Thursday, December 29, 2011

Marathon training

I decided to plan out my preparation from the moment I officially signed up for Vancouver's BMO Marathon. That has given me 25 weeks to prepare, and I'm now 3 weeks in. The past two winters I haven't had any particular running goal, and so weather and life and the inaccessibility of trails have conspired to push running out of my routine for days and weeks on end. This year it's a different matter entirely.

This year I'm running no matter what. I haven't missed a scheduled run yet and I'm thrilled. But gosh, a lot of creativity, variety and determination are required! Once I get started, though, I'm good. Here are my last few runs. You can see how much things have varied!

DistanceTempRun TypeConditionsFootwear
8 km-2ºCRoadCompact snowMinimus
23 km0ºCRoad/trailCompact snow / asphaltMinimus
3.5 km-5ºCRoadAsphaltMiminus
7 km-7ºCRoadSnowing / windyMerrell Lithe Glove
5 km-3ºCTrailDeep snowMerrell Lithe Glove
16 km-1ºCRoadIcy asphaltMinimus
7 km+1ºCTrailDeep slush / rainingMerrell Lithe Glove
5 km+2ºCRoadAsphaltVibram Five Fingers
2 km+2ºCRoadAsphaltBare feet

The holidays have given me plenty of time to run and to think and read about running. I've resolved to keep the pace on the majority of my runs very slow, and to push my weekly mileage higher. I've only run more than 50k a week a few times. I need to get my mileage to that level soon (I'm in the 40's now), and then keep raising it to the 70 - 80 km/week level by early April.

One hundred and twenty-eight days and counting.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Fiona graduated from contact lens training lessons today.

Okay, she only had the one lesson so this isn't a case of hard-won mastery or anything, but she did brilliantly well and doesn't need any more training sessions, just a check on her eyes in the New Year to make sure they're coping well with the contacts. It took her a couple of tries to get the first one in but after that she popped them in and out no problem and was clearly very comfortable with the whole process. The staff were apparently very impressed, calling her a rock star, swearing she'd set some sort of record.

She loves her glasses, but they're inconvenient for things like running, soccer, trampolining, skiing. She thought she'd like the option of contacts once in a while.

I had been thinking the same thing for myself and recently began using contacts for running whenever it's snowing. What a difference not to have glasses laden with melted snowflakes, fogging up every 50 metres! I certainly understood Fiona's desire to have this option.

Thankfully our optometrist didn't dismiss her interest categorically based on her age. His philosophy was that it's more about maturity than age, and Fiona's maturity seems to fit the bill.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Festivus Owls

Fiona's sick. Getting better today, but we decided we needed to bail on running the taxi service for all those teenagers going to Corazón rehearsal in Nelson.

Instead we had an unexpected day at home together. And thanks to my shameless scouring of Etsy for craft ideas, we decided to make some felted owls. This little guy is about 2" tall. We've made four so far.

They're quick and easy. We start by making a small ball of yarn. Then we cover it in undyed wool roving by needle-felting. We shape the ear tufts, affix the coloured detailing for eyes and bill. Then we take a quick trip outside with the pruning shears to get some suitable twigs. We used orange roving looped around the twig and needle-felted onto the owl's butt to get the twig secured. On the larger owls we were able to make this look like claws. Then a quick in and out with a bit of embroidery floss using a tapestry needle and they're ready to hang. We expect we'll have a whole flock soon.

We aren't really celebrating Christmas this year. Erin won't be home until January, as she's heading to China on tour with her orchestra. So we're saving the holiday celebration and gift exchange for January 14. We're calling it Festivus (thanks to Seinfeld for the inspiration) and we're making it up as we go along. Perhaps owls are hung around the home in the days leading up to Festivus for good luck?

We've just taken part in a family Chanukkah celebration / musical event, and next week we'll be taking part in a Solstice celebration. Bits of Christmas (the music, especially!) will sneak into our December, but we're looking forward to Festivus. We're currently taking suggestions for "the traditional Festivus drink" to take the place of egg nog.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter minimalist footwear

Clockwise from L: Merrell Lithe Glove, Nike Lunarglide, NB Minimus
I did something to my foot in August, trotting up to the water box. It sort of settled down on its own after a couple of months. A diversion into mountain-biking kept me happy until the snow began to fly. Now it's properly winter, biking is no longer possible, my foot is fine and I'm looking for ways to keep up a decent running program through the cold months.

My ideal winter running shoe would be minimalist, toasty warm and water-resistant, and would have grippy little studs on the bottom for traction on snow and ice. As you can see, I'm using a lot of different shoes and approaches, because I haven't found my ideal winter running shoe.

Prior to last winter I had moved to minimalist footwear, but when the weather got snowy I simply went back to conventional / transitional shoes. I used YakTrax Pros, slip-on traction devices that worked pretty well on those shoes with their thick cushioned soles and substantial uppers.

This year having moved more and more to actual barefoot running I wanted to stick with minimalist shoes through the winter, but they don't cope well with traction devices. Every ridge can be felt with every step right through the sole, and the rubber straps that hold them in place collapse the thin uppers, pressing in on your foot.

I bought some Merrell Lithe Glove shoes. They have nice warm water-resistant uppers (the main reason I bought them) which are proving toasty even on the coldest days. But despite the thin soles I'm not that thrilled with the ground-feel. The rubber may be thin but it's also hard, so they feel like more shoe underfoot than I'd expected. They have poor traction on snow and ice, too. They're fine for dry pavement, but for a few days after a snow they're not my shoe of choice.

