Sunday, January 29, 2012

Running mileage

Here is my running mileage during 2011 and thus far in 2012, broken down by month. At least, these are the runs I used my Garmin for -- most of them, to be sure.

There are two obvious nadirs. One was in August/September, when I hurt my foot. I did a lot of biking during that time, but didn't run for about 7 weeks.

Then there's last winter, shown at the beginning of the graph. Winter is a tough time to run around here. The trails are inaccessible, the road is gnarly and slushy and slippery and boring.

Which is why I'm pleased with my mileage this year. It hasn't been easy. The treadmills at the fitness centre are both broken so I'm stuck with the outdoor conditions, whatever they are. I've run in -23ºC temperatures, in fog with driving sleet, through mounds of slush, across gleaming slopes of ice, through snow that had me high-stepping, I've developed an appreciative relationship with the snowplough crew whom I tend to see most days lately (I cross the road, they honk and wave thanks, I wave thanks), I've arrived home soaked to the skin or with heaps of snow piled on my shoulders and head. January last year I ran 5 km. This year I'll have run 250 km by the end of the month.

My beloved Minimuses are beginning to fall apart after about 700 km of use. I can't wait to pick up a pair of Minimus WT Zeros, the upcoming, even-more-minimalist shoe due out in March or April. I'll have to come up with something in the meantime. I've noticed that my Merrells tend to trigger my Achilles tendonitis, so I've set them aside for now. I'm thinking of picking up some New Balance WT110s. They're the evolved descendant of the WT100s I bought a year and a half ago, enjoyed for a few weeks and then surrendered to Erin, who needed them more than I did, liked them a lot and continues to run in them. I liked them during my brief stint with them in 2010, and I think I'll probably like the pared-down newer model even better.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Math Watershed, the 4th Edition

The math watershed occurs in our family when the kids finish the Singapore Primary Math program. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd editions of the math watershed occurred around age 10 for my three elder kids respectively. That was too young for a traditional academic high school program, especially after the friendly, unintimidating, low-repetition approach of the Singapore Primary consumable workbooks. We made a lot of stabs at finding the right next step and I really didn't feel like I found the right approach with any of them. There was a lot of fallow time, a lot of treading water, or starting out one direction and then back-tracking. Eventually they all sidled into Canadian high school math courses just fine, but there was 3-4 years of aimlessness before they developed the maturity to tackle them.

When Fiona finished Singapore Primary Math at age 8, I felt it was even more important to find a suitable next step, since she was even younger than her siblings, and very keen on continuing her formal math work. So neither of us was really willing to wait through 5 or 6 years of aimlessness.

So far we've been thrilled with Challenge Math by Ed Zaccarro. At the top of the cover it says "Math is often taught as all scales and no music. This book contains the music!" It's a very apt description. It's intended to provide enrichment for children in Grades 4 through 9. Fiona fits smack in the middle of that range in terms of her math level (~Grade 7-ish) and the book is perfect for her. It has a friendly layout with occasional yet undistracting cartoon characters offering insights and fun quips. It isn't overly dense. The problem sets are appropriately varied and sometimes humorous. (eg. A snail-year correlates with a light-year, being the distance a snail can travel in a year.) There are "Einstein problems" for extra challenge, which Fiona seems to be managing just fine. And the concepts and problem-solving approaches are explicitly taught with clarity. Yet it has a more textbook-ish mature format than the Singapore Primary workbooks, and it requires more in the way of creative synthesis of skills and ideas.

I have a feeling that this book (and perhaps one or two of the others from Zaccarro's series) will provide the perfect segué into one of the Singapore secondary programs for Fiona. We'll likely give New Syllabus Math a go, one of the newer secondary programs, which has consumable workbooks and a less dense presentation than NEM or NMC. I expect Fiona will spend a year or so expanding her ability to apply K-7 math skills to deeper and more complex problem-solving through Zaccarro's books and then she'll jump into high school materials very well-prepared.

Best Pizza

 We make pizza almost once a week around here. It's a flexible go-to meal for us. So long as someone takes ten minutes to get the dough started sometime between 2:30 and 4:30 pm, it's a quick and easy meal that we can all pitch in to get made in less than half an hour (plus baking time).

