Will school ever be the whole story?

Although she’s only equivalent to Grade 9 by age and this semester is taking three academic Grade 12 courses, school has ended up being fairly unchallenging for Fiona. She picked up a DL Spanish course in October to fill her days and that helped while it lasted. It’s not like she’s completely miserable; she enjoys her teachers and friends, and she is certainly learning something. But considering she finishes almost all of her work in class, and has a 99.5% average in courses that are among the most advanced the school offers, it’s safe to say that she will not be adequately challenged in the years to come. There is only one more math course (Calculus) available at her school, and she can’t enrol in it until January 2019 at the earliest since priority is given to Grade 12 students and it is over-subscribed this year. She’s got half the senior sciences completed already.

She’ll still have 24 credits (6 courses) left to do after this semester ends in order to meet the graduation requirements, and we were hoping she would stretch those out over a few more years. But I think she’s going to need higher level learning, and I’m not quite sure how to fill that need.

She learns wonderfully in a teacher-led classroom amongst older, enthusiastic students. She is very relationship-driven as a learner and she loves having personal connections with her teachers, particularly if the connections involve shared dry, dark senses of humour. So reverting to online solitary learning isn’t ideal, even though she’ll do it (as with Spanish) to serve a purpose. It just doesn’t light her fire, though.

Community college enrolment or cross-enrolment would be ideal, except that we don’t have a college nearby that offers academic courses. And being 14, she isn’t about to head off to university or to the city for work experience, nor can she do a work-travel gap year abroad. And she’s not particularly interested in a language exchange: she would likely have to drop dance, she is reticent about what would surely if only for liability reasons be a far more controlling environment than she enjoys here, and she’s not particularly interested in language immersion anyway.

She has more energy for dance, which now takes up between 17 and 20 hours a week. She arrives at the studio rested and eager for challenge, which is a lovely change from her over-stretched tired demeanor last year. And she still has enough time in her weekdays to practice violin for at least a few minutes a day. We’ve also got a couple of trips organized for her this year, a marine biology guided education trip to Baja in March and a three-week backpacking style trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos in January-February with some family friends. She’ll have some catching up to do at school as a result, which will create some short-term challenge. All of which is great for now, and generally she is happy. But … for how long will the current situation continue to meet her needs? Not long, I expect.

So we’re starting to look outside the box again.

Food management complexity

Honestly, I feel like my life is primarily about food management these days. I have one family member who goes to school five days a week and dances six days a week and who therefore needs eleven proper meals a week to eat on the go. And I have another family member whom I live with for less than a day a week who is covering a emergency room, a nursing home and two medical practices pretty much singlehandedly and who needs to eat too. And these two people I’m trying feed live 90 minutes apart.

So here’s the what I’m trying. During the latter part of the week, I cook up a simple bulk meal. Something I can manage in Nelson where I have a small bare-bones kitchen outfitted for two part-time residents. Soup or a basic curry or something. Fiona and I eat some on Friday and/or Saturday, and I freeze a couple of servings which I subsequently take back to New Denver for Chuck.

On Saturday I grocery shop for a couple more bulk recipes that are better cooked at the New Denver kitchen, wherein there are large pots, multiple pans, colanders, small appliances of various sorts, decent counter space and a dishwasher. Saturday night I arrive back with all the groceries and head to bed. Then on Sundays I cook two double-size meals, freezing a couple of dinners’ worth of each to take to Nelson for Fiona and me, and setting aside servings for Chuck.

Finally, Fiona and I cook a regular Sunday dinner so we can eat as a family that one day. (Except when Chuck can’t, which is pretty regularly, but we try.)

<– Anyway, this is how things look when we leave New Denver. There’s a collection of sticky notes on the outside of the fridge, one for each entrée that has been prepared, five dinners in this case. (There are also a couple of extra things … dessert and snack options.)

And on the inside of the fridge –>

there are bags and containers bearing matching sticky notes. On a good week we can leave him with four to six meals.

And then there’s the grocery bag of frozen portions that we return to Nelson with.

This makes for a lot of cooking on Sunday, and a lot of neon pink post-it notes, but it seems to be working reasonably well. Because we come back to Nelson with about four freezer meals, that saves me having to do much major cooking in the 50’s kitchen during the week.

With luck this will keep all of us from starving or getting scurvy this year.

Second year of school

First first-day-of-school photo for me as a parent
First first-day-of-school photo for me as a parent

Fiona has begun Grade 11 at the big mainstream school in Nelson. Compared to the scheduling chaos of last year, her first year in school, it has been a very smooth start. She likes being back at the routine. She loved being welcomed back by all her friends whom she hadn’t seen over the summer.

She has three Grade 12 courses this semester. It’s too early to be sure, but so far she’s finding herself underchallenged and bored.

Last year was the opposite, easy straight-A’s notwithstanding. She felt stressed and over-extended. I think the over-extended feeling was a combination of lack of social time for relaxation, the massive lifestyle adjustment of attending school for the first time, and keeping up four pretty significant extra-curricular programs (aerial silks, violin, youth choir and dance). This year the culture shock is of starting school is not an issue, the social thing is a little better balanced since she’s spending Saturdays in town, and she’s cut back on her extra-curricular commitments by dropping aerial silks and choir.

She also pulled back a bit on the challenge level at school. She opted for straight Physics 12 rather than Honours Physics 12, because she figured she doesn’t have physical science / applied science career aspirations. Much of the course content is stuff she’s already learned. She’s also taking the combination of PreCalc 12 and Math Topics 12, the enrichment course that pairs nicely with PreCalc. Theoretically the math enrichment will be great for her, but among other things Topics is designed for students with lots of extra-curricular commitments who benefit from doing a lot of their learning through in-class problem-solving rather than study at home. But because Fiona works quite quickly, she’s finding herself with not enough work to fill class time… and as result she has no homework. And then there’s her empty block. She sits around bored, wishing she had work to do. The days are long, with not much learning.

