Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Solution Is Simple

I am always heartened to read stories like these. I never think of myself as a fear-mongerer, and I usually tend to a sort of wallflower apoliticalism (Rick Mercer is funnier than I am, anyhow), but when I hear terms like GURT (Genetic Use Restriction Technology) I feel distinctly uneasy. I feel, dare I say it, almost militant. I want more choice in my garden, not less. I want fewer additives in my food, too. And it really bugs me to know that milkweed has been largely eradicated in my area because of its "weediness," even though it's a host plant for the lovely Monarch butterfly, so hearing from all sorts of sources that our plant variety pool is getting smaller and smaller exasperates me.

So when I saw today's National Post, with its article on Saltspring Island's Dan Jason, I had to laugh, because there I was, in the kitchen, squeezing seeds out of my Yellow Pears, Tigerellas, and Bonne's Best tomatoes. Saving my own seeds. Because, as we all know, I love to garden. And according to Dan, the solution to all these misguided-bad-idea-Terminator seed-GMOs'R'Us-disappearing-varieties advances is simple: learn to garden.

Sure thing, Dan. I might even break down* and order some seeds from you this winter.

*I hate paying for shipping...on anything.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Poetry Friday

We started a new thing today: Making Poems. I got the idea from the very charming Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry: How to Write A Poem, by Jack Prelutsky. We all like Jack at our house; he writes amusingly endearing poetry AND he uses snappy rhyme schemes. He also writes about weird things (vampires, ghouls, etc) in a way that even FDPG can laugh at. And that, in the words of my friend Martha, is a Good Thing (and no, she hasn't called to take me up on my Tomato Challenge yet).

I wasn't even intending to do this with the kids. Funny how that happens. It happened like this: I was standing in the library the other day, watching the twins wrestle over who was going to get the larger portion of the bench in front of the Search computer. Dominic, who at first glance might appear to be a bit of a late bloomer when seated next to his can't-wait-for-the-next-challenge sister, FDPG, has developed a patented technique for getting around her whirlwind of intellectual precocity: brute force. He is quite a bit stronger than her. And he can shove with the best of them. This infuriates her. Well, truth be told it infuriates us all, but I think I'm the only one who feels a certain sympathy with him. I'd have mixed emotions at being FDPG's twin, too; she's very loving and caring but she's also relentless. So there I was, watching them wrestle for Ultimate Supremacy, not to mention surreptitiously watching a 3 year old girl watch them, with her great surprised round eyes (Life IS nasty, brutish and short! she was no doubt thinking), AND stealing the odd glance at her mother, a distinctly disapproving woman with a large purse. I was also pretending that the twins weren't my children, mostly because of the distinctly disapproving mother, but also because FDPG has some very salty language when thwarted and things have been known to get embarrassing. Just then my eye was caught by a cover of a book on the shelf in the New Library Acquisitions section, a book with a very silly cover. It looked like this:
A large head, with what looked to be the top of a pumpkin perched on his head, was attached to a rotund little body, waving some stick-like arms around enthusiastically. Wearing pink slippers and sprouting flowery moustaches. It was Jack. Not that I knew that off the bat, of course, but his name is in pretty bold type at the bottom, and it was hard to miss (the perks of being a Big Author, I guess).

I opened it up, and this is what I read:

"Hello! I've been writing poetry for children for more than forty years...Over those years I've learned quite a few things about writing poetry. Nobody ever told me about them, and I had to teach them to myself. It's also possible that I've invented some of them. I wish that I had known some of these techniques earlier. It would have made writing my poems a lot easier."


I opened the book to the first chapter. "When I was a little boy, a loooooooong time ago..." Ooh, I like this, I thought. I have always been a fervent fan of The Witty Hyperbolic Remark. I skimmed a few chapters and thought "This could be fun...learn some poetry-writing techniques...amuse ourselves a bit while doing so...hmmm?"

The book came home with us. The twins left off with the bench. The three year old leapt onto it as we left, pretending no doubt that she too was a fierce just-turned-seven-year-old, although the woman with the large purse didn't seem the sort to appreciate saltier language than "No!"

And so, this morning found us reading Jack's first Writing Tip #1: "Think about something you did...that made your parents mad at you." Jack wrote about putting bees in his father's tea, and pinning his father's underwear to the wall, and all sorts of other things that he considered practical jokes. To my kids these were hysterically funny. Underwear on walls! Imagine. Dominic could barely contain himself. I found myself feeling mildly uneasy, but soldiered on. Hopefully my kids know that I am not the sort of person that appreciates a glued toilet seat...

I asked them to think about something they'd done to get someone else in the family angry at them - something that we'd later laughed about. Nothing that involved Tragic Consequences or anything. I suggested that we write our own "I Wonder Why Dad Is So Thoroughly Mad" poem, but I opened up the topic to a more generic "I Wonder Why _____ Is So Thoroughly Mad." I showed them how Jack had written his poem so that it bounced along with a distinctly methodically rhythm. I underlined the rhyming words. I might even have clapped my hands a bit, for the benefit of the twins. Then Max took a piece of paper and hunched into his chair and started writing. I went and sat with the twins, and asked them for ideas and lines. And this is what we came up with. It's our Poetry Friday Offering.

I contributed next to nothing, I'll have you know.

Sometimes I'm Too Independent

Whenever I'm out with my mum and the boys, 
I like to run off out of sight. 
My mum yells and shouts and the boys roll their eyes, 
I sigh and think they're too uptight.

There you go. Insight into the World of FPDG. Little Miss Independent among the masses.

