Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is It Really Big Hair Day?

This is what's known as big hair.

Really big hair.

By the way, the woman to the right? Gordon Brown's wife. (British PM)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New Things

We picked up a few new educational items this past week. FDPG found this one, it's one of a series called Stories of Great People. There are 9 other titles in the series (ie: Shakespeare's Quill, Marco Polo's Silk Purse). So far it looks quite fun. It reminds me of that history series with the Binkerton Twins and their Travel Agency (forget the title) and has already proved quite popular with FDPG and Dominic. They immediately gravitated towards its clever, colourful, and engaging combination of Art & History & Comedy. I liked how they distinguished so clearly between the historical aspect (brown paper) and the modern story (glossy white).

Another FDPG pick. She's on a mission, no, make that A Mission to learn Japanese. She loves all things Japanese (well, all things she's come in contact with so far: sushi, Totoro, Miyazaki movies, Pocky, and Hello Kitty). And she's decided that learning Japanese will be a cinch. And I, I am but a passive (and deeply admiring) observer on this trip. Good luck to you FDPG.

We chose this particular CD set because it seemed the simplest language learning package at the bookstore we were at. The others looked far too complicated, with workbooks to fill in and all those characters to memorize. FDPG might be one bright little spark, but she's still only seven years old. I don't want to kill her zest. This will give her some phrases to memorize, some funny things to say to native speakers she might happen to meet, and she'll have a little dictionary to play around with, but in the end it'll be light. Light is good. Light is fun. Nekobasu!

History has been moving at a snail's pace around here lately. We really got bogged down took a long time with the Greeks, winding down way too many roads, but now we're on the bright and shiny other side. Phew. And with that other side comes some Latin for the twins. Max has done a few years of Latin, but dropped it this year (it's not much fun doing some things all on your own, I've noticed), so we're all going to pick it up this time. The twins will be starting with Prima Latina, but we're going to use Minimus for the historical angle. I think it's something all three of them can have fun with.
Anyhow, this is the audio CD that comes with the book. FDPG and I have listened to it twice, once with the book and once without, and while we both enjoyed it (I finally discovered how to pronounce "eheu!"), I thought it a bit overpriced for what it is. That said, I'm sure I'll be less critical once I've had the kids listen to it a few times.
Here is a video series we've been watching. We didn't buy this one - it's from the library - but after watching my kids watch it I will say that it's highly engaging to the male brain. The makers of this series have taken a game engine and used it to recreate several famous battles in history, sprinkling the 'recreations' with the remarks and interviews of various experts in the field, all of whom are fairly absorbing speakers. There's an Eric Bana doppleganger earnest host who appears in the exact geographic location of each historical event (Marathon, Thermopylae, etc), sets up the details of each event, then lets the game machine take over. At first we were all snickering a bit because the figures were so stilted and fake-looking, and the armies move in a weird hive-like mass, but the stories are very exciting and the action, while artificial in that slightly cheesy video game manner, is so clearly laid out and panoramic you can't help but get carried along. I liked that each segment is only about 20-25 minutes each: some of the History Channel videos we've had out really test the patience of the twins. Who am I kidding, they really test MY patience. So this was a hit with everyone.

Finally, this came for Dominic this week. Dominic is a bit of a dark horse around here. He's quite the comic, but he's also fairly shy in public and not nearly as verbal as his twin, so he tends to hang back a bit. Which inevitably carves out a niche in the family totem (and those niches are hard to get out of). But during Max's experience with the Lego League Dominic discovered that he has a gift for motors and gears and figuring out mechanical things in ways none of us can. So it's perfectly charming to see him hitting his stride with this. It's got a different motor on it than the one that he got at Christmas, so he can attempt several of the models in the Forbidden Lego book, plus it comes with a whack of model booklets and intricate pieces - all to do with building powered mechanisms. It nearly caused me to inhale my latté when I saw how much it cost, but given the intellectual stretch it'll give him, I think it's worth it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Garden Shapes

A while back I was at a meeting, and I ran into a friend who said "All you ever blog about is gardening!" I was kind of struck by this, because while I know I do blog about gardening, it never struck me as the only thing I ever blog about.