I still love my New Balance Minimus Trails. Some people found the original version too tight across the mid-foot, but for my narrow feet they were perfectly roomy. So far they're my favourite choice for winter running, because they have decent traction with their lugs, and great flexibility and ground-feel. The problem with them is that they're cold. They have a thin mesh upper, so spartan that you can actually see your foot through the fabric.

I've become a fan of SmartWool PhD socks. I have two pairs, and could probably use two or three more. They're expensive, but they're the warmest, most comfortable, most durable running socks I've found. When it's slushy, or the fresh fallen snow is soft and wet, my feet get wet right through the shoes and socks. Eventually they get cold as a result. It would be nice to have a better solution for slushy days.

Ideally I'd like a Minimus Trail with water-resistant uppers. These would be great for me, because I love the fit and the feel, and the soles are also just thick enough with the lugs that I could sink 1/4" hex-head sheet metal screws into them for ultimate traction on ice. Sheet metal screws are an inexpensive and incredibly effective hack I performed on my old Nike Lunarglides.

There are about five times as many minimalist shoes on the market this year as last, so perhaps by next winter my ideal winter running shoe will exist. In the meantime I'll be mixing it up a lot, depending on conditions. I just signed up for the Vancouver marathon, and I have a running schedule I've written up that I'm going to really try to stick to regardless of the weather. Wish me luck!


The lake at the summit north of us has frozen clear, without snow. It's not quite glassy, but quite skate-able. We've opted not to flood our backyard rink this year, so there's even more reason for the trip to the lake to be worth doing.

Fiona and I skated all the way across, and all the way back, and then spent some time "doing doodly-do's" around the near shore. She found her skating legs quickly and despite the wind we both managed to generate enough body heat to stay toasty warm for an hour.

While we were holed up in a "cave" beneath a rock, out of the wind on the far side of the lake, a coyote trotted directly in front of us, oblivious to our presence.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Voices West and lupine wall

Fiona and I painted this along the wall of Sophie's bedroom while she was gone to a choral festival in Edmonton. We had hoped to do it on her birthday while she was at school, but there was a power failure that day, and not only were things dark and cold in the room as a result, but we were quite challenged just pulling together a birthday dinner and the requisitioned coconut cream pie. Fortunately the power came on just before supper and we squeezed in the pie baking. The crust, incidentally, was awesome -- the best I've ever made by a good shot, I think.

So we postponed the lupine painting until Sophie and Noah had left for Voices West. The call was to meet the bus at 5:30 am in Nelson, so needless to say we sent them the night before. They went down with a friend and stayed overnight at the hostel. Not much sleep was had, of course. Then they spent about 12 raucous hours on the tour bus, and thereafter headed to rehearsals! Thus began a weekend of ecstatic energy ... and sleep deprivation.

Here is the mass choir performing the next morning at the Remembrance Day ceremony:

And the group lunch at a large restaurant the next day:

The final concert was that evening, and then it was back on the bus the next morning for another 12 hours. The concert videos are still pending. By all accounts it was the most amazing experience: a love-fest of great voices and amazing young people. I am so grateful that my kids have the opportunity to be part of Corazón.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Soap and teenagers

The soap has cured! We've wrapped it up in salvaged tissue paper and ribbon, to keep it protected until use by us or others. While the lavender buds turned a less-than-fetching brown in the alkaline environment, the basic marbled green of the soap is nice to look at, and the mixture of lavender and rosemary scent is just right.

The power was out most of today and this is one of the things Fiona and I did to fill the time.

Today we also enjoyed having three teenagers in the family for the first time.  Sophie has joined Noah and Erin on the far side of twelve. Plans for birthday dinner and coconut cream pie were almost foiled by the power failure, but the electricity came on just in time for us to squeeze the cooking in.

I would wager that Sophie has felt thirteen for a while now. She joined Corazón (nominally for 13 through 25-year-olds) in September. She's been one of the youngest students enrolled in the local public high school this fall, through school-wide multi-day field trips and multi-grade workshops. Her social affinities have always tended to run a little 'old.' And she's a well-grounded, mature kid, with a solid sense of what's right for her and of what she likes.

Now it's official. She's a teenager. As always any nostalgia I might feel for the little-kid days is far outweighed by the excitement and pride I feel watching my children grow into such interesting and capable young people, ready for adventure, quirky as heck but as loveable than ever.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Finding his place

The high school has just completed a week-long documentary project. The student films were shown, as well as an informal "documenting the documentary-making" film pulled together by Mo, one of the professional film-maker facilitators. In this last film, there was a clip of Noah sitting in front of computer with a group of other students explaining the finer points of balancing audience attention between the video and audio streams.

I was emailing one of the teachers of this project about an unrelated matter. She had thought she'd got to know Noah a bit through the DL program last year, but her initial perceptions of a shy, somewhat under-confident young man have been blown away this fall since he's been attending school. Included at the end of her email back to me was this comment about the shot of Noah at work:

"Did you catch that Noah rock star clip in the film Mo made? He literally "held court" most of the week with his group and a growing number of other students. I can't believe his zeal for social connection and his artfulness in being so kind and supportive of others while also leading. Very exciting to see him in action. "

Noah has found his place at the school. The intensity of three school trips (two of them multiple overnighters) and two extended school-wide projects has warmed the crucible of social connections and belongingness for him. He's discovered a lot about himself: a lot of really good stuff. He's hearing the good stuff from others and has experienced how he can contribute and achieve handily in the pseudo-real-world of a school environment. He is valued at school by students and teachers alike, and quite understandably enjoys the feeling of being valued. It's one thing to be valued by your family, and quite another to be valued by those who have no particular vested interest in your well-being and achievements.