Dominic's poem has a line contributed by Max - the first line. Don't fret, Dominic loves this line, and let me tell you, it's very apt. He has to be first in the door whenever we come back from somewhere and it drives us all to distraction. (Emphasis in the last line should be on want and last for it to read smoothly)

Everyone's Mad With Me
by Dominic

Shoving and pushing's my favourite thing 
Now everyone's mad with me. 
I don't understand why they get so upset, 
I don't want to be last, you see.

And finally, here's Max's poem. It's about his rocky relationship with the strange and wondrous world of math. Math requires a precision that Max is not always willing to give (sheila coughs and splutters with heaps of sarcasm), so sometimes he has to do it again and again and again. Drat that Singapore math!

by Max

I hate my math it's the one to blame, 
I'd like to put it in a fiery flame. 
I'd give it a scorch with a big ole torch, 
Then get on with things more fun. 
But just when I think it's gone away, 
It pops up and looks as if to say:
"Ha ha! Here I am, you can't fool me!" 
"You'll have to learn way more from me!" 
Numbers and symbols, too hard and tough, 
I've had too much, I've had enough. 
I'd rather read and sit and play, 
And that's what I'm going to do today!

So there you have it. Thanks kids. Thanks Jack. Happy Poetry Friday to you all.

For more Poetry Friday offerings, head over to The Miss Rumphius Effect, who's hosting this week. There you can find more participants and more poetry.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Watching The Kids Watch Sister Wendy

We've been watching Sister Wendy's The Story of Painting this week. I discovered the first one, Early Art, at the library. It featured some Greek art, our historical period at the moment, and I had a vague memory from the 90's of Sister Wendy, cheerfully lisping her way through a sort of Grand Art Tour, so I added it to our pile of books to bring home.

Then we went home. We spent some time reading about Greek frescoes and murals and pottery. We painted little vases we'd shaped last year out of air-dry clay, detailing them with owls (for Athena) and triremes (for Poseidon) and the Greek key pattern. We used black and red paint, so they would resemble the pottery of our art books. We talked about how so much Greek art had decayed in the periodically damp air of Greece, which brought up comparisons to Egyptian art, so well preserved in the hot dry African air. We looked at the flat sideways bodies
and, when I was talking a bit about mood and atmosphere, FDPG piped up. "What does atmosphere mean?" she asked. I hauled out Henry Sayre's Cave Paintings To Picasso, and showed them some things they had already seen, things like the Hall of Bulls in the Lascaux Caves, the Toreador Fresco at Knossos, and an Egyptian tomb painting Sayre calls Nebamun Hunting Birds. "What do you feel when you see that bull?" I asked. "How about when you look at those bull jumpers? Do they look scared? Or glad? Or bored? Is this comic art or serious art? Why do you think this was painted?" Then we took a look at the bust of Nefertiti. "When you look at this, what kind of woman do you see?" I asked them. Max thought she looked bored, FDPG thought she looked smart, if a little long-necked, and Dominic thought she looked sort of scary. "She was Akhenaten's wife," I said, "remember?" Ah, yes, they did remember. How could they not? Akhenaten was one of those Strange Characters we liked from our study of the Egyptians. He had a peculiar upbringing and and effected an even more peculiar style on Egyptian life once he became pharaoh. He is most remembered for his singular worship of the sun when most of Egypt preferred their many god-ded pantheon. One medical historian claimed that Akhenaten might have had Marfan's syndrome. And Nefertiti was legendary for her beauty. All quite intriguing stuff. They looked at the bust again. "She looks aloof," said Max. "Aloof and sort of scary." Then we looked at the giant Olmec Heads from La Venta. "What would you think if you were a traveller and you suddenly happened upon these things?" I asked them. After the usual bluff responses from the boys ("giant heads! hahaha!"), and a little Miyazaki tie-in from FDPG ("they look like the heads from Spirited Away!"), they all agreed that they would find them most intimidating. "That's atmosphere," I told them. "The artist has created a mood for you, the viewer. A good artist can create quite an intense impression, as you can see."
And that's how we came to watch Early Art, part 1 in Sister Wendy's The Story of Painting. She'd talk a bit about art, I thought, and we'd see some ancient Greek vases. It would be edifying, I thought, thinking back to my first experiences with Kenneth Clark's Civilization. At first the kids found the image of a nun in full habit, standing in a field in France, almost too hilarious. I shifted a bit uneasily. Is this going to be too dry? Too adult? Too comic? Will I hear anything above their giggles?

But the she started talking. Phrases like "our small hairy ancestors," "Proof that they were really like us in all the ways that really mattered," "priest painters making hunting magic for the tribe" and even "that inspired black calligraphy of the legs" took us all hostage, hostage to her decidedly oddball charm. We were all quite enthralled. It was like listening to a slightly disapproving but deeply loving maiden aunt, one who wanted us to get some culture and get it quick, whisking us around the museum with nothing but her own strong opinions. I really fell for her when she said (of two bison) waving her hands around madly all the while: "these two great black balls of male erotic fury going to explode on one another." 

Great black balls of male erotic fury?

We adored hearing her talk, whether she was pointing out the "firm little apple" breasts of the young funeral mourners or tsk-tsking about the banal monastery scribbles in the Book of Kells (at which she shook her head very sadly, obviously very distressed at such very thoughtless desecration). We watched as she wandered through castles and opened books for us to see, chatting breathlessly all the while about art and atmosphere and how fascinating she found it all. It was impossible not to get caught up in her sense of delight and wonder, and when the thirty minutes was over the kids demanded another in the series. Max put it on, and off we went through France, then to Belgium where she showed us the wonderful Arnolfini Portrait, by Jan van Eyck. She had the kids on the edge of the chesterfield with her descriptions of the mirror, van Eyck's 'artist tag,' and why there was a red poster bed in the back of the frame. And when the camera travelled to a room from a period home, complete with red poster bed, the kids all shrieked "Sister Wendy talked about that bed!" in absolute delight. 

