Monday, December 24, 2012


It was the morning before I had to leave for Kelowna to pick up Erin. Noah, Fiona and Sophie had to be got up, the lunches had to be made, everyone had to be fed, coffee had to be made and drunk, suitcases had to be packed for Fiona and me for the overnight, art class supplies and sewing machine had to be readied for the morning's class. In other words, it was the usual chaos plus a bit more. And of course the chicken feed and water had to be topped up before I left. Ten minutes before we all had to depart, I ran out to water the chickens, and saw something leap up towards the fenced roof of the outdoor chicken run.

And there he was: this guy. About twice the size of a house cat, meaty and substantial with strength and claws and attitude to match. He was trapped there, startled by my presence. I couldn't see how he'd gotten in, but getting out wasn't proving to be easy.

I saw no blood or feathers around, and the chickens usually stay inside the coop where it's warmer, so I wondered if he had maybe just arrived. Perhaps the chickens were still alive, cowering inside. Regardless, I wanted to get him out. I cracked the gate to the outdoor chicken run, just wide enough to admit a camera lens, and took this photo. He growled, hissed and growled some more.

I cracked the gate a little wider and then went around to the far side of the coop, prodding him from behind with a long stick in an effort to encourage him to leave through the gap I'd left him in the gate. He was spitting mad and didn't want to move. But finally he made a grand leap and ran for it: straight through the little chicken door and into the coop.

I suppose I wasn't thinking entirely sensibly. I was only thinking of the poor chickens that he might be about to kill. So I ran around to the coop door and quickly opened it, peering into the relative dark, hoping that my appearance would scare him out the little flap-door at the back by which he had come in.

The image was like a split-second landscape revealed by a flash of lightning. I saw, and I slammed the door shut, only really understanding what I had seen after the door was closed. I had seen chicken carcasses: it was already all over for our rooster and four hens who had been faithfully contributing lovely blue-green-shelled eggs to our pantry for a year and a half. But I had also seen the cat, a mere 14 inches from my face, sitting in the nesting box closest to the door, growling his horrid growl, crouched upon his deadly claws.

We now had two minutes until we had to leave for school/art class/Kelowna. Like any reasonable person would, I spent that two minutes uploading the photo to Facebook (thereby alerting Chuck) and then simply drove away, trusting that the cat would eventually leave by the open gate. Which it seems he did.

We dealt with the chicken carcasses another day. I suppose we'll be back to raising new chicks this spring.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fear and locked doors

Dear Ms. School District Superintendant

I'm writing to express my distaste for the recent board-level changes in school security policy. 

I chose to raise my children in this area in large part because I wanted them to grow up in an environment free of pervasive media-drive fear. Not free of risk, of course: none of us can ever live entirely free of risk. But I wanted them to grow up in an environment uncontaminated by the sort of fear and distrust that is rampant in larger centres and other countries. I wanted my children to believe that the world is by and large a good place filled with good people. I wanted them to learn to keep risk in perspective. 

[Our community] and [our K-12 public school] seemed to provide that kind of environment. The school and the community are friendly, open and trusting. Not to the point of stupidity, but they provide a balanced openness and acceptance. We have not fallen prey here to a paranoid distrust of each other or of strangers. Children in our area who are asked for directions by tourists respond helpfully rather than cowering in fear. The school has had an atmosphere of welcome acceptance. School staff have worked hard to build connections between school and community, between living and learning, between the natural world and the people living within it. Children attending school have felt part of a school community that encompasses the larger world, rather than held in an institutional community turned inwards, insulated and protected from the larger world. 

The new security policy strikes at the heart of this openness. It creates an atmosphere that draws a firm line between the scary outside world and the supposed safety of school. It is also a terribly unscientific interpretation of risk. Considering that schools are supposed to be helping children learn to critically examine and interpret information, this sets a very poor example. The risk of a Canadian school student dying in a motor vehicle accident on the way to or from school is hundreds of times higher than the risk of dying in a school shooting. Why are we letting a media frenzy relating to an incident in a different country with a radically different health care system and firearms law dictate which doors we can walk through?

If the school district is truly concerned about reducing the risk of school shootings from negligible to even-more-negligible, they should consider the factors that are commonly cited by experts as motivating such gunmen. School shooters tend to be isolated loners who are fearful and disempowered, and they tend to take out their anger on institutions where they perceive their isolation and disempowerment to have begun. Surely it is no stretch to see that a school lockdown policy -- which inhibits the free interaction between school and community, which symbolizes the isolation of students from the wider world and which restricts student movement and location -- will tend over the long run to increase the likelihood of disturbed individuals choosing that school as a target. It is no mystery why US rates of school shootings continue to rise as schools get more and more controlling and "secure." Such policies are dehumanizing. They put up barriers. They isolate. All factors that play into the disturbed thought patterns of future potential mass-murderers.

For goodness sake, let's keep risk in perspective. The risk of a school shooting here in our corner of rural BC is virtually nil. The risk of choking on a piece of food at a school lunch or dropping dead of cardiac arrest on the soccer field is higher. We're not rushing around banning team sports or grapes. Why is the school district buying into media-driven fear, and in doing so eroding healthy attitudes towards community and the wider world, the sort of healthy attitudes that are protective against violence? I hope that the recent directive was a misguided attempt to comfort families by being seen to be doing something in light of the media hype surrounding a shooting in a nation very different from ours, and that upon realizing that parents do not need or want this sort of "comfort" the administration will revise the policy.

I urge you to rescind the current directive so that the wonderful healthy openness between students, families, school staff and communities can be preserved. Barriers build fear and resentment and reduce student security both real and perceived. A policy of openness serves our students, and their security, best.



Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Matcha White Chocolate Truffles

Matcha White Chocolate Truffles

1 lb. good white chocolate
1/2 cup butter
2/3 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup matcha powder

~ 1 lb. white chocolate chips or buttons for dipping

Melt and stir together the first four ingredients. Chill for several hours.

Roll into 1 tsp. balls, dip in melted plain white chocolate. Store in airtight containers in a cool location, well away from dog.

Note: Sophie describes the above recipe as Matcha Truffles: Extreme Edition. Unless you really love green tea, you might want to tone this down. Start with a couple of tablespoons of matcha powder and work up from there to taste. We decided that wrapping a bit of the truffle ganache around a macadamia nut balances the flavour beautifully, so that the extreme mix works well.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Moot court

Our workshops exploring aspects of law and government have continued since last spring and concluded this week with a moot court. We've made a special trip to Nelson for each one, and even though we do far too much driving at the best of times, it's been worth it.

Our Lawyer Mentor has employed an consistent and unique theatrical style which the kids have played along with happily. He reads a narration of the events of our fictional country aloud. As he does so he non-verbally appoints certain kids to certain roles. "The head of security .... [grabbing a police hat and dropping it on the head of a likely-looking 9-year-old, then gesturing for her to come onto the rug which is serving as the centre of the theatre space] .... went to the king [she walks to where the king is standing] and said 'I will make sure your laws are followed!' [nodding for her to repeat this line, which she does]," And so on, with the story evolving at each session.

Here's how the story of our country has evolved:

In the beginning there were no rules. The people were free to do whatever they wanted. Everything was wonderful. There were parties with lots of singing, people rode horses all over the country and built wonderful houses. Except that people who wanted to sing would sometimes sing all night when others wanted to sleep. People who wanted to ride horses would sometimes ride them through fields where farmers were tending their rows of carrots. Big strong people who wanted nice houses would sometimes just take them away from smaller people.

