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.