Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fall Learning Conversations

Fall has arrived. It arrived with a nip in the air three or four days ago. It's been so chilly the past couple of days that we've fired up the wood stove. Considering that we had a power failure one cooler-than-usual night in early July and lit a fire then for light and entertainment, it seems that this year we will have used the wood stove at least once every calendar month. Unbelievable! Usually we give up the fire by mid May and don't get back to using it until the second week of September. It's not that the summer was cooler or shorter than usual. We certainly had a fair share of hot days and will likely get a few more yet. It's just that the two peak-of-summer months have been bookended by some spuriously chilly spells. And yes, it feels very much like fall.

Fall also arrived in the guise of an e-mail I got yesterday saying that the local school had assigned one of their teachers the role of facilitating their new Distributed Learning program this year, and the teacher would like to meet with students and families this week, like, tomorrow maybe, to start work on Learning Plans. Which sort of blindsided me. I'm usually ahead of the game when it comes to learning plans, and had intended to get drafts started this week in anticipation of hearing from the school in a week or two once the academic year officially starts. That's what I've been used to with other DL programs. But no, this school is on the ball. They'd love to get started now. Tomorrow.

Erin will technically be considered an enrolled school student again this year, attending school to use the Facilitated Learning Centre (FLC) for on-line coursework according to her music schedule and general inclinations. Because she's on their roster as an in-school student, I don't have to do up a learning plan for her. In essence, though, what she's doing may not be all that different, except in degree, from what the middle kids are doing. Noah, Sophie and Fiona will technically be considered home-based learners at the same school, and will be welcome to use on-line high school courses offered via the FLC. Obviously that won't work for Fiona who may be a smart cookie but certainly isn't at a high school level yet, but Sophie and Noah likely will do a course or two through the school's on-line offerings.

So today I took Fiona and Sophie each out for a café date and we talked about their desires for the upcoming learning year. Sophie wants more independence from family and at the same time a bit of external help structuring her learning, which I think means it might be a good time for her to experiment with spending a little time actually in the school building using the Facilitated Learning Centre as an independent study lab. Fiona would love to be involved in a similar program aimed at Grades 3-7 students, but there isn't such a thing. Fiona's big changes are that she has given up aikido and piano. She took both on when her siblings were doing them; she was along for the ride, and figured if she was there anyway, she'd love to be involved in her own way. She started both two or three years ago. This past year she was the only kid in the family doing both pursuits, and she's decided that they're not giving her enough enjoyment to compensate for the over-scheduled weeks and hours upon hours of extra travel time. So she'll likely be staying a little closer to home this year. She's hoping to take advantage of whatever is available locally, though, and was thrilled today to hear about a series of fibre-crafting workshops for 7- through 12-year-olds starting in October.

Tomorrow is Noah's café date / Learning Plan meeting. I have a feeling this year needs to be a bit different for Noah. He responds well to being pushed a bit, though he resists it at first. It's always a delicate dance.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hairy oven

I got the front part of the oven covered in the first layer of cob today. Bits of straw are sticking out all over the place. It looks hairy.

Mixing the cob is the nasty part. Slinging around the sand and clay, then spending more than an hour (yes, that's how long it takes when your helpers get busy with other things) mixing the stuff together with water and straw. It would probably be a fifteen minute job with a helper or two, but the ergonomics just don't work solo. I'll count it as my cross-training for today. My core workout plus aerobics.

Weather was nasty and blowy today. Cool and fall-like, threatening rain on and off, lots of wind. I rigged a tarp over the oven so I could continue working, and ultimately to allow it to dry a bit more easily.

The cob went on really easily and much faster than the first layer. It's a bit softer and wetter, so much more forgiving in the hands, and there's no worry about pushing the wrong way and collapsing the sand. The thermal layer had firmed up enough that one can push freely into it.

You can see the two layers where the doorway is. The inner one is a bit darker because it's dried out a bit. The wall of the oven is now 6" (15 cm) thick. We'll be adding another 3-4" by the time we're done. If you compare this photo to that of the sand dome in my earlier post, you'll see how much it's grown already. It's mind-boggling how much mass is involved in the oven. There were three loads of rocks, each a couple of hundred pounds, plus four wheelbarrows full of mortar. Then at least eight almost-too-heavy-to-push wheelbarrows full of drainage material inside the ring of rocks. So far for the walls: two garbage cans full of sand, a 50 pounds or so of clay, and water to wet it all. And we're only about half way done building the walls of the oven. I guess they don't call it a thermal mass oven for nothing!

I also enlarged the doorway today. It's now almost the width of the four firebricks that form the apron, to allow passage of our family's standard 14" pizza. Which is most important.