While it was nice to be able to do what you wanted, some rules were needed to help keep order. A lady  decided she would make rules to control the chaos and she came to be called Queen Henrietta. She made laws about not riding horses through carrot gardens, and about not singing all night when people wanted to sleep. But she also made laws that said the people had to give her presents all the time. She became very powerful and rich, and the people, who disagreed with some of her laws, were not very happy.

Her evil nephew Prince Henry saw that the people were unhappy. He saw that the Queen was very rich. He decided that with the help of some of the people he could get rid of Queen Henrietta. And so he did. He told the people that he would help them be in charge of their own country, so they agreed to sneak into Queen Henrietta's castle at night very quietly and then suddenly yell "Boo!" This frightened her so badly that she ran away. Now Prince Henry told the people that they could vote to choose someone to make all the laws. But he got his friends to give all the people O'Henry candy bars so that they would vote for him. Once he was elected, he began to make laws to keep himself in power.

The new laws meant that the people had very little freedom. If they disagreed with Henry they were arrested by his security force. There were no parties allowed, no singing, not even any talking a lot of the time.

Finally the little people sneaked up on Henry and scared him away with a big "Boo!"

They chose a nice guy to be the head of the country and called him King Fair. King Fair agreed to make only the laws that the House of Laws told him to make. The House of Laws was made up of one person chosen from each family. They talked together and then decided what laws King Fair would pass. "So it shall be passed," King Fair replied every time the people from the House of Laws told him about a new law they wanted. If it seemed like laws were broken, the police would arrest people. The court would listen to evidence and decide if they were guilty or innocent.

The country also created a list of basic rights and freedoms that should not be interfered with. And so the court also kept an eye on the House of Laws. If they made any laws that interfered with those basic rights and freedoms, he would strike down the law. And the government worked very well for several years.

But rumours began surfacing that the Evil Lord Voldesnort was planning to take the country over with the help of collaborators. So the government took the unusual step of making a far-reaching security law. Among other things the Security Act mandated the installation of wireless video surveillance cameras in every living room in the kingdom. The Brown Family refused to allow the camera to be installed. They were arrested and charges brought against them.

And so we ended up in a provincial supreme courtroom last Friday. In all honesty the defence lawyers didn't do nearly as good a job as the prosecution. While the unconstitutionality of the security act was clear-cut in most people's minds, the defence didn't do a great job of demonstrating this in court. But in the end the judge found for the accused and the Browns were set free.

Fiona had the role of a witness for the defence. She was Miss Matters, an expert on the health and safety issues pertaining to microwave radiation. She read a prepared statement and was examined by counsel for the defence and then cross-examined by the prosecution. She wore and then presented to the bench Exhibit C, a tinfoil hat used by those concerned about the health effect of microwaves.

I'm so thrilled that we've had this opportunity. It has spawned some amazing discussions afterwards as well. It has been the nidus of broad, far-reaching exploration of the philosophy and practice of law and government.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Between the subjects

One of the things I love about homeschooling is the way the boundaries between subjects don't need to exist at all. I know that many schools pride themselves on making "cross-curricular connections," but those are more like threads connecting otherwise discrete areas. As homeschoolers we are free to dwell for months in the spaces between the subjects.

This fall has been a case in point for Fiona. She's been learning about ... how does one describe it when it isn't a traditional subject area? ... learning about where math, art and nature overlap.

I think perhaps the thread of discovery that led us into this playground was the stylized form of doodling called zentangles. This was clearly a form of creative precision that appealed to Fiona: the fine lines, the iterations, the patterns and conventions, the interesting figure-ground relationships.

And then, suddenly there was Vi Hart and her quirky doodling in (and about!) math class. Fiona has spent hours watching these videos over and over, experimenting with the tricks and techniques. Hexaflexagons, binary trees, Fibonacci spirals, doodling music, she's loved all of Hart's stuff.

And that brought us to October, when art class began. Last year's classes focused on the alphabet and on place: our community, the natural world we treasure, and letters, and words, and art that combined them all. But this year's series of workshops, wonder of wonders, is about geometric patterns in nature and art.

How perfect for this girl at this moment in her life!

Right from the first class drawing compasses were part of the exercises. Mandalas made with concentric circles. Lines made from circles. Equilateral triangles made from circles. Squares made from circles. Fibonacci spirals made from squares and circles.

As with most homeschoolers' classes, this one is multi-age and multi-level. The instructor is amazing at meeting the needs of barely-5-year-olds, and even some of their younger siblings, as well as challenging the 9- to 11-year-olds.

Fiona is neat to watch socially in the class. She enjoys talking to the adults -- she chats away with the art teacher and the homeschool liaison teacher genuinely and comfortably as if they are good friends, and they afford her the same respect and warmth. She and the 11-year-old are at similar academic levels and are friends from way back so they banter back and forth about science, spelling, vocabulary, music, books and math. She enjoys the company of one lovely girl who is almost exactly her age; they often hang out after class for an afternoon. But her favourite classmate to spend time with is a 6-year-old. And it's not a doting babysitter-like arrangement. She doesn't play with this kid because she thinks she's cute or because she enjoys being a leader who is bigger and older and more capable. She plays with her simply because they're really good friends. She really really likes J. as a person.

Art class is outdoors sometimes too. We walk to and from the lakeshore, or along the creek, or along the streets of the quiet neighbourhoods near the school. The kids enjoy the less structured time, the physical outlet of getting themselves somewhere on their own two feet and the chance to socialize. Along the way they're learning to see the patterns in nature, collecting specimens and samples, building ephemeral art.

I love ephemeral art. We have a friend living nearby who makes a living at sand and snow sculpture. I admit to at first thinking it was kind of gimmicky, a sort of festival competition endeavour designed to pull in tourists and make a spectacle. But I see it differently now that I've watched his work evolve, and seen Andy Goldsworthy's work, and grown older and more comfortable with impermanence myself. For kids, I think ephemeral art lowers the stakes: there's no need to strive for perfection if you know it will wither or blow away. Just enjoy the process, and appreciate your work for as long as it lasts, and that's all. What wonderful therapy for perfectionists!

I was mystified a year or so ago when Fiona announced that architecture is something she could see herself doing as a career. Mystified because she had never expressed much interest in building toys like Lego or Knex. Mystified because she had never been rapt over cranes or framing or cement trucks as I assumed budding little architects would be. But she loves the design aspect of architecture, especially spare, clean contemporary architecture. She doesn't see many clean modern lines in our little hewn-log corner of the world, but she loves images of the sexy towers in Dubai, and of achingly spare glass-and-rice-paper rooms in Kyoto apartments.

Further, she has fallen in love with contemporary design. An IKEA catalogue was her gateway drug. Now she's browsing design blogs and awards. Who knows where it will all go. At this point I'm avoiding labelling and categorizing her interests as much as I can. Although a certain amount of labelling is helpful to her in finding resources and talking about her interests, I think it is wonderful the way she is comfortable inhabiting the overlapping space shared between various subjects.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Fall bits

Where has October gone? Where has my blogging mojo gone? My additional teaching load, and all the juggling of travel and activities by Noah and Sophie, is taking a toll.

Fall was amazing until the rain finally caught up with us. The leaves were a good two weeks later to start turning, and then when they did it was in a flash of gold glory. Still it was sunny. And (relatively) warm. 

Now it's been raining for a couple of weeks. And cold, and grey, and dark. The wood stove is working all the time and we're inside a lot more. 

Fiona has been doing a lot of neat art and math. The topo map project (previously mentioned) but also a lot of Vi-Hart-inspired doodling, zentangle style art, and circle-geometry stuff. The art classes that were offered last year to homeschoolers are underway again, and this year's focus is mathematics and patterns in art, which is just a perfect fit for Fiona's current enthusiasms. An art class where the vocabulary frequently includes words like radius, concentric, tetrahedron, equilateral, rotation and intersection? Right up her alley! They're currently working on making mandalas, using various paint techniques, geometry with compasses and straight-edges, and carved print blocks. 