So there you have it. Our Close Encounter with Sister Wendy. We've only watched a couple of episodes, but I sense more viewings in the very near future. A Sister Wendy marathon. With popcorn. 

And I tell you, I'll never look at a bison in the same way again.

Oh, and I should mention that when I was trying to find out some information about Sister Wendy on the internet tonight, I came across a series of interviews on YouTube, interviews with Bill Moyer. One quote particularly caught my imagination, so I'll leave you with it. She is speaking of how art has made her more "alert" as a person:

"The one fatal thing is to be a zombie and I think we're all in danger of living part of our lives at zombie level, and I think art helps one to be perpetually there, as it were."

Love it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yet Another Martha Moment

I was perusing the October issue of Martha Stewart Living yesterday, or rather, FDPG was perusing the latest issue of MSL yesterday and telling me how we would have to do each and every thing from the magazine because it all looked so Halloweenish and wonderful and cute and spooky and deliciously beautiful about all the interesting projects Martha had featured, when one particular picture caught our eye.

It was a picture of a lot of squash.

A lot of squash.

All kinds and shapes and colours.

It was a particularly beautiful photograph.

We both stared at it for a few seconds, and we even checked out the editorial page, where they show how they took the photograph of all those squash, until FDPG said "Hey, Mum, Martha has a garden just like you." Yup, right FDPG, I thought, nice analogy. A comparison only a sweetly devoted child of mine would make. Martha and her 20 gazillion acres and many highly experienced gardeners and neato specialized tools and clean well lit garden sheds and cool heirloom seeds (damn the cost) out back and me and my 1/3 of a rocky sloping acre and ancient rickety tools and no garden shed and highly constricted budget out back. Martha and her 4,328,291 squash and me and my 4 - count 'em - 4 acorn squash and 5 pumpkins. It's almost uncanny how alike we are, I thought. (I might also have gnashed a few teeth at this point but I've blocked it out)

Luckily this fit of garden envy uncanny comparison jolted me from my reverie about my last run in with Martha and those (damn it!) glossy glossy photographs in her magazine, because let me tell you, if I'd had more squash I might have done something in the photographic line, but I don't, so I didn't. (competitive? moi? surely you jest)

But I do have lots of tomatoes.
(uh oh)

All kinds and shapes and colours.
(well, actually, I do)

They would make a particularly beautiful photograph.
(well, actually they would, come to think of it)

So I took a picture of what I'd picked over the past 3 days.
(Oh, Sheila, you didn't. Honestly. Sometimes you are such a dolt.)

And here it is.
(ack, I'm closing my eyes until all this is over)

Okay, Martha, here are MY tomatoes, where are YOUR tomatoes?


How about it?

I was rather lacking the white sheet umbrella thingie, the spotlights, and the Magic Photographer, but I had FDPG egging me on and Max holding the low-hanging dining room light fixture at a very awkward angle so it wouldn't block the shot - and who needs highly expensive camera equipment and trained professionals when you have one giddy seven year old and one better-humour-my-mother-in-the-hopes-of-getting-a-little-something-in-the-sugary-junk-as-a-reward-line son?
So whaddaya got for me, Martha?

Should Have Called Him Oak

Look at that colour match. And people think I am joking when I tell them that I picked him because he matched our floors.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Are You The Doctor?

It's finally flown across the pond, although the speed at which it travelled suggested that it took a slow boat rather than a supersonic telephone booth. What is IT, you ask? Why the Doctor, of course. I am SO there. And please, Mr Davies, isn't there someone else better suited to be a Guest?

And if you haven't seen this before, please click for a taste of the Doctor and his new Companion.

"English is well dry..."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ebbing and Flowing

It's been a satisfyingly productive week for us, both on the homeschool front AND on the garden front. The kids are settling very quickly into a rhythm that suits them, they're working industriously, and they're having fun with it. We just finished our first Read Aloud of the season: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Somehow we missed this one when we were doing the rest of the series last year. It's a great read, too; Laura makes Almanzo's childhood year sound enticing and delicious even with the realities of 5am wakeup calls, threatened whippings, lots of rules, and brutally hard work. And those Garth Williams pictures are enough to make anyone love Almanzo: there is one charming sketch of him, working his way stolidly through a big dinner, cheeks bulging and eyes closed in thoughtful contemplation. The twins are burning through the last of their Singapore 1 books (we got sidetracked easily last year), Max is working valiantly on the last of his Singapore 5 books (he has the Extra Practice and the Challenging Word Problems as well as the regular set books). We're finishing up our Botany studies and we've already had more than a few history days here: ancient Greeks, anyone?

I feel as though our stride is good so far, too. With history I've been slowing down the pace a bit, asking more questions, requiring more conversation and less written output, and I can tell already that it's more effective, even with Max (aka The Boy Who Is Heading Into Puberty And Can Sometimes Be Grouchy). Yesterday I played Hangman in an effort to liven up my quest for the word PEDIMENT, which we'd gone over the day before, albeit rather briefly. I hauled out our English From The Roots Up and went over the Latin root word PEDIS, then we examined all the derivatives coming out of that word (in more, err, obvious effort to jog their memories). The twins love all this stuff - their zest is infectious, too. Max loves it but hormones and mood swings sometimes get in the way. Heck, they get in my way sometimes. I understand, but he doesn't catch any breaks. (I think reading the entire Little House series has conditioned me more than I want to admit)