I have been looking at oven tools. We'll need a coal rake, a scuffle and a peel. The coal rake sweeps the coals of the fire out the door into a metal bucket. The scuffle is a bunch of wet rags attached by a swivel pin to a long pole: it's used for cleaning the oven floor of ashes prior to starting to bake. And a peel is like a giant long-handled spatula, used to insert and remove whatever you're baking from the inside of the hot oven. My resident blacksmith/carpenter should be able to make these for us.

Earth ovens take many weeks to dry out. You can speed drying by firing them, but then they're prone to cracking. Which is pretty much mostly a cosmetic issue, and can be fixed with more cob. I'm hoping we'll get a sunny warm September. Then maybe in October we can fire it up.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The oven's maw

We cut out a smaller-than-finished doorway in the thermal layer of our oven today. The weather has been cold and wet, so the clay hasn't firmed up fully yet. As a result we thought it best not to start removing the bulk of the sand just yet.

Still, it looks more like an oven now, which is nice. And so far nothing has sagged, for which I'm very grateful.

We'll eventually cut this door wide enough to fit the 14" pizzas we like to make. Right now it's only about 12" at the inside edge. There will be a wooden cedar door to insert in the opening once the fire has been removed and the food is baking.

Training run

I've struggled a bit with the 10-week program I've been following to get myself ready for the Rocky Mountain Half Marathon. The first 4-5 weeks were great. They felt easy, I was highly motivated, and I could run farther and faster than the program required. Then the music school weeks happened, and the peak of the summer heat, and beginning around week 6 and 7 (which I had planned to stretch over two weeks each anyway, due to lack of time) my motivation sagged. To cap it off I had a really tough long run last weekend. I had just given up coffee, and maybe my body was missing it. Maybe trails, even fairly sedate ones, just are that much tougher than road running. Or maybe I was just having a bad day, to cap off a few bad weeks. For whatever reason during the last half of my 26 km my legs felt like lead. And the first half didn't exactly feel like a lively romp in the woods either. It was only the second time since April I'd run more than 17 km. I wondered whether my body had lost its taste for distance. Was I now destined to hit a wall at 14 kilometres?

But this week has been better. My interval run was fast: really fast (for me). I was able to run 6 x 1000 metres in the heat of the day at well under 5:00 per km. On the trails. My tempo run, in my Vibram Five Fingers along a trail with a long gradual climb, felt hard but was reasonably fast. My shorter runs this week have felt easy. But I was still worried about today's 20k run. It was the closest I'd get to the Half Marathon distance (21.1 km) between now and the race.

It was supposed to be a "race simulation" of sorts, with the first 10k run at an easy pace, to deplete one's glycogen stores, I imagine, and the latter 10k run at one's desired race pace, to see how much is left in the tank. I ran up the highway and back down, which of course amplifies the difference in the first and second half paces. But I ran based on effort, not pace. I ran "moderately" on the way out, and "moderately hard" on the way back.

You can read my pace for each quarter-kilometer off the graph above. You can see where the steep sections are -- the purple-top bars are the grunts up the steepest stuff. Overall there was 400 metres of climb which is a lot more than the 50-odd metres on the course I'll be running the race on.

I arrived home feeling pretty good, feeling like I had more in the tank if I had needed it. I know I could have run the first half faster if I'd wanted. And the handy-dandy McMillan running calculator predicts a finish time just three minutes over 2 hours, based on today's overall pace.

I can be pretty self-competitive. I've had this dream goal of doing my first Half in under two hours. A year ago my goal was 2:15, but this spring I started wondering if I could break two hours. It's stupid, everyone says, to have a time goal in your first-ever race, especially if it's a longer distance run. But secretly, I still have this hope. I figure I'll be okay with just finishing feeling strong. If that gives me a 2:25 or whatever, so be it. But after today's run I can see that if everything goes right, that two-hour goal might just be achievable. If everything goes right.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The dome

Mixing cob is messy work. It's most easily done on a tarp, and traditionally done with your feet. I remember reading about this practice in a book of historical fiction a decade ago, never dreaming I'd be doing it myself.

We mixed up one small batch of sand/clay cob, set it aside, and then got busy building the form for the dome out of sand. Somebody isn't very good at three-dimensional estimates. I could have sworn that a garbage can full of screened sand would be plenty. It was far taller and almost, or so it seemed, the same diameter. But the extra 15 to 20 cm in the oven's diameter translated into a lot of extra volume! We had to madly screen a couple of extra wheelbarrows full of sand to complete the dome.

Doesn't it look lovely, though? So smooth and symmetrical and uniform. I almost wanted to leave it at this stage for a few days to admire it, but time was of the essence. Before the sand began to dry out we needed to proceed to the next stage.

