Sunday, January 30, 2011

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Planets

Paper maché over styrofoam craft balls. (Except in the case of earth's moon and Mercury, which are paper maché on dried peas.)

Fiona is on a bit of an astronomy kick. She really enjoys stargazing, though we don't do nearly enough of it. Which really is inexcusable, since we live in the midst of such deep dark skies, hundreds of miles from the nearest city's light scatter. This summer we will make more of an effort. She loves her bed stars. She likes the Basher Astronomy book we got for her last spring as a consolation for not being able to find the Biology one. And she is looking forward to the space exploration unit in the BC Science 6 curriculum she's recently begun following. (She begged. Sophie and Noah are doing high school science courses and she wanted something just like what they were doing. I was skeptical, but she went on-line and tried some of the self-evaluation quizzes for Science 6 and scored between 60 and 80 percent without studying the material. So we ordered the program through the school. She loves it. Workbook must be this girl's middle name.)

The planets are drying over the wood stove tonight. Tomorrow they'll take on their distinctive colours courtesy of some acrylic paint. Eventually they'll get hung from the ceiling of her bedroom. First I'd like them to participate in a planet walk. We did one a few years ago but Fiona was only a wee thing. This time it'll be for her. This time the scale is bigger, so I imagine we will only be walking as far as Mars or so.

With Earth being 4 cm in size, our size and distance scale would be thus:

The sun will be imagined as a large sphere 4 metres in diameter. We'll place our imaginary sun on the highway at the top of the driveway. Be careful if you're planning on dropping by for a visit!
Mercury, which is slightly larger than a pea, will be placed 200 metres up the highway.
Venus will be 180 metres beyond Mercury.
Earth will be 140 metres further out. Its moon will be placed about 60 cm away.
Mars will be 280 metres further along.
Jupiter, should we choose to go there (perhaps we will drive?) will be situated almost 2 km away from Mars.
Saturn, Neptune and Uranus will be 2, 5 and 5.5 kms respectively beyond their nearer neighbours.

And perhaps we will listen to Holst as we travel along.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Four for four

It was a proud mom day full of accomplishments.

Fiona and Sophie spent their third day on downhill skis with the school's field trip program. This time I went along. They're skiing fabulously! Sophie got moved up to the intermediate group after only one day and is carving nice parallel turns. Fiona is zipping all over the place fearlessly yet under control. Both skied part of a black (expert) run and a couple of different intermediate runs, loved zipping through the trees and tried out some deep powder. It was a great day.

Noah had been procrastinating on writing his Math 9 midterm for a couple of months. The course is mostly review, but he easily gets anxious and unsure of himself, and having never written a test that actually counts for anything, he was not keen to dive in. I finally pushed him to do it. He heard from our liaison teacher today -- he scored 96% with just a couple of little "brain fart" errors in the arithmetic: he nailed all the conceptual material.

And Erin, who couldn't think of anything better to do today, decided to go to school to do a bit of work mopping up some of the peripheral grad requirements. How fortunate. It turned out that her English 12 exam, which she was sure was tomorrow, was actually today! She wrote it, it was marked, and she scored 100%. On an English exam. How is that even possible?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bed stars

My little one has turned 8. What an amazing person she is. So affable, curious, capable, thoughtful, resilient, incisive. Easy. And bright. Wow.

I made her a couple of gifts. One was a hardcover journal modelled after the books in her favourite TV series ever, the 21st-century re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. That was fun to make. I hadn't made a book with a case binding in years and I had to look up a few of the details. I was pleased with how it turned out. Erin's reaction was priceless. (She's the other huge BSG fan in the family.) She saw the book, her eyes lit up with recognition, she blurted out "Hey, that's a ... Why didn't I ... hmm..." and then drifted off into good-humoured but envious silence. Yup, kiddo, this one's for Fiona. You got your mom-made BSG military fatigue shirt set for your birthday a couple of weeks ago, don't complain. She didn't. She laughed as hard as the rest of us at her reaction.

What Fiona loved best was the stars. She sleeps in the lower berth of a bunk bed in the room she and Sophie share. She stares up at the slats beneath Sophie's mattress and told me a while ago that she wished she had a picture of the sky to put up there. I decided it should be a night sky. I bought a huge black sheet of foam core board and got out at star chart and a bottle of glow-in-the-dark paint. (Every creative family should have a bottle of phosphorescent paint. It's what we used to make Fiona's butterfly costume glow in the dark last Hallowe'en, and it's been fun in a few other applications too over the years. I don't know where you buy it; our bottle is so old I've forgotten where we got it.)

