• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming and home schooling. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 16/Grade 11, 14/Grade 9, and 13/Grade 8.

    Contact me at becky.farmschool@gmail.com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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Field trip

A week ago today we all went, along with Tom’s dad, on a field trip to the site of the CN train derailment not too far from here, near the hamlet of Fabyan. The bridge, which is 195′ tall, is the second longest steel trestle bridge in Canada, at 2,775 ft. long. It was built in 1908 over the Battle River by the Grand Trunk Pacific. We’ve walked around the valley and under the bridge in the summer, and so were interested to see what the site looked like today.

The road to the bridge was of course closed to all but official vehicles — CN, Transportation Safety Board, etc. — and we were waved along in the opposite direction. So we parked in an approach to a farmer’s field, and hiked through the snow and grass until we reached a point overlooking the bridge. Here are some of the photos the boys took, a few of which were published in a local newspaper.

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A trackhoe getting ready to tow away one of the derailed grain cars (photo by Davy); we stayed long enough to watch the car get pulled around the bend out of sight,

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CN workers repairing damaged track (photo by Davy); we believe this is the where the derailment began,

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Scaffolding near the support structure with damage visible (pieces of steel bent and broken), as a result of falling train cars (photo by Davy),

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Some of the train cars after they fell to the ground below (photo by Davy),

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A Hitachi track hoe with mechanical jaw righting one of the fallen cars (photo by Davy),

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Lifting a derailed grain car with two cranes; spilled grain visible on tracks (photo by Davy),

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Another shot of lifting a derailed car off the tracks with two cranes (photo by Davy),

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Working on the tracks above and in the valley below (photo by Davy)

Shhh…

One of the more interesting conversation topics among home schoolers isn’t socialization (though it is a favorite of non-home schoolers) but introverts vs. extroverts, especially since it seems that many introverted parents are teaching extroverted kids, as I am. The subject comes up fairly often in the Charlotte Mason and Well-Trained Mind yahoo groups I frequent, so it’s a situation a number of parents find themselves dealing with. I imagine an extrovert with three introverted kids would also have her challenges…

I’ve known since I was very young that I’m an introvert. In elementary school, I generally preferred books to people. In high school, I had much more fun getting ready for parties than at the parties themselves (I couldn’t wait to get home). The challenge for me hasn’t been figuring out what I am, or what the kids are. It’s been trying to meet my kids’ needs as extroverts without making myself crazy, and, considerably more difficult, to fit, as an intovert, into a mostly extroverted world. Figuring out this latter part is the focus of Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (just published by Crown, January 24, 2012). Our library system has about a dozen copies on order, and I’ve reserved one through interlibrary loan when they arrive.

If you haven’t yet figured out whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, Ms. Cain has a quick quiz on her website.  Some of the quiz statements (answer yes or no):

I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities

I often prefer to express myself in writing

I enjoy solitude

I seem to care less than my peers about wealth, fame and status

I’m not a big risk taker

I enjoy work that allows me to dive in with few interruptions

I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale with only one or two close friends or family members

I do my best work alone

I tend to think before I speak

I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself

If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled

I don’t enjoy multitasking

If you can answer Yes to most of these, according to Cain, “you are likely to be an introvert”. I do and am.

This is one reason why the last two years, which have been remarkable for their lack of quiet, have been so difficult for me. The more I’ve explained that I needed to get back to my own usual uninterrupted home- and farm-centered life, the more resistance, and outright dismissiveness, I’ve met. It reminded me of growing up as an introvert in an extroverted family, with parents who laughingly told others, “She’s shy” (though, as Cain notes, there is a difference between shyness and introversion). It’s one of the reasons why I was determined when the kids were young that I would rather help and prepare them than tease them, however good naturedly, and why we started with reciting poetry at the local music festival. Interestingly, last year, as part of her “Quiet Revolution”, Cain championed public speaking and Toastmasters to help some introverts overcome their fears. For kids, I can’t say enough about the benefits of music festivals, and also the 4H public speaking program.

From a Scientific American interview with Susan Cain by Gareth Cook [emphasis mine]:

Cook: How does this cultural inclination [toward extroverts] affect introverts?

Cain: Many introverts feel there’s something wrong with them, and try to pass as extroverts. But whenever you try to pass as something you’re not, you lose a part of yourself along the way. You especially lose a sense of how to spend your time. Introverts are constantly going to parties and such when they’d really prefer to be home reading, studying, inventing, meditating, designing, thinking, cooking… or any number of other quiet and worthwhile activities.