We're mostly working right from the "Earth Ovens" book, but one tweak the woman who led the cob oven workshop suggested was applying wet newspaper between the sand form and the inner wall layer. This helps keep the sand from drying out, provides a surface that can be accidentally brushed with hands or fingers without crumbling, and facilitates shelling out the sand once the wall of the oven is in place. Although it was a little fussy getting the newspaper to stick (we applied some clay slip over top of it to hold it together a bit better), this step was well worth it. It definitely helped make the next stage less fussy.

The real work of the afternoon was in applying the thermal layer. This isn't true cob, which has organic matter like straw or manure mixed in, but a simple sand-clay mix. It will be right against the fire once the oven is in use, so any organic matter would combust. The thermal layer is applied in a layer 3" thick. It needs to be even in its thickness, and it has to be applied carefully so that the integrity of the sand form isn't compromised.

You have to prod and poke to bond each level to the previous one. And you can't push inwards against the sand. The mix is quite stodgy, so it's not easy to work with.

Fiona sat on the tarp making muck-balls about 3" in diameter. Sophie transported the muck-balls to the oven. And Chuck, Noah and I applied the balls to the growing thermal layer of the inner wall of the oven.

Periodically we would mix up more muck. Periodically we would spray down the newspaper to keep it damp. And we managed to finish before the day was done.

It doesn't look quite so beautiful now. We roughed it up to give the next layer a bit more to grab onto. And it will get even more ugly as we apply the next couple of straw-laden cob insulating layers. But it has a certain monolithic presence already, with a fair bit of symmetry. We're pleased with how it's turning out. If it has set up nicely by tomorrow we'll cut out a door and scoop some of the sand out. Or we may wait a couple of days.

Right now it's drying and hardening and we, showered and changed out of our muck-covered clothes, are going out for supper.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Barefoot Runniversary

It's now been 4 months since I started transitioning to barefoot running. I'm currently running about a quarter of my mileage barefoot. For regular runs on concrete or asphalt barefoot is definitely what I prefer. I'm up to 10k road runs barefoot without difficulty. I haven't had problems with blisters, cuts or callouses since logging my first 20 kilometres or so. Occasionally landing wrong on a bit of gravel will give me a mild bruising sensation for a day or so, but nothing troublesome. My soles are tough enough to handle small bits of gravel or debris. I can now run the roads at night, trusting that my feet will be able to handle even the bits of stuff I can't see.

I love trails, though, and I can't run the trails around here at any sort of aerobic pace without some sort of foot protection. So my trail runs are done using some sort of footwear. Sometimes my Asics Kayanos, which I loved last fall but which now feel like casts on my feet. I use them in mud, because they're pretty trashed already, having 400 or so miles on them. Sometimes I use my Nike Lunarglides which I bought a year ago but got little use out of before I hurt myself. They are low-support running shoes, roomier in the toe-box and much more flexible. And sometimes I use my Vibram Five Fingers KSOs. My plan is to purchase a pair of minimalist running shoes this fall, likely the New Balance WT 101s. I'll need something I can wear socks with to get me through the winter. Something with a little tread wouldn't be amiss either in the snow, ice and slush.

My running gait has definitely changed. I land on the outside of my mid-foot with the muscles in my foot dialed in to absorb the shock of landing. After rolling medially to distribute the forces, I flex off the ball of my foot. In running shoes this sort of outer-to-inner weighting of the foot is called "excess pronation." In the context of heel-striking in shoes it probably is excessive, because the torsional forces can't be absorbed by the foot itself and easily get transmitted up to the knee and hip causing injury. But it's healthy on bare feet with a mid-foot strike. My cadence is also faster. I used to run at about 140 steps per minute. Now my natural cadence is about 175. And my mid-foot striking and faster cadence feel normal and natural now. I run that way even when wearing my old mega-support Kayanos. Up to about 14 miles, anyway.

I've noticed that when running barefoot or even barefoot-like in regular shoes, I no longer twist my ankle if I land wrong. My forefoot, rather than my heel, is what is on the ground at the moment of impact. The heel has no mechanism for correcting balance, but the forefoot is full of muscles that kick in reflexively. If you've ever tried to hold a yoga pose like the tree, you know that as you challenge your body to hold the pose, its the small muscles in the forefoot that start to gasp and complain. The heel can't do a thing on its own. From time to time I find myself landing off-kilter in the woods, maybe once a month or so. My foot would "give way" on an angular rock or root and my poor ankle would take the brunt of the force. In the past I'd roll outwards off the heel and feel a small (or large) twinge in my ankle ligaments. The sort of thing that in its nastier forms is called an ankle sprain. These days when I land strangely and get that sickening feeling of rolling outwards about to possibly sprain my ankle, my forefoot corrects the off-kilter stresses in a split second and there's no twinge at all, no "giving way," nothing. It's like a sped-up version of seeing a huge flash of lightning and then hearing .... nothing: there's no clap of thunder. You expect to be hurt, but your body has fixed the problem reflexively and there's nothing to worry about.