A last few tidbits, clockwise as above. 

We've been doing some organized running clinics. Fiona attended the first one and enjoyed it. I'm going to continue doing some regular Sunday clinics in a neighbouring village. I am trying to work up interest in an ongoing local running group, so I've put some time and energy into hiring a clinician, setting up an email loop, and doing publicity.

My knitting bug has hit again, with the stoking of the wood stove. The only local yarn shop (90 minutes away) closed last spring, so I shall have to find a good on-line source for yarn. It's a shame not to be able to see colours and touch hanks in person though. 

My networking with other runners and cyclists has made me keen to get to know even more of the local wilderness. Last weekend I stumbled on a fabulous trail that I had never heard about. A well-kept secret, I suppose. It's low-elevation, easily accessible, rolling in profile, quite and stunningly beautiful ... yet very close by. How could I not have known? I've biked it and run it and loved it both ways. It's made me hungry to truly and thoroughly get to know the backcountry around here. In the last couple of years I've got a good handle on the trails between my area and town. But that's just a wee portion of what's out there. I want to get back into backcountry hiking and camping too.

Fiona dressed up for Hallowe'en as No Face from the Studio Ghibli anime movie Spirited Away. An easy and warm costume for a typically cold and wet Hallowe'en.

The Law and Government classes are drawing to a close. These fun theatrical classes about the evolution and structure of our constitutional monarchical government system have continued sporadically throughout the summer and into the fall. Fiona has continued her role as Head of the Executive branch of government, but she now has a new role as Miss Matter, a witness for the defence in the case of against Mr. and Mrs. Brown, who have refused the installation in their living room of a video surveillance camera according to Section 10 of the Kingdom Security Act designed to protect against the rumoured terrorist plans of Evil Lord Voldesnort. The mock trial is scheduled for the Nelson Courthouse in a couple of weeks.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Bokashi bin, and wheat-bran starter
Okay, it isn't pretty, but it's pretty cool.

We've been outdoor composting for more than 20 years. We tried indoor vermicomposting for a while, but despite our best efforts couldn't entirely prevent fruit-fly outbreaks. We don't have a garage, so the worms were on their own outside, and eventually bears got the bin. And bears, really, are the problem. Yard waste won't attract them, but the food waste definitely does at certain times of year. Our solution has been to move the compost pile to the far corner of our property and let the bears snack as they like. But it's not ideal. Habituating the bears to human food waste is not such a great thing. Bears learn quickly and seem to share their knowledge through some sort of bear intranet. One compost bear tends to become several.

Winters present a different problem. Just getting to that faraway compost pile is a challenge when the snow is thigh-deep. No one likes doing it. Compost is the most dreaded chore on the kitchen chore rota. And of course, nothing actually rots during the winter, so in spring there's a gradual thawing of a mountain of food scraps. Just in time for the bears' arrival.

And now that most of us are eating meat a few times a week, we have the problem of bones and meat waste. We don't have garbage collection, so that stuff has to go into the freezer to be stored until we make our monthly trip to the dump.

So now we're trying something new. The chicken manure, leaves, garden waste, straw and grass clippings will keep going in the compost pile, but our food waste will go in our bokashi bin inside. Bokashi is Japanese for "fermented waste" and the bokashi approach to food waste processing was invented in Japan in 1980. It uses a combination of lactic acid bacteria, photosynthetic bacteria and yeast to ferment food and cellulose (i.e. wood/paper) anaerobically. Indoors, in a sealed container.

You put your food -- including citrus, meat, bones and dairy -- in a sealed drum or bucket with a wheat-bran "starter" which provides the micro-organisms necessary for fermentation. You sprinkle a little of the starter in every time you dump a day or two's worth of scraps into the drum, and re-seal it. Then, once it's completely full, you seal it fully for a minimum of 10-14 days. After that, it is fully fermented, won't attract animals, and is just waiting to fall apart into compost.

Last week we had a chance to intercept some bokashi bins at the post-fermentation stage. During the annual Garlic Festival in September, Fiona and I had worked a few hours on the waste management team. This meant directing visitors and food vendors to get all their recyclables in the appropriate bins, and to place any food or food/paper/wood waste in the buckets destined for the bokashi drums. The half-dozen 60-gallon drums underwent their fermentation, and were delivered to the school-and-community Harvest Festival last Friday by the bokashi guy. They were opened and dumped into trenches in the garden.

The stuff smelled pretty distinctive. Not horrid. Very cidery / vinegary. It was laced with the white mold that sometimes shows up in our compost pile and is a hallmark of a good bokashi process. Like the documentation suggested, it looked pretty much the same as it had when it went into the drums. It hadn't decomposed, but the bokashi guy assured me that much of the cell structure had been destroyed. It will apparently decompose in 10-30 days when mixed with soil or buried in a compost pile. The school bravely dumped a couple hundred gallons of the stuff into the garden beside the place where the little preschoolers play. And just as the bokashi buy promised, no bears have shown up.

I think it will take us 3 to 4 weeks to fill a 5-gallon drum. We have three drums. We'll fill two, wait the 14 days while working on the third one, and then take the fermented ones out to dump in the compost pile. That's one trip to the compost pile every 6-8 weeks. Two or three trips each winter. Sure, it'll require a sled. But that we can handle, given the infrequency of the requirement.

So far our bin smells cidery when opened, and harbours no flies. Thanksgiving turkey bits are in there, with dozens of plum pits, a few bamboo skewers, a lot of tea leaves, some paper and coffee grounds, a bunch of dried-out mozzarella cheese and the usual food scraps. Week one has gone as expected. We'll see how the winter goes.

We Live Here 3D

Recently Fiona has been fascinated by Vi Hart's quirky art-in-math videos. She's made Fibonacci spirals, binary trees, trihexaflexagons and various other doodly-mathy things. Recently she noticed how a particular style of spiral doodle looked a bit like topographic lines on a map. And as she didn't really understand how topographic lines worked, I explained them to her, and printed out a topo map from our area. I also suggested it might be fun to someday cut out and stack layers of cardboard using topographic lines as a guide to create a three dimensional model of the topography of an area, real or imagined.

Well, she wanted to do that right away. So we found a couple of old cardboard boxes, traced over the topographic lines on the map we'd printed out, and started cutting. One topo line at a time we cut out our paper map contours, traced them onto cardboard, and cut each layer. Fiona glued the layers together and was entranced as the topography began to take shape. The creek drainages, and the peaks, the valleys, the ridges.

Today she painted.

A layer at a time, with bright and darker greens and greys. She used acrylic paint for its forgiving nature and opacity. Of course the open corrugated edges weren't really filled: I wondered about smoothing everything out with some polyfilla. But in the end I didn't suggest that because I figured the real point was to notice the way in which topographic lines on a map, which are so beautifully visible on this model, allow one to approximate the three-dimensional shape of the terrain.

After the painting was done, we looked at the model without the map, and tried to identify peaks and locations. Then we got out the map to check and get a bit more precise with our locations. And we decided to repurpose some sewing pins into map pins, and mark a few places with names.

Fiona is very pleased with the finished product. It took us two pleasant afternoons, totalling about 4 hours. We worked together part of the time, and sometimes I read aloud while she worked.

(We have a few of these picture-perfect unschooling days a year, where a thread of interest turns into an interesting project and results in some awesome photos. I always blog about them because .... well, because they're noteworthy. Not because they're typical.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2012


Sufferfest went almost exactly as I expected, except that it was harder, and more fun, and the weather was exceptionally fine. So, not exactly as I expected. But close.

