon as they're ready. But (gulp!) does this translate into letting my country bumpkin move more than 4000 kilometres away at age 17 to a city of a million and half, completely on her own and without the support of a university environment? I don't know ....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

SufferFoot Recovery

I developed a bad case of SufferFoot after SufferFest. I had been so enamoured of my new minimalist shoes that I chose to wear them for the race without noticing that I'd only run a total of 33 km in them prior to that, none of that on trails. Even before the race I'd had a tiny bit of heel pain in my right foot. During the race it got much worse, and for a few days afterwards I could barely walk. It was the dreaded plantar fasciitis. I'd never had it before, but it's a very common injury for runners and non-runners alike. Barefooters tend to have much less trouble with it, but minimalist shoes are still shoes, and I had just run a nasty long run in shoes.

For once I think I behaved sensibly. I laid off running entirely for a week. I iced my foot. I taped it. I exercised the little muscles and stretched my foot and calf. I didn't walk any more than I had to. I used highly cushioned shoes while the pain was bad. I took anti-inflammatories semi-regularly for a few days, something I almost never do. It took about a week before I could weight-bear reasonably comfortably.

During week 2 I started walking again, and did some slow jogging for no more than 10 minutes at a time. It was really hard to limit myself, but I did it. Things started to improve much faster that week.

During week 3 I increased my mileage from 1.5 to 3 to 5 kilometres at a time, still running really slowly. I had wised up, dispensed with my minimalist shoes and settled back to running barefoot or in Vibram FiveFingers. I discovered that things started improving much more quickly when I wore less on my feet. I was a little worried about this approach, which followed barefooters' wisdom but flew in the face of conventional wisdom. My foot still hurt a bit at times, and it felt vulnerable; I wondered if the uncushioned impact on my heel might make things worse. But instead the fact that I had to actively engage the small muscles of my foot functioned as a kind of active physiotherapy for my still inflamed fascia. Subjecting my stiff and sore foot to that little bit of stress was actually making it better! By the end of the week I was able to do jumping jacks and rope-skipping barefoot without any pain.

So today I ran 8 kilometres at a decent pace on a fairly flat but rocky and rooty trail in my VFFs. My feet feel great, better than ever. Not a single twinge from my heel. Yay!

So what's the lesson here for an aspiring minimalist runner?  It's to be careful of using minimalist shoes as a stepping stone to true barefoot running. They provide protection from rocks and such, true, but that protection can encourage you to run a lot farther without support than your still-weak-and-atrophied feet can handle. I should not have run that kind of 25k run in non-supportive shoes. Not at this stage. In another year, yes, probably. But not yet.

And the ultimate answer isn't to fall back on high-support shoes: it's to continue gradually strengthening the feet through shorter as-minimalist-as-possible runs. If I do a particularly long, fast or difficult run that exceed what my still weak feet can handle, I'll put them in supportive shoes for that, then kick them off for the next run to get back into the foot-strengthening regime.

Now that I seem to be through this little set-back, I'm looking ahead again. My current plan is to take my mileage back up to my typical 30-40k a week, and then as the weather gets cold and nasty and the days get shorter to see if I can continue to increase my mileage considerably higher. If I'm doing well with that by mid-December I think I'll register for a spring marathon and start training. You can follow my weekly mileage in the widget at the right side of my blog. If I hit 60 km/week (37 miles: alas the widget only does miles) by mid-December, I'll sign up for a spring marathon. If it turns out to be impossible to fit that kind of mileage into my week through the winter, so be it. I'll put it off until the fall.

The morning after baking day

Another dozen rolls and another loaf of bread are already in the freezer. The pizza is long gone. The beans, still warm, are waiting to go in the freezer.

I managed the baking times a little better this time. Except for the pizza, which got a bit charred just at the edge, the crusts were all perfect. And it turns out that the time required to eat a pizza dinner is the perfect time to allow the oven to cool down for the first loaves of bread.