According to the latest research, one third to one half of us are introverts – that’s one out of every two or three people you know. But you’d never guess that, right? That’s because introverts learn from an early age to act like pretend-extroverts.

I was able to stop pretending once I began living on my on, in college and was able to act on my preferences. Which have included, as Cain notes, staying home to read, study, meditate, design, think, cook, “or any number of other quiet and worthwhile activities.” Not to mention gardening and tending chickens and cattle.

“Worthwhile”  to me is the most important word in that sentence, because the majority extroverts are very quick to assume that activities and preferences not worthwhile to them aren’t worthwhile at all, to anyone. This requires the introvert to do some fighting, or at least to stand her ground. Or, if you’re an extrovert parent of an introverted child, to accept your child’s differences and to teach your child to stand up for those differences.

More from the SciAm interview [emphasis mine],

Cook: Is this just a problem for introverts, or do you feel it hurts the country as a whole?

Cain: It’s never a good idea to organize society in a way that depletes the energy of half the population. We discovered this with women decades ago, and now it’s time to realize it with introverts.

This also leads to a lot of wrongheaded notions that affect introverts and extroverts alike. Here’s just one example: Most schools and workplaces now organize workers and students into groups, believing that creativity and productivity comes from a gregarious place. This is nonsense, of course. From Darwin to Picasso to Dr. Seuss, our greatest thinkers have often worked in solitude, and in my book I examine lots of research on the pitfalls of groupwork.

And from Cain’s Toronto Globe & Mail interview:

At work you mention extroverts are showy and efficient; they’re often driven by status. Introverts, meanwhile, are slow and deliberate. Is that methodical process mistaken for lack of ambition or, worse, laziness?

Absolutely. The way you display your work or your ambition can often be misperceived. I interviewed [three-time Olympic gold medalist] Marnie McBean recently, this very dynamic, firecracker extrovert. She said that when she was first paired with Kathleen Heddle, a quietly steely, determined introvert, she was very upset and actually asked her coach to give her a different partner. She thought Kathleen was not up to snuff. Her coach said, ‘You do realize that Kathleen is the best rower on the team, and she’s even better than you, Marnie.’ She hadn’t realized that because she was so attuned to outside displays of ambition, competitiveness and fieriness, and Kathleen wasn’t displaying any of those. I’d advise [introverts] that they might take some of their hard work and think about ways of drawing attention to themselves, ways that are comfortable for them.

One of the items in Ms. Cain’s Quiet Manifesto, “16 Things I Believe”, is the following, which has a direct application to home schooling:

We teach kids in group classrooms not because this is the best way to learn but because it’s cost-efficient, and what else would we do with the children while all the grown-ups are at work? If your child prefers to work autonomously and socialize one-on-one, there’s nothing wrong with her; she just happens not to fit the model.

And finally, also from the Manifesto,

If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

Yes. I’d just add, and to continue going where you want to go. Here’s to reclaiming quiet for those of us who need it, and to a growing appreciation for the intrinsic worth of quiet.

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Since home schoolers as a group seem to be quite keen about Ted Talks, I thought I should mention that Susan Cain will be a speaker at Ted2012 in late February

An article from a 2009 issue of Secular Homeschooling magazine, “Guided by their Needs: Homeschooling Works for Introverts and Extroverts!”

An article from a 1998 issue of Home Education Magazine, “The Valedictorian Who Failed Socialization”

Thank yous

to JoVE at Tricotomania, for the Christmas present of a hand-knit pair of mittens,

inspired by the colors of the Caribbean my parents loved so much. As you can see from some of my West Indian pottery, JoVE’s color sense is bang on,

JoVe and her daughter are coming for another visit next month, for a weekend, and we’re all very excited.

And thank you to Sheila at Greenridge Chronicles, for feeding my Downton Abbey fixation and letting me see what all the “Military Wives” fuss is about. “Military Wives” is heart-warming and inspiring, but I have to admit my heart belongs to Downtown, season two and especially the special Christmas episode. Find a cowboy in the middle west, indeed!

Daybook: January 23

Outside my window…

It snowed a bit Saturday but we’re still far away from a usual snowy winter, with only about 2″ on the ground. Thankfully, the snow accompanied some warming temperatures, and we’re out of the cold snap for now at least. Yesterday was -3 C, later this week we get just into the plus temps. So what little snow we have will do some more shrinking.