The bike ride was long and hard. The 45k included about 1400 metres of climbing. I was worried I wouldn't finish before the course closed: a number of people didn't finish, and a few sneaked in just past the official cutoff but were granted finishes. It was a hard physical slog for longer than I've ever worked that hard. Longer than my marathon. I finished in under 5 hours, though not by much. Official times have not been posted. But I'm told I came 3rd overall among female riders. Maybe there were only three women? There were about 40 riders but it seems most of them were male.

Surprisingly I felt pretty good once I had a chance to catch my breath at the end of the day. I had a scrape on my leg from a small crash but that was all. I went home, slept and got up for the run. Muscles still seemed happy enough to oblige.

The 25k run was fine. It had about 650 metres of climb and an equivalent descent. As expected my bones and gristly bits held up well and the next day I just had a pleasant amount of muscle soreness. I managed to shave about 5 minutes off my 2010 time, sneaking in under 3 hours. Two years older and 5 minutes faster, even after a huge bike ride: I'll take it!

It was a really motivating weekend. Especially with respect to the bike. I have a decent amount of endurance, but I realized it would help to be a lot stronger when it comes to powering up hills. So there's something to work towards for next year.

Next year I'd like to do the bike ride again. And I think I'd like to run the 10k with Fiona. She's started running with me and would like to keep that up. There were an impressive bunch of kids running the 10k this year, and she would like to be part of that next year.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sufferfest v2.0

Two years ago I ran the 25k Sufferfest True Blue trail run. I hadn't trained specifically for it, though I had been training hard that summer. It was the first year for Sufferfest and I wanted to support the event, just a stone's throw from my home town. I originally thought to run the 10k event, though the 25k looked enticing. I had just run my first-ever race, an Alberta (i.e. flat) Half Marathon three weeks earlier and was feeling good. I figured an extra 4 kms wasn't that big a difference.

But it turned out the Sufferfest trail run was a whole different animal. Steep up, steep down, rooty and rocky. I had also just switched over to minimalist trail shoes and though I had run in them a fair bit, I hadn't really run any trails. I felt great at the outset and ran hard -- over all that crazy terrain, which quickly took its toll on me. My knee and my foot were paying the price by the end and I did a long rallentando to the finish line. It took me weeks to recover.

So you'd think that if I entered Sufferfest again I'd be a little more judicious in my choice of events. But no, I've gone an entered the 25k again, despite a summer of little to no training. I've been running on and off, but no real long runs, only a handful over 5 km and nothing at all systematic. (And I've entered the 45k mountain-bike race the day before. It's a length that's almost double the longest trail ride I've ever done in my life.)

My old friend the Minimus 10
The bike stupidity aside, I feel differently about it all this time around. I have a lot more experience pacing myself over long runs and steep trails. I've been running in a minimalist way for a long time now. I plan to run in my Minimus Trail 10's. They're considerably more minimalist than the shoes I ran my first Sufferfest in, but now they rank as old favourites, and more shoe than I usually run in. On roads I run barefoot. On rough trails these days I wear either Unshoes, my home-made huaraches or Minimus Zeros. So the Minimus 10's are a solid old standby. I know they'll work for me. My muscles, ligaments and tendons have adapted to this kind of running -- and some -- and I've done a lot of miles on exactly the sort of trails I'll be running this weekend. I've also noticed that my body is pretty good at endurance running. It forgives my completely non-systematic increases in mileage. I'm fine running nothing more than 5 km for a couple of months and then going out and doing a challenging 15k. Sure, Sufferfest is a big run and I'll be tired and sore as stink, but I don't think I'll be injured.

Not unless that bike ride kills me. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bike bridge

Our property is ideally situated to avoid logging, development or loss of privacy. We own a mere 2.5 acres (1.0 Ha) but the surrounding crown land is heavily forested, but steep and creeky -- not suitable for logging. Above us runs the highway, and a long way down a 45- to 60-degree slope is a regional park, so no risk of anything man-made growing up in either of those directions. Which is lovely, except that it makes it almost impossible to create any trails that start at our place and connect up with anything. We're prisoners of our terrain. Our small area of more moderate grade is all we've got to work with. 

So Fiona and I decided that if we can't hook into the nearby cross-country trails from our property, we could at least create some sort of interesting circuit to make use of on our bikes. We have dreams of a reticular network of tiny trails connecting obstacles, jumps, skinnies, ramps and whatever else we can dream up. Today, with Chuck's help we got started. We used two 18' cedar logs to span a small gully. Then Fiona got busy with hammer, nails and a bunch of cedar decking recycled from our old deck.

In less than an hour we had completed the bridge. Fiona got up her courage: the access at the far side comes from a short but steep slope. She made it across without any difficulty!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thermos hack: yogurt-maker

I have a large plastic thermos, and inexpensive item that is world-weary and not particularly water-tight. It has a capacity of about 3 Litres, and is perfect for making a large batch of yogurt for our family. Since we've been freezing the local summer fruit bounty, the kids are making a lot of smoothies and subsequently we go through a lot of yogurt. This is so cheap and easy.

A Thicker Yogurt

4 cups boiled water
4 cups tap water
4 2/3 cups instant skim milk powder
1/2 cup fresh yogourt with active bacterial culture, or two packets of yogourt starter

Combine boiled and tap water in a large thermos. In my house the resulting temperature is about 115ºF, which is ideal for starting a yogourt fermentation. I can trust this temperature, but if you're trying this for the first time, definitely check the temperature of the mixture and adjust as necessary. Whisk in skim milk powder, then whisk in the fresh yogurt. Using skim milk powder allows you to get a thicker yogurt by getting more milk solids in less liquid volume, and it means you don't have to go the fussy process of heating the milk to kill any lingering thermophils.

Place lid on thermos. Place in unheated oven with the light turned on to provide a bit of warmth. Leave undisturbed for 8 hours. (Put a sticky-note on the oven to remind yourself and others not to turn it on! Ask me why my thermos is world-weary with bubbly plastic on the bottom...) With luck you should have a nice thick yogurt. It will firm up a bit more in the fridge.

Yield: 8.5 cups of yogurt

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Swim lessons

We haven't felt swim lessons are a necessity, but they're nice when they work out, and the child is motivated and ready for the input. Fiona has never had any swimming instruction other than guidance from me and her siblings. She has been comfortable in deep water for a year and a half or so, and happy submerging for several years. But she's still mostly a dog-paddler, albeit one with a pretty cool self-styled backstroke. She's motivated to improve at everything, though, and swimming is no exception.

Our lake is only realistically swimmable for a couple of months a year, and we live a long, long way from a public pool. So it's nice to seize opportunities when they arise. A friend of ours is a swim instructor living in the next village over. She offers swim lessons in their lake (a little colder even than ours) every summer. This year the timing worked out, and lessons weren't full before we found out about them. It's a 75-minute drive, round-trip, but we go in the morning before the rest of the family gets going for the day. Fiona reads aloud to me from our readaloud book. We chat. We watch for bears, and moose, and coyotes, and great views, and raging creeks.

The first two days were SO cold! About 13ºC in both the air and the water, and windy to boot. Fortunately there were a couple of extra wetsuits available for loan, one of which fit Fiona. And a swim cap has made a huge difference.

