• 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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Floor joists

“a heavy burden lifted from my soul”
~ Leonard Cohen, “Paper Thin Hotel”

A very good week. The kids and a friend won the finals of the junior super league curling; they’ve been curling together Monday nights since November, and were undefeated heading into the final.

It’s starting to warm up from the -40s, the wind has died down, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and by Sunday it will be +2. I’m also a fan of Daylight Savings Time.

With the better weather, Tom and crew got the floor joists knocked out pretty quickly.

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Sticky toffee pudding

This has become our favorite winter dessert this year. I bake it in a square metal pan, grease it well, and put home-canned pear halves on the bottom before I add the batter, and then serve it with unsweetened whipped cream and chopped candied ginger on top. We had a version with the pears, sort of like a pineapple upside down cake, when we were living in the West Indies about 10 years and it was one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten. Here’s another version with pears, though these are fresh and unpeeled. I would imagine apples (peeled) would be good, too.

The version below is from the Hunter’s Head Tavern, an “authentic English pub” in Upperville, Virginia via Bon Appétit magazine. Nigella Lawson has a very good version as well, but it calls for self-raising flour, which is hard to come by in this part of the world. It goes without saying that Farm School is Team Nigella.

Sticky Toffee Pudding (from the Bon Appétit website)
Serves 6

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing the pan
1-1/2 cups flour, plus more for flouring pan
1-1/2 cups (6 oz) chopped pitted dates (I cut off thin slices with a serrated bread knife)
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt (omit if you use salted butter)
3/4 cup sugar (the original recipe calls for 1 cup, we prefer it less sweet)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs

Sauce
1-1/4 cups (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 tsp brandy (optional)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Preheat oven to 350 °. Butter and flour pan. The online recipe calls for a Bundt pan, and the last time we used a Nordic Ware sunflower pan, which worked well.

Bring dates and 1-1/4 cups water to a boil in a medium heavy saucepan with tall sides (the tall sides are important because in the next step, the date mixture will foam UP). Cook the dates until they are sludgy, and use a potato masher if necessary (if you didn’t chop/grate them finely enough).

Remove pan from heat and whisk in baking soda (mixture will become foamy). Set aside; let cool.

Whisk together 1-1/2 cups flour, baking powder, and salt (if using) in a small bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat 1/4 cup butter, sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl to blend (mixture will be grainy). Add 1 egg; beat to blend. Add half of flour mixture and half of date mixture; beat to blend. Repeat with remaining egg, flour mixture, and date mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan.

Bake until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out almost clean, 40 minutes or so (start checking at about 30 minutes). Let cool in pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Invert pudding onto rack. Cover and let stand at room temperature.

Sauce
Bring sugar, cream, and butter to a boil in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Continue to boil, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Remove from heat; stir in brandy, if using, and vanilla. Can be made up to 4 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm gently before using.

Cut cake into wedges. Serve with sauce and whipped cream, and garnish with chopped candied ginger if you like.

Icicles

It’s been bloody cold here this past week, in the low -20s without wind chill, which has been considerable. And lots of snow and ice. We made a hair-raising trip to Edmonton last weekend for building supplies, more or less skating the entire way. Not nearly enough sanding trucks on the road, and too many vehicles spun out or slid into the medians and ditches.

These icicles, however, are purely decorative and lovely.

"Icicle Splendor" arrangement by Julie Mulligan; photo by Julie Mulligan from her blog,

“Icicle Splendor” arrangement by Julie Mulligan; photo by Julie Mulligan from her blog, Petal Talk

I found the idea last December on a flower blog I read, Julie Mulligan’s Petal Talk, and Pinned it, and shockingly it’s one of my most popular pins, passing 300. The arrangement is supposed to be for New Year’s, but it’s a beautiful winter idea, especially if winter comes early in your part of the world. Julie calls it “Icicle Splendor”, and says,

I absolutely love the way it looks when the bare tree branches of winter become covered with ice. You can easily create that same dramatic look in your home using birch branches and acrylic icicles. First, I filled the cylinder with a strand of clear lights and pinecones, before I inserted the branches, which gives this arrangement even more impact.

I have the clear glass vase, the birch branches, pinecones, and clear lights (warm white, since I can’t stand the bluish cool white ones), but the icicle ornaments have been harder to get my hands on in this part of the world. We have a trip to the big city in about 10 days to the orthodontist for braces installation, so am thinking a Michael’s store might be the way to go.

I’d love to know if any of the 300+ pinners have made their own versions of this, and what it looks like.

Beginning the basement

This past weekend Tom and crew, including the kids, prepared the forms for pouring concrete on Tuesday,

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The bump-out, above at left, is the dining room. We’ve decided, based on our recent addition, that we prefer a dining room with windows on three sides — lots of light and lots to see. On the second floor, the bump-out will be our bathroom. The smaller rectangle at the bottom of the picture is part of the garage where our cold storage and three large plastic tanks/cisterns for rainwater collection will go, under the garage’s main floor.

The orange insulated tarps were for the cold weather and snow expected, and received, on Saturday night and Sunday,

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We needed more tarps, and when Tom couldn’t reach the local fellow who rents insulated tarps in time, Daniel found a deal on some tarps on Kijiji (Canadian Craigslist) and we made a quick, unexpected trip to the city Monday afternoon.

Tom was well pleased with his deal, and at least until it got dark, I was able to start reading Natasha Solomon’s latest, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands. I finally read her The Novel in the Viola (published as The House at Tyneford in the US) over the summer and enjoyed it very much — I have a weakness for stories about Vienna, and about England between and during the wars. The kids were happy because the tarp location was near the Cabela’s store, so we stopped in on the way home and somehow a pop-up ice fishing shelter ended up in our cart. We’re considering it an early Christmas present for them…

Speaking of the holidays to come, just received an email that Lee Valley is offering free shipping from today, Nov. 7th, to the 14th, in Canada and the US, on orders of at least $40.

Shift in focus

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The one or two people who are still checking in here from time to time will know that with life getting busier and also a shift in priorities (kids getting older, with fuller schedules, among other things), there hasn’t been much blogging around here for several years.

But we have a new project and a new shift in focus for our family, which I’m planning to document on the blog; just as well, I suppose, since my youngest will be 13 before the end of the month and our home schooling is on the downward swing. We’re building a new house on the farm, which has been in the plans since we first married 19 years ago. We’d hoped to get started several years ago, the spring after my father died, but between being away from home and then my mother dying, and spending more time than any of us could have thought possible looking after estate and business matters, there wasn’t enough time or energy. We’re starting now and over the moon to finally be able to do this. Tom is a builder so we’re building it ourselves. The kids are helping, and the past month or so, since finishing harvest, we’ve been moving trees (fruit trees and shelterbelt trees) out of the way, stripping top soil from the site (which until now has been an alfalfa field) and hauling it away. Yesterday Davy hauled 40 loads of soil excavated by the backhoe. So this will definitely be a home school project — very hands on! Speaking of which, one book we’ve been using over the years and highly recommend is Math to Build On: A Book for Those Who Build by Johnny and Margaret Hamilton.