We’re enjoying an irruption of common redpolls, with about 40 who’ve taken up permanent residence at Laura’s feeders. There are usually four or five birds feeding, one sitting on top of the feeder, and 10 or so on the ground below the feeder cleaning up the fallen thistle seed. We learned from a display a few months ago by students at the local college that redpolls can survive in severe cold, down to about -67 C (-89 F below zero), and cope with warmer weather in part by pulling out some of their feathers. This is definitely feather-pulling weather in the redpoll world.

I am thinking...

about creating a new binder for organizing. I’m finding myself overwhelmed with various programs, internships, and such for the high school years. Every time we turn around it seems there’s something good to consider. Laura is putting together her application form for a birding internship due in April, I’ve been mulling over Encounters with Canada since the fall, the 4H exchange program to Finland sounds appealing, and friends with a daughter a year older than Laura have been passing along all sorts of interesting post-secondary information for Alberta.

I realized I need a place to keep everything, and think I’m going to start a new binder, arranged chronologically, by minimum age, and within that by month. I can print out information pages and application forms, add empty plastic page protectors with reminder Post-It notes for recommendation letters on their way, and so on.

I’m not sure if anyone else with older kids would find something like this useful, but coming from a position with local programs to more far-flung ones involving considerably more paper, I think this idea will help Laura (and later each of the boys) and me stay on top of what they’d like to do, the various options and deadlines. I’m also old-fashioned enough that I think I’d do better with something in a binder rather than something online, something we can flip through together at the kitchen table, though I’m sure for some families an entirely online version would work as well.

In the kitchen…

Apple Sharlotka (see previous post)

I am going…

on a bit of an expedition today. We heard on the news that a CN train with grain cars derailed on Saturday about an hour south of us. Seventeen cars left the tracks, and 11 cars plunged off the tracks into the valley below, with some damage to the bridge. It’s a little valley we know and love, and Tom wants to see what the damage has been.

And we went, from Thursday to Saturday, to the annual Farm Curl. Tom and the kids were a team, and did very well, winning all three of their games, getting fourth place, and winning some nifty prizes to boot. All capped off by dinner and a dance last night.

Upon arrival at the dinner last night, Davy wanted to inspect the prize table (as each team is announced, winners get to pick their prizes from those provided). He spied some earrings donated by the local jewelry store, and asked me if I’d like him to pick a pair when his turn came. I was touched, and told him to pick something for himself he’d enjoy. So he picked an angle grinder instead when his turn came.  It’s those little moments that continue to prove to me we get what we put in.

The kids and Tom, together and separately, have a few more bonspiels between now and early March and they’re all looking forward to the fun. Laura has been asked to curl with a high school team for next year, which she’s mulling over. It offers the possible opportunity of curling in the provincial championships.

A few plans for the rest of the week:

A library board meeting (getting a long overdue facelift underway), a bit of time to rest for the music festival now that registration has been completed (we adopted a different method this year and it seems to have been successful), kids working on 4H speeches and presentation, and I’m going to get started on our organic farming annual paperwork since I just had notification that the deadline has been moved up from April 1st to March 1st. Oy.

Warm apple dessert for a cold January Sunday

On the menu for today, along with pork roast — smitten kitchen’s Apple Sharlotka, via Deb Perelman’s Russian mother-in-law. The perfect way to use up the last of our case of Macintosh apples from BC, though I will probably go with 3/4 cup of sugar…

Apple Sharlotka

Adapted from Alex’s mother, who adapted it from her mother, and so on…

Butter or nonstick spray, for greasing pan
6 large, tart apples, such as Granny Smiths
3 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
Ground cinnamon, to finish
Powdered sugar, also to finish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper and the sides of the pan. Peel, halve and core your apples, then chop them into medium-sized chunks. (I cut each half into four “strips” then sliced them fairly thinly — about 1/4-inch — in the other direction.) Pile the cut apples directly in the prepared pan. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, using an electric mixer or whisk, beat eggs with sugar until thick and ribbons form on the surface of the beaten eggs. Beat in vanilla, then stir in flour with a spoon until just combined. The batter will be very thick.