She was very ready for this instruction! No fear, all eagerness, some decent confidence in the water. The stroke instruction is something she's internalizing really well. She's got the beginnings of a really good front crawl, and already looks like an expert in the back crawl. All in just three half-hour sessions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

End of the school year

Sophie and Noah both entered high school this year out of a lifetime of unschooling, Sophie full-time in a combination of Grade 8 & 9 (Grade 8 being considered high school here) and Noah part-time in Grade 10. I realize I've written almost nothing about their experiences there. All in all I think it's been a successful year that has given them both a lot of what they wanted. It was hard to know: Noah in particular isn't very forthcoming, and then there was the fact that the teachers were engaged in job action all year long and we didn't receive any report cards until school had wrapped up at the end of June. I was pretty sure it was all going fine, but it was hard to really know.

Both kids went to school without complaint, even after the novelty had long worn off. I left 99% of the organization and responsibility up to them. I think I asked each of them maybe once or twice over the course of the year whether they had homework or assignments they should be working on but that was the extent of my parental management. While I sometimes wondered whether Noah had any kind of handle on due dates and exams, he seemed to blunder through without problems. He still doesn't much enjoy tests and exams, but the kid who would burst into tears over his first wrong answer in a note-naming quiz at his piano lesson when he was 8 seems at age 15 to handle timed tests without too much stress. Sophie took to the whole organizational challenge with glee. While she had a little trepidation going into her first set of exams, she discovered she loved the challenge and ended up looking forward to her subsequent exams. It was wonderful for me to see that they handled the transition with little active parental involvement.

That's not to say that I have felt detached or have wanted to remain aloof from their school learning. I love our local school. I know most of the teachers at a personal level. I have no end of respect for what they do and I love the flexibility and innovation they exercise. I very much wanted my kids to be happy and successful there. It's just that I felt that part of the reason they were attending was out of a desire to become more independent people with more responsibility and lives separate from home and family. It seemed to make sense to give them that at this point of transition and trust that they would handle it well unless it was proven otherwise. I also figured that my confidence in their ability to make a successful transition might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, that they'd rise to my expectations.

Sophie likes getting good marks. She has a certain awareness of what the achievement benchmarks are and keeps track in a fairly normal way of how she's been scoring on tests. But she doesn't seem to let the marks take on more importance than the learning. She's pleased when she does well on a test, and remembers the grade, but she's not going to school and studying in order to get good grades. She's there to learn. It's just nice when the two coincide.

Noah seems fairly unaware of the whole business of marks. He too is pleasantly surprised when he gets good grades, but he's the sort of guy who doesn't wonder about or ask about end-of-year report cards. He doesn't seem curious about how he's scored or to compare himself to his peers. Marks are sort of a beside-the-point form of validation to him, I think. Sometimes they're a decent indicator of mastery of learning, but they're not as accurate an indicator as his own assessment.

Anyway, they both ended up with excellent grades.

Socially it's been mostly good. Both kids have lots of friends and seem to be viewed as interesting, easy-going and friendly. There have been a few poor choices made here and there about this and that. There's been a bit of para-romantic drama, particularly amongst the Grade 8/9 girls. Noah, whose grade-level "class" consists of one other student, has ended up being kind of a mentor and social magnet for a bunch of slightly younger kids. That puts him in the same social circles as Sophie and thankfully they both seem totally cool with that. They've both got involved in the local Youth Centre, Sophie being on the Board of Directors, and Noah continues to do some volunteering with the community Gaming Club.

Their relationships with the teaching staff have been wonderfully positive. The teachers seem to really, really like them. One of the things I love about the school is how authentic the teachers are: they're real people, with passions and hobbies and lives outside of work, and they share these with their students. In a tiny town like this teachers have two choices: they can create an artificial separation between their teaching persona and their real lives, or they can meld the two. When their daily lives are as visible to their students as they are in a village of 600, the former seems oddly dishonest. You are who you are, whether at the coffee shop with your mountain-biking friends, or in the classroom. To pretend otherwise seems as bizarre as it would be to ask my kids to call me by a teacher name, and not "mommy" when I'm instructing them at home.

So it seems to me as if the teachers are not just teachers, but mentors, to my kids. They share a lot of who they are, their interests, their values, their politics, their passions, and so my kids see them as real, whole people, not simply as authority figures and dispensers of education.

Corazon worked beautifully. Both Noah and Sophie were involved and that meant that there was a student from each of Grades 8, 9, 10 and 11 from the local school going down for rehearsals every Tuesday afternoon during fifth block. The school supported this (and the week-long Cuba trip for the older two) and the carpooling worked out well.

The most significant down-side has been the way their string-playing has got pushed to the back-burner. With Noah there was the added complication of him not having a local teacher. Without Erin causing us to be in Calgary every month to serve her hunger for lessons, there was no natural way for us to get Noah a teacher. His SVI-fired enthusiasm for the viola gradually petered out last fall. He continued with his ensemble-playing, and did a couple of Symphony gigs with me. But regular practicing and solo repertoire work came to a standstill. Sophie, the full-time school student, brimming with enthusiasm for all this nifty new structured learning which was coming so easily to her and earning her such approval, found violin to be a pretty poor cousin. She quit private lessons before Christmas, continuing in the chamber trio but doing a minimum of work. However, she is back taking occasional lessons now, so she hasn't totally given it up. Both kids are registered for SVI in a couple of weeks and are looking forward to it.

The other major issue has been the amount of driving I've had to do. Chuck's drive to work (past the school on the way) is often somewhat discretionary in its timing, but he didn't tend to work around the kids' schedules, so I did almost all the driving. That meant an average of three or more trips to the school per day. It's not far: it takes about 12 minutes per trip. But all those little bites out of my day, and all the gas out of my minivan ... it got tiresome. If they didn't have 10 pounds of textbooks, and 5 pounds of computer, and a no-shoulder winding mountain highway to travel, if there was a schoolbus or public transit, if the road wasn't so steep, if it was only a mile, if there was another family out this way, I wouldn't have to drive all the time. If Noah is willing to get his Learner's Permit when he turns 16, it's possible that if he passes his test a year later I might get out of some of the driving during his last few months of school. If Fiona and I can do without a vehicle all day.

Which begs the question ... will they continue in school? Yes, that's the plan at this point. Noah will go full-time next year. He found this year that even for his home-based learning he was more efficient taking a lot of it to school and doing it there. It just seems simpler to do it all under the school's umbrella next year: they're very flexible. Sophie has some reservations about next year's class mix. She has enjoyed working at a higher level, has liked being part of classes covering Grades 8-10 or 8-12, and could definitely handle even more challenge than she got this year in her Grade 9 courses. Next year she may end up in the top grade of some three-grade splits (7/8/9). She's not particularly optimistic about the social and educational milieu that will give her, but is reserving judgment for now.

Sushi salad

New favourite thing at our place. Keeps better than sushi, and it's much easier to make.

Sushi Salad

2 cups uncooked rice
1 English cucumber, sliced and quartered
3 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced and chopped
3 Tbsp. chopped pickled ginger
3/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
4 Tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. salt

Cook the rice in 3 cups of water. Any sort of rice will do. We actually prefer not to use sushi rice, which sticks together so well when rolling sushi, because we want a stir-able salad which doesn't clump up. We use a lovely fragrant basmati. Bring to boil, turn to low, cover and simmer 20 minutes (or 40 minutes if using brown rice). Remove from heat, fluff with fork, leave to cool.

Prepare the vegetables and ginger.

Once the rice has cooled a bit, dump it into a bowl and fluff it some more to keep the grains from clumping too much and to speed the cooling.

Mix together rice wine vinegar, vegetable oil, sugar and salt to make the "dressing."

Once rice has fully cooled, toss in the vegetables and douse with the dressing.

Serve immediately or cover and save in the fridge for up to 3 days. The vegetables will wilt slightly but the salad remains delicious.