Hopefully things will improve in the next couple of weeks. Presumably the workload will pick up a bit, she’ll encounter some stuff she has to work to learn, hopefully she’ll get a course to fill the spare block. In any case violin and dance will start next week, adding 15 or 20 hours to her week. That will be a help. I really hope she can find the right balance: challenge and interest, but minimal stress.

Big summers

Tanglewood Festival (Erin above principal bass' scroll)
Tanglewood Festival (Erin above principal bassist’s scroll)

The big kids had big summers this year. We knew Erin’s would be big. She had been offered a Tanglewood fellowship. This meant spending the summer in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts playing in an amazing orchestra and performing at the Tanglewood Festival alongside (and sometimes with) the Boston Symphony. The fellowship covered all her living costs and allowed her to play under the baton of some of the world’s greatest conductors.

Sophie (far left) and the UBC Rocket Team
Sophie (far left) and the UBC Rocket Team

Sophie was still wrapping up choral festivals and performances with the Vancouver Youth Choir when her university exams finished. She was also involved in the UBC Rocket Team, and this became almost a full-time job for her during May and early June. The team travelled to IREC (International Rocketry Engineering Competition) in New Mexico, where their rocket won its division against the big engineering schools in the US and abroad. She returned to Vancouver to do a bit of naval reserves training. She had enlisted in the reserves this spring on the Marine Engineering Systems Operator track. Having passed her medical, her interview and her fitness tests she was not hopeful about getting a Basic Training assignment due to the disarray of the Canadian Forces recruitment system. So she used her Canada150 YouthRail pass to hop trains across the country. And then at the last minute she got word that the military had a spot for her in a Basic Training block in Quebec City. So she headed there on the train and did her three weeks, playing in the bush with rifles and passing weaponry and gas mask tests and eating, we are told, rather well.

Virtro, where Noah is working
Virtro, where Noah is working

Noah had a fairly ordinary summer. He stayed at SFU doing a couple of coding and design courses, partly just killing time hoping that he might get an interview for a co-op job. Then with just a couple of weeks to go, he got two interviews. The first was with a government agency, working more or less as an IT lackey, doing an end run around some platform problems they’d been having. He was offered the job, but it wasn’t really what he wanted, although the pay was pretty decent. Then he got an interview at a Virtual Reality startup, exactly the sort of work he was hoping for. As it turns out they were beginning work on some sort of rhythm-based game and were really excited to have a musician / coder / digital designer apply. When they found out he’d been offered another position, they fast-tracked an offer to him and he accepted. It’s a 4-month placement, with the possibility to extend it to 8 months. In order to earn a Co-op Certificate alongside his BSc, he needs to do at least two placements totalling twelve months. So he’s thrilled, and is well on his way.

Mountain Goat Hike

We continued our end-of-summer alpine hiking tradition as best we could this year. Instead of four or three of us female members of the family, we only had two of us. Sophie spent the summer train-hopping, road-tripping to the States, launching rockets and doing military training, so she hasn’t been home. Erin spent the summer on a Tanglewood fellowship, and anyway stuck in the US anyway because of a Canadian lost passport and a stalled replacement due to a USPS Fail. (And Noah, who, female traditions notwithstanding, would have been welcome if he was around and interested, was interviewing for jobs in Vancouver.)

Fiona was working at a local café. She had three days off a week technically, but banked and batched them as best she could in order to (a) work as an assistant dance teacher for a week (b) attend SVI as an advanced chamber student for another week and (c) be a companion and support to our refugee mom as she went through a very challenging end-of-pregnancy with a complicated out-of-town delivery. And then, we needed to make a trip to the Okanagan to get new pointe shoes fitted and to buy house stain. And all that left her with exactly two days at the very end of the summer break in which to squeeze our hike. But squeeze we did.

We put the little Subaru Crosstrek through its paces. It probably should not have been taken where we took it, but once we had our destination dialed in we were not keen to turn back. After about 90 minutes we reached the trail-head. We parked, wrapped the obligatory chicken wire around the car to prevent porcupines from gnawing on brake-lines, and started up the trail. As we got close to the ridge beside Gimli Peak, the lookover into Mulvey Basin, we spied a couple of mountain goats looking curiously at us. We spent close to an hour with them. They actually followed us, and came very close. I had only my phone for photos, and most of these, including the closest shots, are not zoomed in. They came almost within arms reach. It was truly a magical experience.

First year of school

Fiona finished her first year of school, Grade 10, just over a week ago. Over the previous three years she had taken two core courses (math and science) and two short electives (Spanish and dance) at our local village school, but this year was the first time she attended school on a daily basis. And for this she followed in Sophie’s footsteps and attended the larger school in Nelson. She took four Grade 11 courses and two Grade 10 courses, which amounted to 75% of a full course load. The reduced course load was possible because she already had a number of Grade 10 credits banked, and desirable because we knew she was going to feel very busy and experience a fair bit of culture shock with the transition.

She kept up all her previous extra-curricular activities (violin, aerial silks and a bunch of ballet and dance technique and conditioning classes), and added Corazon choir. Adding the overlay of a daily school hours and structure, the academic accountability and the new social and cultural expectations of a mid-sized mainstream school was a lot to have heaped on her plate.

Really though the most challenging thing has been the living situation. In past years we had commuted to Nelson twice during the week, staying overnight maybe a couple of nights per week, but this year she was there at least Sunday evening until Friday evening. She desperately needed the refuge of being home on weekends, spending time in the bedroom she’s occupied for a decade or more, reconnecting with Chuck, cuddling the cat, baking in the big kitchen. But being away from Nelson on weekends (and being so busy during the week) meant that she has no real opportunity to deepen social connections with friends from school. She has plenty of friends, but she pines for a more multi-faceted relationship with them, one that really needs time and experiences together outside of school lunch break, choir rehearsals and dance classes. She has spent a few weekends in Nelson, when I’m away in Cranbrook doing symphony gigs and can’t run her back home, or when she has performances. She takes advantage of these times, but she ends up really missing home too. No matter how well-appointed the space in Nelson is, it isn’t home, and she has felt like no matter where she spends the weekend she’s missing out on something she needs to round out her life.