The other week Tom laid out 2×4′s on the ground so we could get an idea of what the floorplan would look like. Two days ago the backhoe arrived, and yesterday the excavating finished and forms preparation, for the concrete. We’ll be working on the house while Tom looks after project for clients, so it’ll be about a year for construction, but we want to get the concrete done before winter settles in.

My lovely new hole in the ground,

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The backhoe and operator were hired, the dump truck is ours is being driven by Davy,

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And our new driveway (in this picture, leading toward the house),

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Tom in the Case, and Daniel (age 14) in the yellow loader at right,

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Driveway between the vehicles,

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The digging turned up another digger, this Northern Pocket Gopher. The kids took him to safety, but he turned up again yesterday afternoon while they were working on the forms. Apparently he likes company. Northern Pocket Gophers, unlike Richardson’s Ground Squirrels (which around here are colloquially called gophers), don’t hibernate over the winter.

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There are no words for how excited I am finally to start. The new house will be only the second I’ve ever lived in (third if you include my parents’ house in the West Indies where we stayed for eight months 10 years ago), and will likely be the only house I’ll be involved in building. I’ve dreamed of houses for about 40 years, and when I left for college, I took my binder of shelter magazines with me. I still have some of those pages, and can’t wait to see them come to life.

*  *  *  *

Book recommendations for those thinking about building a house:

Designing Your Dream Home: Every Question to Ask, Every Detail to Consider, and Everything to Know Before You Build or Remodel by Susan Lang

Home Plan Doctor: The Essential Companion for Anyone Buying a Home Design Plan by Larry W. Garnett

Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid by Marianne Cusato and Ben Pentreath, with Richard Simmons and Leon Crier

Creating a New Old House: Yesterday’s Character for Today’s Home by Russell Versaci 

Much too much

Last Tuesday evening we had 4″ of rain in two hours at our house, and close to 6″ at our corrals. The most rain in the shortest time most people around here have ever seen. For the past few days we’ve had temperatures around 30 C, which wouldn’t be that bad if the house weren’t geared toward keeping the heat in rather than out, and if we didn’t have all sorts of weeding to do in the hot sun. The greenhouse was still 100 F at 9 pm tonight. Not a good combination with hot flashes.

We started on our first cut of hay a few days ago, the boys cut all the alfalfa and tomorrow they’ll be ready to start raking and baling. We’re under the gun to get it done because we have a last-minute trip to NYC — the office is moving after 22 years in its current space, and there are still things from my parents (and from almost 50 years ago) to sort through, discard, and give away. We’ll be there a week, and the kids will be manning the hand truck, taking boxes of books and other things to the thrift store several blocks away. Unfortunately, while I think this week has been fairly pleasant in NYC, it looks like next week will be in the 90s. But I’ve been able to promise the kids considerably more air conditioning than we have here. Not the best time of year to remove ourselves from the farm and work, but the only time available between now and September, when the office gets packed up. We’re staying on the Upper West Side as usual, between Fairway and Zabar’s, and will have a kitchenette (and also laundry facilities), so we’re looking forward to quick and easy meals, augmented by nearby Chinese restaurants and hamburgers and shakes at the Shake Shack. The kids are campaigning for on one lobster meal (from Fairway, which sells and also steams them). There’s also apparently a new Trader Joe’s in the neighborhood; we enjoyed the one near our hotel in Washington, DC several years ago (though the line-up to pay was crazy), but that was in Foggy Bottom with only the sad Watergate Safeway for competition.

I’m taking advantage of the situation to order some things we have trouble getting up here — cheap reading glasses, cheap bras, French baking powder, and perfume, which Canada Post considers “dangerous/flammable goods” (living where I do, perfume choices are limited if you’d prefer to smell like vintage decants rather than like JLo, Jessica Simpson, or Pink Sugar). I don’t know how much time or energy we’ll have for any entertainment/cultural activities in the evenings, but it would be fun to take the kids to watch and listen to one evening of Midsummer Night Swing at Lincoln Center.

Laura is off to the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario again in August, this time for a month, to work as an intern, helping with the migration monitoring and working on her own research project, a Monarch butterfly census to see if the numbers recorded in Mexico in December hold up at this end. She’s been very busy with all of her bird stuff, keeping up with her bird blog, starting another blog for our naturalist society, working on her Young Birder of the Year projects, fundraising for Bird Studies Canada with a birdathon. By the way, if you live in Canada and are interested in both bird conservation and donating to a good cause, Laura is gratefully accepting any and all donations until the end of July via her birdathon page at BSC. Thank you and apologies for this bit of fundraising / advertising, which I tend to be allergic to in real and blog life.

The garden is going great guns, though the extremes of dry heat followed by moist heat have provided a bug buffet, and a boon for funguses and such. The powdery mildew is enjoying itself tremendously on the pumpkins, sigh.

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A bowl of succulents — perennial hens-and-chicks I’ll transplant into the garden at the end of the summer,

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A red begonia with creeping jenny,

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A hosta about to bloom,

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The Virginia creeper sneaking up on a chair,

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Mexican giant hyssop (Agastache mexicana “Acapulco”); the hummingbird and bees just love this, probably because it smells like citronella,

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Winter

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After lolling and lazing about over the Christmas holidays, it was back to work for the New Year. We took several of our finished steers to the packers for customers who wanted organic beef. We’ve been selling halves and whole steers, and also combination packages. The kids helped us with some of the packages and we got a proper assembly line going. Have also sold some of our broiler chickens, and a trailer is coming for a dozen or so finished steers this weekend. Laura’s pullets, which arrived as day-old chicks in August, started laying last month and everyone, family and customers alike, are all happy that our egg drought is over. More January stuff:

:: Lots of curling. The kids have after-schooling curling on Tuesday afternoons, junior league curling Monday night (the three are curling with a friend and doing well, they start playoffs next week), and curling with Tom on Wednesdays for the men’s league. And various bonspiels on the weekend; we just had the local junior bonspiel, and the boys won the junior high division curling with two friends (and got second place overall for points), and Laura got second place in the senior high division. More curling up between now and mid-March, and my mother-in-law won some tickets to the Brier, so Tom and the kids will probably be going to at least one game in the big city.

:: Getting ready for 4H public speaking in two clubs. Laura has two speeches, one on antibiotic resistance in beef and the other on her time at the Young Ornithologists’ Workshop last summer. The boys are doing a presentation together for one club (How to Make Jerky), and speeches for the other (Daniel on M. Bombardier and his snowmobiles, Davy on the history of root beer).

:: I wear two hats for the music festival, promotions co-ordinator (getting information packages with syllabi out to families and teachers) and mother. Registration went well the other week (numbers down a bit), and after 4H public speaking is done, the kids will hit the memorizing hard. I’m going to use Laura’s help again with promotions — last year she baked some chocolate chip cookies which we delivered to the local newspapers with the press releases.

:: The big library remodel is done and it looks wonderful. The library hadn’t had a facelift of any sort since it was first built in the early eighties, so this was long overdue. We were lucky to have a librarian and staff with vision and determination to take this on. I’ve been on the board for years and have thought every now and then of stepping down, but am so glad I stuck around. Well, except for the part about being on the policy committee and starting a review of all our policies this month. Ugh.

:: Planning meetings for the fair for three of us. Committee budgets to approve, hall booklet to change, sponsors to sweet talk.