NYO Redux

If ever ever wondered whether we were doing the right thing sending Erin off to live on her own in a big faraway city while still a high schooler, her experience at NYO is providing some resounding reassurance. Last summer, before she moved away, she participated in Canada's National Youth Orchestra. She did well. She worked hard. She enjoyed the thrill of playing in such a high level ensemble. It was like discovering a secret world where people were as weird about music as she was. She had found her tribe! It was a heady experience. All these other music students, and not only had they been putting as much passion into their music as she had, they were in home environments where they were getting similarly intensive nurturing of their abilities. She had the sense, I think, of being swept up in a wonderful, exciting river of activity that felt like the right place for her, but gosh, it was flowing fast and strong, and so many of the other people around her seemed to have been swimming in similar rivers for years.

This summer she's back at NYO and she's in such a totally different place musically. She's completely comfortable with her abilities, she knows the gig, she arrived primed to dive fully and completely into the specialized experience it offers, she is getting so much positive feedback about her progress. The coaches who know her from last year are very impressed by the transformation. "I've been taking lessons," she said. "Yes, that helps" was the amused response. At least some of them were aware of her geographic challenges in the past. Actually, one of them had offered her a free lesson in the public school auditorium of a neighbouring village during a cold and desolate February supper-hour 18 months ago when his chamber ensemble was here on tour. So yes, he understood where she lived.

While last year she held her own in the depths of the violin section, this year she's been placed right up front of the first violins for the majority of the major works: concertmaster, second or third chair. Amazing what getting appropriate private teaching on a weekly basis will do for a motivated kid who hasn't had that opportunity for years.

 And she's feeling completely in her element. But the mono-diet of orchestral rehearsals, while stimulating, is beginning to leave her hungry for other stuff. She can't wait to have more time to practice, to try out some composition ideas, to get lessons with her teacher, to dive into music academics like theory and history, to work on excerpts for her ensemble placement audition at McGill. 

The down-side: she needs a new instrument, having musically far outgrown the violin she's had since she was 13. It was fine back when she was learning the Monti Csardas. For a kid who will be knocking back Tchaikovsky and Paganini this fall it's not nearly enough. Oh well, it's not like we needed a new minivan, not really.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Mountain bike camp

Finally the cold rainy spell broke. We had rainfall totals for June that were almost twice the previous record. There were two weeks of mountain bike camp and luckily we chose the second one: the first week of July was still suffering from temperatures barely in the teens and torrential downpours. This week, though ... sun and soaring temperatures!

What a great week for Fiona. It was hard work: she was on her bike for most of the five and a half hours each day. There were drills around pylon courses and over small obstacles on the field, time to experiment with gravity and momentum in the concrete of the skatepark, skinnies, teeter-totters and ramps at the bike skills area, and every day included a long trail ride. 

My friend who organizes the camp does a great job with the logistics, selecting the coaches, organizing the shuttle service, keeping the kids engaged. There were thirty kids enrolled in each of the two weeks. The camp was held in the village 30 minutes to the east of us. I drove over and stayed most days rather than making two trips, which meant I was available to be the sweeper at the tail end of the trail rides. Beside putting chains back on kids' bikes, wiping up occasional bloody noses and helping the laggards out occasionally by pushing their bikes up the steepest and hottest of hills, it wasn't much work for me and I got the chance to get to know some of the trails better. 

Fiona has grown so much more confident on her bike. We bought her a snappy little aluminum Specialized hardtail this spring. She rode hard, generally at the front of the pack. She got very skilled at technical downhills, balancing her weight well and using her brakes properly to avoid going head-over-handlebars. She pushed herself to try new things and showed incredible tenacity on the most challenging "skinny." She made it all the way across the 10-metre-long 2x4 several times after scores of tries. 

Monday, July 02, 2012


I've decided that the time has come to make a quilt. I made quilts for each of my children, around the time they graduated to big beds of their own. Erin got my first quilt ever: appliquéd jungle animals in the main squares. Noah was given a community quilt by a host of my friends, a colourful alphabet quilt. I later made him a more "grown-up" quilt, a repeating stars motif with black and turquoise whale printed fabric. For Sophie I made a quilt of drawings the older two children had made, embroidering a replica of each picture (Noah was very into dinosaurs at the time!) onto a square of muslin. Fiona got a tie-dye quilt: the older three kids and I tie-dyed individual squares in a rainbow of colours and designs, and added black-and-bold sashing.

Who will get the next quilt? Perhaps it will belong to the grown-ups. Perhaps it will be a "spare bed" quilt. Not that we have a spare bed, but it never hurts to have an extra quilt around. 

I have a vision of a quilt-top made of denim. I know this is a really challenging vision: denim is nasty to work with once you get more than two thicknesses of it. As you inevitably do piecing a quilt. But I have a good sewing machine, and a fair bit of ingenuity and experience. We'll see. 

I've been harvesting used-up jeans for years, and the local donation store is a ready repository of plus-sized jeans in a beautiful array of indigos. Denim will be easy to find.

The striking element in my quilt will be the shibori sampler blocks. Shibori is a Japanese textile art. It's a form of resist dyeing traditionally done with folding and stitching, using indigo. I first saw it years ago in a quilting book I bought. Then my kids were able to experiment with it during their art workshops with a local textile artist:

The central motif here is done with cherry pits. The pits are pinched in the fabric and the "neck" of the pinch is wound with thread. The upper and lower patterns are what is called "mokume," or wood-grain. they're made by pleating the fabric with multiple parallel running stitches which are then tightened. The muslin above has been dyed with a fibre-reactive dye, exactly the same stuff we use for tie-dyeing. Lots of it lives in our basement. 

My quilt will not use indigo either, except in the denim, nor will it use a traditional blue colour for the shibori. Instead the shibori blocks will be done in fire-engine red. I intend to make each of the two dozen blocks using a different shibori pattern or technique. Here are a few of my first dozen samples. The sewing is shown on the left, and the right panel shows the same sample with the thread drawn and tied as tightly as I could manage.

Top: a fine-grained mokume. 
Middle: Komu, a geometrically pleated technique using stitched squares and twist-tied cherry pits
Bottom: Maki-agi, a stitched shape resist. 
I have a dozen or so ready for the dye bath now. I've done a traditional arashi (diagonal pole-pleated resist), a heart in maki-agi, some itajime (folded shape-resist), some meandering ori-nui, and various other experiments. I have some extra fabric, so if a few of the squares don't work out that will be fine.

But I'm so excited to be accumulating all these surprises-in-waiting! It will take me another week or so to finish a couple of dozen samples. Then it will be dye time ... and the big reveal!

Artisanal day trip

I had to go pick the van up. With our family shrinking, and the monthly trips to Calgary no longer happening, my desire for a more winter-worthy minivan is no longer a pressing need. We decided to put some work into the Sienna. I took it in to get the catalytic converter replaced to fix the "check engine" light but it turned out that there was several thousand dollars of more urgent work that needed doing. Oh dear. They kept it for a week. We enjoyed a light little Corolla loaner. Then it was time to go retrieve the Sienna, and pay the bill. 

Fiona had been wanting to visit the east side of Kootenay Lake to see the artisans. The last time we had been there she was too young to remember. There was a Barefoot Running Clinic in the village to the east of us that morning, so we decided to go a meandering eastern route to Nelson to pick up the van. 

