Friday, April 30, 2010

Silted up

I love our water system, I really do. Our supply is gravity fed, fresh mountain spring water and it's free and plentiful and all ours. It comes from high up a mountain that has no human activity on it. It is to a certain extent surface water, though, so it does run the risk of silt and contamination from natural biological activity, so we have a set of four increasingly fine filters at various points. Good, plentiful clean water.

The disadvantage is that when it malfunctions it's all ours too. The first few years living here were really tough because of recurrent water woes. The guy who owned the property and maintained the water before us died, so there was no way for him to pass along to us the many secrets to keeping it working well. We knew there was a reservoir, and some sort of weird underground valve, some underground pipe and an intake pipe that came from "somewhere up there."

Gradually we figured out what the valve (and others we subsequently discovered) did, where the underground pipes were, and we followed the pipe up the mountain to find an intake bucket. But the water there was flowing out of another, larger and older underground pipe. Eventually Chuck found a neighbour who knew more or less where the primary intake was ... 15 minutes' walk up the mountain, through nettles and devil's club and over and under fallen logs.

These days appropriate maintenance has eliminated the winter freeze-ups we used to suffer from (and yes, I mean suffer... these were costly and time-consume to fix, and it is not with fondness that I recall melting and filtering snow for cooking and washing up, and banning toilet flushing, and "borrowing" showers and laundry facilities elsewhere). Winter has been good the past few years.

But I guess we'd kind of neglected the near end of the water system in recent years, the part safely buried deep in the ground, from the water-box reservoir to the house. Spring, when the volume and flow of the spring increases due to meltwater tumbling down Goat Mountain, is the troublesome time for the last 75 metres of our water system. And last week it silted up. Sophie, Fiona and I headed up to the box hoping the solution would be simple.

It was simple. But it was also pretty disgusting. There was a good foot and a half of silt in the bottom. And algae and other indefinable organic stuff was growing in the mound of silt around the outflow so that flow had completely stopped.

We set about vacuuming the silt out with a long piece of poly-pipe. I told Fiona "You suck." At first she was offended, but when she realized I meant she should suck on the poly-pipe to start the flow of silty goo through the siphon, she was blatantly unhelpful. In the end it was I who sucked. (And managed it without a mouthful, thank goodness!)

At times the silt was so thick it clogged the pipe and we had to bang and shake and fling to unclog it. We ended up emptying the entire contents of the reservoir down the hill. Twice. Water runs like crazy at this time of year, overflowing the various intakes and reservoirs to continue into the little creek, so we were just putting it back where it had come from.

We scrubbed down the walls of the water box with a long-handled push-broom, rinsed again, cleaned various filters and let everything fill up clean and fresh again, then opened the valves.

The girls had a blast building dams in the runoff, and ogling the silt. It smelled pretty awful, and looked disgustingly slimy as it accumulated. We were thoroughly grossed out.

But by the next day it had dried out and had taken on the appearance of something altogether lovely: black gold -- nutrient and mineral-rich decayed organic matter. Incredibly fine and totally free of weed-seeds. The best!

And so we scooped some up and brought it back and sprinkled it on our vegetable seedlings on the window ledge. And we'll go back with the wheelbarrow and get the rest to add to the garden beds in front of the deck.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Turning Japanese

There's a Japanese flavour to my children's lives. We live in a community that received, relatively speaking, a large influx of Japanese immigrants and nissei (2nd generation Japanese-Canadians) during WWII, when the Canadian government saw fit to intern them away from population centres on the west coast. Many internees put down permanent roots here, and we also have a wonderful community garden and a terrific museum and interpretive centre to memorialize and pay homage to their experiences. Summers bring taiko drummers, Nikkei centre reunions, Obon ceremonies. Then there are the Japanese roots of the Suzuki method of music education that we participate in, up to our necks. And there are the Japanese influences, cultural roots and language strongly visible in the practice of aikido at the local dojo. And our very small local high school (~ 45 students) hosted two Japanese exchange students for a couple of years, one of whom became a good friend of Erin's.