A Symphony Year

Noah has now completed a year's worth of concerts with the Symphony of the Kootenays. This year, with Erin gone, he's the only student member. His mom plays in the second violins and even though she'd rather play viola, she enjoys it.

And what a difference a year makes! Can you see him there, to the right of the violinist, in front of the double bass? He's relaxed, smiling slightly, wearing his orchestra gear complete with black suit jacket, shiny shoes and bow tie. And he actually looks like he knows what he's doing, even at the first rehearsal.

As an aside: Noah hit on the idea of adding a beak and eyes to his trilby hat and wearing his orchestra tux to go out for Hallowe'en as a penguin. He looked great ... but then his beak fell off. So he tucked away the eyes and beak and carried on trick-or-treating, carrying a pseudo-briefcase black bag and telling people he was "the 1%." Precious few of them got it, but he still got plenty of candy. I thought it was hilarious.

Anyway, in the symphony he's much better at matching bowings, changing fingerings, picking up the non-verbal stuff, learning and adapting on the fly during the intensive rehearsal schedule that starts just the day before the performance and leaves no time to practice. He's not intimidated by the repertoire, or the experience.

We had a very fun program this past weekend: opera pops given a wild comedic flair by Natalie Choquette. Some great classical music standards, some pretty impressive singing and acting, and a fluttering array of almost twenty different pieces from Saint-Saens to Puccini, Rossini, Mozart and Gershwin.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


The back-story is that I hurt my foot in August (not running -- while scooting up the property to check on the water reservoir, of all things). But I was unable to run. With the family reunion, and then the fuss of getting Erin off to Montreal and getting the middle kids off to school and that whole routine down, I coped with the layoff. But as I got into the routine of September the not-running began to drive me crazy. So I started riding. Sometimes on the road, but often on my running trails. Once Noah and Sophie were home from school in the afternoon, if there was nothing pressing I'd grab a quick hour-long circuit on the Galena and Creekside Trails.

Off-road I was riding my 20-year-old Stumpjumper which I've kept tuned up as best I can. But it's in desperate need of a whole new drive-train, derailleurs and some front shocks. Lots of missing gear teeth, seized adjusters. Expensive stuff.

This fall Chuck announced he was looking for a new mountain bike. Since he has a couple of old mountain bikes at his disposal and has probably ridden only half a dozen times in the past dozen years, I must have given him a quizzical look. He told me that he wanted a full-suspension (i.e. expensive) bike, because he thought if he had a new, up-to-date bike he would be more likely to go riding.

Oh, okay, I said. (insert eye-roll here)

Well, he bought himself a decent used all-mountain dual-suspension bike and ... okay, I had to take back the eyeroll. I tried his bike. Amazing! Totally different kind of ride. Gears that shift like butter, brakes that engage with a casual flick and pull you to a gravel spraying skid stop with a gentle squeeze.

Okay, fair is fair, I figured: if the guy who thinks he might ride regularly if he had a nice bike gets a nice bike, then the wife who does ride regularly should surely have a nice bike too?

I lucked into the Santa Cruz Nomad. I found it in Nelson, selling used at less than half its original $3000+ price tag. It was my size and it's got some pretty high-end components. It's been ridden hard, but it's been well-maintained.

I've only got about 50 kms on it so far, and it needs a bit of a tune-up, but still, I'm blown away. I can ride up pitches I couldn't dream of doing on my Stumpjumper. I can down-shift while climbing hills (rather than beforehand), I can stop on a dime using a fluid balance between front and back brakes to prevent fishtailing or pitching over handlebars. And downhills ... I can handle steeper, and go faster by far. The suspension prevents most of the jarring over roots and rocks, and that increases stability and safety on the rough trails I tend to ride. It's not a boneshaker like the Stumpjumper, bouncing its way down the slopes in a cacophony of rattles while I stand out of the saddle for the entire descent. Instead there's a sense of fluidity and control.

I'm back to running, but bike rides aren't going to lose their appeal because of that -- now I can do both!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Brioche knitting

Simple two-colour brioche (top) and Hosta leaf pattern (bottom)
I had never heard of brioche knitting, but the first couple of examples I saw looked so nifty that I had to figure it out. I started trying to learn while beginning a very simple project while Fiona and I were away at Fort Steele. I ended up starting over again three times due to various messes. Any slipped or backwards stitches are very obvious due to the colour contrast. The lovely lines of alternating colour, yin and yang on front and back, get broken up by just a single wrong stitch.

Finally it started to click. Once I was feeling really secure, no longer needing to refer to any instructions or illustrations, motoring along without even thinking, I cast on the project that had originally drawn me to this type of knitting, the Hosta scarf pattern. It takes forever. The stitches are fairly small and each row must be knit twice, once with each colour. Every other pair of rows is riddled with four meandering triple decreases and four triple increases. But I love it. It's one of my favourite patterns ever.

Chemistry around here

Lye + water + oil = soap

Fiona would like to be a chemist, or so she thinks. Until we get to the chemistry section in her science course, we're having fun little forays into the world of household chemistry.

We had fun making soap a couple of weeks ago. We used a combination of sweet almond oil, olive oil and coconut oil, and a great on-line lye calculator. We weighed things out with our digital kitchen scale (love that thing!) and got a mixture that was accurate and reliable. Much better than the guess-work I'd been used to from my previous soap-making forays.