My feet are also learning what to do when they meet an unexpected rock or pebble. I guess I'm probably landing more lightly, and likely my soles are toughening up, but I also think my foot muscles are learning better, faster ways to transfer the force of impact if they meet an unexpected lump or chunk. I can now run barefoot on the road in the dark and trust my feet to manage if they meet up with something nasty. It's strange to realize that my lower limbs have all these reflexes that they never used before.

Someone asked about my huaraches. I use them a ton for walking and general about-the-property wear, but not so much for running. I think I used rubber that was just a little too thin and flexible for running. The soles flop around, and the toe part of the sole easily catches on small roots or stones or weeds and folds back on itself, leading to stumbles. And they're noisy because of a tendency to slap the ground. So they're better for general use than running. I might try making another pair with a slightly more rigid rubber next year, possibly using a lacing system that gets rid of the lace between the toes.

It's funny: when I first started moving towards barefooting I felt that it made a lot of sense and I found it to be a fun challenge. But I wasn't one of those people who had always hated the feeling of shoes, who had always longed for the freedom and comfort of bare feet. I actually liked the feeling of well-fitted shoes with their heel counters and arch supports and snugged-down laces. Foam and gel? My feet liked that! But now? Now my feet are happier free. When I put on a pair of shoes I find myself wanting to wiggle my toes. I feel like I'm wearing casts. I dislike the feeling of having my toes pressed against each other.

Feet are amazing things. All these bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. Tons of them. A marvel of biological engineering. Instant active response, intrinsic stabilization, adaptive technology, tools that will last a lifetime, healing themselves, growing stronger as demands increase ... and they actually teach you how to run with their instant feedback.

And yet we put them in malleable casts all day every day for years on end. We call these casts shoes, and we build them up with counters and gel and foam and rubber and cushions and various other forms of "support." Our feet enjoy the cushioning and comfort. They don't have to do much work, and they don't have to pay attention to the ground at all.

The problem, of course, is that shoes are like an addiction. Put a limb in a plaster cast for 8 weeks and it will lose up to 40% of its muscle mass. Imagine what a lifetime of shoe-casting does to our foot muscles. Wearing shoes makes our feet weaker and weaker, and less and less aware of the ground beneath them. And this changes how we walk, how we stand and how we run. We gradually move away from the healthy biomechanics that our bare feet trained us to use when we were little kids running barefoot in the grass. And the result is that we want even more support and cushioning. And our feet get weaker and less sensitive.

The other thing I've been thinking a lot about is the arch. The arch is an amazing engineering principle. It has incredible strength and resilience. You can load an arch from the top and it will support great amounts of weight. The forces from above compress the arch, making it stronger. Who in their right mind would support an arch by pushing up from below? Yet that's what we do with insoles.

If you're interested in transitioning to barefooting, it's important to do so gradually. References to TMTS ("Too Much Too Soon") are at least as common on barefooting message boards as are other acronyms like KSO or VFF. So start gradually, and continue gradually! Canadians, who are typically unshod indoors, have a leg up so to speak. The best first step is to spend as much time as you can in and around your home without shoes on. After a few weeks you can start walking or running a kilometre or two barefoot on clean smooth surfaces every other day. Running tracks, gyms, golf courses or well-swept concrete or asphalt are good choices. Gradually you can begin notching up the length, frequency and surface-challenge of your runs.

Common wisdom says it's most effective and efficient to start completely barefoot, rather than using minimalist footwear as a transition. Bare feet will teach you correct form from the beginning. After you've internalized the adjustments in your form through putting your bare soles directly on the ground you're moving across, you can then start using minimalist footwear for surfaces and conditions that require it. But sometimes practicalities trump common wisdom. If you're starting to transition in winter, or if you don't have access to smooth predictable surfaces, or if barefooting just seems too weird for your tastes, by all means, find some minimalist footwear. Plenty of people have learned barefoot-like running in minimalist footwear. It might just take longer to get the form down. Early on I ended up with some Achilles tendon issues that I might have avoided if I had started out truly barefoot rather than in my KSOs. I was trying to change my form intellectually, rather than just running intuitively by barefoot feel, and I was landing too much on the balls of my feet.

It's reassuring to know that if one of your guilty pleasures is buying new running shoes, moving towards a barefoot style still gives you plenty of ways to spend money on footwear. A couple of major manufacturers already have minimalist shoes on the market: Nike has their Frees, and New Balance has the MT/WT 100's. Other companies like Brooks and Saucony are said to have minimalist shoes in the pipeline. Leave it to big sports companies to find a way to make money off barefooting! Refreshingly there are a bunch of small upstart companies busily creating a huge range of creative minimalist footwear for all applications: Luna Sandals, VivoBarefoot, Feelmax, Figo, Inov-8 and InvisibleShoes, to name a few. And of course there's the gold standard, the Five Fingers division of Vibram, the shoe and boot sole company.