On my end, I've finally figured out how to teach the math Max is doing, calloo callay. Yes, you may all chuckle warmly and roll your eyes heavily, but I feel somewhat victorious here. Math used to be one of the subjects I left him to do on his own. He never had any troubles, and I had the twins clamouring for attention, so it seemed a natural peg to hang his independence on. Now it's getting far more complex and he's not able to whip through it so quickly, so I've had to revise. My new methodology is to work through the math first thing each morning (well, after Read Aloud, breakfast, and chores). Max reviews the chapter, does a few sample questions, then I check them. This way he hasn't whipped off the entire chapter before I have a chance to see if he's made any mistakes. If he's having trouble with a concept (or if I have absolutely no idea what he's supposed to do) I get him to work through the problem on the big white board we have hanging in the Family Room (aka the School Room). We work through a few related problems until we're both he's comprehending it. Next day, I write half a dozen of the same problems on the white board, so I he can refresh my his memory, then he moves on. Now why this took me 2 years to figure out I neither know nor care to examine too closely. (Sheila says as she pulls her few shreds of ruffled dignity closer around her shoulders)

On the garden front, I've been pulling in all the produce and either canning or freezing or drying it. I hauled in two buckets of basil leaves last night. They turned into a quart of pesto, in little bags for the freezer. One stayed out to liven up the chopped tomatoes we're having each night for dinner. Eight pounds of green tomatoes and six pounds of the tartest apples went into making a green tomato mincemeat this morning. And yes, I am only stirring it clockwise and yes, I will make sure we all eat a mince tart each day of the twelve days of Christmas. I canned some applesauce, juiced the windfall apples and spiked the resulting juice heavily with cardamon, allspice, and cloves for spiced apple jelly, made some kick-ass hot pepper jelly (great with cream cheese on a bagel), made jam with the plums, more blackberry jam and jelly (if you freeze the berries first, then thaw them in a bowl, they naturally separate into juice for jelly and pulp for jam), more salsa, a few jars of peach jam, dried some celery and green peppers, and then picked the rest of the raspberries. Then we went out and cut the acorn squash and ripe pumpkins and placed them on some straw in a sheltered sunny place to cure. And that's not counting the bread-making and muffin-baking going on around here. No wonder I'm going to bed tired.

Next week the Activities start up: swim lessons, gym drills, Lego League, Scouts, Beavers, and Brownies. I bought FDPG's new Brownie uniform on the weekend and she wore it ALL DAY, clutching her Brownie doll all the time. Is she excited? Methinks she is. Fun watching all that happy excitement, even if it did cost way too much $ to buy the damn uniform.

A friend was over for coffee yesterday, and we were musing back to our university days. I said "If you could zip back to that person back then, would you be surprised to see the person you are now? Would you believe it if someone told you that you'd be doing what you're doing?" We laughed a bit about the people we were then, but in the back of my mind I was thinking that I would never have believed I'd be doing what I'm doing now: stay at home parent, homeschooling, not to mention the Little House food storage/Victory Garden fixations. I'd have laughed that future-teller out of the room. Just goes to show you, doesn't it?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

FDPG as a Military Aircraft

What military aircraft are you?

F/A-22 Raptor

You are an F/A-22. You are technologically inclined, and though you've never been tested in combat, your very name is feared. You like noise, but prefer not to pollute any more than you have to. And you can move with the best.

Personality Test Results

Click Here to Take This Quiz
Brought to you by YouThink.com quizzes and personality tests.

You are an F/A-22. You are technologically inclined, and though you've never been tested in combat, your very name is feared. You like noise, but prefer not to pollute any more than you have to. And you can move with the best.

No wonder we all go to bed exhausted every night. This kid means business.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Preen Away Your Sorrows

From The Globe and Mail (September 8th, 2008):

"It's not just people that commiserate with each other when their team loses a contest - birds will also draw comfort from their friends if they are beaten, The Times of London reports. Green woodhoopoes, an African species, have been shown to bolster morale with group preening after rival gangs defeat them in singing contests. Andrew Radford, of the University of Bristol, England, who carried out this study, said it was the first time animals other than humans had been shown to intensify bonding after a loss. He reported his findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society. Dr Radford compared the birds' behaviour to that of football fans who try to outsing their rivals before retiring to the pub to celebrate or commiserate."

And in that same section, an intriguing new approach to motivating your students:

"A handsome teacher in China is offering pupils autographed photos of himself to encourage them to work harder. Ji Feng...is so popular among students that a lot of them were asking him for pictures. 'I came up with the idea of giving them my signed pictures as a reward' for exemplary work, he told the Nanjing Morning Post, 'it is absolutely not narcissism, but a way of encouragement. And only the students who perform the best can get such a reward."

I don't think I'm photogenic enough for that, somehow.

She's Inviting The Media To Grow A Pair

Check this out:

I can see Russia from my house!

Now off to google cankles and flurge...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Changes in the Weather

The weather has been sublime all week long. A little damp and dewy in the morning, perhaps, but otherwise verging on hot all day. But you can see the changes in the season coming: all the maples around here are developing red leaves at their topmost branches, while small bracts of red leaves twirl off the rowan each afternoon, one by one. And the scarlet runners look as though they are finally giving up the ghost, after churning out buckets of beans all summer. The pumpkins are turning a glorious deep orange, the acorn squash a glossy dark green, the last of the artichokes have been cut and consumed (parting is such sweet sorrow, tender artichoke), the tomatoes are all finally starting to ripen in earnest, and the basil - sigh - the basil. If you grow it you'll know what I mean. I only plant Genovese, and this year the plants are huge: lofty fragrant leaves nodding everywhere. I have a hedge of the stuff! But it's been a much later season than usual - we're most often just coming back from holidays in August when the garden is at its peak. This year the garden never really peaked. It had little spurts here and there, but nothing in concert. And the tomatoes are finally ripening now. Odd.

I have the best of intentions for my garden each year. Each year, I tell myself that I will make mental notes of which tomato plant went where, and how productive it was (or wasn't). I buy twine to string up pumpkins and squash so that I can make better use of vertical space. I buy stakes at end-of-season sales so I'll have them the following year when all my tomatoes are starting to sag under the weight of their fruit. And I always think "I'm going to do a winter garden this year." 