Vegetarian Baked Beans

3 cups white pea beans, soaked overnight
1 large onion, chopped
1 tart apple, chopped
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1/4 cup dark molasses
1/4 cup tomato paste or ketchup
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (to taste)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. curry powder

Cover beans in water and bring to a boil. Simmer for half an hour. In the meantime, prepare other ingredients and dump into a heavy baking dish with a lid. Add simmered beans and stir. Add enough fresh water to bring the level up to the top of the beans. Cover pot and place in a slow oven (275ºF) for 4-6 hours. Add a bit of water as necessary. An hour before serving, mash a few of the beans and stir in. Add more water if necessary, or uncover if too watery. Time and temperature are very flexible. You can start the beans at 9 a.m. and set the temperature a bit lower and leave them all day, or you can start at 2 pm and bump the temperature up a bit hotter. Or you can (apparently) put them in a fairly hot thermal mass oven and leave them overnight as the temperature gradually cools.

(About the seasonings: I really just wing these. I always use onion, though sometimes I pitch in more than one. I always use about a third of a cup total of something brown and sweet, a similar quantity of something tomato-based, a bit of some kind of vinegar, plus salt and pepper. The rest is just by guess and by gosh. The curry powder is a nice touch in traditional baked beans and a teaspoon gives just a subtle flavour. You can triple the apples and triple the curry powder to make a real curry-flavoured pot which is nice for variety sometimes. Sometimes I'll pitch in some soy-based browning, or some vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, or some liquid smoke, or use maple syrup instead of molasses and brown sugar. It is quite fun to experiment.)

Serve with fresh-baked bread or rolls.

Left-over baked beans can be mashed a bit more and stored in the fridge to be used as a savory vegetarian sandwich spread. Beans also freeze well.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Baking day

Using the cob oven is introducing me to the old-fashioned tradition of a baking day. If I'm going to the bother of firing the oven up for an hour or two and heating it up to 600ºF, it seems ridiculous to use it for 6 minutes of pizza-baking and then leave it to gradually cool overnight. All that stored heat deserves to be put to use.

It seems to be settling into a Friday or Saturday tradition. Last week in between homeschooling activities at the school, playdates, gym time and gaming night I managed to bake a couple of pizzas and then piggy-backed three loaves of bread on at the end. The oven was ready for plenty more, though: the loaves were done in 16 minutes and the bottom crust was a little overdone, so they definitely went in when the oven was too hot and there was certainly enough heat for plenty more baking left over when they came out.

As an aside, I think I'll invest in a laser infrared thermometer so that I can check the oven temperature. The oven interior is of course very dark, and I'm usually baking after nightfall, so not only does an analog thermometer suffer from questionable accuracy sitting right on the fire bricks, getting in the way of the food to boot, but I have a hard time reading it even with a head lamp on. I've discovered by trial and error that 90 minutes of firing with hardwood makes the oven just right for pizza, and that the oven needs to cool substantially from that temperature to be suitable for bread-baking.

This week the plan is to cook pizza when the oven is maximally hot, wait half an hour or so and then whip in three loaves of dill-onion bread followed half an hour later by a dozen and a half spelt buns. Finally, when the buns are done, I'll tuck the pot of beans in and leave them overnight. There's no one around to eat the beans with two thirds of the family gone for the weekend, so they'll go into the freezer and be a reserve meal for when we have one of those days where there's no time for dinner prep.

The one thing I miss with the cob oven is the smell of the bread baking. I smell it as it steams and cools, after it's done baking, but it isn't quite the same.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


We seem to be traveling more than ever lately, and in so many different directions.

Erin was off to Banff last week for WordFest, a writers' festival that the school's writing classes attends each year. She's an old hand at the trip: this is her third year. She enjoys it, both socially and educationally. This year an assistant teacher who had just met her on the trip expressed incredulity that Erin had ever been shy. Uh, yeah ... in fact she's still shy, but she can definitely come across totally differently in the right environment, the writers' festival trip being the right environment. She had fun.