:: Laura was invited by her aunt to the season home opener of the Edmonton Oilers, great fun even if they didn’t win…

:: I had “pre-ordered” (nasty term) the latest Flavia de Luce novel, Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley, for Laura, and it arrived last week. I also bought her the dvd of the documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect”, since we don’t have cable/satellite television, it’s not available on YouTube in Canada, and there’s no chance any of the libraries in our library system will bring in such an American item.

:: latest documentaries for school: “Bowling for Columbine” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

:: latest reading for school: George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which I think the kids are all ready for. I’m using my old copy of The Orwell Reader, which I bought because of the introduction by Richard Rovere, the subject of my senior history thesis in university. Happily, The Reader is still in print. I think along with the essay we’ll read this recent Guardian article by Steven Poole, and Frank Luntz’s recent Washington Post piece, “Why Republicans Should Watch Their Language”. And why citizens should watch very carefully when politicians start to watch, and change, their language.

Another book on the list, Mrs. Mike, very Canadian, very gritty, very plucky…

:: More in the learning to be a good consumer department: we’ve started watching a few older TV shows at lunchtime — last month CTV was airing episodes of Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s “Til Debt Do Us Part” and then switched over to “Princess”. Quite eye-opening for the kids on the evils of credit and spending more than you make. Followed up with “Property Virgins”, where no-one seems to have heard of starter houses and everyone wants stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

:: The college in town is celebrating its centennial and as part of the festivities they organized what’s hoped to be a Guinness world record giant toboggan run; the toboggan itself was 36′ long (that’s Davy at the top of this post, tucked in just inside the front curve of the giant sled) and had to slide 100 meters. Tom was asked to take official measurements and the kids went along for the fun,

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The kids with the giant toboggan,

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Coming up later this month:

:: dogsledding as part of the 4H Outdoor club

:: a hands-on six-hour calving course for the kids, at the local agricultural college

:: annual organic farming recertification, aka a pile of paperwork, sigh…

Recent nifty discoveries:

Paper roller coasters

Bar Keeper’s Friend; I had used this before moving to Canada but until last fall never saw it on Canadian store shelves, at least not on the prairies. I spotted it at Home Depot a few months ago, and it’s been the best thing for my kitchen sink, which after 14 years, had some pretty stubborn stains after cherry and berry season.  It’s also the best, easiest, and least toxic cleanser I’ve found in 18 years to use on rust stains from our well water.

It’s light out now until at least 5:30. In December it was getting dark just after 4 pm. And sunrise is now around 8 am instead of an hour later, and by the end of the month the sun will be up before 7:30. Hooray!

Blueberry Oatmeal Squares, from CBC’s show, Best Recipes Ever; Laura made these twice in three days, doubling the recipe the second time. The perfect way to use the gallons of blueberries etc I froze last summer.

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May daybook

No, I have no idea what happened to April. A very short, very fast month.

Outside my window…

Spring was springier in March, which came in like a lamb and went out like a lion. April very lionish as well, at least weatherwise — cool, blustery, and dry. May so far is cool, blustery, and wettish.

We’re finished calving and that went fairly smoothly. The kids are busy working with their steers and other cattle (they each have a steer and Laura also has a heifer and a cow-calf pair) for 4H beef club achievement days at the end of the month. Yesterday was the annual 4H highway cleanup, where kids clean up months’ of litter tossed out of vehicles by irresponsible adults.

From the schoolroom…

I think I mentioned in my last post that we read To Kill a Mockingbird which the boys in particular seemed to enjoy. We followed that up with the movie, and then, because everyone quite liked Gregory Peck, we had a special screening of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” with a discussion of anti-Semitism in North America. Next up in American movie studies, and continuing with courtroom drama, we have “12 Angry Men” with Henry Fonda.

For political science/current events, between the American presidential campaign and our recent roller coaster provincial election (the Progressive Conservatives were a lock to win, the Wild Rose Party all of a sudden came out of nowhere and was poised to win a majority, the PCs ended up winning a majority, oy), the kids are all now old enough (Daniel just turned 13) to make it through George Orwell’s celebrated 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which they are now reading, writing, and discussing their ways through. I also managed to find a copy of Frank Luntz’s Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear in the library system, which is good, because I had no desire to further enrich Mr. Luntz by having to purchase the book. I disagree mightily with his methods, all the more reason it’s important to understand them, and how to parse the rhetoric, especially for young future voters.

For something a bit lighter, our new readaloud is a rereading of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, which Davy scarcely remembers.

I let Laura pick the Shakespeare play for spring, and she chose Romeo and Juliet. Although Davy had his reservations, he and his brother were transfixed by a story that had more violence and adolescent hotheadedness than romance. In addition to readings, we also watched the Zeffirelli version, followed by the Leonardo di Caprio version which all three kids found very unsettling for various reasons (Florida, the music, the abridging, and “That’s Temple Grandin?”). We’re going to add in a showing of  “West Side Story”, even though it’s in fairly regular rotation in this house, and also tossed in another viewing of “Much Ado” this time for comparison purpose the benefits of age, maturity, and waiting a bit). We found “Shakespeare in Love” at the library the other week, which is centered around Romeo and Juliet, and Laura now wants to see “Twelfth Night”, which is mentioned at the end; we’ll see what versions the library has. And I discovered that our library system has a DVD copy of “Romeo and Juliet” with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer; I think the boys are Romeo’d out, but Laura would probably enjoy this version if only to see what it looks like with MGM’s long-in-the-tooth teens.

We are beavering away at math, with decimals, percents, pre-algebra, and algebra. This year isn’t as easy for Laura as last year, but I’ve seen the lightbulb go on about having to work on a subject despite the difficulties and drudgery with her realization that she likely will pursue some sort of career in wildlife biology.

Which reminds me, have just ordered a copy of the newly (as in last week) published Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture by Robert Bruce Thompson. Mr. Thompson has a biology lab kit available for those living in the US, and is also working on his forthcoming title, Illustrated Guide to Home Forensic Science Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (which will also have an accompanying kit available). According to Mr. Thompson, the Illustrated Guide is “intended to be used in conjunction with a standard first-year biology textbook. The book coordinates well with Miller-Levine Biology and the free CK-12 Biology, which are the two texts we recommend, but it’s easy enough to coordinate with any of the common homeschool biology textbooks”.

For whatever it’s worth, we have and use Stephen Nowicki’s biology text (bought cheaply secondhand at Abebooks), in great part because we have his biology course on dvd, and also Trefil’s and Hazen’s The Sciences: An Integrated Approach (also cheap secondhand at Abebooks). Throw in a couple of out-of-print Charles Harper books for the boys (The Giant Golden Book of Biology and The Animal Kingdom, and it’s a bit of a mishmash, but it works for us.

Here’s a link to a free PDF of a draft version of the Illustrated Guide to Home Biology Experiments.

In the next few weeks…

In extracurriculars, besides getting ready for beef club achievement days, the kids are in the home stretch for this year’s play, “Alice in Wonderland”, with opening night a week from Thursday. Laura got off her application for the birding internship in Ontario, and we get word on the 15th whether she makes it or not; only six kids nationally are chosen, so our fingers are crossed. She’ll take her learner’s permit test tomorrow, so more fingers crossed for that.