There isn’t a perfect solution. There are just compromises that have to be made. And I suppose making peace with this emotionally, not continually trying to find the solution that solves all the issues, is really what she needs to do. She and I need to stop trying to fix things, so that she can just get on with coping with the constraints.

Academically and socially she’s adapted to school beautifully. She managed straight A’s with the highest mark in several of her classes. She’s had some absolutely amazing teachers who have enjoyed her and become very much like friends. And the lovely thing we’ve discovered is that the girl can write. We always knew she had math and science skills and knowledge way beyond her years; she had proven herself more than capable with the accelerated courses she’d taken in those subjects in the past. But she had never taken a humanities course, or written an essay, or for that matter “written to task” in any way. But she earned ridiculous marks like a 100% on her major essay in English.

My philosophy-prof father used to say that the commonest cause of bad writing was bad thinking. He felt that if one’s thinking was clearly organized and logically connected, the writing would mostly look after itself. I took this to heart with my writing-resistant younger three kids and believed that if they grew up with good thinking skills, the writing would come when they were ready … especially if they were exposed to compelling writing, complex grammar and rich language as readers and listeners. Having watched them reach adolescence and then simply start producing work of great merit, I really agree with him. I can’t help but think that the difficulties that many school students experience in this area come from spending years producing output despite having little worth articulating. The primacy of the thinking is difficult to appreciate when the apparent focus is all on the paper.

Anyway, Fiona’s two-year grade-skip we had agreed to back in her DL home-learning years had been untested against mainstream benchmarks in the humanities until this year. Phew! It was not a mistake! In fact, overall a three-year skip probably would have been the best fit academically and socially; by and large she preferred her Grade 11 courses and classmates to her Grade 10 ones. But there is also the issue of having her graduate too early, so I think the two-year solution is the best on balance. She’ll be newly 16 when she graduates. Still too young to easily travel, maybe too young to want to attend university (which she’d have to move away from home to do). But at least legally able to be out of school and work as much as she’d like, which wouldn’t have been the case at 15.

As she looks forward to next year (because there’s no question there will be a ‘next year’ at school), she wants to do more dance. So she has somewhat reluctantly decided to give up aerial silks. She will likely give up choir as well, at least for 2017-18, partly to reduce her schedule to manageable levels and partly because the Marine Biology course she’s doing in Baja conflicts with the major choir event of the year. She’ll probably continue to carry a spare block in her school schedule through most or all of her remaining semesters, which is a nice option to have.

Zwifting along

The Boston Marathon has turned out not to be possible for me. I spent three months babying my knee (after just barely beginning to run regularly in the fall) and still, within a month of starting marathon training it was as bad as ever. I was living on ibuprofen, and most mornings it was so swollen I couldn’t bend it past 90 degrees.

I really need some form of regular self-directed exercise though. I miss it when I don’t have it. Cycling doesn’t seem to bother my knee to any appreciable extent, so it has been filling the hole left by running.

I’ve also been doing some cross-country skiing. I did a series of three introductory skate-skiing clinics in January. I had snapped up a set of skate-length poles out of the sale bin in 1991 when we were living in Iroquois Falls, ON, thinking “I’ll gradually accumulate what I need on sale, and then I’ll learn to skate.” I never expected that it would take me 25 years to gather the rest of the gear, the time, the opportunity and the momentum to make it happen. I have loved being able to mix classic and skate-skiing depending on conditions, but overall I prefer skating!

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Biking in the big screen

But biking has become my new obsession, especially since I brought my bike and trainer to Nelson for Zwifting. I’m there from Monday to Friday, and I can use the projector and the pull-down big screen to get the sort of immersive experience that leaves my stomach lurching when I crest a rolling hill at speed. Even though I have to move everything (laptop, water bottle, side table, bike, trainer, wheel block, portable fan) into and out of the living room every time I want to do a ride, it’s worth it!

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The lookout at the top of Watopia mountain, just after sunset. Days on Watopia take a couple of hours; nights last half an hour. But the sunsets are spectacular, so no one minds.

Although I haven’t felt compelled to sign up for a race yet, I’ve been joining group rides several times a week, following friends’ progress, chatting through text or voice and hanging out on Facebook groups to exchange tips, ideas and enthusiasm.

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Pretty consistent exercise log over the past while: as much exercise as during my peak marathon training weeks last year.

Group rides are usually oriented around a particular level of difficulty, and most are “no-drop,” which means that the group works together to stick to the advertised pace, stick together to create a good drafting effect, and support riders who may have slowed through encouragement, dropping the pace for a while, and by ‘offering a wheel’ (one or two stronger riders slowing down to meet the dropped rider and providing a draft effect to lead them back onto the peloton).

Some group rides have a bit of a training focus, with the leader encouraging changes of pace or occasional sprints followed by regrouping. The TGIF ride is an easy ride where beer is the encouraged source of hydration, and is followed by an optional After Party harder challenge.

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In case the fitness stats, social life and achievement badges aren’t enough, there are additional challenges. After climbing the equivalent of 5 Everests, I will be awarded the glowing Zwift Concept bike, a.k.a. the Tron bike.

I started out doing the gentlest of group rides, the eternally friendly and polite PAC rides. These are well-organized and well-led. Rider power (scaled in watts of pedalling power per kilogram of body weight, the metric which is then combined with Zwift’s terrain to produce virtual speed) is held to less than 1.5 or 2.0w/kg.

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Strava’s crude but affirming graph of my changing fitness level (baseline mid-December, when I started on Zwift).

As I got braver and stronger, I began venturing into other types of rides, including stepped laps which have gradually increasing paces as high as 3.0w/kg. I can now sustain this for ten minutes or so.

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From time to time I win the special jerseys for having the fastest women’s time in the previous hour over a particular segment.

As a distance runner, I was never strong: I could just keep going. When I started Zwifting I knew strength was something I would have to build. I think it’s coming, though very slowly. I’ve done a set of two dozen workouts as part of a six-week program for beginners designed to improve FTP or Functional Threshold Power. I haven’t tested my FTP since finishing (it’s a nasty test you don’t want to do too often: essentially ‘go as hard as you can for twenty minutes, hopefully, though not necessarily, without puking) but my FTP has gone up from 141 watts to at least the mid-160s.