Pour over apples in pan, using a spoon or spatula to spread the batter so that it covers all exposed apples. (Updated to clarify: Spread the batter and press it down into the apple pile. The top of the batter should end up level with the top of the apples.) Bake in preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a tester comes out free of batter. Cool in pan for 10 minutes on rack, then flip out onto another rack, peel off the parchment paper, and flip it back onto a serving platter. Dust lightly with ground cinnamon.

Serve warm or cooled, dusted with powdered sugar. Alex’s family eats it plain, but imagine it would be delicious with a dollop of barely sweetened whipped or sour cream.

Am very much looking forward to the Smitten Kitchen cookbook coming in the autumn. I have countless SK recipes saved in my email, printed off on loose sheets of paper, scribbled on yellow lined pads.

Canadian Curlews

After 17 years in Canada, I’m still not entirely up on my CanLit and find lots of surprises. The latest one is Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, published in 1955. So for anyone looking for some modern CanLit for older students, a living book on extinct/endangered species, and a modern classic movie (adapted from the book) for younger children about extinct/endangered species, we have a couple of recommendations.

A bit of background to explain. For her two 4H clubs, Laura is writing two speeches, one on birds that are extinct, the other on birds that are virtually extinct. Going over her speeches with her, I learned about birds I’d never heard of (not hard for me, since unlike Laura, I don’t sleep with a copy of Sibley’s and read almost exclusively about birds). One of the extinction stories I found quite moving is about the Eskimo curlew. I’ve borrowed a bit from Laura’s speech.

The Eskimo curlew, a medium-sized shorebird in the sandpiper family, is said to have been among the birds that guided Christopher Columbus to the new world. But the curlew is so rare now from overhunting 100 years ago that it’s very probably extinct. If there are any still in existence, scientists think they number fewer than 50 adult birds, when once the population was in the millions and they flew in flocks so thick they formed dark clouds one kilometer wide and long.

If it sounds rather like the story of the passenger pigeon, there are parallels. Nineteenth century American market hunters in need of a replacement for the pigeon, which they had hunted into extinction, looked about and proceeded to do the same sad thing to the Eskimo curlew, which they called “doughbirds” — the birds, heavy from gorging themselves on berries, fruit, and insects in their breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories and Alaska, would put on a thick layer of fat in preparation for their journey. The curlews, again like the passenger pigeons, were so tightly spaced as a flock that a single shotgun blast could easily kill about 20 birds. The survivors had an unfortunate habit of circling back for their injured or dead flockmates, giving the hunters yet another chance. Hunters first starting shooting the birds on their spring migration, then, looking for even more, headed for the curlew breeding grounds, where men would blind the birds with lanterns and then club them.

The Eskimo curlew’s migration, we read, was one of the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom. The winter journey involved a large clockwise circle, starting at the subarctic Canadian tundra, through the western hemisphere, east through Labrador, down through the Atlantic, across the southern Caribbean, and finally to the Argentinian pampas and Chile.

Another strike against the Eskimo curlew, just as it should have been rebounding from overhunting, was the loss of one its important prey species, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, or locust. If you read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek”, you might remember the almost biblical plague of locusts in the chapter, “The Glittering Cloud”:

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers.  The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground an dthe house with the noise of a hailstorm.

… Grasshoppers covered the ground, there was not one bare bit to step on. Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet. …

Then Laura heard another sound, one big sound made of tiny nips and snips and gnawings.

“The wheat!” Pa shouted. He dashed out the back door and ran toward the wheat-field.

The locusts were the farmers’ scourge on the Great Plains in the 1870s, and their obliteration was as accidental as it was complete, as well as devastating for the curlew population. In fact, entemologist Dr. Jeffrey Lockwood has called it “the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest species”. What happened, Dr. Lockwood discovered, is that

Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming.

By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries. They destroyed the locust’s equivalent of [the Monarch butterfly's] Mexican forest wintering grounds. They doomed the species.

For the rest of the fascinating story, you can read Dr. Lockwood’s article here.

Last summer, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service said it is seeking any information about the Eskimo curlew, and will review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct. The last sighting confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987.