I put the stars on as dots of glow-in-the-dark paint. I didn't go for mathematical accuracy. I tried to reproduce most of the major northern hemisphere constellations in recognizable shapes and in the correct general orientation, but scale isn't accurate, nor are their relative positions totally proper. Fiona likes looking for constellations, so I labelled the constellations using a silver-grey pencil crayon. With a flashlight pointed at the board you can spotlight a group of stars and see the configuration and name of their constellation. With the flashlight off you see just the "stars" and you can practice picking out the constellations. The photo doesn't do it justice: it only shows half the area and it's blurry due to the 30-second time-exposure. It's quite lovely to look at. (I can say that because it's not my design. I just copied what's writ across the heavens.)

It was a successful birthday. She was so excited all morning that she had to resort to jumping jacks and practicing her violin to contain some of the energy she had. She had chosen to have an afternoon tea party at her grandma's house as part of the celebration. This entailed a lot of snow-blowing and shovelling to release the van from its tomb of snow. It has been impossible to get up and down our laneway for more than a week, so the poor van has been parked up at the highway, not used much and bombarded with the sprayed snow of the plows and with the relentlessly falling-from-the-sky stuff too. There was a good 40 cm of depth covering it, and more than that on the ground around it. After we'd got rid of all that, it was left sitting on a sheet of ice and a bit of icy snow and it took a fair bit of sanding, digging and pushing (by the three older kids) to get it unstuck and able to move forward. Finally we made it to grandma's. We drank tea, ate pumpkin gingersnap cheesecake (adorned by marzipan pumpkins made by Sophie and Fiona) and she opened gifts. It was nice to get out. We've been at home a lot since the driveway got un-navigable. We then returned home for a dinner of Shepherd's Pie -- one pan with meat for the three omivores and one vegetarian version for the three vegetarians. And now it's time for bed, and a view of bed stars.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Nook for Sophie

Our home was originally built as a 15 by 30-foot log rectangle with vaulted ceilings and two rooms. It's seen three separate additions over the years, the largest and latest of which was ours, put on when Noah was an infant. But the main living part of the house is still that log rectangle with the vaulted ceiling.

At some point, probably very early on, whoever built the place decided that a loft would give some much-needed storage space. So they slung a low ceiling over the larger of the two rooms and created a crawl-space of a loft above. The engineering is rather interesting. We assume it's safe, since it's lasted several decades already without incident. The floor of the loft isn't supported on proper joists as far as we can tell. Part of the load is taken by the roof joists, through a funky arrangements of chains and turnbuckles. It's not pretty but it seems to work.

Anyway, Sophie has been craving a bit more privacy and quiet for her academic work. From her perspective I don't think Erin can move out soon enough. She would love a quiet room into which she could retreat for reading, bookwork or just chilling out. But not only does she share a bedroom with Fiona, but that bedroom is so tiny that there's barely room for the bunk bed and clothes. You can hardly walk around the bed without shuffling your body along sideways. So there certainly isn't any space for a desk.

So we looked at the loft. It was packed full of junk. The remains of hobbies past, broken furniture, baby clothes, toys for toddlers, craft supplies no longer desired, projects built by younger children, archived sheet music, medical diplomas, Christmas decorations, photographic slides, I'm sure you can imagine. We spent some time organizing, reshuffling, recycling, tossing. And we ended up with a nook just big enough for a kneeling desk made out of two IKEA Trofast bins (still containing their Playmobil castle parts and Brio train bits) and a piece of plywood. It's a little bit like Harry Potter's cupboard under the stairs, but hey, it's warm -- the heat from the wood stove rises, of course -- and it works for her.

She has her dad's old laptop up there to do Rosetta Stone French, her math book, her science textbook and workbook, some writing utensils and Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of the Universe" series. Fiona's jealous. We'll be working on her nook next. It will be even smaller and with even less head room. Small living, growing kids, it has its challenges.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The halfiest

Fiona is getting really handy in the kitchen these days. Today she baked up a batch of chocolate chip hazelnut bars all by herself from a new recipe. She got help with the mucky job of spreading the dough in the pan, but otherwise the entire recipe was assembled by her.