First we stopped for the running clinic. I had heard that the clinician had run more than 6000 barefoot kilometres on trails and was hoping for some tips on sole conditioning, so that I could begin to more effectively marry my two running loves: barefoot, and trails. So far I can only run real distances barefoot on roads. But alas the clinician had run "barefoot" on trails, not actually barefoot. As in, wearing minimalist shoes. To me, running barefoot means, well, like, not wearing shoes. I've begrudgingly accustomed myself to the marketing term "barefoot shoes," but I still think that "barefoot running" (as opposed to "barefoot-shoe running") should refer to skin-to-ground.

Ah well, the clinic was an excellent introduction to minimalist running and barefoot-style form. It seemed to be exactly what the majority of the participants wanted and needed. I didn't get anything much out of it, but it was nice to see so many enthusiastic runners, most of them newbies. 

After that Fiona and I grabbed some lunch and headed down the lake to catch the Osprey 2000. This is the big ferry. We're used to taking small ferries across Arrow Lake, the simple flat-deck ferries that carry a dozen or two vehicles and offer as amenities a couple of garbage cans and a collection of tourism brochures. The M.V. Osprey is a different animal entirely. It carries up to 80 vehicles, takes more than half an hour for the crossing, and has an observation deck, a lounge and a snack bar. Better still, as part of the mainland highway system, it's free!

It's on the way to Cranbrook, where we play in the Symphony, so I've taken the older kids on it several times in the past year or two. But Fiona hadn't been in ages and didn't remember it. She was entranced. The weather was lovely. We visited the snack bar for drinks. We stared out the big windows in the lounge, we let our hair be blown in the wind on the observation deck. 

Then when we got to the other side we drove 5 minutes to Crawford Bay. Here there are a collection of artisans with open workshops, gift shops and displays. The blacksmith wasn't working, but that was no big deal: we have one of those at home. We did spend a fair bit of time watching the lady enamelling glass onto copper, looked at the blown glass, perused the pottery studio, and spent a fair bit of time at the weaver's store and studio. 

Janet, the primary weaver, was out of the studio, which was too bad, because she's the elder sister of a very good friend I grew up with in Ontario. I've met her a few times and she's lovely. But the best part is that I have this memory of the mysterious Janet coming to visit my city in Ontario when I was maybe 13 or 14. She was living in the mountains of BC; she had a bunch of children, they gardened, they homeschooled, they lived in a log house off the beaten path, far from highways and airports, they lived in the forest, they baked their own bread, they hardly knew what TV was. It seemed so exotic! And now, except for the TV part, I'm living more or less the same life a mere 60 miles as the crow flies from her. 

Anyway, we stopped in at the broom-maker's before heading back to the ferry. Broom-making is such a quirky craft: definitely not something you see at every historic village or craft fair. We own a couple of their brooms already. I love watching the weaving and finishing process. 

We had time for ice cream and beach-combing before heading back. The pebble beach featured some lovely shades of weathered quartz that we don't see much on our stretch of lake. Naturally we brought a few pocketfuls of special stones back with us.

We made it to Nelson in the nick of time to retrieve the (expensive!) van. It was a great way to spend a day. As is typical, we don't often make the effort to be tourists in our own neck of the woods. Every summer we vow to delve more deeply into what our area has to offer: there is so much to see and do right out our back door. This day was a good start.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Civics as it should be taught

This spring Fiona and I have been attending a series of workshops led by a lawyer and homeschooling dad focused on exploring the principles of law and government. They're free. They're held largely out of doors, but with occasional use of indoor spaces where helpful. There are about twenty-five kids ranging in age from 4 to 15. Mostly unschoolers. A huge range in ages and interests. You'd think it would be an exercise akin to herding cats, with the teaching going way over the heads of the younger kids and offering little of interest to the older ones. I had visions of my chaotic multi-age-multi-level violin group classes with twice as many kids and no "common repertoire." I remembered with concern the challenge of trying to make our year-long experiment with a homeschooling science club relevant and interesting to more than one or two of the kids.

The Law & Government workshops have been something wonderful to behold. On the first day, Dave told the kids they would start by having a movie. A 3D movie. Live. "There was a queen," he narrated, and gestured to a girl to come forward. "Queen Henrietta ruled over a country filled with people ...." And pretty soon almost all the children were laughing and acting and reciting short lines he fed to them, pretending to be the police enforcing the laws, the tooth-picker who made jewelry from the teeth of children who didn't want to brush and didn't have to, or the farmers whose fields were being trampled by people celebrating their religion, or the crowd singing all night long with joy, or the nefarious nephew of the queen buying votes to elect himself to the House of Laws.

It only took moments before everyone was into it.
One day they explored the benefits of order and chaos in playing sports, playing music, building and cooking pizzas. Another day they went through a totalitarian-style "processing" complete with confiscations, body scans, finger-printing, stamping of identity codes on the hand. They've discussed their ability to shape the way the world works, the nature of fundamental rights and freedoms, the role of the judiciary, the legislature and the executive branches of government. They worked together to discuss models of social order, to create lists of fundamental rights and freedoms, to brainstorm various ideas about limits on police powers. And every session concludes with some open-ended social and play time, often anchored by some shared food.

King Fair proclaims the laws the people have chosen in "Constitutional Monarchy," the sequel to "Absolute Monarchy" while the deposed Queen Henrietta sits on the stairs, and the chief of police and chief justice look on.
The 3D Live Movie continued into sequels. At our recent workshop, the chief of police (played by Fiona) got a little heavy-handed, spying on the people, breaking into their homes, arresting and detaining them indefinitely on suspicion of having anti-governmental ideas. We were meeting under a huge tree in a park, and there were curious onlookers, but by now the kids were comfortable with the whole format and launched into their roles with delight and all the dramatic flair they could muster. I'm sure some of the onlookers were quite amazed! From the park we went to the region's police detachment, met some of the officers, toured the jail, checked out the inside of a cruiser, looked through the office and meeting space and then the kids got the chance to ask some curious and pointed questions of the police about the rights of the accused, the use of lethal force, conflict of interest and habeas corpus.

Coming up this summer and fall: the accusation, the legal representation, the evidence, the jury and the mock trial. Can't wait!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The gymnast

She loves gymnastics, and it loves her back. Today Fiona finished her first term in the recreational program in Nelson. We found a class that fit perfectly into the time of the Corazón rehearsal, but it took us almost 8 months to grab an opening during that popular time-slot. She was the new kid in a class full of much more experienced girls, but she quickly found her way. She made amazing progress. She loves her coach. In our dream world she would stay in this class until she ages out of it and directly into Corazón! Classes will start again in the fall. She can hardly wait.

Monday, June 04, 2012


Corazón, how we love thee! 

For parents this ensemble is like an insurance plan for the souls of their teenagers. Priceless.

Sunday, June 03, 2012


We have Erin home for almost four days. She made the trip back from Montreal for her high school graduation weekend. While she's been living there this year studying violin and playing in an orchestra, she's officially still been a student within our local school district, earning credit towards her graduation diploma through independent study in a variety of formats.

Even in her earlier high school years she had been enrolled technically full-time but granted credit for a lot of her home-based learning, working at the school part-time mostly in the independent study program, and doing an occasional in-the-classroom credit. So she didn't feel a strong sense of connection and loyalty to her fellow graduates, but with scholarship and bursary awards influencing the decision we decided it was the right thing to have her return and participate in the hoopla.

The trip back has been short, because she's got her last violin lesson of the year and her last orchestra concert in the next week. She'll write two of her three final exams at the school tomorrow, and then we'll make the four-hour drive to our airport of choice to get her on the plane.

I grew up in what would have been called a small city, but which in my current rural environment would be considered quite large indeed, and my high school graduating class was about 400 in number. Graduation was a minor event. I don't honestly recall whether I participated or not. I think I have a vague memory of crossing the stage at school to receive something, but it may be that I'm recalling some other awards assembly.