Over the years our toppings have gone through many evolutionary steps. There were the early years when certain kids would not eat anything that wasn't approximately white, so we'd cook one pizza with only cheese, just a molecular layer of marinara sauce, and sometimes a sprinkling of corn kernels. There were the years none of the kids would eat mushrooms, or olives, or peppers ... and so we made one of two pizzas with those things omitted. And then when we had a mix of vegetarians and carnivores, we would have a veggie pizza and one with half meat.

Now with more mature tastes and the demise of our vegetarian ways, anything goes. And this week we adapted one of our favourite panini recipes to the top of one of our pizzas. (The panini omits the marinara sauce and mozzarella cheeses.) The pizza toppings are:

  • caramelized onions with a sprinkling of balsamic vinegar, 
  • chopped dried figs, 
  • spicy beef or pork sausage of some sort, 
  • fresh spinach and 
  • a sparing mix of cow mozzarella and goat chèvre cheeses. 

1-1-1-1-1-Enough Pizza Dough
1 cup lukewarm water
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. instant yeast
enough flour to make a just-barely-no-longer-sticky dough

Mix, adding flour gradually. Stand mixer with dough hook makes it easy. Allow to rise covered in a warm place until doubled. Punch down, roll/throw/stretch out. Makes enough dough for one 16" pizza.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Using school to fit our needs

Compared to what the kids' educations looked like several years ago, things are much more varied and piecemeal these days. I used to have four kids hanging out and playing at home and in the community, pursuing learning entirely outside of the sphere of influence of school. Now very much fall within the sphere of influence of the school and its community.

I've always liked our local school. A lot. And not just for its community-mindedness. It's staffed by good people who do good teaching. Not necessarily in a format that was more appropriate for my kids than our unschooled home-based learning, but good stuff nonetheless. And therefore when Erin, and then Sophie, and then Noah, decided that they wanted a change of format and were welcomed with such positivity and open-mindedness, I was thrilled for them.

It's semester's end this week, and I'm thinking about how school has become such a part of our lives in unique flexible ways that suit our family.

Sophie is going through her first slate of exams. Two yesterday, and two today. She entered with more trepidation than the endeavour deserved, she's realized. Her experience thus far has showed her that diligence during the term combined with a bit of preparatory review makes the exam-writing itself un-stressful and leads to excellent results. No big deal! She'd been hearing warnings and negative things about exams from other students but has found the experience simple and gratifying. She'll have tomorrow off school and we'll probably head to the ski hill.

Academically Sophie is a grade level ahead in a couple of courses and "on grade level" in the rest. Overall she's not particularly challenged, and her teachers do recognize this, but she is enjoying the experience and the fact that top marks are easily within her grasp. I'm not sure whether she'll continue to be happy toeing the standard school line, but I suspect she will. If not I know that the school will work with her to give her what she wants.

Noah is also having his first exams. He's harder to read, and hasn't received any results yet, but he seems to be coming through things with a can-do attitude and no undue worries. This was the guy who used to break down in tears when his piano teacher suggested playing a game that involved scoring his note-naming ability each week. He seems to have grown into the maturity necessary to deal with having his learning performance judged and graded. He's in school part-time, and despite a heavy schedule this semester his school schedule will drop back to mornings only after next week.

Both kids benefit from the innovation and flexibility of the school in pursuing their interests. Tuesday afternoons they take a block out of school to get to Corazon rehearsals. Next week they'll be doing a week-long photography workshop, using film cameras, making pinhole cameras, getting into a darkroom for some vinegar-scented experience there as their elective week. They're always welcome to miss school days to pursue music trips or whatever. And next semester Noah will be earning credit for PE, Digital Media and Science for his home-based learning, making use of school facilities as he wishes.

Erin's program with the school was a part-time one the past three years, similar to what Noah is doing now. She has proven herself to be highly capable and driven to achieve, with a healthy attitude to any necessary hoop-jumping. This year she's not present at all in the school but she's doing four or five courses electronically through the school and hasn't done much on any of them. First she had 6 weeks of internet access issues. Then she headed into preparation for auditions in January and February and the tour to China in December-January. So she's only put a small dent in her course-work. And her teachers are fine with this. They know that when she says she'll get around to working seriously on the courses after the McGill audition in late February, she'll do it, and move ahead really quickly. She's earned their trust.