This year’s batch of shelterbelt trees, somewhere between 900 and 1,000, are arriving at the county depot on Friday, so we’ll be planting them on the weekend. As usual, Mother’s Day tends to be more like Arbor Day around here…

I’m thankful…

The kids all did very well at the local music festival in March, and had some good fun. The boys each recited two poems, and Daniel surprised himself and us by winning one poetry category (lyrical) instead of his sister. He also won best speech arts for 12 and under. Laura sang two art songs, performed “Worst Pies” from “Sweeney Todd” for musical theater (she did a wonderful, very funny job, especially with the double portion of pizza dough I made for her to sling around), and had half a dozen speech arts entries. She won a number of awards, including best overall speech arts, and she and Daniel were recommended to the provincial music festival for speech arts, and Laura for musical theater. Unfortunately, provincials are the week after the play and a few days before achievement day, and Davy’s session is on Wednesday and Laura’s sessions on Thursday, so we are spending the night in the city, not the best time to be away from home. We will probably have to leave Daniel at home with Tom’s parents, so he can do all the farm chores and especially look after the 4H animals.

Laura’s been getting more and more wrapped up in her birding. Unlike her mother, she’s a dedicated blogger and keeps up with her birding posts. She joined a listserv for provincial birders last month, and was welcomed warmly by members who seem happy to see someone younger as well as outside the two main urban centers. Invited by one of the members, we attended the town of Tofield’s nature day and Snow Goose chase last weekend, organized by the big city nature club, and Laura was able to meet some listserv members in person. More on the day below.

Around the farm…

Late in April, I had a phone call from the big oil company putting in another pipeline across the road through our neighbor’s pasture. The rep asked if we would give permission for a two-man wildlife biology survey crew to come on our land and check for various species. We can’t do anything to stop the pipeline  – and at any rate, we’re dependent on our vehicles and the pipeline oil that powers them, living too far from town to walk or even to bike, especially from November to April and especially with any purchases too large for a bicycle basket. But we can do our small part to make sure that various animal populations and habitat are taken into account and looked after before, during, and after construction.

So I said yes, and also asked if Laura could go out with the crew, because I thought it could be mutually beneficial. She knows the land and wildlife like the back of her hand and could help the crew get the information they need (for example, they were looking for sharp-tailed grouse here and there are none), and I thought it would be good for Laura to see first-hand the work wildlife biologists do in the field. Apparently, asking to go along was fairly odd question — we were the first ever landowners to ever ask — but the pipeline company checked with the survey company, and everyone said yes.

The two young men who turned up on Monday are dedicated professional biologists and personal birders; in fact, one spent a fair amount of time going back and forth with Laura about their year birds and spring migrants they’ve seen so far. If I’ve learned anything about most birders, it’s that they are dedicated list makers and keepers. The other biologist, when he first arrived around 5 am, while standing in our driveway, quizzed Laura by asking her what birds she could hear at the large slough (pond/wetland) across the road in our neighbors’ pasture. Since it’s filled with thousands of Snow Geese, it’s pretty hard to make out much besides their honking, but Laura listed a number of other birds, including one (Green-winged Teal) the biologist hadn’t been able to hear. So with that, off we went, and spent some time in the pasture recording early morning birdsong. We met later in the morning for several hours and Laura led the way to a good viewing spot by the slough where the crew set up their spotting scopes, much to Laura’s delight because she’s been wanting a scope for a year now.

And based on comments in her letter of reference for the internship, from the local college biology instructor who leads our naturalist society and has been Laura’s unofficial mentor, and from the survey crew (as well as their boss, the company’s senior wildlife biologist) about her levels of knowledge and interest — Tom and I don’t know any other young birders so we weren’t sure if her interest and abilities are average or above average — we’ve decided to let her go ahead with the purchase of a spotting scope. She’ll be using her own money, and has decided to get one of the top-level Swarovski scopes, though not with HD to save some money. She’s decided that she’d rather pay more for a top quality scope she should be able to use for a good long time, through her university studies and as she starts a career. The fellow we’re working with at the store said Laura’s selections should give her at least 20 years’ enjoyment.

This TED talk by Canadian professor Larry Smith, “Why you will fail to have a great career”, which I heard on last week’s CBC Sunday Edition radio show, is as good a reason as any for encouraging Laura to pursue her present hobby as a career. Last week, the Sunday Edition also ran David Martin’s essay, “My Government Valedictory”, which along with the recently announced federal job cuts are all good reasons to consider avoiding government jobs; some of the cuts will be at bird, and birders’, haven Point Pelee.

I am thinking...

By the way, I’ve been adding any birding material, all of the writing and some of the photography, to Laura’s high school portfolio, inlcuding the letter of recommendation and nice email note from the survey crew’s wildlife biologist, who turned up on the provincial listserv and wrote her offlist. Laura also wrote a blog post about our nature day visit last weekend to Tofield. She was asked if her post could be used as an article for the club’s newsletter, and she’ll receive a published copy, so a copy of that will go in the portfolio as well. I think it might be helpful in the next year or two to make a book of her blog with Blurb or some such, as a record of her birding and writing.

Aside from the birds to be seen outdoors, there were many wonderful exhibits in the town’s community center: several owls and hawks from from the city zoo; well-known Canadian naturalist John Acorn (who used to have a marvelous children’s show on CBC, “Acorn the Nature Nut”, now available on dvd); here are the two nature nuts together,

a live Burrowing Owl from a nearby bird observatory, which Laura got to hold,

a Bugs & Beetles wetland display; and a gorgeous taxidermy display of mounted owls from the Royal Alberta Museum. My favorite, though, were the yard-long garter snake, enormous Malaysian katydid, and scorpion, also from the Royal Alberta Museum; here is Katy,

displayed by the enthusiastic Pete Heule, the Museum’s Bug Room Co-ordinator (know as the Bug Guy on his features for CBC radio, which we enjoy very much).

In the kitchen…

Plans for tonight include Banana Batter Cake with Coconut Caramel Sauce, apparently an Asian variation of sticky toffee pudding, found in last November’s issue of British House & Garden magazine, originally from Australian chef and restaurateur Bill Granger’s book, Bill’s Everyday Asian (recipe here).

Some books we’re reading…

Designing Your Perfect House: Lessons from an Architect by William J. Hirsch (me)

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose (Laura), new and very good

All of Baba’s Children by Myrna Kostash (Tom), a personal and general history of Ukrainian Canadians

Finally, Friday night the whole family went to see “The Artist”, which was playing at the little movie theater in town, which is owned and run by a friend of ours. We don’t get a lot of first, or almost first, run movies in town, so this was a huge treat, especially since we’d seen lots of clips at the awards shows earlier this year and were quite eager for the movie to come out on dvd. Next month on the big screen — either “Bringing Up Baby” or “The Philadelphia Story”, two favorites which would be wonderful to see on the big screen.

Looking more like a lamb

I see I missed blogging last month, but our immune systems deserted us from the beginning of February for five weeks, and I’m still coughing and hacking away and variously tending ailing kids and husband when they aren’t tending me. The worst part was being seriously under the weather, with yet another bad case of the flu, when JoVE and her daughter were here from Ontario for a visit. I felt like a cross between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Typhoid Mary, prone on the sofa, unmoving except to spew germs. JoVE said she doesn’t blame me at all for infecting her, but I don’t really believe her! We did have a lovely visit and she brought beautiful blue and white presents to remember them by. I’ll have to photograph them and put the pics up here.

