Monday, May 31, 2010


While in Duncan we visited a raptor centre a few minutes from the place we were staying. They had a few dozen birds, from baby eagles to falcons, hawks, owls and full-grown bald eagles. We were able to watch the flying demonstration, where they encouraged a few of the birds to fly in the open from perch to perch, handler to handler, off into the forest, back onto the gauntleted arm of a handler for a treat, and then off and about again.

Chinook the red-tailed hawk was hormonal and rather recalcitrant. He flew by a few times but then went and found a perch. He did not want to come back out of the tree and kept us waiting for a good while, but was finally enticed back with a dummy rabbit on a string doing sneaky tricks on the lawn.

Athena the gyrfalcon (left) was more straight-laced and willing to play things according to the script. She did some amazing acrobatics for us, chasing down a dummy bird swung about in the air and catching it mid-dive.

Oliver the barn owl was pretty nifty. He was a little spooked by the wild bald eagle who was in the top of a fir tree overlooking the flying field, just checking things out. But he flew for us, keeping a little closer to the safety of trees and handlers than usual.

The biggest bird we saw up close was this immature bald eagle. She was fully grown, but not feathered out as "bald" yet, a colour change in her plumage which will take her another two or three years. We see bald eagles a lot in the treetops and the skies near home. I remember when we first moved to BC almost two decades ago it was a really special thing to see a bald eagle. The discontinuation of DDT use has caused their numbers to rebound very quickly. Bald eagles around home are so common that we often don't even mention them if we see one while we're driving. But seeing them up close is another matter entirely.

A few years ago a guy in our community rescued a mature bald eagle which seemed blind in one eye and was hopping and walking about the rocky beach. He'd worked with birds before, so whoever found it called him up figuring he was the local expert. He kept the eagle in his garage for a few days, feeding it up on lake trout and kokanee salmon to see if it would get interested in flying and hunting again. It ate heartily but seemed not to see anything on its right side, and had no interest in hunting, so after a few days he moved it out to a raptor rehab centre near Vancouver. We were invited over while it was still in his garage, and got right up near this totally wild magnificent bird. Jim was killed tragically in an accident with a falling tree on his property last spring. I think my older kids will always remember him with that eagle.

Fiona, though, didn't remember meeting Jim and his bird. She was too young at the time. So it was great that she was able to see the partly tame birds at the raptor centre.


My kids pride themselves in their weirdness. The more random, bizarre, eccentric, irreverent and facetious they are the better. While we were on our way to Duncan last week they engaged in some collaborative cartooning and story-telling. This particular drawing started with four small wobbly horizontal lines, and got passed back and forth between Erin, Noah and Sophie as each added features, lines and blobs and tried to make the picture head off in weird directions. As the picture got more and more complicated, explanatory stories grew up to weave together the random elements. Eventually they decided to write down some of the explanations. Two selections follow, with their accompanying cartoons.

"A Little Piece of Heaven. This is an illustration of [your-deity-of-choice] disciplining a demon sloth. As you can see, this sloth is guilty of defecating on disabled children and smoking marijuana. The Lamb of God is assisting by biting the sloth with the Fang of Justice. [ed. note: The Lamb of God bears the Twin Fangs of Justice and Karma] The Lamb of God has a jetpack and lovely eyelashes, and is being motivated by the Carrot of Motivation, forged by Hephaestus who can be seen in the background, forging the Carrot of Depression. The Banana of Judgment is hovering overhead, silently disapproving of the sloth, while Lactose the Intolerant pours chocolate milk on the sloth's head. This illustration is widely believed to be the most accurate representation of Heaven ever created, as many artists fail to realize that Hephaestus is an emo hobo."

Lactose the Intolerant has got to be the funniest demigod name ever. I laughed until I hurt.  And look at little Hephaestus the emo hobo, hard at work at his anvil. He's so cute I'd like to adopt him.

 "Cult Portrait. This illustration captures a touching moment between the Mustachio Cult members after their first ritual slaughter. They are posing in front of their clubhouse with their beloved pets, including a kitten, a snake, an alcoholic chicken and a cross-eyed dog. From left to right their names are Dudley, Frank, Bill, Rufus and Emo George. The child is called Baby Bunting, and the man in the window is Shy Paul. As you can see, they run an egg business on the side to raise funds for buying cloaks and throwing slumber parties."

