Thursday, February 17, 2005


We're getting our local gardening/environmental club off the ground here. So far it's a dozen kids and their parents, mostly from homeschooling families. Age-range is 6 to 12 with a couple of younger siblings hanging on the fringes. GRUBS stands for "Garden Rangers United in Bio-Sustainability". It's mostly just a play on SLUGS, which is the adult-oriented volunteer group which maintains the nearby community reflection garden. Their acronym comes from "Slocan Lake Garden Society".

I had minimal expectations for my own kids' enthusiasm. They tend to be rather low-key and resistant to anything that's organized by me; they may go along with it -- they may even enjoy it -- but they will keep up a veneer of annoyance or begrudgingness.

So I was pleasantly surprised to have them develop some real enthusiasm over the community garden site and the planning input they've been asked for. Our meeting last weekend started out with a bookbinding session, making simple nature journals. This was probably an ill-conceived task for a group where a lot of the kids were under 10 and needed a lot of direction. We managed okay, but it was a little chaotic and protracted. The results were fine though and the kids all ended up with a journal.

After we finished that, we headed out to the future garden site. Although it's technically still the dead of winter here it's been uncharacteristically warm for the last month and the site on the lakefront was clear of snow. Not only that but the sun came out and warmed everything. It was tantalizingly spring-like, the perfect weather for a first look-see at the site that belongs to the GRUBS as soon as we break sod.

The kids wandered around with pencils and maps of the site, collaborating spontaneously in small groups on design and organizational ideas. They chatted and paced out dimensions, they investigated the woods and the lakefront. They found a stick with wonderful clear marks of beaver activity and Noah deciphered the "nature story" ... the stick had been this way up, the beaver had gnawed here first until the sapling had fallen and cracked here, then the beaver had removed the side branches and taken the stick to his den area where he'd eaten the tender bark off. Figuring out "nature stories" is a tradition when we go for a walk as a family: any time someone sees evidence of animal activity we try to decipher who was there, doing what, in what order and why. The beaver stick was a great serendipitous GRUBS discovery.

Anyway my kids worked studiously away in their nature journals when we got home from the GRUBS meeting. Noah wrote down the names of some dye plants he wants to use. Erin recounted the details of the meeting. Sophie wrote down a description of the weather. Erin refined and edited and re-copied the blueprint of her collaborative garden plans.

I have very high hopes for this club. I had really expected to have to win my kids over gradually though. It was nice to see the excitement there already. Our next meeting is in 2 weeks.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

My watchdog

Lately I've been concerned that the kids are using the computer way too much. They recently bought a copy of Zoo Tycoon 2 which led to a set of computer upgrades and a fast new machine which they then decided warranted a purchase of Sims 2. The graphics are scintillating and they're understandably enthused. But their computer use just continues to escalate, and with these new, full-3D games, there's not nearly as much imagination coming from them. When they use older, simpler programs, they tend to make up long involved stories and create things to a much greater extent. These new programs create such powerfully realistic worlds for them that at this point at least, they're just revelling in the computer's imagination. Sigh.

When I started thinking about what I should do to reduce their use I had to be honest and look at me first. I'm not a great model. I can easily spend 6 or 8 hours a day on the computer. I do a lot of 'work' there (arranging music for the community orchestra or the violin ensemble, creating or modifying websites for various non-profit organizations, journalling homeschooling stuff, publishing newsletters, etc.) but I confess that the internet has become way too much of a habit... dare I say an addiction. So I decided that rather than riding my kids to spend less time on the computer, I would ride myself and see if their use changed over the course of three months.

Trust me to manage my addiction to technology with more technology. I downloaded the demo of a program called "Watchdog" ( ). I can set up limits for my computer time in a number of ways. I can either set a total daily limit (with an "overdraft allowance" if I want), or a on/off plan (eg. 20 minutes on, then at least an hour off before I can log on). All this stuff can be modified by day of the week or adjusted during certain hours of the day.

I've tried a few different ways already and couldn't manage. With a 2-hour (and then 3-hour) daily limit I discovered that there were necessities that I just couldn't get done in that time limit on certain days (mostly web-publishing work). A 20/60 on-off plan didn't work because I need more than 20 minutes at a stretch from time to time (big up-loads, eg.).

Now what I've settled on is 2 unrestricted hours in the early morning so that if I'm up early before the kids I have a big chunk of time for big jobs, and then a 20/60 plan during the rest of the day. The on/off plan is great for me because my tendency is to get locked in to things, including the computer. Once I'm off doing other things I tend to get locked into them instead.
I may just have to buy WatchdogPC when the 30-day demo runs out. I've already increased my productivity around the house by more than the cost of the program :-).