We added some rosemary and lavender, and essential oils of each, plus a little green soap dye. It smells lovely and we are patiently waiting for it to cure whilst testing out little scraps from time to time. It lathers beautifully.

Sugar syrup + baking soda = foam

Today we made sponge toffee. I hadn't done this in years and had mistakenly thought it was a acid-base reaction with the baking soda which was responsible for all the bubbles. In fact the baking soda remains inert and simply acts as an nidus for bubble formation in the boiling syrup. There's no acid involved at all: just the thermal decomposition of sodium bicarbonate.

We made our sponge toffee with a bit of butter rum flavouring left over from Sophie's summer hard candy business and it tastes fabulous. Our digital infrared thermometer made easy work of the syrup boiling. Again, good tools make such a difference!

Sponge Toffee

2 1/2 cups sugar
2/3 cup corn syrup
90 ml water
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. butter rum flavour (optional)
2 tsp. sifted baking soda

Line a 9x13" pan with foil and brush foil with oil or butter. Mix sugar, corn syrup and water in a large heavy saucepan. Bring gradually to a boil. Cover with tight lid for 5 minutes to dissolve any sugar crystals that may be adhering to the sides of the saucepan. Remove lid and continue boiling, checking temperature frequently. Once syrup has reached 300ºF, remove from heat. Stir in flavouring(s). Whisk in baking soda and quickly pour into prepared pan. Allow to cool to room temperature. Remove foil and break apart, consuming ad lib.

Brown pickle

I tweak this recipe every time I make it, but always forget what changes I make. This year I've written it down, because it has turned out especially well.

Brown Pickle

10 oz. carrots
10 oz. prune plums
2 large tart apples
1/2 large rutabaga
1 medium zucchini
4 onions
6 cloves garlic
1/2 large head cauliflower
5 oz. dates
25 small gherkins
1 Tbsp. browning (optional)
1 Tbsp. tamarind concentrate (or 1/4 cup lemon juice)
1 Tbsp. worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. allspice
2 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. cayenne
500 ml malt vinegar
2 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup molasses

Finely dice all vegetables. Place in large heavy saucepan or stock pot with remaining ingredients. Bring to boil and simmer gently for 2-4 hours, until vegetables are soft and desired level of browning has been achieved.

Ladle into hot jars to within 1/2" of top and process in hot water bath for 15 minutes for half-pint jars, 20 minutes for pints. Yield: about 3 Litres.

I love this stuff. It's a pretty good knock-off of Branston Pickle, which sells for about $6 for a 250 ml jar here in Canada. I put it on crackers, or spread it in sandwiches or (dare I confess?) eat little scoops of it with a spoon. It's also good as a side relish with cold meats (a.k.a. ploughman's lunch).

Even better: the kids in our family don't think much of sweet pickles and therefore most of the eating falls to the grown-ups.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sprucing (birching?) up

Fiona's room has a thirteen-year-old light leaf-green paint job that's showing its age. But the loft bed / desk / dresser / shelf unit is so immense and immobile that I just can't see my way to moving the furniture and repainting from scratch.

So we hit on the idea of stencilling a stand of birch trees on the most visible wall, strategically designing trunks and branches to cover the biggest dings in the wall.

What fun! It takes a long time to tape the trees, but after that there's the magical ease of painting, and then of ripping off the tape to reveal the trees. We did a "test tree" yesterday (left side) and were pleased with the results. We did another four today and will probably add two or three more tomorrow. Then we'll stencil in a few leaves (to cover a few last scratches and dings).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Last winter Fiona and I had a lot of fun making styrofoam and paper maché replicas of the planets. We had thought we would hang them up on display, but before we got around to doing so we put them on the mantel where they began to collect dust and disappear from our awareness.

Finally last night we got to work making a mobile out of them. We used floral wire and cotton string, some needle-nose pliers and some physics to get everything balanced nicely.

It took a lot of work, but we are very pleased with the result.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Fiona's Schedule

The older kids now have timetables for school. Fiona wanted one too. So she sat down with me and we came up with something.

First we put in the out-of-home things she has to attend. Summit Strings and the trip to Nelson she has to do because she's too young to be left home alone. Group class is on Wednesdays after school. We put in lunch and supper. We blocked in some time for practicing or violin lesson every day.

And then she wanted to put in "school." She has three areas this year in which she is doing structured curricular work: math, science and social studies. So we set aside one or two hour-long blocks on Monday through Friday to give her a chance to work on those areas. Then we threw in a couple of blocks of scheduled physical activity to round things out.

She is absolutely thrilled to have me facilitating structured learning with her. I'm making an effort to steer her away from the curricular stuff as much as I can. She is often just as keen to go on a mushroom hunt or make soap or work through playful engineering challenges or read some historical fiction. But then later in the day she'll announce that we should do some science workbook or math as well. She almost never does two full hours of bookwork, but she often likes to touch on two or three subject areas for 15 or 20 minutes. The schedule is a guide, not a rule. We use it when it suits her, but if something more enticing comes up she is flexible enough to discard it cheerfully. She does like her curriculum, though!

When we finish the schedule for the day she is often at loose ends. "What can I do now?" she asks. I worried that the structure was turning her into a kid who was dependent on others for direction, but it's not really that. She's just as good at finding things to do on her own as she ever was; it's just that with no at-home siblings during the day rather than the three she was used to, she misses the social energy and interaction. She's a bit more dependent on me for interaction, and it's no wonder, I suppose. She's a sociable kid who now has only one person to socialize with for a few hours each day.