Getting back to the point of this post, while helping Laura, we discovered a celebrated Canadian novel written in 1955, Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, which is part of Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart’s New Canadian Library line; I just ordered a copy. I like the idea of the book as a bridge to fiction, especially modern classic Canadian fiction, for her since she reads so much nonfiction (especially so much bird-related nonfiction), and also as an entree into CanLit for an older student who’s ready for a bigger challenge, but not quite ready for some of CanLit’s heavier offerings — though like most CanLit, this book is sad.  Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One:

The Arctic day was long, and despite the tundra gales which whistled endlessly across the unobstructed land the day was hot and humid. The curlew alternately probed the mudflats for food and patrolled his territory, and all the time he watched the land’s flat horizons with eyes that never relaxed. Near mid-day a rough-legged hawk appeared far to the north, methodically circling back and forth across the river and diving earthward now and then on a lemming that incautiously showed itself among the reindeer moss. The curlew eyed the hawk apprehensively as the big hunter’s circling brought it slowly upriver towards the curlew’s territory. Finally the roughleg crossed the territory boundary unmarked on the ground but sharply defined in the curlew’s brain. The curlew took off in rapid pursuit, his long wings stroking the air deeply and his larynx shrieking a sharp piping alarm as he closed in on the intruder with a body weight ten times his own. For a few seconds the hawk ignored the threatened attack, then turned back northward without an attempt at battle. It could have killed the curlew with one grasp of its talons, but it was a killer only when it needed food, and it gave ground willingly before a bird so maddened with the fire of the mating time.

The sun dipped low, barely passing from view, and the curlew’s first Arctic night dropped like a grey mist around him. The tundra cooled quickly, and as it cooled the gale that had howled all day suddenly died. Dusk, but not darkness, followed.

The curlew was drawn by an instinctive urge he felt but didn’t understand to the dry ridge of cobblestone with the thick mat of reindeer moss at its base where the nest would be. In his fifth summer now, he had never seen a nest or even a female of his kind except the nest and mother he had briefly known in his own nestling stage, yet the know-how of courtship and nesting was there, unlearned, like a carry-over from another life he had lived. And he dozed now on one leg, bill tucked under the feathers of his back, beside the gravel bar which awaited the nest that the bird’s instinct said there had to be.

Tomorrow or the next day the female would come, for the brief annual cycle of life in the Arctic left time for no delays.

It sounds as if it would make a wonderful living book choice for conservation and natural history studies, too. There’s another edition, a 1990s reissue, which came about because “Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin found this slim 1955 novel on a shelf in the house of friends, and, struck with the ‘plain, succinct evocation and beauty’ of Fred Bodsworth’s writing, suggested its reissue to a publisher.” That volume has a foreword by Merwin and an afterword by Murray Gell-Man, with J.J. Audubon’s painting of Eskimo curlews on the cover.

And for younger children, Last of the Curlews was made into a one-hour animated movie in 1972 to teach children about conservation. I was surprised to learn that it not only featured Vincent Van Patten (I’m old enough to remember “Apple’s Way”), but was also the very first ABC Afterschool Special, winning an Emmy for children’s broadcasting. I don’t read entries at IMDB much, but the reviews for, and memories of, Last are poignant. The animation by Hanna-Barbera is lovely, not at all what comes to mind when I think of H-B (primarily the Flintstones, etc.). We were hopefully optimistic when we heard about this, and delighted to find that it’s available, in several parts, on YouTubePart 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. But a warning that the cartoon version doesn’t sugarcoat the story, which is not a happy or hopeful one. Extinction is extinction. We found a box of Kleenex helpful.

Also on YouTube is a little video blurb by Canadian eco-photographer Edward Burtynsky on Last of the Curlews for the Toronto Public Library.

Digging around online, we learned that Charles Frederick (Fred) Bodsworth is an internationally renowned naturalist, journalist, and novelist. Born in Port Burwell, Ontario, in 1918, after apparently spending some time working on tugboats and in tobacco fields, he became a reporter for the St. Thomas (ON) Times-Journal at the age of 22 and later was a writer and editor both at The Toronto Star and at Maclean’s magazine. Mr. Bodsworth left Maclean’s in 1955 to focus on magazine and nature writing, and novels. He also served as president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists from 1964 to 1967. In 2002, he received the prestigious Writer’s Trust Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award. I didn’t see any mention online of an obituary or his death, so I hope he is still hale, hearty, and watching birds at 94.

In other school-related news, work on the other speeches and presentation is going well, we’re in the midst of musical festival registration (both as registrars and registrants), the kids are happily galloping through more of Life of Fred, and in the phys ed department, curling season has picked up dramatically and the kids are curling quite well. Laura is also working on a summer internship application, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for that. Oh, and roles have been handed out for Spring’s theater production of “Alice in Wonderland” so there is lots of singing throughout the house.  That and Davy’s cooking — he made baking powder biscuits yesterday and today some delicious gravy from our moose roast — are keeping us warm in this week’s cold snap. And -51 is verrrry snappy.