Oh, and she likes me to cut the pound of butter when the recipe calls for half. She doesn't have good luck cutting the brick in even halves. So I am happy to do the cut for her.

The first time I did this job for her I said "Okay, I did my best. I don't think it's perfect, but you just pick the halfiest part for the recipe."

She didn't miss a beat. She laughed. "That's impossible," she cackled.

Math humour. I love that she gets it.


We've tried this a couple of times in the past. And we're trying it again. Starting the day with a "together meal," a breakfast at the table for the homeschoolers. Their request. Rather than rules and reminders about going to bed at a reasonable hour, they'd rather just have the expectation that I'll be getting them up at a reasonable hour. For a meal, and a few thoughts about planning out our day.

So I'm doing my best. I missed today but otherwise my track-record is pretty good. The family is doing a complete deep-cleaning of the kitchen every evening after supper, and that's fantastic. It means my day doesn't have to start with 45 minutes of damage control on the mess and dirt and filthy dishes and crumbs and unmentionable sticky patches. I start with a glistening clean kitchen, and it actually makes me happy to bake and cut up grapefruits and brew tea.

Speaking of tea, we've all become addicted to David's Tea loose-leaf teas. We've been ordering on-line for some time, and last weekend Erin and I had the pleasure of visiting a real actual retail store in Calgary and smelling all the lovely tins of funky blends with our very own noses. We spent more than I care to admit.

(I have a feeling that Erin's desire to move to Montréal stems partly from her desire to live in close proximity to the flagship David's Tea store. That's okay with me, so long as she sends regular care packages home.)

In our tea cabinet, just counting the tins of David's products:

Saigon Chai -- assam black tea, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, clove; probably my all-time fave
Cream of Earl Grey -- earl grey tea with vanilla and osmanthus petals; almost a London Fog by itself
Citron Oolong -- jasmine, oolong tea, lemon myrtle, citrus oils; this week's most popular chez nous
Raspberry Nectar -- raspberry, lemongrass, honeygrass, citrus oils; good anytime tea
Read My Lips -- mint, chocolate, black tea, peppercorns; I was skeptical at first, but I'm won over now
Coco Chai Rooibos -- rooibos tea, coconut, spices; Noah's favourite
Sweet Dreams -- chamomile-based, with hibiscus, lemongrass, licorice, citrus, rose petals; great bedtime tea
White Tiger -- white peony tea, blueberry, pomegranate; light and energizing

Every day starts with a big pot of one of these, or else some straight earl grey, jasmine, genmaicha or green tea. And usually some fruit and something baked. So far it's working well. We're more likely to use our days intentionally if we do this. We'll see how long I can keep up the routine.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Touch-typing game

Erin and I used to play this touch-typing game in chat windows.

One person touch-types a message but with their hands shifted outwards one key on the keyboard. Instead of having your index fingers over F and J, they'll be over D and K. Touch-typing will produce a certain amount of total nonsense on the screen. For instance if you type "hello there" with your hands shifted outwards, you get "jw;;p rjwew."

Then the other person, in order to decode what has been written, touch-types what they see in their message window, but with their hand shifted in the opposite direction, inwards. Try it. If you touch-type jw;;p rjwew with your hands shifted to centre one key so that the index fingers are over G and H and it will show up as ... hello there. Magic!

After you've translated what the other person has said, you then type your own response using the hands-out position. Erin is amazingly skilled at this. Me, while I'm an awesome touch-typist I find myself having to close my eyes and will myself into a zen-like state of focus, or else I start trying to type what I think the actual word is rather than the letters on the screen. Erin seems to be able to completely turn off that part of her brain and simply use her touch-typing physical memory.

Tonight we use a variation on this trick with our various names, shifting the left hand, right hand or both by one key in or out, touch-typing it and choosing from among the several possibilities our favourite new names.

Noah is now Nosh.
Fiona is Guibs.
Sophie is Siogue.
Erin is Erub.

and I am Nurabda.

Chuck, who went to bed early being on call, has not yet chosen his new name, but he largely ends up with an unfortunate collection of words with unpronouncable consonants.