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To most Zwift cyclists, runners are still a novelty

On the weekends, back in New Denver, I run on the treadmill. If I stay there, on the controlled even surface, and don’t exceed 10 kilometres per run, my knee doesn’t flare up. Recently I have been using Zwift in running mode. A cheap foot pod, some beta firmware, a secret easter-egg click in the Zwift welcome screen and pretty soon my avatar is running in the Zwift virtual cycling world. Running doesn’t have nearly the realism of cycling (no drafting, no group events, no change in speed based on virtual grade) but it’s better than staring at a treadmill console.

There is still snow and ice and sand and slush all over the roads, and half a metre of snow on the rest of the ground. Last year I did a lovely spring ride up the pass towards Kaslo on March 20th. There is no way that is going to be possible this year. But I am looking forward to trying out my nicely-primed cycling muscles in the real world as soon as the snow goes. I will have to remind myself to steer, and to use my brakes, and to unclip from my pedals when I stop.

Raising teens in a digital world

When it comes to teens’ use of technology, I feel strongly that we should listen to what the experts have to say.Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 3.28.44 PM

Recently I’ve waded into several threads on social media about youth and digital media. One was sparked by the sharing of the tweet shown on the left, which turns out to be not at all what it appears to be. (If you haven’t read about the real context of the photo and tweet, please follow the link and read the article.) People my age sure love to predict doom and gloom as the result of young people and their use of technology. Recently I have been told in no uncertain terms that technology is causing frightening epidemics of ADHD, loss of colour perception, obesity, learning disabilities, brain tumours, diabetes, loss of curiosity, the death of imagination, violence, mass killings, suicide, stunted social skills, narcissism, anxiety, sleep problems and a toxically shallow focus on instant gratification and body image.

While I don’t doubt that in some situations technology can play a potentiating role in some of these issues, I have to wonder whether the people spouting these doom-and-gloom messages actually know any real teenagers. They extrapolate from ancient epidemiologic surveys of (passive) TV habits, or studies based on use of 1990s video games. They seem to have little appreciation for the way screentime is allocated by teens today … serving the roles that cameras, daytimers, telephones, maps, encyclopedias, postal systems, file cabinets, radios, watches, calculators and notebooks served in the past.

They decry the preponderance of selfies and WOW leagues for “the damage this does to teenage girls” and “stoking violent urges in teenage boys.” And yet when I explain that the teens I know are using phones to do things like video the choreography that goes with their new choir song, or to collaborate with friends on an honours physics homework problem, or to network on social justice issues, they seem to think that my examples are some sort of anomaly resulting from exceptional parenting, small town values and clean mountain air.

I don’t think so. I think that if actually you look at and listen to youth today, rather than leaping to judge based on assumptions as with the photo above, you will find that they are far more sensitive, sensible and nuanced in their use of technology than we old farts are. They are the experts. They are in the trenches with technology used in 2017, rather than extrapolating from 1990s data.

It would be little more than a disconnect in generational understanding if it weren’t for the fact that the fear and judgement of adults actually increases the risks they’re concerned about.

By way of example I offer up the epiphany I had with Noah when he was in the throes of his mid-adolescent obsession with computer games. For years I had watched his escalating computer use with concern, doing everything short of bribing and punishing to “encourage his ability to self-regulate.” We talked about it all the time but it just didn’t seem to be working. He was spending more and more time on the computer, and less and less time at other things.

Then I realized the message that my ongoing effort to encourage him to rein in his screen time was sending: this activity that you find endlessly fascinating and rewarding is something I don’t value and don’t wish to support. This passionate interest you have is something about you that I find distasteful.

(The crazy thing is that it wasn’t even true! I have always loved computers and found them fascinating. If I had my life to live over again I probably would go into some sort of IT field. But I was bending to the prevailing winds of parental guilt-making on the subject of screen time.)

Because he felt kind of lousy about the fact that he had this interest, he tended to engage in it as quietly as possible — often late into the night — with an overlay of ambivalence and guilt. He didn’t feel comfortable sharing his excitement over things he had discovered, because he felt no one would understand or care. He knew that in his parents’ ideal world he’d be off the computer doing something else, and so his time sitting in front of the screen had the subtle overlay of the forbidden fruit: best to grab what you can, because perhaps it will not be so available in the future.

After my epiphany about how my own responses could actually be making the issue bigger and more problematic for him and all of us, I starting trying to change the way I interacted with him over it. I took an interest. I asked him to explain to me what was so cool about this game, what the sandbox editor let him do, what a physics game engine was, what he was tinkering with. I expressed (genuine) awe over the things he had been able to figure out, the mods and levels and scripts he was writing. I told him that if there were software tools that he felt would be helpful to purchase, he should ask, and I would do my best to provide that support.

And I don’t know whether it was a coincidence or not, but almost immediately his use of the computer seemed to change. He started spending less time at the more passive pursuits of playing and watching others play, and more time creating, researching, tinkering, learning. He began more ambitious projects. He developed side interests and a deeper appreciation of things like soundtrack composition, the disruptive economics of software development and the mathematics of gravity simulations and dynamic mapping. I suppose it could have been a coincidence, or maybe I just hadn’t been able to see it because I didn’t want to look. But I think there really was a change, and I can’t help but think that my validation of his interest played a role.

Once he felt like the adults in his life were taking an interest in his computer use rather than implicitly devaluing it, he felt optimistic and confident about stepping up his game. He was no longer cast in a Billy-Elliot-like role, loving something his parents seemed ashamed of. Knowing that his efforts and ambitions were likely to be proudly supported, he was much more inclined to act on them. And act he did, with talent that blossomed.

In the ensuing years he joined the local tech/gaming club and did a bunch of volunteering with them. He met the group of local teens with similar interests, and developed some healthy long-term real-life relationships. He was pulled into the sphere of the developing Youth Centre and served as a Youth Director on the board for a time. He attended Village Council meetings as an advocate for youth recreation funding. He developed some brief but pivotal mentoring relationships with adults working in tech fields. And subsequently he was hired around town in heritage-and-tourism-related jobs that leveraged his computer and social media skill set, getting all sorts of positive feedback from his employers.