Since that trip put Erin 85% of the way to Calgary, we opted to drive out and meet her at the end of WordFest and drive her on to the east to the big city for a violin lesson, with Noah getting a viola lesson on the same trip. This entailed staying at a new, interesting hotel in Banff, so the younger two decided to come along as well. We drove out on Saturday afternoon arriving mid-evening, left for Calgary at 8 Sunday morning, fit in the two lessons, then turned around and drove the whole distance home, arriving mid-evening. Doing this with the two eldest in a day and a half is one thing. I figured that with all four it would kill me. But actually it wasn't so bad. The kids travel so well now. They nap a lot. They don't whine. They are accommodating with their bathroom and food needs. When they're awake, they are enjoyable. They invented a game called "Rock, Paper, Random." It's a word game that's sort of a cross between Rock, Paper, Scissors and Apples to Apples. You and your opponent yell out in tandem "Rock, paper, ___!" inserting some random noun at the end, and then you table arguments as to why your random word wins over the other person's. The most convincing, or elegant, or witty argument wins the round. For instance Noah's "door" won over Sophie's "tooth" once he reminded us that you can tie a loose tooth to a doorknob and yank it out.

Yesterday Fiona went off to Nakusp for a skating outing at the arena there with a couple of friends. Today Noah, Erin and I head 90 minutes south to Nelson for youth choir and a meeting about the 2012 trip to Cuba.

And then tomorrow at 6 a.m. Erin leaves with a couple of friends to Montreal. Last summer Gwen Hoebig recommended the McGill performance program to Erin and suggested that if she could find a way to get lessons with particular members of the violin faculty this would be helpful to her future prospects. So when we found out our friends were heading off to visit another (mutual) friend who is currently a student at McGill, we asked if Erin could come along. She has lessons scheduled with three of the top violin faculty. The lessons are well-timed: with her recitals coming up she can certainly benefit from getting different perspectives on her performance repertoire, and also from the opportunity to just play for lots of different people. And getting herself known to these teachers is definitely a good thing. She'll be back after the weekend, in time to make it to her weekly gig as accompanist for the community choir. And then in the next three and a bit weeks she'll have two or three trips to Kelowna for rehearsals and recital, and one or two trips to Calgary for lessons. Yikes.

The day after tomorrow Chuck, Sophie and Fiona will be heading to SW Ontario for an extended-family get-together. Chuck's mom's 90th birthday is coming up, and there are new great-grandbabies in the family to meet. Chuck is the youngest of his mom's eight children, and Fiona is the youngest of her 20 grandchildren. There will be many more great-grandchildren in the future. Sophie and Fiona have already been recruited as part of the church-basement-decorating committee, and will be playing their violins as part of the musical entertainment. They'll be gone for just four days, two of them spent in travel. Not relaxing, but they're definitely looking forward to it. Fiona hardly remembers meeting most of the extended family ever. She knows some of them via Facebook, but is very excited to meet them in real life.

And Noah and I: we're staying home for six days straight. Yay!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Here and There Slocan

Just a quick note to let you know that Here and There Slocan, our photo blog, is active again. Fiona and I have been taking lots of photos together and for now at least we're managing a photo a day.

Monday, October 11, 2010


We weren't looking for pine mushrooms today although if we'd gone well off the beaten track we probably would have found places that hadn't been picked over by intrepid harvesters. Rather, Fiona and I were looking for a hiding spot for our new geocache. But we'd brought the camera and were blown away by the rainbow of mushroom colours we found in the undergrowth. All the recent rain has brought these fellows to the surface in all their glory. 

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Five for five

FIona and I went geocaching today. Our family got into geocaching a year or two before she was born and kept at it periodically for a while afterwards. But for the last five years or so we've hardly logged a cache. We have one cache that we placed near our home which we maintain, but that's her only experience with geocaching: checking our little cache a couple of times a year.

Today I suggested we go hunt some caches. We got out my Garmin, which is far more accurate than the unit we were using back in 2002, and downloaded some GPS co-ordinates onto it. There are a dozen new caches within a half hour drive of our home since the last time I went hunting, so we chose five off to the east of us and set out.