January daybook

A very happy belated new year to all.

I have to admit I’m glad to see the back of 2011. I had high hopes for it being better than 2010 — I didn’t have any more parents to lose, after all — but in the end it seemed I spent most of the year hostage to lawyers, accountants, bankers, and two executorships. And worrying as Monopoly-like amounts of money went flying about to pay bills and taxes. Soul sucking and exhausting.

For such a long time until last year, our days, weeks, months always seemed to expand as necessary, magically, to fit our various activities or adventures. Whenever it seemed we were, or I was, at a limit, that limit would move out just a bit, like a favorite pair of sweatpants. But in 2011, I learned that life is not an endlessly expanding pair of pants. There are indeed limits to limits, and the elastic snaps like a rubber band, which smarts and also sends a whole bunch of things flying in the process. This year, I need to get out of the hostage situation, by any means necessary.

Outside my window…

it looks more like spring or autumn than winter. There’s no appreciable snow, thanks to an unseasonably warm December and January, with temperatures just around freezing. Today was 5 C above zero, and last Wednesday the temperature climbed up to 11 C (52 F) which was, unsurprisingly, record-breaking. The kids spent some of the holiday days skating on the frozen slough (pond) across the road, but in general the boys are quite unhappy with the lack of snow, going to bed every night with hopes of waking up to a blizzard for proper winter fun. It has been great weather, however, for adults, especially adults who need to drive.  And with the solstice, a wee bit more of daylight every day, which is most welcome. But this is Canada, so I’m assuming winter will be here soon enough, and I’d rather have my snow in January and February than May and June.

I’m thinking…

of my father, who died two years ago this week. It doesn’t seem like two years, but then a year ago we were preparing our cross-continent odyssey. I thought of my father often last month as we baked cookies, because the workhorse of the kitchen is the Kitchenaid mixmaster he gave us for Christmas five years ago. Especially handy for double recipes of my grandmother’s Viennese vanillekipferl, ground almond crescents, without which it isn’t Christmas around here.

And of Tom’s uncle, who is dying of kidney failure. Our holiday preparations and festivities alternated with hospital visits. Tom’s uncle, wanting to end the pain and misery, had originally refused to continue with dialysis. But the doctor persuaded him to continue through Christmas, for the sake of his family. We sit and wait, but we also tell stories, remember, and laugh.

I’m thankful…

for our relatively peaceful Christmas at home. It was lovely, and much needed. We went off to the woods for a tree, which the kids put up by themselves and then decorated. They had great fun planning Christmas gifts for us and each other, and put much thought into their choices. Laura made a lovely quilled (paper filigree) picture of two chickadees, Daniel ordered a lovely pair of blue and white earrings from Etsy for me, and Davy picked out the perfect pair of beeswax tapers for our silver candlestick holders. Much thought, and much love, in evidence.

Laura sang beautifully two of the songs she’d been practicing all autumn, “Gesù bambino” (in English) and “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” (some verses from “As You Like It” set to music), at her December recital, and also at a women’s holiday breakfast, the annual Christmas dinner at the nursing home for residents and their families, and the town’s Christmas dinner for the public. While Laura sang at the town dinner, the boys helped deliver meals for shut-ins.

Laura also had a table at one of the December farmer’s markets in town, to sell her quilling (greeting cards, ornaments, gift boxes, and some framed quilling pictures) and also birchbark candle holders. I had seen some on Etsy and told the boys I’d love something similar as an early Christmas present. We had a birch tree that blew over in a storm, and the kids became so proficient and had so much fun turning out the log candleholders for me that they figured they could make some to sell. The candleholders proved so popular I wasn’t left with many for myself; here are a couple I managed to pinch, with cedar from the garden,

In the kitchen…

things have slowed down considerably. We made braided loaves of Christmas fruit bread, mince tarts, kipferls, rum balls, thumbprint cookies. Laura made several batches of gingersnaps, for her voice teacher and the library staff. Davy made brownies with crushed candy canes for the guitar teacher. Although we had turkey on Christmas Eve at my inlaws’ house, Christmas Day dinner was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding here. For New Year’s Eve, we had our usual hors d’oeuvres buffet, with devilled eggs, hot crab dip, smoked salmon, crudites, and more.