Fortunately, though Tom has been sick too, we’ve managed to take turns so that whenever we needed to get the kids anywhere, there’s an able, driving adult. The kids were tough, learning to deal with 4H public speaking, curling, and other things through sickness. Some recent things we’ve been up to:

:: the boys surprised themselves by winning first place at 4H district public speaking for their presentation, “How to Make Yorkshire Pudding”. By rights they were supposed to go on to the 4H regional competition two hours away (yesterday), but it was the same day as 4H district curling, which they decided would be more fun. And it was. Curling is winding down and will be finished in the next few weeks. In fact, the high school curling provincials were held in our town the other week, and the kids were each asked to carry a flag for one of the teams when they were piped onto the ice at the start.

:: Laura’s 4H cow had her calf, a little heifer named Phoebe, on Friday. We’re in calving mode now, going out at night twice to check on the heifers and cows. The sleep deprivation gets harder each year as we get older. But we may not have this problem next year — cattle prices are at a record high and we are worried about drought conditions (see below), so Tom’s thinking about selling some of the herd. Something to talk about in the middle of the night when we’re wide awake after checking  on the cattle.

:: We’re all gearing up for the Music Festival. The kids are busy practicing their pieces. The boys have two poems each and Davy is playing O Canada on the guitar, while Laura has nine entries: one of her 4H speeches, a sacred reading from Confucius on art and music, “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, a prose passage from one of the Flavia mysteries, and Roald Dahl’s revolting rhyme about Little Red Riding Hood; as well as three songs — an English art song, an Italian art song, and a musical theater piece. Aside from working with the kids, am also sorting out all the publicity/promotions for the festival. Is it wrong to focus on the fact that in one month it will all be over?

:: Our current readloud is To Kill a Mockingbird, which all the kids are enjoying. I couldn’t find the PBS American Experience documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” in our Canadian library system, but I did find it on YouTube, which has been helpful. Also helpful is the PBS teacher’s guide for “Scottsboro”, and the following online lesson plans: Library of Congress lesson plan, To Kill a Mockingbird: A Historical Perspective”; Edsitement’s “Profiles in Courage”.

:: Our weather and seasons usually don’t respect the calendar, but it has been such a oddly mild winter that it does seem for the first time in most people’s memory, we will actual Springlike weather to coincide with the equinox. We had about an inch of snow the other week (where as much snow fell in one day as we’d had until then this winter), but it didn’t last long. On Thursday, the temperature was +8 Celsius (46 F) , and +6 C yesterday. The forecast for the end of the week is 10-11 C (about 50 F). And on Friday the kids spotted the first arriving Canada goose. I think everyone had been expecting that winter would eventually arrive, but we may get Spring first before Winter ever comes. Though we usually do have a Spring snowfall in March and/or April, with a heavy branch-breaking snow…

:: We are still mulling over our flooring choices for the new addition and rest of the kitchen and entry. Until yesterday we were considering vinyl groutable tile from Home Depot or Lowe’s, but while at Home Depot yesterday to pick up stair nosing for one of Tom’s upcoming commercial project, we came across Allure’s vinyl plank option, and it is now in first place. It would be much faster, without the grouting and with the fact that it’s a floating system, and fairly comparable in price to the vinyl groutable tile, which is quite inexpensive. The planks are flexible, which would be helpful for our 60-year-old house with uneven floors. And I’d definitely prefer a wood look to a tile look for that part of the house. We decided on the Hickory colorway, which is in stock; I prefer the Barnwood colorway, but it’s special order and with Home Depot an hour away, too difficult to co-ordinate. If we like it, I can see trying to convince Tom to use it to replace the 18-year-old carpeting in the living room, hallway, and three upstairs bedrooms. Well, at least the living room to start.

:: The kids are on a judging team with their 4H beef club for the Western Canadian Judging Competition later this week, with a number of intercollegiate and other 4H groups. They’ll be judging livestock and crop classes (beef , dairy, sheep, horses, seeds, forage, crop ID), and a mystery class.

:: We are getting close to done with 4H baking club, which has its achievement day in about a month. We have one last project meeting this week, and have to plan achievement day. We’re thinking of something along the lines of an “Iron Chef” potluck, where the kids do the cooking at home, focusing on a particular type of meal (main course, dessert, salad) with a particular/secret ingredient, and bringing the results in for dinner with family and friends.

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.

Halloween garland

Here are some photos of Laura’s latest project. We missed Halloween at home last year, and don’t think we did much the year before since we were in between returning home from the visit to my parents where my father had brain surgery and was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and my return to NYC to help him through radiation. So the autumn holidays were put on the back burner. Which is why, I think, Laura has started extra early this year. We were in the big city the other week and stopped off at Michael’s, where she found a Martha Stewart paper punch,

And somehow poking around on the Michael’s website, she searched for “Martha Stewart” and found a bunch of how-to videos, including one with a punch techniques demonstration. With all the new windows in the dining room addition, we’ve been kind of bunting/garland* crazy this year, so Laura decided to make one for Halloween, using orange and black construction paper (we are still using the stash I bought at the dollar store when the kids were little) cut in strips 1.25″ x 9″ .

* Bunting madness: I have become a confirmed etsy shopper in the past two years (especially for unique birthday and Christmas presents) and early this year discovered Jaime Mancilla‘s lovely fabric buntings. Let’s just say I looked through lots of buntings before I found Jaime’s. First I bought a couple of springy and summery ones, for Easter and Daniel’s birthday and beyond. Here is the Spring one (all bunting photographs by Jaime Mancilla from her etsy shop site),

Summer,

We were all so pleased that I decided to surprise the kids with an Autumn/Harvest banner from Jaime’s store (and indeed, when most years we are so sorry to see summer go, we were thrilled on the first day of September, when autumn had been here for nearly a month, to finally hang the new banner),

but then Jaime surprised me by including a Christmas banner — which was next on my shopping list — in the parcel,

Isn’t that beautiful? The fabric colors, prints, and style are just right — fun but not too cutesy, and elegantly simple. Highly, highly recommended. The buntings each come with three strands (10 flags and three feet long each), for a total of nine feet, which stretches nicely across the three windows on the north wall. I sewed all of the strands in each bunting together for one long length, and then used 3M Command hooks on the casing, which pleases my builder husband. By the way, Jaime also makes adorable mini buntings for cakes for all occasions, including Halloween.

Daybook

Outside my window…

the garden is dead. We had the first killing frost last night, -6 Celsius (it was -10 at my inlaws’ house). The sweet peas, cosmos, clematis, lavatera, sunflowers, rudbeckia, and even the zinnias under sheets (had we known it would be lower than -1, we would have used two layers) are all gone. I moved much from the greenhouse into the house, and it looks sad in the greenhouse now. But the kitchen looks like a florist’s shop, and the banana plant is wondering why it’s in the living room.

I am thinking…

how quickly the cold weather came on, after 30+ temps last week, though it has been autumn here for the past month.

I am thankful…

that Tom got the propane heater late last night for the greenhouse, when we realized the thermometer wasn’t finished moving at -2.

for a warm oven, containing peach cobbler.