Well, things are rather different where we live now. Erin's grad class is seven in number. It's possible that only three of them may ever take another academic course in their lives. For this community and for the grad class itself, the completion of high school is a momentous event. The grads have been planning and fund-raising all year. Families may spend several hundred dollars on dresses and accoutrements. Extended family arrive from far and wide. Grad gifts by parents can include things like vehicles, and it seems it's not unusual for casual friends to present graduates with gifts.

A large portion of the community attends the Grad Ceremony. There are numerous scholarships distributed amongst the tiny number of graduates. Each graduate walks to the stage like a rock star, complete with personalized soundtrack a biographical sketch. There are childhood and baby photos projected on a huge screen to the accompaniment of yet another personalized soundtrack. The class history is presented, with a detailed accounting of the highlights of each of the thirteen years of school. There's also a Promenade of Graduates and Escorts at a school assembly the day before. And the night before there's a Banquet for graduates and up to twenty of their invited guests. A dance follows. There are extended photo sessions at the gardens for grads, family and friends. There's a Grad Tea after the actual ceremony to which the community is invited. And it all wraps up with a huge boozy party that night.

Our family has scant proclivity for celebratory hoopla at the best of times, but with our unconventional educational choices, Erin's nominal but essentially very-part-time participation in school for just the past four years, and her departure to begin the next big step in her education having taken place a year ago, it all felt a little odd. To not take it seriously, to not ooze enthusiasm and excitement, would seem like a slap in the face of community values. But really, we couldn't bring ourselves to put it all on to the nines.

So we tried to walk a middle line. We submitted the baby photos, she chose her soundtrack music. She bought a grad dress ($40, including shipping, off eBay). She returned to BC. She participated. She invited her immediate family to the grad banquet. She did the Promenade at the school assembly, with her brother as a stand-in "escort." She smiled and looked beautiful and comfortable on stage during the epic-length ceremony.

Sophie and Noah had their final three Corazón performances during the Grad Ceremony ... in Nelson. So they didn't attend: only Fiona, Chuck and I were there. We didn't even bring a camera, though we toyed with the idea of bringing one as a prop just so we wouldn't look bad.

And after the ceremony we peeled out after a few minutes at the Tea and went to Nelson to catch a Corazón performance. Erin got the chance to hug all the Corazón people she'd been missing all year, and then we went out to dinner, picked up the local Corazón kids after their final performance, drove home late and skipped the booze-up.

Erin netted the better part of $4K in scholarship money at the Grad Ceremony. Combined with her cushy admission scholarship from McGill, she's sitting pretty. She'll spend the summer at Canada's National Youth Orchestra again. And then in the fall she'll finally be enrolled in the BMus Performance program at McGill, where she'll be able to continue studying with her wonderful teacher and will be able to have the full immersion in music in an academic environment.

This past year has certainly not been without its challenges. The organizational wrinkles that come of having a legal minor living several provinces away with neither a host family nor an educational institution to provide support are not to be underestimated. But she has coped admirably, and thrived musically and personally. And the net result is that she is miles ahead of typical high school graduates in terms of preparedness for living and studying on her own next year.

She knows the city. She knows her teacher. Her solo repertoire is planned out for the next year. She has a great place to live and knows the intricacies of the transit system. She knows how to get health care. She knows the good grocery stores. She knows the dodgy neighbourhoods, the friendly cafés, the quirky laundry machines. She knows where to easily get printer cartridges and bow rehairs and how to shop and cook and clean and organize for herself. She knows how to structure her time for practicing, study, exercise and daily-living tasks. She has a network of friends and acquaintances within and outside of the McGill Faculty of Music.

Now it just remains to enjoy her summer at NYO and dive headlong into university.

Postscript mommy brag: Upon snooping in the letters describing her local scholarships, it appears she won the one for the student with the top marks. And I only heard via her school principal, who was in touch with her violin teacher that Erin's McGill audition placed her #3 in a field over over 50 at what is currently the best-regarded string performance program in the country.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Dandelion syrup

About 6-8 cups of dandelion flowers yielded about 1 cup of packed yellow petals. We mixed this with 2 cups of sugar and 2 cups of water, brought to a simmer and allowed to cook for an hour or so, gradually reducing in volume to a syrupy consistency. Then we added the juice of one small lemon, strained out the petals, and cooled.

It tastes wonderful! Like spring sunshine mixed with honey and lemon. Delicious on ice cream.

Art class

One of the main advantages of being part of a Distributed Learning (i.e. homeschool support) program through our local school is being able to ask for specific perks and opportunities and have responsive can-do people on the receiving end who make our wishes come true. Last spring the DL program's principal asked me if I had any ideas for arts-related workshops the homeschooled kids might enjoy. For years I'd been wishing for a way to persuade the local artist who used to run the art classes that Erin, Noah and Sophie thrived in to get back to doing some children's art teaching. How about hiring her, through the school district, to run some classes, I mused aloud? What about enticing her with funding from a grant, a classroom at the school to use, and suggesting a set of workshops focused around a collaborative community-based project? 

The principal wrote a successful grant application, and the artist said yes! And so all this year we've had monthly art workshops for the homeschooled kids. We all met in the school for a basic art warm-up, typically using india ink to focus on an aspect of form, technique or texture, encouraging the kids to think about seeing the world around them through this lens.

Then we would go out on the day's field trip, keeping in mind the morning's exercise. We'd look for shapes, or juxtapositions of light and dark, or different types of lines, or textures, or text. The kids would sketch in their art journals. Various field trips took us along the creek to the lakeshore, to a nearby ghost town in the depth of winter, to the mining museum, to the Japanese internment memorial site and on a walking tour of local architecture. 

Back in the school again, we had lunch and then got busy with the day's art workshop focusing on a particular medium or technique. There would be some examples and explanation, but only just enough to demystify ... never enough to induce the desire to copy. There was acrylic painting, gelatin plate printing, block printing on fabric, papier maché work and shibori dyeing of cotton muslin. The afternoon workshops often pulled together the threads of the morning's warm-up and field trip. For instance, after visiting the ghost town the kids created small block prints based on geometric patterns of light and dark they observed and sketched on the old metalwork and machinery. 

There were several small projects throughout the course of the year. The long-term focus of the program, though, was on the "community ABC project." The idea was to use the explorations and techniques to create an alphabetical representation of our community's natural and cultural heritage. 

We brainstormed words for every letter of the alphabet. Children chose a letter or two or three for their own. They used one or more of the words from our brainstorming session as the inspiration for a larger block print. They sketched their ideas out and eventually refined them into a 6x6" square. They traced the design through onto the back of the piece of paper by taping it to a window. They then transferred the reversed image onto a safety-kut block (similar to a lino block but a much more forgiving material for children to carve). Then the used cutting tools to cut the block. 

Finally the blocks could be printed. Most were done purely with block printing. A few were a combination of small letter-blocks spelling out words and paintings. Our last couple of classes were half-day affairs, focused mostly on printing, and on completing the last of the various lingering projects in time for a gallery showing.

Fiona made F, I and O ... and also U and V. Miranda did Q.

Last weekend we had a wonderful gallery exhibit that attracted over a hundred enthusiastic visitors. The kids' work all looked so wonderful pulled together in a single space, neatly mounted and displayed. The kids were very gratified.

Looking back on the entire program I would of course say I loved the art teacher's wonderful balance of guidance vs. freedom and the honouring of individuality. I loved the final results, and the way they validated the kids' artistic expression. But I especially loved the way the project brought together children of a huge range of ages and abilities and gave them an "all together as homeschoolers" kind of identity, a lovely way to get to know each other and each others' families.