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.