Chili and rice tonight. I’ve been smitten for the past few months with my new Le Creuset 5.2 liter red enameled cast iron Dutch oven, though Le Creuset of course would prefer it to be known as a French oven. I had no say in the size or color, since I got the lovely heavy beast for Air Miles in the last chance/clearance section. Just when I had become despondent about finding anything I liked and could actually use, after sorting through the entire Air Miles rewards website, I found the magic pot and grabbed it immediately. It arrived almost as quickly, and we have been making good use of it every since — chili, baked beans, soups, stews. I can finally see what all the fuss is about for such an expensive pot. Not only does the pot make everything taste better, but it is ridiculously easy to clean. With its layers and layers of enamel, there is, apparently, no such thing as “baked-on grime”. Truly magic.

I’m wearing…

a brown Fair Isle cardigan and sweatpants (elastic intact, thank you very much)

I’m creating…

a bit of order. We spent several days over the holidays at Home Depot for in-stock, ready-to-assemble cabinets for the dining area, and then assembling them. It took us three trips, including one to the big city after exhausting the supply of the HD in the little city. We had bought the Ikea butcherblock countertops over the summer.

Now I’m deciding where to put what. I’ve already put away all the board and card games, which used to live on the floor under the roll-top desk in the living room, and the kids’ home school books and things, which I used to keep in plastic dish tubs on the kitchen floor under the china cabinet.

Speaking of creating, last month I made an advent calendar for the kids, which is about as crafty as I get. We would usually get the German paper kind, with a glittered woodland scene (no candy), the same sort I’d had as a child. From time to time I could find them in the drugstore at Christmastime, but it’s been getting harder. And I decided it would be nice to have something we could reuse, and also something particularly fun for the kids, considering our holidays of late. On a number of blogs I’d seen the kind made with muslin bags, so I decided with the help of Etsy, a hot glue gun, and rubber number stamps, to try something different,

A few bags had candy, but most had things like Christmas kleenex packages (from the dollar store) and mini Christmas crackers and nutcracker ornaments (from Loblaws). Great fun.

We also hung snowflakes from the windows in the dining room. I found some lovely laser-cut wooden ones I found on Etsy (here and here) and at Chapters, which Daniel spray painted white for me,

I’m going…

slightly less crazy, I hope.

I’m reading…

Death Comes to PemberleyP.D. James’s Jane Austen confection, just perfect for the holidays; I was so keen to get a paperback edition rather than hardcover that I didn’t look carefully at the cover on the Chapters website and ended up with the large print version, which made me laugh when I opened the parcel and realized what I’d ordered. But it’s perfect, very easy on my old eyes, and delightful to read without drugstore reading glasses. The large print aspect is considerably more exciting than the actual mystery, which isn’t one of James’s best. She’s worked well around the constraints of the very basic early 19th century policework, but Darcy and Elizabeth are, sadly, both stiff and anemic.

For Christmas, I gave Laura the latest Flavia de Luce novel, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, and as soon as she’s done with it, I’m going to borrow it to read. In the meantime, I’ve started it on audio CD from the library, and was delighted to find that reader Jayne Entwistle appears to be channelling plummy-voiced Joan Greenwood when voicing the character of British film actress Phyllis Wyvern, who has come to Flavia’s run-down house, Buckshaw, to shoot a movie.

A few blogs, including Alicia Paulson’s Posie Get Cozy and Lisa’s Amid Privilege. I’ve long been a reader of Posie, and this year had been following along as Alicia and her husband came very close to the adoption of a baby they had long hoped for, only to have things fall apart at the very last minute, after the baby’s birth. It has been more than a year of waiting followed by heartbreak and dashed hopes. In her year-end blog post, Alicia wrote,

Almost twenty years ago I had a panic attack on an airplane in mid-air. Tears streamed down my face. I closed my eyes and was back in my grandma’s spare bedroom, in the warm dark with the night-light left on in the hallway, my grandparents sleeping in their twin beds on the other side of the wall. Safe.