In the months to come I'd like to continue to toughen up my feet so that I can do more trail runs barefoot next year. Obviously I'll have to take a break from barefoot running over the winter, but I hope I can find some truly minimalist shoes that will allow me to continue to run barefoot-like and to feel the ground (and snow!) beneath my feet.


"Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. This was the book that prompted me to turn my inclination towards spareness and simplicity in running into action. While the book isn't really about barefoot running, it figures into the overall story and thesis. Although it's non-fiction, the writing is very good and the inter-woven plot and colourful cast of characters makes it read like a novel. Audible also carries it if you prefer an audiobook format.

Barefoot Running University. Jason Robillard has a website and a book / ebook. Both provide great guidelines on the nuts and bolts of becoming a barefoot runner. Look for the second edition of the book, which is much meatier and costs the same as the first.

Barefoot Running Shoes. Descriptions, photos, information and reviews of minimalist footwear for running.

Birthday Shoes. A comprehensive Vibram Five Fingers fansite with information, reviews and tips.

Living Barefoot. A website, but more importantly a podcast which has some good interviews with interesting folk in the barefoot "movement," or just normal joes with unique barefooting experiences.

Is it the shoes? It's gotta be the shoes. A clear, convincing YouTube video comparing shod and unshod running form in the same runner.

"The Barefoot Book: 50 Great Reasons to Kick Off Your Shoes" by L. Daniel Howell. I've not read this book, but I'm told it's a full of great diagrams and explanations of the anatomy, physiology and biomechanics of the foot, and why shoes work against all that natural design.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Photo day

It was family photo day. A strange day. Strange beginnings, strange light, strange weather, strange happenings.

It started for me at around 6 a.m., in the back of the van. Erin and I had driven her to Calgary for an extra lesson. All her maniacal practicing has left her sorely in need of some instruction, so we squeezed a trip to Calgary in during her three days off work. We decided that since it was summer, and there were just the two of us, we should save motel money and just sleep in the spacious back of the van. It worked really well. Neither of us being six feet tall, we were able to stretch out quite comfortably after stowing the third-row seats and flipping the middle-row seats out of the way. With Thermarests, pillows and sleeping bags, we were quite comfortable. We know the highways to Calgary well and were pretty sure we'd be able to find good (free) places to "camp" in the van.

As it turned out we had great luck finding places. I followed a hunch, turned off the highway, and almost immediately stumbled upon something just right. The first night we ended up right alongside the Kicking Horse River. Beautiful, and with a washroom with plumbing nearby and trains rocking and squeaking by in the night. We were utterly alone and it was a fabulous spot. Last night we were at Halfway Creek, close to home but a welcome spot for two people just about nodding off in transit. Someone else had snagged the spot right on the creek but we had a private mossy treed area and the sounds of the creek. So that's where we awoke this morning.

We climbed into the front seats and drove the rest of the way home this morning. Unpacked the van. Filed away the half-dozen novels I'd bought at Chapters in Calgary. Put the leftover food in the fridge.

I went for a tempo run. I'm in Week 8 of a 10-week running schedule prior to the Rocky Mountain Half Marathon. I wore my Vibram Five Fingers KSOs, which I haven't in a while since I've been taking every suitable opportunity to run barefoot, using my Nikes for the really wild and wooly stuff. But this was supposed to be a hard fast run and I needed to do it on a trail since the sun was beating down on the roads. I knew I couldn't run anywhere near fast enough barefoot, but the trail wasn't too knarly so I donned the KSOs. Ended up with the beginnings of a blister on my big toe, but that won't be a problem since I likely won't need to run in the KSOs for a while. The trail had a gradual rise and fall to it, and it was hot, and I've been off caffeine for a week, so I wasn't quite as fast as I'd hoped ... but I managed over 6.5 km in 35 minutes which isn't bad for me under those conditions. I'm being very careful not to push myself too hard: it was August last year, in the hope of running a fall Half Marathon, that I injured my hip. I don't want any repeats of that!

After my run I came home, showered, and then we put a picnic dinner in the van and all drove up to Summit Lake where we were meeting a photographer/friend for a family photo shoot. We hadn't got anyone to take pix of us as a family since well before Fiona was born. We arrived. The weather looked threatening, so we decided to get some photos before digging into the food. The photographer pointed us to a bench/dock thing at the side of the lake, and suggested we sit down in a row on it. As we were just moving over about to do so, there was a crack and she yelled "Oh God!" and a pretty large rotten birch tree fell down right on the dock where we'd been about to sit.