His computer gaming was only a stunting addictive activity for as long as I treated it that way. Once I suspended my judgement and began really watching and listening, it became clear it was a pathway to creativity, healthy social relationships, community service, intellectual challenge, employability and higher education.

And so my plea to my own generation is this: don’t judge teens’ use of technology without doing them the courtesy of understanding and appreciating what they’re actually doing, and where they are really going with it. We are not the experts who have to rescue them from the folly of their inexperience; we need to listen to the experts and on this matter they are the experts.

End of Semester 1

Fiona turned 14 last week and has just completed her first semester as a mainstream school student at a bricks-and-mortar high school in Nelson.

How are things going in the world of school? Pretty well. She had three Grade 11 courses last semester (Honours Physics, Chemistry and Art) and earned straight A’s with a 97 in the challenging physics course — and a 99% on the final exam. It is one of the five or six courses she’ll likely ‘declare’ on her university application when the time comes, and so at 13 she has nailed down a significant chunk of an academic record which will help propel her into the most competitive programs at the most competitive schools. Not that she necessarily wants to apply to a highly selective program, but it is nice to know you have options.

She does diligently do homework and study, but not obsessively, and I would not say this level is difficult for her. I think we slipped her into the curriculum at the right point for her. There were a few moments of struggle here and there early on in the semester, but they were quickly overcome, due mostly to lack of confidence as she was transitioning into a new format for learning amongst much older, more experienced students.

The school has been unable to hire a Spanish teacher, so Fiona has ended up with a gap in her timetable this semester as well. She has PreCalc 11 and two Grade 10 humanities courses. She’s happy for the spare block again, because she’s pretty busy for a former unschooler who has refused to give up any of her discretionary activities. This week is fairly typical; this is what it looks like:

Monday: School from ~8:30-3:15 with a one-hour block free in the middle. Then a short break, then two dance classes, home by 7:45 pm.

Tuesday: Same school schedule as Monday. Then straight to choir rehearsal, then straight to violin lesson, and home by 7:30 pm.

Wednesday: School from 8:30-3:00. Just enough time to get home and dump her books, then off to aerial silks class followed immediately (run!!) by two dance classes, home by 7:45 pm.

Thursday: School from noon to 3:00 only. Then she is free in the afternoon and has a long dance class after supper. Home at 9:15 pm.

Friday: Same school schedule as Monday. Then a short break to pack her suitcase, then three dance classes, then we drive home to New Denver for the weekend, arriving at about 10 pm.

The spare block gives her a half day off on either Wednesday or Thursday. This week it fell on Thursday, which made that a very easy day, since it’s her lightest day for extra-curriculars. Sometimes things are better balanced. The revolving nature of the school’s schedule lends new challenges to each week of the month. Feeding her is the biggest challenge for me; she’s often busy over the normal supper hour, and with physically draining activities that require sensible fueling. So my role is to meet her with bento-like containers of food I’ve prepped at home and transport her between locations while she eats. It’s chaotic, and it further erodes the sense of groundedness that she used to be to so easily replenish when her life was largely home-based and self-directed. That part is hard.

The other part that is hard is that there’s really not much opportunity to build social connections. She has school lunch hours, and a few minutes on the edges of her extra-curricular classes. But because her evenings are full and then we go back to New Denver on the weekends (and that is very important to both of us: we need to see Chuck!) there is almost no time to hang out with friends outside of school.

Sometimes she stays in Nelson for the weekend by necessity, for instance if there’s a weekend choir performance or if I’m off in Cranbrook for symphony and not able to drive her home. On such weekends she makes good use of the time, inviting friends over for movies or sleepovers or whatever. But those weekends come at a cost: she doesn’t get emotionally recharged by being in New Denver with her dad and the pets and the nice big kitchen and the wood stove and sleeping in her childhood bedroom….

But overall the year is treating her well so far. I especially love the connections she’s made with teachers. Her art teacher is male and serves as the rugby coach, and all her STEM teachers are strong charismatic women. There are stereotypes being busted all over the place here.

Zwifting on a Stac Zero

Yeah, a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have had any idea what the title of this post meant either. But for the past week, after more than a year of waiting, it’s become a part of my daily life. Well, at least part of my daily life in New Denver.

There are two bits of magic involved here. The first is Zwift, a virtual cycling app running on my laptop. By riding stationary on a trainer in my basement with Zwift, I am thrust into a virtual world complete with sights, sounds, terrain variation and scenery, as well as other cyclists (all in their own basements, presumably). The app offers a data-geek’s playground of stats, challenges, logs, rankings, customizations and file-portability. I can ride for fun, I can draft in a peloton on a group ride, I can push myself through particular sprints or climbing challenges, trying to rank as well as possible against all the day’s riders, I can compare my PRs, run tests of Functional Threshold Power (shorthand for one’s maximal aerobic strength), take part in structured training workouts or simply sight-see. Most days the Zwift map puts me in the mythical Pacific island of Watopia, where I can choose from various routes and directions, anything from a fairly flat 10 km to an epic double mountain pass route of 72 km. Like on a real ride, I can turn back early, decide to take a different turn-off and change my route, extend a ride or quit part way through. I can wave at fellow riders, chat with them or cheer them on.

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I always feel like I should open the basement door to let winter air in when I’m riding above Watopia’s snow line.

It all sounds pretty gimmicky and video-game-like, but as someone who has plugged through a lot of boring hours on her bike trainer over the past year and a half thanks only to daydreams and podcasts, the way this app transforms that experience is impressive. It takes you about 80% of the way from sweating and going nowhere in your basement to enjoying a real outdoor ride with a bunch of people. Even if I am planning to simply crank off some easy miles, even though nothing changes with respect to my bike which continues to spin on the level in the basement, I find myself pushing towards the summit of a climb and then dialing it back as I crest and start the descent. I huff and puff towards the finish line of a sprint, I try and keep up with likely-looking fellow riders. It’s almost dangerous: I often get lulled into pushing myself much harder than I need to, just because of the realism, the social aspect and the variability of the ride.