It's somewhat frightening to see how much she is capable of with this kind of active facilitation available to her. It's easy to feel guilty about giving her so little one-on-one up until this point, when I see how eagerly she is gobbling it up and enjoying the learning. (Although I also know that simply being around her older siblings and the rest of us and our busy lives was immeasurably good for her too. My guilt is kept at bay by that thought.) In the past month she's done half of the Grade 6 Singapore Primary Math curriculum. She's moving steadily through the 7th grade BC science curriculum, and through a Canadian history curriculum intended for older kids as well. We've done tons of enrichment learning around each of these, so it definitely doesn't feel like a narrow book-learning-only trajectory. She's getting lots of context and lots of chance to explore rabbit trails that pique her interest.

And then there's all the other stuff. She's run a race, learned to ride basic "skinnies" and do bunny-hops on a mountain bike, been on that wonderful field trip to Fort Steele, attended the local Harvest Festival, begun learning to use the sewing machine, learned to hand-sew stuffed toys, been on hikes and nature walks, started a new Handel Sonata on violin, prepared an entire family dinner on her own, obsessed over Dr. Who Season 5 episodes, written on her blog, read books, played with our adorable kitten, done her usual amazing housekeeping blitzes.

She thriving, I'd say. Which makes me very happy, because I was worried she'd be a little miserable being left out of the whole school thing.

Notes from Montreal

Erin has now been living in Montreal for almost a month. She arrived with her violin, backpack and two suitcases. She had no one to meet her, no one to show her around, no one to check in with, no housewares, no food. Just her own independent life to create.

And she's doing it! She has outfitted her apartment. She is cooking and baking and shopping for bargains. She has figured out the transit system. She's got herself a student pass (yay for mom-published student cards!), a library card and a schedule of violin lessons and orchestra rehearsals. She's met up with her landlord, attended orchestra meetings en français, dealt with paperwork for the orchestra trip to China, found the best grocery store, figured out the ancient furnace, fixed the plug on the fridge, rigged something up to deal with the weird bathtub.

She doesn't yet have internet. At least not at home. Since she's supposedly doing three courses by on-line schooling, this is a bit of a drawback. Often she has to call me to get me to look something up. Internet is coming: there was a long wait-time for installation. She's dealing with the ISP and Fedex and her landlady and trying to get a modem delivered in time for a Tuesday installation. She's having to fuss with all this on her own -- and she's managing. She, the girl who I thought would never use the phone to call anyone but me. She calls strangers, customer service reps, to work stuff out. Amazing!

Chuck and Fiona will be visiting her in early November. Chuck has a conference he's attending. Fiona will spend the weekend hanging out with Erin. They'll be able to attend her first orchestra concert. Wish I was going too. Maybe I'll get the chance some other time.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Gold medal

Fiona was the only one of us competing in this year's SufferFest. Sophie is too busy with the new pursuits of full-time school and membership in the Corazón Vocal Ensemble to have the time or interest in running. I injured my foot in mid-August and have been unable to run for the past six weeks.

But the middle kids were performing with their trio in the live music tent, and Fiona decided she would like to run her race. She hasn't had a running buddy for the past couple of months and therefore had hardly trained, but she knew it would be an easy run (2k) to finish; it was just a question of how fast she would like to push herself.

Last year's time on the same course was 11:19. I have a feeling this year's time was a lot faster. Maybe even a couple of minutes faster -- impressive especially since she strained her calf muscle the other day and it really interfered with her stride today. We'll have her official time in a couple of days. In the meantime she's justifiably proud of her age-group medal.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Back-a-century weekend

One hundred and fourteen years, to be exact. A homeschoolers field trip to the historically recreated Fort Steele was perfectly timed. Less than two weeks after Erin's exciting departure to Montreal, and four days after Noah and Sophie headed out on a week-long all-high-school cross-curricular out-trip, Fiona was presented with the option of joining our regional homeschool group for this weekend trip.

We stayed in the original barracks of the North-West Mounted Police, a huge long single-story cob-chinked building equipped with about four dozen wooden cots with straw tick mattresses. Across the quadrangle was the cook-house where we used this huge wood cook-stove to bake corn bread, cook soup and porridge and brew up cocoa and coffee. Meals were mostly done by families individually but in a very collaborative way. ("Extra pancakes, going fast!" and "Who brought extra salt?" and "Tons of rice pasta. Can anyone use it?") To clean up we hauled water in buckets, heated it on the wood stove and washed our enamels metal spoons, cups and bowls by hand in grand assembly-line style.

At 5 pm each evening the gates were locked and we were left with the village all to ourselves. The curator and a couple of other live-in staff remained overnight but basically it felt like our village. We were free to roam all over it, to open sheds, to check on the animals, to poke around the alleys, the stagecoaches, the cabins. The streets were empty, except for the fifty or so of us. We no longer felt like visitors. Those magical evening hours transported us in a way a daytime visit never would have.

We had evening bonfires. The kids set each other scavenger games. They played tag and cops & robbers. We watched the stars. Listened to trains. Shared each others' stories.

And in the daytimes the kids had workshops, with a variety of knowledgeable and passionate guides who never talked down to anyone and let the kids do lots of hands-on projects. They had a morning of leather-working, an afternoon in the blacksmith's shop shaping nails.  They hand-churned butter, and made jonnycakes using a recipe from Sam Steele's own notebook.