We laughed pretty hard about that after we got over the shock. Wondered cynically what it would have been like if we'd been a minute earlier and had managed to immortalize our family of 6 in a photo seconds before we'd become a family of 5, or 4.

So we managed a bunch of photos without any fatalities. And then it poured rain, and thundered plenty, and we drank wine and ate dinner under a gazebo. We wandered around and picked up a few of the hundreds of tiny toads roaming the shores of the lake and watched them climb and jump. Each one is about a centimetre long. And then we came home as the skies cleared. Saw a lovely rainbow.

While Fiona and I were practicing with our new hourglasses (10 minutes, 5 minutes and 3 minutes respectively, assigned to different violin tasks here and there as appropriate), we looked out the window and noticed the sky. It had got seriously dark again. The last sunlight was streaking across onto the northeastern slopes of the mountains, but the clouds were dark and ominous. Such brightness in front of all that mounting nasty weather. The photo above doesn't do it justice.

A few minutes later it began to hail. Sophie and Fiona headed outside with a sieve to catch some, and the dog skulked inside.

Now it's dark. The nasty weather has abated. Surprisingly the power hasn't gone out. We've watched our BSG episodes and it's time to start one of our new novels as a bedtime story.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First bit of cobbing

The power went out today, so we abandoned laundry and cooking and went outside and did a little work on the oven. We did a final laying out of the firebricks, adding a fourth brick to the front edge to accommodate future extra-large pizzas, and changing their orientation slightly. We tamped them down gently with the butt end of the wooden handle of a hammer to set them nicely into the compacted sand beneath.

Then we mixed up a small batch of cob. For our clay we eventually decided that a mix of 2 parts sand to 1 part clay was right. Or maybe 2 and a bit parts of sand. We mixed that together with some water, and folded in a bit of straw for tensile strength.

The idea today was to create a ring of cob around the fire brick to secure it during construction of the oven. We'll need to fuss around a lot on top of and around the fire brick to build the dome-shaped sand form, and to secure a thermal layer of cob over top of that. It won't be until the final thick insulating cob layers that the fire bricks will end up completely covered and enclosed in the walls of the oven. So in the meantime it's good to help them stay perfectly put by enclosing them in a ring of cob. It also gives us a chance to test out our cob-mixing ratios with a small batch. We mixed this batch in the wheelbarrow and it worked out well. Next time we'll be doing much larger batches and we'll mix on a tarp on the ground -- with our feet!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ten hours

Yesterday Erin practiced longer than usual. She did 10 hours. That's up from her "usual" (of late) 4-8 hours a day. She normally has a bit of a burst of motivation after the summer music school weeks. But this much? It's almost unprecedented. Three years ago, delighted by the prospect of a new violin teacher and lessons in Calgary, she practiced 3-4 hours a day for a while. Since then her typical pattern has been 1-2 hours a day with occasional runs of missed days. Sometimes 3 hours. But rarely more.

So what happened? Well, she had a great week at SVI. Especially being part of the Advanced Chamber Music program, and performing the Mendelssohn Octet. And afterwards the social connections, friendships new and old and renewed and deepened, continued to give her the sense of belonging to a wonderful musical community. Several of the other ACM participants either live in the area or were able to spend additional time here afterwards.

During the VSSM week that follows SVI, Erin was to do only an hour a day of chamber music, on piano. But at the last minute I managed to slot her in for a couple of private violin lessons, one with Gwen Hoebig. Gwen must have been impressed with her, because she not only gave her the gears about not having specific plans for a post-secondary performance music program at a good university, but gave her advice about where to go and who to study with, and offered her letters of recommendation. This is big. The letter of recommendation offer especially.

Erin has received a lot of encouragement from various teachers over the years, but almost all of them have been friends of her mother's and/or grandmother's long before she studied with them. To get this kind of validation and encouragement from someone who not only is a leading light in the development of young violin talent in the country but who is an objective outsider, meant a lot, and it came at the perfect time for Erin. With two years left in her high-school-aged education, she has just enough time to make good on Gwen's advice.

And the result is shown above. Erin hasn't had a regular lesson since mid-June. Since then she's expanded her task list of assigned repertoire, studies and technique to include ongoing polishing of previous repertoire with a view to an early-winter full-length recital, repertoire she knew her teacher had in store for her for the fall and winter, and an ambitious array of extra-challenge repertoire that's she's set for herself, stuff like the Kreisler Tambourin Chinois and the Bach Chaconne. If you wondered how a 16-year-old can fill 45 to 50 hours of practice time a week without any lessons, this is how.