Monday, January 03, 2011


While helping purge mess and clutter from the attic and coming across a sheet of once-used tropical fish gift wrap that she recalls from a birthday gone by, Fiona quips:

"I'm feeling pretty nostalgic for being only 7 years old."

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Goodbye holidays

Erin emerged from the basement yesterday and asked "When can we go somewhere?"

It takes a lot to get that introvert to the point where she's wishing for a social outing of some sort. It's been that kind of holiday break, though. We all needed a dose of home-bodying. We had a lot of travel and a lot of performances last fall. After a full week of little other than being home together I guess we're feeling recharged and ready for something more.

The three older kids were all sick in succession, which was a bit of a bummer. But still, it was a nice time. We skated on the rink. We played board games. We worked on jigsaw puzzles. We talked and laughed and drank egg nog and ate treats and stayed up late and read stories. I started knitting again. I'm currently mid-way through my Alto Clef Chullo, a warm hat for a violist. Chuck was on call most of the holidays, but things were relatively quiet.

Erin is practicing up a storm for her National Youth Orchestra audition which we just found out is next weekend. (We hadn't heard anything, so had assumed it would be later in the month. Luckily we were planning to travel to Calgary next weekend anyway.) She's been practicing hard for a couple of weeks, which means she'll be pretty well prepared I think. Still, she hasn't managed to have a lesson on any of the audition repertoire. Too bad, since 80% of it is orchestral excerpts, which she's never had to prepare before. She's also madly trying to complete her Canadian History course, doing two assignments a day. The course is very heavy on assignments: about 65 in total. She's now more than three quarters done. She dislikes the course intensely for all its touchy-feely "creativity-nurturing" assignments. She's of the "where's the beef?" persuasion when it comes to required coursework. She's also taken on the piano accompanying gig for the local Suzuki recital in February, so she's working on some of that music. She spends her free time dreaming of living in Montreal on her own.

Noah has been doing some awesome virtual robotics stuff, scripting something he's called "Followbot v3.0" in Garry'sMod / WireMod, building scripts and virtual logic gates in a virtual physics environment that allows him to test everything out. Even better, he's been writing about his process, explaining everything in detail in a blog he keeps in order to report to our DL teacher. He's an amazing technical writer, but hasn't had much interest in writing this year. To have him write in great detail in a clear and incisive way about his projects takes a lot of heat off me and his liaison teacher in terms of providing proof to the school system that he is in fact highly literate. It also functions as a de facto major project for the Grade 10 and 11 InfoTech courses the school hopes to give him credit for. And he got totally stoked by some new viola repertoire he was given just before Christmas: the magnificent Schubert Arpeggione sonata in particular. He's taught himself the first two pages and is now chomping at the bit waiting to receive the last two in the mail from his teacher with her fingerings and bowings.

Sophie has been taken under her Noah's wing in the programming and gaming department for better or for worse. She's learning some basics in WireMod and playing "mature" games on-line, or via LAN with Noah on the other computer. She's also been doing some awesome artwork on -- using a laptop touchpad, for heaven's sake. She recently acquired a digital pen tablet, so that should simplify things. She sewed some really brilliant gifts up for Christmas, figuring out how to do all sorts of nifty stuff with the sewing machine in secret and is finishing up some fair-isle knitting for a little cushion she's making. She seems emotionally on a much more even keel and is happy. For a 12-year-old girl anything else is a bonus.

Fiona is as always an energetic and passionate renaissance kid, interested in anything and everything, game for whatever she's presented with. Her ice-skating is coming along wonderfully, she can make scrambled eggs, and soup and cookies from scratch, she's puttering her way through her current math workbook, reading chemistry and biology textbooks for fun, mastering "Treasures of Montezuma" on the iPad, reading for hours a day, enjoying blogging and photography and knitting, working hard at the tail end of Suzuki violin book 5, and making pithy little observations in the course of daily life that make me laugh, or my jaw drop, or both.

And now I've got a few little odds and ends to do on the computer (music arranging and meeting minutes to type), and then it's back into the fray after one more cozy evening knitting in front of the fire.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Putting Christmas "away"

Yesterday we took down the tree and the decorations. Sort of. Inspired by Erin's approach to décor in her cabin we hoisted the strands of Christmas lights to the ceiling of the living room. We don't have enough light in this room anyway. And it's easier than putting the lights away. Who knows how long they'll stay there. We quite like them.