This one was loosely inspired by a rural home/business/homestead that we spotted while driving with a hand-painted sign that announced:


We wondered how many years they'd been trying to sell their egg. It was a very old sign.

I like the cross-eyed dog with the mustache.

Spring climax

It's that time of year, when so many activities and responsibilities seem to reach their climax. It's the end of our year of reporting with the SelfDesign program, and that involves a mad rush to submit and rectify purchases we've made, and spend the balance, as well as the final "annual report" document to be collaboratively created with our Learning Consultant for each child. There were the final rehearsals and performances for Sophie's women's choir, where Erin and I provided instrumental accompaniment. There are the lengthy and complicated planning sessions and board meetings for the Valhalla Fine Arts summer programs. The regional Suzuki Celebration Concert took place, with ensemble contributions from our local crew. The AGM of the regional Suzuki society happened the same day, meaning mad catching up for me on my Treasurer duties so that I could table a financial report. There was a trip to Calgary for lessons, our first in two months. Erin and Noah went off on their Corazon choir tour, with immensely successful participation in the Rocky Mountain choral Festival. They have a series of three final concerts and two recording sessions for Corazon which will round out their year, all within a two-week window at the beginning of June. We're into the last week of rehearsals for the community orchestra, with a concert next weekend. The bookkeeping and income tax deadline looms large in mid-June as always. Yesterday was Fiona's piano recital. And we have the end of year Suzuki recital coming up at the end of this month.

Then there are the other loose ends. The gardening, the chicken massacre courtesy of a bear, the thousands of dollars worth of work that urgently needs to be done on the van, time-consuming work and inconveniently distant from home, the music library catalogueing I'm trying desperately to get done for the summer school, my clinic work, updates on web content for the various non-profits I volunteer with, meetings with the school about a new homeschooling prospect for next year, and violin teaching to fit in around the edges. And somewhere else the grocery shopping, meal prep and housekeeping. And music practicing with the kids. And ... er, ... homeschooling. And ... er, .... running. Neither of the latter two is happening much.

In the midst of it all, we went off to Vancouver Island for the Provincial Music Festival for a week. Erin and Noah had "won" the Intermediate and Junior Strings divisions respectively at the local level. Erin had been recommended to the Provincials in the past, on piano, but we had opted not to go then due to her lack of interest in the competitive milieu. This year she was happy for the opportunity and while Noah was lukewarm at best, he responded well to a nudge and I supposed figured if he was going anyway with the family it was no big deal to participate. I was very ambivalent about the whole endeavour, as it is a competitive situation. But we knew a few of the other participants, friends from SVI and VSSM, and I was hopeful that the exposure to other hard-working passionate music kids would be good for my two. I just hoped the competitive nature of the festival wouldn't poison the atmosphere.

It didn't at all. The adjudicator was encouraging and insightful. The other students were great. It did not feel like a pressure-cooker. We saw old friends and made some new ones. We saw a couple of well-loved piano teachers whom we've known as guest clinicians in our area. We enjoyed a number of stunning performances by amazing kids. Unfortunately for whatever reason there were no master classes or workshops for the strings kids. Guitar, dance, winds, speech arts, piano and voice all had their workshops, but the string players got nothing. No one seemed to know why. A bit disappointing, but whatever.

Erin and Noah played well. Neither were "outclassed" by their peers, as there was a range of abilities represented. Our province has basically two large urban areas and these have one to three local festivals each, turning out some incredibly highly-trained students. Then there's the rest of the vast province with small local festivals like ours with just a handful of string participants and a few teachers. So there were other "big fish from small ponds" like my two. The quality of performances was very high, the ability level ranging from, oh, Suzuki Book 7-ish for one of the participants in Noah's class to Bach Chaccones and Paganini Caprices in his and Erin's class.

We watched an afternoon of chamber music too, as well as all the solo performances. I was blown away by the musical-ensemble sophistication of these kids, and left feeling very frustrated that I'm not able to give my own children that kind of experience in any way, shape or form. They get good individual teaching, albeit very infrequently (one lesson in March, one in May....). But they do not have a proper youth orchestra or challenging community orchestra to be part of, and neither is part of a string quartet or trio or anything of the sort. Their absolute keenest love is for chamber music, both of them, and there is simply no way they can get the kind of opportunity they crave -- for a well-matched group of local students to meet every week and work hard at challenging standard repertoire like Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Schubert. And I see no way to change that.