The result of Gwen's encouragement also shows in Erin's school plans. Although she's been attending school part-time for a couple of years, she was until recently still hedging her bets on whether she was going to pursue requirements for a graduation diploma. Her reasons for taking courses at school used to be about providing some challenge and structure to her learning and some time away from home in an academic environment. But recently a new reason has percolated to the surface and taken on primary significance. She's going to school so that she can graduate with the diploma that will simplify her admission to her music performance program of choice. She told me recently that she would like to work hard at school, in the self-paced independent study program she's been part of all along, in order to complete almost all her required credits this academic year. For her this means immersing herself in a full-year course for two or three weeks and completing it in one fell swoop, then moving immediately on to the next one. This will allow her much more time in her Grade 12 year to focus on violin, working up her audition to as high a level as possible.

I don't doubt that she can do whatever she sets her mind to. And she is certainly setting her mind to this!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fire brick

Finished the foundation for the earth oven today, packed it with drain rock and sand, levelled the sand and placed 21 fire bricks on top.

Once the weather cools off and I have a free day and a few free helpers, we can get busy building the dome form and applying the thermal layer of sand and clay. With the 30ºC-plus days we've been having lately I know that it would be a losing battle trying to keep the sand and cob wet enough to work properly. Once it feels like fall, we can get busy with the next stage.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

In our outdoor oven

... we will bake things like this. Not yet, mind you -- it'll take at least a few weeks to finish and cure. But eventually this is the sort of thing we hope to plunge into its fiery cave. Flatbread glazed with olive oil, topped with fresh basil and tomato slices, garlic, avocado and a little mozzarella, drizzled with a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar.

We are on a huge fresh basil kick here. How good is fresh basil in a simple tomato-and-mayo sandwich? Or in a grilled cheese? Especially a grilled cheese made on the herbed French loaves Noah has been baking for us lately. Hopefully he'll keep up his bread-baking once we have the outdoor oven working.

Right after the flatbread/pizzas are baked we will insert Sophie's cinnamon buns. She's really good at these! They're as decadent as anything, especially once the butter-cream-cheese frosting is applied, but they are definitely worth the guilt.

Cinnamon Buns

For the dough:
1 cup warm milk
2 eggs
1/3 cup softened butter
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbsp. yeast
4 1/2 cups flour

For the filling:
1 cup brown sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
A little extra butter

For the frosting:
3 oz. (100 g) softened cream cheese
1/4 cup softened butter
1 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/8 tsp. salt

Mix first five dough ingredients together in a large bowl. Pitch in yeast and stir. Add flour a cup at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon or eventually kneading with your hands. Knead thoroughly as you get to the last half cup of flour. You may need a little more or less depending on the hardness of your flour; dough should be just barely not sticky, and not stiff.

Leave dough covered in a warm place to rise until doubled. Punch down and allow to rise a second time.

Turn out on a lightly floured surface and allow to rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix together cinnamon and brown sugar for filling.

Now roll the dough out to make a rectangle approximately 16 by 21 inches. Lightly spread softened butter over the surface. Sprinkle evenly with cinnamon/sugar filling. Roll up dough and pinch seam. Lightly butter the outside of the log. Cut into 12 slices. Place rolls in a lightly greased 9x13 baking pan, cover and let rise until nearly doubled -- about 30 minutes.

Bake at 400ºF for about 15 minutes, or until golden brown. While rolls are baking, make the frosting. Beat together butter and cream cheese, add vanilla and salt, then mix in confectioners sugar.

Allow rolls to cool down a bit on a rack, then spread frosting on warm rolls. Serve!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Stone by stone

Upwards it grows, a bit at a time. It's back-breaking work, what with all the squatting and shovelling and lifting, but rewarding too. I do need photos to see the progress, though, because it's too gradual to appreciate when I'm immersed in the work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sushi night

During the summers we don't get to a grocery store very often. The last time I did a true grocery shopping was a week and a half before SVI started ... almost four weeks ago. We have been eking things out by shopping at the sparse Friday Market, making occasional convenience store purchases, and raiding our basement pantry for staples. Creativity has been called for.

Today I managed to roll out a sushi dinner. Some of the sushi was traditional nori-wrapped rice and veggies. Some of it was tomagoyaki-wrapped rice and veggies. And the coup de grace was the green pea patties. Everybody here likes these, which is quite a feat in a family of picky eaters.


1 large egg
1 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. sugar

Whisk together thoroughly. In a cool large oiled skillet pour the mixture in and use a spatula or spoon to encourage the puddle to assume a rectangular shape in the same proportions of a piece of sushi nori. Now increase the heat beneath the skillet to cook the mixture until firm. Remove from heat, allow to cool. The rectangle can now be treated (gently!) like a piece of nori and used to roll up rice and fillings, then sliced into 6 pieces.