Fiona is currently enjoying just the right balance of home and out-of-home experiences, several of which involve the school or people from the school. On Monday she attends the Summit Strings rehearsal with her siblings and another teen. On Tuesday she travels to Nelson with four to six teenagers from the school and stops along the way for Corazon rehearsal. Wednesdays have been ski days this month, putting her at the ski hill with the entire K-7 student body from the school, plus a handful of homeschoolers, for lessons and fun skiing with friends and family. Alternate Wednesday afternoons mean Suzuki group class held at the school. Thursdays are home-based, and Fridays often are as well, but she's often ready for a bit of time at home by that point in the week. Noah is home more on those days, so there's company. And some weeks include Friday homeschool activities hosted at the school: either meetings with our liaison teacher or day-long art workshops with the other local homeschoolers.

The amount of structure created by our out-of-home commitments helps to structure Fiona's at-home time as well, since we have to be intentional about those things or they won't fit. Recently we've been starting the day with some snowshoeing around the property, violin practicing, and then some math bookwork and hands-on chemistry. World geography is an interest these days, fuelled by our read-alouds and by the large flat-screen TV Chuck bought in the after-Christmas sales. BBC's "Human Planet" and Discovery's "Atlas" series are being much enjoyed.

Most days I drive to and from the school at least twice, often three or more times what with various drop-off and pick-up times and extra activities. While I don't relish the driving, I do like the way the school can serve different functions and roles for my different kids at different times, so that it works like a buffet of possibilities.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Erin arrived from China a week ago. She'd been there on tour with her orchestra and was on her way back to Montreal, by way of "home" in the Kootenays for a week or so. She had picked up a killer cold in China and spent the better part of the week recovering from that and from the loss of a day and a night or two what with the jetlag, dateline, red-eye flight and the inevitable sleep deprivation of a tour. She brought back photos of the terra cotta army and the Great Wall, as well as of smoggy cities, video arcades in dodgy underground plazas where she fascinated the Chinese teens with her mastery of the motocross game or some-such, markets, plazas, beaches and the like.

I killed chickens. After being vegetarian for the better part of 20 years and having two or three other avowed veg-heads in the family, I was betrayed last summer when both Erin and Sophie decided to start eating meat. My own vegetarianism suddenly seemed like rather a large family inconvenience. So I decided that if I could make my peace with the whole farmyard to table business by immersing myself in it, I'd feel okay about parting from my vegetarian ways. The task I set myself was to kill our own surplus chickens. I selected three of our now-maturing roosters, inverted them in a killing cone so that they settled into somnolence, cut their jugulars, bled them out, dipped and plucked and gutted and dressed them. Into the freezer they went.

We ate one as part of our Festivus Fondue Feast, along with plenty of cheese and veggies and some venison sausage from a friend. I'm not sure I would have been ready to eat it right after the butchering, but the couple of weeks in the freezer allowed some emotional distance for me. I ate it. It was yummy. I feel like an honest carnivore now.

Festivus was great. It snowed a delicious 35 cm of light-as-a-feather white snow overnight and through the day. It was the first big snowfall in a couple of weeks. "It's another Festivus miracle!" said Fiona.

I worried that the lack of all the decorations and music and traditional Christmas rituals would keep it from being special enough, but it was fine. We started the day with fresh-baked cinnamon buns. We opened gifts. Fiona gave me a set of six computer-printed coupons for Free Massages courtesy of herself (she gives great massages!). She imprinted my name on them so they couldn't be stolen and redeemed by other family members. "And," she warned me, "I deleted the file on the computer so you couldn't print any extras." She's got really good business sense, this girl!

The Fondue Feast was swiss cheese to start with veggies and meat, and then chocolate with fruit to finish. After the Feast, we held the Airing of Grievances during which, according to the Seinfeld episode in question, "you state all the ways that your family members have disappointed you over the previous year." Kind of a dangerous place to go, but the kids handled it with humour and sensitivity and a sense of good fun. I'm thankful we never got to the feats of strength, though there had been talk of tickle fights in lieu.