The kids I think felt similar combinations of inspiration with frustration. The students from cities just take for granted that they'll have regular lessons, orchestras and ensembles that can challenge them at whatever level they need. If they get inspired and work hard, they have a next level of challenge to look forward to. They are so lucky!

Is there anything we can do differently to give Erin and Noah something a little closer to what they need to continue to develop musically? I'm racking my brain, but I can't see how. Given the fact that they don't really want to move, my medical license is no longer portable between provinces, they aren't yet equipped to live away from home alone, nor would a boarding-type arrangement work well for my unschoolers. And a float plane isn't really practical, is it? How about a stargate or star-trek style transporter?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Moving a pond

This is where the pond and waterfall used to be. Under the apple tree about 20 metres from the house. A lovely shaded area, but with no seating nearby we rarely enjoyed it. Now that we have a deck, I decided the pond and waterfall should be there instead.

Over the past couple of days I've been moving rocks to release the pond liner, and then removing the liner and filling in the hole. The photo doesn't give a sense of scale: the pond liner is 3x5 metres, so this is a fairly large area.

The new pond will be much smaller -- basically just large enough to serve as a receptacle and reservoir for the waterfall. I've roughed it in at about 2 metres by half a metre. I'll cut the liner down to size.

Here's where I'm putting the new pond: just in front of the "apron" extension on the deck. I plan to build a rock wall up in the rear of the pond in part to hide the underneath of the deck.

Fiona and I bought some shrubs when we were in Nelson for her last piano lesson of the year. So we've also pushed ourselves to complete the little rockwall garden in front of the low portion of the deck -- despite the rain and cool weather we endured earlier in the week. We're just using whatever rocks we can find lying around the property looking for a home. I think I could become a rock mason in my next life. There's something really addictive about moving warm rocks around, looking at them from different angles, trading one off for another, until they find their perfect resting place, snugged in next to their well-fitted friends.

I think we still need some deck furniture soon, though, wouldn't you agree? After we get the repairs done on the van ...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Milo, and the Slide

Fiona and I went to the garden center in Nelson this week. We bought some bedding plants as well as some shrubs and herbs for the garden we're creating in front of the deck. Our old kitchen garden was clear-cut and covered when the deck went in, so we're starting anew.

Just as we were about to leave we discovered a little flat of Venus Flytraps. I'd always wanted a carnivorous plant, and Fiona, it turned out, not only wanted one but was quite knowledgeable about them. She told me all about trigger hairs and how big they could grow. It's fun to discover that now even my youngest child is now full of knowledge that I don't have, and I have no idea where she encountered it.

The specimens in the greenhouse were of diminutive proportions, but hey, a flesh-eating plant is a flesh-eating plant. We eagerly added it to our wagon load of shrubs and herbs.

It would have been too cliché to name it Venus, and we felt for sure he was male. So we settled on naming him Milo. Venus de Milo. Get it?

He's just a baby. But he's already been fed so many flies and ants that I'm sure he'll end up suffering from childhood obesity. Will we be able to keep him alive? We don't do so well with indoor plants, but we'll see.

On the way home from Nelson we had bad luck again. Last week we had got held up an hour from home by a nasty accident that closed the highway for half an hour and were late for our dinner meeting. Then, after driving to Calgary on Thursday and back on Saturday, and to Nelson all day on Sunday for a Suzuki performance and back home in the nick of time to get to orchestra rehearsal, and turning around and driving back on Tuesday for piano lesson, we got almost all the way home from Nelson only to discover that heavy rains had caused a mudslide that had closed the highway. We were told it would be a minimum of four hours before the road re-opened. We sighed, did a U-turn and drove back to Nelson, arriving exactly two hours after we'd left. Then we headed north, taking the longer route home, one mountain range over. Sigh. It was a long day. Fiona was a trooper. I hope she still has stamina left, because we have a day and a half of driving to do this weekend to get out to Vancouver Island.

We listened to podcasts to keep ourselves from getting too bored. Stuff You Should Know, Vinyl Café and Radio Lab were on the playlist yesterday. We recommend them all highly.