They even brought out the collection of kids' costumes for us at no charge and let the children find breeches and pinafores and bonnets. Fiona found a chambray smock and bonnet to go with her purple hoodie.

They learned to churn butter, and were put to work hand-washing laundry, scrubbing it on a laundry board, cranking it through a wringer and hanging it to dry.
There was cinnamon flavoured ice cream to be churned. (Who knew the ice cream churn would require both a churner and a "sitter"?)
And there was gold to be panned for. Flakes were added to each child's pan and I think they all found their flakes successfully. There is gold found naturally in the creeks to this day, but it's scanty compared to the 1860s. Only two pans had flakes of gold without being "salted" by our prospector-guide.

Fiona really really loves history now. Canadian history was on her learning plan anyway, and this has started the year off with a bang.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mosaic table in process

Fiona and I have been working on the mosaic table top. The other day we put the adhesive mortar on and set the tile on the backer board. In this photo you can see today's progress.

Top left shows the tiles with no grout. Top right shows the first application of grout. This has hardened now (but not cured) so we have been able to clean and buff the tiles to bring out their colour and sheen again. Along the bottom you can see the part we just finished. Here the tiles are still hazy and dirty.

We'll probably need to buy another packet of grout to finish it, but it's coming along nicely and hopefully we'll have it done in a few days.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Student ID

My eldest kids occasionally need student cards to get discounts on admission tickets and public transit, but they're the only two teenagers enrolled in a Distributed Learning Program that has less than two dozen students. What to do? The DL school is certainly not about to hire a service to make student cards for two kids!

I turned to a desktop publishing program, scanned a signature that the DL program's Principal willingly scrawled on the back of an envelope for exactly this purpose when I met her by chance at a local café a couple of weeks ago, and I made my kids student cards. One colour laser copy and two laminating pouches later the cards look as official as any student card I've ever seen. Erin's even includes her residential address in Montreal, her signature and birth date as it seems big-city institutions often want more particulars.

I made Fiona one too, just for fun, so that she has some nifty photo ID to tuck into her wallet.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Noah's path

Erin and Sophie look like the ones making the big moves this year, but Noah is on a new path of his own that represents at least as big a shift.

He stopped computer-gaming. He went through a phase early in the summer of watching movies (dozens of them -- classics from the past five decades or so). And then that tapered off and he started writing. In on-line discussion forums devoted to Big Ideas (and some small ones too). To friends far and wide via immensely verbose chats. And on a blog somewhere in his own private corner of the webiverse.

He matter-of-factly decided, sometime over the course of the summer, that he was ready to go to school part-time. Maybe a course or two. Maybe a bit more. And he'd like some new clothes, a few of them, that actually fit and looked nice. And a haircut, please.

He started practicing his viola. A lot. He was suddenly in love with the entire Schubert Arpgeggione Sonata and the Rapsodie from the Bloch Suite Hébraique. His playing started to really soar.

And so it goes. We're now two weeks into the school year. He's at school a little more than half-time, taking Social Studies (i.e. Canadian History), English, Math and Writing. He seems to be opting for the high school diploma route and is well-situated, being a couple of credits "ahead" based on the work he did through the DL program last year. As a home-based learner he'll also be earning credits this year in Choral Music, Science, Digital Media, PE and possibly also Physics. He's going to be busy with Summit Strings, a number of gigs with the Symphony of the Kootenays, and of course the Corazón Vocal Ensemble.

And the travel! He's not only willing, but almost enthusiastic about travelling away from home and family. September includes a week-long cross-curricular out-trip through the BC interior and Alberta. October is a three-day trip to Banff for WordFest with his writing class. November he'll be off to Edmonton for a Youth Choir Festival. March will likely see him travelling to Montreal to visit Erin. At the end of April he'll be going to Cuba with Corazón for ten days of performing, workshopping and touring about.

He seems really happy and energized. I'm so happy for him!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mix-and-match schooling logistics

Okay, I know it's not going to continue to be this challenging, but can I just complain for a moment about the organizational challenges of having all these kids doing all these extremely different but fairly rigorously scheduled things?

My Yesterday
7:15 up and make lunches
7:45 awaken Sophie, make and drink my coffee
8:30 run Sophie to school
8:55 dash home to awaken Noah and Fiona
9:40 run Noah to school
10:00 - 11:00 Fiona's violin lesson
11:40 pick Noah up from school
12:00 make lunch, talk to Erin on the phone
12:30 homeschooling time with Fiona
1:45 drive to school with Noah and Fiona to pick up Sophie and two other teens
2:00 - 3:30 drive to Nelson for choir rehearsal
3:45-5:30 grocery shopping and many other errands
5:45 pick up six choir members for ride home
6:00 ensure choir members have munchies for ride home
6:15-7:45 drive home, dropping choir members off on the way
8:00-8:30 help Erin trouble-shoot various logistical issues on the phone from Montreal
8:30-9:00 supper
9:00-9:45 bedtime readaloud
9:45-10:30 computer / email time
10:30 bedtime

Today (Wednesday) isn't quite as bad, but included two sessions of coaching / teaching group violin classes, some private violin lesson teaching, all the to-and-from-school driving mentioned above, and additional time helping Erin with chemistry equations over the phone.

I'm just not used to it. I suppose it will get easier. But gosh, now I understand. For years I've heard homeschooling moms complain about the time constraints and hassles of having kids both within and out of school. Yes, I get it.