So I asked some other friends.

"Oh yeah," they all said, "that's all you ever blog about."

I was tempted, in a snitty sort of way, to ask them how often they read my blog, not to mention how much of each entry they read (sometimes I slip totally unrelated things into the body of a post just to keep people on their toes). But then I thought, 'Ah what the heck, might as well just write another post about the garden.'

A while back I wrote a post about wanting to get a curly willow (but was instead thwarted by the bossy Garden Centre Guy at my local garden centre). Well, lookee to your left. This is why I wanted a Curly Willow. I had visions of chopping it down each winter, then artistically arranging the pieces all over the yard. I might even get a little crazy and spray paint some of the branches gold or silver, I thought, and hang them in the living room oh-so-atmospherically, just to OutChristmas my pal Martha. And what do you know but last fall we were at a Compost Education Centre (being educated about compost, no less) when I noted a massive curly willow. Turned out that they pollarded it each fall, shearing it right down to the ground. I looked at that big ole knarl, squished as it was between a giant compost bin, a mosaic sink, and some bins, and thought 'Harumph, take that, Garden Centre Guy!' Of course, now that I know my drains are not all they should (or could) be, I think quailing before the Curly Willow probably isn't such a bad thing.

Drains are why I built this brick square the other day. This area was, when we first bought the house, a very flat repository for that weird red stuff known as Lava Rock. It didn't look as though anything else was growing there, and I hate Lava Rock (unless it's in hanging out naturally in Hawaii), so I scraped it all away and, because it was an otherwise shady and unremarkable spot, planted some fuchsias. Two winters later and I noticed a distinct lack of growth amongst the plants in that bed. Things grew alright, but nothing burgeoned. They all looked cold. Damp. And in the winter the bed oozed wetness. I could see algea growing in the corners. So I canvassed my friends for leftover bricks, and built this little container. And planted Baby's Tears in the cracks. And stuck more old branches of Curly Willow into it! Gosh - the atmosphere of the place! Garden Centre Guy, gnash your teeth!
Just in case you need another view.

Are you wondering where I got all this Curly Willow? Well, I didn't get myself a tree (at some other garden centre). And no, I didn't buy it (I'm far too cheap). No, I (no laughing now) brought it with me when we moved from the mainland to this island. A gardening fellow used to give it to me each winter. And when we moved over here I felt too attached to this particular bundle to throw them out as my treacherous and not very interested in gardening spouse suggested. In fact, we made a special trip just for my plants. I even packed up the compost: I planted all the garden plants I wanted to take in it - all in little black nursery pots.

Really. And truly.

Uh oh, you've all gone silent. You really think I'm nutty, now, don't you?
Okay, moving on.

And finally, a flag. A rock flag. What can I say, I like rocks.


I felt like shrieking "Houston we have liftoff!" when I saw these little shoots on the weekend. I've never grown asparagus before, and I feel slightly silly confessing that I spent a good part of the early spring carefully digging in this bed with my fingers, searching for the roots that would tell me if they'd lived through my neglect last summer. I had barely enough soaker hoses to go around, and since they weren't tangibly reminding me of their presence (sheila coughs uneasily) I sort of let the hoses go elsewhere.

Asparagus dinners! Just think, I won't have to read Frances Mayes and Peter Mayles and drool mournfully anymore. Didn't Frances Mayes devoted an entire chapter to asparagus? When it was in season, how to cook it, what recipes were best, where it grew on their property. It was almost painful reading that chapter. But no longer. No, a bottle of crisp white wine, a bunch of these babies carefully roasted, the fading heat of the day, a few geraniums in terracotta pots, and the smell of the lemon trees in the distance... (lemon trees? how far in the distance? there aren't any lemon trees around here. who are you kidding?)