Hair off

Erin got her hair chopped off in January, sending eight thick hanks of 18-inch long hair off to Locks of Love. Recently Sophie decided she had finished her tenure as a long-haired kid. I wasn't sure that she was sure about her decision, so I didn't jump in right away to get her an appointment at the salon. But soon occasional comments turned to nagging at me to book her appointment and when I did she counted down the days eagerly.

Look at all that amazing blond hair! She's had a tiny trim once in a while but other than that hasn't had her hair cut since she was a preschooler. It shines like gold and is so beautiful. I wondered if I would miss it, even if she wouldn't.

The bottom got a trim first, because that's the way the Locks of Love people want it. Just half an inch or so to get rid of the wispy ends.

Then the little elastics went in and the scissors started sawing. I wondered if Sophie would have panicky second thoughts. I had asked her before if she was nervous, and like a good little violinist she said "not nervous, but excited!" She's well-trained to read those fluttery-tummy feelings as excitement rather than fear!

By the time her hair was dry even I was thinking "this is how her hair was meant to be -- it suits her perfectly!" In fact I was already forgetting that she'd ever had long hair. Her new bob looked totally normal and right.

It's been a week now. She loves it. It takes a few seconds to brush and a couple of minutes to wash. She enjoys the look and the feel and says she has not a single regret.

I don't miss her long tresses at all. I can hardly even remember them. I'm glad I took that first picture!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Twenty-one years old

This is probably the first significant item of real quality that I bought. Fresh out of my internship, I dropped a thousand dollars and change on a good road bike. This is a lesson in the wisdom of buying quality. My 21-year-old bike is still a wonderful machine. Today I started tuning it up. I want to start riding it more again, and it is still completely up to the task.

My love affair with bicycles began on my 11th birthday. I was given a "ten-speed" bike, a real grown-up one with 27" wheels. I remember the day well. There had been a bit of an ice-storm overnight. The bike had been hidden in the neighbours' garage. I could not ride it outside until the ice melted, but I fell in love with it inside. It was silver.

I rode that bike everywhere. I went on adventures. Even back then I was drawn to distance. My brother and I would get up at dawn and bike out of the city and along county roads to other villages, exploring and relishing our freedom. We probably got up to things my parents would have been horrified by. But hey, we survived, and I have such memories of those days!

As the bike began to wear out, I became a bike mechanic. I could tear that bike apart to the ball bearings and put it back together. I bought parts and tools, I replaced chain links, I repacked the headset and crankset. I lubed, I cleaned, I replaced, I repainted. But eventually over the years the poor thing just kind of wore out.

I bought myself a new bike, slightly better-made, thought still a cheap chain store bike, about the time I headed off to university. It wasn't a great bike but I looked after it really well and added a few accessories to make it look great. It was stolen from where I'd locked it up in the parkade by my apartment about three years after I got it.

My next bike was actually a decent road bike. I think I paid $450 for it. It was lighter and snappier. I started enjoying longer rides on it. I fitted it with panniers and biked all over southwestern Ontario on it. Not extended tours, but 50 or 100 km a day over a weekend, visiting people, going places. During my internship year I biked all around the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland on it. I also acquired an inexpensive mountain bike to help me get around the hills in St. John's, and to help bail me out in the winter when my horrid car stopped working.

The next year I had an actual income. I was living in Halifax, another region with superb road-riding routes. And I fell in love with the Terry Symmetry I stumbled upon in at the Trail Shop. It's a bike engineered for short women -- that's me! The top tube is very short, thanks in part to the 24" front wheel. Other things are sized down too -- the handlebars, the cranks, the brake levers. It fitted me beautifully and weighed next to nothing. I sold both my other bikes and bought it. I rode a hundred miles on it the following Saturday, and felt just fine the next day. I rode it lots and lots in Nova Scotia.

When I moved to BC, though, I moved to a town on the side of a mountain, with nothing but hills ... and a huge network of world-class single-track mountain bike trails. So I bought a mountain bike and cranked most of my miles on that. And once we moved to the slightly-flatter town where we now live, we had kids, so even if I was riding on the road I was generally hauling two kids in a trailer, and I needed the granny gear of the mountain bike. My Terry Symmetry spent a lot of time collecting dust after that.

Now that I'm in decent shape again, and the kids no longer need to be hauled about in a trailer, it's time to start riding my Terry again. It needs some new rubber up front and a new real derailleur cable before too long, and I want to upgrade to SPD clipless pedals. Other than that, though, everything is ticking and humming and spinning as it should.