I was slightly more organized this year than last. At least I kept the tomato tags near each plant, even if they were almost immediately buried in piles of branches, soil, and strawberry trailers. And some of the tomatoes are a cinch to identify: Lemon Boy (big and yellow), Yellow Pear (pear shaped and yellow), Sungold Cherry Tomato (cherry tomato shaped and yellow), Roma (cylinder shaped paste tomato), Tigerella (gorgeous yellow and red stripes). Notice a theme? The rest are red and strangely alliterative: Bonne's Best, Big Boy, Better Boy

The Tigerellas are such heavy producers it'd be hard not to notice them. Each branch holds between six to twelve tomatoes, all of similar size and shape. Each plant holds about ten to twelve branches. And the plant itself grows straight up with little malformation. They stop everyone who walks by them, particularly since I stripped their leaves off (to hasten ripening) and almost to a person the same comment is made "Wow, look at those tomatoes!" The fruit is juicy without being drippy, and holds up well in terms of taste and meal potential: good for stuffing (we favour pesto or tarragoned goat cheese), sandwiches (sliced with cheddar and mint leaves), or roasted pasta sauces. 

The Sungold is our favourite in the cherry tomato department: sweet and tangy and each bite a perfect golden pop. We might change our minds when the Yellow Pear ripens, but it seems determined to come in on its own damn sweet time. I have a few heritage standard tomatoes but I'm not impressed with them, either in yield or taste. One (Old Tyme Tasty) has done nothing but produce twisted mutant lumps with bands of rough brown striping while the other (Russian Heritage) has struggled to produce anything at all.  I always hold out most hope for these weird heritage varieties, and the Tigerellas were the eye-wideningest surprise of all. 

I grew a number of hot chilies this year, because we like them, but they aren't easy to grow in this seacoast climate. They need a hot place out of the wind or they won't fruit well. This year I put them in my cold frame, in pots of compost, although next year they'll need larger pots, I think. I tried Mucho Natcho Jalapeno (not very hot, chintzy fruiter), Super Chili (hot and productive), and Long Red Slim (easily the best, heavy fruiter but really really hot). I cut up a Long Red Slim for dinner tonight, popped a small chunk in my mouth, and eventually had to resort to an ice cube to stop the burning on my lips - and I am no novice in the Eating Hot Food department. Afterwards I washed and washed and washed my hands, but as I was checking FDPG's mouth at bedtime for mysterious bleeding feelings (don't ask) she suddenly squawked "You didn't wash your hands very well, I have a burning sensation on my mouth - RIGHT HERE!" Then she favoured me with an ever so charming glare. So now I am mincing around, worried for my eyes, or my nose, or some other body part, worrying that I might forget in the night and scratch somewhere...

As for the fruit trees, the apple tree that I massacred last fall has done so well that I might very well do a repeat performance on it this fall. We've identified it too (why do I say "we" when I'm the only one gardening, I wonder?): it's a MacIntosh. I never liked MacIntosh as a kid so I was surprised to love this apple. It's sweet, tart, and crispy. The other existing tree on this property is a Granny Smith, and while I didn't quite scalp it, it too is covered with fruit. I'm going to have to give it a new look though; the former owner favoured a look known as The Pollard, which tends to produce a distressing amount of water shoots. I added a Summer Red, a Gravenstein, and a Cox's Orange Pippin to the mix. They are still young trees: the two that were here when we bought the place must be close to 60 years old.

The plum I put in last year is a multi-graft and two of the grafts fruited: the Victoria and the Stanley. The other - Opal - isn't doing much except for sprouting madly, so who knows where that will end up. The Victoria enchanted all of us. The plums were egg shaped, meltingly soft and plump and so sweet. The plum tree I put in this spring - a French plum - didn't fruit but looks good. The peach - a Frost peach - did really well, considering it looked like it was in a swamp for a few months there this spring. I seem to have an area of the garden that was either the septic field or just has inordinately clayey soil, because the drainage there is horrible. I dug a French drain in the end. Then I filled the French drain with pinecones, winecorks, and rocks, because the pipes I had intended to put in were beyond my budget (after I'd bought the peach, the pears, the blueberries, and the raspberries, ahem).

And now, what with the weather changing, I feel slightly all atwitter. I'm not ready for the season to end just yet. I want more days of hot weather, more garden time, more backyard-after-dinner swinging and racing around, more wanders on sunny beaches. I want to watch Toffee fly across the yard with the wind in his tail, and I want to watch the raspberries ripen just a bit more. But the kids are champing at the bit for new trails to follow in their school work. FDPG has French, Japanese, and Latin planned for her fall itinerary, in between all her reading, Max has gladdened all our hearts by developing an impressively positive responsibility towards his math, and Dominic's reading has suddenly taken off (thank you, O great God of ExplodetheCode!). 

I always feel like this at the end of summer. Funny, really. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Cooper's Hawks & Squirrels

I wish I had specific photos for you, but I don't. And we're not living in some alternative computerized universe so I can't take out my eyes, plug them into some USB port in your hip and show this scene to you either. Hmm, put it that way and I feel sort of glad we aren't living in some alternative computerized universe...

I can describe it, however (wait, get back here! I'll make it sort of funny. I mean, death and mutilation can be hilarious in the right context, no?).

Scene of the Crime
Time: 7pm PDT
Place: Backyard, chez moi

We're all busy going about our after dinner activities: I'm checking my email, Max is trying to sneak more slices from the loaf of bread I baked for dinner, Dominic is walking around saying "I loved that soup" over and over again, and FDPG is still sitting at the table, looking very pained, because she hates that soup. Typical after dinner scenario.