BTW, the PC in WatchdogPC stands for Parental Control. I believe that refers to parents controlling their children, though in my case it refers to controlling the parent, LOL!

(7 m 43 s remaining on this login)

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Art and Music and the newly-2-year-old

Fiona came to orchestra rehearsal this week, with her tote-along package of paper, crayons and markers. She sat on the floor behind me (I'm the conductor) and scribbled away. At one point we were practising a piece called Toccatina with driving eighth-notes (quavers) running all the way through. Everyone loves playing this piece, and visually it's neat to watch with all the bows going back and forth together.

Apparently Fiona was quite struck by the rhythmic element, because when we stopped one of the teens in the orchestra mentioned that she'd been drawing using the same physical movement, matching the rhythm of the piece. I asked Fiona for her sketchbook and looked at what she'd been working on ... and there was the unmistakable pattern of the eighth-note rhythm on the page. Very cool! Normal she draws either loops and O's, or tiny, discrete letter-like scratches, so this was quite distinctive.

So I was reminded of the fun of 'drawing what you hear in music' which is a lovely process-oriented form of art that we did a fair bit of three years ago in preparation for the musical puzzle project. We'll have to do some of this again.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Musings on Adolescence

What a difference a year makes. Last year I would have been pulling my hair out over this; this year it’s just rolling off me.

Erin has a violin recital coming up in 6 days. In the past 10 days she’s practiced three times, slap-dash at that. Last week she did a similar sort of thing with piano ... she practiced twice between one lesson and the next and didn’t even touch on about half of her assignments. I didn't remind, I didn't nag, I didn't voice my frustration and anger. I just let it be. I confess that yesterday I had to actively resist the temptation of mentioning my concerns as we shared an hour-long drive to Nelson for piano lessons, but I managed without too much difficulty.

As we unpacked at piano lesson I said “Erin, did you want to talk to Anne about your practising?” Stony blank look resulted. “Did you have some trouble practising this week?” asked Anne. Ongoing blank look. “Let’s just say it wasn’t a terribly productive week,” I said casually, and left it at that.

From the next room I could hear the progress of the lesson. I could hear requests for things that hadn’t been practiced, fumblings about to nail the parallel sixths in complex keys that hadn’t been tried even once at home, the fact that her memorization of the Bach ran out after about 4 bars, the empty silence when she was asked about the quick-study that was in a book she hadn’t even brought, having forgotten it was assigned, the admission that she hadn’t tried the transposition exercises in her sight-reading assignments. I heard the gentle but firm re-iteration of her teacher’s expectations. At the end I saw that Erin had been asked to initial her practising assignments for the upcoming week to show that she agreed they were reasonable expectations that she agreed to. She and her teacher had worked together for an hour in an productive and co-operative fashion and ended in a cheerful frame of mind.

‘Nuff said.

I am managing to transfer some of the responsibility for things over to my newly-11-year-old and not grab it back in annoyance when she creates negative consequences by not handling it well. She needs to learn that the consequences are hers, and that she can deal with them and move on, learning from them in the process.

For years I’ve joked that my intention was to skip adolescence entirely in our family by keeping my kids children for as long as possible, and then giving them adult-type responsibilities and freedoms pro-actively and early, hastening their transition from childhood to adulthood. But secretly I worried that when it came time to give responsibility, trust and freedom to my kids that I would balk and resist their transition into more adult creatures.

So far, as Erin enters the peri-adolescent years, I think I’m doing okay, though. She’s far more independent with her music than most of her agemates, and than most Suzuki students of 11. I’ve discovered she’s reading adult novels, some of which contain fairly graphic sexual scenes, and I feel okay about that – I know we’ve talked about the moral and ethical context and implications of sexual relationships, that she has all the scientific knowledge she needs about sex, that she knows where to find more answers if she wants to explore for more information. I know that I am not dreading the awakening of her interest in the opposite sex. I know that I am comfortable trusting her to care for herself and her siblings, that my only qualms in leaving them home alone are concerning the reaction of a society that doesn’t think it’s safe for children to walk to school.

So perhaps there’s still hope that we will manage to compress adolescence into a transition rather than enduring a decade-long state of not-quite-adulthood.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


The kids have really been enjoying MadLibs lately. They keep a book of them in the van and when I stop for an errand they stay there doing a MadLib or two.

If you aren't familiar with these, they're a sort of activity book that uses grammatical terminology and printing skills and free-association-type creativity to create silly stories. It works best with 2 or more players. Initially the book instructs you to write down words of your choice, eg.
  1. occupation
  2. plural noun
  3. verb ending in -ing
  4. adjective
  5. exclamation
  6. adjective etc.
A scribe collects contributions for these from the audience. Then the scribe takes the list of words and inserts them in a story in the book according to the numerical list. The results are often very funny:
"One day a doctor was on his way to work when he came across some boots crying in the sun. They were very annoying boots. 'Ouch!' cried the doctor, 'these boots are fat.'"