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Whale-watching on Ocean Boulevard.

Zwift has been around for about 18 months and has evolved from a beta version with only a couple of tropical routes to an increasingly robust training platform with a variety of maps, including urban routes through London, UK and Richmond, VA. The worlds are only modelled on the real world, which allows the developers to create scenery and experiences in the realm of the fantastic. Ocean Boulevard takes you along a 2-kilometer submarine tunnel where fish and marine mammals swim around you. And yet the data files of a ride push through to Strava, the online log where I tally up all my miles, and look just like my real rides, complete with Google maps of the route. Yes, the Strava software engine has been talked into believing that Watopia is real.

I bought a third-hand CycleOps Fluid2 trainer last year for $100. It had a nice road-like feel, but unfortunately because my bike is a ‘petite’ bike with 650c wheels, Zwift wasn’t able to accurately estimate power (or actually power per kilogram of body weight, from which it generates somewhat-rider-equalized virtual speed on whatever terrain you’re on). I tried the beta version of Zwift when it was first being rolled out in 2015, and my smaller faster-rolling wheels confused Zwift into thinking I was faster and stronger than I was. The near-freezing temperature of the garage where I was riding at the time reduced the viscosity of the resistance fluid in my trainer, and further caused my power to be over-estimated. Normally I would have been content to simply work for relative improvements in my power and speed, not worrying about the absolute accuracy. But the social nature of Zwift meant this was problematic: on a moderate ride I could wup the yellow jersey off even the elite riders, and they weren’t all that impressed. They had worked hard for those jerseys.

Slapping a power meter on my bike would have got rid of the need for Zwift to (poorly) estimate power. But power meters are $500-1000. Yup, really.

img_3492That’s where the Stac Zero comes in. My third-hand CycleOps trainer had two issues. It had been leaking small amounts of fluid, and it had caused a fair bit of tire wear. So when I saw a Kickstarter campaign and a glowing prototype review of the Stac Zero trainer, I jumped aboard and backed the version with the integrated power meter. The Stac, made in Canada, uses eddy current magnetic braking to slow the spinning of the aluminum rear wheel of my bike. This video shows the magnetic drag effect using electromagnets that are switched on to stop a swinging pendulum. In the case of the Stac Zero trainer, the pendulum is replaced by the rim of a bicycle wheel and the electromagnets with a bunch of always-on rare earth magnets. There is no contact between tire and the trainer, so there is no tire wear and no sound from the resistance mechanism. The only sound is that of my bike’s drivetrain itself. A no-calibration-needed power meter integrated into the trainer completes the set-up, transmitting to my laptop. Zwift gets accurate numbers, and puts me properly in the back half of the pack where I should be.

It is so quiet that it doesn’t matter that I’ve put it in the basement right beneath Fiona’s bedroom. For me that beats the garage: it’s warm enough for my laptop and cool enough for me. And Fiona doesn’t even hear it.

Unlike almost every other Kickstarter project I’ve backed, the Stac delivered on time. That was a pleasant surprise, and it helped propel me out of the depressing spiral of inactivity that has plagued me this fall. I’m supposed to be training for the Boston Marathon but my knees have been inflamed for mysterious reason and the swelling, by pushing tendons and ligaments out of alignment, is producing pain whenever I run. Boston may or may not be off the table in April, but at least with the bike trainer to play with in New Denver and the Nelson Nordic Ski Club tracks to ski in during my time in Nelson, I can stay fit and active.

Post-asbestos progress

img_3363-1It set us back about three weeks and cost a lot of money, but the asbestos is gone, and the renovation is moving ahead again.

First the roof came off. Then it poured rain all weekend. Of course.

There were tarps up, but they leaked. It could have been worse. We lost a light fixture. Some old drywall got wet in a few places and will eventually need to be replaced. The bathroom mats were sopping. The house survived.

img_3403The new roof went up. And the old part of the roof got two skylights and a new skin of dark grey shingles. The addition has dramatically changed the overall appearance of the house. It’s not longer a squat 1940s gable-and-shed-roofed block. Now the roofline appears more interesting and broken up from all angles.

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Staircase/hallway

As the crew throws up partition walls and roughs in for fixtures, we’re starting to get a sense of how the interior will feel. The airy height of the staircase and hallway is great. We’ll probably be tucking a reading/study area in against the wall, which will eventually have a row of four small windows under the eaves on the right.

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Bathroom

The bathroom is harder to appreciate properly at this point without the fixtures, cabinets or window. It seems much bigger than it will be eventually.

The stairs themselves feel immense. They used to be narrow, enclosed and more ladder-like, with lean-back-and-duck head clearance and irregularly-sized treads. Now they are completely to code, which makes them about 50% longer and a dream to climb. They also have natural light from the skylight, and are open to the living room for the bottom five steps which also gives them a sense of spaciousness. Getting upstairs no longer feels like a trip to a maltreated servant’s garret.

We’re now at the point of ordering tile and flooring, which is exciting. It will be another couple of weeks before it goes down, but reaching this point was enough to inspire me to start assembling the IKEA cabinetry.

 

First school term

Fiona has reached the end of the first term of the first semester of her first year fully enrolled in school. She has a part-time course load, with just three out of four time-slots filled. She is taking Art 11, Chemistry 11 and Honours Physics 11. By age she in an eighth-grader, by enrolment she’s in 10th. (I have no idea why she’s in Art 11; she asked for an Art or Ceramics 10 class; I suppose this is the only course that would fit into her schedule.)

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Detail, ripped paper trompe l’oueil (pencil and pencil crayon), Fiona 2016

Anyway, the spare block was intentional as a transition strategy. She has hours and hours a week of extra-curriculars so it made sense to set a schedule with a little wiggle room during the first few months. It has worked out well, because Honours Physics is definitely the most challenging course she’ll have this year. Next semester she’ll have three Grade 10 level humanities courses and PreCalc 11. The content will be easier, even if the schedule is fuller. She thinks she’ll be able to handle it.