This variety is called Jersey Knight. The lifeguard at the pool where the kids have their lessons (who is also an obsessive gardener) told me that I'll be overwhelmed with them in a couple of years, because they spread like weeds.

I'm counting on it. I am SO counting on it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Weather and Crystal Trees

I'd blog more but the weather has been incredible of late. Today the thermometer on the deck made it to 24ºC. We were all outside fanning the seedlings in the cold frame. Well, the twins were. I was wandering around with a scarf and a sweater on, coughing heavily and regretting the depths of fun I had in my 20's, all the fun that left me with a tendency to extreme reactions with mild colds. 

FDPG had a good time, though, with me unable to speak, because we all know how much FDPG loves to talk. She got out her new Grow A Crystal Tree packet and set it up on the kitchen table, then set the timer for an hour, then got out my camera and took some pictures. Then came and had me take some pictures because hers wouldn't stay still for some reason (I almost said 'You need to stop talking while you're taking pictures' but she wouldn't have believed me). Then Dominic took some pictures because there's nothing those twins love more than a little contest to see Who Can Do It Better. I think I won. But I'm not competitive that way... 

So, because FDPG and Dominic made me in the interests of Fair Play, here are the pictures we took. There were more, but I'm sparing you all. Max was the only one jaded enough (by his own crystal tree kit experiences perhaps?) not to find this an oddly fascinating photo study, but then again, he's turning into that ephemeral creature: the BTDT Almost Teen. 

But the twins and I spent a lot of time comparing photos. In the end, these are the ones they chose (I nixed the other 20 pictures - there is only so much downloading of photographs I am willing to endure here). I will leave it to you to figure out who took what...


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friday I'm In Poetry Love

I think this is so quietly lovely that it's going to replace the Cure today.

Ha, yeah, right, who am I kidding. Nothing can replace this song.

But we'll give Billy top billing today. He's hit a chord with me, sitting as I am on the precipice of my dotage, with all those soon-to-be-lost memories looming on the horizon. Cruise ships! Tankers! Back and forth, back and forth...

...uh, what was I talking about?

Plus, he says it so nicely, it makes me almost welcome the prospect of impending forgetfulness.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Easter. Bunnies, egg hunts, and fresh flowers in bowls. And don't forget the grass - we planted grass seed in trays, then nestled little birds and speckled eggs in it. The hope of spring to come.

This year I even got a little crazy and made several kinds of flavoured butters for all the fresh bread we baked. It's easy: all you do is put some fresh herbs in the food processor (I used parsley, tarragon, and chives), add some chopped up bits of romano cheese (we prefer it to parmesan), and whiz it around until pasty. Then add some lemon rind, finely grated (microplane, anyone?), and some soft unsalted butter. It elevates fresh bread to a whole new level.

This year Max told us that he was "too old" for egg hunts. He's twelve. I've been waiting for something like this: the public acknowledgement of our pretend world. Cynicism seeping in. And, like most kids in this phase of life, he has to renounce that pretend world (for a while). As Richard puts it (loosely quoting CS Lewis): "he wants to grow up out of the nursery." So Max made his first foray. He slept in while the twins woke up bright and early (I'd had the foresight to tell them that if they started looking before 8am the eggs would all dissolve into nothingness and, cough cough, they believed me). He slept while the twins clattered and clanked and shrieked and banged and yelled and thumped and laughed and screeched around the house, finding all the plastic eggs someone had hidden around the house. He slept while Dominic told us, in a hushed voice, how he'd heard thumping noises and seen something large with long ears peeking in through his bedroom door. He slept while FDPG regaled us with visions of a large shadowy something thumping across the lawn around 3am. It was giggling, too.

When he finally woke up (not long after 8am; he was too excited even if his cynicism was temporarily in charge) he saw this. As my kids are wont to do, they sorted it all out on the floor. Even FDPG. Fortunately I had thrown away all their old Halloween candy the week before (found it lying in a closet, forgotten).