So it's not surprising that there was an interest in Japanese language here in our family. It has borne fruit particularly in Fiona, who thought that she would like to formally study Japanese this year. She decided that Rosetta Stone would form a nice spine to her studies, augmented by numerous other resources and exposures. We'd had the chance to try the demo in early 2009 and had had it on our wish-list for quite some time. Having bought second language resources in the past for various other children, I wanted Fiona to be sure that she would really make use of this before we took the plunge. A couple of months ago she'd decided that yes, Rosetta Stone was something she really wanted. We used her SelfDesign learning allowance to fund the purchase. The software arrived just before the music festival week, so we've finally had the chance to dive into it properly this week.

It's so much fun that we're both using it -- independently and together. There are sixteen lessons in Level 1 (of three levels, each considered roughly a year-long course of study) and we are only half way through the first lesson, but already I am amazed at how much we are both learning with all the enjoyable repetition. We are disciplining ourselves to use only kana (Japanese phonetic script) for the written text, unless we absolutely totally get stuck. We find the voice recognition aspect is alternately forgiving and oddly picky ... but that's less important than the fact that it often forces us to repeat things for its own strange reasons and makes us really listen to the reference pronunciation and be exactly in our own efforts to reproduce them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A taste of summer

It was that kind of a day.

A shorts and t-shirt kind of day.

A barefoot kind of day.

A kids on the dock kind of day.

A watch the bottom of the lake kind of day.

A dangle your feet in the water until they scream "bone pain!" from the cold kind of day.

A trampoline kind of day.

A water fight on the lawn kind of day.

A canoeing kind of day.

A driftwood swordfight on the beach kind of day.

A kayaking kind of day.

A beachcombing kind of day.

Not even the birch trees have begun leafing out, and not even my kids were willing to actually immerse themselves in the lake, but today was teasingly a lot like summer anyway.

Running barefoot

I've run tiny distances in my Vibram Five Fingers over the past week, and worn them around a bit to get used to them (and embarrass my children) but I hadn't done a proper run in them until today. I decided to do an easy 5k and see how it felt. It felt pretty good. My calves have to work harder, for sure, and I was feeling a bit of a strain in them by about two thirds of the way through, and I felt the beginnings of a blister starting on my big toe -- typical for running in a new pair of shoes. Other than that I felt just fine. The weather was fantastic. I wore shorts and a tank top and even walking through the shade during my warm-up I was plenty warm enough. We have entered the perfect running season here.

I decided to do a regular easy 5k run. I figured I'd be using new muscles and getting used to a new running style and therefore it would be good not to push things. I brought a little metronome along and used it to keep my stride cadence at about 184 per minute -- quick little strides that are much shorter than my usual heel-strike running style in my stability shoes. I found that felt pretty easy and natural once I got into the rhythm. I pushed things a little on the downhill but for the most part I kept my effort in the "moderate" range. When I got home I entered time and distance in my on-line log.

My regular 5k runs are shown above in green. The pink ones are the ones where I've pushed myself a bit, the "tempo runs." You can see that I typically run 9 to 9.5 minutes to the mile on my regular runs, and a bit under 9 minutes on my tempo runs. What amazed me is that today (shown far right) felt like a regular run, but plotted out as my fastest 5k run (8:40/mile) since I started back at regular running a couple of months ago. And that was despite the fact that I ran the last kilometer completely barefoot, and felt like I slowed down fair bit. My Garmin told me the truth. While the last km felt like a cool-down, it was exactly as fast as the previous four.

It seems that the less there is between me and the road, the faster I am, even though I don't feel like I'm giving things any more kick. This is very fun.


I write this blog for many reasons. Some are about the process, but several are also related to the product. The accumulated virtual scrapbook is an important memento of family activities, adventures, challenges and milestones. Important not just to me, and not just in a nostalgic way, but also to the kids and also in ways that reassure and re-affirm.

I sometimes worried that I didn't have a backup copy of the blog, that it could theoretically just disappear from the web with a server crash or a reconfiguration or something and all those precious mementos would be gone. I also like the idea of having a tangible record, something I can hold in my hand and flip through, sit on the deck or curl up in bed with, or show to others.