From the learning rooms…

we are doing a quick run-through the 20th century before beginning another cycle of ancient history. We are focusing on the perils of populism, in the 20th century, and now.

We watched “All Quiet on the Western Front”, the version with John Boy. We are bouncing around a bit, based on what’s available and when from the library. Next up is the 1998 Disney movie “Miracle at Midnight”, about the Nazi occupation of Denmark in WWII, starring Sam Waterston and Mia Farrow.

In the kitchen…

more dill pickles, and canning peaches.

I am wearing…

an apron, and longer pants, because it’s cold in the house. I finally succumbed and turned on the furnace this morning.

I am creating…

good food and small skeptics.

I am going…

to town quickly to pick up a parcel with Laura’s newest voice book for lessons, and batteries for her camera.

I am wondering…

how to fit all my greenhouse plants in the house.

I am reading…

Elle DecorTraditional Home, and Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings, which though terribly sad goes well with our history readings (writing in The Guardian, Sarah Waters called it “A study of the disintegration of a middle-class family during the turmoil of the Second World War”).

Also, new from the library, 101 Things I Hate About Your House by James Swan, and How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One by Stanley Fish.

I am hoping…

I have enough Ziploc bags on hand for the sliced peaches.

I am looking forward to…

cabinets in the dining room. We may have found some at Home Depot, the sort you can pick up in boxes and walk out of the store with. As long as everything is in stock, which is the rub.

And at Ikea on the weekend, we managed to get the long out-of-stock Numerar butcherblock countertops for the dining room. They’re oak, which I wouldn’t want for a kitchen, but for the dining room they’re fine.  The plan is for base cabinets on the east and west walls, topped with the butcherblock countertops, and then open shelving on the walls.

I am hearing…

the hum of the furnace. Very odd after so long without it. The kids were delighted, and ran to the registers with quilts.

Around the house…

there are plants, fruit, and vegetables in every spare nook and cranny.

I am pondering…

Professor Helen Zoe Veit’s editorial in favor of a return to Home Economics in the classroom, originally published in The New York Times. From which:

One of my favorite things…

peach cobbler

A few plans for the rest of the week:

Laura has her second babysitting engagement, which she finds thrilling.  Putting together the Ikea sideboard, which will be our under-the-chalkboard table, since it is not too deep. I may have the kids sand the sideboard, so I can stain it, because it’s a light pine which doesn’t go with much in the kitchen. And possibly painting the chalkboard, which is an old school board and green. Am thinking black might be a nice change.

Springing forth

The leaves on the trees are finally unfurling.  No, not all of them, but lots, and we finally have a haze of green around us.  The perennials are coming up nicely. I know because at 6:30 this morning I heard loud mooing much too close to the house and there were several cows and their calves who had squeezed through a hole in the fence and made it down to the pasture by the house where the fence, naturally, wasn’t closed.  So after shooing them back through the fence and closing it, I did a brief tour of the raised beds.  I was also pleasantly surprised at how warm it was this morning compared to other mornings, when the temperatures have been around freezing.

The greenhouse is about an hour away from being finished and pulled by tractor to its new home behind the house.  Tom and his helpers built it in front of the garage so it was easy to unload building supplies and for an easy power supply.  On Mother’s Day afternoon, we dropped the kids off at rehearsal (the performances, finally, are Thursday-Saturday for “Willy Wonka”) and then headed to the recycling center, where next to the plastics bin we discovered several large stacks of enormous black plastic nursery pots for trees, perfect for growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplants in the greenhouse.  A very nice Mother’s Day present, though not nearly as nice as the breakfast in bed (heart-shaped pancakes, with bacon), flowers, greenhouse, nursery gift certificate, handmade cards, and seven-course meal.

Because I cannot do anything properly without reading about it, I have been reading my Bookcloseouts treasure, Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden by Ruth Kassinger, ordered before I realized I would have my own greenhouse to play in anytime soon. Ms. Kassinger details field trips to Logee’s and Glasshouse Works, where I spent far too much money as a single girl in the early nineties, though unfortunately exclusively by mail order and never in person; in fact, I used to keep the catalogues by the bed, and remember them well — the Logee’s catalogue was small and slim, and fit into a jacket pocket for easy subway reading, and the one from GW was large and floppy, on newsprint.  Have also ordered the following, from Amazon.ca and Chapters:

Eliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses; I’ve long been a fan of EC and have been looking for an excuse to buy his latest.

Greenhouse Gardener’s Companion by Shane Smith, illustrated by Marjorie Leggitt; as soon as I saw Ms. Leggitt’s lovely cover, I knew this was the book for me, since I am planning on putting a comfortable chair near the door for surveying my new domain.

The Greenhouse Gardener by Anne Swithinbank, which also goes by the title The Conservatory Gardener, and which I had to buy from Book Depository because it’s no longer in print in Canada though apparently so in the US. Also ordered from BD, Debo Devonshire’s Wait for Me! because I couldn’t wait any longer, but sadly not Miss Buncle Married, which I have a feeling sold like hot cakes upon its recent Persephone reissue.

Am once again reminded by Cicero’s quote over on the left, “Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing.”

Tom determined that the days are nowhere near long enough, and so hired a drywaller to finish the walls in the new dining area.  The fellow has been here for three days, and the sanding has begun, so the plastic is up and the dust is flying. When I drop off the kids for today’s full dress rehearsal, I’ll swing by the paint store for chips.  I’m horribly consistent, so I am planning to pick the same yellow as the rest of the kitchen, and we’ll repaint the kitchen walls and also the cabinets (which will be the same cream color I chose 12 years ago, too). The kids and I will prime and paint, and I have to choose casing for the windows too.  Then flooring, and Tom was even talking about the Ikea base cabinets for the east and west sides of the room (there will be base cabs on either side of the table, and shelves above them; sort of a modified Welsh dresser, for dining room as well as home school accoutrements), so we may well have a trip to Ikea in our future shortly. Which is good, because I think I would like these solar lights for the greenhouse:

I’ll take some pictures of the new greenhouse and the dining room as soon as I can find a camera I am able to use, and a cable.  For all the cameras and cables floating around the house, none of them seem to be mine any more.

Also yesterday, we had our semi-annual home school facilitator visit, who managed to make me feel good, and satisfied, about our efforts even though I have been managing estate matters and a business in NYC more than home schooling my children. Since Laura will be starting Grade 9 next year, we talked a bit about high school, though in Alberta at least it doesn’t start until Grade 10. I’ll be going by what I’m used to, which is 9-12.  And I am going to try to remember to be guided by the Gilbert Highet quote, also over there on the left, from his book, The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning,

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.

Finally, since this post feels rather naked without some pictures, I’ll add the ones from Daniel’s 12th birthday celebration the other week — his “hamburger” cupcakes made by his loving but not particularly crafty mother, who was egged on by Sheila, who does this sort of a thing at the drop of a hat and very well too. Surprisingly, though, they turned out quite well.  Unsurprisingly, I forgot all about taking any pictures until there were only three left, and of course they were the least successful of the bunch.  But you can get the general hamburger-ness of them,

You can see the original version here.