The twins shared with him, but not as generously as he'd hoped. "Snooze you lose!" FDPG told him, kindly. I could see the downside of the realities of renouncing the world of make-believe dawning.
Happy Easter, everyone, whatever your persuasion.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Science Fairs

The homeschool Science Fair was last week. All three kids planned projects for it; Max did a study of mason bees and the twins did a joint project about their gardening adventures. (They tied it into a science topic by taking a closer examination of the germination of the various seed sprouters they used) We worked on it for about 10 days beforehand, reading garden stories, reading about pollinators, reading about germination rates and Super Soil. Fun stuff.

Then we cast our gazes to the appearance of their display boards.

FDPG wanted something witty and artsy for her title, and Dominic, no doubt influenced by his suddenly-self-conscious older brother, didn't want anything that stood out or otherwise called attention to him and anything to do with anything to do with him (and yes he said it exactly that way). So I talked him into ignoring what other people think and going out on a his own creative limb we compromised.
Now tell me, do you recognize this painting? It's called American Gothic. It was painted in 1930 by Grant Wood. I thought it was a famous painting (heck, it's been black-velveted, surely that qualifies it as world famous?), and I thought everyone would recognize any allusions to this painting...

You can see where this is going, can't you?

FDPG and I happened upon it one day, on our on-line explorations, and we also saw all the things people have done to it (biker look, hippie look, doctor/nurse look, etc) and we both thought it would be most amusing to feature her and Dominic as Canadian Gothic farmers in front of their own farm. Allusions, baby, allusions. Dominic, as I said, was not so taken with the allusion aspect, but FDPG bribed him with some of her impending Easter candy convinced him to play along, and so it was that we found ourselves outside one bright shiny day, them posing, me with a camera. One with a fork and the other with a shovel, FDPG looking fondly over at her farmer brother:
Maybe it was because Dominic lacked the hollow, haunted-eyed expression of Wood's farmer, or maybe it was because FDPG didn't have a ponytail and a glum gaze, but everyone at the Science Fair drew a blank about the original. No one seemed to know what we were on about. We get this a lot so it's not as if we were crushed or anything, but it did strike me as highly unusual that no one knew the painting. "That's okay," said FDPG, "we can laugh at ourselves!" Yup, we sure can, FDPG.
The twins' contribution featured a Seed Lab section, where they examined 5 different methods of sprouting seeds: two were those conventional Jiffy pot/clear cover sprouters, one with a heat mat and one without; one was just a tray of open pots; then another covered sprouter (from Lee Valley) but featuring an unusual design; the last one was an aquarium with a nightlight in it.

Then they decided to show all the garden prep. they'd done: sieving soil (for those finicky carrots and beets), pesticide-free gardening, making plant tags, and learning about growing cycles. As one usually does with boards of this ilk, the twins attached photos of all the things they'd done along the way, in addition to their Seed Lab experiment results. We were all particularly struck by the before and after photos of the garden. The after refers to after they'd sifted the soil through the strainer, enlarged the garden 5' and cleaned up the strawberry bed.

FDPG, aka The Girl Who Does Not Much Like Drawing, shocked us all by reproducing a sketch of an aphid that looked like something out of an art book. "I can't believe I did such a good drawing!" she exclaimed, while we all nodded in surprised agreement.

Dominic looked at it with narrowed eyes, wondering if he'd perhaps done it and she was taking all the credit. I mollified him with a request to draw the cabbage looper.

What attracted the most attention was this glass vase. Someone gave it to me for Christmas one year. It was a little on the AWKWARD and BIG side (it's almost 3' tall), which meant that it had been relegated to the basement, but 10 days before the Science Fair we were poking around in the Cold Storage room and I came across one of our seed potatoes from last year. "How about we plant the potato in that glass behemoth and get everyone to guess what it is?" I said. Even Dominic liked this idea. So we layered some sand (drainage) and soil and stuck the potato in the ground. I left a slight hole so the kids would have an easier time guessing, but not one single person guessed what it was.