If/when she applies to university, it is possible that the science courses she is taking now will be among the small handful of ‘declared’ courses she’ll submit with her application. (Declared courses are the Grade 11 & 12 high school courses that the university programs care particularly about, a sort of portfolio of high school achievement. How many courses need to be declared in what subjects and at what levels varies depending on the university and the program, but there is a chance that one or more of Fiona’s grade 11 science courses might end up being on that list.) It’s a fairly high-stakes way to start your school career, especially at age 13.

But so far things are looking good. Her grades are mid-to-high 90s in both academic courses. She’s madly resolving multiple cosine law equations and vector diagrams to solve complex multi-step projectile and tension problems. She’s done some pretty cool art projects. The chem and physics labs are decent. I’m really impressed with how much she is learning, and with the level of challenge she’s being provided.

More importantly, she loves her teachers. Her science teachers are both female and the school is very encouraging of girls in science. There has already been a women-in-science trip facilitated to a nearby college, and there is an upcoming three-day physics trip to a couple of university campuses (among other things) with an optional women-in-engineering luncheon she’ll be attending. I can see now how Sophie was swept up in the engineering track once she began attending this school.

HazMat Adventures

img_3241Our Nelson place is the eyesore on the block. We bought it because of that. It was affordable and well situated, and that created the possibility of bringing it up to neighbourhood standards and eventually reselling it for a price more in keeping with the rest of the strong housing market.

The house has four bedrooms that would make it a great choice for a family with children attending any of the very nearby schools, but it has only one bathroom, off the kitchen. That’s not exactly the way 21st-century homes allocate their square footage. More typical would be two or three bathrooms for a four-bedroom house.

img_3234So we decided on a two-phase home improvement project. For the first phase we would increase the height of part of the upper story to allow for the installation of a full second bathroom. We would then turn the upper story into a master bedroom suite. This photo shows the south end of the upper floor as it was when we moved in. There is a dangerous steep staircase which pops up into a long dark space with limited headroom. Behind the camera is a bedroom defined by the same sorts of ancient walls and ceiling: uninsulated, smelly and with an “attic” aesthetic.

We got a great local architect, very experienced with building codes, local construction and local architecture to draw us up some plans. This end will have the roof elevated on the left side of the photo, and that’s where the bathroom will go. The stairs will be replaced and the remainder of the space will be gutted, insulated and re-drywalled with the addition of skylights and extra windows.

It took all summer to get a building permit. The city apparently considers the addition of headroom to equate the addition of floor space. The floor space is actually the same, of course. “Oh, but you’re increasing your finished floor space,” they said. No actually we’re not; it has been finished (panelled, carpeted) for decades. “Oh, but you’re increasing your usable finished floor space,” they countered. Okay, whatever; you can’t fight city hall, right? An engineer had to be involved. A major expense. But she worked quickly and efficiently, and finally it all came together. The contractor showed up at the end of September and got to work.

img_3269The gutting of the space proceeded really quickly. Footings were poured in the basement. New beams and supports were retrofitted into the basement and main floor to support the new portion of the roof. New joists went into the upper floor to support the tub. Fortunately old vermiculite and cellulose found in the knee wall tested negative for asbestos. Things were very exciting for a while.

But then WorkSafeBC showed up with information for our contractor about a new policy on hazardous materials testing for all homes built prior to 1990. This involved much more extensive testing of any materials being disturbed. Work had to stop until a certified person completed a full site review. Another big unanticipated expense.

Because this policy is new and sweeping, the system and the people serving it are swamped. It took a while to get a certified guy in to collect the samples, and even longer to get the results of the tests back from the lab. “Same day turnaround” turned out to mean “different week turnaround.”

The first results looked great: the flooring and vermiculite upstairs were completely clear of asbestos. But then the last few tests came back showing problems. The greenish stuff stuck to the chimney, some of the vinyl flooring that was a couple of layers deep on the old stairs and all of the drywall joint compound were found to contain asbestos.

So that is where we’re stuck now. It means another wait. Now there’s a HazMat removal company that has to review the tests, look at the site, quote a price and do the removal. Presumably they’ll be wearing full-body hazmat suits and swanky respirators and will terrify our neighbours … and maybe we’ll have to vacate for the duration, I don’t know.

This new WorkSafe policy didn’t kick in until the summer, well after when we had expected to have the renovation underway, but while we were still held up by the building permit and Land Title glitches. No one knew that we would soon be faced with a huge additional cost. When we did find out we were at the point of no return, with our upper story gutted and partly open to the elements. So I guess we just have to eat the cost, and put up with the delays. Fortunately so far the construction crew has been excellent at containing the mess and keeping the parts of the house we have to live in clean and habitable.

img_3289A little bit of new siding will be going up as we complete the modifications upstairs, so we figured it would make sense to consider the second stage of our remodelling, which will be exterior upgrades. We had fun imagining all sorts of Nelson-esque colour schemes, surveying the neighbourhood and looking for houses we really liked the look of. We settled on blue, with cream trim and purple-red accents. I painted one side of the garage in the last snatches of fall sunshine and warmth to make sure we were going to be happy with it. I think we are. It sure beats the peeling 1970s white and barn-red.

This part, at least, has been straightforward and enjoyable.

 

My friend in Nairobi

screenshot-2016-10-10-14-28-52Almost a year ago I attended a meeting of local New Denverites who were interested in the idea of sponsoring a refugee family. Out of that meeting, the Slocan Valley Refugee Coalition formed. We opened a bank account and started fund-raising and submitted our “we’re ready!” paperwork in January, requesting to be matched with a family. The program we’re using is the BVOR stream …. “blended visa-office referred,” which means that our case is referred by the visa office (rather than being someone we know) and that the funding is shared between the government and our sponsorship group. Because New Denver is far from Canadian government immigration services, we could not take a family from the stream of 25,000 Syrian refugees who were fast-tracked during the early part of 2016; those refugees were part of the GAR-stream (Government-Assisted Refugees) and that meant they could only settle in larger population centres where government support was available. Instead we waited for the still-just-trickling pipeline of approved cases coming through the BVOR stream.