Then Richard, who is our ever so fetching Dish Boy for this Act, pauses the Ron Sexsmith CD and yells "Come here! QUICK! Cooper's Hawk!" The kids all rush to the deck to see why he's yelling.

I glance at my emails. I've seen that Cooper's Hawk a million times. I haven't seen that email before. What to do? It's a Lady and the Tiger scenario. Hmm.

I pause.

I consider.

I go see the hawk.

Turns out I made the right choice. In the back yard, perched in a rowan tree, is the Cooper's Hawk. He's sitting weirdly low to the ground, and about 5 feet away from him is a very angry squirrel. I'd even go as far as to call this squirrel enraged. Spitting mad, even. And it keeps charging the branch on which sits our usually very low key Cooper's Hawk. The squirrel is making an awful lot of noise, squeaking and shrilling and rushing around wildly. At one point it charges up the branch and throws itself at the hawk. The hawk almost falls out of the tree and then flies off clumsily. Very clumsily. It perches in another nearby tree, obviously quite confused. It's not every day he has squirrels hurling themselves at him.Blurry Picture of Cooper's Hawk for your viewing pleasure

The squirrel, however, is still hopping mad, and races off to THAT tree, but this time the hawk is out of reach. So the squirrel races off to the nearest Garry Oak and races up that, making a racket the entire time.

At this point we all rush outside to see what they might have been fighting about. I bring my camera for this bit. In fact, as we're all jostling down the stairs, the twins yell "Did you bring your camera?" to me. Now I feel rather indelicate laughing in the face of grim death, but then it was a little on the funny side. "Yes, of course I brought my camera to document a little Death in the Backyard. Why wouldn't I?"At the base of the willow tree, where the kids have their rope swings, is a small pile of white feathers. And one small yellow-feathered beak.

Max climbs up the willow to see if there is any other evidence. There is: a small drop of blood and some more white feathers. The Cooper's Hawk is now off in the Garry Oak. The squirrel is still chattering loudly and madly in the other Garry Oak. They have obviously reached an Impasse. We all stand in the back yard and wonder.

Then Toffee saunters over, completely oblivious as to what must have just transpired right under his nose. He sleeps all day right next to the rowan tree, nestled in a pile of straw in the asparagus bed. He is not the slightest bit interested in our Cooper's Hawk and Squirrel Experience. We try to tell him but he simply flops down on the grass and offers us his belly to scratch. When we ignore him he attacks our ankles. Max throws some of the feathers on him to see if we can get him into Hunt Cat Mode. As you can see, it didn't seem to do much. Catnip works way better.


It seems as though practically every blog I've visited in the past few days has had pictures of home canning posted. Pears at Wisteria's, talk of the pros and cons of freezing versus canning at JoVE's, lovely pictures of canned tomatoes and jam at More Friends and a Blog, and talk of deals and canning at NicolaKnits. So of course I HAVE to join the party, because I too have been canning.

And no, it isn't just because we're back on another Little House book, although that certainly intensifies things. Whenever we read this series, I've caught myself making steamed puddings, fruit tarts, bread, and freezing beans and peas from the garden. I'm pretty sure I've been bewitched by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As Richard says, there are worse things to be bewitched by.

Last night I made some marmalade (orange, lemon and grapefruit), mint jelly, and salsa. You can see them in the photo above. I went to bed last night to the sound of the lids sealing: pop, pop, pop. Sounds weird, but knowing that every jar sealed gave me the same feeling as when my ATM purchases are approved!

The marmalade uses the pectin in the peels to make it thick and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Not too tangy or bitter (must have been all that sugar). The mint jelly is a first, but we have an entire section of the garden devoted to mint (because we love it so much), and it occurred to me that some jelly might be an interesting way of preserving that wonderful taste over the winter. I wasn't going to colour it but FDPG was, err, assisting me last night and seemed genuinely distressed that the mint tea wasn't greener, so I let her add a drop of blue food dye to intensify the colour. There were only a few jars of salsa last night, not enough of my tomatoes are ripe just yet. The best part about the salsa is that it contains tomatoes, poblano chilies, green peppers, garlic and onions from my garden. I grew them all by my own self (a Max-ism).

So there you have it. Fresh from the garden. Ready to sit on the cold room shelves. Ready for the dark days of winter.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Water Guns and Me

I have a long history with water guns. Before I had kids they were just "Harmless Plastic Items That Shoot Water." (maybe add in a "Cheap" somewhere there)

Once I had kids my opinion changed ever-so-slightly. Water guns became "Evil Weapons of Warfare Designed To Blind My Precious Son." I morphed practically overnight into one of those mothers who did not allow anyone to give her child gun-like objects. Never mind that Max could turn a gummy worm into a 'shooter gunner' (as he called them), I would not buy into that war mentality. I would keep his fragile and tender imagination untainted and pure.

(Sheila coughs a bit self-consciously but soldiers battles forges moves on)

When Max turned 4 I retooled that, err, opinion to something more along the lines of "Cheap Crap My Kid Loves." I drew the line at cap guns (the blasts always woke up the newborn FDPG), but he soon amassed a large collection of click guns, water guns, and curiously shaped sticks. Not to mention the odd gummy worm gun. All sizes and shapes, right?

And now, what with three wild and rambunctious kids and one large yard, I have decided that water guns fall into the "Giant Hole of Plastic Junk In Which I Might As Well Throw Way Too Much Money." Impartial of me, I know.

But today I had one of my least memorable and most irritating days ever, thanks to what will henceforth be known as "That Stupid Plastic Piece of #&$*" "The Item That Mum Will No Longer Purchase. Ever. Again."

It started with a birthday party invitation. Included all three kids. Hurray. So far so good. We made some cards. I glued a lot of candy to mine, knowing that it would help the Wallace and Gromit picture stand out better.