So a month ago I clicked "submit" at Blog2Print and ordered up hardbound volumes of my early blog posts. I put 2003-2006 in one volume, and 2007, the year I really got hard-core as a blogger, into it's own separate volume.

The books arrived today. They're beautiful. The paper and print quality is excellent, the photos are clean and clear, at least as much as my early low-resolution images would allow. The glossy cover is well-applied and attractive. The indexing is accurate. Each volume is about 200 pages. They weren't cheap, though compared to scrapbooking as a hobby they were certainly a reasonable alternative. My kids have already spent lots of time delightedly flipping through and reading aloud to each other from funny entries, enjoying the portrayals of their younger selves and the memories of things past.

If a virus eats Blogger it's okay now. Though I guess first I should get my 2008 and 2009 volumes ordered.


"So," I said at dinner last night to the assembled fam, "Looks like the iPad is will hit stores in Canada right around my birthday."

The reaction was not what I had hoped for. There was some eye-rolling and snickering. "Nice try," seemed to be the consensus.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Only in a small town can a guy roll in on Monday, visit with a few friends, offer to do a talk on wolves and a visit with his own "pet" wolf, and get a full fifth of the community's residents out to the event a mere two days later. Standing room only.

Fiona took this picture. She got up close and personal with Tundra. Heck, everybody did. Scrubs and cuddles and licks and sniffs and those piercing eyes looking as if into our souls. We learned a lot about wolf behaviour and about the complex ecology of top-order predators. Who'd have guessed that re-introducing wolves would produce massive increases in waterfowl populations? Why? Because without wolves, ungulates over-graze and prevent the growth of saplings that beavers rely on. Without beavers, wetlands are severely reduced. Without wetlands there are no waterfowl.

Tundra was a pretty amazing, magical creature. Her strength, intelligence, grace and alertness were so engaging. I was pleased that her owner spoke at length about why having a wolf for a pet is generally a really bad idea. The main reason he came back to was that the bond between himself as pack leader and the wolf is so strong that they simply cannot be parted. No flights, no non-wolf-friendly holidays, no pet-sitters. That and the four or more vigorous walks a day ... for up to 18 years.

There are wild wolves around here, though I've only seen one once -- a fleeting glimpse from a bridge. We're very glad to have met this one, even if she's a human-conditioned ambassador for the species rather than a wild animal.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Solo performances

The solo performances at the festival were also a very positive experience. The adjudicators were complimentary and encouraging of every last child, even those who didn't play very well or were struggling beginners. They gave every student some constructive feedback and often spent more time with the kids who might otherwise have felt a little out-classed in their group, bringing forth from them some really brilliant improvements. The atmosphere in the classes was so positive -- families and students high-fiving each other after performances, even if they'd never met before, lots of warmth and supportiveness.

I've already shared the Summit Strings Tango, which was played on the final Honours Concert. Noah and Fiona also played solos on that concert. The kids all got a little scholarship money. (Noah suggested he would like to use his money to bribe his teacher out of assigning him any more studies!) And Noah and Erin were chosen the Junior and Intermediate students recommended to the Provincial Festival. I think Erin would like to go. I know Noah is not keen. The festival is structured in a competitive fashion, which is something I swore we would not do until the teenage years. Time flies. I have two teens. We shall see.

And yes, I still have four children, but one has requested that her youtube video not be embedded here. It's easy to find for those so-motivated.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Pink Stuff for Pirates

Our favourite salad dressing is referred to as Pink Stuff for Pirates. I think it began because we were storing it in a used grocery-store salad dressing bottle with the surface layer of the label torn off, and I wrote "pink stuff" on it to distinguish it (as if it needed distinguishing, in all its lurid fuschia glory) from the "white stuff" ranch dressing also on the table when we eat salad at dinner.

My kids have a penchant for labeling all sorts of things with strange randomness. For instance we have a small jar which encloses a bag of bulk-bin ground cinnamon in the pantry which is labeled "ant farm project." They claim this will help prevent others from invading our home after any global political / environmental disasters and living off our stuff, because they won't know what is food and what is not.

Pink Stuff for Pirates is very popular here. Assuming you have an Asian grocery store where you can find the curiously strong Ume Plum Vinegar, it is easy to make.