Sophie is learning the main parts of speech, and I think Erin and Noah are gaining more of an understanding of them through explaining them to Sophie and experimenting with various words in these unusual contexts. You can buy books of MadLibs in the activity book section of bookstores.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Musical Things

Musically things are ticking along pretty well for all three kids. Erin is still mostly coasting along on violin but she’s decided to accept the invitation to play the middle movement of the Bach E Major Piano Concerto on the regional concerto concert late this spring. Normally students are in the 15 to 19 age-range when they are invited to perform at this venue (with a full orchestra to back them up, including some professional players) so it is a great honour to be asked, even for a relatively easier piece like the slow movement of the Bach, at the age of 11. She wasn’t sure she wanted to do it, being leery of the additional workload, but when assured that this would replace, rather than get appended to, some of her regular work, she agreed.

Noah’s viola playing is once again sounding like he loves the instrument. He’s getting real tone and playing with confidence again all of a sudden. It’s been almost 4 months since he hit a major slump, and I think he’s gradually coming out of it. With piano we’re still trying to find ways to allow him to work productively on his own (since he has meltdowns if I’m within earshot). I think we’re making progress on this one.

Sophie is doing very well on violin. She’s half way through her note-reading book, and will likely be more than ready to play in the entry-level pieces in the community orchestra by next fall. She’s moving through the early part of Suzuki Book 2 and playing with bigger sound and better posture and clearer tone every week.

Last week we went and played at the local nursing home for the first time in over a year. In the past we’d gone in as a violin group and played in the activity room as a sort of ‘concert’ for the residents. Last week we went with just one other family and did a much more informal program. The other family has a beginning violinist and two beginning pianists, all of whom are unschoolers and great friends of my kids. Everyone played one piece on each of their instruments by themselves, and then we paired the kids up for as many duets as we could muster, plus a couple of group pieces. We’d managed brief ‘rehearsals’ a couple of times on the shoulders of playdates, so the kids were fairly confident. We went in at tea-time instead of after school, being all homeschoolers, and the atmosphere was lovely. We used the little piano in the corner of the dining room. The residents sat and sipped and munched, and the kids provided meal-time entertainment in a warm, casual atmosphere. Much appreciation was expressed and when we left Noah said “that was way more fun than I thought it was going to be.” He’s keen, as are the other kids, to go back and do the same sort of playing on a regular basis. We’re thinking once a month would probably be good, though it may be twice a month. We shall see.

Erin and Noah have a piano-viola duet they’ve played a couple of times in the past, and Noah and Sophie have a piano-violin duet as well. They performed these at the nursing home and I was really impressed with how tight and musical these pieces are getting. Especially Noah and Sophie, for whom my expectations were not nearly as high. They’re playing one of Bach’s simple Minuets (“Minuet 1” in the Suzuki violin repertoire for those familiar with it). It is graceful and well in tune; Sophie’s tone is robust. Noah is comfortable and confident with the harmony. And most impressively, they communicate musically as they play ... if Sophie has an almost-imperceptible hesitation on a hooked bowing, Noah glances over instantly, and anticipates the next beat flawlessly so that they stay together. Noah hung on a cadence almost too long ... Sophie knew and waited just a smidge on the repeat, giving him a visual cue for the downbeat. Really amazing from a 6yo and 8yo.

So after they all played at the nursing home I suggested that they really ought to play their duets for discerning audiences as well and that I would like them to play in the Music Festival in April. They've been asked many times by their piano teacher to consider playing in the Festival but have been reluctant about the 4-hour round-trip, the extra preparation which would be involved and the unfamiliar format. But I offered them the other half day at the swimming pool and they jumped at it . While their piano teacher would love to see both Erin and Noah entered in multiple classes ("Bach, 14 & under", "Sonatina, 12 & under", "Concert Class, 8 & under" etc. etc.) and I'd love to see them doing at least something on violin/viola, our compromise is to try out just the two duets (which will mean just two classes back to back) and see how they feel about the experience. If they're happy, we'll consider more for next year.

The festival has competitive overtones in some classes, but from what I'm told the 12 & under classes are always free of that mentality. The kids basically play and then receive some positive and constructive feedback from an adjudicator. They also hear the other children in the class play and receive their feedback. I'm hoping it will be a positive and inspiring experience, although I consider the kids confident enough to weather a less-than-wonderful experience if it should turn out that way. Whether things are positive and respectful is very much adjudicator-dependent, and I don't know the adjudicator.

But I think they'll enjoy the pool either way :-)