These days

Yesterday was my birthday and when I wasn’t thinking about how for the first time my mother wouldn’t be telephoning, and my father wouldn’t be emailing a Jacquie Lawson card and sending the usual box of books, it wasn’t too bad.  The kids and Tom made a heroic effort to distract me from my orphandom (is that even a word? orphanhood?).  Okay, it was awful and what did help was a quick trip to town to pick up some last-minute things for Daniel’s 12th birthday on Friday.  Much easier to concentrate on someone else’s festivities, especially when I need to figure out how I can co-opt some wedding printables for birthday purposes.

This morning dawned much better and happier, especially with all sorts of new birds back, and the yard positively vibrating from robins’ song. And the swallows are back and swooping around the window frames trying to figure out where to make their nests.  And here I’ve only more or less started the exterior spring cleaning — after just having finished, more or less, the indoor spring cleaning — and have yet to attack the window screens the swallows made such a mess of last summer. Must clean off old mess before they start making a new mess.

But then I checked my email and there was a merchandising come-on for Mother’s Day,

“be a hero to your hero! Great gift idea’s for Mom on eBay”

and, aside from the momentary pause to sigh about the dolts in charge of punctuation at eBay, it occurred to me that these next few weeks are going to be very, very hard.

Fortunately, part of my birthday present from Tom is a greenhouse — similar to this hoop-style greenhouse covered with poly, though Tom wants to make it more A-frame style with 2×4′s for ease of construction — and I am hoping that by May 8th I will be suitably distracted, or at least in a more suitable place to commune with the spirit of my parents, since my mother loved nothing better than filling the house with spring flowers (branches of pussywillows, forsythia, and lilacs) though she wasn’t in the least interested in how anything was grown, and my father was happiest puttering among his plants in his shade house.

Onwards. Upwards.


Kitchen addition progress

Tom and his crew, which includes the kids most days, are making good progress. Early this week they started insulating and putting up drywall, and yesterday they broke through the existing exterior wall.  Which meant we had Tom’s birthday dinner last night with a large sheet of plastic sheeting hanging in the room, between the table and the addition (though compared to the two-hour delay in the meal because the water heater all of a sudden collapsed after 17 years, spewing hot water all over the laundry room, the sheeting was minor).  And of course, with the ceiling supports and sheeting, we now have even less room than unusual in our bowling-ball-narrow eat-in area.  But with any luck not for long.

Insulating in progress,

Once the new windows were installed at the north end of the addition, the only way in or to out was through the old kitchen window, as Davy demonstrates.  The window with about 16 feet of wall are now gone, but the broom closet at left (part of the remodel 12 years ago) stays.  Soon to go will be the dreadful pink, white and gray vinyl sheet flooring Tom picked out 17 years ago (before we met),

Vapor barrier over the insulation, which looks rather ghostly,

The one bright spot in the kitchen at the moment; kitchen addition through the no-longer-in-existence window on the right; what you can see in the background is the cooking part of the kitchen.  Please disregard the 70-year-old popcorn ceiling over asbestos, as I’ve been doing; knowing that we would build a new house one of these days always helped…

The drywall going up; next week’s project is taping, etc.

The old kitchen window on its way out; you can see the lovely supports now temporarily part of the kitchen, to keep the ceiling in place,

When the wall was removed yesterday, the kids and I saw the original wallpaper for the first time. Tom had covered it up when he fixed up the house 17 years ago, just before we met, because it was faster and easier to lay drywall than to strip 50-year-old drywall,

Ta da — the wall is gone.  The view at dinnertime last night.  The Rubbermaid plastic wash tubs you can see on the floor at the bottom right are what Tom and the kids use to store their books and papers (work for Tom, school things for the kids); these will finally find a home in drawers/behind doors when the built-ins in the addition are completed,

Peeking in to the new addition from the existing kitchen after the wall came down,

Hee! Standing inside the new addition, looking toward the old kitchen.  It’s so much wider than I imagined it would be. If it were warmer, I’d move the kitchen table in there RIGHT NOW (it went down to -17 C last night, or not quite 2 degrees F, ugh),

Old and new,

We have walls

for the kitchen addition.  Well, we’ve had the walls built for a while but just haven’t been able to stand them up until the -30C blustery weather and snow stopped.  For good, we hope, considering the date on the calendar, but who knows this year. Snow we expect through the end of the May, but -30 is usually a thing of the past by now.

Apologies for the pic quality, I took these from inside the house, which gives the best view.

Our telehandler helping out,

The west wall going up,

West wall attached; there will be built-in shelves with the window in the center (it was either that or two very narrow windows on the edges) with the countertop and cabinets underneath, as a sort of dining room/school room hutch.  There will be one “hutch” on each side, east and west,

The east wall going up,

The north wall; Laura was just telling us the other day that it’s time to get rid of the swing set, so we’ll pass it on to some friends with young children,

Next up, literally: trusses.

The princess and the pea

I know you’re supposed to replace a mattress every eight or 10 or 15 years.  But for the first eight, 10, 15 years and even longer, the mattress was just fine.  So fine that we didn’t think about it, though every so often the idea would flit through my brain, only to be dismissed by  concerns that, with my history of  back trouble, a new unknown mattress wouldn’t be as good as the old one. And that our sheets wouldn’t fit the new, thicker mattresses.  Last year the mattress started poking us, as if to say, “Hey, remember me?” and we knew then that we had run of out time.  But family emergencies and too many trips away from home meant that we weren’t getting to the nearest mattress venue — the Sears store in the little city an hour or so away — any time soon.

We finally got there the other weekend, while the kids were curling in a bonspiel.  It was an awfully long afternoon, though the choosing would have been much faster if we had been told at the beginning of the mattress testing process rather than at the end that one of our choices had been discontinued by the manufacturer, harumph. I made a point of avoiding the euro- and pillow-tops and focusing on the “slimmer” mattresses. After about an hour, we left, having paid for our new mattress and boxspring and arranged for delivery.  Since we live in the country, the mattress set would be shipped to our local Sears pickup depot, from where we’d collect it in the truck and bring it home.  Which Tom did at lunchtime today.  Which meant that about 10 minutes later, we were all standing around our lovely Henredon mahogany sleigh bed, staring UP at the mattress and boxpring that looked like something from the story of the princess and the pea.  It was all just so very high, so very tall, so much closer to the ceiling.  Too high, too tall, and quite odd.  Sitting in bed, my head is well above the top of the table lamp on the nightstand, and when I sit on the bed, my feet no longer touch the floor but dangle in the air about 12 inches off the ground. I think I’ve figured out that what we need is a “low profile” boxspring, so we’ll have to order a new new one and return the old new one.  It’s either that or a set of Victorian bed steps and a good memory from my perch in the middle of the night when I’m half asleep and in need of a glass of water. With any luck, our only difficulty will be exchanging the bedspring, and the mattress itself will be suitable.  We have 60 days to find out, with Sears’ return policy.

We still do much our reading aloud in this bed, and when the kids were little they would pretend we were on an island.  This is truly an island now, and I fear for books, the television remote, and especially my laptop should they happen to fall from on high. In the meantime, now that I can reach the ceiling fixture by standing up on the mattress, I may as well take advantage of the situation and change the lightbulbs.

UPDATED to add: The kids measured the old mattress/boxspring set and the new one, and the difference is 10 inches.  Yikes.