Alternatively, tomagoyaki can be folded or rolled up upon itself with no fillings and served as a snack food. We were into bento-style lunches for a while and cold tomagoyaki is a good protein-laden lunch box finger food.

Green Pea Patties

2-3 cups of frozen peas
1 Tbsp. tahini
1 tsp. black olives
2 Tbsp. flour
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. dried onion flakes
1 tsp. dried garlic flakes
3 Tbsp. chia seeds (or poppy or sesame)
1/2 tsp. salt
Oil for frying

Add a bit of water to the frozen peas and bring to a boil in a saucepan. Simmer 5 minutes. Drain.

In a food processor add the cooked peas to the next five ingredients. Purée.

Combine onion and garlic flakes with chia seeds and salt on a small plate. Place a generous tablespoon of pea mixture on top of the coating mixture. Flatten slightly with a fork and flip to coat the other side in seasonings as well. Fry in a small drizzle of oil on both sides until golden brown. Lovely hot or cold. Great in lunches too. Makes a dozen.

Both of these recipes were inspired by similar ones at justbento.com.

Oven foundation

In the heat of a 30-plus degree sunny day we began work on the foundation for our earth oven today. I've been collecting rocks along the roadside for weeks, ones with nice parallel surfaces and flat faces. I'm not sure we have enough but we got started today anyway.

We're using lime mortar between the rocks for extra strength. Our stone masonry skills certainly aren't good enough to have the whole thing level and stable using friction alone. We're filling the centre with drain rock as we go to help support the masonry rock.

So far with the exception of a bag of lime we've used entirely scavenged materials. We'll use some clay and straw we bartered from friends for the cob itself.

I'm happy with how it's looking so far. Fiona is of the opinion that the entire area around it needs to be done in flagstone. She's probably right. You can see in this photo that the flagstone really wants to form a patio to connect the deck to the oven space. That will entail a lot more roadside scavenging, probably best done in spring after winter has loosened a fresh bunch of slatey rocks from the slopes near Retallack.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Cheese Stands Alone

Our cheese is now a month old. It has been coated in fetching red cheese wax and has been sitting in a dark cool crawl space adjacent to our basement foundation for a month now. Probably it should be somewhere cooler, but so far it's free of mould. Perhaps we'll move it to the fridge.

It is a rather diminutive disc, considering that we started with a gallon of milk. The container it's in is a snug fit for a sandwich, if that gives you an idea of the scale. Even if small-scale cheese-making isn't an efficient use of time or resources, it has been fun and instructive to experience the process first-hand.

Monday, August 09, 2010


This was one of the first chamber works I learned as a teen in the program I grew up in, so it holds a special place in my heart. I played Viola 1, my first-ever viola gig, in a chamber group with my two brothers and six or eight other kids I grew up with. It's always been my most quintessentially joyful music, and ever since I got my first Sony Walkman I've kept this piece on hand as an emergency cheerer-upper. I also own an Academy of Ancient Music recording of it at a tempo of exactly quarter-note to 90, which means eighth-notes run at 180 per minute, making it a perfect addition to my running mix, barefoot running being a short-stride rapid-turnover sort of affair. 

So I was probably as excited as the kids that they got to play it this summer. Their quartet and octet preparation took a lot of energy, so the Brandenburg got short shrift, but when they first ran through it with the group last Friday night they dug right in. Less than two days later they performed it at the opening event of the main SVI week. As above. 

Sophie's Beethoven Quartet

It was a big piece for an 11-year-old, one with little chamber music experience and none from the 1st violin chair of a string quartet. But she sure rose to the challenge! I was so proud of her assertive playing and her cues and leadership.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Mendelssohn Octet

Seven years ago my dad was dying of lymphoma. He organized a family reunion that summer, bringing my sister, my brother and his family from Ontario, and my other brother and his family from England. The anchoring event for the reunion was a "performance" of Mendelssohn's Octet. My dad loved the rare occasions when his whole family had played chamber music together, and with us widely dispersed geographically, the Mendelssohn seemed a fitting large-scale work to celebrate us being drawn together again, one last time. My sister, my mom and my brother played violin, joined by a friend from Nelson. My sister-in-law and I played viola, and my brother and a local friend played cello. We held one hilarious and chaotic rehearsal and then the next day we played through the whole thing under the tea-house pagoda at the local Japanese garden. Erin and Noah were 9 and 6 at the time. They remember it well.

This summer they performed the Mendelssohn Octet themselves. Erin, Noah, two other local kids, three friends from the Okanagan and another cellist who spends summers half an hour away were placed together in an octet during the SVI. They spent the week in master classes, group classes, choir, orchestra rehearsals, and rehearsing the octet's magnificent first movement. And they performed at the final Ensembles Concert. My dad would have been so proud to see the next generation taking on this great work a mere seven years later!

Thursday, August 05, 2010