Mosaic tile table

We have a serious lack of deck furniture. We're getting by with fifteen-year-old resin chairs that were intended as a short-term solution when we bought them. When we completed our lovely new deck and couple of years ago the aesthetic mismatch became almost nauseating. We've had our eyes out for a suitable set for a couple of years now, but just haven't found it at the right moment, for the right price, when we're in the right big city with a vehicle (i.e. Chuck's truck) that could haul the stuff over whatever mountain passes would be required to get it home.

A month ago Chuck had some cedar left over from re-roofing the little cabin and threw together a basic but surprisingly attractive bench. So I figured maybe the answer after all these years is just to make stuff ourselves.

With that possibility in mind, I perked right up when I saw a lovely mosaic table in someone's living room last month. I procured some photos, had Chuck make up an octagonal coffee table and last weekend after dispatching Erin headed to the Universal Slate warehouse in Calgary for some stone tile.

Sophie, Fiona and I did a preliminary layout of tiles and stones and found objects one afternoon. The actual tile-setting and grouting will have to wait another few days, but I think it's going to look pretty great. Stay tuned for more photos.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fiona's Learning Plan 2011-2012

She's my only full-time homeschooler this year, and gosh, is she every loving that! She would also love to attend school in the flexible part-time way that Erin did for three years, and that Noah is doing this year, but that's not going to work easily until Grade 10, when teaching becomes subject-oriented rather than cross-curricular and part-time enrolment is officially allowed. She recognizes that elementary school is not going to be a good fit for her, and so she is happy to continue homeschooling. And she is really enjoying the prospect of getting more of my time and energy this year.

For those readers who are not familiar with our planning process, please do not be intimidated or confused by the organized, schoolish, subject-by-subject nature of this plan as written. What actually happens is that we go out for lunch and I ask Fiona to talk about how she would like to prioritize energy, time and money this year to support her learning. I listen to and jot down whatever she says. Whatever she says. If she runs out of things to talk about I might remind her of goals or ambitions she's expressed in the recent past, and activities and areas of learning that she has enjoyed and/or deemed important in the past. I jot down everything she comes up with, and then we briefly talk about various ways to facilitate those things and how they might be implemented, and what kind of resources and support she wants, if any.

This particular kid likes organized, sequential, school-like resources and loves to be busy with things that are tangibly about learning. It hasn't always been that way, and her siblings certainly haven't always chosen such routes. But in her case, at this age, she really likes curriculum materials! She was using only a math program 8 months ago, but last spring added a science program and is now keen to add programs for history and geography. On the surface the plan that follows sure doesn't look like it's for an unschooler, but it is: the choice to adopt structured materials is all hers.

After our preliminary meeting I go through all my notes and organize things in a subject-oriented way that makes sense to our supervising teachers and makes it easy to document. I do some research, often with her help, into the particular way we might realize her goals, and we revise the plan as appropriate. Eventually we take this draft in to our DL program teachers and explain it, asking them to order the resources we'd like to procure (within the learning allowance budget we're allocated) and talking about how we'll document what she's doing. This latter issue is easy Fiona's case: she loves creating projects and worksheets and bringing them in to show off to her DL teacher, and she is also happy to talk about the things that have been interesting to her recently. Compared to my reserved elder children she is a dream as a DL student.

Here is our first draft of her Learning Plan for this year:


Will continue with Challenge Math, alternating with  Singapore 6A/6B as desired. Consider Singapore New Syllabus Math (workbook-based!) if 6B is completed this year.


Really enjoyed the level 6 school science textbook she used last spring. Would like to continue this program and will order BC Science 7 textbook and workbook. Wants to do more astronomy. Resources: "365 Starry Nights" by Chet Raymo, Starwalk for iPad, "Nightwatch" by Terence Dickinson, Chuck's Dobsonian telescope. May explore RealScience4Kids Chemistry Level 1. Would enjoy hands-on chemistry like soap-making, bath bombs. Will continue to explore kitchen science with Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking."

Social Studies

Donna Ward workbooks: "Courage and Conquest," "Canadian Geography, Province by Province." Visit to Montreal in November. Three-day field trip / camp at Fort Steele historical site with various workshops: end of September. DVD series: "Canada: A People's History." "The Story of Canada" and "The Kids History of Canada" reference texts.


Sufferfest Kids' Race. Hiking, kayaking, geocaching. School downhill ski program (February) and recreational skiing. Community soccer. Would like swim classes but barring that would go for a few private lessons if possible, plus recreational swimming. Goal of swimming to Bigelow Bay dock on her own (note: already accomplished!). Meal planning -- will help making siblings' school lunches, occasional preparation on her own of a complete family dinner.


Continue work on cursive, signature, etc.. Reading... Novels, Muse magazine. Would like to participate in the school's Arts and Writers festival again this year. Will continue blogging, particularly by contributing to a school district wordpress blog which will comprise our homeschooling documentation for the year.

Critical Thinking

Would like to read and discuss "Nibbling on Einstein's Brain" and " The Philosophy Files."

Second Language

Possibly interested in French... Has access to Rosetta Stone. May be able to use / learn some French phrases during Montreal visit. Some continuing interest in Japanese.


Will continue with violin lessons and group classes. Would love the opportunity to participate in a string quartet or chamber music if possible. Will be part of the Community ABC Homeschoolers' Art Project if it happens. Would love more drama experience -- depending on availability in the community. Wants to take pottery classes once they start in October or November. Will continue to explore fibre crafts. Would like to learn to use the sewing machine.

Erin's move

Well, there she is. In Montréal.