Then we finished the evening by listening to Erin practice the Bach Chaconne in the kitchen.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Settlers of Catan. Still a favourite.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Winter feet

As I started thinking about the question of whether it would be possible to run the Vancouver marathon barefoot I realized that the big problem was going to be conditioning the soles of my feet in time. During the winter I've normally just run in minimalist shoes, leaving barefooting as a warm-weather activity. But I can only count on the snow being gone from the roads for about 6 weeks before marathon day. I decided that if I wanted the possibility of running Vancouver barefoot, I should grab any opportunities I might get to shuck my shoes even in the winter.

We had a warm spell ast the very end of December when the temperatures got up to +3 or 4ºC. I managed to run short stints barefoot. I've continued to experiment with barefoot running at a variety of temperatures this past week. I've discovered some things.

First: Warm up before shucking the shoes. Somewhere between 1-2 km are required before my body cranks its furnace up and thoroughly warms my extremities. Keeping shoes on until that point usually eliminates any discomfort from the cold. If my feet get cold, they take a long time to warm up. If I keep my shoes on during the warmup my feet don't really get cold in the first place.

Second: Dry asphalt is a breeze. With snow piled up on both sides of the road, running at just above or just around the freezing point is a real challenge because the melting snow makes the road perpetually wet. Water sucks the heat out of your feet crazy fast. Dry asphalt at minus 5 is much easier to run on than wet asphalt at plus 1.

Third: No walk breaks! Walking means your foot is in contact with the ground for a considerably higher proportion of the stride cycle ... well over 50%. Running pushes that in-contact percentage well below 50%. The result is much warmer feet when running than walking. (Standing around, even for the few seconds it takes for the dog to have a pee, is of course even worse still.)

Fourth: Worse than water, snow or ice is the gravel they spray on the roads after a snowfall. This is what is really the limiting factor in the length of my runs. The highway I run on is steep, winding and little-travelled. This means that for safety a lot of sand and gravel are applied when it snows, and it tends to stay there. I have a feeling the streets and seawall of Vancouver will be a breeze after this.

I'm not going to risk frostbite or trenchfoot. But I am planning to try to get two or three short (1-3 km) barefoot runs in a week right through the thick of the winter. It seems quite do-able at this point. Hopefully once the weather starts warming up in March and April I'll be well poised to switch most of my running miles to barefoot.

On a more general running note, I've got my weekly mileage up over 50 km for two weeks already and am feeling good.   February should average about 60k/week, March 70k/week, April a little higher, but then tapering back.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Holidays 2011

There was no Christmas in this family. We went to my mom's and ate her turkey. But other than that, no Christmas. We're waiting for Erin to get back from China next week, when she'll stop in for a week's visit.

Irish Cream. We've been making it, 3 litres at a time and enjoying it a tiny glassful each of us each night after dinner. It needs to be refrigerated, but our fridge was very full, so we put it on the deck. One day there was only one jar there. We looked around and found an empty jar on the snow on the lawn with the lid chewed off. The dog was discovered to have a very raw-looking (much-licked) snout and a complacent demeanour. We have made more room in the fridge.

Chuck bought a big TV. We had been using an old 27" model that was deeper than it was wide. Now we have a wall-mounted 46" expanse of perpetual programming. I suppose the novelty will wear off and it'll get shut off from time to time. It'll be nice for DVDs and such, but so far it's not talking very well to the input components and we're waiting for a swanky HDMI cable that's on order.

Human Planet. Great new BBC series we've been watching, similar to Planet Earth and Life but focused on human adaptations and innovations in extreme environments. Looking forward to watching it on the TV. For now, my iMac suffices.

We killed animals. My way of making peace with no longer being a vegetarian (since I was the last holdout non-meat-eater in the family). I figured that if I could kill some of our chickens with my own hands and eat them, I could then eat meat in good conscience, in full appreciation of the ethical and practical implications. So today we killed our excess roosters.

I've been running. I managed to do 53k last week, plus some crosstraining. This week will be busier, so fewer miles, but I'm off to a good start.

The kids are back to school tomorrow. We'll celebrate Erin's birthday next weekend, Festivus the following weekend and Fiona's birthday the weekend after that.