Pink Stuff for Pirates

1/2 cup ume plum vinegar
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. dill
6-8 medium to large cloves of garlic
1 cup olive oil
1 cup light vegetable oil

Combine all ingredients in a blender and whizz until well puréed. Store in fridge in any appropriately-labeled container. The cranberries and garlic help keep it pretty well emulsified. The combination of oils helps keep this dressing from solidifying in the fridge.

Kids Seriously Over-embarrassed

These are my new running shoes. Except that they're not really shoes. They're more like rubber gloves for my feet. They're called Vibram Five Fingers, and are the KSO (for "Keep Stuff Out") model. The acronym also works for the title of this post, though, which is more to the point. I actually wore them to the Music Festival Honours Concert specifically in order to embarrass my children and they were effective to the extreme.

I read "Born to Run" a few weeks ago and it all made perfect sense to me: our bare feet were made for running. They have incredible natural bio-engineering in them -- arches and joints and nerve endings and natural flexibility -- all built for barefoot ambulation, and more to the point evolved to perfection for marathon-style "persistence hunting." Historically sandals or simple shoes provided some protection in cold climates and on very rough ground, and heels were useful with stirrups for horseback riding. Eventually, of course, they became part of a fashion statement.

But eventually, primarily within the last 40 years, we began raising the heel of our running shoes too and adding comfortable rubber/gel/foam/air cushioning underneath. This meant that running form changed. We began running with a heel-strike, i.e. landing on our heels rather than on the middle of the foot with its lateral and longitudinal arches and all the natural shock absorption and stability the foot as a whole is capable of. The heel is a round knob of bone and thick skin with no natural engineering for lateral stability or flexible shock-absorption. So it's not surprising that weird stresses from landing on that hard rounded knob began creating injuries in runners. Ilio-tibial band syndrome, shin splints, runner's knee. Here's a great video comparing natural running to running in cushioned motion-control shoes. Research shows that the stress on the knee is actually higher in runners wearing $100 shock-absorbing shoes than it is in the same people wearing nothing at all. Why? Because we run differently in expensive shoes. We run badly. Though this type of running form is considered normal now.

I am generally drawn to natural simplicity and even last summer, for reasons that weren't as much scientific as aesthetic, I began experimenting with barefoot running. However I got a nasty sharp thing buried in my sole at some point, so I bought some less robust shoes as a compromise. Then a few weeks later got the hip injury that was miraculously cured three months later by even more supportive and cushioning shoes. It seemed like a failed experiment.

But I think that I did two things wrong. First, I ran completely barefoot on trails without first conditioning my feet to outdoor barefootedness. And secondly, I did a lot of running in my minimally-cushioning shoes without changing my heel-strike.

So here I am again. I'm trying to learn to run with a mid-foot strike and a fast light cadence even in my Asics Kayanos, and then I'm using the sensory feedback I get through bare feet or the super thin Vibram Five Fingers soles to train the bottoms of my feet to feel the surface I'm running on and respond accordingly. So far I'm only running a couple of kilometres at a time in the VFFs. My calves are a bit sore from the extra work they do, and there are the inevitable almost-blisters that always come of getting used to a new running shoe. But the running itself feels light and comfortable. I'm hopeful. Hopeful that I can continue to create mortifying embarrassment for my children for years to come.

Music Festival 2010

Our region's Festival of the Arts took place this week. My kids played 22 selections total. A lot of music! Some were unaccompanied string solos, many were string solos with piano accompaniment (necessitating rehearsals with a lovely accompanist friend who came from her neck of the woods for the week), some were piano selections and some were chamber group music.

The atmosphere at the festival was fantastic. Over the past few years a new group of volunteers has taken the festival and moved it forward into a new, non-competitive style of vitality, collegiality and inspiring supportiveness. The adjudicators were fabulous. Both the strings and the piano guys were known to us through summer workshops so we even knew ahead of time that they were going to be fabulous, which really allowed everyone to feel confidently optimistic about the experience during the preparation and rehearsal phase.