We bought a present. We searched frantically for some wrapping paper that didn't have Christmas pictures wrapped it. I added a bit more candy to hide the fact that we'd run out of tape and had to use the hot glue gun for good measure.

Now comes the bit that nearly did me in fun bit. Part of the invite was for a laser tag event. Max went to this, but FDPG and Dominic did not, because a) I didn't think FDPG could handle the dark, stuffy world that is a laser tag venue, and b) if I'd let Dominic go FDPG might never have spoken to me again. There were a few tears on FDPG's part, but she rallied on hearing that the other part of the invite was a Water War/Pizza/Cake Extravaganza at the birthday boy's house afterwards. Phew. Near Tragedy averted. So out we went to buy water guns, because ours were so crappily built they'd all broken. Our yard was a litter of triggers, containers, and plastic handles. We started with a couple of Dollar Stores. Then we went to a couple of toy stores, including that gigantic monolith we all know and recognize from its grammatically bungled name. We even went to some stores that sell camping and home fixing stuff. All to no avail. Not a single water gun was to be had. The Greenridge kids were nervous. What is a Water War without a water gun? But then, lo and behold, at another gigantic monolith, we found some! Water guns! Motorized water guns! Cheap motorized water guns! Cheap plastic motorized water guns! I was almost ecstatic at their cheapness, I might even have swooned, but really, I should have known better. Yes, Gentle Reader, you might want to avert your eyes here, because this is where the story deteriorates. We bought those pieces of cheap plastic crap water guns, returned home, and I placed them tenderly in a corner of the dining room, awaiting their Moment of Glory.

Fast forward 3 days.

This morning I wrestled with the plastic packaging that encased those cheap plastic motorized water guns, inserted the 3 AA batteries they required, then wrestled intellectually with the horribly verbose instructions inside the package...instructions which went like this:

1. Do not use rechargable batteries. (WHAT? ACK! That's exactly what I was going to do! Now I have to go BUY batteries?)
2. Do not mix old and new batteries. (gotcha)
3. Do not use nearby electrical apparatus. (huh? what does that mean?)
4. The supply terminals are not to be short-circuited. (huh?)
5. Non-rechargable batteries are not to be charged. (Come on, even I knew that)
6. Always remove dead batteries from the product. (no kidding Sherlock)
7. Do not dispose of the battery in fire, it may explode. (uh, okaaaaay)
8. The package should be kept since it contains important information (what, you mean that impregnable piece of sheetmetal I had to saw open?)
9. Only batteries of the same type as recommended are to be used. (uh, haven't we already gone through this?)
10. The toy must be fully assembled in accordance with the instructions before operating with water. (huh? I have to do MORE than take it out of the package?)
11. Do not mix alkaline, standard, or rechargable batteries. (if you talk about the bloody batteries one more time I might scream)
12. Be sure to insert the batteries correctly and always follow the toy and battery manufacturer's instructions. (Sheila jumps off a cliff at this point, screaming all the while)

So, I got the batteries into each water gun, filled them up with water, and gave the twins one and me one (Max was already at the laser tag event) and out into the Great Outdoors we strolled, armed and ready for action.

We stopped on the lawn, a few feet from each other.

We grinned.

We laughed.

We brandished.

We posed.

We cocked.

We pressed triggers.

And nothing happened.

The motor (thanks to all those endless battery instructions) was whirring. But no water was coming out. We continued to press hopefully, me thinking that there might be a pump needing priming somewhere. We did not, repeat, did not mix old and new batteries. We were not near any nearby electrical apparatus. So into the house I went, to peer and poke and prod.

And still they didn't work.

We were now 45 minutes before the Water War Pizza and Cake Extravaganza. I looked at the twins, at their hopeful little faces, now looking considerably more worried than before, and leaped off into yet another a Huge and Rather Stupid Parental Morass.

"Quick! Into the car! Let's go look for more pieces of stupid cheap plastic!" I cried.

And that's how I found myself in a drugstore, 30 minutes before we had to be at a party, buying 3 water guns from a 50% off rack. But not before I'd already bought some spray bottles as a Back Up Plan from another store. Found the water guns, returned the spray bottles, and raced home. Filled the water guns with water - and one was cracked and leaking. At this point I think I might have cried a little. Enter Richard.

"How about I duct tape it?" he offered helpfully, distinctly uneasy at the rapid emotional downspiral his wife appeared to be on.

"Argh!" I shrieked, "NO! I am going to return this piece of sh&*! I am not paying for something that I have to duct tape!" I might have hurled it across the room at this point, but it's all a blur to me. And I think Richard might have packed it up so my eyes wouldn't have to view it ever again. And I think we then went off with the two remaining water guns, which thankfully worked fine.

And when we got to the party the twins leapt into the pool with all their clothes on and concentrated on their swimming techniques, water guns forgotten.

There might have been some gin and tonics in there somewhere, but it's all a blur.

And thus endeth the Saga of the Water Gun.

(twangey cow poke music takes us away)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How We Spent Our Labour Day

We went back to the beach cabin, we climbed sand cliffs, we gazed across the Georgia Straight, and we collected driftwood and sea rocks for the garden, then we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over an open pit in the back yard and enjoyed the last few days of summer time. Here's how Toffee spent his Labour Day weekend. He wasn't in here the whole time - just a short drive up and down the Island - but if you are familiar with the Cat Mind (say you're a Mr Spock devotee or something of a Mind Meld enthusiast) you will understand that even though an EXTREMELY brief portion of Toffee's weekend involved this cat carrier, it might as well have been the whole damn weekend as far as he was concerned. He was not, as the Queen might say, amused, although he did like the few bits of hot dog we tossed his way. Vaguely mollifying, I guess. But only just.