PS Oh joy, more snow on the way. Four inches.  Gah.

This and that

I’ve apparently forgotten how to blog, as evidenced by the post title above.

It’s -23 C here with wind chill in the minus thirties (tonight the forecast is for -32, with a windchill of -47, which doesn’t even bear thinking about). It snowed over the weekend, including all day yesterday and last night, and overnight blew in so badly that Tom and the kids got stuck in the truck in drifts six or seven times on the way to do chores this morning and would have been stuck on the way out had the grader not come by.  Am quite safe in saying we are thoroughly sick of winter in two countries, through most of the Canadian provinces and several US states.

However, I’ve been able to avoid the worst of the weather today since I’ve been stuck in bed surrounded by a sea of receipts, checkbook registers, and other papers spread out in piles , trying to figure out for the lawyers and accountants:

total funerary/memorial expenses for my father

total funerary/memorial expenses for my mother

total expenses fixing up the house in the Caribbean we don’t want and apparently no one else does during a recession either

If I concentrate on just the numbers, I don’t think as much about the parents those arrangements were for, or the house as paperweight-cum-albatross.

The kitchen addition project continues.   Tom, his cousin, and the kids (occasionally) have been making good progress, first attaching the sheathing for the floor, and then, when it got too cold to work outdoors, building walls, which I believe are just about done.  We are recycling three windows from another job which the homeowner had ordered in the wrong size, those will go on the north end near the spruce tree, and will order two new windows, one each for the west and east sides.

Attaching the sheathing,

Sheathing all attached and waiting for walls,

And a couple of photos before we left New Jersey — Laura (age 13) and Davy (10) in the trailer, after shoving the last few items into the remaining top 24″ of space,

Back to the sea of paper.

The return

We returned home late on February 14th, after about a month away.  While the rest of North America was celebrating Valentine’s Day with chocolate, cards, and crafts, we were driving west from Regina and just relieved to be home, from which we have been absent for four months since October, which seems crazy when I think about it.  My husband and kids have been absolute rocks to put up with all of this coming and going, emptying almost 50 years’ worth of furnishings and memories from a New York City apartment, getting on a first name basis with the staff at the nearby Salvation Army, and, the worst part of all, driving on the NJ turnpike from the Lincoln Tunnel to Jersey City, the trip’s true low spot.  We left last Wednesday, and made it to DuBois, PA the first night; our other stops each night, after driving about eight hours a day (except in North Dakota, where we had to keep driving past Fargo and Grand Forks until we finally, finally found a hotel room) were Danville, Illinois, Des Moines, Iowa; Grafton, ND; Regina, Saskatchewan; crossing the border into Canada north of Grafton south of Winnipeg, and home.

To counter the lows, which also included unhelpful apartment building staff (thanks to co-op board regulations and union regulations) and legal action taken by the landlord against us although my sister and I tried to explain that we had no interest either in the apartment or in prolonging the clearing out process (thank you co-op board and union), some of the highs:

* the vastness and beauty of the Canadian Shield, and the beauty of northwestern Ontario, especially Kenora, where we spent a night (all photos by the kids, often from a moving truck),

* some other sights we saw, including the Terry Fox statue in Thunder Bay, where he was forced to end his Marathon of Hope by the return of cancer; the Big Nickel in Sudbury, Ontario; and the CN Tower in Toronto,

* the magic of Niagara Falls in winter, when everything in the path of the mist is transformed into an ice sculpture,

* Le Roy, NY, the home of Jell-O, which I discovered just a few miles outside of LeRoy while reading through the AAA guidebook, because Davy has always been a keen fan of Jell-O.  We made it to the Le Roy museum just minutes before their 4 pm closing time, and the staff were gracious enough to let the kids have a quick look around the Jell-O gallery while I made a quick tour of the museum shop and made some purchases. Le Roy is a beautiful village in Genesee County, with lovely old houses

* AAA guidebooks and maps, which are all free when you join CAA/AAA, and the free online Triptik service, which was a great help in planning our route;

* meeting Susan Thomsen of Chicken Spaghetti after about five years of online friendship, because she was kind enough to let us park our 16′ cargo trailer in her driveway for more than a week, and during a crazy snowy month which shrank driveways considerably.  We also got to meet her husband, and son Junior (who quickly took in the boys and shared some Lego with them, much needed and appreciated after a week in a truck), and inlaws, who were all so warm and welcoming.  And we saw her chickens, and she and Laura talked about birds together. Thank you for everything, Susan!

* Laura’s and Tom’s bird walk with “Birding Bob” DeCandido, through a snowy and icy Central Park, where they saw an adult male Cooper’s hawk, brown creepers, a white-crowned sparrow, brown-headed cowbirds, red-wing blackbirds, and wood ducks.  Laura and Tom were the ones to spot a male yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Although Laura was disappointed not to spot the celebrated varied thrush, she was pleased with all the other birds.

* the kindness and pleasantness of motel clerks to NYC and back, despite our lack of reservations, and modern m/hotel thinking that makes a swimming pool, free wifi in rooms, and free hot breakfasts the new standard.  A special thank you to the woman at the Travelodge in Kenora who let me use the coin-operated laundry well past the 9 pm deadline to wash clothes after Davy lost his breakfast outside of Regina; and to front desk staff at the AmericInn in Des Moines, Iowa, who gave me two rooms with queen beds for $50 each, so that the kids each had a separate bed for the first time since leaving home.  If we are ever in your neighborhoods again, we will be back.

* the kindness, pleasantness, and professional manner of staff working at truck stops throughout the U.S. Remarkable people who probably don’t receive enough thanks and appreciation;

* being in NYC and being able to go to Barnes & Noble on the publication day of  the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring without Mustard by Canadian Alan Bradley.  I bought it for Laura who started reading it as soon as possible, and it’s at the top of my “to be read” pile now.  And now that we’re home, I’ve ordered, from the library, the Book Depository, Amazon.ca, and Chapters.ca, for my own reading, which at the moment seem to be limited to escapism (of the genteel and also the more murderous sort); sentimentality and nostalgia about leaving New York, the apartment which my parents had lived in since I was born, my parents; and planning our new house*:

* lobsters at Fairway, which are inexpensive and which the staff will steam and crack for you.  It was Laura’s idea, and made for a delicious dinner on one of our last nights in the apartment;

* our overnight in DuBois, Pennsylvania, which I didn’t know until our arrival was the hometown of Tom Mix — my father would have laughed;

* our afternoon visit in Moline, Illinois to the John Deere Pavilion in the city’s downtown and to Deere’s world headquarters, which also had a nice display. Laura found mute swans swimming in the lake near the building.

* the beautiful barns, graineries, and corn cribs in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things, and I know the kids have more pictures, so I may have to have another post.  I just wanted to post a bit about the journey, and say thank you to

* which will be a combination of these two house plans, this one for the outside details, and this one for the inside floor plan (though it needs lots more rejiggering), especially on the main floor.  Work to begin in late May, and all I can say is that after having a new house as our five-year plan for the past 17 years (oy…) and everything we have gone through in the past 18 months, I am beyond excited to plan the new house.  Even better is the fact that we decided the other year to keep our current house, so we get to live in it during the building process and not live in a trailer or  a shipping container.

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