The last time the festival took place, two years ago, it wasn't as excellent an experience for a combination of personnel-related reasons, but the mutually supportive atmosphere amongst the students and their families had really begun to take shape. And one of the results of sitting all day in the pews of a church whispering and sharing jokes and good feelings with other performers during the time the adjudicator was writing up her comments was that the students from our little town decided that they wanted to continue to do regular chamber music playing together. Summit Strings, formed in order to do one simple performance at that 2008 festival (see link above), became an ongoing affair and a continued commitment.

Over the past two years Summit Strings has grown in musical ability, maturity and sound, and they've also grown together as friends. It has been my privilege to be their coach and facilitator during this time. They are a small group of violinists (even smaller since two of them moved to Calgary this year), with Noah playing what would normally be the cello line on viola. They've played a wide variety of repertoire at a wide variety of venues, from local outdoor festivals to Suzuki institute concerts to community performances and dance workshops.

And so it seemed especially fitting that it was at the same music festival where the seed of Summit Strings had first been planted where they were asked, two years later, to take to the big stage and open the Honours Concert. They played their "party piece," a sweet little Tango by Michael McLean, with the bass line of the piano part played by Noah on the viola. This video is from the morning performance at the festival class. The Honours Concert performance was tighter and more exciting (partly because, at the adjudicator's suggestion we put Noah in the middle, an approach which worked really well) but the sound and video quality aren't nearly as good in the full, dark Capitol Theatre.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sunday bliss

My determination to grab some running time back from the constraints of our more structured approach to homeschooling is finally bearing fruit. I can often tear off for a quick 5k in the mid to late afternoons, or even, as the days get longer, in the early evenings.

A year ago when I started running I claimed the early mornings of odd-numbered days for myself. Now I am claiming every Sunday morning. Don't count on me before noon, kids.

And this photo is why. This is where I run. It's an old rail-grade trail. It runs from our little town along the lakeshore and past one tiny hamlet of a couple of dozen homes onwards north towards another hamlet. This photo is taken from the first hamlet looking back along the lakeshore towards our town. Fresh snow on the mountains, clouds alternately cloaking and revealing the peaks, beautiful warm sunshine on the foreshore, grouse and flickers and pine siskins and waxwings everywhere, the lake lapping at the stones on the beach, the smell of pine and cedar and humus and the sweet aroma of new birch buds.

It's my bliss, though also my agony. I'm running proper long runs these days: twelve, fourteen, sixteen miles and more. The better part of three hours most Sundays. I feel great while I'm running, though the last hill brings me back to reality. And afterwards I hurt. A good kind of hurt. Muscle exhaustion, occasional blisters, achy feet. I love the feeling of real physical fatigue I endure after lunch on Sundays. It's almost enough to make me want to take a nap. I eat some more and drink a London Fog or two instead.

I went running with a real runner this past weekend. A Suzuki-mom friend of mine recently moved to the town 40 minutes to the east, and she's a triathlete, personal trainer and running/cycling/swim coach by training. She's been doing some free running clinics, and I went over for Friday's session. I was the only person who showed up this time, it being Good Friday, cold and almost snowing and all. Which meant I got an hour of professional private coaching for free. Amazing! It was only the third time I'd ever run with someone other than Fiona and Sophie, and the first time I'd ever done so with an expert.

I had driven over with some trepidation, worried I'd discover I really sucked at running. She was very helpful and encouraging, though. We talked about hip rotation, quad vs. hamstring recruitment, posture, mid-foot strike, turnover speed. I discovered there's a fair bit that I'm doing right just by good luck, and that most of the things I'd been thinking about adjusting were along the right lines. She gave me some good drills and exercises.

I'm not really interested in going faster or farther. I mostly just want to ensure that I can do my regular runs without risk of injury, and continue to feel like I'm getting stronger and more efficient. I am becoming a committed trail runner. The roads here are almost like trails, being lonely and beautiful and steep, but I relish freedom from asphalt and even rare traffic that the trails give me.

I'm toying with trying some barefoot running, or at least minimalist-footwear running. Fiona wants to start running trails with me again, and her pace and stamina would be a good place for me to start with that. Stay tuned for more on that!