We delivered her to the airport in Calgary two days ago. She arrived safe and sound at the rambling old empty house belonging to a friend of a friend, where she is renting part of the upper floor as an apartment. She arrived with her violin, the backpack containing her laptop and various arm's-reach essentials, and two huge suitcases containing her chemistry textbooks and as many of her worldly possessions as would fit within the 50+50 lb. weight allowance.

My brother, who lives within easy distance of Montreal, suitable for a quick overnight visit via train, was able to take a bag of winter bedding and clothing with him when he left after the reunion, so she has some more accoutrements available to her there. And the house is furnished, thankfully.
In the past couple of days she's managed to figure out the ancient gas oven downstairs well enough to successfully bake cookies, has bought herself a printer for her laptop, has made several trips downtown for groceries and kitchenware, contacted her teacher, cooked for herself and got in touch with her landlord to deal with some small issues pertaining to appliances and utilities. She's found a grocery store that delivers, and is going to head out bike-shopping in the next couple of days.

All in all, it seems to have gone smoothly so far.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

End of the season

Tomorrow will be the girls' last market. School and travel and fall activities begin next week and will conflict with marketeering. Fiona managed to package up all but these little bits of tea for tomorrow and hopes to sell off almost all of her stock -- though I'm sure we will manage to enjoy whatever is left over!

She and I had been experimenting with dried peaches and walnuts for a while and this week we finally hit on a blend that we all really like:

Okanagan Orchard Tea

4 parts white peony tea leaves
2 parts crushed dried peach slices
2 parts toasted walnut pieces
1 part crushed cinnamon sticks

It's a warming tea that reminds you of summer while taking the edge off chilly mornings or evenings. It will be the grand finale tea for the end of the her very successful summer as an entrepreneur.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tie-dye, family reunion edition

Noah's, Evie's and my shirts.

The sunshine and clear skies have been made to order for our reunion time.

Sophie risked using a "dangerous colour combination" on her shirt: dark green, purple and yellow. It looked like a moldy cabbage when tied up, but turned out beautifully!  

A classic spiral by Fiona.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cessna over the Slocan

Chuck and Noah were invited by a friend to take a trip in his Cessna. Can you imagine a more amazing place to tour the local scenery? They've both decided we need a plane of our own. That would certainly make it easier to get to Calgary! What an amazing experience for both of them.

Family Chamber Music

It's family reunion time here in the Kootenays. Amidst all the food and banter and hiking and paddling and running and bouncing on the trampoline and swimming and basking in the sun and talking late into the evenings, there's also chamber music.

Erin, my sister Anna, my brother Jonathan, Noah.

My three kids filling out the upper strings in a Mozart 2-viola quintet. Not shown: my sister-in-law Emma on 2nd viola and my brother Jeremy on cello.

Parry "English Suite": Sophie and Erin on 1st, Fiona on 2nd.

Me on 2nd viola, with all of my siblings and my two eldest kids.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Role reversals

Erin, normally the obsessive music-practicer of the family, is spending her days playing computer games.

Noah, normally the obsessive computer-game player of the family, is spending his days baking and practicing viola.

Sophie, typically one of the more social members of the family and often the baker, is spending copious time in her bedroom in the basement, getting plenty of alone time.

Fiona. Thank goodness for Fiona. She's doing exactly what she always does -- being busily in orbit near whatever activity is going on, chatting away.

Right now Fiona and Noah are in the kitchen, baking cranberry oat muffins and a double batch of ginger crinkles respectively, listening to a wacky wide-ranging music playlist that juxtaposes Sinatra, swing, ELO and Vampire Weekend.


Look who joined the family yesterday! Since our old cat's demise we've seen a steady climb in the rodent population hereabouts. So we're thrilled to see Humbug stalking flies, developing her hunting instincts. Noah, a.k.a. Cat Boy, is completely smitten. The rest of us are quickly following suit.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looking ahead

It's the time of year we normally start planning our upcoming unschooling. We've found Learning Plans to be a useful tool in our lives. This year Sophie's learning plan process started in July, and it looked very different from usual.

"I want to go to school," she said.

She wants to be more tangibly productive. She wants to have a busy life outside our home. She finds a gap between her learning ambitions and her day-to-day productivity. She's interested in more social opportunities, more structure to her learning and more outside accountability.

We know the guidance counsellor at the local public school, who also happens to be the administrator of the DL program our homeschooling has been umbrellad under. She's a friend, a member of the local arts community, a fellow local volunteer and a long-time fan of my children for reasons that remain at least partly mysterious and wondrous to me. We met her for coffee at our favourite café in the middle of summer vacation to talk about the possibilities. We all came away from the meeting feeling good about things.

Because the school is so small, most of the classes are multi-grade, with the Grade 8's combined with the 9's and sometimes the 10's as well. This works well for a 12-year-old who is all over the map in terms of academic level. She'll be new to "writing to task" and timed tests and powerpoints and group projects. She'll probably appreciate having some easier classes mixed in with some that are more at her level. She'll enjoy the field trips, and the exposure to other people's expectations.

She'll also appreciate the flexibility to be able to travel to Nelson for choir, and to nip out for violin lessons, and to take certain blocks of time off for practicing or family travel. And I know she'll benefit from knowing that schooling is a choice for her, something she does because it's giving her something she wants. If that ever changes she knows she'll be welcome to return to homeschooling, or to scale back her involvement in the school. (Once she's registered in Grade 10 part-time attendance officially comes onto the table as a possibility.)

And so a new adventure begins. My first full-time school student sallies forth in three weeks.