Thanks Nicola!

Look what Nicola sent me (hint: check out what FDPG has on her head)! She knitted it with her own two hands, clever woman. Thanks Nicola. It's soft and lovely, and it was lovely of you to send it to us. I intend to give it to our neighbour's new baby when I wrench it off FDPG's head.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

More Work in the Garden

It's getting cold here all of a sudden. I feel like I should be lamenting the end of the summer, but it seems way too soon. Way too soon. I'm not ready for summer to end.

The kids and I started our First Day of Discussions and Agreements today, even though we've been reviewing and finishing left-over work AND discussing what various pursuits they had in mind for several weeks now. I like having a formal agreement with my kids. In the Agreement we discussed today, we all agreed to keep to our bargains, which in Max's the kids' case means to do their work with an open mind, to keep negative remarks to a dull roar, and, most importantly, to help out around the house. In my case it means to be patient, to provide enough food for the boys (an exhausting task if there ever was one), and to refrain from shouting "Ugh, I am surrounded by idiots" at various moments in the day. I find this helps when one of us is grouchy or being really irritatingly unhelpful or obtuse. Not that that ever happens around here, though. (Sheila coughs ostentatiously, while glancing pointedly at her eldest child)

I also made out a Work Chart for their bathroom, something I've avoided in the past as being both too prim and anal (for my flaky self), but there seems to be no other way to get everyone helping out without me constantly reminding them, so I've caved - momentarily. I have my fingers crossed that this chart will get me off my NagMobile, a ride I seem to be taking a lot these days. I hate housework but I also hate the chaos a messy house brings. When we came back from vacation a couple of weeks ago I did a massive laundry, then spent the rest of the week wondering why Dominic could find no clean underwear - until "we" discovered that he hadn't unpacked his suitcase, just stored it in his closet, filled with underwear, t-shirts and shorts, in varying stages of filth. Plus, I really hate the constant remarks I find myself blurting out during the day: "Who dropped jam on the floor and then walked in it? And where is the sock that now has jam on it?" "Can we all stop leaving huge globs of toothpaste on the counter?" "Why is there Lego on every single surface in this house?" "Max, can you PLEASE feed your guinea pig before he becomes a former pig from Guinea?")

So we discussed, and chatted, and laughed, and talked, and snacked, and everyone had their say about our new Modus Operandi. I felt pretty pleased - the kids seemed both glad and determined. I felt as though my concerns had been taken seriously.

"Boy," said Max at the end of what I thought was a mature, cooperative discussion, "you sure like to lecture."


So I decided that we needed a Change of Venue. Or, rather, I did.

I billed it as Our First Field Trip of the year (no groaning now, any of you). I didn't tell them we were going to a plant nursery because I didn't think it would go over very well in terms of its Fun Field Trip quotient. But I knew if I could lure them into the car and out onto the winding rural roads, dotted with deer, blueberry stands, and fields of ripe corn, they would quickly be lulled into having fun, no matter where we ended up. And I was right.

When we got within 100 yards of the place, the penny dropped for Max. "Oh, we're at ______. Is THIS the field trip?" he said, a not unenthusiastic tone in his voice.

"Yes!" I said. (I think I might even have trilled a bit, nervously)

"Oh," they said. Not terribly enthusiastically, but much more enthusiastically than I expected.

"They're having a sale on fruit trees," I said. "I want to get another fruit tree."

"Oh," they said.

So in we went. We went by the roses first, because they too were on sale. And there's nothing more wonderful than a big clear bowl with fragrant roses floating in it. Some of us strolled, some of us sniffed the hybrid teas and floribundas, some of us counted to 200 by 3's, and some of us flung our Lego men around the stock while shouting "Watch out!"

Very pleasant.

Then FDPG discovered a nest of lizards in the logs. Even more pleasant. They peered and peeked and whispered and poked and laughed and shrieked, while I wandered among the fruit trees. I picked a lovely multi-graft pear: Louisebonne and Bartlett (from a William bon Chretien). The Louisebonne, as I later discovered (while researching it online), is considered the best dessert pear there is. It has slightly pink flesh, is not grainy in the way pears are, and the flesh reminds some of muscat and some of the most luscious of rosewaters. (oooh, I was impressed!) The nursery staff waxed oh-so-eloquently about it. So I bought it. We won't discuss how in my on-line searches later I came across a site that mentions how William bon Chretien and Louisebonne's are not at all compatible in terms of pollination, though, because the thought that that particular nursery is doing something WRONG pains me too greatly to contemplate. Besides, I remain firm in my belief that one has an awful lot of leeway when it comes to pollination. I have a one year old Gravenstein with 10 apples on it out back to back me up on that.

I also bought a rose. A Granada. Also known as a Donatella. Parentage: Tiffany x Cavalcade. Extremely fragrant, winner of the AARS in 1964 and the Gamble Fragrance Award in 1968. For some reason I really adore knowing this kind of detail when it comes to the garden. The thought that my Granada is also known as a Donatella fascinates me (as long as I can quell the sudden image of Donatella Versace that pops into my head), as does the knowledge that it's a cross between a Tiffany and a Cavalcade. I've no idea what either of THEM look like, but if I ever come across one of them in a garden centre, it'll be like meeting an old friend, I just know it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Picture Can Say 100 Words

So I probably don't need to add much to this 100 word post, right? The item above came from the garden the other day. I nicknamed it Colin. Sadly, my Colin isn't wearing fetching breeches or anything like that, but he's fresh from the lake garden. He's all firm and tasty, too. I dedicate him to Samantha, since she asked me what my Colin looked like, and as most of us know I can never ever resist an opportunity to show off my garden produce.

This one's for you, Samantha. 

Back to your regularly scheduled programming now, all of you.