Geocaching involves using clues and GPS co-ordinates to seek treasure caches hidden in hundreds of thousands of locations around the world. Each cache contains a logbook and usually some trinkets. You sign the logbook. You may choose to take a trinket; you should leave something new in its place. And if you like when you get home you can log your find at the geocaching website.

Along the way you'll likely see some places you wouldn't have otherwise seen, and maybe learned a little about the history of the area thanks to clues and background information. Fiona and I ended up in Cody, a mining ghost town, at the 110-year-old Sandon cemetery (see photo), in an old-growth cedar forest and also along a couple of familiar trails, looking at them with a new perspective.

Thanks to the new Garmin's accuracy and a bit of luck we were able to quickly find all five of the caches we looked for. We brought along a thermos of tea and enjoyed some steaming mugs now and then in the cool autumn air. Fiona had a lovely time. She thinks geocaching is really cool. We've decided it's time to place another cache and after considering all the locations near us that already have them, we've settled upon the perfect unique spot in which to put our new one.

Stop Motion

Here's another of the perks of being affiliated with the local bricks-and-mortar school. Sophie and her friend had expressed an interest in playing around with stop motion animation. And now on Fridays they are welcome to go in and spend time using the Mac Lab and its iStopMotion software, camera, props and other resources. Our liaison teacher showed them around the software, showed them some samples of animation approaches and let them at it. An hour later I came back and they were finishing up a first little experiment with claymation.

Better still, with the group software license arrangement the school has we will likely be able to use a copy iStopMotion at home. They're looking into that. Of course, that will mean me surrendering my Mac for hours at a time. So it's hard to say whether that would be a good thing or not. Sophie and her friend are all for it, though!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Recently the kids in this family have enjoyed having a little bit of cash on hand. Normally most of their net worth is recorded in ledgers, with which they track spending and savings trends, and from which it is easy for them to avail themselves of their parents' plastic and electronic purchasing options.

But "petty cash" accounts have found increasing utility in our family. Especially between Sophie, Fiona, Erin and myself. We've been trading favours, and attaching dollar values to them. Part of the reason I never wanted to pay the kids for chores is that I wanted them to understand that contributing to household work is a basic family responsibility, not a job for which they should expect compensation. But this petty economy is definitely in the spirit of fun and I don't think it's undermining that value.

Pictured: Fiona giving Sophie a back massage. One favour = 5-10 minutes of massage. One favour's value is approximately a dollar. Making a smoothie for a sibling (10-15 minutes of work including clean-up) is worth two favours. Making a London Fog: about one favour. This afternoon I covered Fiona for a sixty cent shortfall when she bought herself an organic Orange Cream Soda on the way home from the cross-country meet. In return I received the better part of a favour: about 5 minutes of back and leg massage.

They must be learning something from this. They're certainly enjoying it. And I confess that sixty cents is a pretty good deal for the robust massages Fiona gives.


Tonight at about 10 pm I had to nip out to the van to grab something. Across the driveway I heard the strains of Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" being practiced on the violin. Erin was hard at work in her cabin. And look what I saw outside the cabin: part of the bed frame that we bought for her when she was two years old. It had finally fallen apart, but she had done nothing about it, just leaving it in her jumble of a den of cobwebs, dust bunnies, outgrown clothes strewn on the floor, books read long ago, abandoned glasses of iced tea, English assignments long past.

But today the laundry room is humming, there are bins of recovered books appearing in the living room, and the broken bed frame has been removed. The vacuum cleaner, which I emptied before I went to Nelson this afternoon, is again chock full of enough cobwebs to stop a life-threatening hemorrhage. Erin, it appears, is cleaning her room!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Recital promo photos

The first one is just crying out to be an 11x17 full-colour poster, I think, with no more graphic design necessary than text in a artistic font tastefully positioned. But I like the second one best as a portrait. I love my big girl.