I’ve conjured that place several times this past year, trying to find purchase in my life and in what has, at certain times, felt like being in free-fall. I think that’s how most of life is, in a lot of ways. You step forward, and step forward, and then you touch back — everything still here? Still here. Okay. Forward again (then). Life pulls you forward, even when you feel tired. I never was an adventurous person, in my own opinion; I always had big plans but only for little, mostly prosaic things. I always was and still am happiest in slow, mostly quiet places, with long, mostly quiet days. Winter suits me. When I look back on 2011, I am, I have to admit, still sort of bewildered and shaken, not sure what happened or even what to do next. I’m trying to be at peace with that gauzy, half-blurred feeling, and on certain days think it is easy to just — let it go away from me, a long piece of crinkled muslin tossed up and carried off into the wind. On other days I seem to wear it, spiraled and close, like a scarf. Maybe I’ll just lose it somewhere, and not even notice. Leave it on a bench or a bus. I won’t mind.

I kept nodding as I read this. The last year has been one long panic attack, it seems, with safety on the other side of the door but for some reason so many hurdles, probably banker’s boxes full of files in my case, in the way of that door. I too, am happiest in slow, mostly quiet places, with long, mostly quiet days. Of course, my version of quiet days includes a number of extracurricular activities for the kids (two 4H clubs, what on earth was I thinking?) and various volunteer projects for Tom and me. But it works for us. Or at least it did, until all sorts of other things got tossed into the mix. I’d love to leave the lawyers, the business, the house, on a bus. One going fast, and far far away from here.

At Amid Privilege, Lisa wrote the other day,

Only a reminder that in the New Year, we can resolve to enjoy, again, taking care of those we love. To revel, again, in all the ways learned to fold laundry, change sheets, and make Nina Simmond’s Chicken Hot And Sour Soup. At 55, years of good work give us the right to ease up, but we can also serve without obligation. Teasing out those specifics is the greatest privilege of our later years.

Yes, we can resolve to enjoy, again, taking care of those we love and I shall. To borrow from Emily Dickinson, hope isn’t just the thing with feathers. Hope is also the thing with fabric swatches, with a full soup pot, with another chapter in the math book, with new green shoots.

That’s my amaryllis Limonia (cream with yellow throat) coming up, in an old chamber pot. And the new Ikea butcherblock countertop in the dining room, with the original Ikea finish. I’d hoped to sand it off and try some Waterlox, but Tom was too fast for me. We’ll see how it holds up. I may yet try Ikea’s own Behandla.

I’m looking forward to…

finishing up the dining room. We still need flooring, as you can see in the pictures below. And cushions (probably no-sew) for the window seat, though I did order some blue fabric, Waverly’s Barano Indigo, which is on the way,

Tom wasn’t too crazy about the idea of window seats but the kids and I insisted; it’s a wonderful place to sit and read, drink a mug of something hot, eat a bowl of soup, and look out the window and watch the birds in the spruce tree at the feeders. I can’t remember which one of us came up with the idea of using the Home Depot in-stock over-the-fridge cabinets, they are just the right height.

Ignore the little ghostly squares from the picture frames in each photo, and apologies for my poor picture taking. The plants (you can see the banana in the top photo, far right, and the Boston fern on the window seat) are some of my greenhouse refugees. The rest are in my bedroom, the office, and the basement. The ones in the second photo are sequestered on old cookie sheets so the butcherblock stays dry and undamaged.

You can see just where the remaining drawers need to go. As spring approaches and the sun gets stronger, we’ll need bamboo blinds on the east and west windows, because, as we learned last year, the sun is blinding at mealtimes.

Oh, and Tom is still working on our new farmhouse table, which is still in the shop. The new table will take up much more floor space, especially width-wise between the cabinets, but am sure we’ll be able to manage.

The hardboard placemats, below, we found in Hereford on our honeymoon 17 years ago, and had lived in a closet until Tom put them up the other week. The blue and white transferware prints by Australian artist Kerri Shipp I found at her Etsy shop early last year, just after our return from NYC to clear out the apartment; I was in need of cocooning and retail therapy, and I thought the prints would be a fun nod to our Spode and Burleigh plates. Laura was very impressed with my taste when the prints arrived just before some others by Kerri appeared in a Spring issue of Martha Stewart magazine. It’s wonderful to have some of our favorite things up where we can enjoy them every day.

Around the house…

One of my favorite things…

A Christmas present, for the dining room of course, a new-to-us old clock, via Etsy. Made in England, c1940-1950, I think,

A few plans for the rest of the week:

Back to school, as well as music festival work, a 4H meeting, lots of curling, getting started on 4H speeches and presentations, a visit to the orthodentist, some hospital visiting.

I suppose if I were blogging more regularly, this wouldn’t be such a giant post, would it?

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