Wait, I lie.

One person did guess, but it was her 12th guess.

Now I'm wondering if we should leave it in here or remove it to more roomy climes (like the garden). I kind of feel for it, all squished in there.

Max's project featured the life cycle, wants and needs of the Mason Bee, a native bee around these parts. It's a very undemanding little bee, and one we see a lot in our back yard. It's also a prodigious pollinator. Max, wanting to figure it out for himself, struggled a little with the question of what to include, but after some discussion he settled on conservation and habitat. Luckily the newspapers were being unusually topical this week, and we managed to find some handy articles on beekeeping and local pesticide bans.

He also learned how to cut mat titles.

No blood was shed in the making of this blog post

He included a sketch (a copy taken from this article):
Some thought-provoking titles:
And an exhortation to fill one's garden with Mason Bee houses.
And thus it was that we all had a fine time at the Science Fair. FDPG raffled off some of her special plant tags, Max convulsed his pals with some displays of Star Wars Lego men (and ignored his science board altogether), and Dominic felt as though his dignity was still intact at the end of it all.

I went home and had a stiff drink.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I'm In Poetry Love Friday

I make toys but I've got aspirations.

And from one of my favourite songs: "Maybe it's fair to say there was a lack of communication." (oh that I could have been half as articulate and self-aware in high school)

Monday, April 6, 2009

Freak Heat Waves

We're in the middle of a freak heat spell here. Yes, I did say "heat spell," but you will notice that it was prefaced by the word "freak." I feel compelled to add that in because this is not the Herald of Spring heat. It's Freak Heat. The rains are forecast for later in the week, sob.

It was so hot that I had to turn off the heat in the cold frame for the past couple of days. So hot we ate dinner two nights running on the deck. Outside. Outside on the deck. And we wore shorts and tank tops and dresses without thick woollen socks. Well, some of us did. Some of us cling like grim death to our hoodies and jeans and long sleeve shirts, just in case some random speck of sunlight tans our skin. Some of us even wear the hood of the hoodie over our head. Out in the sun. Some of us have been like this so long that some of us have forgotten why some of us do this. (have I totally confused you yet? welcome to life with my pre-teen son) But eventually it got so hot (25ºC) that even that pre-teen son I was talking about some of us eventually had to shed a layer or two in order not to die of heat stroke. Talk about worlds of wonder.

Anyhow, enough about the kids. How about those new plants, eh? (good with segues, aren't I?) In the foreground of this photo is a hellebore, also known as a Christmas Rose, given to me by my good friend Andrew. Andrew is the kind of friend every gardener should have, a) because he has a good eye for his friends' gardens, and b) because he actually thinks about what might go nicely in them. Richard, in contrast, says things like "Nice rose, why didn't you wait so I could buy that for your birthday/Mother's Day/the time I need some brownie points?" both of us knowing all the while that he has no intention of going into a garden centre. Ever. He is happy to lift and shift but has in interest otherwise. We have a 'running joke' about him having absolutely no idea what anything in the garden is called, but it's not really a joke because he really has no idea what anything is called despite having spent the past 14 years hanging out with me (it's sort of worrying actually). But Andrew, he gave me a hellebore before I even knew what they were. "It blooms in the winter, and it's nice to have something blooming then" he told me. And you know, he was right.

When we were getting ready for the Science Fair (last week), Max and I started rethinking our Pollinator Garden. It's highly ironic to me to think that I have spent the past 10 years wanting double blossomed flowers and really unusual hybrids, only to find this year that they are the last thing you want if you're looking for plants with lots of pollen. So we went out this week and got a couple of strange plants that produce a lot of pollen, are attractive to bees and butterflies, and double as berry bushes for the birds in the fall.
This is the first one: Sambucus nigra 'Madonna.' It's an elderberry. I always associate elderberries with Waldorfians, just like I associate pumpkin juice with Hogwarts, because it seems that every Waldorfian I know loves elderberries. You have only to mention the things and their eyes glaze over. (don't tell my Waldorfian MIL I said that please)

This elderberry is not the edible one, according to the internet. The berries are toxic, they say. According to the fellow at the garden centre (I feel relatively safe assuming that he has no intentions of poisoning me) as long as I cook them I am fine.
It's life on the edge here, isn't it? If you don't hear from me in the next little while, you can safely assume that those berries were toxic.