It took some tech creativity, but eventually we got matched with a family. So few cases were coming through, and so many sponsorship groups waiting, that we had to aim for near-instant decision-making and response. Slack and IFTTT were very helpful in that respect! Luck finally went our way at the end of July. We had our match, to a family of 8 Somalis currently living in Nairobi. We were told that we would likely get notification of their travel itinerary in 4 to 12 weeks. At that point we’ll have a week or two, and then they’ll be here.

We were told the names, the family composition, their current location, birth years and the profession of the father. And that was all. We were politely asked not to contact the government office for at least 12 weeks.

But it turns out that Kenya, even in the crime-ridden refugee slum of Eastleigh in Nairobi, is pushing the global envelope with mobile communications. Almost everyone has a mobile phone. With banking either untrusted or inaccessible to many, with telephone land-line service having never been widely available, Africa is leapfrogging the rest of the world to innovate in the brave new world of mobile commerce. Nomadic tribespeople might have to walk two days to a village and pay to use a charging port, but they will then use their vodaphone to receive payment for the sale of some goats.

The ubiquity of mobile technology in Kenya meant something very important for our sponsorship group: it meant that the family we were matched to had an online social media presence. It was not easy to find them with the limited information we had, but it was not all that difficulty either. I did some digging, trying out different name and location combinations, and culling through dozens of possibilities until I found an entry that looked promising. I drilled down. I found photos that included children; I checked dates and ages. I read comments and found reference to family members’ names and it all matched what we had been told about our family.

I talked to my local group. I showed them what I had found. We mulled it over for a week. We talked to friends and family who had experience with refugee sponsorships and asked for their advice. The consensus was that we should definitely invite contact.

And so I wrote:

Dear ___. I believe your family may be matched with our Canadian refugee sponsorship group. If this is correct and you would like to communicate as we prepare to welcome you, please to add me as a friend. We are very happy and excited at the possibility of being in touch!

And thus began a veritable deluge of excited correspondence with my new friend in Nairobi. Although his family isn’t fluent in English, he is and so we text chat, voice chat, send photos, emails, links, information, questions and answers. Every morning it is his evening. Every evening it is his morning. We check in twice most days. We are gradually getting to know each other, and are sorting things out for his family’s arrival. Now I am putting the children at the school in touch with his children through their teachers.

They had no idea there was a community in Canada preparing to welcome them any day. They had only been told that their case file was at the final stage, and given that the process has been going for almost 8 years now, they had no reason to assume the final stage wasn’t backlogged by months or years. Now they know it is imminent and they know so many of the details! I asked them if it was difficult to have me stoking their excitement and making them so impatient to get here, while being forced to wait for the opaque Canadian bureaucracy to connect the dots for their travel.

“The impatience is nothing. We have so much hope now,” he replied.

Ten weeks and counting. Let’s hope they travel soon!

 

Physics is hard

img_3228Fiona has now been in high school for two weeks. It feels like a month! In both a bad way and a good way. Her life has been so crazy full that it feels like a month must have passed for all of that to have been packed in! But also … it has quickly started feeling normal and comfortable, not new and stressful, so it seems that surely she’s been at this for a while?

But “physics is hard.” This is something she’s mentioned a couple of times. It brings forward a lot of my own thoughts and worries and ponderings about education and parenting.

Because of our family preference for non-competitive activities and the sparse rural population of our area, almost all the group activities Fiona has participated in, even classes at the little school in New Denver, have been inclusive of a range of ages and levels. Community orchestra, STEM classes, dance technique classes, aikido, violin group classes and ensembles, choir … these have all been activities where there is no expectation that everyone be mastering the same material at the same level.

It has been a great way to grow and learn. She has been able to define her own learning trajectory and connect with people of a variety of ages and she has learned to be supportive and appreciative of those at different stages of their learning journeys. She has sometimes been a role model and at other times aspired to the models others provide, and she has not suffered the baggage of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that precocious natural learners often experience in comparative environments because they know they did comparatively little work for their high ranking. But for all that lack of measuring and comparing with matched peers, it’s been clear to her that she is a very quick learner. Often she is at the top end of a class. She’ll be the one who always gets what the teacher or coach is explaining right away, the one who already knows much of what is being taught, the one who helps kids who are struggling because she already accomplished her own learning task for the day, the one who is ready for the next thing soonest. If she is at the lower end of a class, she sees that the competence gap between herself and the most capable students decreases precipitously in size over time.

Now, however, she’s in a narrowly levelled group learning environment that has clear yardstick of grades. Honours Physics 11 is the first of three courses in the AP physics stream, and it’s populated by high achieving math-and-science-keen Grade 11 and 12 students. These are the most academically capable kids from the group that is 3+ years older than she. And it’s … different. She finds that she has to work longer and harder than some of the other students to understand the concepts and to complete the work. She’s not necessarily the fastest, most capable student. She’s not an outlier, in fact, by anything other than age (and that’s a relatively invisible exceptionality: she’s probably the only person in the room who knows she’s a 13-year-old tenth-grader rather than a 15-year-old one).

So she’s having to adjust her expectations for herself. She needn’t panic if she isn’t the first to grasp a concept. She needn’t panic if the homework problems are challenging. That is normal for most students. And it’s a New Normal for her.

It’s not that she’s never worked hard to learn something before. It’s that when she’s worked hard, she’s done so on her own timetable, with only her own desire for mastery as the goal. Failure would have been a personal affair, not a public one, and it would have been easy to dial back the pace or rein in the goals if the ambitions had begun to seem unrealistic. In the school environment, that privacy and control is minimal.

Chemistry 11 (non-honours) is still pretty much a cakewalk for her. And she has grades of 100% so far in both chem and physics, so these advanced courses clearly aren’t too hard. But having to work in order to master what someone else expects of you in a structured, graded, comparative environment … that’s something physics is giving her that is new.

I think the level is right, and I think the timing is right. Although I generally prefer internally-driven self-directed learning, I know that there are times and places in life when we have to be comfortable measuring ourselves against external benchmarks and mid-adolescence seems the right time to begin trying that out. I think she’ll calibrate her self-concept in this new environment and end up feeling successful.