This is the other plant I acquired: Lonicera caerulea 'Kamtschatica.' Otherwise known as a Honeyberry Honeysuckle (it's that bushy thing to the left of the bird bath). "Large dark blue berries for fresh eating, jams, jellies or baking. White flowers in spring on pink stems, with lightly fragrant blue-green foliage turning yellow in fall" was what the tag said. I guess we're safe in assuming that this one is edible. I couldn't resist this one: it met almost all of my requirements. First of all, it was cheap. This is one of my Prime Directives in acquiring garden plants. They must not cause me to regret spending the grocery money on them. The other reason I liked this plant is because I'd never heard of it before. Nothing like being outwitted at the Garden Centre (makes me feel like I'm on Survivor). Finally, I like the fact that it will have berries on it. Then it can take up space and feed the kids at the same time. I won't need to break off from gardening to go inside to get them meals.
This is not a new plant - I planted these pansies last fall. I like pansies. They bloom so early in the spring here, and even though the slugs are mad about them, they still look pretty good when half-chewed (wish I could say the same about myself).

The bees like these ones, too.

This is my Fake Out Pot. It's a broken pot tucked around some squill and irises, but when people walk by it they always exclaim "Oh, that's so cute - that pot tucked in there like that!" Once someone tried to pick it up, only to haul away one of the halves. Boy, writing this makes me think jeez, sheila you are so immature, tricking your visitors like this.

This bed got an overhaul today. I removed all those beach rocks and reshaped it, disturbing a miniature ant nest in the process, not to mention many many spider nests. I was tempted to squish all those spider nests, because I am so not a fan of the Wolf Spider (I have been known to running screaming from them, ask everyone I know), but my adherence to yet another Prime Directive meant that all I could do was materialize briefly in their lives before zipping off to another planet place in the garden to inflict myself on other creatures keep digging up the grass
Honestly, I am so rule bound, aren't I?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Friday I'm In Poetry Love

In honour of Poetry Month, I've decided to spend my Fridays inflicting a sampling of musical poems on you all (sheila peers into the dark with her hand cupped over her eyes, guitar at the ready). No, no, fear not, I am not going to perform them. Links, baby, links. It's poetry, right? Just a different method of delivery. So settle down, no groaning now. Here, have some popcorn.

Here's a little number by a lovely fellow in a white sweater and a tidy mod haircut. Many an evening, when I was a cook at a Mexican restaurant (I know, I am SO Mexican, I hope you never had to eat there but know that I have improved greatly since), was spent blasting this over the heat of the ovens. We used to pride ourselves on knowing every word. Still haven't managed to swivel my hips like that though.

And then there's the lovely AND adorable Billy Bragg (how can you not love someone who sings with their accent doggedly intact?) doing Great Leap Forward. I wanted to include Shirley but all the versions YouTube has are crap, which makes me inclined to inflict this on you again, just because I love it so (besides, what's not to love about Fridays?).

Then there's this companion piece to Mr Brightside. I want this man's hair.

Let's not forget our Canadian content. Here is a greatly underrated Canuck, in my never ever humble opinion, who really should be getting far more air time. You might recognize this one, done with Chris Martin of Cold Play, and you know, I don't usually agree with the YouTube commentators especially when they have cheesy nicknames but in this case I think Chockles makes a valid point: this is one of the greatest songs ever written. Well, if you don't count this one, particularly if we're talking in present tenses. Is she not the most beautiful thing ever? Sigh.

And finally, because I love this song so much, here's Billy Bragg doing his version of Jerusalem.